A Short and Incomplete History of Neighbourhoods. With a Very Western European Slant.

So I was on the phone to my aunt just now and I mentioned how we were possibly going to be in the market for another place, and didn’t that suck because this was where I wanted to be, and she pointed out something I’d thought of often before, but then I took it a step farther and had one of those connective Eureka moments. So.

She pointed out that good neighbourhoods are like small towns. You see many, many familiar faces every day.

I said, yes, and then MY HEAD EXPLODED!

Let’s take it back a while.

People need groups. We learned, at the dawn of time, that there have to be people who go out to find food and people who stay home to keep a fire going. I do not have a degree in anthropology, but I do know that, even when people lived in caves and migrated with the caribou, we needed folks to do different things. Periodically, a group would be diminished by disease or starvation, or, in good times, would swell ranks so that it would put a strain on the resources the area had to offer. So a group would splinter off to another place, and the cycle would begin again. The point is, the extended family, clan, tribe, or whatever you want to call it, enriched the lives of individuals.

Several thousand years pass. The time we call the Early Middle Ages is upon Western Europe. There’s not a lot to eat, but people still stick together in small villages, because sticking together is a whole lot easier than going it alone. Down around the Mediterranean and environs, things are a little more advanced, probably because it’s warmer and there are more crops to barter for money to build stuff, such as Constantinople, which was founded in AD 324. Also, the Roman Empire allows for more ease of travel, owing to roads and garrisons of soldiers around the place. Where there are people who can work together, and the weather and health conditions permit, there is surplus, there is trade, and there is advancement. Still, people sticking together.

Up in Northern Europe, Bodo the Peasant is still calling a turnip a mighty good dinner, especially if they stew it with some of Gona’s cow’s milk, and have it with some of the bread that Wat, from the village, made. Sticking together, but not as glamorously as them down south. Nevertheless, Bodo trades turnips for Wat’s bread, who trades bread for Gona’s cow’s milk, and so on. They all benefit.

The Dark Ages continue pretty much this way for 90% of Europeans. But it would have been a hell of a lot harsher if they didn’t have one another to depend on.

Even from the Iron age, settlements were quite regularly spaced. Generally, any market town was only about a half-day’s walk from the villages and hamlets around it. That way, they could get up at dawn and go to the market, to sell any surplus produce or handicrafts they had produced, and be back home quickly enough. A market town was generally on some kind of river or stream, for transportation purposes. Market towns still weren’t big, but at least they were a place for people to meet, exchange news, contract agreements, etc.

Bigger settlements were also usually on rivers. Paris, which was founded by parisii Celts in 250BC, made a name for itself early on as a trading center. The original settlement is on the island in the middle of the Seine, the better to defend from invaders. Insular, yes. Smart, also yes.

But the years go by. There is more and more extra food, which means more babies live. Higher population overall. But in Bodo and Wat and Gona’s village, the population outstrips what the land can support. What happens? Influx to bigger communities. People go to the cities to learn a specialized trade. And what happens in the cities? It’s crowded. It’s dirty. It’s noisy, compared to Good Old Home.

People get homesick. They see the people they work with every day, and those people become kind of a surrogate family. They promise to look out for one another, they know each other’s families, and the drink and celebrate feasts together. Voila! The guilds are born! Of course, the guilds were instrumental in bringing order to the chaos of a free-market economy as well. But people did what people do: They worked together for the better good of all.

The Black Death reduced Europe’s population by a full third, and there was some turbulence afterward. Whole villages were wiped out, particularly those where houses were closest together and people saw each other several times a day. In the cities, it was even worse. But did that stop people? Untimately, no. They worked together to rebuild what was lost. Ironically, the cull of population meant that the survivors had more food, once the system was set back up, and so they could grow stronger, travel farther afield, and meet new people and see new places.

The Renaissance saw a continuation of the growth in towns, and people working together. The idea of a Master’s studio, with tons of apprentices and journeymen working together really came into its own at ths time, particularly in the Arts. Michelangelo didn’t work alone. There were people watching, learning, and the lucky ones were painting backgrounds or copying rough sketches.

The Industrial Revolution came along. More resources, bigger population. More crowding in the cities. More need, than ever before, for people to look out for one another, even if they live in hovels. So they do. Think of the linguists who could tell a person’s birthplace, in London, to within a few streets. That didn’t happen by accident. People stick together, especially in the hard times.

Think of settlement in the New World. People settled in groups, to work together. Heck, even fur trappers needed guides and support as they mapped their way across the continent.

So it comes down to 2006. I need a neighbourhood. I need the people I depend on, from the guy at the corner store, who has an opinion about whatever issue, to the neighbourhood pub, where I make my opinions known. If the Industrial Revolution comes and I have to find a new home, I will still need support. I need to trade a turnip for a cup of milk.

Labour of Love.

I love my house. I don’t mean just our suite, although it is a prime example of a ‘70’s reno done by stoned labourers in a house with no foundations, so there are no right angles and everything’s a bit dark. I do love our not-as-purple-as-it-was bathroom. I love the laundry attached to the suite. I love the posts that support the house, right in my living room. I love the one, randomly plastered wall. I love the crappy built-in bookcases. But I don’t just love the suite.

I mean, I love the house. I love how it sits in a row of mostly shabby beauties, grande dames of a time when folks sat on shady porches and kept an eye on the street. I love how they lean together as though for support. I love how the land deeds are grandfathered so that some folks own the back part of the side paths and some folks own the front part.

I love how far down the garden seems from my landlady’s tiny front veranda. I love comparing gardening triumphs with Jean up the street, who is teaching me how to let our garden go ‘native’. (Don’t pull a lot of weeds out, just buttercups and dandelions and morning glories ) I love that my landlady lets me do whatever I want to the garden, and calls down, “Hey, those pink things are nice. Are they new?”

I love my landlady, who lets me go up and watch cable and play with her cat when she goes to Florida, as I stir the cat’s food around and make the gravy just right. I have become accustomed to her stentorian snoring. Also, I can always tell she’s in a cleaning frenzy, because Jurassic Park is on really loud up there. I love my landlady’s mother, who can’t give me a recipe for her chili, because ‘It’s just food, dear. I can never remember how much of what I put in there’. I love the guy upstairs, who now borrows my Terry Pratchett novels and raves over them. I love his cat, who is about 16 years old, but will still attack my ankles if he thinks I am being untoward in getting the mail from the mailbox.

I love the stained glass in the house beside us. I love knowing the dog owners and knowing the local dogs. I love when Jean’s daughter comes down to see what I’m doing, and I make her tell her mom she’s okay and with me, and we are making deadheaded-daffodil bouquets. I love the cadre of Vietnamese women who hide bottles in our viburnum bushes.

I love my house. So when my landlady told me her business partner, who owns part of the house, was thinking of selling, it broke my heart. It’s killing her. The guy has had a bout with colon cancer, and he’s trying to simplify his finances. She was crying when she told me. She’s been here twenty years.

I don’t want to leave.

Matching Colours.

So I’m riding the bus up to UBC today and I can’t help but notice the newspapers are all about Valentines Day. This is all fine and good, except that it’s a massive commercial enterprise designed to cash in on people’s romantic feelings, but that’s another rant.

Anyway, there’s this feature-more pictures than words, can’t have people actually hurting themselves by reading, can we? It’s somethng like “Hollywood Couples We’d Like To See”. Fine, whatever. But let’s take a closer look.

Jet Li and Lucy Liu.


Because they’re both Asian, obviously. You know, they have so much to talk about, with the whole Asianness and stuff. Plus, they must get along, because, look, their hair and eyes are the same colour. That guarantees a healthy relationship, doesn’t it?

Never mind that she grew up in Queens, and he was born just outside of Beijing. She’s an A-list movie star who relishes the limelight and he’s very quiet about his personal life. According to something I read, he turned down the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to be with his wife during pregnancy. Yeah. A perfect couple, indeed.

They do have Marital Arts in common, as he trained in Wushu and she trained in Kali-Escrima-silat, which is, apparently, knife and stick fighting.

So they’re the same race and they both do martial arts. They must be perfect for one another. Sheesh!

The ongoing reluctance of the media to acknowledge that people of different races can and do become romantically involved with one another really picks my ass.

If I were single, today’s crusade would be to go out there and kiss as many people (no sexism here either) of as many races as I could find. And I’d get someone to take pictures. I would be a one-woman campaign, spreading the love, not just to people of Northern European descent like myself, but to people of all the colours of skin in the world. Then I would take those pictures, copy them as big as possible, and post them on billboards. Ha, take THAT, closed-minded Media honkies!

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day.

Polar Bears.

S, one of my Sunday students, is doing a project on polar bears. I pride myself on knowing a lot about animals, in a kind of overview sense, but Holy Cats! Polar bears are so cool!

They have black skin. It’s not just their noses or feet. It’s all over. This helps them attract and retain heat in the frigid Arctic temperatures.

Their fur is transparent and hollow. It looks white because of the sun and all the glare, but the hairs are really little hollow needles, designed to take in as much sun as possible, letting the black skin absorb it, and warming up the little hollow tubes.

Female polar bears can be 9 feet long, according to S’s research. Males can be 11 feet. We measured this aginst her family’s dining room table, and decided that must be when they’re standing on their back legs or something. They are the world’s largest land carnivores, but 11 feet? it’s just excessive. Go on, measure. Eleven feet is hayuuge!

But something was bugging me as I came home. Didn’t I read something about them starving? Lo and behold, I get online and find BitchPhD has written about it today!

They’re drowning because of Global Warming. Polars are prodidgious swimmers, but the melting ice floes are causing them to have to go further afield to find the juicy, fatty seals that comprise the majority of their diet. They can’t decide to cut back. Staying alive in the Arctic burns a lot of calories. They eat a lot (On average, 9lbs of meat per day), so they really have to keep on their polar toes.

So here’s my solution: We find the fattiest, juiciest senators and other politicos, airlift them into Polar Bear territory, and save those bears. The bears would have enough to eat, and the politicos would be, for once, doing something useful.

So who’s with me?

Oh, That’s What Happened.

I forgot. I’m a misanthropist. That’s why I have so few friends; Most people bore me so badly that I don’t want to become friends with them. The sheer tedium of listening to them opine about their sad little lives fills me with despair and the only recourse is to remove myself before I form a relationship with them where I am forced to listen to their minutiae.

I didn’t intend to be this way. In fact, I can remember a time when I was interested in people. I enjoyed hearing about their lives. I wanted to get to know them better. But people, you know, their stories are so similar, if they haven’t the gift to tell those stories well. People, themselves, can be heartbreakingly tedious. No gift for narrative. No surprising turn. Nothing exciting. No fire inside them. A veritable pablum of human life.

So it was in this sullen frame of mind I wandered down to the Army and Navy today. I had some vague idea of looking at shoes. Mostly, I was killing time. Some of the shoes, I loved. But as is the case at the A&N, they weren’t in the size or colour I wanted.

But here, what are these? A pair of CAT mary janes in charcoal leather and black stitching. Marked down to $14.99 from $44.00? They’re cute, they’re comfortable, and they’re practical. SOLD!

So I take them to the checkout. The sales rep is ringing them in when the rep beside her says, “We can’ get dat off.”
I look at her. She points to the security tag. “We can’ take dat off.”

Now, I am not a Nieman Marcus shopper, nor Holt Renfrew do I frequent. Yeah, I’m not really rich. I’m used to check0ut-stand snags, because the stores I shop in are lower-end. So I smile at her. “Where can I do that? The other cashstand?”

She shrugs. “Nowhere here. We don’ juse dose tags. Dose shoes are from anodder store.”

I am alarmed. “Can I still buy them? Look at the price!”

She looks and smiles in a faintly approving manner. My frugality is noted and worthwhile. “Jou can buy dem, but we don’ have de t’ing to take it off. Good price, huh? Jou got anodder way to take dat off?” She gestures to the tag.

I poke at it. “Nothing. It’s illegal to have a machine to take them off, isn’t it?”

She grabs the shoe with the offending tag and gestures for the other cashier to keep ringing in peoples’ purchases on the other register. “Illegal, I dunno. Let’s see.”

She starts to pull the tag apart with her fingers. She’s straining, and I can see the white around the edges of her fingers as she pulls. Her fingers have chapped skin, the nails bitten down. These are the hands of a woman who does more with her hands than work at the A&N as a cashier. Briefly, I wonder what formed those calluses, what caused those jagged nails. I glance at her nametag. her name’s Daniela. She’s from somewhere in South America, to judge from her accent, but I don’t want to ask where, because I don’t want to break her incredible concentration. She’s still pulling. Her mouth thins in effort.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” I plead. “They’re only shoes.” She’s about 5’2, built as tiny as I was in grade Eight.

She eases up to rest her fingers. “I get hurt, I take a few days off. It’s okay.” Laughs and shrugs one shoulder. And she goes back to work, bodily prying the pin from the alarm tag.

She’s making headway. The pin, which had fitted snugly to the device, is now askew, after a few minutes of prying. She looks at it thoughtfully. “We need Hardware.” Bangs it a couple of times agaist the counter and them marches downstairs, me trailing like an off-season fishing lodge float pulled by a seemingly-small tugboat, past the Ice Fishing display. “Where’s Jose?” she yells. Someone points.

“Jose. Take dis tag off,” she orders.

Jose turns the shoe thoughtfully in his hands. “Why we have dis tag?”
She shrugs eloquently, a movement of the shoulders that says, What kind of a stupid store sells things it can’t get the tags off? This is a stupid place to be in, a stupid situation. But thats the way it is. Says, “Store got it like dis.”

Jose regards the shoe thoughtfully for a moment and then motions us to follow him to an under-the-stairs workbench area that I’ve never seen before. Rummages for a while. Grabs some wire strippers. “Dose better be skinny enough,” warns Danielle.

He nods. “Skinny enough, just see.” He takes the shoe into his hand and gently, gently, eases the wire cutters towards the pin. Clamps down. When he snips it, the pin flies off, and we all cheer.

Daniela and Jose, I salute you. You proved to me today that there are people in the world, apart from those I already know and love, who are worth getting to know. I’d like to know more about you.

How Did This Happen?

I’m, like, a hermit. Seriously. I just don’t go out to meet people much right now. My calendar, instead of having notes like “Meet M 9pm for drinks”, or “Party for B’s housewarming” has notes like “google smells mice hate” and “High fiber breakfast bars”

I’m so boring I may have to kick my own ass.


As some of you may recall, E and I were gifted with a pair of lovely tangerine pillows for Christmas, from his thoughtful brother. I don’t know, I’ve mentioned it 84,000 times once or twice. They’re rayon-made-to-look-like-silk. And by ‘like silk’, I mean ‘shiny but cheap’. With pictures of little stereotypically old-fashioned Chinese guys on them, wearing stereotypically old-fashioned Chinese guy clothes. But the thread count is low, so the guys’ white faces are kind of striped with orange so it shows through. it looks like they have a very organized form or rosacea or something. Did I mention they’re orange?

Anyhow, they went onto the floor in a fit of kitten-zeal and haven’t come off it since Baxter came to live at our house. He loves him those pillows. He slides down the slipperiness and attacks the tassels (also orange).

He’s been here three days and the pillows are already fraying.


New Kitten!

My learning curve has bent like a grade nine parabola exercise, like Scarlett O’Hara’s waistline, like I expect my will has been bent, over the past day.

We got a kitten.

Here is the Kitten ActivityLog (From his POV) over his first 14 or so hours in our home:

6pm: Get to new sweet pad. Exit carrier box. Stare at self in mirror. Decide cat in mirror is a threat. Hide behind Big New Cat, who keeps trying to socialise me like I’m a dog. What is with that bitch, anyhow? I forgive her, I rub her with my ass to let her know I like her. Inexplicably, she goes out The Big Door. How can she cater to me if she’s not inside the new sweet pad?
6:01pm-9:20pm: Explore. Run around. Jump at imaginary bugs. See how big paws get. Brief periods of rest being a black hole of cute snoring kittenness. Rest on Even Bigger Cat. Snore contentedly, cause Even Bigger Cat to completely fall in love, irrevocably and forever.
9:21pm: Hey! What’s that? Big New Cat came back! She must want me to eat her toes! I love this family!
9:43-2:00am: Hey, this plastic bag is, like dangerous or an alien or something! I’m going to pounce on it a lot and see what happens! OoooOOo! What’s that? A scarf? Let me attack it! Look at me wrestle! I am soooooo fierce! Oh, suddenly tired. I’ll have a nap. (Cute snoring, little twitches) Hey! What’s that? Let’s see if I can climb it! (shred curtains)

2:30am: Hey, where are those bigger cats going? Into that room with the big soft thing? Why? What are they doing? They’re lying on it? Why? We’re playing out here!

2:55: Playing is boring without New Big Cat and Even Bigger Cat. Hmph.

3am-8am: I will sleep completely equidistant to Big New Cat and Even Bigger Cat. (No favourites here) That way, I will be able to roll into their faces as they sleep. This is a good life!
8:03am: Hey, this is warm! Big New Cat rolled over and her neck is exposed. If I actually climb up onto her neck I can share the warmth and love. Mmm, warmth. Wait, hey, no, why is she shaking and coughing like that? This is uncomfortable.
8:05:am: Maybe if I run back and forth over Big New Cat’s face and Even Bigger Cat’s face, they’ll know how exited I am to be here! Yeah! That’s it! C’mon, wake up and play!
8:10am: Mmm, what’s this? Big New Cat has earlobes! I think I will suck them! Hello, earlobes. Why is she laughing at me? I’m going to save face by licking my ass. Then go back to her earlobes.
8:11am: Why won’t she let me near her earlobes?

Random Students.

Friday comes at the end of the week. My weeks are long, and the end result is that Fridays, after about the second class, can get a little random. Not to say that learning doesn’t take place, because it does. But it’s less regimented and more “Let’s talk about that” and “Why do you think…?” than my employer suggests to the parents of prospective students.

Today I spent time thinking about what animals my students resembled, mostly because of lovely D, who, if my classes were a bloodstock sale, would be the Godolphin Arabian. He has an air of solicitous but gentle inquiry about him, a slow smile, and tremendously graceful hands. You know how people talk about ‘surgeon’s hands’? He has ‘em. Every move is precise and graceful. He reminds me of an Arabian because of that grace. Never a foot wrong, that boy.

L is a lion. Granted, she is three feet tall, her front teeth are missing, and she has a tendency to giggle at The Big White Lady(that’s me). But she has perfected the art of yelling while still whispering. Doesn’t engage her vocal cords. The result is a rather hoarse roar that she uses maybe fifty percent of the time. She also waits to use it, like a lioness leaping on prey. If I am otherwise engaged, she’ll roar the word I’ve been trying to get her to read, and then giggle at me when I startle. Also, when she is not sure about what to do, she puts her fingers in her mouth. All of them. Not really leonine behaviour, but a fun quirk.

K is a bush baby. He curls into himself when he’s thinking. He has a round little face and so much hair he looks sort of like a pineapple from some angles. And his nose twitches a little when he’s got the wrong answer, and knows it, but can’t figure out the right one. (Figuring out context clues is hard work if you’re missing half the vocab.) His mom looks like a Korean Marilyn Monroe, and not like a bush baby. Genes, eh? Go figure.

Hunh. Kids.

Born Walking Away.

I come from a long line of women who have a hard time relying on others. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision. Sometimes it happens without our thinking about it, out of stubbornness, pride, and, yes, sometimes ignorance to what could be an easier path.

My grandmother walked away. She came of age in a tiny fishing village on the Moray Firth in Scotland, a place where the gene pool seethed within tiny confines. My grandmother came to Canada with my grandfather and their eldest child, because my grandfather was apprenticed to a butcher, and hated it. They walked away from tradition and what they knew to start something here, in the New World.

I was talking with my aunt the other night about this fierce independence. She related something my grandmother had said once, that my aunt was ‘born walking away’. A career businesswoman in a time when that was highly unusual, my aunt has always striven for a place in the world where her decisions were just that: hers.

She was born fourth, after a passel of large, brawling boys. My grandmother probably wanted a girl to cuddle and cosset. Instead, she got my aunt, who routinely climbed trees and got into fistfights until she started leaving home in her teens to can salmon in the wilds of Central Coastal BC. From there, she went to university, became a teacher, and eventually found herself a career in the government, flying all over the country to have meetings. She also eloped, which is a curiously veiled subject in our family, even fifty years after the fact.

My mom was born last, ten years after my independent aunt. She acquiesced to my grandmother’s maternal instincts. Took ballet. Learned to cook. Acquiesced, to a point. As she grew up, she walked away. Her natural instincts led her to travel the world and to teach school in a remote outpost on Northern Vancouver Island, Port Hardy. But she was an urban creature, and the wilds of the place made her crazy. Granted, it was a smaller place than when I knew it, but she always spoke of it with a kind of affection mingled with contempt. The people she met there were ‘them’, and almost always the antagonists in her stories.

When I was born, she was an utterly devoted mother. I am grateful for this, but right from the start, I was walking away as well. I didn’t confide in her the way she wanted. If something was bothering me, I let it stew while I thought about it. She wanted to fix my stuff, but I wanted to fix my own stuff.

When it came time for me to earn my tuition, I went to Port Hardy, as there was a job there for me, pumping diesel and gas into fishboats. This is the point when I walked away with a firmer step then I have had before or since.

In contrast to my mother’s experience, I created a place for myself there, one she never understood. For her, Hardy was a grandstand, a place where she could say, “See, I don’t need you,” to her mother, her boyfriends, the expectations placed on her.

For me, it was a place of independence as well, but also a safe haven. All of a sudden, no one had any expectations, other than that I worked hard and well. As a result, my potential unfolded into the light, until, some summers, I was not a whole human being, but, rather, a mass of potential, in girl-shaped form. I remember getting onto the ferry one time, after a particularly trying year, and having a kind of mini-meltdown. I was on my way to Hardy. I was safe.

Throughout my teenage years, my mother worried that I wasn’t ‘popular’. I only dated one boy at a time, how could that be right? When I got to university, I didn’t join clubs or societies. How could I pass up this fantastic chance to meet people and make friends? She just wasn’t able to see that I was not her, that the time I was growing up in was not the time she grew up in. I was walking away.

I sectioned parts of myself off from her, and that really bothered her. It has been said that she grew frustrated with me because she simply didn’t understand me. But if I had laid myself open to her, I would have lost the core of me, the parts that ebb and flow in different amounts of what it is to be a person.

It hurt both of us, but I do not think I would have or could have done it differently. I needed to establish my independence early so that she would not override everything in my life. She got a rather different daughter than the one she expected. Stronger, for one thing. More secretive. More sensitive, maybe. Certainly less given to acquiescence.

Born walking away.

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