June 30, 2011

Tea for Two and for You!

My daughter Emma, who shot and edited this little tea-making video, which I think shows promise (she is thinking about a career in film these days), celebrated the last day of school by going out to a local cafe with her friends and enjoying a London Fog - Earl Grey tea with steamed milk and a shot of vanilla syrup. Hold on - when I think about last days of school for the summer, I generally imagine an exodus of kids in shorts and sundresses heading to the convenience store to buy a crushed ice drink. Well, we are still waiting for the summer part of 'summer holidays' to kick in. Every time we look at the two weather websites we frequent, we are assured that even though there is a chance of rain today, two weeks of solid sunshine and warmer temperatures are just around the corner. As my friend Sue pointed out, perhaps the ongoing promise of better weather is a plot by the weather people to prevent the population from harming themselves en masse because those solid two weeks of sunshine have yet to materialize. We, in the southwest corner of Canada have been following the carrot in front of our noses for the past two months and never quite reaching it - so far this spring/summer we have yet to see three days of decent weather in a row. It is still cozy up-with-a-cup-of-tea-and-a-book weather, still 'put on a sweater and let's go for hot chocolate' weather, and we are starting to get, as my mother would say, a bit 'owly'.

They tell us this Canada Day/Independence Day weekend is supposed to be the start of a warming trend. I hope to God that is true because when I was driving my son to the golf course this morning I was forced to turn on the heat in the car, which seems ridiculous in June but in these parts, not unheard of. Our climate is already a humid one. Add pouring rain and cool temperatures and the damp begins to invade our bones. Last year the spring was equally wet and cool, and summer was not that much better. Our tomatoes and garlic and basil all grew, but they never really took off like they have in other summers. On the other hand, the lawn is lush and emerald green and grows like a hay field in this weather, and I don't have to spend my evenings watering the garden amid the mosquitoes which have just hatched with a gleeful vengeance this week.

Canadians are known, I believe, for two things: being nice and well-mannered in foreign countries, and complaining about the weather. Trust me, we complain when it is cool and wet, and when the sun comes out and warms things up we complain it is too hot and dry - though we will apologize for doing so. Even the Tim Hortons coffee and donut chain has commercials on the subject. Now that I think of it, a post lamenting the weather seems like a fitting way to celebrate Canada Day, eh? I have invited some friends for a barbecue tomorrow evening. That seems rather optomistic of me considering the weather, but it won't be the first time my husband has flipped burgers in the rain.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived in Ottawa today and will celebrate July First in our nation's capital tomorrow. I hope for three things for their visit: 1) The sun shines on them with a nice temperature, say in the mid to high 20's celcius without too much of that awful Ontario humidity 2) The Canadian public behaves as beautifully as they generally do for visiting royals, and 3) that someone makes them a decent cup of tea now and then. My girls are up to the challenge.

I also wish my parents a very happy 52nd Wedding Anniversary tomorrow!

The music for Emma's video is 'Glass of Water' by Andrew Bird.

June 23, 2011

Let's Dance!

My hometown must have had a large Scottish contingent, for when I was a young girl the annual Highland Games were a highlight and the local Scottish Country Dance troupe entertained at several events throughout the year. I remember watching in fascination as tall, elegant Mrs. Neville moved gracefully among her partners in the dance wearing a long tartan skirt, white blouse and lace up black leather Highland Dance slippers. The Scottish Country Dance troupe moved as a whole, weaving in and out to the music and creating a beautiful image in my young mind that I would never forget.

A couple of years after my husband and I and our young family had moved to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island I saw an advertisement in the newspaper inviting new members to join the local Scottish Country Dancers. I was always eager to dance in any case, but with fond memories of watching the dances in my childhood, I called the number in the ad straight away. The teacher happened to be the mother of a childhood friend whose family had returned to the Island a few years before - what a small world! I was only able to join the group for a few months before we moved farther north up the Island, following a new job offer for my husband, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I may have been the youngest dancer but by far the least experienced. The dances were fairly intricate because they involved footwork and patterns, and for me, a fairly steep learning curve as I had done little folk dancing, but the ladies and gentlemen were true ladies and gents and guided me along gently and with good humour. I had a ballet/modern dance background so my feet found the steps before too long and the necessary gracefulness followed. Like Eliza Doolittle, "I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more," but once we had moved north, I knew I could not realistically continue with the troupe when it would involve a three hour round trip. Our third child was still a baby at the time.

When we had lived through one glorious spring and a golden, fragrant summer at the lodge on the North Island I began to hear about the annual Folk Weekend which took place in the lodge building affectionately called 'the barn' each November. Workshops were held throughout the weekend in a variety of disciplines including theatre for children, bodhran (a Celtic drum) lessons, and instruction in making natural remedies from local flora. We took part in many of the activities during Folk Weekend, but the highlight of the weekend, at least for me, was the Saturday night Contra dance. I have consulted a Contra Dancing website for help in explaining what a Contra Dance is for the uninitiated:

"A caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances. A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The figures are similar to those of old-time square dancing. The figures are combined in different ways for each different dance.

The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone."

People of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to dance and socialize. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles."

Contra dancing requires no previous dance training, just a sense of rhythm (and is not even very particular about that), and a desire to participate, dance with many partners and have fun. Most of the dances require only a walking step and an ability to follow the caller's direction. Contra dancing is more about fun than finesse, more about participation than performance.

Our friend Mike and I getting the timing right!

Last weekend my family and I, after several years living here, were able to again take part in a Contra dance. Our friend Marilee, when she lived in Vancouver used to belong to a dance band which played fiddle tunes, many of which Marilee wrote, for Contra dances. Marilee and her husband Stefan celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary and decided to hold a family dance, hiring the members of her old band to come and play for it. Around fifty of us gathered in the Anglican church hall late on Sunday afternoon and danced for two hours straight. We learned dance after dance, including standbys like The Virginia Reel, and some simple English and Scottish Country Dances. Laughter rang through the hall as we all, many of us strangers to each other, repeatedly missed our step or clapped hands on the wrong beat, but no one minded. When the dancing was done, it was time for supper. Everyone pitched in to set up the tables and decorate them with ivy, glittering stars and seashells. We certainly had worked up an appetite and ate the delicious potluck meal (there were many gifted cooks and bakers in that crowd) with enthusiasm. My daughters thoroughly enjoyed themselves, glad to be included in the celebration. The dancing was all they could talk about the next morning. They found it strange (and a bit hilarious) to have danced with so many different partners, as the dances are set up to introduce and mix as many people as possible. They had danced with young children, they had danced with middle aged women and elderly men.They were also surprised at their dad, who had danced every dance!

Marilee's Contra dance made me think about the tradition of community dances. I don't know the history of dancing in detail, but I do know that English and Scottish Country Dancing have been around for hundreds of years and that Contra dancing is a North American countrified, simplified version of both. The fact that it was commonplace for whole villages to gather in the assembly rooms to dance together on a regular basis is something I wish we still did today. I think it would greatly add to the health and sociability of the community, but perhaps that happens in other forms today.

When I was searching for information on Contra Dancing I came across a few videos - and like I said previously, Contra dancing is more about participation than performance. I soon moved on to some videos of Scottish Country Dancing, and they proved to be a bit more enjoyable to watch. The one I include here reminds me very much of the dancing I used to watch Mrs. Neville and her troupe do in Lakeside Park during the Highland Games all those years ago.


June 16, 2011

A Labour of Love is Never Lost

Last year, before we cut back the cable to the bare minimum, my daughter Emma's favourite channel was The Food Network, and her favourite show was Ace of Cakes.  She loved watching the team of Baltimore cake artists create what looked less like cakes and more like sculptures, using a substance called fondant.  Fondant is moldable, rollable, dye-able icing which is used to give a smooth, sculptured finish to professionally made cakes for weddings and other special occasions. It is made much like candy since it involves the heating of sugar water to an exact temperature and consistency. Fondant-making is not for the faint of heart in the kitchen, but my daughter, who had seen the senior cooking class make an easy version out of a marshmallow base was determined to make fondant from scratch for a Father's Day cake for her dad.

As my sister Monica is wont to say, "There is the ideal and then there is the real."

Since our Father's Day weekend is jam-packed with planned activity Emma asked if last weekend would be a better time to make the cake. I thought it was, so on Saturday with her sister as videographer and myself on standby in case of a culinary emergency, Emma made the cake and then started the fondant. The first step, heating the sugar water to the correct temperature and 'soft ball' stage was the easiest. When the right consistency was achieved, Emma poured it into a large rimmed baking sheet to cool.  After waiting about a  half an hour she followed the Joy of Cooking instructions to the letter and began to stir the mixture in a figure eight motion. She stirred, and she stirred, and she stirred some more. She appealed for help. I stirred, and stirred and stirred some more. Then we kneaded and kneaded and kneaded the fondant. There was icing sugar everywhere, and I think it took us an hour and a half to get the right, white consistency. Exhausted, but happy, Emma put the fondant in the fridge to ripen and spent another hour cleaning up one incredibly sticky kitchen.

The next afternoon, after exercising her horse, Emma came home to decorate the cake.  I had a meeting so she would have to wrestle with the fondant herself. Her dad was forbidden to enter the kitchen, so even he could not be of service. When I returned from my meeting, Emma was still cleaning up another sticky mess and looking pale and spent. When I asked about the cake she said it was in the downstairs fridge.  She also announced that she would NEVER, EVER attempt to make fondant again; it was TOO HARD! The cake was lovingly decorated with a fondant tennis racket on a lavendar background, with the words 'Dad' scrolled on one side. I could see how much work had gone into the cake and hugged Emma, who, though laughing, was visibly frustrated with the outcome of the project. The result had not matched her expectation and hopes for a Father's Day gift. Emma suggested we have the cake then and there, so I went out to the garden to tell my husband what was waiting for him in the house. When the cake was presented with everyone gathered around the kitchen table, Emma could see how pleased and touched her dad was that she had gone to all that trouble for him and she forgot about her disapointment in the result. She still said she would never attempt fondant again, and we agreed that mere sugar, water and foodcolouring were not worth all the stress (and buttercream tastes better anyway), but her effort had been appreciated and the results, praised by the very person they were meant to please.

As almost everyone knows by now, riots erupted on the streets of downtown Vancouver last night after the Vancouver Canucks hockey team lost the final game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My daughters and I returned from the youngest's piano recital to see the televised reports of cars set on fire, alcohol fuelled fights between rioters who defiantly refused to obey the police orders to leave the downtown or be arrested, the smashing of shop windows, reports of looting, etc., etc. etc. At one point we watched two police cars being trashed by a gang of hooligans - mainly young men in their early twenties, by the look of them. Male after male jumped up on the cars to try to smash the windows or make dents in the roof. A really young boy joined in on the action and climbed up on top of one of the cars.  Just as he began to jump, and adult male came over, pulled him down off the police car and hauled him away and the boy did not bother trying to resist. I am not sure if the man was the boy's father, uncle, friend, or just someone who knew this kid should not get caught up in the destruction. Soon after that scene, someone threw a firecracker in the car and the rioters achieved their goal, which was to set the cars on fire and see them explode into flame. The police did not bother stopping the burning of their property, for public safety was their main concern and they were far outnumbered by the crowd. The crowd was full of people with cameras, taking pictures and video of the proceedings. I believe strongly that their presence did little to help the police at the time, but perhaps a few of them will come forward with evidence which will lead to arrests.  The newspaper was full of photos this morning, clear images of young men jacked up on alcohol, testosterone, and perhaps other substances as well, involved in criminal acts of all kinds. What a mess they created, and for what noble, or at least understandable, cause? For none.

As Father's Day approaches I want to express my appreciation to my dad, my husband, and the other fine fathers and father-figures I know. I am so grateful my brothers and I, my children and their friends, had, or have someone in their lives like that unnamed man who pulled the young boy off the police car, someone who cared enough to nip that kind of behaviour in the bud, and offer a healthier way of finding some excitement in their lives.

Happy Father's Day to all!

June 9, 2011

A World of Hope and a World of Fears

Perhaps people talk about the 'good old days' mainly because they were the days when they were young and strong and the world seemed full of things to explore rather than things to fear. I am sure that when I was young my parent's generation pitied mine for our short attention spans and far too easy time of it, just as my generation pities our children's. I don't think I could be accused of romanticizing my childhood, but I do realize, looking back, I spent a great deal of time out of doors with friends and family, a great deal of time reading and being engaged in creative activity, a fair amount watching television or studying. My husband and I have tried to model our children's upbringing on the good parts of our own, but I admit it has not been easy to maintain a balance of enough work, rest, play, fresh air, study, scheduled activity, time to just 'be' and sit-down family dinners in these times of a million little distractions. We managed to keep video games out of our house until fairly recently, and I believe that to have been for the best for our family, but the digital world is a world of wonder, and a bit of a rabbit hole at times.

At my son's high school graduation last weekend, my friend Ron, a school board trustee and technology enthusiast, made a speech to the group of young men and women decked out in ball gowns and tuxedos. He talked about how in the past ten years technology has changed the world to such an extent that it has made the former ways of communication, research, and recreation almost unrecognizable to the present generation. Their knowledge base has expanded exponentially and the results are both a blessing and a challenge. As he spoke, I began to think about the future of this group of graduates.We, their parent's generation grew up with the idea of a large world with parts still relatively unreachable by the touch of modern man. Now, it truly is 'a small world after all,' thanks to global communication networks and multi-national corporations. The sentiment 'there's so much that we share, that it's time we're aware' has come true in a big way, but perhaps not exactly as the Disney theme song writer had in mind.

The school principal echoed my friend's thoughts in her own speech, expanding on them further to point out the present generation had lived a very different childhood, overall, than that of their parents. Their lives were packed with extra-curricular lessons and play-dates.  They had been delivered to the school door and chauffeured to the after school activity.  They would find it a challenge to branch out on their own without the preparation through exploratory experiences enjoyed by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who spent entire days away from home at the age of ten, were told to return for supper, only to head outdoors again for a game of hide-and-seek with the entire neighbourhood (honestly though, sometimes we could have used a little more supervision).  This generation would have to navigate their way through largely uncharted territory.  Of course, the speeches ended on a positive 'you have the power to change the world' note, but I left the graduation ceremonies just a little low in spirits. I knew these kids had a lot of growing up to do, and hoped the world would be patient with them.

I wondered if our generation had missed the boat in preparing our children for life in this new world. In filling their days with supervised acitivity, had we robbed them of the opportunity to learn to chart their own course? Had we taught them to fear a life without material riches, rather than to hope for true fulfillment? I think it must be confusing for many kids today.  Everyone expects them, upon graduation, to know what their next step will be, but they are not always given the freedom to question and explore all the possibilities.  One grad's father admitted to steering his son toward a career with a pension and security, but have we not learned from the present economic climate that there is no such thing as financial security?  Post-secondary education is more expensive than ever, and when young people do finish university or certification they expect to land high-paying jobs to keep up the expensive, tech-dependent lifestyle they are used to thanks to accomodating parents.

I remember last year my eldest asked if he could go for a walk at 9 pm.  I looked at him and said, "You are seventeen years old.  Of course you can go for a walk." It was not easy to feign such nonchalance, because I was busy wondering what made him feel he had to ask. We live in a small farming community with a population of less than six thousand where 'the wrong side of the tracks' means you have missed your turn and are on your way out of town. Ever since, my son has revelled in these solitary rambles and just this morning, a friend said he'd been teasing him because he has seen him walking on top of the railway cars.  After he observed my face losing its colour, he hastened to add that they were stationary rail cars, without their containers. This loosening of the apron strings has been a gradual process but as necessary for me as it has been for my son.  In allowing our boys to walk home after the evening shift at work since they were fourteen, and gradually letting our eldest find his own way to Vancouver to attend concerts with friends, I have weaned myself off of that hands-on parenting style which came through parenting this generation.  I need to know that when my son goes to Europe this summer, he will have the much needed trust in his own instincts, the tools to figure out what to do when challenges arise, as well as the faith not to panic if things go awry. He is going with a group, but they will have independence in some situations and I hope he will gain everything he can from the adventure.

The other day my nine year old daughter said to me, "Mom, when are you going to let me go places by myself?"  I do let her go to the store or to the neighbourhood parks with friends, but alone? No, not yet. I know I am protective, but when she asked me my mind went through a complete revolution from imagining the bad things that could happen to her, to the realization that I will have to begin to let her go, too. But it doesn't get any easier, especially with girls. Maybe I'll just stop watching the news.

The photo is of our graduate looking out to sea from Mystic Beach on Vancouver Island.

June 2, 2011

This Post is for the Birds

From my behaviour every spring over the past few years, I think it is safe to say that I really, truly, love birds. I love their warm, plump little quivering bodies covered in feathers of all colours and patterns.  I love the way they make our feeder swing and spin while they perch and eat with quick, jabbing movements, wary all the time of what is going on around them and prepared for fight or flight. And I love their wings and the very fact they can soar up in the air whenever they wish, alight on a power line in a group and appear to gossip and plan their next move. I think I first noticed the wonder of birds the first spring we lived at Strathcona Park Lodge on Vancouver Island.  Early in the mornings I would hear a long, almost piercing whistle and wonder what creature it belonged to.  Someone at the lodge told me to ask Chris.  He knew pretty much everything there was to know about local birds. 

"That's a varied thrush" Chris said, and pointed one out to me, the size and shape of a robin, only stripey orange on the wings.  Soon I was combing our Peterson Field Guides: Western Birds for examples of birds I was seeing around the property.  The juncos, chickadees, finches, hummingbirds, tanagers, and woodpeckers all became delightfully interesting and entertaining to me (and not least for the fact of their signifying warmer weather), and I learned to mimic the raven's hollow-tapping 'took, took, took', the distinctive sound of the coast I could hear every day outside my window.

I would not go so far as to say I became a 'birder'.  I have never kept a log book of birds I have seen or planned my vacations according to where I may find this or that species.  I just get excited when a new kind of bird visits our feeder, or when the juncos return, which is a sign that winter is nearly over.  Our feeder is a squirrel-proof variety which hangs from the maple tree in our front yard.  We hang it there for two reasons:  we have two birdhouses in the back yard and the sparrows pretty much own them, so we wanted them to have to share the birdseed, and first thing in the morning and often in the evening our girls will sit on the sofa by the living room window and watch for new birds, calling me over if they see something new.  This year, we have been graced with the presence of some new varieties we have never seen:

lazuli bunting, a rare sight I was told

black headed grosbeak

We have tried to take our own photos, but that has proved extremely difficult as the birds inevitably fly away whenever we come anywhere near.  The above photos are from Google images and the Washington State Sierra Club website.  Our best photos look like this:

American Goldfinch taken by my daughter
(We'll leave the avian photography to those with the mega telephoto lenses)

About the same time we had the lazuli bunting arrive, we were puzzled by the all-day hooting of what we believed to be an owl hidden in the leaves of the copper beech tree across the street.  We couldn't see the 'owl', so could not be sure.  Who-who-oo-hoo was a call not located on any owl website I could find and I began to think perhaps our owl was not an owl at all.  I called my birder friend, Rosa to ask her opinion.  I wondered if our owl was in fact, a dove, but was unsure as I had never seen any doves around here - pigeons, yes, but never a dove.  She said, indeed it was a dove; Eurasian collared doves had been brought as pets to the Okanagan region of our province and released several years ago.  They had bred and been attracted to the warm, moist climate of the Fraser Valley, two or three years ago.  Rosa's information was further proven by the appearance that day of our noisy bird-friend on the power line near the copper beech.

Eurasian collared dove from Google images

As spring spans into summer we will keep on filling the feeder and watching for new and returning birds.  We will also keep our eyes open by the lake which is a few kilometers from here, for kingfishers, eagles, and shore birds.  I also hope to visit the heron reserve further west in the valley at some point.  Spring is unfolding slowly and gently this year.  I have yet to wear shorts for anything but running, and the Fraser river is gaining in volume as the snowpack begins to melt.  I hope for a continuation of the gradual warming trend because sudden and extended heat will cause flooding in some areas. That would be terrible for the farmers who were finally able to plant the early corn only a few weeks ago. The birds rejoiced when the fields were plowed and all those insect treats were unearthed. And one day, when my son and I were driving home on the freeway a mother duck and her troop of ducklings waddled bravely along on the shoulder.

I wish I had a picture of that.