Monday, August 30, 2010

One More Sorrow


Photo by Andrea Paterson

My grandmother passed away suddenly last Saturday. I have no words now except for these that I composed for her eulogy:

Grandma's life was a deeply storied one, lived at the cross point between adventure and narrative. She was a woman who always had the right word and could recall the names of all the plants and animals that populated her daily landscape. As a young child and through my adult life I beheld this as a great and slightly magical power. She could walk out on her back deck into the midst of her wildly blooming garden and call out to the birds by name. She would point out the Mourning Doves, the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds, the Red Headed Woodpeckers, and the Robins that heralded the return of spring. I would stand watching, amazed at her ability to know intimately the migratory visitors in her back yard sanctuary.

But her world didn't stop at the edge of her garden. She was endlessly curious and travelled widely. She brought back stories from what I saw as highly exotic places—the castles of England that she explored with her sister Lois, the mountains of Switzerland, and the whole of the British countryside. She was knowledgeable about history and kings. She sent chills up my spine relating tales of the brutal European monarchy and their dreams of conquest. When she described standing inside the inner circle of Stonehenge staring up at the majesty of the rocks making up that ancient ring her eyes would shine with excitement and the joy that comes from telling a great story. Through recounting her travels and reading to me when I was young she nurtured my own sense of adventure and passed on a passionate love for books. When I stayed at her house we would both climb into bed at night with a plate of buttered Digestive biscuits, a glass of milk, and a book to prop up on our knees. She would read mysteries, I would read the Bobsey Twins and we shared our certainty that good stories are integral to a good life.

Grandma never stopped pursuing adventure and collecting good yarns. During her last days she was busy planning a trip to New York and helping my father trace our family history—giving him the gift of names and anecdotes to carry from here and share with generations to come. She wasn't afraid to face death. She said to my mother that if she died she would finally get to see what lies beyond this life. It was another chapter in her life's story, something to meet with curiosity and incredible bravery. And while she's gone to discover what heaven really is she's left the stories in our keeping. And there are lots of them.

Like the time she put an overzealous cosmetician in her place at the Bay. Grandma, at 80 years of age, was passing through the cosmetics section on her way somewhere else when she was stopped by a chipper, heavily perfumed saleswoman who was trying to hawk anti-wrinkle cream.

It will make you look 10 years younger!” the girl exclaimed.

Grandma, not one to be scammed, said to the girl in a complete deadpan, “Great, so I'll look 70 instead of 80” and left the girl speechless.

And there was a story she told about her teenaged years during the war. Her father didn't let her and Lois date much, but they were allowed to go out with the Officers because their father believed in the old adage of “an officer and a gentleman.”

Well,” Grandma said to me. “We didn't disillusion him.”

Our job now is to remember the stories that we have been entrusted with, to share them, and to weave them into the narratives of our own lives. I think the greatest tribute we can give her is to go out into the world with an open mind and a sense of awe. Grandma embraced life wholeheartedly—telling her story with grace and wit. It is up to us to do the same, to keep writing our family's history and never shy away from the next adventure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From Market to Yum!

Summer Harvest

Harvest. Andrea Paterson. 2010

On Saturday I took my first trip to the Vancouver Farmer's Market downtown and, honestly, it was one of the most exciting food shopping experiences I've ever had. Produce overflowed from cardboard boxes and burlap bags. People were milling about happily filling reusable bags with unusual fruits, organic vegetables, and waxed paper wrapped packages of grass fed, hormone free, antibiotic free meat. I perused all the booths carefully to see what choices I had before deciding on the morning's purchase and I had a really hard time not lugging home pounds of food that would rot in my fridge before I got a chance to eat it. Eventually I decided on a selection of heirloom tomatoes, some glossy purple peppers, two varieties of peaches, red pears, and (the splurge of the day) four all natural lamb chops.

After spreading this food out on my kitchen table I thought long and hard about what to do with it. The tomatoes called to me with their intriguing colours and amusing shapes. They looked like huge candies ranged out on my counter and I wanted to do them justice. One of my favourite summer BBQ foods is bruschetta. My uncle always whips up batches of his famous bruschetta at pool parties and before I discovered a gluten intolerance I would wolf it down piled on toasted slices of baguette. This time around I would have to forgo the baguette, but I've recently discovered Silver Hill's Chia Bread and that made an excellent replacement. The gluten free bread that's on the market tends to be full of highly processed rice flour and a host of unpronounceable ingredients. Silver Hill's Chia Bread is the first offering I've run across that has a completely normal and chemical free ingredient list and a great nutritional profile. Other gluten free bread could be used as well.

Gluten Free Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

About 6 heirloom tomatoes (a variety of kinds and colours), diced
1/2 cup of sundried tomatoes packed in oil
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup fresh basil, stems removed, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
6 slices Silver Hill's Chia Bread, brushed with olive oil, toasted under the broiler, and cut into four squares each

Add all ingredients together and let marinate in a bowl for half an hour. Enjoy on toasted Chia bread or with corn chips. Note that gluten free breads take a lot longer to toast then their wheat counterparts. Monitor the bread carefully as it will tend to go from completely untoasted to burnt very suddenly.

Prep. Andrea Paterson. 2010

Heirloom. Andrea Paterson. 2010

 Bruschetta. Andrea Paterson. 2010.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dare to Eat a Peach

dare to eat a peach, originally uploaded by Amaranth Road Studio.

Exerpt from the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

Prufrock may shy away from the socially awkward act of eating a peach, but anyone with access to the local peaches that are beginning to pour out of the Okanagan Valley would be insane to follow suit. The peaches pictured above are straight from the market across the street and are bound for a cobbler tomorrow. In the meantime I relish even the thought of their sticky sweetness and the anticipation of the first golden bite. I fully intend to let the juice run down the inside of my arms and I expect to lick my fingers clean in a completely uncivilized manner.

When I was about seven my family drove out into the countryside of southwestern Ontario and bought a basket of peaches at a roadside stand. They were the most perfect and delectable peaches I've ever eaten and not one has ever compared. I am still in search of a peach that might rival the memory of the one from my childhood. I can remember sitting in the backseat of the car dripping peach and not caring a bit. It reminds me how infrequently we eat good quality local produce and how our taste buds are being deprived of this alimentary bliss as we grope along the grocery shelves for another tasteless rock of fruit imported from a million miles away. But at least for the moment British Columbia's markets are bursting at the seams with local bounty--blueberries, cherries, peaches, and green beans. I'm planning a trip to the farmer's market downtown on Saturday morning and will report back on what I find there!

Goodbye Facebook

Facebook Vs Myspace

Image by Ben Heine (click picture for link to Flickr)

After much soul searching and deliberation I recently posted the following message on my Facebook page:

Dear Facebook,

As much as I wanted to deny it, this just isn't working out. I kept wanting to leave you but your promise of voyeuristic glimpses into the quotidian minutia of other people's lives drew me back like some kind of deranged addict. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that as a networking platform you dole out more time wasting distractions (ahem...Farmville) than meaningful connections with the people I care about. You fashion people's lives into irrelevant tidbits of information (where my friends went for dinner, what concerts they are seeing, what YouTube video they just watched) and so rarely spark real conversations that I am beginning to feel that your value is minimal. I want to keep in touch with people, but not in this constrained way where we are all defined by how many "friends" we have, what our favourite movies are, and how many photos we're tagged in. I'm craving moments of interaction where people give more than vague allusions to momentous occasions in their lives ("I can't believe that you just did that to me!", "I'm so insanely happy right now," "If only things had turned out differently"). How can I celebrate or sympathize with the people in my life if I don't even know what they're angry, happy, disappointed about?

I think that keeping in touch is fundamentally something tactile--the word "touch" suggests some form of literal interaction with other human beings--and Facebook, I think you create more chasms than bridges between users. Maybe it's working for some people, but I don't think we're on the same page. If you are one of the few who actually use the magic that is the postal system send me an email and I'd be happy to send you a mailing address. I will leave this message up until tonight and then pull the plug.

Keep in touch!

This was a harder thing to do than one might imagine. I signed up for a Facebook account 3 years ago so it's strange to find how entrenched it has become. Clearly my life was fine without it and I began to wonder if using it had enhanced my personal relationships in any way. I had to admit that the answer was no--in fact it may have decreased the quality in that incidences of people sending an email, calling, or *gasp* writing a letter to see what I'm up to have declined because they can surreptitiously stalk my Facebook page, thus avoiding any need to contact me directly.

And yet the decision to delete my Facebook account came with odd levels of anxiety. I was worried that I might lose touch with someone important or miss out on some massive event. But really, if people are important I'm going to find other ways to keep in touch and if an event is truly going to impact my life I'll hear about it some other way.

When I finally hit the "delete account" button I had to type in one of those security words--you know the randomly generated words that you have to enter in order to prove you're a real person? Well the two words that came up were SURLIER DIVORCE. Huh. How strangely apt. But I'm not running back to that destructive relationship.

I think it's time to cut back on the online junk food. Just like food diets, media diets can either nourish you or negatively impact your mental health and I think Facebook might be the media equivalent of high fructose corn syrup--it's this highly distilled, highly processed product masquerading as the real, organic thing that spawned it. Corn becomes unrecognizable in corn syrup and friendship becomes unrecognizable on Facebook. In a strange instance of irony Facebook made me faceless, obscured me more than it exposed me, and buried me under scores of contrived social interactions. Having 200 "friends" on Facebook is no replacement for friends that physically populate your life. I want to start paying more attention to those relationships. I want to write more letters and actually stick a stamp on them and put them in the mail. I want to make time for more phone calls to my family and friends back in Ontario. I want to get together regularly with the friends I have here in Vancouver and help to strengthen the relationships we've been building over the past four years. Facebook won't help me do any of those things so I'm swearing it off. Cold turkey. And I'm already feeling just a little bit shaky, but if my previous experience giving up eggs, dairy, and gluten are any indication once I get over the detox phase I'm going to feel far better. Now, does anyone know where I can get a pen pal?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Being Somebody

TORONTO (Reuters) - A woman in the Toronto area has admitted to faking cancer, running a bogus charity and collecting thousands of dollars from people who thought she was dying, a Toronto newspaper reported.

Ashley Anne Kirilow, 23, shaved her head and eyebrows, plucked her eyelashes, and starved herself to look like she was going through chemotherapy treatments, the report in the Toronto Star said.

She befriended different local groups and recruited volunteers to help her organize events and benefit concerts in her own honor, and even convinced a cancer awareness organization -- Skate4Cancer -- to fly her to Disney World to fulfill what she said was a dying wish. All told, she raised C$20,000 ($19,400), volunteers said.

Her charity 'Change' for Cure, was never registered with tax authorities. On its Facebook page, which has over 4,000 members, she said it was "started October 2009 one very late night while I was sick in bed after my 'Chemo Day.'" (

The Star said Kirilow contacted the paper, saying she was sorry for what she had done.

"I was trying to be noticed. I was trying to get my family back together. I didn't want to feel like I'm nothing anymore. It went wrong, it spread like crazy, and then it seemed like the whole world knew," the paper quoted her as saying.

(Reporting by John McCrank; Editing by Frank McGurty)

It would be easy to dismiss Ashley Kirilow’s story as the actions of a deranged person committing a horrible act of fraud--and certainly she should be punished for her abuse of public trust and goodwill, but I have to wonder if her desperate bid for attention says something about the world we are living in, and the preponderance of social media in particular. As the internet becomes more and more entrenched into our daily lives we have become, as a culture, people who feel an incessant drive to broadcast ourselves whether it is through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or countless other social networking sites. While these sites are not inherently bad there are certainly a number of negative side effects that result from being able to access so many minute details of peoples’ lives, pursuits, and accomplishments. One of these side effects is anonymity combined with a crushing of individual uniqueness. A perusal of the internet reveals that nearly everything has been done before so in order to stand out from the crowd individuals are compelled to do more extreme, extraordinary, or innovative things than the next person. For example, my husband and I, in a moment of inspiration, decided that it would be hilarious to do a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” on the ukulele. I got myself some sunglasses the size of my head. My husband learned the chords and arranged the song for ukulele. I spent lots of time memorizing the lyrics. We put together a presentation that we were positive was completely unique and felt that we should share it with the world. But our assumption that we had done something new was destroyed after a quick search on YouTube revealed at least three videos of people performing renditions of Paparazzi on the ukulele. At that point it didn’t matter if our version was more nuanced, better rehearsed, or more polished. It had been done before and, therefore, no one would care. We were a bit dejected and didn’t bother recording the song.

The thing is that without the ubiquity of social media we could have been unique--unique within the confines of our limited social reach. It’s quite possible that no one in Vancouver has ever done a version of Paparazzi on ukulele. Maybe not even anyone in British Columbia. Maybe we are the first people in all of Canada to have the idea and actually execute it. Without the dampening effect of YouTube we could have seen ourselves as musical innovators and gained the satisfaction that comes from doing something new. We would have fulfilled the desire to create and invent and been happy with our amusing rendition of a pop hit. The problem is that social media shrink the world so we are suddenly in direct competition not just with our local communities but with people all over the world. Suddenly it’s near to impossible to distinguish yourself from the crowd and we languish into obscurity, our greatest accomplishments become yesterday’s news, and we suffer from the sense that nothing we do will be new or exciting. Feelings of invisibility frequently come hand in hand with a sense of despondency--it doesn’t matter what we do because no one is going to notice, no one is going to cheer us on.

So perhaps Ms. Kirilow is an extreme example of what such obscurity might do to someone and the lengths people must go to to be noticed, cared about, and loved. Our overstimulated minds only have attention for extraordinary examples of human ability and achievement and due to the overload of information available to us our threshold for the extraordinary is going up every day. Where we might once have been impressed by a man in our neighbourhood who could play the guitar beautifully and write lovely songs, now we’re not impressed by anything but the world’s greatest guitar virtuosos who perform technically in ways that seem impossible to achieve. Similarly we are not moved by the regular, everyday plights of people struggling through their daily lives. We are only moved to action by people who exhibit extreme will and fortitude in the face of devastating life circumstances. Major illnesses will get people noticed--particularly if the sufferers show incredible strength of character and a determination to beat the odds.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t admire those who model great strength in some way or great talent, but as a society we have become blind to the strength and talent that surrounds us in our immediate circles of family and friends. Chances are that our friends can’t compete with “that thing on YouTube that got 2 million views” and so we brush off their accomplishments and ignore their inherent uniqueness in favour of watching some stranger pull off an amazing feat of some kind. I don’t think what Ms. Kirilow did was right, but I do sympathize with her sense of desperation, her desire to be noticed, and her thwarted need to be cared for. We all need to be loved, appreciated, and applauded sometimes. We shouldn’t have to fake a serious illness and undermine the struggles of those who are truly suffering from such illnesses in order to receive those things. We might all be happier if we shut off YouTube for awhile and took a good look at the people that are in the same room as us, the same neighbourhood, even the same city. I think we would find a lot to celebrate in that limited space. Maybe the world doesn’t care about the rendition of Paparazzi that my husband and I rehearsed, but it could be that our family and friends will get a kick out of it, and maybe that’s all that really matters.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Cabin

c. 1900 Cabin

Note: I didn't have my camera with me to document my following post so I'm using other people's images from Flickr. Enjoy!

As it turns out there are multiple ways to define a cabin--though the Oxford English Dictionary seems fairly certain about what a cabin is, defining it as:

A permanent human habitation of rude construction. Applied especially to the mud or turf-built hovels of slaves or impoverished peasantry, as distinguished from the more comfortable ‘cottage’ of working men, or from the ‘hut’ of the savage, or temporary ‘hut’ of travellers, explorers, etc.

I probably should have read the OED definition before setting out on a recent excursion to a friend’s “cabin” because it seems that I was mixing up “cabin” and “cottage” in my mind, or that “cabin” has expanded in general usage to include a wide variety of accommodations from tiny but complete houses overlooking the water to log constructions set deep in wild woods. My own experience with “cabins” has been a family cabin in Point Roberts that is probably nicer than any house I can ever hope to buy in Vancouver and has every amenity you could reasonably want and a friend’s cabin on Bowen Island that was definitely nicer than any house I can ever hope to buy in Vancouver and had a huge deck overlooking the ocean. So when M. said that a friend had invited us out for a weekend rafting trip at his “cabin” in Lytton my brain searched for examples of cabins, came up with the two I’ve been to, and said “Oh Yay. A cabin. This will be relaxing and lovely and luxurious in a rustic and quaint way.” I packed shampoo.

A lonely cabin by the sea!

Looking back on it there were clues that my own version of “cabin” was not going to jive with the actual place we were going. There were some emails forwarded to me that included notes about bringing bottled water and coolers. I didn’t think much of it though. I assumed that the water wasn’t potable and that perhaps the fridge was too small to accommodate all of the beer people were bringing so extra coolers would be required. 

So when we pulled off the main road, drove through some seriously tall, dried out grass, and pulled up outside what appeared to be an abandoned hunting lodge I was a bit confused. Maybe those are the sheds I thought. But no. The ramshackle buildings were in fact the cabins--wood construction covered in green tin, with a deck so weathered and rickety that I was unsure it would hold weight. In fact, one of the slats popped off when someone stepped on it and it had to be replaced. I began to sense that I had been misinformed somehow. Or perhaps not misinformed, because no one directly told me anything, but rather not informed at all. I don’t have any particular problem with roughing it. I’ve done week long canoe trips where we had to dig holes to pee in. I’ve camped in torrential downpours and gale force winds. I’ve stayed in hostels where you’re afraid to touch the mattresses. I’m a pretty good sport when it comes to roughing it, but I like to know what I’m getting into ahead of time. So I don’t bring shampoo with the intention of actually using it. 

After my first trip over to the outhouse to check out the “facilities” (a hole cut in some plywood with an old toilet seat sitting on top of it) I was starting to succumb to the hilarity of the situation. There are moments when things are just so absurd that you have no choice but to laugh at your own plight. I did give M. a hard time for not telling me. I don’t know. I would think that when you take your new wife on a trip to a place that you’ve been before but she hasn’t you might mention things like “Oh by the way, there’s no plumbing, electricity, or heat of any kind at the place that we’re going. Just so you know. So, like, don’t bother bringing shampoo or soap or any personal hygiene products really. For real--this place is pretty rustic so don’t expect a bed or anything.” M. tried to pin the misconception on me by saying that I should have more accurately decoded the clues in the email (i.e. the coolers and instruction to bring water), but I don’t think that argument holds water.


But after all was said and done and I got over my fear of using the outhouse and I set up my sleeping bag on an ancient foam mattress it was actually a great weekend. There was a fire ban due to the threat of forest fires, so we had some logs with red cellophane sticking out of them and a flashing LED light to create an illusion of flickering. M. and I played some music and on Saturday we went white water rafting on the Thompson River on Sunday. The ten of us that had gathered at the cabins sat out on the deck (that somehow managed to hold us up) in the evenings and bundled up against the evening cold. We saw two bears over the weekend--one making its way along a rather steep cliff so that I wondered at its agility and lumbering grace. We kept our eyes peeled for rattlesnakes in the tall, dry grass and looked for shooting stars and satellites in the night sky. We listened to distant peels of thunder and were dazzled by flashes of lightning though we never got a full fledged storm. On the way home M. and I stopped at a farmer’s market to stock up on local produce--blueberries, raspberries, buckwheat honey almost as dark as molasses, tomatoes, yellow zucchini, and orange peppers. It felt good to move at a slower pace for the weekend and I suppose I can forgive M. for his incredible omission of cabin related data. I will add this to my cumulative definition of what “cabin” might mean.