Category: things


rice pudding

I woke this morning knowing that I was going to make rice pudding for breakfast. Despite the simplicity of its preparation, I have only made rice pudding three times in my life, so the strength of my conviction that we were having rice pudding for breakfast is somewhat of a mystery.

rice pudding

Photo Credit: cyclonebill; Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I know that rice pudding is traditionally a dessert but it is definitively labelled in my mind as a breakfast item. I know that my mom made rice pudding when I was a kid, and I can only assume she served it for breakfast, thereby creating the association. But I can’t trust my memory. My memories of childhood are so poor that I think I must have been in a coma for half my life and no one is telling me. I wish I were joking, but the reality is that most people I know can relate their childhood experiences in vivid detail while I sit there smiling politely, wondering what’s wrong with me.

My apparent childhood blackouts aside, I can say that rice pudding is a comfort food for me. I didn’t wake feeling any particular desire to be comforted, but when I sat down with my family to eat the pudding, a smile burst forth on my lips, and a warmth circulated through me.

When the kids were finished eating their pudding, both boys came to me separately to thank me for making them a delicious breakfast.  Zachary, my 3-year-old, actually made a point of finding me upstairs where I was employed in the glamorous task of cleaning out the bathroom sink drain. He gave me a hug, thanked me for breakfast, and then on his way down the stairs he commented to his mother that the rice pudding “was sooo yummy.”  Clearly, the rice pudding was a hit.

Sometimes my kids are so sweet I can only assume they have an agenda. And sometimes they do.  But then there are the occasions where their sweetness is genuine.  For all the times their antics make me think I’m going to lose my mind; for all the times I am driving to a symphony of sibling rivalry and I toy with the idea of  stopping the car and dumping the kids by the side of the road;  for all the seventeen thousand times I’ve had to tell one of them to stop picking his nose or to wash his hands or to flush the toilet or to sit up straight at the table or… or… or…  Those rice pudding moments make absolutely everything right again.

Today, I am thankful for… well, rice pudding, I guess.  I’m thankful for these talismans of tradition, the vehicles into which we pour our comforts and memories and transmit them to our children to be carried forth into future generations.  For some, they are lockets, or vases, or figurines.  For me, it is rice pudding.

I picture my boys, older.  Maybe they haven’t achieved something they worked hard for, maybe they’ve lost someone special to them, maybe work is stressful.  Then maybe they start cooking some rice on the stove and the soft bubbling of the thickening liquid calms them.  They add their milk or cream, then vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, reducing everything to a creamy consistency and filling their homes with a sweet aroma.

And if their memories of their childhood are better than mine, maybe they’ll remember the stillness of that one Sunday morning when the sun peeked through the window and they ate a breakfast that warmed their bellies, while they sat with people they loved and in whose presence they felt safe and happy. And maybe they’ll have little ones who will give them big hugs afterwards and thank them for yummy breakfasts.

Then maybe, for a little while, the world will be right again.

shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

little graces

Advent

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Sandra has an Advent tradition with the kids that I love.  She calls it “The Giving Tree.”  She makes up a Christmas tree out of construction paper and posts it on the wall, then decorates it with paper ornaments on which she writes instructions. Instead of simply asking our boys to donate to charity some of the money they’ve collected from their allowances, each day of Advent she has them take an ornament off the tree.  The ornament will instruct them to count a specific thing in our home or lives for which they should feel grateful — something that less fortunate families do not have.  Then, the boys are asked to deposit a unit amount of money for each item they counted.

For example, an ornament this year encouraged the boys to be thankful for their mobility.  So Sandra had them count all of the stairs in our house and deposit $0.10 for each stair.  Another ornament wanted the boys to be thankful for water, so had them count all the faucets in the house and deposit $0.25 for each.  Yet another had them deposit a sum for the number of grandparents they have, in order to help them be appreciative for family.  The boys raised $32 for charity this way.  Just a drop in the bucket of need, perhaps, but a fairly substantial donation given what they have accumulated in their allowances.

Instead of the boys simply donating money from their allowances without really understanding why, and possibly begrudging the donation because of that lack of understanding, they come to understand why it is so important to help others in need, and to be thankful for the things they have. It also gets them excited about the donation because, in a sense, they worked to achieve it.

It’s a wonderful tradition, and I admire Sandra for remaining faithful to it each year.

The Giving Tree tradition reminds me of all the “little graces” in our lives: the items which individually might go unnoticed and never make it into this blog, but which collectively bestow immense benefit on our lives.  Today, I am thankful for them.

a morsel of gratitude

cornucopia

Photo Credit: Jina Lee; Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Today was one of those days.  You all know them.  Just as I was starting to feel like I was getting back on top of my workload at work, I was dealt a blow when I learned of a decision made higher up the ladder that translates to a major undertaking being dumped on my lap for the next few weeks. That pile of tasks on my desk was just officially pushed to the back burner.  I worked late in an attempt to get a head start, and to put out a few fires.  Then I picked up the kids and arrived home to start making dinner.

Like a lot of people, I’m so exhausted by the time I get home most days that my kids are lucky they’re not fed a bowl of chips and some HoHos for dinner.  But one of the commitments I’ve made to my children is to make an effort with dinner.  I want to serve them good, healthy food to help their bodies and minds grow.  I confess my love of cheese sometimes results in an over-representation of it in my meals, but I try to pack the meals full of nutrients too, using fresh vegetables and foods as little processed as possible.

My boys are pretty good eaters.  My eldest loves vegetables, and both boys will eat lots of things lots of kids (and many adults) won’t: fish, seafood, mushrooms, spinach, etc.  But I still get my share of whining, and after coming home from work feeling defeated but still putting the effort in to make a nutritious meal (that I thought was delicious), I was deflated a little more to hear the tiny violins start playing.

“I don’t like this.”

“Do I have to eat the onions?”

etc.

And then my 3-year-old — the same one whom I’ve asked twice in the last three minutes whether he has to go to the washroom, the same one who has twice replied “no” — suddenly starts squirming in his seat.

“Do you have to pee?” I ask.

“Yes!” he exclaims, his eyes betraying panic.

Knowing it’s an emergency, I throw him on my hip and bolt up the stairs, only to feel a warm sensation spread down my leg as I reach the bathroom.

By the time I got him cleaned up and get us back to the dinner table, my originally comfortingly warm dinner was now stone cold.

And while I scowled into my tilapia and (cold) warm vegetable salad, I searched my mind to find some morsel of gratitude from the experience.  Gratitude is my refuge against the chilling tendrils of bitterness which, on occasion, start creeping into my heart: if I can shift perspective, I can chase away the sting of antipathy.

So here it is: Today, I am thankful that, as a child, my parents (more specifically, my mom) exposed me to the types of foods my kids might be disinclined to eat.  You might feel ripped off by that one.  Don’t. There are lots of people in the world who grew up eating a lot of junk, so are at a disadvantage in knowing how to prepare for themselves or their children the sorts of foods that will keep them healthy.  I had the benefit of a mom who, long before the nutritionist craze that pervades our lives and the media, exposed me to good-for-me foods so that they wouldn’t be foreign to me.  I am grateful for that, and I hope that, one day, my kids will be thankful for it too.

(But I won’t hold my breath).

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

knowledge

To any readers who have become accustomed to a more regular dose of gratitude, I apologize for having been missing in action for a while.  Getting back into the school year routine has taken a greater toll on my energy than usual.  Gregory’s homework regimen has clearly been developed by someone with a sadistic streak.  Helping him with the homework on top of getting the kids to/from their extracurricular activities, getting dinner on the table, spending as much quality time with the kids as possible, and everything else, has left me feeling that I need to hire a project manager just to keep my life under control.  Then I got sick, and things just went further south.

But enough of the pity party.  This is the life of every parent.  This is also what every September is like.  I always manage to wriggle my way back into the swing of the things before too long.

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

The other night, while I sat with my son in our dining room moving from homework task to homework task, with the descending sun casting longer and longer shadows in the room, I found myself overwhelmed with bitterness.  That bitterness has arisen partially from the time and energy I have lost in trying to motivate my son to tackle his homework when he is understandably frustrated by the tedium and sheer volume of it.  The bitterness has also originated from seeing my son finally head to bed, exhausted.  But mostly the bitterness has developed from seeing a society that increasingly fails to let children be children.

In the midst of all that bitterness, however, one thing did occur to me: at least my children have access to public education.  I know there are cultures that don’t prize education greatly, and that the history of my culture is one which did not always recognize the right of all children — regardless of status or wealth — to benefit from education.  My children and I are fortunate to live in a time and place where each of us has the opportunity to pave a way for ourselves, not through our family names or the coins in our pocket, but through diligence and merit.

Today, I am grateful for public education.  It helps us work and live better, opens our minds, enriches our communities, and propels forward human understanding of this mysterious universe.

sunflower

Our family travels a lot.  A lot.  Particularly in the summer.  And this summer we travelled even more than usual.  The vehicle we use for trips is a few hundred clicks away from the next oil change. Our third since the beginning of June.

Perhaps its a product of travelling more, or simply indicative of a change in my perceptions, or maybe they’re just becoming more popular, but everywhere I go, I see sunflowers.

I’m not complaining, of course.  Machismo be damned: I adore flowers.  I especially love wild flowers, and daisies are my favourite.  Look at a daisy and try to tell me you don’t feel happier.  I won’t believe you.  (Unless you have severe allergies, in which case I will most certainly believe you, but suggest that you try looking at the daisy while safely protected behind glass).  Sunflowers are just enormous daisies, so happiness can only be multiplied.

field of sunflowers

Photo Credit: Bruce Fritz; Licence: Public Domain

There is something almost fantastical about sunflowers.  Walking beside a flower that towers above me makes me feel as if I’ve climbed a magical bean stock and entered a land of giants, or climbed through a looking glass into a Carrollian dreamland.  Adventure must be only right around the corner.

Today, I am thankful for sunflowers, and flowers in general.  They are such a simple pleasure in our world: free to look at, free to enjoy.  Obviously, they serve a vital purpose in keeping the planet alive, but their beauty can be enjoyed by everyone without anything asked in return.  Next time I think of some material good I “need” to be happy, let me remember the sunflowers.

sunset

I can’t pass by a sunset without wanting to snap a photograph. I’ve never seen a picture of a sunset that has done a real sunset any justice. No photograph ever captures the complexity of colour, the sheer beauty, the eerie silhouetting of the landscape, the rays of light that push through the clouds as if the gates of another world have opened, the illumination of the endless sky in hues of gold, purple, pink, and peach.  Sunsets are the picture of eternity.  If I ever lose my sight, sunsets will be the first thing I will miss.

sunset

Photo Credit: Krishna; Licence: Public Domain

Today, I am thankful that I have sight.  Even though those born without it derive pleasure from the world in other ways, and those who lose it later in life learn to do so, I can’t imagine my life without the gift of sight.

I don’t want to focus on loss of sight as a disability.  I had a blind acquaintence in university who volunteered helping new students who were blind learn their way around the university.  He played electric guitar and he took a bus to Toronto a few times each week to work for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.  There is a blind man in my neighbourhood who walks simply everywhere, always with a broad and warm smile on his face. Disabled these people are not. Maybe they can’t get in the driver’s seat of a car, but there is plenty they can do.

But I’m too much in love with the world I see to give up sight of it.  Call it an appreciation, an obsession, an addiction — whatever you want to call it, I’m grateful.

cosmos

Of course, I always knew the universe was vast.  Infinitely vast.  But that is a concept difficult to conceive, even in my most rigorous and energetic attempts.  It wasn’t until early adulthood that I really came to understand even the periphery of its immensity.  I floated along through adolescence in an egocentric cloud.  Cognitively, yes, I understood that our planet was not the centre of the universe, but in youth it is difficult to see the complexities of a system that extend beyond one’s own nose, much less really appreciate the immeasurable and boundless cosmos.  And, cognition aside, the practical result was that, even if our planet wasn’t the centre of the universe, might as well have been.

Then I began reading about the speed of light, the fastest known phenomenon in our universe.  I read that proxima centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is over 4 light years away from Earth.  That means it would take light 4 years to travel between our planet and the next star.  Our sun and that star are two of between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Our most sophisticated technology has observed 3000 galaxies in the observable universe, and it is estimated there are as many as 125 billion or more galaxies in the universe as a whole.

I began giggling uncontrollably, something I have found that I have done ever since childhood when I am trying to comprehend something which strains my mental capacity.

horsehead nebula

Photo Credit: NASA; Licence: Public Domain

While hiking along a trail at Algonquin Park a few weeks ago (see post nature), I fell to discussing the universe with my eldest.  (I’ve found nature trails are the ideal place to discuss esoteric miscellany with an 8-year-old).  I had read that our planet collects anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of meteorite dust each year.  And, of course, the earth itself was forged billions of years ago from the dust and gas of a solar nebula.  I then went on to discuss in a Socratic manner that babies grow inside their mothers, and to do this, they need nutrients which the mother consumes.  Those nutrients come in some way from the earth, and contain minerals that might well be found in meteorites.

Each of us, then, is a product of this earth, a product of this universe.

“…we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” – Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Today, I am thankful for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the cosmos.  It has the power to humble me, but that I am part of it, and we are all part of it, is comforting. It brings me an overwhelming feeling of connectivity with those around me.

legs

In July, I saw a woman walking her dog.  It’s an important part of the story to note that, at the particular moment I saw the dog, it was defecating on a patch of grass on city property.  It was a little white dog — a poodle, I think.  When I say I saw a woman walking her dog, I should clarify that the dog was walking, but the woman wasn’t: her legs did not extend beyond the upper third of her thigh.  And the reason I am mentioning that the dog was making a deposit on the lawn is because, when it was finished, the woman went to great effort to align her wheelchair with the poop, lean over, and stretch her arm to collect the dog’s “gift.”

Man fishing in wheelchair

Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand; Licence: Public Domain

In my job, I see a lot of people who get pets for companionship, but who are either ill-equipped to care for them or end up treating the animal like it’s some sort of toy: cute and fun when it’s a novelty but, after a month or two, completely forgotten.

I once called an animal shelter to inquire whether they had any space to accept a cat.  I had finally managed to get a woman with whom I was working to acknowledge that she couldn’t care for the cat, and I wanted to find a home for it before she changed her mind.  The woman at the shelter was quite friendly, but sadly reported they had no room.  I explained the circumstances, not in any attempt to pressure her, but simply to determine if she had any alternatives I might pursue.  Unsure, the woman asked her supervisor.

To put it plainly, the supervisor was jerk.  He cut her off and wouldn’t listen to what she was asking, and kept telling her, “it’s not our problem.”  The woman tried to tell him that I understood it wasn’t their problem, and that I was simply seeking their expertise on another solution, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it.

I was rather put off by the supervisor’s treatment of the employee (who probably wasn’t even an employee, but a volunteer), but later I granted him a little bit of grace.  I still think his boorish behaviour was inexcusable, but I tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who works in a “dump zone” for animals. I could understand why he might be a tad cantankerous.  Not that it was an excuse to treat the woman so poorly, but at least it was a bit understandable.  So many people get puppies and kittens when they’re cute and adorable; then, when they realize that some work is involved, the animal is dumped off at the local animal shelter.  It’s sickening.

This post really has nothing to do with pets.  This whole convoluted story was to lead up to noting that one of my biggest pet peeves (pun fully intended) is when pet owners do not clean up after their dogs.  I am frustrated by people who, to save themselves a few seconds of effort, or who feel they are too “grossed out” by poop to pick it up, decide that it’s entirely fine for the rest of us to have to step in it.

But despite that, and despite my sheer annoyance with people who get pets when they can’t take care of them, I think I might just have let the woman in the wheelchair “get away with it” had she not collected the dog’s waste.  I thought: this woman is up against enough barriers in life; how humiliating and degrading would it be for her if she were to tip the wheelchair over trying to pick up dog excrement, and then be stuck there until someone came to help her?  Surely, we can spare this one woman that indignity!

The fact that she didn’t shirk her responsibility was a bit inspiring. It made me realize how lucky I am to have full use of my legs.

Some day, I’d like to get my hands on a wheelchair and spend an entire day in it.  I want to get a first-hand idea of the pure struggle it must be to get aroutnd in a world filled with stairs.

Right now, if I want to buy a widget, I look up “widget” on Google and I go to the closest store that sells widgets. But if I’m using a wheelchair, I have to determine whether I’ll be able to enter the store once I get there and, if I can, whether I’ll be able to move down the aisles of the store and, if I can, how I am going to get to the store in the first place and, if I can do all of that, am I going to have to ask for help to get the widget off the shelf, etc. Because, even though I have every right to ask for help, I still feel as if I’m inconveniencing everyone by doing so.

I feel exhausted just writing that sentence.  Imagine what it must be like to live it?  And that’s not the half of it.  I also need to find a place to live that has a ramp to allow me to get in the door, and enough wheel-around room for me to be able to move my wheelchair around, and which is set up to allow me to bathe on my own, and get in and out of bed on my own, and get dressed on my own, and whose countertops are not so high that I can’t prepare food on my own because, like anyone else in the world, I would really like to be independent.

And here’s hoping I can find a job I can do, and one where an employer will not discriminate against me, because receiving a disability allowance really doesn’t pay the bills unless I want to live in squalor or unless I can idle on a wait list for a place with subsidized rent.

And on weekends or vacations, it would be nice to get away from it all, but I can’t drive anywhere, and the intercity buses have those very steep stairs I can’t climb, and the hotel isn’t set up to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Or maybe I’ll go to a cottage, or go camping, and maybe someone will go with me — someone with a car — except that now that I am there, I can’t go on any walking trails because nature wasn’t built with people like me in mind.  Or maybe I’d like to go to the beach with my friends, except my wheelchair wheels don’t move through sand very well and, besides, it’s really tough to get in and out of the water.

Today, I am so very thankful that I have the use of my legs.  Life is hard enough with them; people who get through life without them are nothing short of courageous and amazing.

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