Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Black Eye That Changed My Life: A Cautionary Tale

This is a long posting. Get yourself a coffee.

I was in Germany about 12-15 years ago, for a Summer of fun and educational opportunity. It was a three-month trip, arranged through university, where I would be given a job (dishwasher) for two months and then I could roam across Europe for the third month. It was fantastic. I enjoyed myself immensely. Dishwashing is really fun - if you know it's temporary - and you get beautiful skin because hanging over a steaming tub of water all day gives you pores like doughnuts. Two other Canadian girls were stationed in the same small town in Bavaria as me, at another nearby hotel, and we would join up every night after work for Weissbier and chaotic fun.

What a great time I had, and yet, it was the same Summer as the black eye. Or maybe I should say The Black Eye.

First, let me set the scene. I am not someone who swears a blue streak, but at the age of 21, the 'f' word rolled off my tongue occasionally, as it does for the average 21-year-old Boh drinker from Saskatchewan. I am also not someone who gets in fistfights. That Summer, though, odd things were happening.

A few weeks before The Black Eye, my two friends and I were walking home from the local disco. A man stopped his car, walked over to us, put one of my friends in a headlock, and started dragging her to his car! Can you believe it?? I couldn't believe it. She was so scared that she walked harmlessly along with him like a little bunny. This enraged me almost as much as his behaviour, and so I ran up behind him and sunk my fingers into his neck (the vulcan death grip, I think they call it) until he let her go. We all ran like the wind, and came away thinking we were very clever indeed. I was patting myself on the back for being so strong in a crisis. Yeah.

Weeks pass. The myth of strong, brave, young females who can drink much beer and take care of themselves magnificently grows.

One day there is a beer garden in an alpine meadow near the village. My boss and his sister take me, and we meet up with many friends including my two Canadian companions. Men are dressed in lederhosen. The beer is in gigantic one litre mugs that you have to carry with both hands to lift. I think there were currywurst sausages and a lot of other accoutrements. It is the perfect alpine afternoon for the Canadian cultural tourist.

We drink. We talk. We giggle. We practise our pathetic German. German boys practise their pathetic English on us: "Hallo. I am from Germany." The day turns to evening. It gets dark, and the party continues.

It all happened in a moment. At one point, a fellow brushes by me and grabs me inappropriately on/near the breast. I fix a beady little stare on him and say something feisty in German that I think might express 'go away, you jerk'. He grabs my arm, really tight, and like a fool (I am Gwen of the vulcan death grip, remember) I pour every bit of German invective at him that I can think of. Nothing works. He doesn't go away. He certainly isn't apologizing. And then I say it. "Fuck off!" I snarl. And pop. The Black Eye.

Boy does that hurt.

He hit me so hard that I actually flew back and landed under a nearby table. I think I screamed like a banshee. It was ugly. My boss, who had been chatting with other people 10 feet away and missed the whole thing, came running over and said to the guy, "What are you doing to our Canadian girl?!?" The guy said, "She swore at me horribly in English."

So there you go. It was a really traumatic event for me, and I have thought about it from many different angles in the years since it happened. I was never someone who got into fights, as I said, aside from play-wrestling with my sister or the odd boyfriend. Play-wrestling is nothing like the real thing. The biggest shock of all of it was the realization that I could be overpowered and hurt at any second, surrounded by other people, including my friends. I had taken women's self-defense years earlier, and I always thought I was capable of defending myself. Suddenly I felt as powerless as a tiny bug.

If I was smart (or older and wiser), I would have gotten on a plane immediately and come home. As it was, I still thought I wanted to see Europe. As I remember, we finished our jobs and got on the train - we spent two days in Vienna, and in the train station waiting to go to Greece, I had a complete fit. Crying, wailing. I concluded that I couldn't possibly do any more travelling (thank God one's body is smarter than one's 21-year-old brain). One of my friends decided to stay with me, since she was broke anyway. Where did we go for the month? Back to the German village, which at least was familiar. My boss was fabulous. He gave us a great deal on a room in the inn, and we worked in the kitchen for him, whiling away the days quietly.

When I finally got home to Canada, it didn't take very long and I became completely unglued. By this point, I viewed the whole Black Eye episode as a sexual assault of sorts, since it all happened because I had warded off an inappropriate sexual advance. I became a manic control freak first: I got three jobs (on top of my four university classes), a whacked-out roommate who kept me up to all hours telling me wild stories, and decided that I could save a lot of money if I HANDWASHED ALL MY CLOTHES. Yeah. CRAZY.

Then I started to lose it in a different way. I decided that the only male person that I could trust was my ex-boyfriend, who was by then involved with someone else. Oh the tragedy. I made his life hell. I became totally obsessed, rarely slept, cried all night, ate nothing, sank into manic despair. I lost 20 pounds in a month. I looked fabulous (aside from my wild Russian-novel eyes), but man, was I messed up. By November I had hit bottom.

And then I began to get well again.

I'd never willingly go through any of that again, but that whole experience was invaluable to me. The most valuable lesson: I have a very clear understanding of how thin the line is between madness and sanity, and how easy it is for a person to cross that line. (I also started considering that maybe I should drink less, or do it in safer company.)

As the years passed and I got more distance from the event, I have changed the way that I think about The Black Eye. I was not hit because I warded off a sexual advance. I was hit because I aggravated an event that I could have diffused. I could have remembered that I was standing with two friends who couldn't get themselves out of a life-threatening headlock, and so weren't likely to assist me in a moment of trouble. I could have told him firmly that I did not appreciate his behaviour, and if the situation got worse, I could have called my boss in to help me. (My women's self-defense motto now is 'why try to break his collarbone yourself, if you have a 200 pound friend nearby who could do it for you?')

And the funniest thing of all of it? He hit me because I said the 'f' word.

I should have known the 'f' word was a bad idea. The Germans have an 'f' word of their own - I think it's 'ficken', but no one uses it as an oath. It's just a vulgar and coarse verb. All that Summer, if any of us said the 'f' word in English in mixed German/Canadian company, someone German would appear shocked and appalled. They think that the 'f' word is the worst possible thing you could ever say. And yet, all this knowledge escaped me, when the 'f' word was what I thought would really express what I meant to say. That night. In the alpine meadow. With the cows lowing in the background, the strings of party lights, and the oompah band doing its finest.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Painting on My Day Off

Whew! I had yesterday and today off (since I work the weekend), and spent the better part of each day painting all the trim in the kitchen and the dining room. Yay! It's all done! Finishing interior painting three years after I move into a house has got to be a record for me.

Oop. Except that we're not done the trim in the front entrance, so the interior is in fact not done. Dang. It had to be too good to be true. That area is still under discussion; some days I want to paint the trim and some days I want to strip and refinish all the fir trim instead. I love the look of refinished fir, especially tight-grain old fir, but man, that's a lot of work. The front entrance is probably 4 ft x 4 ft in area, but it has two doorways, so there's enough trim to strip for many weeks. I remain undecided.

I'm a hearty and enthusiastic painter, but messy, so I always used green painter's tape to clean up the edges. Taping out the trim in both rooms yesterday took me the better part of an hour all by itself. Sprout was hilarious when he came home and saw it: "Mummy putta uppa tape. Is pretty." (with a little head nod). I love the running commentary from the knee-high conversationalist. (okay, waist-high).

In other news, have procured an epi-pen for the Sprout, and have arranged an appointment with the allergist. Am under some pressure from the in-laws to make Christmas cookies anyways, but am nervous about using a lot of nuts until I talk to the doctor.

Because we are broke from the kitchen renovations, Jimbo and I have been borrowing a lot of free movies from the Library instead of renting movies. Our latest jag has been the "Rumpole of the Bailey" series from the late 70s. It's very entertaining. "She who must be obeyed!" is a Rumpole joke that never seems to get tired. Or not yet, anyway.

I haven't been to the gym for weeks, unfortunately, but I did get to the swimming pool yesterday for a few laps to escape the stinky paint smell in the house. I always dread the idea of gathering all my stuff and dragging myself to the pool, but once I'm there, I love it so much. We lived two blocks from the pool where I grew up, and I think I was there every day that it was open for our short Saskatchewan summers. As soon as I'm actually in the water, I am transported back to those drowsy days of swimming, giggling, and sleeping on my towel in the hot sun.

Today, I wandered downtown to escape the paint smell, instead of swimming. I usually get the Sprout from daycare on my days off and take him with me, but he's probably better away from the paint fumes for as long as possible. And it's really nice to recharge my 'who am I, anyway' batteries. I did some errands, browsed through a used bookstore, got a coffee, and am blogging happily for a few minutes.

Oh, and one more note about The Squirrel Cafe. I was talking to my sister on the telephone the other night, and she said "I don't think I'm enough of an intellectual to ever go to the Squirrel Cafe." Don't you hate that when really smart people don't think that they are really smart? She may not enjoy a salon at the Squirrel, but I did remind her that there will always be a game of Boggle set up in a cosy corner for her. After all, she is the only person who will play Boggle with me anymore, and who can beat me at least half the time... Where would the world be without word freaks??

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Tales From Small Town Saskatchewan: Boh

My friend T reminded me the other day that I have never blogged about Boh. This is a terrible oversight, if I fancy that I am giving the world any sort of taste of smalltown Saskatchewan.

Boh. Short for 'Bohemian'. Only the finest beer that Saskatchewan has to offer. A pale lager. Zippy. Unpretentious. With three gold medals for excellence right on the front label. I just found it reviewed on a beer website, and it still seems to stand up, although the gold medals are from the sixties, I think.

In Leader and other neighbouring small towns, Boh had a very bad reputation when I was young. It was the beer that the old drunks swill all day in the local bar. When I came to Saskatoon for university, however, my friend and I ordered Boh as a joke one day - and it turned out to be fantastic! Who knew that the old drunks were on to something. You can't buy Boh in every pub in Saskatchewan; but if you find it in a pub, you know immediately that the owners must be connoisseurs of beer, who know that there are pockets of devoted Boh-fans out there.

So there you go. Boh. The misunderstood Saskatchewan beer.

The Woobie

With nothing better to do the other day as I walked to work, I was thinking about the physical and verbal baggage that comes with having ex-lovers in your past. Not that this baggage is bad, but it's odd to occasionally look at a cup and think 'Mr. X gave me that; wasn't that relationship a million years ago'.

Recently, one of my favourite shirts got a hole in it, and I announced at home, "This will be my new woobie!" When I was seventeen, my first boyfriend was an engineer. He was a nice fellow, but once I started university and realized that there was more to life than what a small town existence offers, we soon grew apart in interests and society. Eighteen years later, I have nothing tangible left from that year-long relationship aside from the word "woobie".

I don't actually even know how to spell the word "woobie". All I know is that the Engineer always used it to mean 'a shirt that is really warm and comfortable, but that is in such bad shape that you could never wear it outside your house'. I've lost the endless stream of Monty Python jokes that I picked up hanging out with the engineers, and I've certainly lost a taste for Molson Canadian beer, but I think the woobie has stuck.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Squirrel Cafe and Walter Mitty

This whole Sprout is allergic to peanuts thing has me bummed. I don't mean to be heartless - I love my child and will do whatever I need to do to keep him safe. At the same time, it's going to take some adjustments in lifestyle. And maybe in daydreams.

We all have a secret life, I suspect. We all have moments when we imagine our lives to be completely different, or moments when we plan for the future, no matter how unlikely the plan. My Walter Mitty moments come when I think about the Squirrel Cafe.

I have this daydream that someday I'm going to open a coffee shop in Saskatoon called The Squirrel Cafe. Like 'Library Squirrel' itself, there will be an amalgum of squirrel and library elements. This is all not likely to happen any time soon, since we have no venture capital just lying around our little hyper-renovated house. But it makes me happy to think about.

At the Squirrel Cafe, only the best cookies and cakes will be served (hence the 9 years of cookie recipe research). Every coffee or tea will come with a free cookie of your choice. Cookies may contain nuts, of course, since it IS the Squirrel Cafe. Select newspapers from around the world will be on wooden library rods, with which patrons might while away the afternoon. A selection of reference books will be on hand, to settle the occasional literary or political argument. Salons will be held regularly at the Squirrel Cafe, where the rodentia intelligentsia might gather to discuss events of the day. Sun will flood in through the windows in the mornings, and low romantic lighting will make the place cozy at night during the long, cold winters. The music (Squirrel Nut Zippers, perhaps?) will never be so loud that people can't chat.

Sometimes the menu gets broader, depending on how fabulous Jim's latest culinary accomplishment gets. When we have an incredible breakfast, or he cooks something wonderful from the Moosewood cookbook, I dream about dineresque elements at the Squirrel. Jim in a white apron at the back, flipping pancakes and mixing up a mess of /slumgolly/ (I have no idea how to spell this Jim-word for scrambled eggs mixed with cheddar, tomatoes, and basil). A vat of homemade Cauliflower Mac and Cheese bubbling under the hotlamp. Linguine with Zucchini and Lemon, dusted with fresh ground pepper. Followed by a dark, hot, little cup of coffee and some good conversation.

When I take a mental vacation, I put on my imaginary waitressing apron and this is where I go, to The Squirrel Cafe.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Squirrels and Nuts

We figured out conclusively last night that the Sprout has a peanut allergy.

Not to panic - it's just hives, not breathing difficulties (so far). On two previous occasions, he got hives from food but we couldn't pin it on peanuts exactly. But last night, while patting peanut butter cookie dough into balls, he definitely had a reaction and it could only be from the peanut butter.

I have no experience with hives. Wow. Can they ever come on fast. It was 10 minutes between the dough rolling, a tiny taste, and the full-body hive action. And his allergy is even a contact allergy - he got hives all over his hands from the peanut oil. And then he rubbed his peanut-buttery hands into his itchy little eyes. Ooh la la la. We stuck him straight into the bathtub and rubbed him with baking soda/water.

He had some eczema this Spring/Summer, and one of the drugs that the dermatologist prescribed was an antihistamine that helps eczema patients sleep without itching too much. Luckily, we had this antihistamine on hand and gave it to him the moment all the hives appeared. Within 10 minutes of that, the hives stopped itching and started to clear up. Poor little bunny. It was really scary for me, since I've never been around hives much, but Jim handled it with his usual aplomb. And we agreed that I should finish making the cookies since there seemed to be no risk of Sprout suffocating.

I'm going to consult with Sprout's doctor about how allergies can progress, so we know what the risks are. Jim eats peanut butter every day, and having it in the house seems to have no effect on Mister Bobo. That's a relief. And Bobo helped me make cookies with ground almonds in them last week, with absolutely no histamine reaction. So it might just be peanuts, and not all nuts. If it's all nuts, then I'm in trouble.

As a tradition, I usually make a ton of Christmas cookies around this time, and most of them have nuts in them (I am a squirrel, after all). I'm thinking that I'll hold off on making some of them this year, though, since it seems like teasing to make cookies in front of the Sprout that he can't have.

The bittersweet part of this whole story from last night is that the peanut butter cookies were unbelievable.

I'm always shopping for a good cookie recipes (collecting good cookie recipes is one of my haphazard hobbies), and only 1 in 20 is worth keeping. Most of the cookie recipes out there should be drop-kicked off a cliff, in my opinion. And I am a dessert snob, after my four years of working at Calories. It has to be pretty stunning to make my list.

Last night's Magic Peanut Butter Middles were a keeper. You make a paste of peanut butter and icing sugar - this paste is rolled into tiny little balls (a la Sprout). Then you also make a chocolate cookie dough, and wrap each peanut butter ball in chocolate dough. The finished product is flattened with a glass onto the cookie sheet and baked for nine minutes. And presto: a chewy, chocolate cookie with a surprising, creamy, peanut butter middle! Oh my God.

Jim had to run down the alley at 9:30 p.m. to take half of them to John and Amy, so we wouldn't both get tummyaches from gorging ourselves. And now, Sprout had such fun (and doesn't connect "make a cookie, anna putta onna sheet!" with being really itchy and crying), that he wants to make more cookies...

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Finally - People Came to My Library Program!

I have been getting beaten down this season, because many of the computer programs that I designed had to be cancelled due to low registrations.

"Improve Your HISTORY Grades @ the Library" went down first; then "Improve Your LITERATURE Grades..." bit it - both great programs for focused learning about library research tools. After that, "Blog This! Blogging for Teen Writers" had to be cancelled too, since I guess teens already know how to blog?

The unregistered public lectures also didn't fare very well. Fewer people than I expected came to the first two programs in my lecture series on Emerging Technologies (Web Design with Flash, Blogs and RSS). With the public lectures, we are always competing with other community events - I guess there were a series of lectures about the Syncrotron on the same nights, and the weather wasn't great one night either.

Last night, though, there were eight people who came early and eager to learn, for the final Emerging Technology lecture: "20 Tips for Power Searching". It was the Gwen and Gwen Show (I presented the program with my colleague, the other Gwen), and we did a damn fine job, despite some technical difficulties. Eight people doesn't sound like a lot, but they were very keen and this is a pretty good turnout for an adult program here. Whew. I thought no-one would show up.

A recurring challenge for us as librarians who want to train the public is to get people to come out and learn how to use the catalogue and the online databases that we subscribe to. There is so much quality information there that not enough people know how to use. If we offer a class on 'learning how to use the Library catalogue', then no one registers. If we offer a class on 'using the library databases to find information', no one wants to come either. But I think we pitched it just right this time:

"20 Tips for Power Searching"

"Want to get the most out of using your Library and the Internet? Learn how to take information searching to a new level! Two librarians share tips and tricks you can use to maximize your search results. Sit back and watch the professionals at work in this lecture-style search fest."

*Snort* "Search fest!" I make myself laugh.

Anyway, had a great time (although the catalogue went down once, and the server went down once - all in the same hour!)(we were reduced to talking about Google on a theoretical level, with chalk and blackboard, for about 10 minutes).

After this success, I might just have the energy to plan some more programs for the Spring. The chances are that at least one of them will fly. In February, we are already planning to do a program on "The Invisible Web", which is another way to pitch the databases. Database content is one of those types of information that doesn't show up in a search engine search (hence is 'invisible'), so we are going to focus on teaching people how to find this quality content.

Am I boring you? I'll stop.

Chocolate Squirrel

On Saturday morning, I decided that I would take a 'one day at a time' approach to removing my chocolate addiction. I lasted until 2:30 p.m. Yup. Got it bad. (It didn't help that our house still had some Halloween candy left over.)

I would like my food psychologist acquaintance to comment sometime on whether chocolate has a place in the 'food and gender' discussion. Is chocolate a 'chick food'? (One could also muse first, of course, on whether chocolate IS food.)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The "I Love You" Convergence

Isn't it weird when the same theme comes up twice within two days in separate conversations?

Yesterday I was talking to my friend D who had just gone to her first Al-Anon meeting. She said it went well aside from the group greeting: when they heard that she was a newcomer, each person turned to her, introduced him/herself, and then said "I love you." Now, D is a very caring person and so not averse to "love", but proclamations from 20 complete strangers is a decidedly different matter.

On a separate note, I have never heard the Sprout say "I love you." It's one of those mushy things all parents wait for. Anyway, this morning, I'm standing in the doorway at daycare talking to Sue who takes care of him. Sprout is playing in the background. All of a sudden, he hurries towards us saying, in a light conversational tone, "I love you. I love you. I love you." I whirl attentively, only to discover that he isn't really saying it. He is simply repeating the sound that comes out of the motion-sensitive large plastic squirrel figurine that he is carrying. If you move near it, it says "I love you. I love you." (Imagine a tiny, high computerized voice).

How many not-really-love "I love you's" can you get in a 24-hour period?