Archive for the ‘making do’ Category

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.

Killing time…

February 4, 2008

A rosy mackerel dawn sky, fractured between the spaces of the winter-bare apple tree, beckoned me outside this morning. I drew my housecoat around me, ran my fingers through sleep tousled hair and stepped out to stand beneath the tree. The dawn silence, so precious, was interrupted by the jet drone of a large passenger plane headed south-west to land at Lulu Island.

How strange the world looks from up there. If, indeed, passengers are not busying themselves with stashing books and magazines in their bags, pushing their folding-tables back into place on the seat-back in front of them, steeling themselves for the change in engine sounds as the plane descends or as the plane’s wheels thunk down from the wheel-wells and brace for the landing impact.

I took bracing breaths of the chill morning air, lingered briefly in the slowly changing light, then went back inside to read the paper with the first coffee of the morning. This is not a copy of our regular newspaper, but of the other daily which has today a section of the Weekend Thriller Contest, to which both Martha and By-line Woman sent in  a second chapter installment. Had to have a look-see at what second chapter was chosen to continue the plot. Otherwise this paper I refer to, disparagingly, as a “rag”. There is of course no news of what our neighbours to the South are undergoing in their selection of Presidential Candidates. There was a heart-rending write-up of a family dog who gave her life to a cougar in exchange for her master’s. I browsed through the various sections until I reached the travel section. At this season of the year people who travel by plane often encounter long lay-overs, flight cancellations and rerouting – all due to winter weather conditions. The article that caught my eye and attention was:

“Tips on ways to kill some time at YVR

TRAVEL B.C.: There is a plethora of creative activities awaiting you at the airport”

by Rebecca Stevenson, CANWEST NEWS SERVICE

It’s like a sudden loss of altitude in the pit of your stomach: that sinking feeling when you hear your flight is delayed indefinitely.

In the blink of an eye, you’re reduced from a peppy jet-setter to an aimless loiterer.

Stranded travellers, don’t despair. Beneathe the surface of any airport lies a plethora of creative activities to while away the hours.

Here, we discover the secret world of Vancouver International Airport, or YVR.

*The sound of music: Instantly nix about 225 minutes in the domestic terminal by getting thyself to Virgin Books and Music’s CD listening station, where you can sample three full-length CDs.

*The medical/dental plan: Proceed downstairs to the dental clinic, where you can get a one-hour tooth bleaching session for only $375. next door, at the medical clinic, travel vaccines and flu shots are on order.

*Massage or a manicure: The next best thing just might be a treatment at Absolute Spa, which provides hair, make-up, massage, facials, manicures and the rest. There are three specialty “flight-delay” packages ranging from $75 – $95.

*The next level: And once you’re reduced to molten flesh, there is no telling what you might do next. Potential inductees to the famous “mile-high club” might want to pick up some condoms or lubrication at Pharmasave.

*Looking Good: Don’t forget to beautify at the Body Shop’s make-up testing counter.

*Food and drink: Gorging on calories and boredom often go hand-in-hand. But instead of defaulting to a personal dozen at Tim Hortons, why not add some flare to your consumption? Saunter down to the 7-Eleven in the Domestic Terminal and relive childhood by making your own root-beer float, or sipping a slurpee.

Treat yourself to a swanky meal at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport’s Globe @YVR or jetside Lounge restaurants, where you can sink your posh derriere into stuffed armchairs and take in the executive view of the runways.

*Drag your bloated body back to the Fairmont and use the Health Club ($10 for just the shower and sauna, $15 for the gym and pool). You can even drop into yoga and pilates classes.

*Shhh. had your fill of these sushi-eating, downward-dogging West Coast health maniacs? The Fairmont’s Quiet Zone Day Room ($99 for four hours) is literally the stuff lazy dreams are made of.

*Culture Vultures: Refreshed travellers can flit about the airport and soak up a bit of culture. First Nations art installations – including a massive Haida jade sculpture – are scattered throughout both terminals.”

(Sunday, February 3, 2008   THE PROVINCE)

After reading this article I realized once again why I hate reading newspaper Travel Sections (among other sections) where what purports to be an article is really nothing more than editorial advertising with copy-writing of the most breathless order.  Even the headline’s “ways to kill time” phrase panders to the most unthinking among us. Oh, sure, I know it’s just a figure of speech, but what a profoundly mindless one it is. But to couple it with the phrase”plethora of creative activities” and then to follow that up with a list of “consumer” services which cost a small fortune really insults a reader’s intelligence.

Nita at  posted on February 2, 2008 her writing about a truly creative act related to travel and flying, by a former Indian Airlines flight engineer, Bahadur Chand Gupta who created an opportunity to experience what it is to be inside a plane for people who would otherwise never set foot in an airport, enter and sit in a plane or rise above the surface of the earth. Nita’s piece, titled “A dream come true for those who will never fly.” is one which throws into painful contrast the attitudes we in developed countries have toward travel, particularly of the resource-consuming sort we take for granted such as air travel, against the realities of limited access to creature comforts, let alone opportunities for travel experienced by people living in  other parts of the world.

Here, where I live, to buy into so much sybaritic comfort made possible so that I and others can while away or “kill time” in superficial pleasures  requires a suspension of disbelief. The modern airport is an extension of the modern shopping mall, if I interpret The Province article correctly. Waiting, in transit between one place and the next, I must be entertained, pampered, pandered to in order to be lulled into acceptance of the “urge” to keep in constant motion around the world, otherwise I may have a spot or two of time where I may begin to think for myself and realize that travel is not what I would rather want or need to do.

Flash Fiction…Postcard Story…

December 4, 2007

The prompt is to use – George, Venice, bee, catastrophe, sweater – for a written piece that fits a postcard.

I, George Obbligato, otherwise called Giorgio in my hometown, Venice, am lying on the terrace on my chaise longue and recalling what happened between Orazio and me in the reataurant last night.

As you know, Orazio is the chef at my restaurant “Le Falerne alla Fiamma”. Last night, all of a sudden Orazio felt chilly. He put on his moth-eaten sweater, the one that trails loose threads from holes in the elbows. I was quite irritated to see him dangling some of these in the “zabaglione” he was whisking with vigorous strokes. I yelled at him. “If you are dressed so warm against imagined cold, I, myself am sweating from all the steam generated by the cooking pasta.”

I threw open the door leading to the alley, and went on separating radicchio leaves, washed these carefully, quite comfortable and busy, when suddenly Orazio starts yelling at the top of his lungs. “What a catastrophe, there’s a bee in my Zabaglione.”

This was a list of words given to my writing workshop to use in a ten-minute exercise. This is what I came up with from off the top of my head.


October 4, 2007

This coming Thanksgiving weekend, Renaissance Man and his friend, Pete, are going surfing on the west coast of Vancouver Island, leaving behind wives, children and family, home and work obligations, to play in the water and sand. They don’t care whether the forecast is for sun or rain.  They just hope for good waves.

I have seen pictures of numbers of these young men of varied ages dragging and piling beach refuse into huge piles behind which to take refuge from the westerly winds punishing this shore. Their multicoloured surf-boards are erected like menhirs in Brittany, aligned, waiting for the perfect waves, the magic condition for their deployment. These worshippers of the surf are all garbed in severe black neoprene skin-suits, huddled, waiting behind their windbreak.

When he first announced his intention to go surfing in this inclement weather, my gut reaction was instant fear for his safety.  I greeted his announcement in frozen silence. Holding back from uttering a motherly caution, I wondered if this fear for my child, who is no longer a child, but a man with a family and good common sense, would ever cease in my lifetime. I marvelled at how even as a young child he was fascinated by contrasting elements; water acting on sand and gravel, piles of different things disarranged by an applied force acting on them.

At first, when he was about 16 months old, Renaissance Man was partial to outings to the sand-pit in the park across the street from our basement apartment. He didn’t particularly like the feel of sand after he had a faceful flung at him by another young child. Yet, he liked to slog through the sand on his sturdy little legs. He studied the marks behind him made by his feet as he laboured along making parallel v-shaped grooves behind him.

A year later, we were living up north where great snowfalls reigned in the wintertime. Bundled up like a spaceman in his winter gear, he waddled around in the snow, whenever he was not ensconced in his little sled with me pulling him like a plow horse. Whenever I had to dig out the car from drifts, he stayed near, patting the piles created by digging into a semblance of order with  his mittened hands.

Indoors, during the spring before he turned three, he played with his Christmas present, a yellow Tonka dump-truck. I bought a good supply of cube sugar which was his to play with, to load, dump and reload. He made piles of sugar cubes, built strange lines of several rows  meandering on the green indoor-outdoor carpet of the living room. He shrieked with frustration when he attempted to create discrete piles out of these white granular squares. They did not make tidy mounds. As they gradually lost sharp corners and edges, became rounded, they rolled down the incline of the pile in unpredictable ways.

One day we went to the central depot for our bulk provisions of flour, granular sugar, oat flakes, nuts, beans and wheat germ. He watched in earnest as I ladelled my allotted quantities of consumables into separate old cotton pillowcases. Once home with this bounty, he carefully observed transfer of these goods into large jars, cans and cartons. He ran his hands through each type of substance, feeling textures. I wondered what was going through his young mind as he did this.

A couple of days later, the results of his thought processes manifested itself, in a quite surprising way. In the middle of the night, truck-sound splutterings and roars filtered into my unconscious.  I lay in bed, disoriented, until the nature of the sounds registered on my sleepy brain.  It was Renaissance Man, playing and making noises in the kitchen. I stumbled out of the bedroom to find lights on in the kitchen. RM was crawling along, operating his yellow dump truck and spilling dark brown mounds onto the carpeted floor. He was one with his machine, providing the sound-effects of growling diesel engines. There were shallow ribbons of road-ways connecting these mounds. These had a hard glistening surface like fresh ashphalt. He had created the miniature world of a construction materials depot.

“Mom, look!” he gleefully waved muck-encrusted little hands at me.

I looked. There were separate mounds of coffee grounds, wheat germ, beans and oatmeal joined by roads composed of jam, peanut butter and brown sugar. These roads snaked around the whole kitchen floor. RM looked extremely proud of what he had made.

I grabbed him up and took him into the bathroom to clean him of sticky and gritty substances. Although he had used up food supplies so carefully laid in with what little money we had, I didn’t have the heart to chide him.

“You know, that is all stuff we eat that you used to make your construction yard,” I muttered, wiping crud from his hands. ” but we will have to clean all the roads up from the floor before they harden.”

“Can we sleep first?” he asked as he yawned.

“Yes, we’ll clean up in the morning,” I replied, carting him, now clean, to his bedroom.

Back in my own bed, I resolved to make him his own sand-box in the back-yard as soon as the spring melt ended.

Came Spring –  sunny, windy days, aspens broke into their tender green. The muddy ground dried and we cleared an area in the background of grass, and dug down to provide a pit to contain sand. We went off in the car to one of the local lakes which was our sandy swimmming hole in summertime. There we shovelled sand into garbage can, and buckets and took them home to deposit into our sand pit. We made several trips to get enough sand to make a decent play area. RM enjoyed having a part in creating his play space. He collected rocks and pebbles, and built up a supply of various sized gravel mountains that he carefully separated by size of unit components. He spent time in this outdoor play zone and built himself a complex world where he moved stuff about, constructing, dismantling and reconstructing as his imagination prompted. He collected twigs and sticks to augment his little world.

One dinner-time as we were feasting on broccoli, his little face lit up with a realization of discovery. Of a new idea.

“Mom, we are really eating trees right now,” he announced, brandishing a broccoli spear in his hand. “Can I have some fresh ones to plant in my city?”

“You are right, these do look like trees. But this is food, hard to come by. Maybe we can go and look for stuff in the yard that might make good trees,” I told him.

The following summer, we travelled to Vancouver to visit family and friends, go to the beach, hike in the woods and visit parks. A university friend had an installation showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Also being exhibited was an American Minimalist’s work, labelled “PILES”. Renaissance Man was my gallery companion to this exposition. I figured it was never too early to introduce him to gallery experiences, and model some appropriate gallery behaviours. His questions about new experiences he encountered were pointed, and his reactions fresh and surprising.

So, on a sunny afternoon, before hitting the sands of Second Beach to play and frolic in the sea and sand, we took a brief side-trip to see this exhibition. The main gallery held “PILES”. Grabbing Renaissance Man firmly by the hand, I hefted the heavy gallery door open. He swiftly squeezed through ahead of me, disengaged his hand from mine and simply stood there in silence taking in the various piles of gravel, gravel drawings in the floor.

“Oh, Wow!  Piles!” he chirped, took off at a run before I could grab him, made a bee-line for the nearest gravel mound and flung himself on top of it. He lay there, working his little hands in the gravel. He was grinning with pleasure. I grabbed him up, just as the irate gallery guard materialized from his station somewhere in the gallery.

“Madam, you have to have better control of your child.” he ordered in a stentorian voice. “Look, he has wrecked an exhibit!”

What did Renaissance Man care about the fact that the various piles were examples of the concept of “The angle of repose”? Or of possible methodology of placing precised edged drawings  composed of gravel lines on the gallery’s floor? He simply reacted, directly and honestly from his particular experience and appreciation of the materials thus displayed. To him, these piles of different quality of gravels represented a potential to manipulate and create with of an imagined end that he had in his own mind. These piles called to him with an irresistible and unheard siren call of “handle me, use me, make a world with me!!!”

With red face, I clung firmly to his hand and we walked around the exhibit, talking about where the piles of stuff came from, how they were brought into this place, and how possibly they had been created.

He expressed surprise that a grown man had made this display of stuff he himself was so familiar moving about.

“Dads really do this? They still play with gravel and sand?” he asked, mystified.

So, I wonder, will he, perhaps, remember his early play with earthen materials, as he plants his surf-board in the sand, shifts logs and beach debris to make a shelter from the winds, dig his toes into the sand and watch the water shift the shoreline as he waits for the perfect waves to form?

The Fur Coat…

September 15, 2007

A long time ago, I read somewhere a movie review where the shortness of the lead actor was compared to the willowy height of the leading actress as “he looked like a midget walking in a trench”. This describes perfectly how I look when wearing a fur coat.  I said so to my friend Jane when she insisted on dragging me to the furrier’s located on the first floor of Rumpole’s office building. This was back some 28 years ago, up north – a place where it made sense to wear fur coats in the winter-time.

Jane was a fashionista who loved clothes of a luxurious cloth and cut. She badly desired to own and wear a gorgeous fur coat of the latest design. She did own a dilapidated mouton coat inherited from her grandmother. It had leg of mutton sleeves which added football-player proportions to her otherwise slim build. When wearing this “poor woman’s mink” coat she looked unsteady on her thin legs which looked like inadequate stilts with which to support a bear-like bulk.

On a cold December Saturday, after having done her sheep pen  and meat rabbit hutch cleaning chores, she phoned me to request my assistance in negotiating a trade of her lamentable mouton coat for a brand new, luxe, fur coat at the downtown furrier’s. We were to meet at a nearby coffee shop to prepare ourselves for the fur-trading process.  Jane was a keen and experienced bargainer and rehearsed her methods well in advance of the actual dickering.

I buttoned myself into my favourite winter coat for casual wear – Apu’s old plaid hunting jacket that hung to below my knees and with twice rolled up sleeves kept me snug and warm at -25F winter temperatures. At the coffee shop, Jane picked her jaw up from the table surface and announced “you can’t go fur shopping looking like that!” Her grandmother’s ratty mouton coat hung from the back of her chair like a forlorn dead thing.

“Well, no matter how you look at it, we are going to a place where the hides of dead animals are displayed.  There is no sign of the carnage that accompanies the production of furs. The least you and I could do is to attend there in the roles of both the hunter and the hunted,” I responded in my best sarcastic fashion.

We drank a couple of cups of coffee. Jane rehearsed approaches toward the clerk which might incline him to give her a good trade up to the desired fashionable fur for her disreputable old one. We worked up the nerve to cross the street and brave entry to the fur salon.  I trailed after Jane into the showroom like a hunter stalking prey.

An effete young gentleman greeted us effusively as if we were “grande dames” wearing the latest in winter furs. He gave no hint of what must have been going through his mind (These two characters look fresh off the farm… if not the farm then the trap line?) Jane, in her best shopping manner, told him what kind of coat she had in mind, the colour, the cut, the kind of fur, and the occasions it was intended for.  The young clerk swanned about bringing with elegant flourish one amazing fur concoction after another. Jane tried them all on and posed graceful as a fur model in front of the three-way mirror.  I stayed in the background, unbuttoned from my hunting coat, trying to sit as prim as possible, mukluks crossed in a lady-like pose and twiddling my fingers.  My mind strayed from the fashion show on hand to the contrast of smell between the perfumed fur sales room and my memories of the reek of mink and chinchilla farms as my family had driven by them many summers ago on the way to the local swimming hole.

Jane mentioned trading up from her mouton to a new below-knee length blonde mink coat. This smartly brought my wondering mind back to the situation at hand. She handed over her coat to the young man.  He appeared reluctant to lay his hands on it and held it out between his pinched thumbs and forefingers as he looked it over. With a disdainful expression on his face and holding out the coat as if he feared being sullied by its proximity to his person, he smartly marched over to a garbage can and dropped the mouton coat into it.

“No trade-in value here!” he announced as he wiped his fingers in fussy gestures against his pant legs. Poor Jane was mortified as she retrieved her coat from the garbage can, put it on and buttoned up.

The clerk turned his back on us, dismissing us. As Jane was shepherding me to the shop door, I could not resist a parting shot.

“I do need a good casual fox jacket to wear while mucking out the barn. Can you suggest a little something for me?”

To this day, Jane still has not replaced her grandmother’s mouton coat, as far as I know. It does keep her cosy and warm on those bone-freezing mornings when she does her farm chores.

The First Lesson…

September 10, 2007

It may be because the it is near the beginning of public school term, or on accout of my preoccupation with preparing a two-hour lesson on Rhythm for the weekly private painting class about to resume tonight. I woke up from a teaching dream.  Every year, starting in the middle of August, I dream often about being in the classroom – this despite being away from teaching in the public school system for the past twenty-one years.

What may account for why this particular memory cropped up today is the recent discussion Martha and I have been having concerning the beginning of her year as teacher of Photography, Media Studies and Art and all the peculiar joys and trials that attend her employment.  This year, it has been disallowed to levy a student lab fee in all courses in this province. Adding to this financial stumbling-block, Martha’s school district has clawed back all unspent department budgets, so those teachers who were relying on a reserve they held back from last year in order to survive the following year’s demands for materials have suddenly found themselves without a means to afford to do with their current classes activities which need added funding. I have suddenly found myself reliving my experience of my very first year as a public school art specialist, back thirty-six years ago.

Renaissance Man, two years old, and I, a callow twenty-five, had transplanted ourselves with our meager belongings and our ancient Austin 1100 heap to this small northern community of 7000+ souls in August of my first year as teacher. We took stock of our new surroundings, familiarized ourselves with where to obtain provisions and services, explored the countryside with its wilds of lakes, logging roads, rivers and mixed boreal forest. He came with me to the school where I was to take up my first teaching post and there he made big drawings with crayons on rolled out long sheets of white bond paper while I busied myself with arranging and re-arranging tables and stools and, in disbelief, counted and recounted the meager supplies with which to occupy over 240 students each day during the upcoming school term. RM’s happy background commentary on what he was creating on his large sheets of paper was a welcome distraction to my mounting panic as I realized just how little material I had to work with. In the storage room was a shelf unit bearing several reams of white cartridge paper, some 30 boxed sets of oil pastels, a number of gallon jugs of black, white, red, yellow and blue poster paint, some ratty paintbrushes bound with elastic bands, a terrific supply of clay working tools but no clay and about several years’ supply of various sacks of glaze chemicals.

What to do? This question occupied my increasingly sleepless nights leading up to the first week of classes. No doubt about it, to my mind, colour had to be our first concern for at least several months.  The numerous aspen trees surrounding our small town were turning to a wonderful beaten gold colour, their splendour set off by cerulean skies and dramatically punctuated by the sonorous darkness of stands of spruce. The students were looking forward to a season of increasing darkness, of somber muted earth tones and blanketing white snows. Surely the first week of art class was meant to celebrate the bountiful gorgeousness of our commonly experienced fall landscapes. I obsessed about this in the week leading up to the first formal classroom experiences with my new charges. But how to do this while sequestered inside the bleak walls of a basement art room?

I have always been one to poke about wherever I find myself, picking up bits and pieces – stones, bark, roadside weeds, dried grasses, leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. So, a couple of days before classes were to begin, Renaissance Man and I foraged outdoors, making a game of finding all kinds of different fallen leaves.  These we took back to our basement apartment and spread around on the green indoor/outdoor carpet of our unfurnished living room.  Here we sorted according to leaf type, laid out sequences of colour changes in leaves, discussed why this might be so and packaged our finds into separate large brown paper grocery sacks.  RM helped me carry these sacks out to the Austin and there they were, ready to be taken to my classroom.

On the first day of formal teaching, I dropped Renaissance Man at his sitter’s, kissed his chubby cheeks and promised to return for him soon. I drove to school with my paper sacks of leaves, hauled them into the classroom and lined them carefully on the floor by my desk.  Then I ran upstairs to fortify myself with several cups of horrid staff-room coffee and nervously paced about chain-smoking and mentally rehearsing how the lesson was to proceed. Mercifully, the seasoned teachers, recognizing a terrified neophyte, lounged about, quite relaxed it seemed, and left me to my desperate internal rehearsal.

Once I had enough caffeine in my system to brave facing the first grade eight class, I scurried down to the class-room and prepared for home-room.  Taking attendance calmed me down somewhat.  However, much too soon, home room was over, the kids left and in straggled a great gaggle of eager faced, scrubbed bunch of shortish youngsters. There were thirty eight of them, perched in clumps on the stools around eight large tables, waiting expectantly.

Introductions disposed of, we did the seating plan and there still was 40 minutes of class left.  I led the class outside and across the street where there was a row of aspens glowing gold and trembling in the slight breeze. We sat down under the trees, the kids very quiet, me squatted down leaning back on an aspen trunk, the students gathered in a seated semicircle.  I stayed silent and gazed upward at the canopy above us and soon the kids started to look upward also.  We sat like this, looking upward and quiet for many minutes.  Finally I started speaking about how I was going to miss sitting under trees for the rest of the school year just looking at the sky winking between the leaves, the changing colour of leaves ruffled by the breeze or wind and  “see, now, those leaves starting to fall down toward us coasting and sailing on the air – following their trajectory, predicting where their movement would take them.” I traced the motion of leaf’s fall, then another, had each student watch for a leaf to detach and draw its passage through the air. “Remember what line this movement makes and think about it quietly while we go back inside”, I said.  We trooped back into the classroom in silence.

There I distributed  boxes of oil pastels,  piles of cartridge paper and a brown paper bag containing leaves to each table and then climbed onto my teachers desk and grsping a handful of leaves from my own bag of leaves.  There I made like a tree, arms upraised and let go a leaf at a time, suggesting in the meanwhile that kids look at the implied rhythm lines made by the leaves and begin to draw their version of tree with falling leaves showing a tracery of motion in a composition. Some of the leaves fell down into my wide dress sleeve, which I admitted tickled and giggled at and that kind of broke the ice and the students laughed. And they busied themselves drawing with their oil pastels like mad.

As the warning bell that signalled 5 minutes to end of class rang, I jumped off the desk and had the kids come up to tape their coloured drawings on the side wall. Some kids at each table collected the pastels and boxed them, while others gathered the reference leaves and piled them back into the paper sacks.  We looked at the drawings and discussed them in a shy fashion and agreed that they were pretty good ways of showing the motion of falling leaves. As the final bell rang out, I was in the middle of reminding them to look at the falling leaves on their way home from school that afternoon.

The kids smiled as they walked out saying their good-byes.  I felt kind of sheepish, even silly, but then I thought, “What the heck, there has to be an ice-breaker with every group of individuals.” And I decided that day to make fun and pleasure a part of the daily art learning experience with students, and that this would not mean any less seriousness in our endeavours together.


August 11, 2007

The blackboard hangs on the wall, one half smeared with the white dust of last day’s markings: equations erased sweeps of chalk, conjugated verbs yesterday’s faint powder tracery or, perhaps, listed assignments an obscured scrawl.

I have been out of the class room for the past twenty-two years. Yet, every August about half-way through the month, my thoughts return, like migrating geese to their winter home, to the class-rooms of my fourteen year career as a teacher.

The other day I was in Staples looking for a mechanical pencil, of the type I like to keep in my purse and with which to make scratchy diagrams and drawings to illustrate points of discussion whenever I am having coffee with friends. Down one aisle of the store were cork bulletin boards and small blackboards that could be hung on a kitchen or office wall. It occurred to me that a medium sized blackboard would come in handy for my at-home-studio teaching of drawing and painting.

When I taught high-school art classes, I loved to go into school early in the morning and lay out with white and coloured chalks notes and drawings of ideas we were involved in exploring. The previous afternoon, before leaving the class room my last  act would be to sweep aside that day’s scrawled and drawn information. Often, I would pause and study the cryptic comments made by students in the margins of my own marks – these were signs of their engagement, or not, in our mutual mind activity of the day. Sometimes, I would be careful to preserve little islands of student scrawls and leave them on the board for days; this mystified the kids.

I always loved the immediacy and casual nature of the black-board – its impermanence, its vast empty space for mind-markings, its pentimentos of coloured chalk echoing through newly printed and drawn information.

I think I’ll go to the lumber yard and buy a 4ft by 4ft slab of masonite, buy some chalkboard paint and make my own blackboard for my studio.  On it I can then rehearse ideas, work out images, play and elaborate to my heart’s content, have a space for students to also work out their own concepts and carry forward in the present this fondness for that matte-surfaced, valuable palimpsest.

Personal colour…

July 26, 2007

Ten years ago Prissy German Tourist and I audited an experimental painting course at a nearby college. We loaded up his van three times a week with piles of gear and materials and drove the 30 or so kilometers for our afternoon studio sessions. I had the dubious honour of being the oldest person in the studio and the students gave me wide berth.

We always arrived about an hour early in order to be able to carve out our own working spaces, array our supplies and ready work surfaces. PGT always prepared his colours at home. He decanted colours from off-tints  he bought at paint stores and put them in squeeze bottles.  In a previous incarnation he had been a commercial illustrator/designer and had defined his personal colour palette from his close knowledge of the Pantone colour system. He favoured clear pastel colours, both warms and cools and juxtaposed them with greyed colours which I associated with persistent depression. All of his work demonstrated a frayed, slightly morbid colouration, but could he ever strike a strongly individual temperature and mood in his use of colours. At the end of studio sessions, while we all walked about looking at each other’s productions, his work would be striking for its amazing colour pallette.

My own work tended toward the highly saturated, with jarring contrasts. I rarely used blue, red or yellow, and my colour preference leaned toward the secondary and tertiary colour combinations. I like modifying colours with their complementaries. The grey scale held its particular attractions for me, as well.

The rest of the students in the studio also demonstrated truly individual colour preferences.  Some liked tinkering with colour mixing; others just squeezed colour directly from tubes or ladled from jars and rarely mixed.

Our instructor’s colour pallette preferences remained a mystery to me until I made a visit to his studio downtown, later in the academic year. He never discussed our use of colour in studio during critiques and individual advice sessions, and this I thought very peculiar, given that we all laboured away, individually trying to come to grips with colour as it related to expression of ideas. So visiting this fellows studio proved completely surprising, especially in his personal use of colour in his paintings.  He favoured what I considered mildly adventurous men’s shirt selection colours – the kind that would be arrayed for a spring sale in a men’s clothing store, whisper colours, not outright declarative ones. “You like candy colours, but washed out ones!” I said to him.  But then his paintings were of classical, nubile female nudes, vaguely erotic in a chaste sort of way, painted laboriously with little hint of gesture in the work. “You use a conflicted Catholic palette!” I tentatively ventured.  This comment led to a discussion about temperament, emotional colourings in expression, and how to discover a personally meaningful way of making art for oneself.

Colours to me have the capacity to evoke taste and sound – this may seem weird, but then I also consider sounds to have texture, colour, sheen and weight. There is a term for this tendency to perceive sensory input in an intertwined and not separate manner – synaesthesia.  PGT experiences like this, and so did our college instructor.  I have had many friends who experience colour in this manner.  Over the years, discussing colour with people with this capacity has yielded some poetic descriptions, unusual ways of describing colour sensations.

In the scheme of things, of living in a complex world of strange phenomena and happenings, paying attention to colour expression and potential may seem frivolous to some.  However, it pays to be attentive to how much information colours can reveal. Scientists and doctors glean important information from colours they perceive. Ordinary people do as well discriminate about the ranges of experience frome pleasant to unpleasant, desirable to undesirable, safe to unsafe, based on their association with a range of colours and tones.

Colour is important to me, in that it influences my moods so much and yields so many moments of amazement and surprise.  Life is rich, and even as my abilty to see acutely and with clarity has been so hampered lately, colours retain their powerful presence in my life.

Bordeaux and Frejus…

May 20, 2007

My art school friend Myra was as sheltered by her family as I was. We were both 19 years old an spent a considerable amount of energy during our first year of art school convincing our parents that we should be allowed to embark on an extended trip around Europe. Once parental permissions were granted, we plotted and planned our itinerary, our necessary baggage, applied for our passports, got our innoculations and acquired phrasebooks in French, Spanish, Italian and German.  Also we both purchased that young travellers’ bible “Europe on $5 a Day”.  This we studied individually as well as together, so that we could determine what we wanted to see on our travels, and how we could manage our movements on scant funds.

One absolute requirement from both sets of our parents was that we not let each other from sight, and we carefully look out for each other during our travels.  This we assented to readily as neither of us had travelled anywhere solo before and each of us had some trepidations about our upcoming forays into foreign places.

We had travelled around Northern France, Normandy and Britanny, Northern, Central and coastal Spain, and had explored the Western French Mediterranean.  We had visited many churches, their crypts, museums, art galleries, alleys and byways, small villages, farming communities, bunkers in Britanny, open air markets, Foire Forailles, book-sellers stalls, specialty grocery stores, corner bars, Pieds Noirs restaurants where we ate meals of horse meat, all the American Express outlets in various places where our mail had been forwarded to. We stayed at hostels to sleep and sometimes in train stations’ waiting rooms. A few times we slept overnight on trains, most uncomfortably. We ate casual meals consisting of a ficelle, some sausage and cheese, a tomato, some fruit we picked up on our daily meanderings. When we stayed at hostels we cooked vegetables and pasta and washed it all down with some spectacularly cheap and bad red wine.

By the time we were in Frejus, two months had passed, and we were tiring of each other’s company. Myra rarely had her own strong desires as to what she wanted to see and do, and I got rather weary of constantly putting forth possibilities, usually a great variety of them, to see if Myra would like to choose one activity over another.  She’s shrug and say “That sounds like fun, let’s do that.” This always in a limp and half-hearted fashion which made me suspect she was bored by most of what we ended up doing.

In the hostel in Bordeaux, I had met Santiago, a young architect from Argentina who had just completed his degree at an Eastern US university. He had embarked on a three month tour of Romanesque and Gothic churches in order to study their plan footprints and their attached and adjacent enclosures.  He showed me a set of drawings he had done up to this time, carefully explaining the differences from one cathedral’s footprint to the next. He said Bordeaux had a range of churches showing gradual shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic, and proposed to take Myra and me and any other denizens of the hostel on a study tour the next day.  I rounded up the victims (ahem, fellow curious travellers) and bright and early the next day we trooped off to an exhilarating and exhausting journey from church to church around Bordeaux.

By the time we had made careful tours of only three Romanesque churches, many of our companions flagged and insisted on sitting in outside cafes, drinking wine, while Santiago and I tackled yet another examination of some obscure cathedral. He and I happily sketched and photographed, asked permission from the sacristan to visit the crypt, to go up in the campanile.  It was while we were in the tower examining the bells and how they were anchored that Santiago turned to me and asked me to consider travelling with him through Northern and Central Spain where we could together study the cathedrals he had determined worthy of his examination. “A strictly virtuous companionship” he expressed. “You are someone with whom I can be quiet, do the necessary thinking, and drawing and photographing, and I think you would know how to occupy yourself fruitfully in your own drawings and studies.” He asked me to let him know by the end of the day, if this would be a travel arrangement I would agree to.

Over dinner back at the hostel I discussed this proposal with Myra. When she looked crest-fallen, with a slightly abandoned air, I hastened to reassure her that in spite such an offer being terribly enticing, I had not forgotten my promises to both our parents.  We would continue our journey together.  She reacted with relief, wherupon I sought out Santiago in the crowded lounge and explained as to why I could not go off with him. He said, “Why, you are like one of our honourable Argentinian young women, no wonder I find you so amenable and comfortable!” So we arranged to meet up in Barcelona in a month’s time at the Parc Guell’s restaurant and share travel stories.  He hugged me and wished us a good journey. ( We did meet up at the Parc Guell a month later, as arranged, where we looked at each other’s drawings over a bottle of wine)

So here we were in the hostel at Frejus,  Myra and I, sunburned and starved after a long walk along the beach to St Tropez and back to Frejus. Myra had read a lot about St. Tropez, and how famous actors such as Brigitte Bardot hung her hat there, so she insisted we had to see what it was like.  She absolutely had to buy a bikini from one of the shops in that village.

We had shopped for food on the walk back to the hostel – some pasta, garlic, butter, cheese and tomatoes. In the communal kitchen I messed around inventing a tomato sauce, while Myra cooked up the pasta and amused herself by throwing tendrils up to the ceiling to see when they would stick there.  She maintained that pasta that stuck to the ceiling meant that it was all cooked and  was ready to consume.  A couple of young men from Mozambique were frying up horse meat steaks next to us and were plying us with some really awful red wine.  We all decided to share our feasts, as long as they kept the wine flowing.

So, happily we consumed at leisure, what, in hindsight, was a terrible meal – sticky pasta, unspiced sauce and greasy tough horse steaks. But, with the wine it all went down well, and in the fashion of meetings in hostels we got along famously and filled each other in on where we had come from, where we were going and what we found amazing during our journeys.  The wine soon got to me, and I excused myself to go to bed, leaving Myra to entertain the young guys.  Went off, had a cold shower (hot water?, what hot water?) and fell onto the bunk.

Sometime after lights out, Myra woke me up from an uncomfortable sunburned sleep.  She sat on the end of my bunk, excited, swinging her legs and looking quite happy. “G. I have made up my mind that I will go with the boys from Mozambique tomorrow.  They want to go to the Le Mans car races, and that sounds so exciting! I will meet you in Rome in three weeks time and will send you a letter at the American Express office there as to where we should meet and on what day.”  Groggy, I muttered “Okay, but what about the promise we made our parents?  I am quite happy to carry on alone, but how do we handle  reassuring our parents  that we are being looked after?” Myra, confident, cautioned “No need to mention this to anyone at home.  Promise me you’ll say nothing about this?” “Okay. ” I agreed, turned over and went back to sleep.

The following morning, we were late emerging from our sunburned sleep.  Most of the hostel residents were headed down the road.  Only Myra, I, the two boys from Mozambique and a young man in his early thirties were left in the communal lunchroom. We all had our packs and bags sitting by our tables, and the young man had made a pot of coffee that he shared with the rest of us sleepy ones.  Myra launched into a reiteration about how exciting it would be to go to Le Mans, how she wished i would go along, and how guilty she felt leaving me to travel on alone.  She asked what my plans were, so launching into details about going to St Paul de Vence, Cap Ferrat, Cap D’Ail, Monaco and Menton, I hastened to reassure her I would be all right travelling on my own.

She went off to wash down the kitchen, the boys swept the lunch-room and washed down the tables, I swept and washed the hostel vestibule, and the young man swept the stairs and walkways to the front door.  Myra and the Mazambiquians hefted their gear, hugged me good-bye and went their way toward the main road. The young man appeared with a shiny Norton motorbike upon which he strapped his pack.  He waited to walk me to the train station, and on the way there introduced himself and explained he still had a week of his holiday to spend before going back to England to his job as a photography technician.  “Do you feel just a little bit nervous being on your own so suddenly? ” he asked.  Had to admit that yes, it was a bit daunting. “Would you mind we met in a week’s time at the hostel for dinner in Cap D’Ail?” he asked quietly. “Would you really do that?” I quizzed him. “Sure”, said he “I will cook, and we can talk about your adventures on your own up to that time, and the next day I’ll have to ride off to England and go back to work.   Once you meet up with your friend in Rome you’ll be able to tell your her that a young man waited for you and  cooked you dinner when you arrived in Cap D’Ail!”

A week later, I trudged up the hill to the hostel in Cap D’Ail.  Parked by the front entrance was a black Norton motorbike.  My heart lifted in gratitude.  Robert was waiting for me with prawns and a Nicoise salad and a small bottle of wine.  We toasted “To new friends, and to future adventures!”

On the mend…

May 8, 2007

A quiet sunny morning.  It is unseasonably cool for May. The apple tree outside my kitchen window is snowing its petals onto the grass. “Rumpole” and I had a quiet breakfast, he read out loud of the newspaper to me this morning. It promises to be a long and slowly moving day, just perfect for recuperating.

The lens was removed from my left eye during the third operation. Some light and dark shapes make themselves manifest when I close my right eye, which the surgeon says is a good sign.  However with infections and haemorrhaging in the left globe the retina may fail to seat itself correctly.  Only time will tell what the end result might be. So I am assuming for the time being that being one-eyed  is the short and medium term prognosis.  This is fine, with me, because better to have some residual sight than none at all.  I can read for a little while now, so that provides certain satisfaction for every day.

So the days pass, I feel better and more hopeful, and am plotting different ways to make adjustments. And most thankfully, friends and family don’t treat me as if I am about to fall apart or must be carted about with my tender sensibilities swathed in cotton batting. This is good!

And I read all your blogs happily.  Thanks for being there!