Friday, March 31, 2017

Spring at last?

We're usually awash in  plum and cherry blossoms  at this time of year, but our unusually cold , late spring slowed things down. This tree in West Vancouver is finally starting to make a show.
In West Vancouver on Thursday, the colours were so psychedelically vivid -- the grass so green, the ocean the bluest blue, the daffodils a splash of sunlight -- that I wondered what had happened. Then I realized that it was our first day of bright sunshine after days, weeks, a month of grey skies and rain. I'd become so used to living in black and white that colour was a shock.

It is the end (we hope) of one of our grimmest winters -- snow, ice and cold since December, capped by a March that started with snow and ended with days of unrelenting rain.

 But on Thursday, the outdoor tables of our coffee shop were full; a great pink bush of rhododendrons was in bloom, and with a little effort  we found some cherries or plums (I can never tell which) and magnolias opening up against a blue, blue sky. John captured  a few of them:

A white magnolia starts putting on its show.
Along the West Vancouver seawall, a place to sit and a great big rhododendron  in bloom.

This magnolia is way ahead of the one in my garden, which won't start blooming for another week at least. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A writing life

I was pleased to discover my account of  celebrations after Canada's 2010 gold medal hockey victory when I went though  my old email files this week. John Denniston photo of the post-game crowds on Granville Street.

I stopped writing diaries in my early twenties; I stopped writing stories when I switched to copy-editing in the 1980s; and I stopped writing letters when the Internet arrived. My life, I thought, was slipping by unrecorded.

But this week, I discovered I was wrong. When I launched into a cleanup of my long-neglected email system, I discovered it has actually been tracking some of the most meaningful years of my life. Not everything is there, of course, but among 3,000-plus emails from the past decade, my accounts of most of the big things survived: Births, deaths, moves, retirements, family traumas and dramas, and even some major civic events.  Consciously or subconsciously,  I bypassed the delete key when it counted.

Following is an excerpt from a March 1, 2010 email to my friend Ros in Mexico:

I was walking to work Sunday when the big gold-medal U.S.-Canada hockey game was on, the last day of the Olympics. As I passed homes and apartments on my route, I could hear people screaming in excitement or pain depending on what was going on on their TV sets. The streets were pretty much empty -- everybody in the world except me, it seemed, was watching the game. I was hoping, really hard, that I could make it to work before the game ended, so I wouldn't have to deal with whatever erupted afterwards on the streets.

As I got to the north end of the Burrard Bridge, the highrises on both sides of the bridge suddenly broke into a cacophony of cowbells, cheers, yells, screams, and people started coming out on their balconies and waving flags. It was kind of neat, even though I had no attachment to the hockey game itself. But these huge buildings ringing with noise, everybody so excited, I realized it's something I would never see again in a lifetime. As I got closer to downtown, I could hear a non-stop roar ahead. It was a little scary, frankly. 

But when I got to Robson and Howe, where the roar reached a peak, the mood was celebratory and non-threatening. People had poured out into the streets and were shrieking, high-fiving each other, carrying their flags, dancing on the streets in bizarre costumes, climbing on each other's shoulders, using their cellphones to photograph themselves and the crowds. I thought people would soon get tired of shrieking, 'We're number one,' but apparently they were able to entertain themselves in this way for many hours to come, as they were still doing it when I got out of work eight hours later. By then, bus service to and from downtown had been resumed, after TransLink had had to halt it for four hours because the crowds had taken over the streets. So I got through it all unscathed, not even inconvenienced, and everybody was able to have their fun.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Fighting city hall

It's a lot easier to deal with city hall as a journalist than as a community member trying to change its direction on housing issues, I've learned.

As a reporter, it's easy to dismiss community activists --  endlessly outraged about some neighbourhood cause or other. But after years of simmering over orange construction fences, white survey posts, and all of my favourite old neighbourhood houses being reduced to piles of woodchips, I have finally had enough. Now I have a cause too.

Shattering the rule of public neutrality ingrained by a lifetime in journalism, I wrote letters recently to each member of Vancouver city council. I wrote an opinion piece published in The Vancouver Sun and Province on March 21. I spoke on a CKNW radio news show on March 25. And on March 27 I met with some other people concerned about the way council is dealing with demolitions, housing and affordability in this crazily-out-of-whack Vancouver market.

After my own small endeavours, I was struck by the time, effort and dedication some people have poured into the cause. Some have been fighting home demolitions for four or five years -- giving interviews, attending council meetings, speaking out at public meetings, reading interminable city hall reports, meeting council members, keeping each other updated by email. All for no pay and so far, little reward.

It's always been hard to fight city hall. But now, knocked out of my comfortable observer's role, I see first-hand just how hard. Such a different view, from the other side of the interview table.

My Sun opinion piece is at

Vancouverites have learned to dread these little white markers -- signs that a property has been sold, and virtually certainly will be redeveloped for a monster house.

We also dread the orange fencing, which protects trees during construction. This orange construction fence stretched for nearly a block in the Shaughnessy area of Vancouver. 

Another old house that dares to display some character and beauty on the way to the woodchip pile.

This is the kind of house that will replace it. Do you think it's big enough? Once completed, it will likely stay empty for years. 

Two adjacent small houses have been sold and will be demolished. I took this photo because there is a beautiful old tree between them. We will see if it ends up on the woodchip pile too.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cherrywood Cottage

My blog about my grandparents' cottage at Sylvan Lake got my ex-Sun colleague Mark Falkenberg thinking about his own grandparents' cottage there, and how his experiences with them shaped his life. He sent me this 1973 photo of himself at Cherrywood  Cottage at age 7. With him are his father, Eugene Falkenberg, and his Grandma Ruth. 

"Sylvan lake was our family gathering spot when I was growing up," Mark Falkenberg wrote after he spotted my blog entry about my memories of Grandpa and Granny's cottage on Sylvan Lake, Alberta. "I still remember Cherrywood Cottage, where my grandparents lived, very well. Sometimes I will close my eyes and walk around the place, touching the fireplace bricks, sitting for awhile on the Winnipeg couch, turning on the light in the bathroom and waiting for the fluorescent bulbs to flicker on. Unfortunately my grandmother sold it when she was around 90 years old, and it was bulldozed for condos shortly after that."

Messages like this from a former Sun co-worker are the best things about writing a blog. I never know who's reading it and what they may be taking away, but in this case, Mark saw my nostalgia and raised me one.

I was surprised to hear from him, but not surprised at what he had to say. Mark, 15 years younger than me, was always far more deeply engrossed in the past than I was. I liked old houses; he liked really old houses. I remember him arriving at work brandishing old 78 rpm records, which he had just received after ordering them online. They had strange titles, and Mark would read them out lovingly, laughing at the sheer wonderfulness of these mementos from a bygone world.

Intrigued by his initial description of his grandparents' cottage, I (ever the editor) sent him some questions.What I got back was an essay on transience, the meaning of the past, and how our pasts can shape our lives. Here is what he wrote, along with some photos from the past:

Mark's mother, Margaret Staples, with her brothers (left to right) Baird, Jim, David and Brian, in front of the fireplace at Cherrywood Cottage, about 1946. The family began spending time at the cottage around 1940 and continued to meet there, with children and grandchildren, for another half a century.

Your question about how I felt about my grandparents' place and how it contrasted with the home I grew up in made me reflect that Cherrywood Cottage gave me my first feeling for time passing -- that is, that a past had come before, and was a different place than the everything-new, vacu-formed, shag-carpeted world of my everyday experience.

I was used to my parents' then-new 1960s ranch house with its mid-century-modern fixtures and furniture. Cherrywood Cottage was a window into another time and another place. It was smaller and had big old trees around it -- birch and poplar, mostly -- and a big kitchen garden dug into the rich black parkland earth in the yard. Where I lived in Lethbridge the trees were then spindly new things tethered to stakes to keep them from blowing away in the wind.

The cottage at Sylvan Lake was an earthier, smokier place -- to this day the smell of a lighted match instantly summons memories of my granddad Lloyd lighting big kitchen matches with his thumbnail, and lighting his hand-rolled cigarettes (a habit I'm sure he picked up in France in the First World War). It was a place with old gas heaters -- none of your modern central heating here -- and wood crackling in the fireplace. In the late autumn and winter you made sure you had extra blankets on the bed -- especially if you were sleeping in the one-room outbuilding beside the cottage -- though it was kept tolerably cozy by an old wood-burning cast-iron kitchen stove. There were old books everywhere (both grandparents were teachers and avid readers, especially Lloyd, who was an amateur linguist and always had books on German or Estonian or Russian lying around).

I was also fascinated by the framed photos my grandma had -- family photos going back to the 1930s; her children's weddings in the 1950s and '60s; one or two of herself growing up in Stettler, Alberta; and one of my granddad in his uniform -- kilt and all -- probably not more than 18 years old, around 1916, about to be shipped over to France with his Nova Scotia regiment.

Mark's grandfather, Lloyd Staples, of Staples Brook, Nova Scotia, about 1916, after enlisting in the 193rd Battalion  of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

Mark's grandmother, Ruth Ziegenbein, at about age 14, ca. 1919.

I also liked the sentimental ceramic things my grandma had -- little figurines/lamps/plates (I think in my generation, everyone's grandma had them). She also had a few things a little out of the ordinary -- such as a framed lithograph of Mary Pickford in the bathroom (I have since seen the same print come up on auction sites -- it was a popular one ca. 1920). Also there was a Victrola in the outbuilding -- though no records. I regret that I didn't ask my grandma for it when she finally moved out of the cottage around 1990.

It was a good place to hole up when it was raining, or to spend an evening drawing spaceships or tanks while the grownups watched Ed Sullivan or the National, or very often, hockey, and talked and drank Old Style beer.

I have strong memories of the lake itself, too -- as I write this I can almost feel the hard sand ripples under my feet, in the cool, shallow water, and sniff the weedy smell in the air -- but most of my memories centre on the cottage itself.

The more I think about it now, the more I see how much my grandparents influenced me -- both directly and obliquely, through genetics and by example. Looking around my own little ramshackle cottage as I write this, I see how much it resembles Cherrywood Cottage. It is about the same age (107 years and counting) and about the same size. A gas fireplace is the sole heat source -- not counting a portable heater in the bathroom, and the walls have strayed out of plumb over the many decades. A wind-up phonograph -- full of 78 rpm records -- stands against the wall. There are books spilling off counters and shelves everywhere.

You asked how I felt about the cottage being sold, and I had to think for awhile about that question. The honest answer is that when it happened, I just accepted it. I might have felt a twinge of regret when, as my family gathered outside the church for my grandma's funeral in 2001, across the street from what had been Cherrywood Cottage, I saw the condo that had erased the home and its trees and bushes. But it was like a door that you close and walk away from. I didn't understand that it's not that simple and that memory and aging will often compel you to retrace your steps and reopen doors. I think I started having dreams about it once in awhile around the time I turned 40. I started daydreaming about it, too, recalling how it looked and felt. Smelling the washing soda my grandma used to clean things with; seeing the rusty stains -- very hard Sylvan Lake water -- in the tub; looking around the kitchen and seeing my grandma's salt and pepper shakers -- white ceramic with "'Sel" and  "Poivre" -- maybe souvenirs of Ruth and Lloyd's trip to Europe in the late 1960s.

I wish the family had saved the place. At the very least I wish they had saved, say, the door on the outbuilding, which was covered in pencil and pen marks charting the heights of the Staples kids through the 1940s -- and that of the next generation in the decades after. So my vivid daydreaming about the place is bittersweet -- it brings back happy memories, but also a pang about how transient things are and how the pace of our existence nowadays seems to have revoked a way of life forever.

As to Sylvan Lake itself and environs -- my impression when I was last there, 15 or so years ago, was that it had been wiped out just like my grandma's cottage. Savaged by snout houses, jet skis, waterslides and other outrages -- at least on the town side. I hadn't been there for years, and seeing it again made me feel like the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life, when the angel conveys him to the dissipated, sleazy version of his hometown.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The lunch group

I ended up with a table full of flowers when a long-time group of former Vancouver Sun colleagues came for lunch on Wednesday.

Cheryl's bouquet looked so pretty against her dark green coat that I hustled her to the window for a photograph as soon as she arrived. 

From left, Mariken, Linda and Karenn. Lunch is a rustic spinach galette, with lots of salad and veggies.

From left, Cheryl, Mariken and Linda, with the back of Karenn's head to the camera. Too bad John wasn't there to do this properly!

We formed our bonds in the hothouse atmosphere of The Vancouver Sun newsroom, a notoriously political, intrigue-filled institution full of giant egos and outsize  personalities. The five of us were all young women, with all that entails, so perhaps it was partly as a refuge from that high-pressure world that we began to meet every few months for lunch and decompression.

It turned into much more than that. Work stories turned into life stories, and over the years, our conversations reflected the trajectory of our lives. Relationships, house-purchases, child-raising and career ups and downs gave way gradually to aging parents, their deaths, our own aging and our eventual retirements.

Now that we're all long gone from The Sun, the newspaper has virtually disappeared from our meetings. But its legacy lives on. On Wednesday, I hosted yet another in our many years of lunch meetings. It's spring and everybody knows I love flowers, so I ended up with a table full of bouquets. And thanks to the bonds created by that long-ago embattled newsroom, we still have plenty to talk about.

A pre-lunch photo. I wanted to show tulips with my lemon tart. 

Karenn's hyacinths and Linda's tulips in the living room by the fireplace. The hyacinths are scenting my house right now. 

Me with my booty. I will be enjoying these flowers for many days to come.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dinner with Mr. Darcy

This is what we like to see -- a licked-clean food plate! Unfortunately, with Mr. Darcy, it's often a battle to get there.

When Mr. Darcy's appetite is flagging, the solution is often pork or chicken, cooked in just the right amount of water in the oven. Here I hope I've added the right amount of water.

All cooked! The meat looks just about the right done-ness.

The juice from the meat is Mr. Darcy's favourite part of the meal. This batch looks about the right colour to be flavourful and tempting. 

Here's the cooked, chopped-up pork with juice. Fresh from the oven with lots of juice gives it the best chance of getting eaten.
Is there more? A clean plate and this expression on his little face is music to my heart. 

When Mr. Darcy is off his food, this is what I do: Head up to Stong's and scour the shelves for the finest-looking piece of pork tenderloin I can find. It must be small because it only qualifies as "freshly cooked" for a day or two, and it should be lean and red and rich-looking. At home, I plop the pork into a baking dish and add water.

This is the deciding moment, when the whole enterprise sinks or swims. The key is precisely the right amount of water so the pork comes out bathed in a sizzling, fragrant, yellow-brown gravy. Too much liquid and it's yawn-inducing dishwater; too little and the result is orphan meat. For, as Mr. Darcy has made clear, meat without the elixir of juice is not worth bending the head to.

Some people might think the above scenario, last enacted on Saturday, is a bit excessive. But they would be people who had not fallen in love with Mr. Darcy as a purring kitten 12 years ago; they do not have the privilege of having him knead his way all the way up to their chins, then fall over on their necks, still purring.

The other side of this kneading and purring is a propensity for trouble: Cat fights, wounds and stitches. A failing kidney at age two. A coyote attack four years ago, surgery, and a long recovery. Allergies to plants, of which his world is full. Since almost all of the above come paired with loss of appetite, life with Mr. Darcy has been a lengthy battle of the food bowl.

We've been through dry food; no dry food; a winter of home-cooked pork (we thought he had a food allergy, so tried something different); lots of tuna (his favourite); no tuna (too much mercury); expensive wet food from the vet (he wouldn't eat it); cheap wet food from anywhere (just let him eat something!), and on to where we are today, which is a mixture of everything.

Mostly we get along fine, but when I'm tossing out more untouched food than what he's eating, alarm bells go off. Cooking up some pork tenderloin with exactly the right amount of water is the least of what I'm willing to do.

There are often four to six dishes of partly finished food awaiting His Nibbs' pleasure. When he's refusing plate after plate, I get anxious. 

Some of the (very expensive) canned cat food he is pleased to reject when he's not in the mood. 

Then there's the pork to be cooked at home.

And the chicken breasts.

But he never rejects this: tuna in lots of liquid. He gets one portion a night as a treat, and takes about 30 seconds to vacuum it up.

I will feed him anywhere, just to get him to eat. Here he is under his blanket "tent" on the couch. Photo by John. 

As the weather warms, he's taken to dining al fresco, out on the back steps. As I say, I'll feed him anywhere.

 Mr. Darcy as a growing kitten. He has been a sweet, if trouble-prone cat from the first. Photo by John.

Why I don't mind doing anything to keep him eating: There's nothing like Mr. Darcy cuddled under your chin. Photo by John. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017


I've always believed words could do wonderful things. Novelist Virginia Woolf, above, proved it by enlivening the last years of dying French painter Jacques Raverat with a constant stream of letters. 

A portrait of Jacques Raverat, who died at age 40 of multiple sclerosis in 1925. He said Woolf's letters gave him a reason to want to keep living.

Words, the right words, precise, concise and razor-sharp. For much of my life, I've thought that if I chose exactly the right words, magic would ensue. Evildoers would mend their ways; the afflicted would find solace; politicians would finally shape up and do what I knew was right.

It seldom worked out that way, even when I was a newspaper reporter and in a position to try some of the above. But it wasn't until quite late in life that I realized not everybody's mind -- given time to roam -- immediately started honing remonstrative letters to the editor.

I am reflecting on the power and use of words right now for a couple of reasons. One is that I have overcome years of ingrained journalist's neutrality and written an opinion piece for The Vancouver Sun about the affordability and housing crisis in our city. I have no illusions that politicians will suddenly see the light, but since words are my only weapons, I decided to deploy them. Carefully honed and in the right order, of course.

I have also just finished Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, which strikes me as an example of words being used in the kindest way imaginable. Woolf was a sharp and formidable figure, not particularly known for kindliness, but between 1922 and 1925, she wrote regularly to dying French painter Jacques Raverat and his wife Gwen, sending a stream of gossip, wit, humour and philosophy across the English Channel to liven his final years. She even did the unthinkable -- for her -- and gave him early proofs of her novel Mrs. Dalloway because she knew he'd be dead when it was published.

"Your letters," he wrote a few months before his death of multiple sclerosis at age 40 in March of 1925, "have given me something, which very few people have been able to give me, in these last years." And later, "Almost it's enough to make me want to live a little longer, to continue to receive such letters and such books. I don't know how to thank you."

Words to comfort the afflicted, and words to try to effect change. At least one effort was successful.

The letters between Woolf and the Raverats were put together by William Pryor,  the grandson of Gwen and Jacques Raverat and the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.
Excerpt from June 8, 1924 letter from Woolf to Jacques Raverat:

I have had two bloody painful encounters with Middleton Murry [literary critic]; we stuck together at parties like two copulating dogs; but after the first ecstasy, it was boring, disillusioning, flat. The long and short of him is that he's a coward. First he fawns up to me, then when I attack him he plants his dart and runs away.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March 15, 1995

My father,  Henry Joseph Volkart, died at age 77 on March 15, 1995 in hospital in Surrey. He was born April 3, 1917, near Lougheed, Alberta, where he and mom raised their family.  
The family gathered in Surrey for dad's funeral on March 18, 1995. Left to right, daughter-in-law Wendy, daughter Diane, daughter Betty, wife Frances, son Larry, daughter Carol, son Brian, son-in-law John. 

When my father died at Surrey Memorial Hospital 22 years ago Wednesday, the first thing my mother did was get in the car (now hers alone) and drive herself the 20 minutes to their Surrey home. My brothers Brian and Larry had just arrived from Alberta -- slightly too late to see dad alive one last time -- and mom felt she needed to cook supper for the assembled family.

Never flinching, she made us a meal we'd all shared with her and dad many times through the years -- chicken coated with Shake 'n Bake and served with gravy and vegetables. I have forgotten the details of how we got through that supper -- where we sat and what we talked about as we absorbed the new reality: our family of seven, previously unscathed by death, was now down to six.

But I clearly recall, as we made our way through that very familiar meal, that my main feeling was of its strangeness. While we were filling our tummies with this well-known food, one of "us" was simply . . . not there. Instead of sitting at his place at the table, sharing with us this nourishment for another day's living, dad was lying in the hospital morgue. It seemed strange beyond belief that we would never eat a meal together again.

Dad was a serious person, and it wasn't until several years after his death that a friend from Lougheed, Alberta, where he grew up, sent us this picture showing  another side of him. The girls from the local school had assembled for a photograph, and there in the background  is a very young version of my father, sticking out his tongue. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Welcome, spring!

Glimpses of spring are starting to appear in Vancouver after an unusually cold and snowy winter. Crocuses nestle in the base of a big boulevard tree.
Green shoots are starting to poke through dead leaves.

Some early hellebores like this are already in full bloom.

Rows of snowdrops flourish on this garden embankment.

Many daffodils are still in the bud phase, unlike last year, when they were in full bloom in March.
But a few are blooming in sunny spots.

Camellias are starting to put on their spring show.

Heather reliably provides colour, wherever it is planted.

These bright primulas, planted at the base of a boxwood hedge in a planter, looked so perfect I had to touch them to make sure they were real.

Crocuses shut their petals when it's chilly, but they provide a nice drift of blue among the rocks anyway.

An early rhodo is starting to bloom.

This is a front lawn full of masses of crocuses. I had to cross the street to check out what was making it blue. 

And, another crocus display. Combined with ornamental grasses that survived the winter, crocuses put on a good show.
A bergenia blooms on top of a stone wall. It looks a little ratty, but it's colour!

Unusually warm springs in 2015 and 2016 brought out the flowers so early that I wondered what would be left for the summer. Daffodils came and went in March last year, leaving the Canadian Cancer Society fretting that there would be none for its traditional April daffodil month. A grower told the CBC last March that he'd finished picking daffodils at the same time he usually started.

This year, there should be no such concerns. After heavy snows in December, January, February and March -- with plenty of rain in between -- Vancouver has a battered, saturated, late-winter look. Moss is thick on trees and stone walls; the ferns are smashed and bits of branches, broken off by heavy ice, litter the ground.

But colour is arriving. Green shoots are poking up through last fall's dead leaves. The earliest flowers -- snowdrops and crocuses -- seem to have thrived in our terrible weather, turning some gardens into masses of purple, blue and white. A few daffodils are opening their sunny heads in warm spots, but it will be weeks before they hit their stride. Other spring mainstays, like hellebores, primulas, bergenias, camellias and early rhododendrons, are just beginning to emerge. Everything may be behind compared to the last two years, but after our long grey-and-white winter, these first flashes of colour are like jewels to my eyes.

Bashed-up ferns are everywhere these days. They're usually pretty tough, but the heavy snowdrifts were too much.

Last fall's leaves decay under a tree, along with the little apples (crab-apples, maybe?) it produced.

This euphorbia looks a little worse for the wear after the winter.

A palm tree's leaves are looking a bit yellow.

The frost has taken a few bites out of my garden planter. I suspect it will fall apart if I try to move it. 

A boulevard garden awaits the homeowner's magic touch. 

Fallen branches like this, snapped off by heavy ice, are a common sight.

This tree is covered in moss. It looks like there will be no room for leaves. 
Earlier this month, John tackled yet another blast of winter. He made good use of the snow shovel this year.

I photographed this front garden during the March snowfall. Inside the kidney-shaped plot were lots of crocuses, their petals all folded up tight.

Another photograph from that snowfall. Someone had planted children's ornaments near the daffodils and other bulbs that were just starting to emerge on the boulevard.
A Vancouver boulevard on Tuesday. Once the snow disappears, it doesn't take long for a display like this to emerge.