The other day I plucked a novel off my bookshelf and curled up on the couch to while away a rainy afternoon reading a story by one of my favourite authors. I noticed (in the ‘Acknowledgements’) that the author had extended her thanks to an individual who had taken her to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and Maple Leaf Gardens (former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team) in Toronto, and for ‘showing [her] more of the warmth and beauty of Canada than [she] already knew’. Apparently she had chosen to create a hero who was a French-Canadian NHL player. As a Canadian who thinks Canada and Canadians get short-shrift in popular fiction, I was pleased that ‘one of our own’ was going to be featured in a novel by a New York Times Bestselling author. That is, until I began to read the book.
Like so many Americans, this author did not seem to understand – or incorporate into her writing – the fact that Canada is a huge country (second only in size only to Russia, and larger by a small percentage than the United States) with ten distinct provinces and three territories (similar in concept to the 50 ‘states’ that make up the United States of America). Throughout the book she referred to a small lake ‘in Canada’ (as the central point of reference for the area where the hero was from); what she neglected to include was the fact that the lake is located in the Gatineau region of the province of Quebec. Considering there are more than three million lakes ‘in Canada’, skimping on the specific location would have made it extremely difficult for most readers to properly orient themselves in the story. Why leave this important geographical detail out?
She also mentioned several Canadian cities throughout the telling of the story, and in every single case she neglected to mention the province they are in (e.g., ‘Calgary, Canada’). I’ve noticed this same sort of circumvention in American television shows and news stories – whenever something takes place in Canada, they simply refer to the city and the country and leave out the province or territory (for example, ‘Toronto, Canada’, ‘Whitehorse, Canada’). I find this very odd. You don’t hear or read about cities in the United States being referred to that way (e.g., ‘Los Angeles, USA’, ‘Houston, USA’; it’s always ‘Los Angeles, California’, ‘Boston, Massachusetts’ – and regardless of the country of origin of the story ‘USA’ is usually left out as if it’s assumed that everyone knows what country these places are in).
Another thing that really irked me was the way the author wrote a significant number of the hero’s lines of dialogue – she insisted on putting ‘eh?’ at the end of many of his sentences. Every time I saw it, I wanted to scratch it out with a pen! While some French Canadians do use this figure of speech, it is not all that common. In fact it is one of those ridiculous stereotypes (instilled in the public consciousness by comedians who think it’s funny to satirize a particular nationality or ethnic group by over-emphasizing some peculiar ‘quirk’) that drives most Canadians crazy! I actually had an aspiring writer – a member of a critique group I moderate who lives in Florida – email me not long ago to ask for clarification on ‘the correct way to use the vernacular eh?. ’ She had included an example sentence [with ‘eh?’ at the end] and wanted to know if it was ‘an appropriate use of Canadian talk’. I was blunt and unyielding in my reply – I told her: DON’T DO IT!).
I will not deny that there are some Canadians who end sentences with a casual ‘eh?’ (or use it in conversation as a short form for ‘What do you think?’) but there are probably as many Canadians (and Americans and Australians and Europeans) who insert ‘You know?’, ‘Huh?’, ‘Okay?’ or ‘You reckon?’ at the end of sentences (and/or scatter ‘Um’, ‘Uh’, and ‘Like’ throughout their conversations). You certainly don’t want to read a story with those sorts of euphemisms peppered throughout dialogue!
To be honest, I have lived in Canada for 60 years and met thousands upon thousands of people and I don’t recall a single one ever using ‘eh?’ at the end of a sentence! Bob and Doug Mackenzie (the fictional Canadian brothers from ‘The Great White North’, developed for the comedy show SCTV) aside, we don’t speak that way! (And while we’re on the subject of language, although French is our second ‘official’ language, only about 20% of Canadians are actually French-first speaking; 60% are English-first and the remainder primarily speak any one of almost fifty languages including Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Punjabi, Cantonese, Arabic, Tagalong, Mandarin, Portuguese and more than two dozen Aboriginal dialects. If you put 100 Canadians and 100 Americans in a room together, you would be hard pressed to figure out who was who).
Another perverted view many Americans have of Canada is that the entire country is covered in ice and snow year round. Customs agents often tell stories of visitors from the US arriving at crossings in the middle of July dressed in parkas, with skis on their roof racks, as if they expect to encounter a sudden glacial wall of ice and snow at the border! It’s shocking that so many people living right next door to us know little or nothing about our climate. While it’s true that 27% of Canada falls with the Sub Arctic/Arctic climate zone, the other 73% is a mix of Boreal, Temperate, Grassland, and even Semi-Desert (only 2% … but, still, we have a desert in southern British Columbia). The largest state in the USA is Alaska – which means almost 18% of the country is SubArctic/Arctic – yet you don’t hear Canadians (or Europeans, Australians, etc.) suggesting that the USA is covered with ice and snow! Personally, I cannot fathom this kind of ignorance!
Temperatures in some areas of Canada (like Southern Ontario, where I live) can soar into the mid 80s and 90s (Fahrenheit) for up to three months during the summer, and we’ve had some winters with almost no snow at all. (NOTE: Canada converted to the metric system a couple of decades ago, so perhaps some of our more ‘clueless’ neighbours don’t yet understand that ‘temperatures in the 30s’ [in Celsius] is the same as ‘temperatures in the 90s’ [in Fahrenheit]). It’s not unusual for parts of the eastern seaboard of the US (and as far west as Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) to actually have worse winter weather than we experience in many parts of Canada, especially southern Ontario and Quebec and western British Columbia. (NOTE: while the 49th parallel is considered the ‘dividing line’ between Canada and the US, a significant portion of both Ontario and Quebec and the Atlantic provinces [New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland] are geographically south of that latitude – in fact, they’re actually parallel to or more southerly than the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa; the southern-most point in Ontario is actually in line with northern California, Nevada and Utah).
There are lots of other misrepresentations or misunderstandings about Canada. I don’t have the space to list them all here but suffice it to say we are very similar to – and on equal footing with – our American neighbours when it comes to language, culture, entertainment, technology, medicine, education, fashion, music … and just about anything else you can think of. While we have only about 10% of the total population of the US (35 million compared to 315 million), our top ten cities are as modern and populated as the top 35 cities in the US (while we don’t have any cities the size of New York or Los Angeles, Toronto is equivalent in population to Chicago, Montreal to Philadelphia, Calgary to Dallas, Ottawa to Austin, Edmonton to San Francisco, Winnipeg to Boston, and Vancouver to Portland).
Some of the world’s most popular and/or (in)famous actors have come from Canada – including Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey, Donald and Keifer Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, Dan Ackroyd, Ryan Reynolds, William Shatner, and Eric MacCormack. We’ve also produced a huge range of musical talents – Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain, Nelly Furtado, Sum41, Barenaked Ladies, Rush, Neil Young, Nickleback. And let’s not forget that Canadians invented quite a few miraculous products that have changed the world, such as AM Radio, IMAX, the telephone, the zipper, Pablum, basketball, SONAR, the Blackberry, the electron microscope, and the Canadarm.
All in all, we’re a pretty damn great nation and we deserve a great deal more respect and acknowledgement than we often get in the foreign media and from people who are too lazy or too arrogant to take the time to find out more about us. I for one am proud to be a Canadian on … the other side of 55.
Part 1 of a multi-part series
I suspect (from the size of the ‘self help’ section in my local bookstore) that one of the questions most often asked by people seeking enlightenment or (at the very least) some sense of personal identity and direction is ‘Who am I?’
It’s easy enough to say for example (NOTE: this is entirely fabricated): “I’m a middle-aged wo/man, third of four children born to second generation German-Canadian parents. I’m married to a high school teacher and we have with three kids between the ages of 10 and 16. I work full time as a bank manager, and I volunteer at the local food bank two weekends a month. I enjoy jazz music, red wine, and going on long walks in the woods.” Done – right? Well – no, not really. This is the kind of superficial overview you might use to introduce yourself to a new acquaintance, but it really isn’t who you are.
Who you are goes much, much deeper and is far more complex. It’s the result not only of your familial circumstances, education and career choices, culture and upbringing, values and belief systems, but of your heritage. You can’t truly understand who you are unless you know who your parents were, and who their parents were, and who their parents were (and so on). Delving into your family background and creating your own personal history ‘road map’ can be quite enlightening (and sometimes a little disconcerting, depending on your genealogy and how deep you’re willing to ‘dig’ to find information and answers to perplexing questions).
Some families are very open and proud of their varied family histories – they have albums full of photos and dozens of shared stories about Aunt Amelia’s bestselling book on how to grow rutabagas, Great Grandpa Horatio’s daring-do during World War II, and Uncle Eugene’s unfortunate incarceration for drug possession. Other families share only the ‘best of’ memories through ‘happy time’ tales and photographs. And some treat family history with a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude (those are the hardest to explore because so much has gotten lost over time or has been deliberately concealed – often for reasons no one can even remember any more).
Whatever your family’s approach, you can learn a lot about who you are (and where / who you come from) by doing a little personal research (and a lot of introspective reflection on what you learn). And while a membership for Ancestry.com (or .ca) can give you fascinating insights into your family tree (and suck a lot of time – but time well spent, in my opinion), I’m going to suggest you start a little closer to home – by asking (if you can) who your parents are (or were).
Most of us ‘think’ we know who our parents are/were. But, actually, what we (most of us, anyway) know is simply who they are/were AS PARENTS. By the time we first ‘meet’ our parents, they’ve already lived as much as one-third of their lives. They’ve been babies, children, teenagers, young adults. They’ve been happy, sad, proud, dejected, courageous, cowardly, jubilant, disappointed, loved, rejected, joyful, discouraged. They’ve tried and failed, loved and lost, fallen down and gotten back up again. They might have grown up rich and spoiled, or impoverished and lacking the basic necessities of life, or somewhere in between. They attended grade school and high school, perhaps college or university. In all likelihood, they excelled in some courses, did poorly in others, dropped one or two they couldn’t manage. Over the years they had dozens of friends; some stayed close, others drifted away, one or more likely became lovers.
They had part time jobs, full time jobs, hobbies, interests. They studied at the library, went to parties and dances, probably drank too much on occasion and (dependent on the era) experimented with an illicit substance or two. Based on their mood and the circumstances they found themselves in, they would have been polite, belligerent, well-mannered, rude, respectful, argumentative, quiet, loud-mouthed. It’s likely they didn’t always agree with their parents, their teachers, or others ‘in charge’. At one time or another they probably rebelled, resisted, fought back, went their own way. Eventually they met, got married, had you (and it would have been several years before you were even aware that they had a ‘life’ or ‘purpose’ other than taking care of your every whim).
How much of that early time in their lives do you know about? How much can you find out? If your parents are still alive, I strongly encourage you to seek out this information. You might be surprised to find out that the ‘younger version’ of one or more of your parents share a surprising number of traits and long-held imaginings with you. You’re probably more alike than you think! So much of who you are is tied up in who they (really) are. How can you possibly know yourself if you don’t know your parents?
It wasn’t until my parents died and I started going through the albums Mom had put together on their individual ‘histories’ that I realized how very little I knew about who they were before they were ‘my parents’. I had a number of oft-told stories and some old black and white photographs (and, miraculously, some ‘love letters’ Dad wrote to Mom before they were married), but few true insights into their individual young lives, their hopes and dreams, and what ultimately drew them together (and kept them together for 67 years). I know more now about my genealogy (on both sides of the family, thanks to Ancestry.ca and innumerable hours of bleary-eyed research), but there will always be a couple of huge gaps in my personal history because the details died with my parents. I wish now that I’d asked more questions when they were alive, dug deeper into their personal histories (with their help, of course), and solved those ‘mysteries’ that no one ever talked about (and, perhaps, found out why).
How much do you know about our parents before the ‘defining moment’ in their lives when you were born? How much of who you are is tied up with who they were before (and even after) they were your parents? Don’t you think it’s time you found out? I do. Don’t wait until you’re on … the other side of 55.
Well, the sun has FINALLY shown its vibrant face here in southern Ontario, and while the temperatures continue to hover at the near-freezing mark, I’ve been bitten by the spring cleaning bug. I couldn’t wait to get underway, but I thought it would be prudent to start slowly – you know: ease in, clean a room at a time, see how it goes. I decided the best approach would be would take everything out of one room, vacuum, dust, damp mop, polish, etc. and then put it all back. If I was still feeling good, I’d go on to the next room, then the next, etc.
And believe it or not, I finished the ENTIRE HOUSE in no time at all! So I went ahead and did the other two houses as well. The end result had me beaming. I got so much accomplished it was absolutely amazing – especially for someone on … the other side of 55.
Last month, a good friend of mine had the rug pulled right out from under her carefully planned ‘sunshine destination’ vacation by Canada’s national airline, Air Canada. What is truly shocking about her story is that its probably not unique. If you do ANY travelling by air (with this particular airline, or others) you might want to double check with your travel agent (or the airline directly) regarding their policies on advance seat selection, flight ‘guarantees’, over-booking, ‘standby’ status, and compensation for ruined holidays. Here, in her own words, is what happened to my friend:
On Family Day weekend (February 2014), my husband and I and two friends had our entire week-long vacation ruined because Air Canada had overbooked our flight to Aruba, and we were turned away at the boarding gate.
We had done everything we were supposed to do: we bought our tickets from a travel agent in September, printed our boarding passes the day before leaving, arrived at the airport three hours in advance. But when we tried to select our seats, we were told we’d been put on standby and had to speak to an agent at the gate. This was just the beginning of our nightmare . . .
There were a total of eight passengers waiting at the gate to speak to an agent. We learned that the man behind us in line had booked his three tickets ‘last minute’ in January, and had printed his boarding passes later in the day than we had. However, when the agent arrived, she gave “Mr. January” his seats and left us waiting. When I put up a fuss and asked why, the agent said her records showed that we had checked in last. This was absolutely not true.
To make matters worse, while we were anxiously waiting to see if we were going to be able to board the plane, the agent repeated her final boarding call several times in an attempt to locate eight or ten people who hadn’t yet checked in – yet she still would not allow us to board the plane. Fifteen minutes later, those passengers sauntered over to the gate and were allowed to board, and we were told the plane was full.
Air Canada did offer to find us another flight. However, the next day’s flight to Aruba was already overbooked by seven, and we were told it was highly unlikely that we would get seats on it (despite having already been bumped once). We were offered a different flight – leaving the next day – to Bogota, Colombia, with a nine-hour layover; however, we were advised that there was no seat guarantee on the connecting flight to Aruba. We could be stranded in Bogota – clearly this was not an option.
We spent the entire day at the airport, ever hopeful that somehow we could manage to get to Aruba (where we had a timeshare booked and waiting). Unfortunately, it never happened. To add insult to injury, our luggage had made it onto the plane and was en route to Aruba, which meant we couldn’t go anywhere else. Our vacation was over before it had even begun.
Air Canada refunded the price of our tickets and compensated us for being ‘bumped’ (as required under Canadian Transportation Agency law – not out of the ‘goodness of their hearts’); however, they claim they are not liable for any additional repayment costs with respect to our spoiled vacation (including lost time, pre-paid accommodations, etc.). They, still, however, continue to severely overbook flights, including those to ‘sun destinations’ where it is highly unlikely travellers will simply not turn up. How can this be seen as an acceptable practice?
According to one Customer Service representative I spoke to at Air Canada, we could have avoided this ‘problem’ if we had booked our seats (at an additional cost) when we originally purchased our tickets. Apparently, paying for a flight doesn’t necessarily get you a seat on the plane! Who knew?
Addendum: In one of those weird coincidences that happen when you least expect them, CBC’s Marketplace (a consumer-advocacy show) aired a show about these kinds of problems with the airlines on Friday (March 21); you can watch it at: http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/episodes/2013-2014/plane-wrong
One of the really great things about being ‘retired’ is that you no longer have to think about what you want to ‘be’ when you ‘grow up’ (not that I have any intention of ‘growing up’, mind you – I’m just saying …). I have had four distinct ‘career paths’ in my lifetime (not counting babysitting and the two part-time convenience store jobs I had in high school).
In each case, I sort of ‘fell into’ the various professions (aside from the first one, that is – it was ‘chosen’ for me when my dream of a career in Journalism fell through). I never planned for (or actually ‘chose’) the careers I’ve had – it was just a case of ‘right place, right time’ (combined with considerable hard work and a ‘never-say-never’ attitude when opportunities presented themselves) that saw me go from being a secretary / admin assistant to a curriculum designer to a (part time and later full-time) college professor / corporate trainer to a web design goddess (a title bestowed on me by one of my students that I just love) and back again to college professor (over a 40 year period).
And while each and every job I undertook was rewarding in its own way, and I was damn good at all of them, there were periods in my life when I would daydream about all the other jobs I might have pursued. Some of them were, of course, not even remotely plausible; some were probable but not possible (generally due to lack of education, talent or locale); a few might have been do-able if I’d had the nerve to leave the comfort of know-how, experience and an assured paycheque to pursue them. Still, looking back, I have no real regrets that I never became a(n):
- Cowgirl. This was the first ‘job’ I remember wanting to pursue. In the late 1960s I was a big fan of TV westerns, particularly ‘The Big Valley’. I wanted to ‘be’ Audra Barkley (played by Linda Evans) and ‘grow up’ to be as strong and resourceful as Victoria Barkley (played by Barbara Stanwyk). Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to ride a horse and ‘cowgirl’ wasn’t exactly a career path as defined by the public school system, so I let the idea go. (NOTE: I still have ‘learn to ride’ on my list of ‘Things to do before I die’.)
- Librarian. This was a strong contender in my early high school days. I loved books (and still do) and I’m a sorter-organizer by nature. During Grade 9 and 10, I belonged to the Library Club and I’ve always loved spending time in the Library (still do). Somehow, though, the idea of working in one gradually faded away. (Coincidentally, however, I taught several tech-related courses to students in the Library Techniques program at our local Community College during the 1990s).
- Drummer in a Rock and Roll Band. I’m a closet ‘air drummer’. There are sequences in certain songs that just make me want to pick up a pair of drumsticks and go to town! However, there was no money for drums or lessons when I was growing up and eventually I gave up on the notion. (I do, however, keep threatening to buy myself a set of drums; my husband [bless his heart] has promised to thoroughly insulate [i.e., soundproof] a room for me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll put together a kick-a** rock and roll band of women over 60 someday!)
- Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band). I am NOT a good singer. Never was. Can’t carry a tune at all. When I was in my early teens, I joined the Youth Choir at our church because they’d let just about anyone sing in the choir. I was also quite fond of belting out tunes (alone, in my basement bedroom) along with Diana Ross and the Supremes, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, (Sonny and) Cher, Tina Turner, and Jefferson Airplane (I desperately wanted to be Grace Slick!) Eventually, I accepted my lack of talent and stuck to singing in the car (which I still do) and to my boys at bedtime when they were little (I still maintain they fell asleep just to get me to stop!)
- Go Go Dancer. I had the boots! I had the mini skirts! I had the fish net stockings! I had the moves! Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I never had the opportunity. I did bust a few moves at local dances at The Pineroom, the Masonic Hall, and the YMCA during the 1960s and early 1970s, but I never got to dance professionally (and now I dance as ‘exercise’ – how sad is that?!?!?!?)
- Fashion Designer. My mother taught me to sew when I was about twelve years old; from that point on, I made most of my own clothes. I admit to using store-bought patterns, but I would add the odd flourish of lace or flare of a cuff here or there to customize the outfits. When I finally got to take ‘Home Ec’ in Grade 11, the teacher told me there was nothing she could teach me that I didn’t already know (she did ask me to ‘model’ the clothes I’d made on several occasions, to show the other students what was possible). I briefly considered fashion design as a career (our local community college was one of the few places in Canada that offered a diploma program) but the cost of tuition plus supplies was out of reach, so I shifted my focus once more (to Journalism, a career that didn’t pan out because I couldn’t afford the tuition and my parents and high school guidance counsellor thought it was a bad idea, anyway).
- Stewardess. This was considered a ‘first-class’ (pun intended) career in the 1960s and 1970s and one that quite a few girls my age at the time (16 – 18) considered pursuing. You didn’t need a college education – all you needed was to be ‘bright, resourceful, alert, cool, collected, sociable, reliable, bubbly, confident, and pretty’. Unfortunately, (according to the airlines of the time) ‘pretty’ meant you didn’t wear glasses (which I had done since I was ten). Since contact lenses weren’t a viable option back then (cost and discomfort being the key issues), I had to let this one go, too (although I still think I would have looked really great in the uniform).
- Bookkeeper: I’ve always been good with numbers and my fingers really fly when I’m sitting at an adding machine. During my year at secretarial school I was ‘placed’ (during a short, unpaid ‘internship’) with a small local accounting firm to perform basic bookkeeping tasks. I found the work moderately challenging, got an exceptionally positive review from my employer, and received a post-graduation job offer. But while I liked the environment and the people I worked with, I just couldn’t see myself ‘crunching numbers’ for a living. (I eventually accepted a job as a junior legal secretary with a small downtown law firm, thus launching career #1, which led to all the others).
- Cruise Ship Director. This was sort of an offshoot of ‘Stewardess’ above, prompted by the fictional life and work environment of ‘Julie’, the Cruise Director on (the TV series) ‘The Love Boat’. At the time (late 1970s), I was working as an administrative assistant in the Instructional Development department of our local community college, earning a generous salary and enjoying considerable autonomy. I also had a house, a husband, a cat, and a close knit group of friends I didn’t fancy leaving behind for ‘life on the high seas’, so I didn’t pursue it. (I also had no experience with cruise ships, and didn’t know that I’m actually somewhat prone to sea sickness, which might have been something of a hindrance to a career on a cruise ship.)
- Interior Designer/Decorator. One of the many instructional texts I helped design and develop during my second career (instructional designer) was a book on ‘Interior Design’. I worked closely with the college’s lead professor (a professional Interior Designer and a woman as detail-oriented and finicky as they come). I found the subject matter quite intriguing, but the idea of working with people like the text’s author discouraged me from pursuing it as a career (nothing was ever ‘quite right’ with the work we produced [no matter how many times we revised it to HER specifications]; at one point the graphic designer and I toyed with the idea of taking a hit out on her).
- Zookeeper. I love animals. Domestic, exotic, wild, tame, cute, fearsome – doesn’t matter. When I saw the help wanted ad for ‘animal care associates’ for the new Toronto Zoo (which opened in 1974), I actually prepared a resume and seriously considered submitting it. I didn’t care if I had to shovel elephant poop or spread nesting material for the monkeys, I just wanted to work at the zoo! The problem was primarily location – the zoo was being built east of Toronto and I lived 30 miles west of the city. Travel time would have been over an hour each way (or more, as time went by and traffic levels increased). Moving to a suburb closer to the zoo was an option, but I loved my house and I’d planned on staying in my ‘hometown’ for the rest of my life, so I backed down.
- Museum Tour Guide. This was a very brief flirtation. A colleague at the College where I was working saw an ad for a tour guide at Casa Loma in Toronto and told me about it. While I loved the idea of the job, I loathed the location (downtown Toronto is a nightmare to reach during rush hour; living in ‘the city’ wasn’t a viable option, financially or emotionally), so I took a pass.
There is, of course, one ‘career’ I haven’t included on this list: novelist (something I’ve wanted to ‘be’ since I was 16 or 17). That’s because I’m still actively pursuing it even though I’m on … the other side of 55.
On February 2nd each year, groundhogs across North America (the two most famous being Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario, Canada, and Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA) emerge from their dens to see if they can see their shadows and thus predict (probably as accurately as most human meteorologists can) how much longer winter will last.
According to the legend (which was adapted from ancient European weather lore about animals and their shadows predicting the arrival of spring by Pennsylvania Germans in the late 18th century), if the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, spring will arrive early (although he never provides us with an exact date); if he does see his shadow, winter will last another six weeks (a prognostication that, conveniently, brings us very close to March 20, the ‘official’ first day of spring). Earlier today, both Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil saw their shadows (while several other groundhogs across Canada and the U.S. did not). Considering the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing this winter, I’m not surprised at the news (is winter EVER going to end?!?!?!?)
When my oldest son was very young, he used to actively watch for groundhogs in the grass next to the railway tracks across from the mall. Whenever we’d drive that way, there was almost always at least one fat, furry rodent foraging along the berm near the fence. Whether it was the same groundhog each time, or just one of many that apparently lived there, I have no idea, but we gave ‘him’ a name (Smiley Buck) and began making up stories about him. For instance, if we didn’t see him – and it was particularly cold – we’d devise scenarios where he’d taken a mid-winter vacation to the south, or perhaps gone skiing in the north. We imagined what his den might look like, and who his friends were, and whether or not he had parties or celebrated Christmas with his family. There was no end to the stories we created about our beloved Smiley Buck.
One fine spring day, we spotted two groundhogs foraging together and realized (happily) that Smiley Buck had a girlfriend (we named her Lashes). For several years, groundhog spotting was a favourite activity of trips to that part of town (unfortunately, in the late 80s, the city initiated a ‘groundhog removal’ program in that area – apparently there were so many tunnels along that stretch that they were threatening to undermine the nearby rail lines; sadly, I haven’t seen a groundhog along there in many, many years, although I do spot the occasional one in other grassy areas around town).
In Grade 5, my son had to create a computer-generated ‘storybook’ (using a program called Storybook Creator) for one of his classes; he chose to write a story about Smiley Buck and Lashes. Using the tools provided by the program, he designed their ‘den’ as a cozy space furnished with tables and chairs and a nice fireplace; there was a ladder leading up to an ‘exit’ hole at the top. If I recall correctly (and we’re talking almost 25 years ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy) there were ten or twelve different ‘scenes’ in the story (I do recall one showed their skis neatly stacked against a wall, another featured a ‘backyard’ swimming pool next to a chaise and sun umbrella, and one was of a birthday party for Lashes, complete with cake and candles – I think she was three). Unfortunately, I remember nothing about the actual text of the story – but knowing my son, it would have been both carefully plotted and (darkly) humorous. I do know he got an A+ on it (for visual creativity and storytelling). I wish I’d printed it (it was stored on one of our earliest computers, and disappeared with it). NOTE: groundhog clipart above from webclipart.about.com
Every year on Groundhog Day (and, I must admit, occasionally when I drive along the road near the mall) I think about Smiley Buck and Lashes, and wonder what happened to them (groundhogs only live five to six years in the wild, but I like to think they had lots of offspring, who had lots of offspring, and that their family lives on somewhere in town), and I recall all the wonderful stories my son and I created and shared during those very special years – and I wish I could relive it all again. Time has rushed past far too quickly on the way to … the other side of 55.
My husband tiptoed into our bedroom at 5:30 this morning and gently wakened me. “I need a favour,” he said. “Can you send an announcement to my students saying class is cancelled? There’s a foot of snow outside, the wind’s blowing at eighty kilometers an hour, and visibility is near zero on the roads. There’s no way I can get to work.”
NOTE: my husband teaches advanced computer programming at a local community college; on Mondays he has a class at 8:00 a.m. at a campus approximately 40 km [25 miles] away (since he likes to get there early, he usually leaves about 5:45 a.m.) And while he is absolutely brilliant at understanding and communicating the most complex concepts related to computers, he has an aversion to mastering new software – particularly the learning management system recently adopted by the college for the purpose of ‘sharing course-related information with students’. Since I’ve always been adept at figuring out the ‘user end’ of applications, I learned it pretty quickly and have taken on the task of posting class notices, announcing quiz and test dates, and uploading class plans and other ‘handouts’ for him (considering how much he does for me, I figure it’s the least I can do. It is also much easier on my nerves than listening to him grumble and complain about it, or having to explain to him – for the umpteenth time – how to do something; it’s easier to simply do it myself [and doesn't he know it!])
Anyway, back to my story. It was a dark and stormy morning. I slipped on my housecoat and headed out to the computer. While I posted the requisite announcement and sent the confirmation emails to students and administrative staff, my husband made me a cup of tea and took it back down to the bedroom. When I was done, we sat in bed together (he with his second cup of coffee and me with my tea) and chatted about the weather and the cold, snowy, generally-all-around-crappy winter we’ve been having. And it felt very much like ‘old times’. You see, when I was also teaching, getting up at 5:30 was pretty normal. Usually one or the other (or sometimes both) of us would have an 8:00 a.m. class pretty much every day of the week. We’d rise well before dawn, have our tea/coffee in bed, get dressed, and head out to face the day (for two years we worked at the same college, so we’d often drive in together; when I switched Colleges, he’d head east and I’d go west). Going to work in the dark (and often returning in the dark) was just part of the routine.
Now, however, I am officially ‘retired’, and I don’t have to get up in the dark anymore. For the first two years (I haven’t worked since the summer of 2010), I have to admit that I found it hard to ‘sleep in’. My husband was very stealthy when he’d get up at some unholy hour (what I now consider ‘the middle of the night’), but I was still aware of his movements, and almost always heard the ‘click’ of the front door closing as he headed off to work. Generally, I’d force myself to stay in bed for another hour or so – sometimes just lying there staring into the darkness, sometimes watching the news on TV, occasionally getting up to make a cup of tea and then returning to bed with the newspaper. Gradually, however, I learned to stop listening to my husband’s movements and let myself sleep for as long as I want. I generally still know when he’s left the bed, the bedroom, and the house, but it no longer ‘registers’ as something I need to focus on. And so, finally, after fifty-odd years of getting up early five (or more) days of the week for school or work or the demands of little children, I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s okay to stay in bed, let my system determine when I’ve had ‘enough’ sleep, and ‘rest my weary bones’ until sometime after the sun comes up.
I do admit to experiencing the teeniest, tiniest bit of guilt when I hear my husband rustling around and leaving the house in the dark on a cold, snowy, blowy morning. But I don’t want to get up and go with him. I’d rather snuggle back down under the covers and remind myself that his time is coming (he’ll be retiring in just over three years) and that I’ve earned this little slice of luxury now that I’m on … the other side of 55.