Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

Troubles in Paradise

October 21, 2012

I am responding to former Councillor Sandy Macdougall’s reflections on the Salvation Army’s current usefulness in the Maple Ridge. I’m sure we have many common concerns about our community and the welfare of its citizens with our friends and neighbours. We want safe, clean streets. We want to care for our needy neighbours and to protect our seniors. We want a healthy population and we expect that if we need to go to the hospital to get treatment it will be available.

We don’t want homelessness and we don’t want crime. We care about whether people have food in their bellies and a warm dry place to sleep at night.

I never used to worry much about how we did this. It was up to the politicians because we paid our taxes. It was a service our parents fought for to make Canada a more humane country. We have strong social ideals to take care of this sick, the elderly and those with disabilities. That is what a humane Canadian society does, or we would hope so.
But our dreams of a good society are slipping seriously and I am very concerned about it.

Mr. Macdougall’s position is that we need to run the Salvation Army out of town because an unsightly and uncontrolled element of society hangs about the Caring Place doing things no respectable citizen would do. Move the facility out of town, out of sight, out of mind.

In discussing this with a friend, he said, “It’s like saying, let’s get rid of the emergency ward at the hospital, then we won’t have any emergencies. Or, let’s get rid of the police and then we won’t have any crime.”

Normally, I wouldn’t go public with my opinions. But in the last few years, I’ve found that conducting one’s life in this society has become much more precarious. It didn’t affect me until I saw some of my friends teetering on the slippery slope of welfare, homelessness and destitution. It hits home when the people we are talking about are people you know personally. Hardworking people from the middle and upper middle – former teachers, psychologists, information technologists, health care technicians, to name a few whom I will tell you about.

Don’t think that these are bad people who should have saved for their retirement and it’s their own fault. Within my own circle of acquaintance, there was a man with a serious heart condition who lived in his van summer and winter, and could still work occasionally in his computer repair and support business to eke out his meager income. He had been a high earning Information Technologist with a wife and two kids. When the marriage split, he was still supporting his family. It didn’t leave him with much. When he had a heart attack, he was no longer earning,then his savings melted away. Few knew of his circumstances as he appeared like a gentleman when he attended all sorts of free events around town so that he could still feel somewhat normal and intelligent while he kept himself warm. Days were spent in the library. While he was mobile, he could visit Leisure centres for a nominal fee and get a shower and keep clean.

Alice, a close friend, has moved three times in the last three years as her income stays the same but her rent goes up. She has no savings after caring for her husband and his kids during a battle with cancer. She spent her life working full time at a decent job, giving to the community and caring for lost youths and fighting for social justice. She was honoured by Oprah for this. She still volunteers and is an active member of the community.

But this same person was refused treatment in our medical system for what she thought was follow up to elective surgery she hadn’t been able to get in Canada. BC Med wouldn’t cover the treatment she needed and she had to go to the States to get a baric scan. It turned out her problem wasn’t what she thought; it was nothing to do with it. It was far more serious. The delay almost cost her life. What she had to pay to go for the US investigative treatment she had to borrow. She doesn’t have enough income to provide for this herself. Each end of the month, she subsists on cereal.

Another friend is on a disability pension, has been for ten years. A psychologist by profession, his disabling illness has reduced him to a life of subsistence. Two heart attacks followed. He’s completely unable to earn his living. But he lives in dignity, studying and researching each day. Like my first example, he makes use of the library for a place to go for warmth and a semblance of normalcy. Up until last year, he spent time volunteering as much as he could at various charitable places around town. He lives within his meager income, proudly independent, asking nothing of anyone. He’s had to stand in line in the food bank though his energy has completely waned with his medical illness. This spring, one month after his last open heart surgery, his landlord decided to renovate. He was ordered to vacate. It was impossible to find something he could afford and he became homeless for two months. Imagine that, readers. How would you cope? Now, how would you cope, one month after open heart surger? It was only with strong advocacy from a friend that he finally found a stable roof over his head. Otherwise he would have died. But you wouldn’t have heard about it. We don’t report homeless people’s deaths.

My close friend whom I shall call Alice divorced three years ago from a destructive marriage. She was left with a small bank account for emergencies. As a senior, her income is low and is boosted by SAFER which allows her a decent small apartment, but the rent is going up and she won’t be able to afford it much longer. Her income is not going up. She’s not there yet, but she is looking at the edge of the slippery slope and is fearful of the days ahead. There are pitiful few low-cost housing places in Maple Ridge or in the Lower Mainland, for that matter.

Alice was a school teacher for twenty years of her life until she fell ill with cancer and was not able to work after that. She has been head of several volunteer committees in town. She still volunteers regularly. She is a thoughtful and important member of the community, living within subsistence means that you will not notice because she is  proud. Thank goodness for thrift shops like the Salvation Army and several other charities run. Normal stores are, in the main, beyond her means.

The story of Maria is equally frightening. Maria is an immigrant and writer and deeply religious. She came with her family twenty years ago with husband and two boys who just recently reached majority. It was an abusive marriage. Now that the boys have left home,  she has been able to escape, but she has no income but welfare and she sleeps at night at the Salvation Army Caring Place. There is nothing permanent about it. She bought a cell phone and she tries to get any work she can get. It’s mostly cleaning but she is new and has very few people who will trust her since she’s not got a “proper” place to live.

I’m telling you these things because they are just a few of the people whose stories I know. There are so many more in our society, in your acquaintance, who are proudly carrying on as best they can in fear of desolation, trying to keep the shreds of their dignity.

I can tell you that in trying to help my friends I found out that at least one third of the 17,000 people who are homeless in this Province, are there because the social system has pushed them there through indifference and lack of resources. For any of these precarious souls, if they lack concentration as many of the mentally disadvantaged or the sick and elderly do, then they can’t respond to the welfare system that is full of Catch-22 type rules.

The Province has cut back its services dramatically year by year. The homeless don’t complain and they don’t vote. When they do (the Occupy movement) they can be moved on by the police. As individuals, they have no voice. They are brushed aside because they are poor.

When a member of this disenfranchised group loses their housing, they also lose their “shelter” portion. If they have a place to live, usually they will have a place to store food and a place to cook or warm up meals. But when they lose the shelter portion, they are not only out on the streets, but they have no place to make an economical meal nor do they have the means to eat out. They have no place to go to the bathroom. They are chased from stores and malls. I remind you as you start to think “druggies, alcohol, nut cases that want to be independent” that it could be someone with a disability not savvy enough to deal with the system or a senior  making a choice to

to eat rather than pay rent.

We don’t want to see what is happening to our society. We want to push it somewhere where we can’t see it.  We’ve carved out fine lives for ourselves through our own efforts. We don’t see that we could be next. With a society on the brink of debt crisis, yes, it could be you, a friend or a relative.

I agree with Sandy Macdougall that we as a community need to do something about the situation surrounding the Salvation Army, but I disagree that we need to remove them from their location.

We need to tackle the root of the problem, not the symptoms, and we need to tell our governments, both local and Provincial, in no uncertain terms that we need to restore support for our disadvantaged citizens.

I would like to honour the District of Maple Ridge and the Province for the creation of Alouette Heights on 222nd Street. It provides 122 places for people trying to get back into mainstream society. But it’s not enough. It hardly touches the surface of the problem. All the residents have to move out within 18 months, but where will they go? There is little decent, affordable, permanent housing for them to go to. Just try to get independent living accommodation for $450 in this town. You have to wait until someone dies before something comes available.

I say decent, affordable and permanent housing because these low income citizens can’t afford to move when their rent goes up. “Affordable” is necessary because already, they haven’t sufficient to feed themselves properly. “Permanent, because we all know it’s expensive to move and it’s critically so when you have no money for food. “Decent” because a high proportion of the homeless are in fragile health and need clean, mold-free, safe homes.

So if we are to diminish the need for the services (and therefore the number of “customers”) the Salvation Army provides for, what needs to be done?

First, let your government know that dealing with homelessness and low cost housing is a priority. Phone. Write letters. Demonstrate. Our complacency in view of daily newspaper reports concerning the severity of the homelessness problem simply allows governments to ignore the situation.

If people can afford to be lodged, then they don’t need the shelter. If they have sufficient money to feed themselves, they don’t need the food services. So, upping pensions for seniors and those with disabilities to allow decent accommodations plus food is critical.

Thirdly, provide new low rent apartments with basic accommodation. Requiring one or two low rent units in new developments would help diminish the concentration aspect that concerns Macdougall.  The Alouette Heights-model of building with compact, no frills apartments is another good model, but ones that allow you to stay in dignity until you die. Allow more self-contained legal suites in homes that must rent for a third of an individual’s income.


Another day in Paradise

October 12, 2009

I was walking in paradise again this week after a long absence from the Alouette Dike, partly because I was away on summer holiday and then in Vancouver looking after cats.

Birds are flocking prior to their migration south. It’s getting colder. Up by the big oak tree, I could see black birds arriving like dive bombers with a tic. They would flap their wings furiously for a half second then bring their wings close to their body and propel forward like a bullet. When the momentum failed the wings would start again flapping furiously.

With wings outstretched, a cape of scarlet red spread wide across the shoulders. In bullet form hurtling through space, the red could no longer be seen. So these flashes of scarlet kept coming on towards me and the tree, but of course, they were going so fast there was no hope of a photo.

These are red-winged blackbirds and we seldom see so many at one time. There are ones that live here all year long; but there are some that have summered up north and will winter down south. They stop by here to see their more (relatively) sedentary cousins, then go forth. It seemed like there were hundreds of them in that one tree plus the ones coming from afar to catch up with their local kin.

There is an excellent Wikipedia description of this bird and their habits, if you care to go looking. Just Google red winged black bird.

Our days have been sunny, but the temperature is dropping dramatically. It was 3 degrees above, Celcius, last night and tonight it may hit zero. There was hard frost in Burnaby but none here.  While the afternoon was pleasant at about 14 degrees, the evening became crisp and cold.  Knowing this would be so, I have brought in all my tomatoes from the garden with the exception of the “cherry” tomatoes that are hard and bright green, no trace of yellow.  They look like marbles that kids would play with.

In the back yard when I went out to the compost pile (which by the way is a haven for compost denizens these days with all the fruit peelings I’ve been contributing – nectarines, peaches, pears, quetches and the like) I heard a clamor in the trees that was unusual.

I don’t think I ever had seen so many robins flocking together at once. They are stocking up on food for the long flight south. All our fruiting trees were plentifully adorned this year and there is lots left to glean. Both in the cherry tree and in the mountain ash, there are fruits that have gone to alcohol. The dear little robins are a little cocky. They don’t fly away when I get closer to them. Some are a little less steady on the branch. Some are greedy, with little bunches of red berries hanging from their beaks as they ponder how they can have them and eat them too.

I savor these moments.

I remember mama when she could no longer hear the birds, and so I am always thankful for my still good hearing and my still good sight.

It is, over and above, the Canadian weekend for celebrating Thanksgiving. I went with a friend to Dorothy’s new-to-her house for dinner this evening. It was scrumptious and wonderful – ham, fennel in garlic and parsley butter, scalloped potatoes and Concord grape pie with ice cream for dessert. Dorothy had invited one of her friends too, so we had some riotous conversation that had us laughing merrily.

I’m especially thankful for friends and for family – Hugh, Ron,Lizbet, Heather and her husband. Here’s wishing that you, too, recognize the Paradise that we live in, whatever that may be for you, and enjoy it while it is here.

Happy Thanksgiving, to all.


July 19, 2009

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I set the house alarm and left, locking the door behind me, then realized that I didn’t have my camera.

I’ve walked the dikes so many times now, I should have them in my mind by memory, but I don’t. I don’t seen to have visual memory, funny enough, and I keep trying to record what I see either in photography or paint so that I don’t forget.  It was getting warmer out by the minute and I made a conscious decision to leave it at home. I would walk faster, and anyway, I’ve already photographed everything thirty times. You’d think I’d already had the ultimate image, but no…. it’s always the penultimate.

And so there I was, on Sunday morning, walking in Paradise.

There were very few cars in the lot which was a good thing, because in this unusual heat wave, parking under one of the grand willows at the entrance to the dike walks,  there is a large pool of shade and there was one parking spot left, right up by the big concrete dividers that delineate the edge of the lot.

I extracted my walking poles from the trunk, locked the car and set out. There wasn’t a human in sight.

Without the camera, I was able more acutely to hear myself and the birds.

I’ll always remember asking Mom if she could hear the birds that were chirping loudly, a flock having chosen her back yard for an early evening town-hall meeting.  “Birds?” she asked, puzzled. “Hear them?” She strained to listen. “Are there birds”  She shook her head. She couldn’t hear a single peep.

I vowed to listen to them while I could and here, early morning there was a leading edge symphonic composition of unrelated tonal  sounds going on with each orchestral section doing it’s own thing.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different birds competing in a battle of the bands before. There was a persistent, overriding one going “Chi, we,we,we,we” . There was a beautiful melodic one, about sixteen notes long, whose tune I could not imitate nor remember. There was a ticking one going, “chi, chi, chi, chi” and a starling imitating a chickadee with a throatier version of the “dee, dee, dee” sound.

When a person pays attention with all one’s senses, it’s amazing what there is to hear and see. And smell also. There was a decided scent of mown hay permeating the air with an attenated sweet manure smell behind it. It had been spread more than a month ago and the awfulness of it had sunk into the ground, nourishing it, leaving the hot earth with this pleasant farm smell.

Without the camera I beetled ahead at a rapid pace, which is what I should be doing most days but never do if there’s something to photograph. But I havn’t been serious about walking as I should, so I was happy to halt, catch my breath and watch two birds grasp the same tall branch of a pink-flowered shrub. They were the size of bush-tits but all brown and they were swinging around the twig like a pair of acrobats.

When I resumed my walk, I reflected that not having a camera forced me into having conversations with myself.  I thought it might be a great exercise to go home and paint what I saw today.

I dismissed the problem of colour. I had that down pat – the brilliant summer sky, a mix of cerulean and French ultramarine; The far mountains,  a wash of French Ultramarine and closer ones simply a deeper version of the hue; the trees, a mix of viridian and burnt sienna; the sunnier greens mixed with a lemon yellow and a sap green.

It was the composition that I couldn’t carry with me – the way the shapes nestled together, the way the shadows defined the shape, the rhythm and flow of it. I tried to memorize one or two.

There was the way the dike path split the marsh grasses like a bolt of lightening diminishing to its pointy end far off in the distance, only to be stopped in the mid ground by two small poplars and the heron tree. Overpowering everything were the pure blue  mountains, receding in distinctly shaped layers of progressively lighter hue.

There was the way the dike sweeps down into the farm lands where the blueberry fields are ripe and ready. At the edge of these, the windbreak is made up of mid sized shrubs entangled with blackberry and wild rose. It’s an image full of curves and warm, golden grasses.

As I approached the Neames Road bridge, I tried to memorize the shape of it – its four creosoted posts on either end, the white railing with three tiers, the water flowing underneath,  everything reflecting in the water with the addition of a good swig of sky and a dollop of a single cloud floating in the water. Sounds like a blueberry float with whip cream on top!

On the way back, the sun was coming straight for me, as were a number of late starters their dogs or their children in tow. A few runners sped by, coming and going. I concentrated on trying to find word equivalents for the  bird songs and repeated them as one of my memory exercises. I wasn’t sure whether I would be racing for the brushes or the keyboard when first I got home.

Chi, we, we, we, we, I was repeating to myself as I was interrupted by a “kitty-wake” sound but I was sure it wasn’t a kittiwake because there were no gulls around. I stopped to listen and joined a conversation unfolding before me.

A middle-aged woman in a broad raffia hat sporting two braids down to her shoulders had stopped two petite Iranian ladies more or less appertaining to a leash-free teacup-sized dog with a tiny bow on it’s head.

“There’s a coyote hanging about. Several people have seen him this morning,” counselled the braided woman.

“Oh, we’ll be okay,” said one of the Iranians, smiling as they continued to saunter along. They clearly had not understood, neither the message nor the import of it.

“It’s your dog. The coyote will eat your dog. It’s like a wolf,” insisted the woman with the braids.

The Iranian women stopped, trying to make reason of the message.

“You had better carry your dog,” insisted Mrs. Braid.

Their eyes popped and one of them let their mouth hang open in horrified understanding.  They both nodded. The little muffet was called and one of them scooped up the handful and tucked it close to her breast.

“Oh, look,” cried Mrs. Braid. “There are two birds chasing an eagle.”

It broke the conversation and everyone looked. Two small birds, likely the size of robins or starlings were bearing down on the eagle high above the poplars. One flew in so close it could have dropped six inches and ridden on the eagle’s back without having to do any wing flapping himself.

The bald-headed eagle was angrily chastising his pursuers with that ki,ki wake sound . I had at least matched one of the choruses  from the bird symphony, now.

Mrs. Braid and I talked then about having seen coyotes and bears and other wildlife. We traded stories for quite a long moment before she announced that she had just retired from working as an art teacher.

“How coincidental!” I said, very happy with our conversation that just flowed. I explained my connections to art. Then I explained what I was doing to integrate myself into the art community as a newcomer, inviting groups of artists to salon-like gatherings so that I could get to know them and they, me.

“Would you like to come to one sometime?” I asked.

“Oh, I would love to,” she answered and started to cry. Not the sobbing kind, but the sniffly, trying-desperately-not-to kind, with an index finger reflexively wiping away moisture from the side of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized, dipping her head so that with the shadow of the had, I could not see them. “It’s so recent. I’ve just put my husband in a residential care facility this week. Alzheimers. ”  She struggled to force the tears back into her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I replied, with a look of concern for her.

“I’m only fifty-five. He’s only sixty-four. For the last four years, I haven’t been able to get out. It’s the first time I’ve had any time to myself. I’m not used to having time. Not that I’ve just left him there, though. I go every day between six and ten at night. That’s when I can be most useful, getting him to bed. Sometimes he recognizes me. Mostly he doesn’t. And I’ve never had time to go anywhere, not even grocery shopping, because he had to be watched. He didn’t understand anything anymore. While we were out walking, he would see a house and construct a story around it. He would think it was ours and we had renters. He would want to climb a fence to get into the place to see if they were treating it properly.”

“Like a two year old,” I sympathized.

“Yes, exactly,” she replied. “I couldn’t leave him for a moment, and I couldn’t take him anywhere. But finally, I stopped being humiliated and embarassed by the situations he got me into.”

Her situation came out in a torrent. The relief that she felt in finally having the burden of his care lifted from her shoulders alone and shared with the health system was huge, but at the same time, she felt guilty. A new round of tears escaped from her eyes. She was really in quite a fragile emotional state.

I thought to myself, I guess this was the reason I came out to the dike so early this morning. It was a bit like this chance meeting had been engineered by the invisible and all powerful Higher Power of the universe.

I tried to distract and reassure her. I told her about caring for my mother in a similarly senile state, though her husband seemed to be  far more difficult than my mother had been.  I told her about the drawings I was doing about feelings. How I had originally pounded marks onto the paper, in anger, and beat away the frustration in long, attacking strokes.  I told her about standing in front of my paints and closing my eyes to see what my feelings were and then finding colours that matched and images that expressed those states.

She had pulled her emotions together and stuffed them back in their box.  She said, “It’s the first time I’ve been back on the dikes. My husband and I used to walk here. I’ve been frustrated and lonely and feeling guilty to be enjoying all this beauty, this paradise. I had no idea I might talk to you or anyone. It’s so strange. I think I must have been sent to meet you here today. It is as if it  was meant to be.”

The similarity of our our situations and our thoughts amazed me. I said so.

Again, I invited her to join up with us at one of our artist groups.

“You know, you will not feel out of place. We’ve all had our griefs. Elizabeth’s mother has died of Alzheimers just recently and she cared for her daily for several years. My mom was getting senile and slipping deeper and deeper in to geriatric states of confusion, so I understand perfectly. Mrs. Stepford is going blind, and Thelma is desperately trying to get her granddaughter out of the Ministry’s foster home care system. Her daughter is too sick to look after the child. You’ll feel right at home. And you don’t have to wait until I throw another potluck. Just come for tea.”

It was time to be getting on. We exchanged names and promised to be in touch.  We said goodbye and I walked hastily back home, this time regretting my camera very much.

A young family with two children under the age of six  riding bicycles and parents afoot, pushing a baby in a stroller. The mother’s shadow was imprinted on the gravel walkway in perfect silhouette.  Just in front of her, the four year old was peddling furiously on her red an blue bicycle with training wheels.  Her shadow too was at a perfect ninety-degree angle, flattened upon the light gravel path. The moving shadow’s legs pumped up and down perfectly, the spokes were more noticeable here than on the bike, turning round and round like some fair ground ride.

It wasn’t long after that I got into my nice cool car, hiding as it was, under the willow tree, and made for home. I went straight for the computer before I could forget Mrs. Braid’s last name. I took the information and put it in my address book immediately, then phoned up to leave a message.

Someone on the other end picked up. I hadn’t thought she could get home so fast.

“Mrs. Braid?”

“Speaking,” the voice replied, quite formal.

“Mrs. Braid, it’s Kay here. I just met you on the dike a short while ago. I didn’t think you could get home so fast.”
“What did you say your name was? Kay? Kerrer? Is that right? I just looked up your number and was about to call you. Is this the right address. I just had the phone in my hand to call you….   I think we were destined to meet.”


February 24, 2009

I responded this morning to a Bill, a fellow blogger who was bemoaning his inability to remember names.

He isn’t alone in this. I carefully listen for people’s names when I am being introduced and repeat them in my mind several times while in the blathering introduction part of the conversation about where one lives and works, and who one knows and doesn’t know. If I don’t catch it in the first two seconds, I’m not shy to say:

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” and then I keep on repeating it in the front lobe of that sometimes ineffective organ just behind my forehead.

I try to use that person’s name before I wander on to the next person to whom I will grant the privilege of forgetting their name but saying, “Well, Alice, it was very nice to meet you….” I make a mental note, try some other mnemonic gimmick to help me remember, like “Alice the Palace”, or “Alice in Wonderland but with red hair”.

I have a solution for this, but it hasn’t caught on yet. We should tattoo children with their names on their foreheads in the year of their birth in a formula that everyone understands.
Simply “Gloria” for instance. But later on, if she prefers to be called Ria, Sweetie, or Glore, we might be out of luck on the memory thing.
Of course, if one has multiple names like one poor individual I knew who, in addition to her first name,  legally inherited the first names of all her grandmothers – Ocean  Evangeline Katherine Gertrude Alice – and then had a double barreled, hyphenated last name, it might be a bit much.
She was tagged Ocean when she was a babe and we never called her anything else in her growing up years. Well, maybe. We might have tagged her Sweet Ocean as an innocent infant, and when she was in the terrible twos, we called her Riptide from time to time.

When she got to be thirteen she rebelled. She wanted to be different from the others of her Love-generation that were called Fern, Amazing Sky,  Tamarak, Otter, Sturgeon, Torrent, Heaven Scent, Cedar, Sunset, and Hollyhock, to name just a few.  She took a firm stance and wouldn’t reply to anything else but Evangeline. The tattoo wouldn’t be much help then, would it?”

Re-tattooing is a messy business, I understand, so perhaps this isn’t a definitive solution; but as we Love Generation parents become the Love Generation Greats (grandparents, that is) there is becoming a population boom of mentally-challenged name retainers.

For a while in my late Fifties, I called everyone at home Dear. That helped a lot until I got in trouble for it at work when I called my boss Dear and he didn’t like it. Then there was the time, I called another of my work colleagues Dear, inadvertently. His wife happened to work for the same organization and heard about it from some sniggering fool. I had a lot of explaining to do. He denied familiarity. I did too. I even claimed that I was losing my memory and just called everyone Dear to get over the embarassment of forgetting. She didn’t buy it. I was in upper management then and should never have admitted my lapses in memory not only limited to names. Oops!

I changed to ‘Luv, but some thought that was too familiar and the dicey situations continued to compound. One is supposed to remember the Regional Director General’s name AND title. “‘Luv” simply isn’t adequate in those situations. It was time to retire.

Retire, I did.  Unfortunately, I’ve moved to a new community and live on my own, peacefully. After looking after a family of five, the quiet is just heavenly. The downside is that I don’t know anyone here and have had to start learning names all over again.

I had several people over to dinner the other night. There were eighteen of us, to be precise. I knew Mrs. Stepford and Aimée because they have become regulars in my life. I knew Stephen and Janice because, miracle of miracles, these two lovely people had been in a remote teaching community where I taught briefly thirty years ago and they came to live here twenty years ago and I rediscovered them when I turned up here two years ago. The rest of the invited guests I’ve known only for a short time – it was, after all, an evening for me to get to know the artistic community better.

But I was the hostess, yes? It fell to me to introduce everyone.

So here’s my new trick.

I put my right hand on the shoulder of a guest on my right hand side and then do the same for the person on the left hand side. I say, “You know each other, don’t you? and look somewhat hopefully to each one of them with the best smile I can produce.

If they do, hopefully they will say “Hi Craig!. Of course I know Craig” as the other says “Alice! Nice to see you”.

And if they don’t, hopefully they will fill in the blank when I say, “No? Well, this is….?” and I trail off, and the person fills in the blank “Heather” and the I do the same for the other person, if they haven’t already jumped in to say their name, and I haven’t had to admit to my total lack of memory.

Or, everyone is sitting about in an expectant circle when a new arrival appears.  I say, “You know everyone, don’t you?” and of course they don’t, but those who don’t know the invitee wave their hand a little like they might have in elementary school and proffer their name…”I’m Bill” and Fred, George and Janis follow on. I haven’t had to remember a single name, though I’m repeating after everyone in that frontal lobe of mine to see if I can’t make one or two of them stick.

Well, I’ve got to go now. I’m going with whats’ername to do some shopping.

I’m going to see if we can’t stop into the Tattoo shop  on today’s rounds.

Remembering Dan

February 2, 2009

I was a lowly clerk in the organization, a large Property Management company and my task to was make a manual count of our employees every month by tabulating who was Taken on Strength – hired –  or Struck of Strength – or fired. I managed every personnel document that showed whether a person was on permanent staff, term or casual and showed the length of term, if the appointment was of the latter two kinds. The task was picky, and detailed to the quarter of the month.
This report was sent monthly to headquarters for them to roll up into a national count of those TOS and SOS .

It was a bean counter’s world serving an ivory tower.

Obviously that didn’t occupy all my time, though the majority of it. In between times, I typed for various managers and, after a promotion, I edited the typing products of the typing pool. I had risen rather quickly in my responsibilities but not in my pay. The stenos were resentful, feeling that they deserved the position on a basis of seniority.

One of our managers, Frank – a mining developer by hobby, had the most beautiful scripted handwriting and a fine command of the English language. Donna, a rather blunt witted steno with a major ego and a Grade Ten finesse of the same language felt obliged to correct his “errors”. Nine times out of ten, I was required to settle bristling indignation on his part and aggressive defensiveness on hers.

The trouble was, she would take it upon herself to correct him. The first time I typed something for him, I didn’t understand the spelling of the word “materiel” and quite politely approached him to check if this was what he wanted.

“Oh, Thank God!” he exclaimed. “You had the intelligence to ask.” and he went on to complain about his stenographic nemesis and then to patiently explain to me the difference in meaning of  “material” and “materiel”, the latter referring to the equipment and supplies of a military or governmental organization.

Into this emotionally seething unit of typing and tabulation came a young manager from national headquarters.  Much later, I discovered he was four years younger than I which made him about thirty two, then. He was an administrative wunderkind who had rapidly succeeded in being promoted to upper management. He had a prodigious memory and was a whiz with numbers. He knew the organization inside out but as any new interloper to the hallowed ranks of Management, he had to prove himself to earn his acceptance therein.

He held occasional staff meetings to keep us all informed of whatever we were allowed to know. At one of these, he announced that had bought the first personal  computer for general use for our section. We had been asked to get to know this curious machine that was reputed to do everything but the family dishes. It was reputed to take all the problems out of typing and composing and would simplify our calculations for monthly reporting.

On the day it arrived, our young manager showed us how the computer operated, how it turned on and off; how, with a program, one could type, reposition the text for a pleasing page presentation and correct any errors  before printing the page.

Carol, our best typist, an English comedian and theatrical star by avocation, was terrified of the instrument. We had to wheedle and beg to get her to try it out.  With exaggerated  horror, she would exclaim that this idiot of a machine would never overtake her abilities to type a spreadsheet without fault. Spreadsheets were the cornerstone of her happy career. She could be inordinately proud that all the section’s spreadsheets were given to her to type. I couldn’t think of anything more boring. It was bad enough that I had to proof read them.  But she was right, she never made a mistake either in her numbers nor in her alignment of the forms upon the page.

My immediate supervisor, the Manager of Program Planning and Control, dreamed of becoming a certified bookkeeper and later, perhaps even an accountancy designation.  She loved the work because it was one of those jobs in which one could achieve perfection. Numbers did not lie.

My immediate supervisor set out a schedule when each of us was to learn to use the single computer that had been assigned to our section. It really was a marvel.

In order to get my term job as receptionist, I had to type twenty three minutes a minute. My inexperience with typing had been a drawback; but now with this new tool, I felt liberated. As receptionist, I had sat at the phone desk typing. Unlike Carol,  I made plenty of errors. I wasted more paper and more carbon because I mistyped a word and had to start again, or got the whole thing finished perfectly only to find that the text was not centered on the page. I would just have to start again.

Carole was assigned an electronic typewriter. These too were expected to assist us in our written missives. After all, computers were so expensive, we couldn’t expect everyone to have one. The electronic type writers were more economical than computers and as the old ones wore down, we were expected to learn these new machines that had many new advantages to help a hapless typist.

Carole, however, was terrified of it and as Head of the typing pool it was my responsibility to ensure she learned it. We sat hours, side by side, and she couldn’t get it. She pined for her Selectric. She knew it intimately. When the lesson time ended, she gratefully returned to her instrument at the receptionist desk.  She was more often ill and didn’t come to work. When she did, she spent inordinate amounts of time away from her desk, walking behind a manager and mimicking his gait and mannerisms. When everyone began to chortle at her mimicry and the manager had turned to see what had happened, with impeccable timing, she was apparently going about her own tasks, innocently unaware, along with the manager,  why anyone would be snickering.

Carole retired and my perfect-numbers manager was happy to be able to replace her with someone more in tune with the times. Jobs were juggled. We lost the receptionist position and the typing pool when we all got our own computers.  We were expected to do our own correspondence on the computer. There was no need, now, for a typist.

However, a problem arose. No one had sufficient experience with the binary beast and no one was capable of properly extracting the reports that we needed from it. We were assigned a computer tech.

We had all been given computer training of the most simplistic sort but it was insufficient.  In one of our staff meetings, our manager announced that Dan would be coming to join our group. He would  assist us with our computer problems and he would now extract all the reports. My job had changed. I was to take the spreadsheets that he provided, review them for changes and duplications. I would input the information and then he would do his magic.

When Carole left, her position and duties were considered inessential. We no longer would need a receptionist. Everyone would have his or her own telephone voice mail box and when visitors came, the employee could come to the front door and escort them wherever they were meeting.

For the occasional general inquiry, the phone would be forwarded to my number. I was not the receptionist, but I was once again answering the phone.

I think we were all a bit surprised. Our unit was composed uniquely of women. The supervisor and the two heads of section were all very girly kind of women – the kind that have conversations about getting their hair done and their manicures; of babies and growing children; of bargain hunting and shoe shopping. A major event of many a return from lunch was parading purchases that had been bought on the half hour break.

Into this covey of women rolled Dan. Yes, rolled.

Dan was a paraplegic. He had the use of his shoulders and so could rotate them sufficiently to lift his arms. With a special leather glove on either hand, strapped on by Velcro, Dan could lift pencils, the rubber tip downwards, to tap on the keys in a hunt and peck fashion, to manipulate the computer.

Somehow, the other women seemed to disappear together on lunch hour, leaving fifteen minutes in advance and returning each separately, as if they had no idea where the others had been.

Just as she left, my supervisor would glide by me in a sultry  sweeping step with a simpering grimace and say,”You can go at twelve thirty. You’ll watch the phones while everyone is away for lunch, won’t you?” She was my boss. I answered, “Yes”.

So it was that I got to know Dan.

Dan was a gruff sort. No fool, he knew what was going on. Both of us were limited in resources. We both brought our lunches and ate our lunch fare together. His was thinner than was mine, which he blamed on his need to keep trim.

“Sitting in a chair all day long doesn’t help you keep in shape,” he said, referring to himself. “If I can’t exercise like I used to, I have to watch my diet.”

With the girly girls gone, we talked about all sorts of things. It wasn’t long until I had discovered how he had become paraplegic. A very sporty, dare-devil youth, Dan had been hang gliding when the apparatus had broken, mid flight, and he had come tumbling to the ground. When I thought about it, it was a wonder that he had survived at all. He had loved all sports. He had been a fisherman – surely an occupation that had demanded full use of one’s physical capabilities.

After he had recovered sufficiently in the hospital, he had been sent to GF Strong, a rehabilitation facility. Everyone there had extreme injury and a long program for recovery. Dan, of course, could no longer do those things to which he had aspired. The physically active jobs that he had done were not possible. If he were going to be productive, he would have to learn how to work a computer.
His job with us was the first that he had on leaving GF Strong. It was term – that is, he was on probation so he worked hard to prove his worth. With the unthinking cruelty of our organization’s hiring practices, his terms were extended three months by three months. Each time, management was unable to tell him that he had been extended even until the day that he was supposed to otherwise go.

“Just come in on Monday,” was my supervisor’s advice to him. “We’ll get it sorted out.” I had been through the same mill with my own appointments so I knew how unnerving it was; but I felt that it was even more cruel for Dan who would not easily find another appointment.

Dan never lost hope; and he kept on being renewed until, under company policy, five years later they took him on permanently, full time. Against all odds, he was able to be independent. He would allow no one to pity him. If every he missed a day, he made it up. He would allow no one the chance to say that he did not do his work or that he was absent too often to be able to do his job. While everyone else seemed to take time off for medical appointments with in office hours, Dan never would unless there was no other option. And if he did, he came to work at an ungodly early morning hour to make up his time.

I admired his spirit so much. He was an inspiration to me, that despite crippling adversity, he could be independent and honourable to the greatest degree.

Some in our section, though, were not so happy with his coming. The women were edgy about having a man work in their midst. It had been a very feminine enclave. Besides, Dan was rough. He spoke gruffly and abruptly. He spoke his mind without dancing around a difficulty. If you didn’t like it, too bad. To my mind, it was refreshing.

All through his recovery period, Dan had found some way to keep his little house in Deep Cove. When he became permanent staff, he started to look for a new house with everything on one level that he could adapt to his needs.

He found just the haven he wanted near Edgemont Village. It had a large back yard with several ancient cedars in it. He bought the house and had it refitted for his needs. The bathroom was refitted to allow him to shower without help. The lamps had large rings on them so that he could hook his thumb and pull the switch and the drapes were similarly rigged.

When I went for dinner, he did the cooking, having mastered a food processor for cutting vegetables and crushing garlic. He could wheel underneath the kitchen sink and rinse his vegetables and such; similarly, he could reach and make the stove top function. The dishwasher looked after the clean-up.

Every year, he held a potluck Summer Solstice party in his back yard. He had so many friends who helped with preparations that he hardly had to do anything but provide the place. So many colleagues at work, like me, had become enamoured of this rough diamond that the place was packed on the Solstice night.

He worked for us for about fifteen years. In that time, I moved forward. I moved to different sections. Dan stayed in the same place and the others went, some through retirement, others through promotion, and the replacements came and went too.

It was Dan whom I called, all through my career, to help me with computer glitches, or for a hasty lesson. He taught me how to set up my computer at home. He helped me purchase what I needed; and later, did the same for my sister on strength of the fact that she was my sister. He was generous with his time and so patient with us computer nilches.

More than a colleague, Dan had become a close friend. When day seemed insurmountable, he would come and talk to me and we would worry out the knots of his troubles. He did the same for me. When I divorced, he listened to my complaints. When I had to sell my car, he offered to sell it for me.

“You don’t want people coming to your house when you are all alone,” he said, “and besides you won’t be able to tell them about the workings of the car.” So I very thankfully let him cope with the task of selling it. It wasn’t as if I would get much for it. It had been a lemon the whole time I had it, but it was good for parts.

One day shortly after this, he came to me in my office – I had graduated to an office with a door on it which was saying quite something in this organization that insisted on an open office, exchangeable desk plan system.

“Can I come in?” he asked. And then,”Can I close the door?” And he did.

With his dysfunctional hands and great difficulty, he fumbled with his pants pocket and said nothing. He would not allow you to help him with anything, so I knew well enough to just wait patiently. He extracted his wallet and fumbled even more. Without a word all this time, Lord knows how, he managed to extract a wad of hundred dollar bills and throw them in the air. They flutter down like brown leaves across the desk and onto the floor.

I looked at him askance for a few seconds then burst out in laughter. He had sold the car! His face lit up with a radiant smile. He didn’t want my thanks and was thrilled with his little joke. He had been happy to help me. Happy to be useful. Happy to be my friend.

But Dan did not get promoted. His formation had been through GF Strong. He didn’t have a degree. The young people coming up through the colleges had certificates more potent than his. He was bypassed though he could do the work. He was shifted out of the Program Planning and Control Section to the new IT, Information Technology Section where he was appreciated by those who worked with him, but not by his Manager. His frustration grew and his spirit struggled.

In the last few working years, his body began to fail him. He was too often in the hospital for stretches of time that were not compatible with keeping up his work – and he hated the hospital with its lukewarm food and sterile atmosphere.

He went on disability and then was confined to home.

I regret to say that I then saw very little of him. I had my own problems. I had taken on the responsibility for two teenagers. I was looking after my aging and dependent mother.

I had been promoted to a job that was high pressured and required a lot of traveling. I was simply exhausted and I didn’t see Dan.

I’ve been retired for two years now. I phoned a few times, but our schedules weren’t compatible and I think he had too much difficulty in holding the phone, so Dan and I corresponded by e-mail. He could no longer get out by himself.  I wrote to him and told him of my doings.

When I moved, I lived far enough away that it was inconvenient to go so far to see him. He sent me inspirational presentations with beautiful pictures. At that point, I think he was barely capable of the computer manipulations to do it, and yet he sent out messages of humour, hope, beauty and good spirit.

Despite the best of nursing care at home, he was no longer able to live independently. November was the last e-mail I recieved which I think he must have sent just before he was taken to the hospital

“Please don’t give up on me,” it said.

Christmas was a busy time. It mid January when I realized that I hadn’t heard from him for some time. Just about the same time that a mutual friend sent me a letter in reply to a Christmas greeting. Our good friend has gone.

Dan died on January 9th in the hospital

The Dirt Devil

September 24, 2008

Way back when, when Frank immigrated to Canada all of his qualifications were as if they did not exist. Added to that, he was struggling with the English language. After twenty years here, we still spoke in French when we were together. His command of the language was never great, but he always managed.

He’s a clever kind of guy. I always admired his ability to get him out of the situations he got in. He worked at a French bakery for awhile. He’d apprenticed at that when he was a youngster – fifteen or so – when he refused to go to school anymore and his dad, having none of that, arranged for his apprenticeship and marched him into the bakery the next day. It was school or work. There was no choice. When he came to Canada, it was an easy job for him to fit into. Lots of bakeries employed French bakers and he could communicate; but he’s allergic to flour – a common thing in the bakery world – and he didn’t last long at that job.

I’ve got to hand it to Frank, he’s got a fantastic work ethic. He’s always there and on time. He’s never faked a day off because of an imaginary illness. If he had to be there at four in the morning because that was when work started, he’d be there at four even if he had to walk ten kilometers to get there.  He works well independently and sometimes, he’s good at commanding a group of men to get work done, although I’ve seen him get pretty argumentative and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that.

So here was Frank without a job and going stir crazy in the house, unable to speak to neighbours and friends.

One day, something needed to be fixed – a neighbour’s washing machine, I think it was. Well, it wasn’t long until he had another request for his services to fix a vacuum cleaner; and then a  dryer, and then a sump pump and then a stove and then, and then and then….

And then he was in business for himeself. We didn’t have a car. He took the bus complete with his heavy took kit and a map to find his way around. I was working full time. I didn’t have time to help him out except a bit in the evenings – locate something faster on the map, tell him what bus to take, or phone his customer and straighten out what was needed and what time he expected to get there.

Not only that, but he had to go get parts once he’d decided what was wrong. It would take him all day to look after one customer; but he was fiercely independent, wanted his own money to spend, not depend on me, and so bit by bit, by word of mouth, he built up a good business.

Of course, he got to know what were good brands to buy – which ones were dependable and of long service, which ones were easy to repair, which ones had quirks to be avoided.

Last year when I needed a vacuum cleaner, it was Frank who picked it out. It was a shiny red Dirt Devil which we brought home from the big box store.  I have an aversion to assembling things and I always assume that these products will need something to be done, so I left the machine in the box. Frank, however, can never wait to get his mechanically minded hands on a new toy, so he was the one who unpacked the vacuum as if it were a Christmas present. He was happier than a kid with his first hockey stick and a pair of skates!

When it was all assembled and he led it through its paces, he brought me out of the kitchen to the living room to see the new toy. He showed me the switch to activate it, and the lever to lower the handle to an angle for sweeping the machine across the carpets.

The vacuum was one of the new models without filter bags. There were two chambers, each with a gizmo that filtered. When this chamber filled up, it had to be emptied. There was a little catch to open this up and then underneath, when this part was removed, there was a filter bank that had to be pulled out an cleaned occasionally. It was held in by two locks that needed to be snapped open.

If you remember one of my earlier blogs of August, you might remember that just before the Wedding Anniversary party, I intended to vacuum the rug. After all, there were visitors coming that had never been to my house before and first impressions are pretty important. The vacuum cleaner was not being cooperative. It was picking up dog hair and depositing it back on the rug in curious polka dot shapes.

After some frustrating trials to fix whatever was wrong, I gave up and used a hand vacuum to do the job. This small vacuum  did a wonderful job, but doing eight hundred square feet of carpet completely bent over is not to be recommended. I’d have to fix the vacuum or get a new one. The cost of getting someone in was going to be about the same cost as a new machine. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s the way of things in the labour market these days.

It’s been a month since then. Frank and I are no longer an item and our parting was acrimonious. There’s no way I would take it to him to fix, if fix could be done.

You may also remember that Whistler, my nephew, is staying with me while he awaits some medical tests. He’s feeling a little sensitive about having to be here and, not being able to work, he’s eager to help to make up for his contribution to the household.  For my part, I’m trying to keep him gainfully occupied so that he doesn’t go crazy with the uncertainty of his situation. At the same time, I’m quite sensitive to his energy levels. I don’t want to overtax him and I don’t want him to equate my listing of things to do that I mumble out loud as I think of them, as a request for him to do it.

So I extracted the vacuum from the cleaning closet and armed myself with some tools and a layer of old newspapers to tackle the ailing Dirt Devil. First I ran the motor and confirmed that there was some suction, but it was so little. Then I took off the chambers and looked for something clogged. There was nothing there. Even after I vacuumed a little, there was still nothing there. Nothing was coming through at all.

Next I checked the hose, but it appeared to be clear as far up as I could see without a flashlight. That wasn’t it.

Next I extracted the filter bank but it too was clean. There was nothing that could be stuck there. It just wasn’t possible.

The only other thing I could see that could be removed for some kind of a check was a kinky little clear plastic cover, about four inches long, that covered the place where the hose joined the machine. There were three black magnetic screws with Phillips heads on them.

“Hey Whistler,” I said to him as he lounged on the couch. “This used to put your grandmother in awe when I did this kind of thing.  I’d take out three screws and she’d just shake her head saying “where did you learn to do that?'”

“Three screws. It’s hardly rocket science. And then she would go tell my siblings that I knew how to do everything; and she would forget how many times she had said it and they’d all get mad. ” I laughed.

Whistler laughed too, and it was good to hear him laugh. He rose from the couch and came to watch what I was doing. I showed him the three screws and the little clear plastic cover.

“Three screws,” he repeated, shook his head and entertained a wry smile on his ingenuous face. “But really, I wouldn’t have know where to start either.”

“Well, Frank taught me lots of things. And he showed me, when I bought this thing, how I should take care of it. I’ll have to see what I can do now.”

Sure enough, there was a wad of dog hair, dust bunnies and fine powdery dirt that was compacted into this little passage. I fished it out with my fingers and let it drop onto the outspread newspapers. I fished a little deeper and there was still more, both up and down in the tube.

That done, I replaced the cover, screwed back in the screws and ran the machine.  It still did not draw well. Whistler proposed that there was still blockage further down and if I let the machine run a minute, more would rise to the opening.  And so it was.

I removed and replaced the cover about four times, and then it seemed, there was nothing left to pull out. It amazed us both, not only how compacted all this dirt matted together with dog hair and other detritus had become, but also the sheer quantity of it. It kept coming and coming. No wonder the machine had not worked. Just so you don’t think this was an easy operation, we had to pull this stuff out with a fondu fork with a little catchy tine on the end; and once, when we could hear pebbles or stones or marbles or something in there, Whistler helped me turn the whole machine upside down because we couldn’t get it either with our fingers or with the fondu fork.

Whistler found his opportunity to do something with his day.

“I know you don’t like doing it, and I’ve nothing better to do. I don’t mind. And you can go do something more important, ” he offered.  He took the machine, plugged it in and started to vacuum. This lasted about three minutes when the engine shut down and refused to work. The red cover was hot to the touch.  Obviously there was still something wrong.

I looked for another entry or exit for this tube. Something surely was blocking still. It wouldn’t be long before the machine shut down again and went on strike. After some poking and dismantling the dirt chambers, I found the tube exit and poked my fingers in it. There was a rubbery part, a bar that seemed to move.  When I pressed a little harder, it moved deeper into the machine.

“Oh, grief!” I thought. with a groan. What if I’d dislodged a working part? What if I’d made things worse? I continued to poke and the object went sideways, my fingers just barely holding its rubbery surface, working its way up until, with a jerk, it dislodged and was free in my hand. It was a wine cork, the new kind made of plastic or rubber.  No wonder the machine was complaining. No wonder there was no suction draw.

It took a few more times of cleaining out the passage as the newly freed hose allowed the suction to bring the remaining dirt into the chambers.  Now the whirlygig metal parts turned freely in the dirt chambers, Now the dirt was sucked from the carpet like it was supposed to.


“Good for you!” declared Whistler. “I’m impressed. I don’t think I could have done that.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I said, thanking him in return for his assistance. ” And we just saved $170 of a new vacuum or $90 for a repairman,” I added, “so let’s go thrift shopping. It’s seniors day at the Sally Ann, and I’m over 55 now. I think I get twenty percent off”

“Do you need anything?” he said, a bit incredulously.

“Nope. It’s just to get out and do something. And you never know. You might find something.”

And so we did. After all, I’d saved some money, so now I could go spend it, don’t you think?