Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Wedding J & J

The car is old, second hand and gray or beige. It falls apart at regular intervals, bucks and jerks with faulty spark plugs, makes her cry at the cost of its constant repairs. She needs it in order to work and she works in order to keep it running.

She is just past thirty, sparkling true-blue eyes, rosy cheeks, a tendency to be shocked easily and a fear of poverty. She admits to no fire in the belly but she is a good friend, stalwart and true.

One month before she turned thirty, she shook a fist at the sky, vowed a man would need to be sent to her – a good decent one. He arrives, an online penpal within a matter of weeks. They correspond without speaking for a month before he invites her to his city an hour and a half away for a concert. She nearly refuses. Several friends send her email messages ALL IN CAPS and she agrees to go, nervous.

He invites her to a wedding and they swing-dance, barefooted, outside. They have mutual friends. Not only passion develops but domestic inclinations and sharing of long-held secrets.

He appears at my door at her side in the gloom of a late autumn evening. She sports red antlers and he has an elf hat on. I fold laundry while we all talk and laugh. He looks like a long ago friend from high school, and he likes her a lot. He’s bringing her home to meet his family on the coast over the holidays. Twice he talks of being unashamed: about crying at good movies and about being a longtime Leafs fan. He tells a story of sitting next to a shivering pale teen on a bus – a boy who had ridden two days straight from Winnipeg to Halifax, only to discover it had been a mistake, and so had climbed on the next bus back – and sharing the pillows he had received at Christmas with the boy.

I watch secretly from my window as they leave the next morning. She is already in the car; he is folding his frame into the passenger seat. I see them readying for takeoff, and then one of them remembers something and he gets out and runs back inside, half-bent, eager. He runs out again in the same way, his posture inclining toward her, not wanting to keep her waiting. He buckles up and I watch them turn to each other and kiss, quickly but naturally, a talisman before leaving, before the little gray-beige sedan takes them on their way together.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Question and A Gift

I know that the things I write on this blog are kind of self-contained little essays often. I also know that sometimes Google makes responding on this blog difficult. (Sometimes it doesn't even recognize me!). I've been curious though to watch my statistics: the number of readers peaked in May and June, slipped in July, sagged in August and is rebounding later in September. I'm wondering if readers of blogs take a break in the summer too, whether you get out of your regular rhythms and routines. Which is so often a good thing. Summer is a great time to stock the larder and to be out of time. I was wondering if what I wrote had become too self-contained or self-reflective -- a blog all about me, and not something readers could connect with. Maybe that IS it. I'm open to suggestions, either way.

And the gift: two nights this week I made the salad I would ask for if it were my last meal. One of those nights was the night Troy Davis was executed in the US, so I didn't want to be callous and call it Death Row Salad, but really, upon reflection, it is that good. The flavours complement each other in amazing ways. I think you have to like all the flavours individually, but together -- oh baby.

So, to those who've stuck in here past the summer and past the containedness of the writing, a gift -- the recipe for the best salad I know:

Wash a couple of handfuls of baby arugula. Dry it well and spread it gently, like a fleece, on a large salad plate. Drizzle with the finest quality olive oil you can manage. (I love the locally-imported Ralo's olive oil.) Then drizzle with real balsamic vinegar. It costs a fortune. We were fortunate enough to get ours in Italy in a winery that made balsamico in their attic. What we normally get here is balsamic-flavoured wine vinegar. Real balsamic vinegar is thick as oil or maple syrup, and dark-sweet-tart. You need the tiniest amount of this -- which still, I calculate, costs about $5.00 Then grind pepper on top and sprinkle with a wee bit of salt. Finally, grate real Parmigiano-Reggiano (or similar aged cheese like Grana Padano) on top.

It tastes like the deepest tastes of the earth have come together for a celebration. Try not to moan out loud -- I dare you.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Doggone Shame

In my shellshocked state after getting the puppy this spring, I confessed to my mother that I wasn't a dog person. I was a cat person and this wiggly, demanding ball of fur had invaded my space far more than I had ever expected. At that point, sleep-deprived, I wasn't sure I liked it. Her reply was that there were no dog people or cat people, just animal lovers, and that I could learn to be one. Which I have.

But there are definitely people who are not dog people.

It has surprised me, my inability to predict who will bend down and kiss my dog and who will grimace if the dog shares the same sidewalk square. I've had homeless people, yuppies, tidy toddlers and tottering old people all embrace my little wiggler. And I've had a bony finger waggled in my face, accusing me of cruelty for letting my dog escape my grasp.

This week, the school newsletter came home. On page three was a little note telling families that because of the excess of dog excrement in the school yard, the principal would be calling in the Humane Society to ticket any off-leash dogs.

We live about a hundred steps from the schoolyard. Over the past four months, our nightly routine has shifted to include a walk to the school after supper where our dog roams in a pack of dogs while the owners stand and talk in a circle, throwing toys and sticks to the dogs, pointing out squatting dogs so their owners can clean up after them.

We've met some delightful people this way. There's an tiny eager girl with her tiny eager puppy, some older couples and singles, a university student with her big boxer, a couple with kids a few years older than ours, a retired professor, some work-at-home professionals. It's an enormous leveling ground for people and dogs. There are some dog combinations that work better than others -- the old dogs roll their eyes and bare their teeth at our annoying little puppy, but there are two or three puppies that play at exactly his speed. The little dogs tend to congregate near the soccer posts.

One night he played for almost an hour and a half.

We have commented that getting the puppy is the best thing for our family for previsely this time of day. Laughing at tumbling dogs is the best antidote for a long day of high school. It's more active than sitting in front of the computer or the television and yet doesn't require much more vigilance. Our kids have gotten to know the other owners and dogs too, and we all share milestones of life together, even if we know each other mostly by our dog's names.

Toward the end of the summer, several things started piling up in the schoolyard: garbage, beer bottles and poop piles. Several of us decided we would make a point of cleaning up any of these leftovers. I even gingerly scooped up a condom one day from the yard.

There have been many occasions on which a dog has pooped and the owner goes to find it and can't and so several of us triangulate the area in a way that reminds me of sweeping the lake as a lifeguard. No poop gets left behind.

So, when the letter came home this week, I wasn't sure how to proceed or what to say to my kids. Should we defy the letter and persist in breaking the by-laws? Should we simply take away the delight of our dog's day? I decided I needed to talk to the school a bit more.

Yesterday morning, I ran into the school custodian while walking Lucky and he turned out to be a dog lover, snuggling into him. I mentioned that dogs had become public enemy number one, and he said that nearly every day since school had started, a child had come into the office with dog poop on him or her.

Last evening, I found myself walking beside the principal at the school open house and talked with her about it, wondering how we might work together. Apparently there is no working together on this.

This is where I get torn: a schoolyard is for the school children. School children should not have to dodge dog patties or the illnesses associated with them. And yet, the only solution the principal had to offer was for us to drive across the city to a dog park. We have one car and three children in programs: this isn't always feasible. Nor do I want to be a 'pet parent' who takes my pet child to activities. I have to think that there are more creative solutions: one school parent friend who has a dog (and who probably lives forty steps from the school) suggests that the school ask the pet owners to help weed the overgrown gardens, five minutes each day. I love that idea. I also love the idea of encouraging community between people who might never talk otherwise, and encouraging fresh air and physical activity.

The principal and I found one point of agreement: a few bad apples had spoiled the bunch. I know that there are people who walk their dogs in the yard after dark -- I've heard them -- and I am quite certain that these are the culprits, simply because the schoolyard is completely unlit: how could you ever see to stoop and scoop? But that's not when the Humane Society will come, the principal said.

When the Humane Society comes at dusk, though, they'll see a responsible group of laughing people, talking about their day, their dogs, their lives, stooping and scooping. And they'll ticket them anyhow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Taking off the Hair Shirt

So this morning, I put on my hair shirt. I got it out last night but this cold morning, I snuggled into it.

Last night, my daughter told me about someone she knows who has "no flaws." I asked about this person and she told me her friend has to go to bed around sunset, isn't allowed to watch scary movies or use technology. "I'd hate to be in that family," she said. "Yeah," I replied. "We make sure you have lots of flaws."

Then this morning, I happened upon a mommy blog, filled with sunlit photos of Meaningful Family Moments, captured by a Mom Who Cares. There were complicated but oh-so-healthy recipes on the same blog. And, that's when I put on the hair shirt.

And wondered if and when I make other people do the same.

I thought about the fact that I could compare myself to the Coke-in-the-baby-bottle parents and feel pretty good.

But really and truly, each one of us has a different skill set, heritage, set of genes, financial reality, psychological issues, gifts, talents and struggles. Some have the situation they hoped for - and many do not.

I have long loved the rabbinic saying that says, when you die, you will not be asked 'why were you not Moses?', but 'why were you not you?'

I find it hard sometimes to know what good parenting looks like as my kids get older. And I think that's why the blog got me this morning -- because that mommy did the kinds of things I used to do when my kids were small. Now, they go off in three different directions and my job is to provide a landing spot for their return, a listening ear, a cheering voice. It's very very different.

At the end of the summer, I had my melancholy regrets about the things we didn't do, as well as happy memories about the things we did. And then it occurred to me that really and truly, most of all, my job is to love these kids and help them feel loved, and that's all.

And maybe that's what it means to fulfil the rabbinic saying too, to love the people around you -- and yourself too -- in whatever ways you can.

The sun's out now, warming up the rain-drenched, chilly world. I think it's warm enough now to dare to take off the hair shirt and to sit awhile in the sunshine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September Stuff

Things I'm thinking about this week

- A really big thing I've been thinking about is the affection I lavish on my puppy when there are so many children in the world in need of love and care. The other morning, I was walking the pup at the schoolyard an hour before school started and there was a child sitting on the swings, aimlessly. The story behind that is probably a working parent with an early meeting, but there I was, playing with my puppy. The dog eats a kibble that is made of salmon, apples and steel cut oats. And yet, famine in the Horn of Africa haunts me. I'm not sure it's either/or but I'm trying to think about how to respond to these promptings.

- Soccer season is finally over. Soccer season is almost never over for us because two of our kids have played year round for the last couple of years. But they've decided to take the winter off, and to play at a house league level from now on. As much as I enjoy watching them grow in skills and have fun playing, I will freely admit I am glad to have a break.

- Football season has begun. I should also note that football overlapped with soccer for a week. One of our sons has made the junior high school football team. In all the papers I signed, I looked for the guarantee that he will not get badly hurt but couldn't find it. Our younger son has made the cuts for his team too -- he'll find out the final decision today. I'm looking forward to this new sport for a variety of reasons -- one of which being that the practices and games are all after school: we get back our family suppers again!!

- Someone last week talked to me about the difference between publishing what sells and what should be sold. I find that oddly encouraging.

- I used to drive the 401 in Toronto every single day to and from work. That was almost 20 years ago. I've come to the decision that that is not something I do anymore. I find the multiple lanes daunting. I have to be in Toronto this weekend though, with the kids, and Dave is not available to join us. We're taking the train. I've decided that it's fine to say I won't drive and that there are ways to maintain my independence and mobility with the use of public transit. The kids think it's far more fun anyhow, and I actually agree.

- I'm really grateful for the kids being back in school and all settled well. With Dave working this summer, I arranged work hours for myself in July, but then we went away in August and after that, I had so many domestic responsibilities (Canning! Indoor shoes! Eye doctor! Dentist! Canning!) that my work slid off the table for a few weeks. Last week, I plunged in by necessity and got rid of the backlog. I feel so much better as a result.

- The liquid pool cover we bought this year to replace our solar blanket was extremely ineffective. It has shortened our swim season a lot. We were told it had been developed in Australia and tested in Arizona and that it would reduce both evaporation and heat loss by something like 90%. Um, no. The cool nights in August caused the temperature to plunge. We've only really taken quick dips for the last month, which feels like a terrible waste.

- Oh, and I finally sent a letter to our family doctor about our experience with Megan's sickness this spring. I never used the word negligence, but I'm still a bit uncertain about how the letter will be received. I'm hoping that expressing our concerns will lead to resolution and ideally apologies. I'm afraid we might get no response at all.

How about you? What's on your mind?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Living with Weeds

Maybe I've never told the story here. When we bought our house, there was a hole in the roof that let rain in, every surface was covered with wallpaper and/or mould, and the garden was a tangle of vines and goldenrod. We excavated with the help of many friends, family and contractors. It took a matter of many months and one herniated disk.

I think it was a year and a half later that we noticed that part of the back lawn -- about the size of a bathtub - was filled with little scalloped leaved and purple flowered weeds. The next time we looked, the entire back lawn -- the size of, oh, eighty bathtubs -- had been taken over by this same weed.

We called in the "Let's Curb Pesticides!" people (yes, that's their real name) for an evaluation. Their diagnosis: creeping charlie. Their prescription: mow the lawn down to nothingness, saturate with water and cover with tarps. Anything else would simply send the weeds into temporary hiding. So, we did as we were bid and soon our lawn was a patchwork of blue and black tarps.

Two weeks later, the tarps began to rise. Or so I thought. A week later, I was certain and peeked underneath to see a Thriving Crop of Creeping Charlie growing merrily away. The Let's Curb Pesticides people returned, shook their heads and said there was a time and a place for pesticide.

We hired the pesticide people who came and sprayed and killed every last thing in the yard. They recommended we sod instead of seed, because that gave a thick matting that would discourage any errant seeds or spores from making it through. There were no guarantees.

It's four years later now. Often as I weed the dreaded rock garden adjacent to the former home of Creeping Charlie, I find a tendril of the enemy lurking among a couple of plants.

"CHUCK!" I cursed the first time I found the rogue. And the second and the third.

Today, I was weeding the garden and the lawn and I found some again, but today I didn't yell. I just found what I could and rooted it out. You see, it made me think of two things: one, a friend and two, a sermon.

The friend is living with cancer, and has been for almost fifteen years, on and off. The sermon, this morning,was about sin.

Surprisingly sin is not talked about much in church these days, at least not the churches I've been in. It's a bit awkward, sounds judgmental, I guess. But that's not my spin on it. I find the concept of sin an enormous relief. Because like my garden and my friend, I am riddled with this thing I don't want in me, this thing I can't be rid of no matter how much I blast at it and try. To me, the relief of the church naming something as sin is that the cancers in me, or even the weeds, aren't something I can root out myself. They're woven into me. And I don't think sin in the Bible should ever be the end of the story, but only the beginning -- I'm reminded of Douglas Coupland's Generation X where he writes, "My secret is, I need God."

I can't make myself well. I can't root out every last weed. All I can do is need the One who can root it out or let it be, and gently remove the weeds I can find.

Friday, September 2, 2011

End of Summer

The things we didn't get done. The wasps. The futility of weeding. The anxiety rises about new schools and new classes. Far. Too. Much. Canning. Back to school shopping. Last minute appointments. Aching for peace and quiet. Not wanting to wish the summer away. The days grow perceptibly shorter. The pool is cold and strewn with fallen leaves.

I've never been exactly fond of the end of August and the beginning of September. It's melancholy and crazy-busy at the same time. My different and distinct roles pull me in different directions at the same time. We have to be prepared to hit the ground running once school starts. It reminds me of going from a meandering sideroad onto an extremely short on-ramp to an 8-lane highway.

It's been a good summer, if a different one. Dave worked all summer, for the first time in our marriage, and I felt his absence in a variety of ways: chiefly, in the lack of time to myself and the lack of progress on household tasks. We didn't go to Quebec and we missed it, but we had a lovely time in New York. That lovely time feels like a patch of clear blue sky or a touchstone of goodness. We have a puppy now - and that has changed our routines and considerations a great deal.

The summer holidays are ending with heat and humidity - and around here, emotions are flaring too. One is developing aches and pains, while another was in tears and still another is louder than usual and a bit goofy. We had eye doctor appointments at 9:30 this morning -- it was a kind of dry run for school and it was good we had the practice. We needed it.

But September brings new beginnings too: new schools, new work, new routines, new lessons, new possibilities. Fresh pencils. Shiny shoes. Tart crisp apples. Sweaters and fireplaces. Cozy sheets at night. Coming home to supper together. The comfort of routines.

How is it that I hate the end, and love the new start, all at the same time?