Three Day Blow: CO or not CO

So we had this storm. It was hyped daily as it approached: heavy rain, ice pellets, freezing rain, snow and very high winds – ergo – power outages.

I don’t listen to the news, except about Trump, but everyone told me, even strangers in the elevator. I got in provisions. I checked the lantern’s batteries. Good to go. Or not go really. I’d hunker down inside out of respect for my old bones.

As the storm began, I was woken by a beeping alarm. I stood in little hallway where the CO alarm and the smoke detector were mounted, cheek by jowl, so to speak. No further information was forthcoming.

The next time I woke up,I had a headache or rather something inside my head was trying to get out though the top. Two swords were drilling into the bones there. I sat on the edge of the bed. Dizzy, nauseated. Action!

I opened the bedroom window, the outside right slider, the inside left. Air could get in, but not whatever was falling and hammering at the glass.

I turned on the exhaust fans, opened the other windows, tried to eat toast, drank water and tea, and went back to bed.

A little after noon, I woke up again. Beep. Pause. Long pause. Oh that’s okay. Beep. Long pause. Again I stood in that five foot long hallway, open on the east to the living room, with three other doors and great potential for echoes. Nothing. Except head pain.

I went to the fridge to read that all important magnet. I raised my right arm, then my left. I said, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickles peppers, Peter picked a peck of pickled…” I looked in the hall mirror. No mouth droop. No numbness. Lack of strength? Well, all I wanted to do was lie down. I turned to the stove and hefted the iron fry-pan. Okay, there. Was it the worst headache ever? No, actually, it was the second worst. The worst was over twenty years ago, and just as I was about to call an ambulance, it stopped.

What to do?

At that moment, 1 p.m., the alarm beeped 4 times in a row. I rushed back. Nothing.

I phoned Georgia. If you have a daughter, phone her. Mine was way far away. My sister listened to me as I enumerated the stroke signs.

“Which alarm is it?” she asked.

“I can’t say. It’s like a watched pot. It only sounds when I’m in another room.”

“Remember Daniel,” she said.

Daniel was my son, to whom I had given a carbon monoxide alarm for his birthday, one February. I was apologetic about it. It seemed to show a lack of imagination. A few weeks later, a hornlike noise woke him up. ”

“Stupid thing,” he said, unplugging it and throwing it across the room. He went back to bed, but just as a deep and permanent sleep began to claim him, he leapt back up, threw open every window, and rushed upstairs to wake the other two tenants. By the time, they were at their doors muttering, “What the hell?”, he had turned off the furnace. The furnace had last been cleaned 12 years before, it turned out. It also turned out that the girl on the second floor was the landlord’s step-daughter.

I called the resident manager, the superintendent. He was not pleased. We had had a round about a beeping alarm a few weeks before when I had awoken to smell someone else’s fire place. As did the alarm.

By now, my head was pounding so badly I couldn’t think and I was slurring my words. Super was not best pleased. He reset the CO alarm and turned to go.

“That’s not going to work,” I began as I flopped onto the couch.

“All right, all right, I’ll take it to the office to monitor it. Like I did last time….”

“Not going to work,” I said. “It won’t beep there.”

Things escalated. “I’m really ill,” I kept saying, but he just talked over me.

“And if you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

I found myself weeping head-down at the table. Apparently, this was the desired effect since he was still telling me to leave as he closed the door.

“Phone his boss,” said Georgia.

“He is the boss,” I replied.

“No he isn’t.”

“It’s Saturday, and there’s a new management company…”

“Have you met his wife?” she said. ” She’s the boss.”

I phoned his boss.

The lady super could have been vice-principal in a middle school. Indeed, she could have been the head warden in a maximum security prison, but she arrived the image of our Lady of Mercy. She sat down, took my hands, told me amusing tales of exasperating tenants, there was a hug in there somewhere. Anyway her husband said that to all the tenants. And she laughed, lightly.

“But I’m sick,” I said. “I think I need to go to a walk-in clinic. Maybe I have carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Can you drive?” she wanted to know.

Clearly not. I could barely stand.

“Have you looked outside?” Georgia said. “I can’t go out in that. Open more windows.”

And she had a garage. She didn’t even have to scrape her windshield. Still from the 14th floor, I could see a car in a snowbank and the blue flashers of its rescuers. And no other movement, except whatever evil mixture was lashing diagonally in from the north-east.

As the afternoon wore on and the weather got worse -was this when the ice started building up on my windows? My head pain went down from 10/10 to 6/10. I was able to eat toast and even watch television. The wind was howling in under the door to the corridor and wrenching at the frames of the windows.

At 6 p.m., the beeps started up again. I reported this to Our Lady of Mercy, by phone.  At 9 p.m. beeps erupted from two directions, from the smoke alarm beside the bathroom door and the CO alarm, mine own, I had plugged in, in the kitchen as a stop gap. I unplugged the CO alarm. The Lady Super had put in the 12 Volt battery for me, but had not put on the cover. By now I was able actually to think. I put the cover on. The alarm sat silent.

REplying to my phone call, Mr. Super said he would be up in the morning to take down the smoke alarm, It was now beeping every twenty seconds. I thought I had read this was a ‘nuisance alarm’, but I wasn’t sure. I had spent the evening downloading user manuals. I closed the bedroom door, took a mg of Lorazepam and checked the windows. The outside slider was frozen in place. I turned up the electric base board heater, added a heavy wool blanket and slept like a log.

Next morning, Mr. Super  put back the CO alarm and removed the smoke alarm, all the while saying he had told me from the beginning it was a malfunctioning smoke alarm. Maybe so. It wasn’t the part I remembered.

“We have to order a new one. These are time sensitive.”

“Me too,” I thought.

Monday, the schools were closed, but only snow fell. I could see my iced up red Yaris in the parking lot. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Tuesday, I hauled my dirty clothes down to the laundry and set my iPhone timer. Thirty minutes later, two loads were ready to dry while one sat deep in water. An error message was flashing. Thank God, the assistant supers were on duty. Blissfully unaware of my unsuitability as a tenant, one of them climbed up on top of the washer and reached way down to unplug it. This was supposed to cause the water to drain. It didn’t, but it did unlock the door. I sloshed the soaking wet clothes into another washer, paid again and put newspaper down on the wet floor.

Around dinner time, I caught a bad smell in the bedroom. The carpet felt damp. Using two screw drivers, I reefed up the rug. The under padding squelched when I pressed down. It was clear that somehow water had got in at the floor line.

I lost it. How could I face yet another emergency call to the office. Georgia told me to buck up.

Fifteen minutes later assistant guy super showed up with a shop vac.

“Happened upstairs too,” he said as he got to work.

“Just keep the heat on high,” he added, as he left. Smiling kindly.

I had emailed my distant son who had once been a gas fitter. He did some research and got back to me, telling me how to get in touch with the gas inspector for my building and ruminating about how the 25 separate fire place chimneys that vented on the roof could react to such unusual weather. He talked about glass fronts being available but not effective.

Bad word! Bad word! I said to myself

The fire place damper had been open throughout!

Moral of the story: I may or may not have had a migraine brought on by low pressure. The alarms may or may not have actually been signalling danger. It may or may not be a good idea if you are a resident super to assume an alarm is a malfunction. It is definitely not a good idea to piss off an ex-high school teacher with an ex-middle school teacher for a sister. Next time – the full teacher voice in stereo – way worse than a resident super voice!





Canadian Cold Front Moving Nowhere

Our cold water pipe froze. Water pipes are freezing across Canada. People are trying to thaw them with blow torches. Houses are catching fire. Fire hose water is freezing as it hits the air.

When I say “our”, I mean the residents of the 15 storey building I live in. Holy suddenly-cold-shower, Batman! Holy no-water at all!

“Can’t they prevent that?” my sister Georgia demands.

“Personally, I have never had any luck with preventing it,” I reply.

So, yes, I have had pipes freeze, but not in December, not at Christmas. The end of January, yes or the middle of a bad February. Not when my festive duds are lying ready for a freshly showered me.

I have a rule. Stay in until supplies run out. If the wind-chill is -30 C. (-22 F) make do. If it’s only -20 (-5 F) go for it. It’s -20 right now. I really do need to get to a store.

The wind is rattling my windows here on the 14th floor and moaning in under the door to the hall. I wear a woolen tuque when I go down for my newspaper. A heavy hoodie goes without saying.

One day last week, Toronto was colder than the North Pole. Ottawa, was the coldest capital city on earth that day. New Year’s Eve was basically cancelled, although some hardy soul lit the fireworks anyway.

Still never confuse weather with climate, as Georgia told me just now. She lives 3 lights west of me. We’ll get together again around Easter.

(I know I’m a softie. It gets down to -40C on the prairies. I put it down to history. Some of my ancestors came over to the Plymouth Colony on the Hopewell in 1634. The Mayflower arrived in 1621. I should be hardier. But I grew up in a farm house with one wood stove and snow drifts inside the windows.)


Excerpt from the beginning of Hour of the Hawk:

The whole thing started at breakfast.Sitting at the table, I could see the cyclists on the bike path, and people walking their dogs. My laptop was lying to my left, waiting for me as I strip-mined the newspaper for information. It was the beginning of May. The maple trees lining the road had a green mist.

Spring north of Lake Ontario is a little taste of heaven. We sigh and let go of the winter scowls that warded off frostbite. We lift our faces to the long lost sun. For however brief an interlude, it is warm. It isn’t freezing like the Arctic or sweltering like a Florida bayou.

Winter Mind Games

It’ll soon be Christmas and New Years. I’ll meet family and friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s past the winter solstice (Dec. 21), now the days are getting longer. There’s more light. I’ll be all right.

It’s a new year. I’ll eat better, exercise more, read better books and get in touch with long lost friends. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of February. The worst of winter is over. I’ll be all right.

It’s the first of March. It’s still deep winter. I may not be all right.

PS. Every time it snows, an unknown stranger cleans my car off in the parking lot. I’ll be all right


Mountain Diary: moths, wildfire and sand storm



Moth Wars -Monday

Two moths came in the door with me Monday night.

It was full dark, so dark that I had had to take the car home and leave the unlighted golf cart behind. The sky up here on the mountain was a dome of stars, uncountable and humbling, the streets, unlit, and the driveway so dark I had to feel my way. Sandy here-rocks must be there, etc. I carried laundry, bottles of spring water and my computer bag to the porch, banging my left leg with the car door in the process. I noted two large moths pressed against the screen door as I opened the inside door into the light filled room.

It was the resident cat, Jazz, who saw the moths fly in. She began scaling tall pieces of furniture and gazing longingly at the ceiling. I thought things would settle down once the lights were out. I was wrong.

I was woken up by a series of loud thumps at irregular intervals. Noisey burglar? Clara looking for a snack? Flashlight in hand, I ventured out of my room. There was the black and white cat on the top of the step ladder – we’re still hanging pictures-  staring at the ceiling. She jumped. Not surprisingly she missed the moth but I gabbed her and carried her to Clara’s room. I scooted her through the partly open door and shut it. Problem solved.

But no. One of the moths was now making passes at my reading lamp. I sat weighing moth-murder against patience. Sure enough the moth disappeared. I waited some more. No action. Good. I went back to sleep.

In the morning I felt virtuous. Moths after all, adore light, even though suicidally. No one seems to understand why. Perhaps it is because they migrate by the moon, although most moths don’t seem to migrate. Perhaps they are drawn by the heat or the wave length which they mistake for pheromones. None of the theories seem reasonable. So I fell back on a more poetic and spiritual explanation. Moths and I aspire to the light.

That lasted 12 hours. Tuesday night, same scenario. Both moths revived, one in my bedroom, one in my bathroom. Both flew into my hair. Some barbarous part of me lashed out, more than once, leaving a lifeless winged being and moth dust.

Fire on the Mountain- Tuesday

Around 4:45 a.m., I woke up to the smell of wood smoke. Had someone got up early for work and lit a wood fire? Some people leave to drive down the mountain to work at 5. Was it the smell of our own fire place, cold as it would be, being pulled in by the furnace. No, the furnace didn’t come on until 6. Puzzling, I fell asleep.

At 7:45, I woke up again. A helicopter was circling fairly low overhead, whining off into the distance and returning. Over and over and over. I was about to snooze again, when I sat bolt upright and sprang out of bed, calling myself several versions of idiot. Wrapped in a thick, hooded robe, I dashed out onto the deck and there it was a fire on the mountain.

It was below Mount Pinos, two peaks below on Sawmill Mountain, part of the Transverse Range, running roughly east/west, unlike the Sierra Nevadas next door, which lie north/south. The fire was uncomfortably close to town.

Billows of white indicated steam rising from where the water had been dropped by the helicopter, while darker smoke on the western edge showed where the fire still burned. The helicopter would disappear down to Lake Fern, actually a pond, just below my other temporary home here, the house in the pines. Then I would hear it rising and soon it would come into view, trailing water as it rose. It flew into the cloud of mist and smoke, emerging and making directly for the rock face of Mt. Pinos. From my point of view, it was about to crash when it turned and flew over the smoke, where it dropped its water.

Another helicopter was cruising along the ridge and dipping down over the fire when the water bearing one left. I wanted more water helicopters.

On the internet, I read that it was a small, 1 acre fire. Clearly, the authorities didn’t want a panic. The large LED sign at the club house entrance apparently described it as “a moderate threat”. I could hear the people in the house next door talking about it as they watched from their windows; otherwise, no one seemed to be noticing.

One summer, in Greece, a wildfire broke out on the slopes above our camp ground. It crept steadily down from the heights until it reached the shrub-covered slope across the highway directly above. Huge bellied planes flew down over the Gulf of Corinth, scooped up water and returned to bomb the blazing hillside. The flames were so close that we could feel them. Ash fell about the camp ground and the smokey air was not breathable. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I didn’t have a car and my Greek host took a typically Greek attitude. He shrugged his shoulders. We could always walk into the sea, he said. True it was shallow for hundreds of feet and it was warm, but cooler than the mid-day heat compounded by the fire.  I was not impressed by Greek disaster planning, but in the end, the fire was quelled, leaving a blackened hillside and an acrid smell.

Meanwhile back at the Transverse Range, two more helicopters had come in and all three were dipping into Fern Lake, one after the other, deafening nearby residents, but making more and more progress on the mountain. By the time I set out on the golf cart, the helicopters were gone, although a small area was still smoking. My path led me past two fireman standing beside their vehicles watching and listening for radio calls from the site. There were 20 others up there on the slope, one told me. They had had to hike in on an old trail that ran into the Chumash Wilderness. They were there with shovels to put out hot spots and flare-ups.

Kern County’s clinics and health care bureaucrats have not impressed me and at least one hospital ward has appalled me, but their emergency services are excellent, not least their firefighting force. A helicopter pad near us stands ready for emergency evacuations of the injured and there is an intensive education program about evacuation of the population in general, whether because of wildfire or earthquake. The village lies squarely over a fault line, which is what created the rift in the ranges that cradle the town.

As we got ready to sit down to dinner, a cell phone alarm alerted us to the message that a sand storm was imminent.

Wednesday – Sand storm

Hyper-alert to strange noises after the fire, I listened for the sound of heavy wind whenever I woke up in the night. (How can you tell I am much older than you?) Nothing alarmed me.

Before dawn two of our family members left for a  specialist appointment in Van Nuys. Around 8, I phoned our recovering patient to see how things were. In fact she had been woken up by an urgent summons to an office in Bakersfield, although for bureaucratic rather than medical purposes. You have to be healthy to survive illness apparently. Since she still can’t drive, I got dressed and high-tailed it out the door.

What was this? A brown fog hung over the entire mountain range. Another and more widespread fire? Of course not. Something different.

If you can’t go to the Mohave, Mohave will come to you.

I’m getting used to dust. By the time I drive the golf cart from one house to the other, it and I and all my goods and chattels are covered in dust. I have been tempted to wear a bandana over my mouth like a cowboy. I tried to tell myself that way over there the air was full of sand, not here. I didn’t believe me.

I thought things would improve as we drove down, but coming down the Tejon Pass to the Central Valley, I had to turn on the car lights. I have driven through blinding white fog and snowy white-outs, but this was the first time I had driven through a brown-out. On the valley floor, we couldn’t see the mountains that normally stand blue at the edges of the wide valley. It wasn’t windy. I suppose that’s why the sand just hung there. Breathing scoured the nose and throat, even in the car.

We got to the office 15 minutes before it closed. On Wednesdays, it closes at noon, another example of Kern County time, otherwise known as mountain time. You can never tell what weird schedule businesses will keep, closing randomly, like the restaurants in our village. But give Kern County credit: it notified us of the sandstorm




Sailing in Shangri-la

bear claw bakeryRegular readers of this blog will know that circumstances have led me to spend my summer in a remote mountain village without media. Oh, media is here, via satellite dish but not that I can access easily. Deprived of my usual sources of information (except old National Geographics -1985!!), my conversation has fallen back on old timey tales. This morning four of sat outside the Bear Claw bakery toasting in the 8 a.m. sun, eating the best croissants outside France and telling such tales.

There had been a terrible lightning strike at Venice Beach the previous Sunday. One of us had been near the beach that day, but not actually at it and had witnessed the brief violent storm.

Julia piped up and said that when you are near ground zero, the flash is a sheet of light. She recounted being in the family room of our house under the hill in Scarborough when lightning hit the flag pole above.

I didn’t remember.

I have amnesia about lightning mostly. When I was a toddler and sleeping upstairs, a ball of lightning came in one window, streaked over my crib and out the other. I leaped out of my crib and hit the stairs running. Just as the horrible thunder crashed, I slipped in my pajama feet and soared into space. I fell –into the waiting arms of my Uncle John – infinitely slow John Cunnington who had heard me, sprung up from the table, flung open the stairway door and caught me.

That was it for me – memory wise. The file marked lightning was full.

But Julia had other memories from her sailing childhood.

When she was 14, her father, Blake and I bought a Northern 29, a sailboat designed to sail in the narrow North Sea, where the waves come close together. It has a lead keel, which renders it very stable, indeed capable of righting itself should it turn over. It was a good choice for Lake Ontario which is also narrow and prone to similar waves. It has a steel mast that is set in the lead keel. This means that lightening strikes should go down into the lead and disperse over the water. The fourth member of the crew was her 13 year-old brother, Daniel.

Julia thinks that it was Blake’s wartime experience that made him want to sail. He was evacuated with many other children on the ship, Antonia, to Canada. At least one such ship, The City of Benares had been torpedoed with the loss of 77 children.There were two other ships carrying children in Convoy Z in which Antonia sailed, a total of 1000 kids. There were 6 destroyers protecting the convoy and the Battle ship Revenge, which as it turns out was carrying Britain’s gold reserve £10 million  to safety in Canada. Blake was 5 at the time. He was 10 when he made the relatively safe return after V.E. Day.

For whatever the reason, we found ourselves press-ganged into the crew of the red sailboat, Sirocco.

Mostly we were self-taught sailors, although Blake took a night course to qualify as skipper, learning such things as right of way rules, how to understand lights and buoys and so on. He had also read avidly. But the first time we flew the spinnaker, none of this helped. The spinnaker is that balloon-like, colorful sail that flies out ahead of the boat when it is sailing downwind (the wind is behind). Ours was colored like a rainbow. It is attached the mast near the bottom and then pulled up by a pulley until it is secured at the top. Meanwhile, two lines (ropes) are threaded through winches so that the crew can trim it according to the wind. The object is to get it ballooning out in front. Blake had the sail up and Julia was on the foredeck holding one of the thick rope lines not yet secured through its winch. Suddenly the halyard at the top let go and the wind carried the huge sail straight out ahead of the boat. Julia hung onto the line as it ripped through her palms at high speed. She was screaming in pain but determined not to lose our most expensive sail.

“Let it! Let it go!” he father shouted.

She did. The sail puffed once and sank through the air into the water. I ran to Julia. Blake ran to the bow. Daniel grabbed the boat hook. Julia’s hands were raw and beginning to bleed. Daniel and Blake were leaning so far out that it looked as if they would join the sail in the water, but a minute later they were back up pulling in the bedraggled mass of the sail. Glorious in flight, sodden and unlovely as a swimmer.

Sirocco was about 2 years old when we bought her and the sails were still reliable, but by the second summer, the main sail was showing wear. There is a saying that owning a sailboat is like standing in a cold shower tearing up money, so we hadn’t got around to ordering a new main sail. Typically, we would study the weather report that summer and learn that here was a chance of an afternoon storm. Since the storm hadn’t materialized for at least a week, we went sailing. Sure enough, it arrived.

Blake had shortened sail by putting up the smaller jib instead of the bigger genoa. We sail trimmers were working attentively keeping just the right amount of air in it. From time to time, Blake leaned over from the tiller and adjusted the main on its track along the boom. The wind began to pummel us in great gusts. A huge boom like thunder right above us rent the air. We looked up to see the main sail loudly flapping. It had blown out into two pieces.

Just sailing wasn’t enough. We raced Sirocco. Not only did we race it around the yacht club bay, we raced it across Lake Ontario, sometimes in two day races. Thus we were treated to a close study of lightning.

One day during such a storm, three of us were in the cockpit steering and trimming the sails. Daniel was having a break down in the cabin, probably reading. He was sitting on the banquette beside the table. Our budgie’s cage was fastened with a bungie cord to the ceiling and the floor. They were both inches from that steel mast. As those of us up-top tried to keep the boat from swamping, water crashed over the gunwales. It is reported that I shouted, “I wish you’d tell that guy who’s throwing buckets of water in our faces to stop.” Suddenly, Daniel called up, “What does it mean when the mast glows blue?” “Don’t touch it!” three of us yelled in unison. Silence fell. He was alive. What about the bird? Then we heard a very clear chirp.

One day on the St. Lawrence River, Blake nonchalantly wondered why there was a large, orange bleach bottle floating in the water. A second later, with a crash like thunder, Sirocco hit a rock. Everything flew forward and bounced back, including hapless humans. “Is there a hole? Is there a hole?” we shouted. Daniel, who had once again been below, had to dig himself out of the cabin debris and crawl into the fore-cabin. “No hole,” he shouted back. Shaking so hard I could barely stand, I joined Julia and her father on the aft rail, about 4 inches wide and we began the time-honored rocking back and forth employed when you are hard aground. Daniel crawled out and joined us. The boat didn’t budge. But what is that crazy motor-boater doing. He is driving around us, faster and faster in tight circles, each circle building a higher wake. Finally, one big one lifted Sirocco and we floated clear. Our rescuer waved and raced away. I served juice. Eventually, we all stopped shaking.

Daniel was not always below. He was the one who leaped onto the dock as we came to tie Sirocco up. (Blake invariably sailed in rather than using the motor.) One night at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Daniel missed the dock and fell between it and the boat. There was a mad rush to fend off so that he wouldn’t be crushed between the ton and a half boat and the dockside.

The waters of the Niagara River come rushing down over Niagara Falls and down the rapids and roil out into Lake Ontario. On a stormy day, the waves of the lake collide with the rush of the river and create a sort of vortex of water. On one such day, I had my personal safety line hooked onto the boat’s safety lines. So did Daniel, but he got tangled up as we worked on the fore-deck trying to take in the jib. Impatiently, he unhooked it. He had both arms full, struggling to control the canvas. He stuffed it down the hatch and stood erect. A crosscut wave hit us. Daniel fell backwards as the boat leaned. His body was entirely over water. I grasped both his wrists, braced myself and hung on, staring into his face. Suddenly, the boat heeled again and he fell into my arms.

Clara, who was listening to these stories, said after each one, “And then you quit sailing.” Of course we didn’t. Were we addicted to the adrenal rush or the tranquility of a flat sea at evening? Blake sailed for the love of sailing. Perhaps we sailed for the love of Blake.

Sirroco, taken on a previous voyage

Sirocco, taken on a later voyage

Snow Bound Reflections

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe world is filling up with snow. Outside the windows, individual flakes are swirling. They start in one diagonal line and suddenly change direction into its opposite. Indeed as I write, they begin to be less single, distinct shapes and become a diaphanous white veil, faster, more wind-blown, a constantly changing beautiful spectacle, which, of course, I hate.

I assure myself that I am warm and dry with full pantry shelves, that such snow, unlike ice, presents no danger to the electrical grid, that I don’t have to go out and, if I did, I wouldn’t. What can I say? I had a bad experience in a storm in my formative years and I still bear the scars. Moreover, we haven’t had as much snow here as New England and the mid-west. Still I would be willing to send today’s downfall to Southern California where even the mountains are dry this year, or even to Sochi, just in case it’s needed.

No one is shovelling. No point. Not yet. The snow plows are rumoured to be working on the major highways. Then they’ll get to the roads and about midnight, they may get to the side streets. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the bus go thundering up the hill in front of the house for a while. Usually, you can set your watch by them, two of them that do a quick loop down from the Old Mill Subway Station to the Humber streetcar loop, every 20 minutes. Almost as good as snow plows at clearing the road.

My earliest winter memories are of living in a farmhouse in the hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Windswept! It had poplar trees on two sides that registered the slightest zephyr and talked to me about it. In a winter storm, they shouted as did the windows where the wind hummed in and left little drifts of snow inside on the window ledges. The wood box would be crammed full and several pails of spring water standing on the pantry shelf, carried in by my father who would have had to break the ice at the top of the spring. My mother was completely capable of keeping the stove going while he was away, pulping in the woods. That is cutting soft wood, trimming and hauling it back with the team of horses, to stack it in the long piles of pulp wood beside the road, work that snow and sleds made possible. There was no need to go to the store, what with the flour barrel, the potato bin, the canning cupboard filled with jars of berries and green beans and the deer meat hanging in the wood shed. Yet the house was full of terror.

What if… my mother wondered, when my father set out. What if, the place burned down? What if we needed the doctor? Etc. To each, my father responded with specific detailed solutions. The next farm was less than a mile away although out of sight. There was, of course, no telephone and no electricity. Anyway, he would be back in two days. Did she think he enjoyed freezing his ___ off in that camp? And John would look in when he came to milk the cows.

She would have been 22 then, a country girl, born and bred, but high-strung. When I was 22, I had just left residence at university and couldn’t have built a fire to save my life. She passed on her fearful nature and cold-hating physicality but not that practical skill.

I do remember one glorious day when it finally stopped snowing and freezing. The sun shone down on the glittering world. “Get on your snow suit,” she cried, joyfully. “We’ll go sliding on the crust.” And what a crust! Even she could walk on it without breaking through and it carried my sled, heavy laden with both of us all the way down to the bottom of the slope where the little brook lay frozen and buried.

Years later when I lived in the house under the hill (famous in this blog’s mythology), on a snow day, worse than today, school was cancelled. As teachers, my husband and I were off work and our small children were home. Curiously, our housekeeper had made it in and was busy in the kitchen. I was sitting at the table in the family room, close to the blazing fireplace, marking essays. I could see out the window to the high drift that lay there. Suddenly I saw the mailman step easily over the drifted-in wire fence and begin his progress over the side yard. “Stop,” I yelled, leaping to my feet. “Stop.” I started to pound on the window, but dropped my fists. And watched, dumbfounded. Slowly, he progressed through the heavy snow, one step after the other, mail bag banging at his hip. At each step. I prayed. He caught sight of me and smiled. Then he climbed over the fence at the other end. I collapsed in relief. He had just walked over our snow-covered, eight foot deep swimming pool.


The Septuagenarian Hobbit Gets a Parking Lesson

Oh, stop trying to make me hate you, Toronto. You’ve already got sub-zero temperatures, vicious storms and week-long power outages going for you. Why did you have send the SUV woman to give me parking advice?

I was in the under-ground parking garage at Mountain Equipment Co-op, still jet-lagged from my return from Brussels, but putting a good face on it and taking advantage of a break in the weather to return a faulty product. I had already paid for parking at the wonderfully old-fashioned booth. The attendant was happily gossiping with a friend. There were many empty spaces. I was taking the opportunity to change the carpet floor mats to the rubber winter ones, when a woman in a beige SUV pulled up behind me.

“I realize it’s hard to see the lines,” she said, “but you are parked so that no-one can use the next spot.”

I could just barely discern a yellow line when I looked down. It was covered with salt and dirt.

“Thank you so much for telling me,” I replied. “But try not to get hysterical. I’m leaving immediately.”

“I’m not hysterical…”

No, just really, really annoyingly self-righteous and hidebound and so very, very puritanical, typically Torontonian, indeed typically North American.

While I was thanking her again for rendering my day more pleasant, I was remembering how cars on my brother’s one-way street in Brussels were often parked facing the wrong direction. No tickets. No outraged neigbours. Oh, carry me back!

I’ll hate myself for saying this later, but at least our mayor is a little looser.

(I know that’s an allusion, but I figure you’ve all heard about Rob Ford.)

The Septuagenarian Hobbit Returns: New Year’s

(This is one of a series of posts in which I have explored my hobbit-like reluctance to travel.)

The arrival of 2014 was confusing for me. My body-clock registered it at Brussels time and took me to bed shortly afterwards, but not before I received a text from my brother Rob, who had probably just set off fireworks in Bois Fort: Where are you? I have looked all over the house.

I can’t imagine how confused my fellow travellers must be. I joined their flight at the Brussels airport, half way through their journey from Delhi – mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, babies and one grandfather. Shortly after take-off at 10:15 a.m., the lights were turned down and  most of them went to sleep. I joined them.

Even as I was swept south on Highway 427 from YYZ, otherwise known as Pearson International Airport, I felt as if some essential part of me had still not landed.

It is after 3 a.m. eastern standard time. My neighbours have just come in from partying and gone to bed. I went to bed at 6 p.m., so here I am.

I postponed the return to my home by stopping to eat. I was ready for dinner. Blake, who had picked me up, wanted brunch. Easy to get dinner at noon, but brunch on a weekday, New Year’s Eve or not, took some convincing.

Finally, I got home. The lights were on. I had carefully set the timer to put them on at sunset, but the ice storm cut the power, so the timer clock thought it was dark already. Warily, I approached the refrigerator. Four days without electricity! Nothing. No dreadful smell. My landlord had come in, I knew, and all the frozen meat was gone, but all the glass containers of stock, soup and stew were still there. For a brief moment, I thought there was a reason, but of course, there wasn’t. Refrozen they sat patiently waiting to give me ptomaine. For the third time in a year, I had lost everything in the freezer. (But global warming is a myth and all this crazy weather is just part of a natural cycle!!!!!!!)

The news showed me poor people in long lines waiting -many in vain – for food vouchers. They had lost their Christmas food and very likely had spent the holiday freezing in the dark.

I had gone with Rob to the fish market in Brussels to pick up a huge iced platter of oysters, sea snails and shrimp, destined to join turkey as our Christmas Eve feast. (The snails were particularly delicious.) I had been warm and cozy throughout. Evidently, there are advantages to travel.

(I will post one more blog in this series, in which I will explore the surprising fact that my Brussels family, whose language I can barely follow, has so much in common with my Canadian family and my Southern Californian family.)

Happy New Year.

Sere and Yellow Leaf

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAFirst day of Standard Time. Whose idea is it to mess with time anyway? First light it was right on the freezing mark on the thermometer outside the kitchen window. Yet no visible frost. The good news, besides an extra hour’s sleep, was the blue sky. Saturday was another day of cold rain here and Friday had winds up to 85 kph. So most of the leaves  have fallen. Even the red maple down the street is half bare now.


red tree #2Time to draw in. Keep the house fragrant simmering bones into stock and then turning that into stews and soups or a hearty chili.

Time to put new batteries in the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Testing they’re in right, is always good for an adrenalin rush. I saved my son’s life once by presenting him with a carbon monoxide alarm, guiltily, thinking it was a poor gift –until 2 weeks later.

Time to haul out the big wool blankets and the down coats. Time to waterproof the shoes and boots.

Somehow, somewhere, the shovel I kept in the car has gone missing, but the bag of kitty litter is back in with the spare tire, ready for icy roads. The brush and scraper are  in the trunk, but I still have to take out the full size broom for the heavy snow. Which surely will not come for a while.

The leaves on the lawn are dry and yellow. In the gutter, they turn wet and brown. Crank up the fiddle! Break out the grog!


Starving in the Dark: septuagenarian faces flash flood

Last week, a Calgarian, worn out by the flooded Bow River perhaps, wrote a letter to the National Post in which he invited Torontonians to starve to death in the dark. Alberta has the oil after all. I thought “yeah, yeah” that’s an old one – 40 yrs at least.

On Monday, I am reading with my feet up, worn out by my negotiation with a Toyota salesman. It is all but pitch dark at 4:30 p.m. but I’m used to that. It has rained torrentially at that hour many times this year. It starts to pour. I keep reading – a fictional account of the London blitz as it happens.

On Sunday, I got caught in one of these downpours. I huddled in a doorway for 15 minutes, watching water 4 in. deep race down the street. The rain got steadily worse. I put up my umbrella and set out for my car, two short blocks away. I met a guy with a clinging wet t-shirt, who smiled ruefully. My pants were soaked up to the knee and by the time I got the umbrella down, so was my the car seat. I sat in the car reading, waiting until I could see out the windshield. When I could, I chose my route carefully, avoiding the deep dip in the road to the south of my place where it floods. I’ve learned at least that much this year.

As I read about the horrors of rescue in the London blitz, lightning flashes through the window. Okay, supper time. As I walk toward the kitchen, I observe that I cannot see out my windows.

Full disclosure – I still harbour a 2 year-old within, who found herself with an unconscious baby sitter in the middle of a hurricane. By that I do not mean ‘inattentive’. I mean-down-for- the-count and never-right-again unconscious. It was only one long hungry day before I was rescued, but of course it seemed like forever. I am actually reassuring this hysterical inner-child when the carbon monoxide alarms scream, various things beep and the lights go out.

No problem. Right? It’ll come right back on. GIve it a minute. Fortunately, I do not know that the underground transformer that feeds the west end is now 30 ft. deep in water.

So it begins.

I activate the CBC app on my phone and discover the subway is flooded and shut down. The streets are jammed with wet pedestrians. The traffic lights are out and rush hour is at a standstill.

Frank, my landlord, emerges from his own underground lair to watch the storm through the front storm door. (So that’s why it doesn’t have a screen.) An hour later, the upstairs tenant arrives reporting that she was the last person allowed south on the Don Valley Parkway. She drove through the river, which was already over the road. The cars behind her were turned back, driving the wrong way to exit in the middle of the city. Her trip took twice the usual time, she is all but out of gas and there are no working gas pumps.

I leave my apartment door open and consider food.

Besides the screaming inner-child, I have dietary limitations. The list of things I can’t eat is far longer than the list of those I can. I cannot, for example, eat bread. I can eat brown rice and there is some in the fridge and there is cold chicken and salad mix. No problem. The trick is not to tarry in front of an open fridge door.

I haul the lantern out of its closet and discover the D cell batteries still work. I light the available candles -beeswax of course. Regular candles make my eyes burn. I eat my cold dinner. How I long for tea -herbal- you guessed it. Sitting there, I decide that if civilization starts coming apart, with these ‘refined’ needs, I will be among the first to go. Well, there’s some good news.

The rain has more or less stopped. Using my CP24 app, I find that a train is sitting in the expanded Don River and 120 commuters are awaiting rescue by boat, tiny zodiacs as it turns out. They have had to scramble up to the upper deck and some of them will not get off until 12:30 a.m.

Meanwhile geysers of sewage have exploded out of utility holes. Cars have been abandoned, including one Ferrari. Fireman are rescuing people. Then my fading phone declares that it cannot access the internet. It’s only 9:30 but it’s time to go to bed.

I have a lovely dream. The carbon monoxide alarm has beeped and the room has been suffused with light. I wake up. Not.

In the morning, the second hand Twitter rumour is- power back by noon. This will change throughout the day and I will gradually lose my initial desire to join Twitter. Hope is not a winged thing that perches etc. Hope is a canard, a con. It misleads and keeps you from acceptance and necessary action. It takes me 24 hours to set up a rescue for my freezer goods, e.g., and in the meanwhile I lose over $50 worth of stuff.

How to live now?

Take inventory. There is still hot water. Most of the city has its power back. With all the blinds open, I can more or less see. No paper and the phone can no longer get a signal, too many others already on the system. I warm breakfast up in a pan of hot water, milk for cereal, green soup. I take a hot shower. I drive to the tai chi club where I can make tea, exercise and charge my phone. I even do 2 sets of tai chi. During tea break I go down to the basement restroom. What is this brown residue on the floor? I call for volunteer help and grab a mop. Patty joins me. The other, much younger class members, do not. In fact, one of them waxes outraged because she has to find another toilet. Meanwhile in a search for a pail and hot water, I have stumbled wetly into the downstairs practise hall. The carpet is soaked and a little pool sits in the middle. We give tours hoping to drum up help. Not so much. We phone a report in to an actual employee, wring out the mops and carry on with our lives.

I, for example, have to call on two cats whose mom is away. They are glad to see me and a note on the counter invites me to make tea. What a great idea! I plug the kettle in. I give one cat her medicine. I feed them. Hey, what happened to my tea? I know the power is on up here. But, the thing is, it isn’t. It’s what you call a rolling black-out. These black-outs roll with me as I roll westward. I see the traffic lights fire up behind me and go black in front.

By dinner time, I have been without hot food 30 hours and my weak digestion can’t take any more and besides, the food in the fridge is now inedible. I set out for a restaurant. First, I have to get to a place with power. This involves waiting 20 minutes at just one non-functioning light. Once there, I find the parking meters on the street don’t work and I know our parking officers will give tickets on Judgement Day, so I search out working meters. There are now only 22,000 householders without power and all of them have converged on Bloor West Village for food. Cash only. I found I had raided the hidden money envelope but still had $100 left, so that’s all right. I stand in line for 25 minutes. I can see empty tables. The maitre d’ can too, but he keeps handing out menus and bustling off, leaving us there. Very hungry.

Eventually, I am seated, single and wasteful though I am. I read to keep from raiding adjacent tables and when I finally get food, I nearly weep over the mashed potatoes.

In the evening, Blake, who has never lost power, shows up to take my freezer goods into custody. I serve him a warm beer while we sit in semi-darkness.

By next morning I discover that I get tea and ice at the super market south of me, which must have a generator. I am there by 7 a.m. and soon have an ice chest set up with lunch stuff. Should have done this yesterday. Why didn’t I? No idea. Hope precluded it? Or was it mental dysfunction? I note that we all seem to be suffering it.

At non-functioning traffic lights, you stop, look, take your turn. Do this 10 times and when you come to an actual red light, you start to do it again. The woman upstairs locks her keys in her apartment, fails to pick the lock and decides to kick it in. So much noise! And it doesn’t work. Our door locks have steel plates! I lose my glasses, find another pair and come back to discover the first pair right where I lost them.

We are all suddenly very neighbourly, except to the old guy who brags that he has power just 10 houses away. People share their barbecues, carrying pots across the street. We no longer share the estimated time of (power) arrival. We are cynics, one and all.

On Wednesday afternoon, I get gussied up- poppy red dress, leggings, good sandals and set off for a second round at Toyota. I am just pulling into the parking lot when Frank calls to tell me the power is back on. I can’t say I believe it will last, but I finish the car deal and go to the green grocers and the butcher shop, pretending I believe it.

It is indeed on. I have light and a kettle that comes to a boil. I do manage to set the fire alarm off, having apparently forgotten how to cook, but after two days, it is over.

Thursday morning, I assume it is life as normal. I get to the tai chi club late. I’m still so discombobulated it takes me ages just to do a simple task like get dressed. I go through the club’s back door and an odour like something burnt sends me reeling. I know that smell. Mould! It’s okay, I’m reassured, the water has been vacuumed up. It’s fine. Try the upstairs class.

Listen if you take a canary down a coal mine don’t try to argue with it. If it falls over, get outa there. In this case, it is the canary that escapes.

By now, my head is aching badly, very badly. I can’t go back there, I reason on my long drive home. Maybe never, at least not until cold weather.

At home, I decide to try one thing. I email the location leader, telling him that mould is a health hazard not just a bad smell. Then I call ma soeur, Georgia, who listens to me rail. When I get off the phone, I see the message light flashing. The location leader has called our contractor who said hell yes, the carpet has to come out and the floor has to be treated with fungicide. I call our leader back, full of gratitude. Now my exile is down to a week or so while the place gets cleaned.

Now if only this headache would quit….