Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; 
many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love; 
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

          - Max Ehrman (1926)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK: 50 years ago today

The note was delivered from the office. I was pulled from my 12th grade English class to go home and drive my dad to the doctor's office. Dad had been coughing for days, and now he had a high fever. It was a dull grey November day, and he was about as grey as the sky.

I was sitting in the doctor's waiting room, thumbing through an old magazine. In the background music spun from a radio. A news bulletin broke into the music, only half heard, something about a shooting. The music returned, dad came out, there was a brief stop at the pharmacy next door, I dropped him home and headed back to school.

I slid into my seat in my Latin American History class just as the last bill sounded. My classmates seemed much more subdued than usual. None of the usual laughter and talking before our teacher, Charles W. Stevens, began call roll.  Everyone was quiet, somber. 

I turned in my seat to my friend Dusty,  and whispered, "What's going on?"

"Where've you been?" he asked.

"I had to take my dad to the doctor. I've been off campus for two hours."

"Kennedy's been shot," he said. "In Dallas. They've taken him to a hospital. We're waiting to hear how he is." I felt an ice-pick of fear in my heart.

At the front of the room Charles Stevens stepped to the podium. He was a small man about 35 with dancing blue eyes, prematurely bald, a natty dresser. Witty.  I was a history buff and he taught history, so I'd been in one of his classes three of my four years. I was also his Teaching Assistant for two hours a day, marking papers, working on the bulletin boards, teaching freshman history classes. He introduced me to classical music, opera, fine art. He encouraged me to use my mind. I adored him.

But if he called roll that day I do not remember it. If he said anything in the echoing room I do not remember it. We sat in silence with only the thudding of our hearts in our ears and the sounds of 18 high-school seniors and their teacher breathing in and out. Suspended between disbelief and terror. 

Somewhere down the street a siren began to wail. The PA system crackled and the voice of our vice-principle George Berger hunted around for itself before saying, "I regret to inform you that John Fitzgerald Kennedy the President of these United States…" His voice broke and he sobbed the rest.. "…has died as the result of an assassin's bullet in Dallas Texas. Classes are dismissed until further notice."

As he spoke the air was sucked from the room. No one moved. At the front of the room Mr. Stevens was gripping the podium for support, his knuckles blanched. As he heard Mr. Berger's words he went white, his eyes closed, then he flushed a deep red. Behind me several of the girls began to sob.  I felt like I had dropped 50 floors in an elevator, hollow inside, as if my entire being might collapse down that rabbit hole. 

I don't remember leaving class, driving home. I remember that my parents and I were glued to our 18 inch black and white TV for the next several days. The steadying voice of Walter Cronkite walked us through what we could not turn away from, the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson, looking like a whipped bloodhound with Jackie at his side stunned and bloodied.

Oswald's arrest, and his subsequent shooting by Jack Ruby were a blip in those days. It was JFK who had us transfixed. The multitudes of people waiting in dumb misery to pay their respects, the heart-breaking moment when Jackie, in black veil and dress led Caroline into the Lincoln Room to kneel beside the coffin. The procession down Philadelphia Ave,  the riderless black horse.  John-John's salute as his father's coffin passed. Arlington National Cemetery and the eternal flame.

Two bullets tore the heart from America, and were the pivotal event for a generation. Ask anyone of my generation where they were when John F Kennedy was shot and they will recall it in an instant. Who they were with, how they heard, the taste in their mouth and the pit that dropped out of their stomach.

And it had all begun with such hope;

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

And now I do what I couldn't do then. Weep for a brave and brilliant man's potential cut short. Yes he had many flaws, but his flame, his eternal flame, was his sense of purpose and justice for all Americans.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning to be at Home

The central message of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing and there is no way to avoid it. The great Canadian Rockies are on our western horizon, and nothing seems as changeless as these great snow covered peaks. But we learned during our violent floods this spring that even mountains change, sometimes in the space of a few days. Rivers change course, churning boulders and debris into a conveyor belt which first chews away your back garden, and then takes your house as well.

Over and over again these destructive forces rise from nature, transferring heat from ocean to wind, causing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods here and drought there. The balancing act of nature. And over and over you hear the same words in the aftermath of disaster, "It's only stuff. We'll adapt. We'll get through it." Though it is heartbreaking to see people who already live in brutal poverty stripped of everything. A young mother in Tacloban this past week, holding her baby, house blown to matchsticks cried, "What will we do?" She sobbed "We have no house, no job, no money, no food." In such a calamity what can be done?

I'm reading an excellent book called Aging as a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond. Richmond is trained as a Zen Buddhist priest but draws from a variety of spiritual fountains for this book, as all traditional cultures have something to teach us about aging and how we approach mortality.

He stresses that adaptability; how well we adjust to the inevitable decline of physical powers and the changes which come with it, illness, loss, determine to a great extent how happy we are and how well we age.

In disasters (at least in North America) usually the ones who say, "What are we going to do? Everything is gone! We have nothing!" are the older people. And no doubt it is much harder for older people. There's not as much energy or as much income to replace the destroyed home and possessions, not as much drive, and there's less emotional flexibility.

I've always seen myself as adaptable, but as you grow older I've realized it's something you really have to work on. You have to let go of things that used to be and accept the new reality. You aren't as capable at 70 as you were at 35 or even 50. You tend to get "set in your ways", or go down paths that are not healthy. You can easily become the "old grump" in the neighbourhood, cynical, negative, critical and just generally unpleasant.

I was very surprised when we moved in 2011 to find that I went into a depression which lasted for months. I wanted nothing more than to go back to our little beach house on the lake, with dearly loved friends a few feet away. We are more comfortable here, closer to shopping, to medical care, and to our son, but I still could hardly bear it and it's taken a good deal of work to overcome.

But working at regaining a more positive outlook is healthy and makes life more pleasant. ".. the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home." ~ Wendell Berry - The Unforeseen Wilderness

Monday, November 18, 2013

Apples of Tilacoca

Right to Left: Rosa, Corina Roberta, Angelica, Ximena, Rosa, Martha, Zandoval. Lucia is not pictured as she left to take care of her cattle. 

This month's KIVA loan goes to the Manzanitas de Tilacoca (Apples of Tilacoca) Borrowing Group which is beginning its first cycle with Pro Mujer Bolivia ("For Bolivian Women" although men also participate in the borrowing groups).

The group consists of eight members, seven women and one man, and is run by a board of directors with Señora Rosa as president. In this group are: Rosa, Corina Roberta, Angelica, Ximena, Lucia, Rosa, Martha, Zandoval. Each member of the group will receive the equivalent of about $415.00 USD. The group members have various businesses, among them: selling cattle, knitting sweaters, knitting blankets, selling stucco, selling electronics, and selling fruit.

In a borrowing group, each member receives an individual loan but is part of a larger group of individuals. The group is there to provide support to the members and a system of peer pressure. Groups may or may not be formally bound by a group guarantee. In cases where there is a group guarantee, members of the group are responsible for paying back the loans of their fellow group members in the case of delinquency or default.

The loan that Manzanitas de Tilacoca are taking out will benefit their small businesses, one of which is Señora Rosa’s. She says that this is the first time that she has joined Pro Mujer. She was invited to apply for a loan by a Pro Mujer representative who came to her home.

Rosa's business is knitting and selling blankets. She says that she learned her knitting techniques from a friend and later decided to set up her own retail shop. The loan will enable her to buy wool at the traditional fairs in the city of El Alto. She will use the wool to knit warm blankets which she will sell at rural festivals. This work allows her to generate income to contribute to the family income, because she is married and has three children. When she was asked what she likes about Pro Mujer, she answered that she likes the access to health care and training in money management for her business.

Please consider lending to a responsible, hard-working individual or group who has no access to credit from a bank through KIVA.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Goodbye Kitten

Dance like no one is watching
Tomorrow is Hobbes' 1st birthday. Smokey was happy as an "only" kitty as long as he could take a walk in the hallway several times a day, greet all the neighbours and their four-leggers as they came and went, sniffed and played "touch paws" with four-leggers who were inside their own units when we passed.

But then a tenant moved in down the hall with a pit bull who does not like kitties, and overnight Smokey's world got a lot smaller. No more walks in the hallway, since the pit bull is not well-controlled by its person, and we were afraid for Smokey's health and well-being, even his life, if the dog got hold of him. As the weeks went by Smokey became despondent. He would not play. He sat by the door and cried. He scratched endlessly. He was depressed.

We started thinking about what to do. We would have liked a small older dog which was pad-trained, since he likes dogs, but we couldn't find one without dire health or emotional problems. We were afraid to get an adult cat, since the last thing we wanted was a cat who would come in and exert dominance over the placid and somewhat timid Smokey. We decided we needed a kitten.

After several weeks of looking we found a litter of kittens born 18th November, ready for new homes. So on January 5th, we bought an eight week old kitten - two pounds of attitude in orange stripes - as playmate and brother for Smokey.

Hobbes "Looking bigger" as he meets Smokey
We were a bit apprehensive about introducing him to Smokey. Would Smokey be aggressive? We needn't have worried. It was love at first sight. Smokey wanted to "mother" the baby as soon as he laid eyes on it. The little one looked at the huge furball arched his back and hissed.

Smokey looked at me with big worried eyes as if to ask, "Why's he doing that Mama?"

 "It's to make him looking bigger, honey."

"Well, it's not working!"

Day Two
So Smokey did the sensible thing. He turned his back to the kitten and laid down. No confrontation, no reaction at all. By the next morning it was nose-to-nose and paws around corners and at some point the kitten couldn't resist the urge to play. Soon they were tumbling around, with Smokey as gentle as feathers. And Smokey, understanding the kitten was missing his Mama something awful, let the kitten nurse his little nubs of nipple until they were raw and all scabbed over. 

We tried calling the kitten Salvador Two (Saltwo) for the first few months, but he wouldn't answer to that name. He would have none of being second anything. So, being big Calvin and Hobbes fans, and as the little beast is always in trouble, we renamed him Hobbes. That he answered to immediately, so I guess he knew who he was from the first, we just had to figure it out.

Now despite a bucket of bone-fide cat toys the house looks like a garbage dump because his favourite toys are plastic forks and knives from the Thai take-out, pop bottle caps, straws, a plastic bag from Jysk, cardboard boxes, dishtowels he steals off the fridge door handle and the sofa cushions.

Hobbes at 12 weeks
I swear he and Smokey are going to knock the pictures off the walls they play so hard. The cat tree sheds great honking loads of carpet fibre every day because they rip it off chasing each other up and down.

Hobbes is a hair puller - he grabs a mouthful of Smokey's three-inch-long wool and yanks it out by the roots. This (understandably) gets Smokey riled up. He corners Hobbes and beats the tar out of him, though for all the screaming and squalling I've never found a scratch or bite on either of them.

On the other hand I am covered with scratches as I am often part of the obstacle course as they hurtle around after each other.

A few days ago while running from Smokey Hobbes jumped onto the table by my chair, skidded and knocked several things off into the garbage can. Made a heck of a noise. He leapt about a foot straight up and came down on my face, all claws extended. So I'm missing a few divots of skin on my face and neck.

My yelling, "You are the reason Vogue hasn't called me to model for them!" while washing blood off my face doesn't impress him any more than screaming, "You're the reason we can't have nice things!" when he drags the sofa cushions onto the floor, climbs the shower curtain and unpots my one houseplant onto the kitchen floor.

Got'cher back Jack!
But he's learning. Up until a couple of months ago he hadn't learned how to tell me politely when he was hungry. He'd jump into my lap, grab a hand with all four clawed feet and start trying to rip the flesh from my fingers. Now he just jumps in my lap and hops up and down on my boobs. It's uncomfortable, but not as much as the claws and teeth routine.

But despite being a bit of a barbarian he's very sweet. He's a cuddler, he's a kisser, he never bites out of temper and until you've seen a kitten carrying a plastic fork in his mouth like it was a prize hunting trophy you haven't lived.

He's definitely the most rambunctious, high-spirited kitten we've ever raised, and tomorrow he turns one. Hard to believe that 10 months has gone by so swiftly. Time does fly when you're having fun. But now - no more kitten. Now a cat.

 Happy Birthday Hobbes! May you have at least 20 more!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Angel in Plaid

A few weeks ago I got a form in the mail from the new regional colon cancer screening clinic. This being Canada, and having universal health care and all that, the government is working to reduce the incidence of colon cancer. This means an occult blood stool test every year, and beginning at age 50 a colonoscopy every five years.

Of course, having Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome I am not a candidate for the rubber scope up the innards, because my insides are fragile and easily punctured. But checking with my doctor she said this clinic also does the "virtual" colonoscopy, no scoping involved. However after doing little reading on that I realized I am no more a candidate for it than I am the other, as both involve fasting with only clear fluids for 72 hours, and I take medications which absolutely cannot be taken on an empty stomach. Can't go without the meds either. However, I've been doing occult blood screens since the early 1990s and they have always been normal. No family history of cancer, no risky behaviours like smoking or drinking.

But at any rate I am a "difficult" enough patient to care for that I do not want to be seen as non-compliant so yesterday I put myself together and drove the 15 or so kilometres across town through traffic to the hospital complex where the clinic is located.

The directions that came with the package said that parking must be paid for on entry in change or by credit card. You are then assigned a stall number you must use and that each half hour costs $2.25. They said pay for at least two hours of parking.

I memorized the complex map, and found my way into the parkade. The paybox was blocked off and a hand-lettered sign said, "Pay at elevator". So in I went and luckily parked in the handicapped stall right outside the elevator entry door.

As I entered a bearded man in a plaid shirt and suspenders followed me in. There was a machine, something like a gigantic and over-important parking meter, about 10 feet inside the door. There was an elderly couple standing in front of it, looking at it in total bewilderment. "I think you… No, first you… but do you press this one or that one?"
Typical Hutterite Couple

Anywhere else a bearded man in a plaid shirt might be a biker, in this part of the world he's an Angel in disguise who goes by the generic name of "Hutterite".  The Hutterites are a communal branch of Anabaptists who trace their roots to the Reformation of the 16th century. Their founder Jakob Hutter (who died in 1536) established the tenents of their faith including living in community and sharing goods equally and absolute pacifism. Most Hutterites today live in Western Canada in communities of 60-80 families and farm communally. I see them in the WalMart every time I go. They still speak Old German as their "home" language and dress very distinctly.

Based on my experiences with them they are a warm-hearted and generous people, and this Angel was to prove no exception. He stepped up beside the older couple and asked if they needed help. They admitted they could make neither heads nor tails of the machine.

"Here," the Angel said, with a faint German accent,"I'll walk you through it. What stall are you in?" And in 30 seconds they were on their way.

Meanwhile I had dug my change out and was trying to calculate how much I needed to put in for two and a half hours, which turned out to be $11.50. I looked at the machine. The directions were unclear. Did you put stall number in first or time desired? Did you punch in time desired and then add money?

"Ach, sweetheart," he said (Hutterite men say they are lovers, not fighters. Most have 15 rosy-cheeked children and plump satisfied-looking wives.) The "sweetheart" was not patronizing or flirtatious, it was an endearment which fell easily from his lips as it would have on a daughter, auntie or grandmother. "This machine baffles everyone the first few times. Let me help you."

He walked me through it. "We put first in your stall number 1-1-5, then we say for how long you want to stay."

I told him two and a half hours. "Ya, we put it in, 2-3-0. Okay. See there, on the screen? It says put in $11.50."

So, I put in five toonies ($2.00 coins) a loonie (a $1.00 coin) and two quarters. He pushed the button. "And your receipt comes out here." He reached into the slot, and there's no receipt. He pushed the cancel button. Nothing happened. He repeated the steps. No receipt.

"Not a problem," he said. "It works better with the credit card." It was out of his wallet and into the machine before I finished my protest. He handed me the receipt.

I dove into my purse. "No," he said. "It is my pleasure to help."

I located cash enough to repay him, (the machine does not take bills) and thanked him profusely. "You can help someone else with this." I told him. You are my angel today." 

He just smiled. He helped me find the elevator I needed in the banks of elevators along the hallway, and we parted when he got off at his floor. 

Was my afternoon a total waste of time? I spent four hours of time and energy and accomplished nothing, plus I spent $23.00 for 15 minutes parking. Or I can look at from another viewpoint and say I was in the right place at the right time to meet an Angel yesterday. What a privilege.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Our Family's WW II Vet

Still with us, now in his 90s and treasured.

Thank you Don, for your service, 

and your contribution to our freedom.

An old man loved is flowers in winter ~ German Proverb

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An Advantage of Age

There are some things you dare to do because you have silver hair and carry a cane that you wouldn't have dared even 20 years earlier.

It was the day which is unavoidable in our house - Mt. McKinley WalMart day. Older son Ian has been down with a dreadful virus for over two weeks and  I am out of cat food and, worse, cat litter. The "boys" (Smokey and Hobbes) are beginning to complain about the state of the box, as are we. No matter how much you sift, after a while a certain odour arises.

It feels like Mt. McKinley has been undergoing renovations since George W Bush was in office, but the efforts are beginning to be visible at last. Gone are the single-cart-wide aisles and huge tarped-off areas. They are down to one smallish tarped-off area. Suddenly there's a new floor. And overnight (or at least since I was there about three weeks ago) the contents of the entire store have been shuffled like a gigantic deck of cards. Cosmetics have replaced pharmacy, pharmacy has shuffled down the wall, baked goods are where cosmetics were, food is on shelves which held toys before. Household linens have replaced soup. Electronics have been moved to the back wall.

Ah well, I found the cat food easily enough. It's only migrated down a few rows from its former place. I got a small bucket of litter and then went around the aisle to get the canned food our boys like.

Of course, we have two picky-pusses. Smokey eats only tuna, and only one brand. No problem, got those. Hobbes will eat more variety (except he will not eat the fish that Smokey eats) but alternate meals must be Fancy Feast grilled chicken with gravy. It's the most popular flavour and they are sometimes out, but they had plenty this time. However - try as I might I could not reach the cans. They were on a shelf so high I could not even touch the edge of a can, and roll it off the shelf, or reach the edge of the cardboard tray they sat in.

I usually solve this problem by asking a nearby tall man to reach what I cannot. In this store that's a lot, because the top shelf is about seven and a half feet off the floor. But this time there was no one else in the aisle, nor in the next. I popped my head out at the end of the aisle and not a single soul was in sight - in the main aisle. I've never seen an empty aisle in this WalMart. It was spooky. I thought for a moment I had descended into WalMart Hell and was going to be trapped forever among the freakish "Rollback" happy faces.

At that instant a group of a dozen men rounded the end of the aisle across from me. A tall man led them, a man with a hundred dollar haircut, a fashionably immaculate 12 hour stubble and a black wool double-breasted Armani jacket with gold buttons. Some people reek of money and he was one of them. He was followed by a crowd of minions carrying clipboards, all shorter, plump, sweating, in shirt-sleeves with tails hastily tucked in from their last bathroom break and ties askew, each wearing the WalMart badge, each elbowing his fellow.

They were 10 feet away when I fixed my steely gaze on the tall man, pointed at him (yes, I know it's rude to point) and said in my, 'I-was-housemother-in-a-children's-home-and-kept-12-adolescent-boys-under-control' voice, "You!" He jerked up like a fish on a line. He looked around at the minions. None of them looked at him, they all were looking in open-mouthed astonishment at me.

I turned my pointing finger over and crooked it a couple times, signalling him to come to me. He was across the aisle in three steps, minions scuttling behind.

I pointed up at the inaccessible cat food, "See that cat food? I'd like to buy 20 cans of it, and I can't reach even one. In fact I can't reach anything on the top shelf in this store. You have lots of Asian women who shop here and this store is designed for giants!"

Mr. Money immediately confirmed I wanted 20 cans and began bringing them down. He turned briefly to the minions. "Do you see this shelf? All over the store. I want the shelves adjusted." He drew a line with the side of his hand about 10 inches lower than the top shelf. "Bring everything down so the top shelf can be reached by a lady of this height."

"Now," he said, "turning back to me," all undivided attention. "Can I get anything else for you, or can I provide any other help? Would you like the tray these were in?" He could have been modelling for Armani, if they used men instead of boys, instead of just striding around WalMart making the rest of us look like hill Williams. 

I thanked him and said no, I could reach everything else I needed.  He thanked me and strode away, minions schooling behind. I hope they do lower those damn shelves. (I'm going to have to start dressing better when I go to the WalMart. Should I put my teeth in? Am I too old to start wearing lipstick?)

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I'll buy that blue sky...

I watched a documentary a few nights ago about the apparently new phenomena of households comprised of single people. The latest census revealed that there are now as many people living in households of one as there are couples and families. The "singleton" was once considered a bit strange or odd, but now is being single is considered as valid a lifestyle as living as a couple. 

The program followed a number of US and Canadian singles, but also went to Sweden, where single people living alone has been a norm for decades. A psychologist explained that Sweden's culture is based on individual freedom and autonomy, for both men and women. Higher education is provided as freely as elementary school, health care and child care are universally available, allowing women to pursue careers, there are generous maternal and paternal leave policies, and elders do not live in poverty.

But what interested me most was a housing cooperative they visited, where residents cooperated to do the daily household chores, the cooking, took their evening meal together, and socialized as desired, but each had their own private space which they could retreat to when they felt the need. This cooperative was occupied by both elders and younger singles, artists, writers, people who went out to work. There was studio space filled with weavers, potters, painters and carvers. A healthy data connection allowed web designers and workers to be part of the mix. They had a garden space where they grew organic food for the table, an exercise and meeting area, a greenhouse and a big hot tub.

Reading on the subject, these co-ops are are the norm in Sweden. In fact, in Sweden, co-op housing provides more than one fifth of housing. Many people live in housing cooperatives, feeling that they are a way to reclaim the old "village" dynamic where one is known and has a web of support that has disappeared with the modern era.

I have wondered for years why we can't do something like that here? Condos are human deserts, where people avoid getting to know their neighbour lest that neighbour turn out to be the one who parks herself on your sofa at 10:00 am every morning and has to be crowbarred out the door, or wants you to mediate family quarrels or pray with them for your eternal salvation through their god Ramaalamadingdong.

A small co-op, comprised of people who pass the basic sniff test for sanity and reasonableness seems a very good idea. Sixteen to 24 residents, large enough to share chores, yet small enough not to create a riot in case there's a disagreement on what colour of tablecloth to use at Winter Solstice. 

I've got it mapped out in my head, if anyone wants to discuss the parts. Purpose built for Canada. Another Blue Sky….