Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's that time of year again...

when Mimi's thoughts turn to blogging. I started this blog about a year ago, and had a great time blogging over the summer, and then fall came, and with it all kinds of new craziness, and the blogging ended. But I'm excited to start it up again, because I'm just bursting at the seams with excitement about my new garden plot! So without further ado...

I am the proud new owner (for this season) of plots # 38 and 47 at the Good Earth Community Garden in Waterloo. Well, when I call it "my" garden, Amin gets mad. Amin is a lovely friend of mine who is going to help me garden this year. He really hit it off with two of the older gardeners when we went there on Sunday evening to get started. He has big plans to make them Iranian tea (Iran is his home country) and shish kebabs. Plot 38 is the one you see in the picture, soil all nice and turned over, with a nice juicy patch of rhubarb in the corner. Amin doesn't know what rhubarb is, and I'm excited to show him how delicious a rhubarb crisp can be!

The soil in this garden is so rich and moist that when I walk in it barefoot, it's like wading through chocolate cake. Seriously. It comes up in rich slices in the spade, fat earthworms wriggling in surprise at being thrust into the daylight. Each spadeful yields four or five earthworms. Some of them are so large that I can't helping recoiling - and I know earthworms are definitely my friends. Amin is not friends with the earthworms, and runs away when I throw them at him. I know, not very mature of me. But really, gardening is just playing in the dirt, how grown up do I have to be about it?

I'm not the only one eager to get into the garden. My seedlings have been biding their time in a grow-op in my loft. (I hung tin foil behind them to reflect the sunlight back at them so they'd grow straight, so it looked really sketchy from the street.) I'm hardening them off in preparation for their planting tomorrow. The peas especially can't wait. Notice in the close up how the tendrils of the sugar peas are strangling the tomato plant in their efforts to get taller. (One of my housemates saw it this morning and said, "Well, maybe the pea plant is just hugging the tomato plant." I'm sorry, but no.) It's a pea-eat-tomato world out there, each seedling for itself! I'm confident that they'll do fine outside. This is the first year that I've tried starting things indoors, and it's been lots of fun. It's just a way to get into gardening earlier. I've got a whole other tray of herbs, peppers, eggplant and squash that still need to be babied along a bit, and then there's a bunch of stuff that we'll plant straight from seed.

Amin and I are thinking of naming our plots "The Gardens of Persia" (look Amin, I said "our"! Are you happy?). We found some trellises that we can use for those overeager snow peas, and Amin wants to plant flowers around the border. It's going to be beautiful!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Summer of Abundance*

No explanation needed.

First, some quack etymology. Abundance. What a good word. Split it apart, and you get a-bun-dance. You know that Raffi song? The one that goes, "All I really need/Is a song in my heart/Food in my belly/Love in my family"? I've found myself singing that a lot lately. I think he knew what happiness was, and I think I'm finding out. I have a song in my heart. I make it up as I go along, and I'm singing it with a lot of gusto. I don't really know what it's about, or why I'm singing it, but for now it's enough that it's there. I can hear it, and I know other people can too. Sometimes I can't contain it, and my song just radiates out from me. The food in my belly part? Just read the garden blog. 'Nuff said. My family was up a few weeks ago, and there's definitely love there. It helps you to feel more loving when you only see each other once in a while :) But I can feel the love, and I know it's always there, and it's something I can take refuge in when I need to.

Me and my sistah.

And I also have a family of friends up here in Waterloo, made up of people who come and go. The strands that bind us are elastic, they can stretch across long distances and periods of time, and snap back surprisingly fast. I have an abundance of joie de vivre, food and love. So I see the word abundance somewhat along the lines of the Raffi song. If I had a bun (a delicious multigrain one that I baked myself with sesame seeds on top, ooh, and maybe some real butter)and a dance (be it a swing dance with a charming partner or one of those dances that happen at home when no one else is around and you crank up the Shania Twain really loud), I would be happy. A bun and a dance would be abundance. What else do you need?

Tricia and I riding the cannon at Fort George.

My life this summer has been abundant in so many ways. So much so, in fact, that today has been my designated rest day - no social engagements, no yoga or dance. I've only left the house to run to the grocery store for essentials (an orange and soy milk) and to lie on the grass reading my book. I've turned down a date and watching a movie with a friend. What have I done? A lot of baking, sleeping and reading. And blogging. I find that I need these days once in a while. My life is so amazing that I have to take a break from living it and step back and appreciate it. Isn't that a wonderful reason to take a day off?

I love the beach and I love Sarah. What could be better?

So, to slightly plagiarize Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how is my life abundant? Let me count the ways:

I don't even remember the occasion for this gathering of food and friends. I don't really think there needs to be a reason.

1. Yoga
The name of this post came from a yoga class I went to on Thursday with my dear friend and favorite yoga teacher Leena. She teaches a style of yoga called Anusara, and one of the major distinguishing factors of Anusara yoga is that each class involves a theme. Leena's reflections were about the abundance of summer heat that we've finally started getting here in KW, and about the abundance of summer produce that I've already raved about in the garden blog (so I'll spare you here). Our intention for the class was to open up to and embrace all of the abundance that we are receiving. I feel like this is a very apt description of my life this summer, which has been abundant to the point of being overwhelming at times. I have an unlimited summer pass to the studio where Leena teaches, and so I've been going to yoga classes up to 4 or 5 times a week (usually more like 2 or 3). It's lovely. Yoga is such a grounding activity for me, one that stretches and strengthens my body and my mind. It's been good to be so immersed in it.

2. Gardening
I'll say it again: Read the garden blog!

I've discovered a love of my life this summer: gardening. I already know I want to have a garden next summer. Gardening makes me feel like I'm part of a large and fast flowing cycle of energy, one that involves the sun, the earth, the air, plants, animals and other people. It's invigorating.

Mmmm fresh food.

3. Dancing
Another love of my life that I've discovered this summer has been dancing, specifically swing. I was always that girl who watched Dirty Dancing and wished desperately that I could dance. And now I can! I wrote a post earlier this summer on swing dancing, but my relationship with it has evolved since then. I've gotten to the stage where I sometimes feel like it's taking over my life. Other dancers assure me that this is normal, but honestly, as much as I like dancing, I like the rest of my life too! Let me elaborate: Last weekend was the Kitchener Blues Festival. Friday I helped with a swing demonstration, went dancing at a bar, and attended a late night blues party. Saturday I went to the dance at a studio in Kitchener, complete with live band and great dance partners. Sunday I was at the festival with a friend, just taking in the ambiance (I didn't actually dance, although I chatted with swing people). Monday I went to the usual swing night at Caesar Martini's. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I was at a balboa workshop with Nico and Sandrine, two great dancers from Toulouse, France. That's SEVEN days in a row of being with the swing crowd! See what I mean? I'm not saying I didn't love every minute of it, just that the rapidity with which it takes over my time is quite astonishing. There is definitely an abundance of swing dancing.

Balboa workshop - I'm in the green shirt (and the sexy heels). Guest photographer: David Trinh

4. Boys
My life these summer months has been a little bit like a soap opera. Honestly, I can entertain my girlfriends for an hour with just my stories of male attention. That kind of sounds like I'm bragging, but it's true, and I swear, I'm not consciously doing anything to attract said attention (I deign to speak for my unconscious). I think it comes from spending so much time in bars swing dancing. I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of my friends who introduced me to swing dancing. They quickly point out that they have been dancing for two years and have not encountered anything like what I've encountered in the past two months. This is true. At times this attention can be awkward or even creepy, but mostly it is flattering, and in certain cases very much anticipated.

5. Friends
I have been spending so much time with my friends this summer that when some of them move away in a few weeks (you know who you are, Sarah Connors!), I know I'm going to go through withdrawal. But that time is not yet upon us, so I choose not to think about it. And besides, in a few weeks I myself will be moving into Butternut Manor, where there will be an abundance of good friends, good food, and good times to be had. I love my friends - the ones whose bums I can test for freshness, the ones who fix my bike lights time and time again, the ones who steal my maple syrup and give me clothes, the ones who ask me to dance over and over again, the ones I don't see much but when I do we have amazing heart-to-hearts, the ones who love me despite my ditching them to go stargazing with boys, the ones who say such ridiculous things to me that the only response I can come up with is, "I love you." You all know who you are.

An early joint birthday party just calls for ice cream cake.

And, apparently, a lap dance from Tricia.

6. Work
I also feel like I have an abundance of work, even though it's really only supposed to be about 30 hours a week. I like my three jobs. Although it takes an abundance of planning to keep them all straight, I don't get bored. At the beginning of this summer, I had too much free time and not enough work, and that doesn't make for an abundant life. Somehow I need the work to remind me how sweet all the rest of it is (and to finance my abundant life!). I need structure and routine, which work provides for me. I'm very grateful for the work I have, because I know people who don't have any.

I have loved this summer. I have thrived in it. Like everyone, change is not something that I immediately welcome. My life is fabulous, why can't it just stay this way? But fall is coming, along with school, and moving to a new place, and being surrounded by new people. I'm pretty sure it will be good. But for now, I'm not thinking too hard about it. I'm going to make the most of the summer abundance that's left (especially after this rest day)!
*Those of you who also follow the groovy roots kw blog will notice that I have kind of plagiarized. I say: who cares? I'm plagiarizing myself, and anyway, there's no copyright on the words summer and abundance - not until Monsanto decides that Summer Abundance would be the perfect name for its new GM soybean.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What do I have in common with a Russian aristocrat born in 1828?

Maybe more than I think. Leo Tolstoy surprised me with Anna Karenina, in more ways than one. Some reasons for this involve the plot, so if you haven't read it yet and don't want to find out what happens, read not on! Otherwise, by all means, please do.

First of all, the book is named after Anna Karenina. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that she plays the main character, the heroine if you will, of the story. But in typical long-winded fashion, we don't even meet Anna until page 64, and then she dies at the end of Part 7, leaving Part 8 and Constantine Levin (the other main character) to finish out the novel without her.

Secondly, I expected Anna to be racy. You know, the woman that leaves her husband and runs off with another man should have a devil-may-care-attitude. But she doesn't. She's worried about everything: what people will say, not being able to see her son, living "in sin" as a woman separated from her husband but not divorced. She's actually quite miserable for most of the novel. I found myself first excited for her to be happy with Vronsky, then I pitied her when it didn't turn out the way she'd planned, and then I became disgusted and saddened as she sank lower and lower into jealousy and depression. When seen with others' eyes, Anna has a special quality, almost magical, a touch of je ne sais quoi. But when we enter her mind, she's tormented and afraid.

The third reason I was surprised was by the ending. After Anna threw herself under a train, I expected the novel to go downhill from there. I've read other Russian literature, and I steeled myself for the worst case scenario: Vronsky shoots himself, Levin and Kitty's baby dies, Levin is caught up in his faith crisis and hangs himself, Kitty falls apart from grief... etc. But no: Anna and Levin's brother are the only casualties. Levin has a revelation in the end and sorts himself out, and he and Kitty and baby are all set to live happily ever after. True, Vronsky does go away to war with the intention of being killed, but at least he's noble about it.

But the biggest reason I was surprised was because of the connection that I felt at times to Tolstoy and his characters. I was reading the book as a project. I'd picked it up for a dollar at a thrift shop and decided that it was about time that I made my way through it. It felt good to be able to tell my writing group that I was reading Anna Karenina, especially when I learned to say her name right.* That's why I started reading it.

I kept reading it because I wanted to know what happened, because I wanted to say I had read it, and because I never knew when I might find a sentence or two that really clicked with me. Sometimes, in the midst of dense description of what was being eaten at a dinner party, what the table settings were like, what kind of cigars the men were smoking, conversation about Russian farming or some such thing, would be a little nugget of gold, one that Tolstoy nailed home to make a brilliant point about human nature, or the way the world works. Then I would get out my pen and note that passage, shaking my head in amazement at how this Russian nobleman who's been dead for 99 years and I could share something so closely, no matter how trivial it might be.^

Some of my favorites:

[Oblonsky explaining why he sees women on the side]"All the diversity, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shade" (44).

I think that's a very true and very wise statement, although I'm not sure it applies to Oblonsky's situation as well as he thinks it does.

[Levin on his brother's charity work]"... the thought came into his head that this capacity of working for the common welfare, which he felt himself to be completely devoid of, might not be and was not so much a quality as the contrary, a lack of something. It was not a lack of kind, honorable, noble desires and tastes but of some vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse that forces a man to choose, out of the countless ways of life presented to him, just one, and to desire that one alone" (255).

This passage says two things to me: First of all, I often say "In another life I'm a neuroscientist," or a photographer or living in a cabin in the woods or whatever. This is a good reminder that I can't do everything that I want to do, so I have to pick carefully where I decide to spend my time and energy. Secondly, for the past year I've really worked hard at making taking care of myself my first priority, and this quote somehow makes me feel like that's not such a selfish thing to do.

[Levin's thoughts on taking communion in order to get married] "For Levin, as an unbeliever who respected the beliefs of others, being present at and taking part in any church ceremonies was very tiresome. Now, in the softened mood he was in, sensitive to everything, pretense was not only tiresome to him but seemed quite impossible. Now, at the moment of his glory, just as he was bursting into flower, he was supposed to lie or blaspheme! He felt incapable of doing either one or the other. ... he tried to look on it all as an empty formality like paying calls; but he felt that he couldn't do that either.
Like most of his contemporaries, Levin had the most indefinite views about religion. He could not believe, while at the same time he was not completely convinced it was all false. This was why, being incapable of believing in the significance of what he was doing, or of looking on it indifferently as an empty formality, throughout this whole period of fasting he had a feeling of awkwardness and shame, since an inner voice told him it was false and wrong to do something he didn't understand" (468-9).

Levin's feelings about church and Christianity here mirror mine pretty closely. In the past year I've stopped holding onto the faith I grew up with, and although in some ways this has been the best year of my life, it's still disorienting. Being in church often puts me in a situation that I'm not ready to be in at the moment, for precisely the reason that Levin describes: I can't believe, but I can't dismiss it, and so I'm left in an awkward place that I don't understand.

[during a fight in Levin's early days of marriage to Kitty] "It was only now for the first time that he clearly understood what he had been unable to when he had led her out of the church after the wedding. He understood that she was not only close to him but that now he no longer knew where she ended and he began. He realized this because of the agonizing feeling of cleavage he now underwent. At first he felt offended, but that same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, since she was himself. During this first moment he had a feeling such as a man might have when after suddenly receiving a powerful blow from behind, he turns around angrily with a desire for revenge to find his attacker, and discovers that he has unwittingly struck himself, that there is no one to get angry with and that he must endure the pain and soothe it....
Like a man half-asleep and wracked with pain he wanted to tear out and cast away the aching part, and on recovering himself he felt that the aching part was - himself. All he could do was try to relieve the ache and endure it, which is what he did" (515).

I've never experienced this feeling of being one with another person, so much so that I can't be angry at them. But I have felt that way about myself. When what is agonizing you is inside of you and you are incapable of removing it, you feel like you just want to jump out of your skin and run away - but you can't.

[Kitty caring for Levin's dying brother] "There was an excitement and alertness about her which men show before a battle or a struggle, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when a man shows his worth once and for all, and shows that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for such moments" (532).

I've had a few of those moments, and it makes you very glad for all those regular days when you just kept at it. Most importantly, it's good to remember this when you have those uneventful days: you're just storing up your energy and knowledge and resources for the day when you need them.

[Levin explaining why a friend of his couldn't propose to Varenka] "...he's so used to living a purely spiritual life that he can't reconcile himself to reality, and Varenka, after all, is a reality" (598).

I've known people like this. We have to find a way to hold onto our ideals while still engaging in the messiness of life. (Maybe sort of like holding onto a big red balloon while splashing through a mud puddle in rain boots? That sounds like it could be delightful.)

[on the tea time conversation] "Not only was there never a moment it was necessary to hunt for a topic; on the contrary, there was a feeling that one didn't have enough time to say what one wanted to oneself, and one gladly held back to hear what the other was saying" (746).

I've experienced this more often at sleepovers than during tea, but there you go. That is an experience that probably most people can remember having at one point or another. It's this sort of thing that makes me feel like Tolstoy and I would get along.

[during one of Levin's crises of faith] "If I don't accept the answers given by Christianity to the questions of my life, what answers do I accept?" (835)

This is exactly what I am working at figuring out at the moment. I don't think I will come to the same conclusion as Levin, but you never know. Or, it may be a similar conclusion, but explained in different language. I find that the vocabulary one uses is key to understanding thoughts and ideas.

You'll notice that there were no quotes from Anna. I guess her and I don't see eye-to-eye on too many things. I underlined some of what she said, but it didn't make the final cut. I'm glad I don't really find much in common with her, because I actually really pity her. You'll also notice that I talk about these characters like I know them. After 868 pages together, I feel like I do. I've probably spent more time with them than with my own family in the past few months (although, if you've read my last post, I did have some quality time with my family, and it was wonderful). I haven't actually done the calculation on how many hours I've spent reading Anna Karenina. Okay - I just did a rough calculation, and if you don't count the time when my family was here but we were sleeping, I did indeed spend more time with Tolstoy's cast (because I was generally awake while reading the book). One observation I had about those crazy Russians was that every single one of them should have gone to counselling. If they had, the book would have been less tragic, and probably less interesting. But if only Anna had talked to someone before committing suicide, she might not have done it, and actually gotten the support she needed to take charge of her life... I know, sometimes I talk like a counselor. I guess it comes from long-time exposure to them :)

So far, I've only discussed things that you could verify for yourself by picking up any copy of Anna. But part of the reason I love books (and, by extension, working in libraries) is that they're so material. There's something about holding a book in your hands and knowing that everything inside its covers will be revealed to you in good time. Books are so concrete; I like their aesthetic on the shelf, the way they have character, the stories that the stains and spots and tears on their pages tell. So to end off, I want to share a little about my specific copy of Anna Karenina. Being old and crotchety and full of character, at one point during the reading it decided to split itself in half and give me Vol. I and Vol. II. This actually made it considerably more convenient to carry around, but also left me without the distinction of the cover as I read Vol. 2. It split at page 520, not halfway, and not at any particular turning point (Levin and Kitty are simply having a little quarrel over tea).

My very unpretentious paperback copy has been my constant companion for a good chunk of the summer, and I sometimes miss its weight in my hand. It has entertained me, amazed me, bored me, taught me, and most importantly, made me think. Thank you Anna.

PS. I am now reading Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley. Don't worry, I read less intense books too, like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Richard Scarry's Best Little Word Book Ever! (I rescued them from the side of the street and took them home because they remind me of my childhood.) I think I might have to balance all that philosophy out by reading a little Chocolat by Joanne Harris concurrently.

*For the record, it's Anna Ka-REN-in-a. At first I pronounced it to rhyme with "ballerina," but then I was informed by a good source (well, actually on the authority of my source's mother)that this was incorrect. Sometimes I like thinking of Anna as a ballerina though.
^What's even more amazing is that this all comes through in translation. I think translators have a pretty demanding job, and that we don't give them enough credit.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hollinger-Janzens Family Vacation: Niagara Episode

Well, if someone decided to make a show about the Hollinger-Janzen family vacations, this would be one that qualified as short, sweet, and relatively low on the scale of vacation insanity.* That is, compared to other vacations that involved, say, driving through the Sahara Desert in a Land Rover with a leaky radiator or climbing the entirety of the Eiffel Tower (according to my mother, taking the elevator partway is cheating) or spending Christmas on the beach because the country we were headed to - Ivory Coast - was in the midst of a coup and the borders were closed. So this vacation was really quite tame. It required car travel on well-paved roads, nothing crazy like planes or leaky Land Rovers. The whole trip took only four days, even for the people who had to travel the farthest. I won't even get into the horror of the 16-hour flight experience from Atlanta to Joburg. There was no jet lag involved. Our lodgings (the Youngblut family home on Mohawk Point, Lake Erie) required no "roughing it." The closest we came to "roughing it" on this trip was our brief ride on Maid of the Mist.

Well, this experience did get more interesting as it started to pour right after we got off the boat (not bad timing, actually, since we had our nifty Smurf ponchos) and we trudged back up Clifton Hill to where the car was parked. Probably the most difficult part of the weekend for me was sitting in a car for an hour with four other soaking wet people, next to someone who had run out of deodorant that morning and thought it was funny to shove my face into his armpit. Ahh, sibling bonding.

The day before, we had a lovely and informational tour of Fort George. We learned about period instruments, including "the serpent," and I found out that I really like the sound of a jaw harp. We ate molasses cookies baked on a griddle over a fire, theorized about the cat, chamber pot and shattered dishes found in an archaeological dig behind the officer's quarters, met a Scottish woman who was doing her dissertation on experimental archaeology (acting things out to recreate them), crammed ourselves into a guard box, and decided that clothes from 1812 were pretty uncomfortable (but looked damn good). Evidence of the latter two activities are presented in Exhibits A and B.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

We also did a lot of relaxing, and eating fresh Niagara berries, and kayaking on Lake Erie, and playing Dutch Blitz, and getting to know the Youngbluts, and in general having a lovely time.

Probably my favorite part though was today, when they (the Hollinger-Janzens currently residing in Goshen, Indiana^) made a pit stop back in Waterloo before heading on home. They got to see my future home (Butternut Manor) and my current digs. We had fabulous Ethiopian for lunch from AM Africa.

The vegetarian platter

"Carnivore" style (guest photographer: Femi Hollinger-Janzen)
And perhaps best of all, they got to see the garden that has its own blog, Groovy Roots KW:

I was obviously excited, both by their visit and the arrival of a fellow sun-worshipper.

Femi is not quite as excited by the nasturtium that I'm trying to tell him is edible.

Although the majority of our trip was pretty tame, there might actually be some potential for YouTube stardom. The Hollinger-Janzen siblings would like to present our fresh interpretation of a classic favourite.

*Insanity here is used in both a good and bad sense. As in "This trip is insanely awesome!" and "I can't stand it, I'm going insane!"
^Eg: everyone except me.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The best camping trip ever!

There is really no other title for this post. Quite simply, this was the best camping trip I've ever been on. And it was fabulous. The kind of trip where you get home and you're sad to be back. I don't really have a coherent narrative of the trip, it was just many beautiful moments strung together to make three days. In honour of those beautiful moments, I will just post some of the pictures that got taken and describe those moments.

We were in Killarney from June 20-23. Killarney Provincial Park is up near Sudbury, for those of you who know Ontario. For those of you that don't, it's a 4.5-5 hour drive north of KW. Worth every minute it takes to get up there. I'm actually glad it's so far away. Then it's safe from all of our pollution down here in the civilized world.

When I say "we" in connection with this trip, that means me and these fine folk. Jessie (purple bandanna) is my flatmate (isn't that so British of me? It's faster than saying apartmentmate) for the summer. The handsome gentleman on the log beside her is her fiance Steve. And the creepy guy (oops! I mean fine gentleman, of course, no offense Phil!) with his hand in front of his face is Phil, Steve's little bro. They were fabulous company, full of jokes, songs, camping knowledge and creativity. They played a big part in making the camping trip so wonderful.

Our breakfast the first morning - mushroom omelettes with homemade bread. (Of course we couldn't transport the eggs, that's why we ate them before we set off!) Jess and I were in charge of the food barrel, and we packed some gourmet camping food. Our menu also included: hummus and veggie wraps; baked sweet potatoes, black beans and salsa; baked oatmeal; tabbouleh; curry and rice; smores; pancakes; apple & pb tortillas. Lots and lots of healthy & delicious cookies, trail mix, and almonds. This was what we transported all of this goodness with:

And the result of delicious smores:

I've decided that I look like a chocopire - like a vampire except with 70% cocoa fair-trade dark chocolate instead of blood. The red eyes certainly fit the theme.

We spent a lovely afternoon on our "swimming island" off of our first campsite. We sunbathed, swam, and pretended we were in a yoga video. Yoga was meant to be done on a rock in the middle of a lake.

This is another island that we laid claim to. We saw it from a lookout point across the lake and decided that it begged to be explored.

I took it upon myself to explore the highest point of said island. It was great fun.

We did a lot of this, in between all of our other adventures. In this instance I am trying out my steering skills. I liked to watch the ripples come off my paddle and think about the complexity of the physics that explained how they formed. Just enough to wonder at it and enjoy it. I didn't think too hard. The whole time was refreshing and real in a way that the intellect doesn't really need to get involved in. I hope that this won't be the last time that I get to enjoy Killarney.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"All the ways in which my bike has been misbehaving" or "Why my Grandpa can be proud of me"

The bicycle in question, Guinevere. Isn't she lovely? We've been together since 2005.

It all started about a month ago. I was coasting down the gentle slope of Erb St on my way to the grocery store. I was all proud of myself because it would be the first shopping trip with my newly-installed milk crate* on the back of my bike. The light turned red, and I grumbled with frustration at losing my precious momentum and squeezed the brakes. And squeezed them harder. And panicked because nothing was happening. I did a very elegant emergency slowdown that consisted of dragging my feet on the ground and half falling onto the sidewalk. And then decided that continuing on with my shopping trip (down the much longer hill on Bridgeport Ave.) was probably not the best choice under the circumstances. So I returned home, and got my first crash course in bike repair and maintenance.I asked my roommate Matt, a mechanical engineer at UW, if he knew anything about bike brakes. I figured he would, or at least should. He knew enough to tell me where to tighten them and with somewhat restored braking power, I continued on my merry way.

I rode my bike this way for a few days, but figured that I should probably check it out more fully, especially since I was riding it long distances to the garden (18 k round trip). This was during the period when I didn't have any money**, but I was also curious about how my bike was put together. These two factors made the UW Bike Centre my ideal destination. The Centre is in a basement on campus. Staffed by volunteers and equipped with tools that can solve "99% of what's wrong with the average bike" (according to the website, it's a space for people to work on their own bikes. The volunteers will help you figure out what exactly you need to do, and you pay $1 to use the tools and $1 if you use any of the liquids (oil, lube etc.) I think it's absolutely genius. The learning curve is pretty steep though, especially if you've never done anything with your bike before.

So, I have a confession to make. The relevance of the first part of the title to this blog post should already be clear. Now is the time for the explanation of the second part of the title, and my confession. My Grandpa and Grandma Hollinger used to own a bike shop, aptly called Hollinger Bicycles. As such, I have grown up in a biking family. I remember my first bike, a pink Giant with training wheels and handlebar streamers, flown over to Benin in a big cardboard box. My family has gone on many family bike rides, a great many of them ending up at the Chief, a little shack in Goshen that serves the best homemade ice cream I've ever had. And I ALWAYS wear a helmet, because my Grandma was the best helmet fitter in Elkhart County and drilled into my head the importance of protecting itself. But, for all this biking-ness, I have never actually had to do anything with my bike myself. Anytime my bike misbehaved, I would call Grandpa, or ask my mom to come look at it (she learned from a good teacher). But now they're both 7 hours away, which is pretty far if you don't have a car (or a bike!) Thus my bicycular fending for myself had to begin sometime. And my bike decided it was to be this summer.

So, my first time at the Bike Centre I learned a great deal of things: how to put my bike up on the stand, what an Allen key is, how to tighten and loosen my brakes properly (Matt had just given me the quick fix), and how fun it is to play with your bike. I had a wave of insight that allowed me to understand why people enjoy messing around with mechanical things like engines and bikes so much. It's fun! A bike is like a big toy, just more complicated and actually useful. I must have pedaled it by hand for 10 minutes straight, just admiring how smoothly it changed gears. The way the chain jumps from one gear to another is nothing short of an acrobatic feat - why doesn't it get lost along the way? How does it know where to go?

My second time at the Bike Centre was not as simple and carefree. But first, the story of how I ended up there once again. I was biking out to the garden with my friend Emma. We were taking the Iron Horse Trail, a lovely paved path that connects Kitchener and Waterloo along an old railroad bed. At Victoria Park in Kitchener, it intersects with railroad tracks at a strange angle. Because of this, the good people responsible for maintaining the path have erected gates with signs that say "Please dismount before crossing" or something to that effect. Unfortunately for me (and my bike), I heedlessly circumnavigated the gates, while talking to Emma over my shoulder. As you can probably guess, this did not have good results. My bike tire wedged itself in the gap between the asphalt and the track, stopping me abruptly and flinging me sideways. I recovered myself without falling over completely, but my pedal left a gorgeous bruise on the back of my knee (which my friend Tricia referred to as "sexy". The bruise, not the knee). We continued on our way, but as we biked back later in the day, I noticed that my bike was acting strangely. It was as if there was a rather large child sitting behind me in the milk crate, and this child was having immense difficulty staying still. The bike swayed back and forth dangerously, especially when I coasted down hills. I was a bit perplexed, and took a closer look when I got home. Every single spoke on the back wheel was very, very loose. I still don't understand how a fall loosened all the spokes, but then again, I'm no bike expert. Obviously. So, back in the Bike Centre, I explained my predicament to the volunteer, who told me that my wheel needed to be trued. I found this amusing (at first).

As a life-long bibliophile and student of English, I find the expression "truing a wheel" to be very interesting. This is obviously not true in the sense of "in accordance with fact or reality," but rather "correctly positioned or aligned; upright or level."^ As I began tightening the spokes with the cute little spoke wrenches, I berated the wheel. "You were lying to me," I told it. "You weren't being true to me. Now you're going to have to shape up." It's interesting how morality and ideas of right and wrong came to be associated with something as morally ambiguous as a bike wheel. Also conveyed by the word true is an implicit anthropomorphization of the wheel - as if it had a will of its own and decided to be true or untrue. (Well, I do talk to my bike. And I've named it. Guinevere. So I guess one of Guinevere's wheels deciding to be true or untrue kind of fits with my worldview. Can you tell I'm in Anthropology as well?) But enough etymology.

Truing a wheel is a little bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. If you look at a bike wheel, you'll notice that there are spokes that come down on the right and left. They actually pull the rim of the wheel into shape. So the goal is to have equal tension on each side so that the rim is circular. This will eliminate any side to side wobbling. So you have to tighten spokes on one side, and loosen the corresponding spokes on the other side. And then spin the wheel and see where it rubs against the calipers of the wheel truing stand. So if it rubs to the right, you have to loosen the spokes on the right and tighten on the left. And vice versa. And then maybe you did it too much or not enough and you have to do that section again. And then you move on to the next section where it rubs. If you tighten a spoke too much, it breaks. (Guess how I learned that? Hint: The Centre volunteer didn't tell me.) Adding to the complication is the counter-intuitive fact that to tighten a spoke, you unscrew it, and to loosen a spoke, you screw it in. If you look at the way the wheel is designed, it makes sense, but I'm pretty sure that at least a few times I was doing the opposite of what I intended to do. So after an hour and a half of this, I had to go to work. My wheel still wasn't entirely true, but it was much better than before. There's going to have to be a wheel truing part 2.

The third episode in the Summer 2009 Bicycle Saga started last Friday. I rode my bike to work in the morning. And when I came out to ride it home, the tire was flat. So I walked it home. I debated leaving it locked up outside the Davis Centre, but the University of Waterloo is not the safest place to leave your bike. As you can tell by all the bicycle carcasses still locked up to the racks, some missing front or back wheels or seats or all of the above. I realized how dependent I am on my bike as I realized that I had to leave extra time to walk places, take the bus, or mooch rides off of friends with cars. Yesterday, the Bike Centre was open (oh happy day!) and I had an hour and a half before I had to be at work. So I took my bike in, and learned how to patch an inner tube. I popped the tire part off (well, popped is misleading, it took a little more work than that word implies) and inflated the inner tube, squeezing it to find the hole. I found it, put the inner tube down to get a patch, and then of course couldn't find the hole again, so I had to go through the process all over again. I sanded down the area, applied the self-vulcanizing adhesive (doesn't that kind of sound like it will spontaneously erupt?), waited for it to dry, and put on the patch. I kind of felt motherly to my bike, finding the scratch and patching it up. Good as new! I found the offending piece of glass stuck in my tire. Dear drunken students who wander down Erb St at 3 am talking loudly and breaking beer bottles on the sidewalk: You'll be glad to know that you've helped me along in my bicycular education.

So there you have it, my friends: a crash course in bicycle repair and maintenance and some etymology on the side. Don't you feel edified? Ha ha, that rhymed. Okay, time to stop now, before I move on to teaching Lao.

PS. Happy Canada Day!

Footnotes: I don't know why I decided to do footnotes. Maybe because I'm a research assistant for one of my anthropology profs this summer, so I'm in academic mode? Or maybe it's just because I'm in a weird mood. It's okay if you don't read them. The whole point of footnotes is to give extraneous information that isn't really important, unless you're super interested in the topic at hand.

*The milk crate is the new, hip bike accessory for students in Waterloo this summer. Well, maybe it's not new or hip, but I've seen an awful lot of them around, especially on campus. Emma Dines was my milk crate inspiration, because I was envious of how handy hers is. So I asked her how she did it (hose clamps) and marched down to Home Hardware and bought myself some, borrowed the tools needed from my roommate Matt, and installed a milk crate on my bike. Voila! Instant relief from the feeling we all know of biking up hills with a backpack seemingly full of rocks weighing you down. Also an excellent way to bring home heavy groceries (milk, flour and canned goods are the worst) or transport seedlings out to the garden (although some may tip over or suffer from overexposure to wind). It was the first of many bike improvement sessions, as you will see if you return to the main manuscript.

**I am out of this period as of last Friday, when I got paid, and found out that research assistants get paid considerably more than minimum wage. Yay!

^Thanks to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, a Christmas present from my parents. I put it to good use. And sometimes I just sit around and read it, just for fun. Words are interesting, okay?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Swing Dancing!

I've never really thought of myself as a dancer. And well, I haven't really danced much. Other than having African women laugh at me because I don't know how to shake my hips properly. But two of my ex-roomies (don't worry, we're still on good terms) are really into this ceilidh (Irish dancing) thing. So I went once, and was hooked. It's like square dancing, only way better and more fun. The only problem is that the ceilidhs stop during the summer months. So how to get through until September? Swing dancing.

I'm part of the UW Swing Dance club, which means I go to lessons once a week, and then there's a swing night every Monday at a local bar/restaurant. So tonight was my third time going out to the social dance, and I've had two lessons. So I've done swing a grand total of five times in my entire life. Tonight I achieved the pinnacle of my swing dancing career - I got through an entire song and only made two mistakes (yes, of course we were doing the easiest step, which is pretty much the only one I know how to do). But I was soooo excited. I totally have a crush on this guy that I danced it with - he makes me look so good! Unfortunately (for me), he's married to a lovely woman who he danced with most of the time. But he still made room for a few dances with me! I have another swing crush (meaning someone that I'm attracted to because they're so fun to dance with), but he has a girlfriend. BUT she left early. Which equaled more dancing time for me.

I've decided that it's best to dance when I've had a beer. This is not enough alcohol to make me uncoordinated or silly, but it is enough to make me loosen up. This means that I will ask people to dance and I also end up being a better follow. I tend to do this thing where I try to anticipate what the lead is going to do, which more often than not doesn't work out so well. So it's better if I'm a little relaxed so that I can just be content to do what I'm being told to do in the moment. Which is quite difficult. It's not easy to just give up control to someone else! I'm sure leading is hard too, but it's not the same exercise in trust. Although I suppose that they have to trust their follow to do what they tell them to do.

Dancing is so beautiful. I love to dance, but I also just love sitting there and watching people move so beautifully. It makes me want to cry sometimes. And sometimes the music just makes me want to keep moving, do anything but stand still.

It's funny because I've been impatient with myself for not learning swing as fast as I would like to. I think it was because the first two times I went out to a social dance night I was pretty much the only beginner, so everyone was better than me and I felt totally lost. But tonight there were more people who were just beginning, like me, and so I was able to enjoy where I'm at in the process of learning. Because you're only a beginner once. Why skip ahead? You can demand the six count Lindy Hop because that's the only thing you know, and your lead will have to comply. Well, if he's kind. Certain people who shall remain nameless would cruelly change it up on me with no warning. And then laugh. They know who they are.

Where I'm at with dancing kind of feels like where I am with life right now. We're a month into the summer term but I still feel like it's beginning. A lot of things are still up in the air, undecided, and it's not the most comfortable position to be in. I had two job interviews today, so I'm really hoping something comes through. I feel like I keep trying to arrange my life the way I want it, but things keep getting delayed or the plan changes entirely and although I keep trying, things don't really turn out the way that I foresee them turning out. Which is kind of like me trying to anticipate a lead's move and then making an awkward mess when we could have been dancing smoothly. So life is not bad at all right now, I just need to try to relax and go with the flow a little more. Because that's when it really gets good.

And honestly, working nine hours a week has its benefits. As in, I can go swing dancing every Monday night and stay up late, because there is absolutely nothing on Tuesday that I need to get up for. And I can read Anna Karenina, and cook, and watch movies, and work in the garden... the delightful list goes on. The only catch is: rent. And groceries. And money for beer (although sometimes I get lucky and find $10 in toonies in the bottom of my purse!). Okay, so yeah, that's why it's good to have one of those job things. I'm working on it. But in the meantime, I'm really enjoying dancing the night away.