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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Here's to the women

I once had someone comment on that anonymous, uncensored platform called social media that she took offense to the term “farmwife” and thought I should change it. I had to laugh and think for a moment before responding. I understand the farmwife feminist movement. These women feel the need to speak out against tradition where it refers to the perfect farmer’s wife. They are fighting for the right to do things their own way, while living and working alongside their farmer-partner. They don’t want to feel pressured to meet the expectations of a farmer’s wife as set forth by previous generations: the pie-baking, early-waking homebody who keeps a spotless house, perfectly behaved children and a happy, well-fed husband in hand-mended clothes. But the term “farmwife” fits perfectly with what my stories are trying to convey: the experiences of a non-farm-raised woman who married a farmer. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, if you will. I’m no one’s stereotypical idea of a farmer’s wife.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. We have come a long way since the first IWD in 1911, when the Suffragettes were getting things done. Still, the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Gender Gap Report findings telling us that gender parity is over 200 years away. If we want things to be different for our future generations, we need to set the course for equality now.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. Global activism for women's equality is gathering momentum with movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp.

How can you join this groundswell to #PressforProgress? Step One: Know What You Bring to the Table. Believe in your own contribution to the group effort. Insist on equal pay for equal work, fair treatment and respect – on the job and outside work. For generations, women around the world have been taking chances – some of them quite risky – that result in a brighter future for themselves and those around them.

My grandmother Mabel recently celebrated her 95th birthday. Back in the 50’s, she quickly rose from an entry-level accounting position to the top of the Finance Department at the Supreme Court of Canada. Knowing the way women were treated in the workplace back then, I asked her how she managed to succeed like that. She said that as a junior financing clerk she was getting ready to do an important presentation to upper management one day. As she stepped into the conference room, one of her superiors took the file from her hand, thanked her for her hard work, said that he would be presenting it to the team, and asked her to sit up front so that she could take notes...  She calmly and firmly took the file back from him, catching him completely by surprise. She told him that he could sit up front if he liked, while she did her presentation, so that he could take notes.

Grandma knew what she brought to the table. There are inspiring stories of women game-changers around the world, and the men who are getting out of their way and supporting them as they do what they do best.

Many of us look around and think, we live in Canada. Women are treated equally here. It’s part of our labour code and our legal system. But then we have someone make an inappropriate comment about how we are dressed, or we are faced with unfair demands at work. If a situation feels a bit off, ask yourself if a man would be put in the same situation. Some men have always treated women with respect – revering them for their talents and celebrating their successes. But many people – men and women included, have been raised to believe that women, in our highly emotional states, just can’t take on the same roles as men, because of the logical thinking that is required to get the work done.
200 years to gender parity. That is a long time from now – but if we want a different world for our great, great grandchildren, we need to make changes in our own lives today. #PressforProgress. Demand respect and fair treatment. Calmly correct someone when they mistakenly assume that because you are a woman, you can’t focus on the task and do the best job. Be Like Mabel. Know What You Bring to the Table.

They say the definition of a farmer’s wife is a woman who can mend the jeans and the fence that ripped ‘em. Well, I can do neither. And that’s ok. In this partnership, I am respected.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Just call us Pete and Repeat

I was telling my family a story after dinner one Sunday when one of my girls said, “What’s that, Mom? I didn’t hear you.” And another smart-aleck daughter replied, “That’s ok…wait a moment and she will say it again!” The girls shared a look and a giggle, turning to smile at me.

“Huh? What are you saying?” I protested. “I don’t repeat myself…do I? Do I say the same thing twice?!”

Then I realized I totally do repeat myself. I blame this new way of talking on the Farmer, for a couple of reasons. First, he is hard of hearing and I often have to repeat myself around him. And second, he is also in the habit of repeating himself. So I think I have adopted his speaking style as a subconscious way of accommodating him. I’m speakin’ his language.

I went to a friend’s place once where the woman of the house was using this particular style of speech. If I may make yet another Looney Tunes reference, it reminded me of Foghorn Leghorn or Elmer Fudd: “That’s a very big rabbit, I said. I said, that rabbit is huge.” Her son joked and called his parents “Pete and Repeat.” Now I realize I have become the second half of that equation.

And now I am extremely self-conscious about the way that I speak. I noticed I repeat myself by saying the same thing, two different ways if I am giving instructions or guidance to our live-in foreign students.

“You already said that,” Tega from Nigeria smiled at me one day. Well I know I already said that but clearly I felt it was necessary to say it again. “It bears repeating,” I commented, and walked away. How fitting a phrase for my predicament. Oh well, she had better get used to it. Mina from Norway has put up with me for five months already without complaint. Whether it’s “don’t feed the dog at the table,” or “lock the door when you leave the house,” they are likely going to hear it twice. Probably in the same exchange. You can never be too careful about some of these things.

I looked up repetition in conversation online, in an attempt to self-diagnose. There are a number of possible conditions leading to my affliction.

I don’t think it’s a matter of forgetting what I just said and saying it again just to make sure. I do have selective memory loss (I only seem to remember the good stuff!), and I don’t think my short-term memory is in trouble. But I do suspect I may have a fear of not being heard. Mostly because I do this repetition thing around my partially-deaf husband, or when I am surrounded by a dozen or more family members at a noisy dinner gathering.

Perhaps it is a sign of insecurity that I repeat myself. But more likely, I think, it’s just a sign of age. I have come to this conclusion because I think I started repeating myself right around the same time I noticed that dark circles had appeared under my eyes. The same eyes that very swiftly began to fail me when I looked at the computer screen and attempted to read what was printed there. Within the space of about six months, around the age of 48, I noticed several significant signs of aging. My grey hairs are resistant to hair dye now. My wrinkle cream no longer plumps out my wrinkles. (It isn’t a miracle cure – it can only do so much!) I have unidentifiable aches and pains in weird places for no apparent reason. I have hot flashes that feel as though the bed is on fire at night.

These are all just observations. I’m not really complaining. I think it’s kind of cool, getting acquainted with my aging self. After all, I have almost made it to 50. I have seen one daughter married and one granddaughter born so far. I am one of the lucky ones. Many women my age are fighting parts of their own bodies that are trying to kill them. At this point, knock on wood, I am able to celebrate my health and the ability to do things that annoy others, like repeating my statements ad infinitum.

I like that phrase so I’m going to say it again. Ad infinitum. Just to annoy my daughters.


Chicken Rodeo

I had a great morning with my granddaughter one day last week. We ‘sang’ karaoke, watched a bit of Paw Patrol, had some snacks and searched out all the cats in their hiding places. Then we decided it would be a good idea to get some fresh air. We threw the ball for Fergus a few times, then took his radio collar off so that he could follow us out of the yard on a walk. 

I put the baby in her sled and started pulling her over the snow. Fergus led the way, bouncing with excitement. Either my granddaughter is a lot heavier than I remember, or I’m a lot weaker. When we reached the back of the second field I had to turn and head back. My arms were shaking and my legs were aching from the effort. I looked back and she was happily muttering to herself, “I see a bird...,” one mitten trailing in the freshly fallen snow. I tried to stop her from putting it in her mouth but it was no use.

Finally back at the house, the baby spotted something through the trees in the yard next door. A miniature John Deere tractor in all its green glory was parked there next to the neighbour’s house.
“Tractor,” she stated. “I drive tractor.” And with that declaration she rolled out of the sled, onto her knees and struggled to standing position in her snowsuit. I was too worn out from the sled pull to protest. Off she tottered through the snow. The neighbour had let her play with the yard toys once before, so I decided I would indulge her for a few minutes.

I picked her up and helped her over the cedar rail fence and into the neighbour’s yard. She examined one snow-covered item after another: a slide, a miniature car and finally, the tractor. She climbed inside – no easy feat in snow pants and boots – and started moving levers as if she were shifting gears with Dad on the farm. That’s when we heard the chickens.

As I was focused on the baby and her explorations, I had totally forgotten about Fergus, the Golden Retriever. He had been watching those fancy chickens since the day they arrived, about a week after he did. When he was a small pup he was afraid of the funny-looking birds and their squawks startled him. Well apparently now that he was several months older and wiser, he had decided he was no longer afraid of the chickens. He was intrigued by them. Fascinated, even. And he wanted to show that he could retrieve them.

I told the baby to stay – she looked frozen in the tractor so there wasn’t much danger of her moving. I took a few leaping steps around the house to where the chicken coop stood and there was Fergus, with a big black bird in his mouth. I felt like that character on Bugs Bunny who has to keep smacking Sylvester the cat on the bottom to get him to drop Tweety Bird out of his mouth.

Somehow I managed to convince Fergus to release the chicken. The bird staggered away, with ruffled feathers and a few left behind on the ground. Fergus was trying to spit downy fluff out of his mouth. I scooped him up under the arms and marched him home, a few feet at a time. As I struggled I realized that for the second time that morning I was getting a truly strenuous workout, and I was likely going to pay for it later. Fergus grunted and didn’t help me with his transfer to the house, where I locked him inside. He popped up in the window and barked as I returned next door to get the baby, who was still in the tractor, watching the whole chicken circus.

“Ch-ch-chicken….ok?” she asked, worried.

“Oh yes, chicken is ok,” I assured her. “She’s probably pretty mad at Fergus for messing her feathers, though. Do you want to come see the chicken?”

The baby nodded yes so I helped her to climb out of the tractor and approach the chicken coop. The big, black bird stood in the doorway, warily watching us come closer. The little girl squatted down so that she was eye to eye with the bird. They stayed like that for a few minutes, checking each other out.

“Bird is ok,” she announced after a while, brushing snow off her pants and heading back across the yard to our house.

Note to self: bring the neighbours one of our chickens out of the freezer as a peace offering.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fergus has a new trick

We came home one afternoon and the dog met us at the door. He was supposed to be in his crate. We assumed we must have left the door unlatched. Fergus likes his crate, but after he wakes from his afternoon nap, he wants out. Now we know he has found a way.

A few nights later we came home from a holiday party and Fergus was happily curled up on the futon, snoring away. His crate appeared to be still closed but he was no longer in it. Then the smell hit me. The poor guy had suffered a blowout of mass proportions in his crate. Of course he can’t stand being trapped in a small space with his own mess, so he scratched and dug at the crate door until he saw an opening and managed to wriggle his way out. He’s like Houdini. Now he pops out of the crate at will.

Fergus’ great escape reminds me of when we had lambs and they used to get out of their pens. Newborn lambs wriggled under feeders and came out the other side, where they were sometimes able to latch onto other mothers for a feed. Their own mother, after a rest and a snack, would stand bellowing at the pen gate, calling them home. We picked them up, put them back in their proper pens and boarded up the gaps in the fencing.

I wish I could leave Fergus out of his crate but for a number of reasons, I don’t dare. He isn’t disciplined enough to stay out of things. And we have four cats in the house all winter. They roam the house during the day, searching out sunny napping spots and patrolling for mice. If Fergus, their favourite creature to tease, were out of his crate all day, they would no doubt start a high-stakes chase. I imagine overturned houseplants, pictures falling down off the wall and lamps crashing to the floor as the cats leap, jump and climb up to higher levels of safety. Not to mention the many tempting snack smells in the house that Fergus might suddenly decide to see if he can reach and sample.

I was trying to remember how my parents handled the dog thing when we were young. I guess they just locked the dog in the basement during the day, when it was too cold for him to be outside. I could do that too, but I would be afraid that Fergus, who is still teething on his molars, apparently, might decide to chew on a handmade three-foot tall dollhouse, or – even worse – one of the Farmer’s taxidermy projects. 

He usually goes into his crate without resistance, but sometimes he hums a wee growl to say he would rather stay on his couch, particularly at night. Fergus won’t be much trouble tonight, however, because he is absolutely exhausted. He spent the day following our granddaughter around the house. When she climbed up the stairs or descended them carefully, one hand on the railing, he went ahead of her, pushing his bottom into her chest to hold her against the wall. I’ve seen a dog do that with its pup, in a video. I think he was protecting her from falling. The Farmer says he was just trying to get close enough to lick the spilled yogurt off her shirt.

Then there was a rousing game of living room mini-golf, where Fergus felt the need to retrieve all the balls after the baby shot them under the couch. He was very helpful, actually. When the baby went down for her two-hour nap this afternoon, Fergus had a snooze too. He recharged his batteries so he could follow her around the house, out into the yard and around the barn for a few hours before dinner. When she finally left after dinner and a bath, he walked her and her mom to the door, then crashed on the mat with a weary groan. He was wiped out. 

Come to think of it, I’m pretty exhausted too. And I have a sore back from lifting a thirty-three pound child up and down all day. I’m a bit out of practice. I thanked Fergus for his help, praised him for not trying to eat food out of the baby’s hand – and asked him to be a good boy and stay in his crate for the night – whether the cats are sitting there taunting him on the other side or not.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Marking an icy anniversary

Twenty years ago this week, I was a young mom of 3, living in the suburbs of Ottawa. I got up at 3am as usual, because I had an early morning paper route before starting my day in my home daycare. When I opened the front door and stepped outside into the dark pre-dawn, I had a sinking feeling. The world was encased in ice.

It wasn’t very cold outside, and I had to admit it was beautiful. The ice hung from the trees like diamond necklaces. My early morning paper runs were usually peaceful and sometimes eerie, because it was during the time that even most nighthawks had turned in for the night. It was completely silent. No wind. No sound at all.

I was the only vehicle on the road. I drove more slowly than usual. I was on glare ice. When I stepped out onto the parking lot and began to load bundles of newspapers into the back of my van I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do my job as expected. I couldn’t get a sure footing on the ice. I made a mental note to pick up boot spikes as soon as the stores opened. The paper would be late that day.

I parked my van at the entrance to my allotted delivery zone and picked up a bundle of papers. I skated between the houses and slid down the driveways. As occupants of the large suburban homes began to wake up and step outside to collect the morning news I heard some of them exclaim aloud. Some swore. Others laughed. I laughed too, at the thought of how ridiculous I must look, clinging to parked cars and sliding down slopes on my bum.

It took me two hours longer than usual to deliver all of my papers but there was really no rush. My home daycare would not be open that day, and very few people would be going to work. Very few people would be leaving their homes at all, actually. My 6-year-old daughter had just one guest show up at her birthday party.

As the Great Ice Storm of 1998 took hold, it became apparent that we were the lucky ones, in the south end of Ottawa. In Kemptville where my parents lived, people were installing generators to replace the electricity they had lost when the build-up of ice caused the power lines to bend and snap.
I was keeping in touch with my parents every day. Then one day my father didn’t answer. Two more days went by and I began to worry. He had a generator in his garage, and despite widespread advice to keep the door open for better airflow, he said he was locking his garage doors so his generator would not be one of the many being stolen. I imagined with horror that he had inadvertently gassed himself, and that was why he wasn’t answering his phone. So I did what anyone would do in my situation. I called a friend who was volunteering on the rescue crew, and asked him to check on Dad.
My friend was busy, so he sent in the military. My dad was not impressed. But I got a phone call.
“You idiot.” It was a relief to hear his voice on the line, even if he was using his usual terms of endearment. “Hydro told us not to use our phones, so I unplugged mine.”

We worked out a system where I could get a message and be reassured every day that he and Mom were fine. Their power was out 21 days in the end. I felt guilty, sitting in Barrhaven, nice and warm. All we lost was our cable TV.

Without that television, however, my girls had to find something else to do. I walked past the living room and saw them sitting in front of the glass insert to the fireplace, which we rarely used.

“Ma. I see a face,” my eldest announced.
“Yeah. It’s yours. You can see yourself in the glass,” I explained.
“No. It’s a little face,” she declared.

And then as I stepped closer, I suddenly saw a tiny little face pop up in the window of the fireplace. It was a squirrel. I was happy the girls hadn’t tried to open the door to examine their discovery. I didn’t need a family of squirrels in the house. I guess they had taken refuge in our fireplace when the ice storm filled in their home. We left them alone and when I checked a week later, they were gone.
Everyone has their own story of the Ice Storm that hit Eastern Ontario two decades ago. And hopefully we all learned a bit about how best to prepare for the next one.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Starting the New Year Norwegian-style

When I lived in Asia the New Year tradition was to clean house. Top to bottom, every drawer, closet, nook and cranny. Out with the old to make room for the new. It’s a tradition that leans toward the spiritual in nature, because you are symbolically sweeping old habits and bad luck out the door along with the dust bunnies, leaving a clean surface on which to welcome the New Year and all its possibilities.  I still follow that tradition to some extent, getting rid of clothes I haven’t worn in a year and throwing out old broken and tired-out Christmas d├ęcor and even some unwanted pieces of furniture. It’s very therapeutic, this annual purge.

After taking down the Christmas tree, I like to move furniture around. This year I threw out the two old couches in the back room. Fergus was a bit distressed until he discovered the pillows had gone into his crate. They are perfectly wedged in there and he can’t get a grip to rip the heck out of them.
The Farmer is cleaning out his kitchen cupboards and drawers (his territory; I am forbidden to mess with his herbs and spices) to make room for his new cooking implements and gadgets. He too has the New Year’s urge to purge. I suspect the basement is next. I have warned the cats. All of their favourite perching spots are in jeopardy if they are atop items that we no longer need or can fix.

Another popular way to usher in a new year, particularly after all that holiday food and drink, is to launch an exercise program. Well my routine rarely extends beyond Pilates and yoga but since we are now hosting a student from Norway who was pretty much raised on cross-country skis, we decided to try and locate a pair for her so she can enjoy winter in the manner to which she is accustomed. The Farmer climbed up into the shed loft and pulled down a few dusty old pairs of skis and poles. My father-in-law also showed up with a couple more, and boots to match. They could have been left by one of his five offspring – now in their 50’s and 60’s…but we suspect he got them at a garage sale.
When we presented the many choices to Mina, she laughed. “I have only seen skis like that in a museum!” she said. Clearly they wouldn’t do. Her parents had her very own pair of ski boots shipped to her from home. A week later a brand new pair of Fischer skis (not to be confused with Fisher skis…) arrived on our doorstep. Then, as if it had been waiting, the snow arrived. In copious amounts.

On Boxing Day, the sun rose high and shone down warm on a thick blanket of new snow. Encouraged, I trudged out to the shed and pulled on a pair of boots. They fit perfectly over two pairs of socks. Next I dropped a pair of skis onto the snow in front of me and slid the boot into place. I pressed down on the fastener with my pole. Click. They fit. No excuses now. I set off across the barnyard, sinking about six inches below the snow. The dog ran ahead of me and blazed a trail. It was hard work, and the most exercise I have had in months, but it was worth it. With no wind to deter me, I was thoroughly enjoying my trek.

At first I thought it was a whim of my own until I heard a swishing behind me. And a bit of panting. There was the Farmer, over-dressed in his farm gear, trying to catch up.

We had about 50 metres of romantic skiing together through the first section of our forest before my husband gave up on his skis, which kept popping off because they did not fit his boots. He will need an adjustment before he heads out again because walking back to the house was far more difficult than skiing out. And by adjustment I meant his ski equipment but it might also apply to his spine at this point.

Mina caught up and passed us, dressed in her streamlined ski gear and flashing lime green skis. She now has almost 200 acres to enjoy, with Fergus at her side. If we can figure out how to strap a toboggan to his butt he may also be put to good use blazing a trail through the freshly fallen snow.
Happy New Year, everyone.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If you give, you get, this Christmas

I don’t have a surplus of cash to donate at Christmastime, or any time of year. I can’t afford to put a bill in the kettle every time I encounter a Salvation Army bell ringer. And yet, I have found a way to give to their worthy cause this Christmas. I donate my time.

It sounds quite charitable of me – standing beside a kettle between the drafty double doors at the grocery store for two hours at a time. In reality, I am the one who benefits. Being a bell ringer is the gift I give myself during the hectic pre-holiday season.

Where would you rather be – standing in line in a packed shopping mall, overheated under your winter coat, feet and head aching from the effort of searching for every last item on your gift list – or bopping along to Christmas music, jingle bells in hand, greeting smile after smile?

After several years volunteering as a bell ringer, I have developed a system. First, you find out where you will be situated. If it’s the local liquor store, they don’t always like you to ring your bells, but they do have their own holiday music playing, which helps put people in the giving mood.

If you are at the local grocery or hardware store you may find it helpful to bring your own portable Bluetooth speaker along. Select the random Christmas playlist on your smartphone Spotify app and Bingo! You are a mobile Christmas karaoke party.

If equipped with a set of jingle bells, I suggest you tap it on your leg as you would a tambourine. It’s pretty hard to ignore a woman standing in your path who is having her own little Christmas celebration. Bang your bells to the music, and watch how many passers-by join in with the song. If you have a good voice you may even attempt to sing along – it all depends on your environment. You aren’t busking, after all. But there are several inspiring videos online of Salvation Army bell ringers who have turned the practice of kettle work into performance art. Just Google “Christmas bell ringer” and you will find everything from charming carolers to choreographed dance routines.

Most people don’t realize that the annual six-week fundraising campaign executed by the Salvation Army just before Christmas funds most of their programming for the rest of the year. When you are asked to put some of your spare change in the kettle, you are contributing to the Christmas Hamper program, supporting community dinners, and providing toys for children who might not otherwise receive a gift this year. But you are also helping to fund programs for young moms, providing business attire for hopeful interviewees, and building an emergency fund to benefit those who have lost their homes to fire or other natural disasters.

Christmas is a high-stress time for many. It’s an intense pressure-cooker of emotions. When you ring the bells at a kettle, many of the people you meet may be current or future beneficiaries of the Salvation Army. They visit the food bank to feed their families – many of them for the first time. They turn to the organization for help when there is nowhere else to turn – and they get the help they need.

When I’m working the kettle, some people come up and tell me their own personal experiences with the Salvation Army. I’d say about 1 in 3 people will actually stop and put some money in the kettle. But very rarely does someone pass by without meeting my eye and saying something. I’m too flashy to ignore.

I’m wearing a green felt elf hat with bells on it. My sweater features a fuzzy white polar bear adorned with Christmas lights that actually flash and change colours. I’m harmonizing to the music, and jingling my bells to the beat. You can walk by me without putting money in the kettle. You don’t even have to wish me a Merry Christmas. But most of you will smile, and I will smile back.
Working the kettle is my gift to myself. I walk out of there after two hours, layered in smiles and well-wishes. By being there, I am helping the charity to receive an average $100 per hour – more than I could ever afford to give on my own. It feels great.

There is still time for you to give this awesome gift to yourself. Take a stress break from your Christmas preparations and man the kettle for a couple hours in your own neighbourhood.