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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Flashback to the Summer of '79


Dad and Mom took my sister and me to the Maritimes in 1976. It is a long trip by car, so we planned to leave at 4am to make the most of the day on the road.

I remember waking as soon as I felt Dad’s footfall in my room but I clenched my eyes shut and let him collect me in my blankets, which had been carefully chosen, along with my new cotton pyjamas, for the ride. Already tucked in the pockets of the station wagon were crayons, colouring and puzzle books and a bag of candy for each of us that we had selected from the bins at the B&H grocery the day before. I couldn’t read on the trip because I get carsick, but I had made sure that six of the newest Nancy Drew mysteries were packed in my Barbie suitcase for the holiday.

The sun was just coming up over the treetops of George Street as we snuggled into our carbed and drove away. Dad had planned to arrive at Silver Lake truckstop just as they opened, a little before 6am.

“Best breakfast you’ll ever eat,” he proclaimed. And so it was, but mostly because it was in a restaurant instead of our own kitchen, and we didn’t have to do dishes.

From that trip I remember:
-         -  Collecting shells between the rocks at Peggy’s Cove
-          - Eating lobster for the first time in Shediac, New Brunswick
-          - The beach where my sister stepped on a dead jellyfish and got stung anyway. Dad said she should pee on it to relieve the sting. Today we just take Benadryl.
-         -  A long-haired woman in a leotard doing yoga in the campsite next to ours. She ate yogurt and drove a VW beetle. Mom said she was braless.

At one point on our journey, we rounded a curve and the camper-trailer came right off the back of our station wagon and careened into the ditch. I noticed right away but didn’t say anything at first because I knew it would upset my father. I learned some new swear words on that trip, but not from music. Dad outlawed the radio because they kept playing ‘dirty songs’ like Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me. Instead we listened to the Funny Funkies and Goofy Greats on 8-track cassette. We heard them so many times, we learned the lyrics to every single song. “Ahab the Arab, sheik of the burning sand…Wella wella wella bird bird bird, bird is the word!...Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and a bone in her nose, ho ho!”

After that first trip, camping became a big part of every summer for my family. We would rent a campsite at Bon Echo Provincial Park for the first two weeks of July every year. Every year we reunited with other families who did the same – kids from the Toronto area – mostly boys. Standing on the edge of puberty, barely filling out our bikinis, this was a big deal for my sister and me.

We spent our days staked out on the beach, my ‘ghetto blaster’ playing The Police’s Synchronicity, or we swam across the lake to the cliff, where we climbed up onto a ledge, ate blueberries and dove into the deep, black water to keep cool. Mom knew we would be out all day so she never bothered with lunch but as soon as we returned, ravenous, to the campsite, we snacked on Ritz crackers topped with thin coins of Polish sausage, cheddar cheese and dill pickles. A camper’s charcuterie, if you will.
That held us off while she got dinner on the bbq. We had to have our meal eaten and dishes done by 6pm, when the camp ball game began. My sister and I were not exactly athletic (well maybe she was but I certainly wasn’t). It was all a big social activity.

After ball we headed back to the beach to cool off. With the sun going down the water was smooth as glass. Dad would drive the boat over from the lagoon and back it up to the beach, just outside the swimming ropes. One after another he taught our friends to waterski. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a generous act that was – an expense of time and gas money. He was always a teacher, even on summer holidays.

Now my husband and I rent a cottage for a week each summer, just so I can get back to a lake. As the sun sets I settle in on the screened porch with my book, my beer and my camper’s charcuterie. I close my eyes and listen. A loon is calling. And somewhere, a kid is sitting in the water, balancing huge skis on his feet. A motor revs. “Hit it!”
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Raising the next generation of farmers


I didn’t grow up on a farm. I never imagined myself a farmer…until I fell in love with one. Of our five daughters, only one showed a real interest in the farm. From the age of 15 she was here with us, birthing lambs, taming cows and training a donkey. At least once a week the Farmer had to go out and holler at Annie to put some shoes on. She would be out there barefoot in the barnyard in a bikini top and jean shorts, a baby duck under one arm and a lamb in the other.

Before long we could count on Annie to look after the farm in our absence. She saw things in a very practical way – she didn’t get upset over losses and she celebrated every little achievement, whether it was a healthy calf or a crop of tomatoes.

Annie grew up to have a little farm girl of her own. Leti is fascinated with the rooster next door, the tractor in the shed and the barn cats in the basement. Like me, she can do without the chickens. They peck. The other night Leti was here and the first thing she wanted to do after dinner was head to the barn.

“Well ok, but it’s going to be mucky,” I warned. It had rained quite a bit and the ground was very muddy.

“It’s ok Grandma,” she replied. “I like mucky.”

We got sidetracked on the way to the chickens. The farm equipment was parked in the barn, side by side.

“That’s a tractor,” Leti announced. “And that’s a four-wheeler.”

She studied the third item.

“You cut grass with it,” I hinted.

“Lawn mower!” she exclaimed, climbing aboard the ride-on mower.

She fiddled with the key but didn’t turn it. She jiggled the gear shift and patted the seat, looking behind her as if she was going to reverse out of the barn.

“Let’s do this!” she cried. I laughed.

“Your dad must say that.”

Leti’s dad has her feeding goats and pitching hay. She even went up to her other grandma while she was on her horse and demanded to be pulled up into the saddle. Later we looked at the pictures and I asked her about it.

“That’s Princess,” she said. “I was in the saddle.”

“I see that!” I said. “Were you scared?”

“No. Grandma was there. The horse was hot.” And she changed the subject, going off to look for her golf clubs.

If you are raised on a farm, you are accustomed to early mornings. There are lives in the barn, depending on your waking.

If you are raised on a farm, you live by the weather. Rain or lack of it, sun or lack of it affects everything from your crops to the hay you feed your livestock.

If you are raised on a farm, you know the pleasure and satisfaction of a hard day’s work. You don’t need a gym membership – you just need to get out there and hoe the garden, pitch the hay and muck out the stalls. After working up a sweat, you will appreciate the results of your efforts.

If you are raised on a farm, you know what it means to depend on your neighbours. You rely on them to tell you if they notice something strange – like a brush fire or a flood. You need to keep your relationship in good standing, because your cows might end up on their front lawn some misty morning.

If you are raised on a farm, you have a different outlook on life. You know where your food comes from. You have witnessed births, growth, harvest, and death. Life is less mysterious and startling when you live on a farm. It has a matter-of-fact quality to it, so it does.

A man who works the land has an honesty and integrity about him that is born out of life on the farm. A woman on the farm is in touch with nature and life and the power the earth holds.

We are not guaranteed Leti will be a farmer when she grows up. Maybe she will travel the world and settle in an exotic locale overseas. Maybe she will be drawn to the lights and noise of the city.

But I do know this. When Leti thinks of the comfort and safety of home, she will think of a farm.



Do what you love. Love what you do.


When I was travelling in Germany in the late ‘80s, I noticed an interesting cultural thing that people do there. When you ask someone what they ‘do’, they respond with the thing that they love doing – which isn’t necessarily their job. For example, a bus driver might answer that he plays the guitar. A financial analyst might say that he skis. Or paints. Or makes birdhouses.

It’s possible there was something lost in translation but I found it quite endearing, listening to people describe what they did in life. It’s what they want others to know about them – what they love to do. I guess the trick is to find a way to make a living doing what you love. Most of us are lucky to make enough at a job so that it funds what we love outside of work.

The Kemptville Live Music Festival was a 1980’s high school reunion of sorts – the soundtrack of our adolescent years was blasting from the stage and it seemed as though most of my graduating class had shown up to witness it live and in colour.

At least Facebook is good for something. It helps you to put a name to the faces you no longer recognize, thirty years since the last time you saw them. We drifted around the festival and reconnected and asked each other what we were doing for work, and in life. One girl told me she finally has her ‘big girl’ job – working in a seniors’ home as a recreation coordinator. She said she never imagined she would enjoy working in that environment, but she does. I told her I believe we need more people who love working with seniors to actually be in those roles. Seniors’ homes can always use more quality staff.

For my 50th birthday, my doctor scheduled a list of tests. Happy Birthday to me. Because of blood sugar issues and heart palpitations, I needed bloodwork and an ECG. I was also due for a mammogram and I received a note in the mail saying that if I didn’t pass preliminary testing, I would also be treated to a colonoscopy. I’m at the age where body parts, internal organs and systems start to malfunction and misbehave. My doctor wanted to check me out head to toe. First on the list was a pelvic ultrasound.

I have started a new job downtown Ottawa and I was in the middle of training, so it wasn’t very convenient for me to be taking time off for medical appointments. I tried to get two tests booked for the same day but it just wasn’t possible.

I showed up early for my ultrasound appointment and sat down gingerly in the waiting room (I’m not sure what ginger has to do with it – basically I was sitting uncomfortably). I expected to be waiting for the better part of an hour, as per usual. To my surprise, however, someone popped out to see me within minutes.

The women working in the diagnostic imaging department at Kemptville District Hospital were beyond helpful. They must remember what it feels like to be sitting uncomfortably waiting for these procedures, so they schedule appointments accordingly and do whatever they can to speed things along.

As I sat there marvelling that the nurse featured on the wall poster was actually the same person speaking to me, I saw a note waving in front of my face. The nurse was pointing to my requisition form.

“I see your doctor also wants you to get a mammogram,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, I’m getting a complete list of tests, now that I’m 50…”

“Well why don’t we see if we can get at least two of these done today?” she smiled.
Well I wasn’t expecting that. What a great idea.

When I was in the ultrasound room, the technician worked quickly and efficiently, so I could be released from my misery as soon as possible. The mammogram technician was equally awesome, and funny – which seems to make things easier when you are in such a compromising position. Less than an hour later I was back in my car headed to work.

It’s so nice to see people who really love their jobs – particularly when they are working with the public. Linda, Kayla and Jackie are very good in their respective roles at the hospital, and they make sure things go as smoothly as they can while you are in their care.

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A toady would a wooing go uh huh


A couple of years ago, I had a most horrific experience involving a toad. But first I must say I have always loved toads. I remember collecting handfuls of the tiniest little creatures I have ever seen – each one smaller than a dime – on the south-facing sunny wall of my grandfather’s cottage when I was a child. Many times in my youth I encountered toads in the garden and picked them up to examine their lumps, bumps and kind, smiling eyes.

I didn’t like frogs near as much. They are slimy, they jump out from under your hand a millisecond before you were about to catch them, and their eyes are more cunning than kind.

In Chinese culture, toads are good luck. Many times you will see a large figure of a toad squatting beside the cash register in a Chinese restaurant. It often has a coin in its mouth, signifying wealth and business prosperity.

The magical author Alice Hoffman uses toads in her stories quite often to show that something bad is going to happen. They are warty little harbingers of doom. Well it wasn’t quite doomsday for my toad, but it came close.

I was digging in the cool shade garden by the stone fence when it happened. I stuck my pitchfork into the earth and pulled it out. I heard a strange noise like a tiny, almost imperceptible squeal. I was aghast to see a massive toad on the end of one of the tines. It had skewered him through the fleshy overhang of his belly.

“Oh no no no no….” I muttered to the toad as I gently removed him from the end of the pitchfork. The whole time I was doing this delicate surgery, I was running my old first aid training through my head – the part where you don’t pull the arrow out of the victim it has been shot through. You simply tie a tea towel around the wounded body part – arrow still inside – and rush them to the hospital.
I imagined myself rushing the toad to the animal hospital or sanctuary, wrapped in cotton on the end of my gardening implement. But by then he had already limped away into the dark, cool earth beneath the biggest of my hostas – the one that is called Elephant Ears.

I said a little prayer for the toad and apologized aloud for wounding him. For the rest of the summer, every time I weeded that flowerbed, I looked for my toad but he was nowhere to be found.

The next summer, I was digging in the flowerbed by the stone fence, planting daffodil bulbs. My hand hit something familiar in the cool, dark earth beneath the hosta. I pulled out the warty clump and turned it over. It was my toad. The one I had wounded. He was alive, and looking none the worse for wear, save a large lump on his side where he had once been impaled.

I turned him to look at his face. If he had ever had kind eyes, there was no kindness for me now. This toad had more of a Jabba the Hutt look of apathy and disdain. I put him back in the bushes, happy at least to know he had survived.

The other day I was watering flowers and I moved all of my potted plants into one location to make the job easier. The sun had been beating down on us for a few days without a drop of rain. After a couple of hours under a light mist from the sprinkler, I moved my lilac and fuchsia impatiens back into the shade along the stone fence. That’s when I saw him.

There, in the middle of a pot of double impatiens lay a small toad. I would say he was likely a teenaged toad, as he was bigger than the tiniest I’ve seen and smaller than the biggest. The funny thing about this toad was that he was lying on his back in the middle of the potted plant. At first I thought he was dead, then I saw him wriggle his legs, as if he were trying to right himself. I don’t know if he had fallen off the fence into the plant or what, but it did not appear that he had planned the excursion. I picked the toad up and turned him around to face me. He had the sweetest little face.
Yes I know what you are thinking. The heat is getting to her head. But really, I was so happy to see another toad in the garden. To me it’s a sign that we have cultivated a healthy, vibrant and welcoming place for creatures of all kinds. Even the warty ones.
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Adaptation


That heat was brutal. We aren’t complaining, however. We do not want that particular observation registered as a complaint. If that were to happen, we would be no doubt setting ourselves up for one heck of a winter. We aren’t complaining. We are only doing commentary.

But I repeat: that heat was brutal. I was on a shuttle bus from Ottawa to Kemptville that had faulty air conditioning and windows that didn’t open. It was 54 degrees inside when the driver started it up. The temperature had dropped to 41 by the time they got to my new office downtown. I think it was 34 by the time we reached Kemptville. During the bus ride I developed a headache that lasted for the next two days.

After that stifling ride I went home and jumped in the pool. It felt like bath water. I checked the thermometer: 89 degrees. Well, that’s ridiculous. That isn’t even refreshing. I thought about our baby chickens and turkeys in the barn. The Farmer had turned their heat lamps off a few days ago because, well, no one needs heat lamps in 30 degrees. But I worried they weren’t getting enough relief from the heat, so I pulled on my barn shoes, wrapped a towel around me and trudged over to the barn.

There were no chickens. No turkeys either. No birds whatsoever. There was, however, a new bird-shaped hole in the back of the barn. The flock of tiny birds had worked together to peck a hole in the burlap that covered the gaps in the barn board. They had escaped to fresh air. I was happy for them. I was worried, however, that they did not have access to their food. I sent for the Farmer.

While I was busy cleaning the house and getting dinner ready, my husband ran around the barnyard after the chickens. He corralled them all back into the barn where they would be save from skunks, raccoons, fishers and any other predator. Then he hauled an old fan out of the attic and plugged it in, to give the birds a bit of a breeze. The last time I saw them, they were taking turns doing their impression of Beyonce in front of the fan.

Fergus the Golden Retriever is not a fan of the heat. He went missing the other day and did not respond to my call. I happened upon him in the powder room, which is actually the coldest room in the house. The air conditioning is directly vented there. He lay down with his furry face on the cool tiles and fell asleep. I pulled the door so it was almost closed and the cats couldn’t get in to bother him.

I feel sorry for Ferg in his big fur coat but I read that I shouldn’t try to trim it away. Apparently Golden Retrievers have some sort of undercoat that keeps them insulated. If you give them a buzz cut or a fashionable lion or poodle style, it will only make things worse for them. So I bathe him often, give him a good brushing once in a while, and throw him some shade.

I am happy to see we have bumble bees around the farm again. It’s been a few years since I noticed them. I’m told they need help in the heat too, so I leave spoonfuls of sugar and water on the porch where they can easily access them.

The birds seem to be doing ok. They swoop down and drink out of our pool. There’s a mile of Kemptville Creek nearby as well, so hopefully they are keeping hydrated without pool chemicals. I feed black oiled sunflower seeds year round, and while the type of bird changes from season to season, the feeder is always a busy place.

The other day the Farmer stopped on his way out the door and said, “What’s that you planted at the back door?”

I stepped outside to see where he was pointing. A group of plants with large leaves stood in a line under the back porch. Right in the line of fire from the bird feeder.

“Oh! Those are sunflowers. The birds planted them,” I commented.
“Well aren’t they sustainable farmers,” he replied. “Soon they won’t need us at all.”
When the sunflowers grow and produce seeds, the birds can eat right from the plants.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Until we meet again


We have said goodbye to our ninth and tenth International students. Mina has returned to Norway, and although Tega will not be returning to Nigeria, she has left our home to live with cousins in Ottawa for the summer. Tega will be living with another family in town when she returns in the fall for a few more Grade 12 credits to set her up for university in Canada. Mina has one more year of school in Norway – they do 13 years there, like we used to do in Canada.

Over the past six years we have hosted students for periods of one to ten months from the following places: China, Columbia, the Basque region of Spain, Brazil, and now Norway and Nigeria. Our first international student was John from the seaside city of Suzhou in China. He chose our home because he liked the idea of living on a farm. I think it is safe to say the novelty began to wear off after the first time he mucked out a horse stall. And it was definitely gone by the time he had to help use the snowblower on our long driveway.

John’s best friend from home was also in the area: Jerry was being hosted in Carleton Place. Jerry was really homesick, so the agency decided to let him move in with John at our house. It very soon became obvious that it wasn’t the greatest way for the boys to improve their fledgling English skills. They just spoke Chinese all the time at home. They did their year and went home for the summer. John didn’t make it back for year two. His poor study habits and introverted social nature made it impossible for him to have a successful international experience here in Canada. Apparently his father cancelled his return visit so that he could work in the family construction business and ‘pay back’ what had been spent on his year in Canada.

Jerry, on the other hand, took his summer back home to study English with a tutor. He returned to Canada confident and determined to succeed. He didn’t win any academic awards upon graduation from Grade 12, but he did win an award for his attitude and hard work. He was accepted to Algonquin College for Business, and returned a year later to the farm to show off his shiny new BMW and girlfriend.

The many local families who host International students (we have about 600 in the Upper Canada District School Board – UCDSB - alone) know it can be a challenge to get the kids out of their rooms, socialized, and living their Canadian experience. Teenagers prefer to be left alone in their rooms for the most part. Add to that the language barrier and social challenge of living in a new culture and you have quite a job on your hands. Sometimes it takes the full year to get the kids comfortable in their new environment – right before it is time to go home.

The students on the one-month ‘cultural exchange’ were a lot of fun because they didn’t have the same pressure on them as the school year kids. The short-stay students were just here to observe and experience. Every weekend they had activities planned with others from their group. They were basically on leave from school at home and never really had to study here. They had great attitudes, they didn’t really get homesick, and they were up for anything.

If you are considering hosting an international student in your home, I would suggest you do your research first. Introducing a new culture to your family can be an enlightening and educational experience, particularly for your own school-aged children. Check out Canada Homestay Network and MLI – Muskoka Language Institute. Those are two of the agencies that have placed students locally, both in the public (UCDSB) and the Catholic (CDSBEO) system.

If you take the time to make sure you are matched up with a student who fits well into your lifestyle (whether you are on a farm, into sports and family camping, etc.), you will gain a temporary new family member and if you are lucky, a lifelong friend.

The Farmer prefers to take his vacations in the dead of winter on a beach in the sunny south but after getting to know Mina and her culture I might be able to convince him to visit Norway someday. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights.

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What's your story?


Hi there. I’m an Aries. Therefore, it’s safe to say I’ve been through a number of dramatic changes in my life – all self-imposed. You see, I’m what they call impulsive. I act on impulse. It’s in my nature to pursue my ideas before I have thought them through.

It’s how I ran off and got married, at 19, after six weeks of dating the boxing instructor at the gym where I was teaching aerobics.

My impulsive nature is what led me to move to Taipei, Taiwan in 2003.
Both of these decisions led me down paths that dramatically changed my life. But I have no regrets. Good things came out of rash decisions. I have been lucky.

Everyone has a story. If you’re like me, you write them down. I have been compulsively writing my life story every week since I was about 12 years old. In 2003 I started writing a column about some of the crazy things I experienced while living in a different culture in Taiwan. Those stories were printed twice a month in The Kemptville Weekender.

People started following my stories, and writing me letters with questions. They wanted to know about the food, the language, the cultural differences, and the living arrangements. Rather than responding to their emails, I answered by writing a column. My experience in Taiwan seemed to boil down to three main elements: the traffic was nuts, the food was mysterious, and the culture was a bit stifling.

In Taipei City at rush hour, two lanes of traffic can become four, before your eyes. Scooters are forced up on sidewalks and you have to look both ways before stepping out of a shop – never mind crossing the street.

Taiwanese food is very Americanized but the traditional Chinese fare can be a bit scary. You never can be sure what you are eating. My trick was to ask what part of the body this dish would improve. For example, if they say the food will give you better eyesight, chances are you are eating something with the eyeballs intact. If they say the dish will give you a clear complexion, you are likely eating pig skin or chicken skin. It’s a pretty easy way to find out what is on your plate when it isn’t immediately identifiable.

Taipei hosts 4 million people in an area the size of Ottawa. This makes for some very cozy living conditions. People give up their sense of personal space – or maybe they never had it in the first place. They look in your shopping cart to see what you bought. They stand right up next to you on the bus or train – I mean you can feel their bodies pressing up against you. I guess it’s just a fact of life in an overcrowded space. But it is something I never got used to.

I never felt unsafe in Taiwan, - perhaps because I was a gwei-lo, or “white ghost”. It’s bad luck to mess with one of us, so I was left alone. It’s a great experience, to live in another culture. I think everyone should do it, at least for a few months. Learn about what makes other people tick, and you will learn about yourself at the same time.

Back in Canada, I became reacquainted with an old family friend – a professor and colleague of my mother’s at Kemptville College. We spent a year entertaining, carpooling and coordinating our five teenaged daughters and barely had time to get to know each other. Finally, after a year, he proposed. A few months later, I became The Accidental Farmwife – once again documenting my daily life in a weekly column.

My columns have been published online and in two books and I have followers all over the world. I get emails from people who are fascinated by my experience, and people who are going through a similar experience.

My life is not that extraordinary. We all have grand stories to tell. The trick is to tell it well. Record the moments using all your senses: sight, sound, smell, hearing and taste. Lead the reader through your experience. It will be therapeutic for you, and it will connect you to a community of likeminded individuals by a common keyword or phrase.

You don’t have to write a column or publish a book of your life story. Just start a blog. I would read it. I find personal experiences to be fascinating. We are all on different paths, according to the decisions we have made, impulsive or not.
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