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Ode to a Treadmill

February 2, 2020

CrocodileI once made friends with a crocodile
I’ve patted a porcupine
But the stationary treadmill
Is not a pal of mine

It stands there very quietly
It doesn’t make a sound
It’s well aware I’m creeping past
It knows when I’m around

It’s not that I’m afraid of it
Quite the opposite in fact
I find it very boring
So bland I can’t react

TreadmillI stand upon its thin black mat
And push the knob to ‘Go’
I daren’t try for ‘rabbit’
So pick ‘turtle’ to start slow

I walk and walk but never leave
The room below the stairs
For treadmills never take you far
Unless they catch you unawares

They can trip you up quite quickly
You stumble and you fall
But the treadmill keeps on turning
As you bounce against the wall

Yet I return to try again
Every single night
For no machine will daunt me
In this never-ending fight

PorcupineFor I once patted a porcupine
I’ve made friends with crocodiles
So on this stupid treadmill
I vow to walk a thousand miles

 

© Margo Karolyi, 2020

 

Waste Not, Want Not

January 12, 2020

Yesterday, I threw away a t-shirt, a bra, three pairs of socks, and one of my husband’s sweatshirts. The t-shirt was at least ten years old, faded and ‘warped’ at the neckline. The elastic on the bra was stretched past its usefulness. The socks all had holes in the heels. My husband’s sweatshirt had dozens of ‘pinholes’ in it (he refuses to wear a welding apron when he’s out in the shop) as well as a sagging iron-on patch on the front where I’d attempted to cover a larger hole created by some other garage task ‘accident’ two years ago. I agonized over tossing every one of those items into the trash.

My husband and I were both raised in homes, and during times, when you didn’t throw things out (clothes or pretty much any household item) unless they were beyond repair. If you outgrew an article of clothing, or found yourself in possession of some item you no longer had use for, you passed it along to someone else. Old sheets and towels were turned into rags; newspapers lined bird or rabbit cages or were used to wrap ‘wet’ kitchen garbage; boxes and bags were folded flat and tucked away to be pulled out when something needed to be boxed or wrapped in the future.

1950sShopping

Shopping in the 1950s and 60s

If a small (or even large) appliance stopped working, you took it into a repair shop or called in a ‘repairman’ to fix it. If you needed new furniture or appliances, you started at the second hand store, then moved on to searching for ‘quality’ items at the furniture or department store – things that would last for years and years before having to be disposed of (my parents had a refrigerator from the 1960s that went from the house I grew up in to the garage of their retirement home [where it was relegated to being the ‘beer fridge’]; it stopped working around 1995 – some 30+ years after it was first purchased). When it came to groceries, we made careful lists, shopped prudently, and bought only what we could consume in a week. On the rare occasion when we had ‘leftovers’ (after Christmas, Thanksgiving, or an evening with company), we’d enjoy an eclectic meal known affectionately as ‘COTF’ (clean out the fridge) night. Nothing went to waste.

We ‘made do’ with what we had, fixed what was broken (sometimes several times), and expected our possessions to last a very long time (refrigerators and stoves, televisions and radios, furniture and cars had anticipated life spans of at least ten to fifteen years). ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ wasn’t a catch-phase in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it was a way of life.

 

SearsSaleAd2015

Special sales, like “Black Friday” encourage people to buy things they don’t really need

So what’s happened to our world? In the past fifty years, the growth of consumerism, driven by capitalism, commercialization and over-consumption, has turned things on their head. We purchase way more than we can consume; we consume a small percentage of what is produced; we produce significantly more goods than we could ever need, toss out the excess and make more; goods are manufactured to break down or wear out shortly after their warranties have expired (even clothing has ‘planned obsolesce’ built in these days). Every year brings new makes and models of everything from cars to vacuum cleaners, TVs to telephones, which we’re encouraged to buy whether the old ones are ‘worn out’ or not. Fashion and furniture trends change with the seasons. Everyone wants the ‘latest, greatest’ of everything. Special sales are heralded as a time to buy, buy, buy (this year Amazon claimed Black Friday as their biggest sales day EVER). So, its ‘in with the new and out with the old’. As a result, we’re burying ourselves in garbage – an alarming amount of which is items that have barely been used and food that will never be consumed. We produce so much waste that we’re choking the planet with it (on land and even in the oceans).

3RsWe might claim to believe in the ‘Three Rs’ but most of us either don’t practice them, or don’t do it very well (and the recycling facilities aren’t recycling most of what we put into our blue boxes, anyway; in Canada only about 10% actually gets recycled, the rest is either shipped overseas or ends up in a landfill).

Businesses thrive on producing more goods than can be consumed and encouraging us to buy, buy, buy (whether we need what they’re selling or not).  Many stores (especially the large grocery chains) berate staff for letting ANY item ‘sell out’; shelves must continually be restocked to avoid empty spaces. They also ‘rotate out’ (i.e., toss) any dairy item (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) that is within three days of the ‘best before’ date, followed by produce that is still ‘in its prime’. In the big box, department and drug stores, non-food items that fail to attract a buyer even after being marked down end up in the compactor (most stores have multiple compactors right next to the loading docks); this includes all sorts of goods like shoes, children’s car seats, strollers, luggage, household goods, and even electronics. (NOTE: my sources here include members of my family who’ve worked in grocery store chains, department stores, and a major drugstore chain.)

Clothing stores often ‘slash and trash’ items that don’t sell (only this week a woman found multiple clear plastic bags behind a Carter’s OshKosh B’gosh store at Toronto’s Dufferin Mall, filled with brand new slashed children’s clothin. This is not a new phenomenon; for years, many high-end clothing stores have followed this practice, despite being encouraged to remove tags and donate the items to charities. Heaven forbid ‘needy’ families should be wearing designer togs that didn’t sell at outrageous prices in the first place).

InsideBigBoxStoreWalk into any grocery store, drugstore, ‘big box’ store, clothing store – just about ANY store – and ask yourself how much of what you see displayed can possibly be sold (even without regular restocking). My guess? Fifty percent, MAX. The rest will inevitably end up at one of two places: a liquidator or a landfill (and what doesn’t sell at a liquidator goes to landfill eventually).

Here are just a few statistics (w/links to resources) that totally blow me away (I suggest taking a deep breath or two before reading!)

Garbage in General:

A recent study states that Canadians produce more garbage per capita than any other country on earth – approximately 31 million tonnes* a year. Only about 30% of that goes into blue box programs (and we know not all of that gets recycled). Each Canadian generates approximately 2.7 kg (5.94 lbs) of garbage every day.

LandfillCanada currently has over 10,000 landfill sites. The decomposition of organic waste in landfills produces a gas which is composed primarily of methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its potential impact to climate change. Emissions from Canadian landfills account for 20% of national methane emissions and estimates illustrate that approximately 27 Megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (eCO2) are generated annually from Canadian landfills.

*1 metric tonne = 1.1 imperial tons

GroceryStoreFoodWasteFood:

A whopping 58% of all food produced in Canada (35.5 million tonnes) is lost or wastedannually; about a third of that could be ‘rescued’ and sent to communities in need across the country. Some 4.82 million tonnes is lost or wasted during the processing and manufacturing process; 2.38 million tonnes, is lost at the consumer level. Reports show that approximately $31 billion worth of food is ‘wasted’ at the grocery store level. In total, the value of all food that is lost or wasted in Canada is a staggering $49 billion; the annual cost of avoidable food loss and waste in Canada is $1,766 per household.

TextileWasteFacts

Clothing:

In Canada, each household throws away 46kg (101 pounds) of clothing per year. Around 8-12% of municipal landfills are made up of textiles.

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled (to more than 100 billion items produced globally each year). The average consumer buys 60 percent more clothing than they did 15 years ago, yet each clothing item is now kept only half as long.

 

Durable Goods:** (U.S. Statistics; I couldn’t find Canadian numbers)

As of 2017, durable goods represented 57.1 million tons of solid waste (21.4% of total municipal solid waste generation):

  • 10.8 million tons were recycled (18.9% recycling rate)
  • 9.1 million tons were combusted (26.7% of total combustion with recovery)
  • 37.2 million tons ended up in landfills (26.7% of total landfilling)

DurableGoodsDisposal

**NOTE: durable goods include large and small appliances, furniture and furnishings, carpets and rugs, rubber tires, lead-acid automotive batteries, consumer electronics, and other miscellaneous goods such as luggage, sporting goods and household goods.

~~~

So, you might ask, what can I do about all this? Well, that’s really up to you, I suppose. You can certainly think a little more carefully about what you’re buying the next time you go shopping for clothes or household items (ask yourself if you really NEED the item, or just ‘want’ it; how many times you’ll use/wear it; how long you’re likely to keep it; how you’ll dispose of it when it’s served its purpose).

When you head off to the grocery store, you might want to take a list and stick to it, buy only what you can eat in a week (assuming you shop once a week), and avoid those ‘middle-of-the-week’ extra trips to ‘just pick up a couple of things’ that always end up with you arriving home with two bags of groceries you didn’t really need. Take reusable bags or containers with you; shop in bulk food stores when you can; keep an eye on ‘best before’ dates and shop accordingly (NOTE: many items, like yogurt and juice, are still edible for days beyond that ‘magic’ date on the label!) You can also just eat what’s in your fridge and cupboards instead of buying more.

You can review and improve your recycling habits: donate good used clothing to places like Value Village, the Salvation Army, or other charities or thrift stores; clean, sort and put all recyclable plastics, paper and cardboard in your blue box for pick up; take advantage of the green bin (composting) programs in your area (or, if you’re in an area that doesn’t have a green bin program, or a rural area like me, invest in a composter and create your own organic garden material). Know what is recyclable and what isn’t and use refillable containers wherever possible. Practice ‘clean’ recycling (don’t contaminate other recyclables by refusing to wash containers out, or by putting non-recyclable materials in your blue box).

You can make yourself (more) aware of the problems we face with respect to our wasteful habits, share your concerns with others (including your local politicians), and aim to cut your waste as much as possible. Even the smallest of steps – if we ALL take them – can add up to big changes.

I don’t know about you, but I want to leave this planet in a much better state than it is now, for my children and their children, and any generations yet to come. I hope you do too. So how about it? Will you join me in making our planet a less wasteful place here on … the other side of 55?

 

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

December 23, 2019

KennyDollyAlbumI believe in Santa Claus, I’ll tell you why I do
‘Cause I believe that dreams and plans and wishes can come true
I believe in miracles, I believe in magic too
I believe in Santa Claus and I believe in you

Those lyrics are from one of my favourite holiday songs – “I Believe in Santa Claus”, from the Kenny Rogers / Dolly Parton “Once Upon a Christmas” album (you can listen to it here).

St.Nicholas

St. Nicholas

Did you know the origin of “Santa Claus” can be traced all the way back to the 3rd century A.D.? St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian monk, was the patron saint of children (among other things). It is said his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to our modern-day Santa Claus (although it took several hundred years to get where we are today). St. Nicholas’s popularity spread to northern Europe, where it merged with Germanic folktales of elves and sky-chariots and Chriskind (“Christ Child”; also known as Kris Kringle), who was said to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Gradually Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas (a shortened Dutch form of “Sint Nikolaas”) who was generally depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who left gifts (or lumps of coal) at children’s homes on December 6 each year.

VisitFromSt.NicholasOriginalThe Dutch eventually brought Sinterklass and their Christmas-time traditions to the New World. The earliest record of a more “modern” depiction of Santa Claus was an 1809 portrayal by political satirist Washington Irving, who drew St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew through the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. Twenty-two years later, in 1823, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned a poem entitled, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. In it he switched the wagon with a sleigh pulled by “eight tiny reindeer” and described St. Nick as a “jolly old elf” who was “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot”. His poem is now known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

NastSantaNearly fifty years later (in 1881) political cartoonist Thomas Nast took Moore’s description of St. Nicholas and drew “Santa Claus” as a cheerful, rotund man in a bright red suit trimmed with fur. He also gave him with a full white beard, a sack filled with toys, a home – complete with workshop – at the North Pole, elves for helpers, and a wife, Mrs. Claus. Nast is considered to be “the man who invented Santa Claus”.

CocaColaSantaIn 1931 the Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using a “real” Santa Claus (rather than “a man in a Santa Claus costume”). Sundblom used a friend who matched Moore’s description of St. Nicholas as a model, and his ads depict a Santa Claus most of us envision as being the “real deal”.

KrisKringle

Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle 

Santa Claus has appeared in nearly every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1924, and has “brought up the rear” of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other Christmas parades (often called “Santa Claus Parades”). For nearly 100 years, children have lined up in department stores and malls to meet Santa, tell him what they want for Christmas, and have their picture taken with him. The most iconic of all department store Santas is probably Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) from the 1947 movie, “A Miracle on 34th Street”.

Visiting Santa 1962

Visiting Santa, 1962

I grew up in a small town just west of Ontario’s capital city of Toronto. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the only place to visit Santa Claus was at Eaton’s Toyland in Toronto. The Eaton’s Department Store hosted the annual Santa Claus Parade and opened up an entire floor each year as “Toyland” (with every kind of game, doll, train set, truck, and building set imaginable on display). They also had the most amazing animated window displays! Every year, we would watch the parade (LIVE) on TV (in mid-November); a few weeks later my mother would take my sister and me (and, later, my little brother) to Toronto on the bus to visit Toyland. We were allowed to select one toy to ask for when we met with Santa. I have photos from every visit from 1956 (when I was 3) to 1964 (yes, I still visited Santa at age 11!)

Son 1 With Santa 1983

December 1984; son #1 with Santa

When my eldest son was little, there was a dedicated “Christmas Store” on the highway that ran through the small town where my parents lived. On weekends in November and December Santa would stand outside, next to a full size sleigh, waving to passers-by and chatting with children who stopped at the store with their parents. He was, without a doubt, the “real deal”. He never asked my son his name (because Santa is supposed to KNOW each child) and when he asked my son if he’d been good (and, of course, he said, “Yes”), Santa would say things like, “Have you put your toys away every time your mom asked you to?”, “Have you brushed your teeth every single night?”, “Do you put your pajamas under your pillow every morning?” This absolutely reinforced the idea that “you better watch out …” (and, honestly, my son’s behavior DID improve over the remaining days until Christmas). NOTE: unfortunately, the Christmas store closed in the late 1980s. During our last Christmas visit, I stayed behind (after my Mom took my son into the store) to congratulate Santa on how well he played the role. The young man (he was around my age – early 30s maybe – at the time) explained that he had young children of his own, so he was well aware of the kinds of behaviours kids normally engaged in (which made it easy to suggest they weren’t being quite as “good” as they believed). He also said his wife brought his own children to “visit Santa” at the store, and they didn’t recognize their own father! How perfect a characterization is that?

MallSanta1989

Mall Santa; son #2, 1989

For the next 10 years, my boys visited Santa at one of our local malls; I was often disappointed in how unnatural some of them looked and acted (even though there are hundreds of “professional Santas” worldwide, many take on the role simply to earn a few dollars at Christmas-time, and they lack that special “something” that makes a great Santa). But I honestly don’t think the boys ever noticed!

The Christmas season of 2008 was a particularly rough one for me. Like everyone else, I’d watched nearly a third of my investments disappear overnight in September, I was crazy busy at work, and my father had gone from a prolonged hospital stay to a long-term care facility in the summer, only to be shuffled back and forth between the two with one medical problem after the other. The week before Christmas, he was back in hospital, and doing poorly. I remember wandering rather aimlessly around the mall, trying to focus my mind on Christmas shopping, when I spotted Santa Claus heading towards his “throne” in the mall’s central court. I was totally surprised when he detoured towards me, reached out and took my hand, and wished me a “Very Merry Christmas”. I smiled and wished him the same. My spirits lifted immediately and I managed to finish my shopping in a happier frame of mind. Such a simple thing – Santa wishing me a Merry Christmas – but so powerful! It was exactly what I needed that day.

Father&SonSantas

Father & Son Santas

My final Santa memory is more recent, and it doesn’t take place at Christmastime. In April of 2016, my husband and I purchased our dream home in the country. A month later, we put our city property up for sale, and received two competing offers within 72 hours. The first was presented by a realtor who pretty much told us all the things that were “wrong” with our house that the potential buyers (her son and daughter-in-law) planned on changing. I wasn’t impressed (naturally). The second offer was not only for slightly more money – but the buyer was (are you ready for this?) SANTA CLAUS (two Santas, actually – a father and son who are both professional Santas). Naturally, we accepted their offer. I mean, how could you possibly say “No” to Santa Claus when he wants to buy your house? (And the little girl who lived next door was beyond excited when we told her who was moving in!)

My StockingI still smile when I see children patiently waiting in line to visit Santa. I eagerly anticipate receiving the annual photo of my granddaughter’s visit with “the jolly man in red.” I hang up my stocking for Santa to fill on Christmas Eve (it’s not very big; I’ve had it since I was around eight years old, when I received it after visiting Santa at Eaton’s Toyland and a nice lady with a sewing machine stitched my name on it while I waited). For me, Christmas is a time of hope and faith and wonder and a belief in miracles and magic. So – yes, I still believe in Santa Claus, even though I’m on … the other side of 55.

 

There’s a Mole in our Midst

December 14, 2019

SpyMoleIn espionage circles, a mole is a spy or deep cover/ sleeper agent who joins a target organization with the long-term goal of gaining access to its secrets. Eventually, with luck, determination and skill, they ‘dig out’ the information required to bring the organization’s activities to light (for their own nefarious purposes, or to expose them), and/or its members to justice.

The term was apparently introduced to the public by writer John Carré in his 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and has since entered the modern lexicon, primarily as a result of the popularity of using ‘moles’ in spy novels, movies and television shows. While its actual origin is unclear, Le Carré (a former British Intelligence Officer), has claimed the term ‘mole’ was used by the Soviet Intelligence Agency (the KGB) before he coined it in his book. I can only assume the name of a blind, tunneling rodent with a penchant for ‘digging up dirt’ was chosen as a euphemism for an ‘underground spy’ because “moles often tunnel deeper than spy hunters can dig” (a headline from the New York Times; February 26, 2001).

Having never met an actual intelligence ‘mole’, I cannot attest to their ability to ‘dig deep’ or ‘tunnel through’ layers of security to find the information they are looking for. I imagine their ability to remain hidden from view, to keep what they are doing from ‘prying eyes’, and a tenacity that drives them to never give up assists them in their work. If we assume all that to be true, I can most certainly understand why whoever-it-was that first coined the term chose that particular rodent (the mole) as the archetype.

WholeMole

The Eastern Mole

The most common species of mole in North America is the Eastern Mole (scalopus aquaticus). They are classified as insectivores; while they do eat insects, they are far more interested in chowing down on larvae (grubs) and earthworms. These tiny (approximately 6 to 7” long) animals are dark grey, with a naked, pointed noise, nearly invisible eyes and ears, a short hairless tail, and spade-like front feet they use for digging underground (both to establish living space and to find food). The Eastern Mole consumes up to 80% of its own body weight PER DAY!

BabyMole

Baby Moles

Moles live a solitary life, only tolerating other moles during mating season (in the spring). After a 4 to 6 week gestation period, a litter of 3 to 5 hairless pups is born. By mid-summer, they’re able to take care of themselves and go off to establish their own territories. Moles have a lifespan of approximately 3 to 5 years; females can reproduce at 1 year of age. Because they spent 99% of their time underground (and smell pretty rank, apparently), they have few natural predators; snakes, owls, and foxes are their biggest threats (not to mention humans – but I’ll get to that in a minute).

MoleMoles can be active at any time during the day (it’s always dark below ground), but they do most of their damage tunneling between 4 and 7 a.m. They can dig at a rate of a meter (3 feet) an hour, for a total of around 18 meters (20 yards) a day. A single tunnel can be up to a kilometer (1.5 miles) in length. They can move backwards nearly as quickly as forwards, and are remarkably good swimmers. While moles have no real vision, they may be able to detect the presence of light (on those rare occasions when they emerge briefly from their tunnels). Their ears are covered by a layer of skin, but they likely detect sounds and vibrations; it is assumed they find their way around and detect prey using an acute sense of smell and touch. Because they tunnel primarily below the frost line, they do not hibernate in winter.

MoleHomes

Photo from The Journal of Experimental Biology: The Company of Biologists (jeb.biologists.org)

It is estimated there are between 2,000 and 13,000 Eastern Moles in the most westerly regions of southern Ontario (they are nearly ubiquitous through most of the eastern and central United States). A single mole can have a territory of up to 1.25 hectares (roughly three square acres – I own 4 acres, FYI); males generally have larger territories than females (by as much as three times). They dig both deep, permanent burrows as well as shallower, temporary ones for foraging (it is said that these tunnels, just under the surface, are never used more than once). While digging new tunnels and burrows, the mole will push the excess soil up through vertical shafts (resulting in giant ‘molehills’ on the surface of up to a cubic foot in size or more). The burrowing activity that takes place just below the surface results in ridges of varying heights and lengths rising from the ground and meandering wildly. And while moles do not eat vegetation (plants or their roots), the damage they cause to lawns and gardens makes them a particular enemy of gardeners everywhere (in Ontario, the Eastern Mole is considered a species of “special concern” – while neither endangered nor threatened, it may become so due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats, including eradication due to human population and frustration annihilation!)

So this is where we (finally) come to the personal aspect of this post. I have at least one mole living in my back yard. S/he was quite active in the fall of 2016/spring of 2017 (assuming, of course, it’s the same animal), tunneling under approximately 20% of my (nearly 10,000 square foot) lawn and garden. I spent an inordinate amount of time stomping down the tunnels and shoving mothballs into the molehills that spring (there are websites that will tell you mothballs don’t deter moles and others that say they will; it was the easiest and least expensive deterrent I could find / was willing to try at the time). This fall, s/he has managed to shift the dirt under almost HALF the yard and garden several inches upwards. Molehills dot my landscape; tunnels weave their way across huge swaths of the yard and garden. Most of this work was undertaken between the first of November and mid-December (the hills, tunnels and resulting “squishy underfoot” sensation wasn’t there the last time I raked and weeded in late October). Now that the ground is frozen and snow covered (and the tunneling is ten times worse), it is frighteningly easy to trip over a molehill or stumble over a tunnel without noticing it; you take your life in your hands walking around in the yard.

MoleHill_Combo1

The image of the left is one of MANY (a dozen or more) huge molehills in my yard. The image on the right shows the same molehill with one of my cat’s toys (approx. the same size as a mole) on top, for perspective. That’s a LOT of dirt!

Tunnel1

One of the “shallow tunnels” running all through my yard; when you walk on the lawn, it flexes under your feet.

I love wildlife of all kinds. I try to maintain a “live and let live” attitude. Bunnies can nibble in my gardens, deer can poop on my lawn, birds are welcome at my feeders and in my trees (I didn’t even get too excited when a mouse moved into the barbecue, although my husband wasn’t all that impressed). But this mole has GOT TO GO! Despite assertions that moles are “helpful” (by aerating lawns and eliminating grubs and earthworms), what they’ve done to my lawn is hideous (not to mention dangerous!) And while I don’t have the patience to catch and release them (not with that much lawn to watch on the off chance I’ll see one and manage to catch it), I also don’t want to trap and kill them (touted as the “most effective way of getting rid of moles”). I’m struggling to find alternatives: options include expensive sonic devices (I can’t even imagine how many I’d need to cover my whole yard and garden), mole repellent granules (which don’t appear to be available in Canada), installing barriers along garden or property edges (I have several hundred yards/meters of garden edge to protect, so – not practical), keeping the lawn/gardens dry (not good for the grass or plants), getting a dog that barks (not happening), and spraying the lawn with a castor oil and water concoction. Once again I only came across one or two sites that mentioned shoving mothballs down the holes; I do believe it worked in 2017, even though some of them got shoved right back out again!

So, I’m at a crossroads. There’s nothing I can do right now, but I will have to spend some time this winter on research, planning and preparation. Come spring, I will find my little ‘undercover’ friend, expose him (or her), and find a way of eliminating the threat. I’m not about to let a tiny little infiltrator get the better of me here on … the other side of 55.

 

The Time My Sister and I Nearly Burned the House Down

December 4, 2019

DoubleGooseneckLamp

You know how sometimes a completely random thing (maybe a photograph, a snippet of music, a taste or a smell) can trigger a memory? Well, it happened to me the other day, and I thought I’d share it with you.

My husband and I were watching something on TV (honestly, I can’t recall now what it was) that was set in the 1950s. The camera panned to a side table with a double gooseneck lamp sitting on it. The minute I saw that lamp, I had a flashback to the time (I’m going to say it was around 1959 or 1960) when my sister and I nearly burned down our house. Here’s what I remember.

RecRoom1958

My sister and I in the “rec” room, circa 1958

At the time, my family lived on the main level of a three-storey Victorian house that had been converted into a triplex (my grandmothers lived in the two apartments upstairs). I had an older brother (born in 1942) and two older sisters (born in 1944 and 1951); I was born in 1953. Sometime in the late 1950s, my father divided the basement into two rooms, and finished one as a “recreation room” for the teenagers (paneling on the walls, an asbestos tile ceiling, linoleum floor). I suppose they held parties in there on weekends, but my sister and I also used the room; it was in there that the (nearly) ill-fated event took place.

My older sister and I had very active imaginations. We also had an impressive collection (for the time) of Barbie dolls and accessories, “teenage” dolls, stuffed animals, and costumes (long before Mr. DressUp had his “tickle trunk”, we had a couple of heavy cardboard barrels filled with Halloween costumes [mostly handmade by my mother], prom dresses of my eldest sister’s, and Victorian-era dresses [complete with bustles] and fur stoles [complete with heads and tails] of my grandmother’s). One of our favourite “games” was “playing circus”.

BasementShelf_Christmas1957,jpg

Me (and Tommy, our cocker spaniel) on the basement “shelf”; Christmas 1956

There was a high “shelf” at one end of the “rec” room. I suspect there was some kind of mechanical or other equipment underneath (a sump pump, perhaps, or the old coal chute and storage space), as there was a latched door on the front. In any case, we would line up our stuffed animals on this platform and turn them into performers in our circus. Generally, that included: the bears: Lovey, Doc, Teddy, and Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken (his name was taken directly from the bear that appeared on “The Santa Claus Show” on CBC Television in the late 1950s; he was a very large bear that my maternal grandmother had won at Bingo); the dogs: Bingo (a large red poodle and another of my grandmother’s Bingo prizes), Nosey (a terrier that wouldn’t stand on his own 4 feet), and Princess (a large black poodle my sister got one year for Christmas); my tiger with the music box inside; a number of miscellaneous smaller stuffed animals and puppets.

Doc_Nov1954

Doc (in my sister’s arms); my first birthday (Nov. 1954)

Teddy_1956

Teddy (in my arms, spring 1956)

Nosey_Sibs1953

Nosey (on my oldest sister’s lap; circa November 1953)

Princess_Christmas1959

Princess (Christmas morning, 1959)

We would set up lights (the aforementioned double gooseneck ones – we had two sets) at either end to act as spotlights. My sister and I would alternate roles (one acting as “the ringmaster” while the other one “made the animals do what they’re supposed to do”) and put on a show for the audience of dolls arranged on the furniture and floor below.

InterHoochinBokkenBikkenBokken2

Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken (2016)

Some of the stuffed animals couldn’t (or wouldn’t) sit up on their own; they needed to lean against something. Unfortunately, one day we leaned two of them (Lovey and Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken) against the lights. It wasn’t long before they began to smolder. Fortunately, my sister and I smelled the smoke before either bear burst into flames, and somehow managed to keep the damage to a minimum. I don’t recall if one of us went upstairs to get my mother, or if she smelled the smoke and came downstairs, but I do recall there weren’t any major repercussions (except for a stern warning to “never do that again!”) Mom cut out the burnt bits from the backs of the bears’ arms and shoulders and patched them (with dark brown felt), and they continued to be part of our games for many, many years afterwards.

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Doc, Teddy and the puppets (bear, cat, tiger and dog), plus friends, waiting patiently for the ringmaster to return!

NOTE: Lovey remained in my sister’s possession until a few years ago, when she decided he was too old, worn and smelly to keep any longer. Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken “lived” in the kids’ room at my parents’ retirement home until 2004, when he “moved in” with me after they downsized (sending him to “teddy bear heaven” when I retired was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but I took a photo of him for posterity’s sake). The tiger and Nosey went to a needy family we sponsored in PEI during the 60s; some of the others went into the donation box at the local United Church. Doc, Teddy and the puppets are still residing quite happily in a cabinet in my bedroom, waiting (I believe) for the “ringmaster” to return!

I don’t pretend to know how the human brain works, or how memories are formed and recalled (although there’s been a lot written about the process, and innumerable documentaries produced on the subject, much remains unknown). I do know that when a memory strikes me out of the blue, as this one did, it’s important to record it so I can revisit it as many times as I wish here on … the other side of 55.

Fighting the Good Fight

November 13, 2019
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Tammany Hall, circa 1900 (image from Getty Images)

“You can’t fight City Hall.” That phrase, roughly taken to mean,“It’s pointless for any citizen or group of citizens to oppose bureaucracy or those in government / in charge of large corporations”, can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when a powerful political organization known as Tammany Hall controlled the New York Democratic Party and thus, in effect, the City Government itself . It’s been used as a expression of frustration over attempts to ‘right the wrongs’ brought upon the citizenry by any large establishment, organization, or system of government. Better to just give up or give in than fight, the thinking goes, because ‘the little guy’ doesn’t stand a chance against the rules, regulations and ‘red tape’ of most bureaucracies. Right?

Not necessarily. My father was a man who firmly believed you COULD fight City Hall – and occasionally even win the occasional battle. Even as a young man, Dad was always a bit of a ‘hot head’; he had opinions and he expressed them openly, and he didn’t care if other people disagreed with him. He wrote many a Letter to the Editor, and was known to speak loudly and freely whenever asked what he thought about something (most vociferously when the topic had to do with democracy, justice, government, education, or politics). He was frequently called a sh**-disturber (a term my eldest brother apparently repeated in Grade 1 when asked by his teacher what his father did for a living), a rabble-rouser, an agitator, or a plain old pain-in-the-backside. He considered himself to be an advocate for the rights of others (especially the ‘little guy’– people just like himself).

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Dad, 1970s

Dad was self-employed most of his life, either working alone or alongside a friend or a couple of employees at various times (I suspect his cantankerous personality might have had something to do with that). In the late 1960s, he sold the last of his businesses and began teaching courses for The Henry George School of Social Science (founded after the Great Depression, it was part of a reform movement that “sought to establish fundamental economic justice and sustainable prosperity for all”); their philosophies lined up pretty nicely with his way of thinking.

The only ‘real’ job he ever had (i.e., earning a regular salary as an economist for a firm in downtown Toronto) lasted less than two years. In 1971, frustrated by the way the local government was managing things in his home town, he threw his hat into the ring for the position of Mayor. He lost (by about 3000 votes), but two years later was successful in securing a seat as a Town Councillor for his Ward. He was unsuccessful in his first bid (in 1974) for the new position of Regional Councillor (after a re-jigging of bureaucracy in the area), but returned with a successful campaign for the job in 1976; he was re-elected in 1978. During part of this time (I can’t remember the precise dates) he also wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper, espousing his often-controversial views (and garnering him many supporters and more than a few enemies).

During his tenure on Council, he was probably the only one who read – cover to cover – the nearly three-inch thick pile of papers that were dropped on the doorstep every Friday night, in preparation for the Monday evening Town Council meetings. He questioned anything he didn’t understand, argued against what he disagreed with, pressed for acceptance of issues he believed in. The Council job was part-time, and paid only a small stipend, but Dad dedicated himself to it on a full time basis. It wasn’t unusual for people (his constituents) to call at all hours of the day or night begging him to take on one cause or another. He almost always did. This made him something of a pariah in many circles, but it gave the local newspaper plenty to write about, week after week (and illustrate; Steven Nease frequently featured Dad as the main subject in his editorial cartoons, including this one, published when Dad announced his retirement from politics).

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It took some convincing (from my mother and several other family members and friends) to get Dad to call it quits, but a health scare in late 1980 convinced him the time was right. He endured a rousing roast by friends and colleagues in late April 1981; the write-up in the local paper stated Dad was, “well known for his lengthy debating abilities, being a stickler for detail, detesting consultants, attacking regional government, and acting as a watchdog for the taxpayers’ dollars”. It was all true.

A month later, my parents moved to a small resort town on the shores of Lake Huron, where Dad immediately set about criticizing various aspects of the town’s management, and making recommendations for change (some were adopted; many were ignored). He wrote Letters to the Editor, penned a column for the local paper, tried his hand at running for local Council, and generally stirred the pot. If there was something ‘wrong’ he wanted to ‘right’, he pursued it (everything from parkland to taxes to fires to noise to conditions at the local zoo). He never stopped; he never gave up; he never stopped trying to find justice for ‘the little guy’.  (He even self-published a small book  in 1977, long before self-publishing was a ‘thing’, titled, Mannell’s Laws, which was, in his own words, “a satirical look at democracy, bureaucracy, and education in the 20th century.” It contained such personal observations as, “The average citizen thinks that the person he elects to office is the person who makes the decisions and laws. Nothing could be further from the truth. 80% of all laws and rules are made by appointed bureaucrats.” I think it only sold about 30 copies.)

During all this time, I was growing up and paying attention. I wrote my first Letter to the Editor when I was thirteen (the first of many). I constantly questioned what I saw as unreasonable requests or expectations or statements from my superiors (teachers, employers, bosses); I argued against whatever I felt was unfair or unjust. Over the years, I sat on various volunteer committees organized to institute positive change of one type or another; I took on leadership roles when no one else would. When my sons’ public school for short-listed for closure (due to low enrollment), I spearheaded the campaign to save it (which was successful, despite the odds being stacked against us). At work, I redeveloped problem (College level) courses, re-imagined outdated Programs, developed strategies to improve student success. I helped develop a cutting-edge teacher education program; led workshops and seminars to improve student learning; mentored new faculty (because I believed better teachers resulted in better student satisfaction and that led to higher success rates). I continually pressured management to consider and institute changes that would improve morale and efficiency instead of stifling creativity. I fought when no one else would. I did as my father had before me.

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Me, circa 1970

In 1970, the graduates of my high school class were asked to include a ‘Claim to Fame’ as part of their biographies, to be published in the school year book. I wrote, “Being the daughter of THE Laurie Mannell.” At the small family service we held after Dad’s passing (in 2008, at the age of 93), I shared that sentiment once again, adding, Dad gave me the courage to speak up when no one else would; to stick to my convictions no matter what; to press on even when other people told me to ‘sit down and shut up’; and to never stop until I was 100% satisfied that I had done everything in my power to fix whatever it was that needed fixing.  Like Dad, I’ve probably pissed off more than a few people over the years, but I am very proud of all the things that I’ve accomplished with him as my guide.  And I know he’ll always be there, at my back, as I continue ‘fighting the good fights’ yet to come.”

WalkAwayTryHarderI never entered politics, choosing instead to work hard and raise a family without dipping my toes into the waters of ‘City Hall’. But I still fought fights and suffered losses. I left a job once because I couldn’t accept the president of the company’s opinion that women should be paid less than men because they were “only working for pin money”. I lost a job – a long-held job I loved, was extremely good at, and had received repeated praise and awards for doing well – because I stood up to injustice and refused to give in. I left my last job (which I also loved and was very good at) because I just couldn’t deal with the politics and near-toxic environment anymore. I took early retirement, gave in. I guess I thought there just wasn’t any fight left in me.

Unlike my father, I didn’t see retirement (or moving to a new place) as an opportunity to fight new fights or take on new challenges. I only wanted to relax and ‘just be’. But, you know what? There’s still some fight left in me. I’ve realized (once again) that I can’t just sit by and let something I know to be wrong go unchallenged. It might be a little thing (a disagreement over a job contracted to a supposedly reputable company that wasn’t executed to my satisfaction – despite a bill for >$700), but I’m not going to just give in and give up (my husband suggested we just pay the bill and be done with it; I couldn’t bring myself to do that). It wasn’t an easy decision, and it’s certainly not been a comfortable one (I’ve gotten less combative in my old age and arguing a point makes me a bit queasy these days) but we’ll see where it leads. I think Dad would be proud of me, knowing there’s still some fight left in his youngest daughter, even though I’m well past … the other side of 55.

 

Welcome Back!

November 5, 2019

where-are-you-quote-1So, I’ve been away from this blogging thing for quite some time now (even though no one seems to have noticed – I mean, I haven’t had any emails or PMs asking “Where are you?” or “What happened?” or “Are you still alive?”, etc. – which, I’m afraid, is probably a sign of how much attention people really pay to the invisible “Friends” they follow on various social media platforms). I still get hits (pretty much daily) on many of my (approximately 200) published posts and short stories, but I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed with myself for not trying just a little bit harder to keep things fresh (and regular).

WritingbrainFor three years, I wrote a personal essay every single week, and I never considered that I might some day run out of things to say. Then, apparently, I did. For whatever reason(s) – life changes, family commitments, disillusionment with the world around me – I stopped posting regularly (I went down to a post a month for a couple of years, and a mere half dozen a year more recently). And while I’ve had occasional ideas float through my brain, I haven’t quite been able to flesh any of them out into coherent posts that capture the essence of the original concept. And the longer I’ve let things lapse, the less inspired I’ve become. When I look back on some of my work (especially posts like Why I Write from August, 2011), I can’t help but wonder what happened. I can’t say exactly, but I do know that my muse has been on a very long vacation! And its time to bring her back.

fallcolours2With fall approaching (or landing with a giant THUNK on my front porch) and time on my hands (no more gardening or yard work for the next six months or so), I’ve decided to nudge my brain into coming up with something – ANYTHING – that I can turn into a plausible dissertation on my feelings, opinions and view of the world. I’ve pulled out my “ideas” file, looked over some of my half-finished attempts from the last couple of years, and scanned other people’s blogs, then sat quietly in the corner of my living room (with a cup of tea and a cat on my lap) and let my mind roam at will through concepts and theories and odds-and-ends that have captured my attention but never fully exposed themselves in words and pictures. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been interesting to try and force my mind back into “creative mode” once more.

keyboardingToday, I begin again. I vow to get my butt in the chair and keep my fingers on the keyboard at least once a week to create something worthwhile to post (hopefully you, the reader, will find at least a percentage of the material I produce interesting, informative, or amusing; if not – well, at least I tried, right?). I have missed the writing process, and I’ve missed the interaction with fellow bloggers and followers. And, really, I’m out of excuses. So – here I go.

I’m looking forward to starting over (and bringing you along for the ride) as I follow through on my promise to myself to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a writer now that I’m on … the other side of 55.