Archive for April, 2008

Signs of Spring

April 28, 2008

I saw a fat robin

beat upon the earth,

extract a long red thread

of worm, and gobble it.

Twice.

And then he flew away.

In the small garden

parallel to the fence,

I planted two dozen tulips.

Two pink flower heads

wave slowly.

The squirrel has had

a generous winter feast.

Without the aid of clothes pegs,

rain hangs out to dry

in droplets, all along

the bright blue clothes line.

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One thing leads to another – compulsion!

April 25, 2008

It started quite innocently, Kay thought.

“Why don’t I just have Mrs. Stepford in to see my house all cleaned up for the Art Studio Tour on the night before?” she said to herself. “The paintings will all be hung; the house will be unencumbered of the moving boxes (nine months later); the house will finally look as I wanted it to.”

There were altruistic reasons for this invitation. Mrs. Stepford was undergoing her lens replacement operation on Friday, the day before the studio tour. She would want to see it, but she wouldn’t want to see it while a mob of people came through nor would she be tolerant of mouthy aliens coming to mock the creations of advanced practitioners of the visual arts. Philistines!

There was another reason. There was little likelihood that Mr. Stepford would come unless he got a private showing and Kay needed him to see that she could bring her house into order. He had a healthy dose of skepticism on this as he ticked the months off on his fingers every time they had talked about making progress on the putting away of moving boxes.

Kay reflected that it wouldn’t take much to do, having them on on Friday night, the night before the show. Just a pot of coffee; maybe a little dessert. Mr. S has a sweet tooth. All it would take was a little raspberry sorbet.

Not much later, Kay thought about Lily. Lily was opening her studio as well. She wouldn’t have a chance to see any of the other artists because she would be stuck minding her own store. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford were great friends of Lily. If Kay were very clear that it was only for an hour, she could handle four people coming.

Kay phoned Lily and asked her to bring Mark, her husband, along with her. After all, Kay thought, Mark and Mr. S knew each other very well and it wouldn’t leave an orphan male wandering about amongst a henhouse full of art-women. Lily was pleased to accept, though she hesitated. She was meeting with Renée who was sharing her studio and showing and selling hand made fabrics.

“Well, I’d love to meet Renée!” said Kay. “Bring her along!”

That was Saturday.

On Sunday, over the fence, Kay was talking to her neighbours, Lara and Glen. After a conversation that went this way and that, Lara said, “Do you by any chance have a copy of the map for the studio tour?”

“I’ve got one in the house.” Kay replied. “I’ll bring it over a little later.” Kay continued on with her garden work. There were two young men coming to clean out the gutters on Monday who had offered to take away all the garden waste to the dump if only it were bagged up and ready for them. Kay was diligently raking up all the winter windfall of cedar and fir branches, cones and other debris.

Later in the afternoon, Kay walked around the corner and past Mrs. Stepford’s house to Lara’s. Lara and Glen are warm, wonderful neighbours, ready to lend a hand anytime; ready to stand on guard against intruders of the homus erectus variety while Kay was travelling; They were watchful and caring.

Lara and Glen knew everyone in the neighbourhood and the conversation flowed with tales and gossip. Hot in the conversation pot was the disposition of the property that lay at the end of both of their gardens. A full acre lot in a residential part of the city was almost unheard of. The owners had died and the estate had sold the land to developers. The huge cedars and firs had been measured up by a tree surveyor just two days before. Rumour had it that the plans were for five duplexes, at best (in the contractor’s view) or three new homes with suites if zoning for five could not be obtained. The whole neighbourhood was waiting for the development application so that its collective voice could be heard.

Kay was feeling so comfortable and happy with this conversation that a luminous idea came to mind. As she was leaving, she said, “Why don’t you come over for a quick preview on Friday night. I’m having the Stepfords in. About seven. Bring the kids. It’ll just be coffee and tea.”

“What were two more?” Kay said to herself. “Well, three with Kate, but Kate was only ten, so just count that as two more,” she said, minimizing the work that it might entail. But when she stopped to think about it as she was climbing the stairs back to her own home, she was already up to seven; eight counting herself, and then Kate.

On Monday the gutters were cleaned. Mrs. S was having hers done. Kay had been putting this off, hoping for a more auspicious time, grossly undefined; but since Mrs. S. had her young handyman in to do it, Kay obliged. The cost of the power washer rental could be halved between them, he had promised. That sounded auspicious, and here they were, streaming water down the gutters; cleaning moss off the outer edges of the eaves, and incidentally, leaving streaks of water through the winter film of dirt on the windows.

Gordon the handyman said, upon leaving, “If you want any other work done, we’re available. Painting, lawn mowing, tree removal, vinyls siding wash down, getting the algae off the steps, window washing, yard work, anything really. Just call.”

“Nothing just now, ” Kay thanked him. She had been counting the hundred dollar bills flying out the window. Four for the raccoon and the squirrels in the roof. Two for lawn maintenance start up, moss de-thatching and lawn aerating. Two for the gutters. She gulped as she added it all up together.

Late on Monday afternoon, the sun was streaming in the western windows splashing a beautiful glow on the kitchen counter, highlighting the mass of items still to be packed away somewhere – pottery platters, the blue and white plate collection; several ornaments from her mother’s estate; ten long play records that Kay suspected were perhaps valuable, from the time of the Beatles; crystal salt and pepper shakers. All of these were mixed in with tools that she was using for finishing off the hanging hardware for some of the paintings she was going to show – hammer, various picture hooks; picture wire; multi-head screwdriver; tape measure; ruler; linen tape and on and on. It was quite an unholy jumble that had to be sorted out before Friday.

Sunshine, she thought, could make anything beautiful. Even this explosion of material goods that were strewn along the counter, covering every inch of it. In a moment of pause, she looked up at the source of the light and her spirits slumped. There was one thing that the sun could not make beautiful. Windows with a winter season of scum upon them. How could she show her home and her work if the windows were not clean. Especially now that they were streaked in runnels from the power washing exercise.

She grabbed a cloth and opened the window. As far as she could lean out, she cleaned. She got a chair and stood upon it. It gave her six more inches of cleaned window. But the rest? There was no way she could reach it. There was no way she was going to get up on a ladder outside to clean the windows and there was no other way to do it.

With profound regret for her flying hundreds, she telephoned Gordon the handyman and asked for a quote. Even before she heard it, she knew she would say yes.

“Listen, Gordon, while your guy was power-washing the eaves, he managed to strip the paint off the front steps and railings. I’ve got visitors coming in. What can you do about it?”

He promised a sweet deal on the window washing and, if Kay found the matching paint, he’d fix that up at no cost.

Kay found the paint that night and calculated her odds. In a rainy place like the Wet Coast, two fine April days in a row were unlikely to see a third. What if the guys didn’t have enough time. What if it rained and then the paint wouldn’t stick. Near midnight, Kay went out to the front steps and treated the knot holes and the cracks with filler. In the morning, she got out the paint bucket herself and gave it a coat of the nearest thing she could find – grey primer. It wasn’t quite the same colour as the other railing and it was mat, but it looked cleaned and cared for. It would do. The alkyd coat could come later when the weather was warm.

It was Wednesday afternoon when she called Mrs. S in for coffee. “Look what I’ve done!” Kay gloated a little prematurely. I’ve gotten all the boxes downstairs or put away. The metal box that had treasures in it is now serving as a closed shoe box in the study; the open wooden shoe box is now holding some small paintings for people to look through; the kitchen nook table is now free to be a kitchen nook table; I can get at my linen drawers. I’ve made huge progress!”

Mrs. S. was suitably impressed. She toured the main floor and commented on the placement of paintings and drawings, giving freely of her expertise in hanging art work.

“I can’t stay,” she said quite firmly, “Kathy is coming for her painting lesson in fifteen minutes. I gotta go. But congratulations, girl, it’s looking good! I’ll call you later when I’m finished and we can have a cup of tea to linger over.”

Ring-a-ling! Ring-a-ling! The phone was demanding attention. It was Mrs. S.

“Can Kathy come to your salon on Friday night?” she asked. I was telling her all about it.”
“It’s not a salon. I was just inviting you in for coffee,” Kay replied with a bit of panic.

“Well, Kathy wants to come with Kurt. They want to see your work and they want to see what you’ve done to the house.”

“Is she standing right there?” Kay said suspiciously.

“Yes,” drawled Mrs. S. Kay could hear her chortling on her end of the phone.

“Of course she can come. I had been thinking they might like to come. I just hadn’t got around to it yet.”

“You can come!” Kay heard her say gleefully and she imagined Mrs. S triumphantly announcing it to her painting student.

“Let me talk to her,” Kay insisted.

“Of course you can come, Kathy. And Kurt. Bring the kids if you need to. You don’t need to get a baby sitter. Lara and Glen are coming too, and Kate. See you Friday at seven”

That evening, as Kay was sorting out another box of treasures to be relegated to the basement she began to feel the import of this snowballing cup of coffee. If all those people were coming, surely Maggie would want to come. If the head count was up to twelve or more, what would two more do? After all, she couldn’t invite Maggie with out inviting her husband. Maggie was another of the hosting artists. She wouldn’t get a chance to come out during the tour either. And so Kay called Maggie.

With all those folks bound to arrive on Friday, what kind of a hostess would she seem to be if there wasn’t just a little something to nibble on. Kay needed crackers and cheese at a minimum. Maybe some taco chips and a dip. Something easy. And what if not everybody drank coffee or tea? What about the kids? They’d want cola or soda pop. And so Kay planned a trip to the big box superstore.

On Thursday morning, early to beat the bridge traffic but not so early as to be caught in rush hour, Kay drove to the store and came home bearing crackers, Balderson’s white cheddar and two rounds of Camembert, roasted deluxe nuts, flowers, pickled artichokes, guacamole dip, a case of Coke in tins, cranberry juice for virgin cocktails, celery and peppers for the vegetable tray.

It was as she was heaving the Coke case up the front stairs a step at a time that she became aware of the algae that encrusted the steps. She looked at her brightly shining railing, spotless clean with new paint and then looked at the green film that covered the other wood surfaces. If she hadn’t cleaned up the railing, the stairs would not have looked so bad! What was it that they said about first impressions? Good Grief! She was going to have to clean the stairs.

Kay settled her groceries on the almost clear counter and in that five minutes of bringing in, had completely covered it again. Niggling at her, the stairs were calling out her name. “Kay! Kay! Come clean us Kay! What will people think, Kay? It’s as bad as having dandruff!’

So dutifully, before it got forgot, Kay filled an old ice cream pail full of hot water and laced with cleaning agent. Careful not to spill, she carried it over the entryway carpet and out to the front steps. A scrub brush in hand, she tore away at the steps lifting up all the green algae and rinsing it away.

“I swear, I am going to remember this colour next summer when I go to paint the trim. I’m going to paint the stairs green and then no one will know if they have algae or not,” she chafed.

She looked at the shoddy stairs, now much, much cleaner, and thought that if only she had time and good weather, perhaps she could touch up the stairs with paint on the morrow….

Now, I can’t tell you the end of this story, because Kay is still in the kitchen, putting away food, arranging flowers, packing up those things on the studio table, sweeping, putting photos into mats and then into glassine envelopes to keep grubby paws from marking them. Kay is thinking up all the things she still has to do. And who knows? Kay will invent more things to do before she is finished.

That’s our Kay.

Now, how many people were coming?

Coming home

April 19, 2008

Heather sent a package down with her husband when he came to Vancouver for a doctor specialists appointment. He was going to stay with Kay until the medical appointments were over.

“Mailman!” he cried out as he came in the door, a mischievous look on his face. He extended a large Kraft envelope to Kay. She, perplexed, tilted her head and lifted a brow questioningly.

“It’s Saturday. There’s no mail today. What is this?” she asked.

“Remember Mom’s dresser that you gave us? When we were lifting it up the stairs to put it in the spare bedroom, we had to take the drawers out. It was too heavy. When we did that, this mail dropped out from the above on the top drawer. I don’t know how it happened but it was stuck up there.”

“Hmmph!” Kay laughed and shook her head, as the import of it all fell into place.

Nonnie-Mom had become paranoid. She had wanted to hide the mail in case the boys saw it and got nosy. She had become fearful that they might know how much money she had; she became fearful that they might do her in because she had seen on television a case, right close to the Vancouver area where two teens had engineered a murder of their parents so that they could get the insurance money and the inheritance. How she could have suspected this of her two lovely grandsons who were living in our house and did so much for her comfort, I don’t know. It was just an aging thing that couldn’t be helped nor assuaged.

The other thing she had become paranoid about, for the same reason, was Hugh and his kitchen knives. He had worked in a major up-scale restaurant to earn his University money. One of his tasks in the restaurant was food prep – cutting up all the vegetables for the day in an efficient manner. To do this, he needed a sharp knife and since he was now cooking many of the family meals at dinner and preparing fresh lunches for Nonnie-Mom while everyone else was away working, he had bought himself an professional cook’s knife for his home cuisine.

The yellow-handled knife was large and very pointy at the end. He sharpened it daily with an old whetstone that his grandfather had used for the turkey-carving knife. He kept in a knife guard when it wasn’t out from his work. He treated it like a knight in armour would have cared for his parade sword. Nonnie was daily hiding this knife from view and dinner prep always entailed looking for the knife.

And so Nonnie-Mom raced to the door as fast as her walker would go to scoop the mail, sort it out, leave the boys’ mail there at the door and go, hers and my mail in her walker basket, to her room to hide it. She had several hiding places. One was under her pillow; another, in a shoe box in her cupboard; a third in this dresser drawer, underneath her scarves.

When she suspected that the boys might know about one of her hiding places, she would shift the mail to a new hiding place – a rotational exercise, since there weren’t really enough places to hide it in. In truth, she was very good about giving the mail to Kay on a daily basis. She would sit in her walker at the door at four o’clock waiting for Kay to get home. Closer to five, she would open the main door, lock the screen door and park there, looking out the glass and mesh to wait for Kay.

Kay had mixed feelings. The welcome was wonderful and this devoted show of missing Kay told her how much her mother had come to depend on her, in a loving kind of way. She desperately wanted all of Kay’s company. Shut in as she was, cabin fever was a major enemy. On the other hand, for Kay, all her time was vacuumed up and disposed of like so much dust, looking after things that the old woman could not do for herself.

As Kay negotiated the six stairs up into the front door, Nonnie lifted herself from the walker seat, undid the latch on the door and swung it open a little for Kay to enter.

Nonnie’s eyes lit up, her face beamed a magnificent smile while she clapped her hands in joy. Her devoted daughter, her patient care giver had come home! It was another of her paranoias, that her precious Kay might not come home. Then who would look after her? Perhaps it was a realistic fear, not paranoia. What would she do?

“Nonnie, you have to move back,” Kay commanded. “I can’t get in if you don’t move back.” Kay, laden with her briefcase, some last minute groceries and her sack full of her daily requirements could not get in the narrow crack that had been allowed by her mother, once again blocking the door swing.

Nonnie kicked her feet along the carpet propelling herself back a foot and opened the door another bit. Kay squeezed in.

“Mom, when you park there, I can’t get in,” she chided, as she gave her mother a quick peck of a greeting and let her worldly baggage drop to the floor. Her mother’s gnarled hand caught her face between them. They were soft, silky and mottled pink but the bones and the veins stood out beneath the skin. It was a brief and lovely blessing.

“When will dinner be?” Nonnie asked. Kay, who often worked late, had been unable to meet the six o’clock deadline that her mother had religiously met throughout her active life. Kay sighed inwardly. She had hardly breached the castle walls and she was now supposed to magically produce a meal for five within a half hour.

“Come this way,” commanded her mother conspiratorially. When Kay asked her what it was about, her mother simply shook her head and lifted her index finger to her mouth in a sign for silence.

It was the mail. They had to go find the hidden mail before anything else was done.

And here was the mail, stuck in the framework of the dresser drawer, delivered six months late.

Kay took the items one by one, read their addresses, calculated if any harm had been done and shifted them to her free hand.

There was a Christmas card to Judith. Kay had not affixed a stamp and it had been returned. There was a Christmas card from Freedom 55, the life insurance company; an advertisement from the Municipal art gallery with a request for donation; there was a PAL membership renewal; a brochure for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives;a thank you Christmas greeting from the young musician whom Kay had supported with a scholarship; and an Opus Framing boxing sale advertising that had had ended six months earlier.

None of it was critical. There were no unpaid bills. There were no appointments missed. Nothing was harmed.

She looked straight into her new “Mailman’s” eyes and laughed a short chuckle. Behind her eyes, he could see the wordless endurance;the reluctant humour and the silent pain of loss. It had not diminished. She would forever see her mother waiting at the screen door for Kay to come home but Nonnie-mom would never be sitting there, blocking the door again.

White Rock

April 14, 2008

“This is so built up! I don’t remember this!” Kay complained feeling somewhat disoriented by the massive growth that had developed in the little forested community that she had visited so often in her youth and then not so often afterwards. She was looking for a gallery that Mrs. Stepford had recommended to her. It was Ron’s gallery and Deveraux’s; that is, they both showed there regularly and with good success.

Driving down 152nd, there were new developments both sides of the road. There were massive housing complexes and Senior’s residential complexes and those thirty to fifty store shopping centers. All of this progress had wiped out the fields and the forests and it went on for a couple of miles.

Her tender thoughts of a cottage town with small one-storey houses, many of them beach cottages, were being ripped off memory page. Only a few of these small cottages remained, dwarfed by the pink stucco palaces and monster homes of the ‘Nineties and of the Twenty-first century.

As 152nd approached Boundary Bay, there was a three block shopping district of one-storey stores more reminiscent of Kay’s vacation days. The street curved into another street. It had one more block of three storey commercial buildings with shops on the ground floor and then Kay and Marcel were once again driving through a district of single family residential homes. It was a confusing mix of styles representing a century of habitation – beach cottages, pioneer homes, ranchers, monsters, all higgledy-piggledy as if their order had been arranged by a throw of dice.

The street sloped steeply down to the frontage road that paralleled the train tracks and the beach. At street level, Kay’s heart leapt. The stores were all touristy, most of them were eating establishments. There were at least six fish and chips establishments, several coffee purveyors, a few ice-cream specialists and a dabbling of Real Estate agencies. There were gift shops filled with tasteless tourist gizmos and hand made jewelry stands. It was just the kind of summer resort town beach trade she had remembered from twenty years ago. It felt right. It was human scale and promised good times, a day off, a lunch out, sunshine and soft breezes.

There were only two blocks of this and then the road climbed back up into waterfront homes – no longer the beach cabins of the ‘Thirties but still home-like with well-wooded lots, mature landscaping, bespeaking the aisance, the comfort of their owners.

Kay and Marcel crossed the train tracks and descended the seawall. It was a sanitized affair with a path paved in red interlocking bricks and protected from the sand and surf by a tubular iron rail fence painted in turquoise. Kay reflected that the colour had probably been chosen to disappear from view on a sunny day of summer where the sea just might have approximated the colour. This choice was somewhat hopeful, given that eight winterish months of the year, grey cloud prevailed and grey interspersed the summer months as well.

There was a breakwater layer of large sharply broken rocks that edged the descent from seawall to the beach and a smattering of people. A few with their canine companions had crossed into the nature zone. These hardy souls were strolling in amongst the low tide sand-flats rippled with that curious pattern of sand ridges. The tide was a kilometer or more out to sea. A lone sailboat with three sails hovered midway to the horizon. The view was idyllic.

Kay and Marcel chose a place where the rocks were less cumbersome to cross . Marcel leapt from one rock to another and was down in a trice. Kay picked her way cautiously, carefully testing each foothold for balance; with a delay, she too reached the sandy shore. They walked quietly. The deceptive April day had turned cold at the water’s edge. Kay shivered but did not complain. Being out, doing “nothing” was a treat to be savored.

With her ubiquitous camera, she selected a group of people and their tidal reflection for a shot; and then a seagull doubled in importance by its mirror image. It seemed as if time had been suspended. As they looked back on the shoreline, they could see that the storefronts had been preserved to look like they had long ago, but back of these were massive four-storied apartment complexes built into the steep hill that had replaced the beach cottages of yore. They all had balconies overlooking the sea and some were glassed in to protect their inhabitants from the discomfort of the sea winds.

But the cold reasserted itself. After fifteen minutes, Kay and Marcel turned back, renavigated the rocky pile back up onto the seawall.

Over a coffee at an ice cream shop, Kay and Marcel sat silently, each deep within their own thoughts. Kay was lingering in Autrefois, the Land of Time-gone-by. After a long time, she spoke.

“Father had some work in White Rock one summer. He was off surveying all day long. Mother had us three kids with her. I don’t think Lizbet was born yet. Maybe it was the year she was born because I can remember the motel we stayed in quite well. ”
“It was high on the hill, a very steep hill. Father went down it in first gear it was so steep, and we hated climbing back up it when we went home after a day at the beach. Mother would pack us a lunch and we would spend hours looking for sand dollars and digging moats for the castles we shaped out of our small bucket-filled shapes that were overturned.”

“There were crabs under rocks. There were tiny little pink shells that we collected and blue mussel ones. We took sticks and drew pictures in the sand. When the tide came in, the pictures were blurred at first and then erased altogether. The water came in warm and comfortable over the long hot sand. It was perfect for dipping, for wading, for splashing each other as we shrieked, laughed and cried as children do whilst playing at the beach.”

Kay went silent. Marcel nodded. It was a memory. There was nothing to be said.

The bottom of the coffee cup was showing when she spoke again.

“Aunt Rose lived nearby on a small side street in the forest, the second one-acre lot away from Zero Avenue. It was an adventure to go there in the summer, to stay there without our parents, to go down to Peace Portal Park and count the cars clearing the American Customs and heading for the Canadian ones. That was Otto’s idea of fun. He had us categorize them by make and he knew how to distinguish them, even then, before he worked for a car dealership. Rose’s farm house is gone now.”

“I liked the swings and the simple roundabout that you pushed until it was circling; then you hopped on and kept up the momentum with one foot still pushing on the ground until it was circling by itself without help from anyone. When it slowed, one of us would get back off and push.”
“I remember straining to go higher and higher on the swing, flying through the air until I got dizzy with it all and pleaded to stop, to come back down.”
“And there were teeter totters. Otto was heavier than anyone and he would keep me screeching in the air as his fat bottom controlled the totter and I felt teeter.”

“Rose had a glassed in sun porch with a bed in it for summer time and for guests. I was too little, ever, to be allowed to sleep there alone, but Otto did. Rose taught me to paint. She let me pick a photograph of someone else’s painting, a sailboat with reddish sails on a cerulean sea and sky and I copied it using her oils. She did large sun-filled landscapes of wooded paths that were quite good and quite popular in the ‘Forties. I wish I had one of them now. Who knows what happened to them all.”

Their cups were empty. Marcel had listened with half an ear. His mind was traveling away in other directions and they weren’t his memories. He really didn’t care but he took pains to not let it show.

They went home then, traveling back up the steep hill, stopping by the galleries Kay wanted to see, and back up through the ever-expanding commercial districts of the wealthy middle class with their corporate giants of designer clothing, mega-grocery outlets, world-franchised coffee houses and Realty offices. White Rock had become big business.

It was no use complaining. It was the way of the world to constantly develop; to tear down the small and build up and out and dig parking underground. But Kay mused about how it had been. She had enjoyed the memories and she had had a grand day. She wouldn’t likely be back again.

No Apology

April 6, 2008

I promised myself fifteen minutes of sorting photos on the computer this morning as I drank my first coffee. I spend too much time facing the screen and I had lots of things nagging at me. I had calls to make; taxes to prepare for the accountant; the Art Walk coming up. These last two, I am utterly unprepared for and I am tackling these tasks with the very best procrastination that I can muster. Avoidance reigns supreme.

It was for that reason that I took three hours last night to write a post about my trip to Fiji. I wanted to get a conversation with our taxi driver and a clerk in Suva down on paper before I lost the details. I had found the incident relevatory. It occurred on one of only two days that we left the resort to mingle in the general population, not the artificial population that a time-share resort tends to bring together of affluent North Americans, Aussies and Northern Europeans.

Having successful finished that pleasant activity and posting it, I then continued on in my avoidance mode and called a very close friend to see if I could come for a cup of tea. She eagerly read my post for me and then, oddly, quit half way.

“I can’t read it now,” she declared imperiously.

“You’ve read it half way. Why won’t you just finish it. It’ll just take three minutes,” I complained, a bit taken aback.

“No. No. That’s it. I’m not going to read it now.” She was bristling.

“Well, why not? What’s the matter with it?” I said, brazenly defensive.

“It’s white middle class crap. You walk in there like some affluent tourist and then criticize their society. It’s what is wrong with resorts, plunking rich cosseted tourists in the middle of third world poverty and then gloating about it; then pointing out how backward the general populace is.”

I had no intention to insult anyone with my writing. I was appalled that someone might think that that was the point of my post. I’d have to rethink what it said, see it again with someone else’s eyes. And so I left abruptly, went home to deactivated the post and then, disheartened returned to my friend’s place for the tea which would be ready for me.

We defended our points of view ferociously as we often do. Then her husband came home, mid-debate or mid-debacle, and he added his logical weight to our arguments, tipping the teeter totter radically in my direction. Soon it was political to change subject, and we moved on to topics like finding someone to mow the lawn, the demise of a microwave oven and finding its replacement; and lucking out on finding a giant Cheez Whiz sale at Costco. We were back on safe ground.

I said good night. They wished me a good night too.

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said as I parted. She said, “Phone when you get in.” It’s a safety check that have for each other, going home in the dark.

“Oh, I guess I’ll still be up for an hour or two writing,” I said, “I’ve got work to do.” It was a dig. I hadn’t been able to let it go.

So here I was sorting out photos of the trip, looking at them differently. I had taken a photo of Mels, short for Melanie, a beautiful Fijian with a stunning profile. She had soft eyes and a soft manner. Had I taken advantage of her by taking her photo. I didn’t think so. I could justify myself, but now there was a niggling doubt. And the photos at the Arts and Culture centre where the actors had portrayed life in Fiji before the explorers, traders and the Missionaries? What of those? They were expecting us to take photos, all dressed in their native costumes. What was the ethic of taking those pictures? Did we have to moralize about every photo we took? The photos I had taken of the gardeners and the bar servers and the boutique sales girl and the receptionist and the taxi driver – were these only reinforcing the servility of the people? Good grief! Canon and Kodak would go broke if no one took pictures of people.

As my fifteen minutes stretched into procrastination thirty, my computer alert dinged that I had new e-mail. It was entitled Apology.

My friend had awoken, her mind in a swirl, feeling apologetic that she had infected me with her negativity about the state of the world. She apologized for getting my back up and for defending her point of view even if it maybe, just maybe, had errors in it.

I’d like to share my response to her with you. I had to do some thinking to get there and the night, as often does, had brought some counsel to me. Here it is:

Dear friend:

Absolutely no reason to apologize. You identified something you thought in reaction to my work and voiced it. I gave me need to pause and think about I how I express myself. I have no desire to offend people, especially a whole nation of struggling people. I need to be careful about how I express myself and so acted quickly to withdraw the piece until I had time to reflect on how I do that.

We always get into rabid discussions. It’s who we are and who we are together. Gordon joined the fray. We bickered about our points of view. Gordon and I ganged up on you and your pigheadedness and defended another point of view. You, too, have to think your ideas through carefully…. and I can be just as obdurate.
At the end of the evening, I went home and slept soundly and without a trace of rancour. Not to say that I haven’t thought about it all, but that I will take my time to think about it and to think about the piece I wrote with another perspective. Frankly, I thank you for it. You are somewhat right and it’s something I have to deal with. I need to be clear when I am writing something and then be clear that I’ve achieved my goal.
You do quite well as a Jiminy Cricket conscience for me. I’m often more glib than people take me for and I need wake up calls from time to time. You are a perfect foil for that because you challenge my thinking.
As for the state of the world, it is negative. The question is, what are we going to do about it.
We found ourselves talking about an unresolvable dilemma.
If I write about my perceptions and things that have happened to me personally as a means of exposing the conditions in the world they are apt to be taken in different ways by different people.
Yes, the minute we buy into the big resort business by giving them our business, we are buying into a different manner of colonial imperialism. It’s an global economic imperialism rather than a nation-driven imperialism. It’s in some ways more insidious than an out and out takeover that can be focalized.
And yet, if one does not go and observe from whatever beginning foothold one has, then how do we even become aware of the disparities? How do we ever address the problems of the world? Do we leave entire nations to sink in the mud by themselves in a purist stance that they can sink or swim and that is all there is to it? (And then sneer as they fail, with an I-told-you-so attitude.)

Or, now that historical events have transpired over four hundred years and changed the whole mix beyond recognition, must we have to deal with the here and now? And then, how do we do that, allowing each sector of society to keep its traditions, its culture and its history while engaging in the modern world? After all, even they don’t want to go back to their cannibalistic society. When the missionaries showed them a different way, the general populace was only too glad to buy into it. The only person in the tribe who benefited from the cannibalistic society was the chief – all the others were in abject submission to the chief and his whims and terrified in their daily living. And, may I add, it was the pure Fijians in their own Arts and Cultural presentation who said that to us. They are glad to be out of it.

I don’t have the answers. I do observe what I see. And you helped me to see around some of it so that what I observed was more whole, less one-sided than what I had seen before.
I thank you for that, my friend,
And I’m sorry I gave you moments of a sleepless night

And that, my faithful readers, is now the intro to my post which I have reconsidered.

Suva

“What are those?” Heather asked.

“Those are wheelbarrow boys” said Rasheesh.

Rasheesh, by a network of Indo-Fijians we had met, had been assigned to drive us into Suva for the day at a princely sum of seventy Fiji dollars for the whole day. He picked us up at eight a.m. and brought us back at five. From that sum, he had to pay his gas and car upkeep.

The boys we were watching were actually grown men, each with a big rusty-looking garden wheelbarrow racing at Olymic speed after a moving bus at the very busy Suva bus station. There were about ten of them dressed in nondescript shorts and faded t-shirts, weaving their way through the throng of other bus passengers.

“See that building over there? It’s the farmers’ market.” It was a big grey concrete building looking much like one of our parking garages with no walls on the ground floors, only structural posts holding it up. It was the size of a large exhibition hall. Rasheesh was giving us a deluxe tour complete with tour guide commentary.

“The boys run to see who is coming off the bus with produce and needing help transporting it across the street into the market.”

I reflected on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Fijians, especially the Indo-Fijians who seemed quite creative in finding ways to add on extra activities to increase their income. Taxi drivers were apt to propose side trips for only a small increase in fare. They knew all the possible desires – to go clothing shopping, to see a temple, to visit a museum, to have a general guided tour.

These barrow boys we had just driven past were otherwise unemployed folk, trying to earn a little extra by being right there when the buses came in, offering to transport awkward or heavy loads that the passengers had brought with them.

Rasheesh who was at our service for the full day provided us a guided tour around the city, including accompanying me to the photo shop and helping me resolve my need to download my pictures from the camera onto disk. He also guided us to the best stores and found us an Indo-Fijian place to eat lunch. We hadn’t the heart to tell him that neither of us wanted spicy food. It was economical and quick, and for that we were pleased.

When we had first arrived in town, our first stop was an Esquire’s Cafe – the only place I could find a brewed decaffeinated coffee – the first I would have had in the 8 days we had spent in Fiji. Across the street was a photo shop that should have been able to download my many photos (642 in all, when I got the disks back) from my digital camera. It was on the verge of overload and I wouldn’t otherwise be able to take more if I couldn’t download them. We left Heather there while we tried to resolve my problem.

Unfortunately, the Photo Store clerk looked at my Sony Cybershot with consternation.

“Just a minute,” said the young store clerk as he took my camera to the manager. A small crowd of camera shop personnel huddled around the camera looking at it and talking in low voices.

“We can’t download this camera,” the clerk stated flatly, almost defiantly, as he returned it to me. “You will have to go across the street.”

I raised my eyebrows questioningly to Rasheesh. He nodded. It was true. They couldn’t do it here in the biggest photo store in Suva. They didn’t carry Sony and they didn’t have the attachments to do it. My heart sank. But they did offer another possibility. Perhaps the big department store could help us out.

“Come on.” Rasheesh said to me, and we crossed the street, entered the department store and then took the escalator to the second floor.

There were three clerks standing about watching rows of television screens. When they saw us, two moved away leaving a young lad of about nineteen at the till. Rasheesh explained my plight. The clerk held his hand out for the camera and immediately opened up the battery door.

“Oh Lord, I thought, It’s not the battery that’s the problem. Does he have a clue what he’s doing with our one and only operative camera?” The clerk picked out the memory card “Oh that’s where it’s stored,” I said to myself mentally as I panicked. Hugh had set the camera up for me. I just point and shoot. The operation of it is somewhat of a mystery to me still.

The two lads spoke in Hindi rather rapidly. My eyes whipped from one to the other somewhat like watching a tennis match. I didn’t understand a word of it and the fate of my camera and all my week’s pictures were in these young men’ hands. People are vulnerable when they can’t understand what’s being said.

Finally Rasheesh looked at me as if explaining to a child, “He says it will take him two hours. We can come back for it after twelve. He has to go buy some disks and he has to have a computer big enough to download so many pictures. So it will cost seven dollars and fifty cents.”

I made a rapid calculation. It cost me fifteen New Zealand dollars when I was there. This was half the price. The price was right, but why did it take two hours? In New Zealand it had taken less than five minutes, so I asked.

“He has to do it on his lunch hour.” said Rasheesh.

I made a rapid decision. I had little choice. By nature, here or anywhere, I was somewhat suspicious. What if he erased my pictures? What if, what if, what if? But if I didn’t, I couldn’t take any more pictures. What was my risk?

I nodded my assent. The clerk held the memory card between thumb and index finger as if looking at a precious stone. Rasheesh said, “Well, let’s go then.” and we walked away. They did not speak again but there was a look of commitment, of some special understanding between them as we left. I sifted this gesture in my mind to decipher its meaning.

I waited until we were out of the store and going down the escalator back to the car where Heather was still waiting, probably wondering what had happened to us.

“He’s doing it under the table, isn’t he?” I said.

Rasheesh nodded.
“He’s going to take it home on his lunch hour. It’ll be alright. Don’t worry. If he doesn’t do it right, then he’ll lose his job. If he doesn’t, we won’t bring customers to his store anymore because we’ll know they haven’t been dependable. He can’t afford to fail.”

Don’t worry!

Don’t worry; Be happy was the mantra of Fiji..

It was the whole record of our stay! It was Heather’s and Lizbet’s too. Lizbet had not been able to recharge her battery and so was camera-less. Heather was still using film and only had three rolls with her. And my memory card was worth almost a hundred dollars. How would I replace it if I didn’t get it back intact?

We had at least two hours to wait. He offered to take us on a tour around Suva. He pointed out the multi-cultural schools, the Institute for Hospitality and Tourism, several religious schools, the Sports arena and school. I had a bit of business at a local printers and he found that place for me. Heather and I were invited to look at the printing plant while he waited in the heat of the midday sun in the parking lot.

When our tour was just about done and we were headed back, he took us past government Embassies and Consulates, some compounded diplomatic homes, all fenced with chain link fence topped with rows of razor wire. We stopped at Thurston Gardens a bit further on this road, with its Fiji Historical Museum. He allowed us about an hour though we could have taken two or three. The history was interesting and the displays, although mid 20th century in style, were excellent and informative.

Like many indigenous populations, the Fijians had not wanted the European and South Asian traders and explorers to take foothold on their lands. They were devastated by the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity, and the recovery of their population still has not come up to the number there was pre-“discovery”. All sorts of social and economical issues were described alongside the cultural displays of the primitive boats, household goods and other artifacts and it made for good reading.

After our quick lunch, we had ten minutes left on the parking meter, and being frugal, we took the time to explore a small fashion shop. Most of the styles were aimed at a younger Indo-Fijian crowd, but there were larger sizes too. The Fijian culture appreciates roundness in their women and many of them are quite tall and big framed like North Americans – unlike the small framed norm for most Chinese and Japanese Asians. So there was a wide variety of sizes, which allowed my thin sister and portly me to anticipate that something might call out our name with “Buy me, Buy me”.

I think our driver was getting impatient because, as we piled back into the car, he said, “Have we done everything now, except the camera?” It was akin to in impatience to “Are we there yet?”

“We’d like to go back to Jack’s,” I said. “We haven’t gone shopping yet. We saw some things earlier that we would like to buy now.”

Whether he was typically male, hating to wait for women to shop, or whether he was hoping to get home and get a few more taxi rides in, I don’t know. He said nothing; started the car; drove without commentary.

Traffic had thickened in the centre of the city. It turned out he was somewhat concerned about rush hour, if that can be said about Suva. Traffic was mildly bottlenecked. We inched along for about ten minutes and I itched to take photos but my camera was without memory.

Once more back at Jack’s, we left Heather in the car and went back to the photography section of the department store.

Rasheesh and the clerk had another three minute intense conversation in Hindi, their eyes locked as they battled out some question that I was not privy to. “What did he say?” I said when the conversation abruptly stopped.

“He wants another nine fifty for downloading the camera.”

“Why? Why does he want another nine fifty? We made a deal for seven fifty.”

“He says you are using the camera wrong. You take vertical pictures. They should all be horizontal. He had to turn all the pictures upright for you. It took him a lot longer and he couldn’t fit them all on two disks. He had to buy another disk.”

“Nonsense!” I said. “Let me see what he has done. Can he show me the pictures on the DVD player over there?” I said with a mild defiance, I wanted some proof of his claim.

The clerk took a disk and put it into the store DVD player, extracting one that was already sitting in the drive. The pictures of underwater tropical fish went black and twenty pictures of our family lounging at the resort lit up across twenty wide, flat- television screens on the department store shelving. The pictures changed over in slide show fashion at a maddeningly slow rate. I asked if he could speed it up, but he couldn’t and he was beginning to look worried.

Eventually enough had passed by to show me that the pictures were there and that the verticals had been rotated. I had known that I would not fight the added cost before I had asked for proof. The delay it gave me allowed the calculator in the back of my mind to reason that if I had had to rotate all the pictures it would have taken me an hour; and if I paid a total of seventeen Fiji dollars, it was really only the same price as I had paid in New Zealand. The only difference was that it had taken me five minutes in NZ and two hours plus here. For the difference, I had bought myself a good story and all my pictures would be upright.

I took a couple of pictures with the reloaded memory card, one of the clerk, one of the bank of televisions, to verify that all was in working order. I paid my money and we left.

Heather and I promised to be only half an hour to make our purchases of sarongs and postcards. I looked at Fijian black pearls and found them way too expensive for my pocket book. We drooled over the fantastic, brightly decorated fabrics that were arrayed for saris, then we were back in the car with Rasheesh driving, racing back to Deuba before the half hour was up.

There’s more to tell about the trip back, but that’s for another time.

I was a bit silent in the back of the car thinking about the entrepreneurial spirit of these people. They were eager to please and eager to accommodate. I’d had fine service from this young lad and from Rasheesh too. I thought of what Rasheesh had told us – that he earned 100 Fiji dollars a week – that’s about 70 of our dollars – and he considered that he was very well paid. The amount was fixed, but he worked long hours and had no overtime. If he got stuck in Nadi late in the afternoon, he was expected to stay there and wait for an Airport fare back to Deuba. He had to arrange for his own overnight stay, but he had family there and could sleep on the couch.

He told us he had two children and that one was lacto-intolerant. He had to buy formula to feed the infant and this cost him $27 dollars per month. It was a hardship on the family. Working life was not easy in Fiji.

Before we were half way back to Deuba and our hotel, Rasheesh had a phone call from his company. Where was he? What was his estimated time of arrival? There was a customer waiting for him. When would he pick him up?

His day that had started early was going to be a long one.

Trepidation without a cause

April 1, 2008

I had a major anxiety attack over going away. I was quite contented to stay home, really, and the travel reports that nephew Hugh had obtained for me did more to increase the angst than to calm it. The ticket was already bought and not refundable so I was going anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit gloomy. I don’t know why.

Finally he said to me rather firmly, “Look, they want tourists. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just don’t go to Suva. ” There had been some trouble in January in Suva over the current government. There is always conflict there between the Fijian natives and the Hindo-Fijians who are the commercial class.

I was travelling with Heather and her husband and Lizbet, my other sister. They have time share and are happy to share costs with us. Travelling in a group is better for me now than travelling alone and I don’t like organized tours that keep pushing you forward to see one monument after another.

Heather and her Dauntless Husband came down four days before departure. He had an specialist doctor’s appointment. Lizbet came on Friday night after her last day at school. It’s the beginning of Spring Break. We left on Sunday.

With so many people in the house and all with their suitcases open in some form or another of reshuffling and redeciding what to take, it was impossible for me to think. Six days into the trip, someone asked for Q-tips.

“I have some!” I proudly announced. But they were nowhere to be found. I found them this Friday when we returned, still sitting on the bathroom counter where all my first aid kit for travel was spread out in excellent organization for the trip.

It’s a hot country. We were going to a resort with sand shores and a gorgeous looking pool. I also forgot my second (and best) bathing suit.

As we were going out the door, Lizbet asked “Do you have a hat? I don’t have one.”

“Oh lordy,” I groaned inwardly. I get sunstroke so easily. I hadn’t thought about a hat.

But I had two tucked up in the storage closet from the last tropical trip I took. I’ve used my favorite often since, but it is deteriorating. The straw is developing holes. The other one isn’t flattering but it has a wide brim. It’s great for a scorching day.

I grabbed them both and said she could use one of them.

And so we went. It was a gruelling trip – over 24 hours from pillar to post. Seven and a half hours of flight to Honolulu; a nasty bit of Immigration at about five in the morning, our time, with little useful sleep preceding it. I suppose that they can’t have anyone in the plane when they are refuelling; and the American’s like to do their own security checks as we touch down into their territory. At such an early hour it was unpleasant to have to deplane with absolutely all of our traveling possessions and then wait around for an hour and a half for everything to be ready to go.

We arrived in Nadi airport at 5 a.m. the next day after another 7 hours or so of flight (having crossed the International Date Line) . Don’t even try to figure out the hours – with the time zone changes and the date line, it’s not worth the bother.

In Nadi, Dauntless Brother-in-Law had arranged a bus trip for us to Pacific Harbour and our hotel, The Pearl of the South Pacific.

Despite our sleep deprivation, that was a glorious ride. It’s the kind of travel I like to do, where you are riding in the same transport as the rest of the people in the country (and no, I didn’t try a donkey). Lizbet who I call our Ambassadress and who someone else calls Chatty Cathy (figure it out, it’s somewhere in between) started talking to the passengers beside and behind her.

When I shook my head in wonderment as to how she did it, she said with amazement, “It wasn’t me. It was you!. If you hadn’t been drawing the person across the aisle, nobody would have talked to me. They thought you were amazing!”

I looked at the drawing. It hadn’t succeeded at all. It was like a cartoon. I was afraid that the girl that I had drawn would be insulted by my feeble effort. In my defense, the roads were terrible. There were more potholes than road and it was very difficult to get a continuous line of half an inch without being bounced out of the seat and repositioned back into the sunken upholstery.

The windows were covered with a light film of mud. Without opening the window, one could see nothing; and yet, it was raining. So when the window was open, this slightly muddy precipitation whipped into my face. When the rain let up a little, the two photos I tried to take went all fuzzy. Over and above, with the humidity, the lens tended to fog up so that focusing became impossible.

We stopped in Nadi proper – the business district – to pick up more passengers. There I managed to get a few pictures of street vendors and of people doing every day things. At Nadi bus station, we picked up two fellows that sat behind us. One was very obviously an Island native. He had the tightly curled mass of hair and broad features including a very friendly grin. It was he who was asking after the drawings. Beside him, his friend looked like a New York black or an African black of medium build. He is difficult to describe because he was ordinary. The first one introduced himself as Ben and the second as Jimmy.

Lizbet was curious and started to pump them with her barrage of questions. Come to think of it, she would make a perfect spy. She blathers on so innocently asking questions but remembers all the names and all the answers afterwards.

“What do you do? ” she asked Ben.

He looked at her with his persistent grin but a suddenly blank look in his eyes.

“Do?” he asked back, as if he hadn’t ever considered that he was expected to do anything.

He hesitated a while. His face became perplexed. And mind you, he spoke perfectly good English with an Australian accent.

“I guess… ” he started, then hesitated again. His grin reappeared giving an air of perfect contentedness. There didn’t seem to be the slightest coquetry in his answer. “I guess I’m a journalist. Yes, you could say I was a journalist.”

He went on to explain that he had worked about six years in Australia for a newspaper and that he had written for them all that time. But he came home. Now there was no job for him and he was working on a project, a writing project. It was in the middle and it wasn’t very firm yet so he didn’t want to say any more about it.

All the while, Jimmy nodded his agreement, almost in admiration of his traveling companion, his happy face bobbing up and down. Lizbet was not about to let him off easily though, and turned her focus on him. “And what do you do?”

He had the same hesitation, as if looking through a list of occupations that would be plausible to say out loud.

“I’m a musician,” he said finally. “Yes, I’m a musician.” This last was a confirmation, somewhat to himself, as if he’d passed that exam question with honours and could definitely advise you, should you need it. He was positive now that he was a musician.

I found that rather amusing. I was enjoying listening to the banter while I tried to get a better drawing of the young lady with a grey striped scarf around her throat.

I hadn’t been an hour in the country and I already had a feeling I was going to like the people. They stand and sit proudly. They have a quiet dignity about themselves. They were courteous and warm towards us.

Soon the young lady got off the bus and then the two young men. They waved gleefully from the ground as the bus took off again, as if we were friends that they were seeing off on a holiday. We’d known them for less than half an hour.

Along the roadside, we would see small horses and occasionally cattle. Jungle growth lay a broad blanket of lush green over everything but the roadway. In a few places, the earth had been exposed – a bright, rich red soil. At one spot, we traveled parallel to a long sandy beach. The breakers formed about half a mile out to sea in a white line and a calmer water came up cloase to the shore in broad flat waves.

I must have dozed a while because I don’t remember seeing much more before we were deposited, baggage and all, at the Arts village, just a kilometer past our hotel. A taxi came to drive us to the hotel. The fare for all four of us and our baggage was two Fiji dollars. That’s like one dollar thirty cents Canadian.

We were glad to find our room and settle in for a nap. It had been a long flight. An arduous journey.

There are lots of stories to tell, but they will have to be written in the days that come . That’s it for now.