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Madeline's problem     Snorkeling     The Cheyenne story   Powers of 10   Footsteps in the Night   The polio years   The sunken garden    The condom story    My second language    Saskatoon Berry   Industrial Landscapes   Drowsing on the Orient Express   Elkhound  The Millennium Speech   new

Madeline's problem
A number of years ago, I was at my cousin Madeline's place visiting and she was distraught. She had all of a sudden become unable to read. She could still write. She thought no one would believe her – how could someone write but not read? I said the usual dumb things: 'I believe you', 'Maybe it will go away', 'Writing is better than reading anyway', 'Maybe if you copied something you could read it while you were copying', 'Maybe you should see a doctor'. As far as I know, she told very few people, didn't see a doctor and thought my idea of writing what she wanted to read was nuts. The problem stayed for a while – I don't remember how long, a few months to a year or so. And then it faded away. A good thing for she was very distressed by it. It seemed obvious to her and I agreed that it had been caused by one of her little strokes.
I recently read a report on a women with word blindness of the type 'alexia without agraphia'. And it was as Madeline said. But this women had a trick. “When shown a word, the patient looks at the first letter. Although she clearly sees it, she cannot recognize it. So beginning with the letter A, she traces each letter of the alphabet over the unknown letter until she gets a match. For example, when shown the word Mother, she will trace the letters of the alphabet, one at a time, until she comes to M and finds a match. Three letters later, she guesses correctly that the word is Mother.” She could still write and because of that, her finger could still trace out a letter and there was nothing wrong with her sight, as such, so she could tell the difference between the shape her finger was making and the letter on the page.
Now, reading about this, I think I was close to that idea but I didn't pursue it, so I feel a little guilty.


Snorkeling
A friend was just talking about how wonderful in was to snorkel in the tropical ocean. I reminded me of holidays on the Indian ocean near Mombasa. Twice a year, four times in all, we drove down to Mombasa for a couple of week's holiday. We lived in our tent on the edge of a pure white beach of coral sand. Ate lobster every night in the camp's little restaurant. And snorkeled all day. The beach was not right on the ocean, there was a shelf of coral reef between the land and the ocean waves. At high tide the water was knee to chest high and at low tide it was gone. When the tide was out we could see and hear the waves a long walk out at the end of the shelf. A really nice bit was that the reef shelf had large holes in it, from the size of a room to the size of a small house. These did not drain in the low tide and the water in them was warm, salty, sunlit and full of life. It took no effort to stay afloat in the salty water, so we could just lie on the surface and watch the beautiful animals through the snorkel mask. During high tide you could swim about in gentle little waves, sheltered from the bigger ocean waves. The coral was below you if you wanted to put your feet down. It was a great way to take a holiday.
There was only one holiday where there were some problems and luckily we were camped near the tent of Harry's doctor's family. I was walking in the water when it was about waist high and I got tangled with a Portugese-man-of-war. The stinging was terrible and I ran out of the water screaming. The doctor helped get the mess off my leg and said the alcohol would stop the pain. So some good whiskey was put on and it did dull the pain. I stayed out of the water and got a bad sun burn. When I was snorkeling, I wore a Tshirt to protect my back and my arms and legs were a little under the surface. When I was out of the water, my legs were not protected and they burned. Doctor and whiskey came to the rescue again. He dissolved PABA (which he just happened to have) in some whiskey and I dabbed it on my skin. You could watch the skin turn brown, cool down and stop hurting. And that skin did not peel or swell; it stayed a deep tan. In hindsight I even remember that difficult two days with fondness.


The Cheyenne Story
From the first of the First Cousin Letters, this was my contribution. Uncle Ronnie (Houghtaling) had recently died. The Cheyenne story:
In the last few days, my thoughts have turned to Uncle Ronnie. He was so kind to me as a child and his sense of humour was a joy. So my story for this issue is about Uncle Ronnie.
After Dad died, Mildred and Ronnie invited us down to Denver for a long visit. Ronnie, Mom, George and I drove down in Ronnie's car. He liked to drive, liked cars (he had the first new car around after the war), and he was very proud of how fast he could drive without accidents or tickets.
Mom kept offering to drive for a spell, by Ronnie always said, “After Cheyenne.” He also pointed out a couple of times that so far no one had passed us. But mainly he said he wanted to get through Cheyenne first.
By the time we got to Cheyenne all of us were waiting for what was going to happen. As we were coming into Cheyenne, he told us that the sign for the highway out of Cheyenne was hidden. He knew it was there. He had found it before. It was visible but only just. And so we followed the signs for the highway around the streets and ended up going in a large circle. Round and round we went looking for the just visible sign.
I thought it was great. It was the first time I'd seen a town like Cheyenne with swinging doors on real saloons, just like in the movies. As he went round the circle of streets, Uncle Ronnie remembered things about the hidden sign. “It's up high.” “There's another sign in front of it.” This was interspersed with remarks about Cheyenne. “This is the only was they get people to stay in this part of Wyoming.” “I hate this place, I really hate it.” I don't remember all the jokes and cutting remarks about Cheyenne, but I do remember how entertained I was. We were all looking. Then Ronnie shouted, “Bridge, it's on the bridge.”
When we got to the bridge, there it was. The access to the bridge was not as well lit as the streets. High up on the bridge, behind another sign was the Route number we wanted. In a flash we were out of Cheyenne.
Mom asked if she could spell Ronnie off for a while. Ronnie laughed, “May, I'm so mad I couldn't sleep. I'll probably be awake for hours, even after we get to Denver, telling Millie how I hate Cheyenne.”

Powers of 10
Something tickled my memory the other day about power's of 10 and I ended up with 3 memories that are sort of symbols to me of a particular type of thinking.
The first memory was from Kenya where a young technician was doing a calculation for her supervisor. I noticed that she had ended up with 10 to the 23rd. I thought I would save her the embarrassment and said that she should check because it was probably 10 to the minus 23rd (and she could call it zero). And she said, “10 to the 23rd, 10 to the minus 23rd, what's the difference.” I could have said 'the whole universe' in a sarcastic way (and I was tempted) but I am a kind person and so I just helped her understand it.
The second was in the lab in Saskatchewan. This time someone was looked over my shoulder. I did a calculation that ended up with some negative number (say it was -2) times 10 to the minus 2. I wrote down 0. The other person corrected me and said that I should write down what I found, -0.02. I argued that I had to put down 0 because it was within the error range and you physically could not have a negative amount of a substance in a sample. He was, I believe, better educated than me but he could not see that the correct answer was 0. I wrote 0, signed the report and put it in the mail – but it was two days before he gave up trying to get me to see my 'error'. Or perhaps he finally saw the light.
The third was an argument with a programmer about a computer system in the lab. The system came with a setting that could be used to stipulation the number of decimal places to use for reporting each test. I asked the programmer to change this and allow the lab to stipulate either the number of decimal places or the number of significant figures. The programmer said that no other lab needed that so why did we... I said that was because all the other labs only did medical tests but we also did environmental test. Medical results were in a narrow range, usually not varying by more that 10 times. But environmental results can vary enormously, like 10,000 times. We can not report fake accuracy so it has to be significant figures. So the programmer went and found a textbook on significant figures and produced the code. But then I said that I also needed a maximum number of decimal places on the significant figures, so someone could enter something like 'use 3 sigfic with 1 maxdec'. The programmer then got annoyed and said I should make up my mind. I answered that the point was to show all the accuracy you could but not to imply more than you had. If I had the answer 0.2 and that was as accurate as it was, than it should not appear as 0.200 because of a 3 significant figures setting. In the end I had to write a 3 page scread with the logic and examples of how various situations had to be handled. And just to make sure, I wrote in handwriting at the bottom that I was the customer and those were my specifications and I was not changing them.
These were very different people but they all had the idea that the math was important (fine) but that it was more important and read than the real world (not fine).


Footsteps in the night
When we traveled from Kenya through the middle east to England, I was anxious a few times, mostly at border crossings, but rarely afraid. The most heart stopping happening was in the middle of the night in Herat Afghanistan when we were camped on a lawn, in a rose garden, in front of a hotel. (Most of our camping through the region was in rose gardens associated with hotels or gas stations.) This was in the days before the various wars and the country was tranquil. The lawn was short cropped grass that was coarse and dry. In the middle of the night there was a sound like someone taking a step on the grass – a quiet crunch sound. Then there was silence. About the time we relaxed, there was another crunch and then silence. We thought someone was creeping up on us. We made a plan.
The only thing we had in the tent that we could use to defend ourselves was a hammer. So here is our plan. We would carefully unzipped the flap of the tent. We did not want to do this ahead of time and alert the intruder. We each had a hand on one of the zipper tags so when there was a noise we would unzip together quickly. Harry had the horizontal zipper and I had the vertical. Harry had the hammer and I had the flashlight. The next time there was a crunch, we would zip together, Harry would leap out and up with the hammer and I would scan with the light and try to shine it in the eyes of whoever was there. It was not much of a plan but we didn't have much to work with. We waited. There was a crunch; Harry leapt naked out into the night; I scanned with the light but there was no one there. Now not nervous, Harry put his trousers on and took the light to look around. There was no one there - absolutely no one. So we went back to bed. About the time we were falling asleep. Crunch.
So we got up again and looked some more. What we found was a hedgehog. The tent had a fly-sheet and between the tent and the fly-sheet near the ground was a place the length of the tent. At night we put things in this place – box of food, the little camp stove, the water jar and the like. The hedgehog had started into this space, probably smelling the food. He got stuck, he could not go forward because there was a box blocking his way and he could not go backwards because his quills got stuck in the cloth of the tent and fly-sheet. He would make a move to back out and the sound of his quills on the cloth would scare him (as well as us) and he would immediately freeze. Harry undid that corner of the fly-sheet and the hedgehog fled into the night.
It was funny, especially a buck-naked Harry with a hammer jumping into the night. It was funny but I have to admit we were really scared.
 
The Polio years
When I was around 7 or 8 was the height of the polio epidemic in Saskatchewan. My brother and two cousins had it. Not too long after that there was a vaccine for polio.
George and I had the 'flu', sort of. We were sick but not sick enough to be bed ridden. I think we were just lolling about being miserable. Mom noticed that George was limping slightly and she got Dad and they made George walk about and he kind of favoured one leg. Mom took him to Weyburn that day and he saw three doctors in a row – they agreed that it was the first signs of polio. There was no clinic in Weyburn and so Mom and George were flown to Prince Albert. He was admitted to the clinic and Mom came home.
I thought for years that Mom and George had got the flight because TC Douglas was flying up and he offered them a ride. But Mom set me straight on that – she had the flight and Douglas hiked a ride with her. Anyway she got to chat with him all the way to PA.
Dad took me to the local doctor that day too. The doctor said that it didn't appear that I was in danger but it was probably 'polio flu' and I might get immunity.
George was at the clinic for quite a while. I think a couple of months at least probably more. The clinic was run by nuns and they spoke French. When he came home he was very happy to be home but he was a little different from the George that went away. He had a couple of hours of exercise every day. Mom would put a blanket on the kitchen table and he would lie on it. She would move his legs in the exercises the nuns had shown her. That went on for at least a couple of months. George was not talking although he was more than old enough to talk. When he came back he would gesticulate with his arms and it made Mom laugh because it was how the nuns made gestures when they talked. George also went through the house and moved everything that had changed during his absence back to where is had been. I have a clear memory of him taking all the pots and pans out of the cupboards and moving them to the cupboards where they had been. George and all the pans were on the floor and him crawling around getting them in the 'right' cupboard. He was cured and never had a limp.
Cousin Rick had polio too. He was sick with the 'flu' and trouble swallowing and he went to Weyburn to the doctor too and was put in hospital. After a few days he was getting worse. Uncle Ronnie had a fight with the doctor over what was happening. Finally Ronnie picked up baby Rick and walked out of the hospital with him and went to another doctor's office. That doctor and some others looked at Rick and said he had polio in his throat. I don't remember Rick's treatment except that he was not given milk which was all he had under the other doctor. Anyway he got better and had no permanent damage.
A more distance cousin got polio around the same time but she was permanently crippled. That did not stop Doris living a very full life.
I keep hoping that polio can be eliminated from earth, but there are still corners where it is found. WHO keeps thinking that they are within a year or two of the end but then something happens that sets them back.

 
The sunken garden
I have different garden plans now in France and they involve raising not lowering the plants . I'm getting old and do not want to bend over to garden. This was written for Madeline's first cousin letter in Sep 03 about the garden in White City:

Madeline says that I should tell you about my garden – and I always try to give Madeline what she asks for.
So...my garden is a hole in the ground, flat as a lower story, four feet below ground surface. It's usually my pride and joy. It is the source of great tasting food that has never been touched by pesticides, and it is the way I get out, exercising, early in the day. Because it is low it catches the snow and is moist in the spring. Because it is a hole, it is not windy. It has swallows' nests in the banks and they eat a lot of insects. The land in this area is not the heavy clay that is found south, north, east and west of us but is a sandy moraine (what is left when a glacier melts). There is great drainage. We got a neighbour to bring us truck leads of manure from his farm to make a good soil. So I had my perfect little garden. That is until this year!
This year the spring was late. It was warm in the day and drying but at night it froze. It went on like that until in was almost June. The garden missed that spring weather with moisture and gentle warmth, the time when the plants grow and grow. It got hot and dry before the plants were big and strong. It stayed dry for so long that my cistern ran out of water and the garden became very dry. Then the grasshoppers come and started just eating it up. The poor plants could not grow as fast as the grasshoppers could eat. I also noticed that the manure had more of less been used up and we needed more. The soil felt too sandy. The garden was just not as fertile as it usually was.
The jack rabbits were next. A rabbit can just about destroy a lettuce row or a row of beans or a row of peas. It did. Then it decided to try the neighbour's lettuce. Now, my neighbour has the notion that rabbits do not like Irish Spring Soap. She cuts a couple of bars up into chunks and puts them around the garden. I don't know about rabbits but the dogs love it. Our doy, Badger, would sneak into the next-door garden, even though she knows she is not to go in gardens, and comes out with a bit of the Irish Spring. She puts it on the grass and rolls around on it so that she smells of Irish Spring. Who knows what the attraction is?
Then a gopher took up residence in my garden and raised a family there. Soon the peas, beans, lettuce, spinach, turnips, radishes, basil and asparagus were all gone and there were holes in the carrot and beet rows. Then, either the gopher, the rabbit or a mole started in on the potatoes. The grasshoppers were eating from one end of the rows, the potato beetles from the other and the unknown digger from underneath. So we harvested the potatoes while there were still some left. Now when you dig potatoes. You don't actually lost your potato beetles – they are quite happy on the potato's cousins, the tomatoes and peppers.
We will be eating store bought veggies this winter. I'm told that there is always a silver lining. For the first time in my memory, that were no cabbage butterflies and so the broccoli was not wormy. We did not have to mow grass as it could not keep up to the grasshoppers any better than the garden. There were very few mosquitoes too. It is also nice to realize that my life is so good that the fate of my hobby garden can be that important to me.
So before next year we need a little more manure, more water storage capacity, a fence and a new spring's optimism.


The condom story
I was once the Laboratory Supervisor for the Biology Department in the University of Essex. This meant administering all the non-academic aspects of the Department. The department included many types of Biologists: Molecular Biologists, Developmental Biologists, Geneticists, Botanists, Physiologists and Ecologists, along with their teaching and research interests. As well as labs and offices, the Department had an animal house, aquarium room, fly breeding rooms, agricultural fields and a salt marsh. One of my duties was to order the supplies for the group.
One day the Botany lecturer came to my office with a large box. He needed to be re-supplied with another box of 'these balloons”. In his research group, they studied gas exchange in plants. On several trees around the buildings, his students isolated leaves in clear balloons just larger then the leaves and moved gases through tubes into the collar that held the balloons. The difference in the composition of the in and out stream was due to the leaf's metabolism. Light, moisture, gas composition and so on could be changed to see how they affected the leaves.
In turned out that the little balloons were actually condoms. So it was that I phoned the largest manufacturer of condoms in Britain to get another box. I asked for Customer Relations and talked to what sounded like a young man. 'My name is Mrs. Kwasniak and I'm calling from the University of Essex, Department of Biology. We would like to purchase some condoms for one of our research programs, but it would need to be a specially prepared order. I have the box that the previous supply came in. It doesn't say how many there were but the box is about 2 by 2 by 1 feet and the lecturer thinks there were between 5000 and 10,000. On it there is writing that says it contains extra large, clear, un-lubricated, unrolled, unwrapped condoms. Can you supply another box?' The young man hummed and haw-ed, and thought out loud about how to estimate the number, how much it would cost to stop the line, could lubricant be removed, whether we could afford unwrapping, etc. Finally he said that it would be easiest if he just found out when they were making extra large and clear. Then he could take a box about the right size and stand in a place he had though of, hold out the box where the condoms were falling from one line to another. This would be before they were sprayed with 'stuff', rolled and packaged.
He would have to figure out how much to charge, but if they were actually all being used for research, he could put it though free and that would probably save them money as well as us. So I explained in detail the gas exchange experimental setup. He was satisfied and I gave him the address details. I then thanked him at some length for being so helpful and reasonable. He laughed and thanked me. 'No, no, thank you! On Friday we are all going to the local pub – we do every Friday. Everyone will talk about things that happened during the week. I'm going to be able to say that I supplied the U of E with 10,000 condoms for research. And I'm going to be able to say that they were all extra large, clear, un-lubricated, unrolled and unwrapped. Someone's going to ask, someone is bound to ask, whatever are they doing with all those condoms in Essex? I'll have the best line of the week. I'm going to be able to say that they hang them on trees!'
(First written for Madeline's first cousin letter Feb 04)


My second language
When I worked in Essex University I had a little office with two desks for me and my secretary. It really was a small room. The wall opposite our desks had a huge book shelf on which there were all the various catalogs and piles of bumff for ordering things and records etc. there was just room for a door and one chair for people to use when they came to talk about something.
After a couple of years, one of the lecturers got a post-doctorate student in his lab from the United Emirates. He would come for longish periods several times a day (probably when he was waiting for some timed part of an experiment). He would sit in the chair and say practically nothing, just listen to us and to people who came in with a problem. I was on the phone most of the time that I was not talking to a visitor or the secretary. It was a very busy atmosphere but happy. The secretary and I laughed a lot and so did many of our visitors. The young Arab man just watched.
Then after a while he was starting to write a paper or something and he would rush in to ask how to spell a word or which of two words to use. This was finally too much for me. So I asked him why did he walk down to ask me how to spell something when I was not the best speller in the department, I might even be the worst? And why did he spend any free time he had in this crowded little busy room?
He had two answers. Why he like the room was because he was home-sick. At home he spend time every day in the haram with his mother and the other women. They were always happy and laughing and there was always things happening. Our room reminded him of home. Why he asked me about spelling and so on was because he had never known anyone anywhere that had English as a second language who know it as well as I did.
I said that no, it was not a second language; in fact, it was the only language I know. He was taken aback by that. Apparently there had been some jokes about my Canadian accent that implied that I had not learned English at school. I explained that the English always make jokes about the language of Americans, Canadians, Australians even Scots and even people from Liverpool. It was a friendly joke and meant no harm.
After that conversation he still came and sat regularly but not as often as before and there were no more questions about spelling.

Saskatoon Berry
We went berry picking when I was young, in the Qu'appelle Valley and some farm lands near it. We tied a pail around our waist and pick the berries into it. We would each pick a pail and the efficient ones would get more. It was of course always great weather – who would go berries picking on a bad day. We would have a nice picnic lunch. I especially remember the home made root beer. So it would be a longish drive, a berry picking time in the bush, a picnic and then the ride home. That was the easy part. Then was the sorting and washing. We would sit around a big table and berries from one of the pails would be dumped in the middle. You would reach forward and scoop a bunch of berries so they were one berry thick in front of you. All the good ones were rolled into the bowl on your lap. The leaves, stems and unripe berries were moved over in a little pile before another bunch of berries was spread out. The good berries were washed a couple of times in fresh water. The next day it would be canning (later freezing, but not in my childhood) and making jam. But that night, for sure, there would be fresh berries in milk with a sprinkle of sugar. We would have been eating berries one now and one then all day but a bowl full was still a treat. Pies would come in later days and all winter we could have Saskatoons for a treat on Sundays, special days and when company came.
In the north they had other berries as well and some people grow gooseberries. But when I was young in southern Saskatchewan, berries were saskatoons.
Now someone wants to call them june berries. What a dull name!
Michigan's Cornell Cooperative Extension got some plants from Canada, from near Saskatoon Saskatchewan, and started cultivation of saskatoons in the US. They are now thinking of marketing them as a super-berry that is very healthy and expect to have a 10 billion dollar business. The hype is from publicly funded Canadian studies done in the 80's showing that the berries are loaded with antioxidants and phenolics like blueberries. They are reputed to be a fighter against bacteria and viruses. They grow well and are resistant to cold and drought.
"The saskatoon, Amelanchier alnifolia, is closely related to the apple, mountain ash and hawthorn and thus also a member of the Rose family. The saskatoon has long been a treasured wild fruit on the prairies; historically, it was important to the aboriginal peoples, and subsequently to the voyageurs and European settlers."
But … Cornell decided that Americans would have trouble pronouncing saskatoon and wanted to change the name to june berries. Saskatoon is not hard to pronounce for heaven's sake. Cornell asked the president of the Saskatoon Berry Council of Canada to rename the berry. “It won't happen”, Sandra Purdy, the president, said. “Especially given that they got those plants from Saskatchewan and our Canadian-grown berries.” Let's leave them with their First Nation name.



Industrial Landscapes
My letter to First Cousin Letter Sept 2002:
I was born on the prairies – lots of wheat and not much smoke. Between going to the big city of Vancouver and getting to Northern Ontario and the Atlantic, somehow I missed ever coming face to face with the industrial landscape.
In Europe I saw industry. Over and over again, I was surprised by vistas. The most memorable of these moments happened one evening when Harry and I were driving from the Belgium coast towards Germany.
There was a glow in the eastern sky and, since this was the time of the cold war, Harry and I helplessly joke about driving towards World War III. The joke got a little thin as the glow got larger, more angry and bright. When we reached it, it turned out to be Luxembourg. That night, I would have bet my life that there were more Bessemer furnaces spewing flames into the sky than there were houses in Luxembourg. And the next day, we drove into the Saar and Rhineland and the industrial heart of Germany.
A couple of times during my first visit to England, we would top a hill and look down on a northern city with endless streets of row houses as far as the eye could see. Involuntarily, I would gasp. But it was different to live in such a place. It was also interesting to work in such a place.
My first job in England was in the Courtaulds research labs in Coventry. Where should I start with Coventry? A potted history goes as follows:
Coventry was a market town and a wool spinning center. It became extremely Protestant in Tutor times and therefore it was the location of the prison where Cornwall's prisoners were kept. That's where the phrase, “sent to Coventry”, comes from. The citizens fed and looked after the Royalist (and Catholic) prisoners but would not talk to them at all, not ever.
When the Hugenots were expelled from France a few years later, many of them were welcomed to Coventry. The French Protestants brought two trades with them – silk ribbon making and clock making. Later, fine weaving led to the synthetic cloth industry.
When the bicycle was being improved, engineers looked for a suitable drive. The Coventry chain, used in the clocks made in Coventry, was ideal for the bicycle chain. From the bicycle, Coventry progressed to cars and then to planes.
All the industrial and port cities were targets during World War II. With Enigma, radar, etc. the RAF was almost able to protect the cities that were not on the southeast coast, But Enigma was late with its information the night the raids headed for Coventry.
When we lived there, the center of the town was all newly rebuilt but the factories in the ring around that core had survived with less damage. The Courtaults original rayon factory was now too outdated to be a productive factory so it became a large batch facility for research into the rayon process.
Across the Foleshill Road, The Engineering Division designed and sold whole textile factories. Later, I worked down the road in the Acetate Division labs. All these labs and drafting offices were in brand new multi-story buildings. The new Rayon (Viscose) Division lab was built inside a large 1900 factory, a bombed one at that, with a 9 to 12 foot wall around it.
A canal ran just outside the wall. A spur entered the factory past a small dock. A spur railway line also entered passed it. Under a corner cooling tower was a large pond of warm water with a steady rain from the tower about.
At another corner, the shell of what had been the head office building stood. A garden had been planted in the bombed outside facade. The staff ate their lunches there. From the vantage point, they could see over the outer wall, across the canal, and into a much older age, where a ribbon factory with mills and little cottages in a square were surrounded by another wall.
Also within our wall were a new lab building, the power plant and the old rayon works. Big sheds housed vats, where sheets of wood pulp were soaked in lye and pressed to take the moisture out, there were mills to break up the pulp into fluffy damp wool, and pressure tanks filling with pulp reacting with carbon sulphide and water. Sheds were full of tanks and vats with high catwalks on top of them.
A large how building contained bank after bank of spinning machines, in which acid bath jets squirted the viscose into acid at one end and, at the other end, the strands were lifted out to be washed to removed the acid.
The interesting thing is what happened to the viscose fluid between leaving the reactor tanks and entering the spinning machines. Under the factory was an underground world of tunnels in which the viscose was aged by being pumped around for miles in spirals and back and forth. If you knew the tunnels, you could get from anywhere to anywhere underground on a rainy day.
There were three distinct work forces sharing this space. The first was made up of the scientists and technicians who worked in the labs. They pronounced “viscose” as it is spelled, with a V sound. The second group was made up of the skilled workers who made the viscose. As the first foreman in the tunnels had been German, they pronounced “viscose” with a W sound. The third group consisted of new arrivals from India and Pakistan. At that time, Courtaults found it easiest to man the spinning machines with those new immigrants, who often didn't have enough English ever to use the word “viscose” at all.
There was a saying, you could tell the people who worked at Courtaults, by the black and yellow ties they wore. The ties, the first rayon product ever made at Courtaults, matched the workers' yellow shin and black eyes. After years of exposure to the poison, carbon sulphide, they had suffered liver damage. The spinning halls, filled with acid and hydrogen sulphide fumes, were the most dangerous place for anyone to work.
I have heard a chemist say that going to the spinning hall for a sample was like going to the jungle. You could hear movement behind you but when you turned around there was no one there. There was only the roar of the machines. You were being followed by a hundred eyes but you could see no one.
Most of the Courtaults factories in places across the country were modern and healthy places. The Coventry batch plant was an early factory run as it had been up to the time of the war. The fumes and noise were unforgettable.
It was in Coventry that I became accustomed to being surrounded by the old. It was also here that I became comfortable in the industrial landscape.


Drowsing on the Orient Express
I was reminded recently of an incident from years ago by a little discussion of Grimm's law. Grimm's law is one of the first attempts to follow the evolution of language in a systematic way. The discussion made me recalled an instance of understanding a German conversation with a little unconscious trick of hearing some of the shifts in consonants between German and English. Enough of that and on with the story.
While we lived in Austria I visited Canada. I had a flight out of London and I got to London by train – ditto on the way back. So very tired from the transatlantic flight, I got on a train in London for Vienna. It was what remained of the Orient Express and still carried the name although, if I remember correctly, it didn't actually make it all the way to Turkey. But it did have very old fashioned, comfortable, roomy, 6 person compartments. So 6 of us settled in. I propped myself in a corner and closed my eyes. The others opened a conversation starting in French because three of them were from Belgium. They offered to converse in English for my sake but I said I would probably sleep so they could carry on in French. Two of them were German but they spoke better French then the Belgium group's German. When I awoke the Belgians were leaving but I closed my eyes again and drifted in and out of sleep. I found I could more or less make out what the two German's were saying. They slipped into German went the French speakers left.
It turned out they had a lot in common. Both had been to England to visit their daughters and see their grandchildren. Both had nice things to say about their son-in-laws. Both were business men and exported things. Both had been soldiers in the war. Back to England, they liked the family their daughters had married into, but … very slowly, not want to shock the other they started to discuss what they thought of England – not very modern, not very clean, didn't work very hard and so on. After a while one of them said something like, “How did we lose the war to them?” They pondered that question for a while and decided that it was impossible. Then came, “Did we lose to the Russians?” Well, they discovered that they had something else in common. They had both taken a few business trips to Russian and so they discussed what they thought of the Russians – insane, unorganized, terrible bureaucrats, terrible roads (and on through a list of infrastructure faults). No, it was not possible that they lost to the Russians. It must have been the Americans. Neither had been to America but Americans in Germany seemed to do things OK. They got off at Munich and a little while before they did, one of them said and the other agreed that it was a good thing that we (Germany) were do going to try that (a war) again. New people came on and I actually slept to Vienna.
This was a very weird experience because I could barely speak any German. I often understood Harry when he was talking to someone else, but I knew what he was likely to say anyway. I also understood some for what was said to me by friends in simple German phrases. But this was new. I had not before understood the gist of a conversation between to strangers speaking normally. I put it down to being nearly asleep and finding the trick of undoing the shifts between German and English more effective in that state. Maybe German was easier to understand unconsciously than when I put a lot of effort into it.

 

Elkhound
Badger the dog (printed in First Cousin Letter Sept '01, she was alive then but is now dead):

Our dog, Badger, was said to be a Border Collie – Husky cross. This is approximately what you would guess by looking at her. She is marked like a tri-coloured Border Collie and is built like a Husky. The vet didn't even ask when we took her for her first visit and just wrote down Husky X. So everything made sense, Badger tried to herd us around with great figure-eight runs, did a sort of crouched you-move-first game and tried to get her way by staring at us. We thought 'oh look, she's acting just like a Border Collie and even thinks she has the 'eye', which she hasn't. And she had three layers of fur that covered her belly and even grew between her toes like a Husky. She loves cold weather and if it is too cold or windy for her, she rolls around in a ball with her tail covering her face, just like a sleeping Husky.
Everything made sense until Harry started the Norwegian Elkwolf joke. Harry got this from somewhere, long forgotten, and as a joke claimed that Badger was a Norwegian Elkwolf. He attributed her weird behavior to this breed. I assumed that he had made the whole thing up – a good joke but only a joke. He can keep such jokes going for years.
One day he found that there were sites dedicated to the Norwegian Elkhound on the Web. Not letting the little difference in name bother him, he printed out some of these and casually left them by the computer. I saw them and thought, “Boy! Harry did a good job at the fake.' It was so subtle how he had pinned on very obscure aspects of our dog. Then I thought, “hold on, Harry doesn't know enough about computers and applications to do a fake that good.” I then did a search myself and found lots more material on the Norwegian Elkhound.
The facts about the Elkhound fall into three categories – not true of Badger, true of Badger but also of other northern spitz-type breeds, true of Badger and a surprise. In the first category is a single fact, Elkhound are gray and Badger is black, white and tan (coloured like a 'tri' Border Collie). In the second category is the fur, size and build. Simply, all sled dogs are about the same size (about 50 pounds) and build (square, stocky, short legged with huge rib cages) and they have phenomenally thick fine self-cleaning hair. All spitz breeds have upright ears, tails curled over the back or at least very high. They have no, or very little 'doggy' smell. Most of these northern dogs hate water. All of these were true of Badger.
Then we come to the things that are somewhat uncanny. Unlike most dogs, the Elkhound puts its ears back flat against the head as a sign of relaxed affection. For other dogs, this is a sign of fear or anger. It trots with an upright head and straight back that remains level. The Elkhound is standoffish with strangers and very enthusiastic in greeting family and friends. The dog has a tendency to gain weight. Anyone who knows Badger can see how apt these descriptions are.
The Norwegian Elkhound has an unusual job description. It is a very old breed, illustrated in viking and older artifacts. It was bred to be a big game hunter. The main game was moose or elk but it was also used to hunt badger, lynx, mountain lion, bear, wolf and reindeer. They range long distances and can smell quarry for several kilometers. The Elkhound then holds the prey at bay and barks continuously until the hunter arrives.
But it is a multi-functional breed. It is also a prized sled dog. It can herd and guard farmsteads. We have always made fun of Badger for her barking. What she appears to do is to go out and sit, scanning the prairie horizon patiently until something dares to move. She then stands and barks until she is sure that they have learned their lesson and will not move again while she is watching. It might take an hour of barking but she is going to keep 'order' in the neighborhood. This watch-and-bark is so characteristic of Badger that it formed the basis of some cartoons that Ciara drew.
Predictably, the elkhound is reputed to be very good, well behaved, docile, affectionate, loyal. What dog breed is described differently? Badger is all of these things and very anxious to please. But- there is always a but – Elkhounds are very sensitive and independent, with a sense of fairness. They can resist obedience training and they can be upset for a long time if they are punished unfairly. I had always thought that Badger's sensitivity was not a question of personality but of intelligence. She is quite happy with what makes sense and very hurt be anything that doesn't.
There is very little mention of intelligence in the descriptions of the Elkhound. Also missing is any mention of a sense of direction and a moment to moment accounting of whose nose is a fraction of an inch ahead. But they are certainly characteristics of Badger. Perhaps this is from the border Collie.
I am always amazed at what Badger appears to understand and what she doesn't get. We can entertain passengers in the car with Badger's antics if we take an unusual road or direction. If Harry seems to take a 'wrong' turn, she will whine softly, then reach forward to tap Harry's arm or even the steering wheel if she can reach it. The antics get more persistent until we're going the 'right' way. If badger thinks we should be going north and we turn south, she will not stop her whining and attempts to steer until we turn north again.
How is it that a typical Canadian Husky-X mutt, may be largely Norwegian Elkhound? The interesting thing about Border Collies and Alaskan Huskies is that they are breeds that are defined by their function rather than just their genetics. To be a proper Border Collie, the dog has to have come from a border sheep farm and from stock that can herd sheep a la Sheep Dog Trials. They must be able to be trained to follow whistled commands over long distances. Alaskan Huskies similarly are judged by their sledding skill. Other sled dogs are recognized by Kennel Clubs, but not the Alaskan Husky, because it is not a pure breed. During the gold rushes and settlement of Alaska and the Yukon, dogs were in very short supply. Boat loads of dogs, if possible, and not always sled dogs, were imported into the region. Those that could pull sleds in the Arctic became part of the stock. Any dog strain that might help a breeder to win big sled races would be introduced as an experiment into the mix. Norwegian Elkhounds are very good sled dogs. In fact, the Norwegians have a law that, in time of war, the government can take any Elkhounds for army sleds.
I like the thought of having a mongrel (a healthy mutt) especially a mixture of such lovely dogs as Border Collie, Husky/Elkhound. Especially one smart enough to know what D-O-G or C-A-R spells.


Addition:
Badger was so sick by the time we left for France that we had her put down. She hardly moved and needed a lot of care. All above was written when she was a young dog. She had a few other traits and tricks.
When Badger was young she spent most of the time with Harry. And she was very attached to Harry. One year Harry and Ciara took a holiday in Europe and were gone for about a month. Badger did not mope but spent her time with me. When Harry came back she would have nothing to do with him. It was as if he was not there. It took her a couple of weeks to forgive him but from then on she spent more time with me than Harry.
She liked to pretend that she was driving. If Harry was out of the car, she would nip into the driver's seat put a paw on the steering wheel and stare straight ahead until he came back. Once in a car park, a little girl pulled her mother over to look at the dog. She wanted to know if the dog could drive and if he had the keys. I told her that the dog was a she and she was not allowed to drive in town. The mother and I had a good laugh at that. As they walked away the little girl kept asking, over and over, “But does she have the keys?” I think the youngster was allow to sit in the drivers seat and pretend to drive but was never allowed to touch the keys. She may have half seen that the keys were in the ignition.
Badger had a fairly large vocabulary that included the names of rooms in the house and other places around the yard. This was probably the border collie. So was her ability to go where you pointed.


The Millennium Speech
It has been a almost a decade since I gave a speech but I still thinking of myself is someone who has mastered public speaking. I was in Toastmasters for many years and it was one of the highlights of my life – my weekly adrenaline fix. I joined when I decided to come out of the closet about my dyslexia. I had always kept it a closely guarded secret from all except Harry and later my mother and a couple of very close friends. I never ever allowed anyone I worked for or with to know. Finally in my fifties, I realized that in any group I was no longer the worst speller or the slowest reader. I realized there was now a general knowledge and acceptance of the condition. I could relax. At first I only did it as a joke – if I made a mistake in spelling, I would say, “Well now you know I'm dyslexic.” And if I stumbled reading something, I would say, “Oh, oh, bad dyslexia day.” Then I thought, now that I am relaxed about the written word, I can enjoy what has been my blessing all my life – the oral language.
Most people I knew in Toastmasters had the problem that they wrote their speeches and memorized them, then tried to give them in a natural way. My message was stay oral. Plan your speech without put it down on paper. Practice it and hone it in your head or talking to yourself. When it was a good speech, I would write it down so that I could estimate the length and have a record of it. The process is like learning to swim – if you hang on to the edge of the pool you cannot learn how to swim.
The following is the timing notes for a speech that won me prizes at many levels of competition and always had the audience laughing loudly. I gave the speech standing still, not ever smiling but being extremely enthusiastic and earnest. It is a very dated speech, given in the autumn of 1999 just before the millennium when all the worry was about what computers would fail when they encountered 2000.
MADAM CHAIRMAN, FELLOW TOASTMASTER AND HONOURED JUDGES -
WE WASTE OUR RESOURCES AS A SOCIETY. WE SPEND BILLIONS SOLVING PROBLEMS THAT COULD BE SOLVED FOR A FEW THOUSAND. TAKE FOR EXAMPLE HOW WE TRY TO REDUCE ACCIDENTS. WE ARE JUST NOT USING OUR HEADS. STATISTICALLY YOU ARE MUCH, MUCH LESS LIKELY TO HAVE A CAR ACCIDENT IN A STRANGER'S CAR THAN YOUR OWN OR A FRIEND'S. SO WHEN YOU NEED TO BUY A CAR AND SOMEONE IN SAY SPRINGFIELD ILLINOIS WANTS TO BUY A CAR. YOU COULD BUY A CAR IN SPRINGFIELD AND LET HIM DRIVE IT, HE COULD BUY A CAR IN REGINA AND LEND IT TO YOU. THERE'S TWO PEOPLE WHO HAVE JUST SLASHED THEIR PROBABILITY OF HAVING CAR ACCIDENTS TO PRACTICALLY ZERO.
YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ACCIDENTS IN YOUR HOME WHEN CLEANING OR REPAIRING, SO MAKE A DEAL WITH A NEIGHBOUR – YOU CLEAN AND REPAIR THEIR HOUSE AND THEY DO YOURS. MUCH SAFER. I'M SURE YOU CAN FIGURE OUT ALL SORTS OF WAYS TO MAKE YOUR LIFE SAFER. FOR INSTANCE, YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE MURDERED BY YOUR SPOUSE THEN ANYONE ELSE.
LET'S LEAVE STATISTICS AND GO ON TO ANOTHER INNOVATIVE WAY TO SOLVE OUR PROBLEMS. WE HAVE THIS MILLENNIUM COMING UP. PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF THEIR COMPUTERS, THE SERVICES THEY NEED AND EVEN THE END OF THE WORLD. WHO SAID WE HAD TO HAVE A MILLENNIUM. LET'S JUST SAY “HEY, WE MADE A BIT OF A MESS OF THE LAST CENTURY. WE'LL JUST DO IT AGAIN AND GET IT RIGHT”. NO MILLENNIUM – NO PROBLEM. WHO SAYS WE HAVE TO DIVIDE THE YEAR INTO QUARTERS EITHER. WE COULD DIVIDE IT INTO THIRDS, HAVE THE THREE SEASONS WE LIKE AND DISPENSE WITH WINTER ENTIRELY. COME TO THINK OF IT, WHERE'S IT WRITTEN THAT WE HAVE TO HAVE MONDAYS.
OR TAKE SOME OF OUR POLITICAL PROBLEMS. WHY DON'T WE JUST GET BC AND QUEBEC TO TRADE PLACES. NOW QUEBEC WILL BE SURROUNDED BY OCEAN AND MOUNTAINS – AND THEY CAN STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT BEING SURROUNDED BY ENGLISH. BC CAN STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT EASTERN CANADA GETTING EVERYTHING. AND NEWFOUNDLANDERS WILL NOT HAVE TO TRAVEL SO FAR TO GET JOBS IN BC. A LITTLE JUDICIOUS MUCISAL CHAIRS COULD SOLVE ALMOST ALL THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS. IF ISRAEL WAS NOT PART OF THE MIDDLE EAST, IF THE FALKLINS WERE CLOSER TO BRITIAN THAN TO ARGENTINA, IF CUBA WAS NOT 80 MILES – YOU GET THE PICTURE.
IT IS NOT JUST BIG PROBLEMS THAT CAN BE SOLVED EASILY IF YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO IT. YOUR PERSONNAL EXISTANCE CAN BE MUCH MORE PLEASANT. YOU DON'T LIKE ANSWERING THE ALARM IN THE MORNING – SET IT EARLIER SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO GET UP WHEN IT RINGS. YOU WORRY TOO MUCH. HEY, WHY ARE YOU WORRYING ABOUT PUTTING WINTER TIRES ON THE CAR, IT ISN'T EVENYOUR CAR. WINTER?
I URGE YOU TO ADOPT A CREATIVE WAY OF SOLVING OUR PROBLEMS, QUICKLY AND AT LITTLE COST. FOR MYSELF, I'M NOT ENJOYING GROWING OLD. IT'S ALL THOSE DISEASES YOU MORE LIKELY TO GET WHEN YOUR OLD. SO I'VE DECIDED TO LIE TO HEALTH PROFESSIONALS ABOUT MY AGE. THIS WILL BE MUCH EASIER NEXT YEAR. IT WILL BE 1900 AND I WILL NOT BE 60 BUT -40 AND I'LL HAVE AT LEAST 85-90 YEARS BEFORE I WILL HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT MY AGE AT ALL.