What’s in a fence?

Hardly a week goes by without a comment from a passerby about the colourful front to house, here on a tranquil neighbourhood street in southwest Calgary. I tell the story of the fence and Lois’ artistry. 

Walking and pedalling traffic has increased so dramatically during Covid-19. Our house faces on to a park, recreation grounds, two schools, and a dry pond, the key feature of which is a 750 meter paved pathway ringed by wonderful sloping banks which provide giddy enjoyment for the young at heart, summer and winter. These days we young and not so young walking the neighbourhood. So many dogs, too that I wonder where they all live. Bicycles galore, from sliders to electric, sstrollers large and small. It is

Back to the fence. 

The western side of our property was enclosed by a typical six-foot wooden fence when we moved in during the mid-90s. It was a reddish-brown structure showing the ravages of time. Many times I went out and shored by perilously leaning posts, keeping it whole for one more year. We repainted it a couple of times in the hope the fresh stain would keep it stable.

Lois painted brilliant gaillardia flowers on the section fronting the driveway. It looked good, and the occasional passerby would comment on how much they enjoyed it.

We put on a brave face about a decade ago and after lots humming and hawing, replaced the fence with a lovely white vinyl job, no maintenance.

What we didn’t expect were the comments about making sure we put the flowers back. We even got comments from teachers at the nearby junior high school to add flowers. People stop their cars and lean out the window to say how much they like our frontage. One woman said that she used to flower fence to tell people where she lived. “I tell them to turn right at the house with the flowers on the fence,” she said.

Repainting presented a challenge for Lois. Would her acrylic artist paints adhere to the vinyl surface? Her tests showed that it needed a gesso base coat.

And so, new bright golden and red gaillardias bloom again. Then we added gaillardias to the front door panels, and again to the sill of the studio deck, supporting the wrought-iron railings and their silhouetted native New Zealand bird, the pukeko.

We hear often how people enjoy seeing the “sunflowers”  each time they pass. Ok, no worries, the plant is a member of the sunflower family, and is also known as a blanket flower. We enjoy seeing it in the wild in our provincial parks and foothills’ roadsides. 

Covid days

Nanking cherry blossom

This afternoon I’m imagining myself on safari. I’m sitting out on the breezes at a bench behind a now isolated junior high school. I look for the wonders of my neighbourhood during this pandemic stuff, solitary, but not alone. Lois is excited about her garden and I watch her daily rounds, talking to plants, and share her delight at the fresh shoots of magical growth that follows a few days of heavy rain.

I maintain my two kilometre walk around the perimeter of the park across the road and around the paved track in the $17 million dry pond we have. Naturally there’s no water in it yet, seven after a four-day rainfall that produced as much for this city as we get in the merry month of May.

My imagination is a bit too exotic I think so maybe this day is a “botari” where all I can see is green, green grass and a host of golden dandelions. Beautiful really, though I wonder how Wordsworth would have seen it. 

Today is like this, Will: I wandered lonely as a bee/flitting beneath a cloud-filled sky/when round a corner I saw a field/a crowd of golden dandelions.

Something like that. The little golden heads are everywhere. ‘Tis spring on the prairies for sure.

From this you learn how I get my jollies. In the past two months Lois and I have contributed much to the cause of climate change, rarely venturing out in our auto.

Peas power out of the soil

A mere two hundred kilometres, well, since January at least. That certainly boosted the 2000 kilometres of the past 18 months or so. Even our trusty Jeep dealer came and collected the vehicle, took it back to the shop, changed the tires to summer, gave it a lube, and returned to my driveway, face-masked, gloved and wiping down the steering wheel, gearshift and door handles. 

We are so fortunate to have a couple of daughters living within blocks of us. They see to our weekly grocery shopping, ensure the delivery of fresh garden supplies from curbside pickup, and collect and deliver our water cooler refills.

Waiting for the coral bells (heuchera)

We’re so glad that technology allows us regular face time with rellies in New Zealand, and that we can keep up with events at our church, including the weekly Sunday service, like this week, relaxing in the sun with fresh coffee while the pastor gave his message. Brilliant.

I tell Lois about my discoveries today’s meander such as the snowshoe hares in the parking lot still showing their winter coat under the merging summer fluff. Then there are the little guys speeding their bicycles around the paved path in the dry pond. This pathway is a boon to parents who, under watchful eyes, allow their kidlets the freedom to enjoy the safety it offers. It makes me wonder where else they would cycle with such abandon in this neighbourhood.

Double cherry blossom.

Russian almond

Canada’s Polio Epidemic

My New Zealand schoolboy memory of the global polio epidemic became the germ of an idea for my recently published novel Beginnings at the End of the Road. This look back and my fertile imagination took many twists and turns to create the story which involves a man who suffered polio in his youth and many years later finds the disease back for a second act, known today as post-polio syndrome.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented recently that Covid-19 is the worst health emergency Canada has experienced. We have to refer back to the disastrous Spanish flu epidemic post WW1 claiming around 55,000 lives of a population of eight million.

I refreshed myself with the story of polio in Canada and the Canada Public Health Association’s website contains this file. Our current quarantine days makes this summary an interesting piece of Canadian history.

Polio crippled tens of thousands of Canadians until the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955.

Polio (poliomyelitis) is an infectious disease caused by a virus. Polio can strike people at any age but children under age five are most at risk.

Polio used to be called “infantile paralysis” or “the crippler” because the virus can permanently damage the nerve cells that control the muscles.

Although the first polio outbreaks appeared in Europe in the early 1800s, the first known outbreak in Canada occurred in 1910. A little girl was taken to a Hamilton, Ontario hospital with what was thought to be rabies. She died, and it was later discovered to be polio.

At that time, no one knew if the disease was contagious or what could be done to prevent or treat it. Polio epidemics continued, usually in the summer or fall, and became more severe and affected older children and youth.

Provincial public health departments tried to quarantine the sick, closed schools, and restricted children from travelling or going to movie theatres. Over time, it became clear that these measures did not prevent polio’s spread.

Most provinces also provided a free “convalescent” serum when people became ill from polio. The serum was made from blood donated by those who had survived a polio attack, although there was never proof of the serum’s effectiveness.

In 1930, Canada’s first “iron lung” was brought to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto from Boston. These huge metal cylinders regulate the breathing of people whose polio attacked their respiratory muscles. There was a rush to assemble more iron lungs to help keep people alive after a severe outbreak in 1937. The Ontario government paid to have 27 of these devices assembled in a six-week period.

Some women gave birth while confined in an iron lung (pictured) and the Royal Canadian Air Force made emergency deliveries of these devices across the country. Iron lungs are still used in some countries.

02-iron-lung_s.jpg

A nasal spray designed to block the polio virus from entering the body was used on 5,000 Toronto children in 1937. After two rounds of treatments, the spray was abandoned because it did not prevent polio and actually caused a number of the children to lose their sense of smell.

An estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954. The disease peaked in 1953 (population of around 14 million) with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths — the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The last major polio epidemic in Canada occurred in 1959, with nearly 2,000 paralytic cases. 

The widespread application of the Salk vaccine (introduced in 1955) and the Sabin oral vaccine (introduced in 1962) eventually brought polio under control in the early 1970s. Canada was certified “polio free” in 1994.

Sadly, some people who recovered from paralytic polio in the past may later experience post-polio syndrome (PPS). This nervous system disorder can appear 15 to 40 years after the original illness, bringing progressive muscle weakness, severe fatigue, and muscle and joint pain.

There is still no cure for polio but the global eradication of the disease is hoped for in the near future–another great public health achievement.

A Queen in time

The Queen’s special broadcast today brought back a vivid memory of my youth, a 67-year-old memory, the year of my 13th birthday. 

Today, we set aside a few minutes to see and hear the Queen’s Covid-19 address streamed on our iPad. 

This was a far, far different scene to the day I sat with my family, huddled round the household’s one radio, to hear her Christmas broadcast from Auckland, New Zealand. 

That broadcast had a sombre conclusion as not 24 hours earlier the country experienced its worst-ever rail disaster at Tangiwai, in the lower part of the North Island.

Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, a locomotive and carriages dived headlong into the river when a lahar flood knocked out the bridge piers. And 151 people perished. 

It was a tragic introduction to the country’s first visit by a reigning monarch. 

We received the appalling news on Christmas Day via the radio, that news link to the whole country as newspapers did not publish on Christmas Day. (Television did not arrive in the main centres until 1960.)  

The Queen and Prince Philip arrived in New Zealand by the chartered Royal Yacht SS Gothic. They stayed in the country until January 31, travelling the length and breadth by car, train, and plane before reuniting with their ship at the southernmost part of the country. All told, more than three-quarters of the population must have turned out to see them. 

Prince Philip amended his itinerary to take part in a state funeral for many of the rail disaster victims.

1953 was a landmark year in other ways for me as an adventurous 12-year-old living in the shadow of wonderful Mt Taranaki. I’d followed the conquest of Mt Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tensing. And yes, I still have my scrapbook documenting the world shattering news of that achievement on May 29 just a few days before Queen Elizabeth 11’s coronation on June 2, the actual day the epic news hit London.

March of the Prairie crocus

Northern flicker on our chimney.

It’s not that difficult to stay indoors these days when we look out the window at a crisp,new mantle of snow. Check the thermometer at wakeup and it’s minus 17 degs. At coffee time we have minus 9 degs. But no worries, spring is coming. I look to the northern flicker a-drumming on my chimney and at daybreak today, despite the temperature, his possible bride-to-be is feeding on dropped seed under the bird feeder.

Our prairie crocus March 30, 2020.

Our prairie crocus March 30, 2015

Busy day in the neighbourhood

Bit of a dull day, really. You know cloudy, windy. No sun. Snow in the forecast. Not a lot of activity around the bird feeder. Most of the afternoon, it was absent the sunny day show of avian gymnastics when chickadees and nuthatches vie for a position in any of the six portholes. Then again, mostly it just a case of one fellow not wanting to share. The nuthatch hangs upside down on the oak tree, neck outstretched, waiting for a straight-line zap to the roost.

Over the fence though, Covid-19 prompted a far different story in these unreal times of lockdowns and social distancing. I have never, in the almost 25 years we have lived here, seen so many people out walking the streets. The pavement on two sides of the house has seen a steady stream of ones and twos, of families, couples and singles, all ages, bicycles from tot pedals to fat tyre, strollers from big three wheelers to sedate covered four wheels. From puffer coats and toques to shorts and ball caps; masks, backpacks and snugglies; polers and joggers; sidewalkers and random street walkers.

Yep, a busy day in the little neighbourhood. We’ve seen more people than dogs, which is a change. Cars have had to stop at the crosswalk, even. 

On Friday and Saturday I put a table out in the drive and displayed a few of my books on it. I thought that with bookstores and libraries closed folk feeling isolated might like something fresh to read. I offered the books free for the taking. Before placing the books, I took care to clean the table top with bleach cloths and scrubbed my hands in soapy water before picking up and placing the books.

The result of my gift to the neighbourhood was 31 books found new owners. The novel Uncharted was the most popular at 12, the novel Finding Dermot went to 10 new owners, and the memoir Tide Cracks and Sastrugi went to nine. You can read about these books on my website at www.graemeconnell.com 

Of course, there was a subtle promotion tucked inside each book in the form of a bookmark for Beginnings at the End of the Road, the novel published by Westbow Press in October last year.

I beat Lois in the wordgame Upwords yesterday and quietly declined a rematch today. Son-in-law Greg delivered a grocery request at more than two arms’ length at the front door, much to the delight of a couple of passers-by.

Distancing has its fun moments. 

Farm life says yes!

True sign of spring when life down on the farm makes the announcement. Granddaughter Veronica sent me this picture today of the first arrival at the Fukuda family farm down at Patricia, Alberta, north of Brooks.

This little guy is the first of about 300. Life will be busy for sure, whatever the weather, whatever the social distractions we face here in the city during the vital health cautions we have day to day.

Great grandson George, almost four, was out with his da Ray checking the herd this morning while I shovelled snow off the driveway here in Calgary.

A virus and Vegemite

Breakfast at our house toasted homemade bread and Vegemite.

I heard the comment this morning among the very depleted supermarket shelves that “we’ve never seen it like this.” It brought a smile and a swift recollection of the post WW11 polio epidemic in New Zealand.

While that was not the worst polio epidemic in that country it affected us little guys in that schools were closed and we did our schoolwork around the dining room table as we ate our morning toast and Vegemite and listened to a correspondence school over the radio. That’s about as much detail as I can recall. Polio was very close to us in that our next-door neighbour’s son-in-law died as a result.

Those times are part of the enthusiasm I had in writing my latest novel Beginnings at the End of the Road.

And the way my mind works this memory of a bygone era came to a head this morning when I read about quarantined US actor Tom Hanks who, it appears, enjoys that popular Down Under spread Vegemite. The story was all about his fervent use of the salty, tasty delight on toast being laid on too thick for the average Aussie.

As a believer in the Vegemite spread since before those polio days, I am amused and thankful that I always have a jar of the stuff on my breakfast table each morning, seven days a week.

It is a staple of my home. Trouble is, it is not available in Canadian grocery stores. It was banned a year or so ago for some strange reason which I have not been able to get to the bottom of. The federal regulators apparently figure there is something weird in it.

Simply speaking it’s extracted from yeast grown on barley and wheat. It has been around Australia and New Zealand since 1923 or so. We either have visitors bring us a jar or we can obtain from an online store. It is allowed in the country, just not at the supermarket. Go figure.

An advertising jingle came out in the 50s for the “Happy little Vegemiters…it puts a rose in every cheek.”

So go for it Tom, I know you will survive the Vegemite storm as you and Rita recover from the Covid-19 virus there on the Gold Coast. Eat as much as you like, spread as thick as you like.

Untying knots

Bad move. I suggested that Lois might reduce her wardrobe by a couple of closets. I reminded her of that old saw  “buy one, discard two”. Her tight-lipped response: “Do your own.”

This came on top of a blog I’d read by a long time pal Sukumar Nayar who talked about that elegant item of maledom in his Subtext website. Sukumar and I first met back in the 70s in the small Peace Country’s City of Grande Prairie. He at the Regional College and me city editor of the Daily Herald-Tribune. Apart from the fun of writing, and daily newspapers, we hung out on the backstage side at vibrant Little Theatre productions, ideal pursuits during a prairie winter.

But, back to Sukumar’s downsize initiative by opening his closet to discard whatever was not in regular use. The rack of ties attracted his attention.

That got me thinking and this week I ventured into the back of my closet and retrieved two racks of ties: 26 versions of everyday ties including a few whimsicals, eight corporates and four bow ties. This represents about half of my 55-year working life. 

As Sukumar said, it should be easy to get rid of them because I hate ties. I presume that like most fellows we wore ties because we had to. It was part of office life in the shadow of the British connection. I was 17 when I reported for my first job as a young newspaper reporter in my home town of New Plymouth, New Zealand. I’d spent my earnings from milking cows and baling hay on a pair of dress trousers, a sports jacket, two white shirts and a tie recommended to me by a high school classmate.

For me, ties were the lot of a daily newspaper journalist and as publisher of the Fort McMurray TODAY newspaper. Then came life in Mobil and my Pegasus ties that took me to many parts of the world in my career with that company in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Pegasus adorns the Mobil corporate tie.

All that came to a good conclusion in 2000 when I discarded ties forever and bought a commercial print shop to round out my daily working life. I rewarded my neck in the clothing sense though not in the banking sense. My neck and I made it through though and with today’s rummage I wonder if I can still tie a Windsor knot or hand tie a bow tie. There’s always Youtube.

Sukumar writes: “I hate ties.  I am convinced that it is a brutal infliction on the body, and I suspect that Eve invented this to punish Adam.  One day, during a tiff, possibly because the apple pie that Adam baked was not up to par, Eve stripped the bark off a tree (a fig tree, perhaps) and strung it around his neck and dragged him around.  He being the weaker of the two (remember he was one rib short) succumbed to the punishment.

“Suddenly I was hit with a desire to find out more about this aberration and having shelved the idea of downsizing I went to the bottomless source of information, the Google. And what I found out is fascinating.

“The Chinese did it!!

“The earliest known version of the necktie has been found in the massive mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who was buried in 210 B.C. Desperately afraid of death, the emperor wanted to slaughter an entire army to accompany him into the next world.  His advisers ultimately persuaded him to take life-size replicas of the soldiers instead.  The result is one of the marvels of the ancient world.  Unearthed in 1974 near the ancient capital city of Xian, the tomb contained an astonishing 7500 terracotta statues. Legions of officers, soldiers, archers and horsemen, all carved in meticulous detail, guard the emperor’s sarcophagus.

081817_bb_terracotta-army_main_free.jpg“The armour, uniforms, hair, and facial expressions of the soldiers are
reproduced in exquisite detail.  Each figure is different—except in one aspect.

“They all wear neck cloths!!!

“The next probable appearance of the neckcloth was in 113 A.D.  Trajan, one of Rome’s greatest emperors, erected a marble column to commemorate the triumphant victory over the Dacians, who lived in what is now Romania.  The 2500 realistic figures on the column sported no less than three different styles of neckwear. These include the shorter versions of the modern necktie: cloth wound around the neck and tucked into the armour and knotted kerchiefs reminiscent of cowboy bandanas.”

And so the story goes. Sukumar closes his tie discourse by mentioning that Louis XIV—the Sun King—of France was intrigued and delighted by the colourful silk kerchiefs worn around the necks of Croatian mercenaries. The French word for a tie, cravat, is a corruption of ‘Croat’. 

My friend’s rescue came in the person of  the British actor David Niven who in one of his earlier movies, sported an ascot or cravat, “giving the word ‘debonair’ a new meaning. In no time flat, I acquired several of those life savers. Ah, the joy of open collars!”

Thanks, pal. I’ve removed my collection from the closet and tucked them neatly into a box. Their fate is unknown. What does a person do with outgrown ties? I very much doubt they are a garage sale item. The lady Lois says they can be repurposed.

Oh well, at least they are out of the closet.

(My grateful thanks to Sukumar Nayar https://sukumarnayar.wordpress.com)

 

Signs of spring!

Today has been pretty special for two reasons:

Sunshine, almost blue skies, above zero temperatures, and I’m back in my garden writing studio.

Our friendly neighbourhood northern flicker was at his drumming best this morning with each rat-a-tat-tat on the steel chimney cap being followed with long hearty laughter. Yep, this guy or gal wants everyone to recognise his/her territory and that a mate could be welcome. This bird is a sure sign of spring to us.

I’m out in the studio to apply myself to The Empty Envelope, my novel in progress.

Motivation to get cracking has been low, so after my comment in the previous blog I’ve had a strong reminder from Theo Tuckmitt that he is the protagonist. This means that Felix Willoughby is off the page for now.

My first day this year in the garden studio has been very fruitful in that I’ve had a big cleanup of various notes relating to structure and idle thoughts as I’ve doodled through wintry days. I haven’t had a lot of drive to build the new story mainly because I look at the pile of previous novels looking for readers (ie buyers).

I love creating the stories and completing a full-length book and sharing my drafts with excellent family mentors (ex-senior high school teachers) before submitting to my capable editor Nancy Mackenzie, maybe a couple of beta readers and then the line-by-line edits of my publisher.

It’s a long process and I’m promising myself that The Empty Envelope will be published in time to celebrate the start of a new decade in my little life.

So here we go, folks. Exactly two weeks to the spring equinox on March 19. That’s right, the earliest it has been in 124 years.

Today


Leonid Pasternak’s portrait of The Writer’s Block  says it all. Where do I go today with Felix Willoughby in my new novel in progress The Empty Envelope. Will Felix survive the day? Will Theo Tuckmitt exert his authority in the story? Right now, I dunno. 

Beginnings is an ebook

Chapter One Page one as it appears on my Kindle.

I tell, ya this resident northern flicker of ours sure has something to say. There he was drumming his brains out on our chimney yesterday letting all who could hear that  a) he/she is looking for a mate, and b) this is my territory.

I interpret the drumming as a sign of Spring.

The other thing is he serves as a neighbourhood crier for me announcing to all to take note that Beginnings at the End of the Road is available as an ebook. Exciting.

This novel is my fourth book (third novel) and to me the thrill of this writing life is seeing the results of months and months of work finally in all its popular forms, hardcover, softcover and ebook.

I learned yesterday too that a very good friend now enjoying life in the Algarve region of Portugal already has her ebook copy. 

Beginnings at the End of the Road is a tender tale all about how a surprise gift propels a polio survivor down a bumpy road of astonishing outcomes.

The book itself is now available any online bookstore in the world.

Best buy for the ebook though might be direct from my publisher at www.westbowpress.com/bookstore.

Bread, a bird and a razor

Regardless of what some gopher/groundhog/ground squirrel might tell us, I can truly attest that Spring is round the corner. How do I know this? Information came first hand from a Northern Flicker just yesterday morning.

A friendly flicker in the garden last year.

Drumming on our chimney is the definite true report. He or she is up there a-drumming like crazy advertising for a mate and defining territory, the true signs of Spring.

That is really good news after the wee disaster that occurred at our place just 24 hours earlier. I bake our no-knead bread every two days and Thursday was the day we tried something just a little bit different. I arose about 5am or so to begin the second proof.

This style of amazing bread baking calls for the dough to be resident in a cupboard some 16-18 hours. I’ve changed the morning of sequence just slightly after gaining some new knowledge from a magazine I picked up at the Avenida Market. Bridget, our youngest daughter gave me a couple of Banneton proofing baskets at Christmas. The trick is how to use these. After prepping my dough from its overnight bowl, I lodged it into the floured basket, covered it with a tea towel and pushed it to the back of the kitchen counter.

Lois suggested it might do better if I put it in the oven with the light on. Nice, warm constant temperature vs the chill on the kitchen counter.

Burned Banneton Basket

Good idea. I already had the Dutch oven on the rack. I set the timer for two hours, figuring on preheating the oven after 1 ½ hours to 425 degrees.

Again, good idea, but I forgot to remove the Banneton basket. When I checked progress, smoke funnelled volcano style out the stovetop vent, an acrid smell filled the kitchen, and flames were a breath away inside the oven. The result: one tea towel destroyed, a willow basket sadly-burned, and a semi-baked loaf of bread damaged beyond recovery.

Lesson learned. I did get the basket cleaned though and the day’s bread comprised bagels Lois made in the air fryer. Cool, eh!

Two pens and a razor crafted in Calgary

With a new loaf created yesterday, and a drumming Flicker, I celebrated and went out and bought myself a new safety razor — an early Valentine’s gift from Lois.

The razor is a beaut red, handcrafted by Ralph Sears at www.justwriteink.ca. The razor ranks right up there with my fountain pen and roller ball pen.

Today I’m clean shaven. This awesome little razor did what I expected it to do and I only suffered one small nick.

Poles apart

Zyon in his playground, The warm black sands of Fitzroy Beach, New Plymouth, New Zealand

I sit  in my little Calgary, Alberta,

George and Eleanor in their playground at Patricia, Alberta. (Not today)

room with vivid memories of six months in Antarctica some 50 years ago.

 Not a lot of difference today when I woke to -38 degrees and expected daytime highs close to the -30 mark.

 Move north to New Zealand from the polar memory and I find my great grandson Zyon (4) on a sandy surf beach in the mid to high teens. (It’s tomorrow there). 

Travel a couple of hours east from where I am now and we find our great grandkids George (3) and Eleanor (1) bundled in their world on a recent day.

Poles apart maybe, yet totally connected in a flash through the magic of internet: we can see, hear, or read about each other in second. Gotta love it.