Last day of school….for two out of the three boys

Well, it’s day 2 of Summer 2015 and things are off to a memorable start. No matter what happens the rest of the summer, I shan’t forget Friday night around 10pm any time soon.

Having finally convinced five children to fall asleep, despite the house being a less-than-balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit, four adults sought refuge in the perpetually cold basement for nacho eating and reruns of Arrested Development watching. I heard the dull sound of childish footsteps in the hallway above us and bolted upstairs. Only to find my not-quite-awake 5.75 year old sitting at the computer desk, with his pants pulled down. Peeing all over the floor.

I yelled, ‘no! no!’ As if by yelling I could somehow suspend what had already begun. When the torrent continued, undeterred, I had no choice but to consider the situation: a half asleep boy, using my desk chair, as a toilet, and howl with laughter. Then I ran down to the basement and asked the professor to deal with the situation. And then, because I’m a mother, and mostly because our guests may have implied that my response was somehow less-than, I returned upstairs and mopped the floor.

For the third time in eleven hours.

True story. Especially the part about the mopping. Let’s just say if you’re going to be fun mom and allow your child to juice an entire watermelon, remember that watermelon is the stickiest of all fruits (it is a fruit, right?) and when the inevitable spill of pink juice occurs you will be unable to sufficiently address the situation with a paper towel.

Unless being temporarily affixed to a linoleum floor is your idea of summer fun.

It will be even more annoying when you, the adult, go to pour yourself a refreshing glass of watermelon-grapefruit agua fresca and graze the open 1L Mason Jar with your fingertips, resulting in a horizontal container and pink juice on every surface in a twelve-inch radius.

Like I said, this break – two days in – has already been plenty memorable for me.

In summers past, I’ve made lists of activities to try with the boys, or set some vague unlikely-to-be-accomplished goals: ‘we’ll write and draw in these journals every day!’ But this year I’ve reduced my summer strategy to one word: sure.

My goal, for the next however-many-days (see, I haven’t even counted up the days!) is to say ‘sure’ as much as possible. ‘Mom, will you play a game with me?’ [Slight pause while I try to stifle the ‘notrightnow’ or ‘maybelater’ that has been my auto-pilot response these last 9 months] ‘Sure!’

‘Can we watch a family movie tonight?’ ‘Sure!’

‘Can I make a juice?’ ‘Sure! Let me cut up this watermelon and get out the mop bucket.’

I didn’t actually say the latter, but in retrospect….

Aside from saying ‘sure’ [or even a reluctant, bordering-on-regretful ‘mmmmmh…..okay’] as often as possible, I do have one more goal: to ride our bikes every day. Our last name may not be Armstrong, but surely I can ‘encourage’ [read: bribe] the boys to get on their bikes once a day and ride...somewhere….with me. And perhaps if we do this consistently, by the end of the summer, we might actually be able to do a decent bike ride; the kind that other, outdoor enthusiast families do on a regular basis.

Friday, while the Gort was finishing his last three hours of school, I tested the waters with Percy and the Hen. ‘Let’s ride our bikes to Starbucks,’ I asked, fully expecting a revolt of some sort. But the promise of hot chocolate was apparently enough to convince Percy to ride the whopping 1.7km to our nearest char-bucks.

We rode. It was a relative non-event, aside from my continuous yelling ‘stay on the right!’ and we made it to the coffee shop, consumed our beverages and returned home. Young Percy, who is not a distance-rider, per se, complained miserably of fatigue halfway home, but managed to persevere with a lot of encouragement and possibly some additional bribing.

And then it was Saturday. Blazing hot, with temperatures approaching the nineties!, I waited until the professor had taken our house guests to the airport. ‘When dad comes back, how about we go to Sunterra,’ I suggested to the boys, envisioning a five-person ride for some underwhelming treat.

Except dad didn’t come back. All I got was a text about a dead car, a disgruntled man and a newly cleaned camera. A friend came over to help the professor deal with the situation and I determined it was as good a time as any to hop on our bikes and ride to 2.8km away Sunterra. ‘But what about the hill,’ the Gort worried aloud. And despite my pooh-poohing his concern with a ‘we’ll be fine’, it had been my main concern as well: how to get my rather green team up ‘the hill’.

I figured the only way to find out if we could get up the hill was to try it. With loud admonitions to ‘stay to the right’ and ‘don’t follow too closely’ we headed south. A few minutes later, we approached the extremely busy, four-lane 17th avenue and veered onto the sidewalk-pathway with relative ease. I’d just yelled ‘stay close to the wall [on the right]’ when Percy made a diagonal beeline over the curb, onto the aforementioned extremely busy four-lane road.

Watching it happen from behind, was like watching a deleted scene from Dumb and Dumber; almost as implausible as using my desk chair for a toilet.

Choice words left my mouth, we held a team meeting and continued on our way. Up the dreaded hill, which poses a minor challenge for anyone over the age of 8 riding on a real bike. But for those pedalling tiny bikes with tiny legs? It might as well be Everest. It became clear to me that our youngest lad would not beat the hill. This time. So I hopped off my bike, leaned it against the wall and walked Percy and his bike up to the spot where I felt confident he could keep going on his own. Then I walked back to my (faraway) bike.

Another [ultra-competent, adult] biker was heading in my direction and, having witnessed my situation, very kindly grabbed my bike and pulled it beside him to where I was standing. It was perhaps the nicest thing a stranger had done for me in recent memory.

We made it to the market, where the Gort worried about where to park our bikes and whether someone might steal our less-than-stellar bikes. (As if!) Inside, they chose insanely sugary drinks and we loaded them into a backpack and rode home (downhill!), feeling disproportionately proud of our little ride.

Bringing up the rear, I found myself smiling (when not yelling at them to stay to the right) at the sight before me. My boys. Pedalling furiously. Their young bodies bouncing rhythmically; exuding the simple joy of summer, of being young and being alive.

(Now I just need to find myself a padded seat. Or some of those dreadful padded bike shorts that look like you’re walking around with two pairs of Depends underwear. Otherwise I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to maintain that smile.)







It’s the end of the year as we know it

I began writing this little ditty on May 15. Today is June 14. Draw your own conclusions. 

Springtime (i.e. May slash June) in Calgary is a fairly delightful affair. Mercurial weather aside, leaves and blossoms sprout on tree branches, dead brown grass returns to a lively green (unless you’re the Johnsons and can’t be bothered to water said grass), the magical street cleaning truck comes through and sucks up all the gravel and pine cone debris caked along the edges of the city streets. Except for the areas where people, who find it difficult to interpret signs imploring them to move their cars within a specific time frame, left said cars parked. (It doesn’t annoy me at all, and I did not personally knock on two doors and invite people to move their cars.)

But, lest you’ve already begun to pack your bags to relocate to this landlocked, Arctic version of paradise, I should add it’s not all clean streets and green grass here in YYC. No, there is also the slightly inconvenient matter of having 17 hours of daylight – per day – which just so happens to coincide with four-days-a-week soccer season and the last five weeks of the school year. A maelstrom of fatigue and over-commitment and missing tupperware containers, it is when, in the words of Chinua Achebe*: ‘things fall apart.’

On Monday, I awoke later than intended. Begrudgingly, after a late night of trying to fill my fridge for the throw-food-on-a-plate event that passes for pre-soccer dinner chez nous. I yelled for the Gort to get up from the confines of my bed, because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it. Apparently this got on the professor’s nerves and he eventually marched into the boys’ room for a slightly more direct approach to waking sleeping children.

‘It’s snowing!’ the Gort shouted, eventually, after he’d dragged himself out of bed, which, if you were going to ask me ‘what words do you least expect to hear this morning’ those would have been right up there along with, ‘someone stole our unfashionable minivan and left a luxury SUV in its place.’

I pulled back the curtains and, sure enough, chunks of slushy snow falling from the sky. ‘Somebody forgot to give Mother Nature a call on Mother’s Day,’ the professor shook his head.

We’d been distracted by the snow, for when I next made note of the time it was mere minutes before the Gort would miss his bus. Nothing motivates me to yell at others to move faster than the thought of having to drive my kid all the way to school. In a series of moves reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Elaine trying to beat the Van Wyck in an effort to get rid of a houseguest who’d overstayed his welcome, I threw a coat over my pajamas, stuffed my feet into a pair of the professor’s shoes and bolted out the door. Only to be confronted by a car covered in snow and no scraper anywhere. Fully prepared to accept a modicum of frostbite, I used my arm to clear the windshield and driver’s window and barked at the Gort to do the same.

We made it to the bus stop with seconds to spare, the unfashionable minivan honking at the yellow bus, imploring him not to leave until my only-crosses-at-the-crosswalk son made it safely on board.

I returned home, triumphant, in my ‘what-not-to-wear’ outfit, only to remember I had neither bread nor lunchmeat for the Hen’s sandwich and he’d replied an adamant ‘no’ when I offered to pack him quinoa salad en lieu. With the promise of delivering a sandwich to school before lunch-time, I bid my middle boy adieu and with the promise of appearing in his classroom at 9:30am to volunteer, I bid young Percy farewell.

And then I remembered it was May 11, the day a certain 11 year old was supposed to turn in his final book report of the year. I could have grabbed it from his desk and driven it to school, were that an option, but seeing as there was no book report, there was nothing for me to micromanage. Yet. I filed it under ‘things to discuss when the Gort gets home and I’m on my way out the door.’

An hour later, having showered and donned slightly more conventional clothing, I walked to the school to report for kindergarten volunteer duty. Except I was supposed to show up at 8:30am, as it turned out. Three minutes after I’d picked up my volunteer badge, I turned it back in and walked home. I used my suddenly ‘spare’ hour to drive to Sunterra and pick up bread and ham for the promised sandwich delivery and, after driving home for assembly purposes, I proceeded to walk back to school with a ham sandwich tucked into the only container-with-a-lid I could find.

Seriously: Where are all my little rubbermaid and snapware containers? 

I delivered the lunch to the main office and picked up the 5 year old…….and walked home. Percy and I whiled away a few hours doing who knows what and then I walked back to school to pick up the Hen. ‘How was your sandwich,’ I chirped, searching for proclamations of my mother-of-the-year status. ‘I didn’t get a sandwich,’ he muttered.

‘What happened to the Hen’s sandwich’ will forever be shrouded in mystery, not unlike evidence surrounding the Loch Ness monster’s existence. Suffice it to say, not only did I not get a ‘you’re awesome’ pat on the back, I had to walk home with a grumpily hungry kid who’d eaten nothing but yogurt all day.

At least the morning snow had melted and Spring was back in session.

In the four weeks that have transpired since I first recorded the details of my ineptitude, I can only say that things have gotten worse at the Johnson home.

I’ve tried to pinpoint what makes these last few weeks of the school year suck quite so much. Soccer season? Check. The perpetual daylight that makes us all feel like we’re living in that old Al Pacino movie, Insomnia? Check. Schools cramming in all the field trips and performances and special-don’t-miss-it-events within a matter of weeks? Check.

On Thursday I was invited to watch Percy and his classmates perform in a stomp dance class (missed it, but managed to get some footage from other, more committed moms) and on Friday I was invited to check out the Hen and his classmates perform in a stomp dance class and a few hours later I was invited to watch the Gort and his classmates play Somewhere over the Rainbow on the Ukelele and a few other things I can’t remember now.

These are, of course, all wonderful things – unless you’re a bit of a musician and actually care about things like pitch and intonation – but they become less wonderful at the end of the year when you’re all too aware that school is about to end and your habit of frequenting coffee shops alone is about to be seriously curtailed.

It’s also the time of year when my brain is incapable of holding onto a piece of information for more than thirty seconds. Most days I find myself vaguely remembering a certain event or commitment hovering in the near-future, only to find myself completely forgetting about it a couple of hours later until my phone displays a reminder notification or it comes up in conversation with someone.

Like dinner, for example. Yes, it happens every day, a fact I manage to recall mid-morning on most days and then completely forget until about 3pm when my daily round of piano teaching is about to start and I can’t do anything about it.

Enter the Sunterra pizza: an eight or ten inch circle of dough laden with various toppings and wrapped in plastic, available for purchase in the store’s deli section. I believe we ate Sunterra pizzas on two, or was it three, occasions this past week. (They also sell unadorned discs of dough in a three-pack which can be topped with barbeque sauce, diced chicken, peppers and cheese in less than two minutes. Hypothetically speaking.)

There was also taco week in which we ate corn tortillas with – you guessed it, taco filling – every night for at least three consecutive days. ‘I’m kind of sick of tacos,’ the Gort finally despaired and I took that as my cue to find another quick pre-soccer dinner option.

And there was a week in which we might have eaten roast chicken in some iteration at least five times and the professor made a few oblique references to the scene in Little Miss Sunshine where the grandpa has a bit of a poultry meltdown, using some very choice words, ‘every night with the [bleepin’] chicken.’

And I took that as the writing on the wall that I needed to move on to the ‘other white meat’, pork. (Did that piece of marketing genius not make its way north of the border?) Anyway, we had it three times this week. On the nights we didn’t eat Sunterra pizza.

Along with dinner, I tend to forget about lunch, too. Mostly the need to maintain some sort of inventory from which to prepare school lunches. There have been many mornings recently when I’ve discovered there is no milk for cereal or no bread for sandwiches or no meat to put in the bread for sandwiches. Or no plastic containers in which to put the sandwiches or the yogurt with granola.

Seriously, what do they do with all my tupperware containers? If you add up the amount of money I’ve spent on replacing tupperware and water bottles this year, I could have probably sent my favorite child to private school. For a week.

‘Nine more days,’ I held out my hands to an over-sugared, sleep-deprived Percy tonight, so he could visualize the number of school days remaining. ‘But I want it to be zero more days,’ he wailed.

And part of me does too, but part of me needs these last nine days to mentally prepare for the onslaught of togetherness that will descend upon me starting next Thursday at 2:38pm.

*It is my summer goal to read [at least a portion of] Chinua Achebe’s book.


The Griswolds Go to the Consulate

Sometime in 2014, the Gort and his youngest brother’s passports expired. As we did not have any border-crossing travel plans in the immediate future, it seemed rather uncritical to go through the rigamarole of a visit to the Consulate. As is my habit with tasks I do not wish to do, I filed it under ‘later’ and pursued a host of critical nonessential tasks, like watching all seasons of Friday Night Lights on Netflix.

But then I looked up and it was May, and we were hoping to travel in July. While asking Percy and the Gort to hide under a pile of blankets for an undefined time at the U.S. Border was certainly an option, I caved and made the necessary appointment.

And thus began the rigamarole.

‘We need passport photos,’ I remembered on Sunday, when we happened to find ourselves parked outside Blacks Photography. It just so happened that the boys were wearing nice shirts and had possibly combed their hair in the previous 24 hours. It was, as they say, a passport miracle. We made our way into the store and I explained what we needed.

The gentleman depressed the shutter twice (once for each child) and said ‘that will be $50.’ Amortized over the life of a child’s passport, that amounts to $5. Per year. ‘If the pictures are rejected for any reason, we will retake them,’ the employee informed me as if this was some sort of perk – going to the Consulate and being sent back to Blacks……but for free.

I suppressed the urge to say something along the lines of ‘if your picture results in my having to go to the Consulate twice…..well, hell hath no fury like a woman subjected to two passport appointments.’

A few days passed and then it was Wednesday. Today.

‘We have our passport appointment,’ I suddenly remembered at 7am, followed by ‘I need to print out application forms.’ Which was the professor’s cue to provide technical support (i.e. turn on the printer.) My tired eyes skimmed the interminably long information sheet with its detailed list of required documentation: expired passports, birth certificates, parents’ identification, paid xpresspost envelope.

‘I need to get a postage-paid envelope,’ I sighed, mentally adding ‘trip to post office’ to my to-do list.

‘I also need our passports,’ I told the professor who’d flown off to New York the week before and had likely not returned it to the ‘safe’. He returned with a stack of passports and a question: ‘Where’s yours?’ It was not a delightful way to start one’s morning: a not entirely-remembered appointment, a missing passport and a deadline-crazed husband who hears a clock ticking madly any time he is not at work.

A tense ten minutes passed and, having looked in all the obvious spots, I finally found it in an unused purse hanging on the coatrack, behind a jacket.

Good thing no one had whisked me off to Hawaii at a moment’s notice.

While Percy was at Kindergarten, I filled out the forms, printed them and found the birth certificates. After picking him up at school, we drove to the post office. ‘I need a postage paid envelope,’ I explained to the cashier, motioning towards the display behind her. ‘Which one, a regional or a national?’ ‘I have no idea?’ I shrugged. ‘Well, is it coming from a region, like Alberta or is it national, like from Ontario?’ ‘I have no idea,’ I despaired, ‘all they told me was [looked down at receipt where I’d recorded the information] self-addressed, postage-paid regional xpresspost envelope.’

At the sight of the ‘r’ word, I looked up: ‘Oh, I guess it says regional. Sorry.’

I forked over $25 for two envelopes, for though it made perfect sense to only purchase one, I did not want to be turned away for not having a separate envelope for each child.

Apparently I will go to great lengths and disjointed logics to avoid a trip to the Consulate.

With the envelope(s) secured, we headed to the University to pick up the professor, forty-five minutes before our scheduled appointment. I was a few minutes early, so I stopped at a nearby coffee shop for a latte. Upon getting back in the car, I began reviewing my mental checklist one more time: envelope(s), 2 expired passports, 2 parents’ passports, 2 birth certificates.

Check. Err, no, something didn’t add up. I had four passports but only three people driving to the appointment. That didn’t seem quite right……..

The Gort!

I was driving to an appointment to get the Gort a new passport and he was not in my vehicle.

It was as close to a Kevin! moment as I’ve ever had.

I pulled into the parking lot and waited for the professor, while I yanked out my phone and dialed the school without thinking about how to communicate my predicament.

‘Hi, yeah so I was driving to a passport appointment for my son and then I realized he wasn’t with me.’

And that is why I prefer the written word to the spoken one.

The person who answered the phone laughed somewhat hysterically. ‘Well, now you’re going to have to tell me his name.’

‘Do you think he could be waiting for me in the office if I get there in 15 minutes?’

‘Sure,’ she laughed.

‘Thank you!’ I ended the call and motioned somewhat furiously for the professor to get in the van already.

‘What,’ he opened the passenger door, ‘I’m not even late.’

‘I know. But I forgot the Gort.’

I raced down Crowchild to the very confused Gort’s school. ‘What,’ he frowned upon entering the car, ‘they said I had a doctor’s appointment?’ ‘No, a passport appointment.’

And I raced downtown in the hopes of arriving within five minutes of our appointed time-slot.

While driving, it occurred to me that I wasn’t exactly looking my best. I had not showered for two (possibly three) days, I was wearing a tunic with a big yogurt stain and flip flops on my feet. I looked at the professor who’d spent the morning doing something with scaffolding and wood in cargo pants and a black t-shirt. ‘I think I’ll wear my raincoat,’ he mused, ‘you know, to look a little more…..’

‘What, to detract from the ISIS look you have going on?’

My musings on wardrobe and hygiene were rudely disturbed by the professor yelling: ‘We’re going to DIE!’

Jarred, I stopped half a football field’s length behind the car in front of me.

‘Well, it didn’t seem like you were stopping,’ he shrugged.

‘So, maybe you say the light’s red or something like that, instead of we’re going to die!’

Having forked over untold sums for the privilege of storing our car in a parking garage for an hour, we speed-walked to the Consulate while I fretted over whether or not we’d be done in time to pick up the Hen from school. I glanced over at the Gort, who had a strange orange stain near the left-hand corner of his mouth. ‘Why is your mouth orange?’ ‘I don’t know.’

With every second ‘of the essence’ we lined up for security protocol: the airport scan. ‘Take off your belts and jackets and put them in here,’ the security guard motioned to a grey bin. The professor took off his ‘fancy’ red raincoat and the guard proceeded to pat all of its pockets to ensure we were not a danger to the operation. ‘Take off your belts,’ she reiterated and I glared at the professor for delaying, once again, our appointment. ‘I’m not wearing a belt,’ he motioned to his pants. ‘Take off your belt,’ she said again, directly to me, and when I looked down I noticed I was wearing a belt.

‘I can’t believe you brought that coat,’ I grumbled under my breath. ‘I know, but I realized my shirt has a hole in the armpit,’ my better half confessed.

Finally another guard led us to the main office where I handed over the documentation.

‘I only need one envelope,’ the woman behind the glass window told me when I tried to push two through the opening. Figures.

We sat in an otherwise empty waiting room; cartoons playing in the background to entertain potentially disgruntled children. I thought back to the first time we’d sat in those same chairs, when Percy was not quite two months old and the Gort was the same age as Percy is now. I stared at the pictures of their expired passports – Percy sporting round cheeks and tufts of hair, the Gort looking slightly familiar albeit with a rounder, younger face.

It seemed an odd place for a stroll down memory lane yet when you live in a place long enough, it’s precisely what happens.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of staring at mauve-colored bulletin boards, we were summoned to swear we’d been honest, sign the applications and dismissed with ‘these should arrive in 2-3 weeks.’

The professor headed back to work and I raced home to pick up the Hen.



Livin’ on a Prayer

Happy Victoria Day from not-exactly-springlike Calgary where we are entering our fourth day of [cue voiceover]…..five people [trapped] in one little white house, picked to have their lives documented, to find out what happens when people stop being polite….and start getting real.

But first things first. What is Victoria Day, you non-Canadians ask. Beats me, and I’ve already expended my Google-energy searching for the opening lines of MTV’s Real World. But all you really need to know about Victoria Day is that it causes schools to be closed for four days. Straight. The long weekend also marks the start of the camping season for those who enjoy spending more than one night a year out of doors (i.e. in the confines of a fancy trailer) and is known for its erratic, un-camping-friendly weather.

(Taken verbatim from Nikipedia, a lesser-known source of entirely-anecdotal information.)

For the Johnsons it marks the start of garden box season. Or, should I say, thinking about garden box season. We won’t actually plant the seeds we bought months ago for several weeks yet, if at all. The professor might say something like ‘we need to start working on our garden box this weekend.’ And I will pretend I didn’t hear him. ‘Let’s plant carrots this year,’ one boy-enthusiast might request. And I might say something like ‘no, we’ve tried carrots and failed miserably. Mr. Lund has spent years perfecting the art of carrot growing, so let’s just support him.’ Also, he  looks like he could be a relative of my mine, so I feel like I’m supporting family.

Beyond the thinking of the garden box (which takes roughly three minutes), the remainder of the weekend is spent in various configurations of fighting, piano playing, reading, game playing, fighting, eating and short stints of being outside (until the fighting gets so loud it can be heard two blocks away and we sense the neighbors getting out their phones to call someone about the noise disturbance emanating from the white house.)

Late Friday, before the professor returned from a series of (likely) fake meetings called to keep him away from the house as long as possible, the Gort sat down at the table and made a schedule for our weekend. I had to smile because this is something I’ve done with them from time to time (with about as much success as creating a budget or exercise plan).

He sat for a while, writing things down on paper, asking questions occasionally, like ‘what day is it today? These laser tag coupons expire soon. Can we do laser tag on Saturday?’ And by the time the professor got home, we had a three-page, Gort-authored blueprint for the weekend. With some very specific timings. ‘Shouldn’t you ask your brothers what they might want to do,’ I asked-suggested. ‘I think there’s something here for everyone,’ he dismissed me.



7:30-9 Chores and clean-up

9:05-10:45 [Computer] time, two episodes [of Netflix], Breakfast

11:30-1:00 Laser Quest

1:05-2:15 Walk, bike ride, outing, picnic (editor’s note: apparently food trumped exercise on this occasion)

2:30-4:00 Game night

4:00-5:00 Play outside

5:00-5:45 Dinner

6:00-6:45 Go to the park

7:00-7:30 Go to MAC’s (if well behaved) (editor’s note: the ‘if well behaved’ might be my favorite. And a froster at 7pm? Nice try….nothappening)

7:45-8:15 Reading time

8:15-8:30 Get ready for bed


Saturday came and, in keeping with the schedule, the boys got up and started cleaning. The Gort could be heard telling the Hen what to do and Percy, true to his third-boy-child status, quietly snuck off to our room for a rest, while the older boys worked. Many of our recent conversations have revolved around how to motivate our youngest. ‘He is middle management material,’ the professor had concluded the night before, ‘pretty good with numbers and good at getting other people to do things for him.’


Exhibit A: Getting his brother to feed him?!


Eventually we booted the youngest back to the real world where he did the tiniest of chores before sitting down in the middle of the kitchen for lengthy meltdown about whoknowswhat.

I’d made plans to go to the farmer’s market with a friend (well before ‘the schedule’ had been penned, for  a latte and more of Mr. Lund’s carrots) and bid the boys goodbye. ‘What time will you be back,’ the Gort suddenly asked instead of offering his usual, barely-noticing-my-departure ‘byeloveyou!’

‘Uh….I don’t know….why?’

‘Because we’re supposed to go to Laser Quest at 11…..Or maybe it’s 11:30,’ he tried to recall the details of his masterplan.

Sure enough, right around 11:30, we drove to Laser Quest in the pouring rain. We were somewhere on Macleod Trail when a Bon Jovi song came on the radio, the Johnson roadtrip anthem: Livin’ on a Prayer. May long weekend is also the time when we start thinking about the prospect of spending six days in the car with our boy-children (i.e. The Biennial Trip to the Heartland).

I turned up the volume and spun around in my seat,  ‘this is our roadtrip theme song,’ I informed the boys, my mind flooded with a nostalgic collage of all the times we’d been driving somewhere and Jon Bon Jovi had urged me to ‘hold on…to what we got.’

Unfortunately the moment was slightly ruined when it turned out to be the similar-sounding ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.’

(Seriously…take out the ‘whoa-whoa of the former’s opening riff and you have the opening riff of the latter.)

Undeterred, I continued the profound embarrassment of my children by holding up an imaginary microphone and belting out the chorus.

The Laser Quest parking lot was full – apparently all of Calgary had not gone camping – and when we entered the vaguely smelling-of-sweat storefront, it was teeming with noise and children. In an effort to temper expectations, I told the Gort ‘it looks kind of busy, we might not be able to get in right away.’

But as ‘luck’ would have it, they had a game starting in three minutes with room for five players. But first, we had to choose our codename, the fifteen year old employee informed us.

‘Juan Pablo,’ the Gort finally decided. And I could tell from the way the kid at the computer repeated it, that he, like all those cheerful terrible-spelling Starbucks workers, had no idea of the alphabetical configuration of Juan Pablo.

Minutes later, Blondpoplo, Gummybear, and Pipsy, along with Nixon and OldDad entered a pitch-black chamber with 34 other people (this is not for the claustrophobic or afraid-of-the-dark) and listened to the rules of laser tag. Having never played, I was unprepared for all of it: How hot it is in that dark maze (especially when you’re wearing multiple layers due to the inclement weather), how heavy the laser pack is and how seemingly interminable a 20 minute game is when you’re sweating and running around in the dark with a ten-pound laser pack.

Two minutes in, I remembered about a certain 5 year old warrior named Pipsy, the youngest, smallest person there, who (like me) had never played laser tag; the one I’d abandoned as soon as the guy-in-charge (who spent the 20 minutes napping in a dark corner) yelled ‘go!’ I could only hope the professor had been a more responsible parent.

In my defense, I did stop and strain my ears for the sounds of a child crying in a dark corner, likely resulting in my being tagged numerous times.


(To be continued….if I can summon the strength.)












Truthdays with Jason

The professor and I headed out on Thursday morning for our pseudo-weekly coffee date. I’d recently loaned him my Fitbit and he’d become subsequently obsessed with checking his steps; to achieve the coveted 10,000 every day. ‘You want to get a coffee and go for a walk,’ he offered by way of suggestion. ‘Sure. Where?’ ‘The place with the houses and the bridge that washed away.’

This being directionally challenged, professorial shorthand for Elbow Park.

I was still considering the matter of where to get the coffee when I found myself driving past Phil and Sebastian’s coffee shop and happened upon a generously sized parking spot right by the front door. It’s basically the Marda Loop equivalent of winning the lottery. With a surprising level of skill I eased my unfashionable minivan into prime parking real estate and we headed inside for a latte.

When the barista announced ‘lattes for Jason,’ (because I always defer to my companion’s inevitably easier to spell or pronounce name) I left our table to pick up the beverages. They were in paper cups. This, to me, is a profound disappointment and reason enough for crossing coffee shops off my ‘list’. Because if I’m going to park my car and snag a table in a hipster joint, I’d like the added luxury of porcelain over paper, thankyouverymuch.

I glanced at the other occupied tables in the shop. Paper cups perched on all of them. (Did all the cups break? Did the dishwasher die?)

‘Well, we might as well just take the coffee and go on our walk,’ I grumbled and the professor, who lives and breathes deadlines these days, was happy to oblige.

We parked by the formerly flooded, under construction, Elbow Park School, and crossed the bridge to Riverdale Avenue, where multi-million dollar homes line the streets, many of them still paying for the privilege of being a stone’s throw away from the river. In the span of two blocks we gazed upon ornamental Buddha statues, a would-be Italian villa whose drained fountain gave the entirely concrete front space a slightly Stalinist, East-Berlin vibe, boarded up homes whose owners possibly took their insurance settlements to higher elevations and fully functional homes whose facades resembled those I drew as a kid.

A not-particularly-artistically-inclined kid.

Yes, Calgary has an architectural style unlike any other I’ve witnessed. We climbed a rather steep hill to Britannia Drive where a replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple kept company with old-fashioned, siding-clad bungalows sporting walk-out basements and city views, and updated take(s) on the cavernous Sleeping-with-the-Enemy dwelling. (Yours for only $5.75 million. Don’t waste your time looking for the pool. Or the tennis court. Or the carriage house.)

We walked past a construction site where workers were putting the finishing touches on a very large house with a balcony over the garage. For a glorious view…..of their neighbor’s domicile. Because sometimes you might think: ‘Today I want to drink my coffee and stare at the house across the street.’ And you’ll have just the balcony for the occasion.

[Full disclosure: I live in an old-fashioned white bungalow with a dorm-sized refrigerator. And no views of any kind.]

Looking at other people’s homes got me thinking about a larger question that had plagued me in recent weeks. Stemming from a Brandi Carlile song and a playground conversation with a mom I’d just met. ‘Where are you from,’ I’d inquired, partly because she spoke with an accent, and she’d mentioned being relatively new to Calgary, and also because it’s one of a go-to list of standard social inquiries drawn upon when making small talk. The others being ‘hihowareyou, howmanychildrendoyouhave or whatdoyoudo‘.  All of them, I’ve come to conclude, well-intentioned landmines to the person struggling with the particular answer.

The new-mom gave a roundabout answer, the kind only given by someone who has lived in a lot of places. ‘And you?’ she retaliated reciprocated. I gave the same vague response. Because 9 cities  and 4 countries (5 if you count a brief stint in Berlin) later, your guess is as good as mine. In terms of longest tenure in a single city, it’s Johannesburg. Even though I haven’t been there in nearly two decades. But in terms of most time spent in one country (albeit in 5 different states), it’s the U.S.

Maybe I could come up with a Tiger Woods-esque answer to sum up the range of my cultural heritage and influences. Or maybe my boys, who insist I’m from ‘South America’ have already done it for me.

Naturally I married a man with an equally complicated answer. ‘What do you say when people ask you where you’re from,’ I asked the professor. ‘I say I was born in Duluth,’ he cited the birthplace on his passport. ‘But you lived there for like a year,’ I disagreed. ‘Yeah, but it’s an easy answer. There are no follow up questions. It shuts down the conversation.’

I knew what he meant.

If I say I’m ‘from South Africa’ it elicits at least five more questions slash comments, all of which require additional explanation: 1) What city (which is an improvement from my junior high days when people would say ‘yes, but what country?’) 2) But you don’t speak with an accent. 3) Oh, were your parents doctors/diplomats/missionaries? 4)How old were you when you moved? 5) Do your parents still live there?

But if I say I’m ‘from the U.S.’ it feels like a half truth. Not to mention I’d have to say my hometown is Muncie, Indiana, which is not a particularly cosmopolitan answer and accounts for less than a third of my time here on earth.

In recent days I’ve begun to wonder if it even matters, this answer to what is ultimately a perfunctory question.

‘I was born in Duluth’ seems as good an answer as any.





Friday Night Lights

Every once in a while I will get an email from my mother which says something to the effect of ‘it’s been _ weeks since your last blog post.’ And I will mentally dig through the precious few crumbs where once resided a reasonably useful brain in an effort to conjure up something memorable or remotely amusing, and inevitably come up emptyhanded.

It happened a few days ago, the email, and I’ve been drawing a blank on suitable topics or anecdotes ever since.

Now that the boys are older, they’re not quite as overtly amusing as they once were. Other than Percy’s latest fondness for, and resulting overuse of, the word ‘nipple’. Which is hardly worth expounding upon beyond a sentence.

He also told the Hen today that his idea was ‘unrealistic.’ Which struck me as funny, a five year old saying that to a seven year old. But beyond those four seconds of witty, it’s just been ‘Days of Our Lives’ chez nous. (Minus the intrigue and scandal and long lost siblings.)

The professor was unloading the dishwasher last night, when I walked around the corner from the living area to the kitchen and nearly concussed myself on a glass-front cupboard door that had been left ajar. To say I was unamused would be a gross understatement. By way of explanation for my close encounter with death, he insisted that this was how one unloads dishes: open every single cupboard where dishes could potentially go and leave the doors open until the dishwasher is completely emptied (and one remembers to close said doors).

Which, without knowing how other households operate, I can only assume that nooneintheworld does that.

‘This is just the cat’s meow!’ I fumed at the news of his suddenly laissez-faire approach to opening and closing doors. Because the professor and I have been married for approximately 6841 days and he has indicated one (hundred) time(s) that I have a problem with not-closing doors and drawers. Of course I didn’t have the opportunity to convey any of that because the professor was convulsing with laughter.

‘The cat’s meow?!’ he all but cried at my malapropism. ‘Usually when people say that, they mean it as a positive, not the straw that broke the camel’s back.’

Like I said, crumbs where my brain used to be.

With the cupboard conundrum unresolved, I continued on with my project-du-nuit: getting rid of anything we do not currently use. As I waded through the boys’ ‘office’, picking up pennies and rainbow loom bands and 50,000 tiny pieces of Lego, I found a discarded piece of paper with barely legible boy-writing on it.

Naturally I took a moment:

Run away plan

*Get my money out of the bank

*Get rid of every single picture that has me in it

*Pack food, clothes and money

*Hitch a ride to the rockies



Sneak food while everyone is downstairs


I alerted the professor to the near-present or near-past situation and we howled, just a little, not least because of the plan’s inherent flaws: The author of the plan has enough money in the bank to pay for one night of a cheap hotel ‘in the rockies’. This does not bode well for running away for more than 24 hours.

Then there is, of course, the truly problematic matter of ‘getting rid of every single picture that has me in it.’ Clearly the boy is unaware that I have in excess of 48.000 digital images stored on various computers and external hard drives. And, seeing as the majority of my photographs are of my cherubs, eliminating every one that bears his likeness would take……..a considerable amount of time.

‘Well, when we see him sitting down at the computer trying to delete photos we’ll know it’s time to have a chat,’ the professor resolved.

Just before midnight, having filled three boxes worth of ‘stuff’, I sat down to address the somewhat pressing matter that is my children being without clean socks or pants. Woozy as a result of the hour, cupboard concussion, and skipping dinner in lieu of playing piano and consuming chocolate chip cookies, I surrounded myself with five very large loads of freshly laundered clothes and the first thing I found on Netflix that had more than two stars: Pitch Perfect.

I folded shirts and pants and attempted to relocate some of the 40 single socks taking up residence in my ‘unmatched’ box, while watching the Bellas duke it out with the Trebles.

It’s not entirely clear to me which is the lamest part of that sentence.

Or maybe it’s that I stayed up until 1:30am folding laundry, matching socks and watching the Bellas duke it out with the Trebles.