Friday, December 30, 2011

Joy and Sorrow

This picture brought me to tears today.


Just a picture of a baby asleep on her grandfather's shoulder. Not just any baby, to be sure. It's Kelle Hampton's precious daughter Nella.

Do you see that absolute trust? She just melts into him. And do you see his love? It shows in his stillness, his relaxed, unfocused eyes, his continuing to hold her after she has fallen soundly asleep and he could easily lift her to her bed. He treasures her. He cherishes her.

It makes my heart ache for my own father.
Dad holding my niece Diane and talking with my Aunt Anne.
You can see my skinny blue-and-white-striped tushy just behind Diane's little feet.
He died almost a year to the day after he retired from a lifetime of blue-collar work in mining and construction, when I was only 27 years old.

That dark tan? He worked twelve-hour days through the summer months. He would get so dark that we swore there was some Mediterranean or north African blood in his gene pool. (Of course, Diane's congenital paleness makes him look even darker, by contrast.)

And he loved me. Oh, I know, I always knew and never doubted, that he loved me. Even when I was a careless teen and stayed out till all hours not thinking that he was worried about all the evil, dangerous, deadly people out there.

(I didn't know that one afternoon the flickering lights of his construction vehicle caused a rapist (who thought the lights were police lights) to release his victim. She ran half naked from the woods to my father, who wrapped her in his plaid jacket. Years later I found his deposition for the trial.)

My dad could be an asshole. A bigot, a racist, a loud-mouthed schnook, he and Archie Bunker would have seen eye to eye. He had a temper: at more than one big family dinner (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving), he threw down the carving knife and meat fork and stormed out of the house. [Was it more than once, or was it just such a terrible occasion that it echoes and repeats?] He was not a great husband; I used to pull a pillow over my head to drown out the noises of my parents fighting, things being thrown.

A hug before we head to the church on my wedding day.
As Aunt Winkie said of this picture, "It speaks volumes."
But do you see? He loved me. I loved him. It's as simple as that.

And he loved my little girl, Katie, but she was too young to remember him. He never knew my three younger children.

So that picture up top, that's what I've lost. And it always strikes me at Christmas, as these things do.

I miss him, and I wish my children could have a small taste of that love. I hope I've trickled down at least some of it.

What a year!

No, no, I promise I'm not going to do a newsletter-y version of the year in review. Instead, here are some of the posts from this blog that capture highlights. Or just some of my favourite posts. 

How do you spell "schlock schmaltz"? in which I talk about Stephen.
There is no way for me to write about my husband without causing readers to gag on the saccharine sweetness. It will drive you into diabetic shock; it will have you running for a wet paper towel so you can wipe the stickiness off your cheeks. You will envy me and loathe me. 
 The Short Way's Fast, but the Long Way's Pretty in which I show you why I love my commute.
I feel very blessed that my daily commute takes me along the parkway - one of the city's secret treasures. It isn't the shortest route for me to take, but it is definitely beautiful. These past few weeks as the snow has accumulated, I've been captivated by the play of monochromatic hues: white, grey, blue.
Oh, puh-lease! in which I rant.
I just saw a new all-time low for abuse of homonyms in the English language: thei're
Girl on a Mission in which I share a story from my youth.
I was once a teen missionary. When I was 17, my cousin Ruth and I went with Teen Missions International to France. Yes, indeedy, I was an evangelist in France.
Caution: Hypochondria can make you sick  in which I expose you to mental contaminants.
Birthday Bliss in which I share the pleasure of my very happy 49th birthday.
My birthday present this year was a be-yoo-tiful new Nikon D90 digital SLR camera. I'm still baffled by all of its settings and buttons, but it sure does take some very fine photos. Even the bad photos are better than with my old camera: the underexposed areas have very little noise and the edges do not have the significant warping that I found with my other camera.
The road to a friend's house is never long in which I talk about Joe and Mary and the fun we had.
That's easy for me to say, since I didn't make the trek. But our friends, Joe and Mary, drove 3,000 km from their house in Colorado to ours in Ottawa (including across Kansas, which I have learned is the most boring drive on the planet) - and we are so glad they did.
He says, she says in which you get a peek into our bedroom.
Steve and I lay down on the bed as the air wafted gently over our sweaty bodies.
Peter's in stitches in which Peter is injured.
There I was, enjoying my Saturday-afternoon nap, when the phone rang. Assuming it was a telemarketer, I let Brian answer it, but it was Peter, and he sounded distraught, like he couldn't quite get his breath.
And then the world turns grey in which I open up about my struggle with depression.
One of the unfortunate things I've learned is that, for me, that monochrome world of hopelessness is really never far away. This reality is exhausting. It is like building a house on a constantly eroding shoreline.
A Prickly Situation in which I lament Movember.
See those hairs? They are STRAIGHT and POINTY! When he puckers up, those little needles aim RIGHT AT MY SOFT, VULNERABLE LIPS! They're like hundreds of tiny swords aiming at my mouth.
Advice You Never Asked For in which I try to explain what I think makes our marriage happy.
Nobody asked me - not a single one of you! - but I've decided to offer it to you anyway. I'm going to share my thoughts on what I think has helped my own marriage.

It's been quite a year. Did I choose the same posts you would have?

Thursday, December 29, 2011


We had our first real snowstorm the other night. While Steve and I dug into a bagful of popcorn and watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the flakes drifted gently down and blanketed our car. We drove home in the muffled winter that glowed yellow as street lamps lit the drifting crystals.

Arriving home, we worried that our car might not make it up the driveway, but our snow tires gripped and carried us safely into the garage.

I was restless, not tired. Perhaps the root beer at the theatre was caffeinated; perhaps I was haunted by Lisbeth Salander's wary eyes and solitariness in the world. Finally, I climbed our squeaky stairs and glanced into our son's bedroom on the way to my own.

Through his bedroom window, I saw that the storm had picked up steam. I went back downstairs and grabbed my camera.

It is always brighter than one expects when it snows, the meagre night-time light reflecting off so many prisms. One full fifth of a second captured the trajectory of the snow. To the naked eye it simply fell; to the lens it threw itself down. No longer a gentle prayer, it was now a loud fury driving winter to ground.

I watched for a long while, the beeps of plows drifting through from the major thoroughfares.

I went back to bed and tried (in vain) to sleep. When I came back down, the plows had visited our quiet street and the snow had tapered off.

Still golden, still magical.

Dawn came almost imperceptibly and still I could not sleep. Steve woke up and we went for a walk. I KNOW! I WALKED! Outdoors, even. What's more, it was my idea! All so I could take some pictures.

But I had dawdled too long in my hunt for the right boots and gloves. Twenty minutes earlier, this tunnel through the forest would have been aglow like the forest in Narnia. Still, it beckoned.

As we walked through the forest, the light turned blue as the sun tried to burn through the clouds.

Snow still clung to trunks, not yet disturbed by wind and dogs and cross-country skiers.

We scurried as we turned around and headed out of the forest and into the biting wind.
Sad elephant is sad.

The park was abandoned.

It was good to step inside, instantly blind as our glasses coated with steam. And I settled down to a hot coffee and slid the memory card into my laptop to see what treasures the lens had captured this time.

All this, and it wasn't even eight in the morning. Those morning larks may be on to something, but I'll never let on.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Time for a Makeover

Poor, sad 45-year-old exterior.
I really can't say that I love the curb appeal (Hah!) of our house. That insipid yellow makes me want to smack someone. The dirty "white" bricks make me anticipate harvest-gold appliances.

Admittedly, a lot of what it needs is a good scrub of the bricks. The original owner had built a vestibule over the front porch, and you can see where it has marred the brick.

But I like to fantasize about what it would look like if we brought it into the 21st century. As I drive around various neighbourhoods, I've been looking at different colour combinations. Today I played around with Photoshop to see what I could come up with.

Possibly the least expensive: grey unifies the two levels and brick red adds pizzazz.
Doesn't that look happier? Stain the brick a modern grey, paint the siding (or replace it altogether), then add a splash of colour. No major renovation, but it looks like an altogether different decade.

I'm also fond of the classic red-brick exterior. Similar colour combination as above, really, but in different places.
Putty and red brick with a red door. Mmmm. I've always wanted a red door.
A very classic look, which suits my style just nicely.

The deluxe makeover: stone with coordinated siding and paint.
Oh, now THIS I could fall in love with. I've always loved stone, and now the faux stones they make are really quite nice. But also very expensive.

Perhaps I should not have done this little exercise, because now that pissy yellow just makes me mad. But which do you prefer? Grey, red-brick or stone?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not sure how many lives she has left.

This post may or may not be an excuse to sing paeans of love to our cat (Emily's cat, really), Elly.

Elly is a rescue cat. She came to us with a catalog of feral-cat maladies:
  • Bad hip -- She yelps a little if you put pressure on her back end; she also has the absolute worst elevator-butt I've ever seen.
  • Clipped ear -- She arrived at the shelter with an infection that would not heal (she kept scratching at it), so they had to amputate the tip of her left ear. If she were male, we might have called her Vincent.
  • Feline stomatitis -- By the age of three, most of her teeth had decayed and she had chronic sinus infections. She now has only her four front canines [shouldn't they be felines?] left.
  • An intense, almost pathological, aversion to being carried. She will curl up on your lap (or shoulder or legs), but if you try to walk with her? Sheer panic. This almost caused us to lose her at the airport when we moved from Colorado to Ottawa. 
So we figure this cat has already lost two or three of her nine lives. 

But I suspect she came closest to strumming the heavenly kitty-harp after she came to our family. 

(Time for another picture? Okay.)

(Another one? All righty, then. Story continues after the picture.)

Here's the story of how Elly really pushed her luck. 

In our Colorado home we were fortunate to have so many bathrooms that one of the showers only ever got used when we had house guests. So most of the time that shower housed Elly's litter box. When we had house guests, we cleaned out the shower and moved the kitty litter into the adjacent furnace/utility room. 

One such time, we placed the litter box right next to the furnace. For no particular reason.

The next day, the cat left a "present" in Emily's closet. This was highly unusual, but we figured she'd been accidentally trapped in the room or something. 

Then she did the unthinkable: she used Peter's bed and pillow as her litter box. 
"Let us never speak of this."
Peter was beyond appalled. He was disgusted, enraged. He talked about how God gave man dominion over the animals and why should we shelter an animal that would defecate ON HIS BED?! 
We should get rid of the cat, he said. Why would we keep an animal in our home when it had demonstrated such filthy habits and lack of respect for its masters?

That's what I did. Peter sat, disgruntled, while I searched what would cause this behaviour. We finally traced it to the location of the litter box: the furnace fan must have come on while she was doing her business and scared the ^&$@ out of her, after which she was too afraid to go near it. We immediately moved the litter box and she resumed using it.

I explained to Peter that the behaviour was not an attack against him, but I have to admit I'd be hard pressed to feel empathy toward a creature that left turds on my pillow. 

[Incidentally, we did purchase a new mattress and pillow.]

Peter grudgingly accepted that the cat was staying, though he did not give it status of a full member of the family. 

For my part, I am content to let her push her brow against my arm, or breast, or tummy, with all her might as she silently asks me to love her. I accept her purrs as effortless thank-yous. And I will sit patiently for 30 minutes longer than I might have done if she happens to be curled up around my arm or on my lap.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Perils of Wynn Anne

If you haven't seen "The Perils of Pauline" yet, do.
It is one of our family's favourites.
So I ask you, if being terribly sick in bed isn't a good excuse to blog, what is? If I can't share the insights gained through my delirium, why have deliriums, I ask?

On Saturday evening, Steve and I joined our neighbours for a pot-luck gathering. I love pot-luck dinners because everyone brings his or her specialty.

Unfortunately, someone's specialty happened to include some kind of food poisoning. I was up all night being ill. Here, for your pleasure, are the contents of my Dyspeptic Diary..

  • My most offensive observation: vomit is considerably less disgusting if you close your eyes until well after you have flushed. [Can't believe it took me almost fifty years to learn that one.] 
  • Once my body was empty of everything but blood and tears, I tried to sleep. I failed. Instead, I developed a spontaneous attack of restless leg syndrome - which I have never had before. Trying to keep my legs still for more than thirty seconds was almost painful, and at several times I found myself pedalling in bed! (Another reason to be glad I had banished Steve to the guest room.)
  • Okay, another TMI observation: there are benefits to having a bathroom so small that one can simultaneously sit on the loo and spit into the sink. Just sayin'.
  • Also, I was cold - which I almost never am - but not feverish. I wore two pairs of pyjamas and slippers and still needed more blankets. 
  • Once I was confident I wouldn't need to hop out of the tub, I soaked for a good half hour. This calmed the RLS and warmed me up so I could sleep. 
  • Whimpering and moaning just happen. Whimpering = sudden, sharp pain. Moaning = slow ache or wave of nausea. 
  • Dyspeptic dreams really are the stuff of Scrooge.* I dreamt that: 
    • For hours, every time I nodded off, I found my thoughts were being auto-published to a website. This is very disturbing. And boring.
    • My mother drove a massive RV mobile-home into another car and pushed it around the corner. This did not appear to be accidental.
    • My father drove a car into a marshy area, with me as a passenger. He alone knew the path safely through it. (There was certainly no room for an RV on this path.)
    • I went to great pains to get up early and fly to Toronto for a course, only to find that the course was in Ottawa. I lost my camera at the check-in desk having never even left Ottawa.
    • To get back home from the airport, I had to trek through the airport, and what appeared to be Algonquin College and the National Arts Centre which were all conjoined. 
    • I stumbled upon a trove of all the toys and craft items that Steve and I have given away over the years. I coveted them all (well, almost all of them).

A true "break fast" in bed.
So there you have my night's tribulations. Thank you for sharing them with me.

Between sleeps, Steve took tender care of me, delivering my first meal. Which was very touching until I discovered (today) that he was scarfing down the tiramisu that I had set aside for later.

I awoke this morning feeling dizzy and achy. I tried going to work (to a course, in fact, in Ottawa), but turned back. I'm feeling much better now and would happily eat some tiramisu if there were any in the house. 

* Scrooge says to the Marley ghosts, "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

How many accounts will Sears Canada lose this month?

I'm home. I'm sick. I'm cranky.

I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with Sears trying to fix my broken credit card so I could send flowers to my family at Christmas.

Apparently they sent out a letter, in response to a new government directive, stipulating that customers had until December 5 to present government-issued photo identification or their accounts would be closed.

Two points:
  1. I am positive that I gave photo id when we opened the account a year and a half ago, when we bought appliances for our new home. At the time I was irritated to be opening  a new account. Our original Sears account shut itself down while we were in Colorado, which ticked me off because I still used it to buy appliances for our rental property in Ottawa and gifts, such as flowers, for family.
  2. They likely DID send a letter, but have you noticed how much JUNK Sears sends with their bills? Digital clocks, Franklin Mint kitsch, and high-tech snuggies: you will find ads for all of them tucked in with your bill. They may even have sent this very important mailing as a separate letter. (If they'd made a promotion out of it, like "Earn 150 Sears points when you reactivate your card with photo id," I'd have done it, and remembered.) 

Coincidentally, I used my Sears card on December 3 and was asked for photo ID, which I presented. The clerk mumbled something about not having had it when we opened the account. (Which is rubbish; it may have been Colorado ID, but it was government-issued.) The clerk also noticed the old Colorado phone number on file and said she updated our account.

I thought nothing more of it until I tried to order flowers today, figuring that is a simple enough task for the bedridden. [Fail-buzzer.]

So, despite feeling like the bottom of a compost bin, I called the credit card service desk.

For the first ten minutes, the chap struggled to confirm my identity as they still had my old Colorado cell phone on file, despite my having updated it at the store in person as well as on my online account profile.

Five minutes after that, the fellow chirpily told me, "The account is closed," as if that is what I had wanted all along. He insisted it was because of having the incorrect phone number on file.


My eyes welled up and my throat tightened; I was about to cry, which is what I do when I'm frustrated and angry at the same time.

I have, in the past, spent hours (no exaggeration) with these poor front-line help-desk underlings. Today, I went right for the manager.

The guy ignored my request FIVE TIMES, asking me if I would like to open a new account! (How can one do so over the phone if photo id is required, hmm?)

"No. I would like to speak to a manager," I said, a little snippily, I grant you.

Finally, I spoke to an "expert," who informed me of the whole government edict/letter/photo id issue. I told him about my December third transactions (which the previous guy had insisted I look up as part of verifying my identity), and that I had shown ID at that time.

"Well, did the sales clerk phone us?"

It's Christmas season, my biggest shopping season of the year. No, I don't recall if she picked up the phone, but having been a Sears clerk myself, I know that the system would not have allowed the transaction to go through without an authorization code.

"It's not too late," he added encouragingly, "you can still bring in photo id and reactivate your account."

This is a step in the right direction, especially given that I have a good deal of redeemable points still on the card. And it's probably what I will do, but not without a fair bit of grumbling. And I will close the account as soon as I redeem those points.

Sorry, Sears. You lose.

On a related note, here is Seth Godin's rant on the topic of customer relations.

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where I'm From

Chrissy and Me

I am from chenille bedspreads, from Barbie dolls and banana-seat bicycles.

I am from seven children crammed into a back-split, semi-detached house in suburbia with pear trees growing along the back fence and open space beyond; an open-concept school at one end of the street and horses out to pasture at the other. 

I am from the geraniums, the pungent, red flowers filling our bow window, and poinsettias spending the summer leafless and dead-looking in the basement.

I am from bacon and pancakes on Saturday mornings and doors slammed in anger, from Pat and Winkie and Frank.

I am from hot tempers and biting remarks that sting and never really heal, and missiles thrown across rooms. I am from drawn curtains and cold compresses and visits to the psych wing.

From "you made your bed, you lie in it," and "a piece off a wheelbarrow."

I am from altar calls. Conviction of guilt, repentance, forgiveness and renewal. (Repetition optional.) I am from abiding faith.

I'm from Murdochville, from Burlington, from northern Ontario and Scotland. I'm from butter tarts, potatoes, and Chelsea Rolls.

From the woman who delivered freshly baked bread by bicycle as a girl, to help her family through the Great Depression, from the man who wanted to be a soldier, wanted to be an engineer but who became neither because of chronic ear infections before Penicillin, and the woman who nearly died but came back with a deep passion to serve God.

I am from haphazardly collected photographs without dates or names, stuffed into shoe boxes, crinkled, faded, lost. Perhaps best forgotten?

(The prompt for this exercise can be found here.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I had an interesting conversation with a young man the other day.

He mentioned that he was eager to start a family with his girlfriend — wanted her to "start popping out babies" — but had no similar urgency to get married.

I expressed (gently, I hope) my shock at the lack of commitment, and he took my comments in stride and said it was probably just a generational thing. He and his peers do not see the value in the formal commitment.

"You're probably right," I said. And we left it at that.

But, obviously, I didn't stop thinking about it.

Flash back to 28 years ago. I told a cousin about a friend who was excited to be pregnant. The mother-to-be was in a loving live-in relationship with the father and the baby was planned. My cousin asked, "Are they going to get married?"

"Oh, I suppose so," I replied. The question honestly had not occurred to me.

The couple did get married (before the birth). Though they gave it their best, it didn't last. But they both loved — and love — the child who is a bright, talented and secure young man in his own longstanding relationship.

So what has changed in me in the intervening years that I now think parenthood without a public commitment is a bad idea?  In this age of Kardashian 72-day unions, why would I feel that public vows and legal documents still matter?

Here's why.

A legally binding, public commitment, when made with your whole heart and not just as an excuse for a really expensive narcissistic party [cough]Kim Kardashian[cough], removes a whole world of possibilities from the table. Things that are no longer part of the equation include:
  • infidelity
  • selfishness
  • short-term thinking
  • letting one partner take all the responsibility (financially or even in terms of housework or childcare)
  • giving up easily
I readily admit that there are many non-married couples for whom most of those things apply - perhaps even most couples. And obviously there are married couples who flout every last one of those before the wedding reception is over. 

When children are involved, I think they deserve to have parents who will declare their intention to be faithful to each other, to be selfless and equal partners and to push through difficult times. The public declaration is important. Just ask Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers: we are less likely to succumb to our weaker selves when we have made our intentions public.

Yah. I'm an old square now. Possibly because I now know exactly how hard it is to maintain all of that in the face of parenthood! 

As a final thought, the issue of gay marriage has been on my mind throughout this particular meandering. It is ironic that while some couples struggle for the right to declare their union, others take it so much for granted that it has no value to them. I think this picture shows so much beauty it is inspiring.

Brad Altman and George Takei waited 21 years
for the opportunity to publicly declare their commitment.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cookie Exchange

Are you hungry yet? Cranberry-chocolate chip cookies and Bouchées aux noix
My office decided to have a cookie exchange this year - something I haven't participated in for many years.

The only thing I did special for the cookies was to toss in some dried cranberries and then, instead of dropping lumps of dough onto the pan, I formed balls.

Although you don't get to taste these treats, I will share the recipe for Bouchées aux noix with you.

The original recipe (which I have modified) was given to me by my neighbour Odette way back when we lived in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and is a well-worn favourite in the Stephen Sibbald Famous Recipe Book. These may be the most the delicious bars I have ever tasted. They are a fair bit of work and incalculable calories, but are worth all of it.

Bouchées aux noix

Preheat oven to 400F.

In food processor, with sharp blade, combine:
2 cups flour
1 cup of COLD butter (or your mixture turns to paste)
6 Tablespoons of sugar

Process until mixture resembles bread crumbs. Dump it into a jelly-roll pan (which I have always called a cookie sheet, but real cookie sheets don't have sides. You will need the sides.). Spread the crumbs evenly across the pan, then gently press them down and into the corners. I use my hand to start with, but then use a large spoon to make the edges smooth.

Bake 5-8 minutes at 400F.

While that is baking, combine the following in the food processor:

3 eggs
1 ½ cups of firmly packed brown sugar
½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoons of vanilla
1/8 teaspoon of salt

Pour the mixture into a bowl. It will look like this:
Sort of a foamy liquid.
Stir in:

A total of 1 ½ cups of stuff. The original recipe called for chopped nuts and shredded coconut, but I've always believed that chocolate is a worthwhile addition to any dessert, so I added chocolate chips. And then I wanted something red for Christmas one year, so I added maraschino cherries. Here is what I added this year:

½ cup chocolate chips
½ cup sliced almonds
¼ cup chopped maraschino cherries
¼ cup shredded coconut

You could, of course, do this in the food processor, but I find it chops up all the yummy bits too much. 

By now your crust should be out of the oven and have been cooling on the counter. Carefully pour the topping over the crust, trying to distribute fairly evenly so that all the solid bits don't end up in the middle.

Being careful not to tear the crust, use a spoon to gently push the topping around. I sprinkle on a few nuts (when I use nuts) to alert people who have allergies as well as for decoration. This is what your treat should look like now:

Bake for 10 minutes at 400F. Do NOT undercook or you will end up with a goopy mess. Make sure the top is nicely browned. 

When it first comes out of the oven it will be kind of puffy, but that passes so quickly that I was not able to get a picture. 
The smell is heavenly!

Run a sharp knife along all edges to separate them from the pan while it is still warm, but DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CUT UNTIL IT HAS COOLED. You will just end up with a goopy mess.

Now, to cut these into diamond-shaped bits worthy of their deliciousness. This picture does better than words.
Tip: use a sharp paring knife dipped frequently in a cup of hot water and wiped on a wet cloth to keep your cuts tidy.

Bonus: all the little bits at the edges that form oddly shaped triangles -- those are for the chef.

This recipe doubles well and freezes well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advice You Never Asked For

Nobody asked me - not a single one of you! - but I've decided to offer it to you anyway. I'm going to share my thoughts on what I think has helped my own marriage.

1. Shared values are more important than shared activities

I love to read (I am a confirmed bibliovore/bibliomaniac). I am sedentary and prefer solitude. I almost always have a creative pursuit on the go. I like to "nest," adding little bits of comfort and beauty to our home. I like to spend money and enjoy luxury. I am impulsive and make even big decisions, like buying a house, based on gut instinct after a minimal amount of research

Steve loves to get out into the fresh air - running, hiking, biking, skiing. Steve likes to get together with groups both large and small. He likes home-improvement tasks (much to my delight). Steve is frugal (some might say stingey) and would probably have a million dollars in the bank if I weren't in the picture. He is happy to live in a minimalist environment and would still buy his entire wardrobe at Salvation Army if I let him. Steve is deliberate and usually needs to "sleep on it" before he makes a big decision.

If you put us each on e-Harmony, we'd probably still be single.


We both consider the following to be in the top ten of our values* (the things that are important to us), though we may put them in slightly different order:
  • good, hard work
  • our children's welfare, safety, security
  • honesty, personal integrity
  • gut instinct or conscience or inner voice
  • intellectual growth
  • fun, humour, playfulness
  • healthy meals together, good food
  • courtesy, etiquette, kindness
These values influence every decision we make (both big and small) and every action we take (or don't take). Sharing these values reduces the friction or conflict in our relationship because whenever we come to a fork in the road, we view things from a shared perspective.

Shared activities, hobbies or interests, while they build happy memories together, don't necessarily have the same power. And what if one or the other moves onto a new sphere of interest? How does the relationship adapt?

2. Little things add up. 

Never, ever underestimate the small, seemingly inconsequential actions that touch your beloved. Whenever I head to the kitchen for a glass of wine or water, I ask Steve if he would like one, too. Every time. When Steve gets up in the morning (an hour or so before I do), he takes care not to disturb me as I drift into light sleep before my day begins; he is a ninja in the dark. He puts the toilet seat down, the toothpaste lid on. I try (really, I do!) to put my shoes away when I come home. 

These demonstrate selflessness. They show that, even when the other partner isn't even aware of it, we are thinking of each other. They are the true acts of love, of love making.

3. When all is said and done, we have each other.

My children have a direct line to my heart. Nothing can make me weep harder than when I see one of my kids in pain or heading down a hazardous path.

But, when all is said and done, my little chicks will eventually fly the coop and set up nests of their own, and Steve and I will be together. We are the enduring unit, and it is worth investing in it.

So we've really made an effort to have regular date nights. At-home dates seem frugal and convenient, but really are not all they're cracked up to be unless you turn off ALL ELECTRONICS and focus together on a shared activity. Right. When was the last time THAT happened? As for seeing a movie together, they do add to the shared history and "inside jokes," but how much do you learn about each other? How much stronger does your bond become?

We prefer dining out. It doesn't need to be an expensive meal, but table service forces a really slow pace that pushes you to really communicate.

We've also made a point of periodic weekends away together, as I mentioned before. These restore intimacy of the sort that has nothing to do with special lubes. Though I will admit (kids: stop reading here) that physical closeness matters, too. That's all.

4. We respect each other.

This reflects the values we share. I esteem Steve in part because he reflects those values. And he, in turn, sees the same things in me. This is why I think the values are so important. Respect and, consequently, friendship, have seen us through some very rough times. (And I would say nothing erodes a relationship faster than contempt or scorn.)

So there you have it: what I think makes our marriage strong and happy. Our marriage is not about duration - as that implies endurance! I have no desire to win a marital marathon, but I do desire to be with someone who cares for me and for whom I care deeply and tenderly.

* We have actually written these values down. In 2004 we took a weekend away from the kids (then aged 8 to 15). As well as enjoying a sumptuous bed & breakfast and a four-star dinner, we set aside time to look at our marriage, our values and where we, as a family, were heading. On subsequent romantic weekends, we've done similar activities but with less rigour.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My sister Pat: a shyly beautiful woman
I've never been fond of the expression, "Beauty is only skin deep." It uses a definition of beauty - that it is superficial and physical only -- that I just don't buy. Also, the expression is too often used to mollify someone who feels less than beautiful herself.

I don't think anyone would really argue with me. I think we all agree that "inner beauty," characterized by generosity, acceptance, nobility, grace, humility, and kindness, far outweighs the value of external beauty of the sort that ends up on the cover of the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Today I'm thinking about how that inner beauty can transform our perception of a loved one's physical attractiveness. Misaligned teeth or asymmetrical eyebrows take on a charm that cannot be captured in a photograph or even a painting.

By the same token, I have found myself noticing every tiny imperfection in someone whose face is demonstrably perfect according to some bland ideal of symmetry and proportion. Call it the Kim Kardashian syndrome. The woman is undeniably exquisite in form, but I have no desire to spend five minutes in her company, much less watch her show.

Yesterday evening, I dined with two beautiful women: my sister Pat and my Aunt Winkie. I have never thought of either of them as anything other than attractive. I am flattered when people say I look like one or the other. I was delighted when my cheeks began to hollow out just the way my aunt's (and my father's) had.

This time, I was determined to get a photo or two of the two of them. I know I've mentioned before that I have very few photos of Aunt Winkie. The whole family knows that she hates to have her picture taken. Indeed, I don't think we have any pictures of just her.

Well, yesterday I learned just how desperately she hates to be photographed. While Pat acquiesced to letting me photograph her in her un-maquillaged state, Winkie refused to comply. She held up a mug and a wine glass, turned her head to the side, closed her eyes (ostrich, anyone?), grimaced and said, "No, no, no!"

It didn't help that my DSLR camera is loud, that I have to move in close because I don't have a zoom lens and that I have my camera set to take several exposures in rapid succession (a cheat to compensate for my unsteady hands - one of the exposures is likely to be in better focus than the others).

I felt like a paparazzo, and I'm sure she felt like a beleaguered celebutant.

I finally gave up. The best picture I got of her shows her cheerful red sweater, and a small corner of her head showing her nose, her curling hair, her hands and her left eye squeezed shut. I wish she knew how much we would treasure a real, casual portrait of her.

Stephen convinced me of this a long time ago, so I periodically subject myself to the impersonal scrutiny of the lens. Occasionally, as a couple of weeks ago, I am surprised at what turns out.

I won't post the picture I took of Aunt Winkie. But I will share the picture I took of Penny.
Penny rarely grooms herself and resists all efforts to be groomed,
yet is nevertheless convinced of her own majesty.
I guess Penny owns all the vanity in that household.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Day in, day out: Golden Rules for Living

The office where I work has a closet for employees to stow their jackets and boots. It is located along the corridor to the kitchen. I pass it at least twice a day and it is invariably partially open. I pause slightly and gently nudge it closed, then continue on my way.

And each time I do this, I ponder, "Now, why on earth couldn't the person who last opened that door have closed it?"

I reach the kitchen where, as my coffee drips, I close the cutlery drawer that someone left partly open, put the dirty spoon and mug that someone had left in the sink into the adjacent dishwasher, and tidy the canisters of sugar, salt and stir-sticks that have been placed haphazardly on the shelf.

And each time I do this, I ponder, "Well, who in heavens did they THINK would do these things?!"

Such behaviour is just inconceivable to me, it is so inconsiderate.

Recently, in the interest of my own mental health, I've made a slight, conscious adjustment. Now, as I close the door or drawer, I add the following thought to my little inner grumble: "Well, I guess it doesn't bother them as it does me, so I'll just do it and stop complaining." I hope some day to reach the inner comment, "Ah, that feels better."

I do wish all of my colleagues cared about orderliness as I do, but they don't. So be it.

In the meantime, I will propagate Ann Landers' Golden Rules for Living, in the hopes that others may benefit:

If you open it, close it.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you unlock it, lock it up.
If you break it, admit it.
If you can't fix it, call in someone who can.
If you borrow it, return it.
If you value it, take care of it.
If you make a mess, clean it up.
If you move it, put it back.
If it belongs to someone else, get permission to use it.
If you don't know how to operate, leave it alone.
If it's none of your business, don't ask questions.
-- Ann Landers
Ah, that feels better.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Prickly Situation

Ah, Movember. The sacred month of Prostate-cancer Awareness, during which men grow moustaches. To remind us that they have testosterone and therefore prostates. I think that's the way it works.

This year, Steve informed me that he had joined the Movement. I groaned and informed him that, though I love him dearly, he would be going without kisses for the month.

Here's why. Some men have lush, soft moustaches that curl gently under or to the side. Like Tom Sellek's.

Now, there's a moustache I could get behind. Or in front of, as the case may be. (Source)
Steve does not. Let's take a closer look at the picture of him I posted earlier this month.

Do you see it? Here, let me help by enlarging it some:

See those hairs? They are STRAIGHT and POINTY! When he puckers up, those little needles aim RIGHT AT MY SOFT, VULNERABLE LIPS! They're like hundreds of tiny swords aiming at my mouth.

I confess, however, that I was not able to resist kissing him for the whole month. (We did have a romantic getaway mid-month.) But early in the month, Steve devised a way of dealing with it. He carefully placed his finger across his upper lip, guarding me from the offending barbs while he touched his lips to mine.

That pretty much defines chivalry, if you ask me. Only six more days.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A traveller's tale

Sleeping in a hotel room is always a bit dicey: the pillow's too hard; the elevator is too close; a group of high-school girls is giggling in the hall ... so many things can go wrong.

Here is the tale of what went wrong on Sunday night at the beautiful Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal, where I was upgraded to a room with a view onto the idyllic courtyard.

1. I drank coffee - albeit decaffeinated - in the evening, which I never do.
2. I downloaded a really, really good book to my Kindle (Damage, by Josephine Hart), which proved to be impossible to put down.
3. The feather pillows were too hard.
4. Every time the heat/cool fan went on, it ka-THUNKed and startled me. (I finally figured out how to turn it to stay on constantly, but it took me a while.)

Consequently, I was still awake (though trying to sleep) at two o'clock in the morning, when my neighbours started to loudly QUACK or HONK. I don't know whether they were enjoying themselves or fighting - but it was LOUD, and it went on for a long time.

It was disturbing enough for long enough that I finally grabbed my glasses and looked out the window into the courtyard.

That was when I noticed there were indeed ducks. Or swans. Big, white birds, anyway. It was dark, but I could tell there were several of them, and they were quacking to beat the band. I couldn't see what they were doing, only that they were doing it noisily.

Admitting defeat, I climbed back under the covers and pulled one of the many pillows over my head and was asleep within a short while.

Interestingly, the next night I got to bed at a reasonable hour and had no such disturbance. But I had to wonder if I was the only guest whose sleep had ever been disturbed by activities in the courtyard pond.

View of the courtyard from my room, taken the morning after my sleepless night.
The hotel is on the top floors of the hotel and has created a tiny woodland.
And here is the same picture with all the wildlife highlighted.
Quite the crowded little corner of the world.

Follow Up: Lay vs. Lie

When I did my earlier post about Lay vs. Lie, I didn't bring up the big confusion of the phrase, "lay me down." Many of you may think that phrase is incorrect grammar, but it's not because, in this case, "me" is the object of the verb "to lay."

And here's a little music to help you remember this one.
Won't you lay me down in the tall grass
And let me do my stuff

Also, this little verse is grammatically correct, if a little traumatizing, what with the whole dying-in-your-sleep thing.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Without the "me" the correct verse would have to be:
Now I lie down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
But it just doesn't scan, does it?

Does this help? Or does it just muddy the waters?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

If I had a million dollars

Love that song. But that's not what inspired today's post. I was over at Anna Beth (AB) Chao's design-and-style blog where she posted about cute things "that cost around or over $500." Interesting approach because usually these style articles talk about inexpensive things that are nevertheless very stylish. (Many of them rely heavily on IKEA.)

But it got me to thinking: if money were no object, what would I do with all that moolah?
  1. To work or to retire?
    That's the first question, of course. I actually work with some people who are independently wealthy and could sleep in for the rest of their lives, but who choose to come to work each day because they believe in the importance of their contribution and they love what they do.

    In my case, I think I would continue to work because I'm enjoying my job.

  2. Move or stay?
    Move. This little place would be nice, in the toney area of Rockliffe Park. Exquisite neighbourhood, close to downtown, beautiful well-maintained older homes. 
    Only $1.6 million. Let's get two!

    Okay, so a mere million dollars would not be enough for that fantasy house. Plus, I do like our location and the easy access to the Ottawa River Parkway. Hmm. Maybe we'd just renovate our current house and add some interesting architectural details to this 1965-era shoebox.

    Here's what I'd do to our current house: more attractive roof over our porch; extend garage to a double garage and extend sun room; master suite over the garage and sun room; upgrade kitchen; new windows; flagstone stairs and landscaping in front yard; efficient fireplace insert; French doors in dining room; finish landscaping back yard (including a waterfall and hot tub). You could probably build a whole new house for all the changes I'd make.

  3. Buy experiences, not things.
    Frankly, we have plenty of things in our life. (Just check the crowded basement.) What we have a shortage of is experiences - mostly related to travel. Machu Picchu, Greece, Ireland, Europe, India, Canada. Of course, I'd need the right clothes and shoes for these trips. And I'd want to bring back art or jewelry from all of these locations. And I'd want to bring along family and friends.

  4. Share it.
    I would like to set up a small research endowment. I'm not sure how I would choose what to sponsor ... mental health, autism, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, heart and stroke. 
As I mentally pencil in dollar amounts beside each of these things, it occurs to me that what I could really use is $1 million per annum. Since I don't buy lottery tickets and I haven't published a book that's been optioned by Brad Pitt, I'll have to find some other source of huge income. Seems to me that Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton could spare some change.

Oh, heck. Maybe I should just go ahead and make my own sex tape. What? You don't think it would be the boon to my career that it was to theirs? I'm sure there's a market for videos of middle-aged-multi-pregnancy women enjoying themselves. Dim lighting and soft focus can do a lot...

Friday, November 18, 2011

I think it's trying to tell us something.

Steve had One of Those Weeks, at least as far as commuting is concerned.
The van in June 2010 when it was being shipped to Canada from Colorado.
Ordinarily, Steve either bicycles to work or takes the bus. This week, however, he was pretending he was a real soldier updating his soldier qualifications by studying first aid, practicing weapon care and shooting things, and firefighting and surviving a gas attack.

They do not do these things downtown (can you imagine if they did?); he had to go out to the boonies. So he drove the van, our second vehicle.

Note: I am not a good citizen; I drive to work each day. So sue me.

[No, really, don't sue me.]

Monday, the battery died while Steve was running errands on the way home from work.

Tuesday, the van was still at the shop waiting for the new battery.

Wednesday, he discovered a flat tire when he went out to start the van.

Thursday, all was well after he replaced the two front wheels. (Fortunately, our snow tires are mounted on rims, so it was a do-it-yourself project and an opportunity to teach Peter how to change a tire.)

Today, Steve was driving on the 417 when he heard a funny rattle-y sound. He pulled over and checked the wheels: no bulges or evidence of imminent failure.

About five seconds after he pulled back onto the highway, the left-front wheel ran away from home and went careening into the traffic, never to be seen again. While doing so, it created quite a stir and caused considerable damage to another vehicle. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

It seems the nuts had worked loose. Perhaps it was not a do-it-yourself job after all?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lay versus Lie

Today's rant is brought to you by the ever-confusing pair of verbs: to lay and to lie*.


Here's the trick: to lay is transitive. That means it takes an object. So you lay something down.
  • Watch as I lay down my book.
  • I lay the blanket softly over the sleeping baby so as not to awaken him.
Its conjugations are lay, have laid, laid. (Full conjugation may be found here.) 
  • Present: He lays the hammer on his workbench. 
  • Perfect: "See?" he retorts, "I have laid the hammer in a safe place." 
  • Past: Yesterday he laid the dangerous hammer within reach of the toddler, and the child had mangled her doll house. 

On the other hand, to lie is intransitive, which means it does NOT take an object. 
  • I lie down and weep.
  • The shelf lies perpendicular to the wall.
Its conjugations are lie, lain, lay. And therein lies the confusion! Lay is the past participle. 
  • Present: She lies silently under the bed so that the assassin will not know she is there.
  • Perfect: She has lain thus for more than an hour and now needs to empty her bladder.
  • Past: And so she lay for the rest of the day, finally drifting off to sleep and snoring, which revealed her hiding place to the murderer. 
  • Future: She will lie in state on Saturday.
(Sorry about introducing another tense there. I couldn't leave the story hanging!)

Still confused? Here's an audio to help you remember. Unless he is talking to a chicken, asking her to lay her eggs all across his big, brass bed, he is using the WRONG VERB!

He also screws up the "Eat your cake and have it, too" quotation. But I will forgive him both these sins because this song is just sweet. And "Lie, lady, lie" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Poetic license.

But I don't like that he says, "Stay, lady, stay." Sounds like he's talking to a Labrador retriever.

And now I can't stop picturing him reaching (with hideous intention) for a terrified chicken or big dog in the middle of the night.

(Grammar Girl points out that "Lay Down Sally" also gets it wrong, unless Eric Clapton is asking a third party to lay Sally down and then take him [Clapton] in her/his arms. Maybe Sally is an infant and Clapton wants the baby's mother to lay the child down so that the two of them (Clapton and mother) can get it on?)

Oh, this is so complicated. Why can't we all just get along?

*Note, I do not mean "to lie" in the sense of to tell an untruth. That just further confuses the issue.

Romantic Weekend Getaway

While I was struggling to pull myself out of my slump earlier this fall, Steve suggested that it might be time for us to plan a weekend together, just the two of us.

Since we first became parents, we've tried to do this once a year. Thanks to Steve's family, and some dear friends, we've been able to do so. Now that the kids are older, we have even greater flexibility. We had already taken this year's romantic weekend back in February, so it wasn't really time, but I think Steve sensed my emotional absence and reached out to me. (Yes, I do indeed thank God daily for this incredible blessing.)

So I booked an escape to Montreal. I caught a seat sale on train tickets because I love travel by rail. And I splurged on staying at the Fairmont Le Reine Élizabeth* hotel, which is right next door to the train station in the heart of downtown and walking distance from all sorts of restaurants and entertainment.

Steve was the photographer this time. I had lots of very kind comments on Facebook about what a lovely picture this is and how good I look. But I think the most beautiful thing about it is how happy I am when I'm with Stephen. 
Even waiting at the train station is part of the vacation. Unlike the airport where you practically disrobe and surrender your firstborn to the authorities, train travel is just so ... quaint. Slow. Quiet.
The flag at the station was still at half-staff, and the light filtering through the clouds was a surprise.

The gentle rocking of the train is always enough to lull me. (I think, as with hammocks, it hearkens back to some infant memories of being cradled.)

We pulled in to Montreal just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon and the sky turned that cobalt blue that lasts mere minutes.

Cathédrale Marie-reine-du-monde | Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral
(The tree branches are red because of the tail lights of taxis at the taxi stand.)
We went for an early dinner at the highly recommended Restaurant Julien. I did not bring my camera, because it's not that kind of place.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we did a bus tour on Saturday. For me, the hands-down highlight of the tour was the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal.

The interior is one of the most ornate in North America. I just love those blues.
A phenomenal choir was rehearsing while we toured. Perfect backdrop.
BTW, this was taken without a tripod and with no flash.
Unbelievably (to me) many of the tour participants opted to go for coffee and a pastry instead. I realize that it is rare for me to turn down food, but this was well worth the trade. (And why did they come on the tour if they didn't want to see the sites?)

I can't get enough of the detailed craftsmanship in old architecture.

We got back just in time for a couple of smoked-meat sandwiches - a nosh for which Montreal is famous. We had skipped lunch after a big breakfast, so were famished.
The waiter asked if we wanted our sandwiches "medium." I thought all smoked meat was well done, so I asked what he meant. He said it referred to how much fat was in the meat used. He recommended "medium" as the best compromise, but I secretly wondered if "high" was the tastiest.
Fun tables, eh?
That evening we went to see "God of Carnage," a hysterically funny play, at the Centaur Theatre. Great script, perfect physical pratfalls and timing.

Aside from all that, Stephen took TWO NAPS EACH DAY! And I didn't take a single one. I did sleep late, however.
Steve power-napping on the train on the way home. 
And now we're home, feeling restored and reconnected.

* Yes it is LE Reine Élizabeth because the article refers to le hôtel, not to the actual Queen. But it drove me crazy all weekend.

P.S. I screwed up my packing. Steve made a list. I had a copy. I ignored it. Consequently, I forgot pyjamas and my cellphone charger. I wore Steve's (used) undershirt for PJs and I bought a charger (not quite the romantic lingerie I had intended). The charger will stay in my toiletries go-bag.

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