Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy 2017!

It seemed appropriate to end 2016 -- year of Trump, Brexit and other things we never thought would happen -- with yet another heavy snowstorm in Vancouver. Along with warnings  of more to come and temperatures as low as -7 (!) for next week. Our last few winters have been virtually snow-free, and last year's was so mild that we barely needed winter coats. Just when you think things are going in one direction, surprise! Many people found that out in 2016, but as we head into 2017, here's a wish that this year's surprises are good ones. 

There's an apocalyptic feel to the photo John took of me in Saturday's snowstorm. I thought it was appropriate, given the year just ending. 

Because the snow we get in Vancouver is so heavy, it can break and misshape trees, especially the broad-leaved ones that stay green all winter. After every snowstorm -- and there have been many this year -- I go out with a broom and try to brush off the snow. John photographed me and my broom in the front garden Saturday night.   It's one way to spend New Year's Eve!

While John shovels the walk and I get snow down my neck brushing snow off trees, Mr. Darcy makes his trips outside brief, and spends most of his time trying out different sleeping positions on various pieces of furniture.
I may be thinking in terms of apocalypse at the end of 2016, but Mr. Darcy knows the secret to happiness is enjoying the moment. Here he is enjoying a really good nap.

My reading list

These are the books at the head of the queue now that I don't have to focus on course materials. 

I'm taking a semester off from my liberal studies program this January, so it's been interesting to be able to choose my own reading material for awhile. But somehow, the course is accompanying me into freedom -- three of the four books I've started in the last few weeks are suspiciously relevant to what I've just been studying! Here's what's on my nightstand now, and why they're interesting:

Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf A Biography. From the very start, Bell writes, Virginia was "incalculable, eccentric and prone to accidents." She gained the nickname "The Goat" for incidents like one in Kensington Gardens when she "lost, or at least lost control of, her knickers. She retired into a bush and there, in order to divert public attention, she sang 'The Last Rose of Summer' at the top of her voice."

Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This 1961 book by the activist and urban-planning critic explores what makes cities work and what city planners do to prevent them from working. Jacobs celebrates the ballet of the sidewalk, the eyes on the street -- the idea that neighbourhoods that work are full of people coming and going, of a diversity of businesses that serve and draw them, and that people and businesses work together to form an organic community. Tearing up these neighbourhoods and replacing them with massive housing projects guarantees they will be impersonal, unsafe and unlivable, Jacobs believes. I'm interested in Jacobs' ideas about communities; they may be topics I will deal with later in my program.

Arthur Herman's The Cave and the Light is about the competing views of Plato and Aristotle, and the resulting impact on western civilization. Plato sees the world through the eyes of  the religious mystic and the artist; Aristotle observes reality "through the sober eyes of science" and sees logic and analysis as tools of human freedom. This may sound strangely like school, but I skipped too lightly over these two major figures in my first year of the program, and feel some remedial work is required.

Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. This is my "escape" book -- an Italian author's novel about the lifelong friendship of two women in Naples. How can you not be intrigued by the book's beginning? One of the women disappears and the other understands completely: she knew her friend "wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

West Van's good cause

John and I had forgotten the annual Christmas tree display at Dundarave Beach until we came across it during a walk on Thursday.  Called the Festival of  Lights, it has raised $250,000 since 2008 for the Lookout Society's North Shore Shelter. 
Three cheerful trees stand out against a grey sky and a grey ocean.

A tree bundled in red with Santa's iconic belt and buckle is the work of real-estate agents.

A construction firm adds toy trucks to its tree.

The tree display opened Nov. 26 and closes Dec. 31, so we almost missed it this year.

The decorated trees, which  follow the pathways around Dundarave Beach, seem to be standing up well in spite of the past month's snow and rain. 

At the end of a cold, wet walk along West Vancouver's seawall on Thursday, John and I ran into an unexpected splash of colour and cheer -- a little forest of decorated Christmas trees lining both sides of the pathways at Dundarave Beach. It's part of the annual Dundarave Festival of Lights, which sees businesses, community groups and other organizations sponsor and decorate trees on the beach to raise money for a homeless shelter.

Some of the trees sport only traditional ornaments -- shiny baubles and garlands -- but others add hints of the institutions behind them. There are hearts for a home-care company, toy dump trucks for a construction company, sailboats for a sailing club, tiny photographs of landscaping equipment for a landscaping firm, a firefighter-helmet tree-topper for a firefighter's group, but disappointingly, no vaccum bags on the West Van Vacuum Centre tree. A tree swathed in red fabric, girded at mid-point by a black belt with a big silver tinfoil buckle, two red oven mitts for hands and a soaked Santa hat on top was one of the more unusual displays. Sponsored by realtors, perhaps a Santa-style hint of the prosperous state of that industry this year?

John and I have seen the festival in previous years, but this one looks bigger than ever. Not only was it a bright surprise at the end of a grey walk, it's heartening to think of all these organizations -- from banks and real-estate companies to churches, sports groups, firefighters and Girl Guides -- all coming together for a good cause.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Winter routines

You can try to negotiate the icy streets of Dunbar, or you can go down to sea level and walk Jericho Beach like John and I did on Tuesday. The bonus at Jericho is the view, captured by John.

As the night falls, the lights on the mountains start showing. Photo by John. 

A  lone paddle-boarder makes his way in to shore at sunset. I hope his wetsuit is very thick and warm. Photo by John.

Dog-walkers are out in force on the beach. Maybe their dogs don't like icy sidewalks either. 
The setting sun turns a spotlight on downtown Vancouver.

An overflowing storm sewer discharging into the ocean digs out a mini-canyon in the sand. 

John and I pride ourselves on being able to fling open our front door and walk (me) or bicycle (him) in any direction to our heart's content. The idea of having to drive somewhere in order to exercise has always been anathema to us.

But this month's weather is forcing us to reconsider. Ever since Dec. 5, our area -- which attracts and harbours snow earlier and longer than almost anywhere else in the city -- has been treacherous for walking or cycling. We've finally admitted defeat; if we're going to get any exercise, we'll have to leave the neighbourhood.

Yesterday we made the 10-minute drive down the hill to Jericho Beach. We saw: A mini-canyon carved out of the sand by an overflowing storm sewer. The setting sun beaming a spotlight of gold successively on the mountains, the freighters, and then the whole city skyline. A lone paddle-boarder making his way to shore from the ocean. Dozens of dog-walkers, with their joyous charges bouncing and playing in the sand. Three substantial rabbits nibbling away at the underbrush. The ocean-front side of the glitzy Jericho Tennis Club, all modern glass and angles. We walked until after dark, when the lights of the ski runs on the North Shore mountains threw a glittering halo into the night sky; the freighters at anchor came alive with lights, and the city's downtown became a mass of sparkling gold.

With an alternative like that to turn to, it's pretty hard to complain about the snow forcing us to change our routine.

Fresh snow in Dunbar a few days ago means our area won't be seeing clear sidewalks for awhile yet. Here, John confers with a passerby about what trails might be walkable in Pacific Spirit Park, which is in the Dunbar area.

The snow keeps melting, freezing and re-melting, creating sidewalks of ice.

Lots of trees keep the snow off some trails in Pacific Spirit Park, where John and I walked a few days ago. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

White skates

My old figure skates have been with me most of my life. Photo by John. 

Ah, white skates! To a kid raised on hand-me-down boys' skates -- boring, brown, flatfooted -- white figure skates were a piece of classical art. The graceful curved boot in unblemished shining white, the saucy black heel, the sweet little toe picks (not that I knew what to do with them), the shining silver blades. I can't remember how old I was when I finally achieved these coveted skates, but I loved them so much that the day I got them, I left them out on my bed so I could pay them periodic visits of private adoration.

Those skates saw me through the fierce hustle of the outdoor ice rink near my Alberta school, where older boys with hockey sticks would jostle with elementary-level kids every winter noon hour of the school year. I took the skates to university, where I received the first figure-skating instruction of my life thanks to a physical education class (I sucked), and on to Vancouver when I moved there in 1973.

Vancouver's winters aren't cold enough to allow for the kind of outdoor ice rinks I grew up with in Alberta. But in 1974,  a cold snap froze the city's lakes and ponds deep enough that the park board allowed skating. So John and I laced up our skates and had the amazing experience of gliding over Stanley Park's Lost Lagoon, where ducks, swans and geese usually hold sway.

I've been thinking about skating, because ever since Dec. 5, Vancouver has been in the grip of winter, with icy streets making it difficult to get much exercise walking. Wouldn't it be fun to go skating instead? With that in mind, I found my old white skates tonight and tried to put them on. Whatever size my feet were when I was 12 or 13 or 24, they aren't that now. If our deep freeze continues long enough to allow me to carry out my plan, it will have to be with different equipment. Are another pair of brown hand-me-downs in my future?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mystery gifts

Virginia Woolf, dressed in mid-20th century style, returns to her Sussex home and a very happy dog. My sister Betty sent me this print for Christmas. 

A telling detail from the print.

My nephew Etienne and his wife Aya brought us this box of mysterious goodies and told us to keep it refrigerated. 
My sister Betty was so concerned about the gift she'd sent me for Christmas that she was semi-panicking on Christmas Eve. "I'm not sure you'll understand it," she said over the phone from her home in Quebec. "Maybe you should open it now so I can explain." I'd had the brown-paper parcel, light as a feather, for a month, so I was having none of that early-unwrapping stuff. "A mystery might be fun," I said. "We can all stand around and chip in on what we think it might be."

The gift, properly opened on Christmas morning, wasn't nearly the head-scratcher she'd feared. What do you give a sister whose every conversation for months has touched on -- well, sometimes obsessed upon -- To the Lighthouse and other works by Virginia Woolf? A print depicting Monk's House in Rodmell, Sussex, of course -- given that Woolf wrote most of her novels there. The print is from the Writers' Houses series by Amanda White, and fittingly, considering that we are in deep snow (once again) in Vancouver, it's Monk's House in the snow.

I admit that at first I wasn't sure what I was looking at: a piece of naive art depicting a house, a woman and a dog in winter. But the title "Monk's House Welcome Home" rang bells, and the clincher was the tiny sign by the open gate: "Mr. & Mrs. Woolf."

The print will live in my downstairs office, along with a stack of Woolf's books, her biography, and the two essays I have just finished on her work. When I look at it, I will always be pleased that my sister -- who is not particularly enamoured of Woolf herself -- took enough note of my own immersion to think of such a gift. A surprise, and an acknowledgement of what the recipient is really interested in: the best kind of gift, and no mystery at all.

A second unusual gift came from my nephew Etienne and his wife Aya, when they came over for Christmas dinner. Aya, who is of Japanese descent, handed me a small box, and said: "This needs to be refrigerated." In the throes of last-minute dinner preparations, we left it at that. But later we learned the gift is Japanese-style chocolates, which include cream, and so must be kept cold and eaten within two weeks. They're made locally by Coconama Chocolate Co. in North Vancouver, and have rave reviews on the Internet.

The chocolates look like pretty little blocks for a board game, and have a slightly different texture than the chocolate we're used to. The taste? With flavours ranging from red bean to Earl Grey to lemon basil and mango, let's just say there won't be any problem meeting the two-week deadline!

A little more on Monk's House, from Quentin Bell's biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf. The  Woolfs bought the house in 1919. It was near the River Ouse, where Virginia drowned herself in 1941. 

 "It was a modest brick and flint dwelling, weather-boarded on the street side, two storeys high with a high-pitched slate roof; inside, many low small rooms opened one from another; the ground floors were paved with brick, the stairs were narrow with worn treads; there was of course neither bath nor hot water nor W.C. Rising behind the house was a profuse and untidy garden, with flint walls and many outhouses, and beyond the garden was an orchard and beyond the orchard the walled churchyard. The more Leonard and Virginia looked at the place, the more they liked it. They tried their best to find faults, but only succeeded in liking it better." 

Christmas memories

My two-year-old grandniece Emi got me thinking about my own childhood memories of Christmas. Here she is in her "princess tent" sent to her by her grandparents Betty and Bert. Photo by John.

Emi and our "Christmas tree" made from a garden obelisk. She seemed to enjoy it. 

One Christmas on the farm, I remember a morning so bright and sparkling, with the decorations inside and the sunshine on the snow outside, that the whole world seemed alight. We were in that delicious interregnum between the early-morning plunge into stockings (filled by Santa Claus) and being allowed to dive into the mysterious lumps of parcels under the tree (from our parents, each other and distant relatives), a pause required because my father had to milk the cows -- daily chores couldn't be put off for Christmas. I remember the sun reflecting off a many-sided silver ball on the Christmas tree, the way the cold made the outdoors crisp and sparkly, the security of knowing that dad would soon be back in the house, and the day's real high point would unfold.

As the years go by, it's easy to lose the excitement of Christmas, and forget why it once seemed like an epochal event. My two-year-old grandniece Emi is still too young to build up a lot of feelings around the day, but having her visit this year made me remember what it used to mean to me. For her, and for all other kids, I wish a Christmas memory as vivid and wonderful as the one I can still conjure up on demand 60-some years later.

The house ready for guests on Christmas Day. Notice Emi's little chair by the tree. 

Okay, having a two-year-old can be exhausting, especially if she gets hyper on chocolate. Here, Emi's mom Aya seems to seek patience, while I lie back looking similarly thoughtful on the couch. All photos by John.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Our Christmas Eve

With a two-year-old coming for Christmas Day, how can you not have a tree? My garden obelisk, which normally is the support for my sweet peas, fills in nicely, I think. Photo by John.

Some evergreen boughs with mini lightbulbs on the fireplace mantle is most of the decorating we usually do for Christmas. 

I was pleased to unearth a treasure trove of Christmas tree decorations I bought sometime in the distant past, probably at a craft sale. They added nicely to my stand-in Christmas tree. 

Another of those craft-sale decorations, this one a seagull on a fence. 
When I brought out the tissue wrapping paper, Mr. Darcy took possession immediately. I had to lure him out to the kitchen for food so I could get going with my wrapping.  
Earlier on Christmas Eve day, we walked down the hill to the waterfront. It was a beautiful day, but the ice and snow still make walking hard up on Mount Dunbar.  

Another view of the ocean, mountains and city on Christmas Eve. 

This scene is from a park along Point Grey Road. 

And, on the way home, John gets his photograph. A 1957 Chevrolet that looks like it has been snuggled into this side yard for so long that the trees have grown up around it. I have passed this same alley many times and not noticed the car myself.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Making trifle

My, what a lot of stuff goes into a trifle! My recipe involves pouring a mixture of raspberry juice and sherry over successive layers of sponge cake, fruit and custard. John photographed me halfway through the process.

The top of the finished trifle is custard and thawed raspberries. Whipped cream will be added just before serving. 

In the Victorian era, trifle was a way of using up leftovers. Stale sponge cake? Custard the kids didn't eat? Soak the cake in wine, pour custard over the top, throw on some whipped cream, and -- ta dah! -- a dessert that has survived into modern times. A New York Times story on trifle quotes novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard -- also a foodie -- as saying men in particular love trifle "because it's a perfect mixture of alcohol and the nursery."

Even though mom's parents were English, I never remember her making this quintessentially English dessert on the farm. It's possible that dad, who liked things recognizable, did not appreciate the mix-up of ingredients that trifle entailed.

I began making it in 1980, when two events converged. One was that I inherited John's mother's cut-glass punchbowl -- perfect for showing off the beautiful colours trifle brings together. The other was that I found a recipe for "Sherry Trifle" in the December 1980 Western Living magazine. I cut it out, taped it into the back of my Purity Cookbook, and there it lives to this day, the tape around it so ancient that it has passed yellow and is heading for brown.

My trifle was a big hit, and I made it for many Christmases. But as mom declined and the size of our family get-togethers decreased, I switched to simpler desserts. When I returned to the recipe this week, I remembered how much effort it took. Everything is made from scratch -- the custard, the sponge cake, the raspberry-sherry mixture, the fruit salad centre and the whipped cream topping. It's a very fine dessert, but all those ingredients and all that work got me thinking: What if the Victorian version -- with the stale cake and leftover custard, slapped together in a few minutes -- was just as good?

The first step: Eggs, lots of eggs, frozen raspberries, and a bottle of sherry. I used a very small amount of the latter, as a two-year-old may be trying out this trifle. 

Sponge cakes made; raspberries thawing.

Custard made, raspberries still thawing. 

Traditional trifles didn't include anywhere near the fresh fruit I put in mine; here is some of  what went into that bowl.

All chopped up: pineapple, grapes, mango and a grapefruit-orange mix.

The base of the trifle is a sponge cake smeared with raspberry jam.

The sponge is followed by the juice-sherry mixture, followed by the custard. 

The cake and custard layers are interspersed with fruit.

The final fruit layer before the last cake layer goes on. 

At the top, a layer of cake, juice, custard and thawed raspberries. The good thing about this dessert is that it actually gets better as it ages. I expect John and I will be eating it for quite awhile after Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Diderot effect

Inspired by yesterday's success with our kitchen cart, we went out today to buy some new dish towels that wouldn't look disgraceful hanging beside it. Unfortunately, we didn't read the package labels very well, and ended up with a whack of dish cloths. 

It's fresh and new, but very small. I don't think we can use it as a dish towel!

It wasn't our day for reading labels. Our new door mat is too long, but we're going to keep it for the winter anyway.  It gives us room for drying out snowy boots.

The Diderot effect is what happens when you buy a new dress, say, and find it makes your shoes look so shabby that you have to buy new ones. Or, kicked up a notch, a fancy new bathroom sink ends up triggering a whole bathroom -- or maybe a whole house -- renovation. The phenomenon is named after an essay by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who records what happens after someone gives him a beautiful new scarlet dressing gown. Suddenly his chair, his desk, the very prints on his wall aren't good enough for his new elegance. Debt ensues.

"I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one," he writes in "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown." "Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain."

I thought of Diderot's dressing gown when I realized the new kitchen cart we installed yesterday made the dish towels hanging beside it look very old and sad. And in shuffling items from the kitchen cupboards to the new cabinet, I noticed the newspapers lining the shelves were yellowed and tattered (some were dated 2003, yikes!) Maybe we should line the shelves properly? Maybe we should get some new dish towels?

Buoyed by yesterday's unexpected success (we are terrible shoppers), we went all out at Home Hardware, snapping up two packages of new dishtowels, rolls of shelf liner, a new mat for the kitchen door to replace one shredding at the corners, and the piece de resistance, a pair of new red oven mitts to replace the ones with burn marks. Nothing too good for the room that houses the new kitchen cart!

Alas, one of the packages of dish towels was not towels at all, but dish cloths -- and so many! The door mat was the wrong size. The shelf liner didn't stick very well. And burrowing into a kitchen drawer, we found an unused pair of oven mitts that were better than the new ones.

Nothing serious, and we're certainly not going to do a kitchen renovation. But given that it's the Christmas gift-giving season, it might be good for all of us to keep in mind the dangers of the Diderot effect.