22 September 2005

 

On Moving

I have helped my older brother move a number of times in my life. It was always an in town move, accomplished with a number of trips in his car which we were experts at packing. We'd curse at the heavy objects as we maneuvered them up stairs and through door ways, but it was all good natured and we bore no ill will toward any of his furniture. When we were done, it usually took no more than 4 or 5 hours, he'd treat me to dinner and we'd eat hamburgers and reflect, happily, that the task was done and done well. I didn't mind moving in the least.

But then, then he asked, no, wait, I offered to help him move to Hillsboro, OR (a suburb of Portland) where he was starting a job with Intel. He originally asked my other brother to help him but I insisted that I would "love to do it" and the job was mine. I was looking forward to it despite the 9 hour bus ride from Williams Lake to Vancouver, despite the loading and unloading of the moving truck and despite the drive from Vancouver to Portland which goes through downtown Seattle, where basic principals of traffic, space and time meet in a scary and illogical maelstrom.

The plan was very straightforward. I would bus down to Vancouver on Monday. On Tuesday morning we would pick up the UHaul truck (which had been reserved weeks in advance), pack it up and head for Hillsboro with me driving my brother's car and him piloting the moving van. There weren't too many details to take care of. Jess had to get a visa at the US border crossing and he had to deposit money into his Washington Mutual account so he could give cheques to the leasing office. After that it was minor details, returning the moving van, showing picture ID at a Verizon storefront to activate his phone and internet account (the initial steps had been done online well in advance). Then we would relax by his pool for a day or so and figure out how to get me back to Vancouver on Friday. Easy stuff, more of a vacation than a moving job. Well, in theory.

Monday

Monday went better than any other day of the move, probably because there were so few things that could have gone wrong. I caught the bus down to Vancouver and Jess picked me up at the bus depot. The only glitch on the radar was that UHaul hadn't called, as they said they would, to confirm the reservation and explain where and when to pick up the truck. No big deal, I figured this was the busiest time of year for UHaul and they probably didn't get a chance to contact people regarding their reservations.

Tuesday

My brother phones UHaul and the reservation is indeed in order. We pick up the truck and drive it back to his place. We start loading the truck. Because he was crossing into the US, Jess had to take inventory of everything that was going into the truck. This was what the US Customs web site had said to do if you were moving to the states. It was a pain because we had to be sure whatever we loaded was on the inventory list. Slowly but surely we filled up the truck with all of the contents of the house. Thankfully there weren't too many heavy things, but the fold-out couch and one large cabinet were painful behemoths. Now, Jess' girlfriend and son were going to be moving to Delta to live with Uncle Jed. They had a carload of stuff to take with them as well as a dishwasher. Jess had told me that Jed was going to come and pick them and this stuff up and we didn't have to worry about it. Halfway through loading the truck we realized we had an excess of space and could easily take their stuff, including the dishwasher. So we loaded all that too, planning to stop off briefly at Jed's on the way to the border, unload it and carry on. We got the truck fully packed and ready to go by about 6 pm. We were a bit behind schedule but it didn't really matter. As long as we got into the states and past Seattle we'd be happy. We could get to Hillsboro in the morning and we'd be avoiding crazy traffic time while passing through Seattle. Everything was ok. So we drove to Jed's in Delta. Apparently everyone else in Vancouver was going to Delta too. The traffic was crazy and a drive that usually takes 40 minutes took closer to 90. Still no problem, our schedule was flexible. We unload all that was destined for Jed's, said our good byes and hit the road. We got to the Pacific Border crossing around 8:30. The line up was small and within 10 minutes or so we'd been shown where to park so Jess could go inside and sort out the visa. Prior to this move, I knew very little about the immigration process and nothing about visas. I learned that Jess was applying for a TN visa. This is the visa needed by professionals moving to the US from Canada or Mexico for a job. It is only good for a year and if you are going to be working for more than a year in the US, as Jess was, you simply apply for the next level of visa during the year the TN allowed. Jess was as prepared as one could be for application process. He had been contacted by Intel's legal department and they let him know what he'd need to get the TN Visa. He had a letter from Intel describing the job offer, his degrees proving that he indeed had the education and skills to do the job he was being hired for. Furthermore, he isn't a terrorist or undesirable and was telling nothing but the truth which you'd think would go a long way. But we ran into Le.

Le was the border guard/customs officer/whatever that looked over Jess' documents and questioned Jess about his job. Le (Officer Le? Mr. Le? I don't know) wasn't a very nice person. I understand that border guards probably shouldn't be overly trusting and they might as well try to be intimidating because only people who have a reason to be worried when crossing the border would be really scared. Le was a full on asshole. It's hard to explain all of his assholeness, it's really a "you had to be there" kind of thing, but I will try.

Le: What kind of work are you doing for Intel?

Jesse: Computer Science.

Le: (in a very condescending tone) That could mean anything, what are you going to be doing for them.

Jesse: Oh, ok, well formal verification.

Le: (obviously has no idea what this means, not that I do really, but doesn’t want to let on and still in a condescending tone) But what will you be doing for them?

Jesse (understandably confused) Well... doing formal verification, which is basically debugging their processors.

Le: (Totally lost now, but still with an asshole attitude) Ok, look, tell me about an average workday for you, what would you do.

Jesse: I don't know yet, I haven't started working for them. I just graduated from UBC.

Le: (shakes his head in obvious disappointment and looks through Jess's papers)

Le pointed out that Jess' degrees say "Bachelor of Science" and "Masters of Science" and don't specifically state "Computer Science". He asked for transcripts which was the one thing Jess didn't have. Another headshake of disappointment. English was obviously not Le's first language and he spoke very quickly. Quite a few times Jess had to ask him to repeat himself because he couldn't make any sense of what he was saying. Le didn't like that one bit so he'd usually repeat it faster and louder. Not helpful. Not only did Le have these problems with Jess' information, it was a big deal that I didn't have any proof of citizenship with me. I had, not 2 years before, crossed the border with only my driver's license. That didn't seem to be enough and I got a very slow and intense headshake from him when he learned I didn't have a birth certificate or passport.

In the end, Le didn't let us through. His official reason was that the letter from Intel said that Jess' position was permanent and TN visas can only be granted to people who have jobs that are no more that one year in length. Great. So even though thousands of people accept full time positions in the states and immigrate there, they have to do the dance of 1 year job offer, 1 year visa, job extension, new visa. By now it was almost 10 o'clock. We were pissed. We needed to get, somehow, my birth certificate, a new letter from Intel stating the job was for 1 year and copies of Jess' transcripts. We stopped for gas on the way back to Jed's and I tried, unsuccessfully, to put diesel in Jess' car. Luckily they foresee idiots like me and make the pipe on diesel pumps too big to go into the little hole on most gas tanks. We returned to Jed's and tried to solve the problems that faced us. My birth certificate was at my parent's house in Victoria. Jess would have to call Intel to request a new letter and he'd need to print off his transcripts. The transcripts should have been easy, but at Jed's we didn't have Internet access or a printer.

Jess came up with a brilliant idea for getting my birth certificate. We would have our younger brother, Brad, put a backpack on the ferry in the morning, and we could pick it up. For those of you that aren't familiar with the BC ferries, they allow you to 'check' your luggage if you are walking on the ferry, they then collect up all this luggage, drive it on to the ferry, and make it available for you on the other side, this saves you carting your bags all over the ship. It's very convenient but I hadn't made use of it for years as I once had a pair of sunglasses and a mad magazine stolen from a bag I'd entrusted them with. After a lot of explaining and assurance that the document wouldn't get lost, Jess convinced my mom and brother that this was a good idea and they agreed to help us. Brad would place a backpack containing my birth certificate on the luggage thingy at Schwartz Bay and we would pick it up in Tsawassen. Awesome, 1 down, 2 to go.

Shortly after getting off the phone, Jess noticed that the letter from Intel very explicitly stated that the job Jess was being offered was temporary. No more than a year. We cursed Le for the 40th time. Le had studied this letter so long and so intently and with such focused rage we were sure he must have noticed it and was just taking his assholeness to a new level. Anyway, 2 down, 1 to go.

Wednesday

We raced out to the ferry in Jess’ car in the morning and, because we got there late, had to retrieve the backpack from the people at the lost and found. Luckily Brad had described the bag to us and the people believed my story about forgetting to pick up the bag as I walked off ("Stupid me! what a morning.") and we left the ferry, precious document in hand.

Now we needed to get Jess’ transcripts. We decided to head to UBC, about as far out of our way as possible, because we knew we could definitely print them off in Jess’ old lab. We didn’t want to roll the dice with an internet café or library with the way our luck was going. We got the transcripts and headed back to Delta to once again head for the border. By the time we got to Jed’s said our goodbyes again and were in out respective vehicles it was close to 1pm.

The UHaul wouldn’t start. Super. We called the 1-800 number we had been told to call in case of trouble and they told us to try jumpstarting it. I know nothing at all about cars but it didn’t sound to me like that was the problem. In my experience, if the battery is dead and you turn the key you get nothing. Well the UHaul was doing something and it didn’t sound like what it was doing was good. In the end we jumpstarted it successfully and were ready to head out. We again said our goodbyes and headed for the border.

About 20km before we got to the border crossing, Jess pulled the UHaul over to the shoulder of the highway. I pulled in behind him, confused. He came and got in the car with me and said ‘We have to go back to Jed’s; I forgot all my documents and my laptop.’ When the UHaul had been giving us problems, Jess had taken these things out of the truck for safety’s sake and, in the urgency to get rolling, had forgot to get them again. So we went back, got Jess’ stuff, said our goodbyes (with little to no confidence that this would be the last time we saw Jed, Claire and Josh that day, but going through the motions regardless) and, again, headed for the US. I dropped Jess off at the UHaul, it started fine and we got to the border crossing just before 3pm.

There was a seriously long line at the border and it took us about 45 minutes to get up to the booth. During this time, Jess’ car started acting strangely. Earlier in the adventure he told me that if you idle for a long time the ‘service engine soon’ light would come on. He figured it was due to overheating. On his advice, I started turning the car off during the long, stationary times in the line up. This was fine until I started getting unusual sounds and vibrations when I would start up the car to move it along in the line. I was faced with 2 choices: leave it running and risk overheating or keep turning it off and starting it up and risk it not starting back up. I compromised. I only turned it off every other time I moved ahead in line. This worked well in that the car successfully made it to the booth.

Again we were waved over to the parking area and went back inside the house of pain. It was just after 3:30pm. We stood in line for a while and slowly came to realize that the line wasn’t moving nor did any of the 20 or 30 people working there seem to notice. There were about 5 people ahead of us, all wanting TN visas but no one at the counter, where we’d been rejected the night before, was calling anyone up. I guessed, correctly, that their was a shift change at 4:00 and no one wanted to start processing a TN visa this close to quitting time. Great. So we stood there for half an hour doing nothing, getting nowhere. Every few minutes a different border guard would go through the line asking what we were there for, when we told them ‘TN’ they shook their heads and walked away. The border guards, on the whole, didn’t seem to be as mean as Le had been, I saw one woman smile, though it may have been because she had just denied someone entry into the US, I couldn’t tell. They all had their names stitched on their uniforms and these names were my only entertainment for a while. Cervantes was, by far, the coolest name I saw and a very unfriendly looking guy, Helle, had the most appropriate name. At 3:55 Le walked in to start his shift. Oh great, we’re doomed, the hanging judge is back. Right at 4:00 the new shift started processing TNs. The people in front of us got Le and we felt pity for them. Our guy this time was Layman. He was great. Well, after Le, he was great in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way. He wasn’t nice to us, he just wasn’t a complete jerk. The best moment of the day, and possibly the whole move, was when Jess told Layman about being denied entry the previous evening.

Layman: Where did you try to cross?

Jess: Here

Layman: What time?

Jess: About 9pm

Layman: Who did you speak to here?

Jess slowly raises his hand and points at Le who is immediately beside Layman and must have been able to overhear all of this.

Layman: Ok, why did he deny you entry?

Jess, suppressing a grin: Well he claimed that my job offer was for more than a year, but he obviously misread or didn’t see this line here where it very obviously states that it is a temporary position lasting no more than a year.

In your face Le.

After looking through all of Jess’ papers and asking a few more questions, Layman gave us the go ahead. Then, after dealing with a few details concerning Jess’ car, we were free to go. No one asked us what we had in the big moving truck, no one asked to look in it. Jess almost wanted to ask them to ask so he could show off his thorough inventory list. We drove away from the border and into the US of A feeling as though we’d slain some mythical beast.

We gassed up and hit the I5. Jess was leading as we decided the UHaul was slightly more likely to break down than the car. We stopped at a rest area about 40 miles north of Seattle. We were feeling good. We could easily make it to Hillsboro that night and move in the next day. I started the car to pull out of the rest area and the engine started making a loud, awful, rhythmic noise. I quickly pulled over again and had to sprint to flag down Jess before he pulled on to the I5. We popped the hood and Jess quickly noticed that our fan belt wasn’t looking too good. Apparently fan belts are designed to come apart in strips and the inside strip of ours had come apart. Two big pieces of it were entwined in the workings of the fan and another long strip was loose and threatened to do the same. We managed to remove the two detached pieces and set about trying to remove the long strip. We were ill prepared for cutting through a piece of fan belt and had to improvise. My usual standby tool in these situations, the key acting as a saw, did nothing. Then Jess remembered he had toenail clippers in his shaving kit. Bingo. So remember, if you ever need to cut off a single strip of fan belt, there are few tools better than toenail clippers, as far as I know.

Once again we braved the I5, this time with me in the lead. Due to the latest incident, my car had moved past the UHaul in the ‘likeliness of breaking down’ category. This meant I was leading through Seattle. Wow. For a weekday evening it was really crazy, and I’m very thankful we didn’t get there any earlier. I’m sure I would have been fine had I ever driven that road before or if I didn’t have to allow for a 24” UHaul to make every lane change and pass that I did. I guess, all told, I was fine, but it was stressful. At one point I counted seven lanes of traffic, the two left ones were both merge and exit lanes, the two right ones were carpool lanes and the third from the right was an exit lane. It’s a lot for a Canadian boy who is used to no more excitement than the Pat Bay highway at 5pm.

We stopped at one last rest area, about an hour north of Portland. We examined the fan belt and it looked ok to us. By that I mean a mechanic might have looked at it and recoiled in horror, we really had no reference point. We found a motel just after midnight that, wonderfully, had parking for the UHaul and a room for us. Exhausted, we dragged our bags down the hall to our room, ready for sleep after a trying couple of days. Naturally, our key-cards didn’t work. Eventually, we got that sorted out, got in to our room, and crashed.

Thursday

We slept in and had a leisurely breakfast at the motel’s restaurant because we knew there wasn’t much to do aside from the grunt work. Other than that, all that was left to be done was deposit money into Jess’ account at Washington Mutual and activate his phone and internet at a Verizon store. Just after 11:00 am we headed out in the car to find a Washington Mutual. We drove for about 20 minutes along Hillsboro’s main road, Cornell, before we spotted one. Jess went up to the counter to quickly deposit the money and I flipped through The Oregonian and enjoyed some complimentary coffee. But things were taking too long. I finished my coffee and Jess was still at the counter. Surely depositing money didn’t take more than a minute or two. It turned out Jess couldn’t deposit the money because, unbeknownst to him, his account had been closed. What had happened would have been funny if we didn’t need to deposit money right then. Jess had opened this account when he lived in California, many months prior. Due to some miscalculations, he had overdrawn on the account when he was back in Canada. Washington Mutual sent him a letter informing him that he was overdrawn and detailing how much money he had to give them. Knowing that he would need this account when he moved back to the states, Jess figured out the amount, in Canadian dollars, required to cover his overdraw. He then tacked on $10 more to allow for any fluctuations in the exchange rate that might occur while his money was in transit and mailed off a cheques. In his mind, it was dealt with and was no longer a problem. Well it was. Somehow the amount he sent them came up 22 cents short of what he owed. After a certain period of time, the bank’s computers automatically closed his account, not taking into account the insignificance of the amount. To add insult to injury, they made him pay the 22 cents right there. Jess would have to open a new account in order to deposit the money so he could have cheques to give to the leasing office. By now it was close to 12 noon, which was checkout time back at the motel. We had to drive back, check out, and then drive back to the bank. After all that, they wouldn’t let Jess open an account. He lacked ‘proof of residency’ like an Oregon driver’s license. We didn’t think much of Washington Mutual at this point. We had to meet the leasing people at the leasing office at Jess’ new condo place at 1 o’clock. Jess figured he could explain the problem and hopefully they would let him pay by money order. Jess explained the situation, and they said it was fine if he paid by money order. So off we went to the Plaid Pantry, a 7-11 type place, to get one. One problem, they could not give out money orders worth more than $300. Jess needed more than $300. This was solved by getting a number of money orders. So back to the rental office we went, stack of money orders in hand. Jess then had to sign no less than 14 documents to complete the lease. Then we were allowed to move in.

Hooray.

We were so happy. It seemed we had succeeded and there were no obstacles left in our way. We were wrong, of course, but it was a nice feeling while it lasted.

Initially, we had backed the UHaul into a handicap parking space that was very near to Jess’ staircase (only 1 floor up, thank goodness). However, the woman in the leasing office had told us not to because the people who check such things in this area were very strict and we could easily get a $200 fine. So instead of having the truck 40 feet from the stairs, we had to park it across the parking lot, roughly 200 feet from the stairs. There was a car parked in the spot next to the handicap spot that, if moved, would have got us back to 40’ so we hoped the owner would show up and move the car or leave at some point.

Jess had to do a ‘walkthrough’ of his place, noting any and all existing damage for security deposit purposes. While he did this, I started bringing things in from the truck. By the time he was done, it was close to 4 o’clock. I had the idea that he should go to Verizon and get the phone and internet activated while I stay and keep hauling in boxes. Having phone and internet access would make our lives much easier, especially mine, as I had to figure out how I was getting back to Vancouver. So just after 4, Jess headed off.

It was very hot that day, and it wasn’t long before I was covered in sweat from all the toiling I was doing. I’m not a big fan of toiling, especially in the hot sun. I didn’t expect Jess to be long, but then, the way things had been going, they probably wanted a blood sample from him to prove he was who he said he was. An hour went by. I kept hauling boxes. Then, just after 5, the owner of the car in the coveted parking spot appeared. She was very nice and felt very bad for taking up such an important spot. She moved her car and wished me well. Super, now I could back the truck up, so to speak, and my toiling would be lessened. Except I couldn’t find the keys for the UHaul, apparently Jess had taken them. Not wanting to lose the spot, I placed two chairs in it to dissuade anyone from parking there. I kept hauling boxes. Another hour went by. Then, just after six, Jess showed up in a tow truck, his car nowhere to be seen.

The adventure with the car breaking down can best be described by its protagonist. He has agreed to write up the adventure and when he does, I will post it here.

So Jess’ car was in the shop and he still hadn’t made it to Verizon. It was 6:20. Verizon closed at 7:00. We decided to take the Uhaul to Verizon. Parking it anywhere near the strip mall we needed to go to would be an adventure but we had no choice; we needed phone and internet. So off we went. Luckily we found a bank that was closed very near to Verizon and left the UHaul in its vacant parking lot. We had about 10 minutes to spare, but we jogged up to Verizon, just to be safe. Well it was the wrong one. Apparently there are two kinds of Verizons and, wouldn’t you know it? We had the wrong one. The friendly staff told us that the right one was only a few blocks away and they pointed in a vague direction. The vague direction was toward an even busier strip mall and we knew there was no way we could park the UHaul there. So we ran. Jess in flip flops, me in big clunky boots, we ran two blocks, across busy streets and through parking lots. We were two crazy Canadians, out of their element, running for the right to make phone calls. We got to the correct Verizon with 2 minutes to spare.

Now you probably know what happened next and, in retrospect, we should have expected it. For some reason all of the events of the move so far hadn’t quenched the torch of optimism we carried that assumed, after Jess showed his ID, Verizon would turn on the phone and internet instantly. No sir. They would be activated “sometime tomorrow evening”.

We drove back to Jess’ place and backed the truck into our still saved by strategically placed chairs parking spot. The way things had been going, we were surprised no one had stolen or vandalized our chairs while we were gone. Then we began the last of the unpacking which included all of the things too heavy for me to take up the stairs alone. This included, of course, the large cabinet and fold-out couch which I now hate as much as a man can hate furniture.

It was now close to 9:00pm. Somehow I needed to figure out how to get back to Vancouver the next day without using a phone or internet connection. We decided to head for a pay phone and have my wonderful wife assess my options on the internet. Jess was tired of driving the Uhaul and we didn’t think we’d be able to easily park it in downtown Hillsboro, so we walked. I will spare you the details of the complexities of the trip I was trying to plan, but after about half an hour on the phone with Ang, we determined that, without a ride into Portland, I couldn’t do it. And, as you know, our ride was in the shop. There was hope that it would be ready the next morning, but it looked like I was stuck in the US for another day.

Friday

Jess went to the leasing office first thing and called the garage about his car. They said it should be ready today, no problem. Well super, worst case scenario, Jess drives me into Portland on Saturday morning and I catch the train back to my homeland. Just after 11am the phone came on. This was very exciting. Logic dictated that the internet should also be active. We hooked up Jess’ modem. The internet wasn’t active. Still, it was exciting to have a phone. Jess now had to return the Uhaul, which would us with no wheels. He threw his bike in the back and drove it to the Uhaul place that, thankfully, was no more than 3km away. When he got back, around 12:30, he called the garage again. Turns out his water pump needed replacing, which was going to up the cost but it would still be ready by the end of the day. The mechanic promised to call when the car was ready. We bummed around for the rest of the afternoon, occasionally trying to get the internet going by turning the modem off and on. Believe it or not, this method failed to do anything. We wanted to call our family and let them know that we were still alive but we also had no idea how to check voicemail, so if the mechanic left a message while we were on the phone, we’d never hear it. I did decide to take the precaution of reserving a spot on one of the trains out of Portland the next morning. Of course, they were all full. Ok, how about out of Seattle? No, all booked. However, there was a bus going from Seattle to Vancouver and there were spots left. So I bought a ticket for the 1:15 bus out of Seattle. After all, the car would be ready and Jess could drive me to Seattle. The garage closed at 5:00 and as that time drew near I started to get nervous. 4:50 came and went with no call. 4:55. 5:00, still no call. I implored Jess to call them but he didn’t want to disturb them while they put the finishing touches on his shiny new water pump. After 5:15 had gone by, Jess decided to call them. Well it turned out the mechanic had been trying to phone us since 4:00 but had somehow ended up with the wrong number and so, clearly, couldn’t get a hold of us. The news was not good. They had replaced the water pump and the car still wouldn’t go. So there we were, 5:20 on the Friday before Labour Day and we had no car. I suddenly had the idea that Jess rent a car. He quickly called Avis, determined where they were (near), how late they were open (6:00) if he had adequate documentation to rent a car (he did) and if they had a car he could rent (they did). He strapped on his helmet, jumped on his bike and headed for Avis. 30 minutes later he rolled up in a 2005 Chevy Impala. Once again, it was approaching 7:00 and we needed to get to Verizon to see about voicemail and internet. We raced there and, again, got there minutes before 7:00. It turned out they had no record of Jess ordering internet. So that’s why it wasn’t working. Jess then ordered internet and asked if it might be up and running that night. The woman laughed at him and said “well, how about 2 weeks from now?” Not as good.

We left Verizon in our fresh ride and decided we deserved a dinner out. If you’re ever in Hillsboro and have a hankering for some good Thai food, I recommend Elephant Thai. Get the chicken with peanut sauce, it’s excellent.

Saturday

Our wild and wacky adventures were pretty much over by Saturday. Our ride up the I5 was totally uneventful. When we got to Seattle, in plenty of time for my bus, we learned that it was running late and wouldn’t be leaving for another two hours. That might have been a real pain on any other trip, and it clearly was for some of my fellow passengers, but for us, it was a drop in the bucket.

Throughout this ordeal, Jess and I were motivated by a mantra we developed early on. It was 'Gettin 'er done'. Whenever we faced an obstacle we would say 'gotta get 'er done' and find a way to do it. Mid-day Thursday Jess decided to get t-shirts made up to commemorate this move. On the back would be all the things that went wrong, listed like the stops on a tour would be on a Rolling Stones shirt. And on the front:

...images of Jess and I, with the expressions we wore for most of the week. Mine, confidence, optomism and blissful ignorance of the evil in the world. His, panic, fear and knowledge that not everything bad that can happen has happened yet. Together, we got 'er done.


08 September 2005

 

Williams Lake and the journey thereto

Our journey to Williams Lake began in March or April or May or something. All those months ran together in Fox Lake. At some point the snow melted, but in that span, that and the start of our journey is all I remember. So at some point in those 3 months Ang got a call from the good people at Maranatha Christian School in Williams Lake. She had a applied for a job with them and they wanted to interview her. Wow. This was very very exciting but we had to make sure we didn't get very very excited because if the interview didn't go well we would be that much closer to another year in Fox Lake and that would make us very very very sad. Ang checked the education Canada website for job listings two or three times a day. Sometimes, If Fox Lake was being particularly Fox Lakeish, she would spend good chunks of the day staring at the job listings page hitting 'refresh' every few minutes hoping for "Dream Teaching Job" to appear. As the year went on and she continued to not get hired by any of the schools she applied to, "Dream Teaching Job" came to mean "Anywhere but Fox Lake, Please, We're Begging Here". And so when Maranatha called we thought little of what and where Williams Lake was, we just knew it wasn't Fox Lake (that they shared the word 'Lake' made me a little uneasy, but I got over it).

Fox Lake did all it could to keep it's talons deep in our souls and not let us leave but Ang fought bravely and prevailed. The interview went well we guessed, sometimes it's hard to tell and despite Ang mentioning Hitler we starting getting our hopes up. We knew it wasn't wise. We knew that it would just make it that much harder if things didn't work out. We couldn't help it, we started researching Williams Lake on the web.

"A Save on Foods!!!, Tim Hortons!, a movie theatre! and oh my.... no way! A REGULAR ROAD!!!"

We were getting pumped.

And then, a few days later, on the day of... um.. ok, in the season of spring, 2005 she got the call and the job. It was great. We jumped, we danced, we smoked a cigar. We called our families and they shared our Joy. Everyone we knew congratulated us.

The rest of the year was a breeze, it went by fast and we were itching to leave. We no longer plotted to conspire with students to burn the school down. The sky was bluer, the packs of stray dogs friendlier and the garbage that covered the landscape sparkled in the sunlight.

When we finally left, it took us some time to adjust. I couldn't shake the feeling that we'd have to Go Back. My mind wouldn't stop telling me that I had to buy lots of things because eventually I'd have to Go Back and I wouldn't be able to. Also, in Fox Lake, the teachers get used to knowing every white person they see. And so, when you first stroll around West Edmonton mall, you keep thinking you must know these people and you try to place all the faces and you go mad. Eventually, you come to accept that there are more than 40 white people in the world and that some of them are, wonderfully, strangers. After a few days we were acclimatized and able to enjoy ourselves.

We spent the summer driving all over the place. We went from Fox Lake to Sherwood Park to Camrose to Radium Hot Springs to Abbotsford to Whistler to Victoria to Kelowna to Williams Lake to Whistler to Abbotsford to Keats Island to Radium Hot Springs to Calgary to Radium Hot Springs and, finally, to Williams Lake. According to google maps we drove no less than 6549km. This number isn't exact as google maps shows no record of a town called Fox Lake; wishful thinking. On the way from Victoria to Kelowna, the driver's side window in our car exploded for no apparent reason showering Ang with glass and scaring the bejesus out of us. So we carried on, sans window, to Kelowna, Williams Lake, Whistler and finally got it fixed in Abbotsford (a shout out Kaptain Krunch auto wrecker in Abbotsford for not only having the right window for us, but for not making us retrieve said window from a car that housed a large wasp nest). Mr Wiens installed our shiny new window (for a time, the cleanest part of the car) in exchange for some cookies which, to date, comprise an outstanding debt and we hope he doesn't repossess our window when he visits.

The final trip from Radium to Williams Lake was a bit of an adventure because I had to drive a 17' UHaul moving truck. Ang in our car, myself in the beast and Mrs. Wiens in her car formed a 3 car convoy. At times Ang would ignore the fact that I was driving a huge truck full of loveseats and boxes and pass people going up hills but for the most part it was a smooth drive. It was boring of course, having no one to talk to. The most exciting part of the drive was when other people driving huge UHauls would go by. I waved at all of them and of the 6 I waved at 4 waved back. I think the other two must have been still trying to come to grips with the fact that they had no rear view mirror. It's an adjustment.

We stopped in Kamloops to stock up at Costco and buy a vacuum at Sears. I don't know how or why some things are the way they are but the vacuum we bought is an enigma on it's own level. For some reason, in this day and age of sleek looking brushed stainless steel home appliances, this is what our vacuum looks like.



One wonders what else the good people at Kenmore could do to make vacuuming more emasculating.

So again we moved into a new place with the help of Angie's mom. The first day and a half we were here I did nothing but assemble Ikea furniture. 2 kitchen carts, tv stand, bookshelf, 2 bed side tables, bathroom shelves, office chair, desk and a huge dresser. I am now very good at assembling Ikea furniture, some of the pieces didn't even have any screws or bolts or mysterious swedish hardware left over.

Williams Lake seems like a great place so far. Angie has had nothing but praise for the school. The first day she went in I went with her and was there when the principal told her about her students. He said that 9 of her 22 are keener straight A students. She asked him what sort of trouble the kids get into and he said sometimes kids get sent to his office for 'not taking homework seriously'. I thought she was going to weep tears of Joy.

I detest moving but I have to say that the move to Williams Lake was relatively pain free. With this move under my belt I offered to help my brother move from Vancouver BC to Hillsboro OR. Let's just say things didn't go perfectly. Stay tuned here for the tale of the move to the USA and the horrors therein.

24 August 2005

 

Welcome

Below you will find the four emails I wrote this past year while living in Fox Lake, AB, Canada. My wife had a job teaching at the school there. Read the last post first if you want the full effect and please excuse the formatting, I'm new to this and can't be bothered to make it all look pretty.

28 June 2005

 

Last of the Fox Lake emails

Dear everyone,

I apologize in advance for the length and scattered nature of this
email, it's just that the months since Christmas have been both long
and scattered as well. Read it in multiple sitting if you like or, if
you are lazy and want the whole thing summed up in a few sentences,
skip to the end for the PS.

The months since Christmas have gone slowly. We went through the
three seasons of Fox Lake. There's the winter season, when it's too
cold to go outside, the thawing season, when it's too muddy to go
outside and the spring/summer season when there are too many bugs to
go outside. The spring/summer season has been the worst by far. I'm
sure you've heard tales of the mosquitos of the north. Well they are
all true. Ang and I had been running outside for a few weeks before
the mosquitos came out and got serious but not since. The one time I
ran when the mosquitos were out, I lost my nerve after 15 minutes and
went back home. In that time, 3 mosquitos flew into my mouth and I
got over 10 bites on my legs. The mosquitos have been ruling the
outside for the past two months. Last week when we were walking to
another teacher's place, a one minute walk, Ang counted 15 of them on
the back of my sweatshirt. Every time we walk back to our place, a
swarm follows us inside and we spend the next 20 minutes hunting,
killing and maiming. One of the high points of my year was when I
killed two with one smack of the wall. I did a dance of celebration.

Our social circle has changed since Christmas. The new teacher posse
broke into two groups. To explain it simply, there are two kinds of
people in the world, those who break into harmonized versions of
do-wop songs in public places and those who don't. We don't. Along
with another couple, Chris and Nikki, we started hanging out with a
group of teacher's who have been around a while and limit their
singing to karaoke stages and showers. We're more about playing cards
and laughing at each other than, say, planning elaborate dinner
parties with complementing dishes coming from each attendee. We
started spending our Friday nights with Dennette, Cheryl, Angus, and
Paul. Cheryl and Dennette are both from Cape Breton, Angus is from
Newfoundland and Paul grew up in Canada but was born in Ireland. From
them we've learned what a 'bun of bread' is and what it means to be
'half in the bag'. Wacky easterners. This group found it better to
just shake our heads and laugh at the craziness of this place rather
than get angry about it. Venting to this group every week about the
goings on in the school was a big help to Ang's sanity.

The social transition took some time, so for January and part of
February I didn't have a lot of social contact. For a while, the high
social point of my day was saying "see you guys later" to a couple of
teachers who did yoga in the gym. I would go over to the school each
day at 3:00 to shoot hoops while Ang ran laps of the gym. The
treadmill was, of course, broken and there was still 2 feet of snow on
the ground so this was the only way to go for a run. Also, the
teacher's had to stay at the school until 4. Ang usually had very
little work to do during this time so we figured it was a good time to
get a workout. A couple other teachers joined us and would run laps
of the gym between 3 and 4. That didn't last long. At a staff
meeting, it was announced that "the hour after school is not a time
for teachers to be exercising". No mention was made of the teachers
who spend the hour sitting in the staff room smoking.

Since Christmas, I have been out of Fox Lake for a total of four days.
We drove out for the teacher's conference in Edmonton. We also went
out on a day trip to High Level to get groceries. We got to cross the
Peace river ice bridge four times, it wasn't quite as scary as the
smaller, water covered Wabasca ice bridge but I always feel very
relieved when we get back onto land. Especially after a guy who was
working on the big job that was bringing power lines across to Fox
Lake went through the ice in a large vehicle and died.

A number of teachers put together a pamphlet with pictures and
descriptions of Fox Lake that was handed out to teachers interested in
applying for the vacant teaching positions. I have not seen this
pamphlet, but I can assure you, it is all lies. Check that, it might
not be lies but rather excellent spin. "Enjoy our pavement free
roads!" or "Due to neglect and malnutrition, your class is guaranteed
to have zero fat kids!" or perhaps "You'll love our 3rd world fantasy
camp game that lasts the whole year!" must be the kind of things they
are saying. Aside from saving money and possibly fleeing the
authorities, there are no benefits to living in Fox Lake. Angie and I
have tried to make the best of it but like many before us and surely
many after us, we discovered that the best of Fox Lake really sucks.

I reported back in September that there was a rape here in town. A
nurse was raped at gunpoint in her house. This was in newspapers all
over Alberta because, I am told, it was a white woman. The rapist
turned himself in to the police the next day and he was taken away to
jail. But not for long. Just before Christmas, that's just over 3
months he was back in town. No one alerted the teachers he was coming
back, (and considering there are 6 female teachers living alone that
might have been wise) but the news got to most everyone via the gossip
line. But back he was, apparently under house arrest. Now I am sure
in most places house arrest would mean the person was confined to
their house. But I just don't see that happening here.

As the year rolled along, Ang and I became more aware that many of the
awful things that happen here are deliberately kept from the teachers'
ears. I can only assume this is so they don't all run for their lives
and leave the school unmanned. Furthermore, the powers that be in the
community must not want the stories to escape Fox Lake or for fear
that they will be unable to fill the vacancies left by teachers that
do run for their lives. A classic example of this is the bomb
threat/hostage taking that happened just before spring break. I have
pieced together details of this event from various sources and I'm
sure I don't have it completely right but it's close enough that
you'll get a sense of what happened. The plumber of Fox Lake, Sammy,
had his brother visiting him. His brother stayed up all night
drinking and possibly 'doing drugs'. Early in the morning, he
contacted someone in Fox Lake, possibly the tribal police, to announce
that he had a bomb and a gun and that he was going to blow up the
house. This house is very central, across the street from the
Northern Store and on the main road about 1km from the school. Now
Sammy and his children were sleeping in the house while this was going
on. The police phoned back and woke Sammy up. I imagine it would be
a bit odd to call back a crazed bomber and discover there are people
in the house who are sleeping and have no clue what's going on. At
any rate, the cops bring Sammy up to speed and he gets himself and his
family safely out of the house. Around 7:30 or so, the school's
administration start calling teachers to tell them there is no school.
Now usually when school is cancelled, and it happened a lot this
year, we are told why it is happening. The water is off, the power is
off, someone passed away, whatever. On this day though, no reason is
given. The female teachers who live alone are told "There's no school
today, everything is fine, lock your door and don't go outside".
Confused Female Teacher: "Why? what's going on?" Administrator: "Oh
nothing, everything is fine here, situation normal. Just don't go
outside or open your door for anyone. Bye now!" Great. Because I'd
been downloading music overnight, we didn't get the phone call (yes
yes, I know, everyone who's tried to call us ever is shaking their
fist in anger right now, I accept the blame for always tying up the
phone line). So Ang gets ready to go to school but when she opens the
door to leave, some other teachers are there packing up their car.
They bring us up to speed on the situation, though they go a bit
overboard "He's got a bomb and an arsenal of assault weapons and a
bazooka! He has hostages and probably rips the tags off mattresses!"
The story got out because it was the day before spring break and
teachers figured if there was no school, they could head out. I guess
the administration had to warn them not to drive past the house or gas
up at the store. We turn on the news to see if word of Fox Lake's
bomb threat/armed standoff has made it to the outside world. It
hadn't. Ang called the school to speak to an administrator to get the
official word. He was very casual about it, downplaying the
seriousness of it all. He assured us there were no hostages but the
guy claimed to have a gun and bomb. I go on the web and still there's
no mention of it anywhere. At this point I decided to alert the
media; partly because it seemed like a newsworthy event and partly
because I've always wanted to alert the media. Ang and I decided to
only do it if it can be done anonymously because this is the kind of
thing teachers get fired for round these parts. So I called the CBC
news desk in Edmonton. No answer. Ok, well, it was before 9am
still, maybe they only take calls after 9. I called again at 9:15.
Still no answer. Great work CBC. Way to be on the ball there.
Finally I called the Edmonton Journal's news desk. They answered the
phone and took down the details of what was going on. I didn't have
the number for the cops here, but I gave them the school's number.
After that not much happened, sometime in the late afternoon the guy
surrendered or was shot and arrested, reports vary. Two planeloads of
cops of various specialties were flown in, a bomb squad and a swat
team I'm told. Sources say he didn't have a gun at all and his bomb
was just a gas can with a rag. Other sources say he was threatening
the police outside that he had bombs planted all over town. That's a
scary thought because we live about 100 yards from 3 propane tanks
that are longer than our trailer. Other sources still say that he was
making a bomb out of things in the house and that he dismantled
Sammy's Xbox for parts.

Because it was spring break most of the teachers were gone to nicer
places. The handful of us that remained gathered for a potluck
dinner. No one mentioned the bomb threat that had happened just two
days before for 3 hours, and then only in a hesitant "don't hit me!"
kind of way. One of the administrators was the host and explained
their reluctance to warn people when they called with this
justification: "we didn't want people going down there and getting in
the cops way, that's the last thing they need is people rubbernecking
while they are trying to take care of things" Uh huh, that sounds
like what all the teachers would have done if you said a guy with a
bomb and guns was holed up in his place. I know my first thoughts
were "A bomb!? cool! let's run down there and interfere with the
police!" She went on to say that "someone leaked the story to the
Edmonton Journal, can you believe that? Who would do that?" Because
I wanted to preserve Angie's job here I just frowned and shook my head
thoughtfully along with the rest of the room. To this date we haven't
told anyone I called the paper but now that Ang has a job elsewhere
and the year is almost over I figure it can't do much harm. The story
showed up deep in the pages of The Edmonton Journal and even made The
National the next night. For a first time alerting the media I think
it went pretty well, no thanks to the CBC.

That was the one and only bomb threat of the year, but it was not the
only time the school was closed. Oh no. There should have been
roughly 195 school days this year. JBS School was in session for 153.
Most of the cancelled school days were due to deaths in the
community. The second most common reason was the water being off. I
would guess the school was closed for 15 days because of the water
being off for part of the day or for a number of days in a row.
Naturally, if the water had to be turned off to fix something, it was
done on the weekends. The longest stretch with no running water was
three and a half days. I wouldn't have minded these stretches as much
had we been given some warning. One time is was off for 8 hours and
they warned us it was coming but that was the only time a heads up was
given. If you know it's coming, you fill up your bathtub and all your
empty milk jugs so you can flush the toilet and do dishes while the
shutoff goes on. If you don't have a chance to stock up, it gets
pretty rough after a couple days. Again, the reasons are rarely
relayed to the teaching staff but the stories usually get around. On
one occasion, a woman, (one of the Chief's daughters) took out the
fire hydrant in the school yard with her car. She was, of course,
drunk and she faced, of course, no consequences. This knocked off the
water for the teacherages for almost 2 days. Just a week after, the
water went off for no apparent reason. After causing two days of
school to be cancelled, a water expert guy was brought in from the
outside to check things out. When he got to the water plant, at noon
on a Friday, he found the guy in charge of the water and the foreman
in charge of all public works drunk and still drinking. In fixing the
water system on this occasion they had to dig up pipes near some
teachers' trailers. Whoever was operating the digger knocked out the
phone lines so 2/3 of the teachers had no water or phone for the next
day. Most of the time, the places they were working on the water
system were visible from our trailer. The work crew usually showed up
at the crack of 11:30am and called it a day at 4pm. It's hard to keep
one's rage suppressed when these kinds of things cause you to be
without water for extended periods. I got a portion of revenge by
making all my #2 bathroom stops at the school. None of which can
boast the necessary trifecta of a working door, an attached seat and a
supply of toilet paper. It would have been a more satisfying revenge
if anyone ever cleaned the bathrooms.

Jean Baptiste Sewepagaham school constantly finds new ways to baffle
me. Teachers that go there everyday and try to teach these kids are
heroes, there's no two ways about it. Every student is ESL. Many
students come to school exhausted and sleep for hours at their desks.
The administration is not supportive of the teachers. There are no
consequences handed out by the office for anything it seems. Imagine,
if you will, what would happen if the following events transpired when
you were in Jr. High. Two big, aggressive students forcibly take away
a smaller, passive student's sweatshirt. They rip it up, drag it
through mud puddles and jump on it. They then give it back to the
passive student and laugh at him. Other students witness this and
report the incident to a teacher who reports it to the office. In my
school, that would almost certainly have been a suspension for both of
the bullies, their parents would be contacted, they would have to pay
for a new sweatshirt and there might be some meetings with the
principal before they are allowed back in the school. But that's not
how things are done here in Fox Lake. This is the Vice Principal's
explanation to Angie of the consequences handed out. "The two boys
were just goofing around, they promised they wouldn't do it again.
They were very honest about what happened so I don't think we need to
involve anyone's parents. We agreed they would replace the damaged
sweatshirt by buying a new one or giving one of their own." The
bullied kid now has no sweatshirt AND he's instructed by the Vice
Principal not to tell his parents what happened. This is a regular
occurrence. A student will misbehave to the point that they must go
to the office. The Vice Principal says "oh that's odd, I know this
student, I had dinner with her parents a while ago and she was very
well behaved then" and nothing is done. Brilliant. The Principal, the
infamous Bill who I introduced a couple emails back, does nothing.
Well, not quite nothing, but almost nothing. He spent 3 days in the
fall colouring in a map of the town. He has a master's degree from
UBC, is the principal of a school and he spends 3 days colouring.
More recently, he spent almost 3 hours taping up decorations in the
gym. My understanding was that principals were busy people,
especially toward the end of the year. Well even if that is the case
Bill doesn't let it affect him. Some people have sincerely questioned
his mental health. To give you a comparison, he's a lot like Milton
from Office Space but not as driven or organized. One day he was seen
walking the halls, alone, slowly flapping his arms like a chicken.

There are, of course, some teachers who might be better off in another
line of work as well. The legend of the grade 8B homeroom teacher
and Jr. High math teacher, who we will call Clem, will live in the nightmares
of other residents of Fox Lake for a long time. When he was hired,
Principal Bill was impressed by all his experience; 10 different
schools in the past 10 years. This didn't set off any warning signs
that maybe he couldn't last longer than that at a school. Hindsight
is always 20/20 I guess. There are many good Clem stories...

Paul, the Jr. High Social Studies teacher was teaching a class when
Clem knocked on his door. This was odd because Clem had a class at
that time too. He asks Paul, "Do you know how to divide fractions?"
Clearly Clem was supposed to be teaching the students how to do it
but couldn't as he had no idea how to himself. I learned how to
divide fractions in Grade 6. And even if Clem had forgotten how, he
could have made a lesson plan and rediscovered the wonders of flipping
the divisor fraction and multiplying.

Two teachers, Paul and Allen had Clem ask them how to get a
percentage out of a raw score. For example, he had test scores like
35/42 and 18/42 and he had no idea how to turn these scores into a
percentage. And keep in mind he's been teaching math for 30 years and
has a program on his computer that should do this calculation for him.
Clem was not invited to renew his contract at JBS school. The way
the school goes about renewing contracts is a story in itself that I
will get to shortly. However, Clem was not happy about not being
invited to renew his contract. The weekend after he found out, he was
at the nursing station and someone asked him if he was coming back or
not. This is a very common question for teachers to be asked around
that time of year. Clem went off, yelling and swearing about how
stupid the kids were and how stupid the administration was and what a
horrible place this was and so on. Now it's one thing to email your
relatives and friends about these things, but it's quite another to
yell them out in the community, punctuated with curses while the chief
happens to be nearby. Clem was fired the next day and given one week
to leave Fox Lake.

The TAs in the school are a crack squad of savvy, motivated personnel.
Though there are a few exceptions, the majority of the
para-professional staff does nothing. The librarian has been with the
school for 35 years but has yet to get the novels or children's books
into alphabetical order. Nor are the reference books arranged as
Melvil Dewey would want them to be. Nor has she found the time in her
35 years of devoted service (for which she was given a lamp at a
ceremony this year) to put the novels, children's books, and reference
books onto their own shelves, preferring to leave them in a chaotic
mash. She is very good at drinking coffee. I know my Mom would have
cringed, as I did, at the sign she posted on the library door "Please
take off shoe's". A librarian that misuses apostrophes!!?? There
should be a law. Anyway, the teachers that have TAs that do nothing
eventually learn to accept it. They don't count on their TA being in
their class or doing anything they are asked to do. Some of the TAs
have been hanging out in the staff room for so long that no one can
even remember who's class they are avoiding working in. The other
day, Dennette, one of the heroes of the school, asked one of these
staff room fixtures to watch her class for 20 minutes while she took a
quick break to eat some lunch. (The entire elementary staff was
without breaks or 'preps' for the last week for a number of
complicated but truly JBS school reasons) When she came back, 15
minutes later, he was back in the staff room. "The kids wouldn't
listen to me so I left". One of the TAs is actually worse than the
ones that do nothing. He disrupts classes and will start joking and
wrestling with the kids. Even during silent reading time. This guy
started off the year in Nikki Galenza's class. He often told her that
she didn't know how to teach. He would even take it upon himself to
advise the administration on how to deal with the kids in her class.
Cleary, he wasn't working out as a TA. So they made him the full time
PE teacher. Brilliant. He usually showed up at school after 9:30
(school starts at 9:00 and teachers are supposed to be there no later
than 8:30). He would also leave randomly throughout the day. His
philosophy for Physical Education was "open up the equipment room at
the start of the day and maybe close it at the end of the day". I am
told he was very skilled at unlocking the equipment room door and
keeping it propped open with some piece of equipment. Amazingly, he
has all of these skills even though he didn't finish high school.
During this year, this guy, let's call him Kevin, got engaged.
Because of his impending wedding, he missed many days of school. Of
course, he never warned the school and sometimes the equipment room
door didn't get opened at all. Now from time to time, bingos are held
at the school. They are always a part of some kind of fundraising
effort. Well Kevin had the following brainstorm. Weddings cost
money. Bingos bring in money. Bingos happen in the gym. I'm the gym
teacher, therefore I have keys to the gym. Hence, I can hold a bingo
to raise money for my wedding. And he did exactly that. Less than a
week after this illegal money making scheme, he rolled into town in a
brand new truck. Just the kind of guy I'd want educating my children.

Ok, so the school has incompetent administrators, the odd inept
teacher, and do-nothing TAs. How about ridiculous wastes of money?
At Jean Baptiste Sewepagaham School, they've got that too. This is exactly what you think it
is, an unassembled playground. It's been sitting in this spot, which
is not on school grounds, but rather behind the public works building,
for over a year. No one seems to know why it wasn't put together when
it arrived. It cost Canadian taxpayers no less than $60,000. People
who were here last year tell me that a good percentage of the pieces
are gone. A work party was planned for May to finally set it up on
school grounds but someone must have realized that too many pieces
were missing so the work party didn't happen. It will probably be
where it is for a very long time. Another instance of foolish
spending is one all you computer science folks will appreciate. Last
year, the school bought 50 new computers. They are Celeron 2.4Ghz
machines running Windows XP. They only have 128 megs of RAM. For all
of you who aren't filled with rage by this, imagine buying a car and
trying to save money by only getting a 4hp engine. All the teachers
complain about their computers being slow but they are brand new and
probably cost over $1000 each.

The tragic and depressing stories about the students and their
families seem to be endless here in Fox Lake. One of Ang's students,
a 15 year old girl in grade 7, is part of a particularly troubling
story. She is in foster care for reasons that will soon be very
clear. One day, her real mother picked her up from her foster home
and took her out partying. She ended up in hospital with severe
alcohol poisoning. This was not her first time in the hospital for
this reason. The doctor in emergency warned her that if she was to
drink that excessively again she could die. The day after she was
released from hospital, her sister picked her up and took her out
drinking. She had a stroke. All Ang has been told is that she 'won't
be back to school this year' so we don't know what became of her.

I could easily go on and on with pages of depressing tales but I
really try not to think about them. It's so hard to see so many
children who will never get an education because of the setting they
are being brought up in. So many alcoholic and abusive and neglectful
parents. Parents that do not see the point in attending school and
need to be bribed into registering their kids each September. I quote
the following directly from a letter sent home to all parents by the
Vice Principal. "Over the years, we have not done enough to recognize
the parents/guardians who have made a significant contribution towards
JBS and students. In an effort to acknowledge these
parents/guardians, to increase students' attendance and to provide
students with a more positive formal educational experience, we are
proposing to have a mega-bingo with a grand prize of an All Terrain
Vehicle (Quad). To be eligible to win the Quad, each parent/guardian
will receive one bingo card for each one of their children that is
listed on JBS School Nominal Roll. As everyone is aware and all
educational research indicates, students regular attendance at school
will greatly contribute and enhance their academic success." Three
quarters of this letter is devoted to encouraging parents to register
their children and explaining how much attendance is required for the
school to get money for the students. At awards day, medals were
given to any students who had 80% or better attendance. One of the
teachers made a good point when he said that anywhere else in Canada,
if a kid only has 80% attendance in elementary school, Child and
Family Services is going to come knocking on their door and have some
questions for their parents. Angie estimates her grade 7 class had
about 55% attendance for the year. Factoring in the many days the
school was closed, this means that the average grade 7 student was at
school for roughly 80 days, which is 110 less than they should have
been.

In listening to various teachers' stories of their classroom's
adventures and, more recently, in perusing the school's yearbook, I
have learned that some of the students have hilarious names. I had
planned to put in a Top Ten list of funny male and female names in
this email. Then I started to notice that many of the unusual names,
when considered with the age of the child, could be explained. For
example, there are two students named Kirby. One is in grade 9 and
one in grade 10. I have only heard of one other Kirby in my life and
that is former Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett. These kids are both
16 or 17. That means they were born at the peak of Kirby Puckett's
career, when he was winning gold gloves, silver slugger awards,
batting titles and twice came 3rd in AL MVP voting. Coincidence?
Another child, who will be starting kindergarten next year, has the
unlikely name of Jinx. Funny enough name for a boy, but where have
you heard that name recently? That's right, the cat from Meet the
Parents and Meet the Fockers was named Jinx. Meet the Parents was
released in 2000 which is the year Fox Lake's Jinx was born.
Coincidence? In grade 3 there is a student named Evander. He is 9.
That means he was born at the peak of Evander "The Real Deal"
Holyfield's career. 1996 being the year that he captured the
heavyweight title for the third time. Coincidence? Lastly Denver,
also in Grade 3, is also 9. Denver was born right at the height of
the Denver Broncos' successes. (They won Superbowls in '96 and '97)
Coincidence? I don't think any of those are. There are some names
that I hoped would match up with their pop culture connections but the
timing was off. Duran (Denver's brother), for example, was born well
after British pop band Duran Duran had faded from the spotlight. And
Forrest was born two years after Forrest Gump was released. It is
possible he was named just after the movie won all those academy
awards but it seems like a stretch. Some families have patterns of
names that crack me up, one set of brothers:
Steveroy
Billyroy
Jayroy
Delroy
Killroy
Jason Arnott
No, I didn't make that last one up. I guess the parents ran out of
names that go well with 'roy'. There is also a set of sisters:
Calinda
Melinda
Delinda
Belinda
One of my faves is the pair of sisters Dawn and LaDawn. Not to
mention the twin brother and sister duo Cordell and Coral. And then
some names are just funny all by themselves. The aforementioned Jinx
has an older brother named Geronimo. And, keeping in mind the school
is 100% Native and 0% Hispanic, there are 2 boys named Fernandez and 1
named Rico. The other male names that I get a kick out of are: Alexis
(that's right, it's a boy), Wyatt, Dathan, Delmer (brother of Duran
and Denver), John Wayne, Ramsey, Fernando ("there was something in the
air that night…"), Dolphis, Adolphis, Absolum and Savannah (that's
right, it's a boy). As for the females there are Belladonna, Yoko,
Elvira, Dallery, Dollery, Dulcey, Viola Iola, Darcella, and Rodrica.
Lastly, there was a couple here in Fox Lake, now separated, comprised
of Elvis and Priscilla.

A few other random Fox Lake stories…

As soon as the snow was gone, there were frequently small fires in the
woods around town. The local firemen get paid by the number of fires
they respond to. So, of course, they start fires in the woods so they
can go put them out and get paid.

A few years back, kids kept playing around with the fire extinguishers
at the school. They would shoot them at each other, or on the walls;
it's not like we all haven't wanted to try that out at one point or
another. The school's solution? Put every fire extinguisher in a
locked storage room where, over time, other much less life saving
items have been piled on top of them. There are two people in the
school that have a key to this room. The fire inspector came this
year and spent the day checking the school out. Nothing was done.
The fire extinguishers remain stored safely away.

One of the guys who works in the school shot two whooping cranes last
year. After some help from my brother we learned that the penalty for
killing a whooping crane is "up to $100,000 or two years in prison."

The post office here is a branch of Canada Post. Sending large
packages out of here costs more than it would other places because all
mail has to be flown out. However, the way prices are set at the post
office are very suspect. For example, Dennette had a very small
package to send out. It was about the size of a stack of 7 CDs. All
it had in it was a sleeper outfit for a baby and was going no farther
than Canada. The postal employee said it would cost $88. Dennette
complained and they dropped it to $35. She again said that was too
much so they dropped to $12. No one I asked has ever seen them set a
price with the assistance of a scale.

The last weeks here have been very exciting because we are getting
closer and closer to leaving. We've been counting down the days for
almost 3 months. The day Ang got the job in Williams Lake ranks as
the happiest day of our marriage so far and amoung the best days of my
life. The idea of another year here was a depressing thought that
hung over us like an evil swarm of mosquitos. We were all given a
sheet with pictures of the new teachers on them and my heart goes out
to them. They do not know what they are getting in to. Most everyone
on the outside has told us that a year in Fox Lake will be a great
experience. I guess I might feel that way 10 years from now when I've
suppressed memories of some of the bad times and intense boredom I had
here. I will miss living so close to people and not having to drive
or deal with crowds ever. I will miss the northern lights. I will
miss some of the people a lot.

A huge thanks to everyone on the outside who helped us through this
tough year. Some people sent us cookies or fudge or candy. Others
sent computer parts and games. Our families were especially great and
are a big part of the light at the end of the tunnel that is now
growing to a bright sunrise.

All the best


PS Even though you don't need to hear this, I have to make sure.
Don't ever come to Fox Lake. Not to visit, not to work, not for any
reason. Trust me.

16 December 2004

 

Even more Fox Lake

Fox Lake from the air. Our place is the
middle of the three tiny white marks just above the school.

Even though the last email went out after Halloween, I didn't mention
how Halloween goes down in Fox Lake. Well I'll tell you, it's a big
deal. Candy is a big thing here believe it or not as is free stuff.
Same as everywhere I guess. However, in Fox Lake, it's not just for
the kids. Some of our posse congregated at one of our members' place
with all our candy. Before Ang and I left our place, we had one knock
on the door. It was a parent with two dressed up children. They
didn't say a word, they just held out their bags. Ang played it up
with the whole "wow, look at you two! what great costumes!" and they
continued to be silent as she gave them some candy. The parent then
held out a bag in silence. This confused Ang for a second but then
realized that the parent was after candy as well. They left without
saying a word. This silent candy collection by children (young and
old) and parents (young and old) continued. Anne, who, along with
Jayne, hosted the evening, would ask every child if they could say
'trick or treat' before she gave them candy. I'd estimate she had a
20% success rate. More often the candy seeker would look at her like
she'd asked them to sing Danny Boy. The evening went on without any
real excitement. Conservative estimates placed out total number of
trick or treaters between 4 and 5 hundred. The only question that
remains is should a grade 5 student be dressing up as a pimp?

On the psuedo long weekend created by Rememberance Day, we made an
attempt at a trip to High Level. Our friends Chris and Nikki were
going in their truck and offered us two of the seats. We knew for
certain that the ice bridge that crosses the Peace River was not in
yet, however, two lesser ice bridges would allow us to make the trip
via a longer route. We needed to cross the Little Red River and the
Wabasca River. The Little Red was not a concern because it is very
shallow and many vehicles can cross it when it's not frozen. The
Wabasca is another story, some sources put it at 8 feet deep in parts.
The morning we were to leave, many people told us many different
things about the status of these ice bridges. From "oh they're fine,
you'll be fine," to "I wouldn't try the Wabasca without a raft". Two
members of our posse were not going and they were the real
fearmongers. Clearly not wanting to spend a lonely night in Fox Lake
without the fellowship of the posse they reported only the scariest
predictions of our fate. "There's a ten foot crack in the bridge,
probably caused by the fault line that runs underneath it, and on the
far side there's a 6 foot wall of ice that is guarded by wolves." We
were desperate to get out, so we decided to drive as far as we could,
and if it looked bad, we could always turn around. So we drove the 45
minutes to the Little Red River ice bridge. It looked a little
something like this.

To our very untrained eyes, it looked ok, but to play it safe, Ang,
Nikki, myself and our other traveling companion Paul walked across so
the truck would be as light as possible. No problem, no catastrophes,
no scary cracking sounds, we made it across and gained confidence. We
still weren't sure what to expect at the Wabasca and had doubt until 4
trucks loaded down with supplies passed us going the other way. The
lead truck stopped and talked to us and the diver said the Wabasca was
"fine, you'll be fine" and this claim was supported by the irrefutable
evidence that was his existence. After about an hour of driving from
the Little Red we arrived at the Wabasca and it looked like this.

Yes, that is water you see. We walked down to take a closer look, there
was about 2 inches of water on top of solid ice. The water was just
starting to freeze over so when you walked on it you'd break through
to the solid ice below. A scary feeling. My instinct told me it was
a bad idea, but having seen the trucks that had made it, we knew we'd
be fine. We went for it, this time with all of us in the truck.
Still, we went with the windows down and no seat belts on.... just in
case the trucks we saw had weakened the ice. Great. If you ever
have to drive across a water covered ice bridge, I suggest you blast
ACDC as we did. I remain convinced that had ACDC known about ice
bridges, they would find time to salute those about to cross them and
not just those about to rock. Let me tell you this, driving across an
ice bridge over enough water to cover your truck and all the way
hearing ice breaking and water splashing is a surreal experience. It
was kind of like slow motion. As we approached the far side, we
realized that the bank leading back up to the road was not exactly a
gentle slope. It looked like a sheer 2 foot wall before the gradual
incline began. "Hmm... we'll have to take this slow and decide a good
course of action". However, I wasn't driving. Chris, our worthy
pilot, gunned it. We launched into the air, landed, bounced and
cheered very loudly. The rest of the journey was smooth and happy
because we knew we were past all obstacles.

In High Level, some well funded entrepreneur built four very large
(for High Level) motels that seem very out of place. The Flamingo,
The Stardust, The Frontier and The Sahara all make up "The Vegas of
The North" or so the business card would have you believe. They all
have oversized, overly lit signs but don't offer any gambling other
than Video Lottery Terminals in the bars. We stayed at the Stardust
on the advice of Paul who, as a second year teacher, knows a lot more
about High Level than we do. We also knew to avoid the "Family Inn".
Chris and Nikki had stayed there once after missing the barge because
it was only $39.99 per night. Well it was $39.99 for a reason. There
was no bedding on the bed for one thing, but apparently the general
grunge of the place (that inspired them to wear sandals in the shower)
would have dissuaded anyone from using bedding if it was there. After
adjusting to civilization with dinner at Boston Pizza, we checked in
to our small slice of Vegas and went to The Club.

The Club offered us a place to play pool, well lit drinks,
and a bearded scary old man who was the only one dancing for the first ninety
minutes we were there (I took a picture of him but it didn't turn
out). Things picked up around 11 and The Club seemed like the place
to be in High Level. Our posse was starting to fade since it had been
a long day so we left, I was happy to escape the country music
barrage.

The next day was dedicated to shopping. Ang and I bought three
hundred dollars worth of groceries and a satellite dish. It was a
boring day, highlighted with dinner at A&W. We started back for Fox
Lake just as the sun was going down. We had talked to some people in
High Level who had made the trip from Fox Lake that day and they told
us both the bridges were fine. We arrived at the Wabasca and there
was a largish hole at the start of the ice on our side, probably
caused by someone's dealings with the 2 foot wall. We wouldn't have
known there was a hole there but some thoughtful person had stuck a
large branch in it. Once again, if we didn't know people had crossed
it that day, we wouldn't have tried it. But we did, and being more
used to the splashing water sound, crossed with less stress overall.

After we'd crossed the Wabasca on the way out of Fox Lake, Paul, the
second year wise man, told us that it's always an adventure coming to
and going from Fox Lake. Well we hadn't had too much of an adventure,
not on par with some of Paul's tales anyway. That was until we
encountered the broken down Taurus sedan on the road between the
Wabasca and the Little Red. We came around a corner to see said sedan
and a truck parked on the road. There were six or seven people
milling about and two of them were on their knees peering under the
car. Chris, who in addition to being the town's electrician, is known
to all as 'guy who fixes stuff' went out with a flashlight to take a
look. It seems six of the residents of Fox Lake had decided to make a
trip into High Level. Their first mistake was their choice of
vehicle. The Taurus, heck, any 2 wheel drive family vehicle is not a
good choice for the roads around Fox Lake. There are huge ruts and
it's 100% snow and ice. 4WD is the only way to go. Their second
mistake, one that might have contributed to the first one, was that
they were all drunk of their asses. Well, that's not totally true. I
can attest that two of them were literally drunk onto their asses.
Well it seems their fuel line had snagged on something and ripped in
half. As a line of cars formed behind us, Chris offered his jack and
flashlight to help the stranded six. He didn't hang around to help
employ them because it didn't occur to anyone but us that smoking
around a car with a broken fuel line might be a bad idea. Eventually,
someone found the break and rigged up a patch with some heater hose.
The Taurus was still leaking gas but it was good enough to get them
back to Fox Lake. All in all, it only took about a half hour and
nothing exciting took place. But if you're ever literally in the
middle of nowhere, surrounded by drunk people who are all speaking a
language other than your own and occasionally gesturing at you and
your heart rate doesn't go up a bit, you've got stronger nerves than
I.

Jean Baptiste Sewepagaham School. What a place. It is the teacher's
window to the community. I'm confident crazier things happen in the
community than at the school but I'll never hear about all of them.
The ones I do hear I often wish I hadn't. Paul will occasionally tell
one of these stories but one gets the impression he has many more but
doesn't like telling them or doesn't want us to leave this place in
fear. For example, last year a baby died of malnutrition. The
parents believed that Coffee Mate, because it was a substitute for
milk in coffee, would work as a substitute for formula in humans.
They were wrong and a child is dead. I saw what must be evidence of
this at the nursing station. They had large homemade posters
proclaiming, "Come in for your 6 month pre-natal exam and receive a
free diaper bag" and "Attend pre-natal counseling and receive your
voucher for free meat and milk. You will also be entered in the draw
for a $100 gift certificate for the Northern Store." I wish I'd taken
pictures of these but I didn't think to take my camera with me. The
school serves a hot lunch to all students and breakfast to all
students up to grade six. I'm told these meals are the reason many
students come to school. Sounds great right? A government funded and
controlled school serves meals to kids who might otherwise go without,
certainly there will be strict standards of what is served. Oh no,
you're wrong, this is Fox Lake. For eight consecutive school days all
students in the grade 2 and 3 classes (and probably others, but I only
heard tales from teachers in the posse) had pudding cups for
breakfast. This sparked a debate on whether pudding cups are better
than no breakfast at all. Is this really a debate that should have to
happen? Can't they scrounge up some granola bars or something? This
is the kind of thing that I have come to categorize as 'Fox Lake
Style' which can be defined as 'something totally ridiculous and/or
horrible happening unnecessarily'.

As you may have guessed, I was not hired at the school. I was not
interviewed nor was I contacted to be told that I wasn't going to be
interviewed. This was a surprise to Ang and I for a number of
reasons. For one thing, I have 2 years experience as a TA and have
participated in a number of very relevant workshops. Also, I have
graduated from high school. For another thing, the principal, Bill,
told Angie shortly after hiring her that my getting a job as a TA
'wouldn't be a problem'. Indeed. Those are the facts, I will now
relate the conjecture and hearsay that went along with this situation.
The school posted 5 TA jobs and had many applicants. Apparently, 40
people were not interviewed. 39 of them were known alcoholics and 1
was a white guy. Another brilliant human resources move by Bill
involved a couple of special ed TAs. In September, they were
attending the local 'college' to earn their high school diplomas.
Bill contacted them and told them to stop going to school and that
they could both have jobs for the year. Well wouldn't you know it, 2
of the 5 TA jobs posted were theirs and they were not re-hired
because, say it with me now, they didn't have their high school
diplomas. Fox Lake Style.

Two things about Fox Lake that bother me immensely are the clocks and
the water. No clocks that run on alternating current electricity are
correct. That means the microwave, oven and any plug in clock radios
are wrong. And they aren't even consistently wrong. Sometimes they
will be way ahead, other times, way behind. It's a constant annoyance
and has something to do with the generator here not being tuned
properly. It's ridiculous. However, the water situation is super
ridiculous. Back in September, something went wrong with the water
treatment system and we had to start boiling our water before we could
drink it. No problem, the Band ordered new parts. However, the Band
still hasn't paid for the last time they ordered parts which was years
ago. So no new parts. 3 months have gone by and we're still boiling
our water.

After the Remembrance Day long weekend, we had an odd string of full
weeks of school. I plan to make an accurate count of how many days of
school were scheduled and how many actually happened. The disparity
will be great. Anyway, a few Mondays back I predicted the end of this
strange run. Sure enough the school was closed that Friday and the
following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Another death under
mysterious circumstances was the cause. A female elder was found
frozen to death outside. But it wasn't as simple as that. Word on
the street was she was covered with bruises as well. I never found
out, and I don't want to, what the cause of death was but the autopsy
kept the school closed two extra days. The teachers have hit the
point where they aren't pretending as much to care about the death of
this person they never knew or met. It can mean paid days off which
is a pretty sweet deal, so quelling the excitement when you hear of a
death in the community gets harder and harder.

I must say that through all the hardships of Fox Lake my family has
been very supportive. We had a spell in the last few weeks where it
got no warmer than -18 and once as cold as -43. Going outside was not
fun. My dad sent this email…

"How is your weather? We got a nasty surprise yesterday. We walked along the
waterfront in Sidney- the sun was really bright. I did not have my
sunglasses so had to squint all the way. Also, I had a light jacket on and
had to carry it as I was too hot. Hope you have not had to put up with such
problems."

So that was nice. Jess has been every bit as supportive. My favorite
restaurant in Vancouver is Memphis Blues. It is a BBQ house that will
serve you excellent meat in massive quantities at a reasonable price.
They sell shirts that say VEGETARIANS with the forbidding bisected red
circle stamped over it. They have salads on the menu, but they are
all meat based. My brother knows I love and miss this place and sent
me the following emails…

"Try hard to take into account all the relevant information, and use your power
of inference and logical reasoning to try to predict which of the following
people will be eating Memphis Blues tonight:
[ ] Tom
[ ] Jesse"

and then…

"hey, i got a whole ass-load of leftover memphis feast in my fridge. you can
come over and eat as much as you'd like! oh, yeah... sorry."

I will close with some interesting words from my Albertan brother.

"Fox Lake is an anagram for 'Axe Folk' or 'Ox Flake'"
- Morgan Soley

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