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.

What time is it now?

I hate to sound like a curmudgeon but I don’t get New Year’s Eve and I’m confident I’m not alone on this one.

I saw actress Jessica Biel on the British talk show “Graham Norton” recently and she said she doesn’t get excited about New Year’s Eve anymore because it’s always disappointing.

If the parties Jessica Biel is invited to are crap what hope do the rest of us have?

At first I thought I could relate to her but then realized I can’t. I’ve never been to a party with Jessica Biel so this is all speculation, but I bet there’s live music at the parties she goes to. And I bet the music isn’t the hosts’ sugar-wound six-year-old playing a plastic saxophone.

I bet it’s not a potluck affair either. You know, the ones where none of the food should ever be eaten together—samosas, meatballs and ambrosia salad, for example. And a lot of the food is sitting in liquid in a sweaty-lidded crockpot.

I bet the parties she goes to are catered and waiters wander around with all kinds of fresh and delectable nibblies. Maybe the disappointing part if you’re a Hollywood actress is that you can’t eat more than one oeurs d’oeuvres if you ever want to work again.

I’m not a Hollywood actress so I could eat multiple mini crab cakes and kebabs, but I can’t get in the door. What a waste.

The best New Year’s Eve Party I can vaguely recall was when I was a teenager. It was a house party and I got drunk enough that I could fall down the stairs on my arse and neither feel a thing nor comprehend how I got to the bottom of the stairs so quickly. One minute I was at the top of the stairs, the next minute I was perched on the bottom step with no clue how I got there. I was totally amazed.  I remember wanting to chat about it with anyone who walked by.

When I was a kid New Year’s meant trying to stay awake. I’m starting to head back in that direction. It also meant getting the year wrong at the top of my school work for about two weeks. As a young adult it meant getting the year wrong on rent cheques. I haven’t written any cheques in  years.

Now the only time I need to be sure of the date is when I’m in the grocery store buying bread or yogurt.

Don’t get me wrong, I like having a holiday a week after Christmas but I don’t like the pressure to have a good time. It takes all the fun out of it. Especially when Facebook is full of pictures of smiling people dressed up and wearing tiaras with the year bedazzled on their heads. Clearly they’re having the time of their lives in that moment when the flash goes off.

I’ve been to the parties at bars that you buy tickets for. They come with some lame buffet and there’s never enough food. The people at the end of the line get the crusty-edge bits of mashed potatoes and a stringy end-piece of beef that has been rejected by the 150 people in front of them in line.

It feels like everyone is trying way too hard. The New Year’s celebrations on TV in New York and Ottawa just look contrived. Everyone stands around until the camera hits them and they start yelling and waving their arms around. It always looks really cold too.

When the countdown is done on this side of the world and we move into a new year Donald Trump will still be president of the United States, millions of refugees will still huddle in appalling conditions in camps around the world as they escape conflict, and the threat of more war and cruelty will continue to loom. A clock ticking down will do nothing to change any of that.  It’s not magic.

Still, a new year provides us with opportunities to reflect on our lives and the way we live them. Opportunities that perhaps aren’t taken in June.  The promise of something new inspires hope for a fresh start and the dare to dream. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to leave behind the heartaches of the past year and do better and enjoy all the love, prosperity and peace we can find.

Never is a minute so heady as the 60 seconds that bridge one year to the next. We’re all waiting for the ball to drop. But how we bid farewell to 2017 has no impact on the way 2018 will treat us or how we treat each other.

Whether you welcome the new year holding a plastic plate in a buffet line, standing in the cold and waving at a TV camera, sitting on a couch sipping wine and wondering who did Jenny McCarthy’s hair, or simply tucked into bed, I hope you have big plans for the future.  Even if New Year’s Eve turns out to be the best night of your life, I wish you a year that is far  more satisfying.


The gifts that keep on giving

It would be nice if the concept of regifting was about protecting the environment but really it’s about making that mangy—I mean festive—stuffed reindeer wearing a Maple Leafs hat someone else’s problem. It’s like a demented holiday version of hot potato.

The object is to get rid of the mug with “You have to look through the rain to see the rainbow” emblazoned across it in the colours of the rainbow, or the “belly button brush,” before the holidays end or you’re stuck with it. I suppose those can be regifted throughout the year but that mangy reindeer can’t be rewrapped for a July birthday.

Personally, I think it’s cheating to continue doling out the flotsam and jetsam of the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s. Once Christmas has passed and the carols have stopped that’s it. Game over.

Tony’s family has an odd tradition they call the “lucky dip.” I suspect they’re being ironic. Everyone buys three gifts worth $1-$5 which are wrapped and placed in a pile. Everyone takes a turn pulling a gift until there’s nothing left. There could be anything underneath the snowman paper held together with gobs of tape on the folded ends. That’s what makes it stressful.

If you’re lucky you get a chocolate bar and lottery ticket or the much sought after box of Viva Puffs—those cookies with marshmallows, jam, and a “chocolaty coating.” You can steal a gift if it’s something you really want. That’s rare though. Mostly you’re just thankful you didn’t get the lacy dollar-store thong.

The beets go on…

This year my husband bought a package of pickled beets, which originated in Romania. He thinks it’s funny. Some poor sod is going to have to take those home because Veronica, Tony’s mom, has an eagle eye, so there’s no way to “forget” a gift at her house. I’ve tried it. I had one boot on when she came down the stairs carrying my orange pylon. “Don’t forget this,” she said holding it out to me.

There has been a tradition of regifting in this game. Several years back there was a pregnancy test that reappeared year after year. My niece August and I tried to saddle one another throughout the year with a pair of elbow-long pink rubber gloves with “Princess” written across them. I’d slip them into her backpack and she’d hide them somewhere in the house. I don’t know what happened to them. But I suspect I have them somewhere.

It’s not just purchased gifts that get regifted. Home kitchens turn into Mr. Christie factories at this time of year as everyone rolls up their sleeves and digs out a rolling pin. Those sugary calories have to go somewhere and, personally, I’d prefer that it be someone else’s thighs.

I don’t really bake. I like measuring things and putting them in a bowl and stirring them together and then I lose interest.  I do like eating a warm cookie with melty chocolate chips. But once I’ve eaten one there are still 23 more cookies to eat. I don’t want 23 cookies. Well, actually I kind of do want 23 more cookies but I don’t want to go into a sugar coma.

The solution is to wrap those suckers up or put them in a tin and voila, someone else’s temptation.

People stress out about Christmas baking. “I have to get my Christmas baking done!” they say. No you don’t. Not really. As women of a certain age, we should know this. It’s guaranteed the other women of a certain age are going to bring trays and tins of baked goods in to work or any social gathering this side of Remembrance Day. There are always leftovers and they’re always abandoned on a piece of crinkly parchment paper. Bring an empty tin to work and you can fill your table at home because there’s too much of everything. In my case the goodies from other people’s kitchens are better than the ones I make anyway and they come with no fuss or muss.

I think a documentary about a Christmas cookie would do very well at Cannes. A discrete camera crew could follow it from house to house as it’s regifted and finally taken to a social function, or it’s consumed, half-consumed, or chucked after New Years.  And what if it ended up in the same kitchen it started from? What then?

It’s a question I’ll contemplate as I rewrap a Donald Trump scented candle.

Danger: holiday baking–Part 1

What are those light-brown dessert squares with the coloured marshmallows in them? I see those a lot during the holidays nestled among the mini brownies, rumballs, and coconut squares that have emerged from someone’s kitchen—proudly and lovingly displayed on a festive plate.

Maybe it’s a combination of cynicism and metabolism but I proceed with caution when approaching a tray of homemade baking.

Name that dessert.

People make all kinds of wonderful things at this time of year but I think for many there’s also a need to bake out of sentimentality and to carry on tradition. As lovely as that inclination is, some traditions don’t belong on a plate, or in a recipe book, or in the mouths of co-workers.

My grandmother was a fan of the Jell-O mold. She had several varieties and many a diced pear hung suspended in a ring of red or green Jell-O like some cryogenics experiment. It had a special place in the middle of the dining room table. When my grandmother sliced through the Jell-O with a spoon it would make a sucking sound and then it would shiver silently after she plopped it into a bowl. For that extra fancy touch there was always whipped cream in a spray can. This is a Christmas tradition that should remain a memory. Times and tastes change.

When I was a kid my grandmother also made loads of mincemeat tarts. My parents’ generation loved them. I was having none of it. Nothing good can come of something described with the words “minced” and “meat.” I hold onto that belief.

My grandmother made trifle too which was a highlight for the older generation.  She put it in a raised glass bowl—the one our cat wanted to sleep in when it was empty. It stood like a multi-tiered statue of sponge, custard and cream above everything else on the table. I still don’t understand the appeal.

ubiquitous Jell-O

When friends or co-workers share their family bakes it’s usually chockablock full of mystery concoctions, like the light-brown things with the fruity marshmallows.

At my last job I would wait until I was alone with the day’s tray of baking before plucking something from it that I hoped didn’t contain coconut or molasses or have a weird sandy texture. By taste testing when no one was around, I could slip over to the garbage can and discreetly tuck it under a napkin. Perhaps it makes me a horrible person but if the baker doesn’t know, where is the harm?

When you hit middle age you have to be selective about the indulgences you partake in. Butter and sugar stick to my thighs like S’mores stick to my chin. There are no free calories so I can’t afford  to eat something I wish I hadn’t and have it take up permanent residency on my upper arms. When I was younger sneezing was enough exercise but now a lemon square means an hour at the gym.

It’s not just home bakes, chocolates can be fraught with danger too. My grandmother always got a box of Pot of Gold when I was growing up. Are they still around?

They all looked tempting but inevitably I’d bite into some coffee-flavoured nightmare and almost have a seizure. I swear the coffee chocolates accounted for half the box while another third was made up of those rock-hard caramels.

I’d chew those caramels like a dog eating peanut butter, drool dripping down the front of my dress, until it was bedtime and the caramel had to be extracted from my teeth and discarded. I don’t know if I actually ever managed to ingest one.

The only chocolates I really liked were the ones with the pink goo, I think it was “strawberry.” I had to bite into a lot of coffee before finding one of those.

In the meantime, my grandmother spent part of each day collecting the chocolates I had ditched with a bite missing or spit out and reassembled. They were subtly left under the lip of a plate, next to a plant, or behind the TV. My grandmother would confront me waving a saliva-covered candy, the chocolate partially melted from the heat of my tongue. I would briefly consider blaming one of the dogs, but I knew she wouldn’t buy it, our black lab would have eaten the whole thing. Instead I would say I was full and that I was saving it for later.

Then I’d hope and pray Santa Claus didn’t have time to unload my presents from his sleigh after I lied and made my grandmother “cross” again.

I would hope to confirm my place on the nice list when I went to bed on Christmas Eve. I was adamant Santa would get only the best: Chips Ahoy. Timeless.

If you’re a fan of vintage recipes, give these a look:

Give me a winter wonderland over a wonderful Christmastime

The Jewish community is owed a debt of gratitude from anyone who celebrates Christmas. It’s no secret that many of the classic carols we’re all so fond of were written by Jewish men and women. Some of the standouts are “The Christmas Song” so often sung by choirs, “Winter Wonderland,” which has invoked many a dream by the fire, and oh by golly “Holly Jolly Christmas,” among many others.

They’re the songs we hum absent-mindedly when we do the dishes, brush our teeth, and fold laundry. This year “Holly Jolly Christmas” has been on a permanent loop in my head. It’s replaced every now and then but before I realize it, I’m back to “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

I dare say that many of the carols written by Jewish composers are better than the carols written by non-Jewish composers. I have a theory.

Jewish songwriters have the distance necessary to write about the beautiful side of the season. If you haven’t had to wait in line for an hour juggling presents while you shrivel up like a raisin in your winter coat, the hustle and bustle of the season might look appealing.

Who can deny the magic of twinkly lights during the darkest time of year? It looks magical, especially if you haven’t stood outside freezing on your porch attempting to unravel a string of lights in the dark while balancing on a wonky ladder. Then, when they’re finally perfectly placed around the porch, and they’re plugged in you discover half the lights are “cool” white (also known as bluish) and half are “warm” white (also known as yellowish). Who knew there were so many different whites?

There are few things less romantic than packing up all the decorations, sweeping up pine needles, and lugging everything back down to the basement once it’s all over. It’s like a mini-move every December.

There are no songs about that, yet. I’m waiting for one though. Songwriters from a Christmas tradition of one kind or another—Christian or secular—have written some miserable holiday songs.

That wasn’t true before electricity and shopping malls. There are lots of great carols written by Christians in the 1700s and 1800s—“Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night,” to name but a few. After that though things get dodgy.

Two of the carols that make me grimace when they come on the radio—and they always do—are “Last Christmas” by Wham! and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney.

“Last Christmas” is just so sappy it gives me a stomachache much like the ones I get when I drink too much white wine with too many brownies.

“Last Christmas I gave you my heart/But the very next day you gave it away…” That’s some speedy regifting and I think I know why.

The lonely misery of “Last Christmas” is reflected in a lot of holiday songs now.

Besides the depressing songs there’s also the just plain awful.

Few lyrics illustrate the joy of having a wonderful Christmas time better than, “Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding/Oo-oo-oo-oo/Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo/Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo.”

To be fair that’s the worst of it. Here’s the best, “The mood is right, the spirit’s up/We’re here tonight and that’s enough/ Simply having a wonderful Christmastime/Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Virtually Shakespearean.

It sounds like Paul McCartney wrote this one on a scotch-infused bar napkin 10 minutes before heading into the studio. We know you can do better Sir.

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues is super-depressing but not because it’s poorly written. The first verse hits me with a wallop every time I hear it.

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me
“Won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

It’s a whole lot grittier than “Silver Bells,” which was written by a Jewish composer, and encompasses the most idealized version of Christmas, the one I’ve been chasing since I was a child but that always eludes me.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear

Silver bells, silver bells…

With so many brilliant Jewish composers I wonder what kind of Hanukkah songs there are. Other than Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” I don’t know any. Maybe Jewish songwriters don’t bother because Hanukkah songs will be drowned out by the mainstream rotation of Christmas jewels like “Last Christmas.”

That’s likely part of it but I think my theory translates into Hebrew. When I walk by a menorah partially lit up in a window I imagine the potato latkes and jam-filled donuts laid out on the table and the people inside laughing and celebrating. I get a warm feeling. From my spot outside it’s so easy to romanticize the holiday.

But I’ve never experienced the stress of being one candle short on day eight. I’ve never dealt with the frustration of matches that break as I strike them.

And there’s all that cooking in oil and gift buying and prep just to get to the good stuff. It starts to feel familiar when I see it that way.

Holidays in general are a respite from the afflictions that follow us all. Perhaps there’s no better way to be transported somewhere magical than through music.

When I catch myself singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I remember sitting cross-legged, knee to knee, in the hallways of Bala Avenue Public School as we sang morning carols during the days leading up to Christmas. This is when we saw a different side of our teachers as they stood up front dancing and being goofy.

And when I find myself humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” I’m extra grateful for what these songs evoke. The warmth of my childhood home, the windows steamed up, as my grandmother boiled the Christmas pudding for eight hours—the pot lid bouncing and clanging.

I can see my grandmother standing on the arm of the couch, tying our tree to a nail in the wall with cord she’d “hide” with tinsel.

I get to travel back to stringing porch lights with my grandfather, his toque askew in the dark, our only light streaming from the living room window. “You hold this,” he’d say, placing one end of the row of lights in my mittened hand.

Those songs take me to places I can’t reach easily without them. They take me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go, until I’m there. It’s always the gifts you didn’t know you wanted that are best.








What is Christmas without inconvenience?

He’s bigger than he looks on TV!

It just isn’t Christmas if a stranger in a mall fails to bash the back of my knee with the corner of a cardboard box. It’s a nice way to remember this tender part of my body, which goes virtually ignored until it’s throbbing and bruised at Christmas time.

That hasn’t happened this year. It’s a tradition I miss. Sure it makes me cranky, put-upon, and indignant but that’s all part of the season. It’s the war wounds of shopping that prove your love and devotion to friends and family. Presents are always best when there’s a story behind them.

When my cousin Jenny and I were really small we wanted Ernie and Bert puppets for Christmas. They were hot Christmas toys for all the wee Sesame Street fans in 1973. We probably intended to ask Santa Claus for them; I don’t remember if I was brave enough to squeak out a word while perched atop his formidable knee. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle scoured every store to find those puppets. They had the added pressure of having to get a hold of four instead of just two.

My aunt, Julie, relayed the dramatic story on more than one occasion when I was a teenager. They had all but given up, every store had sold out and they had tried everywhere. It was December 23 and they had come up empty. A gentle snow had started to fall when my aunt ventured out to Canadian Tire for something else entirely. And there they were. On one of the end shelves two Ernies and two Berts peered out from their boxes. She grabbed them, clutched them to her chest, and marched straight to the checkout, completely abandoning her initial mission. Had anyone tried to take those puppets from her they would have been hospitalized.

In our respective houses, Jenny and I woke up to Ernie and Bert under the tree. Christmas was saved. Add a messed-up but loving family, an unrequited love story, one sibling struggling to make ends meet and another on the verge of divorce, all going home for Christmas and you’ve got yourself a modern Christmas movie.

Me, Ernie, and definitely not Bert.

In recent years, I’ve spent Christmas in New York City, which is so festive at this time of year. All of the communal traditions are alive and well. There are outdoor Christmas markets, Christmas shows at Radio City Music Hall, and fantastic window decorations at Macy’s, Tiffany’s and other retailers.

Christmas display windows used to be a big deal in Toronto too. A trip downtown was a must to see the Santa Claus parade, and the window displays at Simpsons and Eaton’s. The window displays are long gone, as are Simpsons and Eaton’s.

I am beginning to resent the way the world is changing without my consent. And each time I do I think of my grandparents or my dad waxing poetic about past Christmas traditions—lugging home the tree which one of the dogs would immediately pee on, overloading plugs and blowing fuses, getting an orange in the toe of a stocking, and of course those window displays.

For my grandmother, Isabel, the early Christmases she celebrated after arriving here from Liverpool shaped future festivities. One of her fondest yet sad memories was of her grandmother almost setting the house on fire as she attempted to navigate a narrow doorway while carrying a fiery Christmas pudding. That tradition came to an abrupt end after that first year in Canada.

I have traditions I enjoy, some of them relatively new like watching Love Actually while sipping on Bailey’s-infused hot chocolate or going to the Kitchener Symphony’s Yuletide Spectacular; some of my traditions are old like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or listening to carols while decorating the tree.

But there were others I didn’t realize I had until now as they all but disappear. When I pull into the mall parking lot, it’s not as hard to find a parking space. I may not get a close one but I don’t have to follow someone walking through the lot to their space and annoy people behind me as I wait, with my signal on, for that person to load the trunk, get in, put on their seat belt, adjust the radio, and finally slowly back out, turn the wheel too late, and complete an eight-point turn before clearing the space.

The crowds aren’t what they used to be because online shopping is more convenient.  I don’t want convenient. I want memories and tradition, even if they’re unpleasant in the moment. So much of what we do is solitary now. There’s something magnificent about being out in a crowd of people preparing to celebrate and make the most of their traditions as I do the same. That commonality between strangers in public places has become more rare.

And there they are! Magic.

Tony shops online whenever he can which means we have a daily parade of Purolater, Canpar, UPS and Canada Post trucks stopping in front of our house. Some of the drivers don’t care if we get the package. They knock, drop it on the porch and I watch them climb back into the truck and pull away, without so much as a glance, as I retrieve the box. Maybe the Christmas stories of the future will be about thwarting thieves from stealing our packages.

I’m reluctant to get into the whole online shopping business. You never really know what’s going to show up on your doorstep. Tony bought his oldest daughter Meghan a human skull—not a real one, he doesn’t shop on those sites—for photography. The seller said it was human size, and it would be if humans were the same size as cats. I guess it could be sent back but it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth.

I like to pick things up and examine them. I like to take a free sample of tea or chocolate from the stores that dole them out. And I’m willing to come home with the back of my knee throbbing because I love my family and friends. This is what I’m willing to do for them at Christmas so that the funny socks match, the arms on the sweater are the same length, and the cowbell for Tony’s drum kit isn’t more of a mousebell.

I’ll take my pre-Christmas stress at the mall or downtown shops instead of on my doorstep. When I sit down to drink that cup of boozy hot chocolate it will taste extra scrummy because I know what I bought is human size, it will be under the tree and not in a shipping warehouse, and it may, if I’m lucky, come with a great story.

Coffee, what is it good for?


As a tea drinker, I have always been baffled by the idea of drinking coffee.

A cup of coffee is a cup of math teacher breath. I was not good at math, and I’m not sentimental about math teachers. Come to think of it maybe I would have been better at algebra if I hadn’t been distracted by the aroma of digested java.

I’m not convinced anyone actually likes coffee. Coffee drinkers think they do, but they don’t. Not really.

If they did they wouldn’t add other flavours to make it palatable—chocolate, vanilla, caramel, pumpkin spice, and the list goes on. If you drink those coffees you don’t like coffee you like chocolate, vanilla, caramel, or pumpkin spice.

There are so many different kinds of coffee and those fancy ones—frappes and lattes and cappuccinos—are taking over coffee shop menus. Coffee is all about trends, just look at a Starbucks menu.  Even humble Tim Horton’s has jumped on the elaborate coffee bandwagon; it’s not just about double-doubles anymore.

It all seems like an endless experiment of trying to come up with something worth drinking.

Tea drinkers don’t ask for their orange pekoe with a hint of cinnamon or light foam. We’re lucky to get milk. And rarely are there so many varieties of tea as there are coffee.

I was in Wales and asked for an Earl Grey and the guy behind the counter looked at me like I had asked for the key to the Queen’s bedroom.

I thought it would be easy enough to get. Wales is part of the UK after all, the place where citizens are supposed to love tea as much as they drink beer.

I asked why they didn’t have it and the guy behind the counter said it’s “too posh.” Too posh? I can get it at any McDonalds in New Brunswick.

There are countless coffees that include alcohol too: Irish Coffee (Irish whiskey), English Coffee (gin), Russian Coffee (vodka), Jamaican Coffee (Tia Maria and rum), Kula (espresso with Amarula), Karsk (moonshine), and dozens more.

I’m pretty sure all the boozy coffee is an indication you need some kind of payoff to drink it—like a good buzz.

A few years ago civet cat coffee was the hottest trend. It’s been dubbed the most expensive coffee in the world at $35 to $80 a cup—this is when you don’t say to your co-workers “I’ll buy”—and a one-pound bag of beans runs between $100 to $600. The price alone is insane but the origin of the beans, and I’m not talking about Indonesia, is off-putting. The beans are eaten by civet cats, pooped out, collected by humans and turned into expensive coffee humans with too much money are willing to buy. I bet it tastes like poop. Have some self- respect rich people!

Some hopeful entrepreneur came up with elephant dung coffee after civet coffee became a thing. That makes poking around in elephant waste a job. This is just a guess but I bet it pays like crap.

In essence, coffee sucks. But what sucks worse than coffee is being a tea drinker.

Show up at a convention or some other event and you’ll see what I mean. You walk over to the big steel urns lined up like space ships at NASA and they’re all coffee. If there happens to be an urn devoted to hot water, typically there’s a sad little basket nearby with fruity teas, especially the obscure ones like jasmine or ginger-orange. I want caffeine, just like the coffee drinkers, not “sleepy time” brew.

There have been times when I’ve been at an event and there is simply no tea. When I’ve asked staff about it they look shocked and then say they’ll see if they can find some. Eventually they return with a single tea bag in a crinkled wrapper that looks like it was hauled out from the depths of a staff member’s purse, a staff member who is also carrying around paper clips, a tube of toothpaste, and a vegetable peeler because she was hoping to go to a taping of Let’s Make a Deal in 1982.

And, not surprisingly, it’s pomegranate lemon. Forget it.

It’s not as if I haven’t given coffee a chance. I was about seven when I first tried it. I was at the Royal Ontario Museum with my dad and we stopped for a break. He ordered a coffee, which arrived in one of those non-descript white diner cups and told me to try it. I trusted my father so I took a gulp and then asked to have my tongue amputated. Since that wasn’t an option I had to settle for vigorously wiping my tongue with a napkin.

Perhaps I was introduced to coffee a little bit early but everyone I know who first starts drinking coffee adds 18 sugars and a gallon of milk to choke it down. If a beverage requires such massive adjustments, why drink it?

It’s not as if coffee has no practical purpose. Apparently the grounds repel bugs so it’s good for gardeners. It can also be used for scrubbing dishes and as an exfoliant.

My grandmother introduced me to tea when I was about four years old. Tea with a bit of milk, that’s all and that’s how I still drink it today. So while I ponder the usefulness of coffee, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea with milk, no foam, no chocolate sauce, no sprinkles and certainly no pumpkin spice.

Baby it’s cold outside so here’s a little recipe coffee drinkers should love: hot chocolate.

You will need (or not need depending on your taste)

4 cups whole milk

¼ cup sugar

2-inch piece fresh ginger root grated

2 cinnamon sticks

3 whole cloves

orange peel removed with vegetable peeler to keep it large

8 ounces dark semi-sweet chocolate (70%) broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons orange or ginger liqueur (optional)

This recipe can also be adapted to include hot chilies


Optional toppings

1 cup cream

2 tablespoons sugar

cocoa powder or ground cinnamon


Place the milk, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and orange peel in a medium saucepan over medium heat. As soon as the milk reaches the boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the flavours infuse for at least 20 minutes.

Gently warm the spiced milk. While the milk reheats, whip the cream with sugar in a small bowl until peaks form, if using as a topping.

Place the chocolate pieces in a medium bowl with the liqueur, if suing. Pour the warm milk over the chocolate through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the captured spices and orange peel. Whisk the warm milk into the chocolate, blending until smooth. Ladle the hot chocolate into mugs, top with a dollop of whipped cream, and a dusting of cocoa powder or cinnamon. Serve immediately.

Any left over hot chocolate will keep in a covered container in the fridge for up to three days. It can be reheated on the stove or at half-power in a microwave.

Serves six to eight.

This recipe comes from Charmian Christie as part of the What’s for Dinner cooking series.

Putting the fun in funeral

I’ve started thinking about my funeral. I’m not at the point where I’m thinking about it in a morbid kind of way but more as an event-planning exercise.

I have to confess, I’m hoping this doesn’t turn into a tragically ironic post. You know the kind where I talk about my funeral, insist I’m healthy and have decades of duck-feeding time ahead of me, and then die 10 minutes later.

If that does happen and you end up at my funeral, don’t talk about this post. I’m not a huge fan of irony.

And now I’ve just doubled the irony quotient. So don’t talk about how I didn’t want you to talk about this post.

I think it’s important to get things squared away at this stage in my life because you never know what might happen. Any number of things could wipe me out; I’m not going to name any possibilities—see the irony factor above.

But if I expire unexpectedly and I haven’t written down my wishes, the next thing I know I could be facing eternity wearing those flamingo slippers I thought were soooo hilarious, because my family thinks that’s what I would have wanted.

You hear that phrase a lot at funerals: “That’s what she would have wanted.” It’s usually said by a kindly aunt who is positive the deceased would have wanted her hair done up in a proper beehive and a shrine to apple-pie candles placed near the coffin. “She just loved that band the B-52s and we used to get her those scented candles for Christmas every year, she adored them.”

Meanwhile, her friends are walking past the casket thinking, “Did the mortuary-makeup artist get here in a time machine? And what’s that smell? It smells like my grandmother’s apron after it caught fire that time.”

I want to avoid that.

If you Google fun funerals one of the first images that comes up is a casket carried by clowns. Is that actually fun?

There are all kinds of themed funerals including Star Wars where Storm Troopers march behind the casket. Dessert is a theme too. A sign reading “Life is short, eat dessert first” encourages the grieving to munch on an RIP gravestone-shaped sugar cookie.

An Ohio man in his 80s named Bill Standley wanted to be buried on his Harley-Davidson, so his over-size plexiglass coffin was hitched to a truck with Standley perched atop his beloved hog so he could have one last ride as the procession went to the cemetery (watch a clip HERE).

Of course Pinterest is all over the do-it-yourself funeral crafts, like memorial photo necklaces and tips on how to make memory jars surrounded by twinkly lights and rocks with inspirational sayings on them.

In case there’s any confusion, I don’t want any of this. I don’t know exactly what I want, but I do know this: no plodding and dull farewell full of organ music. And no sing-song-rhymey-Hallmark-card poetry.

There will be a dress code too. No black, grey, navy or brown. Surely it’s not too much to ask people to wear something festive even if it’s February. I don’t want some kind of tracksuit affair but maybe the men could leave their suit jackets in the car. They usually look like awkward children wearing suit jackets their parents figured they would grow into and I feel sorry for them. Middle-aged men may grow bigger but their arms don’t get any longer.

A summer funeral has loads of possibilities, there could be a waterslide and old-timey fair games like the one where you throw a plastic ball into the goldfish bowl and win the goldfish.

I have a real fondness for Nerf guns but haven’t quite figured out how to include them. Feel free to leave a note if you have any ideas.

For the anti-social funeral planner who wants to kill people with boredom, 30 minutes of interpretive dance is a great idea. I considered this briefly.

Music is the trickiest part. No surprise, Pinterest can help with that too. Someone posted a list of the 40 saddest songs with Adele’s “Someone Like You” in the top spot. I don’t want sad. I want Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” I’m just not sure exactly when, and Kermit the Frog’s version of “Rainbow Connection” is about as sincere as I want to go.

Maybe it’s vain but I want people to remember my funeral. I want people to talk about the three-tier cake and the chocolate fountain in the car on the way home. I want someone to find a stray Nerf bullet in her purse a day later.

I want people to arrive at my farewell party somber and devastated, of course, but leave uplifted with a fresh scone smothered in clotted cream and strawberry jam wrapped in a floral napkin.

Maybe this is all just desperation coming from an only child with no children of her own hoping to leave a small mark on the world.

But a post-mortem legacy is harder to come by than finger sandwiches and tea served in pretty china teacups.

We’re all going to kick off sooner or later and there will be plenty of bad days before then, so why plan one? Bring on the New Orleans jazz band and a tray of Cosmopolitans!