Archive for December, 2006

A New Year memory

December 31, 2006

50 years ago we floated between two worlds and two lives – one, familiar and comfortable despite its challenges; the other, unknown, full of possibility and conjecture.

 We  crested big waves and wallowed in their troughs, tossed around by a mid-Atlantic gale, in a small Italian registered passenger liner.  It was not luxurious, be any standards, but rather functional, meant merely to transport many bodies across the Ocean. Our passage represented an epic adventure for a family originating in a land-locked country.

On New Year’s eve, my sister and I milled around with all the children on board.  We did chase games around the decks, reeling, sprayed by spindrift, out of the sight of anxious parents.  We had been warned not to venture onto the decks for fear of going overboard, but such cautions we ignored and took our chances in the elements.  The occasional adult would emerge, staggering to the stanchions to throw up, but most of us children seemed to be immune to sea-sickness.  After a while of getting soaked through woolen coats and watch caps, a bunch of us repaired into one of the lounges to play canasta, chess and ping-pong. Chess was challenging to play – the men kept getting slid around by the rise, fall and side to side tossing of the ship.  If one was particularly canny (and dishonest) this uncontrollable shifting of the men could be used to advantage.  At the ping-pong table was the most fun; trying to retain footing on a buffeted ship was a challenge.  It was almost as if the players were drunk. The ball was hard to control.

Close to mid-night, parents came to collect their children and go with them to the main lounge for welcoming the New Year.  A huge and motley group gathered to sing the national anthem, “Isten elti a magyart”. Many adults wept tears of loss for the old homeland. The tears were also shed for new feelings of homelessness, of not belonging, of losing contact with intimates and familiar customs.

The stewards passed around little glasses of Grappa ( a similar drink to the traditional Hungarian Palinka) to all the adults, and glasses of orange drink for the children.  We toasted each other, our uncertain future at destination’s end and clung together in emotional embraces.  There were many moist eyes amidst uncertain smiles.

Tonight, friends and family are coming to a small dinner in our house.  We will disperse well before mid-night because most of us can no longer do late nights, either for reasons of age, or because there are young children to put to bed at a reasonable hour.  Life is mostly stable for many of us, although uncertainties are surely looming in the future.  So we have to give thanks for all the blessings that have accrued, and we have to face the future with hope that whatever life throws at us we can meet with renewed vigour and sense of adventure.

A gift of Memories….

December 26, 2006

Our Son recieved, as a gift from his Aunt, a shoebox full of family photographs.  He dug in, grabbed a handful and browsed, one by one, through the photos. He passed them among the assembled group, made and shared comments.  We all marvelled at images of the numerous family dogs and cats, the strange clothes and hairstyles worn by various family members, the out-of-focus shots of different homes in which we had lived.

At one picture, he stopped and commented, “Who was this white-footed black cat?” We all debated about whether it was Jimmy, Maude or Baby.  Of course, the concensus was that it was Maude – she always sat grooming herself for hours on the living-room windowsill.

Mother and Dad were seen in a series of shots, taken at different times over a span of forty years. In some, Mom was shown as a confident, vital beauty. In later pictures, she looked more care-worn, but hints of the young woman she once was were evident, layered with added complexity.  Dad appeared vigorous in the early photos. His change into the dignified man he is today developed gradually. The most recent picture, of him dandling his new grandchild, reveals an elder, secure in his position as the “wise one” to whom we all go to for advice.

Our Son found a picture from his high school graduation.  In it he wears his first suit, an elegant three-piece charcoal grey one. This find unleashed the story of shopping for this suit with his Dad, where they argued the necessity of having to buy a three-piece versus a two-piece suit. A long discussion with the assembled company resulted in revisiting the trials of teens shopping for clothes with their parents. Various persons told hilarious anecdotes of how they handled the intrusive and controlling shopping parent, who was merely tolerated by the teen for the necessary wallet but not  for weighing in with an opinion on clothing style suitability. The fact that people were still alive to tell the tales is testament to the survival of the various individuals despite such intergenerational skirmishes.

Much laughter ensued over the bee-hive hairdos sported by Aunts, the Brylcreemed architectural wonders Dad created on top of his head during the 50s, and Son’s wonderful, but hideous, fuzzy Mullet adorning him in his High-School graduation photos. As we passed the pictures around we discussed the inexorable force of fashion to cause people to take leave of their better judgement.

We revisited various homesteads, shown at different times of year and weather.  We saw the big snow in 82, outside our Northern log home.  Three pairs of cross-country skis, photographed stuck in the snow-drift by the front door, caused us to reminisce about the cold clear nights, Northern Lights billowing in the dark sky, when, accompanied by Bear the dog, we would set out to ski for hours with our battery powered headlamps lighting the way.

This was the most valued gift for all of us, this box of old photographs! Shared laughter, questions, comments and reminiscences united us all in a joyful Christmas evening. New photographs were shot to be added to this compendium of memories.  These will come out to be viewed and shared at some future family gathering, to delight us all.


December 23, 2006

I have the luxury of time to read, swaddled in a warm duvet, by lamplight, sipping of a cup of Rooibos imported from a far away place and grown and picked by strangers who more than likely do not have access to the same luxuries, let alone the essentials for sustaining life.

So I ponder, after just having read “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. This book has done what good writing does – transport a reader into the details of life, thoughts, habits, customs, beliefs and trials of others from a distant place and culture, which superficially have differences from the reader’s experiences and yet reveal a universality of concerns and ways of living.  This book made me care about the persons written about, helped me examine my prejudices and faulty thinking and made me realize that my life has been, and is, one of immense privilege and luxury.

I have just had my shower, of hot water, with horse shampoo to wash my hair, and Mrs. Stewart’s bluing to bring out the white of my greying mop. The twelve year old ratty towel has absorbed the excess water from my body. I am luxuriating in the feeling of cleanliness and mulling over the scene in “A Fine Balance” where the young student boarder of Dina Aunty has his first shower in the bathroom where a hoarde of worms crawl from the drain as he is trying to bathe in cold water.  No host of worms craw from my bathtub drain – the water flows away with a satisfying slurp – no feelings of disgust mar my regular ablutions!  This is immense luxury!

I have clear memories of bathing in a cold, white-tiled bathroom in 1950s Hungary. Friday night was bath night.  Mother heated buckets of water on the coal stove, poured it into the bathtub and thus would begin the ritual family cleanse, first with me, the youngest one, then sister, then Mother, and at the end, in greyish water, Father. Handsoap served as shampoo, and one set of two towels for us children, and one set for Mother and Father.  As we convened, all clean, in the parlour in our pajamas and socks, we snacked on bread with home-rendered lard as a treat. This memory brings back incredible feelings of comfort and luxury!

In the book, Dina Aunty pieces together a quilt over a period of time, from leftover fabrics from her sewing commissions.  The chapters in the book are also fragments of the quilt of a complex story, of the fragments of stories of what happens to people on their journey through life.  It is an apt metaphor.

The conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys, employed the block of lard as his metaphor for life-giving sustenance, and lard is a magical, luxurious substance to me. Rendered properly, it is beautifully translucent, has a silken feel, smells pure, functions as lamp oil or as an ingredient in candles – hence supplies light, and is a necessary ingredient for preparing food.  It is an ultimate essential for sustaining comfort in life – pure luxury!

I am curious to know what others’ ingredients for luxury are…..

Anaesthetic aesthetic…

December 19, 2006

Saw an image of a bathroom tap yesterday.  This was supposed to be the latest, greatest, most desirable bathroom tap to be coveted by the modern housewife.  For this new, top-of-the-line-design tap one is to jettison, get rid of, make history of the old standard plumbing fixture.

Is there an old tap heaven, where defunct taps go to reside?

Were I to acquire this new tap, in all its designer glory, the brown water that currently issues from the trusty, old standby would look even more silty and unappetizing.  The new tap seems to imply that water gushes pure, unsullied and crystalline from a mysteriously unknown source.

Oh, hell, one knows that water comes in plastic bottles with different logos from the grocery store, the local gas station.  One suspects that water that gushes from the bathroom and kitchen taps, no matter how aesthetically pleasing their design, is less pure and hence less desirable than the bottled variety.

So the question is…. are we safer to consume and use items that are well packaged and designed, or is this merely a ploy to anaesthesize us to the reality that life is a grubby, messy business, prone to entropy?

A different view…

December 17, 2006

A thoughtful friend came for dinner and brought the South African movie – Tsotse – for us to watch afterward.  We ate a simple soup and a fruit, and then wrapped up on respective chairs to watch this.  Throughout the movie, I kept flashing back on William Kentridge’s animated films, especially while watching the extended scene of the young man walking across a no-man’s-land from the wealthy suburbs to the shantytown where he lived.  He was carting an infant in a shopping bag- an infant he had to take from the car of a woman he had just held up at gunpoint and shot.  What does a thug know about caring for a baby when he has no basic equipment with which to provide the most minimal care? Newspaper diapers and an opened can of evaporated milk poured into the baby’s mouth? That solution rang true to me!

I think of my daughter-in-law, with her designer nursery, the battery-powered rocker and swing for the baby, the numerous matching outfits with coordinated colours and cute sayings, the many months supply of paper and plastic diapers and toys that are battery powered and emit shakes, rolls and canned chirps.  The contrast with the reality demonstrated in this movie is merely, well, obscene.  It is possible to demonstrate care and concern with just the simplest of means – newspaper diapers, a pour of canned milk into the seeking mouth of a baby.

Does my daughter -in-law think about the possible uses of flying cottonwood seeds when walking by the riverbank in the early summer? Does she see a potential windfall of usefulness in this summer-snowing bounty? I think not – she has neither the imagination, nor inclination to see potential in the world that surrounds her.  She cannot imagine herself as a native woman, foraging casually for this soft, cottony seed, adding it to the basket made out of her skirt, compiling it for a trove with which to make an absorbent liner for the diapers of her infant. For this young woman, everything comes from the Mall. For our new grand-daughter, this represents a further disconnect of human life from that of nature.  This child will never experience the pleasure of the scent of sun dried clothes or sheets, the scent that harbours the aroma of natural cleanliness; she will always associate clean with the scent of Fleecy?  Well, it is my role as grandparent to provide that experience for her.

Food memories…

December 12, 2006

Last night, over a feast of take-out Chinese, wine and gelato, four of us reminisced about our individual memories about food. S talked about walking to the corner grocery store with her friend at school lunch hours, pooling their money and buying a jar of dill pickles and eating them all on the way back to school.  Dill pickles were not eaten in her family home, and so they were an unusual and desirable foodstuff. M discussed his love of things curry, particularly the way his mother made curried dishes, but then added that when he was in Delhi last he could not choke down the home cooking of the family with whom he stayed.  They were strict vegans, but to please his North American love of animal protein they served him a curried dish of stringy and anorexic chicken in a livid green curry sauce which has completely put him off chicken to this day. A loves the smell and texture of freshly baked shortbread, so she was planning on baking up several batches in the next week.  For me, the smell of Turkish coffee conjures up childhood memories of walking into grandmother’s apartment building foyer and smelling the coffee brewing at the Szabo apartment on the ground floor.  Coffee was the magical elixir one lapped up carefully, sipping while holding a cube of sugar between the front teeth. Occasionally, my sister and I took turns at grinding the coffee beans at the Szabos, a necessary ritual we took very seriously, almost religiously.  The scent of coffee and a particular ceramic tile design are inextricably tied together as an olfactory and visual pairing for me.  So, on those rare occasions, when I cut through the local Starbucks to visit a store-owning friend in the Mall, the scent of coffee there doesn’t fit with the accompanying visuals of arborite, plastic and plasticized wood surfaces, and I scurry through as fast as possible.  The coffee at Starbucks holds no attraction.  I cannot be a participant in the rituals of preparation nor in the shared experience of sitting cosily at a scarred round table drinking out of mismatched porcelain cups with welcoming elders.

When coffee was a rare treat in post-war Eastern Europe, the drinking of it was a ceremonial sharing made more memorable by its scarcity. Here in the burbs, coffee flows like water, coffee shops are on every downtown corner.  One drinks from paper cups with logos, coffee is quaffed down quickly or carted about until it is cooled too much and then discarded, cold and unsavoury, by the edge of roads or left abandoned, rancid, in the cupholders of cars.

What memories will the contemporary clients of Starbucks and the like shops associate with the scent of coffee?  That life was in constant flux and rush?

Pictures with Santa?

December 10, 2006

Our son’s family is driving around today, trying to find the best Santa photo opportunity in the malls.  I know my daughter-in-law will want to carefully give every prospective Santa the “sniff -test”.  No garlic-breathing Santa will be allowed to befoul the air breathed by the “precious one”. Of course, unless the faux-Santa is a ham, and the “precious one” is not exhausted by the many trips into many malls and hence sport a glazed look, the resulting picture will look like any other yearly Santa memento.

Already at four months of age the “PO” is a camera hog.  There are volumes of pictures of her already. I already know that I am open to criticism as a BAD grandparent – I do not yet have a photo shrine devoted to this child. Nor do I carry around sheaves of out-of-focus, or red-eyed photos with which to suddenly beset friends and acquintances.

But, for sure, one of my Christmas presents will probably be a picture of the “precious one” looking confused on the lap of some poor old man dressed as Santa.  I just hope the unfortunate blighter took a nip of his flask on one of his many breaks.  THAT is why Santas always have a red nose!

Houses all lit up!

December 8, 2006

This year, the neighbours are slow in lighting up their houses with outdoor Christmas lights.  The neighbour across the street sold his house, and unlike him, the new owners have eschewed lighting up the night – so far. There was a brief article in The Sun a couple of days ago about the chairman of BC Hydro stating he was not going to light up the outside of his family home in an effort to conserve electricity.  Reading this article over breakfast caused a spirited discussion with my mate over the necessity to change expected traditions to be more in step with increasingly more conservationist living in the suburbs. We have a family tradition on the eve of the Winter Solstice.  We light oil lamps and sit around the fire in the wood-burning fireplace and tell stories of earlier times in our lives and those of our friends when we all discussed various aspects of life and also plans for the upcoming warm seasons.  Some discuss plans for their gardens, others mull over ways of doing things differently, and in unexpected, more engaged manner.  It is good to sit hunkered down in sweaters and slippers; purify the air with burning sage and sprinkles of water; remember, plan and anticipate life in the coming year; sing songs; tease each other and share laughter.

Lighting up the neighbourhood is not a necessary reminder of the passing of seasons, nor of the hope of seasonal renewal.  There are small ways of doing this, personally, thoughtfully and very simply.  This week I am drying sage, cleaning house and getting ready for the Solstice celebration at home.  There will be light – but it will be inside and intimate.

A trip to a mall…

December 3, 2006

The last time I went to the big mall was 4 months ago to buy the new computer monitor.  Today we went to the mall, Future Shop store, to be exact, to buy a photo printer.  The trip there was a nightmare of stop and go traffic, and finding parking almost impossible. There must be gods who support my hatred of shopping in malls, because it seems that I have a Parking Angel, so that exposure in the mall is limited to simply parking, running into the store, scanning the signage to find the appropriate section, finding the item needed, and then pay for it and leaving.  This all took about 10 minutes, which is marginally tolerable.  It took longer to leave the parking lot than to initially find a parking spot, parking, scooting into the store, buying and leaving to go back to the car. Unbelievable grid-lock exit problem there was – it took us a half hour to get outside the parking lot.  Drivers were short-tempered and rude, pedestrians careless and seemingly oblivious to the agressive tendencies of drivers.  It was completely crazy making!

On the drive home, I scanned the false-front architecture of the chain stores lined up along the highway, the standardized signage on them and the design of the back-up lights on vehicles as we drove along. Everywhere one looks is the presence of things made out of plastics – shiny, in primary colours, or matte and grey.  Things look jerry-built, temporary and impermanent and have the feel of a Potemkin village.  There is a feeling of constant and aimless motion, a mass migration from place to place, of collecting and dispersing items on the way. Perception is assaulted, distracted and incoherent in such a setting.

When I am a passenger in a car, riding with a trusted driver, I find myself scanning the skies, marvelling at their constant shifting quality of always different and variable forms, colours and texture.  Trees that come into view, seen against changing skies are my reality touchstones.   Their forms, in all their variety, are compelling, elemental.  This is the beauty masked by suburban squalor, so that even a trip to the mall by car becomes tolerable if one troubles to be reminded by glimpses of such persistent beauty.

The Navajo have a mantra – ” I walk in beauty,  around me beauty, below me beauty, above me beauty – in beauty I walk.”  This is a mantra that I have adopted and repeat to myself, daily, while scurrying through my daily life in the suburbs.  Maybe the new photo printer will allow me to share some ordinary perceptions with others, to show the beauty and tawdriness of suburban life, of which we need to be mindfully aware.