Saturday, April 30, 2011

Short story: Balance (part i)

Waiting at the Charles de Gaulle airport, Claudia wondered if she’d recognize her cousin. It had been more than a year since she last saw him, before he left Canada to volunteer in Thailand and she came to study photography in Paris. But she knew him instantly, although his skin was darkly tanned and his face thin. Faded clothes hung loosely on his tall, narrow frame. Familiar blue eyes smiled above an unfamiliar beard. They embraced self-consciously.

“How was your flight?”

“Long. You’ve cut your hair.” Claudia’s hair, once long, was cropped close around her petite face.

“Yes.” She reached up to smooth it down. “What do you think?”

“I liked it long.”

Claudia lived on a six floor walk up and Michael was winded by the time they reached her door. “It takes some getting used to,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes I’ll climb all the way up and realize I forgot to buy milk or bread. I’ll go without rather than do the stairs again.”

“It’s just because I’m tired after my long flight,” he said. “You should be running up and down these stairs everyday for exercise. Then you’d be in good shape.”

Claudia’s face twitched but she held her tongue and turned to unlock the door. It’s true she wasn’t in shape anymore and wondered if he had already sized that up. She and Michael used to play tennis together; he had been a demanding coach and she was glad she did not have a racket here.

As she opened the door to let her cousin follow her in, she looked at her apartment with eyes she hadn’t worn in months. Paint was peeling off the narrow hallway walls like bark from a dying tree. The light from a single bulb seemed to drown in the dusty air. The bathroom, shared with two tenants, was basically a toilet in a closet. The half-size bath and cracked ceramic sink were tucked beside the kitchen. A skylight opened directly above the bath and she told Michael her flatmates joked that when it rained you could just open the window instead of turning on the shower. His mouth crinkled into an uneasy smile.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wedding of the century

Well, I kind of feel like I have to blog about this – it’s billed as the wedding of the century after all. Kate and Will got married today – a beautiful day, a beautiful wedding, a beautiful bride.

Admittedly, I didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to join an estimated 2 billion people in watching the wedding live. But, like millions of others, I’ve watched clips of the wedding on the web and read a few of the many news stories.

I have never considered myself a royalist, but I must admit I am impressed by the whole pomp and ceremony of it all. It actually is a little surreal – especially if you watch the clip of Kate and Will leaving Westminster Abbey after the ceremony - the girl just married her prince. She walks out of the cathedral as the bells ring out. A horse drawn carriage pulls up; they climb inside and drive off to Buckingham Palace. It’s the stuff of fairytales.

It’s fun to watch, but I can’t help wondering about the people behind it all. I don’t mean all the planners and organizers – I mean what it must be like for Kate and Will and the others who have been the subject of such gargantuan public scrutiny today. The couple has been together since 2001 – that’s a long history that I’m sure could not be as picture perfect, fairytale-like as the balcony kiss and horse-drawn procession.

This isn’t to be critical, or even curious in a digging-for-dirt celebrity tabloid way. I just wonder - when they are standing before thousands of people - what is going through their minds?

I don’t think I’m wrong in guessing that every couple has a relationship that is more complex than anyone in their circle knows. We all have our secrets, our personal dynamics which may make us unique – but which would probably mean at very few of us would invite a full-disclosure examination of our intimacies.

And so I wonder, when watching a young couple exchange vows to forever love and cherish one another – what does this actually mean to them? Do they, does anyone, really believe in the beautiful fairytale this ceremony has constructed?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Out on a date!

Since Miya was born – which was over two years ago now – my husband and I really haven’t been on many dates. I think we went out for my birthday, and there may have been one other evening out – but neither of us can remember where or when.

But tonight we had a date. We went out for a lovely dinner. Just the two of us.

We were going to go to a local Italian place, but their kitchen closed at 8. So we were forced to go the Wellington Gastropub – a pricey but delicious restaurant a little further down the street.

I had a tasty salad with walnuts, cranberries and goat cheese ,followed by risotto cakes on a bed of chick peas and olive. V had fish cakes and sablefish (described by our server as “halibut, but more unctuous”).

We lingered over drinks, enjoyed our food and didn’t have to wash any dishes or pots afterward. There was no flipping of coins to see who would cook, no scrounging in the fridge and freezer to see what ingredients could be coaxed into some resemblance o f a meal. We sat back and chatted. Delicious food, artfully presented, was brought and set down before us. Empty dishes magically disappeared. Empty glasses were refilled. It was all quite lovely.

This whole arrangement was made possible because of a confluence of circumstance and good-will. There is a new show on HBO: Game of Thrones. This show if of interest to friends of ours, friends who do not subscribe to HBO. They suggested that we record the show on our PVR and, in exchange for free babysitting, they would watch it at our place.

So with two shows waiting on the PVR, they came over and settled in for the evening – and we headed out on the town (well, down the street).

Apparently M cried at one point and our friend went in and was received with dumbfounded silence. They stared at each other in the darkness, then our friend left and close the door behind her. M never made another peep.

All in all a lovely evening, made possible by the generosity of friends and of my husband.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lack of respect for Filipina nannies

In the last few weeks our regular nanny has been unavailable so we’ve been scrounging around for different care givers. But while it’s a struggle for us to find childcare at the last minute, I’m reminded of how much of a struggle life can be for thousands of foreign care givers in this country.

Canada has a live-in caregiver program which facilitates Canadian families hiring nannies to live in their homes and take care of their children. Although I don’t know much about the technicalities of the program or the laws that require these nannies to wait years before being able to apply to become permanent residents and have work permits, I have heard many stories about women in this program being poorly treated. Do their employers think they do not owe the same human courtesy their caregivers since they are foreign and dependent?

More than 90% of Canada's domestic workers come from the Philippines – Canada’s fourth largest immigrant group. There are probably hundreds of Filipina nannies in Ottawa, many who have come to Canada via Hong Kong or the Middle East. (One of Miya’s first nannies was Filipina).

The stories I hear aren't necessarily human rights violations, but they demonstrate a lack of consideration to these women – women who are being entrusted with the care of people’s children. One woman I know has a room bordering right on the children’s bedroom, meaning that if the child cries in the night, she is the one to wake up.

If that doesn’t seem bad to you, I was told yesterday about a nanny whose bed is in the laundry room – a room without a locking door and one in which the family feels free to enter and leave at their leisure.

There are often little ways in which a woman’s contract is violated – extra hours demanded, an extra child, lack of privacy. One woman was telling me that she has time off during the day, but never for more than 3 hours – so it’s very difficult for her to do anything outside of her work.

I know that I haven’t even scratched the surface here. But I’m sure there are many more stories and voices which deserve be heard.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I wish for my daughter

A few days ago my daughter turned two. She’s still so young, but birthdays remind us all of the passing of time and that, year after year, she will continue to get older – for hopefully many, many years to come.

As parents, we all hope for a long, healthy, happy life for our children. But when I think more specifically, these are some of the things I wish and pray for my little girl.

First – may she always be loved, and always know she is loved. May unconditional love be her anchor and touchstone whenever someone or something tries to tell her she isn’t pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough and funny enough.

And may she know the beautiful tender vulnerability of loving others unconditionally too.

May she have a long childhood and an innocence that is gradually informed, not forever shattered. And during the crazy years of adolescence, may she discover her own strength and voice – not lose herself trying to please others.

May she have the faith and confidence to explore and to test the limits and the boundaries of her own strength – but the caution and good-sense to know not to get in the car with a drunk driver or to play chicken on the highway. (And as her mother I can’t help hoping that her experiments will be more in the realm of hair colour, fashion and sports, and less in the realm of drugs, giant tattoos and cults.)

May she learn generosity, kindness, and empathy by having them offered to her. May she learn to see strength where others see weakness, beauty where others see flaws. May the suffering of others inspire in her compassion, not contempt.

May the inevitable pains of isolation, fear, betrayal and rejection be tempered by the support of close friends and those who love her. May her wounds heal quickly and adversity challenge not defeat her.

And as the years go by, may she remember from time to time the mother who came to her when she cried in the night, who puddle-splashed, finger-painted and belly-tickled her, and who loves her with a love that is deeper than the ocean and fiercer than a lion.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter in the park

We have a great little community centered around the park which is about two blocks away. People organize play groups, concerts, summer parties, etc. Everything is very family focused, with special emphasis on young kids.

Today there was an Easter egg hunt in the park. Kids were eagerly awaiting the 10:15 a.m. start – clustered around a sparkly ribbon drawn between two trees (some had already been finding eggs around, but parents mostly managed to make kids wait).We counted down from 10 and then the kids burst out – running all over the park in search of foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.

M got into the hunt with some encouragement. She enjoyed finding eggs around trees and in the grass; she’d carefully pick them up and deposit them in her basket. Later into the basket went leaves and handfuls of sand and grass – pretty much things of equal value. She has no idea that the eggs have chocolate inside – and since I didn’t really want a toddler hooped up on chocolate, I did not bother to inform her. She collected the eggs much as she does pebbles and small toys - items to simply carry around.

As part of this event, I asked my favourite Bridgehead coffeeshop for a community donation of coffee. Before heading over, M and I stopped by and picked up a big canister full of coffee – along with milk, cream, sugar and lots of cups.

Bridgehead asks that these community events in some way promote things such as fair trade, the environment and the community. So we hauled over the green, black and blue bins and put up a small sign encouraging people to recycle or compost their used cups. (This got me thinking about looking into getting a permanent recycling set-up at the park this summer.)

We also let people know that we’d be collecting items for the food bank and I’m impressed with the bin-full of things that were donated. I have trouble remembering to pack a snack and a sippy cup, so I’m impressed not only at people’s generosity, but also that they remembered to bring things to the park.

A great event and a great little community behind it. So lucky.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Who Will be king?

Now that the prince is going to marry and there will be a beautiful young princess, are we actually caring about the monarchy again?

Judging by the number of stories I’ve seen lately in the news, I would say that royal-watching is definitely on the upsurge. The internet is abuzz and Princess-to-be Kate Middleton was even on the cover of the Globe and Mail this weekend.

But do we really care? I’m not so sure.

According to the article I read in the Globe, all this attention on Will and Kate is part of a very thought-out plan by the central figures in the monarchy - including the Queen and her husband. Given the indifference verging on flat-out contempt for Charles, there is a very real possibility that many people in the U.K. and the Commonwealth do not want Charles as their king.

Should Charles be crowned, the ever-present, anti-royal murmurs will likely grow louder, as will discussion about turning Commonwealth countries into republics. Elected heads of state anyone?

For awhile now there have been rumours that unpopular Prince Charles might just get skipped over altogether and the crown handed straight to Will. Public opinion in Britain holds this as a favourable option, but apparently the legalities of the matter are not quite so simple as an opinion poll.

The Queen is the head of state of 15 countries (Canada obviously included) and the monarch of a 54-member Commonwealth. A change to the natural order of things (read first born male) would take Parliamentary agreement from all 15 countries. Our government doesn’t seem to be able to agree on anything these days – hard to imagine they would agree with 14 other countries on constitutional matters.

And then, if the elected leaders of these countries were to force a decision on who will be the next to sit on the throne, isn’t that just one step away from Parliamentary appointment – kind of like we do in Canada with the Governor General. Can you imagine an appointed monarch?

There are a lot of big questions circling like vultures around our monarchy. The royals are likely praying that a blow-out wedding and a beautiful bride will distract them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter at the Children's Museum

This Saturday, Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization was apparently the place be – or at least it would appear that way judging from the crowds. Long line-ups snaked up the admissions desk and the exhibits were packed. It’s a rainy long weekend – guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Since we are already members we got to skip the long line-ups, but M was a little take aback by the crowds in the Children’s Museum. Luckily we arrived just in time to see the Easter Bunny and join in the bunny parade. A little later we went into the craft studio and decorated Easter eggs (or to be honest, I decorated an egg with some input from M, who mostly just wanted to play with glue and wash her hands).

The Children’s Museum, for those who don’t know it, is a fantastic place for kids. Part of the Museum of Civilization, it’s geared for young children and set up around the theme of ‘the Great Adventure’. Kids can climb onto a bus from Pakistan, explore an Egyptian pyramid, swap the deck of a boat, go ‘shopping’ at the market, play games in a Bedouin tent, etc. There are costumes, props and lots of hands-on discoveries.

In some ways M is still too young for a lot of what the museum offers, but there are plenty of things she does enjoy and as she gets older there will be more and more things to discover and engage with. We usually don’t get there more often than once a month, so it’s neat to see how her interaction with exhibits changes from one visit to the next – although her fascination with the escalators is a pretty sure constant.

We are so fortunate to live in a city with great museums and activities for kids. While M would likely have been happy today to have played in the local park or filled a small box with rocks, emptied it and filled it again, repeatedly, she does enjoy the wonders these museums offer – and as parents, we certainly do too. My appreciation for galleries and museums used to be rather limited to my solitary experiences – this has been much changed and enriched.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day

So what’s with Earth Day? Seems it was started as an educational event in the States during the 70s, spread internationally in 1990 and in 2009 was officially recognized by the United Nations. There are now Earth Day events in more than 175 countries. That is some impressive marketing and networking!

I’m all for environmental awareness and green initiatives. I had Earth Day marked in my calendar, but when today arrived I realized I didn’t actually know what Earth Day is. Perhaps it is, like most things, what you make of it.

I could've gone to an Earth Day party tonight at a cool local yarn store since I contributed to an Earth Day window display organized by the store, Wabi Sabi, and CPAWS - the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. The pictures in this blog are from that display – a very impressive collection of hand-crafted animals and birds. My bird is very sad – in the bottom picture it’s the brown knitted bird that is doing a face plant into the branch. (I’m surprised it even made it into the display, given the artistry shown by the other contributors.)

But knitted birds aside, should I be doing something more to mark Earth Day? I feel like I should have planted a tree or collected garbage on the side of a highway. I’m ashamed to admit that I barely even spent any time outdoors today. (V had the day off work, so he joined M and I at the seniors – nice for him to get to see what it is we do each week and meet a few of the residents. M was a big hit as usual and there was a new resident she connected well with.)

In the afternoon V cleaned the eaves troughs on the garage – which maybe we could spin as an Earth Day activity since it’s all part of the plan to put in a rain barrel – but sadly I was indoors typing away, burning energy.

We do continue to try and do our part – cfl bulbs, cloth grocery bags, composting, recycling, gardening, buying local, cloth diapering, etc. If you look at it that way, any day can be Earth Day.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Let's get tough on the prison agenda

I haven’t done a rant lately about justice issues – but this great cartoon from the Toronto Star has inspired me to vent again. Well, that the way the Conservatives keep drumming out ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that flies in the face of research, reports and basic common sense.

Crime rates have steadily declined over the last 10 years and yet so many candidates in this election keep emphasizing how they are going to fight crime and get tough on criminals.

Even if crime was they kind of large-scale problem they would like us to believe, certainly it would make sense to implement practices that have been proven to actually lower crime rates. But no, our government seems intent on building more prisons and filling them with more people - even though incarceration is not as effective in lowering crime rates and recidivism compared with prevention, treatment, and community-led programs.

Corrections Canada currently spends just over $2,200,000,000 a year on prisons. And now there are plans to build 2,700 additional prison beds at a cost of $2,100,000,000 ($800,000 per bed). This makes no sense and Canadians should be outraged.

Be even more outraged when you look more closely at who exactly we are spending these billions of dollars on to warehouse in prisons. In provincial jails, close to 60% of the people in prison have not even been convicted – they are awaiting trial and may be found innocent or guilty of a crime not deserving jail. We keep clogging up the system with more people and paying $100,000 to $200,000 a year to keep them in jail while they wait. So much for due process or innocent until proven guilty.

Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies points out that over 80% of women in prison are incarcerated for poverty-related offences. Additionally, 82% of women who are federally sentenced in Canada have experienced physical or sexual abuse, 75% have less than a junior high school education, 34% are Indigenous, and the majority live with mental health issues.

It would be wonderful if during this election campaign Canadians challenged their local candidates and party leaders to present strategies for actually fixing our justice system.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I felt good

Tonight I went to a needle felting workshop and discovered the fun of sculpting with wool. It was so easy to do – just use a little fish-hook like needle to shape the wool – but also challenging in a cool, creative way.

The workshop was set up so we would make a little Easter bunny in a cave. In the past I’ve been sceptical of creative workshops where everyone makes the same thing. I guess I kind of thought it would be like paint-by-number and proudly imagined I was beyond that.

But it was quickly obvious that 7 women produce 7 very different rabbits and it was neat to watch the creative process of other people, see how we all work with an idea and make it personal. I can imagine if we’d experienced, confident felters, the diversity would be even greater.

There is something so satisfying about working with my hands – whether its knitting or painting or needle felting like tonight – or even sometimes doing some chores like weeding, ironing and home renos. There is a great sense of accomplishment in seeing something take shape or transform right in front of me. So much of my day is normally spent typing letters so words appear on a computer screen. Sure there are processes and outcomes with this that I enjoy - but it’s a different feeling from creating a little creature or tidying up a scraggly flower bed.

It’s been a busy week for me and if I had stayed home I likely would have spent much of the evening working away on my computer. On Monday a friend invited me out to a meditation class with her and similar to tonight, I had the feeling during and afterward that this is really something I need to do more often. It felt so good to be grounded in my body for awhile, to be stretching and moving these tired stiff muscles that get locked in my routine.

Twice in one week... maybe there is a lesson a need to learn here. Perhaps a reminder of how good and necessary it is step off the treadmill now and again and remember to breath, move and create.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Two years old!

Today we celebrated 2 years in the life of Miya – and 2 years of being a family, of being parents.

Last night as I was getting ready for bed, I found it strange to think that 2 years ago I had been getting ready to give birth. How much my life has changed since then. How full it now is.

To be honest, sometimes it feels over-full. Parenting can be overwhelming – so much responsibility, so much to try to understand. I think of the many conversations I’ve had with other parents over the last couple years in which we try to understand our children and figure out how best to respond to them. How to respond to a baby that doesn’t sleep, to a toddler who melts in tears for reasons we can’t understand? How do we respond at 6 a.m.? At 3 a.m.?

Two years in, I know there is still a lot I don’t know about being a parent. There is still a lot to learn. But at the same time I can feel proud of the journey we come through together so far, of all the things we’ve learned together – V, Miya and I. She learns from us. We learn from her. We’re all in this together trying to do the best we can.

V and I both took the day off work today to hang out with our daughter. I asked her where she would like to spend the morning and, not surprisingly, she chose the nature museum. She also chose what she would wear – a fun new outfit from her Grandma.

When we were at the museum I took her into the gift shop and let her pick out a new toy. Out of all the different animals, she chose a penguin and then spent the rest of our visit showing the penguin around the museum.

For her birthday dinner we invited her closest little friends and their parents to join us at a nearby diner. It wasn’t exactly relaxing to eat a meal out with 4 toddlers, but it was fun in the chaotic, multi-tasking way that has come to define so much of these rich past two years.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pilgrims book excerpt 7 - arrival

I will not remember much of these last few hours before reaching Santiago. During the final push to Santiago, I unearth and expend the last ounce of strength I possess. Every step hurts and it takes all I have to keep walking. Yet Santiago is also a force that keeps pulling me, like the current dragging at my feet.

When we crest a hill and see the city spread out beneath us, it is a disappointing mess of billboards, cement towers, tightly packed houses and city streets. Alex races on and I stumble behind, blind to everything around me, mechanically putting one foot in front of the other. We finally reach the heart of this ancient city. Our walking sticks grate and tap on uneven cobblestone streets. The Camino is poorly marked here, which is strange. I’d almost expected streets of gold.

Then finally it is before me – the cathedral’s towering stone walls adorned with statues, turrets and spires. In the central spire stands St. Jacques, cloak thrown back over his shoulders, staff in hand. My own joy is dull and weak.

I shuffle into a dim interior packed to bursting with people. I am straining toward the voice of the priest, but the crowd is so thick that soon I can go further. My legs give way and I sink to the floor, slumping against a marble pillar.

I am only vaguely aware of the lofty room filled with gold statues, frescos and ornate decorations, the lilting voice of the priest. Most real is the cool stone against my cheek, the deep, deep fatigue of my body.

I remember those who asked me to pray for them and see them again in my mind’s eye - the kind old priest at St. Michel, the woman whose husband had Parkinson’s, the man who gave Armand and me fresh cherries. In what way I can, I form a prayer for them and add my own words of humble thanks. Tears unchecked stream down my cheeks, completing the prayer of gratitude I cannot put in words. When I open my eyes a beam of sunlight is streaming down from the high cupola directly to where I sit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Amazing product placement

Watched the Amazing Race tonight and was amazed by the degree of product pimping, I mean placement.

There was one recent episode where the winners of a leg got to be the first to try a new kind of Snapple – and far too much air time was devoted to them holding their Snapple bottles, sipping their Snapple ice tea. Tonight’s episode showcased Ford – and the winners each got their own car.

Sure, I know that advertisers need to find new ways to reach audiences. And V and I are exactly the sort of audience they are targeting, since we record the show in order to be able to fast forward through the commercials. I so rarely watch commercials these days that when I do, I’m fascinated with them as if I were discovering some old relic of the past.

I’ve also started paying attention in shows to how many products are actually displayed. I notice if the beer label is turned to the camera, or turned away. I notice what products are being displayed on counter tops. But while it’s one thing to have a brand of crackers on top of the fridge (Mad Men) it’s quite another to be as blatant as the Amazing Race is. They’re not subtle at all. With soft-lit shots and loving descriptions, basically they are boldly placing advertisements into the middle of their programming.

(I don’t watch Survivor, but I’m curious to know if they have found ways to sneak product placement on the ‘deserted islands’. They likely have.)

And what about when products on movies and tv look like a well known brand – i.e. a coffee shop with a green and white logo – but aren’t actually branded per se. Does Starbucks want to have coffeeshops in movies that look just like their stores but yet aren’t directly branded?

This gets me wondering - who pays who? Obviously Snapple and Ford invested in the Amazing Race – and negotiated a whole lot of in-show promotion. But does Starbucks pay to have a coffeeshop-scene in a movie – or do the directors pay Starbucks? What kind of deals and pay-outs are influencing what I see when I watch a movie or show?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pilgrims book excerpt 6 - nearing the end

It is incredible, this drive and urgency now pulsing through the Camino. I see feet raw with blisters, covered with white flaps of skin, pink flesh and weeping holes. I don’t know how they can manage 10 steps, yet they travel more than 20 km each day.

I wonder if people would push themselves so much if they were walking alone. But it can’t be that they simply don’t want to lose the people they are walking with, that they must keep up with the pilgrim horde. It’s almost as if a great hand is pushing us forward, urging us along.

In France it was quite common for people to rest for a day or more. But back then, Santiago was still more than 1,000 kilometres away. Now, we could be there in ten days or less. It seems impossible to stop.

It’s the third of July. Two months ago, I was arriving in Le Puy, nervous and unsure of what was ahead of me. Has it really only been two months? I am sure the calendar does not apply here. It has been two years. Or two decades. I feel my body growing old. The limbs are less sure. I tire more quickly. Once I thought about walking back from Santiago, now I look forward to arriving with a distant, faded zeal.

There are times when I want to get off this conveyer belt that keeps pushing us forward, ever faster. One morning I met an old woman pushing a wheelbarrow heaped with vegetables. I stopped and talked to her in my broken Spanish, asking where she was going and if I could carry her wheelbarrow for her. But even after she finally understood what I was offering, she would not let me help. She laughed with shy embarrassment, self-consciously adjusted her thick, plastic glasses, and encouraged me to go along. “Buen camino,” she wished.

I had been looking for some way to connect, to not just pass blindly through this beautiful countryside. The momentum of the Camino is growing, sweeping me into a mighty river in which it is difficult to steer my own craft, to cling for a moment to the shore.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pilgrims book excerpt 5 - musings on love

“When you love someone, the first thing you have to do is admit that you are very foolish.”

It is later in the afternoon at one of the tables downstairs, and Frank is musing on romance, both on the Camino and off. He hasn’t yet had the chance to introduce me to Maude, but we can hear her laughing and talking outside. “Love is not rational. It is not rational to be loyal to one person if I could be with other beautiful women, if there are other people I could love as well. Romantics will say they don’t care, that they choose to love just one, but this just isn’t logical.”

He stops and gazes out at Maude. “So the first thing you must do is admit that you are foolish.”

“Are you saying that loving one person for a whole lifetime is impossible?”

“Not at all. It is just irrational. If you want to love someone your whole life, you cannot expect to do that with your head. You have to go beyond what is rational.”

The Budapest is much less of a romantic. A French man with darkly tanned skin and a body devoid of excess fat, he began walking in Budapest because, as he claims proudly, it was the farthest point east. He doesn’t go by his name, Jean-François, but prefers to be known as ‘the Budapest’.

‘The problem is so many people believe that finding a companion will erase their solitude,’ he says. ‘It never will. And it is not the fault of the companion, nor of the relationship. Solitude will always be there. We must celebrate and value it.’ He reads me a passage from a book called ‘L’Éloignement du monde’ – Distancing from the world: ‘Those who know how to love us accompany us to the doorstep of our solitude and remain there without going one more step. Those who pretend to go farther in our company remain, in fact, much farther behind.’

‘Solitude is a fundamental human state,’ he continues. ‘Some people become disappointed in love when they realize it does not negate this. But we need to value our aloneness as much as we do our togetherness.’

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pilgrims book excerpt 4

My shadow withers and huddles at my feet. Bright gravel burns my eyes. This is no longer the high, rolling plateau of the meseta. We've descended onto the vast plains of the Castille, where gusts of hot air bend the fields of grain and whip my brittle hair into my eyes.

I cannot keep going, and yet the Camino pulls me on, dragging me into this desert of dust and sun. I am carrying more than a thousand kilometres in my feet, in my body. Each morning I wake at 5:30. My feet ache when I rise to stand, they cry when I pull on my sandals. Every kilometre brings me closer to Santiago, closer to my final rest; but each étape seems like eternity. Ten kilometres feel like 30 - tripled by the heat, the unchanging scenery, and a body sapped of its last strength.

The path does not bend all morning. It does not climb or descend. My mind assumes the monotonous rhythm of my footsteps. The highway is beside us, separated from the Camino by a few feet of scraggly weeds. After walking for an hour, nothing has changed. I could have been standing still.

“Alex…” I say and stop walking. We’ll never get there. The town we seek is backing away from us. I want to flag down a car. I want to sit by the road and not get up. I want to sleep in the ditch and wait for a stork to carry me off to the steeple of the church.

‘Come, Ta,’ he says. It’s not so far. We are almost there. You can rest soon.

But he sees the tears in my eyes and then he is beside me, wrapping his tanned arms around me, under my backpack against my sweaty back. I lean my head on his shoulder and tears shudder through me.

I don’t care anymore that he sees me cry. It feels better to be held than to cry alone.

Alex waits until I lift my head, then gently brushes my eyes. “Ça va aller,” he says. It will be alright. And for the next 10 kilometres he holds my hand, every single step.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

tweet tweet

Exclusive interview with D, the lead designer for RIM’s twitter app (T4BB):

T4BB is twitter app for the BlackBerry. As D explains, there are a lot of conventions with a BlackBerry that don’t apply to anything else – and BlackBerry has developed an app that is more deeply integrated than what iPhone has. “It’s very usable.”

He explains it simply for me: “An app means you don’t have to log in - you’re right back to where you were. It’s a lot quicker.”

D isn’t just a fan of what Blackberries can do – he’s a big fan of twitter. “Twitter’s awesome,” he says. “You can see what’s happening locally. Like a year ago when there was an earthquake here, you could find out instantly how far it spread from tweets in Montreal.”

“And what’s really cool about twitter is that, because you’re limited to 140 characters, people have to get to the point about what they are saying. So if you search something, the results are really easy to skim through. You can quickly consume the search results and get a lot of information quickly.”

As an example, he suggests that I run a twitter search on ‘T4BB’ I read him back some of the tweets and he gets giddy. “Seeing that stuff is cocaine for me.”

“Twitter is something that’s evolved into being more than what it’s started – it’s a new form of communication. It’s more than just the social thing; it’s the way that people communicate.”

Unlike other social media like Facebook, twitter is driven by what you’re interested in. “So if you’re interested in finding out people’s opinions, you can find them pretty quickly. That’s where I’ve discovered the real power. It’s not so much about what you tweet about, but what you can find out about. With twitter you have the ability to mass poll people – even no results tell you something. It’s pretty cool.”

Before leaving, our friend makes a plug at V – the ever-reluctant user of social media – to get on board. “Get on twitter. You’re a twitter user. That’s where you belong. Do it!!!”

And amazingly – V is converted. Check him out at @zaxeroplasteon. He wants followers. Do it!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Leaders' debate

Watched our political leaders ‘debate’ tonight – a rather discouraging spectacle. While it didn’t descend into the infantile shenanigans of Parliamentary debate, it certainly was not inspiring.

What I found fascinating though was Stephen Harper’s constant denial of anything he did not agree with. This shouldn’t be surprising since it seems to be the way he and his party operate – to ignore what they disagree with and proceed as if they never heard any arguments contrary to their position. In this debate, whenever an accusation was made against him, his reply was inevitably, “that’s simply not true.”
The opposition would remind Harper that he had been found in contempt of Parliament. “That’s not true,” he’d say.

They’d note that he has slashed program funding in various areas. “That’s simply not true he’d say.”

He also kept claiming that he (and ‘Canadians’) did not want this election – he even acted as if he didn’t know why it had been called.

When Ignatieff would remind him that the election was called because the Conservatives had been found in contempt of Parliament, Harper would deny it, portraying the contempt finding as simply being ‘outvoted’ by the opposition.

Harper also kept talking about the negative, “bickering” nature of Parliament which was impeding his government from getting any real work done.

Ignatieff had a good comeback for that one – “it’s not bickering, it’s democracy” he said.

But that was the extent of it – a lot of accusations back at forth. Harper was calm and cool and actually did a good job at seeming to take the high road and using any chance he had to talk about his platform and positive points in the Conservative track record. Ignatieff seemed to struggle at times and was a bit of a broken record in his accusations against Harper, but he did get some good points across and at times actually seemed to take charge of the debate.

Ignatieff wanted listeners to think the election is only between Conservatives and Liberals (much to Layton’s annoyance). Harper preached a message of the need for a majority if we are to avoid such “bickering” and repeat elections. Both men were being disingenuous. A whole lotta spin.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Writing, ranting, rhyming

So yesterday I went on a bit of poetic rant in response to an animated poem – a very good and funny one too. I’m prone to ranting these days – and then later wondering if all my words came out quite right. Probably not.

That’s an interesting thing about this whole daily blog business, I put up an idea each day and the next day may reconsider, but if I’m going to keep my 365-365, I’ll leave up the previous post, with all its unfinished thoughts and unbalanced views.

I also find that, when I write a poem, the words take on a life of their own. Sometimes driven by the rhyme, sometimes by the meter, sometimes by the sheer pleasure of it – I never end up where I started and don’t always know where I’m going. I find it all quite amusing, but later I’ll wonder how it may be read by others.

Mind you, the vast majority of poetry which I have written has never been read by anyone either than myself. These poems to me now are like abstract reflections of an unclear past. Sometimes I can recall the situation which prompted them, other times I know that I was simply playing with words, playing with ideas and voices. Some of them amuse me still.

I’m not trying to make excuses for what I wrote yesterday. It was fun. I don’t disagree with what I wrote. I don’t fully agree with what I wrote either. That’s the nature of poetry – at least it is for me.

I was listening today to CBC’s Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel. She replayed a part of a previous interview with Gary Hyland, a Saskatchewan poet who recently passed away. His poetry and words were beautiful and touching.

As I often do when I hear the works of poets and writers, I wonder about their process. I wonder about their relationship to the words they’ve written. I wonder if there are writers who always write the truth – or if even such a thing is possible.

I wonder what it would mean for me to write the truth. I don’t think I have that in singular. Does anyone?

Sunday, April 10, 2011


So I watched this clip, and now I must to dip my oar in the mud so to speak
I’m a fan of the art of it, but really at the heart of it, was a tired old argument that’s just weak.
Science over mystery. Take God out of history. Yes, we’ve heard it before.
But it’s not one or the other, why can’t you uncover your ears when faith knocks on the door?
Sure there are quacks, cons, scammers and hams
There are lies and disguises – messieurs and mesdames.
Believing does not mean we turn off our brains.
If there is room in this great world for love and for pain
for anger, forgiveness, lust and greed,
There’s gotta be room for both science and creeds of the faith and of zeal
unmeasurable, incalculable, but not any less real.

Sure, take your pokes at those sorry blokes who get scammed by the silver-tongued fox.
Or rant and complain, and argue in vain, against those seeing outside of your box.
We’re all on the same journey, it’s self/world discovery. We learn at our own pace and style
At the altar of physics, or the chamber of psychics, we all our own views must compile.
What is nonsense to you, is important to some.
We may not agree but the point’s not to come
to one big consensus, tie up all the facts
solve all the mysteries, paint the world white and black.
There are so many things that we can never know
If that scares you, well good, it should, but don’t blow
off your head and your mouth when you hear some express
opinions your don’t share, or views you think less
of than mud or dog poo.
It’s their understanding
It doesn’t hurt you.

(Course when someone’s world view serves to cause others pain
Or is based on exclusion, oppression, and blame,
We can and we should speak up and be heard
Stand up against violence and hatred absurd.)

Minchin’s poem may be cool, an artsy display. He’s taking the craft in an inspiring way.
And sure he can rhyme, but it’s not worth a dime if it’s just tired old bs replayed.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Ottawa Alleyways at Cube Gallery

Not too long ago an art gallery moved in to a building a few doors down from my favourite coffee shop. I pass by it several times a week, and occasionally stop in just to look around. It’s not a huge space (it used to be an Indian restaurant) but they do a great job of showcasing new and local art.

Cube gallery is currently exhibiting a series called ‘Ottawa Alleyways’. The gallery describes the subject as: “quaint or grotty, neat as pin or sketchy and scary. These are Ottawa's back alleys - those surprising service lanes and discretely annexed arteries that harkens back to an era when kids, delivery boys and repair men were politely but firmly instructed to use the rear entrance, please. A place for a quiet puff, a purview of the back yards and back doors of the nation's capital.”

The gallery is showing the works of eight different Ottawa artists, all of whom have their own interpretations and portrayals of Ottawa’s back alleys.

The front windows of the gallery always have pictures or sculptures displayed and this latest Alleyways exhibit has often made me stop and look awhile. Not only is it neat to see places I recognize transformed into art, but there is something about the subject matter that attracts me. Perhaps it’s because many pictures depict paths –drawing me in and inviting my imagination to walk in through the frame, down the alley and on beyond where the canvas stops.

I’ve also long been a fan of roads less traveled, overgrown alleys, and secret pathways. It can be fun to walk along a busy street, observing the other pedestrians – and in this neighbourhood the countless dogs and strollers – but it’s a more personal and intimate experience to walk along quiet sideways, to take a short-cut perhaps only a few locals know about, or to discover a narrow footpath through a thicket of trees.

Some of the art in this current exhibit reflect this intimacy for me – revealing hidden parts of the city I have not yet discovered or demonstrating that, of those I have, someone else is in on the secret and values them as much as I.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Spring on the farm

I saw a sheep in labour today – and no, this isn’t the beginning of some strange joke. Miya and I were at the Experimental Farm this morning. It’s already one of our favourite haunts in Ottawa, but it’s an even more exciting place to visit in the spring. There was one little lamb only 4 days old, some piglets just recently born, young calves – and a labouring sheep.

We were told that most of the sheep and goats in the Small Animal Barn are expected to deliver babies in the next few weeks. And there will be bunnies for Easter. We’ll definitely be back often.

I was really hoping we could actually watch little lambs being born – and was curious to know what M would think of the whole thing. We kept checking in on the mama sheep throughout the morning to see how she was coming along. She was quite calm, mostly just laying down and looking around. I was told that sheep usually deliver unassisted and quite quickly. Now that sounds familiar...

It was a beautiful day to be at the farm – one of the first really warm days of the year where the sun was warm on our faces, birds were flitting about and the sky was a bright, cheerful blue. M is a big fan of the horses and was happy to see that they were in an outdoor enclosure. We parked ourselves on the bench and she watched them do their thing – which was mostly a lot of standing around, but she still seemed to find it quite interesting. When they were led back into the barn, she wanted to follow them in and check on them in their stalls, greeting each of them by name.

We also stopped by to say hello to the cows – a young, beautiful Brown Swiss licked M’s hand with her strange purple tongue. We checked in on the rabbits and the pigs, dropped in at the snack area during craft time where M got to make a little bunny.

This is truly one of the perks of being a parent – spending hours discovering and exploring things that as adults we tend to forget about.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Something positive for prisoners

I’ve been looking a lot at what is wrong with the Canadian justice system, frustrated by our government’s stubborn commitment to pursue agendas that may sound good to voters but are destructive for the people directly affected. So it was refreshing and encouraging today to learn about a great program that is actively doing positive things for prisoners.

Stride is a program within Kitchener-Waterloo’s Community Justice Initiative which supports federally sentenced women coming out of the Grand Valley prison into the KW community. They use community engagement and circles of support to provide care and support for women who face so many obstacles when leaving prison and trying to build a new life for themselves.

Most women in prison, and those who are coming out of prison, are isolated and stigmatized. The vast majority have been physically and/or sexually abused. Most were unemployed at the time of their offence; two-thirds have not completed high school. It is naive and unrealistic to expect that these women can leave the harsh prison environment and seamlessly integrate into communities.

Stride matches trained community volunteers with women wanting support with re-entering the community. By having community support and caring volunteers encircling them, women have a much better chance of not only staying crime-free, but also improving their lives.

My description in no way does justice to this exciting project. One aspect of the program which is really interesting and which I’m itching to participate in is called the ‘Stride Night Program’ in which community volunteers and local agencies go inside the prison walls to participate in evenings of crafts, sports, games and socializing. These evenings provide opportunities for inmates and community members to build relationships that can be so important and helpful for women’s community integration.

And next time I’m in Kitchener I’m going to make a point to check out RareFunk, a consignment store in the downtown that supports the female inmates by selling ‘Fresh Start Creations’ - the crafts and art which female inmates create. Through the proceeds from these sales, these women are able to give back to the KW region by donating to local women’s or children’s charities.

Yet another reason to move to KW...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Elections - More prisons or real justice?

I’ve been writing quite a bit about justice issues lately. And the more I learn about the backward policies our government has been advocating, such as building more prisons while reducing services and programs that actually rehabilitate and assist offenders, the more frustrated I become.

The Conservative government was recently found in contempt of Parliament (something unprecedented in Canadian history) in part for failing to disclose the full cost of their ‘tough-on-crime’ agenda. They have already acknowledged that they will spend an estimated $6 billion in construction costs alone for new prisons, but what we don’t know is the real total which will be spent on incarcerating and warehousing all the new convicts. Budgets for prison infrastructure have already more than doubled in five years (from $88.6-million in 2005–6 to $211.6-million in 2010–11).

Of course, the Tories want to make sure these prisons are filled. They are doing this by changing the Criminal Code to increase mandatory minimal sentences and by removing the discretionary powers of judges who might recognize that an offender is not actually a threat to the community and that the interests of all parties – victims, community and offender – are best served by using alternatives to prison such as reparation, restitution and treatment.

Yet while this election was brought about by issues of contempt and spending on prisons, these issues have all but disappeared from the media.

So I would like to humbly suggest that should you encounter any candidate in the next few weeks, or have a chance to ask questions which may be put before political parties, you may want to remind candidates about what triggered this election and ask if our tax dollars will continue to be dumped into ineffective, pricey ‘tough-on-crime’ agendas.

You could mention that more than a third of prisoners in provincial jails have not even been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial. The majority of our inmates are serving a sentence for a non-violent offence (78% and 31% in provincial and federal penitentiaries respectively). Many repeat offenders are mentally ill – they require treatment, health services, education, housing and employment.

Ask for real improvements to our justice system, not simply more prisons.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Cracking code

I have spent far too much time today trying to figure out WordPress, the so-called “full content management system and so much more” and “elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system”. It’s open software (in other words free) that allows people to create sites and post content on the web.

The problem is, WordPress is designed for bloggers, not for organizations – and I’ve been asked to manage an organization’s website that has been created with this software and is completely jumbled and full of broken links and horrible design/layout. It may not be the software’s fault – but figuring out the software in order to fix these problems is not simple. I don’t know how long I have spent today trying unsuccessfully to simply change the width of the main navigation menu.

Now I do not claim to be have mastered web development, but I have created a few websites and have managed several different ones (i.e. for organizations and restaurants). Most of my work has been with Dreamweaver and I feel quite comfortable with the basics. I may not be able to do dancing hippos, but I can make a clean, user-friendly site.

But I have been stumped by WordPress. It’s like this software is designed for either those who know nothing about scripts and source code – or for people who are such experts that they can design their own templates and fiddle with open-source php, css, wtfs, etc.

I spent much of the day and much of my evening fighting with software that may look slick and all bubbly-clickable – but is a fortress of incomprehensibility if you try to dig below the surface. And now that it is after 10 p.m. I am throwing in the towel for the day. Tomorrow I am going to read up on integrating WordPress with Dreamweaver so that perhaps I can design the site with a software that lets me adjust such things as column and menu width, and then manage it in WordPress (the concern being that other people in the office do not know how to use Dreamweaver).

If there are any experts on this subject out there, I would love to hear from you. Help. Please help.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Pilgrims book excerpt 3

I am approaching the village of Mañeru which, like many villages in this region or north-central Spain, is cluster of ochre houses with an ornate church spire rising from the centre. On the wide, dusty trail, an old man is walking toward me. He has a dark beret above his wrinkled, moon face, a wooden walking stick in hand. He stops as I draw near. “Beunos dias,” he says and I reply in kind. He asks where I’m coming from, then turns to walk beside me. He tells me his name is Ricardo and that he is originally from Pamplona. He says he’ll accompany me through the village. His pace is surprisingly strong and quick.

Ricardo walks me through the village, past a group of youth who have not finished their party from the night before and are still drinking and carousing in the streets. They drunkenly cheer me on, like the last marathoner to cross the line.

It is touching to find someone who seems not to have tired of the pilgrims. I wonder if he often joins pilgrims in the morning while out for a stroll. Ricardo walks with me to a place where fields of grain become vineyards and the path starts to climb. He gestures that here he will turn back. I warmly thank him and am about to ask if I may take his photo when he steps forward to give me a kiss on my cheek. I extend him my cheek, but to my astonishment he presses his dry lips directly on mine. Purposefully, cheekily. I am struck speechless while he squeezes my shoulder, grins and disappears.

More amused than offended; I laugh as I walk away. I laugh even more when I meet Pascale in the next town and find out that he did the same thing to her. After he left me, he must have sped back to Mañeru where he met up with Pascale and Marie. He offered to walk with them for awhile; when they got to the point where the path starts to climb, he said good-bye and stole a kiss. We wondered how many other pilgrims through Mañeru received such a mischievous escort.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Orienting political views

So if you are undecided about how to vote – or are curious about how your views align with parties in this federal campaign – you might be interested in CBC’s ‘Vote Compass’.

Some examples of the 30 questions/statements are:
“All Canadian troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan immediately.”
“Canada should seek closer economic relations with the USA.”
“The government should fund daycare instead of giving money directly to parents.”
“Violent young offenders should be sentenced as adults.”

I took the quiz and it rated my position as NDP, fully in the grid of ‘Economic Left’ and ‘Social Liberalism’. Shocker. V is a Liberal - so slightly to the right of me... Interesting.

My problem with the questions is that for several of them I felt that I would need more information to answer it – for example, the question about pulling troops out of Afghanistan. I may not agree with the direction that Canada has taken with its military engagement in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean the solution is immediate withdrawal. I know enough to know that situations such as the on-going conflict in Afghanistan cannot easily be simplified into ‘yes/no’ categories. I also know that I don’t know enough to have a fully informed opinion on the subject.

For some of the questions – like the sentencing of violent young offenders, my answer was easily ‘strongly disagree’ – and yet I recognize that it is impossible and even dangerous to make blanket statements. While I very strongly disagree with the direction the Conservatives are heading with regards to criminal justice – especially how they are trying to undo reforms that were moving towards more rehabilitation of young offenders – I do recognize that there will always be unusual circumstances.

I also know that how people vote may not have everything, or even much, to do with how their views align with each party. We have to consider the candidates in each riding, how informed people are of party platforms, what views are espoused by family and friends...

Such a complex world we live in. Whenever someone tries to take my grey and turn it into black and white, I feel annoyed and betrayed by the harsh picture that results.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Strange house, strange noises

Why do houses make such strange noises? And other people’s houses make the strangest ones.
I’m babysitting tonight – hanging out on a couch in house I don’t know well. The baby has made a few sounds, but she can’t be responsible for all I’m hearing.

Why did I hear shuffling on the floors? Or what sounded like tinkling bells a while ago? I’m glad when the heat comes on because the rush of air through the vents masks other sounds – or at least provides a reason for them.

Sounds in the night are, for me, a good reason to have pets. One, any noise that I hear I can blame it on the cats – that is if they are not sleeping right beside me. Two, I trust my pets to notice a noise that really is worth paying attention to. I put great faith in their superior hearing. Not that my cats could defend me if there actually was an intruder, but perhaps they would alert me to the fact. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m home alone and the floors squeak.

This house, like ours, has creaky floors. I used to find creaky floors endearing, sort of like traditional apple pie. But now that we have a house in which the floors are moving from creaking into groaning and cussing, it seems a bit less charming.

And here is some, perhaps needless advice, if you a sitting alone in a strange house, hearing odd noises, don’t google ‘strange noises in the night’. There are plenty of stories there to fire up anyone’s imagination.

V would be rather disappointed, I’m sure, to hear me say that I do believe in the paranormal. What exactly I believe I’m not going to say since it is not entirely clear in my own head and I fear I would invite ridicule. And I’m not saying that I think ghosts are walking around in this house – I am quite sure that the noises I hear are various normal things such as water in pipes, bugs, air through vents, wind and other noises outside. But still, sitting alone in a strange house can be a little... disconcerting.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Discussing death with my daughter

I've wondered before what it would be like to have a conversation about death with my daughter. It seems horrible to even think about, but I wondered who we would be discussing – and I kind of hoped it would be a pet before it was a person. At one point V and I even talked about getting goldfish since they usually don’t live too long, and M likely wouldn’t grow too attached to them so as to be too traumatized if they died.

But today, when we visited the seniors, I was told that three residents had passed away in the last week. One was a woman we did not interact much with, one a man whom M would share her toys with, but did not know by name – but one was a man who was one of her favourites – those residents she most willingly and often shares her toys with, knows by name, talks about at home, etc.

I knew John only as a man of few words but with a gentle manner that M instinctively responded to. He was one of the first residents she built a puzzle with and she like to go over and greet him if he was brought into the common room during our visits.

When the facilitator informed me that this gentleman had passed away during the week, my first instinct was to not mention it to M. She may be observant, but no two weeks have been the same in terms of which residents are in the common room during our visit and which ones are up for interacting with her. She seems to have easily accepted that the group will be a little different each week.

So I thought of just letting it slip. Then I realized that this was an opportunity to have our fist discussion about death. It went something like this.

M was talking about our visit today to the seniors and mentioned a few of the residents.

“Yes, they were there,” I said. “But John wasn’t.”
“John died, so he won’t be there anymore.”

And that was the extent of it - my first conversation about death with my daughter.

Maple syrup season

In true Canadian spirit, this spring Miya made sure to attend a local sugaring festival to check on this year's maple syrup production.

With help from her parents, she checked several buckets to ensure that the sap was flowing.

Then came the all important taste test.

Miya accepted a serving of maple syrup poured over clean snow and wrapped around popsicle sticks.

After some reflection, she deemed it absolutely delicious. Even the stick was worth chewing on after all the syrup-snow had been eaten.