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.