Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

What do you want from me?

January 29, 2016

The heading above was the teaser line in my inmail box this morning.  It originated from the author of an ‘environmental memoir’ blog from @2006 -07”,which blog he morphed into a published book and then into a documentary which was shown at a Sundance Film Festival.  Out of curiosity I had followed his blog and had expressed to Rumpole then “Just wait, me dear one, here’s a fellow who plans to gain monetarily from his writing this stuff.” Well, reading between the lines, and of possible sub-text of potential intentions isn’t exactly as demanding as, say, brain surgery or understanding quantum physics, but I think I was quite right in my prediction.

Now, he asks, nicely, what it is I, and other persons whose virtual mail-boxes he regularly fills with news of his latest efforts to save the world, want from him. It appears he has written yet another book  ( he hopes a best-seller?) which he thinks an unthinking public with an unquenched thirst for yet another feel-good-or-better self help book eagerly hangs awaiting. He wants to form facebook  support groups, and is planning an eight week online course, complete with work book to accompany the new tome. The worst part of his solicitation letter is how he plays to the reader’s emotions with a fake candour, just-us-folks tone and appeals (subtle) to be crowd-funded. Ah, snake oil by any other name.  I suspect he must have close relatives in Nigeria.

It is pretty obvious there is a long history of soft-sell being a success in separating people from their hard earned resources, and for their often insightful ‘spidey sense’. I have, for years and unsuccessfully tried to have my contact information removed from his mailing list.  And, that is the only thing I want from him And, no, I have not paid for his first book, nor do I intend to read a library copy of it, ever.  As to crowd fund his endeavours, or to take him for any source of learning, thanks, but no thanks, not because I need not learn any more, but because I do, indeed, but not from the likes of such a smug, fake and glib source.

The Conference Workshop with the three amigas…

January 23, 2010

We were as ready to lead the workshop for teachers as any oveprepared presenters might be. In fact, we were so nervous in anticipation we thought we should arrive at the conference venue two hours before our stint was to begin. Then, we found out we could only arrive just an hour prior to star time.
The evening before we went over our materials and equipment checklists, trial ran CDRs on the laptop we were to use and almost added to our burgeoning boxes items we deemed essential for workshop participants to have.
Lee conjectured, “Should we take pencils and pens for the people?”
“Are you kidding me?” I snapped back. “We are not dealing with high school students here. Surely to God no self-respecting teacher would dare turn out to a workshop sans writing equipment!”
I did think having rice-powder on hand for the participants to try out making Kolams and Rangoli was essential, so I busied myself with the trusty Braun coffee grinder and ground up a whack of rancid rice that was about to be heaved into garbage. The jar of rancid rice-powder was large enough to provide coverage of Kolams over a large area of pavement. I didn’t think people would be overwhelmed by the smell of it. Besides which, “waste not, want not” is my motto. Rice Powder, check!
Meanwhile Louise was pasting labels on all items to remain in the teaching kits, and double checking contents. Lee was reorganizing the workshop handouts and making sure all was in order. We did this in the kitchen. Rumpole came home to find the place a disaster zone and kicked his way to the bedroom to change into his grubbies. We finished our labours, drank one more cup of cold tea, loaded our stuff into two cars and parted company with plans to meet up at the Conference place with all our stuff the following morning at 7am. Lee was to pick me up at quarter of seven, practically the crack of dawn.
The morning of, I scrambled around half-asleep after a largely sleepless night, washed, dressed, got the kinks out of my hair and bolted back a couple of cups of coffee. Waited beside Rumpole’s snoozing Hyundai as I waited for Lee to arrive in her red Mustang. Bless that youngster, she had brought me a Starbucks latte. As we drove toward the Conference place Dawn broke over the horizon in a milky iridescent pearl-grey band. The day promised to be mild and dry.
When we arrived at the parking lot, Lee nipped into the building to find a dolly to haul our gear, leaving me to call Louise and let her know exactly where we were parked. Louise arrived just as I was unloading the stuff from the Mustang’s trunk. Soon, Lee returned with the dolly in tow and we loaded the containers on to it and went to find our workshop room.
Luck was on our side. We were booked into a science lab with many electric outlets, a big screen and gererous white-boards as well as two sinks. Perfect for an art workshop.
Lee proceeded to set up the electronic equipment, and much to our relief it all promised to work as required. Louise set out the handout material and placed printed visuals onto the whiteboard with stick-um. I set out art materials into stations adequate for a large group to work at without a hitch. We were so organized we had a half- hour to spare before deadline for start. We went in search of muffins to feed on. These two gals were an absolute joy to work alongside!
When teachers straggled in, with no one late ( they are so conditioned to time dictates) I was surprised to note there were no men in the group. All women, mostly young ones who looked so very young. Just three retirement-age ladies in a group of 19 souls. I suddenly felt like a creaky antique.

Lee opened up the workshop with having everyone introduce themselves. She looked glamorous in her Punjabi suit outfit of Royal blue with gold embroidery.. On her wrists she wore Indian bangles with bells attached – so whenever she needed to call people to attention she only had to shake her arms. Louise overlooked proceedings like a fond aunt. I sat by the side as grannie types are wont to.
I had prepared the lesson plans on Kolams and Rangoli and figured if someone else could present and lead the lesson, any teacher attending the workshop could also follow the information for successful presentation. The workshop participants got right down to work, experimented, made permanent examples with chalk on black paper for themselves and experimented with rice-powder Kolams on the floor. They got so involved that they worked right through the half-hour rest period. I helped with making Kolams on the floor, showing how to hold the powder in the palm and trickle it to the ground and make gestures whilst doing so. Participants made amazing patterns and expressed eagerness to show the process to students. Lee glowed with pleasure. Louise went around the room documenting people at work, so much so she went through two sets of batteries. We all had great fun, largely in silence.
We were all so occupied with making Kolams we ran out of time for the presentation of the second half of the workshop. The keeners wanted us to carry on, so we showed CDRs on Navajo sandpainting, discussed similarities and differences for those two types of imagemaking, emphasizing the ritual differences, showed the sand which to use in making sandpaintings and discussed techniques for making permanent examples with students. It helped to have two permanent sandpaintings Lee had brought back at Christmastime from Arizona. The principle of Symmetry exemplified in both types of images was a huge topic of discussion, as was the abstraction inherent in both. The teachers expressed that they could use both to teach mathematical concepts, and also to have students use symmetry in their expressions of beauty and story telling.
They also stated that since we had made teaching kits using the internet for much of our research, they could further have students continue to research and compare information found on the net.
Overall the workshop was a success. We packed up our supplies and headed back to my kitchen to decompress over a couple of pots of tea. Louise planned to take out one of the kits for high schools and use the information for teaching art during the next semester. She also decided to extend the scope of the kit by designing further lesson plans and units. She has much to work with from the kit – on Contemporary Ephemeral Art and its practitioners – with DVDs added to explore in depth the work and its underlying concepts.
Lee called me this afternoon while I had my head down for a nap. She had begun to teach the unit on Kolams and Rangoli and reported her kids were tremedously excited by the potential for making ephemeral art in public spaces. Maybe the future grafitti taggers ( taggers give such pain to the maintenance crews in our town) will make practice of leaving their mark using ephemeral materials which disappear in short time.
It feels terrific to have brough this project of ours to such a succesful conclusion. I am anticipating seeing concrete results from our project by school year’s end. The project has been a form of therapy for me, useful, encouraging, engaging. Being part of it reassured me that I still have the “stuffing” left in me with which to contribute in my small way to my community, vision problems be damned.

Typing (ugh)… not writing…

December 11, 2009

I have neglected my blog for the last couple of months. It seems the project I have undertaken in September has taken precedence over most of my activities. It is an educational project for the Local art gallery’s educational arm, worked on with two teachers from our local school district and funded by two public bodies – the school District and the Art Gallery.

Initially we were to come up with a kit of lesson plans on Environmental Art – a topic of huge scope. In my usual capacity of “loose cannon”, I interpreted this topic as exploring Ephemeral Arts. My rationale for this was, “Does the world need to document and compile more examples of art in a museum, when art -making can be a largely personal, communal and ephemoral activity which can be passed on through common practice repeated over and over again, and allowed to be replaced and extended by future practices?”

So, I thought and thought – about works made only for a temporary purpose, of importance in the culture within which they were made and which gave expressive colour to to lives and belief systems. Enter the notion of Kolams as made in India’s Tamil Nadu, mandalas as made by Buddhist monks as a form of contemplative practice, and of Navajo sand-painting as ritual practice in one of North America’s larges indigenous tribes. Much research followed on the heels of this notion.

And, of course, there are contemporary practitioners of the ephemeral arts – Andy Goldsworthy, Rikrit Taravanija, Diana Lynn Thompson, Alan Sonfist and others who place process above product and life cycle above permanence. How to relate contemporary practice with historic practices? There is a relationship. As always no contemporary practice is without historical antecedents. How to relate the continuum?

Three of us sat down over wine and dinner and hashed out the congruities and continuities. It is good to have several good minds working together. One of us, a young High School art teacher worked out the mechanics of relating contemporary to historical practices. man, I envy her her energy, and her ability to directly narrow down relationships. Also her ability to negotiate the, to me, complexities of computer programs and mechanisms. I have been relegated to being typist, a task to which I am definitely not well suited, and to the work of coming up with lesson plans appropriate to grades K to 7.

So I have been typing up background information as well, collated from a variety of sources. Have also played with materials to see about their suitability to the various grade groups. Lots of typing; lots of frustration with my brand new Windows program. To take a break today, I ground up a bunch of rice in my Braun grinder and made a Kolam on the threshold to my studio.

This afternoon, two of us are to make a presentation of the kits we have prepared for K – 3, Gr. 4 -7, Gr. 8 – 12 – complete with visuals and CDRs and DVDs. I have sets of dominoes, side-walk chalks, rice flour and coloured sand packed with binders full of lesson plans and visuals. We also have beautiful reproductions of a Tibetan Thangka to share with the people coming to the unveiling meeting.

Mu forefingers have grown calluses from all the typing over the past two+ months. The bound documents need layout help – I am beyond incompetent at this. My two cohorts have heavy vocational committments. WE NEED HELP! Yes, we are going to beg for help.

Now mind – we are doing this as volunteers – and as such have racked up a respectable 30+ hours on this project – and that is a conservative estimate. But if all goes well, and we get the clerical help we so desperately need, we shalll have a really fine program to lend out to busy public school teachers.

Still typing, not writing, in suburbia….G

First solo ‘white cane’ outing…

January 19, 2009

The morning started out foggy; the suburban streetscape softened and made mysterious seeming by the enveloping haze. The huge cedars across the street loomed a half-tone grey in the pearly atmosphere. The bus stop sign, directly across from my house, was a marginally visible standard. It was to be my destination upon making my first foray, alone and without companions, into the streets. The objective was to travel the few miles by bus, downtown, and run some errands with a hopeful and uneventful return home within a couple of hours.

At breakfast, Rumpole gave me my marching instructions. These were to move slowly, cross streets with great care paying especial attention to my blind left side and to deploy my brand new cane while doing so. “Give drivers exta time to spot you, before crossing a street,” he cautioned, “and, brandish that cane to make yourself noticed.” Then, he added, “for Heaven’s sake, don’t get yourself run over!”

“Yassuh, boss-man,” I growled at him while unsnapping my cane and taking an “en Garde” position to skewer him, if my depth perception might allow. I made a feint to my left and promptly knocked my sunglasses off the table. “You know very well I am not completely blind.”

“Yeah, right.” He shrugged into his winter coat and braved his way over to plant a kiss on my lips. ” Take care, but enjoy yourself,” he said, smiling, as he let himself out the back door.

I began making preparations for my outing. Dug out the bus tickets from my purse; detached a chit, and put it into my coat pocket. Retrieved my sunglasses from the kitchen floor; double checked the bus schedule; downed half a cup of coldish coffee; readied my carry-all; shrugged into my coat; grabbed my purse and keys and took a final look at the kitchen clock. Only ten minutes to go before the bus would stop across the street. But wait! That allowed just enough time to nip into the bedroom and blast myself over thoroughly with my Elizabeth Arden perfume. Even if I am one of the invisible group of ageing women, people might as well smell me from a mile away! (Lookingforbeauty, whenever she drives me downtown makes hideous gagging noises and covers her nose if I have been the slightest bit spritzer happy with the perfume bottle, or, rather if I had forgotten she cannot breathe in the presence of perfume) I figured by the time the bus arrived, the miasma of Elizabeth Arden within which I moved might be somewhat dissipated by the foggy air outside, so the bus driver would not be overcome by my olfactory splendour.

I left the house and locked up. made my way gingerly across the road at the corner and took up position by the bus sign. To busy myself while waiting for the bus to arrive, I carved little animal footprints into the nearby snowbank with the tip of my cane, and then to leave permanent mark of my passage carved in my initials. This activity occupied me until the bus arrived. It slid to a stop on the icy road; the door sighed open and I clambered aboard. Had a bit of difficulty remembering which end of the bus ticket to feed into the reader. The driver, tiring of my attempts to turn the blasted card this way and that in a confusing and idecisive manner, smartly plucked the ticket from my fingers and fed it in. He grabbed it from the machine and read off for me for how long the ticket might be effective. I had 90 minutes to do my stuff downtown. I sat down behind the driver, figuring that he might appreciate the wafting of delicious smell from behind him; after all, he did not pass out while I was fooling around at the ticket reader. He did not gag, but then maybe he was holding his breath, because he was kind of surly and quiet when I attempted to engage him in small talk. Maybe he was deaf?

Since my last trip by bus downtown, the vehicles have been equipped with a system whereby a woman, who sounds suspiciously like the woman they have on recorded messages for all local utility companies, read out the names of all stops. Very irritating, this. She sounds a bit like a breathless radio announcer. Maybe all the bus drivers in the Bus Drivers Union demanded that a recording spare them from using their voices; or at least maybe this installed system allows the bus company to interchange drivers at will – they won’t have to know where they are if unfamiliar with the routes. Sally tells them where they are.

This driver was in somewhat of a hurry because he took turns as if in the LeMans car race – with great verve and insouciance. It was a fun, but brief, trip to town centre and I felt as if I had survived a wee bit of adventure. I clambered down from the bus at the end of the line and took my bearings. Still the fog; not too many cars going by; not many persons on the street. I pitter pattered my way south in the direction of the mall where I had to do some business. Played with my cane, tapping and testing all and any surfaces along my passage to learn their characteristic sounds – ping, for metal; thunk, for wood; swish, for shrubbery; crisp scrunch, for frozen snow-banks; and finger-nail-file scraping for concrete. The place where crossing became necessary I misguaged the depth of the sidewalk and came down hard and short. Stood there craning my neck in all directions to spot moving cars and waited for them to roll to stop and let me make passage across. The left side vision is problematic for me, so I held out the cane and waited before proceeding. What a bother. No more nipping and skipping across the streets for me. Aargh! I hated feeling so vulnerable.

The walk was not the usual brisk one; it was more of a cautious creeping. The terrain was not familiar, and like all unfamiliar terrain must be learned to negotiate from scratch. No more automatic pilot for this old Gal! The walk, slow as it was, did feel good though, especially since I was independent and alone. The air felt moist and cool on my face; my hands were warm inside gloves; and I was snugly buttoned up in my wool coat.

I did my errands in the mall. Dropped in on a shop-keeping acquaintance, checked out her new shipment of beautiful spring clothes and gossiped a bit with her. Her shop dog, a spoiled Bichon Frise, bared her fangs at me and snarled. Nothing has changed there! Checked out a big sale of discontinued foot-wear, which did not tempt. Went into the childrens’ shop and browsed for books for Mousey. Nothing caught my interest there. I decided to retrace my steps back to the bus loop, if indeed I would be able to return home on my ticket before it expired.

I tap-tapped my way back and noted the metal grating around the trunks of decorative trees planted in the middle of the side-walk. Explored the pattern of the grating with my cane and the music that could be made by riffling the cane tip across the patterns. Very charming sounds! The tree trunks were smoothish, and I dragged the cane around the girths to hear the texture. This way of moving about intentionally gives rise to new and different sense experiences. One’s passage is accompanied by novel (to me) soundscape. The walk took me back to where the bus had ejected me. The time it took to take the walk was immeasurable. For one, I do not wear a watch. For another, I was happily occupied with new sensations.

The bus ride home was more leisurely; the driver more amenable to chatting. We exchanged sightings of Julia Major, a local woman who parades around topless as soon as the weather turns springish, and who is the bane of all public utilities which have to provide service for people with all kinds of ability and disability. She is litiginous in the extreme, and I told the driver of a Julia sighting where she threatened to sue Translink, when the bus’s ramp for wheelchairs broke at the stop she was insisting on getting off via the ramp, rather than walking off as she had walked on. The driver joked, that had Julia been on the bus with me this day, she would have given him an earful of diatribe for him allowing me to climb solo on to the bus without him helping me. We had a good chuckle.

The driver stopped the bus next to my driveway, so I wouldn’t have to stroll across any snow or ice. I thanked him and waved my cane in good-by, let myself in through the back door, hung up my coat and made myself a cup of coffee. It had been a satisfactory first outing with my white cane, and I had enjoyed myself.

Jam-jar aesthetics…

October 23, 2008

If people were generally more knowledgeable about the resources used and labour expended in the fabrication of the simplest items of daily use we would find the contemporary privilege of unchecked choice horrific, wasteful and counter to our need for self-preservation as a species.

One day, while waiting for my friend to complete her banking business, I wandered around our local Value Village. In several long aisles there were a staggering variety and number of flower-vases, lined up higgledy-piggledy, cheek to jowl – vases that householders had found lacking in currently favoured taste, and which then they had discarded or otherwise removed from their consciousness and environs. Mind you, there were no un-noticed Daum or Lalique vases with which to tempt the tightwad person of bourgeois aspirations. There were however many acceptable containers in which to temporarily house flowers arriving at our shore from overseas flower growers. Yes – there was that delicately cut bud-vase in which to display that red rose from Colombia, the one that would make its way home from a refrigerated container at the harbour’s edge, to the auction house on Marine Drive and then from the local florist or grocery store. A visitor to the house, where such rose is displayed in its hot-house glory, might sigh in appreciation at the unblemished perfection of the flower amply displayed in the tasteful and delicate cut glass bud-vase. The fact that it is the last gasp of autumn here and no roses can thus bloom on their shrubs would simply not occur to the visitor, the magnificence simply erases all practical and logical thought.

And such is the case with most of North-Americans’ aesthetic manner of living. Special containers need specimen and uncommon flowers to display, and there must be a variety of containers available – to suit every taste and personal economy. It is somewhat doubtful that a fashionable matron in the British Properties, or in Shaughnessy would walk along ditches and fields, collect wildflowers and display them in an empty Smuckers Strawberry Jam jar. No, for such a lady the Meinhardt’s on South Granville or a flower selller on Granville Island or in Kerrisdale might provide the exotic blooms for which the vases are purchased from Atkinson’s or Martha Sturdy on Granville or even Birks, downtown. The aspiring middle-class housewife might purchase her flowers from the local flowershop, or the grocery store, and her vases from Bowrings, Ikea or Homesense. Women, disparagingly classified as granola-munchers, the frugal or the poor ones might just do with a second-hand vase picked up at a garage sale or thrift shop, and if really skint, then put into service the good old jam-jar or milk bottle.

I have to confess that I have often displayed downwardly-mobile tendencies in the past, and continue to do so to this day. While I love beauty in its myriad forms, I feel no pressure to own it. It is enough that it merely exists, everywhere, commonplace hard-wrought beauty. Of particular value are the tools with which life is carried on; they need to be functional and long-lasting – in that resides their beauty. The term, “gilding the lily” comes to mind. One does not have to apply flourishes to something whose inherent beauty is enwrapped in its perfect functionality. The field daisy can vie with the lily; both are beautiful, each in their own way and neither needs embellishment and both look spectacular placed in a plain tall drinking glass, or a tall narrow pickle-jar. An ornate carved crystal vase diminishes the flowers, in my opinion. Possible contemplation of the marvel of nature that is a field daisy is distracted by the context of man-made tour-de-force of elaborate craft.

One of the few wedding presents Rumpole and I received was a gorgeous carved Lalique vase. It sat on our mantle for three years and never once housed flowers. It seemed to overpower the kind of flowers and grass stems I picked up in my forays about the neighbourhood. It never loooked right, and seemed to me a reminder of the kind of rarified life I was to aspire to – one of ease, leisure, and material comfort and a distancing from visceral pleasures of a rather grubby life. Never having been a young woman to whom were given flowers, but rather tin snips, wire cutters, metal files, carving tools and prosthetic arms and other strange, unfeminish items such as strange rocks and concretions or dried dead things. The joke in our house was that if it came from a ditch, field, or midden it took pride of place on the mantle; however if a glorious bouquet of flowers came from a flower shop or decor shop it was left to decay, deform and otherwise gather dust and then it was of value. That poor Lalique vase never had a chance for long survival. Whilst packing up the house to move up north to our acreage and log house in the bush, I was carefullly sorting and determining just what objets deserved careful wrapping and placing into packing boxes. The concretions, shells, bits of bark, twigs, stones and seeds were carefully wrapped and set aside. Similarly, any old and roughed up glass medicine jars picked up from dusty second hand stores and jars of pleasant proportion, with or without lids, were lovingly seated among crumpled nests of newspaper and insulated against brakage. I had left the Lalique vase to the end, considered giving it to my mother, who might have been horrified at what an unsentimental ingrate I was to not value such a beautiful gift. I held it nestled in my hands as I stood above the flagged stone apron of the fireplace, contemplated the vase and what it meant to me,to the giver, to any other recipient who might have valued it; decided that I had neither the inclination nor energy to spend time in seeking a new home for the vase, opened my fingers and dropped it onto the stones. It shattered into fine pieces, which I then swept up and put into the dustbin.

The last item I packed from the mantle was a small plaster plaque which six-year old Renaissance Man had made for me of an impression of a leaf. I still have that sitting on my studio window, next to an empty jam-jar ready to hold a foundling weed flower, and alongside a toy firetruck and some retrieved circuit boards. Oh yes, and a cardboard cut out of a brocade bedecked Renaissance Queen.

That is what I consider jam-jar aesthetics; a not very fashionable one, but which gives me far more satisfaction than the Lalique vase ever did.

Plum tree…

August 17, 2008

It is always at this time of year that I’m on the lookout for Italian plums, or, prune plums, at the fruit and vegetable stands. Forever, August is imprinted in my memory as the season of plums, for which fruit I had early developed a passionate favoritism. It may have been because Anyu always took care to partake of this seasonal delight. During Augusts in early years in Hungary, plum soup and plum dumplings were favourite family meal items. For sure, Ildiko and I were very aware of seasonal ripening of our favourite fruits and vegetables, mainly because we coursed freely through the local countryside and kept a keen eye out for the setting and ripening of various fruits. These we would forage from freely, when the appropriate time came, climbing into trees, and settling on branches to chow down on fruit like our primate forebears. It seems that, if memory serves me at all, most of what we ate then were fruits and vegetables. Whether the offering grew in ditches, abandoned or manicured orchards, it did not escape our rapacious and experimental appetites.

When we first bought this house seven years ago, our immediate neighbour had a small prune plum tree which struggled to stay alive on our fence line. It generously bent its branches into our side yard, and I delighted in taking from it several handfuls of ripe plums. From these I’d make plum dumplings for a treat for Rumpole and Renaissance Man. I had no accurate recipe for the dumpling dough, but had watched how over the years Anyu had made the dough by combining handfuls of ingredients – mashed potatoes, flour, salt and beaten eggs. She had wrapped halves of prune plum in discs of the dough, added a sprinkle of sugar and then sealed the little packages, which she would cook in a cauldron of boiling water. When the dough globes rose to the surface, they were cooked through. Drained, then smothered in fired breadcrumbs then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, these made a heavenly feast. No August is complete, without several occasions of feasting on prune-plum dumplings, even if the plums come from a farm stand. My neighbour took out his plum tree three years ago, and since then I have been purchasing the plums rather than pulling them, warm and dusty from their stems on the tree.

Last week, I decided to remedy this situation and bought a gangly, juvenile, Italian plum tree from a local nursery. It is a spindly, leggy tree and won’t bear fruit for at least four more years. I don’t care; the idea of being able to harvest at least some fruit from my own tree is so satisfying. In four or so years, Mousey will be six years old and just getting her tree-climbing legs. She will probably also love to harvest the plums. Lord knows as a suburban child she is isolated from the sources of the food she eats. Even having the two small blueberry shrubs we do , she is able to gather the fruit by herself, and know directly where the fruit she so adores comes from – not the grocery store, but from spindly bushes in grandma’s back yard and other such places.

As soon as prune plums become locally available, I shall prepare a feast of Hungarian plum dumplings for all of us – and then show her that the young tree in my front yard will soon be providing the delicious fruit, year in, year out, God and the weather willing.

Gift giving and Gift wrapping…

August 5, 2008

June and July have been the gift giving season for us. Several family members and friends have had birthdays; this involves gift giving, and the inevitable gift-wrapping that accompanies it. This year for the Junior Rumpole family, Renaissance Man, Glasgow Girl and Mousey the gifts involved artisan-made or artist-made ones. Why not support the creative community, I figured.

The giving of gifts necessitates camouflaging them with wrappings to make them a ‘production’ of a present, to add glamour and mystery to what may in the end turn out to be an ugly pair of socks a recipient might only use to dust ceiling corners in perpetuity. There have been volumes of books published which are devoted to the fine craft of wrapping presents. The whole procedure becomes a painful chore to which proles, like yours truly, carry a life-long deep-seated antipathy, never being interested in developing refinements, which, when considered in seriousness, border on the frivolous, excessive and wasteful. Conventions of gift presentation carry with them a whiff of the bourgeois.  Ever conscious of my ‘pinko’ characteristics, I have made many attempts to down-play gift-wrappings, by giving presents which are awkward to box, bag or otherwise wrap.

Why, once, I decided to gift my younger sister, Margaret, with a lilac shrub. This item is rather challenging to camouflage. Rather than festoon it with wrappings of hideous patterned gift wrap paper, I chose to go ‘au naturel’, as in “what you see me dragging in is what you get so be prepared to do a superlative bit of acting and look absolutely surprised AND delighted”. Once I had arrived at Margaret’s house,  wrestled the shrub out from the car’s back seat, fluffed it up a bit to negate the dishevelment it had suffered during a twenty mile drive, I presented it to her with a flourish from behind my back ( as if she missed identifying the shrub as it poked out around my blocky body). Ta Daa! Surprise!!! Margaret can give Meryl Streep a run for her money as an actress, she faked surprise and pleasure so well. And the lilac has grown to monstrous proportions in the intervening years. It has given her scented blooms for her vases, or for her afternoons out sipping tea in its magnificent shade. And no gift wrap had been wasted or sent to the land-fill.

I was thinking back on this while considering exactly how I was going to ready the Junior Rumpole gifts for this year’s presentations. Renaissance Man’s gift of a silk-screen print by Anarchist Artist of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ was a cinch to prepare. I slipped it into a huge archival plastic envelope, one of those I use to store large drawings, rolled it into a large tube and wrapped a strip of fine drawing paper around its middle. A small tidy snick of tape to secure the paper strip, and it was good to go. Renaissance Man shares with me a mania for collecting art works on paper, so he will make good use of the archival plastic envelope for his own storage purposes. He didn’t seem crest-fallen in receiving a gift so casually presented. Score: proles

Glasgow Girl has enough residual bourgeoise tendencies to want a somewhat more fussy presentation. Eage to oblige, I scratched my grey head while considering solutions. Her gift, of a pottery serving-bowl, was a tad too small to place inside a flowery pillowcase and enclose with a length of ribbon from my sewing stash. Of course, I could have stuffed the pillow-case with shredded bills from the paper shredder, to disguise the contours of the gift, however it did not seem appropriate to accompany such a lovely present with slivers of paper bearing hidden evidence of my family finances, so, instead, I opted to use furoshiki.

For those unfamiliar with this term, using furoshiki involves wrapping and carrying objects inside a knotted, square, patterned cloth of cotton, rayon, or silk. I have long admired Japanese craft, aesthetics, and their national tendency to marry practicality with beauty. This seemed a perfect solution. I remembered that somewhere in the distant reaches of my bedroom closet was a box full of new, never used silk and wool scarves that I had recieved over the years as gifts. You don’t know what to get a man as a present? heck! Buy him socks – he always needs them. For women the equivalent of socks-for-all-occasions of gift giving must be scarves? However, for me, once I became aware that my idol, Isadora Duncan, had met her untimely and dramatic end by being choked to death when her long scarf wrapped around the wheels of her Bugatti, scarves had lost their lustre and glamour. Into the closet box all scarves were relegated, and some were real beauties.

So, out came the box of scarves, from which I selected a delicate orange and yellow silk one with sketchy flowers. I wrapped the pottery dish in several layers of newspaper,ensuring the wrapping had square corners, placed that bundle kitty-corner onto the silk square and alternately square-knotted opposite corners, leaving a lovely four-square petal of cloth at the top. It is possible to carry this package securely and without disturbing the decorative top by slipping fingers through the top knot. Glagow girl was delighted when she received this bundle.

“How on earth do you come up with these ideas?” she asked. “This looks too elegant to open.”

“Oh, the internet,” I said, modestly casting down my eyes, “but, do open it and see what’s inside.”

She opened the knots and unveiled her present. Then she asked what she should do with the scarf, as she, herself, didn’t wear them.

“Well, you can keep it, and use it to wrap a gift for someone else. That scarf should get around some!”

“You know, I have a huge stash of scarves, that just keeps growing yearly,” she commented. “This is such a perfect use for them.”

I ended up doing a same kind of wrapping for Mousey’s birthday present of mother and baby opossum hand puppets. She happily unwrapped her gift, and then toted it off home in her scarf furoshiki.

The other day when Jeanie was here for dinner, after we polished off a bottle of wine, I showed her how wine bottles can be wrapped singly or in pairs for gift-giving. She practiced furoshiki wrapping bottles on the coffee table and pronounced her results ‘brilliant’. She was going to drag out her collection of scarves, once she got home, and practice on all kinds of things to wrap up.

I feel I have been doing my level best, in an underground sort of way, to kill off custom for Hallmark and other purveyors of gift-wrappings. While I have never watched Martha Stewart’s shows and learned of those  modes of presentation which she pronounced “Good Things” this one might be right up her alley as a purveyor of domestic niceties.  Furoshiki – a good custom to practice.

Is it a vole…or is it a rat?

July 28, 2008

Our last morning on the island, Jeanine was unloading the dishwasher, Martha was organizing the recycling, and I was folding dried bedding. We were cleaning up our traces of a week’s habitation in Ron’s house. The sky was leaking fat dollops of rain, the first rain we had seen in several weeks. Our stay on the island had been full of sunshine and miraculous sunsets. The day’s rain made it easy to leave such idyllic a setting, to return to our suburbian lives rife with traffic and the roar of lawnmowers.

I was mentally reviewing a magical sighting of ravens winging overhead and calling to each other with their stones-dropping-into-water knocking sounds, when Martha’s urgent call beckoned.

“Quick, you guys, get over here, RIGHT NOW!!”. She had her nose plastered against the sliding glass door of the dining room and was gazing fixedly toward the outdoor bird feeding station. Jeanine and I converged and pressed our noses to the glass as well, eager to see some exotic new bird. Some rosy headed finches were chasing each oher around the feeder. A rufous-sided towhee muscled its way to the preferred area of the platform and put the finches to flight into the surrounding hedge.

“It’s the same old birds,” complained Jeanine brandishing a fistful of mixed cutlery. “Nothing new here. I’m going back to my labours.”

“Stay a moment and watch,” suggested Martha, “Just keep looking at the bottom of the feeder post.” We stayed put and watched, waited.

Soon a low rodent slinked out of the shadows at the bottom of the hedge, made a run to the base of the feeder, curled its body into a ball and proceeded to chow down on fallen seeds. It had cute round ears and button black eyes, a rounded head and fawn-coloured fur. I opened the sliding door, whereupon the beastie scurried back into the safety of the hedge. It flashed a longish tail.

“Eeuw!!” exclaimed Jeanine. “It’s a rat!!!” She slammed shut the sliding door. We stood on the inside, gazing out to get more sightings of this rat.

The animal made several forays into the grass around the bird-feeder’s base. It sat there munching away, undisturbed by the birds above, and by us shut safely behind glass doors. At every opportunity I studied its movements and conformation. While it shared rodent characteristics with rats, it looked distinctively different, shorter and rounder in body and with a compressed face that reminded me of a gerbil’s. Its eyes were bigger and more button-like, not beady like a rat’s.

“That might be a vole,” I conjectured. “There are voles living out in the wilds here. While it kind of looks like a rat it is too rotund, and its belly is a lighter colour.”

“Pshaw,” said Martha. “You are half blind, G. You can’t mean to tell me you can actually see it has a lighter underside. It’s got to be a rat!”

“Well, I can see flashes of beige.” I asserted. “Go look it up on Ron’s computer.” Yep, we were on an island, but the internet has extended its hooks even here, even if it was only by dial-up.

“We don’t have time to check,” said Martha, peevish. “We have to get our garbage down to the transfer station. I still say it’s a rat.”

“Yuk!” uttered Jeanine. “Just think, here we have been lolling around in the mornings and evenings with all the sliding doors open, and these rats may have taken up residence inside the house. What will Ron think when he comes home and finds his house infested with rats?”

“Well,” said Martha in her reasoning manner, ” he may rethink feeding birds outside. I had to stop doing that at home when I saw rats that were getting fat on fallen seed from my bird-feeder.”

“No kidding, you guys.” I repeated. “There are such things a voles. It’s probably just a vole who has discovered an easy source of food.” I opened the sliding door and returned to my chore of folding sheets and towels.

Here I’m back home and after greeting Rumpole and having a coffee with him, after playing with Jessica and giving her a dog cookie, after picking up the General and ruffling his fur, I repaired to Google the flora and fauna of the island we had been staying on. Sure enough, there are both voles and rats on that island. But after looking the photographs I am only halfway convinced that what we saw there was a vole. How can I be sure, me with my poor vision?

But, whatever it was, it was doing a fair job of fattening itself for the winter ahead, and also had secured itself a source of ready food for the leaner months. This is all to the good, providing it was a vole and not a rat. Ron may not be happy to have a whole population or brown rats he is feeding in perpetuity. And heaven help him if they take up domicile in his garage or basement. He will be inundated.

Surely he must be aware of that possibility. Maybe its us squeamish suburban matrons who need to take  deep breath and relax about the whole thing. Maybe I need to convince myself that it was just an innocent vole who we had sighted. Who knows?

Volunteers…

July 13, 2008

An enterprising squirrel planted a hazelnut in the foundation plantings. He thought to be clever and bury it deep down near the roots of some flourishing St. John’s Wart. His little squirrel brain, with its extensive information of sites of buried food for retrieval in the off-season, winter, must have been ovehelmingly full of detail; he forgot about the nut he buried there.

Early in the spring, I spied a couple of spindly hazel branches making elegant arcs over the leafing St. John’s Wort bed. Aha, a volunteer! I did not have the heart to yank it out and foolish me thought to let it stay, to see just how vigorous the hazel’s growth was to be by summer. So, now, in July, the few branches have grown into a young tree; its canopy swishes with the wind against the bug screen of our computer, music room. When one raises eyes from the computer monitor, a subtle green scrim filters out harsh sunlight. It pulses and shifts with the breezes, a lacy verdant curtain, far more desirable than any self-conscious leafy patterned fabric curtain indoors.

I shall have to foray out with shovel and spade, and rudely dislodge it from the foundation bed. The hazel, I now find out, has a vigorous growth habit. After some more development, its roots will disturb the house’s foundation, and make possible leaks to crack the cement. Such power in a natural vegetative force, to be able to encroach on natural and man-made hard materials. Still, I plan to embrace the rest of the summer season and grant a respite for this volunteer. In the Fall, when its leaves have released their hold on the branches, will be the time to pull it out. Perhaps, even, try to plant it in some other area of our little suburban plot. It would be ideal  for suburban plots to have some fruit and nut trees. Mature hazels produce a good crop of nuts, which are also delicious.

Out behind Rumpole’s woodworking addition, another squirrel has planted an acorn from one of the oak trees two blocks away. As far as I have been able to discern, the parent tree is one of two for many blocks around. Our little acorn seedling had such a bonsai appearance in its early establishment that I didn’t have the heart to dig it up. It has character; a persistent raddled beauty – awkward, its immature branches contorting from the West Winds prevalent on that side of our place. It is now as tall as me-a regular character with its gesturing thin main arms rising from a trunk slowly increasing in girth.

It makes me wonder just how many seasons must pass before the appearance of its fruiting, the acorns which hang in small clusters. It seems fortuitous that I have become interested in preparing my own drawing ink. The acorns will relase oak gall, which makes ink of a lovely character. The ink may not have many centuries of permanence, as all natural dyes it will fade when exposed to light for years. There is something so satisfying in the thought of preparing my own materials for drawing.

An acquaintance has a stand of black walnut trees. She is selling her property this fall, and she has many small black walnut seedlings which have volunteered to grow where they had fallen. Black walnut liquor makes a wonderful drawing ink. I shall ask to buy one of her volunteers and transplant it on the West side of out house; also ask her for the seed-hulls from her Black Walnut harvest this Fall. Soaking the seed coverings results in a beautiful ink. Like an old witch toiling over a vat, stirring, stirring, I can make drawing ink to give to artist friends and keep some for my own use. Then the newly transplanted volunteer will grow over the years and provide both ink and edible walnuts. Perhaps, not right away, but soon in the future.

The hunt for strawberries…

July 11, 2008

Martha and I had our dinner and movie night a couple of days ago. On Wednesdays, I am a guitar widow;  Rumpole goes from work directly to dinner with a friend and then to his standing weekly guitar lesson. Martha rented “Death at a Funeral” for our movie treat. She made a supper of ribs, salad and for special dessert, strawberries and raspberries au nature. This time of year is special for it is when that yearly gift of strawberries can be so briefly savoured and treasured.

Last week, Looking For Beauty, dropped by after one of her local shopping forays and shared her treasure trove of local organic strawberries with us. They were perfect, blood red throughout, plump and sweet. it occurred to me that it might be so pleasant to pull out of the freezer a little bag, during one of those cold, overcast winter days when root vegetable stews are a customary diet. So off this gift of strawberries went into the freezer.

The local  strawberry crop had been much reduced this year, due to inclement cold early summer days and rains. The farmers are hurting; their crop yield is more than halved. So acquiring a small amount of this fruit to put up for winter delight has become a challenge. Today, Martha and I are trekking out into the valley to farmer’s stands, on the lookout for a small amount of strawberries by which to remember summer during those long dark winter days. It seems, that, once in while, a ration of a couple of berries, thawed out, sprinkled with a small dusting of sugar  will be such a bounty to share with friends and family.

This is far more meaningful, in my opinion, than purchasing unripe strawberries at the supermarket; the ones that come from Chile or  other far-flung places during our winter season are inedible and a waste of resource to import. Better to appreciate small amouts of what our land and weather provide, closer to home, than to vainly pretend that the seasons do not in any way affect our lives and pleasures.

Strawberries are a luxury, a gift and a delight. Maybe the ones we find today will have come fresh from the fields, warm from the reflected heat of sun on soil. And then, tomorrow, when Byline Woman and The Engineer come for supper, we can celebrate 40+ years of friendship by ceremonially tasting a touch of a shared summer.