Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dolphins, Whales and Shrimp

Went out Dolphin Watching this morning, and immediately saw several humpback Whales. Previous whale watching experiences were pretty much limited to the occasional spout and glimpse of a back, but today we got the full show -- blow, back, swimming around, tail up dive, all within maybe 100 yards. Very nice. Then Spinner Dolphins, a whole bay full, doing synchronized swimming for us, and leaping, and, yes, spinning. The naturalist on board (Pacific Whale Foundation tour)described spinner dolphin spins, but I didn't really believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. And I got to see a baby dolphin leap up just feet away from me -- very very cute, though I won't know if I caught it on film until I can download to the computer. Some of the dolphins swam close enough to almost touch. Astounding sight! Then, complete surprise to everyone, came into a crowd of spotted dolphins on the way back to shore, and several more humpbacks. A totally awesome morning!

Lunch turned out to also be quite exciting, since the waiter mistakenly brought us the shrimp quessedia rather than the pork; Mary took one bite, realized that that weren't pork, spit it out, and ran for the washroom to throw up. The manager responded appropriately, first checking that Mary hadn't gone into shock, then running down the street to a pharmacy to buy her Benadryl. Fortunately, Mary hadn't actually swallowed any of it, so she survived. The Benadryl kicked in fast enough to minimize the swelling and hives, but Mary was still too sick to do anything for the rest of the day. A close call.

The waiter came out as Mary was leaving, visably upset and crying. He had, he told us, a peanut allergy, and had been extremely angry when served peanuts three weeks before, and now found himself in the position of having posioned someone in turn. Mary was more gracious in forgiving him than I might have been under the circumstances.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Quiet Christmas Morning at Home....

Last year, we spent the two weeks leading up to Christmas in Hawaii (partly at a conference, but still!) and have had a number of extra-ordinary trips this year, so we spent much of the last three months telling the girls that this year, we were going to have a nice quiet Christmas morning at home. The tradition in our house is that Christmas eve everyone opens new pajama's, Christmas morning the girls get up and open their Christmas stockings, followed by a special breakfast, and then open presents. It makes for a pleasant morning. Tigana especially was psyched up for this agreeing -- indeed insisting -- that she too wanted nothing more than a quiet Christmas at home this year. (Kasia was less convinced. Ever since we went to Hawaii last year, she has constantly asked at least once a week when we are going back; named her new webkin's pony she got for her Birthday in Nov "Hawaii", and made it clear that if she had a choice she would choose Hawaii over any day at home.) So.

Christmas eve, Mary distributes new pjs; Christmas morning the kids get up early and we open our Christmas stockings; have a big breakfast; then open presents. Mary carefully hands out the gifts in order, so that the last gifts opened are gift certificate from Grandma for surfing lessons for Tigana and Kasia. "For next time we're somewhere where there's surfing."

Tigana says, on cue, "I wish we were in Hawaii right now."

Robert: "Really? But you said you just wanted a quiet Christmas at home this year."

Tigana: "Well yeah. But, you know. Hawaii would be great."

Mary: "Oh good. Because that's your last present. We're going to Hawaii."

Tigana: "We are? When?"

Robert: "Get your coat. The plane leaves in 90 minutes."

Tigana: "AaaaaahhhhhaahahahahahahahahahahahhhhhaaaaaaaWooHoo! Really? Hahahahah! Wow! Really? Aahahahaaaaa!" (And so on for another 10 straight minutes, bounching off walls, jumping up and down and so forth.)

Kasia received the news somewhat more calmly but just as happily. Scheduling has never been one of her strong points, never being entirely clear on whether a particular day is a school day or holiday or whatever, so just allows her parents to shuffle her around more or less at random, secure in the knowledge that if she asks often enough, Hawaii will appear in the rotation there somewhere.

Needless to say, given the chaos in the airline industry over the previous week, Mary (who handles all our planning and logistics) was a nervous wreck Christmas eve waiting to see if all her careful planning was for naught. Booking our flights for Christmas day (when relatively few people are flying compared to the rest of the season) had seemed like a stroke of genious 3 months earlier, but as the airlines were cancelling 90% of flights out of Vancouver the day before, it suddenly didn't seem quite so clever.

However, our flight out of Lethbridge was on time and uneventual. Our trip out of Calgary was delayed about four hours while the airline tried to round up flight crew. (Since the pilot and copilot were already on board the plane, I got about a dozen passengers to agree to take turns serving drinks if we could take off, but the desk clerk didn't seem to take our offer seriously. Union shop, I suppose.) Fortunately, the flight to Maui out of Vancouver was similarly delayed, so we had no trouble making our connection, though we didn't find that out until off the plane in Vancouver, so Mary had been tearing out her hair on the assumption we'd missed our connection. When the flight to Maui finally got in, we had missed our car reservation. Budget rental car was closed, so we had to take a cab (roughly $100.00 US) to our hotel instead. But since we had arrived in the middle of the night, I'm not sure how crazy I would have been driving an unfamiliar route in the dark. But all in all, not TOO bad a way to spend Christmas afternoon and evening, after a nice quiet Christmas morning at home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chapters at Christmas

Went to Chapters (our only bookstore in this town) this week with my ten
year old because we both love to browse books. But I forgot that in the
Christmas pre-season, Chapters takes on extra staff, and browsing is no
longer possible.

I sent my daughter to the 9-12 year old section, then headed to the
washroom. On my return trip from the washroom to the kid's section, I was
approached 12 times (literally, no exaggeration) by Chapter's staff asking
"Are you finding everything you want, sir?" Each time I crossed to a new
category of books, a new clerk would emerge to ask the exact same question
phrased in the exact same way as I passed through their territory. When I
paused in one section, my eye having been caught by a couple of titles,
the same young man approached me threetimes in the space of about six minutes -- what, he didn't recognize me from
30 seconds earlier? He thought that since I had been standing in the same
spot for over 60 seconds I would now be prepared to admit that I was stuck
and needed his help?

I'm telling you, it was like a bloody feeding frenzie.

The first few times I replied with the usual, "Fine, just browsing, thanks!"
By number 8 this had been abbreviated to "I'm good, thanks!" and then just,
"I'm good!" By number 10, I was feeling positively harassed and may have
said something slightly more curt "Just browsing!" By number 11, I may have
exhibited a certain level of crabbiness. "What is wrong with you people! Get
away fro me! Leave me alone!" The youngish clerk in question turned tail and
literally ran away around the end of the bookstack to the next isle. But, no
sooner had she disappeared round the corner and I was feeling just the
tiniest bit guilty over my outburst when -- unbelievably -- #12 simultaneously
approached me from the other direction: "Are you finding everything you
want, Sir?"

I may have lost it at this point. "Number 12! You are the 12th
person to approach me in as many minutes! You are draining all the joy out
of browsing. You are killing me here! Go AWAY!" Or words to that general
effect. And maybe a shade or two too loud.

The clerk, an older female, looked completely taken aback. Her expression
suggested that she was torn between the impulse to apologize and the urgent
need to call store security. I tried to reign in my temper and muttered
something along the lines of, "Sorry, it's not really your fault, you
couldn't know, but really, you're the 12th clerk to approach me in as many
minutes, and it is just completely exasperating."

To my surprise, a female customer standing reading at the shelf a few feet down, turned and supported
me. "I've noticed the same thing, myself. It really does make one crazy."
(She may have nodded toward me as she said the word, "crazy", but I nevertheless
appreciated the implication that it wasn't just me.)

So the clerk settled on issuing a blanket apology, and I went on my way to
the kid's section, where Tigana was sitting quietly reading the book we had
come to buy. "Dad, is it okay that I was reading here for a couple of

"Sure," I said, "how else would people know if they liked the

"Yeah, only four different clerks have asked me if I needed help
since you went to the washroom, and I got the feeling that they thought I
should just buy the book and leave. Like I shouldn't be here."

And that explains why on-line shopping is looking better to us all the

Though, in the bookstore's defense, upon subsequent reflection, I realized that
it wasn't just poor training that turned all of their sales staff into
one-line Daleks. It's the expectation that Christmas shoppers are buying
books for someone else, and probably DON'T have any idea of where anything
is. Relative X has book Y on their Christmas wish list, so they go to the
book store to buy it, with no thought of browsing, and no clue how to find
anything, never having set foot in the store since the previous holiday
season. Which has to be a sad commentary on the state of the world, as much
as an explanation why it's not working for us 'regulars'. (My 10 year old, I
should note, is better at using the instore terminals for locating books in
the store than the Christmas help were, because she clearly has had WAY more
experience at it than they had. *Sigh*)

In any event, as we finished our purchases and went out to the
parking lot, clerk #12 chased me down and presented me with a $5 gift card.
She had written on it, "A random act of kindness" which I thought was a good
deal more tactful than "placate dangerously disgruntled customer". But I was
mostly embarrassed that she had felt this necessary. So I might have been
just a bit over the top there.

I'm assuming she was sufficiently senior to authorize the disbursement from
company funds, and that "Random Act of Kindness" is an accounting category
under "store security" and not that she personally paid for this, which would make
me feel REALLY guilty. But the gift did cheer me up a bit.

Though we will wait until after the Christmas season to go back and make use of the gift card...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Our new dog, Jackie

Photo by Wendy

We've been debating getting a dog ever since Pooka passed away in November, but have had a hard time believing we could ever get an animal as special as he was. But as it has become increasingly clear that the kids needed a dog in their lives, asap, so Mary has been tracking via their websites all the dogs that have come into various local shelters. (Mary wanted a "rescue' dog to partially pay back to dogdom how much our family had received from Pooka.) Several dogs seemed like possibilities but hadn't panned out for one reason or another -- one turned out to be fostered in Michigan, too far for us to meet; another couple were adopted before we found out about them; Mary took the kids to meet a very likely candidate, but Mary and Kasia suddenly started sneezing, which seemed like a bad sign; another was taken off the rescue market because the foster mom couldn't give the dog up. We tended to be fairly fatalistic about these developments, since we believed that we would get the dog that we were destined to have.

Tigana and Kasia head straight for what turned out to be the favorite dog of the shelter's adoption fair.

Jackie hit our radar early on, and her story certainly touched our hearts. When we saw that she would be at the pet adoption fair this weekend, we decided to meet her. I was pleased that the kids would be seeing her within the context of 20-30 other dogs, so that it wouldn't just be a matter of falling in love with the first dog they happened to meet. But I needn't have worried. As much as we were drawn to several dogs, the moment the kids set eyes on Jackie, that was that.

Kasia throws herself over Jackie to "protect her" from another potential adoption family.

I had to explain to the kids that there was an adoption process and that we were only one of several (many, as it subsequently developed) families interested in Jackie, so that even though we were filling in the application forms, there was no guarantee that we would be the family to get her. I tried to get them to make a second choice just in case, but they were both reluctant to do so, already fixated on Jackie. I tried to keep their expectations low as we went for lunch, and we agreed that if we didn't get Jackie, we hoped that she would at least go to the nice lady in the yellow coat. But I forgot that my daughter lives a charmed life in which she is denied nothing (except possibly, humility) and sure enough, we were the lucky family to be chosen for Jackie.

I had some trepidation making a decision of this magnitude without Mary (she was away at a conference) even though she had already read all about Jackie and specifically approved our getting her, but I quickly came to realize that we had just won the lottery dogwise. Quite aside from the kid's instant bonding to her, everywhere I went for the next two days, everyone has told me what a fabulous dog I had gotten. For example, when I went to the pet store to collect supplies, the clerk overhead the kids mention Jackie's name and she and the other clerks instantly gathered round saying, "You got Jackie?! You are solucky. She is a great dog!" When the volunteer who ran the raffle phoned to say I'd won a prize, she asked which dog I'd gotten, and when I said "Jackie" she squealed and said, "Wow, you really did hit the jackpot!" and told me the foster mom had spent the next four hours crying over having to give Jackie up. And so on. It seemed like everyone knew and loved this dog.

I'm beginning to see why. She is clearly intelligent and sensitive (quickly running over to help Kasia when she hurt herself) and gentle. She is a sweet, sweet dog.

But there may be a brief adjustment period. Having had 12lb Shih Tzu-Maltese cross for the past 18 years, our new mid-size Border Collie cross seems huge by comparison. For example, I found myself this morning out on our walk holding the regular plastic sandwich bag that we have used for the last 18 years to clean up after our dogs, staring at a pile of manure the size of my head. Oops. Time to recalibrate bag size. And whereas I often had to watch where I stepped in the house lest I trod on tiny Pooka or Portia, I now find myself with the opposite problem -- that there is no space in the kitchen not somehow full of reclining collie. And how are we going to get this fifth passenger into our four passenger Honda Fit, once Mary returns? Explaining to Jackie that she couldn't drive the car and had to sit in the passenger seat involved a fairly lengthy negotiation, vs when we would just pick Pooka up and hold him until we could clear a suitable space into which to place him. One does not lift Jackie, and when she sat down in one of our chairs, she didn't seem to notice that Kasia was already occupying said chair. All Tigana and I could see was this tiny arm waving from underneath the dog, signaling an urgent need for air.

But it's all good. She's not really that big, and our perceptions will adjust quickly. We've already recognized that Jackie putting her head in a lap is the exact weight and emotional equivalent of Pooka cuddling up there, so, so what if there is another 40 pounds of dog overflowing onto the floor? The better to keep the girls safe once they are old enough for Jackie to walk them on their own.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Florida Trip

Given that Mary has study leave this term, and I was able to schedule some curriculum development in Florida mid-November, we took two weeks off to go down to Orlando.

This was also Kasia's fifth birthday, and we had taken Tigana to Disneyland for her fifth birthday, so we wanted something similar for Kasia. I was concerned that we would not be able to really match that original trip, because we hadn't had to line up for anything there (Mary having been a wheel chair at the time -- okay, less magical memories for her maybe, but Tigana and I loved that we could skip the lineups since the handicap entrance was seldom busy, especially in the off season when we had gone) and because my friend Adrian (who had worked for Disney at the time) had been able to score free passes for us, some very fine seats for shows, upgraded hotel accommodation, and so on. Going back to Disneyland, or even going to Disney World, as normal walkins was likely to be disappointing by comparison to the VIP treatment of that original holiday. I really couldn't see Kasia waiting patiently in line for six hours just to get an autograph from Snow White. So after some research, and given our recent happy experiences with cruising, we decided to try a trip to the Caribbean on the Disney Cruise line, leaving from Orlando. This offered us appropriate holiday locales, Disney-style activities (and free babysitting) for the kids, and five star dining for the adults. What's not to like?

We drove up to Calgary to catch the red-eye to Orlando, then drove to Coco Beach, where we acclimatized on the beach for a couple of days before boarding ship. (It had started snowing on our drive up to Calgary, so racing the waves down the beach was a big improvement.)

When we returned to Orlando to board the Disney Magic (a singularly efficient process), we discovered that Mary's meticulously researched trip was off, and the Magic was now going to Mexico. So the bad news was that all her shore excursions were cancelled, and we hadn't any idea of what to do or plan for the shore days on this itinerary, but the good news is, we weren't going into a hurricane. So on balance, that was for the good. The whole point of booking a cruise instead of an all inclusive resort in hurricane season is that if one does show up, you aren't stuck with horrible dangerous weather. Your "resort" just moves somewhere else.

So Mary scrambled to book new excursions, and I suddenly found myself scheduled to trek through a couple of major Mayan ruins. Which is, I have to say, no bad thing. Though had I known, I probably would have read up more on them so as to be a better source for Tigana. But then, that's what local guides are for, and we had a couple of really excellent ones. (One woman was so good, she even provided "footnotes" to her talk and Q&A, citing specific researchers and articles, which is music to our academic sensibilities).

Kasia's School Portrait

for 2008.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Theo Tams and Tigana

Mary took Tigana to see Theo Tams and the other Canadian Idol finalists tonight as Tigana's Christmas present... and so naturally -- given the charmed life my daughter leads -- they were invited backstage for a meet and greet with all four performers.

Back row: Theo Tams, Amberlee Thiesen, Mitch MacDonald, Drew Wright; Front: Tigana

Almost looks like the four Idol finalists are Tigana's backup singers in this shot...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shatner for Gov General

Check out this group on Facebook that wants to push William Shatner for the next Governor General (2009).

Not sure how serious Gingras is about this one, but it is an excellent example of Facebook (and similar social networking software) implications for grass roots political movements -- and how democracy really does mean "mob rule".

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Old New Romans

Canadians have had a long history of comparing America to the Roman Empire (e.g., The New Romans, Hurtig, 1968.), so I couldn't help drawing a parallel between the election of the first black (well, he's a bit black anyway) President yesterday, and the election of Trajan as the first non-Roman emperor. Trajan revitalized the empire simply by being Emperor (though he was also a pretty good organizer, general, and etc. as it happens) because he proved that the extension of Roman citizenship to everyone in the Empire was authentic. You no longer had to be a Roman to work your way up to the seat of power. This immediately united the Empire because every general and governor stopped dreaming about rebelling and setting up their own little fiefdom, and instead took seriously the thought that one day they might get to be Emperor of the whole thing. Listening to CBC's The Current this morning interviewing social workers in Chicago and how, knowing that Obama had started as an activist in their community, they were all saying that his election proved that anyone could make it to President, that the next generation of kids could look to him and think, all I have to do is work and it is possible to make it in America. It's complete nonsense, of course, you still have to come from a rich and powerful family to make it and everything else is just ideology and statistical outriders, but the reinstatement of one of the central hegemonic ideals of American democracy might just save that nation from going further down the dark road (Weimar republic parallels!) it appeared to be on.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Pooka's last hour

Depressed today about having to take Pooka, our 18 year old 'puppy' to the vet for the last time. He's had a long and rich doggie life, and he got six more months of good life than the vet had predicted when we first got the terminal diagnosis. but it's now come to the point where if we wait any longer he will likely start to suffer. So, however selfishly we would like to keep him around longer, it's time.

Our other dog was, well, a dog. So while we loved and will miss Portia, it's not the same. Pooka was an old soul. He understood things dogs don't; he saved my wife's life on at least a couple of occasions, and it was he who told Mary to go with me. (Every other potential boyfriend had been barked out of the house, and on one memorable occasion, not allowed in the door; until me --Pooka sniffed me a couple of times, and jumped up into my lap. Mary's expression at that moment should have told me something, but it wasn't until he was my dog too that I came to understand and rely on his ability to correctly judge people.)

So just a quick story to illustrate what I'm talking about. Shortly after Mary and I started dating, she left the dogs with me while she went on a week long speaking tour. Portia was fine it, because, well, she was a dog and anyone who petted and fed her was okay with her. Pooka on the other hand deeply resented being dumped with a stranger. When Mary phoned to check on the dogs, and to visit with me, Pooka came out of the kitchen at the sound of the phone and gave me -- I swear -- "Is that her?" look. So I said, "Hey Pooka, it's Mary!" pointing at the phone as if a dog could understand me. So he looks at me with this unmistakable "tell her this from me" look, lifts a leg, and pees in the middle of my front room directly in front of the telephone, then turns calmly and walks with great dignity back into the kitchen.

It is hard to yell at a dog indignantly when you are collapsed in helpless laughter, so there was a bit of a delay before I could convey to Mary what had transpired, but I never again made the mistake of thinking of Pooka as just a dog. He will be sorely missed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Our House from Space

Ours is the house on the lower left. I can actually pick out our garbage can (grey smudge, middle right margin). Interesting view, but little worried about privacy issues. Not that you can tell too much from our picture, but the looking at the larger picture (from which this was cropped) is the first time I knew the neighbour two doors down had a pool.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Edmonton and Cancer Run

So for the last four weekends I've gone up to Edmonton to sort through Doug's stuff and get his condo(s) ready for sale. Counting the six hour trip each direction, I manage to put in three 18 hour days each time, so it is pretty exhausting.

It is also kind of depressing disposing of all his stuff, much of it treasured family memories. But Doug had a lot of stuff, and neither my family nor my remaining brother have need or space for all this material, so in the end, most of it has to go. In keeping with what I am sure would be Doug's wishes, I tried to ensure as much as possible went to good homes. So the Provincial Museum took three boxes of stuff (they told me it is unusual for them to take even a single item from an estate, because they have only limited storage and so have to be pretty picky -- but Douglas had not only saved a lot of the everyday things most people through out, but had kept detailed written records of each purchase, giving them the providence for various suits and household items, which is very rare. "We live for finds like these," the Director told me.); the University of Alberta took 78 boxes of books for the library; the Edmonton Public School Board took 23 boxes of my brother's papers for their archives; the ATA took two boxes for their archives; two boxes for the UofA archives; four boxes for the City of Edmonton Archives; and I have two more for the Edmonton Public School Board of stuff I found after my initial shipment.

After spending about four months sorting, packing and donating everything I could to these various archives, and throwing out stuff no one wanted (e.g., his extensive video collection -- but just stuff off TV, not prerecoreded), these last few weekends have been about taking truckloads to Value Village (an okay place to recycle unwanted furniture, clothes, small appliances, etc.) and getting the guys from 1-800-gotjunk to haul stuff away the big stuff. But it is killing me to watch the couch and chair from my childhood being dragged away to the dump, even though these are not in sufficiently good shape for even Value Village to want.

One of the archivists who came to pick up stuff (my brother's Gestetner duplicating machine among other things) spent about an hour going through helping me identify what was antique and what was just junk...and recommended an antiques dealer I could help me take care of the good stuff. But when I phoned the antiques dealer, turns out that he had essentially retired and was now only interested in those sorts of pieces that you see on the Antiques Road Show. He spent a long time on the phone with me explaining that all the antiques dealers in Edmonton were gone out of business and that there was no one left in Calgary either. The problem is that the value of furniture has fallen so dramatically over the past decade that dining room sets that used to go for $3600 to $4500 were now lucky to sell for $400. And because the value had dropped so preciptiously, the dealers have had to raise their commissions to compensate to make it worth their while to sell pieces -- with the result that it often cost more to truck a piece to auction than the owners recovered at auction. So the market has essentially collapsed.

The problem, of course, is that my brother's generation are all passing or moving into nursing homes, leaving their antique furniture as a glut on the market. For example, the caretaker in my brother's building told me that she has fabulous furniture, because people in the building keep moving into nursing care, and their relatives have to clear out their condos in a weekend or two, and so keep offering her diniing room sets or living room furniture, and she and all her married children now have all they can take. So people literally cannot give this stuff away. (She did take my brother's car -- a 1982 Toyota Tercel -- off my hands for one of her sons, though.)

I'm dreading what to do about emptying my Mom's place (which is up next, since she blind and bedridden so never leaving the nursing home again) because she had the majority of the "good stuff". I'll try phoning around to the relatives to see if anyone wants any thing, but the truth is, most people don't have the room for other people's antiques, and even if they did, shipping costs on the larger items may simply prove prohibitive.... A generation or two from now, these items will again no doubt be in high demand, but who has space to store them in the meantime. It is a dilemma.

Anyway, I was working away diligently this Sunday packing up Doug's place when I kept heard noises that sounded a bit like a group of people talking over the sound of the podcasts I was listening to on my ipod. But I'd check the spyhole and there would be no one out in the hallway, so I'd shrug, and get on with my cleaning. But the noises get getting louder, so eventually I figured out they were coming from outside. And this is what I saw:

Doug's condo is just near that end of Jasper Ave where the Cancer Run turns around and comes back on the other side of the road, so what I was hearing was the first runners to complete the first leg of the circuit turning round and greeting people coming the other way.... By the time I got my camera, there was quite an impressive crowd going by!

I paused in my work for about ten minutes to watch and I could not help but be struck by how powerful a sense of community and solidarity presented by such a massive gathering of like-minded people. Of course, the next thing that occured to me is how sad that the only thing Edmontonians would turn out for in such massive numbers is the Cancer Run, rather than, say, political protest. Yeah, everybody, let's protest against Cancer! That's a tough one to rally the troops for! But really, if this many people turned up on the legislative grounds over anything, the next day, the law would be changed....

Monday, the 1-800-Gotjunk guys came and hauled away the last of the stuff from Doug's two condos, and I set off for home. The only two redeeming elements of the weekend was that the six hour trip home I got to listen to my own CDs for a change (no Barney for Kasia, no Canadian Idol winners for Tigana) and to admire the scenary. The Edmonton - Lethbridge corridor is painfully boring to drive -- once you've seen one set of cows, you've pretty much seen 'en all -- but the last two weekends have been glorious fall colors, and surprisingly attractive. The two photos below (snapped with my cellphone out the car window as I was driving, so no chance to even aim, let alone compose decent pictures) give a poor indication of how beautiful and peaceful the drive really is this time of year. Next time I go up, I know it will all be bare grey trees and flat rolling countryside, but at least this time I got to decompress a bit on the way home from these physically and emotionally exhausting weekends before having to throw myself back into teaching.


I did a Harris online survey awhile back that asked about my ipod usage, and it was an excellent example of bad survey design, because after I answered that I had 29 days worth of material on my ipod, the survey asked me to identify what % of that was devoted to which genre of music, and the system crashed when I entered "0" for each category. Because at the moment, I have no music whatsoever on my ipod; it's all podcasting. Stupidly, the survey assumed ipod usage = music, and there was no "podcast" or "talk-radio" or even "other" option available. Good example of bad design: you have to know all the possible options before sending out a survey.

One reason I have 29 days worth of material is that I seldom get a chance to listen: I'm either working my day job or looking after the kids; and even car time tends to be devoted to the kid's radio choices, rather than my own. So the one nice thing about spending all these weekends cleaning Doug's condos was the opportunity to listen to some of my podcast backlog on my ipod as I worked. This last weekend I was able to catch up with the entire run of:

Quirks and Quarks (CBC) best science show around (and thanks to podcasting, I can listen to most of the world's English language science shows, so I know whereof I speak

The Moth True stories told in front of an audience without a script -- moving and/or funny stuff

Big Ideas (TVO) Like CBC's ideas, but better, because it's just the one speaker rather than soundbites gathered by a producer/interviewer on some topic. Lecturers are often huge names in their fields, and often household names. Always engaging, often profoundly informative.

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! (NPR) a hilarious news quiz show with the likes of Paula interviews celebrities about topics they can't possibly know about (segment is called "Not my Job", while panelists try to identify which of three news stories is the true one, or complete limricks based on news items or etc. Very often very very funny.

The Vinyl Cafe (CBC) Stuart McLean Enough said.

Comedy Factory (CBC) Recylced comedy bits from all the CBC newshows etc that use comedy bits (e.g., The Current, DNTO, etc.) Tends to be short show (15 minutes) and ranges from mildly amuzing to hilarious.

I'm also a big fan of:
TedTalks World's top thinkers on infinite range of topics -- e.g., fascinating talk on setting up stock exchange commodities market in Ethiopia to what's wrong with schools to menes to whatever

Spark (CBC) Interesting show on cyberculture, if you're into that
John Cleese Podcast (irregular on again off again show, but hey, it's John Cleese talking about stuff. Some brilliant stuff, some longwinded rambling.

Onion News Network (Video) Best (& most vicious) satire on the web.

Anyone out there have any other suggestions for "must listen"s.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Private Library

This cool article from Wired Magazine brought to my attention by Randy Reichardt:

My number 1 question on seeing this library is, "Do they have a writers-in- residence program?

Friday, September 19, 2008

plot synopsis

Following up on last week’s Query Project comes this week’s Plot Synopsis Project. Joshua Palmetier has again enlisted several published writers to post online the synopses they used to sell books. (And it is also a great way to see if any of these writers is doing something you might be interested in -- although not yet household names, several of these are very very good novelists indeed -- Jay Lake is one of my all time favorites, for example. Careful though,since the synopsis will contain spoilers, since they obviously must include the endings -- even if the actual books have changed since first proposed.)

The writers taking part:

Alma Alexander (Will post on the 20th instead.)
Sam Butler
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Daryl Gregory
Simon Haynes
Jay Lake’s comments and his synopses
Kelly McCullough
Jeri Smith-Ready
Jennifer Stevenson
Edward Willett

(Again, thanks to Edward Willet for bringing this exercise to my attention!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

How I spent my summer vacation (2008)

I intend to blog about our time in Edmonton (nearly six weeks), our road trip to Vancouver and back, and most especially our cruise to Alaska. However, having been absent from Lethbridge so long, I have had to throw myself back into my work and household responsibilities and suspect it is unlikely I will be able to blog the trip(s) in a timely fashion. (I couldn't blog as we went because I was busy living it, but also because we don't have Internet access where we were staying in Edmonton because our usual on-the-road option of using Telus dial-up service did not seem to be working – their Help Desk told us the recent switch to 10 digit local numbers had crashed the software, though that seems a bit hard to credit. Access during the Alaskan cruise was theoretically possible, but prohibitively expensive.)

Consequently, rather than have the trip entries sprawl across the next few months, I thought it best to back date them to August where they would all be in correct chronological placement, even through written after the fact. I recognize that this somewhat goes against blogging etiquette/tradition, but seems appropriate in this one instance. Therefore, this is just kind of a place holder to direct you to check out "August" from time to time, to see if there have been additional trip posts.

The Query Project

Another clever idea by Joshua Palmatier, the Query Project had a baker dozen authors post query letters they used to sell books or solicit an agent . I heard about this first by reading Canadian SF author and radio columnist Edward Willett's blog. For anyone interested in writing, this glimpse behind the scenes is extremely enlightening. There are a few "how to" books around that talk about guiding principles, but it's a bit different seeing the real thing and seeing a dozen different takes on what's important etc. My hat off to all the participants. - Paul Crilley -ChrisDolley -Diana Pharaoh Francis -Gregory Frost -Simon Haynes Jackie Kessler -Glenda Larke -John Levitt -Joshua Palmatier -Janni Lee Simner -Jennifer Stevenson -Edward Willett -David J. Williams

(Of course, payment for exposing the private side of their business this way is to bring people to their blogs who might not otherwise have encountered them. I know that I found a few names below I hadn't known about before, but seeing their book covers and/or other blog entries certainly peaked my interest in pursuing looking up their books.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Theo Tams, Tigana, and Canadian Idol

My 10 year old daughter follows Canadian Idol closely, hoping to go for it herself when she is old enough; so when UofL student Theo Tam made the final two, Mary sent me to line up for tickets for the hometown viewing of the final show. The university lent its new gym for the purpose, and we showed up early enough to be among the first through the door. Tigana ran ahead to get good seats for Mary, Kasia and I even though it was 90 minutes before the show and the gym was not yet crowded. I was pleased with Tigana’s choice of the front seats in the second section, a good spot to see and be seen, and about the best we could have gotten without being the very first in line. But after about 20 minutes the producer came over to us and asked if we would move to the section signed as reserved for Tam friends and family. We were pleasantly, though not very, surprised: yet again, the ‘cuteness factor’ had worked in our favor, as the producers selected Kasia and Tigana to be front and center for the broadcast. Kasia, is well, Kasia, and Tigana had made the sign seen here. So, who could resist?

In the end, Tigana could be seen briefly waving her sign; and both local papers took shots of both kids:

This CTV video (click on photo above) shows clear shots of Tigana and Kasia with their signs at about 36 seconds in (Mary and I are also visible on the far right). Tigana also appeared near the end of the actual Idol show during one of the cuts to Lethbridge.

Tigana in Calgary Herald (and click on "next" for another shot of Tigana)
Front page of the Lethbridge Herald Kasia can be glimpsed in the upper right of photo.

For myself, I was fascinated to watch how the cameramen, stage manager, and local talent handled the production -- they seemed relaxed (in spite of the show being live), professional, and pleasant -- and particularly how they organized the crowd to appear larger than it was, to scream on cue, and so on. Quite interesting.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Alaskan Cruise

We boarded the ship at Vancouver's Cruise Terminal, an attractive building and an efficient, polite operation. The longshoreman were exceptionally helpful and waved away tips -- just part of the job, sir! I was impressed.

Mary had booked us a great cabin, smack in the middle of the bow, directly under the observation deck and one deck above the bridge. We had,therefore, the same view as the Captain and the ship's webcam. Pretty cool!

Above: Looking down from the observation deck,
you can just see Mary and the girls out on our balcony.
Below: Mary and Kasia on our balcony, as seen from the dock
(you have to squint to see them, but they're there!)

We were talking the Norwegian Sun on this cruise, partly because of availability, pricing, and so on, but the NCL is often our first choice because of their excellent children's program. Unlike some lines that don't even have dedicated space for their kids club (they just use whatever conference space happens to be free that morning), the NCL have great kid spaces, and often really great supervisors.

A highlight for the kids each night is returning to the room to find the steward has left a towel animal. Here's the towel dog from our first night, leading the pack of my kids' stuffies.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Vancouver Aquarium

I took Kasia to the Vancouver Aquarium to see the new baby beluga whale. Well, actually I was hoping to show her the whole aquarium, as we had with Tigana at this age, but somebody must have prepped her that the big thing at the aquarium was the new baby whale, so that's what she wanted to see, and she dragged me through the other exhibits at breakneck speed to get to the baby beluga. We had to stand in line for about 25 minutes, which wasn't too bad from my point of view though pretty much at Kasia's limit. When we finally got in, we received an orientation that I found interesting, and at which Kasia put up her hand and asked "What's the baby's name?" (They hadn't named her yet.) The orientation warned us that the baby was spending a lot of her time in an adjacent pool because the mother and grandmother whales were trying to teach the baby that the neighbouring pool was safe, even though there was only one entrance. So we went through to the viewing room, and sure enough, the whales were barely visible swimming in and out of the neighbouring pool. But with 30 seconds on our turn to go, they finally swam directly in front of our window, and to my surprise, this was sufficient to satisfy Kasia. Who immediately bought mommy and baby beluga whale stuffies, which the aquarium staff had conveniently set up in a large display near the whale exhibit exit. Kasia then headed straight out the door -- apparently, having seen the whales, we were done!

I did manage to see and snap a couple of shots of a dolphin rehearsal on our way out.

And an okay picture of a jellyfish.


We spent a couple of days in Vancouver to visit family, and enjoy the sights. We drove out to Horseshoe Bay to pick up nephew from Ferry, and the kids found a whale in the playground/park next to the dock.

The whale spouts when you trigger a button.

And we spent a pleasant afternoon in Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver; I'm pleased with this photo of Lillies I took with my little digital camera:

Kasia putting one foot on the to the don't walk on the grass sign

And we spent some time in Steveston.

I bought some Chinese DVDs in Night Market, along with tons of food from various stalls. Entertaining way to spend an evening, but we left before the crowds got too scary.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Road Trip to Vancouver

Desperately needing a break after a long and stressful period dealing with estate matters, we packed up the (new to us) van and drove out to Vancouver, via overnight stops in Jasper and the Sun Peaks Resort near Valemont. Jasper was pleasant, the dining at Sun Peaks even better, though Mary's on-going tooth ache somewhat detracted from the experience for her. We took the driving in easy stages, stopping for a couple of hours at the lake in Hope (photos above and below) and a couple of other scenic views to make the trip seem more like part of our holidays rather than just a way of getting to Vancouver.

This display at the tourist info center in Valemount (below) suggests to me that beavers can be terribly indecisive....

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Shakespeare and Edmonton School of Ballet

Having to spend much of the summer in Edmonton to take care of my mother and to attend to my brother’s estate, we tried to make the best of it by registering the girls in appropriate summer camps.

The first was Tigana's participation in the Free Will Players "Shakespeare in the Park" week-long, half-day camp. It was well done and we appreciated the attempt to introduce Shakespeare to youngsters. The theme of this year's camp was "Shakespeare's Clowns", with the children doing bits from "As You Like It" (probably a good choice, since the other play they were doing was Richard III.) We all enjoyed attending the matinee performance of As You Like It, which was very well done; I was disappointed by the low turn out for this excellent production, but am told matinees are often sparsely attended but that night time audiences were quite satisfactory.

The second was the Edmonton School of Ballet's intensive summer camps. These ran for two weeks, culminating in a performance at the Meyer Horowitz Theater. This camp was entirely remarkable, a fabulous experience for both Tigana and Kasia.

I was first struck by the amazing facilities of the Edmonton School of Ballet. Here was an entire wing of a public school given over to studio after studio specially built for dance! You know, the kind of thing you usually only see in movies with the mirrored walls and floor mounted bars the dancers hold onto and the glass wall so you can watch the class from outside. It's like something I might expect to find in cities like New York or Toronto. I had no idea that such a facility existed in Edmonton.

Second, I was struck by the very high quality of instructors. Sitting around in the parent's area awaiting Tigana or Kasia to complete their lessons, I had many hours to observe the other classes in operation -- especially those in the classroom with the glass wall. As an Education prof, I have some idea of good and bad teaching when I see it, and I was astounded by the procession of remarkable teachers I was able to observe. They all had completely different styles, but they all appeared to be incredibly passionate about dance, about helping each student reach their fullest potential, and about providing a very positive learning enviornment, while holding students to a very high standard. I was extremely impressed, and wished I could have bottled it to show my student teachers.

Third, I was astounded by the very rapid pace at which students improved. I literally watched one instructor take a class of girls in the intermediate/advanced class from crashing into each other the first day to a fully professional performance at the conclusion of the two weeks. It was like watching rehearsal for a CBC production rather than watching a ballet class. I'm unclear whether the remarkable pace of development is a result of superior recruits, superior instruction, or simply the structure of the intensive two week experience that allowed for these students to achieve such heights in such a brief period, but it was very exciting to watch!

Fourth, and this has to be said, there was absolutely no comparison between the final performances at the Meyer Horowitz theater, and the parallel performance by the dance school to which we had sent Tigana in Lethbridge a couple of months earlier. We had been satisfied with Tigana's class in Lethbridge, but the performance by other classes --especially the ballet classes -- had struck us as the wrong sort of advertising -- they were so weak, we were left wondering if Tigana shouldn't take swimming next year instead. But the performance by the Edmonton School of Ballet was fantastic -- many of the classes put on productions I would not have hesitated to air on CBC.

Three things struck me about this performance:

First, the choice of music and the choreography were inspired. Instead of the usual "Rite of Spring" sort of rubbish, where one doesn't really know what the dancers are supposed to represent, these were magnificent numbers with humor or social commentary or beauty and grace. Instead of drumming my figures impatiently waiting for my kids' turn on stage, I was spellbound the entire show. This was inventive and expressive and what dance is all about!

Second, unlike our frequent experience in Southern Alberta, there was no attempt to sexualize the costumes. (THE COSTUMES! Did I mention the costumes! Holly mackerel The production values were better than the CBC -- well, these days anyway -- and they managed to put it all together in just two weeks! Astounding!) I am so tired of seeing 8 year olds dressed up in miniskirts and top hats like some mini Vagus show girls and paraded around as apprentice sex objects. Give me a break! But there was none of that here. The dancers were costumed, choreographed and directed in what I viewed as age appropriate but empowering ways -- I was struck particularly by a couple of numbers where there was a range of ages, how the 'senior' young women were able to produce smoldering performances right next to younger "peers" identically costumed, dancing the same steps, but somehow staying chastely unaware of any suggestive overtones. One could not help but feel that the dancers were expressing exactly as much of themselves as they were comfortable with, and thereby taking control over their bodies and lives in a way that was very different then when six year olds are turned into chorus girls.

Third, the standards achieved in choreography, both at the level of individual expression and group synchronization, were astounding. Indeed, one of the very impressive features of the choreography was how the same class was able to demonstrate both advanced and intermediate levels -- the advanced dancers taking a few extra steps to reach that little bit higher without ever upstaging the intermediate students. Indeed the mixture of levels in the same class allowed for much greater flexibility in the overall choreography as everyone was pushed to their limits and yet given equally meaningful parts to perform. At no time did I feel that any one dancer was upstaging the others, or that anyone was being held back.

And there were some stunning performances. As Mary put it, we'll see one of the male dancers on "So you think you can dance" in two years when he is old enough to qualify because that young man has definitely got a career in dancing! And there were similarly two or three of the women who are as good as any I've ever seen.

The best performance I've seen since last December's performance of Harry Potter by the Alberta Dance Theater.

Tigana and Kasia following their performances at Edmonton School of Ballet.

Anyway, we registered Kasia in beginning ballet class for 3 and 4 year olds and Tigana in both Ballet and Jazz. Ballet does not come naturally to our Kasia (she is, in a word, terrible) and we have no particular commitment to her learning to dance, but she loves it beyond reason, so what the hey. As we had hoped, she had a blast in class, and performed well enough on stage (in front of a very large and no doubt intimidating audience), but I don't see a career in ballet any time soon.

[Sept Postscript: On the other hand, watching (as apparently all little girls do) "So You Think You Can Dance" on CTV, Kasia has since demonstrated an unsuspected natural talent for jazz and hiphop dancing. Who would have thunk it? But no one offers Jazz dance for four year olds, so she may have to wait a bit.]

Tigana, on the other hand, made excellent progress in both her classes. She was at least as good as any of the other kids her age, and in my admittedly biased view, was better even than many of the older kids in her class. What Tigana lacks in technical skill -- having lacked some of the pre-requisite classes in Lethbridge -- made up for it with more expression and spontaneity in her performance, undoubtedly strengths acquired through her involvement with theater.

So, whatever else happened this summer, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I was with the success of these intensive two week camps.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The root problem

The original plan had been for me to spend ten or twelve days in Edmonton on my own, clearing out Doug's place, etc., but Mary's tooth suddenly went south, and she had to bring the kids up a couple of days early and have me look after them while she went to the dentist. Five times, as it turned out.

After her initial consultation with an emergency dental clinic (something Lethbridge is not large enough to have) in Edmonton, Mary was told she needed a root canal. Although in theory Edmonton's larger population meant a better chance of getting in to see a specialist, in point of fact endontists were all booking months into the future -- which is fairly pointless if you need a root canal, since It's not the sort or level of pain one can easily ignore. Mary held out as long as she could, but ended up in the UofA Hospital's emergency clinic; and then our Lethbridge dentist recommended a colleague in Edmonton who worked Mary in.

We were very impressed by this new dentist immediately, and greatly relieved that he was indeed an endontist when we had all but given up seeing a specialist. He did the root canal, loaded Mary up with heavy-duty drugs to stop the swelling and pain, and we waited for her to get better. Only the dentist phoned back the next day to say that he'd found an extra root on the x-rays, and would have to open her up again. So, it was back to the dentist again. And then, a fifth time, later in the week.

The root problem (sorry about the pun) is that Mary is a mutant: one to two extra roots per tooth. So rather than routine root canals -- no fun at the best of times -- Mary's are always much more complicated and therefore painful affairs. It was only after her third visit to the specialist (and again, I emphasize that he struck us as extremely competent, thorough, and caring) that she finally had any resolution, though the tooth remained tender for days after even then.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Late again

Tigana and I were in Fort MacLeod yesterday for her drama camp, and Mary and Kasia were driving out to join us for supper and Tigana's performance at the Empress Theater that evening. At 5:07 PM Mary phoned that she had been delayed leaving because Kasia was having 'a fashion emergency'. It can be incredibly frustrating having a four year old sometimes, because things that seem of life and death importance to them --like pausing to change into a fairy princess costume --may not seem as crucial to us; and vice versa.

While Tigana and I were hanging around waiting, a storm blew up from nowhere. One second we were standing in the sunshine, the next we were running for shelter as a terrible wind swept in. I thought it was raining for a second because the wind was hurling water from the sprinklers across the park to where we were standing. Once safely inside a store, we watched the clerk frantically trying to close the doors that kept blowing open. As the intensity of the storm increased, I looked out towards the direction Mary was coming from and saw a huge black cloud -- not grey, not rain-cloud dark, but actually black. There was something that struck me as distinctly "wrong" about that cloud. The word "evil" came to mind. It's the sort of black cloud that shows up in bad fantasy novels/movies to herald the coming of the evil witch/warlock. I debated whether to call Mary to warn her off, but she phoned me first. "We're okay. If you've heard about an accident, it wasn't us. But we'll be struck here for awhile. Ten cars or so ahead of me, the wind picked up a trailer and dumped it on top of a car. It looks really bad. The car is squashed flat." After describing how horrific the wind had been, she added, "Good thing Kasia made us five minutes late, or that might have been us in the car next to the trailer."

Today we happened to encounter the ambulance driver who had responded to the accident, who told us that since they had all been wearing seat belts, the car's occupants had all survived with only minor injuries when the tornado picked up the car and trailer and flipped them. Again, we had to think how lucky we were that Kasia delayed Mary just long enough that the tornado passed across the highway a half mile ahead of them, rather that picking our Honda Fit up and tossing it around.

Another, though less scary, example of the same lateness serendipity occurred when we were in Edmonton recently. We were hurrying to go down to the Street Performers Festival, but Kasia managed to repeatedly delay us, to the great annoyance of the adults. Mary was still muttering about kids who wouldn't come when called as we got to the LRT station. As we were fumbling for coins and trying to work the (initially) confusing ticket dispenser, Kasia walks over and hugs the kid standing at the next ticket line. We look up, and damned if the family -- also fumbling for coins and trying to work the ticket dispense -- in the next line aren't Kasia's friends from Lethbridge. I'm not sure what the odds are that both our families would be in Edmonton at the same time, or at the same LRT station, or even in adjacent ticket lines, but I am damn sure that the odds of our being there at the exact moment that Kasia's slow exit from the apartment arranged for us to meet is, well...spooky.

So Kasia and her friend spent the entire day together at the Festival having a great reunion, and extended playdate. But I am damned if I know how Kasia contrived to organize it.

Hawaiian Shirts, wasps, and the wet chair

Our trip to Hawaii being one of the few bright spots in an otherwise downbeat year, I have taken to wearing Hawaiian shirts as my summer default. They're comfortable, longer than most other shirts, and distinctly non-academic.

But yesterday when I went out to supervise the kids in the backyard, I found myself surrounded by wasps the moment I plunked myself down in the patio chair. After several minutes of coping with hysterical kids screaming "wasps! wasps!" I got them to calm down by pointing out that the wasps were not following them, but sticking pretty close to me. "It's your shirt," Tigana suggested. "They think those are real flowers!"

At about the same time I realized the chair I was sitting in had just been through one of the several freakish hail storms that have been plaguing our region, and the seat cushion was soaked through. Dripping from my now soaked pants, I retreated with the kinds back into the house to change clothes, leaving the wasps behind.

The next evening, the kids dragged me outside again, so I waved them off into the yard while I plunked my tired old man self down on the same chair, having briefly checked this time that it was dry.

Again, cloud of wasps. "I really have to change shirts before coming outside," I think to myself. But the wasps are landing on my legs even more than the shirt. And they don't follow me around the yard, just when I am sitting.

In that one chair.

So to make a long story short, it eventually occurs to me to look under the chair where I find this fully developed wasp nest:

Well, duh! Not the best place to sit then....

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Well, I'm getting on this bandwagon fairly late, but if you haven't already come across Hugh Crawford's and Betsy Reid's website with Jamie Livingstone's photo project, it's worth a look. Livingstone took 1 Polaroid everyday from March 1979 to the day he died, Nov 25, 1997. The thumbnail reprinted here is one of the most reviewed photos: it shows his wedding ring with his bride blurred out in the background, two weeks before he died. Rules for the Polaroid a day project were fairly simple: a day Polaroid a day, every day; one only; no retakes. It was basically Livingstone's diary, each image recalling the day or moment for him years later. But as Chris Higgins, the blogger who broke the story on this, points out, even if you do something very simple, if you keep doing it over and over and over for years, it eventually becomes something very different. Fascinating visual record of a man's life and times.

(And on a completely different level, it is interesting to note how Chris Higgins was able to deconstruct the photos to eventually identify Jamie Livingstone -- the site hadn't originally been intended for the public, and had not identified the photographer or those mounting the photos on the web, but Higgins was able to work it out based on looking at the people and places in the photos, and tracking through Google who was uploading material to the site. Which just goes to show that, given sufficient entries, there is no such thing as an anonymous blog.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Fridge

Doug's condo was undergoing renovations for several months before he passed away, which has further complicated cleaning his place up. As the men came to put in the new flooring, they had to move the fridge out of the kitchen, which meant I had to show up and move the stuff out of the freezer compartment for the day. Fortunately, Doug had a second condo, so I simply moved all the meat from his freezer (he had a couple months supply laid in) to the freezer compartment of his other place.

I fully intended to move the meat back at the end of day, but the flooring crew made a terrible job of it -- six inch gash in the middle of the kitchen floor, flooring over shims under the stove, and so on. Apparently their attitude was 'the guy's dead, so who cares?" But of course we care, and who ever ends up buying the place cares, so the contractor overseeing the repairs for the building insisted they do the job over. So besides my having to stick around for a few more days to supervise, I decided to wait the further repairs before restocking the freezer.

I then forgot all about it, and returned home to my family. A week later, I get a phone call on a Friday night that the neighbours are complaining about the smell from my brother's second condo -- the fridge has failed, and the meat has gone bad -- very, very bad.

I guess my first clue should have been that the fridge in the other condo was empty, since nature abhors a vacuum, and Doug was not one to let storage space go unutilized. But having just gotten back to my family in Lethbridge, I was unclear what I could do to fix the problem other than give the caretaker permission to throw everything out. But she was very loath to undertake the task, which she described as a lot worse than finding Doug.

So I phoned Pat, a buddy in Edmonton I hadn't spoken to in months, and asked him to take care of it for me. But when I phoned the caretaker back, she said they couldn't wait until the next day for him to arrive, and that they would deal with it. (But I still owe brownie points to Pat for agreeing to do it, even if in the event he didn't have to.)

When I finally got up again about a week later, they had thrown out all the bad meat, but he place still stunk pretty bad, several cans of air freshener notwithstanding. It was pretty obvious that some of the spoilage had leaked into the fridge itself, so I had no choice but to get the fridge hauled away. Even then, it took about another six hours of cleaning over two days to get the worst of the smell out; I left the place filled with odour eaters, so I'll have to see how effective they are when I next go up. But at least it is now down to a level that it is only unpleasant inside the apartment, and should not impact the neighbours. I tipped the caretaker for her enduring the initial cleanup, though I recognize that no amount of cash can really compensate for gagging one's way through such a job.

Just another distraction in a semester of distractions. I generally spend about 6-8 hours each day I'm in Edmonton sorting through Doug's stuff, trying to get the condos ready for sale, but it is very slow going, and I spend 3-4 hours a day with Mom, so there's not really any way to get more hours in to speed the process. It looks like I will have to move the family to Edmonton for July and/or part of August to make any headway. And of course, looking through his stuff, dealing with all the memories, and figuring out what is worth keeping and what isn't, is all kind of depressing.

On the upside, I do wear my iPod for cleaning/sorting and at 6-8 hours a day have now completely caught up on CBC's Quirks and Quarks, and am making headway on The Current, Dispatches, and a bunch of other stuff I don't normally have a chance to listen to, since control of the car radio seems to reside with Tigana and Kasia. CBC and NPR podcasting (radio on demand) is an incredibly wonderful development in my world.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Last Will and Testament

Working through the probate following Doug's death has been incredibly frustrating, time consuming, and not a little depressing. Mary and I have already devoted hundreds of hours trying to get a handle on Doug's financial affairs, and we're still only scratching the surface. Although I was fortunate enough to find his will within hours of my arrival in Edmonton, and although his will was extremely simple, the rest of the paperwork has been incredibly complicated.

There are two factors here: First, Doug's finances are hopelessly confusing -- he had dozens of accounts with different banks and stock brokers -- I'm not sure we have still found them all. He originally kept fairly good records of what stocks he bought and sold, but that record system seems to have broken down in the late 1990s; now we just have piles of receipts and cancelled checks, all piled in apparently random boxes scattered around the apartment. No doubt there was some system known to Doug, but I haven't been able to deduce it. Our only lead is that, being March, he had started on his income tax, so there was one table piled high with tax return info that gave us a bit of an entree to it all.

The second factor is the catch-22 is that we had to estimate the total value of his estate for probate; but we could not access any of the information necessary to answer that question until after probate. If we went to the bank, the bank said they could not talk to us until I could prove I was the executor; but I don't get to be the executor unless I can say how much is in each of the bank accounts! It's crazy! I couldn't even be positive that there wasn't a more recent will (though his lawyer was certain he hadn't done a newer one) because the banks couldn't even tell me if he had a safety deposit box, let alone let me look to see if there was a will inside.

Similarly, I guess I appreciate that credit card companies can't just allow you to phone up and say so and so has died, cancel their card, because it would be too easy to screw over your neighbour or enemies. But without being able to cancel his cards or access his mail or talk to the banks or stockbrokers, it's awfully difficult to figure out what he owed to whom or what income he had coming in. In the end, we just had to come up with our best estimate, and go from there.

And all of this was further complicated by my brother also being in charge of my mother's financial affairs for the last several years, she being blind, bed ridden, and no longer competent. If access to my brothers info was limited, access to my mother's finances was absolutely out of the question. Only Doug could have access to her accounts, and clearly, I am not he.

Doug's will specified Mom as his executrix, and me as back up; so I not only have to apply to have her certified unfit to serve as executor, but also for guardianship over her, so I could take charge of her affairs -- which now include the not insubstantial estate of my brother. But you guessed it, in order to apply for guardianship, I had to estimate the size of her estate, which is problematic because we can't get access until I'm officially her guardian!

And the process is so slooowww. We can't move on either probate or guardianship without the report from mom's doctor, who has just left for three weeks vacation when I take in the form to be filled out; when the form finally arrives and we take it into the lawyer, he asks a million questions about mom's family -- when did my dad die, where was mom born, what was her mom's maiden name, where was grandmother born, where was grandfather born, etc. etc. Unfortunately, Mom was the one who kept track of family tree, and when she no longer could, Doug took it on. I had no clue; and there is no hope asking mom anything now. So it was a matter of tracking down cousins and asking them what they remembered. But even there, why would they remember the year my dad died when I could even recall for certain (i wasn't close to my dad).

The irony is that, given that we had some glimpse of how complicated all this could be when my father-in-law passed away a few weeks earlier, I had suggested to Doug that, seeing how mom was approaching her 99th birthday, it might not be amiss to get some of the paperwork organized in advance when we were not having to deal with the emotions and funerals and everything else. So Doug had agreed that we should sit down when I was next due in Edmonton, April 9-10, and nail down all the required details -- basic stuff like where Mom's will is, and where her mother had been born and her maiden name and so on. And I had said to Mary, once we finish doing Mom's, I'll push Doug to give me some info on where he kept his will etc. But of course, he died two weeks before the scheduled meeting.

All of which has made Mary and I fairly impossible for people to be around, because we end up lecturing everyone we encounter to (a) do a will, if they haven't got one (we are astounded at the number of parents who have never given thought or pen to paper about what happens to their kids if something happens to both of them!); (b) to tell everyone where the damn thing is; (c) to have a list of bank accounts and brokerages etc etc somewhere with the will, and (d) to have joint accounts wherever possible, since accessing accounts is otherwise very complicated. I'm quite sure our friends, colleagues, neighbours, and grocery clerks are thoroughly sick of hearing us harp on about this, but good grief people, a little planning if you please!

Kasia's Field Trip

Kasia on the far right

Kasia's Montessori preschool/kindergarten made a field trip today to the city's Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens. I tagged along as a parent volunteer. Highlights included ringing the friendship bell -- the guide explained that whatever couple rang the bell stayed friends forever, so the kids lined by two by two to ring the bell with their BFFs. I rang the bell with Kasia, so one of the teachers said, "Now Kasia, you'll be best friends with your dad forever." To which I replied, "Is this guaranteed to get us through her teenage years?"
The other memorable moment (not exactly a highlight) was when kids lined up at the wishing well to make their wishes. Kasia turned to me and quietly said, "I wished that everyone who died would be alive again." (No doubt in reference to Portia, GrandDad and Uncle Doug.) *sigh* It's been a very sad year.

Monday, June 02, 2008

It takes six weeks to get there.

Another brief trip to Edmonton to feed mom. Of interest here was that Douglas has now joined the circle of deceased relatives sitting with her.

We haven't told mom about Doug -- there is no point since she wouldn't be able to remember for more than a few minutes, and we and the majority of the staff at the home felt it would just be cruel. (One staff member and one neighbour thought we ought to tell her, but they seemed to be projecting their own 'need to know' onto Mom.) The first few days Mom asked after Douglas, and I would just reply that he wasn't here today, that I had come instead. After that Douglas became confused in her mind with her long dead brothers, especially Tom, when talking to me; or she would say her "son was coming" to the staff, and they'd simply answer in terms of when I would be there next. But suddenly this week, for the first time, she was including Doug in her conversation with those from beyond the veil. As in: "Evie, why don't you have another cup of tea? Douglas, get Evie some tea, will you?" And clearly not addressing me, but the unseen individuals on the other side (in both senses of the phrase) of her.

Not sure how I should interpret this, but it does make one wonder. If there is something after, and if one retains volition, then Douglas would certainly want to sit with Mom. As before, it's something of a comfort knowing that Doug is there for Mom when I cannot be.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Pooka, and Kasia Sings the Blues #2

We took our dog, Pooka, to the vet on Friday because he hadn't been eating. The vet ran blood work and confirmed that Pooka had an acute infection, for which she gave us antibiotics, but also told us he was experiencing kidney failure and had the first signs of cancer. She told us if he didn't start eating again normally by Tuesday, we should sit down as a family and have 'the talk'. But we are hopeful that with the antibiotics he will have a while longer with us. The vet conceded that he didn't seem to be in any pain as yet, though he was probably feeling nauseous. But even at 18, Pooka is surprisingly spry, and seems to enjoy that part of his day he is awake, and bounds along more like a puppy than an ancient. But the vet made it clear that the best we could hope for is a couple of months.

Tigana was with us when we got the news, and this time Mom made a point of telling Kasia before Tigana could. (Regular readers will recall that Tigana's discussion of what happened to Portia, our other dog, did not go all that well.) Kasia was initially upset, but seemed somewhat reassured when she understood that he wasn't going to die in the next day or two. Then wandered off to do other things.

With Tigana, we always know what she's thinking and feeling because she provides a constant commentary and exaggerated emotional displays -- Miss Drama Queen all the way. With Kasia, we often have no clue what is going on in there.

Lately Kasia has taken up the harmonica. I didn't even remember we owned one until I heard her playing it one day, but not like you'd expect from a four year old -- no random blowing or even random notes. Actual, well, riffs. Darn if it didn't sound half bad. I subsequently recorded her playing for her Mom for Mother's Day.

Then late Friday evening when no one else was around, Kasia picked up her harmonica and started to play:

Harmonica riff,
"Oh, my dog is going to die."
Harmonica riff
"Oh my dog is going to die."
Harmonica riff
"Makes me wanna cry."
Harmonica riff

and so on for about seven minutes until she noticed me, and then stopped went on to something else.

Now I know what Kasia is thinking, but am left with the larger puzzle. Where does this stuff come from? We never listen to the blues in our house, yet, there it is. Harmonica and all.

Can't help wondering who Kasia was in her last life.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mother Part I

With the passing of my brother, Doug, the care and feeding of our mother has fallen to me.

Doug went to the nursing home every day, summer and winter, blizzard or rain, to feed mother supper. He only missed four days in four years, right up until he fell ill himself. Blind and with no memory, she could neither see her supper nor remember it was there without his patiently spooning it out for her. Mother was always a slow eater, and now at 99, it routinely takes three hours to get her supper in. Her meals are all pureed, but she still has to compulsively chew each mouthful to liquid. There are frequent pauses to reheat the current course in the microwave, since the meal obviously gets cold over three hours, and reheating the food significantly increases not only her enjoyment of the meal, but also the chances of her actually eating. It all looks like baby food to me, but it is clear from looking at the trays of the other residents, most of whom do not require pureeing, that the food here is excellent; far superior to hospital food, with much less repetition in the offerings. With only three or four exceptions in four years, she has always raved about the soup; she expresses similar enthusiasm for the entrée about one day in three. Mom also loves the strawberry flavour Ensure, a liquid meal substitute, and I have found that by mixing her "Great Shake Plus" protein drink into her tea, I can usually get that in too.

Mom was extremely dependent on Doug; more so even than I think Douglas realized. Before, when I'd come up to visit, I would often go to the nursing home when Douglas wasn't there, to increase the visitor-to-hours-alone ratio for mom, but I quickly discovered that Mom wasn't the same person when Doug wasn't there. Most of the day she would sleep, or daydream, and neither the staff nor I could sustain much interaction with her. As soon as Doug showed up, however, his voice would trigger an instant rally, and she would sit up and engage with him for the duration of his visit. Of course, by definition, Douglas never saw her when he wasn't there. Douglas would talk about her good days or bad days, but the truth is, it was probably good hours and bad days, because she was never really there outside of the brief window of his suppertime visits.

Some evenings she would be lucid and have lively conversations with Doug; other evenings she would be engaged, but very confused; others she would simply sleep through the entire meal, not eating. Doug and I suspected the sleepy or confused days correlated to when she got her pain medicine renewed, but we could hardly begrudge her pain relief. Initially, Mom had more good days than bad, but increasingly Doug reported she was having more bad days than good (and that was Doug's biased sample of the 'good' part of her day, at that.) As mom declined, I eventually gave up trying to visit her when Douglas wasn't there. As even supper times became increasingly problematic, I came to see my role not so much as visiting Mom, as supporting Doug. I'd regale him with my ongoing monolog as he struggled to feed mom, and we'd get a decent visit out of it, whether or not Mom was able to participate. She was usually able to say hello and goodbye to me, but as Doug needed to sit by her good ear to feed her, she often couldn't hear me, and didn't usually remember that I was there, or who I was, without a good deal of prompting from Doug. But of course, the vast majority of days Doug was there on his own.

It must have been incredibly hard on Doug. I don't know how he managed, especially as the percentage of 'bad' days increased. Staff subsequently told me that it was not unusual for him to take until 10PM to feed her supper (which starts at 5). As mom became increasingly confused, it must have been hard to sustain conversation or find rewarding moments. (The worst was a brief period in February when Mom went completely deaf for a couple of weeks -- blind and deaf must have made trying to feed her supper very difficult and frustrating. Fortunately, her hearing partially returned in March.)

Living in Lethbridge, I can't be there every night, of course, but I have managed to get up to Edmonton for a week to ten days at a time. Whenever I'm away from home for a week, I feel guilty throwing all the parenting responsibilities onto Mary, and I miss my wife and kids horribly; but whenever I'm at home in Lethbridge, I feel guilty about abandoning my mom. There really is no way to balance that out, so we just do the best we can. (Mary is content -- and farsighted enough -- to have me role model for our kids that it is sometimes important to put others' needs first; at some point, we will want our daughters to occasionally abandon their husbands and children to come feed us supper...)

I have a great deal of confidence in the nursing home staff, who provide excellent care for my Mom. I think Doug's having been there every evening went a long way towards forging a connection with the staff, and by going up every few weeks, I've managed to maintain that positive relationship. But staff are not family, and my being there seems very important to mom. Not only don't I want her to feel abandoned, but I can provide the three hour meal service and the little touches (like extra cups of tea) that the staff's heavy workloads preclude. I cannot always get her to eat, but my batting average is better than the staff's (just because I have a longer timeframe in which to succeed).