The Pelee Project: One Woman's Escape from Urban Madness

The Pelee Project: One Woman's Escape from Urban Madness is Jane Christmas's account of her three months spent on Pelee Island during the winter of 2000. Stressed out at work and by her daily commute to Toronto from Hamilton, Christmas was feeling the urgent need to get away from the rat race. After previous visits to Pelee Island, Christmas felt the call of the Lake Erie island as the perfect place to relax. Accompanied by her eight-year-old daughter Zoë, Christmas left her two sons and boyfriend behind and braved the winter on a virtually abandoned Pelee Island.

I discovered this book when I visited the island this past summer. I spoke to plenty of locals who claimed that only a hearty seventy souls stuck it out all winter; if that number is true then it is about half the winter population from twenty years ago when Christmas was there. Even so, it's still a tiny fraction of the summer population. I lapped up her story because I could identify with it so intimately since I had also decided--twenty years ago, as well--to take a leave of absence from work. I wanted to study the Finnish language in Helsinki. It was a break I needed and it made me a stronger and more confident person. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made. However Christmas found that those around her were not always supportive of her plans to take some time off:

"What really ticked them off, it seemed, was not that I had dared to dream but that I had dared to turn dream into reality." 

I recall the quizzical stares I received when I told some people that I wanted to study the Finnish language during the summer of 2000. "Are you Finnish?" and "What could you possibly use that language for?" were typical reactions. Some people were quite thrilled to hear about my desire to do it and maybe I inspired some dreaming in others. Christmas used the end of her book to stress the importance of taking time off such as in leaves of absence and the need for more companies to grant such leaves to their employees. 

Christmas arranged to transport her car to the island before the ferry discontinued its service over the winter. She rented a house from a travelling islander and enrolled Zoë in the school, but she couldn't plan everything in advance. There was one important thing that slipped her mind: it was a culture shock to find herself without adequate groceries and a store that wouldn't be open for a couple more days. You will laugh with her as she regales you with her first attempt to use the island's gas pump. Yet she adapted and quickly made friends who were generous to share and help out.

Her descriptions were stunning. The stillness of a wintry island in the middle of Lake Erie--the white landscape surrounded by white ice topped with a white sky--made for an image that literally gave me chills as I read it. She experienced sunsets that were unlike any she had ever seen before. I witnessed such a pink explosion of sun over the summer. With life at a slower pace, she could pay attention to the birds and identify each species--and plenty of birds stop at the island during their migrations. Conversations mattered and people were more honest with her. It was easy for her to feel at home among her islander friends when she developed the skills to listen:

"I had long lost the capacity to listen--really listen--to my children or to anyone; I had perfected a habit of intently looking at people with compassion-filled eyes while simultaneously making a mental list of things I had to pick up at the store."  

Christmas could see the positive, calmer changes that had come over her. She had developed a closer relationship with Zoë and even her own mother, who had stopped by the island on a visit, remarked at her transformation. It was as though Christmas had been baptized in Lake Erie. While she was on Pelee, she remarked: 

"I wished I could live my life over and make decisions based on the quality of my life rather than on the elusiveness of some imaginary career quest mapped out by media messages, social expectations, and a myopic women's movement that ignored the richness of a rural life."

My brief time on Pelee Island ignited a spark to see more of the island during the summer and now that I have read about the winter there I think I would enjoy a wind-battered snowy stay too. 

The Lives of John Lennon

Albert Goldman created a scandal when he published The Lives of John Lennon in 1988. In it the author attempted to destroy Lennon and everything he stood for, and at 704 pages that's a lot of character assassination. It is not my wish to refute Goldman's claims or to try to resurrect John's reputation when this biography is so baseless. This book is tabloid trash talk where facts are an afterthought.  

By 1988 I was in university enrolled in literature courses and had no time to read anything else during semesters. At that time I was also not as obsessed about acquiring every book with the Beatles' (or John Lennon's) name on it. Thus I ignored this biography--which retailed for $29.95--when it came out. I was nonetheless curious enough to buy it (as opposed to simply borrow it from the library where I worked) for a remaindered price of $5.99 some time later. And so for roughly the past thirty years I have kept this disgraceful book sealed in its cellophane wrap, too ashamed to read it but I suppose not ashamed enough to display it on my bookshelf. I guess if anyone ratted me out for owning it I could point out that it still being sealed meant that I hadn't read it. However it was now time to read it once and for all and relieve my shelves of 5 cm of valuably needed space. 

Most book reviews at the time focussed on the book's first chapter, which portrayed John as an anorexic catatonic imbecile living a Howard Hughes existence glued to his TV set. The characterizations are laughable because they are so over-the-top. The author mixed all the colours from his palette to paint John as a murderer and a man obsessed with his own death. Not only that, but John, who made no secret about his extramarital affairs, apparently slept around with so many women to cover up his closeted homosexuality. When I heard all these claims in 1988 I came up with the decision to refer to the book from then on as The Lies of John Lennon

Yoko is treated just as scathingly and once she is introduced into John's life Goldman seems to write two biographies instead of one. I have never believed that Yoko, who grew up within a wealthy banking family and educated at private American schools, would have trashed her smarts for the crackpot advice of charlatans such as psychics and tarot readers. During the late seventies Yoko used her financial expertise to expand the Lennon coffers with wise investments. People don't get rich using hokum as financial advice.  

In preparation for this read I packed the book with plenty of notepaper, however I surprised myself by my minimal notations. Most of my notes were reminders to verify information Goldman presented as facts. His claims were easily verifiable, and certainly would have been even if I had read this in 1988. Details such as street names, record releases, song titles and years when material was released were not researched. How hard would it be to verify that the song "Help!" was released in 1965 and not 1966? Or that the Cavern was located on Mathew Street and not Matthew? If a biographer cannot get details like this correct then what credibility does he have with shady reminiscences from Lennon bone-pickers from 1960? 

In spite of the way I feel about Goldman as a researcher, I do have to commend him as a writer. He can tell a good story which I enjoyed reading--his treatment of the subject matter notwithstanding--yet his professional reputation 32 years later continues to waft with noxious miasma. It is easy to denounce those who attack our heroes yet I wonder what we would be thinking of Goldman had he devoted his talent to nobler pursuits than trashing John Lennon and Elvis Presley (in an earlier biography). Is fame a double-edged sword? Would we have even noticed the author unless he ripped John and Elvis to shreds? 

There are good Lennon biographies by Ray Coleman and Philip Norman that are worth your time. 


I played a low-probability natural bingo against Mark over the weekend: CUBITUS for 78. I hooked the -S onto the top of KITE. CUBITUS ranks in 22267th place out of the 25318 seven-letter words.

Christmas baking

On November 2 I started baking shortbreads. I need to start that early because I am fortunate to have so many people on my Cookie List. Last night was my eighth day of baking and I have made 33 tins so far:

I have one more batch to make tomorrow, taking me to 37 tins, satisfying everyone on my List. I will probably bake more, because 37 tins doesn't even include any for myself, and I usually give my brother and sister-in-law two tins. It always helps to have spare full tins for last-minute gifts.

If you see this post and want dibs on a specific cookie tin, let me know.

Mango, in memoriam

Mango, my last budgie, died over the weekend. After Mark and I came home from a three-day trip to Kitchener, the first thing I did when I entered the house was look for her in the cage. When I couldn't find her, I feared that she must be lost somewhere, perhaps upstairs. I embarked on finding her, but didn't need to look long, for I found her on the floor at my entrance near the garage door. She didn't appear to be sick before we left on Saturday morning. After having budgies for thirty-two years I am perceptive of their behaviour when it is out of the ordinary. There were at least two times when a compromised behaviour foreshadowed the death within a week of two of my budgies. I just knew that their end was near (and I'm not talking about Kakapo's demise last year either). It must stem from the knowledge imparted on my visits to the bird doctors at The Links Road Animal and Bird Clinic

I could not understand what might have happened to Mango, but in the two days since I discovered her, I have considered some possibilities. They might be all wrong while I grasp at the straws of personal blame, or Mango may have just died of old age. I adopted her three years ago when she was already a mature bird and I do not know how old she was. 

She must have flown around my kitchen or walked there, as I found dried poop on the floor near the fridge and two clumps under the kitchen table. I don't believe a bird would stay that long under the table long enough to poop as much as she did unless she was stuck there--like at night. My kitchen table is rather small; it's a circle with two ends folded down so it is more like a rectangle. I wonder if Mango was scared by the winds on Sunday night. I moved her cage away from the living room window as I made room for my Christmas tree (which I had only set up on Friday night) so she was closer to the kitchen but further from any noise outside. Since I did not leave the ceiling light on for her when I left Saturday morning, she could have become disoriented if she flew into the kitchen. She would have been surrounded by the dark while walking around the floor, since she wouldn't have had the outdoor streetlights to guide her back. A budgie that is scared and trapped tends to poop more often. 

But what puzzles me is that I found her by my entrance, which even in a dark house has the streetlights in a clear sightline. She had pooped here too. How come she couldn't find her way back to her cage? She couldn't have been "trapped" if I found her where she had a way out. I have often wondered what mischief my birds get into when I am away. The times when I have been away for extended periods--studying in Finland for the entire summer of 2000, or extended holidays to isolated south Atlantic islands--I have people come over to care for my birds. They may not come every day, but a caregiver has never told me that any of my budgies had gone missing. Once though about twenty years ago I was heartbroken to come home from vacation to the news from my mother that one of my birds had died. Mom did the right thing by not telling me this news while I was away. She knew that news would ruin my trip. A natural death could happen at any time and perhaps that's what happened to Mango. Still, it doesn't ease the pain when I realize that it was cold this past weekend and I didn't leave the heat on. Mango died on a freezing cold floor. I picked her up and her wings were folded against her body, so it didn't appear as if she had been injured. She died in the same position as my other budgies, except they were either in their cage or, as in Kakapo's case, just outside of it. How did she die? It is too painful to go over her last moments, perhaps in the dark on a cold floor. I will never know and the unknown tends to bring out the worst case scenarios. I have to consider that she was a mature bird when I adopted her and may have been as old as Kakapo was when she died (at fourteen).

I have had budgies since 1988. After Kakapo died a little more than a year ago, I told myself that Mango would be my last bird. She lived a lonely life for a year. I do not know what her life was like before I adopted her. She may have been a solitary budgie in her former life or maybe she had many bird friends. But it often saddened me to see her in her cage alone, all the while knowing that I had no intention of giving her another companion. Nevertheless I had hoped to have had many more years with her. 

Already this morning I had to adjust to a life without birds. Before I feed myself, I feed my birds. Before I make coffee, I change their water. Once I get home, before I do anything for myself (except go to the bathroom--with an apology to the birds as I rush downstairs to the en suite), I feed them. Even if I got mail or picked up a package waiting at my front door, I always attended to the birds first, and opened my mail later. Each morning I would open the blinds to let the sunlight in. I was so sad yesterday morning that my living room mirrored my gloom. There was no need to open the blinds till just before I left for work (and that was at 1:00 p.m.). I never left interior doors open, for fear that lost or inquisitive budgies might explore rooms and never find their way back. Bathroom doors always stayed closed, since they have big mirrors which would disorient a bird to no end. And whenever I opened my front door to my house, I always--for eighteen years--cracked it open to ensure the birds weren't frolicking around my entrance. I have never lost a bird, and never even found a bird taking a walk in my entrance, but for eighteen years I was afraid that a bird might escape if I swung open my front door before taking a look around first through a narrow crack. And whenever people came over to drop stuff off or to make a speedy visit, I always shut the door behind them. That front door never stood open. This will be a hard habit to break. I don't know if I will be able to cope looking at my door left wide open. Whenever the front door needed to be open for an extended period of time I had the foresight to keep the birds locked in their cage. Thus when I had my bed delivered, or my old sofa taken out, or my extra fridge and stove removed, the birds stayed safely locked inside while the workers delicately manipulated the heavy furniture or appliances out of my house. When I got home from work last night around 9:30 I was unexpectedly overcome with tears as I realized there was no need to inch the door open as I entered. I swung the door open and started crying. No more rushing in to take a look at my birds before I even took my shoes off. The house was empty and silent.

I cleaned the birdcage every Tuesday morning. If for any reason I couldn't do it in the morning, I did it at night, when I got home from work at 9:30. It was a pattern I believe my birds came to expect. I lined the bottom of the cage with old dish towels, five of them in fact. I put newspaper on top of the towels. I put towels there because I didn't want the birds to hop to the bottom of their cage and slam their delicate feet on the hard surface. The top towel especially would get a thin line of poop, as the newspaper that I cut folded back a little. I would always shake out the large towel I cleaned the cage on. It would get covered in seed husks and for eighteen years I must have been a queer sight to my neighbours as I stood on my front steps flapping a beach towel into the air. Every Monday I would do a "towel load". Being the language nerd that I am I pronounced that phrase with a thick and long L sound, like "towelllload". I reserved Monday, usually at night after my evening visit to the Y, to wash all the week's towels, from bird towels to dish towels and shower towels and dishcloths. Yesterday morning I did not have to clean the cage, so I went grocery shopping instead. I still need to clean the cage one final time, as I will have to put it away. But it will be heartbreaking to do so, as I clean and pack up my birds' home. 

I had developed my own special saying to refer to my budgies: they were my "bebbez" (babies) or "my little bebbez". When Kakapo died last year I tried to resort to the singular but after a week gave up and resumed using the plural to refer to Mango alone. 

Perhaps in the last weekend of Mango's life she perched on my Christmas tree. I had set it up on Friday night but hadn't started decorating it yet. She loved to perch in my red tree, as she did in 2017:


and last year:



My friend Rachel took the video of Mango and Kakapo when she looked after the bebbez in February 2019:

and she also took this picture of her:

This marks the end of a major part of my life. I find this hard to type without crying, but I will probably not have birds again.

Mom, six years later

My mother died six years ago today. In her memory I continue the tradition of baking her shortbread cookies. I started this year on November 2 and have so far filled sixteen tins and two larger containers. I am disappointed that every time I go to Dollarama--and I have checked now three different stores several times since Halloween--they haven't had the tins I like in stock. I wonder if they won't be getting them this year. So now my mission in the name of my mother is to track down twenty-five cookie tins. Otherwise I'm going to have to use the kind they have in stock now, which I can picture my mother making a face at. She'd never give cookies in tins with see-through lids.

It is still too early to listen to Christmas music or to watch Christmas specials and there is no hockey on TV to watch while I bake. I have occupied my baking time watching American election coverage.

This Sunday would have been the date for the Toronto Santa Claus Parade, the weekend when I give myself permission to start decorating for Christmas. Since the parade is virtual this year, and will be broadcast on Saturday, December 5, I have had to rethink my plans. For me, December 5 is too late to start decorating my house. I will be out with Mark this weekend so I cannot do it then. I have decided to set up my tree tomorrow, on Friday, and work on it when we get back on Monday next week. I can never decorate my tree until I get all the lights on first, and my motto is that a Christmas tree can never have too many lights. It always takes me days to attach or clip on all the cords. I have decided on a decoration and lights theme for my tree: tune in here to see photos.

Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics

I picked up Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics seven years ago when I was in Cape Town after my first trip to Tristan da Cunha. This was an academic read comprised of twenty-five essays. Typical of academic collections is that some essays were a breeze to read, most required a slower pace yet a couple were so filled with jargon that I felt that I was only reading them to turn pages. Topics that I found most interesting covered the formation of Afrikaans; German speakers in South Africa; code-switching, code-mixing and convergence in Cape Town; the influence of English on Afrikaans; South African Black English; slang in South African English; and language and language practices in Soweto. The collection's final three essays dealt with language policy and language planning in the multilingual state that is the Republic of South Africa. The writers asked if English should be the lingua franca; if Afrikaans should be deemphasized; and arguments were raised about indigenous languages and what should be the language of primary school instruction (and for how long) and if bilingualism or multilingualism in education should be pursued. 

The most interesting chapter covered hlonipha, the name given to the women's language of respect. It is now a dying tradition among Xhosa women upon marriage. When they moved into their husband's home, they were forbidden to utter words consisting of any of the same syllables within their husband's name, or even in their in-laws' names. This language of avoidance imposed considerable hardships on the new wife's vocabulary, obligating her to develop a new language where new syllables were substituted. One theory that I found interesting, but limiting, is that the click sounds that are associated with the south African Xhosa and Zulu languages were introduced to take the place of forbidden syllables. 

Carolina On My Mind / Taking It In

After decades of looking, I have finally acquired a copy of James Taylor's debut single, a Canadian Apple first edition of "Carolina In My Mind" mistitled as "Carolina On My Mind" with its original B-side, "Taking It In". Apple lore is that the single was immediately withdrawn and rereleased with "Something's Wrong" on the flipside. The A-side title was also corrected yet there do exist copies with the correct title and the original B-side.

I have hundreds of 45 rpm singles but none as valuable as this. This is the most expensive single in my collection.

In its first chart run, "Carolina On My Mind" appeared under its incorrect title. It bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, at #119 on 12 April 1969 and then peaking at #118 on 19 April.

What appear to be scratches, smudges or streaks are not on the vinyl. These appear because of the condition of the scanner glass.

Your postcard to me on Tristan da Cunha just arrived, 3 years later

In February of 2017 I asked people in anticipation of my autumn trip to Tristan da Cunha to mail me postcards so that I might receive them when I arrived on the island. Although I did not travel to Tristan on the Agulhas II (I travelled on the Edinburgh) there were twenty-seven articles of mail waiting for me when I checked in at the post office. Four additional articles for me travelled on board the Edinburgh.

What a surprise to find a package in the mail from Renée Green, from my Tristanian host family, containing seven additional postcards that had arrived since my departure from the island three years ago this month. She had been saving them for me. Judging from the postmark on one of them, which was mailed in August 2017, merely one month before I departed for the island, it may not have even arrived on Tristan until 2018. Renée is stuck in Manchester, UK, with her son Dylan, unable to get back home via Cape Town. This past summer Mark and I were going to visit Renée, Dylan, plus Renée's daughters Kimmy and Janice who are studying in Manchester. The worldwide pandemic put an end to all international travel.

Renée sent the cards along and I have included the postmarks and stamps. What still surprises me is how broad my blog reaches. I don't use any of the most popular blog forums or social media sites yet if people are interested enough in travel to Tristan da Cunha, they will find me. Some of the people who wrote me did in fact get a postcard mailed from Tristan, yet I am sorry to say that the blog followers who I don't know who mailed their postcards too late, didn't. That's why I sent out my postcard callout on February 1--mail to Tristan does indeed take many months.