Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December, Montgomery County


Montgomery County

A Play in One Act


Now an Off-off-off-off-off-off-off Broadway hit!

See it now! Limited Engagement!

Written by: Ken & Lesley Neufeld

Directed by: Ken Neufeld

Dramaturgy: Lesley Neufeld


Ken Neufeld                 Lesley Neufeld

And, Riley, the Wonder Dog

December: Montgomery County

A Play in One Act


STAGE DIRECTIONS: It’s the second week of December and the Neufelds are decorating the Christmas tree. Their faithful Golden Retriever, Riley is asleep on the couch.

KEN: (animated, yet cautious)

                       Hey, Sweetie, here’s a thought. Let’s NOT do a Holiday Newsletter this year!

LESLEY:       Oh no, we can’t quit now! We’ve done an original, smart-aleck-y newsletter for 25 years! Besides, we have fans out there!

KEN:            Yeah, but how in heck do we get a new idea at this late stage? We’ve done song parodies on everything from Christmas carols to American folk songs to Broadway musicals; twice in fact. And we absolutely hit our peak with our Beatles suburban album.  Remember, “Peace, Love and Barbecue?”

LESLEY:      Loved it! My other favorite was the Ken and Lesley Trading Cards. “Collect All Six!” Remember that? And our movie reviews? And Suburbia, the Musical - with the hit song from Les Miz, “Bring Milk Home”? Hilarious!

KEN:             That was a good one. So was our parody of “The X Files,”…”The “N Files.”

LESLEY:        Ah, we were young then. Hand-done illustrations and photocopy paste-ups - the production took us weeks.

KEN:            Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Who’s got time? Christmas is right around the corner! Besides, we’ve got to stay current. We’ve got to be fresh.

LESLEY:      We need Photoshop. Oh, well. Something will come to us. It always does. We just have to think about our usual topics – travel, house, work, Riley, giant zucchinis – and then find a funny concept, like we do every year.

(K&L continue to decorate the tree.)

LESLEY: (pauses)

                     Well, let’s think. What’s been big this year that we could have fun with? Twitter? Selfies? Miley Cyrus? Rob Ford? Photo Bombing?

KEN:           Hm. Maybe. Photo Bombing has some possibilities. We could talk about our trip to London and Scotland. But we could photo bomb you lurking in the background in that picture of William and Kate with the baby.

LESLEY:       That’s funny. And we could photo bomb you into the movie set for “Braveheart!” Ha! What else could we photo bomb? How about our major front step and sidewalk renovation?

KEN:           I could be in a photo with President Obama advising him on Canadian health care – you know, give him a bit of Tommy Douglas talk.

LESLEY:       Oh, I don’t know about that one! That’s going to rub some people the wrong way.

KEN:              Good point. It would be difficult to do the photos.

LESLEY:         Unless we get Photoshop.

KEN:              Maybe Santa will bring you Photoshop.

LESLEY:         That’s about as romantic as getting a Lady Schick.

(K&L stop for a sip of wine. Riley continues to snooze.)

LESLEY: (humming American Woman)

                        I know! How about Canadian songs?

KEN:              What Canadian songs? We’ve never done Canadian songs because nobody knows any Canadian songs.

LESLEY:         Sure they do! “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK!”

KEN:              That’s not Canadian, it’s Monty Python.

LESLEY:         Oh, right. O.K., Canadian folksongs, then. (Singing) “I’ze the b’y that builds the boat,”

KEN:              What?

LESLEY:         You didn’t learn Maritime folk songs in school?

                        Then, how about “Four Strong Winds,” or “Canadian Railroad Trilogy?” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”?

KEN:              Have you seen Gordon Lightfoot recently – he should have a talk with Kenny Roger’s plastic surgeon.

(K&L put a few more decorations on the tree.)

KEN:              Sure was a nice trip to Scotland this summer though.

LESLEY:         Ach, laddie. I loved it.

KEN:              Me, too. What I saw of it, anyway. I didn’t really look at the scenery much. Driving on the wrong side of the road kinda took my focus.

LESLEY:         You were ok once we stopped and we pried your knuckles loose from the steering wheel.

KEN:              Yeah. I earned a wee dram of single malt that day!

LESLEY:         What’s your excuse for the wee dram on your oatmeal at breakfast?

KEN:              Hey - “When in Rome” or at least Glasgow.

(Riley gets up, yawns, stretches, goes over to sniff the tree and then goes back to the couch.)

LESLEY:         Poor doggy. He’s a pooped pup. The girls at Club K-9 said he played all day with his buddies.

KEN:              Well, I’ve been working all day too. OK, yeah, don’t say it, “We work so others can play.” Anyway, I’m pooped and it’s bed time.

(K&L unplug the Christmas tree lights and head upstairs to bed. Riley bounds up the stairs ahead of them.)

LESLEY:         You know, we really are so lucky. We’ve had such a good year.

KEN:              True. I have the best job in the world. We live in a great community. We have good friends and family. And you’ve got volunteering at Dayton Visual Arts Center - and your blog (www.braveneufworld.blogspot.com) and dancercise class.

LESLEY:         And you love your walks with Riley and your trips to New York to see shows.

KEN:              It’s a Wonderful Life!

LESLEY:         Hey, that’s the show you’ve got running right now! (pause) Maybe a newsletter idea will come to us tomorrow.    

KEN:              Say, “Good night,” Lesley.

LESLEY:         Good night Lesley.


Merry Christmas to All and Happy 2014!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Conversations with 60-Year Olds

Their morning routine is well...fairly routine for the most part. Breakfast and read the newspaper while watching the “Today Show” on the kitchen TV. After he eats his Cheerios, he goes upstairs to shower and get ready for work. She feeds the dog. This one day he got up and picked up the remote to turn off the TV as he usually does.

Her:      No, leave it on, please. I want to see a story coming up. They said that woman who sings has a big announcement.

Him:       Oh, who’s that?

Her:       You know the one. She made it big a couple of years ago.

HIM:      Weren’t you just watching a minute ago when they said what was coming up?

HER:       Yeah, but I wasn’t paying attention. You know who I mean. She won that contest.

Him:       Carrie Underwood? Is she going to announce that she isn’t much of an actress?

Her:       Ha Ha. No! It was that woman that was on, “American Idol.” No, no, I mean, “British Idol.”

Him:       You mean, “Britain’s Got Talent”?

Her:       Yeah, yeah! That’s it. Boyle. Somebody Boyle.

Him:       Oh, yeah. Sarah Boyle.

Her:       No. That’s not right. What IS her name?

Him:      Yeah….it’s Sarah Boyle. Scottish. Les Miz.

Her:       Les MIZ?!? That’s Sarah Brightman! Anyway, Scottish?? Les Miz??? Les Miz takes place in France!

Him:       Sarah Brightman wasn’t in Les Miz! This Boyle woman from Scotland sang a song from Les Miz and she won “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Her:       Oh, Yeah! “I Dreamed a Dream!” That was a song from Les Miz! That’s right!

He went upstairs. She sat down with another cup of tea. Matt Lauer on the “Today Show” led in with the story about the woman.

Her: (calling upstairs):    SUSAN!!!

Him: (from the bathroom):          Who?

Her: (standing in the hall at the base of the stairs):           It’s Susan!

Him:       Who’s Susan?

Her:       Sarah is SUSAN!

Him:       What?

Her:       That woman who sings! It’s SUSAN BOYLE!

Him:       Thanks.  Can I finish shaving now?

Her:       Yeah, sorry. I thought you’d want to know. I would have been thinking about it all day.

Him:       What’s her big announcement?

Her: (returning to the TV in the kitchen):              I don’t know. I missed the story.

You can’t make this stuff up. What’s troubling is this ominous question: What are they going to be like when they’re 80?


Saturday, December 7, 2013

You Must Be Used to Cold Weather! You're Canadian!

Winter weather warnings started on Wednesday. Forecast:  a Friday storm. Snowpocalypse. Snowmageddon. Ice. Sleet. Freezing drizzle. Snow. Power outages affecting millions. Trees downed. Highways shut down. Airports paralyzed. Traffic snarled. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. For days. And it was headed our way!

I checked weather.com every hour. 90% chance of a wintry mix changing to snow starting Thursday night and lasting right into early Saturday morning. It looked bad! This could be REALLY bad! The web site headlines bleated: Winter Storm Could Impact Millions!!!! The margin headlines were even worse!

“Don’t Let THIS Happen To YOU!!” (It showed a photo of a badly-blackened, frost-bitten ear!)

“THIS Killed 50 Million People!” (You don’t want to know!)

“BEWARE! Dangerous New Threat Ahead!”

“That’s Not Snow….it’s SPIDERS!”

“What’s the Germiest Place in Your House!?!”

“Sperm Whale EXPLODES!”

Holy cats!! What was happening? The sky must be falling! This really IS going to be The End of our days on Earth! No wonder everyone was panicking!

By Friday morning there was a ½ inch of snow on the ground! TV morning shows announced that the schools were closed! I hopped in the Subaru and drove cautiously along empty, dry streets that the snow plows had already cleared to get to our local market. I bought blizzard provisions and a bottle of Scotch. (Might as well have emergency supplies!) Temperatures plummeted to near freezing!

I watched the snow fall all day. It must have piled up to, Oh Merciful Heaven, 4 inches by nightfall! The evening news showed people scraping ice off their windshields! And plows clearing streets! Someone sent in a photo of lawn chairs with little piles of snow on them! It was ghastly! I had to look away!

But you have to hand it to people. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. A neighbor was out there with his snow blower at 11:00 on Friday night, making his sidewalk safe again. It makes your heart glow a little brighter knowing we CAN overcome.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I have a healthy respect for a decent snow fall. I grew up in Winnipeg. I learned to drive in Winnipeg. And as many of the people we meet here in the US like to observe, “You must be used to cold weather! You’re Canadian!”  As unwitting as that comment may be, it’s true! It fazed us not one bit to drive in a snowstorm. I can remember only 3 times in the 25 years I lived in my hometown from the day of my birth to the day Ken and I moved away that snowfalls caused any major disruption. I think snow caused schools to close only once during my childhood and teen years. The temperatures might be 30 below. The drifts might be higher than your house. And visibility might be zero in a blinding snow storm, but we walked the 6 blocks to school anyway, by gum! We wore long underwear! Our buses ran! We never lost power! Our Dads drove to work! I mean, if you were too scared to drive in snow, you didn’t go out all winter. We were cool. My Dad taught me how to handle a 360 degree ice skid in the Polo Park mall parking lot. We carried survival gear in the trunk and we laughed at winter weather.

Ken and I moved to Vancouver in 1980. In the rain forest on the west coast, snow is an oddity and on this occasion the white stuff was really only promising to pile up to an inch or so. We didn’t pay too much attention to our first snow fall….UNTIL….I rode home on the bus with a co-worker that day. There was an air of panic among the passengers. My friend explained to me that a snowfall could paralyze a city that was so unused to it — a city with no snow removal equipment. A couple of years previous he and his office mates had slept at their desks one night because a monster snow storm had shut down the city. I freaked. There was no way I wanted to do a sleepover with those clowns! After that I became terrified by snow. I avoided winter driving whenever possible.

Eventually we moved to Buffalo. Now we’re talking snow. I regained my driving confidence once again. But Buffalo is a city that generates serious snow. Snow that could defeat even us intrepid Canadians. One Christmas season we got a steady eight feet of the stuff within five days. Eight feet. Do you know how much snow that is? It is an impressive amount, is what it is. All we could do was dig a tunnel for the dog so she could go out to do her business.

So, I must admit that I giggle a bit at all the fuss made over a mere dusting of snow. And I’ve learned whenever someone blurts out, “You must be used to this!” to smile proudly, sagely and say, “Yes, yes. We Canadians thrive on the cold!”


Friday, November 29, 2013

How Offal!

Warning to my vegetarian friends, this blog discusses organ meats!

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88% of all Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. It took only a very quick internet search to find that data.

A report on how many people eat turkey giblets was harder to come by. I’ll bet it’s fewer than 88%. That’s a shame! In my opinion, the contents of that little bag tucked inside the turkey carcass are the best part of the bird.

What do you do with that bagful of innards? Maybe this is you: rubber gloves encasing your hands and eyes tightly squeezed shut you reach in, haul out the sac of guts and promptly hurl them in the trash. Many people shiver at the mention of liver. Some positively turn ashen at the thought of eating the heart, the neck and the stomach. But throw them out? That’s just an awful thing to do to offal! Bring ‘em on, I say!

My mother always cooked the neck, gizzard, heart and liver in the roasting pan alongside the bird. They got “done” long before the turkey was ready. She’d bring them out of the oven, lay them on a saucer and sprinkle them with salt. She and Dad would eat them as a snack before preparing the rest of the meal. Once I was considered mature enough to deserve a taste, I became hooked.  So tasty! So rich! So, well, hearty! After that, we fought over who got what.

Many years later, after having cooked many turkeys on my own, I attended a lecture at the University of British Columbia presented by Margaret Visser. Once referring to herself as “an anthropologist of everyday life,” she was a popular commentator on CBC Radio, delving into detail about how we came about doing many of the things we do.  I loved her books, “The Rituals of Dinner,” “The Way We Are,” and “Much Depends on Dinner.” Her topic that day was “Rites of Holiday Feasts.” I wish I could quote verbatim to tell you about it, but it was too long ago. I do recall her talking about the olden-days; medieval origins of holiday meals when large roasted fowls were served to large crowds. The privilege of eating heart of the bird, it seems, was reserved for the chieftain of the clan. Visser explained that this rite was passed along down until today mother and father, husband and wife, maintain the privilege of eating the heart and other giblets (cooked!)in the kitchen, privately, before guests arrive. Maybe Ken and I are the last ones on earth to do this, but I nearly shouted in that lecture hall, “YES! We do that!”

When Ken’s family first invited me to their turkey dinners, I discovered another use for giblets. Stock for the gravy! Ken’s mom plopped poultry neck, heart, stomach and liver in a pot along with chopped onions and let them simmer all day until the bird came out of the oven. The strained liquid was pure gold to add to the pan drippings for gravy. Why she added Bisto was a mystery to me. There was so much flavor from the giblets already.

Then as young adults we visited a Beni-hana-style restaurant – you know, one of those places where the chefs wield large Ginzu knifes deftly chopping morsels of food right in front of you and searing them on those giant grills. We were served an appetizer of chicken livers sizzled with scallions and set ablaze with soy sauce and sherry. Heaven on a plate!

Ever since, when cooking a Sunday or Thanksgiving fowl, I anxiously anticipate getting the chicken or turkey in the oven so I can chop up the liver, heart and gizzard and get them sautéing with onions and garlic. A splash of soy sauce and a swirl of butter to finish them off and we have an appetizer on crusty French bread fit for a chieftain.
Or who can resist chopped liver blended with chopped boiled eggs, onions, a smash of garlic and maybe a shot of whiskey? Yum.
And so I say to you, the lily-livered among you who toss out that bag of turkey parts: Have some guts! Honor ancient tradition and ritual and stir up those giblets in some savory way. Gobble, gobble!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rousing Words, Eh?

This week marks two solemn dates on the American calendar. One is the 50th anniversary on November 22nd of the assassination of John Firzgerald Kennedy. This is one of those few events in history that carries such significance that everyone of a certain age can remember where they were when it happened. Even a 10 year old school kid in Winnipeg. My teacher announced it with a grave voice that day in my classroom. All the adults were very sad for a long time.

The other noteworthy event this week is the 150thanniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which was on November 19th.. Did you learn to recite it off by heart when you were in school? I did. In my school, we were taught to memorize the Gettysburg Address and then raise our voices in unison with all the gravitas that grade four kids can muster.

This would not have been an unusual task for school kids in those days, except for the fact that we were little Canadian school kids. I’ve often wondered why we were taught such a quintessentially American speech. No doubt because it is a brilliant oratorical work – and when you’re in grade four you really do appreciate great oratory. Or perhaps our teacher took  an opportunity on the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s speech  to put President Kennedy’s death into some historical context for us. I really don’t recall. I just remember belting out, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth…….” with sincere 8-year-old solemnity. I think we even learned the Pledge of Allegiance.

That’s what it was like to be a kid in Canada in the olden days. We learned our Canadian history, sure. About Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and all the explorers looking for the Northwest Passage and “discovering” Canada in the process. About early settlement in New France and important battles for sovereignty and Confederation in 1867. But we learned American and British history quite thoroughly and in those years we began to learn French as well. It was enough  to give a kid an identity crisis.

I mean, why didn’t we learn to recite any illustrious Canadian speeches? Hasn’t there ever been Canadian words of sufficient eminence to cross the border and be studied in American classrooms? This week, I determined to find out. So I googled, “Famous Canadian Speeches,”  and I’m thinking, “Please, please don’t let me find Rob Ford’s potty-mouthed outbursts. Good grief, I will shrivel and die if that base level of vulgarity is what will distinguish Canadian public speaking for years to come.

Whew! Toronto’s mayor was not represented on what I found. However, here is what I did find:

·         A speech by French President, Charles de Gaulle, who in the summer of 1967 in Montreal, fanned the fires of Quebec separatism with the words, “Vive le Quebec libre!” (say it like this: VEEE-VA, le Quebec LEEEEEEE-bra)

·         Throne Speeches by various Governors General representing Her Majesty at various openings of Parliament over the years. Important, but yawny.

·         Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau’s remarks during an impromptu television interview in October 1970 after he had imposed the War Measures Act to quell the separatists, when asked how far he would go, replied, “Just watch me.”

·         And a Molson beer ad called, “I am Canadian!”

OK, this was discouraging. Nothing on the scale of the Gettysburg Address? Canadian history buffs please prove me wrong! What have we got that compares to "Four score...." or "Ask NOT what your country can do for you..." or "I have a dream today...."?

In the meantime, my money’s on the Molson’s ad, because it really is quite stirring!


Or, you might enjoy the Willam Shatner version. He is Canadian.
I am Canadian by William Shatner


Since the first publication of this blog, my friend Sandy found this beautiful speech by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson made on the occasion of dedicating Canada's new maple leaf flag:. The language reflects the times, the 1960s:

“May the land over which this new Flag flies remain united in freedom and justice; a land of decent God-fearing people; fair and generous in all its dealings; sensitive, tolerant and compassionate towards all men; industrious, energetic, resolute; wise, and just in the giving of security and opportunity equally to all its cultures; and strong in its adherence to those moral principles which are the only sure guide to greatness.”
Lester B. Pearson




Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day

I am writing this today, November 11th. It is Veteran’s Day here in the US. In Canada, it is Remembrance Day. Both of these national holidays coincide with others around the world, such as Armistice Day in the UK, that mark the anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the First World War officially ended.

Neighbours on our street have placed small American flags all along the sidewalk up and down; and in front of our house as well. I added one small Canadian flag just right beside our front steps. For some reason, maybe because of our flag’s scarlet colour, the old poem we learned to recite in school popped into my head. I can only remember the first two lines off by heart: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row.”

A Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae from Guelph, Ontario wrote this poem on May 3, 1915, after the funeral of a friend who had died in battle in France. It was published later that year in London. It refers to the red poppies that grew among the graves of fallen soldiers.

I was a bit ambivalent about Remembrance Day when I was a kid. It meant an afternoon off school and that snow was usually on the ground. In the morning, classes were suspended so we could attend a memorial service. I think I remember a minister or maybe representatives from a couple of religious denominations coming to school to lead us in prayer and hymns, such as “Our God, Our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come.” A bugler would play “Taps.” We were expected to wear Sunday best and pin velvety red poppies to our coat collars. And the poem “In Flanders Fields” would be delivered by someone chosen especially for the honour.

One year, a girl named Juliana recited the poem. Her family had recently immigrated to Canada from Germany. I found that curious even at my age which would have been 8 or 9 at the time. I wondered if the school was punishing her for being German or if it was a gesture of forgiveness and welcome. Or maybe she was picked because she was quite simply a good reader. She stood in front of the entire school assembly, with her hair in long braids, wearing a pleated skirt and a home-made Bavarian-style wool sweater, speaking the verses as clear as a bell.

My Dad had not gone overseas as he had ulcers and was not classified fit for combat, but he did join the Army Reserves and did basic training. I vaguely remember his brother, my Uncle Bob, being in the RAF, not the RCAF as one might have thought, and I think he was stationed in England, but I never heard stories about it. Dad’s sister Anne’s husband fought in Europe and had been taken prisoner of war and never returned home. A family friend was a pilot who had been terribly burned in a plane crash. He came over to our house a few times and I got used to seeing his scarred face. Along with the Great Depression, World War II shaped my parents’ sensibilities to a huge degree and I grew up in its shadow because of their memories.

Not much was said in our family about World War I, although my grandparents would have been young adults at the time. My Dad’s family came to Canada from Scotland sometime around 1910. I do remember my mom saying that my Granny used to sell poppies outside Eaton’s department store in Winnipeg. I wondered if she was honouring young men, maybe someone she knew in Canada or back home in Scotland, who had died in that war.

By the time I was a teen, anti-war sentiment in the 1960s and early 70s fueled my rebellion about Remembrance Day. In my witlessness I believed that the holiday and the blood-red poppies were glorifying war. Apparently some students at Ottawa University have had this same idea very recently. Here’s a passage from yesterday’s “Globe and Mail”:

When Canadian veterans gather at the National War Memorial to honour those who served and those who died in this country’s wars, there may be unwelcome guests: activists distributing white poppies, which they say symbolize peace, claiming the red ones celebrate war.

Their stunt threatens to disrupt a sombre moment with a manufactured controversy. Remembrance Day has never been about glorifying war. Rather, it’s about reflecting upon its horrors and its sacrifices, which Canadians have been forced to endure over the past century.

Age has softened the edges of my youthful ignorance. Perhaps it will do the same for the protesters and maybe one day some of them will be ashamed of their actions today.

As for me, I am in awe of the courage that it takes to fight for one’s country. The least I can do is put out a small flag on November 11 and wear a red poppy. I can pause to be grateful to those who are defending our peace and honour those whose lives have been lost. Lest we forget.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I had already been up for a half an hour by the time Ken came down for breakfast one day last week.

“What are you doing up so early?” he asked, knowing me well enough to understand that I don’t get out of bed voluntarily before 8 am.

“Making pinwheels for book club,” I replied as I slathered hummus and cream cheese on bright green spinach tortillas that I planned to wrap around a medley of veggies and slice into finger-food-sized bites of Ladies’ Lunch delectability.

“YOU’RE going to a book club?” he nearly snorted orange juice through his nose.

“You’re laughing! Why are you laughing? I like books! I read!” My reply was indignant.

“Yeah, a book a year, maybe.” My husband refers to the books he gives me at Christmas as “good investment gifts” because it truly can take me up to a year and a half to finish off an average-size novel.

“Yeah, so, I’m a slow reader. But they’re doing a book I’ve already read!”

“Ah, well, that’s lucky! “

“I know! Right?”

“Besides, I wasn’t making fun of you. I was just thinking your past history with book clubs hasn’t exactly been happy. I’m just surprised you’re joining a new one.”

He was right. I swore off book clubs some years ago. I have had “incidents” with book clubs.

The first occurred a month or so after we moved to Buffalo in 1999. An elderly lady invited me to join her book group so that she might introduce me to the “fine ladies of our community.” A welcome-wagonish sort of gesture. I scanned the room when I walked into the church hall where the fine ladies were meeting. About 100 of them. Not one of them under 80 years of age. I felt like somebody’s granddaughter visiting from out of town. Or like a lamb in a pack of wolves that hadn’t eaten in a while. It was evidently one of those longstanding, well-established book groups that had been meeting since the Eisenhower administration – or maybe earlier. And they followed a longstanding, well-established protocol. First, a nice hot lunch: meat loaf, mashed potatoes and canned corn, followed by a caramel pudding with a dot of whipped cream on top. Nothing that required teeth. Next, a guest speaker. She was to present a talk on the reading assignment: “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Show of hands: “Who’s read the book?” No one. Not even one. Regardless, she proceeded to deliver her address. I scanned the room again. More than three-quarters of the membership were asleep. Needless to say there was no discussion. Moral of  the story: don’t give a hot meal to a bunch of old ladies until AFTER the guest speaker.

My second book group was a younger crowd. A woman I met at an aerobics class at the Y invited me to the home of a friend. I read the book in time for the meeting. Fortunately for me, it was short; unfortunately it was the vilest book I have ever read. I don’t remember the title or the author – I’ve blocked them from my memory. And I won’t describe the plot to you – it was that vile. A group of 12 – 14 women showed up to discuss this evil tome. One rather thin, pinched-looking woman dominated the room. She sat cross-legged in a Wing-back chair. All eyes turned toward her as if she were a sinister version of Yoda preparing to dispense twisted wisdom.They waited, breathlessly, for her to speak. The silence was broken by a voice from across the room that proclaimed it a very nasty book. We gasped and turned toward her. Yoda’s eyes flashed with fury.  “A stupid woman, you are!” she snapped. The tone of the discussion ensued pretty much along the lines of, “Am not!” “Are too!” No one else uttered a sound. We just looked from one to the other like watching a tennis match. Yoda finally declared victory by slamming down her book club credentials.  “I read 12 books a week and I’m in six book groups and we all liked it! So there. Nyaaa!” I left, thanking the hostess, “Um…yeah, that was…um…nice. Next time? Oh, yeah. Sure.”

By the time a new friend invited me to a third group, I was feeling just a wee bit apprehensive. But this invitation came with assurance that the group was way more concerned with baking than reading. I enjoyed the cakes and pies and cookies. I was sad when this friend moved away a few months later. Ten pounds heavier, I quit the group.

My foray into literary congregations last week was pleasant enough. We talked about the book a bit. Mostly we talked about other things. There were salads. Someone brought brownies. Everyone said they liked my pinwheels. A glass or two of wine didn’t hurt. I wondered if other people’s book clubs were this nice.

And so, I ask, who’s bringing brownies next time? Er, I mean what are we reading next?



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Not to Wear: Thanksgiving Edition

In Canada, Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday in October. Notice that I didn’t say, “Canadian Thanksgiving” because we don’t think of it that way. In Canada it is simply, “Thanksgiving,” just as here in the US the holiday is not usually called, “American Thanksgiving.” However, for the purposes of this essay, I will refer to Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving just to distinguish the fine points.

Occasionally, when I mention Canadian Thanksgiving to American folks, the second most frequent question I am asked after, “Why is it in October?” is, “Does it have anything to do with Pilgrims and Indians?  “Not so much,” is my standard reply, “It’s about the harvest.”

Two or three years ago while I was visiting my hometown of Winnipeg in early October, I came across some Thanksgiving decorations in a home store that included a lawn ornament that looked a bit like this:

 “Really!?!” I thought, almost verbalizing this aloud but, as I am still young enough that I can prevent myself from muttering in store aisles; it was merely a contained, mental anguish. “There are no pilgrims in Canadian Thanksgiving!” I thought, “Typically Canadian! We adopt American symbols without even batting an eye!”

I hadn’t thought about this misappropriation of American iconography again until this week when a neighbor asked me if Canadian Thanksgiving traditions are similar to those in the US. I could tell him the few facts that I knew, but I had to consult that wellspring of wisdom and knowledge, Wikipedia, for the rest. Here are some fun facts:

·         Canada beats the US on the thanksgiving timeline by 43 years. English explorer, Martin Frobisher landed in Newfoundland in 1578 after an attempt to find the Northwest Passage. He declared a feast of thanksgiving should take place wherein his crew thanked God for helping them land safely after their encounters with Arctic ice had nearly dashed their fleet. This is the first documented Canadian declaration of, “Damn, it’s cold!”

·         Next up were the first settlers who came with Samuel de Champlain to New France, i.e. Quebec, i.e. the beginnings of Canada, circa 1608. Their autumn celebrations took the form of a feast to thank the Almighty for good harvests and prosperity in the new land. They formed the “Order of Good Cheer” and shared their food with their First Nations neighbors.

·         Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a small community of pilgrims landed in the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Some of them managed to survive their first year and paused sometime in the autumn of 1621 to be grateful and share a bounty of food with the native inhabitants that had helped them make it through.

Hey, wait a minute! That’s when it occurred to me that the Habitants in Quebec and the Colonists in Massachusetts had a lot in common. Both groups, pretty much at the same time, looking for a better life in a new land. Both could certainly be defined as pilgrims. So then, I wondered if our popularized image of “pilgrims” rang true or could possibly be the same in both countries. Why not? Maybe those lawn ornaments weren't so far off the mark! So I consulted the internet once more looking for the fashions of the day.

You know the typically depicted pilgrim wearing black and white clothing with those huge collars and that tall men’s hat with the buckle? Wrong! Research reveals that the buckle didn’t come into fashion until 100 years after the first American Thanksgiving. And apparently black was not a color worn very much by anyone in those days.


 This is an incorrect image!

Plimouth (sic) Plantation is the official historic site on the Massachusetts coast that interprets the life of the colonists who arrived on the Mayflower. Here is how they dress their costumed interpreters:


The Canadian Museum of Civilization web site led me to artistic renderings of the first immigrants to New France:


Look at that! They are pretty, similar, eh? Turns out my righteous indignation about lawn ornaments was out of line! Canada could well claim the pilgrim couple I saw in the home store!

Let’s get back to the timeline for a sec:

·         After the American Revolution, United Empire Loyalists who left the US to live in Canada brought their thanksgiving traditions of eating turkey, squash and pumpkin with them.

·         During the Civil War, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens", to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26.

·         In Canada, the first Thanksgiving Day after Confederation (1867) was observed as a civic holiday in April, 1872. From 1879, Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually.

·         It wasn’t until January, 1957 that the Canadian government proclaimed: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”

So there you have it. Two countries hosting immigrants from across the seas; both groups thankful for the bounty of the land.

Today, there are more commonalities than differences, despite the disparate dates on the calendar. Gathering with friends and family to give praise. Turkey served with a medley of fall vegetables. Even football on TV. Except, Canada has three downs. Other than that, you tell me what’s so different between Americans and Canadians! Kind of heart-warming isn’t it?
Only, forget that bogus belt buckle on the hat!


Friday, October 4, 2013

Living in Mayberry

My friend and I walked our dogs on a beautiful afternoon this week. The leaves are just starting to change in our neighborhood so it’s beginning to look like fall here in Oakwood, our little corner of Dayton, Ohio. As we passed the high school football field, the Oakwood Lumberjacks were practicing for the homecoming game. The band was rehearsing in another corner of the field. My friend and I had been remarking on what a truly lovely day it was. Then, her next comment seemed inspired by the quintessence of this American scene, "Yup. It’s like living in Mayberry!” I laughed. And I agreed, because Oakwood really is Mayberry-esque in a lot of ways, which of course is the fictitious town where the Andy Griffith Show took place from 1960-68.

My friend went on to tell me that she had once made the Oakwood/Mayberry analogy to a young niece whose response, “What’s Mayberry?” jolted my friend into one of those, “I guess you’re getting old when kids don’t know your TV references” moments. We agreed that it was a shame for any kid to have grown up without ever knowing Sheriff Andy Taylor, Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney Fife, Helen Crump, Thelma Lou, Howard Sprague, Gomer Pyle and his cousin Goober, or the show’s version of an ideal small American town. I mean, everyone should know about Deputy Barney Fife, the funniest law man EVER on TV.

Mind you, Mayberry wasn't perfect. Floyd the Barber was a big gossip, and let’s face it, Otis, the town souse, was loveable but nobody ever tried to get him into AA. Mayberry apparently didn’t have any diversity in the population, nor were there any rock and roll-loving youth anywhere in sight.  Somehow Mayberry avoided most realities of the 1960s such as the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the Beatles, the rock revolution, hippies and the Summer of Love. Escapism can be soothing, I suppose.

Anyway, I got thinking about being a kid growing up in Canada, watching American television shows, as we did. A place like Mayberry was a far cry from my reality in the land of the wind chill factor. I became fascinated with small town America. I wanted to find that archetypal Main Street and those sweet houses with front porches and rocking chairs. From the time we moved to the US in 1999, we have driven country roads on Sunday excursions finding dozens of those towns here and there. They totally charm me. Maybe there are meth labs in the garages, but I love the Mayberry facades.

So to find ourselves in this amiable little suburb of Oakwood? My dreams have come true! And who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where everyone says hello to everyone? Where big old trees hover above wide streets. And four squirrels per household scamper about. Where every Victorian, Craftsman and Neo-Colonial house has a front porch with the requisite wicker chairs, rockers or porch swings. Where downtown is one block long containing a city hall, the fire and police station and a handful of businesses.  Who wouldn’t want to find a community where kids walk to and from school and some even go home for lunch? Where the scarecrows that community members put up annually along a major boulevard just before Halloween are never vandalized. And a neighborhood where, if you see a cop drive by, you wave and say, “Hey, Andy!”

Somehow in the fall, I think America is at its most American.  Maybe it’s the straw bales and pumpkins on the porches. Maybe it’s the wiff of grilled burgers at the homecoming game or the marching band playing the fight song. Whatever it is, I find it enchanting. The Lumberjacks play tonight.

Go Mayberry….er, I mean, Go Oakwood!

Not our house, but very much an Oakwood archetype.
The Oakwood High marching band playing at Wednesday's pep rally

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Yippee! I'm Second Best!

This next topic will come as no surprise to any of my female readers: we tend to be Over Achievers.

I don’t know about you; maybe I should speak for myself. I have spent my adult life getting sucked in by that message, gleaned from women’s magazine and from TV advertising that says we fall short of the mark if we aren’t good at EVERYTHING. Lord knows I try to be perfect but it is just SO exhausting!

We are instructed on how to achieve career fulfillment and challenging yoga poses while we cook like Julia Child, entertain like Martha Stewart and decorate like Architectural Digest. We should know how to buy a bra that fits properly, how to caramelize cauliflower, how to write a thank you note as gracious as a Jane Austen novel and eat Sushi following proper Japanese etiquette.  At the same time we ought to plant a community garden, start a 501c3 charity, wrap inspired gifts for family and friends using the pretty ideas we add to our Pinterest pages, fluff toss cushions so they have that nice, slumpy creases like in the Pottery Barn catalogue, get that pesky soap scum scrubbed off the shower door, make our Weight Watchers goal in only three short weeks, train for a triathlon while teaching 101 tricks to the dog, twitter clever bon mots, build houses for Habitat for Humanity in Papua New Guinea, read all the best books and be prepared to discuss them at our next book group, attend all the best Broadway musicals and be prepared to discuss them at our next book group, see all the best art exhibitions and be prepared to discuss them at our next book group, know enough about football to not embarrass our husbands at the Super Bowl party, keep up on current events and be prepared to discuss them at our next book group, make killer brownies, can tomatoes, dabble in water colors and present our work at the community art show, get in 10,000 steps daily, floss each and every one of our teeth and be dynamite in bed. Whew! As I said, exhausting! And those of you with kids: how the heck do you do it?

Well, ladies, there is hope. Along comes a lone voice in the wilderness urging us all to drop the perfection thing and accept our shortcomings. A recent New York Times book review announced that it’s all about “Finding Satisfaction in Second Best.” The book by Debora Spar is called, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection.” This highly accomplished author, university president and mother of three advises that we women should lighten up on ourselves to save our sanity; we can’t do it all, no matter how hard we try. And although her C.V. makes it appear as though she DOES do it all, she claims she does not.  

I thought, O.K., she’s got a reasonable argument and that sounds like a mature approach, but who is going to listen? I mean, if I let housework slide and someone notices that I haven’t cleaned the bathroom in two weeks aren’t they going to report me to the health department? You see what I mean. So we carry on in our endeavor for perfection.

And just to make sure that we understand in no uncertain terms that OTHER women ARE doing it all – we give THEM awards! Woman of the Year. Notable Women in Business. Top Ten Women who Knit Sofa Slipcovers. Their biographies read like testimonials at Over Achievers Anonymous – see paragraph three. Not to diminish their accomplishments in any way. Heck, I admire any woman who has her makeup on before 8 a.m.  But I always find it a little depressing to think that here I am 60 and have yet to perform open heart surgery.  

So what if we take Ms. Spar’s counsel seriously? That means that we should start honoring women who are cutting back on perfection. Let’s give awards to those who find satisfaction at coming in second.

Therefore, I propose the Slacker Awards. Or the “SLACKIES” for short.  I’m not advocating honors for slobs. I’m just saying, let’s recognize women who find ways to gain a bit of happiness by under achieving! The awards luncheon could feature paper plates, deli cole slaw and take-out chicken. We could all wear our yoga pants, not shower and arrive with bed head and no makeup. Guest speakers would not be required to prepare power point presentations. In fact, they wouldn’t even be asked to give speeches! The luncheon would be held at 2:00 and end by 3:00 so we could all get home in time for “Ellen.”

As for me, I haven’t done last night’s dishes yet. I‘m only going to teach our old dog two new tricks. There is a line of mildew along the edge of the shower curtain that I might get to – or not. And the last time I looked there were dust bunnies the size of Buicks under the couch. It’s totally liberating. I’ll expect your nomination for my SLACKIE later this month.