Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving: Canada and United States

As a newcomer to the United States ten years ago, and to California specifically, I have discovered more cultural differences than I had imagined. To repeat myself from my August 1st posting, a lot of folks figured that I would have no difficulty making the transition to American culture. As I heard over and over, "There really isn't much difference between Canadians and Americans anyway."  Fallacy. There are differences. Huge differences! 

For example consider the fall holiday of Thanksgiving. Both countries celebrate it but on different days and for different reasons. In Canada the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday happened on Thursday, January 31, 1957, when the Canadian Parliament proclaimed:  “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”  Canadian Thanksgiving coincides with the observance of Columbus Day in the United States.  It is a nice three day weekend in October with some turkey and pumpkin pie thrown in for good measure.  It is not even a statutory (national) holiday.  When I was a child on the grain farm, sometimes my family would still be harvesting wheat or barley or oats at Thanksgiving time. Those years we had no real celebration. Magically, though, a roast chicken and a pumpkin pie would appear in the meals that my mother cooked and hauled to the field for the workers to eat as they sat in the car with the doors open or leaned on the outside of the car and ate standing up.   

Checking the chaff to see how much wheat is ending up in the field instead of the hopper.
Three generations of farmers bringing in the harvest.
Even if we did have a celebration, it was a very low-key affair.  Canadian Thanksgiving honors no pilgrims and has no First Thanksgiving feast to remember.  Rather, it is more like a small celebration of the end of harvest.  (And a reason for a three day weekend in October.) 

Canada IS very big on having a three day weekend every month of the year and has created some real doozies to justify it.  Let’s see, the first Monday in August is Saskatchewan Day.  The third Monday in February is Family Day.  Alberta has Heritage Day in August. More traditional holidays like Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and Good Friday, the Friday immediately preceding Easter Sunday, are holidays that are not celebrated in the United States. 

In Canada when it was time for Thanksgiving it meant that it was also time to have the garden emptied; the freezer filled with frozen vegetables and fruits;  the root cellar or cold room filled with potatoes,carrots, turnips, cabbage, pumpkins and jars of pickles, jellies and jams. It was also time for butchering.  It was the end of the road for the steers, pigs, turkeys, geese and chickens that had been fattening all summer.  Because the poultry butchering was my domain, I was always truly thankful when those birds was either in my freezer or in my customers' freezers! 
Carrying a freshly killed bird almost as big as she was!

The crew helping with the butchering...long hard days of messy work.
Thanksgiving in Canada means the end of the endless labors of summer. It is truly a time to give thanks for the bounty of the land and the fruits of our labors.

Thanksgiving here in the United States is different.  This holiday is in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated with the Pilgrims and the First Nations People (Indians for those of you in the USA.) According to legend (disputed by some) after a summer that produced enough food to allow the Pilgrims to live through the winter, they decided to have a celebration.  Native Americans who had taught them how to grow food, how to find game and how to survive in the New Land were invited to the feast. Thus was Thanksgiving first celebrated in the USA. Probably  the participants did not eat big white turkeys and pumpkin pie with whipped cream but instead consumed wild turkeys, geese, cod and corn. In the United States the government creation of the first official Thanksgiving holiday happened in 1863 when President Lincoln announced that there would be a national day of thanksgiving observed on the fourth Thursday of every November.  Through a Canadian's eyes it is a very different holiday than Canadian Thanksgiving. Here it is a HUGE family-oriented holiday commonly called Turkey Day. Most schools and teachers only go to school on Monday and Tuesday of that week.  Since American Thanksgiving is always on Thursday, most working people get to take Friday off as well.  Families often gather at Thanksgiving instead of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is the holiday that is truly about families. There are no obligations to produce gifts or to attend church services. Thanksgiving is about getting together with families and eating good food (oh, and watching a ridiculous amount of televised football). Then Americans' Christmas vacations are free of extended family obligations and they can celebrate at home with their gifts, or go skiing or travelling somewhere warm. 

The day after Thanksgiving here in the USA is also the busiest day for shopping all year.  For some people the shopping is what they like most about Thanksgiving.  With only one month to go until Christmas, the commercial season of Christmas shopping is kicked off at midnight on Thanksgiving night.  The bargains to lure people in their stores are almost ridiculously attractive -- perhaps 75% off the current hot items for the first one hundred shoppers through the doors. Lining up outside stores in the dark with coffee and blankets and bellies still stuffed from Thanksgiving dinner, waiting for the doors to open, trampling over each other in search of the bargains and ripping items out of each other’s hands seem to be common events on "Black Friday" (i.e. the day shops will come out of the ‘red ink’ for the year).  Television coverage always focuses on the traffic, injuries, and violence of the day.  Guns, knives, getting pepper sprayed, and trampled to death are real threats.  Apparently that adds to the appeal for some people as it becomes a high risk sport! Many Canadians flock to their closest American city (think Great Falls if you are from Alberta or Saskatchewan) for the big bargains. 
One of the biggest differences to me between Canadian and American Thanksgivings is that we cook our turkey on the barbecue. It is the California thing to do! And it is delicious! Turkey slow-roasted over a charcoal fire is wonderful! Here is our turkey, stuffed with cornbread stuffing, rubbed with vegetable oil and carried to the barbecue by a shirtless man (to avoid the oil dripping off the turkey and onto his shirt). The turkey is then plunked on the barbecue, the barbecue lid is lowered and it cooks slowly for about five hours. We collect the drippings in an aluminum foil pie pan so that I can make the gravy. The turkey and gravy have a slightly smokey taste 
that has been enough to convert this old-fashioned cook (me) to actually prefer the barbecued turkey over the oven model! On the right you can see what our turkey looks like when it comes off the grill on its way to the table! 

Pushed to make a choice, I would choose American Thanksgiving over Canadian any day. I am not a traitor to my country by any means. Listen to my reasons. They are simple.  I truly love big family gatherings, and Thanksgiving is so much more a family event in the USA than it is in Canada.  Part of the reason is that it is on a Thursday and with the right job and some luck, you can count on a five day weekend with your family. You get to have the BIG meal and then relax until Sunday to travel home. In Canada if you have the BIG meal on Thanksgiving Day, it is on Monday and then you have to travel home to work the next day. Canadian Thanksgiving is too rushed! Another reason that I think that American Thanksgiving is so special is the history that comes with the day.  Canadian Thanksgiving holds the most meaning for farm families, in my opinion, as it has been associated with the end of harvest, the end of the labor-filled summers. Most of the Canadian population now has next to nothing to do with farms or farmers so the symbolism of the bountiful harvest is lost on them. At least in the United States everyone can relate to the history of the Pilgrims, Native Americans, wild turkeys and the first Thanksgiving feast. This history combines to conjure rich stories and traditions for every age. Ok. I admit that I am a big fan of American Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Some explanation is necessary....

Absence makes the heart grow fonder (an American proverb). No, it does not. In fact, it may be argued that
"absence makes the heart wander" (an English proverb). For those of you who have given up on me and my blog because of my lengthy absence, I want to explain.

This is my tenth year as a high school special education teacher. This has also been my hardest year to date. My workload increased exponentially because I began to teach 9th graders (freshmen for my American readers) again after teaching only 11th and 12th graders (juniors and seniors) for the last five years. Freshmen are a unique type of student. They have neither the maturity nor the motivation of the older students. They have very recently left their smallish middle (junior high) schools where they were the big-shots, the oldest and the most elite of students.They have been plunged into a huge high school (1800 students) where they are considered 'babies', insignificant and worthy of daily contempt. It seems that these students (90% of my special education students are boys) act out and misbehave in ways calculated to make their mark and get noticed in the school. Frequent physical altercations (fights), disruptive and disrespectful behavior in class ("No, you may not teach the class any new gang signs.") and attempts to make themselves look tough and street-wise ("Stop drawing gun tattoos on your arms.") are part and parcel of teaching this population. Selling candies to other students by telling them that they are really drugs, and selling hot chili peppers to challenge their friends to eat in the hopes that they throw up and having burping and farting contests are truly freshman activities.

Freshmen come to school each day with tremendous energy, and their teachers must expend tremendous energy to corral the freshmen's energy into learning what is on the curriculum. Returning to teaching freshmen has been exhausting and challenging to me. Finally, after the twelve week mark in the school year, I can say that we have settled into manageable classroom routines. Just the other day as the students were doing a reading exercise in English class, I could actually hear the clock tick. I almost wept.  I know we will have many more days of eraser-throwing, tripping, punching, texting, talking and yelling. But on that day at that time, they were all simultaneously doing their assignments. Hallelujah!

My work load also increased with a new role assigned to me in the Special Education department.  This year whenever a student is referred for testing to determine if they need special education services, I am the education specialist assigned to do the academic testing. It is very interesting work. I find it quite challenging to test the students, gather observations from the other teachers, write the final reports and arrange the meetings to go over the results. It is also very time-consuming. I have been amazed at the number of these referrals this year, and I've been told that it is more than in previous years. To sum up, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by my work load this year.

My desk in my home office doing grades, lesson plans and reports.

My husband, a high school teacher with 45 years in the classroom, and who still loves teaching has assured me that every teacher has a year like the one I am having. A year in which they question if they even want to continue as a teacher. He tells me I am lucky that it took until my 10th year for this to happen. Many teachers have this kind of year early in their career and they simply find another profession. He assures me that I will survive this year. I want to believe him. So I prepare my lessons, grade my papers, write my reports, test my referred students, maintain the best order I can in the classroom every day, go to bed early, get up earlier than ever to get an early start on the next day. Then do it all again the next day.

Is the purpose of this entry to whine and complain? Not really. I felt that I needed to explain why my blog has been idle and to ask my readers to have patience! Please check back once in awhile and see my new postings. I promise that I will be writing more frequently now.

Off to bed now.More writing in the near future!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Back to School

Now in my 50’s, I still succumb to back-to-school excitement every year.  Oh, I love the school supply sales, the buying of new clothes, the desperate attempts to instill a schedule in my life again after a summer of sleeping in and staying up late.  Most of my friends are past this stage in their lives.  In fact, my friends hardly notice when school dismisses in June and restarts again in August/September.  At my age I still get excited because I am a teacher, and I go back to school every year!  I tell my high school students that they are lucky because they get to leave high school after four years.  I tell them jokingly that I have a life sentence and they groan with sympathy.  Anyone that knows me knows that it is no secret that I love my ‘life sentence’ and I love going back to school.  Remember that feeling of anticipation and excitement just before school started?  I get that feeling every year and I still look forward to it!

My first memories of going to school began when as a 6-year-old I started Grade 1 in Marengo.  There was no kindergarten in my town in those days so straight into first grade we all went.  A photo from the first day shows me spotlessly attired in a new light pink dress with a black string tie at the neck, and carrying my brand-new Flintstones lunch-kit.  I am not sure why I had a Flintstone’s lunch-kit because we did not have a television in our house until I was ten years old.  I never saw the Flintstone’s animated television show!  Maybe I just liked the cool cartoon characters on the bright plastic shell.  
On my very first day my Mom and siblings took me to my Grandma Mayme’s house just up the road to catch the little yellow school bus.  The bus driver was an old family friend and he had driven my Dad and his siblings to school. My Grandma wanted me to catch the bus exactly where my Dad had caught it the first time, I guess, and since my Mom almost always honored my Grandma’s wishes, away we went.  There is a photo of me in Grandma’s house, simply beaming as I stand beside Bill, the bus driver.
Bus driver Bill with me, Mom, my sister, brothers and our dog, Husky
I remember the feelings of excitement, anxiety, and apprehension that were as much a part of my ensemble that day as my new dress and lunch kit.  I was so excited to be learning to read because I loved when someone read to me and I wanted to be able to read to myself whenever I wanted and not have to wait for a busy Mom to have time to sit and read.  I was also excited because going to school meant going the two and one-half miles into town and town had such allure for the little farm girl.  There were about 150 people in town, a grocery store, a garage, a post office, churches, and grain elevators.  The possibility of meeting and playing with new kids was irresistible.  On the farm I had limited contact with other children besides my younger siblings.  Sometimes we would visit with our neighbors or the second and third cousins in the community but mostly it was just me and my siblings.  As the oldest child I was often asked to watch over my younger siblings and as it was my duty to tell on them when they were doing things they were not supposed to do (like take the truck to town for ice-cream ~ another story for another day), they were not always eager to play with me.  I wanted to play with kids my own age and not have to supervise them.
Every year the excitement built up in me over the weeks leading to school starting.  I could hardly sleep the last night or two before school began because of my anticipation.  I also had a generous dose of anxiety that came to school with me every fall when I returned to Westcliffe Composite School.  As the oldest of four children, I had to do and experience everything first.  That included school.  I can remember wondering if anyone would play with me and if the teacher would like me and if I could wait until recess to go to the bathroom.

I remember the lunches Mom packed.  In those days, there was no plastic wrap so my sandwich was always wrapped ever so neatly in waxed paper.  Even as an adult I was never able to make waxed paper behave enough to contain a sandwich and keep it fresh for hours.  Lunches were always the same: a sandwich (usually bologna but sometimes peanut butter), a cookie or two and a fruit.  I bet my Mom would argue that there was a lot more variety in the lunch kit, but my memory is of that very same lunch for eleven years.  Recess and lunch time were the highlights of the school day.  Our old 2-room brick school was surrounded by trees, and we had big swings and there was always one teacher out on the playground with us.  We formed forever friendships and broke them the next day; we created little cliques and rotated in and out of those.  To be out of a clique was agony, your best friends from the day before would not even look at you.  That seemed to be a very gender-specific thing.  I never saw boys doing that.

Soon there were four of us waiting for the bus every morning at our farm gate.  One year after I began school, my sister started grade 1.  Right after her my two brothers started one after the other.  The school bus now carried so many students that the little bus was replaced with a big long yellow bus.  The bus driver remained the same.  Bill drove my Dad all his years of school in Marengo, and he drove me and my siblings for all our years.  He retired in 1980 after 39 years on the job.  Bill, or Bid, as the older boys called him, was always the same.  He seemed to really like all of us kids on the bus.  If we kids were late to the gate in the morning and he had to wait for us, he would send one of the big high school kids to the house to see what was taking so long.  If some little kid got sick and puked on the bus, he never complained and the bus was clean again the next day. He always had jokes for us, and sometimes in the afternoon when the bus was nearly empty, he sang to those of us still riding.  Mostly he sang, “KKKKKKKKaty, beautiful Katy…” an old World War I song with a lot of stuttering in it.  We laughed at the song and we begged for more.  He was such a solid part of our day, happy, singing, and glad to see us.  Oh when he got stuck in the snow, he would get mad and stomp around the stuck bus (probably) swearing under his breath.  When some of the big boys sassed him he would get red-faced and kick the big boys off to walk the last mile to town.  He was not able to hold on to his anger for very long and he returned to his grinning laughing self quickly.  Sometimes at the end of a long day, I would start a conversation with him by mistakenly addressing him, “Hey Dad…”  Then I would flush and bluster and start over.  I don’t think he minded that I forgot and called him Dad a few times.  I know that I thought of Bill, our bus driver, as a family member and I surely loved him.

Westcliffe Composite School circa 1971
After grade 2, I moved from the two-room brick school house to the big school a few hundred yards away.  We had new teachers every year.  The faintest inkling of our rural isolation began to sink into my young naïve head.  We had a lot of new teachers every year because we were so far from a city.  Saskatoon was about 160 miles away (we still talked in miles then).  Most teachers wanted to be close to this city with all its attractions.  They must have longed for a setting with more than 150 people, followed closely by the ability to obtain some anonymity after school.  Proximity to movie theaters, libraries, shops, and of course, for the newly-graduated teachers, night clubs and bars must have had huge appeal.  Marengo had none of these amenities.  Oh, it had a grocery store (one small store), and it had a bar (one small bar where young teachers would be closely scrutinized by their students’ parents and talked about for weeks if they set foot inside).  Shops and movies were over 20 miles away and 50 years ago, those were often hard miles to travel when it rained or snowed which was not only likely but almost 100% probable in all four seasons on the Prairies.  Another unappealing aspect of teaching in Marengo had to be the school-provided housing that consisted of mobile homes.  Tiny little mobile homes that people pull behind their cars were available as well as slightly larger mobile homes for those willing to have a roommate.  The principal got a house.  I know the tiny little mobile homes inside and out because when the school decided to sell them, my Dad bought one for our hired man to sleep in (and of course, we kids when there was no hired man).These accommodations could not have been a big lure to new teachers who had just finished their teacher training in the cities of Saskatoon or Regina.

Besides the students at the school, one other group anxiously awaited the arrival of the new teachers.  Most of the new teachers seemed to be women and the young single farmers in the surrounding area were very curious as to each new crop of available women.  Many of these female teachers never left the community of Marengo as they were snatched up and then matched up in Holy Matrimony by the local boys.  These women from different backgrounds added another diverse layer to the community.  Those that did not get married after the first year or two usually left to find employment in a larger town or city.  With one or two years of experience recorded in their resumes, they had more selection in their next job. And a new selection of young men to choose from!

Classes were huge, up to 34 or 35 in a blended-grade room and the teachers were stretched to their limits in terms of keeping order and teaching at the same time. I remember being in a blended-grade room for Grade 3 and 4. My favorite subjects were English and Social Studies. I despised math even though my mother was brilliant at math (she scored 96% in her Grade 12 Algebra provincial exam)and she offered countless times to help me.  I liked to write, to read and to day-dream; a lot of the time I was not very challenged in the blended-grade classroom. 

Another thing I remember (even though I don't want to) is the level of teasing and bullying. Much as I hate to admit it, I remember certain students being picked on for their physical appearance, their ability in school, their lunches or their wardrobe. Often people talk about the 'good old days' out in the country, but bullying and harassment occurred in my quaint elementary school located in a rural community probably as often as it occurred in any poverty-stricken inner-city school. We had students who would surely be diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum today, students that came from dysfunctional families, and students that certainly had learning disabilities but had no option but to struggle along with the other students and be called "Stupid" or "Retard". We gleefully picked on these students often and usually without mercy. If a teacher caught us they usually told us to stop, but there were no harsher penalties. I guess the teachers back then believed the axiom of the times that said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Or they believed that such 'teasing' would toughen up the student or cause them to conform. Unable to conform to what society wanted because of factors outside their control, these students were often sad or angry or both. As a teacher myself, I like to think that we teachers are more aware of the students being bullied and we know the consequences of being bullied are severe. Now, all teachers in California receive frequent training and reminders that bullying is NOT tolerated. For these picked-on students, at least the older ones that had given up on things ever changing for them, the back-to-school season must have been dreaded, not joyfully anticipated.

After high school, and a month after I turned 17, I moved to the big city of Saskatoon and attended university. I wanted to be a nurse but my temporary acceptance into the nursing program in Alberta was retracted when I scored a D- on the provincial Algebra exam. I had already received the immunizations that were necessary for a student nurse, and I had been fitted for uniforms. Only ten students were accepted from my province for this training program, and number eleven on the list must have been made very happy in August! My mom refused to let me work for a year and then re-apply as she said I was too young to do anything but go to school. Off to the University of Saskatchewan I went. I liked the back-to-school preparations for that school year: a new basement suite, pots and pans, dishes and towels, bus passes, a new wardrobe as uniforms were not happening for me, and the freedom that going to school 160 miles from home brought. I liked the lectures and the writing assignments. I liked the anonymity of the 300 plus students in one lecture hall. I liked the  freedom a little too much. After one and one half years, I quit university at Christmas. I worked as a waitress, went back to school for ten months to become a hairdresser and then worked at hairdressing, mothering, milking and other jobs for the next 15 years. 

I loved getting my children ready in the back-to-school season. I remembered my own feelings of excitement and anticipation and projected those feelings onto my five kids as they went off to pursue their elementary,  high school and then university educations. I enjoyed labeling all those pencils and crayons, buying the new outfits (even at my lowest financial point, a new outfit for each child was non-negotiable), I liked lining up the five lunch kits in the morning (at least for the first day or week), and I loved waiting and watching for the bus to return my kids home so they could tell me about their school day. We played spelling and math games at the supper table, we challenged each other with trivia facts, and we all read books, some of us more than others. We did not harp on grades or dictate homework completion.  Maybe we should have, but even then I did not consider grades or busy-work homework to be accurate indicators of how much they had learned.

The "Bowl" at the University of Saskatchewan
When I was forty years old, I got the urge to go back to school myself.  To return to the university to finish the degree that I had started as a 17-year-old! The load of anxiety I carried that first day easily matched my anxiety as a 6-year-old going off to Grade1. I was very afraid that I did not have the intelligence, skills or persistence to be successful at university. I was cowed by the thought of attending classes with students the same age as my oldest kids. On my first day back-to-school in twenty years, my oldest child (a student at that university) led me to the right classrooms, met me for lunch and guided me through the maze of the university bookstore.  When I profusely thanked her later that night, she replied, "You don't have to thank me, Mom, you took me to school on my first day of school". She was five years old when I took her, I was forty when she took me. Oh my.

I found that I still loved the back-to-school hubbub as an adult. 
A few years later I became a high school teacher. I am credentialed as an Education Specialist, and as an English teacher: and I teach students with learning disabilities.  I am privileged to work with the very type of students that used to be picked on in my childhood school experiences. Students that are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum receive social skills training and coaching, and hopefully less teasing than in the past. In the past, we all knew students like this, and we picked on them for their weirdness and inability to defend themselves. Today students with dyslexia or other processing disorders are informed by me and my colleagues (over and over sometimes as they don't believe us) that they have average intelligence ~ they are NOT stupid or retarded. When they can't read or write like their classmates can, they begin to doubt their intelligence. There are always other students that snicker or  tease the ones that have difficulty in class. The daily challenges of meeting the special needs of this specific group of students may be exactly why I enjoy teaching.

One view of my classroom
Back-to-school is as exciting for me as a teacher as it was in my early childhood. Every year I scour the sales fliers and make family and friends come to the stores with me to get the deals that are limited (like two per person or something). I hoard pencils and paper, notebooks and erasers, pens and folders. I buy pencil crayons (called colored pencils here in California) and stickers, page dividers and binders, little white boards and dry-erase markers. Ask my Uncle Jim or my friend Martha or my daughter Angie or my long-suffering husband, Ron, about these scavenger hunts to the different stores. They have been around me during these sale times and have been pressed into service! My wonderful art-teacher, surfer husband helps me decorate my classroom every year. Every ethnicity that I teach is represented in posters on my walls.  Artwork from former students of mine and his hangs with pride. Canadian memorabilia fills large chunks of the walls and some of my favorite sayings are scattered around the classroom. For example I strongly believe that "Respect is not given, it must be earned" is true for students and teachers alike. An abalone shell hangs near a copper mask, a Bodyglove suntanning mat hangs near a Japanese paper-mache mask, and prints of great men and women such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Helen Keller are there to remind the students that anything is possible. There is a corner devoted to a patriotic theme.  As I have only been a United States citizen for one year, I am quite proud of that corner. Surfing and Santa Cruz are well-represented on my walls with many of the posters donated by surfing businesses with whom my husband has connections.  My classroom door has a comical metal sign that tells students to move out now and make their own decisions because they think that they know everything. Students and adults alike stop,  read and laugh at that sign.  A large poster of "The Scream" by Edward Munch hangs over my door to remind me that I can scream in frustration ONLY on my way out of the classroom at the end of the day.
Another view of my classroom.
Back-to-school has been such an exciting time for me since I was six years old. I love new starts and the exciting possibilities that each new year brings. This year has not disappointed me! I am teaching Grade 9 students again (Lord, give me patience) and I am doing some challenging and interesting student testing at school. I am hosting a "Homework Club" after school so that students can have help getting caught up (and so the deans of discipline have somewhere to send the students to serve their detentions). Outside of school, and in pursuit of more new starts and continuing my own education, I signed up for dance classes (East Coast Swing) with my husband on Monday nights, Writing Class on Tuesday nights and Yoga class on Wednesday night. When I stop to think about it, I admit that there are times when I think I am just like one of those over-scheduled children whose parents enroll them in everything. The difference is that I choose to do it to myself, therefore I cannot complain of being too busy!  
My classroom door.
One of  my most memorable moments of this 2011 back-to-school season was when my Dad bought me a new lunch kit - a Roots 1973 (Roots is a very Canadian company) lunch kit that I admired when he and I were shopping in Costco  this summer in Canada. As we left the store I sentimentally remarked , "Thanks, Dad. It's been a long time since you bought me a lunch kit." He immediately shot back with , "And don't lose it, kid." Just like our back-to-school conversation would have been fifty years ago.
Dad, I won't lose it!! 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Abalone Diving

Click on ALL photos for more detail
 For over thirty years, my husband and a band of friends have been making trips to Mendocino to dive for abalone.  Abalone are sea snails that live underwater, attach themselves to the undersides of rock edges with their single suction-cup foot and graze on the kelp growing in the ocean. They are hunted avidly by divers. The taste of abalone is hard to describe. Not fishy in the least, it is tender and almost a cross between the taste of lobster and crab meat. It is simply delicious.  To legally harvest this delicacy (you cannot buy wild abalone and farmed abalone sells for about $100 per pound) the hunters must ‘free-dive’ meaning no oxygen tanks or oxygen hoses can be used. This limits the depth to which a hunter can go, and it limits how long he/she can stay underwater. Supposedly these restrictions give the abalone a fairer chance. 
Legal sized (seven inches) abalone can be found at any depth, but the larger ones are usually deeper and hidden in crevices.  My husband can dive to about 25 feet, but is much happier when he can get good ones at 12-15 feet.  Abalone hunters wear thick rubber wetsuits because the ocean in Northern California is very cold (50 degrees F/11 degrees C).  The wetsuit my husband wears to surf is not thick enough to keep him warm for an abalone hunt. These hunters also use snorkel masks, weight belts and fins, and have their 'ditty' bag attached to a float board. The ditty bag is useful in hauling their equipment when they descend or ascend the cliffs, and it is useful to haul their catch! Three legal-sized abalone would be very awkward to carry (they are round with no handles!) and are heavy (about ten pounds altogether). The ditty bag also carries the tags and ties that are required to legally take abalone out of the ocean. The heft of the weight belt is determined by the diver's body weight. The heavier the diver, the more lead weights on his belt to help him stay underwater. Most divers in their prime can dive for one minute, but it is more comfortable to remain under for only 30 seconds. Try holding your breath for one minute, and imagine swimming and prying a reluctant critter off a rock at 20 feet at the same time. Not easy to do.
Divers/hunters are limited to three abalone a day and a total of twenty-four  per year. Divers can only hunt for abalone in certain months of the year, and the shell must be a minimum of seven inches across for the abalone to be mature enough to harvest. Divers carry small ‘ab irons’ that resemble tire irons and these are what they use to pry the abalone off the rocks. It costs nearly $75 to get a license for abalone. The rangers sit on the cliffs and watch through binoculars. If they suspect someone has too many abalone or is not tagging them properly on the beach, the rangers swoop down and write tickets with enormous price tags. About three years ago, the first year with the 'new' tag system, my husband freely admitted to the ranger that he had not tagged his abalone properly because he did not have scissors with him at the beach. The ranger ticketed him on the spot at the campsite and it cost $500.
Abalone meat is delicious to eat, and the shells are beautiful to display. The diving, I am told, is fun as long as you don’t get caught in the kelp or lose your weight belt or see a large creature with a single fin eyeing you like you are going to be its lunch. The ocean must be very calm and the tide must be out for optimal abalone diving.

Swimming in the heavy kelp
 When I first moved to California, this is one trip my husband could hardly wait for me to make with him. Off to Mendocino to camp in a tent for four days in Van Damme State Park, his diving friends and their families camped around us. I enjoyed the whole event. Definite selling points for me included the potluck feasts every night with the main entrée being abalone,  the side dishes that were family specialities and the big 'family reunion' atmosphere. Long evening sessions around the campfire with my husband and his friends playing their guitars and singing campfire songs were so entertaining. The visiting and bouts of laughter were cherished. The physical contentment that comes from days spent outdoors led to deep restorative sleeps in our sleeping bags in our tents.  The camaraderie of the band of abalone hunters was seamless, woven tightly after many consecutive years and strong enough to have survived these many years. The members of this band were newly-weds together, young teachers together and new parents together. They observed the growing up of each other’s kids and the growing old of each other.
Coming in, giving me the all's-good wave!
An abalone as it comes from the ocean
The annual Mendocino camping/diving trip seems to be on its last legs. The group used to number in the forties for the potluck dinners, and whole sections of  Van Damme State Park were crammed with our tents, trailers and RVs. No more. Last year there were only two families in our section of the park, and only about ten of us for dinner each night. There were two other families from the original group in another part of the campground but beyond some socializing, there was not a lot of contact. Most of the original abalone divers have 'retired' due to their age or health conditions. My husband and maybe one or two others of the original hunters still dive. The next generation (with the exception of a very few who were raised with annual camping/diving trips) seems to be more interested in other recreational pursuits. It is sad to see this 30-year-old tradition end.  I shall miss the campfires, singing, shared potluck meals and hours of visiting in the afternoon sunshine.  I know my husband is mourning this loss of the time together with his friends in the water and woods.

Abalone shells emptied of their meat with an ab iron resting on them

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Taking Care of Business

It had to happen. I have to talk about the wonderful response I have received in the three weeks since I began this blog. The particular program I am using to create my blog is Blogspot from Google, and it gives me the ability to track some amazing statistics. Let me share some of them. As of today, over eight hundred visitors have come to look at this blog. Some of them are probably coming for the umpteenth time (thanks family), and some are coming for the first time and may never return.  I can’t track that. There have been visitors from several countries, listed here from most visitors to least visitors: USA, Canada,  Australia, Russia, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand and Slovakia. Visitors from the United States slightly outnumber visitors from Canada. Most readers are logging in during the evening. That is what the amazing stats page tells me.
Emails, comments and checkmarks in the response options (funny, cool, interesting) tell me so much more. The blog entries most visited are first, “Who is Cindy Anderson Deetz and why is she writing this blog?” followed by Growing old takes a long time”, my birthday entry. The comments and emails I have received have been so supportive, so positive and so helpful. In fact, this entry is my way of responding to this feedback. Some have asked me to specify what it is that I am looking for in feedback. Some have asked me to clarify why I am writing this blog. Several have written to me to ask how to post a comment or how to become a follower. Let me try to respond to these comments here.
“Who is Cindy Anderson Deetz and why is she writing a blog?” was my very first entry. Seems that I answered the first part of the title question very clearly and with a lot of detail (ho-hum-boring) but somehow I skipped over the second part. OK, I am writing this blog because I like to write, I would like to be published and I was told to do so. I attended two publishing conferences (one a weekend-long, another an evening) and both of them had noted authors, editors and publishers teaching us, the ‘wannabe’ writers. They said that it was almost mandatory in today’s writing world to develop a “platform” of readers. In other words, I must get my writing out in the world and see if anyone likes it and what parts they most like. If I can develop a strong and stable platform (or as we ordinary people call it, an audience), it is much more likely that a publisher will be interested in looking at my work.
So I began this blog. Two very observant readers have commented to me that I have not settled into a genre ~ am I going to be writing personal stories, information pieces or comments on current events? Each piece I have written fits into one of those areas, and I am relying a lot on the feedback from my readers to determine which genre I am better at, or which appeals most to you. At this point, the pieces that are more personal (“Who is Cindy Anderson Deetz….” and “It takes a long time to grow young”, written about my birthday) have been the most read and most commented on.
With this blog, I hope to see where my writing can go. I also belong to a weekly writing group, have attended two publishing conferences, attended a workshop on taking memories to memoirs, and I am registered for a weekend writing retreat on memoir-writing. I have always written for my own pleasure (or as a way to vent). I enjoy sharing my writing with others. There are many people that have been told this same thing, I am sure, but I have been told over and over that I should write a book. If I can find an audience and consistently write engaging pieces, I will know that I am heading in the right direction. If I find writing for this blog too difficult or my audience becomes too sparse, I will know that I am not meant to publish magazine articles let alone write a book.
I appreciate ALL feedback. For those that asked, here are more specifics. For those that choose not to comment, relax and read and enjoy the blog. No one need feel they have to comment (even though I love it and am begging for it!) That said  if you want to know what feedback  I am most interested in hearing, read on.  I really want to know how you react to any or every blog entry here. Was it boring, interesting, funny or flat? Is it the worst piece I have written or the best or just mediocre? Am I being too anything ~ too whiney, too sarcastic, too tear-jerking, too exaggerating, too drippy or whatever you can put too in front of? Please let me know what you felt or thought when you read it. Also, please please please let me know what you liked.  My goal is to produce more of what my readers like.

Lastly, because several of you have asked, let’s talk about how to become a follower and how to post comments. I think that the advantage to you of becoming a follower is that you receive an email notification whenever there is a new entry on my blog. For me, the advantage is that the more followers I can show, the more interest I can generate in the writing world.  To become a follower, look at the top right of my blog page. It says “Followers” and has a button to click to “Join This Site’. If you have a google account (gmail) or a yahoo account, complete the rest of the form. If you don’t have either, there is a link right there to get your own free google account. Another option is to look at the very bottom of the blog page, and find the box that is titled “Follow by email”. Fill it out and hit submit and it will pop up another window for you to complete and then you get notification of new entries. Finally, the last issue I have received a lot of questions about is how to post a comment. At the end of each article, click on comments (see the little envelope). Write your comment in the box. Now select your identity: you can remain anonymous, or use your google account or yahoo account name. If you don’t have a google or yahoo account, you will have to be anonymous and if that is what you want, great. Just know that you can add your first name, initials or nickname to your comment IF you want me to know who you are. After you have chosen your identity, hit preview and decide if you like your comment. Then hit submit and retype the nonsense word that appears and then hit “Post Comment”. There, that is all there is to it. Honestly, I follow several blogs and posting comments is easy after the first time or two. One more business thing before I end this. Please pass this website address on to your friends! The more the merrier! Thanks.
So here we are. The business is taken care of. I think. If you have other questions or comments or just want to tell me something, please let me know. To everyone that is reading this, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. I really appreciate every one of you taking the time to read my words!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Away to Mendo

Where the river meets the ocean below the village of Mendocino
 And away to Mendocino we go again. Along California’s northern coast, this is a place that my husband and I visit at least twice a year. We pack our overnight bags, our dog and my husband’s dive gear and off we go. The trip easily takes five or six hours from our house in Santa Cruz (it is almost two hundred miles) and it is not a fun drive. It takes at least thirty minutes to get to San Jose over the coast mountains via the dreaded accident-studded Highway 17.  Onward to San Francisco, through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, and then through the heavy traffic of Santa Rosa.

Golden Gate Bridge
The mercury in the thermometer begins to seriously rise and by the time we get to Cloverdale, it is often 95 degrees (35 Celsius), a huge difference from the 65 degree temperature (18 degrees Celsius) when we left Santa Cruz three hours ago. We always stop at Cloverdale and fortify ourselves with sandwiches and cold drinks for the remainder of the trip. Sometimes it is too hot for the dog’s feet to walk on the asphalt so we carry him to the graveled side yard to relieve himself. Cloverdale is the last stop on the four-lane freeway. From there to Mendocino, a one and one-half hour slow drive, there is a two lane winding up-and -down road that makes me car-sick EVERY time. My husband does not suffer from car-sickness. Neither does the dog. I suffer alone. Usually as we crest that last hill and twist through that last turn, and finally see the ocean again, I have a gut-ache, a head-ache and a severe lack of cheerfulness. And still I come at least twice a year.

Winding road

Coastal redwoods

Why do I willingly submit to a horrific bout of car-sickness at least twice a year? Obviously Mendocino is a magnet for me. Lest you question my intelligence, let me tell you that I am not the only one affected by the pull of this area. Thousands of visitors from all over the world make their way to this quaint village by the sea every year. Originally settled by loggers lusting after the huge redwoods, Mendocino was created in the middle of the nineteenth century. The big redwoods were cut, milled and loaded into ocean-going freighters. Trucks replaced ships, logging became more regulated and the logging industry required fewer workers. Mendocino went into a slump. In the 1950’s, it resembled a ghost town. Enter Bill Zacha, a multitalented high school teacher from the San Francisco Bay area who envisioned an artists’ haven. He began to rebuild Mendocino. He bought run-down properties for as little as fifty dollars down, and spruced them up to attract renters and businesses. It worked. The picturesque houses and commercial buildings remained standing. Artists began to settle in the town and the surrounding area. Mendocino attracted several big movie productions with it pristine appearance and willingness to work with the film companies. Some of the two dozen or more movies shot here include: "East of Eden", "Island of the Blue Dolphins", "The Summer of '42",  "Cujo", "Overboard", "Wired" and "Karate Kid III". The long-running TV mystery, "Murder She Wrote" with Angela Lansbury was also filmed in Mendocino.

Tourists began to make the drive to see the location where their favorite films had been made, to see the quaint Victorian houses on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, to walk on the headlands surrounding the town and make their own discoveries in the art galleries and unique shops of the main streets. My husband and his friends have been coming to Mendocino for over thirty years to camp and dive for abalone, a delectable sea snail that lives underwater. When I accompanied my husband and his friends on a June camping and diving trip many years ago I received my first introduction to Mendocino. I can proclaim that it was love at first sight!

Flower garden in the village
Mendocino is the most beautiful place on earth. Easy for a prairie girl from Saskatchewan to say, right? Well, since my very first trip years ago to Mendocino, I have been to a few other places. I spent two weeks in Scotland (gorgeous), ten days in London (interesting but not beautiful), a week in Hawaii (nice but not stunning) and two weeks in Spain (another gorgeous place). None of those locations can unseat Mendocino in my personal (and biased) hierarchy of beautiful places. The picturesque houses, the high wooden sidewalk, the blooming flowers everywhere, the cleanliness of the town and roads, the view from the main street out to the ocean and backed by redwoods, the sheer dramatic drop from the cliff tops to the ocean, the rattlesnake grass blending into the flowing golden grasses on the headlands moving in the chilly salty air all add up to a splendor I have not witnessed anywhere else I have been.

The headlands: rattlesnake grass in the foreground
Click for more detail
Perhaps the isolation of the town and the tininess of the town remind me of my childhood in Saskatchewan. Perhaps the long view to the horizon on the Headlands and the waves of golden grass also remind me of the Prairies where I grew up. Perhaps it goes back even farther. Perhaps, because of my Scottish lineage, and the resemblance of Mendocino to Scotland’s coast, there exists in my very genetic material, in my DNA, an inherited attraction to the scenery of Mendocino. 

Village of Mendocino
Today Mendocino is a village of less than 900 residents. It is possible that its population triples during the day when visitors crowd into its shops, galleries and restaurants and remains double at night when all the beds in the bed-and-breakfasts and inns are tucked up with sleeping travellers. You can eat fish and chips in a family-type restaurant, or duck breast in a tres French restaurant.You can buy almost anything there from groceries to art works to estate jewelry to hemp clothing to homemade jams to books and so on and so on.  The coffee shop just off the high street serves a diverse group. Dreadlocked men and women in ragged hippie clothing sit side by side with very proper tourists from England, young parents try to chug their lattes while they rock the designer strollers their fussing tots sit in, campers from the parks smell of wood smoke as they catch up on the world news in the papers and some people just sit there and simply watch the people passing through. The coffee shop is a microcosm of life in Mendocino; all kinds of people with many languages heard, different ethnicities observed and yep, some wild wardrobes displayed.

MacCallum House: our wedding planner
The strongest reason why Mendocino is such a magnet for me is very personal. The appeal of Mendocino is forever cemented in my mind by its association with a life-changing event that occurred there several years ago. On a chilly June evening, on the edge of the cliffs of Agate Cove at sunset, our wedding took place. We drove to the edge of Mendocino with a Justice of the Peace and a photographer, and at 8:00 pm, we exchanged vows with only the JP and the photographer in attendance. We were in Mendocino a day before the dive band of friends and family were to arrive. The next afternoon as the divers began to drift into camp, we told them we had married the night before. We celebrated the first days of our marriage with these dear friends in the most beautiful place on earth. This may be the main reason that keeps Mendocino in my mind as the place I have to visit at least twice a year, regardless of the car-sickness, traffic or heat. To me, Mendocino is a sacred place, sandwiched between redwoods and ocean, carpeted by golden grass, paused in time and seemingly untouched by modern cares.

Agate Cove~ our personal wedding chapel.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Yoga. Even Mayo Clinic embraces it.

Yoga. Even Mayo Clinic embraces it.  Their current list of the top ten ways to beat stress ( places yoga squarely in the number six spot.  Meditation, a component of a true yoga practice is in the number two spot.  Traditional and alternative medical practitioners tout yoga as an excellent prescription for relaxation, lowering high blood pressure, building immunity, reducing chronic pain, lowering anxiety levels, maintaining range of movement and increasing overall health.  Let me explain this blog entry's title: When I grew up on the Canadian prairies, Mayo Clinic was considered the finest medical facility to go to when the local doctors in Saskatchewan or Alberta were stumped.  Probably Montreal or Toronto would have had the same expertise but Mayo Clinic was closer. You could say, and you'd be right, that I grew up with tremendous respect for Mayo Clinic.
Om...the yoga symbol in Sanskrit

The original purpose of yoga was to calm the mind, to relax the mind and to focus inward.  That is still the primary focus of any true yoga practice today.  There are some yoga practices that focus only on stretches and poses and might more accurately be called gym workouts with a yoga flavor. There are several varieties of yoga but I am only familiar with two types.  For one winter in Canada, I practiced Iyengar yoga.  Iyengar yoga encourages the use of props: wooden blocks, canvas belts, walls, chairs and the emphasis in on attaining a perfect pose.  An Iyengar instructor might use his/her hands to help you achieve perfection in the pose.  I appreciated the Iyengar class that I took, and while it was my introduction to yoga, and I love yoga, I did not fall 'in love' with the Iyengar version.

Integral yoga,a form of Hatha yoga, claims my heart and passion.  The focus of Hatha yoga is stretching and relaxation.  About five years ago here in Santa Cruz, I spotted an advertisement for an Integral yoga class being offered in my neighborhood.  It was called “Relax with Yoga” and was held at a nearby community center.  It sounded perfect so two friends and I signed up.
Om, the yoga symbol in Jain

The teacher, with thirty or more years of experience, began with the story of yoga and I am going to try to repeat it here in my words.  (All mistakes are mine, not hers!)  She told us that a very long time ago yoga was developed as a way of quieting the mind, of going inward, of finding mental peace.  The first yoga participants found that sitting very still and focusing on their breathing helped them achieve a state of mental peace that they were unable to attain any other way.  Unfortunately sitting very still for long periods of time in order to achieve this mental state can be very hard on the body.  Just when the mental comfort level was highest, the physical discomfort of sore buttocks, tired backs and cramped legs would begin to creep in.  It is difficult to stay focused when physical pain is insinuating itself into your mind.  The ancient yogis ( someone who practices yoga) created a series of stretches or poses (called asanas) that if practiced regularly, would help them to sit in meditation for longer and longer periods of time without pain.  As a bonus, these ancient yogis found that these poses also increased their energy and vitality.  It seems that today’s research proves them right!

A typical Hatha yoga class with my teacher always begins with us sitting comfortably, eyes shut and mind focused inward. We chant Om three times and then we begin our movements.  Salutation to the sun is a moving posture that is done three times and provides a nice warm-up for the more difficult poses to come.  Poses with names such as the cobra, the fish, the bow, the short boat, the warrior, and the shoulder-stand make up the repertoire of every session.  There are countless poses and we constantly try new ones.  After the smoothly flowing series of poses, we go into the relaxation portion of the class. In the corpse position, flat on our backs, arms away from the body with palms facing up and legs slightly spread, we are guided by our teacher through carefully choreographed relaxation exercises.  We tighten our fists and then release them, we clench our jaws and then release them, and in this way, we work our way through our whole bodies.  On and on this goes until we feel as if our bodies are melting into the mats beneath us.  Cautioning us to let our bodies sleep while we keep our minds awake, the teacher guides us into the “yogic sleep”.  After a period of time (five to fifteen minutes), she slowly helps us awaken our bodies.  Once we are all sitting up again (some of us are loathe to leave the wonderful pose!), we practice some controlled breathing. We close with a short chant in Sanskrit that translates as this prayer:  May all people everywhere experience sweetness in their lives.  The final step in our yoga practice is perhaps the most beautiful part of all to me. Each person puts his/her palms together at the chest, bows his/her head slightly and says “Namaste” to the group.  Namaste (pronounced naw-maw-stay) might best be translated today like this: the spirit (or divinity or God) in me recognizes the spirit (or divinity or God) in you. This part always moves me deeply because it addresses my own need to acknowledge that there is Something greater than us.

Five years later, I continue to attend the same yoga class along with one of the friends that joined with me originally.  Why am I so committed to this activity?  Yoga came to me in a period of my life when I was extremely overweight, hitting my fifties, hurting with sciatica and suffering my fair share of stress and anxiety (or not so fair share, who knows?).  I was desperately in need of the benefits of yoga.  The blessing was that even when I was at my fattest, I could still do yoga.  I couldn’t do the poses perfectly but it didn’t matter.  Yoga is not competitive.  Anyone with any body shape or body condition can do yoga. Yoga is about doing the best you can with your body at any given time.  Our teacher says to imagine in our minds that we are doing the poses perfectly.  Truly liberating to me is that our teacher has us all close our eyes during class.  She explained that if we close our eyes, we are concentrating on our own bodies and as a result, we pay closer attention to what WE can do, and we end up with fewer injuries.  If I thought that everyone could have seen me in those first few sessions, I would have been too embarrassed to continue.  I could not do what my thin and trim friends could do, nor could I do what the twenty-year-old Gumby next to me could do! Still can't and don't care. As long as no one else could see how my rolls and bulges prevented me from bending more compactly (strap a couch cushion to your middle and try bending over and you will know what I felt like!), I was happy to keep trying.  An excellent teacher, my yoga instructor was always positive and encouraging and patient with her very fat student.  I found that with yoga, my anxiety and stress levels went down.  The night of the week that I always sleep the best is the night I have yoga class.  The sciatica pain only appears now when I miss two consecutive yoga sessions.  I found that the simple and spiritual (but non-religious) components of yoga contained in the meditation, chants and the beautiful Namaste ending are truly satisfying to me at this stage of my life.

Yoga for who?  From baby yoga that is parent-facilitated (ask my daughter what her 6-month-old son’s favorite pose is) to chair yoga for those physically not able to get up and down off the floor (cancer clinics, cardio rehab clinics, assisted living facilities, etc.), there is a yoga practice for every age and ability level. 

Trust in the Mayo Clinic.  We  Saskatchewanites (residents of Saskatchewan) of the Canadian prairies surely did!