I’ve been walking to work lately, most days. I take the neighbourhood route, avoiding the busy road until the winding residential streets run out. I walk in the cool of the morning, on the sunny side of the street, past quiet houses, and listen to the birds sing. Sometimes I see other people out walking their dogs, or jogging.
I arrive at work, where the spot I used to park has been taken over by roofers, and the rest of the parking lot has been removed by the construction crew working on a large building project. We are surrounded by drilling, thumping, hammering, blasting, and digging. Sometimes we can hardly get out the door for the cement trucks, dumptrucks or other heavy equipment moving in and out of the construction site. Yet people still manage to arrive, anyway, for art classes and gallery openings, workshops and meetings.
Then I walk home again, and when I reach the quiet streets of my neighbourhood, I see kids playing in backyards and cars pulling into driveways. And people are out walking dogs and jogging. And sometimes these two yappy dogs are out in their front yard, watching, ready to scold or gossip or at least make a lot of noise as I walk past, smiling.
Photo taken on March 31, 2011
I was browsing my winter photos the other day, and actually cringed when I found one with the comment, “Yay, the snow is back!” We’ve had so much snow this year, I can hardly believe I felt that way only a few short months ago. At the same time, I’m aware that all this snow will seem as unreal as a dream in another few months.
In the last few days, I’ve been walking around our property, making mental notes:
- the snow is over the top of the driveway reflectors
- look how it’s drifted right across the fence
- it’s higher than the railing on the back stoop
- the snowbanks along the road are taller than me.
Right now, we’re inside looking out at winter and wishing it will go away. But it will go away, and we’ll be outside looking into our memories, shaking our heads as we say to each other, “Do you remember all that snow we had last winter? It was up to here!”
Photo taken on February 28, 2011
Ever notice how fire hydrants look like little firefighters? Look at their red uniforms, their shiny helmets, their arms stretched out to help. Look at the way they stand protectively, patiently, ready for any emergency. They are short but sturdy, always the first to get dug out of the snowbank, but the last to get noticed in a crowd. They provide many community services, including acting as a message board for dogs and a vantage point for parade-watchers.
It’s good luck to have a fire hydrant near your home (we have one across the street), and it’s also good for your insurance rates. It’s a comfort to see their little faces keeping an eye on your neighbourhood. When there is a fire (fires do happen), that little fire hydrant could be your best friend in the whole world.
In the town of Tweed, Ontario, all the fire hydrants are painted — there is a cat, a pirate, a chef, a police officer — but here in Saint John, they wear their classic uniforms. They don’t need painted faces because they already look friendly. And they have names: this one is named McAvity. McAvity here is part of a small army of firefighters protecting our city. Brave McAvity.
Photo taken on February 24, 2011
I used to wish I could be a cat, to have nothing more to worry about than whether to sleep, eat or play. I’d watch the family cat saunter from one cosy corner to another, leaping effortlessly to the back of the couch to watch out the window, tail twitching, then on to the floor to stretch luxuriously in a patch of warm sunlight. To our current cat, playtime is as important as sleep. As I write this, I can hear him chasing his foam jingly spool up and down stairs, the floor over my head resounding as he pounces and leaps and races across the room.
One of the things I admire most about cats is their ability to watch and wait, as patient as a rock (except when they think it’s meal time). Outdoors, they will do their watching from a hiding spot — a shaded blind under a bush or the back steps — but indoors they are bold, they know the window protects them and they do not hide their curiosity at the comings and goings of the world outside. Like these cats, I spend a lot of time looking out windows, watching the changing sky, the people walking by, the wind in the trees.
I used to think that a cat looking out the window was longing to be outside, but now I’m not so sure. Like me, they are watchers; they just want to see.
Photo taken on February 21, 2011
I’m been feeling down lately — and it’s just silly, because I’m really enjoying my job at the moment, and we went to the theatre and symphony and caught up with friends over the past week — but…
- It’s February, and the sidewalks are horribly icy, but spring is coming in the sense that today’s snow will be mixed with rain and freezing rain (yuck).
- I have all but disappeared from my online communities (my apologies for not coming by to visit lately) due to total lack of inspiration.
- I haven’t even taken any photos for a week (this image taken two years ago shows Saint John looking almost exactly as it does today, icicles included).
- When I was reorganizing my desk a few weeks ago, I dropped my favourite lens, a 24mm prime. Fortunately the lens itself seems to be fine, but the autofocus is no longer working.
- My ankle sometimes still aches where I hurt it last fall.
- And, well, I’m going to be 50 next month. I’m not shy about claiming my age, but I am afraid of aging, I am afraid of not being able to walk, I am afraid of not being able to carry my camera wherever impulse takes me, I am afraid of not being able to see clearly.
Yes, I know these February blues will pass, that my petulant whining will magically disappear in the face of a new adventure or new accomplishment, or new month. I’ll be waiting.
Photo taken on February 25, 2009
After the storm had blown through yesterday, we went through a walk through the quiet streets in our neighbourhood. As we walked, we admired the sculptured snowbanks piled high by plow, snowblower and shovel, and smoothed to softness by the wind.
Walkways and driveways had already been cleared in front of some houses, and others were deep in drifts. A dog ran out to greet us as we walked by; his owner was busy with the shovel in front of his house — you wouldn’t have known he was there except for the snow flying up over the high bank. Another man with a snowblower was working farther down the street, and I could hear the sound of an ice scraper behind a running car in a nearby driveway. A taxi drove by, taking the turns carefully.
There was still a nip in the wind, and the soft snow swirled from snowbank to snowbank as we followed the tire tracks through the snow. We returned home, our cheeks red from the cold, cleared the back steps once more, and hung our hats to dry over the mudroom heater.
Photo taken on February 2, 2011
A few snowflakes are spinning lazily through the air outside my window. I know from the weather forecast that this is just the beginning, the harbinger of a huge storm which has paralyzed portions of the U.S. from Texas to Maine. From what I’ve heard, the storm won’t be as severe here, although we are expecting heavy snow, with about 30 centimetres by tomorrow morning.
It was on this day 35 years ago, in 1976, that Saint Johners experienced our “storm of the century”. The Groundhog Day Gale was completely unexpected. The day started calmly, with the temperature around the freezing mark and a light wind. The winds rose to more than 180 km per hour, causing a huge amount of damage across the city. Windows were smashed, telephone poles toppled, cars and sheds and airplanes were flipped and crushed. At high tide, the water rose over the low-lying parts of the city, and the hurricane-force wind carried the salt water for miles inland, causing electrical failures not only that day, but even months later. The gale was followed by days of bitter cold, which — combined with widespread power outages — sent many people to seek shelter. Miraculously, the only person killed was a man whose ice-fishing shack was blown across the river.
Already, outside my window, the few snowflakes have become a steady snowfall. On the internet I’m reading about the “snowpocalypse” in the States, and — on the other side of the world — a cyclone the size of New Zealand that is pounding northeastern Australia. It looks like many of us will see another storm to remember for years to come. But if it’s any consolation, I don’t think the groundhog will see his shadow today.
Photo taken on December 9, 2009
My new job is a new beginning, but it’s also an ending. It’s an end to lazy mornings lounging in my pajamas, and mid-afternoon play sessions with the dogs. It’s an end to looking through employment ads and updating only the expense side of my balance sheet.
In the past week I’ve tried to absorb more information than is humanly possible to retain, began to bond with people who will soon be leaving, and learned some of the history of a place which is now in the midst of change. It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting week.
I am preparing for an undefined role in the difficult time of this workplace, at the moment in which everything seems to be in flux. Yet there is so much potential — it could turn out to be a really fascinating and fun job. But if this first week is any indication, I won’t be following a predictable pathway, I’ll be helping to clear a new one. Yikes!
Photo taken on January 30, 2011
This streetscape is one of Saint John’s treasures. The group of “jellybean” buildings are c.1860 Second Empire row houses with sophisticated carved window and door surrounds. They are colourful and quaint, old and attractive. They remind us the time when most buildings in the city centre were wood, and the fact that most burnt in the Great Fire of 1877.
A few steps down the street in either direction are modern office buildings, brick and concrete, glass and steel. They house scores of office workers, shops and businesses. They are tall enough to command a view across the city. They are not particularly notable as architecture and do not attract tourists, but they are also a vital part of the city.
The beautifully painted row houses are now locally famous because a citizen’s group lobbied — successfully — to save them from the wrecking ball. The city was concerned that they were decrepit and needed the land to build a new office building. Over time, the old wooden buildings became more expensive to maintain, and the new concrete buildings became easier to construct.
The question is always one of balance, between a city’s historic heart and its economic vitality, between something old — to keep us rooted, and something new — to give us wings.
Photo taken on January 20, 2011
For a while, yesterday afternoon, I thought we were in a different world. Instead of arriving in civil flakes, gently collecting in swirls and drifts, the snow arrived all at once. The sky turned dark mid-afternoon, then I saw a few flakes drifting past the window. Then the world turned white.
It’s not the best kind of weather to be driving in, but when the snow hit, everyone and their car headed for the roads, hurrying to get home before it got any worse. Ironically, it got better, afterwards, but how was anyone to know?
Then I discovered that my dad was at a mid-afternoon doctor’s appointment. His vision is not what it used to be, and he doesn’t have winter tires on his car. So we headed out to try and rescue him. We headed out in this, with the slipping cars and snarled traffic, where you could hardly see the edges of the road.
It turned out that my father had left just before we got there, and he did make it home safely, as did we. Fortunately, everyone knows about winter driving here. People drive slowly and carefully. And that van that started sliding down the hill toward us? We stopped and let him in — he ended up sliding right in front of us — and the line of cautious traffic continued on its way.
Photo taken on January 12, 2011
Fact #1: U.S. Democrat Gabrielle Giffords was shot yesterday. Some commentators are linking the shooting in Tucson to violent language on multiple websites, at least one of which showed Giffords’ congressional district in the crosshairs of a gun.
Fact #2: Yesterday I read an article in The Atlantic about the cost of believing everything you find on the internet. The gullibility of the public has allowed radicals and reactionaries to succeed in smear campaigns against their targets, even when their accusations have been proven to be false, because the public loves sensational scandal and ignores the truth that is later uncovered.
Fact #3: I spent more than six hours yesterday reading news feeds and bookmarked blog posts, and catching up on the expected results of South Sudan’s referendum, participating in an online conversation about Saint John’s uptown, and reading about the advantage of planned spending over budgeting.
* * *
If I wanted to remain virtually connected at this rate, I would have to devote at least two hours per day to reading online, and that would be mostly scanning the headlines. No wonder it’s hard to separate facts from fiction and to get a balanced view of the world.
And, in case you haven’t noticed, much of the noise out there (in the virtual world) is recycled information, broken up into byte-sized pieces. Sometimes the information is whitewashed, sometimes it’s muddied. And it’s all thrown together into the great washing machine of the internet, socks and underwear, tourniquets and tennis shoes, the bleeding red bandana and the white silk shirt. The internet does not sort and weigh the information, it does not separate the world’s laundry into the sheep and the wolves.
So take care what you say online, even in jest. Check your temper at the door but do not check your brain. Take care in what you read, and especially what you believe and pass on for fact. It’s not just viruses that we need to guard against. Sadly, very little can be trusted. Everything must be washed, rinsed and hung to dry in the cool light of rational thought.
Photo taken on December 18, 2010
Do you see the hedge first, or the houses? Do you see the tiny yellow buds on the topmost twigs, or the green wreath decorating the door? As you walk by, do you notice which tidy post-war houses have their walkways freshly cleared of snow, or do you watch the late afternoon sun as it wraps the neighbourhood with yellow ribbons of light?
I know there’s work to be done and phone calls to make, items to check off my to-do list and projects to finish. But right now I’m busy. Right now I’m outdoors, feeling the cold air on my face, watching the dogs track unfamiliar scents from tree to telephone pole, and listening to the crunch of my boots on the snow-crusted sidewalk. For 30 minutes, nothing else matters more than being here. I don’t have a lot of time, so I want to make the most of it.
Photo taken on January 4, 2010
This is a family time of year, we are told, as if the nostalgic rosy-eyed view of family could be sold along with the tinsel and this year’s must-have electronic gadget. But what is family? A family is fluid, a river you can’t step in twice. Family dynamics are like skating on thin ice. Family is history and baggage and years of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole (or the other way around). Family is one slippery word; from Norman Rockwell to Mommy Dearest, it carries a boat-load of expectations too easily shipwrecked on the shoals of life.
Christmas can be a difficult time, family wise. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my parents. After staying away for so many years, I am delighted to be home again, but now my brothers are staying away instead. This is family. Over the past four days, my partner’s son and his long-time girlfriend have been visiting us from Montreal. Spending time with this young couple who are so obviously in love reminds me of the magic that happens when people truly care for each other. This, too, is family.
Those who no longer have family find this time of year difficult as well. In a family-centric society, what could be worse than spending the holidays alone? Yet being alone may be better than spending time with a family that does not love you. That’s why we have friends. My friends have been there for me when I really needed them. And isn’t that, after all, what family is all about?
Photo taken on December 29, 2010
We had a green Christmas. The sun shone, the roads were bare and the temperature was mild. Although I was hoping for snow, I admit that it couldn’t have been a better day.
Then, late on Boxing Day, a Nor’easter blew up along the coast and dumped a pile of snow and some rain through the Maritimes. As I write this, a blustery wind is shaking the trees and blowing last night’s fresh snow into sharp-peaked drifts. The landscape has completely changed. My shoulder and back muscles are still sore from shovelling snow yesterday, and I know there will more shovelling to do today.
Welcome back, winter.
Photo taken on December 27, 2010
I wanted to share some photos of the Christmas lights in our neighbourhood. The houses are so beautifully decorated, they just need a good snowfall to make the scene look more like Canada and less like Florida. Instead, I’ve chosen this photo, taken last year during a snow storm. This (to my mind) is what a picture-perfect Christmas looks like, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year. We’ve had rain and wind during the night, and it looks like it will be another day before it blows over. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a few flakes before Christmas, but the temperatures this week are at the point where any snow could turn to rain (or vice versa).
Still, it could be a lot worse than rain on Christmas. It could be a lot of rain, like the 150 cm over 24 hours in southwestern New Brunswick last week that caused a river to overflow its banks, flooding 120 roads and damaging nearly 100 homes. It looked like Christmas would be ruined for many people this year, but for the amazing, generous and heartwarming response from local businesses, neighbouring communities and politicians who have collected funds and organized disaster relief, hosted dinners, offered temporary places to stay and distributed dehumidifiers and other supplies to those affected. With so much generosity, so much warmth, so much welcome, who needs snow?
Photo taken on December 9, 2009
I went uptown to go shopping on Saturday, and found the city centre beautifully decorated. But then the sun set, casting a bright wash of purple colour along the streets and making the harbour glow with reflected golden light, and that was the best decoration of all.
Photo taken on December 18, 2010
Last night I attended the Open House for PlanSJ — the process to create Saint John’s new official plan — and had a good look at the proposed direction for city growth over the next 25 years. In a nutshell, the plan calls the city to grow up, not out.
What this means is that urban areas, where the population is denser and communities are walkable, are recognized as healthier alternatives to suburban “scatteration”. These areas including the priority neighbourhoods of the Old North End, Crescent Valley, Waterloo Village, the South End, and the Lower West Side, areas of the city which desperately need an infusion of cash and smart development and energetic citizens. And the need is desperate: despite generous support for anti-poverty initiatives and community building projects, the neighbourhoods are known more for their decrepit buildings, drug traffickers and arsonists than the tenacious citizens who are trying to make things better.
If the city follows through, if buildings worth saving are rehabilitated, if new construction replaces empty lots and eyesores, and if people are willing to move back into the urban areas to make the city core healthy and happy, then Saint John doesn’t have anything to fear from the growing suburban communities on its east and west that have been attracting city refugees for the past 20 years. But in order for this to work, the city has to make the urban neighbourhoods more attractive — to developers, business owners, and prospective residents — at the same time as ensuring that people who live at or near the poverty line aren’t pushed out of their own neighbourhoods by skyrocketing rents.
It’s a tall order; is the city up to it? I hope so!
Photo taken on November 9, 2010
On the street where I live there is a young mother who goes for walks, pushing her baby in a stroller while keeping a firm grip on the leash of her happy dog. There is a little dog who guards his little porch, and a bigger dog who loves to run, given half a chance. Sometimes I see a Siamese cat slip under the fence to explore the back field, following the tracks of mice and deer and other cats who wander there. There is a young man who has a truck parked in his backyard just for parts, and a family who, I am told, keeps a few chickens in their basement so they can have fresh eggs. There is an old man who keeps his yard as neat as a pin, and an old lady who walks to church every day, her tall hair carefully wrapped in black lace. I think I will go for a walk down the street today, and say hello to my neighbours.
Photo taken on December 7, 2010
It’s a wry joke: Saint John is on the Bay of Fundy, which has the world’s highest tides, so it seems that as soon as our ship has come in, it goes out, it comes in, it goes out… And so it has continued for the history of the city, a tide of fame and fortune, or at least some regional importance, followed by bleak years of being a Maritime backwater.
Established in 1785 by a wave of United Empire Loyalists, buoyed by Irish and Scottish immigrants, Saint John became the transportation and manufacturing hub at the centre of a profitable trade between British North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom. Then economic decline followed. The golden age of shipbuilding ended, the Great Fire of 1877 destroyed the city’s business district, and a depression sent many people west to look for jobs.
The pattern continued in the 20th century. Saint John’s ice-free port was the entry point for many goods coming into Canada in the winter. That stopped when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in the 1950s. Shipbuilding played a huge role in reviving the city’s economy in the 1980s, but then the contracts dried up and the city lost population again.
The cruise ship industry has helped to revive the city once again, and people (including me) have been moving back to find jobs. Just two years ago, Saint John was touted as the new “energy centre” of the Maritimes. Now three potentially huge energy-related projects have been cancelled, and business and industry owners are once again tightening their belts.
So it was somewhat ironic to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper (pictured getting into his car) flying in to make an announcement (about funding for the harbour bridge) last week. Now he’s gone back to Ottawa, and the city is left to its troubles and the ceaseless tide, looking for the ship that never seems to stay in port long enough.
No, it’s not yet the 11th day of Christmas (“11 pipers piping”), but the pipe bands marching in Saint John’s Santa Claus parade on Saturday night have helped to put me in the Christmas spirit. Twinkly lights and red bows brighten the streets from one end of the city to the other, and carols accompany every trip through the grocery store.
The newspaper is also fatter — just like the legendary Christmas goose — filled to overflowing with sale flyers promising super specials on everything from cranberry-stuffed cheese balls to a computer-enhanced paintball game. My own Christmas shopping will be much too modest to boost the local economy, so as an antidote, I try to focus on the non-commercial aspects of Christmas. To quote a perennial holiday film, here are a few of My Favourite (Christmas) Things:
10. Pipe bands (gotta love those kilts) or brass bands, playing outdoors.
9. Skating on Lily Lake to the sound of waltzes from the pavilion loudspeaker.
8. Watching dogs and children frolicking in the fresh-fallen snow.
7. Strings of lights and cheery decorations on people’s homes and businesses.
6. The food. Oh, the food, the food, the food.
5. Visiting. Seeing farflung friends and family is worth a holiday all by itself.
4. Decorating the tree. All my ornaments have stories; hanging them on the tree is like opening a box of precious memories.
3. Singing along with Handel’s Messiah. Just try not standing up during the Hallelujah Chorus (I know, that’s part of the Easter section, but who’s counting…).
2. Giving gifts. While I do enjoy getting, giving is even better — I love seeing that pleased expression on a loved one’s face.
1. Hearing the Christmas story. You know the one — pregnant teenage girl, hasty wedding, weary travellers desperate for a place to stay, the stable, the birth of a baby, singing and dancing shepherds — a real barn-burner. And you know there wouldn’t be a Christmas without a baby.
Photo taken on November 20, 2010
I don’t know who coined the term “retail therapy”, but sometimes I think shopping is an addiction. My partner frequently reminds me that I don’t have to buy something every day. If I go for a walk, I don’t need to take any money. I don’t have to buy a sweater or a closet organizer just because it’s on sale. Since I’ve been without work, I’ve found that staying home helps to keep me away from temptation.
So with the absence of spending money, I’m rediscovering the joy of dog. I love our two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, and when I was working full time I loved to be greeted when I returned home by happy tail-wagging dogs. Now that I’m home with them during the day, I’ve honed my tummy-scritching and ball-throwing techniques. And sometimes I’ll take energetic Fergus for a walk around the neighbourhood, and even take a few photos if I can persuade him to sit still for a moment or two. Having two furry friends who unconditionally love me — and are always ready to play and have fun — is one of the best kinds of therapy. No matter what kind of day I’m having, when I see their shining eyes and silly corgi grins, I starting grinning too.
Photo taken on November 11, 2010
You never know what might happen. A storm, a stock market crash, a scammer stealing your life savings. Oh sure, it’s sunny now, but watch out — you don’t know what kind of trouble will appear on your horizon.
Yesterday I picked up the phone to hear that my computer had supposedly been sending error reports indicating serious performance issues that needed to be addressed right away. The caller from some outfit called “computer maintenance services” obviously thought I didn’t seem concerned enough and kept repeating himself, trying to impress on me the need for urgency. I asked a few questions, and found out that they were claiming to work for Microsoft. The caller started asking me for information about my computer operating system. I said goodbye and hung up. Then I looked up information about this scam on this internet.
Apparently people from England to Australia have been getting these same phone calls, where the scammers are trying to get people to go to their “support website” and give them permission to fix their computer by remote access. They end up with a hefty service charge as well as the high probability of someone stealing their personal information.
But if I was not so computer literate, if I was older or more trustworthy, would I have let these strangers talk me into giving them access to my computer? Would my father or my elderly aunt have believed them when they claimed to work for Microsoft?
What really riles me is that these criminals can roam the internet and the telephone lines with no fear of being caught. And yes, there is a whole industry built up to protect you, but no firewall or anti-virus program can help if you open that email attachment or give away information or open the door to strangers. The only thing you can do is say no.
Photo taken on November 11, 2010
Saint John has made a really big deal of its 225th anniversary celebrations this year. I remember the Bicentennial — that was a party! But a lot has changed in the last 25 years since that landmark event, and the city deserves to celebrate its continued survival.
It’s more than survival, it’s “thrival”. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a new sense of energy in this city. Cruise ships are visiting throughout the summer and fall, and the waterfront and Harbour Passage area have really spiffed up one of our main assets. There is a vibrant music and arts culture here, and enough business and industry to provide a sense of well-being for much of the population. The community is active with all sorts of fund-raising programs and initiatives to improve life for people in priority neighbourhoods. There is still a lot of poverty and hardship, but there is also a lot of optimism.
This year’s highlights have included a culture festival, several musical concerts, a new arts awards celebration, a special historical celebration, a speaker series, an initiative to collect local stories, a mascot, a special community gala celebration, and the commissioning of a sculpture. And to celebrate all this, they put together a pretty impressive short film. Check it out: Saint John Arts & Culture – Then and Now. Happy birthday, Saint John!
Photo taken on September 25, 2010
New England has sent us a storm today; the forecasters predict upwards of 50mm of rain. I heard it beating in waves against the windows last night, along with a wind that howls up from the valley and thrums under the eaves. The city is dark, and the black-paved streets and deep puddles swallow light and create bizarre reflections; down the street I see a bright yellow school bus leading a parade of cautious cars. Drivers hunch over their steering wheels, their windshield wipers just out-of-sync with those of the car behind.
I am heading uptown in an hour, knowing the rain will drive sideways as I scurry around tall buildings, knowing the water will pour in rivers down the steep alleys and my feet will get wet. I will wear my yellow rain jacket and walk quickly. When I come home again, I will run inside, dripping, rain-tossed and bedraggled. My glasses will steam up from the warm house and there will be fresh homemade bread and baked beans. And I will be grateful that it is not yet winter.
Photo taken on October 24, 2009