Fulfilling small dreams as often as possible

I’ve fallen hard for Ella Risbridger.

I found my way to her through Cupboard love: my biggest romances always begin in the kitchen, which led me to her website, and to her writing about her late partner, and his cancer. And, ultimately, to Midnight Chicken, her cookbook cum memoir. Wherein she writes:

I always start with a cup of tea. Writing this down it feels simultaneously absurdly English, and also not at all English, to have a proper cup of tea in the morning. Yorkshire, with a splash of milk and a teaspoon of sugar (brewed in the cup, milk and sugar and the teabag waiting for the kettle to boil), or Earl Grey with a brief twist-and-pinch of lemon. Lady Grey, Lapsang Souchong, green, red. Begin with a big mug of tea. Or maybe you’d rather have coffee. Three spoonfuls of ground beans in the bottom of the cafetiere, water just off boiling, and the bold crema that emerges when you press the plunger down, all glass and silver and daringly continental. I take mine black, first thing. Black, and back to bed — and perhaps that’s a good rule, for the morning: however you begin, take it back to bed. I set the alarm ten minutes earlier just for this. Some people meditate; I make to-do lists in bed with a mug of something hot. Propped up against the pillows, cup in one hand, pen in the other, contemplating the day ahead: it’s sort of like a battle plan.

When I was a little girl, every day I used to tell my mum: this is my Big Plan, and this is my Little Plan. I still do this, and I always begin both plans with breakfast. Partly because that or way the to-do list gets off to a good start, and partly because breakfast is important. Old wives and young nutritionists are united on this one: eat breakfast, and eat breakfast well. Breakfast like a king, the old saying goes. And I do. So should you. A small space carved out at the very beginning of the day just for you — it makes everything else smoother, tidier, easier.

Reading this, I became conscious that my morning routine, for as long as I can remember, has seemed a frantic giant slalom, a race to get myself up, get Oliver up, get us abluted and dress and fed and ready for the 9:30 a.m. gong, when our respective days start formally.

A decade ago, I had yet to become a skier in this race, having shirked all responsibility for the morning, save walking Oliver to school, to Catherine. And even the walking-to-school part was in some doubt, as I wrote in 2007:

Yesterday I lollygagged in bed 10 minutes later than usual. I was in no danger of falling out of line, but from Catherine’s reaction — “are you taking Oliver to school today?” — it was obvious that she still harbours some doubts about my long-term abilities in this regard. Indeed I think that part of my steely resolve on this issue is to simply to demonstrate to Catherine that I am not a total lay-about and that it is possible for me to make some contribution to the efficient running of the household, no matter how small it might ultimately be.

I am proud that I conquered at least some of my layabouty tendencies, and did, indeed, walk (and, later, drive) Oliver to school for the rest of that school year, and the 11 school years thereafter.

Eventually, though, sleeping in until the last minute, jumping out of bed, and getting Oliver to school became untenable: while Catherine was bound and determined to make Oliver’s breakfast and lunch every day (a stab at the darkness, I think, and proof to herself that she was still whole), eventually the balance of responsibilities had to shift. I started to get Oliver rousted (not always a simple task), and then started to make him breakfast, and, eventually, took on the entire party. And I did this, against my worser nature, with jaw clenched and eyes on the leave-for-school deadline.

It worked, but it cast the day in a cruel light, and reading Risbridger write about a “small space carved out at the very beginning of the day just for you” seemed so overwhelmingly attractive, that my body, traditionally primed to fight back viciously against any attempt to wake up before the absolute latest possible time (8:00 a.m. in the recent structure of the family day), graciously consented to allow me to wake up, without an alarm, at 7:05 a.m. yesterday.

At which point I went downstairs, boiled the kettle, made myself a cup of Lady Baker’s English Breakfast, and sat myself down on the big orange chair in the living room (I could not bring myself to go for the total Risbridger and go back to bed). In the fumble to accomplish this, I forgot my phone upstairs, which left me free to not check the latest COVID death count but, instead, to continue reading Midnight Chicken.

By the time the 8:00 a.m. alarm went off upstairs, I was, true to promise, primed for a “smoother, tidier, easier” morning.

And I did it all over again this morning, albeit with an Assam tea, which seemed better suited to the task.

As it happens, I was able to invoke this life lesson at an Autism Society zoom last night, led by Peter Mutch. It turns out that what I found my own circuitous route to is called self-care in the mental health game; that was Peter’s focus last night, and while he covered things ranging from muscle relaxation and diaphragm breathing to walks in the woods, the idea of taking time for yourself, time that can feel needlessly self-indulgent, was key to it all. I was happy to be able to share my morning tea story with the assembled.

Meanwhile, Midnight Chicken is just such a terrific book, the kind of book that I feel I should immediately purchase for everyone I know. Here is Risbridger writing about the joy of making morning pastries:

And then you offer a little platter of miniature pastries to your people, and everybody tells you how wonderful you are, and you have done nothing but be gloriously lazy and make pastries on the sofa. Serve these pastries with very hot coffee made in one of those natty little Italian espresso pots. Having wanted such an espresso pot for years, I recently acquired one, and it is an endless joy to me. I recommend, if you can, fulfilling small dreams like this as often as possible.

And on pikelets (“like crumpets, but untidy”):

Now whisk like billy-o. Keep whisking: 3-4 minutes of whisking with your whole strength. Come on, you’ll get an hour to rest in a minute.. This puts the holes in the pikelet, which sounds like an old-fashioned idiom for breaking something (‘By Jove, that’s put the holes in the pikelet!’) but isn’t: the bubbles of air you’re beating into the mixture become the holes when you griddle it. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel, and take your tea back to bed.

After an hour or so (it’ll stand a little bit longer, so don’t worry if you’re at a good bit of your book, or otherwise occupied), come back and check the mixture. It should be bubbly and frothy, and about half as big again as when you left it. Stick your largest frying pan over a medium heat, adding a drizzle of oil if your pan’s not non-stick.

Her recipe for the eponymous Midnight Chicken is, almost, enough to make me consider breaking my vegetarian vows and tracking down a chicken.

I can’t afford to buy a copy for all of you, so please go and order one from The Bookmark.

Music to be reckoned with

The Glow from Sylvan Esso, with backing vocals by Molly Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig.

Together with Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig are Mountain Man.

Sarlé has a solo career (and a smashing Tiny Desk to go with it).

As does Sauser-Monnig, as Daughter of Swords. She has a Tiny Desk too.

No matter the permutation or combination, there is music to be reckoned with there.

What do we do about having too many maples?”

When one of the installations in the Rooted in Art project went up next door, and I discovered that all of the trees in the city have an ID number, as part of an “urban tree inventory,” I got very curious about that data, and I requested a copy from the City of Charlottetown. This request was turned around quickly: I needed to sign and return a “digital data agreement,” and I received a CSV file with records on 10,000 trees shortly thereafter.

It turns out that the inventory is not of every tree in the city, only the “street trees,” as described here. One of the things I gleaned from that explainer is that we have too many maple trees. Apparently a diverse tree population doesn’t have more than 10% of the same species; the inventory counts 24% Norway maples.

To run this test myself, I imported the CSV file into a MySQL table, and ran this query:

select count(*) from `trees`.`UrbanTreeInventory` where `species` = 'Maple Norway (Acer platanoides)'

Sure enough, there are 2,384 Norway Maple trees in the inventory – 24% of the total.

There are 133 species in the inventory in all; here are the top 10, by count:

2384 Maple Norway (Acer platanoides)
1372 Spruce White (Picea glauca)
787  Linden Littleleaf (Tilia cordata)
537  Birch White (Betula papyrifera)
451  Maple Red (Acer rubrum)
374  Oak Red (Quercus rubra)
362  Ash Green (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
220  Maple Sugar (Acer saccharum)
166  Maple Silver (Acer saccharinum)
138  Ash White (Fraxinus americana)

This comes from this MySQL query:

select species,count(*) as howmany from `trees`.`UrbanTreeInventory` group by species order by howmany DESC

The diameter of each tree is in the inventory too; there are 73 trees with a diameter of more than 100 cm. To see these I used this MySQL query:

select species,latitude,longitude,diameter  from `trees`.`UrbanTreeInventory` where diameter >= 100 order by diameter DESC

I exported the result from that query as a CSV and imported it into geojson.io to see these big trees on a map:

Map of downtown Charlottetown showing the locations, with a grey marker, of every one of the 73 trees with a diameter of more than 1 metre.

The tree with the largest diameter is 155 cm across, a silver maple in St. Clair Park in Brighton. I had to go and take a look at this tree for myself, so I stopped writing this blog post, grabbed my bicycle, and went to do some field research:

Map of downtown Charlottetown showing my cycle route from my office on Prince Street, west to Kirk of St. James, then into Brighton and back to my office via Victoria Park.

Careful map-readers will note that I made two stops along the way: first at Lady Baker’s Tea to pick up some organic Assam tea (with th bonus of a chat with friends Sandy and Katherine), second at Brighton Clover Farm to purchase some sumac and some green wheat.

Continuing on through to deepest, toniest Brighton, I came to the aforementioned St. Clair Park, upon which I’d never laid eyes; truth be told, I’d never noticed that St. Clair Avenue runs up the western side of West Kent Elementary School.

Once I arrived at the park, I took advantage of having added the large silver maple to OpenStreetMap just before I left; this allowed me to walk right up to it, phone in hand:

Screen shot of the OSMAnd app running on my iPhone, showing the park and the location of the tree.

And it is, indeed, a grand tree:

Photo of the silver maple in St. Clair Park.

It’s 155 cm diameter can be explained, in part, by it’s hydra-headed base:

Photo of the base of the large silver maple tree, showing it's a trunk of many parts.

St. Clair Park turns out to be home to eight of the top-100 trees, by diameter, all of them silver maples:

Panoramic photo of St. Clair Park, showing many large silver maple trees.

While I was standing in St. Clair Park, looking at its impressive community of trees, I wanted to know more about each one, but I didn’t have ready access to the inventory database on my phone. Which has me thinking that a mobile “hey, what’s that tree?” app might need to be added to my project list.

So, what do we do about having too many maples?

Here’s what the city has to say:

  • Plant fewer maple trees… but don’t stop planting them as we don’t want a big gap in the succession of the urban forest where there are no maples 
  • Stop planting Norway maples – they are invasive. The City has not been planting Norway maples in our Parks for over 13 years and have not been planted as street trees for a number of years 
  • Look for and plant alternate tree species that serve the same purpose (foliage color, shade tree, etc.) in the urban forest. More tree species means greater biodiversity and forest health 

We may have too many maple trees for our own good, but those ones in St. Clair Park are awfully impressive, and I recommend you pay the park a visit while they are still in leaf; it’s a wonderful part of the urban landscape to experience in the autumn.

Tabletop Exercise

The phrase “tabletop exercise” was used during today’s episode of the Dr. Heather Morrison Show, and I was curious to know what it means.

According to the U.S. National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers & Studies

Discussion-based exercise where personnel meet in a classroom setting or breakout groups and are presented with a scenario to validate the content of plans, procedures, policies, cooperative agreements or other information for managing an incident.

In other words, it’s a “practice run,” but not in the field.

It’s one of a number of “discussion-based exercises” in the emergency measures field that includes seminars, workshops, games, and drills.

On Not Being Carefree

Paul Capewell visits the National Gallery in London:

The system for limiting numbers and following a one way system is necessary to enable galleries like this one to reopen. Although they are large spaces, they can be tricky to navigate and – possibly even by design – allow the visitor to get lost in a reverie and wander the halls for hours. This sort of flaneuring is incompatible with the Covid world, and one way systems are now found everywhere from supermarkets to art galleries.

As an amateur psychogeographer, I appreciate any use of the word flaneuring.

And Paul’s reflections make me realize that it’s not restaurants and movies and coffee shops that I miss because of COVID, it’s being carefree.

Dinners Together

My iPhone doesn’t know that Catherine died 9 months ago, so it keeps on doing things like this:

Screen shot of the For You section of the Photos app on my iPhone, showing a photo of Catherine in front of her artwork, with bold headline "Dinners Together: Over the Years" superimposed.

What would have once been a passing dip into nostalgia now takes on a decidedly different tone.

I was not, I am happy to report, plunged into despair by my iPhone’s callous disregard for Catherine’s passing, however.

Time has passed. Seasons changed. I’m no longer on emotional tenterhooks.

On the way to get our flu shots this morning, I remarked to Oliver that the time since Catherine died is the same amount of time she was pregnant with him. We couldn’t figure out whether that was properly called a coincidence, something ironic, something remarkable, or just a thing.

We got our flu shots at Dr. Hooley’s office because Dr. Hooley’s nurse Cheryl has the best bedside shot-giving manner that there is. When Cheryl came out to steady the horses, she offered Oliver the option of flu mist or flu shot, which was news to me, as, based on last year’s experience, I thought the days of flu mist were over. Oliver, who really really really doesn’t like shots, decided, nonetheless, to have the flu shot: I’d already put the numbing creme on his arm, and he wanted to follow through. Which tells you something about the power of trajectory in Oliver’s mind.

I really really wanted to tell Catherine about that. She was the only other person who would understand it in the same way I do.

Over the weekend, amidst an internecine battle with Oliver about whether we needed to go on an outing for the sole purpose of listening to the Spotify playlist that he’d prepared, I realized something: I’ve been focusing a lot on the absence of Catherine in Oliver’s life, and the absence of Catherine in my life, but not so much on how those absences resonate to affect our relationship with each other.

Parts of the role Catherine played in Oliver’s life are now left to me.

Parts of the role Catherine played in my life are now left to him.

And, as she’s gone, and as Oliver and I aren’t everything for each other, we’re also simultaneously becoming new people, all on our own.

And understanding that is more about untying logistical and emotional thickets than it is about out and out sadness.

I dropped in on the monthly grief club on Zoom last week (“grief club” sounds a lot better than “open grief support group,” its formal name).

Any trace of resistance to listening and talking about grief in front of strangers left me months ago. I can bear witness to tears and agony and joy and frustration and anger and not look away, not judge, not offer advice, and yet feel my presence is of value, and feel the value of the presence of others. On a more practical level, grief club is a barometer: from month to month I can see, with some remove, how I am evolving. 

One of the things I’ve seen is that, although I have my moments, I’m less sad, less angry, less frustrated. Having figured out protein and laundry, having purchased new sheets and a new dishwasher, having realized that floors left unswept accumulate dust with regularity, I look back with some amazement over the nine months since Catherine died, and I am happy that the feeling of drowning that was once all-consuming has, at least for the moment, passed. There are moments, days even, when I don’t think about absence.

Not feeling like I’m drowning allows some room for me to think about other things.

The future.

Or at least the winter.

Or at least next week.

ANN Wellness

There’s a new shop in the C1A 4R4, ANN Wellness, at 120 Prince Street, the space formerly occupied by lawyers, psychologists, dancers and, most recently, silk scarf merchants.

The new shop, which is amidst a “soft opening” this week, sells “nature-made” products; when I dropped in today they had a modest selection of food (granola bars, sugar, coffee, quinoa) and personal care products (shampoo, soap, toothpaste). I’m hopeful that their selection will expand into the kind of staples that having a shop on the block would make very handy–milk, bread, and the like. 

ANN Wellness storefront