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.

10 Reasons why growing up sucks

Today was the last day of school and, as always, I was totally bummed and more than a little resentful.  There is nothing worse than going to work on the first day that your little darlins get to sleep in, go nowhere and do nothing.  Why were we all in such a hurry to grow up anyway?  We had it made, and we threw it away with both hands.  Just look at what happened to us. 

KIDS

ADULTS

Lay on lawn for entire afternoon looking at clouds

Spend entire afternoon mowing lawn, cleaning up grass and inhaling clouds of gas fumes; never notice clouds

Climb trees and admire the view

Have trees cut down because they are blocking the view

Summers off to play with friends

Summers spent breathing canned air in isolating cubicles; what friends?

Run through sprinklers

Tell kids to get the hell out of the sprinkler, you’re gonna wreck the lawn/get your clothes wet/fall down.

Can’t wait to start dating

Can’t wait to stop dating

Looking forward to being old enough for their first job

Looking forward to being old enough to quit their current job

Get dirty

 

Avoid getting dirty and use enough antibacterial soap to eventually bring about the demise of the human race

Run for fun

Run for the bus. Or train.  Or jog early morning/after dinner because you’re terrified of growing old, losing your health and not being able to run

Invite friends for weekend sleepovers and stay up all night

Invite everyone, including spouse, to leave the house for the weekend so you can sleep

Love dressing themselves; think everything makes them look awesome

Hate dressing ourselves; think everything makes us look fat

 So when your kids start to complain that they’re bored (which will likely be tomorrow around 11:00 a.m.), show them this list.  Or better yet, hand them the lawnmower and then go run through the sprinkler.  In your business suit.

Fathers Day is now just for memories

Dad and I; in Barbados 1974 (L) and at my first wedding 1995.
Dad and I; in Barbados 1974 (L) and at my first wedding 1995.
It’s Fathers Day, and after 43 years of phone calls and presents I no longer have anything to plan for.  My dad died October 2012.  It’s hard to believe it’s been that long already

Dad met my mom when I was about 18 months old.  After they married he adopted me.  Entering my life that young, I never thought of him as a step-father.  He was my Daddy.  Growing up, whenever the topic came up with my friends they’d ask me if I’d ever met my real dad.  I didn’t like that.  I have no memory of life without him, and certainly no memory of the unintentional sperm donor who begat my existence. 

Dad was always there to do what a dad does.  He taught me to ride a bike, took me to the park and the beach, and read to me at bedtime.  He was at all my birthday parties and both graduations.  He spent hours putting my toys together on Christmas Eve and eating Santa’s cookies.  One year he spent four hours and 3 scotches putting together a dollhouse, only to hear me exclaim Christmas morning, “Look, Daddy, Santa put one of the walls in upside down!”

He came to my room when I had bad dreams or was scared of the wind, which was my personal night terror.  As soon as my parents heard the wind start to whistle, they knew they had less than 60 seconds before a tiny, tremulous cry of “Mommy” floated down the hallway.  Twice he raced into my room and carried me to safety during a fire, one in the basement and another when someone poured gas into my mother’s car and threw a match.  He scrutinized every boy who came to the house with his intimidating glare and too-tight handshake, an interview my husband, 5’3” and 100 lbs soaking wet at the time, remembers all too well.  He walked me down the aisle at both weddings.  He was there half an hour after his first granddaughter was born, and hot on the heels of the other two.  Therein followed years of him taking my kids to the park, and out for dinner and ice cream, and lots of holiday and birthday loot.  They were the apple of his eye.

Playing dressup
Playing dressup

I miss so much about my dad.  He played piano by ear and could play any song after hearing it only once.  Growing up, he was a familiar sight to my friends, outside working around the house every weekend.  They used to joke “You always know where Lisa McBride lives – just look for the guy cutting the lawn – or washing the car.”  He used to bore me to death with his road trip stories, like how the Holland Marsh came into being.  We regularly took weekend trips to Toronto when I was young, and he told me that story whenever we drove through the area on our way to the city.  Every single time.  Both ways. 

He would go jogging down the path through the bush beside our house every day.  More than once I almost got caught smoking with friends, or smooching with Steve, by my dad who would suddenly appear out of the trees and jog right past the long grass we were hiding in, frozen with fear and holding our breath until he was out of sight.

He took me tobogganing at Little Lake Park every winter for my birthday parties, dragging kids back up that big hill over and over.  He supervised the games at all my birthday parties in the days when Pin the Tail on the Donkey was still considered cool.  He took every chance to educate me, encouraging me to read, study and question, and telling me lengthy stories about historical events or his family tree research, two topics he was passionate about.  I often thought he would have made a good university professor.

Now everything about my dad is in the past.  When I visit mom I see his clothes in the closet, hanging untouched.  His workbench with his tools, and a little figurine I bought him over 30 years ago that says “World’s Best Dad.”  Two bookshelves still holding the books that were on his shelves in 1979.  The last remnants of a life lived, and ended.  Eventually it will all be gone, and the only evidence of his existence will be our memories, and our photographs.

 

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Niagara Falls on $500 a Day

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View of the falls from the ferris wheel

Four more weeks and it’s summer in Ontario.  Because of the climate, our time for fun in the sun runs from our first holiday weekend (which we call the May 24 weekend even if it actually falls on, say, the 19th) to approximately October 31st.  Many of Ontario’s attractions are only open between those two dates.  Canadians save their vacation days all year to be able to book two weeks at a cottage in Muskoka, or a lakefront resort, or take the kids to Ottawa.  Most law firms I’ve worked at had “summer hours”, which means the office closes anywhere between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Fridays.  We don’t get a lot of hot, sunny weather, so when it finally hits, we go nuts.  Not a lot of working getting done in the average Ontario office July-August.

With four children, my family belongs firmly in the budget travel section.  However, the term “budget travel” is fast becoming an oxymoron in today’s economic climate, especially for large families.  A March Break deal a couple years ago caught my eye; a family suite that slept six with $40.00 dinner voucher and buffet breakfast for four included.  Price:  $129.00 a night.  Can’t beat that, eh?   In my head I was ballparking $200 for the room, $200 for food and maybe $300-$400 for entertainment – $800 more or less for one overnight…I was wrong.

The appointed date arrived and Steve and I loaded up the kids and headed to the Hilton Niagara Falls.  The online advertisement promised a two bedroom family suite with fireplace, Jacuzzi and waterpark.  I love hotel rooms – basically, any place I don’t have to clean is aces with me.  The room was nice, and also a valuable lesson for my kids in the manipulative power of advertising.   We did indeed have two rooms with two king beds, but one of these days I am going to have to take a photography course and find out just how they make these tiny rooms look so big in the brochure.  The fireplace was a fake gas thing that nobody took any notice of.  The TVs were nice, much bigger and more modern that our old circa 1997 set at home.  The bathroom was nicer than my entire house.

The buffet breakfast was a sumptuous affair with waffles, French toast, cereals, fruit and a toast/loaf/croissant station, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and tater tots.   Lineups were not bad; although for all our meals we had to wait a bit while they prepared a table setting large enough to accommodate us all.

As for the waterpark, in a city of at least three large waterpark resorts, it should be a law that you are not allowed to use the word “waterpark” in your advertising unless you have at least three slides and one animated character.  The pool was described as 10,000 square feet  – that meant nothing to me, but once again it looked larger in the picture.  There was one 30 foot slide and a small waterfall in the back corner.  The rest of it was just a pool, and so chlorinated the water was cloudy.  Steve spent all of five minutes in it and got out; he hates swimming in manmade pools and will jump off a bridge into a river before spending a lot of time in chlorinated water.  The kids had a blast though, swimming for almost two hours and didn’t even go on the slide.

The Niagara Falls tourist area is not for the financially faint of heart.  Being a family of six makes things more difficult; the average “deal” on anything is designed for either two or four participants, but the attractions are expensive for a family of any size.  We took our kids to the Bird Kingdom exhibit – $78, and that was after my $12 discount.  That entertained them for approximately two hours while they watched various exotic birds wander freely around a huge three story aviary.  They participated in a parakeet feeding time where Steve ended up with five birds sitting on his arms, shoulders and head contentedly sipping nectar, and none-too-gently pecking his skin when the nectar ran out.

Clifton Hill is the Vegas of Niagara Falls, a multi-block strip of fast food, hotels, souvenir shops and amusement park-like attractions.  It is a consumeristic nightmare, with giant chairs, gorillas hanging off buildings and screams from haunted houses echoing down the street that probably match the silent screams of parents reading the ticket prices.  The kids, however, loved it.  The older three begged to go into a haunted house.  Steve took them into Dracula’s Haunted Castle ($36) where you choose the level of scariness you want to see.  They chose level one and it was a good thing they did, as they were so scared Steve had three shrieking girls clinging like crazed monkeys to his arms; he ended up having to drag all three of them through to the exit.  That was it for haunted houses.  Our next stop was the midway, where for $50 we got 180 tokens that took less than an hour to spend.  In exchange you collect tickets for prizes, which meant for $50 we got approximately 40 minutes of video game entertainment and a handful of plastic rings, glow sticks and one scuba diver action figure.  We also saw the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum and the Hershey chocolate store.

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Replica of chair used by the tallest man in the world

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Hershey store – obviously

Meals.  Another wallet deflator.  We stopped at a restaurant that was the only place in visual distance that wasn’t a franchised fast food place.  Two adult cheeseburgers and fries, and four kids’ menu meals came to $109.98.  That was one meal out of five.  We had a $40 voucher for dinner at one of the Hilton restaurants, but even after the $40 discount the bill was still $92.00.  Breakfast was included for four of us, so we only had to pay $18.00 for the two extra kids.  And by then they were so tired and overfed they barely ate anything.  We had no lunch that day and instead had supper at 4:00, at the Rainforest Café – another $102.00 to sit in a room with fake trees and animatronic animals.

In total, we were there for 31 hours and spent around $1200.  For that amount of money I could have paid for seven days at our summer cottage with $450 left over for groceries.

The kids had fun but one night really isn’t enough time.  Unfortunately, with prices like that and a family of six, we couldn’t afford to stay a second night.  The Hilton was nice but not worth what the cost would have been if I had been paying regular rate.  The holiday would have been cheaper if we had stayed at a budget hotel and eaten at the Golden Griddle for breakfast and had pizza for dinner.  But at those types of hotels we usually have to rent two rooms.  Basically there is no such thing as an inexpensive vacation when your family numbers six.

The kids had a great time though, so it was worth it even though it took several weeks to financially recover.  I am currently planning our summer week holiday for this year.  We are renting our usual cottage, on Lake Erie an hour’s drive from the city, with no amusement attractions whatsoever.  Sand is free.

Embracing the conserver lifestyle

The conserver:  someone who carefully thinks about their financial purchases, whether they are needed, good for the environment and makes decisions based on personal ethics; who rebels against the economic slavery being imposed on society by financial institutions and the greed that guides the decisions of the 1% at the expense of the common man.

Wow, that’s heavy.  Serious way to say, “hey, do you really need another sweater?” before you dig out your Visa.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick of money.  Sick of earning it, spending it, feeling depressed when there’s not enough, trying to save it, watching it get drained from my bank account every month.  After a few years of trying to budget, I’ve pretty much tossed as much of the whole mess as I can and not be homeless.  I’ve been trying to get out of debt since 1992 and it is a never-ending spiral that feeds on itself and never goes away, so I’ve decided to set metaphorical fire to the whole thing and watch it burn, so something good can have a chance to rise from the ashes. 

Here is my list for cash-sucking “essentials” that I will no longer be spending my hard earned money on.  If not gone already, they’re on their way out as soon as I can get rid of them without incurring penalties and surcharges.

1.  Cell phones

For five years Rogers Wireless was the bane of my existence.  In three years I went from one, $45/m cell phone to five phones and a bill hitting $350/m, occasionally made worse by kids who kept unintentionally signing up for ringtones and games.  I’ve had monthly charges of $450, $850 and once, after an identity theft episode, $3200.  I even got charged a roaming fee once when we hadn’t even left the country – turns out if you lean too far out over Niagara Falls, your phone magically attracts American satellite transmissions and makes Rogers think you’re picnicking in New York’s Central Park.

I never intended to buy cell phones for my kids. Giving a 15 year old kid who can never find her homework, brush, clothes or bus pass a $600 cell phone is just stupid, a lesson in entitlement that does nothing to prepare her for the real world.  I work full time yet can’t afford an iPhone, so why the heck should my kids expect one?  Then one day I realized that there were no payphones anymore.  The girls were going out on their own and had no way of contacting me if they missed their bus or, God forbid, needed help.  So I got them phones with Rogers’ promises of deals, low payments and phone costs spread out over three years.  All lies.  The worst one was when I specifically asked if getting my kids’ phones would start new contracts and was assured they would not, that they would all go on my existing contract.  Bullshit.  I ended up with five separate contract cancellation dates.  My cell phone bill was double my electric bill; half my grocery budget.  Cancelling the contract meant shelling out over $1000 for the privilege.  I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to argue with them because the phone bill is sixteen pages long.

By contrast, Public Mobility offers a flat rate of $25/m for unlimited text and calling.  No contract, no fees, and they only sell five phone models with a price range of $50-$150 – no $650 Samsung-Apple-Blackberry bullshit.  Even five phones is only be $160/m, and never any surprise on the bill.  Their phone selection isn’t great and sometimes there is interference on the line, but so what?  My kids are teenagers; they don’t call, they text.  When they have a job they can buy any phone they want.  While I’m paying our huge stack of bills it is either Public Mobility, or two tin cans and a string.

2.  Thousand Dollar Christmas Gift Extravaganzas

Besides the phones, my kids each have a laptop and an iPod, procured over the last three Christmases (not bought by me).  I have no intention of replacing any of it with the latest model just because it’s got a larger screen, or a better operating system, or comes in a new shiny shade of gold.  They will use that laptop, and that cell phone, and that iPod, until they die (the gizmos – not the kids).  Glass cracked and scratching your fingers?  Allow me to introduce you to duct tape.  One kid’s laptop won’t even turn on because she downloaded programs piggybacking viruses every ten minutes and never ran her updates – it finally crashed.  Even her software engineer father can’t fix it.  And we should get her another one?  I don’t think so. 

3.  Furniture

0% interest.  No money down.  Don’t pay for a year.  Promises, promises, all designed to make buying that $8,000 dining room set sound like a good idea.  $8,000 for a few chairs and a flat piece of wood with four legs.  You aren’t paying for a table and chairs, you’re paying for a look, a name, a style, an image, when all you need is a place to sit and eat meals with your family.  Go buy a picnic table, drop it in the dining room and let your kids paint it.  You’ll have a cherished family heirloom instead of a fancy lacquered Queen Anne table the kids are afraid to touch.

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China cabinet and 6 seat dining set – both free.

 

Hand-me-downs and used stores have fallen out of fashion, but it is high time they lost their bad image.  People toss out entire living room suites, or all their kitchen appliances, simply because they’ve repainted or redesigned and their old stuff no longer matches the decor.  The last time I went to the Goodwill they had a sofa, loveseat and chair finished in pretty green tartan upholstery, with frilly dust ruffles and polished oak along the arms and back, for $75.00.  That same set at a place like the Brick would have been around $1500.

I haven’t bought any furniture in 9 years.  My old boss redecorated and gave me her dining table set, two bookshelves, and two carpets – total value, about $10,000.00.  Then they retired and gave me two desks, a computer, a monitor and a shitload of office supplies – total value, probably around $3,000.  I found twin beds on Kijiji for my kids, one for $25 and one for $50.  I’ve got a butchers block rolling caddy in the kitchen that someone put at the end of their driveway for garbage – nothing wrong with it; new in store would have cost me $200.  I have also scored two free dishwashers and a chest freezer from driveway deposits, and an IKEA coffee table I’d wanted for years. 

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Free dishwasher someone threw out – it’s been running for 3 years for far.

 

Many people can’t be bothered trying to sell their old stuff – they just want it gone.  They will put their old dishwasher outside with a sign that says “still works.” 90% of the time this means they simply redecorated and bought a new one in stainless steel, or a better model.  I’ve also found three barbeques, a picnic table, an entire driveway of brick interlock and some outdoor toys for my youngest. 

4.  House

An average house used to be a little 1200 square foot bungalow with two or three bedrooms, a bathroom and a basement that may or may not have been finished.  Siblings shared a room and no-one said boo.  Now we have gargantuan houses with four or more bedrooms, main floor laundry, fireplaces in the bedrooms, walk-in closets and Jacuzzi tubs as standard packages, target marketed to young professionals just starting a family.  It used to take a family twenty years or more to build a portfolio of material goods that impressive.  Now we charge it in our 20s and spend the next 40 years paying it all off.  The dream house, dream car, dream vacation – they’re called dreams for a reason, folks.  In the old days, such a standard of living was a dream, and remained so, for the majority of the populace.  The Donald Trumps of their day had the mansions with the fancy fixtures, and the rest of us sat in our 1200 square foot wooden house and read about the lives of Hollywood stars and robber barons in the news and bitched about their excesses while secretly envying them.  Now we have our mini-mansions that keep us house-poor and short of cash for basic necessities, working full time and then some to cover the cost of having it all before we’ve paid for it.  And you’re going to be paying for it for a long, long time.

FYI; the “low income” required to qualify for a Habitat for Humanity house is $50,000.00 a year.  When I was a kid the family who earned $50,000 a year had a BMW in the driveway.

5.  Vacations

Taking the kids to the local beach in the family car just isn’t good enough anymore.  Disneyland, cruises, African safaris – you’ve got to leave the country, it has to be educational and now it also has to be green.  I’m not knocking travel.  I love it and everyone should do it, if they can.  It broadens the mind and reminds us that we all want the same things, no matter where we’re from.  But there’s thousands of things you can see in your own country that are driving distance, cheap and/or free, and you don’t have to fly to foreign lands to meet fascinating people with cool accents – go to Newfoundland.  Or Gatorland.  But if the only way you can get to Africa is to put a $10,000 vacation on your Visa, stay home and watch the National Geographic channel.   

6.  Clothes

I usually only own one pair of jeans at a time.  When they wear out, I go buy another pair.  I spend less than $300 a year on clothes.  I don’t have a closet full of stuff.  I buy something I love, use it regularly and enjoy it.  I will eventually get tired of looking at it, or it will wear out, at which point I treat myself to something new.  I would rather spend my money on opportunities for culture, intellectual growth and fun with my kids.  I don’t want “she looks hot in that dress” to be all I am ever known for (cue sound effect – a fake sneeze that sounds like “Kardashian!”)

Used kids clothes are everywhere.  You can buy them by the bagful on Kijiji and kids love digging through the bags to see what treasures might be inside.

 7.  Extracurricular activities

Parents today spend enough cash to float a small country on their progeny.  Hockey, dance lessons, music lessons, art lessons, space camp, tutoring – they take out second mortgages to pay for it all too.  That used to be reserved for the rare family who actually had a budding genius/awesomely talented youngster, while the rest of us, while acknowledging their justified pride, felt a little sorry for them and the financial sacrifices they were “forced” to make.  Now we blow all the money we should be saving for our retirement on our kids’ activities, regardless of talent or ability.  The chickens haven’t come home to roost yet, but I foresee a future where the parents need care and can’t pay for it, and their spoiled kids aren’t going to want to care for them either.

I have a musically gifted daughter who wanted piano lessons.  Pianos average $7,000 and up, plus tuning, plus the piano movers who charge several hundred dollars to get your piano home.  A piano, even a used one, should be totally out of my reach without a credit card.

Guess what I discovered?  Pianos are a pain in the ass to sell; people literally can’t give the damn things away.  I placed an ad asking if anyone had a free/cheap piano they would like to give to a musically gifted teen whose mother had been out of work for a year.  I got almost 20 responses, mostly for pianos that were over a hundred years old and hadn’t been tuned in decades.  Nice for antique dealers, but not practical for regular use if you can’t afford to fix it up.  I eventually spoke to a young woman who did not want her piano anymore, and since it had a bit of humidity damage she didn’t feel right asking for money.  It was only 10 years old and had last been tuned a couple years ago, and the “damage” turned out to be nothing but a bit of peeling of the white coating on the front of the keys.  It plays fine. 

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I now have a beautiful glossy black Yamaha piano in my living room that cost nothing but the $60 it took to rent a Budget truck to pick it up.  My husband and his buddy simply rolled it down the hall, out the sidewalk and up into the truck and strapped it securely to the side.  Piano movers, my ass.

8.  Transportation

This one’s tricky.  Most people need a car.  The only ones who don’t either live in a city with good public transportation, or they don’t have kids.  The cheapest cars today still cost more than what my parents paid for their first house.  I first bought a used van, decent price, $200/month, but we couldn’t afford the repairs and without regular maintenance it became too decrepit to drive.  I replaced it with a new Dodge minivan and paid for the six year warranty.  No repair bills and the payments are only affordable because they’re stretched out over eight years, but it will hold seven people and we can use it to help my husband haul tools and materials to his work sites, which means we don’t need a second vehicle.  And when the kids are grown, we can take out the back seats and turn it into a mini-camper.  If I didn’t have kids, however, I’d be taking the bus.  $330 a month for something that will just slowly rust and die and be thrown away sticks in my craw.  I still think used is better; if I hadn’t been blowing my cash on debt repayment instead of car repair I’d still be driving it.

9.  Food

Yes, I no longer buy food.  Seriously though; when the food bank staff processed my application last May I was advised that the allowable amount for groceries for a family of five was $1,200 a month.  I laughed because I have never had that much money to spend on food.  When I was making $55,000/yr my grocery budget was only $600/m – my debt repayments were so high it was the best I could do.  Since being laid off it fell to an all-time low of about $300 a month, more or less – often less.  You know what – we’re not really missing out on much.  Turns out a lot of that money goes on fast food and crap.

The Basic Cook course I took has made a huge difference.  I buy almost no processed foods.  My pantry now holds flour, oatmeal, cornstarch, a variety of oils, chocolate chips, etc. 

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My two pantry shelves; this one, and the microwave on it, were free.  The other was $24.99 at Target.

 

It takes a bit of time to make things from scratch, but not as much as you’d think once you know what you’re doing.  I can whip up a basic béchamel sauce in less than 15 minutes – the same amount of time it takes to cook Kraft dinner.  Add shredded cheese, some macaroni and leftover veggies and voila – a homemade, fresh vegetarian dish.  I buy no packaged juice or fruity beverages except 100% pure orange or apple juice, and only as a treat.  This is pure strategy on my part, because if the kids have no drink in their school lunch, they have to drink water from the fountains at school.  This ensures they drink at least some water every day, and they get an apple or an orange in their lunch anyway, which is much more nutritious than juice.

Plant a garden.  This does not have to be that hard either – I actually hate gardening.  You will need one day to break up the earth, and another day to plant the seeds, but you don’t have to fuss much beyond that.  Our backyard is hard and rocky, with lousy dirt, and is overrun with squirrels and rabbits, yet we still get more berries, tomatoes and lettuce than we can eat.  We use no pesticides or chemicals of any kind.  All plants, once done producing, are left to rot back into the ground, which enriches the soil for next year.  Steve built a greenhouse out of two old windows he had in the garage.  They sit on frames about 8 inches high, which are nothing but four old boards nailed together, and are slanted to let in the sun all day as it crosses the sky. A 10 year old with a hammer could put these together.  I haven’t bought lettuce in 18 months.  And this is Canada, baby, yet I’m picking lettuce in -15 degree weather (that’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit south of the border). 

Once you get past the idea that everything has to be done a certain way, or have a certain look, it’s amazing how easy and cheap things can be.

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Our house is a rental; the kitchen cupboards were falling apart and the landlord refused to replace them.  So we took them down and replaced them with shelves I found on Kijiji for $50. Even new, those shelves would have cost about $250 – way, way less than new cupboards.

 

Financial freedom doesn’t come from being rich – it comes from keeping your money, whatever your salary is.  If you make $35,000 a year, then you can’t afford a 5,000 square foot house with marble tubs and rainforest showers no matter what the realtor or the bank manager tells you – deal with it.  Stop reading Architectural Digest and take your kids to the (free) park.  Make them mom’s hot chocolate in your tiny kitchen and tuck them into bed at night with stories and lullabies in their unorganized bedrooms with nary a decorating theme in sight.  They won’t even miss it.  And if you’re not dwelling on what you don’t have all the time, neither will you. 

Saying goodbye to a road not taken

Here it is the May 24th weekend (which for some dumb reason is actually taking place a week early) and I am home alone. My kids are at their dad’s, my husband is in Muskoka working his dream job. I am having an orgy of spring cleaning, tossing every piece of junk not nailed down out the front door. And in doing so, I have finally thrown out my old construction boots. The last time I had them on was about two months ago, to help my husband move some wood with nails in it, and they were so stiff they hurt my feet. They are simply unwearable now.

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Perfectly ordinary work boots, with steel reinforced toes and rated for shock (or whatever they call it – that green triangle thingy they put on them). But I love these boots and have carried them around, hardly ever wearing them, but refusing to get rid of them, for 26 years.

The summer I was 21, burned out from my boring university course and fed up with the city, I was determined to find a summer job outside. An acquaintance suggested I apply at a local christmas tree farm – he said the guy hired a few girls every year. I don’t remember applying, the interview, or the guy who hired me, but I do remember the job. You walked in a circle around the tree, trimming the branches into a nice cone shape, then moved on to the next one. Equipment required – steel toed boots, shin pad, and an 18 inch long machete.

Since my first job at 14, I have worked at offices, a bakery, Burger King, a golf course and law firms, and one 3 week stint as a waitress. That tree farm job was my first experience with manual labour and I have never loved a job that much before or since. Outside all day, one simple job to do, and being left alone to do it. Taking breaks when you need one with no accusatory stare from a superior. Listening to my Walkman all day. Riding to and from the fields in the back of the boss’s pickup. I remember my mother thought it would be too hard for me, but I had a ball. She took this picture of me at the end of my first day.

Work camp pic 2

In the years since, I often thought of that job and why it appealed to me so. It was the physicality and simplicity, and the peaceful environment, that drew me to it. If I could live my life over again, I would take an apprenticeship and learn a trade. Even now, if I could, I would love to learn carpentry – or masonry. That one intrigues my husband – as supportive as he is of my interest in the trades, he has a hard time picturing me working with cement and bricks. And so would anyone else looking at me right now – 47 years old, 188 lbs, sitting in a chair all day. But I actually thrive on physical work – it feeds something in me that working at a desk can’t satisfy.

I have spent most of my adult life wishing I’d made different decisions, and stubbornly holding on to the hope that one day things might be different. That hope is the reason I kept the boots – always waiting for a chance to wear them again. Even now, with all these responsibilities and really no options or freedom to change, I dream of quitting my job to work with my husband. To spend my summer outdoors, painting, feeling the sun on my face and fresh air…a gloriously unregimented existence.

But it’s not going to happen. If it was just me I’d do it and start fresh, but being responsible for three kids stops me. Steve’s income has proved too precarious to be our only income; I need more security than that for the life I want to give my kids. By the time all three girls are grown up and I’m responsible only for myself again, I will be 57 years old.

So I took the boots out of the closet – old, cracking, stiff with age. I put them in the garbage bag. Then, like an idiot, I started to cry. Took them back out again. Left them on the couch for a few hours while I threw out different things. Then, just before I tied it up, put them in the garbage bag again. No tears the second time.

I may still have the occasional day where I can work with my husband. But there will never be a new career in the trades – I’m too old, I’ve missed my chance. I have arthritis in my hands and could never wield a paint brush all day. Even food prep can be painful. It’s such a shame – there’s so much more acceptance for women in trades now, it would be a great time to become involved. There is even a new brand of construction wear especially for women in trades called “Moxi Trades”. They sell boots, safety glasses, tool belts and hard hats in construction yellow, powder blue, and pink. So, last week, I went out and bought a new pair of work boots.

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Just in case.

He Is Mine

His essence slowly fills my mind,
His touch lifts me to rapture.
His eyes burn, and melt.
This is heaven.

His strength weakens me,
Desire overwhelming with demand.
He is substance, and scent, and flavor.
He embraces me.

Shrouded by his heat,
His fire brands my soul,
His insatiable hunger,
Gorging on me.

Quiet now, we lie entwined,
Rough hands roam luxuriously on my skin.
Exquisite release our gift.
He is mine.

Raindrops on roses

I told my wife I loved her on our wedding day.  If anything changes, I’ll let her know.  ~ Unknown

I have always secretly envied men.  They seem to have such a worry-free approach to life compared to most women.  When I was a teenager it seemed to me that guys had more fun; guys got more freedom; guys got the really cool jobs.  Guys could also be more irresponsible, although we are taught that is a bad thing.  Women seem born to worry and manage and care for others, while men seem born to have fun, get dirty and blow shit up.

Last week I saw a man pushing his toddler-aged daughter in a stroller.  It was raining lightly and he was pushing his little girl in circles, dancing with the stroller in the rain.  The child had both arms and legs outstretched, wiggling her fingers and toes as the raindrops splashed on her.  Her face turned up to the sky, eyes shining, she giggled and squealed as he spun her around.   Everyone he passed was smiling at them.

How would this scene have played out had the child been with her mother?  It’s a safe bet that the stroller would have been covered with a plastic rain shield, the child’s bare legs carefully wrapped in a blanket for warmth, and the mother holding an umbrella over both of them as she hurried to get her child to shelter.  Careful, prudent, admirably health-and-safety conscious.  But fun?  No.

All aspects of parenting are important, and like everything else, women and men bring different strengths to the job.  Children need to learn responsibility, but they also need to learn to enjoy life.  Sure, women can have fun, but it’s harder for mothers to have the carefree abandon of fathers.  We are the protective mother bear, teaching and guarding our cubs 24/7, single-minded in our purpose – often to our own detriment.  Men are the lions snoozing in the sun or blinking lazily at the horizon, getting up only when the Mrs. brings back a kill (which he gets first dibs on even though he did none of the work involved in landing that damn gazelle), prodded to action only when his family is faced with danger.

I have no special memory of having fun with my mother, just the two of us.  I remember haircuts, trying on school clothes, parent teacher meetings, doctor and dentist appointments…the humdrum routine of everyday family life.  By contrast, I can remember my dad playing with me in the pool, taking me for walks on the beach and building sand castles on holidays, catching sunfish under the bridge at the Wye River, playing piano, taking me to the park, and watching Laurel and Hardy on Sunday mornings.  I have only a few memories of my mother really letting go and having fun, but on none of these occasion was she exactly having fun with me – I just happened to be there.  The rest of the time she was working; at her job, running the house, or caring for me.

A man always seems ready for a good time.  He doesn’t care if the house is clean when he has his buddies over for beer and football.  He will not pause to consider the piles of laundry that need washing if he has a chance to go fishing.  Women seem forever at the mercy of their own perfectionist micro-managing natures.  They can’t just sit and have a drink with their friends unless someone is watching their kids, their work is done, and nobody needs them.  Women are born to worry; men don’t even think there’s something to worry about.  When my husband is out with his buddies he’s not looking at his watch, or wondering if he should get home in case he’s needed.  A woman out with her friends would be texting her husband asking if the kids were in bed yet and if he’s remembered to take tomorrow night’s roast out of the freezer.

This female tendency to over-think everything is particularly prevalent in relationships.  Women are constantly agonizing over where the relationship is going, what his feelings are, what he wants, what do his actions mean.  Men have no idea what we’re talking about.

Men can spend an enormous amount of time doing absolutely nothing, which is mind boggling to a sex with a never-ending to-do list.  Men’s ability to sit silently and not think about anything is often the butt of jokes, but it is actually an amazing talent, one today’s mega-stressed, overworked woman could stand to learn.  Ever watched a group of men around a campfire?  They will sit and stare at the flames for hours, drinking beer, with hardly any conversation.  My husband has often sat in our backyard for five hours, alone, just sipping his beer and staring into the flames, usually with the radio on.  If you ask him what he’s thinking about, he says, “Nothing.”  I have tried on several occasions to join him as he likes me to sit with him, but I never last more than half an hour because I get bored. If I try, my mind is quietly reciting my to-do list in an ever-increasing anxious tone.  A woman’s brain is never quiet.

There is a societal shift occurring in today’s workplace.  Women are fast outpacing men in acquiring higher education and the careers and salaries that follow.  Men are falling behind, their old standby jobs in manufacturing and manual labour are disappearing, and they seem uncertain of their place in this changing world.  The question some are now asking is, do we even need men?

Anyone who thinks we don’t need men anymore is looking at the question through a very narrow lens.  Of course we still need men – we just don’t need them for what we used to need them for.  Women no longer have to get married, and we don’t need a man to support us.  But men bring more than money and security to a relationship.  Maybe this will be the era where men get the chance to be all that they can be.  To drop the macho façade and show their insecurities and sensitivities.  To be a stay-at-home parent without others making him feel like a failure or slacker, joking about “who wears the pants.”  Preconceived notions of what a man is supposed to do and be must be just as straight-jacketing for them as the preconceived notions of womanhood are for us.

I tried the stay-at-home mom thing; although I was emotionally fulfilled and loved looking after my babies, it was not intellectually stimulating enough.  I didn’t have enough to do and became bored and depressed.  My husband, however, is perfectly suited to be a stay-at-home dad.  He kicks butt at a ton of things that would benefit our family, like home repair, gardening, cleaning etc.  If he was home the house would be clean, dishes done, kids cared for, which would save me a ton of worry and stress and I would then be more interested in my job, instead of constantly worrying about what’s going on at home.  We would also save a bundle on food with his canning and preserving all the vegetables and fruit he grows, and he would still have time to run his business as a little side hobby to bring in some extra cash and indulge his own interests.  But he is driven to work, to provide, even though it keeps him running seven days a week and he is exhausted and getting run down.  His ego and the opinions of others won’t allow him to stop working at a “real job.”

That father dancing in the rain was imparting a valuable lesson to his child, as well as simply having fun.  We need dads, to show our children, and moms, that the world won’t end if your dishes aren’t done or your coffee table is dusty.  That it’s okay to make mistakes, to make a fool of yourself, to have a good time without feeling guilty.  That you can be silent for hours without something being wrong.

Steve has often played in the rain with the kids, and once I caught him showing my youngest how to work a hula hoop.  Some of our neighbors think he’s nuts – one guy, the self-appointed “street warden,” started a petition on us last year because Steve’s garden was “messy” (he planted sunflowers that grew ten feet high).  If fate ever separates us, it will be his fun and loving nature I’ll remember and miss, not his income or job title.  The next time he dances in the rain, I intend to stop whatever boring chore I’m doing and join him.

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Kids thrive in large families

The lack of emotional security of our American young people is due, I believe, to their isolation from the larger family unit.  No two people – no mere father and mother – as I have often said, are enough to provide emotional security for a child.  He needs to feel himself one in a world of kinfolk, persons of variety in age and temperament, and yet allied to himself by an indissoluble bond which he cannot break if he could, for nature has welded him into it before he was born.  ~Pearl S. Buck

The validity of the above quote was made clear to me during our last family reunion weekend as I watched my children visit with their relatives.  It was our annual pilgrimage to Muskoka, where about 20 of us get together for a weekend  of fun and catching up.  The rest of the year we are scattered between 5 different cities in two countries and rarely correspond, so this is a much anticipated visit.  We all descend on the cottage owned by my Dad’s nephew and his wife, who one weekend every summer play host to an ever-growing group of fridge-emptying friendlies.  My kids talk about this trip all year, and it is always interesting to me to see how they act when there.

These 3 children, who at home leave toys and clothes on the floor, dishes in the sink, and groan and complain every time they are asked to do something, turn into Martha Stewart wanna-be’s as soon as they finish hugging “Auntie Gail.”  They want to help cook.  They want to set the table.  They can’t wait to pass around dessert.  They fight for the right to fold blankets and rearrange throw pillows.  They help clean up, they tidy their room, they pick up their swimming toys…there wasn’t a single whine, complaint or moan out of any of them the entire three days.  I didn’t hear a single “I’m booooorrreeddd.”  There weren’t even any problems on the three hour drive there.  In addition to my girls, their two cousins were there as well, and there was no arguing or pestering from anyone.  Not even from Mikaela, who has recently perfected the art of pushing her sisters’ buttons for no reason other than to experience the pleasure of watching them become incoherent with frustration.

It is gratifying to see that my children have nice manners, are friendly and helpful and pleasant to be around.  Everyone told Steve and I several times that they were delightful children, well behaved and a pleasure to spend time with.  Every parent wants to hear that. But what I want to know is, where did those children go after we left?

We were not 5 minutes down the road when they started to bicker:

“Stop touching me!”

“Move over!”

“Mom, where can I put this pillow – it’s making me hot.”   And my favorite:

“MOM – Mikaela just licked my foot!”

They fussed and twitched and bickered for the hour and a half it took to get to Barrie.  They behaved reasonably well at dinner, and then back in the car we got and they were at it again.

“Madeline has her foot in my face!”

“Do not!”

“Do too!”

It was a long drive home.

What I see on these annual visits is children blossoming under the attention they are given.  They have a new audience who are eager to hear their stories, marvel at their talents and admire their individual styles.  Unlike their parents, they aren’t punch drunk from trying to give everyone equal time and attention 24/7.  They have the time to chat, to show interest.  And most importantly, they bring a different viewpoint and their own personal experience to their interactions with my kids.  My girls have conversations they might otherwise not have had, learn things I might not be able to teach them, and get a chance to hear different perspectives on the little happenings in their lives.  Their place in this family is very important to them.  They spent the first half hour of the drive home asking me exactly how they were related to everyone; who was a cousin, who was an uncle.  If Kevin was Poppa’s nephew, then what was he to them?  If Gail was his wife, what did that make her to them?  It is so important to them to figure out where they belong in the familial scheme of things.

When I was growing up I only saw this side of my family once, maybe twice a year.  I guess the visits were infrequent because they were a two hour drive away, but the effect of such infrequent visiting was that my relatives were only a few steps removed from being strangers.  When I was young the visits were uncomfortable for me; I was shy and barely knew my aunt and uncle, and it always took me some time to warm up to them again, and my cousins.  Their routines were foreign to me.  I remember staying with them on my own once and my uncle almost gave me a heart attack at dinner by asking me if I’d like to say grace – my parents didn’t say grace.  And of course, just when we were starting to have fun, it was time to go.   Months would go by before the next visit and then I’d have start all over again.  Fortunately my kids don’t suffer from my social anxiety; they can pick up right where they left off the year before.

I am looking forward to the next reunion, although it will be somewhat bittersweet as both my dad and my Uncle Robin have passed away.  It’s a shame we only enjoy each other’s company 2 days out of 365.  Society may have advanced enormously over the last 150 years, but when it comes to maintaining family ties, I think our ancestors were better off.

Midlife Crisis Soliloquy

To dye, or not to dye: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The evidence of outrageous aging,
Or to take arms against a sea of gray hairs,
And by coloration end them? To dye: to cover;
No more; and by hiding the gray we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That looking our real age is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.  To dye, to cover;
To hide: perchance to go blond: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that color change what dreams may come
When we have shuffled out our front door,
Must give us pause: do we look young and beautiful,
Or like a decrepit Mae West?
But why should we bear the whips and scorns of time,
The mirror’s truth, the proud woman’s shame and
The pangs of lost youth, craving time’s delay,
Bad enough the insolence of wrinkles and the bifocals
That we must now wear every damn day,
But…that patient merit of the unworthy salon,
Where the hairdresser herself might her error make
With her dodgy chemical mix?  Who will bear the friggen fardel of my burnt hair,
Frizzing and breaking under a weary brush,
And then the dread of something after gray,
The undiscover’d country of baldness from which
No hair returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear the hair we have
Than to try new colors we know not of?
Thus self-consciousness does make a coward of me;
And thus the native hue of my hair
Is sicklied o’er with a color matching my original,
And now begin this enterprise of great pith and moment
With this in mind the colors are mixed,
And lose the name of gray. – Soft you now!
The hairdresser!, Lady, in thy orisons
Be all my conditioners remember’d. Or no tip.