Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lost in the 'Hood Reprise

Hubby and I are back in the 'hood again. But there'll be no time for posting this year. So I hope you'll enjoy the post I wrote about our trip home last summer. See you in a week or so.


Hubby and I are back in the old 'hood this week. Downeast. Staying with my mum for a few days. Fishing and reading and visiting. Drinking too much tea and talking, talking, talking.

On Thursday we were up before dawn to set off for the long drive. Truck loaded with bikes, fishing gear, suitcases. Big cooler packed with fresh veggies from our garden to take to Mum. Thermos mugs of strong tea. Breakfast would be a few hours down the road. Our picnic lunch tucked into our trusty travel cooler that's been everywhere with us from New Zealand to the Yukon to France, was behind my seat. By 5:00 A.M. we were packed, loaded, belted in, and ready for the ten hour drive.

Then we took a wrong turn... or didn't take the right one. Didn't get off the new highway that takes us around Montreal in time to avoid going an hour out of our way. Sigh. How the heck did we do that? Ah well. We'd never actually seen this part of Quebec. What's one more hour? But we added another hour when we stopped for supper in Woodstock and then took the old road down along the Saint John River from there. That drive was like taking a step back in time. We drove past the old farms that I remember visiting with my step father. Past the place where my best friend Debbie and I used to go horseback riding. I tried to pick out the place where we went to the Saturday night dances in the back of someone's truck, reckless teenagers that we were. The old road was bumpy and crumbling and tree lined. And lovely. Well worth that extra hour, even at the end of a long day of sitting.

Dawn on highway 417
On the road before dawn

The next day Mum and I did what we always do first when I get home; we made our usual foray to visit Gus at the best little book shop in the world. To us anyway. Gus and Mum are buddies although you couldn't immediately tell that if you listened to them bicker. Only the fondness in their tone reveals that Mum thinks he's the cat's meow and I believe he feels the same. Last year I popped in to his shop by myself to get a gift certificate for Mum's birthday. He told me that when he saw me through the window on my own, he thought, "Oh no, this is not a conversation I want to have." And considered locking the door. He'd assumed that arriving without Mum, I was the bearer of bad news. He and Mum reluctantly posed for the shot below. Then Mum said, "Enough of that. Back to the books."

Book shopping at Gus Books
Mum and I shopping at our favourite book store

I love to talk books with Gus. He is an avid reader, no surprise there. And he knows a ton of wonderful author trivia. I have yet to stump him with an author he hasn't read or doesn't at least know about. We discussed mystery writer Stuart McBride the other day. How his books are too graphic for me. But wonderfully written. I quoted a line from one of McBride's books that I've never forgotten. Describing his unkempt co-worker, the main character says: "Her hair looks like it was styled by seagulls." I love that line. Then Gus quoted another thriller author who said that a character's hair looked as if it was styled "by grenade." Then Mum said that my grandfather Sullivan used to say my uncle Dick, who had very thick curly hair, always "looked like he combed his hair with the egg beater." Good one Grampy. You get the prize for best line. Love that.

That's my grandfather Sullivan below. He was a big man. With very long legs... which we all inherited. I love looking at Mum's old photos when I'm here. I get buried in her boxes of pictures and come out feeling as if I'm in a time warp. An identity warp, more like. Catapulted from retired teacher, wife, blogger back to youngest child, little sister, tomboy, budding artist (ha), frizzy haired drama queen bookworm.

My grandfather Sullivan

The picture below is one I found from the late fifties. My brother Terry, sisters Carolyn and Connie, and me. I'm the one in pale green with the big head. Brother Terry is looking suitably serious and big brother-ish. When we were growing up, he could do no wrong as far as I was concerned. I was, to his chagrin I imagine, his ninth birthday present, since we were born on the same day. He was (and still is) the best of big brothers. Generous to a fault. With a wry sense of humour and his Grandfather Sullivan's (and our mum's) gift of delivering a great line. My favourite being one night at supper when I was around eight, which would make him seventeen. My mum decided that we should have the "talk" about sex. And Terry quipped," Okay, Mum. What do you want to know?" That still makes me laugh. I'm pretty sure I never got "the talk" that night.

My brother has had many, many health challenges in his life. He's a paraplegic due to an operation to remove a spinal tumour twenty years ago, a double amputee now due to circulation problems. And he's battled other issues too numerous to mention here. My last two visits home he's either been in hospital, waiting for surgery or recovering from surgery, or confined to bed at home. The van he had newly fitted for his wheelchair sitting idle in the driveway. And only in the past few weeks has he been given the go ahead to get out of bed. For the first time in almost a year. The first night after Hubby and I arrived, we heard Mum's doorbell and there he was on the deck. Grinning. In his motorized wheelchair, with a bag of fresh corn in his lap. He'd stopped at the nearby vegetable stand. He's back on the road again, in that new van, all on his own, just him and his dog. What a feeling of freedom he must feel. Of life regained. Makes me tear up as I write this.

My brother and sisters and me, 1959
In our Sunday best, 1959

Yesterday Mum and I drove up to Terry's in the little blue car we'd rented so Hubby could be free to use our truck to go stream fishing or golfing... and we could be free to "run the roads" as Mum says. On the way we unexpectedly pulled in at Freddy's Family Farm vegetable stand. Freddy has known Mum and me since we moved to the farm over forty years ago. He grows potatoes and corn, and used to keep a large herd of milk cows. Back when he farmed full time and cut hay on his island lots, he took his machinery over to the big island in the Saint John River on the farmers' ferry that my stepfather ran in the summer. As a teenager in the 70s, I used to take over running the ferry to allow my stepfather to go up to the house for lunch or supper. The first few times I manned the controls, the farmers laughed, and teased me, tickled at the novelty of being shuttled across the river with their big machines by a skinny, frizzy haired girl. So on Sunday when Mum, gesturing at the vegetable stand, said, "That's Freddy standing there in the green jacket," we pulled a u-turn and went to say hi. Freddy leaned in Mum's car window, smiled at me and said in his slow quiet voice," Well... it's Susie. You come to run the ferry boat for the summer?" I chortled. Delighted that he remembered that small piece of my history. As I said to my mum later, there are not many people left who remember that particular part of my past. See? That's why it's like being in a time warp coming home... or identity warp... as I said.

That's me on the ferry below... in the hat and rubber boots, with my mum, a neighbour, and my step-father in the wheelhouse. It was May 1983. I was home for a week from Ottawa and we were heading over to the island to pick fiddle heads. A spring rite of passage here in New Brunswick. I don't have any pictures of me actually running the ferry. But you can take Freddy's word for it that I did.

On the farmer's ferry, Douglas New Brunswick
On the farmers' ferry in 1983

So as you can see, while Hubby and I are here, back in the 'hood, I've been a little lost. Who the heck am I when I'm here anyway? Little sister, youngest child, frizzy haired dreamer, ferry-operator (part-time)? All of those? Or none? Grown up and gone for more years than I lived here, it still feels disconcerting to return. Disconcerting in a good way. I think the layers of identity we accumulate over our lives, especially when we don't live all of our life in one place, can be kind of like when we delete something on the computer. The bits are all still there on the hard drive... just scattered. Or in the case of identity, buried under the subsequent layers of grown up selves. And it can be good, I think, to try to gather those scattered bits. Unbury those buried selves. If only to remember who we were. And recognize how far we've travelled to become who we are.

Gad. I am waxing profound tonight. Time to wrap up this post. It's way past my bedtime. And Mum is just down the hall. I might get in trouble.

How about you, folks? What's going "back home" like for you?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Seeking Fall Inspiration

Fall will be upon us before we know it, folks. And when it comes time to look critically at my fall and winter closet, to do my inventory, and make my list of what I might need, or want, I plan to be ready. And ready for me means having a sense of the looks that have walked down the runway, and featured in fall ad campaigns, and an idea of the trends that are being espoused. Whether I buy into the trends (or buy them literally) is another matter, of course. In other words, I'm currently seeking fall inspiration. So when fall comes I can make good decisions about what I will, and will not, buy. 

I did a quick run-through of three of the big fashion prognosticators: Vogue, Bazaar, and Elle. According to them, red will be everywhere. Along with plaid, checks, and florals. Lingerie as daywear, men's-wear inspired jackets and suits, and western inspired whatever. Puffa coats, track suits, and polka dots. Futuristic patterns and retro hats. Crazy fur and/or feathers, and shiny silver and glitter. Phew. That just about covers everything I would want to wear, and most of what I wouldn't be caught dead in. The wouldn't-be-caught-dead-in stuff is easy. Anything shiny or with glitter, lingerie as a dress, cowboy boots (at least not anymore; they kill my feet), florals that look like drapery, and feathers of any kind. 

For what I might covet come September, I usually look to the designers I admire, and not at the runway reports. Designers like Brunello Cucinelli. For louche and luxurious looks, you can't beat Cucinelli. The epitome of retirement chic, don't you think? See all the Brunello Cucinelli looks here

coat and track pants from Brunello Cucinelli
From  Brunello Cucinelli 

 blouse and pants from Brunello Cucinelli
Brunello Cicinelli

Brunello Cucilelli pants, sleeveless jacket and sweater
Brunello Cucinelli

I also love Fabiana Fillippi. Like the looks below from her website. More Fabiana Fillippi looks here and hereNot that I can afford either Brunello Cucinelli or Fabiana Fillippi. This is just for inspiration, you understand.

three fall looks from Fabiana Filippi
Looks from the Fabiana Filippi website here and here.
And because readers of this blog who live in the UK have mentioned Margaret Howell to me a few times, and since I will be in the UK in the fall, I checked out her fall and winter offerings. This shot is from the Autumn-Winter 2017 campaign on her website. I love the narrow, plaid, mid-calf skirt with the sneakers. 

Margaret Howell jacket and skirt
Margaret Howell Autumn-Winter 2017
So while I love these looks, I'm not really any closer to being ready for fall shopping. But I'm just getting started. I'll be seeking inspiration for a few weeks yet. And I may be up for a bit of a profile change. I didn't have any luck with wide-leg trousers for spring, but this fall, I might reconsider. Maybe with a chunky sweater, and a blazer, and boots?  And maybe a long skirt to wear with boots, and my short tweed coat? Hmmm. We'll see. Until then, I'll be dressing for summer, but falling asleep each night with visions of chunky-knit sweaters in my head. Chunky-knit sweaters and long skirts, caramel coloured corduroys and tweed jackets, and boots, lots and lots of boots.

And to get us in the mood for fall fashion and all the nonsense of those HUGE September Issues, here's a weird little video that I found on All about how Vogue shot their September issue with Jennifer Lawrence. Shooting a magazine cover is complicated, I guess. All those creative types. And farm stylists...even. Ha. Still, Jennifer Lawrence is adorable. And she certainly seems to be having a "moment," as they say. 

But seriously, I know you don't take all this trends stuff to heart. All the furor of fashion. Neither do I. But I just love all the textures and colours of fall. All the gold, and burgundy, and green, and chocolate brown. All the tweed, and leather, and the cozy knits. I don't pay too much attention to what I'm supposed to be longing for this season. I just want to wear clothes that suit me and make me feel fabulous. Or good, at least. I'll settle for good. 

Hubby and I are heading down east tomorrow. In fact, when you read this we'll probably already be there. We'll be at my mum's for a week or so, and we'll be spending a few days in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick. Saint Andrews is Canada's answer to Cape Cod. Except smaller, and with fewer tourists. I haven't been there for years. I'm really looking forward to it. I won't be blogging when we're away, but I've scheduled a couple of relevant posts from previous years. If you haven't read them already, I hope you enjoy them. See you in two weeks. 

And in the meantime. Back to fall fashion. What is inspiring you for fall this year?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

On Being a Teacher

My fondest memory of teaching high school is not what you might expect. It's not of the many commencement ceremonies I watched or took part in, nor of reading the often brilliant work produced by some of my students, or even of the moving Remembrance Day ceremonies that my writing classes scripted. Those moments made me proud. But the memory that always makes me smile is of the 1999 end-of-year assembly when three of my teacher-buddies and I made total fools of ourselves on stage. Wearing black mini-skirts (not too short, of course), high black boots, and sporting backcombed, bouffant hair, we pranced around on stage in front of the whole school doing our best lip-syncing routine to Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking." The kids went nuts. I'll never forget looking down at several of my grade nine students in the front row of the audience, screaming, "Ms. Bur-paaaaay!" Ha. I'm smiling as I write this. 

I started thinking of that day on stage at Nepean High School after I watched a video posted on Facebook by Emily, a former student. Funnily enough, a former student who is now a teacher herself. In the video, comedian Christian Hull role-plays being a teacher. I winced in a few places, and laughed out loud in others. Have a look.

Watching the video made me groan, and roll my eyes, and think of all the embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments I've had in the classroom. Like the time I was teaching science. Yep, I taught science. I was qualified to teach Biology and General Science, but it was not my forté. Not by a long shot. Science classrooms have an elevated lab bench (for demonstrations) at the front instead of a teacher's desk. Elevated being the operative word here. So, I was talking to the class, writing notes on the board, turning and talking some more, and writing, writing, writing on the board, slowly working my way across the front of the class. Until I stepped off the end of the platform into mid-air. And disappeared. Well, I disappeared from the view of most of the kids, except the shocked ones in the front row looking down at me on the floor. Ha.

Then there was the time I was rushing to class, from an early morning meeting that had run late. The ten minute warning bell rang, and those of us who had a first period class had to run out while the principal was still speaking. I ran up four flights of stairs, and down a hall that stretched the entire length of the school to my classroom at the end. In high heels. The kids milling around outside my still-locked classroom door were a bit surprised when my heel caught on something, and I flew horizontally into an open locker. Ouch. That one hurt. It seems there's a lot of physical comedy involved in teaching, folks, even if it is unintentional.  

Nepean High School English department yearbook picture 1995
Nepean High School English department in costume for our yearbook photo, 1995
Or. My favourite cringe-worthy moment was early in my career. I was struggling with discipline in one of my classes, a very large grade ten English class. Thirty-four students, most of whom were boys. Trust me, the gender balance in a class really makes a difference. I actually loved this class, most of the time. But five or six boys who were all best buddies, who were really smart, and very witty, and who could pretty much ruin a class with their antics were driving me crazy. I was too scared to ask for help from the vice-principal. Like most young teachers, I thought that meant I looked a failure in the eyes of my superiors. So I soldiered on. On a long road-trip over the March Break, Hubby and I brainstormed an entire new approach to a unit I was working on that would involve a modular approach, more fun activities, and a clever strategy to "divide and conquer" ... so to speak. 

As it transpired, the rest of the kids had lots of fun with the new unit. But it made no difference to my problems with the "five or six." At my wits end one day, I called them all out into the hall. "You know, boys, as individuals, I really like each of you," I began. "But when you're together. You're. You're," I could feel myself getting emotional. I prayed hard that I wouldn't start crying in front of them. "When you're in a group," I continued, "You're, you're ... assholes!" I finally blurted. They looked stunned. I was stunned. "Oh, crap," I thought, "I am going to be in so much trouble." 

I have no memory whether they behaved any better after that. I doubt it. I was too busy worrying that their parents would find out, and tell the principal, and I would get fired. But a few years later, when my friend Elizabeth and I were at the movies and the theatre was packed, I saw four of the boys in the row right in front of us. "Oh god," I murmured, as I shrank down in my seat. Then one of them spied me. "Ms. B!" he hooted. "Guys, it's Ms. Burpee." He grinned, "Hey, remember the time in grade ten when you called us assholes? That was the best!" Ha. I still smile when I think of that.... probably the only thing they remembered from grade ten English. 

student good-byes in my 2011 yearbook
Student "good-byes" in my JMSS yearbook, 2011. 
As a classroom teacher I learned early not to take myself too seriously. I took my job seriously, but I stopped worrying if I looked silly when I was doing it. I'd get very animated when I told stories, and wave my hands around. I used to imitate "my mother's look," as I called it, putting my glasses on the end of my nose and looking at the class over the top of them, waving my finger and saying, "Never, never make fun of my name in front of me." They loved that. Especially, when one male teacher who always called me Burps, stuck his head into my class one day and said, "Burps, you going to the meeting after school?" Ha. I remember I looked at him over my glasses and said, "You are in so much trouble, Mister." But no one ever called me Burps in my class. After class, all bets were off. I love how the one student, above, addressed her good-bye message in my yearbook. And I love that the other student says I was the reason she wanted to be a teacher. Gad. That's makes me tear up. I particularly love that during my last year teaching she came to work with me in my classroom as a student teacher. That was lovely. 

note from a student in my 1999 yearbook.
One student's...uh... honest message in my 1999 yearbook. 
But, you know, it's madness to think that as teachers we can inspire every kid. Many students just want to get their credit and move on. The note above was written the year our school was so crowded we had to timetable an extra class that started at 8:00 a.m. If I had a hard time being energetic at that hour, the kids were worse. I brought a thermos of tea from home for myself, and encouraged my students to do the same, sometimes we had doughnuts. Whatever it took to make the new schedule more "civilized" for kids who had to come to school an hour earlier than usual. I love that the girl who wrote in my yearbook, above, also found my canoeing stories and my outfits worthy of staying awake for. As I said, whatever it takes. 

So, yeah, that Christian Hull video started me thinking about all kinds of things. Not just about my less-than-stellar teaching moments. But about what I learned during those cringe-worthy moments. I think the most valuable lesson I learned as a young teacher was not to take myself too seriously. 

And I've come to believe over the years that it's probably an important lesson for many of us. Not just for teachers. But for lawyers, and doctors, and scientists, and parents, and politicians too. We should take our job very seriously, but not be too impressed with ourselves. Not get too caught up in the old ego thing. 

That, my friends,  can be dangerous. 

So. Do you have any cringe-y moments in your career that you'd like to share with the rest of us?  Go on, we're listening. 

Linking up with:  Saturday Share over at Not Dressed as Lamb and Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner.