Tuesday, 8 November 2016

If At First You Don't Succeed....

It was English class, half an hour before home time. Six pairs of learners were poised with their pens, ready to bid points in our English review. The third question of the night pertained to a language point I had explained several times over the last few classes: the past tense of the word "drink" vs the state of inebriation.

My instructions were, "Write a sentence with the word 'drunk'."

They all knew exactly where the trick was. They had me repeat the word several times and discussed with their partner whether I was saying "drank" or "drunk", but all remained uncertain, so in the end I spelled it for them.


Each pair wrote a sentence on their paper and bid a hefty number of points to accompany it.

The number of scoring teams?


Everybody wrote something along the lines of "I drank water last night."

After erasing their points from the scoreboard, much to their horror, and amid their cries of "But, Teacher, you said "DRUNK"!" I confirmed that I had, indeed, said "drunk", and that they all used "drank" beautifully.

I put both words on the board, reviewed their respective pronunciations, and wrote:

DRUNK - too much alcohol
DRANK - past tense of "drink"

"Oh, yeah, yeah," they said approvingly, nodding their heads.

"Got it now?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," they replied.

"The next question is.... Write a sentence with the word 'drunk'."

They looked at each other in confusion. I repeated my instructions. Eventually, someone timidly ventured, "Teacher... same question?"

"Yes," I said. "Nobody got it right the first time, so we're doing it again. Write a sentence with the word 'drunk'."

"Oh, yeah!" they exclaimed, happy for the second chance.

All the pairs wrote their second sentences and bid big points again, knowing this time they could make up for their former loss.

No good. Without fail, everybody wrote something along the lines of "Yesterday I drunk beer."

I'm not a monster. I didn't have the heart to majorly dock everyone a second time, so I declared it a non-scoring round.

Amid their protestations that they HAD fixed the problem, I reiterated that "drunk" is an adjective, and "drank" is a verb. I wrote example sentences on the board:


"Yeah, yeah, oh yeah," they all nodded with certainty. This was, after all, something we had gone over before.

I erased the example sentences. "Ready for the next question?" I asked.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," they chirped.

"Write a sentence with the word, 'drunk'," I said.

They looked at each other in confusion.

"Teacher... same question... again?" they inquired.

"Still, no one got it right, so yes, same question," I confirmed.

"Right, yeah," they replied, mildly less excited this time.

They all wrote their sentences, being less extravagant with their points.

Which is good. Because only two of the six teams scored. Everyone else wrote something like, "He was drunk wine."


Sometimes, you just have to move on.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." W.C. Fields

Thursday, 1 September 2016

With Respect to Respect

Yesterday I was at a professional development training session with a crowded room full of other teachers and school administrators. The facilitators had us moving around the room, switching seats and doing group activities. After one of these moves, the group I was in found itself one chair short. We didn't notice until one person was left standing.

She wasn't old, but clearly had at least a couple decades on me, probably nearing her sixties. The other people in the group ranged in age from around upper thirties to mid eighties, so I was clearly the youngest one there. Additionally, she was on the edge of the group, closest to my seat.

This woman showed no distress or dismay to be standing without a chair and assured us she wasn't bothered. To all appearances, she meant it and was not merely being polite. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised that the other group members didn't make more of a fuss about finding her another chair, as usually tends to happen, but there was a lot going on and we were distracted.

This put me in an awkward spot. On the one hand, I felt she should be seated. Certainly, if one of us were to be standing, it should have been me, not her, as I was the youngest and should show her the courtesy of giving her my seat. This is a traditional gesture of respect for your elders. Additionally, the placement of our chairs meant that my seat was the most natural one to be offered, if anyone were to do it.

On the other hand, she genuinely didn't seem to mind standing, and I strongly suspected that if I offered her my seat, she would decline. This would be in keeping with the other, often more emphasized, value of equality running through our culture: she would feel disrespectful of me as a professional equal if she were to displace me. Or, if I persisted, she might feel that I was insinuating she looked feeble and wizened, like my dad sometimes feels when people on the C-train offer him their seat.

I felt that her refusal of my seat would not be an acceptable outcome for me. I suspected that her acceptance of my seat would not be an acceptable outcome for her, as we both wished to show respect and regard for the other.

So, when she finished saying, "Oh, it's fine," again, I said, "No. I don't like you standing while I'm sitting."

Either there was something in my voice or she's a true-blood Canadian, because her response was, "Oh. I'm sorry."

Sorry for putting me in an uncomfortable spot, I'm sure she meant, but as we both pushed through the crowd to collect one more chair, I mused on the strangeness of her apology. The irony is that she hadn't required me to do anything and she hadn't obliquely implied that I was socially inferior to her, and therefore she now felt that an apology was necessary! We both valued respect; the confusion was in how to demonstrate it. Happily, we were both savvy enough to negotiate the situation together and find a solution that worked for us both.

What a strange world when values collide with themselves like that.

"Our glasses are not the only glasses. By seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our own way of seeing for the first time." Bernard T. Adeney

Friday, 19 August 2016

Cascade: Rescue Heroes

After we battled our way up the leagues and leagues of brutish uphill terrain, we came to the final ascent. I was pooped, but Dad kept up the encouraging talk. He was still remembering Justin's heroics on the rocky ledge a few minutes earlier.

"If something goes wrong, Justin is now the one more likely than me to save you," He said, sounding very proud. "Just think, your brother would do anything to save you."

"You hear that, Justin?" I shouted back. "You'd do ANYTHING to save me."

"Oh, uh, I'd try..." he replied.

"Would you murder someone to save her?" asked JP.


"Well, he would kill someone to save her," said Dad.

"Uh, how did we get to this conversation?" asked Justin.

"Suppose that someone is running at Carla with a knife to kill her, and she's tied up, so she can't move, but you're standing there with a loaded gun. Would you shoot him?" said Dad.

"But if you let Carla die, world hunger ends," added JP.

Justin declined to respond.

Though certainly uplifted by the thought of people trying to murder me, I nevertheless was hitting my limit. I seem to be susceptible to altitude sickness. It's strange to describe: I wasn't in pain, I wasn't breathing particularly hard, my muscles weren't straining, but I was just not up to exerting myself at all. I was slightly light-headed, but not seriously. As far as I could tell, nothing much was wrong, except that I felt on the brink of despair, ready to cry, and quite certain that I couldn't make the massive climb ahead. Try to summit a mountain without exerting yourself. It's extremely difficult.

Uncle Dale agreed with me. "I sure wouldn't do this alone," he huffed, "but now I have to do it since your dad is doing it."

Competition doesn't motivate me like it does him. "You can all go ahead of me," I said.

Everyone guffawed. "Don't be ridiculous," Dad exclaimed. "I am not going to leave you behind!"

"I'm not going to leave you behind!" Justin exclaimed.

"I might," said JP.

Very slowly, with many breaks, we continued up. JP gave me his dried cherries. I needed the sugar, but I didn't feel hungry.

"After you get to the top, all your misery will melt away. You won't even remember it anymore," Justin said for the thousandth time. "It'll all be worth it."

A random hiker passed us on his way back down. "Do I have to go to the summit?" I appealed to him with a whimper.

"Yes," he said without hesitation, "You have to."

You might think it was exciting to be on the final push. It wasn't. It was despair-inducing. Up until this point, the climb had at least been in the form of switchbacks, or longer, lesser angles than was strictly-speaking necessary. But partway to the summit, the path just gave up and made a beeline. Here is a map of our hike so you can understand my anguish. It's impressionistic and based on my navigationally-challenged memory. Do not use this map to plan your hike or you will probably die.

Click to enlarge
We climbed 1300 meters, almost a kilometer and a half, into the sky. And our lay estimate is that we covered about 14 kilometers of trail. It took us a stinking five hours to do this. 

But, after much ado, and despite the agony of the ascent, we did, in fact, all eventually crest the summit. I did not quite forget all my former misery, but the view, the rest, and lunch worked wonders for restoring my spirit.

Summit and Lake Minnewanka
Justin: "Pose like we're tough and cool and-- oh, uh, or that. That works, too."
Dad insists that he's paid good money for us, so he always gets to be in the middle.
Triumphantly sitting down
Uncle Dale catching a few z's on the summit
We ate, swatted flies, took pictures, decided against writing "HELP ME!!" in blood on a rock, and then began our descent. What took us about an hour to climb took about fifteen minutes to descend. Going down is always faster than going up... except when it's not, as you will soon see. Leanne, Clary, and Janet took off ahead of us and we lost sight of them. Though they waited for us (fruitlessly) at points, Janet was on a schedule, so in the end, they left us behind and we didn't encounter them again on the mountain.

Starting back down. Please notice the incline.
Go left, Justin! Left!! Don't take the path less traveled by!
The rest of us trooped along. The Justins, who were in the lead, passed by a lone young Japanese hiker, whom we had met briefly on the summit. She was struggling to climb back onto the false summit, so they helped her up. Some time later, I passed her sitting on a rock. She looked lonely, and it seemed that she wasn't making good progress. I stopped.

"Are you okay?" I asked. "Do you want to come with us?"

"Ah, please, go on," she said in heavily accented English, waving me by. I figured she probably hadn't understood me, so I tried again.

"You can come with us," I said, trying to wave her in front of me. She smiled and continued to wave me on, so I figured she was okay.

By the time Dad and Uncle Dale passed her, she was in obvious distress, descending so slowly through the rocks (backwards), that by comparison we looked like a sprint team. Uncle Dale didn't give her a choice. Hoping that he wasn't volunteering for a night's bivouac, he said, "I will stay with you."

Dad and Uncle Dale lent her some gloves and helped her pick her very slow way along. Her shoes were sadly inadequate for the task, and by the time they reconnected with us at the next major ledge, she was crying softly. Nevertheless, she was determined to be conversational with the group that had picked her up. As she pulled herself up with us, she sniffed, looked at Dad, then back at Uncle Dale, and asked, "Are you gay?"

It was such a non sequitur that the question didn't even compute. She received no answer.

At a later point she gestured to JP and asked me, "Cooorrrooor," (she had trouble with my name), "are you together?"

First I said, "Yes." Then I thought that it was so extraordinarily obvious that we were hiking together in the same group, that her ambiguous question must have meant something else. "He's my cousin," I specified. Hopefully she understood that I didn't mean I was dating my cousin. Then I pointed out the others. "This is my brother, this is our father, and this is our uncle."

Justin then stepped in and immediately threw it all into question again by trying to explain that Uncle Dale isn't really our uncle, but our dad's loooong-time, verrrrry good friend.


But whatever else she thought, she did tell me that my family was very friendly and that it was very good we were helping her because otherwise, she might have spent the night on the mountain and been eaten by a bear. She probably wasn't far off in assessing her near miss. We gently reprimanded her for her careless planning. Dad's psyche was slightly traumatized from always being in the back of the group, but he got over it.

Awesome sea fossils near the false summit!
When, hours later, we eventually neared the treeline, we celebrated, convinced that the trees had covered only the short, beginning segment of the hike (in fact, they covered about half). Unfortunately, JP's knee started to kill him. He did a fancy two-step skip down the trail for a while, but he was in a lot of pain. Eventually our new addition lent him her hiking poles. They seemed to help.

Yay! Treeline!
A long time later, we celebrated when Dad announced that we were only three kilometers from the bridge, thinking the bridge was almost the start of the hike (Dad knew it wasn't). Dad and Uncle Dale began to push us at this point, because the dimness of dusk was arriving, and we really didn't want to conga line behind Dad and his lone headlamp. I contemplated throwing myself to the ground and rolling the rest of the way to save time, but there was a lot of horse doo on the ground.

Eventually, we celebrated again when we stepped over some fallen logs, thinking we remembered those being near the trail head (yeah..... we were still feeling hopeful). Out of the encroaching dimness, a young couple suddenly emerged, coming down the path towards us. Justin, in front, said their faces lit up with sheer relief when they saw him.

"Oh, we are so glad to finally see someone real!" they exclaimed. "We're lost! Do you know where this trail goes?"

They were informed that they were currently traveling up the mountain, but that if they turned around, they'd one day soon hit the parking lot. They gave their heartfelt thanks and immediately turned a 180. So, that is how we bring the number of lives we saved that day up to 3. Champions.

Finally, finally, finally, we broke through the trees into the ski resort and we celebrated! (We forgot that the parking lot was over a kilometer beyond the chair lifts). I was just about dragging my body along the ground with my hands by this point, while ahead of us, the young couple walked holding hands.

Then I noticed that they had stopped walking and were looking at something shielded from view by a ski cabin. I didn't give the slightest thought as to what they could be looking at. However, when I was still a good stone's throw away, they turned back to me (somehow I was in front this time), and again they looked rather relieved.

"There's a bear!" they exclaimed, pointing.

"A bear?" I repeated. Sure enough, as I got closer, I caught a glimpse of the rear end of a black bear lumbering around behind the ski cabin maybe thirty yards away.

"It was coming at us!" they exclaimed.

"What?" I said, "Was it really?"

"Wait, don't scare it off!" chimed my brother, jogging up. "I want to see!"

The bear ambled into the foliage away from us.

"Yes, it was!" the couple said. "It was looking at us, and started to come towards us, but then it paused like it was confused about whether it wanted to charge or not. Oh, we're sure glad you guys came when you did! It turned around when it heard you all coming!"

So that's how we ended up saving their lives two times in less than an hour. Medal, please.

Rescue Op #3: Chasing off the bear (no bear in pic)
Apparently we were in bear central. Clary, Leanne, and Janet had given a ride back to a French family that had been growled at by a grizzly, and another hiking couple we encountered reported there had been bears in the parking lot earlier that day. We had passed by some pretty fresh bear poop and bear vomit on the trail, as well.

In any case, by the time we saw the actual chalet where we had parked the car, we didn't have much celebration left in us. It had taken us five hours to get up that mountain, and it took us five more hours to get down it again. It would have taken our Japanese friend a lot longer still, because she was planning to walk down to Banff, but we told her no and stuffed her into our vehicle. The young couple also asked us for a ride, but we already had six people in five seats, so someone else gave them a lift.

Uncle Dale took our final proof-of-completion "picture" (see below), making JP shift around on his maimed knee a while longer, and then we hopped into the car, got pizza for supper (at 9:30 pm) and drove our sorry selves home to the sound of Uncle Dale mumbling "Justin, you didn't borrow the clothes," in his sleep. As I write this, four days later, my muscles are still so taxed and sore that I can barely hobble down a set of stairs. And the newbies survived. We keep telling them that after this, any future hikes will seem like joyriding by comparison. So far, they appear to believe us.

Cascade: the excruciating mountain of poor decision-making. I don't know why I keep doing these things.


"Half the fun of camping in those days was looking forward to getting back home." Patrick McManus

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Cascade: Grind of all Grinds

Last Saturday, I joined a group for a one-day-only climb of a single peak. Given my vast experience with backpacking, a simple day hike with, like, nothing to carry on our backs, should be a stroll through the park, right? The answer is - yes, if your idea of a park is a stupidly steep never-ending incline of precariously placed sharp-edged boulders with bottomless precipices on either side. And hungry bears. Welcome to Cascade Mountain.

I agreed to do this day hike because I really wanted to get out into the mountains this summer, and as Clary put it, the choice was between "a really lame backpacking trip, or an epic day hike". Apparently all the good backpacking locations were booked solid. So, we went for epic over lame. For future reference: if Clary says a hike is "epic", "grueling" or "vigorous", you probably shouldn't bring newbies along.

But we did bring newbies along. In addition to Clary, Leanne, their friend Janet, my dad, me, and yesmybrother!Justin (who I had somehow never hiked with before this point in time), this group also included my cousin Justin (who is not the same person as notmybrotherJustin!from the former hiking posts, and who from this point on shall be called "JP") and Uncle Dale, both of whom had to buy their first hiking shoes to come along and neither of whom had yet broken them in. My brother also pitched the idea of hiking Cascade to our other cousin, Jordan, who does a great deal of hiking, but Jordan's initial reaction was something along the lines of "Cascade? You're seriously doing Cascade?!" He declined coming.

The champions of Cascade
Needless to say, my mom was a little worried for us.

Our preparations weren't particularly impressive. I went to the hairdresser and got bangs for the first time in over 12 years, just to see if they'd get grimy and stick to my sweaty forehead. My brother found an old plum in his jacket pocket, presumably from a hike sometime last year. It had withered into a giant raisin. But both of these items are basically irrelevant. The main thing is that we didn't each have 30 pound backpacks. In fact, Justin was so worried that I would back out due to the intensity rating of the hike, that he offered to carry all my things for me. I mostly declined, but I did stuff my new jacket into his pack.

You never know what's in his pockets.
We met up shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday and were at the trail head by 10 o'clock. We got off to an auspicious start by failing to locate any washroom facilities around the locked chalet (I think they do weddings there). You can't start a day-long hike on even a partially full bladder. You just can't. So, we all went, anyways. Leanne and I made for the same grove of trees.

"I know where you are, Carla!" she piped cheerily, "I can't see you, but I do know where you are, so don't worry, I won't come over!" Then she paused before finishing up with, "I can see that guy in the parking lot, though, so that's a little weird."

We officially began hiking at 10:10. It was another impressive start, as we energetically marched off with a nice family of Quebecois hikers, leading them down the wrong trail for twenty minutes. Eventually we fixed that mistake and got onto the real path.

The real path was a never-ending upwards slope through the trees. I hate never-ending uphill. It kills me. And, it was hot. Sweat was literally dripping into my eyeballs.

"Are you wearing layers?" asked Janet sympathetically. "You could take off your t-shirt."

"Well, kinda," I said, "but I don't usually wear this particular tank without anything else. I use it as a base layer."

No matter. I wore that tank without anything else. My t-shirt was damp and gross when I stripped it off and stuffed it into JP's pack. Nobody said anything about me being indecent, and I just hoped that I wouldn't end up dressed like a beach volleyball player before the end of the day.

As I said, prolonged uphill climbing destroys my spirit. Very quickly I fell behind the rest of the group, taking slow little steps with many pauses. I ate dried peaches to keep up my sugar levels. I drank water to keep myself hydrated. I groaned. I panted. Justin and JP cheerfully held back and herded me from behind (my brother is much faster than I am, but he was going to do this hike with me if it killed him). They kept up a running dialogue full of strange little bits of encouragement to keep me trekking.

"You're doing better than most people your age," said Justin. "Do you think your sisters could do this hike, JP?"

"Some of them," said JP.

"Well, how about that?" said Justin, "See, Carla? Not everyone gets to say that their older-than-25-year-old sisters can do this hike."

"I don't have any sisters older than 25," said JP.

"See?" said Justin.

A little while later, Justin said, "I think it's good that you're so tired now. If you're more tired going up, it's easier coming down. So, the more tired you are, the better. I read an article once."

I replied that was complete crock.

"No, no!" exclaimed Justin, "It has something to do with getting your second wind sooner."

I was self-conscious of being the slow one. Here's a picture to show how far ahead everyone else was:

My camera does not have enough resolution to really capture the specks in the distance that are the rest of the group
"I can't believe I'm the only one back here," I wailed. In my distress, I compared myself to the person in the group to whom I felt the most physically similar: "Leanne is way ahead!"

"Well," hemmed my brother, "She hikes, like, every weekend. And does yoga. And goes to the gym... And jogs."

"Oh," I said.

"You're doing great for someone your age!" he repeated. "And you dance around in the basement sometimes."

We continued our laborious ascent. After more long, slow slogging, I wheezed and paused for water. Justin remarked, "We're going at a pretty good pace."

JP replied, "Yes. When we're going." But a short time later he said, "It looks like I'm back here to support Carla but I'm actually here because I'm also really slow," so I felt encouraged anyway.

Shortly thereafter, we caught up with the rest of the group, which had stopped to wait for us. As we were watering up, Clary expounded on how being the last person in a pack is the psychologically most difficult position of the group to be in.

"Nah, I like it!" exclaimed Justin.

"Yeah, I just about had a mental collapse," said JP. He leapt ahead and led the way with Leanne for a while.

So, we pushed ourselves higher and higher for about two straight hours before we finally broke through the treeline. As we cleared the trees, our spirits lifted, knowing that we had reached a milestone. We cheered, soaked in the vista, and without the trees to block our view, we looked to see how the path would flatten out now that we had gained so much altitude. The path went up. It turned into a "type 2 scramble", which means you have to use your hands to climb. And the path, instead of being nice, packed dirt, became an avalanche zone of boulders where the only way you could see the path was by picking out the occasional six-inch strip of blue tape tied to one of the millions of rocks or by spying the man-made rock cairns from amongst the miles of natural rock piles. It was very easy to stray off the "path" because I'm not convinced there was one.

This terrain was fun for the first 45 minutes or so.
Cascade Mountain has a particularly high summit, but before that, there is a peak known as the "false summit". As we were approaching the false summit, we encountered a couple sitting in the rocks, eating lunch. Pretty well anyone you meet on the trail is an instant friend, so we chatted as we passed.

"We're not really going any further," the man said.

"We're headed to the summit," said my dad.

"You're about halfway there," the man replied.

We all laughed at his joke.

Except it wasn't a joke.

At about this point, Justin and JP traded their place behind me for the middle of the pack, so Dad and Uncle Dale brought up the rear behind me. I did okay in the rocks for a while, since the breeze helped keep me cool and the added brain work and attention that were necessary took my mind off the misery. Plus, some of the views were pretty awesome.

Gorgeous view. Please note the incline.
Not quite on top of the world, but getting close.
Staring contemplatively into the distance.
I said "Do yoga." He obeyed.
I loved the ridge walk, where you could look to your right and see one side of the world, and you could look to your left and see the other side of the world, and you were on the thin line dividing the two. Clary said that she would be humiliated if she fell off, because there were so many other hikers that would see her do it. The rest of us were more concerned that falling would mean instant death, but in the end, nobody died and nobody was humiliated.

The ridge
Around the false summit, Dad and Uncle Dale and I caught up to JP and Justin. "Clary and Leanne and Janet are taking a shortcut," said Justin. "It looks like there are two ways. The shorter, steeper way, or the longer, not-so-steep way. Now we have to decide which way to go."

We all looked at the three specks hauling themselves up the peak that looked like it must be a 60 degree incline. There was no actual path, they were just climbing for the sake of it. We looked to the right, at the inviting-looking, still-steep but not suicidal path traversing the mountain.

"Let's take the actual path," said Dad. "For Carla's sake."

Nobody argued. The men and I took the sane path. Both JP and Uncle Dale were almost as spent as I was, but both were too manly to show it, so Justin and JP went ahead, and I was still by far the slowest member of the group. Eventually we caught up to JP. He was alone, leaning against a rock wall, recuperating.

"Where's Justin?" we asked.

He pointed to some tiny moving things in the middle-distance. "He's helping the others climb down. The path they took doesn't connect."

Indeed. We could see Justin at the bottom of a precipice, looking up, arms outstretched like he was pointing. Three other people were clinging precariously to the rock wall, trying to ease themselves down. It seems that the ladies had been quite successful at getting themselves up the incline and at traversing the top. Unfortunately, there was no way down. Rather than retrace their steps, they opted to scale the cliff face instead. Naturally, this turned out to be terrifying, both for them and for the other passers-by that tried to convince them it was a bad idea and to turn around.

Eventually Justin arrived, having followed the normal path. Seeing as they were already descending, he helped coach them on where to put their feet, an act which Clary praised multiple times after we (somehow) all arrived home safely.

"Once, nearer the bottom, he even put his hand up to support my foot, even though there was enough of a ledge for it already. It made me feel better just to know he was there," she enthused.

The rest of us caught up to them all just in time to see Leanne step onto safety and hear her intone "Not recommended!" to the other hikers who were lingering at the scene.

"Well, Carla," Dad said, beaming with pride but trying to be humble, "Your brother isn't perfect, but he's sure good for some things!"

Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of them actually on the cliff, but I do have a picture of the cliff itself. Sadly, without people, you can't really see the scale, so I added people at about the size I remember. It's your choice whether to credit me as a reliable narrator or not. At any rate, a fall would have seriously maimed, if not killed them. People have died on Cascade before. Based on our experience, this mountain seems to see a lot of bad decision-making, and not just from our group - but more on that later. Thank God, though, everyone made it down from that ledge okay.

The very bad idea
And after that? The final ascent. But the recollection of that grind is too exhausting for me to recount without a break, so stay tuned for more.


"There are only 3 real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and mountain climbing. All the others are mere games." Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 18 July 2016

Car Camping: Cypress Hills

Most of the year, I live in extraordinary luxury: heated building, mattress, microwave, hot water. Approximately one weekend out of the year I go backpacking: abject misery combined with spectacular vistas. Last weekend, I tried something in the middle: car camping at Reesor Lake, Cypress Hills.

My cousin invited me out with him and took care of most of the details, going so far as to collect my camping things from my parents' house and the stuff we needed to borrow from my uncle. He bought all the food. He wrote out very clear instructions so that I would know how to get to the campsite. He dealt with finding the spot, setting up the tent, making the fire, and washing the dishes. I was pretty much just decoration all weekend. It's a little surprising that he expressed the desire to spend more time with me again soon. I guess he normally doesn't do enough work as is.

But now, the details. As I said, he gave me extremely clear and simple directions for getting to the campsite. They were so clear I didn't even bother to look up the route on a map. "Turn south on Highway 41," Travis had said, "Then turn left at the sign that says "Reesor Lake". So, I drove east on the Trans-Canada and turned south at Highway 41.

Except it wasn't Highway 41. It was Township Road 120 or something stupid like that, but I didn't realize for sure my error because NORTH of the TransCan, it was Highway 41. So, I drove the full length of the road getting more and more concerned that this looked less and less like forested glory and eventually ended up on private property. Sighing, I looked up my destination on my phone. My phone told me that I had just taken a twenty-minute detour. No where to go but to drive the full twenty-minute stretch a second time.

So I got back onto the Trans-Canada. I drove further east. I turned south on Range Road 41. That was wrong, too. Luckily, it took me only about 12 seconds to figure out this time. The surrounding environment looked suspiciously like children's swing sets and gravel driveways. Sighing, I looked up my destination on my phone. No where to go but back to the highway. This is the point where my phone started talking to me. "In 200 meters, turn right," it told me as I once again pulled onto the highway. "You are on the most direct route." I didn't even know it was set up for GPS navigation, much less how to turn it on, but I appreciated my Android's attempt to bolster my confidence.

So I got back onto the Trans-Canada. I drove further east. I obeyed the commands of my phone. Eventually, after fording a small river in my car, I arrived at Reesor Lake. Travis looked a little relieved. "You made it!" he exclaimed. "You should have been here by now. I was beginning to wonder if I should go out to look for you."

"You underestimated my ability to get lost," I replied.

"Well, let's make a fire," said Travis. So he made a fire and I cheered from the sidelines. It was about 8 o'clock or so, so we snacked for supper. We talked about all the awesome things we were going to do. Then, the skies opened up. About two half-sized drops of water landed on Travis.


"That's it," he said. "Let's sit in the car."

"What?" I exclaimed, "But we just started the fire. It's not raining yet!"

My protests were to no avail. We sat in his car while the sky occasionally spat down on us. We sat there long enough that eventually the light drizzle turned into actual rain, which turned back into a drizzle.

"We'd better take advantage of this storm letting up," Travis remarked. "Let's get into the tent now."

That's what we did. We had time to prepare for bed and get into the tent. Then, the rain picked back up again. So, in summary, on the first day of our camping excursion, I got lost, we sat in the car, and then we went to bed.

It rained all night. I dreamed that we had set up our tent in a flooded cave. Nevertheless, when I woke up in the morning, everything inside the tent was still perfectly dry. It was nice to find that out, given that it was still storming outside. I fell back asleep. Woke up. Still raining. Back to sleep. I did this a few times, then gave up. I pulled out my book and read a chapter. Still raining. After that, Travis stopped pretending to be asleep. We played Whist. Still raining.

"I really have to pee," I said.

"Me, too," said Travis. Unfortunately, it was still coming down like a car wash. "The next time it lets up even a little, we go."

"Agreed," I said.

We sat in the tent until 11:30 a.m. It was still raining when we finally crawled out, but we didn't dare wait any longer. We dashed for the outhouse, went pee, and got dressed.

"Forget this. Let's go shopping in Medicine Hat," said Travis.

"Well, we could cook breakfast," I said.

"In the rain?" he exclaimed.

"There's a cooking shelter over there," I said.

We ate breakfast at about 1:30 p.m. We ate it at Houston Pizza in Medicine Hat. "Ah," sighed Travis with complete satisfaction. "That's better than anything we'd cook up in the rain."

We walked around downtown for a while (where it wasn't raining), picked him up a new car charger for his phone (he had destroyed his other one in a cup of Coca-Cola), looked at some of the local historic sites, and then I got tired. Less than four hours after exiting the tent, I was ready to call it a day. Blame it on the bleak weather.

"I won't blame you if you want to pack up and go home early," said Travis glumly. "There was rain in the forecast, but I didn't expect it to go on and on like this."

We went back to the campsite... and the sun was out! Our energy and enthusiasm was restored! Travis whipped out his paddle board, I jumped on my bike and we headed out for the rest of the afternoon at the lake. One man with an extraordinarily bushy white beard saw Travis almost fall off his paddle board while he brought it in to dock to talk to me.

"Of course, anyone would get excited, coming in to see this young woman, here," the man said.

"Well, actually, she's my cousin," said Travis. "I did come in to see her, though."

"Oh," said that man, "Well... that's.... reason enough..." He left.

"What a strange man," said Travis.

He made me get on the paddle board and told me to paddle across the lake to meet him. He would ride my bike (even though it was a girl's bike). I was concerned that I would fall off the board into the water, lose my glasses in the impact, and be unable to drive home. He replied that I always thought of the worst case scenario. I reminded him that he had underestimated my ability to get things wrong before, like with my navigational skills. He admitted that I had a point, but maintained that it was still extremely unlikely that anything disastrous would happen. After he wheedled me a bit more, I got onto his paddle board and paddled across the lake to meet him on the other side.

When I stepped on shore (perfectly dry), we decided we were hungry, so we went back to the site and he started another fire. As we started preparing the food, he gasped. "I just ruined the weekend," he announced.

"What?" I asked.

"I forgot to pack the salsa," he replied. He sighed. "At least I didn't forget the tent like last time."

We cooked and ate supper. We cooked and stored away burgers for his future consumption. We told alien stories. Then, when it was so dark we could barely see, we pulled out the pie iron. Travis had fond memories of a pie iron pizza my mother had made for him decades ago. I had dim memories of an assembly line procedure that my dad had perfected on some RV trip over half my life ago.

Travis did pretty much everything else on the trip, but the pie iron was my baby. I assembled the first pie, closed the iron, and shoved it into the hot coals. "How long do you think?" asked Travis.

"I don't really know," I admitted. "I seem to remember something like forty seconds."

Travis laughed. "I was thinking more like six minutes."

We argued back and forth about it until Travis said, "Well, it's been in there for about two and half minutes at this point."

I pulled it out of the coals. A steady stream of smoke billowed out from the cracks of the iron. I opened it up. Inside was a perfect, delicious looking charcoal briquette. I offered it to Travis. He didn't want to eat it, so I started prepping attempt number two. I put the bread into the iron and it started sizzling immediately. No doubt, by the time I put it under the coals, it was already cooked. Attempt number two was retrieved, also smoking, from the fire after just one minute. It wasn't clearly a briquette, but not clearly toast and cherry pie filling, either.

"Some of it looks salvageable," said Travis. We scraped some of the filling off the ash. As we were eating, Travis's phone timer went off. "Six minutes," he shrugged. I regretted not having an iron full of ash for him.

I let the iron cool while I prepared round three. By now, we both had a case of the giggles. We were running low on cherry filling. Travis was picking the cherries out individually to try to get the greatest density of fruit possible in the pie, so we really wanted this one to work. We agreed to not even put this one in the coals. We waved it above the fire like a marshmallow stick for about twenty seconds, then checked on it. The butter was almost melted. We held it over the fire for about another twenty, hoping for something magical to happen. We checked on it again. The butter was almost melted.

"I'm putting it back in the coals," I said. Travis agreed. I put it in the coals and counted to thirty. I pulled it out. We had a pie. We split it in half and gloried in the finished product. It actually tasted pretty good. Then we gave each other scores on our marshmallow roasting attempts. I managed to earn a -1 on a scale from 1 to 10.

Eventually it was time for bed. I don't think I've ever slept so well in a tent before. The following morning, Travis cooked us bacon and eggs (not in the rain) and I packed up and got ready to go. I had to leave fairly early because I had a commitment in the afternoon. "You know, we were just straggling out of the tent this time yesterday," I said as we took a farewell selfie.

"I'm glad you didn't leave yesterday," he said.

"Agreed," I replied.

I'm still feeling a bit confused by the lack of commitment required for car camping, as opposed to for backwoods trekking. But I also didn't experience abject misery at any point, despite the deluge. I think that means I liked it.

"Anyone who has spent a few nights in a tent during a storm can tell you: The world doesn't care all that much if you live or die." Anthony Doerr 
Beautiful Cypress Hills

I can paddle board!

Travis being a boss

Farewell selfie

Monday, 27 June 2016

The Vampire Machines, Pt. II

Once upon a time, I donated blood. You can read about that here. It was easy, and went very well. About a year later, I went to donate a second time. The second time was a complete failure. The tube went in and I almost blacked out. The nurses said that my body just decided it wasn't going to give that day. My mom said I'd inherited my dad's squeamishness around needles.

Last weekend I once again agreed to allow some nice nurses to siphon off my life's blood.

"Didn't you almost pass out last time?" asked my mom when I explained to her where I was going.

"Yeah," I replied, "But I think that was just a once-off. I was fine the first time."

She looked dubious, "Neither you nor your father have ever handled needles very well," she said. "It was probably psychological."

"Nah," I said. "I wasn't nervous at all."

"Well," she replied as I left, "Good luck."

The decor of the clinic was entirely red. Reminiscent of blood, I suppose. How apropos. I wasn't nervous about the needle, per se, but I was nervous about psyching myself out. But just for the record, the nurse who measured it said that I had excellent blood pressure.

Now, the crucial moment:

The nurse poked my left arm to find a good vein. She poked it again. A minute or two later, I said, "We can try the other arm if it'll work better." She moved over to my right arm. She poked it. She poked it again.

"Have you been drinking lots of water?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Since two days ago?" she asked.

"Well... uh... no," I said. "I didn't realize I had to start prepping then."

Oh, but things might have gone so much differently if I had. It seems I was destined to be a difficult patient. Everybody else was squeezing plastic tubes of some sort, but my nurse gave me warm beans in a latex glove to squeeze, instead. Everybody else had their elbows directly on the comfy armrest. She awkwardly propped mine up on two foam pillows above the armrest.

Then I said, "By the way, I almost passed out last time."

She looked up in alarm. "Oh!" she exclaimed.

"Don't worry, I'll try not to do the same thing this time," I assured her. "And anyway, my reaction was pretty immediate last time, upon the tube going in, so we should know pretty quickly how this will turn out."

"Ok," she said, sounding more nervous than me. She inserted the needle into my arm. I felt so perfectly relaxed it was almost ridiculous. She fiddled around with some equipment, I started to read my book (not fainting), and the nurse wandered off.

A minute or two later, she came back, and I realized that my machine was going beep-beep-beep. She fiddled around with my arm briefly, and the beeping stopped. She wandered away again. But a minute or two later... beep-beep-beep.

"Again?" she said. This time, another nurse came over with her and they consulted each other about what to do. They made micro-alterations to the angle of my wrist and debated the merits of the foam cushions.

"What does the beep-beep-beep mean?" I asked, curious.

"It means the blood flow is low," the second nurse replied.

Either I shouldn't have asked, or the timing was sheer coincidence. I started feeling hot and light-headed. My relaxed state gave way to panic.

"Uh, ok, and now I'm starting to freak out," I said.

In a matter of moments, my feet were in the air, I had cool, damp cloths on my arms and neck and forehead, and a fan aimed at my face. There must have been four nurses peering with concern down at me. They gave me instructions to keep my eyes open. A nurse introduced herself, asked my name, reminded me to keep my eyes open.

"Has this ever happened before?" she asked.

"Yeee-eeesss," I groaned.

All the nurses chuckled. "She says it with such conviction," they tittered.


Eventually they removed the damp cloths and slowly put me back into a normal sitting position. I noticed that the tube with the blood was long gone. The nurse who had taken charge lingered to talk to me. "How do you feel now?" she asked.

"Fine," I replied.

"But you're crying," she pointed out.

It's hard to dispute a statement like that. So she talked to me for a while and made me feel appreciated and not like a loser. She even forcefully told me not to worry about the empty juice box I had proceeded to drop on the floor and then deliberately left it there while we talked to demonstrate that it didn't matter how wrong things had gone and that I was the most important priority at the time.

"You know," she said warmly, "My recommendation is that you take some time. Give yourself a year, and then think hard about trying again. Take a break."

"It's been over a year since last time," I reminded her. "It didn't work then, either."

"Oh," she said, voice falling flat. She looked at me knowingly. "You know, there are other ways you can be involved and help us." She recommended that I bake cookies for my students to coax them into donating and gave me some pamphlets so that I could make lessons out of them.

This nurse was obviously very well-trained and skilled at making people feel good about themselves in the face of their own failures. All in all, while this third attempt to donate proved to be another disaster, I left feeling like it was a really good place, almost a happy place, full of nice people and sunshine.

I strongly encourage you to try to donate some blood. Probably you won't teeter on the edge of consciousness, like me. But if you do, I am quite confident that you'll find it's not nearly as awful as you expect it to be (so long as you do inform them that you're going to pass out and don't merely pass out without warning, although in that case you wouldn't be experiencing much embarrassment, either).

So that's my tag line, and my clinching argument to get you to donate: It's not nearly as awful as it could be! Am I not a master of persuasion?

I got home. Mom said, "I thought you were being a tad optimistic when you left." Dad said, "I get woozy at just the thought of giving blood." Mom said, "If they call us again, we'll tell them to please stop calling us to ask our daughter to come faint in their clinic."

This might be the last time I do battle with the blood-sucking machines. But you, reading this, please make up for what my body seemingly won't allow me to do, if you can. Go donate blood. At least, try. If you fail, we can laugh at ourselves and commiserate together.


My boss, when I told her how my body wouldn't give up its blood: "Doesn't it feel good to know that your selfishness goes all the way down to your bones?"

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Earliest Dreams

I'd like to tell you about how my imagination functioned as a small child.

I don't remember my very earliest dreams, but I do remember one particularly early and recurring nightmare. This is the earliest dream I can remember having, when wee me was just a squirt of about four years of age, living in Regina.

In my dream, I was wearing my nighties, running down the hallway from my bedroom, down the stairs, and further into the dark void of the basement. As I ran, humongous plastic hamburgers and french fries* leapt out at me from the shadows. They had eyes and mouths. They all opened their mouths and threw me silent roars and hisses. It was horrifying.

The second recurring bad dream I can recall centered around an orange-haired doll I had**. She was big - must have been at least 2/3 my size. Her hair always struck me as a bit wild, but her eyes! They opened and closed depending on how she was tilted. I never liked to look at those green glass eyes because I was worried they'd open of their own accord.

I distinctly recall dreaming that this doll was chasing me down the hallway toward the living room. She lumbered after me (she was a bit fat), with thunderous side-to-side leaps. I felt dizzy watching her come, with the way the world seemed to tip and tilt as her feet hit the ground.

I don't remember many particulars of any really awesome dreams I had as a small kid, except to say that sometimes I lulled myself to sleep by imagining that I, my cousin Aimee, and a few other (now forgotten) friends were superheroes with red boots, capes, flight capabilities, and a home base on top of a telephone pole. We were called the "Savers". We'd zoom through the sky and, you know, save people.

Hamburgers no longer hold any terror for me, but zooming around still occasionally features in my current dreams. Except now, I'm powered by handheld cylinders which contain genetically-altered fetuses capable of flight. And dolls that open their eyes still creep me out.

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." Plato

*Think enormously oversized McDonald's Happy Meal toys. I did a quick Google search and lo and behold! Here is the demon hamburger that terrorized my early childhood:
Admittedly, modern me has to agree that the fabric version is actually kinda cute.
**I seem to recall, but can't state as absolute fact, that years after, my mother once remarked that this doll was hideous and why did we have it?

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

My Athletic Prowess

I uh... found.... this article about the mini-chuckwagon races from the other day. I'm not convinced it's entirely accurate, but the part about me winning got it right!
Famous Newspaper
June 11, 2016

The local radio station, in co-operation with sponsors, once again held its annual mini-chuckwagon race. Nearly forty competitors tested their mettle against one another in the parking lot of a local grocery store, trying to win $1500 for charity, racing their wagon-laden tricycles around a track lined with hay.

The ultimate winner, Carla Heinrichs, representative of Medicine Hat College, is a veteran of mini-chuckwagon racing, having placed second in the final round last year. "Well, how about that?" said the event's organizer, John Petrie, when he learned of her previous experience. "Nobody remembers second place. We didn't even recognize her when she came early to practice." When asked to comment before the race, Heinrichs stated that "I couldn't keep myself away this year. My job is hanging in the balance." Pressed further, she was heard to mutter, "I just hope I'm covered by WCB if this turns into a flaming wreck."

Many of her colleagues came out to support her, feeling obligated to do so after having unanimously voted her to be the college's representative during her absence at a staff meeting. And if it hadn't been for one of those colleagues, Mary Incho, Heinrichs may have been absent at the race itself, as well. "I've rarely missed a year at the mini-chucks," Incho said, all smiles as she waited for the races to begin, "but somehow the coaches forgot to tell Heinrichs the time and place of the event. Fortunately, I fixed that." She shook her head. "We don't have a brilliant history," she admitted, "But I saw our athlete on her practice run. She was going really fast. We stand a real chance."

The less-than-brilliant history to which Incho refers is a dry spell that extends back to the very birth of the mini-chuckwagon race. Dave Volek, athlete recruiter and team manager, was kind enough to report the college's history of failures, and the faculties responsible for them:

2008 Front Office: Failure
2009 Open Learning Center: Failure
2010 Nursing: Won one heat, so let's listen to Lorrie gloat once again
2011 Library: Failure
2012 Cafeteria: Failure
2013 Student: Utter Failure 
2014 Residence: Failure but we sure looked good.
2015 ESL: Honor and Glory!!!!!!!! Second place!!!

Volek also offered us a peek at the rigorous training regimen that prepared Heinrichs for Friday's event. Heinrichs was busy doing crunches and dumbbell curls with her coaches from the wee hours of the morning before classes every day. It also included running obstacle courses to the horticultural station and back, among other things.

"I can't believe they put electrified plates in the floor to teach me not to put my feet on the ground," grumbled Heinrichs. When questioned about whether this might not be a breach of fire code regulations, Reg Radke, campus manager, grimaced. "I've been trying very hard to turn a blind eye to that," he admitted.

The qualifying heat saw Heinrichs, in the first lane, fairly fly. She pulled across the finish line with a time of just over 14 seconds. Meanwhile, her personal photographer, Michele Labrie, pushed her way unashamedly through the crowd to find the perfect spot for filming. Heinrichs's victory was doubtlessly due to Labrie's screams of "GO CARLA!!!" from behind the camera.

Heinrichs was a clear front-runner for the semi-finals, with every other competitor earning times of no less than 17 seconds. Yet, one of her coaches, Jaynette Dueck, still keenly remembered the college's past defeats. "Don't get overconfident," she warned Heinrichs while giving the athlete a massage. "All it takes is one penalty and it'll all be over."

In the semi-finals, Heinrichs, again in the first lane, narrowly missed garnering that deadly penalty by nearly touching a barrel, but in the end she sailed home once more, with a time of 16 seconds. "Hm," said Labrie, "Not as good." Nevertheless, she graciously gave Heinrichs a high-five. "Gotta keep the athlete's spirits up," she intimated as Heinrichs returned to her crew.

When asked to which charity the college would donate the $1500 winnings if Heinrichs triumphed, her entire crew blinked blankly. "Oh gosh," said Radke, "I guess we ought to start thinking about that." He rubbed his neck. "Given our history of dismal failures, we've never had to think about that before. Somewhere local, I guess." Dueck added, "Last year, when she got second place, we were just stunned. But, now it's looking like it might possibly happen. If she doesn't do something stupid like put her foot down or crash and die."

We also asked how Heinrichs managed to break the 17 second barrier so easily, when every other competitor seemed to fly off their seat in the attempt. Heinrichs just shrugged and shook her head. "I'm basically glued in place," she said. "I couldn't fly off if I wanted to. That Lorrie made me wrap my seat in grippy cupboard liner." Lorrie Clizbe, the only other college athlete to have ever had any success at the mini-chuckwagons, piped up, "Yes! That's me! That's me! I told her to do that! I slid off my seat in my second heat in 2010 because I was going too fast. How can you even lose a race by going too fast?!" In reply, Volek made an agonized sound and added, "I really hope that Carla wins. Maybe it will stop Lorrie from gloating about her ancient victory of one heat forever. But I doubt it."

The final race saw Heinrichs facing off against three other speedy tricyclers, this time from the position of the second lane. The cyclers sat at the starting line, poised like panthers, ready to throw all their power into those John Deere pedals. The announcer built up the tension, hanging over the audience the question of the college's soon-to-be discovered fate. Then the air horn sounded. Heinrichs made a strong start, corrected the dangerous error of her previous race, and rocketed across the finish line in just 14 seconds. Her crew and her students, who were also there to cheer her on, were ecstatic with delight.

"I already knew she's the best teacher in Canada," one of her students reported, dancing with joy, "But now I know that she's the best at everything."

Asked how she felt, Heinrichs groaned. "My butt's already sore from the seat," she remarked, "But at least I know I won't have to ride again next year. John Petrie doesn't like to have repeat winners." Volek didn't appear too put out by the thought of Heinrichs's early retirement from tricycle racing. When last seen, he was already in the exercise room, preparing himself to take her place.

The college will house the mini-chuckwagon trophy until next year and Reg Radke will finalize the decision about where to donate their winnings.

The Qualifying Heat:

The Semi-Final:

The Final:

ETA: The winnings are being donated to the local pregnancy care centre.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Most Beautiful Thing

I would like to tell you about the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Five or so years ago, I was a cabin leader at a summer camp. This camp was located in a valley in the middle of Saskatchewan. Every night for chapel, we'd gather at the fire pit which was in a tiny clearing among the trees. Since the campers this particular week were teenagers, bedtime was a little later than it was with the younger kids, and we'd have to walk back to our wagons after evening chapel in the inky darkness.

One cool, clear night, we gathered around the crackling campfire, sang hymns, and the speaker began his talk. I say he began his talk because I don't recall if he ever finished it. He was interrupted by the Northern Lights.

Just above our heads, the lights took shape, and then changed shape, and then flipped around again, over and over, and then once more still. Yellow ribbons dueled against blue ones and green ribbons danced with them both, forever streaming forward on their fathomless journey to the edge of space. With the sky for a stage, they twisted and spun and swirled; and behind them were a million sparkling stars against a deep, black canvas.

Below, in our little clearing, all were silent.

We watched, mouths open in amazement. A hundred hormonal, scatterbrained teenagers, and we all just watched with wordless wonder until the rivers of light finally faded back into a formless mist.

When I was at Bible school, too, the Northern Lights would occasionally come to visit. My three roommates and I had crazy schedules that sometimes barely afforded us space to eat or sleep. Our tasks were due, our books and computers demanded all our devotion, and no thought could be permitted to take space in our heads if it didn't relate to our thesis. At these times, tears were common and we communicated little, all our energy and focus on our own concerns.


Yet, if at any point in time, one of us received word that there were Lights in the sky outside, everything stopped. By silent agreement, we would immediately leave our books, pull on our boots, and walk across town to the darkest field.

Usually there wasn't much left to see by the time we got there, but we always went, regardless. Sometimes we lingered a while to appreciate only the stars and breathe the fresh air.

Our futures may have hung on the outcome of our studies, but we had our priorities right.

Thou burning sun with golden beam
Thou silver moon with softer gleam...
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in heav'n along...
Thou rising moon in praise rejoice
Ye lights of evening find a voice
 Oh, praise Him! 

from "All Creatures of Our God and King"

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Heinrichs Switchboard

Recently, having arrived home for the weekend, my parents excitedly greeted me at the door with exclamations of "Phone the house! Phone the house!"

So, being an obedient daughter, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed home.

"Put it on speakerphone," said my dad.

Below follows a transcript of the message you will hear should you phone my parents' landline:

Hello. You have reached the Heinrichs residence and your call is important to us. Please listen to the following options:

If you are a telemarketer or work on behalf of a business or corporation and wish to make a sale, or you are requesting a donation, please press 1. 

If you are calling about a prize for a contest that we have entered, and we have won, please press 2.

If you are in a business relationship with us already and you wish to talk to us, please press 3. 

If you have been a guest in our residence and wish to talk to someone here, please press 4.

If you are a family member, related by blood or through marriage, of any of the residents in this house, please press 5.

If none of these options fit, please stay on the line and leave a message. Thank you.

Should you admit to being a telemarketer, your call will be forwarded immediately to an internal voicemail, without ever ringing the home phone:

Hello, please leave a message specifying what it is you would like to sell or what it is you would like to request from us, and a contact name and number, and we will call you back if we are interested. Thank you.

Apparently the house is much quieter. And yes, some telemarketers DO persevere through the switchboard, but Mom and Dad say it's really cut down on the number of them.

I'm not inclined to post our phone number online, but if you already know it, by all means give us a call and listen to the Heinrichs family go corporate!

*     *     *     *     *

Dad: Oh, I should have said, "Your call might be important to us."

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Growth Pains of a Pianist

Once again I am calling an Anglican church home. It's small. The priest says that since I started coming, he brags about having a millennial in his flock. Nevertheless, "small" carries some perks. It means that volunteer opportunities are easy to spot, and since volunteering is how you get plugged into any church community, this is a bonus. On the third or fourth Sunday that I attended, the priest and his wife, Joanne, were doing a funeral service or something elsewhere, so a lay member ran the show.

"Since Joanne isn't here this week, we have no music," he announced at the beginning, "so we'll just carry on."

In very short order (as it was a very short service), I was shaking his hand on the way out the door. "Do you really have only one pianist?" I asked.

"Well, two," he replied, "but the other is on vacation."

"I have grade 8 piano," I said. "I can read music."

His face lit up.

So that is how I ended up dusting off years of musical inactivity to become what the congregation calls a "master pianist". It's been a crash course. The first Sunday that I played, Joanne sat down with me to carefully choose songs based on tunes and titles that I said I already knew. She played guitar and organ along with me (but not both simultaneously, of course) to boost my confidence and cover my rather pathetic fumbling. Today was my fourth go round. A bit of disorganization meant that I didn't have the music for today until late this Wednesday. Joanne taught Sunday School in the basement.

When I ponder the concept of "church pianist", certain images come to my mind. I remember the guy at our old church that played when I was a kid. He released his own CD and got so into what he was playing that we all feared he'd literally knock himself out. I think about the pianists at my church back in Calgary. Concert performance ability, all of them. I contemplate my uncle and my cousins who can improvise, transpose, sing, and play anything with keys or frets (and also drums and probably a few more things).

And then I think of me. I forgot what an A major chord was today. No kidding.

I'm not entirely useless. Given enough time to practice, I won't necessarily play a piece through flawlessly, but my fingers will at least know when they're about to hit something wrong and they will either dampen the sound or refuse to press the keys at all. When my left hand drops out, my right hand carries on until it can catch up, and vice versa. I still live in fear of the day that both hands lose it at the same time.

The other spectre looming bleak above my head is the probability of losing count of the number of verses I've already played.

"Oh, me, too!" exclaimed Joanne when I admitted this to her. "I just look over to the first row. The people who sit there are always the first to close their song books when the song is over. I just take my cue from them."

Which is all well and good if you're playing the organ. From the organ you can actually see the congregation. I would have to stand up and crane my neck over the top of the piano or transpose up a few octaves to get me close enough to the end of the instrument to allow me to peer around the corner. Never mind the sheer skill I would need to have to be able to pull that off; I can imagine some astute individual dryly commenting to their spouse: "Oh, look, there's Carla's forehead furtively growing out of the piano again. I wonder what verse she thinks we on?"

Joanne and I have already lost count together once. The priest called our extra play-through of Jesus Christ is Risen Today the "hum-along verse", as per the choir's response.

That's the neat thing about this place and this role. Nobody boos at you.

"Well, I would hope that nobody in a church would boo at you," said my friend Mark.

"I'm aiming to avoid making my church the first one to do so," I replied.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous about playing today. Not super nervous, because, as noted before, they have already decided that I'm their "master pianist". Nevertheless, churches often put a lot of pressure to perform on its worship teams and musicians, and even if this church isn't one of them, I am aware of my own shortcomings.

Today was my first day playing solo. Piano only. It was also the first day that I was the one to play the fiddly little Anglican bits that are interspersed among the rest of the prayers and liturgy. Joanne reminded her husband to cue me for those, but either he forgot or I was so excited that I jumped the gun.

I was particularly nervous about the fiddly bits because the music I have for them is only a plain Jane right hand melody. Chords for the left hand are indicated, but I have never before in my life done chording. I had enough wherewithal while I was practicing to know that it sounded stupid when I played every chord in root position, so I aimed to play it with inversions. All was well during home practice, but only after a bit of initial groping to find the right combination of notes. Not wanting to grope in service, I scribbled down the note combinations on my church bulletin so that if I had trouble finding the right keys to play, I'd be able to glance up and solve all my problems.

Unfortunately, you can't pleasure read the bulletin while playing a half-practiced song. And that's why I played through the First Sanctus without the A chord.
Nothing replaced the A chord. In hindsight, I could have played root A or even just A. I guess engaging two fingers simultaneously was too much for me. Instead, we dealt with the gaping holes. The priest informed me after the service that I could also have played the diminished G7 suspended 1st inversion chord to fill the gap. I told him that next time I'd just mash my forearm against the keyboard.

The rest of the songs I played with varying levels of success. I didn't lose count (thanks largely to the priest uncharacteristically bellowing out "VERSE SIX!" before the final verse). I did flub up things that I had never flubbed up before and forgot the key signature a few times.

But, gun-jumping or not, A major-less Sanctus or not, trips, skips, lurches, and besmirches or not, at the end of the service, as I was playing music in the background for the dismissal, one of the elderly ladies from the choir walked up behind me, put her hands on my shoulders and her cheek against my ear.

"Absolutely perfect," she said.

*     *     *     *     *

"He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." Ephesians 1:4

"I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best." Walt Whitman

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

"A" is for "Mohamed" Pt. II

It appears that we have finally sorted out my string of A-named students. Nobody gets confused about them, except when Tatiana asks me whether I know where "Amal" is and I direct her to various shopping centres in Calgary.

However, despite my best efforts, I have ended up with three Mohameds in my class (plus the ones that I call something different). One is the original Mohamed, who introduced himself first during our initial meet-and-greet, and was thus allowed to retain his name.

The second Mohamed slipped past my defenses by merit of the fact that he wasn't there on the first day. When he arrived on the second day with rather low communication skills, I couldn't delay all the other students to try to explain to him that he couldn't be Mohamed.

The third Mohamed arrived about a month later as a perk of the fact that it's a continuous intake program. However, the receptionist assured me that his name was spelled with a U, not an O, so it wouldn't be a problem. I thought she would be right.

It turns out that while I am perfectly able to distinguish between my three Mohameds, calling them "Mohamed", "Mohamed +middle name", and "Moohamed", they themselves have no idea which one of them I just addressed.

As I was explaining to my aide the Mohamed situation, Mohamed #1 was heard to mutter "I gotta change my name."

He repeated the sentiment just a few days ago. "I think you just call me my last name," he requested after nobody proved to know which Mohamed was whose partner.

"Too late!" I replied. "It's the end of the semester. I can't change now! Maybe you can change next semester."

He sighed, shook his head, and listened once again to the contradictory beckons of his classmates.

“It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to.” W.C. Fields

Friday, 12 February 2016

"A" is for "Mohamed"

I haven't been an ESL teacher very long, granted, but I've been one for long enough that I was beginning to fancy myself pretty good with learning names. Random people I can barely remember, but I typically can name all my students by the end of the second class, if not the first, just so long as they're not African.

Oh, one or two African names and faces in a host of other nationalities I can handle. African name? Check. African face? Check. I'll mutilate the pronunciation of their names, of course, but I'll at least get down the anglicized equivalent without much trouble. My new class, however, is almost entirely from the Horn of Africa (with a few randoms thrown in here and there).

The first roll call was basically a write-off.

"What's your name?" I asked one African gentleman.

His lips moved and sound came out.

"Sorry, once more?" I requested.

He smiled graciously; his lips moved and sound came out again, a little more slowly and punctuated than the first time. I peered down at the class list, hoping futilely for the appropriate name to jump out and grab me, but nothing looked liked mashed computer keys.

"Ummm.... Ahmed Ibrahim Mohamed?" I suggested.

"No," the man replied pleasantly, and thoughtfully pronounced his name a third time.

"...Sayid Mohamed Hussein?"


You can't ask a fourth time. You just can't. "Maybe you should show me," I said, handing him the register. He pointed to Mohamed Osman Adan*.

Let me tell you, if you can't even distinguish someone's name after listening to it three times WHILE YOU ARE STARING AT A LIST OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS then you know you have listening problems. You think you know how "Mohamed Osman Adan" is supposed to sound? Yeah, you are mistaken. They would have had about as much success communicating with my English ears had they stuck their fingers between their lips and blown motorboat noises.

Additionally, it would appear that no less than two thirds of the African Muslim population is named "Mohamed". Even the ladies are Mohamed, though it's their family name (or the African equivalent of a family name), rather than their given name. So, pronunciation is only half the issue. Even after you've made them all write name cards in big, bold letters, you've still got a confounding situation where you say a name and yet are barely sure yourself which person you're actually addressing.

To start the second class, I had the students stand up, one at a time, and introduce themselves with the following formula: "Hi, I'm _____________________ and I like ____________________." They had to alliterate the thing they like with the first letter of their name, then point to each person in the room who had previously introduced themselves and repeat their names and likes.

When we got to the second Mohamed, I intervened and told him that he could no longer be Mohamed. Taken slightly aback, Mohamed gently responded that yes, his name was actually Mohamed. Luckily, the other Mohameds at his table backed me up and explained to him that I could not possibly be expected to differentiate between more than one of them. They briefly negotiated amongst themselves, then the second Mohamed turned around and said I could call him Ali, his family name.

At least, I think it's his family name. As far as I, or my coworkers, can tell, a lot of Africans don't really consider their names to have a standard order and will give them in whatever order they feel like at any particular point in time. It makes it quite a task to alphabetize lists when students themselves don't know which name comes first. In any case, I certainly helped add to the anarchy, what with making several Mohameds go by their last or middle names.

After Ali, the next students introduced themselves as Ahmed, Adin, Amal, Abdikhadar, and Abdulkadir. They liked many things beginning with A. It got so ridiculous that even their fellow Somalis at the next table didn't know who was who or which one of them liked "appointments".

Then, after mass confusion, we got to my sole Ukrainian student. "I'm Tatiana," she said, "I like tea." Sweet relief! And she proceeded to correctly name every person thus far introduced as well as the things they liked, without once breaking rhythm. And also to conversationally address them by their chosen names AFTER they had gotten up, shuffled, and switched seats. Hats off to Ukraine. I stand in awe.

"The author of the Iliad is either Homer or, if not Homer, somebody else of the same name." Aldous Huxley

*Naturally, for privacy's sake, I can't post the exact names of my students, but this is a pretty close approximation.