Life and Death

My son is back at school.  I am left to quietly reflect and blog on our summer visit to Saskatchewan.  It was a trip of invigorating scenery and of unexpected death.

For those of you who hail from other parts of the globe, Saskatchewan is one of the prairie provinces of Canada.  The license plates read “Land of Living Skies” which nicely sums up the expansive backdrop of clouds, piercing blue sky and rolling storms of weather that mesmerize its residents on any given day.  The land is flat and checkered by fields of canola, flax, barley and wheat in the south and enveloped by a swath of boreal forest and stunning lakes in the north.  Rivers and feeder streams etch out valleys and ravines that are hidden in the broad swells of land and provide locals with depressingly stunted ski hills and oases for deer, bear, beaver, weasel, raccoon and migratory birds.

This summer I traveled to Saskatchewan with the kids and visited six grandparents- three remarriages after divorce.  My Dad never remarried.  My children are blessed with a generous ratio of grandparents to grandchildren.  We also stopped at my friend’s parent’s farm, one hour west of the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She had brought her three kids and we were welcomed to enjoy several days and nights of the epic solitude their farm enjoyed.  The ditches were ablaze with native prairie sunflowers and walks along hardened farmer access roads were delightful excursions along shoulder high grasses and flowers.  The grandfather gamely offered a mini motorcycle for my eight year old to ride and also introduced him to the joys of the riding lawnmower.   The younger kids ran amok, usually naked, without the usual concerns about street traffic or passing strangers.   After three wonderful days at the farm, we proceeded to Saskatoon.  Despite their kind entreaties for us to stay longer, I respected the old adage:  guests are like fish, they stink after three days.

The visit to Saskatoon was going to be of perplexing short duration for the kids: one hour.  My mother-in-law was on a day pass from the hospital after undergoing a stroke (the clot was removed quickly with no ill after effects) and then an angioplasty three days later (which was also successful).  These surgeries followed the discovery of several concerning lumps in her lungs which had yet to be biopsied.  She was adamant  the kids should not see her in the hospital and so we agreed to meet at the house for a brief visit on our way to visit other grandparents.  She managed to will herself into a comfortable lawn chair in the backyard so the kids could expend energy in her much loved garden.  She had, through the years, created a magical world of fairy folk paraphernalia that lay hidden in surprise for curious children among the ferns, bushes and tree trunks.  She also had a basket of toys in the garden shed that were to aid and abet in their imaginations.  After an hour, the smile on my mother-in-law’s face began to diminish with the onset of more pain and fatigue.  As agreed beforehand, I took my cue and gathered the children to depart.  The kids were jarred by the suddenness.  “Aren’t we staying here?” was their response.  I had to explain Grams was going back to the hospital and we would return soon (when my husband would make a return visit after his initial panicked flight to Saskatoon after her stroke).  She needed to time get better.

We drove to Prince Albert and were enjoying a few relaxing days with my husband’s father and stepmother when I got a text from my mother-in-law: please come as soon as you can.  She sent the same text to my husband.  He was back in Calgary trying to dive back into work that he had abandoned during the previous visit to his mother’s hospital bedside.  I called my husband and he made plans to arrive at the end of the week.  We knew what she wanted to tell us; they finally had the biopsy results.  When they first discovered the lumps, she had told us that if it was cancer she didn’t want treatment.  Years of bad health and a bad heart would likely not withstand the physical onslaught of chemo.  She wanted to spend her last few months enjoying life outside a hospital.

My husband and I agreed for me and the kids to arrive a day after his arrival.  I would still take the kids north to  Prince Albert National Park to go camping.  This park is the secret gem of Saskatchewan.  Nestled in the boreal forests, the town site of Waskesiu  and the adjoining campgrounds are a serene habitat hugging the shoreline of Waskesiu Lake.  There are a handful of eateries, a local store where Parks Canada and the community pin up their summer event calendars and an old theater that plays PG and G movies on the weekends and PG-13 movies during the weekdays.  Wednesday night is community bingo at the town hall where the biggest payout is $20 and the kids can play if they know their alphabet.  Before kids,  my husband and I had gone to Wednesday bingo on a whim and between the two of us had won a record four times and walked away with our next day’s breakfast money.  The following day,  we caught strangers pointing at us and murmuring about our lucky streak.  Fame comes easy in a teeny tiny resort town.  Prince Albert National Park is also known for its aggravating mosquito population.  No one quite knows why but from year to year the mosquito, horsefly and black fly population is unpredictable.  I heard whispered rumors of a year when the locals could barely see across the street because of the horrendous swarms of mosquitoes. This year, I bought a can of 15% Deet mosquito repellent in preparation of our camping trip and we never used it.  Well, not exactly.  I pulled it out when I saw a mosquito, my prior experiences having conditioned me to spray on a thick layer at the first onset of buzzing but then I realized it was one mosquito.  I swatted it, killed it, and continued on with my day.  We also had fantastic weather:  mid 20s, with a beautiful sunset over the lake every night.  It was like heaven had descended down to earth.   My Mom, stepdad and niece drove up for the day from their home west of Prince Albert to help celebrate my birthday by eating pizza and enjoying the beach.  It was a nice distraction from the absence of my husband and the looming visit to confirm the news from my mother-in-law.

After our camping trip concluded, we drove back to Saskatoon.  The kids were excited to see Dad and Grams and Gramps.  We stayed in a hotel to be sure not to exhaust my mother-in-law and her husband.  We also made sure there was a pool; every morning we took the kids swimming after the hotel’s free breakfast so we could spend their energy.  The reality of our three days at Gram’s home was this:  the kids spent quiet afternoons in the basement watching movies while the adults tried to make my mother-in-law more comfortable and to help around the house.   My husband and I volunteered to cook.  My step father-in-law knows how to open a can and microwave a hot dog.  We made a hug pot of chicken soup and froze most of it.  I also spent every spare moment weeding the garden that had been neglected for the past three weeks.   There were two reasons for this: 1)  I knew the garden was very important to my mother-in-law and I wanted to give her peace of mind regarding its state and 2) I had always had mixed success conversing with my mother-in-law and so I felt the urgency to stay outdoors and avoid conversation under extremely sad circumstances.  We had a mutual respect for one another but I found her vitriolic rants about any number of mundane offenses to her sensibilities to be uninspiring for an intimate friendship.  It is difficult to give your affection to someone who wants your emotional investment but won’t give you the safety and liberty to do so.   For every great conversation we managed to have, I was equally frozen into silence by her negative reaction to the most innocuous of statements.  It was a no win situation.

The oncologist had give her a window of 6 months to a year to live.  After our three day visit (remember we were fish), I concluded she had two months at best.  In three days she descended further into pain and discomfort.  They had also found more lumps during the CT Scan.  The cancer was spreading and fast.

We drove home and my husband was called back to Saskatoon two more times over the span of four weeks.  Once to help his step father manage the overwhelming burden by looking after their four cats – one of which was pissing all over the house in an act of feline distress, managing the endless requests to massage her back or fetch more pills or remaining at the house for a couple of hours while my step father-in-law ran for groceries or took a couple hours of reprieve from the moans of his dying wife.  The second time was the last.  They gave her two days to live.  My husband flew out at 11pm on a Saturday and she spent her last breath at 9:15pm on the Sunday.  All the good-byes had been said over the last two months of panicked visits and brief moments of lucidity.  My husband said he had never known misery until he saw his mother dying.  From the day of the stroke until her death, 52 short days passed.  Fifty two days to unburden her heart of truths and misgivings and cry and make do with the choices that had been made during a life of seventy years.  As was her request, I and the children did not visit her while she descended into the vortex of pain and hallucinations.  We lived out life in Calgary going to play dates, the zoo and handling the mundane tasks of buying groceries and vacuuming the house.  I didn’t know how to comfort my husband at this time.  The death of a parent was something I hadn’t experienced.  I only knew that words were useless.  So, I cooked.  I made chili, chicken soup, spring rolls, cookies and every time my husband came home exhausted and emotionally drained from his visits to his mother’s bedside, there was good food waiting for him and happy children.  And he said that that was all he needed.

I am left with a strange void of knowing someone is dead but not having the sensory proof they are dead.  My mother-in-law stipulated no funeral and no memorial.  My husband is to receive an urn with a 1/3 of her ashes.  The other thirds will be given to her other son and her husband.  I will have no dead body to witness or even the communal tears of friends and family to appreciate her passing. All I have are the jarring trails of electronic correspondence.  I have a text from my mother-in-law  wishing me happy birthday on July 27th.  She died August 28th. She was good at remembering birthdays and anniversaries.   She also had a knack for giving memorable gifts and imparting them with a backstory of fantasy or intrigue.  My son has a multitude of such magical items:  smoothed glass eggs that hatch after 100 years to birth faeries, a hairy and grumpy faced porcelain troll that only moves at night – and which my son carefully checked every morning for two months for changes in location, a book to aid in casting spells.   My mother-in-law took white and black paint to the healed knots of pruned limbs on her birch tree to accentuate the relief which had an uncanny resemblance to an eye.  My daughter is now on constant look out for “eyeball trees” after being pleasantly startled by Gram’s watchful tree. It is at the dimming and final extinction of a person’s inner spark when we realize their presence allowed us to better experience our own lives.  Special occasions will pass without being heralded, the sparkle of her coveted traditions and ceremonies made acutely absent by her death.  Good bye Breeze.  We love you.  I love you.  And thank you.

 

 

 

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Shotgun Soup

In Canada growing up poor is shotgun soup.   Anyone who is living paycheck to paycheck or grew up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck might have an idea to what I am referring.  In their home it might be called “casserole surprise!” or “mishmash hash” but whatever you call it there is no mistaking the ungodly union of yesterday’s leftovers with the leftovers from last week.  My Mom liked to add water to the mix and because we weren’t quite sure what was in it, it was christened “shotgun soup” because it truly was a shotgun blast of unidentifiable food leftovers.   There is nothing like eating a twice cooked piece of pasta while pondering if the orange mush clinging to it is sweet potato or carrots.

When you are a kid running home from school, hungry to devour whatever tasty snacks are to be found in the fridge, disappointment doesn’t come much harsher than shotgun soup.  As soon as you saw the chilled vat sitting in the fridge you knew payday was two days away and there wasn’t a fresh piece of fruit to be found.  Forget cereal: the milk was all gone and you had tried Corn Flakes with water before and it sucked.  Toast?  Ha, in your dreams.  The peanut butter and jam were gone too.  The next day of school you were getting crackers stuck together with margarine and some carrot sticks that had lost their crunch 5 days ago.  You just needed to survive to Friday when Mom got paid.  Until then, you decided it was a better idea to play over at your friend’s house where they had an ample supply of Cheez Whiz.

I wish shotgun soup was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten but poverty has end members of feast and famine.   We never starved but I contemplated not eating for a few days so I could avoid tofu pie.  This was the era before YouTube and the Food Network so even though today tofu pie might exist somewhere out there on the website of a vegan hipster promoting local organic food with gourmet twists on once unpalatable food, my Mom took a stab at this sometime in the early 90s.  It did not go well.  There were two things left in the kitchen that week, besides the flour and lard which never went anywhere: tofu and jars of mincemeat.  I wish I could say the mincemeat was bought at a farmer’s market or a trendy boutique food store but sadly it was the clearance jars of mincemeat found in bins at the grocery store after Christmas.  For some reason my Mom had decided to stockpile several jars – I can only assume she knew this day was coming.  Except on that day there was tofu in the fridge and my Mom, wanting to be sure we didn’t sugar crash on mincemeat pie, added the tofu to satisfy our protein requirements for the remainder of the week.  Tofu mincemeat pie is a sickly grey color.  There is nothing that can prepare you for the first bites of this horrendous combination and I was hungry for several days before I attempted it again.  Hunger can render anything palatable.  By the end of the week, we were onto pie #3 and by then my mind and taste buds had decided tofu mincemeat pie was just fine.

Three days ago, I decided it would be a great idea to throw some leftovers into the remaining  vegetable soup.  There was steamed kale and carrots, bits of steak and the zingy background of canned soup.  I toasted slices of multigrain bread, spread ample butter to melt on top of it, and then we dipped it into the newly conceptualized melange.  It was good.  Really good.  Though my family is blessed to have a surplus of food, shotgun soup leaves a mark.  Wasting food is not an option but creative reinvention is definitely on the menu.

 

FRANCE

We got back from France on June 17.  We was myself, my eight year old son and my three year old daughter.  Dad stayed home to tend to the economic fires.  My sister and her family live in Perth, Australia so I thought it would be a great idea to meet them in Marseille, France where her husband’s family resides.  And it was great.  Great for culture, history, family and the stunning beauty of France.  And it was also hard spending three straight weeks with your kids, everyday, every hour, every minute, every second.  I woke up on day 16 to the delightful laughter and screaming of children beckoning me to feed them, feed them, feed them and to find the IPad and Princess Elsa and were we eating chocolate croissants because they love chocolate croissants.  This was into minute two of day sixteen and I lost my mind.  Somewhere in Canada my husband was sleeping deeply, spreading his carefree body across my side of the bed and drinking in the solitude through every pore of his body.  I was burning brioche in the oven and embellishing my exhausted rage with the reckless use of “Fuck.”  My sister, her husband, my nephew and my kids made a hasty retreat to the other room while I embraced the madness of burnt breakfast and unmade coffee.  It was an epic parent fail.

Let’s step back in time.  I am a lover of the unknown.  I have wholeheartedly jumped into adventures to Guatemala, Ecuador, Egypt, Belize and Mexico with nary a concern for research about political unrest, tourist kidnappings or terrorist threats.  I like to arrive wide eyed and blundering so as to catch the locals with their worried stares or offer up predatory hopes to the the knic knack vendors and con men.   After I returned from Guatemala during a university led trip (this was shortly after the end of the civil war but guerrilla groups were still kidnapping tourists), I finally phoned up my parents to tell them where I had been.  It was an afterthought because I was independent and I had paid for the trip myself.   That Christmas, my father, a man not prone to much emotional sharing, gave me a book titled, “World’s  Most Dangerous Places” with Guatemala lovingly earmarked.

Several years have passed since I’ve been on a trip that has surprised my senses or tested my character.   I’ve managed to keep our family away from resorts or Disney cruises but Hawaii or California hardly test one’s mettle.  Don’t get me wrong, a resort would be really relaxing but once you’ve crossed the line into watered down cocktails and Kid’s Club babysitting you’ve entered into easy and easy is scary.  Easy is processed food dinners with high carbohydrate and sugar content, credit cards and binge watching on Netflix.  Easy doesn’t feed the soul,  it builds debt that will eventually need to be repaid.  It doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to suffer through life – I’ve avoided crack and prostitution and still feel surprisingly whole.   I’m just saying France with two children in tow was hard and hard is good.   I found a well of patience hidden in my depths especially after the 9th hour on the plane when my three year old still hadn’t slept and was careening off into irrational fits of squawking and contortions of unrest in her seat.  She fell asleep on landing.

The two best surprises from our trip to France:  my daughter stopping to gaze intently at the same Picasso painting that had captured my attention.  Unlike most of the Picasso artwork at the exhibition which was layered with curvatures and obliques of color, this large painting was centered on a person of singular blue.  It was striking and surreal and shockingly beautiful.  The second best surprise was my eight year old son, sitting across the aisle from me on the plane, striking up a lengthy conversation with two young bearded men from Oman.  I nodded to the men so they knew I was his mother but gave my son space to engage freely with his row companions.  He showed them how to play the onboard video games and they answered his polite questions about their country and themselves.  After landing back in Canada, my son told me they were geologists on their way to the AAPG (American Association of Petroleum Geologists) conference in Calgary.   He had told them I was a geologist and I had traveled to Egypt for work and spoke a little Arabic.  The eight year old boy who arrived back in Canada was not the same boy who left for France.  In fact, none of us were.

 

Everyone is an Entrepreneur

I’ve been unemployed 6 1/2 months now.  I am a petroleum geologist in Calgary, Alberta.  Just about the worst place in the world to be any kind of geologist.  Brent pricing is hovering above $45  but damn, that makes 90% of oil pools in Alberta uneconomic to drill or produce right now.  Which means, me and most of my friends get to keep wearing jeans every day and figure out how to cheaply replace our broken appliances.

Unemployment has interesting stages of evolution, much like grief:

  1. Denial and Isolation:  Shit I Can’t Believe I just Got Laid Off.
  2. Anger:  Those Fuckers.
  3. Bargaining:  If Only I Had Never Worn Those Mustard Yellow Pants To Work.
  4. Depression:  I Suck.  No One Will Ever Hire Me Again.
  5. Acceptance: Well, It Happens.  Time to Focus On My Job Search.

Everyone hits acceptance at different times but there is a #6 & #7 for the unemployed.

6. Networking:  Notice Me, Notice Me, Notice Me, Notice Me, Notice Me, Notice Me

This essentially becomes a mind numbing task after the 78th coffee date.  How many times can you possibly explain why you were laid off versus the bitch giving the boss blow jobs?  Except you don’t say that because then you come off as being bitter.  Instead, you are super duper happy with all this extra time off to worry about broken appliances and to refocus on your strengths like binge watching The Walking Dead.  And it starts feeling slutty always maneuvering to get the other person to buy you a coffee.  You even try to scam a lunch now and then by pausing awkwardly when the waitress asks if you both want one bill or two.

7. Everyone is an Entrepreneur:  There Are No Jobs In My Profession.  Oh Shit.

This is the what we like to call the climax.  The protagonist has exhausted all options and in a fit of drunken hope, decides that all those heart to hearts with her pals means she has an unfulfilled calling as a life coach!   She abandons her soul crushing career as a corporate engineer and starts life anew with a new website, a full calendar of speaking engagements and a self stylized BRAND that incorporates her love of mauve, hot yoga, and an organic pomegranate cream that she uses religiously.

#7 looks great on the movie screen but in the real world it means everyone changes their current career status to CEO of their newly incorporated business on LinkedIn.  And then  they go network some more with their newly conceptualized BRAND and wait and wait and wait for something great to happen.  I’m always shocked to discover how much thought went into BRANDing themselves and how poorly conceived their business models are.  No one seemingly wants to actually make anything.  They want to be facilitators, motivators and other ‘ors’ that essentially make them overpaid middlemen.  I wish them luck.

I’m looking for a job as a geologist.  I’m good at it, I love it and the world needs oil.  This means I have to stay calm and wait.  And maybe work at Safeway as a clerk to make money until the oil prices turn around.  But I have no delusions about where my worth lies.  I find oil and I make money for shareholders.  I find oil that keeps us awash in plastics and fuels the machines.  I find the oil that provides government revenue  for schools and hospitals.  The world keeps turning and I will keep turning with it.

 

Forget Mensa

Did you ever meet someone who was book smart but didn’t have a lick of common sense sandwiched between their ears?  Yep.  I have too.  Book smart is great for esoteric study of nematodes, particle physics, and dead languages but I would hazard a guess that those same people would perish on a concrete meridian on a Las Vegas roadway not by foolishly choosing to stop their car to investigate a)a worm, b)an anomalous 2-way gate opening to another universe or c) some eye catching graffiti but because they failed to learn to never mix up exotic orders of hard liquor shots.  Stick with your fave or else you will black out, trip on the meridian while crossing the street and die choking on your own vomit.

Common sense is really useful.  It keeps you from doing stupid stuff.  And if you choose to do stupid stuff anyway, common sense at least offers you an indemnity against naivete; better off to start the night with a condom in your pocket than to blame your parents or Mr. Premature Ejaculator for your unplanned pregnancy.   It is also a great aid for smelling bullshit.  You mean, if I buy thousands of dollars of all these products for sample inventory so I can sell the same products to all my family and friends for a 2% commission, I may actually break even in two years?  Wow, sign me up!!!!!

I think it’s great Mensa wants to sort out the chaff from the wheat.  You can join other high IQ people and feel really great about how smart you are.   I’ve never taken their admission test but I imagine meetings where instead of names, everyone has their IQ written on a sticky tag on their sweaters.  Everyone wears sweaters because who goes to a Mensa meeting wearing a T-shirt?  Unless the T-shirt says something incredibly witty and then the sweater people are left secretly cursing themselves for the banality of their attire.  I suspect there could a deep chasm within the organization along the divides of the sweater people versus the T-shirt people.  Maybe the conversations are not intellectually stimulating  at all but instead filled with vitriol for the opposing fashion camp.   Maybe their exam should have had a multiple choice question that required the options a)cotton b)cotton-blend c)nylon d)wool e)polyester.  That would have cleared up the admissions process real fast.

I don’t think of myself as particularly smart but I think I’ve made a few critical observations the last few years that more accurately reflect on intelligence.  First, ask yourself, are you or anyone else you know dishwasher retarded?  Dishwasher retarded is sadly, a common problem.  Maybe you have had family or friends visiting and someone gamely offers to load the dishwasher.  Sure, what could go wrong?  Except it does.  The person is dishwasher retarded.  Everything is thrown in half haphazardly, omitting the organization required to fit more than four plates and a couple of bowls.  You wait for them to leave the kitchen so you can reorganize all the cups and serving dishes to be able to load 30 more dishes.  Who the hell puts glassware on the bottom rack?  Dishwasher retards, that’s who.

Do you live with anyone?  Do you hate replacing the toilet roll every day because they are too lazy to do it?  Have you paid thousands of dollars in legal fees to divorce or evict someone that couldn’t be bothered to reload the toilet paper?  I’m going to tell you something that will blow your mind: not all toilet paper is the same.  In fact, the toilet paper companies like ripping you off and ruining your marriage.  Never buy 1-ply.  People who grew up in 1-ply homes are the same people who wrap half the roll around their hand just to wipe pee.  1-ply guarantees urine or fecal wetness will soak through to your hand.  3-ply is the opposite problem.  You raise a generation of spoiled brats who become accustomed  to having their asses wiped with goose down.  It’s over the top and usually expensive when 2-ply works fine.  You can buy the Cadillac but the Ford Focus will still get you there.  But the world of 2-ply is a deceiving place.  A 12 pack of one brand is NOT the 12 pack of another brand.  Disregarding the width of a roll, because they even cut those corners, it all comes down to number of sheets.  I spend the most time in the toilet paper and paper towel isle.  I do rough mental math on number of rolls multiplied by number of sheets to give me the approximate sheets in the whole package.  I figure out the cost per unit.  Every grocery store will give you a cost per lb, cost per kg, cost per unit of almost everything in the entire store EXCEPT the paper isle.  You are on your own.  This is where you separate the chaff from the wheat.  Do the math: you will discover that sometimes buying 4 packages of  six rolls of the premium brand is cheaper than the bulk 24 package of generic.  Added plus:  the rolls of 2-ply with the most number of sheets are also the mostly densely packed meaning that roll of toilet paper has a fighting chance of lasting 3-5 days in a household of 4 people.  Insane right?  You save money and you save your sanity.

I’ll leave you with one last item.   This is for all the bakers out there: fucking whipping cream.  I’ve tried to avoid the f__ word in this blog but it is time to break it out.  Everyone who is ever cracked open a cook book knows that measurements for cream come in 1/2 cup, 1 cup or 2 cups.  The last few years we’ve seen companies maintain their competitive pricing by secretly downsizing the container and offering less product.  1 Litre has become 975 or 950 mL and so forth so that the decrease is imperceptible.  Except cream.  Cream is one of those essential cooking items used in precise measurements and it has always been sold in cartons of 250, 500 and 1000 mL.  Until now.  Recently, I bought a carton of 473mL of whipping cream.  Who sells whipping cream in non-divisible amounts?  It’s like selling pants with one leg at 32″ and the other leg at 34″.  It makes no sense.  Even if you’re one of those squint yer eye and guesstimate kind of cooks, 27 mL is a serious shortfall for recipes that desire the depth and creaminess of well, cream.  My solution:  buy more than you need and put whip cream on your coffee.  F__ em’.  Get fat and die of heart disease.  They just lost 10 years of cream purchases from me.  Or go vegan and stop using cream altogether but that seems like unnecessary suffering to me.  Either way, revenge is its own kind of brilliance.

 

 

 

My Daughter Burps Like a Truck Driver

My daughter burps like a truck driver. She somehow lets out low, prolonged belches like it’s nobody’s business.  She probably learned it from her big brother but even he can’t burp like she can.  She is almost three.  She stands on her tippy toes and tries to spin like a ballerina.  She wears taffeta and adores rhinestones.  She can also fart like an old man on a warm bench in July.  She will suddenly fart, say “fart” and then chuckle like a self satisfied old man on a warm…… never mind, you get the picture.

I suppose admonishment is what is called for in these situations but secretly, I’m impressed.  Her older brother is definitely impressed.  Yeah, we insist she says, “Excuse me.”  But, she also knows that every time she either farts or burps, our eyes will open wide and then a smile will follow and then a suppressed smile will follow after that.  She’s got the world by the balls and she knows it.

Kids are good fun.  If only we remember to laugh before we scold.   I doubt my daughter will take her burping or farting beyond her middle school years.  If she does, I may be risking the chance at future grandchildren or she marries a truck driver.  I just hopes she never stops laughing.  Even at her own jokes.

Her eight year old brother has an equally impressive talent that would offend good company.  Here is his effeminate characterization of a fashionista:

“Oh. My. God.  Look at my nails.  They are sooooo glamorous.”  Hand postured outwards, head tilted sideways, a dramatic roll of the eyes.

“Oh my goodness.  Look at what I’m wearing. I’m sooooo perfect.”  Swagger, provocative sideways shoulder glance.  Flittering eyelids. Big flashy smile.

The flashy smile gets me every time.  Only because eight year old boys are a toothy mixture of large adult teeth and awkward gaps where the adult teeth have yet to come in.

I lamely tried to copy my son’s antics one day when I was attempting to regale my friends with humorous stories about my children.   Either my son is not as funny as I think he is or I’m not funny telling people how funny my son is because they gave those painful polite chuckles when your story has fallen flat but they are trying to humor you.

We have a family joke that we’ve been riffing on for  a couple of years now.   It starts off by someone directing serious attention at another person.

“Son, I have something very serious to tell you.”  This is followed by son’s eyes getting wide and concerned looking.

Big sigh. “Okay, this is really hard to tell you.” Another big sigh. “I’m not sure if I should.”   Kid’s eyes are starting to look scared now.

“What I’m about to say may shock you.”  Look down.  Pause.  Kid has stopped breathing.

Look up with a slight twinkle in the eye. “I LOVE YOU.” Big grin.  Kids exhales a huge sigh of relief and then gives you a crazy smile.

We randomly initiate these exchanges whenever the mood hits us, trying to fool the person so they don’t catch on the I Love You bit is coming.  My son loves it and likes to parlay off of me and his father.  His little sister caught on to the concept this year except she can’t keep a straight face yet.  She does a lot of sighing while she’s trying to suppress a huge grin.  When we’ve all forgotten to play the I LOVE YOU game for awhile, it’s really fun to remember to trick someone you love.

I realize this type of humor has a shelf life along with flaxen haired dolls and G rated movies.  But, right now, it is pretty awesome.  Take that Jon Stewart and Amy Schumer.

 

What a Silverback Gorilla Taught Me About Diplomacy

I live in Calgary, Alberta.  We have an excellent zoo in our city and I have held an annual membership for eight straight years.  Let me deal with the zoo detractors now:  yes, keeping an animal in a cage is not cool, even if it is for educational purposes but let’s face it, city folk are desensitized to cramped habitat.  Our day is broken up into compartmentalized spaces:  our homes, our work, box stores, grocery stores and the gym.  When a walk in the forest or jungle isn’t an option, the next best thing is distraction. When I take my family to the zoo, we derive entertainment from watching the animals and the animals derive entertainment from watching us.  People watching is an actual thing; sit on a bench in a mall or attend a Comic-Con convention.  You get the picture.

Needless to say, we have gone to the zoo A LOT.  My eight year old son would rather not go to the zoo now but he loves his little sister and she loves the zoo.  She is two years old and the last time we went, we rode the carousel which has lovely ornate animals carved out of wood.  On her first ride (because, believe me, there were several) she started pointing and naming off all the animals: giraffe, tiger, penguin, lion, gorilla, seal, lizard, horse, hippopotamus (yes, all 5 syllables). Wow.  I actually took it for granted she was learning anything. Though, I doubt she’s concerned about habitat loss or species endangerment.  For myself, especially on quiet days when the zookeepers are starved for human interaction, I have been able to acquire juicy tidbits of zoo gossip. For example, the female hippopotamus is a bitch.  There is only one breeding pair and she is on husband #2.  She was originally paired with a fairly elderly fellow and she gave him a hard time whenever the mood suited her.  Whereas her dark grey body was smooth and folded into healthy rolls of fat, his skin was usually lacerated and puffy with pink contusions caused by her short tempered nips.  Have you ever seen hippopotamus teeth?  Love nips these were not.  He eventually died of old age but his health was made poorer by domestic abuse.   Alas, husband #2 is now showing the same tell tale signs of  abuse.  How quickly the honeymoon phase ends.

It is no surprise the best zoo gossip can be found with the gorilla troop.  Their social dynamics are most akin to ours being that both our genera started up the same family ladder.   They wrestle, tease one another, attempt displays of bravado or intimidation, nit pic each other – literally, because grooming is an important habit and generally look occupied with mutual observation and boredom.  Which is the same look I have when I’m sitting at the mall waiting for my daughter to finish up with the play area.  These play areas are usually a boxed in assortment of car and animal moulds finished with spray paint and a flexible veneer so the kids can slide easily on and off.  The walls are padded and have the occasional placement of puzzle boards with things that swish, grumble and clack when moved.  All the parents are usually numb with a mixture of boredom and fatigue and their faces are aglow with smartphone reverie.  At least the bench seats against the interior enclosure are padded.  And you have to take off your shoes so you get to sit there in socked feet.  In retrospect, I’ve experienced the anthropomorphized version of a gorilla enclosure.  The gorillas have moulded trees and rocks , ample straw to lay about and enrichment activities all the while barefoot and shrouded in the glow of smartphone camera flashes.

The Calgary zoo gorilla troop is special because of one member in particular: Kakinga.  He is the silverback gorilla or the leader of the troop.  He is paternal, calm and good natured.  He rarely if ever displays outward signs of aggression and steps in during family disputes only after holding back and observing, allowing the fractious members time to sort it out themselves.  15 years ago, a female gorilla, Zuri was brought to Calgary after a failed attempt to integrate her into the troop at the Toronto zoo.  The problem was Zuri acted too human.  She had been bottle fed and handled by the zookeepers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs and had inadvertently picked up some of their habits and behavior.  The Calgary troop and Kakinga were her best chance at integration and seven years after her introduction, she successfully birthed a baby girl, Yewande.  What was the more significant aspect of this story was Zuri didn’t know how to be a gorilla mom after her experiences with humans.  The Calgary zookeepers taught Yewande to feed on a bottle offered through the cage mesh to avoid handling her and  Kakinga took over the majority of the parenting. I observed first hand Zuri wandering away from Yewande, leaving her young daughter in potentially hazardous situations and Kakinga quickly sauntering over to his daughter to gently nudge her to safer play and feeding areas.  He has allowed her and her playmates easy access to his private space, demonstrating exceptional patience and gentleness for a silverback.  Kakinga’s demeanor is so gentle, there was an attempt to introduce two juvenile males to the troop.  Kakinga, it turns out, is no dummy.  The males were not allowed to join the troop, securing Kakinga’s dominance and eliminating any possibility of future squabbles.

There are long panes of windows that cover roughly a third of the enclosure’s perimeter.  The female gorillas sometimes prop their feet up against the window, rest lazily on the straw while chewing their cud and take the occasional interested glance at the children smooshing their faces against the glass.  There is one gorilla that likes to randomly thump the glass to watch visitors’ startled reactions.  I’ve never seen Kakinga do this.  He displays proper gorilla etiquette, keeping his wide, muscled back to us and maintaining the aloofness as befits a noble leader.  Actually, this isn’t entirely true.  Many years ago, before kids, my husband and I went to the zoo.  It was one of those dead winter days, half an hour after the gates had closed for the day and so quiet the zookeeper told us not to rush as he did his final checks through the ape and monkey building.  We moved up to the glass and because there was no one to judge us, we squatted down and half turned our backs to the troop, casting our gaze down to show our submissiveness (yes, I watched “Gorillas in the Mist” with Sigourney Weaver).  Kakinga moved toward the glass and rested his back on the window.  He was inches away from us; he occasionally glanced over his shoulder at us and we kept our gaze down and snuck the occasional look towards him.  The other troop members made half attempts to peer at us but otherwise left Kakinga to inspect us.  We sat there huddled like that for half an hour, impressed by the strength and presence of his mass and honored that he wanted to be close to us.  We had to leave when the zookeeper came for the final sweep but I could have stayed there for hours just for the remarkable feeling of humbleness that had overwhelmed me.

Given the question of what  I admire in a person, I would have to reference my knowledge of Kakinga: patience, compassion, intelligence and an innate goodness.   As a result, his troop is happy, rambunctious and relaxed.  I like to think I’ve taken a few pages from his playbook and given my own family that same sense of safety and caring.  More importantly, I’ve learned to step back and observe and wait.  We don’t do it enough, I think:  the idea of relinquishing control to give others the opportunity to make mistakes and solve their own problems.   There is always someone out there willing to solve your problems.  They seem to live in a special land called infomercial or in the self-help section at Chapters.  Maybe we need to trust ourselves more and listen to our instincts.   While we’re busying ourselves trying to save the animals, we should pause to learn how they can save us.

 

The Universe Is Telling Me Something

My family does not belong to a church, cult or club.  We are not atheists and we are not nihilists.  We may be agnostic but we’re not willing to commit to the definition.  We definitely believe in fate and we believe in the Universe.   If coincidence coincides with either of the former two, then we believe in coincidence.  Oh yeah, were animists too.

Why does this matter?  Because, life is hard.  We have to make choices and sometimes the choices paralyze us with their infinite amount of outcomes.  Your belief system  gives you the zeros and ones for your decision making circuitry.  Which brings me to Mr. Bean.   Mr. Bean, the character conceived and played by British actor Rowan Atkinson is contemporary Charlie Chaplin, his foibles acted out in pantomime.  Recently, Mr. Bean helped tip the balance in a decision I needed to make.

Here’s the backstory:  I was laid off in November.  My husband is at a start up oil & gas company and is working for free until they get financing.  There is no guarantee they will get financing.  We are living off my severance.   For a smart, sensible person, spending money on fancy trips, new cars or new clothes would seem a foolhardy scheme.  My husband and I are very sensible people and I am the spendthrift in our family.  BUT, my sister and her husband and son are going to France in June.  They live in Perth, Australia and my sister is finishing her articles in 6 weeks.  My brother-in-law is a native of Marseille and he will be visiting his family and taking his son, the history buff, to various WWII historical sites.  He used to be a tour guide; he loves organizing and touring around and he and his Marseille family would be very excited for us to visit.  I made a trip when I was 19 and my then future brother-in-law and his family were amazing hosts.  I have also not seen my sister or my nephew for more than two years.  I would be using our savings to go to France with my 8 year old and 3 year old (she turns 3 in May).  Going to France is insane right?  Except, the Universe started whispering in my ear.

It started with a documentary about the Barkley Marathon.  It is considered one of the world’s most difficult marathons and is based in Wartburg,Tennessee.  Only 16 people have finished since its inception in 1986.  The year of filming, 3 people finished.  What was particularly astonishing was the final finisher, Jared Campbell, stumbled to the finish with only 18 minutes to spare before the qualifying 60 hours ended.  It was a mind boggling  accomplishment for a him, revealing in interview clips he had embarked on a dramatic life change several years ago brought about by the simultaneous death of his father and a ten year relationship.  He had been raised to make safe choices and wait until after the house, career and kids before taking those long planned for adventures. But, the premature death of his own father one year before retirement crystallized his understanding of the folly of waiting.  Life isn’t just too short, it’s not guaranteed.

The following day, I was chatting with the Moms in front of the school. Spring break was starting in a couple of days and we were all sharing our plans.  Everyone has been affected in some way by the recession.  We all agreed we were staying home for the break but also considering if we should plan any trips for the year or if the expenditure was a bad idea.  One mother piped up, ” You can’t wait on these things.  I just had a friend die of brain cancer.  She was my age with children.  I have another friend with brain cancer.   She might not live another year.”  Damn.   The Universe was starting to talk louder now.

I was starting to look for flights at this point and my husband caught on with my sudden desire to brush up on French vocabulary. “J’aime le vin et fromage.”  Thank you Translator App.  My sensible husband was annoyed and slightly hostile to the idea but we’ve been together  12 years now so he also knew by the look in my eyes that it was probably going to happen. This is how it works:  I let him try to talk me out of something, essentially using him to help me make decisions while considering all the cons and eliminating emotional bias.  We go through this for several days and if I waffle or give in, then I wasn’t really that set on the idea or I realize it was a bad idea after all.  If I dig in my heels, then my husband knows it is important and and we proceed at that point.  It helps I’m pragmatic and frugal and rarely make frivolous decisions.  I did buy an antique armoire once on impulse that took up a third of the bedroom floor space and wasn’t deep enough to hold any hangers rendering it essentially useless.  I eventually sold it at a loss of $400.  It terms of life time fails, that armoire still ranks #1.

Eventually, the Universe brought in Mr. Bean.  The last night of school is family movie night.  Picking a PG movie that the kids and adults will both like is a feat in of itself.  I hate Disney (actually, I don’t hate Disney, I just can’t handle the emotionally draining moments of death – someone always dies) and I can tolerate Pixar but really, the kids wind up watching a lot of documentaries.  My son has knowledge of extremely esoteric subject matter.  Last night, only 2 minutes into our search on Netflix, there was an Aha! and Mr. Bean’s Holiday was chosen.  I had never watched it before, didn’t even bother reading the premise but I knew Mr. Bean wouldn’t swear or shoot anyone.   And guess what?  Mr. Bean wins a holiday….to the south of France.  There is landscape porn throughout the whole movie and two times my toddler yelled out, “I want to go there!”  Okay, Universe.  I get it.

So, the travel agent is starting to look for flights.  My husband said it was okay (but he will have to work -and live like a bachelor for three weeks).  If all goes well, we leave May 28th.  And if coincidence has anything to do with it, I’ll see Rowan Atkinson running by in a Marseille marathon, right where he should be.

 

I Wish Bill Murray Was My Dad

The best dream I ever had was about five years ago.  I walked into a delicatessen with linoleum squares of white and green and a few round tables with a scattering of black chairs.  Sitting at one of the tables was my dad, Bill Murray.  He greeted me with a warm hug and we sat down and had a great chat over a great cup of coffee.  Soon, my other dad, William Shatner arrived, kissed Bill on the cheek and sat down beside him.  The dream was short but the feeling of warmth and goodwill lingered after I woke up.   I don’t have a secret desire for two gay dads but the dream resolved a mutual admiration for both actors.  I have read enough magazine articles about both men to guess that Bill is a no nonsense kind of dad, affectionate but not indulgent and Will is charming in a self-aggrandizing kind of way- the parent that would likely get the eye rolls from the kids.   I imagine they would be a dynamic power couple, both charismatic and rambunctious; dinner guests would be left roiling on the carpeted floor as the two men fed each other lines, their cheeks rosy with wine and good humor.

Bill Murray has received an iconic status of late.   I have seen stenciled silhouettes of his face on T-shirts and on vehicle decals.  He has become cool for a hipster race of Gen Y’s and Millennials that watched Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Saturday Night Live before his sublime casting in Lost in Translation.  His morbid detachment – the stone face is his coup de grace in high brow and low brow theatrics -is the zeitgeist of an overstimulated populous with an unrelenting social media feed of Donald Trump, Middle Eastern terror groups, and YouTube stars.  He is the de facto guy everyone wants to hang out with while we wait out the maelstrom.

William Shatner looks like my Mom.  He really, really looks like my maternal side of the family.  The bulbous nose framed by padded red cheeks and wide, large eyes is a hallmark of my mother’s family.  He was also born in Canada and is an alumnus of my alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end but it really helps to have a few similarities when you idolize someone.  Why would anyone idolize William Shatner, you say?  Well, he has a lot of spunk; he’s still working at 84 years.  He has a sassy kind of appeal – he told his loyal Star Trek fans to get a life (let’s be honest they needed to hear it) but he also humbled down by 2011 to address an audience at McGill University and told them: “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time, and look what I got.”  And let’s be honest, any person who has the cajones to release multiple spoken word albums that are actually good, has my respect.

On introspection,  why does a 37 year old woman look up to older men for life guidance?  What happened to my own parents?  What happened to Gloria Steinem for feminist idealism or Kristy Wiig for witty realism (or  is it raunchy realism?)?  Let’s face it, we rarely fantasize about being our parents.  We spend half our lives trying to make improvements on their model with later epiphany we are maddeningly similar.  As women we are attuned to the flaws of other women.  That is why we get dressed up for a night out with the gals but don’t even bother to shave when it’s date night with our husbands.  We are always trying to impress other women hence the new skirt and freshly cut hair.  Women are women’s biggest critics.  Men are happy we’re warm and smell like soap.  If you happen to have shaved, they interpret it as open for business.   Some social anthropologist will say something to the effect this is an attempt to place us higher in the social pecking order as to appear more attractive to a potential mate.  I think women are just plain jerks.  Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of really great friends that are supportive and kind.  But, we are all competing all of the time.   We offer up ourselves as exemplars of wifery, motherhood and professional elitism when our girlfriends suffer self-doubt.   This is where the foundations are laid as future mother-in-laws.  We all know the universality of mother-in-laws. They take your 20’s self delusions of grandeur and knock them down a peg or two.  If you are awesome friends with your mother-in-law you need to entertain the possibility she a)is an alien b)is a man disguised as a woman or c)does not have a competitive bone in her body and can be classified as a subspecies of jellyfish.

So yeah, I think it would be awesome if Bill Murray and William Shatner were my dads. Perhaps their example of self-effacing humor and light banter would make me a better person.  I might be less inclined to judge other people’s follies and laugh more at my own.  And, for my future daughter-in-law and son-in-law, I send you a  wish:  that visits from your future mother-in-law are whimsical and fun; that my padded cheeks are rosy and filled to the brim with good humor and kindness. And if you have delusions of grandeur, I promise to bring you back to earth.

 

Cruel Shoes

I have a two year old daughter.  She will be three in three months and what I find remarkable is how enamored she is with beautiful things.  This is not a girl thing per se as I have distinct memories of my son adorning himself with gaudy faux diamond bracelets and Mardi Gras beads until the little girls in his daycare harassed him about wearing jewellery.  They clearly thought bling was exclusive fashion for females but I was okay with it because I had seen rappers get away with giant festoons of gold around their necks.  It was also a great way to get rid of all the tacky jewellery I had been given.  Your mother-in-law can’t begrudge an uber cute three year old boy tromping around the house wearing the bear claw necklace she gave you.

I was a little girl once and there are pictures of me in dresses but I also remember my older sister begging me to wear them.  She was six years older and nothing pleased her more than tying my hair up in little ponytails or braids and dressing me up in scarves, dresses and bows.  The rest of the time I was happy to roam in jeans and shirts and to this day, people are surprised when I show up to Christmas parties with makeup on.   Which is why I’m so intrigued by my daughter.  She  insists dresses are de rigueur daily wear.  She is an unabashed mugger with sunglasses on and can’t fathom why her black velvet slippers aren’t practical for a blizzard.

Steve Martin came up with a great skit back in the 70’s to lampoon women’s painful obsession with fashion.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Carlo disappeared into the back room for a moment, and then reappeared carrying an ordinary shoe box. He took off the lid and removed a hideous pair of black and white pumps. But this was not an ordinary pair of black and white pumps; both were left feet, one had a right angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions. The other shoe was six inches long and was curved inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place.

Carlo spoke hesitantly, ‘Now you see…they’re not fit for humans.’

‘Put them on me.’

‘But…’

‘Put them on me!’

Carlo knew all arguments were useless. He knelt down before her and forced the feet into the shoes.

The screams were incredible.

Anna crawled over to the mirror and held her bloody feet up where she could see.

‘I like them.'”

Full disclosure:  I love, love shoes.  If I had unlimited wealth, I would be that woman with three walk in closets full of shoes.  I am also a size 11 which is a cruel twist in nature’s imperative to have me beautify for a mate.  I am very proud of a pair of gold sneakers with Chinese embroidery on the side.  I wear these to the theater to fit in with the cool artist types.

I suppose it is somewhat hereditary that my daughter loves, loves her little brown cowboy boots.  We were in Nashville last spring and we discovered that not only is this a magnificently cool city with a great vibe and an amazing music scene but it is also a great place to buy three cowboy boots for the price of one.  They need some way of attiring the masses in country uniform and I’m guessing this is the cheapest place on earth to buy leather boots.  That is saying a lot from a gal from Calgary, Alberta – host to the world famous Calgary Stampede and major shopping hub in cowboy country.   We bought one pair for our little girl and two pairs for our son because my son seemed enthralled by the boots and we weren’t sure if our daughter would find them comfortable.  My son settled on a brown pair and red pair (but only after confirming with sales staff that the red pair were boy’s boots – sales staff are not going to crush the enthusiasm of a seven year old boy in a town that thrives on dreams).   It was nearly impossible to take those brown little boots off of her.  I didn’t know a two year old could strut but she sure did.   It was only the Canadian winter that forced those boots off her finally.

We have had an unseasonably warm February this year.  There were more days above + 5C in a month which usually sees temperatures below -5C.  The snow has all melted and the ice rinks are slushy pools.  My daughter came to me a week ago and asked if she could wear her cowboy boots. “They make me feel good,” she said.  Who can argue with that?  We got her boots and she started putting them on.  Except, 9 months had passed and she had grown.  With a squinty look of pain, she forced her left foot into the boot.  I asked,”Are you in pain?” “No.” She let out a gaspy breath as she forced the right foot into the other boot.  I asked, “Are they comfortable?” “Yes.”  She hobbled out the door with a smile on her face.  I knew what this meant. The cowboy boots had become her Cruel Boots.  She wore them for one hour before she discarded them and ran around in socks.  But, it didn’t stop her from putting them on the next day. Or the day after.

In three months it will be her birthday.  I am buying her a new pair of cowboy boots and the Cruel Boots will quietly disappear.  I suspect there will be other cruel shoes and I will continue to nudge my daughter to more humane choices.  That is my job. Everyone has their cruel shoes; those beautiful impractical things that imperil our common sense and make us feel good.  The trick is knowing when to caste them off and run around free.