Torris Travels

Torris Travels

0 comment Sunday, April 20, 2014 |
Dear Mom, Just finished baking a whole lot of your gingersnap cookies this afternoon, only about the fourth time in ten years that I�ve managed to do any kind of Christmas baking. In the lean years � and by that I mean the years when I haven�t been able to get my act together enough to do more than presents, turkey and tree � I missed the gingersnaps the most. And it felt a bit like I was letting everybody down, although Eldest Son certainly didn�t mind. He might have loved them as much as his siblings had I not eaten my way through an entire bowl of uncooked dough back when I was breast-feeding him. I kept getting interrupted just when I was about to roll and bake them, and the bowl sat in the fridge for a couple of days. Gradually emptying, spoonful by raw spoonful. Poor kid � no wonder he has an aversion to ginger. But the rest of us love your recipe, which was your mother�s before that. Ginger chews they are really, so long as they�re not left in the oven long enough to crisp. Now the oversized cookie jar is full to the brim, and what wouldn�t fit in there has gone into a Christmas box for the neighbours. I pray that I�ll be able to leave them alone, but the jar is see-through glass and I might have to put it in the basement until Christmas Day, just to get it out of my peripheral vision. Mom, you�d probably look askance at the tree we�ve got this year. It�s a nice enough little thing, reasonably full and not dropping any needles yet, but the decorations went up in record time and frankly, it shows. Your trees were always beautiful, so artfully arranged, with reflective orbs suspended just so over the lights for maximum effect. I remember the year that Dad got fed up with your tree-trimming instructions (interference, he called it) and, in a fit of uncharacteristic exasperation, took handfuls of tinsel and just threw them at the tree. I was the only person who thought that was funny. Our tree is a happy medium between perfectionism and random tinsel-tossing although maybe just once, some year when I don�t also have to produce dinner or wrap presents. I�ll decorate a tree all in blue and silver, or red and gold. My kids would be disappointed by such loveliness, though. Many of our best decorations were hand-made by the craftiest woman in the family and even if they don�t shine, they mean a lot to us. But back to those cookies, Mom. The recipe says that 12 teaspoons of ginger, 8 cups of flour and 1/2 cup each of molasses and golden syrup will make, along with the other essential ingredients, 20 dozen cookies. I only got about 14 out of it, and I didn�t roll them in sugar either. It�s a new world, Mom. People watch their weight now, although the stats say that we�re more overweight than ever. As it is, I�m damn lucky I got Dad�s metabolism, otherwise I�d weigh about three thousand pounds. Unlike a penchant for sewing, the gift for turning out delicious cakes and cookies didn�t skip a generation. While you were precision itself in the making of blazers and other complex garments, I was of the 'Make-It-Tonight� school of tailoring and your granddaughter would be hard pressed to even hem a pair of jeans. She is, however, a baker extraordinaire. Dessert on Christmas Eve will her offering, and if you were here to sup with us, you�d be asking for seconds. Not to be confused with the Eating Contest that seems to have become a tradition among the younger set at Christmas, the appeal of which is utterly lost on me. All I can think of is that Japanese kid who makes a living, revoltingly, out of stuffing himself. We�ll be about ten around the table tomorrow night, a nearly two-fold increase from the years when you were still with us. Christmas was always too quiet, despite the eight cousins and their progeny who lived within shouting distance. The great divide between you and their mother had a spill-over effect on the rest of us, although the real reason might be the merciless teasing visited on my eight-year-old self by the eldest one. And I always suspected that they liked their other cousins - the ones that weren�t related to me - better. If Dad�s brother hadn�t gone and married your lovely younger sister, I would have had some cousins all to myself too. The recipe box is a treasure trove of memories, and I have fun looking through it. There�s your 'Never Fail Pastry�, written in a younger hand, the 60s 'Festive Mulled Wine�, and the perennial favourite: 'Rhoda�s Cheese Balls�. Those got made last night and slung in the freezer right away. The only way I can control my appetite for salty, savoury things like that is to put them out of sight and hope they stay out of mind. You know, Mom, I�m basically an atheist. All that stuff about life-ever-after is just nonsense, if you ask me. When you�re done, you�re done, and whoever is left behind better just get on with it. But still, I find myself talking to you in my head, and wondering if I�m getting through to you. That�s what happened this afternoon, while I was rolling those fourteen dozen cookies. Telling you that, despite the down-market Christmas tree, you�d be pretty pleased to know that I still make your ginger cookies and that I love the fact that the recipe is in your handwriting. I never understood why you thought your writing was messy and childish. It�s perfectly legible and absolutely you. It�s also the last tangible connection I have with you and helped me make-believe that you really were in my kitchen this afternoon, with the sun pouring through the window and carols playing on the radio. Merry Christmas, Mom. Miss you. Love you. Your daughter

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0 comment Friday, April 18, 2014 |
A couple of weeks ago I suggested to my faraway cousin Kathryn that she get a Facebook account so we could keep in closer touch. Her reaction was lukewarm. Both of her almost-grown children were on it and she knew enough about the tell-almost-all atmosphere of social networking sites to know that she�d probably be faced with things she�d rather not know. "And they might not want me to be there either, which would be hard to take."
I had resisted Facebook for quite a while too, mostly since it seemed pointless for a relative introvert who had only three friends in high school and didn't go to university. My offspring were old hands at Facebooking but from my point of view, online socializing made for pretty superficial relationships. Then there�s all those privacy issues, and don�t even get me started on what a time-waster it is. Seeing my daughter absorbed in Facebook at midnight when she had an exam in the morning took all the self-control I had not to pull the plug on the internet.
But I�m not always around my children. In fact, I�m away from them more often than not, living on the other side of the ocean while they lead independent lives, working and studying, partying, snowboarding, jamming in the basement with friends. MSN has always been my communication mode of choice but instant messaging is dependent on physical availability, and I�ve spent a lot of time waiting and hoping for signs of life eight hours behind me.
And sometimes real-time chats are a bit like pulling teeth, especially with my biggest son whose tolerance for extended communication via keyboard is seriously limited. Around the two-minute mark in a conversation, he invariably needs to have an immediate shower, go to the gym or make something to eat. I got worried that we would soon be out of each other�s orbit altogether.
But when my daughter came back from Asia with hundreds of photos and uploaded the best to her Facebook page, I began to think there might be a point after all to having my own account. If we were FB friends, then I could enjoy her pictures right away without having to remind her for weeks to email me 'just a few, please?�
So I climbed on. Within a week I had collected a whole six friends� half of whom were my own kids. I got to see the Asia pictures, and then spent some time wandering around other people�s pages. It turned out to be kind of fun � in a voyeuristic sort of way � to read the wall posts about last night�s party, the latest travel adventures or the best strategy for a better grade in that Friday morning Geomorphology class.
Pretty soon I was checking at least half a dozen times a day to see what was new and who said what to whom. Then a couple of my own kids� childhood friends�people who had been around our dinner table countless times and whose knees I had bandaged � sent me friend invitations. I was flattered, but wasn�t that a little bit weird? Why would they want to share their stuff with a buddy�s middle-aged mom? My son told me that I was the one being weird and to just accept, already.
I got some invitations that I didn�t know what to do with from people I rarely saw and had nothing in common with. My daughter's advice was to just ignore them but I worried that my silence might seem rude. She rolled her eyes. Anybody who took Facebook seriously enough to be offended by a non-response was, in her view, in serious need of therapy. My sons just looked at me like they do when I really don�t get it. Wasn`t that the point of Facebook? More is better, right?
To my amazement, my octogenarian aunt joined up and asked my kids if she could be their friend too. This woman is like a second mother to me, but my children barely know her. What a windfall!! Now distance didn�t matter � they could all get to know each other and do some family bonding without waiting for a funeral or a wedding. I worried a bit about her seeing the photographic evidence of my offspring�s lifestyles � never mind the language they use sometimes � but she�s cool about most things.
"So give me a good reason!" said Kathryn. Well, because Facebook is like a virtual kitchen. It�s the place where kids and friends collect � even if briefly � and almost always leave behind a little something of themselves. Most of the time I hang around on the periphery, enjoying the humour, the smart-ass remarks and the obscure references to things I know nothing about. But more importantly, I�m also privy to nuggets of information that sometimes reveal how they view themselves and others and if life is treating them well � or not. How fun that camping trip was. How they need a new place to live at the end of the month. How great the job is. How it�s time bite the bullet and go back to school.
The kitchen is the perfect place to be an observer; it�s where you�re welcome in the lives of a younger generation as long as judgment and intrusion aren�t part of your act. My virtual kitchen allows me the contact I wouldn�t otherwise have considering how far apart we all are. An affectionate eavesdropper, I pick up littered scraps of news and conversation and drop in my own bits now and then, anticipating that somebody will have something to say in return. I�m rarely disappointed.
Actually, it�s almost as good as the real thing, although I really wish somebody would develop a decent hug application.

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0 comment Thursday, April 17, 2014 |
We are on the final approach to Brussels airport, and my seat belt has been securely fastened the whole way. If my only clue to the nationality of this airline was the 'st�, I�d say it was British. And it is. If ever you want to zoom around Europe for next-to-nothing, Easyjet is the way to go. (Shameless promotion of an airline in which I do not have shares.) From the air, Belgium is a harvest vegetable stew of oranges, reds and yellows on a green backdrop. With few exceptions, vivid fall colours are missing from the autumn landscape in the south-east of France, which stays pretty much green all year round. I miss the definition of the seasons by colour and temperature, although this is only a mild complaint! - anyone lucky enough to live in Provence has no business moaning about anything. From a few thousand feet up, the villages look like they belong to that toy train set my older brothers never let me play with; their matchbox houses built of brick, with steep-pitched roofs. Why is that? There�s no snow to slide off them in winter, so perhaps it�s because of the extra room gained under the eaves. It all reminds me a bit of England, but prettier and less dense. We are picked up at the airport by a welcoming party of two of my Favourite Belgian's children, some grandsons, and a son-in-law who whisk us away to the coastal town of Oostduinkerke to spend the weekend. All of Brussels is on the highway heading west, it seems. High-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic is not something I'll ever get used to, although it's the norm in the densely-populated countries of Europe, whose citizenry heads en masse for the sea, the mountains or the countryside on their days off. Belgium is the Canada of Europe, according to me. To the south is a much bigger, more powerful neighbour with a voice that carries, if not around the world, then at least around Europe. Like Canada, it is a country of two cultures and languages - French and Flemish - that struggle for supremacy against a backdrop of sometimes-bitter history. The level of concession is astonishingly low � if you live in a Flemish-speaking commune but are a Francophone, you�re sunk. All administrative business is conducted in Flemish and you have no right to put so much as a For Sale sign on your lawn in anything other than the official language. Shopkeepers, even those who speak French, are known to refuse to serve French-speakers. The Flamands, chafing from old injustices and an inferiority complex, are known for their refusal to accommodate the Walloons - French-speaking southerners - who are viewed through a historical lens as aristocrats unwilling to acknowledge the linguistic and economic clout of their northern neighbours. Brussels is caught in the middle. As the capital of Belgium and the capital of Flanders, it is a distinct region in its own right and recognizes both French and Flemish as official languages, although only a small minority speak Flemish. French-speakers account for well over half of the population, with the rest taken up by the multitudinous languages of Brussels� international community, the result of both the European Union and NATO being headquartered here. The city is wonderfully cosmopolitan as well as being very attractive, and is at the top of my favourite-cities list. Despite their deep political divisions, Belgians are viewed as friendly, welcoming people with a reputation for unpretentiousness. Like my Quebecois compatriots, they move to the familiar tu more readily than the French. They have a reputation as peace-brokers and negotiators, take no major stands on the international scene, do no sabre-rattling and generally go about their business with a minimum of fuss. Ignoring, for the moment, that they have been unable for months to achieve the necessary compromise to install a functional government acceptable to both sides, Belgium is nevertheless a place that exudes calm, prosperity and efficiency. It's a fascinating place from an architectural point of view. An architect or urban planner would able to explain to me how the Belgians manage to create a sense of uniformity while remaining highly individualistic in their building and house construction, but what comes across to this visitor is a very pleasing originality in which the unexpected is entirely expected. Stone, bricStone, brick and wood are common materials, but what the Belgians do with them is limited only by their considerable imagination. To be expected, of course, of the birthplace of the surrealist René Magritte. On this mild November long weekend, the tidy town is filled with couples, dogs and children strolling the esplanade and the vast, hard-packed beaches. Even at thisEven at this time of year, the outdoor seating areas of the restaurants lining the esplanade are full, their patrons swathed in woollen scarves. Most places offer the Belgian specialties of mussels and fries, or waffles loaded with whipped cream and chocolate. My preference is for le gaufre Bruxellois, a lighter-than-air waffle made with yeast. Its Liège counterpart is heavier, sweeter and irregularly-shaped � both are scrumptious and the variety of toppings nearly limitless. Apart from waffles (and chocolate!), the Belgians are known for their hundreds of varieties of beer and a peculiar habit of eating fries with mayonnaise. Last year when we were here in September, I was lucky enough to catch an unusual sight. There are fewer than a dozen fishermen left along the North Sea who practice the 500-year-old tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback. A net attached to two planks is pulled through the surf behind the horse, catching shrimp and other fish. On my On my bucket list is a horseback ride along a beach like this one, but the older I get the less likely it is to happen. Remember that scene in The Black Stallion, when the boy finally gains the trust of the horse and clambers aboard to canter through the surf? It chokes me up just thinking about it. This weekend holiday at the coast is a lapsed family tradition, renewed in recent years. My FB � the patriarch � has three children from two marriages, and his lovely daughter�s two sons each have their own dad. The French word for a family like this is recomposée, which seems a bit more realistic than 'blended'. I am the only non-Francophone in the mix and the conversation between the younger ones often goes too fast for me to take in everything, but I never feel excluded. They have been warm and welcoming of me from the start. We spend Saturday evening playing cards, making origami figures and watching movies projected onto a lovely old damask tablecloth stuck to the wall, but mid-viewing the duct tape gives way and the screen puddles gracefully to the floor. No matter - we don't mind Nicholas Cage on a cinder-block background. The second day dawns overcast but blooms into sunshine by late morning, perfect for another long beach walk. When I first spotted this little fellow, he had his underwear on, but eventually ended up with nothing at all, much to everyone's amusement. eventually ended up with nothing on at all, to his well-wrapped mother's amusement. Other than us, he and his well-wrapped mother were the only French-speakers we heard in two days in Oostduinkerke. Had to take a spin on a cuistax (from cuisse meaning 'thigh� and tax for 'taxi�) along the esplanade. Every imaginable kind of these wheeled vehicles is available for rent, and I try out a low-slung recumbent tricycle that steers by body lean. After about thirty yards my legs are in agony, but it's more fun than a step machine. I�m dying to try out the bungy swing/jump with my FB�s daughter, but we�re turned down for being too grown-up! Very disappointing � just when I had worked up enough nerve to make a fool of myself. We finish off the day with a fine meal � huge bowls full of steaming, garlicky mussels for the initiated and an excellent steak for me. Next morning we head back to Brussels, with a stop along the way in Ghent, where the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was put to an official end. The first mechanical weaving machine was also built here, and as a result Ghent became an important centre for the wool industry. A turbulent history saw the city traded back and forth between the Romans and the Franks as well as the Spanish, French and Austrians but these days it is resolutely Flemish. Were it not for the electric tram and the street signs, one could well imagine being transported back into the Middle Ages. I also noticed, not for the first time, how well put-together people generally are. Women do not wear running shoes with ill-fitting jeans. Or ski jackets. Or, god forbid, sweats. Dinner on our last night is put on by my FB's son-in-law, whose skills in the kitchen are second to none. Here is Mario's 'Roulade Paupiettes de Volaille� - too good not to share. Ingredients: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Cream cheese, about 1 � Tbsp per chicken breast. (If you can get French cheese, so much the better, otherwise Philadelphia will do.) Sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (1 per chicken breast) Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese seasoning) Orange zest (optional but adds that little je ne sais quoi that distinguishes a chef from a mere cook) Directions: Place wax paper over opened chicken breasts and flatten with a meat mallet. Mix cream cheese with tomatoes and a feeling of Shichimi Togarashi. (A feeling � pronounced with a French accent � is Mario�s equivalent of 'a bit more than a pinch�) Spread cream cheese mixture on one half of chicken breast. Roll breast, securing with toothpick. Brush lightly with cooking oil. Finish with a sprinkle of orange zest over breasts. Bake at 400F (200C) for about 20 minutes or until cooked through. Serve with oven-roasted potato slices or risotto. Or whatever you like � it�s absolutely delicious no matter what you eat with it. I have no pictures of it, but your imagination can manage something, I�m sure. I'll leave you with a few more Belgian specialities, although my tastes run simpler than these extravagant confections. They're a bit like baked-good version of George Clooney - awfully nice to look at, but out of my league.

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0 comment Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |
In the summer of 1978, I was 24 years old and living more or less happily with my boyfriend in a subsidized apartment just off the ninth hole of the municipal golf course. The rent might have been cheap but the view was million-dollar, extending due east over the rolling greens to the shiny skyscrapers of downtown. In the winter the sunrises were gorgeous, and I presumed, without any personal experience, that the same was true for summer. My kitchen walls were covered in bright floral wallpaper and the tangerine couch in the living room was a hand-me-down from my mother, whose zest for colour turned the suburban bungalow of my childhood from white to pink, then turquoise before finally settling on bright yellow.
I sewed my own clothes from McCall's patterns ('Make it Tonight, Wear it Tomorrow!'), was nice to my neighbours and called my mother at least once a day. I took in a stray cat, was good at my job � good enough to be promoted to Manager until it was discovered that managing the office and managing my arrival time were two separate skill sets � and went to the library once a week, on average. If occasionally I gave crazy drivers the finger or got a warning to pay my overdue heating bill, it wasn't because I was a bad person.
So when a knock at the door one evening interrupted our dinner, I was a little surprised to find two cops standing in the hallway. They eyed me sceptically,
"Deborah Soooodoool?"
"Sudul. It rhymes with poodle. And noodle."
"Oh, we're in the right place then." They both laughed. "We were expecting somebody East Indian." There was really nothing to say to that, so I laughed along with them.
"Looks like you've got a few parking tickets outstanding," said the red-headed one. He looked at a paper in his hand. "Well, more than a few. Nineteen, actually, as of the beginning of this year. Would that be right?"
Well, damn, that would be right.
When the weather was fine, I rode my motorcycle to work because it was fun and cheap and because there was a little space where I could leave it for free behind the office. But when it turned wet or cold, I took the car and played hide and seek with the parking cops, ducking out of the office every few hours to move the car or plug the meter with a couple of quarters. At least twice a month I'd find a ticket under the windshield wiper. The best thing about that was that if I left it there, I was good for the rest of the day. Procrastination ran interference with my best intentions, and tossing the ticket in the glove box put off the annoyance and financial pain of putting a cheque in the mail. It also made it easier to forget.
The two cops seemed to be waiting for me to do something. "Maybe you'd like to get your purse?" the redhead prompted.
"Pardon me?"
"You might want to have that with you when you come downtown. This," he waved the paper at me, "is a warrant for your arrest. ""
He couldn't be serious. I started to laugh, in that hiccup-py kind of way you do when it's involuntary and inappropriate.
The boyfriend offered up some reasonable points about wasted taxpayer money and having bigger fish to fry. We all agreed that this attention on me and my tickets was ridiculous and laughed together as one. I was almost convinced that this jollity would put an end to the whole thing and I could go back to my supper. What it actually meant was that I found myself in the back seat of a police cruiser without any inside door handles.
I hoped my neighbours were blind or completely incurious and slunk down as we drove off, only to stop a few blocks away at a house where a woman was mowing the lawn. Red and his partner got out to talk to her but soon enough, they came back to the car and she resumed her mowing. Red volunteered that she too had a bunch of unpaid fines.
"But she swears that she paid them all yesterday. " He rolled his eyes. "Now, if you'd told us that, we would have given you the benefit of the doubt," he said, helpfully, "at least until tomorrow. I'd put ten bucks on her being at city hall paying them first thing in the morning."
"Really," I said.
It was a windy evening and on the way downtown a big gust blew through the car, scattering papers out the window and over six lanes of traffic, which I took to be a direct intervention from Above. Red's partner threw on the brakes and they both jumped out to chase after their errant paperwork, while I crossed my fingers that the one with my name on it would get sucked into an updraft. Red's triumphant face told me it had not.
We pulled up in the alley behind the police station. The back door had none of the 'Serve and Protect' PR of the public entrance and I started to feel a bit sick. Red brought out a pair of handcuffs � "It's just standard procedure, nothing personal" � and only reluctantly relented when I promised him I'd go along peaceably. Riding up to the fourth floor in an elevator smelling of pee sucked the last bit of humour out of me and when the doors opened to a room full of cops and Red crowing, "Look who we've got!", I thought I might die.
The woman behind the thick glass partition itemized the contents of my purse and when I balked at giving her my scarf, said drily, "We don't want you to hang yourself, honey." Bail was set at $75. I called the boyfriend, who didn't have the cash. The only good thing about that was that I'd already used up my one phone call and it was he who had to call my mother. I didn't know which was worse � being in jail, or being a disappointment.
I was frisked by a matron who clucked disapprovingly over the reason for my visit and led me to a big cell holding half a dozen women, most of whom seemed to be under the influence of substances I generally avoided. Matron took pity on me when I started to cry and put me in a single cell instead, with a sink, a toilet with no seat and a mattress I didn't dare sit on. Smoking was allowed, but I had to make an official request for a light.
After four hours of solitary confinement that felt like twenty-four, my bail was finally processed, but not before I had re-examined my attitudes about the nature of crime and punishment. From the other side of the fence, it seemed like a silly idea to put procrastinators like me, or for that matter, anybody who hadn't actually hurt anyone, in jail. Fraudsters, vandals, petty thieves � surely society would be better served if these people did something useful like painting a community centre or reading to the blind. After reimbursing their victims, of course.
But I have to admit that my time in the slammer made me resolve to do better. I vowed to get up early enough to take the bus to work. To stop procrastinating � about everything. To use the glove box only for Kleenex and the tire pressure gauge. And failing that, to always have bail in my pocket.

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0 comment Tuesday, April 15, 2014 |
Mark Kerstetter, whose blog 'Le Bricoleur� makes me think and gives me opportunity to learn like no other, rather surprisingly tagged me in one of his posts last week. Surprisingly, because we don�t know each other that well, but that�s also the point of these things, I figure. But I�m happy that he did that, which is quite appropriate, because he tagged me to write about what makes me happy. And therein, for a while, lay a problem. Being an honest, rather than an inventive writer, I felt a certain pressure to come up something true, in fact, in order to get more than a few hundred words out of it, I had to come up with several true things. So for a few days I have been examining the nature of happiness as I see it, wondering what it is that I can honestly say makes me happy, as opposed to satisfied, or excited, or just pleasurably affected. It�s a spectrum, of course. On one end�the most readily identifiable one�is ecstasy. On the other, milder end is contentment. Somewhere in the middle are pleasure, delight, appreciation�here I reach for my synonym finder�joy, bliss, jubilance, enjoyment, enchantment and so on. Oh, and there�s the 'new shoes� feeling, an expression my mother came up with that describes the delight that comes from the anticipation of, or the unexpected receipt of something really pleasurable. If getting a new pair of shoes was an uncommon event for you as a kid, you�ll understand this. Normally, ecstasy would be a hard one to start with, perhaps because it is often associated�in romance novels, at least�with things personal or possibly even illegal. But my most recent and memorable ecstatic experience happened in a gymnasium where at least 300 other people were in attendance. A son, a basketball game, a pinnacle of achievement, a moment that every other moment in a life seemed to have been heading towards�all those elements coincided to propel me into an ecstasy that still resonates almost a year later. To synthesize it, seeing my children succeed in reaching their goals makes me very happy indeed. Playing certain music on a good piano also brings me to the point of ecstasy. Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Rachmaninoff are among those composers who wrote the kind of music that lights up a certain part of my brain, and on the rare occasion that I can decently acquit myself from beginning to end of a piece, I am filled with a pleasure like no other. I don�t have to be the original brilliance behind it�it�s enough that I can reproduce it, in my fashion. Being around the dinner table with my kids�listening to how they talk to each other, laughing with them, seeing how much they enjoy being together�ranks pretty high on my happiness index. Almost everything to do with my kids makes me happy, but I particularly enjoy how they make each other laugh. And that they take each other out for breakfast. Having a project. Being useful and productive satisfies and gratifies me and fills me with authentic contentment, especially if the successful completion of a project involved a challenge or required some hard-core problem-solving. In fact, problem-solving all on its own gives me enormous pleasure, because I know that if I keep at it long enough, and am able to free my mind to find a solution, I�ll almost always come up with one. Making my lover laugh. He is a quiet and serious man, whose sense of humour is intact but not very close to the surface. I associate laughter with love, and of course with happiness too, so making him laugh means he loves me, that I make him happy, and then I�m happy because he�s happy. Making him laugh is also a bit like having a project with a challenge attached, so I get twice the bang for my buck. I haven�t ever made him snort with laughter, but I haven�t given up. One day. Being in my own space. For much of the time, I live in a comfortable, pretty house in a part of the world that is particularly beautiful and that many would consider romantic. I don�t take any of that for granted, but there is very little in the house that speaks to my taste or history, and there are many remnants of another important relationship. When I open the door to my very own, modest house in an un-special city half a world away, I am suffused with a contentment that has its roots in belonging, security and the very non-Zen principle of ownership. An excellent book. I can�t imagine not being a reader and think that anyone who isn�t one misses out on one of life�s greatest, most accessible pleasures. Graceful writing, a clever plot, compelling characters �this is guaranteed happiness in a package. I recently picked up 67 of them at a used-book sale and had a smile on my face for days. The natural world. I am not a committed and steadfast friend of the Earth by a long shot, but the Rocky Mountains at sunset or a full moon in October or the fresh green of newly-leafed trees in spring lights up that part of my brain right next to the Debussy one. Foggy mornings, fat Christmas-style snowflakes falling thickly, the sound of surf at night, the spectacular show of Northern lights in August and the liquid evening song of robins also all fill me with delight. Connecting with people. Talking with them, learning from them. Discovering their stories. Blogging, which started out as a way just to make myself write more regularly, allows me to do all that. It has, in fact, changed my daily life considerably and for the better. For all these reasons, it makes me happy. I thought the list would be short, because everything on it had to be demonstrably true, but the more I write, the more I find. A really clean kitchen, for instance. Watching the cat chase butterflies. The sight of that serious man as he rises from our bed in the morning. But that�s enough for now. So thank you, Mark, for giving me the chance to say all this, and the invitation now goes back across the Atlantic to Christopher in New York City, where I hope he�ll give his views on what does it for him.

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0 comment Sunday, April 13, 2014 |
The letter below was written this week by an English teacher who has lived in Japan for the last decade. I do not know what her nationality is, or even who she is. I�m not even sure the writer is female, although I suspect that is the case. As happens with emails that get forwarded and re-forwarded, the provenance is difficult to establish, although I have tried. It is the first-person accounts of what Japan and her people are facing that I have found to be the most moving, and for that reason wanted to share this with you. Update: Thanks to Dan Baker, the first commenter on this post, I now know that American Anne Thomas is the author of the letter. Read her reports from Japan on her blog. *************************************************************************************************************************** Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,
First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all. But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.
Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend's home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.
During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs
and buckets.
Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, "Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another."
Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.
We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on. But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not. No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire
group. There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking their dogs. All happening at the same time.
Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No cars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled. The mountains are Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them silhouetted against the sky magnificently.
And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no. They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is better off than others. Last night my friend's husband came in from the country, bringing food and water. Blessed again. Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.
Thank you again for your care and Love of me,
With Love in return, to you all.

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0 comment Saturday, April 12, 2014 |
The day after I saw my mother for the last time, I picked up the novel 'Still Alice�, the story of a Harvard professor overtaken by early-onset Alzheimer�s disease. The author, Lisa Genova � who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard � writes skilfully and knowledgeably of the gradual decline of Alice�s cognitive functions, her distress at and denial of the diagnosis, her attempts to cover up her illness and ultimately, her acceptance of the disease. It is a powerful story, sympathetically and realistically told, and insomuch as it is possible, allows someone with a healthy brain to imagine what it would be like to have one that malfunctions so badly. Dementia defies understanding from any other perspective than an observation of symptoms. When my mother�whose Alzheimer�s began in her late seventies�talked about her toy dog in terms that left no doubt she thought it was real, I could see evidence of her dementia, but I simply could not imagine the thought processes that would allow her to look at a stuffed toy and perceive it as alive. I had first noticed changes in my mother after she had undergone back surgery that had meant being under anaesthesia for nearly eight hours. She seemed different, but I couldn�t really put my finger on any specific behaviour or symptom. I put it down to the trauma of surgery and expected that she would be more 'herself� once she had fully recovered from her ordeal. But it never happened. Physically, she regained her mobility and took up most of her former activities, but her behaviour was slightly off. Her decisions weren�t always reasonable and at times, her perspective seemed a bit skewed. She became obsessed with order. She had always been someone who liked organization; her filing system for the thousands of slides pictures she had taken was legendary and every tin of food that went into her cupboard was marked with the date of purchase, so this behaviour seemed in keeping with her personality�at first. Even in retrospect it was impossible to pinpoint the moment when these habits of a lifetime began to take on an obsessive nature�when her judgement about what was necessary and reasonable began to fray around the edges. As the only one of her three children to live in the same city, I saw my mother more often than the rest of the family and was, in consequence, the only witness to the odd behaviours that began to raise occasional red flags. I never once considered Alzheimer�s as the reason for her failings. She was just getting old and I assumed, without any substantive evidence, that the various surgeries (and accompanying anaesthetics) she had undergone over the last few years had had a cumulative effect. (There is discussion in the medical community about the link between certain anaesthetics and dementia.) But there was no history of dementia in her family that we knew of, and both of her parents had lived into their nineties, sharp as tacks to the end. I became concerned about her safety on the road and on the advice of her physician, convinced her to take a computerized test that would assess not just her driving skills and reaction times, but her decision-making ability. She failed it resoundingly. A backlog of bills, receipts and important letters had accumulated on her desk, and when I offered to help her organize them it was obvious from watching her endlessly sorting and re-sorting a pile of credit card receipts that she simply didn�t know what to do with them. At that moment, bigger bells began to go off. This could no longer be considered a normal, inevitable loss of mental acuity�this was big-time confusion. But Alzheimer�s was still not on my radar. Something was up with Mom, but it wasn�t that bad. She took some cognitive tests at her next doctor�s appointment and passed them easily. The doctor explained the effect that vascular ill-health could have on her brain function, and Mom indicated she understood the information, although she didn�t ask her usual pointed, pertinent questions. She agreed to a more comprehensive cognitive exam, but the day before she was to take it, she phoned to cancel the appointment. In the face of her spirited denial that there was anything wrong, it would have been cruel to insist that she go, and I let it drop. But I did have a stiff talk with her�feeling awful for doing it�but certain that she could and would face the reality that living alone and looking after a house and garden were too much to cope with. I wasn�t sure I would always be living in the same city and available to help out, I told her, and for her own safety and well-being, she should consider an alternative. She listened, saying nothing, but defiance and fear were written on her face. Three days later she called my eldest brother to announce that she wanted to move to the west coast to be near him and would he find her a place to live? She appeared to be determinedly happy with her decision, but my own children couldn�t understand why she kept saying she was looking forward to 'being with family�. What were they, if not family, they wondered. I didn�t know what to say to them. What I didn�t realize then was that dementia removes the 'filters�, as one family member astutely put it, and that my mother was quite unaware of the inappropriateness of some of the things she said and did. She had always been very decisive, but began to go back on her decisions or forget she had made them. After recovering from the shock of losing her driver�s licence, she gave me her old car as a gift, but two months later demanded that I sell it and give her the proceeds. She suspected the handyman who had come to install a wireless doorbell of deliberately rigging it to go off when no one was there. Even when an entirely logical explanation was found, she remained convinced that it was a plot to drive her mad. She offered me a pile of fireplace wood but when I went to pick it up, angrily accused me of taking it without her permission. After she had moved, she began to see me as an enemy, and would rail against me to family and strangers alike. In an agreement made before anyone realized that she was in the throes of dementia, she made a partial dispersal of her estate to two of her children, but refused to sign the cheque made out to me, convinced that I was plotting to get my hands on her money and determined to cut me out of her will. Money being the tricky topic that it is, my siblings and I did not approach this well, and it created divisions that still exist. It was a terrible time. Despite the mounting evidence, no one in the family saw her behaviour as much more than the intransigence of an elderly person who had always held strong opinions and been occasionally sharp-tongued. She wasn�t the person she had been, but the changes had been relatively subtle at first, and it is hard to overstate the reluctance we all felt to lay the blame on the doorstep of dementia. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to accept. There was, in the initial stages of the disease, far more about Mom that was normal, than otherwise. And given the lack of a definite diagnosis, which we might have had had she been willing to take the cognitive tests, I looked inward for reasons to explain her new hostility to me. There must have been something I had done to make her feel the way she did, to justify her accusations against me. Somehow she must have misinterpreted an action on my part that had struck her as malevolent. Or maybe I just deserved it. By chance, I ran into a high-school friend who related her mother�s increasingly odd and uncharacteristic behaviour, which included hurtful accusations against her daughter. My friend�s extreme distress was compounded by the fact that her father was in complete denial of his wife�s state. By this time, I had been doing some reading about vascular dementia, and the various effects of tiny, undetected strokes, and told her what I knew. It was the first time she had considered that her mother�s antagonistic and paranoid behaviour might have its basis in changes to her brain, and that she might not be at fault for what her mother thought of her. To make matters worse, my mother had always been very adept at covering up her feelings, at presenting a certain image of herself, and was able to maintain this facade until she was well into dementia. The gerontologist/psychiatrist who eventually examined her when things started to get really bad said he had rarely seen anyone so skilled at covering for herself. Several months after the emergence of her extreme suspicion of me, my mother called me in France�it would prove to be the last time she was able to cope with the multiple digits of my number�and carried on a conversation as guileless and cheerful as if she were talking to her best friend. As I listened to her, her voice so apparently normal, so motherly, so absolutely herself, I began to shake uncontrollably, not from anger, but a profound confusion compounded by grief. How could she possibly say the awful things she had, and yet talk to me as though everything was fine? At the time, although I knew something had to be very, very wrong, I couldn�t help but feel betrayed by someone who had once loved all her children unconditionally. It took a casual remark by a staff member at her retirement residence to make me realize that cognitive impairment was what had turned my mother into someone very different. The words had been spoken aloud, and in that illuminating and vastly relieving moment, lifted much of the confusion and blame that I had assigned myself for the past year. Age-related dementia, whether in the form of damage from vascular strokes or Alzheimer�s, is a extremely difficult thing to accept for everyone concerned. Family members who have a regular, up-close-and-personal view of Mom or Dad�s mental evolution may find themselves at odds with siblings who live away, and for whom a weekly telephone call with parents gives no sign that anything is amiss. The symptoms of dementia may come and go, making it even more difficult to establish, and often it feels plainly unfair or exaggerated to put the weighty label of dementia on a loved one�s quirky behaviour or forgetfulness. The central character in Lisa Genova�s story, after an initial denial of her condition, takes the uncommon step to monitor her own mental disintegration by asking herself a series of test questions at regular intervals. She knows that when she can no longer answer these questions correctly, she will be at the edge of an abyss, if not already in it. Her pragmatic approach, born of a sharp intellect and a rational mind, is not typical of most Alzheimer�s victims. Although there have been some well-known figures�notably Charles Bronson and the best-selling author Terry Pratchett�who have made their illness public, and in Mr. Pratchett�s case, opened up his experience of Alzheimer�s to a documentary film-maker, it is an extraordinarily difficult diagnosis for most sufferers to discuss. In a dark corner at the back of my mind�and of my brothers� too, I suspect�is the fear that I will go the way of my mother. But for the sake of my children and my lover, I hope to have the courage and capacity to look Alzheimer�s in the eye if it comes calling. At the very least, our family has seen it first-hand, talked about it openly and become more knowledgeable about it, all of which will better equip us all to deal�potentially�with this awful disease. 'Still Alice� is not only excellent fiction, but provides an essential key to understanding Alzheimer�s�the perspective of the person for whom it is the most devastating. I wish I had read it sooner.

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