Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Be Like a Dragonfly

I just listened to a lovely segment on Quirks and Quarks (CBC Radio One), one of the many wonderful science podcasts I get to listen to thanks to the World Wide Web.

This piece was about a plain old dragonfly that is found in many parts of the world, not just the same species but a single, mobile population that floats over oceans, eating aerial plankton along the way. I thought the method this being uses for such great flights was a good metaphor for hominid existence, too. So I made this little graphic to point it out.

Listen Here.

Dragonfly study by Dr. Jessica Ware.
Image by Greg Lasley.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Flickers: Henry, AIDS, and Aiding

My Scottie lamp is flickering beside me, in need again of a switch upgrade. The lamp features a brass mother dog, her beard nicely combed, her body squished impossibly into a basket brimming with pups. I was smitten when I saw it, stunned that I could afford it; I have glanced at it happily thousands of times since, always on some level reminded of the day it came into my possession, the life I was living then, and the people I knew and loved. In a way that no other object does, this friendly-looking little lamp, with all its kitsch and charm, represents a period of my life and a dear companion, and all the adventure and sorrow those times bestowed.

I picked up this lamp with my friend Henry at a store in Toronto's Kensington Market sometime around 1979, for eleven dollars. The store was called Courage My Love, of a sort common now but then unique in my experience, with quirky and comely clothes and knicknacks filling all available space. I bought a couple of old tuxedo pants, as well, the ones with the narrow satin stripe up the side, black on black. I’m not sure what my look was exactly, in those days—there are few photos of me. But I do remember being thrilled with those pants, the most handsome clothes I had ever touched.

Henry introduced me to the store, as he did many things. I tried to persuade him to get a pair of tuxedo pants for himself, but his own look was very well established, and he shook his head mutely and walked away.

They were strange and wonderful times, those two short years in Toronto. I worked in a gay diner, washing dishes and bantering with the other employees. I was one of three women; the rest was all dark moustaches and well-defined baskets, or at least, that’s the way you would picture it if you only heard the talk. It was actually a teeming narrow world of high hopes and healthy hormones, creative aspirations and silent spiritual quests, terrible puns, wounded feelings, and camaraderie.

 I was back in Toronto this month for the first time in several years—the first time, I believe, since my best friend from those diner days lost his life to AIDS, and I went to Casey House to mourn.

When Henry and I met, he was the terse, surly, very efficient cook in whose kitchen I worked washing up. I was not a great dishwasher, but I tried hard to do the job well, I worked as fast as I could in that busy place, and I was friendly with the waiters who hurried back in anxiety for glasses, plates, cups, and cutlery. In the other half of the kitchen Henry was swiftly and masterfully assembling the Paris Burger, the Hawaiian Burger,  the New York Burger, the spinach salads and  other savoury delights our diner was famous for. He was a looker, our Henry, with his smokey eyes, his well-shaped brown locks dropping across his forehead, and his white apron folded neatly around his waist. (I went more for the long dangling shapeless look in aprons, myself.)


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Wavy Lines

In the room next door to me my mother lies sleeping. (Or wishing she was sleeping.) In the room beside hers, my sister and her husband lie, awake but drowsy. Scattered around the house dogs and cat settle in for the night, and here I sit, typing away when I ought to be snuggling in, myself.

It is my last night of fourteen in their home, my first visit to them in many years, and it will be a long while before I can come again. So I want to stay awake. I want to stretch out these wavy lines of sleep-deprived connection with my family, want to keep them close while I can.

Now, above you see the close-cropped head of my great-nephew. He lives in Australia, and visited Canada for the first time in May. He loved that squirrel. It was wonderful spinning around Vancouver with him and his brother and their parents and grandmas, but so short a time, so short a time, and they were gone.

Long ago in the days before The Internet my mother and I did a whack of genealogical research. I was surprised to notice that every forebear we had information on had raised his or her children thousands of miles from where he or she had grown up. I'm not sure why this surprised me. We ourselves had skipped from house to house for the first ten years of my life and then decamped from Winnipeg for the west coast, and since then both parents skedaddled back across the continent, to different destinations, and my siblings are flung across country and globe.

There are many sad and touching tales in there, most of which I am not privy to, some of which I hold close in my own heart. A whole nother brother came into being while I lived far away, and I wonder if we will ever see each other again, let alone live near to one another, as he, too, has travelled abroad to make his home.

I can still come to tears over these partings, so many years after they came into effect. I wouldn't will us all back into the shape we once held, when I was young and my parents and all their kids lived under the same roof. I wouldn't unlearn what I've learned, or undo what we've done, our growing and our explorations, not at all. But there is something lost when people spread so far apart. Some of it we are happy to say goodbye to. Some of it, in parting, we may never get beyond.

My sister told a story tonight of a man she met in Scotland in the 1980s. He was semi-scandalized that his adult son had left their town (not by far at all) for a job. Who would do that? he wanted to know.

Our people would. For a living, for adventure, to escape unhappy situations, for many reasons. And the lines of kinship are stretched farther and farther until they shimmer along the horizon and grow hazy, wavy, disappear.

I would have loved to be a real aunt to all of my nieces and nephews. The ones too far for me to drop in on more than once every few years. But I was not. I would have loved to be a real sister to my siblings, the ones that live so far away, who I now barely know, yet still so deeply love. But I was not.

The segment of the family who live close to me have gotten more of the annoyance and more of the pleasure of knowing me, not because they were better, more beloved, more important than the rest, but because they were there. I have gotten the ever-deepening pleasure of knowing them. Even when we were really really miffed at each other, things shifted over time. We sat through it. We knew each other more, and hence, grew easier in each other's company.

Before I was born, before my father was born, his family came from Scotland to Canada, forced to leave behind one son. That part of the family, the part that came down from him, is unknown to us. His heart was broken, ours broke away, drifting over the seas, gone from him.

Tomorrow I am packing up my suitcase again and moving on to a few last visits before my flight back home. And I am sad. My mum gets older as I while away my time in Vancouver. My sister's life is lived while mine is lived elsewhere, and we get older, too. Years flash by. Friends, family members keel over dead and I go to memorial service after memorial service, and I think, not yet Mum. Not yet, sister. Don't die yet. One more visit. One more letter. One more act of love.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Reaching Gramma

I wrote this piece nine years ago. I have never forgotten it, never published it before. In the intervening years my perspective on my gramma, her life, and her Alzheimer’s, has softened even more. I don’t list here all the fun times we had in the nursing home, on our walks and drives, or afterward. I think maybe the emphasis here, at the beginning of the essay, is perhaps a little too much on the sorrowful side. Once I got through that nursing home door, facing down my fear of painful emotion yet one more time, I enjoyed some of the most profoundly loving and playful times of my life.

But I won’t change the essay, just let you see it as it sat with me back then. And I will sit with it again, myself, steep in all that love that really had less to do with family, at which we had not been very successful, as with human being. In the verb sense. The best kind of love of all. 

Reaching Gramma

Gramma fell in February. For ten years she'd been living in a nursing home, in good health, but Alzheimer's had changed her. It had been ages since we could sit and talk in the accustomed way—what have you been doing, this is what I've done. She couldn't remember the beginning of the sentence by the time we reached the end. And after awhile, she didn't care.

Not that she had given up hope—she'd given up worry. She made a policy of being polite to everyone in case they were a friend, and gave up old grudges for good. The daughter she had had the most anger toward, she simply forgot. She became in some ways the Gramma I'd always wanted. Someone who was delighted to see me. Someone who knew how to play. I learned how to converse without referring to any other person or any other time—she wouldn’t remember them. I learned to kiss her and hug her, things we never used to do, to sing old songs with her, to call her puppy-face, to do silly things to get her to laugh.

Image: Marie, by Casey June Wolf.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Removing the Arrow

I was rude to a young man yesterday. I had to keep from looking at him as I walked past afterward in order not to apologize. I do generally apologize when my Old Stuff gets the better of me and I am a jerk. The thing was, what I said was probably true, if not terribly compassionately rendered. And more, the incident set a match to a smouldering resentment that I have been carrying, like the people of the Stone Age once carried nuggets of living fire in a satchel as they traversed unyielding fields. (I may have made that up but I am pretty sure I heard it in one of the trillion popular science programs I have listened to over the years.

In this most recent manifestation, the resentment is toward TransLink, or whoever it was who came up with the plan of installing a payment system that A) doesn’t work and so robs countless people of extra fares and B) violates the privacy of myself and any other person who, by virtue of illness and poverty, is forced to live on the provincial disability allowance, for our card use is on their records.

You see the sour grapes slowly revealed? And I shall warn you, I am not in the mood to set a metaphor and stick with it. Indeed, I am about to change it again.

The trouble is, beyond the fact that there are some real issues here that have been more than adequately addressed by others, I have an age-old arrow embedded deep in my side, and this Compass Card system, and that loud-voiced, officious young man who forced me to go back and use my card when he could see I had it and could see that the doors of the turnstile were open, and could see that I was burdened with parcels, twist the arrow painfully, and I want to shout.

Friday, 11 March 2016


Faithful looking down at Sparky, through the glass door.

There is a partial, very, very partial antidote to the lonely, motionless aspect my apartment has taken on since the last of my companions died. I may have mentioned Faithful to you. She is one of the feral cats my building manager feeds on the other side of the building—the only one, it seems, who visits the backyard, which I face. Faithful* and Sparky had a long and complicated relationship, beginning with her beating him to a pulp as often as possible, or at least terrorizing him. 

I found, on the two occasions that I did it, that I felt very unhappy about yelling at her when she was stalking him. I didn’t like adding to the stress of the situation. So I started greeting her enthusiastically instead. “Hello-o-o! How are you?!” This startled her into looking away from him and at me. Sparky escaped, and all was well. But it also meant that she began taking an interest in me. She started slowing down in her progress across the yard to look at me when I came to the window, then later began showing up on my balcony and watching me through the glass. Seeing me pet Sparky and brush him was quite absorbing. But she maintained, and has now for several years, a frightened distance not only from me but from any other person. In fact, we have the most intimate relationship she has so far developed with a human. She will sniff my hand—once long ago even ate a few crunchies from my palm—but is generally happy to gaze at me through the glass and blink. I of course blink back, when I don’t initiate it, as this is cat talk (as I’m sure you know) for “Aren’t we having a pleasant time?”

The ultimate expression of our affection came a year or so ago when I was inspired to scratch her through the glass door. I had held my finger up for her to “sniff”, and she leaned forward to meet it. Then I started scratching the glass and she, to my amazement, enthusiastically rubbed her head on the other side of the door. We kept this up whenever we saw each other till she stopped coming around so much.

The day Sparky died, Faithful, whom I had not seen much for a fair while, showed up two times, in the morning when he was alive, and in the evening when he was not. She came every day for five more days, and then stopped again. I did, in the first day or so when he was still here, let her smell my fingers after I had petted him, to let her know that he was dead. (I have only touched on their interactions here. Although she tormented him in the end I decided she was actually fond of him. Once when he soared over to have a glass-fight she bent down and bumped her head against the door in the same way she did when I was scratching it. Wonder of wonders...)

About a week ago I got up in the morning, closed the window, and saw Faithful bound off the balcony. I wasn’t sure whether she had been peering through the glass looking for me, as she often will even at times when I am hopefully sleeping, or had just been passing through.

The next day I did the same thing and saw her leap up from the balcony chair. I had long since given up on her taking advantage of the cushioned chair I provide there, but apparently with Sparky’s death things, as they always do among cats who live together, have begun to change. The next morning I was more careful, and she continued resting there even once she became aware of my presence.

She has been there for hours every day since then. I don’t notice her there at night, but in the morning she is usually there, and if I don’t do crazy things like sweep the floor vigorously with my corn broom (an eye-poppingly scary sound), she will sleep on for ages, occasionally twitching her ears or glancing over at me when I clatter a bit. I don’t feed her, though in the past she used to like the odd treat. But food is not the basis of our relationship. A relationship entirely decided by her.

It is amazing how calming it is just to see her there. My whole psyche is shaped by the knowledge that there have always been cats strewn through my home and my life. The shape of a cat, the sound of a cat’s voice, the glance of a cat in my direction are all things that have a physical effect on me. I relax muscles I hadn’t even realize were tensed, just knowing a cat friend is around.

So. Who knows how long she will keep sleeping here, but she is midwifing me through this difficult transition, and I am grateful to her.

And by the way. I came home last night and saw a cat fly from the chair, so instantly called out in a soothing way. The movement was lighter, the speed quicker than Faithful generally is. (Though don’t be fooled—that’s because she trusts me. She is an astonishingly fast creature when she wants to be.) The bolting spirit stopped on the breast-high wall that encloses the balcony and turned to look at me. To my astonishment it was not Faithful, but Smudge, another of the feral cats, the only one of the four who is not from the same litter. He sat nervously down and watched. Some several minutes later, he eased off of the balcony and vanished into the night.

What is this? I have never seen him in the back yard before. Did Faithful tell him about the private lounge on the North Side? Did he follow her, hoping to sleuth out where she was vanishing every day? Was it her scent that attracted him?

Anyway, I am getting a little cat action. For which, as they used to say in church (and probably still do), may the Lord make us truly thankful. Such a lovely gift from the feralsphere.

* I call her Faithful, as my niece decided she needed a name and supplied that one. The building manager calls her Balak, a name which I oppose:

The name Balak means “devastator,”[5] “empty,”[6] or “wasting.”[7] The name Balak apparently derives from the sparsely used Hebrew verb (balak), “waste or lay waste.”[8]  (Wikipedia)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Sound and (Car) Fury: A Note to CBC 180

Cap Haitien, 2006

It's happened again. I've been driven (er...) to write a letter to the CBC. This time to Jim Brown and co. at the Radio One program The 180. I often have the impulse to answer back to radio, and in the privacy of my own head, usually do. But only now and then do I write a letter. You'll find a couple more in the archives of this blog.

Here, I am responding to two stories: responses from a past episode on noise, and

crosswalk flag program

What keeps walkers safe? A West Vancouver crosswalk gets mocked online

Hello, Jim Brown et al.

I meant to write about whose responsibility it is to keep pedestrians safe, but I can't suppress (haven't tried) the first thought I had when I heard you ask what noise we would eliminate from our world if possible. Here's a 180: music.

Not all music, but unwanted music. We are bombarded with music today, and long gone is any thought of making it of a calming sort. (I was surprised to hear on CBC some time ago that when tested, people actually do find Muzak the most calming music, even though we profess to hate it.*)

I love music. I sing. Often. Many times a day, in fact. But I don't sing while shopping, while concentrating on writing, while having a conversation, and I don't like being forced to listen to musiceven music I would like if I was in the mood to pay attention to itwhen I am trying to do these things. I'm also out of sync with the tastes of the baristas and DJs of the world, apparently, so most of the music I hear, I really don't care for. I'm a person with jangling nerves. Not always, but certainly when trying to do three things at once, quickly so the person behind me can stop tapping their feet, trying to filter out noise really doesn't help. I'm also a person with enough hearing impairment that trying to distinguish what a friend across the table from me is saying is difficult even without the drone.

What a grump. (But golly, don't we love a soapbox?)

As for crossing the street. As a pedestrian, I regularly get annoyed or frightened by the antics of drivers who are either not paying attention or think their mission is more important than those of us on shanks' mare. On the other hand, as a human being I am well aware of the imperfections of my own attention, skill, vision, and of my complete ability to make a mistake. Being of a fragile organic nature I know that although I really love to be right, I would rather survive than go down under someone's wheels.

A few years ago I lived in Haiti, which was a real education in many, many ways, particularly around the assumptions I made because of the world as it appeared to be organized, growing up in Canada. One of the best things about Haiti was its approach to this topic.

At first it seemed to me that there were no rules, and I was petrified. People drove quickly willy nilly down the road, slamming on horns more often than brakes. On the main streets merchants lined the sidewalks and pedestrians picked their way through traffic in vaguely similar ways to unregulated roads here. But on narrow streets, crowded with small merchants sitting on the ground or on small hand-cut chairs with their wares on tables or in baskets around them, the situation was very different. I nearly had an embolism the first time I went as a passenger down one of those lanes. The driver did not slow down, and swayed back and forth around potholes in just the way he did on the larger roads. Chaos (to my eyes) ensued. Pedestrians fled, chickens scrambled, merchants grabbed their tables and got out of the way, and we bounced wildly down the road.

No one was hit.

I soon learned that in Haiti pedestrians are entirely responsible for their own safety, and so they have their eyes peeled. They don't arrogantly (or unawarely) assume they are safe or that the other guy needs to stand down. They get the hell out of the way and survive. People do get hit by cars in Haiti, of course. At that point the driver will do the fleeing if at all possible, as they stand a good chance of being beaten badly by the crowd. So it's in a driver's interest not to hit people.

It seemed to me at the time, once my hair settled down, that their system had real advantages (apart from the beatings), and I have been (in general) a much more pro-active pedestrian ever since. Which, in this era of deteriorating rode etiquette, is for the best.



* Wish I could track that story down, but I can't. At least, not easily.