Posts Tagged ‘living’

Upper Main Street

December 11, 2009

Perhaps you will remember that I looked after some cats in Vancouver in September.
While I was staying in Vancouver, I had the opportunity to walk around Upper Main Street for an afternoon. It had been a long time since I had browsed along the street full of  antique and collectible shops, the vintage clothing places, funky restaurants and cafes. It’s a district with character and there are lots of things to notice and to explore.

Artists and artisan live in this area as well as middle and lower middle class people. There is a real mix of cultures and ethnic origins. It’s a lively and interesting place to go. It has the feel to it that made Robson Street famous. But Robson Street was taken over by the big name designers and it’s nothing but current fashion shopping now. The character that made if famous is no longer there.  It’s just commercial.

On the other hand, here are a few of the things you can see on Main Street in the Mount Pleasant area of town.
Mount Pleasant was one of the earliest settled areas of Vancouver. There are still lots of old buildings like this one, sitting right beside abrasively  modern construction:

The thing that interested me about this house was this window with mannikin heads sporting wigs. It’s an eerie image:

Most of the older buildings are one story; a few are two  story, and only now are they being replaced by three to five story commercial buildings. I understand the economic reality of business men wanting to make the most money possible from their little patches of city land, but I regret their need to wipe out the culture of an area while doing so.

Here’s what’s happening to the ‘scape  on Main Street:

It’s just too clinical for my taste; though I’m sure the newer buildings are easier to maintain. It just feels so depersonalized to me.

So when I see a sign like this, I just have to laugh.  It’s just the kind of humour that this area engenders.
This sign sits outside a cafe. It’s not even really an advertisement, but it’s in your face. It makes you notice and it makes you think. Maybe it even makes some think to turn inward and ask for a cup of coffee. Who knows?

And then, the City has provided some beautification such as these tree surrounds – grating that protects the roots of the tree. I’m always very happy to see when function is enhanced with excellent design. So here it is in context and then a detail of the artwork:


crossing the street and looking down an alley way just up by the former Post Office, now a community centre, roofed in red brick and topped with a copper one can delight in the mad tracery of ancient infrastructure criss-crossing from the poles to buildings cutting up the sky, the syncopated rhythm of vans, trucks, cars and waste bins; and at the end of the district, the rise of new buildings six to ten stories high:

Watching all the activity day by day is this nonchalant denizen of the Main Street walk, an outdoor cat, unphased by the constant traffic and many passers-by – browsers, strollers, street people, customers, merchants, coffee seekers, artists, dealers, shoppers, joggers and all the rest.

He sits close to the building up against a blue-painted stucco wall, cleaning between his toes, coiffing his whiskers, cleaning his ears. And when he is done? He stretches lazily, rolls over, finds himself a new position and snoozes in the sun.

So if you didn’t get out for your exercise today, I hope you enjoyed this walk with me going looking for beauty in the streets of Vancouver.


Hanging out at the gym

November 12, 2009

Yesterday was a busy day and by the time I got writing down a few details, I was pretty traumatized. It took a mere 2000 words to craft the previous post. In doing so, I sloughed over the incident at the gym which I am now going to share with you. I have to go back a little in time, though.

Last year this time, I was doing a very hearty three-times-a-week workout at the gym. I rarely missed; and when I didn’t go to the gym on the days between, if the day was dry, I would go walking out into nature. I had built up a good endurance and created muscle where none had gone before. The little I had developed in my aging career of non-participation were beefed up. I slimmed down, Hallelulia. I was more fit than I ever had been.

Early in May, I went to Santa Fe and Taos with my sister. The two weeks preceding, I was too busy to get to the gym, but the weather was fine and I got out walking.  In Taos where we stayed, there was a gym in the hotel but when I tried the equipment, there was not much that suited my abilities. We had been walking all day in our tourist activities and a treadmill was out of the question. The kind of cycling machine they had was not good for my damaged knees;  and the other equipment which I don’t remember at this point, did not engage me either. Another two weeks went by and I had not been to the gym.

When I got back, it was sunny and warm. We had a wonderful summer of sunshine. I upped the walking content of my exercise program and let the gym go. Why would I want to be in a gym on such lovely days?

Fast forward till last week. Our weather has been horribly rainy. Walking on the dikes has been out of the question. For the first time since April, I went to the gym for a half hour on Tuesday.  I was not inspired. I was out of shape and knew it.

This  and last week have been very busy with meetings, preparing for a sale of art from my house, and preparing for an interview with a gallery, so I didn’t make the time to go again until yesterday.

My muscles complained over the first three minutes of the reclining bike but learned to shut up after they realized that I wasn’t going to quit. I cycled those fifteen minutes (down ten from last May, at 25) thinking about Gershwin and his impossibly difficult passages where the right hand (in piano pieces) play thirteen notes in the same time as the left hand is supposed to be playing seven. Or he might have nine against fifteen. both passages are supposed to be played evenly and together, but nothing matches up. I’m positive that Gershwin was able to rub his tummy, pat his head and play drum with his feet all at the same time.

I got to thinking that he might have spent a lot of time in a gym. He came from Brooklyn.   Boxing and European martial arts were de rigeur if a young man were to defend himself and there must have been lots of gyms, too, for them to work out in. But would he have risked his million dollar hands?

Did they have treadmills? Or are treadmills an invention of our affluent and electrical ages.

Did he spend time training to box? Would he have picked up his impossible  rhythms from someone skipping rope or from someone rapidly aiming his fists at a punching bag? Would he have concurrently been listening to them both at the same time and saying, “Wow, Ain’t that sweet, … ”

I was listening to two joggers, one going fast and one going slower, both running with their own distinct rhythms, neither rhythm matching up ever with the other’s. These thoughts kept me from leaping off my own stationary vehicle in sheer boredom.

When my time was up, I did my circuit of exercise. The gym was not very busy. My neighbour, Mr. Stepford had remarked earlier this week that a public gym was the last place he would go. Just think of the H1N1 spreading possibilities it would provide.

In fact, the gym was very aware of the potential for virus proliferation. Patrons were asked to wipe down the machines before and after using them. There was lots of disinfectant available and clean paper towels.  I resolved my dilemma about cleaning the machines – I who never do housework if I can help it.   I soaked two paper towels with the disinfectant spray and then used these to grasp the handles of each machine, the layer of towel acting so that I never touched the machines at all and therefore never had to clean them.

At the end of my work out, I spoke to the nice young lady gym attendant.  There was an in-house advertisement for the Christmas tree challenge.

“Just what is that?” I asked.

“It’s a promotional effort to get everyone to challenge themselves a little bit,” she explained.

I’m curious, so I ask “How does it work?”

She opened up a black binder containing sheets with green triangle trees on them covered with red doughnut shaped “ornaments” . There was a star at the top in yellow and little ribbon ornaments on every row of red doughnuts.

‘Here’s the star at the top. You need to pass this challenge before you can sign up. You need to do ten push-ups before you can get one of these cards. In other words, you need to be able to pick up your own body weight. ”

I let that sink in a minute before answering, “Well, I guess I wouldn’t be able to join in then,” and I started to go.

“No! No!” she said.” This is not meant to be exclusive. It’s meant to be inclusive. We can modify this if we need to. Perhaps you could do this from a standing position and do the push-ups against the wall.”

She demonstrated against the mirrored wall behind the desk making her body shape form an M then a V with her reflection for five very easy looking repetitions. I still looked doubtful though. She couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds. I was a different story.

She asked me to wait until the supervisor came by and she could check if I could participate doing some other modification of this exercise. In the meantime, she showed me the rest of the challenge.

Every  red doughnut shape represented a regular work out. After two work-outs, there was a red ribbon with either a one or a two marked on it. The participant would draw a slip of paper from a box, much like a fortune cookie, and would have to accomplish the exercise designated thereon. There were easy exercises (number one) and more difficult ones (number two).  The attendant drew a slip of paper out of the box.

Balancing ball upper torso twist” it said.

“Is that something I could do?” I asked in disbelief. “I don’t even know what it is.”  It sounded torturous.

“Oh yes,  we would show you. In any case, you would have to prove you could do it before you could go on to the next thing. Do you want to try?”

“The torso twist?” My voice was getting high pitched and defensive.

“No, I mean The Christmas Challenge,” she replied.

“I don’t think I could do that first thing. I don’t think so.”

“Look, ” she replies, “I’ll help you. After all, you’ve already got today’s work out to mark off and the first challenge is not so hard. You would already have two things ticked off on the tree.”

“But I’ve never used that machine before. I don’t even know if I can get onto it with my game knees.”

“Come, ” beckoned the Siren. I felt at once challenged and willing to meet it and at the same time foolish and ready to run.

There are pedals about two feet off the ground covered in black rubber with tread, much like that used for car tires.  I was to place my feet on these.  I did so and the pedals came down hydraulically almost to floor level.

Next I was to take hold of the handles that were eight feet above.  I had to lessen the weight on the pedals by holding the sturdy white horizontal bars at midway on the apparatus.  The attendant helped and somehow (because I cant remember this part very clearly, being more totally engaged in doing rather than in observing) I grasped the handles and hung on. Now I no longer could reach the pedals unless I could pull myself up, my whole body weight worth, with my muscular (not!) arms.

Try as much as I could, I could not move an inch in this endeavor. I pulled my knees up to my chest and the pedals rose accordingly.  In fact, I never pulled up my body with my arms at all. I hung there like a piece of game – an elk carcass, an entire bison, a bear maybe)  curing in a freezer. My arms were outstretched and my shoulder sockets were screaming at me. “This is a mistake! this is a mistake! Get us down off of here!”

The attendant was encouraging as I pulled my knees to my chest. My arms had not pulled a thing except a tendon or two.

“See! You are doing it! That’s one. That’s two. That’s three. You can do five! Six! Seven! You’re almost there. Nine! Ten! Wonderful! You have met the first hurdle of the Christmas Challenge!

“Help!” I whispered in panic. “Help me down!”
I was still holding all my weight by my wrists, unable to reach the pedals because I had lifted my knees to my chest, not at all the motion that was required.

I suppose the attendant was used to athletic guys jumping off the machine and getting themselves away from it without the least assistance. It took her at least two excruciating more seconds to realize that she had to help.  My next movements were awkward and fumbling. I managed to get a hold of that white steel bar and then slide in an ungainly manner until my feet to the floor.

“Congratulations!” she crowed. “That was wonderful. See how it is when you just do a little bit more?”

She signed me up. She ticked off the star and the first red doughnut. Her supervisor happened by.  The attendant recounted how courageous and wonderful I was and reported that they now had one more person in the contest. (There are prizes for anyone who finishes, I understand).

I left feeling quite knocked out. Dazed.

It was only later that I took time to reflect on how foolish I had been. I knew my limits and had allowed myself to get into a situation of risk where there was no possibility of achieving my goal, despite the attendant’s blandishments.

Only a year ago, I was delicately building up strained muscles on both of my shoulders by adding a pound at a time to my exercise routine.  On those machines where I pulled down weights,  I could at maximum pull sixty pounds. By multiplying that weight to muscle demand, I could easily have undone all the work I had striven to achieve so far.  And if I had fallen, in descending from the rack?

If I had lost hold and fallen in amongst all those hard surfaces of white enameled steel  and pulled a knee or hip tendon in doing so? It’s only a month since I’ve overcome the summer troubles.

I’ll be back to the gym. This hasn’t stopped my resolve to work out there. But I am going to be wiser in what I ask this aging body to perform. Those Vs and Ms at the mirror look safer. And, when it comes to the upper body torso twist. I’ll have to make an evaluation before I leap in there to do it.

I may still be hanging out at the gym, but before you will find me hanging like a meat carcass, I’ll be out of there.

Joys and Frustrations

October 2, 2009

## 073

In late August, I went up to Shuswap Lake with Lizbet, Heather and my brother-in-law. It was a joyful time being with family, connecting, spending time together, painting, being in nature, but it was also a frustrating time.  I had many things to do at home which I had to drop. At the lake, I had nothing to do.

I had pulled a muscle or a tendon at the back of my knee and one at the front and I could not go on the lovely forest walks that I had trained all year to be able to enjoy.  I was walking with a cane.There were no flat places to walk except the beach and that was only sandy and walkable for the length of the property. After that, it became rocky and hard to traverse.

It forced me into finding amusement elsewhere as my siblings went swimming, boating, canoeing…

One of the things that I found most satisfactory was cooking. The other thing was painting down by the beach.

Both sisters dislike making meals and I rather enjoy it.  They volunteered me to make all meals and I accepted gladly. In fact, if they wanted me to make some meals, I insisted on making them all. Mine is a one-woman kitchen. When it’s not, I get easily frustrated because something I was counting on for dinner has disappeared as an afternoon snack, or used in the lunch offerings.  Okay, I admit.  I’m a Kitchen control freak.

Mrs. Stepford who was back home keeping an eye on my abandoned house from next door, had given me a great zucchini from her garden just as we were leaving.  By the by, it’s October and I’ve had one cucumber from my cucumber plant – all the other squash and gourd plants that I grew have produced nothing; but Mrs. Stepford has had a glorious harvest with vegetables of magnificent proportions – so much so that she has been giving her produce away.

I thought I might just share this recipe with you, especially because I found it visually delightful to make it.

I sliced the zucchini lengthwise in half and hollowed out the soft flesh where the seeds were forming. I had to use an 18 inch Pyrex pan because the zucchini was that long; and I placed the two halves hollow side up. A good tip is to use parchment paper on the bottom of the pan. It sure makes clean up a cinch.

I had two pounds of Roma tomatoes from the farmer’s market in Scotch Creek and diced them up along with some green pepper because if contrasts so nicely. Next I added some onions, also diced. Anything that was left over from this mixture would make a good start on a Greek salad.

I cooked up about as much lean ground hamburger as one would use to make a thick hamburger patty, separating it out as if to make a hash.   This was spiced with salt, pepper, parsley and basil while it was cooking.

In the hollow of the zucchini, I put the tomato, green pepper and onion mix until it filled the hollow to level. I loosened the ground beef mix from the frying pan with a bit of water just to make sure the brownings on the bottom came loose and were added into the mix. That’s what gives the mixture such good taste. This was spread evenly over the zucchini surface. (See the picture up above.)

On top of everything, I put a generous layer of grated Canadian old cheddar cheese, then popped it into the oven and let it cook for a half hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or until the Zucchini flesh was tender. If the cheese starts to brown too much, then a bit of tin foil will protect it from burning.

## 078

I don’t think there was anything left when we finished dinner.  Mmmm. Good!

Twin Berry

August 17, 2009

Mrs. Stepford is a kindly soul, and a bit of an animal psychologist.

In this unusual heat wave, she has watched her poor dog become more and more lethargic. The once jaunty little Scottie dog had slumped into a funk, barely moving during the day, looking soulfully at Mrs. Stepford as if to say, “Can’t you turn this heat off? Can’t you please do something?”

Mid morning, Mrs. Stepford phones.

“Would you take me to the Primp Dog Spa? Jessica is feeling out of sorts. She needs to be shorn. I’ve made an appointment for twelve thirty. If you can’t bring me back, I’ll get a taxi.”

“Sure, I’ll take you. On condition that I can swing by the blueberry farm to get the blueberries for Dorothy. If there’s time left, we can waste it in some air conditioned store. How about the thrift store on Lougheed. ”

Dorothy is moving. Her house sale went through surprisingly quickly and her move date is on the August 15th.  She hasn’t time to come out to get her berries, and since she has to move her freezer, she needs to ship it empty. Between Mrs. Stepford and myself,  I promised to buy the berries; Mrs. Stepford offered to keep them frozen for a month.

At noon, Mrs. S and I leave for the groomers. We drop the dog off and then head into the farmlands to the red barn. Yes, that self-same farm where I met Mr. Handsome, the strawberry man. Now should I call him the Blueberry man? He’s one and the same person. You choose.

When we get there, the only shady spot is in the wake of the old silo now encrusted in various olive green, black and ochre lichens and strapped every twelve inches with a a thick metal wire banding.  Mrs. Stepford is out of the car and at the weighing machine much faster than I.

When I get there, she is already engaged with Mr. Handsome about the purchase of her berries.  I say hello and mention something about bringing my friends with me. He says hello but he’s not so friendly as last time. Barely seems to recognize me, but he’s friendly still and welcoming.  But something is not right. He’s distracted, which accounts for the disconnect, I figure.

Mr. Handsome is wriggling the connection of the weighing machine to an extension cord that snakes far away across the floor to an outlet somewhere out of view. When that wriggling exercise does not provide results, he tries the connection between the power cord and the electronic scaler, itself. To no avail. It’s not working.

All these efforts have given me the time to look as he bends, stretches, crouches,wriggles the cord in his lean, lanky, athletic fashion.  There is an advantage to getting old. Your eyes can  appreciate without risk of engagement. But this delightful man is also so  socially friendly that he keeps bobbing back, apologizing to Mrs. Stepford about the inoperative weigh scale, then about the delay in finding an alternate solution.

“Ah! I know!” he exclaims.  “We can weigh them on the conveyor belt scale!”

He strides off to the conveyor belt.   It’s organized in an an oval shape with six young migrant workers sitting along the far edge picking off unripe berries, squished berries, twigs, small round leaves Their fingers pluck at the moving belt as if they were encouraging a melody from a well-tuned harp. Their fingers deftly pick out these things to a small band of polished stainless steel at the edge that catches this detritus. The berries amongst it will be saved for the jam factory or other by-products. The leaves and stems will be blown away. Only the firmest, plumpest berries go up for sale to stores and drop-by customers.

There’s something different about Blueberry man today. Since last I saw him, he has grown  a small beard looking much like a punctuation mark, a bold-text dash, just under his lip. It’s jet black.

I point this out in a whisper to Mrs. Stepford.

“It’s got a name. It’s called a soul patch, ” she informs me.  “It’s kind of a new thing. When a man starts to ruminate on some important idea, he’ll take his thumb and index finger and worry at it. It’s meant to signify a person with a deep soul. It’s a thoughtful beard. Expressive.”

Blueberry man was holding onto a ten pound box at the end of the conveyor belt and allowing the berries to drop into it instead of into the large blue plastic container beneath the belt. The box is filling with berries. He pauses to weigh the box. It’s not enough. He returns the box to catch more berries and  continues to hold the it there for the additional amount that will bring it up to ten pounds.

As he does this, Newton comes up to me and says, “How did your exhibition do? ”  I’m stunned. Baffled.

How can Blueberry man be standing at the end of the  conveyor box gathering the offerings of the blueberry gods and be here talking to me at the same time. The man before me has a piece of masking tape on his impeccably white golf shirt with his name on it. He has no soul patch. The other man is standing at the conveyor belt, weighing up his adjusted box. He scoops up a double handful of plump indigo coloured berries from the box below and dribbles them in until he gets to ten pounds.  He turns and comes toward us.

“You’re twins!” I exclaim. ‘You’re not Mr. Blueberry!,” I state looking at the man with the box. “You’re Mr. Blueberry!” I say, pointing at Newton with the scrap of masking tape stuck on his shirt.

Mr. Soul Patch nods with a wonderful smile on his face.  “Yes, some people say we look alike. I don’t see it really.”
“Identical twins?” asks Mrs. Stepford. She always knows the right questions to ask. They nod. Mr. Soul Patch points at his golf shirt with Twinberry Farms embroidered in blue  on his left breast. Two plump berries are embroidered right under the lettering. The significance of the company name fits into place.

Mr. Soul Patch bobs off athletically to get Mrs. Stepford’s change.

I direct my comment to Mr. Blueberry. ” No wonder he didn’t recognized me when I came in. He hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. No wonder he was a bit dumbfounded when I was talking about bringing more customers. It wasn’t the same man.”

“And your exhibition?” he smiles as he reminds me of his earlier question. “How is that going? Can I go see it? I’d like to go.”

I fill him in on the date of the opening. I invite him to it.  He says he would like to. I remind him that I, too,  would like to purchase berries, and he facilitates that transaction.  We bid goodbye, smiles all around.

Mrs. Stepford puts her berries in the trunk and so do I. We get back in the broiling car and drive off to the air conditioned, silky-cool pleasure of the thrift store and then to pick up her dandified Scottie dog.

“That was lovely,” she chuckles. “Double your pleasure! What a treat those two men are!”

“That was lovely. I agree! They are so personable. It’s just how anyone would want to have their sons grow up. Respectful, handsome, intelligent, dependable.  And their mother got two of them. What a treat!”

That was yesterday. Today, Mrs. Stepford calls.

“How’s Jessica, the Scottie princess?” I ask.

“The little monkey!” laughingly says my friend, the amateur dog psychologist. “That hair cut was just the thing. She’s dancing around the place; wriggling with all her lack of hair, begging to have her short hair caressed.

“Must be something like touching a teenage buzz cut,” I reply.

“Exactly. She’s so happy. Such a princess! She has all her energy back. It was just the thing to do!”


July 31, 2009

The ceiling was unfinished. Rather, it had been finished in a rough basement kind of way with Masonite board , the canvas-like side painted white and showing. In several areas, the board had been ripped away exposing old and new wiring, heating ducts with canvas-tape joins and water pipes in varying sizes.

Above her head, Kay could see the main air ducts issuing from the furnace , fitted close to the thick fir beams that ran from north to south and above that, two by six joists at right angle to the beams, holding up the sub-flooring which was made of rough thick fir planking.

At one time, there had been no stairs to the basement and then, perhaps the house had been raised because, just at the door to the basement, Kay had noted a rough cut, inch thick fir floor and an equally thick sub-floor immediately beneath it.  They didn’t build houses that way anymore; hadn’t done so since the ‘Fifties. Wood had become too dear. Labour too. Economies and efficiencies had been discovered.

As Kay inspected the ceiling from her supine position, she wondered why the joists and the underside of the sub-floor had been painted, in different places  white, or pasty pink or hospital green. “Labour intensive. Useless”, she thought, as she peered into the dark corners of the underfloor immediately above her for spiders or bits of ancient dust that might fall during the night.

It was Rose who had insisted that she sleep in the basement. Kay had ambivalent feelings about the adventure.

“It’s far too hot. That’s what Colin and I are doing, ” sweet Rose had insisted when she telephoned. “And all the kids too. Otherwise we can’t sleep. We’re camping. Don’t you have a cot you could borrow? A mattress you could put on the floor. ”

Kay had shuddered. She would never sleep down on the basement floor, no matter how much cooler. There were spiders and wood bugs. If there was a new object on the floor to crawl under, they would.  It was not is if  they couldn’t climb; but that was more effort. They would be more exposed; less encouraged to come.   Only a raised bed with proper legs would have the slightest chance of convincing her to sleep there. They would be less likely to bother her; they might stay hidden in their dark haunts near the edges of the basement floor and in the high  corners.

“There’s the day-bed in the sun room. I could take that down stairs, ” she said.

“I’ll be over after I’ve got Katy to her friend’s house. Katy is going to camp with them for a week.  I’ll help you get the bed downstairs.”

Kay couldn’t say no.
Rose came at five.

It was a practical Danish-style couch that could be taken apart in pieces. When the back was lifted off, it became a single-size bed. The mattress was mostly coils with little padding. It was light and transportable. The frame was made of teak with teak slats running crosswise. For shipping, the legs screwed off. In two easy trips down the outside back steps and in the basement door, one trip for the frame, one for the mattress, the bed was installed in amongst the paintings that were stacked in rows around every available wall space. It blocked the narrow path to the framing table. It blocked the path to the freezer and the storage room. But it had a curious elegance, sitting as it was , perfectly centered on the Chinese wool carpet with sculpted pink roses that she had bought from her friend at a recent garage sale.

Rose left shortly after. There were still two children and a husband she had to feed for dinner. She had many other things to do.

Kay settled back into her house, locking all the doors against the record-breaking heat. It was forty degrees outside with a humidity factor of six and thirty-one inside.

She turned on The Weather Network for the local forecast to find out at what hour the lowest temperature would come. The temperature would drop ten degrees overnight, they said, the coolest at two in the morning then rising to its hottest already by eleven. Kay vowed to be up still at two to start up her system of cooling the house.

It was hot.

Trickles of water ran down her temples. Kay’s hair was dripping; her neck slick with damp. Her dress was sopped. This was no genteel heat.

Kay had no intention of cooking supper.  She cut up a previously cooked piece of cold fennel and ate it as it was along with a hard boiled egg. She scooped out a portion of  ice cream from the bucket into a small bowl and covered it with a handful of fresh picked blueberries and a sprinkling of sliced almonds. The cool of the ice cream invaded her mouth and, for a fleeting instant, reminded her of what cool could be. Then she collapsed onto the living room couch, positioning the two end cushions under her head and fell asleep.

It was the phone that woke her. Her clothing was damp through. Her hair was positively wet. Her head felt as if it had been partially boiled.

“Hi!. How are ya!” Mrs. Stepford’s cheery voice rang like a Chinese gong  through the receiver. “How are you managing with the heat.”

“Groggily,” muttered Kay. She shook her head to rid herself of the thickness in her brain.  It was too hot. She looked at her watch. She had been out for more than two hours.

After sharing a few details of daily happenings and plans for the evening, they signed off. Kay sat as if stunned before the television, unable to muster energy for anything else.  It was a program about regenerating the brain.

“I could do with a bit of that,” thought Kay, as her brain soaked and  muddled in a too-warm soup of the day.

About eleven,  two or three phone calls later – one with Nephew Hugh, one with her sister and a late night check up from Mrs. Stepford, Kay turned into her office  to work on her files.  It had to be done. The court date was rapidly approaching and, FreeCell game by FreeCell game, Photo manipulation after Photo manipulation, Kay had been avoiding doing anything at all about it. Now it was crunch time.

Before getting down to business,  she opened the back door and let the fan pump twenty-eight degree air into her thirty-one degree house. She set the window fan in the upstairs window on full and the kitchen and bathroom extractor fans on to draw away the stifling heat. Then she turned to her office work.

Still at it at two, the optimum hour of cool,  she upped her cool-down techniques. She opened both front and back doors and let the blessedly cooler, fan-pushed air in one door and the stifling warm air out the other.  She doused the lights and stood in the blackened interior. There was no use in attracting moths and flies in the middle of the night. Maybe, just maybe, they were able to sleep,  though Kay’s hours of activity had been turned upside down, and she could not.

She stood, then,  by the front door, screen open, door open, looking into the indigo sky. There were no clouds; no moon. A single star shone fiercely, caught between the feathery branches of two tall trees, and further along, the Big Dipper’s handle arched across the night but the vessel was lost in another bank of giant trees. The air was cool, lovely, refreshing. It caressed the skin. It whispered promises. Promises that could not be kept. For a second day in a row, all time heat records had been broken. The two week forecast left no hope. There was no end in sight.

At three, she turned in, checking all the windows, closing all the main floor ones and locking the front and back door. She shut off the fan. She collected a pillow, an old  duvet to soften the day bed’s coils, and a sheet to cover herself  while she slept in the basement.  She descended into the cooler cavern. She made up the bed and lay on it.  With her emergency flashlight, she probed the corners of the joists and the mechanical works above her. A restless fly zoomed into the bright light’s path and just as fast, was gone. It startled her.

Perhaps it was better not to know.  She took off her glasses and laid them on the improvised night table, an upturned milk crate. She doused the light and put it beside the glasses.  She covered herself with the light cotton sheet. Perhaps that and her gardian banks of paintings would save her from the hauntings of the night. And she slept.

Perylene Maroon

July 18, 2009

Lizbet has been visiting. She left yesterday and I was sorry to see her go. We have a common interest in art, although her work is very different from mine.  She’s a fine watercolourist.

On Wednesday, we drove down to the Big Box store to load her up with cases of canned goods and various other items she likes enough to buy in quantity. Canned peaches and canned pineapple are two favorites. She’s partial to the Dempster Cinnamon Raisin bread and the Squirrelly no-flour whole grain bread that she can buy there at an advantageous price.She picked up a kilo of fancy nuts and a few other things while she was at it.  In Nelson, she doesn’t have access to this kind of discount store and we are all counting our pennies now in retirement.

I convinced her that the seven cent difference in gasoline might be easy on her pocket book as well.  We drove up to the forward-most pump and she leaped out of the car.  I did  the same. After all, the gas tank was on my, the passenger, side. She dove back into the car to get something – her credit card or who-knows-what. All that matters is that while her head was buried in the car I was exclaiming over the candy red metallic painted Model-T Ford replica that was parked on the curb of the gas station.

She, meanwhile, was goggling over a MKX Lincoln on the other side of the gas pump.

“Perylene Maroon, wouldn’t you say? Pure Perylene!” she exclaims.

“Looks like Candy Red – what do you call it when it kind of sparkles right in the paint? Metallic? Yeah, Metallic Candy Red! Just look at that colour!” I return to her.

“No!” she says. “It’s maroon.”

We’re sisters. This is a common kind of misunderstanding we have. We don’t even listen to each other. We aren’t even talking about the same vehicle but we’re ready to defend our side of the fence with fierceness. It’s the opportunity for a great squabble that will end, we are sure, in some kind of stand off where no one is really offended. Or maybe just a few ruffled feathers and then we straighten it out and we’re a little sensitive for a moment or two. In this case, in hindsight, nobody even had to lose!

She pulls her head out of the car. “Look!”, she commands. “It’s Maroon.” She’s pointing at the the MX5.  Simultaneously, I’m saying, “Look! with the same directorial passion, arm outstretched to the Model T look-alike. “It couldn’t be a more pure Candy red  – an Alizaron Crimson. And Oh! That one there is pretty nice too. Metallic Burnt Sienna.’

I turn around to look at the equally metallic paint job on the MXK. She jerks her head in the direction of my outstretched arm, right down the arrow-like index finger to the car she had not noticed before.

“See, I told you,” we both say simultaneously.

“Oh!” we both say with a startled surprise, and start to laugh.

“I didn’t hear you,” we both say in unison.

“When you were talking to me, your head was in the car,” I say while she, talking at the same time says, “You got out of the car as I was speaking to you. Nobody ever listens to me.”

“Good grief!” she says. “You are about the only person I can have these kinds of conversations with.  People must think we are completely  starkers. We’re babbling along in conversation defining everything in the colour of Windsor and Newton pigments.”

Lizbet, as I’ve mentioned before, has a talent for meeting people. Next thing I know, she’s marching over to the owner of the Lincoln who is about to get back into her car.

“Excuse me,” calls Lizbet. “Excuse me, ” she calls a bit louder until the lady turns around in a bit of a surprise as if Lizbet were about to announce she had a flat tire. Lizbet’s voice reduces from her normal classroom volume to a conversational tone that I no longer can hear. She’s gesticulating, pointing to the red Model T, laughing, telling her story about our argument on the subject of car colours.

The lady turns towards me, some thirty feet away now, and calls as if she were calling her kids in from the back forty, “It’s Cinnamon. Metallic Cinnamon, they called it.”

I nod my head, smile, glance admiringly at her vehicle and get back into Lizbets car. Lizbet keeps on talking. The woman puts one foot on the dashboard and makes to climb into the car. Lizbet starts to make her way back to our vehicle.

“She just got the car,” Lizbet informs me. “She’ really happy with it. Great for camping. They’re leaving tomorrow for a week holiday.” She added in more detail – number of kids, the  woman’s name, her husband’s name, where they were going.  In less than five minutes, Lizbet had the woman talking to her as if she were her best friend. It always startles me. I wouldn’t even have dared to ask about the car’s color.

“How did we get into that conversation?” I ask Lizbet. We are both making a concerted effort to not get into inflamed conversation of misunderstanding.

“I told you the Lincoln was Maroon,” she answers. “You didn’t listen. I’d already said that and then you were telling me to look at it. Nobody ever listens to me.” She had a huge smile on her face like she’d won a prize.

I began to laugh. We both began to laugh.

“Perylene. I just love the sound of it. And Quinacridone. Where do they come up with these names?” she says. We both shake our heads, still chortling. Lizbet drives off and finds us a parking space.

Just a wee scrap of useless information I found on the Lincoln site,

  • Cars with metallic paint are worth more than cars with flat colours and usually demand a premium in dealer showrooms. Metallic cars are said to sell faster as used cars, and could be worth more than a flat-coloured counterpart.
  • Loud colours such as reds, yellows and oranges are generally more popular on sports cars and compacts, while larger vehicles such as SUVs and trucks, tend to me (sic) more neutral.

And there you have it.

Between you and me, though, I never admitted that I didn’t have a clue what pigment colour she was talking about. It’s not one that I use. So I looked it up on the Internet, as I often do to keep my facts right.

She was right on. It was a perfect colour for the Model T – like a fat ripe cherry or only slightly darker than a red candy apple, all aglow.

It you want to look it up, I found it on this site:


By the Alouette

July 17, 2009

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A large heron lifts from the river’s edge. He flies low, an angular cut against the bright blue sky and then dips below the level of the tall river grasses into a secluded pool. Here it is, the height of summer. The height of grasses. The pathways are overgrown to the point where a single person can hardly pass, edged with wild eglantine, the true rose; with blackberry encroaching, with small shrubs tipped by fluffy pink flowers.

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Coming towards me are two dogs. One is small, wiry white one with a black patch on his eye and a small Shepherd cross, both dripping from an early morning swim. Their masters follow, shading their eyes from the hammering sun, apologizing for the liquidity of their dogs.

Last night, Mrs. Stepford declined the offer to accompany me on a walk saying, “Let’s go early in the morning. I’d like to walk. How about leaving at seven.”
I’m not normally a morning person but this hot weather is not conducive to sleep. At six o’clock, Soleil had been up a few hours and  is shining through my windows, laughing at my sleeplessness.  So this morning, bright an early, I bathe in cool waters before I  get ready for our walk.

It’s seven thirty. Mrs. Stepford was going to telephone by seven to make sure I was up but the phone is silent. It is I who phones.

“Are you ready?”

“Heaven’s no. I’m just awake. I don’t think I’ll go. I’m too sleepy. Besides, I have to call the computer contractor at nine.”  So I go alone.

The parking lot is empty of all but a half dozen early cars. Once I’m atop the first rise of the dike, the lagoon spreads before me like a sheet of glass, reflecting back-lit trees. There’s not a ripple. The lily pads form a contrapuntal perspective of overlapping round shapes.

There’s not a person to be seen. I’m in paradise alone. A dragonfly zooms by, a little moth flutters over the grasses, birds are discussing the quality of their early breakfast and deciding where best they can shelter from the coming heat. In the background, I can hear the steady drone of an excavator. It’s towards this yellow machine that I make my way through the overgrown path. I want to see what Mammon is up to in Eden.

It lifts its jaws and swings about, lowers its voracious head and snaps up a rotted chunk of log, tosses it high in the air and deposits it high up on the embankment. Once again it swings, grabs a mouthful to be spit out in the pile of waste accumulating on the verge. Were it not that brilliant orange and growling steadily with its industrial motor, one might think it was some prehistoric dinosaur grazing in the marsh.

That was a rather short path, so I return. A woman wearing logger-shirt plaid is tossing a Frisbee into the lagoon for her Labrador dog. The water spreads with liquid ripples. Something is un-Labrador-like with this dog. He gazes up at her as if waiting for something. He won’t go in the water.

We chat.

“No,  the dog won’t bother me as long as he doesn’t jump.”

“Did you notice the water lilies?”

“When I came by half an hour ago, they were all closed up  Now they are fully open,  white, pristine.”

“Funny, heh?”

Then I start my usual walk. A kilometer out and the same back, up to Neames Road. There are a few more walkers now. A woman with two children in a stroller is jogging at a slow pace. Another comes in a long running stride towards me dressed in black shorts and a halter top. She is tall, bronzed and fit. Her hips alternate forward as if driven by an inner clockwork. The light falls on her deliciously. If only figure drawing classes could capture all that aliveness!

The morning light is so different from the evening light. It’s about at the same angle but lights things from the opposite side. I stop and take pictures and then get serious about the walking. I’ve been a slackard on that account lately with excuses of visitors and seasonably high heat, but I’m missing the serotonin fix and energy that I get from the exercise.

I watch more Great Blue Herons squabbling in the sky, one chasing another away. A lone heron sticks out of the top of a tree, a sentinel.  It must be a territorial thing.  Here down on the path way, two small dogs face off with a heavy set German Shepard, but it’s all friendly posturing, it seems. Tails wag. Sniffing rituals begin. More territory.

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On my way back, there are more runners, more mothers with children in strollers, more dogs.  By the parking lot entrance, there is a single thistle plant in bloom, their furry pink Busby hats capped with a tiny butterfly decoration. It made my day, and it’s only nine in the morning!

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Chocolate for tea

July 8, 2009

Sarah had been to the house only once before and then the visit had been short. They had met at the walking club, and one of those funny connections-things had happened.

At the end of walk when the trainer had been running the women through their stretching exercises, Kay had addressed one of the women in a knowing way, “You’re background is Dutch, isn’t it?” .  With a name starting  van der, it was certainly Dutch, but then with married names, it could have been her husband’s. Kay was proud of her half-Dutch origins and was always trying to make connections.

The woman agreed, yes, her parents had immigrated in the ‘Fifties, just after the war.

A third woman who had been walking and talking with Kay the whole way, spoke in Dutch to Kay leaving Kay with an “I-didn’t-get-it” look on her face.

The third person was Sarah. “Do you speak Dutch?” she repeated, this time translated to English, with a broad smile developing on her lovely features.

“Are you Dutch too?” exclaimed Kay, astounded.

“No but I went there in my twenties, and married a Dutchman. It only lasted five years, but I learned to speak Dutch fluently. I loved living there; and I loved the language.”

It was one of those small-world phenomena. There had been four of us walking. None of us knew each other; it was the first time we had met; and three of us had this strong Dutch connection. Only Keenan, the fitness instructor was not. With a name like Keenan O’Reilly, she was of  Irish decent.

Then Sarah had joined Kay’s writers’ group. They exchanged their short literary drafts. Sarah came for tea and they had  become great acquaintances, but there was a deep friendship to be had. Both knew it. There were too many connections of interests and personal histories.

And so Sarah called on Wednesday asking if she could come for tea. She arrived late afternoon at Kay’s door, cheeks all aglow, her eyes shining with life, carrying a bakery box and a glazed muffin.

“Sorry, I’m late,” she apologized as she crossed the threshold into Kay’s little house. ” My director came in just as I was leaving work. I couldn’t put her off; and she went on and on. I just got out of there ten minutes ago. Here. I thought we might like something to eat.” And she handed over her gifts of food.

“You must be ready for a bite, then,”  and without pausing, “the kettle is hot, just waiting to know what kind of tea you would like. I bet you are hungry.”

As Kay finished making tea, she unravelled the string on the bakery box and lifted the lid. Inside were two exquisite pastries, cookies really, made in the shape of tea cups.  There was a perfectly round disk of oven-browned sugar cookie for the saucer and a spherical-half  cookie for the cup. It was filled with chocolate truffle just short of the rim and the handle was made an add-on of pure dark chocolate.

“Oh Sarah! This is beautiful! It’s so very beautiful!” said Kay. “Just look at them!”

“But I’m allergic to chocolate! Oh Sarah! I’m so sorry. I won’t be able to eat them.”

Kay had already transgressed the first of  politeness rules. One never refuses a gift; one always accepts it graciously.  And she was about to continue on making it worse and worse.

“Oh Sarah! ” she said in increasing distress. “Why don’t you take them to your family. I’m sure there is someone there who could really enjoy them. Your daughter, maybe.”

“No, no. Keep them. You will have a visitor coming, maybe. ”

And so a tug of war ensued as to the fate of the two exquisite chocolate cups and nothing was decided, except Kay took photographs of the cups shining in the afternoon sun that was streaming through the kitchen window.

It was hot and sunny. Kay and Sarah took their tea to the garden and the tray of sweets that Kay had already prepared for the visit. They sat talking over several cups of tea, as if time had been suspended, until Sarah’s cell phone jangled. It was her husband. Was she not coming home for dinner?

Sarah gathered her belongings in haste and they promised to find another time to visit. Sarah waved from the car door as she got in and sped away, back to her familial responsibilities.

Kay turned back into the house. There on the counter was the box of pastries. They were now hers. How long could she wait until she found the right person for those beautiful little tea cups? And with a engulfing wave of etiquette guilt, her heart sank. “There were only two of them. I bet Sarah was hoping to indulge in one, herself, over tea!”

Kay beat herself up for a few minutes; but what was done, was done.  There would be a perfect reason for having these teacup pastries.

The next day, Heather and her husband came to stay for a week. Lizbet arrived the same evening. At dessert time, there were four at table. Kay could not serve two pastries. It wasn’t like you could cut a tea cup in half.  Besides, the dinner had been mundane and there were the strawberry man’s strawberries to eat up.

The visiting family left on Tuesday, and still no perfect occasion had arisen to serve her chocolate tea cups. The house returned to a blessed silence.

Kay spent the next few hours catching up on herself – washing sheets, putting away dishes, making beds, reading e-mail, writing a last minute birthday card to Nephew Ron, preparing the recycling to put out in the evening.  All the chores were done in a Zen-like peacefulness. She was alone with her thoughts, absorbing all the familial chatter and gossip of the last few days. She was  tucking it away, just like she was doing with the laundry, to be brought out and used on another occasion.

It was about four in the afternoon when the telephone first rang. It was Rose.

“Could I come over? I have the kids’ report cards. I want you to take a look at them and advise me what to do.”

Rose is about forty, looks thirty. She has two teenage children and Nicola who has just finished Grade Four. Nine? I calculated, but she looked more like six or seven. She was a tiny waif of a thing, blond hair straggling over her shoulders in light-white strands. Her mother was petite, but Nicola even more so, and she was shy.

“She’s brought some chips, I hope you don’t mind?” said Rose, half apologetically. “Nicola said she would rather eat them than cookies.” Nicola was holding a foil bag of tortilla chips proclaiming to be EXTREME! in the advertising. Flames licked at the edge of the tortilla pictures and clichéed  little devil with pitchfork stood gloating on the upper right hand corner of the package.

“They’re not too hot, spicy, are they?” Rose asked, trying to engage the little waif into the conversation. Nicola spoke in a whisper as if the quiet of her voice could help her disappear altogether.  Nicola’s head turned from side to side.

I gave Rose her tea and brought out a can of  cola for Nicola.

“Would you like ice cream in it? Then it will all foam up into a float. Would you like that?” The waif-like head nodded up and down and a tiny wee “yes” came out.

“Ooooooooooh! I know what I have for you. It’s perfect!” said Kay.

She brought out the box and put it down low for Nicola to see. She opened the box and there inside were the two tiny chocolate tea cups.

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Nicola’s eyes went wide. For the first time, she raised her eyes to Kay’s. They were shining in wonderment. She didn’t say a thing but the eyes held the question, “For me?”

Would you like one?” offered Kay. Her mother looked down, enjoying that special moment of her child bubbling with excitement and anticipation as only a child can do.

“Yes, ” she peeped, as if it took all her effort to break the spell.

“Yes what?” prompted her mother gently.

“Yes, please,”  came the ever so slightly raised voice of Nicola.

They took all their food treasures – Extreme tortilla chips and chocolate tea cups – to the living room. Kay settled Nicola with a low nesting table to put her pastry and coke float upon. Rose gave the report cards to Kay and Kay began to read. As she read, she watched  as Nicola demolished  the cookie with reverence and awe.

The handle went first. She snapped it off and popped into the mouth to melt slowly. Then she detached the saucer. She cracked it in half and gave the other half to her mother. Like a mouse, she nibbled at its edges and slowly, savoring it, reduced it to a crumb.  Next came the cup. Nicola, it seemed, was not too good with chocolate either. She handed it to her mother and watched raptly as her mother bit off little chunks and let them dissolve on her tongue.

Rose and Kay came to an understanding about tutoring for the eldest boy for the summer without giving any details away to the little waif with pitcher ears.

“Well, that’s it, ” said Rose. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.” Her cell phone jangled and after a short conversation which ended in “Stir fry,” Rose stood to leave.

“That was Kevin. He wanted to know if we were coming home for dinner.”

They left.

As she stood at the door, her mother bent down to Nicola’s ear and whispered, “And what do you say?”

With shy, happy eyes, Nicola looked straight up at Kay, locked onto her eyes and said quite audibly with a shy smile, “Thank you.”

Blushing strawberries

June 29, 2009

The dishes are piling up all around the counter. I’ve done two days of garage sale with a friend who needed company at hers. I’ve also been out buying 50 mile diet stuff from the local farmers and have had to prepare it for the freezer. It all takes time. The kitchen is a mess. It’s after midnight and I may be a night owl but there are limits.  With about half an hour before me before tuck in time, I weigh in the balance: Clean up the kitchen? Write another anecdote of my fascinating life? Clean up the kitchen? Write another anecdote?


Aimée strode down the length of the house, bouncing with all the energy of a twenty year old full of vitamins.

“You were right, you know!” she calls (I love it when I’m right) as she comes to greet me. No hello, no hug, no nothing, just. .  . “He is a hunk!”

What?” says Mrs. Stepford, as if she were deaf, but she isn’t. “What?! Fill me in.”

“So you went down to see him?” I ask.

“Yeah! We talked about strawberries in porridge and other recipes.” She was beaming.

Aimée looks thirty, a born again cancer survivor, ready to make every minute of her life count now; but she’s fifty – just had her birthday a few months ago.  She goes out running every day along the dikes; she attends workshops; she brings up two teenage sons. She’s volatile and sexy, and she has an amazing mind – a leading edge published poet, a philospher, a former English teacher with moxy.

And Mrs. Stepford was clamoring to find out who, what and where.

I was in Vancouver on Friday, trying to get a few pieces into the company that scans artwork for reproductions.  I’ve been accepted into an international competition for painters and my work needs to be framed  within the next week or so. I won’t have the opportunity to do it afterward if, miracle of miracle, I actually sell it from the show.

I left the house at ten in the morning for an eleven o’clock appointment to scan three watercolours.  I figured I’d be finished by about two and I could carry on to get the matting done. But Karma said otherwise.

Once I had filled in the order form, the receptionist sent me away. The image would not be fully scanned before an hour and a half. I knew about this and had come prepared. I wanted to see the David Milne print show at the gallery just down the road. I spent about a half hour there and then walked the perimeter of the park grounds up to the little cafe thinking that if I didn’t eat a precautionary something now, it might be a long time before I got lunch.

Before leaving the park, I did one more round of the David Milne show. I find that if I look intensively at things, my eyes get tired and my brain shuts down so that after about half an hour, I’m not really looking anymore.  On the other hand, I’m getting old. I forget things easily. If I take a second turn around the pictures, I retain what I’ve seen much better.

Back at the reproduction centre, I waited twenty minutes before Henry brought me out a sample of what it would look like for my approval. He had lofty hopes of me accepting it first time, but the poor lad was out of luck.

The company prides itself on reproductions that are almost impossible to identify when sitting beside the original.  I tend to work in subtle colours and that makes it quite difficult to make the adjustments. For each of the three images, I must have sent them back for tweaking about three times each.

Between each proofing, I read a book or fell asleep, nodding off in boredom as I waited for the next layer to improve the matching quality of the repro. I left the place at five, annoyed and tired from so much sitting around.

On my mind as it got later and later was the little bug the green grocer put in my ear the other day – local strawberry season would be over in two or three days.  I was astonished at this. I hadn’t yet bought any and I had wanted to put a lot of them down in my freezer for the winter.I wanted to stop by a farm on the way back home and get some, fresh picked during the day.

The Fraser Valley produces the best strawberries ever.  They are small, dark ruby red and sweet. They melt in your mouth, and unlike ones that are picked green, full of water, frozen en route – in short, imported – they may get soft, but they don’t disintegrate or go brown easily.

So at five, I swung onto Canada Way and drove down to the Kensington exit to join the highway going east. It was the height of rush hour and the cars were crawling along like ants marching back to the anthill.

I cranked up the CD player to listen to Glen Gould playing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. It was soothing after an afternoon of sluggish irritation, and as it finished and went onto the Schumann’s piano pieces, I had finally come to the Brunette interchange and merged into the United Boulevard lane, fretting all the while that the farm fruit stand would be closed before I got there.

The cars edged along the Mary Hill Bypass up to the Pitt River Bridge and then flowed easily over it. Unlike most evenings, the press of cars was lighter, moving like it would mid-afternoon. The new Golden Ears Bridge was open and apparently diverting much of the rush hour traffic from the Pitt interchange.

With minutes to spare, I swung into the farm called the Red Barn by locals. Curiously enough, it’s the only red one for miles around. Don’t they paint barns in red anymore?

As I parked up close to the fruit stand, a young man in his thirties who had been reading his book behind a table  in the main yard  leapt to attention.

We exchanged a few niceties about the weather which had been magnificent from eleven in the morning onwards.  All the while, I had been appreciating the good looks of this thirty-something man of recent immigrant stock who was tending the flats of freshly picked strawberries. He was most likely an athlete, his body build tall and lean somewhat like Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimmer. His hair was shaven completely, he had a broad smile and intelligent eyes. Here, indeed, was a looker.

“I blend a handful in the morning and toss them in my porridge,” he proclaimed.

“Me too, and if not strawberries, then blue berries. I’ll have enough for all winter,” I replied.

“We’ll have strawberries until the end of the week and then the blueberries will be coming,” he said. ” We are trying to get out of the fresh produce business and establish the secondary products – wine, juices and cordials, health products, dried fruits like the cranberries, gift packages and the like. The fresh berry products are a risky business. If it rains when they are ripe, the berries take on a lot of water and then when the sun comes out…”

“They split!” says I, showing by my finishing of his sentences that I’m raptly listening. ( Isn’t that what they teach in communication courses?)

“They explode!”  he said, hardly perturbed by my incorrect ending to his sentence. ” I’ve seen them burst wide open and splatter all over right in front of my eyes! Of course, they are useless then and we’ve lost our crop. Fancy by-products will allow us to make a better profit.”

I eyed the book he placed down on the counter when he had lept to attention upon my arrival. It was some kind of text book on managerial skills.  I mentally figured that he was probably at university getting his MBA in Blueberry Farm management.

“Wasn’t this the farm called The Red Barn a few years ago? Didn’t they have hens and ducks running around; and free range eggs for sale?”

“This is the one!’

“It sure looks a way better cared for,” I offered.

“The people who owned it got into trouble. They had a grow op in that building over there and got caught at it. They had to sell and we bought the property. Now we have this one, the next one which was our first and the one on the far side of it.”
I nodded my head and smiled broadly in admiration. Farm barons, I was thinking. These folks had worked hard to get what they had, and their thrift and labour had produced great results for them.

I bargained for a few baskets of soft berries. “I’m only using them for jam, ” I explained, and he obliged with two baskets of soft ones and the rest, really good ones of today’s picking.

When I got home half an hour later, I was on the phone lickety split to Mrs. Stepford but she wasn’t answering, so I left a cryptic message asking her if she wanted some of this season’s strawberries from the farm before they were gone.

Aimée phoned at eleven at night to fill me in on her up-coming travels and to recount her day. I returned the favour by telling her about the strawberry man.  “He’s just delicious to look at! It’s worth going down to get your berries there, if you want to put some in your freezer. They’re not going to be available much longer.”

And that’s how Aimée came to greet me at the door with her bouncy agreement on my choice of good looking men.

But that’s not all.

I picked the top off my strawberries, sugared and froze the good ones, stewed the soft ones in the microwave (three to five minutes in a covered big bowl depending on the strength of your microwave) and sweeten them afterwards; and drain off the liquid for a superb syrop for ice-cream or for just cake.

It took two hours to do up the case of strawberries. It’s a lot of time, but it’s worth it because these berries, well, they are just the best! When I saw how little it made in my freezer, though, I thought, what’s another two hours now for much foodie pleasure later.

An esoteric fact: They only pick berries every second day. It was Sunday just after the garage sale that I went down to see about another flat of berries that I could share with Mrs. Stepford.

The strawberry man was still there, tall, tanned  and smiling. A feast for the eyes.

“There are only these three flats until Tuesday,”  he said, fingering them, I wasn’t sure what for – whether he was trying to hold onto a few so he could sell them the next day or letting me know that if I wanted some, I’d better hurry up and get them today. His face let on no particular message; it was his more nervous hands shifting boxes and straightening them that was different from the first time I came.

Feeling a bit sassy, I said to him, “Have a lot of young women been coming down to buy berries in the last two days?”
He shrugged his shoulders and said there had been a few, but why did I ask?

With a wide grin, I said, “When I got back home, I called all my women friends. I told them it was worth coming to get their berries at the Red Barn; the berries were great;  and  that you were a feast for the eyes! I know at least one of them came and bought a flat, because she phoned to let me know that my taste in good looking men was just perfect!

I added,  with an apology for form’s sake only,” I can get away with saying these things. I'”m a grandmother now.”

He blushed strawberry red and laughed with me. “So that’s why I’m out of strawberries!”

“Well, thank you. Thank you very much. You are kind.” he said.

I told him that I’d tried his recipe for morning porridge – a puree of fresh strawberries mixed in with the oats and a touch of almond butter to make it slightly nuttier. “Absolutely delicious!” I commended him.

He carried my flat of berries to the trunk of my car and placed them in.

“Come back for the blueberries soon, ” he saluted me as I drove away.

It had started with a very frustrating day, Friday, and it had resulted in all this bit of happy Karma, with me happy, and him, and a slew of ladies with happy eyes.

Ain’t life wonderful?


June 26, 2009

When Mrs. Beeton lived, new industrialists were buying up houses from impoverished aristocrats. The parvenues were looked down upon by the lofty elite because they didn’t know how to behave in the world to which they aspired. They didn’t know how to manage their servants; they didn’t know what fork to use at the dinner table; they didn’t know what wines went with which dishes at the dinner table. Simply put, they didn’t know the aristocratic rules and regulations.

Mrs. Beeton to the rescue!

When the Industrialist Ecks Whyzed married the eighth daughter of the Earl of Whatnot, the rich esquire needed serious polishing. He was not alone. While the aristocracy declined, the upper  middle class arose. They could buy their way into country houses but they couldn’t buy their way into becoming blue blooded. Marrying into the upper crust didn’t help these new barons of industry integrate, but their progeny were quick to learn; and they coulc more easily mix and mingle.

Recognizing that this emerging class needed to be told what to do in order to fit in, Mrs. Beeton wrote a hugely successful tome called The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress which spelled out the various functions in a large household – the housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, butler, and dozens of other household positions.  (see Wikipedia). The book is a collectors’ item now, and if ever you get the chance to read through it, it will tickle your funny bone. Some of the directions seem hilarious in our current day mode of informality.

Similarly, when North America was populated with Europe’s almost-starving masses in the huge waves of migration that took place in the mid-1800’s and the early 1900’s, a common desire of these people was to rise out of poverty through education.

The first generation of immigration was bound to work in conditions that we would find intolerable now. Many of the immigrants had no idea what conditions they were coming to. They expected that they would find accommodations when they came, but instead, they found there was practically nothing.  The land had to be cleared. Houses had to be built. Farms had to be fenced and fields created then planted. Many on the prairies began their North American life in sod houses dug down into the ground, or in tents in cruel weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the immigrants could own land – something most of them could never aspire to in the Old Country, which ever one they came from. They were free, but they had so little that it hurt. In the first generation, acquiring a stability of home and occupation had to be the first goal. In the second, the immigrants were able to educate their children and education was a way out of poverty and subsistence living.

My grandfather on my mother’s side came to Canada with nothing but his youth and enthusiasm when he was seventeen, a younger son of a large family. He profited from the offer of free land and homesteaded in Plumas, Manitoba. The details are fuzzy. Did he sell his land and buy another or homestead another? There is no one left to ask. In any case, the homestead from Plumas was traded up for one in Gladstone, Manitoba. Then eventually, he was able to buy a piece of land in Winnipeg and build a house on it.

By the time he was thirty, he had bought two more pieces of land in Winnipeg and farmland outside the city limits that he rented to a farmer. It was planted with potatoes. He went home to England and proposed to Grandmother.

She arrived in 1900 to a small house on the largest of his properties.  Envisaging a large family, he built a two story house with prosperous amenities – gas light, indoor plumbing and telephone.He had come up in the world by dint of his frugality and hard labour, his entreprenerial spirit and his guiding vision. He wanted an education for his children and a much better life than that which he had come from fifteen years before.

During the Depression of the ‘Thirties, he was able to rent out the two houses he built on his properties. They paid for the taxes on all his properties. The living was not rich; but a certain stability and ease had been acquired.

(Get to the point! I can hear you all thinking)

My Aunt became a teacher at the age of nineteen. My mother was too young when she finished high school to go out teaching. She was the last child, brilliant, and having skipped two years of school, she was barely sixteen when she graduated. Grandfather found a way of sending her to University and she had her first degree by the time she was twenty. Then she taught school until she married.

My father similarly came from very modest beginnings, grandfather having also immigrated and homesteaded. His father, too, was adamant that the children acquire as much education as they could afford. Father became a Civil Engineer  and when he got his first long term job, he asked for Mother’s hand in marriage and got it. Soon he was teaching at the University of Toronto.

In one generation, both families had moved from the labouring class to the educated class.  This is not so remarkable, in many ways, because our family was not the only one with these aspirations and these success stories. Many of those pioneering families went on to produce architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, scientists, et cetera, et cetera – in a word – professionals.

Akin to the Industrial Revolution, the Educational Revolution had people moving out of their sphere of comfort in the social world.

Emily Post to the rescue!

Like Mrs. Beeton, Emily Post wrote in magazines of the day – and in books – about how one should behave in polite society.  My mother live by Emily Post’s rules.

One never telephoned before ten o’clock nor after eight at night. When setting a table, the knife blade is always turned inwards. The handle ends of the cutlery should be placed one inch from the edge of the table. If you are having a multi-course meal (soup, dinner, salad, dessert for example) then your cutlery is arranged from the outside inwards in the order that you eat your meal. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.

So that means, starting from the far right, soup spoon, dinner knife, plate; and from the left, dinner fork, salad fork and dessert fork.

Ladies remained seated when a man came into the room; men rose and waited until a woman, coming into the room, was seated. Men always took their hats off then they came inside. Women wore their hats at luncheons. The rules were legion. If you wanted to succeed, you learned them. If you didn’t, nobody but Emily Post would tell you and you might easily be ostracized for a slip of the tongue or an incorrect deference to some aspiring-to-be notable person.

My generation never lived through all the aspiring. It’s that third generational thing about fortunes. When we were young, we never understood the passion that lay beneath the desire to succeed to high places. All we saw were the formalities that were like ligatures on one’s freedom of activity.

“It’s just not done!” my mother would admonish me. “What will people think?”

I saw her write and rewrite  her replies to invitations, to tea, to weddings, to showers, to convocations. They had to be flawlessly spaced, flawlessly written, flawlessly composed in her flawless, Maclean’s handwriting.

I rebelled.I went Hippie. I swore (Bon Dieu! What would people think!”). When I lived on my own, all the niceties of table setting and invitation making went out the window – and I wasn’t alone. I’d taken my gloves off. I no longer had a hat. Peace, love and liberty.

The third generation has children. I wasn’t alone in rejecting so many formalities of the ‘Fifties and the  “Sixties. From my loft age, now, I look upon the upcoming youth and am often appalled at their language. How can we blame them? Almost every television program uses the language that a sailor would have been unable to say in decent society.  The formality has gone almost totally from our lives.

Mrs. Stepford, my next door neighbour, and I are the same age. We both still like to set a good table. We still go to theatre and concerts, but we no longer dress up. The only hats we will wear are for going out in the sun, and that’s more likely to be a straw one. Gloves are to keep the hands warm, not a de rigeur part of evening dress or luncheon garb.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” says Mrs. S when I come to visit. It comes in a mug with a shared spoon for sugar. We sit at a table strewn with the detritus of our daily occupations – the newspaper, a book of telephone numbers, bills and letters, advertising to be scanned and chucked, this morning’s dishes, if there hasn’t been time or inclination to get to them. I do the same.

And so, last Sunday, I went to see some of Mother’s aged friends – young in spirit; friends who were faithful visitors and supports of my dear Mom as she lay dying. These same friends living by that generation’s style and code of behaviour, invited me to tea.

As I sat at their maple dining table covered with a lace cloth, I had spread before me two plates of cheeses cut and arranged beautifully on the plate; another plate of Turkish Kisses, small drop cookies with dates and coconut; a long bread plate with two kinds of crackers; and a plate with pecan tarts. All the china matched. It was Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked so naturally, so politely in her soft, gracious way. It came to her as if she were born with the formalities and had lived them all her life. I was born to them and had struggled against them all my life.

“Please, help yourself to some cheese. Take some crackers. ” She poured the tea holding the lid with one hand, the other tipping the pot towards my cup and saucer. Each one of us had a little spoon for sugar and a little knife for spreading the cheese. I smiled.

Here was a way of life dying out. Or maybe, just dying out in my sphere, and I missed them. I momentarily thought of my mother and her pernicious attention to details.  (Oh no! Not those serviettes! They’re the wrong size! the wrong colour! They’re too frivolous for the occasion. Kay! Just what could you be thinking!)

I thought of her life-long passion for the formality that allowed her to become a matron of academic society. I had absorbed the upbringing and could function within the same spheres, but for myself, I had let go so much of the time intensive formalities and was glad, because I had been able to forge a different life, a life in art and creativity. I had been able to pass through many doors, both high and low, and manage.

After our little tea, Mr. White said, “Will you play the piano for us?”

I’ve never liked playing for others. I always have this sense that mother is standing two feet behind me criticising my mistakes.  But Mrs. White added her plea to his.

“It doesn’t matter what you play. Don’t worry. We just had the piano tuned and we’d like to hear someone use it. Pam (their daughter) comes by every weekend, but she doesn’t usually have time to play.”

So I sat on the adjustable piano stool – one of those ones with a turned post that you can twirl up and down for a change in height. I played one of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, probably the only piece that I know by heart. They made appropriate ooh’s and ah’s. and asked for more. I played another and got stuck in the middle somehow going round and round because I had no music to go by. I played Bumble Boogie until I got lost in it somewhere on the fourth page. I tried another Fugue and started the Raindrop Etude by Chopin but couldn’t get past the first page.

I finished the last bit with something I made up since I’d lost my place and couldn’t do otherwise. I turned on the stool. They were sitting side by side on their French Provincial settee, leaning forward to hear every note, holding hands so sweetly. I could have cried.

It was time to go and I did. They stood at the door  waiting till I got to the car. I got in and they waved me off as I drove away, thinking of the value of formality.