Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reflections on An Arctic Christmas

[Lorraine says:] Well, Christmas is now past, its -33 not including the windchill, John is off skiing, and it is a competition whether the snowmobiles tearing around or the ravens up their regular highjinks are the most entertaining activity outside the window right now.

Its actually been a busy Christmas. Other than Christmas day, when we had a quiet day relaxing at home, its been a non-stop whirlwind of socializing, Christmas parties and community events.

The whole town here definitely gets into the Christmas mood, mostly by socializing up a storm. The local Inuit seem to set the pace, setting up tons of community events, work get-togethers, and socializing opportunities. Many Qallunaat (non-Inuit) head south at Christmas, and those that are left also socialize up a storm. Pretty well every night for the past two weeks we have had a party or social occasion to go to, including some good music jams. We hosted a gang on Boxing Day for a big turkey feed, which was a lot of fun.

On Christmas Eve, we went to the community Christmas pagaent at the Anglican parish hall (which fills in for the famous Igloo-shaped cathedral which burned down a couple years ago and which is being rebuilt). Two young Inuit neighbours from our apartment building (boys, around 10) were with us and they were excited when they were given 'glow sticks' at the service. They were flashing them around outside afterwards as we were walking home, and John suggested they could use them to flag down a plane at the airport. They decided they could flag down a plane right there in the field where we were walking and that the four of us could then fly anywhere we wanted. I suggested we could go to the north pole, given it was Christmas Eve. No, they said excitedly, we could take the plane to Ottawa, which would be REALLY exciting! Ah, its all about perspective...

The Anglican Cathedral Before it Burned Down:

Last night we went to the local arena to watch the traditional Inuit games which go on each day from Christmas until a big community feast on New Years day. The arena can't be used for skating anymore (the permafrost beneath is melting, so the building is sinking and ice would be too heavy) but does get used for some community events like the games. A lot of the games last night involved dice (you'd roll to see if you got the right number to do the game in question), music and/or dancing. It was a lot of fun, though a little hard to join in if you couldn't understand the Inuktitut directions. One thing I found really surprising and refreshing was how many young people, particularly young Inuit men (dressed in hip hop gear) joined in enthusiastically in the traditional dancing. They there were jigging up a storm in their backwards ball caps, baggy pants and Tu Pac t-shirts.

One of the more disconcerting moments on the night came in the middle of all the Inuit accordian jigs and reels being played by the live band or from recordings. Suddenly I noticed that the tune Jack Tar was playing, which John's old band Swingbridge plays. I poked John and marvelled at how similar the arrangement was to Swingbridge's. Then Diggy Li, another Swingbridge favourite, came on and we realized they were playing Swingbridge as the background music for the Inuit traditional games. John had given a copy of Swingbridge's album to a local guy, who it turned out was taking care of the sound system for the games. Too funny.

It's 2:30 and dark outside. I need to get moving to get to the library before it closes. Tonight is Scrabble night for me with some fellow Scrabble fans, and I think John will go back to the traditional games.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

It's all uphill from here (or is that downhill)

[Says John] Well, we made it through the shortest day of the year--and it wasn't that bad, really. The sun rose at 9:22 or 9:23 (depending which website you get your info from) and set at 1:42 or 1:43, giving us 4 hours and 20 minutes of visible sun between those two events. If you add on the considerable dawn and dusk times, you get 6 hours and 53 minutes--almost seven hours of other than complete darkness. You know--livable, really.

One week from now, we'll have 8 minutes more of visible sun, two weeks from now, we'll have 28 minutes more, and one month from now we'll have one hour and 45 minutes more.

Six months from now, the sun will appear at 2:11 a.m., and disappear at 11:01 p.m. Add in dawn and dusk then and we will indeed have 24 hours of sunlight. Wowsers.

Of course, even without the sun, the darkness is not total --unless it's very overcast. We've got stars and moon (about 8 hours and 12 minutes of moonrise today, although a chunk of that overlaps with daylight), and most spectacularly, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I've seen them about five times now since we arrived (sometimes they're just not happening, sometimes it's too cloudy, and most often, I'm inside like a dullard, watching TV). A few nights ago it was pretty spectacular, one long green, flashing stream that started on the western horizon, streaked right overhead almost to the eastern horizon, and then swung left to disappear behind the hill on the north side of town. And it flashes out like a bolt of pure silk flapping in a strong wind. It always makes me think of that line from one of the later verses of Silent Night: "Glories stream from heaven afar." That's what it looks like; I wonder if that's the image the composer had in his mind.

I also went out skiing on the shortest day of the year (12th time out). It was -12 degrees and snowing lightly, which seemed positively balmy after my previous outing, when it was -37 (-47 with the wind chill). Amazingly, I was reasonably comfortable even on that coldest day, with a face mask, during my one-and-a-half hours outside. Was happy to come back in, though.

It struck me, when I was skiing on the shortest day of the year, that I just might be able to ski on the longest day of the year, too. That would be kind of fascinating, although, keen skier that I am, even for me that seems like maybe too long a season.

Christmas week looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, with games every night, carol singing, and we're invited to a solstice party, and at least one other music night. And we're having some of Lorraines work colleagues over for Christmas turkey.

I mailed a Christmas parcel to my Mom last Monday, and wonder of wonders, she got it on Wednesday. How's that for service? On the other hand, Mom mailed us a parcel on Dec. 4, and we still don't have it. The tracking record says it arrived at the Montreal station Dec. 12, and that's the last it was heard from. The post office guy here says a bunch of stuff just came in from Montreal, but they didn't have it sorted on Friday. He says there's a good chance it's there. Fingers crossed.

And here's wishing all of you a Merry Christmas season, however you like to keep it. Blessings to you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why My Friend Don Should Move to Iqaluit

[Lorraine says] Tonight after supper we went to Arctic Ventures to get a few groceries. I was very excited because a shipment of turkeys came in, they are decently priced, and we're cooking up a Christmas dinner for ourselves and a couple of (new) friends.

Arctic Ventures is a great general store where you can get everything from groceries to videos to towels to fur strips for sewing with. And every time I go there I think of my friend Don.

Don is one of the many friends who I miss a lot. He is (among other fabulous things) an opera nut and a walking opera encyclopedia. The kind of guy who you can ask, "Did Maria Callas really eat tape worms to become a more famous, skinnier diva?" or "ok, what's REALLY happening with all that crazy sh*t in the Wagner Ring operas anyway." And he knows. He even took me to one of the Wagner Ring cycles and provided me with a ten page written commentary ahead of time so that I would know EXACTLY what was going on. (Thanks Don).

And I think Don would LOVE Arctic Ventures. Ventures pumps out crazy, loud opera music at rock concert sound levels, at the front door. It is a little disconcerting to come walking in from a cold, arctic night into the BIG OPERA ZONE. I suppose it is to discourage teenagers from loitering but I keep having visions of middle-aged opera fans hanging out in the lobby at Ventures and having to be chased home.

Here is someone else's youtube clip of what it is like to walk into Ventures' opera zone (and by the way, ignore their obnoxious comments):

And to Don and so many other good friends who I keep thinking of when little everyday things trigger memories: we miss you lots and hope you're having a wonderful Christmas season.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Blues

[John says] This will be the first Christmas in my entire 54-year life that I have not spent with my mother--and brother. And the first Christmas in the lives of my sons, Matt, Tom and Pete, that I will not been with them, either. In principle I profess to be okay with this. My sons are at that age when they are separating from their birth family and forging their own identities and lives as adult individuals, so in some ways it's probably good that we be apart for a while. In the case of my mother, though, well, there's no excuse for not being with her for Christmas, is there. But she's supportive of us being up here, and makes the strong argument that it would make absolutely no economic sense to come back south so soon after getting here. The return flight alone from Iqaluit to Ottawa is about $1,700, which is kind of ridiculous when you compare it to prices for other flights.

All well and good, but I find myself getting weepy over all those sentimental Christmas movies that show up on TV at this time of year. Tonight it was "It's A Wonderful Life," which really is a delightful film. When Jimmy Stewart came running back into the house and into the arms of his children after his encounter with Clarence the Christmas angel convinced him he did want to live, well I started blubbering like a baby.

And last week, which admittedly was harder because Lorraine was away in Vancouver, I actually burst into tears watching Ernest Saves Christmas. I mean, ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS, for heaven's sake--an absolutely goofy (but goodhearted) comedy. The thing is, it was one of my sons' favourite Christmas movies for a stretch of years when they were kids, and we watched it together many, many times. So all those memories came flooding back.

Oh well, someone once told me we should all cry at least once a day, to release stress, to get rid of toxins in the body, and to wash out our eyes. So there's a start for me. (Reminds me of that chorus from the country and western song by I don't remember who: "Every night I sleep just like a baby. I wake up every hour and cry."

Some of this feeling, I imagine, is also empathy with a new and very fine friend up here who, two weekends ago, lost both her husband and father within days of one another. That's brutal. Definitely makes you think about mortality, and the importance of living and appreciating each day to the full.

On the upside, we're settling nicely into our apartment, and it already feels like home to me. And we're finding out just how conveniently situated it is. A maximum of ten minutes walk to anywhere, from skiing, to shopping, post office, library, church, restaurants, Lorraine's work. Maybe 15 minutes to the hospital, although you could probably do it in 12.

And I've been out skiing eight times already too (although I have friends in southern Ontario who tell me they've already surpassed that this year. It's snowy down there, I guess). When I get up on the ridge northwest of town, looking down on the airport and over the bay, the view is wonderful. The wind can be brutally cold on your face though and the worst is yet to come. My biggest problem, though, is sweating too much (no surprise to those who know me). If I'm out for much more than an hour, I start getting chilled from dampness. That would be a real problem on a multi-day expedition (or even an all-day expedition, for that matter).

We're only a week away from the shortest day of the year, however, and then, thank goodness, it will start getting lighter. And then, well you know, summer's just a matter of months away.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Life Stripped Back to the Essentials

[Lorraine says] Today I got back from my trip to Vancouver, and I'm so happy to be "home."

I'm glad to see John (of course), but I'm also really glad to be back to the quieter rhythms of Iqaluit, and yes, even glad to be back in those fierce howling arctic winds happening right now. No flashing billboards. No video advertisements in bathroom stalls in restaurants. No 40 foot neon signs.

Going to downtown Vancouver, directly from Iqaluit, was a sensory shock, to put it mildly. To exacerbate the situation, my meetings were at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a five star downtown hotel with stores like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany's in the lobby, and long queues of BMW's and Lexuses waiting for the parking valets. The pace and the dripping, ostentatious displays of wealth, and the weird high-end luxury vibe (along with the sensation of being surrounded by a million downtown department stores) was jarring. (OK, it was a little fun and fascinating, like when I realized the hotel had "professional" golden lab retrievers, complete with little Fairmont jackets, waiting at the concierge desk in case you wanted to walk a dog. And I loved spending an afternoon drifting around the market stalls at Granville Island with my friend Elizabeth. And not only could I get a latte, but the lattes were excellent plus the barristas knew how to pour them so that the espresso made patterns like snowmen or trees in the milk froth. Cool.). But I missed the "stripped back" simplicity of life of Iqaluit.

It made me realize that what has always attracted me to the north (and to deserts, for instance) is the stark, basic simplicity that makes you see forms and colour at their most basic and most beautiful. And that, in turn, liberates me psychologically to drill down to focussing on what really matters to me. (Maybe that's my prairie roots showing through ....)

I'm glad to be home.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dreaming of Worms

(Lorraine says): So, I'm sitting in the Ottawa airport, waiting for a flight to Vancouver (where I'm going for work meetings) and dreaming of worms. More specifically, how to convince FirstAir or Canadian North to let me bring worms back with me when I return to Iqaluit (or later). Not just any worms - I want some composting worms.

Would they fly as "pets"? Or special cargo? If I sneak them into a suitcase, they'll freeze in cargo. And what if they escaped - would it be the basis for a northern thriller ("Worms on a Plane")? A little tamer than other wriggly options, I guess.

The problem is that there is next to no garbage diversion in Iqaluit. Everything goes into the landfill. Living with John the Eco-Nazi (I mean that in the kindest way) has made me hyper aware of where all our waste goes. And it just seems so WRONG to put all that good organic matter and those tin cans and newspapers and cardboard into the garbage pail. So, I've been plotting about how to, at least, get some composting worms. Diligent, odourless, ravenous for our banana peels - what could be better? The only question is how to get them to Iqaluit....

Saturday, December 1, 2007

First ski of the season

[Says John] Sometimes one little thing blips across the screen of your consciousness to remind you that you’re in a very different reality. When I unpacked one of our boxes in our new apartment this week, a dried up poplar leaf fell out onto the carpet. A leaf from back home on the Little Bob Channel in Bobcaygeon. I picked it up and turned it in my hand, a mottled yellow-brown (the leaf, not my hand) and it struck me that there are no leaves up here. Wow. Who knows how long till I see another one?

Further unpacking revealed a small print of a turtle that Lorraine had brought with her. I looked at it and thought: No turtles either. Very different than life on the Little Bob.

But there are things I like too. I went for my first cross-country ski of the year today (Dec. 1) and it was great. A two-block walk to the beach, then skied along a snowmobile path around the end of the bay, probably about six km out and back. On the far side of the bay, near the big tanks that hold all the fuel oil for the town, I could hear the unearthly howling of what sounded like hundreds of dogs. Apparently most of the sled dogs in town are kept tied up (out of reach of one another) out at this far end of town. Must be quite a sight. I would have had to go way out round the end of the fenced in fuel tanks to get to them, so I didn't bother this time. Maybe next time.

On the way back, though, I passed seven or eight sled dogs staked out at the edge of the beach by themselves--again, out of reach of one another. I almost ran over them before I saw them, as they were lying quietly curled up against the wind, with their noses tucked under their tails.

What else did I see? Fox tracks. Mouse or lemming tracks. Lots of ravens, of course. A big jet plane that came in low right above me on its landing approach (the runway lines up with the head of the bay).

I also saw one lone snowmobiler cross the bay, pulling a komatik behind him, and picking his way slowly amongst the big chunks of ice that get thrown up by the tidal action. I guess that means the ice is safe now (although I’m not ready to go out on it yet--don’t worry Mom). It was only about 10 days ago that there was a ship in the harbour, unloading fuel oil--the latest they’ve ever had one here apparently.

It was a great ski, even though the temperature was about minus 20 (minus 30 with the wind chill). But it’s a dry cold, and all you have to do is dress for it. I’m definitely going out tomorrow again, too. Maybe I will get in 100 outings this year. It's funny how that works for me. Before I went out, I was feeling disgruntled and a bit depressed about being up here, so far from family, old friends (like my SwingBridge bandmates), and trees and other familiar things. But after skiing, I glowed with happiness the rest of the day.

The other thing I like about the winter (so far) is NO SLUSH, just crisp snow, I’m hopping around in my crepe-soled, fleece-lined moccasins, just as comfy and cozy as can be. I love that; it's like going out in your slippers.

All for now. I'll let Lorraine tell you how she kicked butt at Scrabble tonight with a couple of our new acquaintances; I think I can say, friends.