Hips, Thighs, and the Nanaimo Factor

15380497_10154880210114515_1394830291038030524_nMany thanks to my good friend Jeff Buckman for introducing me to the sport of snowshoeing. Having spent most of my adult life in the Great White North, I shouldn’t have needed a guy from Pennsyltucky to perform this essential function. Nor should I need a guy from Michigan to introduce me to ice fishing, but my colleague Joe Stinson will be doing that this winter. But I digress.

This morning I took off down a narrow, frosted trail near the Ottawa River on my new Red Feather snowshoes. I’m an enthusiastic cross country skier, so I wondered how I would enjoy trudging along at a much slower pace, walking like a toddler with a load in his Huggies.

Neither scenario proved to be true. My gait was pretty much as it usually is, despite the additional width of the shoes–and I don’t walk anywhere slowly, either with or without snowshoes. I have to say, it was every bit the workout that skiing is–a very different movement, but with poles, a great way to get some much-needed exercise. In Jeff’s words, “It is fun–just another way to enjoy the snow.” Jeff is an avid downhill skier, so he should know. And now I know, too.

Whenever I use the words, “hips” and, “thighs” in the same sentence, I recall an incident that Donna and I still laughed about many years later. We were in the waiting room of our doctor’s office in Nova Scotia one time when a schoolgirl came by selling Girl Guide cookies. We bought some, but the lady next to us said to the girl, “My mouth says, ‘Yes,’ but my hips and thighs say, ‘No.'”  Donna borrowed that quip many times over the years.

Medical researchers and practitioners alike tell us that as we age, men and women collect our excess weight in different places. In men, fat goes to the gut; in women, it goes to the butt. Diagnostic imaging at Walmart will confirm this.  (If Donna were reading over my shoulder, she would have just slapped me lovingly on the back of the head and said with her delightful giggle, “Rob–delete that!” But she isn’t, so I won’t.)

So ladies, if you’re interested in firming your hips and thighs, etc., I highly recommend snowshoeing. (I know some of you will be, especially after all those holiday goodies. I call this the Nanaimo Factor. If you’re not Canadian, you won’t understand this medical jargon and will have to come up with your own factor.) That’s the region of my body where I really felt it today–far more so than when I ski. You’ll feel it there, too–of this I have no doubt. In fact, after shoeing a few kilometers, your hips and thighs may be on their knees begging you to go home.

Snowshoeing seems like a great family activity, as it can be mastered immediately by anyone who can walk. Poles help with equilibrium and lend an additional aerobic element to the motion. The sport can be enjoyed anywhere you find snow–no grooming is required, or even desirable. (I’m talking about the trail’s grooming, not yours. But wait until after your shower, which you will need.) It’s about blazing your own trail, exploring uncharted territory, and all that. A word of caution from a seasoned professional–don’t attempt using your snowshoes in a hard-packed, icy parking lot as you’re going back to your car. The teeth of the crampons may grab the ice and stop the shoes dead, resulting in serious injury to your face, your pride, or both.

One final comment about snowshoeing. Cross country skiing is a very enjoyable and therapeutic solo activity for me–especially at night, under a full moon. Somehow, snowshoeing seems different. It’s a little like drinking mate, the tea that is such an integral part of the South American cultures I so dearly love. It’s okay to do it alone, but I think it would be much more enjoyable with a partner.




On Dirt, Grass, and Human Stupidity


When we lived in Atlanta, a group of our Homeowners’ Association members rented an aerator one Saturday and went to town on our yards. As were were working, an Asian man–a newcomer to the USA–stopped by to watch for a few minutes.

“What are you doing?” he asked me in heavily accented English.

“We’re poking little holes in the ground so our grass will grow better,” I told him.

His mouth fell open in disbelief. “Why?” he asked.

“Sir,” I replied, “I have to tell you honestly I can’t give you a sensible answer.”

I still wouldn’t be able to.

I just spent a good bit of time and money trying to get grass to grow in my front yard. I’ll take another photo in two weeks to see it it looks any different. Here’s hopin’.

As I was tamping in the seed with my rake, I got to thinking about how ludicrous this job actually was. Talk about poor stewardship of the planet! In many other contexts, the tree would be gone, the front lawn would be a vegetable garden, and there would be a goat and a few chickens out back.

Think about it for a minute. We drive somewhere and actually buy dirt. Dirt! We spend a great deal of money and countless hours of our discretionary time growing a plant that is inedible. We spread toxic substances all over it (well, I don’t) to make it grow longer and thicker; then, we use expensive machines to cut it down so we can bag it and lug it to the curb on trash day.

And we’re an advanced culture.


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sickness


Most people don’t like to be sick.

Oh, there are those for whom “How are you?” is a question, not a greeting–a question to be answered in gruesome detail (regardless of how close to mealtime it may be,) the response buttressed with medical statistics, lists of practitioners and drugs, and perhaps the occasional offhand reference to this morning’s obituaries. We all know people for whom a clean bill of health would be cause for profound distress and precipitate a desperate quest for a second opinion.

But that’s not what this post is about.

When Donna was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer in October 2015, we didn’t seek a second opinion. We assumed–and rightly so–that this disease would be difficult for a medical expert to mistake for something else. And although we prayed early on for a miracle and accepted the recommendation of chemotherapy to slow the monster’s advance, we both knew this is what would be recorded as Donna’s “cause of death.”  It was only a question of when.

I have enjoyed robust health all my life–something for which I have thanked God often. We have traveled to many places and eaten many strange things, from iguana eggs to lamb’s heads to guinea pigs, and in some unscrubbed environments. I don’t recall ever getting sick from something I ate, unless I ate too much of it. (Once, in Ecuador, our hosts asked us if we liked our chicken rare or well done. We opted for well done.)  The last time I had the flu was over 30 years ago.

There’s a downside to good health: it can make one less than sympathetic with those who don’t enjoy it. This has been true of me, though I am ashamed to confess it. I have no patience with the kind of people I described in my opening paragraph–people I view as caricatures of the truly needy. But when my darling was told she had cancer, we both had to embrace the truth.

For me, this meant not only that I would lose my wife, but also that I would be her primary caregiver during that arduous journey. I felt intense sadness for my impending loss, but I also felt unprepared for my new role. I did not know the pain my wife’s illness would cause in her body. I did not understand the emotions of a person whose earthly life is soon to end. And I did not know how to adequately meet her needs.

My ignorance was irrelevant.10320528_10152769789874515_1791706950900169756_n

Our souls groaned within us. Many times during Donna’s illness we reminded each other that we had vowed before God and several hundred friends “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.” When I said those words in 1977, meaning them sincerely, I had no idea that I would be awakened at night by my wife’s cries of pain. That I would see her abdomen distend grotesquely with fluid as she slowly starved to death. That I would watch the final feeble rising of her chest in a time when we were enjoying life immensely. That I would bid “so long” to a mere husk of the woman who just four months before had been beautiful, vivacious, mischievous, energetic, and a delight and inspiration to everyone who knew her.

But I knew that if I was to embrace God’s sovereignty, I also had to embrace Donna’s sickness. We embraced it together. Donna’s sunny disposition and indomitable spirit sometimes made it hard to remember that she was dying. Up until she lapsed into a drug-induced coma three days before her homegoing, she was laughing and cracking jokes. One night, as we were arranging ourselves on the double recliner where we slept together for her last few weeks, I rubbed against the PICC line in her arm (the catheter used for administering drugs) and she said, “Careful, buddy–don’t pull that out, or they’ll think you knocked me off.” I’ll never forget it. Just days before meeting her Saviour, with the weight of her impending death heavy upon her frail shoulders, she could still face her situation with the confidence and humour that endeared her to us.

Donna’s illness gave me a reason to serve her in ways I had never had to before. I did all the household tasks, except when our children came and pretty much took over the place so I could spend as much time with their mom as possible. I prepared her ubiquitous high-calorie smoothies and filled her water bottle. I woke her up twice a night for her morphine. I went to the pharmacy for her drugs and the other assorted items she needed. I prearranged all of her medications for the following day and night in a caddie I had labeled for that purpose. I gave her injections. I recorded all of her doses, meals, and medical events in the binder our daughter-in-law had designed for us. I arranged the cartons of equipment and supplies before the daily nurse’s visits. I helped her in and out of her chair and took her to the washroom. I read to her and played the music she requested. And as much as I hated the reason for doing all these things, each task gave me immense joy because I was able to serve the precious woman I loved and the Saviour Who allowed me to love her, enabled her to love me, and loved us both with a steadfast love neither of us could begin to comprehend.

I cannot accept the ideas that faithful believers will never get sick or that Jesus’ death  provides physical healing. I believe these convictions are based on faulty hermeneutics, and have been proven false countless times as godly, faithful saints of God have been struck with disease and have, in some cases, lived for decades with chronic pain before going to meet their Saviour.

One of our most treasured passages of Scripture since Donna’s first cancer diagnosis in 2000 has been Romans 8. Paul’s words are especially poignant when one is staring death in the face:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (ROM 8.18)

The Apostle goes on to explain that groaning–the desperate, anguished cry of the soul–is common to humanity. The universe itself groans in a mysterious way under the weight of sin’s horrific consequences:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (ROM 8.22,23)

The encouraging thing is that God Himself groans with us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (ROM 8.26)

Even when I struggle to articulate the turmoil inside, when I can’t classify or quantify the wave of emotion crashing over me, even when I don’t want to pray because my soul is dumbstruck with shock or disbelief (all very real experiences for me now) the Spirit who occupies my pitiful heart presents my case before the throne of God in a manner so profound and impassioned that it defies verbal expression.

Paul ends this astonishing chapter with the truth that enables the believer to embrace something as horrible as pancreatic cancer and face its inevitable outcome with confidence:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all [the groaning] creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (ROM 8.35, 37-39)

Who am I to argue with that?


The Evolution of Perspective

Today was a good day. I accomplished a lot, filled my house–even the garage–with good music, and succeeded in doing something I’d never done before.

My wife was a superb manager of our home. She was a frugal, canny shopper who didn’t drive all over town looking for bargains, but still fed us very well for very little. She did it without me most of the time–she said that when I went along, it took longer and we spent more. I was delighted with this arrangement.

Household tasks of the domestic persuasion–shopping, washing dishes, laundry, and housecleaning–have been things I have eschewed at every opportunity. I have always despised them–as much as for their monotony and repetitiveness as for anything else–and am eternally grateful that God gave me a wife who viewed home management not as a duty, but as a calling. Like motherhood.

Donna was a trained bookkeeper, and early in our marriage I realized that managing our finances because I thought it was the husband’s job was a foolish pursuit. She knew the drill. “Reconciling” the chequebook was a great way to describe what had to be done when my numbers began to misbehave.

My view of these tasks is changing. I almost choke as I type this, because I never thought I would see myself say such a thing. But an evolution is taking place in my life, now that I am alone. An evolution of perspective.

The first phase was disdain. Actually, that isn’t a strong enough word. Profound and unmitigated loathing. There–that says it. I’d rather have had my teeth drilled than wash the dishes. Folding laundry in a way that satisfied everyone in the family confounded me. And those fitted sheets were invented by a singularly demented soul, perhaps the devil himself. I am not a shopper. I am a consumer. I decide what I need, find out where it is, make sure I can afford it, buy it, and leave. No muss, no fuss. I love the internet.

In those times when I did help Donna with her housework, there was a grim satisfaction just in finishing something I found unpleasant. Checking stuff off the Honey-Do list induced, on occasion, a little too much silent glee.

When my wife became ill, I saw these tasks in a new light. Now, they were things I could do for her that she could no longer do herself. They were a way to serve her, and in that they brought a measure of joy. Before, I could often serve her best by staying out of her way. She was a domestic machine. A Zamboni. But when she was ill, mindless duties like washing dishes and folding socks became welcome distractions from her pain and my sorrow.

Now that she is no longer here, and I realize I have no choice but to do these things for myself, I often think about how she would do them. I am grateful for all she taught me. (My mother tried to teach me these things, too, but I wasn’t listening.) I have discovered that I’m not helpless–there isn’t anything I have to do here that I don’t know how to do. Today I shopped, cooked, did the laundry, and re-packaged my meat and fish (purchases of which I was quite proud, thank you very much) into smaller portions and marked them appropriately before freezing them. Just as Donna would have done. I even made granola. When I go to bed, the dish drainer will be empty, and all the laundry will be folded and put away. I take pleasure in the fact that I think she would be pleased with my performance. And maybe a little astonished.

My perspective has reached a new level. It’s not pleasure–I can think of many other ways to spend my time that would afford a lot more pleasure–but it is the absence of displeasure.

And I think that’s about as much as I can hope for.

Our Year on the Farm

The Green Plague

When we had moved into our house, I’d asked our landlord about planting a garden. He tilled up a patch next to our shed, and as the summer wore on, we took great pride in our modest rectangle of neatly tended rows of vegetables. The smell and feel of the earth as we worked it, the appearance of the first blossoms, and the satisfying crunch of freshly-picked spinach or beans made the hours of work seem more like recreation. We made periodic trips to the manure pile for fertilizer, and had animated discussions about whether we should sleep with the windows open or closed. My wife, who grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, rather enjoyed the earthy stench of cow dung. I, being from the suburbs and therefore more fully enlightened, understood this material to be nothing more than raw sewage. If the cesspool had run over, I reasoned, would we set up our lawn chairs in the puddle so we could enjoy its delicate perfume? Of course we would not. So why should we lie in bed and inhale sewer gas? Personally, I would have preferred bus fumes.

This was not a crop; it was a plague.

We had naively planted ten hills of zucchini—enough, we soon discovered, to supply a national chain of vegan restaurants. This was not a crop; it was a plague. We ate zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, zucchini casserole, and zucchini soup. Lying in bed at night (with the windows open), we could almost hear the things growing.

A woman at our church had put her husband on a diet. Every week we took her a grocery bag full of zucchini, and one day her husband, a towering hulk of humanity, grabbed my lapels and slid me up the wall until I was at eye level with him.

“Listen, Pal,” he said amiably between clenched teeth, “if you ever bring one more zucchini into this church, I’m gonna have to kill ya!” He set me down and patted my cheeks good-naturedly.

I heard from him not too long ago, after all these years. He’s fine—a grandfather now—and he told me about his family and his work. He and his wife live in a new house in another town. Business is brisk.

As I recall, the subject of zucchinis never came up.

Zucchini image came from the Smart Money Guide blog site.

Our Year on the Farm

Do You Deliver?

The calving process provided one of our most poignant memories of that year on the farm.

One weekend a couple we’d known in college came to visit us. We were having brunch when the wife, who had never been on a farm before, sighed wistfully.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to watch a calf being born,” she said.

I’d seen a cow heading down to the barn with two hoofed feet protruding from her stern.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I replied with the smugness of my newfound agricultural expertise, nearly spitting my coffee across the table in my enthusiasm. Glancing out the kitchen window, I’d seen a cow heading down to the barn with two hoofed feet protruding from her stern. We leapt from the table and trotted down the lane to behold the blessed event.

It was a breech delivery, and the vet was unavailable—evidently shoulder-deep in someone else’s heifer. The cow had been in distress for some time. When we arrived at the barn, Jim, our landlord, was already putting a halter on her head and lashing the lead to a steel ring in the wall. Her condition was critical; he was desperate to save her.

He deftly bound the calf’s protruding feet with some nearby baling wire.  At one end of the wire he’d tied a 12-inch length of broom handle, and he grasped this with both hands. Placing both feet on the cow’s flanks, he pushed and pulled with all his considerable strength. The calf didn’t budge.

The next step was more drastic. He fastened one end of a “come-along” (a cable equipped with a ratcheting tightener) to the calf’s feet and the other end to a steel ring in the opposite wall. Pumping the ratchet quickly, he made the cable taut before slowing down and steadily increasing the tension. The poor cow was bawling and snorting in her halter. Her eyes bulged wildly. The only effect of this procedure was to stretch the cow’s neck until I thought her head would fly off.

The final attempt, born not so much of ingenuity as of desperation, stunned us. Lips pursed, our landlord glanced at his oldest boy, who was assisting him.

“Barry, get the tractor.”

Moments later we were staring at the business end of a big International. Jim hooked one end of a logging chain around the calf’s feet and the other to the tractor’s towing bar. From his cow’s side he waved his son out of the barn. The tractor’s engine surged, the cow bellowed, and –Wham! Before we knew it, a 90-pound bull calf flopped down hard on the concrete floor.

My friend’s wife gasped, her lips trembling and tears streaking her face.

“Are they all like this?” she asked, apparently unaware of the absurdity of her question.

“Yep,” said her husband, always quick with the sarcastic retort. “In fact, cows didn’t even have calves before they invented the tractor.”

The tension broken, we all laughed. The cow recovered sufficiently to lick her baby clean, recycling the nutrient-rich placenta. Then, as we watched, her calf staggered to his feet and somehow made it to his mother’s side on his wildly flailing legs, looking for all the world like a drunk with his hips out of joint.

When we left, he was enjoying his first meal.


Our Year on the Farm

The Other Side of the Fence

I discovered a lot about agriculture in the next few months. I learned, for instance, that chickens don’t need roosters to lay eggs, but cows need bulls to give milk. And since milk is the whole point of dairy farming, having a good bull around is important.

I learned that bulls “service” cows, and the farmer on whose farm we lived had a little bull that was the Chairman and C.E.O. of his own flourishing service company. Half Hereford and half Holstein, his virility, ferocity and persistence were legendary, but his short legs were often his downfall. Many times we observed him providing his essential service, which he did with impressive energy and commitment to customer satisfaction, oblivious to the curious glances of voyeuristic suburbanites.  Often his client would take a step backward and flip him as neatly as a black belt. He would land heavily on his back, bellowing in protest and embarrassment, while the cow ambled back into the herd nonchalantly swishing her crusted tail and chewing her crud. Cud.

I learned that bulls ‘service’ cows, and the farmer on whose farm we lived had a little bull that was the Chairman and C.E.O. of his own flourishing service company.

On other occasions, the bull would attempt to service a cow that was standing on the opposite side of an electric fence. When the jolt hit him he would leap away from her, his eyes bulging with rage, and often get buzzed again as he tried to backpedal awkwardly to safety. The cow would bolt, starting a minor stampede on the other side of the wire and further infuriating the little bull.

Despite these frequent setbacks, the bull’s performance record was impressive. “It’s a girl!” are the dairyman’s favorite words. Bull calves don’t give milk; heifers do, or will one day. This bull sired an astounding number of heifers–so many, in fact, that our landlord had to rent the adjoining property to accommodate them. His dozen white plywood calf hutches were nearly always occupied by slobbering, knobby-kneed tenants that would suck our fingers and butt us happily when we stopped to admire them.

The image above is from The Telegraph.