The Covid Chronicles: Pass the Menthe

I enjoy getting Christmas cards from people. There is something uniquely memorable about getting a card from people you know, gathered together in one image and having the privilege of observing changes over time: kids getting bigger, parents getting older, significant milestones represented, pets added or subtracted.

Every year, I try to take a family photo with the intention of making and sending out Christmas cards. I have failed for at least two years now and possibly three. Oh, we make the effort to put on actual clothes and traipse to a semi-scenic spot with a tripod and camera in hand. And somewhere out there is a memory stick or card filled with an assortment of terrible pictures featuring 4 or 5 people in awkward poses with irritable expressions, taken during the second or third week of December. But the experience is always traumatic and hasn’t produced an image worth sharing in some time.

This year, given my drastically reduced evening and weekend schedules, the lack of any sports activities sucking up precious photo-taking time on the weekends, and the reclusive nature of our 2020 existence, I vowed to make it happen. I gave my household members a week’s worth of warning: “next Saturday, we are going to take a family picture.” Part ultimatum, part threat – my words were met with the expected sequence of groans and eyerolls.

Saturday arrived and we tended to our chores with one eye on the clock, knowing that the passing of every minute brought us closer to darkness. December daylight is a fleeting thing when you live this far north.

People put on clothes they had not slept in and combed their hair. “Are we bringing the dogs?” the boys begged.

Mais non.

Who wants to run back and forth between a tripod as the collective mood grows increasingly dire and barter with two canines suffering from an overactive prey drive to sit. For a photo.

Not me.

I grabbed the camera (which hadn’t been used since February) – having had the forethought to charge the battery. I grabbed the tripod. And that’s when I realized the piece attaching camera to tripod was missing.

I could not recall the last time the tripod had been used or where the missing piece might be. We had moved the previous year and have been living in a state of perpetually-missing-things ever since.

It was a setback, to say the least.

I tried my best to rally, to turn things around. It was past 2pm and the sun had begun its descent. ”Let’s just stop at Wal-Mart on the way. Maybe they will have a tripod.”

Public Service Announcement: Wal-Mart does not carry tripods that attach to cameras. They carry selfie sticks that can be fashioned into tripods, that might bear the weight of a cell phone. So that is what I bought. Along with a bag of mint m&ms. Fully intending to purchase my children’s reasonable looking smiles with red and green candies.

It worked and it didn’t. One kid started saying “pass the menthe” or “I need more menthe” because we live in a land where food is labeled in English and French. You can have mint m&m’s or you can have menthe m&m’s and apparently we were having menthe that day. Except, in keeping with the questionable sense of humor that is overwhelmingly prevalent in the adolescent boy, they were saying it like ‘meth’.

You know, as in les drogues.

At least they were laughing, while the professor tried to figure out how to use our newly acquired selfie-tripod and the sun was sinking into the earth. We took approximately one hundred photos, certain that – given the law of averages – one of them would turn out.

Mais non. Despite my threats and pleas to keep eyes open, to forgo the smile that looks like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, still nearly all of them features one child with resolutely pursed lips. As though he’s trying to excise a piece of spinach from his teeth without the expediency of using his hands. As one might do, right before taking a picture.

Except the picture had already been taken.

Upon being shown photographic evidence of his strange habit, he yelled “I can’t help it, I have an overbite!” And, blame it on the menthe, I fell into unrestrainable laughter. And of course one brother contested, “doesn’t everyone have an overbite?” Obviously trying to curtail his brother’s floundering attempts at seeking pity about this life-altering disfigurement he’d been handed.

And I knew, as we walked back to the van and got stuck on the dreaded ice covered hill leaving Edworthy Park, that my Christmas card dreams would not come true. As I endured the humiliation of stopping traffic in both directions, and pushing the tire-spinning van to terra firma with the help of various strangers, I vowed to hire someone to take our photo in 2021. So that we would not have to endure this particular sequence of stress in our lifetimes. Ever again.

In the end, I held up my phone during a car ride on the way back from Banff. Five days before Christmas. “Look up,” I instructed the vehicle’s occupants. pressed the camera circle on my phone and posted it to Instagram. The dogs were in it too.

Merry Christmas.

The COVID Chronicles: The Stopwatch

We’ve been, in one way or another, in lockdown mode for over nine months now. Still, despite a drastically empty calendar and virtually no driving, I found neither time nor inclination for reading and writing during this…..exile. Possibly because sharing one story is more or less opening up a bottomless matryoshka doll of stories – if only for contextual purposes.

And who has the appetite for that, myself included?

But on the other hand, writing beats scrolling through Instagram and being subjected to those inane synchronized dances that seem to clog up my feed most days. And it’s entirely possible WordPress has already charged my credit card for yet another year of radio silence on this old blog.

(Even though my credit card expired in November and it should not, in theory, be possible. Still ‘they’ find a way, don’t they Netflix?)

So what the hay, I present to you The Covid Chronicles. A series of vignettes from the absurdity that is my life – also known as: the confluence of my implausible choices, the members of my household, quarantine, and this strange land in which I find myself living.

Will they be daily vignettes? Weekly? Who only knows! (Best to subscribe if you hope to stay informed. Full disclosure, I don’t know how you do that. There’s got to be a button.)

For years now, I’ve engaged in an astonishingly low-tech form of exercise: running some distance, recording the time on a Timex stopwatch and using MapMyRun to ‘map’ the route and record the distance and pace.

Fitness fanatics and wordsmiths alike might conceivably wonder why I would lump ‘recording of exercise’ in with the ‘doing of exercise.’ But it’s a real chicken and egg argument at this point. The recording of the exercise is so intertwined with the exercise – and obviously without the former there is no need for the latter – that I can’t bear to distinguish between them.

Truth be told, they give me equal amounts of joy. The running offers a change of scenery and a mental break. And the recording offers tangible evidence of accomplishment. It’s a [seemingly pointless] conclusion that is commensurate to the activity: run in a circle around the neighborhood. Record it – acknowledge it was either faster, slower or the same speed as the previous day’s effort and move on to the next thing.

My kids are so accustomed to the co-existence of the running and recording, they don’t even bat an eye when, after a run, I walk through the door, directly to my computer.

Oh, did I fail to mention that I mapmyrun via an internet browser on my laptop? Did you assume I was using an app? Like, on my phone?!

Mais non.

As Jay, the patriarch from that interminable television show Modern Family once said, “the only app on my phone is voicemail.”

This is of course not [entirely] true, though it’s close.

But I digress.

My children have turned my oddly predictable habit into a verb. “Did you mapmyrun? How far did you go?” they’ll ask in their more attentive moments, in the off-chance I forgot to ‘write it down’.

Let it be known, I’ve never forgotten to mapmyrun. I have been out of town, out of the country, without internet service or computer access, and I’ve mentally stored the details of my run(s) and bolted for the computer the second I arrived home.

It’s more or less a form of Alzheimer’s prevention at this point.

(With a touch of early onset obsessive compulsive disorder on the side.)

We live in an age where people have Garmins and Fitbits that can track how much they do or don’t sleep at night and spout performance statistics while they are in the middle of running. And here I am with my stopwatch and my computer – trying to recreate the specifics of a run well after it happened. Did I turn right, or left? Did I add on the extra bit or leave it off?

I generally, especially in ‘Covid Times’, run the same route so there’s not a lot to remember. But there was a day, recently, when I got home, having run in one of the adjacent neighborhoods, at what I felt was quite a ‘clip’. I entered my ‘route’ and mapmyrun computed a pace so slow I nearly gave up running on the spot. And then I remembered a street I’d missed, lengthened my route, and all was right with the world.

I was an average runner once again.

Apparently the recording is a point of contention for the professor. On Christmas morning he handed me a rectangular box labeled ‘to Nicola, from Santa’ with a Fitbit beneath the wrapping paper. “I just can’t deal with the watch. And the laptop,” he aired his grievances. As though it were taking years off his life having to observe someone record their exercise in such a borderline analog manner.

I may have tossed the gift back at Santa like a hot potato shrieking “I don’t want it!”

I was still reeling from sending someone a text message about Trader Joe’s and finding my Instagram feed littered with Trader Joe’s products immediately afterwards.

I may sound like a 70 year old lady hiding her money underneath a mattress because she doesn’t trust the banks, but I don’t want Fitbit all ‘up in my business’ – judging my speed, or lack thereof, making me feel guilty about the dog walk I skipped or the stairs I didn’t take; telling me what I already know: that I am a terrible sleeper.

The professor, however saw it differently. “Maybe all this time you haven’t actually been running. And now Fitbit is going to expose the truth!”

So here we are, it’s the third day of Christmas and my true love gave to me: a Fitbit that’s yet to grace my wrist.


‘Open road here we come’. ‘
Are we there yet?’
‘We’re here!’

If you’ve listened to a baseball game during the summer of quarantine, you will recognize this inane refrain as their ‘commercial break’ messaging. It’s grating, yet strangely catchy, and my kids sing it at odd times throughout the day in these whiny falsetto voices that cause me to long for nails on chalkboard.

Staycation is probably one of my least favorite words. It is glitter on a limp piece of faded construction paper; trying to add a cheerful connotation to something that tends to lean in the direction of underwhelming. I really don’t mind staying at home, not going on a trip.

I just don’t want to call it a staycation.

But here we are, like the majority of the world population, hunkering down in our tight living quarters for the better part of five months now with little change in the way of scenery. Hence my concerted effort to make the hour-plus drive to the surrounding mountains as often as possible. Which is, strangely, not that often when you’re juggling kids and jobs and dogs and house projects.

I wouldn’t describe myself as the kind of person who enjoys clawing her way up hills for hours on end, but when you live in a place with the kind of scenery that draws tourists from all over the world (not this year, obviously), you basically have a responsibility to become someone who hikes or bikes during the fleeting summer months. This ‘burden’, coupled with my appreciation of a good vista, is likely how I fell into hiking.

Usually, I tend to hike with other people who take care of pesky details like knowing where the starting point of the hike is, how long the hike might be and paying attention to the trail to make sure we end up where we’re supposed to be. So all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other.

But on this occasion I’d invited the professor to come with me, which is how I found myself driving and asking him to Google the name of the hike I’d selected ‘because I think it’s hard to find the start of the hike.’ This led to him downloading the AllTrails app which offered the only reasonable chance of us finding the trail, staying on it and possibly returning to our children

AllTrails is great – it gives descriptions of hikes, details like length and elevation gain and apparently, if you pay actual money, downloadable maps to keep you from getting lost in the semi-wilderness. Assuming you know how to read a map.

Which I don’t.

AllTrails also offers user reviews of hikes which is a useful feature except when it’s not. It’s useful, for example, to know that the hike I’ve selected is covered in snow, or closed due to bears. Or that there is a particular spot where it’s easy to get lost.

It is less useful to hear hikers’ humble-brag declarations of how ‘easy’ this ‘difficult’ hike was and how ‘quickly’ they were able to do it. I’m obviously a mean person because those reviews always make me want to write my own absurd fake reviews.

As in, ‘Start to finish, it took me about 15 minutes jogging at a leisurely pace. Little bit of a climb towards the end but otherwise super easy. I felt so energized I did it twice!’

Fortunately, now that the professor has paid for the app, I can abandon my twice a year blogging-hobby and become a fake reviewer.

Eventually we found the designated parking spot and, with our Covid rescue dog in tow and some halfhearted direction from the person parked behind us, set off on the trail.

A couple more observations about hiking: without the benefit of technology or maps – how are you supposed to make sense of unmarked trails that split in multiple directions or trails that barely look like trails? I’ve read a couple of books of people who’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, and it blows my mind that they got anywhere at all.

And what about the rating system for hikes – what makes a hike moderate versus difficult? And how are these seemingly exclusive ‘difficult’ hikes so packed with people?

Are the Canadian Rockies the mountainous equivalent of Lake Wobegon, where all the hikers are above average?

We’d been hiking less than 10 minutes when we came upon our first hesitation. Left, right or straight? The professor stared at his phone, taking small steps, trying to see which way the little dot moved. Fortunately a group of six twentysomethings emerged from the left with the same phones and the same app. We mulled it over, collectively, and agreed to go straight. Even though it looked on the map like we should go left but the dot on the phone said that was the wrong thing to do.


We plodded along behind the exuberant youngsters – or, the ‘Future’ as we took to calling them. As in ‘there goes the Future,’ or ‘the Future is struggling’ or ‘what happened to the Future?’

My first observation of the hike: there appeared to be no flat parts. Even through the forest there were downhill parts so ridiculously steep I braced myself for the return when we’d have jello legs and blisters and have to suffer the injustice of more climbing. And yet, there were people everywhere. People you might not think would willingly subject themselves to torture for the sake of their Instagram feeds. We passed two grandparents with their young grandchildren. The grandmother looked like she’d possibly just finished cancer treatment. Were they just walking around for a few minutes to burn off grandkid energy or were they headed for the summit?

The sky was a brilliant blue, the wildflowers were incredible and the black flies were large and in charge. Instead of bear spray I should have taken bug spray. There were probably some notes about that on the AllTrails reviews. (There were!)

After almost two hours of sweating and swatting and cursing the madness, we met the first peak. ‘Picture this’, as Sophia from the Golden Girls would say: a giant, treeless, shrubless mountain covered in dusty, gravelly dirt and little in the way of discernible trail.

This was the moment I chose to remember someone had told me ‘you have to have poles for this hike.’ Funny, I’d convinced myself she’d said ‘you don’t need poles for this hike.’ Whoops.

Either way, I don’t have poles.

The hill was an equalizer for all the hikers with summit on their agendas. Every single person could be heard saying ‘what?’ ‘are you serious’, or ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ while staring at the behemoth with a mixture of contempt and resignation. The ‘Future’ could be seen shuffling up at a snail’s pace, which didn’t inspire confidence in those of us twenty years their senior.

I’ve never been on a hike where I had to stop continuously, for fear of my lungs running away. ‘We have to summit,’ I gasped-yelled at the professor, as though we were on an Everest expedition, ‘my oxygen canister is almost empty!’

We passed a small group of hikers making their way down. One was howling as he shuffle-skied down the insanely steep slope, at the mercy of the untethered soil and the single pole he’d likely borrowed from someone.

‘That does not inspire confidence for the way down,’ I lamented. Indeed, as annoying as the climb up was, it was the descent that preoccupied my thoughts, given our lack of poles and our canine companion who lunges with the force of 3 pitbulls anytime he hears the taunt of a ground squirrel.

‘I’m good,’ the professor finally relented when we were close to the top. ‘I don’t need to keep going.’ I surveyed the remaining tip of the peak – I knew I’d regret not going all the way to the top. So I left husband and dog and backpack and climbed another five or six minutes into prime vista territory.

‘I think,’ the professor formulated a plan all the way back to the car, ‘from now on I will hike with a folding chair and a cooler of drinks. I will walk for a bit, forty minutes or less, then set up my chair and be done.’

This Quarantine Life

I’d just returned from a run, leaving the front door open to let in some fresh air through the screen door. Acknowledging the last few weeks’ seemingly rare conflation of above zero temperatures with semi-sunny skies. The dogs barked, alerting me to the fact that either a squirrel was passing through the shrubs, or a dog was walking on the sidewalk or we were in danger of being robbed.

I stuck my head around the corner of a room to assess the disturbance and saw my former neighbor standing by the porch. I hadn’t seen her since February, despite the fact that we live less than a kilometre from each other.

I opened the door to say hello, stepping towards her to give her a hug when I suddenly remembered: quarantine, social distance, pandemic.

It was a strange moment, an instinctual deference to social behaviors I’ve observed and executed for 45 years stopped in its tracks by an abrupt recollection of pandemic protocol.

I wasn’t supposed to hug my neighbor. I was supposed to stand at least six feet away from her, ideally while wearing a mask. And really she shouldn’t have been at my house in the first place. Weren’t there helicopters circling overhead, judging the proximity between people and making inferences about their relationship to one another? Weren’t my other neighbors going to report us, two unrelated people standing six-ish feet apart in broad daylight?

I’d seen a video clip earlier that morning, despite my best efforts to stick my head in the sand and ignore the continuous barrage of doom upon doom laced with snippets of an orange-faced man saying unintelligible things. It was of a woman in Michigan protesting the government’s stay-at home order. She was clearly fed up with the state of affairs, angrily revealing the top of her head with its vast skunk stripe declaring that ink black was not, in fact, her natural haircolor.

That Michigan woman bore an eerie resemblance to my former neighbor in tone and countenance, except, judging from the particularly brassy hue of my friend’s hair, she had not allowed quarantine to reveal her true colors.

Or maybe she had.

I’m a rule follower by nature, hugely uncomfortable with conflict or dissent of any kind. Any time I’m trapped in a conversation with someone I am not married to, and they are disagreeing or naysaying about anything at all, I can be seen nodding my head sympathetically, a study in patient listening. But underneath my placid exterior, I am plotting an immediate exit.

‘Do you even know anyone who’s gotten sick’, she fumed.

She had me there. Other than my friends Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, I know of exactly one person who has fallen ill with COVID-19. And he lives in the States.

‘It’s just ridiculous! Walking around the store with masks on? Justin Trudeau talking about speaking moistly? Yes, people have died, but more people are dying from heart disease and cancer. And here we are just walking around Costco, following pylons like little sheepies. Back in December and January, why weren’t they making people wear masks on flights and checking their temperature at the airport?’

Despite my law abiding nature and my inherent discomfort with the tenor of the conversation, she was of course, not wrong. Could it have made a huge difference if there had been more restrictions around traveling earlier in the year, when news about this virus first began to catch hold? Even Bill Gates seems to think so.

But when the powers that be consider economic health, public services, human life and mental health in the face of a potential catastrophe, is it possible to get it exactly right?

Platitudes and hashtags abound to assure us, much like the emperor’s clothes, that things are happening and everyone should do their part and it’s all for a very good reason. Flatten the curve! Stay home! Shelter in place! Staying home saves lives! Social distancing saves lives! We’re in this together!

All while alarmist reports of imminent doom cloud every news outlet’s website. ‘Worst recession ever!’ ‘Unemployment will reach 25 percent!’ ‘What if there’s a natural disaster during this pandemic?’ ‘Schools will be closed until Fall 2021!’

What are we supposed to think?

Ergo, my tendency to scroll mindlessly through Instagram rather than let my mind be further perturbed by truth, speculation and other people’s panic attacks. I’d rather speculate about what Harry and Megan are doing than contemplate a Hunger Games-like existence, killing squirrels for my dinner while living in dilapidated squalor, with dirt on my face and my signature decade-old blue Calvin Klein shirt from Costco a threadbare remnant of my former well-heeled life.

Amusing visuals of me looking like Jennifer Lawrence and being able to kill an animal with a bow and arrow aside, it has undoubtedly been the longest month of anyone’s life. Whatever your economic situation, your family composition (and dynamic), having the proverbial rug pulled out from underneath you, ordered to a solitary existence without being able to kill time at a public library, bookstore or Winners takes some getting used to.

Fortunately, in addition to dire news reports every three minutes, we also have access – in this prolific age of social media and questionable news – to top ten lists! and hot tips! authored by self-appointed experts on how to cope, nay thrive, during a pandemic.

Honestly, of the barrage of information and hashtags that have overwhelmed us these five weeks, the lists have been particularly irksome.

The weather sucks, you’re trapped in a confined space with people you usually only see for 2 hours a day at best – thanks to school and after-school activities and work commitments – you’re possibly unemployed, underemployed, or fully expecting to be either at a moment’s notice and most of your self-soothing mechanisms have been taken away.

Maybe taking up sewing, putting rainbows in your windows, learning a new language, or getting your body ready for a friend-less, beach-less, vacation-less swimsuit season is not, in fact, what will save you during this time. Maybe, when your life is stripped bare, instead of filling it back up with other people’s well-meaning ideas, you just live a bare life for a while.

Sort of like people did in the 80’s and 90’s.

PS. Two things that have actually helped my sanity: having dogs and watching Schitt’s Creek.

PPS. I might try sewing later today! Stay tuned……

The Delusionists: Calgary Syndrome.

I got up yesterday, and took a handful of steps down the darkened hallway to the bathroom, as I do most mornings. While standing in the unlit room, I gazed at the frosted window and could swear I detected, even with blurry non-corrected vision, a distinct whiteness outside.

‘No,’ I thought to myself. ‘No.’

I ran to the kitchen, hoping it was just a strange backyard reflection; that the night hadn’t deposited a thick blanket of snow covering absolutely everything. That even though it seemed like a significant amount of snow awaited me outside, maybe it was really just one of those persistently-rude, out-of-season powder-coats I’ve become semi-resigned to over the last few years.

It wasn’t. Not unless your definition of powder-coat includes several inches of snow while the sky unleashes steady, unceasing lashings of it.

I marched to our bedroom where the professor was pretending to sleep despite having heard my less than chirpy snow-greetings. ‘It SNOWED,’ I fumed, ‘a LOT.’ ‘I know,’ he attempted to hide his face under the covers, ‘I saw it late last night but I didn’t want to tell you.’

For hell hath no fury like a woman accustomed to seasonal living, trying to carve out a life in a monoseasonal land.

‘I’m not living here anymore!’ I threatened.

‘A harsh word in the mornin’ darkens the day,’ he channeled his best Jacob Snell because the greatest joy of my life right now is talking like a sixtysomething Ozark[s] drug lord while I go about my daily existence.

For really, what other joys are available to me when it can, and does snow at a moment’s notice? After a decade of toil in this dry and wintry land, I’ve come to the conclusion that calling Calgary monoseasonal is the most accurate, and least likely to lead to mental breakdown, description of its weather: ‘Basically, it’s winter all year round and sometimes a few nice days pop up here and there. But not too many, and not that frequently.’

That is, going forward, how I will describe this city’s clime to the uninitiated. Perhaps it’s not a marketing approach that will cause the Hawaii-bound to make a u-turn, but the honesty of it is refreshing and certainly not a deterrent when you consider millions of people already live in ‘challenging’ climates.

It’s a known phenomenon.

The problem, is the people who live here. Perhaps you’ve heard of a little thing called ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in which hostages form a psychological alliance with their captors… in order to survive. That’s precisely what’s happened here, except instead of a person, the captor is the weather and in order to survive its hostages pretend, insist, that the weather is actually….beautiful.

Calgary Syndrome.

Don’t believe me? I walked through foot-deep snow to the grocery store today because digging my car out from underneath its cloak and dealing with crappy roads was less appealing and equally time consuming. Every person I encountered on my journey made some comment about the weather – because it’s October 3 and we are wading through calf-high snow – and every single person concluded their passing remark on a positive note.

‘Wow, that’s a lot of snow…..but it’s beautiful!’

‘What crazy weather… least it’s sunny!’

‘I sure hope I don’t slip,’ an elderly neighbor commented before adding the now anticipated ‘but at least it’s warm.’

I got home, where the furnace has been running nonstop since the end of August, and, somewhat bewildered by the barrage of automated replies, checked the ‘current outdoor temperature.’ One website insisted it was -4 and another claimed it was -6 (that’s somewhere between 21 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit for my fall-experiencing American friends).

Minus 4 (or 6) is a lot of things, but ‘warm’ is probably not one of them – unless your benchmark is Siberia in the middle of January. (Would you believe Siberia and Calgary have remarkably similar forecasts these past two weeks, considering the climates are so ‘different’?)

I spent the majority of yesterday shoveling snow and scheming with my next door neighbor about the cost-effectiveness of buying a shared snowblower: would it have been rendered useless by the heavy wet snow? Because I would have gladly forked over $900 yesterday not to feel the way I do today.

Lest we forget: people die from shoveling snow. Every. Year.

When I wasn’t hoisting wet snow over my shoulder while mentally replaying the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, or trying to perform self-chiropractic care, I was calling up universities south of here to see if they have any interest in hiring the eminently qualified professor.

Nothing but automated replies.

So today I’m going to take advantage of the sunny, blue skies and spend some time considering whether it’s better for my mental health to live in a monoseasonal climate with universal healthcare or experience spring, summer and fall in a frightening political climate where healthcare costs a small fortune.

Too bad the daisies are buried in snow.

(Who am I kidding, they’ve been dead for months!)


Back to School

Those of us with school-aged children spend roughly ten months of the year structuring our lives according to the rhythm of the school calendar: Monday to Friday, 8ish to 3ish, breakfasts and lunches, forms and emails, schedules and obligations. Showers.

But then we spend a few summery weeks without those pillars in place. And we teeter to the other extreme of our hyper-scheduled, down-to-the minute days. We ramble through suddenly blobby, shapeless days that involve food but little else. Days that seem glorious for about 48 hours after which they threaten to obliterate my three remaining shreds of sanity.

I hate having every minute of my day accounted for, absolutely, but I also hate continuous pajama wearing and kids saying ‘but it’s summer break’ when I suggest it might be good to leave the house, or make a bed, or read a book. Or shower.

Surely there should be a statute of limitations for using that particular excuse. And it should not be once a day for 63 days.

Eventually the end of August arrives, and with it regret over things not done, uneasiness over the scheduling whirlwind that looms and relief that ‘the pillars of the earth’ will soon reappear.

But only if you survive back-to-school week.

How did you prepare for that first week of school?

Did you go shoe shopping roughly 9 times even though you only have 3 children?

Did you go to the mall with four boy-men and buy new pants and new shirts, only to go back to the same mall ten days later because people bought pants that were way too big, or long-sleeved t-shirts they’d ‘assumed’ were short-sleeved?

Did you go to IKEA and Costco and 3 or 4 different grocery stores only to lie in bed the night before and realize: you don’t have any milk in the house?

Well, I did. Around 11pm, when I finally dared to put my head on a pillow and mentally review the morning drill  – now that school would be starting an hour and ten minutes later, in a building not essentially in my backyard – it hit me: ‘we don’t have any milk,’ I sighed aloud. ‘I’ll get some at Mac’s in the morning,’ the professor sighed.

The day hadn’t even started and we’d already hit a snag.

I’d had visions of a leisurely family breakfast before walking, en famille, to the new school. (The new school which was an indeterminate amount of minutes away because we never did do the ‘walk to school dry run’ we’d talked about.)

But the leisurely family breakfast turned into the professor driving to a convenience store and me, inexplicably, completely out of nowhere, deciding to make a coffee cake. At 7:45am. I haven’t made coffee cake in a handful of years. Possibly, as I recalled while throwing ingredients in a bowl, because I don’t tend to make things that call for a cup of sour cream and a cup of butter. In the same recipe. Also, as I threw the 9×13 dish into the oven: because it takes an hour to bake.

So the intended breakfast, or was it lunch-time treat, became an after school snack when I yanked it from the oven right before leaving the house to walk to school.

This was just after one of my children had a severe meltdown because their designated pair of ‘outdoor shoes’ had removable soles and he wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to deal with it on his own and wouldn’t be able to go outside for recess.

And I had to bite my tongue severely about the 9 trips to the shoe stores and how this problem could have been rectified nearly a dozen times over before this particular moment in time. Because pointing out any of the obvious was only going to result in greater unhappiness for all involved.

[I think there’s still a dent in my tongue from last Tuesday at 8:30am. Not that I’m having trouble letting that one go.]

So the professor, who is basically our family’s EMT [Emergency Matters Technician] pulled out some epoxy or tube of I-don’t-know-what and affixed the removable soles to the footbeds of black and green Adidas sneakers while I eyed my not-quite-done coffee cake that no one was going to eat. Wondering how I was going to get my time-conscious children to pose, willingly and seemingly happily, for their first day of school photo which I needed to post on Instagram.

At some point (between 8:40 and 8:45am) two boys and their parents left their home to walk to the new school [X] minutes away. Though I knew without a doubt we would not be late for the 9:10 start, I felt tremendous pressure from my intensely prompt children to get there by 8:55 so they could meet their new teachers. Could we do it in a shade over 10 minutes? I had no idea.

It reminded me of a late August morning, nine years earlier, when the professor and I’d arrived at the Rockyview Hospital to deliver young Percy and had no clue where to go because we hadn’t done any sort of dry-run reconnaissance prior to the big event. We relied on strangers in the parking garage elevator to point us in the right direction.

Some things never change.

We got through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but not without several semi-disasters on our hands. By the time Friday rolled around, I was determined to end the week on a high, and by ‘high’ I mean: complete information.

The five of us huddled together in the boys’ bedroom around 9:30pm. (You know how many times a 9 year old Gort EVER went to bed at 9:30pm on a school night? Exactly zero.) ‘So, early dismissal tomorrow,’ I surveyed the crowd, ‘what time are you actually done with school? Does anybody know?’

’12:50′ Percy guessed. ‘1:30’ the Hen disagreed. They attend the same school and ‘I thought it was 1:50?!’ ‘What time do you finish?’ I asked the Gort. ‘I don’t know, around 1?’

Naturally, I asked Google to tell me what time my children would be done with school the next day.  [12:42 and 1:30, for the record. In case I need to read this on Friday to remind myself.]

The first week, chaotic, disastrous and exhausting though it may be, has one thing in its favor: it ends. We find our ‘school legs’ and remember that mornings are smoother when four people aren’t crammed in one small kitchen working at opposing tasks; biking to school is a virtuous (and welcomed) concept but requires a bit of forethought and knowing the combination of one’s brand-new bike lock; and telling children when you drop them off how they are supposed to get home is inordinately valuable.

Also, bedtimes


What the Fart

For reasons that are too boring to explain, I packed a 576-page book in my carry-on when I ventured to the southern hemisphere last month. To visit the country of my childhood.

I was doing my utmost to pack sensibly, to mimic those Influencers on Instagram who take bird’s eye photos of the contents of their suitcases, arranged in impossibly beautiful and cohesive mini-piles. A book the size of a child’s backpack felt frivolous bordering on stupid as I imagined traipsing through security checks and crowded airports with a millstone on my back. Even the title went against my sought after holiday aesthetic: How Not to Die.

But with 80-plus Calgarians chomping at the bit to borrow this very title from the library, I felt slightly coerced to spend my holiday reading about how to reduce my chances of dying from one of the Top Fifteen Killers.

The bottom line, if you’re mildly curious but know with complete certainty that you would never (a) go to a library, (b) put a hold on a book, or (c) pick up or flip through a book entirely focused on disease and nutrition, is to eat plants above all else. With a bit of turmeric and flax seed thrown in for good measure.

You’re welcome.

Some people, when presented with compelling information encouraging lifestyle changes can shrug their shoulders, mutter ‘we’re all going to die of something’ and continue on as if nothing happened. And other people feel compelled to act, to incorporate the newly acquired information, however short-lived their conviction may be.

I mostly fall in the second category of people – willing to make changes to my lifestyle as long as they make sense to me. As in, if I read an article tomorrow that urged me to exercise for 2 hours a day, I would shrug and pretend I never read it. Same if some doctor somewhere tried to tell me that homemade chocolate chip cookies were taking years off my life. Those were probably going to be the years I didn’t want, anyway.

But cutting out meat? Eating more vegetables? Sure I’ll try it.

I tested the idea with the other members of my household. ‘Would you be willing to eat vegetarian for ten days?’ ‘Sure,’ the children replied enthusiastically, ‘as long as we can keep eating meat.’ ‘Meat is my life,’ my middle child resisted. Which seemed, frankly, like a sad statement. The professor, bless his heart, has gotten used to these impulses of mine and just rides them out. No sugar? Okay. No meat? Okay. He knows I eventually move on, and as he has minimal interest in cooking, he is mostly willing to eat what’s in front of him.

As soon as I returned from my idyllic two weeks of no cooking, no cleaning, no driving and did I mention no cooking, Operation Eat Plants was on. Much to the [loud, constant] lament of my family. I have to believe the biggest obstacle for parent-chefs to considering vegetarianism is the fear of backlash upon serving their kids copious amounts of vegetables at every meal. The imagined complaints,  protestations and tears would invoke a sense of dread in even the most unflappable of people.

‘What’s for lunch?’


‘What’s for dinner?’


[Outrage. Visible Disappointment. Tears. Resignation. Any and all of the above.]

Herein lies another problem rarely discussed: increasing one’s consumption of vegetables, beans and flax seed by 200 or 300 percent will result in digestive ‘challenges’, to put it mildly. Even though no one on the interwebs will attest to this; just a few sporadic voices offering pitiful concessions like ‘you might experience discomfort for a day or two.’ (Undoubtedly the same people who tell you that going off sugar will give you a headache for a couple of days and then you will feel a surge of energy unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.)

Bull-fart, I say.

Because every time I turned, someone had farted, was farting or was about to fart. Followed by ‘What?’Or maniacal laughter. Or both.

We were a toxic, bloated bunch, unfit for public consumption.

The professor and I went out for dinner vegetables to celebrate our 22nd (?!) anniversary, and upon cinching my wrap dress, I was keenly aware that I looked like someone at the end of her first trimester, despite my advanced maternal age and running routine. ‘I like your dress,’ the waitress enthused as she escorted us to our table, while I contorted my shoulders in an attempt to disguise my distended abdomen. We pored over the menu of the restaurant, eliminating the meat items and the blatantly unhealthy ones. The professor also nixed the plate of cauliflower  ‘I can’t’, he shook his head, motioning toward his stomach, shuddering.

So I ordered, without apology or explanation, a plate of green beans, a plate of beets and some sort of green tomato-burrata crostini. The waitress seemed perplexed by the strange selection, offering to leave us a menu in case we wanted to order ‘something else’.  Later I glanced at the hipster couple sitting at the table next to ours, and by hipster I mostly mean ‘not married for 22 years.’ They had ordered all the same dishes as us, including the cauliflower.

‘I think they’re vegetarian,’ I whispered to the professor.


[The Silver Lining: Three, or is it four weeks later, I can report we survived the experiment and will likely keep going with some modifications. Though my boys are, what most people would consider ‘good eaters’, I’d definitely fallen into the trap of limiting the kind and amount of vegetables I serve, for fear of dinner table backlash, or the dreaded ‘Oh’ when I tell them what’s for dinner. But this switch has enabled me to see they will survive, even willingly participate in, eating more vegetables.

Though the presence of eggplant continues to induce tears in 33% of my children.]


Fodder for your Memoir Saturday

It continues to perplex me, after fourteen years of being a parent, that a suggestion as innocuous as ‘let’s go to Banff for the day’ should be met with the level of weeping and gnashing as happens chez moi. I mean people, from all over the world, use their hard-earned vacation time and money to experience the Canadian Rockies but the Johnson boys will have none of it.

None. Of. It.

But alas, I had googled ‘winter hikes banff’, had pinpointed an ‘easy hike’, had made vague mental notes about locating said hike: you take this road, and then you find another road and there will probably be trail signs’ so forfeiting was not an option.

The professor set about searching for mittens and hats and snowpants while I went about my pre-trip ritual of inexplicable kitchen activity. Typically in the warmer months, this takes the form of producing a large quinoa salad while the rest of my family members pace around the living room waiting for me. But on this snowy ‘spring’ day I opted to make scones. To the professor’s credit, he no longer raises an eyebrow when I do this, no longer says: ‘really, you’re making scones? Now?’ Instead he just asks: ‘what are you doing?’ And I say ‘making scones’ and he keeps on looking for mittens.

This is how you survive a marriage.

Eventually, a mere 20 minutes later than I’d hoped, five grumpy people crammed into the professor’s car with its snow tires and singular backseat row, and extreme proximity to any and all vehicle occupants. Then it was time for the professor’s signature pre-trip ritual: the realization he doesn’t have his wallet and has no idea where it might be. He  patted his pants pockets, his coat pockets. He checked the cubbies in the car. Then disappeared into the house for probably five minutes though it felt like fifty.

We hit the Transcanada Highway and I reached for the book I’d brought along: Jessica Fechtor’s Stir. I read, both for interest, and to keep my anxiety in check about the professor’s driving. The book tells the tale of the author’s brain aneurysm at the age of 28, weaving tales of her life before and after the incident together with recipes for dishes that were meaningful to her at each juncture. It’s as clunky as it sounds but still I identified with the fear, the uncertainty, the attempt at reclaiming identity, for just that morning I’d noticed what I thought was a cavity on one of my teeth. My stomach churned at the dental uncertainty that lay ahead of me, so much that I shut the book and decided to take my chances with the professor’s driving.

We made it to Banff without incident, and I found ‘this road’ etched in my mental map. The car meandered along, and we stopped to look at hoodoos and eat the still-warm scones I’d made. There was also a very chilly visit to the outhouse in below zero temps. We continued on, searching for ‘another road’ and eventually located the trail and a parking lot with exactly one space for our car.

The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue and it seemed like a great day for an easy hike. Maybe. We stepped onto the trail, into the unknown. A young, childless, twentysomething couple who looked like they’d chosen their clothes ‘on purpose’ as opposed to grabbing whatever lay within arm’s reach trailed a short distance behind us. ‘Maybe we should turn around,’ the woman in the sunglasses and belted coat muttered uncertainly at the prospect of an hour-plus walk on a snowy-icy trail.

Meanwhile the Johnsons walked in relative peace, minus the exasperating things boys tend to do when they find themselves on a trail: crawl on their hands and knees, throw snow at one another, yank on a brother’s arms for no apparent reason. Around the fourth switchback (what does easy mean, anyway?) it happened. Our youngest explorer, as has been his habit since the first time he set foot on a trail, fell into an emotional-mental pit that no amount of logic or faux-patient speech through clenched-teeth would resolve. We all navigate emotional-mental pits in our own way, and Percy’s way is to collapse in the middle of a trail while wailing any number of choice phrases: ‘I want to die’ or ‘I’m not going anywhere’ or ‘I don’t care’.

I’m pretty sure Mother Teresa would have lost her beatific mind at the sight of such ludicrous behavior.

A woman, walking alone, likely in her mid-fifties, passed us. She raised her eyebrows at me. Perhaps her way of commiserating with our squatting spectacle but I took the raised eyebrow to mean ‘oh yeah, been there, done that, now I walk alone.’

During the ‘Banff Hostage Crisis of 2018’ I counted at least five children hiking down from ‘the top’ with their parents in tow. All younger, smaller than our dispirited Percy. None of them crying, complaining or threatening mutiny. One child, dressed head to toe in a pink and purple snowsuit like some kind of Teletubby  – undoubtedly drenched in sweat underneath those downy layers – marched silently without a word of protest to her parents.

In the word of Nancy Kerrigan, ‘whhyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.’

At some point, while we were still a considerable distance from the top, I saw the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses who’d been behind us at the start of the trail. She and her companion were heading back, in the opposite direction. Because they ‘d already made it to the top.

Exasperated, I spoke to my children: ‘there’s the woman who was behind us, she’s on her way back already, that leaves me with two theories – what do you think they are?’

‘That they’re going faster than we are,’ my scientists-in-training responded.

‘Sure, I guess, they could be going faster than we are,’ I sputtered, because as usual I’d thrown out a number – two – without actually having two theories. ‘But mostly I’m thinking we could have already been there if we weren’t spending so much time complaining.’

An hour, or was it three, after we first began, the five Johnsons made it to a clearing type space that seemed to be ‘the top’. Our children crouched on the ground, while I snapped photos, noting that the ‘view’ was virtually the same as the photo I’d snapped from a lower viewpoint. We noticed a small trickle of people emerging from the far end of ‘the top’ giving us reason to believe we hadn’t reached the summit, after all. ‘How much farther,’ I inquired of an energetic twentysomething hiker.

‘You go another 200m that way and there are some red chairs, and then about another 30m or so.’ The professor and I instructed our children to sit tight and walked. And walked. ‘How long is 200m?’ I wondered aloud. It seems such a benign distance, like it’s basically right there. Doesn’t Usain Bolt run 200m….in less than 20 seconds?

Not on Tunnel Mountain, he doesn’t.

We passed the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses….again….and I realized there was a third theory I hadn’t considered: mistaken identity. Here was the woman who’d started the hike behind us, hoping to turn around, that other woman had been an imposter. In a different colored coat. With a different boyfriend. This woman and her companion had beaten us to the top, yes, but by a very slim margin.

Perhaps she and Percy should hike together.

We came upon the promised clearing with red chairs, so buried in snow as to make sitting and enjoying the view impossible. Behind us a group of three men was taking turns climbing onto a tree bent in a zig-zaggy shape that, for whatever reason, reminded me of Mr. Tumnus.  They were striking all manner of lewd and improbable poses while I mentally added the hashtag #TreeToo to their Instagrams.

I begged the professor to get on the tree and allow me to take his photograph, hoping for a pose like George Costanza on that velvet couch. But alas, he declined, so we returned to our crew. They jumped to their feet and, without so much as a backwards glance, speed-walked directly to the car. For as much as Percy hates walking away from a parked car, there is no one on earth who marches towards a car with more energy and zeal.

‘He likes having summitted’ the professor muttered.