Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mom in the Swamp

In the wake of our son's 3rd birthday, Halloween and with my own mother's visit imminent, my mind turns to thoughts of motherhood.  I want to emphasize that this is not a mommy blog.  I don't deny that there is ever more to say on the subject of being a mother (it's difficult but rewarding; lonely but joyful; thankless but enriching .. etc.)  I respect the authors of those blogs and honour the information therein.  Without denying the relative weight of the subject of parenting, ayearintheswamp is conveniently (to me) and generously (once again, to me) devoted to all things swampy. Perhaps I don't have the constitution (or the writing chops) to take on such an intense subject full blog-on. In any event, this will be the only post which could be called 'parenting centred'. So, if you don't have kids or you do and are rolling your eyes at the thought of another list of suggestions on how to hide vegetables in your kid's ice cream sundae,  be assured this is a one time effort and there will be no talk of craft time.

I came to realize that here in this moist place by the sea, just as anywhere else in the world, the relationship between the health of social justice and the health of children is as clear as the beach is sandy.  Food, for instance, is an intensely social issue even if we don't immediately see it that way.  Feeding our children is that much more intense.  In Ontario we fight for food education and funded, healthy food options in schools and for access to healthy food for all regardless of economic circumstances.  Here, a fight for surprisingly much more basic rights is fought by a shockingly small group.  I became aware of quite a strong nut free sentiment in the schools and parks of Toronto (having been blacklisted from a couple of playgroups after a few incidents of recklessly allowing an almond granola bar into circle time.  OK, it only happened once but news of nut delinquency travels fast on the cashew vine).  The anti-dairy movement replacing the nut thing here as the chosen nutrition embargo prompted me to do a little research.
 Why nuts there and milk here?  If anything it should be the other way around.  The U.S. has the highest reported incidence of food allergies in children (about 8% vs. Canada's 6%) and the most allergenic foods are nuts.

  Much of the manipulation done to food by agri-business to increase profitability of crops has been rejected by most other governments internationally yet accepted here in the U.S.  The decision of many parents here to live without dairy, it appears, is merely a decision to have their children survive and live life rash, hive and indigestion free. The basic right to food that is not genetically modified and not poisonous eludes the people of the American community.  Take, for example, the whole speech pathology issue: I don't exaggerate when I say that one of every three kids I meet here is in some sort of speech therapy.  In many cases the problem ends up being more about hearing than about speaking.   Most ear infections are erroneously attributed to organic bacteria which means more antibiotics are prescribed to treat them. How awesome! Further excavation of the carefully robed issues unearths that, in fact the real cause is allergy and sensitivity to milk-thought to be aggravated if not actually caused  by the antibiotics that policy shapers in the US have decided is OK to keep putting in the food! So as folks get wise they stop putting tubes in their kids' ears, cool it on the speech therapy and simply eliminate milk until such time as it can be legislated to be, well,  less toxic.  So what appears, on the surface, to headline, 'Florida Kids Talk Late' is really not about the kids at all but about the poor cows being poisoned.  As for why milk trumps nuts: a paltry 2% difference in cross-border incidence of allergy is not newsworthy in light of the fact that nut allergies over in China are almost non-existent.  Apparently, the Western palate prefers a roasted peanut to the Chinese penchant for the boiled peanut.  Research is suggesting that that process of roasting may be encouraging the growth of the fungus on the nut that is the allergen.  So, do we all start boiling our ballpark snacks and steaming the stuff of our PB & Js? Do we begin to systematically tear down these pillars of cultural context? It's easier just not to talk about it.

The other parent-centred thing that hit me over the head was the issue of education in Florida.  The number of parents I have met who home-school their children is astounding!  There is absolutely no faith in the school system.  Here in the US, there are even charter schools. These schools operate like private schools insofar as they determine their own curricula through a parent-driven process. Listen to this though: these charter schools are funded not by the families of children who attend; not by scholarships and bursaries donated by wealthy advocates of education but by local government and foundations.  A private school you don't pay for.  Wow. This is ostensibly the golden ticket of education as one presumes that the independence charter schools have in determining programming and staffing would mean a high academic standard.  Not so here in Florida.  Apparently it's hit and miss with the charter schools and it's miss and miss with the public system.  So, parents would rather throw out the back-pack and hunker down with the books at home.  Of course, the prevalence of home schooled children indicates a corresponding prevalence of at least one stay-at-home parent in many households.  In this country visibly victimized by the current economic disorder in the world, that is hopeful, indeed.  That parents do have the financial resources to eschew the public system and take it on themselves is encouraging.  It does suggest the emergence of a cottage industry which is less hopeful, however. The whole thing scares me and not because it provides further proof of the deterioration of the social fabric of America.  I don't know where my family will be by the time Luca starts school but what if we're here? Home schooling?  I can barely manage an hour of storytime!  I'll continue but know that, as I write, I tremble in fear of the moment we will inevitably have to install a blackboard in whatever wall space we have left in this walk-in closet of an apartment!

There are some  universal paradigms in parenting - constructs that I am sure exist from the rainforest to the desert. For example, isn't it true that as a mother an entire half hour before departure from home to anywhere has to be devoted to packing up stuff which totals in weight more than the weight of the child that said stuff is meant to support?  Isn't it true also that after we pack the stuff, we are the ones who cart the stuff around.  The stuff may be diapers, wipes and bottles or - later - snacks, sippy cups and extra clothes or - even later - backpacks full of crayons and other distractions intended to stave off tantrums? I know I always feel like I am loaded down and that each foray out of the house starts with a multi-leg journey to the car interrupted with several stops to shift the stuff from one hand to the other or move a strap onto my shoulder as Luca walks joyfully a few steps ahead blissfully unconcerned about the scoliosis that will surely plague his mother in the years to come.  I know: all this is our own fault. None of the stuff we carry around is really essential in the business of child rearing.  We are simply materialistic and use all this as a crutch and a measure of control over the whole process.....and possibly to control our offspring's childhood itself.  Well that may be so. And it is true that among the Yanomami in the rainforests of South America, there is surely no talk of which stroller folds up most easily to fit in the car or of any stuff.  But you can't deny that the weight of the actual Yanomami child must be borne on the back or on the breast of - you guessed it - mom (Yanomommy, in fact).  And here I was thinking that leaving the North and its necessary wooly, lined and waterproofed winter accessories, that I would simply toss a lightweight towel in the back of the car in case of an impromptu swim (LMAO at impromptu anything).  But no, there is never the shedding of the stuff.  I traded the ski jacket and boots for swim floaties and sunscreen.  It is then an inevitable rite of motherhood that is transcendent of geography; that mothers probably end up doubling as sherpas and definitely getting stiffed in tips!

And finally, there are those lessons we keep re-learning.  One we half see and half hear and fully ignore before we are parents; lessons that belabour with trite signs written in calligraphy meant for the entrance way of a suburban semi-detached 'If you love something, set it free...' to classic Sweet Honey in the Rock harmonizing about how our kids 'come through you, but they are not from you'  and one I began to intellectualize from the moment I became pregnant: Our children do not come to us to be created in our own image. One knows conceptually that we are to give our kids the tools to make sound choices and to live rich, emotional lives.  We know that even though we love the arts that he may never be 'dancing' nor 'with the stars'.  We know that long line of analytical brains we inherited through three generations may end with this one.  Heck,  with often casino calibre odds of the genetics game, our kids may not even look like us.  So, if we are after little likenesses of ourselves sprinkled over the earth, we are on the wrong channel. Yet, even though we know this, it's still bittersweet, learning this lesson again.  Because despite how a puppy's wagging tail and 'chase me' games and unconditional love shown through licks and sniffs, make me smile and feel warm all over, that love of dogs did not get passed on.  Yes, I lived this lesson again when the moment came I could avoid the truth no more: my son is - gasp - a cat person.

I want to close by thanking all who have endured this post and to ask that those who are not parents or who turn to the web to get a break from kids to stick with me.  This is the first and last of the ruminations of a stay-at-home (in the swamp) mom.  Next stop: Captain Gav is back.  Stay tuned as I revisit Gavin's journey to helicopter stardom...or at least to a living wage!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Indolence is Bliss

  I haven't posted for a while and part of the reason is my prolonged absence from my regular life rhythms because of our extended trip to Toronto. I was reminded why road-trips are so celebrated:  the singular and very specific objective of 'getting there' is at the end of the trip.  That leaves skads of time  between the start of the trip and 'getting there' without any pressing tasks.  True, the trip itself used to be more of an adventure.  In our travel dense twenties, light on baggage and guided by the beacon of our Lonely Planet, we sought less beaten paths and the stuff of good stories.  And now, the glow of our beacon has shifted to the the glint of sunlight on the pages of our hotel discount coupon books. Sure, a lot has changed but there is still ample time to do nothing.  And I had a great time doing nothing during our road trip.  Just driving and talking or driving and being silent.  Nothing to do but get there. Indolence is bliss.  And I wanted to extend that bliss after we arrived at our destination.  But there were too many distractions and fresh from my new home I couldn't help but compare it to my old home.  
So here I am: back in the new home and  presenting to you the expected: 'Here vs. There' entry  but - I hope - in a fresh format.  A few vignettes will tell the tale of where my indolence lead.  Nothing to do but make observations and package them into a little collection I like to call (and you will too) 
'So What?'


WHITE MAN WALKING

Citizens of Pedestria unite against what appears to be a conspiracy against you here in Florida! Six lane highways erroneously named 'Street' and 'Road' and even 'Avenue' when they should be called Local Interstate 'Rapido'.  I knew I signed up for this when I moved here but didn't realize how long it had been since I visited Pedestria myself until I went away 'up North' to Toronto.  It was when I finally uncoiled my pretzel like driver's body and used my gross motor skills; when I blinked rapidly trying to focus my eyes on the specimen photographed above (barely recognizable at first glance) that I saw what I had become: an ex-Pedestriate!  People here in south-west Florida simply don't walk anywhere.  A more empirical indication of this is that, during our 4 week stay in Toronto, we filled up with gas only once.  When I'm in Florida and in my car - and that is constantly, my friends - my eyes are rapidly moving between speedometer, rear-view mirror, road ahead and the fuel gauge trying to stay ahead of that needle sliding fast along the crescent shaped display.  I inevitably lose the race and consider my defeat as I stand sheepishly at the gas pump for the third time in a week!

  How is such an extreme car culture formed? Well, for starters the one time we fill the tank in Toronto costs 75% of what three fill-ups cost here.  Ahh the smell of economies of scale.  So, for starters, it costs less to drive here in the south.  Despite the fact that Torontonians appear to be more in love with their cars than most city dwellers,  it would be too expensive for every  resident to sit behind a wheel for much of the day (commutes to Brampton or Pickering notwithstanding).  

Also, it takes 20 minutes to get just about anywhere down here.  Going to the grocery store?  That takes about 20 minutes.  ..the library?  Oh, about 20 minutes.  How about the gym?  Yup  - 20 minutes. In the bright lights of the big city, 20 minutes gets you about 2 miles (depending on traffic, red lights, construction, detours, closures,  etc.) In fact, deciding on what mode of transport to use on any given day in Toronto takes a whole strategic planning session.  I am not going far so I could walk.... I need to carry lots of stuff  with me, however, for my presentation to the partners before heading to hockey practice, so maybe I should take the car......  It's like the arctic tundra out there so maybe I should take public transit.......  Hmm...what will cost me more - gas and parking or the transit fare?  Before you know it, the sun has set, you've missed your presentation, been cut from the hockey team team and are standing in your front hall sweating in your goose down jacket and toque (look it up, non-Canucks).  Virtually, none of the above conditions exist here in Florida: everywhere is - that's right - 20 minutes away;  no one plays sports requiring 100 extra pounds of gear; there are no Siberian weather conditions;  you never pay for parking and there is no public transport system anyway.  It's no wonder everyone is revving up their engines.  Besides, walking is akin to willingly stepping into a pool of razor blades.  My friend, Lisa astutely pointed out recently that people come here from everywhere bringing to the local roads a plethora of driving styles.  We end up with Germans used to their G-force speeds on their Autobahns, Quebecers tediously waiting at red lights to turn right, 'back East'-ers used to a more, um, assertive style of taking to the road and so on...

Moreover, people have conversations out the backs of their cars. Serious issues of economic relevence or social justice reduced to a few words and exclamation marks on a bumber sticker:  

'TEA PARTY WILL TRIUMPH'
'OBAMA IS NOT MY PRESIDENT',
CHOOSE ABORTION
                                                         ADOPTION                                        
I make no comment here about what side of these issues one may be on.  I only wonder why it would be important for some random person behind you at a traffic light to know what your opinion is.  I can speculate that bumper sticker monologues take the place of actual dialogue and that people prefer expletives over the steering wheel to actual conversation with a  human!  Having said that, I had a discussion with a woman who had as many markers of where she belonged on the political spectrum as the NRA Tea Party Pro-Lifer except that she was on the other end of it. 'PROUD TO BE A DEMOCRAT' one sticker proclaimed.  Another 'BP OIL SPILL: MORE PROOF OF WHY REGULATIONS AREN'T SOCIALIST, BUT COMMON SENSE'.  She told me that she had been  forced off the road once and that on the shoulder, the offending driver got out of his car and said to her 'With those bumper stickers, I wish I had my gun with me right now'  !!!.  Yet she persists in wearing her opinions on her car despite death threats.  I guess the thrill of these car-boot conversations and the  possibility of road rage - ironically enough - keeps people feeling connected in an increasingly disengaged world.  And so it is thus that people are forced into their cars more often, for longer periods of time and for greater distances: 20 minute drives, cheap gas, unsafe walking conditions and the promise of sparkling conversation over a cup of coffee ....and a windshield.


KISS MY ACIDOPHILUS

Globalization has assured that we can eat strawberries in the middle of a snowstorm, chomp Big Macs by the Fontana Trevi and dispose of our Starbucks cups before entering the Taj Mahal.  And yet, despite the ugliness and cultural depletion that all this threatens, it has not touched every corner of the globe (wait, globes don't have corners!)  The milk marketing board of Canada has defied all the ostensible 'freedoms' created by globalization and transnationalism!  It has protected the Canadian Dairy industry farmers, workers, and distributors! It has kept me from my favourite yogurt!

FAGE brand yogurt is the most beautiful yogurt I have ever tasted. The word FAGE (pronounced Fa-yeh) is the imperative of 'Eat' in Greek ....so "Eat!'  and believe me, I would love to.  Made using the original method of this company based in Greece, its exported products may be even better than the yogurt which is made from milk from actual Greek cows.  Last year, they ran an also beautiful - if slightly esoteric - TV ad with flowy images and a voice over by Willem Dafoe.  This stuff tastes so good, it appears to have a higher percentage of milk fat than milk fat itself and yet has none (or 1% or 2%).  It has a balanced tartness that doesn't make you pucker like some watery Balkan style or stirred yogurts do.  There is no gelatin or starch charged with suspending and stabilizing  particles pretending 'smoothness'.  It is available in Greece (obviously) the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Germany, the US.....but not in Canada.  The Canadian Milk marketing board has done such a good job of protecting the Canadian Dairy industry, they have protected us out of this gem.  In order to be able to fix prices of milk, eggs, cheese etc., the marketing board had to meet World Trade Organizaton (WTO) and General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT) requirements and those agreements included import restrictions.  As a result, while in Canada I got to buy Canadian products (OK, yay)  for 300% the price I pay here (not YAY) and no FAGE yogurt (definitely not YAY).  I got used to enjoying this  trove of tasty probiotics in Florida and missed it terribly when in Toronto.  It became my mission (along with  making trivial observations to put in this blog) to find out why.  My research led me to a moment of harsh comparison between a true market economy and a market oriented economy.  OK, we'll keep our health care, you keep your cheap cell phones.  But let's get going on a trans-border yogurt stimulus plan.


WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR NICKEL BACK?

Always a popular fulcrum around which to plot one's anchors of comparison is that of music.  Music, more than bumper stickers, hair styles or college majors is the G.P.S. for the cultural perspectives of individuals and communities alike.  It's not surprising that in the largest city (Toronto) in a country with a strong songwriter tradition (Canada) that new and indie music is born and thrives consistently.  On any given day, a band you love or would consider loving is playing somewhere.  Here, try to find a decent radio station and you get on the fast track to settle-city.  There's good music here only it's buried.  And, honestly, my shovel is not hip enough to dig that deep. Besides the Latino stations on which some great classics and newer reggaeton and Latin hip-hop tunes can be heard, I listen to a basic, general, inoffensive FM station.  Their claim that they 'play anything' is substantiated.  Really.  Their playlists are eclectic (I'm talking any of several Nirvana tunes followed by that Pina Colada song from the 70s!) but just not very big.  I would say that about 70% of the time I get in my car (and you know how often that is) and turn the radio on, 'Rock Star' is playing.  They sure do love their Nickelback here.  Ever notice how when cultural paradigms are removed from their geographic birthplace, they take on an unexpected grandeur?  Like how Chinese food - so revered here in North America -  in Hong Kong is just food.  And African safaris for all their exotic glamour-travel appeal in Africa are just Sunday afternoon walks in the park.  Well, I know I haven't recorded any albums recently or ever.  I don't believe, however, that that strips me of the right to say that Nickelback are something of a national embarrassment as far as I'm concerned. But here, they are worshipped to the tune of 2nd biggest grossing foreign act in the U.S. behind the Beatles!! Legend (and Google) has it that the band got their name from the phrase Mike Kroeger used at the job he had at Starbucks -  before the band made it big -  when returning change to customers as in 'Here's your nickel back, Sir'. 

What's even more peculiar about this hourly ode to Nickelback on the radio is that the song they have chosen to overplay is one that they have to censor about 50% of.  The song is about the quest for stardom and the glittery, disposable life of a rockstar.  In the line 'the girls come easy and the drugs come cheap', on this radio station, the girls still come easy but - as it turns out - it's the bleep that come cheap.  So, groupie promiscuity and essentially prostitution are OK, but the drugs (that by the way will come up in the next commercial break disguised as Celebrex or Lipitor) are a big problem!

Do I want my Nickelback?  You can keep the whole dollar!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Outside World

I haven't been recently.  To the outside world.  But it has come to see me in the form of my friend, Dana.

Being at home with your child can often feel more like being in a home with your child. Within four walls (that sometimes seem like they should be white and padded!) it's just you, the kid and one of the animated Bobs (the British construction dude or the one of geometric trousers). If your home is in a new place where you don't know many people, some days from the time of first stirrings in the morning, the only sound you hear is of your own throat clearing making way for words that might not  be spoken for hours.  So, it really can feel like you are not part of the exterior landscape. Moreover,  since the summer arrived here and brought with it a procession of mosquitoes and convectional squalls, the outdoors have become truly deserted coaxing one further inside. Since Gavin's (the fancy pilot's) schedule has changed to include intense flying all weekend - and I mean from 7am on Saturdays (or even Fridays) to 9pm on Sundays - I do feel a bit lonely and purposeless.  As far as entertaining my son,  I am left feeling a little like a birthday party clown who keeps bumping into the same kids on the party circuit and has run out of tricks.  There are only so many stimulating pre-schooler activities I can pull out of my tired, budget conscious a$$.....

One can see, then, that a visit from a friend is more than a pleasant opportunity to 'catch up'. Under these circumstances, a visit from a friend can be regenerative and can make you feel finally and once again part of the outside world.  But, as if in grand tribute to life imitating art,  a parade of slapstick style mishaps began almost as soon as we began to discuss Dana making a short trip down.  First of all, the doable range of dates for her visit were rendered laughably narrow, something that happens when you consider multiple families' commitments, thousands of miles to travel and everyone's perpetual quest for cheap airfare.
Eventually, the only way it would work was for Dana to arrive here at 1am and travel back three days later at 5am!   The idea that became Dana's visit was incongruous in its objectives:  Her aim was to briefly escape the mania that is her busy life.  My aim was to brush up against that mania just for a second - to feel the rush of juggling two activities, nay, a conversation AND and opinion at the same time just for a few days.  So, really the theme for the visit is one of irony, of incompatibility between the circumstances and its ultimate ends, of square pegs in round holes.  But we were desperate to realize this now monolith of a goal.

To travel through Toronto (or any other major city that could also qualify for the euphemistic 'big smoke' nickname) rush hour -and that western portion of the 401 that is perpetually and ironically 'rushing' at a standstill- to  reach the long line at the check in counter and to inch forward in that line for 45 minutes shuffling one's carry-on across the airport floor (because you didn't want to bring a rolling suitcase because you didn't want to have to check it and waste time unnecessarily!) have become expected parts of the experience of air travel.  Missing any of those steps would cause one to suspect the karmic coordinates, or the legislative engines of Murphy to be somehow out of whack.  But what is not expected is to be told - once you have shuffled yourself to finally be mere inches away from that flight check-in agent (ah - so close)- that your flight is canceled, not to be rescheduled for that day and that the reason is that they could not find a pilot.  Not that they couldn't find the pilot.  They couldn't find a pilot!  I know, right? 

She did get here in the end - a full nine hours later and after a dusk to dawn spent to-ing and fro-ing on aforementioned gauntlet of the 401. So, it became all the more important to savour our time together and get everything seen, every discussion theme plyed, every cell of her epidermis tan in whistlestop fashion. 

You see Dana, like myself,  spent her youth coming to this area - about 20 miles of where we are  - regularly.  Well into our teenage years, our parents - well meaning -  were dragging us on various modes of transport to spend vacations here in Florida.  Although she and I were in high school together, this never came up until recently.  With both of us being so familiar with the area, I had to pull out some stops and discard the regular itinerary of rote sites of interest in favour of one befitting my friend's well worn Florida lens.  A few torrential thunderstorms later and a requisite sojourn at the outlet mall and we began our quest for the unsung sites of the gulf-coast to have as backdrops for our planned dense and gratifying conversations.
 
 Parts of the Gulf Coast of Florida follow lines on a Sacred Energy Grid. Sometimes, this is called Gaia's sacred sites map or the crystalline earth grid.  So, like any good diamagnetic gravity vortex, it needs a housing, a place people can go to soak in this energy.  This area has one such Eco-Spiritual Center and I had been a few times before. We went there together hoping to attract, in a few short minutes, the serenity promised by a full session of meditation.  Given the telescoped nature of our tour of the area, we were trying to fit in a nice sophisticated dinner à  la girls night out after our eco-spiritual-yogic-karma mini-journey.  So, a muddy PWYC kayak ride or a sitting in the sweat lodge was out of the question.  They would have really ruined our hair.  And so we settled for an express-meditation (an oxymoron if I ever did hear one) a walk on the deliciously rickety suspension bridge (built in a true community effort by residents donating boards one by one - each engraved with a few words beseeching peace or love or both) and went on our way - fancy clothes and constitution unscathed despite our quick retreat into the rainforest.

 Dining out in Florida or other franchise-heavy destinations is an altogether different experience from
eating a meal in a restaurant in a big city or in a rural area.  The scene here is homogenous.  Whereas in a big city, there are hip 'up and coming' chefs, traditional kitchy diners and earthy, fun food trucks all crowded together on the same city block, this restaurant landscape is a bit one-note.  And that note is moderately-priced, semi-casual, mid-level, cross-section of cuisines.  Yes, this is the land of the infamous mid-meal.  And it is fitting as many of the residents whether seasonal, or year round transplants, are from the mid-west of the U.S. where food is not particularly marked as an adventure or a medium of art.  So, even though places may be disguised as unique and quirky, they get their homey thatchkes from the Sysco of decorators - standardized and mass produced.  But, I say unto you: You can't judge a menu by it's giant plastic cover.  Because....you are not likely to find any other kind. Wonderfully,  there are plenty of good eats to be found if you shift your expectations a hair.  Dana and I - both of us hopelessly uberconscious of food, how it is prepared, where it comes from, with whom it is shared, and all those other considerations that so many of my other friends find boring and pointless - ended up at an upscale version of a mid-place(!)
 Yes, the menu is giant with lots of specials and combos but the food was very tasty.  This particular restaurant was one of those chains disguised as a California style bistro.  They got it right though.  The shrimp appetizer is prepared consistently to the point that an 'A' list celeb is currently promoting it and the restaurant on funny radio spots nestled comfortably between reassuring ads for anti-depressants and rousing entreaties from local personal injury lawyers.

Of course, Dana also accompanied me to my daily grind equivalents: my ESL classes full of amazing and ebullient - mostly female- students, the fitness classes I teach a few times a week to keep limber and prepared for  whatever osteo-situation awaits me.  And I accompanied her on vacation-type activities: dips in the sea, shopping, lolling on the beach.  Because although I have emphasized quite dramatically the isolation I sometimes feel - even here in paradise - the truth is friendship is therapy.  It casts a startling new colour on whatever it is in your life you are gazing at sometimes for too long under the same light.  So, the splash of colour she added for me was the perspective to see the small rewards in my routines, the serenity of the sea so close by and the pleasure of not needing much more than a pair of flip-flops and a bathing suit.  I will be bold and suggest that my paint brush stroke left for her a reassurance that you can step away for a moment - not even that far away - from the noise and simply take a quick swim.

There is no doubt that social connection is essentially about communicating with frequency, quality and  vibrancy.  It boils down to dialogue.  So, to Dana I will pay one of the most meaningful compliments I have to proffer:  Thank you, my friend, for the conversation.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Generation Next? Finally....some answers.

         There is some discord among the experts as to the exact range of years within which one would have to have been born to qualify as a Gen Xer.  Sometimes it ranges generously from 1964 - 1981 and other times, the line is drawn more conservatively between 1965 and 1972. There seems to be no dispute about those that came before. The boomers sprinkled the continent with a curious juxtaposition of militia and hippies.  Equally recognizeable were those that came after, Generation Y (as in 'why can't my mother come with me to my job interview?' and 'why shouldn't I wear pajama bottoms to work in an office?  It's ironic!')   And though Gavin and I seem to fall between the most agreed upon range of X years, I feel we are part of perhaps a smaller subset within Generation X: Generation NeXt.  As in 'what's next?'

How do I explain our propensity for constantly looking forward?

Could the answer be that Gavin and I spent most of our grown-up lives moving, planning and packing. No sooner did we arrive at adulthood and we were pulling at our previous drivers - childish anticipation and adolescent restlessness - to guide us to the next checkpoint.  No.  After all, we had some 20,000 colleagues living this life of commuting to work by Boeing 737 every six to eight months and most of them are not tormented by the prospect of staying put.  Then, could it be my parents' view of travel as a right rather than a privilege (an inexorably European sentiment)?  Could this inclination be explained by the frequent moves that were Gavin's family life when he was growing up?   No, this is about more than peripatetic family tendencies.

Before I talk more about the call to action, I want to clarify: It's not about the helicopter.


The helicopter training thing was the easy part.  Sure, it's financially draining but it's emotionally uplifting for Gavin.  And it is, after all, his turn.  After years of subjugating his own professional aspirations to mine (turning down promotions, living in my hometown, being the income earning parent while I got to stay home and see our son grow) it was his turn.  And anyway, this did not start off as 'Mission Chopper'.  This began - as many giant waves of change do - as nothing more than a comment, a piece of a conversation that just as easily could have dissolved into something more urgent and quotidian like a ringing phone, or the cry of a toddler looking for his orange tow truck.  Our now everyday could easily have been swallowed up by our then everyday.  But it wasn't.

And so this little piece of talk between us was allowed to turn into a question.  I don't remember if it was as romantic and moody as 'Is this all there is?' or the more capricious 'I'm bored; What are we doing today?'  But I remember that once it took flight we could neither ground it nor let it whirl around in our heads like a tornado out of control. We could not turn our backs on our so-proclaimed generational contemporaries. We had to ask the question: What's next? 

Our plan began in the UK.  That was to be our destination for emotional and cultural reasons.  Gavin is from England and wanted for us to have a taste of what life is like there and for himself to see a drop of his own history fall into the glass momentarily (really, I think he was jonesing for Maltesers and other English confections....but I don't think he would ever fess up).  We have some dear friends there who said they were willing to let us build our entire lives around them!

  But despite the promise of a year's supply of English candy and my dream of a perpetual fountain of coffees with my besty, Gilly, while our children played jubilantly on the nearby heath (they have a lot of heaths there), the stark reality of moving to the most expensive country in the most expensive continent on the planet with no job, no purpose and hardly any connections made even the knowledge that it would probably rain every day the most miniscule reason on the list of many that this was a colossally bad idea.

Enter the Helicopter.

I am certain that I have mentioned already that being a helicopter pilot has been a dream of Gavin's since he was a tike.  So inspired was he with this vision that he actually started a pilot fund made up of savings stashed away a little at a time.  So simultaneously aware was he that this dream was unlikely to ever be realized that he constructed said fund out of pennies!  I think when we finally broke open the piggy bank which, by then, had been receiving his contributions for years, we counted a grand total of $65.00.

In the meantime, our little life story was being sent up to its zenith of narrative tension and we had to be ready for the hurtling denouement that was coming.  Here we were, a few years post-ships, well into land life but not so entrenched as to have to give up too much to move forward. We were around - probably - the midpoint of our lives despite longevity in both of our ancestral lines. Luca had just turned two so we were in that short but glorious period of overlap during which he would be charming and communicative AND an unrelenting fan of his parents AND not yet bolted in place by the school year schedule. With virtually everything in favour of us taking off, we couldn't let this pesky purposelessness get in our way. 

  And so, despite the disappointing returns from the Copper Investment Portfolio, we decided to unsave our savings, make ourselves a project and give flight (sorry, couldn't resist) to Gavin's dream.  The promise of all of us riding into the sunset (we'd be in England so of course there's no guarantee we would even see it from behind all the drizzle) in a helicopter with Gavin at the helm saved our dream from certain tragic end....

However, a very short period of research did not yield auspicious findings. The cost of flight school anywhere in Europe (yes, I'm talking to you too, UK ) was three times that of North American equivalent training.  The weather made the likelihood of flying blackout periods high and the flight school nearby where we would want to live did not offer the kind of training Gavin wanted.  The comparative approach that we had employed to get a sense of the aviation world figured in destinations that we weren't even actually considering, like South Africa (too unfamiliar), Thunder Bay, Ontario (too cold) and Hawaii (too pipe dream within a pipe dreamish). But their intended roles as planning placebos were eclipsed when their candidatures - flawed though they may have been -  all became more appealing than our original contender's.  And so we pressed 'delete' on our plans to make England our home during 'Project Chopper'.  One of the more viable destinations on our comparative study - and in fact where we eventually stuck the pin -  was Southwest Florida. Hot, humid, conservative: The South. I guess it seems an unexpected choice.  But then again, it all depends.

Consider the moment when you first wake up. For an unspecified time - a second, perhaps a dream vibration left over, a transition engineered by your subconscious - you don't understand your presence. You don't recognize your body and you don't know what to do next. You are an exotic, unfamiliar housing for your consciousness. Then, synapses fire all at once sending you a surge of recognition and suddenly you are fortified with yourself - reinvented exactly as you were yesterday before your dreams caught you up.  Most of the time we aren't paying attention when this happens and sometimes we are, but then we soon forget what it was like to have ahead of us absolutely anything; to feel like wherever we are is delicious and exciting.  We long to live somewhere and belong there.  We thirst for community in whatever form.  We work to establish rituals and comforting habits.  But it is in that time that comes before, when we first arrive in a place and don't understand our presence, when we don't know what to do next, when we feel like we, accompanied by our bodies are in exotic, unfamiliar environs, that we feel most alive.

So, patient reader, you see now that this decision was not about the helicopter and it was not about our itchy feet. It was about extending and noticing that moment when you first wake up or when you first plant your feet somewhere when it's all ahead of you; about making it last and remembering how it feels.  And it doesn't matter where we go because anywhere is exotic until we populate it with our familiarity, our habits, our consumption and our comforts.  The helicopter was just a prop, our true Deus Ex Machina rescuing us from the would-be tragedy of talking ourselves out of it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Day in the Swamp: a montage of our favourite moments

 Even though this blog is meant to keep our friends and any other interested readers updated on the goings on during our year away, reading it should not induce torpor. So, to keep things lively I will claim artistic license (yes, it's a stretch, but there is sufficient evidence that the blog quality police are off duty) and rather than give you 'a day in the life', I have decided to create a montage of the most exciting times we have had so far.

I'll talk about the big town fair, 'Celebrate Bonita', the Turtle Preserve on the beach just near our abode, kayaking through the backwaters and close up spotting (or rather retreating, paddling backwards in terrified defiance of spotting) alligators, communal creating on Earth Day the visit to eccentric Everglades Wonder Gardens.  All the special events I mention above honour the local landscape - whether geological or social....

The city of Bonita Springs - officially a city for only the last twelve years- has a population of about 37000.  Prior to its incorporation, it was a piece of the county where surveyors used to hang out.  With a collective imagination inversely proportionate to their indifference, they called the place 'Survey, Florida'. hmm. The population has just about tripled in the last 20 years and although it falls on the state and national median lines in terms of crime, income and ethnic diversity, it seems surprisingly civically engaged in a way - especially given its previous spirit of apathy -  that is not really average at all.  There are at least 6 incorporated non-profit organizations serving its population; town hall meetings that are full of residents, many of whom step up to the podium to proffer their opinions on various social issues; there are art shows, music festivals  and huge town fairs, like Celebrate Bonita! that we attended, without expectations of any kind, last month.

It was impressive how of the 37000 people living here about 8000 showed up with folding chairs that they set up in front of the bandshell.  Riverside Park which, from the way it is built and designed, you would imagine hosts many more of these large scale events, looks quiet and expectant most of the time.  During Celebrate Bonita, Evening of Music and Art-walk (the latter two occur once a month) this impressive park which dwarfs the old town's green spaces at other times of the year is jam packed with residents and visitors.

Here we are waiting for the Screaming Orphans (http://www.thescreamingorphans.com/)
to come on as part of the line up of great bands that are booked for this event.  The Screaming Orphans are an Irish band of four sisters who are neither vociferous nor without parents (they assured us during the show that 'ma' and 'pa' were super supportive of their musical pursuits and of them in general).  They were, although obviously not local, a perfect fit for the festive environment.  It's a shame I lost the video of Luca doing a jig to their Irish folk inspired rock tune.

There were food trucks celebrating local food traditions including delicious authentic barbecue fare, fresh squeezed lemonade, ears of local corn, wholesome ice cream  and......wholesome beer.  In this small town of just a few people and even fewer - one would hope - fires, the local fire station had spectacular representation.  There were 6 firefighters on site manning information tables, giving away children's fire safety-themed toys and giving tours on a  huge rescue truck (apparently we are not supposed to call them simply 'fire trucks'.  That annoys the brigades of town heroes as each truck has a purpose;  there are pumper trucks, ladder trucks etc.  but no plain fire trucks).  Local businesses had booths and tables set up on the perimeter where they gave out a disproportionately high (relative to much bigger cities' fairs) free samples of stuff.


There was an entire section of the park devoted to kids.  There was a train ride through the park, all kinds of bouncy castles and, in fact, entire bouncy cities set up for the kids' diversion - all free. This isn't quite as cute as the Irish jig but it ain't your average kid-being-cute video either. Wait for the special feature at the end....edgy and hip.









 Didn't you feel like you were right there at the foam party at the end?


  I've been to the desert (albeit sans anonymous equine) and find that landscape beautiful, almost other-worldly.  The sea next to mountains typical of the pacific rim makes a majestic apposition of nature's extremes.  If you had asked me, some months ago,  what my favourite places are in this world, I would probably name a destination offering one of those two views. The local topography would not have made it on the list.  In fact there is evidence in fairy tales and general overall lore - which favours things pastoral in tone  - that the sticky, moist, often insect harbouring environs of south-west Florida are not even poetic enough to make it into classical adages (the defining legacy leaving expressions).  People count farm animals to chase away insomnia - not manatees.  And you don't hear 'what's good for the pelican is good for the ....um.. dude pelican'. See, it doesn't work.

The area has a romance about it which  - to my surprise - I have grown to crave on scenic drives (to buy groceries).  The overgrown look of the region used to be reminiscent to me of movies with serial killer themes.  Now the banyan trees with their ginormous trunks and simultaneously teeny willowy branches dipping into the river leave me a little struck.

For cheap and satisfying weekend entertainment, we sometimes ride our bikes the two miles to the turtle nesting area on the beach near our house.  Turtle nesting season is just beginning so they are out in droves and residents whose lanais (that's what they call balconies here - so that's what I'm calling them too!) face the beach install special turtle bulbs.  It's the law here that lights that potentially attract turtles be dim and warmly orange (rather than stark and white or fluorescent).  If the turtles see the light they come off the beach towards them, get beached and perish before they can lay eggs and propogate the species.  The concern for propogating this species is admirable and touching.  It is ironic that we cannot be moved to be so concerned as to legislate for the protection of other species just as fragile.. Sigh.

We slow down a few times to give some traveling egg layers a wide berth and I observe and take photos as Gavin explains to Luca that the turtle is going to his house.  Luca must wonder why the turtle's house on this preserve looks curiously like a roped off section of sand! After a few minutes of scientific observation, we park our bikes and continue down the sandy path too soft for our bike wheels and continue down to the end of the trail where the Gulf of Mexico meets one of the powerful rivers that run in this part of the state.  For the 45 minutes on the trail between leaving our two wheeled transport against a tree and emerging on a lively river beach where boats are anchored for fishing or coming and going in the estuary as people wave from their beach towels, we can imagine being on a deserted island (think: 3 hour tour....3 hour tour) because we pass no one on the way, see no footprints in the sand and hear utterance of neither greeting nor gossip. When we arrive at  Destination Civilization at the end of our hike, we take a dip in the river/ocean mélange and head home. Flora, fauna, physical activity, and frolic - all to be checked off the list.

A few weeks ago, we had some friends visit and understandably wanted to give them a 'best of' kind of experience.  These self imposed standards are never a good idea.  What if you consider my 'best of' more of a  'most mediocre of'?  Thankfully, in this case we all came away from the visit still the 'best of' friends (had to squeeze that in - cheap laughs are all too alluring) spiritually and otherwise whole.  I say otherwise whole because, having seen an alligator up close, we did narrowly escape having chunks taken out of us.  Well, some of us saw an alligator. .....

Between requisite trips to the beach and to family style restaurants with happy hours that last a whole afternoon, we went kayaking on the Calusa trail (http://calusablueway.com/?CMP=KNC-Calusareprisegoogle0910&HBX_PK=Brand/Calusa+Blueway&HBX_OU=50 ) And since the odds of seeing an actual Calusa person these days is nil, the big draw for kayaking in those backwaters is the serenity, the scenery and the promise of wildlife spotting: turtles and manatees during their respective seasons and the enigmatic (there's that shamelessly claimed artistic license again) ........ ALLIGATOR.  They are known to inhabit the back waters and rise and fall non-chalantly in the water as boats pass.  And although there has not been an alligator attack in the area for over 70 years, statistics gotta turn around some time.  With that heuristic in mind, I was jostled out of my euphoric state of playfully splashing each other and our friends, Mark and Lisa in the other boat, gazing with pride behind me as Luca 'pretend paddled' from the child seat on the middle of the kayak and flung into a spirit of panic when some boaters returning from an ALLIGATOR sighting confirmed the ALLIGATOR'S coordinates and guided and encouraged us to approach said animal to extreme proximity and with no caution whatsoever!

All I could see was myself desperate to protect my family standing up in the boat ready to dive and swim out of danger with Luca under my arm....this would of course destabilize the kayak and tip it sending Gavin into the water.....this in turn would swell the smell of flesh in the water which would transport  the ALLIGATOR into a hunger frenzy at which point he would glower at us with his chilling eyes....that would freeze my insides with fear so I would pass out, dropping Luca from my arms and send Gavin- noticing that Luca is flailing trying to keep afloat- into a panic that would drive him to get into a fist fight with the ALLIGATOR - fistless though he (the ALLIGATOR, not Gavin) may be - where he would meet his tragic end (Gavin, not the ALLIGATOR)

So, I insisted to Gavin - for his own good, of course - that we retreat from the ALLIGATOR seeking mission and let Mark and Lisa go ahead and report back on whatever  predator splendor they happen to behold.  Gavin, pouting,  agreed to hang back.  There we were, still in the water, noticing the quiet in spite of the 'green noise' one hears in the wild....the noise without which everything is so quiet that any signs of life seem debile and listless.

We awaited our friends anticipating hunt-inspired stories of near misses or angry, silent growls from the ALLIGATOR...."it was 19 feet long with glistening blades for teeth...".  They returned disappointed reporting that the elusive swamp dragon - just 6 feet in length - seemed a little bored with his adversaries and slunk into the water moments after they arrived.  You could almost see the famed ALLIGATOR eye roll but, instead of reading, "my eyes retreat as I poise to pounce" the caption accompanying the eye roll read "yawn...tourists".



So, with one quasi-crocodile dundee moment almost under our belts, we proceed to the next adventure.  Earth Day was celebrated in a few places in the area.  Our event of choice was at Koreshan State Park (http://floridastateparks.org/koreshan/default.cfm).  The Koreshan were a community of people whose numbers dwindled quickly in later 20th century until the few remaining members transferred their land in 1961 to the State of Florida at which time it was turned into a Heritage site celebrating and explaining (only a little bit though) about the Koreshan community. The strength of their beliefs (that the earth was essentially donut shaped) starkly justaposed with their tiny population and numerous philosophical opponents make their legacy - the park - something of a sacred ground.  It seems others feel the same way as the Earth Day celebration was well attended by many friends of the earth who wanted to feel like we were breathing special air that day.  A highlight - simple in its inception - but so charming as to warrant real estate  below was the communal painting to which we contributed.


 The Everglades Wonder Gardens has been in old Bonita Springs for over 70 years.  Founded by the Piper brothers two generations ago, it has become Bonita's foremost tourist attraction with a quirky museum - the "Lion Attack" exhibit displays only a wristwatch framed and mounted behind glass -  and a bittersweet backstory.  It started out as an animal hospital and now operates as a kind of dynamic zoo with enclosures of very dangerous indigenous animals who performatize their feedings daily to throngs of hundreds every week.   It has been family run since the cantankerous brothers founded it in 1936.  Now with their grandsons ending the heirloom status of this local icon - one, feeling no inclination whatsoever to take over the family business and the other with an inoperable tumour - the place is closing...forever.  I went there with a Mom's club which meant that the 20 or so of us with one or two kids apiece descended on this small but power packed park on a quiet Friday morning.  I think we whisked past the poisonous snakes and the black bears rather quickly. That's right.  Black. Bears. You'll understand my hurried pace when you remember my alligator story above.  I did get  some shots of the cute, harmless turtles at the end of the park near the gift shop though!

In the end, whether edited down to 'best of' format or allowed to unspool slowly, all of life's bytes inhabit the same space. The small moments fill up time next to, under and behind the big bubbles of celebration, turning points and breakthroughs as they bump up against each other inside the months and years. I have lived small moments too that have been  released by us being here right now at this time in our lives....like the private moment of smug I enjoy I quietly rebel against a culture bound by its vanity plates and bumper stickers by riding my bike to the nearby yoga studio, or ....like the moment of joy when, when asked at storytime whether he would prefer a story in English or in Spanish, my son replies "espanol, mami"...or the moment I realize looking at myself as if from outside of me, that I would rather live a lofty life in an ostensibly small place than rattle around in a big hollow expanse forever seeking life's large  bubbles to fill the time ...feeling foiled and thwarted at every turn.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Waiting for Good Joe - the existentialist search for a decent cup of coffee

On one end of the accessibility spectrum are good coffee, fresh vegetables and unsweetened bread !  On the other, rather delightfully, are oranges, seafood and avocados.  Some of this polarity can be explained by agricultural limitations, by culture and regional tastes or by commercial drivers.  The reasons don't matter as much as knowing that all the stuff you need to make lemonade is around. And in fact, that you may even stumble upon some premium quality lemons you didn't even know you wanted.

Rather than stew in my disappointment and food snobbery, I rush headlong into appreciation of the
yin and yang of it.  What are we, anyway, without the balance of light and dark, good and evil, espresso and arabica.  In fact, it's this balance and opposition in the world that keeps us able to survive as a people.  Let's think about it.  (This is where those faint of tolerance step away from their screens for a moment of patriotism -just some soft apologetic patriotism: I am Canadian after all).  If Canada were not so cold and dark for so much of the year, we would be hot and overpopulated.  We might not be so famously polite as we elbowed people to get through the throngs that would invariably feature in our streets and subways.  Indeed, we probably wouldn't even have subways.  Here I am facing a similar balance question.  Maybe if Florida had good lattes and a native root vegetable or two, all these marshy miles between condo developments would be even more full of residents with long arms and aggressive elbows.

There's an expression my mother uses a lot as a metaphor for compromise "putting water in one's wine". I find that an appropriate turn of phrase as my current compromise takes the form of symbolically taking water OUT OF my wine.  Or more literally putting more coffee in my coffee so that it looks and tastes like coffee and not the water in which I would soak my paintbrushes...if I had paintbrushes.

As a result of having sussed out this first survival strategy (i.e. ordering a triple whatever at any coffee dispensing establishment from Tarpon Springs to Talahassee), I sit comfortably caffeinated and equipped to go on and tell you about the bread, the vegetables and other food yarns..... I found it downright foreign that no major grocery chain within three counties has bread that doesn't feature some form of sugar in the first three ingredients.  And as bread should only really have five or six ingredients, well, don't get me started. After what I believe to be thorough searches of boutique food marts, eco-elite grocery joints, health food shops, and artisanal bakeries, I have come up short again and again.  The upshot of all this is a monthly trip with a very specific list of things I can't find anywhere else - including sugarfree bread - to the distant far away land they call Whole Foods. Yes, it's quite a drive but making the long trek, re-useable shopping bag in hand, reaps bonus rewards.  That they have devoted a good 25% of retail space to an impressive collection of wines is only a small part of that bonus.  I look forward to the chortles and the resulting endorphins that are all released when I peruse those endless aisles of wine in knowing I will happen upon something like this:


or this playful red...

 or a fractious brew like one of these guys.....



Even without the extra diversion provided by label trolling, the long trip to Whole Foods can be justified by the fact that it's relatively lower priced than its shishi cousin in a posh part of the city back home.  There is something economically stabilizing about everything being housed in a strip mall. Rich or poor, we all shop within stuccoed walls.

So. Coffee and bread. Check.

As all my pals on the food security beat know, accessibility sometimes refers to availability and sometimes it refers to price.  Why such a vocal, almost litigious society would stand for paying an average of $3.50USD for a bunch of broccoli, I don't know for sure.  I can only speculate that it's because they don't eat it.  I'll save pedantic lectures about nutrition for another post (don't panic - I probably won't get around to it) but will just say, the shelves in the store are brimming - yes brimming - with fresh vegetables which everyone is passing by in favour of the aisles and aisles of endcap refrigerators. Albeit, they do contain pizza pockets and 'tater tots, they also contain frozen broccoli, brussel sprouts and peas (which will be on my shopping list so we can eat something that has grown in soil as opposed to shrink wrapping without declaring bankruptcy).  So, is everyone eating frozen vegetables because the fresh stuff is so expensive or is the fresh stuff so expensive because no one buys it and instead buy the frozen stuff?  Which came first: the frozen chicken nugget or the egg substitute?

Hold the phone - things are getting 'ugly'. I left my blogging for a minute when a message came in from a local grower about heirloom ugly tomatoes she is giving away to fellow Freecyclers.  Ahh tomatoes and community - what a glorious combination.  This new development dilutes what I have said above, somewhat.  So, take it with a grain of salt.... or a swig of coffee.

Time for the yang.  It's not as if fish and seafood grow on trees or anything but fresh good quality aquatic fare is obviously much more available here given the proximity to the sea.  And since seafood is something easily cooked at home, I can by-pass my neighbours' preferences for breading and frying everything and cook it up à la me. I don't deny Canadians' worship of fried food (we go one better and sprinkle the fried item with sugar) but I  have never seen the likes of this North of the 49th



In any case, I depart from my countrymen here when I declare my love for a plain grilled fish - gills and all over a breaded, fried one. So, even if you don't eat anything that still has its eyes, I am sure you can appreciate the sublime goodness of food that comes to you looking much like it did when it was harvested, soon after it was harvested, and from just next door - or close enough.  Not even a trip to my favourite fish market at home would promise such variety.


Oranges, tangerines and grapefruits - oh my.  It should not surprise anyone that oranges in Florida are available, not very expensive, varied and delicious.  I like oranges.  But what I have become really  obsessed with is my daily fix of FSOJ.  I have it so often now that I need an abbreviation (to save time saying it so I can spend time squeezing it!)  Freshly squeezed orange juice is something I would have splurged on occasionally at brunch at a hip Riverdale joint up North.  Here, I indulge every day in either FSOJ or FSRRGJ (fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice).  I am nothing if not flexible.

Oh - one more thing. The extensive time I have spent in Mexico without having picked up on this coupled with my deference for all things California make the following declaration unexpected: From this day forward ne'er a California avocado will pass my lips in favour of its flavourful, meaty Mexican cousin (that sounds dirty). They cost a buck or so each and the flavour alone makes all the nutrients you get hit with a bonus afterthought. So, I would like to add to my daily list of staples, along with juice, fish and industrial strength coffee, a beautifully hand smashed guacamole, salted and dressed with a squeeze of lime at its last possible unmarried moment before it is joined - in love -  with a crisp corn chip.  Ah bliss....

So, as long as abundance, ingenuity and compromise can run along the same path for a while, we will find a way.  Between navigating the grocery conundrums like fresh vegetables priced consistent with 14k gold and anemic coffee, I think we can make this little life of ours work here. Now, I will have to excuse myself to go and pack my day bag and some lunch for the long journey ahead. We're out of bread.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

RENOVATION RHYMES

I couldn't resist penning a verse or two about our experiences refurbishing the apartment we moved into in order to make it seem more like our home. Although the space is small, the square footage of kitsch loomed large. There is still work to be done but some of the bigger design mistakes have been undone and never to be spoken of again......after the recitation of the below, of course...

PAINT LIMERICK
There once was a puke-green wall colour
that we walked in to on day one in horror
not six coats of paint
could remove the taint
of the hue choice of residents, prior

A HAIKU FOR HOOKS
nowhere to hang you
O jacket, keys or purses
on the floor you lay, til spring

WALLPAPER BORDERS
Wallpaper borders
lurk in my dreams with foreboding
if bursts of colour join
repurposed TV stands and makeshift counters
would it were for perpetuity
why then do carpeted floors appear?
broadloom nightmares
despite the tiles that belong
on our path
on our floor
thoughts of new bathroom fixtures
fridge doors that open
and ovens that heat
remain in my heart
until we can rebuild

NOTHING IS RED AND SO WE'RE ALL BLUE
Nothing is red
and so we're all blue
for all is coral and shell-shaped
it's Florida - what's new?!

SONNET FOR AN UGLY SOFA
You were never right for the room
although the previous owners erred
too large, too pink, too past your bloom
for a new thrift shop life, be prepared
the corduroy journey that all who sat took
enveloped in your cushion and fold
has furrowed your form with a weather'd look
burying your confident, clean image of olde
under the burden of overuse and kids' bouncing
stray remnants of red wine and spaghetti sauce
lurk in the seams that will soon hide the trouncing
now a secret shared by me, thee and the GoodWill shop boss

If this be your fate, I weep.  Though with haste
I abandon you to someone with bad taste!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Part II - Renovating on a Shoestring....When All You Have are Flip-Flops

Most kids recognize the golden arches of McDonalds or perhaps Mickey Mouse's iconic giant disc ears.  Not ours.  Luca announces proudly, as we pull into the parking lot and the sign appears, "...that's the Home Depot!"  So frequent became our visits to the store - after thrift shops came up empty and our Freecycle.org dreams were repeatedly dashed - that he became familiar with the logo and the orange and white sign.  In fact, I even thought I heard him say to us one day when we were visibly concerned about the potential success of a project, "Mummy, Daddy - you can do it, they can help".  OK, maybe I hallucinated that, but it's no wonder, considering we lived and breathed with renovation on the brain for weeks.

Once we moved on to question #2 "How can I re-purpose what is already here so that it is not hopelessly ugly and/or useless?", we knew we could not do it alone.  For example, would any sane person attack - on his own - turning this..



into something- anything at all- that makes any kind of design sense?  Of course not, I hear you say. And I wholeheartedly agree.  A team of warriors was required for this: warriors in the form of coats of thick white primer paint, a working circular saw (second- hand and ready for a fight), fine grade sand-paper, clean white mitre-cut trim and the gift of Gavin's eye equipped for any spacial relations task you throw at it.  After one or two strategic planning sessions and a few trips to Luca's favorite DIY depot, this ugly green, so-called entertainment centre turned into this:





 I'll give you a minute to scroll back up to the "Before" shot.

Yup - that green monstrosity did, in fact, turn into this.  This is recycling of the finest, fanciest order.  However, I am remiss if I don't let you know that afore-mentioned list of tools needed for this - and other projects- is incomplete and simultaneously draw your attention to the (almost empty) bottle of tequila on the top shelf of the finished product.

While I'm at this "before/after" thing, I'll show you the couch of horrors below that was replaced by the sunny orange delight above.



OK, indulge me: one more and I'll stop:

Dig the groovy border at the ceiling.  Its grapes and flowers!

In the middle of the kitchen is that drafting table I talked about in a previous post.  Not bad right? And in true makeover fashion, in the same way that the "Before" shots show the subject standing with terrible posture, no makeup on and frowning, in our "before" shot,  we have strewn clothes and messiness-making objects about the floor randomly to heighten the sense of despair and disarray.....

Renovating changes you at the very core.  Seemingly overnight, my aversion to decorative pillows (especially on beds where there are several layers of them to be peeled away when access for actual sleeping is needed)  has changed into an affinity for fluffing and placing them just so. Sigh..

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to Renovate on a Shoestring......when all you have are flip-flops

I can't emphasize enough how where we live would not be where we live if it weren't for the very specific circumstances that lead us here.  So, how did this end up as our house? What is this mysterious chain of events to which I allude?  This little studio apartment started off as a vacation rental that we procured and then swiftly forgot about. We had landed on it during a visit a few years ago. We came here to see my parents who are just a few miles down the road for much of every winter. Later, when we realized that our plan-engineering discussions for this venture kept bringing us back to this part of the world, it seemed logical to make this teeny, tiny partition-less space our home.

True, it is small. That does mean living 'close together' but it also means less air to condition; it means there's nowhere for your partner to hide when you want to talk about your feelings and it means you have to be really spaced out to misplace your keys (we still manage, so you can go ahead and buy us both T-shirts that read   'I'm with Flaky --->')  Also, its design deficiencies, while daunting at first, have been tapping us on the proverbial shoulder, goading us to make a project of them.

So even though this would not have been what we planned if it were all ahead of us to do again, it's working out.  The transformation of our place into something that does not look like the sound stage for an "All in the Family" taping was our first goal.  I am proud to say that we have reached this goal. Shortly, we will be able to present some 'Before' and 'After' shots (to be included in all transformation related stories, as far as I'm concerned) and to share some of the more cathartic changes that took place.  Here's how it all went down....

The first order of business was to ensure that daily functions could be carried out. The bathroom checked out. While not beautiful, everything flushed, ran, drained and flowed as it should. On to the kitchen. Now this was a problem. Imagine the most transient of residents, guests here for a short spell to take a splash in the pool and move on; people who don't have a vacation moment to waste - who buy prewashed and pre-chopped vegetables, pre-grated cheese, 2-minute microwave meals; people who use disposable dishes and drink to-go coffee even when they are to-staying. Although we are firmly positioned on the other end of the spectrum we know that even those culinary minimalists would have trouble in this kitchen. Because the one thing everyone needs no matter how kitchen contra....it's a surface. All those meals-in-a bag need to wait on deck before going in the microwave. Your wine bottle has to sit somewhere while you work your corkscrew in. The weight of the grocery bags carrying frozen pizzas and Lean Cuisines has to be borne by some countertop, some table, some stool somewhere. So, amidst the flying lessons, our toddler's needs, and some sanity restoring walks in the sea breeze, we hunkered down to solve our first conundrum. How do we get a whole new kitchen while waiting until we can get a whole new kitchen. We aren't allowed to do major renovations during the busy season.  Plus, now we would have nowhere to live while the place was being torn apart.  Later, we could stay at my parents'. So, we needed an effective - and cheap - temporary fix.

We learned quickly that there is an M.O. around here for the DIY inclined. And while you don't want to end up at the end of the furniture recycling food chain, it is the most cost-effective way to redecorate. Step #1 ask yourself: 'Can my needs with this project be met by visiting one of the very numerous thrift shops in the area?'  Very often, the answer to that question - unless you are in the market for something made of shells, shell shaped, shell coloured or shell inspired - turns out to be 'NO'. 

In this case, however, we were lucky. In a white elephant corner of our little world, we found a simple piece that would do just fine. It was an old, white, cheap architect's drafting table. Although Gehry might not approve of our adjusting the ergonomically intended slanted top to a flat 180 degrees, we probably won't ultimately have offended any actual architects. One adhesive layer of brightly coloured contact paper later and - voila - a worktop is born.  Also, because as a drafting table, it's empty underneath, we screwed in a few tea cup hooks and keep our pots and pans etc. there. This is the best possible outcome of a design dilemma: inadvertantly solve two - count 'em, two - problems with one task. And because this was one of the first things we did, we were optimistic moving forward. And, in fact, this trend of thrift shop success would continue for a while....

I don't need to talk too much about how paint can resolve - or at least hide - some hideous decor decisions. The walls here were not even hospital green....rather, post-apocalyptic hospital green. They had to be covered quickly. We might have overcompensated to get rid of the depressoid vibe a little by choosing orange (not Apricot Sunset, not Waves of Tangerine - but stark, bright, in-your-face jailbird jumpsuit orange) on a couple of accent walls, but it worked. And it made us feel instantly better. The strange thing is that the pink corduroy (that's not a typo) sofa didn't match the old valium-trip green any better than the new orange. We will never know who brought it here, but we knew we would be the ones responsible for sending it on its way.

One day, when Gav was on his way back from school, he stopped at the thrift shop nearest us to donate something. He saw an orange sleeper in there that was almost new and, after approaching to ensure it was not, in fact, just a tropical mirage called me to report his findings and make a decision.  We decided that we should both see it. So, at 3:45, he arrived home and tagged in for being-home- with-sleeping-child duty. I rushed to the store knowing I would arrive moments before the 4pm closing time. I spied the sofa, rushed over, made a gut call and asked the store clerk if they could just hold it until the next day so we could sleep on it...hah....I mean to say, decide whether we would sleep on it!  He said he would be happy to hold it but that the day's 50% off sale (quite serendipidously that day on sofas and - rather randomly - men's shoes) would not be honoured the following day. So, in a flash of confidence and conviction, I purchased the sofa. They would deliver it the following day and pick up the pink one if we were willing to donate it. Were we ever!

So, there you have it: two happy endings in the thrift shop game. It's such a feel-good game at that.  We spend little money. Stuff stays in circulation meagerly delaying the production and introduction of new stuff into this crowded world etc. and we end up with stuff no one else here currently has. Of course, this coincidental success meant a rude awakening when our third hunt for the thrift shop treasure came up empty. We were forced to Step #2: how can I repurpose what is already here so it's not hopelessly ugly and/or useless?

And with that intriguing cliff-hanger, I bid you all a good night's restoration.....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I heart ha-chchs

This isn't a mommy blog but I feel compelled to recognize the intuitiveness of children- my child in this case - as I name this post.  It was only a matter of time before a helicopter themed entry showed up in this journal or as Luca would say, a 'ha-chch' themed entry.  Yes, why shouldn't everything be named according to the sound it makes ( like helicopters and their propellors' sound: ha-chchchchch)?  The famous inconsistencies of the English language would all but disappear.   If we could have more splash type words and less silence (a really noisy word if you ask me) type words, we would be on the right track.  So, as an ode to my dear son: vive la onomatopeoia - we all heart ha-chchs!

We have been here just under a month now and this is around the time when I expect to shift mentally into "I live here" territory. I don't feel this yet because my life here has been largely the same as it was at home (note 'home' is still not here) except that here I seem to constantly be finding sand between the sofa cushions.  For Gavin, however, life became different almost upon arrival, as soon as the bulk of his time started going to either preparing for or actually flying the Robinson R22M that is and will remain his classroom for the next nine or so months.

And it's not just the actual flying lessons and the ground school (which, to the un-airborne of us, is just plain school- or hittin' the books).  It's all the industry savviness that he has to collect......and the connections with the mechanics and the airport and airfield staff that he has to charm and all the lingo.... This past weekend, he attended the largest helicopter convention and exposition in the world.  In recent years it has been held in Houston, Anaheim and Dallas.  What a serendipitous stroke of luck that this year the International Heli-Expo was in Orlando, Florida!  Yes, a mere 3 1/2 hour  drive - which ,in the vast expanse of the flat marsh that is Florida, is just up the palm-edged road.

So, off he went on a quick jaunt for the weekend.  There, his school had a booth on the trade show floor along with hundreds of suppliers, employers, schools, helicopter manufacturers and countless other muckety-mucks of the helicopter world.

At a special ceremony marking the introduction (and, judging from all the hoopla - sale) of a new model of helicopter, one of Igor Sekorsky's sons was in attendance representing his father at this photo opp.  Now, I will save you the trouble of consulting Professor Google and let you know that Igor Sekorsky was a Russian-American engineer known for inventing, designing and building the first successful helicopter.  When he died in 1972, he left a legacy of aircrafts, books and children.  One of his spawn was there  suited up and signing cheques, smiling for cameras and generally doing whatever  propellor pomp and ceremony was called for.  So that was kind of a big deal.  Apparently the owner of the school Gavin attends (a moderately large operation with several 'campuses' all over the US) looks deceivingly like the guy down the street but is, in fact, very much a heli-celebrity.  There he was rubbing shoulders with a former student, now the Captain of the CBS helicopter crew that does the aerial video for the reality show, Survivor.

It seems that people in the helicopter industry are like couples who have been together a long time or dog owners and their canine buddies:  they start to look like their partners...in this case, their 'ships'.  The CBS survivor guy had a camouflage photographer's vest like the helicopter he flies.  The Sekorsky crew looking very a la 'men in black' had their shiny black, tinted-windowed birds parked nearby.  

While there, Gavin also attended a student symposium where the keynote speaker - a former President of the largest helicopter school in North America - told his audience that the average helicopter pilot is a mild-mannered introvert.  The nature of the job just attracts people with an inclination to the solitary, apparently.  "So", he said, "even if you are just a little bit of a people person you will stand out from your peers".  That was one of the big take-home messages.....

Also part of this symposium was a Q&A with a panel of other helicopter types.  Among the panelists was a woman who was, like Gavin, a 'Second Career Pilot'.  Apparently, there are enough of these fool-hardy types who trade their 'grounded' existences for the uncertainties of heli-life to warrant a name for their group.  Her message was 'network, network, network'.  Network to get jobs, scholarships, good rates for flying time.....Well, network he will but I think she has a leg up on the scholarship side of things being a woman ( Now, fancy that, a leg up for a woman - hmmm).  Anyway, I don't think Gavin would qualify for a grant from 'Whirly Girls'.

So, the moral of this story, Gavin reported, is that in order to pursue this loner loving career where most of one's time at work is spent alone in the air - just you and your ship with no one to talk to but air traffic control and nothing but the sound of your own breath and the silence of the sky..... not only do you have to dress like your helicopter looks (which is unfortunate for Gavin who flies a blue and white striped craft with giant pontoons on the bottom) but you also have to be some kind of social- butterfly fluttering about trading business cards...introducing yourself to strangers... not just joining, but initiating conversations....making small talk, then....making bigger talk and generally being the life of the party.  

Hmm what a contradiction of high altitude proportions...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The dark and sunny sides of the Sunshine State...

The Dark Side: OK - so you've heard a lot of it before:  the vast distances and the car culture, the strip malls, the constant complaint that, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity" and finally, the big one... the cultural barrenness.   Well, we were prepared for all these and other not so desirable paradigms of this State of tropical climes.
The distances are great but driving 20 minutes to pick up milk doesn't seem like much of a run when Gavin is flying to Ft. Lauderdale (on the other coast) just  to practice!  As far as living in one's car, we are new car-owners anyway.  Owning our first car this late (relatively) in life means we can probably drive every day across the State until we are well into our octogenarian years before we match the carbon foot-print of most of our contemporaries.
  The malls do abound, it's true.  One could spend 6 hrs in a different one of these air-conditioned temples of consumption every day for a year and still not make a dent in any in the next county. So we do visit these from time to time - when retail activity is required.  But we adjust our entertainment expectations and avail of nearby free diversions (surprisingly plentiful and expounded on in the next section) as our financial profile becomes ever leaner.

Regarding the issue of humidity, many of you know that I have lived for decades with a natural humidex on top of my shoulders.  So, when it comes to humidity, I have enough tragic hair days behind me to have learned that there isn't much that an entire bottle of product and some creative air flow redirection won't solve.  Of course, humidity affects more than just hair.  Nothing really ever dries here unless you put it directly under the sun during that sliver of a window between 11:45am and 12:30pm.  And with some things, even that  won't work..

The tiny - and I am emphatic here - soon to be completely renovated - kitchen has enough counterspace for a spoon and.... maybe another (smaller) spoon.  So, everything has to be mounted on walls on hooks or placed on (also scarce) shelves.  We thought a magnetic knife rail on the fridge would be a great space saver.  We nearly gave up on that idea after finding it loping downward days after it was installed or walking into the apartment after being out, to find a crime aftermath-like scene with knives splayed all over the floor.  The adhesive didn't dry properly so the rail didn't stick to the side of the fridge and just slid right off and onto the floor.  Finally Gavin, braving the possibility of collision between his Dremmel and a freon pipe actually drilled the rivets into the side of the fridge to hold the fr*&@!#ing thing up!

I address the issue of the absence of culture as a segue into.....

The Sunny Side: So, we have all been the bearers of jokes at the expense of this saw-grass State or laughed heartily when someone pointed out that its geography is nothing but swamp with beaches at it's edges sprinkled with Perkin's restaurants flying  hilariously oversized flags out front.  I have been coming to this area of Fla. since I was a child but my concerns then never reached beyond how to maximize my tanning time by employing the right kind of air mattress in the water so as not to overheat before I had bronzed sufficiently (of course, this was before ozone awareness and climate change).
Now as a resident, I have deepened the search for meaning in these marshes.  The immediate scarcity of things to do beyond baking oneself by the pool leads to full on scouring of any available resources.  Despite being familiar with the area, I never really committed to finding a place in the community - who does that, after all, on vacation?  So, as a result of afore-mentioned scouring, I have found free kayak trails, a very decent zoo, a historic railway that still runs sightseeing trips, dozens of free parks and playgrounds, an impressive library system, a not laughable theatre scene and two large, nearby and very respectable concert venues.
The dame of diversions should not be forgotten either: the beach.  Yes, it is when I hear the waves from my balcony (did I mention the beach is right across the street?), walk on the strand, watch Luca carrying buckets of sand to and from the construction site of "Yuca's (Luca's) castle", follow windsurfers up and down the coast that the toppling knife rail, the fast-food drive throughs, the billboards advertising outlet malls dissolve into the background.
The other thing is that my partner, who I have loved for a long time, who has always been generous and wonderful, reserved yet friendly and who has a lot of characteristics that make him a generally likeable, well adjusted guy is finally, well and truly complete.

No, I know that this is a blog meant to reach a wide audience of friends and acquaintances, give you some idea of what we are up to and entertain...maybe garner a few chuckles and - if I do it right - one hearty guffaw (or two) per post.  So, I will tread lightly in this area of relative emotional depth and just say: the feeling you get when you see someone you love unearth a sliver of themselves they have just found as if it they knew it was there all the time is indescribable.  So, do I like it here in sunny Fla.? If the Gavin that returns from a day of flying with his spirit still some 2000 ft off the ground is my litmus, I belong here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Suddenly....a quarter is worth so much more than 25 cents.......

Not since the last label-less period in my life have I felt so ingenuous.  After University - not yet identifiable by one's profession but long past adolescence - there is no name for what one is.  You are not yet a parent or a professional but no longer a student or a child.  And now again, with the notable exception of very definitely being parents there is nothing else to identify us as part of a group with our peers. 

In fact, we really have no peers and as such, no peer support.  Gavin, especially, has no peers.  He is a middle aged student in a vocational, career shifting area of study.  I am a stay-at-home mom and we are all living in a retirement community disguised as a resort development.  It's true: when you live near the beach, your neighbours are all white (I refer here, to the colour of both skin and hair), Bermuda short sporting, socks-with-sandals wearing, golf club bearing, shuffleboard stick brandishing seniors.  Real, normal people our age - almost peers - don't live here.  They live in houses with garages far from the beach, from tiki huts serving margaritas and golf courses and close to grocery stores, pharmacies and schools.  The fact that everyone here has children - and sometimes grandchildren - older than me entrenches further our position of "young family starting out".

And so, we are transported back to a time when were much younger, much less established and much more poor.  Just like those days back in University - before the proliferation of cell phones, we are again without the mobile apparatus that keeps us connected and we hunt for working payphones (much harder to come by than even 5 years ago) with our pockets laden with quarters (local calls actually cost 50 cents).  So, quarters are our communication link to each other and the world outside.

They are also the link to hygiene.  Every week, I haul the duffel bag full of laundry down to the launderette. Last week, as a result of a combination of poor planning and too many phone calls made from payphones (!)  we were dangerously low on quarters.  In my rush to get back upstairs before Gavin had to leave for school,  I pop both loads in the washer and run upstairs feeling triumphant:  I have managed to do laundry, feed our child, and generally prepare for the day in enough ways to make me feel self-satisfied and super-momish.
Except that when I return to transfer the load to the dryer, I find I am short a quarter.  Horror of horrors: I am 25 cents away from sleeping on dry sheets.  I dig in my pockets in a last ditch attempt but...nothing but pesky dimes and nickels.  Outside of this moment dimes hold more than 1/3 the value of the quarter.  In fact, nickels and dimes combined can have an even greater total value ....but right now they are worthless.  An idea comes to me, I hold out 30 cents and ask the only other person in the launderette, "Excuse me, will you take three dimes for a quarter?"  She considers "OK, that sounds fair - next time you best come prepared."  I nod sheepishly and put the last quarter in the slot, hear the confirming "clink" as the dryer starts and step away wiping the sweat from my brow. That was a close one.

There is another thing about those suddenly scarce 25 cent pieces that - you would think - are made of platinum rather than the copper/nickel alloy of which they are comprised. You need to stuff them - you guessed it - into a machine,  this time one that gives you access to the only entertainment that occurs in these parts after sunset that a "young family starting out" can afford: TV.  I have always regarded cable as a luxury, even in the most prosperous of times.  Now with financial reserves being metaphorically sliced by the rotor blades of a helicopter (get it?) ...not a chance. 

So, instead we wait for the Sunday paper that has - buried within the hundreds of pages of coupons - the TV listings for the week.  But of course the trail that leads to TV programming enlightenment is treacherous.  We have to race downstairs early on a Sunday morning to get to the newspaper machine before the hoards of the blue rinse set descend upon it.  Then with the precision of a plaid clad golden- age golfer making his morning drive on the fairway,  I feed in the four quarters required to get the extra fat Sunday paper and.....ah...at last.....the low down on the week's evening diversion.

Wasn't it Winston Churchill who said, "..Never have so few given so many quarters for..." ..uh, the rest of the quote escapes me.