Life

/Life

Murder Your Thirst

Traveled lately? Paid for it? I’ve talked to many who have.

My husband B and I were still blissfully unaware of the cost, thank goodness, as he drove us back through the lush rolling hills of upstate New York. (We’d joked about Herschel Walker’s anti-tree gaffe on the way down. “Herschel’s right! There are enough trees!”) We were full to bursting with friendship, joy and music after attending a 3-day outdoor music festival on Martha’s Vineyard, where all our favourite bands had played. At a stop in Syracuse, we scarfed down the “godfather” pizza – caramelized onions, sausage and mildly spicy peppers – and listened to a young girl with an acoustic guitar. Her voice echoed Jewel-like in the new warehouse-style space. She even sang a Jason Isbell song, one he’d just sung to us, “Cover Me Up”:

So girl, leave your boots by the bed
We ain’t leaving this room
Til someone needs medical help
Or the magnolias bloom

Okay, assuming these are relatively healthy people and it’s not early spring? Is this not just about the sexiest thing ever written?!

B was in a slapdash hurry to get back to our room at the A-Loft, but not for the above reasons. And to be clear, I’d be leaving sandals by the bed, not boots. He filed his work report, due the following morning, and crawled into bed to sleep. I watched Serena win the first of her US Open singles matches.

The next day? B was clearing his throat, clearing his throat. But the sure sign something was amiss? He asked me to drive. He eased the seat back, slept. Of course, all the time he’d driven the weather had been clear, while for me? Buckets of rain gushed from the heavens, hindering visibility and frazzling my nerves.

As soon as we got home, B had the test kit out. It took the full 15 minutes, but there it was, the faint second line confirming he had Covid. I tested myself. Negative. I was tired; I put it off to traveling.

The next morning my throat was full to bursting with razor blades. I did another test. Negative. No matter. I was unwell.

After two and a half years of a raging pandemic, one can get complacent. Feel a tad superior, perhaps? I’d see headlines about it. Haven’t had Covid yet? We want to study you! I thought B and I were special somehow. We work out a lot, eat well, take immune-supporting supplements. But as it turns out, we’re just mere mortals, like everyone else on the planet, and completely vulnerable to the whims of this weird illness.

And I’ve talked to others about this too. The best position from which to endure Covid? Flat on one’s back, a super-comfy pillow under the head and a throw pulled up under the chin. That is: not moving.

What can you accomplish in this position? 

Doomscroll! My Twitter friends told me: Agent Orange still free, talking, blah-blah-blah. Dark Brandon still getting sh*t done. War in Ukraine still on (but, as you know, they are now kicking some serious Russian assets). The doomsday glacier still hanging on by fingertips I did not know it had.

Binge Netflix, AppleTV, Prime! I prefer nature docs when I’m feeling down, so I watched David Attenborough’s Prehistoric Planet. Did you know dinosaur birds walked around on elbows and feet? Did you know sauropods may have had bizarre inflatable sacs that popped out on their long necks for mating? I watched The Elephant Queen, because elephants are just so darn cute. Dung beetles too, if you can get over the fact that what they’re rolling into that perfect ball is, well, dung. At least you can’t smell it through the TV.

The days went by and the shows piled up: I recommend Wild Wild Country and The Last Days, but the “something for laughs” I started, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is pretty darn silly.

I had to admit, it was efficient that B and I were both sick at the same time. He’s a great person to be sick with because he doesn’t complain and he remembers to smile from time to time, which I forget when I’m feeling miserable.

As you probably know from reading my blogs, B is the cook, but because we were both feeling lousy, we took turns. It went like this: B made chicken soup from scratch. I heated up a frozen pizza. B cooked a whole chicken. I slapped some peanut butter on bread. But, I did make the bread!

After the excruciating headache cleared I was able to read from that comforting supine position. Looking for Jane is an incredible debut novel by Heather Marshall. Set in Toronto, it’s an important and timely discussion about abortion rights. From Russia with Blood by Heidi Blake is a work of nonfiction which expertly delves into the “Kremlin’s ruthless assassination program” and reads like in a spy thriller.

After a few days, B and I took a walk around the smallest block. We came back so spaced out we had to sit and recuperate with hot lemon ginger tea with honey. After our first fully upright day? We spent a couple of days slothing around again.

I’d been warned the first 48 hours are the worst and that was true. I’d been warned it lingers and that was true.

And now, a couple of weeks post-Covid, I feel immense gratitude. That we didn’t get IT until this year, that we’ve had the opportunity for vaccines and a booster, that we have a mighty fine home in which to be sick, that the nearby grocery store delivers.

I’d feel grateful about getting the illness over with, but dang, you can get IT more than once. So, travel safely. Keep your boosters up to date. And if your throat is ever full to bursting with razor blades, murder that thirst with hot tea, cold ginger ale, or perhaps some cool Liquid Death as in the website photo. The organizers of Beach Road Weekend, the music festival we attended, served water in aluminum cans, not plastic. Not only does it feel badass to drink your water this way – it’s like drinking a tallboy – it’s the most ecological choice. Did you know that about 75% of all the aluminum ever made is still in use today?

Murder Your Thirst 2022-09-16T10:41:53-04:00

The Drop In

If her place wasn’t on my way home, or going somewhere, well it was just around the country corner. Why not drop in? I was always welcome. Greeted with a smile, fuchsia pink if her lipstick was on. The scents were earthy and homegrown: potatoes, juicy fat tomatoes, Dove soap.

If it was morning? She’d pour coffee, old style. Percolated. Black. Cream and sugar? No way. A woman did not need those extra calories. If I hadn’t eaten? I’d get breakfast too. Traditional: eggs, bacon, home fries, toast.

If it was late afternoon? She’d pour a rye and ginger. Perhaps dinner if I had no plans: a fresh salad from the garden, roasted meat and veg, boiled potatoes. With so many people always dropping by the farm, food was abundant in that house.

As was conversation. If it was just the two of us? She’d prod, want to know. What is going on?

Oh gee, I said. This guy at work is driving me nuts.

Well why?

Well the horse races are heating up, I told her. There’s more races than ever now. I’m having trouble keeping up. It’s hard. Getting all those details down, the press releases out in time.

Hmmm, she said. Sipped her coffee. You know, Rita. Here she looked me in the eye, to see my truth. You can do it. You’re a good writer. You can do better.

Hmmm, I thought. She’s right.

I went to work that day and did better. Because she believed in me, which made me believe in me. I have a tendency to overthink things, make them more complicated than necessary. And I sometimes, well oftentimes, bring too much emotion to situations. Our coffee talk helped me focus, simplify.

She was always teaching me. I thought she was teaching me to become the person she was. For my kids, their spouses, their kids. I mean, I had a big enough house, over there. Three kids, just like her. Who’s to say they won’t be dropping in on me one day, just like this, for coffee talk?

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, though. First, her youngest son, my husband, died mid-sentence, mid-laugh, mid-life. Then, she was diagnosed with cancer. That disease attacked her quickly, without mercy. And being the person she was? She showed no weakness, to me anyway. Was strong, stoic. Kept as busy as she could, crocheting skeins of wool into afghans so fast it’s a wonder she didn’t set the house on fire.

Always teaching. Before the diagnosis? How to be a lady. I know I’m more than capable of opening my own car door, she once told me. But, if a man wants to do it for me? That feels so good, so special. Why not let him?

On a discussion about celebrities getting face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. What ever happened to growing old gracefully? she asked.

While she was graceful in aging, unfortunately she didn’t get to grow that old. Her final teachings to me: how to accept a grave diagnosis. How to die. Gracefully.

And the teachings expanded from her to him, her husband, who I’d always fiercely respected, but saw as more assertive than gentle. It’s an image that won’t go. A man, married 50 years to a woman, who was fading before us like a frail bird. There, there, he said, as he tenderly placed orange slices, plump and succulent, into her mouth.

For years after, he became the one I dropped in on. He poured me coffee from a Thermos in the warm room at the barn. We sat on over-turned plastic buckets, lamenting our losses. I don’t see any way around it, he told me. You’re just going to have to go on. I watched him; I tried it. Eventually got the hang of it.

After he left us, I sold the house, the big one, over there. Two of my three kids moved west. I met and married a man way more interested in spending time in the kitchen than me.

The other day, I dropped in at my daughter’s place around noon. Am I in time for lunch? I joked as their giant golden doodle, Archie, tried to knock me over at the front door. He loves when I visit. My daughter’s son, six, was smiling like a Cheshire cat over a set of kids’ golf clubs his dad had gotten from a co-worker. The girls, 10 and eight now, had just come inside from playing and were sprawled in the TV room watching a kids’ show on Netflix.

I sat at their huge island and my daughter made me a latte. (With the growth of coffee culture, I’ve discovered it tastes pretty yummy to froth up the coffee from time to time.) After filling plates for her kids she made us a salad and toasted bagels. We yakked away, about the Elvis movie (loved it!), the remarkable images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the price of cherries (her younger daughter explained it’s due to the pandemic and inflation), family gossip.

Driving home, with a full belly-heart-mind, it hit me. Perhaps the drop in skipped a generation! She’s it now. My daughter is the drop in!

Memories of that warm farmhouse and cool barn prevail. There are times, still, when I picture all of us – my late husband’s family and friends – sitting out in the family room on a Friday night with drinks and Tony’s pizza, yakking and laughing away. The images are so vivid sometimes, I feel that it’s a place I could actually get back to, drop in on again. But time, like us, must go on. The page turns. People and scenes get shuffled around, new memories get plunked atop the old.

The Drop In 2022-08-09T14:47:29-04:00

Yellow Brick Road

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
Elton John, Bernie Taupin

Google tells me the “horny back toad” only exists in the lyrics to this well-known 70s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, also the title of John’s “magnum opus” double LP that sold over 30 million copies. But the “horny toad” (lol)? Yep. North America has ‘em. Ever heard an owl howl? They hoot, right?

Of course, “howl” just sounds better, and also rhymes with “owl”. And “horny toad” would fail to deliver, unless you sung it like this: “horny-ah toad”. 

This is often the way of songs; I’ve sung along to favourites and not had a clue what I was singing about. Lyrics can be similar to koans, a Zen practice employed to provoke “great doubt”. Eg. two hands clapping creates a sound; what is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s meant to pluck you from slumber, accept the limited strength of reasoning by reflecting on an impossibility and point you in the direction of enlightenment.

While tending to gardens on either side of the “yellow brick road” that leads to my hot tub the other day, I belted out as many lyrics as I could recall – loud, proud and off-key. No neighbours around. Who cares? This song probably came to me because I was standing on a greyish stone walkway, I’d ditched my podcast-delivering headphones and was existing, in the moment, with nature.

I’ll admit, I’ve been addicted to podcasts since discovering them, but lately they’ve been failing to satisfy. Why? Sometimes, most times, events that I label “bad” – war, insurrection, climate change, inequality, gun (or any other type of) violence, the economy – feel so devastatingly overflowing with injustice and void of hope and solutions that I end up feeling too sad. Dang! Just remembered the pandemic is still kicking around with a new variant. Oh, and then there’s politics, which we can’t discuss because it gets more divisive by the day. I often turn to Trevor Noah and The Daily Show “Ears Edition” for a good laugh on the latest issues, but he must be on vaycay because there’s been no new episodes lately.

Working with a song in your head, or on your lips, or flowing through your lungs, well, it’s just so damn satisfying! I, too, can be like that robin that sang from the high peak of the roof the whole time I was in the hot tub: “tra-la-la-la, lah, la-la-la-la-laaah”. Does it even matter what is sung? What collection of words? Sometimes you just wanna shout: “Boom-chacka-lacka!” For no good reason. Don’t you?

So I puttered and mused. On the point of the yellow brick road. Is there a “beyond”, like in the song, and am I there? Or is it just a tempting, gleaming thing leading you right back to where you started, like in Oz? Flowing, but circular, like Earth, the sun, the moon, our heads (I figure that’s why we get stuck in loops from time to time), life. I mean, there I was, rapidly approaching 64 (there’s some meaningful lyrics: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64” The Beatles), yet at the recollection of a beloved old song? Instantly a teenager again! 

It’s pretty elusive, isn’t it, hunting a thing that doesn’t exist, like the “horny back toad”? And who-who-who is doing the hunting? Bernie, Elton, or the “howling old owl”? Does it even matter? What matters? Who-who-who cares?

This did lead my brain back to a recent podcast I’d listened to, a most satisfying one,  Ideas by the CBC, “A Good Enough Life”. The argument is that we revere – and reward – greatness in a way that can be stifling for the majority of us who excel at mediocrity. Let’s face it, we all can’t be Elton, belting out in that falsetto – “Ro-oh-ohd, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ahhh” – whilst fingers dance effortlessly and elegantly on ebony and ivory.

Acknowledging that world news will always be out there, the bulk of it depressing, we can just pull back, look around, find ways to contribute to our communities in meaningful ways. Host Nahlah Ayed shared a touching one about a community store in Toronto that became a vital hub during the pandemic.

No one knows what to do about the quandary of capitalism. It creates such disparity, but what is the solution? A controversial guy like Elon Musk becomes the richest man in the world (Tell me, who-who-who needs a billion dollars? Isn’t a few million enough to live on?) and yet this poor woman in her 50s I was reading about the other day, who lives in Toronto and is suffering from long Covid, has applied for assisted suicide. It seems mostly because she’ll be out of money in a few months; she doesn’t have the energy to return to her previous job as a chef. While she’s suffering, physically and mentally, she’s not completely opposed to continuing to live.

I belted out yet again, in my sub-par way: “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl!” Elton’s fine voice, image, grace danced in my head as I pulled and clipped more Boston ivy, brushing dirt from my brow with the back of my wrist. I don’t begrudge him the fame, the money. Talent like that must be shared, yes? His AIDs charity does good work, yes? As I worked away, grateful for the shade, I recalled seeing him live about eight years ago, performing the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in its entirety. A mystical fog accompanied the opening notes of “Funeral for a Friend”. I drank in every precious moment of that 11-minute gem and was so impressed by his humble acceptance of the crowd’s response after.

Songs, old or new, can’t fix what I label “bad” out there, but they sure do alleviate the pressure, the pain. I guess that’s where the blues came from, huh? I’m gonna keep belting them out (you might not want to be within earshot) and I’m sure everything will make complete sense –  or absolutely none whatsoever! – down the (yellow brick) road. 

Yellow Brick Road 2022-07-14T14:58:38-04:00

Big Red Tomato

I see him there at the end of the bar. I think it’s him. Let’s call him Matt. He looks older, bigger. His goatee and what’s left of his hair? Greyer. He’s chatting away with two much younger women. Why? Does he think he has a chance with them? I mean, come on! And where is his wife?

I realize I know one of the women. I’ve seen her working behind the bar; she must be off tonight. It’s a Friday and my husband B and I are wolfing down fish and chips in an attempt to soak up beers and ciders just consumed on the patio next door while listening to live music.

On further eavesdropping, it seems the women might be a couple, so perhaps he’s just a friend, acquaintance? It’s a beach town after all; people chat at bars.

How well do I know Matt myself? And is it really him? It sure sounds like him. It’s really throwing me off that his wife isn’t with him.

I have to rewind my internal PVR several decades to recall our first brief meeting. He was my late husband’s first bank manager. Ah, a trustworthy type you’d figure, right? This was when we were just 18, not even married. Hugh was excited – and a tad nervous – to arrange his very first loan for a coveted 1976 Ford Econoline cargo van, three-in-the-tree. For those who don’t know, that means three gears shifted by a handle on the steering wheel. Fire engine red, it came to be known as the Big Red Tomato.

“I’ll probably have this loan the rest of my life,” Hugh joked after signing the papers in Matt’s office. “I’ll always need a vehicle. It’ll just get rolled into the next one.” As a bank manager’s daughter, raised allergic to debt, I was probably more nervous watching Hugh sign the papers. And as Hugh was a dollar-down-and-a-dollar-a-day-for-the-rest-of-my-life kinda guy? He was pretty much spot on about the longevity of that loan.

But Hugh trusted Matt. So years later, long after the Big Red Tomato had chugged its last kilometre (or mile) and when Hugh was making good coin selling roof trusses for the family business and needed to maximize his RRSP (the Canadian equivalent of a 401k) for tax purposes? Matt, still at that small town bank, became our investment guy.

When Matt left the bank for an investment company and the name of the investment – in mortgages, supposedly – sounded almost the same as the investment we were already in? We went with him, of course. A few years went by, the investments were doing well, but we had a financially demanding young family and house. A request was made to pull out $5k. A couple of weeks went by, phone messages went unanswered. One day, Hugh was on the road selling and heard on the radio that the CEO of said investment company had committed suicide. Well, that was shocking news! And a very ominous sign.

I recall a bloated moon shining through our bedroom window as sleep eluded me that night. I crafted a poem: “Full moon over London comfort me . . .”

It turned out the investments into mortgages had not been made. Perhaps funds were used to bolster office space and furnishings, in a fine upscale building downtown, with blue glass? Perhaps funds were used to bolster management salaries and bonuses?

Hugh went to a legal meeting to discuss a class action lawsuit. When he came home, he said, “Rita, we will recover from this. I know it was $22k, but we’re young, we’ll earn it back. There were people at that meeting, older people . . . they lost hundreds of thousands. This was their retirement.” That was really hard to reconcile. 

Hugh was right. We were fine. We built the RRSP money back up – and then some – over the years, while the class action lawsuit turtled along in the background, eventually surprising us with a cheque of about 25 cents on the dollar. We started our own successful truss plant in 1998 and built a cottage in Grand Bend in 2000.

And we’d be out, at night, having drinks, listening to live music, in the various bars in town, just as B and I were doing now. In would walk Matt – usually wearing a natty hat – and his wife. Hugh would stop mid-conversation to stare daggers at him until he left. After this had happened several times, I said to Hugh, “That has to stop. We’re doing good, right? We have a successful business. A cottage. It’s bad karma. We have to let it go.”

The next time Matt and his wife walked into a bar? I looked over and there was Hugh, buying them drinks, cheers-ing them. “That’s not quite what I meant,” I said into his ear when he got back to the group.

But that was Hugh. And he’s been gone so many years. B and I, together for several years now, have also run into Matt and his wife many times, once even sitting at the same table at an outdoor patio. For me, it was just a look and a nod. We never really talked.

The women are leaving and Matt is paying the bill. “Matt?” I say. “It’s me. Rita.”

“Oh, hi,” he says.

We get into a conversation and he shares that his wife was very sick, with cancer, died in the fall of 2020.

“Glioblastoma,” he says, “like what Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip) had.”

“Oh sadly, that’s what my Wish child had,” I say. I’m surprised that Matt knows I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for Make-A-Wish Foundation, in honour of Hugh. He was paying attention.

We chat for a while longer. He tells us about his three daughters. One committed suicide. He bought farms for the other two. Doesn’t really have a lot of money for himself, but he’s fine, he says. Choices. Wow, they linger.

He’s lived and lost. Money. More importantly people. Me too.

We rise to leave. I instinctively give him a big heartfelt hug. “I’m so sorry you lost your wife,” I say.

“Well, you know what it’s like,” he says.

Yes. I do.

Website photo: The Big Red Tomato hanging with a couple of friends.

Big Red Tomato 2022-06-14T15:31:14-04:00

Out of Line

They lie
When we ask, “Why
     do hundreds lie
     silent, while the detached angry arms that shredded them remain?”

They reply, condescendingly,
“You are out of line!
     Sir, Ma’am
          Out
               Of
                    Line!”

“Out of time!” we shout
“How many more must lie?
     Die?
          For a right?
               A far far right
Left long ago?”

Thoughts swirl, like varying cloud types in a chaotic sky
Praying-hands emojis point pointlessly heavenward

Flags fly: half-mast, false
Why not red?

“Arms are for hugging!” the children cry

The hearing? Impaired
The deaf? Self-proclaimed twisted victims in an expensive macabre game
                                                                                                                         They lie

Website Photo: NYT cover, Memorial Day weekend, listing mass shootings, weapon(s) purchased legally.

Out of Line 2022-05-31T12:54:05-04:00

Gimme Shelter

One morning pre-Covid, I stood at a podium in an old but bright and clean gym at the Jewish Centre in my neighbourhood in North London, Ontario. As I prepped to check ladies in to my fitness class I thought, How well do I know these ladies? I mean, we sweat together several mornings a week, dancing to pop’s top 40. But, do we really know each other?

When the first woman arrived and handed me her membership card, I asked, “So. Where did you drive in from this morning?”

“Oh, from the west,” she said. “Kilworth Heights.”

“Really?” I responded, thrilled. “I grew up there! What street?”

“Beechnut Street.”

“Oh my god. What number?”

“43.”

“That’s my house!”

Well, of course, it’s not my house, or home, anymore. It’s quite definitely hers. We chatted a bit, about the neighbourhood, the ways in which it has changed, and also its ongoing country charm. It’s more of an eclectic mix now, in what we call the “old” Kilworth Heights – memorable houses from my time there over four decades ago, with several shocking gigantic rebuilds thrown in. Thank goodness for the half-acre lots. And, we both agreed, we can’t even fathom the “new” Kilworth Heights, with its expansive and ongoing commercial and residential construction.

The woman before me, who woke up in that treasured space that lives on in my psyche and often inhabits my dreams, admitted that she and her husband had not been diligent with maintenance on the yellow brick side-split. Sadly, the old girl had fallen into disrepair.

When I first met her? I was smitten. And also certain she was way too big and expensive to be the golden goddess that gave shelter to my family.

I was 10; it was 1968. There were five of us – my parents, my older brother, 12, and my baby sister, 1 – crammed into a three-bedroom bungalow in Chatham. My dad, a high-ranking bank manager, had been called to London to clean up another manager’s mess, as happened in those days. The real estate agent – so memorable that he/she/they exist in my memory as adults do in Peanuts cartoons, a disembodied voice going: “Whanh-whanh-whanh-whanh-whanh” – started off our search with bungalows in Byron, a neighbourhood in west London. 

I liked our current home in Chatham, had no problem with it, but for some reason the homes he/she/they showed us depressed me. Perhaps, innately, I knew we’d outgrown it? 

Despite my age and the disembodied voice, I picked up on the numbers. Those bungalows? In the $18-19,000 range. I know! Hard to fathom these days, huh? He/she/they wanted to show us a unique option west of the city, in a country subdivision. The kicker? $24,000.

That may not seem like much more now, but to me, way back then, even at 10? One thing was clear: my parents were way too poor to afford that! We had no money. That was the impression they gave off. If you wanted something, anything? The answer would be, “No.” Had we asked a zillion times and got that answer? Or just knew not to ask? 

Our clothes? From the sale rack. I still love to get a good bargain. Grocery shopping happened once a week, on payday, and if/when we ran out of something? Well, we ran out. We lived a lean, modest lifestyle.

The drive to that country subdivision was lovely and so green with trees. We crossed over the meandering Thames (my London may be a pipsqueak to real London, but it stole lots of names from it) River yet again before turning left at the top of the hill, then right, then left again. And there she stood, glowing in the sun, her fine acreage sprawled around her like the Garden of Eden. We climbed the cement steps and entered into a gigantic living room flooded with light from a bay window, then a kitchen – of the same size! – behind that, with, wonder of wonders, a glass patio door?! Looking out onto a humongous back yard?! Up a few steps to a full bathroom with cool beige fixtures, and down a long hallway to three big bedrooms. Down, then down again to another bathroom? What the heck? Two bathrooms in one house? Another bedroom? A laundry room? Beyond that, a garage? Back in and down a few more steps to a rec room with a real fireplace?!

My brother and I were blown away. All of the other houses paled in comparison. It’s possible we pleaded and begged and tried out sales techniques on the parents. I don’t recall. What I do recall? Is when I found out I’d be living in that house? Well, it was a better and bigger surprise than any of the Christmases I’d enjoyed to date.

And I gotta say, 43 Beechnut Street lived up to the hype. She was big and bright and could handle our family of five. I made new friends and got to ride a bus to school (I was used to walking) and when I got old enough, numerous babysitting gigs were in walking distance. I saved up to buy my first pair of jeans, Lees for $13.95 because it was too hard to save the extra $3 for Levis. The neighbours were so friendly, I don’t recall being scolded once for walking on anyone’s property. It felt like the entire subdivision belonged to everyone.

I guess it’s natural to have nostalgia for one’s childhood home, especially if it was a happy one. There were trials and tribulations later when Dad’s struggles with the bottle caused a certain melancholy to stick to the place like LePages glue. But a family home is generally so much more than just a pile of bricks and mortar. Shit went down there: good and bad. You lived, you learned.

Recently, when my daughter asked her kids what they wished for the world, her 8-and-a-half-year-old daughter said this: “I wish for everyone to have shelter.” Such a wonderful and insightful wish from a youngster! 

This sentiment came up in a podcast I listened to on the war in Ukraine. The interviewee commented that, in her mind, one of the worst things to happen was people being torn from their homes. It’s harsh and unfathomable, yes? I feel so fortunate to have never had to experience this.

And now, as the world mourns yet another senseless mass school shooting in the US, let’s give thanks to all of the places and spaces that have sheltered us safely over our lifetimes and pray that this time – THIS TIME – will be the time lawmakers come to their senses and make some progress on enacting sensible gun laws.

Website photo: The golden goddess shining in the sun, circa early 1970s.

Gimme Shelter 2022-05-27T13:49:57-04:00

Desperately Seeking Justice

I’m a news junkie, possibly a tragedy junkie. I blame Mom. At a memorable dinner from eons ago, throughout which my two teenage – at the time – daughters sat on the bay window sill laughing hysterically, Mom gave me a questioning look. She’d been all over the map with conversation: insisting on things that were inaccurate, flitting from topic to topic.

“They’re laughing at you Mom,” I told her.

She didn’t skip a beat. “Well,” she said, “did you hear about that young girl with the flesh-eating disease? Gangrene started in her foot, then spread up her leg. I guess the pain was unbearable. Her skin turned black. And then she died.”

My daughters stopped laughing. And chewing, what had tasted delicious: Caesar salad, garlic bread, lasagna.

But this was my life growing up, with a mother tuned into news for its shock value. She was the first to inform me of 9/11, so I initially down-played it. It didn’t take long to realize she’d nailed the historical significance of that one.

And here I am: she’s long gone and I’ve grown an extra appendage called an iPhone, which shocks me by the second with news notifications. I guess I could turn off the notifications? But I want to know! I need to know!

Do I? I reflected on this the other morning, driving home from teaching a Jazzercise class. I’d just been informed of another meth death. It was the second friend to have lost a person to the drug in a couple weeks. I hear you try meth once? You just want to replicate that amazing high, but it forever eludes you. I mentioned this to a gf and she said, yeah, well, people can feel that way about alcohol too. Truth!

I recently read this article from the UK called “Will ditching booze make you happier?” Veronica Valli put it in this unique way: “The red flag is that if you think about drinking more than you think about sandwiches. How often do most people typically think about sandwiches? Twice a week? Three or four times? Never?”

I like Pinot Grigio and sandwiches, sometimes together, but I rarely think about either one. A good sign, I suppose.

With all the chaos and injustice in the world, one can certainly appreciate another person wanting to check out of it all by trying to check into a state of euphoria. Longevity may not be in the cards, but who’s to say living a long life is the goal? It’s my goal, but maybe it’s not for everyone? Although each person should have that option, right? Hence the Pewtin in me wanting to obliterate the actual Pewtin, stat!

The radio channel I had on, CBC 93.5 FM, was doing a talk segment. An interview with a Black male music artist, talking about significant Black songs, like “Strange Fruit”, first recorded by Billie Holiday and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Songs of injustice. The interview ended and I quickly switched the channel to CNN, for a war update, but instead got comedy! They were talking about the White House Correspondents dinner, which name-sounds-like Striden attended. Did you notice that Grump never attended? Have you noticed that people who can’t laugh at themselves can’t be trusted? It’s kind of like when a dog doesn’t cozy up to a human. It’s a warning.

Anyhoo, I thought, Rita, why are you always listening to news and talk? It’s a beautiful spring day! I pressed SiriusXM channel 359, North Americana, and Blue Rodeo immediately lifted my mood. I sang along. “Trust yourself. And don’t believe in anymore lies.” Ah lies! I can’t handle lies, misinformation, disinformation! Although in later years my father coined this phrase – “Truth is a luxury a liar cannot afford” – I blame Dad for making me a truth junkie. 

Singing made me notice spring. Ah. A brilliant yellow shrub. Forsythia! In bloom.

The war? It’s far away. Over there. Aside from donations, what can I do? It’s the injustice that plagues me, drags me down. I expect Lady Justice to take care of things, punish evil, reward good. Like in kids movies. But no one ever said life was fair, and witnessing what’s happening? Lady Justice is either in a coma or taking a ridiculously long nap. 

It doesn’t take a lotta digging to determine that Pewtin has jailed and killed enemies, with impunity, since coming to power on December 31, 1999. Yeah, that’s right. Y2K? A nothing burger. But, the KGB Pewtin factor? It’s taken us 22 long years of atrocities to realize that the turn of the century was gonna suck.

Meanwhile, Grump is still out there, talking, endorsing, despite his numerous and obvious illegal hijinks. And then? Upsetting, but not surprising, news recently leaked out of the Supreme Court. Don’t you love how Justice Roberts made the leak the thing, but this is justice, either asleep-at-the-wheel or held hostage by angry white men. Women’s abortion rights in the US are likely toast. George Carlin has a great riff on conservatives and abortion on YouTube, you should check it out. “Boy these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favour of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born? (holds up middle finger) You’re on your own.”

No one ever said life was fair. Justice? Hard to come by. Let it go, Rits. You’re in your car, music playing, on a sunny spring morning. I saw a man on the sidewalk, walking toward me, his great long greyish-white beard blowing wild in the wind. No judgement Rits. Your bro sports a long beard. But as I passed him he started screaming, loud and angry. His face glowed as red as the tulips I’d just seen at Sunripe. His arms flailed. I studied him in my side mirror, thinking that he probably carried his whole life in all those bags. What made him so agitated? Meth? Alcohol? Mental health? Injustice?

I told my husband B about it – the changing of the channel, the gift of song leading to the observation of spring in bloom, the jolt of the homeless man’s shouting – when I got home. I placed tulips in a white vase and prepared to tuck in to the hearty omelette he had ready for me. B had soft music playing; he doesn’t care for news. “I was reading something about that the other day,” he said. “Too much news. We’re addicted to suffering.”

Website photo: Lady Justice, held down by angry white men, pulled from Twitter, source unavailable.

Desperately Seeking Justice 2022-05-05T16:11:56-04:00

Flowers Trampled Underfoot

What is every living thing if not a delicate flower: springing forth, growing, blossoming, fading away? “I think we’re all flowers,” my brother-in-law, who lost his dad to cancer, once said. Then he helplessly shrugged his shoulders about the various blooms lasting varying lengths of time. It was probably in response to my pissed-offness about my late husband, Hugh, suddenly dropping dead all those years ago at the relatively young age of 46.

A tender floral image came to me recently in a dream. I was bold enough to tell Cher I was dropping by and I didn’t even tell her what time. When I got there I was impressed by her spacious home and surprised that it was in earthtones not jeweltones. She handed me a frosty orange drink in a long-stemmed glass, decorated with an enormous pale pink flower, similar to a hydrangea.

In waking life, I follow Cher on Twitter. She’s outspoken; she cracks me up. And, as you may expect, she is liberal in her use of emojis. Also? She has potty mouth. Her most recent tweet:

“TEXAS ITS FKNG HISTORY”, along with an image of the book White Bird by R. J. Palacio. A parent felt that this graphic novel – “about a Jewish teen living in France after Nazis seized power – should be banned because it’s ‘biased’ and could lead to the ‘skewing of a young child’s mind’.” Wow.

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “knowledge itself is power”, but what if knowledge is summarily rejected? Or deemed “fake”? What actual “knowledge” should we gobble up to gain this “power”?

Knowledge is scattershot, yes? I want to blame social media. Truth is hard to unearth. What are your sources? Are they reliable? And also, the rise of effusively-lying leaders like Pewtin and name-sounds-like Stump leaves truth as tattered as a rope toy in the rabid mouth of a Pit Bull. But historian Yuval Noah Harari deftly points out in 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury that there’s never been a “halcyon age of truth”. Humans thrive on stories and rely on fictions to function. “We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers,” writes Harari, “because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.”

Lest you be tempted to believe the Russian response to atrocities currently being uncovered in Bucha, Ukraine – “Moscow says the images are fabricated,” The Washington Post – consider how Russia overtook Crimea in 2014. “The Russian government and President Putin in person repeatedly denied that these were Russian troops,” writes Harari, “describing them instead as spontaneous ‘self-defense groups’ that may have acquired Russian-looking equipment from local shops.”

The higher truth – the one that makes Pewtin’s lies acceptable – for Russian nationalists? The preservation of the sacred Russian nation. Despite the fact that Kyiv and Moscow were only part of the same country for 300 of the last thousand years, a chilling recent Russian opinion piece translated by Chris Brown for CBC News claims, “The idea of Ukrainian culture and identity is fake.” (Are you as weary of that word “fake” as I am?) The writer of the piece, Timofei Sergeitsev, “claims the word ‘Ukraine’ itself is synonymous with Nazism and cannot be allowed to exist.”

You understand what Sergeitsev is laying down here, right? Genocide. Humans know well the horror of the Holocaust. Then Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Then the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Then Bosnia and Herzegovinia – the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995 in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred. Rwanda. Darfur, ongoing. And now Ukraine. We may know, but do we learn?

“Alas, even if it remains impossible to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century, that would not give us an absolute guarantee of peace,” writes Harari. “We should never underestimate human stupidity.”

Roger Cohen, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, puts it this way: “Peace, in terms of the sweep of history, is an exceptional state. It’s an unusual state and it takes great effort to preserve it.”

“All we are saying is give peace a chance,” John Lennon sang so eloquently, before his beautiful flower was blown to smithereens.

Cohen points out that prior to the killing in the Bosnian War, these people were neighbours, friends. Indeed, I recall a Serbian named Davor escaping the violence by dealing Black Jack on a cruise in the 90’s. His face was stricken white as he told Hugh and I how shocking it was that one day they were friends and the next? They were pointing guns at one another. “All it takes,” says Cohen, “is for a leader to designate those former neighbours as your enemy and for somebody to start shooting. The virus of hatred is always there, just beneath the surface.”

Because name-sounds-like Striden labelled Pewtin a war criminal, Cohen was on The Daily podcast to discuss the long and winding road to holding war criminals to account. “Those bodies lying in Bucha,” he says, “they had families, right? They had kids. Some justice being brought, even if it’s ten years down the road, that will be meaningful.”

Website Photo: A Rita Hartley painting, of the Ukrainian flower, recently given to my aunt for her birthday.

Flowers Trampled Underfoot 2022-04-18T16:02:48-04:00

Duck and Cover

Did you take things literally as a child? Pretty naïve over here. I recall the giant ’62 pale blue Olds floating down the road: Dad driving, Mom riding shotgun – but we didn’t call it that back then. It was the read-the-map, or more accurately misread-the-map-and-get-in-trouble, spot. Why would anyone want to sit there? As my older brother and I did gymnastics in the humongous back seat, I overheard the parents talking about a billboard we’d just passed.

“That’s misleading advertising!” Mom declared.

But this is what I heard: a teacher, named Miss Leading, was advertising something. I wanted to know what. The parents couldn’t really explain it.

The Iron Curtain was another one. “Mom. What’s an Iron Curtain?” Of course, I pictured an enormously heavy, grey curtain made of iron. How would it be held up and who would want such a thing?

Somehow Mom actually got this one through to me. It had to do with politics, she explained. The ears disengaged at that word, “politics”, but I did hear this: west is best! Communism sounded cold and dark, whereas I knew democracy to be warm and light.

Now, as I study up on the Iron Curtain, I see that it was much larger than I pictured as a child, a full 7,000-kilometres worth of fences, walls, minefields and watchtowers that divided the “east” and “west”. Perhaps, to keep it to something I could understand, Mom pretty much equated it with the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany. It made me immensely sad thinking about people from the same country, the same city even – Berlin – being kept apart by this ugly concrete wall with barbed wire on top of it. I did not like the Iron Curtain and, although I was run ragged with my three young kids when the wall fell on November 9, 1989, I did take the time to breathe a life-long sigh of relief. Thanks to peaceful protests by East Berliners, known as the “Monday Demonstrations” that eventually swelled to number half a million people, dreaded threats from my childhood – “Cold War”, “A-bomb”, “Nuclear War” – became obsolete. Phew.

And, you know, like so many things from childhood it’s hard to pinpoint the specific moment that threat was born. After a recent book club discussion about Pewtin’s Pewtrid War, one of our members pulled up an old black and white video of Duck and Cover drills, with a cartoon Bert the Turtle. Oh, this feels pretty familiar; for sure we saw and practiced this in elementary school. Bert’s a smart turtle, and he knows to just get into his shell at the first sign of threat. As we’re not turtles, we can use our desks. (Sadly, these have a similar feel to current day active shooter drills in the US.) It’s all friendly and light; prepare, but don’t scare.

There were movies too, like Atomic Attack(1954), starring Walter Mathieu, about a family trying to flee the fallout of an atomic bomb that falls on NYC. Something like that was probably playing on the old RCA Victor in the corner of the living room one night when I couldn’t sleep, crept down, caught a few horrific images, sounds.

And some people back in the day, like my uncle in New Brunswick, had fallout shelters. I knew that “fallout” had something to do with the “A-bomb”, but I never saw that space being used for anything but parties: the adults played Country and Western LPs, danced the 1, 1-2 step with each other and drank bitter drinks. Mom gave me a sip of her Schooner beer one night. Disgusting! And the more they drank? The louder the talk and laughter.

Born in the late 50s, I’ve enjoyed all the benefits of being a Boomer: a stable middle class environment, access to education and health care. While nuclear often loomed large in the imagination, as you know it never became a reality; I’ve enjoyed a lifetime of peace.

My father, a sensitive soul like me, was not so lucky. Conscripted to serve in WWII, he, his brother (fallout shelter owner) and a cousin made a pact not to fight, were labelled “zombies”, and therefore did a lot of KP duty. Still, Dad was on the 3rd Canadian Division tasked with liberating Amersfoort, a concentration camp in the Netherlands, so he no doubt saw unpleasant things. Things he never talked about, as was expected of a man at that time.

And now, our social media feeds and televisions have erupted with unpleasant things. Ukraine: bombed, blasted and bloodied. Geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer says we’ve abruptly moved into a post-post-Cold War period. More significantly, he calls it the end of the “peace dividend”, defined as “a sum of public money which becomes available for other purposes when spending on defense is reduced”. At a time when global cooperation and funding is needed, more than ever, to tackle critical climate change issues? Global stability has been disrupted and spending on military will be increased.

Do you feel sad? Sick? Horrified? Helpless? Besides being shocked and worried, we can resort to donations, of money and needed items, but it sure doesn’t feel like enough.

I watched name-sounds-like Hero-ensky via video link addressing US Congress, and while I’m continuously struck by his courage and resolve, I’m also impressed by how he tailors each request to the country he’s speaking to. Recall Pearl Harbor, recall 9/11; attacks from the sky, as he begs for a no-fly zone. “I have a dream”, became “I have a need”. He followed up his requests with a heart-wrenching video contrasting scenes of Ukrainian’s major cities prior to February 24th, to the current ones of the Russian invasion. It’s graphic. If you have a heart, you cannot watch this video without sobbing.

A 7-year-old Ukrainian boy pointed out this pointlessness to his mom as they took a brief hiatus from sheltering in their basement to wander around town. The boy rambled in an impassioned way about the damage, the fact that he (Pewtin) might get their land, but it would be totally destroyed. Why would he want a ruined country?!

If a 7-year-old, under duck and cover in his basement, gets this, why can’t a 69-year-old, no doubt under duck and cover in his bunker right now, get this?

Website photo: Bert the Turtle practising Duck and Cover.

 

 

Duck and Cover 2022-03-16T11:05:53-04:00

We Had Us a Convoy

“‘Cause we got a little ol’ convoy
Rockin’ through the night
Yeah, we got a little ol’ convoy
Ain’t she a beautiful sight?”
“Convoy” by C. W. McCall

Not “little ol’”, big ol’! A “beautiful sight”? A matter of personal preference. And it certainly was “rockin’ through” a lotta nights in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.

How did you feel about it? It seems many a Canadian maple leaf-shaped heart swelled with national pride. Maybe you agree with my MP from Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, Lianne Rood, CPC, who said, while debating the Emergencies Act in the House, “It was like a Canada Day times a thousand.”

Oh man. Guys. Sorry. I’ve been struggling to see this from both sides now, but despite pandemic fatigue? My values tell me that regaining certain personal rights by removing those of others – the residents of Ottawa, a city used to protests, so complaints valid – is absolutely NOT the way to get your point across.

People counter, well, guy whose name rhymes with Boudreau should have met with them, listened to their concerns. I counter: Who would he have met with? The alleged organizers of this movement rolled loudly into town with a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to bring down the federal government. They walked this back, acknowledged that this document created some misunderstanding. Although some of these organizers mistakenly (and humourously) cited the US Constitution, pleading 1st Amendment rights, freedom of speech, while in court discussing bail, according to an article in The Conversation, “They ‘clarified’ that the spirit of the document was to bring ‘the government of Canada and all Canadian citizens into agreement; that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be upheld for all.’”

Freedom is not absolute though, right? With freedom comes responsibility? So much talk of freedom, it was called the “Freedom Convoy” after all, and protesters often yelled, “Freedom!” (And every time? I couldn’t help it, I heard and pictured QAnon Shaman from Jan 6.)

The legal test for Sec. 1 in our Charter was set by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v Oakes, “In each case courts will be required to balance the interests of society with those of individuals and groups.”

Which brings us back around to the purpose of the protests (besides opposition to the sorta rhymes with Rondeau Liberal government), opposition to Covid-19 mandates. We are getting close to what we’d call freedom there, yes? Too soon for some, way too slow for others?

After a (heated at times) discussion with a cousin on the enactment of the Emergencies Act, I’m thinking perhaps the experience of our personal realities has a lot to do with trust. Don’t have it? For government, mainstream “lamestream fake news” (so-labeled by the former President, name rhymes with Chump) media, public health officials and so on, then just do your own research. Everyone has access to the internet. My cousin cited recent studies by WHO that showed inefficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and I would quote them here, but try as I might, I can’t find them.

When I got my booster, I shyly admitted to the woman administering it that I didn’t quite understand about the immune system response and the possibility of too many antibodies with the spike protein. She patted my arm, said, “You don’t need to know that dear,” plunged the needle and that was that. (Blind) trust (upraised-arms emoji)?

Hesitancy about this particular vaccine is warranted. I do know people who’ve experienced adverse reactions: Bell’s Palsy, myocarditis, severe menstrual cycle issues (recognized now, but previously unknown due to the swiftness with which the vaccine was rolled out.)

Many people bring up that rush, the lack of long-term data on Covid-19 vaccines. Did you know the polio shot was rushed too? American parents offered up more than 1.8 million children (doubtful this would happen today) to test the polio vaccine in 1954. It was just one year later that, with great relief, my aunt Mildred and parents went together, rolled up their sleeves for it.

The emergence of Omicron has made this one start to feel more like a flu shot though, hasn’t it? So comparing it to polio? Apples to oranges?

The night police retook Ottawa I should have felt great, but I tossed and turned, weirdly wishing I still had my mommy to talk to. Images from Ottawa’s streets haunted me, mostly the flags, some hate-filled, but the precious maple leaf: upside down (distress), written on, plunked into swear words. My polite little Canadian identity? Shredded.

It turns out trucks are a super-effective way to protest. Crowds in Ottawa were estimated at only 5,000-18,000, whereas huge climate marches, minus big rigs, in September 2019 were 500,000 in Montreal and 120,000 in Vancouver. And Canada is now the origin of a worldwide movement! So many people, onboard with these convoys. Is there something wrong with me?

Due to varying opinions swirling around, I’d pretty much exiled myself lest I upset someone with my negativity toward protesters. This quote, by that former President again, name rhymes with Bump, came to mind: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

I wrote my MP, in an effort to procure a common reality. I suggested that, due to the triggering nature of pandemic mandates, let’s pick a different topic. Recall that in the spring of 2019, a zoo moved into Grand Bend, onto a property that was previously a zoo, but had been rezoned residential. Council quickly passed an exotic animal by-law, but it took almost a year to have a superior court rule that the animals must be removed.

I used to hold a Canada Day Jazzercise fitness and charity event at the Observation Deck on the main beach in Grand Bend. I spun a tale about “what if”? What if I got my permit, but I’d had it with these lions and tigers, feared they’d escape, could no longer enjoy my property, could not listen to them roaring one more night. I wanted my freedom back, dammit!

So, I mobilized on social media, gathered up a bunch of people with big trucks, got a GoFundMe started (there are lots of people afraid of lions and tigers!) and we roared (pun intended) down main street in Grand Bend on Canada Day morning, parking rigs along both sides of the street, around the circle in front of the Observation Deck and down the road to the pier. Sorry to disrupt the live music and fireworks, but our DJ rocks. Oh, and since we planned to stay a while, we set up a staging area on that vacant lot up on Ontario Street, with food, fuel, diapers, etc. If only the mayor would hurry up and get those lions and tigers out of town . . .

Perhaps this recent quote from BC Premier John Horgan applies: “We can agree to disagree, but we should not be disagreeable.”

Full Disclosure: My new habit of “name rhymes with” comes from Amy Schumer. She used it, to good effect, in The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, and it cracks me up every time (sideways- laughing-with-tears emoji).

We Had Us a Convoy 2022-02-23T10:17:17-05:00