Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why I love my iPod

If there’s nothing going on outside my head to distract me, the voices inside my skull take over.

Recently I’ve realized that during these conversations (in which I play both roles) I project what I assume other people are thinking about me. What makes the whole thing even weirder is that I believe other people actually don’t notice me much, but this is coming from someone who’s having full-on chats across her corpus callosum so, you know, take it for what it’s worth.

At the gym, for example, if I haven’t noticed that my iPod playlist is finished, I suddenly find myself thinking at the guy doing biceps curls six inches from the mirror.

“You’re blocking the free weight rack,” I scold. If he’s 30 or 40 or 50, I add, “You’re old enough to know better.”

If he’s 17 or 23, I warn him, “I know your mother.”

“Don’t be so crabby,” they answer. “You shouldn’t even be down here. You need to be upstairs on the cardio machines, working off that belly.”

“I’ve done my time on the treadmill,” I snarl back. “Now I have to lift some weights so I can set an example for your girlfriend/daughter/neighbour over there who needs to eat something before she gets osteoporosis at 25.”

“Oh sure.” They eye the swag of my upper arm. “You’re a great example.”

Or if I’m cycling through town and a driver guns his motor and swings way wide to get around me:

“My butt is so not that big,” I tell him. “If you only realized that you’re just illustrating what a lousy driver you are. You don’t even know how big your car is.”

“F- you, lady,” they snipe and swerve right, forcing me to choose between slowing down to ride in their exhaust or jumping the curb.

I stretch out my arm, two fingers extended in a salute. The gesture incenses them even further and they jab one finger in the air.

“I have good karma,” I say smugly. “What have you just gained?”

They rev their engines in response and roar ahead to the red light.

And I carry on, my self-righteousness squirming just a little because deep beneath my oh-so-evolved cerebral cortex, way down in my lizard brain, I know that I’ve used a global sign for peace to piss off a stranger.

Except that’s not the way things work in this town, so as I pass them in the intersection I add, “Say hi to your mom for me.”

illustration by Ray Goldsworthy
dba Dad

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summer vacation 2000, Part Two: Composting Culture

The brash, bottle-blonde proprietor was bidding a noisy farewell to two New York matrons while I waited to pay for my grilled cheese sandwich at the café in Kelsey Bay. Outside, sunlight bounced hard off the dock and shimmered on graphite fishing rods. Finally she turned her attention to me.

"Where are you going?" she demanded as she handed over my change.

"The Charlottes," I told her.

Her voice softened. “Everyone who goes there comes back changed,” she said. “Everyone has some kind of spiritual experience.”

That was fine with me. The Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii, are an archipelago of nearly 200 cloud-shrouded islands off Canada’s west coast and form a mythic backdrop to my life. The art and culture of the Haida people who live there have, in the last half-century, become legendary around the world. Thanks to artist and writer Emily Carr, I grew up with visions of forests guarded by totem poles, their eyes watching the sea for incoming storms or returning fishermen even as they composted quietly back into the forest. I imagined the silence, torn only by the myriad voices of ravens or rippled by rain dropping from leaf to leaf. On that hot, dry August day I couldn’t wait to get there, to let the damp green nourish my soul.

The reality, of course, was more…active. I rented a kayak from Cathy, a teacher at the local high school, and took advantage of the summer-smooth water to paddle past colonies of raucous seabirds. I hiked through forests waist deep in salal with sunlight pointing through the trees like God’s fingers. I pitched my tent on ankle-deep moss and fell asleep to the shushing of waves on a lakeshore. I saw clearcut mountainsides green with ferns and edged with enormous living trees whose bark had once been harvested to make rain-shedding hats and capes. I met mountain-biking ferry captain Gord Nettleton and his Jack Russell terrier Patrick who together cleared old logging roads and new singletrack on the jungly slopes of Moresby Island. I talked with Jim and Gail Henry, who run the gas station in Sandspit and, oh yes, in the evenings they go to the beach and feed bald eagles.

And there were ravens. They sat in trees along the roadsides, conferences of them, and like a construction crew taking a break talked loudly amongst themselves when I bicycled past. They sounded for all the world as if they were criticizing my technique – or perhaps my clothes. Learning not to be demoralized by birds was not the kind of epiphany I’d been hoping for.

On my way to look at historical displays in the museum at Skidegate, the scent of cedar drew me sideways, to a board and batten building. The open door faced the bay and two canoes filled the centre of the room. A man stood at a workbench under a window, noisily notching planks with a power saw while a woman with long dark hair and a younger man sat hunched on lawn chairs, paintbrushes in hand. And stacked floor to ceiling against two long walls were solid ranks of bentwood boxes.

In my urban world I’d seen them before – singly in galleries and shops and occasionally in some lucky person’s home. But here were dozens, hundreds, each one made from a single cedar board steamed and bent and then pegged together and painted with a moon or hummingbird, wolf or whale, kingfisher or raven. I felt like I'd walked into a back room at the Louvre.

What, I wondered, was this all about?

The woman looked up and smiled at me, then bowed her head to her work again.

“Ah,” my mind whispered. “Artists.”

The rest of me tiptoed past, careful not to disturb them. Sidling around the perimeter of the room I saw signs and notices. Repatriation project, they said.

When the saw stopped shrieking I shyly approached the operator, who seemed happy to talk. In the past, he told me, anthropologists, curators, and Indian agents had “collected” hundreds of Haida bodies – skeletons – and had taken them away. In museums or private houses around the world, they lay in cool metal drawers with their secrets and silent histories. Now their descendants wanted to bring home the great-grandfathers and cousins and inter them in the

warm damp island earth. Some, mostly from the museums in Victoria and the University of British Columbia, were already safely buried and now the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec was prepared to release one hundred and fifty more. The boxes around me, painted with clan symbols, were to be their caskets.

I stared, speechless; someone’s aunties had been hauled from gently rocking kelp beds or the fragrant shelter of evergreen trees and bundled off to the wind and glass of Chicago, the snow and concrete of Russia. I managed to thank him for the explanation, and as I turned to leave he spoke again.

Would I like to paint a box? he asked.

I stopped. Burying a loved one is very emotional. The flow of feelings can leave us scrubbed clean of all the usual protections, like a berry without its bloom. I felt like one of the foreign elements that these grieving, happy, relieved families needed protection against. I worried that my clumsy presence might scratch something precious. And on top of that, my artistic skills were limited to knowing which end of the paintbrush was up.

On the other hand, when someone offers such an intimate experience, it would be churlish – and foolish – to refuse. Unhappily contemplating my shortcomings, I accepted.

Andy – the sawyer’s name was Andy – introduced me to Ann and Ken, the other two painters; he handed me a brush, a plastic plate with puddles of red, black and white paint, and a box with designs pencilled on two sides. When Ken marked tiny letters, R for red, B for black, within the spaces on the wood, a little of the tension left my neck. I sat on the floor near the doorway and drew the box between my knees. Tentatively I dabbed my brush into the pool of black and drew it over the clean yellow wood. It went where I put it. I heaved a sigh of relief and did it again.

An hour later my two-finned killer whale was breathing confidence into the right side of my brain. I started to enjoy myself. By the end of the day I had a decent-looking wolf as well, and smears of red and black on my fingers just like a real painter. I was as secretly proud of them as any kindergarten student.

My box – Auntie’s casket, as I thought of it – went on the pile along the back wall, adding to the mural of myth and history waiting to welcome the ancestors.

The next morning I again showed up at the work shed. There was no painting today, though. This time I was attending a going-away tea for Andy and the others who would tomorrow start their journey to central Canada to gather their ancestors, wrap them in button blankets made by their children, and bring them home.

I stood against one wall, watching and listening to carvers who pulled bears from centuries-old trees, women who kept an eye on the kids playing outside, and the elders who gently bridged generations by blessing the work of youngers in a language that was old before the aunties were born. If they noticed me at all, perhaps they wondered briefly.

“Who’s the tourist?” I imagined them thinking. “What’s she doing here, watching the chiefs and grandmothers open their hearts and pour their love on our travellers?”

Then Andy spoke. He thanked the elders for their guidance and their prayers. He thanked the community for its work and support. He thanked me as one of the visitors who had contributed time and energy to the process of Yahguudaangang, paying respect to the ancestors.

I stood frozen against the wall, desperately wanting to drop my head and stare at the floor, knowing if I did my tears would splash the dusty planks and everyone would see. I was startled, embarrassed to be singled out. But most of all I was moved by Andy’s grace. His gift of appreciation turned my hesitant efforts into humus. With his words he told me that just as the totem poles of old crumbled to feed the forest around them, so my cedar box silently composting in the Skidegate cemetery would nourish the roots of Haida Gwaii.

The bottle-blonde was right.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer vacation 2000, Part One: The Spa Holiday

“You smell nice,” the cashier said without looking up as she slid my baguette and mesclun mix over the electronic reader.

I grunted and hoisted my dusty pannier onto the counter. “I don’t need a bag,” I said.

She looked up and her eyes widened as they travelled from the grimy gloved hand holding out a five-dollar bill to my sweat-stained T-shirt and helmeted head. I grinned, white teeth in a sun-pinked face, and she started to laugh.

“Really,” she assured me. “You smell fresh.”

I was on day four of a bike trip up Vancouver Island’s east coast during the hottest weather of the year. “Fresh” shouldn’t have entered her mind.

I ducked my head discreetly and breathed deep, curious.

I had long wanted to take a spa holiday. Great vegetarian food, pleasant walks in the woods, a massage every day, time for naps…the kind of vacation that would make me healthier by the minute, with precious little effort on my part. It would include great scenery, of course, and a comfortable bedroom, and the other guests (when I saw them at all) would be friendly but aloof.

What I got was a road trip. A few days cycling Vancouver Island’s back roads, nights between clean sheets in old-fashioned motels, a stint at a mountain-top resort…no, wait. That was Plan B.

Plan R, Reality, had morphed into two weeks with a tent and enough trail mix to pave the trail.

The first day, my sweetie and I left Victoria at the crack of noon and headed north. By the time we had our first break, waiting for the ferry at Brentwood Bay, the last knotted shoulder muscle had given in to oxygen-rich blood loaded with feel-good chemicals like serotonin and adrenaline. I sipped water and held my face up to the sun while I waited for the boat to take me across fjord-like Finlayson Arm.

The Malahat Drive between Victoria and the Cowichan Valley has an undeserved reputation for toughness and earlier in the year we’d proved it, so this time we decided to bypass the hill and take the ferry to Mill Bay instead.

The sun was warm, the sea sparkled, an eagle soared overhead. We stood on the top deck of the ship and looked at the sailboats in the marina as we pulled out.

“I like the Paradox,” Himself pointed to a lovely wooden craft. “But she’s a high-maintenance lady.”

“And you like your girls low-maintenance,” I said, smiling. I pride myself on being a low-m girl.

He grinned back. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I like Tupperware.”

Apparently I would receive no special treatment on this holiday.

From Mill Bay through Cobble Hill to Cowichan Bay we huffed up hilly backroads and swooped down again until the sun was far to the west. I needed dinner.

“One more hill,” my husband promised. “Then we can stop.”

He’s been saying that since I met him in September 1990, but this time it was true.

We got to the top of the hill and there below us was the little mill town of Crofton. Not what I’d have chosen for a four-star holiday, but my legs were willing to settle.

The last freewheel of the day is always the best because there’s no uphill afterward. Not until tomorrow and that doesn’t count.

We stopped at the grocery store to get dinner and directions and rolled the few blocks to the grassy, treed campground on the bay with resident kingfishers and a curious seal.

Once the tent was up and the new ThermARest mattresses unfurled, I took my new little camping towel (guaranteed to hold four gallons of water and squeeze dry in seconds) to the showers.

I pushed open the door and gasped. The gleaming white shower stall had a built-in bench. Now this was more like it! I turned on the taps and sank gratefully onto the seat. I rubbed the fine grit of salt off my limbs as the warm water sluiced over me, feeling dirt and sweat wash away. Afterward I rubbed down with the little magic towel and then pulled on shorts and a T-shirt. As I passed the mirror on my way out, I noticed that, instead of looking sunburned and weatherbeaten, my skin glowed.

We sat at our picnic table and watched the stars come out while we ate Hershey Almond bars.

The next day I lost my man early on and spent the next six hours desperately riding up hill and down dale in the blazing sun to catch him. I didn’t dare stop for long because he was ahead of me but didn’t realize it and thought that he was trying to catch me (don’t ask), so I just drank litres of water and ate a box of granola bars. By the time I found him, drinking coffee and reading his novel after a late lunch in a Mexican café, I was hot and exhausted.

We freewheeled down another hill and found a lovely waterfront campground. The owner had taken a bike trip through France once, twenty-five years before, and gave us a deal on the price. After another salt body scrub followed by a moisture wrap (aka a shower and a slather of moisturizer) I was ready for a dinner of canned chili, ramen noodles, fruit cocktail, and V8. Ginger tea and Cheez Pleezers to follow.

By the third day, we’d figured it out. We stopped for ice cream or fruit juice before we used up our blood sugar reserves. We ate fish and chips at a harbourfront café before retiring to our (of course) waterfront campsite.

A regular spa would have charged me for every massage. A regular spa would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars each for a long weekend, instead of the hundred dollars or so our holiday had cost us so far.

A regular spa might give me the illusion of better health – until I tried to hike up a hill or swim a lap. A regular spa probably wouldn’t provide Cheez Pleezers and Hershey Almond bars.

This story has also appeared in Adventure Cyclist and Focus magazines

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Nothing less than gratitude

A friend of mine completed the first draft of a screenplay recently, so I took her a little bouquet.

There isn’t much in bloom in my native plant garden at this time of year (and wildflowers often don’t make the greatest bouquets anyway), so I clipped some lavender, which is gorgeous enough to draw the hummingbirds, and added a few sprigs of oregano for greenery. It was a pretty little tussie-mussie and she can eat it too, if she gets hungry enough.

Only after I gave it to her did I wonder whether there was some subtext. Was I saying something beyond the obvious “Congratulations!”?

According to, apple blossom represents hope and good fortune, edelweiss is for daring and courage, and…oh dear. Lavender symbolizes distrust. says that convolvulus represents humble perseverance – and doesn’t that sum up the writing process? Not to mention the traits required to keep morning glory under control in the garden.

Sweet basil is for good luck, thyme is for courage and activity – two other hallmarks of writers. The same site says that lavender is for constancy – a far cry from the distrust of the other site. That makes me feel better.

But whatever other herbs and flowers go into a bouquet, the plant that should be central in any writer’s tribute is agrimony. It’s been used to treat all manner of ailments and even wards off the devil, which is handy. However, along with its many physical and spiritual benefits, what it symbolizes is thankfulness.

And isn't that what we feel when we meet a big challenge? Whether it's painting a house or a portrait, finishing a race, or writing a story – we're glad it's over.

apple blossom photo by Josef Petrek, morning glory photo by Andrew Schmidt