October 30, 2010

A Harrowing Tale of Halloween Hijinks

In my adult life have dressed in many different Halloween costumes, an evil nurse, a go-go dancer, a fortune teller, The Burger Queen, etc., but none of these costumes attracted attention like one in which I attended a dance in the late 1980's.

I have never been what you would call a 'Marilyn Monroe' type. I am better known for my glowing health, a cheerful spirit, and good teeth.  That must have been why, when I showed up to the party dressed as a politician who shall go unnamed, I got the reaction I did. 

Everyone loved to hate this particular politician, especially in my town.  She had an awful nasal whine, an uptight persona, a full head of dyed blonde hair, and her government had been responsible for closing down our university in the mid 1980's. I couldn't think of a better costume idea for the dance at the Student Union Building, and I put together an outlandish outfit for the occasion.  A good friend of the family had an enormous costume collection, which I had borrowed from several times.  I decided I would be the politician attending a ball to meet the Queen and went all out.  I chose a long sparkly sleeveless dress which had been tailored for a well-endowed woman and so I stuffed the chest area to the point of capacity.  I wore long white gloves and plenty of gaudy jewellery, strappy silver sandals, and a poufy blonde wig.  I wore an inordinant amount of blue eyeshadow and red lipstick and removed my glasses.  As I left the house I took a last look at my reflection and decided I looked absolutely hilarious.  I had just endured a heart-breaking but much needed break-up with my boyfriend, and my sisters and I were fully prepared to enjoy ourselves that evening.

When we arrived at the S.U.B. we were greeted by Didier, a Swiss-French art student whom I had known for a year.  Fully prepared to be received with a laugh, I entered the room in character and bought my ticket from Didier.  I was not greeted with a laugh and a good-natured 'great costume!', no.  Instead, Didier looked me up and down with a bit of a leer, and said quietly, "We must dance later."  Hmmm.  Not quite the reaction I was expecting, so I raised my eyebrow at him and moved on.  I had barely had a sip of my drink when someone asked me to dance.  Never before had I been asked to dance as many times as on that night.  Most of my partners were good fellows that I had met at least once, and I had a super time, but I maintained a slightly uncomfortable feeling that they had forgotten who I really was.  I never really knew if it was I they were asking to dance, or my alter ego, 'Grace', so when one of my dance partners asked me out on a date for the following night, I declined.  I wasn't ready to be 'out there' in any case.

When I went home and removed my costume, I felt relieved.  For a short time I had felt what other women like the real Marilyn must have felt, and I was glad to be me.

Okay, so my tale is not exactly 'harrowing', but it is a little unnerving.  And I like alliteration.

The photo is not the real Marilyn Monroe of course, but is a model advertising a 'Marilyn' wig.

October 26, 2010

What're a Few Trees?

I was in a photographic mood yesterday.  I decided that I was not using my camera enough lately and because I wanted to take a couple of photos for this post I ventured out in the drizzle to do so.  The light was not very good due to the greyness of the day, but I did what I could before it really started coming down. 

Our town is filled with trees of all varieties.  We have been home to a Federal agricultural research station for more than a hundred years and everywhere you look, there are ginkos, magnolias, white and pink dogwoods, copper beeches, every kind of maple, tulip trees, and a lot of other varieties I cannot name.  Across the street from us is one of the most stunningly beautiful copper beeches in the neighbourhood.  I cannot begin to express how much joy it is to watch that tree change with the seasons.  Last year the neighbour built a very tall garage for his boat.  An arborist was called in and began cutting off all the lower branches.  I immediately rushed outside and found the neighbour.  He assured me they were only trimming the lower half to make room for the garage (which I secretly call 'the fire hall'). 

Not so long ago a simple, white 1950's house sat elegantly in the middle of one of the prettiest yards in the town.  What made the yard so pretty were several mature trees, including a locally famous huge pink magnolia, and a well-kept lawn.  The residents of the house were quite elderly and employed a local landscaping business to mow, trim, and maintain their shrubs and lawn.  Just recently the house went up for sale, was sold in a week, and within days I saw a crew beginning what looked like a thinning of the trees on both sides of the house.  I wondered if the new owners had decided the yard needed more light, and I could understand that.  A few days later I walked by again and saw a certain local figure standing on the property overseeing the proceedings.  Several trees were now completely cut down and it appeared the lots on either side of the house, which was now rented out, were about to be nearly emptied of trees.  The shrubs and the beautiful magnolia which fill the lot of the rented house were left basically intact, though the magnolia had been given a major pruning.

The 'certain local figure' is a property developer who plans to build three new houses on the bare lots. Our town has a land use plan which preserves much of the agricultural land and encourages high-density new- builds, which is good, but there is absolutely no law protecting trees.  I remembered a Japanese student from my days as an ESL assistant, asking me why Canadians were so concerned about protecting forests when there were trees everywhere he looked.  As I stood in the rain looking at the stumps and rounds of wood across the street I wondered if I was being too sensitive. True, the city had just planted a neat and tidy row of baby trees all along the boulevard, the entire length of the street - although I couldn't help cynically imagining it was some sort of ploy to soften public opinion as a rather angry letter-to-the-editor had already appeared in the paper. 

I think I, and many other local citizens are upset for a few different reasons:  there was absolutely no public consultation before the cutting started and I have yet to see any statement of plans by the developer; we have lost about half an acre of beautiful, mature trees that were enjoyed by everyone in the neighbourhood, not just the owners of the white house; It seems that in this town, if it isn't in the museum, it's not worth a thought.  It's out with the old and in with the new.  I know the new houses will contain families and they will most likely plant shrubs, but their yards will be very small.  We are quickly losing many of the older houses and their trees as high density development charges ahead.  The road into town, which used to be lined with large properties and older homes of character, is fast being filled with cookie cutter townhouses.  I suppose this kind of progress is inevitable as more and more people move out to the Valley from the cities of Vancouver and Surrey, and they need homes, too, but it is still hard to witness the transformation. When I moved here, I never thought of this town as suburbia, the definition of which, according to Alfred E. Neuman is 'a place where they cut down all the trees and then name the streets after them,' but it certainly is starting to look like it in places.  I'm truly grateful that we can still take walks and runs and bike rides on the farm roads, where the fields and trees provide a much needed sense of space and beauty.

The other day I noticed yet another change on the street in question.  The house directly across the street from the white house is now for sale - further proof I'm not the only one a bit disheartened by this recent turn of events.

On a lighter note, Halloween is approaching and we gathering pumpkins, assembling costumes and making decorations.  My eldest daughter made a great skeleton out of plastic milk jugs on Sunday afternoon. She found the instructions on the web.  Note his friend the hatted spider to his left.

And while she made 'Bones Malone' and I prepared for a meeting, her dad watched the football game on his one day off of the week.  Yup, it's fall!

October 19, 2010

One More Baby

There was a time when my husband and I believed three kids were enough for our family.  Our first three children were all born within three and a half years and I am the first to admit that the third child, often sick in her first six months of life with some kind of respitory illness or another, just about sent me over the edge a few times.  It is during those moments when decisions born of fatigue and frustration rear their ugly heads:  I will never have another baby. NEVER!

Time moved on, however, and life became easier.  My third child, Emma, finally slept through the night by age two and slowly, gradually, I awoke to a renewed version of myself, one with more energy and patience.  By that time I was twenty-eight and we had lived nearly a year at Strathcona Park Lodge on Vancouver Island.  The lodge was a tiny, fairly remote community and to combat cabin fever I had begun to jog a few miles out the highway as a means of escape.  In the warm months the community swelled with beautiful, young twenty-something employees and I revelled in evenings out with them to parties, movies, wing nights at the pub in town, etc.  I also took my children to visit friends in town and spent a lot of time driving to and from.  It was on one of these return trips that my kids and I were involved in a car accident.  A man driving a large pickup truck ran a stop sign when his brakes failed and made a left turn onto the highway in front of me.  I hadn't enough time to stop and slammed into his rear left wheel with the front of my car.  My children, all in the back seat, were fine, but I was injured and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.  It took ten months of physiotherapy, massage therapy, and a customized exercise program before I could even think about running again. 

During those ten months of pain and recovery, I began to look at life a little differently.  My car accident had a sobering affect on me.  Up until then I was so busy trying to reconcile being a young, vibrant woman of the world with being a mother to three small, needy children, that I was often making decisions that were convenient for me, rather than what was best for them.  I had good intentions, but my selfishness was continually getting in the way. I began to see life as being a precious gift, and because I had not died in the accident I was being given another chance to get it right.  I know it sounds trite, but that doesn't make it any less true.  Fortunately, I am married to a loving, faithful, patient man.  When I asked him later how he put up with me during that time before the accident he said, "I was just waiting for you to make your way through it, as I knew you would."   

It was so good to be running again, and I began piling on the mileage.  I looked forward to signing up for the Comox Valley half marathon and was invited to join a trail running group in Campbell River.  I was strong and a little too thin, but life was rich and I was happy with my children who were now seven, six, and four.  Everything was going smoothly, and manageably, but I began to secretly yearn for a baby.  I suppose I am a little like the mother in the Steve Martin film Parenthood:  "I LIKE the rollercoaster!"  When asked if I would ever have another baby, I would say with a laugh:  "In a heartbeat, if it could be a girl - a sister for Emma." My husband was not convinced we needed any more children, however.  "Isn't three enough?  Besides, we are finally starting to be able to do things with them like go for hikes, and they are getting more independent now."  He was busy with work, playing on a soccer team, and coaching our childrens' teams in town. Theoretically I agreed with him, but I still looked at other people's babies with longing in my heart.

One Sunday in March I joined the trail running group for a long run.  About half way into it I had to stop.  One of the women came back to me and asked me what was wrong.  "I'm just really hungry for some reason."  I had already consumed an energy packet, but was feeling overheated and ravenous.  She shared an energy bar with me and I finished the run strongly.  My next run was on a cold spring day and I had several layers of clothing on.  I had begun to suspect I was pregnant but was in stage two of  'Rebecca's Five Stages of Dealing with It':

Stage one:    suspicion
Stage two:    denial
Stage three:  conviction and slight panic
Stage four:   acceptance and plenty of throwing up of breakfast into the toilet
Stage five:   sense of well-being and glowing excitement

I soon became so overheated I had to stop and shed several layers.  Early the next morning, before the kids were awake, I knew it was time to tell my husband about the baby.  I went downstairs where he was making the fire and gave him the news. He took me in his arms and held me close while I smiled with something like joy through my tears. We both knew the challenges of having an infant, but we were in this together.

By Mother's Day in May I was over morningsickness (misery times ten), and when asked I said I knew my baby would be another girl.  Several people joked that I just said that because I wanted her to be a girl, but I just knew.  On October 17 at 7:50 p.m. Katherine was born after only 50 minutes of labour - hers was what they call a precipitous birth.  She exploded onto the scene of our family life and has never let up.  From almost her first days she has been trying to keep up to her older siblings.  To them, she was a the best present I could give them and they took to looking after her from the start.  They all helped so much that she became, in every sense, 'our' baby.  Katie began talking at nine months, and has always expressed herself in a manner beyond her years; ie. when she was two and a half and attending the second of her brothers' spring music recitals, Katie looked at me and said, "When is it going to be my turn to go up there?"  She is keenly interested in music and plays the piano, and loves performing in plays.  As the youngest, she has a deep, deep love for her family members.  It is like she has put us all in her pocket and carries us around with her.  Whenever any of us is sad, she is sad.  When we are happy, she is happy for us.  When her dad is tired after work, she climbs on his lap and strokes his cheek.  When I am busy cooking or working she says things like, "You take such good care of us, Mommy."  And I say back, "I'm so glad we still have a little one."

But she is not so little anymore.  Yesterday, Katie turned nine.  She had a small, manageable party ("I don't like big parties, Mom, because it's too hard to make sure everyone is having a good time.") at the swimming pool followed by a favourite supper of Fettucini Alfredo and Caesar salad.  Her birthday was a relaxed affair and when I asked her how she enjoyed it when I was kissing her goodnight, she said, "It was good, and I'm so glad Daddy didn't have to work and could come swimming."

October 13, 2010

Going Against the Current

While I spent much of Sunday in happy solitude baking pumpkin pies and apple blackberry crisp for Monday's Thanksgiving dinner, my family took a drive out to the salmon spawning channels at Weaver Creek, which is a truly lovely spot near the Chehalis First Nation Reserve on the Harrison River.  We try to get there every year, but this year my husband, always the naturalist, was extra motivated since the Sockeye salmon have returned in record numbers after the experts' initial gloomy prediction.  No one seems to know exactly why the Sockeye run is so great this year, but one thing was clear when my family returned home to report on their outing:  the amount of tourists at the spawning channels almost equalled the number of fish. 

The spawning channels are man-made shallow switchbacks with gravel bottoms and rows and rows of trees for shelter and shade.  A visit to Weaver Creek is always a pleasant way to spend an hour or two, even though the scene is a bittersweet one with the red and green fish struggling against the current to return to their birth place, many of them dying along the way.  The walk from the parking lot takes visitors alongside the channels and ends up at the creek where the salmon must leap several feet over a manufactured waterfall called a fish ladder to make it into the channels.  The reason for the tough entrance exam is to maintain as strong a species as possible; strong fish create more strong fish.  It is quite the scene to watch the salmon leap and violently shake their muscular tails in order to gain the height required to make it into the first tank. 

While I enjoy watching the concentration of fish in the channels, eventually I must always go over the bank, away from the tourists and down to the actual creek.  Sometimes, depending on the time of year, there can be dead, mouldering fish all over the creek bank, but if we are early enough in the season we can enjoy the quiet fall scene without the carnage:  the meandering creek with water rippling over boulders strewn here and there, the natural riparian plant life dressed in its fall finery, and the occasional languishing salmon that has managed to make it past the weir, which is designed to keep them out of this particular part of the creek.

The huge sockeye run this year had almost everyone I know here out fishing for their allowable daily catch of two salmon during the short open season, and freezers all over the Fraser Valley are brimming with frozen fillets.  A group of boys would cycle past my house every day after school with fishing rods in hand, and joy on their faces.  The mighty Fraser river was packed with boats, nets, and people in hipwaders, and the rural roadsides were lined with vehicles.

The local Stolo First Nation people value the salmon above all other creatures.  From infancy they are taught to revere the cycle of the red fish.  Their artwork is full of depictions of this cycle and its importance spiritually and literally to their culture.  A native artist once brought a cooked salmon to his art opening and urged me to try the salmon roe.  I tasted the small red caviar and an incredibly oily, fishy sensation went down my throat.  I can't say I enjoyed it, but I could see how it would be the food to eat when fattening up for a cold winter.

When we lived on Vancouver Island I learned to bake a stuffed salmon and did so fairly regularly.  Pink salmon, a variety light in colour and less rich than other varieties, was sold in season for nineteen cents per 100 grams (about a dollar a pound) and was incredibly available, so it seemed the thing to cook.  I have never loved salmon, though.  Not like so many other people.  When I was a student, one of my roomates was a fish biologist with constant access to free salmon.  He barbecued it with a teriyaki marinade, and it was good, but I think too much of a good thing is well, too much.  I have been to several outdoor picnics that involve cooking large fillets of salmon skewered on a long stick and placed right next to a fire.  While the guests raved about the fish, I ate it, thinking, "Yeah, it's salmon."

My friend Bridged belongs to a prestigious fishing club in Campbell River called The Tyee Club.  Members must use only a row boat to fish from, and every year the largest salmon caught (they are called Tyee due to their enormous size) is dipped in ink and pressed onto paper for an imprint.  Bridged won the trophy a few years ago and now, an enormous framed print of a thirty-odd pound fish decorates her house's entrance.  She also ended up with a truck load of smoked salmon as she was allowed to keep the fish for eating.  She could not have been more thrilled, but then, Bridged grew up fishing for and eating salmon.  Maybe that is my problem:  I didn't grow up on the Coast, relying on and thus revering The Sacred Red Fish.

I confess I haven't got a single salmon in my freezer.  We are not a fishing family, and when my eldest daughter eats fresh salmon, particularly Sockeye, she usually becomes ill; it is quite rich.  I spent some time in the grocery store the other day wondering if I should buy a three pound Sockeye for fifteen dollars.  I was feeling badly about not taking advantage of the big salmon run and no one had offered me a salmon from their own catch (not that I asked), so I hemmed and I hawed, I considered my husband's opinion (which was that we didn't love salmon enough to pay fifteen dollars for one), and then I walked away from the fish section.  My freezer is already full of beef and chicken from a local farm and I try to make half of our meals vegetarian, so we can only eat so much meat, fowl and fish.  This makes us somewhat of an anomaly around here; to live on the Coast is to eat freshly caught salmon, and lots of it.  My family's 'wild pacific salmon' comes out of a store-bought tin, already caught, gutted, cooked and with no bones to choke on.  I generally mix it with bread crumbs, egg and spices to make salmon croquettes or a type of salmon wellington with mashed potatoes as a cover instead of pastry.  It doesn't taste quite so 'fishy' that way.

Personally, I am happy for all the local people who rely on their yearly catch of salmon.  There is a bounty this year for eating fresh, for freezing, canning in jars, drying, smoking and making into a rich delicacy called candied salmon.  While I am full of gratitude for a good salmon run for their sakes, I am resigned to cheering from the sidelines...and hope the good harvest makes for good prices on tinned salmon this winter.

The photo is by Peter Essick for National Geographic.

October 5, 2010

Celebration Time: Part Two

Fall always seems to me a time of renewal and a natural time for celebration.  There is the change of seasons with cooler nights gradually transforming the landscape into one rich in gold, deep red and burnt orange, and the settling in to welcome routines after the transitional nature of September.  When I was in school I looked forward to fall with great excitement, like my eldest daughter does now:  "I can't wait until it gets colder. Then I can wear hats and cozy sweaters and my new down vest, and cuddle up in blankets with a book!"  I think she has a wee twinge of her mother's romantic inclinations; she was also born in the fall like her little sister and me.

This past weekend we were invited to a friend's nut picking party.  Our friend has a few acres just outside of town, with a grove of several hazelnut trees, the produce of which she was happy to share this year.  This is hazelnut growing territory and we use several pounds a year in homemade granola and other baking.  My husband works on Saturdays so we didn't arrive at the party until almost twilight.  As I performed the necessary social rituals with various guests, my husband and youngest daughter took their pails to the grove and combed the ground for nuts.  When our daughter tired of harvesting I joined my husband and picked out the small brown smooth-shelled nuts plentiful among the leaves and mushrooms.  We gathered two pailsful before it became too dark to see the ground.  After the delicious potluck meal of spicy chile and focaccia bread, various salads, home grown pears, cheese, and moist pumpkin cake enjoyed out of doors, a large bonfire was made by our hosts down in an open part of the property.  Marshmallows were roasted with the longest sticks ever seen for that purpose, and later on our hosts brought out a pot of hot apple cider that had been simmering away with whole nutmeg.  I think my husband and I enjoyed the evening even more since we had both endured a long, tough day with our noses to the grindstone, and we both felt released from cares which had, just an hour or two before, seemed all-consuming.

The next day a small group of us went for a hike to Whipoorwill Point, a spot where a local river meets a local lake.  All along the trail leaves fell with increasing determination and we knew it was now fall in earnest.  We found several kinds of mushrooms, even some that looked almost like chanterelles, a delicious, buttery fungi we occasionally enjoyed on Vancouver Island, but we didn't know enough to risk a taste test.  We had always received the chanterelles as a gift from some friends who kept their source a secret. 

Next weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, and a time for further celebration.  We hope the weather will be fine as we will go to the farm of some dear friends and stuff ourselves with roasted turkey, scalloped potatoes, the last of the garden veggies and pumpkin pie and then go for a long walk all around the fields, just like we did last year. 

I suppose it may seem a bit odd to talk about renewal when the year is waning and my part of the world is tucking itself in for its winter sleep. As a parent with school aged children who enjoy a long summer holiday,  the fall is a time of new beginnings - a new school year with all its activities, a new year of music lessons, concerts and recitals, the count down to Christmas, and the count up to Easter and my son Ian's high school graduation.  As one year fades, another rises up to take its place, and there is great hopefulness in that. I suppose that is the reason I chose to start my blog in September of last year.

My friend Alistair, in his comment to my last post, asked me to list the top five posts of which I was the most proud.  Since I knew Al's assignment would take me some time, I thought I would make it part of my next post:  this one.  I scrolled down through my seventy posts of the past year and narrowed my list down to about fifteen.  I let that list 'sit' for a few days and now I look at it trying to choose just five.  It's difficult because I am enough of an amateur to feel rather attached to all fifteen posts and to not want to deny any of them the spotlight.  They are like my little children after all, and having created them I don't want to play favourites.  However, I have decided to get on with the job and just select a cross-section of posts to highlight. 

1. "I Had a Farm in Africa..." was one of my first posts and written from notes and thoughts I had about the family of my friend, author Antonia Banyard, who did and does have a farm in Africa.  Toni and I grew up together and her family seemed incredibly exotic to me, and incredibly classy.

2.  The Turning Point is the story of how I woke up one day to the fact that my children needed more from me than just 'survival' parenting.  It's also the story of my family living and growing together for five years at a rustic outdoor education lodge on Vancouver Island.

3.  Bridges and Tunnels is about the geography of my province of British Columbia, about a favourite spot we like to visit, and on a particular day, how that place made me think of some difficult times we were going through as a family.

4.  A Child's Christmas in the Kootenays is a post about my childhood in Nelson.  My family did not have a car.  We walked and hiked and biked everywhere and were incredibly fit, and I tell of one Christmas when we went out in the deep snow, on Christmas night, to go sledding.

5.  A Trip from Bountiful is a sort of journalistic piece about two Fundamentalist Mormon girls I met at college.  This post garnered the most comments I've ever received and the most attention overall.  I try not to judge the young women, who were training to be teachers for their polygamist community of Bountiful, but simply present them in relation to my own experience back then of being a young college student with all the choices in the world and a future of bright possiblilities before me.

Happy Fall!