Friday, 29 February 2008

Some Leap Year Meanderings of the Mind

I think our puppies, if we give them enough love and care in that first couple of years as they mature, become the dogs we will love forever; the dogs who will be our best friends till they die.

I suspect, that if we nurture the human loves in our lives during those formative years, they too will become true partners; other halves of ourselves.

They do say that we begin to look like our dogs and spouses after we have lived together for a long time.

Of course they also say we daughters become our mothers. Not having had one of those, I can't really know, but maybe it is also because mothers and daughters spend so much time together during those formative years. My own daughters seem to be winging off in three different directions. I see some resemblances to each other and to me, but they are certainly not replicas.

Kenya on the other hand is becoming more like me every day, and where we are different from one another we tend to complement each other.

We understand each other better now. I have learned to accept her slow response to the "Come" command. She seems to have to consider things. That may be annoying when you are holding open a door in sub zero temperatures, but it is a real boon when you are out in the woods and all the other dogs attack the porcupine and she thinks before she leaps.

She has stopped being a dog who needs much control, especially on our rambles. She helps me up steep hills, doesn't knock me over, and slows down for me to take photos or navigate steep descents. She would have made a very good service dog, I think. Kenya is the right dog for an aging hermit.

Actually, I think I may be becoming my father. The last twenty-five years of his life he lived alone in his hills painting and thinking. He enjoyed living within his means. He appreciated his neighbours and had a real sense of place. He had his mountains on three sides; I have the woods and the lake. I often catch myself doing something like making my own bread or finding a way to do something without having to spend money and I think about my father.

When Dad died he left a letter in the typewriter, notes to himself under his copy of Rodin's "The Thinker", a turnip on the counter, a couch filled with teddy bears, and tiny little doodles of art he thought he might start. Not such a bad way to die ... in the middle of a life.

I also think I may have inherited his gall bladder. Mine is showing me how little it likes anything greasy these days. I will not make the mistake he made and neglect it.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

A Walk in the Frozen Bog

Etchings in the Snow

Snow and Shadows

Blue Mood

This is where Kenya, Remi and I walked today. Isn't it absolutely the most peaceful place imaginable? Kenya's noisy insistence that ALL sticks were hers was the only thing that broke the mood of serenity. Remi just shrugged and found yet another stick for her to steal from him. He is a very nice boy.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008


Munich is another good tough movie. Steven Spielberg directs it with even handed intelligence and compassion. The message: revenge begets revenge which in turn begets revenge which begets more revenge ad infinitum. I wonder what might have happened, how history might have been changed, if Golda Meier has talked to the terrorists who killed the Israeli athletes instead of ordering them killed by a team of Israeli terrorists.

There are some people who say you never give in to ultimatums because you set a precedent and it never stops.

This movie shows that responding in kind sets up a never ending blood feud.

The Mixed-up ABC's of Life

B is for BRRR!

I woke up this morning with icy feet. No Havoc to act as bed warmer, I guess, but the temperature had also plummeted during the night.

At 4 a.m., when I woke up shivering, I realized I had opened the window earlier in the evening and had forgotten to close it, I got the hair dryer and melted the ice that had formed in the groove and did not return to bed. Fully awake, I answered some emails first.


It was not the best of nights in my bedroom.



When we first went to bed I discovered that the second dog pillow, the one under the wooden beam, was soaking wet. What??? Surely neither Havoc nor Kenya would have done THAT.

Then I felt the water dripping down on my face. Quite a lot of water. It was coming out of the wood-encased beam ... in many places. Another leak in the steel roof. If I could get hold of the original builder, the one who went nuts and quit, I would do something unmentionable to him. This is the third place that leaks have turned up when we have had a thaw. So far just in the two bedroom closet areas. It is hard to catch drips that come down out of something that long and wide. I ended up with a bucket, a large steel mixing bowl, two bathroom waste baskets and several towels. I tried to stop the pinging noise with a facecloth in the bottom of the bowl, but the water kept hitting the side of the bowl. I adjusted the arrangement a couple of times, but finally just gave up and tossed and worried until exhaustion took over.


B and C

At any rate when I got up at 4 to close the window, the dripping had stopped. Unlike the rest of Ontarians and Quebecers, I am dreading spring. As long as everything remains frozen no more water damage will occur. To say nothing of the mud that will be uncovered once the snow melts ... mud that will be carried in on large paws ... but that is something else.



Today, Rob Brezny came through with his usual wisdom. In other words, I liked reading my horoscope, but I also enjoyed the readings for the other signs too. Just a taste:


Whether or not you consider yourself a storyteller, it's time to do the best you can at practicing that art. I say this for two reasons. First, the people you encounter will have a special need to hear about your adventures in redemption, the riddles that have fueled your quest, and the mysteries that have pushed you to the edge of your understanding. Second, as you talk about those adventures, riddles, and mysteries, you will give yourself the exact boost you need to open fully to the next great story of your life.

I became fixated on "the next great story". My great stories so far have included things like giving birth, traveling in the developing world, and, most recently, building this leaky house and becoming a dog woman.

What, besides death, could he mean?

Pisceans were advised to: visualize scenes like the following: an apple pierced by an arrow that's lying on a bridge near a half-crumpled Valentine card; wind rattling through an old tree in such a way that you hallucinate there being an angel perched in its branches; an accordion floating down a stream trailed by two quacking ducks; a stranger who's simultaneously crying and laughing in a cafe while writing frenetically on white paper napkins. And why is it important to commune with scenes like these? Because they will energize your soul in ways you can't rationally understand. They will remind you that deeply meaningful events can be utterly mysterious.

And Taureans were told that people close to them have been transforming and they should be alert for the possibility that they are not who they used to be.

He quotes from T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party":

"We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger."

Scorpions are advised to make love at every opportunity and if they don't have a lover to help them out, then they should boink the wind, screw the sky, hump their dreams, and make love to the universe.

Now that sounds like a lot of fun! I may try that. It certainly beats mine: preparing for death!

Do you suppose he meant death or something else? I am not sure I have the energy for anything more rambunctious than the puppies.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Can You Believe?

These little boys? I want to eat them up, smiles and all!

Havoc has gone home with his mom?

Kenya was a bad girl this afternoon (for about half an hour)?

I am watching Munich, drinking red wine and eating snacks at 3 p.m.?

Will My Life Ever Be Free of Havoc?

As you know if you read my post around Valentine's Day, Havoc's arrival stretched out from February 13 to late afternoon February 15, during which time I made countless calls to the woman looking after him and NOT delivering him, and almost as many to Leonard who plows my road so that she could.

His owner was supposed to pick him up yesterday morning so as soon as I got up, I opened the windows to air out the bedroom which becomes really fuggy in winter when more than one dog sleeps there, and stripped the bed so that I could wash my duvet cover. (Havoc drools in his sleep.) I would wait till he was actually out the door before vaccuuming throughout and washing floors.

Well by eleven I was making phone calls again ... to the owner's defunct cell phone ... and to her friend's home phone.

I snuck out at noon to pick up groceries in Wakefield and collected Remi on the way home so that I wouldn't miss her. I couldn't take Kenya with me because Havoc would wreak havoc on the house without her to keep him under control.

The three dogs played for an hour and then we walked Remi back across the ice. On three occasions Havoc managed to hurl his 70 pound body at me with the speed of a racing car. Once I was able to move sideways; twice I was knocked flying. Kenya sometimes carries a sharp many branched stick and wards him off with it. I was wishing I had a similar shield. Instead I used my outstretched arms and fiercest voice and roared "STAY DOWN!" whenever he approached.

I also fell off the narrow bridge leading to Remi's a couple of times when he insisted on sharing the 12-18 inches with me. Fortunately the water was almost completely frozen and the day was mild.

Oh well, I thought philosophically, he will soon be on his way home.

At four the friend finally returned my calls. The owner was delayed. The friend had heard yesterday but forgot to let me know. Havoc's owner would be back late on Tuesday.

I rather doubt whether I will see this woman tonight, and we are getting more snow, so heaven alone knows how much longer I will be living with Havoc. I do hope he has gone well before we meet Lulu, the cockadoodle, on Saturday.

My life may be overly full of Havoc just now, but he's a dog. The havoc caused by human communication failures and lack of consideration is far more annoying than he is.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Cheeky Guys

The more time I spend with dogs, especially the youngest ones, the more I see their resemblance to children.

The puppies are cheeky guys who pretend to nip my bum and steal my mitts.

When they play together they are like pre-adolescent boys, always having to prove themselves. Everything is a contest of strength or will. Havoc gets carried away far too often, like the tough kid on the block, the one who can so easily turn into a bully. He doesn't recognize that an opponent who prostrates himself and squeals has admitted defeat, and that the victor should be magnanimous. I have had to pull Havoc off Remi far too often, and send him off on a time-out to calm down. But Remi is also a little boy who doesn't give up easily. He keeps coming back for more even when he has been soundly trounced.

I am reminded of my eight year old tomboy self. I was always ready for a fight, and I didn't often win. The loss I remember best happened when a neighbourhood kid much older than me was bragging about his father having invented the laundry detergent Duz. The slogan was "Duz that does everything right", and I sneered, "Yah, Yah, Duz that does everything wrong." He slugged me and I landed on my back.

The difference between me and Remi is that I didn't keep on taunting him.

The difference between the older boy and Havoc is that he didn't kick me when I was down.

I suspect that if I left them alone to slug it out to the end they would, once and for all, establish the pack order, but I can't do that with someone else's dog when the stronger dog is a Doberman. I have left Kenya with Havoc to sort it out and she has established herself as the boss.

Havoc doesn't stop challenging the top dog, mind you. With Shea he would smack him on the head until Shea growled, then snarled, then snapped. My home turned into a battleground ... or school playground . It was exhausting.

Female dogs are not pretty adolescents either. They are like fifteen year old girls can be ... bitchy ... snarky ... always giving lip ... but Kenya didn't treat other dogs that way. It was me who was on the receiving end of her nasty tongue ... just like an adolescent girl giving her mother a hard time and being sweet as pie to her peers.

Those boys will grow up. Kenya has. Then who will pretend to nip my bum?

A Small Rant

"I think romance is the porthole to the soul," wrote the man in the personals ad. And I, unromantic soul that I am, laughed aloud.

It was the same kind of mistake I had seen in Cumberland on one of those signs where you place letters to create the message. The message read:


Most people don't much care when they see these travesties, and they certainly don't bring it to anyone's attention. I stopped at the clinic and suggested they change the spacing. They looked at me as if I were crazy, and it was weeks before the sign was changed.

I used to think that the work that would occupy me in my retirement would be policing the language. I would tidy up offending menus, billboards and other public notices. I practised occasionally on hastily written notices taped to door windows by taking my red pencil and inserting a discreetly small ‘sp' beside misspellings. The closer I got to retirement, however, the more I understood that the task was far too big for one woman, and I also realized that my help would not always be welcome.

I went into a store selling mattresses. On every bed was placed a beautifully scripted sign reading, "Please don't lay on the mattresses with your shoes on." There were twenty-eight hand lettered signs. How could I possibly tell them?

And, you know, half the people reading this post probably can't even see the error, because the language has been changed by misuse of the verb "to lie". Almost everyone substitutes lay for lie. Even teachers and radio announcers, once the guardians of the language, make the error now.

Confusion between lay and lie and even misuse of the apostrophe are errors I can live with, but I really do think those who use language to advertise themselves or their services should be careful what they write.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

A Dog's Breakfast

I was rudely awakened at 3 a.m. by Havoc.

Now Havoc is often rude. He gulps and slobbers. I usually feel as if I am feeding a machine gun not a dog. The food sprays rat-a-tat-tat a distance of three feet as he eats. He slurps as he performs his personal toilet or grooms Kenya. He drools and leaves gobs of thick snot-like mucous on Kenya's coat when they play. He is a beautiful dog, but he has one of those unfortunate loose-jowled mouths that drool incessantly.

But this rude noise was different.

The second he leapt off the bed and began to retch loudly, I was fully awake. "Not on the carpet." He went into the hall and sought the wood floor. Then he moved to the den and found the only surface in the house that is really easy to clean: the hard plastic pad on which my desk and chair rest.

The retching continued spasmodically until he deposited on the plastic, a lump as large as two of my fists. It was impressive. It was the tuggy toy he'd been playing with yesterday. It was Tom Strike's construction glove.

Kenya went downstairs during this drama and slept in her crate.

I stroked Havoc's back as I would have a vomiting child's, cleaned up the mess, washed my hands, and we went back to bed.


And then I fell into one of those wonderful deep sleeps for four hours. I even dreamed ... and remembered it.

The dream was about my ex husband who has been dead for several years now. It took place in the present but he was still the man in the past. He wanted to manipulate our son (now in his late thirties) into heterosexuality by renting a motel room for the summer on a dirt road, and hiring a fourteen year old girl to keep house for him. Our son's partner was not invited to be part of this bucolic idyll.

At their request, I went out to see the set-up. In the course of the visit, my ex pretended to search me for weapons (yes I know it doesn't make sense ... dreams don't) and he clawed me through my jeans from crotch to ankles. It was meant to hurt, and I was bruised, the way I am when Havoc uses his claws to make a point.

I remembered fear but no longer feared him.

When I woke up this morning I thought of the piece my friend, Linda, an artist, gave me a few years ago. It is a woman with her mouth opened wide roaring into the face of the bear that had terrorized her in recurring nightmares. She had finally become the stronger of the two.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Red Tooth in Claw

Yesterday was not my favourite dog day.

I walked Havoc and Kenya over to Remi's, and they pulled in two directions about 40% of the time. Kenya hardly ever pulls any more but she had caught the scent of the coyote and wanted to follow it through people's yards and onto the lake. Havoc meanwhile just wanted to forge ahead. Between the two of them I am dealing with slightly more than my own weight when I walk them, and when we are all going in the same direction it can be wearing because Havoc pulls. On snow-dusted ice surfaces when they don't want to go where I am going, at the pace I am setting, it can be hazardous.

At Remi's I undressed Havoc and Kenya and the three of us went up into the woods. Havoc and Remi spent their entire time wrestling with open mouths. The path is very narrow in places with trees on one side and the stream straight down on the other. In one of these places where there was no escape route they decided to leap straight up in the air beside me and in the process one of Remi's canines pierced me under my left thumb nail. Blood spurted out. It was painful enough for me to cry out, and I felt weak as I herded them all back to Remi's.

I washed the hand and applied a band aid and then gave the dogs their cookies, dressed Kenya and Remi in their collars and put them in the front stairwell while I fed Remi.

The trip back was about as enjoyable as the walk there had been, but this time Kenya realized that I would not put up with her coyote tracking. However; Havoc managed to pull me off my feet once and I landed on my knees on the icy road. By the time I got home the blood had drained out of my face and was throbbing in my thumb tip.

I took Ibuprofen and we all went to bed for an hour.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful . The dogs played on the lake and I tried to capture with the camera the beauty of black silhouettes on white snow covered ice. (Too far away and my camera and I are not proficient at creating crisp dusk shots)

Just as I finished my supper I got a call from Sarah telling me that Remi had gone across the lake and was knocking on my door.

Sure enough!

He came in and the two puppies played until once again it went a little too far. I am getting better at judging before they cross the line now and pulled Havoc off and settled him in the utility room for a few minutes to cool off. Timeouts work as well for dogs as they do for kids, I have discovered.

Then Dan and Sarah arrived to pick up Remi. They left and we all settled down again.

Ten minutes later Remi and Sarah were back. Dan was stuck. Did I have a shovel and sand or gravel?

About an hour later I took Havoc and Kenya for a walk down to the mailboxes. Dan's car was still there. Turns out they had to call CAA because my shovel won't work on ice.

When Kenya, Havoc and I went to bed for the night at 9, my thumb was still throbbing.

I have trouble dealing with the whole concept of red in tooth and claw which seems to be the governing force in the lives of young male dogs.

But I have even more trouble with the reality of having a tooth jammed under my own bloody claw.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Dogville, Wild Dogs, and Love

Both the 3 hour film, Dogville, set on a minimal theatre stage, and the novel, Wild Dogs, by Helen Humphries, deal with parallels between people and dogs, and in both, the connections between dogs and wolves.

Dogville was a hard movie to watch. The setting emphasized the cardboard nature of the characters. You were never allowed to forget that this was a fable, an allegory.

Human nature is shown as basically cruel ... dog eat dog ... survival of the fittest ... and the weak are attacked as lowest in the pecking (or biting) order rather than protected. The weaker the main character, Grace, becomes, the more brutal and constant the attacks. Even the one character who says he wants to raise the level of humanity in the town is shown ultimately to be as bad as the others, perhaps worse, since he puts up a civilized front of words that disguise his true nature.

If you watch it, stick around for the credits. The old photographs depicting humans in a constant struggle for survival underline the theme.

Wild Dogs makes the case that dogs will choose a life of freedom with the pack over the love of human companions if they are given the choice, and that human beings might choose freedom over belonging too. She suggests that fidelity and love are not natural for us either; that the line between love and belonging is blurred.

She shows this in all kinds of love: between dogs and their owners, between parents and children, between men and women, between friends, and most clearly between two women lovers.

The novel ends with the words:

The heart is a wild and fugitive creature.

The heart is a dog who comes home.

And the tension between those two, between loving freely and wildly and being subsumed by love, is central to the story.

One of the characters, Rachel, says, "A lone wolf is not especially glad to be alone, but there is a serenity to its solitude that I have noticed and admired. It doesn't seem nearly as anxious or restless as the wolves that remain part of the pack."

A fine novel: it helped me understand why I am torn between my life as a hermit and the life in which there was the love of a man.

I may have found the best answer: living with a dog I love.

A Bit of a Stew (Coyote Sightings and Poaching)

Yesterday morning it was a pine grosbeak run on the sunflower seed. Yesterday evening it was a call from a worried neighbour telling me to keep the dogs in; that a coyote was heading in my direction.

I looked up coyotes and wasn't really concerned, but did bring Havoc and Kenya in and took them out before bed with Kenya on lead and Havoc close by. Coyotes and dogs just belong to the same species; they don't appear to be a threat to one another. I certainly wasn't as worried about a lone coyote as I was about that lone cougar.

This morning the news headline that caught my attention was about the poaching of health workers from Sub Saharan Africa.

I have strong feelings about this for a couple of reasons, but first some of the statistics noted:

There are now more Malawian doctors practising medicine in Manchester than in Malawi.

The ratio of patients to doctors in Malawi is 1:50,000; in Canada it is 1:500

The first few comments on the story came from sex trade workers advertising for customers and two bigots. Jokester is the one I told you about before. He said:

The only reason anyone who can get out might stay would be for malaria, aids, to get hacked to bits with a machete and/or "necklaced". Doctors and other educated people are targets in the violence that has been going on forever. Most only have one life to live and would prefer to spend it trying to help people that can be helped rather than waste it where there is no hope whatsoever. Only a fool would miss the opportunity to take his family and get out while he can. Why condemn yourself to this?

The other one: ASBOBCT, added this:

Who cares? These people have just as much of a right to move to better their existence as the jigs suffering from AIDS and poverty. Let em do as they please.

I guess what they don't realize is that countries like Malawi end up with a net loss when their Malawian trained doctors leave the country to practise elsewhere. Not only are they left with a terrible shortage of doctors for a population that is faced with terrible health care problems, but there is a big financial loss as well.

Almost all of the African countries heavily subsidize the post secondary education of their best and brightest. In Kenya a year of university costs $400 (less than a year of high school) if the student is "called" to the university. The top 5% get called, and the very top students among those are the medical students. The balance of the cost of educating them is paid by the government (likely foreign aid dollars).

Our Canadian situation can be compared to that in the developing world. We train doctors and nurses at considerable cost to the Canadian tax payer. Then the USA lures our medical practitioners away with salaries they could never earn in Canada. Canada then poaches from the developing world.

The Hull Hospital doctor who made a mess of my right hand was a Haitian.

The doctor at the Gatineau Hospital who saved Sam's life by performing an emergency high forceps delivery on Kerry was from one of the Caribbean islands.

Two examples of poaching in our family alone.

Back in Haiti there is one fewer careless orthopaedic surgeon.

Back on that Caribbean island there is one fewer excellent obstetrician.

We are denuding countries that need their doctors, and we are losing our own to a richer country.

Money talks ...

We can also use the language of money. We should be expecting our Canadian trained doctors to stay in Canada to practise until their debt is paid ... or they should have to come up with the money before they leave the country.

And that should also apply on a provincial level.

Quebec provides the cheapest post secondary education in Canada and cannot afford to pay its doctors as much as richer provinces like Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

What we see happening internationally is also happening within the political borders of Canada.

If this seems unfair or an infringement on human rights, I will point out that I received a loan/bursary from my Quebec School Board to attend Queen's University back in 1965. I signed a contract agreeing to pay back the money with 5 years service, or be held responsible for the balance. That seemed very fair to me.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Pack: Half the Testosterone; Double the Fun

Orley emailed me a note about dangerous dogs this morning. If I can figure out how to include it in this post I will.

Okay, here goes ...

Not for the squeamish!
Subject: Dogs Attack Florida Alligator

Dog Pack Attacks Gator in Florida

At times nature can be cruel, but there is also a raw beauty, and even a certain justice manifested within that cruelty.

The alligator, one of the oldest and ultimate predators, normally considered the "apex predator", can still fall victim to implemented ' team work ' strategy, made possible due to the tight knit social structure and "survival of the pack mentality" bred into the canines.

See the remarkable photograph below courtesy of Nature Magazine. Note that the Alpha dog has a muzzle hold on the gator preventing it from breathing, while another dog has a hold on the tail to keep it from thrashing. The third dog attacks the soft underbelly of the gator.

Not for the squeamish! But I figured you could handle it.


Last night Kenya and I were both exhausted. We curled up on the couch at 6 and watched The Company. (If you like dance, you will love this movie.) Then we escaped to the bathroom and I sank into a tub full of hot water with goat's milk goodies in it, turned on the jets and forgot about male dogs for a while. Kenya drowsed nearby. Then all five of us went to bed. Kenya was beside my bed. Shea was on the blue dog pillow. Teddy was on Kenya's fleecy bed. Havoc was on top of my duvet. We slept till Carlos set off the alarm of four barking dogs at 9:30.

I made a pot of green tea flavoured with jasmine and we chatted while we drank it. Then Carlos left with his pack and I went back to bed with my diminished pack and slept till almost 6 a.m.

I won't take on three male dogs at a time again ... just too much testosterone. If I am dog sitting a female, Shea and Teddy are welcome ... and they are always welcome when I just have Kenya. Kenya is part of their pack and has been since puppyhood, but since I have been dog sitting, Kenya has been forming other alliances and the puppies we sit are her pack members. Because she is the dominant dog, she seems able to handle problems between the puppies as a mother would, but even with them, she is sometimes at a loss, and turns to me for guidance when they ignore her maternal admonitions.

Her behaviour yesterday ... remaining outside and entertaining one male dog at a time ... had something to do with her mixed loyalties, I think. She seems genuinely confused and helpless when two of the dogs she likes get into it. She growls and wants it to end, but cannot take sides, because in her original pack, Shea is dominant. It is easier to stay out in the cold away from the turmoil, and when she is indoors, to retreat into her crate or to become my shadow. More and more, she lets me take care of disputes.

I am not always sure with Shea that I can handle things. I am not sure he wouldn't bite a hand that got in between him and another dog. I don't think it would be intentional but I wouldn't like to try to separate two large snarling male dogs bare handed.

When Havoc, Kenya, or Remi go too far and I have to intervene, I grab a collar. I can't do that with Shea. He doesn't wear a collar indoors and he is too strong for me to pull him away from something he wants. And it won't be long before Havoc is too much male dog to handle when he is angry.

Today will be a recuperative day. My biggest responsibility will be to keep the bird feeders full. Ten pine grosbeaks came to the feeder this morning. Ten!


I drove over to get Remi at noon and brought him back here to play with Havoc and Kenya on the ice. After half an hour even the well- furred dogs were ready to come in, eat a cookie, and play in front of the wood stove. I will return Remi when it is time to collect today's mail. This photo is of Remi and Havoc being boys beside my desk.

It has been a truly decadent day. I finished watching We Don't Live Here Anymore this morning and may watch Dogville this afternoon and evening. It is a three hour movie. I wonder if it is about dogs. The dogs love it when they see and hear dogs in movies. They perk right up!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Three Dog Night; Five Dog Day

Either way it means it's bloody cold and unpleasant.

Given a choice I "woulda-stood-in-bed" ... but I seem to be very good at denying myself the easiest choices.

First of all I agreed to take Teddy and Shea even though I had Havoc who is a handful and unpredictable under stress, and even though Shea and Teddy are males, and three males all asserting testosterone are too many at once. So ... on the dog front: I had Teddy and Shea as well as Kenya and Havoc, and also had to walk Remi at noon.

Secondly I agreed to be a guinea pig for a travel site in the making and the appointment was at 10 a.m. which meant that I had to leave the four dogs in the house and that meant closing all doors and barricading off the main livingroom because Havoc and Shea cannot be trusted when I am away. I figured the $50 they were paying would make the trip worthwhile.

I decided to stop on the way home at Leonard's to drop off a container of meat sauce because this has been a hell of a winter for snow plowers, and he has been doing his damnedest to make sure I can get out.

Then I stopped at Remi's and walked him for twenty minutes. We were both frozen and disinterested in walking by then.

When I got home all the dogs except Kenya acted as if they thought I were never going to return, and Shea leapt up at the window, knocked the bells flying and broke the little red bird. Kenya looked at all of them as if they had gone mad. I just leapt out of the way so that they could tumble out the door without killing me, and swept up the glass fragments.

Then I phoned Magma because my internet connection was not working. The nice calm techie fixed things quickly.

Then my computer froze and told me I needed a password to thaw it out. I phoned Rob in a panic and then found the password in my file cabinet.

One of the pieces of mail was a job advertisement for English language teachers at River Echo, so I wrote a letter and posted my CV.

Although it would be nice to have another way of making money, every time I find a way to make some money I close off one more of my freedom routes. I think the secret is to have choices about how you make money. And also it is nice not to lock yourself into things. Dog sitting and ESL teaching are both drop-in/drop-out kinds of activities.

I am getting more than a little fed up with male hormones erupting.

Yesterday Havoc went after meek little Remi and looked as if he were moving in for the kill when I leapt on top of Havoc and pulled him off. Havoc doesn't have that sane civilized instinct that tells him to stop when his opponent says "Uncle" or squeaks. Of course Remi started everything by trying to assert his dominance by humping Havoc. I was really pissed off with the two of them, but especially with Havoc, when the two decided they were best friends and I was the authority figure to be avoided. Remi led Havoc on a walkabout down the road to the lake and I had to clamber through drifts and over snowbanks with cookies to retrieve them. Then I was pissed off with both of them. I have decided to keep the two male puppies separated simply because I don't entirely trust Havoc's better judgment.

Today Shea and Teddy have been miserable to Havoc all day, and Havoc went after Kenya once.

Right now Kenya is outside by herself, Havoc is in the den with me, and Shea and Teddy are downstairs. I feel as if I am running a penal institution for male dogs.

Anyway ... that has been my frigid day ... that and letting dogs in and out. Kenya would stay out all day but all the others like warmth better than playing outside in the cold, so she comes to the window and begs one of them to join her for the next half hour. They all think they're the tough guys, but in reality she is the strongest of the lot.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Wild Dogs by Helen Humphries

Can a writer's prose be TOO good?

Helen Humphries writes absolutely beautifully. Wild Dogs reminds me in many ways of Karen Connelly's memoir, Touch the Dragon. The imagery has unusual clarity. Both writers use metaphor and other devices with a sure hand. Both writers are poets.

Good poetry makes you want to savour the words. A poet can say in very few well chosen words what could not possibly be expressed better. All the flux has been burned off. You want to commit the words to memory, save them in your journal like precious jewels. You want to be able to come back to them and taste them over and over again. Most poems are small enough to allow us to hold those perfect phrases in our memories, or at least to be able to find them again easily.

However; when a poet writes a novel or memoir, it is hard to move ahead. I want to bathe in such prose, not swim through it. I don't want to move away to find out what happens next.

Is it possible to write too well, I wonder? When the reader focuses on the writing instead of the story, is that a problem?

Monday, 18 February 2008

Second Thoughts on Pretty Woman

Both Kerry (see comment) and my friend, Pat, who is a psychotherapist, weighed in on this one.

Pat said: I've never seen Pretty Woman, because---having worked as a hospital social worker with quite a lot of prostitutes, I couldn't bear the idea of making a romantic comedy out of such suffering. Mandy is right. The dreams will not come true. Most of the girls--and boys too---had come from backgrounds of cruelty and abuse, often sexual in nature, and were enacting their self hate and despair in the ways they got treated. They all hoped for loving rescue, and sought it with men who would ruthlessly exploit and re-abuse them.

My response to both Kerry and Pat is:

Of course, both you and Kerry are absolutely right. The premise is false and does not show the reality of the lives of most prostitutes, but there are women (and likely men too) who choose that life because they are not educated or intelligent or motivated enough to manage an everyday life with lower pay. Vivian in the film was uneducated but intelligent, and she didn't like earning a pittance. She was not one of the abused ones.

But ... you know ... I still think it is important to write about the romantic dreams of women in that situation. The idea of a happy ending in a white wedding dress was obviously romantic and silly ... but isn't that what Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all those other fairy tales are too? Except of course those rescued princesses were virginal.

I have a feeling that the writer wanted to write something that showed the falseness of the premise and the reality of the longing.

The comedic ending was the real mistake. Perhaps the greatest failure of the film was that, although not very subtle an ending, it was one that might lead very naiive girls to think it really could happen. (There were other failures too: the bad boy millionaire who turns into a good kind softie, for one.) It was not a realistic movie. It was a fairy tale.

The Passion of Christ

This is probably the most violent movie I have ever seen. The torture scenes are horrific. Only someone who has lost all fellow feeling could possibly become a torturer. These torturers take delight in what they do. I doubt if I could watch it a second time.

I watched it this time hoping to catch glimpses of the Via Dolorosa where I stayed in a convent when I was in Jerusalem, but the focus stayed on the cruelty and I didn't see anything I recognized.

That convent was an oasis of peace and sanity in a violent city when I was there.

I understood the violence better after seeing this movie.

Western Quebec's Medical Services

This morning CBC announced the results of a poll of Western Quebecers asked to evaluate their medical system. A very high percentage said they did not feel safe; that they distrusted the ability of the Hull and Gatineau Hospitals to deal with emergencies.

I agree completely with this assessment ... and my distrust is based on personal experience.

A little over a year ago, Thanksgiving Sunday, 2006 to be exact, I was walking dogs up on hydro land at noon. I had the greyhound leashed. The other three were free. One of the dogs spooked the greyhound who bolted. There was an audible crack. I stood on the leash and looked at the damage. The baby finger on my right hand was twisted grotesquely.

I reached into my pocket for some baler twine to tie it to the hand, completed the walk and took the dogs home to feed them. Shock is a wonderful thing for numbing pain and allowing one to think.

I drove to the nearest emergency service at the Wakefield Hospital. When I got there I realized that Kenya had vomited all over the back seat (maybe she was reacting on my behalf). I went in and asked how long the waiting time would be, was told two hours and decided to take Kenya back to the cottage and then to return to the hospital.

When I got back, the waiting time had been revised to six hours.

In fact I was seen at 11 p.m. Many of the people waiting had come from the Hull and Gatineau Hospitals because the waits there were even longer.

The doctor looked at the x-ray and said she could not set it; that it was broken and dislocated; that I would have to go to the orthopaedic clinic at the Hull Hospital in the morning ... early ... to just walk in with my x-rays.

At the Hull Hospital I was seen after a couple of hours. The orthopaedic surgeon who examined me said it was a simple break, and the nurse splinted the baby finger to the adjacent finger in a half cast and told me to come back in a month.

A month later the finger was absolutely stiff, turned out from the hand and sideways at a very odd angle. It was another accident waiting to happen.

I said, "It's not straight."

The surgeon said the only way to make it straight was to operate the next morning. Make up your mind now.

After the operation in which the finger was re-broken and fastened with two screws, the finger was again splinted as before.

A week later some of the stitches were removed and the hand re-splinted. The surgeon said, "Well, it's straight. That's what you wanted."

A month later when I returned I was told that I would have to wait another month because the surgeon wasn't available and wouldn't be available till January.

I said that was impossible, that I had been in a cast since Thanksgiving and I would not leave my hand unattended for another month. I was told that it was impossible; that no other doctor would look at it. I became louder and the waiting room became silent as people waited for the drama to unfold. Another doctor agreed to see me and said I would need a great deal of physiotherapy to regain any use of that finger ... and of my right hand.

I went into Ottawa at that point, with all the x-rays and the second doctor's prescription for physiotherapy, and wept as I showed my hand to the physiotherapist. She told me that they would do their best, but I should not expect to have full use of the hand again; that it would never be perfect.

After a few weeks, and a lot of money, the physiotherapy intern working there suggested the Riverside Hand Clinic. It took some doing to get into their programme because my family doctor had to refer me to a doctor connected with the Ottawa Hospital.

In March, I was admitted into the programme by the plastic surgeon in charge, and told that physio alone would never have rectified the stiffness; that I needed to have the scar tissue removed; that all that time with it immobilized had created a huge mass of dense scar tissue similar to hardened crazy glue; that it was impossible for the tendons to move through it. He froze the hand and broke the scar tissue in a couple of places, and said he would operate when the hand was ready. Before he would perform the surgery I would have to go in three times a week for physio and go through a series of splintings to get the finger to passively move far enough to make the surgery worth doing. After that I would be able to work with the physiotherapist to regain the muscles' ability to bend the finger actively.

The only costs incurred at the Hand Clinic are for parking (exorbitant: $3.50-$13 each time depending on the length of the visit ... multiply that by 3 and again by the number of weeks of therapy) and for materials used in their therapeutic splints. But I felt as if I were getting excellent care.

In June I had the operation and the following day was back in physio working the finger so that it would not stiffen again. They knew that some scar tissue would re-form but I had to work the tendon through the scar tissue or I would be back to square one again.

That began more months of physio.

I have one more appointment with the plastic surgeon at the end of March. I have been told that the only way to make the finger align properly with the rest of the fingers would be to have a third surgery and go through another year of physio and recovery. I can't face that so I have decided to live with the mess made by the incompetence of the Hull Hospital's orthopaedic surgeon.

I am resigned, but I am angry still. It has cost me a great deal of money, time and pain, and it need not have happened if it had been treated properly at first.

Why didn't I take legal action? I was told by an Ontario lawyer specializing in such cases that she knew of no one who could take on a case in the Outaouais; that I would have find a lawyer in Montreal. I had enough to deal with without that. I was homeless, I was in pain, and I was investing hours daily in regaining any use of that hand.

The photos were taken 16 months after the accident; after 12 months of physio and 2 operations. My hand looks odd ... but I am not concerned about that. What does concern me is the fact that my right hand does not perform properly. The baby finger acts like a gate when you make a basket. Mine allows things to escape. There are other things but generally they surprise me when they happen, reminding me that I am no longer completely whole or competent.

Like most people in Western Quebec I would not go to a hospital in the Outaouais if I had a choice.

Pretty Woman

Last night I curled up on the couch with Kenya and watched Pretty Woman. I wonder if we ever outgrow our need for fairy tales.

At one point Vivian asks her friend whether anyone ever escapes from prostitution; if Prince Charming ever does rescue them. Kit can think of one instance. I was reminded of my conversation with Mandy, the Mayfair Madam I met in October.

She said almost all of her "girls" were waiting for Mr. Right, expecting him to arrive at the gentlemen's club she runs, spend a few nights with them, fall madly in love, and sweep them off to the altar. Like Vivian they wanted more than a nice condo; they wanted the whole thing.

Mandy no longer had stars in her eyes; she saw very clearly that that they were living in some kind of dream world; that it would never happen, and I knew she was right.

But you know, I wanted desperately for it to happen for Vivian.

Freezing Rain in February at the Hermitage

My day began at 6 with Kenya and Havoc leaping out of sleep growling at a barking dog outside. I joined them at the window. A car's lights illuminated the other side of the lake. When the lights remained stationary for a while I called Sarah to make sure Remi was all right.

Remi was fine, Pike Lake Road was glare ice, their upstairs neighbour Luigi was stuck on a small hill, Dan was pushing him before he went to work, Sarah was staying home because school was cancelled in Maniwaki, and I had an unplanned holiday from puppy walking. Whooppee! A snow day!

So what will I do instead?

I guess I will shovel the steps down to bare wood once again.

I will likely check out my own road using my ice walkers when I go for the mail. If necessary, I will arrange to have it sanded, because I have appointments Tuesday afternoon (that will be the last of my dental appointments) and Wednesday morning (an interesting one helping to evaluate a travel website ... I will even make some money doing it). I could happily remain iced in, but the road has to be passable for the garbage pick-up and Carlos.

Yesterday I made two huge pots of hearty meat sauce for pasta because Carlos is dropping Shea and Teddy off Tuesday at supper time. The dogs will stay until Wednesday evening. No, Carlos does not have an insatiable appetite and I will not be feeding his dogs spaghetti. The recipe is just huge so I make enough to freeze.

I prepare for a winter of isolation very seriously. I have so much food in my freezer now that I have to remove things in order to find what is there. My pantry shelves are lined four deep with canned goods, pasta, rice and sauces. I have canned, sterilized and frozen milk, lots of flour and yeast to make my own bread, and half a dozen store bought loaves in the freezer along with vegetables, meat, chicken and fish. Boxes of eco wood line the porch wall. I may get cabin fever but I will not starve or freeze.

I may settle in and watch movies or read all day. I am deciding between re-reading Wild Dogs, a novel by Helen Humphries, or Isabel Huggan's memoir, Belonging.

Hermits do have nice choices.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

All That Matters

I just finished reading Wayson Choy's novel, All That Matters.

I bought it in 2005, shortly after it was published, but only got around to reading it now. Until I had a home I was unable to read ... unable to focus long enough, I think. But also there never was a place that was "right" for reading. There was never a chair that was comfortable and well lit. There was never a sofa that welcomed me into its embrace. The beds I slept on ranged from ones that had no reading lamps to mattresses on the floor that I shared with Kenya. I suspect that it also helps that it is winter so I am often snowbound, and that I am a hermit living with dogs. Whatever the reason, I am delighting in my lost ability to lose myself in a book.

When I was a child in the 40's and 50's, books were my escape from my life: from sadness and loneliness, mainly, but also from the more common miseries of childhood: piano practice sessions, homework, chores. I don't feel a need to escape from anything now, but I do enjoy these sojourns in the lives of other people.

All That Matters is one of those great titles that can be interpreted more than one way depending on which words you stress, and all the interpretations work to encompass the themes of the novel.

One of the Canadian literary genres is the immigrant novel, and this fits into that genre. Choy allows us into the little known world of the Chinese family living in Vancouver's Chinatown in the thirties and forties. The story is told by Kiam, who immigrated with his father and grandmother as a young child. His younger siblings are born in Canada. Kian is the fulcrum between the old world and the new, raised as a Chinese first son, but attending school in English as well as Chinese. We see the tensions between the generations and the different ways of thinking, but even more importantly we see the harmonies that occur when people are loved and truly valued.

It was a novel worth waiting for.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

We Were the Mulvaneys

I read We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates several years ago. Yesterday I found the DVD on sale for $6.88 at Giant Tiger. It is a fine story that reveals just how far reaching the after shocks of a traumatic event can be. An entire family is destroyed by the rape of the only daughter, but the basic strength that the family had instilled in each of the children allowed them to finally emerge whole. They had been irrevocably changed, but in many ways they were strengthened by what had happened.

Havoc in my life ...

Havoc finally arrived last evening. He looked different. Last time he exuded elegance, made you think of runways in Milan or Paris. This time he looked more like a mean, lean fighting machine. It must have been the collar. His stylish red collar had been replaced by one with studs, You know, the kind worn by junkyard dogs called Bruno or Killer whose incisors always show. Havoc's has a Harley Davidson crest on it.

I had been waiting for his arrival since Wednesday evening. Wednesday evening became Thursday morning, then Thursday afternoon ... Thursday evening ... Friday morning ... until he finally showed up on Friday evening. I felt as if I had put my life on hold. I missed a djembe drumming session on Wednesday and a discussion group on Thursday for nothing. I hounded Leonard to make sure the road was plowed. I fielded phone calls to and from the woman who was supposed to deliver him. I even put my car in a snow bank in order to make sure she had a place to park when she arrived. By the time he arrived I was pissed off.

It didn't help that he had insufficient food to last his stay, or that his food was one of those esoteric brands that could not be picked up at the IGA.

And he was famished. His owner had not told her friend how much to feed him and he had been subsisting on two cups a day when his normal ration is five or six cups depending on the temperature and his activity level.

Despite the rocky start, he has settled in quickly, as you can see by the photo. Last night he woke Kenya and me at midnight by leaping off my bed and over her sleeping body to stare out the window, all the while growling menacingly at the snow plow on the other side of the lake, but this morning he was snoring loudly on Kenya's couch, and happily playing with her indoors and out.

He no longer looks either stylish or mean; he just looks like an amiable puppy.

I am glad to once again have a Havoc-filled house.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Hermits do not make good public speakers ...

Layla has asked me to speak at the dinner celebrating their official status as an NGO raising money for the Daisy Centre in Kakamega. I am terrified. I am not sure I am still capable of speaking in public. This life of the hermit really does cause the voice box to rust from disuse. Living with dogs has changed my communication style. I have a smaller vocabulary, use shorter sentences, and bark out orders or communicate non-verbally rather than holding intelligent conversations. The very thought of agreeing to speak freezes my vocal cords.

I wish I could just show the faces of the children and field questions, tell the story of why I chose Daisy for Layla's group.

I could use their photos as they use their crutches.

Most of the photos remind me of the happiness I saw at Daisy.

Moses reminds of how caring the staff is, and of how important every donation is.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Almost Valentine's Day

It is almost Valentine's Day and everywhere I look or listen people are encouraging me to celebrate it.

Q, a CBC afternoon show, has a 6 word love story challenge contest. I tried, just for the fun of it. My entry was:

"Sorry I left. Too late now."

A discussion group up here in the hills called "What If" challenged us to find a poem that encompassed the meaning of love.

I thought first of Margaret Atwood's:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye.

A fish hook.
An open eye.

Then I thought of Penny Kemp's 5 word poem or playlet: "Stabilities":

He: Bedrock
She: Bedridden

Maybe hermits aren't very good at this love stuff ... too cynical ... too settled in a life that excludes love, I thought to myself.

Chatelaine and Canadian Living this month have sections on romantic bedrooms and recipes for aphrodisiacs and decadent chocolate desserts. I skim through them and then make a loaf of multigrain bread. While it is baking, I flour some cubes of stew beef and start a pot of stew. It occurs to me that I can use some of the broth when I make my next batch of wheat-free dog cookies. An aphrodisiac for puppies!

Havoc will arrive this evening and my life will change again. I will have to start thinking like a food thief when he is around or my dinner could well become his. I won't be able to leave the house as easily. He cries when his humans desert him for a couple of hours, and then looks for mischief to get into. I will have to baby-proof the house: close doors, clear any surface that is reachable, and hide the firewood. I will have to cover the new couch with uninviting things like boxes when I go to the dentist on Friday morning.

For the next couple of weeks I will be forced to wake up faster in the morning. Kenya wakes up as slowly as I do. As long as her bladder, bowel and stomach are reasonably comfortable she is happy to stretch out on the dog pillow beside my desk and sleep while I drink tea and type. Havoc will not be as easily satisfied especially in the morning before a run.

But Havoc is fun too. He is a tireless playmate. Kenya and I sometimes weary of this, but Remi delights in Havoc's unflagging energy.

No intruder will be a threat to me while Havoc is here. Mind you that also creates more noise in my usually silent household.

One dog tells me that some thing or person is around. A second dog often discusses the matter with the first. When Shea and Teddy are here, the three dogs discuss the matter in low rumbles:

Kenya: Did you hear that?

Shea: Yeah, I heard it too.

Teddy: What is it?

Shea: Probably nothing.

Kenya: What do you think? Should we tell her?

Shea: No, I don't think it's anything to worry about.

Teddy: Shea, what's happening?

Shea: Nothing.

Kenya: You sure?

Shea: Pretty sure. Now go back to sleep.

Kenya and Teddy: Okay. If you say so, Shea.

When Havoc is here, the tones are shriller, the excitement higher, and I have to be the one who says, "It's okay. Go back to sleep."

They do take care of me, these dogs.

I will wake up on Valentine's Day with a Doberman puppy in my bed and Kenya asleep on her cushion at the foot of my bed. We will invite Remi over in the afternoon and the three of us will celebrate Valentine's Day with new cookies made with beef stew broth. Who needs aphrodisiacs, roses and chocolate truffles anyway?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Kite Runner

I watched The Kite Runner last night. I had read the novel and the film was just as wonderful. The story begins in Afghanistan just before the Russians invaded. It ends twenty-some years later when the protagonist and his friend are no longer children. It is a story of love and betrayal, and of cruelty; but mainly, I think, it is a film that helps us understand courage, cowardice and remorse, and to realize the importance of self forgiveness.

A Hermit's Life

When you live alone in a remote location, you sometimes encounter problems that do not have easy solutions. It's different from living alone in the city where you have access to almost any service you might need.

If you get sick out here you cannot easily ask for help, especially if the problem is not life threatening,but it isn't always possible to get to town for medical attention and groceries.

I lost my glasses in the snow a while ago and was in a quandary because I couldn't see well enough to drive. I had to use a magnifying glass just to use the Yellow Pages so I could phone the different opticians. Fortunately, Sarah offered to drive me into Ottawa. I am not sure I could have asked her for help, so I was very glad she offered.

A month or so ago, a spider bit me several times. I couldn't see the bites because they were behind me. I tried sleight-of-hand and mirrors, all to no avail. Finally I put the digital camera on the ironing board and took pictures of the site. Have you ever tried to take a photo of your butt? It's not easy, especially if you are spatially challenged. It would have been a lot easier to ask someone to look and tell me what was driving me crazy, but that's a request you can't make of everyone.

Anyway, the reality is that, despite such drawbacks, I quite like the hermit's life most of the time.

Today began before dawn again ... I hope that Havoc's arrival tomorrow will allow me to sleep until the sun rises. For some reason a puppy's warm body curled up in bed against me is a cure for insomnia. I think I remember when a lover's body had the same effect.

When I got up, I went through a series of scenarios based on my need for fresh fruits and vegetables, Havoc's two week stay which will curtail my activities, and the weather. I finally came to the conclusion, yet again, that I really don't want to ... or need to ... leave my hermitage here on the lake ... or at least I can get most everything I need in Wakefield.

Being a hermit is still an alien experience for me; I am new to the concept of burrowing in for the winter and being self sufficient within my den. I get pleasure from small joys now: a walk at night when the snow crunches under my boots; playing in the woods with the dogs; sliding down the hill on the sled I use to bring in groceries and wood; and watching my movies.

Last night I walked down to the mailboxes with Kenya after dark. I didn't bother to leash her. I knew we'd likely be the only ones out and there is virtually no traffic any time but even less at night. It was fun. She stayed close and was a good companion. The stars were bright in the sky and the moon just a little fatter than a sliver. Writing about the cougar seems to have calmed my fears. Also I know Kenya well enough to know that she will alert me to anything dangerous ... and will be cautious enough not to charge in where she shouldn't. She WILL make a lot of noise ... and no predator wants that kind of attention giving him away.

In December I gained weight, lost energy, became breathless and suffered chest pains on exertion. I blamed it on eating rich food over the holiday, and thought perhaps my heart was acting up. My doctor was 1 ½ hours away and I was busy so I didn't seek medical advice; instead I tried to figure it out myself. Finally it dawned on me ... I had stopped using my asthma medication. As the Advair wore off I slowly became more and more asthmatic. Regaining the ability to breathe was just as gradual a process. It took me a couple of months: one to get the permissions necessary to reduce the cost of Advair from $129 to $40; then a second month for it to work on the condition. I am delighted that I can once again walk for three miles and climb the hill without wanting to collapse, and of course, as soon as I was able to exercise again, my heart and lungs became stronger and I lost the weight. This is not a place in which you can enjoy life if you cannot exert yourself. It takes a lot of energy just to survive, and without the ability to breathe, it stops being fun.

Monday, 11 February 2008

A Sunday's Plans Gone Awry

I intended to drive to town this morning to attend a service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (UUC) with Tammy and Carlos. I got up at five in the darkness and assumed that the plan would go ahead. As soon as it was light I would clean off the car, exercise Kenya, have breakfast, shower and we would be off.

At 7 we were out the door, but it became immediately apparent that a great deal of snow had fallen last night. I trudged up the hill. Kenya bounded through the drifts like a boat encountering waves. The car was completely covered, and needed to be shoveled out. The hill down to Pike Lake Road was covered in soft snow again. I did the brushing, scraping and shoveling, and dragged the shovel back to the steps above the house.

By the time I had shoveled all 39 steps, wet strands of sweat soaked hair hung down in front of my face, I was tired, and it was twenty past eight. I had ten minutes to shower, have breakfast, dress and head up that hill again, and all I wanted to do was crash. I also questioned whether I would be able to get back up the hill before it was plowed or packed down by 4WD vehicles.

So much for good intentions.

Instead I fixed the little postman. He no longer has a head. I wrote. I vaccuumed the entire house. I discovered another leak in the roof that was destroying the wall board in the closet above the woodstove. I mopped and broke through paint in two places to let water out. I read the papers. I listened to CBC. I tidied a few cupboards.

And then I wrote my secret letter to Arrow.

I write these letters to Arrow because I love her, and I want her to WANT to read. She finds it hard to focus on school tasks in spite of being a very bright little girl. She can learn anything if it relates to nature and the outdoors, or if it involves actually DOING something physical.

I tucked the letter into a package containing a pair of binoculars for bird watching. The last letter was in a package held together with duct tape and so unwieldy that I wrote a note of apology to the postal workers who had to deal with it. I was afraid they might think it was something for the garbage. It contained two wasps' nests we had discovered between the walls when we were demolishing the old cottage.

I took this photo in the fall of 2006 when Arrow helped me look after the chickens, cats, dogs and horses at a hobby farm while the owners were away. She had no trouble learning how to do everything necessary to be a real helpmate.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Il Postino

What a wonderful movie ... something for everyone ... politics, love, literature ... The author really understands that the humblest person is fully human and capable of teaching other, better educated, more sophisticated people important things about life, love and fidelity.

Our own little postino has lost his stuffing for the third time. Kenya loves him dearly, but she cannot resist trying to get at the squeaker. I will sew him up AGAIN this morning, but I know that she will repeat the sequence as soon as I do.

1. Gentle loving mouthfuls of plush resulting in squeaks

2. Surreptitious gnawing at the stitching which stops if I look in her direction

3. Tearing of stitches followed by scattering of stuffing and exposed squeaker

4. A truly hang dog expression of contrition

5. A mute appeal to me to repair the damage

6. And back to #1

She really is not a destructive dog, but she cannot seem to help herself when she has one of these plush toys with a noisemaker inside.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

On Balance

I wrote the other day that what I missed about youth was the energy, and the ability to focus. I do miss those things, but even more I miss the excitement of being alive.

I enjoy the comfort of accepting who I am. I revel in the peace of quiet pursuits in an environment I love. I love being retired, with no external demands on my time. I like not having to accommodate anyone but the dogs I gather around me. I even find myself delighting in knowing the easiest way to do most tasks so that life seems easier now.

BUT ... my father was right ... everything is 50% good and 50% bad ...

The stresses of life have all but disappeared, and in their place is a warm bath of contentment. I need stress in my life if I am not to drowse off in the bath.

Maybe that is why I take in dogs. Maybe that is why I chose to build this house in this difficult location. Maybe that is why I have traveled in tough places. Maybe that is why, at 63, I spent three days in Uganda learning to whitewater kayak. Maybe I have kept myself slightly off balance all my life in order to hold onto the excitement of being alive.

One part of me seeks the balance and serenity; the other misses the sensation of being fully alive that I derive from unknowable places, new loves, prickly fears. The trick, I suspect, is to create the tightrope between safety and risk.

Way, WAY back when I was in Teachers' College, in 1960, I was taught History and Philosophy of Education by Paul Nash. He made us examine for the entire year the balance between freedom and authority in education. Now I am examining the tension and balance between a version of these two in my life.

Several years later I took a literature course from another excellent teacher, Robin Mathews. He did not lecture on a book until we had read it on our own, decided what was the most important idea, and handed in our essays. He made us take risks and responsibility for our ideas. He didn't want us to be safe; he wanted us to think.

Both men influenced how I taught my own students. Now I discover, these men are teaching me how to approach life as I age. Once the constraints of a job and the safety net of doing what is expected of us have dissolved, we have to re-invent ourselves. We have to discover a new balance between freedom and authority; between the comfort of safety and the excitement of risk-taking.

Two Tough Movies

I've just finished watching two very tough movies: Shake Hands With the Devil; and Hotel Rwanda. The first is Romeo Dallaire's story of his return to Rwanda and to sanity after the genocide which he was unable to prevent. The second is the story of a Hutu hotel manager who protects Tutsis during the genocide in Rwanda.

I couldn't watch either straight through. I needed sanity breaks.

The Rwandan genocide was one of the greatest crimes in recent history ... yes, of course the atrocities committed by the Hutus against the Tutsis, but just as horrifying, the developed world's failure to act, to believe, to care enough, to see that African deaths are just as important as those of white people.

Three pieces of literature that have helped to clarify the situation for me have been these two films and and the novel, Sunday Afternoon at the Pool in Kigali.

Shortly after that blood bath, a nun from Uganda visited my cottage with a mutual friend, a Malawian. She told me about the rivers running red and clogged by bodies floating downstream, and how her younger brother just "had to see for himself". He was sixteen. He didn't sleep for months after seeing the carnage. On an emotional level I could certainly understand without having to see for myself, even if I had trouble distinguishing intellectually between Hutus and Tutsis. The details were raw and horrifying enough.

On this last trip to Kenya I met two young Rwandans who helped me understand a little more.

One had been a Tutsi child at the time. Every night he would stuff cotton into his nostrils in an attempt to stretch them so that he would look more Hutu than Tutsi ... so that he wouldn't have to face the bullying in school ... so that when the genocide finally occurred he would be indistinguishable.

The other man, half Hutu-half Tutsi, told me about watching his Tutsi mother run away to Uganda leaving the children behind. She was terrified that the machetes would be turned on her next. I guess she hoped that the children might be safe. In this case they survived. In too many cases they did not.

What we are seeing in Kenya is very different, but in both countries, unfair distribution of power is at the root. In Rwanda, the Belgians favoured the Tutsis, likely because they looked more European than the Hutus. When they handed over power to Rwandans, the Hutu majority had built up a tremendous resentment against the Tutsi minority which had been given all the plum positions during the colonial period. In Kenya, the Kikuyu have been the favoured tribe ever since Independence. Jomo Kenyatta did not distribute power or land fairly. In both countries the minority was resented by the majority.

In Rwanda, the Hutu head of state was killed when his plane was shot down right after a peace accord had been signed. Rule of law abruptly disappeared. In such a situation anything can happen. Total disorder and emotions running amok, and a plan already in place to kill off the Tutsis.

Kenya has been a stable country for a long time. In Kenya, tribalism is far more diffuse ... far more tribes for one thing. There has never been a plan to rid Kenya of Kikuyu. In Kenya the anger stems from the fact that the election was not fought or counted fairly. That anger has spilled over from anger with Kibaki to anger against his tribe ... the tribe that has generally been better educated, richer, and more powerful politically. And it is poor young men who can be manipulated who are doing most of the fighting, poor young men who feel they have been cheated all their lives.

I watched these two films trying to get a sense of what must be happening on a far smaller scale (1000, not 800,000 killed), and I wept ... for the Tutsis of Rwanda ... and for Kenyans.

I have been reading comments on Yahoo about the Kenyan news reports that make me want to weep for us here in Canada. One 63 year old man who calls himself the Jokester would like us to ship container loads of machetes to Kenya so that they can finish each other off.

In one scene in Shake Hands With the Devil, Dallaire speaks to Rwandan university students ten years after the genocide, and he says that the western countries believed something very like what the Jokester expressed, and that is why they let Rwanda down in its hour of greatest need. They didn't see black Africans as fully human. That is why the UN ignored Dallaire's pleas for help; why individual countries ignored the news footage that international journalists were sending them.

That was thirteen years ago.

I read the Jokester's comments yesterday and feared that it could happen again, perhaps not in Kenya, but somewhere in Africa. The west might very well turn a blind eye and choose not to help because Africa doesn't matter; because Africans are not as fully human as North Americans or Europeans.

Just how far have we evolved?

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Fear of Predators

Today is a wonderfully snowy day, one of the ones when the air is dense with fat flakes that drift down gently. Kenya and I walk around the lake to pick up Remi and it is warm enough for me to take off my mittens. I am dressed in snowpants and a parka because we will be in the woods where the snow is untouched and I want to be able to play too, but I don't need the warmth they provide since there is almost no breeze at all.

In the woods the dogs delight in the piles of new snow. We walk as far as the waterfall and I pull up my hood, sit down, lean against a snow pile and watch as the dogs romp around me. They play fight and Remi puts his great mittens of paws around Kenya's neck, pulling her to the ground. I remember when he was 7 weeks old and Kenya was massive compared to him. Now at 7 months he is her size and just as strong. I like the way they play ... boisterously but ever mindful of just how far is far enough.

I look up into the trees toward the sky. The tops look as if they are brushing it. The branches are laden with snow but it is dry enough to fall off in puffs today. The trees here are too big to hug (yes, I tried) and my mind turns to cougars which might be resting in their branches.

Cougars are a hot topic in the Gatineau Hills just now. One seems to have adopted a family in Lascelles and all kinds of people are weighing in on the argument of whose rights come first: those of a member of an endangered species or those of the humans who have to live in its proximity. My logical side tells me that one cougar in Lascelles does not mean that everyone in these hills is in danger. If I were the family in Lascelles I would likely be happy to see it live-trapped and removed to a less populated area, but I live several miles from Lascelles, so you would think that the problem would be far enough removed for me to be quite relaxed about it.

Not so. So much discussion has ensued, and so much fear been expressed, that I checked out cougars on-line. Did you know that an adult male cougar weighs between 63 and 90 kg (140-200 lbs)? Or that they are most active at dusk and dawn but can be found hunting at any time of the year, and at any hour? I was not happy to hear that they attack their prey from behind, and from a height, or that small women and children of all sizes are most vulnerable. The cougar's primary prey is deer, and since the deer population is increasing, we can expect to see larger numbers of cougars in the future.

The other night I went into the village to meet some people for coffee. Off and on all evening I thought about my return trip. I was pretty certain I would have no trouble getting back home as the temperature had dropped and the snow was hard. But the thought that kept drifting into my consciousness, and the one that dominated my drive home was whether or not I should park in my customary location or whether I should park closer to the house. I was thinking about the fact that I have a quarter kilometre walk through a heavily wooded area before I reach the hill down to my house. What if a cougar were prowling in the vicinity?

We have practically tame deer on our lake now. Most people I know have been charged by them this year. When I went to have my own car's damage repaired, the body man suggested I just get the headlight fixed because I'd probably be back in before summer with another dented fender, there were so many deer crashing into cars these days. I sure hope that doesn't mean that next year we will have a cougar hanging out of every second tree! I remember the year the frog population exploded and hundred of black water snakes hung off bushes, draped themselves on rocks, and drowned in minnow traps.

I made the decision to park in my usual spot but I felt real fear trickling down between my breasts as I made my way along the road, moving my flashlight from left to right, illuminating the woods on either side. The snow crunched beneath my boots and I felt very very vulnerable. I wished I were carrying a shovel instead of a flashlight. Apparently your chances of survival are greater if you can make yourself look bigger than you are and if you fight back.

Of course there was no cougar in my woods. The only one around is apparently still in Lascelles, and successfully avoiding being caught in the live trap baited with a deer's head. The trap has so far caught four raccoons and two dogs.

Speaking of traps in which dogs are being caught, I just heard today that a dog I know was out with his owner, Andrea, her friend and their other dog on an abandoned railway line in Low that forms part of the Trans-Canada Trail. Because she has trained her dogs not to defecate on trails used by people, her dog went four feet off the trail and had his face caught in a kill trap. Apparently such traps are legal and the trapper had permission to trap along this trail whose sole purpose is recreational. She and her friend tried without success to free the dog. Finally a snowmobiler came along and the combined efforts of four people succeeded in opening the jaws in order to free the dog. What if she had been out with children instead of dogs? What if no snowmobile happened along?

The dog is all right. Andrea treated him for swelling and bruising as soon as possible, but the vet said it was lucky that the trap closed on soft tissue rather than bones or teeth.

I've never heard of a cougar killing or harming anyone's child or pet up here, but that is the third story I have heard of a dog caught in a kill or leg hold trap. Two-legged predators should scare all of us more than cougars do.

Treadmills for Dogs

This is where Kenya, Remi and I walked yesterday.

Cesar, the dog expert, has an article on Yahoo recommending the use of a treadmill to exercise your dog if the weather is inclement or if you are too busy to go for walks with her. In Canada inclement weather is a given, and no one should allow himself to become too busy to spend an hour outdoors.

I can't quite get my head around the idea of a treadmill for humans, let alone dogs, but I did think about the whole concept in the abstract.

Problem #1: Most dogs would balk at the idea of using one. They are noisy and the footing is uncertain. Kenya now gets up on the scale at the vet's quite happily, but if we then turned it on so that the surface became unstable, I can imagine the kafluffle!

Problem #2: A walk is more than simply the exercise of limbs for a dog. Kenya moves in a zigzag pattern checking out smells on either side of the road. At fairly regular intervals she scratches in the snow or gravel and leaves her calling card to remind the other dogs on the lake that she is a neighbour. She listens when a red pilated woodpecker taps the tree trunks, locates him visually and then moves on. She climbs the tall banks that now ring the lake and peers over at the other side. She lifts her nose and wriggles it ecstatically when we walk near the cattle. In summer she smells flowers. She likes the sound of running water. She rolls in snow, paddles in puddles, and digs in mud. She likes going to new places occasionally to experience different smels and sounds. A walk is a sensual experience for a dog; it is not merely exercise.

I know that there are miserable days when only a fool or a dogwalker would choose to go outside for an hour of discomfort. I think of days when it is raining heavily or the temperature falls below -30, those few steady sleeting days we get every year, or the more common ones when the roads are slick with ice. I have a yellow rain suit, black snow pants, long johns, down clothing, warm boots, hoods and mittens. There may be a dearth of stylish or sexy clothing in my closets, but I do have an abundance of clothing appropriate for Canadian weather.

But you know, dogs don't like being drenched or frozen either. If they had indoor privies they'd likely stay inside and sleep for the day. As a former teacher, I can tell you that it wasn't just the kids who cheered when the radio announcer informed us that the schools were closed because of storm warnings. All of us like snow days once in a while.

Yes, yes, I know, Cesar. The most important thing for any dog is sufficient exercise. I am not convinced however that a treadmill is the answer. There are not enough truly rotten days to make it the best solution. And being too busy to walk your dog is quite sad.

Far better for the owner to do what dogs do naturally: dress for the weather; stay in and sleep when it is really awful outside; use the walk time to explore the natural and social environment through the senses. Dogs can teach us a great deal about how to live.

Kenya and I are truly lucky. We live in a place that invites us outdoors, and allows us to be free.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Praying for Kenya

"No one can tell whether Kenya is on the mend or on the decline or just STUCK." Nora Harrison

Nora is my friend in Kenya, a woman ten years my senior who spends six months of every year in Canada raising money for Kenyan kids and six months in Kenya spending it. She seems indefatigable. She finds bright boys who have no chance of attending high school, puts shoes on their feet, uniforms on their backs, books in their hands, and sometimes even roofs over their heads, and then oversees their education at Shikunga Secondary School. Sometimes she tutors them in French or English. Sometimes she tutors their teachers. Always, she cares what happens to them. Her success rate is excellent. She seems to have a clear eye for picking the boys who will make the most of the opportunities she provides.

In the photo she is with some kids at Shikunga for whom I arranged funding: Richard, Fred, Bainito, Joyce, Geoffrey and George.

This year Nora is teaching an extracurricular course at Shikunga — The Merchant of Venice. When I heard, I thought Romeo and Juliet might have been a more appropriate choice in light of the situation since the election. The tribalism of the Montagues and Capulets might have been easier to understand than the prejudice against the Jews which forced them into usury and destroyed their ability to empathise with their tormenters. But maybe not.

The anger over this election has ignited long smouldering resentments based on favours given to the Kikuyus when Kenya first won its independence from Britain. That might be simply tribalism, but I think it goes much deeper than that. The divide between the rich and poor is Kenya is huge, and continues to grow.

I saw it most clearly in Nairobi where the Kibera and other overcrowded slums are erupting in violence now. People living in the slums are packed in like rats forced to live cheek by jowl using the Nairobi River for bathing and drinking, their waste products going directly into their water supply. Meanwhile, across the city a single family lives on acres of land. You may remember recently that the Masai herdsmen created a real stink during a period of extreme drought by bringing their cattle to graze on the lawns of the rich.

The favoured few who inhabit the largest portion of Nairobi's land are very rich. They include Kenyans in high positions in government and business, but they also include foreigners who choose safe locations in which to live. Our Canadian High Commission is located among these estates.

The average wage in Kenya is $500 a year. The really poor are lucky to earn a dollar a day.

It costs $500 to send a child to high school for a year. Without education, the poor have no way out of the pit of poverty.

I spoke to a man from Rwanda the last time I was in Kenya. He was talking about the interdependence of Africans, and said that if you give a helping hand to an African trying to clamber out of the pit, a hundred others clinging to him will follow; if on the other hand you kick aside that hand begging you to help, a hundred others will fall backwards with him.

What Nora and others like her are doing in Kenya is giving that one child the means to pull himself out of the pit of poverty. Invariably he will help a hundred more to get the education they need to live decent lives.

The uneducated poor young men who are killing hundreds and hundreds of people are acting out their resentments. Like Shylock they have forgotten how to feel empathy for the "others" who have what is denied to them. Every Kikuyu becomes a "have" when you are a "have not" ... and when you think you have finally managed to elect a government that you believe will make a difference to your life, and that victory is snatched away from you, you may very well ask for your pound of flesh.

The Merchant of Venice may be exactly right for Kenya right now.

Random thoughts on settling in to watch re-runs

My horoscope for this week read: "I've got some of the strangest good news you've ever heard. Ready to open your mind to the odd opportunities? Get this: 1. Your wild speculations could serve you better than your educated guesses. 2. Your experimental urges might be smarter than your cautious plans. 3. Your "stumbles" may lead you to brilliant detours. 4. You just may be able to create lucky breaks out of apparent mistakes."

Usually when I read Rob Breszny's horoscopes I am delighted. Today my reaction was: "Duh. I knew that. I've known it for a very long time. In fact, that is how I've always led my life ... responding to instinct and flashes of insight ... always up for the next adventure, the next glimpse of excitement around a corner. My life has been a conglomeration of adventures and misadventures based on taking chances and not considering the consequences".

It saddened me that I reacted like a jaded old woman. Ho hum. I've heard it all before.

But it also saddened me that I don't seem to be following my instinct for adventure these days. I seem to have settled into my hermitage up here on the lake, content with the dogs.

I used to be like my daughter Susan ... able to find the unusual in the mundane. I loved taking my journal to restaurants and bus stations. I was never bored because the everyday life of ordinary people fascinated me.

Maybe I need to start learning really new things ... to surround myself with people who are unpredictable ... go to places where I have to think on my feet the whole time ... places that make me uncomfortable.

But, you know, I like waking up here and knowing this is home; that it is safe; that it is predictable.

Maybe people decide it is time to die when they haven't heard anything new for a very long time; when they think they've heard it all and life is just a series of re-runs.

And maybe that's why memory fails ... so that you can enjoy the re-runs.