Dec 10, 2011

Picnic by the Waterfall

Worchester Massachusetts is hard to spell but easy to get lost in. On a road trip 19 years ago from Akron Ohio to Hartford Connecticut, my friend and I decided to veer off the interstate in favour of a backroad on our map that went by a waterfall. One hour of city overwhelm later, we were back on the interstate and pulling over at the first rest-stop.

But this was 19 years ago and we were young and visionary and hopeful. We turned out backs to the endless 70 mph roar of trucks & RV's and pretended it was the steady reassuring roar of a waterfall. Turns out that they're remarkably similar sounds, and with that simple re-classification we enjoyed a tranquil, natural picnic in our self-created oasis.

Fast forward to last Sunday when we hosted over a dozen Friends for a Quaker meeting for worship. As host I was hyper-aware of the sounds of the fireplace expanding and contracting, the cat scratching at the door, the children whittling outside, the phone I forgot to unplug. But I remembered the "waterfall", remembered that Silence is a state of the mind and the soul, not some idyllic condition in the surrounding world. True "centering down", to use Quaker-speak, is finding a quiet space that embraces and integrates the world, not shuts it out.

Or fast-forward to any busy week in our lives. We hold onto a constant illusion that with just one free day we'll get caught up; when this one big project is done I can slow down; if only I hadn't got sick or my child didn't have a fundraiser I could have had time for myself. Time for the waterfall re-classification trick, only this time it's not a self-deception. Those little "if only" events are not keeping us from living - they are living. The juiciness of life is in the interruptions.

Dec 3, 2011

Twinkly Ten

This time 10 years ago, I was biting my newborn baby and he was crying for the first time. A soft whimper of "What are you doing, Papa?" that was a precursor of many odd times to come together. No, I wasn't trying to replace the doctor's traditional spank of this country song:
Baby born in the middle of the night, local delivery room
Grab his feet, slap him till he cries, goes home the next afternoon
Our first-born splashed into the world at 3am in a metal Texan farm trough full of hot water under our indoor Christmas lights, and we spent the beautiful rest of the night sleeping in our bed together as a family. Next morning when we woke up, protective Papa wanted to pull the blankets up over baby without waking him. So instead of flailing my arms, I carefully used my teeth to grip and pull the covers. Not carefully enough, apparently.

An elusively short decade later I'm proud papa of a proud double-digit soccer-playing, whittling, joking, ivory ticklin' and fiddle pickin', origami obsessed, delightful boy who is positively sparkling with the Joy of life. More than any other time of his first decade, he is alive and confident and Happy and fun and funny, a charm to be around and an uninhibited spark of light.

The struggles he's faced socially in the past, these days he's facing head on. Still not the most popular kid in class, he is nevertheless eager to get to school, enthusiastically engaged on the playground and in the classroom, recklessly playing tag with boys he used to shy away from. He's truly comfortable in himself, in his unique dreamy goofy self, and that's all it takes to exude a positive energy that bounces back from those lucky enough to be around him.

This emergence of a valiant knight is what we've been dreaming of and working towards for a long time. While the majority of the credit has to go to him, to his bravery and persistence and refusal to let go of his own identity, some other kudos bear mentioning.

1. His teacher, arriving mid-year last year, has been a true savior to the class, to our family, and to each child in the class. He understood immediately the urgency to establish himself as the loving but strong authority in the class, the centre of gravity around which the levity of the children could revolve, and has done it with a grace and clarity that has let every child (and parent) breathe a deep outbreath of "I can relax, I am safe here, I can enjoy and grow and explore."

2. A community of adults who have Held him. In their prayers, in their loving words and looks, in hugs and gifts and time together. Fellow parents, work colleagues, grandparents and uncles, neighbours, Quaker elders, piano teacher, soccer coaches... the list is seemingly endless of people who have openly and unconditionally shown our boy that he is loved and respected and honoured for who he truly is. It takes a village.

3. Experiences of excellence. He has always found niches in which he excels, and that confidence spills over into other realms of his life. His breakthrough moment in kindergarten was teaching his classmates to make fancy paper airplanes. To this day, origami is a source of wonder and mastery for him. As is singing, piano and now violin. We enrolled him in soccer camp last summer and did a lot of playing/practicing together so that joining a team this fall was a major success that has also given him a place of respect on the playground (just look how he shines in this photo!) I watched his class play kickball, and when he went "to bat" his whole team said eagerly, "Get us a home run Galen!" As he comes to believe in his abilities, his constant "Aren't I good at that" calls for reassurance have given way to a shining confidence in many parts of his life.

4. A Papa letting go. With a lot of help from wife and friends, I finally let go of my own anxiety around my son's popularity and happiness and just starting loving and enjoying him the way I wanted the world to love and enjoy him. Let go of contriving playdates, using that time to just Be with him and let him blossom in the safe warm enduring love of home and parents and brother and constant neighbours. Stopped inquiring about conflicts and just asked about feelings. I do believe that he somehow perceived a different energy from me - "My papa believes in me; he's not worried, so I don't need to be worried either."

There are still soft moments of tenderness and vulnerability, but that's a part of childhood (and adulthood) that we learn to accept. In safe moments he shares that no-one sits with him on the field trip bus, or wonders why he never gets invited to birthday parties. Instead of jumping to a Mr. Fix It or an Angry Injustice mode, or try listing the names of children who do call him Friend, we just hold him and agree that it must be hard. Gord Neufeld asserts that one of our most important jobs as parents is to make it safe for them to be vulnerable, to help them to that place of tears, so that they don't build up a wall. Our ten-year-old is vibrantly happy and openly sad and deeply aware that he is loved and cherished and celebrated (and hopefully safe from being bitten).

Dec 2, 2011

Easy Lay

They're outside my window now, just doing their thing. Scratch, peck, screw, scratch, it all looks so easy.

Canada, the rooster, efficiently scrapes back the leaves to look for bugs and seeds. Sometimes he gobbles them up, sometimes he exposes the food then backs away for a hen to get some. Sometimes he gets some, efficiently jumping on her with no forewarning or forethought or foreplay, biting onto her neck for leverage as he flaps his wings and does his fertilizing thing. Then he just as quickly hops back off and pecks at another bug, while the hen shakes her tailfeathers and gets back to her business.

While I hunt and peck on my keyboard, he humps and pecks. So easy, so natural, so unthinking. I don't really wish to be a chicken - not even a rooster with 21 hens at my disposal - but I do envy the uncluttered natural rhythm of their lives. I'll finish this posting then look at my dayplanner and things-to-do list and inbox to decide what comes next. He'll just look for the next juicy bug or hen and do his thing.

Nov 29, 2011

The Man Behind the Dad

If I could always be as good a Man as I am a Dad…

Why is it that a ferry ride with my children is 90 minutes of fun, frolic and exploration, while a ferry ride alone is alone at the computer work station? With the boys I’m on the deck (whether they want to or not), looking for whales, leaning into the wind, racing bow to stern, tasting salt and sun. On my own it’s a blah video or Sports section from the recycle bin and a bag of Cheezies.

Why do I laugh so much more with my boys? Whoop, act silly, invent voices and songs, create, destroy, create some more. Snuggle, dream, cry, fight, flight, as alive and changing as the ocean. On my own I work, I converse, produce, consume, balance, as steady and secure as a pond.

Why do I have so much more discipline when I’m with my boys? Healthy food, ethical purchases, no screen time, exercise, leave the car in Park, go to the park instead of the movies, move instead of sitting, sit close instead of comfortable. On my own I stop by the bakery, watch part of the game, sneak into the peanut butter jar and hop into the car just because it’s raining.

Why does my body get younger when I’m with my young? Together we run, skip, wrestle, lift, squeeze, peek under and leap over, lift and build and break and fix. I can sleep in the most contorted, claustrophobic, sweaty positions pinned under my snoring snotty boys. On my own I sit more, lumber more than leap, and sleep deep and expanded and perfect, pillow fluffed, alone.

Someday I’ll be as good a Man as my children think I am. As good a Man as I am in front of, because of, and through them. I’ll be Me just for Me. Then their job of raising me will be done.

Nov 27, 2011

Professor Ricky

I've been re-born this weekend as Teacher Extraordinaire. Or at least extra-ordinary in terms of scope.
Friday morning - grade one at Sunrise Waldorf
Friday afternoon - lecture about fundraising and campaigning to a non-profit management course at Vancouver Island University
Saturday morning - workshop about Dynamic Governance to a group of Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland co-op/co-housing folk at OUR Ecovillage and livestreaming online
Monday morning - lecture about sustainability to the Global Stewardship students at Capilano University

Beyond having to check my identity to remember what I'm supposed to be knowledgeable about for each group, it's a great reminder of how much I love teaching. Sharing what I've picked up along the way, being challenged by learners with different perspectives and experiences (the governance workshop became a true exploratory dialogue about the difference between consensus and consent), and being forced to consolidate my ideas into a tangible, usable product.

Feedback has ranged from "You are AWESOME and FUNNY and NICE and FUN" (grade 2 parent) to "Your presentation absolutely blew me away and was one of the best presentations I have heard in a very long time. You are so passionate about what you do and it was made extremely clear to all of us." (VIU student). It always feels good to be competent at something, and to believe that the effort of going all the way to North Vancouver and back tomorrow will actually make a difference for someone.

But mostly it's about connection. Being in a room of people who care about the narrow and sometimes odd topic I'm presenting. Let's face it, Governance is not the sexiest topic to most people, but to those 20 people on Saturday morning it was fascinating and we all enjoyed exploring and debating it. My "Can We Trust Africans" talk tomorrow might just ruffle some feathers at a party, but to a group of aspiring international development professionals it's a frontal assault on their belief systems that just might change how they shape their careers. Just like a Star Trek convention (where, by the way, the 7th floor is reserved for kinky sexual escapades by trekkies and aliens in full costume and green skin), facilitating a discussion with a group of people just as into leadership or governance or development as me is a huge turn-on.

One of several paths I'm contemplating these days is to go back into a doctoral program, with a research interest centred on sustainability (financial and operational) of international development projects. It would open the way to some international field research with my family, and to more of this teaching stuff. It's a new idea, but a return to an old passion for sharing knowledge and prompting insight. Rutabega Rick just might become Professor Rick one of these days. And for the grade one students who just couldn't get their mouths around "Mr. Juliusson", Mr. Rick.

Nov 23, 2011

Obama: Occupy the Whitehouse

Obama, your people are here. In the streets, in the media, in loud strong voices of unity demanding change. We're out here occupying; where are you?

Where is the man who electrified the world with a promise of real, deep change? Not just doing things a bit better, but deep changes to a society in dire need of an overhaul. Over 69 million Americans voted for this vision, for this man of vision, this man we believed would do something different. The hopeful people at Nobel gave him a premature prize just for the promise that he represented.

But when the going got tough in Washington, he became a man of compromise. A man of incremental change. Yes he's better than Bush, but that's not the lowly target he promised us he'd shoot for. He seems more intent on pacifying the centrists and getting voted back in than in working for what he supposedly deeply believed in.

But now's his chance. The 99% are standing up demanding change. What if, instead of hiding from his people and ignoring the slow crack-down on their freedom and voice, what if instead he went down to Wall Street? Pitched a tent, listened and shared and imagined a new way together. Then went back and used that power to make it happen. These are the same people he promised the world to - now that we're demanding it, he's just slipped away.

Occupy, Obama. Occupy that White House we elected you to. Take that oval office and tilt it on its end and spin it like there's no tomorrow. Or rather, like there's a tomorrow that you're ready to stake your legacy on. No, you probably won't win another election this way, but you probably won't by taking the safe path either. At least this way you'll go down in history as a man who really did shake things up and went down swinging.

We gave you the power in 2008 to change the world. Now we're taking to the streets to back you up in exercising that power. We're not a threat; we're your support. We're your people. Take the energy of Occupy, the power of a people fed up with the status quo, and use that energy to finally become the President. Don't let the tea party or bankers or the economy stand in your way; just do it. Take a look at what Stephen Harper's managed to do with a minority government in Canada - you could have so much more power to do good, if you'd just take it.

Think of the swift and unequivocal support you gave to the people behind the Arab Spring. When the people there demanded justice and a responsive government, you backed them 100%. But when your own people stand up to demand the same, you turn away. Watch this video, Obama, and see your own hypocrisy. Your own fear to be the man we voted for. The President who truly represents the people and lives up to his promises.

Take back the office, Obama. Occupy your white house. Before it's too late.

Nov 19, 2011

Voting just because i Can

I just voted. For whom isn't important (really, it isn't read on). The important thing is that I got in my car after kids' bedtime, drove through a cold winter-starry night and did my civic duty. For really no other reason than it's my civic duty.

We only had one candidate for our area director position (and luckily I like him). And we had 10 candidates vying for 9 school board positions (in a public school system my kids don't even attend). So very little was riding on my vote.

But we live in a country where we can vote, freely, safely, and sometimes even to some effect. And there's no more important way to protect that right than to exercise it. This is the first time I've ever voted without taking my children along, which I regret, but we still as a family cherish and honour that right and duty to vote. Even when it seems it doesn't matter.

Nov 13, 2011

Oh Friend, Where Art Thou?

When it comes to friendships, it's quality that matters over quantity, right? Sometimes I'm not so sure. I've got plenty of both, and still sometimes wonder where all my friends are. And (to use a very clever turn of words), I don't think I'm alone in this feeling.

In terms of quality, I've got many people who appreciate and enjoy me, and a lovely group of people who know and appreciate Me at a deeper level. The latter are people whom I know I can turn to, who'll accept Me regardless of where I'm at or what I've done, who "get" how the sometimes disparate and random parts of me do somehow integrate into a cohesive Rick.

As for quantity, since moving to the valley I've found myself investing more of myself and my time into a smaller circle of friends. Perhaps it's from becoming more confident, or perhaps finally "getting it" myself, but I've truly understood that I can't, don't want to, and oughtn't to try to reach that deepest level of connection and intimacy with everyone in the world.

But there's another dimension of quantity that I've been puzzling over, and that's time. My friend's marital counselor says that married couples need 16 hours of time together each week to maintain and grow their relationship (yes, 16!). How much time does a friendship need?

This musing started as a lamentation over the fact that I've had basically zero private time with my closest friends since, oh, probably last spring. We agree to a walk or an after-drop-off cinnamon bun "soon", then it never happens. One dear friend emailed me 2 months ago, "I do not want for busy lives to mean that we do not take time to be with each other to catch up and stay connected." Since then we've tried to set even 20 minutes to sit together several times, but have yet to make it happen.

On bad days I take these personally; but really I do understand that it's not indicative of lack of love or intention, and that I'm just as guilty of over-programming as they are. But I do have to wonder, as my friend does above, what it does to our connection.

I see these friends all the time, mostly in the school parking lot where there's time for a good hug, a quick "how's life" exchange, maybe even an extra 5 minutes as the parent crowd disperses. That's enough to stay in each others' lives, but not enough to share truly deep joys and pains at any substantive level. I truly love the 8:30 and 3:00 exchanges, but also need to peel back other layers of me that would just get too chilly and exposed in the school parking lot.

So where does that level of sharing take place? In a world where all of us share this complaint and pressure, are any of us getting this need met outside of (hopefully) our marriages and blogs?

My dear wife gets even less daily interaction than I do. But she does get to be part of a few monthly circles that I'm not privy to. When she comes home she's radiant, having soaked up and spilled out a full month's worth of personal sharing and connection. Even though she never tells me what was talked about, I vicariously feel re-connected to our mutual friends, absorb some of the overflow and feel warm and somewhat satiated.

I don't, of course, actually get any closer to knowing what's going in my friends' lives and hearts and souls, not do they enter mine. And in a community where none of us seem to have time for one-on-one dates, where these circles serve as one of the only opportunities for such sharing, it does leave me on the outside trying to find some other meaningful social pattern.

In the absence of circle membership and daytime dates, where do I have ongoing healthy relationships? In the parking lot. With longer-term consulting clients. In committee meetings and volunteer gigs. While building a bedroom with my contractor. With the neighbourhood association. In a monthly potluck party. On the shared drive to yoga.

In other words, my social life and connection comes through Doing. And that is what I was told about this valley when we first moved here - people are much more likely to be together at a barn-raising than a sit-down dinner. And the irony is, that's more my style anyways.

I openly admit to coveting women's circles, but truth be told I wouldn't want to be in one every month. Friends in Austin couldn't drag me to a group that met every week to scream and cry and hug each other. And as much as I'm craving a one-on-one tea date, I wouldn't want to have to plan every Monday to open up some new deep inner wound, or Joy, as my main connection. I want to know what's going on inside my friends to and to share that in me, but in a way that freely flows while puffing up Mt. Tzouhalem or tossing pumpkins to the cows or leaning on a shopping cart.

So it turns out that this posting is a bit complaint but more acceptance. Complaint that I don't hear enough of the big and little things in my friends' lives. That while I may not be a second-tier friend, I am on a second-tier communication rung to which important bits don't always filter down. And that this gap does put an extra strain on maintaining connection.

But this is much more an acceptance, even a celebration. That social circle I uncovered a few paragraphs up is real, and rich, and varied, and full of beautiful people who are intrigued and amused by me, in love and loved by me. If I needed help or an ear I know exactly who would drop everything to be that for me in an instant, even if we haven't shared hot chocolate since last winter.

And it's a call to action. A call to myself to continually appreciate what and who I have in my life, and to make the most of that. To fully grasp that, like pretty much anyone, the greatest quantity and quality of my social web is in the day-to-day little things, not just the cathartic climaxes. 5 minutes in the parking lot is gold, and doesn't need to be compared to anything else. The quick personal check-in before a committee meeting is real and meaningful connection, and the committee business that is then discussed in an environment of respect and trust is just as personal as the brownies that close the meeting.

I will still play the dayplanner juggling game with friends to enjoy an occasional tea or hike together, but will not measure the quality nor the quantity of my friendships by these dates. I will continue to share more and more of myself in these short, daily-life exchanges not because it's all I can get, but because that's what makes us real.

Nov 11, 2011

Selective Remembrance Day

I'm not wearing a poppy today. It's not that I don't want to remember and lament the needless loss of life of the fallen young soldiers. It's that in this national day of wearing poppies and simultaneously mourning/glorifying their deaths, we narrow the focus exclusively to the soldiers and forget the many more victims of war.

According to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the civilian-to-soldier death ratio in wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1, meaning ten civilian deaths for every soldier death.(1) So for every poppy I wear to mourn one soldier's death, I should wear another 10 flowers for the innocent lives lost.

And what flower should I wear for the innocent children who still pick up grenades hidden inside dolls? For the farmer who loses a leg to a mine in her own fields? For the women and girls who get raped and used as instruments of war? For the refugees who've lost their homes, their farms, everything they've ever built and relied upon to survive and fulfill their dreams?

And what plant would suffice as an emblem for the loss to society when so much money goes into the war machine instead of social services, destroying instead of building? For those children who grow educated in terror instead of in school? For the destroyed or never-developed infrastructure that the rural poor could have used to build a better life for their families?

But the poppy doesn't remember all this. According to "Help for Heroes," the poppy is "to show their support for the Armed Forces and their families." Even my beloved, progressive MP Jean Crowder has an online banner that spouts out the usual "Remembering the sacrifice and courage of veterans on November 11."

I guess Jean has to say that to stay in office, but I don't. As long as wearing a poppy is meant solely in honour of soldiers, I will not wear one. Instead, I'll wear a whole garden in remembrance of the loss to all of mankind through war, and weave a lifelong wreath of flowers that says Never Again.

# #

Last year I mused about remembering all soldiers, not just our country's - another facet of this selective memory.

(1) Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew W. Lehren, A Grim Portrait of Civilian Deaths in Iraq, New York Times 22-10-2010) Note that other sources show a lower proportion - World War II is estimated to have killed "only" 2 or 3 civilians for each combatant.

Nov 6, 2011

Sheep in the Shower

There's nothing like a sheep to bust up a baby shower. Our celebration for our friend was abruptly ended when a neighbour reported that her dog had once again chased one of her sheep over the edge of a steep embankment down to the side of the river. The group response reminded me again that I aint in Vancouver no more.

Rather than surprise, or annoyance at the party ending a bit early, or grunts over wasted time, the group simply (and eagerly) rallied around what needed to be done. This would be much more fun than charades! One man went home for his kayak in case we ended up in the river. Another grabbed two 75-metre climbing ropes to hoist the sheep back up from above, while two others volunteered to be at the bottom end of the deal, pushing the sheep up. The host of the party just happened to have a sheep harness.

The last time this happened, the owner explained, she and one other friend pushed the sheep in and swam her upstream to a place where the bank was less steep. "It only took two hours, but the river's too high this time," she apologized.

Talk also revolved around what to do with that "stupid dog" who can't now be re-trained (my advice being to stop calling him stupid if you want to find a new home for him.) We've been thinking about getting a dog since our raccoon/mink episodes last spring, so I received lots of training tips, strong advice to get a puppy, and stronger advice (from the owner herself) not to take this dog.

As we rushed out to the rural excitement of rescuing a lost animal, we did manage to give a quick final hug to the mom-to-be, calling over our shoulders, "Try not to push that thing out before we get back with the sheep!"

I live in a community where neighbours have the know-how, time, equipment, and willingness to pull a sheep back up the river-bank at the end of a baby shower. In fact, as the only person who hasn't lived in this hamlet for at least the last 15 years, I think I was the only one laughing at the absurd beauty of the whole situation. Thank God I'm (becoming) a country boy.

Oct 28, 2011

Power Rick

The problem with coming out of hibernation too soon is that it's hard to settle back in for the rest of the winter. You stumble around gnawing discontentedly on green berries, unsure whether to head back into the cave or just stomp around in the snow until you've made a path and can go forward.

I triumphantly stepped off the career path three and a half years ago. Walked away from a great Executive Director post, powerful connections, and literally a world of development job opportunities to instead fulfill a dream of being a stay-at-home dad, farmer and writer. But always in the back of my mind I believed that I could relatively easily pick up an overseas job when the time was right again.

Now the time is right (or atleast coming) and it isn't quite as easy as I'd imagined. Three days of intense networking with former colleagues in Vancouver and Ottawa has me excited and exhausted and hopeful and realistic. On the positive side:
- I am still not only remembered but respected for my work
- I do still have good connections who are happy to help
- I still believe in my skills and capacity to do good, important work. If anything, my capacity has grown through my local FreeRange Consulting work, and my compassion/comprehension has deepened through farming

On the "realistic" side:
- budget cuts are more real than ever
- I've been out of the scene for over 3 years and am not at the top of everyone's radar when opportunities do arise
- While my skills have not rusted, my awareness of the latest trends, people and terms need updating

I can start to imagine what it's like for a stay-at-home mom returning after 15 years out! For me, it's not a matter of starting over; it's a quandry about whether to re-start the old engine. Do I really want to get back into that scene? Do I really want to be That Rick: the one who does the networking scene, splashes himself on such a wider audience, who projects an image of effectiveness and powerful confidence among carefully chosen colleagues.

Here in our beautiful valley, I've been able to establish my consulting business in a smooth, integrated fashion. I can network with my children, hand out business cards at an Occupy rally, go to meetings with the smell of fresh garlic on my hands. Becoming known and linked here has not (except time) compromised the lifestyle and identity we moved here to establish. The Rick who is leading your fundraising seminar is the same person who raised your grass-fed beef and entertained you at the raucous Who Knew show. I change my hats because of whims and weather, not titles and neighbourhoods.

I do believe that a move back into international development could be done with the same integrity and consistency. I sold or gave thank-you garlic at every meeting and seminar I attended on this Ottawa/Toronto trip, and people understood the link. I am a sustainable livelihood expert who understand food security at the producers' end; a gender justice specialist who stays home to raise his kids; a housing sector analyist who builds his own house out of local clay and wood. There's a whole new layer of hands-on understanding, and this dirt under my fingernails will be celebrated, not hidden.

But while I can do this without changing Me, there's a time investment that can't be avoided. Most jobs I've ever held have come through connections, not the internet, and connections have to be nurtured. How often can I pop over to the CIDA offices in Ottawa and NGO headquarters in Toronto and Vancouver? How many hours per night can I devote to reading industry journals and Globe & Mail op eds?

During the same week that I spent back East, I missed a community-building volunteer preparation for our school's annual Pumpkin Path (though I did get to dress as a turnip and let children repeatedly pull me out of a hole in the ground for 2 hours). While I spend 15 hours this week following up on those meetings and leads, candidates for our local elections will be holding campaign meetings that I would like to become involved in. I'll be rewriting my resume tonight instead of writing the Great Canadian Novel. And just the possibility of landing a great overseas contract will once again hinder my dreams of coaching soccer or joining a team or buying too many new animals requiring care in our absence.

As I struggle to balance this re-awakening with the person I've worked hard to become since starting this blog 3 years ago, I need to keep in front of me first and foremost that I'm a dad, a partner, a land steward, a community member, a writer, a friend. Somehow the way may open up for more, but that's more variety and scope, not more quality or importance. And even if I can't have it all, I can give my all to whatever I choose to invest in. Here's to dreaming big while living in the moment.

Oct 26, 2011

The Right to Pee

Downtown Vancouver, about to board the skytrain, no public toilet in sight. But behold, across the street is Trees Organic Coffee, where I enjoyed some good cheesecake and amazing apple pie back in the day. I slip right through to the back without meeting any eyes, but alas, one needs a key. As I sidle back up to the counter, the worker anticipates my request and points to the key on a hook.

Why is the key needed? To keep out unwanted people. Which means that country boy Rick, with purple pants and travellers backpack, is still on the Wanted list. Even though I haven't dropped a dime there in 4 years and have no intention of doing so today (though plenty of temptation.)

What would it feel like to be one of the people who are not welcome to use this bathroom? To have to find a quiet place behind a garbage bin in the alley and hope the police don't happen by, or walk all the way back to the East Side where a public facility exists? What would it feel like to be told that you're not human enough to be allowed to pee here?

This world is plenty welcoming and accommodating for an educated middle-class fairly-clean WASP like me. As I get on that train with no fears of making it to the end of the line comfortably, I'm thankful for my privileged position. And sad that a key has to exist at all; that the basic human right and dignity to relieve oneself is still considered a privilege.

Oct 24, 2011

Exciting is Exhausting (but not vice versa)

First day of a 6-day, 3-province road trip, highlights the amazing and whirling life of a consultant. After a final breakfast and endearing good bye hugs, hopped the Greyhound for an hour of reviewing documents and some more shut-eye. Then started the real work:

- training proposal on grantwriting and RFP bids for a new potential client
- introductory letter to send tomorrow to delegates of the Coast Waste Management Association, inviting them to visit the Cowichan Energy Alternatives prototype kiosk for collecting waste residential vegetable oil that we'll then convert to biofuel
- meeting with the Western Canada representative for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to explore my prospects for overseas consultancy work
- popped by Heritage Canada to thank them for 2 recent grants for our local "The Hub" community centre
- facilitated a final 3-hour fundraising training session with EMBERS, a non-profit client in Vancouver's downtown eastside
- facilitated a training-of-trainers for men who will be facilitating Dancing Star Birth prenatal men's workshops
- tea and Oreos with dear old friends (only one of whom reads my blog), on whose floor I'm about to crash for a few hours before their excited children find me in the morning

This is the stuff of consulting. Tonnes of variety, new interesting projects, an exhilarating list of new prospects - reminds me so much of my dating life in college. Sometimes I long for the stability and long-term commitment of a regular job, and sometimes I wonder how I'd ever thrive again without this stimulus. All I can really be sure about is that it's 11:27 and I'm one happy and tired traveller.

Oct 19, 2011

Boycot Santa (Occupy the North Pole)

I like the way the Occupy Wall Street movement is evolving. Not just the way it's spreading, but the way it's slowly finding a direction. Now it's time to make a calendar together.

It started out to be reactionary, or what one of my readers coined "victimism." I wrote that we needed to take more responsibility for our society. That same reader summed it much more poetically: "The voices are implying that the 99% are hapless victims of evil overlords, but we have all sewn many stitches in our economic straitjackets."

In Shakespeare's Henry VI, two would-be revolutionaries propose to begin their societal purge by killing all the lawyers. The sign telling Wall Street businessmen to "Jump, Fuckers" is along that same angry, reactionary, Other-focused stream. An energy that most of us feel, trying vainly to believe that if we only could knock off that evil 1% controlling us, that all would be well. But it just doesn't work like that - true lasting change begins from within.

But now I feel a shift towards action, arising naturally out of the initial chaos, organic and grassroots as squash in the compost pile. November 5 has been declared "Bank Transfer Day", an absolutely brilliant first move. It hits the corporate world where it hurts, but more importantly it is a positive step towards investing our resources in ways that align with our beliefs. And it's a permanent move, not just a temporary boycott that They need to weather. If we protest outside Wallmart they'll just wait until we go away, or have us arrested. But if we all simply stop shopping there, they lose their power.

So while we 99% are on the same page, what else can we do? What comes after the banks? Let's get going on a list of changes that We can implement, individually and corporately, that will just have us creating and living the world we want, marginalizing the 1% and the system they represent. Things like:

- tear up that Costco membership and join a CSA. What if Nov.12 we all mailed in our Costco cards to their head office, and that same day went to a centralized website to find the nearest CSA or farmers market?

- learn to can and dehydrate and freeze stuff from our own garden. Nov.19 isn't too late for an international Apple Preservation Day, with community gleaning then workshops all over the land to make homemade apple sauce and vow not to buy Del Monte products ever again.

- get all of our investments out of the stock market (even out of most ethical investment funds which are just a Best-of-the-Worst) and into local investments that fully align with our values. Imagine 100,000 people doing that on Nov.26.

- we could devote all of December to boycotting commercial consumerist Christmas. Make a collective vow to only give presents from local artisans or our own loving hands. Not do any shopping during the end-of-year sales. Eat that homemade apple sauce and preserves instead of Chinese oranges. Bake your own fruitcake (no-one eats it anyways). Be Santa's helper, not his customer.

- build your next house out of mud. OK, that's a bit hard to all do on the same day, maybe not the best example.

That's just off the top of my head. What else can we do, ideally all on the same day to simultaneously send a powerful message and to support/celebrate each other, to "be the change we want to see in the world?"

Oct 17, 2011

Acceptable Teen Violence

PARENTAL ADVISORY: West Side Story contains suggestive language and physical violence. Three killings are depicted, as well as an attempted sexual assault. A gun is fired. Parents might consider this production unsuitable for children under the age of 12.
- Vancouver Opera website
My eldest is only about to turn 10, but I still find it hard to believe that I'll want to expose him to 3 killings, a shooting and a sexual assault when he's 13. When I stay at hotels and do the obligatory channel surfing for a few hours (like any good simpleton with TV deprivation at home), my adult brain and soul are quickly disturbed by the vast proportion of shows centred on violence - particularly against women and children. Disturbed enough that I've easily stuck to my vow to not watch them (see below), not let them colour how I view the world.

What is our societal fascination with forensics, sex crimes, abductions and violence? And more to the point of this musing, why would we willingly indoctrinate our children into it? Note that the Vancouver Opera is even offering a family deal - just $25 for your child to not miss out on this important cultural learning.

Yes, West Side Story is fantastic, and a must-see for anyone interested in our Western culture. And yes, there will be a time when our children are emotionally and cognitively ready for such an experience, and ready to start processing the full range of societal experience, good and bad. I just find it mighty hard to believe that it'll be in 3 years.

Here's my own experience of horror movies, written a few years back:

Keep your eyes off The Girl Next Door

It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’ve given up on sleep. Horrible images from that movie won’t let me rest. Images I never should have seen.

Wrong Girl Next Door
I admit I was trying to watch an R-rated Risky Business kind of trash while my wife’s away, but instead of a voluptuous The Girl Next Door – “a sex-soaked teen comedy that actually has a heart” according to Rotten Tomatoes – I got assaulted by “Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.”

Don’t ever, ever watch this movie. It is nothing but a graphic portrayal of child abuse. I am now stuck with images that make me afraid to go back to bed, afraid of giving my brain enough space to dredge them back up again. Why oh why did any person write, produce, distribute or watch it?

Why do we love horror?
I won’t say anything more about that movie that should be burnt. But why do we ever watch other shows that, like this one, can be classified in genres like “crime”, “drama”, “horror”, and “thriller?” What’s with our fascination with crime shows like LA Law, kidnap movies like Ransom - heck let’s even throw in Rambo.

Some are well written and produced, but that still doesn’t answer the question of why we watch them. “Unforgiven” was a powerful masterpiece probably deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award, but it still subjected me to 2 hours of violence, despair, rape, abuse and vengeance. Those just aren’t topics I want or need to be reminded of in such a powerful way.

Dead bodies don’t make a great date
Take a recent CSI Miami as another example, in which Spoiler TV promises “A serial killer who hasn’t been heard from in eight years seems to be back in business.” A self-proclaimed “CSI fanatic” eagerly anticipates this “entertainment”, writing “This one looks extremely intense! In the spoiler clip, we see that the entire team gets called to the harbor for a dead body.”

Just what in that description makes people want to watch it? “Hey honey, let’s spend some quality time together watching a show about a serial killer – it starts with a dead body!”

If it’s the challenge of figuring out a mystery, read an Agatha Christie novel or join a Mensa club. If it’s the pure adrenaline rush of the Bourne trilogy (my own past fixation), maybe I should have gone jogging. Anything to discontinue the self-inflicted exposure to the dark side.

There are better ways to learn about the world
No, we don’t need to close our eyes to the negatives in our world. We desperately need to know more and do more about the ongoing travesties in the Congo and the injustices to the homeless in our own streets. But not by exploiting it for entertainment value. Let’s go to CBC or NPR, whatever news source we trust for this research, not Hollywood.

Saving Private Ryan did heighten my perception of what that war might have felt like for some, but I don’t pretend that it’s contrived storyline taught me anything about the causes of war, how to prevent it, or anything that is of importance beyond a “Never Again” conviction.

Let’s treat ourselves better than this.

Immersing ourselves in horror and crime and violence just for entertainment sake is at the very least unhealthy, often exploitative, and ultimately damaging. It numbs us. It brings up energy in an unnatural way. And it makes us think things are more common than they are – paints such a consistently negative picture of the world that we end up scared to let our kids play outside.

Yes I’m ranting. It’s 3:20am and I’m still scared to go back to bed. I should have just watched Dirty Dancing or The Muppets or anything that makes me smile, makes me believe in goodness in the world, makes me have sweet dreams. Now that’s entertainment.

Oct 9, 2011

Thanks for Nothing

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and I am thankful for Nothing. On a 3-day romantic get-away in a haunted hotel on Saltspring Island, and Nothing is right.

Nothing on the To-Do list. Three whole days with just me and Sarah and sweet sweet time. We spent the whole Saturday morning enjoying the “farmers” market (82 artisans, 22 baked goods, 5 farmers). Long hike with views over the ocean to the East and West. Two naps (so far). Delicious dinners out and local produce picnic lunches. Long long talks and dreams and financial visioning from rocks overlooking the ocean, fish&chips joint flooded with the sunset, 5-Rhythms Dance with our incomparable dance-diva friend Shawna, hotel queen-sized bed with the TV cabinet closed (except for that really bad chick-flick about the Playboy centre-fold who becomes a sorority house mom.)

The awareness of this sweet Nothingness became poignant in the final half-hour of preparing to leave the house. As we scrambled to pack, close up the house and leave instructions for my mom and kids to keep the farm going, we rushed past all the Work we would have otherwise been doing this long weekend. Stepped over the broken doorsill, passed by the piles of garlic to be processed, walked under the falling insulation that needs ceiling board, and through the open doorway that really needs that new door hung. Covered up the apples to be canned, piled up the laundry to be folded, put all that FreeRange Consulting work back on the shelf to finish later. Walked through the garden that’s ready to put to sleep for the winter, through the greenhouse of tomatoes that needs a final harvest pronto before the frost gets serious, and out to feed the cow and water buffalo in the tub that needs replacing with a real pallet hayfeeder. Then drove down the driveway alongside the cabin that will get interior plaster on Monday, out by the farm stand that needs to be replenished with garlic and apple butter, and up the road past the mailbox that we haven’t collected in a week.

In so many ways this is the worst timing to run away. Just when we’re exhausted from the spring/summer farming and think it’s rest time, October is our busiest month – final food preservation, winter gardening, and this reno that’s so temptingly close to Done. But these three days have let us clear our heads, reconnect with each other and ourselves, rest, get some perspective. We’re the star basketball player who hates being called off for a breather, but then goes back onto the court with renewed vigour. That huge list of time-sensitive Things-to-Do now looks not only do-able, but enjoyable again – stuff we Want to do. And the circles that Sarah and I have been running in are at least concentric again, joined and overlapping and coherent.

So thank you Grandma for the chance to sit back and take stock, to breathe deep with my wife – out with the overwhelm, in with the appetite. We return this afternoon ready for our children, our land, this ambitious life we choose and thrive in and for which we are truly Thankful.

Oct 7, 2011

Wall Street protest

While my body (and romantic heart) are about to go on a 3-day Saltspring Island getaway with my beautiful wife, my activist brain and soul are down on Wall Street, marching in solidarity with a nation waking up and taking action against the ever-increasing corporate control of our society. At the G8/G20 protests last year we tried to engage or confront the governments, but it is perhaps speaking more to the base of power to go straight to the corporate sector.

What follows below is the first official, collective statement of the protesters in Zuccotti Park. While I agree with pretty much every statement and do believe they're identifying key pieces of the puzzle, I'm disturbed by the focus on "THEY." Corporations only have the power that WE give to them. Every time we shop, vote, select a media source, accept a job, hit a cash machine, sign up for flight miles on our corporate visa card, even choose an internet browser, we are not just giving THEM power; we are part of that energy. Let's first face up to where WE are in those THEY statements below, then let some solutions flow.

The protests are great and I truly wish I was there (instead of being "virtually there" through Avaaz), but the huge societal change that is needed will only really come when we are ready to invest all of our resources and energy, establish and meet all of our needs, and derive all of our Joy through ethical means. Which in my mind pretty much means local, organic, people you know and trust, small businesses who responsibly reinvest your money in your community: ie, not corporations.

Anyways, here's what our sisters and brothers down on Wall Street have come together to say (with my devil's advocate WE responsibility statements following in italics; "WE" meaning the majority of Canadian/American citizens, and, let's face it, a lot of us imperfect activists too - I went to Walmart yesterday):

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
WE chose to buy larger and larger houses, ignoring how it pushed us beyond our financial limits.

They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
WE still shop and invest there.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one's skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
WE still shop there.

They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
WE still balk at the cost of organic food at the local farmers' market - "i'd eat local and organic, but it's too expensive."

They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
WE still wear make-up.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
WE still wear nike shoes.

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
WE vote for governments who reduce funding to educational institutes, making them more dependent on corporations.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
WE still buy from them.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
All of these "they" statements are de-facto treating corporations as people, not recognizing the human beings behind them and our connection to them.

They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
WE vote for governments with a "lower-taxes" platform, ignoring the cuts that it will necessitate.

They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
WE use credit cards and sign up for flight miles and hang out on facebook and google and willingly give away or sell our privacy.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
WE still make CNN and Fox the most-watched news sources.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
WE still buy products from those same companies.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
WE just voted stephen harper back into power, and quite possibly will return george bush's party to power.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
WE still vote for those politicians.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
WE still drive much larger vehicles than most places in the world, and still don't fork out the extra money for biodiesel or electric cars.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
WE still rely on the conventional western medical system.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
BP still sells its products here.

They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
WE choose not to adequately use alternative media sources to find the truth out for ourselves.

They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
WE just gave majority power to a prime minister who wants to increase penal institutions.

They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
WE buy non-fair-trade products.

They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
WE still support the military.

They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.
We still support the military.

To the people of the world, We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

Oct 5, 2011

My skinhead kids

"Dad, I want to shave my head and join the army." Well, that's not exactly what the boys said, but that's how it felt. And like anything that evokes a strong gut reaction, there were some unexpected lessons to be learned; shedding assumptions and biases takes longer than shaving a bit of cerebral growth.

We have a long relationship with long-haired boys in this family, so it took a lot of cajoling to break out the old buzz cut razor. The kids were trembling with excitement at this new follicular journey; I was trembling with the fear that my boys would be lost in the frenzy, their quirky sweet natures swept away with the golden locks on the kitchen floor.

They weren't, of course, lost, but definitely harder to find. For the first days and even months we still had trouble recognizing our boys. Our perhaps more precisely, trouble distinguishing them from the crowd. Our precious protected TV-less Waldorf Quaker pacifist organic-eating gnome-knitting children looked just like any other kid on the public park playground.

So the first thing I had to let go of was attachment to my children looking different; to associating their special unique natures with the way they dress and do their hair. The photo still shows G's goofy antics and Z's raw excitement at life - much too pure to be disguised by any hair or lack thereof.

I also had to face up to the judgement I carry about how other parents' children dress and look. To assume anything about a child just because of her hair or school or logo on his shirt is a disservice and dishonouring of that child, who's every bit as precious and unique and extra-ordinary in the eyes of her parent as my children are to me.

Finally, and perhaps most challenging, I have to accept that it's OK for our children to run with the pack a bit, to be "normal" or "mainstream" in some ways. They like hockey cards, skiing, Elvis Presley, bike jumps, soccer, and many other "normal" things (a lot like their papa). There are still elements of a child's "typical" upbringing that I continue to shelter my boys from - mainstream media and internet being the biggest - but a lot of what's common in this world is common because it's OK. We spend so much energy teaching our children that it's OK to be different, unique, special, that perhaps we forget to tell them or ourselves that it's also OK to be a normal kid.

In the end, what makes my children special isn't a unique look or ability or school or music repertoire. It's their souls irrepressibly shining through all of that. How we guide them and shelter or expose them (while we still can) is important, but the way we love and honour and support them in whatever new Way they're trying on is ultimately the greatest gift we can give them.

I still prefer my children with longer hair. I still prefer them singing Russian folksongs in 3-part harmony (tonight's musical adventure) to Lady Gaga, and watching their nimble fingers dance over a violin or a cross-stitch project rather than on a video game. But I honour that somewhere nearby, some other Papa maybe watched his buzz-cut boy do a fantastic dance imitation of Justin Bieber and loved him just as thoroughly as I did my boys tonight.

Oct 2, 2011

Love is the Buzz

As I was almost falling out of an apple tree yesterday, watching half-drugged wasps lazily supping on some apples, I mused on what makes them do it. They're about to die, yet still trying to get just a little more sustenance for next year's brood. Their last dying acts, like their first, are to serve the group and their young.

Today as I stumbled through an exhausting day of construction, apple processing and the final lawn mowing of the year, I wondered if I'm so different. Life would certainly be easier and more comfortable with no kids. We'd have a smaller energy-efficient house, eat less, travel more, work less, and sleeeeeeeeep deeeeeeeep. So why have we chosen this difficult path, this extreme sacrifice for the sake of our progeny?

No doubt at some molecular level it's the same drive as my wasp friends (the ones in the apple tree, that is) - survival of the species. And of my genes in particular. I live alot longer than bees, but in the end it just ends unless my kids and grandkids are fruitful and multiply and come to dominate the earth. My old reptilian brain doesn't question, it just drives me to procreate.

But my over-evolved human neocortex isn't so sure. I am unwittingly part of this basic instinctual drive to spread my seed as if it's the only thing that matters, even though while picking apples I was wondering why I should care if the world continues after I'm gone. Really, why would it be a tragedy if this whole, brief experience of mankind just ended?

In the end, my limbic system and frontal lobe come to the rescue, over-riding all my instincts and reasoning. They flood me with the emotional experience of Love, and Joy, excitement, the pure ecstasy of being a parent. I chose to have children because I love children. I choose daily to devote the vast majority of my energy and focus on my children because I love my children. Sure it might just be some cognitive trick that our over-analyzing brains had to come up with to continue the species, but I buy it. I live it. Children are my drugs, the opiate of our masses.

As drop-dead tired as I was all day, it was worth it to cut that grass before the rains come so that the kids can enjoy playing soccer all winter on a field that isn't soaking with 3-inch grass blades catching water. Putting away enough apples and apple sauce to feed the whole valley is worth it to send our children to school with happy, healthy lunches all winter. I'll forgo world travel for a few decades in exchange for the vivid journey through our boys' childhood.

I still complain sometimes about not having enough time to Do Things because I'm so busy caring for the boys. But that is life, the life I've chosen and continually choose. The day doesn't start after they're dropped at school; the day was full and bursting with life during the 2 hours of being with them and getting them clean and fed and dressed and confident and loved and packed and there on time and hugged good bye. And while they're gone, I'm spending my day buzzin' happily, collecting nectar and making honey for when they come home to me.
In my sons' eyes I can see the future
A reflection of who I am and what shall be
And though they'll grow and someday leave
Maybe make a family
When I'm gone I hope you'll see how happy they've made me
I'll be there, in my sons' eyes
- one of our nighttime songs, adapted from a Martina McBride song

Sep 30, 2011

Small Town Business

Doing business on an island is kinda like planting garlic - you take your time, mix in alot of manure, lean on the hoe and talk about planting methods and weather with your neighbour, and eventually something juicy and delicious comes up.

For 3 weeks I've been beating my head against the wall trying to find 50-grit silica sand for the finishing plaster of our bedroom extension. Ron at Victoria Clay Arts explained that they only carry potters grade sand, and spent an extra 15 minutes going over the various applications of silica, diverging into how the Zinc Oxide we're using as white pigment can also be for pottery, food-grade or other applications, where to get different types, etc etc. Happy to share his expertise whether I needed it or not. Gruff and real and friendly and scary, that's Ron.

I finally hooked up with Jeremy at Sleggs Lumber up in Nanaimo. He'll order it in by Monday, and offered to ship it down to Victoria in the pick-up of his manager. I asked if the manager could be bribed to stop in Duncan en route and drop it off for me, perhaps in exchange for some organic heritage WildSide garlic. Which of course launched us into a discussion about what garlic I grow, how I got the original planting bulbs from Steve and Gail just up the road, when and why we moved from Vancouver, etc, and ended up not only with his manager Mel agreeing to the drop-off, but his co-worker Ken also ordering 20 bulbs.

So thanks to Ron, Jeremy, Mel and Ken, I not only will have my plaster supplies brought to me by Monday, but I know a lot more about pottery and lumber supply chains and have a new garlic customer.

By the way, all 1200 of our garlic bulbs came up beautiful this year, so we are selling that garlic at $10 for 5 bulbs. Come on by our roadside stand, or Sarah can bring some into Vancouver next week. Just let us know -

Sep 28, 2011

Seeing in the dark

Since I seem to be on a roll with sizing up personalities in the last few posts, let me continue with another hypothesis - you can tell a lot about people by their quirks and special talents. Take my feet for example. No, not the permanent fungus and nail-bed damage from too much Africa and too small ski boots. The eyes on em.

Yup, I gots me some eyes on my toes. They see in the dark. It started at Casa Guatemala when I ran out of batteries for my cheap flashlight and couldn't be bothered to buy new ones. One of my jobs at the orphanage was to turn off the diesel generator about an hour after dark. I'd wander down the dirt path yelling out "Voy a pagar la luz" and every teacher in the compound would yell back, "No, not yet Richard" and I'd laugh and continue on behind the buildings to the generator shack. The best moment was just after turning off those noisy belching electricity-making beasts, hearing the wails of the half-made-up young teachers rise then slowly subside, and the whole world accepting that it was plunged into darkness and silence, the hidden sounds of the jungle finally emerging to take back their night domain. True true peace.

Then I'd remember that I had to get back with no light. So I learned to feel the path step by step with my bare feet, discerning the harder-tread path from the lighter dust on the side, gently sliding over tree roots, feeling for the slight sloping rise on the side of the path. Many a night I was aided by the frequent electrical storms in the sky, which would light up the whole jungle like a giant flash camera. I'd memorize the path in front of me, then run forward as far as I felt like I could remember, then stop and wait another minute or two or five for the next lightening flash to reveal the next 20 yards of path. The 2 minute walk sometimes took 20 to get back out, but there was no hurry in this jungle. Work was done, children were asleep, it was just me and my bare feet making love with the jungle track.

Four years later my house was down another lush tropical path just up from Lake Malawi in Tanzania. In finding a piece of land to build on, I'd started by walking at night as far as I could from the hospital compound until I could no longer hear their generator. The trade-off of silence for lack of electricity was more like a double-bonus - the nighttime ritual of entering my house slowly and feeling on the window ledge for the matches and lantern that would be my 4-foot sphere for the rest of the night was the instant slow-down we lack in our instant- and bright-lit world. My world was 4-feet round, keeping my focus right where I was and on what I was doing, and requiring a deliberate shifting of worlds to move to another activity or room. For fun I installed a light switch at the doorway, which fooled every visitor and even me after 3 years - a lighthearted reminder of the convenience and distraction we enjoy, suffer, and take for granted in Everything Everywhere North American life.

Once again, I had to walk down a long path to get home, this time lushly overgrown with tall grasses on both sides. I felt not only with my feet as before, but now also with my shins and thighs, gauging where the grass was bending in too much on one side. In the rainy season I'd be sloshing through the streams that formed in the well-worn path, feeling the direction and speed of the water as I navigated upstream then, upon feeling the inflow of my particular feeder stream, veering off the path toward my own home. In dry season, it was again the ruts and the slopes, the sudden feeling of roughness or vegetation to say I'd stepped too far out of line.

The common thread between Guatemala and Tanzania is more than just a Ricky too cheap to invest in a good flashlight and batteries. They were both times when I had/took time to enjoy the walk. Time to adjust, to get in-sync with nature and be part of it, let the natural world guide me. Trust in my senses other than just sight and thinking. Be open to the changing seasons - coming from a world where our roads are built to perform the same every minute of every season, living on a path that changed constantly and predictably was a fascinating learning experience.

I still love to do it, love to walk barefoot in the night and slow down enough to feel my way around. It's a reminder that I don't have to get the chickens put away in 2 minutes flat - as I feel my land under me I'm also seeing the sky above, the waving silhouettes of the giant trees that were here before me and will be here after. I'm hearing the screech owl and whooping cranes and how much louder the highway is at night, or rather how much quieter the world is that usually drowns those big trucks. I can't taste the air the way Zekiah can, but I am feeling the air on my face, in my throat, on my eyelids, sensing if there's rain on the way.

Sometimes the best way to see your path is to close your eyes.


Who needs to read palms? My new personality test is to read bicycle tires.

Sending the family to buy Sarah a new inner tube, I told her she needs 28 x 1 5/8 x 1 3/8. Reactions may tell a lot about our family:

Sarah - "What do those measurements mean? Do they have to be in that order? Why..."
Rick - "Just tell them that, you don't need to understand why."
Z (excited) - "I know, there's three of us going, so we can each memorize one. I'll remember 28. That'll be easy for, cause I'll just have to remember 20, and I'm turning 8 soon."
G - "I've forgotten mine already."

Sep 25, 2011

Bathroom calculations

No, I'm not writing about how much money and carbon footprint we save with our re-usable toilet wipes. This is about our 7-year-old, sitting on the throne just down the hall from our dinner table, figuring out the world.

His mind finds patterns, permutations, solutions, reasons. He just loves to figure out systems, come up with innovative ideas, keep us on track with our plans. Halfway through that last sentence I heard him reminding Sarah that we still have to make the fruit leathers we talked about over breakfast. This morning he figured out a tracking system on our blackboard for our new pledge to each process 25 apples/day.

Last night as we finished dinner and he was already eliminating it, he overheard us talking about how Sarah made thicker-than-usual tortillas tonight. First we had to explain down the hall how she did it. Then he announced that we should always do it that way. They taste better. They're more filling, so we don't have to eat as many, and it doesn't take as long to finish a meal so we won't be so tired. And it will take less cooking time to cook fewer tortillas, thereby saving electricity, "so that's good too, right Mama?"

For any simple idea or challenge, he comes up with not only the main idea/solution but also 2 or 3 deeper layers. If we have the audacity to suggest that we just need to pack up and jump in the car, he'll quickly correct that we also need to zip the backpacks, put on our shoes and close the door. In arguing against finally re-hanging the inside front door, he complained that we'd then have to open and close two doors to get outside. Then in the winter, with having to close the door behind us each time, that would be 8 opening/closings just to go outside for a quick pee.

When he was three, we tasked him with sorting our wide-mouth and narrow-mouth canning jars and lids. Before I could even suggest a way of figuring out the different sizes, he quickly devised a system of holding a jar upside down on top of another jar to compare circumference, then appropriate boxes for each set of jars and lids after doing those measurements.

Our youngest has always been our organizer, our thinker (the older, if I must continue with sweeping generalizations, being the dreamer and visionary.) It's fascinating and at times scary to watch his cognitive capacity grow with age, experience, and the tools he acquires in school and daily life. If I show discipline in not trying to race ahead and predict his path in life, it's mostly because of the unfathomable range of possibilities a mind like that will have. And in a world that is expanding at a similarly exponential rate, he'll likely end up in some field that doesn't even exist today. All we need for now is to continue feeding that hunger - turning him on with tasks like sorting coins, coring apples and remembering the 11 things we have to do on our next trip to town - and enjoy tagging along whatever path his mind and soul will take him along.

Sep 18, 2011

RIP Coach Ricky

We've all, hopefully, had good teachers, good coaches, good music teachers and club leaders and summer camp leaders who served as positive, motivating role models when we needed them. I can rattle off the names of my piano teacher, grades 3,4 and 6 school teachers, and my soccer coach as just some examples of adults who have deeply influenced who and how I am today.

So now that I have the chance to join their ranks - Galen's soccer league is crying out for volunteer coaches - why am I not jumping at the chance? I know and love soccer and kids. I'm even a certified coach. I have freedom around my work schedule and no travel. My number one job is supposed to be Stay at Home Dad, serving my kids in whatever way possible.

The sad answer is, I had a bad coaching experience that's scared me away. My second year of coaching Galen's team in Vancouver started out great, with an assistant coach who agreed to cover me when I would have to do a work trip to Africa. Unfortunately, post-election violence postponed that trip, and by the time I could travel the assistant's boy had decided soccer was not his calling. So I called the parents together and two of them agreed to carry the team until my return.

I arrived home not only to the utter breakdown of the team - no balls, no practices, no interim coaches - but also to shoulder all the blame. The fact that I'd made the volunteer commitment with the explicit understanding that I would have to travel, and then twice made necessary back-up arrangements, didn't matter. I was irresponsible. I alone had let the kids down. I should never have signed up in the first place (even though none of them had stepped up when the league was short volunteers, nor when the back-up coaches failed to deliver.)

There was even an intimation that I should not have popped off to Africa - that their 4-year-olds' soccer was more important than the schools and women's rights and health programs I was responsible for in Kenya. Sounds just a little like the local dance company who refused to reschedule one of their children's rehearsals to allow for a hugely popular community event (Canucks Stanley Cup finals screening).

That jet-lagged afternoon in my own living room with my mother and good friend lashing into me about Responsibility, and another dad calling on the phone with the same message, still hurts, and still feels unjust. I was a volunteer doing the best I could for all our children, and the collective group of parents failed to pick up the few weeks that I could not. And everyone was ignoring the bottom line: as far as I know the children loved me and were improving and were enjoying the game.

The trip was unavoidable, and the fact that the back-up parents didn't deliver was beyond my control. So the only way to avoid that disaster would have been to not volunteer, to throw that burden on some other volunteer's shoulders. Or to have the kids go without a coach. And I still don't look back and think that would have been the right decision. Leagues run on volunteers, and this league accepted me with my limitations because it was far better than the alternative of no coach.

But I'm ashamed to admit that each year since, I've made that wrong decision. I've let that hurt keep me from the true Joy of giving to children as a coach. I'll never be Mr. Samphire or Mr. McKay to a group of kids looking for leadership and fun and growth. And every year that I sign my kids up for sports I'll be hoping that some other good person does have more courage than I do and agrees to be that person in my child's life.

But I promise this. I will never judge a volunteer coach for trying his/her best. And when that volunteer needs help, instead of throwing blame I'll be throwing myself in to help. So hats off to all volunteer coaches and leaders - for the good of our children you have my deepest appreciation, a splash of envy, and when you need it, my support.

Sep 11, 2011

9/11 - Looking Back 10 Years

It took a while to sink in. Hijacked planes, terrorism on home soil, fear, anger. An hour, then a day, now even years later figuring out what it meant, what it still means.

This morning 10 years ago Sarah and I were in a coffee shop on Congress Avenue in Austin Texas, signing papers for the purchase of a 4-cottage property that was to become our co-housing community. As the agent droned about legal stuff, I glanced up occasionally to see images of a plane crash. As we signed more and more papers for a million dollar, multi-family property, I found myself looking up more and more, slowly but still slightly understanding what was going on.

In the elevator to my office, my cell phone rang (yes, I had one then) and my boss told me to get home. "But that was in New York," I protested, "And I'm already here anyways." Her reply chilled and awoke me, "We are under terrorist attack. You are one block from the capital building of George Bush's home state. Get home."

A few weeks later I was almost beat up by the owner of a nightclub where we held a fundraiser. We stepped outside of the noisy bar so I could politely discuss the inflammatory potential of the mat at the base of the men's urinal - a picture of Osama Bin Laden with encouragement to piss on him. "HE KILLED THOUSANDS OF MY BROTHER AMERICANS!" he angrily defended. I calmly pointed out that the picture looked like Muslims who are our neighbours and fellow Americans. When he denied any link or threat to Peaceful Americans, I pointed out the attacks on Mosques in Austin and across America. But his anger and hatred were all-consuming, and if I hadn't brought 300 people into his bar he'd have beat the tar out of me right there in the alley. The anger and fear and Us-vs.-Them division in his eyes was the first taste I had of the real effects of this attack.

Like most of America and people around the world, we spent the full day of September 11 in shock, watching the same CNN reports and videotapes over and over, not understanding. It was a waste of time, we knew that, but there was nothing else to do, no way to escape this new reality.

And now 10 years later it seems still impossible to escape the new reality. The War on Terror is the new Cold War, the new justification for militarism and invasion of privacy at a frighteningly new and ever-increasing level. Fear is palpable and local, war and violence are right here in middle-class North America, not just "over there" and the other side of the tracks. That bar owner probably still wants to punch me.

That land deal never did work out. Just as well - as Bush/Cheney used 9/11 as justification for Middle East and Homeland Security agendas they'd been waiting decades to carry out, our energy for constant and futile protests and letters gave way to a deep understanding that the US wasn't the right place for us anymore. A land of decreasing love, freedom, privacy, and respect for all people and religions and countries was not the place we'd choose to raise our children, when had a much-better-by-comparison (especially pre-Harper) Canada as an option.

We left the United States not from fear of terrorism, but from the response by the American government, military, and majority of citizens. The true and terrifying outcome of 9/11 did not happen at the World Trade Towers; it happened in the hearts and actions of leaders and followers too afraid to look for a loving response. Let's hope that in the next 10 years we all find the courage to regain hope and stop this self-inflicted terrorism.

Sep 5, 2011

Stolen Lands, Stolen Berries

There's nothing like a big juicy blackberry to bring out the inner Settler in us. At least, that seems to be my tipping point between justice and indulgence.

We had found The Best Blackberry Patch ever. Huge juicy berries by the handful, miles from any busy polluting highway. My Wwoofers and I eagerly started filling out buckets, and I carefully pruned away the thorny berry-less vines blocking full access to the sweet nirvana within.

"This is private land," a voice broke the reverie. A woman from Cowichan Tribes had walked by and was quietly but firmly letting me know that this land belongs to her mother, and she especially doesn't like people pruning her bushes.

My first response was good and honest. I apologized and we quickly packed up our things and headed back down the path. I truly did not know - we had been told by many sources that this was a great berry patch, the trail is an off-shoot of a public nature preserve pathway, and there are no signs or gates. An honest mistake, and an honest apology and withdrawal.

But then the thought of all those delicious unpicked berries clouded my virtuous mind. "There are way too many for her to pick alone. They'll just go bad on the vine. I was doing her a favour with my pruning."

Then a darker questioning of her integrity. "So many people, including the neighbouring sawmill, have said this is public land, maybe she's lying just to keep the berries to herself."

Then finally a good old-fashioned colonialist/settler "I WANT IT" attitude. "Who is she to hoard this resource to herself anyways? This should be public land."

On the sad walk out, with buckets half-full of black berries and head too full of dark thoughts, I poured out my misery to two other white couples walking the path. They both quickly sided with me - in fact, one said he'd been caught picking berries 5 years ago and now only comes at times he thinks they won't be around. There was absolute complicity in the view that these berries and this dog-walking path should be ours, for the sole reason that we happen to like these berries and their dog likes this path.

This country was founded by men like me taking what they wanted then begrudgingly leaving the worst land for the original inhabitants. Then if they later found some value in that land, they'd break the treaty and take it too. Now here I was, scraping for any justification to break yet another treaty just because the one marketable product on this beautiful but unfarmable floodplain are better than the berries on my own land.

I'm now 100% clear in my head that returning to that land, knowing what I now know about its ownership, would be 100% wrong. But there's still a part of my heart that wishes I didn't know so I could continue to steal their berries in blissful innocence. Or that I could some legal loophole or way to bypass their title and get back in there. And even while seeing (and sharing) this experience as part of my continuing self-discovery and growth, uncovering that privileged, entitled, disrespectful settler in me is leaving a bitter taste in those sweet berries.

Sep 3, 2011

United Nations visits the WildSide

Ending the summer with 6 childless days (thanks Grandma!), we've just laid in bed all morning, strolled down to the river for an afternoon swim, pretzels at the bakery, dinner theatre and....

No, of course not. Not us. The first two days were an orgy of Work catch-up by day (FreeRange Consulting work, that is), and food preservation by night. The first night (see photo) we made: blackberry jam, canned blackberries, kombucha, frozen zucchini/squash, zucchini soup for canning, calendula oil, dehydrated kale, dehydrated garlic (to make our own garlic powder), yogurt, frozen cauliflower, and canned tomatoes. A delicious night in every sense of the word.

And for the rest of the week we've been joined by two British travelers here to help with the roof of the cabin bedroom (they found us through, one German Wwoofer in the garden, and a Wildside B&B guest from Taiwan who has to camp out in our tent in the front yard (paying for the privilege, no less). Tomorrow our children return to add to the merry mix of cultures, accents and appetites.

Sometimes I imagine us as people who could just do the strolls and late-morning chai, but mostly I revel in the whirling action of people and chores and Things Getting Done - today we finished the garden box on the roof, many many tasks in the garden, and most exciting of all, mended the cow fence and let baby Baryshnikov out into the pasture. He and his "brother" Snowstar (the cow) were delighted to finally be together, the elder teaching his little buffalo brother how to gallop and gavot; later they lay down side by side for a nap and to chew some cud; later still Snowstar (twice the size of Baryshnikov) tried several times to mount his little brother. Ah, the nature of things.

Sep 1, 2011

Goodbye Summer

Summer is slippery. It crashes onto the shore and sweeps us away in a wave of enthusiasm and ambitious plans, then slowly ebbs away and leaves us dry and thirsty. This summer I swam and played in the early surf, made sandcastles and explored tidepools in the low tide, but still somehow am left wondering about what didn't happen.

Every year I fool myself that summer will be a time of family outings with other families, lazy all-day get-togethers and impromptu "let's camp out tonight" phone calls. There certainly was some lovely time together with lovely people, but in general the first month was all about hunkering down with the kids and the land, and the second month was all about camping and reno's and No Time To Enjoy All This Time.

The tree-fort once again didn't happen - 3rd year in a row. Sleeping with the kids in a tent on our land didn't happen. Fishing with the brand new fishing gear and license was Day One of summer then never again except on camping trips. The kids' "School-Year-In-Review" book is still unwritten, and photo album still unmade. Even that roll of kite-paper I bought the boys as a summer project hasn't even been given to them.

That list of Misses could go on, but much better to focus on what did happen. Late-June & July were glorious months. Kids had a few multi-day trips with Grandma and Uncle Dave so Sarah and I could get organized, do some deep house cleaning/revisioning, and enjoy. In between, we had plenty of energy to spend long hours playing soccer, gardening together, just enjoying functioning as a family. If we didn't pick up the phone to invite folks over, or jump in the car to the next swimming hole, it was because we were getting what we needed right here; in fact, being right here together was exactly what we all needed.

No need to hurry. Slow mornings with breakfast when we felt like it, no lunches to pack, no dress codes to measure by. No social pressures either, just rolling with whomever or whatever rolled up the driveway. No plans often, just creating a day or a week as it unfolded. We still Did plenty, but rarely did it feel programmed or forced or Too Much.

August was the Cram-Too-Much-Summer-In month. Two amazing camping trips and a splendid week with the visiting inlaws meant that the in between times were intensive long-hour workdays on the cabin bedroom extension to keep it on schedule. Those lazy hazy crazy days of summer became just crazy. A hands-on natural building project that really should have been a full-time job was instead crammed between the fun summer stuff I'd promised myself and the boys. Professionally, I could only do what was needed to do a good job with my existing clients but nothing toward building up new clientele. Even the beloved, nourishing, life-giving garden was increasingly relinquished to Wwoofers.

And now it's Sept.1 and my kids are back with Grandma until Sunday, so I can only plan a fun Last Day of Summer outing on Monday then we're back to routine, to outside responsibilities, to other people's demands and needs. There will be blessings to that, of course, and the return to friends and familiarity and community will be a Joy, but for now I just need some time to shake my head at what didn't happen, and to celebrate what gloriously did.