Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Our Home and Native Lands

A fifteen minute walk along the footpaths of my neighbourhood brings me to a lovely community park, complete with man-made lake, fishing dock, playground, picnic areas and a mini water park. The area has evolved to reflect the changing population over the past twenty years.

When I first moved to this region, the park contained a small amphitheatre where local talent entertained audiences on summer nights and weekends. As its popularity diminished, the area was transformed into a children's splash pad to accommodate the increasing number of young families who reside here. Looking around at the variety of kidlet faces, it's evident that ours is a multicultural community.

I've been walking and biking the paths of this park system for years. There are familiar faces that nod and greet me, and occasional characters who make a point of actually stopping to chat for a bit. Yesterday evening, my path crossed with another regular whom I hadn't yet seen this summer, so I joined him on the park bench to visit for a few moments. We discussed how the neighbourhood has grown, and he referred to the bustling park as having once been "this area's best kept secret." As we continued talking, it soon became apparent that he was displeased with the growth.

"There are so many new people in the area now." he said while nodding toward a dark-skinned jogger "The whole face of the city has changed."

I knew where he was heading and I hoped to redirect the conversation somewhat by saying that I thought change was usually a pretty good thing. He glanced at me and agreed that change can be positive as long as it wasn't forced upon us. His eyes locked with mine for a brief moment, and I vaguely detected a challenge. I regretted asking it as soon as the words left my mouth, but there was no retreating. "How so?"

He said "Well, as long as they adapt, and do things the way we do them here, and not try to force their ways on us."

I should have let it go, but I had to persist. "Like what?"

"Well, you know. Like curry." He smiled and rolled his eyes at the same time.

Curry? People are forcing curry on us? This fellow expressed his concern for wayward cooking spices, while his cigarette smoke wafted over to me and settled in my hair. I smiled back at him, told him that I happened to like curry, and then abruptly changed the subject before continuing my walk.

I was born here, as were my parents, though none of my grandparents were native-born Canadians. As I see it, this made them immigrants, and they were probably subject to the criticism and complaints of locals who felt they had to endure the influx of the foreigners of their time. They came from Poland, Russia and England, and brought with them their beliefs, language, traditions and recipes. They adapted to Canadian customs while maintaining their own, and over time, we were enriched by how their cultures shaped ours. The fact that immigrants feel secure enough to practice their beliefs and celebrate their culture while embracing ours, is one of the many freedoms that should make us feel proud of Canada, not critical of it.

Sadly, there are people who see immigrant as synonymous with illegal, Muslim with terrorist, and visible minority with foreigner. Too often I hear feelings expressed that sadden me. In the wake of 911, we were constantly reminded to exercise tolerance. Although it was intended as open-minded and giving, I found the sentiment to be quite distressing. I don't want to go about my life being tolerated. I want to be respected, if not always because of my differences, at least in spite of them.

By virtue of a generation or three, today's immigrants are the same Canadians our ancestors were. In time, their children will be born into their citizenship as our parents were, and their grandchildren will have always felt that they belong, just as we do. I hope that as they encounter the diverse, new faces and languages in the parks and city streets, it will enkindle both their sense of pride and belonging. As such, their lives and ours can only be enriched.

Crabby McSlacker over at Cranky Fitness has an interesting blog post called "What's That THING In My Brain?" where she discusses "unconscious prejudice." She links to a website where you can take a series of tests on this topic, conducted by Harvard University. Make sure you bookmark Crabby's blog while you're there, and return often. She's always informative, interesting and funny.

Throughout the summer, you can find animated groups assembled around these waterfront tables playing cards, chess, checkers and other games. These folks have gathered to play Mahjong.

This small dock is often packed with people and their fishing rods. It's a great spot for children to learn, newbies (like me) to practice and even experienced anglers to pass some time.

Around a distant bend, you can see just how many people had the same idea about wetting their lines that day.

On a scorching, hot day, the splash pad offers cool, wet fun for these kidlets.

Catch it if you can!

A mom manages to stay dry while she keeps a watchful eye on her child.

Despite the lack of sand, these little girls brought toys for digging, packing and floating.

This mischievous, little cutie found a way to use her sand pail to help her friend cool off.

Water, water everywhere...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Butterflies are Free

What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. ~Richard Bach

I never knew my maternal grandfather. He passed away several years before I was born, so my grandmother, who lived with us, had always been a widow to me. Having settled in Montreal, she met and married her love, a Polish-born man who knew a fair number of languages, and developed his career as a court interpreter. I remember hearing stories of how he would come home from work exhausted at the end of the day. Granny would be anxious to get out of the house and check out one of those new picture shows at the local movie theatre. His disappointing but understandable reply was an incredulous "Why on earth would I want to do that? I see more than enough drama all day long in court."

Granny was a native-born Russian who moved to Canada when she was just a few months old. She was a short, stocky woman who walked with a limp from an injury she sustained in a car accident sometime before I was born. In her later years she struggled with failing sight and hearing, but maintained her strong sense of humour. She loved to watch wrestling (wrasslin') on television and she could often be seen feigning her horror by holding her splayed fingers over her watchful eyes, while loudly expressing her disgust for the brutality that she opted to see.

She was fiercely proud of her family, and she experienced hardships that no parent should ever know. She had five children and was pre-deceased by three of them - one in infancy. Surviving such losses is unimaginable to me, yet Granny was content to be surrounded by her remaining family in her declining years. She became a great-great-grandmother before her death in 1973.

My mother viewed herself primarily as a care-giver for my sister and me, Dad and Granny. She had a selfless, giving nature and she was happiest when she was doing for others. For a number of years, she worked in our family-owned business - a small but busy variety store. Mom could be found behind the cash most days. She also handled the bookkeeping for the store and prided herself on her excellent math skills, a gift I did not inherit. Mom had a way with words as well. Her vocabulary (or Vocal Berry as she often referred to it) far surpassed her education, and she was proud of her ability to spell exceedingly well. Mom could read music and played piano quite beautifully. Though her piano now sits in my living room, her musical talent sailed right over me and landed squarely on my younger son's hands and into his guitar strings.

Toward the end of Granny's life, my mother found a hobby to help dissipate some of the stress she felt from caring for her ailing parent. She learned how to paint. I don't believe that she took more than a year or two of art classes, but she quickly discovered different techniques and soon developed her own style. She put her oils away shortly after my grandmother's death, and despite our encouragement, she never did pick up her paintbrush again. There would be many times over the following years that she might have benefited from its therapeutic effect but it was not to be.

While walking yesterday, I saw several Monarch butterflies flitting about, one of which obliged me by pausing just long enough to be captured in a couple of photographs. As it turned out, one of these images was quite similar to a favourite painting that Mom did, which hangs on a wall not far from my computer. My mother evolved as an artist during the difficult period of my grandmother's decline. Much like a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, Mom was transformed. There is no telling what talent or beauty might free itself from darkness.

Mom has been gone for over fifteen years now but her colourful artwork continues to brighten the walls of family and friends. Below are a few of the paintings that are hanging in my own home.

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This Monarch paused on a purple thistle just long enough for me to focus and snap the shot. It's the same creature that appears at the top of this post. I rotated this image by 90ยบ so that it seems to mirror the butterfly in my mother's painting above. Is it life imitating art, or the reverse?

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This is one of her first paintings. She used a palate knife to create this stucco effect, a technique with which she continued to experiment on many of her pieces.

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Mom got most of her ideas from photographs. She'd mark pages in magazines which had images that she felt she'd like to paint one day. She preferred nature scenes over most.

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Another favourite subject was children. Mom loved the work of artist Edna Hibel who is known for her series of Mother's Day limited edition plates, each depicting a mother and child. Since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, she reproduced the above plate entitled "Colette and Child" on canvas in 1973.

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This painting of a young girl and her dog was styled after a photograph found in a magazine - quite possibly National Geographic.

I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. ~Charles Dickens

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Dog Daze of Summer

This weekend we had a visitor. Having never left his part of the world before, he braved the endless hour-long trip across the city, secured in his crate. His arrival was announced by the alarming sounds of his tiny body flinging itself against the the walls of his carrier. As it turned out, the rackety disturbance was a frenzied mere tail-wagging. He had energy to burn, and it appeared he might spontaneously combust if he couldn't explore his new surroundings RIGHT AWAY!

Benny is a six month old Jack Russel
Terror Terrier. To human feline eyes, he's kind of like a large gerbil on speed. My cats are familiar with, and tolerant of the neighbourhood dogs when one or another of them come to visit. They each deal with canine intrusion curiosity in their own way.

Zephyr, who is a
yellow-bellied timid cat, tends to steer clear, and hide strategically place himself just beyond view - up on the fridge, or on a chair neatly tucked under the table. For the most part, with Benny about, he stayed out of reach except when a bit of bird activity drew him to look out the back door. By then Benny was mildly less energetic exhausted and only had to be restrained and muzzled told to sit and stay.

Skittles, on the other paw, is
a shit-disturber more adventurous, so he tended to be rather in-your-face visible and responsive to our interloper guest. He loved nothing better than to punctuate Benny's incessant playful barking with an occasional hiss-lunge glance, which would send Benny yelping and running for his life. It was as if the very teeth that Skitty bared to him were actually buried deep within his flesh. He was most yappy brave until the object of his terror showed signs of life.

  • Benny: WOOF (I'm so intimidating)! WOOF WOOF (You're terrified)! WOOF WOOF WOOF (I am SO the boss of you). Arf (Why are you looking at me?). Whimper (Make the bad cat stop glaring at me).
  • Skitty: Hisssss
  • Benny: YELP (I've been hit*. I'm a goner)!
  • Skitty: (leaving the room): Mrrrow (Time to pick on Zephyr).
  • Benny: (chasing after him): WOOF!!! (I win! I am puppy, hear me roar!)

Poor Benny. He didn't really want to
intimidate upset the cats, he only wanted to play, so he was happy when later that day, we lifted my neighbour's dog, Raven over the fence and into our yard. Together they frolicked and played, and sniffed each others' rear ends got to know each other quite well. They ran pretty much non-stop for a half-hour.

This workout, combined with catnip for Skitty made for a relaxing afternoon. He and Benny
almost tolerated each other became quite content in each others' presence.

Like most
hyper-active toddlers energetic babies, Benny slept well that night. I'm sure that in his dreams he was successful at either permanently banishing a frightened Skitty, or winning him over as his friend. I'm thinking that the latter might not be impossible one day, when Benny matures some, and settles down.

Until then, Skitty will remain top dog at our house.

ADD (Attention Deficit Doggies) JRT's (Jack Russel Terriers) are very difficult to photograph, since they rarely stay still for a decent shot. Benny's ability to scamper just outside of camera-range places him in the company of other hard-to-capture creatures such as Leprechauns, Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster.

On my front deck, Benny watches birds, squirrels and planes go by.

He has an endearing habit of running around the back yard with his bowl. Every now and then he drops it upside down and provides much amusement as he nudges it along with his nose, trying to right it again.

His nemesis, Skitty. Does he look like he would harm a demonic an innocent puppy?

Zephyr keeps a watchful pair of eyes from a safe distance.

Benny and Raven (a.k.a. Raisin because she's small, black and sweet, and a.k.a. Velcro because everything sticks to her scruffy fur) are quite smitten with one another.

"Kibbles 'n Bits, Kibbles 'n Bits. I'm gonna get me some Kibbles 'n Bits!"

Skittles and Zeph are noticeably more relaxed since Benny headed home on Sunday. As for me, I miss the little fart.

*No creatures were harmed in the making of this weekend. All scars currently present on individual animals pre-existed at the start of this event. Neither cat has their front claws, and any contact that their paws made with barking puppy faces was received with a soft-padded "whap."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Way to Go, Al!

Congrats to my neighbour Al who was the first person to correctly identify the image which appears in the previous post "Perspective is Everything" There are some observant people out there because an overwhelming 50% of those who commented knew that it was the above view of the nozzle of a mustard squeeze bottle.

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I suppose it's only fair to say though, that an underwhelming total of 6 people took a stab at it.

You can see the incoming comments in the "Perspectives" link in the previous post.

Al, you can let me know which photo you'd like. And thanks for saving me the postage!

Thanks also to Kath, Frank, Gary, Sanj and Crabby for playing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Perspective is Everything

"No object is mysterious. The mystery is your eye." Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

Through the 1970's and 80's, I consistently purchased a puzzle publication called Games Magazine. Though it has disappeared from newsstands at least once since its original launch, it was eventually bought out and republished under its new ownership, and still appears at larger book stores and magazine vendors. I never did renew my own subscription (nor my trust in them), which had been paid in advance for a two-year period, just days before it went bankrupt that first time.

A regular feature in each issue is devoted to what they call "Eyeball Benders." Close-up photographs of everyday objects appear quite confounding when you can not see surrounding details for clues. I became pretty good at deciphering these visual puzzles, and evidently I became half-decent at creating them when Games Magazine ran a contest a few years back, asking readers to send in their own Eyeball Bender photographs. One of my entries, which was ultimately selected as a puzzle on their online sampler page, was also chosen as a runner-up picture in the contest, and appeared in their December 2004 issue. It also earned me a Games t-shirt, though I sure would have preferred to have won the first prize of $500.

Since perspective is everything, I thought I'd make use of the macro setting on my camera, and retry my hand (and eye) at capturing some of these Eyeball Bender-style images and put them out here for you to guess. The first one appears below.

For this purpose, I will turn on the moderation feature so that your comments/guesses will not show publicly until all of the answers are in. I'm not offering t-shirts or cash prizes, but I'd be willing to print and mail the winner's choice of a photograph (non-human subjects only) from any installment of this blog to the first person who answers correctly. I'll post all comments (click on "perspectives" to send yours) after a few days. The more the merrier, so please pass the word through the "blogosphere."

What do you think this everyday object is?

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Neighbours and Friends

Our home sits on the dead-end of a small suburban street. There are just over thirty townhouses which make up our section of the court. Here, many of the residents are not just neighbours. We're friends.

I've often heard people reminisce about their childhood surroundings, fondly remembering how any number of moms or dads would keep a watchful eye on another's child lest they stray onto the road or into other dangers. The same parents would not hesitate to reprimand or praise a child in need of some immediate consequences or encouragement. That kind of memory is usually followed up with a sigh, and a lament that neighbours are nameless faces these days, sharing no more than a nod or a quick "hello" before retreating into their home or car.

Not our neighbours.

On our street, there are at least eight households that get together regularly, often by chance but mostly by design. On any given summer evening, one front yard or another will fill up with chairs as friends gather to share an impromptu meal. A barbecue rolls out and platters appear from various homes. Before we know it, we're washing down our unplanned, pot luck dinner with drinks that appear just as magically. Our street rule states that when offered a drink, any hesitation in responding is accepted as an automatic "yes." If you take the time to consider it, the drink is already in your hand. We've all learned to fire off a very quick "No thanks!" when we truly don't want one, preferably before the question is complete.

We've partied to celebrate birthdays, births, anniversaries and the departure of a university-bound child, and we've planned mini events such as fish fries and a ribfest. For the past few years, we've opted to spend New Year's Eve together feasting on lobster and other goodies. Since drinks are always flowing, there's the added security of knowing we do not have to drive home at the end of the night. Our kids tend to join us around midnight to welcome in the new year.

Other winter nights find us in one back yard or another, keeping warm in front of a toasty fireplace. The sub-zero temperatures rarely deter us from sharing a drink, a nibble and a laugh.

Extended family and friends are always welcomed into the group. Past neighbours, relatives, out-of-town guests and even ex-spouses have been known to join in and feel as if they're a part of our clan. It's incredibly comforting to know that in a pinch, we can trust at least a dozen individuals to care for a child, a pet or our home.

Ours is a neighbourhood that I am certain our children will remember fondly as they move on to settle into homes of their own. Hopefully they will find themselves living among a similar
family of friends.

Every summer over the past two decades, we have organized a combination street sale and party. Usually anywhere from six to twelve households participate in the morning-long garage sales and more like a dozen and a half families come out to party all afternoon and night. This year's party was held this past Saturday and the theme was Mardi Gras.

New Orleans-style music played while kids decorated masks, acquired tattoos, had their cards read, guessed at a number of jelly beans, created masterpieces with sidewalk chalk and visited a Canadian Armed Forces information booth (yes, my older son). After our pot luck dinner, adults exchanged "tacky gifts" and children received candy and specially-selected gifts of their own. We held a cash draw and named the winners of that, and of the guessing games. As night fell, musical instruments appeared on the street to keep us entertained.

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The Great Swami Pastrami dazzled our guest with his great card-reading talents. He kept his tonic (a mickey of alcohol) hidden in his shirt pocket and a whoopie cushion rudely defied its concealment beneath him. Swami surrounded himself with props which helped make his fortune-telling tasks a bit easier. A hand puppet gave younger children a candy once they had been told their pseudo-futures. Perhaps legal-age customers were treated to a sip of tonic.

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Costumes, masks, beads and boas sure helped to set the tone for silly, but colourful photos.

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Neighbourhood kids and guests show off their mask-making talents. The girls went all out with feathers and glitter glue, creating some very beautiful pieces.

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One little guy contemplates the Tacky Gift his dad received. Each year, the adults draw numbers and exchange these unusual gifts. The rules state that they may choose an unopened gift from the table, or "steal" a previously-opened gift from someone else. There are usually one or two gifts that are more popular than the rest. I don't think that this was one of them.

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The pot-luck dinner is always a feast. We have some wonderful cooks on our street and nobody ever goes hungry. This year's theme inspired Cajun cooking such as hot Louisiana wings and other chicken, seafood and rice dishes.

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Beautiful kidlet faces observe the surrounding activities with amusement.
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After dark the musicians emerged. The sounds of an Irish fiddler (a neighbour's relative who had just arrived from Ireland hours earlier), and a local guitarist (aka my younger son) encourages sing-alongs and hand-clapping.

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Simple tree decorations spiral in the breeze and offer a colourful contrast against the night sky.