Archive for March, 2008

Pitt River, looking West…

March 31, 2008

img_0087.jpgimg_0086.jpgimg_0085.jpg Lila and I gathered our outdoor painting stuff at 8am on a warm April day, piled them into her Ford Focus and drove to the end of Harris Road in Pitt Meadows. The road ended at the dike and we parked right next door to the barn in which Dry Sherry kept her beautiful Percheron/Andalusian, Paris. He was out in his paddock cruising around, munching hay, a splendid dappled, distressed grey -white monolith in motion. Because I was busy gawking at him I nearly ended walking my easel into the ditch. Lila meanwhile, being much better organized and less of a wool-gatherer, made an efficient job of carting her easel, large canvas, and carrying bag up onto the dike. I dragged my easel and set it up. Had to go back to the car to get my drawing board and paper pad as well as my bag with my drawing stuff. Once set up near each other we sussed out the place; looked about us to select an area to work with and from.

I had earlier in the morning determined that  in no way was I going to get precious or self-conscious about my materials or the imagery which would absorb my attention. I was in a rebellious mood. No museum quality paper, archival drawing medium, or picture-worthy, picturesque subject would distract me from the pure pleasure of looking, seeing, making marks, moving freely and playing.

So, the paper was plain old 18 by 24 newsprint. The tools, oil pastels. The challenge for me today with the subject was to take the least picturesque aspect of the landscape in front of me and to find the rhythm and unity of forms in front of me. It didn’t have to be an earth-shattering or mind-blowing image. So there was the spring growth of sedges near the river’s edge; shrubbery, low-lying near the shore, denser and taller, more vigorous further from the river, and in the distance a massing of vegetation, then the sky. The log-booms snugged along the river provided a warm contrast against the sky-reflecting blue of the water.

I windmilled my arms to get the blood flowing, did some knee bends and lunges and then selected the pastels colours and began the drawing dance. And kept drawing until the study reached the above stage. Lila may as well have been on the moon, for aside from hearing her brush scratching and swishing on her canvas somewhere to my right, her presence didn’t infringe on my concentration.

We spent the whole morning, working in silence, absorbed as the sun rose to the zenith and we began to tire. Lila worked on an ambitious 22 by 30 inch oil of the mountains and river and had a strong start with which to work later in her studio. I made the three oil pastel studies and felt satisfied with having met the goal I set for myself.

As my vision has failed me now, to the point that I no longer can make such distinctions visually as in these three-year-ago drawings, I like having these rather flimsy pieces of paper up on the walls of my studio. As I come and go from the house the drawings are an aide memoire. Now when walking along the dike this is not how I see what is there. It has changed so profoundly that patterns have lost their crispness, shapes have lost their clarity and tones and colours have become of paramount importance. Now, I realize that already, three years ago my vision was starting to change from the almost painful acuteness and clarity I have been gifted with throughout my first fifty years of life. These drawings represent a change, though not necessarily for the worse. A change toward some different ways of seeing, maybe a different way of being.

Toilet-seat trials and tribulations…

March 23, 2008

Such a world we live in, a world of almost unlimited choice of ‘things’. Such a ‘free’ world where choosing which pair of socks to wear today, right now, takes on momentous proportions. In hindsight and memory, I can’t remember Anyu agonizing about which socks went with which of our shoes when she was readying us for the day. Maybe she was too much preoccupied with mental exercises involving what she might cook for our family for the rest of the week depending on what might be in stock at the various grocery stores. Perhaps choice of white, pink or striped socks for us didn’t register on her housewifely radar of ‘important things to be concerned about’.

I know. I sound like the stereotypical little old lady bemoaning the passing of the ‘good old days’. This is my version of “when I was young things were thus and such…”. Of course, all my life, I have been a prematurely old woman, whether at twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years of age, given my tendency to question the manner in which life in Canada has unfolded in my experience. This Canada, this ‘Xanadu’ to which foreingners from all over the world seek admission. This Canada of almost unlimited consumer choices – kiwi fruit the whole year round, strawberries out of season, exotic cheeses from all over the world, case-goods from everywhere – a sort of consumable material cornucopeia. Little did my parents think that this selection of available choices not only were of food, consumables, education, health care, transportation and housing but also of toilet seats.

 I have recently run afoul of the availability of choices and the weighty weighing of pros and cons before being able to purchace a replacement toilet seat for the only bathroom in our house. Naively, I assumed that replacing this worn out toilet seat was a simple matter of visiting the neighbourhood building supply store from whence came out toilet and its simple seat a mere five years ago. The old one died. It broke into four pieces as the plumber was pulling it up when we were replacing the bathroom floor lino. The replacement toilet was an American brand, made in Texas, fairly inexpensive and low-flushing. It was a ‘moped’ toilet, not a ‘Rolls Royce’ toilet and entirely appropriate for our downwardly mobile life. I mean we were not ever contemplating having royalty using our facilities. It functioned, and therefore we were rather pleased.

Th old toilet seat is in process of giving into the forces of entropy. So, Rumpole and I decided to zip down to the local RONA and buy a replacement. Easy, what? Nope, we were not so lucky. In the plumbing section and bathroom aisle we came upon a marvellous array of toilet designs. If Marcel Duchamps were alive today he would have a field day coming up with variations on a theme of his famous urinal – a veritable galery exhibition of things toilet. Wow! The choice was staggering. But, alas, in no dusty corner could we find our home toilet, nor any toilet seats that would fit it. If had become extinct, like the Dodo. The toilet seat varietals were amazing in their differences. But whatever happened to just a one-for-all type of seat. No such a thing.

Disgusted, we next drove to Home Depot. Before entering the football-stadium sized store we decided to give our quest exactly ten minutes. No luck here either. Only even more elaborate toilet sets to be had here. We left, defeated, and returned home.

On the way across the bridge, I expressed to Rumpole, “If I were Queen, or whatever leader, there would be standardization in toilets, cars, etc.,etc. There’s too damn much choice, or illusion of choice about unimportant things. And this obsolescence business makes us all sitting ducks to the guns and whims of fashion. Aaaargh!”

“Calm down, my commie-pinko love,” reassured Rumpole as he blended into a lane entering the bridge. “Once we’re home  you can grab a nice glass of wine and we’ll connect into E-bay. Maybe we’ll find the ‘seat of our dreams’. ”

Sure enough. Here we sat in front of the computer, me with my wine, Rumpole with his pen and paper. And, yes, we did find a limited number of our toilet seat on E-bay. We made the order and now await the package. It’s coming from a plumbing supply place in Utah.

One small consolation is that it’s not made of plastic or coming from China. I think when the new seat arrives, I’ll set Rumpole to making a home-made wooden seat with all the tools he has amassed in his workshop. It’ll keep him from being bored and off the streets.


March 21, 2008

The following is a writing practice theme suggested by SloWalker on As usual, the prompts from Red Ravine makes me want to clatter on the keyboard – so many thanks to the good folks there.

Paul Lim, a local gallery owner, took it upon himself to educate me about Chinese cuisine as it was practiced in the Chinatown enclave of the 60s. He treated me to my first samplings of Dim Sum in a clean and well decorated Pender Street establishment where I happily sucked cooked chicken toes and declared them delicious. To allow me a glimpse of the places frequented by senior Chinesemen after their gambling sessions in the Social Clubs, he took me to eat at the Green Door, one of the alley restaurants between Pender and Hastings Streets.

Here in a long narrow space, tables and chairs were squeezed in between dingy smoke and grease stained Chinese-newspaper wall-papered walls. Numerous elderly men chattered and drank from brown paper-covered bottles. The atmosphere was heavy with a fog of cigarette smoke mingled with steam from the rice cookers in the adjoining kitchen. We squeezed into an available spot. A young man plunked a cracked tea pot and glasses in front of us.

“Now, they’ll bring along something for us to eat.” explained Paul as he struggled out from his wet pea-jacket.

“Don’t we get to choose from a menu?”

“Relax! We’ll eat what they bring.”

Sure enough a dish of something unidentifiable arrived, along with two bowls of steamed rice and chopsticks. No forks and knives in this place. Paul dumped some stuff from the dish on top of his rice, then placed the same on my bowl. As I watched him dole out our feast, my eye was distracted by a grey shiny bug scooting across the table between our two rice bowls.

“Eeeuw! What was that?” I clutched my soggy coat about me for protection.

“Just some free protein,” commented Paul as he raised food to his mouth, calm as you please. “Okay… a cockroach, if you want to know.”

This did not put me off my feed, and I poked back the delicious food and noted other ‘cockroaches’ lazily walking up the newspaper-covered wall next to our table. Because they nearly blended into the wall-paper, I amused myself during the meal by counting to see how many of these bugs might make a relaxed appearance. No-one else in the room was trying to crush these with slaps from their shoes; there was no mass hysteria. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself as the only round-eyes  AND female in the room. Even though this was my first cockroach sighting, I wanted to maintain a mien of ‘cool’, to not come across as some squeamish suburban girl.

The next time I saw a cockroach, my reaction was far from cool. It was, dare I say it, a great remove from neutral. Rumpole and I were flying home from the British Virgin Islands. The  first leg of the flight, early in the morning, brought us to the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport. There we were to wait for the connecting flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

The seedy San Juan airport lounge didn’t have the usual amenities of coffee-shops, restaurants, bars of North American airports. We were desperate for a cup of coffee. Rumpole sent me off to explore and see what I could rustle up. I wondered the hall, half-asleep, and bought two paper cups full of disgusting looking black dreck from a hole-in-the-wall vendor. No milk available to cut the taste.

I sauntered back to Rumpole, handed him his coffee. He took a sip and declared it undrinkable. I slumped onto the grey plastic chair beside him, sulked and tried to stay awake as I sipped the foul brew. I calmly looked around to note the details of the waiting room. Lots of empty chairs. Garbage strewn on the floor everywhere. Straggling groups of travellers trying to make themselves comfortable on the hard plastic chairs as they waited for their connecting flights.

Some movement below the row of chairs facing us distracted my eye. It was purposeful, not a particularly scurrying motion by a large black something the size of my hand. I watched in fascination as it stopped its passage and considered its next direction. Elbowed Rumpole smartly and squeaked, “What the hell is that thing?”

“Shit!” he snarled. “You made me spill my coffee.”

The thing started to move again. “Look, there goes a rat or something. Under the chairs. Right across from you!” I hauled my duffel bag into my lap and tucked my feet up on the seat under me. “Oh God! That’s huge!”

“That’s not a rat. It looks like a big bug. Maybe a cockroach.”

“I have seen cockroaches before. They were not black, nor huge.” I huddled on the plastic chair, clutching my duffel, trying to make myself invisible. Maybe the black thing would not choose to wander under my chair if it could not see me. I wondered if cockroaches could see. And I certainly didn’t want to bring one home as a souvenir.

I was seriously creeped out. Imagine unloading the duffel bag at home, pulling out snorkel, fins, swimsuit, towels, shirts and pants, along with an unwanted hitchhiker who would jump out and maybe make a panicked run for the safety of our fireplace.

Whatever happened to that “cool” young thing I used to be?

The keys to the Kingdom…

March 10, 2008

He was a sage man, Mr. S.. I trusted him to be honest with me, especially since he had been the adjudicator of my entrance portfolio at my interview seeking admission to the Art School. At that time he hadn’t pulled his punches. He had asked me, then, how my parents viewed my desire to attend art school. Since it was in my best interest to be candid with him, if he would be a reliable supportive person for my poorly-formed goals as art student, I had admitted to him that my parents were full of dispair as to what was going to become of me, if I persisted in following my desire to learn intensively about “Art”.

Mr. S. encouraged me to wholly immerse myself in the art school experience. He did say that at the green age of 17 years, and relatively untested, I would come to have conflicting feelings about what all might happen to me during these formative early years. “Come and talk to me, whenever you have difficulties or have reactions which confuse you. My door is always open.”

During those four years, whenever I had doubts and questions, I’d tap on his office door and promise to bring him a coffee if he would spare me a few minutes of his time. He was always most generous and patient. He was my “eminence grise”. My parents had no inkling that there was such a trusted advisor whose opinion I welcomed and valued and weighted far more than their own. Come to think of it, he was indeed a grey, silvery presence. He was small and wiry, pale in complexion with tarnished pewter hair and beard. He seemed to be everywhere; like escaped beads of spilled mercury he could be glimpsed doing his rounds in the art school hallways and studios.

By the end of third year at school, I had paid my tuition and supply costs with a series of low-paying jobs – usherette, cleaning-woman, waitress. Still living at my parental home, I began agonizing over how, in the future after graduation I would maintain my art practice, move out into my own digs and sustain a life beyond mere existence. My parents exhorted me to give up all ideas of pursuing a life-long involvement with art. They considered my four years of art school as an early, but doomed, love affair which held out little hope for a lifetime of sustaining joy. Ildiko had gone on to university, to follow the family plan for her to become a doctor. Surely, now, the penny would drop for me, and I’d realize the fruitlessness of a life in the arts and would bend to the family plan for me to become a pharmacist. At every available opportunity, my parents would attempt to engage me in conversation about going to the U to take a degree in science. They completely and conveniently forgot those angst-ridden nights of my struggles with chemistry and math in high school and my sudden blossoming with joy whenever taken up with studies in the arts and humanities.

In the quiet working hours in the print-making studio, while engaged in preparing plates, applying grounds, working the plates in the acid baths and inking, wiping and pulling prints, I mulled over possibilities  facing me in the future. I realized that making art takes materials, equipment, space and working at low-paying jobs would not afford me the means to do more than just keep a roof of sorts over my head and a few squares to sustain me. Advice from an experienced and trusted mentor was in order. I turned to Mr. S.

One morning, I nipped over to the coffe shop across the street from the art school, ordered two mugs of coffee, slices of cheese and carrots and carried them on a bakelite tray back to the school offices. “Morning goodies, for Mr. S.” I told Mrs Trevelyan, his secretary, breezing by her to tap on his door. Luckily he was peckish and glad for refreshments. He waved me into his office.

“I need your help.” I said, and launched into an agonizing and detailed account of my ruminations about my uncertain future.

He listened and ate his carrot and cheese slices; nodded between sips of the now tepid coffee. He swiveled on his oak teacher’s chair and gazed out the window; turned back and beaded me with his perceptive pale blue eyes. “You are the child of the upper Middle Class; you have learned to expect certain comforts from life. Your experience with people is mostly from that class – that is where you operate most comfortably. You need to attain the keys to that Kingdom, so you can enter it at will. It is only through further education that you will achieve the freedom to do this.” He said this without a trace of pressure. He was simply asking me to think along with him and go down that particular road of thinking. “How can you turn the knowledge and information you have gained so far to your advantage?” he asked.

“I could go and seek a position as an artist’s printer in a workshop,” I conjectured. “Although, there is no possibility of this here as there are no working ateliers. I’d have to research this. Maybe further afield. But maybe I’d not be too content labouring over other printmaker’s images. But of course, this might provide me access to a studio with presses.”

“Have you considered any other possibilities?” he asked.

“I have flirted with the idea of teaching. Am not too sure I have the patience and whatever else it takes to teach.”

“There is a way you can find out if you like teaching, or have an inclination in that direction. You can sign up as a teacher with the School Board and try your hand at teaching an adult night school course in Drawing. You’ll find out very quickly if you have the aptitude for teaching.”

He sent me on my way. As his suggestion made great sense to me, I followed up and engaged to teach a night school course at one of the recreation centres. Eight sessions. Not a huge, long-term committment, so even if I was fearful of being pathetic at this job, people’s  limited exposure to my green inept methods would not harm them in the long term.

A couple of months later, after a wonderful experience with teaching and thorough enjoyment of the persons with whom I shared a limited number of hours working, I bounced into Mr. S’s office and announced my pleasure with the outcome. “It sure is hard work but, man, the expressions of pleasure in accomplishment from people in the class makes the process worthwhile. And working to help someone overcome their frustrations with a process or to unearth an untapped potential is so invigorating.”

“You know, if you have had such an good experience, maybe you might consider taking teacher training at UBC. If you do so, your parents will probably be amenable, and you will have chance to obtain one of the keys to the Kingdom. Think about it, at least.”

I went off and thought about it all. Continued to work in the studio and made the work for my graduation show. My mind was at ease, I had decided on a sense of future direction – to take my degree in teaching and train as an art teacher. Went through the application process at the university, and only when formally accepted did I make the announcement of my intentions to my parents.

“We expected you to follow up in a more worthy discipline,” argued Apu. “To be a teacher is not good enough career for someone from our family.”

“Apu. I need to work at something which provides me with personal satisfaction as well as a way to make some kind of living. I am not at all interested in studying in the sciences. Besides which, having an education degree, will provide me with a little key to the Kingdom.”

“What on earth are you babbling on about?” complained Apu. “What’s this Kingdom ?”

An anniversary of sorts…

March 1, 2008

Today is the 20th anniversary of my diagnosis of leukemia. As on that day, this morning dawned sunny with clouds. And as on that day, I woke from sleep today with a woolen head and dragging feet, reluctant to face the day. The reason for this morning’s lack of enthusiasm is not because I feel ill, but on account of a late going to bed last night after a stimulating evening of tea and discussion with friends late into the night. As I dragged my half-awake self to the first cup of coffee, prepared this morning by Rumpole, it occurred to me that this date had some importance in my life. It was while pouring that first black cup that this significance popped into my brain.

I took a sip, observed Rumpole, looking disheveled and poring earnestly over a section of the weekend paper and interrupted his concentration.

“Dear. Do you remember what we were doing at this time exactly twenty years ago?”

He looked up with a question in his faded forget-me-not blue eyes. “No. But I do know we were up north at the time. Why is the date significant?”

“On that day, I woke up from a sweaty sleep on the couch in the living room to the sound of the telephone ringing, you answering and asking many questions at your end, then finally saying ‘yes, I understand, I will bring her in right away.’ ”

“Quit being mysterious.” he grumbled. “How can you remember what that particular phone call was about? Please get to the point.”

I took a long swig of my coffee and added some milk to it. “That was the day you took me to the hospital for that awful diagnosis and only allowed me a few minutes to get my stuff together. I had my client reports to still finish, so I took those. There was the unfinished crocheted ugly pillow-cover I was making for Jacquie. That went into the overnight bag with the beautiful turqoise housecoat you had given me the previous Christmas.”

“I wonder why I can’t remember you getting ready to go.” Rumpole scratched his ear, and folded his newspaper closed.

“You were occupied by consulting the thick medical diagnostic tome in the kitchen. You had it hidden behind the toaster so I wouldn’t know what you were up to. Renaissance Man was hopping about bringing me toothbrush, hairbrush, journals, files and pens.” I beaded him with a direct look. “Neither of you are good at hiding your anxiety. When you led me to the truck as if I was made of spun glass, ready to break apart at any moment, I knew something not so good was up.”

I remember Rumpole guiding me into the bucket seat of the LandCruiser, strapping me in most gently and covering me with a lap robe. We drove down the snowy country roads, admiring the light and texture of the landscape. I insisted that he stop at the edge of town at the shopping centre and buy me a nightgown appropriate for a hospital stay. He was so impatient while I pored through the racks of nightgowns like a somnambulist and mumbled dutiful disinterested husband comments about my selections.

As we drove down the big hill into town I moaned to him. ” What a perfectly beautiful day to be having to go to the hospital. I’d rather stay home and go for a walk with you guys.”

“The woman from the hospital said you had to come in for further blood-work and for a procedure for a bone marrow biopsy,” he told me, then went on to reassure me. “You know we will be with you throughout the day. I’ll bring Renaissance Man in this afternoon to see you. And I’ll call Marlene, Jane and Linda and Al to come and keep you amused.”

“Please call, Maureen and let her know she has to reschedule my next week’s clients. Tell her I will send this week’s reports in with you on Monday.”

How do you remember what happened on that day?” he asked.

“Heck, how can one forget such a day, or what happened on such a day? It’s not every day one is told one has a life-threatening disease. It kind of ranks up there with some other life milestones – like when you first proposed to me, or when you brought you pajamas and alarm clock to our first sleep-over ever”, I said through smirking lips. “Hell, I even remember how nervous George was as he was giving me the diagnosis in the nurses’ lounge. He bummed a cigarette from me and we smoked together as he apologized and said it was far too beautiful a day for him to give me such unfortunate news. Imagine, George apologizing, when it was all too clear to me he had to give up a day with his daughter tending their trap-line.”

“I was too much a basket case that day. Can’t say I remember a third of the stuff that happened. But I remember crying in my office as I phoned all our friends to come to you in the hospital. I remember crying with Renaissance Man as we drove to the hospital to see you.”

We fell into silence, drank our coffee, and read the papers. I mused about how strange memory is, what details are remembered. I remember Rumpole’s devastated expression, and Renaissance Man’s bereft face as they sat by my bed side while I struggled with the crocheting, to finish the pillow-cover for Jacquie, one of my clients. She had patiently instructed me in my inept first attempt at crocheting and I wanted to do her proud.