Team Canada: Are We the Good Guys?

At a Chapters Indigo book store, I found a cute lunch bag with a picture of the Canadian flag and the slogan, ‘Still on the team.’ I loved it instantly. I have a friend who thinks patriotism is anti-world or pro-war. Something like that. But while we have much work to do as a nation, I’m very proud to be Canadian. But what does that mean?

Years ago, my sisters, daughters and I would travel to Dallas, Orlando, or Vegas for juvenile products tradeshows. We’d flog the babyTrekker baby carrier and have loads of fun doing it. Overall, people loved knowing that our product was made in Canada, so we made sure to mention it on the box. ‘Made in Canada, eh.’ To many buyers and other vendors, being from Canada meant that we were kind, reliable and honest.

There was a product I liked by an American designer with a small but thriving business. It turned out that her very unique stroller cover had been stolen by a Canadian company called Jolly Jumper. ‘And they’re Canadian!’ she kept saying, as if this was the most important detail. I wasn’t surprised, since they’d ripped me off the year before in the most shameless way. One of their sales people was pregnant and had asked me for one at wholesale cost. Of course I gave it to her. Within six months, their badly made copy of my other carrier, the First Journey, was on the market.

I’d had the same reaction as my American friend. ‘But they’re Canadian!’ Kind of a plaintive cry, an awakening to a few hard truths that some Canadians are as ruthless as, say, He Who Must Not Be Named that Lives to the South. Why do we think of ourselves as ‘good guys’ anyway? Do Canadians never steal, tell lies or act rudely? Are we all like characters in those old Jeannette MacDonald, Nelson Eddie movies; direct, thoughtful and without guile? Unfortunately, no. So where does this idea come from, and why are we all drinking the same Kool-Aid about what it means to be Canadian?

Here’s my theory. Some other countries may dislike our healthcare program and not appreciate our attitudes about guns. This may be true of some Canadians as well. But overall, we have a social contract that we’ve figuratively signed onto, saying, ‘I might hate you but I need you to prosper, so I can, too.’

We don’t have the kind of healthcare I’d like, one that includes dental and pharmaceutical expenses, but what we have is pretty substantial. When you lose your spouse to cancer as I did, you find out pretty quickly how good we have it. And as I recall, not one person said to him, ‘Gee, I really hate that you have free Cancer Care.’ As it turns out, we Canadians are pretty united on several fronts.

We can bicker about how we heat our houses and run our cars. Gas! Windmills! But being Canadian means we all deal with a lot of cold weather, and being warm and fed comes first. Our social contract says that we can argue, but we can’t fall apart. We can’t afford to be a country constantly at war with itself. This sophisticated, intricate Canadian system that we carry together, like movers hauling a piano around, depends on a certain amount of harmony. And for us, the solution to a shooting in Canada isn’t to give every shopper in Toronto a gun, but to try to understand each situation as it arises. It helps that in spite of the many folks I know who hunt, not one considers using a gun as a form of home defense.

As we move uneasily through elections, we’re all aware that in spite of our various concerns like immigration, taxation and social programs, we have to keep it together.  Some think that Andrew Scheer would be an awesome Prime Minister. Others want to weep into their pillows at the very thought. It doesn’t matter. We’re a diverse group, and that’s a very good thing.

We may not like our prime minister, or our next one, but we know this. Nobody wants to end up in a dictatorship. That’s why a lot of our folks emigrated here in the first place. None of us want to live without the rights we take for granted. Most of us want every other Canadian to have them as well. I may not like your politics, or the fact that you don’t recycle or mow your lawn. But I’m willing to live with it. This piano is just too heavy to carry without you.

The Game’s Afoot

All my life I’ve been a terrible card player. Once the games got more challenging than ‘Go Fish’ I lost the ability to win. When I worked at HBM&S as a student, I faced daily humiliation at the game of Durroc. (made up game…who knows the correct spelling?) Is it a math thing, or a confidence problem? I’m not sure. Maybe both.

A few winters ago, my friend Gaye held a dinner party at her house. The wine flowed, the conversation was delightful. Much to my dismay, after dessert the cards came out. And the game of Ramole proceeded to kick my ass. We were betting with quarters and it wasn’t very long before I was deeply in debt to every person there. I’m blaming it on the wine, but really I’m just bad at cards.

Even Monopoly was a challenge. I had a romantic view of the game, so tended to play with my heart instead of being practical. And the money made me anxious so I’d hold onto my cash instead of buying up houses as they came onto the market. When I met my husband and we played with friends, he’d throw money around like a bigshot. We had to watch him like a hawk, because he wasn’t above stuffing extra cash under his side of the board. We never let him be the banker, but he usually won anyway.

A few years ago, some friends invited us to join a bridge club. My friend Nayda plays, and she’d told me some things about the game. My biggest problem, besides the challenge of learning, is the silence rule. Apparently, people don’t speak while playing. I can just see myself holding my cards and longing to ask for advice or talk about books or the latest Netflix show. Or talk about anything, really.

I excel at easy kid’s games, like snakes and ladders, or Clue. I can beat an eight year old at checkers, but after that all bets are off. I have no strategy or game plan, ever. I like to fly by the seat of my pants. And I don’t like to feel like I’m at school, about to fail a math test. Which is how card games occasionally make me feel. But I just read a Walrus article about how we’re all supposed to continually try new things. Especially things that scare us. It’s good for the brain, and an important part of creating new neural pathways.

I’m all about making healthy choices. I want to be the kind of person who meets a challenge head on, so when my daughter and I went to a karaoke session at the Calgary writer’s conference, I got up and sang. It was bad, and I waited until the last moment. I sang Ruby, by Kenny Rogers and people clapped with looks of deep pity on their faces when I was done. But still. I did it. And while I’m not going to jump from a high cliff or an airplane, I guess I’m willing to drink and play card games when the occasion arises. Just don’t make me play bridge.

To All the Books I’ve Loved Before

It started with the Baby Feet nursery book. Copyrighted in 1928, it had stories like the politically incorrect ‘Little Black Sambo,’ and the tale of the Teeny Tiny Woman. My siblings and I never grew tired of them, and even now, are constantly looking for an edition in better shape than the one we still own. (Full disclosure: I drew on the pages and cut them up with scissors when I was four. Or maybe six. I was very young for my age.)

Books can be friends, and not just the characters in the story. It’s the way it feels in your hands. The cover design. It looks back at you and says, yes. We are going to be besties. When at age nine my teacher said no more picture books, I was horrified. My obsession with Dr. Seuss was genuine: Bartholomew Cubbins and the Five Hundred Hats. Oobleck. Yurtle the Turtle, the King’s Stilts. I loved them all. But I took a breath and stepped into the world of Hugh Lofting, who I called Hudge until a teacher corrected me.

The Dr. Doolittle series was my first foray into chapter books. It was so influential, we ended up naming our new red haired puppy, Chee Chee, which means ginger in monkey language. From there I became Pollyanna, Trixie Belden and every adventurous character by Enid Blyton. Then there were the classics like Little Women, Heidi, and Robin Hood, an abridged series that my uncle gave us every year for Christmas.

I could never figure out what really happened to Beth in Little Women. The last sentence in the saddest chapter says: “…a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.” Was she dead or not? I wasn’t a ‘read between the lines’ kind of girl. But eventually I figured it out. She was dead. But with God. So she wasn’t really dead. Or something like that.

As a teenager, Harlequin Romances were my entrée into the world of working women, travel and romance. The protagonists were all virgins. Many had cool jobs like ballerina, opera singer, or first violin in a London orchestra. But they all got married and lived happily ever after, though I was never sure if they got to keep their jobs.The books cost a dollar, and we traded them around like comics.

After the Harlequins came the aptly named bodice rippers. To be honest, it was hard for me to understand how such aggressive seductions could be romantic. The word no really meant, ‘only if you force me.’ And then there was the age difference. If he was thirty-two, she’d be sixteen. I only read a few before I was done. I got halfway through ‘Sweet Savage Love,’ (a lot like the title) and said, nope.

In high school, my favorite novel was Rumer Godden’s ‘An Episode of Sparrows.’ My least favorite was ‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton. I just didn’t get it. We also read ‘Of Human Bondage’, ‘Tess of the Durberville’s and ‘Huck Finn.’ The last was the only book that wasn’t unrelentingly sad. I always had trouble understanding the theme of a book and still do, which is troublesome, given that I’m a writer. On another note, in my first year at university I discovered the Lord of the Rings series and almost failed  midterms by trying to get through the whole thing in five days. Never do that.

I was a more discerning reader by this point. Barbara Taylor Bradford was hugely popular back then. I read a few of her books, then picked one up where the protagonist had twin one year old’s, was the CEO of a large corporation and a master gardener. I had no kids yet, and no green thumb to speak of, but somehow I knew this character was extremely far fetched. Like an early Clive Cussler book where a scuba diver lands on a beach and ravishes a girl who is sunbathing. ‘Thanks,’ she says afterward. ‘I needed that.’ I clapped the book shut and shook my head. These authors are hugely successful and have made millions of dollars, so I’ll doubt they’ll be hurt by my words. They can laugh all the way to the bank while reading this blog.

But here’s the truth about reading. Immersing oneself in a novel makes life better. Empathy, curiosity, hope and persistence are traits we can absorb from characters we love. Like when Dumbledore from Harry Potter says, ‘It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.’ The child in all of us understands that no matter how old we are, we’re on a journey, and we have some input into where we go and how we get there. We learn from our heroes that being brave and forging ahead really does help. Unless you’re reading Thomas Hardy. Then, abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Just kidding. (Sort of)

This is the cover of my childhood book, ‘Little Women.’ Just because.
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E.T. Phone Home

I have PTSD. This sounds self aggrandizing and presumptuous since I’ve never been in a war. But lately, the crazy weather we’ve had has been getting me down. And Friday night, a week ago, was the worst.

I was sleeping soundly when the loudest thump I’ve ever heard woke me from a dead sleep. It was storming, and the lightning was like nothing I’d ever experienced. The sky was lit up and crackling like a scene from the movie, War of the Worlds. I scrambled out of bed and gazed at the window in awe filled dread, certain that the large maple tree behind my bedroom was falling onto the house. Yet when I threw open the curtains, there it was. Still standing.

I turned on a light, but the power died promptly, so I grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand. Rushing to the living room, the strange thumping sound morphed into something more sinister: like a madman breaking through the back door with a big axe. With the rain slamming against our house like a separate malevolent force, I scurried over to the garden doors leading to our deck. And I couldn’t believe my eyes.

My husband, who passed away in March, had built a canvas topped pergola on top of our raised deck, three years before. It was homely on the outside, but the inside was cozy and completely sheltered from the sun. During mild rainstorms, I could sit outside under the canopy. It was this beloved edifice that was making the noise.

To my horror, the whole thing was jumping up and down, like a ten foot high, ten foot wide and fifteen foot long monster having a temper tantrum. Amidst the terrible noise, sheets of lightning lit the sight of tall 4 x 4 beams leaping high enough to drop over the other side of the deck railing, and 2 x 6 roof slats ripping away from the beams to dance above the two glass tables on the deck. In the meantime, one of my eight foot high metal plant holders left its spot and sailed through the air, scratching the house siding an inch below my bathroom window and landing with a crash in the yard seven feet below the deck.

I backed away from the doors as the breaking pergola continued its insane dance, certain that the whole mess would bust into the house at any moment. As I lowered myself onto the sofa in the middle of the living room and listened to the craziness of the storm and the maniacal behavior of our formerly well adjusted pergola, a feeling of betrayal crept over me.

I sat on the sofa with my small flashlight that barely lit up the wall across from me and said aloud to my dead husband, “How could you leave me to face this by myself?” I really meant it. The fact that he couldn’t help it didn’t factor in. In that moment, I felt as if he’d abandoned me on purpose. Every marriage has a contract, and his part was to make me feel like everything would always be okay. And just when I needed him most, he wasn’t there.

“Where are you?” I asked aloud in a whiny voice, feeling about five years old. It was a futile question, because he didn’t answer. But strangely, I began to feel the presence of my parents who had passed away some years before, and a few others, too. I immediately calmed down and began to pray, because that is what I usually do after having my own version of a temper tantrum. I prayed for peace, and for everyone in my community to be okay. While I prayed, the canopy on the deck continued doing the Armageddon Rumba. My heart was still thumping in time to the beat, but somehow I knew I was going to be all right.

I never went back to bed. Around five in the morning, when the storm was over, I started crawling around under the mess, picking up broken plant pots and busted pieces of wood. I cleaned up the yard below where debris had fallen, and a little after eight, went over to my good friend Rick Hall’s place, to ask for help. Within fifteen minutes, he was at my back deck undoing all the screws and dismantling the whole thing. He offered to try and repair it, but I knew I’d never feel safe again under that green canopy.

I’ve learned a few things about myself from this whole experience. First, I’m pretty sure I still have some anger issues over losing Clarence. Second, I’ve turned into a bit of a nut job. However, as Oprah says, when you know better, you do better. Since I’ve already admitted my kookiness to the world, I’m going to go one step further and confess that I really am waiting for my husband to get in touch. A celestial phone call will do nicely. Or some other kind of sign. I’m certain there’ll be something. Friends in similar situations have assured me of it.

For now, I will get on with things. I’ll woman up, I’ll lean on my family and, as I learned on that terrible Friday night and other times since Clarence died, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.

 

Sing!

I attended Broadway night at Johnny’s Social Club  here in Flin Flon, and was reminded just how much I love musicals. In fact, I would like to live in a musical, with every bit of it set to the appropriate song. Yes, it would take awhile to get through the day, but maybe that would help me live in the moment like I’m supposed to. If I was walking down the street and someone asked me (because we’re allowed the occasional spoken word, just for dramatic emphasis) how are you? I’d reply like this:

‘I’m fine, but not really fine. Can you read between the lines?’ (I’d hold the last note, possibly doing a soft shoe dance routine while throwing my arms in the air.)

‘Tell me more!’ the woman would sing. And I’d tunefully unpack all that information right there in the street. We’d both sound lovely in this musical world of mine. Everyone would. A truly great musical is packed with passion, and I think we all spend too much time subduing ourselves and not admitting to the world that we have something to say. Something big. Because even if doesn’t seem that way, it feels that way. And that feeling needs its own song. Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber, or that Hamilton guy could do all the lyrics. I’d bring Richard Rogers back to write the music, although Mark Kolt also really gets to the heart of things, as we Flin Flonners know.

There would be no more suffering in silence. We’d all be singing our hearts out, stopping only to pay the cashier at the Co-op or say good morning to the attendant at the Gas Bar pump. On second thought, we’d sing those parts, too. I recently watched the musical, ‘Bells are Ringing,’ with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin. While one of them crossed the room to sing, the other pretended they couldn’t hear. They sang about each other in a way that would be considered stalker material nowadays, but was sweet and naïve because people didn’t know better then.

In my musical world, no moment would go uncelebrated or un-mourned. And when we returned to our homes in the evening, we’d still sing. But in a more subdued way. Perhaps a lullaby for the kids, or a romantic number for that special someone. In fact, don’t be surprised if the next time I greet you on Main Street, I give a little twirl and turn my salutation into a catchy number. And if I see you ducking around the corner or just plain avoiding my eye, I’ll completely understand. In fact, I’ll be ready for you next time with a tune about annoying people like me. And there won’t be an ounce of irony in the whole song.

If we all lived in a musical, there would be no need for therapy. We’d be like scientologists, shunning psychiatry and feeling like our best selves all the time, but without the whole .13 cents an hour wage thing. (Now that would be an interesting musical.) For now, though, it’s so long, farewell, auf weidersehen goodbye. I hate, to go….well. You get the idea. Until we meet again. (I can’t stop.)

Eulogy for a Love Story

headscarf.JPGMy husband has been the subject of many of my blog posts. I’ve celebrated his kookiness, made fun of his wardrobe choices and planned on writing many more over our years together. But he died on March 28th of this year, and at his funeral, I left the eulogy to our kids. Now its my turn. So here goes.

We shared a home town, but I didn’t meet Clarence properly until university. On my fifth day there, I saw him standing with his friends in the doorway of our residential dining hall. He wore a red plaid shirt, faded jeans and a curly, brown, clown shaped Afro. There was something about his face that I instantly loved. He’d gone to the same high school as me, but I’d never been interested in the slimmer, hockey player version of him. I wanted the guy with the added freshman fifteen. The one ready for anything and definitely different from everyone else.

‘I’m going out with him,’ I told a friend. ‘What if he’s not interested?’ she replied. ‘Too bad,’ I said. ‘It’s going to happen.’ And so the plotting began. He was completely oblivious to the way I arranged to sit next to him when a bunch of us went to the pub. I was relentless in my pursuit, and the only mistake I made was in conversation when I told him he was a little weird. (Which his friends would totally validate.) I meant it as a compliment because I like people with a little something extra in their personality. He thought I thought he was gay. For about two weeks, he avoided me. Then, at a Ukrainian themed party, he asked me to dance. When the song was over, I made my bold move by continuing to hang on to his arm. I was like a stalker and a jailer at the same time. Nowadays he might complain to the administration, but he just shrugged and let me stay. We talked all night, and no, that’s not a euphemism for something else. We were pretty inseparable after that point. We’d been dating for two months before I knew his real name was Clarence, because everyone called him Ace. But I had already fallen in love so it didn’t matter.

I’ve never met anyone less self conscious than my husband. Once, we were waiting for the bus with a bunch of other people when suddenly, he dropped to his knees and started reciting his version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. (He was really great at making stuff up.) I was charmed and mortified–not the last time I’d feel that way. His quirky side was really on show whenever we traveled. Clarence had no problem pretending to speak the language wherever we were, and was not above doing the chicken dance when trying to buy meat for his cooking group. In Switzerland, I came out of the bathroom in the world’s largest restaurant to find him up on the stage yodeling. At a gathering in Flin Flon, we decided to try square dancing with Clarence as the caller. He was very persuasive, and when he hollered, ‘Swing your partner round and round, clap your hands and pull your pants down,’ people followed his instructions. It was a very fun party.

I’m a home body, but Clarence was not. He loved traveling, and talked me into trekking up the Himalayas to Base Camp, then hiking the golden triangle in Thailand, and slogging through the West Coast Trail once we’d settled down in Canada. He loved to go walking and in the early days, I pretended to love it too. And then I did, and it became something we did every day.

We’re an even match when it comes to being chatty. At times, we’d get home from a party and accuse each other of not letting other people talk. But there was one party where we were the only people interested in holding a conversation. We tossed the ball back and forth to each other until we began wondering if we’d accidentally stumbled into a Buddhist retreat. Clarence took our failure to liven things up very personally.

Everything between us didn’t jive completely for the first couple of years. We didn’t lived together before we got married, so there were things we had to figure out. I came from a family of seven children, and an open bathroom door policy (with a closed shower curtain if one was bathing) was considered appropriate. He was not used to anyone interrupting him in the bathroom, and acted like I was trying to steal his virtue.

‘What are you doing!’
‘Brushing my teeth?’ I was truly mystified by his attitude. Who knew that peeing was supposed to be a private affair? Not me. But he grew more relaxed over time, and I got better at respecting his privacy.

Everything got sorted during our third year of marriage when we traveled through Asia with a group of strangers who became very dear to us. Far away from family, our own relationship tightened and we realized what we had in each other. I would highly recommend poor living conditions and a certain amount of danger to ramp up the closeness factor. Only for a short time, of course.

On that trip, we learned to love the same books, because there were no kindles or even book stores in most of the countries we visited. Instead, we’d swap with strangers, happy to have something new to read. I grew to love Dick Francis, who wrote British mysteries about jockeys and horse trainers, and Russian author, Mikhail Sholokov, who wrote about depressing Russian things. Before we left for Asia, reading was something we both enjoyed. But when we were overseas, we began the habit of reading each night before bed. It was one of my favorite things about our married life.

When we moved back to Flin Flon, it wasn’t long before we’d built our first house from plans we’d drawn up ourselves. It turned out well, but I still remember the carpenter saying, ‘Did you really want a window in the closet?’ We did not, so an adjustment was made. I still love that first house because it was ours in every way. We moved in to floors bare of carpet or linoleum and a kitchen holding only a toaster oven, hot plate and fridge dating from the forties. The sink sat on a board floating between two sawhorses. As we got paid, we bought flooring and appliances until the house was fully furnished. Although our kitchen chairs were cast offs from the Flin Flon School Division because we were still very thrifty.

It was an adventure, especially when I was painting the trim on the second story. I was afraid of heights, so Clarence tied a rope to my waist and wrapped the other end around a beam. It wouldn’t have done much if I’d fallen, but psychologically it worked very well. Our fathers helped us with the carpentry. When we were done, we bought them both VCR’s. They were $800.00 each, because they had just been invented. At least in Manitoba. After that, we had kids. But that’s a story for another day.

Excuse Me, I’ve Misplaced my Brain

My cell phone had been giving me grief for a while. Since it’s a few years past its free replacement date, I headed to our local MTS shop to pick up a new one. Because there always seems to be a lineup, I packed the necessities. But to my surprise, I was the only one in there. I walked up to the counter, thrilled with the lack of other customers. ‘It’s past time to replace my phone,’ I said. ‘And I have some changes to make to my account.’

‘Let me see it,” said the employee, a friendly guy I’ve dealt with before. I checked my pockets and the handy cloth bag I was carrying. I dug through my jeans and my secret inside-the-ski-jacket zippered compartment. Nothing.

‘I’ve forgotten it,’ I said, trying to look nonchalant.

‘Well, let’s take a look at your account. Do you have some ID?’

I checked my coat and jean bag once more. ‘I can’t seem to find my wallet. But I brought my kindle.’ I held it up like a trophy as we stared at each other, unsure of who should speak next. ‘I was worried about being bored,’ I said, over explaining as usual. ‘I always bring something to read and I just got a new book from Amazon before I came up here.’

‘Uh huh,’ he said. I get this a lot from sales people. A kind of measured look, like I’m taking a test I’ll never pass no matter how hard I try. I can’t crack the code of people who know how to behave in every situation. Anyway, it took a few days for me to get back there with my phone.

Meanwhile, on the same day, in preparation for doing chores around the house, I plugged in my ear buds, picked a playlist on the phone I’d found in the laundry room and started changing the sheets on my bed. I was busy grooving to the cool sounds of Taka Taka when my ears began vibrating with such intensity, I felt like I was sitting on one of those motel beds from the ’70’s. I stopped moving. Everything was fine. I snapped the sheet in the air and spread it out onto the bed. Suddenly, zap! I looked around. What was going on? I backed away from the bed, but nothing more happened. So I started tucking in the sheet. Zap! Zap!

I ripped the ear buds out, feeling like the unwitting participant in a science experiment. Am I being body snatched? I wondered. Being a writer, I’m open to all kinds of possibilities. This idea, though frightening, was also intriguing. I picked up the next sheet, and as my fingers got a shock, reality set in. I was electrocuting my ears with static.

I’d missed some sleep the night before and I’m always a little zombie-like when that happens. Not brain dead, exactly. Just brain displaced. And my default setting for situational analysis is never very logical. I always prefer the more exotic reason for strange problems. Like aliens. Or rogue government agents planting thoughts into my head. It was actually a little disappointing to realize that plain old static electricity was causing the problem. If you’ve experienced this and you’re inclined to believe in a darker and more interesting theory, perhaps with conspiracy elements, please let me know. I really want to believe that my brain is not the problem.