2009 – 2010

What’s in a Gift

February 2009

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts—the nature of gifts, the meaning of gifts. Not the actual physical kind that Santa brings, but the other kind, the less tangible ones which can happen at any time.
Last year I bought a property in town and now I’m one of your satellite residents, moving back and forth, currently making a living in Vancouver but making plans to get out permanently. This past summer I was often at my property doing renovations, some of which I did myself—no easy feat for a fifty-year-old woman who previously had never even touched a power tool! One of my projects was to pull up the existing floor and replace it with some ‘new’ recycled oak flooring that I bought from a home demolition sale in Vancouver. But the compressor I bought to nail down the floor with didn’t come with the right valve. So I went to the hardware store and the fellow gave me the valve I needed for free. And when he saw the surprised look on my face, he laughed and his cheeks turned red.
Later, when I got to the end wall in the living room, lo and behold the room wasn’t square. So I had to make a long narrow strip of wood even narrower at one end—something I definitely didn’t have the skill or tools to do—so I took the wood strip into the lumber store and told the fellow there about my predicament. Without blinking an eye, he marched out to the back lot, fired up a table saw and cut it exactly how I needed. No charge. And when I thanked him profusely he smiled and said my happiness was payment enough.
Gifts make the heart swell. It’s not that I’m cheap or don’t want to pay (well, maybe just a tad cheap, we all have our inner Scrooge!), it’s just that I’m not used to it. In Vancouver, things like this don’t happen.
The more time I spent in Lillooet this past summer, the more the gifts piled up. Another day, upon noticing that I looked tired, my new friend and neighbour up the street invited me over for a home-cooked meal, which included zucchini and tomatoes picked fresh from her garden. On another evening, she put me up in her spare room so I could have a good sleep without having to breathe renovation dust or worry about the bears all night.
In late summer my father came all the way from his home on Vancouver Island to give me a hand for a week. He’s 72 and he worked 10 hours each day without complaint—well, only a few complaints, but they were minor, the usual grumbles about measurements and hammering your thumb and such, and they always produced a belly laugh.
In the evenings we played Scrabble, his favourite game for the last forty years. He regularly gets scores over 400 and if you know Scrabble, that’s a big score. He’s quick and his mind is sharp. Much sharper than mine, I have to admit. Each night, after a day of working, we’d play two out of three and I’d win the first game and lose the other two. Didn’t take me long to figure out he was letting me win the first one because he didn’t want his daughter to be discouraged. In addition to the gift of good neighbours and new friends, a good father is a tremendous gift.
Now that summer is over and I’m having to spend most of my time in Vancouver, the differences between small town life and city life seem stark. As everyone knows, city people are very stressed out. So many demands on your time, so much pressure to speed through the day—hurry up! move fast! let’s go! —which leaves people nervous and exhausted. When you’re living in a crowded space with too much noise, you have a tendency to forget about the need for giving gifts, you take for granted the ones that are offered and given. Like when you hold a door open for someone and he just walks through as if you’re invisible. Or when you step out on to the street and one after another the cars zoom past; this happens even when you stand inside a crosswalk. Or when you’re driving and somebody in the next lane wants to change lanes and you slow down to let her in and she doesn’t acknowledge your consideration with a wave or toot of the horn. So many ways that people shut each other’s good impulses down. In Vancouver, courtesy is becoming a lost art, which is a shame, because in a stressed-out atmosphere you need it more than ever.
So this, my first-ever contribution to Vocal Locals, is about gratitude for the gifts that I’ve received from so many folks in Lillooet. This town truly is a little gold nugget. But not because of the old historical story that there once was a gold rush and the town became known as Mile Zero and some ore was found in the ground and in the river, but because there’s a culture of civility that is alive and well in the here and now. When I’m missing Lillooet, as I am right now, I find myself humming that line from Neil Young’s famous song, Heart of Gold: I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. Because kindness is the real currency in life, and gifts are the real gold.

* * *

What’s in a Story
 March 2009

Because I’m a writer I’m fascinated by story. Or maybe it works the other way, because I’m fascinated by story I became a writer. Fiction or non-fiction, personal or political, contemporary or historical, soul-nourishing or light entertainment. Like most people I love them all.
I’m fascinated by unwritten stories, too, the ones we live by, the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves. These ones can become the scaffolding of our lives, surrounding and supporting us, and they can bring everything from joy and contentment to trouble and pain. Consider the person who goes through life telling himself that he’s a failure. Hasn’t he made himself a slave to a story? Or the person who goes through life telling himself he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. This person has enlisted the help of a story. Or the family that believes one of its members is the black sheep. Or the family that keeps its history alive by repeating their stories down through the generations. Or the community that tells itself the story that its beliefs are God-given and all other beliefs are not. Or the nation that tells itself over and over again that it’s a force for moral goodness in the world.
Then there are the stories that are known but not told. Though there’s no scientific way to prove this (at least none that I’m aware of), I believe that when stories are withheld, they grow in power. Consider the story that takes the form of a personal secret. If it’s something that should be told and isn’t, it can stalk us like a hungry ghost making a misery of our days. Or what about the power that comes when knowledge is protected and kept hidden, knowledge that is considered too sacred to be spoken? And then there are all the stories about espionage, the whole shadowy world of spies and double agents. Fascinating!
But, as I’ve discovered, reading stories is so much easier than writing them. When I’m working on my stories (at this point in time, mostly fiction) I have to question myself constantly, right down to each and every word. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”. As I work, I also hound myself with questions about my intentions. Is this story true to my heart, am I telling the story I really want to tell? Or, from another angle, am I telling the story that’s in my character’s heart, the one he or she really wants to tell? What feelings and impressions am I hoping my reader will take away from this? On and on it goes, thinking, revising, starting over, then asking some more questions, then thinking, revising and starting over. Trying to get it right and also make it good can be a grueling process! Sometimes it can nearly drive you crazy.
There’s a funny anecdote about writing from Margaret Atwood. (For those who aren’t familiar with her, she’s a Canadian author.) She was at a party and she got chatting with the man standing beside her. She asked him, What do you do for a living? He said, I’m a brain surgeon, what do you do? She said, I’m a writer. Oh, that’s interesting, the surgeon said, when I retire I thought I’d take up writing. Oh really, Atwood said, that’s interesting, when I retire I thought I’d take up brain surgery.
Before I began my career as a writer, in the days when I was just dreaming about it, I imagined it would be fairly easy. I would just sit myself down and the story would magically flow out of my fingertips and then, presto, there would be my perfect, wonderful creation. I think this delusion occurs because from an early age we’re saturated by stories of all kinds—comics, magazines, newspapers, books, TV, movies, radio, internet, etc etc—so we grow up knowing instinctively what good stories are without ever knowing the work that has to go into them. What we’ve received are the finished products of writers who have done their job well, so well that the reader is completely unaware that behind the scenes someone spent untold hours or months or years thinking and planning and questioning and pecking away at a keyboard or scribbling on a notepad. When writers are good, it’s because they’ve learned how to make their presence invisible. It’s a bit ironic.
Still, for all the time, effort and invisibility involved, writing can be magical. There is what I call the sweet spot, where the story does flow magically through your fingertips and you’re just trying to keep your fingers moving fast enough to keep up. When that happens you are transformed into a channel, or vehicle, through which this totally independent story is traveling. You are gone to a place beyond time and space. Then suddenly—and it does feel sudden, as if you’ve just been jolted out of a deep sleep—you come back from wherever it is you’ve been. Perhaps you look at the clock and see that hours have gone by. You look outside the window and the sun is going down. You’re hungry and it’s time to eat. Then you look at all the words on the pages and realize that the story has been writing you!

* * *

What’s in a Legend?
April 2009

In this, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Bridge River Lillooet News, I thought I’d offer up my own personal story with a Margaret “Ma” Murray angle.

Ma Murray passed away in the early 80s while I was studying journalism at Langara College in Vancouver. As the professor explained to our class of attentive students, Ma Murray was part maverick and part caricature. In the news circles of his generation, she’d become something of a legend. When we read a sampling of her articles, we all got a kick out of her style. She was tough and flamboyant, fearless and indomitable. She was peppery, had a knack for turning a memorable phrase. She spoke her mind, called it the way she saw it, and didn’t seem to care if she offended.

As well as reading what she’d written, we read a published condolence from then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Despite my research in library archives now, I could not find that condolence so I’m unable to quote it verbatim here, but I recall that Trudeau wrote that he was saddened by her passing. He also wrote that himself and many others had been regularly roasted by her and they were sincerely going to miss the experience. I remember the image this summoned to my mind: Ottawa politicians—all portly, all white, wearing expensive suits and ties and seated around a table laden with food and drink— their heads thrown back in laughter as they read the latest scorching missive from that wacky woman out west.

My curiosity was piqued and I found myself admiring her for speaking her mind, for having the courage to tell it like she saw it. So when one of our classes required a research paper on a noteworthy journalist, myself and another female student pitched the idea to our professor that we take the train up to this little town where the Bridge River Lillooet News was founded.

The scenery through the train window was stunning. The train snaked its way around mountains rising steeply out a deep cold lakes, past peaks pristine with snow. All along the route past Anderson and Seton lakes the train made whistle stops so people could get on and off—lone individuals, sometimes small groups, just standing by the side of the tracks. I recall wondering about their lives, being envious that they were living in this vast, beautiful landscape and when they needed to go somewhere they simply walked out of the bush, down to the tracks and hopped on board.

When the train arrived in Lillooet we discovered this quaint little town perched on the mountainside above the Fraser River, with a hotel by the station that looked like it came right out of an old western. During our brief visit we dug through the archives in the Bridge River Lillooet News office for articles written by Ma. We had our picture taken for that week’s paper. We nosed around town and poked our heads in some of the shops. In the evening we had drinks in the hotel.

In the morning I got up early and walked up and down Main Street, then found the cemetery which afforded a dramatic view down to the river and the bridge. The far-off canyons seemed to beckon, promising adventure and challenge. Before long the warm sun peeked over the mountain ridge and mist began rising like silver lace. My mind wandered, ghosts seemed to gather. Miners with thick, dark beards and stained leather hats, Chinese gold panners, the odd woman in long skirts. The slow shuffle of history. I remember feeling fascination, intrigue, and also doubt. I didn’t know if I had the kind of passion Ma Murray had, and I didn’t know if I was going to find my voice within the newspaper business; and, as it turned out, I didn’t. I fell in love and wound up traveling to China instead!

Fast forward twenty five years. Do they still teach journalism students about Ma Murray? I don’t know. In the forward march of time most legends are gradually replaced. And now there’s no shortage of strong, admirable women in the profession. But I still have a photograph of her hanging on my wall. In it she is wearing a long heavy wool skirt and jacket. A stiff-brimmed hat sits on her head at a jaunty angle, shielding her face from the sun. She clutches a folded newspaper, stares straight at the camera and looks like she could step from the frame at any moment.

Funny how things can turn out. A few years ago I received a small inheritance from my grandparents and began looking for a property. It needed to be not too far from Vancouver, a quiet place, a retreat where I could go and write, and possibly become my retirement home. Then an old friend who herself has some deep ties in this town invited me here. Long story short, I wound up buying a property which has the same dramatic view of the river and the far-off beckoning canyons that struck my imagination on that morning so many years ago. I don’t know what Ma might have said about all this, but I can tell you, life can indeed be strange, that’s for damn sure.

* * *

The New Gold Rush
July 2009

It’s my belief that most of us have begun to think about water conservation and our patterns of water use but oppose water metering schemes because we can see the big picture behind the installation of those meters.

If our rivers and available water supplies were forever in the public trust there would be a sense of shared responsibility, a sense of communal stewardship, a willingness to cooperate. But this is no longer the case, private interests are being allowed in, and we know it.

Over the last decade the provincial government has been gradually dismantling BC Hydro at the same time as a small group of insiders have been setting themselves up to become this province’s newest resource barons, setting up run-of-river operations which will then sell the energy back to us at a profit.

Six hundred—and counting—of our rivers are currently ‘leased’ by private corporations. Six hundred! And for how many years? I’ve heard 999 years. Were we asked if privatizing our water was what we wanted for our future? No. Were there public forums set up across this province to discuss this most important issue? No. Did anything come in the mail informing us that our rivers were going to be controlled by a select few? Absolutely not.

Whether it’s beaver pelts or lumber or this new liquid gold, capitalist ventures follow a well-worn trajectory in this country: the potential for a new market was identified—in this case, water—and the players jumped in. And surprise, surprise, many are cronies of Gordon Campbell and former insiders within his government. They’ve been quietly developing their administrative and operational infrastructure. They stand to make billions after all, so no stone is left unturned, nothing is left to chance, including having their friends in government pass legislation ensuring their activities will be legal and relatively free of restraint.

While this is going on, social opinion is being seduced. Through media ad campaigns, corporations with innocuous-sounding names like Cloud Power and Sea Breeze are gradually introducing themselves. They’re cloaking their profit agendas in warm and fuzzy greenspeak in an attempt to build their image as benign and, of course, socially and environmentally responsible.

For the run-of-river corporations, no sooner has their company been listed on the stock exchange and they’re bulldozing their way into pristine wilderness areas, disrupting and destroying eco-systems and habitat as they go, without any public scrutiny. In the rare event that these companies are caught being less than responsible stewards of the environment—as was the case recently in Harrison—any fines levied are likely to be considered the cost of doing business.

The government is doing its part, too, to shift our thinking toward a business model when it comes to water. They’re making public service announcements, informing town councils across the province. We must start to do things differently, they’re saying, there’s climate change, water is precious, we can no longer do things the way we’re used to. They’ve trotted out statistics and annual graphs, named names of the communities who use more water than others. And they’ve dangled the proverbial carrot in the form of ‘free’ grants (our tax dollars by the way) to small communities if they install water meters. Age-old tactics reminiscent of the Hudson Bay. Toss the unsuspecting shiny trinkets to distract them while you’re busily stealing what doesn’t belong to you.

Or course the banks have gotten into the act, too. The Royal Bank has a new thing called the ‘Blue Water Project’. Sounds small scale and cozy, doesn’t it? Like there’s a little blue lagoon somewhere and a nice bunch of bankers tending it from shore. In RBC’s TV ads they’re using the slogan, “Helping to Create a Blue Water Future. Water. Let’s protect it together.” When you go to their website, it states that the Blue Water Project is the donation of $50 million for “global fresh water initiatives” which includes providing “financial services to innovative water technology companies and water-related services, and encouraging the growth of this business sector.”

So there it is, in black and white. This isn’t just another paranoid conspiracy theory, it’s happening now and it’s happening all over the world, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Here’s one example of many: Coca Cola set up a bottling plant in a small town in India and began using up all the town’s water without concern for the town’s needs. Soon the town had no water for their crops, their lives and livelihoods were threatened. Because Coca Cola had managed to exploit a lack of laws protecting the town’s water (who knew it would ever come to this?) the global giant was not motivated to share the resource. After all, they’re beholden only to their stock holders and their head offices are far, far away. The town had to fight a lengthy and costly battle in court for the right to the water that had always flowed through their lands.

Closer to home, apparently Nestle has set up shop in Hope.

Is there cause for alarm here? Without a doubt. Whether its locally-owned corporations or offshore multinationals, our ability to control and direct our water and energy needs is being stolen from us—lock, stock and barrel. If you think you’ve seen passion and anger from the people who’ve attended recent council meetings, I’ll bet you ain’t seen nothing yet.

* * *

Calling All Visionaries
October 2009

I keep my ear close to the ground and one thing I repeatedly hear is fear for this town’s future. Understandable, as these are shaky economic times. You look around and there are For Sale signs scattershot everywhere, giving the impression that many want out. And the town’s population demographic, from what I’m told, is trending toward retiring boomers, which is fine to a point because boomers bring a lot of experience and wealth, but what of the younger generation?

Sometimes I imagine what could be done to design a brighter future for our town. Remember that story about the one red paper clip? Over a one-year period, a quirky, determined guy named Kyle MacDonald traded a red paper clip for a variety of objects of increasing value until he’d traded up to a house. The house turned out to be free and it was located on Main Street in Kipling, Saskatchewan.

The house exterior was painted a crisp white, the window shutters were painted paper clip red. The event brought a ton of media and publicity and, presto, Kipling, Saskatchewan, was on the map. A movie production followed, then a documentary, and now the house is one of Kipling’s permanent tourist attractions. (Check out MacDonald’s website at oneredpaperclip.blogspot.com.)

Did the event change Kipling, create enough economic growth to keep it afloat, or diversify it’s population demographic? Not likely, but no doubt it didn’t hurt the town, either. Nor did it hurt having a savvy, proactive politician who saw the long term benefits of jumping on board the one red paperclip phenomenon.

In brainstorming sessions to design a brighter future for this town, what ideas could we come up? The first thing that comes to my mind is fishing. Not fishing for fish, but fishing for organizations who might like to be located here and would also be a good fit. An organization which might value the surfeit of sweet morning air, the grandeur of the mountains, the timelessness of the Fraser and the silent airspace overhead, not to mention the friendly atmosphere, the lack of corporate presence and the proximity to larger centers, to name only a few.

One way we might find such organizations would be to put an invitation on Lillooet’s website offering a free, unused or under-used building on Main Street. Possibly give them a 50 year lease. Or create a competition to Help Us Reinvent Our Town with a year’s deadline and get the media interested in covering the story. I can see the headline now: “How One Small Town in British Columbia is Taking Control of its Future”. Or we could wait for the applications to come in and approach the organizations of our choosing.

Every time I turn around I hear yet another conversation about change of some kind: climate change and hope for change and how to make change and what needs to change and how to be the change and how to live the change.

I used to think of turning points in history as abstract, like stories from high school history class. But I’ve become convinced that I am, in fact, living through a paradigm shift, that we are all living through a cusp of times. One era is gradually dying while a new era struggles to be born. Outmoded ideas and the economics that accompany them are on the way out; new ideas are percolating and gradually making their way in, what economists are calling the tension between ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’ industries.

The trouble is we’re mostly stuck in the old paradigm, aren’t we? New sunrise industries are springing up all over the world, such as wind farms and solar power, recycling and the green movement, but how does a small town like ours with limited resources make the transition? No doubt it’s going to take some creative vision to move away from our economic dependence on the lumber industries. But we must.

Jack Schultz is a well-known American scholar who has spent his life studying small towns and he believes that “the status quo is not acceptable – small towns need to change or die. Unfortunately, too many will remain passive and age in place. Eventually a community will hit a tipping point where it is impossible to come back. That is the challenge for small towns. They need to reinvent themselves and that takes a significant amount of effort and vision.”

While Schultz maintains that improving a town’s entrepreneurial climate is paramount to its long-term viability, he also offers many small-scale practical solutions, one of which is to establish a Legacy Fund so property owners have the option to donate 5 to 10 percent of the value of their properties back to their community after they die—a great way to add money to municipal coffers. His website is at boomtowninstitute.com.

So there really couldn’t be a better time for the people who are tapped into the new ideas to step up to the plate. As Ralph Nader said recently on CBC Radio One when being interviewed by Q host Jian Ghomeshi, “If you can’t imagine something, you won’t reach for it.” How true!

Margaret Mead is another quotable person who once famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Are there a few people in this town who possess the kind of vision we need, who can see the path forward to a more vibrant, viable future? Shouldn’t there be a series of round table talks so those people can brainstorm?

* * *

Olympic Post Mortem
February 2010

So the Olympics are done. Whew. What a wild ride. And what can we say about them now?

Obvious that areas outside the Vancouver–to–Whistler venue corridor saw little to no economic benefit. And it will be a long time–if ever–that most areas of the province see any of that so-called trickle down economic benefit.

Even within Vancouver itself, areas only a short distance from the downtown core–funky areas like Commercial Drive and Kitsilano that would have been interesting destinations for tourists–saw little in the way of increased business. In fact, people in both those neighbourhoods reported that business was way down, so down there was suddenly no problem finding a parking spot.

By contrast the downtown core was a zoo. Some sections of the sidewalks were so crammed with people you couldn’t do more than shuffle along like herd animals. Overnight, the crowding resembled New York City. All the cabs occupied, all the stores full, long line-ups and waits for everything. Buses were crush loaded at 3 o’clock in the morning. SkyTrain ran at rush hour capacity for 21 hours a day, a train arriving and departing every station every 45 seconds.

Sometimes it all got a bit too much to bear. Occasionally you could see local Vancouverites close to losing their tempers, the sudden elbow-to-elbow density just too stressful. But overall, from what I saw, people were generally patient, tolerant and welcoming.

The event provided many opportunities for albeit-brief cultural exchanges. Swedes in their blue and yellow track suits, Danes in their blue and white, Russians in their red and white and blue and white, Hungarians in their maroon and black, everyone mingling and talking and finding out about each other. Though a superficial expression of global community, it nevertheless warmed the heart to see so many peoples coming together in a spirit of willingness.

Local characters got right into the act, too, some of them dressing up in costumes. Polar bears, Superman, and even one sequined, silver-skinned Elvis roamed the streets, trailed by giddy tourists clamouring for photographs. And of course, all throughout the evenings there were plenty of drunken revelers loudly chanting and chest thumping over game wins and medals.

While fun, civility and willingness often characterized the general mood, there are certainly those folks who oppose. For them, the Olympics are the five ring circus, an elite bunch of freeloading marauders who descend and throw themselves a massive, lavish party which will be paid for by the taxpayers for decades to come.

Invited along to the party, of course, are the corporate club members who do what they do best–siphon off local resources without paying their proper share, disappear the profits and then spin the scam back to the public in the form of advertising campaigns.

On opening day, a friend and I took our cameras and went down to a rally where thousands came out to walk the streets in peaceful protest against the Olympics. A pastiche of groups with banners and placards and megaphones called attention to homelessness, poverty, unresolved Native land claims, the fallacy of social benefit, hypocrisy in government spending cuts–especially in education–the greenwashing of poor environmental practices, etc etc.

My friend couldn’t get over the irony of one protester with his placard denouncing the Games on the one hand and drinking from his 2-litre Coke bottle on the other. Ah, well, what can you do? These days it’s so hard to be a purist.

In the train stations and inside the trains, on the sides of buses and on every conceivable public space, all advertising space was bought up by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s or Samsung, ads which some people defaced using black magic markers. And on every corner there were police and security forces standing by. Sometimes it sure was hard not to see the event as manufactured and enforced.

But on the brighter side of this post mortem, the people decided to use the Games gave them permission to express their love for this country. And express they did!

Spontaneous eruptions of Oh Canada were heard so often and sung with such passion and volume that one night, when I was trying to get to sleep, the national anthem kept playing over and over in my head, like the carols that always manage to get lodged in my brain for several weeks around Christmas time–whether I want to hear them or not.

And, also surprisingly, there were flags, flags and more flags. Flapping in the breeze on vehicle windows, worn as floor-length capes, hanging from house windows, on baby strollers, on clothing, on mitts and hats, dangling on earrings, painted on faces, even on dog collars. A sea of red maple leaves everywhere you looked.

People chanting, Ca-Na-Da, Ca-Na-Da. High-fiving between strangers, laughter, hugs and giddy joy. The 2010 Olympics was the first and largest spectacle of publicly celebrated identity I’ve ever seen, which created an uplifting sense that this country of ours is worth something, both to ourselves and to the world. It’s not perfect and it’s riddled with fallible politics and the corporate machine but it’s the place where we are who we are. Where we celebrate diversity and tolerance and good will. Many times it was a massive love-in and many times it was beautiful to behold.

* * *

Shifting Waters
September 2010

We develop technology to send people to the moon and we send rockets to outer space. We move mountains and spend billions upon billions building infrastructure. We host global sports events and invest massive amounts in research and development for new products—so we can allocate money to protect water.
I own the right to safe, clean drinking water. It’s my inalienable right to something which my body absolutely cannot live without. And I own a voice in any and all decisions regarding water. Don’t I? All prior laws and arrangements made without my knowledge or consent ought to be basically null and void. Right? It would be very interesting to see how lawyers would weigh in on this.
Water isn’t one of those issues that just goes away. I can’t stop feeling deeply disturbed by it, can’t stop talking about it. Actually I feel like it’s the key issue of our times. I hope people keep talking about it. If everybody keeps talking about it, then slowly but surely the heavens will begin to shift. All levels of government working to reverse the mistake of privatization of water is an act of political will I sure want to see.
Funny how fast the talk about water quickly becomes a talk about many things that at first don’t seem related—the way we consume, how we change our habits, the health of the planet as a whole. The Big Picture. When I think about the big picture and can’t come up with any answers or solutions, I feel deflated. And afraid. Because it’s so complex. For instance, how are we going to change course, break the chain of wastefulness that’s built right into so many systems? How do we retreat from the profit motive?
Everybody is trying in their small ways to change, gradually making better choices. Walking more, driving less. Buying less. Cleaning up the environment. Cutting back. Becoming educated. Changing their spending habits and voting with their dollar. Thinking about how something affects the planet has become a daily activity now.
We read labels to see where something has been made. If it’s been trucked across the continent, using up tons of fossil fuels to get here and there’s a more local option, we try to buy the local option. How many types of yogurt do we really need anyway? Or grapes, flown all the way from Chile. Or oranges. In the dead of winter, I look at oranges and wonder why we should have them the entire year.
I want to believe that making these small decisions does make a small difference. And I believe that if many other people are doing it, too, then it will add up to a lot we are doing together. There’s hope in that. And that’s a break for mother earth. Same with the water. If I don’t run the water while brushing my teeth or doing the dishes, that’s water being used consciously and carefully. If I plant drought-tolerant shrubs and trees on my property then I only need to use water sparingly to keep them going. If I change my habits and do my little bit, then things will get better.
As I do my little bit, I know there are people working hard within the system trying to create big positive change on my behalf and on behalf of the planet, too. And often it feels like they’re doing this at the eleventh hour. So making changes in my habits seems like the least I can do.
Because, really, there’s no time to waste. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my taxes and the state of the planet, I’m really starting to think in terms of very high priority and very low priority. And water is top of the very high priority list. Space programs are low priority for a while.
All over the world, water has been turned into a commodity. Shrunken down to the abstract, a product. But likely there are few places where this is more ludicrous and insulting that here in Lillooet, a tiny mountain town of about 3000 surrounded by massive quantities of water.
Lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, springs, wells, aquifers. Water roars, gushes and flows around, through and beneath this town. In spring, it oozes from the ground and runs down the streets. Every time you turn around, water, water and more water.
The worst thing about water meters is they are business accounting infrastructure, just what a water company wants to see when making investments, when buying up water units (read Lillooet). Water meters signal a favourable business environment—they ensure predictability, standardization and control. This is their biggest danger.
Is it correct to say that crazy has become normalized? Recently I learned there are people selling off acreage on the moon. And apparently business is brisk. When I heard that, the needle on my crazy detector went into the red. You know, some days I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry.
And most days I believe pirates have been loosed upon the earth. If ever there was any issue that called for standing strong together and making our collective will known, water is it.

* * *

A Woman’s Best Friend
December 2010

Dear Santa, bringer of love and surprise packages, beloved pot-bellied dude with the big heart.
I could write to you about so many worthy people who’ve been good all year but I’m writing to you about just one—this awesome woman named Megan Routley who is my dear friend and role model. She’s an adventurer who disregards limits and limitations, a woman who blazes trails, a role model for anyone with a hunger for adventure.
Through her example she teaches me to strive for the highest goal and stay true to my heart’s desire—whatever the cost, whatever the risk, whatever the outcome.
She’s also that rare kind of all-Canadian crazy: perfectly willing to live for the winter in—as she puts it in an email—a “wee cabin in the Yukon, without a TV, microwave, programmable coffee pot, pellet stove, hair dryer, electric wok, can opener, paper towel dispenser, computer, cell coverage, or running water for that matter.”
And why, chubby gift-giver dearest to our hearts, do you think this lone woman would choose to live this way? Because she loves dogs. Yep, that’s right. Dogs.
But not all dogs.
She loves those huskies with the blue-white eyes, the Olympic athletes of the dog sledding world, the kind you picture in a harness trotting along with their tongues flapping, barking their happy hearts out in glee as the sled and musher behind them glide like a magic carpet over the sparkling snow, those iconic northern lights snaking pink and lime green in the crackling cold sky above.
And this February that is exactly what she and her dog team will be doing. For 1000 miles! She is tackling the longest, hardest dog sled race in the world.
The Yukon Quest runs all the way from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, and climbs four major mountain ranges with 200-mile stretches of wilderness between check points. All this through the darkest, coldest month of the year.
I don’t know about you, Santa, but I couldn’t do it. Not a chance. As much as I like to be strong and live with passion, I’ll take my comforts over high-level risk any day.
But not Megan. She has a strong constitution: if she can do it herself, she does. She’s the kind of woman who could easily be the cover girl for a Husquavarna chain saw ad campaign. Lithe athletic body, six-pack abs, and a beautiful face with rosy cheeks. Man, can she buck up a log!
So here she is, 18 years as a professional dog musher and at the peak of her game, with numerous trophies and red ribbons to her credit. And now she wants to go for the ultimate challenge and run the Yukon Quest.
But here’s the catch: she has no sponsor.
So, esteemed and jolly gentleman, I am asking you to add her to your gift list because she’s not very good at asking for help. You’ve put booties on your reindeer hooves to protect them from long distance injuries so you know that even these cost, one dollar each. You’ve racked up credit card debt when your trusty steeds needed a veterinarian and that always runs into the hundreds. Your truck has broken down when you’ve been transporting all that stuff you need to do your job every Christmas.
You love your reindeer and know how much they eat and that they need good quality food to do their job. Of all people, Santa, I know you understand that it takes months and months of planning and practice—and money—to pull off a major accomplishment such as this. So I’m doing this for her, putting a call out to the universe to please help my dear friend. She’s such an incredible woman. If anybody can win that race, it’s Megan! And no doubt she’ll do it with her characteristic nerve, humour and hilarious wit.
If you know of anyone, Santa, who might be able to help her pull off this amazing feat, please tell them to visit her blog at quickstepsleddogs.blogspot.com. She might only be able to get into Whitehorse once a week or 10 days to update her blog and check for messages, so please be patient.
Merry Christmas to everyone and all the beloved dogs, too!

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