The Wildfire Four Mountains Away

While two helicopters descended behind the hill that normally protects Princeton, a town of 2,828 in British Columbia, we walked down the closed-off street where refurbished antique cars lined up at angles for the annual Princeton Main Street Show & Sign sponsored by the local A & W.

We moved from car to car, pointing out the bug-eyed instruments on the dashboard, guessing if this car was like the car driven by my grandparents, wondering how long the restoration took.

The furry costumed A & W mascot walked through the crowd, one hand waving towards no one in particular, the other holding the arm of a young girl leading the orange creature. A four-person band under a tent in the town square played 1950’s songs, and a donation gave you a grilled hamburger on a paper plate.

It was hot in the middle of the street in the middle of the afternoon, and many people like us eventually walked on the sidewalks shaded by the brick, single-story buildings.

Rising from behind the hill, each helicopter reappeared with a box hanging by a cord attached to the belly of the helicopter; the blades spun into a blur, and the box scraped against the clouds until the helicopters traveled out of sight.

It only was after I learned, reading the flashing message on the LED screen in front of Princeton Municipal Hall, that evacuees should register at the Riverside Community Centre, did I realize that the clouds were smoke and that the two helicopters from behind the hill were transporting water to douse a wildfire that could reach, assuming current conditions continue, and the wind blows in the right direction, and the four mountains and four streams do not hold back the fire, our family’s house in four days. In other words, there’s a good chance that family will be reporting to the Riverside Community Centre by the end of this week.

We were visiting my husband’s cousin and her husband who live about twenty kilometers from Princeton on Old Hedley Highway. The Similkameen River is just over the hill behind their house, and coyotes yip under the pines outside their front door. It was a weekend of aging dogs, eggs from the hen house, everyone in the pool, and dinner stories about families (the mystery of my husband’s nickname solved).

This is the first time being close to the devastation of a wildfire, its odds measured by its percentage of containment (now 0% contained and officially labeled “out of control”.) This is the first time stopping whatever I am doing and tilting my head closer to the television to listen for any familiar streets now closed by the RCMP. This is the first time reading a map to estimate the kilometers separating family from fire. This is the first time preparing for the possibility to help family pack and leave before the road melts.

Back in Vancouver, we worry and wonder. We scroll the online newspapers in the morning, watch the television news programs in the evening, and, in between, click on the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Valley map with Princeton outlined in green (evacuation alert) or red (evacuation order).

From our quiet living room, we watch the televised orange mass of fire erasing forests and blackening cars and burning horses. The photograph shows a woman in shorts walking alone on houses turned to debris. The news reporter supplies the required story about human resilience and connection and gratitude in the face of uncontrollable nature: “family, friends, and even strangers” helped a man corral his cattle and transport them to a safer space, “only losing four cows” last night. The radio announcer is an auctioneer reading the names of evacuated towns.

Yet this information cannot fully describe or convey what residents in the area of the wildfire are experiencing; instead, the information fulfills a neat storyline composed of manmade natural disasters, hold-outs from the evacuation, loss of homes, rebuilding or moving on, and the anniversary of the fire next year.

And that story is inadequate when the characters are people you know.

Moments like this show the hard distance between the necessity and the choice to pay attention, between reality and the story, between finding the first ember on your front porch and imagining what that must be like.

It only was later when I stood in our kitchen in Vancouver, quartering an apricot bought at Sarana’s fruit stand in Osoyoos, did I realize that I walked through the auto-show, as two helicopters carried water, without fear, because of my assumption that the wildfire would never reach me or people I know, that a defense high in the sky would prevent a tragedy close to home, and that the smoke we smelled came from the hamburger grills, not the 2,700 hectares of wildfire four mountains away.

 

Living with Skunks and Raccoons

In Vancouver, we live with skunks and raccoons.

That’s according to a brochure I picked up at the Firehall Library, explaining how those creatures and humans can survive, and thrive, together in Canada’s most livable and most expensive city.

Like any modern city, Vancouver is home to urban critters – squirrels, pigeons, crows, rats, mice – but here, despite how the city strings new glass buildings around Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains, a wire ring on the pinky toe of Canada’s left foot, the wildnerness surprises with its resilience.

Skunks and raccoons crawl outside Vancouver General Hospital, crows bark at shoppers on Robson, a young black bear crosses Renfrew and East Hastings at dawn, a coyote drags a dog underneath bushes surrounding a Shaughnessy mansion, a sea lion pulls an 8-year-old girl from the Steveston docks, and killer whales feed in False Creek as a stand-up paddle boarder floats in warrior pose.

Instructions for living with skunks and raccoons contribute to our assumption, just as the earthquake-proof developments and concrete seawalls with partitioned bike lanes and Sunday farmers markets, that we Vancouverites are comfortably and safely co-existing with the natural Vancouver. A few tweaks to our routines here and there, everything outside our door is under our control.

That faith in living in wild Vancouver, an expectation reinforced by the brochure’s suggestions “to make co-existing possible” between “wildlife families” and human dwellers, such as covering window wells with metal mesh (skunks are “absolutely awful climbers”) and securing garbage in sealed containers, is cracked by doubts, regular and as real as the rain, about co-existing with Vancouver’s biggest beast of all, housing affordability.

While we have printed instructions about co-existing with wildlife, our adaptation to Vancouver’s housing ecosystem is not orderly nor explicit nor controllable.

Based on the narrative presently happening in the media and inside City Hall and at brunches on Main Street and in Facebook comments, many Vancouver residents have a tenuous hold on both current and future homes. Greedy landlords and limited housing options stymie the efforts of above-average-income-earners who in other markets are welcomed with open arms.

This year alone, there have been debates, discussions, rumors and policies pertaining to Chinatown developments, Cambie’s affordable housing corridor, the DES SOR (Downtown East Side Single Occupancy Room) hotels, University of British Columbia students owning multi-million-dollar estates in Point Grey, taxes on empty mansions.

We remain here, as anecdotes and data and our guts remind us, because many of us minimally satisfy our housing needs by adapting our housing standards to whatever is affordable in Vancouver, with the pay-off being residing in a beautiful and convenient and cosmopolitan city. We adjust both up and down; we stretch our limits as Vancouver housing stretches what is acceptable.

We give up a child’s bedroom for a view of mountains. We are one of several roommates in an apartment built for one. A drive-through area gets a marketable acronym. Someday we’ll have a yard because we can swim at Kits Beach today. Our moral gag reflex fails as we sign a $800K mortgage for a 900-square foot, two-bedroom basement suite.

We are aware, but not ready to accept, that we live here unnaturally, that our most personal plans and expectations, despite our income and health and status, are not guaranteed to root in the most livable city.

In turn, we replace our worries about housing, and the meanings associated with a roof and an extra bedroom and equity, with relief that we can enjoy Vancouver’s famed quality of life, finding some small plug to stop the anxiety. Very few people seem safe in their homes, but many can enjoy blueberry coulis hummus under the setting sun at English Bay.

It’s wild out here.

As skunks and raccoons search for cover in Vancouver, we too seek a cozy place to nest in the world’s most livable city. I think the critters have a better chance of sticking around.

April Stories

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 Inside cover of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

In April, I read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life alongside a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Most days, I woke up with a writer shivering inside a flimsy cabin on Haro Strait and went to bed beside a writer waiting with suspicious Haight-Ashbury hippies.

I finished The Writing Life last week, pushing the book into the library receptacle as if sliding a friend’s hand-written journal under her door, and I hope to never finish the Didion book.

I read them at the moment when my husband lost his job (one of 130 employees laid off and sent home) and lost his dog (a fifteen-year-old English Cocker Spaniel who never recovered from surgery). I read them for the sixth month of rain in Vancouver, putting dents into my training plans and anti-depression armor. I also read them as I start writing projects with new goals, topics and formats.

It’s an intense time with loud exhales and quiet lunches, so Dillard and Didion are ideal companions. Reading them promises a moment in the shadows of wise and precise observers. They go slowly, appreciating the meaning or detail that amount to a day. Their words never speed into a reckless sentence, never cut off other ideas or turn without a signal. There are no hashtags. I don’t scroll.

Their printed words pull and follow each other in an orderly way, simultaneously paving and driving a road through the massive pile-ups of a typical day. Their licenses are faded, leathery from decades of work;  I am the only person to care if my learner’s permit blows away.  I sit in the backseat, studying their beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs, trying to keep up with their tempos and themes, looking out to see mailboxes at the edge of gravel driveways, dogwood branches stretched over dark ditches, and two boys who stop running as we drive by before accelerating onto the freeway.

Yes, we tell stories in order to live. We also read in order to live.

7 Emotions for the 10k Sun Run

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2017 Sun Run results

I joined 41,923 fellow participants in the 33rd annual Vancouver Sun Run this past weekend.
Since running the Sun Run five (or six, maybe seven) years ago, I had forgotten how the event can generate almost as many emotions as the number of kilometers clicked through the city:
Happiness:  I loved seeing people of all ages and fitness having fun plus the dad hauling ass with the baby jogger. I hope the kid was strapped in.
Sympathy: The race can be a heart breaker. A friend who had been carefully training through a year of physical injuries was walking to the start line when the pain suddenly flared up. The friend turned back to go home for ice and Tylenol.
Admiration: The Sun Run welcomes a large number of people with incredible stories related to their running lives. I spoke with a middle-aged woman who is motivated to eat healthier and lose weight since she started running last year. She was stoked after shaving five minutes off her 1:00+ time from the 2016 Sun Run. I also was impressed by my husband completing the race four minutes faster than me even with a bum knee.
Disappointment: I missed my goal time by two minutes.
Satisfaction: I enjoyed a solid three miles of “perfect” pacing and HR.
Frustration: In open water swims, even though I am a confident swimmer, I hang to the back or side of the mass start and advance along the fringes, giving up a direct route to circumvent the chaos.  Something similar happens for running races; I register for the time category one level slower than my goal time. So, instead of running with folks closer to my actual speed and maintaining momentum, I expend energy and lose time by dodging people. I also get angry at the slower runners, then I get angry at myself for thinking like a jerk, and then I get angry for not putting myself in a more appropriate group and then…
Calmness: Running is worth the hurting muscles and doubting thoughts at the moment your breath, arms, legs, and mind click into one organism moving forward. There were two times Sunday – along Beach Avenue and Sixth Avenue – when I dipped into that zone, and I floated above my legs and the crowd and Vancouver.
Next up is the BMO half marathon followed by IRONMAN 70.3 Victoria four weeks later.

This Week’s Triathlon Good Things

 

Three things from the week making me a better triathlete:

1) Wednesday Night’s Disappointing Swim

This is the time of year to establish a baseline for swimming, and at Wednesday night’s session, Pacific Spirit Triathlon Club swim coach Liz gave us 5 x 200’s to determine an average for future pacing. She instructed us to push ourselves to a sustainable, hard pace, but I didn’t. I was too conservative. I hung back. I wimped out. My average does not reflect what I can do. I was frustrated with my performance, but in the past two days, that frustration has turned to determination in pushing myself to my true limit in the future.

2) Sleeping Late

Instead of leaving my bed at the typical 5:00 a.m., I stayed under the covers for an extra hour several mornings this week to accommodate a tired body and mind on the fritz. I blame increased training, a lingering cold, and the rain.  With recent articles describing the physical and mental benefits of adequate shut-eye, I enjoyed the 60 minutes of sleep without guilt.

3) Vancouver Running Festival

This fall’s inaugural Vancouver Running Festival sounds fun. The event, more than a simple replacement of the canceled Rock-n-Roll Vancouver races, will feature several running races through the city, an expo, and perhaps more important, an organized effort to promote Vancouver as a thriving running town. From October 20th to 22nd, the full spectrum of local running – clubs, teams, pros, amateurs, events, services, vendors, histories – will be on display. If the multi-day format inspires a similar triathlon or multisport festival, that’d be cool too.

8:08 a.m.

 

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8:08 a.m.

That’s when the sun rose this morning over Vancouver.

Eight hours and nineteen minutes later at 4:28 p.m., the sun will set for the third time in 2017, starting an evening that will last fifteen hours and forty minutes.

I learn this from an app on my smartphone. It lets me click through a calendar to find out when the sun will outlast the moon; minute by minute, I tap out a year growing lighter, promising daily good things, like golden dawns and outdoor pools, to stretch those sunny days.

That is not a prediction, but a certainty. Earth will keep its promise of light following dark following light.

The gift of one new bright moment out of 1,440 minutes in a day has never felt so promising.

 

Checking The Right Box For A Nonprofit Job Search

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Last week, I withdrew my name from consideration for an amazing job with an amazing nonprofit.

I was one of the two top candidates vying for a new leadership role that promised to expand my skills in management, communications, and fundraising. The organization appealed to me for a number of reasons:

  • Small budget and minimal staff with large impact
  • Secured funding for the next stage of its infrastructure growth
  • A solid reputation thanks to two decades of reliably good work
  • An involved board openly discussing healthy board and executive director roles

The part-time position would satisfy my desire to simultaneously engage with the local nonprofit community and develop my freelance writing services. I also liked the flexibility it offered by working remotely and at a co-working space with other community organizations and social enterprises.

The good vibes continued during the interview with the executive director and board members. Right questions were asked, and my responses were confident and articulate. The interview was becoming a conversation that explained what assets I offer and how I would apply them.

But then a question was posed, and I suddenly had the unbalanced sensation of driving a car with a flat tire down a long, never-ending highway.

“What is your experience working with the (fill in the blank) community served by our org?”

It was such a basic and appropriate question for anyone serious about working with the organization. Attracted to the job responsibilities of the position, I thought about the organizational mission and its served community more as contextual information when writing the cover letter and preparing for the interview. Its tools of film, video, and other digital media hit the right buttons in mind, and the responsibilities would advance my nonprofit professional career.

However, I had no experience working with its targeted community and there was no belly-burning passion for doing that.

My response to the question was as clunky as the three-tire car veering off the road.

The holy grail for many of us working in the nonprofit field is the job that advances our career and synchs our personal values with the employer’s mission.  Without the intrinsic motivation of working towards the success of the nonprofit, we know the difficulty of staying engaged and enthusiastic in a field notorious for low compensation and high burnout.

Especially in a small organization, the love of mission can sustain and elevate the performance of dedicated staff.

Conversely, I believe that a skilled employee can appreciate the organizational mission over time. Similar to learning and expanding professional skills on the job, understanding and advocating for the nonprofit mission is possible for someone who first takes a position to advance their career.

I also recognize the importance of an employer finding the right fit in employee values and skills for the organization and its ideal culture. Locating, interviewing, coaching, and learning from nonprofit talent are key responsibilities for organizational leaders. Some of my biggest hiring and managing lessons came from not taking adequate time to understand and acknowledge the real motivation of potential employees for their application; one more 15-minute telephone call could have prevented months of uncertainty.

Ultimately, the applicant must be aware of which box they are checking off in the job search and its impact on their performance and tenure.

I left the interview feeling ok, but through the afternoon, I accepted that the numerous assets I offered could not compensate for my one glaring deficit.

When the executive director kindly followed up about next steps, I thanked her and the board for their consideration. I then explained how my lack of personal connection to the mission would be a problem. I regretted taking her time and that of the interview panel.

In our conversation, we agreed that there may be future opportunities for engaging with the organization, but for now, I believed I needed more mission love and fewer job skills.

What do you think about my decision? When researching nonprofits for employment, how do you balance your personal connection to the mission of the organization with its professional responsibilities?