Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Chapter

As this is the week for New Year’s resolutions, I think I should put “read more” on my list.

I admire people who can read a whole book in one sitting. These folks always make it sound so delicious: curling up in a comfy chair with a blankie and a cup of tea, where they will savor a good novel for an afternoon, maybe stretching it into the evening. Some get under the covers. Some can stay up all night with a book. While laundry piles up and dirty dishes wait in the sink. No matter. Their book is their total focus until “The End.”

I’ve never done it.

Why? Because, to my deep embarrassment, I am the world’s slowest reader. There is no point in me even trying. If I were to sit down to read a book all the way through, I’d still be plugging away this time next year.

Ken gave me a book for Christmas and wrote on the tag: “Here is your investment gift for this year.”  He’s a funny guy. But the truth is I still haven’t finished a book he gave me for Christmas two years ago. And it’s a book of short stories! I’ve had to restart at least two of the stories a couple of times because it takes so long for me to read a few pages that I totally forget what happened at the beginning of the story.

Ken got three books for Christmas. He’s already read one and is half way through the second – and it has 683 pages! I haven’t a hope of ever getting through a book that size! Not in my lifetime anyway.

But yesterday afternoon, with nothing particularly pressing on my calendar, having already poured a cup of tea and the dog having already snuggled up beside me on the couch, I thought, “I’m going to read for a half an hour!” I picked up my investment gift and opened the cover. Riley hopped off the couch and went to the door with that look on his face that translates to, “Gotta go out this minute!” I didn’t get up right away. He circled around the hall and came back to look at me. “Now?” he said with his eyes. Circle again. “Now?” I put my book down. I let him out. He didn’t need to go out. He wanted to play.

By the time I came indoors again, it was time to think about dinner. Dinner rolled into kitchen clean-up. Kitchen clean-up rolled into family dog walk. Family dog walk rolled into favorite shows on TV. Check email and Facebook. Fill in my Weight Watchers points for the day. Start this blog. Put Riley out for the last time for the day. Get into bed. Ah, maybe a chance to read.

But then, reading at bed time is hopeless for me. I’m not so much a person known for having her nose in a book. More like, I’m a person with a book on my nose (from falling asleep after reading two paragraphs, just in case you didn’t catch my drift there.) It can take a long time to get through a book that way.

(Ironically, I have a degree in English. It’s a miracle that I got it. In undergrad, I did try to read “Moby Dick” in one night; the night before my American Literature exam. I fought sleep until 2 in the morning and then finally gave up. There wasn’t any chance I was going to get through that book, even if I had started it well in advance of the final. It turned out to be my albatross.  I got a humiliating “D” for that course, which seriously affected my grade point average and any chance at grad school. Fortunately, I got through undergrad on the comparatively easy reading of Shakespeare, the Iliad and the Romantic poets, plus Film 101 which required no reading at all.)

When someone asks me if I’ve read the latest best seller, I usually say, “No, not yet!” all the while thinking to myself, “Whether or not I ever do is doubtful.”

But “reading” does sound so nice, doesn’t it?

So, here it is: I resolve to read more in 2012. I could manage something in the 250-300 page range. I could let laundry pile up and dirty dishes wait in the sink if I really put my mind to it.  I could teach Riley to play fetch by himself (he’s a smart dog!) I could try to read during daylight hours. Sure I could!


Monday, December 19, 2011

Another Christmas Story

If you are a fan of the movie “A Christmas Story” you know that it has developed almost a cult-like following since it was first produced in 1983. I belong to this cult. I simply have to see this movie every year. (Although we don’t have a leg lamp, we do like to sing a chorus or two of “Fa-Ra-Ra-Ra” and refer to fragile parcels as “fra-gee-lay.”)

So when Ken said that a musical version of “A Christmas Story” was playing on stage in Chicago and would I like to go to see it, I was raring to go. We went this past weekend.

The movie is set in 1940 in Indiana. For me, it renders my childhood in the 1950s in Manitoba pretty much right on the money. Those of you who have seen the movie, know these scenes well.

The movie, and the musical, open with department store windows with animated toy displays that whole families would come downtown to see.  In my home town, these wonders were at Eaton’s department store – a dazzling display every year that would make a kid’s eyes grow as big as saucers. (My Canadian friends will also remember that you’d reach the verge of heat stroke shopping in the big store wearing your heavy winter coat, boots, gloves, hat and scarf. You’d have to carry them because you’d expire otherwise, but once you added in some parcels, you’d overheat for sure. On the way out, you’d stop at the giant bronze statue of Timothy Eaton at the entrance of the store to pull all your stuff on again and then you'd embrace the welcome blast of minus 30 degree frigid cold when you walked out again into the wind howling down Portage Avenue. Good times.)

Waiting in line to see Santa was both excruciatingly exciting and nerve wracking. I was one of those kids who was nervous about the whole episode and my childhood photos are testament to that fact. In one of them I’m looking sideways at Santa like I’m thinking he might be a mass murderer.

Just like in “A Christmas Story”, my Old Man battled “clinkers” in our cranky coal furnace. Up through the registers it sent groans and creaks and Dad’s cursing along with sudden blasts of black soot that settled throughout the house.

Every year Dad would bring home a tree so big that it needed to be hauled up and down from the basement a half-dozen times where, cursing, he would saw chunks off the top and bottom until he got it to fit the height of the living room (it never occurred to anyone that he might have measured it.) We never had a tree that looked quite symmetrical. He’d plug the lights into an outlet extension that had so many cords running into it that it looked like a plate of spaghetti. Every year the first lighting of the tree would blow a fuse, eliciting more curses and a search for a flashlight and a new fuse – or a penny to pop into the fuse circuit. (How did he not ever burn the house down? Maybe this is when I learned to spend sleepless nights imagining untold calamities.)

That was me, like the kid in the movie, wearing the snowsuit in which I could barely move, with the long scarf wound around and around my forehead, nose and mouth so that only my eyes would be showing.  (My grade one teacher had a deft hand with this technique. She used to hold one end of your scarf against your forehead and then spin you around holding the scarf out until the ends met and she could tuck the loose end in. You’d be dizzy for a few minutes, but the scarf was insurance against getting frostbite somewhere on your face on the walk home from school. It might be 30 below but, by God, we walked!)

And of course, like Ralphie in the show, I worked every angle to make sure Mum and Dad knew what I longed to get for Christmas. (You didn’t want to chance the whole thing to Santa alone. I mean, what if….?)

The musical version of the movie we saw in Chicago turned out to be funny and warm-hearted the highlight being a dance number featuring The Old Man and chorus doing a kick-line with leg lamps.

One sweet and sentimental song came at the end when the mother sings about all the crazy things that have happened, all the disasters that have befallen the family this Christmas, but it is their Christmas story, after all, theirs alone and totally to be cherished.

After the show, Ken and I wandered out of the theatre onto the busy, dazzling streets of Chicago. We went to look at Macy’s animated windows decorated with silver-glittered fairy tale creatures commanding dancing, twirling toys. We hurried along brightly lit, sparkling, Michigan Avenue's “Magnificent Mile” with our collars turned up and our gloved hands holding on tight to each other’s. We returned to our hotel in time for the Friday night chocolate buffet oh, heaven. As if on cue, a light snow began to transform the city into a giant snow globe.

There were tons of people on the street, imaginative animated figures in shop windows, Salvation Army bell-ringers on every corner, a brass quartet playing Christmas carols. We pinched ourselves to make sure we hadn’t time traveled back to the 1950s.

There is truth in art – and even in musicals. Maybe something magical happened while we were in the theatre. This is our Christmas story - and we're sticking to it.

(And if you have never seen the movie, “A Christmas Story”, you will surely get your chance because it runs for 24 hours from 8:00 pm on December 24th through to 8:00 pm on December 25th, check your local listings.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Good Old Days

When I mentioned to Ken the other day that I hadn’t thought of a blog topic for this week, he said, “Uh, Christmas?!?” in that tone that suggested that I was, as usual, tragically unaware of an elephant sitting on the couch.

“Everything that could possibly be said about Christmas, I’m sure has already been said,” I replied.

“Nobody does Christmas like you, dear,” he said. I can never tell if he is just being droll.  

Anyway, I’m not sure I have anything original or relevant to add to the subject.  I could say, “And to all a good night!” at this point and let you get on with your baking, wrapping, newsletter writing or Menorah lighting for that matter but two things come to mind that I thought I would share with you, dear friends, which you might find enjoyable, regardless of your ethnicity, belief system or disposition toward the season.

I was in the car yesterday when the radio station I was listening to played that classic holiday favorite, “Christmas, Don’t Delay” by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I thought, “Ugh!” and turned it off. But then, I thought, “Oh, heck,” and turned it back on. It was curiously satisfying to hear it.

What is it about the Chipmunks that they have endured all these years? The first Alvin and the Chipmunks song came out in 1958 (by the same songwriter, Ross Bagdasarian, who gave us “The Witch Doctor” with those unforgettable lyrics, “Oo, Eee, Oo, Ah, Ah, Bing-bang, Walla-walla, Bing-bang.” Those were simpler times, weren’t they?)

I loved the Chipmunks when I was a kid. I was five when they arrived on the scene not too young to appreciate, with my attention deficit disordered brain, that Alvin was a great role model.  I loved that Alvin was always goofing off, totally distracted, until the guy screams, “Alvin. ALVIN! ALLLL-VIN!!!!”  I thought that was hilarious when I was a kid. And at five, you are totally in on the joke that if chipmunks could sing, they’d sound just like a speeded up record.

Not sure how that part plays for kids today who have never heard a speeded up record, but apparently whole new generations of five year olds who go to the Chipmunks movies appreciate the humor. There is now on a third iteration of “new” chipmunks updated with hoodies and bling who sing popular rap and rock songs. A girl trio, the “Chipettes,” have been added to represent the female population in a spirit of equality, presumably, or as seems to be demonstrated in the trailers shown on TV, they’re there to shake their little chipmunk booties to inject a little sex into the formula so that Hollywood once again can inculcate kids with adult themes.

Still, although I haven’t actually seen a chipmunk movie, I like to imagine that kids think it’s hilarious that the human screams, “ALLLL-VIN!!!!” to get the little guy’s attention.


This nostalgic bent lingered until dinner time when I was cutting up celery for a salad. I walked into the living room with a celery stick for Ken, and said, “Hors d’oeuvre?”

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said. “Hey, remember when we used to have Cheez-Whiz on these?”

“Oh, yeah, Cheez-Whiz was good!” I replied. “Or we had Velveeta at our house when I was a kid.”

Those made me think that I’d love to do a dinner party sometime for friends who have similar nostalgia for childhood foods.  If I followed the prescription for entertaining that my mother set out, we’d start with celery sticks with Velveeta cheese on top, a jar of pimento-stuffed Manzanita olives, and smoked oysters, from a can, served on crackers. Dad drank Scotch and my mother had Rye and 7-Up, so we’d have to go with hard liquor instead of wine.

First course: shrimp cocktail served over shredded lettuce in a fancy cocktail glass with red, horseradishy sauce on the side.

Main course:  a roast of beef accompanied by the ultimate potato – roasted around the meat (the rest of the week we ate mashed.)  Maybe a jellied salad – a shimmering hill of lime green with bits of cucumber, carrot, celery and green onion floating within its transparent glow. Likely some cauliflower with Velveeta sauce.  

Wine: Mateus. In that flat, green lantern of a bottle. Or maybe some nice Canadian Baby Duck. (Seriously. Andre’s Baby Duck, a rather sweet, sparkling white wine, was the most popular wine in Canada right up to 1973.)

Dessert?  Ambrosia. A recipe that I think must have come straight out of one of those Kraft Foods commercials:  red Jell-O mashed up and mixed with whipped cream, canned fruit cocktail, marshmallows and coconut. Who could have imagined this? It was such an improbable concoction.

At Christmas there was always turkey with mashed potatoes and all the veggies you can imagine. Dessert was an extravaganza of traditional plum pudding with rum sauce along with my mother’s Christmas cake and shortbread, mincemeat pie, Icelandic vinarterta and peppermint stick ice cream served at the kid’s table. The folks had a bit of a sweet tooth!

Well, I’m back to living in the present today. But this time of year conjures childhood memories no matter how much you might wish to suppress them.  Once you start, many more flood in. Maybe I’ll have some more to share next week!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sunk by a Sink?

Do you watch those shows on TV where a real estate agent takes prospective buyers around to three houses and then, once they’ve picked one, you get to see how hideously they’ve decorated it? Ken and I love those shows. They are our “default” programming, meaning that if there is nothing on that we want to watch, we’ll switch to House Hunters and yell at the TV, “You bought House number three! You’re idiots!” Or, “Are you kidding with that color on the walls?” We are not proud of ourselves.

There are a few versions of these programs. There is “House Hunters”, which is the original. Then there is “House Hunters International”, as well as “My First Place” and “Property Virgins”. And more recently, “Selling New York” and “Selling L.A.”, both of which fall into my “house porn” category because, with jaw-dropping, drool-inducing, properties on view, at obscene prices over $2 million, these two shows are strictly for voyeurs who can too easily find themselves lustfully using self-abusive mental messages like, “Why aren’t I a billionaire?”

The producers of House Hunters know exactly why the show has such appeal. An ad they has a couple driving around a neighborhood of craftsman houses at dusk. They glance into living rooms where the drapes are not yet drawn until they’re spotted by a homeowner and they speed away. The voice over says, “Go ahead! You know you want to look!” We all want to be Looky-Loos. It is curiously satisfying to see inside someone’s home. Or to imagine what you might do to make a place your own.  But I fear that these programs have begun to set the standards to which America thinks it should aspire.
A theory I’m working on is that shows of this ilk might actually be responsible for the housing crisis! Here’s what I’m thinking:

In one sense, they are aspirational – and this is the positive side. They play into dreams of finding the perfect home where love and contentment reign because there are double vanities in the bathroom to ensure domestic harmony. The concluding moments on House Hunters always feature the new homeowners declaring to the camera that they have made the perfect choice and they will live happily ever after until the day someone carries them out in a pine box.  

We cheer when we like the people. When you spend a half hour with someone, you get to know them.  Especially as you see them react to the houses they inspect. If the most intelligent thing they can say throughout their house tour is, “Oh, this room is a good size!” we are done with them. And then there is the lame attempt at humor we hear frequently when a woman encounters a walk-in closet and tells her husband, “Oh, honey, I’ll take all of this space! Ha, Ha! You can have the tiny closet in the guest room!”  This became a tired joke a long time ago.

But other people, the ones to whom we take an instant liking, have compelling stories, or they avoid those tired clich├ęs or they demonstrate some awareness of their surroundings – or that they’re conscious, at least.  We feel good that they find their forever home.
But I digress. My point is that the positive and the negative sides of these programs are too closely alligned. I mean, first we need to acknowledge that there are so many people for whom home ownership is a dream way beyond grasp – both here in North America and around the world. So, that fact makes the following observation that much more jarring.

So many participants we see on these shows are viewing houses in the half-million-and-up price ranges. Many of them look as though they can’t afford a half-million and up. What the heck do they do for a living? Are they the ones who get no-down-payment mortgages that they can’t possibly afford?

And what propels them in their quest for the perfect domicile? A wish list that they surely must have developed out of watching these shows in the first place because EVERYONE wants the same things! Suddenly it seems there is high demand in the world that we MUST ALL HAVE and you hear this almost every episode hardwood floors, crown molding, two vanities in the master bath, stainless steel kitchen appliances, granite counter tops, walk-in closets, a “good space for entertaining” and the guys want a “man cave” because presumably they don’t intend to interact with the rest of the family on any kind of regular arrangement unless they come out of their lair to slay a mastodon and get a beer.
We watched one show with newbie home owners for whom black glass-front appliances were a deal-breaker. The appliances appeared to me to be o.k., but the wife said, “Those would have to go right away so I could get my stainless steel.”  HER stainless steel? It’s a birthright? She HAS to have it? They passed on this house, which had every other feature they desired except those steel appliances!

Another young couple we saw rejected a fine-looking house they loved with the historic character they were seeking because they couldn’t get their heads around a closet that had been converted to provide a main floor powder room which had a tiny sink. They actually made the sink their rallying cry for why they wouldn’t buy that house! They actually said, “Yuck!” Yuck? As if a tiny sink is somehow disgusting!?!

I yelled at them, “You Brats! Get over yourselves! WE have a tiny closet renovation with a tiny sink! Because the 1925 house we bought only had one upstairs bathroom! That’s what you get with an old house! Our guests think it’s adorable!”  Sheesh! What version of reality are they dealing with? As if that tiny bathroom should somehow have been bigger? How? If you’re converting a closet into a bathroom it’s because that’s your only option!

I can’t believe my parents’ “life lessons” echo in my head: “In our day,” they’d bellow, “we saved up to get what we wanted!”  I hate to admit it, but I think they were right! What happened to making do? Or working toward your goal a little bit at a time? Or accepting limitations?
So as I said, I think I see where the crisis occurred: everyone has developed five star tastes on two star incomes.

But, anyway, thanks for listening. I should go now and tidy up around here. My granite counter tops need wiping and my hardwood floors need to be swept. And that tiny sink… well, yuck!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cuddling, and Other Winter Sports

We had our first snowfall of the season in Dayton this week – a ½ inch overnight.  Some schools announced two hour delays in opening the next morning. The newspaper ran a story headlined: “Residents should prepare winter survival kits.”

Alright, let’s all just calm down a bit. There was no cause for wide spread panic. Let me tell you about real winters and how to manage them!

People here in the U.S. frequently ask Ken and me about Canadian winters. The common misconception seems to be that temps in the Frozen North dip below freezing year round and that perpetual winter exists just as soon as you step across the 49th parallel. It’s true! Ha, Ha! A little Canadian humour there!

Mind you, many Canadian locales have had snow already. But, in these days of global climate change, even some wintery bad boys, like Winnipeg and Edmonton, can expect a thaw or two before the season is over.

Now, in my day…ahem (old fogey throat-clearing sound)… winters were winters.  Growing up in Winnipeg, if we didn’t get a major snowstorm on Halloween, for sure we’d get one by mid-November and could count on the white stuff sticking around until April.  We could also count on good solid stretches of minus 30 degree temperatures. Weeks of it. Fahrenheit or Celsius – doesn’t matter. When it’s that cold, it’s real cold!

Real cold is when your nostrils freeze shut when you walk out the door and take your first breath of sub-Arctic air. Real cold is when your eyes tear up from the biting cold and the moisture instantly freezes on your face (when your mother says things like, “For heaven’s sakes, will you stop crying, your face is going to freeze!”)  

Real cold is when snow banks plowed up along roadways get taller than your averaged-height adult.  And when the tires on your parked car actually freeze square with one flat surface at the bottom and you ka-thunk, ka-thunk down the street for several miles before they thaw and round out again.  And when a three inch thick layer of frost builds up on the inside of your windows and you can draw pictures in it.

Real cold is when you know, from an early age, that there is a strong probability you could freeze to death while waiting for a bus.

My Canadian readers are thinking, “Mm-hmm. So?”

So, don’t we all feel silly when the evening news gives us winter weather warnings for a ½ inch of snow?

But, you know, Canadian winters aren’t all bad. We Canadians know how to have fun when the days get long and the snow crunches underfoot. We watch Hockey Night in Canada. We go to the theatre or the symphony. We engage in winter sports: hockey, skating, tobogganing...

…which reminds me of a conversation I had once with an elderly Winnipegger. The gentleman was in his 80s, the father of my mother’s friend, one of the many Scots who made up the population of old codgers in my neighborhood.  I was in my 20s, recently married, out of work, with a car, which made me vulnerable to requests to drive elderly relatives to various appointments or what-not. I have no recall of where I was taking the old man, but I remember it was January.  His opening remarks, in a thick Scottish burr, were, “Do ye cuddle, lass?”

“Uh,” I replied, “Well, now and again, yes… with my husband, anyway” (thinking, you old coot!)

“Aye, thas good!” he continued, encouraged.  “Lads and lassies cuddlin’ together…thas good!”

“Um, yeah.” (O.K., what’s the old fool after?)

“I used to love cuddlin’ w’ the lassies!”

(Now thinking, am I going to have to turn this car around and take you home?)

“Cuddlin’ makes the winter gae faster, dunna ye’ think, lass? Keeps ye’ war-rrrdd-m”

“Oh, yeah…???”

“Aye, throwin’ and sweepin’ …”

(Huh?) “Oh, CURLING!”

“Aye! Cuddlin’!” he said as if I hadn’t understood a word he’d said.

 “Yes, yes, definitely! Curling! Yup, sure does keep you warm alright!”

Whew! From there, the conversation took a brighter turn.

 For my American readers who aren’t so familiar with the sport, curling is the national sport of Winnipeg, especially among the descendants of the Scots who brought it there. The heaving of a granite stone and the vigorous sweeping that follows can definitely warm you up! So do the shots of Scotch afterward.

Yes, curling really does make the winter go faster.

So can cuddling.