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.