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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Until we meet again

We have said goodbye to our ninth and tenth International students. Mina has returned to Norway, and although Tega will not be returning to Nigeria, she has left our home to live with cousins in Ottawa for the summer. Tega will be living with another family in town when she returns in the fall for a few more Grade 12 credits to set her up for university in Canada. Mina has one more year of school in Norway – they do 13 years there, like we used to do in Canada.

Over the past six years we have hosted students for periods of one to ten months from the following places: China, Columbia, the Basque region of Spain, Brazil, and now Norway and Nigeria. Our first international student was John from the seaside city of Suzhou in China. He chose our home because he liked the idea of living on a farm. I think it is safe to say the novelty began to wear off after the first time he mucked out a horse stall. And it was definitely gone by the time he had to help use the snowblower on our long driveway.

John’s best friend from home was also in the area: Jerry was being hosted in Carleton Place. Jerry was really homesick, so the agency decided to let him move in with John at our house. It very soon became obvious that it wasn’t the greatest way for the boys to improve their fledgling English skills. They just spoke Chinese all the time at home. They did their year and went home for the summer. John didn’t make it back for year two. His poor study habits and introverted social nature made it impossible for him to have a successful international experience here in Canada. Apparently his father cancelled his return visit so that he could work in the family construction business and ‘pay back’ what had been spent on his year in Canada.

Jerry, on the other hand, took his summer back home to study English with a tutor. He returned to Canada confident and determined to succeed. He didn’t win any academic awards upon graduation from Grade 12, but he did win an award for his attitude and hard work. He was accepted to Algonquin College for Business, and returned a year later to the farm to show off his shiny new BMW and girlfriend.

The many local families who host International students (we have about 600 in the Upper Canada District School Board – UCDSB - alone) know it can be a challenge to get the kids out of their rooms, socialized, and living their Canadian experience. Teenagers prefer to be left alone in their rooms for the most part. Add to that the language barrier and social challenge of living in a new culture and you have quite a job on your hands. Sometimes it takes the full year to get the kids comfortable in their new environment – right before it is time to go home.

The students on the one-month ‘cultural exchange’ were a lot of fun because they didn’t have the same pressure on them as the school year kids. The short-stay students were just here to observe and experience. Every weekend they had activities planned with others from their group. They were basically on leave from school at home and never really had to study here. They had great attitudes, they didn’t really get homesick, and they were up for anything.

If you are considering hosting an international student in your home, I would suggest you do your research first. Introducing a new culture to your family can be an enlightening and educational experience, particularly for your own school-aged children. Check out Canada Homestay Network and MLI – Muskoka Language Institute. Those are two of the agencies that have placed students locally, both in the public (UCDSB) and the Catholic (CDSBEO) system.

If you take the time to make sure you are matched up with a student who fits well into your lifestyle (whether you are on a farm, into sports and family camping, etc.), you will gain a temporary new family member and if you are lucky, a lifelong friend.

The Farmer prefers to take his vacations in the dead of winter on a beach in the sunny south but after getting to know Mina and her culture I might be able to convince him to visit Norway someday. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights.


What's your story?

Hi there. I’m an Aries. Therefore, it’s safe to say I’ve been through a number of dramatic changes in my life – all self-imposed. You see, I’m what they call impulsive. I act on impulse. It’s in my nature to pursue my ideas before I have thought them through.

It’s how I ran off and got married, at 19, after six weeks of dating the boxing instructor at the gym where I was teaching aerobics.

My impulsive nature is what led me to move to Taipei, Taiwan in 2003.
Both of these decisions led me down paths that dramatically changed my life. But I have no regrets. Good things came out of rash decisions. I have been lucky.

Everyone has a story. If you’re like me, you write them down. I have been compulsively writing my life story every week since I was about 12 years old. In 2003 I started writing a column about some of the crazy things I experienced while living in a different culture in Taiwan. Those stories were printed twice a month in The Kemptville Weekender.

People started following my stories, and writing me letters with questions. They wanted to know about the food, the language, the cultural differences, and the living arrangements. Rather than responding to their emails, I answered by writing a column. My experience in Taiwan seemed to boil down to three main elements: the traffic was nuts, the food was mysterious, and the culture was a bit stifling.

In Taipei City at rush hour, two lanes of traffic can become four, before your eyes. Scooters are forced up on sidewalks and you have to look both ways before stepping out of a shop – never mind crossing the street.

Taiwanese food is very Americanized but the traditional Chinese fare can be a bit scary. You never can be sure what you are eating. My trick was to ask what part of the body this dish would improve. For example, if they say the food will give you better eyesight, chances are you are eating something with the eyeballs intact. If they say the dish will give you a clear complexion, you are likely eating pig skin or chicken skin. It’s a pretty easy way to find out what is on your plate when it isn’t immediately identifiable.

Taipei hosts 4 million people in an area the size of Ottawa. This makes for some very cozy living conditions. People give up their sense of personal space – or maybe they never had it in the first place. They look in your shopping cart to see what you bought. They stand right up next to you on the bus or train – I mean you can feel their bodies pressing up against you. I guess it’s just a fact of life in an overcrowded space. But it is something I never got used to.

I never felt unsafe in Taiwan, - perhaps because I was a gwei-lo, or “white ghost”. It’s bad luck to mess with one of us, so I was left alone. It’s a great experience, to live in another culture. I think everyone should do it, at least for a few months. Learn about what makes other people tick, and you will learn about yourself at the same time.

Back in Canada, I became reacquainted with an old family friend – a professor and colleague of my mother’s at Kemptville College. We spent a year entertaining, carpooling and coordinating our five teenaged daughters and barely had time to get to know each other. Finally, after a year, he proposed. A few months later, I became The Accidental Farmwife – once again documenting my daily life in a weekly column.

My columns have been published online and in two books and I have followers all over the world. I get emails from people who are fascinated by my experience, and people who are going through a similar experience.

My life is not that extraordinary. We all have grand stories to tell. The trick is to tell it well. Record the moments using all your senses: sight, sound, smell, hearing and taste. Lead the reader through your experience. It will be therapeutic for you, and it will connect you to a community of likeminded individuals by a common keyword or phrase.

You don’t have to write a column or publish a book of your life story. Just start a blog. I would read it. I find personal experiences to be fascinating. We are all on different paths, according to the decisions we have made, impulsive or not.

Plans for a do-nothin' summer

Summer arrives this week. This year, I’m planning to make the most of it. I find if you don’t plan ahead for this sort of thing, you blink and just like that, summer is over.

Each summer we pack our weekends with a number of events that take us away from home. We go camping, we rent a cottage, we visit friends and we travel to take part in festivals and celebrations. Even if it’s just for a few hours and not overnight, it takes us away from a day on the farm. This year is going to be different.

I’m not at the Farmer’s Market this year. I gave up my market space so that a farmer who is working hard to produce local food can reach his customers on Sunday afternoons. I used to schlep my tent, tables and boxes of books out to the car every Sunday and spend approximately five hours of my weekend in the hot sun. While sales were good, I really wanted to be at home. Reading a book. Weeding my garden. Sitting on the porch with my husband.

I’m also not working weekends this summer. Last year my job was busiest on weekends – working at the liquor store – so although I saw most of my friends and knew where the parties were each week – I didn’t have the energy to go anywhere.  This year I’m sleeping in on Saturdays. Making a big breakfast on Sundays and enjoying my coffee on the porch. I’m parking the car on Friday and not moving it til Monday morning unless I absolutely have to.

Things will come up. They always do. And we have certain things we are looking forward to – like the Kemptville Live Music Festival – which will take up the majority of one weekend in July. But for the most part, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be home. With my dog. He’s tired of being shoved in his crate while I hop in the car and zoom from one event to the next. He wants me to stay home too. It’s no fun playing fetch by yourself.

This plan will take a little organization and creativity, I know. And I might have to turn down the occasional invitation if it’s going to mean I have zero downtime on any given weekend. We are going to stay local when possible, even when we are ‘going out’.

I even found a way to get my International students to Parliament Hill on Canada Day without having to take them myself: my daughter is going via Uber and they can come along. That’s great news to me because I don’t do well in crowds and the last time I was on the Hill on July 1st a flying beer bottle hit me in the back of the head.

The Farmer has his summer project – he’s building a house on Bass Lake near Lombardy. That means I will have someplace to go if I really want to get away from home for a day – but it also means he will be happily occupied doing his favourite thing so I don’t have to worry about entertaining him. I can do my own favourite things. One of them might be sitting on his newly built dock, my toes in the water, while I sip a cold beer and read a book.

We do have one week-long getaway planned that I am really excited about. We will be renting the same cottage we rented a few years ago, on the Big Rideau. I do love me a cottage getaway. It’s a heckuva lot of work, because you have to pack up everything you might possibly need for every kind of weather, activity, menu plan and surprise guest. Then you have to clean the place top to bottom when you arrive, because mice nest in the weirdest places (like the stove – which you won’t discover until you are heating it up to cook Sunday dinner…). Then you enjoy yourself for a few days, floating around the lake on an air mattress, roasting marshmallows and singing around the campfire at night, sleeping in each morning. And before you know it, the week is over and you have to do everything in reverse in order to go home.

Summer in Canada. It’s arrives this week, and aren’t we happy to see it. My goodness you are a beautiful season, Summer. Let’s just hope you are in a good mood until the end of September. We have plans – to do nothing.

The world is a small place when you are an Internet scammer

I have a pretty public online profile. I’m easily searchable and complete strangers can discover quite a few details about my daily life just by reading my blog posts. I’m an open book, so to speak. This is what makes me such an ideal vehicle for an Internet scam.

Having been in the media for over a decade, I’m pretty good at spotting a scam when it arrives via email or telephone call. That’s why I’ve never been a victim myself. However, last week I was notified that my name and photo had been used in a scam to defraud someone of quite a bit of money. This revelation kind of makes me sick to my stomach.

It’s called a romance scam, and it comes in a number of different forms. Sometimes the fraudster will actually meet their target in person and invest several months in a fake relationship, pretending to fall in love with their victim before taking them for a hefty chunk of change. In this case, the scammer just used my identity to fool someone into giving up the dough. Here’s how it works:

The scammer looks for an ideal personality online – someone who has provided a number of specific details about their family, their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes. Then, adopting the name and photo of that person, they contact someone who appears to be lonely and looking for love. Often the profiles of these victims reveal that they are not exactly fluent in the language of social media. The have limited activity online and they most likely aren’t familiar enough with fake posts to know when they are being scammed.

The scammer has nothing to lose – and could walk away with quite a bit of money, if everything goes in his favour. I say ‘his’ because the stereotypical Internet scammer is a young man from Nigeria. There, the community of people who do this kind of thing for a living has actually grown to sub-culture status. They are known as the 419’ers – or The Yahoo Boys – because 419 is the code for fraud in their country, and their vehicle of choice was originally email. Now they are taking their trade to social media, such as Facebook.

I could have been chosen because I have a Nigerian student living with me. Perhaps a friend of a friend of one of her friends found me on her list of connections. Or maybe it’s just an unhappy coincidence that I was chosen. In any case, it was unlucky for a certain man named Michael from Riverside, California.

Michael reached out to me via Messenger last month to let me know that he had been scammed. Someone contacted him, using my name and photo. They started an online relationship. At some point, after their emotional ‘affair’ became quite intimate and a certain amount of trust had been developed, the scammer went in for the kill – and asked for money. Perhaps he (posing as me) said his mother needed an operation – or he needed money to travel to see his dying father. Pulling on the heartstrings, he manipulated the emotions of his victim until he got what he asked for. Michael immediately wired a rather large sum of money to the scammer, thinking he was helping a woman he had developed feelings for. The scammer took the cash and then likely closed both his bank account and social media account, and disappeared.

Upset that he relationship had ended so abruptly, Michael began an online search and found me. In his message, he revealed exactly what had happened to him. Then, showing that he was still quite upset and confused, he wrote, “by the way, I am not getting in contact with you for the purpose of getting any monies back or to continue any ‘romance’  that I perceived we might have had…”
I felt really awful to hear that my name and image were used to cheat someone out of money. I know from covering these scams in the media that there is really no recourse for the victim. The scammer typically uses a computer at an Internet café – or on a burner phone that cannot be traced. I told Michael that he should report the incident to his local anti-fraud centre, and I told him I would do the same.

He may not get his money back but if the investigation leads to an IP address in another country – like Nigeria – maybe he will at least get some closure on the situation, and stop looking for the ‘woman’ who stole his money.

The stars aligned for a perfect June wedding

Two years ago, a little photo popped up on my Facebook feed. It was a close-up of my daughter and her boyfriend and they were holding up a little heart that declared the date “5.12.2018.”

My heart leaped into my throat and I immediately thought, “BABY.” I don’t put a whole lot of thought into my immediate reactions. Of course they weren’t announcing a pending delivery. The date was two years off. She isn’t an elephant. And although my daughter has occasionally announced something to me via social media – like that new tattoo – I would like to think that the announcement of a coming grandchild would be done more privately. In fact they were announcing their coming wedding day.

The date was significant because he likes the number 5 and she likes the number 12. But when Mother’s Day weekend rolled around, chilly and wet, they decided to move the date forward by a bit – to the long weekend in May. That got changed again in order to match schedules with the photographer. Paulina wanted Elenora Luberto to take her photos because she is a friend of the family and has taken our photos – both personal and professional, for years.

The couple decided to choose a date two years away because Paulina needed to finish school and get a job. They had been living together for years so there wasn’t any rush. The bride-to-be opened up a Pinterest account and got started choosing wedding décor in her spare time. And thus the royal wedding planning began.

Little did I know, by May 2018 I would be ready to hunt down the people who inspired her on Pinterest. The ideas she found looked simple enough: a swing made of grape vines (we have tons of those hanging from the trees on our farm), charcuterie boards with live edges (the Farmer offered to make some) and a photo backdrop covered in peeling vintage wallpaper with an overstuffed chair in front. They turned out to be much more difficult to create than I could have imagined. It’s very difficult to pull grapevines out of trees in the spring. Those fresh new vines are hanging on for dear life. And do you know how difficult it is to find wallpaper these days?

Paulina bought a wedding dress at the very first sale we went to in the spring of 2016 – but one month before the wedding we were hunting for accessories and she found the dress of her absolute dreams at Bridals By Almor in Winchester. That’s the thing about wedding dresses. You don’t know what you want till you try it on and discover how it transforms you into a svelte goddess – a hippie bride – or a woodland fairy princess. We all agreed it was the perfect dress for Paulina – but it was four sizes two big and there was no time to order a custom made one. This dress had to be completely rebuilt.

In the last few days leading up to the wedding, it was all hands on deck. We had to wait until the day of the wedding to actually set things up because it rained like crazy the day before. But we made it, with just a few minutes to spare. I think everyone was a bit shocked that we managed to keep the bride and groom (who are rarely on time) on schedule. And just like at Christmas when Paulina keeps shopping until the stores close Christmas Eve – she seemed to keep adding ideas to her wedding plan right up until the final moments. I was so happy when the day finally arrived, so we could stop planning.

This event was so meaningful – from the seedling trees that were given as guest gifts to the locations themselves (his family farm for the ceremony and tree planting: our farm for the reception). At the end of the day the Farmer and I looked around and realized that every single person involved in the wedding – from the caterer to the musicians to the guy who put up the tent – were connected to the bride and groom in some way. There were no strangers at this event. It was on our farm. And yes, it took a great deal of planning and effort on the part of many but as one of the groomsmen said a few times, now we have the memories. We can look around our property for years to come and remember this moment. I’d have to say it was worth every moment – but no, we don’t want to do it again anytime soon. Next time we’re hiring people to do all the things. And no, the farm is not for rent as a wedding venue. Not yet, anyway.

It's time to launch my 2018 campaign...for a goat

When we had sheep, horses and cattle keeping the thistles, grasses and weeds down on the pasture were not a problem. But now that we have no grazers amongst us, our property just beyond the house yard is looking rather wild and unkempt. In my opinion, what we need is a goat. I may start a campaign.

My campaign will not go unresisted. The Farmer has a vendetta against goats, with good reason. When he was working in Manitoba for the government he drove a rental car to various client farms. One hot day, he left the windows down on his Kia to circulate the air. While he was inside speaking with the property owner, a tribe of unruly goats took advantage of the situation and climbed into his vehicle. They didn’t just scratch the exterior of the car doors with their sharp little hooves on the way in the window. They ate everything they could find on the inside.

When my husband (who was not my husband at this time) returned to his car, he was amazed (among other emotions) to discover that his briefcase had been chewed apart, and the contents had been reduced to crumbs. Worst of all, the upholstery on the seats of the government-issued vehicle had been ripped apart with tiny goat teeth and the stuffing eaten or thrown about the car. One goat was still inside, gnawing on the coffee cup holder which no doubt had added flavour from daily use.
The Farmer opened the door, grabbed the goat by the horns and removed it from the vehicle. Then he sat down on his hollowed-out car seat, slammed the door and drove away, vowing to never deal with goats again. This is what I am up against.

The Farmer’s case against goats was compounded one day when we visited friends who used to own them. Jennifer told us of when they had guests over for a barbecue, and one man parked a shiny classic sports car in the drive. Don’t worry; the windows were up….but the curious goats could not resist the temptation to confront the other goats they saw reflected in the gleaming exterior of the car. While the owner was enjoying a beer and burger on the back porch, they quietly and repeatedly dented in the doors and side panels of the circa 1968 Mustang. I think the man switched to whiskey after he saw the damage.

But seriously. Goats would be perfect! They are much like sheep in their temperament, only they are far more intelligent. They are quite mischievous and get bored if you don’t provide items for them to play with, climb on, chew and head-butt. So you build them ramps and plateaus and hiding spots and leaping platforms. You give them chew-balls and tug ropes. You let them be goats. Then you sit back and enjoy the show.

Our property beyond our half-acre of yard is basically glacial moraine. It has huge rocks embedded in and protruding from the earth, as deposited there centuries ago by a sliding glacier, apparently. This makes it nearly impossible to cut the grass, even with a bush whacker. Those rocks would destroy any equipment. Goats, however, would be thrilled. Fresh grass, meadow flowers and thistles, and rocks to climb on! Heaven. And a happy goat makes delicious milk, I’m sure. I wonder if I could figure out how to milk one. Perhaps there is a YouTube tutorial on that…

I have launched successful campaigns in the past. The trick is to let the Farmer believe getting a goat is his idea. We need two, because one would be lonely. Also two would stand a better chance against a roaming coyote, and they could keep each other warm in the winter.

This farm is pretty quiet without livestock. Our guests will be bored while poolside this summer if they don’t have anything to watch and comment on. Fergus the Golden Retriever can’t be a one-man show; that is exhausting. And the turkeys, while entertaining, won’t be here for long!

This is my proposal. I think it’s fairly convincing. Goats are entertaining, they provide milk (who knows – maybe I can even learn how to make goat’s milk soap!) and they keep the weeds down so we don’t have to.

Wish me luck in my campaign. I’m goin’ in.

Your Thanksgiving turkey is growing in our barn

I was running our Golden Retriever, Fergus, in the back field the other day when I noticed that the sweet, fresh honeysuckle smell had returned. I love to fill my lungs with that scent. I thought of Paulina’s wedding we would be hosting in less than a month, and hoped the fragrance would linger at least until June. Then I had a disturbing thought. What if a nearby farmer decided to spread manure that weekend? To those of us who live on farms it can be a slightly annoying, off-putting odour. To some of the gentrified city folk who will be attending our celebration, however, it could be extremely offensive.

I can’t control the actions of neighbouring farmers. I can barely control my own Farmer! A few weeks ago we discussed where to put the incoming chicks and poults. My husband had ordered several dozen of each, as we do about every second year. I told him he couldn’t put them in the barn closest to the house, because the bride and her party plan to take that building over for a wedding bar. We are going to move all of the horse tack and workshop tools to one side, cover the walls and ceiling with diaphanous white wedding tulle, and set up rough-hewn boards of charcuterie for guests to snack on while they order a drink. That is no place for a brood of smelly, ankle-biting chicks.
“No problem,” he said. “I decided I’m going to cancel the order.”

So a few more weeks went by, and turkey poult day arrived. The Farmer got a call that his order was ready for pickup. He had to sheepishly admit that he had forgotten to cancel it. He set up a heat lamp and a coop for the turkeys, up on the table in the shed. The same table where we plan to serve drinks in less than a month. I stood and watched, silently. Then I picked up a peeping bird and made eye contact. I had forgotten how much I enjoy having tiny creatures on the farm to care for and love. Ok. The little twerps can stay. But we are going to have to move them to the bigger barn, as soon as we are sure they are all going to make it.

The first few days of a bird’s life outside the incubator can be quite precarious. The slightest draft and they huddle together for warmth. Not all of them survive that smothering situation. The first night, the temperature dropped to just above zero. I woke at about 2am and pulled another blanket up over me. I thought about the turkeys, and hoped their heat lamp was enough. I could see the red gleam through the barn window.

The next morning, all birds were present and accounted for. Now we just have to ensure they are in a place that is secure from marauding racoons, skunks and weasels. It’s quite a responsibility. So they have to be close enough to the house to keep the predators away, and far enough away that we cannot smell that distinctive chicken poop smell at the wedding. This will be a challenge.

We have a fenced area next to the barn that was once a kennel for a sheepdog. I suggested putting the chickens in there and building them a coop for shelter. The raccoons can’t get in, there is a door on it and we can stretch chicken wire over the top like a roof. Raccoons can climb. The Farmer said, “if the raccoons want to get in, the raccoons will get in. Remember our camping trip?” He raised one eyebrow at me.

Of course I remember the camping trip. I had left my bag of trail mix in the ‘front room’ of our tent, where we had been playing cards after dinner. That room had no floor so the raccoons easily lifted the walls up with their little hands and crawled in for a bedtime snack. When the Farmer unzipped the tent to see what that horrible crunching and gurgling sound was, he came face to face with Ricky Raccoon. That was alarming. Raccoons are quite resourceful. I don’t know how to keep my turkeys and chicks safe from them.

The spare room in the basement is beginning to look rather appealing. I kept 37 kittens in there once. I’m sure it could hold a few dozen birds. At least until after the wedding. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Farmwife wore....Prada?

Approximately 85% of the items in my closet are from secondhand stores. We have three of these shops in Kemptville: The Salvation Army Thrift Store, To Be Continued Consignment, and The Score. One of my favourite things to do when I have time between appointments is to browse the new weekly arrivals. You never know what you will find.

Many times you will find clothes in these shops that haven’t even been worn. The Score, in particular, carries clothing that I saw just last week on the tables at Costco in Barrhaven. This week they are hanging just as you walk in the front door, with the tags and size stickers still on them. For about half the original price.

One hot summer day last year I was flipping through the items in the “new” section of the store when I came across a brightly coloured patchwork cotton skirt with the face of a Japanese woman and a dragon in bright emerald green and silver on the front. It reminded me of a crazy patchwork skirt I once owned from Asia. I looked at the price tag. The original $129.00 had been covered over with an orange sticker reading $21.99. A deal in any country for a never-worn designer skirt by the Spanish brand Desigual.

The stores have all done their seasonal turnover now, and they are giving great deals on cool weather items that they need to clear out. I decided to have a quick look the other day, and I found quite a few things in my size. As I was cashing out, I looked up on the wall where the handbags are displayed. (By the way – if you buy a handbag in a thrift store and it is a bit grimy inside, take one of those germ-killing wet wipes and give it a good swipe. Don’t forget the inner corners and pockets. You can also leave it out on the porch overnight with the wet wipe still inside. This will disinfect your bag and leave it smelling fresh as new).

I saw a cute little leather purse. It was two-toned in shades of brown, a classic vintage style. It looked like something from the 60’s. I’m not much of a purse person - I lug most of my things around in a huge tote bag that stays in my car. But when I stepped closer and read the label, I received a bit of a shock. Prada. Price tag? $14.99. I grabbed the purse off the hook and placed it discreetly in front of the cashier.

“Did you see this?!” I asked her in a hushed voice.

“Yeah! You never know what you will find…” she smiled and calmly rang up my purchases.

I grabbed my bag and hustled out of the store.

At home, I Googled “small leather Prada bag”. I scrolled through the photos but couldn’t find an image of the one I was holding. The average price of a Prada bag appeared to be $2,000. About the price of a week in Mexico…or a small secondhand car. I was pretty sure my bag was a fake. After all – I had lived in Taiwan for three years. I own a pair of knockoff Puma sneakers that could easily pass for originals but they cost me ten bucks on the night market. I’ve seen the back alley pop up shops and the dingy warehouses full of “Coach” and “Louis Vuitton” purses. The chances of the purse I bought for fifteen dollars being a real designer bag were pretty slim.

But then…what if someone was doing their spring cleaning and accidentally threw the purse in the donation bin? I decided to put the bag in the closet instead of posting the image on social media like I normally do when I find something awesome. I was afraid that post would prompt an immediate response: “Hey! Where did you get that?! That’s my $2,000 Prada bag that I lost last year!!”

Finally, I turned to YouTube and searched “Prada bags: real vs. fake.” I watched three videos that all confirmed, my bag is not real. It’s a really nice-looking copy. I might give it to Mom for Mother’s Day – after all, I inherited my appreciation of great thrift store finds from her. You probably won’t catch me out in public with it, though. I don’t want people to think I spent $2,000 on a tiny handbag that doesn’t even hold a book and water bottle!


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Hooray Hooray it's the first of May!

“Hooray! Hooray! It’s the first of May! Outdoor *bleeeeeeep* begins today!”

Every year, without fail, my father would holler this anthem at the top of his lungs. Where the saying came from, I have no idea. I am not proficient in searches of the Internet for things of this nature. And I’m afraid what will pop up on my screen if I put those words in the search bar. Some also refer to the 8th of May as opposed to the first. In our part of the world, the 8th might buy you a bit more warmth for your frolicking en plein air. In any case, it is a tradition in many families to holler this silly proclamation each year, in celebration of finer weather for all outdoor activities.

The first Saturday of May, on the other hand, is recognized in many countries as International Naked Gardening Day. Apparently it began in Seattle, of all places, about 13 years ago, by a group of nudists. It’s meant to be a celebration of the human body and a day to get in touch with nature. I’m imagining this is likely more popular in warmer climes, where fewer bugs exist. As soon as our snow disappears, the blackflies arrive on the scene. They persist throughout the month of May, so unless you don’t mind getting covered in extremely itchy little bites, I suggest you slip back into your pants and shirt.

When I was young my parents had a friend who liked to garden in the nude. She had a sign at the end of her driveway asking incoming visitors to honk before approaching. It was a long driveway, thankfully, giving her time to pull her clothes back on before her guests arrived. I just hope she wore a good SPF in her sunscreen because she was a redhead and I imagine she burned easily.

I don’t see the appeal to naked gardening or doing other things in the nude out of doors. I’m not much of a risk-taker, and I don’t like getting eaten by bugs. I’m pretty careful about wearing protection from the sun, and I get enough cuts and scrapes while squatting in the garden while fully dressed. I can just imagine the injuries if I was buck naked.

I must admit, however, I did try it, once. We have a completely private back yard so I felt it was safe to be impulsive and spontaneous. I took all my clothes off one summer day and lay them out on the back porch before stepping out to weed the garden in my birthday suit. The experience was not exactly freeing, however. It pretty much had the opposite effect. I was feeling quite exposed and sheepish, and looked up, searching the sky for any sign of the Google Earth satellite. I remembered how surprised I was to discover that you could see those images in great detail, right down to a coffee cup left on a patio table. I was contemplating my exposure when I heard the unmistakeable crunch of car tires on the driveway. I had about two minutes to run back to the porch and pull my clothes on before my sister-in-law poked her head around the corner of the house to greet me.

“Hi! Whatcha….hey. What’s going on?”

I was just pulling my shirt over my head. I decided to come clean. She might as well know.

“It’s World Naked Gardening Day. WNGD…”

“What? What are you talking about?”

I explained, and she laughed, and reminded me of the Google Earth Satellite. That got me wondering. If Google captured images of a private nature, would they allow them to be broadcast over their mapping network? I began to worry about all of those young lovers, gallivanting in the great outdoors, naked as the day they were born. Imagine someone is searching the area on Google Earth, looking for prime farming or hunting land, and they are confronted with the image of a naked couple in an open field. That just doesn’t seem right. It’s meant to be a private experience, after all.

My advice to anyone wanting to celebrate the beginning of May with one or more naked outdoor activities is this: remember to slather on the sunscreen before exposing your private parts to the midday sun. And if you decide to foil the Google Earth cameras by heading into a forested area for tree cover, don’t forget your bug spray.


Monday, April 9, 2018

Standing on the hill, staring down the other side

It’s normal to experience some symptoms of vernalagnia or spring fever at this time of year. The longer daylight hours, warmth of the sun and fresh scent of new growth in the air just make you want to get up and do something. Some people cut their hair, redecorate a room or buy a new car. Others quit their jobs, move to another city or leave their relationship. Spring Fever can get quite dramatic.

I must confess, I have done most of these things, and yes, their happening coincided with the arrival of spring. I do feel a sudden burst of positive energy when the snow melts away and flowers begin to appear. It could also have something to do with the fact that life is short, I’m not gettin’ any younger, and my birthday is in spring. This year I am turning 50.

Someone asked me how it feels to hit the half century mark. Well, it feels like any other birthday, really. I find myself taking a few minutes to meditate on my life: my blessings, my failings, my leave-behinds. Fifty years is a long time. It used to be “old.” I remember seeing a photo when I was in my teens of a homely woman in horn-rimmed glasses and a stiff-looking dress and being told she was forty. That image stuck in my head for a long time. I remember someone else saying that after a certain age, most women just “let themselves go.” I wondered what that meant. Did men also let themselves go? And what happened when they did?

Honestly, for the first time in my life, I have got to say I feel truly comfortable in my own skin. I feel good. I like this older version of myself. She is more interesting.  I do my best to treat my body kindly, to stretch my limbs into action each morning and into rest at night, but my sneaker-clad feet no longer pound the pavement in an attempt to whittle myself down a size.

I slather on the sunscreen and moisturizer, drink tons of water and try to limit fried foods and sugar…but life is too short to always be on a diet. And I have a few friends who were extremely vigilant with their diet and exercise, and they got cancer anyway. So I’m going to enjoy a glass of wine, a fresh piece of bread and an exquisite slice of cheese once in a while.

The one thing that really seems to have changed now that I am 50 is my professional outlook. I used to dream of becoming an acquisitions editor at a big-city publishing house, or project manager at a top-notch marcom firm. But I no longer have the desire to work long hours, even if it means a big paycheque.

In some ways, I guess I missed the boat on that one. Like a woman in her 40’s who suddenly realizes she has missed the window where she can have children, I guess I have missed my opportunity to have a big career. And you know what? That’s fine. I got married the first time when I was 19. I guess I always had my focus trained on something other than my education and professional life. Then it was being a young wife and mother. Now it’s heading into retirement with my partner and best friend.

I missed Easter dinner on the weekend. I lay in bed with the stomach flu, listening to thirty family members and friends laughing and singing and telling stories over turkey, ham and all the trimmings. One by one my daughters and friends popped in to check on me. As I lay there, listening, I imagined them carrying on this weekly tradition without me some day. Not to be morbid – but you never know what life will bring.

I am standing on the hill. On the downslope, I get to take my husband to Europe, so he can see where his beloved Spaghetti Bolognese and Valpolicella comes from. I can get more involved in my community, helping to make change happen. I can write another book.

There will be dozens more Sunday dinners to host, family weddings to attend and grandchildren to love.. Life is not what I imagined it would be at 50 – but in so many ways it is far better than I ever dreamed. I’m an Accidental Farmwife, outstanding in her field.


We aren't in Europe, therefore Fergus got fixed

I had no idea that whether or not to fix your dog would be such a controversial subject. I just assumed that when the Ferg turned 6 months old, it would be Off With His Parts. I wasn’t looking forward to having my beloved pup go under the knife, of course, but I just assumed part of being a responsible pet owner was to get my dog fixed. Apparently it is not that simple.

Most breeders and vets recommend you wait to neuter male Golden Retrievers, until they are at least a year old. Some say doing the surgery earlier will stunt the dog’s growth. Others warn of other medical issues, like joint disorders or even cancer. One controversial study says that neutering your Golden at all will triple its chance of getting cancer.

But what about the difficulties associated with dogs that don’t have the surgery? Testosterone mood swings seem to overtake my otherwise fairly well-trained, beautifully-mannered dog at the most inopportune moments. Like when we’re at the dog park, just sniffing out the perimeter. Along comes a cute female of some tiny breed. Her associate is a large, lean, exotic looking beast with bronze fur and gold-coloured eyes. He postures around the female, eyeing Fergus. Fergus catches the look, backs off a bit, then…wait. What’s that scent? The female must be approaching her heat. As he does when he doesn’t understand or is frightened by something, Ferg reacts by snarling. He snapped at the little female, who had done absolutely nothing to deserve such a rude outburst.

I had never seen Fergus act so badly before. I lunged toward his collar and he did a little Houdini move and wriggled right out of it. I was left holding the leash while my dog took off after the little female. Just then, a man emerged from the woods where the dogs had been. As the dogs rushed past him, he bent over and scooped Fergus up into his arms.

“Your dog fixed yet?” he asked.
“Nope,” I responded.
“You’re going to have this problem until he is,” he responded.

Embarrassed and confused, I thanked him for catching my dog, and marched Ferg out of the dog park like an admonished teen. It was our shortest visit to the dog park, ever. About ten minutes from start to finish.

We had put off the neutering surgery because of advice we had received from a friend and a breeder (not ours), who knew of the lymphatic cancer study. The vet and our breeder said we could put the surgery off until the dog started to display poor behaviour. (Does ripping heads off your stuffed toys and molesting your dog bed count as poor behaviour, I wondered?) Someone suggested we wait until age 1 to get Fergus fixed, but not to leave it until after age 2, as that presented a whole new bunch of problems. Someone even pointed out that if we lived in Europe, we probably wouldn’t be getting our dog neutered at all. It just isn’t the custom there, apparently. My head was spinning from all the advice and I didn’t know what to do.

Then I decided, since the Ferg was temporarily under self-imposed ban from the dog park, we could at least go and visit Cousin Rupert at my daughter Annie’s house. I loaded Fergus into the car and off we went, happy as could be.

When we arrived at my daughter’s house, Fergus made a beeline for Rupert. He displayed some extremely rude behaviour around the older dog, and then proceeded to urinate on the floor. All right. That’s enough, I thought.

I went home and booked Fergus’ neutering appointment for the week after he turned one. He is now lying at my feet, in a slightly medicated snooze. He is wearing a onesie that snaps open for bathroom breaks and keeps him away from his stitches the rest of the time. He is eating and sleeping and doing all the things he is supposed to be doing while recovering from surgery.

I’m hoping being neutered will make Ferg a little more docile, a little easier to train, a little less likely to chase the neighbour’s chickens or to run down the road when his radar collar battery dies out. And soon, very soon, we will be back at his beloved dog park, romping through the woods with his other four-legged friends.


The future of Kemptville Campus is bright

One of my earliest memories at Kemptville College was climbing up into the branches of a thick maple tree that stood between my mother’s building and the cafeteria. I climbed up with one hand because in my other hand I held a small, hard-covered Nancy Drew novel. I was working my way through all 99 in the series.

A few minutes after my arrival, class let out for the day. From my perch in the tree, I could see a long stream of college kids filtering down the sidewalk and into the dining room. The leaves sheltered me from their view. Occasionally I would catch some of their conversation. I remember the boys in their boots and corduroy jackets, the girls with their long hair and ponchos and wide-legged Howick 4-star jeans. Maybe I imagined I might marry one of those long-legged cowboys one day. I would, actually, but it would take me to nearly age 40 and it would be a professor; not a student.

In those days, students showed their prize cattle on the sawdust-covered floor of the Purvis building. Over the years the building has had many different purposes, including a library and event venue. The floor is now covered and more than one young couple has taken advantage of the natural light flooding through the high windows to exchange vows there. My sister got married on the college campus.

Cathy and I knew the administration building well, with its echoing halls and massive staircases. Our mother was the executive assistant to half a dozen different college directors during her nearly forty-year career. We would walk to the college after school to wait for her to finish transcribing her notes of mysterious shorthand onto her state-of-the-art electric typewriter. She dressed neatly, a scarf tied at her neck, her trademark Beaujolais lipstick on her lips. While directors came and went, Mom was the constant in the main office. She knew where everything was.

We went to the College Royal, staff barbecues and parties, and we trekked to the new Agroforestry Station when it was built, to eat pancakes with college maple syrup and taffy on the snow. My sister and I did not attend the college as students, because neither of us had particularly agricultural aspirations. Still, it was a very familiar place to us. It was an important part of Kemptville, and its biggest employer.

In the late ‘90s, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food passed the college over to the University of Guelph. The college brand changed a bit, and the university took over marketing and recruiting students. For a variety of reasons enrolment began to dwindle over the next two decades. In 2014, the University made a business decision. It would not be accepting new students for the coming term. It was closing Kemptville College, just a few years before its 100th birthday.

The Eastern Ontario agricultural community rallied support as the Municipality of North Grenville fought to keep its college open. The provincial government assigned someone to conduct research into the school, its assets and potential for the future. A task force was developed and a public town hall was held to hear from members of the community. I attended as a media representative, and I was live on social media throughout the session. I posted quotes and photos of speakers so that interested parties across Eastern Ontario who were unable to attend the meeting could still follow along with the discussion. Overnight I gained 300 new followers on Twitter, most of them farmers.

Over the next year and a half, the Municipality entered into discussions with a number of different educational and agricultural entities, in an attempt to strike up a business partnership with the college.
No knight in shining armour appeared to save the school, but lease agreements were made with two different French schools. The tenants are making themselves comfortable for the long term, investing in the facilities.

And now the Municipality has acquired “a significant portion” of Kemptville Campus. Four years after the announcement that the college would close, the doors remain open. A new election year is upon us. Residents of North Grenville wait to hear what the new Kemptville Campus will look like.
The Municipality is planning to establish a non-profit organization, much like the one that began the Ferguson Forestry Centre. This body will work to bring tenants into a new educational, 
environmental and low-carbon community hub on campus. Those leaseholders will pay the bills to keep the college buildings maintained and operational.

That is the plan for the future. Hopefully it will grow organically to include connections with innovative partners in sustainable farming, energy-saving greenhouses, local food and more. It’s a bit of a question mark for many, but I for one am excited about the possibilities.


In which the Farmwife takes one for the team

I knew we had a problem when I came home and saw a stuffed toy in the driveway. It was the same stuffed hippo/unicorn I had returned to the neighbours the day before. Fergus loved it because it had floppy bits that would rattle when he shook it. But the appearance of the toy on our property meant that Fergus had been to theirs. Over his boundary and through his zap zone. His wireless containment system was no longer working.

I went into the house and Mina confirmed my suspicions.

“The neighbour brought him home. She wasn’t happy.”

I put Fergus on a leash and handed the end of the leash to the Farmer. Then I marched over to the neighbour’s house, where I apologized for my dog-son the chicken terrorist.
“Oh, it’s ok,” the neighbour said.

“No it’s not ok!” I replied. The poor hens were standing at the top of the ramp in the doorway of their chicken coop, too afraid to emerge. I learned that Fergus had been over to the neighbours’ house about half a dozen times in the last week, while we had been away in Mexico. More than once he had been caught with one of the big, decorative birds in his mouth. No doubt he loved the way they squawked when he chased them. I doubted he wanted to hurt them. For Fergus it was all about the chase. But now we had a coop full of hens with PTFD – Post Traumatic Ferg Disorder – and they were having trouble laying eggs because their nerves were shot. Something had to be done.

We replaced the batteries and Fergus’ collar beeped, but no longer zapped. What good is a beep without a zap? The system is meant to beep when Fergus goes across his pre-set boundary, and then it is meant to deliver a sound zapping – just like when you get static electricity from the carpet. This “static correction” is meant to teach the dog how far he can wander on his property. It’s meant to keep him home and out of trouble. Usually, it works.

I went to the local pet store to replace the collar, which I thought had worn out. I discovered a new collar cost nearly $300 – the same as a whole new unit. I decided to check out the website and call the company before spending all that dough. Sure enough, they said my problem was more likely that the system required a reset. It was still beeping, after all. It wasn’t completely dead.

The base transistor of the wireless system can’t be anywhere near metal. If it is, it might short circuit. Even a power surge or electrical storm can cause this to happen. I moved the transistor base and, with the help of the lovely call centre gentleman from Atlanta with the southern accent who kept calling me “ma’am”, I reset the connection.

The next step was to test the zapping mechanism.

“When your kids were little, you tried the medicine before you fed it to your children, right?” the call-centre Southerner reasoned.

“Yes, but I didn’t get zapped,” I complained.

“It’s just a little prickling,” he promised.

So I took a deep breath, pulled on my big-girl boots, grabbed the shock collar and walked out into the yard.

They actually have a drinking game in Taiwan that involves everyone at the table inserting one finger into this little disk. Someone pushes a button and the circuit on the disk goes around and around like a roulette wheel. Finally it stops, and the person whose finger is inserted in that particular portal gets zapped. I’ve never seen a woman play that game. I guess that kind of ‘fun’ is more appealing to men. Which makes me wonder, why didn’t I ask the Farmer to test the shock collar? Fergus the Golden Retriever is my husband’s semi-retirement dog, after all.

I passed the parked cars in the driveway. I crossed over the boundary of the yard, and the collar in my hand started to beep. I pressed the metal prongs against the palm of my hand, gritted my teeth and prepared to be zapped. Nothing happened. I took a few more steps down the laneway and suddenly I felt a prickling, like when you touch the cat after it has been rolling on the couch.

That’s it? Well, I suppose it would have more of a deterrent effect if the prongs were up against my neck, as they are on the dog. And I wasn’t about to try the collar on. It isn’t my size or colour.


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.