The Most Hideous Woman in the World

A few days, or possibly weeks slash months, ago I had the distinct privilege of setting foot in my local shopping mall. For the purpose of returning a bathing suit.

If we’ve had coffee once in the last four years, you might be familiar with my ongoing saga-drama-habit of spending hours looking for a bathing suit online, putting a couple of options in a virtual shopping cart and then waiting for swimsuit season to pass me by. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

But not this year. This year, I began my annual ritual scrolling through every beach offering on JCrewdotcom and then, in what can only be described as ‘the lone decisive moment of my forties thus far’ I actually hit ‘checkout’ and paid for a swimsuit. And as soon as I did, I fell into a pit of remorse. The US exchange rate! The reviews that warned this swimsuit wasn’t lined! I probably ordered the wrong size!

Seriously, what size am I? If I knew how to answer this ridiculous question, I would probably do all manner of shopping online. Instead I spend months contemplating entering a store and trying on clothes, whilst yielding to my inclination towards avoiding anything that resembles ‘work’……which is why I own two pairs of pants.

Minimalist? Lazy? Lazy-Minimalist.

But back to the swimsuit. After suffering through a week of regret, the swimsuit arrived. Despite its ‘long torso’ status, it was still a tad short. The cautionary reviews proved correct. And so, my four years of online pseudo-shopping resulted in having to drive to the Chinook Mall with a black and white striped swimsuit stuffed in an envelope.

Naturally, since I had the misfortune of being forced to enter a shopping complex, I carpe’d the diem to tend to some of the shopping-related items on my years-old to-do list. Like replace my four (five?) year-old eyelash curler. If you’re cringing in horror at my using the same eyelash curler for four (or five) years, rest assured: I did not get pink eye, nor did my eyelashes fall out.

I did, however, have to set foot in Sephora to tend to this particular errand. If you’re a woman on the ‘low maintenance’ end of the cosmetics spectrum, there are few places more daunting than a Sephora or a department store cosmetics section, with its eye-searing scents and employees clad in black, displaying on their faces an amount of makeup you might use…. in a year.

But there I was, trying to figure out which eyelash curler I was supposed to buy and remembering that I was out of moisturizer. I made the mistake of asking an employee for her opinion on the array of possible options. There we stood, two woman around the same age. One sporting unwashed and/or uncombed hair with nothing but dried water on her face. The other meticulously made up sporting that pink-orange lipstick that frightens me more, apparently, than going out in public in an unkempt state.

She gazed at me in a manner that suggested a mixture of pity and horror. She used phrases like ‘as we age’ and ‘skin discoloration’ and ‘cell turnover’. She inquired, tentatively, about my ‘price point’ because apparently the amount of product required by my face would require a significant financial investment. ‘You need to buy serum,’ she insisted, pointing at a row of tiny bottles with three-digit price tags, the implication being that moisturizer alone would not cut it for someone like me.

‘That’s where I spend my money – on serum,’ she disclosed. And, upon gazing down at the face of my much shorter, well-coiffed, well made-up contemporary, I noticed she did, indeed, scary orange lips aside, have excellent skin. Her serum investment had reaped noticeable rewards. But judging from the serene expression on her face, she most certainly does not have three boys who consume the financial equivalent of a mid-size mortgage every month. So I committed to one container of Philosophy’s aptly named ‘Renewed Hope in a Jar’ and took my leave.

As it turns out Amazon sells the same product for significantly less and the only size-related matter I’d need to consider is: do I want a big jar or a small jar.

That’s what I get for going to the mall.

Also, I still don’t have a bathing suit. Maybe 2018 will be the year.

The White Board

I picked Percy up from school yesterday and he handed me a de rigueur ‘Mother’s Day is Sunday’ confection carved out of bright yellow and red cardstock.

‘It’s a boat! With sails!’ I exclaimed, gazing at the red trapezoidal shape and the two yellow hand-shaped cut outs serving as sails. ‘No, it’s a flower pot,’ he protested, ‘the hands are flowers.’

If by ‘flower pot’ you mean bonsai tray.

Each flower-slash-flag contained a reason why he loves me.

I love you because you make my lunch.

I love you because you take me to baseball.

It’s not my first rodeo with this school-issued mother’s day card business, and I realize I shouldn’t read too, too much into the messages they contain, yet I couldn’t help but feel these were exceedingly perfunctory tasks he supposedly loved me for.

Ones that could be easily done by, say, a hired taxi driver. Or maybe a really nice neighbor.

Could he not have, at least, mentioned the (almost) nightly Harry Potter readings?

The truth of the matter is, things do feel perfunctory around here in a way they haven’t in previous years. For various reasons, none of which is interesting enough to mention, our calendar has morphed in appearance from something vaguely respectable (we are not sitting around watching Netflix for hours…every day) to something akin to Rosemary’s Baby (we eat in our cars! we have to be in three places at the same time! we need to use more exclamation marks!!)

In an effort to keep everyone informed about the day’s happenings, without resorting to handing out devices with synched calendars – which I’d probably need the 13 year old to manage anyway – I have turned to the exceedingly low tech: white dry erase board.

I actually didn’t have the wherewithal to come up with this idea on my own. I was using pieces of paper! Cut from the IKEA Malo roll shoved into my craft cupboard! Until someone walked past my wasteful relic, pointed at the dry erase board in my kitchen and said: ‘you could just use that.’


Despite its tenuous [dry…erase] nature, I use the board to record who needs to be where at what time, as well as the boys’ daily responsibilities (piano! baritone! tidy rooms!), the things I need to pick up at the store when I make my almost-daily trips (mustard! floss!) or the amount of cash I’ve borrowed from their piggy banks when pressed to cough up, say, $20 at 7:30am for a fieldtrip. (Who am I kidding – fieldtrips don’t cost $20 anymore.)

I have turned into the person who borrows money from her children. I have turned into the person who uses a dry erase board to communicate with her family.

‘Do I have a game tonight? ‘Look at the board!’ ‘What time are you leaving?’ ‘Look at the board!’

I love you because you put my schedule on the white board.

Despite its impersonal nature, I like to think ‘the white board’ has drastically reduced the amount of times I have to ask and re-ask the boys to do something. ‘Drastically reduced’ not ‘eliminated’.  It has also increased the number of time-related phone calls I get. ‘Where are you? You said you were going to pick me up at 5:50 but it’s 5:50 now and you’re not here!’

Sorry, I should have written 5:53.

The three musketeers, despite their differences are remarkably similar in their appreciation of numbers, especially as they relate to the clock.

In addition to the white board, I have also had to change my approach to meals. Most weeks (if I can find a couple of hours at the start of the week) my strategy is making a lot of food and putting it in the fridge for whomever, whenever, wherever.

Sometimes, like this week, it means having a few options at the ready: polenta, sausage and ratatouille, chicken, and ham, mushroom, spinach tart. Other times, like last week, it meant having chicken, rice, black beans three days in a row.

I love you because you feed me quesadillas every single night.

It’s a season, as everyone likes to say. One which feels every bit as blurry as the toddler years. Except the toddlers don’t go to bed at 7pm anymore. And my eyes refuse to stay open past 10:30pm.





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.


The Retirees

Unlike most of the world, who left academia behind the day they graduated from college, our lives continue to be ordered around semesters and breaks. Thus a new year brings not only a change in the calendar, but also adjustments to the professor’s teaching load and work schedule. And so, the schedule it took me the better part of the fall semester to memorize – classes on which nights, which mornings – becomes obsolete the second week of the new year.

Apparently 2016 has delivered the professor from the evil of morning classes, or so I learned last week when I observed him standing in the kitchen while I went about my morning routine of scanning news headlines without actually reading the contents.

‘I want you to take this quiz about who you should vote for,’ he insisted Tuesday morning from his phone checking perch by the stove. The same place where I’d just walked around the corner and observed him staring at his phone while waiting for the kettle on the stove to boil – except he’d turned on the wrong burner and was entirely unaware of the unoccupied coil burner glowing red hot behind him.

‘I don’t want to take a politics quiz,’ I shook my head, having paid less than nominal attention to the U.S. presidential race, other than knowing red-faced Donald Trump is in it to win it. It’s become the go-to brotherly insult chez nous: ‘You’re worse than Donald Trump,’ one of the boys will berate the other. I’m honestly not sure why.

‘Please, I just want to see if we’d vote for the same person.’

‘I think we pretty much agree on all the major issues.’

‘But let’s just see.’

And so, I forfeited multiple minutes of my morning trying to articulate my stance on ‘the big issues’, occasionally coming up with my own snarky positions to supplement the quiz’s prefabricated ones.

‘Should people on the no-fly list be banned from buying guns and ammunition?’

I’m pretty sure I read a headline about a 6 year old being on the no-fly list recently.

‘Should a photo ID be required to vote?’

Sure? Maybe? I don’t know!

When my candidate and level of support were tallied up, it turned out to be exactly the same as the professor’s. He took this as a sign that we were obviously ‘meant to be’ and tentatively agreed to remain married to me for the next twenty years. With that load off my mind, I looked at the clock. It was almost 10am, nearly two hours since the boys had left for school. ‘Let’s go get a coffee. Today will just have to be our date since half the morning is already over,’ I schemed, ever the pragmatist.

We have a standing Thursday coffee date, because we are basically 65. But I couldn’t justify devoting two of the week’s child-free mornings to talking about the 2016 election, standing date or not. So we drove downtown in our 98 special, and the less than enchanted professor spoke about Kijiji ads he’d seen recently……for vehicles that aren’t as old as our marriage. ‘We’re keeping this one,’ I insisted, lovingly patting the dashboard, ‘the Gort is going to drive it.’

‘No way,’ the professor shuddered, imagining a world in which our preciously pale boy is old enough to drive, in a car large enough to accommodate obnoxious boys. Or worse, girls.

‘Well, we could maybe load a refrigerator into the passenger area. And make the van smell really bad so no one else would want to get in it,’ I brainstormed.

Parenting is not for the unresourceful.

After a latte and a pseudo lunch of quinoa salad, we headed home because, despite appearances to the contrary, he actually had a class to teach and I had to pick up kids from school and ready my mind for an afternoon of piano. ‘Let’s just stop at Community Natural,’ my desperate-to-be-efficient self begged, seeing as we were driving directly past it and I’ve unofficially dubbed 2016 as The Year of Not Going to the Grocery Store Every Day.

Really, it should read ‘every other day’ but it’s a resolution, not a miracle.

The professor does not enjoy going to the haven of all things organic casually referred to as ‘Community’ by those patient enough to wait for a parking spot in its tiny lot. He shuffles around the even tinier store, muttering under his breath about selling a kidney to pay for the food or the eccentric cashiers that could pass for characters from a Portlandia episode.

Which, point taken:

‘How are you?’ a dreadlock wearing man with a badge that said ‘Wesley’, asked me several months ago.

‘Fine, how are you?’

‘So good,’ he gushed. ‘I got to work an hour early, so I just walked down to the river and did some yoga.’

I can’t remember if he also used the words Namaste or Kombucha in that sentence, but I had to bite my lip to keep a straight face.

With our selection of oats and lentils tenuously tucked into a 25-cent paper bag (we forgot to bring our own) we headed home. That was Tuesday. The next day, was Wednesday.

‘What time is your appointment,’ I asked the professor for the hundredth time, either because I failed to pay attention each time he replied or possibly because he kept giving me a different answer. Or maybe both.

‘I think I have to be there at 10:45,’ he stated-guessed, and I offered to drive him because I’d already written one blog post for the month and had lost all sense of motivation for projects like responding to emails, getting rid of the boys’ ‘art’ or addressing the array of digital images clogging up my hard drive.

Or showering.

I was still in the parking lot, taking a third stab at squeezing the 98 into a too-small parking space, when the professor learned he was, in fact, one hour early for his appointment. But instead of walking down to the river to do yoga in the subarctic temperatures, we walked half a block to a ramen restaurant that had been on my to-try list for a long time. We arrived fifteen minutes before it was due to open and found two girls sitting on a bench, getting their [insta]gram on. By the time we were allowed in, there were twelve people standing in line behind us, and as we waited for our food in the ultra-tiny space, the even tinier entryway filled with more people, eager to take our spots.

Our waiter, sporting a mustache, a man-bun and a sort of bouffant thing held together with a bandanna, set two of the largest ramen-containing bowls I’d ever seen before us. This after I’d seen the note on the menu about ‘to-go containers not being available in an effort to reduce waste’. Waste-conscious Nicola despaired at the amount of food that would end up in the trash.

It was to be my first bowl of hip-ramen and I hadn’t bothered Googling ‘how do you eat ramen in a restaurant’ ahead of time. A few furtive glances at the tables adjacent to ours informed me that you’re [possibly] supposed to use your chopsticks to drag noodles onto the mini wooden shovel spoon and slurp away. All while carrying on a conversation with the person across the table from you?

I did my best with my subpar chopstick skills. Halfway through I realized I was chopsticking with my left, non-dominant hand. Embarrassed, I switched to my right, though the improvement was less than negligible. I’d consumed about a tenth of the pool of noodles and broth before me and I sensed my stomach expanding with every slurp. I stared at the crowd waiting in the entryway, to see if anyone had a tupperware container I could purchase in exchange for giving them my table.


We paid the bill and walked back to our original destination where I sat in a room listening to music coming out of a white clock radio, and then we drove to the grocery store because my unofficial New Year’s resolution is turning out to be more laughable than ‘Exercise Three Times a Week’ or ‘Eat Less Sugar.’ The bowl of ramen had left me with a distended abdomen and a serious craving for chocolate. The professor and I stood in the organic aisle and disagreed over which bar was more virtuous. We settled on something with chocolate and coffee and picked up a few more random things before heading to the self-checkout.

There are people in this world who love a self-checkout and there are people who hate a self-checkout and unlike the politics quiz, our opinions do not align on this particular matter. ‘I didn’t go to graduate school so I could bag groceries,’ he balked, whereas I, a person who also went to graduate school, love nothing more than putting my own groceries in a bag.

As soon as we got to the car, he requested the virtuous chocolate we’d just bought. ‘Um, it’s  not in here,’ I delivered the bad news, upon rummaging through the store-issued plastic bag. (Seriously, can we just leave some reusable bags in the car, already?) It dawned on me that I couldn’t recall scanning or bagging a chocolate bar, despite having tossed it in the basket with our other groceries. I glanced at the receipt – no sign of a chocolate purchase there, either.

The professor was somewhat displeased by this turn of events. ‘Did you leave it in the basket?’ I shrugged, not entirely sure.

When we got home, I put the groceries on the table and, on a whim, peeked inside my purse. I pulled out a chocolate bar.




The Concert

Mere days after we returned from the heartland, the professor and I had a date to see Brandi Carlile in concert. He’d bought the tickets on my birthday, after I’d suggested we try to catch her show in Grand Rapids during our week in Michigan.

I scrambled to feed the boys dinner and raced to pick up the babysitter and upon relinquishing the barest of instructions and our cell phone numbers, we raced to the venue where the concert was due to start at 7pm.

We speed-walked through the University campus towards the concert hall, in an effort to make it to the show on time. As we got closer to the venue, we spied two hulking tour buses parked in the loading dock and a few couples walking hand-in-hand towards what I assumed was the entrance. Though the professor insisted we use a different door.

The building was eerily quiet, other than a line of about 10 people waiting patiently in what could pass for a foyer, I suppose. This struck me as unsettling – it was 6:52, the concert was due to start in eight minutes and a dozen people had shown up.

We asked the same questions they’d been asking one another, ‘it is tonight, isn’t it? 7pm? Yes, that’s what it says on my ticket. And we’re sure it’s here?’

We stood and wondered and checked our phones until, finally, a man with short hair carrying a cash box appeared on the scene. ‘Oh, are you here for the concert?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ we all clamored in unison. ‘It’s been moved upstairs.’ As if we should have deduced as much from the lack of signs and posted information.

We raced upstairs, for fear we’d miss the music, only to find a slightly longer but not exactly significant line-up of people.There was only one plausible conclusion: the 7pm printed on our tickets referred to the time the doors would be opening. And the concert wouldn’t start until 8.

Which was precisely the situation we’d intended to avoid, having concluded earlier in the summer at another concert that we were far too old for smaller venue, standing-the-whole-time-because-there-aren’t-any-seats concerts. And as such, we’d take a last-minute, standing in the way, way back spot rather than spend three hours standing for the sake of something more proximate to the stage.

Operation ‘save our backs’: foiled.

We waited semi-patiently for the line to snake into the venue when the professor noticed a friend up ahead in the line. She came over to say hello, mentioning something about how she’d had plans for the evening but then tickets for the concert were being sold on Groupon and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.


It was all starting to make sense. The line-up of 10 people downstairs. The concert being moved upstairs. The not-particularly-long line of people waiting upstairs. Tickets being sold on Groupon.

Either Calgary didn’t have any Brandi Carlile fans. Or they’d all decamped to Edmonton for Folk Fest. Or nobody knew about the concert.

We passed through the ticket check, where we held up the line because the scanner couldn’t read the bar code on the professor’s phone. ‘It’s too dark,’ the guy with the scanner complained. And I couldn’t help but think it surely didn’t matter, while the professor muttered something about paying full price for these unscannable tickets.

Finally the guy gave up and waved us on. We walked into the very empty, dark, chairless room, feeling like we were about to attend the world’s worst high school reunion. There was a stage with instruments and a screen draped in black cloth. And an empty wooden floor. And a guy selling drinks in the corner. But instead of making awkward small talk with people we hadn’t seen in twenty years, we had to stand and wait for an unidentified opening act starting at an unidentified time.

In order to help pass the time, the professor purchased a bottle of water from the guy in the corner. We traded sips – sparingly – to avoid a mid-concert bathroom break. After one of the longer hours of my life, the opening act apeared on stage. One man. And his guitar. Wearing plaid newsboy pants, an army jacket and possibly a cap.

He sang a song and despite its strange nature, there was no denying he had a good voice. Vaguely reminiscent of Glen Phillips who, wikipedia tells me, was the lead singer of that 90s band Toad the Wet Sprocket. I did not know this piece of information in the 90s when I was actually listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket. Which, let’s be honest, is a very strange name for a band. Perhaps when I’m done here, I will ask Google about its origin.

The opening act sang another song and tried to engage the audience with some very awkward banter that made it clear he’d only recently learned he would be opening for the show, and that this group of less than 200 people was the biggest crowd he’d ever played for. He sang a couple more songs. More awkward banter ensued about how he kisses his dog more than his wife. And also, if memory serves, that his sartorial choices made him look like a Japanese dad.

Then, more songs. ‘This evening is not what I expected,’ the professor grumbled. Indeed, it felt like a scene from a movie where two people go to hear their little brother ‘play a show’ and find the room mostly empty and the brother making cringe-worthy small talk to detract from the fact that no one showed up. Also, instead of getting off the stage at the earliest opportunity, the little brother just.keeps.singing.

At some point a text appeared on my phone:

‘Um, so how ’bout this dog loving, Japanese pant-wearing opening act…..’

Apparently our groupon-savvy, concert-going friend was having a similar experience.

‘Dead man at the wheel!’ she texted, referring to one of the songs he’d just played, ‘how about dead woman at the concert?!’

Finally, the little brother got off the stage, at which point I’d been standing for two hours, having listened to six or eight very strange songs; paying a babysitter for every loving minute of it. A thought crossed my mind as I stood staring at the stage crew fiddling with the (approximately) 143 guitars on the stage: we could just leave and try to forget the night ever happened. It wasn’t as if attending a Brandi Carlile concert was on my (nonexistent) bucket list.

More fiddling and tuning. I’d told the babysitter we’d be home at 10:30 – based on the purported 7pm start – and every minute the tall, grey-haired man in black stood on the stage picking up instruments….was another minute we were going to be late.

At last the crew disappeared and one lone cello-playing man appeared on stage and sat down. The tacky black cloth covering the screen fell away, to my astonishment, and revealed a tableau of pinks and reds and shadows. And that’s when another thought occurred to me: maybe this concert was going to be….good?

The cello man started playing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ which had several audience members, including the professor, flummoxed. ‘Why is he playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic?’ Brandi Carlile and the twins, along with the drummer, walked on stage and began singing Firewatcher’s Daughter, the song I probably like the least on her new album. As in, every time it pops up on the playlist, I immediately skip it.

And yet…the harmony, the energy and the 143 guitars… was simply spectacular, watching people who obviously loved what they were doing and were good at it. It turned out to be the best concert I’d ever seen.

And that’s high praise from someone lucky enough to see Bon Jovi’s New Jersey Tour in 1990.

I’ll be there for you.

It’s the end of the year as we know it

I began writing this little ditty on May 15. Today is June 14. Draw your own conclusions. 

Springtime (i.e. May slash June) in Calgary is a fairly delightful affair. Mercurial weather aside, leaves and blossoms sprout on tree branches, dead brown grass returns to a lively green (unless you’re the Johnsons and can’t be bothered to water said grass), the magical street cleaning truck comes through and sucks up all the gravel and pine cone debris caked along the edges of the city streets. Except for the areas where people, who find it difficult to interpret signs imploring them to move their cars within a specific time frame, left said cars parked. (It doesn’t annoy me at all, and I did not personally knock on two doors and invite people to move their cars.)

But, lest you’ve already begun to pack your bags to relocate to this landlocked, Arctic version of paradise, I should add it’s not all clean streets and green grass here in YYC. No, there is also the slightly inconvenient matter of having 17 hours of daylight – per day – which just so happens to coincide with four-days-a-week soccer season and the last five weeks of the school year. A maelstrom of fatigue and over-commitment and missing tupperware containers, it is when, in the words of Chinua Achebe*: ‘things fall apart.’

On Monday, I awoke later than intended. Begrudgingly, after a late night of trying to fill my fridge for the throw-food-on-a-plate event that passes for pre-soccer dinner chez nous. I yelled for the Gort to get up from the confines of my bed, because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it. Apparently this got on the professor’s nerves and he eventually marched into the boys’ room for a slightly more direct approach to waking sleeping children.

‘It’s snowing!’ the Gort shouted, eventually, after he’d dragged himself out of bed, which, if you were going to ask me ‘what words do you least expect to hear this morning’ those would have been right up there along with, ‘someone stole our unfashionable minivan and left a luxury SUV in its place.’

I pulled back the curtains and, sure enough, chunks of slushy snow falling from the sky. ‘Somebody forgot to give Mother Nature a call on Mother’s Day,’ the professor shook his head.

We’d been distracted by the snow, for when I next made note of the time it was mere minutes before the Gort would miss his bus. Nothing motivates me to yell at others to move faster than the thought of having to drive my kid all the way to school. In a series of moves reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Elaine trying to beat the Van Wyck in an effort to get rid of a houseguest who’d overstayed his welcome, I threw a coat over my pajamas, stuffed my feet into a pair of the professor’s shoes and bolted out the door. Only to be confronted by a car covered in snow and no scraper anywhere. Fully prepared to accept a modicum of frostbite, I used my arm to clear the windshield and driver’s window and barked at the Gort to do the same.

We made it to the bus stop with seconds to spare, the unfashionable minivan honking at the yellow bus, imploring him not to leave until my only-crosses-at-the-crosswalk son made it safely on board.

I returned home, triumphant, in my ‘what-not-to-wear’ outfit, only to remember I had neither bread nor lunchmeat for the Hen’s sandwich and he’d replied an adamant ‘no’ when I offered to pack him quinoa salad en lieu. With the promise of delivering a sandwich to school before lunch-time, I bid my middle boy adieu and with the promise of appearing in his classroom at 9:30am to volunteer, I bid young Percy farewell.

And then I remembered it was May 11, the day a certain 11 year old was supposed to turn in his final book report of the year. I could have grabbed it from his desk and driven it to school, were that an option, but seeing as there was no book report, there was nothing for me to micromanage. Yet. I filed it under ‘things to discuss when the Gort gets home and I’m on my way out the door.’

An hour later, having showered and donned slightly more conventional clothing, I walked to the school to report for kindergarten volunteer duty. Except I was supposed to show up at 8:30am, as it turned out. Three minutes after I’d picked up my volunteer badge, I turned it back in and walked home. I used my suddenly ‘spare’ hour to drive to Sunterra and pick up bread and ham for the promised sandwich delivery and, after driving home for assembly purposes, I proceeded to walk back to school with a ham sandwich tucked into the only container-with-a-lid I could find.

Seriously: Where are all my little rubbermaid and snapware containers? 

I delivered the lunch to the main office and picked up the 5 year old…….and walked home. Percy and I whiled away a few hours doing who knows what and then I walked back to school to pick up the Hen. ‘How was your sandwich,’ I chirped, searching for proclamations of my mother-of-the-year status. ‘I didn’t get a sandwich,’ he muttered.

‘What happened to the Hen’s sandwich’ will forever be shrouded in mystery, not unlike evidence surrounding the Loch Ness monster’s existence. Suffice it to say, not only did I not get a ‘you’re awesome’ pat on the back, I had to walk home with a grumpily hungry kid who’d eaten nothing but yogurt all day.

At least the morning snow had melted and Spring was back in session.

In the four weeks that have transpired since I first recorded the details of my ineptitude, I can only say that things have gotten worse at the Johnson home.

I’ve tried to pinpoint what makes these last few weeks of the school year suck quite so much. Soccer season? Check. The perpetual daylight that makes us all feel like we’re living in that old Al Pacino movie, Insomnia? Check. Schools cramming in all the field trips and performances and special-don’t-miss-it-events within a matter of weeks? Check.

On Thursday I was invited to watch Percy and his classmates perform in a stomp dance class (missed it, but managed to get some footage from other, more committed moms) and on Friday I was invited to check out the Hen and his classmates perform in a stomp dance class and a few hours later I was invited to watch the Gort and his classmates play Somewhere over the Rainbow on the Ukelele and a few other things I can’t remember now.

These are, of course, all wonderful things – unless you’re a bit of a musician and actually care about things like pitch and intonation – but they become less wonderful at the end of the year when you’re all too aware that school is about to end and your habit of frequenting coffee shops alone is about to be seriously curtailed.

It’s also the time of year when my brain is incapable of holding onto a piece of information for more than thirty seconds. Most days I find myself vaguely remembering a certain event or commitment hovering in the near-future, only to find myself completely forgetting about it a couple of hours later until my phone displays a reminder notification or it comes up in conversation with someone.

Like dinner, for example. Yes, it happens every day, a fact I manage to recall mid-morning on most days and then completely forget until about 3pm when my daily round of piano teaching is about to start and I can’t do anything about it.

Enter the Sunterra pizza: an eight or ten inch circle of dough laden with various toppings and wrapped in plastic, available for purchase in the store’s deli section. I believe we ate Sunterra pizzas on two, or was it three, occasions this past week. (They also sell unadorned discs of dough in a three-pack which can be topped with barbeque sauce, diced chicken, peppers and cheese in less than two minutes. Hypothetically speaking.)

There was also taco week in which we ate corn tortillas with – you guessed it, taco filling – every night for at least three consecutive days. ‘I’m kind of sick of tacos,’ the Gort finally despaired and I took that as my cue to find another quick pre-soccer dinner option.

And there was a week in which we might have eaten roast chicken in some iteration at least five times and the professor made a few oblique references to the scene in Little Miss Sunshine where the grandpa has a bit of a poultry meltdown, using some very choice words, ‘every night with the [bleepin’] chicken.’

And I took that as the writing on the wall that I needed to move on to the ‘other white meat’, pork. (Did that piece of marketing genius not make its way north of the border?) Anyway, we had it three times this week. On the nights we didn’t eat Sunterra pizza.

Along with dinner, I tend to forget about lunch, too. Mostly the need to maintain some sort of inventory from which to prepare school lunches. There have been many mornings recently when I’ve discovered there is no milk for cereal or no bread for sandwiches or no meat to put in the bread for sandwiches. Or no plastic containers in which to put the sandwiches or the yogurt with granola.

Seriously, what do they do with all my tupperware containers? If you add up the amount of money I’ve spent on replacing tupperware and water bottles this year, I could have probably sent my favorite child to private school. For a week.

‘Nine more days,’ I held out my hands to an over-sugared, sleep-deprived Percy tonight, so he could visualize the number of school days remaining. ‘But I want it to be zero more days,’ he wailed.

And part of me does too, but part of me needs these last nine days to mentally prepare for the onslaught of togetherness that will descend upon me starting next Thursday at 2:38pm.

*It is my summer goal to read [at least a portion of] Chinua Achebe’s book.


Truthdays with Jason

The professor and I had adopted the pseudo-habit of going out for coffee on Thursday mornings, courtesy of the fact that he had no classes to teach and all three of our boy-children were in school.

Pseudo-habit, because stuff like dentist appointments, field trips and visiting faculty have managed to eat up every Thursday since February began. That, and the irregular conundrum that is the Kindergarten schedule.

‘So do you want to get coffee tomorrow,’ the professor asked last night.  ‘You realize Percy doesn’t have school tomorrow right?’ ‘No! Why?’ ‘Parent teacher conferences,’ I offered the standard line of response.

Though I fail to grasp why that means Kindergarteners can’t go to school, when everyone else is already there.

Thus we found ourselves driving to the Calgary Farmer’s Market this morning with a pajama and snowboots-clad child in the backseat.

All I can say about the professor and I, at this point in our lives, is that we’re old. I mean, I feel pretty much the same as I’ve always felt – copious amounts of grey hair and inability to sit on a floor in hero pose without my feet and ankles sobbing for mercy, notwithstanding.

But the words that come out of our mouths? Old.

And the spectacle that is the professor driving through a parking lot? Old.

We arrived at the market right when it opened. Parking spots were in abundance. ‘Wow, I’ve never been able to park this close before,’ the professor mumbled in awe at his good fortune, as he steered the car across the lot in a particularly indirect and aimless manner reminiscent of an octogenarian taking the driver’s test hoping that he might be granted one more year on the road.

It reminded me of a time, nearly 30 years ago, when I was in the backseat of a car being driven through a parking lot by an elderly gentleman, and all I could think was ‘just park already‘ as he passed empty stall upon empty stall in search of…..just the right empty stall?

‘Just park already,’ I pleaded, not entirely under my breath, and at last the car came to a halt. When I stepped out of the car I noticed we weren’t entirely in our forward-facing spot; a few inches of our unfashionable minivan clearly lingering in the empty spot behind ours.

‘Do you want to pull up, you’re kind of in this spot,’ I pointed out.’


We entered the market and made our way to the coffee shop/stall/booth. As we waited for our lattes, the professor noted the black-outlined tattoo of red roses (with text) on the barista’s forearm. ‘I wonder if it’s hard to find clothes that go with that tattoo,’ he observed.

I considered her cap-sleeve floral print vintage-ish blouse and wondered how I might dress if my forearm was covered in red and black ink. It’s my main beef with colored tattoos: the wardrobe and hair and make-up implications.

We ambled around the quiet market in search of breakfast and then we sat down outside the kids’ play space where our surprisingly social 5 year old ran around with kids he didn’t know.

‘You realize our coffees cost more than our breakfast sandwiches,’ the professor sighed as someone who’d lived through the Great Depression. ‘I feel like an old man [adopts cranky, wobbly voice] can I just get some Folgers? Do you have anything for 90 cents?’

I shuddered at the thought of drinking ‘the best part of waking up’.

‘Are those her kids,’ the professor nodded in the direction of a fresh-faced woman with a pile of silver rings in her right ear, sitting at a table with four young kids. ‘Or is she the nanny?’ Compared to our tired selves, the woman looked to be in her mid-twenties with an infant, toddler and two boys who may or may not have been twins and were no older than 5.

‘I don’t know, those kids all look like her,’ I tried to assess the situation. And she was wearing a wedding ring.

Survey says: Mom!

‘It’s probably the way to go, having kids when you’re young.’ I thought out loud.

‘Really? Why?’

‘I don’t know,’ I guessed, as one living in fear that I will at some point be mistaken for Percy’s grandmother. ‘You’re probably more patient and have more energy.’

‘Hmmph,’ the professor replied,’ I don’t know about the patience, but definitely more energy,’ he sighed. Undoubtedly thinking, as was I, about the nightly energy-suck that is corralling the boys to bed, ensuring their teeth don’t decay, refereeing bathroom fights about somebody spitting on another’s hand while using the same sink. And doling out hugs and stories and snuggles when we’d rather put a pillow over our heads and take a mid-evening nap.

‘It would be kind of fun to have a baby in the house,’ he mused as he watched the not-nanny’s infant daughter quietly sleeping in her carseat. ‘Yeah,’ I agreed in the abstract, in the manner of someone whose words carry no implication. As in ‘yes, it would be fun to have a baby in the house even though we just talked about how we are too old and tired and are spending all our disposable income on $5 lattes.’

In the play space, I watched as a little girl, about 3 years old jumped in the air and plopped directly onto the floor. ‘Are kids made out of plastic? Can you imagine if we tried to do that?!’ I visualized my grown self voluntarily hurling my rear end onto an unpadded surface from hip height. ‘We’d probably break our tailbones! I mean, she’s maybe wearing a diaper [and obviously her legs are considerably shorter than mine] but still.’

Shortly afterwards, our attention turned to the leggings-is-not-pants conundrum that has plagued our world these last few years.

A woman walked past our table wearing black leggings with mesh cut-outs. It was the second time I’d seen this particular look at the farmer’s market.

It begs the question: whyyyyyyy?

Luckily Lululemon has answered: We designed these high-rise crops to help us move from Hatha to happy hour, no questions asked. With breathable Mesh panels that keep us cool as we bend, twist and sip, these pants have our backs even if post-practice drinks turn into impromptu dance parties.

From Hatha to happy hour? Except it was 9:30am at the farmer’s market. And I am asking questions.

Oy vey. Just pass me a pair of jewel-green poly-pants with an elastic waistband from the Janet Reno collection already.



Truthdays with Jason

This school year, with all three boys in school for portions of each day, has been what some might call ‘a bust’. In true Nicola-fashion, I entered the arrangement without giving much thought to it, then for a fleeting moment (likely after dropping off the boys that first morning) I decided it was going to change my life, only to realize five seconds later that it was going to do no such thing.

In theory – in exchange for six years of hard labor – I was to have eight hours of childless time per week. (If you’re doing the math, that’s a return of approximately 1.3 hours per week for every year of labor.) Eight hours that were quickly subsumed by classroom volunteering, no-school-days, and a few coffee shop visits.

I also imagined, from these life-changing eight hours, the professor and I could have weekly coffee dates on one of the mornings he didn’t have to teach. Like Tuesdays with Morrie, even though I never actually read the book. This happened exactly three times in the span of four months.

Last Tuesday, an hour before we were due to get Percy at Kindergarten, the professor suggested we go for a walk in Edworthy Park. Entirely for my benefit, since no one in our nuclear family unit cares to spend time out of doors. The professor will say ‘I like going for walks, I just don’t like going for walks with the boys,’ but this is entirely false, I concluded on Tuesday – after spending 30 minutes outside with him. He might enjoy a walk without children….in August…..for fifteen minutes. But at any other time? Notsomuch.

It was one of those mornings in Calgary that come around a few times each winter – the trees and grass all covered with spindly bits of ice. It’s fairly magnificent if you’re into that whole natural beauty thing.



And, in true Calgary form, it was also deceptively cold once we left the confines of our crescent.

We pulled into the parking lot and quickly learned the surface was basically a very thin ice skating rink. Like a couple of retirees, we shuffled towards the pathway, clinging to one another in an attempt to keep from breaking a hip or shattering an elbow. After avoiding most of the ice, we stopped in front of a tree – not unlike a sixtysomething couple I observed in Fish Creek Park some time ago – watching while a flock of finches darted in and out of the branches.


‘Let’s go check out the tunnel,’ the professor suggested, referring to the ‘tunnel’ of shrubby trees that line the Christmas Tree Trail. We walked along in pseudo-silence, the professor’s audible shivering being the only communication between us. ‘We haven’t even been outside for ten minutes,’ I protested. ‘But it’s freezing,’ he sighed, ‘how are you not freezing? You’re not even wearing gloves!’

‘Once I’m out, I’m out,’ I shrugged, stuffing my bare hands deeper into my pockets. We were walking sans enfants, and there were things to photograph and it wasn’t 30 below. It was the outdoors equivalent of winning the lottery.

We arrived at the ‘tunnel’, which appeared more ‘sparse’ than ‘magical’, but still I asked the professor to walk ahead of me so I’d have a subject for my photograph. ‘Walk in a reflective manner, not an I’m-so-miserable-I-can’t-stand-it manner,’ I directed, noting his slumping shoulders.


‘Yeah, this tunnel doesn’t look as cool as I imagined it would,’ he observed halfway through, which is marital shorthand for ‘I want to turn around.’

I convinced him to make a (slightly longer) loop back along the railroad tracks, rather than retrace our steps. We meandered along the stark landscape, with his fervent shivering as our soundtrack.

‘I think I’d rather be walking with Percy,’ I sighed aloud.

‘No you wouldn’t – he’d be on the ground crying.’

‘True, you at least keep moving. But the amount of complaining… the same.’

‘I just….have that sense,’ he sputtered. ‘I know when [the boys] have about 15 minutes of ‘fun’ left in them. You’ve completely lost that sense.’

This was, of course the truth, but like I’d said earlier: once I’m out, I’m out – fully aware that it may well be the last time. Ever again.

I’d fallen a few steps behind and by the time I caught up with him, the professor was standing sideways, ostensibly trying to shield me from seeing something. A dead bird? Pile of excrement?

‘Nothing to see here,’ he attempted to block my view, ‘just keep moving.’

‘What are you talking about,’ I tried to peer past him to see what he was so obviously trying to hide.

‘This looks like something you’d want to take 20 pictures of,’ he gave up and stepped aside, revealing a cluster of heart-shaped, frost-tipped brown leaves. ‘I’ll refer you to photographs of December 2013.’

More truth.

‘I think I have hoar frost on my stitches,’ he lamented minutes later, referring to the three stitches on his leg where a mole used to live.

By this point I was completely freezing, thoroughly regretting my ‘slightly longer’ loop, desperately willing the parking lot to appear.

The pale sun, barely visible through the cloudy sky, caught my eye and I aimed my camera upwards. Apparently, while I was thinking about composition, the professor fell on a patch of ice. Or so he told me by the time I caught up to him again.

‘Did you see that?’

‘No, what?’

‘I fell on the ice – completely wiped out. I thought to myself ‘Nicola must be laughing’ and then I turned around and you’re not even looking.’

‘No, I was taking a picture of the sun.’


We made it back to the car, alive, and drove to Percy’s school. ‘You’re like Anthony Hopkins – but without the bear coat – in….what was that movie,’ I racked my brain to connect my mental image of an older, bear-wearing Hopkins with a movie title, ‘Legends of the Fall!’

‘Yeah, I don’t think you could even watch that movie now. You’re all, ‘I’ll give it ten minutes.’ You have the attention span of a 17 year old,’ he retorted.

This particular gem was courtesy of my showing him a Jimmy Kimmel video clip just before we left and turning it off after three minutes because it didn’t amuse me.

‘I’ve just concluded I’m not going to live very much longer and I don’t want to waste my time watching things that aren’t good,’ I shrugged unapologetically.