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…..at 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?’

Vegetables.

‘What’s for dinner?’

Vegetables.

[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.

Saturday Shopping

We have an ongoing dispute in our home regarding who should be responsible for weekend errands. Those with Y chromosomes in the under-65 inches category believe it should be my job, so as not to interfere with their preference for spending large swaths of time floating from couch, to bed, to dining table on any days that start with ‘S’.

Saturday, being an ‘S’ day, and coinciding with the continuous fact that we seemed to be out of a multitude of essentials, I determined that I would attend to my lengthy list of errands alone, without having to endure complaints about the number of places I choose to visit, or the length of time I choose to spend in aforementioned places.

But then the professor offered to join me at the last minute; a token of semi-goodwill, ostensibly. Though it may have been offered with the distinct hope of being rebuffed. Instead he found himself sitting in the passenger seat of the van, barreling down ice-rutted roads while inhaling through bared teeth, muttering things like ‘I’m going to die.’ Headed for the bane of all Johnson-men’s existence: Community Natural.

It being St. Patrick’s Day, a cheerful store employee was offering samples of undoubtedly health-ified ‘Shamrock Shakes’ in compostable mini-cups. I grabbed one knowing full well it would not bear much of a resemblance to its thick green chemical-cousin from the Golden Arches. But I was not entirely prepared for a green juice anointed with mint oil and cocoa nibs, and a drop of almond milk. The professor made various sputtering, unhappy noises and hightailed it to the nearest garbage collector.

‘Do you notice no one is smiling in this place,’ he mused aloud. ‘This is my impression of everyone in this place,’ and he generated a facial expression akin to one who has drunk nothing but parsley juice for three days straight. ‘It’s a grocery store,’ I disagreed, ‘no one looks happy at the grocery store.’

CanIgetawitness.

I parked myself in front of the bulk bins to gather oats and lentils while he wandered off, like an unsupervised school child heading for mischief. In the form of a Cole & Mason fresh herb keeper. 

‘Don’t you think we need one of these?’ he reappeared,  cradling a box in his arms as though he’d located the cure for something. ‘No.’ ‘But I just threw away some sort of green – cilantro, parsley – that was trapped in the salad spinner for like three days.’ ‘You could have thrown it in the freezer [with the constantly expanding collection of chicken carcasses destined for broth.]’

Denied, he returned his prized would-be possession and joined me at the bulk bins. ‘Don’t you ever just want to push down all the dispensers and run out?’ ‘No.’ ‘But let’s say you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, would you do it then?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I’m just saying if a doctor tells me I have a month to live or whatever, I am definitely doing that; I have a whole list of things I’d do.’

I frowned, mildly horrified at the prospect of certain public humiliation in my future. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured me, ‘I will rent a car.’

I hurried away to the produce section, eager to expedite….whatever this was. He found me in front of the kale, contemplating whether to buy curly or lacinato. Or both. ‘Why not just put a toonie in the refrigerator instead,’ he proposed with a hint of judgment at my habit of letting vegetables languish. I crammed one of each into a plastic bag, made a mental note to EAT KALE and continued on to look for baking soda. While regaled with tales of a recent podcast about a mental institution and the merits of animal fats over vegetable fats.

‘Do you think I could pass for 65,’ the professor asked, pointing to the sign posted near the cash register about people over 65 being eligible for a wisdom discount. ‘Go for it,’ I encouraged, while silently berating myself for choosing the slowest line. I glanced at the couple standing behind us, dressed in the requisite ‘Community Shopper’ uniform sported by people of a certain age and political bent: olive green hiking pants, fleece vest and water-resistant boots. They also bore the requisite ‘parsley juice’ expression on their faces. Possibly due to the fact that they’ve eaten nothing but apples and hemp seeds for the last fifteen years, judging from their shopping basket.

‘How’s your day going,’ the cashier asked when it was finally my turn to check out. ‘Well, I’m shopping with my husband,’ I motioned with my head, to the man who had wandered off to check out the juicers on display. ‘Ah,’ she said, in a say-no-more manner. ‘He was wondering if he could pass for 65, so he could get the wisdom discount,’ she looked at him and shook her head. Dream deferred.

 

 

 

 

This is Serious

I was in the middle of enlightening a student about notes and crescendos and how to press ivory keys to express musical intent when my phone rang. My phone rings approximately once every seven days, and it’s only ever one of my boy-children on the dialing end.

‘Hello.’ Question mark. Meaning, as I have tried to explain the previous thirty seven times, there should be a meritorious reason for the call.

‘Mom. This is serious,’ the oldest of my boy-children announced, and my heart was on the cusp of getting slightly jittery at such a dire proclamation when I considered the source: a child with a very precise vocabulary prone to serious, exact speech since he was three.

‘Yes.’

‘The boys got in a fight and the Hen has scratches all over his neck and is crying in the basement and Percy is in his room hyperventilating. HE CAN’T BREATHE.’ Two exclamation marks.

A barely dulled soundtrack of tears corroborated part of his assessment.

Science was never my best subject, but in the nanoseconds that followed, I considered whether someone who was crying loudly was, de facto, breathing. I surmised-guessed that crying required breath.

‘No one’s dying,’ I countered. ‘I will be home in forty-five minutes.’ And amid muffled exclamations about how I don’t even care, I ended the call, urged the professor via text to expedite his journey home and returned to my lesson.

A short while later, I walked through the front door to find a solemn crew waiting for dinner and the professor corralling the contents of the fridge onto the table. No one appeared to be speaking to anyone. I had exactly five minutes to eat and cross-examine before heading out to the next thing. I learned nothing that I hadn’t already heard on the phone.

There was talk of going to a skate night despite the conspicuous absence of skates, skating ability, or interest in skating. I left the matter in the professor’s weary hands and jumped back in the van, for one more lesson where part of the conversation touched on the Olympics.

‘I haven’t watched any of the Olympics,’ I confessed, explaining that the winter Olympics did not have the likes of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt to compel me to find sports events being streamed online.

Two hours later the boys, having gone to the skating slash curling night, walked through the door. Their spirits undoubtedly buoyed by excessive hot chocolate consumption. ‘I got hit in the head,’ Percy announced matter of factly when I asked if they’d had fun.

There were neither tears nor histrionics and I didn’t think much of it until, a few minutes later, he mentioned getting hit in the head again. I swiveled him around to get a look at the back of his head and found a bloody lump with a gash. My heart and stomach lurched at the sight and I motioned, wide-eyed, for the professor to take a look.

[Side note: It amuses me to no end that I seriously considered going to medical school at some point, despite my tenuous history with science and my visceral reaction to anything containing blood. In my defense, I was only ever going to study psychiatry, so I wasn’t entirely deluded.]

Next, I did what all mothers in 2018 do when confronted with a possible medical emergency. I googled ‘cut in the head…..stitches’ and learned, according to ‘somebody’, there was an 8-10 hour window to get a cut stitched. That timeline precluded calling our family doctor first thing in the morning and begging for an appointment.

I then texted two friends – one with actual nursing credentials, and the other a mom who had experience with children getting stitches. The nurse didn’t reply, and the stitch-mom, after about 20 texts back and forth, did not seem opposed to the professor’s opinion that we should just clean it, get some New-Skin and call it a night.

So the professor drove to Shopper’s Drug to procure a bottle of liquid bandage and it was well past the boys’ bedtime when we finally gathered on my bed for our nightly reading; Percy reclining his sanitized head against a towel-covered pillow. His head was still oozing blood when my nurse friend replied to my earlier text that it might be a good idea to take him to the ER.

After checking with the young lad regarding his amenability to a late night hospital visit, I loaded him in the car and drove the ten minutes to the children’s hospital, reminded at every turn of how much there was to be grateful for in our situation: a car to drive, good healthcare within (short) driving distance, a fairly minor reason to access healthcare, sufficient funds to purchase the necessary medication, and a chance to watch the Olympics.

Who knew when I’d said just four hours earlier ‘I haven’t watched any Olympics’ that I’d have a some free time in the ER to do just that.

The triage nurse examined Percy’s head and asked questions. She doled out a popsicle and Tylenol and it reminded me of a year ago, when the Gort had to go to the ER. Upon being presented with two Tylenol capsules, he’d asked ‘what am I supposed to do with that,’ having neither seen nor swallowed a tablet in his life. Much to the amusement of the nursing staff.

Having given me the distinct impression that the doctor was unlikely to do anything else for us, the triage nurse directed us to the smaller waiting area for people with non-contagious reasons for stopping by the Children’s Hospital at 10:30pm. I proceeded to watch snowboarding and women’s hockey while Percy played on the ipod his oldest brother had generously loaned him for the occasion.

‘How long is the wait.’ The professor, resident emergency room expert, texted me.

‘I have no idea. She didn’t say anything about how long it would be.’

And then I turned to the giant digital sign on the wall.

‘Average wait time from triage to seeing a doctor: 2 hrs 33 minutes.’

Oh.

Being far more interested in observing the other people in the waiting room than the uniformed athletes on a screen, I gathered scraps of evidence to flesh out the stories around me. Twin girls, one of whom had swallowed some of her father’s medication. A couple of boys with sports injuries, likely direct arrivals from that evening’s games or practices. One snack-loving family who’d even brought a blanket to maximize their wait-time comfort. And an adorably dressed African boy whose reason for being there eluded my detective skills. He was smiling, walking around, his parents did not seem overly distressed except when he tried to interact with us.

Tu déranges, his mother chided, and I considered whether I had enough high school French to say ‘no he’s not bothering us, we are bored and tired and need something to keep us awake.’

Alas, I just smiled and wondered whether it would be ‘illegal’ to leave the ER without having seen the doctor.

Shortly after 1am we were seen by one Dr. K who uttered approximately 30 words, the gist being: New-Skin was a fine solution, go home.

 

One Gin: Patron of Hearts

January.

That singular time of year when the optimist buried deep within me rears its repressed head, demanding change in absolutely every area of life. Exercise more! Eat fewer cookies! Read more books! Practice more piano! Do something about the 53,000 photos clogging up the computer! Use every minute of every day well! Don’t waste time! Throw away your phone! Throw away the computer! Be a patron of the arts!

I can’t recall if being a patron of the arts made my original Top 45 Things to Change Now list, but an acquaintance of mine told me about a Chamber Music Concert Series at the university and I asked him to send me a link to the roster so that I might become ‘a patron of the arts in 2018.’

A couple of weeks later I was engaging in my daily habit of checking the Calgary Herald website and reading portions of headlines, because I am not a paid subscriber and therefore don’t have access to content (additional resolution: subscribe to newspaper?) One of the headlines, related to a mysterious stage production called Onegin, caught my eye two days in a row. Possibly because the book I’d just finished reading had contained references to either Onegin or its author, Pushkin, or maybe both.

‘Last two performances!’ ‘Nearly sold out!’ I gleaned from the bits the Herald allowed me to read. ‘Patron of the Arts!’ my brain suddenly recalled.

It was all the impetus I needed to whip out my credit card and spend five annoying minutes wrestling with the booking system, trying to guess my username or password. Given the nearly sold out nature of the show, my choice of seating was rather limited. I settled on two tickets in the same row….twenty seats apart.

Date night!

Upon securing my two, far apart, tickets I scanned the description of the show to gain some  insight into what I would be seeing.

My eyes settled on a word previously missed: ‘Singing’.

Suddenly, my status as Patron of the Arts felt distinctly diminished.

I thought I had signed up for a play.

I’d signed up for a musical.

It’s not that I hate musicals. But I find them….slightly one-dimensional as vehicles for storytelling. I say this as a person who used to fall asleep, night after night, listening to the soundtrack of Chess on my walkman.  But despite my over-familiarity with the music, don’t ask me what the story is about because I have no idea. 

Is it Gary Kasparov’s life story? Is it even about chess, the game?

‘We’re going to see a play,’ I told the professor, refusing to use the word musical. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘No idea.’

Two nights later, thirty minutes before the show was scheduled to start, we picked up our tickets at the box office. ‘We’re sitting in the same row,’ I advised my better half, ‘but we are not sitting together.’ ‘Seriously?’ ‘It’s the best I could do,’ pointing to the ‘Tonight’s show sold out’ sign in the lobby.

The professor muttered about how I’d cut his face out of a recent family photo I’d posted to Instagram. [Fitting five faces into a square is not for the limited in skill selfie takers]. And now I had bought us two tickets twenty seats apart. [Sold out performance!]

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.

‘We can text our impressions,’ I proposed a compromise.

We exchanged meaningful banter via our phones for eighteen minutes, the highlights of which are:

‘You are a high maintenance long distance date.’

‘I won’t be ignored Tom.’ [Which is a decades-long misappropriation of Glenn Close’s iconic line in Fatal Attraction: ‘I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.’ ]

The show began: There was singing. There were vodka toasts ‘to love.’ There was more singing. Unrequited love. A duel! And then it was intermission.

We met outside in the reception area.

‘What’d you think?’

‘I thought it was pretty good.’

‘You?’

‘I thought it was fine.’

The Johnsons: Laconic Patrons of the Arts. Why use thirty words when you can use two? Or one?

‘The woman next to me groped my leg,’ the professor disclosed. ‘Really?’ ‘Well, I’m not sure what was happening. If she’d set her glass of wine on the floor and was just trying to find it and grabbed my leg instead?’

I envisioned him jumping up, yelling MeToo! TimesUp! in the middle of a song.

We returned to our separate seats for the second act. More singing. Unrequited love. The end.

It was not yet 10pm, and buoyed by the dearth of ‘so and so’s fighting’ phone calls from our home-alone-children and the promise of a gift card we hadn’t used, we headed to a nearby restaurant for a nibble. It felt very civilized, very patronly. ‘I see the Alberta Ballet is putting on a production of Onegin later this month,’ I mentioned to the professor. His face indicated he did not feel the need to experience the story through tiptoe and leg extension.

After an hour in a quiet restaurant and two phone calls from home we walked back to our car. The Calgary Tower shone, a bright blue beacon in the sky, and I snapped a photo to commemorate our night out: #onegin #patronofthearts

The next day, we told a couple of friends, who’d seen the aforementioned photo, the story of our evening. ‘Oh! I thought it was one gin,’ my friend shared. ‘And I was thinking, I didn’t realize Nicola liked gin.’

 

Saturday Night’s Alright for Sewing

It began, as these things do with a house tour on a blog. There I was, just clicking ‘next’, assessing the featured homeowner’s placement of furniture and art, when I came upon an image of her bedroom showcasing a bed with a fabric headboard cover.

It was not of the (pre) upholstered ilk that you might see in most furniture stores these days, but something she’d obviously made or commissioned to fit over her existing headboard.

Like an envelope. But with fabric. A very practical, potentially attractive remedy to the problem that is my IKEA headboard.

And just like that, despite an overwhelming to-do list, not to mention lack of skill, I determined to replicate this project. Somehow. Chez moi.

Fast forward to a Saturday night in November. Following an 8 hour day of cleaning the basement, driving to a birthday party that was possibly in another town, and watching Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I found the dvd boxed set – all three movies – for $4 at a thrift store. Score?)

Fact: Harrison Ford was a handsome devil back in the day.

Fact: Harrison Ford is not a good actor.

Fact: Raiders of the Lost Ark is not a particularly good movie.

After dispatching the boys to bed, I began what I assumed was the process for making a headboard cover.

Step 1: Select Fabric

During my 8 hour purge and tidy of the basement – which had been in a state of disaster since Christmas 2016 when we hastily assembled a ping pong table in the middle of the space without having done any preparation for installing such a monstrosity – I found a remnant of fabric in the bottom of a drawer. From IKEA, no less. (The fabric, not the drawer.)

I determined that it was adequately sized for my project by holding it, with the Gort’s assistance, in front of the headboard. There appeared to be a bit of room on either side.

Ça suffice!

Step 2: Measure and Cut Fabric

Despite having a basic understanding of arithmetic, and reasonable fine motor skills, I am not particularly adept at measuring or cutting things. I don’t know how to explain it, but something happens between trying to hold a ruler and drawing a line and then cutting along the line…..and by ‘something’ I mean an uneven mess that is inevitably too small for my purposes. No matter what I do or how hard I try.

All I’ve deduced, from previous brief, ill-timed dalliances with sewing projects (and the inevitable asking my mom to fix it that followed) is that I needed to have a piece of fabric with straight edges.

I did my best.

Step 3: Sew the Fabric. Somehow.

‘You’re doing this? Now?’ the professor inquired anxiously, as though he’d had 21 years of experience with my trying to replicate ideas seen in magazines and design blogs.

(Who could forget the hours we spent at a kitchen table trying to wrap strings of beads around styrofoam balls ?)

‘Yup,’ I replied, breezily, while trying to remember how to thread the sewing machine that hadn’t seen the light of day since….who can recall.

He nodded, tensely, and returned to the task of digging out his desk. Or, some might say, hiding.

I managed to loop the thread through all the requisite holes on my sewing machine and prepared for battle, guessing that I needed to sew a seam on either side of my not-quite-rectangle. Visualizing – anything – is not a particular strength of mine, and never is my deficit more apparent than during these sewing ‘episodes’. Still, I’d done my due diligence  – getting a straight-ish edge, remembering which side of the fabric was the ‘wrong’ side, ironing a 1-inch fold into the fabric to make sewing the seam easier.

For once in my life, I felt almost optimistic that this was going to be the fastest sewing project in the History of Nicola.

And then I started sewing.

It seemed to be going well. On the front of the fabric, there were stitches. In a semi-straight line. But when I looked at the back, it was a mess. Instead of stitches, I saw gobs of thread, obviously unhappy to be there. I knew from experience that this was a problem, unlikely to resolve itself. I needed to change something. After fiddling with the first dial I could find, I determined that the type of stitch wasn’t the problem. I found another dial on the machine. Aha! I pushed it to the right and I pushed it to the left. No matter, the mess in the back remained.

The quick and easy sewing project of my imagination was turning into a nightmare and along with it emerged my alter ego, Sewing Nicola. Also known as Crazy Nicola. She talks to herself, yells at inanimate objects. And curses. A lot.

‘Are you okay?’ a male voice muffled by piles of books and garbage inquired from the adjoining space.

Is there anything more irritating than a man asking a woman if she’s okay when she’s obviously ready to throw her sewing machine out the window?

Just when I considered driving to Wal-Mart and buying a new sewing machine, I found a third dial on my crappy machine: ‘Tension!’ I suddenly remembered. A nudge to the right, or the left – who can recall – and suddenly the stitches in the back….looked like stitches.

All I had to do was unravel the mess, re-sew the seams and I could go to bed.

If only I’d had a seam ripper.

While sitting there, alternately sticking a fat needle through loops of thread and cutting them, I thought of another seminal moment in my sewing career: the tray cloth I’d embroidered as a fifth grader, for which I’d gotten a terrible grade because of my propensity for using (banned, but so much faster) scissors instead of a (tedious) seam ripper to fix mistakes.

An hour later, with my new headboard cover in hand, I walked upstairs to determine if the thing I’d made actually fit. It did, somewhat begrudgingly.  Not unlike an envelope trying to contain a slightly-too-large card.

I summoned the professor upstairs to survey my handiwork.

‘The seam’s crooked on this side,’ he remarked, while tugging on the fabric. Perplexedly. As if the problem was one that could be fixed by pulling the fabric in a different direction.