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Hi Jinks

Growing up in a house with six other children required a certain amount of hardiness. After a traditional baptism, another followed that was more like an ongoing episode of Fear Factor. It involved loud squalling, bare knuckle fighting, laughing, and general hysteria. Since six of us were less than two years apart, my mother was always in full survival mode. People talk a lot about the common sense of parents in the sixties, but let’s be honest. Families were larger and a few toys couldn’t possibly compete with wild ideas and the lure of general mayhem. Many parents buckled against the pressure and allowed their offspring to run free. Until I was fifteen and Jennifer was born, all of us lived upstairs. It was a tight space for the eight people there at the time. ‘Go outside!’ was a common refrain at our house.

‘Quit climbing the walls!’ was another. My sisters, brother and I would take turns bracing our hands and feet against the sides of the entryway to our living room and see who could hike their way up to the ceiling in the quickest possible time. This was done with a lot of yelling, jeering and possible sabotage, like pulling someone’s legs out from under them. Susan and I were often the instigators, and she remains to this day the most competitive person in the family. If you showed her something you could do, she’d figure out a way to do it faster. The important part was when she got to win.

When we weren’t climbing the walls, Susan and I were busy making up new commercials. We were certain we could do a better job than the ad companies we heard on the radio, or saw on television. My mother encouraged this kind of behavior because it took less yelling and a lot more planning. Another favorite activity was pretending to be movie stars. I’m fairly certain that Linda enjoyed this too. If you needed a glamorous, tight dress look, you would simply insert both feet in one leg of your pajama bottoms, and use the empty leg for twirling. I was Connie Stevens or Donna Douglas from the Beverly Hillbillies. Someone else in the family was Annette Funicello, though I can’t remember who. Possibly Bill. (Just kidding.) Though we did encourage him to take part in our crazy plans. ‘Encourage,’ meaning a fair amount of arm twisting. Literally twisting of the arms. Remember snakebites? That was torture for beginners at our house.

My father was more cunning than my mother when it came to filling up our time. If she was at work, he’d put on one of his Spike Jones records and we’d dance like crazy until we fell down. Seriously, like teenagers popping ecstasy at a rave, we’d exhaust ourselves boogieing to ‘Cocktails for Two.’ He played music the whole time mom was out, especially some of his crazier jazz records by artists like Stan Kenton. Or, to paraphrase my mother, ‘I’ve died and gone to hell, and this is the soundtrack.’

In the early years, we had a wood stove in the basement. Occasionally, we’d thread hot dogs onto sticks or coat hangers, for roasting. Or we’d play with fire, adding interesting things to the stove and waiting to see what would happen. My mother was usually upstairs washing floors, preparing meals and generally working like an indentured servant. She worried we’d burn ourselves or put our arms through the ringer washer that always seemed to be running. It was the dilemma of every mother: ‘They might be in danger. But they’re so quiet right now.’ Her need for some kind of peace and order gave us plenty of opportunities to try out our crazy ideas. In no particular order, here are a few more:

Sliding on cardboard down the basement stairs.
Making a slide with blankets for the younger kids to slip from the top bunk to the bed on the other side of the room. We only dropped the blanket a few times.
Sneaking food from the kitchen. I liked to pretend I was a hungry orphan.
Lighting the candles hidden in a cross on the wall that were meant for special religious occasions. I spent the rest of the week worrying I was going to burn in hell for being sacrilegious.
Playing mass and taking turns squishing bread and shoving it into each other’s mouths. We mumbled fake Latin words and had the parishioners kneel for a really long time. (My children did the same thing, but with different hymns and more Holy Spirit carryings on.)
Flipping through the gigantic family bible that was filled with horrifying images of the torture of saints. We couldn’t get enough of it.

There were times when we played regular games, too, like Monopoly and War, (the card game, though we were always up for the other kind, too.) Clue fascinated all of us because we really wanted to live in a glamorous mansion with murderous people. Chinese Checkers promised a good hour’s worth of arguing, then there was Sorry, and the hipper kinds of games, like Password, also a television show.  We truly loved Password.

The only reason my parents lived as long as they did was because we all loved to read, or have someone read to us. I’m sure mom and dad tiptoed through the house on such days, usually a Saturday when we’d all been to the library. There was also the lure of the great outdoors, though that often involved a command rather than a wish.

I like to think that our wild youth directed our futures. Linda (always seeking refuge) became a librarian, researcher and major source of info and help to breastfeeding moms everywhere. I was an entrepreneur (I can make it better!) and a writer. Susan left home to seek her fortune as a performer and traveled across Canada singing backup for Graham Shaw and his Juno award winning album. (Okay! You win!) Bill became a carpenter, probably for reasons of self defense. (saw, hammer, nails) Cindy’s been a preacher and a fantastic saleswoman, which may be one and the same job. Joni has had too many careers to name, is the best painter and can restore order to any home. (She was the kind of kid who put tape across the bedroom floor so your mess couldn’t wander onto her side.) And Jen grew up singing, simply as a way of being heard above all the noise, and carried it further with a couple of albums and a personality large enough to subdue nations.

Thirty-five years after my mother had her first baby, Jennifer left home and gave my parents the gift of an empty nest. They couldn’t get over the quiet. Then, there were grandchildren. But that’s a story for another day.  For those of you who want to turn your pajamas into a sexy outfit, it’s the dress below, worn by the ever stylish Audrey Hepburn. And for those who need an excuse to cut loose, please enjoy some Spike Jones. Listen past the 30 seconds of slow music, then hang on for the ride.

Image result for Audrey Hepburn in floor length black dress, tight at the ankles

 

The Turkey

Before I had my first child, I’d never cooked a turkey. I didn’t feel grown up enough for the task. To me, that mysterious arrangement of stuffing and those magnificent sides of creamy mashed potatoes and turnip apple casserole could only be produced by a mother. Many years later, I’m on the other side of countless Christmas, Easter and ‘just because’ dinners. For those who’ve not done it, it’s easy, yet time consuming.

I baked a lot this year, so decided to take a short cut when it came to Christmas dinner. Instead of making my own stuffing from scratch, I bought a frozen, stuffed turkey that I could remove from the freezer, unwrap, place in the roaster and cook. Three hours went by, then four, and still no delicious smell wafted from the oven. I kept checking until at last the turkey started to brown. Soon I put the lid on the roaster and cranked up the heat. Four hours later, the leg seemed wiggly enough to pronounce the thing done.

My family mostly stayed in the living room, which is how I like it. No problem, I thought, as I unloaded the huge bird onto a tray and proceeded to make the gravy. The other food went back into the oven to keep warm. It was when I started carving the bird that I realized I had a problem. At first, the meat just seemed moist and lovely. Un-turkey-like, one might say. But gradually, I realized that the darn thing wasn’t fully cooked. And it was past dinner time. After thirty seconds of cartoon-like panic, I started placing the carved meat in glass bowls for microwaving.

I must digress. When we got our new appliances, the microwave was too large for its usual spot. So we put it on a counter with no wall behind it. To operate it one must cradle it firmly, like an uncooperative lover, while attempting to press the door opener, also difficult. The counter was covered in glass bowls filled with meat and dressing. I was working up a sweat trying to beat the microwave into submission and save my family from a gastronomic nightmare.

The revelation came to me while I wrestled with my problem. Three days of -30 weather with the turkey parked on a garage shelf had caused my problem. It was a very large bird. And there was no room at the inn. I mean the freezer. It probably took four hours in the oven just to thaw out.

But at last all was ready, and I’m happy to say that no one got sick. So if you ever consider keeping your turkey in the garage, check the forecast. If you live in Manitoba, you may have a problem. On the other hand, half the turkey was left on the bone, and it made the loveliest broth.

Once Upon A Time, in Flin Flon

When I was at Zumba one night, we were doing this Greek dance that involved lots of finger snapping. The bottom half of me performed just fine, but the top half had to fake it because I’m snap impaired. Always have been. And it made me wonder. Like in fairy tales, was there a good and bad fairy at my christening? If so, it’s obvious which one held the most power. I picture the good fairy standing over me with her wand, ignoring my bewildered parents who begin praying that the priest will show up any minute.

Tapping me lightly on the brow, she says,”I grant Judith average good looks.”

Bad fairy speaks. Her tap is a little harder. “But her teeth will never line up properly. And she’ll be really short and need glasses. And…” At this point, the good fairy steps up. Her voice is high and light.

“Judith will have the ability to make people laugh.”

Bad fairy:

“She will have a lifelong affinity for strange accidents: She’ll fall off the stage at her ballet concert, forget to wear underwear on a windy day in Ashern, embarrass her first boyfriend with her appalling lack of info on human anatomy which she will voice loudly while surrounded by teenagers in a local movie theatre. And so on.” (The bad fairies voice sounds like she’s smoked for five hundred years and eaten way too much dairy.)

Good fairy:

“She will have enough brains to get out of high school and fake her way through university.”

Bad fairy:

“But she will have blonde moments, many of them, even though she hasn’t truly been blonde since her 12th birthday.”

Good fairy: (forgetting to add another blessing.) “Blonde moments? Why, I myself am a gorgeous blonde. What moments are we talking about?”

Bad fairy: ‘Don’t get me started.”

And the bickering continued with nary a mention of further gifts. There was to be no athletic ability or gracefulness. Or even the ability to keep my mouth shut from time to time. It’s not that I talk too much, (insert husband’s opinion here) but that I speak thoughtlessly about pretty much any topic. I get an idea in my head and it catapults out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to rally the troops and lock the gate. One might say the same about these blog posts.

The whole idea of fairies at my christening actually makes me feel better about things. So don’t try and tell me that my forgetfulness comes from my dad, or my inability to sit still is a gift from my mother. Nope. Bad fairy. Good fairy. I’m still waiting for the middle aged fairy to make an appearance because she has a lot to answer for. But that’s a topic for another day.

T’is the Season

This walk down memory lane is a blog from a couple years ago. (Sadly, I still haven’t repainted the red door.)

Something strange comes over me in the month before Christmas. A restlessness. An inability to view my surroundings with anything less than creeping dissatisfaction. The benefit of this emotion is that I get things done. Tree up. House cleaned and decorated. But there’s a less beneficial side effect. I call it the ‘Can’t leave well enough alone,’ syndrome. For example.

When my sister Cindy lived in Flin Flon, she was unhappy with her living room carpet. It was old. She longed for a clean, bare floor. One afternoon, she pulled up a corner and, lo, there was hardwood. Within minutes, (somehow, we drew my mother and sister Susan into this madness) we were ripping the carpet away from its underlay. We had it neatly rolled and were carrying it out of the house under our arms when my brother in law came home from a long, long day at work. He looked at us with such tired eyes. I felt like a thief from the Christmas movie, Home Alone. Deserving of a slippery banana peel or brick to the head.

Other years, I’ve satisfied myself with sewing a Christmas table cloth two hours before dinner was ready to be served. Or waiting to paint our rumpus room until Christmas Eve. Though we started at eleven in the morning, I can still remember my sister Linda saying, ‘Really? But I’ve never painted.’ ‘Here’s your chance,’ I answered, shoving a brush into her hand. By four o’clock, everything was lovely. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.

I’ve done other harebrained things, but this year’s been the worst. Yesterday, I got the brilliant idea that I should paint the inside of my entrance door red. I’ve always wanted a red door, and why not have it done in time for Christmas? Clarence was in Winnipeg, so there was no one to talk me out of it. Fifteen minutes later, I was at Canadian Tire buying a small can of paint, a little tray and a roller. I had washed the door before leaving home.

Filled with delight, I quickly assembled a drop cloth and small ladder. When I opened the can, the smell hit me right away. I had purchased Tremclad, since this was a metal door. It’s an oil based paint, which, in my enthusiasm, hadn’t occurred to me. Within minutes of applying it, I felt dizzy. Fifteen minutes later I had a headache the size of Montana. By the time I finished and was making lunch, I was staggering around the kitchen like I’d just drunk a forty of tequila. Volatile organic compounds. It’s tequila with a side of brain damage.

I immediately checked with our family paint advisor, sister Joni. After berating me in an appropriate fashion, she advised letting it dry, then priming it over with latex and repainting with the same. It might help, she said darkly. And, what were you thinking? Well, Joni. Alas. I wasn’t. Enthusiasm for my latest project drove all common sense away. So today, once I’ve passed the twenty-four hour drying minimum, I’m repainting. Even if it didn’t smell so bad, I’d have to, anyway. Because, though I did a good job, it looks terrible. The door actually seems possessed. There is something menacing about it, even without the odor. A malevolence. Like killer children should be waiting for me at the end of a long hallway. Or Jack Nicholson with an axe.

The downside is, I had to redirect my bookclub to my generous friend Kate’s house. The upside is, I no longer want a red door. I’ve often admired them on other people’s houses. But in my tiny foyer, it practically slaps your face as you walk by. So, lesson learned. Sigh. Now to finish gyp rocking the basement ceiling. Just kidding, honey. You’re not coming home until tomorrow, right?

The Truth About Hipster Beards

Once upon the new millennium, a guy looked at a photo of Sigmund Freud and said to himself, my facial hair envy is out of control. I must have that beard. I’ll shag it up, grow it longer, and throw testosterone around like a final sale at Sears. In an alternate scenario, the same man saw some Amish people driving their buggies into town and was taken aback by the manly ruggedness of it all. Overwhelmed by the desire to join a cult, instead he decided to skip the buggy, the plain clothes and pants that button instead of zip, and grow himself some long, shaggy facial hair. Third option: Tom Hanks in the movie, Cast Away. There it is. The winning look. A magical combination of irony and soul baring honesty. Bingo.

These are the only scenarios I can come up with that will explain the strange phenomena of the hipster beard. I had my first sighting of it in 2012 at my niece Heather’s wedding. The fellow was visiting from New Zealand, and my first thought was that he was an actor from the Lord of the Rings movies. His beard had to be at least eighteen inches in length, and fluffy in an eerie and disturbing way. I expected birds to fly out from hidden nests, or a swarm of wasps to descend, the lights to go out and strange maniacal laughter to issue from his lips.This man had a very pretty wife with him. I kept staring at her, wishing I could take her aside. ‘I can help you escape,’ I wanted to say.

I’ve read several explanations for the rise of the hipster beard. One theory is that men want to downplay their attractiveness and up their masculine quotient in a bid to find a mate. Others suggest that if a man dresses too well, the beard is his way of saying, I know. I’m awesome, but in case it’s too much, here’s this beard. You’re welcome.

I like beards. My husband has one, and though I wish it was a little less scruffy, it could never be considered hipster. Combined with his Crocs and oversized wardrobe, his style says, ‘Not homeless, just admiring the look.’ It’s an unironic thing.

Ladies, let me know what you think. Perhaps younger women are on board with hipster beards. Maybe its just me. Perhaps snuggling up to eighteen inches of facial hair is a real turn on. I’d like to know for sure. And men with hipster beards, please weigh in on this. I have a feeling there’s more to it than meets the eye. And no. I’m not talking about the birds.

hipster beard

Murder, She Wrote

A few weeks ago we harvested our generous tomato crop, set the produce inside the house and left town. Upon our return, a problem emerged in a very literal way. As I stepped into the upstairs bathroom, a cloud of fruit flies mistook me for a rotten banana and swarmed like a death cloud. “Fruit flies in the bathroom!” I gasped to my husband.

‘Uh huh,’ he said, not looking up from his magazine.

“Seriously, we’re being overrun. They must have come in with the tomatoes.”

Not drawing a smidgen of interest, I asked myself several questions. Why the bathroom? Why not the dining room, or even the kitchen? I hadn’t left any fruit out, the garbage had been emptied. There was truly only the tomatoes to feast on. Yet the flies clung to the bathroom like those creepy, haunting children in horror movies. Not that I’ve seen them. I’m way too chicken for that.

First, I tried to lure them with a cheap solution: apple cider vinegar. A few flies went for it, but most just danced around my head. Obviously a bigger sacrifice was required. Opening a bottle of red wine, I poured several glassfuls and placed them strategically around the bathroom. Over the next few days, the flies began to drown themselves. The trick was to not reward them with wine streaking the sides of the glass. They had to swoop down so the intoxicating smell could lure them to their deaths.

Every time I do something like this, I find myself thinking, dear God, don’t let reincarnation be true. Because then, I’m a serial killer. I find myself whispering, ‘Grandpa, is that you?’ when I see a fruit fly trying to swim for it. That’s the problem with being a writer. No scenario is too implausible. I have mixed feelings about killing bugs, anyway, except for mosquitoes. When carrying a spider out of the house I’d say to my kids, ‘When they take over the world, they’ll remember their friends.’ (Note to self: a crying four year old does not understand this kind of joking.)

Anyway, back to the mercenary task at hand. We were so overrun, it took a whole bottle of wine to do the job. When there are too many dead floaters, the other fruit flies catch on, so you have to keep refreshing their drink. I tried placing the glasses in certain spots, but kept them away from the toilet for reasons stated in a previous blog; I don’t like interruptions to my mini-vacation and reading time.

It’s important to use a drinking glass instead of a wine bottle, because people have been known to accept the open bottle invitation and take a swig. On the other hand, it’s another way of letting your partner know that fruit flies are a problem.

Risky Business

In our mid-twenties, my husband suggested we quit our teaching jobs to travel through Asia from Turkey to Nepal. The Encounter Overland company would supply the tents, food, converted army truck, and eighteen more people from all over the world. I pictured myself on this exciting new adventure, tanned and fit in my new hiking books and British army wool sweater.

I got the boots, the tan and the sweater, but while lying in a tent somewhere in India with a rampant case of dysentery, I truly began to understand myself. I hate being uncomfortable. It wasn’t the cold, or the rats (which came later in the Himalayas) or the camping. It was the unexpected twists in our journey that kept taking me by surprise. I’m someone who enjoys a well ordered, nine to five kind of life. But every other person on the trip was exactly like Clarence. ‘Bring it on!’ was their attitude, though we all did our fair share of whining. How many times did we push that army truck out of the sand, ditch, field, etc? I truly don’t want to know.

As I lay feverish in the tent, wearing my tenth and last pair of underwear, I realized that I was a fraud. I was there simply because I married a very adventurous person. The kind of guy that rests on the ground under a tree in the Canadian bush, closes his eyes and goes to sleep. Meanwhile, I apply bug spray and sunblock, find a mat and cushion, have a good book to read and plenty of snacks on hand while being on constant alert for bears.
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But here’s what I gained from our Asian journey:

*Seeing the stars in that same field in India, so thick that the black velvet sky could barely peek through.

*Kissing my husband in front of the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

*Rowing on the Ganges river while Hindu people in colourful clothing scattered the ashes of their loved ones.

*Seeing the Bamyan Buddhas before they were blown up by the Taliban, then taking a horse and carriage ride through the valley where Alexander the Great once traveled.

*Watching Clarence perform the chicken dance when trying to procure dinner at various shops. Every now and then we’d get some kind of meat, but first there was plenty of laughter from the shop owners.

* Being banished to the back of the truck when leaving Kabul because of a stomach ailment we called ‘The Egg burps,’ a truly foul type of belching that affected myself, Bill, and a few others. This was before the dysentery and should have clued me in about eating street meat.

*Seeing the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Floating around misty Srinagar Dal Lake in Kashmir on a small boat.

*Hearing someone mention Paul Bergman of Flin Flon, while sitting on the floor of a restaurant in Kathmandu.

*Hiking to the base camp of Mount Everest and staying in the simple huts of the Nepalese people. My best tip? Never sleep in the kitchen, because like I said before, rats. Although I’ve heard they have hotels there now, which kind of breaks my heart.

*Watching the sun set on the Gulf of Thailand like a giant orange ball after recovering from sun stroke that was so bad, I couldn’t walk. All I can say is, don’t fall asleep on the beach in the middle of the afternoon.

*Hiking the golden triangle of Thailand, Laos and Burma and seeing a sign that said, ‘Please watch out for the murder maybe.’

*Experiencing Asia at a time when it was still relatively safe to do so. Following on our heels was the Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, conflict in Kashmir, and political instability everywhere else.

*A respect for people like Clarence, whose ongoing curiosity about the world and its citizens keeps them traveling to distant shores and making friends around the world. I pretended to be one for eight months and experienced an awesome adventure I will never forget.

*Meeting strangers who became dear friends. Going through crazy, sometimes dangerous circumstances, and still laughing about it when we’re together. I salute you, my intrepid adventurers. I know you’re having a wonderful time at the reunion in Brighton, England. For some reason, I picture you all in 1920’s bathing suits, cavorting, drinking wine and probably doing the Charleston. May God bless you all. And please live through the reunion so you can tell me all about it.