I want to be a dame, damn it

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I will never compete at the Olympics.

That’s a hard fact. Not that I had expected to one day find myself in a jumpsuit rocketing down a luge course or to be totally stoked after completing a double McTwist (whatever that is) on a snowboard. But I can’t even dream about it at this point. I’m still in my 40s but I might as well be 100. The Olympics are totally off the table.

I have never had the physical prowess or the discipline to be a world-class athlete. Deep down I know that. But what if I had applied myself?

I find myself asking that question a lot lately. I feel like I should have amounted to more at this point in my life. This must be why men buy sports cars and drive around with the top down. In the town I used to live in there was a guy who had to be in his 70s who would cruise around the river in a black convertible blaring old-timey music. A couple of the older ladies in the apartment I lived in “knew all about him.”

I suppose he was having a prolonged or very late mid-life crisis. I feel one coming on myself. The question is what will I do with it and will I be wise enough to come out of it? I don’t want to be a 70-year-old woman wearing a halter top and hot pants to the grocery store.

I don’t want to be a 47-year-old woman wearing a halter top and hot pants anywhere.

I’ve always secretly wanted to be able to sing. I can’t. I shouldn’t. But I do at the top of my lungs in my car. But what if mid-life fear sends me over the edge and I become a regular at karaoke bars, or worse, try to start a band?

I think this is the age where your confidence shrivels up like a petrified clementine, or you try to recapture your best years (if you peaked in high school, forget it), or, eventually, you become Dame Judi Dench—classy, funny, sure-footed, and undeniably fabulous. And if anyone does deny it, I don’t think she’d care. That’s what becoming Judi Dench is about.

It’s a scary crossroad though. You have to be made of sturdy stuff to tap into your inner  Denchness.

I’ll need to see clearly too. The key is to avoid stumbling around reaching for what is out of reach while recognizing what is within reach even if my vision isn’t what it used to be.

I have to believe some of what is still within reach is a kind of exclusive greatness.

At the Olympics they call that a personal best. Maybe it’s not too late to dream.


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It’s the least wonderful time of the year

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It’s February—the bottom of the winter barrel. It’s that cold, blowy, snowy month with little to get the blood pumping to combat the cold.

This is the time of year when we’re desperate for hope. Every year at the start of the month, crowds stand in freezing temperatures to watch a guy dressed like an extra from Murdoch Mysteries hold up a bleary-eyed rodent to issue the long-term weather forecast.

“Please let it be an early spring.” I think that every year even though I know a sunny day is bad news as far as groundhog predictions go. It’s just pure desperation.

But I’m so tired of being cold and disappointed by snowed-out plans that I’m willing to hang a portion of my hopes on Wiarton Willie.

The minute Christmas and New Years decorations are passé and slapped with orange discount stickers, heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in red foil and red velvet boxes with sketchy “assorted creams” appear on store shelves.  And then there’s the cards that inspire a full cringe, the kind that make my head do that involuntary bobble and my arms twitch.

There’s something about Valentine’s Day that makes me feel like a zoo animal expected to mate. It’s like being a panda bear. Your busy doing panda things all day then all of a sudden you’re sitting across from another panda at a dimly-lit restaurant. You have all the bamboo you can eat and sparks should fly as you indulge in a meal that didn’t involve a microwave. But just minutes before you were stuck in rush-hour traffic. And it’s Wednesday, which means an early morning. And you can’t stop wondering why your coworker made that snide comment.

I guess that’s still better than when I was younger and Valentine’s Day was a measure of your social status. At my high school they managed to alienate single teenagers with candy-grams and or flowers that were delivered with much pomp and ceremony during class.

I know of at least one person who sent flowers to herself to avoid the shame of not having an admirer.

It was also an opportunity for horrible people to send flowers or a candy-gram to someone who did not have a boyfriend and was therefore unlovable. The idea was to pretend to be a boy who was secretly in love with her and have a laugh at her expense.

If karma exists I have to wonder where those cruel-hearted people are now. Jail? Divorced with kids who hate them? Or do they have a hot date with Taco Bell takeout and Jerry Springer this Valentine’s Day?

I suppose a few successful Valentine’s Days can lead to the next abomination—Family Day. It sounds like a good idea. A day off in February, what could go wrong?

Family Day isn’t like Simcoe Day or Victoria Day–two other holidays that don’t seem to have the kind of gravitas of Christmas or New Years—because on Simcoe Day or Victoria Day you can walk outside without losing the feeling in your face. These holidays, though often spent with family, seem to offer up more freedom, more choice.

Family Day, unless you ski or skate, seems to be a day where you sit inside with your family, especially if they’re teens, and argue about what to watch on TV.  There is no way they’re going out there in the freezing cold, and secretly I’m fine with that, but what to do?

That is the question for February. What to do?

I am worn out by winter. I’m worn out by slipping on ice—my feet going this way and that until I look like an Irish dancer wearing shoes cursed by leprechauns. Though the light is coming slowly, I’m tired of eating dinner surrounded by blackness on the other side of my windowpanes. And I am tired of tripping over boots at the front door and finding somewhere to hang my coat. I am tired of damp gloves and cleaning off my car while the snow blows into my face.

I am tired of winter.  Valentine’s Day and Family Day aren’t going to change that. So move over Wiarton Willie, I need a nap.




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Falling for perimenopause

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My friend Janice says going through menopause is just going back to the person you were before puberty.

It’s a nice idea. I think most of us have fond memories of the time before bras and maxi pads. Of course, the bras get more important every day but the idea of being free to wear light colours every day, if the spirit moves me, is a nice one. I like the idea of not having cramps or headaches or bloating or unfettered rage.

I loved being 10 years old. I had all the freedom I needed, I had mastered diving from a diving board, I didn’t know it was possible to be self conscious in a bathing suit, and I had a fabulous red 10-speed bike. I remember being perfectly content and having no interest in turning 11.

But before I was 10, there was a year when it seemed I couldn’t stay upright. I don’t know how old I was, 8 maybe, but I remember falling constantly. One minute I was running, the next I was watching the pavement rise up to meet my face. I had enough scabs on my elbows and knees and so much road burn on my palms that summer a call should have been made to the Guinness Book of World Records people.

Ski falling rather than stair falling.

I’d rather not go back to that version of myself but I fear it’s where I’m headed. Lately, I’ve had a habit of wiping out, especially on stairs.

This past weekend I fell down the very hard stairs at a sports complex. One minute I was walking the next minute I was thumping down on my heinie, my right leg stretched out behind me as if I were practicing the splits. Had I had the wherewithal to raise my hands to the sky and smile broadly I think the bystanders at the bottom would have applauded.

That’s not how it went. My head was thrown back and I remember some vague flashes of ceiling lights, my arms were over my head but also thumping down the stairs.

I remember thinking, “What’s happening?” then “I’m falling,” then, “Ow,” then “where the hell is my leg going?” then, “I need to stop,” and finally “I’m not stopping, just give into it.”

I tried to relax and went down the last few steps like a big piece of putty in a red coat.

I lay there at the bottom like a slug. My right leg still three stairs higher up than the rest of me.

Tony stood in front of me and leaned over me to ask if I was OK. I tried to tell him I needed to get my leg down but couldn’t get the words out. So I just stared back and yanked at my leg until it was below me instead of above me. I felt as though I might vomit or faint for a minute so I sat on the wet step and waited.

As I sat there, an older woman and her middle-aged daughter made a big fuss about having to reach over me to get to the railing to climb the stairs.

If it wasn’t so painful I might have been embarrassed. Or maybe, because I’ve left anything resembling dignity behind in so many places since puberty I’m less prone to mortification.

If I am to look on the bright side, maybe we do get back to some version of our young selves only we get to go back with the wisdom and attitude only middle age can give us.

But if my future involves going back to my past, I better drink a lot of milk.






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When tights are not tight

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I’ve never been one for “casual Fridays.”

The idea that if someone deals with you on Thursday they get the professional version but if they deal with you on Friday they get the almost-Saturday-one-foot-out-the-door you, makes no sense to me.

For some employees maybe it’s considered a perk. Maybe somehow it’s less stressful to wear jeans and a sweatshirt than a skirt and blouse to work. Even if that’s the case, as perks go, I think this one is lame.

When I worked as a journalist I always tried to look like I was well-groomed and professional. There were times reporters from other cities would swoop in looking like they just rolled out of bed and were still wearing a pyjama top. It always shocked me. I couldn’t imagine facing the world like that. We had a dress code anyway so I would never have gotten away with it.

Having said that, there were a few days when I was having a casual Friday no one was privy to.

It was winter and I was covering a big announcement at the local hospital. I was wearing a skirt and heavy winter tights and moving through the crowd interviewing key people in the lobby when my tights began a slow and agonizing descent.

Normally, that’s not unusual. By about 10 a.m. gravity routinely worked its magic on the crotch of my tights. The waistband stayed put while the crotch sagged and sagged until it resembled a hammock between two trees.

There’s no graceful way to yank the crotch of your tights back up, though there are different methods. Leg out, grab a fistful of tights and pull then follow up with the other leg, or the tug and squat.

When I was a kid we used to get those pantyhose that came in the cardboard package. When they were unfurled they were about six inches long and daunting. I rarely got them on without my finger poking through.

My cousin Jenny used to tie the ankles to her bed post, grab the waistband and run as far as she could before she was yanked back. They looked like what I imagined the legs of a tanned 86-year-old would look like in a bikini—thin yet flabby.

I would have been relieved if the only problem I was having with my tights that day was a droopy crotch.  Somewhere between the presentation and an interview with the hospital CEO the waistband gave out. With each step I could feel my tights shimmy lower. I had hoped my hips would keep them up so I stood with my hip jutting out like I was carrying a toddler.

All that was keeping them from hitting the floor was the elasticity on the legs and abdomen. All I could think about was that there was a very good chance I might trip on my tights on the way out. I put my coat on carefully to give me enough cover to get to the parking lot.

By the time I got outside the blown elastic was below by butt, forcing me to walk like I had been at the hospital seeking treatment for poison ivy on my nether regions.

By the time I got to my car my tights were at my knees. I was so mad I pushed the seat back, ripped my boots off, tore my tights off, and then flung them into the back seat.

It was cold but at least I had my dignity. Casual Fridays? Pshaw.


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Is it me or is it hot in here?

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If you sweat all night, does that count as a workout?

Because the way things have been going lately, I should be down to about 98 pounds. I’m not, so maybe I’ve answered my own question. I can’t blame anything on water retention, that’s for sure.

When my cat MacFee wakes me up between three and four in the morning it’s like waking up in a waterbed with a leak. When I was a kid I used to flip my pillow over in the summer to sleep on the cool side. Now I flip my pillow over to sleep on the dry side.

What is happening? Infants are made up of about 75% water, adults average about 60%. I’d like to see a study done on perimenopausal women. I’m guessing the average is about 15.2%.

I spend my days attempting to rehydrate. I’m considering investing in an intravenous contraption because I don’t have time to drink water out of buckets. Also, I like a tea bag and caffeine in my water.

It’s getting to the point when one day Tony is going to pull back the blankets to wake me and find my dusty skeleton looking like an ancient Egyptian, perfectly preserved in the dry desert sand, my leathery skin stretched over my bones.

If that’s not bad enough, I’m forever paranoid—another symptom of perimenopause—about getting hot flashes. I’ve seen them. They’re not exactly flashes. Flashes are over quickly. They’re more like echoing screams.

The women in the book club I belong to terrify me. They’re not serial killers or anything—some of them are teachers though—but they are about a decade ahead of me and encompass the full range of perimenopausal/menopausal experience.

I’ve witnessed some of them practically burst into flames when there’s a hormonal shift. It’s like hot magma is running through their veins and without warning they erupt, their faces red like molten lava.  Then, as if their own bodies are trying to extinguish the fire, beads of sweat bubble up to save them from certain death. Aren’t our bodies amazing?

I wonder if women who spend a lot of time together synchronize hot flashes. Do they text each other with messages like, “Did you get a hot flash about 10 minutes ago? If you did I should be getting mine any minute now.”

This is the place I fear. I don’t like to be hot. I associate feeling hot with being sick. I firmly believe if men went through perimenopause there would be a pill by now.

As it stands, the recommendations to deal with night sweats are either obvious or depressing. Healthline.com suggests turning down the thermostat and wearing loose and light clothing to bed. I guess I’ll ditch the snow pants and woolen hat then.

The website recommends avoiding triggers like caffeine—and how does one get through the day after tossing and turning all night? Another trigger is alcohol, but for some perimenopusal women wine is relaxation therapy, which is necessary because stress is a trigger too. So avoid that.

There are a few natural food supplements often recommended as possible help. This might be especially pertinent for stomach sleepers who are at greatest risk for drowning. Something called black cohosh comes up in Google searches a lot. It’s supposed to help, if it doesn’t cause “digestive distress, abnormal bleeding and blood clots.” Sounds good.

Apparently primrose supplements can help control hot flashes. It may cause nausea and diarrhea but at least you won’t be hot.

Personally, I’m sticking with wine and Cheezies. I know it doesn’t work but at least it doesn’t cause “digestive stress,” which sounds ghastly, and the science may be out but in my home experiments they’re proven mood boosters.



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A splash of colour

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There are few things more satisfying than applying that first swath of paint across a wall with a big roller. I felt that joy last week as I transformed a blue-grey room into one with sunny yellow walls and bright white trim.

I love painting a room but something happens to me around paint. Maybe it’s the effect of the fumes or maybe it’s my impatience to see my vision realized, but it rarely goes smoothly.

Applying painters’ tape takes forever so I cut a corner or two and laid it down around the floorboards, but nowhere else. Halfway around the room, I started to tear longer and longer strips from the dwindling green roll of tape. Then the furnace kicked on and the slight breeze from the register caused the tape to flutter like a kite tail in a tornado. Eventually the twisted tape stopped flapping when it stuck to itself. Enough of that.  Half the room was done, and I was running out of tape, so I figured I would just pull it up and reuse it.

I started with the walls—a big empty canvas. I rolled the paint on and watched the instant magic as one wall after another went from blue to yellow. I stood back to admire my own work, bent down to put the roller back in the tray, and hit the wall with my bum leaving two prints in the fresh paint.

As I moved from wall to wall I pulled a drop cloth with the paint can, rollers, brushes, and the tray around the room like Linus with his blanket. Drops of paint somehow ended up under the drop cloth and as I pulled it, paint streaked across the hardwood floor that Tony had just refinished. It looked like a CSI crime scene under black light: white and yellow splotches streaked across the floor.

I walked around the room using the bottom of my fuzzy sock like a Swiffer to clean it up before it dried. As the bottom of my sock became saturated I spread more paint across the floor. So I took the sock off, turned it over, and used the clean part to wipe up the rest.

After the walls were done, I moved on to the trim. It’s a smaller area, so it should be a quick job. What could possibly go wrong? I still had one clean sock on my foot and I was brimming with enthusiasm.

Pulling the tape off is another satisfying moment during any painting job. I pulled a long piece off the floor, and held it up like a string of pearls I won at a Sotheby’s auction. Then the furnace kicked on again. The end of the tape, covered in white paint, quivered manically, hitting the wall and then, once again, it flew up and became attached to itself.

I moved on to the door. I dragged the drop cloth over, leaving more splatter on the floor until it looked like a Jackson Pollock for Beginners art class had just finished.

I painted one side of the door, including the strip of door that meets the wall. A short time later I left the room and when I came back I noticed a stripe of white paint on dark wood on the opposite side of the door.

This would take some scrubbing. Good thing I still had another sock.

It was a long day but the room is sunny yellow with white trim. Just don’t ask about the floors. I’m going shopping for a carpet.

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Why I hate camping: Part 1

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I’d like to say it was a near-death experience that turned me against camping but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

I did almost suffocate due to a malfunction or user error—the jury’s out on that—in a Boler trailer, but I hated camping long before the camper was towed up our driveway and then parked temporarily in our backyard. We (my grandparents, my father, and me) travelled to the east coast and back with that overgrown chestnut behind us.

My grandmother emerging from the Boler while I try to keep my dignity armed with a hair brush.

My grandfather loved that thing. He was mesmerized by the genius of each part of the trailer doubling as something else—the kitchen table folded down to a double bed, the “couch” back and seat could be converted into bunk beds. Brilliant.

After that trip through the Maritimes, the Boler was not parked at the curb with a “Best Offer” sign attached to the door.

Instead it was moved to a sliver of dirt under some pine trees at a campground called Ponderosa (I’ll let you imagine it) in the little town of Mount Albert.

My father dropped out of the group and remained in Toronto, leaving the three of us to enjoy the relaxation of camping. I was promoted to the bottom bunk in his absence, so after a thorough check of the inside of my sleeping bag with a flashlight—always check the seams, that’s where earwigs hide—I climbed into the bottom bunk.

I was roused from sleep with a smack in the face and a mouth of vinyl as my body was thrown, then pinned against the wall.

My lips were tingling as I tried to figure out what kind of wild animal tasted like vinyl. As I started to come out of the too-much-fresh-air fog I was in it occurred to me I was being attacked by a Mount Albert thug in a faux-leather jacket. As I tried to kick my legs I realized I was trapped under the top bunk, which had swung back to its daytime resting place as the back of the “couch.”

I couldn’t move my arms, so like any sane 15-year-old girl, I started to panic and scream. My voice was virtually silenced by layers of factory-made and wildly unnatural fabrics—vinyl, foam, plastic, some kind of woven, wool-like material.

The humiliation of being suffocated by a synthetic bench while camping was too much. I tried wriggling like a claustrophobic caterpillar having second thoughts about the chrysalis phase.

I tried to rock my body against the bunk and after what seemed like 15 minutes, I managed to wake up my grandparents from their slumber on the dining room table. The bunk was lifted off me and as my grandparents stared down at me in their pajamas I yelled at the top of my lungs, “I could have died!”

I argued that the stupid trailer wasn’t safe and we should pack immediately so we could leave in the morning and go back to civilization.

My grandmother was the undisputed family health and safety expert. She could predict death, loss of limbs or other disastrous outcomes in any given scenario from swimming immediately after lunch (cramps and drowning) to neglecting to eat fruit (horrible bowel ailments).

Yet, I had almost died under that bunk and she couldn’t see the risk. She told me to settle down, stop being so dramatic, and go back to sleep as she climbed back onto her dining room table/bed.

And that’s what camping does to people. It turns them reckless and wild.

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Halfway to good

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There are moments in our lives that confirm who we are.

I like to think I’m compassionate and caring. But my brand of compassion and care has limits. I’m reminded of my limitations when I’m around people who don’t have any. Like my friend Sandy.

We know each other from book club and we were both volunteers one week at a community meal—a free dinner for anyone in the community who needs it for any reason.

As much as I enjoyed volunteering at community meals—they always went a long way toward putting my own life in perspective—I found the cleaning up part of the experience a bit icky. Chatting, delivering food: wonderful. Collecting plates and cups: not so much.

As hard as I tried to avoid cold bits of mashed potato and gravy on the side of the plate, invariably one of my fingers would land in it. There is some quality in mashed potatoes that once cold, they seem extra cold and the texture becomes paste. Gravy coagulates. Enough said.

Cold gravy and mashed potatoes cling to warm fingers like flood victims to rescuers when they’re plucked off a roof.

So as I walked to the dirty-dish cart, half-eaten gravy and mashed potatoes seeping into my pores, I  hustled to grab a clean napkin, emanating a silent scream until the offending particles were removed.

(To be clear, I don’t collect the dirty plates of family members for the same reason.

It takes everything I have to keep it together and not perform my shake-it-off dance, which resembles “the worm” except in a vertical position. Given my aversion to half-eaten dinners touching any part of my body, it’s not surprising that I’m not always the most helpful person in the room during a crisis, big or small.)

At that night’s meal a couple who were regulars came even though the husband was too ill to eat. He came anyway because he didn’t want his wife to miss out. It must have been torture for him to sit there while his stomach sailed the Seven Seas with all that food around and no refuge from hot smells coming from the kitchen.

He made it to the end of the meal before his nausea took over and sent him into convulsions of vomit at the table.

The minute I heard the sounds of retching I was running the other way as fast as Usain Bolt after hearing a starter pistol. Stay back and don’t look. That was my strategy because someone throwing up is the kind of scenario where I end up needing more attention than the sick person. Vomit makes me vomit and blood makes me queasy, a little fainty, and a little vomity.

So as I stood nervously shifting from one foot to the other along the back wall like a Grade 7 at a dance, Sandy got a bowl. She sat next to him and rubbed his back in a moment of gentleness, kindness and humanity.

When I first saw her I thought, “What is she doing!? Is she crazy? Norwalk virus! Get out of there!”

But as I watched Sandy talk to him between bouts of retching and treat him with dignity and respect, I saw what is possible.

It is a moment that has come to define her for me. Sandy is plenty of other things too—funny, gracious, and generous—but that image of her rubbing a sick man’s back is what I see when I look at her.

When I brought it up with Sandy she remembered the incident but hadn’t thought of it since. I think of it often.

I will never be like Sandy. I will never be the person who brings a bowl and chats casually in the midst of violent illness.

But I hope to be defined by the moments I ran to and not away from.


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