The Essence of Summer

Online dating brought my wife and me together. It was inevitable. We had so much in common. A love for running, reading, dogs, history, travel, Victoria.

However, it might have been something that wasn’t in our online profiles that sealed the deal.

Camping.

I think we were the only two people on match.com who didn’t rave about camping. Or at least pretend to love it.

We might be the only two people in British Columbia who don’t camp.

Maybe it’s because we’re both from Ontario.

I’ve lived in BC for over ten years. I’m proud to reside here. Fortunate to raise my daughter in a beautiful and prosperous province where people flock from all over the world to both visit and live.

Yet Ontario will always feel like home. Because it was home for three and a half decades. Not just for my formative years. I was creeping up on early middle-age when I left.

And I noticed differences when I arrived. Subtle but very real.

In Ontario, people go to the movies.

In B.C., I hear, “have you seen that show?”

“No, which one?” I reply, thinking maybe I’m being asked about “Seinfeld,’ or “Breaking Bad.” Thinking I’m being asked about a television show.

Instead, the response I get is, “Star Wars (Episode One Thousand: Attack on the Audience).”

I say, “No I haven’t,” while my inner voice screams “It’s a movie, not a show!”

There are language differences at work too. In Ontario, I heard the word “copper” daily. Because a police officer was a copper. For example, “That guy I just pulled over is a copper with Hamilton.”

No one says “copper” here. Instead everyone is a “member.” I’m still not used to that. Member of what? Rotary? A golf course? The Jell-O of the Month Club?

These small differences appear at work and at play. My ex and I had a cottage on an island not far from Victoria. Except here everyone called it a cabin. An inconsequential difference. Meaningless. Yet it grated every time I heard it.

Because cottages are very Ontario. Going to the cottage – your own, a friend’s, a rental – is for many people the essence of summer.

The same way that camping is here in B.C. Not everyone owns a motorhome or camper. It just seems like it. Which is understandable, because never-ending forests, pristine lakes, and the mighty Pacific offer incomparable beauty.

All things which I want to see. Which my wife wants to see. However, we want to see them and then drive back to our hotel, with indoor plumbing, a kitchen, cable and the internet.

Our daughter is not from Ontario. British Columbia is her home. It’s her culture. Her friends will camp. She’ll want to camp. She should. She should experience the best that this province has to offer.

Sonja and I owe her that experience. We might do it. Next summer. Perhaps starting by pitching a tent in the backyard. Still a pretty big adventure for a two year old (and for this forty-seven year old). And maybe that evolves. Maybe Sonja and I open our minds and try something new. Maybe we embrace our adopted province and start camping.

Or, dear reader. My friends. The ones with little kids, tents, RVs. Maybe you can take her for a few days. Just a few. She’s cute, funny, full of personality, and won’t take up much space in your camper.

While you’re gone Sonja and I will rent a cabin and watch a show.

Hey I’m trying.

One step at a time.

The Essence of Summer

Thankful for the Bus

Victoria is commuter hell.

Hell on a different scale than L.A., or Vancouver, or Toronto. But hell nonetheless.

Bike lanes, mountain views and ocean living, do nothing to tackle the fundamental problem, a car culture where tens of thousands of drivers, a handful of main roads, and many chokepoints make for much frustration.

Most cities experience similar issues. Unlike Victoria, they adapt. In southern Ontario, ‘GO’ trains and buses are part of the fabric of life in the Greater Toronto Area. Quality transportation in the midst of traffic chaos.

Not so Victoria. Train tracks rust – totally unused. And buses are “Loser Cruisers,” filled with the the poor, mentally ill, drunks, creeps, criminals. And students. Few would actually say those words out loud, but that is the popular perception. None of my colleagues take the bus to work, though for many of them it would be an inexpensive and plausible alternative to expensive gas and long delays. The same could be said for most workplaces in Victoria. But for every man or woman in a business suit who steps off a bus in the morning, ten luxury cars speed by, battling for rare parking in the congested downtown core.

I’m part of the car culture. Usually. 40K in, 40K home, 4 days a week, doing my part to clog the lone highway connecting Victoria to the rest of Vancouver Island.

But sometimes I take the bus, one of the few commuter ones that actually service the area. Fewer stops and a little more comfortable than the rest of the fleet. For a price. Ten bucks a ride instead of three.

I run to the bus stop, with a yellow reflective vest on my torso and a bright headlamp leading the way. My arrival is a glowing and infrequent interruption in the daily routine of the handful of commuters who are always there. They see one another every weekday. Nod. Exchange pleasantries. Develop friendships.

I’m the strange guy who shows up occasionally, always sweating. I drop my knapsack, stretch and sometimes duck behind the bus shelter and change my shirt. An oddity disrupting, or perhaps enlivening, their daily routine.

There’s always a seat for me, although it’s not always pleasant. Last week I boarded, found a spot, and, on the seat next to me were the dirty shoes of the guy sitting across from me, sprawled out like he was on the couch in his home. I wanted to smack him. I settled for glaring instead.

A couple of days before that, a lean, rough-looking guy in his twenties smacked my arm hard as he exited the bus. I was pissed. He got my death stare. But he never saw it. He never once looked back to see the extent of my anger, let alone to offer an apology. He just charged off the bus. I wanted to hit him too.

Near assaults aside, I like riding the bus. I read and write. Think or don’t think. Rest and recharge. Remind myself how lucky I am to be travelling to a job that is occasionally rewarding, often challenging, and rarely physically exhausting.

Because the bus is full of construction workers whose job must drain them daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. Their commutes are longer than mine – an hour, each way, morning and night. Toiling in the heat, saturated in the rain, freezing in the cold. The yellow vests they wear are for safety on dangerous job sites. They always look weary, both before and after the long days they spend building roads and homes in Victoria. A city they probably can’t afford to live in. A city many working families increasingly can not afford to live in. Or near.

Last week, as I waited to board a bus home, an intoxicated male fell on the sidewalk. Several people watched. Me and another male went to him. He was okay. Hot on a blistering day. Drunk but not obliterated. He declined an ambulance. And a friend came to be with him.

I boarded my bus, thankful that the drunk didn’t follow.

Thankful to be heading home.

Thankful for the bus.

 

 

 

I Killed It

I killed a tree.

Not intentionally. But my ignorance and indifference sealed its fate.

We moved into our new house last July. It hadn’t rained for weeks and wouldn’t rain for another month. A young Japanese Maple stood alone and unprotected, near the road and beside our driveway. The previous owners must have nurtured it from a sapling to tree adolescence.

A welcoming note greeted us the first time we walked into our new home. Helpful tips and useful information from the former owner. Included in her note was an offer to transplant the Japanese Maple if we didn’t want it. She obviously loved it, and wanted it at her new home.

That tree didn’t ask much of us. It didn’t ask anything. But it needed water. The entire island was dry. Water restrictions in our neighbourhood forbade watering lawns. Some people did anyway, their lush green grass proof of their guilt. But we played by the rules.

Except I didn’t know all the rules. I could have hand watered that tree. But I didn’t. I never gave it a thought. Barely looked at it.

By September, when rain fell, it was too late. My wife said, “that tree is dead,” even though leaves still clung to the branches. It was the first time I’d given the tree more than a brief glance.

It rained a lot last winter. And rained more in the spring. Now I looked at it often. Daily. Hoping to see a bud. Hoping for a sign of life. By April colours and shoots emerged all over our property. But not on the lone maple. I asked my neighbour what he thought. He said the tree was a late bloomer, that it always had been, that it was not dead. But weeks passed and nothing happened.

I took my saw, cut through the base, dug out the roots, hacked it up and threw the remains in a compost bag.

The hole it left behind didn’t remain unfilled for long. We bought another. A tiny one. A different shade of red. It was my daughter’s height. Maybe smaller.

Into the ground it went, surrounded by new soil, mixed with compost and some mulch. And water.

The first few days I looked for signs of death. Brown leaves. Withered limbs. Any indication that the planting had not taken. It grew slowly. Leaves emerged. A lot of them. Small. Muted. Lovely.

Another summer arrived. Another drought, as bad, if not worse than last year. Our lawn is browning. Our yard unbearably hot under the cloudless sky and scorching sun.

Every morning I water our new tree. One or two big cans. Every night my wife or I do it again.

It’s hanging in there. Maybe not thriving, but not dying either. Every day I look at that tree hoping it makes it to the next day.

I don’t want to kill this one.

Our new tree (2)

 

Needles and Blackberries

I like to run before work, especially in the summer when it’s light before 5:00 a.m., never too hot and rarely too cool.

Sometimes I start at the office, head east, battle a steep incline and reach Summit Park. There’s rarely anyone there. Most Victorians don’t even know it exists. Which is too bad, and great. Acres of meadows, beautiful views and guaranteed peace nestled in the midst of a picturesque old neighbourhood. A neighbourhood surrounded by busy arterial roads. Which is probably why Summit Park is little known and never busy.

There’s always something to see. Sometimes it’s a red sunrise, bright and iridescent. Occasionally I see deer, rabbits or other runners. Their presence adds to the magic of an early morning run.

Not everything adds to the magic. Like the junkie, sitting in a battered sedan. He slouched backwards in the driver’s seat, one foot out the door, slurping a Big Gulp while I sprinted past doing intervals. When he drove away – finally – I threw out the garbage he left strewn behind.

Lately I’ve ended my runs at Summit Park by foraging for food. Blackberries, ripened by searing heat and easily accessible despite the thorns that protect them. The first time I saw the blackberries I put a handful into the pocket of my shorts, and hoped they didn’t squish into jam on the way back. They didn’t, although the stains may never disappear. So now I bring a small container, fill it in minutes, and savour the berries, one by one, throughout the day. Something feels natural and right about that.

The run home is a breeze. Mostly downhill. Right past Topaz Park. A bigger park, closer to the office. Closer to downtown. The other day, two syringes, still packaged, lay in the street. Unused. Dropped by an addict. Waiting to be picked up by another addict.

When I moved to Victoria, I was shocked by the prevalence, and openness of hard-core drug use. Addicts clustered around the needle exchange on Cormorant Street. Dozens of them. Openly injecting all night long. Or waiting for their next fix. It was eerie. Like nothing I’d ever seen in suburban Ontario. Not even close. And it was sad too. Broken people, most of them beyond help.

That was ten years ago. Before the fentanyl crisis. I wonder how many of them are dead now.

Addicts are part of the landscape here. Acceptable. Expected. The ‘Sharps’ containers in public places tell the tale – at the airport, in coffee shops, in the vans staffed by medical professionals and volunteers who roam our streets. Helping the afflicted. But enabling them too.

Here are just some of the headlines when I Googled, “needle pricks Victoria”

Child Pricked by Discarded Needle at McDonald’s Restaurant

Dog Walker … Pricked by Discarded Needle Left in Paper Bag

Woman Pricked by Needle Placed in Downtown Victoria Planter

Google didn’t have to scour the archives for those results. All three are from 2018.

Several weeks ago, I spent time in a park in the downtown core. It’s actually a cemetery beside Christ Church Cathedral. The church is magnificent, both in size and beauty.

I found three needles amidst the gardens and shrubs that border the cemetery. Three more potential headlines, in one portion of one park, in a city full of them.

In his most recent ‘Reacher’ book, author Lee Child wrote that, “People are complicated.” The phrase has stuck with me for months, for its simplicity and accuracy.

Not just people. Life is complicated. Cities are complicated.

Morning runs are complicated. Morning runs which bring me so much pleasure and yet remind me that our world is full of pain.

Needles and Blackberries.

Needle

 

Blackberries 2

 

The Wrong Amount of Cynicism

In my last piece, I wrote about how my friend Mark has the right amount of cynicism to enhance his writing.

I think I may have the wrong amount. Not for writing, but for life.

Two weeks ago my wife Sonja and I took our daughter Molly to the beach. Sonja supervised while Molly swam. I took over when Molly toddled to the playground. When I glanced back at Sonja I saw her talking to an older man I did not know. They seemed engrossed in conversation. A couple of minutes later I looked again. It wasn’t a conversation. Sonja was on the receiving end of a monologue.

Molly scampered back to the water and I followed. We built sand castles, waded up to her waist and splashed around. When we packed up ten minutes later Sonja was still being talked at. Molly and I walked over and Sonja introduced me to the man. Probably the first words she’d spoken in fifteen minutes. He was in his seventies. Fit. Amiable. We exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t stick around.

Later, Sonja told me she’d enjoyed talking to him. He’d led a fascinating life. Military service, law enforcement, travel, successful children.

My response – “I wonder if anything he said was true?”

Sonja is kind, smart, and a good judge of character. She believed he was truthful.

I hope she’s right.

My cynicism may be a product of being a cop for almost 20 years. Or maybe I became a cop because it’s a profession where cynicism is a necessary tool. People lie to the police. Normal people. All the time. “I only had two beers officer. I’m fine to drive.” Or, “no I didn’t hit my wife, she fell and hurt herself.” Regular people sometimes do awful things, and, not surprisingly, don’t want to be arrested.

I want to believe people. Whether I’m speaking to them at work, or along a beach in Shawnigan Lake, somehow, my first instinct remains to do so. That inclination remains deep within me.

But I’ve developed a filter. A combination of gut-feeling and analytical evaluation.

It’s a necessary filter at work. It can be helpful in everyday life. But it colours the way I see the world, and I’m not sure I like that. It’s a short step from cynicism to negativity and anger.

A week later, Sonja, Molly and I were in a different park in a different city. Molly played, while we socialized with a friend.

A woman I did not know joined the conversation. A mother, she too was there with her child. I listened while this mother, and our friend talked about children, and nature.

The mother steered the conversation to how this park which we all stood on was on “stolen land” and how she struggled with explaining that concept to her daughter. The mother assumed everyone present agreed.

I didn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately I agreed but with a giant asterisk. Pick anywhere on the globe where humans live and look back in time – sometimes ten years, sometimes ten thousand – and chart the history of civilizations, populations, and borders constantly changing. Nations and nationalities rise and fall, merge and move, live together in peace and devour each other in conflict. History is complicated and messy. Like life.

I didn’t speak up in the park. I was not cynical about this mother’s sincerity. Far from it. Her convictions were heartfelt and sincere.

But I was cynical about her assuming that my friend and I agreed with her premise.

Which made me angry. Quickly. So I said nothing.

It is not my intention to write about Canada’s Native population and the sad and tragic history which has resulted in so much suffering. Except, I will say this. I believe that one of Canada’s great strengths is our multiculturalism. Not the theory of multiculturalism, but the reality of it. We have built a nation in which ethnic groups and nationalities from all over the world live together. And it works pretty well, most of the time. Except our First Nations aren’t part of that. And I’m not sure that we are taking any meaningful steps to address that. I read and hear much about reconciliation. I worry that it is an empty word, comprised of well meaning gestures, and ten or twenty years from now, nothing will have changed.

I read my own words, and worry too, that they lack compassion.

That I am too quick to dismiss the suffering of others.

That I am too willing to believe that a nice man lied to my wife on a beautiful day in the hot sun along a quiet beach.

That instead of remaining silent in the park, I should have spoken with that mother. Engaged with her point of view. Challenged my own assumptions. Opened my mind and considered that maybe she is right and I am wrong.

I worry that I have the wrong amount of cynicism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspired by Mark and a Dose of Doctor Danica

My friend Mark is a writer and photographer. Mark’s compassion, wonder, and wit, combined with a healthy dose of cynicism make each of his blog posts a joy to read. Each photo complements every word. Check out his blog at walkacrossitall.com.

Mark’s pursuit of his passions inspired this blog. Writing is integral to the person I am. Yet I’ve stopped writing. I’m challenging myself to write regularly and asking you to read it if you like it and delete it if you don’t.

Mark re-entered my life recently. Electronically at least. I never wanted him to leave it. But we drifted when life intervened. As it does.

Not many years ago, Mark helped get me through my darkest days. My ex-partner’s cancer diagnosis rattled me like nothing before. Until I rattled again, just a few months later when our decade long relationship ended during her treatment. I retreated to a basement suite. I retreated into myself.

Mark buoyed me at my lowest ebb. We worked together, laughed together and drank beer in the park together. Every Thursday night meant growlers, gossip and Capoeira in Victoria’s Central Park. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art. We didn’t practice it but we certainly enjoyed watching the best combination of beautiful lithe bodies, and not so beautiful not so lithe bodies we’d ever seen contorting in public. “Capoeira” became a codeword for Thursday nights. Capoeira was spiritual gold when I was spiritually bankrupt.

Mark and I became vegans at the same time together too. Not surprising for me. The world is full of scrawny running vegans. But Mark is big and strong and outgoing. Not the stereotypical vegan. His courage to pursue a lifestyle that many still raise their eyes at, helped give me the courage to live my beliefs.

When I began to feel more like a whole person again, I tried online dating. In my profile I described myself as Reader, Writer, Runner.

I met a beautiful and very special woman. Sonja is my wife now. Before we married, we had a daughter. Molly was born on my 45th birthday. A gift beyond comprehension.

Life changed. As it does.

Reading, once a daily ritual, became a rare luxury.

Running never left me. It just changed. Less time to train, fewer miles, and different goals. Goodbye sub-three hour marathon. Instead running became its own essence. The pursuit of physical and mental health.

Goodbye writing. The most difficult and least enjoyable of the three, it was easy to stop making the effort when time came at such a premium.

But then Mark inspired me. With words from France. With his example – taking the time to be true to himself, while still being a wonderful husband and father.

I read Mark’s latest posts while Sonja and I were in Victoria on a mini-vacation. Molly burst with joy everywhere we went: petting goats in Beacon Hill Park, riding a big red bus, sitting beside her dad eating bacon for breakfast. I burst with joy every moment too, with my ladies at my side.

As we were about to leave town, I called my friend Danica. I hadn’t seen her in almost three years. We’d barely communicated. She had never met Molly. Yet I still felt close to her. She was yet another friend I had let slip through my life.

We parked outside Danica’s home and I called her. She wasn’t far away, walking her dog. We drove to her. Embraced. Showed off Molly. Walked. Talked. Laughed.

We ended up in a nearby park. Molly climbed to the top of a slide. Four to six feet off the ground. There was sand on the slide. Molly slipped, fell backwards, and hit the ground. Sonja and I were too far away to catch her. Too far away to see where she hit, or how she hit. We were close enough to see her tumble. Close enough to hear her cry. We both ran to her, not knowing what we were about to find.

It was the most scared I have ever been. I didn’t know if my daughter had been critically hurt. My head went to the worst place imaginable.

Sonja picked her up. Molly sobbed. Danica stood beside us. In all my worry, I had a sliver of consolation. Danica was a doctor. Doctor Danica. We’d met years earlier in a writing class. She is a talented writer, an accomplished doctor, a mom, a wife and a wonderful human being.

Danica examined Molly. Nothing broken. No bleeding. Head good. Pupils good. Ears good. Moving just fine.

It may be the most thankful I have ever been.

When Molly stopped crying I told her she was brave and strong and asked her if she wanted to climb back up the slide. She did. Up she went, and down she went. This time sliding, not falling.

It may be the most proud I have ever been.

We didn’t spend long with Danica. A few minutes before the fall, a few minutes after. But she inspired me. She is pursuing her passions. For teaching children about nature, and the environment and the connectivity of all things.

The next morning my family was back home. Molly could not stop talking about Dr. Danica, asking for “story about Molly fell and Dr. Danica.” So, with a little help from dad, Molly called Dr. Danica. They talked for a few minutes. Molly asked Dr. Danica if she had any toys, and if she liked pink cars. My heart warmed.

There are quite a few Marks and Dr. Danicas in my life. If you’re reading this, there is a good chance you are one of those people. Someone who is important to me. Someone whose friendship I value. Someone who has shared good times with me, and helped me through bad times. Someone I’ve let slip out of my life.

Mark and Dr. Danica reminded me of the importance of keeping the people that matter close.

Mark and Dr. Danica inspired me to write again.

Daryl

Driving

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