Saturday, April 29, 2017

Plunging in

My latest university course kicked off on Saturday with a play featuring my least-favourite subject: math. But I still found something to like about it.

My binders of printed-out material for the course, called Arts, Criticism and the City.  It's a condensed six-week course that will take in many local arts performances and venues. For me, a switch -- I always prefer to curl up at home with a book.
But not usually this kind of book. A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas promises to be quite different from the E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf I have been reading lately.  

Among the topics we'll be discussing is William Morris's philosophy and designs.

Another session will deal with textiles from the Banjara tribe of India. This is  from the materials I copied for the course.

I’m so bad at math that I had to memorize my Grade 12 math book to pass the final exam; so bad that sometimes at work I would call John (very quietly) to sort out math issues in stories. So what was I doing on Saturday at a play called Long Division, where the language was algebra and algorithms, prime numbers and happy numbers (yup, they exist), and how parallel lines can be made to meet?

The answer is that it was the weirdly appropriate start to the latest course I’m taking in my graduate liberal studies program at Simon Fraser University. A bit uncomfortably, I’m going to spend the next six weeks immersed in topics I know nothing about: Arts criticism and the local arts scene. Modern theatre, modern music, modern dance.  First Nations art. Manga. Mosaic making. Textiles of the Banjara tribe of India. William Morris’s designs. Baudelaire’s essays and poems about the street life of Paris.  

All of it quite a long way from the warm bath of 19th and 20th-century novels I prefer to luxuriate in. There was a lot more to Saturday’s play than mathematical terms, of course. There was a tragedy and seven characters finding ways to connect through it. But to me, floundering in my unfamiliar sea, the best part was the actors. Who knew even such a low-key play would feature such skilled professionals? A small revelation, but the first of many, I suspect.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A grass story

The grass was greener -- or maybe that's just how I remember it  -- when John and I bought our Saltspring property in 1999. John photographed (l to r) me, mom and my sister Betty at the top of the hill in those early  years.

The lawn mower is nearly hidden by this spring's grass before John begins the first cut of the year on Saltspring this week.  Photo by John.

One day, shortly after we bought our Saltspring property in 1999, we were outside in the yard when a truck drew up to the fence. “Do you need someone to cut your lawn?” a man asked, and named a princely sum. Clearly, he had us nailed. We were rich come-from-aways and he, a local, would take care of our nuisance yardwork for an appropriate amount of money.

We were young enough then to think we could do any and everything, so we told him cheerfully that we would be cutting our own grass. In the 18 years since, our half-acre lot has grown much bigger and our hill much steeper, but John still cuts the grass with a little gas-engine lawn mower, and a weed-whacker when  things get really tough.

We haven’t done the Saltspring lawn any favours during our tenure; it’s mainly weeds and brambles now. Perhaps the fact that we don't fertilize, aerate, top-dress, reseed or water has something to do with that? But somehow, something green leaps up again every spring, and John has to make frequent island visits to keep it under control (the local grass cutter would likely be cheaper than the ferry fares). The season is short, though. As soon the summer heat and drought kick in, our undernourished, unwatered lawn stops growing and turns a toasty, dusty brown.

For now, our system still works. But as John pushes his little mower up that daunting hill in 90-degree heat, our next-door neighbour’s ride-on mower begins to look increasingly attractive. Eventually, we may have to get one of those. Or phone back that guy in the truck.

A partly shaved section shows how high the grass had grown as of this week. Photo by John.

The view down the hill, before the cut. Photo by John.

The reward for mowing the grass on Saltspring -- especially when it's hot -- is a dip in Vesuvius beach, just a block away from our house. John took this photo this week after bringing out the plastic chairs belonging to the Vesuvius Beach Indolent Society, of which he is a proud member. There is some contention as to whether I am indolent enough to belong. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The debate that wasn't

It's too bad about leaders’ debates. So stressful. So artificial. So lacking in nuance and real discussion. But until something better is invented – and I hope it will be soon – so necessary.

Wednesday’s televised debate between the B.C. Liberals’ Christy Clark, NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver displayed all the negatives of such events, made worse by the fact that it was a one-off: there would be no second chances. (An earlier debate was held on radio.) The tension was evident in the opening moments, when all the participants seemed to have been frozen and propped up behind barrel-shaped lecterns in a darkened room. Even Clark, who could easily give seminars in upbeat public presentation, struggled to keep smiling in her power-red outfit.

The leaders thawed over the next 90 minutes, but alas, it was only to reveal how thoroughly their brains had been taken over by party messaging machines. Press a button, and they recited their talking points. It didn’t matter what the question was, or whether someone else was talking – in that case, they’d just talk louder. Sometimes they ended up shouting incomprehensibly over each other. No room for nuances or civil exchanges of ideas; they were just three silos getting their message out.

A few hints of real human beings in there popped up now and again. When Horgan was asked if he has an anger-management problem, he came close to sounding like someone who really cares about the people his party says it does. He gets angry, he said, about things like underfunded schools and kids in care killing themselves because of poor government support.

Weaver, a scientist-turned-politician, started out stiffly, but by the end of the debate it was clear that he is the most forward-thinking of the leaders, with genuine plans for handling transportation, climate change and education. He has no flash or glitter, but he’s running for the right reasons; he doesn’t need a job in politics.

Clark held her own as always, skillfully evading the other leaders’ jabs; but there were hints of a crack in the facade. Her smile is her trademark, but sometimes it seemed like she was having to remind herself to paste it on.

It’s sad for the politicians and sad for us voters that we can’t devise a better way of stacking our would-be leaders up against each other. But grueling and unsatisfying as they are, debates seem to be necessary. We do want to see our politicians in neutral circumstances, not always surrounded by fawning supporters. We do want to hear how they answer difficult questions – even if it’s by ignoring them. We do want to find out who they really might be under the party messaging. But it would be so much better – and so much more interesting for us all – if they could actually talk to each other.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Pink convertible

The living room of her parents' place is a bit small for my grandniece Emi to drive her pink convertible very far, but now that spring is here, she may be able to take it outside.  In this photo taken Tuesday, she  seems to be saying: "Let's get this show on the road!"
My nephew Etienne and his wife Aya are a bit sheepish about the pink car. A modern couple, they planned to raise their daughter in a gender-neutral way: no pink or blue blankets; no gender-determined toys. But Emi entered the world thirsting for pink, and now that she's a toddler, she wears pink boots, a pink jacket and swishy pink skirts that may just have a sparkle or two on them.

As for the car, there was a sale. There was a child-sized pink convertible. Its headlights went on, it made traffic-like noises, it moved forward and back. Emi had been showing signs of interest in cars, so Etienne and Aya bought it for her, despite its colour.

Their place is too small for Emi to use it much indoors, but now that spring has arrived, Aya says they're thinking of taking it to a parking lot so Emi can drive it. "A place where there aren't too many people," says Aya. "It's so . . . pink, you know."

I haven't seen Emi use the car much since she got it, but on Tuesday she asked her mom to take it out so she could play with it.  This is what she did when she first got into her pretty pink toy.
Just how gorgeous do I look in my pink Peppa Pig dress and pink convertible anyway?

Posing over, she turns into a mechanic, removing the seat.

What's under that seat, anyway? Ohh, wires!

Aya takes the car out into the condo hallway so Emi has room to drive it, first making sure the seat is firmly back in place.

My chariot awaits! A very colour-coordinated Emi steps out of the apartment.

The adventure begins!

One leg rests nonchalantly off the side of the car as she takes off.. 

Aya watches as her daughter halts the car to inspect something.

Oops! A little bump into the wall.

Straightened out, lights blazing, Emi comes charging down the hallway.

A smile for Auntie Carrot as she approaches. . .

Keeps going....

And zips on past.

This is a nice straight road; Emi heads to the end of the corridor.

And turns to look back at her audience.

At the end of the hallway, the corridor swings left. . . 

Toward the elevator and windows opening onto a courtyard.

The end of the road. Emi gets out of the car by the window area and waits for her mom to turn it around.

All turned around and ready to head home!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Howards End

One of the themes in E.M. Forster's novel Howards End  is the transformation of a smaller, quieter, more nature-centred world to a big, busy, dense, urban one. I thought of Forster as I passed this single-family house near Cambie, where the two cranes in the background are transforming single-family areas into blocks of apartment buildings. 

One of the cranes towers over this building site, which was once single-family homes.

In West Vancouver's Ambleside area, a new condominium development is going up along the waterfront. 

Novelist E.M. Forster's country house Howards End is red brick and covered in vine leaves. Over it bends a wych elm, with "a girth that a dozen men could not have spanned" and pigs' teeth embedded in the trunk (an old country remedy for toothache). A tall hedge of sweet dog roses separates the house from a farm, source of fragrant hay, eggs and milk.

Such nature, such peace, such a short time before the house will be taken over by the behemoth of London, belching greedily toward it. Some of Forster's characters love Howards End -- its ancient history, its simple beauty, the way its very bones are embedded in nature. But others say it's too small, too far from the city, too old-fashioned, and besides, all that greenery triggers their hay fever. They'd tear it down, rent it, maybe even sell it.

Forster's novel is set in and around London just before the First World War, a long way and time from the Vancouver of 2017. But the parallels between the world he portrays and the city I walk today are remarkable.

London too was pricey and densifying; houses were being torn down for apartments, which were then demolished for bigger ones. London too had its upper strata of multiple house-owners and its lower strata barely clinging to the meanest rooms. And at least in Forster's vision, there was a sharp division between those who saw treasured houses as homes -- places with spirits and history -- and those who saw them as pure commodities.

Here are some excerpts from Howards End illustrating why I felt so much at home as I read it. (The book pits the arty, intellectual Schlegel sisters Margaret and Helen, whose focus is human relationships, against the Wilcoxes, a practical, business-oriented family who have made a fortune exploiting Africa. Howards End belongs to the first Mrs. Wilcox, who was born there, and unlike the Wilcoxes she marries into, loves it passionately. When she dies early in the book, she tries to leave it to Margaret, a kindred spirit.)

 “It is monstrous. . . it isn’t right,” says Mrs. Wilcox when she learns Margaret must leave her longtime London home, Wickham Place, because the lease has run out. (The house is to be torn down and replaced by apartments.) “I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father’s house -- it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying.” At first Margaret thinks this is a bit over the top, but she eventually understands that Mrs. Wilcox, "though a loving wife and mother, had only one passion in life – her house….”

To the Wilcoxes, “Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her [Mrs. Wilcox] it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir. . . .Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? A wych-elm tree, a vine, a wisp of hay with dew on it – can passion for such things be transmitted where there is no bond of blood?” 

Margaret and Helen’s London house was “fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from the main thoroughfare. . . . Though the promontory consisted of flats – expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms – it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace. These, too, would be swept away in time and another promontory would rise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.”

Over two years, the city “rose and fell in a continual flux, while her shallows washed more widely against the hills of Surrey and over the fields of Hertfordshire. This famous building had arisen, that was doomed. Today Whitehall had been transformed; it would be the turn of Regent Street tomorrow. And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity."

“Certainly London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything; Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men."

"The Londoner seldom understands his city until it sweeps him, too, away from his moorings, and Margaret’s eyes were not opened until the lease of Wickham Place expired… Then the house was suddenly ringed with pathos. It had seen so much happiness. Why had it to be swept away? In the streets of the city she noted for the first time the architecture of hurry, and heard the language of hurry on the mouths of its inhabitants – clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust. Month by month things were stepping livelier, but to what goal? The population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born? The particular millionaire who owned the freehold of Wickham Place, and desired to erect Babylonian flats upon it – what right had he to stir so large a portion of the quivering jelly? He was not a fool – she had heard him expose Socialism—but true insight began just where his intelligence ended, and one gathered that this was the case with most millionaires.”

When Margaret expresses sadness that some pretty, newly built London houses are to be torn down,  Mr. Wilcox says it's “good for trade.” She says: “I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away – streaming, streaming for ever."
I suspect Forster's character Margaret wouldn't like this spanking new house along Arbutus very much. Even the strip of grass along the boulevard is artificial.

Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret would be far more at home in a simple, old-fashioned house like this.

Or even better, this house. With its big old tree, ferns and flowers out front and its old-fashioned shutters, it's one of  a decreasing number of small houses still standing in Dunbar. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Birds of spring

After a winter of feeding birds, I find that I'm paying more attention to all things bird these days. This bird house traffic circle has been in my area for years, but it's especially beautiful when the cherry trees in the background are all in blossom..

A closer look at the pole of bird houses.

This isn't much of a bird house, but some bird built a nest in a plant pot under this plastic saucer on shelves outside our garage. 

A look inside the pot; unfortunately, the birds abandoned the eggs in the nest after it was disturbed.

Now that the snow is gone and worms are plentiful, I've cut back my bird-feeding stations to one metal mesh container of suet. There aren't as many birds fluttering around the back yard as when I was offering them -- and the squirrels -- open pans of birdseed, but they're still very much part of the picture.

During a recent cleanup of plastic plant pots stashed outside the garage, John was startled when a bird flew out of a pot. In it, he found a nest, nicely feathered, with pale eggs the size of a thumbnail. He tried to leave it untouched, but unfortunately, the birds haven't returned, so those are eggs that will never hatch into a songbird for our back yard.

Then my friend Linda found a new book about birds that she couldn't stop talking about. Called Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear, it's about a writer who finds creativity and meaning by learning how to see -- really see -- birds in the city. I haven't read the book yet, but love the idea that Maclear is not travelling to exotic places to fill out a lifetime bird list. Instead, she's making use of the everyday city around her to learn new things about nature -- and herself.

I plan to read Maclear's book, but I think I may have already started travelling along her path.

A bird condo? I came across this multi-holed construction near Main Street.

A pretty bird house on a pole near Arbutus. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Vancouver's ex-trees

Given that Vancouver is trying to reverse the decline in the city's tree canopy, John and I were surprised recently to come across the remains of two substantial trees, newly cut down on the boulevard at 34th and Carnarvon.  The explanation? Construction of the nearby house damaged them so severely that they had to be chopped down.  Photo by John.

Vancouver, famous for its beautiful trees, has lost a Stanley Park's worth of them in the last two decades. Its tree canopy -- the percentage of the city covered by tree leaves as seen from above -- had declined as of 2015 to 18 per cent from 22 per cent in 1995.

The reasons aren't hard to guess when 1,000 homes are torn down in Vancouver every year, along with all the greenery that once surrounded them. Replacement trees are often scrawny and ill-tended; I've even seen people removing them when they sell and move on to a new place.

The city is trying to encourage private property owners to add to the canopy by offering cheap trees in occasional sales, and says it is planting large numbers on public lands. So it has been surprising and alarming lately to come across several substantial trees -- some showing no signs of disease -- cut down on city boulevards.

When I called the city about two major street trees reduced to stumps at 34th and Carnarvon, I was told they were chopped down because construction of the new house beside them had destroyed their roots. "The trees were unstable because the roots had been severely damaged by construction," said an employee with the park board's urban forestry branch. She said such occurrences are infrequent, and inspectors try to keep an eye on what is happening around construction sites. "I'm not sure where it failed in this case." But even when proper processes are followed, she noted, construction can damage outlying tree roots.

As for the penalty for the tree-killers, she wouldn't be specific. But she did say substantial street trees can be worth "in the tens of thousands."

Hmmm. If you're building a house you plan to sell for say, $4 million, and the nearby trees affect the view, how much of a deterrent would a $40,000 or even $60,000 penalty be?

I was shocked recently to come across only a stump where I used to see a substantial tree on my way to work every day. This is at the corner of 20th and Puget, and I know the little white house behind the tree has recently been sold. 

This stump, butting up against a concrete wall, is on 23rd.

One of two trees cut on the boulevard of 23rd and Valley. 

One of the 23rd and Valley trees, with the second stump in the distance. 

A look at the second tree cut at 23rd and Valley.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The blouse that had to go

It's hard to get rid of clothes with memories attached to them, but today I was being brave as I faced down the contents of my closets. John photographed me pondering the task ahead, fortifying myself with coffee.

I've had this black blouse for years. Today, hmmm, something about it didn't seem quite right.

A favourite red jacket I used to wear at work, and a lace-necked blouse I wore to dad's funeral -- such memories, what to do?

 A blue jacket I wore to my sister's Diane's wedding, shown with the black blouse.
The blue suit at Diane's 1983 wedding. Left to right, me; my brother Larry (in background); Diane; my sister Betty. Photo by John.

To me, clothes have always been coloured by whatever happens when I'm wearing them -- joy or sadness seeps into their fibres and lingers. And so, through years of culling, I have held onto the powder-blue suit I wore to my sister Diane's wedding 30 years ago, when we were all still young and beautiful. Similarly, I kept the white blouse, lace streaming from the neck and sleeves, that I wore as I sobbed through dad's entire funeral service 20 years ago. I also held onto one small remnant of my work life -- a beautifully tailored red wool jacket that I wore when I briefly touched the career ladder before resuming my real vocation in the trenches.

All of these things I pondered today as I sized up my overcrowded closet to decide whether this time, finally, I could let go of those little slices of my life. I found the time had indeed come; my heart would not bleed if I folded them up for the salvage bin.

But it was a black blouse with a net insert and stand-up collar that stopped me in my tracks. I've had it since I was young, and considered it one of those lifelong wardrobe bits -- something to throw on for the increasingly rare occasions when a touch of fancy is required. But when I tried it on today, I realized that, unlike the other pieces I was considering letting go of, this one gave me no choice.

When I was 25, 30, or even 40, that blouse, with its silly collar and black net frills, was an ironic nod to old ladies in black lace. But now that I'm 66, the irony is gone. The blouse and I have reached parity: I am the old lady it is nodding to. It had to go.

Who knew I had so many blouses? 
Somewhere in there are clothes that can be passed along to other people. Photo by John.