Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Too Many Days Like This One

When will this insanity stop?

My cousin Nan said we don't have the problem with mass shootings in Canada like they do in the US because Canadians are just nicer people. I beg to differ. We've had a half dozen school shootings in the past 40 years, but only two which resulted in multiple deaths, one in 1989 when a mentally ill former student decided competition from women students was the reason he had failed his courses, and shot 28 female students, killing 14 before killing himself. The other was in 1992 in which four people died, shot by a former professor who had been a colleague in the engineering dept. But in 110 years 28 people (students, faculty and staff) have died in school shootings in Canada. Most of these were single fatalities and the result of someone settling a grudge or a dispute with a gun.

The USA and Canada are very alike in culture and demographics. We basically have the same early British and French roots, and demographically we have much the same immigrant populations. Our populations watch the same TV shows, see the same movies, play the same video games.

This "niceness" argument can be refuted by looking at the gun homicide rates in each country. In 1975 Canada's gun homicide rate was 3.03 per 100,000, about the same as the gun homicide rate in the USA between 2008-2010, which was 2.98 per 100,000. In 1975 Canada had dozens of different gun laws on the books, none of which had much impact on crime or gun homicides. But in 1977 Canada put gun controls into place that required a firearms acquisition certificate (FAC) in order to purchase any firearm, and introduced controls on the selling of ammunition. Applicants were required to pass a basic criminal record check before receiving the FAC.

Since 1977 gun homicides have steadily dropped and are now down 80% from what they were before gun controls, to 0.76 per 100,000. Let's put that into perspective, in the USA=over 10,000 people murdered with a gun in 2010, in Canada, 170.

Hardly any guns are used in the commission of crimes (like robbery) in Canada, 94 of those 170 deaths were gang related. We had four gun homicides in Calgary in 2012, a city of over a million people. One of the four gun deaths here last year was a young woman was shot at a gang party where someone decided to settle a drug score and she got in the way. The rest were as a result of domestic violence, which is surely one of the best arguments for not having a gun at hand in the home.

The second place we differ is this: Hate speech and hate crime are not legally tolerated in Canada. Freedom of speech does not extend to the denigration of others, nor acts of hate, based on race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation etc. I have heard words come from the mouths of American politicians in this last campaign that would get them charged with hate speech in Canada.

Canada is a country of immigrants (I am one of them). In the 1970s the government adopted a policy of promoting acceptance of cultural diversity. Immigrants are encouraged to retain their ethnic identity, language and traditions while adopting Canadian social norms and cultural values.

Thus while it's encouraged that immigrants retain their religion, traditions and cultures, they are not allowed to bring their homeland's oppression of other religions, traditions and cultures with them. It's expected that everyone will live peacefully side by side with their neighbour.

Now, I was born early in the morning, but not yesterday morning, so I am not so naive as to imagine there is no prejudice here, no sad little White boy groups who think they are somehow superior because they are melanin challenged, or because they uphold "Cross and Crown" like weapons, but society as a whole does not tolerate such behaviour openly. When a White "supremacy" group announced a rally in Edmonton last year hundreds of protestors showed up to refute them. The few "supremacists" turned tail and ran as soon as they saw the waiting crowd. The KKK received the same reception a few years ago in Calgary when they came up from Idaho to "recruit". Faced with an actively hostile crowd they retreated rather than recruited.

Compassion is seen as a value here, and is expressed though the provision of universal medical care, and constant pressure exerted on the government to extend fair treatment to disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. Not that this is always successful mind you, but laws are set up to protect the citizen more than the corporate structure, and wealth is more equally distributed than in the US. Banking and mortgage regulations kept the Canadian real estate market from the chaos seen in the US market, and the resulting fiscal crash, and while the tax burden is somewhat heavier it is more equally distributed, and it includes medical and social benefits available across all strata of society.

Calgary made a decision a few years ago to eradicate homelessness and is well on its way to providing decent shelter for those who are hard to house, the mentally ill, the addict, the mentally challenged, elderly veterans, abused women, those who have for one reason or another found themselves living on the street without options. With it, counseling, a monthly income, job training if appropriate. Above all, dignity and compassion. Yes it costs money, but it costs society to ignore these people too. A society hardens its heart at a price.

In America the GOP has politically prospered by fostering hatred, division and paranoia for the past 40 years. The politicians who talk most loudly about individual freedoms are those who work the most aggressively to curb them and who work hardest to divide people along racial, cultural and class lines. Their list of who to heap contempt on; the "welfare queen", the unemployed bum, the 47%, the union lackey, the greedy pensioner, the sick child who needs medical care, the medicare leech, the illegal immigrant coming to suck at the freely flowing government teat, their litany of who to hate today goes on and on - everyone but "us" - you and me, especially me.

While right-wing American politicians cry we need to go back to the "good old days" when the Bible was (supposedly) the law of the land (it never was), what they really want to go back to is a time when the only power lay in the hands of the wealthiest, and everyone else had to knuckle under extreme privation or starve. They prey on paranoia fostered by 40 years of fear-mongering, of building an "us against them" mentality that has Americans patrolling their neighbourhoods with guns, shooting teens armed with a bag of candy bought from the corner store, and countless others armed to the teeth against an invasion of - who?

The mother of the mentally ill teenager who killed 26 small children and their teachers in an elementary school this week owned all these weapons because she had bought into the political paranoia that the government was going to collapse and there would be an "invasion". By whom one might wonder? Six year olds?

She knew her boy was unstable. A man who babysat him, even as a 10 year-old, had been cautioned never to turn his back or allow the boy to get out of sight. So what was she thinking giving him access to firearms of any kind? She paid the price every gun owner is far more at risk of paying than the person who does not have a gun in the home. A gun in the home increases the risk of a gun death, by homicide, suicide or accident twenty-two times over a home in which there is no firearm. Unfortunately she was not the only victim of her poor judgement and paranoia.

At some point Americans have to take their heads out of their political assholes. No, guns don't kill people, but people with guns do. If these crazed mass shooters had access only to a kitchen knife or a 2 x 4 they wouldn't have gotten far, because you have to get up close and personal to do damage with that kind of weapon, and none of them are that brave.

Any coward can shoot a six-year-old from 10 feet away, or a stranger from 250 feet away, or 10 strangers, or 50, with your automatic weapon. On the same day a deranged man went into a school in China with a knife and attacked a class of 22 kindergarten age children. He injured four before he was stopped. All will recover. Not one of those children died.

But in the end, people are people. Canadians and Americans. Just like children can be brought up to be well-mannered, considerate and compassionate, they can also be brought up to be selfish, brutal and cruel. Depends on the parents and their peers, and what is expected and tolerated by society.

One man at the scene of this latest shooting said it best, "To all those who love your guns, I pray that you love your children more."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gravity, Thou art a heartless bitch!

All around a most unsettling week. Where to start, small and work up, big and work down or sequentially? Let's go sequential, which begins wonderfully, with a lovely red early Christmas gift from our two sons. It went like this, "We are buying you a new car, what do you want?"

Well. That was a promising beginning.

A week ago today we headed for the new car store and after the usual to-and-froing and licenses and deciding on warranties and what-not on Monday we had this bright new red KIA Soul to drive home. Sweet. We have named it Salvador in honour of our late and beloved big red boy.

The timing of the KIA couldn't have been better. Tuesday at noon we had appointments at the specialist's dental clinic in the regional hospital all the way across town. We zipped across town in good time and I dropped Tony off at the front door 15 minutes prior to the appt and went to find a parking spot. Unfortunately there were no parking spots. The parkade was full.

I was directed to the parkade south of the medical school which is a four block walk away, and requires driving back into traffic, down the road, and negotiating a labyrinth of back roads before accessing the parkade. I drove around and around and around inside for 25 minutes waiting for a spot to open up. Finally parked, and hiked with my cane through the maze of hallways in the medical school to get to the hospital. The dental clinic is on the farthest end, so from the time I dropped Tony off until I reached the clinic was 45 minutes.

I walked in the door and the receptionist told me my husband had fallen down a flight of concrete stairs and was in the trauma unit with a possible skull fracture, broken bones and bleeding. I was wanted in the emergency department as quickly as possible.

The emergency department is in the opposite end of the hospital from the dental clinic. There is construction everywhere. The hallway to ER is blocked. I had to hunt around until I found a detour. I finally arrived and they said they don't know where he is, he hasn't arrived yet. (WTF?)

I sat there shaking for three or four minutes when about 10 people and a gurney came trundling down the hall, and on that gurney was my extremely bloody husband. I guess if you are going to fall down the stairs a hospital is a good place to do it. There were a couple of medical staff on the stairs with him when he fell, so he got immediate care. But they didn't move him until they'd stabilized his neck and spine and were at least trying to stop the bleeding which was coming from 20 cm (8 inch) gash on his head, where he had a lump the size of a baseball.

He had fabulous care, with a CT scan, full x-rays of head, neck, spine, arms, legs, all kinds of lab work, cardiac tests… He actually passed out on the stairs and tumbled down, since he was unconscious he didn't even try to protect himself, so he had no "protective" injuries but he broke his collarbone where he and a step collided and he is a mass of huge bruises from head to toe. It took 12 stitches to close the head wound.

About eight hours later I had to get the car from the parkade. It was cold, pitch dark, the medical school access was locked, so I had to walk several blocks through the snow (no sidewalks, no lights, no crosswalks and no signs) hunting for the parkade. By the time I found it I was so tired and stressed out I could not read the instructions on the machine which tells you how to pay for your parking. Finally a woman came along and seeing my distress asked if I needed help. I told her I hadn't a clue how to use the machine, so she did it for me, gave me my change, and told me how to redeem the ticket.

There were no signs saying how to get back to the hospital so I asked a policeman for directions. (He and his cruiser were in the middle of the road.) He told me I needed to turn right, and after doing that and going all the way round I realized I had actually needed to turn left. I retraced my steps and when I finally found my way back to the hospital, I missed the emergency pickup entrance (no lights, no signs) and had to drive all the way around again. By the time I found Tony and picked him up I was ready to head for the nearest bridge and jump.

The good news is that, after four days he is in slightly less pain than he was, and he is able to move around more easily. I am still shaking.

So, good news, new red car. Bad news, husband learns gravity is a heartless bitch.

Friday, November 02, 2012

We can change the world - we already have

This week's "super-storm", which hardly even qualified as a hurricane as far as wind speed is concerned, but which inundated New Jersey, Manhattan and other parts of the Eastern Seaboard, appears to have slapped a few people upside the head and made them realize that climate change is not just a "Liberal" conspiracy but a real threat.

No more talk about 50 or 100 years in the future when the world heats up, 2012 was the hottest year on record, after 2011, 2010 and 2009. We've had massive crop failures, and food prices are rising dramatically as a result.

How long are we going to continue to keep our heads in the sand? Time to think seriously about instituting energy policies which support the 350 Initiative, a worldwide movement to reduce the CO2 level in the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, a point where we can avoid global climate catastrophe.

Green energy, wind, solar and water power, combined with conservation, new building codes which require new homes to be energy self-sufficient, and the kind of resolve that saw us through two world wars could see this problem solved in the next 25 years. Do we have a choice?

[David Attenborough]
We are a flexible and innovative species and we have the capacity to adapt and modify our behavior. Now, we most certainly have to do so if we're to deal with climate change. It's the biggest challenge we have yet faced.

[Bill Nye]
The same thing that keeps the Earth warm
May make the Earth too warm
It holds in heat

Methane, Chloroflourocarbons, water vapor and
Carbon dioxide - they all trap heat

[Isaac Asimov]
It is important that the world get together
To face the problems which attack us as a unit

[Richard Alley]
The evidence is clear

The globe is getting too warm

We can avoid climate catastrophies
We can do this

We can change the world

Science offers us answers
To these huge challenges]

It's one global ecosystem

We can do this

We can change the world

Every single thing every one of us does
Affects everybody all over the world
It's one global ecosystem

Warm, wet, cold or dry
Climates all start in the sky

When the C02 is high, the temperature is high
Moving together in lock step
When the C02 is low, the temperature is low
Moving together


[Richard Alley]
Our use of fossil fuels for energy is pushing us towards a climate
unlike any seen in the history of civilization

Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
Warms things up
The rise in C02
Comes from burning fossil fuels

When you burn them, add oxygen
That makes C02 that goes in the air
We're reversing the process by which they formed

We're talking about something
That affects the entire Earth
Problems that transcend nations


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nothing's really as it seems

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.~ Groucho Marx

[Morgan Freeman]
So, what are we really made of?
Dig deep inside the atom
and you'll find tiny particles
Held together by invisible forces

Everything is made up
Of tiny packets of energy
Born in cosmic furnaces

[Frank Close]
The atoms that we're made of have
Negatively charged electrons
Whirling around a big bulky nucleus

[Michio Kaku]
The Quantum Theory
Offers a very different explanation
Of our world

[Brian Cox]
The universe is made of
Twelve particles of matter
Four forces of nature

That's a wonderful and significant story

[Richard Feynman]
Suppose that little things
Behaved very differently
Than anything big

Nothing's really as it seems
It's so wonderfully different
Than anything big

The world is a dynamic mess
Of jiggling things
It's hard to believe

The quantum theory
Is so strange and bizzare Even Einstein couldn't get his head around it

In the quantum world
The world of particles
Nothing is certain
It's a world of probabilities


It's very hard to imagine
All the crazy things
That things really are like

Electrons act like waves
No they don't exactly
They act like particles
No they don't exactly

[Stephen Hawking]
We need a theory of everything
Which is still just beyond our grasp
We need a theory of everything, perhaps
The ultimate triumph of science


I gotta stop somewhere
I'll leave you something to imagine

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Where *did* I put the flaming torches?

If more of us did this, fewer of us would end up old wrecks at 65 and 70. :) Don't worry, the subtitles are in Hebrew, but it's in English.

Where do I start? I have a tennis ball....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A little light Sanskrit

There's a word in Sanskrit, dukkha. It means suffering, the inability to adapt to change, and the inability to accept the impermanence of life and everything around us.

Of course being human we primarily think of ourselves as experiencing dukkha, but in the last couple of days I've seen something that's made me more aware that we are not alone in clinging to a past, and it makes me sad, because I know this is a story played out thousands of times a day, and probably many more.

Last February we lost our elderly cat Salvador, who was a boisterous and outrageous personality. It is no exaggeration to say that we are still mourning the absence of our enormous red "boy". The grief is still acutely painful at times, and for those who think that's over the top - well - that doesn't make it any less so. And if you don't understand it's because it wasn't your relationship, and the hole is not in your heart.

It was really only a matter of a couple of days after Sal's death that I knew I couldn't live without a cat, which is how Smoky came into our lives. The woman we got him from said he'd belonged to her neighbours, who grew tired of him, or bored or busy or whatever… and simply "threw him away" in the middle of an Alberta winter. She asked permission to take him in and find a new home for him, which is how he came to us.

From the beginning it was clear he prefers men and he absolutely loves our older son. When Ian arrives Smoky is all over him. Yesterday our younger son Zak arrived for his first visit since we got Smoky and Smoky spent almost the entire day and evening in Zak's arms. It was clear he was totally smitten. He spent the night sleeping at Zak's side, and now, when Zak is out with friends, Smoky is curled up in Zak's suitcase, on Zak's dirty clothes.

And it occurred to me that Smoky is in much the same position as we are. He's suffering the same grief that we're feeling. We're attentive, loving, replacements for a young man he loved very much, and who discarded him without the least thought for the pain and unsatisfied longing that will never ever be resolved in that stout and loving little heart. Their separation was as final for him as the death which parted us from Sal, but at least we understand old age, pain and death. There is no way for a small and completely devoted cat to understand how the person he loves could be so callous.

But there is this. Grief is impermanent too. We comfort each other, and in time our wounds will heal.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Richard Feynman - The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out

Some people are Beatles fans, here's one of the stars who could count me as a fan. Wish he was still around.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The two things people most want to know

When I watched this the first time I thought it was a hoot. The second time I watched it struck me differently. Mary Maxwell is 72, and though I'm certain a lot of what she said was for comic effect, her remarks seem more likely to apply to today's 85 year-old than the 70s crowd. But then she is speaking to an audience of people who provide professional caregiving services for the elderly in their homes. They aren't there to hear about how the newer generation of "old folks" are aging slower than their parents and grandparents, assuming they have taken care of themselves.

I look at my 71 year old husband, and even though he has significant health problems he has none of the doddering attributes of age Mary Maxwell talks of. He is not absent-minded, he is the "detail-man" of the household. He keeps track of the household accounts, my business accounts and a non-profit account he is treasurer of without the slightest problem. He is extremely pleasant and enjoyable to be with.

I complain that I cannot find the word I am looking for. He reminds me I've been complaining of this since I was 20. My head is a busy place, but generally working on a project or problem, not thinking about earrings or the hairdressers.

What I find is on the whole is basically we are not much different at 66 and 71 than we were at 20 and 25. Wiser, more settled, more compassionate and far richer in experience but we still prefer the company of one or two people over a crowd, and for a good portion of the day each of us needs to be entirely alone. We have no more interest in popular culture now than we did then, and aside from the news, PBS Science programs and the odd documentary we could probably live without TV, though we cannot say that about our computers, reader and ipad. Since he was a programmer back when computers were the size of Volkswagons we have always embraced computer technology. Also sworn at it a good deal, but still...

So, crack your jokes Mary. I like the short clips on her blog, where she hands out some fairly acid advice to people like the mother-in-law who didn't want to share her "treasured" family recipe for marinara sauce with the daughter-in-law she "doesn't trust". Mary concludes her advice by saying, "I've tasted your marinara sauce, and it's not worth fighting over." (or something of that ilk)

Mary blogs about being older with her characteristic dry wit here. I'm adding her to my blog roll because she is one funny lady and Lord knows I need a funny and LOLcats has just become too repetitive and predictable.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Seeing with the brain is called imagination...

Continuing with the theme, "Science is awesome". I should have titled this, An enchanted loom.

Everything is energy… in one form or another.

[Robert Winston]
It's amazing to consider that I'm holding in my hands
The place where someone once felt, thought, and loved
For centuries, scientists have been battling to understand
What this unappealing object is all about

[Vilayanur Ramachandran]
Here is this mass of jelly
You can hold in the palm of your hands
And it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space

[Carl Sagan]
The brain has evolved from the inside out
It's structure reflects all the stages through which it has passed

[Jill Bolte Taylor]
Information in the form of energy
Streams in simultaneously
Through all of our sensory systems

And then it explodes into this enormous collage
Of what this present moment looks like
What it feels like
And what it sounds like

And then it explodes into this enormous collage
And in this moment we are perfect
We are whole and we are beautiful

[Robert Winston]
It appears rather gruesome
Wrinkled like a walnut, and with the consistency of mushroom

[Carl Sagan]
What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

The neurons store sounds too, and snatches of music
Whole orchestras play inside our heads

20 million volumes worth of information
Is inside the heads of every one of us
The brain is a very big place
In a very small space

No longer at the mercy of the reptile brain
We can change ourselves
Think of the possibilities

[Bill Nye]
Think of your brain as a newspaper
Think of all the information it can store
But it doesn't take up too much room
Because it's folded

[Oliver Sacks]
We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination


[Robert Winston]
It is the most mysterious part of the human body
And yet it dominates the way we live our adult lives
It is the brain

(Carl Sagan's lyrics written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Poetry of Reality

Right now I am (obviously) enamored by the Symphony of Science Remixes featuring quotes and bits of lectures from the great minds of science set to synthesized music. The love of knowledge and thrill of discovery is evident in every song. Not just songs, but love songs... to the universe.

While most of the songs in the series focus on the works of astrophysicists and physicists biology is well represented. This song, which takes its title from Richard Dawkins' statement that, "Science is the poetry of reality" seems to represent most closely the work of two amazing scientists I am privileged to know, and even work with on a modest scale, neuro-geneticists Dr. Frank Lehmann-Horn, and Dr. Karin Jurkat-Rott, Division of Neurophysiology, Ulm University, who are constantly working to expand the edges of the known.

[Michael Shermer]
Science is the best tool ever devised
For understanding how the world works

[Jacob Bronowski]
Science is a very human form of knowledge
We are always at the brink of the known

[Carl Sagan]
Science is a collaborative enterprise
Spanning the generations
We remember those who prepared the way
Seeing for them also

[Neil deGrasse Tyson]
If you're scientifically literate,
The world looks very different to you
And that understanding empowers you


[Richard Dawkins]
There's real poetry in the real world
Science is the poetry of reality

We can do science
And with it, we can improve our lives

[Jill Tarter]
The story of humans is the story of ideas
That shine light into dark corners

[Lawrence Krauss]
Scientists love mysteries
They love not knowing

[Richard Feynman]
I don't feel frightened by not knowing things
I think it's much more interesting

[Brian Greene]
There's a larger universal reality
of which we are all a part

[Stephen Hawking]
The further we probe into the universe
The more remarkable are the discoveries we make

[Carolyn Porco]
The quest for the truth, in and of itself,
Is a story that's filled with insights


From our lonely point in the cosmos
We have through the power of thought
Been able to peer back to a brief moment
After the beginning of the universe

[PZ Myers]
I think that science changes the way your mind works
To think a little more deeply about things

Science replaces private predjudice
With publicly verifiable evidence


(Carl Sagan's lyrics written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

"We Are All Connected" was made from sampling Carl Sagan's Cosmos, The History Channel's Universe series, Richard Feynman's 1983 interviews, Neil deGrasse Tyson's cosmic sermon, and Bill Nye's Eyes of Nye Series, plus added visuals from The Elegant Universe (NOVA), Stephen Hawking's Universe, Cosmos, the Powers of 10, and more. It is a tribute to great minds of science, intended to spread scientific knowledge and philosophy through the medium of music.


[deGrasse Tyson]
We are all connected;
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe atomically

I think nature's imagination
Is so much greater than man's
She's never going to let us relax

We live in an in-between universe
Where things change all right
But according to patterns, rules,
Or as we call them, laws of nature

I'm this guy standing on a planet
Really I'm just a speck
Compared with a star,
the planet is just another speck
To think about all of this
To think about the vast emptiness of space
There's billions and billions of stars
Billions and billions of specks

The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it
But the way those atoms are put together
The cosmos is also within us
We're made of star stuff
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

Across the sea of space
The stars are other suns
We have traveled this way before
And there is much to be learned

I find it elevating and exhilarating
To discover that we live in a universe
Which permits the evolution of molecular machines
As intricate and subtle as we

[deGrasse Tyson]
I know that the molecules in my body are traceable
To phenomena in the cosmos
That makes me want to grab people in the street
And say, have you heard this??

(Richard Feynman on hand drums and chanting)

There's this tremendous mess
Of waves all over in space
Which is the light bouncing around the room
And going from one thing to the other

And it's all really there
But you gotta stop and think about it
About the complexity to really get the pleasure
And it's all really there
The inconceivable nature of nature

Science Hurts

The time honored argument has been solved again by science.

It is claimed in certain circles that dogs are better than cats, and some believe it, much like some believe the scientific logic of Rush Limbaugh.

Unless of course one has a cat, then one tends to accumulate legitimate proofs such as Carl Sagan and Niels Bohr might produce, and which are compelling presented in this production, once you get past the hideous "cleaning the dog's tongue after-it-has-eaten-the-contents-of-the-baby's-diaper commercial". The product is a God-send for dog owners, please buy one immediately!

In science few questions of this importance are ever completely resolved, new knowledge may come to light, but it only adds to a growing body of evidence.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who (or what) needs therapy?

I've been thumbing through decorating sites; Apartment Therapy (AT), House Beautiful, Style at Home, and Better Homes and Gardens.

There is no way of getting around it. Windowless living rooms like mine are not in vogue, nor are flowered sofas, dark bookcases, or those plastic pails the cat litter comes in when used as garbage cans. The matts on my artwork don't match, and the tops of the paintings don't line up. Cords dangle, intertwine and snake across the floor. Thank goodness, they are camouflaged somewhat by the cat hair that coils around them between vacuuming.

To qualify as "chic" at Apartment Therapy I'd need to reclaim the cast-offs we collected off curbs as impoverished newlyweds almost 50 years ago. The commenters at AT practically wet themselves with glee over furniture I would happily have let complete its trip to the dump 50 years if only I could have afforded what was in style at the time.

What I was hoping for on all these sites was some reassurance that with a minimum of tweaking I could at least go for "cottage" or an off-beat version of "shabby chic", but I think my decor and I are both beyond hope. It might be possible for the "chic" to endure the shape of the sofa if it were covered in chartreuse vinyl or recycled snow tires, but the extravagantly flowered silk fabric is unforgivable. Nothing good can be said at all for the (sob) matched chenille burgundy arm chairs. They are skirted, deeply comfortable and they rock. (What was I thinking?)

Our enormous 40-year-old coffee table has no glass, no metal and is not recycled from a bed frame or the gears from a box loader. It doesn't turn into a table for nine or a queen-sized guest bed. It simply squats on short feet and pretends to be a stack of books from Amazon for Giants.com. I have failed completely and utterly as a furniture-buying humanoid.

Dare I mention art? The pictures on our wall contain recognizable objects and/or humans/landscapes, which reveal our tastes (and those of our ancestors) as artistic goobers.

The new pinnacle of artistic creativity is an 8 x 10 foot paint chip someone drug a dirty burlap bag across. It's vital this gigantic "paint chip" not include any of the colours in the room. Looking at the choices, "Burlap dance 1 (blue)", "Burlap dance 2 (green)", "Burlap dance 3 (pink)" etc., one gets the feeling the artist just bought the miss-mixes at the Walmart for $3.00 per gallon to use as his/her base coat. In case you find my dots hard to connect, that damned flowered sofa encompasses every possible shade of muted blue, green, pink, rose and burgundy, plus ivory, a dozen browns and sly dashes of black. I can't find a single non-matching paint-chip/burlap-bag painting. This seems to indicate that no one plans to paint the nursery nuclear lime, at least not in our end of town.

But my decorating angst doesn't end in the living room. It gallops into the the kitchen/dining room with more than a little schadenfreude. Search as I might I don't see a single kitchen/dining room in these publications with the "accent" of a six-foot high "cat tree" backed up against the windows.

I do see kitchens large enough to host bowling tournaments and regimental reunions, large enough not to require top cupboards, with kitchen islands large enough to host overnight sleepovers. There's one with a wall of floor to ceiling windows covered with shutters ripped from a New England farmhouse built in 1760, still with original paint no less. I didn't see a single one with fake wood cabinets shoehorned into a 4' x 6' corner.

I've just been looking at pictures of a kitchen where all the crockery, dishes and glassware are stored on rough wood shelves on either side of a 14 foot tall mirror-finish range hood "chimney". How one is supposed to reach a water glass stored on a shelf 12 feet above the floor? Climbing up and down a 10-rung ladder to get a glass every time you need a drink of water seems a bit absurd, especially if you have a big pot of spaghetti boiling on the stove below. But hot damn it looks fabulous.

Fashion, in clothes, decor, houses, hairstyles and hipsters comes and goes like the tide. In 50 years time some chic young thing will be dreaming of finding my sofa but right now the only thing I have which would excite the AT crowd is this guy. They are suckers for cats at AT, which probably means they are an okay crowd, even if they like ugly 1950s furniture.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Attachment and letting go...

I did something I rarely do today. I had a raging migraine which I simply could not work through, sit up through, push through. I gave up about 2:00 and went to bed.

I don't think my head hit the pillow before I was asleep, brain flickering in that slow-seizing wave that *is* a migraine. When I am awake I am all senses, all raw reaction, every cell grating against the bouncing light, the frenzied collision of air against my skin, the smell of my own hair and the lavender body wash lingering around me.

When I am asleep the brain interprets stimulus in its own inexplicable ways. Curled with his back into the curve of my recumbent body is a small, muscular, compact dog. Slick-haired, breath slowing rising and falling, his head resting on my crooked arm. He smells like Fritos. His whiskers twitch.

I wake enough to realize that "he" is the weight of a bunched blanket, a pillow migrated to lie against my arm, the warmth of my own breath. "He" is not there. I hang onto the "him" that has not been there for 30 years. Tears well up into that emptiness where he was once.

Attachment, the Buddha called it. I hold on to my attachment, brought unexpectedly to the surface by a thunderless storm raging in my brain. I enjoy the memory of that joyful little body, and my attachment to it, touch it once more - lightly - and let it go.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I am suspicious of myself....

Are you an eccentric? I suspect I am. Maybe I ought to feel bad about it, but I don't.

“That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time”. ~ John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

Dr. David Weeks is the world's foremost expert on the subject of eccentrics. A highly regarded researcher and great storyteller (he's known as The Laughing Psychiatrist on the BBC), Weeks finds eccentrics to be happier, healthier and more creative than most conformists. Psychologist David Weeks mentions people with a mental illness "suffer" from their behavior while eccentrics are quite happy. He even states eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than everyone else.

“Time and again, the eccentrics in our study clearly evinced that shining sense of positivism and buoyant self-confidence that comes from being comfortable in one’s own skin.”

In a study of 1000 eccentrics a profile emerged with fifteen characteristics that applied to most eccentrics, ranging from the obvious to the trivial.

The first five characteristics listed are the most important and apply to virtually every eccentric. Nonconformity is, of course, the principal defining trait of the breed.

Characteristics of Eccentrics

  • Nonconforming
  • Creative
  • Strongly motivated by curiosity
  • Idealistic: wants to make the world a better place and the people in it happier
  • Happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses (usually five or six)
  • Aware from early childhood that he is different
  • Intelligent
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced that he is right and that the rest of the world is out of step
  • Noncompetitive, not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society
  • Unusual in his eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his – the correct – point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor
  • Often Single
  • Usually the eldest or an only child
  • Bad speller

According to Dr. Week's Study, eccentrics are:

  • Less likely to be addicted to consumer culture than the general population.
  • Very unlikely to be substance abusers or alcoholics. Dr. David Weeks “fewer than 30 of the more than 1,000 eccentrics he sampled had been substance abusers or alcoholics.”
  • Nonconformity, extreme curiosity and irreverence for the strictures of culture continually resurface as the most distinguishable eccentric traits, and these are indeed qualities that most of us consider admirable.
  • They’re permanently non-conforming from a very early age, and there’s a great overlap between eccentric children and gifted children. They develop differently, though.
  • The eccentrics become very, very creative but they’re motivated primarily by curiosity. They have extreme degrees of curiosity, and they’re very independent-minded.
  • Their other motivation is fairly idealistic. They want to make the world a better place, and they want to make other people happy.
  • They have these happy obsessive preoccupations, and a wonderful, unusual sense of humor, and this gives them a significant meaning in life. And they are far healthier than most people because of that.
  • They have very low stress. They’re not worried about conforming to the rest of society, low stress, high happiness equates with psychological health.
  • They use their solitude very constructively.

Source; "Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness"; David Weeks; Jamie James, ISBN 13: 9780394565651, Publisher: Villard Books, Publication Date: 1995

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Promises, empty, empty promises

There is a clearing near a river in the jungle which gets smaller each passing year. In the middle of this clearing is a marvelous tree which has the most beautiful flowers. Every day the flowers are more beautiful than the flowers were the day before.

Once there was a village where this clearing is now. It is far away from other villages. The people who lived there were slower, less fleet of foot, than other people. Most had made their way to this remote place and stayed because when you are slow-footed in a village of the swift the neighbours avert their eyes when you pass, and even your family suffers shame.

The villagers had gathered in that particular place because of a plain and very unremarkable tree that grew on the riverbank. It wasn't particularly tall, it didn't have lovely flowers or beautiful foliage, but it bore fruit year-round, day in and day out. It wasn't exciting fruit. It wasn't sweet, or spicy. It was bland, it was hard to peel, stringy and sometimes tough to digest, but it was nourishing and gave you strength to keep the jungle at bay. They didn't know what kind of tree it was, so they called it the gwehdee tree - the meal tree.

The villagers foraged for food in the surrounding jungle. Sometimes it was plentiful, usually it was scarce and you had to fight the monkeys and jungle pigs for it. But whatever the season they could depend on the gwehdee tree. Year in and year out it stood at the edge of the river bearing fruit. When the jungle provided not- quite-enough or when the jungle provided nothing; when every belly was empty as a drum, the villagers could always go to the gwehdee tree, lift a leaf and the food they needed would be at their fingertips. The tree was so dependable that it simply became part of the background.

Generations came and went... all as slow-footed as their forefathers had been. One day, after many years, another tree grew up, right in the centre of the village. It was a beautiful tree, with a graceful trunk and delicately beautiful leaves. Its flowers were simply magnificent. The entire village gathered around to admire it and speculate about what wonderful fruit was sure to come from such bewitching blossoms.

Through the weeks and months the flowers came, each one more beautiful and delightfully fragrant than the one before, but not a single flower ever produced a fruit. Once in a while a small green fruit would follow a flower, but within a few days it would shrivel, blacken and fall to the ground. But still the villagers were mesmerized by the beauty of the tree, and every day they sat around it and waited - certain that wonderful, delicious fruit would soon appear.

"I imagine it will taste like honey," one said to the other. "Oh," replied the next, "like honey with mango and peaches and jasmine, all together. We will certainly swoon with delight from the flavour." "The texture will be like the freshest date, as soft as green coconut," said another. "And we will be able to eat the peel!" cackled a toothless old woman, who was tired of a lifetime of peeling gwehdee fruit.

And so into the night they'd invent ever more fantastic flavours, textures, fragrances and attributes the fabulous fruit would surely have, when it ripened. And then they would go home with their growling, empty bellies and curse while eating roasted lizards and the stringy, bland and hard to digest but nourishing fruit of the gwehdee tree.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the village, the river had changed course. The gwehdee tree loved water more than almost anything, but the water the tree depended on had moved away. The tree grew thirsty, and longed for a pail or two of water from the river it could see glistening a hundred feet beyond its reach. But it was the fat season and fruit in the jungle was plentiful, so no one came to the gwehdee tree except some men who passed and remarked how ugly it was, compared to the beautiful tree in the centre of the village.

The heat shimmered above the river. Insects buzzed up and down on errands and little fish leaped from the water as they played tag with their hundreds of brothers and sisters. The river wandered even farther away. The gwehdee tree ached for water. The dryness burned in its leaves and rootlets. The pain crept down the stems and up the roots. Ever so slowly its inconspicuous flowers shriveled and fewer and fewer fruit formed under the shelter of the leaves. Still, no one noticed until one morning when a villager felt too ill to forage in the jungle and went to the gwehdee tree to gather some fruit and - there was none to gather.

Alarmed, the villagers ran to the gwehdee tree, but it was too late. The tree was dead. As the season turned from fat to lean and food in the jungle became scarce the villagers had little nourishment. Without the strength the gwehdee tree provided they were soon at the mercy of the jungle itself, which cares as little for the slow-footed as it does for the baby monkey who becomes the python's meal.

One by one the villagers disappeared. The little huts quickly fell into the mouths of the ants and termites and the waddling mother rat who carries away your best cloth as a nest for her young. It hardly mattered. There was no one left to care.

But even now in the centre of a rapidly closing clearing grows a lovely tree, with magnificent flowers, which will hold you spellbound with their promise...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

And the seasons slowly…

In May the apple trees blossomed,

In August the crabapples glow.

The hail ate most of our flowers,

Put divots in the Zen garden's moss,

But here and there, spared a small rose.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I hope there is a cure for that

A long-time friend moved recently. She wrote yesterday, relating that she'd found an excellent paediatrician for her daughter, who has a genetic illness, and that her son's second year of college has begun well.

She wrote, "Overall, things have worked out well, though I keep waiting for something bad to happen. I have turned into a pessimist. I hope there is a cure for that." 

When you think about it, pessimism is used as kind of like a talisman in our culture, "Don't get too happy, or too comfortable or too confident, or too anything joyful whatsover, because it can end in a second!" 

Relentless gurus churn out dozens of number one best selling books every year, all promising the secret to everlasting happiness and peace. But even they come at you with the not-so-veiled message that the reason you have to grab that inner peace, seize the day, or live the moment is because the sky could fall on you at any moment! Like if you don't seize each moment and wrestle it to the ground like it was a Texas longhorn steer something bad might happen!!!   We pretend, no let's call it what it is; we have this superstition that pessimism and anxiety are a shield that will protect us from the falling sky.

When my father died unexpectedly I was unable to make the very long trip to his funeral. Although I knew rationally that it didn't make any difference to Dad it meant I never said a proper goodbye to him and that's a grief that has never completely resolved. But that grief manifested in a strange way.

Dad died in late November. For Mother's Day the next April the boys asked, "What do you want?" and I said, "I want a kitten." And so a grey and white five-week old kitten whose short legs and fat little body made him look like a furry caterpillar came into my life. He was a clown in a cat suit and he lived almost 18 years, but from the day he arrived until the day we had to ease his old body off to sleep, every time I held him and looked at him I felt anxious about losing him. That anxiety kept me from enjoying him as much as I should have. Every time he squeaked I panicked. It's as if I felt my anxiety could protect him, and me from the pain of parting. It did not.

There's a Zen story which says that anxiety makes no sense, regardless of circumstances. I haven't mastered this anxiety-free life so at the moment it's purely conceptual but it interests me. 

“There is a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.” ~ Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Open or Closed?

It's been my observation over the years that people do one of two things as they age, they either relax and become more open to new people and experiences, or they grow ever more fearful of change, narrow-minded and set in their ways.

We've led a gypsy's existence for all of our 47 years together. I think this last move was our 36th, and as a child I attended 16 different elementary schools. Moving was always an adventure, a new beginning waiting just over the horizon. So I was astonished and appalled when this last move unsettled me and left me depressed and heartsick. I've never in my life suffered from depression before.

Yes, we left a beautiful location where we only had to step outside the door to be in the heart of nature, yes we left friends we had come to love, and I loved our little RV, but we have a lovely and much more comfortable and convenient home here. We have our paintings and books and treasured pieces of heirloom furniture - but it still doesn't feel like "home", and I don't know why.

Or perhaps I do. Somewhere between that move in early 2008 and the one in 2011 my adaptability clock crossed that line into age. The "open up" or "close down" clock kicked in, and left me a bit at sea as to what to do about it.

It's a challenge to work with (and resist) this pull toward negativity. Oddly enough this feeling of displacement in the condo is the only place where I'm experiencing it. I love living in this end of town, where probably 75% of the people are immigrants and we are surrounded by people of colour, other religions and other cultures. It's vibrant and vital and makes me feel as if the world itself was at my doorstep.

At the same time I'm having wonderful conversations with our sons, who are both going through periods of exponential growth. What joy it is to see your children grow in their awareness of the world around them, and realizing their potential for good. They are so different in personality from me. Both are blessed with their father's gentle temperament. Both have such wisdom and are far more skillful at dealing with others than I have ever been.

The body ages. Despite advertising to the contrary I will never look (or feel) 22 (or even 62) again. I have annoying periods of aphasia, when I can't recall the exact word I want to use. I may not be able to fight these off. But I will not secede to the "old, narrow-minded and set-in-her-ways" demon. Whatever incantation it takes to ward off that particular evil spirit will become my mantra.

Man stands in his own shadow

and wonders why it is dark.

~ Zen Proverb

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Devil Lives on Lewis Street

Hi Ya'll,

You know I am a genealogy addict. Well, since 23 and Me testing I've been swimming in an entirely new depth of genealogy never dreamed possible even ten years ago. Read about that yourself on the 23 and Me site if you want, but what I wanted to share with you today was a link to a story.

The woman in question is Elizabeth Bennett Hensley, though no one is certain which was her maiden name. She was an extraordinary woman for her day. She lived to be 108 years old, was wife of Joseph Duratt/Durard and mistress of Timothe Demonbreun, by whom she bore children William, John, and Polly that he acknowledged in his will. Both Demonbreun and Elizabeth are mythic figures in Tennessee.

In the Carney Cemetery, Cheatham County Tennessee ELizabeth and Timothy's stones are adjacent:

DEMONBREUN Timothy 1747-1826 - Jacques Timothe Boucher French Canadian Fur Trader of French Lick Officer of the American Revolution Governor in Command of the Illinois Country Early Resident and Merchant of Nashville ET QUOY PLUS

DURARD Elizabeth 7/24/1740 - 2/7/1856 Mrs. Elizabeth Durard by her son J. B. Demumbrine (Note: This stone is adjacent to Timothy Demonbreun)

One of her descendants and I are trying to pin down our mutual genetic connection and this is our "crossing point". Elizabeth may well be one of my gggggreat-grandmothers.

Knowing me as you do, dear reader, you'd know I'd welcome such a woman as a granny. In this story, richly evocative of the south I grew up in, Elizabeth is the central character. She builds a fire for the devil and uses his help to escape an abusive husband, or so the story goes. It is superbly told here by "Aunt B". Read it, you'll enjoy it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

You don't have to be pretty;

I've been thinking about buying compression leggings/tights to offset the mild lymphedema I develop in my legs when I'm on my feet for very long. It's genetic, I also have it in my arms, which is really attractive. It's not especially noticeable in my legs and feet but it's uncomfortable. On the other hand, compression tights are hot and uncomfortable too, so what's a girl to do?

I've never been one of the ruffles and lace crowd. Not that I haven't tried that route a time or two, but I feel ridiculous wearing ruffles. I am much more comfortable in a garden row than a drawing room. I keep thinking I really need a sort of uniform; a T-shirt and some comfy pull-on pants and some comfortable shoes (crocs come to mind, though my more sensitive reader may faint at the thought). Same "uniform" every day, which would mark me as something of an eccentric but relieve of the burden of trying to decide which color goes with what and if X is "dressy" enough to wear to "Y".

How much do we have to dress to please others? Frankly I don't see that a great number of young women have this problem, but it is still more "acceptable" to reveal quantities of naked rippled buttock or vast tracts of quivering breast than it is to allow a back brace to show. Anyway, I found the following post very interesting, there's a whole discussion on the values lying behind what we find "pretty".

Reposted from: Erin's Blog Post: You Don’t Have to Be Pretty

So the other day, folks in the comments were talking about leggings. I'm pretty agnostic about leggings, but the whole discussion (which centered on the fact that it can be *really* hard to look good in leggings) got me thinking about the pervasive idea that women owe it to onlookers to maintain a certain standard of decorativeness.

Now, this may seem strange from someone who writes about pretty dresses (mostly) every day, but: You Don't Have to Be Pretty. You don't owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don't owe it to your mother, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked "female".

I'm not saying that you SHOULDN'T be pretty if you want to. (You don't owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

But what does you-don't-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don't have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be "unflattering" or "unfashionable" — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn't a "good" color on you? So what if you are "too fat" (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.

I was going to make a handy prettiness decision tree, but pretty much the end of every branch was a bubble that said "tell complainers to go to hell" so it wasn't much of a tool.

Pretty, it's sad to say, can have a shelf life. It's so tied up with youth that, at some point (if you're lucky), you're going to have to graduate from pretty. Sometimes (as in the case with Diana Vreeland, above, you can go so far past pretty that you end up in stylish, or even striking (or the fashion-y term jolie laide) before you know it. But you won't get there if you think you have to follow all the signs that say "this way to Pretty." You get there by traveling the route you find most interesting. (And to hell with the naysayers who say "But that's not PRETTY"!)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Four dozen donuts and a dozen red roses ...

The perennials I planted earlier are all doing very well, with the exception of the foamflower, which was the recipient of the last hard freeze we suffered. It will doubtless recover and do fine next year, but for now it looks a bit crestfallen. Everything else is fairly leaping from the ground in a blaze of colour and/or texture.

I lucked onto a sale of mini roses, which are very winter hardy here, and bought 16 of them! I put half in the garden downstairs and will pot up the remaining half in containers on my own balcony. When mine quit blooming in the fall I'll move them to the garden downstairs.

At the Annual General Meeting there were many happy comments about the beautiful flowers and general "smartening up" of the front garden, to the point where it was suggested we put in a similar garden on the southern entrance, which has only a grass-lined walkway. And while I was initially enthusiastic about this idea, I have now put it on the back burner, for this year anyway. I still have much work to do in the front, and I'd rather do the one well, than two badly. Over winter I can think about the south entrance and plan a low maintenance garden which won't look like a dog's breakfast if I can't keep the shrubs pruned.

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) has always been somewhat confrontational and an ordeal. It has always been difficult to get enough owners to come out to reach a quorum and they were cranky and quarrelsome. I suggested to the rest of the condo board that this year we provide chairs and food afterward. At earlier meetings people were expected to stand for a two hour meeting. No wonder they were cranky.

We sent colourful invitations requesting the pleasure of each owner's company. The invitation said would provide chairs and a light lunch afterward. And instead of 20 short of a quorum, and an hour of knocking on doors and begging people to come to the meeting, we had a dozen over quorum within five minutes of start time!

Along with the chairs, our president brought in two large folding tables. I organized tablecloths, colourful napkins and plates. A few hours before the meeting I did some needed pruning on a few trees, gathering enough blossoms to make an enormous four foot high bouquet for the table. I'd made a series of colorful (and funny) posters telling residents who to call when they needed help in different situations, when "quiet" times are in force, emphasizing that home should mean pride of ownership, peace and safety and respect for your neighbours.

Add a veggie and dip tray, a cracker and cookie tray, a fruit tray, four dozen fresh donuts, hot coffee, and four kinds of cold pop, and you have the makings of a party. What a change! Instead of the room emptying with the rapidity of a fire drill as soon as the meeting concluded, people gathered at the table, and stood in little groups, introducing themselves to neighbours they had not officially "met" despite years of passing each other in the hall or sharing elevators. People laughed and talked for a good hour before the room cleared. We divided the left-overs among our elderly residents, who seemed to really enjoy the chance to socialize. In all a *huge* success.

So what has all of this accomplished? Residents have been seen taking photos, not only of the flowers, but of their children standing beside the flowers. A real pride is growing in the garden and the building's appearance.

The front walkway used to be constantly littered with fast food containers, drink cups, bags, wrappers, pop cans and cigarette butts by the dozen. Residents simply tended to drop their garbage without a thought. There were days before when you could fill a garbage bag with the litter outside. That has stopped. Dead in its tracks. Today, although I hadn't been outside to pick up litter in four days all there was to pick up was a crumbling styrofoam plate which had blown in from somewhere else and a single cigarette butt at the far (parking lot) end of the walkway.

Many residents used to make a lot of noise as they came and went. Now they are much quieter. People are sitting on the benches in the garden just enjoying the sun or talking to each other, which you never saw before.

And to think, I was not happy when we moved here, but that's all changed. Now I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Is this Heaven or what?

The last few days have been devoted to that prime joy - gardening. One of the devastating parts of leaving our little tin palace on the lake in the Okanagan was that I left behind my lovely garden that I'd put three years of work into. Granted I learned something valuable there, namely that you shouldn't try to stuff one of every kind of plant that will grow in your zone into a six by 40 foot strip of gravelly soil. But it sure was fun.

Yesterday morning Kevin from Excelsior Landscaping came with a helper to set up our community garden. They assembled the garden beds and filled them with garden mix. Those should be ready for the gardeners in another few days, as soon as we have water piped into the garden. After Kevin and crew left I planted some of the plants I'd bought, and today I planted more.

We arrived here in the dead of winter and it took me ages to settle in. The trees blossomed gloriously in the spring, then the "landscaping" began to grow (or not, depending on its quantity of ambition). There is a 20 foot wide and 100 foot long walk approaching the front entryway. The third closest to the building gets only two or at most three hours of morning sun.

Serviceberries, which are a plain Jane shrub if ever one was, but which will grow in the deep shade, are planted in a 12 foot long bed to the right in the bed nearest the building. Last year these got seven feet high and just as wide, over growing the sidewalk. But the bad part was that they were absolutely, completely, covered in aphids. The aphids secreted so much sticky "honeydew" that they hung in long and snotty globs off the coagulated leaves. I've never seen such a mess. They were disgusting.

The other "landscaping" consists of half a a dozen potentillas; four yellows, a pink and a white. The yellows bloom from June to frost, the white and pinks don't bloom til mid-July. There's a single lilac which bloomed feebly, *a* rose, and a couple of wolf-willows.

All of these were rankly overgrown, so, as you have been told a dozen times, I've been pruning at every opportunity. Still haven't completely finished but I have all summer.

Aside from just plain neglect, the difficulty with this "garden", such as it was, was a lack of texture, colour, and variety of forms. I began by putting in loads of tulips, daffodils, narcissus, squalls and grape hyacinths last fall. We had a horrendously dry winter and only about 1/2 of the bulbs survived to come up, and of those only half have flowered.

The aphid infestation and the dry winter was the death knell for several shrubs. I know it isn't nice to celebrate the death of a poor hapless plant, but having those ugly things dug out out gives me a place to put healthy and beautiful plants in their place.

The list? All of these are in multiples except the bergenia and foamflower, which they only had one of to sell. So alyssums, several kinds of mint, thyme, bergenia, foamflower, lavenders, may midnight sage, salvia, hostas, geraniums, coreopsis, petunia, calibrachoa, impatiens, and lots of dusty miller. A mix of perennials and annuals to get a quick shot of colour. I also bought a big bag of poppy seeds and will seed them generously in the sunny areas and around the trees. They don't bloom long but they put on a show when they do.

Tomorrow or Monday I hope to finish putting the rest of the rest of the flowers in. Everyone coming and going as I worked today commented on how beautiful the entry garden is looking. I am pooped, but feeling so happy and content. I wasn't sure how I'd live without a garden, and here I have the biggest one I've ever had, with big husky men to do the hard work for me, and someone else footing the bills. Now is that heaven or what?

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Thousand Pounds of Love

I don't know what else to call it. In Japanese it's called a karesansui or dry landscape garden but when someone, namely your eldest son, totes at least a thousand pounds of rocks and gravel to build you one, you can hardly call it anything other than love.

This started, you may recall, two or three weeks ago with a trip to the mountains to select rocks. I picked half a dozen candidates, we ended up using three, as more would have been too much crowding for the space. We'd had some difficulty locating the right gravel. He ended up at a local gravel and stone purveyor and brought 300 pounds of small gyra stone. We thought 300 pounds would be plenty. We were wrong.

We got rocks set, gyra poured over the larger gravel base and discovered we needed twice as much gyra stone as we'd bought. He made a mad dash for the stone purveyor a good distance away. He arrived four minutes after they closed. So he hunted around in the various home stores until he found pea gravel of a reasonable colour match, though larger, and bought a couple hundred pounds of pea gravel in bags.

As we poured it on it looked as if it was going to be a disaster, but bit by bit we worked the large 1" bore gravel to the outside edges and as a kind of "wake" behind the stones closest to the wall and outside curbing, and blended in the rest - and it turned out beautifully. Admittedly it is not going to be a zen garden that takes to raking patterns, we could not find stone fine enough to allow that, but that's probably for the best as it looks good without the burden of daily maintenance.

We installed lawn edging around the largest standing stone, and inside the perimeter put a bag of garden soil. I planted moss and then we covered the raw soil with a layer of crushed clay, to hold the moisture for the moss, hide the black earth and make the colours more consistent. Now I hope that island of soil is not right under where the water pours off the roof during heavy rains, or the downpour will make a mess of my pretty moss garden.

We both also discovered how difficult it is to photograph a garden like this effectively. The "good" spots are filled with shrubs, and neither of us felt like lying on the sidewalk to get the proper perspective, since I'd been hosing down the sidewalk and it was not only wet but muddy. Trust me, it's much nicer than one would expect from my poor pictures. And the moss has doubled in area covered overnight!

As people came and went we had many positive comments, people seemed really happy to see something done with the weedy gravel patch that had been uncovered when I pruned back the shrubs. We've had three or four warm days and there are tulips, daffodils and narcissus in little bunches all up and down the flower beds, and more green spears emerging every day.

We also planted what's called elephant ears locally but is really a member of the saxifrage family bergenia and a foamflower. I had foamflower in my garden in Summerland and loved it. Both bergenia and foamflower do well in the shade and should do well where they are planted. They will get a couple of hours of morning sun and be in the shade the rest of the day. The bergenia gets quite large and I'm now wondering, looking down from the balcony, if I didn't plant it a bit close to the sidewalk, but even if it grows over the sidewalk at that point it won't be in the way.

All in all a lovely day with my big boy - who lived up to his childhood nickname of "Sunshine" - and brought me flowers and 1000 pounds (rather than carats) of rock for Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Broken Man

I live with one. He's kind of like one of those crazy wind-up toys that charges into walls and bounces off, except he doesn't bounce that well. While unloading the garden bed kits for our new community garden last Friday he slipped on the gravel in the parking lot, fell and broke his right elbow.

I was upstairs unloading my cart when it happened. Not easily dissuaded from his duty (the postal service missed hiring someone obviously born to carry the mail through sleet, snow, rain and dead of night), he loaded the half-dozen four foot long boxes on our little trolley and managed to somehow get them through two huge heavy doors with a dangling right arm.

He then got them all on the elevator, except they all kept falling off the trolley, and getting off the elevator he got boxes and trolley wedged in the door. I heard the commotion of falling boxes and elevator bell/buzzer and thought, "What the....?"

Seeing his white face and that weirdly shaped arm made my knees weak. I helped him down the hall and got him seated on the sofa in the living room, then rescued the boxes from the jammed elevator door.

I'd already been out shopping (obviously) and the allergy medication I'd taken earlier had left me shaky, so I called Ian and asked for help. He jumped to and was here in half an hour and we were off to the emergency room.

Long story short, his right elbow is broken. The end of the bone is sheared completely off. But it's a not a break they can set and they are trying to avoid surgery if possible. He's been in a restrictive sling but we saw the orthopedic surgeon this morning and he said that Tony must now begin to use the arm, despite the pain, to keep the elbow from freezing up. Poor old poop. He's not the happiest of campers. It hurts to wear the sling, it hurts to take it off, it hurts to sleep, it hurts to move, it hurts period.

He's also a sort of appealing pinto-pony pattern of bruises on his right side and down his leg, minus some skin and seriously shaken up. We bought him some different shoes on the way home from the surgeon's clinic today. Good tread on the bottom, and velcro closures so he doesn't have to mess with laces.

Now all he has to do is heal...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Green Day

Yesterday was cool and foggy, with a fine mist clinging to the tree tops. It's been a very dry winter. All day the parched earth looked up at the lumpy, leaden sky and pled, "Rain, rain, please PLEASE RAIN!"

Finally, as the sun set, the clouds reached their holding capacity and the rain began, earnest and steady as your granddad's old plow horse. It moved up and down the streets and lawns and fields without the fanfare of thunder, it slid down gutters and flowed along curbs. Slowly it soaked down through the hard top layers of soil to bless dry and aching roots.

By 6:00 am this morning the rain had withdrawn into the clouds again but what a transformation it had wrought in the dark. The winter-bare branches of our apple and plum trees have leaves thrusting out like baby's hands, apple-tree green and plum-tree purple. The grass that was tan everywhere but beneath the downspouts is brilliantly green overnight.

The robins, yesterday pecking apart last year's withered plums, are gorging on worms brought to the surface by the rain. Green spears of tulips, crocuses and daffodils have emerged and unfolded. Crocuses that were invisible yesterday today bloom in bunches.

It is Green Day. The day after the first rain of spring. The cycle of rebirth begins again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Off to Buy Vitamins

I'm on Facebook, it's how I keep up with my dozens of friends and family members. But the "targeted" ads I am served are absolutely a hoot and some days are as entertaining as the FB posts. My favourite is the one about a 50-year-old woman whose dermatologist hates her for her age-defying beauty secret which makes her look 25 (and which she is willing to sell me). I won't buy it because if I looked 25 people would expect me to act 25 and if there's one thing I love about looking old it's that you don't have to apologize for being slow anymore.

Another frequent ad is from a dating service which laments the fact that their "senior men" can't find "faithful senior women like you Deborah". If I answered that ad I'd not be the "faithful" woman they're looking for would I? Besides their supposedly "senior men" (models dressed as policemen and firemen and doctors in lab coats) - are all about 35! My sons are older!

Still hoping they have a merry and potentially wealthy widow on their hands (I gave them NO information other than name and age and a hometown I left at 11) they offer to move me into a high-end retirement home, then try to entice me to join a single-seniors-only cruise. I sense frustration as they try to find something, anything that I might buy. A decorator will come to my home and make sure it doesn't have that "granny vibe" we all fear. Sadly I do not want a $12,000 sofa that looks like three ironing boards grafted together and covered with fuschia-coloured patent leather.

The ad servers are flummoxed. Abandoning the hope that I am high-end, single-cruising-cougar widow, they test the theory that I am a crippled-up penny-pinching old party pooper and offer to sell me the secret of how to get $35,000 free dollars from the government because I am infirm. When I don't even want to know how to get $35,000 of free-for-the-taking-money desperation sets in.

They abandon all semblance of targeting and simply go with alternating stereotypes. It's well known if you are over 65 you are (obviously) either infirm or an elderly Olympian. So they alternate advertisements for medical aids with those for hair-raising adventures. Do I need a new wheelchair? No? Do I want to go a sky-diving? No? How about standing out in the geezer crowd with a hand carved cane from Borneo? No?? Surely I'd enjoy a life-changing (I read this as "life-ending") rafting trip down the north face of Everest? NO??? Perhaps I could do with a medical lift or a potty chair to sit beside my bed? NO? A day of mudding with my dune buggy?

When I don't throw the credit card at any of these wonderful choices, I visualize them hunched over their keyboards with knit brows, shuffling their ads like a deck of solitaire cards. One, gnawing his thumbnail, says tensely, "Pull back just a little, offer her (long pause) square-dancing lessons." They watch with nervous expectation as the ad comes and goes, all Madison Avenue Ad agency sweat under the armpits as FB stock ticks lower by the second. A vein in a temple pulses visibly. The old dame is holding out. She's still not BUYING ANYTHING!

In rapid succession they promise to hide my varicose veins, lift my sagging bosom, glue chalk white facades on my discoloured teeth, ease my aching joints. This gives me pause. I've never noticed any of these problems, perhaps Facebook has a "Future Afflictions" app I have inadvertently signed up for? I was actually beginning to worry about it and even stopped to look in the mirror the other day (an activity I usually avoid).

But the real topper was when I got a message from my cousin Mac this morning. Facebook has apparently developed an app which does what no other web application has ever done before; transcended that final curtain which we have never peered beyond.

My dearly-loved cousin Mac passed away last December. However, he's FB'd me today to recommend a well-known brand of senior's vitamins. They finally have me. I'm going to buy some. If that brand of vitamin pill can make Mac feel well enough to post to FB from where he's gone, they might finally make a square-dancer out of me.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Zen Gardener in Action

Commonly repeated axiom, "Everything comes at a price."

So my glorious Saturday afternoon in the mountains became my early-morning attack on Sunday, followed by a day of wobbly legs and aching chest. Today's not a lot no better.

But like the unrepentant Toad in Wind in the Willows when he was chastised for his obsession with driving motor cars at break-neck speed down country lanes, "I'm not sorry, and it wasn't folly at all! It was simply glorious! and the first chance I get - OFF I'll go again!"

It wasn't just the trip, or the walking, that did me in. I'd pruned shrubs Thursday and Friday, and really did too much on Friday, to the point where I wasn't able to step up the six inches to get out of the flower bed on my own. Tony had to give me a pull to help me out.

Am I sorry? Heck no! I could sit in the rocker and do not much of anything, but it doesn't make me feel better physically and it certainly doesn't make me feel better mentally. While I know I should probably quit before I fall over and start gaping like a fish pulled from the water, I tend to want to reach a goal. I start with reasonable intentions, "I'll trim two shrubs", but then I see that next one in the row… and think yes, I'm sure that would be fine… By the time I've done this three or four fine times it's not fine, it's nuts!

Three days of this level of physical activity makes me as legless as a cowboy who has just downed a bottle of Kentucky whiskey. Legless in a different sense, as I still retain consciousness… mostly conscious of my exasperation when I realize that I've done it yet again, when the last time I swore never to repeat the same stupid mistake.

But back to, "Oh but it was so lovely." I enjoyed every branch I lopped off and every step on that rocky trail.

Now I look over my balcony at the gravel pad where my Zen garden will be born, but not today. Today the Zen gardener is in the rocking chair cultivating a crop she has had little success in growing thus far, patience.

Image is a close-up of the stone garden in the karesansui style, Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan taken by Tedmoseby, on June 30, 2008.