Monthly Archives: February 2014

My Fabulous Failure

I was talking to a friend today about how I came to be in fundraising. It was an odd transition from retired Canadian Forces Air Navigator to some odd job contract work to volunteer management to fund raising and kind of all over the place in not for profit work. I love my job and I’m getting the results I need to keep it but I’ve not always enjoyed success.

I learned mostly from volunteering at events like Pride London and political campaigns to volunteering for what was then the AIDS Committee of London and my biggest, most fabulous failure the London Area Rainbow Coalition (I think that was the name? It was a while ago).


At the time people in London were agitating for change, for a place where the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, 2-Spirited, Queer and Questioning communities could gather.

Some friends and acquaintances formed a board to address the issue. We created mission, vision, and values. We held a couple fundraising events but when push came to shove we simply could not deliver anything concrete to the community. We all wanted something to happen but our early enthusiasm petered out as we went months without being able to move the agenda forward.

As quickly as we formed we dissolved in a boring meeting over coffee and donated the funds raised to a local charity.

It was a fabulous failure. I learned a lot about myself, leadership and community collaboration. I’m still embarrassed that we couldn’t make it work but looking back we didn’t know any better, none of us having served on a operational board. We made some classic mistakes that people who’ve never been on a board do. We may have been using the wrong model to address the issue.

Community building is hard work. The types of folks who agitate for change tend to be quirky, at least I certainly am, passionate and strongly motivated to make change happen. It’s hard to coordinate complex tasks among a completely volunteer team where common available time is scarce on the ground. That’s why in many community collaboration endeavours there is funding for a backbone, a staff person, a space to keep the process moving forward.

My fabulous failure taught me that I need to be realistic about the time commitment I can make to a specific project. I need to be mindful of managing conflicts that arise in groups. I try to be genuine so I have little patience for drama and subterfuge, wherever they creep up, but I need to also be open for people to change. My thoughts on giving and receiving feedback. I need to remember to extend the benefit of the doubt to others, to address conflicts discreetly and quickly and to stay focus on the reason that brought me to volunteer.

Staying focused on the mission/objective/desired outcome anchors group work in a very special way. I love this video about collective effort and community impact:

Since my failed attempt to change the world I went on to serve a 6 year term on a not for profit board that is now coming to a close. I know now what it takes to make change happen and I’m excited about some possibilities in my life to share with others what I’ve learned along the way to nicer.


Hiding your food forest?

Every now and then I find myself reading something and think “why go there?” I stumbled across the book “Secret Garden of Survival: How to Grow a Camouflaged Food-Forest” by Rick Austin. I had to buy it because it goes just that extra kind of paranoid that is oddly entertaining.

First off, I love the concept of a food forest, a carefully planned garden of food bearing perennials that require little inputs. You layer shrubs and ground cover under the canopy of fruit or nut trees in a dense planting of awesomeness. Sounds GREAT and yummy and dovetails nicely into my goal of having more naps in my hammock under that same canopy.

The author self identifies as a “prepper”. I had never heard this term before but it clearly has a following. These are folks who plan and prepare for an apocalypse. This could be economic, environmental or medical (maybe the Zombie Survival Guide was not satire?) and to be ready. While I find that a bit, uh, far fetched food security is no joke.

Who has access to food is an important question in my community, many go hungry while others waste food. I’ve come across collective approaches to food security and the rugged individual model. Mike Reynalds of Earthship Biotecture started on the individual end of the spectrum but he sounds lately to be downright cooperative, since Earthships take a lot of person power this makes sense and it turns out lots of folks who moved out into the wilds are now seeking spaces closer to towns and cities, they simply miss other people.

I’m a big advocate of the Food Not Lawns movement because it encourages everyone to try and grow some of their own food and share the surplus, with friends, neighbours and the local food bank. The idea that we can all contribute is interesting and I’ve always been taught to share surplus, to approach life from an abundance rather than a scarcity model.

I’m just starting in on Rick Austin’s book, I’m curious to see how he constructs guilds around fruit and nut trees but I’m not convinced we need to hide our food from our neighbours. I’d rather be like Ron Finley: a guerilla gardener in South Central LA who encourages people to explore and take what they need.

Would you hide your bounty or share?

On the Move Organics

We’ve been ordering from On the Move Organics for 4 weeks. At first I thought the modest bin was far too little vegetables for my ravenous horde of four. My caloric needs are modest but my two teenagers and runner spouse consume a lot of food. I jokingly refer to my beloved as Mr. Twitchy, he’s always on the move himself so how cool is it a company named that delivers fresh produce to my door?

After the third week I realized we weren’t eating everything before the next delivery. Uh oh. The veggies keep coming as I keep clicking to opt in each week and this week the kicker was enormous swiss chard. I mean, the leaves were the width of the dinner plate, the bunch filled the entire layer in the bin. HUGE. So I ramped up our veggies servings from 2 to 4 for lunch and dinner and made sure everyone was having fruit for breakfast and snacks. Mr. Twitchy looked at me this weekend and said:

“Thank you for taking care of this for our family. We are eating the best we ever have.”

All I could think is, there’s another bin coming so I got to get chopping!

Guinea Pig on the grass

This picture sums up just how far I will go not to mow grass. I hate grass. Never has a crop consumed so much time in care and maintenance and yielded so little joy. We rent so I had not done much in the way of gardening the first 2 years. Only last spring did we decide we are staying for the next 10 years or so which had me totally revamp the front yard you can see pics here.

The guinea pigs came to our home because the youngest among us was lonely. He felt the dogs were not “his” companions (even though the Coconut sleeps in his room) so, being the neo-hippies we are, we researched the optimal habitat for guinea pigs and decided that these folks advocated for what seemed humane conditions. But I had another, secret, reason for going along with adding guinea pigs to our home, fertilizer.

So while the quirky fellas live in our living room I’d often take them out to keep me company while I gardened knowing their penchant for gobbling greens meant I didn’t need to mow the grass and that their droppings were great fertilizer for the lawn.

As the lawn disappeared I continued to bring them out with me, picking the toughest dandelion greens, which they squealed in delight to see, feeding to them knowing whatever minerals and nutrients the dandelion taproot had pulled up would be available to the guinea pigs and then the soil.

We use a system of blankets, towels and newspaper for the cage bedding. Once a week we dump the droppings and leftover feed into the compost bin. I figure the guinea pigs are instant composters so we feed them ends of celery, carrots, sweet potatoes, basically anything they like and then use their manure to enrich the compost.

Putting guinea pigs out to graze in my garden has gotten us a fair share of looks and there are adamant cavy lovers who say having them outside at all is bad. We have red tailed hawks and other raptors in our neighbourhood so we do not leave our guys unattended. We put them out in the early morning or late afternoon in the shade and while someone is out with them. Local cats are also a concern, some have been really curious about this large (and tasty?) looking rodent.

In the gardening world permaculture advocates, like myself, are on the fringe. Using a guinea pig as a grazer may put me on the fringe of the fringe but it is an interesting space to occupy. Plus the little fellas are cute as all get out and highly entertaining. And the gardens? Well they are looking pretty awesome too.

Storytelling matters

My love of storytelling comes from my family. Visiting when I was a kid meant traipsing around to all our family members homes each weekend, sitting around the table eating & talking. Not just gossip but also recounting of finely honed tales, that usually involved comedic mishaps. The unstated goal seemed to be to make people laugh so hard they cried. This extended to letter writing, especially when I joined the military and moved away. Dad’s best friend from high school, Almost-Uncle Neil, would write me these hilarious stories about his adventures in suburban Halifax that made me feel closer to home. It became tradition for me to read them aloud to my roommates, sometimes the whole floor would sit to listen about Neil & Bird’s adventures with his poppy firewood burning her beloved carpet or deflating Halloween decorations that defied the laws of physics. My favourite story is of Stormin Norman, the rabbit on a dancing beer can, that played an integral role in many failed coyote hunting trips.

I had learned to write mostly from helping keep the Silas Cove camp log book. We had a bit of an informal competition about keeping the log at camp. I understood the rules to be: keep it short, keep it funny and if you can craft a running joke or tie in a longstanding joke, all the better. Dad insisted we have a log book from the very first day we took possession of the camp from Uncle Russell. (I think it was 1985 or 86 but it is in the log book!). We documented changes to the camp’s structure, the work we did to make the space ours and the many challenges of VERY large wharf spiders (the size of the palm of my hand) and numerous mice that seemed to insist on cohabitating with us.

My beloved's first trip to camp in 1996. He didn't know it then but it meant he was already family!

My beloved’s first trip to camp in 1996. He didn’t know it then but it meant he was already family!

While you can bet the weather was acutely captured (as well as the attendance and dates) I wouldn’t put too much stock in the accuracy of the tales written in the log. We valued the quality of the story telling more so than the factual statements, something I blame my penchant for hyperbole and drama on to this day. This was what Dad calls “adding colour to the story”, fancy people call it “artistic license” . The writer of the log entry got to select the facts and weave a narrative around the stay that would make it memorable & unique. That way  no 2 long weekends in August were ever captured the same way, even if we just swam, fished, BBQ’d and drank like every other year.

My sons find out why my dad is known as After Dark Mark

My sons find out why my dad is known as After Dark Mark

On rainy days at camp, when the fishing was crap, we’d dust off the log books and read through them, laughing, noting the unfinished projects or new boats and the great visits that happened. Company was always a highlight as the camp was truly accessible only by boat or very committed hikers in the summer and sleds in winter. We worked hard to make a great beach to swim from, a warm place to hang out and a wild refuge from our city lives.

kayak trip

My beloved, myself and my sister kayaking up the lake to camp. This is half way after we enjoyed many beverages.

Time has a way of fading memories, one year blends into the next but the camp log, while maybe not totally factual, tells no lies and brings back all the warm memories. That’s a pretty good reason to write.

I’m too young to have teenagers and too old to do it?

Turns out, if you raise kids, one day they become teenagers. Trust me. It happens. I feel like it has not been long enough since they were born. How is it my eldest completed his first set of highschool exams? I’m typing listening to him and his friends celebrate the successful completion of thier grade 9 exams. They are all lovely humans who make me laugh. So nerdy, so into games and each other. It really does make my heart swell 2 sizes.

I also find teenagers EXHAUSTING. They talk & move fast. They eat every 90 minutes or so and enjoy teasing each other and anyone else in the vicinity. They wrestle & grapple and sit on each other. They have no sense of personal space with each other yet refuse to cuddle with me on the couch. The contradictions pile up.

Then there is the smell. It’s part cumin, part parmesan cheese and a bit of old hockey equipment. My kids don’t even play hockey. What is that about? Fungus? I know they showered! We even do a smell test to make sure they’ve used soap. We praise them for not smelling bad. We just want neutral smells now, once we wanted them to smell good. You have to set the bar to achievable goals and neutral is a stretch most days.

Don’t get me started with the music. The youngest among us could name every song that played on the radio on Saturday. I honestly couldn’t tell the songs apart. When did I get so old? I’m 39 for crying out loud. I actually do try to keep up, I at least know who Imagine Dragons are, well, I know their song “Radioactive”. I’m calling that a win.

I bought a slackline so we could work on balance together. I also know I won’t be doing this anytime soon: I was pretty pumped about being able to stand on it for a moment when the kids went right to walking and skittering back and forth, first try!

I have friends my age with toddlers. My partner and I decided to have our kids when we were young so that we could keep up. That was silly. I’m sorry to inform you THERE IS NO KEEPING UP. To those who will be even older than I when your teenagers arrive, may your deity have mercy on you and give you help.

There are occasional moments when I can sprint along with them but I need days to recover. I love my kids’ friends and I want everyone to feel welcome but I must be making the curmudgeon face by mistake. They often ask me when they need to leave. I’m happy they’re here, I’m just old and ornery.

I think I'm way cool, turns out I'm not!

I think I’m way cool, turns out I’m not!

I make up for it by offering pie after a big breakfast (sorry to their parents) and by giving them the space to do their thing. I try not to meddle and let them work out conflicts but it seems a bit beyond me to grasp all that is happening in my kids lives right now.

On the one hand I’m on the young side to have teenagers but on the other I feel just a tad too old to be keeing up with them.

buying more local handmade, more often

I’m cradling an exquisite mug I bought from the London Clay Art Centre run by the London Potters Guild. The photo doesn’t do Elly’s Pottery Productions justice but you get the idea.

You can contact Elly via email EllysPotteryProd"at"

You can contact Elly via email EllysPotteryProd”at”

It’s a delight to drink from, to hold and to look at. My partner and I have both had full time jobs for the past 7 months (after 12 years of contract work, being students and other cobbled-together financial solutions) and I am mindful of the privilege that brings. We recently sat down for our annual budget deliberations to see if our spending aligned with our values.

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
―     Joe Biden

We value time together which means our default is to eat out when we can. It is the Achilles heel to our otherwise frugal impulses. The kitchen in the house we rent is small, it makes food prep cramped and by necessity a solitary endeavor. Good food takes time and, with both of us working outside the home, a very late dinner indeed. But I’m off on a tangent so back to budgets and values.

We buy second hand, receive hand-me-downs, make stuff and try to buy quality when buying new to reduce our consumption overall. Our vacation plans are car trips to see family back east, nothing involving flying or hotels, it’s just too much money & resources.

For Christmas our stockings were filled with great goodies from Weezi’s like handmade soaps & journals made from upcycled books. We had chocolate made at Habitual Chocolate & coffee from Fire Roasted Coffee Company . It was all delightful and I got to look the people who made these wonders in the eye and thank them. I get to share the stories of what a great Christmas we had thanks to their good the next time I’m there. I know the money I spend at local shops gets reinvested into my community.

We’ve recommitted to not eating out as much to ensure we have the money to buy local and handmade when we can. When we go out to eat we choose independent restaurants that are locally owned, like Winks Eatery.

Our mug supply had been suffering from some serious attrition so when it came time to replenish I decided to follow through on that ongoing commitment and get handmade mugs. It turned out Elly was working the shop that day and we chatted about how the blue glaze changed as it got wet, how that matte finish felt in my hand and my love of coffee.

This beautiful and practical art is now part of my morning routine, it fits just so in my hand. It has a nice heft to it, like drinking out of it means something. It grounds me in the moment. The smell of the coffee, the feel of the glaze on my lips as I sip coffee organically grown, fairly traded and locally roasted. I feel connected to my community, I’m in the moment, far from my anxieties and worries and I’m very thankful I can afford to buy things in line with my values most of the time.