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.’


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.


‘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.’


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


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.’


‘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.

Saturday: The Art of Not Being in Three Places at Once

(A continuation of the previous tale, The Blur: Oh is it Halloween, I forgot to care)

After three days of not thinking about how to be in three places at once on Saturday, Friday night arrived and I realized my logistical nightmare could no longer be ignored.

I had a small foretaste of the following day’s delights as I loaded four boy-children in the van, and spent the better part of an hour and forty five minutes driving back and forth between two schools and two different basketball practices.

It had been snowing since the day before, and even though we’ve lived here for nine years, we still haven’t come around to the Calgarian way that is buying a separate set of tires for the winter months. I always forget when it’s September and the roads are clear how stressful and lifespan reducing it is, driving in snow and wondering if your car is going to make it around a particular corner or up a hill. How it might, in fact, be worth $1000 or however much it costs to acquire tires with more adequate tread.

But alas another November without snow tires is upon me.

At practice I, emboldened out of necessity, approached one of the Hen’s coaches, who also has three boys…in basketball…to see what mutually beneficial child-trading deal we might strike for Super Saturday. I should point out that I had never spoken to this particular coach, yet there I was, begging him for a ride.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

He offered to drive the Hen to his game (located one-hour-in-the-opposite-direction from the Gort’s game) but due to his own scheduling conflicts could not bring the Hen home. Which means I had to ask the other coach to bring the Hen home. In return, I offered to supervise a kid I’d never met for half an hour and drive him to his basketball practice which was at the same gym as Percy’s….but an hour later.

The Hen’s first driver also wanted to leave exceptionally early, due to the inclement weather, which meant I had to leave the Gort’s game before it was over…..without the Gort. Obviously. Having no prior knowledge of any of the Gort’s teammates or their parents, I had to survey the sample of available parents and boldly ask someone I only knew as ‘Tristyn’s mom’ to drive my firstborn home.

I remember when he was a baby and I made detailed lists for babysitters regarding his food and sleep schedule, how annoyingly particular I was, and here I was begging a complete stranger to drive my son across town.

I did try to sniff the air circumspectly to see if her breath smelled of alcohol, but did she have a driver’s license? Was she a responsible driver? Had she been imprisoned for anything?

I will never know.

With two kids taken care of, I still needed to find Percy a ride home from his practice so I could drive across town to ‘The Costco’ to deal with my ‘slow leak’ tire. Fortunately, I managed to pawn off my third-born on his coach, whom I know and have talked to at least three times.

‘How are you Nicola,’ one of the moms sitting on the tiny wooden benches against the gym wall asked when I sat down with my ‘fourth’ (stranger) child. A yellow basketball came barreling down towards my head as I tried to gather my thoughts. Fortunately another mom alerted me to my imminent head injury with a panicked ‘Whaaaah’ and I slapped the ball away, inelegantly.

‘Well, I’m a bit frazzled,’ I replied. Though I suspect the harried look on my face, and my general unkempt appearance, magnified by the fact that I was wearing two coats had already corroborated as much.

I explained about my Super Saturday logistics and she shuddered sympathetically. ‘I think in San Francisco they’re piloting an Uber-type initiative that’s just for getting kids where they need to be. I’m not sure I’d use it though.’

I thought of Tristyn’s mom. ‘Well, I just asked a complete stranger to drive my child home, so that couldn’t be any worse.’

‘True, the drivers are probably vetted somehow.’

Hopefully more vetted than my ‘sniff the air’ test.

The Hen’s ‘first driver’ arrived at the gym, and with my temporary charge reunited with his father, I hightailed it to Costco for my 12:15 ‘appointment’. I have a rather old-fashioned view of appointments as it turns out, one shaped by years of medical, dental and professional appointments that were set for a specific time and, as such, expected to commence on, or very close to that specific time.

My first inkling that a Costco ‘appointment’ was not, in fact, an appointment, was the line-up of cars parked outside the Tire Center, in the fire lane. My second inkling was the line of people snaking out the door into the concrete-floored entryway: people with appointments, people who’d driven in snow, remembered how awful it was and raced to buy snow tires, people reporting for the 40 kilometer, post-tire installation torque check.  My third was the customer service representative with the blunt bangs and brisk manner of speech saying ‘it should be about two hours.’

I hadn’t planned on spending two hours at Costco. I didn’t really have two hours to spend at Costco. I was starving, thirsty and the only thing I needed to buy was dishwasher pellets.

I returned a few shirts I’d bought against my better judgment. That killed 15 minutes. I went to the restroom which killed perhaps two minutes while eviscerating my self-esteem. Whenever I visit the Costco restroom, I inevitably gasp in horror as I glance in the mirror on my way to the stalls. I don’t know if it’s the fluorescent lighting, the grey tinge of the concrete, or perhaps I just look my most unattractive when I go to Costco, but the person I’m looking at in the mirror is about 57 years old and possibly the ugliest person on the planet.

Just once, and I realize I’m fighting an uphill battle at this stage of the game, I’d like to take a glance in the Costco mirrors and feel okay about myself.  Not great, mind you, just ‘not bad’.

I entered the warehouse, ready to avail myself to whatever samples they were offering and wouldn’t you know it, on this particular Saturday at 12:30 there were almost no samples to be had. Just an obscenely thick hunk of cheddar on a Wisecracker. Which I ate, because I was that hungry.

I considered buying a duty-free-shop sized bar of Toblerone but didn’t think walking around, gnawing on a giant slab of triangular chocolate would help my ‘look better at Costco’ goal. I stared at the menu items on offer in the food court: pizza, hot dog, polish dog, sandwich, chicken strips, french fries, chicken caesar salad.

What was the lesser of all evils in this situation? I bought the french fries, ate a quarter and threw the rest away.

At the two hour mark, having purchased 132 dishwasher pellets, I made my way to the tire center, figuring my keys would be back in my hand within minutes.

My first inkling that this was not going to be the case was when I saw the line of people snaking out the door into the concrete-floored entryway. My second inkling was when the same blunt-banged, crisp-voiced customer service representative told someone in line ‘it will be 2-3 hours.’

She’d conveniently left off the ‘3’ when it was my turn.

I sat on the bench in the tire center, with nothing but my box of dishwasher pellets and a low-battery, data-less phone to keep me company. That and the rhythmic bench-kicking of the two kids sitting beside me, waiting for their dad.  Tunk-tunk-tunk-tunk. Over and over and over while I festered in my personal hell.

Two hours and forty-five minutes after I arrived for my ‘appointment’ I was summoned by the blunt-banged, crisp-voiced lady. ”Thanks for your patience,’ she chirped as she handed me my keys.








The Blur: Oh is it Halloween, I forgot to care

2017 marks the first Halloween on record that I failed to take a single picture of my costume-wearing spawn.

I’m living in a new continuum of time that I’ve decided to call ‘The Blur.’ Sure, all of parenting, all of life, really, could be described as a blur of days folding into one another punctuated by a series of identical, repetitive tasks: cooking, cleaning, showering, getting dressed, brushing teeth, with an ever evolving cast of characters hovering in the background.

But ‘The Blur’ differs from ‘the other blur’ in that any hint of definition or shape that previously clung to time in the form of days or months or years gives way and all that remains is: BusySleepBusySleepBusySleepBusySleep. You might be living in The Blur if you, a previously thoughtful person who remembered significant dates in people’s lives without trying, find yourself relying on Instagram’s prompting to deliver appropriate event-related greetings.

She’s blowing out a candle on a donut. Crap it’s her birthday. But her birthday is not until October. Crap it’s October. Happy birthday!!!

You might be living in The Blur if you race to drop off your middle son (on time!!!) for basketball practice, only to discover, after running into a gym filled with  kids you don’t recognize that you’ve driven him to the location where his younger brother is scheduled to practice…the next day.

Another tell-tale sign you’re living in The Blur: multiple calendar engagements….on the same day….at the same time.

‘So, on Saturday, how are you going to be in three places at once,’ the professor asked, mildly curious, before boarding another plane to somewhere.

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. Partly because I couldn’t even remember what the three things in question were. And partly because I do not know how to achieve being-in-three-places-at-once without Hermione Granger’s time turner. But ultimately, that was Saturday’s problem. And Saturday was still four days away. First, I had to deal with the very real problem of Halloween; specifically the lack of costumes for my children, the lack of treats for trick or treaters, the lack of carved pumpkins…..THE LACK.

If anything, The Blur is teaching forcing me to live minute by minute.

October 31st arrived and maybe it was a morning we all woke up on time, or maybe we woke up with 20 minutes before 3 boys had to be out the door. Who can recall? Both those scenarios happened this week. Naturally Percy decided he wanted to wear a costume to school (see previous comment about lack of costumes) and the Hen declared I needed to bring snacks for his class’ Halloween party and also could he take a board game to school?

In the span of ten minutes, sandwiches were thrown into lunch kits, one kid was running around looking for baseball pants (no costume=wear last year’s baseball uniform), another kid was stuffing a dilapidated box of Monopoly into an ill-fitting shopping bag while Properties and Community Chest cards fell to the floor. Good thing I’m not anal retentive about keeping board game components together, oh wait, I am.

‘I’ll just be Alvin again,’ the Hen decided when pressed for the fourth time about what costume he might wear for trick or treating. This could have been welcome news – (re)wearing an old costume – if only I hadn’t gotten rid of all the old costumes in yet another Marie Kondo-fuelled attempt to minimize clutter. I made a mental note to buy a red hoodie and yellow ducktape from somewhere between the hours of 11 and 2. While out buying treats for the trick or treaters, and standing in line at the Costco Tire Center to make an appointment about my perpetually flat tire.

‘Is it a slow leak?’

‘I guess?’

‘Come Saturday at 12.’

Aha! That’s the third thing I have to do on Saturday between 11-12.

I arrived home with just enough time to tape a giant, yellow A onto a red fleece sweatshirt before the bell rang at the boys’ school. ‘When can we carve pumpkins,’ they asked surveying the three misshapen orange orbs waiting on the dining table. ‘Um, now? I have 20 minutes before my piano lesson.’

They drew black shapes onto their respective pumpkins and I did what I could to honor their ‘designs’ with a kitchen knife. Neither the worst, nor the best Halloween pumpkins that ever lived, but at least they were carved and would entice eight trick or treaters to knock on my door and collect a bag of veggie chips.

‘Really, mom,’ the Gort rolled his eyes at the sight of my Veggie Straws. ‘Now, we’re that house?!’

As soon as the piano lesson ended, I summoned Alvin – ‘We need to go!’ –  handing him a bowl of mashed potatoes and stew to consume in the car while we dropped off food for friends en route to his trick or treating destination. ‘What about the paint for my nose and whiskers?’ I ran to the bathroom to grab an eyeliner pencil and threw it in my purse before heading out the door with two precariously full Corningware containers filled with potatoes and stew.

Stew dribbled out of the containers, through the Costco cardboard box intended to keep them upright, onto the front seat of the van. My car smelled like meat. It was raining and the roads were clogged with traffic. I took a shortcut in an attempt to avoid sitting on the freeway for 20 minutes. This led to a slightly divergent drive around a neighborhood of traffic circles and playgrounds and cookie cutter houses that had me despairing I might never find the Hen’s friend’s house.

‘What about my face paint,’ the Hen reminded when we finally pulled up to the house. I drew a dark brown triangle on his nose and four stripes on either side of his mouth. Ta-da.

I drove home, ate half a bowl of cold potatoes and stew and began cleaning up the chaos.

My sister sent me a photo of her kids, standing on green grass, wearing sweaters over their [legitimate] costumes

‘Where’s your troop?’ she asked, undoubtedly expecting a similar photo featuring my offspring.

Where, indeed.

Flying the Friendly Skies

Two summers ago, as we eked our way across the nothingness that is lower Saskatchewan, returning from yet another 8000km/4000mi+ journey to the Heartland, I knew with frightening certainty that we would not repeat the feat in 2017. Sometimes when in the midst of a trying situation we humans say things like ‘well I’m never doing that again.’ As with childbirth, for example. And then, despite insistence to the contrary, you find yourself doing the thing again.

But this was different, I knew I was so sick of sitting on my butt, trudging along asphalt, staring at open skies, eating countless bags of chips and candy, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (again), that a two-year reprieve would not be sufficient to convince me to embark on another cross country roadtrip. And, in the odd chance that I managed to rally and convince myself to pack up the car because the monetary savings was worth it, I knew the professor, our primary driver on these extreme undertakings, would not.

As skipping our biennial visit to the Heartland was not an option, we turned to our trusted friend, Expedia, just before Christmas – an astounding seven months before we were due to leave – and forked over credit card details for the vague, easily broken, promise of five seats on a Chicago-bound plane. The professor had spent an astounding amount of time (days!) holed up in his basement office trying to find the cheapest flights and when he finally emerged with the words ‘it is finished’ he added the delightful caveat ‘the trip back is going to be rough….three flights…..going to LaGuardia.’

Geography is not a particular strength of mine, but even I know that flying from Indiana to New York to go to Calgary is not exactly efficient or direct. ‘Oh well,’ I shrugged, ‘this year we at least have the advantage of knowing no matter how much that one day of travel sucks, it’s still better than three days in the car.’

Even as I said those words, I knew they would come back to haunt me.

Seven months passed, as they do in our current phase of life, in a blur of cold, school, work, sports, warmth, work, school, sports. As soon as July hit we headed to the airport with five carry-on suitcases, 5 ‘personal items’ and a large black suitcase with a red string attached. To set it apart from the host of other anonymous black suitcases cruising around on the conveyor belt.

Percy and the Hen, technicalities aside, had never really flown on an airplane before. The Gort and I had sporadic, intermittent, experience with the art of flying in the 21st century. As in, I hadn’t flown since November 2015. The professor was the only frequent traveler among us, which turned out not to be one of those ‘blessings in disguise’ of which ‘people’ sometimes speak.

Apparently when one’s solitary ritual is invaded by four neophytes, injecting a touch of chaos into one’s established way of doing things, tensions can run high.

Cranky paterfamilias aside, the travel itself was relatively smooth. Our flight departed more or less on time, we had seats in the same row and when Chicago’s piles of skyscrapers came into view a mere three hours after leaving Calgary, it felt like a modern miracle. Yes, I’d flown before. Yes, I was aware it was considerably faster than driving – but to see Chicago? After only being in a plane for 3 hours?


Our semi-lengthy layover in Chicago passed quickly enough between neverending walks from one concourse to the next, and spending cringe-worthy amounts of money on small amounts of mediocre food. I always keep my eyes open in airports because I’m addicted to people watching but I’ve also had enough bizarre small-world encounters to know it’s entirely possible that I might see someone I know, or at least recognize.

Sure enough, walking along one of the concourses, surveying the food situation with my youngest two, I passed a short, tattooed man with dark, wavy hair. I stared, tactlessly, at him because he was familiar to me even though my middle-aged brain was not offering up a corresponding name. Joseph Boyden, my brain finally cooperated a few seconds after I passed him. The author. He’d been in Calgary just two months before and I’d attended his talk with a friend.

It struck me as unglamorous, this gifted writer hoisting a large duffel bag over his shoulder, traveling from one city to the next at the behest of his publisher/agent in an attempt to sell, defend, himself.

Once we landed in Indianapolis, our day’s final destination, I asked the Hen which he preferred – flying or driving. ‘Driving’ he surprised me, ‘it doesn’t hurt my ears.’

Twenty-nine days later, having seen Indiana, Michigan and New York, slept in six different beds, and worn the same two pairs of shorts and two tank tops too many times to count, we loaded our stuffed-to-the-brim suitcases into my sister’s car and drove to the airport. With a forecast of unassigned seats and two problematic big city airports looming overhead.

Along with his solitary travel peculiarities, the professor has also adopted what I’ve since dubbed ‘his Vicky voice’ when dealing with airline personnel. So named after listening to him talk on the phone with an airline representative named Vicky. The voice is a blend of extreme calm and pleasantness, bordering on personable, utilized with a tacit expectation of reciprocated cooperation.

Apparently the Vicky voice pays off on occasion, because we found ourselves in ‘Comfort Plus’ seats for the first flight from Indianapolis to LaGuardia with a 65+ year old male flight attendant, who was perhaps the nicest man I’d ever met and an almost two year old girl who shrieked at eardrum-shattering decibels. You win some, you lose some.

We arrived at LaGuardia ahead of schedule and ‘everything was coming up Jason’ as the professor likes to say when things are going his way, until it came time to board our flight for Toronto.

Tuesday, August 1st was apparently a banner day at the Toronto airport for thunderstorms. Of course, we were entirely unaware of all of this, as we were standing in line waiting to board when the dreaded announcement came. ‘Thunderstorms…Toronto area…Delay…..No idea when this plane might leave.’ A look at the departure board revealed the next Toronto flight after ours had been entirely cancelled.

Mere minutes after the first dire announcement, came a second: ‘Board. Quickly.’

Part of me envisioned a favorable outcome to the scenario – we were going to board quickly and depart at just the right time to allow us to land in Toronto in between meteorological episodes. The smart part of me realized we were going to board quickly….and sit on a plane. We’ve all seen at least one news headline about a plane full of passengers sitting on a tarmac for hours on end without water to drink, forbidden from using the bathrooms.

This was not like that, exactly.

We boarded an un air-conditioned plane in 90 degree heat with a hundred-some strangers, but at least we were handed dixie cups of water and given permission to use the bathrooms, all while the flight attendant and pilot spouted honest if unapologetic rhetoric about having no idea what’s happening. ‘It is what it is,’ they seemed to say. Actually, that’s exactly what the pilot said.

I’m not sure that I would describe myself as a claustrophobic person, per se, but I definitely have a large personal space bubble and am quickly irritated in hot, overcrowded, public transportation situations. Also I was wearing jeans and a light sweater for the purpose of keeping warm in cold airports and airplanes. Ah, the irony.

At first the sitting on the plane was alright. We’d handed out screens to our boy-children and I’d usurped the Hen’s Sudoku puzzles. But minutes turned into tens of minutes and the plane seemed to be getting hotter. And I was stuck in between the Gort and the professor.

‘Do you want me to get you a t-shirt from the suitcase?’ the professor offered when it became unbearably obvious that I was irritated. ‘No!’ I snapped, because I didn’t want to ‘hold things up’ or ‘inconvenience anyone’ by opening an overhead bin and extricating a t-shirt from a suitcase. I also held on to the foolish hope that our suffering could end at a moment’s notice.

Eventually I capitulated and never was I more grateful for a tiny airplane bathroom or a well-worn black tank top.

We were past the hour mark when the pilot asked for a show of hands to see who would be in favor of getting off the plane. I raised my hand, even though I never raise my hand for anything. I would have abandoned the four members of my party and started a new life in a rat-infested New York City studio if it meant I could get off that plane.


[Rats and the City: coming soon to a television near you, featuring a sad fortysomething grey-haired woman with a large personal space bubble, wearing clothes from the Gap.]

Luckily at least 50% of my fellow passengers agreed with me, because we were allowed to get off the plane. The first thing I saw upon entering the terminal was a waitress carrying a smoothie on a small tray and all I could think about was finding a smoothie for myself. Stat. I forked over more cringe-worthy amounts of money for not enough food, lamented our travel situation to my mother and sister and eventually found myself standing in line for the same flight, again.

Around the ‘three hours later’ mark we finally took off for Toronto with visions of missed flights and getting to Calgary at 2am in my head.

It was my first time ever, landing at YYZ, so perhaps it’s always like this, but the airport seemed overrun with people scurrying and people standing in lines waiting to make alternate travel arrangements and stressed airline employees directing traffic. The escalators were stopped and I found myself hoisting suitcases and backpacks up and down flights of frozen stairs to appease unhappy children who’d been traveling for a month and had hit the proverbial wall of exhaustion.

And then we got to security.

My suitcase was flagged. The same suitcase which wasn’t flagged in Indianapolis. As soon as the security guy said ‘liquids over 100ml’ I remembered about the bottle of mouthwash, and the shaving cream. ‘Right,’ I disclosed in an attempt to hurry the process along, ‘I have a bottle of shaving cream….and a bottle of mouthwash.’ The man didn’t appear to notice that I seemed tired, done, and unable to care about whatever belongings of mine he needed to confiscate. ‘Let me just search the bag and then we can talk through some options,’ he replied smoothly, as though to suggest my patience with the process would be rewarded handsomely. He continued his search of my suitcase and unearthed an additional culprit: a bottle of lens cleaner ‘somewhere between the 100 and 200ml mark.’

‘Well,’ he was finally ready to tell me what I already knew. ‘You could take these items back and check them blah blah blah blah or…..’


‘We could confiscate them.’

I nodded my head, pointed a finger as though to say ‘that’s the solution I’ve been waiting to hear’ and said ‘Yes, that’s fine.’

Nothing in my suitcase was worth retracing my steps from the previous hour for the purpose of checking a bag.

With an almost amusing chorus of apologies, the security guy took possession of my Listerine and Nivea and eyeglass cleaner, then called me back and handed me the spray bottle of lens cleaner: ‘If it’s medicinal, it can be over 118ml.’

Good thing I was wearing my glasses.

It was close to midnight before we were allowed to board the flight back to Calgary, our party of five dispersed throughout the plane. As my head bobbed back and forth between sleep and consciousness, my body wracked from fatigue and illness, I estimated our journey from start to finish had taken 19 hours. Less than 3 days in the car, to be sure, but not by much.



On Being Dumber than a Fourth Grader

An email appeared in my disregarded inbox. The boys’ school wanted to thank parent volunteers for offering their time during the school year by giving them tea and coffee and having them sit in a gym for an hour. I mentally reviewed the contribution I’d made over the course of the year to either boy’s schooling, which amounted to notmuch, and went about my business.

Basically, I was not worthy of attending a volunteer tea. Or so I thought.

Around the same time, I started seeing emails from the Hen’s teachers about ‘Caine’s Arcade’. (Do you know about the 9 year old’s cardboard arcade that inspired the world?!)

‘Are you going to volunteer for Caine’s Arcade?’ the Hen asked me as we were walking home from school, ‘you need to sign up!’ ‘Sure,’ I replied, the same vague, dismissive ‘sure’ I offer anytime a decision is not immediately required.

I hadn’t really considered what volunteering for the arcade would entail – I assumed it was supervisory in nature; an attempt to manage 400 plus kids traipsing through a gym filled with cardboard games created by children of varying skill and attention to detail. And then the SOS email appeared: ‘we need parents to help kids put together their games and we don’t have anyone signed up for tomorrow!’

Having assisted the professor a time or twenty during our college years, cutting architectural models out of cardboard with one half-open eye fixed upon the clock and the hours-away deadline he needed to meet, I am well aware of my weakness in the area of cardboard cutting. The twenty-plus years since have not allowed me to forget the feel of an x-acto knife slicing an errant diagonal line when ‘straight, down’ was required.

Nor the professor’s face as he mentally weighed the cost of having terrible, unskilled assistance or no assistance at all. As well as coming to grips with the fact that he was signing up for a life-time with a woman who could not cut a straight line, when capable, skilled women were scattered all around his studio carefully crafting their own designs.

Obviously, given my skill-set and preferences, I replied to the SOS email with a ‘sure, I can be there tomorrow from 12:30-2:30.’ Because I hadn’t volunteered at all. And the Hen had asked. And surely I wasn’t less skilled than a fourth grader.

‘You are the best!’ the teacher replied immediately to my sacrificial offering. ‘Best’ might have been an overstatement for someone who had not darkened the door of the classroom, save the ten-minute parent teacher conference.

Just past noon, the next day, I walked into the school and was somewhat surprised to find they had not incinerated my volunteer badge, though it was, conspicuously, at the very back of the ‘J’ section. I entered the Hen’s classroom, into the chaos that is twentysome 9 and 10 year-olds attacking flattened cardboard boxes with scissors and box cutters, feeling my 120 minutes of service lengthening with every step. I surveyed the progress, stopping here and there to see what students were creating. ‘I made a fulcrum,’ one precocious student announced. Had she not gestured in the direction of said fulcrum, I would have had no idea what she was talking about because, apparently, I am less skilled than a fourth grader. Or, at the very least, dumber.

A fulcrum?

Neverheardofit. OrifIdidIforgot.

There were some glorious years in my late teens and early twenties when I felt exceedingly intelligent and generally marveled at my smartitude. Or, more accurately, I was not so keenly aware of how much I did not know. Sure, there were obvious deficiencies, mostly in that subject called science but nothing a solid memory of the contents of the periodic table and whispers of knowledge regarding rudimentary genetics couldn’t mask. And if discussing eye color or recalling that Pb was LEAD didn’t do the trick, I could always rely on my knowledge of the times table as a distraction technique. (Only up to 12×12.)

But, twentysome years past the glorious naivete of my youth, I frequently find myself relying on a technique tested in many a classroom setting when I had no idea what the teacher was talking about: nod attentively as though pierced, to the core, by whatever they were saying. Followed by fervent, pretend, note-taking. Or, in these non note-taking days, extricating myself from the situation tout de suite. Thus, I nodded attentively about the fulcrum, and walked away.

In the middle of the class stood a blue-eyed child (who happens to have two brown-eyed parents) with a troubled look upon his face. The rest of his classmates were tearing into cardboard with, sometimes, frightening results, cutting holes and creating walls with tape – devil may care about the outcome. But the boy appeared paralyzed by the reality of translating the vague idea in his head into something that might approximate a game kids could play. And, ideally, a game that would not suck.

Clearly the child, my child, needed help. From the parent volunteer who’d signed up to offer help. Every project and assignment I’d ever had to do but were clueless about flashed before my eyes and my first, second and third instinct was to say to the Hen: ‘let’s take all this stuff home and have dad figure this out.’ Or his older brother, who ended up making a Caine’s Arcade game ‘just for fun.’ (Possibly to twist the brotherly knife a la Vernon God Little.)

But alas, us two, like-minded erratophobes* were stuck with each other. On a stage of sorts, with twentysome pairs of eyes and ears keenly interested in how this ‘situation’ would resolve itself.

All I can really say, about the 300 minutes I ended up volunteering for Caine’s Arcade, is that I observed one distinct difference between the Hen and his classmates on this particular occasion. The difference had nothing to do with intellect or skill; the difference was simply a willingness to go for it. A willingness to cut a terrible-looking hole and either live with it or pick out another piece of cardboard and try again. A willingness to make a fulcrum and put a piece of cardboard across it and call it a catapult**.

‘Just make a mark and see where it takes you,’ the sage words from Peter Reynolds’ ‘The Dot’ popped into my head. Almost as if I’d read the book eighteen times.

That night, the Gort handed me his 7th grade algebra homework. ‘I know the answer, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ I resisted the urge to say ‘how is that even a problem’ and devoted my dwindling energy to staring at the words on the page. It was a substantial boost to my ego when I realized I could still kill 7th grade math.


*Yes, I just Googled ‘what is fear of creating’ and found only ‘fear of making mistakes’ which is basically the same thing.

**I experienced the tiniest twinge of redemption when I, fortysomething, non-science school volunteer, was able to help fulcrum-girl figure out why her catapult was not working as well as she needed it to work.