Monday, May 30, 2016

Driving for coffee

So what if it takes 60 minutes to get to our coffee mecca at Britannia Beach?

Outside, there's always a view of ocean and mountains.

Inside, art for sale on the walls and happy customers, mostly young.

After coffee, there's kite-surfing to watch at Squamish. (This photo is my effort; go to for the real thing.)
John is the barista of the family, and when the supply of Britannia Blend medium roast beans from the Galileo Coffee Company gets low, it's time for a trip to the source of our daily bliss. That's a 60-minute drive from our house in Dunbar, over two bridges, through West Vancouver and then along the scenic, twisty high-speed Sea to Sky Highway to a little eyeblink of a place called Britannia Beach, about 12 kilometres from Squamish. There, in an old white clapboard house, up a flight of wooden steps, is the mecca of great coffee. Goodies too, but mainly the coffee --whether you drink it there or take the beans home to fuel your days. We do both, of course, and while there I always enjoy watching the steady parade of customers, mostly young people at their athletic, mountain-climbing, bike-riding, hiking, skiing, kite-surfing best. Squamish is bursting with such outdoorsy young families; other customers are stopping en route to athletic endeavours in Whistler further up the road. On Monday, after picking up our stash of beans, we went to Squamish, where about two dozen kite-surfers were taking advantage of the famous Squamish wind, skimming through the water and letting their kites lift them as high as 20 feet into the air. (See John's photos of the action at A huge expedition for a good cup of coffee, you might think, but for us, a lot more than that: mountain and sea views, a hair-raising road that pleases John's race-driver instincts, and a chance to watch the next generation having a really good time.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

How to have a happy old age

Some of Diana Athill's books in my collection. A favourite is her memoir Stet about her four-decade editing career at the Deutsch publishing firm in London.
We don't get to hear from the dead, and we seldom get to hear from 97-year-olds who are approaching that state. In Alive, Alive Oh!, a collection of essays published last year, famed British editor and writer Diana Athill helps fill that gap. Memories, it turns out, are really, really important when you're old. Athill, who was born in 1917, lived something of a charmed life that enabled her to build up a huge repertoire of wonderful memories -- the beautiful garden of her grandparents' Norfolk country estate, the green waters of Venice, the scent of a bluebell wood in Yorkshire, the "splendiferous" Folk Museum at Santa Fe. As she accumulated these memories, she didn't know she was storing them up, but now they come tumbling out to enliven and brighten her days. Athill writes about the excruciating decision to move into a tiny room in a seniors' home, which forced her to discard a lifetime of treasures, especially her books. Knowing that at her age, a person can be reduced to helplessness "almost overnight," she made the move pre-emptively to spare her friends and relatives the worry about what could happen to her. Her seniors' home is run by a charity with strong principles about treatment of residents, and after some adjusting, Athill loves her life there. Some gems from her book worth thinking about, whatever stage of life we're at:

"Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman's idle days pleasant instead of boring." (Introduction, page 5)

"I came home, sat down in my little sitting room, looked round at the magpie's nest of beloved things accumulated in a long lifetime, and felt: 'But this is me.' The extent to which a personality depends on the space it occupies and the objects it possesses appeared to me at that moment overwhelming. How could I perform an act of what amounted to self-destruction? The answer was: I can't! I can't and I won't, I'd rather die." (On learning she could move into the seniors' home, p. 103-4)

"The likeness to being at boarding school can't be wholly denied, but is very superficial, and alarm at so much oldness is simply resentment of one's own old age -- something one gets used to because of having no alternative. Anyone here who persists in it soon begins to seem absurd." (On her two big fears about moving into the home -- that it would be like boarding school, and that it was full of old people, p .111)

"Nothing could be more deliciously luxurious than being pushed around a really thrilling and crowded exhibition in a wheelchair. The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort." (On why the elderly shouldn't dread wheelchairs, p. 130)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Mr. Darcy at home

There are visitors to our house who claim to have never actually seen our 11-year-old cat. Dirty cat dishes, yes, but Mr. Darcy makes himself scarce when strangers come to call. These photos are proof that he actually exists, and makes himself comfortable when he has us -- and his garden -- all to himself:

Ecstasy, coffee: With John in the morning.

Checking out the new plant purchases in the garden.

A yawn, not a snarl, in the back yard on a sunny day.

Favourite scene: Relaxing on Carol's knees on the couch.

Something you'll never see: Mr. Darcy welcoming you on our front steps.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Peace and love in Kitsilano

The Naam restaurant still has a counter-culture vibe.
There is a gentle quality to The Naam restaurant in Vancouver's Kitsilano area that doesn't quite fit with what's happening in the rest of the city.

 The restaurant is based in the same elderly building where it began in 1968, with flower-filled window boxes, vines and a bench out front. Its furniture is old and solid. It offers the same natural vegetarian dishes that it did when such fare was dismissed as "rabbit food." Begun in the peace-and-love era when many young people were exploring Eastern philosophies, it still has elements of the vibe it offered to hippies who weren't welcome in other restaurants.

 The Naam was "counter-culture central," wrote Vancouver Sun restaurant critic Mia Stainsby in a brief  2011 history of the place. "Spiritual seekers, politicos, hippies, anti-war activists, as well as vegetarians converged. Greenpeace had a start-up meeting there."

I was never a major patron, not belonging to any of those categories, but I have eaten my share of Maui Maui veggie burgers at The Naam since I came to Vancouver in the early 1970s. But in the last few years, it has drifted out of my mind. Other, trendier restaurants had opened, the city was turning into a luxury land for the rich, and conversations became focused on house prices and demolitions instead of more idealistic topics.

 When my friend Ros and I discussed The Naam this week as a possible place for lunch, I actually checked to make sure it was still operating. It's not only operating, but thriving, judging from the crowd we saw there on Friday. But the best news is that not all the patrons were old hippies; there were just as many young people, even if many of them were using tech devices not invented yet when the restaurant first opened.

 So, as piece after piece of Vancouver falls to the wrecker's ball, there is some hope that a little chunk of its history may survive. Perhaps, even after all its original patrons are gone, The Naam will be a reminder of a time when peace and love were still part of the city's equation.

Who we think we are

When somebody stood up and offered me a seat on the bus a few years ago, it was a huge shock. Me? Why? In my mind, I was a vigorous middle-aged person who walked 90 minutes to work each day with a heavy backpack. Obviously my benefactor saw me quite differently -- I was an older person who could use a seat. I thought of the incident in a recent "Understanding Identities in the 21st Century" class I am taking as part of Simon Fraser University's continuing education program (filled with old people like me). The course examines how identities work -- we all define ourselves, but we are also constantly defined by the society around us. We can be defined as belonging to many overlapping groups -- as parents, as employees, as people of a certain heritage -- with many of those categories changing as our lives move along. Our self-identity changes too -- we are affected by our connections and our experiences, such as, for me, the bus incident. It brought me smack up against what I saw as society's sudden and very premature leap toward defining me as old, shattering my idea that I was still in the "middle." It has taken awhile -- more and more white hair, retirement, the first old-age pension cheque -- for me to bring my idea of myself closer into line with society's. Which raises another point: In my mind anyway, old is not a category especially to be desired. Jobs end, clerks start calling you "dear," health fails and the end looms large. It's not like we have any choice, but it gives us a taste, perhaps, of what those who have been shoved into negative categories all their lives -- such as African-Americans and Canadian First Nations -- have experienced. Maybe, for those of us who have led charmed Caucasian lives, that's not such a bad thing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fifty shades of ... green

Oh, to watch the ships from the balcony of this Point Grey home!

Trees and shrubs nearly hide the home's vine-covered facade.

Old-fashioned wall with peekaboo window separates house from public park.
This is one of my favourite houses in Vancouver, perhaps even the favourite. What's not to like about a flower-and-tree-shrouded mansion stretching gracefully lengthwise down to the Point Grey waterfront? Even though it looks venerably old, as a house of this style definitely should, it is in fact quite new. I watched it being built 10 to 15 years ago as I walked past on my daily trips to work. One of the first things done on the site was a massive planting of the flowering perennials, trees and shrubs that now virtually hide a beautiful old-fashioned garden wall. The wall, complete with a peekaboo window, provides privacy and separates the house from a small public park next door. The house itself was built to resemble an old English country mansion, with its many-paned windows, slate-tile roof, brick chimneys and vines growing up the facade. There is even a whimsical weather vane on one of the roof peaks! I loved the fact that the owners, who clearly had the money to lavish on any style of home they wanted, chose a stately mansion straight out of a Jane Austen novel. I'm not the only one who thinks this house is romantic. When I passed it this week, film crews were hauling their equipment out of its doors. Sometimes movie crews are reluctant to talk about what they're working on, but I fell into conversation with one worker who called the house "amazing." So what was the movie being shot there? "Fifty Shades of Grey, Part 2," he said.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Moving up the Vancouver way

Mark Wiens offers cotton candy at baseball tournament.

Tents advertise Wiens' services in both Chinese and English.
"Mark Wiens. Your Mandarin speaking Realtor," screamed the three bright orange-and-white shelters set up in the foreground of the baseball tournament I passed on Victoria Day.

 It would have been hard to miss the message, given the huge lettering on the signs in both English and Chinese. But just in case, one of the tents also offered a cotton-candy operation, and it wasn't hard to deduce that one of the people stirring the pot, a tall guy in a suit, was probably Mark Wiens. I took only a couple of pictures before he spotted me and strode busily forward, proffering a cone of pink fluff.

To him, I probably looked like an owner of one of the neighbourhood teardowns just ready for demolition. To me, his name had rung a little bell, and besides, he was a curiosity. With the Vancouver market bursting with Asian money and plenty of Asian real-estate agents who speak Mandarin, what was the  big deal about another Mandarin-speaking agent? Even if he was Caucasian? So I asked.

Wiens couched his words, but he got his point across. Groups of Asian buyers talk among themselves assuming the white guy can't understand, he said: Sometimes it helps. Not that he hides anything; it's on his card that he speaks Mandarin, but....I asked whether he could point to any specific case where his Mandarin meant a quicker sale or higher price, but he said it's more general than that -- sometimes things just lead to other things.

 But there is one definite advantage, he said, and that is that he stands out. When buyers are seeing a large number of properties, things blend together in their minds, but they might remember the place where the white guy spoke Mandarin.

 I went on to my coffee date, but the bell in my mind kept tinkling. Later, when I researched Mark Wiens, I was sent back to a night last summer. I'd hired a company to get rid of the chafer beetles that had been destroying my lawn, and the man who showed up for the late-evening task was an easy-talking, pleasant fellow who was studying for his real estate licence. He asked me to pass his name on to anyone needing an agent; I figured he'd do well. The man, of course, was Mark Wiens. From bugs to real estate-- a true Vancouver progression.

From Mark Wiens' website: "Before working in the real estate business, my start up business, Community Lawn Care, grew in four years to become the top rated lawn service in Vancouver, grossing a quarter of a million dollars in revenue and winning several industry awards. During this time I learned many lessons, and each opportunity has allowed me to improve myself."

Monday, May 23, 2016

Where the heart is

Diane's husband John already looks at home at their new Winlaw property.
This is Diane's and John's new view.

Diane, deck and wall of  glass that showcases the view.

Side view of house from a distance.
As a kid growing up on a farm in Alberta, my sister Diane chose voluntarily to learn to milk the cows. She liked to ride Gypsy, the big grey horse my father bought after much beseeching from Diane and Betty. She cared for the sad stray dog she convinced our parents to keep when it showed up one day. She didn't like weeding the garden any better than her four siblings did, but unlike the rest of us, she found it interesting to watch the cows giving birth to their calves. The wrench of leaving the farm to go to the city -- in her case to attend nursing school -- was probably worse for her than for any of us. Those were the second round of thoughts I had after Diane told me a couple of months ago that she and her husband John were selling their house in Surrey and thinking of settling in the Kootenays. (Their kids are launched, or pretty much so, and Diane is following John into retirement.) But my first thought on hearing her plan was: "How can you desert me after all these years? With mom gone, I won't have any nuclear family left in the city!" Then I began remembering Diane's strong connection to the farm and thinking that after decades of toughing it out in the city, she'd probably be happier in the country in her retirement. She certainly sounded happy Sunday night when she phoned to say she and John had just bought a three-bedroom house on seven-plus acres near the small town of Winlaw in the Slocan Valley. The view from their new deck -- all valley and mountains, trees and glimpses of river -- is like what rich people have, she said. The 10-year-old house is open and bright, with a wall of windows showcasing the view. It has two full levels and the bottom could easily be made into a suite. But for Diane, it was clear the most important things were the countryside around the house, the potential for a wonderful garden, and the laid-back, friendly attitude of the people in the area. "It's too bad we didn't do this 30 years ago," she said.

According to Google, Winlaw is:
-A small unincorporated community in the Slocan Valley region of the West Kootenays. (Diane says it's about a 40-minute drive to Castlegar in one direction and a similar distance to Nelson in another.),
-On the 50-km Slocan Valley Rail Trail, which is popular with cyclists and cross-country skiers.
-Populated by "a rainbow of people, styles, hair, vehicles and lifestyles."
-Possessed of a post office, a varying number of restaurants (according to the site you search), and many home-based businesses and small farming operations.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The kindness of cousins

Mom and dad's photo albums contain many pictures of them with my cousin Les and his wife Shelagh. Shelagh has always been an avid photographer, and most visits with her include a little photo session; she likes to record the event and often sends copies to her subjects. But I've always thought her photos of my parents stand for so much more than just a record of their times together. There is the very fact of those visits -- couples from different generations exchanging visits as if they were contemporaries. It's one thing to visit your own parents; it's another for younger working people with their own social lives to exchange regular visits with an aunt and uncle. They did it seriously; back and forth every so many months, for years. Later, after dad died and mom could no longer get out to West Vancouver to visit them, Les and Shelagh would go to Surrey to see my mother, often taking her to lunch at a favourite restaurant in White Rock. Two years ago, when mom was dying, Les and Shelagh made a final visit to her bedside to say goodbye. John and I had the great good fortune to "inherit" Les and Shelagh from mom and dad, and now we are the ones who exchange regular visits. Now I know first-hand what mom used to tell me about Shelagh's wonderful cooking, their beautiful view home and their gracious hosting. We probably talk about different things -- less family and more art, photography and books. But Shelagh and Les have always had cats, cars and gardens, and I suspect many of our conversations on those topics echo earlier ones. I haven't seen Shelagh's photos from our visit to them on Sunday, but here are two good ones taken by John and one of Shelagh from me:

Shelagh with Les in their garden on Sunday.

Les at home in West Vancouver.
Shelagh with Munchkin the cuddly cat.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Limitless luxury

Promises, promises at site of new towers at Hornby and Burrard in Vancouver.
Services offered at new towers include a private wine cellar.

Bare-earth site of new project, once an automotive dealership.

Hotel for low-income residents is new project's neighbour.
After weeks of intensive media coverage about unaffordable housing in Vancouver, it seemed slightly surreal recently to pass a construction site with a sign advertising "limitless luxury" for residents of the new towers going up there. Another sign detailed just what this will entail: "Butler concierge. Private wine cellars. Star chef on demand. Personal shopping salon." I couldn't help but compare these celebrity-level services with the story I'd just read about people being forced to couch-surf because their aging, affordable rental apartments are being torn down to make way for more expensive condo towers in the Metrotown area of nearby Burnaby. It's a story being repeated everywhere in the Vancouver region as property owners seek to make maximum profits out of soaring land values. Metrotown is a long way from the construction site I passed in Vancouver, where three towers of 54, 36 and 14 storeys will go up on a former car-dealership site at the north end of the Burrard Bridge. It would be hard to argue there is anything wrong with this project, which is not displacing any housing and will certainly be attractive to the wealthy with its central location and bird's-eye views of the city and the ocean. But with all those displaced Metrotown residents in mind, I thought about how little interest there is in building affordable housing for all the people who need it here. Most people's earnings don't climb along with the higher rents they face when their old apartment is replaced with a new one. Most people can't afford -- and wouldn't even aspire to -- the luxuries of the new Vancouver towers, but they all need a place to live. One of the oddest things about the new project is its proximity to the old Murray Hotel, with its low-income residents, questionable maintenance history and poverty peering out of every window. When the new towers are built, the one per cent and the bottom of the 99 per cent will be living on the same block, side by side. I wonder how those with butler concierges and those with nothing will get along?

From a Vancouver Sun story by Kelly Sinoski on May 19, 2016: "The situation is really desperate because the scale of the demolition is astounding; just hundreds of people being pushed out of the neighbourhood seems like a real disaster. We're really trying to capture the human cry of these renovictions"-- Dave Diewert, organizer of a social impact report on the effects of apartment demolitions in Burnaby's Metrotown area.

Friday, May 20, 2016

What feels like home

From left, me, Karenn, Ros and Andrea, at site of former Vancouver Sun building.
The Vancouver Sun was never an easy place to work, but for some of us, there was something about it that got into our skin and never let go. Andrea, Karenn, Ros and I, who were reporters together in The Sun newsroom as long ago as the late 1970s and early 1980s, were talking about that over lunch on Friday. Whether we worked there for four years or 40, we all felt that somehow The Sun was "our place." In our discussion, we came to no consensus on the reason for this, but I have a theory. I think we were still young enough to be imprinted, like baby critters, by the big exciting operation we found ourselves part of. We bonded not only with each other, like siblings, but with our "parent" employer -- with its huge resources, major clout and cadre of well-respected journalists, photographers and big-name columnists. How exciting it was to bump elbows with the likes of Marjorie Nichols, Allan Fotheringham, Jack Wasserman and Paul St. Pierre! To do assignments with legendary photographers! We were little frogs in that big pond, but what a lively, thrilling, high-stakes pond it seemed. Andrea and Ros went on to work for CBC and teach at Langara, while Karenn and I made decades-long careers at The Sun. But meeting at a restaurant just a block away from our long-ago workplace (now replaced by condos, what else?) reminded us of that ineradicable connection: There is still something about The Sun that feels like home.

Definition of imprinting, courtesy of "Rapid learning that occurs during a brief receptive period, typically soon after birth or hatching, and establishes a long-lasting behavioral response to a specific individual or object, as attachment to parent, offspring, or site."

Were we imprinted as young reporters, just like the goslings we saw  at False Creek on Friday?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Just some pretty flowers

Mom used to say there is too much beauty in Vancouver, a surfeit of beauty, too much for anyone to absorb. When you come from the prairies, where it is often a struggle to get things to stay alive, let alone thrive and bloom, Vancouver's sheer luxuriance can seem excessive sometimes. But this is the best season of all in the city, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are putting forth their last efforts, and the roses, clematis, irises and peonies are overlapping with the beginning of the summer flowers. Here are some of the blossoms that have caught my eye as I've walked around Vancouver the last few days:
This little house always sports an amazing array of flowers, whatever the season.
Somebody chose clematis and roses to beautify their boulevard.

This well-designed, well-tended cottage garden is always full of blooms.

Styrax and oriental poppies make a stunning combination.

Quiet birch and campanula scene in a  side garden.
Somebody turned their garden into a wildflower meadow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"John photos"

Words, not images, have always been my focus, but I have had the great luxury all my adult life of being surrounded by great photographs. My partner John, a professional photographer, has thought about, talked about and bought books about great photographs and photographers all the decades we have been together. There are great photos on our walls, and our working lives in the newspaper business always included discussions of good, better, best photographs, whether local, national or international. John has taken his share of great pictures himself, winning several awards and having photos published in Life, People and Maclean's magazines, as well as in the papers he worked for. I have always been happy to cede all photography to John, but when I began my blog, I realized that if I wanted to include pictures in it, I'd have to take them myself. And so I carry my iPad on my walking tours around the city, collecting images to illustrate themes that interest me. But every once in awhile, I run across a picture that I know John would take if he was with me. I call them "John photos" because they have an element of his distinctive style: some geometric aspect, something funny or unusual, or an element of locomotion or speed -- anything with wheels is a target for John's camera. So here are two "John photos" taken by me. For the much, much better real John photos, go to

On a quiet city street, a little red truck with huge tree trunk strapped on.

At the intersection closest to our house, a sofa abandoned on the boulevard.

Our shelves of photo books, including  four with white bindings done by John.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The importance of sweet peas

Last summer's sweet peas on my window sill, caught by John.

This year's sweet peas starting their journey up the tower.
No matter how minimalist my gardening gets -- and I have become increasingly lazy over time -- one thing I insist on having every year is sweet peas. Their fragrance is an essential reminder that summer -- that passionately wished-for, dreamed-of, short, intense spell of heat and leisure of my childhood years -- has made its way around again. When I was heavily into gardening about 10 years ago, I raised sweet peas from seed, going to great lengths to find those with the best fragrance. Now I just buy seedlings, but I always search for "strong fragrance" on the label. On Tuesday, faced with four different varieties at Southlands Nursery, I asked owner Thomas Hobbs which smelled best. "They all smell good," said Hobbs, who is supposedly something of a sweet pea aficionado. "No difference." As I planted my purchases, I thought about how prairie farm women like my mother always included flowers in their gardens. Growing vegetables was a matter of course -- a necessity for keeping a family fed in those times -- but raising flowers must have seemed like adding beauty and pleasure to what was often quite a stark existence. I never asked mom about it -- it was just something she did -- but I suspect that her mother, an emigrant from England settling on a prairie farm, likely did the same. So I am probably the third generation to head out to the garden in the hottest part of the year to snip some fragrance from the sweet pea vines to scent my house with summer -- and home.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sell! Sell! Sell!

Monday's handful of real-estate brochures.

Recent book chronicles loss of old Vancouver homes and gardens. 

Witch hazel at recently sold property will likely be removed.
Every morning, we are the prime targets of a bevy of beautifully groomed real estate people. They smile out at us from the handful of glossy brochures that arrive through our mail slot, urging us to buy, sell or best of all, call them for a "free, no obligation home evaluation."

 It's a regular reminder of something we would rather forget -- that our little 1930s-era cottage and our once blue-collar neighbourhood are part of a real-estate maelstrom that has gained hurricane force over the last decade. The international flood of money that has sent real estate prices skyrocketing in London and Hong Kong has hit Dunbar too.

Sure, this flood means the house at the end of our block -- soon to be bulldozed -- just sold for more than $3 million. Extrapolating, we can assume we'd be multimillionaires too if we sold. But the price of buying an equivalent house means we'd only be ahead if we left the city, which we don't want to do.

 And so we are left with the smiling real estate agents and the results of what their trade has meant for our neighbourhood. It's now a place where a simple walk can produce a series of horrible shocks. See that white survey peg on the property across the street? It means the house you've loved forever with its oddball turret and leaded-glass windows is going up for sale. Chances are, it will soon be one of the approximately 1,000 houses demolished in Vancouver every year. That orange fencing on another property down the street means a bulldozer will soon turn its beautiful garden into a gigantic pit. The new for-sale sign at the end of the block means the witch hazel that scents the entire street from December on will eventually be chopped to a stump.

 Meanwhile, store vacancies are increasing on the Dunbar shopping strip and the provincial government is pushing for school closures because of low enrolments. Could this have anything to do with all the permanently dark homes that are starting to spot the neighbourhood?

 I try to focus on the trees and gardens that still exist, to treasure the beautiful houses that still stand -- but every street I walk is a potential minefield of white stakes and orange fences. People have petitioned, activists have demonstrated; a book called Vanishing Vancouver has graphically illustrated what's happening to the beauties of old Vancouver. So far, no government at any level has responded with any meaningful action.

As for me, no matter how much my house increases in value, nothing is worth the loss of the witch hazel in December.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Turning the tables

When you're always the person behind the camera, there tend to be few photos of you in front of it. That's certainly the case for my partner John Denniston, a professional photographer, whose image seldom pops up in family albums because he has always been the one snapping away as we go about our activities. (He does not do posed photos; it's candid only, so you never know what state he'll catch you in -- a source of constant fear for my mother.) At Saturday's picnic in West Vancouver, our niece Aya turned the tables on him. First she shot him as he took a break from photographing her daughter Emi on the swings. Camera still in hand, John was pushing Emi's swing to keep his little subject happy. Then as we headed back to Vancouver in two separate cars, Aya caught him unawares when her family's car pulled up beside ours. "On the way back we kept driving next to each other and we tried hard to catch your attention but Uncle John seemed to be having some very serious thoughts, so we decided to pull a JD on you!" Aya wrote when she sent us the resulting photos.

John having serious thoughts on the way home.
John keeping Emi's swing going.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Aya's big day

Emi flies high at West Vancouver playground.

One ride is never enough.

Surprise, delight on unusual rolling-bar slide.

At the end of the day, enough.
It was my niece-in-law Aya's birthday on Saturday, and her plan was to go shopping at West Vancouver's Park Royal, then have a picnic in a nearby park with her daughter Emi, her husband Etienne, and us, her aunt and uncle.

 I imagined Aya, an astute and enthusiastic shopper, arriving with bags of delicious crinkling tissue paper hiding a multitude of treasures. It didn't quite go that way. There was no shopping trip, no shopping bags, just an armful of Emi and some picnic supplies.

 Plans had changed, as they do for working parents with toddlers. Instead of hunting down treasures in the mall, Aya watched as 20-month-old Emi explored the delights of  John Lawson Park on a beautiful sunny day. There were swaths of green lawn to run over, other picnickers to study, and a rocky seashore with shells and logs to explore.

 Then there was the upscale, beautifully designed playground that only West Vancouver could afford, with a magical ship's hull to climb up and slide down, a crooked fantasy "cottage," a slide made of rolling wooden bars, and best of all -- swings! The two side-by-side swings were the hit of the afternoon; forget the fancy ship with its mast and fake seagulls overhead. After one devoted parent had tired of pushing her in one swing, Emi was happy to transfer to the adjacent one, certain that a new swing meant the fun started all over again.

 By the end of the afternoon, everyone was tired. Etienne's car passed ours on the way home, and we could see that he was alone in the front seat. In the back were Aya and Emi. Aya, the birthday girl, appeared to be fast asleep.

Friday, May 13, 2016

My coffee with Andre

Andre prepares to dissect Villette.

Bronte's bleak novel reflects her life experiences.
One of the joys of being a reader is sharing that pleasure with like-minded souls. Andre, a friend from the Simon Fraser University liberal studies course I am taking, is one of those people. We are both kind and gentle creatures, but when we get together over coffee, we first paw over the latest book we've been reading, then gnaw its bones and suck its marrow. On Friday, we tore into Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Jane Eyre's less-popular sister.

 Such a strange book, with its disingenuous heroine Lucy Snowe constantly professing to be something she clearly is not. So much suffering and injustice, so many coincidences. It's less well-rounded and satisfying than Jane Eyre, but Bronte is working over the same themes: a young woman with no family or fortune must make her way in the world. She desperately wants love, but also to maintain her selfhood -- her dignity and independence. Jane is eventually able to do both through Mr. Rochester; Lucy has a harder time.

 Much of the book is based on Charlotte's own experiences -- like her heroine, she travelled to a foreign where she taught girls, and like Lucy she suffered excruciatingly when a love affair failed. Such bleakness has a valid basis; the isolation and claustrophobia of the Bronte family home at Haworth, Yorkshire, is legendary. Charlotte was one of six children cooped up with their parson father (the mother died early) in a house overlooking the churchyard. One by one, the Bronte children, including authors Anne and Emily, made their way to the graveyard at very young ages (TB was rife at the time). When Charlotte died in 1855 at age 39, every one of her siblings had predeceased her.