July 29, 2014

Books for the Armchair Traveller

I have not travelled to many places far from home in my life. I have not been off the North American continent, in fact. Most of my exotic travel has taken place in my imagination through the writings of gifted authors who can bring the very dust alive of a country where I have never set foot. Most of these authors are transplants from North America or England and their stories are relatable, often funny, and full of love for their adopted homeland.

Peter Mayle and his A Year in Provence books was the first transplanted author to really get my attention. He and his wife, Jenny, vacationed in the Provence region in the south of France in the early 1980's. In 1986 they moved to the area and began renovating an old stone farmhouse. Mayle's lighthearted and often comic descriptions of the food and wine, the Provencal characters, the landscape and the lifestyle opened up the world of armchair travelling to me and I happily return to Provence at least once every couple of years.

American Chef, Julia Child wrote a beautiful memoir, My Life in France about the years she and her husband, an American diplomat, spent living in Paris and Marseille. Needing something to do in a strange country, Julia took cooking lessons and discovered she had an aptitude for the art. With her trademark candid style, Julia describes with delight all the sights, sounds and smells of her adventures in France. She absolutely fell for Paris, fell for cooking, and fell for the French people.

An artist friend loaned me a couple of books by Hungarian-Canadian cum Tuscan author Ferenc Mate. The Hills of Tuscany and A Vineyard in Tuscany lept to mind when I was viewing the Facebook photos of a friend who is presently travelling in that part of Italy. Mate, a true Renaissance man, and his wife Candace, a painter, moved to Tuscany from New York (although I am happy to say they met by chance in Vancouver) to make a life there. Mate writes with a great deal of warmth, love, humour and self-deprecation. Between the lines one can sense his innate talent at making lifelong friends and succeeding at anything he turns his hand to. In the second book, he and his wife and their young son Peter, buy a former convent and turn it into a beautifully stunning, award-winning winery in the Montalcino region of Tuscany. Reading his books was like making a new friend, one for whom you feel an immediate appreciation and look forward to visiting again. I have a feeling I will be rereading Mate's sun-drenched memoirs this winter when the coastal weather here is particularly dreary.

I must confess that non-fiction has not always been my thing. I am a fairly dedicated reader of novels and short stories, but if a writer can entice me with true stories, I become a life-long fan. I can do plenty of armchair travelling through novels: Rumer Godden wrote exquisitely of India, Mary Stewart of Greece, Michael Ondaatje of pretty much anywhere, but there is something unmistakably wonderful about a writer who can write truly engaging non-fiction. Gerald Durrell and his My Family and other Animals, about growing up a junior naturalist in Greece, M.Wylie Blanchet and her The Curve of Time in which she takes us along with her family on their adventures by boat in and along the fjords and coastline of Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast are two such books. Their stories have an immediacy to them which scoops up the reader and takes them along as a guest on the journey, and I have a true appreciation for that quality in a book. Especially when long-flight travel is not on my real-life agenda any time soon.

Have you any recommendations of similar type books for me? Let me know in the comments, please!? Thank you. 

July 22, 2014

Things I Wrote as a Kid, Part 2

Our local Arts Festival just ended on Sunday night with a wonderful concert with Ricardo Tesi and Banditaliano from Italy. Our festival is a bit of an endurance test. Ten days of music and art bookended by jam-packed weekends of the same makes for an exhilirated yet exausted family and a messy, neglected house. Never mind, after a day of recovery I spent this morning cleaning and doing laundry, while this evening I will enjoy attending my regular yoga class. Ahhhh...it almost makes me appreciate returning to regular life.

As I said in my previous post, Things I Wrote as a Kid, I have been reading my teenage diaries. One day last week it occured to me to share my entries regarding the Winnipeg Folk Festival which I attended the summer of 1987 with my sisters, Monica and Clare and Clare's husband, Brent, along with some of their many friends. I had taken the train to Winnipeg after graduating from high school (I was seventeen) and was staying with Monica and her husband Matthew and their little daughter Anna. When rereading my diary entries I felt so blessed to have such close relationships with my sisters and brothers who were so generous and kind to me, their youngest sister. We had so much fun! I will include some highlights of my trip and time spent eating and cycling my way around Winnipeg. I hope my readers enjoy them.

Travelling to Revelstoke
I'm a little tired from the goodbye party Toni and the girls gave me last night. (They made posters of sheep for me; they made popcorn balls with Nibs as feet and eyes (sheep, a theme due to their nickname for me, 'Baa') and raspberry punch and pretzels. They made me a hilarious collage and an Ann Taylor portfolio with all my favourite pictures from magazines. Val gave me some fake Lauren perfume - cheap but a pretty fair copy. It was a really nice night). 
We started the morning with cantaloupe and me crying on Stephen's shoulder. I will miss him and Pauline (my brother and sister closest in age to me) Pauline and Steve gave me a bit more money for the trip, too. Then we packed up the Beluga (our fond name for the car). We had to use bungee cords to keep the lid of the trunk down because of my bike box. Chaos!
We rambled through the Slocan Valley (I don't know the sequence of towns) and through Silverton. We stopped at the Silverton Lookout. It was so quiet. You turn your back on the highway and look down into the lake below and across to the mountains. Nobody lives anywhere below but if I had the choice I would live right down on the cliffs. We had coffee in Silverton too and Mom madly (well not quite madly) ran around putting up museum and arts council posters. Then we stopped and ate at Nakusp on the beach. Bagels and cream cheese and pickles, tomatoes, cukes and sprouts! We didn't swim, though. We crossed the Ferry to Blanket Creek to swim. It is a small lake off the river and is quite warm. It's almost like a large bowl in that it becomes very deep in the middle. So, I couldn't stay out of the water. We got to Revelstoke and napped until 5:30 at our motel, The Swiss Chalet (tacky but clean). We ate in the motel restaurant and I had Weiner Schnitzel, which is breaded pork. It's not too exciting but with a squeeze of lemon it becomes quite good. We also had homemade chocolate cake which was excellent. We went for a long walk in the 105 degree air! The sun went down, though, as we headed back to first pack my bike in its box and then go to bed. I fell asleep around 11:45 I think. Mom had to watch the Journal Art and Music News. 
I woke up at 3:15 and had an invigorating shower and washed my hair! I felt so much better. We drove to the station and waited one hour for the late train. Eventually its whistle was finally heard. I boarded and got ready mentally for the trip. I had to sit in the smoking section until Calgary! But! Behind and across from me were two lovely Kiwis - very quiet but sweet. Right across from me was a really great Aussie named Tom. We met quickly and from then on we talked and talked! He bought me a coffee but a little while later I bought him a tea. He told me about all the food he'd eaten in all the places he'd been. His favourite, I gather, is Asia. We discussed art and everything else (Cabbages and Kings!) It was really neat to meet someone who could talk my ear off. He even seemed to enjoy talking to me. He's a dentist and is 29 but handsome (I like the 'but') and someone I could respect highly. 
The stops have been short until now. We didn't even get to walk around Lake Louise or Banff where Tom got off. The Rockies weren't as impressive as I'd imagined. They looked so old and grey. There were, however, a few majestic mountains yet even these looked ready to crumble...(I feel differently about the Rocky Mountains now.)

Monica, Clare, Matthew and Anna met me at the station. We got back to (Monica and Matthew's) funky apartment and I had a bath. Beautiful! I felt revived and sat down and had some breky (scrambled eggs and some banana bread). Then, I went to sleep for 5 and a half hours. When I got up Clare French-braided my hair...

June 29th
Got up about 8 a.m. because Anna was making a bit of noise. Matt made me breakfast and then I played with Anna who was really cute with me. Monica went to work and so Matthew and I took a drive. We brought Mon's lunch to her work and she introduced me for about 2 seconds to everyone _ I really like Alam. He is a tall, black man from Eritria who talks like, "Oh, so thees ees Moneeca's sistah."...we went to the Provincial Museum and saw the 'Non-Such'. It was neat but there is no way I would cross the Atlantic Ocean in it! We came home and relaxed and then Monica bugged me about being spoiled at home so I rebelliously did the dishes to prove her wrong. I may not do anything at home but I am able to. Clare and Brent came and got me after supper. It was really good to see Brent. He brought me a huge bag of tacky souvenirs (and some very useful ones such as a bicycle road map, a hat, and some postcards) One thing he stapled on tied with many other things such as buttons, matches, and pins was a really ugly and heavy bottle opener. Attached to it was a note, "Also good for beating off men." It was really funny...We then drove all around the city and went to a place called Osborne Village where the trendies hang out and had ice cream. I had one scoop of pistacio and one of fudge torte. Yummy! 

June 30th (Actually July 1st 3:40 a.m.) 
I am hyped on coffee! Tonight I went to the Bluenote (a dark cafe that has good music and long-haired waiters) with Matthew, John Cook and Alan Cox. They had the best coffee I've ever had and I must have had 4 cups! Ack!!!...Clare and I went to see 'Roxanne' again and generally let everyone around us know that Nelson was our hometown and that I 'appeared' in the movie. Then we walked home with Monica and my feet got sore from my new sandals and I had to be carried across the railroad tracks because I had taken the sandals off!

July 8th
Clare, Jen and Brent came to pick me up and we headed out to Bird's Hill Park for the first installment of the four day Winnipeg Folk Festival. When we got there this gospel blues band with four rather heavy-set black women singing such favourites as 'Amazing Grace' and 'Lord lift us up where we belong'. Mmmm. Then we heard a Montreal-based band called Latin-something-or-other. We danced to them and had fun. Then! Ladysmith Black Mombazo came on! They are about a 10 piece singing group from South Africa. They sing in Zulu and English and have wonderful choreography! They were a marvel to watch - so happy and bouncy. I really enjoyed them. It rained hard, though. Then it was off to Robin's Doughnuts and then Cousin's cafe for coffee and Sleepytime Tea respectively. Mom is sending me money! Yeah!

July 12th
We went to the Folk Festival yesterday - in fact CBC is broadcasting live at the Folk Fest. It was incredible! I was very impressed. We heard real folk, rock, Celtic rock, everything! We went from workshop to workshop, food stand to food stand! The best part I think was the night concert. Maria Muldaur, a Celtic rock band (Capercaillie), and David Lindley provoked us to dance crazily and sing along to songs such as 'You-oo--oo--oo send me" and "I love freedom" (we slyly added 'maxi pads' after each 'I love freedom') We ached from all our dancing. We got cold and put on sweaters, pants, anoraks - only to take them off again when we jumped and flailed our arms and yelled and hollered. It was such a high. At one workshop - the Afro-Calypso one, we imitated everyone we knew. It was hilarious - one can only get away with such craziness at Folk Fests! At the end we decided to stand at the back - way behind the thousands so we could leave a bit early to avoid traffic. Back there the music was bouncing off every food stand and fence and coming back to us in a very strange rhythm. 

July 13th
I got up at 11 and started a bath about 12 but Monica and Clare came home for lunch so I postponed my hot, peaceful solitude to dine with my beloved siblings. We ate cream of mushroom soup after dessert, of course! (brown sugar cake with whipped cream) I was still tired so I sat down to watch TV, but I looked around and the house was a mess so I cleaned the kitchen, put out laundry, and cleaned my room. I have discovered that when I do things in the house Matthew buys me a cold pop when he goes out to get the paper. Silent and sweet - that's our Matt - well, not too silent. When he gets going about history he can tell you lots of interesting things not at all silently! I danced with Anna while Monica started a letter. I then gave Anna a bath and dressed her, shirt coordinating with socks, of course! 

July 16th
I got up at 9:00 so I wouldn't waste the day...I was going to go downtown with Cathy but Pat Pyrz dropped by. We had a huge talk session which lasted until supper, through supper, all the way (while riding our bikes) to Assiniboine Park where it ceased for 1 and 1/2 hours because we watched Shakespeare in the Park. Pat's brother Gene was in it - Two Gentlemen from Verona. It was hilarious! The talk session lasted on the bike ride to the Impressions Cafe where all the wanna-be-folkies and some actually real folkies hang out, and it sustained until 12:30 p.m. between Pat, Monica, me, and neighbour Robin. Then Pat took me to a little eatery where we talked until about 2! Ack! Every subject from travel to glue-on bikinis was covered. What a day! I'm worn out!

Little Anna and me - taken by Brent at my parents' house

And that is where the diary of my summer in Winnipeg ends. After considering many options for the fall of 1987 including attending Lakehead University with Clare and Brent I decided I was homesick for my mountains and went back home to attend my local college. And so began another series of adventures, and another diary.

Note: all of this may seem shallow and silly considering all the sad and sobering things that are happening in the world these days, but I do find that when I am feeling weighed down by sadness a good antidote is to write about something that made or makes me happy. Something innocent, something free.

July 8, 2014

Things I Wrote as a Kid

Recently, I discovered a CBC Radio show called Grown Ups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. I heard  the show for the first time a couple of weeks ago when, on a Saturday evening I was driving the ten minutes to the village where my husband works in order to pick him up. I left the radio on as I waited for him in the back parking lot of the hotel and laughed until the tears were rolling down my cheeks. I listened to the show again this past weekend and then, I had an idea. I have a lot of writing I did as a teenager and I thought perhaps I would share some of it. Of course, my idea of posting things I wrote as a kid won't have the same impact as if I were to read them out loud in front of a live audience like they do on the radio show, but my hope is that they will provide at least a little entertainment to the reader.

What I noticed about the people on the radio show was their laughter at their younger selves who wrote about fantasies of glory or teen angst or harboured resentment against the perceived unjust actions of their parents. Most of what they were reading out loud to the audience was never meant to be read by anyone else, and at the time of writing it they had been most serious. I think it is important to both laugh at our younger selves and also to honour them. When I read my diaries I laugh a lot but the feelings of the time do come back with the memories. I, like most teenagers felt intense joy, pain, confusion, and all the other more subtle emotions in between. Growing up was an often baffling experience. As I read the diaries I began at aged fifteen I realize I cared about five main things: my family, my friends, food, boys and dance, but not necessarily in that order.

Myself at 15, taken in the school courtyard

June 19th, 1985 
Hi. I did o.k. on my Math final. Tomorrow I have English. I'm not looking forward to it. I have nothing except Summer after 10:45 tomorrow. I can't wait. I don't believe it's finally here. I'm growing my nails, so far it's working. I'm glad! Toni and Val and I 'supposedly' studied today. Val is very 'trendy'. I have a nice tan! In John's letter yesterday, He called me 'Miss Popular.' I guess I'm liked by a lot of people but I wouldn't say 'Miss Popular' - sort of bitchy sounding. Mark lent me a tape of assorted artists from England. Here's some of the Weird names: Vice Squad, The Vibrators, Angelic Upstarts, Attila the Stockbroker, The Dead Kennedys, Hollywood Brats, Abrasive Wheels, English Dogs, U.K. Subs, Adicts,Cockney Rejects, Instant Agony, Major Accident, Pressure. WIERD!!! Anyways, now I'm listening to Limahl and then Don Henley. Well I should go and sleep! 
Bye, Rebecca (doodle of a heart)

June 20th, 1985
I had an English final. It was pretty easy. All my exams are finished. Summer is here and next year I'll be in Grade 11. Wierd!! Today, Toni, Tanja, Colin, and I went to my house and ate, to Toni's and ate. Tanja went home and me, Toni, Colin and Jen went to Colin's and ate. Then me and Jen sat outside her house and talked about Scott. I keep thinking he'll come here (Scott was a boy I met from another city). I miss him. I saw a Good Play on TV. John's birthday is on Sunday. (John was another boy I met at a youth function).
Love, Rebecca (doodle of a heart)

June 23rd, 1985
Well, today I went to a Youth Group picnic. It was fun but I got thrown in the lake and I also don't like organized activities like games. After the picnic I went to Sam our leader's house and she did a survey on my personality. I'm an ENFP - Extrovert (outgoing); Intuitive (go on hunches); Feeling (sensitive); Perceptive. It was a good evening. My knee really hurts right now so I have ice on it. I was talking to Sam and I said I sleep all bundled up sort of guarding myself. She asked me if I had a secret to guard. I said yes and I won't even tell you! Maybe someday but right now I'm just learning to trust a diary in the house of my family, o.k.? (I wish I could remember now what that secret was) I thought about John since it's his birthday today. My survey said I would go well with a mate who was stable or a mate with his head in the clouds and sort of scientific. John and Scott!!! Well I gotta go. 
Love, Reb (heart doodle)

Stay tuned for next week's entry in which I describe my knee surgery performed by a very handsome surgeon. If anyone out there would also like to post things they wrote as kids I would love to read them. I had to look up 'Limahl' because I couldn't for the life of me remember anything about them. Thankfully, Google delivered: Synth heavy 80's tune by Limahl I'm happy to report that my taste in music improved over the next few years.


June 30, 2014

Being Canadian: A Complicated Kindness

As our lives on this globe intersect at an ever increasing rate, the desire for us to understand each other as nations grows. When we encounter another culture we often have many questions, some of which have clear cut answers and some of which do not. For example, if one of my ex-pat British friends is asked why Brits drink so much she will say decidedly, 'because they know their country's going down the toilet and there ain't nothing they can do about it.' On the other hand, if I ask why Brits make such good television, the answers are as in depth as I choose to go. The question I would like to ask Hollywood is: why is the collective imagination in the US fixated on superhero and post-apocalyptic movies? I imagine the response to be: because America's debt and lifestyle gap between rich and poor is so off the charts they crave something drastic to happen in order to save the situation, but their own answer would probably have more to do with hero worship. However, if asked why Canadians seem so polite, the answers are not quite so clear. What is it that makes us say 'I'm sorry' every time something happens that may or may not inconvenience another person? 'I'm sorry' is the typical knee-jerk response when we Canadians bump into each other, when we set out to give an opposing opinion, even when we go for the coffee shop cream urn at the same time. As children 'I'm sorry!' is what we call out to the parent bearing down on us with a threatening look in their eye, hoping against hope those two words will stem the tide of disciplinary action coming our way - that worked for me a few times, so I included it.

It occurred to me today that the 'I'm sorry' habit may be something more than what many comedians claim is the Canadian's way of getting out of a potentially uncomfortable situation.* I was in church yesterday when an elderly woman in the pew in front of me accidentally knocked the book in my hand as she sat down earlier than I. Her apology was profuse and completely unnecessary due to the fact that she had barely touched me. I automatically responded with, "Oh no, I'm sorry." We smiled at each other with sympathetic looks peppered with good humour and left it at that. Something then occured to me: the 'I'm sorry' habit is at best about having good will toward other people. Let me explain. If a man and I go for the coffee shop's cream urn at the same time, generally both of us will urge the other to use it first. One of us will be more insistent than the other and finally, after a several laboured seconds one of us will pour the cream into our cup. We will then return the urn to the counter and smile at the other person who kindly insisted we go first, and we will go back to our seats, him feeling proud of his gallantry, and I feeling grateful for it. If this reads like some sort of complicated dance, it is, but as Canadians, we learn it early in life so it stays with us always and leads to a fairly comfortable and pleasant way of going about our daily business. If I have my head down in the grocery store as I consult my list and accidentally bump someone else's cart, I will apologize immediately. If an explanation is required to calm the ire of the bumpee, I will give it and I can usually get a smile from them in the end. Like many Canadians I will do almost anything to avoid conflict, especially in public.

Why are we so eager to avoid conflict at all costs when other nations (I'm thinking France, Italy) seem to thrive on it? I have a theory about that, too. As I said above, I have a few British friends who have lived in Canada for many years, but are still a bit baffled by our social niceties. In theory I agree with them wholeheartedly when they say they prefer the Brit way of just calling a spade a spade and being done with it, rather than all this dancing around the issues. "Brits just speak as we find and move on," said one ex-pat friend after she had witnessed two co-workers in her Canadian office have a big ol' cat fight. Apparently, they had hidden their true feelings about each other for so long that eventually, and predictably, they reached the boiling point and the lid blew off.  My Brit friend who is a teacher had a hard time figuring out the parents of her students until she understood about the tendency of Canadians to avoid open conflict. She would think everything was going along fine with a parent and then one day, somehow, would find out the parent had been harbouring resentment against her for months for some action taken with her child. My friend had detected a certain chill in the air when she and the parent came in contact, but had no idea of the feelings simmering away underneath the surface. My theory about why we Canadians may act like that parent at times is essentially based on my observation that Canadians avoid open conflict because we who live in a cold climate eight months of the year place a huge value on personal physical comfort and safety, and this makes us lazy in our dealings with others. We just do not want to 'go there', but eventually we have to and by then the situation is usually beyond nasty, or at least beyond what it was originally. But, this is the 'I'm sorry' habit at its worst, and, being Canadian, I would rather not dwell on the negative.

I suppose we have historically been the Peacekeepers in global conflict because really, we would just like everyone to calm down, sit back and relax with a beer or even a doughnut. Anything pressing can usually be put off until tomorrow, and a difficult decision is generally made better by the act of sleeping on it. A Dutch man I once worked for said when he first moved to Canada in the 90's he was unimpressed by the Canadian way. No one seemed to work with any urgency, we valued our holidays more than anything, and meeting for coffee at Tim Horton's was often the highlight of the day. Mind you, he had immigrated to British Columbia, which is seen as one of the more relaxed provinces in the country. Over time, he said, he began to see the wisdom of our ways. He began spending more time enjoying life with his family and exploring the area near his home.He decided life was not just about work and making money, but that approach took some getting used to. Now, I would not be surprised if he even said to his clients, "I'm sorry, I cannot possibly fill your order today. I am celebrating Canada Day with my family," and let the chips, or rather the doughnut sprinkles, fall where they may.

*Twelve Ways to Say I'm Sorry

My apologies to author Miriam Toews for stealing her book title 'A Complicated Kindness' for this post.

June 24, 2014

Writing about Not Writing

It has been nearly a month since I last posted a blog post and just as long since I worked on my novel. June has been an interesting month, to say the least. The best part of it was going home to beautiful Nelson to see my parents and some other family, and a couple of good friends I have had the great pleasure and comfort to know since grade one. We also in our family had a high school graduation, a Confirmation and a wonderful play performance with our youngest in a starring role. The worst part has been a near incapacity to sit down and write.

This week I am recovering from a summer flu bug. I am able to sit and do things like crack the rest of the walnuts from last fall's harvest of our tree, cut up garlic scapes for blanching and freezing (a friend brought by a large bag of them from her farm), so at least a few things are getting done that need doing. The World Cup games, or Wimbledon, or a murder mystery on Netflix, or my son's violin and my daughter turning the pages of her book, are accompanying noises in the background as I accomplish these little tasks.

I am starting to go a bit stir-crazy with this lack of writing. I know this because I keep thinking about writing and wondering when I am going to feel able to get back into that wonderful rhythm I have enjoyed for several years now. Even my last blog post had been written a month prior to its posting. This is the first real slump I have had to endure in a long time. More than a slump it is a sort of rigid inability to turn my mind to the task. I won't call it writer's block because I know if I just sit down with only writing in mind I could start and something would come of it; that much I know after all these years. But, even as I write this collection of words and phrases I know it is just the tip of an iceberg I would really love to be able to get to the bottom of. At these times I feel like I am living on the periphery of the way I would like to be living - because to me, when I am writing well and often I am truly living.

I began to think of the reasons for my slump and came up with this list. Lists are somehow satisfying to make when one is trying to deal with a problem, so I made one.

Top Ten Reasons/Excuses Why I Can't Seem to Write

1. I am slightly ill.
2. My dad is seriously ill. He is the first person I think about when I wake up in the morning.
3. My kids are on summer holidays and I have to talk to them and sometimes take them places.
4. I can't seem to get up early these days (early hours are good writing hours), and I am exhausted after lunch (after lunch hours are also good writing hours).
5. My daughter has a driving test coming up in July and she has to learn to parallel park. This is stressful because I have to teach her a skill I almost never use.
6. I belong to an organic garden co-op and my fridge is half full of veggies that I have to use up before tomorrow when I will get another load of veggies. That's a lot of salad.
7. I keep thinking of things that are keeping me from writing instead of writing. When I don't put writing near the top of my list it easily slides down to the bottom. It's very slippery.
8. Facebook is way too engaging. Have you seen the video of the baby arguing with a bull dog? And all those worthy causes to care about: pipeline protests, teacher strikes, the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, the decimation of honey bees...
9. I have a compulsion to volunteer my time to do things for other people. I should develop a compulsion to smack myself for this.
10. Somehow, at the back of my mind, I am thinking this slump is okay and my writing will be better for it when it's over. I suppose I have accepted not writing, which could possibly be part of the problem. Or not. I don't know.

I do know I have to rise up out of this slump and start picking away at that iceberg. The first draft of my novel is nearly done. I must get it done before I lose track of it. Let this post be the beginning of my recovery. I have the will. May that be the way.

May 28, 2014

The Weight-ing Game

I have worried over my weight since I was seventeen. Up until then I was a willowy thing, long of limb and lean as a rake and whatever calories I had eaten, whether they were from candy or lentils, were easily burned off by my daily activity. In September of my last year of high school a boy with whom I had often been cycling during the summer told me I was getting chubby. His words made me indignant on the surface - how dare he? - and devastated underneath. I was certainly not chubby, but I had noticed my curves were getting curvier and my pants a wee bit tighter around the waist. "You're a nice medium sized girl" said my mother. "You have a problem with sugar, don't you?" said my sister. I did. Butterhorns and ice cream were my downfall. The summer after high school I went to stay with my sister in dead-flat Winnipeg and gained twelve pounds. Her friends liked to take me out to restaurants for cheesecake and fries with gravy.

After I returned home from the 'Peg all the weight came off in two weeks. It was that easy back then. All I had to do was redecorate and paint my bedroom and start climbing the unavoidable hills of Nelson again. It hasn't been that easy to shed pounds in years and it is getting progressively harder to stay lean. I can easily gain two pounds in a celebratory weekend (birthday cake, wine, a meal with a rich sauce), and losing a pound takes a ten kilometer run and an hour and a half of high intensity yoga class. 

Until I was about thirty-five my weight went up and down depending on how much exercise I was managing to get and with my four pregnancies. After thirty-five, however, the weight climbed and stayed no matter how much exercise I got. By the age of forty I realised that if I kept up my level of yearly weight gain I would be greatly overweight by the time I was fifty and I knew that would not be healthy. Something had to be done. I was not about to go on a diet of broccoli and quinoa. I'd been there and done that in my early thirties and become so thin and obsessive about whatever I put in my mouth that my husband had begun to question both the hours I spent cooking two versions of every meal - one for myself and one for my family - and my extreme self denial at the dinner table. Other people began to comment on the bones protruding from my shoulders and hips. My fourth pregnancy ended my broccoli and quinoa diet. I craved bread and milk in the middle of the night, but I remained thin throughout my pregnancy and afterwards, too, thanks to the great calorie-burning effect of breastfeeding. Once I stopped breastfeeding I began to notice a difference in my metabolism, but I continued to eat my own good baking. Running kept the weight off until I ended up sidelined with a foot injury. So, there I was at forty, worried about the future. I appealed to a wise friend and she suggested a course of action. I would eat a good breakfast, a large lunch as my main meal and taper off for the rest of the day and finish with a small, low-carb supper. The method worked. I lost ten pounds and kept it off for two years at least. I think it was over Christmas of the third year that I veered off the narrow rails of my proven method and the pounds began to creep back on. I lost weight over the summer, only to put it back on again over the winter.

I was out for a walk the other night with my seventeen year old daughter and my son who is home for the summer from university. We were talking about diet and exercise and I heard myself say, "You know, I don't know anymore if I'm fat or if I'm thin." 

"You are thin, Mom," said my son. My heart lifted. "I mean, for someone who has had four kids, you are doing well."

Hm. Okay. 

"What do you mean?" asked my daughter the health and fitness junkie. 

"I mean, " said I, "that compared with a lot of women I see I feel thin, but compared with many others and with what the media portrays as the ideal weight for women my age, I feel fat. It is confusing." 

I think the truth about my statement is that I am not sure what I should be aiming for at this stage of my life regarding my size and shape. I want to stay the same size so I don't have to buy all new clothing. I want to stay thin enough to maintain a good energy level and to be able to keep up the running. I am back on track with the small suppers and the several glasses of water a day. I have a goal of running 20 kilometers by my birthday in September, so I am running well and often. Still, I am not yet losing much of that winter weight, although I can tell by the way my pants are fitting that some of it is turning to muscle. Perhaps the answer lies in that evil substance: sugar. I do not want to obsess over everything that I eat, but is that what it takes? I want to enjoy food without feeling like I am failing every time I eat a piece of cake. Some days I am overwhelmed at my wonderful discipline. Some days I cannot seem to get through the afternoon without chocolate.

Once upon a time I was a nice medium sized girl - although she looks pretty tiny to me now. Perhaps I have to be content now with being a nice, healthy medium sized woman. Perhaps this self-image thing is really a matter of realistic perspective. The air-brushed magazine images be damned. 

May 12, 2014

Floating Down the River, Your Hand in Mine

My husband, half way through his two-year Outdoor Recreation program at Capilano University in Vancouver, was offered a summer job as a river rafting guide at Panorama Resort near the quaint and beautiful East Kootenay town of Invermere. Panorama is essentially a ski resort, but in a bid to be viable year round, offered reasons to visit in the off-season, too: great mountain bike trails, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and river-rafting on the rapids of the small and mighty Toby creek. A few days after our May 16th wedding in my hometown of Nelson, my husband and I filled our Toyota hatchback with the necessities of life and off we went amid cries of 'Good Luck!' and 'Let us know how it goes!' from family and friends.

Beautiful Invermere (not my photo)

Previous to our move to Panorama, I had been in touch with the good folks at Pynelogs Cultural Center, a converted historical log estate on the shores of Lake Windemere, and had been promised a job at the center. Upon our arrival, and after several phone calls, it became clear that, funding being what it was, my job had been reduced to a volunteer position. Pynelogs was at least a twenty minute drive down the mountain from Panorama and was often longer due to cattle on the road stalling the traffic and giving zero response to the blaring horns and shouts of drivers. As a newlywed with a husband returning to college in the fall, I could not afford to volunteer when it would cost me gas money, so after a short time of wondering what to do I fell back on my food service experience and applied for a seating host position in the Toby Creek Lodge Restaurant. I got the job and was introduced to the staff by the manager: "And this one's got a brain in her head, so don't mess around." An auspicious beginning.

Fortunately, my husband and I were given staff accomodation in one of the condominiums at the resort, so our living expenses were modest. We shared the condo with two other rafting guides - Derek, a friendly and very handsome young classmate of my husband's, and Finn, an Australian with a love for The Bottle and a rather surly disposition much of the time. He was the rafting crew leader, however, and it was important to keep on his good side. He was sometimes a benevolent roommate, and I remember his cauliflower cheese pie and his barbecued leg of lamb very well. So, my summer days, besides keeping house with three men, consisted of lounging by the pool - I remember reading The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maughm - cycling or going for drives on the dirt roads up behind the resort, throwing meals together with, as of yet, little talent in the kitchen, cheering at the TV with the guys during The French Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments, attempting to play tennis with my sporty new husband, and seating guests (and clowning around with waiters) in the restaurant in the evenings. One night early on in my hostess career, and after the restaurant was closed, I sat down to the grand piano by the bar where the wait-staff were counting their tips and calculating my share. I began to play 'Fur Elise' by Beethoven, which I had known by heart for years. The staff must have enjoyed my music, for after that they told me if I played for them every night they would increase my share of the tips. It became a very satisfactory arrangement, as my husband and  I were able to live mainly on my tips and save our paychecks for the coming year back in Vancouver.

One of the great bonuses of my husband working as a raft guide was the free trip for both of us - which we rather optomistically called our honeymoon - rafting for a week on the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in the Yukon Territory, to take place in the latter part of June. Clients payed $2600.00 each for a guided trip down those rivers, plus their air fare and accomodation in Whitehorse before and after the trip. We only had to get ourselves to and from Whitehorse, which we did in our car, driving twelve hours a day for three days through some of the wildest, most beautiful country I have ever seen. Wildlife appeared by the roadsides at regular intervals - grizzly bears, moose, deer, black bears, birds of prey, etc. We had been given the loan of a good 35 mm camera, bought several rolls of film and took along our little point-and-shoot for backup.

Grizzly bears by the road in Jasper National Park

A church in the lovely Hazeltons

After a day or two of sightseeing in Whitehorse - a city of approximately 15,000 people and with, I counted, 28 bars - the voyage down the rivers began at Haines Junction. Our two guides, Jim and Brian, told us the first leg of the trip would be a quick one with the river presently swelled with the runoff to twice its normal volume. We geared up in personal flotation devices, warm, waterproof clothing, and helmets. Everyone was given a paddle and directions in the vein of 'do what you're told if you want to survive'. The large rubber rafts, holding seven people each, rocketed along on the swollen river, and when we came to some narrows held in by sharp, rocky cliffs, it took everyone's work to keep the rafts on course. Our raft guide, Jim, kept us well away from the rocks and we got through the narrows just fine. Not so for the other boat, which bounced off a sharp rock on the cliff and gained a puncture in its sidewall. My husband spent the rest of our 'free' honeymoon rising each of the six days at dawn to pump up the punctured boat that had been slowly, sadly, deflating during the night.

Several of the participants on the trip were over sixty-five. One, a retired teacher and former mountain climber named Gertrude, was eighty-two. All of the retirees, (except the coiffed lady in the high-heeled rubber boots) hated people fussing over them, but all welcomed our help in setting up their tents and making camp each day. Luckily for us all, the weather was basically cooperative, and after that first day in the rapids, our trip consisted of calm days of floating downstream in our rafts, enjoying the opportunity to get to know each other, learning about the flora and fauna from Sid Cannings, our knowledgeable naturalist who was brought along for his expertise, and paddling when necessary. After an excellent dinner each night (the food was almost the best part of the trip, and being mainly cooked over a fire was generally given the adjectives 'Cajun' or 'blackened' when served with a grin by our fearless leader Jim), we spent our evenings around the campfire talking about the day's grizzly, moose, and Arctic Tern sightings.

Brian's boat

Moody skies

One of our tent cities

Views from a hike

Our boat's fearless leader Jim

Late in the trip we left the Tatshenshini River and joined the Alsek River, ending up at Alsek Lake. I will never forget the sight of that lake once the dense fog finally lifted in the morning. The beach, filled with clumps of unusual wildflowers gave way to a glassy blue lake with a backdrop of the Alsek Glacier. The lake was filled with huge, solid masses of blue icebergs which calved off the glacier at regular, crashing intervals. We paddled out to the icebergs, landing on one deemed fairly safe from tipping by our guides, and the group's cameras were put to work. My husband took roll after roll of film at the lake and I, armed as it were with the point and shoot, took one roll. Perhaps my insistence on taking photos on the little camera showed some foresight, for after the trip was over and we were developing our film, it became evident that something had gone wrong with the borrowed camera - none of the pictures turned out. The photos from the little camera turned out better than expected, although our entire collection consisted of only three rolls of photos from twelve absolutely glorious days of that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Alsek Lake in the fog

Alsek lake, fog lifted, flowers abundant

Amazing icebergs

Since rivers lead ultimately to ocean, our trip ended at Dry Bay, Alaska, where we crawled out of our rafts, faces burnt and lips blistered by the reflected sun of six days on the water. We boarded Lady Lou, a reclaimed WWII bomber painted with Lady Lou herself high-kicking the Can-Can on its side. The interior of the plane was fairly basic, fitted like a bus, so I was astonished to be offered a drink and cookies by the well-dressed flight attendant who had to shout to be heard over the roaring engine and who exibited great skill at keeping her balance as the plane charged along with typically northern spirit. We soared over the mountains, retracing our route down the rivers, taking half an hour to return to the spot we had left six days earlier. What a relief it was to shower and shampoo in the hotel room that two of the clients so kindly offered to share with my husband and I for our last night as a group. We dined that evening in Whitehorse' nicest little restaurant - all relieved to be going home to our own beds and bathrooms, but full of the wonderful week's experience on the rivers. We talked and laughed like we'd known each other forever. There was nothing to lose in bonding for a week because what we took away was so much bigger than that. The people part is mixed up forever with the scenery, the small hardships of camping in the wild, and the animals we were so blessed to see - a multi sensory experience to add to the store of memories of a young, married couple like us.

Our wonderful group of explorers, my husband and I
 in the back row,
second and third in from the left

The same could be said about that entire summer of 1992. I never saw any of those people again, not Andy the waiter who was so much fun to work with, not Finn nor any of the others - though I did see Derek once at a college function several months later. Eighteen years later we stopped in Invermere on a summer holiday and showed it to our kids. The town was even more developed than it had been in 1992 when the lake was completely surrounded by summer homes built by wealthy Albertans. I am sure Panorama Resort has grown a lot since then as well. We have changed, too, of course - twenty-two years, several moves and four children later.

Recently, I went through the entire box of photos from our trip. We had been invited to a party where each guest was asked to bring a show of just ten slides. I spread all the photos out on the floor trying to remember their exact order. I chose eighteen, which my daughter helped me to scan. Then, I chose the final ten for the party. As I went through the photos, I remembered I had kept a journal on the trip. I re-read the journal and relived my honeymoon, recalling little sensory experiences and feeling so grateful that I had those memories, those photos and that written account to go back to every now and then when I wanted to relive that adventurous time in my life when my husband and I were just starting our own journey together down the curving, varied, beautiful river of life.