Sunday, April 27, 2014

In my mother's house

  My mother throws dinner parties four times a week. Add in three weekly lunch parties, afternoon teas with various friends, and crib at odd hours with the little collection of men my mother has organized to play with her, and it has been a bit like living in a community centre since we moved in to her apartment at the beginning of the month.
    While Mom’s love for social engagements and constant preparation of meals is foreign to me, it’s been quite interesting to see all of it in action after moving in on our return from Honduras.  A lot of the guests are seriously old – last week, a 94-year-old drove over with his 96-year-old friend for tea – but every one of them challenge that stereotype of creaky, bent-back oldsters with nothing to say. They are a saucy, styling, joke-telling, life-appreciating bunch, Mom and all her buddies.
    Soon to be 89, my mother has suffered many blows to her mobility ever since she was hit by a car in a crosswalk 12 years ago. But between her pathological sociability and drive to work harder, harder, harder as if you just might beat that whole aging thing down forever with enough focus, she has figured out how to stay in the game by bringing people to her. She can’t comfortably get out of the apartment as easily as she once did, but no matter because the people now come filing in, carrying their meatloaf and their baked treats and their bottles of wine for sharing.
    Schooled by my mother’s regular declarations of how much she hates gifts of flowers or plants, they now come with pounds of butter, big cans of nuts, boxes of chocolate. Living here these past three weeks has been like constant Christmas, what with all the good food always lying around.
    In return, Mom makes everybody a darn fine meal, typically in the classic meat-potatoes-and-dessert style that those of her age are accustomed to, but with a lot of variety. She knows a thousand ways to serve leftovers. She can stretch a turkey like you can’t believe. A stickler for a good deal, my mother prides herself on managing all this sociability on a mere $6 a day, although she mentioned the other day that she’s soon going to have to adjust that limit higher. Having friends who are constantly coming through the door with something yummy in their hands certainly helps.
    Even as I write this, I've got my laptop squeezed into a corner of the huge dining room table my mother has set for tonight’s 9-person dinner party, and she will soon be nagging me into the TV room so she can adjust the place setting I have pushed into the centre of the table. On Tuesday, she’s having another dinner party for 11. Then there’s the regular Wednesday lunch gig with neighbours she used to live with back at her former apartment, and the regular Thursday night gig with “my boydies,” as she calls the four men who play crib with her regularly.
    I think she’s crazy to be doing it all. But hey, it keeps her happy. It keeps her busy. It keeps her gossiping and telling jokes and having a lot of remember-the-time-when conversations with people she has known for a very long time. Meanwhile, the friends are keeping busy too, having to get into their own kitchens to make something to share at the next gathering and then out the door to eat it. They come carefully through Mom’s apartment door with their walkers and their canes and their crutches, but pretty soon they’re all laughing and maybe forgetting for a little while about that aging body that doesn’t get them around like it used to.
    I think I’m too much of an introvert to be able to follow Mom’s path into healthy aging. But I admire her style. I admire her ability to create a full, rich life in one of the most isolation-prone life stages. I admire her commitment to exhausting herself as testament that she can still kick out the jams.
    And the food’s good.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sex Work Alliance guide to effective consultations with Ottawa

    The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform has just put out an excellent guide for sex workers and allies looking to be more effective in driving legislative change. It's well-written, thorough and well-organized, and while it's focus is decriminalization, the information in the guide would be useful for prompting a change in thinking around any number of issues under federal jurisdiction. It's really a how-to for the engaged citizen.
    This is a big year for sex work law reform in Canada, what with the three key laws around adult, consensual sex work having been struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in December. Those of us who support decriminalization as a step toward increasing safety, respect and dignity for adult sex workers will need to be out there pushing on this issue, because it's not a subject that rests easy with any political party.
     Download the guide here and put it to use in all your advocacy work. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A tire goes flat, a meeting starts: Defining a culture

   I suppose I’ll be comparing here with there for a while yet, even though I’m a big believer in living where you’re at. But just two weeks back, I’m seeing the differences between Honduras and Canada so clearly right now with these newly returned eyes, and it’s pretty interesting to reflect on what’s good and bad in each of our cultures.
     I've come up with a little story that I hope demonstrates what I think is a fundamental difference between the cultures of Canada and Honduras. Here’s the scenario: A person is in a car going down the highway, headed for a morning meeting at 9 a.m. Just the day before, this person fixed their own flat tire, so happens to have a tire iron on the car floor. As they drive along, they pass another person broken down at the side of the road with their own flat tire.
     What I think would happen in Canada: The driver passing by might consider stopping, but would check his or her watch and realize that would make them late for the meeting, and probably get them in trouble with their boss. The driver would also remember advice from somebody or other that no one should ever stop at the side of the road to help a random stranger. And besides, surely the person with the broken-down car would have BCAA or at the very least a cell phone to be able to call somebody else for help. So the passer-by would keep on driving, and the meeting would begin on time.
     What I think would happen in Honduras: Not only would somebody stop to help, but probably three or four more would as well. They would emerge from their cars greeting each other and spend at least 10 minutes joking and talking about this or that. At least two people in the group would discover they were related. Meanwhile, one of the many people who sell tamales, fried-chicken dinners and fruit on the buses would notice a group starting to gather, and would come by to sell them food. They’d buy some, perch here and there along the roadside while sharing food and banter, and eventually they’d patch up the flat tire with whatever was handy and everybody would get on their way.
     Were there anyone among them who had been on their way to a 9 a.m. meeting, that person would have arrived an hour or more late. But a lot of other people would have arrived almost that late to the meeting as well, so in fact he or she wasn’t really late at all. Sometime later, the meeting would get underway.
      There’s good and bad to each scenario. If you’re the driver broken down at the side of the road, nothing could be better than a whole lot of people passing by who want to help, and damn that 9 a.m. meeting start time. But when people don’t arrive at meetings on time, things get sloppy in all kinds of ways. Honduras’s relaxed culture shows its dark side in all its failed systems and inability to control massive social problems. Got to be organized to make all that complex stuff work.
     But there’s something profound lost as well among those who choose organization over human relations. Yes, they end up with one heck of a nice country due to all their collective striving, but there appears to be a kind of drawing inward that comes with cultural prosperity. We help each other in truly meaningful ways, like by paying our taxes and demanding accountable government, but on a day to day basis we're not exactly warm and friendly.
     I feel like our lives are so much more isolated here in Canada. Clearly our cultural style works well for creating quality education and health care, a functioning justice system, great roads and economic stability, but I wonder now if one of the costs might be a loss of human connection.
     I particularly feel it now when I’m in the car, having mostly been stuck with bus travel for the last two years. There was a lot about bus travel that I hated, but the one thing it gives you in a country like Honduras is lots of contact with other people. They’re going to be squeezing onto your seat, stumbling over you, bumping into you, spilling a plate of rice on you and trying to sell you things. I wouldn't want to suggest that much about bus travel in a developing country is fun at the time, but you certainly do get your full quota of human contact.
      Transportation here is so much cleaner, quicker and less risky than it was in Honduras, but it feels so much lonelier. With our windows up and ours cars on the move, we zip around in our solitary little bubbles, in the midst of thousands of people and yet alone.
      Of course, my Honduran acquaintances would love to have the problems I’m mentioning. Everyone driving around on beautifully maintained, wide roads in their own comfy cars, which they can afford because they’re paid a decent wage? Bring it on!
     What they don’t yet know, though, is that when the day comes that their schools are good and they’re making a fair wage and their roads don’t suck and almost everybody’s got their own cars, they just might find themselves rushing off to a meeting one day without even thinking twice about helping somebody broken down at the side of the road.
      Win some. Lose some.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Two different worlds, and something to be said for both of them

Thetis Lake
  I've found myself using the phrase, “And the infrastructure here!” a lot since arriving back on the Island from Honduras, so I guess that must be one of the things that has struck me most now that I am back to the life of a Canadian.
    But in truth, there are so many points of comparison, good and bad. I do like sewage pipes big enough to embrace toilet paper, and water that comes straight out of the tap ready to drink. And the green spaces – well, I’m ecstatic about the green spaces. Honduras has the right climate for amazing public boulevards but at the moment there are hardly any, so just walking along the Gorge appreciating Saanich’s free flower and plant display is a rush for me these days.
    On the downside, people are much less friendly here as they pass each other on the street. I’m really struck by how many people go out of their way to not make eye contact with the passing stranger, or even drop their gaze just at the point where a person might otherwise say, “Hello!” Walking in Honduras was a festival of “Holas!” and “Buenas Tardes!” because everybody greets everybody there. I’m missing that.
    As for that infrastructure, there’s just no comparison. Canadians have some amazing infrastructure. The roads! The signal lights! The beautiful public washrooms! Every day since we arrived last Wednesday, I’ve found myself appreciating some aspect of good old Canadian infrastructure while reflecting on the lack of it in the country I just came from. Not only are the sidewalks wide enough to accommodate walking abreast or even the occasional errant cyclist, they’re even level and well-maintained, and none of them ends in a leg-busting dropoff.
Riverside in a San Pedro slum
     On the downside, I wonder increasingly whether having everything just so nice makes us a bit  tense and cranky as a society. There is a certain tendency here to look for reasons to get angry at people for breaking the rules, and I don’t just mean the tenant in my mom’s apartment building who is currently harassing Mom’s 83-year-old sister and her husband for making too much noise.
    The noise went on and on in Honduras, and I do admit that sometimes I was not happy at all to hear it. There were times where Paul and I couldn’t hear each other inside the house mere metres apart, because there was some car blasting up the street right outside the front of our house.
    But you know, life’s too short for feeling mad at people. Something’s gained and something’s lost when we create a society as controlled as Canada’s. I've learned in this time away that there’s a strange freedom to just giving into the noises of the world around you and letting go of that strange bitterness that can manifest in developed cultures when other people won’t do what we say. At any rate, isn't that why they invented ear plugs?
     My friends and co-workers from Honduras would be awed by this place. Three of them went to Wisconsin for a week during my time there, and they came raving about the highway rest stops and the autumn leaves. Imagine if they saw B.C. I feel like being away for more than two years is letting me see this place of ours through Honduran eyes, and it is a knockout.
    As much as we like to gripe about our governments and our taxes here in Canada, we have been blessed with decades and decades of governments and citizens who have given us the gifts of unbelievable infrastructure, parkland, well-educated children, Medicare, well-paid jobs, old-age security, social support. I have never appreciated Canadian-style government more than during these two years of living in a country that virtually didn’t have a government in any kind of meaningful way. Thank your lucky stars, people.
    We are much older here. I see that in all the faces that look like mine, whereas half of Honduras’s population is under 25. I was always so much older than anyone else in the room when I was meeting with my co-workers or doing just about anything in a group in Honduras; all my co-workers, even my boss in Copan, were young enough to be my kids. Here, people in their 50s and up are the majority. It’s neither good nor bad, just different. Definitely a different energy.
     We have much more money, of course. And much, much more stuff. But I wouldn’t level that as a criticism against Canadians, because I think everyone in Honduras would love to have a life like so many of ours, full of things to buy and money to buy them. (I’m convinced Honduras is ripe for a chain of good second-hand furniture stores with really fair prices, because you would not believe how fast our furniture sold in the days before we left Copan Ruinas last week. I even sold my potted plants.)
    I miss the heat of Honduras. But I love the long days of Victoria. I miss all the dogs that used to ramble around the streets. But it’s nice now to see nothing but fat and happy dogs with healthy fur.
    I don't think I ever would have considered that having dogs rambling around free was fun. But in fact, the practice let me get to know some really special dogs, including the one we brought home with us. Sure, sure, I dream of a world where every dog is a wanted dog. But that’s not to say there isn't a lot of pleasure in just developing relationships with strays and hungry canine neighbours who show up at your door for food and affection.
    People have told me that some of my posts remind them of all the things we have to be grateful of as Canadians. That is so true. Anyone who thinks that less government would be good for the country really ought to get on down to Honduras and just take a look at how that’s going for them. I know more than ever now that good governance and responsible, organized use of public money are absolutely critical to everything. 
    But at the same time, I’d caution against believing that everything is better in Canada.
    Ultimately, Canada is probably the country I would wish for on behalf of my friends in Honduras, because they would love to live like this. They want jobs that pay what they’re worth, health benefits, good schools and opportunities for their kids. They would like to have a 65-kilometre drive on a great road that takes 40 minutes, rather than a bumpy, dangerous and slow weaving trip that takes an hour and three quarters. Just like us, they want their kids to be well-schooled and well set up for a good life. They would go crazy for potable water and incredible internet speeds.
    But now I feel a new connection to another kind of life, too. It’s messy and uncertain, but also compelling and warm, in every sense. It’s a life that reminds you of the sheer persistence of the human race, in the face of all kinds of weirdness and unfortunate developments. There are Hondurans who are actually 100% self-sustaining, and with none of the hullabaloo and fanfare that greet such rare practices in our over-served land.
    On the one hand, I am glad to be from a country that doesn’t let strangers just wander on up to an orphanage and start hanging out with the kids, even taking them to the pool unescorted. On the other, that aspect of our lives in Copan Ruinas, hanging out with the Angelitos Felices children, was an amazing part of our two years there.
    In Honduras, there is no real option except to trust that someone means you no harm, because no one's going to do anything about it anyway. There might be laws or a regulation, but no one is enforcing them. Here, we leave nothing to chance. Those have been two interesting extremes to contemplate.
    So. Get on out there and enjoy a green space you especially like, and think about all those generations before you who did their part to leave you that gift. Take along a water bottle filled straight out of the tap. If you’re a cyclist, look down at that bike lane you’re riding in and think about how something like that didn't just happen. 
    Then put your head up and say hi to whoever passes. We've got a lot of things to be happy for in this country. Smile.

Friday, April 04, 2014

White Dog: The rest of the story

White Dog in my stepson's Vancouver apartment
I've been posting a lot of White Dog updates on Facebook but realized that not everyone who saw my first blog post on her is my Facebook friend and might be wondering how the story ended.
    It ended well. White Dog is now settled in her new home in Cumberland, and judging by the little video I saw yesterday of her bouncing around with my daughter and her family on a Comox Valley beach, settling in quite nicely. And just like childbirth, all the hassle has been forgotten just seeing how happy she is to be here and how happy my family is to have her as their newest addition.
    But that's not to say that anything about the process was easy or cheap. When last I posted, White Dog's tab was at around $1000, which included vet bills to get her ready to come, shipping and pet brokerage fees (expensive!). We got hit with an additional $90 after we arrived in Canada - $30 to the Canada Border Agency and $60 to the company that handles cargo at the Vancouver Airport.
WD in her kennel at the San Pedro cargo area
    We would have incurred even more costs for transport were it not for having good friends with big vehicles. A Kennel 500 is one honking piece of furniture, and we had four seriously big suitcases and an accordion to transport as well because we were leaving the country and packing up what little household goods we had. There were four legs of land transport that would have been difficult and costly had friends not stepped forward to help us out.
     My Honduran boss Merlin Fuentes transported all of us and our luggage to San Pedro Sula from Copan Ruinas, saving us money but more importantly, an unbelievably difficult four-hour bus ride. Another co-worker in San Pedro took us to the airport on the morning of our flight, and patiently drove us around the airport as we looked for the cargo place where we could drop off the dog (which nobody informed us of until the night before).
    While we'd initially thought White Dog would be flown into Victoria along with us, her flight in fact ended in Vancouver, which is apparently as far as the company will take the dog. So then we needed my partner's son Sam to step up and come and get us at the Vancouver Airport at midnight. We didn't get out of there until after 2 a.m. due to an enormous final hassle they saddle you with in which you have to drive back and forth between the cargo area and the airport to get papers stamped by customs and fees paid.
First daffodil experience during a morning walk in Vancouver
    Then we were in Vancouver with no way to get to Victoria. Happily, another friend who happened to be returning to Victoria from the mainland on Wednesday and had a big vehicle stuffed the dog and I in and we came on the ferry. Paul had taken a couple of the bigger bags earlier that morning and made use of one of those two flights we'd paid for to Victoria; we had no choice but to forfeit the other one.  But then my daughter met us at my mom's place in Victoria and White Dog stepped out into her new life, and all was well.  
    She seems invigorated by the cooler temperatures, and I'm sure will be forever grateful that the ticks aren't nearly so relentless in Canada and the municipality doesn't poison dogs on a regular basis. She has a new pal, Angus - my daughter's other dog - and a family with a nice yard and a lot of chicken gizzards to share.
     And it's great to have her here. She's the ultimate Honduran souvenir. I still blush when I think of just how much money we ended up spending to bring her, but let's just consider that water under the bridge. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Sometimes a girl just needs to shop

 I went shopping today, and it made me really happy. Is that wrong? I wouldn't care anyway, that was how good it felt.
   As much as I tried to pretend it wasn't so, Honduras was not a shopping mecca. I struggled with both the styles and the fabrics, and the shape of the clothes just isn't cut for broad-backed, big-shouldered Canadian girls. So when I pulled my bike up to Value Village this afternoon and walked through those familiar glass doors with money in my pocket, I felt something close to euphoria.
   It was one of those days where I had the used-clothing-store golden touch. I even found jeans and shorts. I got 13 stamps on my Value Village card, a promotion I hadn't known existed but was happy to take advantage of. I am no longer feeling completely discouraged by my clothing, and finally threw out the strange red hoodie shirt that always makes me feel depressed when I wear it.
    I rediscovered my silver shoes in the storage locker today, too. I loved digging some of my favourite clothes out of the storage tote, their warm fabrics and funky styles once again important to me in these chillier surroundings. During my Honduras time I was pretty much always overheated and sweaty, so "funky style" hasn't been something I've paid much attention to these past two years. It's good to be considering it again.
    The moral? Don't take easy shopping for granted. There are countries in the world where the fabrics are scratchy, the colours are all wrong, and you forever feel like the friendly giant shopping at the petite store. Today was the best $56 I've spent in a while.