I hope that writing a blog is like riding a bike, a skill which once learned is never quite forgotten. Such hope comforts me as I sit in Ottawa airport on a mid-October afternoon and start to write. It was five months ago that I returned from my last visit to the Balkans, and a lot has happened in the interim. I don’t want this to read like a diary but, to quote my grandmother, stories always go best if you start at the beginning. So here goes.
It had been a very hectic first part of the year. I was on sabbatical and so had some luxury of time to travel, but three bereavements had added a layer of stress which had not been anticipated. By the middle of May I felt like my old cousin Jimmy [Captain Cook] must have done, wrung out from so much time in strange and distant lands. There was an old TV show which celebrated the “place where everyone knows your name”, but when that’s an Air Canada lounge it becomes a bit disconcerting.
My body agreed, and three days after getting home I was in the emergency department at our local hospital. If you want gory details then I’ll share those off-line but suffice it to say that my back blew out and I could hardly move – sitting, standing, lying down, all were agony. The doctors probed and prodded, sampled and tested, x-rayed and ultra-sounded, and in the end told me it was probably muscular. “Probably” is not the kind of thing one likes to hear in a diagnosis but that’s what I got. They gave me some decent drugs, though, and I remember the end of May and beginning of June through a haze of rain and pain killers. The rain was good, as I didn’t feel upset at not getting in to my garden. I discovered the joys of massage therapy, something I’d never done before and to which I am now addicted. I also had some physiotherapy, and every now and then remember to do my exercises.
The summer on PEI this year was epic, weeks of sun and heat, rain in the right places (and mainly at night), a gentle breeze. Through July and early August, I taught a summer school course and was fortunate (or senior!) enough to be given a classroom with air conditioning, so that went well. I was also Acting Dean for a while, when the proper Dean was on holiday, and for the first time met a Drone Parent.
“What’s that?” you ask. Well one day the admin. person phoned me to say there was a call for the Dean and could I take it. Sure, I said. The connection didn’t come through to me so I returned the call. A lady answered. I then listened as she told me about how wrong it was that our B.Ed. classes were being held in Memorial Hall, the Education Faculty building, where there was no air conditioning. It was impossible to focus when it was so hot. And to be fair, we were having a spell where it was 29 degrees outside, 38 when one factored in the humidity, and our classrooms and offices were starting to represent a sauna. We had tried to have new classrooms assigned but had been told by the people in charge of such things that all classrooms were booked, and we’d just have to make do with what we had.
I explained that we were trying our best, with fans and such, and that if she could hang in there then things would change as the weather would hopefully break soon. On PEI it’s not like southern Ontario, we don’t usually get more than a week or so of hot sticky weather.
“It’s not me,” she said, “it’s my daughter. She’s coming home from university exhausted. It’s not safe for her to even drive, I had to go into town and pick her up yesterday.”
Well, to say I was gobsmacked (to use a colloquial expression from Yorkshire) would be an understatement. Our B.Ed. program is an after-degree one, which means that participants have already completed at least one 4-year degree and have often worked for a while as well, prior to applying. So, the youngest candidates are in their mid-twenties. I recognize that times have changed but at that age I was a department head at a school in Papua New Guinea, married, and getting on with my life. Sally and I would spend weekends in a long house at Tambunum, a village on the Sepik River.
The only time my mother got involved in our lives was when she and my youngest brother Michael came to visit. We were returning down the river one evening when the outboard motor on our dugout canoe stopped, it had become clogged with weeds. The Sepik is a pretty big river, full of crocodiles and water snakes and sawfish and the like, and it was getting dark. Our boatman used a paddle to steer us across the current towards the shore, where he could then try and fix the motor.
Sally, trying to be helpful, drew upon her upbringing playing around on canoes in northern Ontario and started to walk to the front of the canoe, so she could grab hold of some reeds and hold us in place. The rest of us, who did not grow up in northern Ontario, sat petrified in the body of canoe – basically, a hollowed out 20’ log – while Sally walked to the front. On the gunwales. Over our heads. At which point we discovered that my mother couldn’t swim. And that she knew a lot of interesting words.
All this went through my mind as I listened to the lady complain about the impact which the heat in the classroom had on her daughter. At the very least, I thought, it would have been good for the daughter to have been the one to contact me. Did she even know her mother was calling? What would she say if I walked into the class and mentioned that because someone’s mother had called to complain, we were going to try to resolve the situation? Would she have been mortified and embarrassed, or have just shrugged it off as normal? I didn’t know, and I didn’t try to find out. Instead, I explained that as Acting Dean, I had no power. And even as real Dean, I had no authority to spend our meagre Faculty budget on air conditioning. But what I could do was give her the name and telephone number of the Vice-President (Facilities), who did have both a budget and authority. Which I did.
The next day we got a phone call from the VP’s office, asking what the heck I was playing at, so I explained that perhaps I was wrong, and the fiscal climate had changed, but I didn’t think I could just go out and buy air conditioning units. It was acknowledged that I was correct. The day after that we got another phone call, telling us that all our classrooms had been changed for the rest of the summer, and we were now going to be teaching in a building which did have air conditioning.
So that’s a drone parent. Not content to hover in the background like a traditional helicopter parent, this new model gets right down and involved in what’s going on. It’s amazing how things change.
The rest of the summer was a lot more normal. On weekends and off-days I dug and delved in the garden, slowly bringing it to nearer to the place I would like it to be. I took the last couple of weeks in August as holiday, and we got the pond lined days before we had a ‘significant rain’ event. The harvest started in August as well, with beans and beets, then has continued into the fall with squash, pumpkins, leeks, carrots, parsnips, onions, and even watermelons.
So here it is, October already, and the last few months have given me time to ponder on life and make some decisions. First, I decided that continuing to drive my 10-year old Ford Ranger pick up truck back and forth from the garden was getting to be awfully expensive, the fuel economy is just not there. I needed something a bit more economical, more of a runabout that had good mileage and would give me a pleasant drive both in the city and on the highway. So the truck is now based out at Victoria’s, and I’m really enjoying my new Audi Q5!
Second, I started to think about what I really wanted to do and decided that sitting in an office or going to meetings was not on that list. I still enjoy teaching, and from my student surveys it seems that I remain pretty good at it, but I also recognize that there are many younger people whose school experiences are much fresher than mine, and who can contribute to the Academy in ways that I now find boring. So, a couple of weeks ago I submitted my letter, informing the President that I intend to retire from the University at the end of June 2019.
All I’ve read about this momentous decision informs me that one should not retire from something but rather, retire to something. And that’s what I intend to do. I plan on going back to the type of work I enjoyed during my early years, when I was an Art teacher and practised painting, sculpture, photography, writing, and other creative activities. I’m hoping also to engage in some short-term contracts, both domestic and international, that allow me to continue to contribute to the field of educational development. And I’m looking forward to really making the garden work, both as a source of food for family and fiends but also as a plant nursery and, perhaps, even a market garden.
I shall continue this blog, with reflections on life as it evolves, but it might change its focus a bit. If you’re not comfortable with that, thank you for reading until now and don’t feel shy to unsubscribe. But if you want to keep up to date with what’s happening, I’ll try to keep you informed.
But now it’s time to board my plane, and fly home – just in time for Decriminalization Day, when marijuana will be legal in Canada. But more on that later!