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.

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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.
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This also applies to Julianne Moore,
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Who did this with another person immediately after spotting me.
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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,
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And here’s Geena.
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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.

The Altos

I come from a family where everyone sings, and every single female is an alto. My only brother is a tenor, but he could easily join us. While not mob members like the Sopranos, we have our own set of skills. Let me give you the rundown.

I hadn’t realized that my oldest sister, Linda, could actually sing until our summer as camp counselors. We had a cabin full of young, homesick kids, and Linda would sit at the edge of their bunks and croon to them. One time, since I knew the song, I joined in. A little girl opened her eyes and glared at me. ‘Not you,’ she said. ‘Just her.’ That was my first inkling that not every Hanson was meant to solo. Even at camp.

I attend community choir because I enjoy singing, can carry a tune (if it isn’t very heavy) and love musicals. That’s it for me. I’m also shy, which might surprise my friends, and prefer being one of a crowd of sixty stuck behind the orchestra pit with the drum thumping nearby. Now that’s a choir experience I can get behind.

As the Shirley Temple of our generation, Susan had chubby cheeks, white blond hair, and a hyperactive desire to entertain people. We were the same size when I was seven and she was five, but I didn’t have an ounce of her pizazz. At the lake, on a car trip, in our own kitchen, in the middle of a movie, she was always singing, and that battery never wore down.

I didn’t know my brother Bill could sing until he joined choir. When he was a kid, he’d have thrown himself off a cliff before a single note slipped out of his mouth. His friends just didn’t roll that way. Picture a handsome young blond tenor weaving his way through a gang of Hell’s Angels while singing an Andy Kim song. That would be a no. To my surprise, he tried out for a part in the musical, Titanic, and nailed it. He feels too busy for choir now, but if we could persuade Crystal and Mark to start at six AM, he’d be there for sure. Otherwise, you can catch him singing karaoke at the Hooter.

Cindy was the only true hippy in our family. She liked to wander around the bush near our house, plucking a guitar and singing wistful songs about love and harmony. She lived for the TV show, the Partridge Family, and was convinced that all of us could be contenders. But no one ever listens to little sisters, unfortunately. Later, Cindy shone in choir, taking a lead role in Follies after starting out with a bit part from My Fair Lady, as Eliza Doolittle. ‘Aye, Guvnah!’ No one could have done it better.

Joni never gave us a clue that she could sing at all. She had a gravelly voice as a child, perhaps a symptom of too many colds. She spoke and people would search for the elderly man in the room. When our family performed gospel songs at church, and occasionally in the community, Joni was partnered with me as a ‘root pal.’ Everyone else harmonized around us. But as I stood by her, I heard the smooth tone of Doris Day. That girl could sing! We made a video to send to brother Bill who was traveling at the time. It was unintentionally hilarious, as we kept stopping so we could switch places. It looked like a badly done magic trick as we disappeared, popping into different spots throughout the song. To make things weirder, we were all dressed like Nikki from Big Love. Or old time Mennonites. Take your pick.

Jennifer is a whole other story. Severely red haired, she was bellowing out Hello Dolly! in an Ethel Merman-like voice when she was barely born. The last of seven children, she continued to be the loudest in the family. It was that or starve to death. (People from big families know what I’m talking about.) It was nothing for nineteen year old me to be driving around with four year old her in the back of the car and hear her belting out a mashup of ‘Everyone’s banging Lulu!’ with ‘And Bingo was his name-o!’ I can’t imagine what went on in her daycare, and anyway, its too late now. Still occasionally loud, always funny, she should be a writer. If you’re lucky enough to live in Flin Flon, she’s performing this Friday and Saturday at Johnny’s social club. And she doesn’t just sing. Trust me.  Now I’m going to hide from my family until they all get over this post. Goodbye.