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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

Even Riskier Business

A month ago, I decided to make some changes around our house. The living room and front entrance needed painting but I didn’t have a tall enough ladder, so I started with my bedroom. When I sewed the curtains ten years ago, Clarence had scoured our back garage for the right rod. I hate the ones that sag, so he found an incredibly heavy steel bar long enough to reach right across the room. It wasn’t a problem for us to thread the curtains onto the rod and then poke it through the wooden thingamajigs on the wall. (Googled the word. Couldn’t find it.) Taking them off by myself was much trickier.
Yes, I have people I can call for help. But I’m impulsive, and when I decide to do something, nothing can stop me, including my own common sense.
The rod was only about four inches short of the room’s width. I managed to lift it from it’s hardware and then pull the curtain rings off, my shoulders shaking as I held the whole thing up in what felt like a circus routine. Then, moving the ladder over, I removed the other curtain. After, carefully gripping the long steel bar in both hands, I descended the ladder backwards, feeling pretty awesome about the experience so far. This changed when I turned slightly and broke the glass on my favorite bedroom picture. Oh well. I took a deep breath and inched backwards, not noticing the two drinking glasses full of lemon slices and water. I smashed both of them. Made a note to clean up later. Wondered why I had two of them. Then I painted the bedroom.

The next thing I had to deal with were the missing baseboards. My friend Tom helped me pick up the fourteen foot lengths at the hardware store, because he has a truck and is smart about how to load things. My brother had already shown me which saw to use, and said he’d come over and give me a lesson when I was ready. But I have a feeling that my dead father found a way to get in touch with him, because we haven’t talked since. ‘Are you kidding me?’ dad would ask. ‘Clarence is up here having a nervous breakdown!’ “I can’t look,’ I picture my mother saying, covering her eyes with both hands.

And yet I know Clarence would want me to finish the job. I’ve been hiring people for the harder things like re-shingling the garage roof and replacing the siding. Also for plumbing situations. I took our dishwasher apart once and after seeing a thousand pieces lying on the kitchen floor, Clarence decided we should buy a new one. I have since recognized my limitations in certain departments.

Next I took my closet door off and carried it to the basement for painting. It turned out well. I’d really like a new one but then I’d have to get someone to help me because I don’t know how to do the whole door jam thing. I guess I could YouTube it. Anyway, when I was putting it back on its hinges, I accidentally dropped the screwdriver which for some reason I was holding in my hand, and it put a small dent in the hardwood floor. Oh well.
Once I’ve figured out the saw and the air compressor/nail gun thing, I will update you all. But this Riskier Business blog post is not just about carpentry and household repair.
We are learning some very challenging pieces for our choir concert this Christmas. Somehow, Mark and Crystal, our fearless leaders, have mistaken us for other people and not the dunderheads many of us are. Yes, we have talented singers who read music well, but then there’s the rest of us. The musicians who make up the group Pentatonix are probably some of the world’s finest singers. Yet we’re doing one of their Christmas medleys. I find myself looking around at the other altos and thinking, is it just me or are we in an alternate universe where we’re pretending to know what we’re doing? And this other song, Mary Did You Know, where we sing the tenor part, then the alto part, and some of it is so low that only people shaving twice a day can reach the notes.
Then there’s the piece de resistance, the Sugar Plum Fairy. It sounds very light and lilting, as if the Altos are tiptoeing down the staircase on Christmas morning, ready for the best surprise ever. Our voices rise and fall, saying ‘Ta da ta da, Dum, da da da da, but suddenly, taking us and our future audience by surprise, we sing a very high opera note for six beats. Think of the worst part of the Meryl Streep movie, Flora Foster Jenkins, and you’ve got it right. Crystal said people could laugh, so if you’re in the audience, don’t feel bad if you do.
It’s kind of sweet, when you think of the faith our leaders have in us. It’s like they live in a world where if you want something bad enough, it will happen. ‘The Altos were really getting it right today, don’t you think?’ I picture Mark saying to Crystal, who is in the bathroom weeping too hard to hear him.
If you live in Flin Flon and don’t have tickets yet, please get one immediately. This may be the best concert we’ve ever done. We’ve got the lovely Joanna Majoko as our leading lady, and then there’s the rest of us. It’ll be exciting, I promise, and the suspense as to how it will all go is just an added bonus. Perhaps there’ll be some audience participation during that high screeching note. After all, we need all the help we can get. Ta Ta Ta Ta, La La La la, Ahhhhhhhhhh! (No, it’s higher than that.) But good try, and we’ll see you on December 9th.

Let Me Help you With That Kink

One evening a few weeks ago, I realized I couldn’t get to sleep. The day had been a bust, the weather miserable and the roads impassable. I hadn’t been out for a walk or gone to Zumba, and if I don’t expend enough energy, I don’t get a good night’s sleep. Here’s a scientific equation about it. E X 2 = GNS. My math.  I started googling, because that’s what I do when I have a problem. I google and I pray, a combo that usually works very well for me. I wrote something like ‘relaxing videos’ into the search bar and a video on YouTube popped up. It was a twenty minute segment of someone brushing some else’s hair. ‘Well, that’s weird,’ I thought, but I kept watching and before too much time had passed, I fell asleep, phone in hand, slumped over my pillow like I’d popped a couple of sleeping pills. I woke a few hours later, turned off my light and promptly fell back asleep.

The next night I went directly to YouTube and found another hair brushing video. It started out okay, but quickly got irritating. The woman holding the hairbrush started whispering about what she was going to do with it. Suddenly, I felt very uncomfortable. It wasn’t pleasant  whispering, either. It was like that smacking sound some people make when they eat. And then she started running her fingers over the tines of the comb, and then feeling up her hairbrush like she wanted to do something illegal with it. I actually yelled at my phone.

Since my husband died, I have a large supply of tolerance for big picture problems, but the tiny things can send me over the edge. And there is nothing worse than freaking out without someone there to listen. It feels so pointless. Little did I know that it was one of the important parts of a good marriage. That sounding board of practical advice, telling you when you’re acting crazy.

Over the next few weeks, I started refining my searches. I’d type things like, ‘No talking, just hair brushing.’ But it was hard to find the right video when I added,  ‘No stroking of the hairbrush or comb.’ I ended up getting videos of people stroking each other with feathers. Or doing fake reiki, or waving their hands wildly over people’s heads with their exaggeratedly long fingernails, which were creepy in a ‘how can they possibly be clean,’ way. Then, I had an uncomfortable revelation.

I was acting like Walter White from the TV show, Breaking Bad; a teacher with cancer who paid his massive medical bills by making and selling meth. Next thing you know, he’s turned pro and feeling no remorse whatsoever. So this is how it happens, I thought. You dip your toe in the water and the next thing you know, you’re a criminal. If I kept this up, would I jump from watching hair brushing videos to kinkier stuff?  What if feathers didn’t do it for me? And now I’m afraid to search for anything else, because God only knows what’s out there.

Perhaps its time to wean myself from this kind of sleep aid. It’s time to bring back the Rosary, the essential oils and the common sense idea of turning off electronics a few hours before bed. I’m just too staid for anything more than that. So you keep brushing other people’s hair, YouTube ladies. It is indeed relaxing, and since over 500,000 people have watched, I’m not the only one who thinks so. But, please. Stop hissing out your game plan and feeling up your hair dressing supplies. You’re making all of us feel very uncomfortable. We had a good thing going, but it’s over. And now I’ll just do one last search and call it a night…

Getting in a Tiff

I’ve never been interested in celebrities. The grand exception to that rule is writers. But most of the time, I don’t even know what they look like. When I meet them in person, though, I’m a slobbery mess. For example, here’s me, my daughter Hilary, and author Will Ferguson, at the writer’s conference in Calgary last year.


I’m not comfortable with movie and TV celebrities. I like movies. I like TV, but I’ve never felt the need to investigate a star’s private life, or meet them in person. Will Ferguson, in the meantime, refuses to drop his ‘cease and desist’ case against me and, ‘must stay 100 feet away from at all times,’ court order. Really, Will. I’ve read all your books. Doesn’t that make us friends?
So, when I was in Toronto for the film festival, there were a few times when we accidentally on purpose sat in a restaurant beside the venue where Vanity Fair was conducting interviews. We were right beside the window, and so help me God, I surprised myself. Jesse Eisenberg walked past about a foot away. I left my seat and rushed onto the sidewalk, almost running into him. We stared at each other for a long moment, me stunned, him looking around for his bodyguard, and then I turned around and went back to my seat. When we left the restaurant, a bunch of celebrities came outside, one after the other. My friend Lorna was able to get a beautiful selfie with Melissa McCarthy, but here is a reaction from Viola Davis. ‘Must get away from kooky lady,’ is my interpretation of her body language.
This also applies to Julianne Moore,
Who did this with another person immediately after spotting me.
Was it my look of desperation? I’m not certain. But the celebrities walking away got a lot faster once I was spotted. Were they calling to warn each other? I’m not even interested in you! is what I want to tell them, but there’s something compelling about seeing a famous person on the street that you’ve just seen in a movie the night before.
My friends, Lynn, Lorna and I had to get used to it, because there were a lot of stars in Toronto during Tiff.
We attended a rally where one of the speakers was Geena Davis. Since we arrived early, we stood right in front of the fenced area below the stage, directly behind the press. As more and more people arrived, the bars around the reporters kept getting pushed in until it looked like a very small pen for large, well dressed and uncomfortable looking animals. Here we are,
IMG_1171 (1)
And here’s Geena.
A good time was had by all three of us, and the thousands of others also in attendance. And I learned something about myself as well. It turns out, I’m just as star struck as the next person. And being an actor is not for the faint of heart. Especially when I’m in town.

That Time I Tried Botox

In 2012, I had the honour of joining my community choir and others from around the world to perform Handel’s Messiah at Lincoln Center in New York. We’d practiced until I was singing in my sleep. We were nervous, exhilarated, and at our wits end trying to figure out what the weather would be like. What kind of coats to bring? How many pairs of shoes and boots?

And then there were the other questions haunting me in the middle of the night. Just how good were these other choirs? Would I get to stand beside my friends, or would I be stuck beside someone who was so fantastic, she’d be glaring at me throughout the performance. I’m sure most of us felt anxious, but it was really starting to haunt me. What could I do to make myself feel better?

First, I bought a sparkly black jacket and some swishy chiffon harem pants, along with stylish flats so my feet wouldn’t get sore. Later, I came to regret those decisions. I never wore the flats again, the jacket was itchy, and the harem pants were…well. Harem pants. Like what Barbara Eden would wear if she was eighty. But the piece de resistance was the decision I made to get Botox. I’m not sure why I decided to go for it. I guess I thought the occasion called for a big move.

Before catching the plane, I stopped in at an office I’d looked up online. It didn’t take long for them to stick a few needles in my face, and I was on my way. I felt no different at all, and wondered what the fuss was about. The truth of the matter came about four days later, when suddenly, I felt like I’d been given Novocain and it just wouldn’t wear off. It was upsetting, and for a few days I didn’t say anything to my sisters. But the day before our performance, I came clean.

The first thing I did was burst into tears. ‘Something terrible has happened,’ I sobbed, and we all sat down on the bed. They each grabbed onto some part of me, like we were all going to pray, which happens occasionally.
“What’s wrong,” they asked, sending each other worried glances. I just kept crying and couldn’t get the words out, so they started to guess.

‘Does someone have cancer?’ (Ironically, three family members would face this in a few years, but not at this time.) I shook my head. “Are you having financial problems?” Head shake. “Marriage problems?” More shaking. ‘Are you being sued?’ My only reply was to cry harder. ‘Well, you’re going to have to tell us,” Susan said. I drew a big breath.

“I got Botox and I really hate how it feels.” They exchanged looks and Joni lifted her hand, then put it back in her lap. I think she was about to smack me.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. ‘Botox? We thought you were dying.’
‘Well, I really hate it,’ I said defensively. ‘And I thought you should know.’
‘For God’s sake,’ they muttered, and left the room. No sympathy there. Fortunately, the effects wore off after a couple of months. And it didn’t do a damn thing, anyway.

The next night was our performance, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I celebrated later with four cosmopolitans and some champagne shared during a sing off with the choir from Singapore. On the walk home from the party where I was half carried by my sisters while crooning Christmas Carols, I stopped to beg Janice and Ken Pawlachuk not to tell my mom I’d been drinking. These were not my finer moments, but I can honestly say that  a good time was had by all. And here’s the takeaway lesson. Don’t do anything crazy before an important event. Control your impulses and insecurities. And leave your face alone.