On Being Dumber than a Fourth Grader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fulcrum?

Neverheardofit. OrifIdidIforgot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.’

Right.

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.

 

 

 

 

A boy named Jose

The wide world of multiple-kid sports opened its all consuming doors to us this year.

After a vaguely pyramid-scheme-ish dalliance with karate and its monthly payments and timed progression of colored belts, we convinced the Gort to pass on the kata and give indoor soccer a try.

And the Hen, having declared his intent to join the NBA right out of high school – oh is my father not quite six feet tall, I hadn’t noticed – launched his basketball career right here in Calgary.

Thus we hopped aboard the practice-game-conditioning train a deux, turning most Saturdays into a basketball-soccer-Costco triune along with the rest of middle-aged North America. I mean, nothing says ‘This is 40 (or 50!)’ quite like huddling on metal bleachers with a Tim Horton’s cup in hand while yelling at cheering on a posse of uniformed young people.

(I, of course, do not have a Tim Horton’s cup in my hand, because eight years of Canadian living has not been sufficient to convince me of its merits.)

Perhaps you are wondering ‘don’t you have a third child? Why are you only talking about sports for two children? I mean my kids are in two sports – each!’

To which I reply: yes, the kid with the chocolate eyes that could convince even the most hardened individual that lying and stealing are adorable pastimes, is still kicking around here somewhere. He was not given the option of extracurricular activities other than lunch-time choir at his school because three kids! two parents with weird hours! scheduling nightmare!

He can launch his NBA career when the Gort starts to drive. Or he’s good enough to play on the Hen’s team. Until then he will have to watch NBA League and learn through osmosis.

But back to Saturdays. And the bleachers.

Due to opposing soccer-basketball schedules and volunteer commitments, I had not been a regular fixture at the boys’ games until January came along. Then the calendrical stars aligned and I found myself sitting on the sidelines, with a less than enthused Percy, eager to cheer my boys’ teams on to victory. Because I have this innate inability to watch a game without words coming out of my mouth in a loud manner.

As with the Tim Horton’s cups, it is yet another thing that sets me apart from most Canadian parents – an observation I first made in outdoor soccer, when I realized I was one of the only parents ‘cheering’ for the huddle of moving uniforms. Everyone else sat, silently watching, tapping on their phones, talking to their neighbors. And then there was me, convinced I could alter the game’s outcome by exhorting the players to kick, shoot, whatever.

I also am not content to just yell, anonymously, to whoever has the ball – I value knowing the players’ names; being able to personalize my exhortations. This, of course, is easier to achieve when you attend all the games. You get a sense of which parents belong to which player and, if the parent occasionally cheers for their own child, you learn the names of the kids. In lieu of all this hearsay and sideline detective work, one could, of course, consult TeamSnap for a list of the players’ names and go from there.

However, three-kids-in-two-schools, two-kids-in-two-sports Nicola has decided to simplify things this year by not reading any [non-personal] emails. A revolutionary concept, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly has me on the parent-blacklist at school(s) but between the schools, the sports, the library and the orthodontist I get an average of 20 emails/notifications every day. 

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Thus I showed up in school gyms and soccer centres in January and put my increasingly less keen sense of observation to work learning people’s names. The Hen’s basketball team wasn’t too bad – I already knew the names of some of the players and eventually figured out the rest – except for a trio of boys known as Michael-Seth-Will. Though they did not look particularly alike, something about them prevented me from identifying them by their correct name. Thus I spent the first half of a game cheering for ‘Will’ while sitting next to his dad. Only to deduce from another spectator that Will was, in fact, Michael.

(Something I could have avoided if Michael’s reticent dad had been cheering for his son!)

Learning the players’ names of the Gort’s soccer team proved a lot more difficult, mostly due to fluctuating attendance and it being a larger group of boys. I took my cues from the few parents cheering – somewhat despondently  – for their perpetually losing sons.

Fortunately I had help from Jose’s dad. A tall man, with a booming voice, determined to yell his son’s team to victory. Because nothing else seemed to work. ‘Go Jose!’ he called every time his son rotated into play – usually to relieve a gasping, waterlogged Gort – who has not yet figured out that drinking two liters of water during a soccer game is not conducive to running after a ball. ‘Go Brady! Go Garrett! Go Eric!’ the man cheered tirelessly, eliciting similar efforts from other parents.

‘Go Jose!’ I started cheering too. ‘Go Garrett! Go Eric!’ The interesting thing about Jose and his father is that neither appeared to be of Hispanic descent. If anything they appeared to have Middle Eastern roots. ‘It seems odd they would name their kid Jose,’ the professor and I mused aloud at one point, but who were we to say anything. We, the parents of an overly hydrated child with a Croatian name despite the fact I could not identify the Adriatic Sea on a map.

The other interesting thing I noticed in subsequent games was that other parents appeared to call Jose ‘Zay’ as in ‘Go Zay!’ This struck a nerve with my overly formal, shortened-name-hating self. As I find it difficult to call people I know well by anything other than their full first names, I could not fathom shortening Jose’s name to Zay for cheering purposes.

Naturally, I kept yelling ‘Go Jose!’

One evening while sitting at my computer doing a bit of work, an email from TeamSnap popped into my inbox and I clicked on it, since I was already adding things to the calendar. The email showed a list of players available for the upcoming practice, with Jose being conspicuously absent from the list. The list did, however, include a boy named Zain, whose name I didn’t recognize from any of the previous games.

Or did I?

With my stomach churning at the prospect of complete and total humiliation, I consulted the team roster. Just to see if anybody, anywhere on that team claimed the name Jose.

No.

Just Zain.

Go Zay…n!

Hello, again

The phone rang, right before Christmas, or maybe it was shortly after. The number displayed on Caller ID did not appear to be an obvious telemarketing ploy, so I picked up. ‘Hello,’ a recorded voice greeted me. And, the specifics elude me now, but the gist was this: WordPress was calling to remind me I had a blog. Not because they missed my writing – naturally, they wanted money. But it made me chuckle nonetheless.

Of course my mother had taken to reminding me occasionally that I hadn’t blogged for some time, but a phone call? From WordPress?

It was precisely the motivating factor I needed to rush to the computer six weeks later, and offer up my credit card details. Thus, having spent $47.88 for the privilege of Idontknowwhat here I am.

And really, all I can offer by way of explanation for my unintentional hiatus, and as insight into my nearly constant state of mind: parenting. Or, ‘why did nobody tell me this was how it would be.’

Perhaps you are a mother (no implication of gender here) with young children and you’re thinking to yourself ‘I just need to hang on until the last kid is in school, then it will be easy street!’

And that’s fine if that’s what is getting you through days of having to wipe butts and eat chocolate behind closed doors. But it is a complete and total fabrication lie and though, if I told you this to your face you would probably think ‘oh that’s just you, my kids are different,’ I will go ahead and post it to the interwebs so I can feel like I at least tried to warn you.

These in-school, butt-wiping children are a thing of beauty, make no mistake. Like a few nights ago, I was cutting up not-so-young Percy’s food for some reason and it reminded me that it had been an extremely long time since I cut up people’s food. Or changed a diaper. Or fought with someone about getting into a carseat. Or spent fifteen minutes getting someone dressed so they could go outside and play in the snow only to come back five minutes later because they were too cold.

I also have not hired a babysitter in recent memory, because the Gort is nearly 13 and can semi-manage his younger brothers for a couple of hours as long as I’m willing to field at least 3 phone calls – one from each boy expressing his unhappiness with the management or the entertainment or the lack of food or the subordinates.

But these perks don’t come for free. Unfortunately. ‘Big kids, big problems’ you might have heard the saying from people with children past the preschool stage. Which I’ve basically taken to mean: when the boys were little it felt like my main job was to keep them alive. But as they get older there is an undeniable realization that I am dealing with adults-in-training and maybe it’s amusing that they hide oranges in their dresser drawers, but could this be a sign of bigger problems afoot?

Will whatever issue we are dealing with today result in their incarceration or drug addiction down the line? (If I had one of those embedded tweet icons I could put it here so you could conveniently tweet this faux deep thought.)

Not really.

But kind of.

Of course I don’t (necessarily) think my children hiding oranges in their dresser drawers will result in their eventual incarceration, but I am unable to use more egregious examples to better illustrate my point. Another downside of raising bigger kids – you can no longer speak as candidly as you once did.

Whereas it was once amusing, even expected, to regale your friends and family with outlandish toddler tales, talking about your ‘older’ kids is akin to stepping into a field laden with hidden landmines. Privacy! Others’ opinions of them! Having to hear about it when they’re 25 and in therapy ‘because of you’.

Thus this stretch of parenting has turned out to be unexpectedly isolating, especially when compounded by the calendrical reality of suddenly spending weeknights and weekends shuttling children to activities and cheering them on at sports events. These days, the majority of my socializing is done from the inside of my van, waving (really, just nodding) at a friend going the opposite direction in her minivan.

But it’s not all doom and gloom chez Johnson. We are doing our best to retain our senses of humor amidst the hormonal upheaval of adolescence and the omnipresent three-boy drama that threatens to undo us. I was chatting with the Gort before bed a couple of nights ago, trying to the greatest mom who ever lived, inspiring him with my Tami Taylor-esque wisdom. He seemed neither irritated (praise hands) nor particularly impressed. ‘You don’t seem inspired by this,’ I remarked, ‘I am sharing all this wisdom with you, I am literally barfing wisdom all over you here, and you’re just lying there, uninspired.’

I couldn’t help but think the term ‘barfing wisdom’ was perhaps not one being used by the majority of mothers out there.

These are the words that will come back to haunt me at Thanksgiving 2029.

PS. Did you know, mother-of-small-people, that ‘older children’ don’t go to bed at 7:00pm? Or 8, or even 9 on most nights? Those precious quiet hours you are enjoying after the kids go to bed? To read, or watch Netflix, write blogs about your kids or go out with your similarly stationed friends? ‘Say goodbye to these!’

Hellobonjour, le troisieme time is le charm

The professor and I took a few moments at the White Wolf Inn to tweak our itinerary for the following day, using the lessons we’d gleaned from failed hikes number 1 and 2: less distance and elevation and perhaps something besides hiking and driving. For the kids.

Our first stop on day 3 was the Miette Hot Springs where we arrived right at opening time. Sitting in hot water , staring at strangers wearing bathing suits is not really my idea of a good time, but this fell under the ‘for the kids’ category. The professor decided to be amusing and rented one of the old-fashioned one-piece bathing suits on offer. Though I left my camera in the car, I may or may not have posted evidence on instagram of my better half sporting a blue onesie.

After raising our internal temperatures a few degrees, we headed to the next stop of the day: Jasper Lake. Basically, a large body of ice cold ankle deep water right off the highway. Again, pour les enfants. DSC_0492

For the day’s hike we had selected Maligne Canyon, which has the dubious honor of being considered ‘the most interesting canyon in the Canadian Rockies’. A mere 7km in distance, with minimal elevation gain, we had every expectation that the third [hike] would be the charm.

We pulled into the Sixth Bridge parking lot, crossed our fingers and away we went. It was perhaps less ‘hike’ and more ‘scenic walk’, especially since it turns into a full on tourist trap by the time you get to the third bridge. Most likely because you can skip all that hiking business and drive straight to the first bridge to walk around on paved trails with less than minimal exertion.

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Perhaps that makes it sound like I’m frowning upon people who choose to eschew all the drama adventurous preamble in favor of door to door service. Which, of course, I am. But, in defense of tourist traps, they do make for the best people watching, offering a welcome respite from one’s own travelling-family dynamics.

[Scene: Middle-aged father walking with two tween-aged girls. The eldest is wearing jeans and a black leather jacket and obviously suffering as a result, on this warm, end-of-July day.]

‘Why don’t you just tie the jacket around your waist like you did yesterday,’ the father suggests to his sweltering daughter.

‘Do you have any idea how ridiculous that would look?! Who ties a leather jacket around their waist?!’

‘Well, I don’t know many people who wear a leather jacket to go hiking.’

‘I didn’t know this was what we were going to be doing. I was not well informed!’

The exchange had me laughing to the point of tears, and wishing I could walk behind them for a few more minutes, if only to be reminded that I’m not alone. Because I am traveling with a 12 year old boy and his two tweens-in-training younger brothers. Our conversations may not revolve around wardrobe choices, but nobody asked to come on this trip and this is the worst day of my life and I just want to go home.

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Despite the abbreviated nature and ease of our excursion, we did not avoid the seemingly inescapable boy breakdowns. Luckily there was a visitor centre with a ‘tea house’ and luckily, having learned a thing or two about the importance of carrying cash in remote settings, I had enough funds to purchase something edible for all involved.

Let it not be said that I don’t learn my lessons….eventually.

While sitting on the terrace at the tea house consuming our lunch, dark clouds had filled the sky, signalling imminent precipitation. The professor, who is in charge of maps and trails (a slight step above Phoebe’s cups and ice) when we hike, had identified a shortcut that bypassed all the bridges and the tourists. It was a delightful, virtually deserted trail and since we were ‘going back’ the boys didn’t even care that they were getting pelted with rain.

Johnsons 1-Nature 2

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For as long as I’ve been thinking about visiting Jasper, Maligne Lake/Spirit Island has been at the top of my list of ‘must-see’ Jasper destinations. But here’s the thing about traveling with kids, sometimes you have to relinquish your dreams for the greater good. (*Cough* Delicate Arch *cough*.) The drive to Maligne Lake would have taken two hours return and though the boys had tolerated the canyon business fairly well, they were certainly not chomping at the bit for more. And it was almost 5pm (I think).

Thus we headed to our resting place for the evening – an Otentik in Whistler’s Campground – while I tried to swallow my sadness. ‘You need to be flexible,’ I’d explained to one of my boy-children the previous day, when he’d complained about having to do things he didn’t want to do. And, as usually happens when I try to impart wisdom, I end up having to listen to my own advice.

When we arrived at the highway turnoff to the campground, there was a line-up of vehicles trying to do the same. There was also a line-up in the opposite directions of cars stopped to look at yet another bear. Eventually we made it to the campground entrance with its full/complet warnings to any of those silly enough to dare to show up in a national park on a long weekend without a reservation.

A Dutch woman drove up in a Canadream rental camper and spoke to the hellobonjour agent in the booth. ‘I need a campsite.’ ‘Do you have a reservation?’ ‘No, but I want to stay for two nights,’ she added, loudly, as if that would entice the agent to rustle up a free campsite.

They sent her to ‘overflow’ which I imagine to be a field filled to the brim with reservationless campers and no bathroom facilities.

We drove into the tree-filled campground, found our Otentik and began the process of unloading and setting up and cooking ‘dinner’. While shopping at the Camper’s Village in Calgary for bear spray, the Gort had talked me into buying a $12 freeze-dried ‘italian chicken and pasta’ dinner. My first response was ‘no, it will taste terrible.’ Because I knew it would. But sometimes, as a parent, you need to say yes, so they can learn these things for themselves.

I’d also surveyed the boys for camping food preferences before we left. ‘Pizza sandwiches!’ the Gort had yelled, ‘I love those.’ Two years had apparently improved his memory of the improvised ‘grilled cheese with a thin layer of homemade tomato sauce’ sandwiches I’d made during the Summer of 2014, aka ‘The Summer we Spent Two Nights in a Tent Trailer.’

So I made the ‘beloved’ pizza sandwiches, while the Gort made his much-anticipated Italian pasta and never was there a more disappointing dinner for all involved. I consumed approximately three large smores to help ease the pain, played another round of argument-inducing Anomia and called it a night.

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Hellobonjour, part deux

After a less than stellar night’s sleep in the trapper’s tent, the professor and I awoke to three truths:

  1. We were very tired
  2. Our backs were somewhat destroyed from the tent’s ‘bed-like structures’
  3. We had been married for 20 years

It was not necessarily my intention to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of our wedding day by eating oatmeal out of a packet and drinking questionable coffee but when all of Parks Canada is complet, you do what you have to do. As luck would have it, the particular type of chia-oatmeal I’d purchased was of the unsweetened variety. Or so I deduced when my mom mentioned it tasted somewhat disgusting and I glanced at the paper envelope and saw the ‘sweeten to taste’ instruction.

But fortunately, I’d brought a just-in-case jar of apricot jam which, when stirred into gross oatmeal along with some blueberries and banana renders it practically palatable. It was the first time that jar of jam would come to my rescue, though it would not be the last.

After rolling up sleeping bags with slightly dire results (seriously, does it require special genes, techniques) and cleaning and packing and loading for what felt like hours, we headed to Jasper. With a ‘quick’ stop for gas, coffee and almond croissants in Banff. And a ‘quick’ stop in tourist-riddled Lake Louise to see ‘the lake’ and a ‘quick’ stop for gross food in the Lake Louise Village.

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By the time we turned onto the Icefields Parkway, it was considerably later than it ought to have been, especially considering we were still hoping to do a hike and drive all the way to one-hour-past-Jasper Hinton. But the words ‘we probably don’t have time for this’ is not part of the Johnson travel vocabulary, so we pressed on. Cars were stopped along the highway and tourists were standing in the road, with cameras. We pulled over to see what had been spotted: a bear.

Apparently these particular tourists had not read the myriad of news stories about recent bear encounters, nor had they heard about the need to maintain a very large distance from wildlife, for they were standing in the road, on the same side as the bear, staring, snapping and speaking animatedly. An Italian trio had emerged from their vehicle with lattes and cappuccinos in hand to gaze upon the black bear eating berries.

‘Hellobonjour’ a Parks Canada ranger called to the oblivious tourists from the confines of his government-issued truck, ‘please get back in your vehicle.’ A few obliged, but most did not. ‘Hellobonjour,’ he tried again, ‘you need to get back in your vehicle.’

The hellobonjour struck me as exceedingly funny after having read [a portion of] ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ and learning a little bit about the bilingual politics of Canadaland. Thus I took it upon myself to say hellobonjour as often as possible throughout the trip, in any and every situation.

Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I may have barked at les touristes to get in their cars. Much like my oldest son, I am a rule follower at heart.

‘So where did you want to hike,’ the professor asked me as we drove away from the bear sighting. I stared at the itinerary I’d created with its list of possible hikes en route to our destination. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken the time to note any details of the hikes, like distance or elevation gain or how long they might last.

‘I don’t know, it says Helen Lake,’ I revealed the first hike on my list. And without further thought or negotiation, the professor pulled into the Lac Helen parking lot and before I could say ‘I also have several other options on my list,’ we set off on our second hike of the trip, stopping briefly at the interpretive trail sign (there was one!) to learn a bit about this particular hike.

A quick glance revealed details like: 460m elevation gain, 12km return.

I was about to say ‘yeah, this is probably not the hike for us,’ when the professor enthused ‘let’s do it.’ And away we went; my poor Indiana-walking mother released onto a rather un-flat trail laden with tree roots. Or ‘troll toes’ as the professor would call them whenever the boys stumbled over the exposed roots.

He also enjoys hiking while making high pitched shrieking noises and pretending they originated from a mythical creature known as ‘the tickle falcon.’

Yes, these are the memories we are passing on to our children.

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That thing I mentioned about time, in part un? It would have been handy to know the time at which we started hiking and the amount of time the hike was expected to take. Thus when Percy began to balk about his leg hurting and I began telling my ‘only ten more minutes’ lie, I might have had a sense of how big a lie I was really telling.

We pressed on, the professor inquiring discreetly from returning hikers about how long it might take to reach the lake. Each of them seemed to offer a different answer. ‘Only 45 more minutes,’ my better half told me at some point and I cajoled and bribed our very unhappy boy-children, promising whatever I could think of to keep them putting one foot in front of the other. A considerable amount of time later we reached an impasse. There were tears and people were falling to the ground, refusing to take even another step, and still the professor showed no signs of giving up. He seemed unusually hell-bent on finishing this hike he’d never even heard about, so I offered up the last bribe in my arsenal: a piggyback ride.

I hoisted fiftysomething-pound Percy onto my back and walked, decidedly uphill, for as long as I could stand it, and then a little bit more; earning exclamations of reverence from a tour group of seniors heading back. DSC_0319

We reached a meadow of sorts and I stopped a trio of returning hikers. ‘How much longer,’ I gasped, out of earshot from my falling-apart-contingent. A grey-haired man looked at his watch. ‘Mmmh, what time did you say we started hiking back,’ he asked one of his companions. ‘2:30’ a younger man replied. ‘So, we’ve been hiking down about 45 minutes, it should probably take you about an hour and fifteen to get up there.’

I was looking for answers in the vicinity of 15 minutes. As soon as I heard the word ‘hour’ I knew I would not be seeing Helen Lake. And so, our party of six, turned around and walked back to the parking lot. The professor tarried at the back, trying to digest his disappointment.

Johnsons 0 – Nature 2

The ‘funny’ thing about hiking with our semi-blond wonders, as soon as you say the words ‘let’s go back’ they turn into the happiest, most energetic children you’ve ever seen. Tears vanish and sore legs magically disappear as they sprint downhill, chatting excitedly and being their best selves. ‘I’m having fun on this hike,’ Percy exclaimed. The same kid who’d plopped to the ground sobbing about his legs and a host of other ailments. ‘Really,’ I rolled my eyes at the memory of his weight on my back.

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By the time we finally got back to the car, it was around 4:30pm, with an indeterminate amount of driving remaining. Not to mention the matter of dinner. Just before 8pm we arrived at the less-than-stellar but infinitely fancier-than-a-trapper’s-tent White Wolf Inn in Hinton. Our dinner options were Dairy Queen and McDonald’s. Conveniently located on either side of our motel.

The boys ate blizzards and french fries, and my mom resigned herself to a DQ salad while the professor and I opted for self-made peanut butter and apricot jam sandwiches, consumed while watching the news. ‘It’s strangely delicious,’ I remarked. ‘Oh, I’m having two’ my better half agreed. He handed me an anniversary card. ‘I was going to do a toast when we got to Helen Lake,’ he explained, pointing to a half buried bottle of bubbles  in the middle of our stuff. Suddenly, his strange fixation on finishing the hike made sense. ‘You carried a bottle of prosecco on that hike,’ I asked incredulously.

‘Yup.’

Now that’s commitment.

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Hellobonjour

Eight years in to This Albertan Life, and we still had not made it to the famed Jasper National Park, despite the fact that it’s only a four hour drive from where we live. Which, for ultra-roadtrippers such as ourselves, is a crying shame.

Sometime in the late Fall/early Winter I resolved that Summer 2016 would be the year to address this gaping hole in our national park repertoire. A resolution that happened to coincide with a visit from my mother, a weak Canadian dollar, and a similar declaration from thousands of scenery-loving Americans and Europeans with stronger currencies.

By the time I pulled out my credit card, ready to make a reservation – in March (which, for someone like me, is astoundingly timely) – everything was booked. Reserved. Full. Complet.

Thus I did what any single-minded, stubborn individual would do, I cobbled together a compressed itinerary with whatever accommodation I could find for our party of six. My dreamed about four nights in Jasper, turned into one night in a trapper’s tent in nearby Kananaskis, one night in a small town motel an hour from Jasper, and one night in a tent-cabin in Jasper. And two nights in a random cottage outside Waterton National Park. Because three nights does not a summer vacation make. And also the professor was still smarting from his failed attempt to drive the Going to the Sun Road in May.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you turn an 800km journey into a 2,100km journey.

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We arrived in Kananaskis on a Tuesday late-morning and stopped at the information center. The park ranger had the latest in bear-related trail closures. Because Summer 2016 has also turned into ‘The Summer of the Bear.’ ‘We were thinking about hiking Pocaterra Ridge,’ I declared-asked. ‘That’s open,’ she nodded, with a cautionary ‘bears have been sighted on that trail. But you’re on a ridge so you’d [probably] see them since you’re out in the open. We do strongly recommend bear spray but we are completely sold out.’

Luckily I’d procured my first-ever can of bear spray a few days prior, carefully considering whether possibly scaring off a bear was worth $60. I decided, rather grudgingly, that it was. Probably.

Really, I decided that not listening to my mom or the Gort worry aloud about our lack of bear spray was worth $60. Definitely.

I’ve also declared Summer 2016 as ‘The Summer of Hiking.’ Mostly because we are home all summer with nothing planned other than my five nights of random fun. And also because the boys are 12, almost 9 and almost 7 and doesn’t that mean they’re practically old enough to hike the Appalachian Trail?

But hiking has not turned out to be the simple pursuit I expected. I say this based on our only first hike of the summer to Chester Lake. I assumed you’d get a guidebook, select a trail, set foot on the trail, navigate the ensuing boy-child protestations and that would be that. But in my experience the trail finding instructions in the guidebook haven’t quite matched the scene in real-life, possibly due to everything being wiped out in the flood of 2013 or because the professor and I are incompetent trail interpreters. Maybe both.

What I’m really trying to say is, I found myself in the designated parking lot where the Pocaterra Ridge hike was supposed to start with instructions to ‘find a dirt trail at the interpretive loop trail sign. Head down the trail for a minute or 2. Take unmaintained trail on the left.’ Except there was no interpretive loop trail sign. No sign of any kind. Nothing.

The professor and I walked in a circle looking for said dirt trail. We found one….that led to a picnic table. We found one that didn’t appear to be a bonafide trail. And nothing else. So we started walking in the opposite direction on a gravel road with caution/do not cross tape across it along with some sort of bear related warning. Our oldest, rule-abiding boy-child expressed his dissension, loudly and repeatedly, while the professor insisted ‘mom checked at the information center and we were told this trail was fine’. All while I silently replayed the park ranger’s ‘bears have been sighted on the trail’ along with the fact that I was 99% sure we were on the wrong trail.

We walked and walked, without finding ‘the unmaintained trail on the left’, hoping the Gort wouldn’t see the big deposit of berry-laden bear scat and making as much noise as possible. Finally, one hour – maybe two – later I said to the professor ‘I’m pretty sure we are on the wrong trail, let’s just turn around.’

Another key component of hiking – one that I have yet to implement, though I see the value in it – is time, or, more specifically, keeping track of it. What time you start the hike, how long you’ve been hiking, how long you might expect to hike, that sort of thing. By the end of the summer I might wear a watch, or at least make a point of looking at the time on my phone instead of snapping photos obliviously.

On our way back to the car, I noticed a trail off in the distance, one that better matched the description and direction of the Pocaterra Ridge hike. Once we’d reached the van, I summoned the bear spray-carrying professor and we headed off in search of the missing trail. Sure enough, it was ‘the dirt trail that didn’t really look like a bonafide dirt trail.’

Johnsons 0-Nature 1

On the way to our campsite, we spotted this bear on the side of the road. From the safe confines of our car. The orange tag in its ear and collar around its neck gave the experience a bit of an ‘outdoor zoo’ rather than ‘wild bear in nature’ vibe.  But the professor, who loves nothing more than spotting animals while driving, was semi-satisfied. Even more so when we spotted a second, collar-less bear five minutes later.

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We had not dabbled in camping-related activities since Summer 2014, also known as ‘The Summer we spent Two Nights in a Tent-Trailer.’ This was partly due to the fact that we spent Summer 2015 driving our brains out, but mostly because we were all still suffering from camping-related PTSD as a result of that abbreviated experience. So much so that when it came time to pack for this trip, I gathered wool blankets and sheets and fleece pajamas in addition to our sleeping bags because I can still remember how cold I’d been on those two August nights.

I’m actually shivering just typing that sentence.

People often talk about camping and how relaxing it is and we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. For in my experience it’s basically nonstop work – the planning, the purchasing, packing everything you might possibly need, food preparation, loading, driving, unloading, setting up, making a fire, cooking food, arguing with kids about fire, the ordeal of going to the bathroom, bear prevention (aka continuous cleanup), 3 or 4 hours of intermittent sleep in between wondering what time it is, hoping no one has to go to the bathroom, and how much longer before you can get up, making a fire, cobbling together an unsatisfactory breakfast, drinking bad coffee, cleaning up, packing up, loading and getting back in the car.

But I suppose if you’re going to do it, staying in a trapper’s tent is the lesser of all camping evils – equipped with bed-like structures, and freeing you from tent set-up duties. Leaving you with a spare 10 minutes to play Anomia with your kids and argue about rules and sportsmanship.

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