Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Garden Mifwifery

I’d say over 300 people, all in sensible shoes, traipsed through my garden this weekend during the biennial Toronto Island Garden Tour. Not long after the 50th or so visitor walked up my fieldstone path in a Tilley hat and deeply cushioned soles, it became evident. Gardeners have their own way of dressing, even on a day off. Crocs, Nike, Hush Puppies and Merrill definitely trump Choo and Blahnik.

I wasn’t looking forward to the weekend. As tour weekend approached, I entered into a beehive frenzy of activity (just ask my family members), spiffing up the joint. After pulling the millionth weed, trimming hedges, sweeping cottonwood fluff off screen windows, raking every blade of grass, fighting with my pond’s pump, praying to the nature gods to make the roses bloom in time, and sweeping the sidewalk (seeping the sidewalk?), I rightfully asked myself  “Why am I doing this?”

With the time and energy I put into the garden, I could have harvested a small, developing nation’s entire coffee crop.

So why was I doing all this? The answer was simple. I love the beauty of my garden and I want other people to see it.

I carefully chose the words ‘see it’ because studiously avoiding  the words “I wanted to show the garden off.”  I don’t.

While I’m proud as can be about my garden(s), I feel more like a midwife delivering beauty than I am the creator of. Who’s really doing the work here?  I’ll tell you. It’s not only me. The main labourers are the lush and fragrant magenta roses, drifts of violet-coloured catmint winding themselves through the Solomon Seal and pink coreopsis, and the deep purple and white clematis twisting skyward on their metal spires.

Several years ago, with the help of a good friend and a moment of sheer mania, I turned a jungle-like backyard into a formal garden. I went all out, building brick and stone walkways, a cobblestone-bordered pond, stone stairs to a raised bed, and a beautiful eating area with patterned brickwork for a  harvest table to sit on. 

While this hardscape creates magnificent bones for the garden, it’s not what makes it so beautiful. The lavender borders, apple and cherry trees, climbing roses, clematis, deep green ferns and lilacs do.

One of the visitors to my garden during the tour asked me about a clematis that had just come into bloom. I didn’t know the name for her, unfortunately. But we both stood there and marveled at the delicate muted green stripe that ran through the white petals of each flower. There was something subtly extraordinary about the pattern.

“It takes my breath away,” I said to my guest, also an avid gardener.

“Me too,” she said. “Everytime I look closely at a flower, I notice how intricate the designs and patterns are. I am overwhelmed by the beauty.”

“I know,” I said. “Breathtaking, isn’t it?” I said, realizing I had just repeated myself.

As much as I loved all the compliments my garden and I garnered over the weekend, I was fully aware. My hardscapes and design are creative, beautiful, and yes, special. But they'll never be breathtaking. The Gods of Nature have a monopoloy on that.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Scotiabank as Good Corporate Citiizen? Not.

I like it when corporations donate money. It’s better than the alternative. I am, however, tired of seeing their names plastered over entrances of hospital wings, summer concerts, arts festivals and concert halls. Isn’t a huge tax credit enough?  I guess not. They’ve got to make sure we know they’re good corporate citizens.

But are they?  Our family’s personal experience with Scotiabank suggests not. Publicity hounds is more like it. I’ll tell you why shortly, but allow me a few more paragraphs before I do.

I was particularly peeved by the corporate sponsorship thing last week when I read that Caribana, the annual festival of Caribbean culture held each summer in Toronto has now become the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Festival. Because of a copyright dispute with the festival’s originators, Caribana, billed as North America's largest street festival, and frequented by over 1.3 million visitors each year for the festival's final parade, now has a new moniker.

No doubt Caribana needed a monetary boost, and I’m sure it cost the Bank of Nova Scotia a pretty penny to get the festival out of financial hot water. But let’s remember, the bank didn’t do it for charitable reasons alone, if, in fact, the charity card was played at all. The payout got Scotiabank’s name unbelievably well -positioned. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall of the negotiations between the bank and the Caribana execs, who I imagine weren’t given a lot of options. You want our money? Fine, just make sure our name is upfront, loud and clear.

Scotiabank’s number crunchers undoubtedly convinced their corporate honchos that the dollar value of their PR outlay for Caribana ‘s name would contribute to, not take away from the company’s already strong bottom line. I’m sure something like “We’re not losing money, we’re gaining invaluable publicity,” made its way around the corporate boardroom at some point before the cheque was signed.

Therfore, besides the Bank of Nova Scotia’s generous hand in Caribana, we now have  Scotiabank Nuit Blanche (all night arts event), Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival (one month photography festival), Scotiabank Buskerfest, Scotiabank Festival of Fools (clowning event), and other Scotiabank this and thats. 

So what’s wrong with any of this?  Why am I so cynical? Isn’t a corporation’s job to make money, and isn't it nice they want to  ‘give back’?  Well, yes, it is. But before I explain my cynicism about Scotiabank’s ‘giving back,’ I’d like you to know that in 2010, Scotiabank reported a net income of $4.2 billion dollars, up $692 million dollars from the previous year.

So why with all that moula coming in, why was it impossible to get the bank to compensate my disabled  son for  the $1600 that was stolen from his Scotiabank bank account?

Here’s the story.

Three years ago, my son had his first job. He saved all his money and put it in the bank to save up for something special.

Everyone’s first job means something to them, for sure. Getting your first paycheque is a real thrill. But for my son, who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), having and holding onto a job was an extraordinary feat. Michael’s brain damage interferes with his motivation, ability to follow directions, stick with things and perform tasks well.

But several years ago, a friend of the family hired Michael to work at his landscape company for the summer. With the support of my friend, his boss, Michael got up and went to work every morning. He worked a full day doing manual labour. He came home exhausted, but proud of his accomplishments. By the end of the summer, he had made over $2000.

We helped him get his own bankcard, deposit the money and taught him how to use an ATM. Talk about proud.

During this period, Michael was living in a group home. He came back home to live with us on weekends. On his way to our house one Friday, Michael stopped off at an ATM, not far from the group home. A couple of boys from the group home must have followed him, and  unbeknownst to Michael, somehow found out his PIN number.

Vulnerability is another characteristic of people with FAS.

When Michael was coming home  to us several weeks after that, he went again to the ATM to take out a few dollars, He couldn't. His balance was $.67.  He couldn’t figure it out. We double checked with the bank, and sure enough, his $1600 plus was gone.

We had no idea what happened, but eventually, realized his money must have been stolen. His account was cleared out. There was a record of withdrawal. We asked the bank to check their security cameras for that date, but they told us they had none at the ATM Michael used. We called the police. They pressured the bank, and surprise, surprise, they found a security camera. Two boys from Michael’s group home had had their pictures taken.

Michael’s bank branch manager said there was nothing he could do about the theft. The bank has a policy not to pay back money stolen from ATMs.

So I contacted customer relations at Scotiabank’s main office to tell them the story and ask if they could repay Michael the $1600. They must be insured, no?  No. There was nothing they could do. The customer relations man said rudely, ‘Imagine the number of people who have the same kind of problem everyday.’ Quite honestly, I couldn’t. That many?

I thought Michael’s extenuating circumstances would touch a soulful chord somewhere in Scotiabank's corporate culture. For goodness sake, how much money is $1600 to a company that had a net income of $4.2 billion dollars. Think of the good publicity and “optics” of returning a disabled young man’s stolen money.

So I contacted the bank’s ombudsman. He barely blinked. I then went one step higher and wrote a passionate letter to bank president’s office. A  lovely, motherly gatekeeper called me. She spoke warmly and passionately about my son’s loss. She understood he had a disability. How devastating the experience must be for him. She wished she could do something. Right.

Could I speak directly to the President? Uh, no. Had he read my letter?  Yes, that’s why she called. He felt terrible.

It took over a year of calling and writing before I gave up and accepted that I had reached a dead end with Scotiabank. I was furious, especially because during the course of that year, I met several people who had  money stolen from their ATM accounts, but their banks had compensated them for their losses. 

During that year I also read the fine print regarding the bank's policy on customers who had money stolen from their accounts. It’s at the bank’s discretion. There is no policy that says they cannot compensate their customers for their losses. Contrary to what I was told.

In the end, the police arrested the two young men from the group home. My husband and I made a claim for Michael with Victim Services at the Office of the Attorney General, to receive recompense for his loss. They awarded Michael $500. He was thrilled. Case closed.

I, of course, should have threatened the bank, telling them I would go to the press with my story if they didn’t pay up. Just think how a reporter could string out this story about our humble family taking on the corporate tigers.. But I didn’t contact anyone. I was depleted and just let it go. A mistake.

The other mistake was not throwing a public concert and hitting up the bank for monetary support,  with the promise to bill it as Scotiabank’s Concert of the Century in Support of Our Valued Customers.

Instead, we withdrew Michael’s $.67 and shut down his account with Scotiabank. I’m sure they were devastated by their loss.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Michael’s Wood Carvings

Fish and boats. That’s what my son likes to carve most of all. They’re small enough that he can sell them inexpensively, and they make nice presents for people to buy. And he’s been lucky, people are buying. Therein lies a very important piece of inspiration.

My son has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD, formerly FAS, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). It’s brain damage caused by the alcohol my son’t birthmother drank while pregnant with him. Michael had problems from the day we brought him home from hospital when he was seven days old, but it wasn’t until he was six that he was finally diagnosed. No doubt about it, FASD.

It’s been a struggle helping Michael find his place in the world since then. Dropping out of school after Grade 8 sure didn’t help. We did everything we could to keep him in, but it wasn’t in the cards.  Learning disabilities and poor social skills are part of the FASD package. ADD didn’t help either. School’s tough enough on “normal” kids. Michael couldn’t navigate the complex world of high school.

Michael’s been out of school for years now. Though he’s actually bright, he has serious memory problems. Some days he can’t retrieve information he knows. The next day, it might be back and available for him. He also has trouble remembering anything that’s sequential, whether the days of the week to a string of numbers. All this frustrates him, so its not surprising that he’s been fearful of returning to school.

Work hasn’t been in the cards for Michael either. Though he graduated from a printing program that would enable him to work in a print shop, he wasn’t interested. Work at the job he was placed in after graduation was repetitive. He hated it. One day, he just refused to go back to work. He tried out a few other little jobs, but he didn’t stick with them either. As parents, we were devastated. No school, no work. What were we going to do? Problems with school and work are classic symptoms of FASD.

Michael’s always had an artistic gift. Even when he was really young, he seemed to have good design and spatial sense. We gave him art classes, but like everything else, he never stuck with any one thing. While other young people were developing their talents, Michael’s lay dormant.

But clearly still there, just under cover.

A few years ago, I suggested to my husband that he take a night school class with Michael. Michael was always whittling, so I thought maybe a woodcarving class might be good. My husband found one through the Toronto District School Board, and enrolled them for a night class. Three hours a crack.

My boy found his niche. The first year of his class, he produced a beautiful bas-relief of a wolf howling at the moon. His teacher took to him and gave lots of encouragement. The carving is beautiful. It shows real talent. And it’s not just because I’m his mom that I think so. Robin, my husband, entered Michael’s wolf in the novice category of the Canadian National Wood Carving Association’s yearly contest. Michael took third prize. That little white ribbon is worth a million bucks to Michael. We framed it for him. “I won it at The Nationals,” he tells people. Though many people have offered to buy the wolf, he wouldn’t dream of parting with it.  I’d hate to lose it, too.

Michael has now turned to carving small fish and boats that sit on little stands he carves to exhibit them on.  He sells them at craft fairs and the special Christmas bazaar we have every year in our community. Last year, Michael sold every piece, over twenty, and came home with close to $400.

Michael has made two other major woodcarvings in his night school classes. One is of a bear with a fish in its mouth, standing in a river. It too is incredible. He’s now just finishing up another carving, again, a bas-relief. It’s a pike carved into a large piece of bass wood, with carved waves behind it. It’s absolutely beautiful, too. I can’t wait for him to do the final polishing and waxing. I have a perfect place to hang it.

Of course it will cost me. Seeing how proud Michael is of his work, and watching him actually stick with something is also worth those proverbial million bucks. I think I’ll get away with only spending a couple hundred, though. But whatever price he chooses to charge me for his pike will be worth every penny, and more. Much more.

Last week Mike mentioned that he might like to take some high school classes. I didn’t want to get too excited, at least until I found something I thought might actually work for him.

I cant help but wonder. Could the confidence he’s developing from his woodcarving be reverberating in unexpected ways. My hunch is a resounding yes.

Maybe I should offer Mike even more for the fish.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Double Standards: Rihanna and Me

I  have double standards, or, at least one. It’s this: I expect more from my favourite female musical artists than I do from male.

The issue reared its head at the Rihanna concert I went to last night at the Air Canada Centre.

Ever since my as-good-as-you’re-ever-gonna-get concert experience this winter seeing the Blackeyed Peas, I decided not to pass up other potential great concerts, even if at the cavernous Air Canada Centre.

So the second I saw Rihanna tickets go on sale in March, I grabbed two.  Actually “grab” isn’t the right term. Sold the children and remortgaged the house is more like it. I was sure it would be worth it. Couldn’t wait to hear Only Girl, Rude Boy, What’s My Name, even Love The Way You Lie, though the lyrics do disturb.

I bought two tickets, convinced I could find at least one smart soul who had enough good sense to want one of them. Alas, ticket grabbers weren’t beating down my door, but as good fortune would have it, my dear friend Terry snapped up the other ticket in a heartbeat. What’s with everyone else, I wondered? As my mother would say, “Don’t they know what’s good?”

Then again, Rihanna was anything but GOOD. She was one SUPERBAD ASS chick. Tough, gritty, over-the-top raunch, as in how my times do you need to finger your crotch to let us know you really dig sex. In fact, there was so much simulated sex and S&M during the first half of the show, I leaned over to Terry and asked, “Why doesn’t she just fuck someone on stage already and get it over with.”

That’s when I started worrying about the double standard. I didn’t like Rihanna’a hardcore ‘tude. She’s beautiful. She’s sexy. She has the longest and greatest gams going, and yes, I can remember how much fun it can be showing all this off. I’m not that old.

But it was too much. There wasn’t an ounce of subtlety or class anywhere in sight. Not a single move made whose underlying purpose wasn’t meant to exude sex. She was a walking/singing pole dancer without a pole.

My double standard? I’m not sure I would have been so disturbed by the non-stop sexual play if the performer had been male. I would have laughed it all off. For some reason, I’ve let Eminem get away with (almost) murder in his lyrics and attitudes. I guess I need my female artists to be better role models.

Besides Terry and me, the audience was filled mainly with girls, between ages of let’s say 15 -25, and 25 is really stretching the top end. So, really, why the whips and chains and dominatrix rough stuff? For them? Even Madonna, who loved pushing the sex envelope, had something fun and playful going on onstage.

I guess it particularly bugs me because Rihanna comes with history. She was roughed up one night by then boyfriend Chris Brown on their way to the Grammy’s.  The cops got called in, and Brown was booked. Rihanna didn’t look so good with a black eye and facial bruises, so she went undercover for awhile, resurfacing with a message: hey girls, don’t take shit from no one.

I’d like to think, therefore, that one of Rihanna’s underlying messages to all those young Rihanna wannabes at her concerts is this:  I’ll have sex on my own terms, the way I choose, and I’ll be the one in control, not you.

Not a bad message, I suppose. Nothing wrong with sex. But I’m not sure that’s the message Rihanna’s sending. It feels more like: ‘rough is good, tough is good, and mean means mean.’ Bottom line? That’s the way I like it.

This can be problematic. As Mick Jagger sings in one of the Rolling Stones’ hits, “Don’t play with me cuz you’re playin’ with fire.’ And I think Rihanna’s doing just that. Playin’ with fire.

I understand that real artists follow their own inspirations, not the feminist line I happen to think is politically correct. Fair enough. You get to do as you please.

Nevertheless, I’m going to end this blog with a message to Rihanna and all her 15 – 25 year-old female followers. They’re again lyrics, this time from the Blackeyed Peas’ Where is the Love?

What's wrong with the world, mama
People livin' like they ain't got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Aah! Spring

As my blog readers know, I'm a firm believer that you should only complain about one season in any given year. More than that, you get boring. You’ve labeled yourself as a malcontent, and no one’s going to listen. Nor should they.

If you hate winter, so be it. Complain all you want. There’s lots to dislike. The cold, for starters.  Same goes for summer. Can’t take the heat? Go for it. For some, like me, sweat and lethargy are serious downers.  If you find fall too colourful and garish, you’re allowed. But that’s it. Whine about one season only.

Feeling this so strongly, I found myself in an uncomfortable position this week. I heard myself complaining about the brevity of spring here in Toronto and subsequent early onset of summer. The words mosquitoes and rain peppered my speech.

Not good. I had used up my allotted seasonal complaints this past winter, crabbing about everything from grey skies, slush and my inability to escape to warmer climes. People listened, empathized, patted me on the back, and let me do my thing.

So when I heard my conversation drift into seasonal negativity, I caught myself. The situation demanded an apology, the kind that begins with “Sorry to go on about this…”

This may be splitting hairs, but I need to think that I wasn’t so much complaining about spring as I was my own ability to appreciate it.  Things keep getting in the way , and I haven’t been able to drink in the true beauty of my spring garden, particuarly. I’m left honestly disappointed.

Every spring, I wait breathlessly (yes, that is the right word) to see young peony shoots push up through old stems in the still cold soil. I stroll through my garden beds every morning, searching for signs that my Solomon’s Seal and oriental poppies made it through the harsh winter. I become ecstatic seeing a blush of green on the stems of my rose bushes, signaling that they once again held on to dear life, if only for one more year.

My peonies, Solomon seal, roses and poppies are all up and doing well, thank you. But I am not. As some readers may remember from a previous blog, we are renovating our kitchen. What does that have to do with my garden? Plenty.

Sitting right smack in the middle of on my front lawn and walkway, inches from the garden, is a refrigerator, dishwasher and gas stove, all wrapped up in plastic, tarps and dropcloths. Two by fours and packs of insulation wait patiently nearby, ready to be called into action.

It’s not a pretty sight. I look at my garden and instead of telling myself how beautiful it is, which it is, I want to scream at my contractor. “What the fuck is going on?”

Than there’s the matter of mosquitoes. Spring has been unbelievably rainy this year and we’re paying a price. The little devils clearly find the conditions an excellent breeding ground to spawn their offspring, gazillions of which are alive and well living on the premises.

I can barely go outside, particularly in the backyard where we have a pond. I did last night after work, however, and within minutes was “eaten up.". By the time I caved in and announced, “Enough already” and made a beeline for the back door, I had bright red welts on arms, neck, ankles and arms.

One last thing. The contract job I'm working at right now. The one that takes me to work on the 6:45 boat in the morning, and releases me in time to take the 6:15 boat home. It severely cuts into my let’s-enjoy-the-spring time. I barely have a moment to sniff in the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley. And what’s spring for if not to sniff in the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley? A planned trip to the Royal Botanical Garden's lilac dell never materialized. Alas.

So tell me. Does all this count as complaining about spring, or is it perhaps just a minor rant about the present state of my life.

Spring, as always, remains glorious.