Friday, January 27, 2012

The Grey: Roots and Tips

Little tip for you if you're thinking of going grey: Be as tall as you can be. This helps in two respects. One, your increasingly pale hairline is visible only to people taller than you. Also, your height makes you slightly intimidating and no one will whisper to you that your roots are showing.

Another tip: Embrace the grey! When we were in Florida last year, the chlorine and sun stripped some of the colour out of my hair and I had to pop into a Walgreens to get some hair dye. Not this year. This year, we sat at a table playing euchre, and we all had to come up with our Card Playing Names. Mine was [pause to run hands through hair, lower voice to exciting whisper] The Silver Streak. I still had strands of tinsel in my hair in Florida too. I guess I could have been The Silver Streaks. The tinsel was a good idea -- it meant I felt festive, sparkly and silly rather than drab and old.

Three: Think about the meaning of the grey. I just came across an old photo taken six years ago when my book came out. That was the summer I had gold highlights put in my hair, to see whether I could allow the grey to grow in by using a variety of tones. (The answer then was no.) The same month my book came out, too, we changed churches. I always thought that was strange, but I don't believe now that it was a coincidence. Though we left relatively happily, I think I was a bit like an animal, seeking a safe place to give birth, an authentic place. So too with this grey experience. I was a bit disappointed with my photo in the newspaper the other week because my hair looked blah -- I wished I had either kept it brown or that I had fully grown out the grey in advance of launching my business. After reflecting, though, I'm more okay with it though. I think I needed another step toward authenticity to accompany this next step on the journey.

Finally: You're not the centre of the universe. And neither am I. While it's been fun to monitor the process, it's also a bit boring. Who really cares what colour my hair is? Those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter -- that's how the saying goes. It reminds me of going to my 20-year high school reunion and how different some of us looked fro mhow we used to -- but ten minutes in, we had reconnected and everything seemed the same. Same here. Designer labels, Value Village, ten more pounds, fifteen fewer pounds. Unless you're a celebrity, your every change is not scrutinized. So -- to all of us -- let's live a little more freely, embracing our flaws and growing pains, looking outward rather than sitting around watching our hair grow.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Doggie Valentines

My dog wrote a poem the other day. He's been pretty worried about Valentine's Day coming up. His best friend dog is a girl -- but she's not his girlfriend. That's the problem: what to give a girl for Valentine's Day without sending her the wrong message? Plus chocolate could kill her. He asked the boys what they thought -- they didn't really have relevant advice.

And so, suddenly, a poem:

Roses are red
Poop is brown
You are the wuffest
Girl-dog in town

It's either that or he bites her ears off.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Birthday DS

Happy 45th birthday DS. Or is it 44th?

In any event, I know today is your birthday, just as I know my best friend from grade 5’s is April 12, Steve and John’s are July 3 and 5, Leigh who played Barbies with me too long, her birthday is December 28. There are days and people who stick in your mind.

You became my third boyfriend when life imitated art: we had to kiss in a play. You the prince, me the ugly duckling. You had brown eyes, all slow and dreamy, from ideas and pot. You smoked although not around me, and at parties, I forgot that some people were using substances to get as giddy as I got on life.

You said I was self-actualized. You made me a music tape of songs that still remind me of you and that cusp of adulthood. Your dad drove us to the graduation on the elevated highway in his tiny snug convertible, his girlfriend in the front seat, us squashed in the back seat, all dressed up, our hair flying in the sunshine.

I gave you the only copy of the sweetest photo ever taken of me – and my mother still holds this against me as well she should. I took you on a tall ship cruise around the harbour and they played Russians as we turned into the bay. We were practising the play the day the Challenger blew up. I remember where we were. The Salvation Army band played and the children brought lemonade. The morning lasted all day, all day.

You broke my heart and I forgave you, and then I broke yours a few months later. I hope you forgive me too. You left to study art and that was eventually that. I ran into you at a mall the day before my wedding. I’m getting married tomorrow, I blurted out. Congratulations you said, and then we wished each other well.

I’ve tracked down all my boyfriends, made sure you’re all alive and well. That’s the extent of my stalking. I found you a couple of years ago, still a friend of a friend. The year you started to teach, your class was the age of my daughter. We exchanged brief hellos and then dropped out of each other’s lives again.

Most people hated high school. I think you might have. Not me. I look back on it as the time when the world opened up and I got a glimpse of what was ahead.

I have no regrets – either about the time we spent together or that that was all. I guess, for your birthday, I want to know that I remember you well and fondly, that I wish you happiness and peace, that I never was anywhere near as self-actualized as you thought, not by half and less so now. Half a lifetime later.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


We were driving along a causeway highway, with bright stucco houses with clay roofs and hurricane shutters beside us on one side, their mailboxes either shaped like dolphins or manatees, and with tall seagrass and trails on the other side. The day was brighter than bright. We had passed surf shops and tattoo parlors, a lone Starbucks and lots of rundown but still open restaurants, including one with a sand floor. To our left was the ocean and to our right was a wetland, and then a bay.

We had the windows open and the warm air poured over us.

"What would you do for a living if we lived here?" I asked my husband.

He decided he'd likely give up teaching, be a driver of some sort. I thought I'd probably be on a Fun Team, running bingos and crafts at a resort.

Instead, here we are. A land of snow. I've just returned from walking the dog. Both the dog and I had near slips on black ice. The wind whipped at us. I return to a desk filled with papers, empty coffee cups and ideas. Dave stayed at work late tonight, working on a project he rarely gets to during the day when other are around.

I choose this, I thought the other day. I'd rather live up to my potential than go troppo. Troppo was a term we learned in Australia years ago -- derived from tropical, and fueled by sun and sand, it's a description of a state of mind where you really could not care less, and where tan lines may be your biggest problem.

I choose this, I say again.


Today I wanted azure sea and geranium pink flowers. I wanted orange blossoms and fresh-picked fruits. I wanted seagulls that were white against a brilliant blue sky, instead of the unfortunate gray ones against an even grayer sky.

I choose this.

But I also choose small escapes. And I hope for you to tell me your escapes and dreams. What colours and scents and places and tastes do you long for these days?

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I had mild post-partum depression after one of my kids, so possibly I shouldn't call this that.

A million years ago, I worked for an advertising agency. It was in the late 80s when money flowed like water, and events were splashy. I remember my job interview where when I agreed I'd like a cup of coffee, I was asked if I took bleach. It went on from there.

One of my favourite people at the agency is still a friend today. It's to Allan I get my idea that planes work by mirrors -- he had clients in the aerospace industry -- and also my idea that after a big event, one is entitled to a wee bit of post-partum depression. Whether one is male or female.

I didn't have a post-Christmas letdown, because I was heading off to Florida. I didn't have a post-holiday letdown because I was launching a company. So, I think it's only fair that I'm operating at half-speed this weekend: making food, doing laundry, reading, doing necessary work but not a speck more. And not a lot of Public Appearances.

Thursday night was the big night. It snowed all day long with whiteouts that caused multiple accidents. Someone called to ask if the event was still on. It was. Two lovely women drove for many hours to be there, and to meet with me ahead of time -- if they could do it, the rest of us could. Several people referred to the event as a "meeting" which made me a little nervous: were they expecting a program? Would I be forced to reprise my karaoke to entertain them?

My own plan was that this would be a networking night with almost no program, an opportunity for writers and fledgling writers to meet their own tribe. I told a story on Thursday night about this: how years ago, I had gone to the Fergus Highland Games and wandered between the booths, all marked McPherson, Mackenzie, McDonald, MacDonald, and felt like a mutt without a pedigree. "Who is ma clan?" I said, aloud and then, wiser, under my breath. I found my clan when I began to meet other writers and to really talk shop. (A friend once asked me what I was doing, writing-wise. "I'm trying to decide how a guy would react the day after he slept with one of his co-workers." I replied, honestly. She gulped, sorry she'd asked. Good friend. Different clan.)

I was providing tickets for refreshments on Thursday night -- your ticket would get you a bambino-sized gelata, a cupcake or a cup of special hot chocolate. I had door prizes. Beyond that, I had what I hoped was a good idea and a friendly smile.

And they came. Despite the weather and two other fine cultural events within a one-kilometre radius, they came. Despite the fact that I only knew about half of them, they came. They came and they ate gelata and they talked to me about their projects and then they talked with one another. They built connections and relationships, made plans for future meetings and writers groups. They shared struggles and joys, trade secrets and best practices.

The very best compliment of the evening came when I overheard someone ask one of the editors who works with me whether Storywell, my fledgling company, was a not-for-profit. I piped in that it was an attempted-for-profit company, but the reason I felt so delighted was that it assured me that my good idea was one that served people well. Some of what I'm doing will generate income, but some of it will also serve the writing community and the reading community.

I went home wuffed out, as my dog would say, but really excited for what comes next. I sat on the couch in what my friend called my "sexy librarian outfit" and smiled, too tired to do anything else but dream.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

67 Hours Later

You agree to a slight detour and leave the highway in a small Florida town. You turn onto the Ronald Reagan Parkway and then make a righthand turn onto a small sideroad, flanked by bike lanes and the same dense tropical forest you've seen along the way. Half a mile up the road, you turn into a small parking lot, where you are instructed by signs not to back into the parking spaces. There are three other cars in the parking lot. You get out and stretch, use the small restroom facilities, walk past the children's playground and onto the raised boardwalk. You pass a family with two small children walking back and one middle-aged man.

Six hundred feet later, you think you see it ahead of you and then suddenly you let out a gasp which makes your family think crocodile or snake. But no, to your left, emerging from the foliage, standing tall as a mountain rises one of the biggest trees you've ever seen. You've been to Vancouver Island's Cathedral Grove before, so you've seen big trees, but this one still has the power to shock and amaze. Signs tell you the tree was bigger until a 1920s hurricane lobbed the top third off the tree. A small sign indicates the name of the company that now protects this tree from lightning strikes. A bronze plaque installed by President Calvin Coolidge notes the foresight of those who came before, who allowed this tree to grow and grow. These, you find out, were largely the Seminoles, natives of Florida, who used this tree as a landmark.

The big tree is called The Senator. It's a pond cypress. It is 3500 years old. It was old and massive at the time of Christ. It precedes the Great Wall of China, Cleopatra. It's a contemporary of Moses. It has fresh leaves at the top.

As you walk to its sister tree, the one you thought was the big one, the one that's only 2000 years old, Lady Liberty, you remember Cathedral Grove and the warnings to avoid the park on windy days, lest one of the monoliths suddenly topple. They do without warning. There are no such signs here.

On the way back to the car, you stop to look at a cardinal in the leaf litter, a small stream passing under the boardwalk, and to note the sparseness of undergrowth between the trees.

You get back into your car after this quiet interlude, glad to have made the discovery.

67 hours later, you are home. It is cold and still dark when the telephone call comes from your mother, who is still in Florida. Her voice is shaken up.

"That big tree burned down this morning," she says. "The one you went to see." The one she planned to see for the first time this week.

You feel heartsick, stunned. You find footage and photos and feel worse. A dozen firefighters struggled with hoses in vain as the tree burned from the top down, inside out. You read how this tree used to be a major Florida attraction, before the Mouse came. You tell others but they weren't there, didn't sense the majesty as you tilted your heads as far as they would go in order to be able to see the top.

3500 years. 118 feet in height. 400 inches in diameter. The world's fifth oldest tree. It burned then collapsed like the Towers in New York.

No one was hurt in the blaze or the fall. Arson is highly unlikely. And wood burns.

But still, and likely because you were just there, not even three days before, it feels devastating, this loss. You think about all the history that went up in smoke and down in ashes.

The only consolation is that you did go, that you did see its glory, that you did gasp out loud. 67 hours before.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Time after Time

I live with a physicist and a son who last week, reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine, exclaimed that he had never before read such a lucid explanation of the fourth dimension. In this mix, I am the one who believes planes work by mirrors, so I really shouldn't venture a time theory, but here goes.

Every time I go on vacation and return, I have the same image in my mind although I've never put it into words. Imagine, if you will, that a vacation is like an ant traveling across the pages of a book open in the middle. It takes the ant a good long time to make his or her way across to the far side of the book. Now -- and no ants were squished in the making of this image -- imagine that as the ant gets to the very edge of the book, the book is closed, so that the starting and ending points come together to be very close. Maybe there's a big physics explanation for this concept but that's how it feels. I had this fascinating, good long week of holidays and now, in a certain way, it feels like I was barely gone at all.

The additional theory that came to mind is that for me last week was filled with specific activities -- Tuesday was the day we swam in the ocean, Thursday was Gatorland, Wednesday it rained and we shopped until we dropped. But other weeks? or your last week? Maybe it dragged and maybe it flew by. Maybe, in terms of how it felt, you're already halfway through next week or perhaps you're still on Wednesday.

I had another experience of time last week -- being out of time. On Friday, my family and I visited Blue Springs State Park, about an hour north of Orlando. We had been warned that the park would be busy, but there was actually an overflow parking lot outside the park, and park wardens only letting people in when others left. It was a springlike day with pale watery sunlight that was only warm out of the wind.

The park was crowded and noisy with school buses, families, elderly people and daycare outings. The main source of the attraction was the fact that the Blue Springs are hot springs flowing downhill to the St. John's River and out to sea; this spring becomes the winter home for hundreds of manatees.

When you first see a manatee, it looks like a rock, a blob in the water, snuffling along the bottom and occasionally surfacing for air.

Everyone else in my family wanted to go on a 2.5 hour boat ride. I really didn't. We decided it would be okay for me to stay behind. If worse came to worst, I would knit or do some work on my novel.

Worse never came to worst.

Instead, I had the most meditative experience, walking along the fabulous boardwalk, between outlooks over the river and groves of prehistoric-looking tropical forests. It was the first cool day of our trip. The air reminded me, strangely enough, of the time we spent in Italy in March several years ago -- thin and clear, like a drink of cool water.

The water beside me, though, was not cool. It is 72 degrees year round, thanks to the hot spring bubbling up from the earth. It is this warmth that attracts the manatees that are resident in winter-time. Manatees are thin-skinned mammals that need warmth to survive. They are also apparently highly social and intelligent. The spring water is clearer than clear, and tinged blueish-green thanks to minerals that come from the spring.

I walked to the head of the spring, and one of the signs along the way explained that the water came from a cave that reached 140 feet into the ground. I walked three-quarters around the end of the stream, looking on the sides of the embankment for the cliff. I overheard a couple talking about when they used to swim in the river. I asked them where the cave entrance was and they pointed to the river floor, to what I had thought was a shadow or a different-coloured rock at the bottom. Instead it was a place where the earth opened up. I was fascinated.

We talked about the fish that swam in the river -- big fish with varying shapes. Some of the fish seemed to cling to the backs of the manatees and I asked them about that. Their daughter, all of three or four, was scrambling around on a tree stump.

"What would you call that kind of relationship?" the dad asked the girl.
"Sym-bi-otic!" she declared, and I knew that I had found my kind of people. I met others when I chose to -- offering to take a photo for a family so they could all be in the picture, listening to a man describe the time he touched a manatee that approached his fishing boat.

I wandered through a homestead, established in the mid-1800s, that had been preserved. I read the family Bible list of births and deaths, including the death of a six-year old first son of the settlers, from a rattlesnake bite while playing under the house.

I talked with two marine biologists who were swimming in the water, looking to tag a female manatee that had been badly injured by a propeller. She was stealthy, they said, because the other time she had been tagged was when she had lost a flipper to a fishing net, and she had bad associations. She had been retagged with this injury but managed to escape the buoy by the next day. The biologists swam the length of the river twice looking for her, before deciding to practice new tagging techniques on a cooperative manatee who liked human touch. I was profoundly jealous of their opportunity until they asked a man whether he had seen any alligators that day. I had seen a little one, but they told me that the river was home to a number of alligators -- a four-foot, six-foot, eight-foot and sixteen-foot alligator. "I only like the four-foot one," the biologist told me. "The one that doesn't want to eat us yet."

But mostly, I was quiet as I watched the manatees as they swam, slowly and quickly, foraging, rolling, nursing, playing, resting. I came to find them beautiful and the sound of their exhale as they surfaced was peaceful and made my own breathing slow.

I had taken my watch off before our holidays -- wanting to be off the clock -- but it was this day when I was really out of time, lost in a quiet world of warm currents and gentle creatures that surfaced and retreated like deep thoughts in a well-rested mind.

I Had The Time of My Life

Before this past week, I had never sung karaoke before. I'm not a person with a bucket list but if I were, singing karaoke would definitely have made the top ten. It really shouldn't have been so hard, but the only times I had ever actually been somewhere with karaoke, there had been large crowds of people who all knew each other, as well as Dave and me. My theory was that you either needed to have a group of supporters to sing with you or else, perhaps, copious amounts of alcohol. I had neither.

Wednesday and Saturday nights were karaoke nights at the resort we stayed at. Wednesday, my mom and I went and put our feet in the hot tub, listening as people embarrassed themselves with their songs or else revealed stunning voices. I tell the truth: my heart pounded in my chest. Fear and anticipation.

I went over to the dj and asked him if he had a playlist. He had a computer loaded with 32,000 songs -- what did I want? Um.....I didn't know. It was hard to think with that thumping in my ears and the sounds of other people warbling.

I went back to the dj with two ideas. He didn't have either one. He told me I was cute, being so timid and eager at the same time. We danced behind a singer.

Finally I came up with an idea, and put my name on their receipt book playlist. They called my name and I persuaded my mother to stand behind me for moral support as I sang Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams are Made of This.

I don't have a terrible voice. It's decent. I get compliments in the right crowd. This crowd clapped enthusiastically for me, but my honest assessment was that karaoke is a learned skill and that choosing the right song is key. My song was a bit low for me. Still, I felt euphoric enough to plan to venture back on Saturday night.

I lay awake one night trying to think of a really good song to sing.

Saturday was a cold, cold Florida day -- and then the sun went down. Dave, my mom and I ventured over to the pool for 80s trivia -- what was the name of Angela's son on Who's the Boss? Name all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- before the karaoke started.

I was far less nervous and far less excited, but I put my name on the roster. Just before it was my turn to sing, two guys came over and asked if this was a competition. The dj said no but I said sure.

My song was Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings while his was Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline. My kids submerged themselves in the hot tub, facing the other direction, pretending not to know me, while I did myself more proud than I had a few nights before.

Enough so that after Mr. Diamond finished with a flourish, his friend came over to ask me if I would be willing to sing a duet with him. We looked through the playlist's search function for duets and settled on the Dirty Dancing song, I've Had the Time of My Life.

By the time it was our turn, Mr. Diamond was calling out to the crowd like an experienced lounge singer and I was having fun, while shivering in the cold. Our voices actually blended beautifully when we could figure out who was supposed to sing when and when we were to sing together. And then we gave up trying and just had fun singing.

I joined my parents afterwards at the bar where there were heat lamps doing their best and listened to an older woman belt out a jazz standard. Then I heard my name called again. I hadn't put it down on the list but it was me.

It was my closing act, the end of the week. I asked for Madonna's La Isla Bonita and rocked the house -- or at least my own house.

You might even say I had the time of my life.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

T-18 hours till we leave home for a week in the sunny south. I know my word of the year is anticipation but that doesn't begin to touch my feeling for this trip. Craving would be closer. But I also have a certain amount of fear -- that somehow it won't happen. My cold/bronchitis, for instance, better not stop it.

I wanted to thank you all for reading along this week with our Chopped Challenge. Last night our daughter asked me what I had made for dinner. It was a beef stir fry on couscous or quinoa (using up leftover veggies before we leave town). "Hm," she said. "Only one course, eh?"

I know a few people have been daunted by our challenge, but I wanted to make a few observations and reflections.

First, the meals our kids cooked were mostly really inexpensive. The first meal especially probably cost a total of $10 and that included the drug-free ground beef. The fish and chicken in the other meals would have cost a bit more, but really the costs weren't significant. My second observation is that we made some suggestions that were disregarded by the kids: I suggested a lighter dessert for day 3 in place of the cheesecake, and suggested that pickled beets be part of the appetizer on day 2. I think the meals were all the better for the creativity of the kids. Third, where the meals were costly was in terms of time. Day 1 child cooked for nearly six hours. Dave spent a good chunk of time on those days helping out, but that was good time together too.

I was also struck in something I read this week that the word disciple essentially means appentice. I read this as Dave and I were coaching our kids through this process: to us, it matters that our kids know how to cook well. It made me wonder what other similar or very different skills and ways of being we teach our kids -- whether deliberately or accidentally.

I'm curious to know which of the three meals sounded to you like it would be best?

As we pack for Florida, we have a lot of food and meds packed with us, primarily for the girl with food issues. Most of what we're bringing is precautionary -- we have corn pasta in case we have trouble finding a wheat-substitute. We have digestive enzyme in case we get stuck with no good alternatives at all. We have pea butter and bread. I think we have more food and meds than clothes. I expect we won't need some of them, but then too I remember last summer's brief stay in a caboose in New York state, where our options were limited and our girl was grouchy. Grocery stores in the US are always a bit of an adventure for me at the best of times: sometimes the options dazzle me and sometimes they turn my stomach.

Back to the title of my post. My biggest hope for this week is that we will be able to be utterly carefree while we're away. The forecast says a high of 24 degrees Celsius and warm nights. One day of rain for shopping. One of our first stops will be to a little orange stand -- think the Big Apple, Ontarians -- to pick up a couple of litres of just-squeezed oj and a box of citrus for munching.

And then we're parking ourselves for a few days -- submerged like manatees in the pool. Not sure how much Internet access we'll have: we may be off the grid.

Wishing you a great week too!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Round Three

OK, let's cut to the chase. This dinner tonight was so good that we didn't get any before photos of the dessert. All three dinners were very close -- within one to one and a half points out of sixty -- in terms of presentation and creativity, but tonight's dinner won by six points in terms of taste.

Our chef du jour played it cool. Threatened art installation instead of food. Said he'd start at 5:30 pm. Promised it would all be microwaved. That it would feature hot dogs.

And then last night, he took to the Internet with a plan and a pen. His ingredients were asparagus, avocado and blackberries. This morning we added Rice Chex cereal to the requirements. This might sound like the easiest combination of foods yet, but only I like asparagus, and none of us are terribly high on avocado.

Correction: none of us were high on avocado. Now we're converts.

Our chef needed a few ingredients for his meal, so once again our shoppers visited the grocery store today. Late morning, I was visiting with a friend when good baking smells wafted out to us. It was the crust for a cheesecake dessert -- graham crumbs mixed with Chex.

Much of tonight's meal came together late in the afternoon. There was time for the chef to walk the dog, bug his sister, do some homework, Facebook and Facebook some more, and then to dazzle us.

I will also say that I'm fighting off a cold and that I didn't have a big appetite before the meal. My highest praise was that tonight's meal created as well as satisfied an appetite in me.

The meal began with a tomato-avocado bruschetta served on fine china. It was so delicious. He sliced the avocado thinly and layered it on the bread before sprinkling it with the bruschetta topping, which contained tomatoes, shallots, garlic, lemon, olive oil, basil, salt and pepper. And summer sunshine.

There was a slight delay during the serving of the next course. Not only did the food need to be arranged, but the dog's pal arrived for a playdate. We called it dinner entertainment, watching the two dogs wrestle like Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King outside our window.

The next course was a vegetable-rice, with lightly breaded white fish and lemon, and a side dish of asparagus and frizzled shallots. (Full disclosure: I finished the leftover frizzled shallots while writing this post. Yum.)

And then dessert. Dessert did not have the presentation quality of the two previous courses and had a slightly gluey texture to it but it was so fine that the other contestants more or less declared themselves out of the running and asked for seconds as their consolation prize. It was a light cheesecake, served with a sour cherry-blackberry sauce and fresh blackberries. The chef had made a separate version for the child with food issues, and it was surprisingly equally good, made with tofu yoghurt and all-Chex crust.

At one point during the appetizer, I suggested that we could rig a tie and thus occasion the need for a tie breaker round, but this was vetoed. There was talk of another food game show next week in Florida, where contestants have to make edible, tasty meals out of Only-in-America foods like spray cheese and other edible oil products, but I vetoed that one.

The issue of the prize came up today, briefly. No one had expected $10,000, fortunately. No one really needed a prize beyond the glory of winning. But, given the full bellies, the satisfaction of the experiment and the happy mouths, I think it's safe and true to say we were all winners.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Round Two

We're already trying to figure out ways to extend this competition -- which, I will note, has no prizes attached to it. None of the contestants have asked for prizes. It occurs to me as I write that possibly they are expecting the $10,000 won by the contestants on the real Chopped show. Let us hope they will take their prize in food/accommodation/clothing/toiletries, over a several year period.

Today's contestant was nervous about her Mystery Ingredient. As soon as she was given her initial list: zucchini, beets, baby bananas, she began her research, scouring cookbooks and the Internet, and polling parents for ideas. I will also note that an additional complicating factor to this competition is the fact that this child is limited in her diet: almost no dairy, wheat, eggs, sugar or peanuts. All competitors had to factor this into their cooking -- or offer an alternative. During last night's main course, corn pasta was substituted for this eater. Small quantities of the forbidden foods -- such as butter for browning -- were allowed.

I offered last night to tell the contestant what her mystery ingredient was, but she wanted to follow the rules. This morning, she rose early, ready to embark on her cooking, and was told that her additional ingredient was instant decaf coffee.

She had actually started a day before, by boiling beets and pickling two of them. The other beets were turned into a puree, which was spread across plates during the appetizer course. Apparently she plated the appetizer course two or three times not liking the presentation enough, and having inherited the competition gene.

She spent the morning making maple cupcakes for dessert, and then had a major problem. Most of the rest of her food would not take long to make. She had hours to fill and nothing she wanted to do so much as cook. (I know - I should have sent her to your house, right?)

Her sous-chef (they all want Dad as a sous-chef, allegedly because he once nearly cut the tip of his finger off while cooking in a camp kitchen, but possibly to give the regular cook a complete break) told her that they could start again at 3:30. At 3:27, she declared it close enough to start and so they did.

At 5:57, the meal was ready. Wine glasses were filled with pomegranate frizzante, garnished with lime slices. Our plates had the beet puree, beside pesto zucchini and zucchini fries. It was delicious. Last night's chef commented that the beet puree had little connection to the zucchinis. Tomorrow's chef remarked that he had eaten a lot of snacks (burgers, chicken fingers, chips, pop, other chicken) at a friend's house in the afternoon. I had missed lunch so I licked my plate clean.

The second course had a beautiful mound of jasmine rice at the centre, draped with roasted onions and peppers. Beside it were half-moons of pickled beets and slices of chicken breast. Again, no complaints from me. This time, no complaints from anyone. The dog showed a great deal of interest in this course, and was later allowed to lick the plate that had held slices of chicken before serving.

Dessert was the feature of this meal, though. The chef had outdone herself here. She had caramelized the baby bananas (lady finger bananas they were called on the menu we received), and fanned them out beside the maple cupcakes, and then dolloped coffee-infused whipped cream (which was actually NutriWhip = no dairy) over the whole thing. Yum, yum, yum. I could imagine the dessert in a real restaurant.

We voted and gave feedback. We washed dishes. We were warned that tomorrow's meal had not been planned. Possibly the stiffest competition was behind us. Or maybe not. We would go for a long walk with the dog to work off the delicious calories and we would wonder what was ahead on the final installment of our Chopped competition.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Round One

Have you ever run into one of those television marathons -- non-stop episodes of Laverne and Shirley or Seinfeld? On New Years Day, we were pooped and so were sucked into the vortex of a marathon viewing of the tv show Chopped.

For the uninitiated, let me explain how Chopped works: four contestants are each given a basket of mystery ingredients, access to a well-stocked kitchen, and 20 minutes to make an appetizer. One of the shows we watched the other day asked the contestants to use Korean short ribs, gefelte fish, lemon thyme and zucchini to make their appetizers. When the clock runs out, the food is served to professional chefs who are really exacting judges. One contestant is eliminated -- or chopped -- before the entree round, and then another before the dessert round. After dessert, the Chopped Chef Champion is crowned.

The show gave Dave a brilliant idea: we would provide each child with a basket of ingredients at the beginning of the day and they would be required to serve us a three-course meal. They could start as early as they liked -- our only time requirement was that they had to be prepared to plate (see, I paid attention to the lingo!) by 6:00 p.m. sharp. Judging would follow -- with results released after Thursday's meal. Everyone but the chef was allowed to vote in three categories: Taste, Presentation and Creativity. Parents' votes counted for double the points.

We drew lots to see who would go first. There was exchange of cash for switching of positions (first place cost $1.25, I believe).

Our first chef rose earlier than he has all holiday. He is the child who has attended chef camp three times now and is an accomplished cook. He was given as his list of ingredients: delicata squash, snow peas and Asian pears. At the last minute, we added coconut to the list of required ingredients.

In late morning, our chef and his dad went shopping: leeks were required for his plan. By noon, he was on the job. Great smells wafted up to me where I was working, and I was called down for consultation about how to cut the squash.

The first course was a vichyssoise -- a cold potato leek soup -- garnished with a puree of squash, roasted with ginger and brown sugar, and snow peas. Let me say that I've never seen a squash roasted to such caramel perfection. I begged a taste from the chef and my mouth was dazzled. At the meal itself, the soup was delicious, seasoned to perfection, with the puree and the peas offering a surprisingly fresh counterpoint to the creaminess of the soup. The soup was a bit chunky -- which led me to ask the chef why he had chosen this, him to explain that he didn't want it to be just a big liquidy soup like a bowl of vomit, and his siblings to discuss the actual chunky texture of vomit. But, remember the part about the caramel perfection. Yes, let's focus on the caramel perfection.

The second course was handmade pasta with a deliciously light tomato-beef sauce. The sauce apparently was lightened by the addition of chicken stock. The pasta was quite heavy, though well-cooked. It turned out that our pasta maker was also temperamental today, so the pasta had been rolled and cut by hand. It was more than edible. Our only complaint was portion size: we wanted more. This raised the issue of eel: on one episode of Chopped, the chefs had been given eel to deal with and several of them had offered far, far too much snaky eel as part of their entrees. Light tomato sauce, light tomato sauce.

Dessert followed and explained the buttery smells that had permeated the house all afternoon. The chef had caramelized butter and maple syrup with slices of Asian pears, and then had covered the fruit with a layer of buttery pastry to make a Tarte Tatin. He cut this into wedges and served it with lightly-sweetened fresh whipped cream and toasted coconut. We had learned from the Chopped judges to look for a variety of textures and an interplay of tastes and this course delivered. So much so that there were no gory allusions made throughout this course. Instead there was moaning and applause.

As we drained our glasses of blood orange frizzante, garnished with slices of blood orange, we gave our feedback to the chef and then wrote our judgments on individual pieces of paper, which were then collected and put into safekeeping.

Tonight's chef had tired legs after an afternoon in the kitchen, but he was satisfied. As his sister prepared her menus and checked on her marinating pickled beets in the fridge, though, he had to wonder: Would It Be Enough?


It's Taylor Swift I keep thinking about, Taylor Swift who apparently eulogizes all her past boyfriends in song. I'm wondering what Taylor doesn't write about.

There are many many things I won't write about -- my own stuff and other people's. I am very aware that the Internet is a public and permanent forum -- that what happens on Facebook doesn't stay on Facebook.

And yet, when the issue of privacy in terms of blogging and writing arose most recently, I wondered whether or not I've drawn the boundaries tightly enough, whether the people in my life are safe from me using them as material. And at the same time, whether I am free as a writer needs to be to write about what I know, what I've experienced.

I know of several mommybloggers who have opted to be increasingly limited in what they say about their kids as the kids get old enough to be aware of what their parents are doing. Essentially the fact is that Mom has chosen to blog; the kids haven't chosen to be blogged about.

And likewise, I have at least more choice about what I write about. I've just finished an eight-year run writing about Quebec, and I have a new place in my sights. Is it safe to invite me anywhere? And yet, there are many places I've loved that have not inspired writing.

In my questions of the last week, I did some online research to see whether there were rules that I had missed, rules that would protect the people and places I love from being captured and displayed by yours truly. Apparently it's taboo to write about someone else's sexual orientation, religion, political views and personal habits without their permission. To which I say, duh. I suppose blogs and social media can be used in nasty ways, but those lines seem a little too clear. The real issues arise, as a friend I talked to said, much sooner than this, and are much fuzzier.

Can stories that would be totally fine at a cocktail party be told online to a wider audience? Do some people have proprietary rights to places or events? Do a writer's motives matter? Does it matter whether such stories are told in a favourable light or not? Or, is it safest never to mention anyone else at all? (Also, how is that ever possible?)

None of these are theoretical issues for me, but very real questions.

There are pieces I have written that will never be published; pieces that may never be published; occasionally there are short pieces in my mind that are erased once the emotions subside that will never even be written down.

Relationships matter. But so does truth telling and story telling. I called this blog entry MYOB (I just realized that MYOB is an acronym that preceded texting) but here's the thing: what if having a writer in your life means that sometimes your business is my business?

Sunday, January 1, 2012


I am not hung over but I awoke this first day in 2012 in a funk, physically and emotionally. I'm weary after several long. long days of parties, and short caffeine-fueled nights. I'm disgruntled because the way I like to end a year, the way I almost always end a year is contemplatively. I put away the Christmas ornaments (I know, Eric. There are six more days of Christmas still to come.) I clean the house and I ponder. Not this year. This year, I baked and laughed and drove and cooked and bustled about. It wasn't bad, but this morning, I feel utterly unprepared for A Fresh Start, although quite in need of one.

The problem is that I decided a couple of weeks ago on my word for 2012: anticipation.

I've already been scratched by the dog, whose anticipation for a walk preceded Dave getting out of the shower. I'm sitting at the computer, unshowered with a wee sore throat and distaste for the mess around me, when the still, small voice pops into my head: How can you best move into a posture of anticipation from here?

A good question.

Wikipedia tells me that anticipation is "an emotion involving pleasure, excitement, and sometimes anxiety in considering some expected or longed-for good event. Anticipation is the process of imaginative speculation about the future."

I'm good at the imaginative speculation part -- it's the expectation of a longed-for good event. That's the part that requires a stretch. The truth is that, as much as I wish it weren't so, too often I live in ways that say I fear the future. That's what I want to shed this year -- frankly, to turn away from, to repent, this year.

Interestingly, Wikipedia goes on to quote psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant who said anticipation was one of "the mature ways of dealing with real stress... You reduce the stress of some difficult challenge by anticipating what it will be like and preparing for how you are going to deal with it." He adds that tThere is evidence that "the use of mature defenses (sublimation, anticipation) tended to increase with age."

I like that anticipation isn't just a blind blithe approach to life, but one that prepares well. I like that the aging process enhances this function.

Let me say that I'm not naturally a pessimist. What I tend to do -- too much -- however, is to see my life as a to-do list, a series of problems to be solved -- often in a smaller period of time than I'd like.

And here's the heart of it. To quote the wiki once more, "To enjoy one's life, 'one needs a belief in Time as a promising medium to do things in; one needs to be able to suffer the pains and pleasures of anticipation and deferral.'" To believe there is enough time is important. To believe that Time is a good medium is another. But to believe that Time is a promising medium to me requires a belief in something -- or someone -- outside time. For years I've worn a bracelet with my favourite quotation on it: All shall be well. It's part of a longer quotation from medieval mystic Julian of Norwich who, in the midst of what looked like a fatal illness, had a series of divine revelations, among which were the insight that despite the sin and suffering of the world, the weight and heaviness that is so real, all would be made well. I don't remember the exact quote but it says that all SHALL be well, and all WILL be well, and all MAY be well and every kind of thing will BE well.

I want this quote to be more than a sentiment on a bracelet, but a new way to be in the world as I enter 2012. With anticipation.