I’ve got music…

I went to see the folk trio The Good Lovelies recently and they were amazing as usual. They make singing in perfect harmony seem so effortless. I’ve never heard the three—Kerri Ough, Caroline Brooks and Sue Passmore—hit a bum note. They also play a bunch of instruments, from guitar, to banjo, to mandolin, to percussion.

What must that be like?

I’ve always dreamed of being musical. I’ve always liked to believe that I’m a musical genius whose talent has yet to burst forth. I just haven’t found my instrument.

Preparing for my Massey Hall debut.

However, on the way to finding my instrument, I have left a trail of musical debris behind me. I began with the cornet. I never quite got the hang of it. Everything I attempted sounded like a version of Swan Lake in which the swan was choking on a discarded pop can tab. When you’re eight you can’t argue your music is Avant-garde.

So I was given a euphonium instead. That also went badly and my music lessons ended abruptly. I was fine with it. There is something about a “spit valve” that turns me off anyway.

In Grade 7 I got another chance to embrace the wonderment of creating sounds that when strung together resemble a song. I was dying to play flute. I imagined myself wandering through the forest entertaining the woodland creatures and finding peace deep within my soul.

Unfortunately, my lip size put me in clarinet. I don’t actually think that’s a thing. I think the music/history/geography teacher made it up because no one wanted to play clarinet.

I loathed everything about it. I hated licking the reed—it was gross—and I hated the sound of the instrument, also gross. So I spent the class moseying around the room and hanging out with my friends in the flute section.

For my lack of interest and lack of aptitude I was duly punished in Grade 8. I was put into the “special” music class with the other losers who couldn’t master a band instrument. We spent the year making xylophones out of hockey sticks.

We were encouraged to go down to the local arena and beg for broken sticks, as if we were method actors cast in Oliver! We were instructed to look out for fiberglass sticks because they have the best sound. And by the way, that’s all I learned from that class. It’s been incredibly useful through the years. I’m waiting for it to come up in Trivial Pursuit.

We spent every music period trying to cut through the sticks with a dull saw. By the time the bell rang I was typically only halfway through one stick and there was a line of people, mostly boys, waiting for the saw. There should have been a fundraiser to beef up the music/shop program budget. Maybe the gifted band nerds could have played during a bake sale.

At the end of the year, we each had our moment to shine when we stepped to the front of the class to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on our xylophones. It was magical. Ting tang bing tang ting ting ting.

I’ve always prattled on about how I wanted to learn piano but never got the opportunity. Tony signed me up for private lessons about a year ago. I hate it when he does that—you know, listens to me and then takes me seriously.

It was a huge risk to take lessons because it could shatter my long-held belief that I’m a natural. I might discover that like the cornet, horn, clarinet, and hockey-stick xylophone, the piano is not my instrument. I may be left with the triangle.

Because my musical education was so neglected, there is a part of my brain that has been in a coma for a couple of decades. I wondered if it was too late to learn an instrument, from ground zero, smack dab in the middle of middle age.

I went to my first lessons somewhat reluctantly but soon discovered at 40-something I am in fact a prodigy. So there you go folks: follow your dreams and all of that.
Maybe prodigy isn’t the right word but I am a standout. Claryssa’s students have homework and parents who drive them to lessons. I don’t have homework and I drive myself. I’m probably the oldest student by three-and-a-half octaves.

Claryssa is sincere and adamant when she insists it’s never too late to learn. That’s easy for her to say, she’s been playing since she discovered she had hands. She’s about 23, a Laurier University music grad and general musical genius. She has played violin and piano, and practiced voice all her life. She can play anything with strings.
She has perfect pitch and can tell, without looking, where a fiddler is on the neck of the instrument, which fingers they’re using and the direction of the bow—up or down.

She’s trying to train my ear. To do that she plays middle C and then another note and I have to figure out what note she played in relation to C. That exercise usually goes like this: Claryssa, “OK, here’s C and what’s this?” Me, “E?” Claryssa, “No. Close. I’ll play it again.” Me, “F?” Claryssa, “No. Here it is again.” Me, “D?” Claryssa, “No. One more time.” Me, “Q?”

A little note from Claryssa.

She encourages me to sing and experiment a little bit so I added my own lyrics to “Ode to Joy.” I wouldn’t categorize them as “joyful” so much as a spontaneous rap that could make Snoop Dog blush.

When I play for Claryssa and hit the wrong notes, I think she worries about my mental health. She gently and soothingly reminds me we all make mistakes and that we have to be patient with ourselves. I don’t do the rap version of “Ode to Joy” in front of her, but instead sing like a pirate, ARRRRGGGGHHHHH, accompanied by hand flapping. I’m working on my stage presence.

I’ve watched great pianists like Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk play. Even with the sound off you can see how great they are. They’re fingers look like they’re part of the instrument.

My fingers look awkward. It’s like I just got them from Amazon and I ordered the wrong size. So, when I play, the saints don’t march in so much as stumble over their robes.

Nailed it!

I think it may be time to shelve the dream of a musical career. I don’t think I’ll be getting a Grammy or a Juno or even a Golden Raspberry. But when I play a song right, the whole way through, once or twice, I get a sticker from Claryssa. Right now that’s just as good.

And if I go into a town with one of those “play me I’m yours” pianos set up on the street or in a park I’m pretty sure I could pound out “Oh Susanna.”

So I guess that’s middle-aged reality, which is still better than never playing the blues.

Cheezie poetry

 

crumphcrumphmmmpphh

 

Cheezies—an Ode

Oh Cheezie, my childhood love
As orange as Beeker the Muppet
you have matured into an adult passion
you make persimmons and bell peppers pale
under the fluorescent flicker of grocery store light

Your inventors, W.T. Hawkins and some other guy,
geniuses without a Nobel Prize
There is no other cheezie, daringly spelt with a “Z,”
Cheetos, will not satisfy

Oh Cheezies, you peek from behind a curtain of stripes,
I get a glimpse of you inside the smooth cellophane bag
My fingers trace your edges, imperfect, unique
You reach back, speckles of seasoning cling to the inside of the bag
It’s been months since I last devoured you,
I struggle to remember the exact sensation
of salt and corn meal stuck to my teeth
I know only my longing

I take you home

You’re bad for me, I know
hydrogenated vegetable oil, disodium phosphate—whatever that is,
I ignore your faults
As you call to me like a forbidden lover
From behind the cabinet doors

A pomegranate beckons
its seeds shiny red beads
But I choose you
Take you to the couch, clutch the ridged package top and pull
Reach my hand in, without the limitations of a bowl,
My fingers caress you
Before I lift you to my lips
Again and
again

Until finally, I wrap you lovingly in the packet
Place you gently back into the cupboard
Half gone

I know you’re there
calling me
I try to stay busy
flip open a book, an orange fingerprint on the page
evidence of our last meeting
and I recall licking my fingers
dabbing the corners of the bag
grains of processed-aged-cheddar-cheese seasoning lingering
all that was left of you

Cheezies—a Lament

A banana peel in my hand
I open the door to the garbage and compost bag
drop it in
Then spot the striped cellophane
fluttering
A reminder of you
And our recent rendezvous
I am shamed by my abandon
As I recall the frenzied crunching
in the glow of the TV screen
blinds drawn
you and me on the couch

And you are gone
270 calories per three-quarters of a cup
My hunger for you is never measured
But the numbers haunt me
30% of my daily-recommended saturated fat intake
18% sodium
A measly 2% calcium, and iron
Yet
My longing reignites

Willing to go out into the cold night
Walk the grocery store aisles to find you
I check my wallet for $5
I find a loonie and two dimes
pull up the couch cushions
Jam my hands into coat pockets
Turn open purses upside down
And shake

Between the couch cushions
I find orange crumbs
That is all
I gather them in my hands
Toss them
in the garbage
on top of the banana peel
slam the door
and stare, empty, into the lonely blue
hue of the TV screen

The psycho-killer in the attic

 
I don’t consider myself paranoid. I guess paranoid people don’t know they’re paranoid—that’s kind of a key element of paranoia—but I stand by my analysis of myself anyway. I will concede I sometimes have an active imagination though.

Not to sound paranoid, but apparently perimenopause can cause a little bit of neurosis in the form of paranoia—just something to be vigilant about. It makes me wonder how the world is not full of middle-aged women bringing decoy sandwiches to work in case some shifty colleague goes about tampering with lunches, indiscriminately dabbing arsenic between pieces of bread. It could happen. And if it did we’d all wonder why we thought it was ever a good idea to share a fridge with a bunch of stressed out people we don’t really know all that well. I bet if you gave it some thought, you could imagine who the potential sandwich poisoner is at your work. If no one comes to mind, it’s probably you.

When I was a kid I used to watch the six o’clock news. As I remember it, the TV news was full of warnings about murderers and kid snatchers. My nerves were given a slight reprieve when weatherman CFTO-TV’s Dave Devall would appear behind a clear piece of acrylic, writing backwards and drawing raindrops with a giant grease pencil. Even a major storm was “happy news” compared to the chaos, death and destruction of the top stories.

I was convinced I would be murdered pretty much every evening as I crawled, reluctantly, into bed. I used to lie there with the covers over my head to create the illusion of a lumpy mattress with no one on it. I could hear what sounded like an army marching toward me and I would wait to be snatched. It took years to realize I was listening to the sound of my own heart pounding.

I’ve outgrown all of that of course—I’m middle-aged, so let’s hope so—and I avoid the triggers that freak me out. I stay away from documentaries about deranged killers who have never been caught, especially the ones with re-enactments where the narrator says things like, “Jessica walked through the dark parking lot after her shift at the café. It was October 17th and the lights in the lot were out; it was discovered later rocks had been thrown at the bulbs. Meanwhile, her boyfriend waited outside her house. He wanted to congratulate her on her upcoming graduation. He sat in his car for an hour and when she didn’t arrive he went home. The next morning, the cafe manager noticed her car was still in the parking lot. The beads from the key chain her sister had made her at summer camp were scattered nearby…”

The problem with these shows, besides the horror, is that I then walk around for days with the narrator’s voice in my head. In that calm, factual tone he describes everything I’m doing.  “Laura went outside to get the empty recycling box on a dark evening in November. Her husband Tony typically took care of that but he was away. She carried the box down the driveway and through the wooden gate into the backyard.” It’s at this point where the narrator’s voice starts describing a grim future: “The following morning a neighbour noticed the compost container was still on the curb and rolled it down the driveway. He noticed the wooden gate was broken, the recycling box was upside down in the garden and the bird feeder had been ripped from the hook. Her cat was in the window yowling. The front door of the house had been left open but Laura was nowhere to be found. Her coat and keys hung near the front door…”

It’s at this juncture in the narrative that my fear escalates to the point where I’m running blindly down the driveway, swinging the recycling box like a weapon, my heart ready to burst through my chest.

The news still gets to me sometimes but I do my best to be both rational and cautious. This is a balance all girls and women attempt throughout their lives. For the most part, I have overwhelming terror under control.

Tony went to a conference recently and I planned my days around the luxury of not having to share a bathroom or a TV. I went out for the afternoon to visit friends for lunch and then returned home near dinnertime. When I walked through the door I noticed one of the bags of Halloween-sized cheese sticks, still in a bowl by the front door, was missing. I may have many failings but I do have strong observational skills. When it comes to how many bags of cheese sticks are left after Halloween I’m like Rain Man.

Exhibit A

I thought it was odd, so I was on high alert after that. Later, I went into the bathroom upstairs and the toilet lid was up! I NEVER LEAVE IT UP. And I’m the only one home.

So now it’s not just a missing bag of cheese sticks. This is a real scenario.

Someone had been in the house or someone was still in the house. There was proof.

But I couldn’t call the police and say, “There’s a bag of cheese sticks missing and the toilet seat lid is up, get over here! Hurry!”

So I tried to ignore the killer and convince myself he wasn’t hiding in the attic. I sat in the living room with the TV on and the volume muted so that I could hear him if he started heading down the stairs.

What I had established about the killer was that he’s sloppy. He doesn’t pay attention to detail or else he would have put the toilet lid down, or maybe he did it on purpose to play with my head. He also has an affection for junk food—none of the kiwis was missing. It appears he forgot to go to the washroom before he left his house, or maybe he’s the nervous-type, maybe this is his first attempt at murder.

My best bet for survival was to outsmart him. The advantage I had was that he didn’t know that I knew that he was in the house. What I didn’t know was whether or not he heard me come in.

There was no way I would be able to go to bed until the murderer issue was resolved. I crept upstairs and stood at the door of the attic and listened. I thought I heard the floor creak but maybe not. Maybe he was listening for me.

The light switch is located on the outside of the door and it was turned off. I knew the minute I turned it on I would lose the element of surprise. I would have to move quickly. My skin felt prickly and my mouth was dry.

I didn’t think to bring a weapon and it was too late to go back downstairs now, I couldn’t risk making a noise and have him ambush me from behind. So I picked up the bag of kitty litter. My cat is diabetic so he pees a lot and it was a big bag of litter. I figured if I hit him hard enough I might knock him out or at least stun him. The bag was open too, so some of the litter would potentially fly out, and if it hit him in the eye the moisture would cause the little grains to clump together and it might seal his eyes shut.

I stood there holding the bag outside the door and psyched myself up before I flicked the light on, threw open the door and raced up the stairs. As I hit the landing I expected to see a hairy man with an evil smirk standing on the top step.

This is Eugene, Sophie’s cactus.

I ran straight up and the attic was perfectly still and peaceful. The only other living thing was Sophie’s cactus.

Turns out Sophie and her friend Anissa had stopped by to pick something up. My enquiries about who took cheese sticks and who used the washroom probably made me sound a little OCD. Which I am not. Except when I get halfway down our street and have to go back to the house to make sure the flat iron is turned off. And then I have to go back again to double check. So, maybe a little.

But I am definitely not paranoid.

A hand up for a sister

 
Sometimes you meet someone who has had such a good idea you expect it will endure, like the wheel or light bulbs.

When Judith Sept moved from Toronto to Stratford (Ontario) in 2006 she brought a brilliant idea with her. It’s called the Basketeer program. Women are encouraged to buy a laundry basket and fill it with themed items like bedroom and beauty products or kitchen essentials.

The baskets go to women’s emergency shelters like Optimism Place and Huron Women’s Shelter, and second-stage housing like The Emily Murphy Centre. They are given to women who are primarily invisible and have suffered violence at the hands of people they loved.

What a revolutionary idea.

The kids get presents because there is no end to the organizations that collect toys and raise money. It feels good to help kids. But the mothers aren’t even on the radar—it’s a terrible continuation of the invisibility and isolation many of these women suffered while living in a home filled with violence.

These are women, particularly at The Emily Murphy Centre, who are about to take steps back into a world that has not always been kind, to say the least. A world that has been consistently indifferent and at best not terribly helpful.

So these baskets are about them. It acknowledges the sacrifices mothers so often make for their kids. The basket says to women who have been unseen, “we see you.”

The “we” is a nameless and faceless group of women who stuff laundry baskets full of the basics like shampoo and soap as well “luxury items” like mascara or a spa gift certificate.

The book club I belong to, Penney’s Pages, is one of many groups that has been participating in the Basketeer Program for several years now. We pick a theme or two and then go shopping.

Penney’s Pages members, from left, Joanne, Mary, Carole, Laura, Carol and Cindy on basket drop-off day. Photo: Christy Bertrand.

This is the moment when we ask ourselves what it would be like to be lonely and scared and the only responsible adult for our kids. What would we miss if we had nothing? A soft blanket, lip gloss, a book. It may sound frivolous but it’s not. It’s the smallest form of justice.

While her abuser is out socializing with friends, getting coffee at Tim Hortons, and possibly spending good money on something stupid like those testicle ornaments that hang from truck hitches, she’s hidden away in a locked facility, trying to put her life back together. She’s trying to feel worthy and normal. And with any luck good enough. Good enough to avoid the kind of man who denies her freedom and resources. Who beats or rapes her or both and makes her feel small.

And while she does all that, there’s a basket that represents a group of women who are cheering her on. Women she doesn’t know and to whom she need not ever feel beholden. The basket and everything in it is free in the truest sense.

Eleven years on and the program continues, only now it’s organized by a new dynamo, Christy Bertrand. Thank goodness for that because the shelters in Stratford are typically full or close to it and I suspect that’s the case in communities across Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if this program blossomed beyond the 14 communities participating and landed in every city and town with a shelter?

Anne McDonnell, executive director at Optimism Place, and Lisa Wilde, executive director of  The Emily Murphy Centre, have been on the front lines for decades. It’s fair to say they’ve seen it all and in abundance.

One story Lisa can’t forget is when a woman got her basket and just sobbed. The woman confided she had never had a pillow that she didn’t have to share and that was brand new.

A pillow. I have trouble sharing blankets.

And to be really honest if a pillow was one of my Christmas gifts it would get tossed aside in the same way I chucked new underwear out of my stocking when I was four. My life is full of the kind of entitlement in which necessities are expected but don’t pass muster as gifts.

We have become so satisfied with doing the bare minimum. Women who have been subjected to violence and find an empty bed at a shelter are expected to be grateful. While executive directors across the province try to get more money and operate more programs.

For this we need not wait on government funding, that may never materialize. This program is about women doing more. This is about us saying we believe you and you’re not to blame.

I don’t care if she went back 12 times before she had the courage to leave for good. I don’t care if she knew he was jealous and put on makeup before going to the bar—he’s responsible for his own behaviour let’s get that straight. I don’t care if she was a drug user or never smoked a cigarette in her life. None of it matters.

What I care about is second chances. As women we have more power than we realize. We have incomes, we have connections, we talk, and some of us have brilliant ideas that are carried on by people with the guts to try and the faith that other women will step up.

If the system does not fail her and her abuser goes to jail, that’s a little bit more justice. But it won’t amount to the kind of time she’s already spent in a jail without oversight, a lawyer, a complaints process, guaranteed food, guaranteed medical attention, and her own pillow.

To learn more or start a program in your community check out https://basketeers.org/about.

Turn left at Albuquerque

 
At 47 there are things I think I should know by now, like how to fold a fitted sheet, or how to make jam, or how to successfully wrestle a piece of cling film over a plate of cold chicken.

I can get by without those skills. It’s easy enough to keep the linen-closet door closed, buy jam, and use tin foil.

But the skill I think would be most useful is knowing which way is north. Once you know that you can figure out the rest, I assume.

I come from a line of disoriented people. It’s a genetic failing. I don’t want to get too sciencey here, but the long and short of it is our “grid cells” are fuzzy, which indicates they aren’t very grid-like, I guess.

My grandmother always thought she was headed north, unless she was going downhill. Then, of course, she was going south.

My cousin Jenny has no clue where she’s going. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever see her again. I can imagine her driving from gas station to gas station asking for directions and then forgetting which way to turn out of the parking lot. On her first trip to Stratford (Ontario) from Holland Landing (near Newmarket) she somehow ended up in Hamilton. I’m not great with maps but I’m certain Hamilton is not on the way.

Of all the places to land, Hamilton is possibly the scariest too. I have gone in squares around the downtown for what seems like an entire afternoon. I often use moving landmarks like hot dog carts to orient myself.

In Hamilton I used the smokers standing outside the Tim Hortons, sipping their coffees, as I travelled up and down those one-way streets. “Have I been down this one before? Yup, there’s the guy in the grey hoodie with the plaid jacket. Ugh!”

The trouble getting out of Hamilton is the reason people live there. They have run out of gas, given up, and bought property.

I see a lack of direction as a flaw, for sure, but certainly not a lack of intelligence. If I recall correctly even Bugs Bunny made a few wrong turns around Albuquerque. But he still outsmarted Elmer Fudd, the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam, and a vampire. Mind you, none of them are Mensa candidates but when you add it all up, it’s impressive.

I don’t have a lot in common with Bugs Bunny when I’m behind the wheel. I’m more like Daffy Duck, if “you’re despicable” was updated to “HEY, *&%#!@, #$@%&, &**%@!#.”

Tony says I get lost pulling out of the driveway. That’s kind of true. I often don’t know which way to turn as I get close to the road, so the last few feet of the driveway can be harrowing. My indecision has caused me to skim the retaining wall beside the driveway causing my bumper to pop off on one side. I have to get out and smash it back in before my neighbours see.

One time I lost part of the bumper when I rolled over a chunk of ice on the boulevard. I had to get out and collect shards of red metal strewn across the sidewalk. It looked like dollar-store party streamers had exploded. The mechanic got those mega-twist tie things and sewed the largest pieces back on. Now the front of my car looks like Frankenstein. I can’t have anything nice.

It makes me look like a bad driver which is deceiving because I’m really quite excellent. I don’t go too fast or too slow, like everyone else.

I moved to Kitchener a few years ago and I have learned one route to get to each place I need to go—the bank, the grocery stores (two of them), the mall, bookstores and bakeries. One of the bakeries moved, I don’t have great hopes of finding it—no more Portuguese custard tarts for me.

I can also get to a few different highway on-ramps, and there’s a 50/50 chance I will choose the one headed in the right direction.

Kitchener-Waterloo is especially torturous if you have directional dyslexia because it’s the construction capital of the world. Everyday there’s a new street closure. It’s like living on a Rubic’s Cube that keeps turning.

On one of my darker days I came up to a road-closed sign, turned right, snaked through more construction down narrow streets only to reach another road-closed sign. I considered jumping into the hole behind the backhoe. It was only about three feet deep but still, I could have twisted my ankle. I was that distraught.

Now that I have GPS on my phone my life should be easier. But I rarely use it. I either don’t think of it or I think I can probably find my destination, plus if I have to listen to that bossy woman tell me what to do I have to turn down the music.  It’s just too inconvenient.

When I do finally pull over on the side of some country road as transports whizz past and rock my car as I type in my address, I kind of love the idea of GPS. It gives me confidence that I will get home. But then those horror stories of people who follow their GPS into the ocean or a swamp and die makes me think it might be better to go on instinct. I might be frequently late and panicked but I haven’t driven off a cliff.

Maybe, as my biological clock stops ticking my internal compass with finally kick in and my direction will be clear. I won’t worry anymore about never getting home, or ending up somewhere else, like Hamilton.

A woman walks into a bra

 
A good boob holster is essential for any moderate success at the gym.

An all-season bra is good for activities such as TV-watching, driving, eating and typing but at the gym you need control and containment—no one wants the rolling hills to roll away.

So off I went to shop for equipment. The price to “Just Do It” averages about $50 at specialty sports stores so I just didn’t. I’m not sure what warrants the $50 to $80 price tag. It’s just a piece of fabric too small for a toddler, and some elastic.

The bras at Sport Chek are categorized by high, medium, and low impact. They are hung up high and loomed over me. I went to the Winners next door where the bras swing from low hangers like mobiles right next to the sweaters. And they’re half the price. They come in small, medium and large—a system I understand.

I picked one that had thick straps like a tank top. It looked sturdy and promising—like nothing would move even when bouncing on a trampoline.

Another bra had a series of thin straps going in different directions across the back like a complicated suspension bridge. You can’t argue with good engineering, so I toddled off to the fitting room with both.

I started with the San Francisco special. I divided the multiple straps and popped my head through but my arms got tangled up. I looked like an octopus trapped in a fishing net. I know this because the full-length mirror doesn’t lie.

I tried the tank-top-type bra next. Far less complicated.

I popped it over my head and got my arms through the right holes but the bottom half, where the heavy-duty elastic is, rolled up in my armpits and I couldn’t roll it down. It was like being caught in a lasso. I’m pretty sure it was cutting off my circulation below the neck.

I wriggled and yanked and jumped as I tugged. My mammaries looked like unexploded water balloons lying on the ground, defenseless under the foot of a reckless child hoping to pop them.

I was sweating by the time I got the bra unfurled and the elastic placed properly under my ta-tas rather than on top of them. It was a no. Too hard to get on.

Then I tried to take it off.

The super grip elastic would not budge. I tried crossing my arms across the front and lifting but I couldn’t get a grip on the very tight elastic. I tried again, this time turning in circles like a dog chasing it’s tail. Perhaps with enough centrifugal force it would fly off?

I hooked my thumbs under the elastic and tried to stretch it up over the high beams as I wriggled. Winded and slightly panicked I had to come to terms with the possibility that I needed help to get out of this contraption. Would it be weird to ask the lady guarding the fitting rooms to help? I suspect so.

I considered ripping the price tag off and walking out of the dressing room with my head held high, swinging my bra from home in my hand. I could walk up to the cashier, slap the price tag down and say, “I’m headed straight to the gym, so I’ll wear it out.” Then I could go home and get Tony to cut me out of it with hedge clippers.

But I didn’t want to pay for it.

After more tugging, and jumping, and praying, and swearing, and grunting, and yanking, and wriggling, I got the bra over the McGuffies and over my head. I threw it down like a 100-meter python that had been trying to eat me.

I left my dignity and the sturdy sports bra at Winners. I took the suspension-bridge bra to the counter. If any of the cables snap things could go awry but it’s a chance I’m willing to take.

Let the music play

 
Being raised by grandparents has its disadvantages, not least of which is living in a cultural time capsule. When I was a kid I would sit with my bowl of Sunday Jello next to the stereo in the living room listening to Second-World-War songstress Vera Lynn and Boxcar Willie. It was 1980.

I started to realize I was out of the loop when a couple of boys in my Grade 5 class sang—in tune and with conviction— “Everybody’s got a hungry fart.” I was 10 years old and this song really spoke to me. I had never seen The White Cliffs of Dover and wasn’t sure where they were—though I could sing lovingly about them. But flatulence, that I knew, that was real life.

I had to find the genius who recorded that song and get with the times. I was already attempting to break free from the endless loop of old-timey eight-tracks and find my generation’s jukebox heroes. I just wasn’t sure where to look.

Let me know if you want to borrow any of these.

I got my first clue from a super-cool girl who had a CHUM t-shirt and used to ride her 10-speed bike down our street with her back straight and her hands on her knees. It took a while to find out that CHUM was a radio station but when I did, I knew my life was about to change. I could be just like the super-cool girl and get a t-shirt of my own and ride my bike down someone else’s street. But with my hands on the handlebars. I was pretty sure riding with no hands was illegal.

I had just been given a radio that looked like a mini record player with detachable speakers. The plan was to start cutting the CHUM 1050 charts out of the Toronto Star, and then listen to the hits as they were counted down on Saturday morning after my swimming lessons. I was going to find that song and learn all the words.

Our paper still hadn’t been delivered when I sat up in my room, hair still damp, with my radio on and my best multi-colour click pen ready to document the songs I liked best. I don’t know where the song fell in the countdown, but I recognized it right away. Except it was all wrong.

The song was “Hungry Heart” not “Hungry Fart.”

To this day I am not a Bruce Springsteen fan. And I still don’t know the words to that song.

Though my car may be a Springsteen-free zone, I’ve noticed recently that my ride has become a cultural time capsule all its own. I have a crap ton of 80s music on a USB stick my husband Tony made for a road trip. It starts with 1980 and ends with 1990. It’s got everything from Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

It’s not like I’ve been listening to 80s tunes since the 80s. I mean, I was still in touch with musical trends during the 1990s but somewhere down the road I seemed to do a U-turn and head back to where my musical tastes came from.

It doesn’t happen to everyone. I was at my mother-in-law’s for lunch a few years ago and she asked me if I’d seen Nicki Minaj on American Idol. I’ve never seen anyone on American Idol and I had no clue who Nicki Minaj is—but I did get a giggle out of my mother-in-law saying “ménage.” I’m middle age but I may have some growing up to do.

Veronica, my mother-in-law, is in her early 70s. She always had a sense of what was groundbreaking or popular and still does. She used to watch the Beatles play at the Cavern Club during her lunch break when she was a teenager in Liverpool. I think it’s a huge big deal. She thinks it’s no big deal.

I don’t know where my stepdaughters, Meghan, 19, and Sophie, 16, hear about new bands. They don’t listen to the radio. I don’t know what they listen to, they always have headphones in their ears.

They like 21 Pilots, or did the last time I checked. I don’t know anything about them except there are not 21 members and they probably aren’t pilots.

Veronica likes them too. It’s not like she’s just copying the kids—whose faces sank when they found out their Nana listens to the same music as they do—she discovered them, somehow, on her own.

I suppose I could blame my husband for turning my car into a back-to-the-future mobile. He made the mixed USB stick after all. He studies ancient history so I suppose he’s just following his interests. It’s not as though he listens to lute recordings by that second-century chart-topper Mesomedes or anything, but he does still listen to Rush regularly.

He continues to support geriatric and pre-geriatric musicians by going to see them with his high school friends. They’re not picky, they’ll go see the remainders in a band—Katrina without the Waves, or a lone Thompson Twin. It’s sad really. But it’s a night out and I guess that’s something.

I stick my nose up and rarely go. I don’t want to see individual has-beens—it’s the whole group of has-beens or nothing. If I’m going to listen to Hall there had better be some Oates, thank you, and it will be while I’m in the car and well before my 10 p.m. bedtime.

Now, can someone help me figure out how to download some Anne Murray from iTunes?

Something to celebrate with a side of cake

 
I love cake. I love it more than sunshine and puppies.

I love the way cake looks—perfectly round with strawberries arranged decoratively on the top or shaved chocolate on the sides. I love the surprise of a layer of custard, or fruit, or cream between the sponge. It’s like a present.

Cake is the least pretentious, non-everyday food ever. It’s also the most celebratory. Big events like birthdays, weddings, retirements, all require cake.

Tucking in. The other cake judges didn’t stand a chance. (Photo: Carol Hamilton).

I went through a really lonely, cakeless period in my thirties. I was living in a crummy basement apartment with floor tiles so old they had begun to disintegrate. I was in a relatively new community, my relationship had imploded, and I spent my weekends creating errands for myself so I wouldn’t be home.

What I missed the most during that time was having a birthday cake and people to eat it with. Cake is the manifestation of joy shared with the people you love.

That’s why I was ridiculously excited to be a judge in a gourmet chocolate cake contest this past weekend. I wish with all my heart and soul that Cake Judge was a real job title and that it was my real job.

The event was a fundraiser for Change Her World—a small NGO based in Stratford, Ontario that works out of northern Malawi.

It was started by two go-getters, Linda Willis, a retired teacher, and Carol Hamilton, a nurse, after a mission trip to the region.

They were stunned by what they saw, particularly in the north of Malawi. It’s physically challenging to get there due to a lack of infrastructure and, unremarkably, government funds don’t seem to make it there either.

On that trip the pair passed the remains of big NGOs—the ones that can afford heart-wrenching commercials on TV—that had packed up and left. The buildings were abandoned along with the hopes of the community.

Linda and Carol decided to consult with community members and build an infrastructure for girls’ education themselves. No waiting, no dithering, no asking if it would be worth it. Their organization, Change Her World, is a roll-up-your-sleeves, dining-room-table operation. They mean business.

This gutsy duo stepped out from their comfortable lives and took a risk. They put their reputations on the line. It could have failed quickly and it could have failed publicly but they pushed on anyway because they believed their passion would be contagious.

As Linda and Carol sold their idea to other women in Canada, they asked the families of girls in Malawi to take a chance on them. Linda and Carol gave these girls an opportunity to reach for a future their mothers couldn’t have dreamed of and they took it. The girls show up first thing in the morning and they study by candlelight well into the night.

Linda and Carol have learned how to negotiate with politicians and pack a shipping container. They’ve bought uniforms and paid school fees. They’ve renovated schools that were too dilapidated for boys, but considered adequate for girls. They’ve gone further than anyone else with fewer resources.

Linda and Carol have put girls through elementary, high school and in some cases university. The first young woman to graduate university started as just another girl with nothing, and in danger of marrying too soon and raising more girls with nothing. She’s coming back to her community with something—a degree and choices—and she’s coming back a somebody.

She will be the Haley Wickenheiser or Roberta Bondar of her community. She is a walking billboard; it can be done.

And Linda and Carol are our beacon to forge boldly ahead, to speak up and speak out. And to take action at our own dining room tables.

That’s a whole lot to celebrate. Bring on the cake.

To read about the amazing achievements of Linda and Carol go to changeherworld.ca.

Textbook phobia

 
We all have phobias, that’s normal—spiders, confined spaces, heights. The phobia that haunts me, that lingers in the back of my mind all the time, is the terror that some part of my body will be the big, glossy picture in a medical textbook. A lumpy growth on my arm, or face, or worse, that oozes goo.

I suppose it would be equally bad to be the textbook example of syphilis because if a doctor, who has seen loads of syphilis, wants a picture to remember it by, you’ve got something special.

I never want to be the person examined by multiple strangers in lab coats while I stand there shivering in one of those blue over-laundered gowns.

I imagine it would go like this: “Hey Bob, take a look. Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Bob slaps a glove on and gives it a poke. “In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like that Martha. Has Jim seen that thing? Maybe he could lop it off.”
“We thought of that,” Martha says, “but a scan shows tentacles are growing on the inside of her body and wrapping themselves around her liver and kidneys…”

The pictures in medical textbooks are always in colour and close up. First-year med students probably take the book home at Thanksgiving. After the pumpkin pie, they pass it around to gross out their family and see who can keep their turkey down. I don’t want to be part of that ritual.

Then, after midterms, those same medical-school overachievers print out pictures of the worst, scabbiest sores and diseases to make drinking-game cards. And my ailment is worth two drinks. That’s my nightmare.

I don’t know why it scares me so much. Maybe it has something to do with being abnormal, a sensation I’ve had all my life, and have worked hard to hide. Maybe a medical-textbook photo would expose me and confirm my greatest fears about myself, that I’m deficient in some way.

It’s not as if anyone would know who the model was for the lumpy, tentacled thing. I know the pictures aren’t accompanied by a headshot and short bio with phone number and email, but still. It terrifies me.

So when I felt some weird, scaly patch of skin on my back I thought, “What the hell is that!?”

I spun around in front of the mirror and twisted my neck until I got a glimpse of a brown spot. What if it’s a disease on the inside of my body that has broken through the skin? And what if it slowly spreads across my whole body? What if the medical community is stumped? In my most rational moments I prepared for a skin cancer diagnosis.

While I waited for my doctor to come into the exam room and poke and prod, I took a look at the graduating-class photo on his wall just to make sure he’s actually in there. He looked really young then. And I wondered if he played  drinking games.

He came in carrying my file and said, “You’re concerned about a mark on your skin. Lets take a look.”

A moment later he announced it’s ugly but harmless. “It’s just part of getting older,” he said.

It could be removed if it makes me really unhappy, he noted, but it’s not really worth it. “Who’s going to see it anyway? You don’t wear backless clothing, do you?”

Nope. Got me there.

I never did wear backless tops much, but now I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Like something has passed me by and I can’t have it back.
Instead of having my brown spot removed, it will remain part of my life, a reminder that I’m getting older.

It could be worse. My doctor could have taken a camera out of his desk drawer and asked if I was ready for my close-up.