Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Food is Love

I grew up in a family where food was love. Food was an important means by which we showed each other that we cared.

My paternal grandmother died when I was six. She was a short round Eastern European woman who loved to cook. The family gathered at her house for huge delectable holiday meals. There were always two or three kinds of pie. Her small, old fashioned kitchen would be full of aunts and cousins, cooking, arranging serving platters, laughing, and competing to have a turn washing dishes. In addition to these regular family dinners, Mom (along with us kids) would drop in to visit Grandma every Friday afternoon after doing the weekly grocery shopping. Grandma would bring out plates of cookies and squares, which were always delectable. "Eat! Eat! Have another cookie. Try one of these date squares." After a Friday afternoon at Grandma's house, we were sure not to have much of an appetite left for supper, which frustrated my Dad.

When I was a child, our family always sat down and ate together. My Mom was a good cook, and she strived to prepare meals that were both healthy and appealing. She also froze and canned fruits and vegetables from our big garden, and was especially well known for her jams and jellies, which she continues to make to this day. My Dad was a committed gardener, and as well as raising vegetables and berry bushes, he experimented with varieties of fruit trees that were hardy enough to grow in a northern climate. He also supplied the table with game (moose, deer, grouse), salmon, char, and trout.

You can see how it is that I have come by my enjoyment of cooking and eating well. Each of my siblings and my own three children are all interested in food and are good cooks, thus carrying on the family tradition.

I like to cook. Although it can be interesting and challenging to cook with limitations imposed by diners who are vegetarians, on a calorie restricted diet, or who are avoiding some classification of food such as wheat, it is much more fun and creative to cook unfettered. Ground pork, Japanese eggplant, onion, tomatoes, and chili oil make a tasty Szechuan dish. Pumpkin soup is more delicious with a little dollop of heavy cream, potato latkes are tastier with both apple sauce and sour cream piled on, and there is nothing quite as lovely for dessert as a Missippippi Mudpie moist chocolate cake with mocha cream icing.

As much as I enjoy the creative process of cooking, I also enjoy feeding people. It is a very basic way to please people, to give them pleasure, and to show my feelings of caring for them. I also like to eat, not just to satisfy hunger or to fuel the body, but to enjoy savouring the food. I think that for too many people, food has become an enemy, but for me it is a very satisfying part of daily life. Food brings people together in a happy, social way. Moreover, love of good food is woven into who I am, my creative process, my sense of family, and my family's way of showing caring for each other.

So, dear reader, you understand now why changing some of my habits around food to focus on heart healthy eating and cooking is such a challenge for me. Some of those bad old habits are rooted in the fundamental things in life that make me me.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dairy Fat Confessions

Recently I posted on the topic of Heart Healthy Habits. Then I did a little bit of self analysis and examined some of my not so healthy habits, especially in the area of diet. Specifically, I wrote about salt and sugar, and how these sneaky ingredients in food sabotage my generally healthy attitudes and eating habits. Although one can choose not to add salt or sugar to the plate, sometimes they can be hard to avoid, for example, when eating out in restaurants. I find that restaurant meals generally are quite salty, and bakery treats and restaurant desserts tend to be very sweet and much too big.

Dairy fat is another category of food that calls for moderation. Milk itself has wonderful nutritional value. It is a great source of calcium and vitamin D, and it has protein and other good things in it. Many people don't people don't consume enough dairy. I am the opposite; I enjoy it too much. I drink at least one glass of milk everyday. One cup of low fat milk (1%) has 110 calories and 8 g of protein. That's a healthy choice. I also enjoy yoghurt, and usually choose the low fat, low calorie kind, even though the full-fat yoghurt is much more satisfying.

However, cream, whipped cream, ice cream, and butter are another story. They contain fat -- lots and lots of saturated fat. I have worked myself down from full-fat milk to 2% and then to 1%, and I think I see skim milk in my future. I put milk rather than cream in my coffee. And I only put a thin little scraping of butter on my bread. In choosing to eat butter rather than margarine, I am opting for saturated fat over trans fats. There are some softened margarines, like Becel, that have no trans fats, but butter tastes better, I think. So I eat butter, but don't slather it on. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I don't indulge in cream, whipped cream, or ice cream very often.

So why am I flagellating myself about dairy fats? Well, I can sum that up in just one word. Cheese. I love cheese, just about every kind of it. Cream cheese, cheddar cheese, feta cheese, Gouda cheese, parmesan, and wonderful creamy, full-fat Brie. Mmmmmm. For years of my life, I ate a cheese sandwich in my bag lunch almost every day and never tired of it. My favourite snack, to this day, is a few stoned wheat thin crackers and 20-30 grams of cheese. Thirty grams of the kind of cheddar in my fridge right now would provide 110 calories (I can live with that) but also 14% of my daily fat intake, and 30% of the recommended daily saturated fat intake. Whoa! That is something to think twice about.

I also like to use cheese in my cooking. Pasta, of course begs for cheese: macaroni and cheese, lasagna, fettuccini alfredo, manicotti stuffed with spinach and ricotta, or a lovely bit of grated premium Parmesan sprinkled on top of fusilli or penne. I put cheese or cheese sauce on broccoli and cauliflower, goat cheese into salads, and cream cheese icing on cakes. I would be a very unhappy gal if I was deprived of cheese.

I also like to use butter in my cooking. Although most of the time I opt for healthy oils like olive oil, there is nothing like fresh caught trout or salmon cooked in a little butter with dill or other garden herbs. I have recently taken up Indian cooking, and ghee is a necessary ingredient to get the authentic taste, and oh so yummy.

My other big dairy fat confession centers on sour cream. Sour cream is a fabulous ingredient with perogies, in chowders, in sauces, and in baking. I am making myself hungry just thinking about it. I am afraid that the dairy fat habit is going to be a very challenging one for me to break!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Creative Path is a Winding One

When I was seventeen, I made a decision to go to university rather than to art school. My reasoning was that if I went to university, it would lead to a profession with which I could support myself, whereas good jobs for artists were few and far between, I thought. (I believed in the starving artist in a garret cliche.) I could always paint on the side, I told myself.

Well, it didn't work out that way. Painting became only a hobby, not a passion, and in that, a hobby that I did not pursue at all for great stretches of time. My career has always been voracious, consuming most of my time.

I do not regret my decision to go to university, and to pursue the careers that I have had. I have had a good life, and very interesting, engaging work. When my first husband passed away at a young age leaving me with three small children, I was grateful that I had the education and skills to be able to hold down a good job and support my family well.

But I sometimes wonder about the path not taken. I was speaking with a new colleague recently, and I found out that in addition to his job as an administrator, he is also a painter. I asked him whether he had any time to pursue his art. "Oh yes," he said. "Evenings and weekends." Then he showed me two of his large and elaborate works, and his preparatory sketches for his work in progress. I left feeling inspired to try harder to make time in my life for creative pursuits.

I mentioned several posts ago that I signed up for an art class and have begun painting again. I was so nervous walking into that studio class full of strangers. The instructor came and looked through my painting supplies and told me that I was using a poor quality stretched canvas and that I had all kinds of unnecessary colours in my kit. I went ahead and planned out my painting, and as soon as I blocked it in, made some serious errors. I persisted, and the paint brush felt more like a whisk broom than a brush in my out-of-practice hands.


Several sessions have gone by and I have now finished that painting -- my first in eight or ten years. This is what it looked like after a couple of sessions (I was nearly in despair). I kept working away at it, and in between painting sessions, I would stand and stare at it, thinking about my next move.


Now the painting is finished. Although it might not be the best painting I have ever done, I am thrilled just to be painting again, and to have finished one. Now when I walk around, I am observing the world differently, thinking like a painter. I think about the shapes and colours of the landscape, and how I could represent it in a painting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Not So Healthy Habits


In my last post, I wrote about cholesterol and heart-healthy habits, and how I am trying to be more conscious of the choices that I make. I wrote down a big long list of all the things that I already do to lead a healthy lifestyle, especially on the dietary front. Now it is time to come clean and identify some of my not so heart-healthy choices and behaviors that keep adding inches to my waistline and plaque to my arteries.

The not so healthy habits and health factors fall into several categories. These are: salt, sugar, dairy fat, love of cooking, snacks, husband, work, knees, and social eating and drinking booby traps.

Salt

Yum, yum, yum! I love salt. I know that the research findings out there on the effects of a high salt diet are not as straight forward as we used to think. The health message used to be high salt = hypertension; therefore eat a low salt diet. Now it appears that some people are more prone than others to respond badly to salt. The sensible course of action is to reduce one's salt intake to be on the safe side, so I am trying (even though there is a little devil in my head that whispers not to worry about it as I am probably one of the lucky ones who can eat salt without dire consequences). But it is so hard, because everything tastes better with salt. I am putting less salt in my cooking, leaving it to individual diners to add salt at the table if they wish.

For me, the biggest problem with salt is that most salty snacks are also high calorie fatty snacks. This includes chips, crackers, salted nuts, cheezies, cheese, fries, and so forth. When I am having a salt craving, it is all too easy to reach for a bag of chips. Pretzels and (unbuttered) popcorn are probably the two lowest calorie salty snacks (and also my two least favourite ones).

Sugar

Sugar is probably one of the biggest culprits that is adding inches to my waistline and pounds on the scale. Sugar hides in so many foods, and in a myriad of forms. It is not just in the obvious things, like candy, ice cream, baked goods, and canned fruit. There is sugar in just about every kind of bottled sauce, store-bought cookie, cracker, packaged soup or other packaged meal, and frozen prepared food. Many foods that sound healthy, like granola bars, whole grain breakfast cereal, yogurt, and instant oatmeal are in fact loaded with sugar when you take a look at the nutritional information.

The bad guy in the media right now is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which in Canada is called glucose/fructose. This product of the highly subsidized American corn industry is now used in place of sucrose (table sugar) in most manufactured foods, and especially in breakfast cereals and soft drinks. There is lots of concern about the possible negative health effects of HFCS, in part because it appears to alter appetite processes, turning off the triggers that signal satiation. Over the last 50 years of increasing consumption of HFCS in the USA, obesity has increased in a similar proportion. HFCS has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease. The research is not conclusive however, and a lot more research outside of laboratory settings needs to be done.

I have been trying to cut down on the sugar in my diet. I do not add sugar to my coffee or tea. I mostly buy unsweetened breakfast cereals, but even though the sugar levels are lower than in sweetened cereals, most still have plenty of sugar, according to the nutritional information. (I do buy mini wheats because I like them.) I try to add less or no sugar to foods like oatmeal. And I read the nutritional information. But, when a sugar craving hits, I do eat cookies or granola bars or toast with jelly. Probably one of the most common ways that sugar sneaks into my diet is in beverages, like coke, iced tea, and fruit juice. When I am really tired, or both tired and hungry, I find it hard to resist sugary snacks, which are all around and so easy to get.

I haven't finished saying all that I wish on not so healthy habits, so I will post again on this topic.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Heart Healthy Habits

Yesterday, I made spicy prawns for dinner. I have been to trying to not eat prawns very often because they are high in dietary cholesterol. I wondered to myself, just much cholesterol is there in prawns? How much dietary cholesterol is an appropriate level on a daily basis? So I did a little research.

I read that cholesterol is necessary in the body, and that most of the cholesterol in the blood is manufactured by the liver. Only fifteen percent of it comes from dietary cholesterol and triglycerides in the diet. However, that dietary source is the portion that people can change by changing their lifestyle and eating habits. When describing people as having "high cholesterol levels," it is the Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) blood level of cholesterol that is of concern. LDL cholesterol is the guilty party that sticks to the artery walls, making them narrow and stiff and leading to blockages and clots that result in heart attacks and strokes. The other kind of cholesterol in the blood, High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is the "good" cholesterol, because it gathers up excess LDL in the blood and takes it back to the liver to be decomposed.

My interest in cholesterol has come about because I was recently told by my doctor that I have a borderline high LDL cholesterol level and that I should begin to eat a low cholesterol, low fat, heart-healthy diet. According to the Mayo Clinic Website, 3.4 to 4.1 mmol/L is borderline high, with 2.6 to 3.3 being near ideal (except for people with high risk of heart disease, in which case it should be lower). Fortunately for me, all of my other cardiovascular health indicators are good, including my HDL cholesterol level. The exception is that I am a little heavier and wider around the middle than I should be -- no surprise there. In middle age, I have turned into one of those apple shaped people.

I also read that in a healthy diet, one should eat no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day, and even less if there is existing heart disease. To put this into context, there is 183 mg of cholesterol in one large egg. Apparently (according to the nutrition information on the package), the prawns I ate yesterday had 130 mg of cholesterol per 100 grams, or about 7 prawns. I ate 6 prawns, or about 120 mg of cholesterol. Counting up all of the other high cholesterol things I ate yesterday (part of an egg, butter), I still slipped in under the 300 mg wire. Phew!

However, I do feel a bit miffed about being told that I should "start" eating a heart-healthy diet. I have been very interested in health and nutrition for my entire adult life and have always strived to cook and eat healthily. I have also always included exercise in my life. So I have done a bit of an analysis to see where my eating and health habits might need some changes, such as being careful not to eat too many of those sneaky high cholesterol prawns. But first I am going to start by making a list of the heart-healthy habits that I already have.

I almost always cook from scratch.
I rarely use packaged or prepared foods.
I eat 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
I eat breakfast.
I mostly use heart-healthy oils (olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil) in my cooking.
I use the least amount of oil necessary, and often choose baking, broiling, braising, and boiling over frying.
I rarely eat anything deep-fried.
I use very scanty amounts of spreadable fats (butter, margarine, mayonnaise) on breads and sandwiches, and choose low fat versions of mayo, cream cheese, etc.
I substitute heart healthy oils for hard fats when I make quick breads (e.g., pancakes)
I seldom eat fast foods, and when I do, I skip the fries and pop, and go easy on the sauces.
I eat fish twice a week.
I eat lean rather than fatty meats, and not more than the recommended amount each day.
I usually buy whole grain breads and cereals.
I chew my food slowly and savour it.
I rarely overeat at a meal.
I don't skip meals.
When we go out to eat, I choose healthy options from the menu.
In a restaurant, I only eat as much as I need, and pack up the rest to take home.
I drink alcohol moderately -- not more than 1 drink per day or 7 drinks per week on average.
I rarely drink soft drinks (pop).
I include nuts and seeds in my diet daily.
I include lots of colorful fruits and vegetables on the menu.
I limit the quantity of bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta that I eat.
I mostly use herbs, lemon, vinegar, and spicy sauces to flavor dishes, rather than creamy or cheesy sauces and dressings.
I drink low fat milk.
I seldom eat cream, ice cream, or whipped cream.
I rarely eat more than two eggs per week.
I do not smoke.
I get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, and usually exercise five times a week.

Sounds pretty healthy, doesn't it? And yet, I am a little heavier than I should be and since reaching middle age, my weight and waistline measurements keep creeping upward. Now my cholesterol level is borderline high. It is time to inspect my not so heart-healthy habits. If I can get the dietary fat and cholesterol levels down and also lose a bit of weight, it will be good for my heart and also for my arthritic knees.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Choices

Sometimes I wonder about the choices that I make. Last night, I stayed at work until 11:45 pm working on a writing a proposal that has an immediate deadline. I was exhausted, as I had started work at 8:30 am and worked hard all day, including through breakfast and lunch. I attended a work dinner event, then went back to my office and kept working. The proposal was not MY priority. My work priority was a different huge project (let's call it "the budget") that also has an imminent deadline, and which is of great consequence to my work unit. Moreover, I am solely responsible for "the budget" submission, whereas the proposal is a group effort.

Today I have had a pounding headache all day. I was in all-day meetings, so I couldn't work on the the budget, but even if I'd had the time, I am too tired and sick. Yesterday was the time that I had set aside for the budget. Now the deadline is one day closer. The time I had blocked off on this upcoming Monday to work on it also is going to be eroded by: 1) an important time sensitive meeting scheduled by my boss, and 2) an emergency situation that suddenly has arisen and has to be dealt with because it potentially involves someone's personal safety and health (and I chair that committee). I am considering going in to work on the budget this weekend because I don't know when I'm going to get it done, otherwise.

Probably, dear reader, a couple of questions popped into your mind as you read my account. For example, why did I agree to devote most of a 15 hour day to working on the proposal when I have other higher priorities?

Well, the proposal was for one of those unexpected opportunities with a very tight timeline that suddenly drops into your lap. You either drop everything and go for it, or possibly kick yourself forever after. If our proposal is successful, the payoff could be large. It could even solve some of my budget problems.

Well then, you're thinking - why me? If it is a group effort and you're so busy, why didn't someone else step up to write the proposal?

In fact, someone else did write a preliminary first draft. She took it as far as she could, and then wasn't sure where to go from there. Another person is very busy and stressed, and not able (or willing) to adjust her schedule for anything right now. Although I might question her priorities, her reasons are very real and important to her. The third person on the team, who took the leadership to follow up on and gain the initial opportunity, admits that the topic is quite far outside of his disciplinary expertise.

The topic is within my area of expertise, I have written proposals successfully before, and, in fact, I enjoy writing proposals. The initiative is really important. It's just that the timing is not good for me. So I dropped everything and wrote it, and now I have passed it to the others to edit and provide final touches.

Maybe you are thinking, there's a pattern here. I've way too much on my plate and don't seem to want to relinquish any of it. Aha! Bingo!

That's kind of what I am thinking myself. Maybe I did need to spend some time writing the proposal, but probably I didn't need to spend as long as I did crafting every word and paragraph to perfection. (In any case, how perfect was it going to be when I was too exhausted and cross-eyed to even see the screen as midnight approached?). My colleague had said to get the content in and then he'd work on cleaning up the language.... I didn't have to do it all myself.

"But I don't write that way!" the writer in my head protests.

Likewise, the budget. Do I really have to do it all myself? Does it have to be perfect? Is there any flexibility around the deadline? No, no, and maybe.

As for the events coming up on Monday, maybe I could get out of the meeting called by my boss, although I know he wants me there. Okay scratch that possibility.

I can't postpone the meeting about the safety issue. But maybe there are other meetings that I could decline to buy some more time to work on the budget.

I do know for sure that I cannot sustain these really long hours at work. It is affecting my health (headaches, eating habits, amount of exercise). It gives me too little time to spend with Rob, friends, and family. It makes my life very uni-dimensional.

I DO have too much work to do. But ultimately, the person responsible for that is me

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Zipper Face


Some time ago, I posted an image titled Face Art. Here is another face art image, this time from a friend in the art world who had a great idea for Halloween. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dinner for One

Recently, Rob went on a trip, leaving me alone at home for two weeks. He went over the mountains to visit our newest grandson, born at the beginning of October. I was unable to go with him, as things are very busy at work, and I simply cannot take time off at this time of the year. Rob, on the other hand, is retired, so he can travel at any time. I will get to see the new little grand-baby at Christmas, but nevertheless, I felt very sorry for myself, stuck here, working way to hard.

Even though Rob could go travelling at any time, in fact he very rarely goes away without me. It's more likely to happen the other way around -- me flying off somewhere for a meeting or conference, and leaving him at home alone. When I do have vacation time, we love to go traveling together, most often on camping excursions along backroads or into the wilderness, but sometimes to more exotic places. We travel well together, enjoying a loose make-it-up-as-you-go kind of itinerary, preferring to explore new places and have new experiences that are off the usual well-beaten tourist track, stopping for the night wherever we happen to be, and including lots of excellent food experiences.

So what I discovered during Rob's absence is that I don't get along really well as a single person on my own. It is true that I did raise my kids as a single mom for many years, but that was not the same at all. I wasn't on my own then; I had my kids with me.

Without Rob here, the house seemed huge, cold, and empty. (This is in spite of the pets being exceedingly needy; they missed Rob too.) Activities of daily living, like cooking, doing dishes, going for a walk, and so forth, seemed pointless and tedious. Even pursuits that usually fill me with contentment and a feeling of well-being, like reading a book in front of the fire in the evening, seemed like just a way to make the empty time pass by.

Although I have always enjoyed cooking and eating, it was not very enjoyable cooking for one. I quickly reverted to making very simple meals, serving them straight from the pan, and eating at the kitchen counter instead of at the table. I did rouse myself from my torpor to prepare a couple of reasonable meals for myself, however. The dinner pictured here is sauteed garlic prawns, yams, salad, and red wine. I should not have been eating the prawns, as shrimp and prawns are high in cholesterol, and thus on my verboten list (but I compensated by putting no butter on the yams and no salad dressing on the salad).

I was very happy to welcome Rob home. He was eager to get back too, and drove for a thirteen hour stretch over a high snowy mountain pass to get here. I am very lucky to have found love late in life. We have a great life together, filled with with joy, fun times, love, and contentment. I am grateful for my good life, and for my wonderful partner, Rob. 


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Impatience is not a Virtue

Sad to say, but I am not a patient person. I am a 78 on a turntable made for 33 LPs (let the young people try to figure that one out); a Mazda Miata in a bicycle lane; a gazelle in a world made for hippos. (Well, maybe a very small, somewhat chubby gazelle.) I live my life at warp speed, partly because I have so much to do, but mainly because I like to go fast.

Because I expect to zip about, I tend to underestimate how much time it will take me to do anything, and attempt to cram way too many tasks into any given stretch of time. One way I cope with my over-expectations of productivity is by multitasking. For example, I put the kettle on to boil for tea, and rather than stand there and wait for it to boil, I go do a quick task like like water the plants or go to the bathroom and then come back and make the tea. While I wait for it to steep, I wipe down the counter. When I arrive at work in the morning, the first thing I do is turn on the computer. Then I take off my coat and boots and upack my briefcase. That way I don't have to wait there doing nothing while the computer powers up. I do work related reading in the doctor's office waiting room, do mental calculations while driving, and measure my distance walked and calories burned using a phone app while rushing between meetings.

I also am habitually late, as I routinely underestimate how long it will take me to get from point A to B. Pausing to turn on the phone app when walking, or mentally rehearsing my upcoming speech while driving do not have a postive impact on my tardiness.

I also hate to wait. (This is where the impatience comes in.) Therefore I attempt to estimate precisely how long it will take to get somewhere so I won't have to waste time waiting once I get there. But because of my optimistic assumptions about how quickly I will travel, I tend to underestimate the time I need, and arrive late. My kids will attest that I was always the last parent to arrive to pick them up from school. I would wheel into the lot in a great cloud of dust or snow and see them standing there forlornly in the empty schoolyard, waiting. However, when I attempted to reform and get there early, I would end up waiting endlessly in the lot until every other parent had left, and then they would finally come dawdling out of the school. Their perspective was "Mom's always late; why hurry?"

So, this afternoon I went out to do a couple of errands. Okay, to tell the truth, it actually was quite a long list of fairly complicated tasks, and some of them involved getting to certain places by a certain time (e.g., I had to get to the bank before it closed). The second thing on my list involved going to a postal outlet. I had to mail some things and also renew my change of address to redirect our mail. I got in line behind an elderly man. He was very slow to complete his business. My impatience kicked in. Finally it was my turn. I paid for my package of envelopes, bought the stamps, and gave the clerk my items to mail. Then I began to fill out the change of address form, and discovered that I could no longer recall my old address. I pawed through my purse but nothing in it still had my old address on it. I had to leave, drive home a few blocks away and get my address book and return. I raced past cars moving at the speed of turtles. By this time it was 1:08 PM, and I had to be somewhere on the far side of town by 1:30.

When I returned to the postal outlet, the desk was vacant and it took a long time for someone to come out of the back. It was a different clerk, a very slow, methodical one. She slowly typed the information from the form into the computer, hesitating painfully over the spelling of our names. After a great of typing and staring at the screen, the system did not seem to be accepting the data. She asked me for the address notification form, which I had left in the car. Gracelessly, with a great exasperated huff (dragon breath) I said I would run out to the car and get it, and run I did. I came back with the form in hand feeling a little embarrassed about how rude I had been, and explained to the clerk that I had to be somewhere shortly and was in a hurry. It was now 1:23. More slow typing and screen-staring. I watched the minutes roll by. 1:24. 1:25. 1:26. Finally, I was allowed to sign the document, pay, and leave. It was 1:29. The whole postal outlet experience had taken 45 minutes and I had expected it to take five.

I know my impatience seems ridiculous in retrospect. I managed to get everything that was on my list done. I probably should not have even tried to accomplish so much in one short afternoon. But the experience left me feeling grumpy for hours.

I am most regretful about the uncharitable thoughts that I had about the old man, the slow-moving drivers, and the methodical clerk. Probably the excursion to the postal outlet was the highlight of the old fellow's day. It was a chance to have a few friendly words with someone. Someday I will be that little old person, moving slowly because of arthritis, and lonely for a bit of conversation. I have good quality studded winter tires, but probably many of those drivers don't and they were just doing the right and safe thing by slowing down. And that postal clerk was just doing her job (although I do suspect that Canada Post has a plot to torture customers by providing excruciatingly slow service; slow service at the post office seems to be the norm, not the exception). Okay, scratch that. I do not feel regret about my thoughts about the postal clerk, only about my own rude behaviour.

Impatience is not a virtue. Probably I should learn to be a little more zen. I need to learn to live in the moment without them being grumpy moments. I could take up meditation or yoga...but I don't have time. I just have so much to do.



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Childhood Bullying: We All Have a Part in Stopping It

Few of us have lived lives untouched by bullying. Most of us have experienced bullying in childhood, perhaps as the one who was shamed and ostracized by peers, as one who publicly said hurtful things to demean someone or who was physically aggressive towards other children, or as someone who stood by cheering on the bully or even just silently witnessing bullying without speaking up for the victim. In the wake of teen Amanda Todd's suicide along with online documentation of the years of peer bullying and cyber stalking that she experienced, childhood bullying is the topic of the day. It is my hope that, rather than looking for someone to blame for Amanda's very sad death, instead each of us reflect on our own past experiences of bullying and harrassment and indentify what we can do, as individuals, to reduce bullying.

Bullying is complicated and not always easy to recognize. It can masquerade as teasing, indignation about someone else's behaviors that are perceived as inappropriate, or as getting back at someone for a perceived wrong. Often fear is at the heart of it. The bully might have been bullied or abused himself/herself, or feels inadequate in some way. To avoid becoming a bullying victim himself/herself, the bully leads others in victimiizing someone else. Those who stand by silently or egg on the bully often do so in fear that if they speak out, they will become associated with the victim's perceived negative qualities and become targets of bullying themselves.

Intolerance for differences as well is at the heart of bullying. Racism, sexism, and lack of tolerance for sexual preference, disabilities, differences in physical appearance (such as being overweight or dressing differently) can elicit peer bullying. Bullies select victims who can be easily dominated: children who are smaller or weaker, children who are new and without a group of friends to stand up for them, and children who do not have high social status.

I have experienced and witnessed bullying as a child growing up, and have seen my siblings and my own children be bullied. In some cases, I responded appropriately, and in other cases I wish that I had acted differently or more promptly.

I grew up in a very caring and supportive family. However, child rearing practices were different back then, and "teasing" was a constant element of our growing up years. The teasing was not gentle, but malicious and hurtful. Name calling was a central element of it. We called each other mean names to show anger and scorn. These were derived by rhyming our names with an undesirable person in the community, or the similarity of one of our names with an embarrassing TV commercial. Friendships with children of the opposite sex were derided. For example, I was taunted with the refrain, "Gideonloves X!" throughout my childhood. Similarly, one of my brothers was taunted and humiliated using of name of a little girl with whom he was friends when he was three years old. The actual sources of the names for name calling seems trivial now, but the taunts were hurtful at the time, and I think the teasing has had some long term consequences on our self esteem and relationships as adults. As well, because our parents participated in the name calling rather than stopping it, it felt to me as though there was no safety net at home. Finally, the name calling bled over into our school and social lives, and had consequences in our peer groups.

When I was about nine, a new boy started school in my class. I came home and told my Mom about the new boy and confided that I thought he was really nice. This is what initiated the taunt "Gideon loves X!" When my siblings were annoyed with me or wanted to provoke me, they would shout this out, often in front of my school friends. School peers began to take up the refrain, and taunted both me and the boy. I would respond that I didn't like X; I hated him. This went on throughout my elementary school years. Fortunately for me, at school I had many friends and they mobilized to support me. Fortunately, X was also a popular boy with many friends. In those days, "boys chase the girls" was a common school yard activity for preteens. (If they caught us, they would kiss us, and this was considered by the girls to be disgusting.) We turned the game around into girls chase the boys. It would start with one of X's friends shouting "Gideon loves X!" or a similar taunt. Then a gang of girls would chase him and try to kick his ankles, while he tried to run away, and other boys defended him or tried catch us and kiss us.

I realize that this sounds very amusing and innocent, in retrospect. However it has a darker side. In leading a gang of girls and trying to catch X and his friends and kick their ankles, was I being a bully? Or was I defending myself against bullying? X was innocent of any wrongdoing. I engaged in my actions as a form of self defense against the taunts of my peers and siblings. But what impact did it have on X? I have often agonized over this. Later in our teen years, X and I did become good friends, but I don't think I ever explained to him why I was so mean to him when we were younger. I lost touch with him many years ago, but I have heard that he has become quite a bitter person, and his life has not gone that well. X was very bright and talented, with tremendous potential to contribute to the world. Did I, in some small way, impact his self esteem or contribute to the choices he made in life because of the way I treated him? X also struggled with being overweight as a child. Did he believe that I was picking on him because of that? I wish I could turn the clock back, or at least have the chance to explain to him now that I always liked him and to apologize for my hurtful actions.

In other ways in my childhood, I stood up to bullies many times. Because I was the oldest child in my family, I took on the responsibility of protecting my younger siblings from other children. Around age eight, I remember chasing a whole gang of children out of our yard brandishing a ski pole because they were being mean to my little brother and making him cry. A few years later, I used to walk my brother home from school to protect him from a boy who would otherwise follow him out of the school yard and beat him up. My siblings also used to protect me from other children's aggressive acts.

In junior high school, there was a gang of large, violent boys who used to beat up on smaller boys whenever teachers weren't looking. For example, I remember witnessing them stuffing a boy head first into a garbage can. Although I was afraid to intervene directly, my friends and I fetched a teacher, and I also told my parents.

As a parent myself, I did not model or condone cruel teasing in the family. I tried to teach my children to be inclusive and tolerant of people who were different than them, and to provide the opportunity for them to have friends of diverse backgrounds. I encouraged them to stand up for friends who were being teased or bullied and for each other. If I overheard my children's friends say things about peers that were racist or otherwise derogatory, I spoke up rather than listening silently (even though it might have embarrassed my children). When they were bullied themselves (and they were) I tried to make sure they knew that they could tell me about it, and that I would actively support them. I have spoken with the parents of children who bullied my children at school, and with teachers and principals. I have sent children home from my house and told them that they were not welcome to return unless they changed their behavior, and also talked with their parents. I also allowed children who were friends of my children to sleep over at my place many nights and weekends when I suspected that they did not have a safe place to go home to (but also ensuring that their parents knew where they were).

I know that my children experienced incidents of bullying that they did not tell me about, or only told me after it had been going on for quite awhile. Parents cannot protect their children from all bad experiences. It is everyone's responsibility to be aware of the signs of bullying and its potential consequences, and to take action rather than standing by. School personnel can provide bullying awareness programs and create school climates where bullying is not tolerated. Young people can report verbal, physical, and online bullying to parents, teachers, or other responsible adults. Adults can provide good role models to young people, by not engaging in racist acts, physical aggression, demeaning verbal attacks, or consumption of online porn, and by intervening when they see others doing those things. We can vote for parties that have a good record of funding social safety nets like women's transition houses, antipoverty programs, and aboriginal programs, and of providing support and proper funding to schools. We all can make a difference by the daily choices that we make.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Planting Tulips in the Dark

As I began to write this piece, I considered whether to title it "Have It All and Have It Now" or "Planting Tulips in the Dark" or maybe both: "Planting Tulips In the Dark: Having It All and Having It Now." It's really about both things, you see, as the reason I am planting tulips in the dark is because I must have it all and have it now.

Let's back up. Tonight, I found myself out in the garden around seven o'clock in the evening, digging up the dry soil and planting twenty tulip bulbs in the dark. These are bulbs that really needed to be planted before the hard frost which could come any day now. I bought them in a fundraiser at work, and I have had them for a month, languishing in my office and then in my kitchen.

I could not plant them earlier today when the sun was shining down on the trees with their leaves all golden and orange, and the temperatures were unseasonably warm, because I was at work. On a Saturday. At work.

I needed to attend a morning event, and then I stayed on into the afternoon to complete some tasks that needed to be done before Monday morning. I had planned to do those tasks on Friday afternoon, but I had to leave work early and come home as I had a migraine headache. I think the migraine was triggered, in part, because I had such a busy week at work, 12 and 14 hour days, and all of them quite stressful. The week was so busy because I had taken two days off to make an extra long weekend at Thanksgiving, and therefore got behind on my work.

Thanksgiving was wonderful. I had my three grown children visiting for the long weekend, and also my oldest grandchild. (I say "oldest," because on the Saturday of the long weekend, one of our other daughters gave birth to a baby boy, so now we are the happy grandparents of two little boys.) I cooked the whole big turkey dinner for the family and we had some friends over as well. We also made a number of excursions to sights in the area.

So this what I mean about having it all and having it now. I have a great job - very complex, challenging, and time consuming - as well as a wonderful family and now also two grandchildren. I love to cook for them and for friends, and spend time doing things with them. As I noted in my last post, I am also trying to squeeze some time in to take up painting again. And of course there's the garden, which has had a minimum of care and attention from me this year.

But with any luck, I'll have some fabulous red and yellow tulips blooming in the spring. If it wasn't so dark out, I'd go and dig up my potatoes. A deep freezing frost could be upon us any time now.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Painting Again

After eight years of not touching paintbrush or canvas, I am painting again! I moved to a new community earlier this year, and it is an artsy kind of place. Two weeks ago, the city hosted Art Week, and I attended the Art Walk -- essentially a self-guided tour of galleries, mini exhibitions, and artists' studios that were opened to the public for a couple of days. At one studio, I found out that they had an opening in their Thursday night art class, so I signed myself up.

It is not the instruction that I am interested in so much as the motivation that comes of having something scheduled into my day that I have already paid for. I know myself well. Left to my own devices, I will not paint at home, even though I have a lovely easel, all the equipment, and even a perfect room for a studio.

So tonight, I left work early (but not early enough), raced home and gobbled down some turkey soup, and gathered my painting equipment that Rob spent over an hour digging through moving boxes to find. (He is a wonderful person.) I took a quick snapshot of our backyard with my iPad, and rushed to town, late, to join the class. I felt so nostalgic as I unpacked my oil paints, my palette knives, my brushes, and my paint shirt. Mixed in with the equipment, I even still had the had the palette of dried paint blobs left from my last painting, so many years ago.

I laid out the composition and did the under-painting tonight. This is what it looks like so far:


And here is the photo that I was working from:


I feel happy to be at the easel again.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Old Words

I have always thought that language is very interesting. I am interested in how people speak, how they convey meanings through language, and how those meanings are socially constructed and understood. In this era of mass participation in social media, the collaborative and interactive components, now possible not just through conversation but also through technologically mediated interactive written text, images, audio, video, and animations, have superseded the old top-down forms of communication. Even the traditional media -- newspapers, radio, magazines, and books -- have websites with online reader forums.

Language is changing, and we are changing the ways, for what, with whom we use language. Because we are living through this change, it might seem unremarkable to us; it's just what we do every day. Many of us embrace our new electronic devices, smart phones and tablets, with glee, and take for granted each new change without giving much thought to the social impact of it. The changes are incremental, and so we fail to notice that the associated linguistic and social change is happening, in fact, at whirlwind speed.

I am a member of the generation that can say, "I remember when the only computers were mainframes and they took up a whole city block, and you had to use card readers to interact with them." Or, "I remember when we communicated with friends and family in other towns by writing letters, because telephoning long distance was too expensive." And even, "I remember when we had a party line, and you could tell when the neighbour picked up to listen in, because you could hear a little click on the line."

We've come a long way baby, in a very short time.

One indicator of the change is the bloating of common vocabulary with new words (interface, mash up, online, blog) and old words given new meanings (texting, tablet, forum, web). Equally interesting are the old words that are disappearing from common usage, or that have taken on new, very different meanings. Here are some on my list:

Slacks
Trousers
Rubbers (for feet)
Overshoes
Thongs (for feet)
Bough (of a tree)
Gay (as a mood)
Shorts (as in men's underwear)
Trunks (for swimming)
Dainty
Sideboard
Parlor
Buggy
Rubber pants
Girdle
Nylons
Stem Christie
Grub (to eat)
Fag (as in cigarette)
Hotcakes
Stockings
Doily
Grubby (dirty)

Well, I seem to be on a clothing theme at the moment. My point though, is that there are many everyday words that have now slipped out of common usage. They sound quaint or archaic. I have included both formally accepted words here, and slang, which tends to change more rapidly. Can you think of some old words that are on he verge of disappearing to add to this list?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ten Things I Know

I wrote in my last post about the long slow path to wisdom. I am definitely getting older. I am not so sure about wiser. However, here are a few things that I know:

1. In dysfunctional organizations, it is often the case that good people are behaving badly. They behave badly because they are not getting what they need. When they get what they need (respect, encouragement, structure, stability....), they are more likely to do their best work for the organization.

2. Three basics for raising happy children are good food, enough sleep, and lots of love. As Charlotte Diamond used to sing: "Three hugs a day, that's the minimum; three hugs a day, not the maximum."

3. The three things a university student needs to do in order to pass a course are: Come to class, read all of the assigned readings, and hand in all of the assignments. Of course, I don't actually just mean "come" to class (and sleep). My hope is that students will attend, engage, and participate.

4. After a terrible thing happens (e.g., marriage breakup, the death of a loved one) life goes on. As inconceivable as it may seem at the time, later on you will again feel happiness, have loving relationships, and deeply enjoy life.

5. Freshly picked fruits and vegetables taste better and are better for you than store-bought ones.

6. Children love their parents.

7. Car engines seize up if they have no oil (and the engine overheats if the water pump breaks, and a clunky sound combined with a hesitation as an automatic shifts up or down means that the transmission is about to go, and a howling sound coming from the wheels probably means that the bearings are shot, etc.) I have owned several old clunkers.

8. On a cold winter day, wearing a warm close-fitting hat (the Canadian toque) conserves body heat.

9. The four legs upon which my life stands are knowledge, creativity, love, and health.

10. Every age is a good age.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Path to Wisdom

Now as I am approaching yet another birthday, I have been thinking about the long slow path to wisdom. I had the opportunity recently to sit with and listen to a First Nations elder who took the time to help me understand a little about the tradional beliefs of his people.

He talked of many things. His tribe is rich in elders, he said, and they are deeply respected as the knowledge holders of the culture. One does not judge an elder by appearance nor by the life he or she has led. Rather, one looks for the good, the special knowledge that person has. No-one self designates as an elder. Nor does someone become recognized as an elder simply because of age. A person finds an older person to go to, and visits with that person and listens to him or her. That is an elder, an older experienced person from whom others seek wisdom or guidance.

That led me to think about our mainstream North American culture. We do not respect our elders. More typically, we fear aging and avoid or are scornful of the aged. For models of how to live, we look to celebrities: entertainers, sports stars, politicians, or people who have been widely recognized for accomplishments in their fields. People are respected by virtue of the material wealth they have accumulated, and status is conferred on the basis of their position of power and authority.

I have noticed that since taking up my current, more senior administrative position, I am treated with considerably more deference than in my previous position. Yet I don't think I have changed a great deal in the last six months. I am not that much wiser or more capable. The way people treat me is mostly a function of my position.

I say "mostly" because the causality is not straight forward and one-way. In order to attain this position, I went through a stringent hiring process, in which my knowledge, experience, interpersonal style, and belief system were carefully evaluated. I have had many years of education and many years of career experience leading up to and preparing me for this current position. I was found to be a "good fit" and offered the job. My organization wanted a certain kind of person who would be able to do certain things for them. Because this is what they want, and because they chose me, they believe that I can do these things. They want to believe in me and the position itself confers a greater latitude to make decisions; therefore I have more opportunities to be wise or unwise. Or perhaps more accurately, my decisions and actions are in a bigger sphere, and have have more visible and serious consequences.

So is this very different from the First Nation on whose territory I live? There is plenty of evidence that many mainstream politicians and other leaders in positions of authority sometimes do not behave wisely. We watch them closely and are quick to judge them. The elder who was teaching me said that in his culture, they do not judge an elder because of poor choices. Perhaps someone was a drunk or a street person. You look for that special knowledge, and listen and treat the elder with respect. Each person in the community is free to be himself or herself, without having to dress or act a certain way.

In our mainstream society, I am not sure that we value and respect leaders in the same way. I see my colleagues working extremely hard and putting in very long hours in their jobs. Yet in many organizations, it seems that people sit in judgment and are quick to complain if a decision does not go their way. One senior leader told me that what he enjoys about his job is the tension; it is energizing and exciting to be making difficult rapid-fire decisions, or to to engage in challenging labour negotiations. Another told me that the organization pays her a big salary, and in exchange, she gives them a piece of her soul.

I am energized by problem solving, but not by interpersonal tension. And no amount of money in the world can buy a piece of my soul. I do feel constrained to dress and behave in a certain way (at work, and out in the public eye). As well, I do feel that people watch me and judge my actions as a leader.

The path to wisdom is long and the journey is slow. I will keep putting one foot in front of another. I will listen, and to try to do my best. And I will try to forgive myself if sometimes I am not very wise.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Midnight Pie

It is midnight and I am baking pie. Two pies, in fact. I worked eleven-hour days yesterday and today -- hard, stressful days. Today is my dear husband's birthday, and I had wanted to have time to celebrate it with him. Tomorrow, I have to be at work at 8:30 AM to chair a meeting that I am still not quite ready for. I'm really tired and my back hurts. So why am I up at midnight baking pies?

Well, a friend phoned a couple of nights ago to invite us to dinner. This is a new friend, a wonderful person, and he likes pie. So without really thinking it through, I happily accepted the invitation, and chirped, "I'll bring pie." No, actually, what I said was, "I'll bring SOME PIES." Plural.

I am not a novice pie maker. I like to bake pies for friends, and I have a fairly large repertoire of pie recipes that are pretty dependable. I have a great recipe for pie crust from my Mom, printed out neatly in her tiny printing twenty-five years ago or so: Never Fail Pie Crust.

Late last night I made the pie crust recipe and divided it into six balls, some for tonight's pies, and the rest to be frozen for later. After work (imagining that I was going to leave a little earlier than usual), I had planned to go by the Okanagan fruit truck and buy some nice ripe peaches and this-year's apples. Then I was going to take Rob out for a birthday dinner, and then come home and make the pies.

Well, nothing went as planned. I had a tough day at work, and despite my best efforts, didn't manage to get out of there until 7:30. The fruit truck had, of course, closed down for the day. We did go for a nice dinner, and then I went to the grocery store and bought peaches, which were not nearly as ripe as I would have liked, and apples.

The skins would not slip off the underripe peaches, and so they took a very long time to peel. The pie crust was impossible to handle. It cracked and crumbled when I rolled it out, and completely fell apart when I tried to lift it into the pie plate. I don't think in all my years of making pies I have ever had such a badly behaved pie crust. I don't know why -- new climate perhaps? Or maybe I did something a little differently than usual (it seemed extra wet and heavy when I made it last night). Well, I patched it together, which seemed to take forever, and finally got the pies into the oven. The last pie, an apple cheddar one, just came out a few minutes ago, and it looks and smells great. But I have my doubts about the peach pie. I think the peaches might still be a bit undercooked, but I had to take it out as it had been in the oven much longer than the recipe called for and the crusts were getting too brown.

Oh well. I will be bringing SOME PIES. It will be fun to have dinner with new friends, and the bonus is, I'll be forced to leave work early tomorrow because we're invited for 5:30.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Missed Opportunities

I am not an inventor nor an entrepreneur. However, I have noticed (and one probably cannot reach late middle age without noticing) that there are a great many useful products that simply do not seem to be commercially available. I have written a little about this before, specifically, about the difficulty in finding bras that fit.

It is often said that more than half of all women wear bras that don't fit. I am sure it is not because women don't realize that they are purchasing the wrong size, or that women are not savvy shoppers. It is far more likely due to the fact that bras typically are only available in a very limited range of standard sizes, designed to fit average 25-40 year-olds. The trouble is, many or most bra-buying women are younger or older, shorter or taller, slimmer or more chubby, or more or less buxom than the standard sizes allow for. Shoulders might be broader or narrower, and breasts might be smaller, larger, higher, droopier, or more wide-set than the average figure, as well. Could it be that manufacturers don't really care? Perhaps they realize that because this item of clothing is a staple, women are likely to buy an ill-fitting bra rather than nothing at all, and so see no need to cut into their profit margins by designing and selling a wider range of choices.

Another garment that appears to be entirely absent from retail stores is pants designed to fit middle-aged men with potbellies. This is rather amazing, considering that the majority of North American of men of a certain age have expansive waistlines. Most men seem to deal with this problem by wearing a belt and cinching the pants low on their hips, below the belly. This is a problem, because then the front of the pants hangs much lower than it should and the pants do not drape well. Another way to cope with it is to wear suspenders. Although many men's wear stores carry suspenders, they tend to be the type with little wimpy spring loaded metal clasps that have a tendency to spring open whenever the unfortunate man bends over. I have it from an authority on the matter that the only decent suspenders are the sturdy type with loops that fit over buttons sewn onto the waistband of the pants. This style of suspenders is nearly impossible to find, and trousers with buttons on the waistband even more so. My informant sews his own buttons onto his pants. A final solution is to purchase longwaisted pants with a gigantic waist size, and pull them up over the stomach. These are kept up with either suspenders or a belt. However, this fashion faux pas is seldom observed, except on elderly men in remote rural areas.

Another place where retailers miss the boat is in marketing a range of technical sportswear for older people. On the whole, baby boomers have always been a fitness conscious, outdoorsy demographic. They also have lots of money to spend on high end sportswear. Unfortunately, the designers and marketers seem to believe that all skiers, hikers, kayakers, and so forth are lean twenty-somethings, with sticklike arms and legs, and teeny little waists and butts. Many of my skiing friends are still wearing warmup pants or ski jackets that they bought twenty or thirty years ago when the styles were more baggy, and pants were cut to come up to the waist rather than riding on the pelvic bones. I myself am in this category. I would love to buy some trendy new technical ski pants, but I just can't find any that fit. The market is missing out on the whole demographic of well-to-do active boomers who don't happen to have their youthful figures any more.

I could go on and on about this topic. What about modular drivers' compartments in cars that could be customized to fit the vehicle owner? This would be much more comfortable and safe. What about adjustable height desks, tables and kitchen counters?

Of course things are slowly improving. We now have ergonomic keyboards and keyboard trays, adjustable office chairs, trays to put one's purse on inside women's public washroom cubicles, and molded modular shower surrounds that have shampoo shelves. There now are cars with built-in baby seats, or easy to access car seat anchors. In years past, the absence of these products were pet peeves of mine. Maybe at the rate things are going, I'll be able to buy new ski pants before I'm eighty.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wine Belly

In some ways, I think that I am not totally normal. I am not and never have been very "girly" in my tastes and interests. As a child, I was a cross between a reading-obsessed honour student and an athletic, outdoorsy tomboy. Pink was my least favourite color.

As an adult, I still notice certain differences between myself and my female friends. I don't wear makeup, ever. I tried nail polish once when I was five years old, and never again since then. I have never colored my hair. I have never been on a diet. I enjoy food, and am happily omnivorous. I am not very interested in shopping. I do it, of course, by necessity, but I don't particularly enjoy it as a pastime. I don't find the lives of celebrities at all interesting. I don't watch TV, which means that many conversations at social gatherings go right over my head.

However, there is one thing that I share with most of my friends, both male and female -the enjoyment of a good glass of red wine. Sometime we drink too much red wine. On the whole, though, I am not much of a drinker.

In recent years, much of the popular literature suggests that moderate drinking, one glass a day of red wine, is actually good for your health. Most of the press has focused on the cardiovascular benefits of red wine, although some articles report that one drink a day of beer or spirits yields similar health benefits. The resveratrol in red wine (which comes from the skin of the grapes) is supposed to have excellent anti-aging properties, including lowering blood sugar, fighting cancer, and providing cardiovascular benefits. Red wine is also said to counteract harmful cortisols, stress-induced hormones.

However, to date, there is still little research on humans, especially longitudinal studies, to back up these claims. For example, from what I have read, it seems that the amount of resveratrol in a glass of red wine is so miniscule that it is unlikely to produce the benefits that have been touted. But we hear what we want to hear. I like to enjoy a glass of wine some evenings; therefore it is gratifying to think that I am also reaping health benefits.

One thing that is clear, though, is that wine has calories in it. They are also the kind of calories that are quickly metabolized by the body. Depending on the type of red wine you are drinking, you will imbibe about 125 calories per five ounce glass. Two or three glasses of wine several evenings a week will add up pretty quickly, calorie-wise. One way in which I am similar to most of my friends is that I am not eager to end up with a wine belly.

So, I am going to continue to have a glass of wine with friends once in a while, or when I come home from work all stressed out. I am going to enjoy every drop of it. But I am not going to fool myself into thinking that the wine is medicinal, or that it is calorie free.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Story of My Life

One of my writing interests over the past ten years has been autoethnographic writing. This is a more scholarly research-oriented branch of autobiographical writing.

Often people intending to write stories of their own lives become stymied by the question of where to begin. An obvious beginning point is one's birth; however, this is not necessarily a good place to begin. One reason is that choosing to start there immediately makes the whole enterprise overwhelming. Whatever spark of idea or zing of experience motivated the desire to begin writing a personal story at once become swallowed by the impossible bigness of the task. For if you start with your birth, suddenly your story becomes the story of your whole life, tedious stuff and all. All of this account must be placed into an accurate chronology. It becomes hard to decide what to leave out. You no longer have a story but rather a record or an account.

Another reason why one's own birth is not a good starting point is that as soon as you write, "The night that I was born was dark and stormy..." or whatever, you have already, inadvertently and insidiously, fallen prey to autobiographical trope -- a standard way of thinking and writing about things, a formula from within the genre of autobiography. To my mind, the constraints of genre templates might help the publishing industry to describe the place of a work within a body of writing and to market it, but for writers, formula stifles story.

I am presently reading a novel by Diane Setterfield called "The Thirteenth Tale." In the book, an elderly writer, Vida Winter, has hired a biographer to write the "true" story of her life. Miss Winter says:

"'I shall start at the beginning. Though of course the beginning is never where you think it is. Our lives are so important to us that we tend to think the story of them begins with our birth. First there was nothing, then I was born... Yet that is not so. Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.'" (p. 58-59)

Setterfield makes an interesting point. An autobiographical tale is never just about oneself. It is, from one's own point of view, about me in my world enmeshed in the the social relationships, physical contexts, and time periods (culture, way of knowing) that makes my life. The story of me, is by necessity, also a story about other people.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Surrounded by Beautiful Things

I have a dear friend, a person I have fondly nicknamed W-kins. I have the opportunity to visit W-kins a couple of times each year, as she lives in a large city that I pass through regularly. (She, on the other hand, rarely visits me, as I have spent the last twenty years living in small cities and towns that are not on the beaten path to anywhere.)

W-kins is very hospitable. When she finds out that I am coming through, she invites me stay at her place, feeds me well, and provides ample coffee and red wine. For years she kept a room with a futon bed in it that she called "my" bedroom, as I was pretty well the only person invited to stay with her in the city. (W-kins, however has a summer home on the ocean, where she entertains friends and family every summer weekend. She is the kind of person who always gathers wonderful people around her.) Each time we see each other, whether after months of separation or a year or more, it is like we have never been apart. The conversation picks up where it left off, about professional challenges, our kids, food, travel, world events, or transitions in our lives.

When I have the chance to connect with W-kins, I always marvel at her urban lifestyle. Years ago, when she was starting out in her career and housing was still affordable, she purchased a small two-bedroom bungalow on a good-sized lot on the edge of one of the most upscale neighbourhoods in Canada. She settled in, just blocks from her childhood home, and within easy walking distance of parks, shopping and the community centre, renovated the house, and raised her family there. The city has grown up around her little oasis, and she is firmly anchored and integrated into the community.


W-kins has surrounded herself with beautiful things. Although she is not an artist, she has an artistic sensibility, and her home is filled with paintings, flowers, fabrics, blown glass, and indigenous carvings. Her family eats (organically and sustainably) from handmade pottery, and she has collections of jewelry and scarves made by local artists. The image above is a mash-up showing some of the fabrics lying about on my last visit there. The one below plays with one of the many ocean-related pieces of art in her home.


The downside of the urban setting for W-kins is that she has to commute to work, and that takes her up to an hour each way, depending on the time of day. Her method of dealing with it, however, is mind-boggling to a workaholic like me. When her son was born, she cut her hours to halftime, and essentially, has never gone back to the office full-time. As she is self-employed she can be flexible about her hours, and also is able to do much of the writing, telephone calls, and email from home. But she does not live to work. Living comes first, and work fits in around the edges, just as much as is necessary.

She is extremely successful in her profession, proving that one does not have to work day and night to be a high achiever. Life and work in balance, living in a home surrounded by beautiful things.....I can learn from that.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Becoming a Grandparent

I was ready to become a grandmother.

It is a strange thing. You go along through life and at first you are not ready for grandparenthood. For one thing, your kids are not ready to be parents (you think). You look at them and they are barely out of teenagehood, just starting to make their way in the world. Maybe they are finishing a degree, or living the party lifestyle, or just getting started in that first career job - the one that doesn't involve serving for minimum wage pay. In any case, they are way, way too young (in your eyes).

For another thing, you yourself are way too young. You're in the prime of life. You don't have a grandmotherly look about you at all: picture a plump woman in a brown print house dress, cat's eye glasses, and steel grey hair in a bun. That is definitely not you. For gosh sakes, you're still playing soccer with the twenty-somethings!

Then, almost unnoticeably, something starts to change. You drop out of soccer and take up more sedate forms of exercise, like walking. You admit that the middle-aged gut is here to stay, and dress to accommodate a more rotund shape, if not exactly in flowered house dresses. (The fact that you actually can use words like "house dress," "trousers," "slacks," and "rubbers" to describe items of clothing is a serious hint.) You start thinking of winding down your career, and about the possibilities that retirement might hold. You go out and buy a great big house, much too big for just two people, so that there will be lots of room for the grandchildren to come to stay.

Yes, I was ready. I was ecstatic when my daughter announced that she was pregnant. Then our joy was doubled a couple of months later when my step daughter also was expecting.

What I wasn't ready for was reliving the whole birth-giving process over again. As my daughter went through the stages of pregnancy, I participated vicariously, through telephone conversations and digital photos that she sent. I looked at baby stuff online. I wandered through the baby section of the department store, grinning from ear to ear.

However, as the due date neared, my anxiety level rose. *She* was ready for it. My daughter had followed every step to have a healthy normal pregnancy, had read widely, and had found an excellent midwife. But as the date neared, my memories, which had remained mercifully fuzzy since my own birthing experiences, suddenly returned. My daughter went into labour, confident, ready, and wonderfully cared for by her capable husband and midwife. Meanwhile, I was hundreds of miles away, fretting and useless as an old boot. What could I say that would be in any way helpful? My difficult birthing experiences that I now recalled vividly were not her experiences. My advice was not appropriate or needed. I felt so helpless on the the other end of the phone, wanting to be at her side, yet knowing that she was going through this profound experience together with her life partner, the baby's father. This was right. This was good. It just was not a part of grandmotherhood that I had anticipated or prepared for.

I now have had the joy of holding my newborn grandson in my arms. I have had the chance to help out as my daughter recovers from a not so easy birthing experience. It is not the same as being a mother. I am so thrilled to be a grandma, and I am looking forward to each stage in the process.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Being the Wrong Size in a One-Size-Fits-All World

I am a lucky person. I have a wonderful family, an interesting job, and many dear friends. I am healthy, and I do not have disabilities that slow me down (aside from being as blind as a bat without my glasses, and having somewhat arthritic knees - but I simply ignore that problem most of the time). However, I am the wrong size.

I always have been the wrong size. I am much shorter than average. When I started grade one, the teacher brought in a kindergarten desk for me and my feet still didn't touch the floor. Going through life as a short person means that nothing in the built environment fits me. My kitchen counter is too high for me to beat cake batter or knead bread, and I can only use the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboards. When I sit at the dining room table, only my toe tips touch the floor, and I cannot sit upright with my back against the seat back.

When I drive a car, in order to reach the pedals, I have to pull the seat all the way forward so that my chest is less than the recommended 10 inches from the steering wheel. The neck rest in its lowest position is at the back of my head, which forces my head forward uncomfortably. If child seat restraint guidelines had been in effect when I was a child, I would have had to sit in a baby car-seat until I was 9 years old, as that is the age at which I finally reached 40 pounds. As it was, my parents' car did not even have seat-belts, and we children bounced around the back seat like Mexican jumping beans.

Then there is the matter of clothing. As a young woman, I would have fit size 1, if that size had been available in rural Canada, but it was not. (My daughters, growing up three decades later, were able to take advantage of sizes 1-4, however.) My options at age 18 were to wear girls' size 14 (which was too wide and the wrong shape, not to mention age-inappropriate), to buy size 7/8 and have the items altered, or to live in jeans and T-shirts. I chose the latter option. Throughout my life, I have always worn bras that do not fit right, as my correct size is not commercially available. As I have grown older, I have also grown wider, throwing a new wrinkle into size selection when shopping for clothing. Mercifully, many department stores now have a "petite" section, although the styling often seems targeted to the 70 plus demographic. (I do not do frills or pastel flower prints.) I won't even tell you about my troubles with ski boots.

I often muse about why it is still so hard being the wrong size, and why we still have a one-size-fits-all world. In the last decade the western world has transitioned from the industrial age to the digital age, which has profoundly reshaped our modes of communication and our social practices. However, commerce and the retail industries have not kept up. There is no reason to still be stamping out one-size automobiles on Henry Ford's conveyer belts, or filling the racks with women's clothes in sizes 8, 10, and 12, and not much else. We have one-of-a-kind birthday parties, designer cuisine, individualized learning styles, and unique patterns of Internet usage. Why can't we also have computer-assisted made-to-measure clothing, and modular car interiors that can be dialed in to fit the owner? Why not indeed?

Being too short is annoying sometimes, but really it is relatively small on the scale of life's problems. I can modify my environment (e.g., keep a stool in the kitchen; put a footrest under my computer desk), or I can adapt my own behaviors (e.g., curl up on large couches and chairs rather than leaving my feet to dangle). However, some human characteristics are not so easy to adjust, such as being the "wrong" weight, ethnicity, or sexuality. A one-size-fits-all world is not very comfortable for a lot of people.

I am still waiting for the notions of post-modernity to shake up clannish attitudes, exclusivity in social affiliations, and daily unexamined assumptions. I am waiting for the marvelous potentials of the digital age to start to permeate our hierarchical, almost medieval social structures. And yes, it also would be nice to be able to buy a bra that fit.




Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why I Don't Write About Writing Anymore

The other day, I read a short piece posted on Write Anything written by a writer friend of mine, Jen Brubacher, about her greatest difficulty as a writer. She talks about the never-ending digital stream of "overwhelming writer-related negativity," and how it makes her angry and distracts her from writing. Her strategy for dealing with this is to limit herself to accessing the Internet (writing and publishing related websites, blogs, Twitter, etc.) only after writing. Jen is a disciplined and focused writer, and I am confident that she will remain productive and committed to her craft despite the bumps in the road.

Like Jen, I find that the online frenzy of writing about writing, and writing about publishing, agents, and the implications of the digital publishing revolution, can be overwhelming and "over the top." Rather than helping me to feel informed, it saps my confidence and desire to write. Unlike Jen, I have kind of given up and dropped out, at least from some aspects of writerdom and participation in writing communities. Yet, I am a writer in identity and action; there's no doubt about that.

When I was a small child, I had a list of three things that I wanted to be when I grew up: artist, writer, and queen. (I also had a list of three things that I did not want to be: teacher, nurse, and secretary.) Now in late middle age, I can say that I have managed to become all of the things on my career wishlist to a certain extent. I was an exhibiting artist for a few years. I write and am a writer, as I will describe below. And I am currently in a senior management position, which in many ways encompasses all of the unpleasant aspects of being a queen with few of the perquisites. (In spite of myself, I also achieved the three careers on my anti-list: I have taught for many years; I worked in primary health care prior to that, although not exactly as a nurse; and I more or less have served as my own secretary despite having refused to learn to type.)

Why do I call myself a writer? Well, the material evidence shows me to be a writer. I have authored or co-authored three published books and 50-70 published articles (the exact number depends on what you count). My publications span four different genres, including academic/scholarly works, technical reports and manuals, poetry, and journalism. I also write in genres in which I have not yet formally published (e.g., long fiction, curriculum materials, children's picture books), or that don't count as published/publishable (e.g., blogs, plans and proposals, emails, job descriptions, etc.).

Although I have spent my life writing, I feel as though I have to defend my right to call myself a writer. I have not published a novel, therefore I am not a "real" writer. That is the meat of the nut. That is why my confidence in my writerly identity is shaky.  

Where did I get the idea that only creative fiction, novels and short stories, constitute "writing"? Or, for that matter, when did being a writer become something to aspire to? When I was a kid, I was the only person I knew who wanted to be a writer when I grew up. It wasn't something that one would proudly announce, either, like wanting to be a teacher or scientist. Yet now it seems that there are thousands or hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people describing themselves as writers, or wanting to be writers, and angst all over the Internet.

Hmm. We're back to Jen's point. Too much hand-wringing about writing. I rarely write about writing anymore. But I will keep writing, in one genre or another, just as if I were a real writer, because... I am a real writer.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Clothes Dryer, Ants, and a Baby Robin

In our new house in a new city in a new province, a lot of things are, not surprisingly, new. For example, birds. Our backyard is filled with birdsong. Unfamiliar birds swoop down from the trees squabbling and chasing each other. There is a black bird, smaller than a crow, with long fan-shaped tail feathers, an iridescent blue head, a white beak, and a short harsh call. Another interesting small bird, unlike anything I have ever seen, is sleek and tan coloured with a tuft on its head like a jay, and black, yellow, and red markings on its wings. There are also lots of flickers, robins, and sparrows; these I do recognize.

One morning recently, Rob and I stood at our bedroom window rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and surveying the backyard. We observed a short, very fat bird hopping on the lawn. We wondered what kind of bird it might be. I said to Rob, "It almost looks like a robin, except it is so short and stubby, and it doesn't have a red breast." Simultaneously, we both recognized it as a baby robin.

The next morning, we saw the baby robin again, a little bundle of feathers, dead on the back step. Our cat, Oliver, must have been outside doing what cats do. He is a fat, lazy fellow. As he spent the first year of his life in an animal shelter, we didn't know he he knew how to hunt. But apparently he can catch birds: baby ones.

This afternoon, in between doing loads of laundry, I was out the back working in the garden, and I noticed another baby robin. The little bird was perched on the fence (and the cat was safely in the house, sleeping). The dogs were in the yard with me, but oblivious to the robin.

As I worked the heavy clay soil (new to me: for the last twenty years, I have gardened in sandy loam), I was thinking about the clothes dryer. When we moved in two months ago, the first thing we did before the moving truck even arrived, was purchase a new washer and dryer set. The laundry area in the new house is a challenge. It is a small nook off the hallway. Because of narrowness of the space and the placement of the doorway, there were limited options. The previous owners, who are tall people, had a stackable set that they took with them, but I am too short to reach into a dryer placed up on top of a washer in any case. We settled on a side-by-side set with a top loading washer that was just barely narrow enough to fit in, and the dryer has to be positioned just so in order to have enough room to open the dryer door.

The set we bought was expensive. The two appliances are solidly made, and have touch-screen computerized controls. They are quiet, energy efficient, and most importantly, they fit the space. However, the computer in the dryer seems to not be working properly. The screen turns itself on at random times of the day and night with little beeping sounds. It flips through the programming options by itself without anyone or anything touching the touch screen. We have read the pamphlet that came with the machine, and researched the model on the internet, but have not found a solution to the problem with the controls. We searched for the warranty card and sent it in. I was fretting about this as I dug and planted.

From time to time, I glanced over at the robin. It continued to perch on the fence in the same place looking around, a bit of cottonwood fluff stuck to its head. I must have worked in the garden for a couple of hours, and the bird never moved. I wondered if it was able to fly, and where the mother robin was. The dogs remained oblivious to the baby robin.

I needed a stepping stone for my garden. On the edge of one of the nearby raised beds, there was a red flat rock, about sixteen inches in diameter -- a perfect stepping stone. As I had noticed quite a few ants around it, I began by tipping the stone off the raised bed and turning it over. As soon as the stone was removed, ants exploded in every direction. It was the roof to their anthill.

I sat down on a garden tie to watch. On the exposed top of the anthill and also on the underside of the rock, were many ant eggs. The ants urgently surrounded the eggs, and began dragging them down holes into the anthill. The eggs stuck in the clay soil of the overturned rock posed a greater challenge. Somehow the ants had to drag the eggs, each one larger than any individual ant, a height of five garden ties (about two vertical feet) off the lawn and back up to the nest. I watched the ants working together at a frenetic pace to rescue their eggs.

As I sat there with my back to the fence, I heard a commotion and then a swoosh of wings. Sophie, our terrier mutt, apparently finally had noticed the baby robin. She was standing up on her hind legs against the fence, and the baby robin was nowhere to be seen. After securing the dogs, I went out the gate into the alley, looking for the baby robin. It was not on the ground nearby. I didn't see it on a fence or tree, either. However, in a tree across the way, I heard robins twittering loudly. I would like to think that the baby, startled into flight, had managed to fly up into a tree and back to its mother. 









Sunday, June 17, 2012

Flower or Weed?

One of the interesting things about moving is learning how to garden in a new place. I have moved from a coastal rainforest with a hardiness rating of 4a to 5a (depending on elevation and micro climate) to a sunny, semi-arid grasslands rated at 3a. It is also windy here. The soil is heavy clay.

One of my first strategies in figuring out how to garden here was to wait and see what would come up in my garden. The backyard of our new place is fenced, with one large spruce tree, a number of deciduous trees, and flowering shrubs. There are several raised beds planted with hosta, ferns, bee balm, and decorative grasses, and some creeping ground cover, along with the shrubs. One bed seems to have been well augmented with black humus, and I was curious to see what might pop up in it.

In the front yard, there is a flower bed. When I arrived in April, I could see three clumps of an unknown perennial, two clumps of (dead) decorative grasses, and not much else. By mid-May when it was safe to start planting, I could see an unfamiliar plant coming up in several places in the flower garden. Was it a weed or flower?

I am not much of a flower gardener; I mostly like to plant things that I can eat. So I do not recognize many types of flowers, especially ones that might be particular to an unfamiliar climatic zone like that of my new home. My second strategy was to look for my unknown plant at the plant nursery when I was buying bedding plants. I didn't see it, although at one garden shop, there was something that looked similar way up high on a rack that I could not reach.

I left the unknown plant in my garden, in fact several of them, to see what it would do. It thrived, grew tall, and began forming flower heads. The flowers when it bloomed were yellow, and star-burst in shape. The flowers opened during the day and closed at night.

Strategy number three: I walked around the neighbourhood, snooping to see if anyone else had the unknown yellow flower in their garden. No-one did, except for one neighbour, whose garden was as much weeds as flowers.

I was starting to become suspicious. The thing was growing like a weed, and although its flowers were reasonably attractive, the plant was scraggly and weedy in appearance. What clinched my decision to consider it a weed was that I began to see the same plant out in the grasslands park, and also in back alleys. Weed, not flower.

I dug them all up. I still don't know what it is. I should have taken a photo of it and posted it here. I suppose it is odd that wild flowers are considered a weed, whereas petunias and impatiens are not, and are therefore pampered.

And as for the back garden plot, nothing came up there but many (recognizable) weeds. I have weeded it, dug it up, and that is where I am planting my veggies. At least I know how to discriminate between vegetables and weeds!     

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

When I was seventeen, I left my small-town home and went off to a big city in the south to attend university. At the end of my first year, I moved back home to live with my parents for the summer and work. In September, I moved back to the city for second year, and so on. Pretty typical. Lots of young people begin their adult life this way. My experience varied only in that my home town was small, rough, and pioneer-like, and more than 1000 kilometers from the university city.

By the time I was 24, I had moved at least twice a year for seven years, almost every time to a different apartment or living situation, and I had lived in six cities or towns in two different Canadian provinces. I was an old hand at moving. I had worked my way through university completing two degrees, spent a summer backpacking through Europe, was just starting my first professional position, and was about to get married. However, I still wasn't ready to settle down.

Over the next eight years, I moved six more times, lived in three cities in two provinces, bought two houses, had four different jobs, gave birth to two children, and enrolled in another university degree program. Whew! I get tired just thinking about it.

In contrast, my middle years have been much more stable. I have lived in three houses, each in a different city, and stayed in the most recent home for eight years. And somehow, along the way, I have lost the knack of moving.

If you have been following my blog, you will recall that in April of this year I uprooted my family, sold my one-of-a-kind log house in a coastal rainforest, waved goodbye to friends and family, and moved far away in pursuit of a great job opportunity.

The new city is lovely. It has parks, walking trails, beautiful vistas, clear air, and good shopping. People are friendly and helpful. The new job is a little overwhelming at the moment, but it offers new intriguing challenges. We have moved into an old house with character and great bones, not to mention a large private yard with gardens, trees, and many song birds.

But I am homesick. I feel like a tourist here in this city. I am ready for the visit here to be over now; it's time to go home. Except, oh no! I've bought a house here and committed to five years at the new job.

I really had settled into a happy life in that northern town. I miss my friends, and the activities and pursuits that make up life's fabric: fly fishing in the wild rivers, exploring logging roads on a mountain bike or cross country skis, buying Asian condiments at the specialty foods store and pants that fit at my friend Lori's store. I don't think I had quite realized how much my core identity is wrapped up in being a northerner from northern British Columbia.

I left for a great job opportunity. It was a sensible decision, the right career choice. I've moved many times before. What the heck -- we can do it. I'm sure that we just need to give it time. We will settle in here and meet people, and be glad we had the courage to make this leap into the unknown.

However, at the moment I almost feel as though I have lost both my home and my self. I am a visitor here in a strange land.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Carla Beerens, Artist

I came across the website of Canadian Artist, Carla Beerens, and wanted to post a link to it. I actually lived in the same community as Carla many years ago, but had lost track of her and her career. She works in various mediums. I have chosen a watercolour and an oil painting to feature here. Her studio is in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.



This watercolour is Apples I, and it is one her latest works. Her colours are amazingly crisp and transparent.


This oil painting is Grizzly II. Look at the quality of the light!

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This work by Dr Sock Writes Here is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.