Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fall Down!

The winter that I was three and a half years old, my Dad came home with two little pairs of homemade skis for me and my younger brother, who was two and a half. They were made of wood, with bear trap bindings, metal toe plates with a leather strap, green lino heel plates (the linoleum from our kitchen floor), and cables that cinched across the back of the heels. They had no metal edges nor bases. Dad waxed the wood on the bottom side to make them slide. One pair was painted red and the other pair was green. We didn't have ski boots, but wore our winter boots in the skis. At that time our winter boots were mid-calf height pile lined rubber overshoes that we pulled on over our leather shoes.

Dad started teaching us to ski. First he taught us to walk up the driveway and glide down. The driveway had a very slight incline. Then he tramped down the side hill by our house, which had a slightly steeper incline, and began teaching us to snowplow down the hill and sidestep back up. The next winter, we began taking Saturday morning ski lessons given by the Ski Club at Warren's Hill, a farmer's field just outside of town. There was no lift at Warren's Hill. We skied down and sidestepped or herringboned back up. As a founding member of the Ski Club, my Dad was one of the ski instructors. 

By the time I was six, I had a little pair of red rubber lace up ski boots (hand-me-downs from another skiing family) and my own poles with leather straps and baskets. That winter, another member of the Ski Club installed a rope tow on a hill on his farm. The annual Ski Club races were held there. I, of course, competed in the slalom and giant slalom, as did my best friend at school. We both won ribbons.

I had never skied at that hill before. It was much longer and steeper than Warren's Hill. I loved going fast down the big hill. The rope tow also was an exciting novelty, and I quickly caught the hang of it. 

In the afternoon, after all the races were done, and we had had our lunch of hotdogs and hot chocolate, we had time for free skiing. At some point, I remember skiing quickly past my Dad, who had stopped for some reason, maybe to assist my brother. I went racing down the hill, my long braids streaming out behind me. I was going really, really fast, and it was fantastic. (This is how I remember it, anyways. Perhaps I was not really going so fast or skiing as elegantly as I thought.)

Suddenly, I heard my Dad shouting my name. "Fall down!" he yelled. "Fall down!"

Why was he telling me to fall down? I saw people turning to look at me as I skied past them. I was a confident skier. I had no intention of falling down in front of everyone. That would be so embarrassing. 

As I came to the bottom of the hill, the snow became very rough and I managed to stop. Or maybe I did fall down; I no longer remember. My Dad caught up to me then, and he was angry and upset. He explained that there was a creek that went along the base of the hill, and he was afraid that I was out of control unable to stop, and that I might have ended up in the creek. I hadn't known about the creek, and I could vividly imagine falling into the freezing water. 

I remember that ski day with mixed emotions: the excitement of skiing on a bigger hill with a lift, the pride in winning the slalom race, the shame of everyone staring at me expecting me to fall down, the disappointment that my Dad did not see me as a fully competent skier, and the recognition of his love and desire to protect me from harm. 

My Dad has been gone for nearly eleven years now. I still miss him very much, especially on days like today that I spend at the ski hill. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Scene

I have started a new painting. It is a winter snow scene set in an urban park. I am working from a reference photo that I took about a year ago of the location. At this time of the year, late December, the days in Canada are very short. The light fades by four o'clock. I took the photo on an overcast day in the afternoon just as the light was waning. 

What struck me about this scene was the dramatic composition. The arched wooden bridge on the left  crosses from an island in the foreground to a land causeway (not visible) to the far side of the small lake. The bridge and a tree are reflected in a bit of open water, whereas the rest of the lake is covered in snow. I like the way the snow-covered boulders and the bridge lead the eye toward the reflections, the tree, and the horizon. 

I began by drawing the main shapes with graphite. Today, I finished sketching in the lines of the main shapes over the pencil lines with thinned yellow ochre paint. 

I don't often draw the lines in with paint, but I wanted to for this one because it is a very structural painting. The arched bridge was challenging to draw, and I did not want to lose the drawing once I started to block in the colours. As well, the stark tree and its reflection, and the jumble of boulders add complexity that I would not have felt comfortable blocking in as masses without doing the drawing first. Redrawing the lines with paint over graphite also gave me a chance to correct some drawing errors. As you can see, I have indicated some of the areas of darker values -- the trees and the shadows of the boulders. In drawing the boulders, I found it helpful to give them some three dimensional form. However, I haven't indicated the areas of darkest values, which are the bridge reflection, the wooden bridge foundation and buttress, and the far treeline. 

This painting will be challenging for me in several ways. It is the largest painting I have attempted, 20 by 30 inches. I have been trying to start working larger, but the next largest one I have done in recent years is 18 by 24 inches. I am hoping that by working larger with larger brushes, I will be less tempted to pick away at tiny details and end up overworking the painting. 

Another way in which this painting will be challenging is because of the colours in it. I usually tend to create very colourful paintings, often dominated by light values. This one will force me to work more with a grey range (blue greys and purple greys), and I know I will find it hard to make the snow values dark enough. However, the snow has to be rendered in a mid value range so that the little bit of bright sky and reflected sky will really shine.

A final challenge will be the large areas of more or less solid colour, like the snow field in the middle right, and the large snow covered rock in the bottom right. I tend to create very busy images, and often  avoid painting larger "blank" areas. Yet they are so important to frame the focus of interest. 

So you can see that I have set myself quite a task with this snow scene. 

I presently have a dilemma with how to proceed with the blocking in. Initially, I was planning to do a value underpainting in a contrasting colour. In particular, I was thinking of magenta. However, I spent a long time contemplating the photo, and went for an afternoon walk to the same location today to look at the actual scene again. Although some snow scenes have a pink undertone (and I have used pink or red violet or magenta effectively in snow scenes before), I just don't see a pink undertone in this one. 

So then I contemplated cadmium orange or cadmium red medium or Indian red or burnt sienna as possible colours for the underpainting. Or another possibility would be to block in the main colour areas and values with the local colours that I see in each major shape. I am reluctant to do this though, because that would mean putting white in the mix right in the first layer in order to make the greys. I would prefer to block it in with transparent colour and only in subsequent layers begin to add white, because pigments mixed with white become opaque, which I find can lead to a chalky or muddy look. 

Hmmm. What to do? Maybe I should do a couple of small studies with various contrasting choices of underpainting. I am usually so eager to get on with the actual painting that I skip this step. Or I could finish blocking in the values with the yellow ochre, and then lay Indian red or burnt Umber over top of the darkest darks. Or maybe I could use one of my blues to create a unifying underpainting. Hmmm. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Protagonist Problem

Although I have not been working on my works in progress recently, sometimes I think about them. I have written most of two novels (and a very sketchy beginning of a third). The first novel is at the stage of the first draft being three quarters complete. The strength of this one is in its characters, and its primary weakness is plot. I became stuck, unable to bring the themes together into a satisfying conclusion. 

With the second novel, I completed an overly long first draft a few years ago with the help of a couple of NaNoWriMo Novembers. This novel has a more complex structure and plot than the first one, essentially a coming of age story nested within a coming of age story. Although most of the story is told from the female protagonist's perspective, some of it is expressed by the antagonist (who is my favourite character in the book). As well, a third character pops in midway through, briefly, and I have realized that she is quite important to the story, as her perspective serves as a counterpoint to a core identity problem that the protagonist is struggling with. I think I need to add more of this third character's voice. 

This second novel is at the revising stage. Doing the revisions seems so daunting that, while I have written a bunch of notes on what I need to do, I haven't really begun revising. One of my first readers made an excellent observation about my protagonist. We see the protagonist in adulthood and as a child. She is a white woman/girl who is concerned about and at the same time implicated in racist attitudes and social practices. My reader asked why she is so conflicted, as she seems to be doing and saying all the right (anti-racist) things. I was unable to answer this question at the time. 

Now, a couple of years later, I have come to recognize something that I am calling the protagonist problem afflicts both of my novels. While I have been able to develop the other characters quite well and have a good sense of their motivations, perspectives, and flaws, in both novels I have somewhat of a blind spot about the protagonists. I have trouble seeing why they do what they do. I am too close to them. My blind spot about these main characters is almost like the blind spot I have about myself and that each of us has about ourselves - that inability to look at one's self and actions with any kind of objective distance. However, I want to quickly point out that neither of the protagonists is autobiographical; I am not either of them and their experiences are not mine (although I recognize that there is some of me in each of my characters and in the dilemmas that they find themselves in).

Moreover, I feel ambivalent about each of these two main characters. Neither is a hero that is easy to identify with. In the first novel, the main character feels smugly superior to the two other significant characters that she has been thrown together with, and yet also is profoundly lacking in emotional self-awareness as she grieves a death of someone close to her. 

In the second novel, the main character is likeable as a young girl, but when we see her as a woman, she has isolated herself from her family. She has become judgmental and focused on efficiency and career, and is not very effective in being able to form or sustain relationships. The trouble is, how do we care about her and the situations that she is in throughout the book if we don't like her? 

The protagonist problem is this. I am writing each of these stories primarily from the point of view of the main character. Because I am seeing the world from her point of view, I suffer the same kind of lack of insight and self awareness that the character has, or that any any first person perspective has. I as the writer lack narrative distance, and this makes it hard for me to see the main character as a fully rounded complex person. Moreover, in both novels, I have given the protagonist have some personality characteristics that might not make the protagonist particularly endearing to the reader. 

I think that when I finally go back to writing and revising these works in progress, I am going to have to find a way, as the writer, to step back from the two protagonists. By stepping back and taking a longer view, I hope to see them as the characters that they are, interacting with the other characters on the stage of their story. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making a Life

A little bit of contemplative time can be a dangerous thing. Rob has been away for a few days, and on my own this weekend with plenty of reflective time, I find my mind turning to the "Big Questions."

Blinkered by the daily toil, drowning in a sea of busyness, I do not often pause to wonder. I just get on with the task in front of me at the moment, and attempt to manage my way through the myriad of urgent matters clamouring to be next on the agenda.

How on earth did I get here?

I am not asking how humans came to exist, or how society evolved, or from whence came my soul. Rather, in this rare moment of lifting my nose from the grindstone, I suddenly realize that I find myself in a certain job (with all its complexities), in a certain city, with a pattern of regular activities, and a particular network of family, friends, acquaintances, and work colleagues. I have been going along, year-by-year, caught up in the immediacy of decisions and details, and all the while the minutiae have added up, and altogether this has come to constitute my life.

My thoughts this morning reminded me of a New Wave band I used to listen to throughout the 1980's, and in particular, one song. I rushed to the Internet to find it, because although I have the album (remember LP's?), it is packed away somewhere in a box in the basement. The song is Once in a Lifetime, and in it, David Byrne of the Talking Heads speaks rather than sings some parts of the odd and existential lyrics.

Here is the first verse of the song, and a link to the music video:  

Talking Heads -- Once in a Lifetime

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

For me, this captures perfectly the sense of of lack of control, or dislocation I sometimes feel when I contemplate the course of my life. The following quote from an interview with David Byrne elaborates on the concept in the song:

In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: "We're largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'" Songfacts

Most of the time, I like to believe that I have significant control over the life that I have. I have choices. I have chosen to have this job, to live in this city, to have these particular hobbies, and to spend time with this set of people. Outside of work, any given day, I have choices about how I will spend each hour of the day. At work, the job itself places many constraints on my time and attention, but still I have decisions to make and choices about how to focus my efforts. I think of the many fascinating strands of people, places, ideas, experiences, relationships, things, and creative processes that together over time make up my life. Lifting my head up out of the minutiae briefly to survey my life more broadly, it seems rich and satisfying.

And yet, so much of it is by chance, or dependent on external factors and the actions of others. Some of it I control, yes. I am fortunate to be privileged within this society in many ways, which has given me a greater breadth of choice than many citizens have. But for so much of life, people only really have control over their own responses -- to global events, societal practices, and even daily circumstances -- and quite limited ability to affect the broad sweep of events. Sometimes, the range of influence of any individual and means to engage even right in the here and now can seem woefully limited.

For example, I believe in the democratic process, so I vote. I do so knowing that my one vote contributes only in a very small way to the final decision. At various times, I have further contributed to the democratic process by holding membership in a political party, by volunteering during elections, and by donating to what I deem to be worthy causes. I read to educate myself about the issues at municipal, provincial and federal levels. In my workplace, I strive to create opportunities for consultation and collaborative decision-making. And yet, many times governments have been elected that are not the ones I would have chosen, and which I believe are making poor decisions for our country. At work, oftentimes, the committee process leads to mediocre and status quo decisions, rather than to bold innovation and making things better. Ultimately, my personal ability to make a difference is very limited and that can be so discouraging.

We are facing global warming. There is poverty across the world, including right in my community. There is war, inequality, mental illness, corporate greed, and environmental destruction. The current industrial approaches to agriculture are destroying our soil and water, killing the honey bees, limiting access to and diminishing the variety of seeds, and contaminating our food with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and GMO's. I feel that I should be doing something about all of this, and at the same time feel helpless to make a difference.

Knowing what I know now, and if I truly had the chance to choose, would I have chosen this life that I have? But how could I have chosen it? I could never have even imagined it with all its complex twists and turns.

Do the little tasks that I toil away at truly make a difference, or should I put my efforts elsewhere? My time on earth is just a tiny little blip, and yet I feel such a sense of responsibility to live my life in a way that makes a difference. When I ask, "How did I get here?" and look at the sum of my life to date, I scrutinize my life in terms of the unknowable, the big existential question: "What is it all for?"

If the metric by which I evaluate my life, ultimately, is whether or not I have made a difference, I fear that I have fallen short. Yet what arrogance to think that I, just one small person, should have the power to effect big changes. Maybe, after all, it is the accretion of little things, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, year-by-year, that really is what is all about.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Greasing the Muffin Pan

This morning I made muffins for breakfast. I started with the tried and true basic muffin recipe out of a thirty year old Red Roses cookbook, and improvised from there. 

Rather than two cups of white flour, I switched half a cup of it for whole wheat flour. I threw in about a tablespoon of brewer's yeast, left here by a visiting friend who cooks vegetarian and whole grain foods.  I added chopped walnuts and dried currants to the dry ingredients. I had a small amount of mashed yams leftover from last night's dinner, so I added that, and also a couple of tablespoons of cooked quinoa, also left over from dinner. I mixed them up, popped them in the oven, and there was breakfast. The muffins were delicious. Rob ate five. 

One thing that I do not enjoy doing when making muffins is greasing the muffin pan. I have a lovely stoneware pan, a gift from a friend. It is large and heavy, and when I lift it down from its home in the cupboard above the refrigerator, still in its original box, I always smile and remember my friend who gave it to me. And then I sigh, put a dab of butter on some waxed paper and grease each muffin cup. Maybe the reason I don't like this part is because I always end up with greasy fingers. The butter gets into my skin and under my fingernails, and is hard to wash off. 

It seems to me that many tasks of life have a component in them that is off-putting, unpleasant, or even sometimes severely anxiety-provoking. Sometimes for me, that one component can be not just a little bump in the road, but a brick wall that is hard to get past. 

Greasing the muffin pan is a mild and almost silly example. But the fact is, if I let my aversion to greasing the pan stop me, I would never make homemade muffins. I would lose the satisfaction of making and eating them, and my family would lose the opportunity to enjoy them as well.

Here is another example. I love to ski. Every winter, it gives me great joy to ski as many weekends as I can. The last two winters, we have taken a March ski holiday with dear friends in another province, and we are planning to do the same again this March. Both times, we have had a wonderful week of skiing and spending time with our friends. 

But every morning at the skihill, when I put my ski boots on, my feet hurt. The boots cut off my circulation and squash my insteps down. Sometimes the pain is quite extreme from the pressure on my insteps, and also once I take the boots off to thaw my feet. 

I have good quality, properly fit boots with customized heat moulded inner boots. These are better boots than I ever owned before when I was younger and poorer. But unfortunately for me, I have wide feet, high arches, short strong calves, and poor circulation. I have never found any brand of boot that is actually comfortable. I have learned all kinds of tricks, like making sure my boots are warm before putting them on, wearing thin socks, buckling the boots loosely at the start of the day, and unbuckling them for each ride up the chair. Later in the day, once my body has warmed up to exercise and my feet have adjusted to the boots, the pain is minimal and my feet don't get as cold. 

Still, I know that every ski day, I will have to put up with painful feet and frozen toes for the first three or four runs. Then I'll go into the lodge and weep while defrosting my feet. After that, my feet will be fine for the rest of the day. I refuse to let a little thing like pain stop me from enjoying a wonderful day of skiing.

Here is a work related example. Like many people, I suffer from fear of public speaking. Yet, throughout the different jobs in my career, I regularly have had to speak publicly in a variety of situations. I have led meetings of the senior leaders of a large organization. I have taught small classes and classes of 250. I have been interviewed on television. I have spoken at national and international conferences. I have led a ceremonial event in a darkened theatre that seats 750. 

Every first time that I have had to speak in a new type of situation, I have become highly anxious. I have experienced sweaty palms, the feeling of almost fainting, and the sensation of hearing sound coming out of my mouth but being unable to understand the words that I am saying. I have had wordlessness come over me, when in the middle of a sentence, I suddenly have become frozen, unable to finish the sentence. With everyone's eyes upon me, the silence has seemed to go on and on. 

You would think that having experienced public speaking fright once, I would have avoided that type of situation forever after. But no, I am not that easy on myself. I have made myself do it again, and again, and again, until I have developed ease with that particular situation. And then I have signed myself up for tasks that up the ante, and require me to speak to larger or more critical audiences. 

I am not trying to torture myself. I am not trying to purposely seek out public speaking situations. It's just that if I am going to be able to my job well, I have to take the public speaking part of it in stride. As my career has progressed, the level of public speaking required also has risen. If I had taken the easy way out, I would never have learned to how to manage in public speaking situations, and I would not have learned to cope with the anxiety. The focus isn't me, but rather the instruction, the presentation, the interview, the meeting agenda, and the celebration. 

So, I guess the point I am making, which isn't especially profound, is that we grow when we don't let ourselves take the easy way out. This is the case in creative endeavours, like oil painting or writing a novel, and at work, and also in the little everyday things of life, like making muffins. 


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Karen Margulis, Pastel Painter

Tonight, I would like to feature the work of an amazing artist, Karen Margulis. She works in pastel, and has a fabulous sense of colour and design.

Ribbon of Blue

The painting above is titled Ribbon of Blue. It is available for purchase on her Website and also can be viewed on her blog.

I really like this painting because in this composition, the blue zigzag of water draws the eye right into the space. As well, she has used colour to provide dramatic contrast and yet at the same time to develop the image as a unified whole. Finally, I like the way that she has not overworked the painting, but has left areas that are suggestive or somewhat unresolved. This adds interest and keeps me looking at the painting for a long time. An example of this are the marks just above the line of the horizon. My eyes keep going there as I try to understand if I am seeing clouds, or birds, or smoke, or perhaps the suggestion of far away hills.

As well as being a marvellous artist, Karen writes thoughtful posts on techniques and her artistic practice. For example, in recent posts, she has talked about strategies she uses to give herself permission. One such strategy is finding ways to give oneself permission to stop working on a picture before it loses its freshness and becomes overworked. Another strategy is to use poor photos as references, which is more likely to result in colour improvisation and greater looseness, rather than rigid copying of what appears in the photograph. 

I have added a link to her blog to my blog roll. Follow it or any of the links above to enjoy more of her work. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Writing Life, Deferred

What is special about October 31? Well, Halloween, of course -- but what else?

October 31st is the day before November 1st, and November 1st is the first day of the month of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a month when writers across the globe form a mutual support group to cheer each other on in each one's individual quest to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. 

On Halloween night, I read a fellow writer's social media post about her writing plan for her novel this year. Then I signed onto the NaNoWriMo website, miraculously remembering my user name and password from several years ago when I last participated. I'm still listed there, though my webpage is blank, my past years' records wiped away. I cruised the forums a little, nostalgically. Then I logged off and spent this whole weekend not writing. 

It's not that I had other pressing things I needed to do this weekend, just laundry, groceries, and a few errands. I spent half the day on Saturday in my pyjamas on the couch. I read a whole novel, a journalist's series on the contemporary challenges of finding work, and browsed through quite a few pages of Kathi Weeks's scholarly book, The Problem With Work (2011).

Frequently over these two days, the thought that NaNoWriMo had started popped into my head, and I fought the urge to run to my computer and write. I felt sad that I was not participating this year, again. 

But there simply is no point. I cannot do my job and be a committed writer too, not both at the same time. My job has been chewing up 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and lately it has gobbled up part of each weekend as well. When I come home at the end of the day, I am tired and hungry, and many days I have no words left in my head. Just as often, the work scenarios are still racing through my mind most of the evening leaving little space for anything else. 

In the evenings, I fit in some exercise, time with Rob, phone calls to kids and friends, some daily home tasks like paying the bills or sewing on buttons. By Friday, I am in a haze of exhaustion, and barely able to hold a conversation, never mind write. 

This weekend, true enough, I could have spent some hours writing. But then I would have had to put it aside until next weekend (if I was lucky), or maybe several weekends hence. It is hard to write with continuity and passion in the little dribs and drabs of time that I have.

I have participated in NaNoWriMo before in the hours between and around work. But work then, although busy, did not demand so many hours or spend me as thoroughly as my current job does. Also, I had to absent myself from everything else for the month of November, which I did willingly in the past. But now, there is less and less of a life outside of work, as work has grown to take up more and more of my time and energy. 

This is quite the Faustian bargain -- this job OR a life. The life that is left over after work is a skinny little thing with no room for the writing life.

And it's not just me being overly dramatic, or poor at managing my time. In the macho culture of this type of organization, you have to suck it up and work, work, work, all the time. Or you leave, or get pushed out.

A couple of days ago, I was reminiscing with a colleague about a big collaborative writing project on identity that I was engaged in several years ago. I could hear myself enthusiastically describing that project and how interesting it was. I loved doing that kind of writing and work, and I suddenly realized how much I missed it. 

I have not completely stepped away from writing. This blog is my primary writing practice now. I do some writing at work, but mostly of an interactive, functional type (e.g., email, brief reports). Sometimes (rarely), I write a poem. I still think about the nuts and bolts of writing, especially when I am reading a well-written novel or blogs on writing, and sometimes I still daydream about my stories in progress, or ones that I might write someday. 

Right now, I am pinning my hopes on retirement. I have not ceased to be a writer. I just will be going about it in sequence rather than in parallel in the current and upcoming stages of my life.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Methane Swamp

I have just started a new painting. I call this one Methane Swamp

Last year at Thanksgiving, Rob and I were on our own, so we decided to go camping. We have a truck and camper. It is a new, quite comfortable three-season camper. It has a slide, so it is roomy, and the kitchen is far more functional than in most campers. 

Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, so although the evenings are chilly, the weather is still fine for camping. We went to the mountains, and camped at a lovely place called Mill Creek. Although it is clearly a favourite place for random campers during the summer, judging by the large number of fire pits, areas of trampled grass, and abandoned beer cans, in October we had the place all to ourselves.

We arrived Saturday evening when it was already getting dark. We spent the next day hiking along the creek. That evening, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner in the camper. We had Cornish game hens stuffed with rice and cranberries, veggies, salad, dinner rolls, and wine. It tasted wonderful! It was the first time I had ever used the camper's oven, and it worked just fine. I didn't attempt pumpkin pie, however. Maybe next time. 

On Monday morning, we hiked around the area a bit more. We discovered that we were near a series of interconnected swamps. A trail cut along the hillside above the swamps. I scrambled down the steep hillside to get down to the pools and stream. 

The area was visually interesting. Dead white trees poked up out of the water at various angles. The water was shadowy blue and black. There were hummocks of yellow grass, and red oxide mud along the shoreline. We observed that methane gas was bubbling up from the mud on the pond bottom. The place had a mysterious, almost ominous feeling to it. I took many photos, knowing that I wanted to paint the scene, but not having time that morning to paint on location. 

It is a year later, and I have finally gotten around to uploading the photos off my camera onto the computer. I looked at my methane swamp photos and was disappointed. They were dark, and too busy. They did not represent well what intrigued my eyes when we were there. 

I finally decided on one particular picture to use as a reference photo and printed it out. After considering it further, I chose to focus on the top right hand corner of the photo. I took a ruler and (cleverly) marked out a rectangle the same dimensions as my canvas. This solved a problem that I often have when using a reference photo: the photo is seldom exactly the same dimensions as my canvas, and that makes it hard to get the drawing right. 

I am working on a smaller canvas than usual - 14 x 18 inches. I just finished a larger painting with quite a bit of detail, and it took me a long time to complete it. So this time I wanted to work fast and loose, and finish quickly. 

I drew the main shapes in, placing them carefully, but not putting in any detail. Then I painted in the white dead trees and their reflections, just roughly, and the yellow grasses along he shore. That was as far as I got the first evening. Tonight it took me about two hours to block in the trees, and some of the reflections in the water. 

As always, I am struggling to get the dark values dark enough. Also, this picture has lots of green in it. Green is my nemesis. I usually try to avoid using a lot of green as I find it hard to represent green the way I see it. But, in landscape art, it is not that easy to stay away from green! 

The image is quite complex. So far, I am having fun with it. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

I was speaking with my son recently about this question. He is just about to finish his schooling, racing through the readings and assignments of his final year. University has been his life for nearly four years, and now he is on the threshold of something else. But he doesn't know what that something else is. He is mentally trying out the possibilities of different career paths. It is hard to visualize the unknown.

When I was a child, I always felt stumped when adults asked me the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" (I think maybe the adults of my childhood were not very good at conversing with children, because they seemed to always ask this, or, "What grade are you in?" Or, if they were men, jokingly, "Who's your boyfriend?").

My typical answer to the what to be question was, "Anything except a secretary, nurse, or teacher." Those were the three career paths considered suitable for a girl back in those days, so, of course, I was quite certain that I would not pursue any of them.

But I did wonder what my path through the world of work would be. When I was quite young, I decided that I might like to be an artist, a writer, or a queen. I didn't tell anyone, because even then I knew that aspiring to be an artist or a writer was somehow not okay. It was fanciful rather than practical. It seemed a bit arrogant to even dare to dream that I could become a writer or an artist. Many years later when I confided these two possibilities to a best friend, she said that I could be an artist we grew up, and she would be a writer. (Apparently we couldn't both be writers.)

I never told anyone about wanting to be a queen. I knew people certainly would make fun of that.

Of course, I knew I could never be a real queen. I was growing up in the sticks of northern Canada. My family was not royalty. And even as a small child, I knew that I would not enjoy all the publicity and public obligations expected of the Queen.

Looking back, I think what being a queen meant to me was leadership. At that time, aside from the Queen of England (and Canada), and my school principal who was a woman, there were few examples for me to see of women in leadership positions.

Even if I had had the words for it, I still don't think I would have told anyone that I hoped to pursue a leadership role in whatever career I chose. Leadership -- being the boss, the chair, the vice-president -- wasn't seen as an appropriate aspiration for a girl. And it still isn't, for the most part, although few people will come right out and say it.

Little girls who try to lead are taunted as being "too bossy."

Lots of research out there shows that most women still hit a glass ceiling in their career trajectory. When successful women are interviewed, the majority of them say that they kind of stumbled into leadership; it hadn't really been their plan. The research also shows that female leaders, more than their male counterparts, secretly suffer from the self-perception that they are imposters in their role.

So, now as I approach senior citizenhood, I can report that I did become an artist, a writer, and a queen. it was a strange zig-zagging path, and I did a variety of kinds of work along the way. My art, unfortunately, has been done alongside a busy career, which means that I do not have very much time for it. Writing is something that I have done both as an integral part of my career, and alongside my paid work. And I have been in managerial and leadership roles in my career for more than a decade.

So, the point of this story is: Listen to the little kid in your head, that child you once were. He or she might know more than you would have expected. Also, I think this story is about having the courage to dream. It's your life to make of it what you will.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

En Plein Air

just spent a spectacular sunny September weekend at Police Outpost Park, on the border of Alberta and Montana. On Saturday afternoon, I hiked to a viewpoint along the trail and painted on location. I had to carry my gear about a kilometre. I started out at 3:00, and was back at our campsite by 8:00 when the sun went down. So after subtracting the time taken for hiking, and setting up and taking down, I think I spent about 4 hours drawing and then painting. I completed a 14x18 en plein air painting.

This was my setup. I had remembered this handy little bench along the trail from previous hikes.

This was the scene that I painted. I was looking out over fields and an pond towards Chief Mountain. The autumn colours were brilliant. This photo does not represent the colours well as I was looking towards the sun. The mountain was just a hazy silhouette against the bright sky. The sun passed across the sky to the right and was setting over the mountains in the west by the time I finished the painting.

This photo shows the painting just after I had blocked in the main shapes and colour areas. I was painting on a birch panel with oils. I usually paint on stretched canvas or linen, and I found it hard to work on the panel. It seemed to suck up the moisture of the paint too much. When I began laying on the pale blue wash for the sky, the thinned paint went blotchy, so I ended up blocking in with much thicker paint than usual. Also, when I used unthinned paint, my brush became dry after a short stroke. So I struggled with the consistency or viscosity of the paint throughout this experience. 

I had prepared the panel with two coats of shellac, followed by a ground of white alkyd paint. I have been told that artists do not use shellac anymore as a base on panels - that it is an old-fashioned approach - but that is how I was taught to do it many years ago. I would like to hear advice from others on how you prepare panels for oil painting. No doubt, the wind and sun also contributed to the problems with paint consistency.

Anyways, I had great fun painting this scene. Most of the time I paint indoors. I had really been wanting to get out on location and paint. My excuse was that I couldn't find my old telescoping portable easel. I painted one panel outside last summer by setting up a table, and propping my panel against a box on the table. That didn't work well once the wind came up! I finally went a bought a new lightweight easel, and this was my first time using it. 

Here is the final painting. I took the photo with my phone, so the colours are not very accurate. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Misery Lens

We've all been there at one time or another. It is that terrible place of mind where you become trapped inside a sandstorm of raging hurt or anger, or maybe inside the frozen grey ice of resentment and alienation. You look out at those who have wronged you through a lens of misery, and everything you see appears ugly, ill-fitting, and as miserable as you feel. In fact, the misery is more than a lens on the eyes. It is a stench that envelopes you and taints everything that you come near.

Your body and mind go with your emotions to that unpleasant place and they all end up swirling around together. Your teeth are clenched, jaw aching, and no matter how many times you notice them and open your mouth and try to relax your face, a few minutes later the teeth are clenched again. Your neck and upper back are so tight that they are going into spasms, and you have a persistent headache that ranges from a dull ache to blinding pain. You lose faith in your ability to do basic simple things, like say hello to people, or do a familiar task.

And all the while the squirrel in the brain is on a frantic treadmill, trying to analyze the crisis you find yourself in. You lay out the facts and possible interpretations over and over again. There is an occasional insight or moment of clarity, and then you plunge into another round of rehashing the newly aligned facts, and you plot and compare courses of action. You can't step away from it. The internal conversation distracts you from everything else, and keeps you awake at night. You become exhausted.

You didn't get stuck behind the misery lens randomly. Some situation drew you into the internal storm. The situation was so terrible, so critical, that your very survival felt threatened. You failed a course. You were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Your spouse left you or threatened to leave you. Your boss or teacher humiliated you in front of others. Someone cheated you or mocked you behind your back and you found out. Someone close to you died. You made a serious error at work that hurt someone or caused a project to fail. You reached age fifty, still single and childless, and wondered about your own worth. You got cancer. 

The stew of emotions, thoughts and physical reactions are by-products of the struggle to cope with a threatening situation. But they are so all-encompassing that they throw up a smokescreen, a grey lens that distorts perception. But in the middle of it, the perceptions don't seem distorted; they seem real, true, and very intense. I know this because this has happened to me more than once. In retrospect, it is really easy to notice that the angry blaming thoughts and hurt feelings were leading me to conclusions that, afterwards, seemed somewhat twisted, or even ludicrous. But in the middle of it, that clarity and distance is hard to achieve.

Here are some ways through it that have worked for me. I remind myself that it is a process or coping phase and it will pass. I will get through it. Usually I come out the other end with a plan. 

I do things that help me step away from my obsessive brooding thoughts and feelings - things that quiet the brain. For me what works well are: getting out into nature; exercise; journalling; talking to a trusted friend or family member (I have to ignore the voice in my head that tries to dissuade me by saying that no one understands or wants to listen); counselling; painting; cooking; yoga; skiing; reading an interesting upbeat book; physical closeness with a loved one; engaging with others and focusing on them, not me; and listening to speakers on positive themes such as creativity and leadership (e.g., TED talks). 

Ultimately what pulls me out of the bog of misery it is figuring out what steps I need to take to address the problem that I am facing, and then actually taking action. Maybe it involves finding the courage to confront someone, or to do a task that I am afraid of, or to own up to my mistake. Maybe it means recognizing that a certain problem is not something that I can or ought to deal with, and giving myself permission to step away from it. Sometimes it involves finding little moments of peace and joy to help me get through each day while I wait for time to do its healing work. 

There always is a solution, but it is seldom obvious through the misery lens. Typically, once the misery lens falls away from my eyes, I can hardly remember what I was so riled up about and why it seemed so very important. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Farmers' Market Supper

I have written before about how frustrating it is shopping for groceries in the the city where I live, but I don't think I have written about the farmers' market. We have an excellent farmers' market here, every Saturday morning from May through to October. Many of the best vegetables can be obtained from farmers from the various Hutterite colonies who market their wares at the farmers' market. There are also places to buy organic meats and vegetables, homemade baking and jam, local honey, free run eggs, and locally made cheese. Of course there are lots of crafts as well. 

This morning, I zipped around to all of my favourite merchants and filled my basket with all kinds of lovely vegetables, peaches and plums from British Columbia, and multigrain bread and walnut stollen from the Hungarian bakery stall. This evening, the supper that I cooked was almost entirely from the farmers' market purchases. 

I made pork chops with a sauce of sundried tomatoes, old fashioned brown seedy mustard, onions, and rosemary from my garden. The pork chops were from a local organic pork producer, and the mustard was made locally too. We had corn on the cob from a local farm (spectacular! So juicy and sweet) and tender young green beans from one of the Hutterite farms. I made a tomato salad with red, orange, and yellow cocktail tomatoes from the local organic vegetable farm, seasoned with garlic, chives (from my garden), olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and topped off with locally made cheese curds. We also had the Hungarian multigrain bread. Yum! It was simple fare, but because it was fresh and local, it all tasted fantastic.

This brings me to my garden. I am happy to report that my new little backyard plot is doing well. The raspberries seem to have thrived, even though they have been somewhat overshadowed by the giant marigolds that I planted to add some colour this first year while everything was getting established. Similarly, the strawberry plant are large and healthy, and the rhubarb plant is huge! I had not intended to harvest any rhubarb the first year, but in fact it has grown so well that we've recently had a rhubarb crisp and a rhubarb upside-down cake. 

For the most part, the vegetable garden is not such a success story, however. All of the herbs, except the basil have thrived, and the oregano blossoms seem to be a favourite of the bees. The tomatoes are tall and healthy. We ate the first two tomatoes last week, but most of the tomatoes are still quite small and green. Some of the Japanese eggplants are now large enough to eat, and I think the carrots will be okay. But nothing else grew well. The Swiss chard and beet greens have been destroyed by leaf miners, and the beets have not formed proper roots. The peas were very spindly and scarcely produced, and while the vines of the scarlet runner beans are tall with many flowers, no beans have formed. The jalapeƱo and habanero pepper plants are very small and haven't fruited. The broccoli, spinach and lettuce did not grow at all. 

Here is the garden as it looked this morning. The vegetable garden is in the foreground and the fruit garden is behind. It looks great but hasn't produced much. Thank goodness for the farmers' market!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hair That Smells Like Food

Today I opened a new bottle of shampoo. I took a sniff before lathering it on my hair. Mmm. Butter and brown sugar. It smelled delicious, like a butter tart, or warm caramel sauce on moist fudge cake, or perhaps bread pudding fresh from the oven. My shampoo smelled good enough to eat.

Now, I have to begin by explaining that I have a thing about the way shampoo smells. When I was a small child and my mom washed my hair, I used to cry and complain, and beg her not to put the stinky shampoo on my hair. I hated the highly perfumed drugstore shampoo we had at home. My mom probably thought I was making a big fuss about nothing, although she did shop around to find another shampoo that I would not insist was "too stinky."

As a child, I suffered frequent headaches. My parents attributed them to reading too much and having eyestrain. (I did read a lot: a book a day throughout my middle childhood and early teens, including in bed in low light conditions when I was supposed to be sleeping.) Also, starting as an infant, and from time-to-time right up to the present, I sometimes get a rash on my skin caused by eczema.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally made the correlation between my headaches and perfume, and decades later before I ever heard the terms "scent sensitivity" or "multiple chemical sensitivities." Luckily for me, I seem to have just a mild version of it. If I am stuck in a room beside a highly perfumed man or woman, I am fine if I am few feet away or if I am only near them for a couple of minutes. (I do find that men's scented products like shower gel, deodorant, and aftershave are often much worse than women's products.) I use laundry detergent without added scents or dyes, unscented moisturizer, and unscented deodorant that does not have aluminum in it. I never use perfume, cosmetics or hair dye, which suits me fine as I have always seen myself as more of a "natural woman" than fitting the media-constructed type of airbrushed femininity.

Also, not all types of perfumed products bother me. I have found a brand of shower gel that has a range of light scents that does not cause headaches or skin rashes. It works for me so I consistently buy that brand. And with shampoo, well, I am that woman at the hair salon who always opens the bottle of shampoo and conditioner and sniffs before buying them, and who always declines hairspray. Products that smell like fruit, coconut, vanilla, aloe, herbs, pine, and some kinds of flowers (but not lilac, lily, or lavender) all seem to be fine. I usually can tell just by sniffing.

So this brings us back to hair that smells like food. Somehow, it seems odd, culturally, for people to be walking around with hair that smells like pina colada, lip gloss that smells like vanilla latte, or sunscreen that smells of coconut cream pie. This strange preoccupation with products that smell like food extends to candles, soap, and markers (felt pens). In an era when our food is becoming less and less like real food, our personal products are becoming more like food. If my hair smells like dessert all day, is that scent going to work on my subconscious so that I will be more likely to order a piece of cheesecake or head to the drive-through for an iced chai latte? Is the proliferation of products that smell like sugary foods contributing in some small way to the epidemic of obesity?

I am sure that the marketing departments know exactly which scents will tempt us to buy a particular product, and that the chemists are busy cooking up new concoctions to attract the nose. The strong florals and musks popular 40-50 years ago gave way to herbal combinations in the 70's and 80's, and now the trend is towards the smells of tropical fruits, chocolate, sugar, and vanilla.

Edible hair. At least it doesn't give me a headache.     

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coming to Know a Place

When I am travelling, everything I see from the vehicle window is spectacle. The mountains may appear high and jagged, the river clear and green in the shadows, and the village quaint and shabby. But it is all a passing scene, a mere image that I have not interacted with except as brief observer.

To come to know a place, I have found that I have to stop, explore it, and have experiences there. An example of this is Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, adjoining Glacier National Park in Montana. I had heard people say it was a wonderful park, but I did not have a chance to visit it until two and a half years ago, in February. We drove into the park on a grey windy day. The townsite looked almost abandoned. The lake was grey, and the wind had whipped the water into whitecaps that were crashing on the shore. The mountains were tall but without definition in the dull light. We stepped out of the car for a closer look, but only for a moment as the wind was raw.

"Well we've seen that now." It did not seem to be such a wonderful place.

The next time Rob and I came to the park was on the Canada Day long weekend at the beginning of July. We drove to the park with my son and the two dogs, planning to do a day hike. It was a hot sunny day.

The park looked completely different from the first time. It was full of tourists jamming the streets of the little townsite, wandering up and down, eating ice cream. The huge campground by the lake was full, with kids running and biking everywhere. The mountains looked glorious and dramatic in the bright sunshine.

From our map book, we had picked out a hike that had its trailhead right near the townsite, the Bertha  Lake hike. We had a bit of difficulty finding the trailhead as we initially attempted to pass through the large campground rather than circumnavigating it. Once on the trail, we found there were so many people there, it was more like a stroll on a city sidewalk than a wilderness experience. Also, we had to keep the dogs on the leash, as that is the rule in national parks. Although the scenery was lovely, we ended up only walking as far as the falls, then turning back. It was not the most enjoyable hiking experience.

So you can see that my first two experiences Waterton Lakes National Park were not that positive. However, we have come back many times since then and have discovered many wonderful hiking and cycling trails. We have had lunch at the Prince of Wales Hotel. We have taken a boat cruise down the lake to Goat Haunt, Montana. We have camped in all three campgrounds, each very different.

With each different experience in the park, we have come to know more about its landscape and history. We have hiked its trails, camped in the backcountry, eaten at various restaurants. We have seen it in different seasons, and in interacting with the place, it has become woven into our memories. I now have a very different and much enriched mental map of the park. It has indeed become a special place to us.

I have described my experience of getting to know Waterton Lakes park as an example of the process of developing a sense of place. I believe that a person can only come to know a place through repeated experiences in that place. Too often in our travels, we race through places without stopping, or only go to attend one event. To get to know a place, a person has to slow down, walk and observe, talk to people, and have experiences there.  The world seems to be more inviting and less alienating when we engage with people and places than when we merely observe from a car window or see it from our screens.

Cycling at Waterton Lakes along the Kootenai Brown trail.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Retirement Dilemma

Somehow, I never thought this would happen to me. Retirement did not seem to be a possibility, or at least not something worth thinking about as it clearly was a decision that would be made very far, far in the future. Yet somehow time has sneaked by, and I am beginning to think about it. And now that I am thinking about it, the decision seems complicated.

There are a number of factors that led me to not think about retirement. One is that I had a job that I greatly enjoyed -- a job that was not just work but a vocation that engaged me and became a meaningful life purpose. I can remember saying to a friend that I thought I would never retire. Maybe I would slow down or cut back a bit, but not fully retire.

Another factor was kids. I started my family late, and my youngest just left home three years ago. Each one of them has attended university. As long as I had children at home, and then university bills to pay, retirement was not in the cards.

Finances, of course, are a big consideration in timing one's retirement. In reading retirement literature, sometimes it seems that finances are the dominant consideration for most people. How much pension or other savings is enough for a comfortable retirement? Well, that depends on how long you are likely to live, what kind of lifestyle you desire in retirement (e.g., lots of international travel or being a homebody), whether you have debt, and whether you plan to supplement your retirement with some paid work. There are lots of components to juggle.

For me, a number of these aspects have changed recently, and also some unexpected factors have entered the mix.

Since I "crossed over to the dark side" of administration, my work has become less enjoyable, and therefore no longer something I feel motivated to continue doing into old age. Also, because my administrative work requires me to work extremely long hours, I now have little time to pursue other interests, like writing, art, gardening, and so on. The deferral of these other passions is building a pent up need to make time for them, and I can do this best by stopping work.

My youngest only has one more year of university. So soon this will not be a limiting factor. I have made some good financial decisions in recent years, which has made early retirement a real possibility. Some things I hadn't anticipated also have begun to make retirement loom larger in my mind. One is that my husband is retired, and I would like to spend more time with him, doing things together that we enjoy, while we are both healthy and young enough. Another big change in these last two years is that we now have grandchildren. Both grandsons live far away. If I were retired, I could travel to see them more often, or we could even move closer to them.

So you can see that I am beginning to inch towards retirement in my thoughts.

But it isn't so easy. I have found that my work has me in its grip. My very identity is in large part defined by my profession, and I fear that I will lose some important part of myself if I retire. There is also the fear of the unknown. What will I do? How will I fill my hours? What is the plan? For so many years, I have been striving forward, always climbing the next mountain. How can I give up that way of being?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Job Well Done

Work has never been just a job to me. Rather, it is and always has been woven into the fabric of my life. This predilection to deeply commit myself to my work probably started way back when I began school at age six. School is the work of a child, and I did the same thing then; I embraced school and its activities with joy and intense engagement.

I have written here before about how work takes such a big chunk of my time and attention that it often has thrown my life out of balance. I have written about the distress I feel when I have not enough time to do things I enjoy or am passionate about because I am giving the biggest part of my time to work. I also have written about the ways in which excessive work has a negative impact on my health. But I don't think I have described what I get out of work, and why it is such a strong focus and motivator for me. The fact is, I don't think I fully know the answer to that question.

This week at work, I was trying to get things finished up prior to my summer vacation. It has been a long hard year, and I now find myself in a state of exhaustion and very much in need of a break. Usually in decades past, things would slow down over the summer as students left, the schedule of meetings eased, and most people took some holiday time. But in recent years, as everyone tries to do more with less, big projects and hiring schedules have been pushed into the summer months as there no longer is enough time to complete everything in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. So, as always happens in my line of work, my last week before holidays has been especially intense.

I made a list of "must do's" -- those projects and tasks I simply had to complete before I left. These included extremely overdue reports, budget decisions, performance appraisals, requests to review and provide feedback on or to approve so that others' work would not be stalled while I was away, and meetings and training to transition certain responsibilities to others to manage in my absence. But, hearing that I was about to take some time away, staff and colleagues rushed to send things to me "to take a quick look at" before I left. (Most of this extra work came pouring in via email.) So suddenly I had a much bigger pile of work to complete in that last week. This happens every time. I know that when I come back, there will be a huge heap of work waiting for me too, all of it seemingly urgent.

So where is the joy in all of this?

Well, for me, it is satisfying to work through a complicated problem, whether interpersonal in nature or operational, and find a solution that allows people to start working forward again. I enjoy mentoring people, such a staff member stepping into a new managerial role, or a new hire just joining the institution. I find it interesting to take the lead in drawing others into a team to work together on developing new approaches or programs, and I love to conceptualize and design new approaches from high level systems and abstract models right down to small practical procedures. Conceptualizing, seeing the big picture, problem-solving, synthesizing, building, creating, and doing it all with people -- it's personally satisfying, and I believe it makes a positive difference, at least in my little part of the world.

After a busy week, from 3:30 pm onward on Friday afternoon, having finally finished the last meeting of the day, I carefully worked through one task after another. I wrote requests, suggestions, explanations, and instructions. Then I hit send, put a line through that task on my list, and went on to the next. Yes, I had to jettison some of the tasks I had intended to complete. They will be waiting for me when I come, back. I set my proxies, drafted my out-of office message, recorded my voice mail, filed everything that was on my desk. At 8 pm, I turned off the light, locked the door, and left.

It took a week's worth of 12-hour days, but I left feeling it was a job well done.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reclaiming the Backyard for a Food Garden

The house that we bought two years ago has a lovely backyard. Most notably, it has a number of trees that provide shade and protection from the wind. As well, many species of birds live in our trees, or in those of our neighbours to the west. Our trees include a large spruce tree, a cedar tree, an elm tree, a couple of decorative flowering trees, and an ancient crabapple tree that has gone wild. 

Clearly, the former owners had the backyard professionally landscaped. The sunny centre of the yard is  taken up with a large patio, fire pit, and a narrow strip of grass. In the summer, we often barbecue out there, and then in the evening build a bonfire and sit around it looking into the flames. Along the back and side fence, and behind one side of the house are raised beds, planted with shrubs and shade and drought-tolerant perennial plants. 

It is a beautiful yard and I really like it. However, I found one thing lacking: a spot for a vegetable garden. Because of all the trees and also because the backyard is on the north side of the house, much of the yard is quite shady. Also, I did not want to disturb the aesthetics of the landscaping or the functionality of the patio. However, I very much wanted a vegetable garden. 

The first summer, I planted a few vegetables in amongst the shrubs in one of the sunniest raised beds. They did not thrive. I harvested almost nothing. I analyzed the problems as too shady; poor soil; and that the shrubs sucked up all the water. 

The second summer, I dug up the shrubs in that bed and moved them to the front yard. Rob pruned a nearby tree so that it did not shade the bed quite so much. I added compost and steer manure to the heavy clay soil. The bed was fully devoted to vegetables. 

Once again, it was not a very successful garden. The tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, carrots, and herbs grew well, but not much else. Part of the problem was the poor soil. Another problem was that we went travelling for a month, leaving the garden to be watered by someone else. I seem to do this every summer -- put in efforts planting a garden, then leave for main part of the summer. 

Also, last summer, Rob built three tall narrow planters out of pipe that we put along the edge of the patio. We planted them with strawberries which seemed to thrive. Even though it was their first year, they bore an autumn crop of berries. Unfortunately, the plants did not survive the cold winter. In the pipes, their roots were too exposed. 

Since we have moved here, I have wanted to put in some raspberry canes and some rhubarb. Also, we needed to find a place for strawberries. So I have taken over another one of the raised beds. Rob cut down the decorative tree that took up most of the bed. Although it was a pretty tree, it had invasive roots that prevented anything else from growing in that bed. It shaded the vegetable garden more than I liked. Also, at some point in the past, it had been pruned badly with the main lead cut away. It had a double trunk and put up many suckers. It also attracted tent caterpillars and ants. So although I was sad to see the tree go, I now have another little food garden. 

This photo shows the new bed, and in the background, my vegetable patch. I planted most of the new garden yesterday. The strawberries are at the front, the rhubarb in the middle, and the raspberries along the fence. I have planted a container of annual flowers, and put it on the stump. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lost Self

There is a special place that I have returned to whenever I have had the chance over the years. I don't know if you have had the experience of coming to a certain geographical location, and immediately being filled with a deep sense of peace and internal harmony. This place is like that for me. Moreover, it just feels right, as if I am meant to be here. I have a bond with the land. Each path, each vista, is a familiar friend, and welcomes me back although it might have been years since my last visit.

The place I am writing about is Banff in the Canadian Rockies. More specifically, it is not just the town of Banff, or even the spectacular Banff National Park that has this effect on me. It is The Banff Centre, formerly called The Banff Centre for Fine Arts.

The Banff Centre is located up on the side of Tunnel Mountain above the frenzy of tourists and hotels down below in the town. There are visual artists' studios, and musicians, and writing programs. Readings, dance performances, free jazz concerts, galleries, and lectures. And conferences of various sorts. Mostly, I have come here to attend conferences related to my profession and work.

Every time I come here, I get a little glimpse of my lost self. That lost self, the creative me, is elusive. She imagines herself holed up in one of the little artist huts, painting. Or writing. Or just detaching from the greedy teeth and needy maw of work, and having the time and solitude to think and reflect. As I walk through the beauty of the quiet grounds surrounded by spectacular peaks and breathing in the scent of pine trees, she flits into view briefly bringing a surge of of hope and possibility. And then I am sitting in my next meeting or conference session, and she is gone again.

My lost self. The self my busy dutiful life doesn't have time for. Most of the time, it is easy to forget that self in the busy whirl of daily tasks and obligations. But when I come here to The Banff Centre, I discover that she is still inside, wishing and hurting.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Blocking In

I have just finished blocking in a new painting. I am working from a photo that I took one evening in the city of Lethbridge, Canada. Looking west beyond some buildings as the sun was setting, I saw the huge prairie sky studded with jelly bean shaped orange and apricot coloured clouds. In the foreground, dark buildings, parked cars, and trees were silhouetted against the colourful sky. Architectural features in the near foreground, such as wooden planters and a low retaining wall, created interesting shadows and reflected some of the orange glow. There also were patches of snow.

At this stage, I have blocked in the main areas of colour in the sky, as well as the dark buildings and foreground. Mostly, I have not started putting in the trees, except for a few dark marks placing some tree trunks relative to the other components of the scene. I will want to do more work on the sky first, and then paint the trees up into the sky. 

Although I am fairly happy with the shapes of the buildings, especially the one on the left hand side, I am really struggling to make the dark foreground dark enough. In my reference photo, everything but the sky is very dark, and even the bit of snow in the middle lower section is a mid-range value. 

This is a common problem for me. I tend to want to paint everything in high to mid values avoiding the dark tones, and in high key bright and light colours, avoiding shades of grey. But if the darks aren't dark enough, then the light and bright elements will not contrast enough to make them sparkle. So I have set myself the challenge of a night scene. I will keep working away at getting the darks darker. I am using raw umber, ultramarine blue, and paynes grey to make the dark values.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dig, Dig, Dig!

When he was first learning to talk, one of my grandson's first sentences was, "Dig, dig, dig!" That is exactly what I have been doing this weekend -- dig, dig, digging. The statutory holiday Monday on the May long weekend always falls on or just before the 24th of May. We used to call the 24th of May "Victoria Day" in recognition of Queen Victoria's birthday. This long weekend, that for most people signals the functional beginning of summer, always poses a dilemma. Should we go camping, or should we stay home and garden?

This year, as usual, gardening won out. I have lived in three Canadian provinces; on the coast, in the mountains, and on the prairies; in the northern and southern parts of the country; and in agricultural zones ranging from 2 to 7. Yet everywhere that I have lived, the local lore is that May long weekend is the time to put the garden in.

We have had a long cold spring, and until this weekend I had not even begun to clean out the garden beds. Also, when we moved in two years ago, I never really set up my gardening shed properly. So yesterday, I started off my gardening season by pulling all the old dead plants out of the vegetable garden (a task that I should have done last fall), and putting them in the compost. I threw down grass seed on all the dog-created bare patches in the back lawn. And then I cleaned and organized my gardening shed.

Clean and Tidy Garden Shed
I also started planning my garden. I went online and read up on organic gardening, growing potatoes, how to improve heavy clay soil, what type of raspberry canes do best in this area, shade tolerant vegetables, companion planting, and the recommended planting times for vegetables by seed or transplant in this climatic zone.

Today, I went off to the garden centre and bought gypsum, worm castings, and organic fertilizer made of fish meal and ground seaweed. I need to add soil amendments because the natural soil is very heavy, dense clay, especially at the lower end of the garden, and most of the vegetables I attempted to grow last year did not thrive. Only the tomatoes, which I had augmented well with compost, and the herbs in a sunny corner did really well.

Back from the garden centre, I started by pulling the few weeds out of the garden. Then I spread about 6 kg. of gypsum on the soil. Then I added four wheelbarrow loads of my homemade compost to the garden, spreading it on at a depth of about an inch. That used up my entire supply of compost. We have another pile that will be ready in three to four weeks, and a new pile that we have just started. Although we are dedicated composters, we just cannot make enough for all our gardens.

Next I turned over the entire vegetable garden with the garden spade. This was the dig, dig, dig part. However, when my grandson said it, he did not mean shovelling garden soil. He was referring to his toys, a caterpillar and a front-end loader.

It is heavy work turning over clay. However, I am pleased to report that there are lots of earthworms in the garden -- a good thing.

Freshly Dug Veggie Garden
By the time I finished, the shadows were getting long and my back was sore. It was very satisfying, though, because tomorrow I can start to PLANT! Digging and planting is always my favourite part of gardening. . . .well, along with picking, cooking, and eating the organic produce.

My Helper
Kate was my trusty helper. Actually, I think she was just waiting for me to come in the house and feed her some supper.

The Task Master
Oliver assisted by snoozing nearby on the sun-warmed brick.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Real Food

Where has all the real food gone?

When I moved to the Canadian prairies from the west coast, one of the first things that I noticed was the paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores. The selection is limited, the quality is low, and the prices are high. 

I find this frustrating and disappointing. Before I moved here, I had my own greenhouse, as well as a garden and fruit trees. I grew enough organic fruit and vegetables to supply most of our family's produce needs from June to October. But here in the farm belt of Canada, even in the middle of summer, grocery store choices consist of limp carrots and droopy lettuce imported from the USA or Mexico. 

Another thing missing from the grocery stores here is fish. When I visited my daughter on the west cost recently, I almost wept when I saw the fish counter where she shops. Great fresh slabs of halibut, wild salmon, snapper, and sole. There were live oysters, clams and mussels, and and huge local prawns. In my prairie grocery store, the "fresh" fish is actually previously frozen, and it is anything but fresh. When I buy fish, I choose it from the freezer, and there is minimal variety. I cannot say that I am very surprised by this, as I discovered years ago that many prairie people do not like fish. 

However, I made another disconcerting discovery in the grocery store a few months ago. We were having guests for dinner, and I had planned to serve roasted Cornish game hens, stuffed with rice and cranberries. Shopping for the dinner I planned to prepare, I could not find any Cornish hens in the poultry freezer, so I went in search of the meat manager. 

"We don't have any right now," he said. "I think I've got some coming in next week." 

Next week wouldn't be soon enough for my dinner that evening, so I stood in the store trying to rethink my menu. I decided to buy a large package of chicken breasts, and make a recipe that is one of my old favourites -- chicken with apples, onions, and sour cream, simmered in a casserole. 

And then I discovered that the store did not have fresh chicken breasts! Once again, I approached the meat manager. He pointed out a couple of packages of individually wrapped boneless, skinless, not very fresh looking chicken breasts. 

"But I want a family pack of split, bone-in chicken breasts," I said. "I have bought them here [in this chain store] for years!" 

"Oh, we don't carry those large packages anymore. They don't sell. People don't want them," he said. 

People don't buy chicken breasts?! I have have always thought of them as a basic, if somewhat mundane, cooking staple. The store didn't have any fresh whole chickens either. So, In the end, I had to change my dinner menu again.

Since that experience, I have started to take note of what that grocery store actually does sell, given that it doesn't provide much of a fruit, vegetable, fish, or meat selection. In the meat section, there is a huge freezer that runs the length of the store. It is filled with frozen prepared foods, like egg rolls, teriyaki chicken wings, breaded fish sticks, corn dogs, pre-made frozen hamburger patties, and so on. There is another frozen food section that takes up an entire central aisle of the store. Frozen fruits and vegetables take up one small section, and the rest of it is devoted to TV dinners, frozen pizzas, perogies, frozen pies, and things like pizza pops. And, of course, there is a large section given over to ice cream. 

There is the junk food aisle with pop, chips, and candy. There is the cookie and cracker aisle, and a whole aisle just for packaged breakfast cereals. Yes, it is still possible to find rolled oats, and whole wheat flour, and raw almonds. But they are tucked in amongst the ever proliferating packaged and prepared foods and junk foods. 

I prefer to cook from scratch, using basic ingredients and adding my own sauces and flavourings. By cooking with fresh natural ingredients, I have more control over the salt, sugar, and fat components, and can avoid most of the preservatives and other chemical additives. Also, home cooking tastes better, and it is creatively satisfying to prepare interesting healthy meals. 

But real food seems to be disappearing from the grocery stores. The stores are huge, and the shelves are full of what appears to be endless variety at first glance. However, a closer inspection reveals that consumers mostly are being offered a choice between this prepared food or that prepared food, or yet another prepared food. To my mind, that is not real choice, and it is not what I would like to purchase or eat. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mary Maxam, Artist

Mary Maxam is an incredibly talented artist who lives in Idaho. She paints in oils, acrylic, and watercolour. This painting is one of her most recent, from her blog.

It is titled Desert Ochre, and I love the loose painterly way she has laid on the colour, and how the design draws your eye through the scene. 

As well as landscapes, she also paints fly fishing scenes. I am a fly fisher myself, so I appreciate her fly fishing paintings both as art and because they remind me of the sense of peace and joy that I feel out on the river. She posts to her blog, and she also has a website, Mary Maxam Fine Art. Go take look at her wonderful work. 

A Culture of Bullying in the Workplace

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague that turned into a bit of a heart-to-heart. She was distressed because of what she describes as a culture of bullying and backstabbing in the place where she works.

"I was interviewing a candidate for a key managerial position in my institution," my colleague said.

"I asked the woman what she expected in terms of our working relationship, if she were the successful candidate. The candidate said that what was most important to her was to be able to trust that I would 'get her back' and that she would do the same for me. That is, each of us could trust that the other would be supportive, and not undermining each other behind the scenes."

"I felt like crying when she said that," my colleague continued. "That level of trust is such a foreign concept here where I work."

My colleague works in post-secondary education in a position I would describe as upper middle management. She has been successful in her career, works long hours, and has led a number of initiatives that are making significant positive changes where she works. But, the upshot of our conversation is that she is thoroughly miserable and thinking of quitting. Not because of the work itself, but because of the culture of the place.

She went on to describe a situation unfolding in her institution in which a senior colleague whom she likes and respects is gradually being marginalized and pushed out of his job.

"I first noticed that my boss, who is also the boss of this man who is being picked on, would occasionally confide in me about his concerns about things that weren't going well in this male colleague's department. I realize that my boss, given his high position in the institution, doesn't have a lot of people to bounce things off of, so I suppose at first I was flattered that he was sharing his observations with me," my colleague said.

"But then I noticed that he would also speak about this male colleague in disparaging ways behind his back to other senior colleagues, and even in front of support staff. Then it got worse. Other managers started to discount or belittle this man's ideas and initiatives behind his back, and sometimes to his face."

She went on to describe the impact this had on her. "I felt just horrible. I could hardly look him in the eye. I felt that I should be speaking up for him, rather than letting those nasty comments go by without remark. And in fact, several times I did come to his defense in meetings, saying 'I agree with [this man's] point that blah, blah, blah,' and a few times, in private, I challenged my boss about the substance of his criticisms of this male colleague."

"But then I had a little taste of being bullied myself, and so I just closed up and retreated. I go to work and I do my job and maintain a professional working relationship with other managers, but I don't try to reach out to them in a friendly way. I don't share anything personal with them because I'm just not sure who I can trust. I feel like a jerk for not sticking up for this man and others who are being picked on, and most mornings I dread the day ahead."

Talking to this colleague led me to reflect on how sometimes workplaces can be healthy and safe places, and sometimes they are not. I recall that when I made my first foray into a management position, I was so surprised that the senior leaders in the organization welcomed me into their ranks and took the time to mentor and support me. Even the president, who was an extremely busy man, made opportunities to sit down with me to share information, ask my opinion, and provide pointers. He did this several times, and I was grateful. I also had a wise boss who had strong leadership skills and who mentored me. Although of course there were disagreements between people, sometimes bitter longstanding ones, as well as dysfunctional departments, on the whole I felt well supported by the leaders of the organization. What a contrast with my colleague's story!

I also started thinking about a somewhat similar situation in a former workplace. I had a female colleague who prematurely chose to leave her management position to return to a more junior position. She said it was her own choice, but sometimes I have wondered if actually she was pushed out of her job too. The situation was different than that of the man discussed above, of course. This woman was in a position that was not a good fit for her, and from my perspective, clearly was struggling with the demands of the position. On the other hand, she was offered the position to address a staffing situation that was not of her making, and was provided little support and mentorship once in the job. Although I did not see bullying occurring in this situation, I wonder whether she was set up to fail. Other managers did not make much of an effort to support the initiatives she tried to lead, and she was not provided with the resources and support staff she required to accomplish the objectives of the position.

Of course, it goes both ways. She also had the responsibility to behave in productive ways and to seek the information and resources that would have enabled her to achieve the objectives set out for that job. A person in a leadership position needs to have a thick skin and be adapt at building relationships and negotiating politics. A leader has to win respect and trust, and be aware that his/her performance is going to be under the microscope continually, not only by the boss, but by other senior leaders who have their own agendas and by staff that report to him/her.

On the other hand, sometimes a senior manager might find himself or herself in an impossible position. A workplace culture of bullying, with its pecking order of winners and losers, can be hard to change from below. People often collude with a bully or stand by silently, in order to enhance their own power or out of fear that they will become the next victim. If the boss is the one doing the bullying, people especially are unlikely to speak out.

One thing that seems clear to me is how important it is for a person in a leadership position to foster respect and a sense of trust, and to be transparent in communicating with peers or people reporting to him or her. It can set the tone for the whole organization, affect employees' mental health and happiness, and make the difference between an organization that is productive where people want to work, versus one that people are desperate to leave, and where they undermine each other and the goals of the organization. I, in my role, have the responsibility to be a supportive leader and to use my power wisely.

But I still don't know what advice to give my female colleague about her situation. Are there ways for her to change the culture of her institution? Should she continue on, stoically focused on her departmental objectives and supporting her staff, and just try to steer clear of the poison politics? Or maybe she should leave her job and go elsewhere. After all, life is short.