Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Misty Watercoloured Sepia-Toned Glasses

This afternoon, at some point, I had a really great idea for a blog entry. Something I really wanted to discuss with whoever it is that reads this (Hi, Mum!), something a little fun and a little thought provoking.

And then I went to my parent's house for my sister's birthday dinner and was drawn, like the proverbial moth to the flame, to the photo drawer (we've never been the scrapbooking/album making types) and it obliterated every thought I had in my head. And now I don't remember what the hell I was going to tell you about.

(I used to have an incredible memory. When I worked at the opera the first time around, I was like a human back-up disk for our donor database. I could remember donors' postal codes, for pete's sake! And now? Not so much. I really need to start playing those sudoko games or something to sharpen my wits. Except I always forget how they work.)

So, instead, let me tell you about the family photo drawer. I love, no I lurrrrve the photo drawer at my parents house. It's a big, wide, shallow drawer in a huge oak wall-unit that they've had since the late 60s, and it's absolutely stuffed with photographs, negatives and a few boxes of slides. Remember slides? Why was it that sometime in the 70s everyone went to slides? Was it because they were nice and small to store? Because surely to God they didn't come into vogue because finding a place to project them was so much fun. Remember the hum of the slide projecter, and that delicious schlish-click noise as the slides changed? Oh, and the smell of hot dust from the light bulb? Oh, slides.

Anyway, the drawer is full to bursting with photographs, all loosey-goosey, no organization whatsoever, most of them not even labelled. There are lots of black and whites from the 60s when my parents first came to Canada and had a darkroom of their own (the photo-enlarger is still in their basement if anyone's interested), and many of the prints are somewhat curled as I went through a period as a child where I liked to roll them into cylinders, I don't know why. Then there's lots of colour photos from the late 70s/early 80s where the photos have this interesting matte texture. I somehow remember that you could choose whether you wanted them developed in glossy or matte and my mum liked matte because then fingerprints weren't an issue, which was important when your youngest daughter is forever manhandling the photos. There are pictures of my brother's bike races (Ontario Junior Champion at 14, don't you know!) and my mother's art work over the years, pictures of the house in all stages of renovation (two additions, several interior changes and at least two porches built since 1971), pictures of my father and brother building stuff, Christmas pictures, more pictures of the family cats than anyone cares to see (besides me), and way, way too many pictures of my embarrassing haircuts circa 1983-89.

Then there are the millions of vacation photos. Now, in our family, "vacation photos" doesn't mean pictures of people sipping mai-tais at a swim up bar in Cuba. For us, "vacation photos" means picture after picture of buildings and streets and trees and patterns and reflections of light on water and details of textiles in castles (never mind the gilt walls and Meissen tea-service, would you look at these tassels???) and photos of ravens eating our leftover cheesecake on top of a Bavarian mountain, and snow shadows and lichen and pebbles and, on one memorable occasion, my mother's hind end in the air as she picked blueberries on the side of a cliff in Cape Breton. And numerous, dimly lit (and therefore slightly blurry because the film was too slow) pictures of paintings and artifacts in galleries and museums. Our vacation pictures must be incredibly dull for other people to look at, but then, they're never taken with the purpose of showing other people. They're taken by us, for us, to remind us of the little specifics that we hang our family memories on. For example, in the past decade I have been to Dessau twice. Both times, without thinking, I managed to take the same photograph of the same railyard from the same bridge. There's something delightfully old-school DDR about the track/power line arrangement that caught my eye. Twice. But the point is, I didn't take the pictures for your viewing, I took them to remind me, years from now when the former East has been fully spruced up by the German government, of how it used to look.

There are pictures of my parents' relatives, mostly on my mother's side although we do now have a few copies of old pictures from my father's side thanks to my father's cousin in Berlin. Tons of old black & whites (well, sepia-ish, actually) of New Years parties and other celebrations with people I've never even heard of. There are a handful of mystery photos of people we truly never knew that somehow have gotten mixed into our photo drawer. There are baby pictures and wedding pictures and endless class pictures and a few newspaper clippings and the thing is that each one of these artifacts is absolutely, 100% precious to me.

Actually, all old photos, whether they belong to my family or yours, are precious to me. I tend to live in the past, and not necessarily my own past. I don't know why this is, but I've always been this way. I have always loved to listen to my mother's stories about growing up in Berlin during and after WWII, so much so that in many ways her stories have become my stories (stories which I will pass on to anyone who cares to listen, ad nauseum, by the way) and when I go to Berlin I don't see the city as it is, I see it as it was. Which, of course, is impossible as there is no "was" for me in Berlin, but I tell you that's how it is.

(I suspect it's because the past is known. It doesn't move around, it's there to be analysed, dissected, revered and enjoyed. Whereas the future is unknown and I'm not that comfortable with the unknown. The picture above is of me in my favorite place as a very small child, the laundry basket. I liked being in there because I was safe, I could see my mother, and I knew the boundaries. Doesn't that say it all?)

I have always loved reading autobiographies and memoirs, and spent a bizarre (now that I think about it) amount of time as a youngster reading about old Hollywood stars and the studio system when everyone else was reading Bruno & Boots or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Books. I was the 12-year old who knew about Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck and Irving Thalberg and Fatty Arbuckle, for goodness sake. I was a weird kid.

But I digress -- the point is, that really, when it comes right down to it, what I've always loved are stories. Real stories, based on real lives, on what really happened, or at least our interpretation of what really happened. And that's what our photo drawer, and your photo albums or scrapbooks or boxes of slides, are all about. Stories. Tales. Legends. Family. What came before you and what shaped you. This is what I like to know. You.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

Okay, there's not actually a woman-eating clown here. It's just a saying we have in our house. A house which is remarkably clown-free, if not clown-sanitized, because of my husband's complete and utter phobia about them*. In fact, I'd have illustrated this post with clown image (not Gacy, though), but I can't because he reads the blog and I don't want him to connipt right there in front of his computer (we have the fridge magnet, right, so that won't scare him).

Does anyone, actually, really, love a clown? Apparently someone does because the tradition persists and every year countless children are entertained (or terrorized, depending on your viewpoint) by adults in grotesque make-up and ridiculous costumes who insist on playing tricks in the name of Fun! and Whimsy!

The Spec is running its Readers' Choice awards program again and there's actually a category for Best Clown. Admittedly, in this city of 7 hospitals, the people who run around in makeup entertaining patients (the aptly named Clownz on Roundz) are likely performing a wonderful service and lightening the mood in many a ward. But do people actually hire clowns for birthday parties anymore? I want to know. And do the children like them? Or is it just upon reaching adulthood and looking back that you realize the inalienable creepiness of a clown?

(Kate knows a clown. She's even hired said clown for school events. We don't speak of it, though.)

Anyway, I suspect, having spent a pleasant hour this week babysitting a three-year old of my acquaintance, that children probably do like the occasional clown. Playing in the sandbox with the wee man and getting drawn into his intricate game of pretend (Heaven Help You if you fall out of character while playing pretend -- "No, Kara, YOU'RE THE TOW TRUCK!"), I was reminded just how much little people can suspend disbelief. To someone like little N., a clown isn't an adult hiding their humanity behind a sinister mask of greasepaint and pancake, it's just a clown. A silly creature with big feet and droopy drawers and a funny voice. Just like the Cookie Monster (please tell me that kids these days know about Cookie Monster) isn't a puppet on t.v., he's just a big blue thing that likes cookies and sings songs about cookies and says Nom Nom Nom when he eats cookies.

Damn, I wish I could enjoy that kind of innocence again. Sometimes a clown is just a clown.


*He also hates Home Depot and the day he girded loins to shop there and came, unexpectedly, upon a clown in the mailbox aisle is one of my favourite stories.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Guess What I'm Doing This Labour Day Weekend?

I asked Christopher to bring me some roma tomatoes and peaches from Niagara, the tomatoes for saucing and the peaches for freezing.

Being incredibly dumb when it comes to weights and measurements (I caught a fish and it was thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis big), I asked for a bushel of each without realizing just how much fruit that would be.

Guess I'll be spending this Labour Day weekend labouring over the saucepot.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Accidental Gardeners

Remember the film version of Witches of Eastwick? The Cher/Jack Nicholson vehicle, not the new t.v. version with Paul Gross ("Eastwick"). Anyway, you'll remember that the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer played Suki, a local journalist and divorced mum who got pregnant. A lot. At the drop of a hat. And her fertility extended to anything she touched. Especially zucchini. She had zucchini everywhere and in everything.

I don't share the character's fecundity in terms of children, but you might as well call me Suki when it comes to the vegetable patch. The specimen in the picture is not the largest zucchini we've had this summer, but I needed to pick it for dinner tonight and couldn't resist taking a photo.

You do take your life into your own hands when you enter the Veggie Zone at our place, it's a bit of an edible jungle. Our carefully planted and caged heirloom tomato plants? The ones that I actually planted at a decent distance from each other this year? An almost impenetrable, tangled bank of greenery with glints of red and yellow where the fruit hang amongst the leaves. The herb garden? Cilantro, parsley, basil and God knows what else, all well over a foot and a half tall. The couple of sprouty spuds I tossed in for the heck of it? Hefty taters.

But here's the thing: we are terrible gardeners. We operate on the once-it's-planted-it's-on-it's-own principle (I have a hard time remembering the needs of something that can't talk, bark or miaow at me) and our sad houseplants are (un)living proof of our neglect. But, despite this inattention, stuff just grows for us. My mother, an avid gardener who's persevered for decades on a lot cursed with sandy soil and heavy shade to create a lovely jungle, regularly stands in our front yard shaking her head at the sprawling greenstuff around her. For example, there's one purple flowered plant, we have no idea what it is ("It's a Canadian wildflower!" says the Christel), that we've never seen taller than about 20 inches. In our garden? Over 6 feet. The reason someone was able to break into our car and help themselves to our ipod and g.p.s. without the dog noticing? Because it was parked in front of the house and all but invisible through the foliage. Our 70lb dog and 26lb cat can simply disappear into the backyard in an instant, the wiggling leaves and faint sound of Lucy's bell the only hints to their whereabouts.

Of course, it's not actually growing for us. It's the amount of excellent triple-mix we buy every year (Satellite Garden Centre, for those of you in the Hammer area), the amount of sunlight we get on our lot, and my mother's judicious foundation planting. All we contribute is a horticultural aesthetic based on tolerance and ignorance -- "Oh, you mean that's a weed? But it's so pretty!" or "Pruning? Wha?" -- and a belief that time spent on lawncare is time wasted.

Ultimately, though, who cares why the stuff grows, I'm just glad it does. We're already planning for a fourth raised veggie bed in the driveway (this is why we park on the street, our sunny driveway is full of vegetable beds -- yes, we're that kind of eccentric) for next spring and I'm taking notes on how the veggies behaved this summer so I can perhaps keep some kind of control over them next year. Tomatoes growing upside down from buckets have been part of our plans for a few years now, maybe we'll get to them in 2010.

But, then again, who do I think I'm kidding?