Old friends, new season

There aren’t many people in this world I’ve known for 30 years — my beloved hubby included — so when I meet up with them for a girls’ weekend, it’s worth a blog post.

I met Michelle and Tyrone (she goes by “Ty”) in 1984. We were all working at Boutique Marie Claire, a women’s clothing chain some of you might remember. It’s still up and running in eastern Canada and Quebec but, going by their website, no longer has locations in the Toronto area. Michelle, Ty and I worked at the Sheppard Centre location, in Toronto’s north end. I was 19 at the time, going to Ryerson and living with my parents at Yonge and St. Clair. Tyrone had recently moved with her family from Sudbury to Toronto’s west end. Michelle, meanwhile, was a farm girl from Zurich, Ontario who had a boyfriend (now her husband) back home and took the train back most weekends to see him.

We were a mixed bag, to say the least. And I don’t think any of us would have predicted our friendship would last through the relationships, relocation, challenges and change that life can throw at you over three decades.

But there we were last weekend, ushering in summer together in London, Ontario in Ty’s exquisite little back patio, surrounded by flowers and warm June sun, sipping cold drinks and reminiscing. And there was no shortage of grist for the memory mill.

We talked about old friends and boyfriends — one of whom, incidentally, Ty has recently reunited with and fallen in love with all over again. He was her high school sweetheart. (I have yet to meet Glenn but he sounds like a terrific guy and treats Ty like a queen — as she so deserves).Tys_backyard

We talked about odd people we used to know, like a former roommate of Michelle’s who had two names — and personalities and voices to go with them: there was “Randy”, the nasally-voiced dweeb who fussed and worried himself silly over everything, and there was the Sam Elliott-voiced manly man who answered the phone as “Wayne”, sounding like he could sell Dodge RAM trucks. What’s up with that, you ask? Michelle still doesn’t know. Though Randy/Wayne, if you’re reading this: thank you — you gave us a lot of laughs last weekend.

We also talked a lot about Grand Bend — our long-ago summer haunt on Lake Huron, made particularly convenient by the fact that Michelle lived in Exeter (and still does), about 20 minutes away. Oh, the summer days and nights we spent cruising the beach and bars in the Bend with Michelle’s local, very friendly gang of friends. I remember sitting at crowded tables, sipping tall bottles of Blue Light (when it was new) and watching videos on MTV (it was new too). I remember Phil Collins (“Sussudio”), Gino Vanelli (“Black Cars”), and Wham (“Go Go”). I remember striped t-shirts, big hair, plastic bangles, and neon eye-shadow (which I believe, if I’m as hip to the jive as I think I am, has made a recent comeback).

Ty and I would take the train from Toronto to St. Mary’s, southwest of Stratford, and Michelle (and often her boyfriend Fred) would pick us up and drive us the final leg of the journey to Exeter. There, we would bunk in Michelle’s cozy apartment, spreading clothes and makeup around the place. We would take hours to “get ready” before going out and, when we finally did, would leave behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, perfume, hair spray and nail polish fumes.

At the end of the night, with makeup sweated off and hair uncurled, we would stop by the Derby Dip, a terrific little one-off burger joint that spawned a mantra all three of us still remember: “Hip, hip, the Derby Dip; here, here, another beer!” (Hey, it was the 80s.)

They were great times, and gave us many great summer memories. And now, as I type this, pausing to look out the window at a beautiful sunny, blue-sky-ed Friday, the first official long weekend (I’m off Monday June 30th) of another summer beckons. I’m deliciously anticipating a few days of relaxing with cold beverages, maybe some good movies, a great book, and the odd nap.

In between, I will be thinking about summers past, and the good friends I’ve been lucky to share them with. Happy Canada Day to you all.

xo

girls_dinner

Me, Michelle and Ty

Jammin’ with the ladies of the guild

I suspect most people have what you might call a “go-to” TV show. This would be a program that you watch in re-runs, buy as a boxed set, and even forsake date night for. Why? Because in some way, you identify with it on a deeper level. Somehow, the combination of characters, storyline, dialogue, setting and even music come together to hit a cerebral sweet spot.

Such is the case with a quirky British series that, alas, was on for a brief three seasons a few years back but which I recently rediscovered on YouTube — reminding me once again why I love it so much. It’s called Jam & Jerusalem.

It’s called what?

Read on.

The show takes place in a fictional village called Clatterford, in the county of Devon on England’s south coast. I would use words like “quaint” and “charming”, but they feel canned in the context of this lovely place and its eccentric, endearing inhabitants. The series begins with the main character, Sal Vine (the one in white in the group shot below, played by Sue Johnston), meeting up with the chair of the local ladies’ guild. Sal has so far resisted joining the guild, explaining in the first episode that it’s “just not my scene.”

Later she tells best friend Tip, “Promise me you’ll kill me if I ever relent and join the guild.” Tip replies (with a smirk and an Irish lilt): “I’ll kill ye and I’ll knit ye a coffin.”

Eventually, due to a change in family circumstances, Sal gives in. And so, over 19 episodes, we come to know a motley, lovable crew of characters.

Image

There’s Rosie (played by the one-and-only Dawn French), who has a split personality, the two halves of which (her alter-ego is the nasty Margaret) are often seen verbally duking it out. As an aside, Rosie works in the local cheese factory, and frequently pulls from a coat pocket or rucksack a slab of cheese (“for goodness”) which appears to serve equally well as snack, peace offering and hostess gift.

There’s Delilah, the old village crotchet who plays the dementia card when it suits her (at the pub, mostly) and who apparently was good friends with Adolf Hitler. (I dare you to find Joanna Lumley behind that frazzled grey hair and knitted tam.)

Then there’s Kate, the rather whiny grievance counselor who cries at the mere mention of her late husband (he died five years previously) and can’t make a decision to save her life.

Eileen, the highly flappable guild chair, sheds some light on the show’s name when she tells Sal that the guild is “not all jam and Jerusalem”. Probably fearing that such a title was too odd and English for a North American audience, the show’s producers marketed it here as Clatterford.

My absolute favourite character bar-none is Tash, Sal’s hippie, feminist daughter whose naive self-absorption and lack of ambition is, of course, lost on her but annoyingly evident to everyone around her. I quote:

Sal:   “Tash why don’t you tell [brother] James about your new job?”

Tash:     “Oh — Tash in the pubthe drinky, servy, slavery thing. I don’t do that anymore, mum.”

James:   “Surprise, surprise.”

Tash:     “It was all like ‘Hey, I’ve been waiting over an hour!’ and ‘Me, me, me, me, me!’ and ‘Where’s my pudding?’ You know? Like, I didn’t have any feelings? Or beliefs? I do have, like, human limitations, you know, and it wasn’t like we invited these people to come; they just, like, turn up!”

James:   “But they’re paying you.”

Tash:     “Oh, so I have to prostitute myself? I’ve got news for you: I cannot be bought. Mum, am I a nihilist or an anarchist?”

Sal:         “You’re unemployed, luv.”

It goes without saying that the writing on the show is bloody brilliant. The woman behind it is the incomparable Jennifer Saunders; she also plays a character in the show — and here’s a bit of trivia: her daughter on the show is her real daughter. You might also know Saunders from her role as the wacky, champagne-guzzling Edina (“Sweetie!”) in Absolutely Fabulous.

Interestingly, Saunders moved with her husband and family to a 400-year-old farmhouse in Devon in 2001, a few years before Jam & Jerusalem aired. No doubt her characters and storylines drew from a great deal of personal experience.

Which brings me to why I love the show — among all the other British shows I love, and there are many. What, I ask myself, is it aImagebout this one that really stands out for me? Gorgeous setting? Check. Eclectic characters? Check. Great dialogue. Check. Wonderful music (by the sweet-voiced Kate Rusby)? Check.

But it’s more than that. I want to live in Clatterford. I want those people for neighbours. I want to drink in that pub (that’s not really a gauge — I like drinking in most pubs, though the Fountain is an especially lovely spot). And most of all, I want to join the guild.

With that perfect balance of comedy and drama that the Brits do so well — always keeping it real and never rubbing your nose in it — Jam and Jerusalem whisks me away to a kinder, gentler place that, for me, is the perfect (gin and) tonic for whatever ails me.

PS: Since starting on this post, I’ve sadly discovered that BBC WorldWide on YouTube has nixed all freely available Jam & Jerusalem uploads. I’ve nosed around BBC WorldWide a bit and haven’t found them there — if you manage to find them, please post a comment and let me know! 

The girl who broke night

Have you ever read a book that you can’t stop thinking about? One that pulls you along with every word, that you tell people about, that you Google factoids on, and that leaves you both satisfied and sad when you finish it?

Breaking_NightYesterday I finished just such a book: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray. I’ve been so gobsmacked by it that I had to write about it here. I should say right off that I’m actually a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed it — probably because it’s not the kind of book I typically like to read. First, it’s non-fiction. Second, it’s autobiographical. I’m generally a crime/mystery/whodunit Ian Rankin/Tana French/Minette Walters kinda girl. The grittier and more grizzly, the better.

But it was a grey, snowy, sun-deprived day in January (one of many, doncha know) and I was trolling the Internet looking for something inspirational. Something that would move me — and get me moving (to write, mostly — something I have trouble doing on sunny days in May).

Somehow, I tripped across this book, on Amazon, or Chapters or someplace like that, and the title combined with the sweet-faced photo on the cover grabbed me.

And as luck would have it, the Mississauga online library catalogue had the title among its e-books. A couple of clicks, and there it was on my iPad. (And iPhone… And desktop at work — read only at lunch, of course. J)

Without giving away too much — because I’m hoping you’ll read it — I’m still now asking myself: How did she do it? How? How did she manage to pull herself out of a childhood of drugs and poverty and homelessness to not merely put herself through high school but in fact graduate from one of the world’s most prestigious universities?

And in case you’re wondering, this is a story without hype. There’s no syrup. No sentimentality. For me, the no-nonsense “realness” makes it all the more compelling, and makes Liz herself more likeable and relatable. Fact is, she wasn’t all that much different as a child or teenager than, say, I was. Her descriptions of life at home with her parents reminded me in many ways of my own, sans the nightly drug runs, kitchen mainlining and perpetual hunger. And I don’t mean that flippantly: To my mind, Liz was a normal, average girl — but born into circumstances that many people would not have survived.

Liz Murray with her mom Jean

But survive she did. She found ways to change things, to make her life better. When she didn’t have enough to eat at home because her drug-addicted parents were blowing their welfare cheques on coke, she learned, at 9 years old, how to earn money pumping gas and packing groceries. When she realized, after years of truancy and failing grades, that education was going to be her ticket to a better life, she applied to and became a straight-A student at an alternative high school in Manhattan (she grew up in the Bronx). At her summer job doing door-to-door fundraising for an environmental group, she — despite her insecurity and lack of experience — became one of the top producers, managing to save enough money to devote herself full-time to her studies during the school year.

She was beyond resourceful. And beyond strong. I find it extraordinary, in fact, that throughout this experiential rollercoaster (that she seemed barely able to hold onto at times), she didn’t lose herself. Despite warped parenting and transience and tragic loss, she managed to maintain a mental equilibrium that somehow kept her on course and allowed her to see beyond the next hurdle.

So many aspects of her life struck me, but one small vignette in particular stands out, maybe because it so perfectly epitomizes her struggles. She asks at one point: “Who would have guessed school books could be so heavy?” Eager to catch up in her new alternative high school, she takes on an unbelievably full course load, putting in 10-hour school days (before homework). However, because she has nowhere to live, she has to carry all her belongings — books included — with her. “My back hurt every day,” she says simply (making no further mention of it).

While I wouldn’t want to benefit spiritually from someone else’s physical discomfort, I have to say honestly that just thinking about that book anecdote, I am moved to try to be a better person — and a more productive writer. We all procrastinate, but let me tell you, as a writer, procrastination seems hard-wired into me. Aside from the fact that there are always things that get in the way of writing — work, kids, laundry, life — it’s all too easy to find things to do other than write, even when everything else is done.

Reading about Liz Murray — someone so young and so genuinely “disadvantaged” who was able to focus so intently on turning her life around when there were so many obstacles that could (but didn’t) prevent her from doing so… Well, that’s enough of a kick in the pants for me. Good on you, Liz. In a word: wow.

It goes without saying that I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you do read it — or have already — I’d be curious to know what you thought of it.

And a final note: if you haven’t yet guessed what “Breaking Night” refers to… one more reason to read the book!

You are what you watch

Scrooge_Alastair_SimA Christmas Carol. It’s a Wonderful Life. In our house, you’re in either one camp or the other. I’m in the former. I grew up spending Christmas Eves past watching A Christmas Carol. The one with Alastair Sim, of course. In black and white — none of this colourized business. Of course, the 13” Panasonic that sat on our kitchen counter next to the bread box was black and white. But all the better to watch. Every 24th of December, courtesy of Hamilton’s CHCH, the sounds of miners singing and chains rattling served as a soundtrack to my mom baking shortbread cookies and brewing pots of tea while my dad hovered, waiting for the trays to come out of the oven so he could eat the cookies hot.

My husband Steve, on the other hand, has no such memories and therefore is relegated to the other camp. It’s a Wonderful Life is his all-time Christmas favourite. (Bah.) He’s never come out and articulated exactly why he likes it more than A Christmas Carol (despite his being an expat from the Midlands) but my sense is that he finds it just a tad stuffy and slow. (Humbug.)

And it got me thinking: The instinctive preference for one over the other could probably form the basis of a (rather superficial) holiday psychoanalysis. Let’s compare the two:

A melancholy, Dickensian drama set in Victorian England, with ghosts and undertakers and barefoot beggars and even a beloved child who (potentially) dies…

VS.

A golly-gee small-town story about an everyman hero searching for the American dream and finding it in his own backyard with the help of an angel and Donna Reed.

Its-a-Wonderful-life-Xmas_tree

I do believe we’re onto something.

Let’s start with the Christmas Carolers. Chances are they’re traditionalists. Perhaps small-C conservatives. Non-risk-takers. Very possibly Luddites. They eschew new and flashy in favour of old and weathered. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is an oft-quoted adage. As for “technology”, it’s best used for (a) Googling factoids used to prove opponents wrong in Trivial Pursuit, or (b) watching English crime and historical dramas that otherwise couldn’t be accessed and that partners would find depressing had they been forced to watch these shows with said Carolers on the same TV.

Scrooge_Cratchit_dinner

This brings up the point that Christmas Carolers are often history buffs and/or Anglophiles. Dark, grim dramas set against the Industrial Revolution bring warm smiles to their faces. James Watt and Queen Vic are as comfy as old shoes. Lamplit alleys and soot-covered cobbles are dreamt about the way most people fantasize about white beaches and palm trees.

Carolers sometimes talk wistfully about the good old days, conveniently overlooking the fact that these were days without healthcare, universal education, washing machines and Netflix.

They imagine themselves living comfortably in small, dingy flats they see on their favourite U.K. dramas, forgetting that the owners — or rather tenants — of these places often have no hope of climbing a corporate ladder or retiring comfortably or even owning a car.

A Caroler’s favourite colour? Mahogany.

Operative word? Cozy.

Weakness? Royal Doulton.

Their go-to seasonal tune? It’s a toss-up between God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Carol of the Bells.

Now for the other side. Personifying the small-town bustle and wartime energy of It’s a Wonderful Life, the members of this camp tend to be more pragmatic and decisive, bordering on impulsive. Like George Bailey, they’re on a mission. They’re going somewhere. They may not be sure where, but you can bet they’re in a hurry. They’re probably impatient (an attribute that becomes more pronounced around Carolers) and they may even be Type A. (Note: If they’re pure A, they’re probably watching Elf.)

Lifers are typically leaders, managers. They organize. They guide. Where Carolers might consider and weigh and ponder, Lifers do.

Wonderlife_LIfe_THIS_big

Lifers are interested in world news and current affairs, but prefer to get their information from cnn.com over the World Service.

Lifers like action. Action movies. Action plans. Reaction. Never mind that whiny old guy in the top hat and cravat who’s been dying for half an hour now — enough already!

As one might expect, unlike Carolers, Lifers embrace technology (though they don’t call it that). As one might also expect, they are the ones who come to the rescue when a Caroler finds herself saddled with a virus because of some strange website that promised free, unfettered access to the BBC.

A Lifer’s favourite colour? Red or blue.

Operative word? Now.

Weakness? Upgrades.

Favourite seasonal tune? Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.

Despite these marked differences between Carolers and Lifers, however, the two can get along comfortably — even at Christmas. For it is at this festive season of the year that Carolers are making extra merry and filling fireplace mantles and book shelves and ceramic bowls with knick-knacks and bric-a-brac and boughs of holly. A smart Lifer, despite his minimalist tendencies, will sit by and, between episodes of Homeland, will grimace quietly but say nothing. To protest is futile. Better to keep the peace and simply resign oneself to the occasional viewing of Downton Abbey.

Scrooge_grim_reaper

There is, after all, one consolation. 

There will be shortbread cookies at the end of it.

 

Shuffling down to Buffalo

GreetingsFromBuffaloPCThis weekend, I’m going to Buffalo. Saturday morning, I will get up early, shower and dress, throw a few things into a duffel bag (do they still call them duffel bags?), and down coffee while I wait for one of my best friends to arrive — her husband is dropping her off around 8. After my goodbye to Steve and air-kisses to my still-sleeping teenaged kids, we girls will make our way from my house in Mississauga to another longtime friend’s home 10 minutes away in Oakville. Then the 3 of us will hop on the QEW and, barring the odd Timmie’s pitstop, will be Fort Erie bound.

I can’t wait.

Because down past Fort Erie, on the other side of the Peace Bridge, we’ll hook up with 2 more BFFs — they’re driving down separately — and for the next 24 hours, I will immerse myself in a lifetime of memories of wonderful trips to this terrific city for shopping and a whole lot more.

Buffalo is a longstanding tradition for me, in part because it was a bit of a hobby for my dad. A freelance writer and all-around eccentric guy, he loved Buffalo. Not shopping there. Well, yes, he liked that too, but what he really loved about Buffalo was its no-nonsense common sense. A place with simple, good food, well-prepared by straightforward people with an indomitable spirit. A multi-cultural “middle American” city built on a lot of sweat and a lot of Bethlehem Steel — and in recent decades, a city that has seen hard times. My dad translated this love into magazine articles. He researched the city. Visited well-known landmarks. Found out-of-the-way places to eat. He even interviewed Irv Weinstein.

As a result, long before cross-border shopping was trendy for Torontonians, my dad and mom would pack us kids up in the Buick station wagon and shuffle us all down for a night or two. We’d stay at the Holiday Inn, or Sheraton, or — very often — the beloved Williamsville Inn in (you guessed it) Williamsville, which is a quaint village-unto-itself in the Town of Amherst, on Buffalo’s western outskirts. As far as I can see online, the Williamsville Inn is no more. What was so special about it? Well, it was just this cozy, inexpensive, independently- and well-run motel that had a great restaurant, the friendliest receptionist south of the Erie Canal, and close proximity to Transit Road.

Ah… Transit Road. It is and was a sprawling, rather ugly north-south thoroughfare of plazas, motels and chain restaurants (think Dundas and Dixie, or Yonge Street north of Finch). But back in the 70s and 80s, before the likes of Walmart, Payless and Target migrated north, Transit Road was Mecca. It was home to the Eastern Hills Mall (we’re talking pre-Walden Galleria, which didn’t open until 1989)… the Buffalo Brew Pub (the first place I knew of where you could throw peanut shells on the floor)…  Premier Liquor (the selection! the prices!)… and super duper supermarkets like Tops and Wegmans (where I marveled at the shelves of strange and wonderful snacks and, a few years later, the strange and wonderful beer).

Buffalo Brewpub

The Buffalo Brewpub

But for me, the real drawing card of Transit Road was a tucked-away little warehouse of a place called Syms. Everyone who watched Buffalo television knew that at Syms, an educated consumer was their best customer (the same way we all knew Commander Tom and the fact that Buffalo was Talking Proud).  

Long before there was Winners, there was Syms. At Syms, I got to know names like Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Betsey Johnson…  God, I was in heaven in that place. It had the best deals on the big names. And never mind “we only have it in puce” and “all the 10s are gone”; at Syms, they had it. They got it. They understood retail and, to my mind, delivered what it seemed Canadian retail has never quite mastered. Real discounts. Genuine customer service — provided by people who know their stock and are proud to offer great products. Upscale décor? Nope. Fancy packaging? Nada. Black painted walls, rolling racks and open communal dressing rooms? You got it. But boy, it was worth it.

Syms_credit-card_notice

Alas, Syms is no more. Founded in 1958 by Sy Syms and later run by daughter Marcy, the entire chain — including its famous Filene’s Basement division — filed for bankruptcy in late 2011. *head bowed*

Okay… moving away from Transit Road and elevating the mood a few octaves, I can’t talk about Buffalo without covering another uniquely Buffalo institution that’s probably a little more familiar: the Anchor Bar. A.k.a. Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar. A.k.a. The place where the chicken wing was invented. Apparently (as the website recounts), “One night back on March 4, 1964, Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar… (and) late that evening, a group of Dominic’s friends arrived at the bar with ravenous appetites. Dominic asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for his friends to eat….   Teressa had deep fried the wings and flavored them with a secret sauce. The wings were an instant hit…”

Anchor Bar

The Anchor Bar

Many people who know me will know that I don’t eat chicken wings because I no longer eat meat. But that doesn’t take away from the fond personal memories I have of the Anchor Bar and the fact that it’s just about one of the most charismatic, appealing and eclectic eateries I know of. I remember great visits I had as a kid with my parents (all of us counting row upon row of license plates on the walls), and later, piling in with groups of friends, all of us tucking into big plates of food washed down by bigger pitchers of beer. I also remember being there one time with my mom and best friend and her mom (a girls’ weekend for the 4 of us), and we listened to some fabulous live jazz. Sweet.

Will the girls and I make it there this weekend? Maybe on Sunday, as we head downtown back toward the Peace Bridge. We’re staying where we usually do, at the Millennium Hotel, conveniently located next to the Walden Galleria. Yes, I know how suburban and consumerist it all sounds. But on this one pre-Black Friday weekend of the year when we do this — all 5 of us (some of us friends since kindergarten and grade school) — the operative word is convenience. It’s about easy. Simple. No fuss. No muss. We’ve tried in the past to be bohemian and adventurous and stay in different hotels and eat in restaurants other than P.F. Chang’s and The Melting Pot.

Walden_Galleria

The Walden Galleria

But you know what? We don’t care. We’re there for each other. To hang out. Talk. Be goofy. Catch up. Drink. Play fashion show. And just have fun. So, it’s like, whatever works. And the Millennium Hotel, across the road from the mall and an overpass away from Target, works perfectly. 

So as I slowly pull up to the customs booth and politely hand over my passport to the officer, and then slide down onto I-190 South and cruise through the downtown core, I will think not only about this trip and the lifelong friends I’m lucky enough to share it with, but about many trips taken down to the Queen City and all the treasures discovered there, from Parkside Candies and Freddie’s Donuts to Allentown and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Happy Thanksgiving Buffalo.  

My non-Hallmark dad

If there is such a thing as a Hallmark card Father’s Day kind of dad, mine was not one of them. He was a big man — six-foot-four — with a loud voice, a short temper, and a penchant for profanity. He was the kind of dad that friends were afraid of.

“Wanna come over to my house?”
“Is your dad home?”

One of my brothers recently recalled the time many years ago when he was playing with some neighbourhood kids dowDad_mom_1967n in our basement (we lived in the west end of Toronto at the time) and Dad arrived home unexpectedly. I suppose my mom must have been there — the boys were young and my parents wouldn’t have left them alone at that age — but when dad got home, everyone scurried like centipedes out back doors and through yards; one kid even climbed out a window.

Not that my dad would ever have hurt them. He was a yeller who just about raised the roof at times, but he never laid a hand on us (excluding, of course, the pre-pubescent across-the-knee spanking — You’re gonna GET it! — that was part of growing up in the 60s and 70s and now is referred to as corporal punishment).

No, Dad was simply intimidating. Adding to his size and temperament were the fact that he was a perfectionist writer — he’d worked in newspapers, then TV, and eventually magazines — and he was a reformed alcoholic.

Yes indeed, an all-around easy-going guy.

Just walking around the house, for example, he often would stop to pick up flecks. Bits of nothing on the carpet that, aside from being everywhere, would go unnoticed by most people — but not him.

In the same vein, he would pause at the kitchen counter or living room coffee table and spot some bit of something that a dishcloth had missed, and would spend several intense seconds scraping at it with his thumb nail.

He hated much of what was on TV, especially bad sitcoms with laugh tracks. There were certain programs, in fact, that were simply not allowed on TV in our house, even if he wasn’t watching it.

“Why can’t I watch Mr. Belvedere?”
“Because I said so.”
“But why?”
“Because I hate it! That’s why.”

He had a thing about bodily functions — especially farting. Which always puzzled us because my mother found it hilarious. A good fart joke — heck, the very sound of flatulence — would have Mom in stitches.

Dad on the other hand… We still laugh at the time when, out on a highway somewhere, my youngest brother Anthony made the mistake of letting one go in the car. My dad caught wind of it, and promptly pulled the big blue Buick station wagon (“The Blue Lemon” was his CB handle — operative word being “lemon”) off the road and onto the shoulder.

“Get out.” Those eyes, glaring into the rear-view mirror.
“But dad—”
“NOW, goddamnit!”

Richard and I were one part sorry for Anthony, another part relieved it wasn’t one of us, and a third part delighted that this little soap opera had presented itself in the middle of a long boring drive to Are We There Yet. Was Anthony going to get out? Where would he go? How would he get home? How far was home?

And where was my mother, you might ask? Sitting in the front seat, no doubt, not liking any of it but knowing that this was Dad blowing off steam and that he would never dream of actually leaving one of his children behind at the side of a highway. But he was damned if they were going to fart in his car.

Anthony did get out, and Dad did drive off, leaving The Lone Farter in his Keds and Wranglers to pound the gravel for a hundred yards or so. As I recall, my dad drove just far enough to make his point — whatever that was — and then turned around.

“Get in. And don’t ever do that again.”

It goes without saying that my dad’s temper bordered on legendary. However, he also had a side to him that, to my mind, more than made up for the outbursts and eccentricity.

He was an optimist, and got a huge kick out of “the little things”. A great cup of coffee. A well-stocked fridge. An impromptu outing — even if it was just to Ziggy’s at Yonge and St. Clair to… restock the fridge. Food played a big part in my dad’s life; it was one of the ways he got off booze, and later became a passion for him, inspiring much of his writing and love of cooking.

He was a motivator — a fighter. The fact that he’d quit drinking — twice, the second time sLittle_dad_1937uccessfully — was a testament to his willpower. When I went through a bout of depression in my late teens, Dad was right there, helping to talk me out of it.

And despite his apparent gruff exterior, he had a soft heart. I particularly remember the time he showed up unannounced at the dry cleaners where I worked part-time as a teenager. It was a Friday, 7pm. I remember that because he thought closing time was 7, and had forgotten that on Fridays it was 8. He said he had come to pick me up which, out of the blue, was a little odd, though not out of the realm of possibility. With another hour to go, he said he’d come back, and left. He had acted oddly, and had seemed a bit upset, but the whole exchange had been so brief that I didn’t get a chance to process it and question him.

At 8 o’clock, he returned. This time I could definitely see his eyes were red. Dad? Crying? What the hell was up? It was only then, after I’d cashed out and closed the store, that he told me our cat Midnight had been hit and killed by a car. Dad, who’d initially been against having cats but had relented when Mom simply brought one home, had ended up falling in love with them. And Midnight in particular was a favourite. One of her quirks was her love of cars. She loved riding in them. There were many times Dad would pull up to the Jane subway station, after being summoned to pick us up, and there was Midnight (she was an orange tabby, by the way; my dad named her) sprawled across the dash.

I will think of Dad this Sunday (and his birthday, in fact, is Tuesday), though I will celebrate the day with the other father now in my life: my husband. Though not as temperamental — or quite as tall — Steve definitely has the same soft heart. To all the soft-hearted dads out there, we love you, and happy Father’s Day.

Walking Miss Daisy

For most of my life I’ve been a cat person. And don’t get me wrong, I still am; along with Daisy our dog, we have two cats, and I dote on them every chance I get.

But Daisy is… well, words do not quite do justice to how I feel about this dog. Let me say right off, too, that generally speaking, when it comes to animals, I dislike overt sentimentality. Tear-jerker videos. Poetic emails. All the front-page stories about the pandas arriving from China. Gag. While I think part of that stems from having Brown as a last name, I think it’s also to do with the fact that, in the past year, I’ve had a bit of an awakening where industrial agriculture is concerned, and I have trouble at times reconciling our adoration of pandas with how we treat roughly 95% of our cows, pigs and chickens.

But now here I am… about to contradict myself and get all mushy about my dog. On that note, let me tell you a bit about Daisy.

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Daisy’s original name was Hermione. (No comment, other than to say someone liked Harry Potter way too much.) We got her from the Toronto Humane Society. We had been thinking for awhile about maybe, perhaps, possibly getting a dog — we had two cats already — and, finally deciding that we couldn’t stand our daughter’s long face any longer, we caved.

So we hopped on the THS website and nosed around. And then down we went to the shelter at 11 River Street.

Just to look.

Of course, you don’t go to the THS just to look. You don’t go in there with the idea of maybe, perhaps, possibly getting a pet. You get one. Period. One of them. Any of them.

We knew the minute we walked in on Friday June 5th, 2009 and heard the dogs barking that we were done. There was no way in hell we were going to come away without taking a creature home with us.

Hermione, it turns out, had been found on the street. A scruffy little terrier mix from, we figured, some sort of a high-rise, because when we got her home, she had trouble with the stairs. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, and she was especially hesitant of the stairs down to the basement — they have no risers. To this day she’s still not keen on them. (Mind you, neither am I — they give me the creeps — but that’s a story for another day.)

We also figured she had lived with a loud adult male who had yelled at her, because if Steve so much as raised his voice, she got all anxious and tried to lick his hands and face to placate him. (Now she knows him for the sucker he is, though she still doesn’t like loud men. Mind you neither do I — my father excluded.)

For the first few days we had her, Daisy (the name was the first thing to change) hardly slept for fear of us leaving her. The minute we moved, she’d wake up and follow. Her eyes actually were bloodshot. (I didn’t know animals could get bloodshot eyes.) Eventually, as she became more comfy in her new digs, she started to relax and catch up on her Zzzzs.

Particularly interesting was her issue with food. She wouldn’t eat when she knew we were going out, and overall, she seemed to have very little appetite during the day — instead preferring to wait until evening to hungrily gulp down her breakfast. We eventually deduced that she probably was given food as a distraction before being left alone for long periods of time. She’s still a bit funny about food, and might normally be labeled a picky eater, but we like to joke that she’ll never lose her girlish figure.

Before bringing her home, we had worried what she might be like with our two cats, Fred and Munchkin. Munchkin in particular was a concern. Now deceased, she was quite geriatric at the time; one good chomp from Daisy and she’d be toast.

We discovered — and still marvel at the fact — that Daisy turned out to be the most incredibly gentle dog, one that borders on timid with most other creatures.

Except maybe squirrels. And rabbits. I’ve had the leash yanked right out of my hand and watched that red handle disappear down the street and around the corner after an encounter between Daisy and a rabbit. Thankfully she’s never caught one. (I’ve had many incidents in my life involving cats and birds. “SWEET PEA! SWEET PEA! DROP IT! NOW! Oh God… too late.”)

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And speaking of leashes, we come to… the W word. Since having Daisy, I’ve learned that all the jokes about dogs loving walks and every walk being the best damned thing are in fact true. Daisy lives to walk. Walkies are it. There is nothing better. As we like to say on her behalf: “A  W-A-K-L in the P-R-A-K. Yes, I know what you’re spelling, and I would L-O-E-V that.”

And she does. From the pre-walk stretchie (bum in the air, front paws extended) and the first blast out the door (complete with perfunctory barking) to the final trot home, tail up and left ear flopping, she gives it 110 percent.

On an average day, we’ll walk around the block, sniffing trees, saying hello to cats, greeting neighbours, and generally checkin’ out the hood.

When we have more time — on the weekend, usually — we go to the park. Oh, the park. The park is heaven. Utopia. Mecca. All wrapped into one. It’s where we run leashless (if no one’s around) and chase sticks and balls. Where we poke our heads into large shrubs and sniff for minutes at a time at (I don’t want to know). Where we explore tree stumps and pine cones and the bleachers behind the baseball diamond. Where we roll in things we shouldn’t (“DAISY! GET UP!”) or steal the deflated soccer ball someone left behind. And it’s where, when we’ve had enough, we plunk ourselves down on the cool grass under a shady tree and pant, just enjoying the day.

Recently Steve told me about a woman he worked with who couldn’t understand the whole notion of having pets. Not “didn’t have time for them” or “didn’t want the work of looking after them”, but just couldn’t see why anyone would want to have animals around.

Woman, what makes you tick? Isn’t that like not wanting sunshine, air and dark chocolate?

I know some people might read my observation and think me naïve. I would say they’re missing out. Simply put, animals make us better people. They teach us compassion, make us less self-centered (especially helpful on crappy days) and they’re generally good for the soul — as made evident by the gazillions ofImage studies on the rehabilitative benefits of creatures, from dementia patients whose sense of recall is sparked by an encounter with a dog, to physically challenged children who ride horses for therapy.

Personally, at the risk of sounding über-syrupy, for me I think it comes down to mutual comfort. I know I’ve made a difference in Daisy’s life, and when I look down at those beautiful brown eyes and see such unconditional love — every day, no matter what — well… she has more than made a difference in mine.

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”.

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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.

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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.