blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A family reunion

Chris and I are sitting in the 14:20 train from Ottawa to Dorval, en route to England again. Through the windows of the train the views are extraordinary, seemingly endless sheets of shining ice on top of the snowy fields after the latest snow-thaw-rain-freeze cycle in this part of the world. Only a few dried grasses poke through, lit pale yellow by the bright sun today. The ice, reflecting the sky, has a blueish sheen.

Our son, meanwhile, has no clear view from his window. He is on Qantas Flight 1, presently over the southeastern coast of India, making rapid progress towards Dubai in the middle of the night. In Dubai he'll transfer to the second leg of his flight which will bring him down into Heathrow early tomorrow morning. We are going to catch the Montreal to Heathrow Air Canada Flight this evening to land at approximately the same time, if all goes well. I've arranged for us to meet at the Caffè Nero in the Terminal 2 Arrivals hall. Let's hope the plan works. We're likely to be feeling pretty tired at that point.

Later in the day we're also going to meet our daughter and her family. I'll have to rack my brains to remember when we were last all together as a family. I did spend a moment with Emma and George in the spring of 2010 when George and I got stuck in Europe because of Eyjafjallajökull erupting, but on that occasion Chris was stuck in Canada, same reason.

At the weekend we are going to accompany George to Wales to visit his 98 year old grandmother. He last saw her more than four years ago when she still lived in her own home with had better eyesight, etc.; I'm afraid he may find her too much changed. Even so, I'm anticipating a happy reunion.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The coldest capital

Setting off to the shops on January 14th
For a while, this winter, Ottawa was designated the Coldest Capital In The World, beating the capitals of Mongolia, Greenland and "the stans" with its low temperatures. Then last week, for a short time, the thermometer showed +11℃! and most of the snow on our roof melted. That was odd, although a January Thaw is not unheard of; I remember a similar occurrence in 2008 while George and Jonathan were staying with us for Christmas and the New Year. Last weekend though, down we went again to a windchill of minus 30 or more, resulting in more frustration for Chris who hasn't flown his plane for ages, which makes him antsy (1838, American English). The thing is, you cannot fly if your wing-covers are stuck to the wings with ice from the freeze-thaw-flash-freeze cycle. You have to persuade a kind, tall friend (Chuck, in this case) to help remove them by force and bring them home in the car, so that you can drop them on the kitchen floor and let them melt, soften and dry out before driving back to the airport to slide them on again in a bitter wind, with your wife holding the ends up above the snow.

Having no choice but to put up with the weather, we wrap up well and carry on going for walks outside, or to the warm and humid gym for exercise, in all weathers. Yesterday we walked into town via the frozen Rideau Falls, as weird and wonderful, although not so vast, as are the famously frozen Niagara Falls, just now.

The two most attractive spots in town this month are the new seating area surrounded by tropical plants on Level 2 in the Rideau Centre, like one of those outdoor "parklets" (modern, wooden structures that sprang up around Ottawa a couple of years ago), and the Paper-Papier store in the Byward Market, which sells flowers as well as paper products, and which smells wonderful the moment you walk in. The Central Experimental Farm has a tropical greenhouse too, which is worth visiting in mid-winter; I haven't been there recently, but must do that soon.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

For the record

The months last year when I failed to publish blog posts were August and December. Those were the months when the most was happening, which meant that I hadn't the mental energy for writing. By degrees (à la recherche du temps perdu), I'd like to try to recover some of my memories by cheating, setting the date and time of each post to an appropriate moment in 2017.

In brief, August 2017 was when 11-year-old Toni Aschentrup from Beilefeld came to stay with us in Ottawa, on her own --- a happy visit! --- and December 2017 was a typical December, during which I allowed myself too much respite. We didn't even go to Sindelfingen, as in previous years. We made the most of staying at home.

Charismatic twins at a jazz concert

I had an email from the artistic director of the DOMS concert series advertising yesterday's jazz concert:
These guys are outstanding musicians, and charismatic and virtuostic performers besides. 
So I thought it would be an event worth attending, even though I'm not very familiar with jazz. It was. That outburst of praise had not been an exaggeration.

Many other people were lured in, packing the church. Elderly Ottawa citizens come out in all weathers; they are tough. The average age of the DOMS noon hour audience must be around 75 and the local care home reps were serving cookies and free coffee beforehand, as usual.

On stage were the identical twins Peter and Will Anderson from New York City who had "travelled all the way here for today's concert". Adam Moezinia, the guitarist and equally talented third member of the trio, lives in Ottawa. All three musicians are Julliard School alumni.

The title of the concert was Magic of Benny Goodman. The Anderson brothers have been doing something along these lines at NYC's Lincoln Centre, as well.

Goodman (1909-86), from humble beginnings in Chicago, was a classical musician as well as becoming rich and famous as a clarinetist in the jazz world. Influenced by the New Orleans style of jazz, Benny Goodman in the 1930s "defined the swing era," as one of the twins said. Nearly all the music we heard yesterday was from those days.

What we heard: Soft Winds, as a trio for clarinet, sax and guitar, followed by These Foolish Things, same combination. I have found a YouTube recording of them playing this one with a different guitarist:

"Now we're going to play fast!" said the "younger" twin (born 10 minutes after his brother and growing one inch taller, so he told us) and they launched into the swirls and syncopation of Seven Come Eleven. The Andersons teased Mr. Moezinia, informing the audience that "he started taking guitar lessons about two weeks ago" (obviously not true)! A duet for saxophone and guitar followed, improvising on Gershwin's Embraceable You, which features in the old movie, Girl Crazy. The saxophonist for that item was the "older" twin whom his brother introduced to us as "the more romantic one." During the next number, Back Home Again In Indiana, the guitarist tapped his instrument like a drum. Stardust, by someone with the extraordinary name of Hoagy Carmichael, was another slow piece, for which Will Anderson picked up a flute, his eyes closed for concentration as he played it. This man seemed equally at home with all three of the instruments he'd brought on stage, an incredibly skilled musician. Towards the end of Gordon Jenkins' Goodbye which he played on the clarinet, with the guitarist accompanying, he gave us a solo cadenza as impressive as anything I've heard in classical clarinet concertos.

The trio also played two numbers not listed on the program, a New Orleans favourite, I can't give you anything but love, with which they finished the concert, and the an item that had been specially created for the twins on their clarinets plus guitarist by the composer Kyle Athayde, an Appalachian Mountain Song which combined classical and folksy styles of music with the jazz.

Here's a recording of yesterday's trio performing at a similar concert in Arizona, a year and a half ago:

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A constant watch, and a holy practice

Plenty of exasperating nonsense about making resolutions is written at this time of year, especially in the magazines and inspirational blogs, although this one (link posted by a Facebook friend) included a paragraph that made me pause. The author says it's pointless trying to change what is not within our control. So far, OK, so platitudinous, but ...
What do you control? Lots, actually. How about your thoughts [...]What about [...] how honest and kind you are [...] how you use your time, your tone of voice or how much [...] you judge others?
Paying more attention to my tone of voice might be a good idea. My husband tells me I don't hang up promptly enough after phone calls so that my audible sighs or mutterings probably offend people at the receiving end.

Another Facebook friend suggests scribbling on a slip of paper and putting it into a "memory jar" every time something positive happens in your life. At the end of the year you tip out all the memos, read them, and realise what a good year it has been.

If I manage to keep updating this blog, I hardly need to do that, the blog being my memory jar. If only I wrote it as well and consistently as Alan Bennett writes his diary entries!

I suppose that making reasonable resolutions and taking note of what happens is all about mindfulness, which buzz word I thought to be of Quaker origin (like "centering down"), but apparently it was coined by a scholar of Buddhism, Rhys Davids, in 1910, so claims the Huffington Post.

Another phrase we often read these days definitely comes from the Quakers; it was "a charge given to Eighteenth Century Friends" to speak truth to power and it's strange to think that this phrase and notion have gone so mainstream now. Actually I should be careful saying notion, because that had negative connotations for the early Quakers:
Men are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice. ~ William Penn, 1644-1718

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Downtime and uptime

By the end of last weekend we were worn out.

Chris was off work on Friday so we went out in the fresh air, into the Rockcliffe Park woods where I picked up some fallen white pine twigs to decorate our porch. I know they'll stay green till springtime.

In the evening, we walked again, to a philosophers' gathering with Barbara, Drew, Letitia, Nicola and Andrew. By means of a miniature whiteboard and markers that he had bought at the Dollarama store, Andrew described an "experiment" involving a mysterious "machine" that was able to make unexplained connections between a push-button and two different receivers, far apart, turnig their green or red lights on according to their settings ... or perhaps not! If the settings were identical, the same-coloured lights came on after the button was pushed. If not, there was a 25% chance the same lights would come on, although logically this ought to have happened more often. Even though it was simply enough explained, with no long words, I couldn't follow the reasoning too well; it turned out to be about "quantum entanglement" and "spooky action at a distance". Andrew later sent us an email telling us where he had found the idea: in a paper published by the Journal of Philosphy called Quantum Mysteries for Anyone, by David Mermin. Chris was grinning throughout, able to follow the train of thought, and our son who studied this kind of thing at university and whose pulsar research is full of references to General Relativity, would have been at home with it, too, although Andrew seemed to be telling us that the laws of General Relativity were inadequate. The quantum particles (or waves ... Andrew said there was no such thing as a particle) have some means of communicating with one another at a speed faster than the speed of light, apparently. I thought (but didn't say) that it must be telepathy, then. Somebody said that if we could grasp what was happening, there'd be nothing to prevent us from time-travel. Chris drew parallels with the non-intuitive Banach-Tarski paradox (a mathematical proof that you could cut an imaginary solid ball into a number of pieces, maybe as few pieces as five, and then reassemble those pieces into two solid balls of the same original size) which sounds to me like something the Sorcerer's Apprentice did.

Before our group was thrown out of the cafe at closing time, the subject of the conversation had changed to the difference between right and wrong, whether we can know the difference without being conditioned to know, and the influence of trends and fashions on people's thinking. We walked half of the way home with Nicola, still mulling things over, of course, and Nicola urging me to resume work on a book he once saw me struggling to write. I finally managed to fall asleep around 1:30 on Saturday morning.

We met Elva, Laurie and Carol for lunch on Saturday, but I spent most of the day tidying up and preparing supper at our house for five other friends who stayed here till after midnight --- none of us realised so much time had gone by. I thought the evening was going to be a disaster as it began with a disaster: I forgot to open the vent in the fireplace before lighting the log fire and so greeted our five supper guests with clouds of smoke in the living room and the smoke detector beeping ear-piercingly. Everyone was forgiving though and Farhang even said that the smell reminded him happily of his childhood in an Iranian village, where the tandoor (تنور) in the centre of their house had often leaked smoke!

With apple juice and ginger ale instead of wine or beer to drink, we ate a vegetarian meal (cashew stir fry), because, for Farhang and Guitty, any meat would have had to be halal, and also because Judy and Dick are vegetarians, have been so for thirty years. Barbara told us that in Mongolia, where she'd been in August, meat was all there was to eat, mutton mostly, or horse-meat. She described a sort of Mongolian pressure cooker in which a stew was cooked by means of the fire-hot pebbles placed in it. The conversation grew gradually deeper and more animated, so that by the time we were sitting around the fire again (we ran out of fresh logs) we were onto manners, the aims of education and the origin of fashions (which would have tied in nicely with Friday's discussion), history ancient and modern, and the impossibility of a secular state. A.C. Grayling was mentioned, as was the Gilgamesh epic. I forget how that came up, Farhang saying that he revisits the story every year and loves it, telling me that if I wanted to write a version for children, as I confessed I did, he would help me with that project. He pronounced the name Enkidu as En-KEE-doo. We had no idea how late it was getting until one of us suddenly glanced at a watch that told us it was already 10 to midnight. Then they applauded me, in spite of the smoke-out, for being a nice hostess.

That night I fell asleep more quickly.

For lunch on Sunday we met Nicola again, plus Maha, this time at the Scone Witch cafe on Beechwood, and made plans to visit them again at the end of December when their daughter would be home. Back at our house, on Sunday evening, we had Elva, Laurie, Carol and Don round, for a supper to which everyone contributed, Carol and Elva bringing meat pies, etc. Before they arrived I lay down in the dark in an attempt to snatch a moment's sleep, but hardly succeeded. Then I (carefully) lit another fire. Chris managed to resurrect some of the previous nights' conversations to some extent, but (with wine or beer on offer this time round) we were too relaxed to argue very much.

Finally, hot ashes in the fireplace now, a layer of snow all over the garden and a proper mess in the kitchen, then bed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A warehouse full of goodness

This blogpost was written with help from Tricia Johnson, for which I am most grateful. 

A corner of the Ottawa Food Bank's warehouse
On Chris' birthday we were invited to visit the headquarters of the Ottawa Food Bank, at 1317 Michael Street. Along with ten other people, we had been picked from the pool of this year's supporters to meet some of the staff, to hear what the Food Bank does, and to get a tour of the warehouse. It turned out to be quite an education.

"Wealth in Ottawa is hidden; so is poverty," said Tricia Johnson during her introduction. More than 41,000 people in and around Ottawa are helped each month, 36% of whom are children.

"We're looking for solutions, not throwing food and money at the issues!" she stated. Even so, $6-million is needed to operate the Ottawa Food Bank each year. The main emphasis is to solicit donations from private individuals rather than companies, because the former are a more consistent source of income. The City of Ottawa annually contributes 3% of the Food Bank's income, and there are also regular offerings from institutions such as the Trillium Foundation. For instance, a grant from Trillium recently allowed the Ottawa Food Bank to put $90,000 towards a new vehicle. The truck-drivers, by the way, are all rigorously trained professionals assisted by unpaid volunteers.

The list of local community agencies to whom the Food Bank delivers supplies is very long; there are currently 112 of them. We saw this list affixed to the warehouse wall, and it includes after-school programs and summer lunch programs. Also listed are the agencies that provide emergency food hampers for individuals and families, and agencies that provide hot meals for people in need of food immediately. Before the Ottawa Food Bank was first established as a "temporary measure" in 1984, church groups were the organisations helping hungry people in our city.

In the main hall of the warehouse, products are boxed and stored within defined categories. $125,000 a year is spent on providing baby food (and diapers). The other food deemed essential has green and yellow labels in the warehouse: peanut butter, baked beans, soups. The less essential items —desserts, bottles or cans of pop, etc. — have pink labels. These are still wanted, though, for the sake of variety in people's diets.

The Food Bank relies on the assistance of some 3000 temporary volunteers to help sort the donations from food-drives throughout the year. Paul Brown, the operations manager, attributes this year's unseasonally warm weather to the poor public response to this year's Thanksgiving Food drive, only half as effective as usual.

The expiry date of foodstuffs is strictly adhered to and perishable items are very carefully stored and dispatched at the right temperature; food safety is a top priority. Paul had a lot to say about this. He ensures that all incoming products are carefully labelled, because one piece of bad publicity could ruin the Food Bank's reputation. Fresh produce arrives in refrigerated trucks. The Bud-Lite boxes we were shown contained frozen meat, not beer! Collecting and delivering meat is a new venture, supplying protein for hot meal programs that serve people throughout the city. The local Metro or Walmart grocery stores freeze their excess meat in advance of the pick-up. For community food banks, the Ottawa Food Bank purchases ground beef and frozen fish for food hampers made available to impoverished households.

Tofu and dairy products are also donated by the store chains. In the walk-in fridge (we all walked in to take a look) were milk and milk-based drinks — even cartons of caramel latte! A grocery chain recently offered several boxes of fresh oranges which couldn't be sold at their stores because one or two of the oranges weren't in perfect condition. Fruit juices, cereal bars and apples are set aside for school programs. We also saw boxes full of potatoes and carrots. However, one type of food that is not acceptable at the warehouse is anything that's pre-baked. "I just don't want it sitting here, rotting!" said Paul.

They are exploring various possibilities to discover which model of Food Banking works best and liaising with the local press to make this a public conversation.

He mentioned the Food Bank's own farm in Stittsville, where this year's squash, zucchini and cauliflower harvest was disappointing, because of the soggy fields. Generally though, the community farm has proven of great benefit to the city, school groups helping with the harvesting of (almost 100% organic) fruit and vegetables. The stated aim of the Food Bank is to provide their clients with at least 50% fresh food in their hampers, and they are starting to reach that target. A scheme that's been running for three winters now, reFresh, is an attempt to provide local fresh produce throughout the year, from various sources. One high school in town (I'm not sure which) is experimentally growing food in a top floor classroom garden year round, which they are donating to the Food Bank.

The Food Bank is responsible for 40-55 food pick-ups and drop-offs a day (14 tons of food are distributed each day. Inevitably, new immigrants from the middle-east want halal meat, chickpeas, lentils and such, rather than the more traditional sort of Canadian ingredients for their meals. A generous local supplier is selling bulk oatmeal to the Food Bank for a price five times less than what's charged in the stores. Apparently the Syrian refugee immigrants like to have such raw ingredients; they also prefer their food un-canned. Produce like this is quite often donated at cost.

What can individuals give that is welcome here? Well, not just food. Baby products such as boxes of diapers are also very much in demand. The conventional way to give to the food bank is to buy some extra items when you go shopping and (encouraged by the posters displayed in local grocery stores) leave these for the Food Bank in the receptacles provided. One of our fellow guests on Tuesday wondered whether a similar scheme might work for online shoppers.

A consulting firm recently donated the time and expertise of one of their young engineers to observe and then work on the logistics of the Ottawa Food Bank's truck routes, which apparently resulted in huge savings.

At the end of our tour we returned to the reception room where the Executive Director, Michael Maidment, spoke to us. He feels that Food Banks are the barometer for social conditions in a city, and his dream is for them one day to become unnecessary!

To acquire food, a person needs to register with the agency, showing some ID and stating where (s)he lives. The intake of clients is analysed, so that trends can be detected. One trend has already become noticeable: the number of seniors needing to be fed is growing.

There is never any income check, but usage rates and demographic statistics are tracked to better understand the need for food in our community. Nobody who wants help is turned away, but a few people might be redirected to a different agency for next time, if necessary. Families or individuals in need of food assistance are given "emergency" 3-5 day food hampers, usually available once a month. People in need of immediate food are directed to programs that prepare hot meals. Michael and his colleagues have initiated a 2-year study in partnership with the University of Ottawa to determine the effectiveness of various food bank models being used in our city.

The Food Bank also offers its resources and expertise in the event of disasters such as this year's spring floods, thus being a valuable part of Ottawa's emergency response preparedness.

There are fundraising, operations, outreach and event-planning teams, with 29 volunteers assisting the core members of staff.

Conversations between Food Bank personnel and Ottawa's Public Health authorities are nowadays taking place; this new initiative has led to the launch of "Health Smart", whereby substantial changes were made to ensure that the food given to hungry people has a lower fat, sodium, and sugar content, and increased protein and fibre.

I asked a question: "Are the recipients of the food given any guidance as to what to do with it?" and the answer is: yes. Into boxes containing eggs, milk, fish, ground beef, squash and such, recipes are often thrown in, too. Some of the distribution agencies even offer cooking classes for the people that need them, in foreign languages if necessary. One such encouragement program was entitled "Men Can Cook!" after which another came on offer: "Women Can Cook Better!"

The Food Bank network allows people to choose what to receive from their reliable service. The main message I heard from the kind and dedicated people in charge is that they are determined that all their recipients be treated with respect and dignity.