Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Visiting the artists at the Eastside Culture Crawl

No special lenses, no flash, no darkroom tricks, no cropping, and no computers were used in the eight “Sensitive Images” that photographer Kelley Montgomery exhibited at the Eastside Culture Crawl in the Kettle Friendship Society.

Kelley Montgomery
It's refreshing to see this lack of artifice in our age of digital image manipulation - where we can "photoshop" things into cold perfection, limited by nothing more than the bounds of imagination. This fact is what made Kelley’s photos seem so charmingly “honest” to me – these luscious close-ups of vibrant greenery and flowery sprinklings of yellow, pink, and red in the gardens of the Riverview Mental Hospital. My favorite photo showed a perfect little red rose as a focal point surrounded by a softly focused patch of green.

I read the title of the photos aloud: “Sensitive Images. Hmmm… sensitive in what way?”

Kelley said he chose the title because he liked its sound and hadn’t put much thought into it. Then he paused and looked thoughtful, adding: “It’s about the sensitivity needed to capture something in nature – to align yourself with something in nature.”

Martin Marshall

Next to Kelley’s photos were paintings by Martin Murphy, who not only offered his art for our viewing pleasure, but also spent about 10 hours helping to hang all the art at the Kettle gallery.

“I learned a lot about hanging a show – that’s for sure,” Martin said. “It’s definitely something I enjoyed doing. It was an eye-opener for sure on how a show goes together.”

Martin says in his artist’s statement: “My art is a trial and error process in color, form and symbol. These are used to create unique paintings using color combined with ancient and modern symbols… ? is very similar to an Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol. What does it mean?”

I read this statement aloud, paused, and looked at the question marks – of which some are male and some female, he explained. “Well, what does it mean?” I asked, wondering if the question mark as we use it has somehow evolved from the hieroglyph.

“I don’t know,” he said, with a smile and a shrug.

“Oh…Well maybe some Egyptology expert will show up and tell you,” I joked.

Kelley and Martin are among 300 artists who welcomed the public to their studios and warehouses in 43 locations between First Avenue and the waterfront, from Main Street to Commercial Drive. Some of the more interesting location names... Mergatroid, Hungry Thumbs, artrescue, Alley Gallery, the Yellow House Studio.

Now in its 10th year, this annual event included dancers, furniture makers, glassblowers, jewelers, musicians, painters, photographers, potters, sculptors, weavers, and writers. Some are emerging artists, while others are veterans on the scene. My son and I went to four of the venues, all of which were bustling with visitors. It looked like a good turn-out, with a steady stream of scarf and toque-clad people tip-toeing through our early snow from one studio to another.

The generous folks of Kroma Artist’s Acrylics at 1000 Parker St. opened their warehouse space, and laid out tubes of their hand-made acrylic paints for people to use. I asked Kroma’s Hannah Bennett if they were selling much paint.

painting at the Kroma warehouse
“Yes,” she said. “But mostly the focus is to just get people in to push the paint around and have fun. We did it last year and it was a really, really great success so we thought we’d do it again.”

Toby and I took a seat at the table elbow-to-elbow with the other painters filling up the 3 X 5-inch wood blocks with colour. One young, heavily tattooed man worked away at a lovely, multi-coloured sunset on the water, while his companion brushed a dark cedar silhouette atop a misty turquoise forest. I noticed a woman, deep in concentration, who laughed and apologized when she accidentally dipped her paint brush into someone else’s tea. This set off a little discussion about how scientists are never allowed to take drinks into laboratories…

As I flicked and scraped and swooshed the vibrant colours, a quirky abstract image evolved before my eyes and I tried to decide if it was a set of happy lungs or a hyperactive bird warming up its wings for flight. What fun it was – this brief time a group of strangers sat together and shared the experience of playing with paint.

It was interesting to see something resembling terror on a few of the faces of people who declined the opportunity to paint. “Oh no! I am definitely not an artist!” one woman said, backing away from the table with a spark of fear in her eyes. But it really wasn’t about “being good at it” – it was more like being in elementary school and having fun, playing, seeing how cool and fun and exciting it is to slosh the colours together. It seemed sad to think of people being too scared to enjoy the experience because they thought they would “fail” – worried that someone will look at their picture and snicker meanly…

But I digress! Ultimately I am very thankful for the generosity of these artists and volunteers who made this event happen. For more information, visit:

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

A day for celebrating birthdays - be you 6 or 40...

“There will be no seconds!”

So announced six-year-old Tea Hennig-White, gripping her karaoke mic in the dining room of her Burnaby townhouse as her party guests tucked into their Disney Princess birthday cake.

Tea turns six

With flushed cheeks and a plastic tiara tilted on her brow, our earnest young hostess had enjoyed a busy afternoon of musical chairs, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and making sugar cookies with her friends. Despite a few uproarious crying spats among the three-year-old crowd – fighting over various toys and “who gets to sit in the blue chair” – the day was a success, even with a drizzly autumn chill outside. Incidentally it was the first kids’ party held in the family home bought by Tea’s moms Alex and Christine, who became first-time homeowners this past July.

When it was time to open the presents, everyone gathered around in an excited hush, waiting for their gift to fall under the spotlight. Tea politely read each card aloud, before opening the presents with gentle care. She passed each piece of gift wrap and discarded tape to Alex, who took the time to admire each gift with great enthusiasm – showing each proud gift-giver how much their offering was appreciated.

Among the colourful assortment of gifts, the set of Barbie walkie-talkies was a big hit – along with a few Dora the Explorer items: dominoes, checkers, and talking crayons that speak and spell the colours in Spanish and English. I wondered how much Dora merchandise ended up on the present piles of Tea’s peers – and ended up simmering this curiosity on my mind’s back burner til I got home to my computer and Googled “Dora.”

(After visiting Wikipedia, Hispanic Online, and the Nick Jr. website, I learned that Dora the Explorer – seen in 74 countries in 15 languages – has generated more than $3 billion in licenced merchandise since the show was launched in 2000, with $1 billion sold in 2004 alone.)

At one point during the party, a giggling Tea paused in front of me, looking down at her Barbie walkie talkie, waiting for the sound of someone else’s voice to emanate from its tiny speaker. I took this chance to ask if she felt any different now that she was six. She looked up into my eyes, and quizzically cocked her head to the side. “Noooo!” she answered suddenly, running off again.

Later that same day, after the gray Vancouver sky had dimmed to misty black, the joy that is birthday took on a different (yet similar) shape at the Commercial Drive house party held in honour of Doug Kellam’s 40th.

Doug turns forty

With flushed cheeks and a stylish blue cowboy shirt, Doug did his best to introduce all arriving guests to one another - until there were so many guests, it was no longer possible.

I asked Doug, who I first met at Simon Fraser University in the 80s, if the day had been a good one. He said (and I paraphrase) that there was a certain weirdness to turning 40, as if there were an impending pressure to “grow up” and get started quickly if you are thinking about having a family or going back to school or anything that might be threatened by the mortality that seemed a bit more apparent.

Then one of the guests jumped into the discussion, and with a laugh, said it was only a couple of years til he turned 50. Doug moved on to accept more gifts from his enthusiastic well-wishers, and I enjoyed a laughter-filled conversation with the 48-year-old about various birthdays and how they struck us at the time. He said he enjoyed turning 30, but found 31 particularly disturbing. I said turning 30 had been quite distressing for me because I was no longer in my 20s – but now the thought of turning 40 seems quite exciting because I will have a chance to call myself “venerable” which is a word I really enjoy for some reason.

At six, we run with our new walkie talkies, unaware that time is passing – and then we get older and enter new decades, telling ourselves stories about our ourselves, envisioning a narrative of our lives. But regardless of our age, it’s a happy birthday when we stand with our cheeks flushed, surrounded by friends and music and love and presents.

To Tea and Doug – I wish you happiness in the next year, and always.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Speech-language therapist gives voice to those who need it most

Being able to speak and be understood is something that most of us take for granted.

When we have to repeat ourselves – especially if it’s more than once – we may feel frustrated and irritated. But for some people, “not being understood” is a part of daily life.

People with degenerative diseases, brain injuries, and strokes can often be cut off from communicating with their families, friends, and caregivers. Other people stutter or are unable to articulate certain letter sounds – making self-expression a constant challenge.

Speech-language pathologists – commonly known as speech therapists – work with individuals to find solutions to their communication barriers. These therapists, who study human communication and its disorders, see their clients in private practices, schools, health units, and hospitals.

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Jayme Carvey, a registered speech-language pathologist consultant with Columbia Speech and Language Services Inc. in Vancouver. Jayme, who completed her Master of Sciences in Speech-Language Pathology at UBC in May, is a good example of someone who loves her job.

“It’s pretty much the best job to have. In my day, I get to play games with little kids and talk with adults and people actually pay me to do that. That’s what I can’t get over!” she says, with a laugh. “I’m always working with people who have communication impairments – providing them some kind of support to be able to communicate again and seeing the impact that it makes on their lives. It’s pretty amazing!”

In some cases she works with people who have degenerative diseases, teaching them to use alphabet boards for communicating.

“That may mean for their last few days or weeks or months, they can point out the words and communicate with their loved ones, where otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. They may be able to tell their home support worker that there’s a throbbing pain in their toe that’s been there for three months,” she says.

Jayme also works with people who stutter or have developmental speech delays – and she sometimes sees hockey moms, teachers, and rock singers who strain their voices from “slamming their vocal chords together so hard.”

She says she sees some of the most profound changes among her stuttering clients, who often make huge gains in their ability to communicate with confidence.

“We see them becoming almost different people than they were. They walk in the door reserved and shy, not being the one who’s going to talk in front of the group because they know they have difficulty talking,” says Jayme. “Then by the end of it, you can’t shut them up. They want to be saying everything they haven’t been saying for so many years. It’s pretty awesome!”

While there are a few theories on the cause of stuttering, the exact cause has not been pinpointed.

“For every paper written on what causes stuttering, there’s another one that says that’s not what causes stuttering. So we tell our clients all the theories and then say: ‘But really we’re not actually interested in what causes stuttering. What we want to do is teach you to be able to control your speech,'” Jayme says, describing how the Columbia therapists get stuttering clients to slow their speech to about 60 syllables per minute, which is “painfully slow” since most of us speak between 180 and 220.

“Essentially we just reshape their fluency. We slow them right down and teach them how to be fluent at that rate and then shape that into something that people actually want to listen to. Over the 10 days we speed them back up.”

The reason I saw Jayme is really quite minor compared to the issues I’ve been describing. I ended up in her office because I wanted to see if there was anything I could (or should) be doing to help my six-year-old son learn to pronounce the letter R. With a passion for conversation and a great vocabulary, Toby has not yet mastered this one sound, which is sometimes frustrating for him.

People sometimes imitate his pronunciation – some mimicking him unkindly, while others seem truly confused about what he is trying to say. Usually he responds by repeating the word-in-question with more emphasis, but occasionally he just stops talking. This happened recently at a birthday party when, with great anticipation and excitement, Toby watched his eight-year-old friend open a gift he had spent extra time wrapping in different coloured layers of tissue paper.

“Look how I did the wapping paper!” Toby exclaimed, clapping his hands together and hopping from one foot to the other.

When the birthday boy laughed and asked: “What’s wapping paper?!” Toby stopped jumping and looked down at his feet, his smile extinguished. That’s when it hit me: I was going to go ahead and book a private appointment with a speech therapist, since it seemed unlikely Toby would get to see the school district therapist within the next couple of years.

Toby’s Grade 1 teacher said she didn’t think “the letter R issue” was a concern at this point. She said the school district’s speech therapist was booked beyond belief with much more severe speech issues queued ahead of him. It might be possible to get some exercises that would help – but even that would take a long time.

I Googled “speech therapists” in Vancouver, made a few phone calls, and asked Toby if he’d like to meet with a professional who could talk with us about the letter R. He loved the idea, so I made an appointment and ended up at the Columbia office, where Jayme asked me lots of questions about Toby’s developmental milestones (which are all fairly typical). Using a variety of games, she gave Toby a Photo Articulation Test in which he identified a series of pictures, testing his use of all the sounds in the English language. His hearing and oral motor skills were within normal limits – and he reports that he particularly enjoyed wearing the headphones because it made him feel like a cool DJ.

In a nutshell, Toby’s speech is within the range of typical sound development. The R sound is one of the last sounds for kids to master; some don’t get it til they are just past the age of 7. Other sounds that come after the age of 7 are: Ssss, Zzzz, “th” as in “this” – and “zh” as in “measure” may not be articulated until the age of 8.

In Toby’s case, speech therapy is optional – but not necessary at this point. If he were very sensitive about teasing, we might go ahead with it. However, in general, he is pretty well-adjusted about it and we have a good line of communication when it comes to “talking about our feelings.” I asked him how he felt when he heard there were other kids his age, and older, who didn’t “have” their letter R sound yet.

“Oh yay! Now I feel better! Before I thought: ‘Some of my friends can pronounce Rs. How come I’m not like one of those kids?’” he said, adding that the best part of the experience was “the games” and Jayme herself. “I think she’s kind of cool.”

We now have some R words to practice at home and will revisit the idea of therapy in a couple of months, if he seems particularly frustrated about the whole issue. Jayme says I’m not the only parent who has come in with this type of minor issue.

“We have a lot of parents who come in and maybe they didn’t really need to come in the first place, but a lot of it is peace of mind. They say: ‘I just want to make sure. I want to get a professional point of view here that everything is okay,’” she says. “I don’t have any kids myself, but my sisters and friends who have kids are always calling me for advice.”

For more information, visit Columbia’s soon-to-be-updated website at:

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Al's pleasantly scented compost solution

“It’s changing the world – one bucket of compost at a time.”

That’s why Al Pasternak likes selling Biosa Bokashi Bucket systems to folks like me – a person who really loves the idea of things that are “hassle-free,” as Al describes his product. This alternative composting system is powered by beneficial micro-organisms that ferment kitchen waste (including meat and dairy products) into a soil conditioner that is buried directly into the garden.

Al, who promoted his product outside the East Vancouver Farmers Market last season, says he has always been interested in sustainable living and a low impact life style. He’s been educating people about using Bokashi – which means “fermented organic matter” in Japanese – and offering it as a "simple and easy” alternative for recycling kitchen waste.

“My main message is that composting can be done in a small space and it can be done with a minimum of fuss – which means that it can be done indoors and it won’t attract flies and have odours,” he says. “I wanted to find something that involved dealing with waste – stuff we have here anyways – and making it available to people when it otherwise wouldn’t be available… As a job, I love it – if you have to call it a job. It’s not work; it’s fun.”

A week ago, I bought a system from Al, who surprised me by arriving at my house with the whole set-up bungeed to the back of his bicycle – two 15-litre buckets and a one-kilo bag of Bokashi. It was with great delight that my six-year-old son inaugurated the bucket with its first handful of Bokashi, followed by the first piece of compost fodder: a half-eaten banana. Since then, we’ve been carefully following Al’s instructions to throw in our kitchen waste, compress it with a plastic bag, and sprinkle a handful of Bokashi onto every three centimetres of food.

So far, no stink, which pleases me immensely. In fact, it smells great – unlike some of my past, well-intentioned composting experiences. I still have a deep-seated olfactory memory of reluctantly opening the lid of a traditional kitchen compost, psyching myself for the wall of warm, steamy stench that seems to announce “party time!” to all flies lucky enough to be in the vicinity. It’s like the opposite of aroma therapy… aroma trauma! (Actually I’ve often wondered if there could be a market hole for aroma trauma…)

While a traditional compost decomposes food using heat and exposure to air (hence the stinkiness we tolerate in the name of recycling and being good to the Earth), the Bokashi system is anaerobic, doing its magic in an air-tight container. The Bokashi, which smells like sweet vinegar, is fermented by Biosa – a mixture of photosynthetic bacteria, lactic acid bacteria, and yeast.

According to Al’s literature, these micro-organisms occur naturally worldwide but in recent years, there are less of them in many soils due to over-farming and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Hence here’s another advantage to the Bokashi system: it gets these helpful microbes back into the soil where they can assist plant growth and disease-resistance.

Putting this beneficial concoction of friendly micro-organism infested waste into the garden sounds like a great idea indeed – but what if you don’t have a garden?

“Of course the question comes up: Where are you going to put the stuff?” says Al, who suggests community gardens as a good destination for the Bokashi bucket’s finished product. Right now he’s exploring the possibility of starting a pick-up service for people who don’t have anywhere to put it – so check out his website and ask him about it.

I’m very thankful that Al has taken on this project and I will update on it further down the road. For more information on Biosa Bokashi, visit Al’s website: