Halloween on overdrive

This past weekend Steve and I had seven girls sleeping in our basement. Before you raise your eyebrows, let me say two words: Anime North. Mean nothing to you? It didn’t to us either until a couple of years ago when our now 15-year-old daughter made the jump from avid Asian manga reader and online drama watcher to real-life participant in what is probably Canada’s largest show for… well… people like Fiona.

Fiona likes to cosplay — short for costume-play. Cosplaying is essentially dressing up in elaborate outfits to mimic favourite characters in Asian cartoons. That’s the Coles Notes explanation.

The long of it is that my daughter spends the entire year (358 days to go!) counting down to Anime North, a convention of animation devotees, vendors, artists, performers, and anyone else inclined to be part of three days of Halloween on overdrive.

For this event, my daughterImage and her friends spend months creating costumes, building props, perfecting makeup, practicing dance routines, and organizing accommodation. Which this year was provided by us. So along with Fiona there was Erin, Robin, Nicole, Isabel, Remi and Vanessa. They came Friday night; they left Sunday. And in between, there was lots of driving back and forth from our house in Mississauga to the Toronto Congress Centre, the event venue, which is next to the airport.


To give you an idea of how the weekend unfolded…

Friday afternoon   The girls arrive home from school and each dons the first of three costumes ; they’ll wear a different one for each of the three days of the event. Steve and I are still at work, so their first trek to the show is via Mississauga Transit.

Friday night   Steve and I pick them up at 11pm in two cars and bring them home again. They report that their cat-dance routine, performed by four of them, including my daughter, was a reasonable success. We order pizza and, after showering and getting into PJs, they eat and crash. One girl, Remy, arrives late following her prom night; she’ll join in for the remainder of the weekend.

Saturday morning   Steve and I hear them at 6:30 in the kitchen below us; we’ve left muffins and fruit out for them (thank God). I stumble down and nurse coffee, watching in awe as they transform into otherworldly creatures with painted faces and green hair and carrying swords and guitars and, in my daughter’s case, an enormous black cannon (she is Black Rock Shooter, a character in the anime show of the same name).  By 8:30am, we’re back at the Toronto Congress Centre, unloading them from the cars and promising a pickup at 8:30pm.

Saturday night   By 9pm they’re back home and are in various stages of showering, PJ-ing and eating (a cold buffet with chocolate cake for dessert). Steve and I take refuge in the living room with drinks and Netflix. They eventually start to trickle down to the basement, and by midnight all is quiet.

Sunday morning   I hear the voices again by 7, but the chit-chat is a little quieter this morning. The full-tilt, adrenalin-loaded weekend  is starting to take its toll, though they remain enthusiastic and good-natured.  On go their third costumes, and off to the Congress Centre we go — all but one, who has decided schoolwork beckons, so I drop her off on the way back home.

Sunday night   Arriving at the Congress Centre for the final time, we find the gang in Tim Hortons next door. My daughter, I discover, has badly stubbed her big toe, and is limping around in one bare foot (the other still wedged in a silver stiletto). Everyone looks a bit disheveled and a lot tired as they hobble and shuffle their way to the cars. They all remark that while they’re sad it’s over, they’re also glad it’s over. They’re already planning their costumes for next year.

To the uninitiated, this might all seem a bit hard-core. But to someone who’s watched it evolve (and who likes Halloween more than Christmas), I get it. Personally I’d find it a bit tiring myself, though that might be my age talking. Either way, as a spectator — and chauffeur — I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Simply watching my daughter and her friends have so much fun is pure joy.

My 14-year-old son Simon doesn’t mind it either.

(See you next year girls!)

iPad + Netflix = social outcast

It’s a recurring theme lately — especially Friday nights, when schedules go out the window (no lunches to make, no homework to help with) but we’re too bagged to commit to a movie.

On these nights, we tend to sink down in front of the TV, me in my chair and Steve on the couch (don’t ever confuse the two), and we throw on… whatever. Now to be clear, that excludes cable TV. We got rid of cable several months back, and aside from the odd longing for House Hunters International or Escape to the Country, we really don’t miss it at all.

So sans cable — we have Apple TV as a replacement — we might put on some middle-of-the-road flick that we’ve either seen before or aren’t sure we even want to see.

Or, to be more precise, Steve might throw on something — while I just zone. Steve knows that “just zone” is code-speak for “I’ll cruise my iPad”.


Let me say right off: I’m not a techie (just the word “techie” tells you I’m anything but). And neither are most of the people I know who use iPads. Most of them are people who, as an example, can’t stand discussing trivial matters (“Isn’t that the same guy who played the villain in The Terminator?”) without being able to Google it on the spot. Or planning next summer’s vacation without Street Viewing the B&B they’ll be staying at in Mykonos. Or YouTubing that Steve Miller tune with the cryptic lyrics that played at grade 8 graduation (“so it’s a plane he’s talking about…”).

Not that I speak from experience. But my informal research tells me that these are the kinds of activities iPad owners are using them for. Yes, you can also use it to read email and text your kids and play games and even do simple word-processing through apps like iA Writer.

But it’s that instant, book-sized, flip-open, click-a-link access to the World Wide Interweb that clinches it for me.

Oh — and being able to watch Netflix.

iPad + Netflix. Deadly combination. Bad for social interaction. Bad for sleep. Bad for… other things.

But so good. You simply cannot own an iPad and not watch Netflix. And yes, I know there are other movie-streaming sites out there, but let’s face it, even with our Canadian Netflix inferiority complex, that app has so many movies, it’s befuddling at times to scroll through them. Talk about a candy store. And I don’t care that many of them are old and some are obscure or even unheard of (insert random title of weird Asian flick here). In fact, the obscurity makes it better. Walk on the wild side. What have you got to lose? You watch a few minutes — heck, you watch one minute — and if you don’t like it, you move on.

And there are some real gems to be found too. I remember when I tripped across The Night Stalker (one of my all-time favourite TV shows as a kid) and the wonderfully creepy (and based on a true story) 10 Rillington Place. Personally, I have a thing for British television, and in that arena I find Netflix doesn’t do too badly, with mini-series like North & South, comedy like The Office and Little Britain, and razor-sharp crime dramas like Luther and Sherlock.

Of course, Netflix titles come and go (10 Rillington Place, for one, is no longer there), and there is the risk of mass purges like the one that recently took place after some contracts with major movie studios expired.

But contractual nitty gritty aside for the moment (hey, I have my Night Stalker; what do I care?), the promise of all those movies just waiting to be watched is delicious. And the iPad makes it so dangerously easy.

In bed… as snug as a bug in a rug, basking in that LED glow, ear buds in, a veritable cinematic cornucopia at your fingertips…

While cooking dinner… I’ll have a side of The Killing with that, thank you very much…

And (of course) while (occasionally) working out… Only The Forsyte Saga could make one forget one was doing crunches.

Recently, I’ve wondered about bringing my iPad to certain family functions and discreetly pulling it out after dinner. You know… during that “empty” time between finishing dessert and going home. The time when everyone’s talked out, tired, and full. Would they really care if I silently sat in the corner by myself and watched re-runs of The Walking Dead?

When I jokingly mentioned this to Steve, he said he thought I’d be doing everyone a favour. Good thing he’s got an iPad too.

What do Nana and Victoria have in common? More than I thought…

I don’t have a mom. Not to get all sappy but, as I mentioned in my first post, my family has a bit of a longstanding relationship with cancer, and my mom was one of its unlucky acquaintances.


Bad metaphors aside, that means that I’ve had a particular opportunity to get to know my “other mother”: my mother-in-law. A.k.a.: Nana. For those of you who don’t have one, “Nana” is  a common pet name for a grandmother in England.

And with Mother’s Day just behind us, and Victoria Day ahead — Queen Victoria was mum to nine (!) children (and 85 grandchildren !!) — it struck me that Nana and Victoria might have had a few things in common.

Let me tell you about Nana. Her name is Cynthia, and she was born in the Midlands in 1940 when the country was having the snot bombed out of it by Germany. Her father worked in a factory, and her mother was in service — which means she was a maid. In fact, her father was an exceptional amateur artist, a talent that was wasted cleaning the inside of industrial vats, which he left school to do at 14; her mom, meanwhile, used to fill in as a local substitute teacher, and would have excelled at it had she the education and opportunity.

As a child, Cynthia loved sports, and played whatever they would allow girls to play at school in the 1940s and early 50s. Field hockey and netball (English for basketball) were favourites.

She also rode motorcycles, and one day caused her beau Ernie to be thrown off the back of one when she gunned it a little too fast.

Cynthia met Ernie when she was 16. She married him at 19, in 1959, and had her first child at 20. Her second one — my husband Steve — came along when she was 24.

Cynthia and Ernie and the boys emigrated to Canada in 1972. Heading south on Yonge Street just after they arrived in Toronto, they hit Lake Shore Boulevard and, being used to driving on the other side of the road, found it simpler to turn right than left. As a result, rather than live on the east side of town, they ended up going west, to Mississauga, where they spent the next several decades raising their sons, and eventually welcoming their five grandchildren.

On January 4th, 2000, Cynthia’s life changed. It started by waking up to find Ernie still in bed. That was odd, because he was always up before her (and often brought her morning tea to her in bed). He’d been saying the day before that he’d been poorly (English for not feeling well), which also was surprising for him given his unshakeable constitution. Well, not quite unshakeable, as it turned out: he’d had a massive heart attack and died in his sleep.

Since then, over the past 13 years, Cynthia has made a new life for herself, moving into a house on her own (for the first time in her life), returning to work part-time (she’s since retired), and volunteering (for the local animal shelter and food bank). She has faced some very dark days dealing with the loss of Ernie, and has only ever hinted at their severity when she once mentioned collapsing in a closet while going through his old clothes. For the most part, despite her soft voice, infinite patience and fondness for dusty rose, she possesses a steely determination that for me is a constant reminder of why the English won the war.

She refuses, for example, to be rushed through a meal, despite the fact that she eats at a snail’s pace. Woe to the server who asks cheerfully but prematurely: “Can I take that from you?”

She also will not raise her voice in a noisy room (which means the poor server has to ask several times about clearing her place before realizing he’s been given the verbal wrist-slap).

She will go head-to-head with anyone she catches abusing an animal. She once berated a thug (read: beard, leather jacket and eye patch) for dragging a puppy along a sidewalk.

She considers black pepper “spicy”, and “well done” the only way to cook meat.

She once said — perfectly straight-faced — of a very large woman stooping to pick something up on a sidewalk: “Some people should never bend over in public.”

She is a woman of surprises. She has the greatest respect for both Maggie Thatcher and David Suzuki. She loves sports like gymnastics and figure skating but can’t get through a meal without breaking a wine glass. She loves My Neighbour Totoro but doesn’t get SpongeBob.

She is a woman who perseveres. When we all went to Disney World a few years back, and gasped our way through an August heatwave in Florida (oh yes… there will be sweat), she cheerfully found the shady spot under the tree while I bitched about the mercury. What’s wrong with this picture, I remember asking myself repeatedly; my English “born with an umbrella in her hand” mother-in-law is happily braving this oven while I’m turning into the Wicked Witch of the West.

She is graciously feminine — and quietly strong. The death of her husband aside, when I battled anxiety and insomnia for several months a couple of years ago, Nana surprised me by reassuring me that she too had experienced something similar “when I went through the change”. Her keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude was a perfect tonic. She didn’t kick up a fuss; she simply told me that one day the adversity would end.

I somehow think Victoria would have done the same.

Rule Britannia. Ode to Nana. And happy Victoria Day everyone.

My perfect(ly dull) day

As I write this, I’m sitting in the front window of my favourite coffee shop. I’m sipping a Paradiso Dark and listening to hipster folk over the sound system and watching life walk and drive by outside in Streetsville (yes, believe it; it was named after founder Timothy Street, and its slogan is “The Village in the City”, that city being Mississauga).

So, where was I? Yes… I’m sitting here and staring out the window and thinking. Thinking about what a perfect day it’s been.

I’ve walked the dog. I’ve taken the cat to the vet. I got my hair cut. I picked up a few things at the drug store. Oh — and I watered the plants.

What’s perfect about that, you ask?

It was perfect simply because it was my own. It was a day off. A day to do nothing. A day I didn’t have to work. And don’t get me wrong: I love my work. I’m a copywriter at a large marketing-communications company. It is a great job, and I work with great people.

But hey… we all need a day off. A mental health day, as it were. And with this cold, dreary spring we’ve been having, I’ve felt — more than usual, it seems — the craving for some down time. Some vacation time. I usually get the itch round about now every year. I start daydreaming of cottages and camping and last summer’s vacation. I change my desktop wallpaper to something with canoes on it. And I salivate at the thought of the first long summer weekend. In Canada, of course, that is the May 2-4.

This year, however, May 2-4 just couldn’t come soon enough. So, somewhat impulsively, I booked a day off. Just for the hell of it. I had forgotten, in fact, that it’s the Mother’s Day weekend. Now it turns out I get to start it early.

So here I am doing just that. I’m sitting in the Second Cup on my day off. And I’ve made absolutely no plans. Perfect, isn’t it?

There was a time when, not so long ago, a day like this would have been booked to the rafters. I would have planned to take the dog for a walk, pick up groceries, do laundry, catcBlog_2_2nd_Cup_May10_2013h up on the computer, meet a friend for lunch, take the dog for another walk, and finally dash down to my kids’ school to pick them up… by 2:15.

When I was in my 20s, I loved full days like that. Busy, busy, busy. Organize. Schedule. Plan ahead. Take notes.

Then I had kids. And “me time” — just plain old me-being-alone-with-nothing-to-do time — became a scarce and precious commodity.

For a few years after my kids were born (a year apart — yes, the first few years were busy, but now at 14 and 15, they’re pretty good buds), I tried to keep up the near-frantic time management that I had done BK (before kids). I organized weekend get-togethers with family and friends; we made the rounds on holidays like Christmas and Easter; I took my kids out for ambitious day-long outings; we even trekked around England and Wales for 2 weeks visiting relatives — “we” being Steve, one-year-old Fiona, and me, 6 months pregnant with Simon. (I get tired just thinking about it.)

These days, I take the easy way out. I’m not lazy; but I’m not out to prove anything either. Life is busy and challenging enough — not to mention the fact that the older I get and the more comfortable I am in my own skin, the less inclined I am to look for excitement beyond my own backyard.

Not that I don’t still love to travel and explore and spend time with people and “experience life”; I just don’t try to do it all in one day or weekend. I can’t — and I’ll happily admit it.

When I leave here in a few minutes, I’ll head down to pick up my kids from school. Then it’s home to walk the dog again and do some tidying before my husband gets home and my mother-in-law arrives. She’s coming over for an early Mother’s Day dinner and will be staying overnight. Then tomorrow my husband is helping a friend move and my son is going to a party and my daughter wants a lift to a friend’s place and…

See what I mean?

Yes indeed, it’s been a perfect day. Perfectly dull. The way I like it.

They say you can’t go back… but what do they know?

Last Sunday, I took my son and his friend to a longboard event. If you don’t know what a longboard is, think skateboard, but longer. Where skateboarding tends to be more about tricks and technique, longboarding is (as I understand it) more about speed. Hence the length. Though if you have a teenaged boy at home, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know.


I should make the point right here, by the way, that this is not a blog about longboarding. It’s a blog about all the stuff that happens in life that you often don’t give much thought to — like chauffeuring your kids around all weekend — and how these non-events can sometimes turn out be kind of cool.

With that in mind…

My son Simon practically lives to longboard. Which is why, when he informed me on this stunningly beautiful Sunday morning that the longboard event he wanted to go to was downtown — and would basically suck up my entire afternoon — well… I still couldn’t say no.

“Downtown”, by the way, is downtown Toronto; we live about 30 minutes west of it. I grew up downtown, and if money were no object, my husband and I probably would still be there.

Money being the object it is, we live in the burbs. Actually, we like it a lot. Mississauga has been a great place to raise kids with just a little more space, in (arguably) a slightly safer environment.

And hey, we hop in the car and in 30 minutes (at 3 in the morning) we can be in downtown Toronto.

Which is where my son, his friend and I were headed on this perfect afternoon. The longboarding event was happening in Leaside, just off the Bayview Extension. And though I had a vague sense that it was in roughly the same neck of the woods as my old family home at Yonge and St. Clair, I was surprised how close we were. About 4 minutes by car. And I had 2 hours to kill while the boys did their thang.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been back in my old hood. Several years, for sure. Just to fill you in: I moved there in 1983 as I was finishing high school. Roughly 15 years later, by the time the house was sold, both my parents had passed away, I’d met my future husband, and was pregnant with my daughter.

It was, putting it mildly, a time of huge transition. And while I grappled with it then — and was glad to leave the house behind when my 2 brothers and I sold it — I have only the sweetest memories of it now.

In fact, now when I go back for a visit and walk down my old street and meander around the old neighbourhood, it’s a bit like time-travelling back to a life that I know was mine but sometimes feels like someone else’s.

A time when I wore a kilt to school and everyone still smoked and new wave was actually new.

A time when I dieted myself down to 129 pounds (I’m 5’10”) and would go entire days without eating because I was going out that night and had to fit into my skinny jeans — and they had no Lycra in them like jeans do now.

A time when my best friend worked part-time at the coolest hair salon in Toronto (House of Lords… duh) and I would meet her after work and we’d go across the street to Klub Domino. (Nuts ‘n Bolts and the Iguana Lounge were second- and third-favourites.)

When I landed my first real job, after graduating from Ryerson, at Toronto Life Fashion magazine. So cool.

When I landed my second real job at CFTO-TV, and over the next 7 years would collect some of the best memories of my working life. (God… TV is fun.)

When, 5 months after starting at CFTO, my dad would die of colon cancer. He had been so proud of my getting into television (“TV is where the money is!”), and he experienced so little of that part of my life.

When, 5 years later, my mum would die of breast cancer. “I’m going to beat this thing,” I remember her saying in a waiting room at Mount Sinai just after her diagnosis. She was strong, alright, but the cancer — at least this one — was stronger.

And when, just a year or so before the house was sold, I would wait by the window in what had once been my parents’ bedroom, and look up and down the street for the first sign of Steve’s red GTI. “It’s too soon,” some people had said back then, referring to the possibility that I was using him as a crutch after my mum’s death. (Fifteen years later, here we still are — much to his chagrin, I like to joke.)

And here I was again, on this blissful day, under a blue cloudless sky and a newly-budded arbour of old oaks, standing back in front of this house. Around me, people — all strange people now — walked their dogs and worked their gardens and drove by in their very nice cars. I tried to look casual, as if I belonged there as much as they did. I looked up at that window. I thought about how wonderful (but also how creepy) it would be to see my mom’s face in it. “You can come home any time, you know,” she’d once said to me not long after I’d moved out. I was in my own apartment at the time and had split up with my boyfriend. I was lonely. So mom had invited me back home. I never did take her up on it.

A group of people chatting across the street were now giving me funny looks. It was time to move on. Time to head back to the car and leave this part of my life behind again, at least for awhile. But that was okay. Because I was leaving to go pick up my son and take him home to my husband and daughter. Home to our dog and 2 cats. Home to a place where, in many ways, life was sweeter than it had been before. And the best part was: I could go back any time I wanted.