Bittersweet Mystery Boxes

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a stamp collector.  The collecting bug ebbs and flows within me; over my life I’ve collected records, books, hockey cards, Panini stickers and football scarves.  But postage stamps have been a consistent joy.  I collected as a boy and got back into it around the time Ben was born in 1995.

The problem with saying I’m a stamp collector (aside from denting my public persona as a rough and rugged outdoorsman) is that people often ask me what areas I collect.  That’s a tough question for me.

What I really love about collecting is going through mystery boxes.  These are random envelopes, cigar boxes, or Rubbermaid tubs full of stamps, album pages and old envelopes. Quite often, these boxes are sold more by weight than a detailed assessment of what’s inside.

I love sorting through these boxes and discovering what’s inside.  It’s the anticipation that’s the fun for me.

I mention all this because I spent my Sunday with Cindy and her sisters, cleaning out her parent’s garage.  I got the same weird thrill even though no stamps were involved.

But this time the experience was a little sad too.

Chris and Carol have lived in their house for 47 years and they’ll be there for several years yet.  But as Chris gets older, he can no longer do the things he used to, so his cluttered garage is no longer the treasured work space I’ve come to know.

In his prime, Chris could make anything.  He’s a great mechanic.  He used to work on the trains for CN.  He owned a concrete company and could fix anything in the yard, from the loaders to the concrete plant to the trucks.  In the winter, when the plant was closed, he would rebuild the huge round drums of the concrete trucks, sometimes building a new drum from scratch.

Chris could fix any car and was especially talented at body work.  He’s incredibly, infuriatingly patient, so that a new paint job would take forever but would be 100% perfect.

He was also an accomplished woodworker, carpenter and cabinet maker.  Since I’ve known Cindy, he rebuilt his kitchen once and his cabinet fronts twice.  Gutted and rebuilt our kitchen too.  He added two new rooms to his house, completely renovated the Rectory at the Cathedral, did a ton of work on the Girl Guides building, drove our garage to our yard in one piece like a parade float, and also built several ‘Reapers Inn’ haunted houses for Halloween back in the ’90s.

He could make pretty much anything out of wood, metal or concrete, including the tools needed to make other things. He made his own table saw out of steel and a lathe out of railway ties.  Very stable machines, those.

But over the past few years, Chris has lost his legendary powers of concentration, so he can’t do the detailed work any more.  Which frustrated him to no end.  So it’s time to clean out the garage and move the tools on to new homes.

Cleaning the garage is a huge undertaking.  The sisters have been at it two days and there’s likely two more days to go.  We’ve been finding box after box of all kinds of things.  Could be a brand new set of cabinet router bits.  A set of impact wrench sockets.  Wood turning gouges.  Pail after pail of wrenches, screwdrivers and tin snips.

We even found a car differential in a black plastic garbage bag.  Could be from a Ford, or possible a Dodge.

The collector in me had a huge amount of fun.  I was seeking out the strangest of the boxes to go through. What’s that tiny blue metal box?  The larger red plastic one?  What’s in the metal canister that originally held 4 lbs of chicken soup stock?  Delightful!

But it was bittersweet too.  Chris was there, helping us go through everything and explaining what the stranger tools were used for.  As powerful as it was to relive a lifetime worth of projects and accomplishments, it was so sad to see the projects that were still unfinished or in the planning stages and now wouldn’t be started.  If only the tools were still in his hands, rebuilding a ’55 Tbird or building a set of cabinets.

But that’s the cycle of life, eh?  Tools get passed on and new people build new things (and while it’s a lame parallel, so do stamps.) We don’t really own anything, we just get to use them for a little while.  Heck, there will come a time (hopefully in the very distant future) when someone else will be using the brick oven.

So let’s celebrate whatever it is we can do today, whether it’s art or music or teaching or cooking or strategic planning, and do the heck out of it.

I know I’ll be fully in tune while I’m baking this week, using my tools to the fullest.

Work Like An Egyptian

I tried my darnedest to stay in the basement on Sunday as the temperature outside soared yet again. But Cindy was bound and determined to move our shed on the weekend, so we could start training our cherry tomato plants up the gazebo. The gazebo blocked the shed path and the tomatoes were in dire need of support, so the shed had to move, pronto. And if it was +35C outside, too bad.

Our shed’s had quite the history. We built this 4′ x 8′, half gable contraption from a kit purchased from Beaver Lumber more than 25 years ago. Before we were married even.

We built it out at the farm, because I was young and still held my father’s carpentry skills in high regard. Here was a man who, when I was a boy, finished his own basement, built his own garage and poured several driveways and patios.

On the other hand, I had made a knife block out of 2×4’s in Junior Achievement, which collapsed within months. Plus a wooden sign inscribed “DYCK” in wavy black letters, made in my high school shop class. Mom and Dad said the sign was too large to hang outside our front door, although my younger sister’s identical sign (made the following year) held a place of honour in Regina and later at the farm for decades.

After a few hours of shed building however, I started to wonder if Dad was out of practice. Ignoring the instruction sheet, he insisted in building the shed in exactly the opposite order. Cuts within an inch and a half of the line seemed just fine to him. So long as we reinforced everything with Dad’s favourite device, 3 inch spiral Ardox nails, he figured it would hold together.

Four hours into this two hour project, Cindy had enough, grabbed the instructions and insisted we start over. This time, by the book. Dad relented and followed Cin’s directions and the shed was complete before nightfall. Then we loaded it in the back of Dad’s truck and drove it to our the back of our rented apartment on Retallack Street.

(On the drive to Regina, Dad asked me why we bothered building the shed at the farm, because he was a “wood butcher.” It turns out his friend Bob was the true carpenter. I forgot how Bob was involved with Dad’s garage and basement projects.)

Because the shed fit between the wheel wells of an old half ton truck, we took it with us when we moved to Wascana Street. Cindy and the kids decorated it up and stored all the kid’s toys in it for a few years.

When the kids got older, we moved the shed to the back of the yard and put our garden tools in it. Then planted two apple trees around it and pretty much ignored it.

The mice didn’t ignore the shed though. Over the years we’ve been having a running battle over who gets to live in the shed. 20 year old particle board is pretty easy to gnaw through, I guess. It was time to either start using the shed again or get rid of it.

We’re going to take side wall off and turn the shed into an open air wood storage bin for the micro-bakery. But first we needed to move it closer to the oven. On Sunday. In the +35C heat.

Robyn invited two of her friends over with vague promises of ice cream and along with Cindy and myself, we got to work. Robyn thought we only had to move the thing two feet, so more promises had to be made once she realized the true distance. But she hung in there.

I told the crew that we were going to move the shed just like the Egyptians built the Pyramids – with lots and lots of leverage. And for the most part, we did. We laid a series of boards end to end, then levered up a corner of the shed high enough to slide round bars between the shed and the boards. Then pushed like hell and tried to roll this rotten, crumbly monstrosity across the yard.

It pretty much worked. Much of the underside of the shed was rotting away, so instead of rolling, the round bars would fall into a rotting divot. But we were able to roll it 1-2 feet before stopping and resetting the apparatus.

20 or 25 roll and reset cycles and the shed was in its new home. The only casualties were a branch from one apple tree, a bit of the lawn where the boards gouged a path and about 20% of the undercarriage of the shed, which tore off on the journey. Not too bad.

Well, my wallet took a pretty big hit too. Ice cream is more expensive than I thought. Must be the PST.

And I had to promise that this is the shed’s final resting place. Seems fair.

Resilience

My dad turned 79 years old yesterday, which is pretty remarkable. There’s not much more that can go wrong with his body; at this point in his life, he’s all bones and gristle. He’s had multiple bypasses, half a lung gone from cigarettes, a couple fused vertebrae, stomach surgery, hiatus hernia surgery, rotator cuff surgery and a stroke, but he keeps on going.

He’s still living in the my maternal grandparent’s farmhouse on 10 acres south of Moose Jaw and he’s planting his usual 1/2 acre vegetable garden this year. (He doesn’t eat vegetables other than potatoes but loves to grow them all.) His only compromise to age is the rows get a little further apart, so he can better see the plants from the weeds. The stroke messed his eyesight up a bit.

My buddy Giacomo and I went out to see dad last week. Giacomo bought an old Chevy camper van last year for his cross Canada adventure this summer and stored it in dad’s Quonset for the winter. He and his partner Martina, who are immigrating to Canada from Italy, are selling everything they own and driving coast to coast this summer. They want to see as much of their new country as possible before deciding where to settle down. With the weather warming up he’s excited to get the van packed and hit the road right after Easter.

So we drove out to Moose Jaw and I did my best to give Jack a minor history lesson about all the times Saskatchewan got settled and what the Hudson Bay Company was all about and why he should check out Batoche and learn about the Riel Rebellion and what’s Treaty 4 and why we talk about it now when we never did when I was a kid. Lest he think Saskatchewan wasn’t as interesting as Tofino or Cape Breton.

When we got to the farm, dad showed Jack his arrowhead collection before we went out and started up the van. Dad was complaining about his shoulder though (the one with the rotator cuff surgery,) which hasn’t been the same since his neighbour’s cow yanked on it a couple of years back. It was causing him a lot of pain from mounting the birdhouse on Sunday.

The birdhouse, I asked? Yeah, the one on the 14 foot pole by the house. Dad built a new birdhouse with eight little entrances out of an old wooden crate after the old one blew down last year. It’s very fashionable, with the same flat roof that seems to be all the rage in Regina infills.

Well Johnny (the neighbour) came over with his front end loader and, since Johnny (who’s young, like 60) doesn’t like heights, dad climbed into the steel bucket and Johnny raised dad and the birdhouse up to the top of the pole. And it was hard driving four screws up from the plywood platform into the bottom of the house with his messed up arm. And, well, Johnny couldn’t level the bucket worth a damn so his legs were all buckled funny and they’re pretty sore too, what with dad forgetting to put his knee pads on.

Needless to say, with a dad like that, I feel a little awkward complaining about my sore shoulder from 30 minutes of woodchopping, or my sore knee from Sunday morning’s yoga class. I’m doing just fine, thank you. All day, every day.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I hope I inherited some of your resilience genes.

How to Meditate with a Golden Retriever

It’s a challenge. But I’m breathing my way through it.

Buddy, in a state of mindful relaxation.

I have wanted to meditate for several years now. My thinking is getting more and more scattered, and my self talk more and more negative. So better relaxation and focus could really help.

But the Resistance is large with this. It’s as if it knows that better calm and focus will make its destructive job harder. So I thought about it but never started.

Last week I went for my regular long walk around Wascana Lake and listened to the audio of “Real Happiness” by Sharon Salzburg and for whatever reason it got me jazzed to try again. (The reason: it’s a 4 week program so there’s actual things to do. Oh do I need prompts!) So I’ve made a 20 minute meditation session part of my routine.

First thing in the morning I get up, feed the animals, let them outside, then head downstairs for my meditation time. My back’s too tight to sit cross legged for 20 minutes, so I lie on the floor instead.

Just lie there and focus on my breathing. Start thinking about work? Go back to breathing. Relationships? Back to breathing. Past failures and future worries? Breathing. The fact that my back still hurts? Breathing.

Then Buddy, our 10 year old golden retriever, barks to come inside. Breathe. Bark! Breathe. BARK!

Ok, I’m coming.

Back downstairs, and back to breathing. Now he’s beside me. He wants me to pet him. Just breath. He inches closer, (breathe), closer, (breathe), closer, until he’s leaning against my right arm and chest. Now I’m breathing while petting him.

It worked! He’s gone now. Back to breathing.

And he’s back with a toy. Plop. He drops it beside me. Breathe. Plop. He drops it closer. Breathe. Keep breathing and throw the toy. Bud’s a golden retriever but he doesn’t retrieve. He’s got his own Muse.

But this time he retrieves! Breathe. He’s back with the toy. Breathe. He lies down with his toy. Ahh…breathe. Across my feet. Breathe.

Ding! Time’s up. Good session today, Bud. I’m feeling relaxed, focused and strong.

Same time tomorrow?

Orlando

I should be getting used to it by now; it seems like there’s at least one mass shooting in the US every month. You just process one and then there’s another. But the shooting on the weekend in Orlando struck closer to home than usual.

My kids are young adults; they go to night clubs all the time. And my daughter is part of the LGBT community. I woke up Sunday morning and realized they’re a potential target for someone’s ignorant, pathetic hate.

She’s got a trip planned to LA next week. I’m scared to have her go. Even though there’s seemingly a lot of people there who are armed to the hilt for ‘protection’, it doesn’t give me comfort.

And honestly, the crazy nonsense I’ve been reading online over the past few days has me worried that there’s no ‘normal’ any more down south. Hell, I’m sticking to stamp collecting forums and I still see more hate, ignorance and paranoid fear than I can stomach.

All of us are just floating through space, you know? Just trying to make sense of this crazy messed up thing called “life.” And when I read some of the reactions to the latest disaster I realize I’m no closer to figuring it out.

I don’t know what’s worse: the sick hatred that’s behind these crimes or the fear and ignorance that fuels the flames. All I know is that the story is getting really old.

I can’t remember a time in my life when we weren’t encouraged to hate another group, be it national, religious, racial or sexual. Can you?