Archive for February, 2008

Cleaning house and gardening

February 25, 2008

I’ve had a visitor, Saturday and Sunday, which made me very happy. She’s a former colleague from work who has become a very good friend.

Used to be, when Mother came to visit, I’d go on a cleaning binge, and now that Mother’s gone, I do it for visitors. I’d been brought up better, you see. A house should be spotless. Cleaning should be done on a rotational basis. Mondays for laundry, Tuesdays for ironing, Wednesdays for dusting, tidying, mopping and vacuuming, Thursdays for washing floors; Fridays for special projects like the drapes, polishing silver or cleaning out a cupboard; Saturdays for shopping; Sunday for Church and meditation.

Or that’s how it used to be – before wash and wear clothing. Before automatic washers and dryers. Before stainless steel cutlery. That’s how it used to be when I grew up. Girl children were trained to take over all these functions and Mother was an exacting task master. She knew she was preparing us for life. She was preparing us to be acceptable, admired even. What would people think if they came into your house and saw a speck of dust.

On the days that Uncle Keith came, we did extra cleaning because he was exceptionally tall for his time – six foot three, maybe – and Mother imagined that when he came, one of his guest duties would be to examine the premises for dust lurking in high places. Before Uncle Keith came, we got out the ladder and dusted the tops of door surrounds. On the upstairs landing, we dusted very carefully between the posts of the banister and railings. We dusted the light fixtures. We would not have wanted him to go home after a visit and expound to Aunt Kay, his wife, on layers of forgotten dust That could not be borne!

I hated all that mindless cleaning. I do understand its value, but I don’t have to like it. Avoidance is my favourite response to cleaning requirements. I had wonderful excuses to get out of it when I worked full time.

When I lived with Mother, caring for her, she already had a cleaning lady who came in once a week to help her with the harder tasks, even though, in her lifetime, conveniences had been invented and the tasks had become a quarter of what she had needed to do when she first got married.

Friday was the housekeepers day and in Mother’s leisure days of retirement, no engagements for lunches, tea, bridge parties or walks in the park would be made for a Friday morning.

Esther, her housekeeper was “professional” domestic. She came from an early pioneer farming family in the Lower Fraser Valley. Her parents had felt that she would always have work if she had this training and they were right. She knew what to do. She was immersed in the feminine arts of housekeeping. Though she was from a farming family and they were not wealthy enough to have such niceties as silver plate and fine china, she knew and understood the care and keeping of them. She knew how to set a table. She knew all the arts of laundry – how to get out certain stains, how to keep things looking white – and the arts of pressing clothes to look crisp and sharp, rivaling or surpassing how they now come, straight out of a dry-cleaning establishment.

She knew how to polish wood so that it gleamed, without using silicone laced sprays from a can. She knew how to fix scratches in walnut furniture. As children, before housekeepers, we had the task of taking fresh walnuts and rubbing them over minor scratches in the French polish of the dining table, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing until the scratches turned dark with the nut oil and the white stains from water damage or heat regained their dark hue.

Esther knew how to organize her work efficiently. In the three hours that she came, she would start with gathering up everything for the laundry; separating out whites and lights from dark clothing; putting the washer on to work while she dusted, mopped, tidied; cleaned the venetian blinds, polished the mirrors; cleaned the bathrooms; vacuum the rugs.

For a little extra money, she would do mending for Mother. She was also a fine seamstress. When Mother came home from Bangkok after a tour in the Orient, she brought back some fine Thai silk yardage. It was Esther who made up the cloth into light, airy summer dresses for her.

Somehow, the work of the house has been tainted in our minds as menial; but it was never so to Esther. She was proud of her abilities and proud of her finished product – a well-kept home. She walked to out place, decked out as a lady carrying a generous-sized designer carry-all; when she arrived she would change into cleaning clothes; when she left, she was again dressed as a rather elegant lady with clothing she had designed herself, a hat and gloves, and would walk back to her home as she had come.

Now, as I stood looking at my new home, my very own home, my dream come true, I was appalled at my housekeeping skills. I had not really dusted since I had taken possession of the house. Oh, occasionally I had wiped away something obvious. I swept the floor when my feet started to stick on it; the laundry gets done when I need clean clothes to wear. But now I had a guest coming. A very neat and tidy guest. Ack!

I had cleaned it out thoroughly when I came in (I can live with my own dirt, but not with other people’s dirt), but had done very little since. In my defense, I’ve been working pretty hard at dispersing Mom’s estate and I’ve had more of my share of boxes of stuff impeding movements in my house. There was not much opportunity to do vacuuming, for instance, because I couldn’t have moved one around the house with all the stuff that had been unceremoniously plunked into my house as we hastily emptied Mother’s house for sale and brought the unknown boxes of stored items to my house for sorting, distributing or chucking.

I could hear that guest going back to the office saying, “It’s a cute little house. Very cute. A heritage house. But you should see the dust on top of her furniture! And the kitchen floor? Looks like it hasn’t been swept in a week. The windows? I don’t think they’ve been cleaned since the ‘Fifties. Her front steps are covered in green algae. The rugs are littered with bits of fluff and dirt tracked in. There are boxes everywhere. I don’t know how she lives in it!!!”

I could see myself being nominated for the “Housekeeping Failure of the Year” award.

My friend came and went. We had a lovely time. Food is always a more important thing to me than cleaning. I gave her two impressive meals. Lunch on Saturday was a home made fennel soup and a Caesar Salad. I put out some Camembert and paté to have with French Bread. We had little slices of an apricot and almond paste that she brought for dessert. For dinner, we had Basa filets and fennel root in fresh parsley and garlic butter with rice. I still had fresh frozen blueberries in the freezer which I thawed, heated and put over a tiny portion of ice cream. (We are watching out line.) I used the dishwasher (which I only use as a dish dryer when I’m alone) so that I didn’t have to do dishes.

When I dropped the milk jug on the floor and an entire jug of milk spread all across the kitchen from the living room side door to the outside back door and from there to the floor beneath the kitchen sink, she helped me mop it up.

“Never mind,” she said, “the jug didn’t break. That’s got most of it. You can get the rest of it when you get around to washing the kitchen floor.” I picked up a nonchalant hint of laxity in that comment – “when you get around to it” – as if she, herself would tolerantly let what was left, if any, to dry and flake as milk does, until she had time and inclination to wash the floor properly.

We went out walking in Kanaka Creek Park in the early afternoon, and then I wanted to show her Jerry Sulina Park on the Pitt River dykes. It was a fine sunny day with the Golden Ears peaks still holding onto winter snows and the purple crocus and tiny white snow drops pushing up through the pale gold winter grasses. There were lovely reflections of the clear blue sky marrying with the mountains and the grass tangles and wintering ducks gliding chevron patterns over top of them.

We spent the evening beading, which she came prepared to teach me, and watching an English murder mystery. She confessed over the beading tray that she had just left everything, at home – the dinner dishes from Friday and her breakfast dishes – in the sink; she hadn’t done laundry since her husband had left on a vacation two weeks before. She didn’t like housekeeping any more than I did!

She left early on Sunday morning. I went out into the yard and did a bit of maintenance there. I’m still pulling out or cutting out winterkill for the irises and the phlox. There’s lots of tree debris from the windstorms to be picked up that I haven’t bothered with since it’s been too rainy to go out there and enjoy the fresh air and to do raking. I puttered at putting together a compost bin that the next door lady gave to me when her house sale deal went through. I tied up some honeysuckle so that it will thread long the trellis slats above the solid fence. I watered some plants that the neighbour gave me – some fall crocus, liatrus and butterfly bush.

The grass seedings that I planted in the fall are coming up, covering the trampoline area from the previous owner’s arrangments. Crocus are pushing through. I planted two big bulbs that might be Allium or might be Elephant Garlic. I took some time to think how I might put in pathways and more plantings since I don’t really care for too much lawn in the back yard. It was glorious – the physical activity, the fresh air, the warming sunshine.

So, who wants to clean? I’d much rather be out in the back garden with time to think, with time to dream, breathing God’s good air and taking in the mild scent of the old cedars that surround the property.
And thank goodness for visitors, or the house would never be cleaned!

Dinner at Mrs. Stepford’s

February 14, 2008

I had a great dinner at Mrs. Stepford’s house tonight. It’s Mr. S’s band night and he doesn’t come home for dinner. Wednesday night dinners are getting to be an institution either at my house or hers. On cold winter nights, we like to spend an evening laughing and we’ve found that Wednesday programming on the television is scheduled just as we like it.

I like Doc Martin, that BBC comedy of an asocial doctor in the tiny seaside community of Port Wenn. Mrs. S likes Little Mosque on the Prairie. I admit that it has a wacky Canadian sense of humour and I like it too. Then there is the new Sophie comedy slash drama, also Canadian, that can get us rolling in the aisles.

I thought dinner was the black bean soup that was filled with vegetables and it should have been enough. However, Mrs. S had a spaghetti squash concoction in the oven, topped with spicy sausage sliced in rounds. We had to taste it even if we had filled up on the hearty soup. It was just heavenly. She has a way with spices that is most agreeable.

While we were just beginning the new wine discovery, a Cano Casecha 2005, a red that is best taken with food, Mrs. S. got a call from Lindsay, a single mom whom the Stepfords have figuratively adopted into their family.

Lindsay is a nurse and like many nurses I have met, she has a bawdy sense of humour. She’s full of life and fun; but she is also full of woes with her two teenagers that are being, well…., teenagers, pushing the limits as far as they can go.

Tomorrow, Lindsay is bringing over her son to do some labour for Mrs. S., clearing up the basement which has been torn apart for some renovations and needs serious help before anything further can be done.

I was sitting across the pinewood kitchen table as Mrs. S fielded a call from Lindsay. I only got one half of the conversation, so some critical information is missing here.

“Tell Lindsay to come over while there’s still a portion of wine left for her.” I insisted, since I had brought the wine.

Mrs. S relayed the invitation then sotto voce, her hand over the mouth piece, “She can’t come tonight but she’ll come tomorrow.”

“Come to the gym with us,” Mrs. S. commands Lindsay.”We’ll lock Peter in the house and he can do his work while we are away!”

“Tee hee hee’, she laughs, “A teenage abduction!” a wicked smile spreads over her face, one mixed with glee.

“She’ll come!” she relays to me. And then back to Lindsay, “Can’t you just see the headlines. Three portly seniors, ladies, overtake the Leisure Centre,” and she starts to laugh again as I shake my head from side to side, a wide grin on my own face.

“That’s what you get for going to all-women gyms!” she admonishes Lindsay, then….

“We’ll fix you up with some good looking gymnast!” she promises. “There are lots of shapely men around.” She’s always promising to do Yenta matchmaking for Lindsay (and for me and for any number of unattached mutual friends). I’ve not yet heard of any successful matches, though the intentions are well-meant.

She covers the mouthpiece again and says to me, “Lindsay has just lost twenty pounds. She’s looking pretty good now.”

I could just picture it. Three two-ton tessies hogging the treadmills, then elbowing the young bloods out of the way as we hilariously pedal our way through our aerobic preliminaries. we ladies have lost our inhibitions. We are not shy.

Later, using our practiced motherly glares, we will succeed in overtaking the rowing machine, the bicep and tricep building contraptions, the pulley activated weights. All the while, yours truly, a seasoned gym aficionado of six long weeks now pontificating on form and instructing these other two in the use of ten to fifteen different models of exercise equipment.

I just realized as I was writing this how similar the quiet chapel-like halls of the art gallery are similar in their concentration to these temples of body building. I realized that no one speaks to another whilst treading or pedalling or weight lifting. All the voices are low, with minor bits of instruction going on from time to time. It’s a serious place. People are there to make muscle. There is no time for socialization. If there are three of us there tomorrow, the others won’t know what hit them!


February 13, 2008

When I woke this morning, there was an unusual glow in the bedroom. All around the blackout blind (which oxymoronically is white) was an uncharacteristic pale buttery yellow and it was forcing its way in through the long fringes and through the netted lace. It was far too bright for a winter morning.

Not so long after, I pushed aside the patterned sheers and peered through the upper windows onto the garden and across the street. Long blue shadows were lancing across the rimy lawns and the roadway. The little white house facing mine was shadowed a tempered cerulean blue as the early sun strove to crest the firs behind the house. As I was contemplating that this was promising to be a glorious day, the phone jangled rather rudely. Did I want to answer it or just let it go to the answering machine? Did I want to break this rather meditative spell?

On the third jangle, I thought it might be important and dove for it despite my reveries.

“GOOD MORNING” , hollered Mrs. Stepford in her cheery voice.

She calls every morning to see that I’m still alive. When you live alone, it’s rather wonderful to have a friend who feels responsible for your well being.

“Good morning” I responded in a rather subdued tone. I hadn’t woken up yet. “Can I call you back in five?”

In those five minutes, I microwaved a yesterday’s old coffee and downed it as I put on a new pot. Fresh coffee in hand, I called her back.

We chatted about our day’s roster of duties and last night’s activities. Nothing earth shaking, I assure you.

“Alexander helped me clear out half that basement room last night” I informed her. Alexander is a friend’s teenage son who is tall, shy and gangling. He looks like he needs to be fed but it’s probably just his growth spurt that is making him look a bit romantically wan and pallid.

I proudly added, “I got two coats of paint over that striped wall paper.”

The wall paper had equidistant primary colour stripes on it spaced about three inches apart. Blatant red, blatant yellow, bright blue. It had been cheery for a children’s playroom but was not suitable for displaying art work. The stripes still show underneath but they are suitably tony now for some hopefully fine art.

“By the way, ” I announced in an important voice, “next time you come over, I want to be sure that you notice the front door. I rarely housekeep, so I want you to notice that I washed down the outside of the front door. If I didn’t tell you, you probably wouldn’t.”

I only do the dusting variety of housework when you can notice the difference. For instance, if you can run your finger through the dust to write your name, it may be time. Winter grime had been collecting on the horizontal ledges and I had been thinking how poor a housekeeper I was compared to my legendary Dutch forbearers. There is also green algae growing on the steps and the railings but that will need to wait for warmer weather when I can get the hose out and I won’t have to worry about water freezing on them. I may have to paint the trim green so no one will notice if algae grows.

“I will take note,” she promised gravely. “Mr. Stepford is always complaining about the state my housework. He says there are spiderwebs all over. I don’t see them and never really paid attention. He has conceded that I should get a housekeeper to come in and do the work.” She chortled.

“Might as well”, I laughed. “Now that you are legally blind, you’ve got a great excuse.”

“But I don’t like strangers to do my housework.” she continued.

“Does that mean that you only want your friends to do your housekeeping?” I asked, giving a provocative twist to her terms of reference, and laughing.

“No! No! I mean, I don’t want them doing what I should be doing myself.”

“Me neither,” I commiserated. “I don’t like them snooping in my stuff.”

“Oh, they can take anything they want,” she countered. “I don’t care about stuff. I wish they would just take it.”

“I wasn’t thinking about theft,” I protested. ‘It’s having to tidy up my papers; I don’t like them looking at the mess I live in. I don’t like them to move my ornaments and decoration.”

“You’d better tell them exactly what you want, if you get somebody in.” I continued. “Last time I had one in, I wanted them to do the things I wanted them to do. I couldn’t reach the top of my cupboards without getting on a ladder and I’m too old for that. And I wanted them to take down the curtains and put them in the laundry. I wanted them to do the windows.”

“They insisted on giving the house an initial clean and then following up next time with the more occasional things. They cleaned the kitchen counter and vacuumed and dusted. Those are all things I can and do do regularly myself, so what was the point? They wouldn’t do what I wanted so they were never invited back. So much for paid housekeepers. What was the point?”

“I learned to live with just another level of grime, cleaning only when the grunge became too noticeable.”

We moved on to other topics – what we were going to do for the day, a recap on her first day in the gym (she’s going to come with me) and its ensuing inventory of current muscle awareness. We commented on the beauty of this rare sunny day and signed off.

I’m off and away to wash the basement cement floor so that I can paint it before I replace that hideous carmine red rug with a warm beige one. That’s been the kind of cleaning I’ve been doing lately. Just cover the grime with paint!

Worms in the garden

February 12, 2008

I’m sure I mentioned somewhere along the line that Nephew found a compost bin on the property – the kind that is supposed to keep kitchen vegetal wastes out of the landfill and returning to your garden. These black monoliths are supposed to keep rats and other foragers out of the food scrap pile.

I keep an old gallon ice cream pail with fitted lid underneath the kitchen sink and throw in my ends of green pepper, lettuce, radish, pear and apple peelings, carrot and green bean tops and bottoms, bread gone mouldy, spaghetti leftover from someone’s plate – well, you know – everything but the meat and fat scraps.

Usually taking the scraps out was either Hugh or Ron’s job, but occasionaly I would take pity on them (or get entirely frustrated by an overflowing scrap pail) that I would take it out myself. So one fine sunny Saturday morning, I took an overflowing pail out to the back of the yard by the cedar fence where the compost bin stood.
I could hear a rustling movement within. Cautiously I took the lid off and peered in only to have a very well fed grey rat leap out of there, just missing my nosy nose by an inch. He fled so fast he was gone in a nanosecond. I don’t know who was more startled, me or the rat!

After my trembling calmed down, I inspected the box to see how he had gotten in. It seemed tightly fitted. But upon inspection, I saw that the trap door at the bottom only fitted loosely now that the rims were encrusted with decomposing vegetable matter that had become finer dirt. I scraped this rim and fitted the trap door back in snuggly. Those rats! They are very clever.

I often wonder about the fauna that has chosen to live out their lives in that dark interior without a window on the rest of the world. It is teeming with life. There are beetles, slugs, wasps, white fly and several kinds of worms, not to mention all the bacterial life one cannot see.

Sometimes when we have had a feast of one kind or another – Easter, a birthday, Thanksgiving or Christmas, an anniversary or promotion or special guests in for dinner – I gleefully think of treating my worms to something very special and wonder if they even notice the change in their daily diets. Do they send up a worm like cheer when I bring them asparagus ends? Can they taste what they eat?

Or do they say a special prayer for the days when fennel is our vegetable of choice? Do they get high on peach and plum peelings that have gone to alcohol? Do they call out “Party!” when birthday cake scraps arrive? Do they know the difference?

A few days ago, I was at the Maple Market getting vegetables. Of all the produce stores in the community, they have the freshest and largest selection of fruits and vegetables. I prefer to shop there. Usually they have some bags of mixed vegetables at very reasonable price and I, never having forgotten my week with my last five centimes in France, shop economically and frugally when I can.

So for one shiny Loonie, the stalwart Canadian dollar, along with my other produce purchases, I brought home a bag containing two long English cucumbers, four green peppers with slightly wrinkly skin just perfect for soup, two carrots that had been snapped in half during harvest, two onions that were perfectly fine and these accompanied the peppers and carrots into the soup.

But that was not all. There were three very small thin green peppers that I suspected might just be so spicy that I needed to respect their bite. I’m not an aficionado of spicy hot food. I sliced the tip off of one of these fiesty peppers and touched my finger to the juicy flesh and then, gingerly, to my tongue. Hot tamale!

“So, dear worms, you have a very special treat today. On today’s the menu in the compost pail, we have a lively medley of green jalapeno peppers, cucumber skins, carrot tops and onions peels. Happy fiesta, mes amigos! Dinner is on the house!”

Crazy weather

February 7, 2008

Mrs. Stepford next door was on the other end of the line.

“Look at that rain come down!” I said. It was coming down in very visible fat lines of rain. Millions of them. It was so curious – mostly rain seems to have spaces between the raindrops making it looklike a shower much as you might get out of a sprinkler system. But this stuff! This stuff looked like giant lines of uncooked spaghetti. Yes, I’m not off my noodle. Spaghetti!

It hovered between rain and sleet as we watched it and then Mrs. Stepford exclaimed,

“Ohmigod! It’s Hail! ”
Within the half minute that we were watching this phenomenal rain, it had turned from rain, to sleet to hail, and now was coming down in one massive dump of small BB-gun sized pellets. The sky turned white and so did the ground.

“I”m not going out in this,” I declared. “It’s too crazy!”

We both signed off and went about our days. I went back to my computer to check e-mail and blog stats. Just before I settled down, I looked out my study window and saw a curious image across the street that would have inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice. It looked like a giant amanita mushroom with it’s scarlet red cap and white furry polka dots.

In fact it was a little girl waiting out the hail with her mother, standing under the cedar tree that was right close to the bus stop. The little girl was hanging on for dear life to the handle of her red polka dot umbrella, both hands grasped just under chin level, and she was looking up with some apprehension. In that stance, she could have been a perfect model for one of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy characters.

Her mother, on the other hand, was frantically trying to adjust the pram’s various covers and zips to protect the babe within from the fury of the hail. I ran for my camera. If only I could photograph this girl before she moved! But as so often happens, by the time I’d got my camera to hand, turned it on, zoomed it, opened the front door and the screen, propped it with my foot so it wouldn’t close on me, the mother was ready to go and the girl turned sideways and started walking to keep up with her mother, ruining the perfect vision I had seen. I photographed anyway, just for remembrance of this impish vision I’d had.

The ground was white with ice, snow and hail.

After a while the weather turned back to a steady and heavy rain, then, as often does, it quit altogether. I took my chance to go out in relatively dry conditions to take out the compost. It was slippery outside but not overly so. It was relatively warm, too, and the hail had dissolved into the sodden snow mass.

Later, I was supposed to be going out. I watched from the studio window as it alternately rained and snowed. The road were slightly slushy but not overly so. There was a meeting for the Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Artist’s Walk that comes up in April and I wanted to be in on the first organizational meeting. It would be a perfect way to meet some of the local artists and to become involved in the community.

I thought it prudent to check the news before I went – the weather channel, at least. I turned on the tube, precisely capturing the beginning of the news-breaking story of freak weather in Vancouver. Simon Fraser University had been closed. No one was allowed to enter or leave. It sits on the top of Burnaby mountain, admittedly not a high one, but still…

The road coming down from the university was a sheet of ice; it was unnavigable. There had been several accidents and the police simply shut off the entrances and exits. Everyone who was there had to stay there. The cafeteria would stay open all evening, so no one needed to starve!

Late breaking, news that Douglas College had closed as well, was tagged onto the story. It was a zoo out there. I took a second look at my driveway and the busy road before me and thought that perhaps we had been spared. I couldn’t see a problem.

So I picked up my friend who is going to join me in this Art Walk venture and we headed out for our meeting which went very successfully.

Two hours later, my friend and I headed back home. The lights on Lougheed highway seemed dim although it wasn’t black. Headlights coming toward us were bright and dazzling, just normal night vision blinding.

“Turn left at the next one.” she directed. I’m new here. I don’t know the shortcuts, the beaten paths to my friends houses so I had asked her to navigate. I couldn’t even see the side streets.

“Here?” I asked.

“No, just a bit up ahead.”

I advanced slowly, my blinker clicking like a ticking clock.

“Get in the passing lane! Oh, sorry! Sorry! I should have said” she said in a bit of a panic.

I was beginning to panic myself. Cars were coming for us at 80 clicks an hour and I couldn’t even see the lane where I was supposed to be turning from. Cars were coming up behind us with the same speed. I said a little prayer and it worked. Nothing happened. As I turned, I accidentally activated the high beam and lo and behold, there actually was a street to turn into.

It was a very dark street. These people went to bed early, I could see.

At River Road there was no traffic.We found her house with little difficulty. I dropped her at her well lit door, turned around in the driveway and headed back out.

Past Dewdney Trunk Road, everything was very dark. I was going to pick up milk at the little corner store, but it was all dark. I’m new here, but I thought they were open in the evenings. It was black and closed up. Not a light to be seen.

The street lights were out too. Finding my place was a challenge. It was hard enough to see in the first place, in daylight. Now with no light, I resorted to high beams despite the oncoming traffic. It was as I approached the turn that I realized it wasn’t just the street lights. All the power was out.

Just then, a large truck drove up and two men hopped out. They were the Recycling men, just now at eight thirty picking up my recycling. I walked towards them and remarked
“You’re working late!” It was highly unusual.

One of them must have noticed my cane. He picked up the blue box, stuffed the red, green orange and blue bags back in it and handed it to me.

“Can’t you take the coffee pot?” I said. It was still lying on the ground and he had not made any attempt to either put it in his truck nor return it to my blue box.

“We’re not supposed to.” he stated flatly, as he picked it up, rolled his eyes meaningfully at me and flung it into the truck. “There, it’s gone.” There was a curious note of triumphant defiance in it.

I thanked him and turned back into my driveway, carefully picking my way up to the car and past it to the front steps.

Well here’s a test of my emergency power failure preparations, I thought philosophically.

The sky was fairly light, the clouds had lifted high and there must have been a good sized moon on the other side of them. I could see my house and the steps. They had a layer of slush on them but not ice, and I reached the front door. When I opened it, I could hear the alarm asking to be shut off, a high pitched beep; and when I managed to get there, it was lit up sufficiently from inside for me to turn it off; but when it did, there was not an ounce of light left in the house.

The open front door was letting in cold, but it was also letting in the only available light. I groped for matches that were not there. Oh lordy! Where did I put them!

Then I remembered that I had a flashlight right there. After that, I found the matches and lit three candles. I tried the gas stove, but without electricity, it only releases gas. It doesn’t have the clicker to light it and so I turned it off immediately. Now that I had light, I closed the front door. Next, I tried to phone out. But the phone is connected with electricity as well, and there was only a beep beep from the receiver to advise that the battery was going. There was no dial tone.

Thanking goodness for cell phones, I then called to Mrs Stepford next door.

“How are you coping?” I asked.

“I’ve got a bottle of wine!” she declared. “C’mon over.”

I doused the candles, took my trusty flash light and a half bottle of wine I had sitting on the counter. She greeted me at the door flashing her mag light into my eyes as I approached, and I with my dollar flashlight, did the same to her. Minutes later, wine poured and imbibed, we chatted about the Art Walk meeting.

Mrs. Stepford is an artist as well, but she’s been there, done that. She didn’t like people she didn’t know traipsing through her studio. She didn’t like waiting for someone to come. We thrashed about the merits of going in the tour, I being for, she being against. When it almost came to a serious argument, we shifted gears.

“What are you going to do when Frank comes home from Cambodia?” she asked. “You can’t start that up again. Neither of you will be able to go forward with your lives.”
“It’s not your business,” I declared hotly, and I went silent. She might be right, but I have to do that decision by myself. It’s my life lesson, not hers.

The silence endured and became uncomfortable, but it couldn’t have been longer than a minute or two.

“Can’t you imagine,” I broke the silence, “how pioneers must have lived with this lack of light every night. How could they have read by candle light? It must have just ruined their eyes!”

“I was thinking the same just an hour ago,” she replied. “With two candles right here, it wasn’t too bad. We’re quite spoiled, you know. It’s quite an artificial life we are leading with all these luxuries. Many poor parts of the world don’t have electricity, fresh clean water, automatic heat and we won’t even talk about air conditioning.”

“We’re going to be in for a rude surprise one day if all of this is no longer available.”

I thought about some of the trouble spots in the world and knew she was right. We talked about making our own gardens, producing some of our own food. We shook our heads at the next generation coming, with their iPods and Wii’s. If all the superstructure for that ever collapsed, would these young things know how to light a fire, sow a garden, make a shelter; find and test clear water; weave, knit or crochet blankets?

Our deliberations were “old-people” deliberations. Those questions of whether or not we would survive from generation to generation have always been asked. Each generation has different questions. As pioneers came to Canada, a principal concern for immigrant families was, how can we educate our children and give them a better life? Two generations later, a vast majority of Canadians were educated at least to High School graduation. There were so many “educated” people that there were no longer enough trades people (as if that weren’t an education in itself).

Just as we delved into this age-old discussion, the lights went on. It broke a spell. We emerged from the 19th Century into the 21st. We said a few words of parting and I went home to my blinking clocks that needed resetting and my computer that stared blackly at me, waiting for a reboot.

Well, duckies, it’s time for a coffee and bit of breaky. Talk to you soon.

Visitors and thoughts about retirement

February 5, 2008

After they left, I thought about Christmas; how just after all the celebrations and visits are done, you look at your house that was sparkling clean and ready for visitors such a short time ago and now the little bits of daily living are creeping back into that pristine lodging as the first tiny spring buds of normality return.

Here I was, house empty again after an all too short, three hours visit. It wasn’t Christmas. It was February, but the snow was falling again after four days of respite. The silence which I appreciate so much on most days, was sounding thunderingly quiet and the view out the window was decidedly grey. I walked slowly about the house noting that I had forgotten to give them some homemade chutney that I’d put out so that I wouldn’t forget to give it; and I had forgotten to show them my little sun porch at the back. Three hours hadn’t been long enough.

So what was the best thing for me to do for the remains of the day, now that they were gone? I thought about digging into the big paper box of estate duties, correspondence, bills and miscellanea that I had to do (Heaven’s knows what is lurking there to bite me, I haven’t looked at the pile that was there waiting for me since I came back from Ottawa a whole month ago). I rejected that. What a way to let down a five star afternoon! What a way to break a magic spell!

I thought about playing the piano, but that would have been an abrupt and jangly transition from my now pensive and peaceful mood.

I looked at the dining table with the remainder of lunch sitting on it and considered tidying it and doing the dishes, but that too seemed such a letdown, so I rejected that, too. No one else was coming. Dishes could wait until I felt like it.

In my night owl manner, I had stayed up to odd hours of the night for a week running. Then knowing I would have visitors and I couldn’t let anyone see the disorderly depths that I had sunk to, especially for a first visit to my home, I set my alarm clock for an early rising so that I could get some daytime hours of sorting, boxing, putting away and getting ready as well.

In that silence that followed, I looked at the clean and tidy living room which even this morning had been strewn with the sorting of various boxes of papers in toppling piles, waiting for their final destinations. The long flowered couch looked mightily inviting. The thick green afghan so tidily rolled at the end of the couch promised warmth. I had no desire to start any activity that might return the house to its daily disorder and so,




entirely out of character,

I gave myself permission to take an afternoon nap.

And a nice long warm nap it was, too, wrapped up in that thick green woolen afghan, two throw pillows at my back, and the long four-seater couch stretching before me to cradle me and my long legs into the land of nod.

My friends come from Idaho just outside of the city of Coeur d’Alene. I knew them when I was teaching. We were all living in the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. That was thirty years ago. I went to Europe, to France, to Art School. They continued on in their lives and eventually, as so many of us did over the years, their careers morphed into something completely different.

He had a penchant for carpentry and began buying houses to fix up and sell, then began building brand new ones. He’d created a comfortable income from that and knew how to enjoy life on his own terms. Freda had moved her way inexorably up the ladder in her school district until she was running it.

She has flair, this girl. She knows everyone in town; everyone in the School District; everyone in school. Because of her work, she knows half the State politicians. That’s how she gets things done.

Everyone loves her. She’s bubbly and dynamic and yet contains that depth of feeling and empathy that makes a life long friend. She has a fierceness about her that no one would mess with. She stands her ground. And yet her softness and kindness is legendary.

Even today, we talked about that time when her closest friend in Coeur d’Alene, dying of cancer, was not getting the care she needed as her friend’s three sisters, her caregivers, so unthinkingably fought over the potential upcoming inheritance. Freda got a lawyer and took them to court to ensure her dying friend’s care! I swear, this is one person you really are privileged to call Friend.

The years go by and we work in the same job year after year, not counting the changes that come with promotions and special projects. We finally get tired of some of the political nonsense that pervades our jobs, whether it be in the corporate world or the public sector. It’s the politics of who rules who, who makes the decisions, whether those decisions are wise or not. It’s the competing interests of one department of the organization over another. Eventually, if you don’t have to stay, then you don’t. The mental stress isn’t worth it. And you can go do something else.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I loved my job while I loved it. It was exciting and I met people from many and various walks of life. I made good work friends with so many of them. I enjoyed the responsibility and the constant learning. But after twenty plus years, and it not being my life’s work, I was ready for a change. All the petty miseries of it crashed in on me when I was doing double duty, looking after my dying mother. When it was time to go, all those pluses disappeared. I wanted to leave. It was time to go.
Fortunately, we are in an an age when there is lots of work and not enough people to do it. We could go hammering on a construction site. We could unstressfully work in a coffee shop. Barrista Kay! I thought, with a smirk.

One of my colleagues took a sabbatical and amongst other things she did with that time off, she worked at Starbucks. And loved it! I’ve dreamed of running my own art gallery, but I don’t know much about how to do that. I’d like to volunteer in a public one until I do know how. Wouldn’t that be cool!

I saw a lady holding a party for young girls, each of which was dressed up like a princess. The girls were awed and giggly. The attending mothers were thrilled. Now wouldn’t that be a fun way to earn a living?

But back to my visit with Freda and Alan. Just lately, Freda, like a number of my friends, has retired, glad to be free of the politicking that was driving her crazy. For such an active woman, sitting around was not an option (although she can take a vacation and enjoy it to the full) . She took her exams for a Real Estate license and began practicing right away. It’s slowed since Christmas in the USA because of the mortgage crisis, but for the preceding months, she instantly had more work than she could take on. That is to say, that if you are dynamic at what you do, you most certainly have the ability to take on something new and become dynamic and successful at career number two.

Freda’s husband Alan is a great hobby cook. Good thing, too. Freda doesn’t like to cook at all. After our first burst of hugs and a tour through my new-to-me house, we fell into our previous modus operandi of telling about our lives through stories. I set them laughing about Charlie the Painter (see previous post). Alan was about to tell a road trip story when I signalled for a halt.

“We’d better sit and eat lunch while we talk or you’ll be leaving here in an hour needing to find a place to eat and I’ll be regretting that the quiche in the oven has turned overly brown and dry. ”

I shared my lemon grass soup recipe with Alan: a fresh lemon grass stock as the liquid addition, paper thin slices of celery, a bit of finely chopped fresh parsley and a tin of mushroom soup to make it creamy.

We downed a delicious new red wine discovery, Luigi Leonardo, a Sicilian product. Unfortunately, I had purchased the last two bottles at our local liquor store. Due to renovations, they were liquidating end of stock items and this was one of them. It might be impossible to get it here again.

We ate baby bok choy smothered in a butter and pesto sauce. The Caesar salad sat on the table untouched. It was a bit much – quiche, a veggie and soup – for a lunch. The salad would be a fine dinner – I wouldn’t have to cook.

Alan told his tale of speeding on the highway. He loves his cars and he had just bought a new luxury model suburban. “Turns on a dime,” said Freda.

“It has Idaho licence plates. The cops see you coming. I couldn’t have been going more than ten k’s above the speed limit and I saw the police car with flashing lights behind me. I pulled over and he stopped right behind me. I knew I was in for it.”
“You might as well admit it when you are caught, ” he said. “So I got a ticket and lumped it.”
“I noted the time on my dashboard when we took off again, driving sagely within the speed limit. The cop warned me that although the speed was 100 in this zone, it was 90 only a few miles up, and I kept that in mind.”

“Not four minutes later, I saw a cop coming towards us and pass. In less than a minute he turned around and was coming up behind us, his siren going and his red light flashing. I thought he must have an accident to get to; but we were his target. Can you imagine? Twice in a day. Twice in five minutes, really. They must look for out of State licenses as targets. They must have a quota, and who from out of State is going to come back and fight a ticket?”
“The cop said I was going 120. Now do you think I would be going 120 four minutes after having received a speeding ticket? I told the policeman all that. He told me to get my speedometer checked. It’s a brand new car. You don’t think I’d be starting off with a faulty speedometer do you? But I have to check back in within a week with them to prove I’ve had it tested. At least he gave me benefit of the doubt. It ruined my timetable for getting here though.”

We went on to discussing common friends from the old days. Where was Elena? What was she doing? Had I heard from Margaret? Did I know that Martha was undergoing cancer treatment? There was altogether too much of that going around. I knew of five people in my acquaintanceship that had cancer and were in various stages of chemo or radiation.

We had moved onto a feminine bit of gossiping that would have fazed many a male. But Alan loves his Freda; and he loves women in general. You can see it on his face. His eyes have some gently carved laugh lines. They light up as he watches the banter go back and forth. These two are a healthy, happy couple and it shines through.

Now all of this might sound a bit banal, with talk of people you don’t know – Freda, Alan, Elena, Margaret and Martha – but this is the stuff that friendships are made of. The caring for individuals that we know. The network of support that weaves through our lives whether we see each other daily or whether we see each other after a hiatus of two years or ten, makes the fabric of our lives.

Regretfully, Freda rose and announced they had to go. Alan rose with her, and I followed to go get their coats. They were expected in Whistler by four.

I saw them away, standing at the front door, not willing to go out in the steadily falling snow. It was cold out and slippery. Outside, there was a general greyness with a polka dot screen of white falling snow. It was accumulating on the ground. Since their arrival, an inch of fresh white had deposited on my car and on the roundabout.

I could be a Realtor too, I thought, as an odd non sequetor. The silence that comes with snow wrapped around me. The silence that comes from guests leaving wrapped around me. I was alone in the house, savouring the flurry of friendship that had come in the door and warmed it up toastily for three hours.

I napped my nap. I got up and had a hot cup of café au lait. I sat down to write. I didn’t want to lose the moment. I wanted to capture it somehow; to freeze frame it; to solidify something elusively undefinable and extraordinary. Friendship.

I didn’t know where to start; and once I did, I didn’t know how to end. After all, it’s wonderful when friendships are endless.

I got up from my computer and went for a second cup of coffee. I stepped out of my little study into a blackened hall. Where had the time gone to? Without a light on in the house but that of my study and the computer screen, it was very dark.

Friendship had lit my whole day. My whole afternoon.

Kay goes to the Gym 3

February 3, 2008

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

No need to count. The electronic counter was reporting on time spent, counting down from 25, second by second and slowly, ever so slowly counting ascending calories spent.

Kay regulated her rhythm on the reclining bicycle to the metronomic rhythm of a jogger running on the treadmill directly in front of her. There were three joggers running at much the same pace. Kay started to hum Bach’s fugue in G major which she was relearning at home. The timing was perfect, baroque in its regularity. Slap, slap, slap, slap… it continued on. Thirty minutes, these folks were doing. Slap, slap, slap, slap went the feet. Pedal, pedal, went Kay, round and round, left foot, right foot, and she started to think while the notes ran through her head. She was determined to do fifty calories or fifteen minutes, whichever came first.

If only her mother could see her now!

Every time that exercise was mentioned, Kay’s mother would quote an adage that she had appropriated from one of the vamp actresses of the twenties.

“When ever I get the urge to exercise, I go lie down on my bed until the feeling passes,” she would say with a mischievous smile. Mother had been a good athlete, a winner of foot races and high jumping events. Its deleterious effect upon her children was that they had little respect for sports and exercise.

Swimming was encouraged, but that was chiefly to ensure that the children would be prepared not to drown. There had been ballet lessons for a year or two. That had been considered much more appropriate for a cultured girl, but Kay had rebelled. Though she had dreamed of becoming a ballerina, had envied balletic agility and grace, she had felt like an awkward ugly duckling. There had been that disastrous parent’s night performance where Kay had lost her choreographic sense and done a boner.

While the ten other children danced to the left and then to the right, then twirled, Kay danced to the left and then to the right and then mistakenly sat down on the stage. The whole audience twittered then laughed out loud while shy Kay rapidly stumbled up, clumsily trying to fit back into the group of girls as the chortles continued. She was confused, horrified, ashamed and ran from the stage. That was the end of ballet classes.

Aside from mandatory high school Physical Education, Kay had never been in a gym except to watch games that other people were playing.

Forty years had passed by without a thought of exercise troubling her mind any more than it had seemed to trouble her mother’s. Year by year, she gained a pound or two or three or four. That pencil thin child of fifteen, at last freed of her baby fat, was obsessively concerned about her weight. She had turned into thirty year old, lovely and rounded; a forty year old slightly heavy, but attractively so; and a rotund fifty year old; and now she was sixty, broad in the beam, lightly jowled, heavy of arm, thick of thigh and she was peddling. She no longer recognized that girl in the mirror. “Where had she gone?” she wondered.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

The counter turned over a tick every left and right thrust she made. Slap, slap went the jogger just ahead.

“Neither of us is going anywhere”, mused Kay with a wry smile, but she conceded that it felt good.

As one jogger slowed then quit his treadmill and then another, leaving only a single jogger beating out the same tick-tock pace, Kay reflected that here was another similarity with Bach’s Fugue, with one voice after another disentangling as the fugue comes to its denouement.

There had been that first day on the machine where she poked the green Quick Start button and nothing happened. She placed her feet on the pedals and pressed the Quick Start button again. Again nothing happened.

“Excuse me, ” said the young woman, scarcely twenty and looking very trim if somewhat non-descript, “You have to pedal first and then you hit the Start button. The machines are difficult. You have to press it quite firmly.”

Kay started to push the resistant pedals and a light came on like an electronic advertisement. “Press Quick start to begin” it announced. She pressed it and red letters indicating 25 minutes starting to count down to zero came on.

“Oh Lord, it’s quandmeme simple!” she groaned to herself. “Thanks!” she said out loud to the young woman. Pedal, pedal, and the cycle worked like a charm.

That day, Kay had achieved a stellar four minutes of reclining bicycle without stopping. It was enough for the first day. Now she had been coming for four weeks and she had set herself a challenge. The last two weeks, she had achieved ten minutes of uninterrupted cycling. Today, she would do fifteen.

The worst part was the boredom. Pedal, pedal, pedal. It was not inspiring.

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Today she had brought a book, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and now she was multitasking – singing her Bach Fugue in G in her head, keeping pace, peddling to the jogger’s metronome and reading about this man’s time alone as a park ranger in the desert near Moab, Utah.

Kay read:

But for the time being, around my place at least, the air is untroubled and I became aware for the first time today of the immense silence in which I am lost. Not a silence so much as a great stillness – for there are a few sounds: the creak of some bird in a juniper tree, an eddy of wind which passes and fades like a sigh, the ticking of the watch on my wrist – slight noises which break the sensation of absolute silence but at the same time exaggerate my sense of the surrounding overwhelming peace. A suspension of time, a continuous present….

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Kay rode on, time disappearing as she read. It had not seemed so long with a good book to accompany her. She had immersed herself in the words, in the world of the desert, in Abbey’s escapade with a rattlesnake, and his friendship with a gopher snake who drove off the rattlers. Abbey is curious, visually perceptive, literarily descriptive and captivating.

Kay glanced at the numbers. She was at 50 calories and fourteen minutes and sixteen seconds. She’d made it!

She slowed her pace and completed her fifteen minutes, took her book back to the cubicle where she kept her outdoor shoes and her jacket and continued on to her circuit of other machines.

It was a good thing, Kay reflected as she went home an hour later, that she had lost her childlike inhibitions. She no longer cared if she was only one of three women in the gym. She was too old to be noticed. They young muscle men were interested in their own physiques; they weren’t interested in an old grandmotherly woman.

She no longer cared if they thought she was out of shape. She knew she was. How could she get back into shape if she didn’t do something about it? Kay totted up the family longevity and subtracted her current age. If she still had a good twenty plus years to go, she had better be in shape. Three recent falls had been the turning point. This hobbling with a cane business would only get worse if she didn’t fight it. And here was proof. She could do it.

In three weeks, she had gone from five minutes aerobic to fifteen. She smiled. It was better than lying on a bed and waiting for the feeling to pass.