Nov 30, 2009

Reach out and touch someone

It's so easy, isn't it, to touch someone? Despite the dark moments I last wrote about - dark moments that evidently many of us share, based on the beautiful comments - despite all the barriers and insecurities and cultural rules and fears, despite all that people crap that gets in the way people connecting, it really is easy.

A woman that I will now call friend stopped me at the school Christmas fair just to say that she reads my blog.

Zekiah's teacher stopped to say how much she's missed me at school the past two weeks that I've been off child duty. (Zekiah says the kids miss me too.)

One friend leaves her hand on my back an extra few seconds after a morning hug. If I were a woman, I'd do that more. Linger.

Yes, linger. People taking just a little extra time to be part of me. Stepping out of their way, taking a risk, or just plain noticing. Allowing intimacy, however brief, but real and personal. I sure hope I do that for my friends, and friends-to-be - make them feel as noticed and appreciated and warmed as the simple eye-to-eye smile of "I read your blog."

Nov 26, 2009

Measuring Friends

On bad days I count friends. On really bad days I compare and covet.

On a bad night like last night I lay awake and wonder why no-one invites me over. I mentally flip back through the last 6 months of the dayplanner and can find just one single invitation - for a river walk. Family dinner invitations: zero. Let's grab a quick coffee after school drop off: nada. Let's go for a beer, exercise, camping, yoga, movie, reno project, dance class, birthday celebration... not a one.

Then I really rub it in by comparing - a lifelong ego-crushing bad habit. After morning drop-off in the school parking lot I see other parents going off together to the coffee shop or for a power walk. I hear of other families involved in monthly gatherings and circles and traditions and annual camping trips, or even just a simple Friday night dinner. I watch my wife go out on intimate dates and fun gatherings with her girlfriends. The more beautiful the connection I witness, the louder I hear my phone not ringing, and the more alone and unwanted I feel .

It isn't for lack of trying. It's not a case of never reaching out then wondering why no-one reaches toward me. I do regularly invite friends out, set up group hikes, host dinner parties, arrange playdates. These initiatives are well-received and result in lovely, meaningful social interactions; they just aren't reciprocated.

On the worst days I look for the fault in myself that drives people away. Am I just too loud and overbearing? Do my public ponderings and strivings set up a holier-than-thou syndrome - either a misperception that I think I'm on higher ground than others, or a truly out-of-whack misperception that I actually am? Does my general merriment and confidence make me look overpopular and unavailable - the classic case of a beautiful woman who never gets asked out on a date? Do I try too hard and drive people away - the other classic case of a boy so eager for a girlfriend that he comes across as desperate and therefore unattractive. Does my living outside the norms make me a great freak show rather than an interesting friend? Am I friendly with so many people that no-one takes it personally? Am I so happy and loud and exuberant that no-one could trust me to be quiet and sensitive and soul-connected?

After this spiral of negative theories my left brain tries to come to the rescue, generating excuses and rationalizations. People are genuinely busy. Friendship networks existed years before we arrived. The gender barrier is real and impersonal. Guys don't reach out to other guys. And the biggest one - it's dangerously easy to overestimate the number of friends and social engagements that other people have.

My left brain does believe each and every one of these concepts. And most of me doesn't really believe the personal-fault theories. But beliefs don't always help feelings.

I could make this easier to read by ending with all the good connections I feel, the web of love that envelops me. Sarah will read this then somewhat berate me for dwelling on the negative when there are so many positives to hold onto. That positivity is real, and what I genuinely live in almost all the time. I'll write about that another day, probably soon.

But that's not what I want to share today. Today's writing is about last night's darkness. It's about a real shadow that most people may not guess is inside. It's sharing a base sadness and emptiness I feel on the bad nights when I count and compare.

Nov 24, 2009

And the real Canadian Food winner is...

It turns out we do have signature Canadian dishes. For those of you who didn't see all the responses on my Facebook page, it appears that we Canadians are blessed with:
- Poutine and tourtiere from Quebec, fiddleheads from the maritimes, prarie oysters, saskatoonberry pie from the prairies, and from out here, Nanaimo bars, salmonberries and of course the PNE mini donuts!
- I vote for salmon
- Butter tarts & Nanaimo bars
- Perogies . . . .and you have to ask Frank for his hot-dog pemmican recipe.
ohhhhh nanaimo bars........i change my vote

We seemed to be reaching some consensus, then controversy erupted. Nothing like trying to figure out what Canada means to get Canadians excited
- salmon can be claimed by the tazmanians, kiwis, scots norwegians and the americans and as much as i've enjoyed perogies in canada, the poles and ukranians have us beat. i'm sticking with poutine but i'm interested in this "hot dog pemmican" you speak of.
-hmmmm so u got me to snooping on the web - tourtiere and poutine seem to be most common response.

So we'll crown two winners. Coming in at #2 is Poutine, a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curd, covered with brown gravy. But not just any fries, or any curd, or any gravy! One online afficionado describes it thus:

Poutine is Acadian slang for mushy mess and is best described as a heart attack in a bowl.

The French Fries - The potatos must be hand-cut and very fresh. Fast-food-type fries will not taste quite as good. Also, you must fry the potatoes in pure lard. Vegetable oil and other politically-correct oils spoil the unique taste.

The Gravy - French-Canadian gravy is very different than American gravy. First of all, it is very dark and thick, like molasses. Secondly, it has a very flavourful taste which cannot be described...very much like pepper and vinegar and other 'magical' ingredients. If you can stand a spoon straight up in it, it's good! Make sure it's very, very hot!

The Cheese - The cheese is the most important part of good poutine. You must use FRESH white, cheddar cheese CURDS. These curds have a taste and texture very different than actual cheddar cheese. The cheese curds will actually squeak in your teeth as you bite them. While curds are available in most Canadian supermarkets, they are not found in many American markets (the closest thing in taste is Mozzarella String Cheese - but don't use this stuff!).

When the curds are placed on the fries and the hot gravy is poured on top, the three flavors combine to produce what can only be described as the BEST junk food taste sensation on earth.

What better dessert to follow that feast than the #1 Canadian dish of all time - my Aunt Sall's Nanaimo Bars. Invented just up island from us in Nanaimo, this was the highlight of Christmas - and only Christmas, baked only by Aunt Sall - that has now been co-opted by Costco and is a must-eat on the BC Ferries, though of course it aint nowhwere as good as Aunt Sall's, and somehow still feels Wrong to have at any time but Christmas. Here's the online description and recipe:

According to local legend about 35 years ago, a Nanaimo housewife entered her recipe for chocolate squares in a magazine contest. In a burst of civic pride, she chose to dub the entry not "Daphne's Delights" or "Mary's Munchies", but "Nanaimo Bars". The entry won a prize, thereby promoting the town as much as her cooking. Some American tourists claim sovereignty over the dessert, referred to as "New York Slice" which is sold in many other places in the world. Nanaimo residents refuse to accept this theory, however, believing that once you set foot on Vancouver Island, there are no other places in the world. The official Nanaimo Bar recipe was available as a handout as well as on quality tea towel and apron souvenirs.

In 1986, Nanaimo Mayor Graeme Roberts, in conjunction with Harbour Park Mall, initiated a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo Bar Recipe. During the four-week long contest, almost 100 different variations of the famous confection were submitted. The winner: Joyce Hardcastle.
Nanaimo Bar Recipe

Bottom Layer
½ cup unsalted butter (European style cultured)
¼ cup sugar
5 tbsp. cocoa
1 egg beaten
1 ¼ cups graham wafer crumbs
½ c. finely chopped almonds
1 cup coconut

Melt first 3 ingredients in top of double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Press firmly into an ungreased 8" x 8" pan.

Second Layer
½ cup unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream
2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder
2 cups icing sugar

Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.

Third Layer
4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Melt chocolate and butter overlow heat. Cool. Once cool, but still liquid, pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator.

Nov 21, 2009

Canadian food, eh?

What is "Canadian" food? Might as well ask what's Canadian identity, for that matter. We're generally described as "nice", so I suppose our national food should be rather bland and unoffensive.
"My son's class is doing a world food day and has to prepare a Canadian dish to share with the class. Any favorite, popular dishes that showcase Canada? Perhaps something you eat after a rowdy game of curling."

Jeepers, this is always a hard question. We're a mutt nation (unless you want to do First Nations food, which also tends to get watered down to salmon burgers and beaver tales at most events), so we've just adopted all the foods that our families and other immigrant populations brought across the oceans. I guess buffalo burgers are what they do at the World's Fair, but i've eaten about 4 in my life (mostly at World's Fairs). Beer. Beer and back bacon (whatever that is), if you're a Bob and Doug fan. Maple syrup. Wheat. Hotdogs and pizza with Molson Canadian would be the apres-curling feast.

On a bad day, I'd lament that we're a sadly identity-weak nation, defined mostly by being NOT american and being good at hockey (and curling). Or on a good day, we're just so gosh darn blessedly culturally-diverse that we can't be pinned down to one dish.

So to answer the question, why doesn't your son's class just go around and politely steal a small dish from every other nation's table and put onto their Canadian "cultural mosaic" menu.

All this Great North pondering has made hungry, and Sarah's indulging the boys' afternoon request for popcorn at the fireside - hey, isn't that a local (First Nations) invention?

Nov 17, 2009

Beyond growth

At the recent G20 meeting, there was a "very broad consensus that growth remains the dominant policy imperative across our economies," according to US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Damn!

When will we, and our leaders, learn that an economy that depends on never-ending growth is doomed to failure (as is the environment and the people depending on it.) There is enough to go around, but not enough to keep extracting more and more and more. Check out this audio blog by Chris Martenson that makes the fallacy so clear.

We don't need a trillion-dollar band-aid to sustain the old failing methods. We need a new system based on sustainability, on living in right relationship with the earth and each other. An economic system where we address the needs of everyone, not the wants of the privileged few. A system that leaves a future for our children.

I don't know what that system really looks like, in spite of having read the most amazing edition of "YES!" magazine dedicated to the new economy. I just do know that our political leaders, including Obama, are not leading us in the brave new direction that so many of us crave and all of us depend upon. We need to show them through our activism and our personal example and our voting that sustainable change is the only reality we'll accept.

Nov 11, 2009

Zero-mile Bread

We weeded the plot, planted the grain, weeded some more, harvested the grain, threshed it (beat it in a pillow case), winnowed it, milled it, and baked it. Bread just don't get no more local or delicious or rewarding as this loaf.

To ask about the price compared to a Saskatchewan bag of flour entirely misses the point. We can grow grain here, right here on our land. We can be part of the production of our most basic food stuffs - wheat, quinoa, oats, amaranth, emmer... It doesn't have to come loaded with carbon karma from far away, doesn't have to be the child of a world-damaging small-farm-destroying mono-crop Big Ag, doesn't have to be processed in a protein-destroying high-heat factory, doesn't have to be a watered-down version of the once-nutrient-packed grains our grandparents grew and grew up on.

Anyone who's ever eaten something they've grown and processed and cooked themselves knows that nothing compares. The only revelation here is that bread and oats and grains don't have to be any different. We've been brainwashed to believe that only the prairies can produce grains. Thanks to Brock and Heather's brave experiment at Makaria Farms, we are among 50 families on Vancouver Island who now know differently.

Nov 9, 2009

House Reno's: Priorities and Passions

A little over a year ago we found the ideal property - 5 acres with multiple out-buildings, a 1936 house that once served as a library, forest, pasture... Room to grow all our foods, our children, our dreams.

Then we moved into the reality of a large rural property with old buildings. Scantily clad with a fix-up budget from our mortgage that already looked too small, we made a bit of a priority list then just started to address whatever came up as highest priority. Looking back at the list now, there is a logical order that perhaps tells a lot about our process and state of mind.

In the first fall months, we did HEAT. Our cold old house with inefficient electric baseboard heaters was quickly graced with a heat pump, energy-efficient furnace to move that heat around, and a high-efficcy fireplace insert. We built storm windows for all the kitchen and north-facing single-pane windows. And just for fun, we kid-proofed the hayloft above the barn to be a playspace.

Now with a comfortably warm house, I made the rational choice to spend the winter outside. The priority now was COMMUNITY and REVENUE, turning the garage into a rental suite that brought two and a half wonderful people into our lives to share the land. Along the way we also ran electricity out to my workshop, and to one of the chicken coops for future chick-raising.

Spring sprung and called our attention to the GARDEN. We built a huge deer fence and spent all our energies cultivating the first-quarter of that ambitious plot. Over the summer we added irrigation, a cow fence and shed, a chicken fence, fixed up the greenhouse, and cut down trees to let more sunlight kiss the fruit trees.

Other OUTDOOR needs we addressed were a new septic field, gray-water laundry field, and the county's highest laundry line.
Just for fun we built an outdoor shower and hot-tub pad in the garden, and a playground area with old truck tires, tightrope and hammock.

Whew! To celebrate a year of hard hard work and $50,000 wisely invested, we smiled with this list for a minute, then of course made the next lists. The list of things we still GOTTA do perhaps is the most telling - the unglamourous tasks that didn't bubble up to the top of the list but are still pressing: sealing and insulating the crawlspace, replacing old roof screws, rebuilding the chimney, weatherstripping, the rest of the storm windows, new tiles for the shower (we haven't been able to have full showers since April), woodrot under the kitchen window, the front door's glass pane that an angry Zekiah broke in June.

The WANNA list is more fun, but thanks to the discipline we hope to have and the money we don't have, will have to wait until after then "gotta" list. It includes: basement office for Sarah, new plastic for the old greenhouse, a new greenhouse, more playground equipment, new grass over the septic field and front lawn, solar hot water to the outdoor shower, paint the living room, a basement bedroom and bathroom for lodgers, finally setting up my workshop, cubbies for the mudroom mayhem, new water tank for the pumphouse, fix up the barn for better usage.

I still cheerfully operate under the illusion that the above list is complete; that once we get through it there'll just be little maintenance tasks for the next 20 years. The reality, as any homeowner knows, is that there's always a new project peeking around the corner, tempting us away from the tranquil Joy of just living on the land. I need to remember that Mr. Home Improvements is just one of the hats I try to wear around here, and ultimately less important than Farmer Rick, Writer, and of course Mr. Mom. The challenge is to enjoy the projects that truly lead to increased quality of life, and to let go (or procrastinate) those that are just cluttering up the view and keeping us from the other priorities in our lives.

Nov 6, 2009

Manly hugs

"Stop it!", she cried. "Don't hug me like that. I don't want to cry. I need a strong, manly hug."

This was a (loving) complaint of a dear friend at getting a beautiful compassionate embrace from my beautiful compassionate wife. We do give different types of hugs, and can be known and appreciated for them.

This morning, our first of 4 childless mornings (thank you Grandma!!!), Sarah and I lallygagged in bed till 9am as she shared this quote, and we ended up cataloging the types of hugs our fellow Waldorf parents give. We are in a school community where we know people by their hugs - what a great measure of connection and depth.

I first embraced hugging during a summer volunteer stint at a farm in Arkansas, when 60-year-old Harley introduced himself as giving "the best hugs on the farm." It was true; he made us feel warm and safe and loved. Later, after I'd closely bonded with my fellow volunteers then had to leave for 3 weeks, I returned to find myself on the outside of the group, and wrote in a poem that "hugs have arched backs."

And years later in a new poem I summoned this image of the second hug, the emotion so deep that one hug just isn't enough.

I remember Kirsten
She brightened up one of my mornings
flopping down in baggy overalls
and eyes of dewdrop freshness
She taught me the word Purple
with a mouth big as bubbles
deep and rich as a second hug
I stood behind and near
and breathed deep through closed eyes

I remember Kirsten in shivers
when the phone rings
and I fall to pieces
just hoping it's for me

Nov 3, 2009

Hot, spicy intimacy

Spent a whole day Doing Stuff, checking off the Things-to-Do list, cleaning the office, answering emails, etc etc. To be honest, I can't really remember what filled my day. Looking back on it, the only thing that felt real was planting garlic with my boys.

I've taken to leaving the splitter at the top of the driveway, so that every day I can leave the computer and the kitchen to go outside and work up a sweat, do something tangible. Each piece of wood crashing to the ground affirms me, the reality of this existence. I don't go to the office to have money deposited in my account that then gets transferred to the electric or gas company to heat my house. I chop wood to heat my house.

By the time it makes it to the fire, that piece of wood has been in my hands over 8 times. I chopped down the tree, then "bucked it up" (removed branches, chainsawed into lengths), then used my fancy new splitting wedge to split the huge round in 2, then the splitting ax into pieces, then thrown it in the wheelbarrow, then unloaded into the woodshed to dry for a few months, then carried in an armful up to the fireside box, then finally selected it to place in the fire.

I'm not in any way putting down the work I did with ACCES - the results of that work for our partners in Africa was real and important, and the salary did mean security for my family. It's just that these days I've learned to appreciate a personal connection, an intimacy, with the things I used to only touch with my credit card. Things that matter at the most basic level to my family and, at a grander level, to the world we're a part of. Real things like garlic and heat.

Nov 2, 2009

Simple Magic

My children are naive, sheltered simpletons who spook easily and believe lavishly. Video games perplex them, videos overwhelm them. Isn't that awesome?

So many children these days become numbed early on by the overwhelming onslaught of media. TV shows with rapid-fire images. Pictures and movies with over-the-top special effects. Superheroes who do much more than leap over tall buildings in a single bound. It's exciting, it turns them on and cranks them up and makes them want more more more.

What I also observe is that it dulls them to the everyday wonders of our natural world. It's not enough to wear a Mom-made bat costume - it's gotta be a store-bought replica of a comic strip hero. A pure folky song is boring compared to a cranked-up Hannah Montana driving-drum-beat pop hit. That bow&arrow that the kids made from an old rusty plow under the barn doesn't shoot as far as the SuperStore plastic model.

There was a Youtube video making the rounds recently of a 5-year-old redheaded boy dancing to some modern song, slapping his behind and doing all the dance moves just like the real video. People thought it hilarious and cute; I thought it sad. I just wanted to see what his own moves might be, not what he'd learned from too much MTV-watching.

Our boys dance like geeks. Not like any professional performer on TV. But it's their dance.

So here in our simple country life, and sacred Waldorf community, we are sheltering our kids from as much of the mainstream world as possible. True, they are missing the childhood experience of most of the peers they will room with in college, and already have learned to pretend to know what other kids are talking about when venturing out into the greater community. They are not "normal" and may sometime lament or resent us for it.

But look at what they're not missing! The surprise of a purple flower beside the road in November made Galen skid to a stop on the way to school this morning. The gifts of a piece of wood, a rock, a homemade bun and some "spider web" yarn from various fairy-tale actors at the school's Pumpkin Path enchanted both boys and erased any desire for a pillow-case full of trick-or-treat mini Snickers bars (their desire, at least...)

Our boys delight in simple, natural, home-spun pleasures. Their time for i-pods and facebook and Hollywood will come. But not yet. Not yet to let others program their imaginations for them. Not yet to have their playtime sound like a TV rerun. Not yet to let clever advertising executives into their trusting heads. I'm going to preserve their innocence for as long as we can - it's the only childhood they'll have.