Bubbling Along

There are farm stands all over the Island selling pumpkins and squash, corn cobs and hay bales, turnips and zucchini. Some of these are eaten, most become decorative so as not to interfere with Burger Love (seriously: https://peiburgerlove.ca/); at least there’s no Porktoberfest this year.

Some of the huge orange pumpkins are no doubt being kept and will be carved for Halloween, the next festival in the run-up to Christmas, but many are being used now. As you drive around you see them sitting on many doorsteps, and often there is a display of corn stalks, large green zucchini and yellow squash as well, all artfully arranged on a hay bale and offset by a pot of red or orange chrysanthemums, or a planter of multicoloured kale. A colourful cornucopia of all that this land can offer us.

No wonder my First Nation friends call it the “You’re Welcome” weekend.

In the USA they celebrate Thanksgiving in November. After the election.

Our main meal tends to be a big roast turkey, with a breaded sage and onion stuffing at one end and sausage meat at the other, served with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted squash, carrots, gravy, etc., as side dishes. On the Island there is a certain pride at stake as well, as it is acceptable to murmur (not brag!) that “I grew all these myself, you know.” Unfortunately, we can’t have any guests this year, so I’ll mention it to you instead!

A week or so ago, in my first blog for six months, I managed to avoid focusing on the two items which have dominated our news cycles recently. I tried to encapsulate some of the things that have been going on as well as the global pandemic, but which might have been lost in the noise of COVID19. Indeed, of the 25 stories that I mentioned, only 3 related to the coronavirus, and only one referred to the US election.

I’ve since heard from a few of you who’ve agreed that it’s been a dismal year, or a totally f**ked up one as someone phrased it, and I’ve heard from others who’ve told me in no uncertain terms that my litany of woes wasn’t really helping! I agree – but as I asked in my ‘End Time Blues’ blog of last December, before this all started, “Does one simply turn off all the newsfeeds and pretend nothing is happening?”

Perhaps we should. In Canada, we have been very fortunate when compared to many other countries. We have not experienced the tragedies that have occurred in Italy, Spain, the UK, or other parts of Europe. We have not been exposed to the chaos and carnage of Mexico, Brazil, India, or the United States. So, in many ways, living in Canada is to live in a small little bubble in the world.

Within Canada, the Maritime provinces are in their own little bubble as well. Most of the Canadian cases are in the larger and more urbanized provinces of Quebec and Ontario, with significant numbers also in Alberta and British Columbia. Here on the east coast our numbers have been a lot lower, with fewer than 2000 cases and less than 100 deaths across all four provinces.

And within the Maritimes, our little Island seems to be in its own bubble as well, with 59 reported cases that have all recovered, and no hospitalizations or deaths at all.

So, if I turn off the news and ignore what has been happening in the world these past six months, here are some of my experiences from living in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble, as cocooned from reality as one might possibly be without pharmaceutical assistance.

The first couple of months of COVID were challenging here, as they were everywhere. The Island pretty much closed itself off from the world. The ferry service was cancelled, as were most flights, and a checkpoint was established on the Confederation bridge. A few ‘essential workers’ were still allowed in, plus Islanders who had been stuck somewhere else and were coming home, but that was it. Seasonal residents and tourists were banned. ‘Foreign’ number plates (from Ontario or Quebec, for example!) were identified and reported. Restaurants and bars were closed, as were many shops and service providers. We were allowed to travel pretty freely on the Island, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. My working life stopped – it’s hard to be an international consultant when there are no planes flying. I did manage to teach a course for the University of Saskatchewan, but instead of having a couple of weeks in Saskatoon, which the late great Leonard Cohen described as the ‘Paris of the Prairies’, I had to pivot online.

Slowly things started to ease up a little and by the beginning of July, the Atlantic bubble was established. At the same time live music returned to the Island, with small concerts being organized. These were limited to 50 people, seated at socially distant tables, and were nerve-wracking for all concerned. For the audience, we weren’t sure quite how things were going to work. For the musicians, some hadn’t been on a stage since February and were learning their craft all over again. But it was good to get out, good to support people who needed it, good to be part of an audience. We have a lot of fabulous musicians here on the Island, and with the Atlantic Bubble we even managed to attract a couple from Nova Scotia. So that was all good.

And as we moved into July, we were blessed with an incredible summer, with 99 days where the temperature exceeded 20 degrees Celsius. It was supposed to be 100 days but on the last day the ‘official’ thermometer at the airport stopped at 19.6, so we can’t claim it. Even though my car told me it was 21 degrees outside.

I spent the summer in my garden, planting flowers and growing food. Victoria and I grew lots of things from seed and most of them transplanted well. I have nearly finished landscaping the pond, and that has now attracted a dozen frogs from two distinct species. Five of my goldfish survived the winter, to my amazement, and were a joyful sight in the early spring. Then they disappeared. I found a couple of dozen corn husks lying around and figured they had been brought down by racoons, who often wash their food before eating it. Perhaps they had then scooped out my fish as well. After a couple of weeks, I went back to the pet shop and bought seven new goldfish. They seemed to acclimatise pretty well. Then one day there were twelve goldfish in the pond, five big ones and seven little ones.

This was a bit of a shock, as the pond is only about 4 feet deep. I have no idea where the missing five had been for three weeks. But I know what they were doing.

In mid-summer, the seven new goldfish were now medium sized, and all 12 would swim around, in and out of the lily pads, all very dramatic. Then I saw some minnows. Half a dozen or so, very small black fish. I was flummoxed. The pond is a self-contained unit, with no stream or creek connecting it to anywhere else. Where could minnows have come from, I wondered.

Victoria told me, authoritatively, that ducks often transported small minnows from one water source to another. She described in detail how the duck, swimming around in pond or stream A, would not realize that a minnow had got caught up in its leg feathers. The bird would then fly to pond or stream B, where it would paddle around, and the minnow would get shaken off into the new body of water. This of course made perfect sense to me and in the absence of any other information, became the accepted origin story.

The next day there were 20 or so minnows, the day after another 20. There are now over a 100 of them, and they have not only grown but many have also changed colour. There are gold ones and white ones and multihued ones … they look wonderful, darting through the shallows at the edge of the pond. Not minnows, but baby goldfish. Duck-assisted travellers indeed. Victoria still laughs that I believed her.

I’m not sure how many of my minnows will survive the winter, being stuck under the ice for two or three months. Some are getting to the size of my little finger now, so they might have a chance, but it seems like there have been three hatchings (is that what one calls it, when fish eggs become fish?) because there are three distinctly different sizes of minnow. It will be fun to see what the spring looks like – but if there are a lot then that might be problematic. The pond is rain-filled only, and I don’t know how many fish it can support.

I might have to get one of those long-handled nets and try to catch some. I could put a selection of old jam jars in the back tray of my truck, some empty and some filled with water (and a goldfish), then charge small children $1 to throw a ping pong ball and see if they can land it in a jar with a fish. $2 for three balls. That should be an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market and would no doubt make me really popular with parents!

Of course, this summer was enhanced mightily by the football (soccer) news from England. As some of you know, I am a born and bred Leeds United supporter. Indeed, one of the last things I was able to do, pre-pandemic, was go to Elland Road with my brothers and watch Leeds win. Little did we know it would be the last game in front of spectators for that year, and even for this year so far. Everything got put on hold for over three months, and when the league restarted in early July, we continued to win games, and the Championship, and were promoted to the Premier League. Where we belong. So now, as the winter nights start to draw in, and the cold winds blow, I am warmed by the knowledge that nearly every weekend there will be a Leeds game on TV, and I’ll be Marching On Together with other like-minded souls. Ah bliss.

So that was the summer of 2020. I spent a lot of time in my garden, growing stuff that we have frozen and pickled and canned in the hope that if (or when) things go sideways again, at least we’ll have something to eat. Leeds United won the Championship and got promoted back where they belong. I got to go to a half-dozen or so concerts and thoroughly enjoyed being in one of the few places in the world with live music. I took advantage of the Atlantic Bubble and managed a weekend in Nova Scotia, visiting friends in Cape Breton.

I didn’t learn to speak French properly, or to play the guitar, or to develop any other new skill. I didn’t have to cope with losing family or friends to COVID. I didn’t get restricted to my house except for an hour a day of exercise or limited to a 3-mile radius except for shopping. I didn’t run out of toilet paper or yeast. I just carried on, as one does.

That said, I did lose some good friends. I chafed at not being able to grieve properly, at not being able to provide support to their surviving partners or children, at not being able to attend a funeral or a wake. If 2020 is the year of COVID, it seems like 2021 will be the year of memorial services and celebrations of life.

So, on that note, in closing I would like to use this space to remember five particular people who were lost this year. Richard Rusk, a renowned architect who was my daughter Kate’s father-in-law and who provided much needed help (and comic relief) when we tried to show the wedding guests how to open a lobster; John MacLeod, a good friend and mentor, who for many years was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and who introduced me to the statistical concept of ‘optical significance’; Roni Godwin, the much-loved wife of another friend, Debbie, who taught with me in the Dene community of Black Lake, northern Saskatchewan; Uncle David, my father’s youngest brother and the last of that generation, who used to go shark fishing off Cornwall. All will be missed.

As will be Dr. Steve Wilde, one of my best and longest-standing friends, whom I met on our first day of teachers’ college, in 1971. He was from London, I was from ‘up North’. He was a rabid Tottenham Hotspur fan, which I could never understand, and he played a mean guitar. Over the years we have been a regular part of each others lives, celebrating momentous occasions together. He carried me home from my 21st birthday party, I dragged him out of many ill-advised arguments. With some other friends we were hippie travellers in an old Volkswagen camper across Europe and the Middle-East, on the “Katmandu for Christmas” route, having all the adventures you might imagine five 20-somethings would have at such a time and in such a place.

In India he was struck by the life conditions of the people he met and came back from that trip determined to retrain as a medical doctor, which he did. He visited me in Papua New Guinea, exploring the villages of the Sepik River by canoe and crashing my new truck on a mountain highway, something I never let him forget. I could find his house in England without a map, as he could many of mine in Canada, and rare was the year in the last 49 that didn’t include an evening of food and drink and conversation, not only reminiscing but considering the current issues of the day, before finishing with a wee dram and a song or two from Tom Paxton or Leonard Cohen. My deepest condolences to his wife, Anne, and to his sons Adam and Tim.

Steve, this one’s for you. COYS.

One Hundred Days of Summer

Well here we are – it has been six months since my last blog, and I apologize for that tardiness. It just seems that every time I sit down to write about something I have experienced in the world, something else happens, and I get sidetracked. But yesterday was the last straw. I was reading a story on the BBC website and got introduced to Naegleria fowleri, a threat so ridiculous it sounds like it comes from a Monty Python sketch. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first a review of the year.

Spoiler alert – it is not very happy reading.

Trigger alert – contains references to climate change, armed conflict, societal upheaval, global pandemics, economic devastation, and general human stupidity.

Incompletion alert – this is just a review of some things I have noticed, and I don’t pretend it to be an authoritative summary. Please feel free to add your own stories.

So with those caveats, here we go …

January: The United States authorized the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq; Iran retaliates by firing missiles at US bases and then a Revolutionary Guards unit accidently shoots down a Ukrainian airliner, with 63 Canadians among the 176 people killed.

January: Five earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 to 6.4 hit Puerto Rico over a three-week period, causing $3.1 billion in damage.

January to now: Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Mali, Ukraine and Yemen continue to cause thousands of civilian deaths (as well as military ones). Political and social upheaval continues in Brazil, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, and Venezuela, among other places. Now a war has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

January – March: The Australian bushfires burnt over 18.5 million hectares (46 million acres, which is about 33 times the size of Prince Edward island or 1.4 times the size of England), killing at least 34 people and nearly 3 billion terrestrial vertebrates – mainly but not only reptiles.

January – April: 460 confirmed tornadoes churned across the south-central US, which is worrying as the main tornado season is in the fall.

February – April: hundreds of millions of desert locusts decimated East Africa, swarming all over Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia and causing significant crop damage.

March to now: A worldwide pandemic was declared as COVID19 spread around the world. In my last blog (March 24), I noted that “the number of people infected [by COVID19] world-wide is rising rapidly – it took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise.” Well, the numbers just doubled and then doubled again, and there have now been over 33.1 million cases and over one million deaths.

April: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized and in intensive care with coronavirus.

April: The Great Lockdown led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s; at one-point crude oil was trading at minus $35 a barrel.

April to now: Severe tropical cyclone Harold caused catastrophic damage to South Pacific Islands such as Vanuatu and Fiji (April), Cyclone Amphan tore through India and Bangladesh (May) and Typhoon Maysak was the largest storm ever to hit South Korea (September).

April to now: Las Vegas broke its previous record of no rain for 150 days and as of Monday 28 September has had no measurable rain since 20 April (161 days).

May to now: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has featured a total of 24 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 23 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes, all of which hit the southern US and then (so far) faded out before causing damage to Canada. The season continues for another month.

May to now: Months of civil unrest in the United States followed the death of George Floyd and was exacerbated by other incidents coming to light. In September, the Department of Justice declared three cities – New York, Seattle and Portland (Oregon) – as “anarchist jurisdictions.”

June: The warmest June on record, with temperatures of +1.5C or more above ‘normal’ pretty much everywhere around the world and at one point reaching 38C in Siberia – the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic.

July – now: The wildfires in the western United States burnt over 6.6 million acres (nearly 5 times the size of PEI), killing at least 30 people. There have been minimal reports of animal fatalities.

July – September: Severe flooding in Sudan led to over 120 deaths, while monsoon flooding in South Asia (Indian, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal) resulted in over 1300 fatalities.

August: 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding 5000 others, and leaving 300,000 residents temporarily homeless. 

August: Highest temperature ever recorded on earth of 54.4C reported in Death Valley, California.

August: A derecho caused severe damage across Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and other central states in the US. According to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a derecho “is a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as a squall line, bow echo, or quasi-linear convective system. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of a tornado, the damage typically occurs in one direction along a relatively straight swath.” It now joins “weather bomb” and “polar vortex” as a meteorological word I’d never heard of until recently.

September: Denver broke 14 temperature records (both hot and cold) in 6 days – including going from 34C to -0.5C overnight on 7/8 September.

September: ‘Zombie Tropical Storm’ Paulette re-establishes itself after disintegrating in the south Atlantic.

September: The two contenders for the Presidency of the United States redefine the word “debate”.

October 2, 2020: Today. This is the one hundredth day on PEI where the temperature has met or exceeded 20 degrees Celsius this year. Our ‘normal’ number of +20 days is 79, so this is basically a 25% increase over the annual average. It has made for a gorgeous summer, although the farmers have complained about the lack of rain, and of course there were very few tourists around to enjoy the beaches. But even a sunny day casts some shade, I guess.

It has also just been announced that President Trump and his wife have both tested positive for the Coronavirus. Which is sad, as nobody wants anyone to become ill, but at the same time it does reduce their risk of contracting Naegleria fowleri, the new threat to our world.

If you haven’t heard of this one, it’s quite a doozie. In essence, it’s an amoebic microbe that eats your brain! Interestingly, though, it only infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. This typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, like lakes and rivers. The Naegleria fowleri amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain where it destroys the brain tissue. You can’t get it by drinking contaminated water, or from water vapour such as shower mist, it has to go up your nose.

It seems that Naegleria fowleri has been around for quite some time, but it is now spreading into the northern hemisphere because global warming has increased the water temperature in the lakes and rivers to the point that the amoeba can now survive in places where it was previously absent. And of course, on hot summer days many people tend to jump into any available river or lake, hoping for the cooling effects. If you are part of that group, please try to keep your head above water.

Which is a good way of looking at the world, really.

Pandemiconium

24 March 2020

A month ago, I was sitting at the table in our Portuguese apartment trying to figure out which of three local wines I liked best. The late afternoon sun was shining on the Douro river, the oranges on the trees in the garden were shimmering in a light breeze, and the wines had each cost less than €3 a bottle. Exactly one month later I am sitting at the desk in my home office, trying to figure out what surface to disinfect next. The late afternoon sun is highlighting some of the low grey cloud and reflecting up from the snow drifts in the garden, the leafless branches of the maple trees are swishing urgently in the wind, and the liquor stores are all closed. What a difference a month makes.

I’m in Day 11 of self-isolation and, so far, it’s not going too bad. Mind you, as a colleague from Calgary mentioned, those of who us who have been teaching online or are part of international research networks have been practising for this for a decade! Spending ones day in a home office, communicating by e-mail or FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp, never interacting with a real person except at a distance, only venturing into the living part of the house during the eveningthis is all normal for many academics. What is different, apart from the fact that the rest of the household is now home as well, is that there is a psychological barrier to going outside. In normal times one might stay at home from choice, but maintain the possibility of going out to meet friends for coffeenow that option has been removed.

After Portugal I went to the UK, planning to be there for a couple of weeks. After a week I got spooked by the UK media coverage of the pandemic and called Air Canada. I was able to get an earlier flight back and left London on a Friday morning. Heathrow was eerily empty. I got to Toronto late on Friday afternoon and connected through to home, arriving at 0200 on Saturday.

In Toronto I was delighted to discover that they have a new system in place, where passengers with connecting flights clear customs and immigration in a separate room and then get bussed to the domestic terminal, no longer having to leave the air-side and then re-enter via security. The customs lady was very nice, asked me where I’d been, said welcome back to Canada, and waved me through.

That was it! No health questions, no probing about the places I’d been to in England or Portugal, nothing. Not even a request to check for symptoms over the next week or so. After the screaming headlines in the British press, it was a welcome reprieve, if one I found a little bizarre. The next day I saw a recommendation from Health PEI that returnees from international travel should practice 14 days of self-isolation. So, here I am, with lots of time for thinking. Perhaps too much!

Generally, things are not too bad in Canada, yet. Our daily routines are framed by two events. First, the morning press conference from the Prime Minister, who himself is self-isolating, praising Canadians for all the good things they are doing to keep our country safe. Second, the afternoon press conference from the Provincial Chief Medical Officer [PCMO], telling us off for not maintaining enough distance in grocery stores or buying too many toilet rolls. The good cop – bad cop routine is probably unplanned but is nonetheless very effective.

The PCMO was particularly cross when it was announced that the liquor stores and cannabis shops would be closed at 2:00 pm the next day. Islanders immediately stopped whatever they were doing and rushed off to, lined up for, and crammed into, both kinds of shop. After berating us all for ignoring the rules about social distancing, she did acknowledge, belatedly, that perhaps officials had misjudged what Islanders considered essential! Most people here say they were stocking up because they expected to the bootleggers and dope dealers to be back in business by 2:15 pm and prices would likely go up.

Globally, it seems that a pattern where countries ‘spike’ about a month apartChina in January, Italy in February, Spain in March, and probably the UK in April. I reckon we’re about a month behind the UK and so I’m expecting total chaos here in May or possibly June, unless the warmer weather interrupts things. My calculations might also be thrown out of whack by the situation in the US, especially as we have only just closed that border, and then only to tourists and non-essential travel. There are loopholes in the cross-border agreement big enough to drive a very large truck through.

Things are still relatively quiet here on the Islandwe’re small enough that the government has been able to install road blocks and health checks at the bridge, the ferry terminal, and the airport, so that will help control incoming tourists (or returning residents). Except for people on essential business, everyone who comes to the Island is now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, no matter where they came fromapparently nobody has yet tried to claim a quick trip over to Costco as an essential activity. Most people here are following the new rules, and we’re already seeing ‘social shaming’; the other day someone called out a fellow who was in the supermarket, “You just got back from Florida yesterday, what’re you doing outside?” 

Social shaming, social distancing, self-isolationthe new vocabulary of our times. These phrases are all indicative of a very human response to the COVID19 pandemic.

And yet, there are other elements to this situation that we seem to avoid as discussion topics, ironic realities that are worthy of consideration. For one, isn’t it ironic that those who are taking an individual approach, who view themselves as invincible and are ignoring all the guidelines related to gatherings, are in effect putting the social collective at risk. Whereas those who believe in the social collective, and are making sure they do their best to preserve appropriate distances and so forth, are providing the anti-social individuals with the herd immunity and support they need in order to maintain their individual anti-social actions.

For another, it is helpful to put our minds back a few months. Our main concerns at the end of the second decade of the 21st century were focused on ‘big picture’ issues such as taking steps to combat global warming, being concerned about global overpopulation, countering the insidious nature of the internet, andin Canada at leastworrying about caring for a generally aging population. Isn’t it ironic that COVID19 is addressing all these on our behalf?

Suddenly, global levels of smog and CO2 gases have been reduced significantly, as factories are shut down, planes are grounded, and fewer people are driving cars because their work has been closed. Suddenly, a highly contagious virus with an average fatality rate of 3.4% of infected individuals (14.5% for those over 80 years of age) is starting to ‘flatten the curve’ of global population growth. The number of people infected world-wide is rising rapidlyit took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise. Suddenly, the Internet is starting to collapse under its own weight, as house-bound people under “shelter in place” restrictions try to access entertainment and communications online. Suddenly, there is an expectation of a ‘baby boom’ next December, the outcome of other diversions resulting from long periods of being quarantined at home.

It’s so easy to get swallowed up by all these matters and that way madness lies. It’s a pandemic, yes, but we’ve had others, and no doubt more will come in the future. Right now, the best way to cope with this one is to wash your hands a lot and try not to get too close to other people. Actually, the best advice I heard was from a British epidemiologist. He said, “Don’t worry about catching the virus. Pretend you already have it, and now just make sure you don’t give it to someone else.” If we all did that, if we simply tried not to give the virus to others, then pretty soon nobody would have it.

Once things calm down, hopefully later in the summer but perhaps not until the fall, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the virus has had on the overall life of the planet. In the interim, I’ll finish my 14 days of self-isolation, and then enter a phasethe length of which is unknownof socially distancing myself from others. Because this situation isn’t going to go away, and just because I didn’t bring the virus back from England doesn’t mean that I can’t catch it from someone else. Like everyone else, I shall have to get used to this new normal, of keeping friends and strangers at a 2m distance, of not being able to get my hair cut, of going to the grocery store at odd hours in order to avoid the biggest lines, of not being able to go to movies or plays or concerts. The spring and summer of 2020 are going to be unlike any other period of our lives.

Wherever you are, stay safe. Wash your hands. Avoid crowded spaces.

And remember, even if we each individually are required to keep 2m away from other people, we have the technology to keep in touch and communicate at a distance. There is no requirement that we must become Carthusian hermits, locked away in monastic cells under a self-imposed vow of silence. To be human is to be part of a community, and now more than ever it is important that we all participate in that community.

A pandemic does not need to result in pandemonium.

 

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

Well, we’ve nearly made it through the first two months of the Roaring Twenties, even though it was touch and go sometimes. From swarms of locusts to a virus of plague-like proportions, from monstrous storms churning across the northern Atlantic to catastrophic fires in Australia, from earthquakes to volcanoes to floods – it seems that every day brings some new menace, some biblical pestilence raising its ugly head somewhere in the world.

Indeed, there is so much of the news cycle given over to these catastrophes that nobody seems to have noticed that over 800,000 people have been displaced from their homes by the latest carnage in northern Syria; that the World Bank projects there will be an additional two million Venezuelan refugees and migrants between October 2019 and December 2020; that the western Pacific islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and others are rapidly being inundated by rising sea levels.

And it’s still February!

In the face of such a maelstrom of chaos, what is one to do? Some say that we must make sure we are properly informed, that we should turn our attention levels “up to 11” [thank you, Spinal Tap], that we should seek multiple perspectives and cross-correlate what we are reading. There is less chance, perhaps, of us being taken in by ‘fake news’ if we are subscribing to the CBC, CTV, BBC, Sky News, CNN, and Al Jazeera, to name a few, than if we simply relied on one source. Some go further and suggest we also sign up for Fox News and CCTV, for the sake of balance, but personally I think that would be too much information altogether.

And when it comes right down to it, how will being more aware stop the storms, the fires, the locusts, the waves of refugees fleeing conflict and catastrophe? How will knowing the various political influences and machinations of the world stop the manic behaviours of those for whom power is absolute? It won’t, really.

The only answer, I believe, is to run away. My first thought was to go to my garden and hide in the studio-shed, but the wind was howling, and my snowshoes kept breaking through the top layer of crusty snow, plunging me down through two feet (60 cms) of powder to the next ice-layer. So, I went with my second thought, and I am writing this blog from the Douro valley in northern Portugal.

It’s my first time in Portugal and I must say that it is a most interesting country. We’re staying in a small town called Peso de Regua, which gives us access to most of the wine country of the Douro, an area which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The scenery is stunning, vast terraces carved into the hills, olive groves marking the edges of vineyards or in designated fields. I hadn’t realized that the olives are kept separate from the vines because the olive leaves leach a fatty residue into the soil as they decompose, and the grapes react badly to this compound. I also didn’t know that although the Romans produced wines here, and the valley was the primary source for port wines from the sixteenth century until the present day, the ‘modern’ red and white table wine industry is only about 30 years old. We’ve been to various Quinta, the estates where the grapes are grown, and have learned an amazing amount about port, table wines, and olive oils. I’m not sure how useful this knowledge will be, except to bore people at dinner tables. Be warned!

Even in this quiet little valley, though, the issues I mentioned in the first paragraph are top of mind. People are worried at how dry and sunny it has been, so early in the year – there should be rain through March but instead the cherry blossoms are already out. There is a concern that there might be fires again, as there were a few years ago, when even the grapes which survived were ruined because of smoke damage contaminating the juice.

The growing number of tourists is impacting the cost of living, especially as people buy property and establish holiday homes. Labour shortages develop as young people travel to France, Germany and the UK for work, leaving labour-intensive industries like grape harvesting having to recruit from transient or senior populations. Apartments which used to provide affordable housing to low-income workers are now being upgraded and turned into short-term holiday rentals. In the bigger cities like Porto and Lisbon these issues are of even greater concern, with municipalities imposing tourist taxes to try to mitigate against the overcrowding and residential outmigration experienced by Barcelona and Venice.

We’ve been told that food prices are rising as production and transportation costs increase. Portugal is known for its seafood, and there is an astonishing array of fresh fish at the supermarket. But we have heard that there is not the quantity or the variety that there used to be, and that new species are being caught in what were traditional fishing grounds for cod, mackerel, and hake. Today at the store I saw something called the Black Scabbardfish, Aphanopus carbo, a metre-long black fish with fang-like teeth that apparently is found in deeper waters (200 to 2000 metres) in the eastern Atlantic. However, when I looked it up, I discovered that its range is moving north and west, and it can now be found off Canada and even into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. According to Robins et al., 1991, this is an “important and fabled food fish in Madeira”. One wonders how it would go down in Charlottetown.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the prevalence of single-use plastic bags. They are everywhere. On Prince Edward Island these have been banned, and plastic wrapping of any kind is discouraged. Many Island shoppers take their own refillable containers to the store, and all take their own carrier bags. Any plastic that is acquired is immediately separated for recycling, as are bottles, cans, jars, newspapers, cardboard, and so on. Here, everything gets tossed into a black plastic bag and, presumably, taken to a landfill. There are a few recycling bins on some street corners, but not many, and certainly not enough to make a difference. We have accumulated a drawer full of plastic bags and hope to find an elusive bin before we leave.

Portugal has proven a fine haven from the storms and madnesses of the new decade, but it is not a new Eden. It has its own issues, its own crises to manage, and it must learn to function in our rapidly changing world. As must we all. Like all havens, the Douro valley will soon banish us from its heart. It will be time to return home, to get the grow-lights mounted, and to start planting the seeds that will be transplanted to my garden once the snow has gone. By the time May comes around, hopefully I shall have a new haven in which to hide.

End Time Blues

It’s been a strange few weeks since the witches soared on Samhain night. At times it appears that we are watching the end of the world unravel before us, and then some small incident will provide a spark of hope and light. I think we should try to take more notice of those little things – the family reunited, a lost wallet returned, the Christmas dinner cooked and served by volunteers.

But it’s hard – the sheer volume of the negative swamps all the other messages. I confess to being a bit of a news junkie, and I tend to read and watch and listen to a lot more than I probably need. The 24-hour news cycle results in the same stories rotating, and each repetition simply entrenches that issue more firmly in the mind. I don’t “do” social media to any great extent – I have no Facebook or Instagram pages, and am not part of Twitter – but I do use my phone and e-mail and of course have this webpage. Even as a minimalist pseudo-Luddite on the edges of the technosphere it is hard to ignore all the stories with which we are inundated on an hourly basis. I was moved by this dawning comprehension to put pen to paper and compose a little ditty. I can’t write (or play!) a note but if anyone wants to set these words to music, I’ll split the royalties:

There’s Brexit and Impeachment
And the Australian fires of hell;
There’s a cyclone in the Philippines
And the Amazon burns as well.

The ice caps are all melting
We’re told climate change is not to blame;
It’s flooding in old Venice
And there are ashes by the Seine.

We’re getting ready for the Apocalypse
But when you listen to the news;
It seems it got here early
And I’ve got the End Times blues.

There’s school shootings and car crashes
And an oil spill on the lake;
Our numbers just keep rising
How much more can this earth take?

They legalized old Mary Jane
In the hope we’d tune life out;
But the voices of the teenagers
Are rising in a shout.

We’re getting ready for the Apocalypse
But when you listen to the news;
It seems it got here early
And I’ve got the End Times blues.

Of course, it’s not all as bad as this really, is it? I honestly don’t know. In my little part of the world we are certainly seeing some more severe weather events than we have known in the past. The traditional seasonal patterns appear to be changing, with a longer and wetter spring followed by a longer and drier summer. The fall has seen some intense storms, Erin and Dorian being the biggest in terms of infrastructure damage and economic impact. The forecast is for a heavy snow season through the early part of the New Year, but any suggestion that this is driven by CO2 levels in the atmosphere is tempered by the older generation commenting that this is “the kind of winter we used to have”. So, at my local level, perhaps things are not horrendously bad.

And then I get a Christmas letter from a friend who lives on the east coast of Australia, where the fires are burning out of control and the air quality index of Sydney is now the worst in the world. Sydney, that perfect city, with the white sails of the Opera House and the golden sands of Bondi, now smothered in smog. It seems that Beijing and New Delhi have found a way to outsource their reputations for having the world’s worst air pollution.

It’s not all about climate, of course. I get phone calls and text messages from friends in the UK or the US, inquiring in a “just joking – honest” way about how to get a visa to come and live in Canada. There is bloodshed on the streets of Santiago, Chile, which when we were there in April was reported to be one of the most livable cities in South America. In Colombia, a friend is spending Christmas trying to help her neighbours, families of Venezuelan refugees who are living in the house next door and who are part of a diaspora that rarely makes our northern news. So, at those local levels, perhaps things aren’t very bright at all.

I am afraid I have no answers to these conundrums. Does one simply turn off all the newsfeeds and pretend nothing is happening? Is that better than being overwhelmed with the daily gloom – and recognizing how difficult life must be for the younger generations, who are looking to a most uncertain future. But in the absence of answers, perhaps there is action.

My response was to dry a selection of pole beans, various heritage varieties which I grew over the summer. I’ve put a medley of them together in little jars, 100g in each, and am selling them at the Christmas Craft Market as Apocalixir Beans. The basic premise is that if the Zombie Apocalypse comes, one can hide in the basement and cook the beans and live on them, the elixir of life, until things quieten down. And if there is no Zombie Apocalypse by June, you can plant them in your garden and grow your own crop for next year. It’s only a small response to the chaos around us, but it does make people smile. I sell them at $3.50 a jar, five jars for a cow.

Fe fo fi fum!

With best wishes for the holiday season, and for the new decade ahead.

 

Remember Remember

It’s that time of the year again. These weeks at the end of October and beginning of November mark the change between summer and winter, between lightness and dark, when we switch back from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. These are the days, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, when we celebrate, or at least still recognize, some of the old ways. These are the nights of spirits and witches, of the unknown and the unknowable. Samhain to the Celts and Druids, Día de los Muertos to those who speak Spanish, All Souls Day and the preceding All Hallows Eve, which has now been contracted to Halloween. The time of year when we honour the dead, appease their spirits, pay homage to those whom we fear can communicate with both, and generally prepare ourselves for the dark nights ahead.

We had a Samhain bonfire once, when we lived at Ballantyne’s Cove, a small fishing port in rural Antigonish county, Nova Scotia. I was a new assistant professor and my salary would not cover a house rental in town, so we lived some 35 minutes away in a small A-frame house looking out over the Northumberland Strait. A beautiful location in summer and fall, a darned cold one in the winter. There was a steep slope running down to the water, with a convenient ledge on which to build the fire, and we invited our neighbours to join us for a celebration. Their daughter was the same age as one of our girls, and they knew each other quite well. We told tales of witches and ghosts, drank hot chocolate (enhanced for the adults), and snacked on parkin, a ginger cake from Yorkshire made (albeit less successfully) to my grandmother’s recipe.

As the fire drew down our neighbour invited us to join them for dinner. It was nearly seven, so we protested that it was getting late, but were assured that it would be no trouble, “we have to eat anyway.”

We made our way down to their house, which was closer to the shore, and the girls disappeared to play. Our hostess smiled brightly.

“Do you like roast chicken?”

We agreed that we did.

“Great. I’ll just get one out of the freezer”.

Just before midnight we excused ourselves, declining dessert, and made our weary way back up the hill, past the charred remnants of the ceremonial fire.

“Will we see witches now?” our eldest asked. “It’s getting late and they might be flying around.”

But we didn’t.

There have been other bonfires, other ceremonies. When I was young, we didn’t have Halloween. There were no candle-lit carved pumpkins on our street, no half-buried gravestones on the lawn, no dressed up 10 year olds knocking on the door while anxious parents loitered watchfully at the end of the driveway. What we had was Bonfire Night.

When I was about ten, my brothers and I ‘liberated’ a pair of trousers and a shirt from our dad’s collection, stuffed them with straw, and added a discarded turnip from the greengrocer as a head. An old hat finished the mirage, and after putting the ‘body’ in a wheelbarrow we would wander down the street and past the shops, accosting pedestrians as we went. “Penny for the Guy?” we would call, and most people would drop in a coin or two. Soon we would have enough to go to the Newsagents and buy bangers, little red tubes of gunpowder with a short black fuse.

In our downtime, between school and meals and harassing pedestrians, we would build a bonfire. Windfall branches from the woods along the railway line, debris from various building sites, everything would be gathered and then piled up in somebody’s back garden. Various parents would supervise, making sure to add a certain measure of stability to the pile, and we ensured that one post stuck out more or less upright from the top of the pyre. On this we impaled the straw-stuffed Guy, waiting for the fire.

This ritual burning was in memory of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 had tried to assassinate King James I when he and his ministers gathered at Westminster for the state opening of parliament. The conspirators had placed barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the main chamber and were about to light the fuses when they were arrested on 5 November 1605. And so, on that same day, some 350 years later, the neighbourhood would gather round as the bonfire was lit and the old song was sung:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot;
I know of no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

As the effigy burned so we boys would roam the shadows beyond the edge of the fire, emerging to throw bangers at each other, or at other unwitting bystanders. The goal was to get each little explosion as close to the target as possible, without the target knowing that a little red firecracker was fizzing quietly by their heel.

Fires and witches, explosions and ghosts, history and present, the seamless merging of pagan rites with modern times. It is no surprise that this is the time of year when we turn back the clocks. The surprise is that they only go back an hour, and not half a millennium.

Thanksgiving

I have been remiss in writing a blog these past six weeks. It seems that every time I sit to write about something which has happened in the world, and to which we should pay attention, something else happens! The Canadian election campaign has provided all sorts of food for thought, from racist theatrical make-up to institutionalized racism, from scripted soundbites to the white noise of a people talking over each other and calling it a debate, from smart one-liners to personal putdowns. About the only things missing are discussions of policy or passionate descriptions of what a brave new world might look like. A brave new Canadian world, that is, contextualized as it must be by the outrageous actions of the President to the south of us, and the consequences of those actions in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere; contextualized by Brexit, which rips apart not only the UK and Europe but the British and French history of Canada, not to mention the major trade partnership between Canada and the EU; contextualized by the harsh realities of climate change, and the carbon debate which threatens the oil producing parts of Canada with economic chaos and rest of us with the growing understanding that life in a harsh northern climate becomes increasingly untenable without light, heat, and sump pumps. It is now Thanksgiving, and so I think that I will ignore all that doom and gloom until next time. Instead, I’ll ponder on the wilder side of life.

The wild wet weather of an Atlantic fall (autumn) has rapidly made us all forget those long dry days of summer. The rain of Tropical Storm Erin was followed by the rain and wind of what was officially described as a Post-Tropical Storm with Hurricane Force Winds; we just called it Dorian. Except for the good people of Halifax, who insisted that it should be renamed, or at least have the letters rearranged, to represent the famous fast-food delicacy which was invented in that city. To them, this storm was known as Hurricane Donair.

Really! See https://www.kingofdonair.ca/

Whatever the name, the storm battered the Island, bringing down trees, flooding roads and homes, toppling power lines, and generally causing mayhem.Dorian2

That said, even those whose trees fell, who lost power for 7 or 8 days, who couldn’t get into work because of a broken culvert, all were grateful that it hadn’t been worse. Like many around the world, we had spent the previous two weeks watching the devastation that Hurricane Dorian had brought to the Bahamas. The images of an apocalyptic landscape were seared in our minds and as we looked around the Island, we were grateful that we had been spared that experience. Although a local annoyance, in the greater scheme of things, a few toppled dry bean stands really didn’t count for much.

Dorian beans

The storm surge brought all sorts of interesting debris to the beaches, including a rare blue lobster which caught Kula’s attention.

blue lobster

Once we added some mussels and razor clams, a crab and some scallops, we had a veritable post-storm buffet.

post-storm buffet

We could have added elvers, washed up in the eel grass that littered the dunes, but we decided to stay with shellfish.

eel grass and eel grass2

We’ve had two more major storms since then, and there has been another special weather statement issued for later this week. The ground is saturated, and there is a fear that more strong winds could bring down more trees. These are still in full leaf, which look beautiful as they turn to autumnal golds and reds, but act as sails when the wind blows. Until then, they will continue to provide shade and shelter for the beehives which line the fields, hired out to a farmer to pollinate a blueberry field.

beehives

The leaves will also act as catchment areas should it snow. I was out in Calgary at the end of September and had a rude reminder that winter is on its way.

September snow

Until that cruel day arrives, I continue to plant the bulbs which hopefully will bring bright spring colour to the end-of-winter drabness. The garlic bulbs are planted, following my grandmother’s rule that they should go in after the autumnal equinox and before the new moon of October. And there was a first in my garden – somehow a frog found the pond and surprised me with its presence.

pond frog

To misquote Rick in Casablanca: “Here’s lookin’ at y’all.” Happy Thanksgiving!

Zero +2

Heavy horse pull Dundas 2019The Labour Day weekend is here, marking the official end of summer for most Canadians. On PEI there is not the same agreement. Although all would agree that September and October are magnificent months, with warm days and cool nights, most people argue that summer finishes as the winner of the Gold Cup and Saucer Race crosses the line on the third Saturday in August, an event which marks the end of Old Home Week. This is a ten-day period of harness racing, agricultural and RV displays, and a large midway with rides of varied severity and rows of carnival activities. Lots of neon lighting and the smell of candyfloss and corndogs overload the senses, and those fortunate enough to live close to the event grounds happily have visitors park on their lawns at $10 a car. Personally, I think this is an urbanized view of summer.

The weekend after the Gold Cup and Saucer Race is the Dundas Plowing Match, an old-fashioned country fair. Here fancy breeds of poultry are proudly displayed, a raucous mix of chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons and doves. Some are for sale, and this year we acquired two prize-winning buff ducks to join the flock. In the other barns are cattle, sheep, goats, and rabbits; a small stage hosts a series of local musicians singing gospel and country songs; and in the community hall examples of baking, jams, fruits and vegetables are displayed and judged. Teams of oxen pull plows across an adjacent field, old red tractors huff and wheeze their way around the grounds, and pairs of huge horses show off their strength to pull wooden pallets loaded with concrete slabs along a dusty track. There is a midway, but here the rides are mainly for young children and the Ferris wheel only takes passengers 15 feet above the ground. There are sausages on a bun for sale, and ice cream by the scoop, but no neon lights or candy floss to be seen.

Heavy horse pull Dundas2 2019(1)

For me, the final heavy horse pull at Dundas marks the real end of summer, which this year was praised by tourists and beach lovers but of concern to farmers. There was a three-week period where we had no rain, the ground turning hard and dry and difficult to weed, although that didn’t stop Nesinake and Hadil from getting everything looking beautiful for the garden party. It was delightful to see these two working together – Nesinake is from Papua New Guinea and was a student in my early years of teaching, while Hadil is an international student from Syria who was in the last graduate class I taught. Nesinake now lives in Melbourne and came over for my retirement party; afterwards her husband Neil and I installed a 1200 litre (320 gallons) water tank to collect the rain from the roof of the shed, but it was purely a decorative feature for much of July.

The dry weather did make it easier for Gavin, a good friend who visited from Calgary for two weeks, and me to drive the cedar posts and fix wire panels so that the ducks and chickens, or chucklings as one woofer affectionately named them, now have a huge fenced area in which to roam. The ones that are going to overwinter are starting to reach egg-bearing age; the ones that aren’t are starting to get measured for the freezer.

In the garden the first tomatoes have ripened on the vine, and the drying beans are beginning to pod on the tall wicker tripods, only one of which has fallen over into the squash and pumpkin plants. The early garlic has already been pulled and stored, the rest are ready to be gathered this week, and the leeks, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots are all filling out. They were helped in this regard by the remnants of Post-Tropical Storm Erin, which in late August brought some wind and a fair amount of rain, and temperatures failed to reach 20 degrees Celsius for the first time since I retired.

The pond is holding water well and the recent rain has topped up the levels to the stone edging we laid earlier in the month. The edge of the liner around the top of the pond is still an exposed eyesore but must stay until the spring, when it can be removed and replaced with strips of sod and wildflowers. The dragonflies don’t seem to mind the unfinished nature of the pond, cruising around over the single, white, water lily flower and the shade it casts for the goldfish beneath.

The small scale moai from Rapa Nui gazes benignly over the sunken garden, a tangled mass of weeds which lies firmly on the ‘do next year’ list of tasks. The massed ranks of Black-eyed Susan in the surrounding meadows have started to fade and will be cut this week to encourage new growth, and to provide a broad swathe where we can snowshoe in February. The formal flower beds are red and gold in late summer hues, the roses are on their second or third bloom, and the bounties of the herb garden are slowly transitioning from flowers to seeds. The fruit trees in the orchard are starting to shed their leaves in readiness of the winter to come, and the posts for the vineyard are laid waiting for me to get organized enough to get them in to the ground.

The past two months have flown by so quickly that it is only just sinking in that I don’t need to go to the office on Tuesday. I suppose that I shall now have to turn myself to the myriad of small household tasks that never seem to bubble to the top of the to-do list, the things that are so boring and/or repetitive and/or uninteresting that they get left until someone else gives in and does them first. Or the tasks so herculean that the mere thought of starting them brings palpitations and cold-sweats – the dozens of bankers boxes full of photographs and carefully preserved black and white negatives which need to organized and archived; the filing cabinets with old research notes that have to be kept for a precise number of years prior to being shredded; the diaries and notebooks that will one day be fictionalized into short stories and perhaps a novel.

But on this first day of September it is another warm Sunday on the Island. The sun is shining, the soil is still workable, and the harvest continues to burgeon. Time enough for those other tasks to wait until the rains and snows of winter keep me indoors. Time still to procrastinate on the to-do list, and instead to eke another day of summer from the year.

What’s in a Name?

A few months ago, I was checking my professional development account and realized that I had some money left – not a lot, but enough to cover a couple of plane flights or conference registrations. Over the past 25 years I have always tried to attend both the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference and, also, the one held by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS). These are traditionally held in early June and mid-July, respectively. As this was going to be my last year as a full-time (i.e., paid!) prof, it seemed appropriate to try and go out with a bang. So, I submitted a proposal to each conference and was, fortunately, accepted.

I contacted Accounting to confirm that the PD money was there, and to make sure I could use it as I envisaged. For my Canadian conference in Vancouver there were no issues, but the BELMAS conference in England posed a problem.

“But it’s not until July.”

“Yes, but I want to buy the ticket now, in March, because there’s a seat sale.”

“But you’re not travelling until July.”

“And I have to pre-register before 30 April to get the early-bird rate.”

“But the conference is in July.”

“Yes.”

“And you are retiring after 30 June.”

“Yes.”

“So, you can’t spend the money for that. It won’t be available then.”

“It’s available now.”

“You’re not retired now.”

We went around this a couple of times and then I gave up. “I’ll show them”, I thought, “I won’t put my university name on my name badge.”

I registered for the conference and when I arrived in Leicester, I was pleased to see that my badge read ‘Private Scholar’.

DSC_1352

That’ll show them, I thought, that’s putting it to the man!

A number of colleagues commented on the badge, as it was the only one there with no university affiliation, and I happily regaled them with the story. Most laughed, some just shook their head, but one colleague and friend of many years said: “Why Private Scholar? It sounds like a rank.”

We chatted about that for a bit, and then he suggested “Independent Scholar” would be more appropriate. I said I’d consider that for next year. And we left it there.

Then, as I was driving down from Leicester to London, I started thinking about his comment. What would happen, I wondered, if I turned up at a conference with such a name badge. What would people think? Would they take umbrage at my audacity, would they feel that I was ‘having a go’? After all, are not all scholars independent?

If I were to define myself as such, then what am I saying about everyone else? That their independence has been compromised by their positionality within the academy, by the salaries they receive from the institution? Surely that wouldn’t be what I meant at all.

The second question that came to mind, then, was why is the name of the institution included at all? If all scholars are of independent mind, then what is the purpose of stating where they work? Is there an inherent status involved, so that one might adjudicate the value of a contribution based on the working domicile of the professor? This issue carries on to the various sessions, where anyone in the audience who wishes to ask questions of a presenter is requested to state their name and where they are from, in a job sense. To what end, I wondered, as I navigated the merger from the M40 to the M25.

I have spent the past quarter century going to conferences, and I have acquired a huge collection of name badges identifying me as being from (in sequence) the University of Saskatchewan, University of Alberta, St. Francis Xavier University, University of Calgary, and University of Prince Edward Island. Is this just the academic equivalent of the name on the headband of a Wimbledon tennis player or the shirt of a footballer, basically the name of one’s sponsor? When I transfer ‘between teams’, is it simply expected that I have to wear the colours of the new team and show my allegiance?

In a profession, or a vocation, such as education, where ideas are paramount and contributions are measured by both their experiential and conceptual clarity, then what is the added value in identifying oneself as a person from a particular institution? If the idea is good, then to what extent does the provenance matter? We no longer expect to see a gender identified, and many of the name badges at contemporary conferences do not even contain an academic rank such as ‘professor’ or ‘Dr.’ So why the institution?

Perhaps it is now time to go the next step, and simply have a name badge with one’s name on it. Apart from anything else, this would have the advantage of providing a more sustainable alternative. One could have a name badge prepared for one’s first conference, and then simply keep reusing it until it fell apart or was lost. Or the conference organizers could prepare one for you, with your name and theirs, and then collect them at the end for re-distribution the next time you attended.

But then, of course, one would not have a collection of 100 name badges hanging from a hook in one’s office, to show new colleagues and graduate students quite how prolific one has been in one’s career!

Ebbs and Flows

It seemed apt that the first person I met after I registered at the last conference I will attend as an employed professor was an old colleague from St. Francis Xavier University, which was the first place I worked when I left the real world and joined the academy. We chatted and caught up on our news, which was actually very similar – he also is retiring at the end of June. He’s leaving Nova Scotia, though, as he and his wife have been living a version of a traditional Maritime life, where one person stays home and the other works away. She continues to work away, however, and so they are relocating to Ottawa once he retires. He commented that it will no doubt be difficult to pack up and move from a small town where he has spent his entire career, to a place where he knows few people, and where the social networks have all been developed by his wife. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against his shins.

Later I had brunch with a colleague with whom I shared a couple of classes when she was a doctoral student and I was doing my Master of Education degree at the University of Saskatchewan. She is still academically strong and is a very productive scholar. She has negotiated with her university to move to a half-time position, where she will continue to teach and research from August to December and then be basically unemployed from January to July. Apart from anything else, this gives her the opportunity to travel, and to see those few parts of the world she has not yet visited, and to do so far from the trials of a northern winter. She told me that she couldn’t just stop working, it would be too difficult as she feared she would simply shrivel up with nothing to do, there would be no purpose to her days. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against her knees.

At a reception that evening I met a retired professor, one whom I remember from my own doctoral student days at the University of Alberta. He still comes to the annual conference as it helps him feel connected to what is going on in his field. He told me that he enjoys talking to students and trying to help them by providing answers to their problems, most of which he has heard many times before. It is the highlight of his year, he said, to come and listen from the edge of a room. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against his hips.

As I look forward to the next few weeks, time to empty my office and see if I can give away any of my books – books! What quaint objects! Who uses those now, I wonder, those once treasured artifacts of an ancient time? – and fill a blue bag with research papers and other documents to be shredded, I consider myself fortunate to not be facing those pressures. I am not relocating to another province, I am not going to be lacking purpose in my life, I am not going to try and maintain a presence as an elder scholar. Nonetheless, I feel a gentle splash against my toes.

Three more marbles in the jar.