Thursday, July 29, 2010

Log Booms on the Fraser

Log booms on the Fraser this morning lay close in to the tree-lined shore. The river was blue and utterly calm. The long line of booms along the irregular shape of the sandy river bank formed what looked like a series of ponds, peaceful and untouched.

Log booms. Canada's wealth of wood has been so much a part of our history, used to be so much a part of our economy in BC.

In the fifties and sixties, two or three of the huge logs then being harvested in the Skeena Valley were often enough to fill a logging truck. Through my northern childhood, the busy trucks plied the dusty gravel roads, carrying logs to mills running three shifts a day.

Throughout my childhood, the log booms in Kitimat Bay, in the Skeena, in Prince Rupert seemed so normal. I thought they had always been there, would always be there.

Flying in to the Terrace-Kitimat airport after some years away, I was shocked to see how the mountainsides that ringed the valley had been logged off -- clear as a shaven chin.

In 2007, in the interior of BC, I witnessed what the pine beetle had done. Mile after mile, hill after hill, the raw red and gray scars of disease encroached on every stand of healthy forest.

Today, as I regarded the idyllic-looking log booms from the vantage point of the Sky Train window, they reminded me of BC's forests, the background of my life, once so very much taken for granted.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Eyes on the Morning Moon

In the daytime, the moon looks pale and transparent. At night, of course, is reveals itself as a sphere of solidity and substance.

Today I got up especially early. Stepping outside for a breath of morning air, I found myself squinting at the moon.

Though the sky was already the pale indigo blue of dawn, and the full moon passed three days ago, the nighttime orb was shining brilliantly in the dawn.

People used to believe the moon made us crazy -- lunatics. That idea is no longer prevalent, but the moon does exert a certain pull. For one thing, maternity hospitals report that more women go into labour during the full moon. The police report more trouble too.

Over the course of my life, I've witnessed at least two lunar eclipses, and I've observed the faithful lantern of the moon in many shapes and moods.

Never before have I seen such a gloriously lit morning moon, looking right at me, bathing me with its light.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Audiobook cover image from Simon & Schuster

For many days I have inhabited England during and after World War I, flawlessly rendered by the literary genius Ford Madox Ford. Finishing his tetralogy, I am thankful to finally be released from the strains of that emotionally and physically draining era.

Yet this place of horrible fascination I could not leave. I had to know what would become of the suffragette Valentine Wannock, the conservative mathematical genius Christopher Tietjens and his dreadful wife Sylvia. For that, I had to wait until the very last page.

I was too young to appreciate his work when I first read "Mad Fordox Mad," as my fellow English major pal and I called him, oh so cleverly. Reading The Good Soldier (published 1915) at age twenty, I missed the comic tone entirely. Fascinating though this professor was, John Hulcoop's English novel class at UBC was an 8:30; perhaps I was too drowsy to fully appreciate his commentary.

But I never forgot the book. Many years later I read that Ford was a satirist, and broke my "once only" reading rule. One line that has stayed with me from that second and far more amusing reading concerns the ward Nancy, who is being passed back and forth between two men in competing fits of heroic self-abnegation "like a parcel no one wanted to pay the postage on."

On the whole, the Tietjens story is not funny, though it has some humorous moments. Parades End (Penguin, 1982; originally published 1924-28) has definitely stood the test of time. Besides rendering the particular and long-gone setting of time and place, the novel succeeds brilliantly. As the era comes alive with complete clarity, the novels portray profoundly human struggles that transcend time and place.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cougar, Circling

Yesterday in dream country, I stood in logging slash watching two large predators. The cougar was tackling the bear, biting his back. Though I was just a passive witness, the dream felt distinctly threatening.

I grew up in northern BC, and in the peculiar logic of dreams, I figured I needed to go up north. That way, I would be able to figure out what the dream meant. But when I tried to get there, I found myself up against a fence that blocked access completely.

All day I wondered. What could it possibly mean? I did some inner work, and hoped for the best.

This morning I had another dream. In the boiler room of old my old high school, I caught a young cougar between my booted feet and pinned him. Looking down, I told him, "You go nowhere till I decide to let you loose." This cougar seemed benign, cute even.

Shortly after I woke, I suddenly thought about my first hiking boots. They cost the princely sum of $7.99. I was inordinately proud of them.

Brand name? Cougar. Strange how the mind circles back, using individual memory as intimate metaphor.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cherries and Blueberries for Sale to Commuters

Today, in perfect summer weather, someone had set up a fruit stand at Commercial-Broadway Station. It reminded me of a similar one just outside Russell Square Tube station in London.

In the warm sunshine of that October day, I stopped to buy cherries. They were fresh and irresistible, though obviously not local, at that time of year.

"Goin-'ome prices," called the vendor, hoping to tantalize as many buyers as he could before packing up. I bought some to have with tea in my tiny room at the Penn Club in Bedford Place.

Didn't buy any today, but tomorrow, I'll stock up before I get on the up escalator.

Healthy produce at the station. Convenient and refreshing. It makes a really nice change from the chain-store fast foods that are sold on the same concourse.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Motive Power

In high school we had a teacher called Mr. Power. In contrast to his name, he walked with slow inflexible steps, dragging his feet along the floor. As teenagers often do, the kids created an epithet for him. They called him Battery Power. Only behind his back, of course.

Yesterday I fell down a couple of steps and hurt both feet. The injury wasn't serious, but my feet hurt all day, especially the right one. Not being able to take walking for granted really made me appreciate my feet. As I was quickly reminded, we need our feet for everything.

Wanted to repot a plant. Nope. Couldn't make it down the stairs to the garage, where the potting soil was. Wanted to water the garden, and nearly jumped out of my skin when I thoughtlessly tried to slip on my rubber garden shoes. Later we had to go out. Having to be helped into my loosened sandals caused a mixture of gratitude and irritation.

After a good sleep with ice on the injury, this morning I can walk without yesterday's pronounced limp. But my gait has changed. I drag my feet along the floor with slow, short careful steps. Just like Mr. Power, I suddenly thought, and realized he was probably a war vet.

How grateful I am to be physically able-bodied and whole. The temporary loss of something taken for granted can be a salutary reminder of how much we have to be thankful for.

Now I sound like my mother, who's been dead for nearly twenty-one years. Interesting, isn't it, how things have a way of circling back?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering a Friend

Last night I attended a celebration in memory of a former colleague. I was not at her funeral in May, nor did I visit her frequently during her final illness. Nonetheless, I claim the right to call Sherie a friend.

As we toasted this remarkable woman in her back garden, an old friend, Steve, telling part of her history that he had learned only recently, filled in blanks in my knowledge of her family's past.

She was born in Vienna. Before her father made his way there and met her mother, he had lost his family to the Nazi death camps. Sherie's family left Europe to join a surviving uncle here.

No doubt it was in part the dark shadow cast by history on Sherie's family that made her who she was. People felt they could tell her anything. Looking into her dark compassionate eyes, as one friend said, "made you feel you were the only person in the world, that she understood you completely." A rare gift indeed.

A lover of fine food and wine, Sherie requested that this party be held after her death. "And you know how bossy she could be," said her sister. She wanted not a memorial, but a celebration of friends, with good food, good wine, and repartee.

Sherie joked (and smoked) till the last. Only two days before her death, she was taken outside for some fresh air. Frail but still courageous in the garden, she remarked, "Isn't life beautiful?"

"What Sherie has given to us," said Cathy, "is each other. For tonight we are here together to celebrate and to share our loss." For me, as for many, it was a privilege to know her.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fresh Paint and Midnight Ratatouille

One of my summer habits is nocturnal cooking. Last night's brainstorm was ratatouille. For some reason, I love filling the silent sleeping house with food fragrances. At 10 pm, I piled the vegetables on the counter and began to sautee the onions.

My husband has been painting and our daughter is helping him. Ladders and drop sheets everywhere. It was pleasant working in the nocturnal kitchen, now painted a mood-lifting fearless orange that reminds me of a hotel lobby on the Mexican Riviera.

The fragrance of the cooking onions brought my daughter into the kitchen. "Something smells great," she said.

"It's going to be ratatouille," I said. She made us some herb tea and went back to her room. A cool breeze came through the open door. The spreading aromas altered subtly as I added ingredients.

The soft peach that tones in with the kitchen's bright orange is spreading too. First it was the dining room, then the living room. Now they're painting the hall the same warm vibrant colour.

I slept late but woke early and went into the kitchen where my husband was already making tea. "I made ratatouille," I told him, whipping the cover off the pot like a conjuror.

He sniffed. "Mmmm. Smells good," he said. He likes to check the smell of a dish before tasting. And I like to show him the food I've made. That way, he can find and eat it when he gets hungry.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dutch woman in the park

Image from Australian shepherd lovers

My friend had just arrived from another overseas job and had only a few days before she had to leave again. We agreed to meet on Commercial and have one of Joe's famous lattes.

The evening was fine. We had our coffee and wandered along the Drive. Then by silent mutual consent, we turned away from the busy atmosphere of the main drag.

We strolled into the park, sat on the bleachers and watched some kids playing ball with a long-haired young man in a lavender shirt.

They had an unusual dog with them. His large ears seemed too big for his skinny body, making him appear unnaturally alert. He was very good with the children.

After awhile an older woman sat on the bleachers nearby. Judi greeted her and we began chatting. We asked about the dog. The woman said it was an Australian Shepherd, a great pet.

She was from Amsterdam, and it was her last evening in Vancouver. Her son had come here to join a girl friend he'd met on the internet. This mother left her husband at home and used her vacation time to come to Vancouver to see her son and his new girl friend with her three children. She told us she was glad to have seen where her only child was now living.

"He was nearly finished his Master's at university, but he dropped out." She sighed. "He seems happy. It's his life of course." She talked to us frankly, and I was very glad my friend had made the effort to speak to this woman. Our conversation felt easy, right and true.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


When I was a teen, I almost never got pimples. As an adult, I've had only an occasional one. The last was years ago.

The other morning I woke up with a tender feeling in my nose. When I looked in the mirror, there it was. A big zit. It hadn't surfaced yet, but the signs were unmistakable. At my age. Jeez.

I appealed to my young adult daughter for help.

"Look at my nose. Is this a pimple?" I asked her, still in denial. Turning me to face the light, she confirmed what I already knew.

I groaned. "Can anything be done?"

Never one to turn her back on a straight line, she said "Nothing!" and added a gusty sigh. Then she cocked her head on the side, and regarded me. "Too bad it's not Hallowe'en or anything. You could have been a clown."

Finally she took pity on me, got her potions and went to work. First she dabbed a bit of cover stick on my nose, then powdered it gently over. She regarded me critically. "Nobody would notice a thing. Now all you have to do is wait. And don't touch your nose!"

"How long will it take?" I asked.

She waved her arm breezily. "A few days. Just forget it for now."

Now I was the kid, and there was my own advice coming back at me.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Scandinavian hair

When I was young, I considered myself poles apart from both parents. With the unbounded ego of the young, I used to wonder, "How did these people give birth to ME?"

As I grow older, I notice increasing similarities to both my parents. Among other things, I seem to have inherited my father's hair.

As a kid, I used to think Dad's hair strange. I was born on my father's 49th birthday, so I remember only a fine soft gray thatch. I wondered how gravity permitted it to stand on end.

In the mornings, I liked watching him shave. He used a hand basin, a shaving cup and brush, a cutthroat razor and a small mirror set at the right angle on the window sill. His fine hair reached upward in undulating waves like underwater seaweed.

After shaving, he would wet his hair, part it and comb it down, pushing it deftly into the waves it naturally wanted to form.

My hair is also soft and fine. I used to be annoyed by its limpness. But recently, it seems to have metamorphosed. This morning I had to use water to forcibly subdue a large clump that was standing vertically on one side of my head. To no avail. Next time I glanced in the mirror, the obstreperous locks had risen again.

My reaction was also new. Instead of feeling annoyed and unlovely, I smiled wryly. Anti-gravity hair. Part of my Scandinavian heritage.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"Fortune favours the bold?"

Friends and former colleagues Don Rathborne and Jean Kay Canwrite! 2010  Victoria

Under my new writing regime, I am trying to keep my desk top -- the real, not the virtual one -- tidy. I pick up a folded sheet of paper.

At the top of one side is written: "Fortune favours the bold. From the Romans?" Beneath this is the scribbled question, "Who burned the library of Alexandra?" Definitely my scrawl.

Then comes a name and phone number in my husband's hand. I flip the paper over and see, in my daughter's neat, vertical printing, three TV cable channels: BBC Canada, Biography, TSN2. After that, a couple of phrases in my husband's hand: Night Panicked America. Orson Welles.

Flipping the paper around 180 degrees, I see in the palest pencil the words "Sask Tel" with a phone number. So that's why I brought it upstairs from the TV room. Last night while I was watching John Alderton's P.G. Wodehouse videos from the 1970s, I got a call from a friend who is in Saskatchewan with her aging mother, and wrote down her new cell number.

Such small and interwoven threads form the web of our lives. From these we glean the connections that become stories.

What's the story about the picture? These two used to teach people on cruise ships how to take, improve, and use their photographs. Before the conference, I had a load of pictures on my computer. Now, after Don's wonderful workshop at Canwrite, I'm finally able to use them.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Still flying after flying in the face of fear

It's a week since the CAA Canwrite! 2010 conference began in Victoria. It ended last Saturday night, and I'm still on a high.

Photo: Poet Bernice Lever reads at the open mike. Bernice also read from the works of absent CAA prize nominees.

For me, the kickoff was an appointment to show an early draft of my manuscript to bestselling novelist Patrick Taylor. I was scared but not for long. Patrick's comments were very helpful, and we laughed together as he showed me flaws I couldn't see for myself.

Every writer needs an editor. This is advice I often deliver to my students as they bewail making "stupid mistakes." Patrick's comments located me on the other side of this knowledge. After many years of correcting pronoun reference errors for my students, I laughed with chagrin to see those very monsters in my own work.

And the meeting was fun. "You need a sense of humour," my experienced adviser told me, raising his hand high to show me the remembered pile of drafts he works through before each novel is published. Also, he gave me a signed advance copy of his latest: An Irish Country Courtship (New York, Forge, 2010). He wrote my name, and added the note, "Keep on writing." How good that felt.

The open mike session was a blast. Moderated by Victoria poet Sheila Martindale, it featured a variety of short readings from members.

There too, I took my courage in both hands and did what I've wanted to do for a long time. As I read through my piece, I burst into song when I came to the lines from the old ballads we loved so much in the sixties. Like the meeting with Patrick, that was exhilarating.

For me, the anticipation of both these conference highlights was a bit scary, as ventures onto new maps often are. But the rewards were rich. A week later, I'm still flying.