May 2-4…. Sweet.

Algonquin_1995A couple of weeks ago, my brother Richard posted a terrific Brown family photo on Facebook. It had been taken in May 1995. If memory serves, it was our last day — probably our last few minutes — in Algonquin Park on the Monday of the May 2-4 weekend. We’d just finished three days of outdoor living (if you’re one of those people, like me, who calls living out of your car trunk at Lake of Two Rivers ‘outdoor living’). Hiking, eating, drinking, campfiring, laughing… we’d done lots of all of it, and we were spent, as I think you can see here in the somewhat disheveled faces of me, my mom, my two brothers Richard and Anthony, and our assortment of friends. We were all clustered around Noel Henderson’s Blazer — Noel’s the guy on the far right with the big grin hidden under the baseball cap. 

Looking at this picture, I think of the carefree, almost euphoric mood that characterized that entire weekend — and many May 2-4 weekends for me. There’s something about this first long, warm-weather break that feels as if summer is bursting open. As we get closer to it, we begin to see the signs: the tented garden centres popping up around the city… the amped-up traffic reports for cottage country… trailers and motorhomes reappearing on driveways… banners proclaiming FIREWORKS SOLD HERE!

And when that Friday morning finally arrives and, with any luck, the day is sunny and warm, there is a palpable buzz. People can’t wait. Even if they’re not going anywhere, they still can’t wait. Everyone senses that summer has finally arrived, and their collective spirit lifts, if just a little.  

On this particular May 2-4 in ‘95, I remember the weather being great. I remember good weather most May 2-4s. Granted it was cool some years, but for the most part, we were treated to bright, blue-skyed days that mellowed into cozy evenings around a campfire, bundled up in sweats and hoodies, with lots of cold beer and hot chocolate and good tunes. Give us a long stick and a cooler or stump to sit on, and we were set. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Perfect — just so long as no one got their shoes too close to the fire and melted their soles.

On that note, what’s a May 2-4 without a little reminiscing?

Like the time we were in Algonquin, around just such a campfire, when the sky went from starry to stormy in a matter of minutes. With no warning, the rain began to pelt down, and as we all scrambled to find shelter, the only concern seemed to be our supply of cannabis. “Grab the weed!” I heard someone yell. “SOMEBODY GRAB THE WEED!” Amidst a picnic table scattered with cameras, phones and watches, the big question was: Is our marijuana safe and dry?

It might have been that same weekend that Noel (Mr. Blazer), capped off our final night al fresco with a ceremony that has gone down in the annals of Brown history: The Burning of the Socks. I can’t recall whether Noel came with just one pair of socks, or whether these particular socks simply had the crap walked out of them; regardless, by Sunday evening, they were a grubby, smelly mess.

Noel decided to put them out of their misery by draping them over a stick and roasting them. We all ooohed and aaahed as they erupted into flames and disappeared into wisps of smoke as elusive as our weed.

I should add, by the way, that neither my mom nor dad were in attendance that weekend; they would not have approved of the (then) illegal drug use (though I’m pretty certain they would have enjoyed the Burning of the Socks).

Mom and Dad were big campers. They especially loved Allegany State Park, down south of Buffalo. The park didn’t officially open until Memorial Day, but it was so popular with Canadians that it welcomed the steady stream of Ontario plates that filled its sites a week early. I have blissful memories of B-14 in Red House, many to do with the four-footed locals: the skunk that sauntered under my mom’s legs late one evening, scaring the be-jezus out of her… the raccoons fighting in the middle of the night with the lid on the Carnation Hot Chocolate… the chipmunk that darted across my dad’s breakfast plate, one foot landing PLOP! in his fried egg.


Red House Lake and the park office at Allegany State Park 

I remember Dad listening to Paul Harvey on the radio as we ate, the coffee percolator bubbling away on the Coleman stove. Around us, through the trees, we could see other folks up and about, sitting and sipping coffee in PJs, making their way to the bathroom, zipping their way into and out of tents. And I remember one May 2-4 at Allegany being so warm that we swam in Red House Lake. It was… refreshing.

One of the most indelible camping memories I have, however, comes from a somewhat infamous weekend at Murphy’s Point, in the Ottawa Valley. One of the smallest of Ontario’s provincial parks, it is a gem, with a fabulous swimming area and jump-off point on the Rideau Lakes. It also is — or at least was — one of the most strictly regulated. By a fellow we came to know as Big Jim McBob — so-dubbed by Noel because of his rigorous adherence to rules.

It started the Friday night we arrived. We all were coming from Toronto, which is a fair haul up to Perth, a good hour north of Kingston. We were coming in different cars, and arriving at different times. So when young families around us were tucked in for the night, their campsites dark and quiet, we were just getting going.

I guess we got a bit loud. The next morning we had a visitor: our introduction to Big Jim McBob, the merciless, self-important warden who made it his mission that weekend to get us out of the park.

The irony was that my mum at the time was editor of Outdoor Canada, a national magazine that advocated strongly for conservation organizations such as Ontario Parks. What would it look like if she got kicked out of one of their finest?

Mum, the world’s consummate democrat, went to the park office to negotiate our sentence, and while we were allowed to stay, as memory serves, we spent the rest of that weekend under the watchful eye of Big Jim, who took every opportunity to stop us, check us, question us, tailgate us.

It made for an interesting weekend. And it continues to make for great storytelling around a fire.

As I write this, the sun is shining without a cloud in sight: a grand finale to what has been a gorgeous start to the summer of 2016. Wherever you spent your May 2-4 — at a cottage, in a tent or, like me, chillin’ at home — hope it was memorable and safe.


If it ain’t broke…

George-spaghetti-houseI couldn’t tell you the first time I went to George’s Spaghetti House, but I must have been pretty young. My dad, who was an ardent foodie before the term ‘foodie’ existed, loved to eat there, and we visited the place quite a few times during my childhood and teen years. George’s was where I first tried zabaglione. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I’m writing about George’s because I was downtown last weekend to see a concert at Massey Hall. Leaving the parking garage under Nathan Phillips Square and heading over to Yonge Street to have dinner, I began to reminisce, as I often do when I’m downtown, about the different places I used to go in Toronto when I lived there. George’s came to mind.

George's matchbookGeorge’s was one of those places that somehow managed to hit that sweet spot between ambiance and comfort — between dressed up and an easy night out. And I think part of the reason the vibe there was always so good was because George’s didn’t try too hard to fix it. George’s just… was. And no matter what mood you were in, it always felt right. It was funky, but it was cozy. It felt darkish and urban, but served good ole pizza. By all appearances it was just another restaurant, but it played super-cool jazz — at a time when cool jazz in Toronto was probably about as scarce as a drink on Sunday.  

I remember going there for my 15th birthday. My boyfriend Greg White had asked me where I wanted to go for dinner, and George’s was it. I felt so grown up in my new Fairweather suit (with peplum jacket and padded shoulders), sipping white wine, and listening to — as luck would have it — Moe Koffman.

Yes, I came for pizza and zabaglione, and unexpectedly got some Moe Koffman on the side.

Because along with being a legend in Canadian jazz, Moe was, for many years, the booking agent at George’s. Understandably, he often booked his own band, to the point where people calling the restaurant would joke, “I’d like to know who’s playing tonight, and I won’t take Moe for an answer.”

hi-moe-koffmanEven at 15, I knew Moe was a big deal. So to show up at George’s for my birthday dinner and be treated to some Swingin’ Shepherd Blues was too perfect.

As an aside, another less perfect scenario always plays itself out in my head when I think of George’s. I was about the same age, and my dad decided he’d like have dinner at George’s. We — me, my dad, mom, and two brothers — piled into the Buick Regal. It was a good 45-minute drive from our home near Jane and Bloor down to Sherbourne and Dundas. And with my short-fused father at the wheel contemplating a plateful of pasta, it was not the kind of journey to be three quarters finished and then interrupt with, “I think I left the curling iron on.”

If shit could have hit a fan…

We turned around, and drove home. Dad swore and banged the steering wheel, while I tried, tried, tried to visually recall unplugging the f&*#@! curling iron.

And when we finally pulled into the driveway and I practically fell up the stairs on the way to the bathroom, there it sat on the side of the sink… unplugged.

So. We got in the car again, and went back. Thankfully dinner made up for the drive.

SSB recordThe man who bought George’s in 1956, Doug Cole, didn’t have enough money to change the restaurant’s sign. It would be a few years before business took off (this was jazz in post-war Toronto, after all). But when it did, Cole left the sign as is, and it remained George’s Spaghetti House until Cole sold it in 1983.

Hey, if it ain’t broke…

Posing for mug shots

Thank God it’s Family Day and I’m home today, because I’ve been walloped by a cold. It’s a doozy — the kind that, when I haven’t been sleeping, has had me snuggling up with my tea mug and cooing over my bottle of ibuprofen. (Precious... Thank you Big Pharma…)

But speaking of my tea mug, that’s what motivated me to sit up in front a keyboard and, despite my sniffles, write this post. I am drinking gallons of tea today, and it was my search earlier for a mug that inspired me to share this story. Let me explain.

We have more mugs in this house than we know what to do with. We have even, over the years, undertaken occasional mug purges, wrapping them up in newspaper and tucking them away in boxes down in the basement, simply because we have no room for them in the kitchen cupboard (but can’t bring ourselves to throw them out).

20151219_143128But I like that. I like that we have too many mugs. Because they’re all different. And they all mean something. There’s a story behind each of them.

And when I take one out for a cup of tea or coffee, I’m not simply making a selection, I’m making a decision. I’m considering not only how much tea or coffee I want, but how I want to feel when I drink it. Do I want the earthy, just-came-off-the-pottery-wheel mug that my friend Bob brought back from Punta Cana about 20 years ago when we worked together at CTV? Or do I feel like diving into some hot steaminess in one of the oversized blue ‘vats’ that Steve and I got as part of a wedding gift (sadly, we have only one left — the other broke a few years back in one of our many moves).

OR do I feel like the super cute and funky square mug that my daughter Fiona got for me for my birthday some years back from my favourite coffee shop in the world, the Second Cup in Streetsville, Ontario?

See what I mean? And if you’ve made it this far in this post, you clearly know — like I do — that a good cup of tea or coffee isn’t just about what’s in the mug; it’s also about the mug itself.

And on that note, I had to quickly share a few of my favourite mug shots and their back-stories…

20151219_143407I call these my moon cups — I have two. I bought them in 2003 just before Halloween at the little dollar store in our old neighbourhood at Britannia and Tenth Line in Mississauga. I have very fond memories of that store because I used to take the kids there when they were little. It was a few blocks from our house — just far away enough to be a bit of an adventure, but not so far that the kids got tired. We’d hop on our bikes, or sometimes we’d walk, and once we got there, there were all kinds of neat things to look at: stickers, squirt guns, coloured markers, bouncy balls, cute notebooks and pens… the list goes on. I’d give Fiona and Simon each a loonie or toonie, and they’d pick something they liked. Then we’d head home again, and by that evening, they would have lost or broken whatever they’d bought — which was okay, because the following week we’d be back there again.

20151219_143318This is one of four mugs we bought at a Canadian Tire in Carleton Place, southwest of Ottawa. We bought them in 2006 while renting a cottage on the Rideau Lakes. These mugs were probably the most memorable thing to come out of that holiday. The cottage was a bit of a dump. It was tiny, with a broken window, hardly any furniture, and barely enough dishes and cutlery for us to cook and eat with — hence our purchase of these mugs. The lake front was choked with weeds, to the point that it was almost unswimmable — particularly for two kids under 10 who just wanted a bit of sand and shallow water to play in. Thankfully, the neighbouring cottage had a cement boat launch that was weed-free, and the owners kindly let Fiona and Simon swim there. What really capped everything off, however, was the hornets’ nest we discovered right above the front deck. That deck, with its western frontage and lake view, was the one redeeming factor of the place, and to no longer be able to sit out there with a glass of wine and watch the sunset — because we were being dive-bombed by hornets — was the last straw. We ended up leaving two days early and coming home, mugs in tow. 

20151219_143234I love this mug, but it brings back ucky memories. It was summer 2010, and I’d left my freelance work to take a contract position with the Ontario government. I didn’t like the work — I missed freelancing at home terribly. I also hated the commute downtown with a passion. But most of all, I hated the fact that my family was going to spend a week that summer at a cottage without me; I would only be able to join them for the last weekend, because as a contractor on a three-month assignment, I didn’t have holidays. The day my husband and kids headed out (a Sunday, no less), I tried to cheer myself up with some retail therapy at Erin Mills Town Centre. And I bought these four mugs (we now have three; one broke). In a back-handed way, they make me very grateful for the work I do now, and the fact that I enjoy it.

20151219_143248This is a mug I found a few years ago at Value Village. Anyone who knows me knows I am a Value Village hound. So to find a mug in Value Village with a dog on it that looks like our Daisy… Nirvana. Love this mug.

20151219_143214This bright, cheerful pink and teal mug was given to me by my very dear friend Maeve; she gave it to me as a thank-you for looking after her dog. It’s such a cute mug, and it’s a perfect size. Love it, and love her dearly.

20151219_143300This is the fun square mug I mentioned earlier. You may have seen these around at coffee shops — and certainly at Second Cup. The artist is Brazilian Romero Britto, and I just love his designs. (And of course, I love cats — as does my daughter Fiona, who gave it to me.)

20151219_143342This is one of a pair of mugs I bought during a quick dash recently to a nearby dollar store. (Did I mention I love dollar stores?) I was there with my son buying… I can’t remember. It was a Sunday evening, I think, and as usual, I couldn’t go in and just buy one thing. Before I knew it, I found myself in… the mug aisle. “Dude,” I said, looking up at my handsome 17-year-old boy (who at 6’6″ towers over me), “let’s get these.” He knew better than to argue my logic, so we brought them home and added them to our collection. In an odd, kitschy way, I love them. And whenever I use them, I think of Simon.

And hey, we needed more mugs anyway.

Goodbye YouTube my old friend…

I am a die-hard YouTube fan. I have loved it since its inception, and now have numerous playlists with all kinds of weird and wonderful movies, old TV shows and music collections that I would never have found otherwise. Where else could I possibly find old episodes of The Prisoner? Or entire seasons of terrific British dramas like Trial & Retribution or Blood in the Wire? Or one of my genuine treasures: the 1970 BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII? I’ve even managed to dig up great audiobooks, like The Exorcist, read by the author himself. (What a voice on William Peter Blatty!)


Me as a YouTube ‘social butterfly’  at Halloween

Granted these selections might not be your cup of tea, but no doubt you have your own great finds — maybe old TV commercials you remember as a kid, or campy music videos you once thought were cool (and now make you groan), or makeup tutorials, or home-reno videos… The variety on YouTube is almost infinite — one of the things I love about it.

Lately, however, my love affair with YouTube has waned.

It’s the ads. Ads, ads, and more ads. Several ads in a 40-minute episode of Escape to the Country. Ads interrupting every few minutes in a Christmas jazz playlist. Ads that are longer. Ads that can no longer be skipped.Reddit_1And hey: I get it. YouTube makes its money through advertising — money that helps fund original content creators (my daughter being one of them). Lately, advertisers have started to put pressure on YouTube to provide greater transparency and proof of viewership — i.e. If my ads are being skipped, why should I place them?Reddit_2At the same time, I find it oddly coincidental that just as YouTube is launching its ad-free subscription-based YouTube Red (at roughly $10 a month), it litters its original free service with more ads than you can count.Reddit_3And there’s talk that content creators for the original service are essentially being bullied into joining the new Red service — i.e. no Red, no revenue.

In addition to which are Google’s moves to stop all adblocking.

All of which sours my once rosy view of Google. As a dedicated user (and quasi-evangelist) of products like Gmail, Google Docs, Sheets, Play Books, and — probably my fave — Google Maps (hey, I even switched this year from an iPhone to Android), I’ve always thought Google was all that and a bag of chips. From the company’s first appearance on the web back in 1998, when they actually gave you real search results rather than just tried to sell you something (like all the other search engines did), I thought Google was intelligent, intuitive, and for the people.

Alas, with the recent changes at YouTube, I’m not so sure that’s still the case.

One thing I am sure about is that I can no longer watch my beloved playlists when they’re peppered with ads. It’s just too damned intrusive, and too much trouble to try to watch or listen to the content itself.

So for now, while I will still turn to YouTube to ‘look something up’, for the most part, it’ll be back to the ‘prime time’ of Netflix.


Days of Woolco & rayon

Moulin_Rouge_pantyhoseThe other day I was cleaning out my closet. (I don’t normally clean out closets — I’m a bit of a pack rat — but we’re thinking about moving next year, and I’m trying to work my way up to full-throttle purging.)

Burrowing down into sweaters I don’t wear and purses I don’t need, I came across an old package of pantyhose. Like, really old. Like, probably 1980s old. I could tell right off that my mum had bought them. Vintage queen size Moulin Rouge. God, the name, the design, the model *groan*. Then I saw the price sticker: Woolco. 6 for $5.00.Moulin_Rouge_close-up

OMG. When was the last time I saw a Woolco sticker? When was the last time I saw a Woolco? I thought of my mum, picking up her discount pantyhose because she was way too practical to spend a lot of money on pantyhose. I was reminded (again) that it’s 20 years (20 years!) since she died. (Breast cancer. Grrrrr.)

leather folderI immediately went to a box in another part of my closet and pulled out an old leather folder stuffed with bits of paper. Photos. Newspaper clippings. Report cards. Birth notices (including mine). Death notices.

I’ve been through it a few times, but each time I enjoy it in a bittersweet way. It’s like I’m dipping into my mom’s memories, and kind of reacquainting myself with her. Not to mention the fact that many of these mementos are part of my life too.

pics & lettersThe picture of my brother Richard circa grade 7 (dig the gingham, Rich!). The class photo from St. Mike’s Choir School, where my brother Anthony went. The vaccination for our first cat, Marmalade, who we brought home as a kitten in 1972 after our neighbour’s cat had a litter. Old birthday and anniversary cards from my dad. And even a letter from me, written way back in 1988 when I took my first trip overseas (back in the days before email and texting).

Brownie card (1)All of it takes me back to what sometimes feels like a different life on another planet. A life when I was one of three kids in a busy house with a dad who was a temperamental writer and my mom who was a… less temperamental writer.

My mom was ying to my dad’s yang. She balanced him. Along with being practical, she was one of the kindest, most empathetic people you could ever meet. It might sound cliche to say ‘everyone loved her’, but everyone did. She was approachable, easygoing — an ice-breaker among nervous or arrogant people. Queen of England. School custodian. She didn’t care. She’d talk to anyone. Many a time we sat in an idling car (it was the 70s), waiting for her to get through a store checkout; when she finally emerged, she always had a story to tell about the person who’d been standing next to her. “…and they lived two streets over from Somerset in Ottawa! CAN you believe it?”Dads cards (1)

I think it was partly growing up in the no-nonsense Ottawa Valley during the depression that helped instill that down-to-earth, no-B.S. demeanor. And her dogged determination. She could do just about anything. Bake like a fiend. Make clothes. Sand floors. Strip and re-finish old furniture (including the lovely dresser I still use now). If she didn’t know how to do something, she learned how. “I saw one in Canadian Tire and figured it couldn’t be that hard…”

I have especially fond memories of the Fort Knox-like garbage box she constructed to keep the raccoons at bay. She had to rebuild and reinforce parts of it because the crafty little devils managed to chew corners and pull off locks and climb inside, again and again. One morning she found one big fellow sitting on top of the box, paws resting on his very full tummy. He just looked at her. She was aghast, but at the same time admired the chutzpah.

And of course, along with baking and building and sewing and sanding, she was a great writer and accomplished magazine editor.

MumWhen she was diagnosed with breast cancer late in the summer of ’93, I remember her turning to us at Mount Sinai and saying, “I’m going to beat this.” I could tell she was reassuring us because she didn’t want us to worry.

Now, when I sift through these notes and letters and forms and photos, I think of a woman who on one hand was one of the most human people I knew, but who at the same time remains, to my mind, invincible.

And boy, could she find a bargain! Love you mum. xo

Humber College’s creepy past

Last weekend we went to the fall open house at Humber College. My son Simon is thinking about enrolling in a program at the Lakeshore campus — my daughter Fiona is already a student there. 

This campus is a treasure trove of rather dark Toronto history — and I’ve vowed to blog about it since Fiona enrolled here last spring. Before then, I’d never visited the place. I’d driven by it the odd time at the foot of Kipling, catching glimpses of green lawn and red brick. But that was about as much as I knew about the campus.

2015-11-07 12.44.37 (1)Then I visited it. And I was gobsmacked. What the heck were all these big, old, red brick buildings doing here? Victorian monsters… one after the other, all lined up on lawns sloping down to Lake Ontario. Surely Humber hadn’t built them.2015-11-07 12.48.49

No, a student guide told us, Humber had not built them. Before the school bought the property in the 1970s, this had been the Mimico Branch Asylum. ‘Branch’ as in part of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen. (I remember bad jokes in high school about 999 Queen; I always thought the street number couldn’t have been more appropriate if it’d been hand-picked).

The Mimico Branch Asylum underwent several name-changes, the last one in 1964, when it became the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.

Asylum. Hospital. Sanatorium. Whatever the label, patient life here was pretty awful. The asylum was a collection of ‘cottages’ (there’s a euphemism for you) that, in 1895 when the facility opened, would have been out in the middle of nowhere. Patients — or, rather, residents — lived an almost rural life.

The pastoral setting belies the terrible things that were done to them. Lobotomies. Electric shock therapy. Insulin shock therapy (i.e. repeated injections of high doses of insulin to induce comas. Nice.)

2015-11-07 12.52.07Perhaps it’s not surprising that these buildings are now alleged to be haunted. Some people — Humber students, staff — claim to have seen a nurse in white on the campus. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, check out this 5-minute documentary on YouTube.

For a more in-depth look at the hospital — when it was in fact a hospital — I highly recommend Its creator is a University of Toronto librarian. FYI, a note on the homepage reads:

March 17, 2014: As of this date, this web site (with the exception of events) will no longer be updated. I will continue to answer e-mail messages regarding this web page and the hospital. I started the project almost ten years ago. Over the years, I answered countless e-mails and reunited the patients buried at the cemetery with their surviving relatives. Although my interests have changed since then, the web site will remain accessible online. Asylum-website

I guess the only constant is change, as my mum used to say… and a good thing too. This fascinating place with its eerie, sad past now has, thankfully, a much brighter future.

5 reasons why Lily hates Halloween

2015-10-30 19.42.38Two years ago we adopted a dog named Lily. We got her from the Toronto Humane Society, but we suspect she grew up in New York. The Bronx, to be exact. She comes from a world of cigarettes and cheap perfume and kitten heels and sale racks at Macy’s. She likes her lipstick red and her Baby Duck pink. Think an older Bette Davis with Marg Simpson’s voice.

I’m telling you this for context. Because it’s part of the reason why Lily hates Halloween. In fact, we have it down to about 5 reasons why.

  1. She has to wear a costume.

Lily is a worldly woman. She did Studio 54 in the 70s. She hung out with Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. She dated Lou Reed (though she never told him her favourite singer was really Billy Joel).

2015-10-21 19.03.06This is not the sort of woman you dress up like a monkey. But a monkey costume is nonetheless what is forced upon her Halloween night. To say she hates it is an understatement: with long face and sad eyes, she sits for her close-up, then off it comes. 

  1. People come to the door.

Lily often makes us wonder why we bought an alarm system. The slightest tap on the front door will set her off. She’s even barked when I’ve knocked on the kids’ bedroom doors, despite the fact she’s sitting beside me.

2015-10-30 23.48.33It all comes down to her dislike of visitors. And hey, I get it. When she’s chillin’ in front of the TV, painting her nails and having a smoke, the last thing she wants is some goddamned person at the door, pretending to be all friendly and basically killing the chill. 

Needless to say, on All Hallow’s Eve, with doorbell dinging and candles lit and throngs of sugar-fueled kids, she’s a nervous wreck. She yells at the door, over and over again (“F*** off! Goddamned kids…”)…  until, at last, hoarse and spent, she flops down again in front of the TV, with her O.P.I. and her toe spacers, pissed that she missed the part where Linda Blair’s head spins around.2015-10-30 20.10.35

  1. The people who come to the door are kids.

Lily hates kids. She’s been known to whack them with her Coach and throw her Jimmy Choos at them; thankfully her aim sucks. (Sidenote: The adoption coordinator at the Toronto Humane Society told us she’d been given up because she’d bitten a 7-year-old girl. I strongly suspect it was because the girl was teasing her. Despite having been around the block a few times, Lily’s an incredibly gentle lady who’s hardly even growled in the two-and-a-half years we’ve had her.)  2015-10-30 23.55.46 (1)

So come Halloween night, not only is the GD doorbell going off every two minutes, but when it opens — guess what? Kids! And more kids! And still more GD kids! (“Go away! Jesus, my gams are killin’ me…”)

  1. The kids are taking treats. 

Did I mention Lily likes to eat? No, I mean really eat. One of my daughter’s nicknames for her is Fatty Chan: ‘Chan’ is a term of endearment the Japanese add to the name of someone close to them.

2015-10-30 23.51.40Lily’s other common alias is Potato Girl. In addition to her rather round body, she has no tail (she’s part Corgi) and no neck to speak of. Steve calls her “the easiest dog in the world to draw”. Start with a potato-shaped oval, draw 4 lines down from it, and you’re pretty much done.

(Of course, all this is said and done out of earshot. Lily is truly a diamond in the rough: trampy on the outside, but mushy on the inside; she’d be quite hurt if  she knew we joked about her like this.)  

2015-10-31 13.44.04All that said, given that she loves food as much as she does, the idea of giving it away at the door is preposterous. (“Oh, Christ… not the Kit Kats too… So what’s left?… The wrapped caramels? You know I can’t eat those… Goddamned dentures… ”)

  1. The cats get all the attention.

Halloween and cats are almost as synonymous as Halloween and bats. They just go together.

2015-10-31 00.00.37But Lily has a thing about cats. It’s not that she hates them. She just… isn’t sure about them. Lily is a black-and-white kinda girl, literally and figuratively. She’s hungry, she’s tired, she has to pee, she needs a smoke. All simple wants that are pretty easy to decipher.

The cats, on the other hand, are more enigmatic. They don’t say much. They stay up all night. They sit on the kitchen table. They vote Democrat. (Lily’s 100% behind The Donald.)

In short, she doesn’t get cats — and she doesn’t trust them. So in addition to having to cope with a holiday she hates, she has to listen to everyone talk about the cats. (“Cats this and cats that… Christ… isn’t it enough they get to shit in a box inside the house?”)

2015-10-30 23.02.02As I write this, she’s stretched out, cucumber slices on her eyes and a tumbler of scotch beside her. Fox News is on, and she’s mumbling about finding a happy place.

Another Halloween is here… have a good one.

7 reasons why Halloween is better than Christmas

I’ve always lamented the fact that Halloween is just one day, while Christmas is an entire season. We spend weeks — months, even — bombarded by red and gold baubles and silver tinsel and carols and bake-offs and elves on shelves. Halloween, meanwhile, gets maybe a weekend.

I think Halloween deserves much more fanfare. Here are 7 reasons why. 

Ingrid Pitt1. You get to be someone else for the day. Or, put another way, you don’t have be yourself. How great is that? I put up with me all year long. Same old face in the mirror. Same body (for the most part, aside from the incremental, inch-along changes that same to slide from one dress size into the next without me realizing it). Same uncooperative hair. Same work. Same worries. Blah, blah, blah. At Halloween, I get to wear a long, black flowing robe and cape and imagine myself some wizened vampiress with a 36-24-36 figure who need only wink and snarl to beckon her army of bats and sic them on that shitty boss she used to work for at an agency long ago. How great is that?

2. You don’t have to spend it with relatives. God love my mother-in-law (she’ll never read this) and God bless her family get-togethers, but oh my Lord, the big to-do for weeks beforehand about what time will everyone be there and will I bring my stuffing again, and if I do, can I bring it up the night before, and when should she buy the vegetables (“It’s on a Sunday this year, so if I buy them Saturday, they’ll only be a day old, but Saturday is Christmas Eve and Loblaws will be so busy, but if I buy them Friday when it’s not as busy, they’ll be two days old…”) Oh, to just put on a black robe and light candles and hand out candy and watch The Exorcist. 

3. It’s cheaper and doesn’t involve trekking through malls. Okay, you might spring a few dollars for your costume at Value Village, and the candy might run you $30 or $40 at Walmart. Oh — and the fake tombstone and spider web and orange lights from Dollarama… we’re talking maybe $10. We all know that pales in comparison to the cost and logistics of Christmas gifts — even with online shopping.

Lucy_bag_full_of_candy4. You get a bagful of candy. I’m going back a few years, but I remember the feeling of Halloween candy like it was yesterday. Carrying that bag. Feeling it get heavier house by house. Knowing what awaited when you got home into the light and could survey your loot. I even got a kick when my kids used to come home after trick-or-treating, and would shake their bags out on the floor and begin separating: crap to the left, good stuff (Kit Kats, Aero bars, Smarties, etc.) to the right. It always reminded me of how I felt as a kid. That Gollum-like thrill: Precious.

5. It’s not as cold and there’s no snow. Unless you live in Ottawa. With all due respect to my relatives in our nation’s capital, we lived there for a couple of years when our kids were small, and one Halloween it snowed. Talk about depressing. Made me wanna go out and kill a civil servant. Or sic my bats on them.

6. Yonge Street is a giant street party. I’ve lived in the Toronto area most of my life, and of all the places and parties I’ve been to at Halloween, none of them beats Yonge Street — especially when it falls on a Friday or Saturday night, like this year. The costumes, the revelry, the parties in pubs and bars spilling out onto sidewalks… it is so much bloody fun.

julia-roberts_cropped7. You can dress like a prostitute and get away with it. Come on, admit it: who doesn’t wanna at least try dressing up like Julia Roberts dressed up like a hooker? Thigh-high boots… A barely-there mini-skirt… Wild, unruly tresses… Again, I’m going back a few years *suck in gut* but in my Ryerson days, Halloween was a chance to put down the hairbrush and step away from the mirror and be that person (or hooker) you kind of, sort of wanted to be.

So… enough said. There are still two weeks left to celebrate. Go eat some chocolate, and find some Spanx.

5 reasons to watch The Conjuring

Last night I watched The Conjuring. It was a dark, rainy Saturday night, perfect for snuggling down with Netflix and this deliciously creepy flick. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the best haunted-house movie to come out in a long time. It stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as vintage 1970s paranormal investigators (complete with calf-length skirts and ruffled blouses), and Lili Taylor as the homeowner whose home is… not her own.

Now this wasn’t the first time I’d watched the movie. I saw it when it was first released in 2013. But I’d seen something about it recently — a still from it, or maybe it was a clip on YouTube — and I decided I had to watch it again.    

And because it’s October, I figured it was worth a post in this blog.

However, rather than simply ramble about the movie (I would never do that), I figured I’d pick, say, five things that make it good. I had to think hard about this, and I had to do some swapping in and out to keep the list to five. This really is among the best of the best when it comes to scary movies, and if you haven’t seen it, hopefully this list will entice you (and fyi: no plot-spoilers here).

So, without further adieu… five reasons to watch The Conjuring:

  1. The house

In some scary movies, the house is simply a location. A place. Four walls and a roof, under which people live and shit happens. Take, for instance, the Paranormal Activity series: gorgeous home, with that to-die-for kitchen and ginormous staircase; however, the house is not especially frightening in and of itself.

In other movies, the house is a character in its own right. The first example that comes to mind is 212 Ocean Avenue — a.k.a. The Amityville Horror.

Conjuring-house-itselfThe Perron home in The Conjuring is the same. Now I must say right up front that the house in the movie is not the real Perron home. The real home where the haunting reportedly took place is a rather plain-looking farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The movie home is located at 405 Canetuck Road in Wilmington, North Carolina.

But who cares. The movie is based on a true story, and the house we see in the film makes the story much more convincing. That’s good enough for me. (Should I add that the interior shots of the house are sets? I guess you can’t win ’em all.)

  1. Vera Farmiga

IMG_4913.dngAlready very attractive, here, as medium Lorraine Warren, Farmiga has a feminine prettiness and maternal softness that you remember somebody’s mom having way back when. Maybe it’s the ruffles. Maybe it’s the fact that we see her fold laundry. Either way, while she’s good in whatever she’s in, she’s really spot-on here.  

  1. The tree

Conjuring_TreeThat big lonely tree down at the end of the yard is…well, if you’ve seen the movie, you know it. Enormous black trunk. Looming, clawing branches that look like they could reach down and grab you. More than just a prop, the tree is central to the storyline — and one scene in particular that still totally creeps me out.  

  1. The dresser

Maybe ‘dresser’ isn’t the right word. This thing is a mother of a wardrobe. Like the tree outside, the dresser inside is a big, dark, looming fixture where bad things happen. I myself would now think twice about buying one; I’d never rummage around in one; and I sure as hell wouldn’t stand in front of one without first checking above it.

  1. The kids

Conjuring_kidsI often don’t like kids in movies. And God bless ‘em — I have two myself — but a lot of the time, they’re over the top and unconvincing.

Not these kids. These kids are real. They’re a bit disheveled and a bit nerdy and their rooms are messy. Just like real kids. No doubt they had good coaching from director James Wan (who is, by the way, the man behind Insidious and Saw, and who even created Billy the Puppet).

Honourable mentions

I said I had trouble keeping the list to five. The following was also worth noting…

The game   It’s called hide ‘n clap. One person is blindfolded. The others hide. Those in hiding then clap (up to three times, at the searcher’s request) until everyone is found. This is the Perron family’s favourite game. And I think it adds to the authenticity of the movie. I so remember playing hide ‘n seek at my cousins’ place in Arnprior, Ontario — except that we played it in the dark (basement, lights off, no blindfolds needed). And while it scared the bejesus out of me, I loved it. Hide ‘n seek. Kick the can. Nicky nicky nine doors. Didn’t every kid in the 70s play at least one of these games? Of course, in a horror movie, the game takes on a new dimension when a stranger decides to join in. I’ll say no more.

The 70s   The 1970s were a kinder, gentler time. No, seriously. There was no internet, no Osama bin Laden (that we knew of), no Snapchat, no Kardashians. It was a more innocent era, and that fact adds to the movie’s atmosphere. Even my 17-year-old son, who’s cynical and skeptical about everything, likes the comfortable, worn-in feeling the decade lends the movie. My own theory is that it makes everything feel somehow familiar and ‘real’ — which in turn makes it all more scary. Make sense? (Plus you get some great 70s tunes along with it.)

The witch   Bathsheba is her name (of course it is). Bathsheba Sherman. Nothing like a good ole grassroots Biblical moniker to set the stage for some unholy shit. And she is indeed one scary woman. How frightening Bathsheba Sherman was in real life might be up for debate. By the way, a bit of trivia: the actor who played the witch was a man, Joseph Bishara, who also composed the music for the movie.

So… Now… How can you possibly resist? It is October, after all. Tonight would be a perfect night to put on your jim-jams, dim the lights, fire up a candle or two… and keep your pillow handy.

Farewell BBC iPlayer

This past week I received some sad news. It wasn’t anywhere on the scale of the earthquakes in Nepal, or being holed up in Guantanamo Bay for 13 years, but it rocked my little world nonetheless.

It came via the email here. It startedBBC_iPlayer_email_May2015 simply with ‘BBC Global iPlayer is permanently closing’, and ended with a cheerio ‘Best wishes, The BBC Global iPlayer team’.

I think my eyes actually welled up when I read it. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m ga-ga over British drama. From my initial foray into Prime Suspect and Dame Helen almost 25 years ago, to the likes of current gems like Broadchurch and Silk, I lap it up. The eccentric characters, the understated acting, the alternately gritty and sumptuous scenery, all against a backdrop of ancient stone and polished wood and dark alleys and Orwellian conspiracy theories.

Storytelling doesn’t get any better.Prime_Suspect

So naturally, when a good friend of mine — a longtime fellow Anglophile — put me on to BBC iPlayer, I was, as the Brits say, chuffed.

If you’re not familiar with it (shame!), BBC iPlayer is a Netflix for all things BBC. New programs appear on a weekly basis (they’re old across the pond but ne’er seen here). A couple of taps on ye olde iPad and I can be whisked away to the south coast of Devon to solve a murder mystery. Or taken on a grand tour of the Belfast shipyards to retrace the last steps of passengers on the Titanic. Or horse-and-carriaged into the Carpathian Mountains to the lair of (BBC’s delectable 1977 version of) Count Dracula.Dracula 5

Alas, no more. I received the email that the service was shutting down — period. Possibly within two weeks. When I emailed Aunty to find out exactly why, I received a response (the next day, I’ll grant that) telling me that iPlayer is not “commercially viable”. How exactly that could be with each subscriber (and there are a lot of us, judging by the Facebook page) paying in the neighbourhood of $6.99 a month (Cdn), I can’t figure out.

Now as the end of the email suggests, there are apparently going to be other platforms developed for other (presumably non-Apple) devices.

Fair enough. But why on earth wouldn’t Aunty wait ’til those platforms are built and then switch subscribers over to them, rather than just drop us all like a lot of overdone, room-temperature potatoes?

It seems to me to be the antithesis of good customer service. The result being that though I’ve always been a massive fan of the Beeb, I now feel quite betrayed.white-chapel_threesome

For the past few nights, I’ve been madly ploughing through my ‘to-watch’ list, knowing that at any moment, it could all fade to black, like the east end of London under threat of the Luftwaffe. At the moment I’m almost finished the first series of Whitechapel, about a modern-day Jack the Ripper; next, I’m hoping to tackle Waking the Dead, a forensic crime-thriller about cold cases.

Waking the Dead2The shutdown will be staggered, and will start May 26th, running through to June 26th — the exact date depends on when you’re billed. When am I billed? I daren’t look. For the moment, I will press on, I will watch my dramas, I will find a new platform, I will never surrender.