Friday, December 3, 2010

Police, Fire and other misunderstood people

This blog is inspired by, and a tribute to a police officer I chatted with today. There is an officer at the same physio therapy clinic that I attend, and I happened to hear him telling another patient about how he was injured. He had been on a routine traffic stop in the middle of the night, when he was hit by another car. I can't remember all the details, but I believe he broke both legs and a bunch of other things. Countless surgeries and physio later, he remains on the police force, although his days in a cruiser are over.

He happened to end up on the bed beside me today, and my daughter, who had been checking out the clinic's Christmas tree, kept arriving with music notes, treble clefs and other booty that I was concerned she was pulling off the tinsel rather than "finding on the floor" as she claimed. Taking full advantage of a situation, I pointed to the officer and told my daughter that "the gentleman beside us is a police officer, and you will be in trouble if you are taking the tinsel." The physio assistant commented that I was putting the officer on the spot, and I maintained that I was simply taking advantage of a teaching opportunity.

My daughter settled in a corner to colour and the officer asked me how I knew he was a police officer. He was polite but was wary and had an edge in his voice. He was probably going through the perp file in his brain trying to place me. I told him that I had heard him relating how he'd been injured, and then I said the magic words. "I have a lot of respect for you guys." I then explained that I'd been a former customs officer and commented that you have to have done that line of work to really appreciate how hard it is.

We then chatted about shift work, the loony tunes who come out at full moon and spending DRs in court, only to have the accused change their plea to guilty on day 2 of the voir dire. He commented that everyone thinks firefighters are great, and rightly so, but no one ever wants to see a police officer. My comment: "until you need one. Like any professions, the 5% that are rotten ruin things for the 95% who are stellar."

My friend's father was a police officer in Vancouver-original drug squad, original dog squad, original high school liaison. Worked his way up to commissioner. I was taught to respect police officers, and they were someone to go to for help. I've never been on the other side of the law, except for the occasional traffic ticket, so I've never feared the police.  I understand what he was saying, though.

I wrote a weekly crime column when I was first freelancing. I wrote about the speeders, the drunks and the just plain stupid criminals. I got to know some of the officers on the Guelph Police Service and the Wellington OPP. I shook my head at the people who should have been charged with being an idiot, and the hours that were spent on routine patrol in the middle of the night to keep the rest of us safe. Because I've worked in law enforcement in Customs, I've always been fairly pro-cop. What that means as well, is that I have zero tolerance for the bad eggs that make the good ones look bad by association.

The next time you are stopped by a RIDE program, instead of cursing the police officers standing out in the cold freezing to protect us from the idiots who still think it's fine to drink and drive, why not say a prayer for the protection of the officers, and thank them for keeping us safe.(We lost a family friend to a drunk driver when I was kid. She was in a Pinto, and was hit from behind. yep, the Pinto lived up to its reputation. Drunk driver walked away without a scratch. Karen was killed instantly.)  I will never forget the face of the police officer the night I rolled up to the RIDE check and thanked him for keeping us safe. He was so used to abuse that he had no idea what to say in response.The astonished smile was worth it to me.

The officer that inspired this blog is going back to active duty. He'll be manning the front desk to free other officers to go out on patrol.A routine police stop changed his life forever but in true police fashion, he's manning up and dealing with it. I've seem his grimace in pain at physio, and I've seen the scars on his legs from surgeries. I've never heard him complain and he tells his story in a matter-of-fact way. I doubt his family was that matter-of-fact when the accident happened. I wonder if the driver who hit him was.

So here's my shout-out to the police, fire and paramedics who keep us safe. They aren't paid enough to be hit, kicked, punched or puked on in the line of duty. They aren't paid enough to enter burning buildings or to have to tell someone that their loved one has passed away. They aren't paid enough to lug overweight people down icy steps, or 3 story walk-ups. They certainly aren't paid enough to deal with drunks, druggies, kiddy diddlers, wife abusers, con artists who prey on seniors and the other scum of the earth that routinely cross paths with the law. And yet, they do it day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year. They have to deal with trauma and the very worst of human nature, often at the eventual expense of their own health, sleep and mental state. I remember talking with a police officer in Toronto who had to investigate a child abduction and murder. His child at home was the same age as the victim and he started checking on her multiple times a night He was haunted by the little child who had been brutalized and murdered. I doubt his story is unique.

Thank you to the police officers, the firefighters, the paramedics and other first responders, the ER nurses and doctors, the crisis workers, the family and children's services workers and everyone else who work in the tough professions that keep us safe.Thanks for your dedication, your protection and your help when we need it.  I wish you peace. I wish you safety.  May God bless and protect you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Time has taken on new significance to me the last couple of weeks. My mother-in-law died of cancer on November 16. It had been a sad and speedy journey from diagnosis at the beginning of May. It's given me a new appreciation for time.

Time can fly or stand still. Time can be a gift or a burden. Time can give or take. Time can speed or creep.

Every parent on the first day of school, while wiping a tear wonders how the blanket clad bundle of baby became the backpack toting child heading off to the world of education. It happens in the blink of an eye.

Anyone waiting for a bus or a train knows the value of a minute, especially when you are standing on the platform watching the back of the vehicle pull away.

My father died in his sleep. I talked to him the night before he died. Thankfully, the last words I said to him were "I love you daddy, I'll talk to you later." Time ran out before I could talk to him about the contents of his red box of pictures, or his war memories, or his childhood. When my mother-in-law was diagnosed with metastatic cancer at the beginning of May, I told my husband that time was gift. He had a finite amount of it, so be where he needed to be, say what he needed to say.

At first, he continued as normal. It's easy to pretend normal when you avoid. His mother's health deteriorated alarmingly the last couple of months, and he started spending a great deal of time with her. He took advantage of the gift of time.

Our phone rang at 3:30am on November 16. A phone call in the middle of the night is never a good news call. My father-in-law was on the phone advising my husband to come to the hospice. My husband was on his way by 4am. I was cleaning the living room at 4:15am because sleep was no longer a possibility. We had decided beforehand that while our 5 year old daughter could visit grandma as much as she wanted to, that we would spare her witnessing the actual transition from living to death. That was a bit more reality than a 5 year old needed to deal with, and I wanted her to remember her grandma as the tea party in the special room grandma.

My mother in law passed away at 3pm on November 16.  This date had special significance for our family because of the date it wasn't. You see, dates and events were very important to my mother-in-law. She sent cards for birthdays, anniversaries, Easter, St Patrick's Day, Halloween, Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day and she kept a master list on the closet door in her room. My father in law's birthday was November 15, and we think that she waited until after his birthday to cross over. She had the force of will to do it and it would have mattered to her that his birthday remained only his birthday.

When my husband called to tell me the news of her passing, my daughter and I headed out to the hospice to participate in the candle procession. The hospice believed in sending people away the same way they arrived, via the front door. The hospice staff treated death with the same love and dignity that they treated life. A person who was in the final stages of living had a heart placed on their door, which was replaced with a butterfly when they passed away. The family was allowed the privacy and comfort of a solarium which was off the main area of the building, filled with comfortable chairs and surrounded by windows that looked out on woods and bird feeders, and a pet turkey that roamed around the grounds. The body was draped in a handmade quilt, and the family escorted the person to the hearse with a candle that was then placed in the lobby for 24 hours to honour the person's memory.  My daughter had a chance to say goodbye to grandma, and her only questions were how grandma would know how to put her angel wings on, and how she would get to heaven if she didn't have her wings. I told her God carried her to heaven, and another angel helped her with her wings. It may not be theologically correct, but it worked to comfort a 5 year old.

Cancer has robbed me of 2 acquaintances and my mother-in-law this year. Hepatitis C has robbed me of my brother of my heart. All this loss has taught me that time is a gift with an expiry date. Sometimes, you don't get another chance to tell someone you love them. Sometimes you don't get another chance to say I'm sorry, or I love you. My house may look like a bomb went off in it but helping my daughter with homework, or watching a movie with her (which has led to interesting discussions about heaven, hell, angels, Santa and teaching a cat a trick) is more important to me than the dust bunnies currently mounting an offensive in the bedroom. My mother and daughter have a finite amount of time together, and although I cringe sometimes, and grandma's house is a "no-free" zone, the time they spend together is more important than ice cream and cookies before bed.

Time can fly. Time can stop. Time can give a gift or take it away. Sometimes now is all there is.

Rest in peace, Mary. I promise I'll take care of your boys. I love you.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Should, Must and Losing Yourself

I was a little shocked to find out that my last post was the end of August. I'd like to say that it was due to having lots of work, but really, I lost my Muse. I've been buried in the "shoulds" "musts" and "need to" and I've lost myself in the process.

Like any woman who has both young children and elderly parents, I've been doing a lot of juggling. My mother, who just turned 84, is healthy and lives on her own. She doesn't drive anymore so trips to the library, the bank, for haircuts and other errands get coordinated into my day. My daughter is only in school two days one week and three days the next, so I try to get my errands done on the school days. Days spent on errands are days not spent on job writing.

My mother in law is fighting an inevitable battle with metastatic cancer. It's robbed her of mobility, appetite, breath and dignity. For a woman as private as my mother in law, having a stranger help to bathe her has been very difficult for her. I'm trying to support my husband, my brother in law and my father in law, while gently preparing my daughter about the reality that sometimes sick people don't get better. I put my own sadness on the backburner, because I need to be strong for my family. I cry in private, or in a safe place like church, where it somehow seems okay to cry. It's a good thing I'm a funeral cantor: nobody thinks it odd to see someone crying at a funeral, and I cry when I see other people crying.

And then there was my cousin Murray. We found out in June that he was in total liver failure. He died August 23. Although I e-mailed him, I chickened out and couldn't pick up the phone to call him after I found out about his health situation. Murray was a kind, gentle soul and I'd made him cry before when we talked about his son, Allie. I knew I couldn't be strong talking to Murray when I was so devastated about the news, so I took the coward's way out and e-mailed him instead. Now I'll never hear his gravelly voice saying "I love you" again. He's left a pretty big hole in our lives. We didn't see each other very often because of life circumstance, but I knew that if I ever really needed him, he'd be on the next plane. He was a brother of my heart and I miss him, even though we didn't talk often, I knew I could. I miss that.

And although it was for the best, I miss my little black cat, Max. He was my constant companion during the day, always needing to be where I was. To this day, when I pull out a kitchen chair, I have expect to find a little black face popping out from under the tablecloth to inquire why I'm moving his bed. He was only a cat, but he was a good, loving cat and a good companion.

I'm mired in "musts" today. I must follow up on delinquent payments. I must come up with some story ideas so that I can earn money. I must revamp my website, I must find my brave and get better at self marketing so that I can build my business. I must read last week's submission for the critique group, even though it's ridiculously long. I must find the perfect cake to bake for what will probably be my mother in law's last birthday on Sunday and I must bake it on Friday because I'm away all day Saturday at a conference. I must book haircuts for my mom and daughter. I must figure out dinner. I must go to the memorial mass at church tonight for all the people whose funerals I sang at this year. I must wash the dishes, help my daughter with homework, figure out an approach that works in dealing with a teacher that we're having concerns with (and kindergarten is too young for this crap) and I must feed the 19 year old tabby who is yowling in the kitchen.

And then there are the "shoulds": I should revise my YA novel, taking into account feedback I've received. I should figure out an outline for the non-fiction book, and see where the gaps are. I should do NaNoWriMo because that seems to be the only way I get fiction writing done. I should work on a picture book text for the critique group.  I should finish flipping my winter and summer clothes. I should lie down and get some rest so that I can shake this infection that is lingering on and on. I should do some knitting and finish the horse sweater while it still fits my daughter. I should put on a load of laundry, clean a floor of the house, work in the garden, go for a walk with my daughter on a cold but clear fall day even though my hip has been locking badly and it will hurt.

And I can't seem to do any of these. My emotional well is empty and I'm wondering why I ever thought I could successfully work from home. All the old doubt demons are muttering around me, making me question my abilities and my professional self worth. I'm juggling like crazy, but still dropping balls.

Somehow, I need to find my Muse again. I need to do something that is only for me, that will nourish and sustain my being in the hard days ahead. I need to be a little selfish and steal some me time. I've forgotten to take care of me in the midst of all the musts and shoulds. But first, I need to make a pot of tea and do some homework with my little girl.

Friday, August 27, 2010

For Murray

I lost my cousin this week. My brother of my heart, who had his mother's gentle spirit and his father's giving nature. He died too young of liver failure due to Hepatitis C, that he didn't even know he had until January, and then kept it from the family. Last Friday at this time, we were waiting for him to receive a new liver. In the time it took for the liver to arrive at the hospital, his condition deteriorated. We lost him on Monday.

I don't normally share my poetry. I need to this time, and I apologize for the rough edges. It's from the heart rather than the head.

I loved you Murray. You've left a huge gaping hole in our family and in my heart. Be at peace, my brother of the heart.

For Murray

I want to write of my grief, pour out my heart
But the words won’t come.

I want to tell of your gentleness, love and care
But the words won’t come.

I want to lash out in anger, find someone to blame
But I can barely mention your name
And the tears flow from my heart again and again
But the words won’t come.

Why is some others' grief so different from mine?
Why when our lives were so entwined?
How is the hole in my heart not the same
For the brother of my heart that you became?
I’d ask if I could
But the words won’t come.

Cousin in fact, brother in heart
I’d sing your praises-but where to start-
Your smile, your laugh, the love in my heart?
But the words won’t come.

The Christmas letter, your voice on a call
The hole in my life I can’t fill at all.
But who will listen or comprehend.
That the words won’t come?

Alone, bereft, my brother in heart
I loved you, I’ll miss you. Be at peace.
I’d talk to others, to try to explain
But the words won’t come.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Little Things

Sometimes, the little things that people do have a huge impact on the lives of people around them.

My father-in-law and mother-in-law had been planning a return trip to the Maritimes to re-visit all of the places my mother-in-law liked best from last year's trip before the cancer robs them of the time for special memories. High on that list was a visit to Rita McNeil's tea room. (For those of you who don't know, Rita McNeil is a Canadian singer who is often ridiculed because she is a large woman.) They had scheduled their trip to coincide with Ms. McNeil's presence at the tea room. The whole trip had to be cancelled at the last minute, because my mother-in-law is simply not well enough to make the trip. My mother-in-law was disappointed to miss the tea room again and knows there won't be another chance. (It wasn't open when they were there last year).

My husband's cousin is a dog breeder, and my in-laws own three of her champion line Boston Terriers. They take turns dog sitting, although when the dogs come to Camp MacColl, I think they get the better end of the deal. One of Judy's dogs has been in residence with my in-laws, and Judy came to pick him up yesterday. She came bearing a very large, festive basket...from Rita McNeil's tea room. She had phoned down and explained about my mother-in-law's health, and her disappointment at missing her chance to visit the tea room. Ms. McNeil's son took the phone call, and arranged the basket, which included 2 kinds of tea, some of the oat cakes that the tea room is famous for, and a bone china cup and saucer.

Nestled in the middle of the basket, though, was the best present that my mother-in-law could ever receive. You see, Ms. McNeil raised a good boy, and he took the time to ask Rita McNeil to put a little note in the basket for my mother-in-law, and Ms. McNeil did.  It was a personal note, hand written and clearly not a form letter. It was short and cheery, and has sent my mother-in-law over the moon with delight. She plans to have it framed.

It probably took 10 minutes of Ms. McNeil's time to jot the note and pop it in the basket. That 10 minutes of time will provide hours and hours of joy for my mother-in-law at a time when joy will be at a premium as her health deteriorates. I don't think I've ever heard my mother-in-law so bubbly and delighted as she was with that small note.

People in the public eye are constantly under a microscope. Their appearance, their weight and their every action is scrutinized, criticized, ridiculed and held up for inspection. The price of fame is a loss of privacy. I worked for many years in Customs at Pearson Airport, and with exceptions I could count on 1 hand, the famous people I encountered were genuine, considerate of their fans, polite and patient. Sure they all had off days, and who isn't grumpy after a delayed flight or a lost suitcase? Time and again, I would see them stand for long periods of time signing autographs, posing for pictures and treating their fans with respect and courtesy, which often wasn't returned. They didn't expect special treatment, and it was often the people around them who were rude to the fans.

Joke if you must about Rita McNeil. Her small act of kindness made the life of a terminal cancer patient bright, light and happy. The little things really do make a difference.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Letters I would never send...

Mommy Maria's blog inspired this post. It's been THAT kind of a week here, so I think I'll do some "letters I would never send" compositions of my own. Make sure you read Maria's. I dare you not to nod and laugh out loud...

Dear small child: You've learned to whistle! Good for you. I'm proud of you, and how hard you're practicing to perfect it. Now STOP DOING IT every waking moment.

Dear family: Stop waiting for the dish fairy to magically transport the dishes to the kitchen. Pick them up and put them in the sink already.

Dear tween boys in the park: So you know the F-bomb. Good for you. It is not necessary to use it as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb in the same sentence. I would prefer that my child does not pick up that particular language skill quite yet.You are not going to shock me with your language: I worked in Customs.

Dear graffiti artists: Painting the only play structure for the little kids with obscenities and pictures of the one finger salute, breasts and penises only shows that you are not as cool as you think you are. And there are generally two testicles or 5 fingers, just sayin...

Dear city workers: clean the damn play structure already. It's covered in obscenities and graphic pictures.

Dear Ellen Degeneres: Come to K-W for Oktoberfest already. I'm tired of the campaign.

Dear Richelle Mead: thank you for Dimitri. Now hurry up and write the next installment!

Dear women's plus size clothing designers: Not all of the female population are comfortable with their bra straps showing. Not all of the female population want the girls showing in their entirety. Some of us have a modicum of modesty left. I don't WANT to wear a camisole under a's HOT. Cut it higher and make the straps thicker. Seriously.

Dear women's clothing designers: We are not all twigs. We are not all 20. And can you get together and agree on consistent size measurements please. I don't have time to try on the same dress in 3 sizes to find out which size 16 yours is...

Dear husband: fanning the covers after a dinner featuring beer and sauerkraut does not "share the wealth." It annoys the wife.

Dear husband: I am reading my book. It is a funny book and it's making me laugh. Do not ask me what I'm reading. You can read it when I'm finished, but right now, I'm in the zone. shush.

Dear woman in the supermarket pawing through the cherries to get the best ones: Knock it off. I don't want your pawed through cherries. Just pick up the little bag like the rest of us and move along. And don't even think about stopping at the grapes to do the same thing.

Dear sample lady: You should perhaps mention the fact that there is freaking peanut butter in the ice cream before you hand it out. I just don't like the taste, but do you realize you could kill someone? sheesh. blech, plooey, blech. 

Dear woman in the checkout line: Yes, I get it. You're in a hurry. That's why you're in the self checkout, 8 items or less line. So am I . And I'm ahead of you  so stop huffing and puffing, this house won't blow down.

Dear people in restrooms, small child at home: flush the damn toilet already. If it takes 2 flushes, flush it again. jeez.

Dear telemarketers: off my planet.

Dear BP: how could you NOT have a shut-off valve on the damn oil well? What did you THINK would happen? And yeah, there are some of us in the world who care about pelicans, turtles and crawfish fishermen.

There, I feel better now...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Life is about choices. Some of them are forced upon us by circumstance. Some of them are made impulsively, some willfully. And sometimes, there is no win to the choices we make.

This is Max. He's been a part of our lives for 11-12 years. He's a loving, loyal friendly little cat with a purr like a tractor, and is always in the room with his people. If some of us are upstairs and some of us are down, he would wait in the middle. Since our daughter arrived, he's guarded her fiercely, and would spend many hours hanging out in the rocking chair in her room while she napped in her crib. He was patient with her chubby fingers, and would just wait for me to extricate him from her toddler grasp. Never once did he snarl, claw or snap at her. He curls up on her bed at night and tries to help her go to sleep. Sometimes even he gives up when she's carrying on and comes back downstairs with us, but most of the time, he waits until she's asleep.

Max has a past. We don't know all the details, but he has a bump on his nose and when we first adopted him, if you moved your hand to quickly, he would flatten and cringe. He was also terrified of being hungry. He's gotten over those fears over the years, but he still reacts to any changes in the house. His way of comforting himself is to pee on things. He peed on a lot of things.

Over the years, we've replaced carpets, briefcases, sports bags, backpacks, shoes, clothing...At first, he would pee on anything plastic that was left on the floor. He peed in a friend's car seat when she brought her newborn baby over to visit and I forgot and left it on the floor in the hall. He peed on my best friend's suitcase, camera bag and toiletry bag. He peed on toys in Laura's room, on papers in the basement and seems to have a particular hate for junk mail. Over the years, we've warned guests to leave suitcases in the bathroom with the door closed, or to drape them with things that smelled like us so that Max didn't take matters into his own hands.

He's been checked by a vet. We're using low ash food for crystals. I've had an animal communicator in. I've had an animal behaviourist in. I've used Rescue Remedy, I've used specially blended herbal drops. I just about set fire to the house with Feliway diffusers. I've used $18 a bag litter that lasts 2 weeks...when the stress level goes up, so does the level of cat urine.

He's squatted in front of me and peed on the carpet when the litter was clean. He's left a 6 inch puddle of pee beside my chair. He's peed on more floormats than I can count. He has a hate for cases of water, bags of salt for the water softener and Christmas gift bags.  When we were toilet-training our daughter, they were both peeing on the floor.

And then Max started peeing on furniture. First, he jumped on a small end table my mother-in-law gave my husband and peed all over my paperwork on it. Then he jumped on the coffee table in the basement (another gift to my husband from his mom) and peed on the papers on it. Then he peed on the cushions of the deacon's bench on the landing. And a few days ago, he peed in a little wicker chair, ruining the cushions and my daughter's backpack, and a bag that had all of her homework for the year in it. I can sew new cushions, but the trend is alarming. Floors are one thing; furniture is another.

My husband is already stressed trying to work full time and deal with his mom's health. His dad has some health issues too. He'd run out of patience with Max 5 years ago and tolerated him, barely. Peeing on furniture ended his tolerance.

I run like a madwoman to the basement multiple times a day to scoop the litter as soon as anything shows up in the box. I live in terror that he will peed in my antique upholstered chair-the one we spent $1000 on last year to have  re-upholstered (after Max decided it was the best scratching post in the house) and then slipcovered to protect it from kitty claws. I have nightmares about the leather furniture. We'll both be on the curb if Max ever peed in the Lazyboy.

We've had a lot of stress in the family lately, and as my mother-in-law's health deteriorates the stress will only get worse. I work from home, I take care of our 5 year old daughter full time, I take care of my 83 year old mother, who is still pretty self sufficient, but doesn't drive anymore. I am checking in with my in-laws on a daily basis, and I have responsibilities to my church, my friends and my extended family. Most of the stress in my life is out of my control. I'm trying to lessen the impact of stress that is in my control. I can't do this anymore.

I feel like I've failed Max, although I'm out of options. I can't stand the stress or fear of him destroying furniture. Replacing backpacks is one thing; Upholstered furniture, or god forbid, beds, is another. We've tried everything. I'm not going to surrender him to a shelter. He's been through that once, and I'm sure it was for this reason. He's too old for someone to adopt him. So I made the only decision left and called the vet.

I've been trying to prepare our daughter. Max is her best buddy and this is going to devastate her. I've been warning her that Max is sick and I have to take him to his doctor. We've had a couple of deaths in the family/friends circle lately, so she knows that sometimes people don't get better, and they become angels. While not theologically correct, it makes sense to a five year old. Still, this is going to be really hard on her, and a prelude of things to come when the cancer wins down the road.

I believe that animals have souls. Now I know that it's not in the doctrine of the Catholic faith, so don't report me to the Pope. But God made animals, and God gave them the ability to love, and it's beyond my realm of comprehension that He didn't give them a soul, maybe not in the same vein as a human soul, but a spirit nonetheless. (I also believe that all living things have spirits).If that makes me a flake, I can own that.

So Daddy, later today, a dear little black cat will arrive in heaven. He's a good boy, loving, loyal and protective. Could you keep an eye out for him? Aunt Catherine, you always liked Max, so can you help him find his way? And Max, thank you for your loyalty, your companionship, your trust and your faith that we would take care of you. I love you very much, and I hope that you find peace now. I hate making this decision and I hope you'll understand and forgive me. I'll miss you my dear little panther cat.

Just don't pee on the angels' wings or in God's chair, okay?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Things you do when you're a mom

The things you do when you're a mom. It always surprises me, the lengths that I'm willing to go to to amuse and teach my daughter.

  • I am terrified of heights. I'm talking panic attack, fetal position moaning and rocking, stepping down off a chair is high enough fear of heights. Last year, my daughter, who is fearless, except for flies, wanted to go on the big ferris wheel at the CNE. I mean, the BIG one that takes you up 2 stories and then leaves you there while the other cars empty. She really wanted to sit beside mommy. I went but I insisted she sit beside daddy instead. As we reached the top of the ascent, the wind picked up and the cart started rocking. My daughter thought this was fun, and started rocking it MORE. My husband took one look at my ashen face, my white knuckle grip on the backpack and my clenched jaw to keep the primal scream inside and told our daughter to stop rocking the cart. I made it to the bottom. The next time, I watched the backpacks, on terra firma. I may have wimped out, but I don't think it's a good lesson for my daughter to see her mother curled in a ball sobbing hysterically.

  • I am a second generation thunderstorm coward. My earliest memories of thunderstorms involved being dragged to the basement in the middle of the night by my terrified mother. My mother, who at 83, still goes and sits in the stairwell of her apartment building in the middle of the night to hide from the storms. She and my father lived in Kansas when they were first married, and the tornado terror never left her.  When our daughter arrived, I was bound and determined not to create a similar terror in my daughter, just because her mom is. I told my husband from the start that if she woke in the night with thunderstorms, he needed to go to her because I didn't want to share my terror with her. So far, so good.
  • I hate fireworks. I hate the noise. The smoke triggers an asthma attack. I love to look at them, provided I am far enough away to not hear the noise or smell the smoke. However, our local university does a really good job of Canada Day, including a pretty impressive fireworks display.  Our daughter loves fireworks. She was old enough to go this year so we took her. She sat beside me, snug in her sleeping bag and yelled KABOOM at the top of her lungs every time the fireworks exploded in the sky. Then she laughed and said "that was a big one, mommy." Maybe all I was missing was yelling KABOOM! I still don't like them, but I don't like them less than before. 

  • I failed on the bees. My daughter is a terrified of them as I am. Oh well, can't win them all.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


When you're an only child, especially when you have older parents, extended family and friends take on special importance. When you're an only girl child with older parents, that importance triples as you and your parents age.

I come from a massive family, both maternal and paternal sides. I have 21 first cousins on mom's side and 9 on dad's, (plus another family that are cousins' cousins and just like family). Factor in my cousin's kids, and you get the picture... Geography meant that I was closer to mom's side growing up than dad's. Of  the 21, I am closest to the Allison boys. My mother and their mother were sisters, 13 months apart in age and closer than close. If we weren't at their house, they were at ours. All holidays, first communions, first brownie and boy scout...we spent it together. They were more like my brothers than my cousins, and we continue to be close. They lost both parents at a young age, and my mom has been their 2nd mom for years, and is grandma to their children. She's the only grandma their children know on that side of the family.

It's an odd business sometimes. I don't know what it's like to have real siblings, but I sure know what it's like to love someone like siblings. I remember feeling horribly hurt one time when one of the Allison boys was staying with us for a family wedding. His other brothers were all staying at a nearby hotel, but because he had a small child, he and his family opted to stay with us instead. One night, the rest of the family were convening for dinner, and my cousin staying with us was feeling put out and hurt, and blurted out something to the effect that he just wanted to have dinner with his brothers, his blood family. Since "real" family is a bit of a touchy subject when you're adopted, I suppose I reacted a bit more strongly than was appropriate, but I was still hurt. I forget that we don't share DNA, and sometimes, I forget that we don't share parents either.We've shared so many life experiences that I forget sometimes that we're not siblings. We certainly fight like it.

We've just had news that one of the 4 Allisons has a life threatening health problem. It's come out of the blue, and my mom and I are having a hard time processing it. On top of my mother-in-law's cancer diagnosis, it's been a bit too much to handle and to cope with.

You see, it's Murray. Of the four, Murray is the most like his mother. He has her gentle and kind nature, her patience and her ability to give you his undivided attention and make you feel like the most important person in the world. Murray is 7-8 years older than I am, but was infinitely patient with his pesky girl cousin who trailed after him wherever he went. Murray was my first dance partner, teaching me dance steps and dancing with me when I was just a little kid stumbling over my feet. Imagine how I felt, this teenage boy dancing with me. The last thing Murray tells you before he hangs up a phone call is "I love you."

Life circumstances sent Murray out to Field,BC when I was still a child. From then on, I kept up an annual Christmas letter that outlined everything that was going on in the family. I don't know if he read them or not, but I wanted him to be up on the family news. His wife, Cathy, told me he looked for those letters every year. When I finally met Cathy for the first time, she said she felt like she knew me from my letters. I knew that she had made Murray happy and I loved her because of it.

Murray and Cathy have had a rough go because their son has an aggressive form of MS. Allie went from a hockey playing, soccer kicking, planning a career in sports management, to a man who cannot get out of bed somedays because his leg won't work-literally. And now, Murray has a serious illness. The how and the why don't matter. The what now does, and it's serious.

Death is no stranger to my life, and I always knew that I would lose my "big brothers" at some point. I wasn't ready for it to be this soon.

I was already feeling pretty raw and stretched with my mother-in-law's cancer. We have ugly days looming on the horizon, and I simply don't want our family to have to go through what we will have to go through in the days, weeks and months ahead. I try hard not to let my husband see me cry for my mother-in-law. It upsets him, it upsets our daughter, and I need to be strong to support the rest of the family. My daughter was pretty upset the first time she saw her daddy cry. It won't be the last time, and I have to support both of them. 

My strength has left me with this news about Murray. He's "only my cousin", except no one told my heart that. He's been my surrogate big brother all of my life. We might have seen each other only a handful of times over the years but the heart doesn't recognize time or distance...only love.If it was humanly possible, and I needed him, he'd be on the next plane.

This wonderful country of ours can be a detriment when someone you love and you want to help and support is miles and hours by plane away. Instead of being able to stop by with food, or a visit, or a hug, I have to be content with a phone call or a blog post.

Murray taught me how to overcome personal adversity. Murray taught me that kindness and gentleness are not weak, but rather, strong traits to have. Murray taught me that there is no distance when it comes to loving your family. Murray taught me that dancing with a child is one of the best gifts you can give to that child. Murray taught me that even the bleakest situations can be overcome. And Murray taught me that you don't have to be "blood" to love someone like a brother.

I love you, Murray and I pray that all will be well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pay the Writer

Jean Mills, my friend and colleague in the Professional Writers Association of Canada, is inspiring this post. She is an award winning writer-a real award winning writer, with a plaque and award money and everything. She is also a multi-published essayist for the Globe and Mail. But no longer. The Globe and Mail stopped paying for the Facts and Arguments essays, but they still take all the rights and use them however they choose. Here's Jean's take on it.

I wrote for nothing when I was starting out. It was a good way to build clips quickly. Then, I wrote for the equivalent of nothing because at the time, it was steady money and no one else was publishing me. Writing has an element of ego to it, and we are so darn happy to see our name in print that we sometimes take inadequate money because of it. There's nothing quite like a grown woman doing a happy dance on the driveway the first time your article makes the cover of a mainstream publication. I am ashamed to admit that I would write an average of 1500-2000 words a week for a column that was labour intensive, and received the princely sum of $50. Yep, $75 with pictures. Do the math...The local police departments loved me because I was writing about the criminal activity that doesn't always make headlines-the speeders, the drunks and the people who really should not be let out alone-you know, the ones that think it's okay to break windows or spray paint buildings. (although I had to laugh out loud at the Halloween prankster who wrapped a food inspection car in food wrap...come on, now that's clever.) When the publisher stopped paying me, and I finally had to resort to a collections agency to get the money I was owed, all of my pieces were pulled from the site, so I can't even show you what I did for that paltry sum.

Our local chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada was contacted the other day to provide some writing for a local business. The job description sounded interesting and promising-consumer information pieces on products, which would involve research, interviews etc-a mini-white paper for consumers rather than business to business. It sounded interesting until you checked the pay rate $5 an article. Turning on my computer costs me more than that.

So here's some things that you might not know about magazine writing:

  • The average mainstream publication in Canada-the ones that are in your local supermarket and that you recognize immediately, pay about $1 a word for feature articles. So a 1500 word article will earn the writer $1500. Sounds good, doesn't it. I've earned it. I like it. BUT-a writer is not paid for the time it takes to research the topic, the telephone charges to interview the experts or any of the other "production" costs in crafting the article. We are only paid for the finished product. 
  • Trade magazines pay considerably less than $1 a word.
  • $1 has been the standard rate in Canada for 15-20 years.
  • The average article takes at least 10 hours to craft, including research time, interviews, drafts, and revisions. Complex articles can take significantly more time than that.
  • Rights are a hot button topic with writers. In simple terms, rights are what a publisher can do with the article after they have paid the writer for it. Until recently, that meant that they got the right to publish it first in North America. After that, if they wanted to post it on a website, or in an anthology, or translate it into another language and print it again, or turn it into a chapter in a book, they had to pay the writer more money. That changed with the explosion of the internet. Now, more and more publishers want to use the article any way they want to...but they only want to pay the writer once. Did I mention that rates haven't changed in 15-20 years? Rights are how writers earn additional money. We always have more research and interview material than will fit in the article. Re-purposing an article from a different angle is stock and trade for writers. Now, however, a publisher wants "all rights" which limits what a writer can do with the article. Used to be, writers were willing to give up some rights in exchange for more money. Not anymore. (and I won't get into a very detailed discussion here. If you want to learn more, go to ) 
  • Article factories like Suite101 and Demand Studios and a bunch of other ones are further undermining the business of writing. They pay pennies, and people write for them. A quick scan on Elance or a number of other freelance writing sites show people who are unwilling to pay industry rates for quality work. Writers should be happy with the "exposure". The editor for Facts and Arguments at the Globe and Mail rationalized the decision to stop paying writers because of the "national exposure" they get from being in the Globe. (and she said it to a roomful of writers) Exposure doesn't pay my bills. 
  • In contrast, corporate writing pays $50 an hour at the absolute minimum. We can charge upwards of $125 a page for web copy, and if you write white papers, according to "that white paper guy" Gordon Graham, you can craft one with 3-4 interviews, 10 hours of work and earn around $5K, with 50% paid up front. I made thousands of dollars in about 4 months working on brochures, member information and the like for a medical association that was launching.  Oh, and corporate writing pays you for the time to create the thing, not just the finished product. When we quote a project rate, we factor in the time it will take to create it, the interviews, the meetings, the telephone calls and the thought process.
I, and hundreds of my professional colleagues, make my living writing. More and more of us are turning away from magazine writing and working on corporate writing, white papers, business to business copywriting and the like. Writing a brochure on a widget might not the be most interesting thing to do, but I bet it pays a whole lot more than an article for a trade magazine on the same widget.  I love to write for magazines. It's challenging and interesting and I love to learn new things while I'm working on the topic. But I can't make a living at it any more. Our family finances cannot survive me working purely as a magazine writer, and that's sad. Like so many of my peers, I am now concentrating on finding corporate work. Sure, I still query magazines with story ideas, but I'm focusing my efforts on finding corporateclients.Writing is writing, and it is my business and my profession. I work from home as a writer to take care of my young child but I still need to contribute to the family coffers, or I'll be trying to write under a tree because we're living in our car, and my laptop doesn't have a charger that works on the cigarette lighter.

Writing is a profession.  Those of us who call ourselves "professionals" take pride in our work, take care in our research and work hard to craft an informative and clear piece. And yet, we are expected to be happy with "exposure." I somehow doubt that the publishing executives are doing their jobs for "exposure". I doubt that the lawyers who are doing their job by crafting the rights-grabbing contracts (and no, they are not the enemy) are completing their work for the rate of pay that writers are expected to accept. Hell, I bet the cleaning staff make more than some of the writers. It's not that hard to fathom:  without the writers, there is no publication.

It shouldn't be up to the writers to fight this fight alone. If you like a well crafted magazine article tell the publisher to pay the writers. If you enjoy carefully thought out, logically presented and well executed opinion pieces, tell the publisher to pay the writer. If you like humourous pieces that make you nod along in agreement and spit coffee in amusement, tell the publisher to pay the writer. It should not be this difficult for a writer to be paid a decent wage. Pay the writer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Writer Wednesday: Genuine. Honest. Integrity. Persona.

This post is once again inspired by Megan over at MisAdventures of a Work At Home Mom. It's also inspired by my experiences at the Magazines Canada/Professional Writers Association of Canada annual conference last week. I ran smack dab into other people's perceptions and it left me scratching my head.

Genuine.  My grandmother was a genuine person. By that I mean, she was honest, forthright and consistent in her opinions, her beliefs, her foibles and her traits. She loved her family fiercely, loyally, unquestioningly and protectively. That being said, she would not hesitate to comment if she didn't believe our actions were appropriate and she would kick our butts if we were acting like idiots. We knew without a shadow of a doubt that she loved us no matter what, but when grandma laid the smack down on you, you listened.  I have met more genuine people in the writers' association than anywhere else in my life.

Honest. I try to always be honest in my dealings with people. Life is too short for backstabbing or game playing. It's probably why I didn't do well in the corporate world and I would be a lousy poker player. People can read my expression.  I have had to learn to balance honesty with tact and soften the hard edges. Because I am honest, I expect others to be honest as well, and I have been sorely treated as a result.  I have not always lived my honest or true nature, though. For years, I didn't think that people would like the person that I was in reality, and so I became a chameleon, the class clown, the actor who would mask paralyzing shyness and introversion with an excess of extroverted appearance.  I still do it when I'm uncomfortable, which is anywhere there are large gatherings of people I don't know. I found out early that I could make people laugh. If people are laughing, they don't usually notice that the clown is not. Humour and wit, and the ability to make people laugh have always been my armour against insecurity and shyness.

I thought I'd gotten over it for the most part, but I found myself slipping into old habits at the conference last week. Instead of humour, I used my music and my singing, but the result was the same. I wrapped myself in protective armour, and felt a fraud as a result. I have probably been more honest in my relationships with the writers than I have in any other profession, but in person, the latent fear that they wouldn't like me in person, as opposed to my writing, resurfaced. By hiding in my music, I was once again the chameleon. This time, however, I was aware of it, and distressed by it, but powerless to stop. I have a ways to go.

Integrity. I think this is one of the most important character traits to have. My professional and personal integrity are vital to who I am as a person, and I am incapable of actions that challenge my sense of justice and integrity. I just won't go there and I will be very nasty if you expect otherwise.

Persona. I have many personae. There is the introverted, terrified person who dons masks and disguises to protect her from her expected rejection of the person she is. There is the mother, the wife, the writer, the singer, the daughter, the friend. There is the funny extrovert, the witty fraud masking terror with wit and humour.

And according to my professional colleagues in the Writers' Association, there is the competent, well-groomed, always put together person who is recognizable across the room, or from the back because of the posture, the grooming and the confident air. One of the writers said she knew me instantly because my hair was perfectly groomed as always ,and my outfit was perfectly put together. I looked at her like she was speaking ancient Greek. Surely she wasn't talking about me? Me, with the bangs that needed a trim and I didn't make it before the conference, the frumpy sandals because of two broken toes and the clothes in a size that I cry when I look at? Surely that wasn't the person she meant? Turns out, it was. It's not how I see myself, but it is how many others see me. I suppose that's a good thing, I just have trouble believing, especially these days, that when they refer to the competent, talented, well-groomed, put together person, that they mean me. I don't see it. I don't feel it and I have trouble believing it.

Customer Service Fail

Does this look like I'm having fun? This is a close up of my lower legs. The red spots are not freckles: they are bed bug bites. The ankles and backs of my legs are ten times worse than the fronts.

Last week, I attended the Magazines Canada annual conference, and Professional Writers Association Annual Meeting. I stayed at what is supposed to be a very nice hotel, mainly on the recommendation of people who stayed there last year.

By Friday morning, I was out in these welts that I thought at first was a reaction to the soap. Problem was, the welts ended where the pyjamas began, and are concentrated on my lower legs, ankles and feet.

A week later, they are gradually diminishing, but I'm surviving on Benadryl and Calamine lotion. Two pharmacists have confirmed the marks as bed bug bites. I have to let them run their course and heal. In the meantime, the itch is making me crazy.

I contacted the hotel and received what is most assuredly a form response. I wasn't asking for money back. I wasn't asking for special consideration. I wasn't asking for anything at all. I was reporting a problem that they need to rectify so that the next person who stays in that room doesn't get eaten alive.

In part, here's what the response was:
"I am obviously concerned that you are feeling unwell as a result of a possible insect bite, however at the same time I have to also state that this skin irritation can be a result of many things such as,  allergies to the soap used in our laundry process to insect bites as a result of being out doors.  I would also like to inform you that at this time the Hotel has had zero feedback in relation to other guests who have stayed in the same room as you and from other guests."
The hotel also stated that they have "a comprehensive set of room inspections and cleaning  procedures are in place to reduce the likelihood of this taking place.  Daily inspections of all mattress, head boards and bedding are taken and on a monthly basis we follow an aggressive Pest Control Program in each room."
Funny thing is, there's a sign beside the bed advising that the sheets are only changed every other day, and I happened to see the maid making up one of the rooms. She was in and out pretty quickly, and I didn't see any comprehensive inspection taking place. If you only change the sheets every other day, it's impossible to inspect the mattress daily. Besides, if there hadn't been issues in the past, they wouldn't have such a rapid e-mail response ready, would there?

My out doors interactions consisted of walking across the road to the conference centre, or down the road to the Eaton Centre and the PWAC after party. If I was reacting to the soap, it should be all over, and not just areas not covered by pyjamas. I'm pretty thorough in my scrubbing. If you google bed bug bites, I have all the characteristics of them. If you google bed bugs, Toronto, there are reported infestations all around the hotel.

In spite of the best efforts, sometimes things like bed bugs happen. We've all had bad experiences in a hotel, a restaurant, a store...but how many of us take the time to talk to the place in question? I was trying to help the next guest in that room by reporting my experience. I was expecting the hotel to react, not insult me and my intelligence with what was clearly a template response.

How a company responds to a customer complaint tells a lot about the company's culture. A simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way to mitigate and defuse a bad customer service experience. I understand the sensitive nature of my complaint-it's why I took the time to advise them in the first place. Adding insult to itchy injury escalated the situation. It's common lore in business that a customer will tell 5 people about a positive experience, and 10 about a negative one. When I received the response from the hotel manager, here's me, telling people about a negative experience.

I fired off a response after pondering it for a couple of days. I've suggested that if they are truly confident in that room's cleanliness, that they spend a few nights sleeping in it. They might want to stock up on Calamine lotion and Benadryl first though, and I wouldn't recommend sleeping nude. Just sayin'. You could end up looking like this all over your body.

And no, I'm not going to name the establishment publicly. I'm not that stupid. Itchy and irritated, yes, but not stupid.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An overview of MedicAlert. An interview with SVP Ramesh Srinivasan

I recently interviewed Senior Vice President of MedicAlert, Ramesh Srinivasan, about MedicAlert. I had no idea that MedicAlert was so much more than a recognizable, life-saving piece of jewellery.

Friday, May 28, 2010


We were coping until the bees. I started to say that we were doing okay, but we weren’t. We weren’t okay. When cancer invades your family, there is no okay. When cancer invades your mom/mother-in-law, there is definitely no okay. There is only coping. So we were coping.

We have known since the beginning of May about the cancer in my husband’s mother. Three days before what should have been her 5 year all clear from uterine cancer, this new cancer was located in her lungs. Sometimes the universe has a nasty sense of timing.

We had been waiting since then for the appointment that was going to tell us what kind, how bad, how long, what to do, how to treat it. That appointment was on Tuesday.

On Sunday night, we noticed the yellow jackets. My husband had been working like a fiend in the garden, his inherited-from-his-father way of coping. Work until you fall over, so that you’re too tired to think about “things.” Attacking weeds is therapeutic, cathartic and symbolic. He unfurled the patio umbrella to rest in the shade. A few minutes later, we noticed a few yellow jackets buzzing around. We thought that they had been building a hive inside the umbrella and didn’t take kindly to being evicted. We noticed a couple of them exploring a location on our deck where the wall of our house meets the exterior wall of the semi-detached house we’re attached to. It’s a lovely protected spot and the gap in the siding is big enough for bees. We had wasps make a similar foray under the siding a couple of years ago and they had to be professionally removed. My husband grabbed the can of Raid, but it was empty.

The next morning, we had a couple of dozen flying menaces buzzing around our deck. We tried calling some pest control people, but with the long weekend, no one called us back.

Tuesday morning, as my husband was on the phone receiving the news about his mother’s cancer, I heard a buzzing, and looked up to see a swarm of bees flying straight for the patio door. I yelled to look out the window, and ran to close the patio door. The swarm buzzed around the deck and then started to crawl under the siding in waves. A closer look revealed that our first identification had been incorrect. These weren’t yellow jackets: they were honey bees, and they were moving in.

Honey bees in Ontario are protected. Once we knew we were dealing with honey bees, I started phoning beekeepers. We didn’t want to kill them, but having a hive of bees on our deck was not a viable option. I like my honey in the jar, thank you. One beekeeper told us that we might be able to lure them out with a pan of sugar water and an upturned box. Another beekeeper told us that if we’d “only called before the swarm arrived with the queen in it” that we would have been able to send the bees on their way. The swarm arrived once the scout bees had found a new location. What we had mistaken for yellow jackets the previous day were actually the scout bees. He continued by informing us that once the queen was up inside the new quarters, there wasn’t much we could do. We could live with bees in our siding, or we could eradicate the bees.

We don’t kill living creatures lightly in this house. An animal behaviourist told me that our house has a “safe animal aura” and animals know that our backyard is a safe haven. We spent an entire summer with a groundhog living under our garden shed. We named him Chuck and resided quite peacefully with him. We’ve had a possum that we named Simon who visited from time to time, and any number of birds, butterflies, squirrels and other critters. But bees, even honey bees, are different. Leaving the hive intact would mean the end to sitting on our deck, or for that matter, going out in the backyard at all. It would mean taking the long way to walk to the park and to school. It would put an end to line drying my clothes. It would put my daughter in danger from bee stings, and send me over the edge from terror. I was stung by wasps badly when I was a child, and I am pathologically terrified of anything with a stinger that flies. I have sat in the kitchen while the rest of the family enjoyed a lovely evening on the deck. My mental state would not accommodate sharing the deck with a swarm of hundreds of bees. As much as we hated it, the bees had to go.

The bees quickly became a metaphor for what else was going on in our lives. Maybe we could have avoided killing the bees if we’d been able to react faster. Maybe the cancer in my mother in law wouldn’t be so advanced if we’d noticed little signs or if she’d sought medical attention earlier. Just as we are powerless to stop the cancer, we were equally powerless to stop the bees. My husband kept saying “but I tried to call, but I tried to call.” All I could do was reassure him that he had, indeed, tried to call and done everything he could do.

Our deck is littered with bee corpses, and our lives are littered with uncertainty about my mother in law. We play the hand we are dealt in life, and sometimes we need to bluff, sometimes we need to fold. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, life sucks.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Megan's Writer Wednesday List

discipline, adversity, learning and happiness


This word is chock-a-block with double meanings. If you are disciplined, you are considered to be organized and effective. You do what you need to do to get the job done. Or, you follow a regimen and stick to it. Parents are expected to discipline their children, but the choice of means of discipline is like opening up a mine field. If children act out, strangers will immediately assume that the children aren’t “disciplined” enough, when they might be just hungry or tired.

To me, discipline is focusing on the task at hand, even when the task is unpleasant or difficult. I have sung solo at the funerals of friends or family. People are amazed how I’m able to do it. I do it because I’ve been asked to do it, and I would never refuse to sing at a funeral, no matter how tough it is on me personally. It’s an honour I am not going to refuse. As the funeral choir at our church will attest, I’ve been a blubbering mess before and after I’ve sung. I hold it together to get the job done. Why? Well, what else am I going to do?

“that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve always believed that, and am living witness to the truth of the statement. I’ve dealt with a lot of crap in my life and I’ve survived. I’m the go-to in a crisis. I fall apart after. Just don’t hug me in the midst of things; I can cope with anything as long as no one breaches the armour with a hug.

I think the true nature of a person comes out when confronted with adversity, whether it’s a job loss, a life threatening illness, the end of a relationship or a threat to a loved one. You find out who your true friends are, and there are often sad surprises. People that you would have listed as chum or acquaintance stand by you like guards. People you thought were your friends vanish like smoke on a windy day. I don’t think there’s a middle ground-you are either drawn closer or forced apart. There is no room for molly-coddling. Lead, follow or get the hell out of my way.

My favorite thing in the world, learning. I love to learn new things, I love to discover new information. I’m learning all kinds of things through the eyes of my daughter, and through her questions. Learning is why I’m a bit of a generalist when it comes to my writing career. I love to write about people or stories that let me learn something while I’m at it. My best stories begin with my need to know something. One of my best interviews ever was with the composer of the African Sanctus, David Fanshawe. I had dutifully prepped for the interview and read about how he had schlepped all over Africa recording indigenous music in the early 1970s. Just as I was about to phone Mr. Fanshawe, it dawned on me that this was the 1970s, and electricity would have been a very scarce commodity. I’d already sent a prepared list of questions, but when we started the interview, I told him that I needed to know how he did the interviews. His delighted answer was “well, my dear, that’s the very essence of the thing, isn’t it. You’ve hit on it and so few do.” He then went on to explain how he’d carried battery operated equipment because he could get D-cell batteries in any larger city in Africa, and the children used the old ones for cars. His interview was far more warm and informal because my desire to learn had asked the right question.

My love of learning makes me a better writer, a better mother and a better wife because I take the time to learn about my husband’s interests.


Ah, there’s the rub. My free flow writing has ground to a halt with this one. What is happiness? Damned if I know.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wednesday is for writing.

Megan Venner, over at (Mis)Adventures of a Work at Home Mom has come up with a brilliant idea. She's going to post creativity sparkers on Wednesday and see where it leads.

I want to play, too. I'm going to take some of her sparkers and see where it leads me, and then link it to her blog in a comment.

Do you want to play, too? Add your link to my blog and let's all get creative!

Send me some ideas for starting sentences. Let's have some fun.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reasons why I'll Never be a Chef

I have a confession: I'm addicted to the Food Network. I like nothing better than to sit and watch one of the Ultimate Recipe Showdowns, or the cake, sugar or candy showdowns. It boggles my mind to make Shrek out of cake. I love to watch Cake Boss on TLC too. And I don't watch Ricardo and Friends just for the sexy Quebeçois accent: I love the innovative ways he makes simple food (and his cookbook is great.)  I'm a Chef wannabe.

I'll never be a chef, though.

  • I hate to cut onions. My eyes burn for a couple of hours every time I do. 
  • I almost amputated my finger cutting off the end of a cob of corn so that it would fit in the microwave. Knives are not my friend.
  • I hate the feel of raw ground meat. I hate handling it, I hate mixing it, and meatballs/meatloaf mixed in my standing mixer tends to be tough from over mixing. 
  • I hate mixing things with my hands, period. I would never mix a salad with my hands. Maybe it's why I can make pie crust so well-I handle it as little as possible.
  • I'm not adventurous with flavours. I'm a good cook, but not an innovative one. Adventurous is putting a bit of dry mustard in my meatloaf (and the family didn't like it.)
  • I hate cleaning up after baking. One of my claims to fame is scratch chocolate cream pie, but I don't make it often because it takes every freaking bowl and pot in the house to make.  
  • I'm not going to spend 8 hours and 57 steps to make a dish that has 243 ingredients, most of which require a trip to a bigger city and a bank loan to acquire.  Chances are, the family wouldn't eat it anyway.
  • I'm dangerously, life threateningly allergic to garlic. Vampires have nothing to fear from me.
  • I don't know how to light our barbeque, and have no interest to learn. If hubby wants to "cook meat on flame" why would I take that pleasure away from him? There is only one license to grill in our house. (I don't know how to work the snowblower either. If I knew how to operate it, I might be expected to do it...but I digress)
  • Sugar burns are not fun. I did it once-never again.
  • There is a limit to even ultimate, 25 year guaranteed non-stick cookware if you burn the sugar well enough...Brittle is an oxymoron if the brittle has cooled onto the pot.
I'm a busy, work from home mom to a 5 year old who loves shrimp and Vietnamese Pho (noodle) soup, but who won't eat tomatoes (although ketchup is fine.) My husband is a meat and potatoes guy who could eat pork chops every night, and eats the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. There's not much point in getting creative if no one will eat it and my daughter will be scrounging for a cheese string and hotdog instead.

I am a snob about one thing, though. I am a scratch baker. It might be a counterpoint to the Lemon Pie/Blueberry Muffins/Boston Creme Pie from a box  that I ate as a child. My daughter came home one day with the astonishing discovery that cake comes in a box. She was pretty excited about that. Not in my house, honey. I make pie crust, bread, muffins, and other baking from scratch. I even tried to make Apple Strudel once, and used to spend days every year making hand dipped chocolate truffles and dipped cherries. My baking is good, but not "wow, would you look at that". It's more Edna Staebler than Martha Stewart, but it's good.

And so I live vicariously. I marvel at the creations that Charmian Christie comes up with. I sit in jaw-dropping amazement at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon made out of cake, the chandelier made out of sugar, and the Sesame Street cake with characters made of modelling chocolate. I pick up tidbits along the way but I'll most likely never need to know how to make a four foot tall cake. I don't have that much counter space.

And now, I need to go. My daughter and I are going to make banana bread.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Best Mother's Day Gifts

I asked the moms and stepmoms what their ideal gift would be this Mother's Day. Here's what they said for my monthly column for

Best Mother's Day Gifts

American Eagle Latitudes Magazine

I spent a wonderful sunny day in March exploring Toronto's quirky toy stores and a wonderful children's book store. Here is the finished article in American Eagle Latitudes Magazine.
Imagination Havens in Toronto

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reality Check, Part 2.

The Universe wasn't finished with me. A couple of hours ago, we got the news that my mother in law has lung cancer in both lungs. We don't know what stage it is, or what the treatment options are.

My husband and his mother are very close. I need to be with my family now because we're in for rough times ahead.

And now I feel petty and small for even caring about something as insignificant as a part in a play to begin with. Turns out, it wasn't even worth a blip in the karmic scheme of things. I would have had to pull out anyway.

Cancer sucks. That isn't eloquent or original, but it's summing it up for me right now. My mother in law is a kind-hearted, wonderful person who doesn't deserve all the crap that's coming her way and neither does my father in law, my brother in law or my husband. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, life stinks. This is one of those times.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reality Check

Sometimes the universe has a mean streak. It has a way of slapping you back to reality with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Today was one of those days.

A bit of context is needed. I grew up worshipping Liza Minnelli. She was Liza with a Z. I'm Lisa with an S. She even sang a song about that. Cabaret is one of my favorite movies. Sara Lee (there's no H just Sara) is one of my favorite songs. I've seen Liza in concert. Since I was 7, my dream has been to play Sally Bowles. I've got the pipes to sing Cabaret with the best of them.

Our local theatre company, one I've performed with before, decided to stage Cabaret this year. I jumped at the chance to audition. I've worked with the director before, I knew I could sing and act the part. I thought my first audition went well. I got called back for consideration for lead parts.
 At the callback, instead of reading for Sally, I read for Fraulein Schneider, the widowed German housekeeper. First reality check. I was old enough to be the mother of most of the people in the room. One of the cattier little divas actually pointed that out to me by saying I sounded just like her mother in my read. Another of the youngsters told me I looked like Patti Lupone. Amazing talent...and older than  I am. I wasn't sure if that comparison was a good thing or a bad thing.

And then I got offered chorus. In Cabaret, unless you can be a Kit Kat Dancer, chorus translates into random people being audience members. Unlike some plays, like Gilbert and Sullivan where chorus has a big part to play, Cabaret is character driven, and there really isn't a chorus. I was a competition level ballroom dancer once upon a time...Kit Kat dancer? uh, no.

Reality check. I knew going into it that I was 20 years older than the character of Sally is supposed to be.turns out, I was almost 30 years older than what the director wanted.  It's been a rough couple of years health wise, and I've never been heavier than I am right now. I've struggled with my body image, with my confidence and with accepting myself as I am right now. I knew that I could sing well enough to play the role. I knew that the director knew what I was capable of. I knew that I could act the role. I thought it would be enough. It wasn't.

As my "can't see the point of theatre anyway" mother will no doubt point out to me, I really shouldn't have expected to get a part. I'm too old. I'm too fat. I shouldn't be away from my little girl and my husband that much. I'm not a trained actor. Be happy with the Grand Philharmonic Choir. Be happy with chorus, it's more than I got the last couple of times.

But here's the thing. Mommy needs to get out more. I work from home. I am primary caregiver to my daughter and although my mom is still pretty self-sufficient, I take care of her too. I run the house, do the laundry, do the cooking. I run my business, often simultaneously with my other roles. Grand Philharmonic Choir stops for the summer, and with a new artistic director at the helm, there's no guarantee that I will still make the cut for the choir go forward.

When the Phil ends, I am home 24-7, except for mass on Saturday and the occasional funeral or wedding. I haven't been booked to sing any weddings this year. I don't mind the at home part, but even introverts need to get out sometime. I was really looking forward to being "Lisa" instead of mom, wife, daughter and business woman.

Aside from the fact that Cabaret was my dream since I was 7, musical theatre is fun. "There's no people like Show people" aren't just lyrics.They are funny, generous, loving people and you bond as a family during a show. It's also a huge time commitment, and I'm not sure I'm willing to make that commitment to be a random person. There aren't any real chorus parts to sing in Cabaret. And if I'm being honest, and my blog is honest, I don't know if I want to watch some young kid play my dream role. That's a bit too much of a reality check.

I guess I forgot what my chronological age is. My daughter is 5. My world revolves around mothers much younger because their children are the same age as my daughter. I have lots of 20 something friends. I am up on social media and I am a twitter and facebook social butterfly. My heart and my outlook are young. They're just trapped in a middle-aged body. A fat, middle aged body.

I'm trying to objectively analyze why I have tears streaming down my face and a profound sense of loss and disappointment. Part of it is most assuredly the death of my dream to play Sally.I've wanted to play that part since I was 7 and the dream is done. Finished. Gone. Fade to black. I let myself hope. I let myself believe. I let myself forget the reality in exchange for living the dream. Dreams hurt when they shatter.

The other part of the tears, however, are tied up with my lifelong struggle with body image, self confidence and self image. My father used to tell me that I was a stupid, fat, ugly, lazy slut. Some of it stuck. My mother, never one for tact, reminds me constantly these days that I weigh too much.Yep. I do. I never dreamed my scale would go that high. It did. I'm trying to do something about it but hormones and injuries are putting up road blocks. All I feel these days is fat.And frumpy.

I know that I am a competent person. I know I am smart. I know that I am a good friend, a good mother (most of the time, but we all have our moments) I try to be a good wife.(most of the time, but we all have our moments.) I am a fiercely loyal friend. I try to be a good daughter. (most of the time but we all have our moments.) I can be lazy. I can own that, but I can also work like a fiend. I'm not a great housekeeper. Dust bunnies have nothing to fear from me. I know I'm a good baker, if not particularly fancy at it. I know I can cook a good meal. I am a good writer.  I am not, nor have I ever been a slut. I don't even think my dad knew what it meant, really. It was just something else to say when the booze was doing the talking. I know that I can sing-people keep asking me to sing at their weddings, their funerals and I've been in various choirs, including the Grand Philharmonic Choir, since childhood.

What I don't know, especially lately, is the fat and ugly. It's what I see when I look in the mirror. It's what I've always seen. There's just more to see right now. So tied up in the ashes of the dream of Cabaret is this conviction that fat ugly girls don't get to play Sally. They get chorus. And as the song "At 17" by Janis Ian which could have been a page from my teenage diary said :
To those of us who know the pain of valentines that never came,
And those whose names were never called when choosing sides for
It was long ago and far away; the world was younger than today
And dreams were all they gave away for free to ugly duckling girls like me.

Tonight, one of those dreams died, and no matter how unrealistic it was, it still hurts.I know in the grand scheme of things, it's small potatoes. It's not even a karmic blip on the radar...except that it mattered. The 7 year old girl still cared..And now the spotlight fades to black without the show stopping finale. Life isn't always a Cabaret, old chum.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

If I had a Million Dollars...

The Bare Naked Ladies would only eat fancy dijon ketchup. What would you do?

This blog post is inspired by a conversation that I had with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. He is at a crossroads and trying to decide what to do next. I asked him if he won the lottery and money was no longer as issue, what he would do. Would he go to Grad school, which was one of the options he was considering? No, he didn't think so. Well, what would he do, then? Work in theatre doing lighting, electrical etc. Do it then.

Once he realized where his heart and passion lay, he started thinking about ways to get on with it. He could apprentice. He was already building a good working reputation in the theatre community, and often hung from rafters and scaffolds at various theatres helping to offload and set up sets, and strike them after.  He had contacts in the industry, and the price of a cup of coffee could inform him about other options. Like any profession, networking is half the battle. In an industry like theatre, where a light that isn't hung right or wired correctly becomes a danger, reputation is important and there isn't time to re-do it later. The other professionals in the industry would know about opportunities. What had started out as a discouraging, "I don't know what to do next" conversation ended with a plan of action to pursue a passion.

It's easy to fall into jobs that pay the bills but don't feed your soul or your passion. I know. I've had tons of them and for long periods of time. (And may again if I don't get out of my own way, trust my instincts and start marketing my abilities better. "Do you want fries with that?" is not an option) There's something to be said for a steady paycheque, pension and other benefits. But no paycheque is worth your health, your self esteem or your peace of mind. Trust me. I learned it the hard way, complete with hives, insomnia, waking up screaming "No" because of  nightmares about a Monday conference call and leaving with my self esteem and confidence in my abilities in piles of rubble around my feet.

So what would I do if I won the lottery? Exactly what I'm doing now, except I'd be able to spend less time querying magazine and newspaper articles and finding corporate work and more time working on my YA novel that has one good draft and now needs a good re-write, the other YA novel that I believe in, but let others talk me out of and maybe finally have the courage to let my poetry see the light of day. I'd work on the non-fiction book about the boarding house in Ottawa where my mother lived during World War II, because I'm getting wonderful information from former residents whose stories need to be told while they're still alive to tell it.

I'd, as my friend Jean Mills puts it, joy write. I'd write for the sheer pleasure of getting lost in the characters and letting them tell their story. I'd forget about dishes, bills and the new tires that I know I need for my car, which is why I'm still driving on snows. I'd write to forget about debt, my daughter's future education bills, and the fact that I still don't have a real office. I'd revel in the frustration of having a character refuse to do what is on my plot outline and instead do something that I hadn't thought of, but suddenly makes perfect sense. I'd remember why I returned to my first love-writing. I'd write with no other goal than the sheer joy of writing.

But reality beckons. I have an editing deadline, articles due, a small child to parent and keep busy, dishes and laundry to do and income to generate.

But maybe there's time to sneak in some joy writing first. Joy writing makes job writing worthwhile. I need to remember that. No time like the present.

What would you do?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

High School Musical

We all have hallmarks of Spring. Spring for my husband is heralded by the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. My mother and I mark Spring by the arrival of the "open" sign in the seasonal Dairy Queen. My father left footprints in the garden every spring watching for the snowdrops to arrive. Jesus Christ Superstar marks Easter for me.

I love the music of Lent and the Easter season. Perky is probably not the first word that leaps to mind when people think of me...more like intense or intimidating, or so I've been accused. The rituals and rites of the Catholic Church during Easter Week are powerful, except for the darned incense. I could live without the incense, and so could my asthma. It was all just words though, until Jesus Christ Superstar and high school.

I started high school in Dorval, QC at Queen of Angels Academy.(high school in Quebec is Grade 7-11, and you do two years of CEGEP before university, or at least that's how it was when it applied to me)  It was a private, write an entrance exam school with an emphasis on academics. If you weren't in the top 5 in the class you were pond scum. We were taught by nuns exclusively, with the exception of the gym and Spanish teachers. We had high academic standards, we learned needlework and how to set a table properly (although I still have to look that one up) We would be expected to pop up and give a list of prepositions while sitting in Geography class.(I can still do it.) It was THAT kind of school, and I loved it.

And then we moved. Not only did we move provinces, we moved cultures. I was used to the French culture. We moved to the heart of German culture.  And we moved in time for me to start Ontario high school. I should have started in Grade 9 with my cousin Pat, based on my birthday date. One look at my academic transcript, and I was skipped ahead to Grade 10, and Grade 11 in French. Academically, it was fine. Socially, not so much because friendships are established in Grade 9. I was the new kid, I was socially inept, I was shy and introverted and I was smart. It was a lethal combination.

Two years into high school hell, the girls and boys only Catholic schools decided to combine forces to produce Jesus Christ Superstar. It had a huge cast and orchestra, a set that filled half the school gymnasium, and enough controversy to sell it out for 10 consecutive nights. Many people only knew that JC was a "rock opera", and questioned the suitability for Catholic schools to produce it. Without ever seeing the show, people branded it left, right and centre as sacrilegious. Letters to the editor filled the pages of the local paper. The teachers and advisors stuck to their guns and we produced a show that is still a legend in the local community. We stopped the critics nightly with an encore of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.

I can't recall if I'd stumbled into high school drama before JC. I'd certainly discovered the solace of the choir. I could sing. I liked theatre and when I heard that the school was going to produce Jesus Christ Superstar, I leapt at the chance to audition.I was a natural for high school drama. I was chameleon, changing personae to fit who I thought people wanted me to be and feeling lost and adrift. Acting was easy. I did it every day.  I didn't get the school. I struggled with the German culture so different from what I was used to. Being smart was not acceptable. The school seemed to emphasize sports and school council more than academics, and I didn't fit into either of those things.

And then I joined the cast of JC. From there, I developed friendships that have endured the 30 odd years since high school. I fell into a group of theatre people, more men than women. If we weren't in the plays, we were gluing flats, painting sets and working behind the scenes. We were smart. We listened to Springsteen and read Thoreau for fun. (and understood it.) We looked out for each other. Many of the group of people who befriended me during the days of JC remain close friends.

Being a part of Superstar ranks as a highlight of my high school days. I still have the t-shirt, the signed program and with a bit of effort, I can still remember the Superstar dance, chicken wing bits and all. I can sing every bit of the score and I still remember my cue to enter the stage during the overture. It mattered. It mattered a great deal.

Superstar had an unexpected impact on my faith life .  I remember sitting in church on the Good Friday immediately adjacent to our performances of Superstar. It happened to be the liturgical year for the gospel of John, which influenced much of Superstar. As the words droned on, suddenly I was back on stage, living the words being read from the pulpit. Except that they were no longer words. They were flashbacks of a life experience that made the Passion story more vivid. The organist had been the music director of the play, and he played snippets of Superstar as people walked up to venerate the cross. Several cast members were in the congregation, and we kept catching each other's eye in camaraderie. We were in on the joke. The rest of the congregation remained oblivious to the fact that "rock opera" music was playing during the holiest of days in the Catholic Church.

It took many more years for me to be comfortable in my own skin, so Superstar was certainly not a watershed for me. It was the start of acceptance that it was fine to be smart, although it took until university for me to be completely comfortable with that. It was the genesis of accepting my creative side. I still have an eclectic and varied group of friends with a myriad of interests who probably wouldn't mix together, but who nurture and sustain the various bits that make me who I am.  Snippets of the score to Superstar still roll through my mind when I hear the reading of the Passion at Easter, although now it is often intermingled with snippets from the various Bach works I've learned. It has become part of the soundtrack of my life and my life has always been remembered by the music that was playing.

More than anything, I think Superstar was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. It was the first time that I remotely fit in the new place that had become my home. It was the start of a love of theatre in general and musical theatre in particular, the start of a love of dramatic singing although the discovery of the power of my voice came years later. Most importantly,  it was start of friendships that have endured.

And so every Easter I dig out my soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, first on vinyl, now on CD. As I go about preparations for Easter, in between Easter choir commitments, Jesus, Herod,  Judas, Mary Magdalene and Simon Zealotes will keep me company like old friends I only see once a year. I might even sneak in a few steps during the Superstar number while I boil eggs to decorate with my daughter. I will stop and try to remember the steps to Herod's dance, although I was never a part of Herod's angels. And I will know that Christ has risen. Hallelujah.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

Own the Podium

I am in serious Olympics withdrawal today. For the past 17 days, I have been glued to the television, loud and proud to be Canadian. I have prayed for people I don't know, such as the family of the Georgian luger, and Joannie Rochette. I have laughed at the antics of Jon Montgomery. I have cried in joy with Frederic Bilodeau, in shocked grief with Joannie Rochette and in shared disappointment with Melissa Hollingsworth, Patrick Chan, Manuel Osborne-Paradis, and a host of other athletes who didn't make the podium and felt like they let Canada down.

Canada's "Own the Podium" program has been roundly criticized. Canada set very ambitious goals for Vancouver 2010. We were supposed to dominate the games, leaving no doubt that Canada was THE winter sports nation. Millions of dollars were spent on training and helping athletes to focus on training, rather than earning the money to allow them to train. When we didn't hit the contrived medal projections the program was branded a failure.

A failure? Are you kidding me? We won more gold medals than any other nation. We won more medals than we've ever done before. We made breakthroughs in sports like ski jumping and cross country skiing.

Why do athletes "lose the gold" instead of "win the silver?" Why is a personal best not good enough? Why did our 4 men bobsleigh team have to "settle for bronze" in a sport when hundreds of seconds determine the end result? They won a bronze medal. They WON a bronze medal.

The world just witnessed some of the best sporting moments ever to happen. How much courage did it take the Georgian team to march into the stadium after the horrific crash that killed one of a team that wasn't big to begin with? How much mental strength did the cross country skier with 5 broken ribs need to finish the race and win Bronze? I can't begin to imagine how Joannie Rochette skated, although I can understand it a bit because I've had to sing at the funerals of close friends and family members and you do it because you have to and then fall apart later. How much focus did it take Patrick Chan to go out and skate his long program, knowing that his dream of Olympic medal had ended in a split second on a jump?

Am I proud and happy that Canada won more golds than any one else? Hell yes. Am I proud that it is suddenly cool to break into O Canada? Hell yes. Did I wear my red mitts everywhere for two weeks? Hell yes. Did I go watch the torch go through, taking my 5 year old daughter to something she won't remember? Hell yes (and nearly got beaned by a protester waving a 2 x4 in the process). Did I wear my team Canada hockey sweater and yell like a banshee at the television yesterday when Sidney Crosby got 'er done in overtime? Hell yes. Am I proud that my daughter wants to be "an Olympian" some day, sport to be named later. Hell yes. And do I think that 4th place, 2nd place, 5th place, 12th place is great if it's a personal best? Hell yes.

Canada needs to build on this national pride, but in a positive way. We don't need to be in-your-face patriotic, but I don't think we need to take a back seat to anyone anymore either. We also need to continue to provide  funds for our athletes so that they can focus on achieving a personal best without having to juggle three jobs to do it. We have always been proud to be Canadian; we were waiting for the right time to let that pride show. And like the genie in the bottle, now that it's out there, we need to be careful what we wish for.

The International Olympic Committee needs to get over themselves and accept that girls can play too. Our Canadian women kicked butt and took medals. Women should be able to compete in ski jumping. And just exactly how are the women's hockey teams supposed to improve to the level of Canada and the USA if they are not given opportunities to play in Europe, and have a goal of Olympic medal to work towards? Answer me that, Monsieur Rogue. And so what if the Canadian Women's Hockey team celebrated with beer and stogies? Jon Montgomery chugged beer in Whistler and ended up on Oprah. Women's hockey players chugged beer and had to apologize.What for? What did they do wrong except celebrate a well-earned victory? Oh, were they not ladylike enough? Whatever.  If the men's hockey team had done the same thing it would have been no big deal. (although since all the media were at the closing ceremonies, they might of and no one knew) Double standards are so last century...

Our children need to know that their best is good enough. Our children need to know that they can do anything they set their minds to, regardless of gender. If they do their best, fairly, honestly and with dignity then that should be good enough. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts and preparation, life sucks. That's not such a bad lesson to learn. It's not what life throws at you, but how you deal with it that proves the measure of the person. Owning the podium is good. Doing it with class, dignity and personal accomplishment is better. The only thing worse than a sore loser is a poor winner.

I am Canadian and my heart is still a-glowing.