Archive for May, 2010

Book Review – The Boy in the Moon

May 29, 2010

The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son
A book review by Janet Nicol

When Ian Brown completed this award-winning book in 2008, his severely disabled son Walker was 12 years old. He and his wife, Johanna Schneller, also a writer, had lived through eight years of raising Walker at home and much of those eight years were grievous and painful. Finally giving up, the couple moved Walker into a nearby group home in the Toronto area, ensuring Walker continued regular overnight visits with family twice a month. Brown, who also writes for the Globe and Mail, kept a diary of these times, (originally for medical purposes) and has mined the results into an exceptional father and son story.

Walker Brown was born with a genetic mutation so rare that doctors call it an orphan syndrome, with only about 300 people around the world who live with it. Walker cannot speak and must eat with the assistance of a device. He also habitually hits himself so has to wear protective gear. But as a toddler, he does learn to walk and while intellectually delayed, at some level, Walker feels, desires, and connects with others. By the last page of this story, the reader has as much affection for Walker as his family, his caretakers, and many special friends.

“Sometimes watching him,” Brown writes, “is like looking at the man in the moon—but you know there is actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me?”

Every burning question a parent, educator, or special needs expert may have is answered somewhere in this highly readable exploration of Walker and his unique world. Brown moves back and forth in time as he ponders, investigates, researches, and visits other families with similarly afflicted children. He offers glimpses into the life of his wife and to a lesser extent, their first-born daughter, Hayley, as well as extended family and friends, all in aid of understanding his son’s extreme condition. Another star performer in this story is Olga de Vera, the Filipino nanny hired to perform the normal duties of a nanny with Hayley and who stays on to embrace Walker with remarkable dedication.

Brown gives us the small details—the grinding daily (and nightly) routines of parenting Walker and occasional moments of joy and grace. He is also able to pull away and paint the bigger picture, resulting in several insights—and more questions.

Tension in the marriage is duly recorded: “We have our private moments, our intimacies, but they are so rare and so urgent they’re like hallucinations,” Brown writes. Walker doesn’t always unite the family as one might think, he observes, he “scatters us.”

The author monitors the Internet, a connector for thousands of parents with disabled children. It is the “daily bread of the listserve” where Brown reads “habitual discussions” about cleaning and feeding children with special needs as well as sharing of medical and other advice.

“Sometimes Walker was in agony as he smacked himself and screamed with pain,” Brown observes, in one of his many heart-wrenching passages about his son’s condition. “At other times he seemed to do it more expressively, as a way to clear his head, or to let us know he would be saying something if he could talk. Sometimes—and this was unbearably sad—he laughed immediately afterwards. He couldn’t tell us anything, and we had to imagine everything.”

Medical professionals (including Americans) give the couple as much assistance and expertise as possible, but it is apparent there are still so many question marks in this field of human knowledge. The medical and caretaking costs add up for the family too, another topic Brown considers vital to public discussion.

The author is generous and grateful with his praise for all those who are able to help Walker, some who give in simple, unconscious ways, illuminating the many pools of kindness in the world.

But Brown is also unflinching in his examination of the dark side of this underworld that fate has handed him. For example, he discusses his own inadequacies when he appears in public with Walker. “The staring used to bother me,” he confesses. And from the reactions of people on the streets of Toronto as he pushes Walker in the stroller, “I have known what it is like to be stared at, to be an object of fear and pity and even hatred. I hope Walker can’t see it; he seems to ignore it, and gradually he taught me to ignore it as well.”

Brown searches for reassurances about Walker’s future, that inevitable time when he and his wife won’t be able to watch over him. He travels to France and visits L’Arche, one of the world’s most progressive environments for disabled people, run by Jean Vanier. The community reveals a unique place of hope and pushes Brown to reflect further on his own values and beliefs.

There are not many air-tight conclusions by journey’s end, but Brown and his wife do come to realize it takes a team to look after Walker’s many special needs, so surrender their son to a wider network of support. This may be an obvious observation to outsiders, but a very painful and difficult decision for the family, as the author reveals.

Brown also builds a convincing case for more public support of parents coping with a disabled child. In his family’s case, it took a very long frustrating search to find an appropriate group home in Toronto for Walker.

The book ends, but the life of Walker goes on. “He is becoming a different boy there, in his other house,” Brown notices. He hadn’t anticipated Walker to have an independent life. “The latest development, the workers in the house tell me, is that he shouts “Bus bus bus!” when it arrives. I find that hard to believe. But there have been other shifts too, subtler changes in his current.”

The Boy in the Moon succeeds in elevating our understanding of disabled people and their families and is a valued resource for educators and other specialists. Ultimately, this is a story for everyone, as any great story is, because we learn so much more about our capabilities, despite our limitations.

Reprinted from the BCTF Teacher newsmagazine, May/June 2010

Artisan butter in BC

May 1, 2010


Artisan butter makes meals tastier

by Janet Nicol

When it comes to fresh butter, only a few artisan brands qualify for the 100 mile diet for Vancouverites. Consumers will be surprised to learn most products on supermarket shelves are made from cream churned in Calgary–or even further afield.

An exception is cultured butter churned at the Farm House in Agassiz. Its fresh-tasting ingredients include cream from Guernsey and Brown Swiss cows grazing on corn and grass in BC’s lush Fraser Valley.

Twice a week co-owner, Debra Amrein-Boyes churns cream into butter. Using a Swiss mold, this master cheesemaker makes an imprint of an eidelweiss on each 200 gram brick and wraps them with gold-coloured foil. Look for the Swiss flower on the package label too, alongside the Farm House name.

You can visit the retail outlet located on the family-run farm to purchase this unsalted butter, but it is also available in Vancouver. The cheese shop “Les Amis du Fromage” sells Farmhouse butter for $7.99 at three retail locations –1752 West 2nd Avenue, 845 East Hastings and 518 Park Royal South in West Vancouver. Whole Foods in West Vancouver has the product on their shelf too.

Alice Spurrell, co-owner of “Les Amis du Fromage” can vouch for the popularity of the product. “Lots of local chefs buy it,” she says. “And we have many repeat customers. They like to use it as a table butter for toast or on a muffin.”

Spurrell says the rich taste and freshness of Farm House butter is obvious, when compared to other brands. “The French like to put a small amount of fresh butter on a cheese plate,” she also suggests. “They spread the butter on a baguette, then add a slice of cheese on top and the taste is delicious.”

Her cheese shop stocks a steady supply of Farm House butter but customers should still check before coming in. “It is a special item,” Spurrell says. “Sometimes the demand is higher too. We had a run on the product when chefs were using the butter during the Olympics.”

Among the local restaurant chefs stocking up is Bishop’s restaurant, on the city’s west side.

“We have been using Farm House butter for as long as I’ve
been at Bishop’s,” says executive chef Andrea Carlson. “It is used as the table butter. It has a sweet, fresh flavour and colour that varies throughout the season as the cows graze on different plants. I am a huge fan of Farm House and all of their products and I’m delighted that they have been able to supply us with their highly coveted butter.”

A visit to the Farm House, only a five minute drive from the village of Agassiz, reveals a picturesque property, the residence and outbuildings just off the main road. Parking is available in front of the store, and inside are an array of local food and gift products, with a fridge stocked with cheeses, milk, fresh eggs and cheesecake. The young female clerk at the till welcomes customers with tasting samples of Farm House cheddars and bries. A viewing window faces the cheese-making work room comprised of modern stainless steel equipment. Customers can watch Amrien-Boyes and other employees making her artisan foods, including butter.

“Farm House butter has a deep natural colour which can vary with the season and what the cows are eating,” Amrien-Boyes says in an interview at the hallway in back of her shop.

“The pasteurized cream is separated from the milk,” she explains as she dons a hairnet, “and innoculated with lactic bacteria culture. During the process of ripening the cream, this creates flavour compounds that give our butter that rich European-style flavour.”

Amrien-Boyes slips off her shoes and steps in to a large pair of rubber boots. She opens a door to the sanitized workroom where she makes her products and then steps in and out of a small tub of blue-coloured fluid.

“The cream is processed in this small electric churn,” she says, bending to lift the lid of a small stainless steel churn on the floor. Inside are blades attached to a revolving device. “I pour in 12 litres at a time, producing a rich creamy butter, with 84% fat,” Amrien-Boyes explains.

The Farm House product has a smoother consistency than most commercial butters made with industrial-size continuous churns. And her product has a slightly higher fat content (most have 80% fat), adding to the rich, creamy flavour. Most importantly for many consumers, Farm House butter has no artificial additives.

Amrein-Boyes’ husband tends to the 25 milking cows (as well as goats) grazing more than 35 acres of land. The couple’s four daughters—all grown up now– have spent many hours helping out, Amrein-Boyes says, and additional employees provide help with the many daily farm routines.

Inside her own kitchen, Amrein-Boyes says she uses her butter to make shortbread. “Spread a thick layer of butter on home-made bread,” she also recommends.

Consumers may also want to cut a brick in portions to share with family and friends or use promptly in baking projects, as this fresh butter only has a two-week shelf life.

Happy Days Goat Butter

Those with dairy allergies, or a craving for a more pungent taste, can travel to Chilliwack to buy the all-purpose Happy Days Goat Butter, purchased in a frozen tub at $9.49. (The original goat farm is in Salmon Arm, BC.) The butter contains pasteurized goat cream, cooled then churned. The butter kernels are washed with water to flush out milk protein and lactose, allowing longer product preservation. Consumers are advised to slice and thaw butter as needed.

The trend in the last twenty years has been to disband local creameries and centralise butter production. There are other challenges too. Julia Grace, an artisan cheesemaker at Moonstruck Organic Cheese on Saltspring Island, says she only makes butter for her own use.

“Butter-making regulations call for some very specific equipment so it does not make an easy sideline,” Grace says.

Many fine butters from other parts of Canada can be purchased in British Columbia stores. Stirling butter in Ontario has won international awards. Two imported butters from France, Beurre Echire and Beurre D’Isigny, are also available at “Les Amis du Fromage“ at $14.95 for 250 grams.

Still, as every person who has grown up on a farm will acknowledge, the fresh taste of locally churned butter is a treat to be savoured.

The Farm House is located at 5634 McCallum Road , Agassiz, BC V0M 1A1 Phone – (1) 604-796-8741

Happy Days Dairy/Heavenly Cheese store, is located at 7350 A Barrow Road, Chilliwack, BC. Its retail store is open Wednesday to Saturday, from noon to 5 pm – Phone – (1) 604-823-7241

Reprinted from Eat Vancouver magazine, May/June 2010

Butter in the West – More about best betters in western Canada in an article I wrote for Western Living (May, 2010 issue) at this link –