Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Keep your 'Eco' in check - How to Green Your Backyard

Mothers can give themselves a big burping pat on the back for changing the laws in several municipalities around B.C. which quash the use of chemical pesticides. However, despite Ontario and Quebec passing province-wide pesticide bans, several areas in B.C. still allow its use and crawling babes getting their first dose of grass-stains are at the highest risk to certain cancers. So protect your precious wee garden gnome by employing the following tips, ensuring the only footprint you are leaving is a muddy one.

Nutri Lawn practices integrated pest management as an alternative to using chemicals. While it might be tempting to eliminate all critters to keep your crawler safe, some pests are necessary for a balanced ecosystem. To get rid of grubs they use natural parasite nematodes.

Instead of fertilizer, sprinkling new grass seed down every spring thickens the lawn and prevents weeds from rearing their ugly heads. Organic corn gluten fertilizer only costs 10 per cent more than traditional fertilizers. Aerating and spiking lawns early in the season encourages deep roots making for healthier growth.

Also, if you’re starting a lawn or backyard garden in a new home, grasses and plants native to the area of B.C. are more resilient and pest-resistant. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, sometimes planting just grass is not the best material depending on the climate. Visit David Digs My Garden.

Available at Lee Valley, a push-mower is a safer, easier on your baby’s ears, helps you burn off the last of the baby fat and is better for the environment than gas-powered mowers.

Take the easy route: leaving the grass clippings on the lawn actually acts as fertilizer as it releases natural nitrogen. Clover is also a good nitrogen source. Cut less: longer grass also helps keep the soil moist and weeds from getting light and shorter grasses require more water.

If your green thumb still isn’t working, take a soil sample into a nursery to see what it needs. Other best-kept secrets are using fish emulsion and earthworm casings. Beer gets rid of garden slugs…just be sure your little one sticks to the right bottle.

Many urban municipal governments have guidelines available for greening your backyard. The City of Vancouver, for example, sells subsidized rain barrels for water collection – better for plants than chlorinated water – for $75 as well as backyard composters for $25. If compost turns your stomach, make mulch of last years’ leaves. It reduces the need for water, is nutrient-rich and controls the temperature.

Those who would like to become more active in the effort to change pesticide use legislation in B.C. can visit Toxic Free Canada.


Enter the web with an open mind. Let yourself search without attachment or need. Become one with the linked in journey.

Type the first word that enters your mind into a search engine. Hit “I’m feeling lucky.” Notice whether you feel abundantly fortunate.

Take in the glow emanating from the screen. Experience your fingers on the mouse pad. When you arrive at a site, take three breaths. Breathe out as you leave.

See the contents on each page like the unearthing of a time capsule from 20 years ago. Do not set the SPAM filter on your thoughts and feelings. Let them come and go like popup ads in the margins of your being. Send your mind to the trash. Free up spiritual RAM.

Google Earth your elementary school. Locate the sandbox. Remember sand.

GPS your waste collection depot. Walk your garbage there.

Outline your cell phone on pieces of paper. Write wishes on them and make a mobile.

Write “Wall” on a wall in your home. Have everyone who visits you in person write messages on one half. On the other, transcribe Facebook messages.

Take pictures of your meal. Post the photos on Flickr with a description of how you feel as you eat it. Fast for three days. Play a slideshow of your virtual meal while you observe hunger.

Swap email accounts with someone. Respond to their emails with: Sent by cosmic intervention. For every impersonal email, deliver a singing telegram.

Reset your password to “world peace”.

Go to a coffee shop filled with people working on laptops. Open your laptop but don’t look at it. Deeply gaze at those who look at you. Don’t look away. Upload how you feel about each other. Consider that mind-reading technology is being perfected as you exchange profiles in real time.

Humbly close your computer. Place your forehead on its warm surface. Say a prayer for technological innovation that offers greater insight into humanity.

Let out an audible sigh. Feel your corporeal Self as interconnected as cyberspace. Reprogram the software of your body to the present moment. Breathe.

Plymouth Elementary School gets ready to shut doors

The provincial government's budgetary grants released March 15 indicates the North Vancouver School District will close Plymouth Elementary School in what has been a mulitple choice question between four area schools for several years.

The ministry of education reinstated 50 per cent of the annual facilities grant – $1.5-million for next year and the remaining 50 the following year - that it previously cancelled.

But the money is not enough to make up the $9 million needed for upcoming projects, according to Irene Young, secretary-treasurer for the district which means impending school closures are on the horizon.

The main reason Plymouth is slated for closure is that the cost per student at Plymouth is $1,000 more than at other schools in the district, she said.

“Plymouth's costs are on the high side because it is small and underutilized,” said Young.

But John Clark, a representative of the working committee appointed by the parent advisory committee to examine school closure options, said despite costs per student being higher, closing Plymouth doesn't make financial sense.

“We’re arguing that if you close Plymouth you generate the least amount of savings than any of the other three schools,” said Clark.

Closing Seymour Heights saves an additional $60,000 per year, he said.

Clark said closing Plymouth has more to do with the district's plans to get the ministry's approval to built a new school for the purpose of consolidating the four schools in the area.

According to both Young and Clark, the province won't accept the plan to build a new facility unless all the local schools are filled to capacity and Plymouth is on the chopping block because it has fewer students enrolled.

“Victoria will not provide the funding for the new school. They will tell the district to soak up the unused capacity and both Seymour Heights and Plymouth are underutilized,” Clark said.

According to Young, amalgamating four existing schools into two new schools will save over $1.1-million annually in operating costs. She also said building two new schools costs the same as restoring four other schools – $22.9-million to build at Lynnmour and Seymour Heights locations compared with $22.4-million to upgrade.

Building upgrades to Plymouth have been quoted at $3-million where improvements to the other schools are $6-million.

But Young said the ministry would not consider renovating one school over another.

It could be several years until the province approves the plan to build replacement schools and there are no guarantees from the funding will go through even if the schools are closed, Clark said.

However, the district has still decided to go ahead with closures despite the uncertainty of whether replacement schools will be built.

The criteria for closures is based on school population, available space at the school, operating costs, physical state of the building, diversity of educational programs and community impact.

Clark hopes that the district will “suddenly open their eyes and say, 'we selected the wrong school.' On every single criteria, the economics or whatever, Plymouth is not the school to close.”

Clark said it has been difficult to understand why Plymouth is targeted when the reports show that closing other schools would be a better option.

He said his requests to look at the budget document that breaks down the $10-million shortfall has not be granted by the district.

“We’re trying to access information that will be useful to us or help us assess the merits of closing 0 or 1 school. We’re finding it difficult to get information and we’re also finding that the process isn’t transparent.”

The Plymouth working committee report submitted to the district March 18 and displayed on their website outlines several reasons in the defense of keeping the school open.

The report stresses the benefits of a smaller community school in educational development, the disruption of multiple moves from one facility to another and the impacts on the environment if students are driven to school.

History repeats itself

A new mom and pop pharmacy opened March 1 on Gallant Street in Deep Cove.

Designed like an old chemists shop to fit in with the village flavour of other buildings, Deep Cove Pharmacy is owned by business and life partners Arif Datoo and Fehmina Lalani and their friend Lani Ha.

The neighbourhood pharmacy is the first to crop up after the former local pharmacy closed about 40 years ago which signals a return to a more traditional approach to providing pharmaceutical services.

Two-and-a-half kilometers away from Shoppers Drug Mart at Parkgate Mall, Datoo is not worried that the store could suffer from being overshadowed by the larger chain as has been the trend in other industries.

In fact, it wasn’t even a factor when they chose to open the business because Deep Cove has a lot of community support for small businesses that are owner operated, he said.

“We’ve even had people just come in and say, ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood’. The feedback has been phenomenal,” Datoo said.

The store offers free delivery, blood pressure checks, consultations, medication reviews and advice. They also sell homeopathic items but have not yet settled on a product line as they are waiting on community input before they decide what to stock.

“We really want to focus on the patient care and not on all the other things that some of the bigger stores focus on,” Datoo said.

One of the principal differences between corporate brand pharmacies and boutique stores is building relationships that are based on quality service rather than sales, Datoo said.

Having worked at bigger pharmacies, they found operating their own store allowed them to put the patient first, much like the difference between doctors running a family medical practice versus working at a walk-in clinic.

“With the big chains there’s one way to do something. When you work for yourself you can do whatever it takes to help that patient and I think that’s the main difference. We make the decision on what we need to do, not somebody from Toronto," Datoo said.

Lalani agreed that the business model chain pharmacies follow doesn’t provide optimal health care. Speaking of her previous experience at a large pharmacy, she said:

“A lot of times what used to happen is that people would come to see me I’d have 15 prescriptions waiting and this person maybe needed 10 or 15 minutes of my uninterrupted time but I couldn’t give it to them.”

Most big pharmacies only had one pharmacist working at a time because of cost, she said.

Another of Deep Cove Pharmacy’s unique appeals is that a visit to the pharmacy is a trip down memory lane for long-time residents in Deep Cove.

The store has a display featuring 60-to-70-year-old apothecary items that the couple collected from antique stores and from eBay in the combined 30 years they have been in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Some of the items are actually original Rexall items and we do carry a full Rexall line. Some of them have price tags in them some of them actually have product still in them.”

The effect is a sort of museum for history buffs wanting to get their fix of the past while waiting to have their prescriptions filled.

“A lot of older people come in and they point and go, ‘I remember that’,” Lalani said.

Blackberry Wood: Big Top Tents and the Dance Steps from God

What made modest, undiscovered Vancouver band Blackberry Wood land regular gigs in London, England and score an invitation to the biggest music festival in the United Kingdom was not their extraordinary talent or the fact that they were creating unparalleled sound as big name musical geniuses. What made people pay attention was their inimitable wacky energy and an infectious vibe of straight-up, unpretentious fun.

They’ve driven through “pea soup fog” to play at the Antic Banquet in a cow field-turned-circus tent and bedded down in a yurt and a tranny trash trailer. They’ve performed a show for a daycare audience. They’ve careened through the streets of London, the cabbie blasting their CD while they attempted to fix a nearly broken bridge with a frantic promoter fearful they wouldn’t make the show that would secure their careers: landing them a spot at the 177,000-person Glastonbury Festival.

This laidback band is a trick to pin a genre on. Their sound slips from gypsy folk to ragtime to country and slides in a bit of hiphop and world beats. They are a carnival band with a Kerouacian air of rolling in from an extended backwoods road trip. Fit to compete with the cast of Moulin Rouge, they seem ready to strike up a take-no-prisoners burlesque hoedown just about anywhere you put them.

To learn what sets these wild characters apart from other bands competing for CBC Radio 3 airtime, I was escorted to the rehearsal by drummer Amrit ‘Basmati’ who is an Indian version of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. We walked from the SkyTrain through the well-manicured back alleys of Yaletown, feeling the faux Chinook air streams from condo vents blowing in our faces mix with the damp chill coming in off False Creek.

We were met by the band’s ringmaster Kris Mitch, who forewent a handshake for a hug on introduction. He looked like a master craftsman of some antiquated profession – cobbler, milliner or typesetter which stood out in stark contrast to the brightly lit storefront displays that flanked the nondescript door. Heading down the industrial rabbit hole past a maze of crudely numbered wooden storage lockers, Kris led us to a colourfully decorated converted live/work space. As well as being Blackberry Wood’s front man, Mitch scored the space by standing in as the building’s alarm setter.

Delving into how the band came to be, Kris put on a once-upon-a-time voice of how four years ago on New Years, he and Corinne, his partner and saxophone player were invited by a friend in Uclulet who owns a campground to play a set at the lodge. They packed up their two-person electronic surfer country band and played to a patchwork audience of loggers, international surfers and First Nations. It was such a hit that they were asked back the next year for their second gig. Four years later they are a six-to-nine person outfit that gigs every weekend in B.C. and journeys to London, England every other month to do lineup of as many as 20 shows.

Trumpet player Jack ‘Mandu’ yowled from the sidewalk to be let in and Corinne doggie-bagged the building keys, chucking them out the window with, “I hope it doesn’t sail away like a parachute, Woo-hoo!!” A few minutes later he materialized, fresh-faced and soft-spoken in an Amish looking hat and a lightly stained, threadbare pink plaid collared shirt, rolled up to the elbows.

Chomping at the bit to start the jam, Amrit occasionally punctuated Kris’ story with his drumsticks, keeping everyone on their toes with his barely contained, explosive energy. Interjecting with his voice like a drumbeat itself: powerful, unapologetic.

Kris launched into the fantastical tale of how he met Stranger Than Paradise producer Amanda Rogers on MySpace. The story goes that Rogers, having never met Kris save for the internet, left the keys to her London flat to a friend to give to him so he could stay. “She walked in the door two days later sometime, totally covered in mud wearing pantaloons and Wellingtons returning home from the Glastonbury Festival,” Kris said. He asked Rogers to get him a gig and ended up staying a few days, opening for Victoria-based Immaculate Machine at the Brixton Windmill. “And that’s how we met London,” he said.

The secret of his success lies in his history of hustling skills, picked up when he founded and booked as many as 250 bands for Music Waste, his antidote to New Music West.

“After doing that a few years you know how to put things together so that they grow so now I do it for the band instead of a whole bunch of other people,” he said. Still travelling on a shoestring budget while on tour, they are mastering the finer details of what gives a band chops: how to enjoy sleeping in close quarters “like sardines” (Corinne), “like caterpillars when they come out of the cocoon” (Kris) “like Boy Scouts,” and managing the ebb and flow of ever-changing band members.

Where change and crazy new ideas are concerned, they roll with it like a pirate ship on the waves of a gale….

Les Yeux Noirs close Chutzpah! festival

Back by popular demand this year at the Chutzpah! festival is world music phenomenon Les Yeux Noirs, who will be presenting foot-stomping favorites from their latest albums that are sure to draw the multitudes with their limitless energy next month.

“It’s like we come back home when we play in your country,” said co-founder and violinist Olivier Slabiak from his home in Paris, France.

The now six-person band was formed in 1992 by classically trained family duo Olivier and his brother, Eric. Together, they performed traditional Yiddish songs that were passed down to them by their grandmother and their uncle who played the violin.

“This transmission of music is a big part of our culture. Sometimes we can feel Jewish because of the music,” Slabiak said.

In addition to listening to Yiddish music, they also picked up a taste for jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz, and rock music, which led to their migration from traditional to more contemporary compositions. After eight years, Les Yeux traded in their acoustic instruments for electric ones, with a mind to creating songs they could put more energy into while still keeping the flavor of their original influences.

With seven CDs under their belt and more than 1,700 concerts, Les Yeux band members are musical veterans. The guitarist joined the ranks in 1995, the drummer in 2001 and the accordion player and bassist were enlisted three years ago.

Playing with his brother lends a unique musical intuition to the ensemble, as well as a well-balanced vision. “Sometimes we feel the same thing at the same time when we play together,” Slabiak said. “We don’t have the same characters, so to work together is very complimentary to evolve our music with the same feeling, but with different directions.”

As for what they will perform on this North American circuit, the group plans to play a mix of songs from their newest recording, slated for a September 2010 release, as well as tracks from their 2009 best-of CD, Opre Scena.

Playing to diverse audiences around the world has taught Slabiak that sound can energetically unify a group of people and convey a message, as if by magic.

“It’s international language and, when you hear the music, it makes a new sound vibration and the vibration is international. For me, music is like Esperanto, so you can speak all over the world with lots of different cultures the same language and, if you are receptive, you can receive the same thing,”

Les Yeux’s intent is to give audiences a nostalgic feeling and translate the emotions of Jewish music, said Slabiak. “When we are on stage, we want to give all this soul of the music and, when we give something, we receive a lot. Sometimes, we have a piece that is very energetic and we want to send the energy to the audience, and the audience sends us the energy back, and this grows the ambiance of the show. In this music, you need to give and receive.”

Les Yeux are in their element in a festival atmosphere, playing with a diverse range of artists. “It’s very great for us to see an audience discovering our music and to see the effect happen on them,” he said.

Playing in front of a Jewish audience is a special experience for the group.

“We speak with people who say, ‘You know this song? I know this song since a long time. We like what you do with this song.’ For us, it is very important to see that Jewish people can recognize their music in the music we make,” he said.

For Slabiak, facing a Jewish crowd holds strong personal value. “Sometimes we can see in the audience some person who looks like our grandmother,” he said. The brothers recently came across old cassette tapes with recordings of their grandmother’s voice and decided to feature her singing on their latest CD.

Les Yeux Noirs perform one Canadian show only, as the last stop of their North American tour, for the Chutzpah! festival closing night party, Thursday, April 8, 8 p.m., at the Venue. Tickets at, or 604-257-5145.