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January 30, 2008

This n That

My god I'm speechless. Nothing to say. I've been doing so much writing lately that it's hard to keep up with "da Blog."

I'm writing a play - a monologue - to enter into this Emerging Writers competition put on by the Solo Collective.

Interestingly enough, one of the judges is a guy I met on an internet date sometime within the past 7 years or so I think. He's quite a successful playwright and he was nice. I recall him giving me some tips on technique in terms of ending short stories and we had a good conversation.

Anyway, he's one of the judges. He won't remember me so it doesn't really matter either way.

My monologue is called Morse Code and it's based on a true story except of course when you write a play it has to have some very surprising elements to keep the audience enticed. It has to have an element of surprise that is believable and it would be good if it also had some bigger life lessons woven into the overall message but in a very organic, subtle kind of way. It's tricky. Try it!

So, that's what I've been doing. And, it's really fun. But, it's hard to go from that to writing job applications. Which one seems more interesting? Take a guess? The phone rings and someone's asking you whether you'd be interested in a job you didn't even apply for meanwhile your head is still in the character of your play. It's hard to make that mental leap.

Anyway, Keiko and I went to a really excellent movie yesterday that I'd highly recommend called Persepolis. It was a black and white animation and based on a graphic novel by this Iranian woman whose name is Marjane Satrapi. Really worth seeing! Now you know why I'm not a film critic. Just go see it! What else do you need to know?

January 27, 2008

A Great Friend

It was my friend Colleen's birthday on Saturday. To celebrate the special day some friends of hers scored some VIP tickets to Macy Gray at the River Rock and I had the pleasure of being invited to go with them.

I met Colleen about 10 years ago when we both worked for UBC Continuing Studies. I don't know a lot about the first half of her life except that out of high school she joined the army and spent some of that time teaching people how to drive army vehicles. In fact, Colleen taught the friend we were with last night how to drive some sort of large truck and her friend took over as driving instructor when Colleen left the army.

She travelled a lot when she was in her 20's living and working in Australia and England.

She's very into language and the origin of words, dance, world music, different cultures and new age spirituality.

She loves to dance and knows quite a bit about Hip Hop. She's a natural teacher and had she gone to university I think that's what she might have done. She likes to do research and she's a very detail oriented person.

She once told me this story about being in some mainstream music store and asking some young guy about some current Hip Hop artist at which point he automatically assumed she was asking for her kid or something. When she got into a conversation with him and it was clear that she knew a lot about current Hip Hop artists and it wasn't for her non existent teenage son, I'm sure she gave the young clerk something to mull over in terms of stereotypes and judging people based on their age.

She's a fellow Aquarian and characteristically she's a humanitarian. She is the rare person who lives creatively on a daily basis. Her life is her art as far as I'm concerned. She never ceases to amaze me and when I was going through some really rough times in the late 90s she always had a knack it seems to me looking back, for showing up and just being or suggesting we do something and just getting me out and helping me feel better just because of her presence.

For the last several years she's really been into Indojazz and takes a weekly class even performing in some annual Indian dance performance that takes place out in Surrey in which mainly children and women from South East Asia participate.

When she was in her 30s, she took a course in Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture and travelled to China to observe how acunpuncturists and herbalists did their work in hospitals there.

She returned and opened her own acupuncture and herbalist clinic and even renovated it doing the drywalling herself. She was to discover however that it's tough being a Caucasian doctor of Chinese medicine, especially in a culture that is steeped in instant gratification. People expect instant results and they don't have he patience to accept and participate in the iterative process that is Chinese herbal medicine.

She has taken courses in Mandarin and Cantonese and it wouldn't have been unusual in the past to get into her car and be bombarded with some Learn to Speak Mandarin lessons instead of music.

I recall once when we were on our way to a hike but hadn't had breakfast, we stopped in for Dim Sum in some hole in the wall restaurant on East Hastings and after she greeted the waitress in Cantonese we were treated like royalty because the woman was so amazed that some born in Vancouver Caucasian woman could speak any of her language.

She took an African drumming class some time within the past five years and she used to spend her Saturday nights with some well-known drumming teacher and a bunch of guys in the basement of a place on West Broadway playing her jembe into the wee hours.

We had great fun taking a course on Indian culture and cooking a few years back in which we did nothing but travel around to the different Indian restaurants in Vancouver with a small group learning how the cuisine differs depending on which areas of India you are in. The class finale was to cook at the home of our instructor and we made this fabulous Indian feast with our insructor's mother showing us how to make chapatis, gesturing to us as we did our thing since she couldn't speak English.

Her most recent volunteering was in a palliative care unit in Burnaby visiting people who were terminally ill.

She never stops learning, and has done a lot of reading about New Age spirituality and most importantly translates that insight into how she treats people, especially her very lucky friends on a daily basis.

She has inspired me to do more and to think more about learning and living each day more fully. She is generous and giving and caring and she is an example of why what someone does for a living is never a measure of who they are as a human being and never will be, in spite of how much emphasis is put on that in our world.

She managed to scrape together money a few years ago and bought an apartment on the east side only to find out a couple of years later that like so many condos built in Vancouver, this one's envelope needed replacing. Money has always been super tight and since then it only got tighter as a result of every tenant having to cough up what amounts to a second mortgage.

The thing is, lately I keep thinking, if some guy can trade a red paper clip on e-Bay up until he got a house in Saskatchewan, there must be a way to help Colleen get to Cuba, a place she's been wanting to go in the last few years. In fact, in spite of her love of travel, she hasn't been on a plane in nine years.

It makes me think that there should be an adult Make a Wish website where people could then donate money to help someone do something that is out of their reach financially; something that really wouldn't take that much money but would make them so happy. Especially when, because of who they are and all they have done, they really deserve it.

Colleen deserves a vacation! She deserves to visit Cuba. There's got to be a way to help her make that happen through the power of intent.

January 25, 2008

Through the Looking Glass - Part 2

Today I finally get a call back from the Chinese Outreach worker. She's only done the job for 3 months. She a little difficult to understand at times but she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

As I'm speaking to her I realize how rusty I am at this reporting thing. It's been a long time. The only thing that isn't really rusty are my instincts.

As I speak with her I begin to realize that I probably wasn't posing the question properly. What's homeless? Is it really about being homeless or is it about being completely vulnerable? If you're living in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel, sure you might not be physically on the street but you're not exactly in the kind of circumstances any one of us would want our elderly parents or grandparents to be living in. I wasn't really asking the right question.

She's actually asking me a lot of questions. Who are you? Are you Asian? Why do you want to know this? Who told you this? But she keeps talking to me.

As we speak more, she begins to open up. She's emphasizing that there aren't any statistics. There's no statistics. Let me give you a sense of it. It's just my opinion she says.

I have clients. Immigrants. They might have been here [in Canada] 30 year and they used to be useful to their kids. Babysitting. But, then at some point the kids abandon them. They set them up in an SRO. They're completely isolated. They can't speak the language. They can't access services because they can't communicate. They don't have a pension. They might have a mental health problem, or when they're abandoned they might start drinking. And they lose everything. You might see them on the street. They're pushing a buggy. Collecting bottles. They're going through garbage.

She indicates that like every social service agency she has a mandate and it doesn't specifically include outreach to the SRO's. That's just her personal vision. I personally have a vision to reach out to the SRO hotels. But there's hundreds of SRO's and there's only one of me. We need an entire team of people to do outreach to the Asian community down here she says. This is just based on what I've observed so far. There's no stats she says.

She tells me to talk to SUCCESS. I've only been doing this job 3 months. They have outreach workers and translators who volunteer for free sometimes.

So, there is a story afterall by the sounds of it. It's just going to take a lot of work, more work than I might have the time or the inclination for. But, we'll see.

January 22, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Interesting day today it was.

If you've lived in Vancouver long enough one of the things that stands out about some of the things that are said about the Downtown Eastside is how it's such a strong community. People know each other. They look out for each other.

I've always read that stuff in the paper, especially in reference to the "Missing Women", and have always thought if THAT'S community, where's the hovercraft to the deserted island? Can't this thing go any faster?

Today I went down there to try and talk to a Chinese outreach worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Association. I wanted to write something on an issue that I'd heard about last Fall through the YWCA. I was so convinced of this story that I wrote a query that was accepted. It was a gorgeous day. My phone calls weren't being returned so I decided to just walk there and drop into the Downtown Eastside Women's Association.

As soon as I enter the room, I can tell all eyes are noticing me. It's immediate. They know. I'm not them. I'm not from down here.

It's a bit like entering a Grade 7 classroom in the middle of a huge project. Or the headquarters of a political party the month before an election. Conversation. Movement. Women at every table. The room abuzz. Women moving in and out of the doorways, approaching the receptionist, sleeping, talking, sewing, eating. The small whiteboard hanging off the pillar lists activities by the hour: 10:00 Sewing. 12:00 Lunch. I can't remember the others.

Other women look like they work there. They're wearing rubber gloves and they come from doorways off the large main room. I didn't know if it was because they were handling food or what? I wanted to walk around to the tables and stare. I wanted to just take it all in and if I could have I would have looked at each one of their faces, individually, to see if any hint of their stories were at all visible in their eyes.

There's a reception desk and a volunteer sits there. Condoms are spilling out of some glass bowls on the desk the same way some office workers keep candies on their desks. The receptionist doesn't know the Asian outreach worker. People are coming in constantly asking the receptionist for stuff. Can I have those bags? What's that? There's a Chinese woman who just points. She wants something but she doesn't speak; she knows that she wouldn't be understood so she just keeps pointing.

There's a stuffed animal-type character on the front desk. Another woman wants it. She's wearing a white ski jacket with the hood up. "It's so ugly," she says to me. "Ya it's so ugly it's cute. What the hell is it?" "It's called an Achoo," she says, reading the tag on it. "Do you think my nieces would like this?" she asks me. "It's kinda wierd," I say "Maybe that's it's charm." She can't stop touching it and handling it. It's made by Kleenex. I finally get that the big protruding red thing coming off its face is supposed to be a nose; a nose with a cold. I guess that when you have nothing just getting something; anything, for free, can feel special.

I can't figure out the women sewing at machines on the table closest to us. I can't figure out if they're mending their own jeans or fixing ones that have been donated. There's a a woman sleeping on a bench behind me her body covered in one of those old flannel sheets. A man walks in with two garbage bags full of clothes. He's bringing a donation. A tall aboriginal woman comes in the door. A blue scarf covers her head and a black scarf covers the bottom half of her face as if she's about to rob a bank. The lady I'm talking to lets out a big welcome in her direction. "I was worried about you" she yells. "I hadn't see you for a while. Where were you?"

"Oh. He gave me a chalet. I was up at my chalet," she says laughing which means something to her but nothing to me. Who's she talking about I wonder. She's staring me down as if to insinuate I'm being rude for listening even though I was there first. I tell her I'm not listening. "Are you a social worker?" she asks. "She's a reporter," says the woman I'm talking to. "No! No! I'm not," I say while I'm thinking I'm just an imposter. "Honest. I'm not a reporter. I'm a writer." She seems reassured by this. She believes me. She continues. Almost as if she wants me to know, wants me to hear her story. I'm trying to figure out what she's talking about. Is she talking about her pimp? Is she talking about some John?

"I can't let the cops see me," she says in a way that seems overly excited. Is she a little manic I think to myself? "They keep stopping me," she says. Suddenly she spots a woman across the room who raises both her arms in the air waving them wildly as soon as she spots her. "She's been looking after my kid. He's 16. But he's big. I can't kidnap him. He shouldn't even be down here," she says right before she races over to her friend, a very large Native woman, wearing a grey t-shirt that's ripped off one shoulder.

I find out that the Asian outreach worker isn't in today. I get sent over to the Carnegie Centre. Kim, the receptionist at the Carnegie Centre has worked there for 25years. Nope, she doesn't think there's any really old Asian women who are homeless down here. "Come back Thursday," she says. "They all come to Bingo every Thursday. At noon. But they're not homeless. They take advantage of every thing going on. Bingo. Ballroom dancing. Outings. No, they're not homeless. In fact, people kinda resent them. They think they take stuff away from them" she says about the other women, white women, aboriginal women.

Kim tells me I need to talk to Bob. "He's just up the block. At this point, I'm beginning to get the whole community reference. I feel like I'm in a small town. Everybody's just a call and a short walk away. She gives me Bob's number. I call Bob. He tells me to come down and see him. I walk the couple of blocks over to Dunlevy. I walked right by the place and had to backtrack. I didn't see the numbers 211 on the door barely visible under flaking green paint. I push open the door and say hello to Bob a middle aged, balding, white guy.

As soon as I enter the space I had a weird flashback as if I'd been in this room when it served a different purpose. One summer night. When I was in my early 20s. I was with a friend. We'd met this guy, a mime who performed at Granville Island. Yes. He did speak. We'd gone out drinking with him and had to drop him off at his place, a room, off the street in the downtown eastside. I remembered the floor. Brown, scuffed wooden floor. This floor seemed as if it was that same floor. Could it be?

Anyway, Bob is sitting in a room full of boxes and see through blue plastic garbage bags. I can't figure out what's in the bags. Needles? Syringes? I can't tell. He's at a really old table in the middle of the room. Seated across from him is a native guy filling out a form. Bob starts talking to me. No. He's not aware of any old Asian women on the streets. "Where didcha hear this?" he asks. When I tell him he says, "they're just not tapped in. They might look homeless but they're not."

"Didcha notice the feeling of that place?" he asks me referring to the place where I first got wind of the story. "As soon as you get nurses in charge of anything there's 35 rules before you can even do anything" he says. "You notice the place you just come from?" he asks referring to the Women's Association. "It's run by social workers. There's 3 rules. It's just different. Biggest problem down here? It's not drugs. It's not homelessness. It's mental health. Get a lawn chair. Just sit out here and watch people. Mental health. And next to no help. If somebody's acting crazy we might call the Strathcona Mental Health Team and they'll say, 'Is he dangerous? Is he a danger to himself or anyone else? Well? Then call the cops. It's not in our jurisdiction.'"

There's a line-up forming in Oppenheimer Park; a line-up of men waiting for whatever is being handed out from a white tent. Lunch.

I decide to head over to the Strathcona Community Centre. There's a seniors centre there. I walk in and meet Liza. She's the Seniors Coordinator. She doesn't think there are any really old Asian women living on the street. "They live in housing projects. Maclean's. Some hotels. But she doesn't know of any homeless. Not that she's absolutely certain. But, then, they wouldn't want to be known. They might come in and use the showers but they wouldn't talk. She mentions a woman she met when she was doing outreach. Sometimes, you can tell the ones who were affected by the Revolution she says referring to the Cultural Revolution. They just don't get involved. They don't participate. I can't explain she says. You just know when you talk to them, if they're of a certain age and they were in China then. It affected them."

Maybe I could do a story instead on this project she suggests. See those woman in there she says pointing to a room with 15 or more women around a table. They're part of a new art project. It's run by the city of Vancouver's cultural team. It's a three year pilot project. The research is being done by UBC Nursing. They're wanting to see whether being involved in art has a positive impact on health. "Seems like a no brainer," I say. There's five projects. Here at Strathcona they're making puppets. That's the project. They will use the puppets they make to tell the stories of some famous Chinese fables.

I look inside the room. I see a tiny woman wrapped in a soft yellow sweater. Her hair is grey and dry and shaped like a thatched roof. She's laughing, her teeth some crooked, some missing. Her friend is nudging her and they're having a laugh. They're sharing a joke while they work on their puppet heads. Two Caucasian woman are standing, giving some sort of instructions. They're molding clay into features of their puppets faces. She tells me that in June five community centre projects will come together and put on a performance. Maybe that's a story? asks Liza hoping to help me out.

I thank her. My real story isn't sounding like a story. Damn!

When I walk away I decide to pop into the Buddhist temple across the street. I take my shoes off and ask the Buddhist nun what some of the symbols mean. What do those gold horses wrapped in cellophane mean? Prosperity and abundance she says in halting English.

I walk down Keefer street and head over to E. Pender. By this time it's past lunchtime and I stop into Kent's place for lunch. It's a tiny restaurant with a revolving door of mainly chinese clientele, the woks steaming in full view. Off to my side and a little to my back, I notice a young, female employee. She's sitting in this chaos, head in hands, just sitting there for the longest time not moving at all. The mirror on the wall helps me to keep track of her. I keep looking at her by looking at the mirror. I wonder why she's so sad. I can feel her sadness across the room. I wonder if she's been brought here to work. I feel bad. I wish I could say something to her. I want to give her something to make her know somebody has noticed. Somebody does care. I'm reminded how much I hate not being able to speak a language; like being in Mexico, in Chiapas, and being seated on a bus and not being able to do anything but substitute words with a smile. I get a coconut bun to make myself feel better.

When I get home, I have a call from a company that I first applied to work at last Fall. I met the President in Hedley, BC in the summer. I go to my bathroom. Right before I turn out the light, I repeat the words on the fortune cookie taped to the wall: Follow your Instincts. They are valid.

January 20, 2008

The Emperor Has No Pot

Canada's Prince of Pot, Marc Emery, will find out this week what becomes of his future. He'll find out how much time he'll be wiling away in a jail cell as a result of how many pot seeds, pot paraphenalia and grow-op info he's distributed to consenting adults who pay for it off his website, many of them, U.S. citizens.

We shouldn't worry too much about how he'll manage. Afterall, pot and other drugs seem to be as prevalent in jail, and other institutions such as psychiatric hospitals, as they are on the streets.

A deal may be struck between Canada and the US so that he can serve his time in Canada. Lucky us. Because, as he described, "I'm an upstanding citizen. I declared my earnings off pot. I paid taxes and the Canadian government was more than happy to take my money."

A deal is being worked out so that his two co-accused (employees) can be let off the hook. Or at least that's the idea. It will all unfold this week presumably. Maybe Tuesday. And, I wouldn't be surprised if everyone was a little surprised at the outcome. I'm not sure why I say that. Just a hunch.

CBC TV Sunday News was interviewing him. He actually came across pretty well, if not a little bit like the megalomaniac that he is. I saw him a few years back, in person, at one of those all candidates meeting as part of a provincial election. He was speaking. Unfortunately. Cyndi Lauper's song True Colours came into my head out of the blue while I was listening to him speak.

Whether you revere him for sticking to his principals, or you just wish he'd go away, in person he comes across as what he is: An annoying, aggrandizing little idiot.

But, that's okay, because according to him, it doesn't matter how much time he spends in jail, his legacy in history has already been established.

Now, given that I live in BC, and almost everybody I've ever met smokes pot or has at least tried pot, you might think that some dude or dudette tokin away throughout the day, day after day, just shouldn't be anyone's concern. But, start asking yourself how did they get the pot? Where did it come from? Who's really making millions off growing it and selling it? What about organized crime's involvement? What does it say to your teenager when you're sitting around smoking a joint?

Then, you begin to admit, if you're being honest, that all this "innocent" pot smoking isn't really as innocent as it seems in terms of how it all plays out in society as a result of it not being legal. So, maybe that's the problem. Pot isn't the problem. Our laws are the problem.

Like a considerable number of British Columbians, I think it should be legalized. Or should it? I'm confused. Because what about alcohol? How can alcohol be legal and not pot? That makes no sense. Where do you draw the line? And if you're going to make pot legal, why not just make all drugs legal? Crystal Meth. Crack. Cocaine. Heroin. What the hell. It's a democracy. Go for it. In Canada, they seem legal anyway. Just go down to Hastings and Main.

Except, talk to anyone who has spent time with someone in their life who is addicted to anything - alcohol, food, drugs, a person, shopping. Addiction arises from pain and then causes even greater pain. Not just to the person with the addiction but too often, in some way, large and small it takes away from all their other relationships.

I spent five years on and off in a relationship with someone who was addicted to pot. But, not according to him. Oh no. He wasn't addicted to pot. It was just his way of life. Coming of age in the 60s, hanging out in the coffee shops in Ontario, and smoking pot. That's what they did. He could quit. He didn't have to smoke pot. He didn't have to get up in the middle of the night and smoke his pipe. He didn't have to smoke his pipe first thing in the morning with his coffee and his cigarettes. It was just who he was.

I would have believed him except I got to see who he really was when his pot ran out.
He wasn't even the same person. I didn't like him when he wasn't stoned. And, it's not as if you thought he was stoned when he was. He was so used to smoking pot that even when he was stoned he could function just fine. Except, his floating home was falling apart all around him. He didn't often get off the couch except to walk the dogs. He was broke. He didn't like to go out that much probably because he couldn't not be smoking pot for more than a couple of hours or so. He worked three days a week but could have worked more and had the professional expertise and certainly the talent to get another job full time but no, he couldn't make change. He didn't feel like it.

Pot is a depressant. And I was too depressed back then to notice how depressed he might have been. I say might because he killed himself. I'm thinking depression, and pot, were at least a part of the equation as to the slippery slope that led him there. That made me more depressed than I'd ever been. Now I'm not saying he killed himself because of the pot smoking but I am saying it all fits together, really subtley.

Someone once said very accurately that pot steals people from the people they love because it causes them to go into their own heads and be absent. They can't be there for the people who love them. They can't even really be there for themselves when they need themselves to be: to get a better job, to take their kid to soccer, to save money for something that really matters.

Now, let's be clear, I'm not talking about the occasional joint at a party. I'm talking about those people who smoke it every day, every second day, all the time.

My attitude now is, I've spent most of my life living in my head and the last thing I need is some artificially-induced substance to help me do that even more.

My biggest challenge is being in the moment. Some would argue that pot lets you do that really well. When you're stoned your senses are enhanced. It lowers inhibition. Sex is better. Listening to music is better.

But, I see that mainly as an experience of the self, it's internal, in a world where people already have way too much trouble making a connection.

January 15, 2008


I went to a talk tonight at the Central Library put on jointly by the Red Cross and Canada and Immigration Services. I wanted to hear about about Canada's refugee policies. Not opinion. Facts. Who gets in? Which countries? How does that get decided? I'd invited a friend who works as a paralegal at a law firm.

Out of 33 million refugees, worldwide, less than one percent will ever be resettled. If that statistic doesn't make you realize, in case you didn't already get it, that you'd won the lottery when you were born in Canada, then nothing will.

Apparently, refugees come to Canada in three ways. They show up seeking asylum. They are assisted by the government in an organized process facilitated mainly by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees with those types of refugees called government assisted refugees or GAR for short, or refugees can be privately sponsored.

Internationally there are only 70,000 spots annually with the US taking about 50,000 refugees and Canada and Australia taking about 7,500 government assisted refugees each although the total number of refugees who came to Canada in 2006 numbered around 35,000.

There are only 18 resettlement countries in the world and that why a refugee can be a refugee for, on average, 17 years prior to getting resettled in a new country. Think about that. Say it again. 17 years! And, these are not well educated refugees from Europe as in the past after World War II. These are people who may have lived in hill tribes, never had any education or any access to medical or dental care, who are not used to living in urban areas. Remember. 17 years. To re-emphasize this think about that and then hear that 40% of refugees are under the age of 18.

In Canada, three aspects govern the decision-making process. The first priority is protecting people who are in need of physical protection. This might include people living in war zones (such as Afghanistan), people who are being persecuted, women who are being raped and tortured, children.

There is strategic use of resettlement (for example, within a refugee camp if a specific ethnic group is being persecuted sometimes Canada will take groups of refugees out of the camp to alleviate the problem in the camp and free up resources (NGO services) there that this small group would be utilizing to an extraordinary degree because of the daily realities of their persecution. Finally,Canada tries to form a strategic approach to manage refugee situations in the world that have been ongoing for years.

People who live in Myanmar such as Karen refugees who have been in refugee camps along the border in Thailand, and people in Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, Somalia, Columbia have all been near the top of the list of countries Canada receives refugees from in recent years. Depending on what atrocities are taking place in the world, the list changes. Until 2002, Yugoslavia was on the list. The Sudan is on the list.

In 2009 Canada will be taking 5,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. I have to find out why?

Refugees make up about 4-6% of total immigration to Canada.

The information was very interesting (albeit too long) but of course, nothing beats the drama that happens when there's an open mic which there was at the end of the talks.

A man from China who stated that he'd only been in the country a week proceeded not to actually ask a question but to speak about his impressions and his disbelief about some incidents that have happened to him in Vancouver during his week in Canada as if none of the rest of us would have noticed the situation all around us on a daily basis. He wasn't a refugee. He was an immigrant.

He was shocked, dismayed, frustrated, disbelieving that in only a week there were so many people he had seen begging on Vancouver's streets. He gave us some examples. He told us that one morning he went to McDonalds for breakfast to have a hot chocolate and a hamburger [he's assimilating in all the wrong ways it would seem] and he put it down on a table. He walked away to get a napkin and when he came back his food was gone. This, he said, would NEVER happen in China. You could leave your food and nobody would touch your food. My friend pointed out, a little sarcastically, that he appeared to be a shining example of just how well ESL is apparently working in China.

He was wearing a North Face bright yellow bomber jacket. He was indignant and felt that Canada should not be helping refugees until they were willing to help the people on the street. I personally thought, after a mere week, he was being a little too altruistic too soon and he might have done well to just be an observer for a while - maybe more than a week - before he started offering simplistic assessments of our unfortunate realities in North America, especially when it comes to Vancouver's homeless people.

At the same time, it was interesting to recognize that once again, we who live here have grown so complacent about the growing problem and about its complexities that it takes a newcomer to remind me how it's not okay to be complacent in the way most of us in Vancouver who are still living somewhere other than the street, are.

On the other hand, my friend, who lived with a man who was a refugee from China who pulled himself up from his bootstraps and is now an upstanding Canadian citizen (she said somehwat tongue in cheek) pointed out that he used to get the same way - indignant - because having come from where he'd come from he could not understand how any white person, raised in Canada, with every opportunity (relatively speaking) could be begging on the street.

The moderator, in fact, had to finally shut the guy down because he wouldn't stop talking and as a seasoned broadcaster she did a marvellous job at doing it while being extremely courteous. She pointed out that yes, we had a problem and that yes we should be finding a way to help both the homeless and the world's refugees. We could in fact do both.

I wondered as we left if anyone else walked away being reminded, once again about how complacent they'd become about homelessness now that it seems to have become institutionalized (if the use of that word isn't too ironic to describe the situation), on our streets.

January 14, 2008

Maya Angelou

Poet Maya Angelou was being interviewed by Evan Solomon on CBC Television last night and he was asking her about her decision to back Hillary Clinton. His questions seemed pretty simplistic. I'm sure he was aware of their simplicity, setting her up with questions such as "You've spent your whole life in the civil rights movement, you worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, why would you back a white woman?"

He asked her about the conversation she must have had with Oprah who is backing Barack Obama.

And then we got to hear her wonderful responses and how she articulates them in as few words as necessary, in this case saying "Because I'm an intelligent person. I'm intelligent and I can think therefore, intelligently, and I'm picking the person who in my mind is the best based on my own criteria."

In the end, he asked her if she had a poem that might capture where the U.S. as a country was at this moment in history. This is the one she recited and to see her, at 80 yrs of age, find this one among all the poems she has written over the years and recite it from memory was to see what we get to see so rarely on television; what the words "reality television" should really mean.
Here's the poem.

Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

by Maya Angelou
Watch the Interview

January 12, 2008

Learn to Run

When I met my friend Dave for lunch this week I said to him "I’ve done something you’re never going to believe. I’ve joined the Running Room." “I didn’t know you could join a store,” he said. “Do you just go there and hang out? Do you have to show a membership card? When it’s raining do you think, well, maybe I’ll just try on a size 8 to mix things up a bit?” He was teasing me.
“No! It’s not JUST a STORE,” I said. “You can sign up for clinics. I signed up for Learn to Run.” "Don’t you have to learn how to crawl first?” he asks much to my amusement.

When I told my friend Lisa that I got a new pair of runners and that they were lime green she said, "Lime green? Like reflective? Lime green runners?" “Not the whole runner,” I said, trying to imagine my feet looking like some glow in the dark mime feet. "Just the accent color is lime green." We’re both laughing now. "I really didn’t care about the colour," I said. "Those just seemed to fit the best. Or, at least they did before I started running in them!"

When I told my friend Dee (who has run more than one marathon) that I decided to start running she said, "Gayle, I’m so proud of you!" And, when someone says THAT you know, okay, for sure, I'm obese. Someone is proud of me for learning to run. Great. Baby steps.

Now, just to be clear, I hate running. I am one of those people who looks at all those joggers and thinks what’s wrong with them? I don’t even believe running is healthy for poor creaking aging joints.

When I had a car, I used to look at those people who’d run for a bus and think I’m not running to catch a bus. How uncool is that? It's bad enough that you have to take the "loser cruiser" without looking like you really want to be on it by running for it. That was, I’d like to point out, before I TOOK a bus every day to UBC. Then I got it. Then I thought I’m not WAITING for another bus. Catching this one, the one I was about to miss, was as urgent as making the game winning touchdown at the Super Bowl.

Except for when it was absolutely necessary to catch the bus, I don’t think I’ve actually run anywhere intentionally since the spring of 1979. That was the final year I played basketball on a championship basketball team for five years in high school. At that time we had to run a mile in less than six minutes as one hurdle to making the team. And, looking back, I’m not even totally convinced that I made the cut off. I think our coach just faked it for me because by the time I’d reach the end of the mile I’d sound like an asthmatic lung cancer patient.

So, it’s hard to explain what motivated me at this point in my personal history except for those 35 extra pounds. But, that’s not it. I’ve had those for a while now. If it makes any sense at all, I think it has something to do with me finally coming to terms with how completely lazy I truly am and realizing I must choose the path of least resistance to be able to continue with the program.

First of all the store is a mere 3 minutes from my house. I pretty much could roll out of bed, not even stand up, keep rolling and almost make it to the front door of the store.

Next. It’s social. You can talk while you run. Matter of fact they say if you can’t talk while you’re running, then you’re running too fast. (Imagine if you applied that concept at work?) I like that. It fits who I am. I've been talkin and there are really nice people in this group.

Third reason. There’s a whole bunch of out of shape people learning to run with me. Misery loves company.

Fourth reason. All that’s initially required is to run one minute, walk two minutes and do that 10 more times. Even I can do that. I mean, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that the entire goal at this point is to be able to run 20 minutes at a time without stopping. When you write that down it sound almost ridiculous that someone would need to help you learn to do that. But, when you’re putting one foot in front of the other and your ankle hurts from aquafit the day before and your hammer toe is already proving to be problematic and your breathing is starting to sound like that of an obscene caller on the other end of the phone, it’s not.

But, I admit, it does feel a little like my body is screaming with joy that its sloth of an owner finally decided to move it off the couch.

Which is good because it’s dark, it’s pouring, it’s Saturday morning and it’s almost time to run.

January 11, 2008

Deja vu in the Pool

My friend Kelly has returned from almost a decade away first in Hong Kong and then New Zealand. I met her originally at the Kerrisdale Community Centre pool in the mid 90s where we used to have a lot of laughs doing aqua fit with seniors.

Ya. We really know how to party! Whoo hoo! Want to feel better about yourself? Start hanging out with 80 year olds. Look how fit I am. I can walk without a walker!

We learned after one of our first meetings that we had both graduated from Langara’s journalism program about a decade or more apart. She's nine years younger than me and had the wisdom to go into the program right after highschool whereas I apparently chose to strengthen my character first by doing mind numbing clerical jobs accumulating all sorts of knowledge that, in hindsight, has been useful the way the kind of knowledge that helps you win Trivial Pursuit games is useful.

Today we ventured to the Aquatic Centre on Beach Avenue for an aquafit class just like old times.

It made me really happy to look across the pool and see her tiny 5'2" self splashing away as if 10 years had never happened.

January 09, 2008

Coffee with Keiko

One of the benefits of not working is having the luxury of time to spend with people you really like who would otherwise be pushed to the periphery of your life as a result of that pesky little thing called a job.

You've probably heard of that book Tuesdays with Morrie but for the last couple of months I've been having coffee with Keiko. Usually on Wednesdays.

I met Keiko in a watercolour painting class a couple of years ago. Her paintings are exquisitely detailed and realistic and they sell almost immediately when she shows them.

She reminds me a little of Phyllis, my childhood friend, for one obvious reason: they are both of Japanese heritage. And, she has a cynical somewhat warped sense of humour that meshes well with mine; the kind you wouldn't expect from a petite Japanese woman.

She is also one of the calmest, most unobtrusive individuals I have ever met and that inner calm transmits when you are around her. Yes, she meditates. She has this great short asymmetric hair cut that makes her look sophisticated and a faint sprinkle of freckles on her face. She looks much younger than her age although I don't know what her age is. When she laughs her brown eyes light up and her face looks joyful and you know she is laughing and yet she makes very little sound. Yesterday she had brown rice and miso soup for breakfast.

Our conversation tends to cover all topics ranging from the metaphysical to the mundane.

One day we're speaking of travel and I say to her that I've discovered that I must wait for a compelling reason to travel, that I've noticed how a place will just come to me and I must feel compelled and then I know it is exactly where I am supposed to go and it's the right time to go there.

Keiko then proceeds to tell me this story.

"One day," she says hesitantly, "I woke up and I felt compelled to go to India." Really?" I am surprised because she has proclaimed that her husband and her are often just too lazy to get it together to plan a trip which prevents them from taking trips and she feels like she's seen everywhere she really wants to go anyway.

"When was this?" "About 8 years ago," she says. "I had been reading a lot about Sai Baba. Sai Baba?" "You mean the guy with the ashes?" I tried to recall what it was about him that I'd heard. "Ya," she says. "I woke up and I just knew I must go to India. He invited me." "How do you get invited?" "No," she said laughing. "He doesn't send you an invitation. I felt his intent." "Oh," I said. I tried to keep my right eyebrow from doing what it does when people say that kind of stuff.

"That morning I said to George [her husband], I feel compelled to go to India. He looked at me and said I'm NOT going to INDIA!"

"The thing is," she continued, "I realize that going to India is not such a big deal but I don't like dirty, crowded places. That's why I feel he invited me. Otherwise, India or South East Asia are not places I have ever desired to visit."

"So, I got on the phone to my ex sister-in-law. She's a millionaire. I told her that I felt compelled to go to India. She was all over it. Next thing I know she calls me back and says, I've booked us into Business class. It's a long flight. But, first we're stopping in Japan."

"I found that interesting," she said "because I'd been to a psychic a while before and the psychic told me previously that I would be going on a trip but she insisted I'd be going to Japan when at the time I had no intention of going to Japan."

"We didn't make any reservations. Normally, I'd always make reservations. And, I wasn't even worried or afraid about what would happen. I knew everything would be fine."

We arrived in Bangalore and we did a bit of siteseeing and then just asked a taxi driver to take us to Sai Baba's ashram. He drove us out there. It's a really big place. Maybe 10,000 people could come there at a time. Sai Baba comes out only about 2 times a day. He just comes out and walks among all the people.

My sister in law tried to find a room for us. But, there were no rooms left. She then went back afterwards and they said they had something we could stay in. It was this basic cement blocked hut. There was nothing in it. We had to sleep on the floor. There were these German tourists that we had to share it with. My sister in law made a place for her bed under some table. One of the germans was young and had a little Indian baby.

All I remember is how hot it was. It was so hot. And,I remember there would be these Indian women in beautiful saris looking absolutely pristine and calm sitting in the lotus position.

I remember being in this large crowd in the afternoon and he came near me but he didn't look at me. He was right near me and yet he didn't at any time glance in my direction as if he was avoiding me on purpose. Really, I say. Maybe he just didn't notice you. You're kinda small. There were a lot of people right? No,that wasn't it. It was intentional. But why would he have invited you only to ignore you?
I asked someone later and they said something about he didn't look at me because my soul needed to be cleansed.

What I liked about this story is that I like it when people surprise me. When I perceive them to be a certain way and they take my judgements, of which I make too many, and trash them, when they reveal facts about themselves that expand my understanding of who they are and remind me that we all know so little of everyone we think we know - ourselves, our friends, our spouses, the people we work with - and about the mysteries of life. When was the last time you really surprised yourself?

Keiko does this for me almost every time we meet. She also has a way of getting at the heart of an issue without ever referring to it directly and yet when she's finished I always walk away with some bit of wisdom to mull over that's usually relevant to whatever has been foremost on my mind.

For example, because I have been confused about what I would really feel some sort of enthusiasm about doing next to make money she asked me one simple question. Why did you leave your last job? What were you thinking? She asked me and not in a what the hell were you thinking kind of way but what was going on inside your head when you knew you must leave?

I could answer that instantly because I was indeed having a very specific thought when I left. I was thinking of something that I know I should be doing but am not, the one thing I am on the planet to do that I have been avoiding my entire life.

Meeting Keiko for coffee has become one of the highlights of my week.

PS: I asked Keiko whether she'd be okay with me writing something about her and she said yes. She might be horrified mind you at the results; at how much I have undoubtedly omitted or flat out got wrong about her trip to Sai Baba. :-)

January 08, 2008

January 05, 2008

First Week/New Year

Start Open Corner Distinct Fresh Original Virgin Present Current Introduce Forward Change Meet Cause Effect Create Embrace Lead Onward Do Act Impact Decide Resolve Begin New Calendar Year*

*Feel free to add your own word in comments – just one word -
to represent something “new”, a beginning...