Is it me or is it hot in here?

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. 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.



A splash of colour

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.

Why I hate camping: Part 1

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.

Halfway to good

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.


Social bloopers–roll ’em

I suppose this falls under the category of things I should know by now.  I have a recurring faux pas problem.

I have, I fear, damaged at least two older gentlemen who tried to befriend me and had their self-esteem clobbered.

First it was Ted, a well-regarded and fondly-remembered retired teacher, volunteer and advocate. I was working as a journalist at the time and waiting outside of Stratford’s council chambers for a meeting to start. Ted was waiting too, so I walked up to say hello. He happily greeted me but called me another name—I think it was Jen. I corrected him and told him my name and reminded him I was a reporter at the local paper.

He was mortified and explained that he had a past student who looked just like me and he often got us confused. I tried to make light of it but he was so embarrassed he couldn’t see the humour.

I saw him a day or two later and my first thought should have been that, since he was dying inside after the name mix-up, maybe it’s too soon to be “funny.”

I didn’t have that thought. I had this thought:  “I’ll turn it into a joke and we’ll laugh and laugh….” So I walked up to him and said, “Hi Ted, it’s me Jen.”

And he said, “Hi Jen! It’s nice to see you. How are you?”

Uh oh.

I stood there waiting with the faint hope he was turning the joke back on me and we would laugh and laugh. I could feel the heat crawling up my neck as I sheepishly explained it was me again, the reporter, Laura

He looked baffled. I’m sure he walked away wondering why I would do such a thing. I wanted to slink under the carpet.

You would think that moment, which I expect will replay in the moments before I expire, would have taught me something. To pause before speaking perhaps. Nope.

A couple of weeks ago, I went out for tea with an 83-year-old friend Gary. We meet at McDonalds every couple of weeks and he always gets an orange-cranberry muffin. His love of the cranberry is unmatched. He can speak at length about the virtues of the cranberry.

He offered me a piece of his muffin and I turned it down. He said, “Are you watching your weight or something?”

I said, “What do you mean? Are you saying I need to watch my weight!?”

I was kidding. I knew that’s not what he was saying.

He was gutted. He apologized and chastised himself for saying something so awful. I told him I wasn’t upset, I was joking.

I didn’t think about it again until a week later when I got a message to call him. When I did he told me he wanted to apologize for the stupid thing he said. He hadn’t been sleeping.

I went out for tea with him this past week and as I feared he refused a muffin. He said he wasn’t hungry and rhymed off all the things he had for breakfast like a grocery list.

I thought I would outsmart him. I went to get the coffee (tea in my case) and bought him a cranberry-orange muffin to go and I bought myself a pastry. I figured if I ate the pastry he would cave and eat the muffin and all would be right with the world.

He took the muffin but was adamant that he was full from breakfast. Ack.

I ate my pastry. Still nothing.

I wonder if he ate his muffin when he got home or if the cranberries just don’t taste as good as they used to. I wonder if he threw it out.

I should call him and apologize again. I’m having trouble sleeping.


In memory of a giant

When I see Nellie McClung’s face (surrounded by men) on the new $10 bill or I pass the Jenny Trout or Emily Murphy centres in Stratford I wonder what it would have been like to know these giants.

These pioneers moved us all forward—some of us kicking and screaming. These are women who bravely persevered in the face of opposition and obstacles. They did what needed to be done. Their accomplishments are not just history to be summed up in a Heritage Minute.

These women, the gutsy ones, still roll up their sleeves and propel us all forward. They inspire us to do better.

Florence Kehl was one of those women. Her legacy may not be turned into a one-minute Canadian history lesson but when I drive by House of Blessing I will remember her and think, “I knew that giant.”

Flo died unexpectedly on January 3. She was 76.

More than 30 years ago Flo went to Hamilton to see what was being done for people facing poverty in that city. She got home and told her husband Norman she wanted to start a community-based organization that would provide food and clothing to people who needed it in Stratford. He told her to go for it. They put up their savings to build House of Blessing.

What she started has become the city’s social conscience.

“You have no idea what people are going through when they walk through the doors,” she said when I interviewed her for The Beacon Herald in 2013. “Even when they’re miserable and difficult to deal with, you don’t know what they’re going through so you try to treat them with respect.”

That was her mantra and because of that, House of Blessing has been a place of refuge and respect for people who need it most.

Flo retired from House of Blessing in 2010 but it will always be associated with its founder. In years to come residents who fall on hard times will be able to count on House of Blessing to send them home with food, a prom dress, an outfit to got to an interview, and some kindness in a world unforgiving of “failure.”

At every meeting I had with her, first professionally and later personally, I was touched by her infinite kindness, her easy laugh, and her confidence in me.

When I think of Flo, I think of the custodian who worked at House of Blessing more than a decade ago. On the surface this anecdote doesn’t sound like it’s about Flo but really it is. Just a couple of years into my journalism career in Stratford I was offered the chance to explore what it meant to be homeless in the city. Me and a small group of other community members were each given an identity and were told to see if we could get shelter.

I was supposed to be a young mom with two kids who was suddenly out on the street and out in the cold. We were given $5 and that was it. I asked people working in local businesses what I should do and every time they told me to call House of Blessing.

That was significant. It spoke to the reputation of House of Blessing and to the high profile it enjoyed because of the work done there and because of Flo. I walked around for hours and I didn’t call because I knew House of Blessing doesn’t have beds.

I also refused to call any other agency that wasn’t recommended to me. I knew what services were available because of my job but I figured if I was a young mom who suddenly found herself on the street, I might not know where to get help.

I did call a few other organizations which were eventually suggested to me but they were closed or, in the case of one of them, I didn’t fit the criteria.

It was amazing to me how quickly my confidence eroded and how lonely I felt. And cold. I knew it was all pretend but I was not prepared for the shame and how quickly it began to feel real.

I finally called House of Blessing because it had been recommended so many times. It was late and it was closed but the custodian answered the phone anyway.

He was genuinely concerned for me and talked to me for about 15 or 20 minutes. He suggested some phone numbers to try but if nothing materialized he urged me to call back.

I called back a few minutes later and he was beside himself. The idea that a young mother with two kids would be out in the cold at night with nowhere to go was unthinkable to him.  I may not remember correctly but I think he had called his wife. I know he was prepared to arrange for me to get to his home until I could talk to social services.

My heart sank. He was so invested in my wellbeing. Now I had to come clean—I wasn’t homeless, I wasn’t a young mom, I was a reporter. I felt awful but he was very forgiving, though a little confused.

I don’t want to take anything away from the custodian who is clearly a wonderful human being, but I think that the sense of responsibility toward others and the desire to help comes from the culture Flo built at House of Blessing.

Because it was built on Flo and Norm’s money it was also built on their ideals and their ideals had no restrictions.

The kindness I received from the custodian is Flo’s legacy. Flo did her best for everyone and it was contagious.

Five minutes in Flo’s presence and I wanted to be a better person and I know I’m not alone. Every conversation started with a warm embrace and ended with the same.

She was a devoted Christian and her faith was a part of each endeavor she took on. She modeled the answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For Flo the answer was undoubtedly yes, and your sister’s keeper, and your neighbours’ keeper, and any stranger who crossed your path.

In those of us who knew her she ignited compassion. The object now, is to keep that flame lit.

Have you seen my glasses?

My age lingers in the recesses of my brain, so much so that at times I really have to think about how old I am. I try doing the math: “What year was I born? What year is this?” Perhaps it’s self-preservation to forget certain numbers but it’s more likely to do with my estrogen levels going up and down like my patience.

All it takes to lose my train of thought is something small. Our cats have become like furry chalkboard erasers. When they walk past me, anything I’ve been contemplating is suddenly wiped away. There is nothing left but a cloud of white dust—the only evidence there was anything there in the first place, but like writing on a chalkboard, irretrievable.

The Healthline website says that during perimenopause, “memory issues” are “normal” and a “general fogginess is common.” I’m not sure I would describe it as a general fogginess so much as a Mount Everest whiteout.

Case in point: the amount of time I spend looking for my glasses has gone up by at least 82% in the last two years. Sometimes they’re on my head and other times they’re actually on my face. I can’t find the glasses I’m looking through, the glasses that improve my vision. Can’t see them anywhere!

There they are!

Sometimes I forget what I’m looking for mid-search. Sometimes I find something I lost the week before. Yay!

I was at a friend’s fiftieth birthday celebration recently; we played a Downton Abbey-type murder mystery. It didn’t take too long to crack the murder part of the evening but where the hell I left my glasses was another matter. It took a grid search to find them.

The worst instance of my cognitive failures so far happened this fall when I forgot my friend Kathryn’s birthday. Totally forgot. It was in October and I didn’t realize it until December. I associate her birthday with Thanksgiving because it usually falls on the same weekend. I remembered to eat turkey but forgot to eat birthday cake. I love cake but not even that was enough to ignite a small birthday-candle flame in my brain.

I’ve known Kathryn for 15 years. Shouldn’t her birthday be tightly affixed to some synapsis somewhere in my skull? Like so many of my thoughts these days they seem to be free floating and difficult to nail down.

When I finally did realize that I forgot her birthday, I wondered if in fact I had remembered but that I had forgotten that I had remembered. That’s how crazy this foggy memory business can be.

I wracked my brain to see if I could recall some shopping expedition in which I bought her something fabulous, but it was like staring into a black hole. There was nothing fabulous in it.

It’s not like I have kids and a busy career at the moment. There’s really nothing to blame it on other than crap biology.

The introvert in me that wants to spend time hiding behind the shower curtain at parties—I know that’s creepy which is why I don’t do it—is intensified by my inability to remember names. When I get introduced to people at parties their names are shaken free from my brain as soon as we release hands. I’m tempted to just start calling men Steve or Mike. Chances are good there will be one in the room somewhere.

The only really good thing about the “memory issues” associated with perimenopause is that social miscues or errors that I would normally worry about all day are simply forgotten. No effort. Just gone. Poof. It’s almost like losing your conscience but not quite.

These days I feel like everything requires my utmost concentration, like Superman when he’s using his x-ray vision. If I’m not hyper diligent, all is lost.

I have ideas for this blog at 1 o’clock in the morning. Because I don’t want to get out of bed and write the idea down, I say it over and over to myself until I think it’s locked in. Despite the mental rehearsals, when I get up,  I don’t remember I had an idea, or I remember I had an idea but don’t remember what it was.

I tried keeping a pen and Post-its on my nightstand for a while, just in case. But I would get an idea, fumble around on my nightstand patting everything with my palm—books, an empty Kleenex box, aspirin—and then hear the pen fall behind the nightstand. I would spend the next 15 minutes fuming about the pen. Thanks to the joys of hormonal fluctuations I also have trouble sleeping, so swearing under my breath about a pen does nothing to send me on my way to a peaceful slumber.

On the nights when I’ve been successful locating both the pen and the Post-its I end up writing one sentence over another in the dark and can’t make it out in the morning anyway. Or I forget I wrote down an idea in the first place.

If I stop posting on this blog you should assume I have, a) forgotten where I live, b) become immersed in the search for Post-it notes or my glasses or my cat or my keys, or c) I have forgotten I have a blog.

Should I remain silent for too long, do come looking for me.