Saturday, June 29, 2013

As Retirement Plans Go, This One Is Fruitful

Last spring, my husband stuck 1,000 strawberry plants in the ground and said, "This is my retirement plan."
Um, sure.
Anyone driving past our property this spring would wonder if he'd given up on the idea because he didn't weed the strawberry plot. Ever. I can hardly look at it, it's so overrun by weeds (although there are a lot of daisies growing and that's my favourite flower). I should have had faith: the weeds don't stop the strawberries from growing and ripening. And it gives us a unique marketing angle: Our strawberries are wildflower-infused! And obviously pesticide-free.

My husband's retirement plan is already coming to fruition. He picked four flats today; that's 48 boxes in an afternoon. He gave one away to friends and I picked a box to give to my in-laws. Sold his first flat before 6 pm. I'd say this cockamamie plan of his is going to work out well. (He'll have sold all his berries before I've sold one book so whose retirement plan is better, I wonder?)
My contribution? I made the Strawberries For Sale sign that will sit at the end of our driveway. I'm also quality control: Had a handful on my breakfast this morning. Can't resist fresh, juicy berries.

How cool is it to walk across the driveway to the strawberry patch and pick some berries to cut right onto granola? Gotta love country life but c'mon, urban dwellers with backyards: No reason not to keep a couple of hens and grow a basket of strawberries. You shouldn't miss out on any of this instant deliciousness.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Conversation With...Archan Knotz

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, June 19, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

Archan Knotz did not pick up a paintbrush until she was 27 years old. The gesture could have been just another attempt at discovering something meaningful to do but the brush, the paint and the canvas turned out to be what was missing from her life. 
The young German woman was on the classic journey to find herself. Before taking her first art class, Archan had worked as an industrial sales person and a graphic artist, travelled to India, Greece and the Netherlands, and lived in a commune. It was a friend’s invitation to join her at a life drawing class that moved her forward in a completely unexpected direction. 
“My first show was in Frankfurt at the cafe off the club where I worked as a bouncer,” Archan says. “There was all kinds of people coming from Canada for a trade show in Frankfurt and one of them bought one of my paintings. That was how the connection to Canada was made.”
Emigrating to Canada three years later, Archan wrote to the person who had bought painting, suggesting she could stop by Nova Scotia for a visit.
She never left.  
A portfolio of photographs of her pre-Nova Scotia paintings reveal huge canvases that are bold and bright. 
“I did all kinds of mediums at first, sculpting, life drawing, acrylic, and eventually I moved into watercolour,” explains Archan. “I started out with very raw, emotional paintings. I worked very much with colour. That’s how I expressed what I wanted to express. It was a raw expression of colour.” 
She says the shift to watercolour, what she is best known for locally, came as  she settled into her new life in Nova Scotia. 
“I became more peaceful inside,” she says. “I didn’t need to be right in people’s faces. That’s what I needed to do when I was 27 and I was really searching, but now I don’t feel like I need to do that anymore. And also I got better at the technique. I took a lot of courses. I progressed to a different style.”
Yet buried beneath all these layers of paint is the reason she turned to art in the first place. 
“I wanted something I could be good at, that cannot be judged,” she says. “Art cannot be judged. It’s an opinion. And that was from my own school experience so it was such a relief for me that I could do something where I’m not judged. Even if people don’t buy it, I don’t have to take it personally.”
Archan grins and shakes her head.  
“When I started to draw, I was not good. I was horrible. But it was freeing, it was something I could do on my own. It made me feel special and nobody could judge. That was really important to me and that’s why I think I still paint.”
Like most artists, Archan needs a job to support herself. For the past seven years, she’s worked as an educational assistant (EA) at schools in Pugwash and Oxford, bringing her passion for art to the high-needs students with whom she works. 
“Sometimes special needs students are really good at creative expression, drawing or dance, but rather than letting them do that, we medicate them or make them do things they aren’t good at.”
That idea motivated her to start studying for a degree in English and psychology with the goal of becoming a teacher but four years of part-time studies later, that plan has changed. 
“I turned 50 in May,” she says, both excited and shocked by this milestone “And because I’m taking my Bachelor of Arts and I’m 50, there’s this feeling that I’m this certain age so what am I willing to do? Am I really willing to do what it takes to go into a new career?”
It’s a question Archan is now struggling with. 
“I was going to be a teacher but that has changed,” she says. “I would not be good at classroom management. I work better in small groups.”
She still plans to graduate with her degree in the fall of 2014 because “I think a person needs a degree for whatever they want to do. Anything I want to do with my life needs psychology in it.”
Because it influences her art as well. According to Archan, creating art brings balance to our lives.
“First of all, it brings gentleness into a person’s life, and self-discovery. [Your drawing] is not looking like anything you want it to look like. That’s really eye-opening. It doesn’t give you instant gratification, it’s not your masterpiece, not if it’s the first one you do. So it teaches you not to judge yourself because if you do, you will never pick up a paint brush again.” 
Even though her work sells, Archan believes art for art’s sake is more important. 
 “It is a very mindful thing to do, to just let it be, to not be constantly looking for something out of it. Maybe somebody likes it and buys it but maybe you don’t even want to sell it because it is too valuable to you.”
What amazes her is the reaction she gets when people find out she is an artist.
“You become famous. Art isn’t valued but at the same time – ” she puts her hand to her face to mimic people whispering with excitement – “they  say, ‘Oh, Archan is an artist. Did you know?’ You are an instant celebrity in some ways. I don’t get it because culturally, art isn’t valued but they seem to see you as special. Maybe because they think you are born with that talent.” 
That’s an idea Archan makes sure she debunks when she speaks to a class about being an artist. 
“What I think is very important to get across to the students is that I struggled, and still do. I show them stuff nobody has ever seen because you just don’t show people the stuff you aren’t good at. But they need to see that because they think you are born with the ability. Some are but most of us aren’t. We have to work really hard to get something on canvas or on paper or whatever. I think everybody can be an artist if you work hard enough.”

Archan in her home studio in Streets Ridge, NS. 

A Father's Badge of Honour

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

A few months ago, one of our great-nieces suffered a loss: Her hamster died. ‘Precious’ died on a Wednesday but her passing wasn’t totally unexpected. 
“I knew on Monday she was dying,” Mackenzie said to us, a group of women gathered in her grandmother’s kitchen for a family meal. “But she died just before I left for school. That was the problem.” 
Actually, the problem was that her mother was not home. 
We all turned to her mother, Kendel, with a collective, “Oh -- ” of sympathy. Kendel is an OR nurse so she was already at work when Precious breathed her last hamstery breath. With Kendel unreachable even by cell phone, Mackenzie could not even use the sound of her mother’s voice to induce the proper paroxysm of sobbing that comes with saying, “Mommy?” into the phone.
So Mackenzie turned to her father for comfort and support. 
Let’s compare for a moment the different responses from a mother and a father:
Mom - “Come here, baby. It’s okay to cry. Why don’t you stay home from school today and we’ll have a funeral and eat cupcakes?”
Dad - “It’s just a hamster. I’ll dig a hole in the woods and bury it when I get home from work.”
Now, I’m not quoting directly from Mackenzie’s household and I’m not disparaging fathers. It’s just that when you hear that a young girl turns to her father instead of her mother in the moments after the passing of a pet, you expect that something might get lost in translation. 
And yet why not Dad? Sometimes you need to eat cupcakes but sometimes you need to dry your eyes and get on with it. Either way, a father should be able to provide the support and comfort his daughter needs, even if he thinks it’s only a hamster, only a prom dress, only a boyfriend. 
The latter being the biggest challenge for any father when it comes to expressing sympathy. And yet one of my best memories of my dad came from an evening when I was heading out to break up with a boyfriend. Dad met me going out as he was returning home from walking the dog and when he said to me, “Be strong,” there were tears in his eyes. 
Likely tears of relief as much as they were tears of sympathy. Long after I’d reached adulthood, my mother explained that my father had been so protective of his teenaged daughters “because he remembered what he was like at that age.” I don’t recall my father being overly protective but that comment made me wish my father had spoken to me more about young men, men in general, about relationships, commitment and love. Looking back, I see how important a good father’s perspective is in the life of a young woman. 
For better or for worse, biology has designed us so that a woman needs to talk about what’s wrong while a man need to fix it and there are endless jokes -- and arguments -- because of it. But, gentlemen, really, sometimes you just have to talk. Talk to your daughters. And listen to them, whether it’s about the dead hamster, the ugly prom dress, or that boyfriend (maybe particularly then) because when the moment arrives when she needs you to bury the hamster (or the boyfriend), you want to step up and be the man she can count on. 
When your daughter turns to you with tears in her eyes, the only way to fix whatever is wrong, and the best way to empower her for the rest of her life, is to let your own tears show while you tell her to be strong. She’ll never forget it. 
A true badge of honour on a father are the mascara stains on his shirt. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Now Our Summer Truly Begins

This morning, 8 am. My good reason for being late to work!
It's official: three heads. 
This makes it the third summer in a row that the ospreys successfully hatched out their offspring limit in the nest on our property. That brings their total reproduction since 2009 to 12.
The interesting thing about this summer is that this sighting of the babies is a week ahead of every previous year (since they laid their first egg on the nest in 2009). Usually, we get to count heads after Canada Day. 
Then again, this osprey season began differently. Normally, one osprey arrives around the 12th of April and about a week later, the other one arrives and they begin mating. This April, however, they both arrived at the same time on April 11 and mating began immediately, as in the night of.  For some reason, this year's mating seemed more frequent and more obvious. Yet their results were consistent: three hatchlings. 
Perhaps they've heard the reports that this is going to be an active hurricane season and they want to be out of here earlier in September. Or maybe they know something we don't: It's going to snow here in September!
Or maybe they were just happy to be home. 
We -- or they, I suppose -- also have had a osprey checking out the nest. We have no way of knowing if it's an offspring from earlier years coming to say hello to his parents or hoping the nest will be vacant and he can take up residence (although it's an eagle trait to take over nests). It gives us hope that another osprey will decide to build a nest on the pole and wheel my husband set up on our vacant lot across the road. When you are a bird otherwise known as the fish hawk, a roost along the river is the best real estate going. 
Regardless of supermoons and solstices, summer doesn't begin for us until we see the babies.  My husband, who is off this summer recovering from shoulder surgery, spends much of his days on the west deck keeping an eye on the nest. He staggers out of bed, blearily fills his coffee mug, mumbles something to me, then heads out to his chair to wake up with coffee and the birds. 
Lucky guy: Can't imagine a better way to start each day. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lucky to Live Where We Live

Perhaps if you live in the Rockies or the Arctic or Newfoundland, this is commonplace but for us, every close encounter with wildlife makes us happy. We enjoy sharing our little piece of earth with those who truly belong here. 

Sighting of two baby heads in the osprey nest.

Enjoying clover in the field behind the house.

Hey, maybe I'll watch YOU for awhile.

Mama telling a bedtime story as the sun goes down.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Lasting for 115 Years Means You Know A Thing or Two

On the cover of today's issue, the Amherst Daily News has announced that as of Friday, August 2, it will change its name to the Amherst News and become a weekly newspaper.

"Over our 120-year history, we have transformed and reinvented ourselves to remain relevant in the ever-changing media landscape," says the To the Readers letter signed by both the editor and publisher. "Our brand is moving with the times. As the audience is shifting more and more's the best way to serve our clients and readers, and to secure out title's long-term future."

Small communities need their newspapers; even weekly is enough to keep the sense of community and connection that is vital to rural areas. Attending the gala evening for the Atlantic Community Newspaper Awards this past May made it very clear that community newspapers are not only necessary but thriving. The reporters and photographers at these community newspapers are dedicated and hard-working and a very enthusiastic crowd of storytellers.
I am proud to work for a weekly newspaper, proud to write about the people who live and work and flourish here in Cumberland County, many having done so for generations. I am also proud that the family who has owned this paper for 115 years made the right decision regarding the Internet: our paper is available online only by subscription. My boss once said that if he had put The Oxford Journal online for free, it would have been the end of the paper.

What remains to be seen with the Amherst paper's move to publishing weekly is if it will drop its national news and editorials (available from the Internet or from the provincial paper) to focus entirely, and rightly, on local news.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

You Like Chickens, You Know You Do

Speaking of chickens (and you know we were), I love this lush little book by Lauren Scheuer
If you know someone who keeps chickens or has mentioned wanting to, if you know someone who likes to draw chickens or other birds and animals, if you know someone who likes dogs...this book would make a lovely gift. If that someone is you, you deserve this book as a gift to yourself.
The high-quality paper needed for Lauren's photos and illustrations pushed the price up a bit but those are what make this book unique. It's worth buying and reading and giving as a gift.
It's a delightful book.
Brewster thinks so, too. Although he's disappointed there are no roosters in the story; he doesn't understand why people are offended by the sound of a rooster crowing (neither do I, Brewy).

I was walking by the independent bookstore, Blue Heron Books, in downtown Uxbridge, ON, and saw this book in the window. It crowed at me, I swear it did. I immediately went in and bought it. Started leafing through it in the car on the drive back to Nova Scotia then just had to read it on the road.
Reading this book reminded me of why I enjoy keeping chickens.
(Read my Field Notes column about it here.)
In fact, it made me miss my chickens. I'm so busy with work that I'm not hanging out with my "chookies" like I used to. Maybe that's the problem; chickens and the gentle berk-berk-berk they utter as they peck and scratch is rather relaxing but I'm not spending enough time with them to reap that benefit.
Too much work, not enough chicken in my life.
You can have too many, though. In the spring of 2009, my husband went crazy and ordered a whole whack of chicks. I heard him say on the phone, "Oh, sure, that sounds good. I'll take a couple of those." We met the breeder at the half-way point and transferred 34 chicks to the backseat of my car. And we didn't lose a single one!
So the following summer, we had a flock of 24. Sold lots of eggs but the outside hen pen took a beating. This small flock suits me fine but with three brooding, we're down on eggs and I can tell that the hens are getting old; while their yolks are still deep orange, their eggshells are getting thinner.
You can get attached to chickens, you know. The chickens in Lauren Scheuer's book are part of her family, the way a dog and a cat are. Chickens have distinct personalities and Lauren's descriptions and drawings of her hens are lovely. They give me chicken-envy.
Our flock is down to nine now. It's hard to find chickens; we don't seem to be able to call up anybody and find someone with a couple of young hens to sell. When I arrived home from that road trip, from reading Lauren's book, I told my husband that when the rabbit is gone (we started with three), that side of the mini-barn will become a breeding room; I want to raise from chicks some of my favourite breeds: Americaunas (they lay green-shelled eggs) and Barred Rocks (Lauren has one of those).
Brewster is a Barred Rock. He is now six years old. Is that old for a chicken? We don't know. He's the only one left from our original flock so he's our experiment in the longevity of a chicken.
We've been lucky with our rooster; he looks after the hens as he's supposed to but towards humans, he's not aggressive. When I get photos taken for the potential cover of my potential book, I'm going to have him sitting on the hay bale next to me. (He, along with Mimi, our lace Wyandotte, once were the models for a painting class; every time Brewster crowed, the ladies tee-heed and took his picture).He was born to model.
Then there is our toeless hen, NoNo, who manages to sleep on the roost despite the fact she is missing the ends of most of her toes. Gabby and Beulah are still left from that gaggle of chicks; they are Plymouth Rocks and rather chatty. They like to hang out in the garage with my husband when they are free-ranging in spring and fall.
You can't be in a bad mood when the chickens are around. 
This is Mimi, she of the baleful eye. Doesn't she look Victorian?
After seeing this photo, my mother said she wasn't going to eat our eggs anymore. "Now that I know what's in them," she said. And yet this is what makes our eggs so good. Happy hens produce good eggs.

Which brings me back to Lauren Scheuer's happy, good-for-you book. If you've ever thought about keeping a couple of chickens in your backyard, this book is the place to start. You'll learn all about it but you'll feel it in your heart how right it is.
On my rating scale, it's a double yolker! I recommend adding it to your egg basket.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In Conversation With...John Bragg

First published in  The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

Being shown into John Bragg’s office on the Oxford Frozen Foods property is more like stepping into a living room, inviting and comfortable with a couch and wing chairs, a round, highly polished table used as a desk and wide windows  overlooking two processing plants on either side of the main office building. A large painting on the back wall depicts John as chancellor of Mount Allison University (2005-9) but I’m looking at a simple black and white photo displayed on a table in the opposite corner when John walks into the room.
“The photo is of the little Anglican church in Oxford Junction,” he explains. “It was built in 1874 by the first Bragg who came out from England, for his daughter who lived across the road. His name was John Bragg. He happens to be buried there along with his son Charles, and his son Walter, and his son Elmer, who is my father, and my brother Doug and my nephew Ross. As a family, we maintain the church. I think it’s a great photograph.”
John’s office is located in the middle of the Oxford Frozen Foods property; as the company expanded, it grew up around the main office. OFF is one of two core companies his family runs; the other is the cable company Eastlink. I realize I’m lucky to get this conversation with him; he’s only in this office once or twice a week. He’s a hands-on boss, spending much of his working days where the work actually happens, whether that’s in a blueberry field, a television station or a board room across Canada and around the world.
Yet he remains firmly attached to his family’s deep roots in Collingwood. 
“Coming back to Collingwood for the weekend and walking woodlots or visiting blueberry fields or sitting reading a book seems to me to be better than being in downtown Toronto,” John says. “People who are in downtown Toronto will drive three or four hours to go north to a cottage. I’m asked all the time if I’m going to move to Halifax or Toronto but there’s no way.”
John lives in Collingwood with his wife, Judy, and two of their four children, and four grandchildren. He grew up watching his family work in the woods and the blueberry fields. Although his father, Elmer, was an entrepreneur and businessman, John almost didn’t follow his father’s example. 
“I picked my first blueberries at the age of 15 on some abandoned farmland that [my father] owned. When I finished high school, I’d made enough money to pay my university expenses.”
He graduated from Mount Allison in the early sixties with a degree in commerce. 
“I was offered a job to teach school in Pugwash for 38-hundred dollars a year plus an extra hundred dollars if I coached the basketball team. I had made more money picking blueberries that summer so...”
At the age of 28,  John bought a hayfield in Oxford and started the food company in 1968 then bought the cable television licence in Amherst in 1970.
Although his father died in 1975 without witnessing the growth of the empire that exists today -- “He would have found it very interesting,” John says -- his advice greatly influenced John. It was his father that encouraged him to persist in the fledging cable industry when the steep learning curve was making him reconsider. Now Eastlink services homes from Newfoundland to British Columbia. 
 When he’s not working, John is committed to staying active with golf, cycling and reading. He calls it living the life of a retired person while still working.
I ask if he’s a good golfer. 
“No, I’m not,” he admits with a smile. “I didn’t start until I was 65 so I’m working hard at it. I’m improving.” 
When does this 73-year-old who travels the world for business find time for golf? 
“Quite frankly, it’s an effort to stay young,” he admits. “If you’re going to grow older, you have to stay active. Getting old is only a mental issue. It’s a state of mind. My purpose was to find something I could do and stay active. Most of my holidays are about golf.”
They also are about cycling. John and his wife are avid cyclists (“We don’t race”), often tacking a cycling tour onto the end of a business trip; their most recent one was in Germany after conducting business in Berlin.
He also considers himself an American history buff with a particular interest in the lives of the presidents. 
“Canadian history is important but in the big scheme of things in the world, it’s not as significant as American history,” he says.
It’s not the economic side he’s intrigued by as much as the people.
“Jimmy Carter may not have been the greatest president but he was a peanut farmer. If a peanut farmer could become president, a blueberry farmer could,” John laughs. “It’s just amazing. Harry Trueman drove a mule team, ploughing a field. These people went on to be president and made great decisions.”
Some may question the decision John made to continue living and doing business from rural Nova Scotia but for him it was the best decision.
“I like to tell people I live in a village of 300 people and I sell that as a very positive experience. It’s unique. It gives you something to talk about over dinner,” he says. 
“When I say that my grandchildren live next door and they’re the seventh generation in that village, not many people can say that. I think it says that we’re not disadvantaged by living in rural Nova Scotia. We’re all over the world with our business but coming home to Collingwood, Nova Scotia, is alright.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fallow Good for the Fowl

There is so much experimentation involved in gardening, including placement of the actual garden. In 2007, the first spring I lived here, my husband tilled up a long patch of ground to use as our vegetable garden. Over the past five years, I realized it wasn't the greatest spot for growing; it misses morning sun and a successful garden needs sunshine all day. It's also very wet there, living as we do at the bottom of a river valley. We harvested plenty from it but maybe not as much as we could. So with two gardens now in operation on the higher, sunnier part of our property, and a problem weed needing to be eradicated with violence and poison (apparently), I convinced my husband to let the old garden return to lawn.
Letting that garden go wild -- and remain unpoisoned -- has produced an unexpected but greatly appreciated harvest right away. It's full of the plantain that chickens love to eat. Brewster, our rooster, clucks like crazy when he sees me coming with handfuls of the stuff. I've even learned to leave the dirt clumping to the roots so they can enjoy the worms and other grubs.

The fallow garden


A feast for fowl

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What Piece of Nova Scotia Holds Your Heart?

Everyone has a little piece of Nova Scotia that is special to them whether because it's been in the family for a hundred years, they spent their childhood summers there or they visited once and it stole their heart forever.
On Father's Day, I'd like to share some photos of my father's favourite place: our summer home on Pugwash Point, Cumberland County, which he bought in 1995. 




We no longer own this house; Mum said after Dad died, the house was emptied of its spirit and it was time a new family filled it. But we buried his ashes here in Nova Scotia because this is where a big piece of his heart found a home.

Any summer night, any year.
Thanks, Dad, for bringing us to Pugwash for the first time in 1979...and bringing us back year after year.
Happy Father's Day to all those celebrating and remembering today.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Nothing Beats A Country Vet

My friend Jane and I get together a couple of times a week to walk our dogs together in town because there we can take the dogs for a long, off-leash walk to the river.
Back at Jane's house, drinking water, I noticed Abby was quivering; still excited, I guessed. At home, she stumbled as she ran up the steps to the house; going to fast, I figured. My husband fed her supper and we got ready for ours.
"Abby is vibrating," Dwayne said. And she was. How could she be so excited still? Usually she relaxes after a walk but what had been a bit of a quiver was now a noticeable vibration. Within 15 minutes, the situation escalated. We got her lying down because she was panting and shaking; I Googled heat stroke but the shakes aren't a symptom. And it wasn't that warm out; I walked in jeans and was comfortable. We took her outside where it was cooler and the first thing she did was throw up her supper. When we got her lying down again, I said, "She looks like she's about to convulse. I'm calling the vet."
As I dialled, I glanced up at the clock. Six. I would get the answering service. 
Do you know what a relief it was to hear a familiar voice on the phone?
"We forgot to forward the phones to the answering service," Dr. Susan Hunter said. "What's up?"
I explained what was going on with Abby and bless her, Dr. Hunter said to bring her right over.
What a long 15 minute drive that was. As soon as we got into my CRV, Abby flung herself forward to lie on the floor on the passenger side, stretched across, her feet kicking out, her tongue panting against ankle.
I couldn't give Dr. Hunter any clues as to what had happened. "It was a normal walk," I said as she tried to examine our shaking, panting dog on the table. "The only difference was a new pile of garbage someone had dumped illegally along the trail."
"This could be a bacterial toxin," the vet said. Even I knew that put Abby's internal organs at risk.
Abby needed meds to calm the shaking, to calm her but there was no way she could stay on the table. As Dwayne lifted her off the table, she panicked and almost flew out of his arms. It wasn't only his grip and my help that got her to the floor safely. (The next day, he had a tender spot on his chest from where she struck him with her elbow.)
"Close the door," he said to me after Dr. Hunter went out. "She's gonna bolt."
I called Jane to warn her that Abby had some kind of toxic shock, that maybe it came from that pile of garbage that both dogs inspected but she said Sam was fine. So what had Abby eaten? We've done this same walk once or twice a week for a year. Stuff is long since thawed. What could she have found, that Sam didn't, that could nearly kill her?
Dr. Hunter's main concern was getting charcoal into Abby in order to soak up the toxins but until she was calm, until the tremors stopped, we couldn't make any attempt to feed her ("The easiest way to get charcoal inside a dog is to mix it with food," she explained) or intubate her, the lesser of the two choices. It took the entire dose -- 50 mg -- of muscle relaxants to get Abby's body calmed down and by then, she'd been in that state for almost two hours; she fell alseep.
"Don't you hold this against me," I said to my husband just before I smeared wet cat food over my lips and pressed against Abby's mouth to see if I could get her to open her mouth, lick her lips, want to eat.
I know my dog is in bad shape when she doesn't even want to lick wet cat food off my face.
"I'm going to try to get the tube into her," Dr. Hunter said. "I want to get the charcoal into her."
Nothing is more amazing to me than watching a vet at work, trying to suction a tube filled with charcoal while trying to to slide it into my dog's stomach. I know it's her job but somehow that action just seems above and beyond, you know?
I have no idea how much, if any charcoal made it into Abby's stomach because the liquid in the funnel I was in charge of holding up at the end of the tube wasn't going down. Held by Dwayne, Abby just lay there gazing at Dr. Hunter; if trust has a look, that was it. But by nine o'clock, Abby was exhausted, Dr. Hunter was exhausted, and it seemed our options were exhausted as well. She had Valium, a massive dose of muscle relaxant and two bags of saline/calcium solution in her but only a dribble of charcoal.
After a discussion, Dr. Hunter decided against Abby needing overnight survelliance at the emergency clinic in Moncton. "I'm going to give her some antibiotic. Take her home. The drugs in her system should wear by 3 am. If the tremors start up again, call me. Either we'll meet her or I'll call the clinic in Moncton and let them know you're on your way."
Dwayne stayed up all night with the dog, she peed in two dog different dog beds, and at 6 am, trying to stand up to go outside, was a wobbly as a newborn fawn but by 8 o'clock, she was eating mushy fingerfuls of Dwayne's leftover pot roast off my fingers and by nine, lapping up small doses of watered-down gravy and brother.
Abby was on the road to recovery.
Dr. Hunter called shortly after to see how she was. "It was the worst case I've ever seen," she said of Abby's condition the night before.
We met at the clinic at 10:30 for a check-up and Dr. Hunter was pleased to see Abby acting more like her self. Blood tests revealed two elevated enzymes in her liver but Dr. Hunter said that was likely a result of the assault on her system. As far as the vet was concerned, the crisis was over. Abby was in recovery.
She slept all day Saturday and Sunday, eating only small meals of noodles, eggs and chicken broth, to regain her strength.

I am proud to say Dr. Hunter decided against calling her on-call vet tech, who lived 45 minutes away, because we were doing just fine as her helpers. At the follow-up the next day, she kept saying, "You guys were great."

This is what I remember from the three hours we spent at the vet clinic last Friday evening: The three humans on our knees on the floor around a panting, shaking dog. Dwayne held the dog while I assisted Dr. Hunter. The floor was littered with empty casings from catheters and syringes, bloodied paper towels, a soddened towel, a green blanket covered in charcoal, IV bags.
Don't hate me but at one point, the journalist in me wished I'd brought the camera to take a photo.

My take-away is not the hidden dangers of allowing a dog to run off-leash but how differently that crisis would have turned out if Dr. Hunter hadn't returned to the vet clinic at 6 o'clock on Friday night to change the phone over. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Writers & Teachers Never Say "Nevermore!"

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

Leading a writing workshop with elementary school students is hard work. After two morning sessions, each 90 minutes long, at Wallace Elementary, I couldn’t feel my feet, my voice was worn out, and I couldn’t get the faces of the twenty students who attended the two workshops out of my head.
In short, I remembered what it was like to be a teacher. 
It’s been two years since my last days as a substitute teacher and until last week, I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to stand in front of a class of students for six hours a day and perform. For it is indeed a performance with the teacher in the starring role. You stand in front of those students, who come to you from various home situations and at different stages of puberty, with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and interest, and you try to engage every one of them with whatever means you possess. If that sometimes means giving instructions using your opera singer voice, at least you have their attention. 
Recalling my reasons for giving up subbing, I know that teaching is not only hard work, it’s harder than ever. Even in comfortable shoes.
Do you know what would be great? If teachers could be left alone to do what they love doing in ways that make sense to them. If we could get rid of all the nonsense that now swirls around the profession. And by nonsense, I mean the administrators, parents and students. Imagine how much fun it would be to teach if you didn’t have to deal with anyone else. Why, that lesson on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”, the one you spent the whole weekend creating, right down to training an actual crow to squawk “Nevermore!”, could be presented to an appreciative row of empty desks and not once would you have to hear, “Did they make a movie of this we could watch instead?” 
What keeps writers and teachers showing up at their desks every day at 8:30 am is the pre-rejection, pre-presentation excitement about the potential that exists in what we have created for our audience. We hold out hope, every day, for one true fully-engaged reaction.
The best question of the workshop day came late and I had only ten seconds to answer. 
One young man asked me, “Have you ever thought of giving up writing?”
I wish I could have given him my ten-minute answer about persistence and believing in yourself and listening to your gut, not your mother or brother or great-uncle Bruce who thinks writers and teachers are a bunch of lazy slobs feeding from the government slop bucket (great-uncle Bruce would be confusing us with senators). 
“Of course,” I told the student yet there I was with my binder of published articles and columns. So the way he nodded, as if thinking, ‘Yeah, I get that,’ made it clear I was talking to a future writer. He was also one of a couple of students who raised their hands when I asked, “Anyone thinking they might possibly write a novel one day?”
The fact that one young person responded to that question, let alone three, thrilled me. This is a regular feeling for any writer; it only takes one response to carry us forward into another day of writing. 
This, too, is how teachers feel. Seeing just one light bulb go off above a student, to hear just one student walk out of a classroom saying, “That was cool,” is enough to keep a teacher standing there for the next hour, the next day, but more importantly, the next school year, ready to answer the question, “Have you ever thought of giving up teaching?” with the words, “Of course not.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Alzheimer's Isn't the Problem -- Our Ignorance Is

A couple of tweets came in on my Twitter feed this afternoon that provided links to stories about Alzheimer's disease. Reading them, I felt slammed back against my chair. One brought back a memory and the other took my breath away with the horror of one family's death-by-dementia.
I consider both of these pieces essential reads because they point to how little support is out there AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. Sadly, most people take the time to read the stories -- that good 'ol "Alzheimer recoil" -- let alone realize how serious the situation is. One day, this could be your mother, your Odds are.
I am compelled to write about this here because 140 characters on Twitter does not allow enough of a response, nor should one come quickly and tweetly. I used this phrase, "I stopped breathing when I read this", when I retweeted one of the articles because there wasn't room for anything more and someone tweeted back that she liked my exaggeration.
Having lived through the experience of caring for someone with Alzheimer's, having watched him suffer and die from the effects of the disease, I can tell you there's very little need to exaggerate anything.
But I hate knowing that what is negative, what is perceived as exaggeration continues to be what we know about Alzheimer's and dementia. We need to change the perception of AD, we need to get rid of the stigma if all of us are to survive this growing health issue. But we are pitifully slow to let go of fear and misconceptions.

So here is my 140 word response to the article in the National Post about someone finally seeing that sending dementia patients to hospital freaks them out ( It reminded me of the experience my father had in the fall of 2006 as a "distressed dementia patient".
A skittish nurse filling in on the locked unit called the ambulance to take my father to the hospital because he'd fallen again. He'd been doing these "soft falls" all day and was not hurting himself yet against my orders NOT to send him, she did. I was at an appointment so it was hour later when I found out and made my way to the hospital to deal with her over-reaction.
By the time I arrived, Dad was so agitated, he was hanging half off the bed in the ER, tangled up in the railing and the sheet. He was alone and scared. I could see the relief in his eyes when I said, "Dad, I'm here."
There was no one around. No nurses, no doctors, no other patients. If I'd been any later, my father might have fallen and broken something for real.
When the doctor finally came around to tell me my father's X-ray was clear, he added that my father was over-medicated by the nursing home but that was it. No compassion, no suggestions, no help -- and this doctor had written a book about Alzheimer's disease.
Doctors see the disease and how it manifests; caregivers see the person and how they are affected. The two are profoundly incompatible.

And here is my response to the tweeted essay written by Jim Crawford, a man whose family was killed by Alzheimer's. Yes, killed. That is not an exaggeration. Neither is saying again: This piece takes my breath away. Please take the time to read it.
Join in me recognizing how brave Jim Crawford is to put his story into words and then out into the world. My father died of "natural causes" yet I still mourn the reasons for his suffering and death; I don't know how deeply into his personal resources Jim will have to dive in order to keep going. I hope sharing his story, being an advocate, will help him -- and create the changes that will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to another family.
This is a story about not being able to cope, of there being so few resources for families that this man's family was destroyed by having the disease -- not by the bullets -- should not be overlooked or shrugged off as an exaggeration.
It's a wake-up call.
Everything is. Every story, every study, every song, every poem. We are so focused on finding a cure that we aren't figuring out how to live with this disease. Again, the fact rises up like an ugly monster: Billions of dollars have been spent on research and trials for drugs to "cure" Alzheimer's and we are still no closer to finding one that even slows the progression of the disease, let alone cures it.
We have to learn -- fast -- how to live with this disease, how to care for people with AD and support the care-givers because the miracle cure isn't going to happen. That Toronto hospital study is one step, one good idea but it's long overdue.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

In Memoriam

Doug Curry of Wentworth passed away on June 5 and his funeral is today. He and his wife, Betty, and granddaughter Breanna were the subjects of my very first "In Conversation With..." profile that I did for the newspaper. It's always been my favourite one.

Friday, June 07, 2013

On The Road Again

For the first time since I moved down here six years ago, I did a road trip to Ontario. Usually, I fly there and a couple of times have driven back here with my mother. This time, after what amounted to a summons in a birthday card from a woman who is 88 and a long-time friend, we decided to make the road trip in early June. We went west through the States because I'd never done that (just a couple of trips to Vermont and Pennsylvania when I was 19 and 20) and I wanted to see different scenery.

New Brunswick, on our way to the Houlton border crossing: Love the proportions! No wonder it's safer to fly.

Maine: C'mon, does this not seem odd to you?? Welcome to the 21st century!

Maine: Our only moose sighting, outside a service station & craft boutique at the first toll plaza.


Who knew western Massachusetts was so gorgeous? Very hilly, very lush.

So close and yet so far.

Thanks to the Interstate, the only city we drove close to was Buffalo, on our way to...
...the Peace Bridge.

On the way home, we had one planned detour that was rather an adventure because we had a general idea where it was but had never been there before: Cornhill Nursery 14 kms outside Petitcodiac, NB. Worth the drive! Trees, shrubs and perennials and great ideas for landscaping, PLUS the Cedar Cafe.

It was now, at the end of our week-long journey to visit friends and family back in Ontario, that the   one-and-only "guided" tour moment occurred. 
As we were driving along this country road hoping to find Cornhill but not sure where it was or even we were, having just turned when the sign pointed to Cornhill, I said to my mother, "Maybe after this hill, we'll get a sign."
"We want two signs," she said.
"No, no," I told her, impatient at this point. "I don't want  a sign-sign, just a real sign." 
Like the one above.
BUT the very next sign we saw, at the bottom of the property of a house we were admiring, nailed to the power pole was a sign that said, "Almost there."
I kid you not.
And around another curve or two, we came to the Cornhill Nursery sign. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

In Conversation With...Khoder Mohamad

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

This could be the “Before He Was Famous” story that reveals the humble beginnings of Khoder Mohamad when he was 20 years old. 
Right now, he’s between two worlds: literally – between Pugwash and Oxford now that his parents, Sam and Alia, have bought the former Sandy Shores Motel in Port Philip, and figuratively – between childhood and adulthood. 
I first met Khoder when he was 15 and I was a substitute teacher. Congenial and respectful, he was nice to me at school and he still calls me Miz Mattinson. 
There is also another world for him, where his parents grew up: Lebanon. They came to Canada in 1988 and Khoder was born in Halifax, grew up in Pugwash and Oxford. 
“Describe Lebanon to me,” I say because my knowledge of that part of world is limited to, and by, what I see on the news. Is it desert? 
“Everyone thinks that,” he answers. “It’s green but there are lots of mountains. It’s really hot there, too.”
Khoder’s mother, Alia, is sitting in the living room with us, not as a chaperone (I don’t think) but as an interested party. This topic grabs her attention. 
“Once when my husband went to Lebanon,” she tells me, “I had a woman ask me how I was going to talk to him. ‘Are there any phones there?’ and I said no. She asked if there was city and I said no, no city. I just pretend like nothing. She asked how we went to school and I said we ride donkey and camel and live in tents.”
This mischievousness makes Khoder laugh. Now I know where he gets it from. 
Alia serves me a mug of green tea and sits back down with her mug. She’s suffering with a headache but enjoying her son being interviewed. 
I ask Khoder if he felt different at school. 
“Maybe when I first got to Oxford, it was a little rough because I didn’t know if they were joking or if they meant it. I got teased but after a year, I was friends with everyone and then it didn’t matter.” Then he flashes his grin. “I’m always the different one, the odd one. Maybe not odd but the unique one.”
His mother interjects. “The funny one. He is very funny. I even told him to go to school and become a stand-up comedian.”
“My mom has high hopes for me,” Khoder laughs. “She likes aiming high.”
“Every mother does,” I reply and Alia says to me, “Thank you.”
Three years after graduating from high school in Oxford, he’s feeling restless. 
 “I took a year off then I went to [school for] refrigeration and air conditioning. Finished that and this year I haven’t really done much. Last year, me and my brother and the three cousins went to Ukraine then to Lebanon, then to France afterwards. That was just to travel a bit.”
He plans to head out west in the fall after working for his parents this summer.
“I just want to do something with my life,” he admits. “I’m tired of sitting around doing nothing, leaching off my parents.” Then the comic kicks in again, with the grin. “Gotta make a name for myself.”
In ten years, where does Khoder, who is fluent in English and Arabic, see himself? “Probably famous.”
 “I have four kids,” Alia says, “three are born in May but Khody was born in August.”
(That makes him a Leo so as I’m writing this, I Google the astrological sign Leo and this comes up: “These folks are impossible to miss, since they love being center stage. Making an impression is Job One for Leos, and when you consider their personal magnetism, you see the job is quite easy. Leos are an ambitious lot, and their strength of purpose allows them to accomplish a great deal. It’s quite common to see a Leo on stage or in Hollywood, since these folks never shy away from the limelight. They are also supremely talented and have a flair for the dramatic. Warmth and enthusiasm seems to seep from every Leo pore, making these folks a pleasure to be around.” Alia, you may get your wish.)
 Then Khoder drops a bombshell: On a recent trip to Cuba with four friends, he met a girl. “She lives in Dartmouth. I proposed to her today.”
“What did he do?” asks Alia. 
Neither his mother nor I know if he’s telling the truth. This is Khoder, after all. Hard to tell if he’s serious or not, and considering he proposed via a Facebook message...
Alia is remarkably complacent about this news. With a shrug, she says, “It’s his life. It’s up to him, you know. We are Muslim so they is not supposed to have boyfriend, girlfriend. You have to get engaged. My older son, he is engaged and now he goes to see her, gets to know her.”
“But he has to fly half way across the world to go see her,” Khoder says of his brother’s fiancĂ©e in Lebanon. “He would do anything for love, that guy. But not me. I’ll fly halfway across the world to leave my wife.”  
(But it is not an arranged marriage for the older son; Khoder says Muslims do not arrange marriages.)
Alia offers me some Lebanese sweets. They are made of dough, butter and pistachios and I could eat more than one more but it’s hard to ask questions when my mouth is full.
According to Khoder, his upbringing was very traditional.
“I never had a girlfriend all through high school because I respected my parents and I was kind of jealous a lot but after seeing my friends breakup constantly, it wasn’t worth it unless you find someone you really like and you actually stick with them, then it’s worth it.”
So is this girl in Dartmouth his first girlfriend? By way of an answer, he says, ““She’s white and I’m brown but my family is very accepting.”
He looks at his mother.  “Do you want to meet her?”
 “Why not?” Alia says. “I told you, if she’s the right girl, for you. Why not?” Then she turns to me, “As long as he doesn’t go from girl to girl. That’s why [dating] a sin in our religion. If he met the right girl, I don’t care where she’s from, what colour she is, as long as he’s happy with her. I told him that before.”
Because of our history as substitute teacher and student, my conversation with Khoder drifts around like we’re old friends. His mother, listening, finally asks me, “Do you have a good opinion about him going to comedian school?”
“Yes, I think he should.”
By now, her headache has become too much to bear but before she goes to lie down, I have to take a photo.
“You want a picture with his mama?” she says. 
Of course I do. Khoder is the man he’s becoming because of her.