Monday, May 20, 2019

The End of the World and My Lawnmower Won't Start

With all the rain my lawn is in dire need of a mowing but finding a day dry enough to do it has been a problem. I thought yesterday, Sunday, would be it but the lawnmower would not start. I got pretty frustrated trying to get it going and finally left a message for the guy who serviced the lawnmower a few weeks earlier. Surprisingly, he called back in an hour. Said it wasn't his fault, he was super busy and didn't think he had time to look at it, and it was my fault for doing something stupid anyway.

So then I was mad. Mad at him for lecturing me, mad at myself for doing something stupid, mad at the weather for raining and mad at the grass for growing. Took Hapi for a walk in hopes of walking it off, but it didn't help. Had a bath and then drank the last of the homemade vodka-raspberry-juice liqueur and ate some potato chips and watched a depressing TV show. That didn't really help.

Previous to all of that one of my sons told me that he had posted on Facebook a link to a scholarly paper that predicted the collapsse of civilization sometime in the next 10 years due to climate change. My son said he was making changes in his plans for the future as a result of reading this paper. We discussed it for a bit, I was a tad sceptical and especially so since my son seemed a bit vague on some of the political facts supporting this argument. I went looking for the paper and downloaded it intending to read it later. But with the lawnmower situation I was now more receptive to the idea of civilizational collapse. So by the time I went to bed I was in full blown existential depression.

Needless to say waking up didn't help much either, especially now that it was raining in earnest. Forecast is for a couple of days of this. I finally tried to read the paper my son had posted and I have to say it is poorly written, overly long and doesn't really make any kind of sensible argument at all. If this is the final word on civilizational collapse then we might have a few more decades to muddle along.

Found the lawnmower manual which recommended washing the air filter with soap and water, so I did that. Next step is to soak it in engine oil and replace it in the lawn mower. Who knows, maybe that will work. Then I'll call back the maintenance guy and tell him to p*** off, but if it doesn't I will bite my tongue and say nothing.

In the afternoon there was a brief letup in the rain so I took Hapi to the Reservoir. Forgot that the black fly are out in force so I walked quickly to stay ahead of them. I think if civilization does collapse they are going to miss us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wild things

I was reading an article about human efforts to control the Mississippi River in Louisiana ("Louisiana's Disappearing Coast", Elizabeth Colbert in the New Yorker, March 2019). Colbert describes the various engineering projects over the past century and some of their unintended consequences. In passing she mentions the huge imbalance between humanity and wildlife. The total weight of all humans outweighs the total weight of all wild mammals by eight to one, the total of all humans plus our livestock outweighs all wild vertebrates except fish. There is no place on earth now that has not been affected by us in some way.

So when you think about it, what does "wild" really mean? I think it used to mean the natural world unaffected by us, creatures untrammelled by our influence. Does it any more? In some ways "the natural world" is just a kind of vast zoo (or garden) where creatures have the appearance of being "wild". Wilderness is a kind of illusion.

When did this happen? In my lifetime the human population has tripled, and presumably our impact on wilderness and the natural world has increased by some similar factor. Maybe when I was a small child there was still some true wilderness in existence? Or maybe it happened before that, I don't know.

I was talking to a friend on the west coast last winter (by phone) and mentioned skating on a local pond. At first he misunderstood and thought I was talking about a skating rink on solid ground and when I corrected him he called it "wild skating". He likened it to "wild swimming" which apparently is a thing in some places. I said that I disliked swimming in pools, I would rather not swim at all if there was no natural body of water to swim in (I suppose swimming at the reservoir is an exception, but it feels like a natural body of water). He was amazed and admitted that he had never done it, and this is a man who regularly engages in extreme hiking, camping and skiing in the mountains.

It would not have occurred to me to call what I did "wild". We had a good laugh about that.

What does "wild" mean now? Is it some historical concept? Or has it changed its meaning to something a little more domesticated?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

An expletive deleted children's story

The weaving project in progress
My big news this week is that I got shortlisted for a prize in children's lit. Actually happened over a month ago but I was sworn to secrecy until they published the official list, which just happened. It's terrible to be sworn to secrecy on something so exciting, and the release was palpable. I immediately fired off emails to friends and family and all of the friends—every last one of them—was just as excited as I was.

Deafening silence from family. A prophet in one's own land sort of thing I guess.

Eventually one brother, the one with the awful diagnosis, broke silence and the three sons one by one also chimed in over the next few days. Have not heard from brother #2, but I believe he does not check email regularly, or so I tell myself.

Anyway, I won't know till the end of the month whether it goes any further than being shortlisted and I don't really expect it will, but the shortlist is exciting enough. There's going to be an awards ceremony (multiple prizes in different categories) which conflicts with my weaving class and I almost feel like skipping the awards but that wouldn't really be kosher. Show up and congratulate the winners, hobnob with 'real' writers. Risk not finishing my weaving project due to too many skipped classes.

Being a 'children's writer' was not really what I was aspiring to but hey! I'll take it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The new couch
In other news I have rearranged and refurnished my living room. I was at a local building supply place a month ago to purchase a tool that was on sale and happened to see a couch there that interested me. It was in the paint and flooring department and there were a couple of customers sitting on it contemplating some flooring samples. I sat down beside them and decided it was comfy. My only issue was whether it would actually fit in my living room which is small and already overcrowded with furniture. So I took measurements and went home, took some more measurements and concluded that if I got rid of a couple of furniture pieces I might be able to fit the building supply couch in.

The old table
One of the furniture pieces that would have to go is my large dining table. It's a good table but it is too large for the small room and really only gets used for piling books and papers on. If it had a leaf that I could remove it would be fine but it doesn't. So I did a bit of moving stuff around and bought the couch. Huge effort to get it home and set up but worth it, I love the couch. Then some internet browsing to find a smaller table and thought I found the right table at the IKEA in the city. A trip to the city with a friend to look at it in real life, combined with a browse of the best Chinese grocery store in the city (or that's what the newspaper review of Chinese grocery stores said) and I came home with a Norden gateleg table (and dark dark soy sauce, noodles and dried mushrooms). The table's principal feature is that it has two huge hinged leaves so that it folds down to almost nothing.

This week I assembled the table. I had forgotten what IKEA assembly projects were like.

The instructions have no words, only pictures. There was a whole separate document of warnings, all in pictures only and some of them quite incomprehensible. At a certain point I was stymied, the hinge screws would not screw in. I tried an electric drill/driver but that did not help. The warnings document had a picture of a person phoning the IKEA store (as opposed to standing there with the manual in hand and a big question mark in a balloon above their head) so I did that.

The person with the heavy accent (I had to get him to repeat what he was saying numerous times because I couldn't understand him) told me to try harder. After huffily telling him that I had already done that (I think I used the F-word) he then told me to bring the table back to the store. I thanked him for his assistance and ended the call. The question mark was now multiple exclamation marks.

The electric drill was lying on the floor next to the offending hinges so I picked it up and selected an appropriate bit and reamed out the pre-drilled screw holes until the screws would go in. I may regret that in the future but for now it works.

I am happy with my new smaller table and the building supply couch. Hapi on the other hand is not, she hates change. She comes into the house and stands at the doorway to the living room and looks around with a big frown, then she turns and goes back outside. Aside from two brief inspections of the living room she has stayed outside ever since. Doggy disapproval is clearly communicated.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Spring kayak vacation

Milford House from the rear
I just got home yesterday evening from the 4-day kayaking trip, it was wonderful and I am tired but happy.

I find it impossible to take photos while out on the water but one of my fellow kayakers thinks she has come up with a solution, so maybe next time.

The place we stayed at, Milford House, is great and the staff very friendly and helpful. Although checkout time is 11 am, we wanted to stay out kayaking in the afternoon. We asked about toilet facilities (the main lodge is closed at this time of year, only the 3 winterized cabins are open and they were all occupied) and we were told that all of the non-winterized cabins were unlocked and ready to go for the summer season opening in a couple of weeks. So we were able to use a toilet in one of those cabins.

Our "cabin"
Our "cabin" was bigger than my house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge living/dining/kitchen space and a large verandah overlooking the lake. We had ample firewood for the woodstove, but since all of us use woodstoves routinely for winter heat we were not eager to try it out. We did light the fire one evening but very quickly had to open windows and doors to cool off.

Our deck
Milford House is the oldest lodge in the province, in continuous use for almost two centuries in spite of at least three major fires. There are over 20 "cabins" of various sizes all around the lakefront, each one well separated by space and trees from its neighbours. The lodge is situated on a chain of lakes joined by "runs" so there is lots of kayaking to be done exploring the lakes and runs. In the past we have camped on these lakes in warmer weather as there are several campsites and picnic spots around. Some of the campsites have been mapped but there are others only known by word-of-mouth. You only tell special friends of their location as it would not do to have them over-run.

Stopped in one of the runs

We saw a great blue heron fishing in one of the runs, it seemed to have staked out a space along the run as its territory. We saw several turtles sunning on logs and rocks, a couple of loons, several black ducks and a pair of Canada geese. On our first evening we saw one lone goose on the lodge back lawn, it paced back and forth and did not fly away when we walked by. It looked a little alarmed by our presence but seemed to be stuck there. I imagined that it was there for a rendezvous and dared not leave its post. The next day we saw two geese swimming together nearby and I thought that the rendezvous had arrived. We saw them several times over the time we were there. Whenever they took to the air they honked loudly and continuously.

Three of our four kayaks

Picnic stop
One afternoon after a long rainfall the lake was glassy smooth. Rocks emerging from the water were perfectly reflected as interesting symmetrical shapes. Sometimes they looked as if they were floating in mid-air. Very dreamlike.

In the evenings we had wonderful suppers and wine, we talked about what we had seen, our kids, our lives, all the usual stuff. It was great. Cell phone coverage was sketchy, also great. We are seriously thinking of making an annual thing of it. At this time of year there is maybe a day or two between it being too cold and wet and too buggy, so it is nice to be in a cabin rather than a tent. The black fly were out in great clouds but not yet biting, just being annoying. Spring is not Nova Scotia's best season. The autumn however is spectacular: warm, colourful and relatively bug-free. That's the best time to go camping.

I could have brought Hapi along as Milford House is pet-friendly, but she would have to have been locked in the house whenever we were out in our kayaks and a couple of the women were not keen on dogs anyway. I was fine with the break and she stayed home with a dogsitter.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Lonely goose

In the picture above is one goose. There used to be two, but the horse that also resides in this pasture rolled over on the other one and killed it. I'm sure this one goose is lonely now, it was always in the company of its fellow. I am sad for it, I used to enjoy seeing the two of them together. [Disregard the snow, this picture is a few weeks old]

My son who just lost his dog (my dog's brother) is coming to visit this summer, he wants to see Hapi and keeps asking how she is doing. He's afraid she'll sicken and die before he gets to see her again. She used to be his dog. Apparently my vet is worried too, I got a call from her office a few days ago asking how she was doing. She's fine! She's fine!

This month has been very wet and cool. My backyard lawn loves this but I do not, I need waders to walk to my compost bin. The grass is looking like it will need mowing before I leave but the ground is so soggy I dare not. I am afraid that by the time the ground dries out the grass will be knee-high. I don't need one more task before I leave anyway. Maybe this is the year to just turn my backyard into a "meadow".

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!