Dear Lois (A Community Choir Lament)

I have failed you. Today at choir, I tried to do exactly what you do every Saturday. Sing enthusiastically, learn the part, and then record it for altos who like to practice during the week. I didn’t get the job done.

In my defense, which is a poor one, I have a bad cold and I’m not handling it well. I haven’t been sick since the fall of 2017 and frankly, I’m as whiny as a man with a cold. Yet staying home and watching TV is boring, so today, I decided to show up for choir practice. I had promised to do this for you, after all. And now, in my highest  operatic alto voice, here is my litany of THINGS THAT WENT WRONG.

First, a hissy shout out to the composers of the Mamma Mia music book (Don’t worry…it’s not Abba’s fault) who charge a fortune for their score and then leave parts out. That’s right, non musical people. A professional score, missing whole bars and measures of music, is what we’re dealing with here. The musical debuted in 1999, for heaven’s sake. Isn’t twenty years time enough to fix all the mistakes? Then there’s the barely legible font, obviously created by a joker with great eyesight.

I know my fellow choir members don’t like it when I use the word ‘dunderhead.’ But for those who talk when we’re supposed to be singing, or repeatedly find themselves singing the wrong song, it works. Today, I fit the description so well, I should inscribe it on a hat. A warm one, because I live in the north.

Because of the cold, my head is stuffed with cotton and my lungs are making strange wheezing sounds, like a badly tuned organ. My choir binder is neat and organized, because I thought it was complete. But we got handed a bunch of new music for the bowing part at the end (seriously, the bows take that long? It’s like 100 pages.) The altos were practicing in another room, under the tutelage of Courtney, our local librarian. Instead of beating us about the head with her book, she kept apologizing, as if the person who messed up the score for the musical wasn’t to blame for our current struggles.

Fuzzy headed, couldn’t find the right page, and it was way too warm inside the school. I was really feeling the lyrics to that song, ‘It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes.’ (not part of Mamma Mia, sadly.) I’d walked to choir, and had layered my Lulu Lemon tights beneath my jeans. Courtney, who’d taken us page by page through the music, says, “Are We Ready?” At this point, I’m trying to undress, crouching with one foot out of my jeans and one in, and hopping around like an uncoordinated frog. “Wait,” I called out. “I haven’t got my pants off yet.” I swear the whole alto section gave a massive sigh in complete unison which sounded lovely and would have been perfect if it was part of the score.

I kept dropping my pencil, losing my highlighter, needing a Kleenex, trying not to cough, ( I think I left a lung on the floor somewhere) and trying to record with the new app I downloaded, like you asked me to, Lois. Yes, I have a cell phone. I have apps. But I couldn’t figure out how to re-record, or even start afresh, and then I dropped more things and I guess I should apologize to Beth and Susan who sat beside me. I should probably move through life wearing a sign that says, ‘Sorry for being so annoying all the time.’ I could colour coordinate it with my dunderhead hat.

Anyway. I did not record the parts, Lois, and for that, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

ps. Don’t worry about the missing bars from Mamma Mia. I’m sure they’ll show up by the time you get home.

Happy Birthday, Weirdo

I have finally resigned myself, after many years, to a certain aspect of my character. I come from a time when name calling was taken for granted, and can finally accept the fact that I’m a weirdo.  I was thinking about this today because it’s my birthday. I’m not going to put any numbers down since I write young adult fiction and don’t want to lose my street cred as a really hip person. Too late, you say? No one says hip anymore? Oh, well.

Four days ago I was flying to San Diego with my daughter Michelle when I had the Weirdo revelation. I was about to board the plane when the steward asked if I was okay sitting in an exit row. I barely stopped myself from answering with this bare faced lie: ‘I’m a paramedic and can handle any situation.’ Why would I do this? Because I wanted to make myself sound better than I am. I’m short, too talkative and can come off as scatterbrained. While it’s true that I am occasionally bewildered by life, in an emergency I’m extremely cool headed. But no one who looks at me ever seems to believe this.

Michelle and I were among the first people to board. Since I knew we weren’t taking off for a while, and I hate sitting, I decided to just stand in front of my seat. I begged the pardon of the woman on my left, but tapped the young man to my right on the shoulder. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I immediately said. ‘I touched you without asking. But it’s okay. I’m a mother.’ He gave me a look that was impossible to read. We never said a word to each other after that, but it’s when I realized that the aforementioned label fit. It’s true that I love talking to strangers, and also true that it bugs my kids. They feel its unsafe, while I feel like it’s my job to connect with all kindred spirits all around me.

I guess I’ve always been a bit weird. I was described this way by others as a kid, but almost everyone had some kind of unpleasant handle back then, and mine wasn’t such a bad one. The more I think about it, the more I realize how true it is. I talk to myself a lot, and when my husband was alive, he’d pop his head in the room and I’d have to give him a look. ‘Oh,’ he’d say when he realized what I was doing. ‘Carry on.’

When something exciting happens on TV, I will address the actors. When I’m writing and one of my characters takes me by surprise, I’ll actually shout aloud. ‘You weren’t supposed to kiss her yet!’ Or, ‘You killed him! I can’t believe it!’ (As if I’m some stranger reading the words instead of the actual author.) As I walk around my home, I will have little arguments with myself. ‘Should I go for a walk?’ (I ask this out loud.) ‘Should I vacuum?’ This is why people have pets…so they can pretend there is someone actually listening to them. I don’t care how it looks, either. Maybe its the writer in me, but I have a vast interior life that is quite entertaining to me, and I don’t mind addressing that life out loud.

I also talk at a pretty good volume to my dead husband, which is okay since I’ve been told almost everyone does it. I just hope he can hear me. Lately, I’ve been telling him how right he was about practically everything. It’s sad that someone has to die to win the argument, but its true. You won, honey. I hope you know it and get a fist bump from someone up there with you.

Anyway, the older I get, the more comfortable I am just being myself. I don’t care what strangers think of me (obviously) and my friends and family formed their opinions years ago, and likely won’t be changing them. If this is the title I carry with me until the day I die, I’m okay with it. So happy birthday, weirdo. It’s going to be a great one. (Self pep talk–also out loud!)

The Handmaid’s Gymnasium

handmaid's tale   As I left my weight class this morning, I realized that Charles Atlas was right. Nobody wants to have sand kicked in their face at the beach. There’s something about feeling stronger that’s so empowering, like maybe I can wade into a fight and help someone weaker than me. Which, unless they’re a child, is a stretch.

While I’m working out, I’m like all the other gym class submissives. Our bondage mistress, Aunt Tracy, carefully disguises her leathers and whip with gym clothes and a water bottle, but we’re not fooled. And yet, when I finish my morning workout, I swagger out of the gym feeling extremely proud. Unless its leg day. Then I’m humbled and hobbled, and feel a bit more like…a handmaiden. The Margaret Atwood kind.

We do this routine called ‘Moby’ where the name Sally gets thrown around a lot. Not quite sure of the spelling, but it really should have Dick after it, because that’s the kind of move it is. There’s not many lyrics, its mostly a dark rhythm that doesn’t sound too horrific, unless you’ve spent time with Sally in the past. She’s the one in the song ordering us to move up and down in squats and lunges, or while messing around with kettle bells heavy enough to take our heads off. At least four times in the song, we hold our positions, because those segments are thrown in for extra torture. We hold. We hold. And we hold. I’ve heard some cursing, (okay, it’s me) and more than a few prayers. ‘Oh God, let it be over, my thighs are about to explode.’

I find myself praying for an open wound or some heart palpitations, so I can leave. What is this feeling? Oh, right. I’m a gym handmaiden. Nothing sexual, of course, unless you count almost impaling myself on the end of my dumbbell. Aunt Tracy is not meanspirited. She is like Wonder woman, and has a vision for us all that some (me) are having trouble grasping. Really? I ask. This is possible? And worse, am I growing used to the pain? Am I liking it?

I accidentally attended a class on New Year’s Eve where the whole hour was just that damned Sally and her up and down Moby Dick moves. ‘This is helping me,’ I reminded myself grimly as I clung to my ring, or my kettle bell, trying to remember everything the commander…I mean, Tracy…had said. Tighten stomach, tuck in butt, don’t jut your neck, shoulders down. ‘Yes, mistress,’ we reply as she strolls past, whip water bottle in hand. She’s always smiling, calling out pleasant comments like, ‘Are we having fun yet?’ Well, of course we’re not.

But having said that, by the time I’d finished my 8th class, I’d gone down a whole pants size, and when not hobbling around after a leg workout, I feel kind of amazing. I do believe my robe is looser, and the white hat can’t hide my cheerfulness once I’ve managed to escape  leave class. Anyway, all is well with the occasionally foulmouthed sisterhood of the loosening pants. And while you won’t find me entering any weight lifting contests, snow shoveling is a lot easier now. In northern Canada, that’s a plus. So, in case you’re wondering, will I go back to having my ass handed to me in weight class? You bet.  Besides, I paid upfront, and I kind of like it. Oh, mistress Tracy. You win again.

Peace on Earth – The Dance Off

I have a new idea for the world. I believe that ninety-five percent of us want peace on earth, and though Donald Trump will not like what I’m about to say, I’m pretty sure Justin Trudeau will be on board. (Please do not message me with your opinion about our Prime Minster. Not the point, here.)

A war mongering five percent long to win battles and turn problems into wars. Does religion create strife? Maybe, but perhaps those who fight over it would use any excuse to exert their power.  What if, instead of using armies and tanks and bombs, every country, indeed, every child, had the opportunity to learn some new debating skills. I’m talking about art, people. Singing, dancing, painting, poetry. People facing off in epic battles shown live around the planet. To children heading to school, parents would lovingly say, ‘Study hard. You might be Prime Minster one day and you’ll need those recorder lessons.’

I would love to see Kim Jong-un learn a Korean ballet dance in hopes of winning the favor of the world. A panel of artistic judges would decide the merit of his case based on his performance. We’d probably excuse the Russian judge from partaking because of past Olympic problems. Other than that, everyone would weigh in. It would be reality TV at its best. All of us on the edge of our seats wondering if North Korea’s leader would have to step down. It wouldn’t necessarily be about style as much as heart. Just how much does he care? Is he fit enough to continue his dictatorship? If not, the panel of judges would proceed with a country wide vote. Hopefully they’d pick someone with acting chops, or epic slam poetry skills. Now that’s a leader worth voting for.

School yard fights would be more embarrassing but would result in less visits to the principal’s office. Two junior high boys standing in the playground battling it out to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ will be too mortified to care who won. In fact, they may decide to shake hands and forego the singing all together.

And Donald Trump…what talent would he employ? With blustering over confidence, he’d turn some past tweets into a musical mashup, using Stompin’ Tom Connor’s ‘The Good Ol’ Hockey Game.’

‘Our southern border’s insecure but I’m the guy for them,
Negative polls are all fake news, a witch hunt, CNN!
I won the popular vote if you deduct illegal ones
And my IQ’s the highest, and let’s not blame the guns.’

Oh, the good old hockey game…well. You get the point. This would be a tough one for the judges. Not many people around the world actually like Donald Trump, but he’d have to be evaluated fairly on his artistic performance. I just want one of the judges to shake his head and say, ‘Sad!’

Performance art would be allowed, but not the Hitler kind with all that yelling and fist raising. Angry diatribes in front of the judges would need to involve Opera. I can’t picture it any other way.  For smaller disputes, break dancing could be considered, along with slam poetry. Put some heart into it and you may win. Perhaps you’d get to be leader for a year. Then the people would reevaluate, and you’d be back to the drawing board, wondering what skill you could bring to the next competition.

It’s time for world leaders and anyone with an axe to grind to channel their inner artist. Tired of our immigration policy? Paint about it! Show us your passion. We need a break from all the haters out there, and I could use something new for my walls. Of course, if you’re in Flin Flon, we’d hang your art in the Orange Toad coffee shop first.

I say we put my idea to a vote. Justin? What do you think? Are you and Andrew Scheer ready to lip sync to Celine Dion? And Premier Pallister, if you insist on taking away our maternity ward, then I really want to see you dance. (You might protest that its not your decision. Well, it feels like it is.) Pallister seems to be a Scottish name, so perhaps you could do a little number involving kilts and crossed swords. It’s only fair. In 2019 we’ll reconsider the whole thing again. I have a feeling that Flin Flon will show up with a really big musical number and you’ll have no choice but to concede, thereby gifting us with a brand new birthing center. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and you’d better start practicing now.

I Can’t Help Myself

This blog post will come as no surprise to my family, and certainly not to my children. It turns out that I’m an impulsive person, and have the tiniest bit of OCD. Unfortunately, its not the kind that ensures a clean house or a job well done. It’s the type that fixates on something until it swirls around in my head and drives me crazy. On the plus side, I may have been granted a small glimpse into the world of serial killers.

Except I don’t kill people. I over empathize. I used to think this was a good thing, but apparently, its not. If I’m walking down the street and I see someone who looks really glum, I send a little prayer their way. But I want to do more than that. I long to hustle over to this complete stranger and ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ I also feel bad if babies are crying in their strollers and moms and dads are too busy with their phones to notice. (This is hardly anyone, so these people stand out.) ‘I’ll hold your baby for you,’ is what I want to say. What I have actually said. Only a few times, but the response has never been good.

Here’s a better example. During our choir production, many of us had chairs on the stage for those times when our guest soloist would take over, or when other members would step forward and burst into song. (For those not from here, it was a lovely concert.) Instead of fully immersing myself in the moment, all I could think about was the people whose risers were too narrow for chairs. They looked so uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot while the rest of us sat like lumps. One of the standing women is in her eighties, and though she’s very fit for her age, I’m sure she would have liked a rest. I suggested they sit on the risers, which they did for the first half, and then they must have made a group decision because they all stood for the second half. It was like they were naughty school children undergoing punishment. Or, as one audience member said to me later, like they were going to perform their own piece but never got around to it.

I really dislike this about myself. Why can’t I mind my own business? I know that most of us are haunted by the terrible things going on in the world. But when I see toddlers with their scarves, hats and coats still on during an hour long indoor shopping trip, and the parent’s coats are off, I really, really want to say something. Maybe its the ex-teacher in me. The whole crowd control, let’s coordinate so everyone’s comfortable but mostly so I feel okay, thing.

I really dislike bossy people. Nothing gets my back up like being told what to do, unless that person is in charge of me, like Tracy at the gym, or Crystal at choir, or the minister at church. When he says ‘please stand,’ I don’t think, ‘No thank you, I’d rather not.’ I stand with everyone else. It’s those times when someone like me tries to tell me what to do. ‘You’re not the boss of me,’ I think to myself. So why do I have to be the boss of other peoples feelings and situations? I don’t picture myself walking a mile in someone’s shoes. I’d rather take their shoes away and give them a pair of comfy slippers. Whether they want that or not, of course.

It’s time to end my neurotic behavior. From now on, I’m going to ignore everyone else and just go about my business. If you’re on fire, I’ll probably help you. I’ll still pray for people, because that is in my DNA. But I’m going to loosen up a little, let the world slide by and do its own thing. I don’t have to get involved in every single thing happening. Right? Unless you need help. Or look sad, or even bothered by someone. Me? It’s me bothering you? Oh. I feel so bad about that. Let me help you.

The Weight

About a month ago, I started attending a weight class. I’m well aware that as I age, things can start to break down. Unfortunately, the warranty on my body parts is long expired. I checked in with the God department and got the standard answer, the kind you never read online when it says, do you accept this policy, and you always says yes, otherwise you can’t use the site. Two knees per person is apparently the standard. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were different?

I also go to Zumba, and out for walks, but apparently, I haven’t been doing anything for my core. When Tracy told us during today’s session that all the work with kettle bells and rings would really help, I felt some self doubt. “I think I left my core at the Haufbrau House in Germany, back in the seventies,” I said. I don’t think she believed me. “No, it’s in there,” Tracy said with her usual cheerful smile. She’s possibly the most chipper task master I’ve ever met. “Okay, one hundred squats and then you’re done.”

But it’s not always true. Just when you think the class is over, she’ll pull a little something out of…well. Not her hat. “Hang on to the rings and let’s work our glutes!” She sets a timer and everything. The thing we all dread is the personal inspection. Our motto is to look busy all the time, because if she stops to check, her suggestions about posture correction could take a while. “But I was already finished,” whimpered someone nameless. (Okay, it was Penny Grove.) We all gave her sympathetic looks while being willing to throw her under the bus if it meant diverting Tracy’s attention from ourselves.

It’s like going to a spa at the Gulag. Or being stuck in a Gary Larson cartoon about doing leg lifts in hell. ‘One million and one! One million and two!’ I get the feeling I’ve been here before, and though I’ve never believed in previous lives, I get strange flashbacks while I’m busy groaning, sweating and lifting.

a. I was once a slave on a galley ship, rowing for hours through stormy weather and dark nights.

b. An indentured servant in a coal mine working sixteen hour shifts every day.

c. Or, somehow I’ve mistaken myself for someone who actually enjoys physical pain.
When I leave class I have a vague feeling I should be asking for my prison bucks. And then I remind myself that I pay for these classes because they’re good for me.

We all start the morning as confident women, stretching, laughing, happy to begin our day with some vigorous exercise. But a part of me now believes that purgatory, that old Catholic standby, may be real, and Tracy may be in league with you know who to give us all a little well deserved chastisement. When she says into her mike, ‘Is everyone finished their hundred kettle bell lifts (it has a better name but I can never remember it) we all holler, ‘yes!’ Some of us may be lying through our gritted teeth. But its true. We are finished in the best sense of the world. I told my daughter, who was starting a class with Tracy, don’t be surprised when you leave it all out on the floor. By that, I mean you are literally collapsed on the floor, wishing someone would put your coat and boots on for you and carry you to your car.

One of my problems is that I’m very unaware of how all my parts should be working during these exercises. ‘Tuck in your butt,’ Tracy says. ‘Drop your shoulders. Belly button in and lined up (what the???) Don’t turn your feet like that, Judy.’ It’s as if while lifting that 20 lb. kettle bell over my head for the eightieth tine, I’m also required to do math.

Having said all this, I have to admit this one very positive thing. I get a feeling of euphoria after class that can last for hours. It may be a ‘Wow! I can’t believe I survived!’ kind of moment. But still. It’s a real thing. And I find that my stomach flattens itself out for a while. Apparently, if I keep going, it will last longer. And even though it feels like I’m stuck in the Braveheart movie and being torn apart by four horses, this class is actually good for my joints.

With all my heart, I wish it wasn’t. I want it all to be a lie so I can go back to lifting my eight pound weights at home while sitting on my balance ball and watching ‘This is Us.’ Apparently, I was doing everything wrong, because no one was there to tell me to tuck in my tummy and my butt and straighten my head and don’t jut my neck and be careful about my feet because it will save my knees. That’s Tracy’s job, and she’s damn good at it.

So if you see me on Main Street and I seem glum, know that I’m on my way to weight class. If I look like I just won a trip, it means I’m done for the day. And some time soon, I hope I will find my abs, and my core will show up, having drunk enough beer at the Haufbrau House in Germany and willing to take her share of the beating. But not yet. That’s an equation that needs a little more work. In honour of all the women in class, those hard core nuts I deal with, I’ll leave you with this song, suitably called ‘The Weight.’ And yes. Do put the weight on Annie. Or Penny. I’m so okay with that.

 

O Christmas Tree!

Our artificial Christmas tree was 27 years old when we finally sent it to the dump. It had been falling apart for years, and we’d hung onto it for sentimental reasons, and because of the environmental impact of buying a new one. I really wanted a tree from Banff’s Spirit of Christmas store, but couldn’t seem to get there. So I found one online at Lowe’s. I would have bought it locally from Canadian Tire, but they didn’t have the one I wanted. My tree came within a week, and I set it up immediately. It is truly the most beautiful fake tree I’ve ever seen.

It’s got 600 lights, over 2000 branch tips, and is heavily covered in artificial snow. I can’t keep my eyes off it. It looks like the kind of tree you’d see if you were walking through the woods and little enchanted forest creatures started to sing and scamper about. And then you spotted it, shining like an angel in the clearing, and you just knew it was the one, the same way you recognized true love when it came along.

There are only a few problems with my new tree. When I took the pieces out of the box, I was so busy exclaiming over its beauty that it took me some time to realize I was getting a headache from the smell. Things that come from offshore are often sprayed with chemicals, perhaps to keep them free of pests during their long voyage. Even as I was separating the branches and plugging in the lights, I found myself feeling kind of sick and lightheaded. I also felt stupid, like I’d lost about ten IQ points. I’m calling this feeling ‘offshore shipping syndrome.’

Fortunately, I had to leave the house for choir practice. By the time I got back, the smell had abated slightly, though I could still taste chemicals in the back of my throat. My eldest daughter was probably right. I should just have gotten a real tree this year. But I find as I get older that I like to start celebrating earlier. And I like the perfection this tree offers. It helps me imagine Christmas as being stress free and happy, like in all the commercials. But really, there’s no more truth in that than there is in all the cheesy, made for TV, Christmas movies. (Sorry, friends who are hooked on them.) For me, real happiness at Christmas comes from remembering my parents, and attending midnight Mass, and having a stocking hung on the curtains with care. (We didn’t have a fireplace.) And the Christmas story, too, of course.The one about Jesus, and not about the boy who wanted a BB gun. Although I like that one a lot, too.

Another problem? My new tree makes the room look shabby by comparison. It’s too grand, like Queen Victoria, whereas I’m more like Fagan from Oliver Twist. Every morning, I walk into my living room and we have a small quarrel, the tree and I. ‘Stop being so damned majestic,’ I say. She doesn’t answer. She’s kind of stuck up, and her ego is growing by the day. But oh, she’s beautiful. Now, here is a photo of her royal fakeness as taken from the website. (Which does not compare to her sheer physical presence in my living room.)

my tree