Once again on a very short three day spring stop in Vancouver I’m reminded of my dual life — I live in Toronto, I thrive in Vancouver. It remains the one place where I reconnect with what’s important to me, where I get back to me. I usually go home resolved to stay grounded. Then… I lose myself. I’ve never understood why and I won’t begin to this time either.
This visit is a bit different. Last time I was here for a luxurious two weeks. I walked everywhere, I saw everyone important to me. I went home feeling connected to people who have/make time to spend time. What a relief. In Toronto, I hibernate. I’m static. I hide out. I give out my time sparingly… I’m protective because my experience there is people are too busy… spending time isn’t a priority. I try not to take it personally. But, I do.
In Vancouver, I expand.
This time, riddled with a very sore back which makes walking very far a lot more difficult, I stayed close to home in Kits (thank goodness for great Airbnb apartments in familiar neighbourhoods). I had just spent four days in Portland on a work trip and the 50-minute flight to Vancouver flying over the Cascade mountains was gorgeous and left me happy to be on Canadian land.
Home. Second home, first home. They are interchangeable to me. My family and lifelong friends in one place, my heart and soul in the other.
If this life is about working out unresolved issues from a previous one, I’m sorely behind because I just can’t fully accept having to live somewhere that doesn’t suit me and constantly pine for the one I know does. I may never stop regretting giving up on Vancouver after only six short years. The best thing I can do is try to visit as often as possible the place where 16 years ago I finally came, after years of hoping and planning to live. One that changed me in every way:
I learned balance after a lifetime of extremes
I learned a completely different and much more suitable lifestyle
I finally began to reconcile the shock of losing my mother
Which somehow led me to an unexpected, life-altering reconciliation with my father
I took great strides in moving forward – something I advocate yet sometimes find hard to do
Tested my independence, learned to be alone, discovered I prefer and need great amounts of time on my own
Learned to accept my true character, learned how to stay true to it, and the kind of work that jived with it.
In a nutshell… living here meant EVERYTHING and everything important – every way that I am now began in Vancouver.
Alas, I leave for Toronto tomorrow – to cold and snow. Where I must wait at least another month for the kind of blooming abundance that is here now. It’s no small thing. It’s part of what suits me vs. what I endure.
It’s why I’ll be crying as he plane takes off over the Pacific Ocean tomorrow afternoon.
“That’s a lovely skirt. Tell me, is it difficult to iron all those pleats?”
In the green room of the North York Centre for the Performing Arts, I’m keeping Alice Munro company until it’s time for her to step on stage for her rare double-bill appearance with Robertson Davies. I’m not sure who’s minding Mr. Davies, but I definitely got the good gig!
Of course, I want to gush to her about how Friend of My Youth (her 7th and my cherished title) changed my life, about how her writing is such an inspiration and how reading it makes me somehow feel less alone. But she wants to talk about something… anything else, as a way to calm her nerves. I’m happy to oblige her every need. In fact my job as the publicist for the Harbourfront Reading Series which is presenting the evening’s event, depends on seeing to her comfort. So, we talk about the challenges of keeping well-formed pleats in my skirt.
When she’s sufficiently relaxed, I shyly ask her to sign my copy.
That was in 1994. I declared my PR career could end then since I reached the ultimate goal of meeting and chatting with my favourite author.
Fast forward to 1998, Ms. Munro is up for the coveted Giller Prize for The Love of a Good Woman. I’m production coordinating the live-from-the-cocktail party portion of the Giller Prize broadcast on Bravo! where I work as PR director. Of course, the producers and hosts want to talk to her, but knowing as I do about her shyness and reluctance to be in the public eye, I keep telling them she will likely not show up until the absolute last minute. Sure enough, she sneaks by all the cameras into her seat in the Four Seasons ballroom.
Her acceptance speech is a very humble few words about how maybe now the short story will gain acceptance as a legitimate form of writing.
I didn’t speak to her that night, just simply basked in her graceful, winning aura.
In Vancouver in 2005, I get to talk to Alice Munro one more time after she accepts the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in the atrium of the beautiful Vancouver Public Library main branch. I line up to congratulate her and to my absolute astonishment, she remembers me from those many years ago in the green room at the North York arts centre. I wish I could tell you what we talked about that day at the library. I think I was overwhelmed knowing she could recall ever meeting me! She invited me into the small private gathering inside the library.
What I remember most is her warmth, grace and the generous way she spoke to her fans and colleagues that day.
I’m so pleased she’s won the Nobel. I can’t think of a more deserving or worthy Canadian writer whose first thought, when accepting this honour, was directed to those for whom she’s set the trail.
“I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”
Sadly, Alice Munro has announced her retirement from writing. But then again, she’s put so much of her singular talent out into the world, we can only be happy and grateful for it, and for her.
I once heard Doug Coupland refer to book reviews as “homework,” and there is an element of drudgery to them. That is, unless you get assigned a great book that you would read even if you didn’t have to.
Oh, My Darling by Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert is one of those. If you appreciate finely crafted short fiction, this is well worth the read.
Every year for the past six I’ve written a fall books preview for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s labour intensive in the sense that I have to research all the fall offerings from the many large and small publisher catalogues (most are online now, which helps) then write a succinct few sentences on a variety of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction, lifestyle to memoir, biography, food, sports and Young Adult/Kids books. Since I’m writing largely from marketing copy with so few books actually finished or even in the advance reading copy stage, it takes awhile to come up with something new, fresh and lively to say. The task takes me awhile to research and a longer while to write.
Still, I love doing it because a) it introduces me to the new exciting list; b) I get boxes of books, the equivalent of Christmas morning to a book-lover; c) it’s become an annual assignment that I can count on.
The following piece was first published in 2001, but watching Mute Swans in High Park today reminded me of a time when I had a lot invested in these beautiful creatures. I became part of a group of “swan-watchers” who daily checked on the progress of the nesting, hatching and growth of the cygnets. For hours I would sit on the grass by a pair as they tended to what turned out to be unviable eggs. Still we sat until they were long past due, and I pinned all my hopes on those eggs hatching as a sign that my life in Vancouver would be successful. Here’s a story I wrote for the local paper about the dramatic events that unfolded in Lost Lagoon that spring.
I was reminded because today I spoke to a gentleman who told me that the nest of the pair of swans in Parkside pond had been upset and probably ruined by a few kids who have been regularly fishing on a log shooting out in the middle of the pond, where the pair had made their nest. It’s true that swans mourn their losses, just like humans, so I wasn’t surprised to see their forlorn behaviour today. The male kept a Canada Goose at bay, chasing it across the pond and away from the barren nest, still protecting what had been lost. The female wondered around aimlessly, only reviving herself when her partner came near. I can only hope she has more eggs to lay, though I can’t see a safe place for a nest, among the plastic bottles, discarded pizza bags and other debris.
These are delicate creatures and we’ve done them a disservice by holding them captive for esthetic purposed – to beautify our parks – and thereby making them vulnerable to harm while stopping them from living out their natural lives.
LOST LAGOON SWANS
On June 13th, after 37 days of incubation, four cygnets were born to a pair of Mute Swans nesting in Lost Lagoon. The hatching began at 9 am when the first ball of wet, grey down tumbled out of one of the eggs. At 2:30 pm a second cygnet burst out of its shell, this one ivory coloured, with unusually pink feet and a lighter grey beak that its sibling. Evidently exhausted from their efforts to break free of their embryonic shelters, the babies napped frequently while their parents waiting patiently for five more hours until the final two beaks started poking out of their eggs. The tiny grey “twins,” as they were dubbed, toppled out within a couple of minutes of each other at around 7:30 pm. Delight and relief were immeasurable among a group of Stanley Park “regulars” who had been keeping vigil at three swan nests since mid-April, as if their very presence would send positive energy for a healthy, new generation of Lost Lagoon swans. A week later, only one cygnet remained alive, the three others were killed, eaten or drowned. In the past few years, the hatching, and rearing of swans has been precarious at best, and rumours abound among this dynamic group of wildlife watchers as to why.
The Vancouver Parks board characterized this year’s cygnet hatching as a “miracle,” for more than one reason. At approximately 16.5 hectares in area, Lost Lagoon is thought to be much too small for more than one pair of nesting swans, since swans typically require an area at least the size of the whole of Stanley Park (1,000 acres) to accommodate the protectiveness they exhibit while they incubate, hatch and bring up their young. Two other female swans laid seven eggs each but all were lost, allegedly either from spoiling, predators like racoons and otters, or to humans. The four cygnets that did hatch were laid by a young mother who, at two years of age, had supposedly not yet reached reproductive maturity, since Mute Swans usually do not lay their first eggs until at least three years of age. Her partner is estimated to be in his twenties, and to never have successfully parented any young. Although swans habitually mate for life, this male’s partner died last year and it was his first mating season with a new, much younger female. Mike Mackintosh, of the Vancouver Parks Board, who has been involved with the swans in Stanley Park since the 1960s, is not concerned with their low birth rate. “The nine we have now is a much more realistic and manageable number.” In the past they were much larger in number in the park, and were kept company by a few Australian Black Swans that were subsequently stolen, and some native North American Trumpeters and Tundra Swans, that eventually moved on.
The Mute Swan is perhaps the most replicated of all the swans species in art, poetry and literature, and commercially in company logos, insignias, and advertising. This is the one species most known to people, due to the fact that it was introduced to North America from England over a hundred years ago, and lives in parks, lagoons and waterways across this continent, close to urban areas. Most Mute Swans are considered relatives to the “royal” English Swans, raised along the Thames River and therefore originally the property of the British royal family, except for a sub species known as Polish Mutes, who have pink feet, compared to the black of the English Mutes and, when mated with them produce a white or light coloured cygnet rather than the usual grey. They are admired for their natural, ornamental beauty (especially when they cup their wings above their backs) and, in their semi-domesticated homes in urban settings, they have learned to have little or no fear of humans, and are therefore susceptible to their attention.
The Mute Swans in Stanley Park are the descendants of the original number that were introduced from England in the park’s early history. Although the record keeping on the Stanley Park swans has been poor at best, Mike Mackintosh remembers that fifty years ago as many as seventy-five lived in the natural habitat of Beaver Lake and Lost Lagoon, which both provided plenty of what the Swans thrive on—a vegetarian diet consisting of pond weed, various grasses, and some invertebrates like insects, molluscs and tadpoles. Over the years, through natural attrition due to old age and death by predators, their numbers gradually dwindled. At certain points new swans were introduced in an effort to avoid inbreeding. The Mute Swans are distinguished from the native North American Trumpeter and Tundra Swans by their black knobs that protrude above their bright orange beaks (the knob is more pronounced in the male Mute, than the female). They are known for their territorial nature, especially during nesting periods, and in order to keep them from mixing with or moving the other species out of their migratory spots, the Mute Swans are required by law in Canada to be pinioned. This procedure, which is recommended to be done in the first 2-5 days in a cygnet’s life, but which is carried out three or four months into their life at Stanley Park, permanently prevents the swans from flight. The great debate about whether pinioning is humane or not remains unsettled, but by most accounts it is a relatively painless cut made in the wing of a young bird before it grows its flight feathers, so the swan is none the wiser about its ability to fly. The result is a bird that is perceived to be more domesticated, but which is still governed by the survival-of-the-fittest laws of nature, and any close observer of our Mutes can easily see that these two factors are in constant conflict these days in Lost Lagoon.
It is only since 1998 that the swans have begun reproducing again after a five-year dry spell, with only three cygnets surviving and growing to adulthood. Swans typically lay between three and seven eggs per season, so if they are in good reproductive health, they can hatch up to seven cygnets. In a protected and thriving environment, all seven would live to adulthood, mate and reproduce. In Lost Lagoon in 1998 three cygnets hatched, two of them died of a parasitic infection caused by algae in the lagoon, and one was killed by an off-leash dog. Out of the three hatched in 1999, two survived (one of them being the young mother of the four cygnets this year). And in 2000 one went missing and one lived. Many park regulars silently, and some openly, accuse the Parks Board of having an unspoken policy to control the number of swans in the Lagoon. As the Parks Board mandate is more about providing a natural, recreational playground for residents and tourists than it is about protecting the wildlife, many feel that it simply doesn’t care. Particularly unprotected are the swans, which are stuck here, in an inadequately small space, fighting for territory, their young vulnerable to too many close by predators, and a few known human repeat offender feeders. With the exception of Ziggy Jones, a park “wildlife technician” who, because they are not migratory, feeds the swans a supplemental amount of wheat grass, duck pellets, park staff cannot be everywhere at once keeping track of the wildlife in the park. An Eco-Rangers program is in effect in the summer months only, where twice a day volunteers go out into the park to remind visitors about the “no-feeding” by-law and to try to educate them on why feeding wildlife is harmful. Many of the prohibitive no-feeding signs are hidden by foliage, particularly in the lush spring and summer months. Mike Mackintosh admits that the Vancouver Parks Board needs to get more serious about enforcing the by-law, especially in light of recent coyote attacks. His lists of the problems feeding and overfeeding causes include overpopulation of wildlife, disturbance of natural balances, higher risk of wildlife disease, an increase of rodents and other pest species, habitat damage, and physical injuries to people,
This year, with only four swan eggs making it to hatching time, regulars commiserated that the Vancouver Parks Board was simply not being diligent enough to ensure a successful breeding season. A years-old rumour resurfaced about the Parks Board addling and spoiling the eggs, and then pointing media attention to wild predators or humans to cover up their below the radar agenda on control. Mike Mackintosh’s reply to that is, “Why would we want to shake the swan eggs, as if there is some kind of evil intent.” In fact the Parks Board does have a policy about rounding up Canada Geese, and limiting their large numbers. “In the case of the swans,” he says, ‘I just sort of shake my head and say, Get a Life!”
Among the group of regulars, there are distinctions as to which members have the best interests of the swans in mind, and those who have perhaps too much of an emotional investment in them and have forgotten that they are wildlife, and not mere pets, or worse, human. The former are lovers of waterfowl and wildlife alike and respectfully observe, take photos, and chat with other nature-lovers, as well as keep the Parks Board and Stanley Park Nature House (the two on-sight organizations) informed of any harm or mischief being perpetrated on park wildlife. The latter are the repeat feeders, who believe that there is not enough natural food in the Lagoon for the swans and have taken the care and feeding of them upon themselves, sometimes to a harmful conclusion.
The unofficial leader of the “swan-watchers” is a woman named Jean who, after many years of keeping an eye on park wildlife, has by far the best memory and documentation of the swans. She also knows who belongs on which side in terms of healthy and unhealthy interest in the swans, and pulls no punches when it comes to telling people not to feed them, get too close, or to please put their dog on a leash. Everyday throughout the spring during the long transit strike, she travelled from New Westminster, walking into the park from the closest Skytrain station and could be found somewhere along the Lost Lagoon path, between the three swan nests. She kept copious notes on when each swan laid which egg and likely knew more accurately than the Stanley Park Nature House staff and the Parks Board itself about when the hatching would begin. She explained to any and all that hatching was not guaranteed and that even if the cygnets hatched, they may not live to adulthood. She happily showed off her photos from last year and she spoke lovingly about how the proud parents fuss over their young, described the cygnet’s first swim, and the way they ride the lagoon on the protective backs of their mothers, their little beaks peaking out from her wings. Her enthusiasm, tinged with sadness for the lost cygnets over the years, easily ignited interest in others about the pending births. Over the course of the time of the nesting, the group grew in number. Some members were first-timers, some old-timers, and all gravitated toward Jean to learn the latest progress of the swans. By the end of May it looked like only one set of swans would produce the coveted cygnets, and “regulars” could be seen peering over the fenced-off nest closest to the causeway as the hopeful parents stubbornly tended to their eggs, although they were long past their hatching date. Soon, all focus and anticipation was directed to the four remaining eggs in the middle nest. And what had started out as a few people strolling along the Lost Lagoon’s 1 km pathway had turned into a group of people with a common interest meeting to chat about life and nature in the company of the swans.
It is not surprising then that when the first two cygnets went missing, it was one of the “regulars” who first noticed, and another who found one of the bodies and brought it in to Ziggy Jones, the waterfowl caretaker. It was less than a week after their birth, and just as they were becoming experts at climbing on and off the nest to swim and learn to feed, trying to mimic their parents’ neck-dive to the bottom of the lagoon to forage for food. The speculation was that the inexperienced mother was lured to the opposite side of the lagoon by “the swan lady” who claims to have raised them for more than thirteen years by feeding them abundant amounts of food, sometimes bird seed, often times cat food. The swan, clearly used to being fed by this woman, took her young too often into the territory of the other swans that were still in their defensive nesting mode, despite losing their eggs. As well, they were much easier prey for herons, crows and other predators on the open lagoon. After several witnessed battles between the male swans, it was concluded that the grandfather of the cygnets (the male of the unsuccessful “causeway” pair) finally found one of them swimming too far from the protective wing of its mother. Ms. Jones sent the found body off for a necropsy and to date, two months later, the results are not known. After that the parents became more cautious, but the food on the other side of the lagoon still held a fascination for the mother and off she went, continually putting her two remaining cygnets in danger. A few days later one more cygnet vanished and Ms. Jones took the final one into protective custody at an undisclosed place in Stanley Park, where she is raising it in a wading pool for the next few months. She plans to first place it in a farm yard in the park, and by fall she will put it back into the lagoon. She is aware that by then even the cygnet’s parents may not recognize it and that no matter when she re-introduces it could prove dangerous, but she maintains that in the fall, with the nesting season long over, the Lagoon is a quieter, more tranquil place, where the swans co-exist more peacefully. She has based this decision on her six years of experience looking after the Stanley Park waterfowl, her own rearing of birds and plenty of pertinent reading. As a “wildlife technician” for Stanley Park, she has no related educational credentials, and expresses frustration with the Parks Board’s budgetary constraints on wildlife protection. When asked if she consulted waterfowl experts on her decision to take the cygnet away from its parents she replies, “I don’t even have a computer.”
As many people as there are who want the cygnet protected, there are likely as many who think it should have been left to nature’s order. This is the gist of Zoe Renaud’s response to whether or not a cygnet should be taken from its parents at such a young age. As a certified wildlife rehabilitator, at the Wildlife Rescue Association in Burnaby, she receives many calls about injured or abandoned birds and animals and empathizes with Ms. Jones on her decision to remove the cygnet. “When you pinion the swans you basically turn them into a domesticated animal. In the wild a cygnet would never be taken from the protection of its parents. In Stanley Park the worst that can happen is that it will be forced away from the flock of swans and rely on the companionship of humans.” Ms. Renaud also understands that this falls into the other risk categories of over domestication of wildlife. “There is no right or wrong answer here,” she says, “They are already living unnaturally.”
Melanie Beeson, founder of the Swan Sanctuary in Surrey, England advises that our cygnet is quite special as it is in fact a Polish Mute which, she says, tend to be more delicate. “I would say a Polish cygnet tends to need his parents that little bit more. This could be why you’ve lost cygnets in previous years.” She recommends reintroducing the cygnet sooner than later to diminish the risk of rejection.
For the first time in many years, the swans basked in the limelight of media attention. The Vancouver Sun carried a daily account of the life of the cygnets, and both VTV and Global Television featured segments on them. Many regulars were reluctant to speak on camera or be quoted in print and were so protective of the swans and their story that one reporter, sensing a conspiratorial air, commented, “This is about the swans isn’t it?” What was really happening was wariness about the way ordinary people had been implicated in the media as part of the problem, and frustration with the misrepresentation of the swans as vicious, or neglectful parents. The oft quoted Ziggy Jones claims that she was misquoted in the stories. After allowing the Vancouver Sun a photo of the cygnet in its new home, she is refusing any other media access for the time being. That photo, and another one just published clearly shows the cygnet to be “ivory” the second born with white down and pink feet, who possesses the less common genes of the Polish Mute, and therefore is a rarity. “No,” says Ziggy, “it’s the second lightest one.” Several photographs taken by the regulars prove, however, that there was never a second lightest coloured cygnet in the clutch. The others were the typical grey colour, with dark beaks and black feet. All are mystified by this confusion and await the day they can actually see the young swan, whose gender also won’t be known until it is taken to the vet for pinioning in another month or so.
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
“On Thursday, The Agenda explored whether our modern obsession with collecting “stuff” — gadgets, toys, appliances, and other consumer goods — might be coming at too high a cost to our pocketbooks and our emotional well-being. (You can watch that program above.)
Writer Carla Lucchetta, who has contributed many personal essays to The Agenda over the years, was inspired by the program to tell a story about a cherished object, emotion, and learning move forward.”