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.