Category: Philosophy of Life

Asian New Year 2019

The fifteen days of Asian New Year have come and gone. Already. Where has February gone? It’s the Year of the Pig and, in West Vancouver where we have come to escape the worst of eastern Canada’s winter, the celebration was bright, cheery and more extensive than I remember it being ever before. I missed the big Asian New Year’s parade held in Vancouver on February 3rd. Next year. But I did catch the festivities held on the north shore.

On January 31st, at the Osaka Supermarket (originally bought by T & T and then by Loblaws), I was struck by the colourful decorations which greeted shoppers on arrival. Ah yes, it is Chinese New Year I thought. I wandered over to the multiple high piles of large boxes, bags, and packages full of cookies, candies, rice cakes, decorations, and other goodies that the Chinese buy in great quantities to share with family and friends during the holiday. There were so many, all so enticing, so mouth-watering, all seriously not recommended for my diet.

Then I found a variety of boxes full of kinds of oranges from all over the world. Among them was a pile of large red plastic baskets, each filled with mandarin oranges, all individually wrapped in paper and cellophane. Here was a Chinese New Years delicacy that I could indulge in. At $8.80 for a basket of 24 oranges, I thought them a bargain and bought a basket for myself. These proved to be the largest, sweetest, most delicious mandarin oranges I had eaten since I was a kid. I learned that oranges were a lucky food for the Asian new year, and that these oranges were especially imported from Japan. Later I bought two more baskets to take to my friends.

On the first weekend of February, just before the first day of the lunar New Year on Monday February 4th, West Vancouver sponsored two full days of festivities to celebrate Asian Lunar New Year. I was struck that the festival was not limited to the Chinese but extended to all Asian nationalities who celebrate the lunar new year. That gave my head a shake; so many cultures in the world take part. Bright red and gold balls, and placards full of facts about lunar new year traditions decorated the atrium of the West Vancouver Community Centre. People were everywhere, many dressed in red, eager to take part in the action.

I was fascinated. Young men did Kung Fu, others beat on drums, young girls and boys played on a grand piano, troupes of children dressed in lavish costumes performed intricate dances, and several young women played traditional instruments. Almost everyone present picked up an activity “passport” which led us to different stations where we could learn more about new year activities. We learned the names of the twelve revolving years of the lunar calendar, and about the qualities of The Year of the Pig. We learned what foods are traditional for the season, and why red packets are given as gifts. Two young girls designed and distributed elaborate sugar treats which we tasted with delight. Altogether, a totally delightful event.

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, the cashier at the Fresh Market, our local supermarket, handed a red packet containing a chocolate coin to each customer at the register. Yet another New Year tradition extended into the broader community. We are indeed lucky to live in a multicultural community where we can celebrate New Years many times of the year in many ways. Happy Lunar New Year.

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ETHEL’S TOQUES

How do you see yourself at 96 years of age? On Monday, my sister and I visited an old family friend who is truly aged, has many medical issues, and needs full-time caregiving support. She now lives with her daughter and son-in-law in their expansive Markham home which accommodates her walker, has a stair-lift climbing the staircase to the second floor bedrooms and, on the main floor, a kitchen table looking out to a backyard busy with birds at the feeder, bushy black squirrels and even the occasional fox.

When we arrive, Ethel is in the family room watching the Olympics on the television. She rises to greet us. Her freshly made up face lit up with a radiant smile, her white hair immaculately coiffed, and wearing a stylish black checked jacket, she looks twenty years younger than her age. Before long, she opened up a plastic bag and gave us each a soft, hand-crafted woollen toque, navy blue with a white pompom, which she had made for us. We were thrilled.

Ethel has been making toques for about ten years. She saw a woman at Eglinton Square in Scarborough working on a round plastic frame called The Quickie Loom. Intrigued, she bought one right away and took it home to show her husband, Vic. Before long, they had two frames, one for toques and one for scarves, which both made for family and friends. One year they made forty toques and gave them to a church which distributed them to street people. So far this year, Ethel has made more than a dozen, two for us and the others which also have been collected and given to people in need.

When we asked, she was eager to show us how she makes the toques. The trick is using an inexpensive frame called The Quickie Loom which can be bought at a craft shop such as Michaels or even Walmart. She uses Bernat Roving acrylic and wool (hat weight), which she also buys at Walmart.

Several videos on YouTube provide simple instructions for what is called loom knitting. Ethel begins with a slip knot placed on an anchor peg on the plastic frame. She wraps the strand of wool around each peg on the frame to make one row of loops, and then continues the same thing to create a second row. Once she has laid down two rows, she uses a pick to hook the bottom strand over the one above. She repeats the process of hooping and hooking, two rows at a time, until she has completed sixty rows for a large size toque and forty rows for a medium. As she loops and hooks the wool on the frame, the toque forms itself.

It’s easy. She can make one in an evening while she is watching television. And she didn’t have to be a knitter.

Looms come in many sizes with increasing numbers of pegs to make toques and scarves for dolls, babies, toddlers, and adults. There are YouTube instructions for making different types of hats; unisex slouchy beanies, pussy-hats, a rib-stitch hat, and also scarves. There are instructions for changing colours, making pompoms, and adding a flower to the hat. For the toques she made for Kath and I, Ethel added white pompoms. Making those pompoms for the first time required the ingenuity of all three adults in the household, but now she has the hang of it.

Loom knitting hats is easy for children. Ethel told me that when her pastor’s young daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Ethel gave a Quickie Loom and some wool to both her and her sister, to make hats for themselves. She told them that when they showed her the hats they’d made, she would give each of them $5.00. Two days later, on Sunday morning, they met her at church with big grins on their faces, and their finished hats on their heads. Ethel was delighted to depart with the $10.00. The girls went on to make dozens of hats for their friends and for the church.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. 

***** Photos with thanks to Keith Carbert *****

 

 

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The Daughters of Hoyle Score Again

For thirty-two years, the self-styled Daughters of Hoyle, also known as The Sisters of Precious Little, have been getting together. Usually for a weekend in early November, it is a highlight of our year. In the past, we have come from Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto to a rented cottage where we can enjoy the autumn colours, somewhere in Prince Edward County, on Amherst Island, on Rice Lake, or in the Rideau river system of eastern Ontario. Once we met at Mary Ann’s home in Kingston; another time at Janne’s cottage near Minden. Two years ago, we ventured further afield, for four days in New York City. This year, we’ve spent five days at my “cottage” in Vancouver.

Three who met as “mature students” at Queen’s U. law school added me, the fourth, from Osgoode. We are all under or near five feet tall (except for Janne, a.k.a. “Stretch”) and we sport navy blue shirts emblazoned with “Daughters of Hoyle” in red print on the back. When we walk the streets together, we sometimes attract questions.

Mary Ann is a dedicated activist who fills us in on current causes. Knowledgeable about music and skilled at modern technology, she chooses the playlist which sets the ambiance. Peggy, who spends three months each year in Costa Rica and the rest visiting her large family around the country, putters in the kitchen. She makes sure that everything in the refrigerator finds its way into one meal or another. Janne, the artist, scouts out the latest exhibition or craft show we must see at the galleries. This year, I have luxuriated in the fact that my eastern friends are visiting in Vancouver when the sun is shining by day, there is a full moon by night, and a fresh fall of new snow on the North Shore mountains.

So what do we do? Each year, we pick up where we left off the last, as if we have never been apart. We talk, and talk, and talk, about all the things going on in our lives. We’ve been together through illness, death, family break-up and divorce, the care of children and of aging parents. We talk about the idiosyncrasies of the profession, politics, books and movies, our friends and families, our hopes and dreams. We drink lots of wine, although we are switching to water with various additives as we age. Mary Ann lays out a tray of fancy cheeses, spicy spreads, patés, prosciutto, smoked oysters, and crackers for snacks. This year, we’ve fed on chicken and salmon dishes prepared by Janne, Peggy, and me, and have felt absolutely no desire to eat out. Peggy’s Eggys with spinach, avocado, and prosciutto are the best Eggs Benedicts around. In New York, we ordered in and shared Thai fare with the night staff at the tables on the ground floor of our little Hell’s Kitchen hotel. They said that this was their first experience of Thai food. 

We listen to music, walk the local paths, and see the sights. If there is a church bazaar around, a bake sale or a craft fair, we will find it, and shop for treasures. In rural Ontario, our Saturday lunch is often a traditional pre-Christmas tea in a church basement, the tiny sandwiches and familiar sweets a nostalgic reminder of times past. In Wakefield, Ontario, we once caught their traditional pie auction and, after tasting the samples included with admission, we left with a winning pie. In New York, we walked the High Line in bright sunlight, had lunch at the Chelsea Market, and, after seeing the wonderful play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, stood at the stage door, to meet the actors. This year, we caught a show of portraits from the Queen’s collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery and, on Saturday, hit the bustling Flea Market at West Vancouver United Church, and the craft fair at the community centre across the street.

Once dinner is done, we settle into playing cards. I come from a birth family where playing cards was a favourite pastime. In my eastern life, I never play cards except with the Daughters of Hoyle. On my first weekend away with them, when we were sole occupants of an historic cottage at Isaiah Tubbs resort in Prince Edward Country, Mary Ann set up an easel to help teach me the proper names of the suits of cards. If I was going to play bugger bridge, I couldn’t bid calling one suit “broccolis” and another “shovels.” The next day that same weekend, we played cards on the rocks of Sandbanks beach in the hot November sun, a memory we often recall. This year Peggy brought along the “Five Crowns,” a five-suited variation on rummy. No matter what game we play, or how hard we play it, Janne always seems to win. Playing cards is good for serious strategic planning, acting out latent aggressions, and hearty laughs which sometimes leave us in tears.

At the end of our time together, we set the date for the next year and talk about suitable venues. Long may the Daughters of Hoyle continue to meet.

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It’s Another Year…

I always think of September as the beginning of the new year. And so it is. A new school year, new activities for the kids at school and in the community, a new subscription season of films, music, theatre, new shows at the galleries, new courses to take, new routines at the gym, new projects at hand, new holidays to plan in the months ahead. The days are cooler, the nights are crisp, the sky is clear, and the leaves are changing into glorious fall colours. It strikes me that the best season of the year is at hand.

To my mind, the Jewish community which celebrates its High Holidays, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at this time of year has got it right. Rosh Hashanah marks the first and second days of the Jewish year, which begins this year at sundown on September 20th and continues through nightfall on September 22nd. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day when God is said to inscribe the fate of each individual in the Book of Life for the year ahead. Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the year, which begins the evening of September 29th and ends the evening of September 30th. Depending on how Jews have sought forgiveness for any wrongs they may have done in the previous year, God “seals” the verdict for the year ahead on Yom Kippur. Not being Jewish, I am envious of this annual ritual of reflection and renewal. It strikes me that Jews start off their new year on the right foot.

John Lane & Marion Lane share a birthday cake.

Lacking a religious holiday to mark the season, I love to celebrate the many late summer and September birthdays which bring so many of my family and friends together at this time of the year. This holiday in Vancouver has been a wonderful example. John Lane, Dianne Slimmon, Cathie Percival, my husband Bill Irvine, and I began the festivities with a delightful lunch a week ago Friday at the Shaughnessy restaurant in Vancouver. Located in the VanDusen Garden, it is a beautiful venue, naturally lit and artfully designed to help guests enjoy good food and extended time together in peace and quiet. Birthday cake number one, for me and for John.

The next night, it was a birthday cake number two for me and for Bill Hall who was celebrating his 70th. He and his wife Carol threw a marvellous dinner for their closest friends in The Palmer Room, at the Northview Golf Club in Surrey. What a magnificent evening it was! The Palmer Room is a quietly elegant restaurant with lush plants, lavish chandeliers, a white fireplace, live piano music, and window walls that show off the view beyond the patio and the rich greens of the two eighteen-hole golf courses. The panorama is of fountains rising high in a chain of ponds, fields of farms in the distance rich with summer produce, and, on the horizon, a band of mountain tops silhouetted in black against the changing colours of the sunset. An absolutely glorious west coast mountain view.

Bill Hall’s 70th at Northview’s Palmer Room.

Apart from the ambience, the menu was stunning. I had simply superb salmon lox with herb cheese, capers, crostini and micro greens as an appetizer and a melt-in-the-mouth prime rib roast to die for. Others had rack of lamb, filet mignon, duck breast, jumbo prawns, and a cioppino of halibut, salmon, scallops, prawns, mussels, in a tomato based broth. Bill and I had red velvet birthday cake; tiramisu and lemon cheesecake were other dessert favourites.

Birthday celebrations are such fun. As we grow older, celebrating who we are, that we are still here, and that we have dear family and friends around, becomes all the more important. Bonne fête, tout le monde, whenever your birthday might be. And to all our Jewish friends, may you be signed into the Book of Life.

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The Blessings of a Broken Kneecap

My husband went to extraordinary trouble to bring us the blessings of an extended stay in Vancouver. Now that his care (and mine) is in place, he is exercising every day, taking charge of planning and cooking our evening meals. and using his walker to shop for groceries and visit local eateries. He appears to be making good progress. For all the tribulations, our extended stay in Vancouver is bringing us many unexpected benefits. Just to list a few.

  1. The rain which depressed even me February through mid-April has now stopped, the sun is shining, and the cherry and plum trees, magnolias, and early rhodos are in unbelievably beautiful bloom. At their peak, they are breath-taking. I never would have guessed that our local community here was endowed with such a splendid display.
  2. Living here, grounded, without any possibility of touring elsewhere, has caused us to use the resources and the merchants of the local community as never before. It’s been an eye-opening “welcome wagon” of new experiences.

  3. We live next door to the West Vancouver Memorial Library, but have hardly used it in the past. This week, the Library Foundation streamed, live and free of charge, the 2017 TED Talks which other people paid big bucks to hear at the downtown Vancouver site or in selected theatres. I happened upon a session on “Mind, Meaning” at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and was awestruck by what I heard and saw. Lots of material for posts there.

  4. I have now spent much time with the WVML Information Librarian. When I asked for a couple of books that were out locally, she told me that they were available at the Vancouver Public Library downtown, and that I could pick them up there and return them here. She also did a computer search of recent Globe and Mail book reviews to find an essayist whom I wanted to read but whose name I had forgotten. Once she had identified the author, she put me on a waitlist for both her books which are now on order. Undoubtedly, these same services are available at the Toronto Public Library. I just have never used them before. My loss.

  5. The proprietor of the local Kerrisdale Camera Shop referred me to Advanced Digital Training in North Vancouver where I have had two simply superb private lessons on how to operate the mirrorless compact camera I bought a couple of years ago.  Utterly intimidated by the complexity of what is effectively a very sophisticated computer, I have hardly used the camera all this time. Peter Levey at ADT is an enthusiastic and gifted teacher who has made my camera accessible. Next week, he is going to show me how to organize and manage my photo files, something that I should have learned years ago but never did. Finding Peter, and working with him, has been a real coup.

  6. Last night, my husband and I went for turkey dinner and all the trimmings at the spacious Garden Side Café at the Seniors’ (over 55) Centre nearby. Run by volunteers, the café serves breakfast and lunch every day, and full hot dinners twice a week, at a very modest cost. My husband, who has avoided the Seniors’ Centre until now, even conceded that it was a good meal, that the company was congenial, and that the dinner menu for May looks more interesting than he would have expected.

  7. Walking on the Seawalk, the people I run into at about the same time each day are beginning to become friends. As my Sixth Floor Caregiver friend has told me, these early morning walks come with all sorts of benefits, apart from the exercise itself. Among other things, I suspect that these new friends will bring some great stories to inspire future posts.

  8. Last week, one of the texts for the writing program I am starting this summer arrived unexpectedly early. This single book is a revelation which already is making the rewrite of my first book go better and faster. With a regular routine and few distractions, my writing is on a roll. I now think it likely that my forthcoming book will be published this year after all, thanks in no small measure to my husband’s broken kneecap.

  9. As a couple, we have been slow to think of ourselves as “seniors,” an illusion now shattered. We are coming to realize that dealing with the medical issues inevitable with aging requires proactive thought and a modicum of grace. Achieving that, or not, may well be a measure of character, part of “growing up.” Those people who have met the challenges of medical issues all their lives set an example. They are the experts in how to relate to and benefit from the health care system. We’d do well to emulate their courage, resilience and their joie de vivre, no matter what comes. Maybe this is one of the secrets to successful aging. And to successful living?

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A Super Fun Sports Gala

Another gala? It’s been a long time since my husband and I have attended a fund-raising gala of any sort, let alone a sports gala. I had a ball. Two organizations jointly sponsored the event: the Rotary Club of Coquitlam in aid of their local and international projects, and the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) to support their sports leagues for children and youth not normally involved in organized sports. Apart from the congenial company, the excellent meal, the interesting silent auction and the plenitude of games designed to extract $20 bills from everyone in sight, there were for me three highlights of the evening.

The first was that I met, and had my picture taken with, Lui Passaglia, a legend in the Canadian Football League and denizen of the national and provincial Sports and Football Halls of Fame. During his 25-year career as a placekicker/punter for the B.C. Lions, he scored more points than any other football player in the history of the league. He also kicked the last-minute field goal which enabled the Lions to win the 1994 Grey Cup against the Baltimore Stallions by a score of 26:23. He and I both admired the Hall of Fame display which included the No 38 jersey worn by By Bailey, my very favourite Lions football player in the 1950s. Then I was a passionate football fan. Listening to all the Lions games on the radio, I used to track the plays with a pencil in a paper scribbler so that, at the end of each game, I had a visual record of everything that had happened. Meeting Lui Passaglia was a bit of a sentimental journey to my youth.

The second was that we all met Robert Gagno, 28 years of age, from Burnaby B.C.  Did you know that he is the world’s best pinball player?  I certainly didn’t. He placed first at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) World Championships held in Pittsburgh in April 2016. Chris Koentges has written a wonderful story entitled “The Charmer,” published November 13, 2016 in ESPN The Magazine, about how Robert, a child whom some doctors said might never talk, read or write, discovered pinball. He did it at five years of age and became “a pinball savant.” Apparently, as the machines have become more advanced each year, pinball has grown and now has 45,000 ranked competitors. A video tracing Robert’s progress in the sport, from his first victory in the 2009 California Extreme to his recent world championship, was an absolute inspiration for all of us to see. For fun, Robert challenged hockey player Kirk McLean to a pinball game. I know nothing about the sport nor how it is scored, so have no idea who won, but Robert clearly got as much of a kick  from the competition as we did watching them go at it.

And the third highlight? Because of my shrewd spending at the silent auction table, I actually won a raffle. And the prize? Two tickets to a hockey game at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena next Thursday night, between the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars. My husband and I have never been to a NHL Hockey Game before, and certainly not to the Rogers arena in Vancouver. We are not hockey fans, except when a Canadian team is in the Stanley Cup, or Canadians are playing Americans or Russians in international competitions, but this will be fun. As I said before, this was quite the gala.

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“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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Dispatches from Nepal

For the past several weeks, my cousin Don Fraser, who hails from Kelowna, British Columbia, has sent email dispatches from Kathmandu, Nepal. Don is a volunteer intern for three months at an orphanage and school on the northern edge of that city run by Child Haven International. This is his third stint there in the last four years.

The home where he lives and works provides care and an education to 203 children, and a home and jobs for 22 women. Social agencies refer children who are from birth to six years of age, destitute, and without family support. They live at the home through high school and for vocational training that would enable them to become self-supporting. The organization also supports other children living in the community, helping them to attend local schools, and it runs women’s programs, providing legal and medical help, occupational training, and direct employment.

Don’s is one of a network of five Child Haven homes in India, and one in each of Nepal and Bangladesh. The homes are available to both boys and girls, are run on principles of equality and simplicity, non-religious but respectful of the different cultural origins of the children.

Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino, from Glengarry, Ontario, founded Child Haven International in 1985. As a young couple in the United States midwest, they were inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. There and later, after immigrating to Canada, they raised two children of their own and adopted and raised 19 others, all inter-racial and at-risk children from China, Viet Nam, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, aboriginal Canada and the West Indies. Fred Cappuccino tells their story in his recent memoir entitled Bonnie and Her 21 Children (Bonnie Books Inc. 2015). 

Don retired several years ago from his career in the B.C. forest industry, working in government relations and human resources. For Child Haven, he works as a tutor, educational assistant, child supervisor, general handyman, and helper in the kitchen. His dispatches tell of the effects of the massive earthquake last year: “moguls” in the roads, homes destroyed by landslides triggered by the earthquake, resettling families into newly constructed “earthquake protected” houses, the collapse of the top 50 feet of the largest Buddhist shrine in Nepal, damage to an ancient monastery now closed pending repairs, and a noticeable lack of westerners.

A shortage of fuel means that wood must be used for cooking. Some of the wood is salvaged from destroyed homes; sometimes loads of logs are delivered to the orphanage; all need to be cut, dried and stacked for daily use. Don scrounged wedges and saws and blades from the local market and from donors abroad as tools to chop the wood. He organized work parties of the bigger boys to help with the chopping and stacking. He finds that the wood cutting sessions and the tea break after are good times to talk with the senior students about what is going on in their lives. When that’s done, he helps peel vegetables in the kitchen. Tutoring students referred to him by the teachers, he is teaching basic mathematical concepts and helping students with résumés and job-seeking skills. For a local director of Child Haven who has constructed and endowed an area hospital for women and children, Don helped edit the English required for publicity brochures.

Don considers his experience inspirational beyond any of his expectations. He is totally taken by the unlimited energy and practical commitment of the Child Haven founders, and by the wonderful people they attract to work with them. He has fallen in love with the staff and students who, despite basic living conditions and horrific individual stories, show an uncommon camaraderie and generosity. As in the best of overseas experiences, Don has found that he has gained as much, if not more, than the children he works with. Clearly, Don has no regrets about how he is spending his retirement. On the contrary, it has been the experience of a lifetime.

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Costa Rica #2: Adapting to the Heat

"The Ocean" on Tamarindo Beach

“The Ocean” on Tamarindo Beach

Renting the Tamarindo condo for two weeks was our first experience of living in a hot country for an extended period with no fixed agenda. Many people go south every winter. Most go for a short beach holiday, for a respite from the cold. Some retirees we know spend several weeks or even months in Florida, Mexico or Costa Rica every year. Theirs are extended stays where they live in the heat, in a different country and culture, for long periods of time. 

When I have travelled before in hot countries, I was either working or touring. Working in Africa, we taught in the morning from seven until noon, came home to a main meal prepared by our French-trained housekeeper, took a siesta for two hours, showered an in the late afternoon-early evening, did our errands about town on our Mobylettes, or had cocktails with our friends. It was early to bed, early to rise, and the routine was fixed. On weekends and on school vacations, we toured or socialized.

Touring in hot countries, hitchhiking and using local transport as young people, or more recently in small tour groups, the goal was to “see the sights.” As young people, we had things to do and places to see, the more the merrier, whatever the temperature. As older adults, our touring timetables were set by skilled travel guides, and all we had to do was to follow along. Airports, buses and hotels are typically air-conditioned. A good tour guide mixes up the experience so that, from several different base locations, there is a good balance between sight-seeing and “down time.”

I had anticipated visiting the cloud forests, canopy hikes, volcanos and hot pools around Arenal and Monteverde in the mountainous interior. This was my stereotypical view of Costa Rica. For a variety of reasons, including the vagaries of aging, and a mishap I will discuss later, we were unable to go there. Next time. And none of us were into the surfing, snorkelling, sailing, deep-sea fishing and late-night partying that makes Tamarindo such a hot spot for sun-loving young people and sports activists. When touring is not the goal and we are not surfers, I initially wondered what we would do. How it is that our ex-pat friends spend their time abroad?

Adapting to the heat is a shock and imposes its own imperatives. Local trips in the car or hiking on the beach start early and end early. Midday, it is wise to be in the shade, in a beachside bistro bar or at home on the balcony. Walking at that time is foolhardy. Even the surfers go home until late afternoon. Once the sun goes down, nightfall comes quickly. Driving or walking in the dark didn’t seem a good idea and we hadn’t yet learned how to use the local cabs. The best time of day is the early morning when we wake up to the birds singing, and the reverberating guttural roars of the alpha male howling monkeys saluting the dawn. Then, a leisurely breakfast is in order. That’s the key. Leisurely.

It took me several days to slow down and learn that the heat liberates us to pursue our normal daily activities, but at a slower pace than at home. We sink into what we most like to do: eating, drinking, cooking, socializing, sleeping well (for a change), swimming in the pool, reading, learning how to use my new camera, writing posts for Facebook, checking our favourite sites on the iPad or computer. All at leisure, without any pressing daily activities, and in a sublime setting with a warm climate, it can become a great life.

Today’s howling monkey photos were taken by Lucy Ramos. Thanks, Lucy.

***** My first Costa Rica post omitted photos I intended. I’ve now inserted them. Have a look. *****

 

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It’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is rich with images. Little children hang their stockings, lay out treats for Santa Claus, and go to bed dreaming of what the morrow will bring. Parents sigh in relief, relax and assume the role of the mythical Santa. Practicing Christians, and those who claim their Christian heritage only at the “high holidays” of Christmas and Easter, often attend Christmas Eve services. Many will return home for the traditional late-night feast that continues long into the night.

I used to find Christmas Eve a bit of a problem. Christmas Day or Boxing Day are our usual seasonal feast days. Unless we are invited elsewhere, our Christmas Eve is mostly painfully ordinary. Every year, my husband settles in to watch Alastair Sim’s classic movie of A Christmas Carol. I usually seek out a late night service where I know the music will be sublime.

When I was younger, going out alone on Christmas Eve seemed unnatural and somewhat sad. Where were all my loved ones with whom I should be sharing this event? Regret, guilt, the gamut of emotions that detract from the beauty of the moment. In recent years, I have become more mindful of the occasion, and have come to consider my time late Christmas Eve the most spiritual of the year.

Even when there is no snow, it is usually cold. The city is dead quiet. There is no one around, and little traffic. The roads are dark, lit only by street lamps, seasonal household lights, and occasionally the light of the moon. The silence is stunning, a balm for the soul in a period consumed with noise and activity. Whichever church I attend, I will find others, believers and non-believers, who have come together out of the cold (or the wet) to take part in the rituals of our Christian tradition. I am no longer a regular church attendee, but the warmth, light, music, and meditation are always moving.

I return home restored and rejuvenated. Alone, I enjoy the lights of our Christmas tree and a glass of wine in front of the fireplace, listen to my favourite Christmas music, and revel in memories and reflexions. Whether family and friends are close by, far away, or long since gone, the evening reminds me that solitude is part and parcel of the human condition. Ours is an individual journey, a lifetime of opportunities, challenges, choices, and responses. Some we share with others. Some we pursue on our own. My Christmas Eve experience has shown me that making the most of the moment can bring the greatest of happiness.

I have a friend who ends her emails with a quote from Wayne Dyer: “Heaven on Earth is a choice you must make, not a place you must find,” and adds the line, “and so I support… ” – whatever cause she now champions. I love her spirit. May the blessings of the season be with you, and may the new year bring heaven on earth to each and everyone.

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Gifts of the Season

Monday I received the greatest of gifts… six new friends.

We were one table among many, nearly 30 people from my West End YMCA aquafit class attending a seasonal luncheon. The faces were familiar. We had seen each other in our classes for months, if not years, wearing bathing suits in the pool, naked in the locker room. Always we were congenial, smiling, nodding, perhaps exchanging a few words. Ours was the superficial familiarity of strangers thrown together regularly, but who never really meet.

On Monday, we actually learned each others’ names, and our stories. What a gift! We learned that Florrie had come from Montreal in the ’70s but was originally from New Brunswick, that Anne was a former ballerina who, with her actor spouse, has lived across Canada, and that Agnes was from Hong Kong, spent ten years in Europe, and has been in Canada for over 40 years. Esmee came from Mexico City, applied to the U of T as a young mother to audit courses, and was offered a surprise scholarship instead. So began her long career in applied statistics. Judith was a career nurse who worked, among other places, at Baycrest, and is knowledgeable about residential care facilities for seniors. By the time lunch was over, we had moved to a level of conversation which ensures that, in the future, our interactions will be meaningful.

All this was due to the initiative and energy of three class members who invited the rest of us to “meet and mingle” in the Y Activity Room. What a splendid initiative! The original idea came from Mumtaz Jaffer, a Y member for six years who now teaches aquafit part-time, as a volunteer. Mumtaz came to Canada in 1984 from Tanzania, joining her aunt and sister already living in Calgary. Three years later she moved with her husband to Toronto, and had a career as an optician. When she became injured, she turned to the Y to help her own rehabilitation. She hasn’t looked back since. Mumtaz is an amazing woman with a long volunteer history. When she was working, she provided optical services to seniors in residential facilities. She considers it normal that she would volunteer to teach at the Y and then go the extra mile to start building a real community. Two other aquafit participants who shared her vision joined in to help make it happen. Both are retired nurses: Judith Thompson, a Y member for four years, and Caroline Shaw, at the Y since the ’90s. 

Previous efforts to get the class together were several smaller group meetings in local restaurants. This time, the aim was to expand participation and taste some ethnic cooking. Mumtaz’s husband runs a catering business, Elite Foods (416-516-5546), which provides a diverse menu responding to the particular health needs of his clients. Our luncheon was a tasty tandoori chicken dinner with rice, corn and salad that he brought prepackaged as lunches. The daughter of parents who once ran a bakery, Mumtaz baked some cookies from their traditional Christmas recipes. She then wrapped a couple of cookies individually in a little bag for each participant to take home. Hers was the crowning touch to a delightful meal where the focus was on the people and the chance to get to know each other.

This luncheon was a personal initiative which spread by word of mouth, primarily among people who speak English. Hopefully, next year, the Y will itself sponsor the event, so that it can be advertised and made more inclusive. There are many faithful aquafit participants who speak little or no English, and many more men than ever before. Bringing them all to this seasonal luncheon will be the challenge for the future. In the meantime, this event represented the best spirit of the season, and is a gift that will continue to give in the months and the years ahead. My heartiest thanks to the organizers.

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Celebrating Birthdays

Runners Bob and Sky at the finish line in Central Park the day before the race

One day each year, our birthday, is a special day. How to celebrate is always a question. Some burrow in, insist that they are still 29, and absolutely refuse all efforts to recognize the day. Others celebrate over time, with luncheons, dinner or drinks with different family members and friends. Some plan elaborate parties or special trips. Others take the occasion of a birthday as a personal challenge.

Celebrating “all the September birthdays” or “all the spring birthdays” is popular. My parents, their sibs, and their cousins had a tradition of getting together at a restaurant every couple of months to celebrate birthdays. So long as they were able to drive, they met regularly at a family restaurant which was easy, convenient, and served the type of food they loved. Nobody had to cook, nobody brought presents, but everyone brought funny cards and they competed for the most outrageous. In a pre-Facebook era, these regular lunches allowed them to keep in the loop about what the family was doing. As one of the next generation who came to Vancouver regularly from Toronto, these birthday lunches gave me a chance to visit with family members whom I otherwise might not have seen. I thought it a great institution.

Some people gather together their closest friends and host a special dinner or lunch. To celebrate her 70th birthday, one friend and her neighbour threw a joint birthday party with only their women friends. It was a delightful event, intimate and heart-warming, a gaggle of women “of a certain age” sitting around the dining room table, all resplendent in the sparkling candlelight, laughing over poetry ribbing our friend. To celebrate his 60th birthday, another friend and his partner hosted a sit-down dinner for fifty in their stately living room. After cocktails on the patio, the group enjoyed a concert of song and piano music before the lavish buffet. The spouse of another friend, who met him as a student at Massey College, has hosted birthday dinners for him in the private dining room there. The space has special meaning to them.

For our 65th birthdays, my husband and I hiked the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island. It was probably a coincidence that we did it that year. We had wanted to hike the 75-kilometre trail from Bamfield to Port Renfrew for years. We knew that it was a back-country trail which required backpacking all our gear. There would be climbing up and down long ladders, crossing rivers on swinging bridges and trolleys, and climbing rocks to traverse some of the beach. My husband was an experienced backpacker but afraid of heights. It dawned on us, however, that if we didn’t do the WCT soon, we probably wouldn’t do it at all. When my cousin, who is an inveterate backwoodsman, wanted to join us, we knew that it was now or never. We took ten days to cover a distance which our son, hiking alone, did in four. How long it took is irrelevant. That we had the experience is what counted. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely.

To celebrate his 60th birthday, our friend Bob Dann ran the New York City Marathon this past November. He had originally set himself the task of running a half marathon in every province and territory in Canada before his 75th. With numerous half marathons under his belt, well in advance of his long-term objective, he decided to try a marathon. And only New York would do. It is the largest marathon in the world, with 50,000 odd runners and, because of the enthusiastic support of New Yorkers all around the city, is considered the most exciting. He began training in the summer and by the fall was ready. He found the race somewhat harder than he had expected. There are long bridges to cross and, contrary to popular belief, running “down” Fifth Avenue and into Central Park at the end of the race is more uphill than down. But he completed the race in five hours, nine minutes and thirty seconds, placing 36,845th of the entire field. A most satisfying birthday celebration!

Which leads me to consider what we should do for our next milestone birthday. It will come all too quickly.

 

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Life Lessons from Sticks

Earlier this month, we had occasion to visit my cousins in Kelowna. With them at the time were their two granddaughters, Megan (11 years) and Kelly (13 years). Megan was primed for my arrival and wanted “the retired judge” to decide a dispute she was having with her grandfather. She held a stick in her hands which she said was hers; he said it was his.

A favourite find

A favourite find

Megan started. Apparently, several weeks earlier, the girls were camping with their mother and grandparents at Logan Lake in the Highland Valley between Merritt and Kamloops, British Columbia. Searching for firewood with her sister, she came across an aspen branch that was smooth with an attractive grain pattern, about an inch and a half thick. She cut it off from the bottom of the tree so that it was a foot or so in length. Initially it was green and it reminded her of Hawaii. As it dried out, it became a lovely brown colour. She also burned it in the fire so that the top became scorched and had extra lustre. The stick was light-weight, comfortable to hold, and had notches which provided a handle that would be good for fishing. She could easily conk a fish with it. She also said that it was the perfect stick for bopping her grandfather on the arm when he became a pest. She loves sticks, held onto it all weekend, and wanted to take it home. But she has many such sticks at home and her mother didn’t want her to take another. So she cached it behind a bush. Her intention was to retrieve it when she returned. As she made her submissions, she tenderly stroked the sides of the stick.

Found by another

Found by another

The object of dispute

The object of dispute

Grandfather Don then put forward his case. Two weeks later, he was camping in the same spot, this time without his granddaughters. He said he found the stick, considered it abandoned, and claimed it for himself. He took it home to Kelowna and, on a later visit to Megan’s home on the coast, he bragged about the stick he had found. He argued that he owned the stick. Possession was 9/10ths of the law, right? Besides Megan’s intentions for the use of the stick seemed nefarious and surely that was relevant.

I hummed and hawed and pronounced that, without looking at the case law about property law (which I had long forgotten), Megan had the stronger claim to the stick. She had cut the stick, added a distinctive label (the scorching) and made it her own by her actions. Unable to take it home, she had not abandoned it, but hidden it the best she could for another time. Her claim to the stick was like that of the ranchers whose branded cattle we saw running free range in Wyoming. Don was out of luck. 

In an effort to mediate a settlement, they considered cutting the stick in half. But Don conceded that to do so would ruin the lines of the stick, make it too short for any useful purpose, and he wouldn’t insist upon it. Megan responded that, as she now knows that the stick is hers, she was content to have her grandfather look after it at his home in her absence. It will always be there waiting for her to use on visits.

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A Woman of the World

Liz, our Ambleside neighbour, is a woman of the world. At 91 years of age, she is a dynamo with a wealth of life’s experience she is more than willing to share. We have lived at the same end of the apartment corridor for nearly five years now, and, although my husband and I are here only intermittently, we are getting to know each other.

Liz was the child of a supermarket chain executive who lived all over western Canada when she was growing up, ending up finally in Vancouver. Thereafter, she lived in the United States, central Asia, and Ireland before settling back on the west coast. She has a personality typical of the highly mobile: an ability to adapt to constant change, inherent curiosity, and a warm congeniality which engages strangers quickly. It’s an openness to meeting people one often sees in expats and in the military.

The first day we moved into our Ambleside apartment, we established a bond. One of the movers had come to Canada from Afghanistan. She saw him, talked with him, and, within minutes, learned the same life story he had told me earlier. It turns out she had spent ten years in Afghanistan, from 1964-1974. She lived there with her husband who worked with an American company in diesel engines. At the time, Kabul was a bustling and romantic stopover on the route to India, before the city was devastated by the Russians, the civil war, and then the Taliban. Our son and daughter-in-law are career officers in the Canadian military. Both have deployed to Afghanistan several times. It’s not very often that one meets someone who has actually lived in Afghanistan for a decade. Liz joined us for dinner one evening when “the kids” were visiting. It was fascinating to listen to the stories they exchanged.

I later learned that Liz also lived in California for twenty years, and another twenty years in Belfast Northern Ireland. When her American husband died, she trained as a massage therapist and worked at the La Costa Resort and Health Spa in San Diego County. Her pay at this most expensive and exclusive of resorts was $3.57 an hour and Gloria Steinem was one of her clients. Later, she moved to Belfast to live with her widower cousin who was a writer and a playwright. When he died in 2005, she returned to West Vancouver to  the same apartment building once inhabited by her parents. 

Liz is a painter who studied at the Vancouver School of Art. Over her lifetime she has had many exhibits, Today, her paintings adorn the walls of her apartment and grace the foyer of our building. Thanks to Liz for permission to include some photos of her paintings in this post.

Liz knows how to drink scotch with the best of them. At dinner recently, she drank my husband under the table. She was going strong when he made his excuses to go to bed. Later she apologized for staying so late.

She has also taken me under her wing. She recently confessed that she hated older women wearing long hair. When I first moved into the apartment, I was sporting braids. It was part of my “return to my roots” post-retirement phase which my western cousins loved but my eastern colleagues said was totally unsuitable for Toronto. Last week, I was complaining that my hair was too long. She immediately went into her bedroom, took out a couple of combs, and taught me how to pull my hair up into something more sophisticated. My new look I owe to Liz.  I think I will keep it. And she has encouraged me to drink scotch: “it is the least caloric of the drinks.”

Liz has always been healthy and vigorous, until a freak accident recently left her in chronic pain. She now has a walker and is investigating how marijuana might improve her medical condition. She has visited a cannabis dispensary on Robson street, purchased some salves and tinctures, found a family doctor knowledgeable in the use of medical marijuana, and is consulting with others about appropriate strains. That, and her daily swimming, will undoubtedly keep her alive and kicking for at least another decade. We hope so. She is the most wonderful of neighbours.

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Communicating with the Crows

Cranky crows are common in Ambleside. When we first arrive at our apartment on the seventh floor overlooking the outer Vancouver harbour, we pull the drapes, slide open the window to the balcony and step outside to enjoy the view. Inevitably, there are one or two crows sitting on the banisters, squawking wildly because we have invaded their domain. Obviously, in our absence, they have taken to using our balcony as an observation post over the neighbourhood.

Last year we noticed what we thought was an owl on the balcony of an opposite apartment. We were totally intrigued until, with the help of binoculars, we realized that the “owl” was one of those fake birds people put out to deter pigeons, seagulls and, undoubtedly, crows.

This year, we are developing a curious relationship with the crows that come to visit our balcony. They have become increasingly bold the longer we have been here.  Now they sit on the banisters even when we are on the balcony, often two at a time, cawing at each other. They seem to have no fear of us whatsoever, quite willing to carry on their conversations as we watch inches away. They jump onto our chairs and walk around on our floor almost, but not quite, approaching the door.

When I watch closely, I have observed that they are attracted to the green plastic wires which attach our Christmas lights to the balcony all year round. And then I noticed that they can spot scraps of food on the floor which I had not even seen. Of course. We eat on our balcony regularly, usually three meals a day, and our crumbs are probably inevitable. Trust the crows to show us what sloppy housekeepers we are.

A crow is a crow is a crow, and we have no idea if these are the same crows that come visiting daily, or whether our balcony is just a popular way-by on the local community route. Whatever. We are enchanted by them, and think of them as pets. In the first year of our marriage, my husband said we should have a bird. He knew nothing about birds, but put out the suggestion to counter my desire to get a kitten. It has taken nearly 45 years of marriage and we finally have our pet bird. And it’s not one, but several crows. Who would have thunk it?

Today would have been my father’s birthday. He was a bird lover who kept a fully stocked bird feeder hanging from his clothesline to watch from the kitchen window. It provided endless pleasure for years. He would have liked this post.

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