Monday, March 14, 2011

All My Heart and Stroke

My father gave us a Heart and Stroke Lottery Calendar for Christmas. There's a daily prize of $5,000. There are also bonus draws: $10,000 every Friday and $100,000 on the last day of the month. Special occasions merit special jackpots, such as this Thursday's $30,000 St. Patrick's Day lucky chance. At first I thought this was an odd sort of Christmas present (sorry, Dad). But I confess I check the Prize Calendar Site daily. Sometimes more than once. Now every day seems filled with possibility. When I wonder how I'm going to pay the Visa bill, or when I'm dreaming of swaying palms, I simply check the Winners' Wall. Never one to buy lottery tickets or go to the casino, I wonder at all the years I've been living without such a simple solution to hopelessness (financial hopelessness, that is).

This is how I can tell that I'm at a "career" crossroads. These are some of the paths to choose from: 1. Remain a starving writer (well, that's a bit of an exaggeration as I have an Italian husband who likes food so much he's willing to work on cruise ships and feed us). 2. Return to school and learn a "hard" skill rather than another "soft" skill. Apparently artsy things like writing are soft skills (translation: difficult to observe, quantify and measure (in order to pay writers fairly, or at all)) 3. Believe that the Winners' Wall will soon display our names (preferably on the last day of the month or a jackpot day). Am I wrong to choose option 3? To believe and believe with all my Heart and Stroke? They have won in Yarker and Beamsville and South Porcupine--doesn't Cowichan Lake deserve to grace the Winners' Wall?

If it doesn't, I fear for the worst. Now that I'm a volunteer receptionist at Cowichan Lake Community Services and Employment Centre where I have learned to send faxes, sell bus tickets, and loan out commodes--I have access to the latest job opportunities in the region. Unfortunately, I lack the hard skills required to become an air duct cleaning assistant (no ventilation system or boiler experience). I also lack experience as an Industrious Water Blaster Operator, and do not possess a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information (WHMIS) Certificate. These are the types of jobs that pay over $10 an hour. For less, I could promote credit cards at Thrifty's, deliver pizza, or sell cars. It seems I am qualified to do these things. Did I mention my Bachelor of Arts degree from The University of British Columbia? My list of publications? Did you know I've spent twenty years living all over the world and speak the travel lingo of several languages?

You can see why I'm praying with all my Heart and Stroke. My horoscope said this will be the month I realize all my hopes and dreams. There are seventeen days left. One Jackpot. Two Friday bonuses. One chance for a hundred thousand. I used to think money didn't matter. That was before I was on the brink of turning forty with an ailing Toyota Corolla and a set of teeth that need cleaning. I'm not saying it matters now--as soon as I'm on the Winners' Wall it won't. For the reality is that anything you worry about every day begins to matter whether you like it or not. So maybe I should simply worry about something else. Like AIDS orphans in Africa or the earthquake in Japan.

Maybe these money worries are simply a symptom of self-absorption. Maybe I should just buck up and get a full-time job. Any job. The majority of the world does it--why shouldn't I? Nothing held me back before. I started working at the tender age of twelve making pizza at Square Boys. I went on to bake doughnuts, wash dishes, clean houses, waitress, plant trees, tutor, survey caves. I've even been a telemarketer. This was all before I qualified (in the eyes of The Canada Council for the Arts) as a professional writer. Perhaps I've simply become a snob with credit cards. Just like The Heart and Stroke Calendar, my credit cards provide me with the illusion of imaginary wealth. They also provide me with a daily activity--the counting of accrued interest.

It's ironic that the calendar was a gift from a man who once said: "I don't care if you shovel shit. Just get a job." I come from a family with a strong work ethic. They're not the type to sit around and watch The Winners' Wall. I'm certain my father didn't realize he was, to borrow a social-worker term, enabling me to dream of a change in circumstance rather than take action. But please don't take away my calendar. Is it so bad to dream just a little while longer before I learn about Class D2 Poisonous and Infectious Materials (including carcinogens, sensitizers, and embroyotoxins) or how to scour a boiler? Is it so bad to dream with all my Heart and Stroke?

Thank you for reading.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Power Wimps

The gust swept across the deck and blew the wind chimes sideways. It was a wind worthy of Haida Gwaii status, strong enough to bend trees like grass blades. But this time I stood in a house that withstood its force. A house built upon concrete foundations rather than four rounds of cedar. It felt surreal to stand firm while the surrounding landscape was whipped into a frenzy. Another gust hit. The power went out.

It was 10 a.m. I looked at the list of chores to do in town. "Maybe the power's still on there," Giuseppe suggested. It wasn't. We neared the dark library expecting to use the drop off box. But inside, it was business as usual. "Thank you so much for coming," the librarian said. She piled my returns on a trolley. "I'll take care of them later, don't worry." She turned to chat with the other patrons, all of them oblivious to the darkness. "Thank you so much for coming," she said again as we left.

We noted the "Open" sign in the Lake Bakery window. I looked at the grocery list. "You don't suppose The Country Grocer is open, too?" Giuseppe drove in its direction. Sure enough, the parking lot was nearly full. An elderly man, bent against the wind and the first pellets of hail, exited with an armload of bags. Magically, the sliding glass doors slid open. We wandered up and down the dark aisles as giddy as school children on a field trip. If it weren't for the red and white packing tape fencing off the freezer section, you never would have guessed The Country Grocer usually operated fully lit. The baker iced a cake. The café bustled with seniors. At the checkout, our cashier stood in her winter coat ready to scan.

At home, we unpacked our groceries. Suddenly we remembered what a power outage meant when you lived on the grid. It meant your electric stove wouldn't work. We laid out fare for a picnic, still giddy from our adventure in town. But then we started to feel cold. So cold we decided the best place to wait it out was under a down duvet. "This isn't so bad," I said, snuggling up to Giuseppe. But even that couldn't warm us for very long.

I remembered the Great Ice Storm of 1998 when I was living in Montréal. In the cold of January, millions were without power from days to weeks. A state of emergency was declared. People burned their furniture to stay warm. Pedestrians dodged falling blocks of ice. I realized this was nothing in comparison. It was only Hour Six of No Power and already we'd begun to whine. It became clear that in the less than two months since we'd left our off-the-grid cabin in the woods, we'd become power-dependent wimps.

As darkness approached, I got out of bed and filled the oil lamps. I rummaged around for some flashlights. Then I remembered to fill some jugs with water. In our cabin, such provisions had been part of daily life. Light. Water. Fire. Never for a moment did we forget to tend to such elements. No one had to remind us to keep candles in stock and our rain barrel full. There was always a reserve tank of propane for the stove and wood split for the fire. Such small attentions were all that was required to stay warm, hydrated, illuminated, fed.

By Hour Ten of No Power, our new house revealed itself for what it really was—a cold, dark shell reliant on the powers-that-be to make it a home. We huddled again under the duvet. Our festive spirit waned. We began to focus our energies on the BC Hydro gods. Despite the wind, hail, and snow, we prayed they were out there doing whatever necessary to restore our comforts.

Our prayers were instantly answered. The room flooded with light. The fridge began its merry hum. Giuseppe rushed towards the kettle. I rushed towards the thermostat. But within seconds, everything died. Three times everything came to life, then died. Three times we re-enacted our parody, laughing at the creatures of the grid we'd become.

But it wasn't really funny. With power finally restored, I soaked in the tub trying to remember that every drop had once fallen from the sky. I thought about the oil in the furnace, and the endless wires snaking across hills and valleys, trying to trace them to their source. I realized this may seem like a world of turning on taps and flicking on switches, but it's much more than that. And much simpler. It's a world of elements. And I am a creature of the elements. Thank you, power outage, for reminding me of this.

And thank you, fellow creatures, for reading.