Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Past Deadline: A Day We Will Never Forget

I didn’t set out to write about 9/11 this week, but then the airwaves became saturated with 10-year anniversary material and it got stuck in my head.

I don’t like the feeling I get when I watch those images from a decade ago, and as they played over and over as part of the anniversary, it cemented the fact I don’t need to see them to remember exactly how I felt that day.

It’s important to officially acknowledge the day, certainly. I think, though, we carry the aftermath of 9/11 with us every day. I don’t think I could forget how it changed the way I look at the world if I tried.

I was about six months pregnant with my first child on Sept. 11, 2001. Back then, one of my many hats was that of proofreader on Mondays and Tuesdays at The Perth Courier.

Things were trucking merrily along on that bright sunny day when one of our advertising staff walked in the back door and announced he had just heard on his car radio that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

At first we found it hard to believe. It was stunning. The scope of the situation eluded us for a while.

We tried to work while finding out as much as we could about what was happening. Ten years ago our Internet was pretty slow and all the news sites were slammed, so no one could get a really good idea of what was going on – not that the networks knew for sure, anyway. The details were sketchy, but the news was grim.

The second tower was hit. And the Pentagon. And a field in Pennsylvania.

At one point the prevailing rumour was that dozens of hijacked planes were in the air and that the borders were closing.

That’s when I started to feel scared. This is Canada. Our borders don’t close. And Perth is pretty close to the nation’s capital – could we be next?

My shift at the paper finished around noon and I hurried home to switch on the news, seeing live images for the first time along with the horrifying replays. It brought me to tears.

I think the image that sticks with me the most, even though I didn’t see it live, was the dreadful moment when the second plane hit and it became perfectly clear – as the world watched – that the first plane was no accident. The United States was under attack and thousands of people were dying.

The other unforgettable image is of the poor victims who fell – or chose to jump – from those fiery towers. Those innocent people and their terrible choice.

After 9/11 we were told not to be afraid because “then the terrorists would win.” I was certainly afraid that day, and for a long time after. I was afraid of what might happen next. I also felt, like so many others, shock and grief.

Mostly though, as I sat wide-eyed and open-mouthed and watched the news coverage that day, I rubbed my belly and felt my unborn child kick and I worried about the world he or she would face. Would I be equipped to help him or her navigate this troubled planet – a planet I wasn’t sure I understood or knew anymore?

I still don’t know for sure, but I’m trying.

I know my dread of that day is nothing compared to what the victims and their families have experienced. Nor can I claim to have been personally touched by the subsequent war. But what happened on that sunny September day hit close to home physically and emotionally and made the world a different place. Some days we don’t think about it so much, but I’m sure we will always remember.

That day taught us a lot of things. Mingled with the fear, shock and grief were also anger and national pride. We have been so lucky in Canada – and in North America – to know what freedom is. On 9/11, when borders closed and the world changed, I think we learned to appreciate all of that just a little more.

Published in The Perth Courier, Sept. 15/11

Past Deadline: Cue Vacation

Vacation was a long time coming.

I know some of you could tell.

A lady who lives around the corner from us dropped by one afternoon with a photocopy of a cartoon she loves. It features a haggard-looking woman and says, “When I woke up this morning I had one nerve left, and now you’re getting on it.” She thought I might appreciate it.

I believe I referred to that last nerve in a column in early August. That was many days, hours and minutes ago.

I’m pretty sure the fact I was hanging on by my fingernails in the days and weeks leading up to our holidays was becoming quite obvious.

“Hope you have a really restful vacation,” friends and colleagues would say, gently patting my arm as they backed away slowly with a slight look of fear in their eyes.

It has only been a little more than a year since we’ve had a week’s holidays, but it feels like about 50. We had a weekend away in a hotel earlier in August that served as a dandy bandage to get us to this lovely week.

Due to a variety of work-related circumstances beyond our control, we had to schedule the week at the very end of August.

It’s a scary week, that one, with school starting right after we return. There is much to get organized for the kids, and since I teach part time at the wonderful brand-spanking new Perth campus of Algonquin College, there are last-minute preparations to be made there, too. Courses need to be organized and boxes need to be unpacked.

Still, a holiday is a holiday, and a few unavoidable work commitments (school and other) can be navigated.

Fortunately, we sagely chose to vacation very close to our own backyard.

At the beginning of the summer we reserved a cottage near Perth thinking at the time there was a chance Groom-boy would not be able to book a whole week off. Being close to home would put us within commuting distance, so the rest of the family could hang out at the lake and he could commute to Ottawa by day and enjoy the cottage in the evenings on the days he had to work.

Meanwhile, Miss Work-From-Home (with occasional meetings away from the house) would also be within close proximity of a few commitments.

Even though it would be nice to completely shut everything off and spend the whole week floating on a lake and staring up at the sky, this has been a darned good compromise. We have enjoyed a quaint cottage with lots of fish to catch (probably over and over and over again), good swimming and nice neighbours – one with a friendly dog that likes playing with the kids.

Despite the occasional work-related interruption, there was enough downtime to be able to feel some of the work weariness drift away.

It’s amazing how powerful being outside – in a quiet setting, communing with nature – can be. It’s an excellent way to recharge the batteries.

I also love how much the kids get out of it. The same short people who spend way too much time bartering and bargaining for additional screen time, find hours of enjoyment in looking for frogs and snakes, catching and releasing innumerable sunfish (and their various cousins), paddling around in a dingy, swimming and sliding down a slide on a raft.

Oh, yeah, and all that fresh air and activity tends to make them tired. That kind of tired is sooo goooood!

It makes me sleepy, too, and having that many tired people all in one place tends to bode well for snoozing through the night.

You can’t beat that.

As much as I adore my faithful assistant, Mr. George BlackBerry, I do look forward to having a holiday sometime when I can unplug him completely. I’m sure he would appreciate a break, too.

For now, though, it was grand having him along to keep things on track and – of course – to check weather forecasts up to the minute so we could decide whether to go fishing or swimming or retreat into the cosy cottage to read good books. (Or we could just look out the window, but don’t tell George.)

Published in The Perth Courier, Sept. 8/11

Past Deadline: On Looking Forward

On the night of the last federal election, I sat in a pub with a friend and watched wide-eyed as the results rolled in on the big screen.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement as riding after riding turned NDP orange. It was a phenomenon. It was history in the making. It was something political science and journalism students would be writing essays about for decades.

Jack Layton’s NDP – the new official opposition.


Although I am a political junkie, I tend to be very cynical about the whole thing. After all, I worked as a reporter for several years before crossing over to “the dark side” (PR). I know about spin. I know about marketing. I know that successful politicians are often part of a complete package.

Generally, I am not one for hero worship, and I did not expect to find a hero and inspiration in a politician.

But I did.

Many years ago when I was still reporting for this newspaper, a sitting prime minister kicked off an election campaign by making Perth the first stop.

While that in itself is pretty cool, I was more excited about the fact I managed to get some really good photos of the visit than I was about being in proximity of the prime minister.

I would have loved, however, to have met Jack Layton.

I’m not a card-carrying member of any party and I never have been. When I vote, I am usually not voting for a party, but a person. First, I consider who will best represent our riding, but I also consider how that decision will affect the overall outcome – the seat count and who will become prime minister.

It is rarely an easy decision.

Strong PR can win an election, and sometimes the politician behind the spin turns out not to be who you think they are. I think that’s what made Jack a phenomenon: what his PR people dished out to the public could be reconciled with the man himself. He was who he said he was. He acted on the things he said he would and, by all accounts, it seems he treated people well when he did it.

The politics of positivism have been, I think, pretty much unheard of in my time, so Jack’s campaign filled people with a sense of optimism. It represented a change from regular political shenanigans. It was a first step to rising above everything that makes people cynical about politicians.

What a rollercoaster it has been! A meteoric rise to the summit of this hope for positive change, only to plummet into sadness as a man, who many would call a hero, is struck down too soon.

Who could help but be moved by Jack’s final letter – his instructions to his colleagues and Canadians – what Stephen Lewis dubbed his “manifesto for social democracy”? How can we not join this national groundswell to live well by doing good things – big or small – for others?

How can we not? It is the human thing to do – and yet part of Jack’s legacy is to remind us that it needs to be done.

I still marvel about what happened in Canada on election night, and I am amazed (even in this strange era of societal grief-en-masse) by the national outpouring of grief.

I was surprised by my own reaction last Monday morning when I read the “breaking news” banner on my computer that Jack Layton had died. It absolutely ruined my day – my week, actually. I wept for a man I had never met and did not really know.

Are we that starved, as Canadians – as people – for positive thinkers? I think we are.

As I get older I have learned how important it is to surround oneself with positive, constructive people and I struggle every day to be one of them. Life is too short to spend it complaining. If something isn’t working or isn’t right, it is up to us to fix it.

Jack was a positive force who put his words into action and worked joyfully to make the world a better place.

Whether it is through big actions or small, we can – and should – all do the same.

Farewell, Jack, and thank you.

Published in The Perth Courier, Sept. 1/11

Past Deadline: Greenish Thumbs

In the spring, some classes at Boychild’s school took part in the Junior Gardener’s program.

Members of the Perth and District Horticultural Society visited the classrooms and worked with the students to teach them about gardening.

For several weeks, the students in Boychild’s class took turns bringing home a different house plant. They had to enter information into a journal about the plant and its care, and then they were tasked with keeping it alive for the week.

Fortunately, keeping the plants alive proved to be relatively easy. Remembering to bring them back to school on the appointed day was the hard part.

At the end of the program, we reaped the benefits of the Junior Gardeners’ experience. The kids learned how to pot some plants and had planted seeds, and they brought home their handiwork.

We have a bowl filled with hens and chicks (the plant, not the birds), which now grows prolifically in our kitchen window, and Boychild got to bring home a little goldfish plant.

I have wanted a goldfish plant with the cute orange blossoms for years, so I was pretty happy to see the two little sprigs in a tiny cracked pot (no doubt it had been carted home by more than a few nine year olds over the weeks).

We put it in a pretty new pot and left it on the kitchen table where it would get just the right kind of light.

Unfortunately, it also got just the wrong kind of cat. One of them decided to investigate our work while we were out, and one of the little sprigs did not fare well. The other one got off to a very slow start, but seems to be showing some interest in, you know, growing.


That’s not all. The Junior Gardeners brought home outdoor plants, too.

“What are these?” I asked, knowing the tiny seedlings were either marigolds or tomatoes.

“I dunno.”

“Would they be marigolds?” I said.

“Yeah, I think so.”

Thinking marigolds would look nice in a couple of hanging baskets combined with some of the nasturtium and cosmos seeds that also came home, we set to work and performed the transplant.

Everything grew.

I still haven’t seen any marigolds, but I did (ahem) end up moving several tomato plants out of the hanging baskets and transplanting them into the vegetable garden. Yeah, we’re real horticulturalists over here, for sure.

In addition to the plants and annual seeds, the Junior Gardeners also brought home some vegetable seeds.

Typically at our place we plant a few tomato plants (um, done!), as well as peas, carrots, yellow beans and pumpkins.

The peas and carrots tend to go over well with my vegetable-wary crew, but I end up eating a lot of the yellow beans on my own, and each year I am amazed by how few pumpkins are produced by so many blossoms!

Thanks to the Junior Gardening program (and seeds donated by Home Hardware and Canadian Tire), we had a whole variety of different vegetables to try.

We yielded a couple of nice zucchini before the plant shriveled up when we went away for a few non-rainy days. We have one pumpkin underway so far. We have been munching green beans, which were liked by all, and the “marigold” tomatoes turned out to be cherry – our favourite.

We also got beet seeds, which I had to protect with an elaborate chicken wire-and-stake arrangement to dissuade the local bunnies from eating the tender young leaves. Despite their popularity with the long-eared critters, I suspect I may be the only one eating the root part.

With the addition of our own pea and carrot seeds, we’ve had quite a dandy little harvest over the summer. I even had a little help at times with planting, weeding, watering and picking, so it has been true Family Fun™.

Thanks to the Perth and District Horticultural Society and Stewart School for getting students involved in this program. We have learned lots about plant care, not to mention driving home the message about where our food comes from.

Oh – and if the goldfish plant thrives, it will be a true success story!

Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 25/11

Past Deadline: Are We There Yet?

When I travel with the kids, I always find myself wondering whether I was just easy to amuse as a child or whether kids are harder to thrill these days.

There’s a strong argument for me being easy to amuse. (That, by the way, is a nice way of calling me simple.) After all, this is the girl who didn’t mind eating hospital food for several days when having babies because someone else made it and cleaned it up. It almost felt like a (painful) holiday.

When travelling on a real holiday in the days before in-car game and video players, I used to amuse myself by – get this – looking out the window.

I know. Ridiculous!

This wild and crazy pastime does not always work so well with my kids.

On the weekend we visited friends in Toronto. We travelled by car and throughout the journey, I would point out all the things that I used to find interesting on the trip. [Cue mediocre enthusiasm.]

I never, for example, grow tired of watching for the blue glimmers of Lake Ontario no matter how often I make the trip. My kids showed mild interest, especially when we explained the same lake goes all the way from Kingston to Toronto and beyond, but I never caught them gazing dreamily towards the water, watching for ships.

Similarly, I always liked travelling Hwy. 401 so I could watch for trains, be they VIA, freight or GO trains. I still like to do that. (Simple, I tell you!) So, of course, I always point out the trains: “Look, kids!” Usually I am ignored. One of these days they will say, “Mom. It’s a train. Get a grip.”

In the city I spotted a train yard, and Girlchild remarked it reminded her of one of her old Thomas the Train stories. That’s something, at least.

We had occasion to pass the airport, which I always find cool. “Look at the planes taking off and landing!” Apparently jet bellies low in the sky are not enthralling. It would seem we can scratch “sitting near the airport to watch planes go by” off our family bucket list.

Then there’s automobiles. We live in a small town, right? Not a lot of traffic. Not a lot of four-lane highways. For us, it’s annoying if “heavy” traffic means it takes us 10 minutes to get across town instead of three.

Cue Toronto, with its express lanes and collectors and traffic jams that leave you parked on a six-lane highway.

These days the short people in our car find the traffic mildly interesting, I think, but when I was a kid it would have been a gold mine. See, on long trips as a kid (I’m sure I have mentioned this before) I used to amuse myself by “collecting” licence plate numbers in a notebook. I had hundreds of them.

Weird little kid.

I’m quite sure I enjoyed traffic jams more as a kid than I do now. Then again, back then they would have impeded our efforts to reach our vacation destination.

Good thing I was easily amused.

I also used to write down the name of every place we drove through. That was a particularly long list when we travelled to Elliot Lake and back when I was 10. I figure Boychild might be ready for a task like that. Maybe if he checked things off on a map he wouldn’t ask “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?” so much.

Yeah, right. Kids come programmed to ask those questions.

When all those sure-fire entertainment choices were exhausted, and when my brother and I grew tired of collecting nickels from Mom and Dad for every white horse we saw (there were surprisingly few!) we would turn to another favourite pastime: fighting with each other and/or annoying our parents, often by singing irritating made-up ditties over and over again.

Apparently this never gets old.

It’s safe to say some things never change, and that includes the fact I continue to be easily amused. Give me a comfy chair, a good book, some pretty scenery and a quiet place to sleep and it sounds like a great vacation to me. I’m ready. Bring it.

Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 18/11

Past Deadine: Où est le dictionnaire?

On Saturday I hung out with about 1,900 cyclists when the Vélo Québec tour hit Perth.

No, I have not switched from running to cycling. I still have left over fear-of-head-trauma-after-Grade-12-cycling incident issues. (You are thinking: “Well THAT explains a few things!”) Besides, it is hard to cycle while wearing a long period costume.

Saturday was a hot humid day to be wearing pioneer garb, so what I lacked in generating heat from exercise, I made up for by wearing heavy clothing. I seem to be drawn to events that require me to wear layers of clothing on hot days (i.e. Kilt Run).

Anyway, I was at Conlon Farm with a group of other intrepid pioneer-garbed volunteers hosting a Friends of Murphys Point booth. We were promoting the many treasures found at the provincial park, including our upcoming Heritage Mica Festival. (It will be chock full of fun stuff during the last two weekends of August and the first two weekends of September.)

Needless to say, we pioneer women stood out amid the cycling shorts and tank tops. We were WAY to conspicuous to sneak into the line-up for the awesome-looking food for the cyclists.

The Vélo Québec tour, by the way, is really something. This renowned bicycle touring organization is a huge production – complete with its own transport truck shower houses, a giant tent for meals, a tent city for sleeping, a stage with entertainment, a luggage truck, a pub tent and bicycle repairs, massage therapists and so much more. The organizers look after everything so the cyclists can concentrate on the business of cycling.

Our booth joined others promoting local tourism, and we had lots of curious cyclists checking us out and talking about our lovely town and area.

At least I’m pretty sure that’s what they were saying.

There was a day when I was reasonably competent in French, but that was a couple of decades ago, and I think it was just one day. Suffice it to say, I am rusty. Comment dites-vous, “rusty”?

Now, si vous parlez lentement, I might be able to smile and nod enthusiastically and actually understand what you are saying, but I have a tough time responding. The vocabulary flies from my head or flops clumsily from my mouth.

Fortunately we had a fluent volunteer on hand (yay Jane!) while I was there, so I could be the smiling nodder. When francophones conversed with The Fluent One, I could get at least the gist of the conversation – and sometimes pretty much the whole darned thing!

On my own, though, I would freeze to the point of barely being able to speak English because I was trying so hard to be understood. I am SUCH a dork!

For example, I tried to tell one lady that Murphys Point is a “parc provincial,” but couldn’t pronounce “provincial” all French-like even after three tries. The Fluent One said, “Oh, just say it in English.” I think I could have gotten away with that word.

In fact, when listening to numerous conversations that were “lente” enough, it was easily seen how context and a good accent can make all the difference. I heard The Fluent One telling a man in French that the mica mineral “est fire retardant.” He didn’t blink an eye.

Unfortunately, I have never been convincing with accents, so I am self-conscious about my French pronunciation. It’s so much cooler to freeze and talk like a dork in English instead.

Yeah, as I said, my core French schooling was a long day ago, and with language, you’ve got to lose it or lose it.

It was fun at the Vélo Québec event to scrape off some of that rust and have French dancing through my head again. The cyclists were so gracious and forgiving as we stumbled along. In fact, we heard organizers say it was nice that so many folks in town greeted guests with hearty “bonjours” and “au revoirs.”

Still, I couldn’t help but relax a tiny bit when my “Bonjour!” was greeted with “Hi! I’m from Windsor!”

Congrats to the organizers for this great event, and to the cyclists who have many hundreds of miles yet to go, “Bonne chance!”

Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 11/11