Fool’s errand, part deux

We drove to Kalispell without a clear sense of what we might do when we got there. Our children, whether suffering the after-effects of ingesting pool water, or having eaten too much junk, were all in various stages of poor health; handling it in much the same manner as those afflicted with the worst of man-colds.

And, faster than a boy can say ‘my stomach hurts’, seeing Glacier National Park disappeared from the day’s itinerary.

I suggested seeing a movie, the perfect rainy day activity, particularly when one is proximate to a giant movie theater complex with stadium seating. Two out of three boys wanted to see Angry Birds. And two out of three boys wanted to see Jungle Book. Not the same two out of three, mind you. And I didn’t want to deal with any of the inevitable unhappiness that surrounded either choice, so we saw neither.

Instead we suffered through a gross lunch with an MIA server, who took so long to bring our politely requested bill, that the boys and I left the professor alone at the table to go wait in the car. And even then his departure was delayed when she couldn’t find change. Since things were already going so well, we decided to go to Costco. Just to bring the rainy day fun full circle.

All I can say about American Costco is that things seem even bigger there, and the wine is cheap, but the gas is the same price as everywhere else. I grabbed a five pound tub of strawberries and the boys sampled Pirate’s Booty dispensed from a bag so big it could feed the entire population in one of Montana’s smaller towns. Another vendor was offering samples of a very large bag of Snapea Crisps. I’d always been intrigued by Snapeas and grabbed a miniature paper cup. I immediately regretted putting that piece of canned pea-flavored sawdust in my mouth. As did the Hen.

I still tremble at the memory.

Having plumbed the depths of Kalispell’s inclement weather offerings, we drove back to Whitefish to check into our second hotel for the stay. It is not clear to me why I hadn’t booked two nights at the same hotel. Oh right, because we’d thought we would only spend one night and drive back but then we decided to be ‘fun’ and make a weekend of it.

The F word. If only I could turn back time…

‘Wow, that hotel is really ugly,’ Percy remarked as we drove up to our evening’s resting place. The professor and I burst out laughing because what else do you do when your six year old makes such an unsolicited declaration. The hotel was probably something kind of special around the same time I last set foot on a treadmill. But both of us had fallen into disrepair since then. And one of us smelled a bit like a casino.

But it had a pool. And so, for the third time in less than 24 hours – a new Johnson family recordmy boy-children found themselves inside a rectangle filled with blue chlorinated water. While I finished reading Bossypants.

We couldn’t agree on what to eat for dinner, nor could we find a suitable eating establishment during our tense drive around town, so we drove to Safeway and acquired a smorgasbord of items to consume in our room, including, but not limited to: chicken wings, kept a consistent temperature by heat lamps, sweet and sour chicken kept under the same heat lamps, vegetarian sushi, gatorade and mint tea.

I ate an entire, large bag of low calorie popcorn and the professor ate a chicken wing and drank half of somebody’s tea. With dinner out of the way, he left the room to ride the hotel’s exercise bike for as long as he could stand it.

I bribed the boys with extra screen time the next day if they pretended to be asleep and watched a show about people living in unusual places on American Netflix. When I was too tired to hold the ipad on my lap, I turned it off and drifted off to sleep atop a square cotton ball-esque pillow and spineless mattress.

It was 9:10pm but I didn’t care. Some days just need to end.

I’d set my running clothes out again, in the off chance I woke up to clearer skies. Just after seven, I asked the Hen to report on the weather outside, before I got dressed. Experience had taught me that. ‘It’s not raining….as much,’ he tried being optimistic. ‘It’s only raining into the puddles.’ Whatever that meant.

Same grey skies. Same level of precipitation. ‘Okay, let’s pack up and head out,’ I rallied the troops. Enough was enough.

The professor stared at the collection of popcorn kernels littering the floor where I’d consumed my ‘dinner’ the night before. ‘If you’re ever on the run, I will be able to find you. They’ll show me an abandoned hotel room and I’ll be able to say: yep she was here.’ ‘Lots of people eat popcorn,’ I protested. Though perhaps not as messily. ‘Yes, but there’s also a coffee cup in the trash can,’ Columbo pointed out like that was a dead give away.

We piled our belongings back into the van and headed for, where else, the coffee shop. ‘No offense mom, I’m not trying to be mean or anything, but this has been the worst vacation ever,’ the Gort opined. We picked up lattes and baked goods and headed to Glacier National Park, to see what we could see. Perhaps, in  lieu of a hike, we could just drive the portion of the ‘Going to the Sun Road’ that was open. (A woman in a coffee shop had told me it wouldn’t be open all the way until end of June, when all the ‘avalanches had slid.’)

We pulled up to the park entrance and just as the professor was about to hand over payment, the park employee informed him a culvert had recently broken and the road was down to one lane, though they might have to close it entirely. We took the news as a sign that we were not destined to see this particular part of the world and u-turned out of there.

We drove for what felt like many hours until we got to the border crossing at Piegan. We’d seen virtually no cars on the road, yet there were quite a few lined up at the border. When it was our turn to speak to the customs officer, the professor passed her our passports and mentioned that we were hoping to become ‘landed’ permanent residents. ‘You want to do that…today?’ she asked incredulously. ‘Have you seen the line-up?’ ‘We don’t even handle immigration here anymore, that’s all out of Coutts now. It’s probably going to be one hour minimum wait. Maybe two. You’re not a priority. Did I already ask you, any weapons? Firearms? Currency over $10,000?’

I briefly wondered if we should just drive to 1.5 hours away Coutts, but instead we parked the car, told the boys to bring in the ipad and I carried the only reading material at my disposal ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ inside.

‘I just have a couple of questions for you first,’ another customs officer explained. ‘Do you think your children can stay by themselves in that waiting room for a few minutes?’

‘Sure,’ we agreed and ushered them into the cordoned off waiting room.

‘So,’ the officer lowered his voice when we returned to the counter, ‘when was the last time you were arrested?’

Much like watching reality television, speaking with customs officers always fills me with tension. No matter the question I feel like I’m lying when I answer. I racked my brain trying to sort through my mental rolodex of life events, when was the last time I’d been arrested?

‘Um, never,’ we laughed. Nervously.

‘Never,’ he asked, a trace of suspicion in his voice. As though this disclosure made us part of a highly unique subset of the population. ‘What about falsely accused?’

It had me wondering, do Canadians have a higher number of arrests per capita than Americans? So far Will Ferguson had only touched on the possible myth that Canadians are nice. And that business of making French the other official language. And Katimavik.


‘What about other husbands or wives? Any other children?’

Have I been married before? Do I have secret children that I’ve simply blocked from my memory?

‘No.’ Though I was tempted, as I sensed was the professor, to make a joke here. But better to let a lame joke die than risk irking a customs officer. Put that in your book, Tina Fey! There’s some advice immigrant women everywhere can get behind.

And with that awkward interrogation out of the way, he kept our passports and dispatched us to the waiting room.

Apparently I do dabble in optimism on occasion. I’d thought maybe that three-day-long rainy cloud forecast for Montana was more a possibility than a certainty. And I secretly hoped the border agent who’d said ‘it’s going to be minimum one hour, maybe closer to two’ was overstating; that once they saw how unarrested and unmarried we were in our previous lives, they would fall over themselves to welcome us to Canada.

But alas, no, we really weren’t a priority. The professor, who’d raised his eyebrow at the sight of my book [title], traded off reading chapters [silently] with me, since it would be strange for me to read aloud a book in a waiting room, shared with other people. All of whom spent less time waiting than we did. One of them, a man with cheekbones as sharp as knives, had the professor whispering ‘I don’t think they should let him in,’ when he left the room to speak to the agents.

Finally, well after the hour-mark had passed, we were summoned out of the waiting room. The customs officer had us sign forms in his presence and instructed us to go to Service Canada in Calgary with the signed documents. Apparently his asking us about our previous arrests and marriages had sufficed as the interview portion of the event. ‘If you have any friends planning on doing this, tell them not to come here,’ he suggested in a humorless tone.

‘Yeah, I noticed on that letter we could just make an appointment at a CIC center,’ I made awkward small talk in an attempt to convince this unamused man that Canada was lucky to have us. He pursed his lips and semi-rolled his eyes, as if to say ‘duh.’ ‘Kind of an expensive weekend,’ I chirped, in one last ditch effort to make him our friend. Then we headed back to the car.

As one does after a customs encounter, we debriefed once we were a safe distance away.

‘What was the point of that,’ I wondered. ‘What did they actually do?’

‘They probably just Googled our names,’ the professor speculated.

‘Yeah, I bet they’re all sitting back there reading J is for Jenerous now.’

‘I didn’t understand the point of him asking about imprisonment and marriage when we all know they’re basically the same thing,’ the professor attempted to provoke.

‘I can’t believe we have to go to Service Canada,’ I ignored him. Would this process never end?

It had been well over an hour since one of our boy-children had utilized a restroom and, as if on cue, someone piped up from the back that they really needed to pee. It was a statutory holiday and we were driving through nothing Alberta, hence we stopped at a Tim Horton’s. ‘Don’t you have a gift card,’ I reminded the professor about a recent ‘gift’ he’d been given after having some inconvenience at the dentist’s. ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t know how much is on it.’ ‘Well, how inconvenienced were you – was it a $5 inconvenience, a $10 inconvenience, more?’

The Tim Horton’s Victoria Day lunch line rivalled the line-up at the border. We waited behind a dozen fellow residents and formulated our order: 3 Canadian maples and a small box of Timbits. A swipe of the gift card revealed the professor had suffered an inconvenience worth $10, which left us with $5 towards future Canadian maple and Timbits purchases.

Perhaps after we go to Service Canada.


If you missed part un, it’s here.


Fool’s errand

After a rather lengthy (five year) process that involved three attempts and several outrageously stupid mistakes – paperwork that was mailed out one day too late, and submitting the wrong paperwork only to be told to repeat the process – four out of five Johnsons finally got pseudo permission to remain in Canada. Indefinitely.

Four out of five because it took all three of those attempts for Canada to decide that Percy is in fact, Canadian, and can remain here forever. Without the rigamarole of filling out any paperwork.

We received a congratulatory letter with official documents sometime at the beginning of 2016 and, with our work permits due to expire in July, we found ourselves having, on occasion, a pseudo-discussion about when we should venture ‘to the border’ to become ‘landed’. [As in being interviewed by someone official and signing a form in their presence.]

A pseudo-discussion, for those unfamiliar with indirect and pointless communication, is when one person brings something up to another person and that person feigns interest without contributing anything definitive to the conversation. As in, ‘we need to get that permanent residency thing done!’ ‘Yes, we should.’

[Cue: Walk out of the room to get laundry or return to equally pointless web-surfing.]

After doing this a few times we miraculously reached the same conclusion (likely driven by our Google Calendar and upcoming air travel) that our only opportunity for making a run-for-the-border would be the May long weekend. Faster than you can say ‘I thought you guys were incapable of making decisions’, I created a red rectangle of our intentions on Google and booked a hotel in five-hours-away Whitefish, Montana.

Why Whitefish? Mostly because it is ‘only’ five hours away. And because it is close to Kalispell (i.e. it has a Target). And for its proximity to Glacier National Park which boasts a scenic drive known as ‘Going to the Sun Road’. (The professor is something of a sucker for a scenic drive as you might recall.)

A day or two before we left, I was talking to my mom on the phone. She’s a detail oriented worrier and felt the need to ask questions about this strange roadtrip of ours, like ‘are you sure you can do this at any border’ or something like that. Later when I was gathering all our relevant documents for the trip, I took a moment to read through the letter we’d gotten back in January or February. The letter neither of us actually bothered to read all the way through.

‘If you are residing in Canada….please contact a CIC office near your place of residence to arrange an appointment.’

[Though I don’t know what a CIC office is, exactly, I know there is one less than 8km from my house.]

I relayed the news to the professor when he got home and we had another pseudo-discussion about whether we should call off the trip. ‘So, should we not go?” [Silence, accompanied by reciprocal thinking-without-opining stares.] ‘Well, we’ve already booked the hotel. Might as well have some fun.’

The next morning, after an astonishingly protracted departure given the fact we were going to be gone for all of 48 hours, one that involved digging out our winter jackets after a glance at the forecast revealed less than desirable weather, we hopped in the car at 8:34am. By 8:37am, the Hen had already consumed his day’s allotment of junk food – an entire row of Oreos. At 10:01am the Gort asked ‘Mom, can I have a sandwich?’ And at 10:03am someone asked ‘have we crossed the border yet?’

Man, do I love roadtrips.

I’d intended to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants aloud during the drive, in an effort to keep the professor from listening to baseball or his very eclectic ipod playlist entertained. It’s true, he actually plays this ‘game’ where he finds an annoying song, turns it up way too loud and then counts, silently, how long it takes me to freak out.

Apparently it’s six seconds, if I’m busy deleting pictures from my phone. Point seven five if my hands are idle.

After reading through the first chapter, I determined Bossypants was neither hysterically funny nor appropriate to read aloud with six potentially listening ears in the backseat. So I settled on reading Will Ferguson’s ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ instead. A book that is both funny and esoteric enough that the 12-and-under set are unlikely to persist in paying attention. Not to mention educational for the 40-and-over American-but-living-in-Canada set.

During the drive, when I wasn’t reading, I formulated a rough itinerary for our visit to Montana. Day 1: visit Target and everything I love about America that Kalispell has to offer. (This is an important distinction because I love Trader Joe’s but Kalispell does not have one.) Day 2: visit Glacier National Park. Day 3: drive home and become landed permanent residents.

Eventually we arrived at Whitefish’s very brand-new Hampton Inn & Suites. The boys, who can all read, as luck would have it, saw the dreaded P-O-O-L sign and my itinerary received its first adjustment: sitting in the extremely warm pool room while three boys cavorted in chlorinated water and the professor took a nap in a quiet room.

I sweated for an hour, imagining all the familial goodwill I was purchasing with my sacrificial act, and then we left the pool and readied ourselves for some fun in 15-miles-away Kalispell. We entered the town via a settlement of strip malls, the kind I like to deride for lack of imagination and terrible architecture but secretly love: Target, Costco, Starbucks, a natural grocery store and an enormous movie theater surrounded by the culinary likes of Famous Dave’s and Applebees. Yes!

‘Mom, if you love this place so much, why don’t we live here?’ the ever logical Gort inquired from the back. Indeed, why weren’t we living in Montana? (Besides the obvious dearth of architecture programs.)

Despite idealizing it from afar, imagining a romantic, granola-chic existence surrounded by spectacular scenery, whenever I’m in Montana I inevitably find it lean on the chic and heavy on the rustic. Not to mention the vehicle to domicile ratio exceeds my comfort level. I simply don’t understand it, especially not when a percentage of those vehicles are obviously not in working condition.

Why keep them around?

I explained my Montanaversion* by mumbling something about employment opportunities, plus ‘I just don’t think I can live in a state that does not have at least one big[ish] city.’ To my mind it would be like living on a cruise ship. Sure, you have everything you need, but there’s nowhere to escape.

We strolled through the aisles of Target – really just the toy aisles. And though I purchased nothing for myself, I felt buoyed by seeing the Marimekko for Target collection along with the different flavors of Oreos not available in Canada. After a quick browse through two-stores-down TJ Maxx, which yielded nothing but a soccer bag for the Hen, we drove across the highway to Famous Dave’s.

The main reason we willingly eat at Famous Dave’s – aside from our boy-children’s ardent appreciation of pork covered in barbeque sauce – is because we used to eat there when we lived in Minneapolis, many moons ago. When Dave had only two or three franchises to his name.

Good times were had. We dined under faux antler chandeliers. Our efficient and attentive waitress brought us free barbeque chips. And we drove back to the hotel where all four boy-men indulged in their roadtrip ritual of watching cable television until far too late, while I fell asleep convincing myself that I would get up early and go for a run before we headed to Glacier National Park.

Because I am now a person who exercises. Regularly.

[Please note I did not say ‘because I am now a person who eschews eating excessive quantities of disgusting cake to the point of illness. No, rest assured, I still do that.]

The night transpired in the manner of one spent in the confines of a hotel room with unfamiliar thermostat settings and four other people shifting and coughing and stealing your covers.

At some point I emerged from my bone tired cocoon and put on the running clothes I’d carefully set out the night before. In an effort to gauge how many layers I would need, I walked towards the window for a peek at the outdoors.

It was raining. Neither a drizzle nor a downpour, but steady, confident precipitation. I may be a person who exercises regularly, but I am not a person who willingly goes out into the rain to do so. [This pseudo-litmust test will undoubtedly rule out the possibility of relocating to Washington or Oregon.] I stood, staring at the steady rain, trying to decide how to handle this turn of events. (I guess sometimes the weather forecast with the raindrops coming from a cloud actually means something.)

‘You could go to the gym. I’m sure they have a treadmill,’ the professor finally stated the obvious. Which was just as well since I would have never reached this conclusion on my own.

Relieved at the thought of not having to jog along a highway in my better half’s rain jacket, I made my way to the brand new, unoccupied gym. It’s of very little consequence, but I can not, for the life of me, recall the last time I might have been on a treadmill.

Was it 1993? Maybe 2001 for that brief two month period when the professor and I belonged to a gym? (Also in Minneapolis.)

I hopped on the machine which seemed to look much the same as the last treadmill I used. I hit a slew of buttons and the conveyor belt began to move, albeit slower than crystallized honey.

‘I will die if I have to spend three minutes on a treadmill this slow,’ I thought to myself. I kept punching arrows but the treadmill wouldn’t go any faster. I got off and tried another treadmill. Same thing. I was fairly confident that I was the culprit, that there was no way a brand-new hotel would have two broken treadmills. Finally, I saw it: another set of arrows and boom, I was able to adjust the speed from 30 minutes a mile to something in the slightly more respectable range.

As an added bonus, I had a giant television screen two inches from my face; the tell-tale HGTV letters displayed in the bottom right hand corner. After my struggle with the treadmill, I didn’t even contemplate touching the remote in an effort to find something more entertaining to watch. So Flip or Flop it was.

I endured thirty minutes of Tarek and Christina dealing with renovations and unexpected costs, trying to push through that anxious, tension-riddled feeling reality television always gives me; doing my best to ignore the fact that the temperature in the room hovered around 85 degrees. And then I hopped off the treadmill – luckily the ‘stop’ button is still easy to find in 2016 or I might have had a Bridget Jones situation on my hands.

I grabbed a triangle paper cup from the dispenser and held it underneath the water cooler, pressing one button and then the other with zero success. Red-faced and dehydrated, I returned to my television-watching junkies and gathered them for the free breakfast downstairs. Where, hopefully, I would find some water.

I hate free hotel breakfasts. Or maybe I just hate taking my children to free hotel breakfasts. I inevitably stand around, trying to assess the situation, as in ‘what is the least offensive thing we can eat here’ and in the roughly 90 seconds I spend doing that, my boys have dumped apple jacks into cardboard bowls, filled paper cups with a beverage labelled ‘orange juice’ though it looks decidedly like flat orange crush, and have piled plastic looking danishes onto plates. They’ve also drained the contents of several strawberry banana Yoplait yogurts.

This causes me to freak out a bit and say things like ‘what is this beverage in this cup?’ ‘It’s orange juice.’ ‘This is definitely not orange juice.’ ‘But it says so on the machine.’ I taste the orange kool aid crush in the off chance orange juice in Montana is just a different color than it is in the rest of the world, shake my head vigorously and say ‘you’re not drinking this’. They get mildly annoyed but they’ve also come to expect this level of insanity. So they disperse to our corner table and quietly eat their apple jacks and nibble on plastic danishes while the Gort scampers off in search of the coffee station because he is 12 and pretends to drink coffee on occasion.

The rain showed no sign of abating so it seemed rather pointless to rush off to Glacier National Park. The boys returned to the hotel pool under the watchful eye of the professor reading his large-print copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, while I drove ‘into town’ in search of palatable coffee.

We read our books and drank our coffee for as long as we could tolerate the humid pool area, which was suddenly crowded with three other families also at a loss about what to do on a rainy Sunday in Whitefish. And then we packed up our room which, again, seemed like a rather extensive prospect considering the timeframe of our stay. And we drove back to Kalispell.


*This litmus test would also rule out Idaho. Wyoming. North Dakota. South Dakota.  and Utah. Not to mention a host of other, smaller states, though I’d argue proximity to New York City or Boston would render states like New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut eligible. Also, full disclosure: I don’t really know where New Hampshire is.



R is for Rebound. (Please don’t let it be me.)

Dear Marie,

Konichiwa! You might have heard through the virtual grapevine that I recently read your book and decided to ‘Kondo’ my entire house. I kid, of course, about the virtual grapevine, because I suspect you’re far too busy cashing royalty cheques from your selling-like-hotcakes book to pay attention to negligible bloggers like moi. (How do you say ‘me’ in Japanese?)

Speaking of – royalty cheques – where might one store those? Or do you have some direct deposit arrangement with your publisher to avoid that ghastly paper trail and all it entails.

I have to tell you, Marie, I began the Kondo experience exactly two weeks ago today. I followed your advice and started with clothes, though I will be the first to admit I did not thank any of my purged items ‘for their service’ because, Marie, I simply do not value things all that much. I think having kids has completely stripped me of that, because one minute I was wearing a cashmere sweater and the next someone spit or puked on it and I realized, quickly, that clearance items from Target, JoeFresh and Gap would have to become my wardrobe mainstays. At least until these little gems leave for college or trade school or whatever it is they’re going to do.

And at that point, I’m going to be completely grey, likely with a bad perm, and wear elasticized waistband pants from the Karen Scott collection.

But only ones that ‘spark joy’, bien sur!

It has to be said, Marie, that my bedroom has never, in all of my adult life – scratch that, life – looked as good as it currently does. The tops of my dressers are clear of the piles of books I kept meaning to read. The drawers are filled, somewhat immaculately – not quite up to your standards, I’m sure – with folded shirts, stacked vertically so all I have to do is pull open a drawer and select the least offensive shirt.

No more rifling through a pile of folded shirts and upending the precarious arrangement because I wanted to wear the shirt all the way at the bottom. Truly, it’s genius. Every night as I get into bed, I look around the room and am astonished at how tidy it is.

But Marie, I am tired.

For two weeks now, I feel like I’ve done nothing….but tidy. (Which is not to be confused in any way with cleaning. More on that later.) Perhaps this is to be expected, as I’ve gone through every item of clothing in this house. Nearly every piece of paper. My kitchen. The bathroom. And every drawer and cupboard within my little bungalow.

I feel like I spend all of my time tidying and, if I’m not tidying, thinking about tidying. When I’m walking through the house, I am fixating on open drawers, and items not where they should be. I am sweeping up every crumb that mars my (dirty) floor – I swept five times today! I am doing load, after load, of laundry and folding everything just so. And it’s exhausting.

In your book you insist that none of your clients has ever ‘rebounded’ from the Kondo life back to the messy life. And I have to tell you, these words keep me up at night. (Or they would, if I had more energy.) Because what if I’m the one? What if I am the only person in the world who is unable to maintain the magic?

Can you even imagine how that will make me feel?

But on the flip side, I’m not sure I can sustain all this tidying for very much longer. 

First, allow me to point out – simply for factual purposes, – that you do not have any children. You are one person. Living in a shoebox apartment. With, from the sounds of it, a shoe cupboard where you store everything you own.

I share my bungalow, which is just a Canadian word for very-expensive-small-house, with three children and a husband. I also need to point out – again, simply stating facts – that every single one of the people sharing my home is of the male persuasion. I say this, not to be old-fashioned, bringing up long-standing stereotypes about men being messy and women being tidy, because of course there are incredibly messy women and extremely tidy men. But in my particular case….well, Marie, suffice it to say there are no extremely tidy men living here.

For instance today, I finally tackled my boys’ bedrooms. It was a trying experience, to say the least. I have one boy who refuses to put any of his clothes away, preferring, instead to send them to the laundry basket. Even if they’ve just been laundered. I have another boy who puts nothing in the laundry basket. He uses his dresser drawers to store dirty clothes. And I have another boy who prefers to store his clothes balled up underneath his bed, mingling with dustbunnies.

Forget tri-folding their shirts and stacking them vertically, I would just like them to put clean clothes in the dresser and dirty clothes in the laundry basket.

I spent an hour and a half on the first bedroom. I even made masking tape labels for their dresser with the words: ‘Shirts. CLEAN only!’ Then I tackled the second bedroom, inviting my youngest son, who was home sick today, to experience the magic of tidying his room. I invited him to look at his closet and remove any shirts that didn’t ‘spark joy’. He handed me approximately 20 empty hangers, not a single shirt. I invited him to slither under his bed and look for ‘forgotten’ items of clothing. He used that opportunity to wonder aloud what his fellow classmate – also home sick, whose mother coincidentally loaned me your book – was doing. ‘Probably not making beds and getting rid of stuff,’ he grumbled.

His tone of voice suggested it was not the kind of sick day he’d envisioned.

I got my utility bill in the mail today. It seemed excessively high. I was about to compare the current bill to previous months to see if our usage had increased, or if the price had. And then I remembered: I got rid of all my old utility bills. Because you told me to.

And then there’s the matter of the dirt. You see, Marie, I’ve been so busy tidying my house, racking up steps on my fitbit as I scurry around trying to, that I haven’t had any time to clean it.  The layer of dust on every surface is considerable. And let’s not talk about the haven’t-been-washed-in-weeks floors.

But as bothered as I am by the dirt, I simply can’t fathom addressing it, thereby spending even more time on my bleeping house. I have things to do, Marie. Or, at least I think I do. My computer is about to crash underneath the weight of 48,000 digital images. I need to make dinner. I’m supposed to paint three electric boxes by tomorrow, for pete’s sake.

In other words, I’m desperate for some of that magic.

Yours, from a very tidy desk,





R is for Ruthless. In the nicest possible way.

As with all milestones, achieving the dubious milestone of ‘having all one’s kids in school full-time’ has saddled me with some considerable baggage – in the form of expectations for how I will spend ‘all my free time’.

The expectations are largely self-imposed, a result of all those days I clung to the thread of hope that someday ‘all my kids would be in school full-time’ and then, when that happened,…...I would exercise, have a tidy house, and tackle all the projects that I never managed to accomplish during those seven, slightly chaotic years spent with little people.

Thus the weekend before the boys’ first day of school, I spent a large amount of time in front of a blank piece of paper, staring at it, trying to create some sort of roadmap for the six kid-free hours each school day would provide. I tried to create slots for things that had to get done, things I hoped to do and the inevitable avalanche of volunteer opportunities and meeting requests that begins as soon as the kids file into school on that first day.

Care to be classroom mom? Can you help with mulching? Free for a meeting on Wednesday? Friday? How about next Monday and next Friday? Costco run? Special lunch volunteer?

And on it goes.

Staring at my blank piece of paper with its kid-free time slots and a lengthy list of to-do’s to fit into those hours helped me understand, rather quickly, that if I wanted to emerge from this coveted year with something tangible – other than instagram pictures of latte art and a calendar full of things I don’t want to do – I would have to become someone else.

I would have to become ruthless…in managing my time.

After years of overscheduling and trying to fit it all in, of saying ‘yes’ and ‘sure’ and ‘I think I can make that work,’ without even looking at my calendar, I am learning to lean heavily on the words ‘no’ and ‘sorry, can’t make it.’ It’s a paradigm shift, to be sure – not saying yes the instant a request for help appears in my inbox, or worse, saying no. One that I hope will result in a more sane, productive person by the end of the school year.

Unfortunately, the saying no extends to things I like, too. Netflix (and the binge-watching it enables) being the first item on the chopping block, followed by the ol’ world wide web.  And the minutes that turn into hours as I fall into its rabbit hole of browsing and link-chasing. Instead, I am determined to become a person who reads every day. You know, books. Because I’m not getting any smarter reading three-sentence paragraphs about what Kate Middleton wore.

Most nights now, ruthless Nicola goes to bed around ten, grabs one of the four books on her nightstand, and reads for approximately thirty minutes before turning off the light. Having always been a person who devotes herself to one book at a time, typically finishing it within a week, it is somewhat demoralizing dividing my attention between books and making so little progress. But allow me to imagine my reading is more focused and meaningful as a result.

How else to reconcile the fact that I will be reading these books until Christmas.

One of the books on my pile – and lately the recipient of all my reading time because the copy belongs to a friend – is Mari Kondo’s bestselling ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.’

A friend mentioned the book to me about a month ago, describing it as ‘one of my top 5 life-changing books’. I saw it at Costco a few days later, but decided against buying a copy because ruthless Nicola is also on a ruthless budget. Luckily another friend loaned me her copy and I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on my tendency to hold on to things I have little use for – never used wedding gifts (from 19 years ago), receipts, art projects, emails and books I fully intend to read. Someday.

If you’re similarly inclined – to hang on to things because someone gave them to you, or because you might need them – you should definitely read this book. Though perhaps not at the same time as you’re reading Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, which is all about the inner battle and what keeps you from doing what you ought or want to do. He labels it Resistance.

Tidying Up might well be my current form of Resistance.

But there’s no denying the spark of joy I feel when looking at my insanely tidy closet and drawers.


Testing, Testing

With colleague-friends visiting from out of town, the professor deemed Wednesday the day for the requisite out-of-towner trip to Lake Louise. Future visiting colleague-friends beware: if you are in town for more than 48 hours, the professor will insist on taking you to what is, admittedly, one of the finer sights in all of nature.

Don’t like nature? Don’t care. Buckle up, we’re going to Lake Louise!

Somewhere in the madness of packing food and getting 9 people ready for a daytrip, I realized this would be something of a test-run for the jenerous crew. Yes, our biennial trip to the Heartland is approaching faster than you can say ‘we still don’t have those freaking passports we ordered a month ago.’

To that end, I recently emailed the Consulate after realizing their estimated ‘2-3 weeks before you get your new passports’ had come and gone. If you’re an American living abroad and you’re thinking of getting in touch with your nearest Consulate, here’s something you should know.

1. Have you died? Or has one of your fellow Americans died?

2. Has your passport been lost or stolen?

If you cannot answer yes to either of the above questions, the Consulate doesn’t care. I called the only phone number I could find which basically gave some automated options with the same underlying message: We are really busy. Even if you manage to hit a lucky configuration of numbers and are somehow able to connect to a voice that belongs to an actual human being……they will not be able to help you. Thanks for your patience. Your cooperation is appreciated.

I sent a series of emails to every consular email address I managed to find. Three days later I got a reply:

Dear Ms. Johnson:

Unfortunately, we have had some severe systems issues.  There is a world-wide hold up on passport applications between 5/27 and 6/4…… 

Thank you for your patience in this matter.

A world-wide hold up! How lucky. I guess this really might be the year that we cross the border with one child and two enormous piles of blankets in the car.



Back to the test-run. Shortly before noon, which is our preferred leaving time no matter the length of the trip, we climbed into the van with a giant cooler filled with sandwiches, cookies, fruit, yogurt, string cheese and water bottles. ‘That’s a lot of food,’ our visitor-friend remarked with big eyes. And I had to explain about the Johnson way of consuming food for at least 50% of the time the car is moving during a roadtrip.

Apparently not everyone resorts to emotional overeating to lessen their despair at being trapped in a car with four other people?

Sure enough, by the time we hit Canmore (roughly 45 minutes away from YYC) everyone had eaten a cookie(s) and a sandwich and possibly a yogurt and spent 30 minutes on a handheld device of some sort. And we were halfway through disc 1 of the world’s dumbest children’s audiobook. (Along those lines, if you are looking for a good audiobook, check out Avi’s City of Orphans which all four (!) boys enjoyed.)


Eventually we made it to Lake Louise. Along with approximately one thousand other tourists.


Walking along the lake with our friends’ young children, I couldn’t help but recall the time we hiked up to the (wrong) teahouse in cold September rain with a barely 1 and 3 year old and a very large jogging stroller. It will live on in infamy as possibly the worst family adventure ever. Which is precisely why we still remember it.

Ten minutes in, the professor and his friend disappeared ‘to go get coffee’. The women were left to continue around the lake at a snail’s pace, smoothing over arguments about who got to push the stroller and for how long. It felt like a very long time before the men returned. Without any coffee.

‘They only had a restaurant where you could sit down,’ they explained. Even though I had seen people on the trail walking with disposable cups filled with hot beverages.

Shortly afterwards, possibly lured by the siren call of a cappuccino at a white-cloth-covered table with a stunning view, the professor’s friend remembered he is a city boy at heart and returned to the Chateau with a boy-child in tow. The three remaining adults trudged on with the remaining four children, destination unknown or at least unspecified. At some point the Gort grew weary of the walk and the semi-heat (20 degrees Celsius is challenging for our heat-averse, alabaster-complected child) and sat down on a wooden bench.

[The same boy who told me a few days ago when I met him at the bus stop: ‘I can’t believe it’s going to be 33 degrees on Sunday. I will be in the basement for the whole day. I am not cut out for heat.’]

‘We’ll be back,’ I assumed-guessed and told him to stay put while we slumped on. It was around this time that I clued in our sole purpose for the extended walk was to find ‘tiny rocks’ for young Percy to throw into the lake.



Eventually, at the end of the paved part of the trail, we settled for clay-sand and a few large rocks. And overly tame prairie dog slash chipmunk creatures. And then we walked all the way back to find our nature-averse friend who’d surely had ten very expensive cappuccinos by that point.

Three or four hours after we’d arrived, we returned to the parking lot, a feeling of ‘done-ness’ permeating all members of our traveling party. We began our return to Calgary, via the scenic Bow Valley Trail – because the professor loves nothing more than driving 60 kmph along tree-lined roads – and a dinner stop in Canmore.

It was exceedingly late by the time we left Canmore and the boys all had school the next day. Fatigue-laced tension reached breaking point in the back of the van where a certain five and seven year old fought over whose stuffed animals had crossed the invisible line that siblings have been fighting over since vehicles were invented.

‘Keep your stuffies on your laps,’ the fed-up professor finally bellowed and I barely suppressed a smile at the ridiculousness of this particular edict.

Shortly after ‘the fight’ Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ appeared on the radio and we were able to practice roadtrip theme song protocol, which basically involves turning up the volume (for one song only) and singing with a fake microphone in hand, while some percentage of boy-children complain loudly about the embarassment of it all.

And then, just to complete the entire spectrum of roadtrip experiences, we hit slow-as-molasses construction upon entering Calgary just as the you-should-get-gas light appeared.

Car food, hiking adventures gone awry, scenic drives, power anthems, construction and almost running out of gas: We’re ready.






Gone year

It was the worst of years, it was the best of years.

I’m not prone to reflecting on a year once it’s past, but sometimes the internet with its year-in-review everything – blogs, photo collages, thoughtful essays ‘liked’ by multitudes – pressures you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise dream of doing.

[Like pinterest, for example.]

Also, I’ve been reading the Christmas Carol to the Hen, which (at least in the ten pages I’ve read so far) has me feeling reflective. ‘It’s very Dickensian,’ I told the professor. Because it seems like something smart people might say. [Except they wouldn’t, of course, say it referring to words Dickens actually wrote.]

So on January 1st I paused for a moment (while the professor vacuumed a tree’s worth of pine needles from our basement) and tunnelled through the preceding 366 days in an effort to recall highs and lows.

It felt a lot like sticking one’s head under water for an extended period of time; aside from diminishing lung capacity, the details are fuzzy. Really, my first instinct is to label 2014 a big bust. Much like my first instinct is to label IKEA Christmas trees ‘the worst ever’. (The latter assessment is correct.)

But of course, 2014 wasn’t completely void of fine moments – no year is. There was a surprise trip to see my favorite band on my birthday with my sister. There was a trip to Oregon and Seattle complete with sunsets on the beach, a stop at Ecola State Park and the buttermilk old-fashioned donut at Blue Star in Portland. And there was a tiny trip to London and Paris with coffee at Monmouth, live music and stunning views from the Arc de Triomphe.

Not to mention a twice-in-a-lifetime hike to see the larches. DSC_5823

Upon trying to link back to the post about our (second) trip to see the larches – one I was sure I’d written – I discovered it was but a draft paragraph, titled ‘who cares about the larches. Written one month after this rather horrendous journey.

Let’s just say we shan’t be seeing the larches in 2015.

But now that I think of it, this photograph is perhaps the perfect depiction of 2014. Though I really need one and a half children to be crying their eyes out. Just to make it true-to-life. The professor and I also had the chance – courtesy of grandparent visits – to escape the madness on two occasions. These getaways usually coincide with our annual (or in this case, semi-annual) trip to the movie theater for a non-child movie.

This year’s first movie was ‘This is Where I Leave You.‘ The professor and I had both read the book, which was amusingly poignant in the way of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons. A solid 3 out of 5. The movie featured Jason Bateman and Tina Fey which, upon first glance, would compel most lovers of comedy to add it to their must-see lists.

This is, unfortunately a mistake. For Jason and Tina – much as I love them – are never in any good movies. Have you seen Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, or Baby Mama? Add This is Where I Leave You, whose comedic highlights consisted of a three year old carrying around and using his potty chair at inauspicious moments, to the list. I also spent much of the movie perplexed by the (mis)casting of Adam Driver as the youngest brother.

Which leads me to our latest after-the-fact foray into the theater, to see Gone Girl. ‘I feel kind of scared that you chose this as our date movie,’ the professor muttered halfway through. But it was at the cheap theater. And I’d read the book. And the movie had gotten ‘great reviews’.

And I spent most of the movie thinking about how Ben Affleck was the wrong choice to play Nick. In Gillian Flynn’s book, the reader’s perception of Amy and Nick shifts constantly. She’s the crazy one. No, he’s the crazy one. They’re both crazy. I didn’t find this to be true of the movie. After a butt-numbing 2 hours and 25 minutes, the professor and I used the car ride to dinner to discuss alternate casting possibilities. ‘Ryan Gosling,’ we both settled on a better-as-Nick alternative.

We were stumped on an alternative to Amy, though neither of us liked Rosamund Pike. But now that I think of it: Katniss Everdeen! Kidding. But I’m pretty sure Emma Stone – though a bit on the young side – could have done the job nicely. And without the husky voice.

Entertainment-wise, this was the year of the Netflix binge-watch, though 2013 was probably not vastly different in that respect. Having sworn off the likes of Scandal, Homeland and Downton Abbey, we plowed through season 2 of House of Cards in less than forty eight hours, continued with the second season of The Americans, got hooked on Kelsey Grammer’s evil Chicago Mayor in Boss and finished up the year with both seasons of Rectify.

I don’t recommend a binge-watch for Rectify, because it makes for accent and mannerism overload – the professor started saying ‘Tawney’ in a bad southern accent at odd times during the day. That’s when he wasn’t imitating Aden Young’s Forrest Gump-like voice.

This was also the year the boys started piano lessons. [Much] more about that, later. Suffice it to say the professor and I have had to figure out a way to do daily activities – which includes thinking – to the constant, repetitive (increasingly faster and louder) soundtrack of awesome tunes like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and a little ditty – which really deserves its own blog post – called ‘Russian Sailor Dance.’

May your 2015 have very memorable highs, good television (err, Netflix), movies and books. And may it be void of bad hikes, stale Christmas trees and the Russian Sailor Dance.

A good book is hard to find

Good, frugal citizen that I am, I spend a fair amount of time at my local public library – checking out books I don’t have time to read, and dvds I have neither time nor inclination to watch. This slight compulsion inevitably results in tens of dollars of late fees, which I repay. Only to start the cycle all over again. I think my personal record for the amount of time to go without being fined is something like 4 weeks.

I really love the library and even with all my fines, I feel it is entirely worth it. But lately, I’ve had a few strange encounters with my favorite place.

Following my return from ‘Yuhrup’ (that’s Europe pronounced in a snobbish way), I stopped at the bibliotheque to pick up a few books. I’d emptied my wallet prior to ‘going abroad’, so I wouldn’t be burdened with ‘excess weight’ and had plum forgotten to put my library card back.

‘Could I check these out,’ I approached one of the librarians standing behind the ‘help’ desk, motioning towards my small stack of books. ‘I forgot my library card at home,’ I explained why I was not using the self-checkout, and handed her my driver’s license for confirmation of my identity, etcetera.

I’m not sure what it is that librarians do these days, but helping people check books out is not on that list. They are adamant that people use the self check-out – which I do, religiously, except on the rare occasion when I don’t have my library card.

‘Some people,’ the librarian began, in a tone that suggested I was about to get some ‘advice’ on how not to bother her in the future, ‘memorize their library card numbers.’

This little tidbit I did not expect. Really? In this day and age, ‘people’ – other than, presumably, savants or those with the compulsion to do so – have their 14-digit library card number committed to memory? Really?!

‘Or they take a picture of their card with their phone,’ she continued, sensing my skepticism, or perhaps an imminent eye-roll.

Message received: Do not, under any circumstance, approach a librarian – even one who is not helping another ‘customer’ – for the purpose of checking out books. They are far too [busy?] for such trivialities.

A week later (like I said, I’m a regular) I was back at said library. I’d picked out some books for young Percy and the Hen but was stumped on suitable reading material for the Gort who is 10.5 and a good reader, but not necessarily in need of so-called mature content at this stage in his young life.

I picked up a book on display in the children’s section. I do not recall the title, but something about it made me pick it up and flip it over to read the synopsis on the back.

Allow me to paraphrase (wildly, possibly incorrectly): ‘Tom’s been feeling kind of down ever since his sister burned herself doing a chore he was supposed to do and now Tom’s mom resentments have turned into beatings.’

Upon typing that, my curiosity got the better of me – what if I’d read it completely wrong – so I googled: children’s book about sister burned doing a chore he was supposed to do and mom beating him

Ta-da: Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

Perhaps this is the best book ever written, or maybe it has a fabulous message, but does the Gort really need to digest mental illness and abuse to reap the benefits of good writing or poignant message?

With a vague sense of foreboding, I approached ‘the desk’ (not unlike George Costanza on his second go-around with the soup nazi) waiting for one of the three librarians to assist me. I was summoned to the other side of the desk by a new librarian (yes, I recognize them all at this point).

‘I’m wondering if you could suggest some suitable books for my son who is 10, but a good reader,’ I asked tentatively, hoping for some suggestions of classic, quality children’s books. She clicked on the library’s website and showed me the kid’s page which contained suggestions based on gender and reader’s interest.

I pointed to one of the books I’d be interested in checking out and she walked with me over to the children’s section to locate it. It was not there. ‘He’s a good reader?’ she verified and I nodded my head in affirmation while she pulled a random book off the shelf.

She held it in front of me so I could observe its shape. ‘You should choose a thick book.’

New Year’s Amusements

‘Tis the time of year when many Calgarians bolt for places where snow is but a granular substance found inside a glass globe. But we Johnsons prefer to stay put, refusing to miss even a flake of the white stuff, unable to skip one of the two hundred and ten days of winter each year.

We’re pioneers, really. Except, instead of chopping wood and salting meat, we rely on sugar, Netflix and Calgary Public Library to get us through the worst of it.

Top of the Lake

If you’re the kind of person who reads blogs or pays attention to those dubious ‘you don’t want to miss…’ columns in magazines, you’ll have noticed that people everywhere are talking about ‘Top of the Lake’, a miniseries set in New Zealand, directed by one Jane Campion, whose only claim to fame in my memory is ‘we can’t leave the piano.

(Full disclosure: I stopped watching ‘The Piano‘ shortly after that line was uttered.)

Afraid I was going to miss something extraordinary, I started watching it on Netflix. Around episode 3, the professor joined me and we watched the remaining four episodes ensemble.

How to sum up the experience? Something along the lines of: the touristic antidote to Lord of the Rings. You know how people watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy (well, ‘people’ other than moi) and then all they want to do is visit New Zealand? 

Yeah, Top of the Lake is exactly like that, but in reverse. As I watched the strangest – frankly scariest – cast I’ve ever seen assembled anywhere, the professor kept saying things like ‘wow, this really makes you want to go to New Zealand, doesn’t it.’

Is there great cinematography? Yes. Is there an unending sense of dread that pervades all seven episodes? Yes. Were the actors believable (i.e. scary and causing me to vow never to visit that beautiful land), um, yes.

The Hot Flashes

I hesitate to admit – on a public forum, no less – that I watched this movie, but I did. Sometimes you find yourself at the library in front of the ‘check this out’ DVD rack and you settle for what looks like the best of the worst options. Cirque du Soleil? Or The Hot Flashes? The Hot Flashes. And then you watch the movie at home while your husband makes fun of you the whole time.

What’s not to love? It’s a movie about women of a ‘certain age’ playing basketball to raise money for a mobile mammogram unit. And it has Daryl Hannah, Camryn Mannheim (when was the last time they were in anything), Brooke Shields and Wanda Sykes. And their coach is a little person.

As the professor sighed and rolled his eyes, I consulted my movie-bible, rottentomatoes, to see what I should think of The Hot Flashes. ‘Thirty six percent of people agreed this is a good movie,’ I reported triumphantly.

And there’s a one in three chance you’ll be one of them.

The Interestings

Speaking of blogs and ‘you should watch (or read) this’ recommendations, I read a review by a blogger that said Meg Wolitzer’s ‘The Interestings’ was hands-down the best book she read in 2012. For an underwhelmed person, who can never decide if a book should get 3-stars or 4 (never mind 5), these were powerful words. The best book? Of all the books read in an entire year?

So I reserved it at the library and waited, almost a year, to get it. And then I started reading it. But I couldn’t get into it, preferring sleep over late nights reading about adolescents at a summer arts camp. But then I felt guilty – here I had, in my possession, the best book of 2012 and I wasn’t even going to read it?!

So I did.

And then, on a subsequent visit to the aforementioned blog, I realized that this reviewer and I have slightly divergent tastes. Or maybe it’s just that hers is more effusive. And then I got annoyed that this person I don’t even know had hijacked my free-time and guilted me into reading a book I didn’t entirely want to read.

But then I kind of got into the story and the characters because Meg Wolitzer is a good writer in terms of capturing human-ness. (Which, I guess is why I’ve now read 3 of her books….)

But it was 480 pages…..which took a while to finish. And then, finally, it was over.

Malcolm in the Middle

In the years before we had children, the professor and I used to watch Malcolm in the Middle. I loved it the same way I loved Roseanne. Lois, yelling her head off, being all crazy and Hal being his Bryan-Cranston-best. Entertainment gold.

Over the break, the professor streamed the pilot episode on Netflix, and we sat back with our own three boys and watched. It was a bit of a (frightening) revelation – the crazy mother, the messy house, the boys doing things that defy logic (or gravity). It was less entertainment and more ‘thisismylife’.

The boys, of course, loved it and laughed their little heads off.

Liquid Entertainment

Speaking of boys laughing, after months of hemming and hawing, we purchased a juicer. The professor had seen Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and became a convert to the idea and I, having parted with lots of cash for a freshly squeezed beet-carrot-orange-mango juice at the farmers market, concurred.

So I spent weeks reading reviews and trying to decipher words like centrifugal and masticating, putting juicers in a virtual cart on Amazon and never buying them. Finally, Costco forced my hand, when I saw a similar juicer near the Skylander Giants display.

I put it in my metal cart and pushed it through the checkout.

And then with a minimal skim of the instructions, I summoned the boys, who watched eagerly while I cut up beets, carrots, orange and lemon and dropped it in the chute. They were especially delighted by the pulp discarded through an intestinal tube on the side of the machine. Veggie-poop! Ha ha ha. It was so fun and exciting we immediately made another batch consisting of celery, apple and raspberry. It proved to be very educational: a little celery goes a long way. Yikes.

‘Let’s make another one,’ I carpe’d the diem and threw in some kale, lemon, apple and whatever else was left. It, too, proved educational: ‘my belly hurts,’ the Hen announced immediately afterward.

Turns out, there is such a thing as too much juice.


For more dubious reviews or to make fun of my taste, check out this page which I update (very) periodically.