Dinner Party

Peas mashed on the table,
Potatoes combed through her hair.
Juice running over and down
The sides of her chair.

Bib stained by the carrots
She ate yesterday at noon.
Washed twice; it’ll never come out
And she’ll just smear more in with her spoon.

Beets were the big mistake,
Turning her fingers purple with dye,
Which she then rubbed all over her face
Before sticking herself in the eye.

There’s parsnips on my ceiling
Flung up by a chubby hand,
And sweet potato on my walls –
I guess she prefers fresh, not canned.

My kitchen has been trashed
By a toddler food fight of one.
How can such a tiny child
Wreak so much havoc before she’s done?!

Those whom the gods wish to drive insane, they first send on road trips

Another disadvantage of being almost 50 was recently brought home to me.  Along with muscle tone and the ability to drink until 4:00 a.m. and still get up for work, it would appear certain driving skills also diminish with age.  I’m still a good driver, but for a couple of years now finding my way from point A to B without incident has been getting more difficult.  Since I’m planning a life of travel after retirement, this is worrisome.  How can I expect to hike from Dublin to Dingle if I can’t find my way to a city an hour away from my house?

I get incredibly stressed when driving to new places now.  The smallest conversation with anyone in the car at the exact wrong time can distract me enough to miss my exit.  Then I freak out because I don’t know how to get back to where I was going.  So this year I purchased a GPS to put an end to the problem.  Suffice to say, it hasn’t been the godsend I expected it to be.

You know those stories you read about people who died because they trustingly followed their GPS until they were stuck in the middle of nowhere?  It’s not as bizarre a turn of events as one would suppose. I took my daughter, Madeline, to the open house at Waterloo University this past weekend, which is about an hour and twenty minutes west of Oakville.  I didn’t start the GPS right away because I figured I wouldn’t need it until I got near Waterloo. Actually, I got lost before I even left town.

Madeline’s first tour was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., so we left at 10:00 a.m. – estimated ETA, 11:30.  Driving up a main Oakville artery, I saw the 401 East exit and passed it, watching expectantly for the 401 West sign to make an appearance, which should have occurred within the next 30 seconds.  I saw nothing.  After driving for almost 2 kilometers I realized I was in cow country.  After another half kilometer of growing unease, I pulled into a car lot to ask for directions and was told the 401 West exit was 2 kilometers behind me. So back we went and there was the 401 West exit, clear as day.  I have no idea how I missed the sign on the other side of the road but I’m going with “it was blocked by some construction signs that distracted me.”

Finally on our way after our 20 minute detour, I was fine until we got to Waterloo (after the 401 snafu I had turned the GPS on).  However, there is a point, after GPS gal tells you to “take exit 8”, where the road splits and #8 continues to the right, and the signs indicate that the left lane is for “King Street downtown.”  It was at this juncture that the GPS barked, “stay left on Highway 8.”  I panicked as I watched the signs approaching, clearly stating #8 was on the right, going 110 clicks and running out of time to make a decision.  I finally decided to believe that the “8” was correct but the “left” was wrong and took the #8 exit.  Before I was halfway through the ramp curve, GPS lady said “recalculating…”  Therein followed ten minutes of continuous direction that had me turning left and right on numerous narrow, 60 year old side streets until we met up with…King Street. Headed downtown.  I drove down King, profoundly wishing it was possible to strangle an inanimate object.

The GPS did manage to get us to the university, where its usefulness ended for the time being. I then discovered that manmade signs are no less fallible than the GPS programming.  There was a huge, mostly empty parking lot to the left, but signs saying “event parking” to the right.  After following the signs to the right we drove through campus only to find ourselves in (1) a permit only parking lot, (2) a dead end construction road and (3) a dead end loading zone. After the third misdirection I threw the van into reverse with profane energy, during which my daughter kept wisely silent.

We finally made our way back to a city street and drove around in a square, deducing that eventually we would emerge once again on University Avenue, which we did.  This time I turned left into the parking lot, followed those “event parking” signs down a road that appeared to curve right into the woods and made me so nervous I pulled a U-y and finally found the deserted lot, with the barriers up and no signs about event parking anywhere.  I decided a parking ticket would be less hassle than trying to figure out all these signs and parked.

All this driving around in circles made Madeline late for her residence tour, but fortunately they were running so many it didn’t really matter.  Afterwards, my difficulty with reading the campus map made us late for the first lecture.  Madeline had trouble reading it as well – apparently map dyslexia is hereditary.  By the end of the day, however, we had walked through the same area four times and were beginning to recognize our surroundings – just in time for the event to end. Now we had to find our way back to the car.

The ride home was quiet and uneventful, because in that direction I recognize all the signs and know where I’m going.  It’s a good thing I do, because the GPS failed to recognize that Highway 8 East automatically turns into the 401.  No exit exists, so the machine was unnaturally silent all the way to Oakville, wherein it suddenly piped up again, advising me to get off the highway prematurely and take a route home that would have added fifteen minutes to our trip.

It may be my dreams of driving all over Canada are going to need an adjustment. I had been planning to either buy a small camper or outfit my minivan into something I can sleep in.  But perhaps, in light of recent events, I should replace those ideas with something more suited to my skill set.  Like a bus schedule.

Looks hard to miss, doesn't it
Looks hard to miss, doesn’t it

Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington

If you asked me to suggest a place to spend a February afternoon in Ontario, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington would not have been the first thing that came to mind…or the second, or even the seventh.  Gardens…February…no.

The RBG is where I found myself yesterday, however.  The Orchid Society was hosting their annual show.  I didn’t know there was an Orchid Society, let alone a show, but my daughter’s art class had been invited to participate with a display of their artwork.  So of course we had to go – it’s not every day your child’s artistic efforts are on public display.

It turns out the RBG is a pretty cool place to go even in winter.  Their main building holds several atriums of plants from all over the world.  In addition to the orchid show, they were also hosting a Frog Show described as “ribbiting!” on the poster. I hadn’t gone there with the thought of writing an article in mind, so we just had a nice mosey around.

We ventured in, welcoming the heat coming from the temperature controlled rooms, although I was wishing I had hung up my coat by the time we entered the Mediterranean Room…the temperature required to keep Chilean plants at their best is not the greatest environment for Canadian winter fashion.

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The frogs were on display and clearly not letting their celebrity status interfere with their regular routine…most were sleeping.  The ones that were awake were still not moving.  In fact I didn’t see a single frog so much as flex a flipper the entire time.  Those heat lamps must be really relaxing.

Waxy Monkey Frog
Waxy Monkey Frog

We had a tour of the orchid room which was pretty, but I was clearly out of my element.  I don’t usually notice flowers; I never buy any and my husband has learned not to get me plants for any special occasion unless he secretly wants them himself, because I will thank him, put it on the table, and not notice it again until a spider swinging on a withered branch catches my eye.  Clearly hours had gone into the creation of these orchid displays and ribbons for first, second and third prize were pinned to the winners.

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After the orchid room we went in search of the high school’s art display.  All the kids’ drawings and paintings had been hung on a wall except for Madeline’s, which was displayed separate and apart on its own easel – I am assuming for no reason other than maternal pride they did so because hers was the best one.

 

Madeline's orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper
Madeline’s orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper

The RBG is the largest botanical garden in Canada and a National Historic Site with 2450 acres of nature on display.  They regularly hold lectures and host school trips to educate the public on the importance of conservation.  There are 27 km of hiking trails, two canoe launches and picnic grounds.  It also manages one of the largest freshwater marshlands in North America. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children 4-12; kids younger than 4 are free.  Trail users do not pay admission, just parking at meters located at all trailheads.  Leashed pets are welcome in the outdoor garden areas.  The RBG is fully accessible and companion animals are welcome throughout the entire facility.  There is a no smoking policy in effect on the entire property.

Directions:  From Toronto take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road and go south on Waterdown to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West and travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

From Kitchener: take Hwy 401 E to Hwy 6 S. Follow Hwy 6 S for about 20 minutes to the York Road exit; make a left and then a right on the new Plains Road. Drive south over the 403. Turn left at the lights; continue on Plains Road West for about 1 km; the RBG will be on your right.

From Niagara/US:  take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road. Drive  south to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West; travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

Winter brings the blahs

This time of year I don’t go out much – kind of a buzzkill for a supposed travel blog.  I have never really been interested in spending time outside in winter, at least as an adult.  I’m not into winter sports at all, and my asthma is aggravated by cold air, so even a walk on a sunny day doesn’t hold a lot of allure for me.  I am in a state of semi-hibernation for 8 to 12 weeks until my senses detect the first warming of the winds in spring.

As a child I don’t remember ever being cold.  But then I was wearing a skidoo suit, which every child  under the age of 13 wore from November to March.  This was before tween fashion and Baby Gap.  Back then children were dressed for utility, and since we spent all day walking, playing, rolling and falling in snow, we all had ski-doo suits.  Now only people actually driving a ski-doo wear them – I assume.  I actually haven’t seen anyone on a ski-doo in over 20 years.  That’s what happens when you move to the city.

This time of year I think about my childhood a lot, brought on by a mixture of the usual bummed out feeling one gets when the holiday season is over, and the contemplation that another 12 months of god knows what stretches before me.  My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary all take place during the last week of January, so it bring a lot of reminiscing.  After the holidays nothing much happens around here until the sap starts to run in spring, and the cold, dark days create a perfect atmosphere for brooding.  It’s at this time of year I always feel an overwhelming urge to go home.

I grew up in Midland, Ontario, population 10,000, a little town carved out of the Canadian forest a hundred years earlier when a Georgian Bay location, grain shipping and the railroad made it an attractive spot for early settlers.  When the first subdivision was built in 1970, it was simply one long street cut through this bush, so all houses on both sides backed onto the woods.  My parents bought one of the first houses on this street.  They sold it a few years later and bought a bigger one up the street, but it never really grew on them and they eventually sold it and bought a nicer house with a pool right across the street.

My house
My house

No sidewalks or city parks where I grew up.  We walked to school down a woodland path, with squirrels, grasshoppers and rabbits bounding out of our way every morning.  The trees eventually gave way to a large meadow that boasted three acres of buttercups, wild berry bushes, and what we called “wheat grass” swaying in the breeze.  My friends and I would make nests in the long grass and pretend we were birds.  We took picnic lunches with us and stayed all day, invisible to anyone walking by on the path.  There was an old stone foundation, the early settlement house once attached to it long gone, where teenagers would go to smoke and smash beer bottles – at least, this was our surmise.  We never actually saw anyone, but the bottom of the ruin was littered with butts, broken glass, and for some reason, spent shotgun shells – we did occasionally hear the faint roar of a gun during hunting season.  If you bypassed the meadow and continued down the path you would reach a swamp, where we spent hours catching tadpoles.

So many memories of my childhood took place in that bush.  As the last generation of children still allowed to play unsupervised, we were outside morning, noon and night, only going home to eat and sleep.  We built tree houses at a height and of a structural integrity that would give today’s parents heart failure and probably earn them a visit from Children’s Services.  We spent hours wading in the swamp with nets, catching small fish, frogs and tadpoles, leaving our shoes on the shore with no thought of contracting possible injury or illness.  We picked wild apples off the trees and buckets of wild raspberries and blackberries, no pesticides to worry about.  The ghostly tang of those berries is still on my tongue, forever spoiling any chance of enjoying the bland berries sold at today’s supermarkets.  We even had a Kissing Tree, a huge sprawling maple with branches that bent to the ground, perfect for climbing.  Courting couples for years had carved their initials in that tree.  My boyfriend climbed so high to carve our initials that the branch he was standing on broke and he fell 10 feet before becoming caught by the lower branches.

No rules, no supervision, a glorious freedom to explore and learn that today’s children rarely experience.  There was the occasional mischief of course.  One day we decided it would be great fun to hide behind an embankment and throw acorns at passing cars – until one stopped and the driver got out, sending us running into the swamp in a blind panic to hide.  My friend Sharon got stuck in the mud and lost her shoes – I never found out how she explained that one to her mother.  Another day one of the boys found an old jean jacket and decided to see if it would burn.  Well it did – spectacularly.  He picked it up and ran down the path with it, intending to throw it into the swamp.  However the flames falling off the jacket ignited the leaves that had been on the ground drying for decades.  The resultant bush fire brought the fire department, which doused the small flames and marched said boy off to his father.  We didn’t see him again for two weeks.

Once we started Grade 9, we walked up our street to the high school, no more woodland path.  The picnics and swamp expeditions ended, replaced by purposeful loitering and a lot of flirting under the street lamp on my corner, where we would sit literally for hours until our mothers called us home.  The Kissing Tree was forgotten – real kisses now, from that same boy who, after twenty years apart, is now my husband.  He swears he had no idea jean jackets were that flammable.

We have a collective passel of five children, ages 11 to 19.  None of them have ever seen a swamp, or climbed a tree.  They couldn’t build a box, let alone a tree fort.  We both feel they have missed out on something important, a connection to nature and life experience they never had a chance to explore.  They get a small taste of it on family vacations to Muskoka, but it’s a drive-by experience only.

Soon they will spread their wings and leave the nest and we are thinking about what we will do with ourselves once they’re gone.  We would like to leave the city and live in the country again, or another small town.  Someplace that reminds us of the home that now exists only in our memories.  The woods are gone, the path paved over.  Houses stand as headstones on the graveyard of our meadow, long ago buried by an expansion to the original subdivision.  Some unknown plant assassin even cut down The Kissing Tree.

It is said that as one nears the end of their life, the urge to return home grows strong.  We are not quite 50 but already feeling the pull.  But what do you do if home is no longer there?

You brood, wistfully.  And wait for spring.

Age is just a number – except when it’s a really big one

Another holiday season is over and a new year has begun. In 18 days I am turning 48 and all I can say is…someone, somewhere, must have made a serious clerical error.

48 – already? Birthdays are now less something to anticipate and more a milestone to be regarded with ever-increasing anxiety and panic. When my mom was 48 I was 26, an employed university graduate and engaged. My youngest child is currently 11 – when she is 26, I will be…oh my god…SIXTY-THREE.

It’s disconcerting to realize I am almost 50 years old and other than three replications of my DNA eating me out of house and home, I have almost nothing to show for my sojourn on this earth. Raising the kids is fun (did I say that out loud?) but these days I have little else to give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I own nothing, have built nothing, and have created nothing beyond my embryonic writing forays.

I spend my days at a tedious job offering no fulfilment whatsoever and my evenings taking care of my family, reading or watching TV. I am by nature a solitary loner who regards others’ attempts to engage me with annoyance and mild suspicion, so the fact that I rarely go out or talk to other humans doesn’t really bother me. My only friend and I largely communicate through an ongoing Words With Friends game – I haven’t seen her in person in three years. Yet it is disconcerting to realize that if I died tomorrow, the only evidence of my death would be the lack of activity on my Facebook page and an empty chair at my desk that would be filled with another breathing sack of mostly water within a week. Statistically speaking, I likely have at least another productive 20 years left but I’m already feeling a burning desire to leave some tangible evidence of my existence behind. A published book; perhaps a star named after me; heck, even a clay handprint with my name on it would do at this point. Anything that says “I was here” before I’m not.

Enter the mid-life crisis, a state of being that occurs when you are suddenly hit with the hammer blow of realization that you are going to die; that you are now old enough (technically) to die any day. The total productive years you have remaining are now less than the years you’ve already lived. This sends some people into a tailspin of frenzied, radical life change that non-sufferers often view with disdain, as if they aren’t mature enough to control some urge of temporary insanity. They don’t realize the souls of these people are being crushed by feelings of regret and longing, their behaviour driven by the deafening ticking of their lifespan clock invisibly suspended in front of their face each waking moment (so I’ve been told). People have affairs, change careers, buy sports cars. One guy I know left his wife for a mail order bride from the Phillipines. He’s at least 65, she looks to be around 22. He says they’re in love, and who am I to judge when I’m considering quitting a steady job with benefits to write a cookbook?

People don’t expect to die in their 20s or 30s. Even dying in your 40s from natural causes is pretty rare. But 50? I am now old enough for potential heart failure, liver failure, kidney failure, strokes…my factory parts are reaching the end of their warranty. This new awareness of my impending doom makes me notice things previously ignored. I am re-evaluating my diet, sleep habits and physical activity level with an eye to avoiding future infirmities. I’m hyper-focused on every single ache and pain, blowing it up into a quality of life denouement in my imagination. Pain and stiffness in my hands – arthritis? A muscle twinge in my chest – blocked arteries? A new weakness in certain muscles – ALS? My focus is shifting from what I want to achieve in my ever-dwindling future to the circumstances under which I will eventually check out of this terrestrial hotel. Having sat in a chair in a cubical for eight hours a day five days a week since 1992, I now have stiffness and pain in my hips that makes it difficult to immediately straighten fully when I get off the couch. Visions of walkers and eventual hip replacement surgery have me considering a career change to something more physically demanding, like a dog walker or landscaper. Anything that will keep me moving before I seize up like an unoiled engine is up for consideration.

So I bought a blender to make smoothies, increased my fruit and veggie intake and stopped eating fast food. Other than that I don’t have the resources to change much; there will be no return to school for a journalism or English degree in my future. I am writing every day now though. I have also started yoga and pilates, albeit slowly; my hips are still keeping a hopeful eye out for that walker.

Pie Dough 101

It’s time for Christmas baking, and check out my assistant:

My mega mixer
My mega mixer

This is the $700 industrial model, the same one I had at cooking school. It was on sale at Costco for $299. I couldn’t afford it but I wasn’t about to pass that deal up.

This should make things like pie dough much easier. I am starting to get arthritis in my hands and long bouts of mixing and kneading can be painful. And pie dough is a pain in the ass, which I discovered when I took my basic cook diploma last year. It sounds simple, only three ingredients – flour, shortening and water, yet I managed to take these ingredients and formulate a substance that could be substituted for brick mortar.

First you sift your flour, then drop the shortening in by bits you pinch off. Then you work it through the flour either with your hands or a pastry cutter until you have a bowl of product resembling beach sand. Then you add the water literally a teaspoon at a time – apparently pie dough has the sensitivity of a reality show diva. You work in the water until desired consistency is reached, then put it in the fridge for a half hour. Pie dough works best when cool.

My first attempt started out ok. Everything was sifted, bitted, sanded and trickled upon. The dough looked like it had come out right until I tried to roll it out. It was stiff. It cracked. It stuck to the table, even though it was bone dry, and to the roller, even though that was dusted with flour. Multiple additions of flour to the table surface and the roller only dried the damned thing out more, which by that time resembled a clay pigeon. Everyone else had their dough rolled and were working on their apple filling; I was reworking and reworking this stupid ball of dough, adding water, then flour; nothing worked. I was so frustrated I had tears in my eyes for a good ten minutes. The chef’s assistant came over and helped me with it and we finally managed to roll out enough dough to make two small mini-pies. They tasted ok but the pie crust was way too thick, and you could bang on the top crust with a knife and it didn’t even crack it. I was expecting it to be hard as a rock, but it was eatable. But no blackbird was pecking its way through that pie without a jackhammer.

I got a second chance with another batch of pie dough that had a slightly different ingredient list and process, and that time I was deliberately reckless with my water, making the dough too sticky on purpose. After I took it out of the fridge and dusted it with flour for rolling, it actually turned out way better than my first effort. Still not perfect, but I could roll it much easier and I made four apple turnover-like things out of it that we then deep fried and rolled in brown sugar – a favorite recipe of the Southern States, where the instructor originally hailed from. I’m not sure what they were called since I was still contemplating leaving the kitchen to cry in the parking lot when Chef handed out the recipe, so I didn’t hear a word he said and never even read what they were called. They tasted good, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of deep fried pie.

I remember I did make my apple fillings well – that part tasted great. My husband and kids tasted everything and they thought it was all good, although they agreed with me the pie crust was a bit thick and heavy, but surprisingly no-one said it tasted bad, or dry.

Now that I have my monster mixer, I’ll be giving this pie dough thing another go, and paddle that bitch into submission. No smug bowl of wheat dust is going to get the better of me.

Happy Birthday Meredith

Meredith Rose

Sixteen years ago this day
You first lit up the room with your smile,
Ten pounds, pink and white, with wavy blond hair,
Sparkling eyes you could see for a mile.

From the very first day you were your own boss
Hardly sleeping, throwing toys, food and clothes,
Stealing Cranberry from your big sister,
Punching poor Shelby in the nose.

First day of school; no wallflower, you
Made friends with every kid there by noon.
Dragging Madeline round the playground,
Taking charge of every game, craft and tune.

You grew to a lovely young lady
A great daughter, big sister and friend,
A small spot of trouble, you came through like a champ
Like I always knew you would in the end.

Now here you are, so close to grown up
Your new confidence and strength does impress,
New school and friends, even a new boyfriend
A strapping redhead named Alex, no less.

Whatever you do with your future,
Whatever riches life may carry for you,
Remember, to me, you’ll always be
My baby, my sweet Dithy-boo.

Coffee’s a bitch

As if life wasn’t hard enough. I have an incredibly stressful job, three kids, a husband who sees nothing bothersome about hanging drywall at 10:30 p.m., a messy house, two dogs…but I was holding it all together. The house is not clean, but not dirty. I know where the kids are if not exactly what they are doing. The young dog I can shut up in the kitchen; the old dog went under the couch soon after the young dog’s arrival and is rarely witnessed. The husband…well, you’re fighting a losing battle if you walk by saying “boy it’ll feel great to get out of these clothes” and the tape measure doesn’t so much as waver. Yet I always found some inner strength to keep things going and not completely lose my cool. Until recently, when a month-long experiment conducted because of a horrible hypothesis, came to an unwanted but undeniable conclusion.

I can’t drink coffee anymore.

I’ve been having serious mood swings for about six months now. When they started they lasted only a couple of days, usually the week before that time of the month (I can hear all the men on the blogosphere going “duh!” right now). I assumed that this was a pre-menopausal symptom that would eventually work itself out. Other than the slightly irritating problem of tears trailing down my cheeks as I typed out my boss’s dictation, it didn’t really interfere with my day. But slowly other symptoms began to show themselves. Irritability. Confusion. Lack of focus. Impatience. Exhaustion. Then the mood swings started lasting longer until they encompassed seven days. The slightest question from my children had me snapping. My husband’s attempts at mood-lightening were met with glacial glares. The young dog joined the old one under the couch. It finally occurred to me one night that my kids were spending a lot of time in their rooms. When my husband announced he was thinking of making himself a “man cave” in the garage, I knew it was time to do something.

There began hours of research into menopause and pre-menopause symptoms. An article discussing the changes in a woman’s body affecting her ability to metabolize certain foods caught my attention. One link led to another and soon I was reading about all the side effects of caffeine.

A problem with coffee had not occurred to me because I actually never drank it until 10 years ago. I am a big tea drinker – the Queen would love me. My husband, however, consumes three large cups of coffee every morning. I had tried it a few times before in my youth and always hated it, but tried his coffee and liked it. I still drink tea when I want a hot beverage at all other times of the day, but I started having coffee with him in the morning.

There were no side effects then. I had no noticeable problem until last fall. However, I could not deny that the article I was reading sounded very much like what I was going through. So in the interests of science and family harmony, I decided to skip the coffee for a week.

The effect was dramatic. I slept better, was more clear-headed at work, and my hot temper dissolved like ice cubes in hot chocolate. It was an amazing change. Things my kids did that previously set me off like a rocket now just made me laugh. My husband came out of the garage; I was in such a good mood I even complimented the beard he’d grown.

At the end of ten days, since I felt better, I took a coffee to work. Two days later I took another one. Then on the weekend I had two cups of coffee Sunday morning. By the end of the second week I was drinking it every day again, and all my symptoms came back. I dropped the coffee for another week – back to normal. Started drinking it again – Bitchfest 2014.

It’s tragic, but true. Coffee must be the reason I can’t focus at work. It’s why I don’t feel rested, and it’s why my husband was measuring our neighbor’s couch to see if it would fit along the back wall of the garage.

I am pissed right the hell off. Why should coffee bother me now? Why let me drink it for ten wonderful years and then turn on me like this? There’s no rhyme or reason for it. The only thing I can think of is, like the article said, you lose your tolerance for certain things as you age. My parents stopped drinking alcohol several years ago. They were never more than social drinkers, a Friday night cocktail and one or two drinks with dinner on the weekends, but they enjoyed it. They were forced to give it up, however; it disagreed with them so much that they finally said goodbye. Not so much as a sip of wine during the family reunion toasts now.

I can sympathise with the alcohol intolerance because, wouldn’t you know it, during the same six month period of caffeine testing, I noticed that I can no longer drink alcohol either. One rye and coke doesn’t do anything, but have two and I develop a raging, needle-jabbing-into-my temple, nausea-inducing headache. I can drink beer without pain, but now two put me to sleep.

So at the age of 47, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy – no more alcohol at night, and no more coffee in the morning. I am making a sterling effort to replace them with a healthy herbal tea and lemon, but it’s safe to say life will never be the same. However, my husband is no longer trying to install a woodstove into our garage. So maybe it’s a good thing.

Strength, unity and compassion in wake of tragedy in Ottawa

It is the end of a gut-wrenching week of fear, grief and anger in Canada. Corporal Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment, just 24 years old, was murdered by a deranged gunman with jihadist leanings while he stood ceremonial guard duty at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, unarmed, he was shot twice in the back by a cowardly wretch whose actions and extremism represent the opposite of everything Canada stands for.

Canadians have had several days to reflect on the events in Ottawa, and in this time of grief it brings a small measure of comfort to note that in spite of the pain and suffering caused, we as a nation have much to be proud of, both in the immediate response to the attack and what that response says about our country and its people.

1. When nearby citizens realized what had happened, they did not run for safety – they ran
toward the wounded soldier lying on the ground

Five strangers – a nurse, a lawyer, two soldiers and a former naval officer, ran to Corporal Cirillo’s side with no thought for their own safety, or where the gunman might be. They tried desperately to save him, putting compression on his wounds and administering CPR when he stopped breathing. The lawyer moved to his head and held him, telling him over and over that his family loved him, that everybody was so proud of him. There have been no public reports describing Corporal Cirillo’s condition at the time; we don’t know if he was conscious, if he heard them, if he was frightened, or if it was simply (and mercifully) over too quickly. We do know that these people did their very best to give him every aid and comfort that they could, and tried to fill his last moments with love and respect.

2. They may not be perfect, but our gun laws work

If this incident had happened in America, the gunman would almost assuredly have been armed with more than one gun, all automatic weapons, and would likely have fired at anyone who got in his way. In Canada, however, it is next to impossible for civilians to get their hands on this kind of weaponry. The gunman carried a Winchester 30-30, a common hunting rifle in Canada, which only holds 7 bullets. Video surveillance at the scene shows people scattering as the gunman ran towards the parliament buildings, rifle in hand. Yet he never tried to shoot anyone else he encountered on his way to the Parliament buildings, not even the guy driving the car he hijacked. The nature of his weapon meant he had to save his ammunition for inside, which gave the police and security the time they needed to catch up to him before he killed anyone else. If military issue guns were available for public purchase here as they are in America, it is all but certain there would be a lot more people dead and wounded.

3. Anyone who has ever negatively compared our police and military personnel to the Americans just got a big wake up call.

Generally speaking, when people think of military might, they think of America. The Canadian military, by contrast, conjures up visions of peacekeeping missions, not combat; handing out food and medical supplies, co-ordinating disaster relief efforts both home and abroad…no longer.

By all accounts, the response of Parliament Hill’s security, police and military was swift and deadly. Caught by surprise by the initial attack, in less than two minutes they were running right behind him as he stormed through Parliament’s doors, encountering a security guard who tried to wrestle the rifle away and was shot in the leg in the attempt. The gunman raced down the Hall of Honour with armed guards, police and RCMP right behind him. The video of the encounter, filmed by Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove, shows what looks like at least 15 armed personnel making their steady way down the hall, relentlessly moving closer to the column the gunman was hiding behind. There is a pause, then the roar of the rifle which is instantaneously drowned out by a barrage of gunfire. We later learned that Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers, head of security for Parliament Hill, had positioned himself on the other side of the column, the end of the gunman’s rifle only inches away. He then threw himself forward and down, twisting as he fell, directly in front of the intruder and emptied his revolver at the man, killing him. It’s a move we’ve all seen executed by the hero in Hollywood’s action movies. Mr. Vickers, a 30 year RCMP veteran and 58 years old, had reportedly never shot anyone in the line of duty in his entire career. Yet he reacted to the threat without hesitation and took out the assailant without hurting himself or anyone else. After the assailant was killed, he calmly returned to his office, reloaded his weapon, and returned to the hall to assist with the sweep, first stopping in at the caucus to calmly announce, “I have engaged the suspect. The suspect is now deceased.”

Cool heads and extensive training showed themselves in other areas of parliament as well. During the shootout our MPs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were barricaded in the caucus rooms by more security personnel, who stood at the doors between the gun battle and their charges, ready to protect them should the assailant try to enter the room. With no safe exit, one of Prime Minister Harper’s personal security members shoved him unceremoniously into a closet, keeping him hidden in case the door security was compromised. Even the MPs didn’t stand idly by; many of them fashioned spears out of the flagpoles in the room, ready to impale any intruder who breached the doors.

Once the intruder was dead, the police and military personnel instituted a 10 hour lockdown and search of the downtown core of the city to ensure there were no accomplices or bombs. After the initial hail of bullets, all three party leaders were spirited away to safe locations. No-one else was seriously hurt. A situation that could have, in different circumstances, become a bloodbath was expertly and swiftly contained.

4. Canadians won’t allow paranoia to rule their lives

When incidents like this happen, fear and suspicion often take over. Canadians can be proud of the fact that even after finding out the gunman had expressed a belief in Islamic extremism, we are not revenge targeting every Muslim in the country. On the contrary, an experiment was done by some college kids this week to test Canadian’s tolerance towards Muslims in the wake of the shooting. Pretending to harass a Muslim man (who was actually a friend of his), the director makes several Islamaphobic comments, directly confronting the man in Muslim dress. Not only did no-one agree with him or take his side, several people berated him and moved to protect the Muslim man. The experiment ended when one defender punched the director in the face. The most telling part of this experiment is that the students conducted it in Hamilton, Ontario – Corporal Cirillo’s hometown and the location of his funeral.

Canadians know that these few deranged people do not represent the true nature of Islam, and believing it so would be akin to believing that the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for all Christians.

5. We are just as patriotic as Americans – we just don’t express it until you piss us off

Canadians are a modest people and don’t generally do a lot of obvious flag-waving. To us it’s like bragging in general – it’s bad manners, and eventually people get tired of listening to you. But we are just as proud of our country, our people and our military as Americans. In fact we think we are better – which is why we don’t like being compared to Americans. It’s not an inferiority complex; we know there are many things that make life in Canada better than in America, but it’s rude to point it out.

6. We don’t celebrate criminals

Canadian reporters cover criminals and their activities of course, but we don’t glorify them with endless hours reporting on their background, their motive, their childhood, interviews with their families…endless loops of information being driven into the skulls of the general citizenry like a brainwashing exercise. If there is video of these criminals committing their atrocious acts, we don’t run them on every channel 24/7. These are details for the police to figure out; it’s their job to investigate and they will report to the Canadian people as they find their answers. To Canadians, those details are of secondary importance. When tragedy strikes, we put our focus on where it belongs – on the victims, and the heroes.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of pictures of Corporal Cirillo have been displayed over TV and the internet, showing a fit and handsome young man, a single father and dog lover; snippets of a life cut down in its prime. Thousands of Canadians have been honouring his memory and sacrifice, attending the funeral, setting up trusts for his son, sending flowers, gifts and condolences. By contrast, only two pictures of the gunman have been released, and one grainy surveillance photo of him running across the grounds, the emphasis of which was to show the speed of the security response, not to glorify a madman’s escapade. The rest of the live crime scene footage has consisted of pictures and/or video of the people frantically trying to save Corporal Cirillo, and the police and security forces moving in to take the gunman down.

There was one statement from the gunman’s mother, who wanted everyone to know she was sorry, and crying for the people hurt, not for her son, from whom she had been estranged for years. No live interview; no reporters camped out on her doorstep. Just a silent acknowledgement that she was grieving too, and courteously left alone. Perhaps in the coming days we will hear more of her, but for the past week all attention was rightly on Nathan Cirillo and his family.

For all these reasons Canadians should be proud of the way we have conducted ourselves in the wake of this tragedy, even as we continue to grieve the incomprehensible loss of this brave young man. It is a stance that does not go unnoticed; it has been commented on by American journalists that ours is a more humane and dignified way of handling a crisis.

Flags remain at half mast, but Parliament has re-opened to the public and the Honour Guard is once again standing at attention in the same place Corporal Cirillo stood so proudly nine days ago. Despite the tragedy Canadians are not in a panic. We know there will be security changes, but we want them to be modest and appropriate, not an all-encompassing blanket of fear that permanently and negatively alters our way of life. It is vitally important to us as a free nation that we be able to move freely anywhere in the country, without fear or paranoia about what might happen. To not allow the terrorists to erode the quality our lives through fear is the best way of honouring a young man who proudly stood on guard for his country, and died for it.

Halloween in an age of eroticism

I first wrote a blog post about the sexualization of children’s Halloween costumes four years ago. This year, I am seeing articles by other parents and writers, on blogs and Huffington Post, decrying the image we are pushing on our girls. People are finally standing up to this twisted merchandising trend.

It was driven home to me today how out of hand this has become by my oldest daughter, who is working in the Spirit Halloween store this year. She told me that on her last shift she asked a female customer if she needed anything, and the woman responded with, “Yes – do you have anything that doesn’t look totally slutty?”

It’s worth noting that this woman wasn’t shopping with a child – she was trying to find a costume for herself.

On Halloween four years ago I told my kids they had to make up their own costumes out of the remnants of several years of costumes left over from four growing girls, and the result was telling. One of them came up with two ideas – a cool nerd, and a model. However, both costumes consisted of nothing but short shorts over nylons, or tights and ankle boots, with off-the-shoulder sweaters. Both outfits looked like something Julia Roberts might have worn in Pretty Woman . The child herself had no idea why we said she couldn’t go out dressed like that. She was very hurt and confused because she thought she looked nice.

I am having the same problem with Mikaela this year (she’s 11). She wants a costume from the store her sister works at. Have a gander at some choices from the “tween” aisle.

Costumes marketed to 9-12 year old girls
Costumes marketed to 9-12 year old girls

And here are some costumes marketed to adult women.

SAMSUNG

I sense a theme.

Mikaela went to the store a night her sister was working and texted me a picture of herself wearing a devil costume, but I’m not posting it here because I’m afraid I’ll be accused of contributing to underage porn. In my day a devil costume consisted of a full length red dress, red cape, devil mask and horns. Her teeny outfit was a skin tight mini-dress that ended an inch and a half below her crotch…no cape. When I told her no bloody way was I buying that, she assured me that it was only so short because it had been a small; she wanted the medium. Don’t hold your breath, kiddo.

I have never bought these sexy costumes for my kids and won’t be starting now. There isn’t a single outfit in that store that doesn’t make my little girl look like she’s going to be jumping out of a cake at a bachelor party.

I’m encouraged to see the growing outrage towards this trend. I was worried that by the time my daughters are parents, the parade of girls walking into school would look like the catwalk at the Victoria Secret Fashion show. It’s really the only thing the fashion industry hasn’t tried yet.