I didn’t think I’d revisit the Breakfast Club movie anytime soon, but I’m a lot more open to watching things again under the circumstances. (If you’re reading this in fifty years and no one is around, we had a Pandemic in 2020.) Anyway. I was thinking about this one part, where the kid writes the required essay, ending with, ‘In the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions, what we found is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basketcase and a criminal.’

Through all their shenanigans, these kids manage to see each other as whole, and to realize that names are often assigned without permission. But does knowing that change how we see ourselves? It doesn’t feel great being pushed inside a box and labeled accordingly. Nerd. Soccer mom. Smarty pants. Widow. Now the last one might have you thinking that, yes, that is a very true description of some women’s status. But I have to tell you that the first time I saw it on a government document, I felt very put out.

I looked at that piece of paper and felt truly startled. And perplexed. I thought, I’m not a widow. I’m still married. To a dead man. Yes, okay, that might make you want to apply that word. It may speak to you. But it doesn’t speak to me.

In my mind, it paints two different pictures. Jackie Onassis in a beautiful dress with a black veil over her face. And Snow White’s step mother. Neither feels remotely like me. I still feel married. And I rarely wear black, or try to feed innocent girls poison apples. I wanted to sit down and write the Canadian government a letter, but you know what bureaucracy is like. I mean, I’m not willing to go to court over this. I just think that I should get to decide when to apply that word. Maybe when I’m eighty-five. Certainly not when I still speak to the guy at all hours of the day and have to remind myself not to talk to him in the Co-op. After reading this, you’ll probably want to apply the label, ‘kooky,’ to me. That’s okay. I’m willing to wear that hat. (I know, I already do. Don’t worry…it doesn’t hurt my feelings.)

So if you think of me, feel free to use any description you like as long as it’s not widow. Just say, ‘She’s married to that dead guy, Clarence.’ That will do for now.

Feeling Lost, Please Send Directions

The movie, ‘Taken 2,’ has a scene that describes exactly how I’m feeling these days. Liam Neeson is helping his daughter escape an abduction. Pointing to the the roof, he says something like this:

‘You’re going to run for five hundred yards. Then get down to the street, head south for three blocks, turn left and go through the red door on the right. On the other side, head north and run for ten blocks….’ This continues for a while, after which the daughter nods and takes off. And I’m left thinking, well, hell.

Just another confirmation about my bad sense of direction, about never knowing north from south unless I’m at home. I’m clueless about the steps it would take to run five hundred yards. I’m easily lost, especially in a strange city. I have to keep my eyes open and repetitively say the names of streets, businesses, and even the colours of buildings. I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t get lost as much as I used to, though my friend Lynn will tell you I was late for dinner in London last fall because I couldn’t remember how to get to the restaurant and didn’t have wifi for my phone. Anyway.

Covid 19 is no different for me. This Pandemic requires a whole new set of directions. The problem is, they change every day, even since I started writing this blog. Here’s what I know so far:

1. Stay home most of the time. When out, keep my distance from others.
2. Don’t travel.
3. Stock up on medicine and food. And toilet paper.
4. Wait for more news

I have no trouble waiting. It’s my imagination that isn’t patient, and wants to create fantastic scenarios of every kind. I write young adult sci-fi and fantasy, (among other things) often specializing in dystopian futures for the planet. And now here we are, facing something big. I know it’s going to be okay. But it would nice to have a map. So far, finding my way has not been difficult. But what if the directions for survival get more complicated? What if the virus decides to get creative with the rest of nature? Will we turn on the television and hear things like this?

‘All citizens must keep sharpened sticks by the door for killing the giant mutated squirrels currently ravaging the country. Stay tuned for more news at six.’

If it becomes a thing, I’d like Justin Trudeau to get very clear about how exactly one should kill a giant squirrel. Perhaps an online demonstration would help. For the extremely paranoid, or just the imaginative, should we be exploring the bat connection? Like in Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy, where people turn into  speedy vampires? Though if that happens, I’m sure the squirrels will suddenly find themselves on our side.

I’m pretty chipper most of the time. But I like directions for everything coming my way. Don’t give me any north, south, go five hundred yards bullshit, either. Say it straight. Be clear. And don’t mess with us on April 1st. I have to admit, the government could have a lot of fun on April Fool’s Day, but we’re all losing our sense of humour, here.

For now I’m remembering all the things I’m grateful for. We’re not at war. We’re just isolated. And I’m a Canadian. (My apologies to those who are not.)That’s a social contract I’m grateful for and never want to mess with. Whatever we think is going wrong with the country, there are so many things that are right. Let’s shut down the whining (I’m aware of the irony here) and concentrate on taking care of ourselves and each other. I’m here if you need toilet paper or apples, or strange brands of canned soup. But if you’re feeling a sudden urge to bite someone in the neck, put a sign on your door. I’ll just leave the stuff outside.

John Lennon Will See You Now

I haven’t read Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. But just seeing the title in my local library got me thinking about who I’d like to visit in the Eternal Afterward. There’s loved ones I’ll want to hug right away; my husband and parents, friends and relatives. Then there’s people I’ve always wondered about, like Joan of Arc, Einstein, and Florence Nightingale. But the non-family person I’d really love a conversation with is John Lennon.

My guess is, he’s still so popular, he needs an agent to organize his time. Possibly an angel, or some lucky deceased fan.  As I see him in my mind’s eye, he looks a bit weary. I didn’t think that was possible in heaven. But then, I’m just an ordinary person, and not famous. So what do I know. I have a hushed meeting with his agent before we begin.

“Don’t ask him any questions about the whole’ ‘the Beatles are more popular than Jesus’ thing. People think they can joke about it, and frankly, even Jesus doesn’t want to hear that one anymore. If you want to talk about their time in India, he suggests you make an appointment with George Harrison.’

I nod eagerly, just wanting all the formalities to go away so I can sit face to face with my grade school crush, John Lennon. Remember the bubble gum cards? Anyway. Is he really as sincere as he seemed on earth? Are his ideals still lofty? Does he truly believe that we here on earth can give peace a chance? I just can’t wait to find out.

Finally, we sit face to face. He’s not as relaxed as I would like, but since he probably thought heaven would be one long holiday, I can’t say I blame him. I smile and before I can stop myself, I say, ‘Help. I need somebody.” Then I grin. “It’s you.” His eyes roll so hard, I think they’re going to leave their sockets and I’m certain I just blew my meeting with J.L. But then, yaay! He smiles back.

“I’m so glad you didn’t say, ‘I’ve got a ticket to ride. That’s where I draw the line.’

‘As if,’ I reply, trying not to look guilty. (That had been my initial, ice-breaking idea.) ‘I’m more interested in your song, Imagine. How do you feel, now that you’re in heaven? Like, oh no, I never imagined I’d end up here?” I see him barely suppress a yawn and realize he’s answered this question many times.

‘It was never about heaven being real,’ he says. ‘It was always about people not making excuses to fight each other. Not using religion to divide the world.’ I almost don’t hear what he’s saying. I’m so in love with that lilting Scouse accent one finds only in Liverpool and surrounding area, that I lose track of our conversation. The agent wanders over.

‘One minute left,’ he whispers in my ear. I know my bible, so I have a ready reply. ‘A day in God’s life is like a thousand years.’ The angel agent (they had to get rid of the deceased fan…he wouldn’t let anyone else see John) replies, ‘You’re not God.” There’s barely time for me to shout, ‘All my loving!’ before I’m ushered swiftly away, still feeling a bit star struck.

Back in the warm hills around my snug hobbit hole (my current dream of a heavenly residence, as long as there are windows) I breathe the fresh air and try to decide who I’ll bother next. The possibilities are endless. Einstein? Mother Theresa? Michelangelo? I sigh at the infiniteness of it all and wonder what to do with my time, besides going on tropical vacations with my husband. (It’s a thing here.) Suddenly, a bell rings. It’s time for the millions strong choir to sing heaven’s anthem. (Also a thing.) I change into my long white robe and rush out the door, energized by a brilliant idea. If I hurry, I might secure a spot beside Aretha Franklin. But just in case, I’ll check in with her agent first.

A Wrinkle in Time

They come to everyone, eventually, those fine folds in the skin that look like a mistake the first time they show up. You find yourself peering into a mirror and thinking, what is that? I was standing in the fancy shower room of the Yak and Yeti hotel in Katmandu when I first noticed lines beside my eyes. I hadn’t heard about sun screen yet, and had just finished a three week uphill walk in the Himalayas. We’d hardly washed our faces, never mind applying any cream.  I was twenty-five years old.

I like to blame childbirth for my very first forehead wrinkle. Imagine, (if you’re not actually in labour at this moment) that you’re trying to pass a honeydew melon through your nether regions. For some, it’s thirty hours of ongoing physical stress followed by the bearing down part, which is just as earthy as it sounds. I defy anyone to walk away from that without a few lines on their forehead. Then there are the late nights with baby, and the toddler moments that don’t end until your child leaves home in the guise of a grownup.

Men who live with women have forehead lines, too. The married ones especially, whose days contain many moments of complete and utter bewilderment. ‘Why is she mad? What did I do? Is it something I said?’ There are no correct answers to these questions, and men’s forehead wrinkles deepen accordingly. Perhaps this is women’s revenge for childbirth. I don’t know. I’m merely guessing, as I always do.

Forehead wrinkles can have harsher consequences than just older looking skin. They are often the gateway to wearing bangs. Once you’ve gone in that direction, it’s very hard to go back. Growing them out is unbearable. If women had to decide between that and experiencing childbirth again, it would be a close call. My decision, back when I was younger, was an easy one. “You should have bangs,” my hair stylist said. ‘Okay,’ I replied, innocent as a child. I’ve been in bang purgatory ever since.

Things change as you age. Hairstyle options lessen, and eventually you have to decide if you’re going for the old woman from Transylvania look, or giving in to a shorter hairstyle that includes bangs. We’re all with you in that one. It takes a village to support those of us who’ve made difficult choices, and those who have no choice left because they’re ninety and its the only way to go, unless they’re related to Snow White.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our wrinkles told a story using speech bubbles that floated around our heads? They’d say things like, ‘Eye wrinkles? You like to laugh!’ You’d get lots of congratulatory looks from passersby, because laughing is always a good thing. But what about the ones that come from worry?

Many of us spend serious time imagining bad things happening to people we love. I’ve been working on this. (Thank you, Jesus, and Eckhart Tolle’s book, ‘A New Earth.’ You work beautifully together.) But in the meantime, a person of a certain age can look like they’ve been through a war.

No matter what one does, the passage of time will dragged its clawed feet across your face. Too much wine? Hello, eye bags. Excessive amounts of dark chocolate? Here’s a rash, or maybe some zits. Lack of sleep? Add ten years. Whatever it is, gravity and life will drag at your flesh until it raises a white flag. ‘Fine. Have your way with me.’
The good news is, this doesn’t usually happen until we’re older and happier. It’s true, dear people in your twenties and thirties. Those in their forties are happier than younger people, and it gets even better after that for most of us. (Google it. Science agrees!)

Perhaps its the ability to put things into perspective. Maybe its because the kids have left home and you can finally afford better quality skin care products. Whatever the cause, it’s easier to laugh about everything once you’re reached a certain age.

So take heart, young people. It gets better. Yes, the wrinkles come, but most days, you won’t care. Because your friends are going through the same thing. And for some reason, it becomes the source of a lot of laughter. And that’s a very good look on everyone. Even people with bangs.

Be Yourself!

The first time anyone said to me, ‘Just be yourself!’ I was in grade nine at Sir Maurice Roche Catholic School. The sisters who taught there were not like other nun teachers who, I’ve heard, were often strict and mean. These ladies were kind, encouraging and hip. (Do people still say hip? I really don’t care.) In our religion classes we didn’t talk much about God. Instead, we listened to the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, deciphering songs like ‘The Sounds of Silence’ or ‘I Just Gotta Get a Message to You,’ by the Bee Gees. I wasn’t much help in these instances. I’m a writer who doesn’t ever get the theme of a song or a story. I’m too literal. Remember those questions on English exams? “Compare and contrast the themes of the novel.” I’m having heart palpitations just writing this down.

Anyway. I remember having a rather confidential talk with Sister Jobin about feeling different from everyone else. I know now that every fifteen year old perceives their place in the universe in pretty much the same way I did. She gave me her time and attention and left me with these parting words: Just be yourself.

Now, I don’t know if you, dear reader, remember being that age, but the last thing you ever want to be is yourself. Yourself is the problem. Yourself, with the funny hair cut (mom, please…a better hairdresser!) Yourself with a complete inability to read the room and know who were the sheep, and who were the wolves. You found out the minute they grabbed you by the throat and wrestled you to the floor. Not literally, of course. But often, it could feel like your throat was being ripped out. It certainly left me feeling voiceless.

So, no. The last thing I wanted to be was myself. However. The great thing about growing older is that the more distance you put between the teenage you and your current self, the less you give a…let’s just use the word shit, here. I wonder how many of you actually noticed the gradual unwrapping of your true personhood. It’s like one of those reality shows where they give you a new wardrobe and a bit of plastic surgery, only you don’t even need that. You just need the perspective of time to discover who you really are in order to be yourself.

Even in your twenties, you buy into what other people think you should enjoy. Like long walks on the beach. I used to say, “Oh, I love a long walk on the beach!’ And I meant it, because I’d only gone for short walks, and I was young and spry. Now that I’m older, I like long walks on the beach as long as I’m right beside the water and the sand is hard. Otherwise, the sand makes me feel like I’m decrepit, even though I’m not.

Other illusions I used to have were the usual cheesy love song activities. Like in the Pina Colada song. ‘Do you like Pina Coladas?’ Well, yes. Doesn’t everybody? ”Getting caught in the rain?” No, not particularly. Not without an umbrella or a good raincoat. Then, I love it. Otherwise, rain, rain, go away. There’s the words, ‘I am not into health food, I am into champagne.’ Well, I love two organic eggs on a bed of kale, so that answers that. And champagne makes me fall down whenever I’m in England, so no.

Yet another part of the song says, ‘If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape, I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me and escape.’ People, if you’ve ever made love on a sandy beach, you already know the truth about that one. Because that sand gets everywhere. You find it days later in the strangest places. Clarence and I both agreed that we’d been fooled into thinking it was romantic when really, it was its own kind of awful. So, no.

I like being myself, now. And I’m at the age where I feel perfectly comfortable telling people what I like and don’t like. I’m not at the old lady stage where I’ve lost my filter and have started blurting things without thinking. (Well, only occasionally.) But for the most part, I like being me. I’m comfortable in my own company. I rarely get lonely, maybe because I’m a writer and have a whole cast of characters who keep me company all the time. And I mean ALL the time. But that’s a whole other blog.

The thing is, Sister Jobin was right. The people I know who were themselves as teenagers, like my husband, made everyone else feel comfortable. But even if I time traveled and had a quick conversation with that version of me, I know I wouldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just that I was clueless about how teenagers behaved. It was my deep feelings of inadequacy that led me to those long talks with the nuns who probably worked to bury their yawns behind their weary hands. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized that that is a part of the human story. At least, the story of teenagers.

Now, I am always myself. Sometimes I have to have a little self talk before I go out. I say things like, ‘Don’t be afraid to rein it in.’ Or, ‘Nobody else wants to talk about books all night. You’re not at book club.’ But these are just small courtesies. Otherwise, I’m just me.

In case you’re not convinced, and you need a better pep talk about just being yourself, here’s a little something from the movie, Just Friends.

I Want My Button to Pop

A few months ago I was taking my Thanksgiving turkey out of the oven and was overcome by an intense feeling of envy. The turkey’s button had popped. It was done. I sensed an air of congratulation between the oven and the bird. Perhaps a high five, maybe two thumbs up. And I couldn’t help thinking, I want that.

Imagine being in grade one again. Your teacher is going over the words on the white board, the iPad… whatever kids use these days. Sat, cat, mat, fat, rat. The child spits the words out and suddenly, a button pops right out of his neck. “You’ve got this!” the teacher says. “You’re all done. Go play in the gym with the others.”

Or, you’re out on a date. You’ve been a little nervous about the person you’ve chosen from the online dating site, “We’re Your Last Hope.” You walk into the restaurant, see your guy already seated. Your eyes meet, you walk over with a big smile and start talking. After a mere fifteen minutes, the button in your neck suddenly pops. And you can’t help noticing that his has popped, too. Your waiter also notices and brings you both free dessert to celebrate.

Without the button, you might have needed a lot more time to figure out if this person was right for you. But the button never fails. You can both relax into your new relationship knowing that your search is over.

The button would also be a game changer at the gym. You might have worked out for only twenty minutes when your coach, (let’s call her Tracy) walks over and says, ‘Put that kettle bell down. Your button just popped!’ A cheer goes up from a few friends, with some resentful looks from others as you leave class forty minutes early.

This would also be useful in a therapy session. You’ve talked until you’re blue in the face, and just when you’re starting to feel that you’ll never figure yourself out, your button pops. The therapist jumps to her feet, checks her watch and says, ‘Okay, beat it. You’re all better. Don’t bother coming back.” Perhaps this sounds harsh. But you should feel light hearted because you’ve straightened out your psyche and are filled with emotional well being.

You’d never have to take anyone at their word anymore. “I didn’t do it,” says a suspected thief/liar/future politician. But their button is still securely stuck in it’s holder. It is obvious to everyone that this person is not telling the truth. Every citizen could be compelled to attend a morals class and the ones whose buttons pop would get to wear a badge showing their ethical purity.

Others would watch with envy and possibly work harder on their own behavior, hoping to get the same result. Yes, it might end up being a bit of a contest. But imagine knowing that you’re done with everything. Love, emotional stability, math, and high moral standards.

If only we could figure this out. Maybe we could provide robotics engineers with buttons scavenged from the turkey factory. However we do it, I’m in. The only other thing is, once your button has popped for learning to read and being toilet trained, does the button get pushed in until the next event? And does that mean you’re never really done?

Perhaps the robotics engineers could arrange a series of buttons down your left arm (the creative one) that each have to pop in turn. The only downside is, what if you’re terrible at math? Or, what if all your friends are walking around with their love buttons popped and you alone have not met your match? Or, maybe you’re a decent enough person, but not perfect. Your moral code button may stay firmly stuck in its holder. And yet, you say to yourself, ‘I’m not a serial killer. I’m a bit rude but there are worse people out there than me.’ This could lead to a two tier society. Those who’ve popped every button, and those sullen, left out folk who are forced into anarchist behavior because they just can’t take it anymore.

So, maybe it won’t work. I guess some things that look very utopian to some, like the 2016 US election, or the Russian Revolution, can become dystopian when they don’t live up to their claims. Maybe even turkeys are feeling bad about their buttons. ‘Why can’t I decide when I’m done,” they complain as they huddle together in the grocery store freezer. On second thought, that’s too creepy to even contemplate. So never mind. I don’t need a button to tell me this blog post is done.

Dance of the Kettle Bell Fairy

Anyone wandering into Tracy’s gym for the first time might wonder, where’s the gal? The one who’s going to whip me into shape? Then you see her. A woman who’s so tiny, if you stuck a pair of wings on her back and set her on the branch of a tree, she’d look right at home. I remember gazing at the whiteboard with it’s strange set of instructions and wondering, what’s a thruster? Is it appropriate for public viewing? How about a deadlift, a man maker, and a Turkish get-up? Is this a gym class or are we doing some work for the mafia?

I watched Tracy skip lightly over to a set of parallel bars on the floor and raise her body in the air until she was upside down. Still talking, of course. “I’m not doing that!” I yelped, forgetting I was supposed to just shut up and listen. It’s a lesson I’ve yet to learn. “Oh, you will,” she said airily. I stared at my friends, the ones who’d talked me into joining the gym. They didn’t look any more convinced than I.  But they were smart enough not to complain.

Whiners get handed extra weights, so wearing a pitiful facial expression is key. Channel your inner pillaged villager and you’ll have it about right. There’s no such thing as appearing too defeated, unless you want to add a hundred extra lunges to your day. Friends reading this are thinking, ‘Quit telling her all our secrets!’ I think she knows.

It’s also important to say how much fun you’re having, but without sounding sarcastic, which is much more difficult than it seems. Tracy loves it when we’re having fun. Because she’s always having fun. You can’t wipe the grin off her face as she hands you two kettlebells and watches you hoist them and squat like a constipated gorilla.

On the other hand, I’m stronger than I was at half my age. I wish I’d been working out like this before I gave birth, because that’s what it feels like when I’m shoving a kettle bell into the air and grunting like a cave woman. As desired by wicked Maleficent the kettle bell fairy, there are many who leave class smiling, their elegant muscles and endorphin highs an example to all. I’m cheerful, too, but more like the guy who just escaped from Shawshank. And yet.

I love the way I feel the rest of the time. I like my arms, and I’m at an age where no one likes their arms. I like my legs, and ditto. Mostly, I like the way they work and keep me balanced. As I mentioned before, I’m more ungainly than I look so I need all the help I can get just to stand upright.

I remember telling Tracy that I didn’t want to have ‘one of those weight lifting bodies.’ After much laughter at my expense, she said, “Never gonna happen. This is the wrong class for that.” I was relieved, but also puzzled. I felt like I was working as hard as humanly possible. Not only that, but I still had to listen to my muscle’s ongoing debate. My butt, for one, is a serious whiner with strong opinions.

“Look, Tracy said don’t use your glutes!” my butt says bitterly. “I wish that effing core would show up for once.” My glutes are right to be cranky. Though my core has returned from the Haufbrau House in Germany, it’s still as self indulgent as a hung over teenager. When Tracy says, ‘Tuck in your belly button,’ it replies lazily, “I don’t know how. Just leave me alone.” My rhomboids, trapezius and deltoid muscles also use the F word a lot. “Shut up!” I scream back, startling my fellow gym members. It’s very hard to do all those swings and deadlifts when your muscles are deeply engaged in arguing.

The gym is a loud place, anyway, what with all the grunting and the heavy music telling us we can’t do it. Or reminding us to go balls to the walls. (Seriously. That’s a thing.) I can’t get over how Tracy never gives up on us. I’ve tried to convince her I’m a lost cause, but she just won’t buy it. Based on her optimism, some things I might try in the future are:

1. Take part in a bar fight and win. ( Although I’m not really much of a fighter. The last time I even went to a bar was in Liverpool, England, where I tried to convince all the Scousers to emigrate to Canada. Though my success was limited, I made sure to let my fervor show. My fervor has increased along with my strength.)
2. Save someone. Even if they’re not in danger, I’d just like to try it. I don’t care about the situation, either. Burning building, someone trapped under an anvil. I’ll use all my skills to save them. I’m still clumsy, but also stronger than I look.
3. Do the Turkish get-up. This is an exercise where you get up from the ground without using your hands. My son in law, Bob, can do it with his tall, nine year old daughter clinging to one arm. When I told Tracy about it, she said, “Oh, you’ll do that, too.”
No, I won’t. I’m not that ambitious. I just pray for the day I can get up from the floor hands free.

Tracy is starting a class for beginners, in January. In spite of my bellyaching, I can honestly say that anyone who joins will have their lives changed for the better. It doesn’t matter if you need a hip replacement or had a hip replacement, have bad knees, shoulders, walk with a limp, or are in your eighties. We already have people that age in class, and you will only be stronger and healthier for the workout. (Going for coffee after and whining about everything is an important part of the routine.) There is no gun to my head as I write, but I’m hoping this earns me ten less squats in my first workout of 2020.  Happy New Year, dear readers. And you too, dear Kettle Bell Fairy. Besides brimming over with dread and excitement, I’m filled with too many chocolates, glasses of wine and servings of turkey. It’ll take some heavy lifting to get this body into shape again. And that’s no joke.