Saturday, 26 September 2015

On Developing "The Look"

Teachers are made, not born. One thing that each teacher needs to develop is a Look. No, not a fashion or style of dress that will for better or worse be associated with them, but rather a very particular expression on their face that can communicate exactly what they wish to say without requiring words. Parents commonly develop a variety of Looks for different purposes, but in the context of English classes, the primary purpose of the Look is to remind learners to, "Speak English, please".

The Look is not supposed to communicate, "Only English is acceptable." Really, there's nothing wrong with speaking a language other than English, even when you're in Canada. There is nothing wrong with speaking another language even when you're both in Canada and in an English language classroom. Truly. Good pedagogy doesn't ban the native tongue; it makes use of it. However, the native language needs to be a resource, or a tool, to help the students learn English, not an easier way to accomplish the discussion task that the teacher just assigned. Where will learners practice English if not in the classroom? And how will they improve if the teacher doesn't push the boundaries of their ability?

So, in keeping with the friendly rapport that I try to maintain with my students, I have developed my Look to communicate specifically, "Please, I know you're capable. Why are you being lazy and cheating? I would appreciate it if you spoke English for now, as you can speak your own language later."

It would appear that something went awry. Judging by the responses I've been getting to my Look lately, it appears to communicate, instead, something along the lines of, "English, precious, or I'll have you for dessert."

The first instance where I realized the potency of the Look was during a pair-work exercise. I was sitting at my desk at the front of the room, when I heard a pair speaking Spanish (it is almost always Spanish). I didn't feel like getting up, so I merely sat there with the Look on my face pointed at them. Almost immediately, the quiet student on the right, Manuel, who is brand new to my class, looked up and locked eyes with me. Then, without moving his posture or breaking his gaze, he slowly reached out his hand and put it on the arm of his speaking partner, Miguel, like a parent calmly, coolly telling their child to get behind them while they stare down a threatening animal. Miguel, warned by the hand on his arm, followed Manuel's gaze and caught sight of my Look, still pointed at them.

He nearly fell out of his chair.

After collecting himself, he switched to English and pretended nothing had happened.

The second instance where I realized the potency of the Look was the next day during another similar pair-work exercise. This time it was Mariela and Marcos chatting gaily away. Normally, Marcos doesn't show a lot of shame for his behaviour in class. He takes little issue with challenging or teasing me and I generally have to ask him twice to do something. But, as I began to approach and cast them the Look, he snaked a protective, cautionary hand onto Mariela's arm, using as little movement as possible.

Mariela caught sight of me and stopped dead. After a few sheepish moments, she began translating everything she had just been saying.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me; my students have told me before that I have a very expressive face. Why, when I asked a former student whether I was good at keeping a neutral expression when I'm displeased, he immediately burst out laughing and replied, "We see the hell in your eyes."

Nevertheless, I don't feel like my face is shocking. Indeed, it wasn't originally. For my first two semesters, I was just a noob. I had to use words to ask my students to speak English. This semester started out the same, but my Look has developed meaning that it didn't have before. I've heard so much Spanish in the past year that I can discriminate it from English across a crowded room with just a few whispered beats. As a result, my sunny "English, please, student X," has became much more frequent, much more confident, and I have become, to all appearances, omniscient, as I often it fling it across the length of the classroom to a quietly murmuring pair. I don't yet have eyes in the back of my head, but my ear is forever hovering just over your shoulder. I know whether you've been bad or good.

Meanwhile, my students are like guilty dogs who know they're not supposed to be on the couch, and as a consequence they've grown particularly adept at sensing the Look that tells them they've been caught. Verbal reprimands have become optional.

I'm evolving as a teacher. Next up: developing an overused tag line.

*  *  *  *  *

Me: A "boutique" is a small store that sells fashionable clothes and accessories.
Manuel: Like Salvation Army!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

On Being a Princess

Third wave feminists have been behaving so poorly that I'm unable to call myself a feminist, but I do hold fairly egalitarian views. My classrooms this summer are composed almost entirely of men. In particular, the majority are Latino men, a demographic known for machismo. You might expect that this would make for some friction in the classroom, as macho men and feministy-types are generally not the best of buds.

Yet, I feel quite tickled to be a princess every time my students fall over themselves in the mad scramble to cross the room and take the 5-gallon water bottle for the cooler from me. When they see me pick one up by myself, despite the fact that I have no trouble doing so, the expressions of panic on their faces are very near priceless. It's like they've been caught with their pants down and they rush to make up for being remiss in their manly duties.

Recently, the window air conditioning in my rinky-dink classroom died suddenly in the middle of class. When pressing the power button didn't restart it, I took a few steps toward the breaker box. As my students realized my destination, they all inhaled sharply with surprise and held it in anticipation. I threw the appropriate switches to the sound of astonished gasps. Then, I returned to the A/C, pressed the power button and it fired back to life. It should have made headlines: Young Female Teacher Knows How to Flick Switches on a Breaker Box; Turns On Air Conditioning Unit.

I am always amused around new mothers. They report the accomplishments of their babies with such enthusiasm. "Last night," they say, their eyes alight with pride, "Ava rolled herself over." Or, "Did you see that? Liam just picked up his own head!" By the time you are in your mid-twenties, you have to work much harder and do much more impressive things in order to garner that kind of approval and praise. Nobody ever shows me off like that anymore, no matter how long I sit up by myself without falling over.

But, in my classes, I am a bit like one of those babies. I am congratulated and adored for doing barely more than just existing. It is a wonderful boost to the ego, one that I highly recommend. Now, if the reaction to me doing stereotypical "man" things were grunts of arrogant disapproval, that would not be such a feel-good experience. However, my class generally appears to be genuinely impressed and astounded that a woman would do these kinds of things.

A number of my students know that I drive a manual transmission. I would hardly be surprised if they bragged about that fact to their buddies on nights out (although they would undoubtedly leave out the vehicle being an unsexy second-hand Honda Accord):

Student 1: My teacher is better than your teacher!
Student 2: Oh yeah? I bet my teacher is better than your teacher!
Student 1: My teacher can.... teach English!
Student 2: My teacher can.... teach English.... WHILE SHE DRIVES A MANUAL TRANSMISSION!
Student 1: Your teacher is clearly superior.

Now, if their point of origin was a more egalitarian society, like Canada, they wouldn't find these things particularly impressive or even noteworthy. Probably, they wouldn't bring me treats or censor their language around me, either. So, while I may personally like the idea of less rigid gender roles, I have to admit that I'm reaping the benefits of both systems right now: being treated like a princess while being adored for acting like a man. I guess I just never learned to be offended while I'm basking in the glow of my own awesomeness.

Let it be known that neither chivalry nor believing gender stereotypes are quite the same thing as sexism, latent or otherwise.

"What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, Sir, mighty scarce." Mark Twain

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Pipestone: Sunshine and Happiness

Nighttime at Devon Lakes was an interesting period in its own right. Bedtime is always an important part of a hiking trek. After getting into camp, eating your freeze-dried food, and playing with your dice, there's generally not a lot to do but go to bed.

This is a good thing, because hiking all day is strenuous and rough on the body. And, as Clary told me that evening, "There's nothing that a good night's rest... ah," she paused, rewound and started again: "There's nothing that a night's rest can't fix."

"Well," I responded, "Tonight will be interesting because there's a giant tree root under our tent, running right across my back." This was the result of very limited campsite space at this particular location.

"Oh, in mine, too," Clary said, quite optimistic about the situation. "Maybe, if it's in just the right place, it will be therapeutic."

I decided to try to see things her way. "I suppose," I said, "that it could be like a massage, if we roll around over it."

Dad had a thicker air mattress and so wasn't really affected by the tree root. He did, however, notice that it was particularly cold that night, and spent some time wiggling around in his sleeping bag, trying out the various features to keep warm. Our bags are both rated as good until -18 degrees, but only if you use them right.

He buried himself inside and began pulling on strings he found there. "This one seems to close the opening around my face," he reported, pulling it tight.

"You look like a mummy," I replied.

"And this one," he fumbled around a bit, "this one, I think, wraps around my neck."

I commented that it was always good when things wrapped around your neck and then I made him pose for a picture.
Remarkably, everyone woke up the next morning stronger and without kinks in our backs, including Clary and me. Morning also brought another surprise.

"Carla!" Clary exclaimed as I was getting my stuff together, "Look what I found in my backpack! Another rain poncho! I didn't know it was in here!" She immediately delivered over the unopened, hooded vinyl rain poncho. It was the twin to the poncho that Mike had been using all weekend. It was a good deal thicker and tougher than the pitiful panda poncho I had been wearing to that point.

Dad commented, "I don't know if you're making a friend of Carla or an enemy right now, pulling that out on the third day." Clary smiled sheepishly, and I made no threatening movements, so peace was maintained.

In addition to all the usual preparations that morning, there was one extra business item on the schedule at Devon Lakes. There was no outhouse anywhere, so the evening before, Mike had pulled out his hunting knife and explained to everyone the mechanics of digging a hole and doing number two in the bush. Despite trying, nobody had been successful.

I had given Mike back his knife and, upon being questioned, announced to the group that it had been a false alarm. One of the other members of our group explained that they can last ten days without needing to empty. Andrew, on the other hand, seemed to take the lack of outhouse as a personal challenge. It was a point of pride to him when he marched back to Mike in the campsite that morning and declared, "What needed to come out, eventually came out." He then spent the rest of the day discussing with Dad (and the park ranger we encountered) the superiority of squatting over sitting, gloating that only men had been successful at the task, and planning to share his victory with all his coworkers back at the office.

Apparently he was so proud, he even documented the experience photographically.
The hike back to the first campsite, Fish Lakes, was much, much, much less difficult than the hike in had been. In addition to the majority of the path being downhill this time, Mike dropped some electrolytes into my water bottle before we even got started. Plus, they quickly dressed me in my new poncho as soon as any precipitation started. I say that they dressed me because I was pretty much a princess on the third day. I just walked. Everything else was done for me, from handling my water bottle every time I wanted a drink, to washing my dishes. Dad even affirmed for me explicitly that I was a princess, but he meant it affectionately.

The first time I had someone get me my new poncho, I ruminated over the best way to wear it with a backpack on. "Just wear it over your pack, like I do," said Mike, and took over the process of arranging it on me. Upon finishing, he took a step back.

I flapped my arms a little bit, playing around inside my new duds. "I'm happy as a clam!" I announced. Truly, in the backwoods, the difference between "happy" and "in despair" is usually no bigger than a two minute break or a piece of vinyl.

Mike cocked his head and took me in. "Is that what I've been looking like?" he asked.

Though I may be as happy as a clam, I look more like a rock. Or a pile of poo.
Mike, in the same duds, looks instead like a ninja turtle. Please note Sean on the left, dressed as a Jedi.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to happen on the third day of the hike was that it snowed. Up until the third day, my back had been pretty much the only thing to not get wet, due to the backpack shielding me from the elements. The snow, however, landed on my neck, melted, and rolled down my back with ease. Also, it coated the bushes so as to completely soak my pants with freezing water.

As you may have gathered, I was in much better spirits for most of the third day, despite the snow. At one point, my hip felt like it was on backwards, but a short rest sorted that out. After lunch, I was struck by the idea that although I could barely hobble seven feet to collect my thirty-pound backpack, I was expected to carry it all the way down the mountain. Yet, I found this hilarious instead of horrifying, proceeded to shoulder my pack, and do exactly what was expected.

Ironically, the third day also seemed to be where the rest of the group began to flag. Dad seemed more tired than me by the time we arrived at camp, and Mike started planning his post-hike meal out loud about halfway down a series of steep switchbacks. I believe his desire was for a prime rib steak burger or something of that nature. Dad hungrily joined the conversation, but for what may have been the first time, I was content to let my mind wander.

Despite once nearly faceplanting into a rock, we made it to camp sans catastrophe, nearly an hour and forty minutes faster than when we had hiked the same trail going the opposite direction. But then, after Dad and I set up our stuff, we joined Mike and Clary at the picnic table (A picnic table! And there was an outhouse and bear pole! Oh, luxury!).

"Mike and I were just saying we'd like to take a vote," said Clary, "to see whether we would like to hike out today, after all."

"No!" Mike immediately asserted, a slight edge of panic to his voice. "I was not part of that conversation! We were discussing whether or not it was hypothetically possible to hike out in one day, that's all."

"I don't want to hike out today," I said.

"I don't want to hike out today," said Dad.

Andrew showed up. Clary said, "We spent six hours hiking today, and about six on the first day. So, it would be possible to go the whole distance in a single day."

Andrew's eyes grew wide (I remind you that he runs marathons), and he laughed incredulously before saying in a very loud, very definitive voice, "Yes, but I still wouldn't want to!" With that, Clary's hope for any support was quashed, and the potential disaster was averted.

"But," Clary said plaintively, "I hate sleeping in tents."

But sleep in tents again that night we did. I got up once to go to the bathroom and saw a porcupine climbing a tree. Otherwise, I slept quite fine. Andrew, on the other hand, found it more difficult to sleep soundly. We were, after all, three days and nights unshowered and unlaundered.

"I was stuck," he said over breakfast the next morning. "It was really cold, so I wanted to put my nose inside my sleeping bag, but if I put my nose inside, the air in there smelled so bad, I couldn't handle it!" This admission dampened the enthusiasm with which I was looking forward to the cramped car ride home with the lot of them.

The next morning actually broke warm sunny - the natural thing to expect, given that we were hiking out and wouldn't feel bothered much by inclement weather any more. I claimed more electrolytes, and found what Mike calls the "mule-state" while ascending the pass. The mule-state is the slow, plodding pace that's work, but that is maintainable for extended periods over any terrain. All-in-all, the last day was remarkably uneventful. It was largely pleasant, in fact, despite my growing blisters, and we shaved an hour off our original time (easy to do when you're going mostly downhill). 
Please spot Andrew.
Please spot Andrew again.
One thing happened that baffled me on this last day: Clary remarked to no one in particular, "Carla has a good spirit for this kind of thing." Yes, she was referring to backpacking in the deep woods. I suppose we were so used to rain that the sun we had that day fried all our brains a little.

In any case, when we emerged at the trail head victoriously and took a triumphant group selfie, we were all a bit burned by our few hours of sunshine.
The feeling of jubilation was not to be contained. Andrew began congratulating random passers-by for completing their quests. "You finished!" he exclaimed to a couple with bikes, "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," they replied politely.

"I don't know what you were doing, but you successfully completed it!" Andrew crowed.

We stripped ourselves of our stinking boots and cooled our sore feet in the nearby river, all the while praising each other for a job well done. Then, we hopped into the waiting vehicle and went to get Mike his long-awaited juicy burger. The waiter at the pub made no mention of our grime or odor, but we explained that we were fresh off the trail just to ensure there was no confusion.

After filling our bellies with the first non-trail food in four days, we slowly and with much effort let ourselves off the restaurant seats and made for the door. Andrew led the way and I followed.

"Whoa!" said Clary, behind us. "Both of you are walking in exactly the same way, which tells me that I'm walking like that, too." What she meant is that we were all waddling like football linebackers, wading through viscous goo.

We pushed our way forward to the vehicle and drove back to Calgary. We played several rounds of 20 Questions, nearly causing Andrew to lose his sanity in the process, and got caught in several traffic jams. The crowning moment of awesome happened on Sarcee Trail, when Clary looked out the window at a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

"That woman is walking as fast as we're driving," she commented. Then after a moment, "She has a strange gait."

"It looks like she's trying to avoid putting weight on her right heel," Andrew confirmed.

"Great," said Clary with dismay, "An injured woman is walking as fast as we're driving. I'd rather be hiking right now."

"Not me," I said with great contentment.

On this high note, we made it back to Mike and Clary's house, the initial muster point. Dad and I exchanged last words of congratulation with the others and hugged them farewell, carefully timing our breathing so as not to inhale potent fumes during the close bodily contact. Mike resignedly stated that he had three days to recover before the next trip. Then, we parted ways.

Covered the last distance.

Arrived home.


Home is behind, the world ahead, 
And there are many paths to tread 
Through shadows to the edge of night, 
Until the stars are all alight. 
The world behind and home ahead, 
We'll wander back to home and bed. 

J. R. R. Tolkien, A Walking Song 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Pipestone: Approaching Infinity

The second day began on a high note. As I first extricated myself from the tent, Andrew greeted me with a cheery, "Carla! Guess what?! It isn't raining at the moment!"

Then Clary met me with a couple of big grey knit socks in her hand. They were dry. "Sean wants you to have these," she said, arm extended. "He had extra. He's concerned that they might be too big for you, but I told him that I really didn't think you'd mind."

I accepted this kind gift with raptures. Since the inside of my shoes were wet, I refused to put them on just then and tucked the socks away safely for nighttime use.

Sean was the source of a second hope for me that morning, as well. He had to work on Monday, so he wasn't going the full length of the hike with us. In fact, he was turning around and hiking back out again today. As we saw him off, Clary said something about the certainty of him soaking in a hot tub that night and I made some miserable comment that betrayed my dismay at the thought of getting hypothermia.

"You know," said Clary thoughtfully, "there is extra room in Sean's car."

"Yes!" Sean quickly agreed, eyes wide with sincerity.

"No!!" Dad intervened. "It's all part of the experience. And anyway, she's carrying my food."

"She could come with me and you could carry her pack, too," suggested Sean.

This suggestion was met with resistance and I felt obligated to maintain the original schedule. I longingly watched Sean begin the journey home - my last hope of escape disappearing into the trees. Then I sighed, packed up my gear, put on my wet socks, and prepared to plunge deeper the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, Mike read us a previous hiker's review of Pipestone Pass. It was novel length, quoted several prominent eastern philosophers, and made reference to the hallucinogenic agent in mushrooms. It also declared that in the glory of our stunning surroundings, I would become one with the landscape, throw off the shackles of civilization, and feel my physical limitations melt away. The author seemed a tad optimistic.

We found quite a few mushrooms growing in the mud along the path, which Andrew encouraged me to eat. I restrained myself, despite the intense desire to have no physical limitations. After all, we were a church group, and the reviewer had never stated explicitly that he'd needed any shrooms to achieve his results.

The first bit of real excitement on this day was a creek we had to cross. With all the recent rain, it was just wide enough to be a problem to jump, and deep enough that there wasn't a good rock-hop route. Nevertheless, we all made it across without falling completely in. However, as we set foot on the far side of the bank, Clary apparently stepped by a nest of wasps. In a matter of moments, she had been stung three times. I, who was following just a step or so behind her, was stung only once. Our first company halt of the day was to wring out our socks and tend to our punctured legs.

This was also the day I began to develop blisters and got a seriously pinched nerve or something at the base of my neck. Carrying thirty pounds on your shoulders all day doubtlessly does something to your spine. I'm pretty sure I shrank at least an inch over the course of the weekend.

 It was pretty, though.
The second bit of excitement came at the next pass we had to climb. As we ascended over the treeline, the wind picked up, slapping into us with a misty, icy chill. Then, when I was halfway up the pass, feeling dizzy and slightly nauseated, Mike put electrolytes in my water, Dad made me eat a fruit bar, Clary reminisced about other, more severe, cases of altitude sickness, and Andrew shouted Lord of the Rings quotes to us from far ahead.

Happily, as my symptoms subsided and I ever-so-slowly led the troops onward, vast green valleys opened up on either side of us, and a wonderfully intriguing wall of purple and green rock was displayed ahead. In my emotionally fragile state, my tears of pain almost turned into tears of joy. Even without having consumed any mushrooms.

That was the expression on my face for a good deal of the day.
Eventually we came down from the pass again, and entered a knobbly, marshy land that was difficult to walk through. The path disappeared. That's when the third interesting thing happened. We got lost.
Our destination was Lower Devon Lake. We thought we found the path, walked about a kilometer, realized it was the wrong path, walked all the way back, and poked around some more for the real route. This is where my enthusiasm really tanked. Even Clary, who was the sole member of our group that wanted to do the 31 km walk-out, eventually groaned that, "This is the hike that doesn't end," and intimated that, "This is the most vigorous one we've done since the West Coast Trail."
My mind hit a wall and I was done, except that we weren't done. I angrily sat on a rock and didn't move until word came back that Andrew had found our camping spot. There was no outhouse, no picnic table, and no bear pole. There were, however, many patches of upturned moss and shrubbery, which was evidence of bears in the area looking for food.

"No bear pole," said Clary, "That's what I'll miss the most. But no worries, there is a cliff to hang our stuff from."

"That can't go wrong," I replied.

A cluster of trees surrounded the flat spot for our tents. We walked in, unclipped our backpacks, and panicked as suddenly a gale force wind hit with the power of a locomotive and brought with it another storm.

"The tents!" someone yelled, "Quickly!" All hands flew to action. Clary later admitted that her sole regret from the hike was not getting a picture of Dad and me trying frantically to wrestle our tent back down to the ground. "I wanted to get the camera," she said sadly, "but Mike sometimes gets annoyed when I ask him for the camera during emergency situations."

No sooner had the tents gone up than Clary and I both dove inside. Despite not having had a bathroom break or dinner, I had no intentions of coming out again in that weather if it meant that I sat there until the same time tomorrow, with the possible exception of going outside to scream and shake my fist at the sky.

Dad followed me in a little later and dug out our waterproof cards. Meanwhile, Mike braved the elements to make Clary supper (classical music emanated from their tent), and Andrew fended for himself.

By the time we had played two rounds of Whist, the storm had stopped. Hungry, Dad and I poked our noses outside and carefully ventured beyond the trees. "It's ok," I called back to everyone else, "The sun is shining!"

"It's ok," Dad added, "She's happy again!"

Everyone stumbled out after us and looked at the sky.
Sadly, this was not the glorious last remnants of the storm that had passed, but a sign of doom. It was the vanguard of another quickly approaching storm front. We had enough time to eat and brush our teeth, but there was no dilly-dallying in camp that night. And even with the short interlude of sunshine, I continued to wear my disposable poncho.

Dad commented, "Your poncho works pretty well as a windbreaker, doesn't it?"

"Yes," I echoed. "I'm glad to have it break the wind."

"I'll show you breaking wind," said Mike.

The rain began to blow in again as the men wandered off to find a place to hang our bear bags. Meanwhile, Clary told me a story of a woman who was eaten alive by a bear in 1967.

"The day after we first heard this story, we got to hike the exact same trail, see the exact campsite, and go into the lodge where she lay on the table while she died," she ended. "It was so cool!"

We then said goodnight and crawled into our tents before the rain got any worse. I put on Sean's still-dry knit socks.

Mike and Dad slept with their cans of bear spray near their pillows and Andrew angsted all night over why he hadn't borrowed any from his father. I heard a bear roaring every time someone's sleeping bag rubbed up against their mattress, but our particular tent was shielded on two sides by trees and on the other two sides by the other tents. I took comfort in the idea that any nocturnal ursine visitors would likely eat Andrew or Mike and Clary before it came for Dad and me.

Overall, the second day of the hike was more miserable than the first. Nevertheless, I did survive.


ANTIGONUS (from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale): Farewell! The day frowns more and more: thou'rt like to have a lullaby too rough: I never saw the heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour! Well may I get aboard! This is the chase: I am gone for ever!

[Exit, pursued by a bear]

Friday, 31 July 2015

Pipestone: Mud Bog

In 2012, I went on a backpacking trip with my church's outdoor club. Last year, I went on another one. And this year, despite knowing that it may very probably kill me, I agreed to go on another one. Apparently I forgot how much I dislike being on the brink of despair.

The initial plan was to hike Pipestone Pass in three days: 15 km on day one, 16 km on day two, and 31 km out on day three. The insane last day should have been the first clue that maybe it was going to be a difficult trek. However, I was assured that all parties involved in the hike were pushing the trip organizer to split the last 31 kilometers into two days, so I gave my dad the go ahead to sign us up.

The full group this time consisted of six people: Dad; me; Mike and Clary, who have hiked pretty much every weekend for the past three summers; Andrew, a marathon runner and veteran hiker; and Sean, who on the last hike reportedly ran up and down the mountain twice in the time it took the rest of the group to plod up it once. My dad regularly jogs and exercises. I, meanwhile, walk through the parking lot from my car to my classroom. Sometimes I even stand up in front of my class for the entire lesson (but not usually).
I bummed a backpack off a good friend and arrived at home the night before we left in order to pack it. As I was packing, my dad received a text to bring rain gear. That should have been the second clue that perhaps this trek was not going to go as smoothly as the one last year. Nevertheless, I carried on, adding a disposable rain poncho to my gear. Upon stuffing the backpack full, I discovered that the primary waist buckle was broken. That should have been the third clue.

Given that camping stores don't seem to be open at two o'clock in the morning, there was no option to buy a new buckle before bed. And given that they don't seem to be open at seven in the morning before we were supposed to head off to meet the rest of the group, there was no option to buy one in the morning, either. So, I descended the stairs to the basement and frantically asked my cousin, who keeps even weirder hours than I do, and who does a lot of hiking, if he had anything I could use.

As luck would have it, he was in need of his own backpack for the weekend, but he did dig around his room for a while to see if he happened to have a spare buckle lying around (he did not) and made sympathetic comments. The following morning, Dad ripped apart an old suitcase, divested it of its buckle and performed a transplant. It took two fully grown men pulling on the backpack straps to get the new one set.

You see the drama unfolding before we even set foot on the path. As for the moment we actually set foot on the path, well, that was when we felt the first raindrops. Everyone else pulled out snazzy waterproof backpack covers, hoods, and raincoats. Then we continued on. The drops turned into a fairly strong rain that continued off-and-on all day.

Andrew turned around. "Do you want to stop so you can put on your poncho, Carla?" he asked.

"No," I replied. Even now, I'm not sure whether that made me a boss or a complete moron.

You can see the differing levels of our rain preparedness.
My refusal did not last long. I pulled it out and put it on at lunch. It turned out to be a thin white garbage bag with black arm holes. I looked like panda bear for most of the hike. Also, Mike lent me his brimmed hat to shield my glasses from the rain. It was nice to be able to see again, but I still had nothing to cover my backpack. As a result, within an hour of setting out on our four-day journey, the unprotected contents of my bag were wet and remained that way for the duration of the trip. My socks were soaked and never once all weekend did they dry. Sometimes they even went squish-squish in my shoes.

Adding a little cheer to the situation, every set of hikers we passed going the other direction brightly quipped, "The sun is just around the corner!" or "The sunshine is right behind us!" They were each one of them liars.

Between the hat that cut off my peripheral vision, water on my glasses, and a fear of tripping/slipping/twisting my ankle on a rock/root/hole/giant mud wallow, I kept my eyes pretty much on the muddy trail for the entire first day and didn't really get to take in much scenery.

Still, the alpine meadow did cause us to linger a while, and inspired Andrew to twirl and sing "The hills are aliiiiiiiivvve..." If you have never seen an alpine meadow in bloom, then you have to go on at least one hike to witness this. An alpine meadow in bloom is easily one of the most interesting and beautiful places on earth, and they're abundant in this country.

Following the meadow, we began the long, slow trudge up the pass. The ascent up the pass has never been my favourite part of any hike, but I've been a fan of the victorious sense of elation you get at the end after having beaten it. Unfortunately, this time the pass beat me. With the steep incline and thin air, my muscles just powered out. I did make it to the top - eventually - but it was long after everyone else and only with the help of Dad gently herding me from behind and feeding me raisins, which I don't even like.

Nevertheless, it's hard to be one hundred percent gloomy when you're that high up. Moonscape or not, it's too spectacular to go unappreciated.
As we began our descent, Mike sidled up to Dad and me. "Camp is just down there," he said, pointing, "around there, through there, and down some more, then over there."

"Is this the psychological part you warned us about?" asked Dad.

"We're not almost there yet," said Mike. "Don't get your hopes up."

Meanwhile, Andrew and Sean were so far ahead of the ones who knew where to go that they took a completely wrong trail and zoomed off in the wrong direction. Clary hoofed it after them, trying to tell them they were getting lost, but Sean wasn't even within shouting distance, and Andrew had his earbuds in, listening to Aristotelian philosophy. After a while, hunger got the better of Andrew, so he stopped for a snack and Clary caught him. Sean, though, had to figure out for himself that he was not where he was supposed to be before he turned around and joined us again.
We finally reached the campsite right around supper time. Dad discovered that we hadn't brought any tent pegs and went to beg from Mike and Clary. We fired up our Bunsen burner, ate some freeze-dried supper, and pulled out our games. Yeah, it's a good thing that Dad and I brought waterproof playing cards. I might not have thought to put my pajamas or socks into a waterproof bag, but at least I could pull out those cards and limp around a little more proudly. We had a few rousing games of Golf and Zilch, then packed it in for the night.

Cuddled up inside my sleeping bag, I opened my book to read a few chapters before bed. The first line of the novel was, "The rain began at noon."

In summary, I fluctuated between happiness and abject misery on the first day, but I kind of deserved it for thinking "disposable poncho" meant "prepared for four days of rain in the backwoods". At any rate, we also didn't die in a mudslide on the pass or get struck by lightning, though I was concerned about catching pneumonia and/or freezing to death if I couldn't get warm and dry. The thought of waking up in the morning to put on damp socks, squelch through the mud, and fearlessly charge into an icy monsoon was less than appealing.

I will say, though: one nice thing about having soggy pajamas is it makes bedtime in tents much simpler. I didn't change out of my hiking clothes for four straight days and three nights. Hygiene is overrated.

"We sit in the mud... and reach for the stars." Ivan Turgenev

Monday, 29 June 2015

Hanging with Spanish Peeps

Occasionally my students invite me out to different events, but seeing as the invitations usually involve either going to a nightclub that has been described as "the Sodom" of the city, or sound suspiciously like dates, I've generally turned these invitations down. This time, however, my coworker, Nikki, who is of Spanish descent herself and a Christian family woman, received the invitation first and assured me that all would be fine. Figuring that nothing could go wrong if I had a knowledgeable female companion alongside, I happily agreed to go to a BBQ put on by some of our students.

I don't think there was actually a BBQ involved, but that's beside the point. Initially I couldn't find the house, so Miguel was sent out to stand on the yard and flag me down. Once I got there, I was welcomed, handed a can of pop, and sent to the living room. Nikki and I, the two women, sat on couches (drink in hand) watching a soccer game. It was Australia vs. Japan in a Canadian stadium, being announced in Spanish. This struck me as a remarkable example of intercultural cooperation. Meanwhile, the men were all busy in the kitchen, making tacos and sauce from scratch.

Eventually, it was time to eat, so the men called us to the table. Manuel thought that I might not want to stand on the kitchen linoleum with unprotected feet (it was a man house, with man-ish levels of cleanliness), so he delivered me my flip-flops from the front door and deposited them where I was about to step. Then they sat us down and brought the food to the table.

Nikki looked a bit nervous, like she had something to hide. "Do you know what kind of meat we're having?" she asked me.

"Wasn't it going to be fish tacos?" I replied.

"It was," she said, "but it isn't. I don't know if I should tell you."

"Well-" I said.

"Ok," she jumped in, "I'll tell you. It's beef tongue, but don't worry. They washed it first."

Manuel plunked a dish full of cow tongues onto the table. They were cut up into smaller pieces, but still recognizable as tongues. Bon appetit!

Manuel hovered over us like a helicopter, flitting about making sure we had the things we needed. We told him to sit down and eat. "No, no," he replied, smiling wide. "You are happy!" Meanwhile, Miguel was concerned in Spanish that there were problems with the food (as every humble cook is) and Nikki and I assured him that everything was delightful.

Meanwhile, other people began showing up to eat. Something interesting happened here. Each guest, both male and female, entered and asked our host, Manuel, for beer. "No, no Corona," he replied each time. "No Corona?" the guests responded, surprised. "No today," said Manuel. We know full well that Manuel and his buddies normally drink rather large amounts of alcohol on the weekends, so "No Corona," was entirely to respect Nikki and me as special guests.

And, as a special guest, I ate my fill of three cow tongue tacos.

I had a moment, sitting there, where I thought, "If I woke up one morning and decided, 'Hey, I really want to go eat exotic home cooked cow tongue in a dingy townhouse, surrounded by eager-to-please Spanish-speaking men who won't drink in my presence just so I feel comfortable,' I would really have no idea how to orchestrate the satisfaction of that desire, yet... here I am." I didn't think it quite so many words, but that was the main idea.

I've had that thought a few times since becoming a teacher. Another recent occurrence was when I was in my rinky-dink trailer classroom, the lone, delicate, female sitting around a table with a folksy checkered tablecloth, playing "Go Fish" with a group of street-savvy Latino butchers. They giggled hysterically, were mortified when they accidentally swore, and on the last turn, Miguel unhesitatingly threw the game so that I wouldn't come in dead last.

And you know, that moment when you find yourself in a highly restricted-access country, refereeing a local all-male water-polo match? And the players are likely to be future leaders in the country? And then you stop the game and pretty much play "Fetch" with them, making them swim up to you with rubber ducks in their mouths? Yeah, I love that feeling, too.

But anyway, it made me ponder the thoughtful advice going around right now to spend your money on traveling, on going places, and on doing things. To spend your money on experiences that build memories, rather than on material items. And I decided that the advice is ridiculous.

Of course I endorse making memories. But the advice itself stems from the fact that people are realizing things don't make them happy. So they're moving on to try experiences. Both things and experiences have their merits and demerits, but happiness is a byproduct, not an attainable end goal. If people try to chase after experiences, they'll find themselves just as unsatisfied as they do when they blow their money on  big screen TVs.

I treasure my experiences because they were meaningful. They have been points along my journey where I look out the window and say, "Wow! How did I get to this amazing place?" They didn't happen because I decided to spend money on plane tickets instead of an iPod or because I decided to maneouvre myself into a cherished memory. They happened because I was developing relationships with people that mattered, doing things that mattered, for reasons that mattered.

Now, to get off my ham-handed soapbox (I know, I'm super philosophical, right?), I'd like to leave you with a quote from our prestigious Mayor of Whoville:

"Did you ever get the feeling that you're being watched? And then you get the feeling that maybe that thing watching you is... ah... a giant elephant? You know, how then you get that weird feeling that your world is actually a tiny speck? And that the elephant that I talked about earlier, he's carrying it around on a flower? And you realize that if you tell anybody they'll think you're crazy, but you still feel the responsibility to keep everyone safe? You know that feeling?" Horton Hears a Who

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Great Husband Hunt Pt. II

Having escaped the gauntlet of BridalQuest with nary a word of flirtation (well, ok, I may have painted one guy's fingernails and laughed at a few jokes that weren't very funny), I retreated to a slaughterhouse to teach ESL. Oh - career update: I am now a full-fledged ESL teacher at both a small community college and at a meat packing plant. Teaching has devoured my life, hence the lack of blog posts.

Anyway, while I may have exited school unscathed, these foreign butchers might just do me in. I have been hit with a tsunami of flirtation, and just as I was beginning to believe myself unassailable, too. Those college boys ain't got nothing on these temporary foreign workers. Some of them are smooth. I have received flowers, I have received candy, I have received letters. I guard my phone number ferociously. Everybody at the plant hails me with a friendly "Hello, Teacher!" even when I have no idea who they are beyond being fairly certain they're not in any English class, much less mine. All I have to do if I want to feel good about myself is walk into one of the other teacher's classrooms. I am met with a swarm of "pretty teacher", and "new, young teacher" and "gorgeous teacher!"

Having never really encountered this before, I'm inclined to think they're all a bit crazy. Nevertheless, because everyone seems interested in the love life of Carla, here is an inside peek at how it's developing:


I was showing my intermediate slaughterhouse class how to write a paragraph, so I asked Melvin* for a topic.

"Any topic?" Melvin asked with sultry eyes.

I cringed. "Yes," I said weakly.

"Love," he replied.

I wrote "LOVE" on the board. As a class we worked on the outline. For the first point, they suggested talking about what love was. For the second point, they suggested explaining who was loved.

I sighed. "Yes, that would work," I agreed. "So, for your second point, you can write about who you love. BUT NOBODY IS GOING TO WRITE MY NAME! DO NOT WRITE 'CARLA' IN POINT TWO."

The class burst into a fit of giggles. Eventually someone remarked that it was Valentine's Day soon.

"You like chocolate, Teacher?"


They all giggled again.

"But I will accept small gifts."

Gotta meet them halfway, right?


I was looking over some forms and papers a few minutes before my low level class started. My students were chattering amongst themselves in Spanish, when I heard the term "mamacita" pronounced. Having been warned by a couple of students from my former module to reprimand anyone who called me mamacita, my ears perked up.

I really don't speak or understand Spanish, but I could have sworn after a minute or two of listening that they were discussing which of them had the best chance of dating me. One name in particular, Manuel, came up and that seemed to be the end of the conversation.

As silence fell, I looked up from my papers. All the students were sitting quietly, watching me with hands folded. They were beaming ear to ear like children.

"Uh, hi?" I said.

Just then, Manuel came in. He had been absent for their conversation.

"Hi, boyfriend!" my class greeted him.


Sometimes I march myself right off to my own doom. In the same level one class, we were studying the topic of "free-time activities". My students had just read a letter in their coursebook that went something like this:

Dear Maria,
I have the day off! Are you busy? Come visit me! I like to dance. I like to play cards. I like to watch TV. What do you like to do? Call me soon.
See you later,

Eager to make their activities more personal and true-to-life, I had them all rewrite the letter, inserting their own preferences and name. Unthinkingly, I also instructed them to start the letter with "Dear Carla" instead of "Dear Maria", a command to which they obediently acquiesced.

You can guess how many of these I received back:

Dear Carla,
I have the day off! No working! Are you busy? Come visit me! You can dance my house with me. I like listen to music. I like playing cards. My address is 89-317 Pine Street W. My phone number is 403-489-6628. Call me soon!
See you later,

I also got a half-melted chocolate bar from one student. He was smiling like a cherub.


At least some of my students seem to understand that a modicum of decorum is necessary in the classroom.

I thought it was time to work on some persuasive speech with my college class, so I pulled out an activity that my dad and brother developed years ago. We call it the "Whole Wide World" game. The steps are, a) choose a partner, b) choose a thing, c) argue incessantly about which thing is better. For example, is a "door" or "the letter E" better?

I had my students draw their things from a hat, rather than come up with them on the spot. I had prepared a colourful assortment of nouns, ranging from "action movies" to "moose" to "kiss".

Mariela drew from the hat and immediately tried to return her slip of paper, which I refused to let her do. "No, no, you're stuck with 'bathing suit' as a topic," I told her. "You can so argue 'bathing suit'." Next, Grecia drew from the hat.

"What did you get?" I asked as they took their places at the front of the class.

Grecia cleared her throat. "My topic is 'Carla'."

The crickets chirped.

Mariela said, "I lose." 


Despite feeling my eyeballs grow in proportion to my face, which, by the way, was rapidly heating up, I had enforced the "argue what you pick" rule too strongly to back down now.

Grecia sang my praises. Mariela agreed with everything Grecia said, then asserted how I'd be even better in a bathing suit. She hit sexy model poses. She strutted across the room and flipped her hair. She declared, "Carla is more beautiful wear a bathing suit! A bikini! Then all the men in class, ooh!"

When the howls of merriment eventually died down and my students were sure that my tears were a result of me laughing too hard and not of mortification, one lone voice responded to Mariela.

"But, Carla not can wear bathing suit in class," said Manuel.

Mariela's shoulders slumped. "I lose," she reaffirmed.


I was home in Calgary on Friday and Saturday. My family asked me whether I wouldn't stay for Sunday, too.

"No, I can't," I replied, "I have a lunch engagement on Sunday."

My grandma immediately grabbed my (right) hand and ogled the ring that's been on it for the past five years. "An engagement?!" everyone exclaimed.

"I'm not engaged," I asserted, reclaiming my hand. "I just don't know what else to call it. It's not a lunch date."

"You're going on a date?!" they all exclaimed.

"With a boy?!" inquired my brother.

These missionary luncheons are going to ruin my reputation.


I have never felt unsafe amidst my admirers. The past few months have pretty much been one long ego trip for me. And who knows - I might actually walk away from it all with a boyfriend. That would indeed be bizarre.


My friend, Becky:  "Carla, we need to find you a boyfriend. But if not, you'll continue forever to be the wanderer on epic adventures, which is just as awesome. As long as you send me cool trinkets."

*For reasons of privacy, every student will be referred to with an ethnically and gender appropriate alias.
Manuel = Latino male
Mariela/Grecia = Latina female
Melvin = Filipino male

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Antenna Things and Stuff

For the three months before I found my new teaching role, I worked an administrative office job with a small company that deals in industrial remote control and telemetry products. I have never done anything else business related, and I still don't understand a thing about the technical side of the company, but it was a good job. While I am no longer with them, my time there would be incomplete if I didn't write something about it. Especially since my boss there seems to be one of my most loyal readers.

When I first arrived for training, Ted happily showed me my desk. The next desk over, buried by towers of stacked paperwork, sat Clayton.

"Clayton is our tech guy," said Ted. "Eric is our admin guy. Unfortunately, Eric is sick at the moment, so Clayton will train you in all the administrative duties."

"Uh, ok," I replied.

About two weeks into the job, I saw Clayton doing something tech-like. He was trouble-shooting malfunctioning hotbox detectors or something along that vein. By that point in time, I had forgotten that he was actually the tech guy, so it was a bit strange to see this. Previously, the only evidence of his being the tech guy were the antennas on his desk, lined up in order of their evolution. Once, he noticed me standing there staring at them.

"Do you know what these are?" he asked.

"Uh," I said.

"They're antennas for the Digis," he informed me. (I'm still not sure what exactly Digis are)

He proceeded to explain why they were in various shapes and how different ones were used for different geographical locations. "This one works on Canadian frequencies, and this one we need for the US, and this one works for either. Have you seen a Yagi antenna yet?"

To my great pride, I had. Ted had shown me one in his office just a little earlier. I was eager to show off my expertise. "The Yagi antenna is the one that looks like a mascara brush, right?" I said.

"Like a what?" asked Clayton.

"A mascara brush," I repeated.

"What's that?" he asked.

"You know," I said, and mimed applying mascara.

"Oh," said Clayton. He deadpanned, "Yes. That's exactly what I thought when I first saw one, too."

So while I may not have added much technical prowess to the company, I clearly added something, in terms of fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things.
The receptionist, Sonja, said that Yagi antennas reminded her more of Christmas trees, but seriously, does is not look like a mascara brush?

I lucked out in getting to work for such a company, even if it was for such a short time. Everyone was very welcoming and made me feel appreciated. They even said "Thank you," after I coerced them all into trying some kimchi that I had made.

Plus, they knew how to take breaks. We threw a small party during the solar eclipse, complete with Tim Hortons doughnuts and a gigantic telescope. I have fond memories of Ted showing Sonja a homemade arts-and-crafts eclipse viewer box that enabled us to see what was going on without burning out our retinas.
The solar eclipse was actually slotted into the work schedule.

Now, I have heard some people say that work in an office is dull, but I would like to point out that this is not necessarily the case. You make your own excitement. If, for example, you are an adrenaline junkie working in an administrative role, you could easily get your daily fix merely by not preparing any product for shipment until ten minutes before the shipper is due to pick up your packages. Naturally, this entirely hypothetical situation never ever happens where I worked, but it could, in theory, be quite effective in breaking up any routine monotony.

I might also point out the excitement that new promotional pens can bring - especially when there are built in lights on the pens. You may not have known this, but pens in corporate culture appear to be some kind of status symbol. I remember one meeting we had with a potential partner. He arrived and began dealing out to us his company's promotional swag, which included pens.

"Look at these pens!" he exclaimed, with light in his eyes. "They're so cool! We just got them!"

"Oh, I know!" said Ted. "We just got ours, too. They have lights on them!"

The rep's eyes dimmed. "Oh," he said. "Well, I did think ours were cool."

As far as I was concerned, status in our workplace consisted mostly of who had the highest score on the order ticketing system. You could win several shout-outs on the program simultaneously, and it would feature your smiling face on the homepage. Somehow, I never earned more than about five points, while Clayton and Eric seemed to rake them in effortlessly.

About two weeks before my last day, Clayton tactfully pointed out to me that in fact they had been raking them in effortlessly. Literally. You scored points based on who a ticket was assigned to, not based on who actually dealt with the ticket. I had been assigning tickets to both Clayton and Eric, too nervous to actually declare any of them my own. I had also been doing most of the work on a lot of them. As a result, I had been giving everyone else the bulk of their points and completely hosing over myself. I made an abrupt change to my tactics, assigned everything to myself, and managed to take over the scoreboard before I had to leave.

One of the extra perks of that was that Eric always forgot to replace my name with his own on any messages he sent using the system. I liked reading about all the things I had done by proxy.

Nevertheless, my favourite part of the day was always looking at the various signatures of people who had signed for the deliveries of our shipments. It was just the right amount of artistry and social interaction for an analytical introvert like me. I was always vaguely disappointed when the shipping company stated that "no signature was required" for a package and so left the signature field blank.

There are many more little anecdotes I could share about life as an office worker, but the most important thing left to relate are my interactions with Sonja and Bev, who were the other two females employed there. It was nice to have female company, even though Bev could kick my butt with heavy machinery and circuit boards. Even though Sonja left me in the dust with all her financial accounting wizardry.

Sonja and I enjoyed eating lunch together, and spent more time on the phone than we probably should have, practicing how to transfer calls back and forth. But I swear it was legitimate! Meanwhile, Bev and I made a habit of enthusiastically discussing linguistics every time we were both in the shop. Eventually Eric was forced to close the shop door because he couldn't focus on sales orders with us incessantly pontificating over English vowel length and Russian consonants in the background.

If I have any regrets from my time with this company, it is only that I was with them just long enough to get into the swing of things, and to get attached to the people. I was there just long enough to start taking a load off of everyone before I had to tell them to take it all back again. Nevertheless, they were all very supportive of me when I told them that I was moving away to take a teaching job. They even threw me a farewell party.
Thanks for the experience, everyone! I feel blessed.

Here is the quote for today:

Me: Brr. It's chilly in here.
Clayton: I'll show you how to turn up the thermostat.
Me: Yeah. I see it over there. I'll go bump it up.
Clayton, disappointedly: Oh. I guess you could do that. I was going to show you how to change it *remotely*.

So I did, in the end, learn how to do something with remote control technology. 

Also, I have discovered a new use for spring bolts. There is no further need for Jamberry parties.

Sunday, 4 January 2015


In the span of ten days, I replaced my seven-year-old flip phone with a new smartphone, bought a car, moved to a different city and started my career. For all that growing up has been a long and gradual process, it sure just happened with a bang. And, somehow it happened over the holidays, when pretty much everything was closed. Not sure how that worked out.

It all started one Saturday morning at about ten o'clock when my former classmate woke me up with a phone call.

"There's a teaching position opening up here where I work," Jaynette said excitedly. "This is how much it will pay, here's what to say in your cover letter and at the interview, you can live with us for so much rent, and if you need it, I can drive you to work because we'll be working in the same place!"

"Uh, ok," I said groggily.

"I'll put in a good word for you," she told me. "We might even share an office!"

So, for the next six months at least, I am an ESL teacher at a small satellite college campus about two hours away from Calgary. My dad was a hero in helping me locate and acquire a car during the interval between Christmas and the start of the semester.

The first car I seriously considered was a gold Honda, but that turned out to have been totaled twice, so I went for a slate-grey Honda instead, because it hasn't been totaled even once. It's a manual transmission, and I think my dad likes showing off that I can drive stick about as much as I like to show it off myself. After I first registered the car, we took it to get its fluids changed. Several nice women were on shift at the shop and one of them serviced my vehicle.

"I wonder if they're surprised to see a girl driving a manual transmission," Dad said a bit smugly. "Well, actually," he quickly amended, "I guess it would be more surprising to male mechanics."

Tonight, I moved in with my host family. I guess that means I'm not fully independent yet, but I'm getting close. Just before I packed up the car this morning, my dad told me, "This doesn't feel as permanent as when your sister moved out. I won't rip apart your room just yet."

"Thanks," I replied.

It's nice to leave the nest knowing that my childhood isn't being ripped apart behind me.

Dostoevsky, from Demons -- “Cher ami, I have moved from my place of twenty-five years and suddenly set out – where, I do not know, but I have set out.”