Artist’s Choice

This landscape was done by one of the artists who only began painting two years ago.

This landscape was done by an artist who only began painting two years ago.

Recently I wrote about the challenges faced by people with reduced mobility in my post. “A Simple Outing.”  In that blog I also mentioned that I facilitated an art group at the same care center. I thought I would expand upon that theme because the artists I work with every week are a true inspiration.

Artist’s Choice has been running for over two years, and there are dozens of paintings that have come out of the program. The painting you see is just one example of the work produced by an artist I have the privilege to help.

A regular group of participants shows up every Thursday afternoon. They look forward to Artist’s Choice and miss it when it is not included on the activity calendar. There is a wide range of experience in the art group, and no shortage of passion.

Every session starts with a lot of ‘setting up’ for people with reduced mobility or special needs. The artists work with Acrylic paint on canvas boards and there are enough materials to supply anyone who wants to attend. My role is to help with project layout, mix paint colours, and give pointers on technique if necessary. Everyone is welcome, and last March the program moved to a larger space with better natural light to accommodate more participants.

Discovering new talent often begins with someone coming into the weekly art session just ‘to look around’ along with claims that they are ‘no good at art’ or ‘don’t know how to paint’. That is fine, people are free to come and chat, or admire the art work of fellow residents.

But I love a good challenge, so if someone—anyone—is willing to try their hand at putting paint on canvas I jump on the opportunity to get them started. It does not matter if they want to paint a landscape, a still life, or something abstract.  I am a big believer in empowerment and want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to express their creativity and unleash their inner artist. And then the magic happens.

I am so proud of the artists I get to work with; they overcome huge obstacles to create beauty and the results are amazing.


I’ll Never Have That Recipe Again


Our Cookbook Collection

Our Cookbook Collection

Okay, here’s the deal, I’ve been cooking my own meals for over 30 years. I am in charge of the daily ‘care and feeding’ of my family 99.9% of the time. And the truth is that usually I ‘wing it’ when it comes to preparing food. I’ll chop up some vegetables, throw them into a pan/pot/wok, add other stuff like meat/pasta and voila! Dinner is served. I either default to the familiar favourites that no longer require a recipe, or I go by instinct and hope that I come up with something both interesting and edible.

From where I sit at my dining room table/writing desk I have an unobstructed view of dozens of cookbooks. The entire collection of “Cook’s Illustrated” publications, 14 years worth of “America’s Test Kitchen”, “Cook’s Country” and many other fine cookbooks hold a prominent place in my kitchen library. These books and magazines boast that their staff make the same dish over and over with slight variations to discover the ‘perfect’ recipe for everything. I applaud their dedication but I seldom have time for the finesse these recipes require.

I occasionally use two of the cookbooks we own (The Joy of Cooking and The Better H&G New Cook Book), but I only use those for baking which is close enough to chemistry that the recipe actually matters. And I don’t bake a lot. All the rest of the cookbooks we own belong to my husband.  He is a fabulous cook, he follows recipes to the letter and the results are amazing. This happens a couple of times a month— maybe more during barbecue/grilling season—otherwise I do the majority of the meal preparation in our house.

The day-to-day meals I prepare generally fall into the categories encompassed by “edible” and “pretty good” with occasional forays into “super yummy” and “Uhm…let’s order pizza”.

It is these two ‘outlier’ categories that bother me, because in both cases, the factors that make a meal over-the-top-delicious or not-fit-for-man-nor-beast are unknown quantities to me.

No, I’m sorry, I can’t give you the recipe for that awesome stew/soup/meatloaf because I can’t remember the particulars of what made that soup/stew/meatloaf so much better than the one I made last week or last month. Did I use different herbs, different vegetables, or add some new secret ingredient that struck my fancy? Maybe. Probably.

Were the onions caramelized or just sauteed? Is that a trick question? I threw the onions into a pan with oil (or butter or margarine or non-stick spray) and cooked them on medium heat (or high or low) until I finished dicing/mincing/grating the carrots (or peppers or celery) and tossed those in with chicken/beef broth and for the sauce I think I used something Asian; oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, aged and/or sweetened?) Aargh.

Even if I remember the exact ingredients I used for a dish, how much of each is a mystery. One pinch? Two pinches? A dash? Apparently measurements make a difference, as anyone one who has accidentally tossed a tablespoon of salt into a pot instead of a teaspoon will know.

The reckless disregard I have for reading recipes or measuring ingredients might drive some people crazy, but my family has learned that if I serve up the most amazing meal ever prepared, they better eat up and enjoy, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to offer it up again. And if our next meal turns out to be tasteless swill that even the dog won’t eat…don’t worry I probably won’t be able to replicate that again either. Now where is that pizza flyer?

Worm Compost Bin Bonus

Red Wigglers,
Eat my garbage,
During the long winter.

Apple cores,
Wilted brown lettuce,
Goes into the Vermiposter

Amended by
Rich worm castings,
Will rejuvenate house plants.

Strange thing
Is this growing,
Beside my sturdy Bougainvillea?

From tomatoes,
Are not composted,
But nourished to grow.

that grows
supported and tall,
My worm bin bonus.

A Simple Outing

Aspen Woods.~Minkee Robinson. Oil painting on Canvas

Aspen Woods.~Minkee Robinson. Oil painting on Canvas

I volunteer for a local care center here in Calgary. Volunteering adds an extra dimension to life. My regular gig for the past two years has been facilitating an art group once a week. The painting you see is one of mine. I help the resident artists to sketch layouts for their paintings on canvas, mix paints and clean up afterwards. It is a hectic afternoon, but as with most volunteering, the rewards always outweigh the effort. And it is a nice diversion from writing.

Once in a while a general call goes out for volunteers to assist with other events. Off-site activities are a big draw and need extra helpers to push wheelchairs, so I’ll sign up for those if I’m available. Last summer I helped with trips to Global Fest (international fireworks competition) and to the Strathmore Rodeo. In the fall I signed up to help with a “simple outing” described as a country drive and picnic. Compared to fireworks and rodeos, a picnic lunch did not sound all that exciting, but to the residents going out that day it was a big deal.

Our plan was to drive to the KFC in Deer Run, grab some take-out and go have our picnic at nearby Fish Creek Park. The weather was nice and the fall colours were beautiful. It sounded easy.

The participants* were already waiting in the front lobby when I arrived a half hour early. I hurried downstairs to the volunteer lounge, signed in, grabbed my name tag and headed back up to the lobby. Being early gave me a chance to chat with residents before the wheelchair accessible bus arrived. The recreational therapist made sure everyone had what they needed before we loaded up.

Most able-bodied people, (especially those who do not have friends or family with a disability) take something like going out for a drive for granted. It is relatively easy for most families to pack a lunch or hit the nearest drive thru, and head out to the park for a picnic. An outing from a care facility is not the same as packing up the family for a Sunday drive, unless your family includes five people in wheelchairs. I give my head a shake when I remember how I used to complain about the hassle of packing up a diaper bag or a stroller to go somewhere with a couple of young children in tow. Little did I know.

The load up alone took over 20 minutes as each resident was lifted into the bus using a ramp and their wheelchair secured with multiple belts hooked to wall and floor anchors. The bus was too big to go through a drive thru, so it was just as well that this particular KFC did not have that option. But without an outdoor menu board, it was hard for some of the people to choose what meal they wanted. Even some who knew what they wanted had trouble communicating it due to their disabilities.

The Recreational Aide and I ran back and forth between bus and restaurant a few times before the food orders were decided and ready to go. We grabbed extra napkins. The distinct aroma of KFC taunted us on the way to the park and everyone was eager to eat.

We should have done our homework and planned ahead a little better. Wheelchair accessibility and a convenient picnic area are hard to come by on a warm Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The handi-bus driver spotted some tables in the woods at the far end of the parking lot and away from the crowds. Out there we were far from wheelchair friendly territory. The gravel pathways and dirt track required a lot of pushing and manoeuvring to get everyone settled into place but we finally set out the food and drinks.

We forgot to bring drinking straws, thank goodness for the extra napkins.

After lunch was cleaned up, the trip back to the bus was easier because we knew the safest route across the gravel and we had cleared away most of the dead fall sticks and other debris on our way in. Even so, M___ , in her brand new motorized wheelchair was understandably nervous about getting stuck or damaging her chair.

Nothing is easy or straightforward when it comes to organizing and executing off-site activities for people with limited mobility. You can never assume that any location is truly accessible, with adequate ramps, wide doors and paved surfaces for wheelchairs and walkers. The time involved in securely transporting people confined to wheelchairs, gaining access to restaurants, and finding elevators is always a factor.

Since our adventure in Fish Creek last fall, I’ve been on another outing, this one to the Devonian Gardens in downtown Calgary. Recent renovations to the gardens should have ensured complete accessibility, and in most ways it did, but for various reasons, that outing was just as challenging as going on the picnic, especially when it came to securing elevators and finding space for a large handi-bus to load and unload.

Patience is the key when it comes to dealing with disabilities. I’ve learned a lot of patience. As a volunteer I also realize that the logistics of ensuring the health and safety of people living in a care facility are truly daunting. My greatest respect goes out to the staff and therapists who do their job every day.

This is not a call for everyone to go out and volunteer at a senior’s home or care facility. Do as your heart leads you, but the next time able-bodied you is standing at an elevator with a couple of Venti Lattes in hand (instead of taking the escalator or, heaven forbid, the stairs), step back, hold the door and let the wheelchairs in first please. And never take for granted the freedom you have to go out to a picnic in the park or on a Sunday drive.

*I do not give the name of the care center or residents for reasons of confidentiality.


Image from Wikipedia creative commons

Image from Wikipedia creative commons

The recent sighting of robins in my backyard brought back a memory of spring rains. One year in particular comes to mind.

The rains came, and it was more than spring showers, it was a three day soaking that got tiresome after the second day. The city air was clean by the first afternoon, the grime washed off the trees and power lines, the layers of winter dust were washed away. By the third day, the ground was saturated and our boots squelched as we walked across the field. Our entire house smelled of wet dog all the time.

Outside I could smell the worms, mouldering leaves, the first flowers of spring.

The only good thing about three days of rain was seeing the robins bopping around in the yard. We knew they were after the worms. The robins stared at the bounty with beady eyes on tilted heads. Their ears listened for the sound of dew worms squirming just below the surface. A birdie smorgasbord.

For some reason the robins ignored the worms crawling over the sidewalks in full view. They preferred  to pick their own, would put the first few aside, then pick some more. They tossed the poor worms around for a while, like cats playing with mice, then pinched them into smaller pieces before deciding which bits tasted the best. It was a complicated ritual.

By the third day, the robins were getting pretty plump—full to the brim with red breasts swelling like some over-stuffed guest at Easter dinner. Some looked too fat to fly, as if they had put on too much ‘worm weight’ and their wings weren’t strong enough for lift off. Robins can’t loosen their belts either, so they just ran around when they got too full. They ran around a lot.

I love the robins in our yard. I’m sure the same ones come back every spring. We recognized one particular male robin with a distinct, quirky appearance. The feathers on his head looked like he got a flat-top buzz cut, possibly the result of a close shave with a predator. He had a lot of attitude in a small package. This fellow was vocal and not afraid to stake out his territory as he sat atop the power pole out behind our house, especially in the evening. I have not seen him for a couple of years, maybe the replacements are his offspring.

So far I’ve only seen a couple of robins in my yard this year. It’s still early though, and we have yet to get a really good soaking rain.  Such is the beauty of Calgary. The robins, like spring will come, even if we have to wait until July.

Writing by the River

We sit by the Elbow River just west of Calgary city limits. The sound of the river is constant as water tumbles over rocks, creating a continuous murmur that ebbs and flows with the sigh of wind through the black poplars across the river.

Our backs are to the sun, our eyes and ears toward the water rushing past in its headlong haste to reach the reservoir. Small waves lap at our feet where we’ve set up our camp chairs on the rocky bank. Here the water runs clear over rocks that are rubbed smooth and laid out like a mosaic in patterns of small and large, flat and round, grey and beige. Out beyond the shoal of gravel the water is dark brown and green where it gets deep. A log lies below the surface, visible only as a shadow.

Sunlight glints off ripples on the surface. Further out there are waves and eddies. The greatest agitation occurs near the far shore where a steep bank is cut by the river, exposing soil and roots, green right up to the edge. The next time the water rises, it will carve away more of the bank, but for now the Elbow  River is well contained within its channel.

Birds do not chirp out here. They call. They whistle. They swoop and dart after insects we cannot see. Flies and long legged things skip over the rocks at our feet. A pleasant breeze keeps the mosquitoes and heat stroke at bay.

There is no shade except that which we have brought with us—hat, towel and a small patch beside our chairs where the cooler sits. We can spend an afternoon here like this; me with my notebooks and reading material, my husband with his fishing equipment. He’s a ‘metal chucker’ which means that he fishes from shore with a rod and reel, instead of fly fishing while wearing hip waders and standing in thigh high water.

Catch and release. The point is to never bring anything home, not even a photo, as proof of this man versus fish contest. A tiny Brook trout flips itself off the barb-less  hook close to shore. Caught and then uncaught, free to swim and feed, and maybe to be caught again.

We sit near each other. I’m not too close to interfere with his casting and he seldom asks me what I’m writing. I guess that is what 26 years of marriage will allow us, the comfort to be here together and experience the Zen of the River without having to analyze it.