My David Bowie moments

Is it already two years since David Bowie died? I heard someone mention his anniversary this morning and I immediately had to review my DB playlist and listen to a couple of tunes I hadn’t heard in a long time. Scrolling through the album covers on my phone, I was whisked back to a time when I first was introduced to Bowie, and then listened to him religiously.

There was something — no, actually, there was a lot — about Bowie that was so… incredible. His voice: rich, deep… and sexy. His music: so different, his songs so varied. Poppy, but with a dark, untouchable edge.

And his look: that uber cool, angular, slinky vibe, with slicked back hair, and boxy clothes hanging off him. Or his glam rock thing — the part hipster, part outcast Ziggy Stardust. And later, his Scary Monsters clown, which was an awesome ‘new’ Bowie all over again. (FYI: A very creepy rendition of the clown played a villain in the UK retro police show Ashes to Ashes (sequel to Life on Mars) — this clip is 1:10 — watch the last 15 seconds in particular.) 


I have a few David Bowie ‘moments’ that have flitted through my mind today, so I thought I’d do a quick dash down Memory Lane and share them.

  • Popping over after school (Grade 10? 11?)  to Cheapies Records on Yonge Street. I so loved Cheapies. And it’s where I bought Changes One.
  • Playing catwalk model (Grade 9) in my living room to the throbbing pulse of Golden Years — only to have my dad walk in on me. Soooooooooo embarrassing.
  • Listening for the first time to Scary Monsters at my cousins’ place in Smiths Falls. The title song made me feel like the bogey man was coming to get me. And then I heard Fashion. I still have to dance when I play that song. (That bass! Fashion, turn to the left… Fashion, turn to the right…)

Changes One Bowie smaller

  • Late-night basement parties with ‘the gang’, dancing away to Suffragette City, with everyone in the room bellowing at the appropriate moment: Wham bam thank-you ma’am!
  • The time I watched my crush walk off a sports field with his recently reunited ex. A gang of us had attended a soccer game on a warm Sunday afternoon in summer, and I’d hoped (fingers and toes crossed) to ‘bump into him’. Then he’d shown up with her. Watching the two of them leave the game together, my heart ached. Someone nearby must have been playing a boom box, because Heroes is always the soundtrack to that memory.
  • Watching Bowie — along with Catherine Deneuve — in The Hunger on Halloween in Ryerson’s Filling Station. 
  • Watching BBC’s Life on Mars and, later, Ashes to Ashes: great shows, with great Bowie music. 
  • Driving my teen-aged daughter and her friends around Mississauga, listening to Loving the Alien. (How do I remember that, yet forget to put on deodorant in the morning?)


I would never have called myself a hardcore Bowie fan. But I liked and grew up with a lot of his music. I also found the man himself fascinating. I felt he exuded a sort of invincibility; he was always creating and innovating, and over the years, he seemed to age well — he never really (to me) looked ‘old’. So it was a shock when the news hit two years ago.

RIP Bowie; your music lives on. 

Operation Cozy

It all started around 4 pm EST on Christmas Eve. We were sitting around the fire, filling up on chocolate and The Crown, when I noticed that everything outside was white. Not just the ground, but… everywhere.

“It’s snowing.”

“Go figure. It’s Canada.”

“No, it’s really snowing. Look outside.”

Steve and I grabbed our phones in an effort to be the first to check the Weather Network. The forecast was ominous: snow, snow and more snow. Up to 20 centimetres.

We looked at one another as we contemplated the night ahead. It would be difficult, but we were up for it. It was time to execute Operation Cozy.20171221_203358.jpgPutting on our bravest faces and our stretchiest track pants, we resolved to forgo Christmas Eve service (sorry Baby Jesus), then got down to the serious business of checking our supplies.

Chocolate-covered almonds? Check.

Gummi peaches? Check.

Miss Vickie’s Lime & Black Pepper? Check.

White wine and Bailey’s? Check and double-check.

DVD of It’s a Wonderful Life? Need you ask?

We checked on the kids to see how they were doing. Simon’s plan was to immerse himself in Runescape for the next hour or so and hope for the best. Fiona, meanwhile, would tackle a few more rows on her scarf. (“Good idea, sweetie — we might need it.”)

Then we checked the animals. Tank the rottweiler was sprawled on the couch. Daisy was curled up in front of the fire. Lily was on the other side of the coffee table — I couldn’t see her but I could hear her snoring. Finally, a quick search for Jake the cat (a.k.a. the Man with the Plan): he was tucked away in the living room beside the Christmas tree.

I turned to my mother-in-law, who’d thankfully arrived just 15 minutes earlier for her annual two-night stay over Christmas.

“Another spritzer, Cynthia?”20171227_134835.jpg

Now, three days later, as yet another cold-weather alert is issued, we remain vigilant. With cups of tea in hand and fuzzy slippers on foot, we occasionally glance outside, then turn away, pulling our bowl of Doritos closer, knowing that soon, the chaos and bedlam will be behind us, nothing but a distant memory.

For now, we are committed to the mission.



5 things that scared the s*** out of me

With the darkened wet roads and ominous, grey skies of the past couple of days, it’s finally beginning to feel like fall, and I’m finally in an October mood. As a Canadian, it’s hard to feel that Halloween buzz when you’re still running the A/C, but the days are cooling now — and the nights are definitely closing in — so it’s time to indulge my fetish for scary stuff.

On that note, I thought I’d recall a few snippets of my life that I remember being especially scary. These are personal experiences that, in one way or another, have left a lasting impression on my psyche and still creep me out when I think of them.   

1. The time I fell down the basement stairs

Ouch, you’re thinking. In fact, I have no memory whatsoever of any pain or injury suffered from this accident. What I do remember is being about 8 or 9 years old, in our family home in Toronto’s west end. It was a big old house, with a dark, unfinished basement divided into a warren of rooms — laundry, furnace, work room, rec room, the “room under the stairs”, even the “room at the end of the hall”. The whole basement creeped me out with all the lights on;  venturing down with lights off was unthinkable.

Staircase_Pexels_Oct2017So imagine my stomach-lurching fear when, one day, before having a chance to flip the switch and turn on that bare bulb down at the bottom, I somehow slipped on the top step, and down I tumbled. I can still recall the thoughts racing through my mind as I went: “Oh God, oh God, it’s dark, it’s dark, it’s dark…” I hit the bottom and almost instantly managed to discombobulate myself and sit up — only to find myself staring through the dusty, smudged glass of the windowed doors going into the (very) dark rec room. I think even if I’d broken both legs, I somehow would have managed to pick myself up and get my ass up those stairs at lightning speed — which is exactly what I did, barely making the top step again before that gnarly hand grabbed my ankle. Whew.

2. The night I walked through the causeway at my cousin’s cottage

Growing up, I used to make regular summer visits to Smiths Falls, southwest of Ottawa. I had a motley crew of cousins there (my mom grew up in the Ottawa Valley), and in particular, I would hang out with my cousins Fay and Joanne. Aunt Fay (“Big Fay” — my cousin was “Little Fay”) and Uncle Bob had a cottage on Bass Lake, and Fay, Joanne and I spent many summer days and nights there swimming, exploring, blueberry picking, and just living a pretty all-around idyllic life. One of the things we liked to do was conduct seances (no, really), after which we’d scare ourselves more shitless by going out on night walks (in later years, it became an excuse to smoke).

I remember one night in particular when we decided to “walk up to the gate” — a.k.a. the gate belonging to the farmer who owned the surrounding fields, and whose cows grazed on them. It was probably about mile-long walk, on a road that wound through fields, trees and, at one stretch a causeway. The causeway cut through a swampy area of 6-foot cattails that, by day, had a kind of Southern gothic charm, but by night, with no moon, were black as hell. Approaching the causeway, the road took a dip. Descending that hill was a bit like Ichabod Crane approaching the covered bridge: you had to psyche yourself up to get through the 100 yards or so and out the other side.

So what happened? you’re wondering. Absolutely nothing. Fay, Joanne and I walked it — and we survived.

Country_road_Pexels_Oct2017But we were 100 percent shit-scared every minute of it. It didn’t help that, walking down towards it, flashlights under chins, we’d worked ourselves into a tizzy. By the time we reached it, we were beside ourselves — literally: We spent the whole time fighting over who should be in the middle. We pushed and pulled each other backward and forward (“No, YOU go first!”), gnawed on each other’s hands, buried our heads in each other’s shoulders — all the while torturing ourselves with quick scans of our flashlights, certain we’d just caught a glimpse of something just off the gravel road, just close enough to reach out and pull us into those weeds…

At last leaving it behind us, we breathed a huge collective sigh of relief — until, of course, we had to walk through it again on the way back.

3. The time I heard a chair rolling up on the third floor

I think everyone has at least one ‘otherworldly’ experience in their life — something they just, for the life of them, can’t explain. For me, it’s the time I heard a chair rolling around the hardwood on the third floor of our house. Fyi, this is the same house where I fell down the basement stairs. It had a large third floor, with several rooms up there, one of which my dad used as a home office — he was a freelance writer.

Office_chair_Pexels_Oct2017His office was right above my bedroom, so if he was up there, I knew it.

Which is why I still to this day can’t figure out why, late one night when I knew my parents were both in bed, I heard the office chair up there rolling around. Not frantically, but sporadically, as if someone was sitting in it, going about their business, occasionally moving from desk, over to book shelf, and back to desk again…

4. The time I walked through a haunted house

I’m not sure what I was expecting when about 8 of us rolled up to a Halloween-themed haunted house just north of Toronto, but it wasn’t pitch blackness so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front your face.

That is essentially what the whole experience entailed: shuffling your way, ever so slowly, through a black-as-hell house while gripping your college buds for dear life. It was another case of “I want to be in the middle”, but worse.

“I felt something.”

“Something touched my hand!”

“The walls are moving!”

“Who’s behind me?”

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

I distinctly recall that sense of panic, bubbling away behind my diaphragm, ready to erupt and spill out my ears at any moment. I’ve never been so glad to see a red EXIT sign in all my life.

5. The first time I saw The Exorcist

Exorcist_credits_1973trailer_Oct2017I have had many a debate with my 19-year-old son about the scariest movie ever made. He, understandably, is of the Insidious / It Follows / Get Out camp. While I appreciate his opinions, and agree that there are some pretty creepy scenes in those movies (the beach / boathouse scene in It Follows immediately comes to mind) the old-school in me wins out. As far as I’m concerned, nothing quite touches the storyline, acting and overall atmosphere of The Exorcist.

I’ve devoted an entire blog post to The Exorcist; here I will say simply that after seeing this movie, I was up all night (despite having my friend Mary sleeping beside me), and I walked around for months afterwards afraid that I was suddenly going to levitate, spew pea soup and push my dad out a window. (I did come close to pushing my dad out a window a few times in the years that followed, but that was more to do with breaking curfews than being the spawn of Satan.

*             *             *

As I write this, soggy leaves are whipping across the the street below, and the clouds are racing across a stormy sky. Hats off once again to my favourite month, and the final countdown to the scariest day of the year.

Sharing is (grrr) caring

A few days ago I was at the dollar store buying school supplies for my kids (they are in college, btw, but I would buy notebooks and pens every September at the dollar store even if I had no kids). I had dashed out one evening after dinner — one of those weekday dinners that finish at 8pm, and then all you want to do is ‘sit’, but then you’re reminded (by your 18-year-old) that you forgot to get something you said you’d get, so you feel guilty and, despite his fake protests, out the door you go.

So 15 minutes later, I found myself sucked into the Dollar Store Trance. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s when you go in for notebooks and pens, and suddenly find yourself in an aisle of Tupperware wondering how you’ve been getting along all this time without that set of one-fits-inside-the-other plastic tubs.

And what really caught my eye was a laundry basket. A nice, bright orange laundry basket (orange is one of my favourite colours) in a pleasing, sloped oval shape that reminded me of Calgary’s Saddledome and that I knew would fit perfectly on the shelf in the laundry room above the washer / dryer.

Then I remembered: I’d promised my son — the same 18-year-old I was out here shopping for — a laundry basket of his own. To give you a bit of context: he had ‘borrowed’ the laundry-room basket weeks earlier because he likes to keep it just outside his room with his clean laundry in it. That way, he doesn’t have to actually fold anything or hang it up. He simply plucks from the basket until it’s empty, which is his cue to do laundry again. His bedroom is in the basement, so as long as I don’t have to look at said basket every day, four feet from his dresser of empty drawers, fine by me. I pick my battles.

I had told him, however, that I needed the basket back (clean laundry was now being piled on top of the dryer), and I would get him his own basket. I simply hadn’t gotten around to it.

Until now.

Trouble was, I wanted THIS basket. To reiterate, this would fit perfectly on that laundry-room shelf, and it would even look kind of nice, as far as laundry baskets go. My son could have the crappy old green basket with the broken handle. I wanted the nice new orange one that looked like the Saddledome.

My desires were reinforced when I got up to the cash and the fellow there — he seemed like the owner — said to me, “Oh! I have this laundry tub at home. It’s great! It actually doubles as  a bathtub for my granddaughter.”

Then he started to put my notebooks and pens into it as he rang them through the register. “And see: it makes a great shopping basket too!”

I was sold. And I was damned if my son was going to have it.

But being the devoted mother I am, I spent the entire 15-minute drive home mentally duking it out over this f****** basket.

Guilty maternal self: “Oh, give him the damned basket. It’s a LAUNDRY BASKET for God’s sake. Who cares?”

New millennium rediscovered self: “But I LIKE it! We just spent [BLEEP] on another semester at Sheridan College for him. The laundry basket is MINE!”

Maternal self: “But it’s going to sit on a shelf in a dark room that you avoid anyway. Who cares?”

Millennium self: “But it’s orange!”

As weird (and cringe-worthy) as all this sounds, I know I’m not alone. Motherly guilt is one of those things that, in talking to other moms, I know we all experience to some degree. While it seems to lessen as our kids get older, I’m not sure it ever fully goes away. And it rears its head at the oddest times — especially in early September when the kids go back to school, and the clock of life seems to gear up again: one year closer to graduation (fingers crossed), one year closer to adulthood. (One year closer to moving out. *fingers in ears… LA LA LA LA LA LA…*)

It all makes you realize what’s really important in life.

Old basket

New basket




School’s Out

Sweet HonestyToday I’m wearing Sweet Honesty. As in, Avon Sweet Honesty. If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, chances are you either wore it or knew someone who did (Avon still makes it, fyi). Some of you might be wrinkling your nose at the mere thought of this cheapie, girlie scent. I like it, however, because on a warm June day like today, it reminds me of similar days back in high school. Days when studying and exams were almost over and the promise of summer lay ahead. Cue music.

St_Josephs_College_SchoolI went to St. Joseph’s College School in Toronto. A stone’s throw from the busy corner of Bay and Wellesley and a short walk from Yonge Street, St. Joe’s was close to everything. It was a quick hop to Cheapies Records, where I remember buying albums like Changes One Bowie and Blondie’s Parallel Lines. It was brief bus ride up Bay Street to Yorkville, home of Scoops, our favourite little bar with live music, where we drank under-age and felt so grown up. Our friend’s sister also ran a gorgeously cozy little café there, appropriately called Le Café.

Closer to school, I remember hanging out at Zeev’s, just down at the corner, where we would clamour around the pinball machine, whooping it up and spreading ourselves about the place every lunch hour (bless the owners and other patrons — we never, in my experience, were booted out or even received a complaint).

Macdonald Block.JPGAnd right across the street from St. Joe’s was Macdonald Block, the monolithic Ontario government building where we took over the basement cafeteria. The food was cheap and the seating plentiful. The mac ‘n cheese was a favourite. 

So all in all, our school was — despite being school — a pretty fun place to be.

It was probably even more fun, though, for the boys who came from De La Salle and St. Mike’s to meet their significant others and generally take in the large doses of tight jeans and lip gloss. On a sunny Thursday or Friday afternoon, the young lads would gather in ones and twos, sitting in the lobby by the front doors. Or they’d wait outside in their cars, windows down, music cranked

And on the night of a school dance, there’d be throngs of them. The gym would come alive, with the DJ pumping out tunes from his turntable up on stage, and the spinning disco ball sending flickering coloured lights around the gyrating masses. The guys weren’t keen on many of the fast songs, but that didn’t stop the girls from gettin’ down

Alas, school dances seem to have become a safety hazard in recent years. Not long ago, I overheard two young cashiers at No Frills talking and caught one of them saying, “back when there actually used to be high school dances”. The other laughed. 

Back in my day (did I just say that?), there might have been the odd joint smoked before a dance, or maybe a mickey stashed in a purse, but otherwise, from what I remember, the dances were pretty clean. 

Though everyone smoked cigarettes. Even kids who didn’t normally smoke smoked at dances. The dance was the one time you could smoke on school property without being hauled into the principal’s office. I remember looking around the cafeteria during the dance and seeing everyone puffing away, and thinking it was so odd that earlier that day, I’d been sitting there scarfing down my PB&J.

Tim Hortons that used to be ZeevsAfter the dance, when the cafeteria went back to being the caf, we smokers had to hide our illicit activity. Which meant sneaking out to the back laneway (officially St. Basil Lane) or slipping over to Zeev’s, which is now the Tim Hortons pictured here. Kinda sad, but I guess that’s progress, eh?

St. Basil Lane was a particularly risky place to smoke (as would be any place named after a saint). There was one wall separating our wafting billows of nicotine from the school, and no doubt a teacher could have looked out from an upper window and seen us — and I’m pretty certain that’s what happened the day I got caught. There were several of us, in fact, but only I made the mistake of tracking the teacher down afterwards and asking her what would happen to us. (It didn’t help that she was my math teacher — the same teacher who would tell me at the end of grade 12 that if I failed the exam, I would fail the course. I sailed through with a 51. *arm pump*)

She ended up hauling me down to the principal’s office, and I could tell by her exchange with vice principal Miss Caravaggio that this was the first the VP was hearing of it. If only I’d kept my mouth shut. I arrived home that afternoon to discover I was grounded. I spent a good part of high school grounded. Smoking. Drinking. Broken curfews. This time would be just one more episode in the big house. And I knew that with my dad’s short temper and iron rod of discipline, it was useless to argue.

Me and Maeve Zeevs high schoolNow, it’s hard to believe that high school has come and gone for my own kids. Yet in so many ways, I’m still that girl sneaking down the laneway, playing pinball, and buying records on Yonge Street. Funny how so much time can pass, yet we can feel much the same way we did in 1981.

To all the kids chomping at the bit for school to end — and to those of us reminiscing about it — here’s to summer, and happy 150th.

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