The Piano Teacher

You wouldn’t know it, what with the confessions of extreme Netflix watching and talk of drinking terrible coffee at Sunterra, not to mention failed attempts at achieving Fitbit greatness, but I actually have a bit of a job.

It all began, several years ago, with a friend asking me to teach her daughter how to play piano. I said no. She asked again. I said I’d give it a try. And, yada yada yada, I now spend a portion of every day trying to exhort ‘the future’ to understand that middle C is alive and well and can only be one note, in a very specific location, on that set of lines and spaces on the paper in front of them.

I am. The piano teacher.

Yes. As with most jobs, particularly those that involve children, it’s a veritable goldmine of writing prompts. But alas, writing about other people’s children is akin to writing about one’s coworkers: almost always a bad idea.

But then, in October, my long-lost piano made its way to my Calgary home. And the longstanding guilt I’d felt at teaching other people’s children how to play piano, while my children didn’t even know middle C existed, was assuaged.

I started working in-house.

Which has had several personal and familial implications , the least of which being: I can now speak of it.

Very carefully.

My initial plan was to begin teaching the Gort and wait six months or a year to teach the Hen. I didn’t even give Percy’s tutelage a first thought, much less a second.

But as soon as the Gort had his first lesson, his middle, keep-up-with-the-Gortses brother, indicated he would not be left behind. And then someone asked me to teach their 5 year old and it seemed silly to teach someone else’s 5 year old, but not my own.

And, before I could yell get your foot off the pedal, all three of our cherubs were piano playing fools. I use the term ‘playing’, not to infer a modicum of competence, but rather as an aural indicator of the noise level in our home post-October 2014.

If you’re thinking to yourself ‘I should teach my three boys aged 5, 7 and 10 how to play piano!’, this is what you should know:

It’s going to drive you crazy. It’s going to drive your husband even crazier. You will find yourself saying unbelievable things like ‘stop practicing!’

Your husband will change the ‘last-call’ time for piano playing on a daily basis to suit his mood. ‘No piano playing after 6!’ he’ll yell one night. ‘No piano playing after 4:30!’ the next. Along with ‘no piano playing before 7:30 in the morning,’ or ‘no piano playing before 10!’

You will yell the phrase ‘no pedal!’ so often that the 5 year old will start using it too. ‘No pedal!’ he will tell his brothers, when the sustained, bordering-on-garbled sound makes its appearance. Because, let me tell you, if you think three people playing ‘Russian Sailor Dance’ or ‘Ode to Joy’ at various intervals throughout the day isn’t enough to push the sanest, kindest person over the edge, just add pedal.

Here’s the other thing you should know about boys and the piano. If they find a piece they like, they will play it. Only. Continuously. As fast and as loud as possible. With pedal (if you allow it).

And that’s when you’ll hear yourself yelling ‘stop practicing!’ Much to your own astonishment.

Like, maybe you’re familiar with that ditty called ‘Ode to Joy’. But have you heard it played super loud, so fast you can’t catch your breath and either two octaves higher or lower than written – depending on the player’s mood?

Ode to Horror, more like.

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Noise level and pedal overuse and fixation with Russian Sailor Dance aside, it’s also been kind of awesome watching all three of them at the piano. The Gort playing with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, the Hen practicing like a madman and Percy, remarkably adept given his age and tiny fingers, counting ‘1-2′ out loud, as quickly as possible after every half note.

They may not be having much luck with beginner swimming, but beginner piano? Totally different story. It’s almost as if 50 percent of their genetic material was sourced from a pianist!

To be sure, there are pitfalls in having your mother for your teacher, and your sons as your students.

I’m overly familiar with nearly every piece they play, because I’ve heard at least six other children play it. I even know where they’re most likely to make a mistake because, little known fact, you can have six beginner students play the same piece and five of them will make identical mistakes.

‘You’re supposed to play a D,’ I might yell from the kitchen where I’m chopping onions.

‘I am playing a D,’ the Gort will insist.

‘No you’re not,’ I, the person who knows what a D sounds like, will volley back.

After which there might be one more round of arguing, or a change of note as the prodigal D suddenly makes an appearance and we continue on with our respective tasks.

They feel free to express their irritation or unhappiness with me, in a way they would not with another teacher. And I’m less inclined to be the most patient version of myself with them, having expended my patience trying to encourage and instruct eighteen other children,

The Gort had a lesson three or four weeks ago – that’s another pitfall, I’m less inclined to give them regular lessons, either because it’s not on the calendar or because, after teaching a series of lessons, I rarely have the energy to do three more when I get home – ‘wow, you didn’t even get mad at me,’ he mused at the end of his lesson.

It’s the little things.

 

The Lazy River is for Lovahs

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had a bit of a mini-break for the last five days. Having learned a thing or two from six previous instalments of ‘family weekend’ – mainly that five people inside one small house all day long is a bad idea – I was determined to find something for us to do on one of the days.

That day turned out to be Saturday. Valentine’s Day, oddly enough.

I polled the troops and determined we would drive to one-hour-away Canmore and pay a visit to their recreation facility, which boasts a swimming pool, climbing wall and public library. We’d leave early, spend a couple of hours in the car, a couple of hours at the Elevation Place and return in time to watch Ralph Macchio learn Pat Morita’s ways in The Karate Kid.

Day. Planned.

The boys were up early Saturday morning because I’d intimated we’d be hitting the road around 8. The professor made heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and it was all going according to plan when I heard Percy say: ‘I don’t want any pancakes.’

It was, as they say, a red flag. A Johnson boy declining pancakes can only mean one of two things: (1) The pancakes are too healthy-tasting (i.e. with an overly obvious amount of flaxseed or almond meal or buckwheat flour) or (2) Illness.

Seeing as the professor had been the chef, I knew taste was not at issue,  which left my barely awake brain with only one plausible option.

As Percy is a child who loves nothing more than asking for a ‘barf bowl’ to keep him company at night, despite never having used one, I considered this information with a grain of salt.

But he did look pale. And refused to eat.

I felt confident that riding in a car with a barfing child would not be a considerable improvement over spending the entire day chez nous, ‘Let’s just wait a bit and see how this plays out,’ I suggested to my peeps, who were rather aggrieved by my failure to stick to ‘the plan’.

Two hours later, having concluded that Percy was not at imminent risk of tossing his cookies, we climbed in the car and drove to Canmore.

With three pairs of eyes firmly affixed to the dashboard.

‘Don’t you think we should get gas?’ ‘What do those two orange lights mean?’ ‘What time will we get to Canmore?’ ‘How much longer till we get to Canmore?’ ‘This drive is taking forever.’

Together, the three have very nearly relieved me of the ‘need’ to serve as ‘co-pilot’ when the professor drives.

At precisely 11am, we arrived at the Elevation Place, forked over some money and split up at the changing rooms. It may be one of the only perks of being the lone female in a house of boy-men: the luxury of going to the changing rooms alone. Too bad I don’t enjoy swimming or wearing a bathing suit, otherwise I’d avail myself of this opportunity more than once every two years.

As we divvied up our belongings to ensure the professor had all of the boys’ swim stuff, we discovered a tiny error in our packing strategy, namely 2 towels for 5 people.

Apparently my carefree ‘everyone pack your own stuff’ approach had backfired.

With only myself to look after, I entered the pool area before any of the boys. Once reunited, we began what felt like the world’s slowest clock-watch, as we circuited from hot tub to lazy river and back again for precisely one hour.

During one of our hot tub respites, I noticed a young, seemingly childless couple enter the lazy river. Which, to be clear, is an oval-shaped lane of water with a current that propels you forward so you don’t have to swim.

Hence the term ‘lazy river’ I suppose.

‘Why would you come here if you don’t have kids,’ I wondered aloud. The professor and I were married for a long time before we had kids and the amount of times we set foot in an indoor pool during that time? Zero. The amount of times he said ‘how about for Valentine’s Day, we go hang out in a place where children are playing and crying and not adhering to society’s implicit bathroom etiquette?’ Zero.

And then, because it was Valentine’s Day, and I tend to recall slogans and bits of SNL skits at the oddest times, I said: ‘The Lazy River is for Lovahs.’

A nod to the 80’s ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ marketing campaign and the SNL skits with Rachel Dratch eating chicken in a hot tub with Will Ferrell and talking annoyingly about ‘my lovah’.

The joke made an appearance several more times over the course of the day.

After an hour had passed (how do people stay for more than that), when the Gort declared his fingers were so pruny they felt like they could crumble, and I felt nauseated from the heat of the hot tub and lack of food, we ventured back into the changing rooms, the boys grumbling over the towel to person ratio.

The professor volunteered to take our swim stuff back to the car, so we wouldn’t have to drag three backpacks with us when we tried out the climbing wall. In his absence, the boys and I ate cheesy buns and walnut bread from a German baker who’d conveniently set up shop in the atrium for the ‘Mountain Market’.

I’ve always thought of German baking as decidedly void of salt. And sugar. And flavor. The cheesy buns and walnut bread confirmed my longstanding hypothesis.

Many minutes passed and the professor had not yet returned. ‘Dad’s been gone for a long time,’ I noted as I reached for my phone. Two text messages and a missed call, I realized with a twinge of guilt.

It could mean only one thing: trouble. In the form of a very flat tire.

After testing out the climbing wall, the professor returned to the car to change the tire while the boys and I hung out in the library reading books.

‘The Library is for Lovahs.’

It was nearly dark by the time we got home. I popped corn and the boys popped the Karate Kid DVD into the player. It was slightly surreal to consider I was likely the same age as the Gort when I saw the movie for the first time. ‘I thought Ralph Macchio was the cutest boy ever,’ I told the boys. ‘Ew, that’s gross.’

We soaked in the wisdom of Mr. Miyagi (he and Tami Taylor should have written a joint self help book) and by the time the credits rolled, the boys were practicing their crane kicks.

Shortly thereafter, Percy made good on his threat and availed himself to the barf bowl toilet. A child who tosses his cookies completely inside a receptacle is a welcome addition to any household.

A few hours later, having made public fun of a friend for watching a movie with a 31% rating on the tomatometer and complaining about how awful it was, I sat back, smugly, to watch the very acclaimed (81% on the tomatometer) Tracks.

A (now well known) Australian woman treks 1700 miles across the desert with 3 camels. She gets real dirty. She doesn’t like people. A photographer drives out to document her journey.The camels make weird braying noises. She ends up at the ocean.

As the professor put it, ‘I think I would have rather read the National Geographic article than watched this movie.’

The Desert is for Lovahs.

Sweet and Sour

It’s family weekend here in Calgary – that time, once a year, when teachers convene for two days just before ‘Family Day’, resulting in a 5 day stretch without any school to separate you from the people you love.

Maybe that’s just my take on it.

This constant state of togetherness brings out the worst in us Johnsons, heightened by my inevitable failure to plan something for us to do because I’m under the misapprehension that being together for 16 hours a day will be something akin to a scene from Little Women; a steady stream of board games and art and literature. With cookies baking in the oven and a stew bubbling on the stove.

But at our house, the scene bears closer resemblance to an episode of Roseanne, with an ongoing tally of brotherly meltdowns and perpetually rolling eyes, all washed down with a chorus of ‘this isn’t fair’ and ‘you’re the worst mother in the world.’

I think it was a year and a half ago that I mentioned we were in a sweet spot of raising kids; a time when the intensive phase of keeping babies and toddlers alive had given way to a phase with independent, interactive and mostly enjoyable children.

It was a very good phase. One that, in recent months, has been reconstituted as we find ourselves the proud owners of an almost 11 year old and a 7.5 year old.

I recall something shifted with the Gort around the time he turned 8, when he became a slightly more challenging member of our cast. In the last few weeks, I sense the same has begun to happen with the Hen. Prematurely, as luck would have it.

Take a premature ‘case of the eights’, add to that the presence of a pre-adolescent and, let’s just say, the drama quotient in our home would have anyone convinced we’re filming a documentary for E!

Whenever I meet a mom with three boys, especially one whose boys are older than mine, I grill her with questions about what it’s like and how she survived in an effort to prepare myself for the years to come. I talked to such a saint mom at a barbeque a few months ago. One whose three sons are firmly ensconced in teenagedom.

I said something like ‘what’s it like?’ And she said something like ‘it’s awful. They’re awful to each other. And they say terrible things – to their brothers, to me. Sometimes I find myself crying ‘why are you being so mean?’

Some people might not value such an honest response, but I actually do. I like to know what’s coming down the pipe (even if I may insist, smugly, to myself, that it ‘won’t happen to me’).

That way, when it turns out I’m not immune to the ordinary trials of the three-boy-life, after ‘it’ has already come down the pipe and hit me square in the face, I might remember the conversation and go ‘oh, riiiiiiight. She said this would happen.

I’ve found myself remembering  that conversation in recent weeks, when it seems like the boys wake up irritated with each other, come home irritated with each other, and go to bed irritated with each other. (It goes without saying that they also spend most of the day irritated with me.) But having said that, I’m fully aware that this, this phase we find ourselves in at the moment, is but the training ground for things to come.

Hence my latest tendency to refer to this moment in my parenting life as the ‘Sweet and Sour’ phase.

We have the aforementioned irritations. And the Oscar-worthy dramatic outbursts. But I’m still buying Lego sets. Stuffed animals still make an appearance at bed time.  I can still convince them (admittedly with a lot of complaining) to join me on errands. And the Brothers Johnsonov can still bond over episodes of Scooby Do and express collective excitement when I unexpectedly find ‘The Nut Job’ at the library. ‘We’ve seen a lot of previews for this,’ Percy exclaims, as though I’ve just struck movie gold. (Rottentomatoes gave it 10% on the tomatometer. ‘I’d give it 100%,’ the Hen disagreed. ‘Well, maybe like a 70%,’ the Gort reasoned.)

For now (for the most part), they’re still each other’s only best friends, and are content to huddle together on the couch around the ipad.

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And they will still, all three, spend a bit of time at the playground.

We had another gem of a day, weather-wise, on Friday. (Calgary has really tried to woo me this winter.) Late afternoon, at the Gort’s suggestion, we walked over to the playground by the school. Jackets and boots and socks were abandoned as the boys climbed and chased to their hearts’ content. The light was so perfect I actually ran back to the house to get my camera. Convinced I’d regret it if I didn’t document this particular moment in time.

As I snapped away, I felt keenly aware that I was, in some way, capturing the end of something.

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An hour (maybe even two) later we walked home.

The long way.

It was one of the best afternoons we’d had in a very long time.*

 

*For the sake of honesty – lest I misremember this anecdote later in my life – I need to also mention that one boy stayed behind at the playground, refusing to walk home with us. And by dinner time his behavior had escalated into something that appeared to warrant an exorcist.

 

 

 

 

 

And I will walk 10,000 steps. Only.

I might have given the impression in my last post that I have done nothing but stand transfixed before my ipad watching episode upon episode of Friday Night Lights.That is, more or less, accurate. Or so I gathered a few nights ago as I went to my bedroom to grab the ipad and found the professor…..had hidden it.

‘You have a problem,’ he pronounced as he watched me search for the blue-plastic-covered-rectangle.

A suspicion confirmed when I received a text from a friend that said something along the lines of: ‘do you think you can tear yourself away from Friday Night Lights long enough so we can have coffee.’

And I do have a problem. Did. Because, glory be, I [may] have finally reached the point of saturation where I find myself caring less about Tami and Coach Taylor (what is his first name, anyway) and Saracin and Riggins and the rest of the gang.

But my reason for writing all of that was actually to say I’ve not devoted every waking moment of 2015 to watching the Taylors and the Panthers in Dillon, Texas.

I’ve also been tapping a little gadget attached to my belt to see how many steps I have (or haven’t as the case may be) walked each day. Yes, for Christmas my gadget fairy (aka my mother) gave me a fitbit zip.

I spent the first week alternating between forgetting to wear it, being too lazy to wear it, and being appalled about the lack of steps on my display. To be clear, I was not surprised by the number. We live in a small house and I tend to spend most of my time at home standing in one spot – usually the kitchen. Also the bathroom scale had taken to displaying a number I normally associate with the second trimester of pregnancy. Thus it didn’t require impressive deduction skills to suspect my ‘step-number’ would make David Sedaris wither in horror.

Still, it was disheartening to have confirmation that, when left to my own devices, I only take about 3000 steps on a typical day at home. Mostly because it meant I’d have to put a fair amount of effort into producing the other 7,000 steps mr. fitbit demands, err ‘suggests’.

Hence my 2015 has unfolded in the following manner: walk boys and neighbor girl to school at 8:05am, check fitbit upon return. Pick Percy up from Kindergarten at 10:54am, check fitbit upon return. Pick the Hen up from school at 2:38pm, check fitbit upon return. Meet the Gort at the bus stop at 3:12pm, check fitbit upon return.

Thanks to the zip displaying the time – along with calories burned and kilometers walked – I have precise times for all of these forays into the outside world.

Unfortunately, these jaunts, brisk and deliberate though they may be, are not sufficient in getting me to the coveted 10,000 steps. And, to that end, I’ve had to resort to walking at night, after the boys go to bed. Or in the morning while Percy’s at school. Which really cuts into my potential coffee drinking time.

The thing of it is, I actually like walking. It might well be one of my favorite things to do. Being outside in relative peace and quiet, thinking (?!), feeling the air and (occasionally) sunlight on my face.

But with all these – clearly important – tasks vying for my time, I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to stepping outside and walking around for more than fifteen minutes, just so I can reach a certain number on my fitbit.

And it’s why I have another mental block against going beyond the suggested 10,000 number. Instead of being intrinsically motivated to keep going, to achieve some higher level of fitness, or finally beat my fitbit friends (even just for a day), once I notice I’m at 10,000 steps, I head home. Immediately. Unable to summon the motivation or desire to keep walking for more time than absolutely necessary.

This is probably what sets me apart from the Bill Gates’ and Hillary Clintons of the world; what distinguishes the slackers from the succeeders.

That’s probably not even a word. But I like the alliteration and I’m too lazy to ask Google for another. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go outside and walk approximately 15,531 steps.

Somebody came up a bit short yesterday.

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WWTD

It has been a while since my last post. I could say I’ve been preoccupied with a New Year and setting goals; making plans for how I’m going to be a better human being this year. But that would be a lie.

I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights.

I’m hard-pressed to remember how this latest obsession began. I believe I read on someone’s blog how Friday Night Lights had been one of her favorite shows. The same blogger who has steered me wrong on countless book recommendations, so why I thought to follow her suggestion to watch this television show, about high school football, is beyond me.

But the name stuck with me and once, possibly a few years ago now, when the professor was out of town, I found the show on Netflix [potential New Year’s Resolution #1: stay away from Netflix] and watched the first episode. It occurred to me that the show, being largely constructed around a sport and all, might be something the professor and I could watch together, so I suspended my viewing efforts.

Until a little over a week ago. With nothing to watch while we wait for House of Cards and The Americans to return, and the professor’s continuing lament that nobody shares his love of sport-watching, I suggested we watch Friday Night Lights. And that is essentially what I have been doing ever since.

Sneaking in an episode (or two) before bed. Propping the ipad against a wall while I prep food or wipe my walls clean of who-knows-what, and folding laundry, all to the soundtrack of Coach Taylor yelling ‘clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’ and Tami Taylor offering wisdom to Dillon’s high school students like ‘there’s no weakness in forgiveness.’

The professor has retained only minimal interest in the show. ‘Call me when they’re playing football,’ he said one night as he walked back to his own laptop, because the actual playing of football comprises roughly two minutes of every episode. Which is probably why I’ve managed to become enslaved to the show. Mostly it is the unfolding of drama, the patching up of drama…..and the wisdom.

I could watch Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor and Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor all day. Actually, I kind of am. But, all kidding aside, watching these fictional characters invest in the lives of the youth around them, [overtly] biting their tongues in tense situations and speaking their minds when it’s called for, well it’s entertainment, self-help and inspiration all in one television show.

Now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn’t feel bad about watching this show, it’s more or less the equivalent of reading (a somewhat shallow, reduced to soundbites) book on leadership and parenting and marriage, with a lot of ‘hayel’ (that’s hell in a southern accent) and ‘ayuss’ (that’s ass) thrown in.

Also, watching Coach Taylor end most of his – usually tense – conversations with a strangely old-fashioned ‘say hello to your mother’ is equal parts genius and hilarious. As though, with just the right inflection, this statement brimming with manners could become the ultimate kiss-off.

To be fair, there are some points of contention with the show: the absent parents (two of the main characters are growing up without any parents around), the apparent lack of a legal drinking age in Texas (like, in drinking establishments that presumably have some legal obligations around not serving beer to sixteen year olds) or the fact that the Taylor’s daughter was able to get a tattoo at age 16 without parental consent. There are also 76 episodes in the series, which is going to pose a serious threat to my external obligations for the next few weeks.

But mostly the show makes me want to speak in a southern accent, dismissing anyone who annoys me with a ‘say hello to your mother.’ Hence, next time you see me, if I speak in inspiring soundbites with vaguely Texan colloquialisms, you’ll know why.

 

 

 

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Gone year

It was the worst of years, it was the best of years.

I’m not prone to reflecting on a year once it’s past, but sometimes the internet with its year-in-review everything – blogs, photo collages, thoughtful essays ‘liked’ by multitudes – pressures you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise dream of doing.

[Like pinterest, for example.]

Also, I’ve been reading the Christmas Carol to the Hen, which (at least in the ten pages I’ve read so far) has me feeling reflective. ‘It’s very Dickensian,’ I told the professor. Because it seems like something smart people might say. [Except they wouldn’t, of course, say it referring to words Dickens actually wrote.]

So on January 1st I paused for a moment (while the professor vacuumed a tree’s worth of pine needles from our basement) and tunnelled through the preceding 366 days in an effort to recall highs and lows.

It felt a lot like sticking one’s head under water for an extended period of time; aside from diminishing lung capacity, the details are fuzzy. Really, my first instinct is to label 2014 a big bust. Much like my first instinct is to label IKEA Christmas trees ‘the worst ever’. (The latter assessment is correct.)

But of course, 2014 wasn’t completely void of fine moments – no year is. There was a surprise trip to see my favorite band on my birthday with my sister. There was a trip to Oregon and Seattle complete with sunsets on the beach, a stop at Ecola State Park and the buttermilk old-fashioned donut at Blue Star in Portland. And there was a tiny trip to London and Paris with coffee at Monmouth, live music and stunning views from the Arc de Triomphe.

Not to mention a twice-in-a-lifetime hike to see the larches. DSC_5823

Upon trying to link back to the post about our (second) trip to see the larches – one I was sure I’d written – I discovered it was but a draft paragraph, titled ‘who cares about the larches. Written one month after this rather horrendous journey.

Let’s just say we shan’t be seeing the larches in 2015.

But now that I think of it, this photograph is perhaps the perfect depiction of 2014. Though I really need one and a half children to be crying their eyes out. Just to make it true-to-life. The professor and I also had the chance – courtesy of grandparent visits – to escape the madness on two occasions. These getaways usually coincide with our annual (or in this case, semi-annual) trip to the movie theater for a non-child movie.

This year’s first movie was ‘This is Where I Leave You.‘ The professor and I had both read the book, which was amusingly poignant in the way of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons. A solid 3 out of 5. The movie featured Jason Bateman and Tina Fey which, upon first glance, would compel most lovers of comedy to add it to their must-see lists.

This is, unfortunately a mistake. For Jason and Tina – much as I love them – are never in any good movies. Have you seen Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, or Baby Mama? Add This is Where I Leave You, whose comedic highlights consisted of a three year old carrying around and using his potty chair at inauspicious moments, to the list. I also spent much of the movie perplexed by the (mis)casting of Adam Driver as the youngest brother.

Which leads me to our latest after-the-fact foray into the theater, to see Gone Girl. ‘I feel kind of scared that you chose this as our date movie,’ the professor muttered halfway through. But it was at the cheap theater. And I’d read the book. And the movie had gotten ‘great reviews’.

And I spent most of the movie thinking about how Ben Affleck was the wrong choice to play Nick. In Gillian Flynn’s book, the reader’s perception of Amy and Nick shifts constantly. She’s the crazy one. No, he’s the crazy one. They’re both crazy. I didn’t find this to be true of the movie. After a butt-numbing 2 hours and 25 minutes, the professor and I used the car ride to dinner to discuss alternate casting possibilities. ‘Ryan Gosling,’ we both settled on a better-as-Nick alternative.

We were stumped on an alternative to Amy, though neither of us liked Rosamund Pike. But now that I think of it: Katniss Everdeen! Kidding. But I’m pretty sure Emma Stone – though a bit on the young side – could have done the job nicely. And without the husky voice.

Entertainment-wise, this was the year of the Netflix binge-watch, though 2013 was probably not vastly different in that respect. Having sworn off the likes of Scandal, Homeland and Downton Abbey, we plowed through season 2 of House of Cards in less than forty eight hours, continued with the second season of The Americans, got hooked on Kelsey Grammer’s evil Chicago Mayor in Boss and finished up the year with both seasons of Rectify.

I don’t recommend a binge-watch for Rectify, because it makes for accent and mannerism overload – the professor started saying ‘Tawney’ in a bad southern accent at odd times during the day. That’s when he wasn’t imitating Aden Young’s Forrest Gump-like voice.

This was also the year the boys started piano lessons. [Much] more about that, later. Suffice it to say the professor and I have had to figure out a way to do daily activities – which includes thinking – to the constant, repetitive (increasingly faster and louder) soundtrack of awesome tunes like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and a little ditty – which really deserves its own blog post – called ‘Russian Sailor Dance.’

May your 2015 have very memorable highs, good television (err, Netflix), movies and books. And may it be void of bad hikes, stale Christmas trees and the Russian Sailor Dance.

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Truthdays with Jason

This school year, with all three boys in school for portions of each day, has been what some might call ‘a bust’. In true Nicola-fashion, I entered the arrangement without giving much thought to it, then for a fleeting moment (likely after dropping off the boys that first morning) I decided it was going to change my life, only to realize five seconds later that it was going to do no such thing.

In theory – in exchange for six years of hard labor – I was to have eight hours of childless time per week. (If you’re doing the math, that’s a return of approximately 1.3 hours per week for every year of labor.) Eight hours that were quickly subsumed by classroom volunteering, no-school-days, and a few coffee shop visits.

I also imagined, from these life-changing eight hours, the professor and I could have weekly coffee dates on one of the mornings he didn’t have to teach. Like Tuesdays with Morrie, even though I never actually read the book. This happened exactly three times in the span of four months.

Last Tuesday, an hour before we were due to get Percy at Kindergarten, the professor suggested we go for a walk in Edworthy Park. Entirely for my benefit, since no one in our nuclear family unit cares to spend time out of doors. The professor will say ‘I like going for walks, I just don’t like going for walks with the boys,’ but this is entirely false, I concluded on Tuesday – after spending 30 minutes outside with him. He might enjoy a walk without children….in August…..for fifteen minutes. But at any other time? Notsomuch.

It was one of those mornings in Calgary that come around a few times each winter – the trees and grass all covered with spindly bits of ice. It’s fairly magnificent if you’re into that whole natural beauty thing.

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And, in true Calgary form, it was also deceptively cold once we left the confines of our crescent.

We pulled into the parking lot and quickly learned the surface was basically a very thin ice skating rink. Like a couple of retirees, we shuffled towards the pathway, clinging to one another in an attempt to keep from breaking a hip or shattering an elbow. After avoiding most of the ice, we stopped in front of a tree – not unlike a sixtysomething couple I observed in Fish Creek Park some time ago – watching while a flock of finches darted in and out of the branches.

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‘Let’s go check out the tunnel,’ the professor suggested, referring to the ‘tunnel’ of shrubby trees that line the Christmas Tree Trail. We walked along in pseudo-silence, the professor’s audible shivering being the only communication between us. ‘We haven’t even been outside for ten minutes,’ I protested. ‘But it’s freezing,’ he sighed, ‘how are you not freezing? You’re not even wearing gloves!’

‘Once I’m out, I’m out,’ I shrugged, stuffing my bare hands deeper into my pockets. We were walking sans enfants, and there were things to photograph and it wasn’t 30 below. It was the outdoors equivalent of winning the lottery.

We arrived at the ‘tunnel’, which appeared more ‘sparse’ than ‘magical’, but still I asked the professor to walk ahead of me so I’d have a subject for my photograph. ‘Walk in a reflective manner, not an I’m-so-miserable-I-can’t-stand-it manner,’ I directed, noting his slumping shoulders.

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‘Yeah, this tunnel doesn’t look as cool as I imagined it would,’ he observed halfway through, which is marital shorthand for ‘I want to turn around.’

I convinced him to make a (slightly longer) loop back along the railroad tracks, rather than retrace our steps. We meandered along the stark landscape, with his fervent shivering as our soundtrack.

‘I think I’d rather be walking with Percy,’ I sighed aloud.

‘No you wouldn’t – he’d be on the ground crying.’

‘True, you at least keep moving. But the amount of complaining…..is the same.’

‘I just….have that sense,’ he sputtered. ‘I know when [the boys] have about 15 minutes of ‘fun’ left in them. You’ve completely lost that sense.’

This was, of course the truth, but like I’d said earlier: once I’m out, I’m out – fully aware that it may well be the last time. Ever again.

I’d fallen a few steps behind and by the time I caught up with him, the professor was standing sideways, ostensibly trying to shield me from seeing something. A dead bird? Pile of excrement?

‘Nothing to see here,’ he attempted to block my view, ‘just keep moving.’

‘What are you talking about,’ I tried to peer past him to see what he was so obviously trying to hide.

‘This looks like something you’d want to take 20 pictures of,’ he gave up and stepped aside, revealing a cluster of heart-shaped, frost-tipped brown leaves. ‘I’ll refer you to photographs of December 2013.’

More truth.

‘I think I have hoar frost on my stitches,’ he lamented minutes later, referring to the three stitches on his leg where a mole used to live.

By this point I was completely freezing, thoroughly regretting my ‘slightly longer’ loop, desperately willing the parking lot to appear.

The pale sun, barely visible through the cloudy sky, caught my eye and I aimed my camera upwards. Apparently, while I was thinking about composition, the professor fell on a patch of ice. Or so he told me by the time I caught up to him again.

‘Did you see that?’

‘No, what?’

‘I fell on the ice – completely wiped out. I thought to myself ‘Nicola must be laughing’ and then I turned around and you’re not even looking.’

‘No, I was taking a picture of the sun.’

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We made it back to the car, alive, and drove to Percy’s school. ‘You’re like Anthony Hopkins – but without the bear coat – in….what was that movie,’ I racked my brain to connect my mental image of an older, bear-wearing Hopkins with a movie title, ‘Legends of the Fall!’

‘Yeah, I don’t think you could even watch that movie now. You’re all, ‘I’ll give it ten minutes.’ You have the attention span of a 17 year old,’ he retorted.

This particular gem was courtesy of my showing him a Jimmy Kimmel video clip just before we left and turning it off after three minutes because it didn’t amuse me.

‘I’ve just concluded I’m not going to live very much longer and I don’t want to waste my time watching things that aren’t good,’ I shrugged unapologetically.

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Dasher, Donner, Blitzen….and Pompana

A couple of weekends ago, just before the calendar was due to flip to December, we made the somewhat unorthodox decision to forego our annual Christmas tree hunt and settle for a pre-cut tree from IKEA.

If memory serves this decision was made in part because I was strangely fixated on having a tree in our house before the official start of advent. And on that ‘last-weekend-before-advent’ there simply wasn’t time to rush out to the woods and cut down a tree to accommodate this. It may have also been insanely cold. Or maybe it wasn’t. Who can recall?

So we drove to IKEA, stood in a ‘Christmas tree’ line and forked over $20, then drove around to the tree-lot where the professor jumped out with two of his boy-children to pick out a tree. Percy and I stayed in the car…..because five people standing on a pavement arguing about a tree is just all kinds of ridiculous.

Within five minutes they’d found a tree, loaded it into the van and we were on our way. It may not have been particularly memorable or photogenic, but it was efficient. Plus we had time to stop at Costco. Win-win.

The professor dragged the tree through the house down to the basement, where we’d decided to set it up. Fearing he’d never be able to find his way back, he made a trail with copious amounts of pine needles to ensure a safe return, a la Hansel and Gretel. This is, of course, hyperbole. The IKEA tree dropped copious amounts of needles and had me cursing its existence five minutes after it entered my home.

‘THIS is why people hate real trees,’ I huffed as I dug out the broom and dustpan and tried to erase the tree’s tracks, and again later when I pushed the vacuum over the nubby basement carpet for more of the same.

We watched Elf while the professor wrapped lights around the tree and the boys slapped some ornaments upon its branches.

But the upstairs felt bare without even a trace of an evergreen branch and the professor had whimpered on more than one occasion about ‘the tree we picked up in a lot’ and even the boys complained about how we hadn’t gone to the forest to cut down a tree.

Thus, two weekends later, we found ourselves ensconced in the unfashionable minivan, heading to Kananaskis in search of a mini-tree for the living room. I doled out hot apple cider, and crackers with peanut butter and apples, and the professor brought along his ipod so we could listen to the likes of Jewel and Mariah Carey being festive. The Hen sang what words he knew while the Gort read a book and it was all fairly idyllic (if you erase the part about the 10.5 year old boy who had voiced his considerable displeasure upon hearing about the excursion, and the wife who’d spent the morning being annoyed about a dirty juicer and a cell phone bill.)

The snow we’d gotten a few weeks ago in Calgary had mostly melted thanks to the warmer-than-normal temperatures, but by the time we turned off the highway at the Sibbald Creek exit – right around the time it occurred to me that I never dress appropriately for tree-cutting – we found ourselves in a wintry Narnia of sorts, with grey skies and frosty white trees.

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And thirty minutes after that, we found ourselves in Lapland.

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Whoops. We forged ahead, the professor steeling himself for the spot on the hill where the same unfashionable minivan had gotten stuck the previous year, where his wife had nearly lost the plot when the van threatened to slide backwards into the cars waiting behind us.

‘Whatever you do, don’t stop,’ I warned and we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the van made it up the hill without incidence and turned into the parking lot. We paid for our tree-cutting permit and, with saws in hand, set off in search of a mini-tree, while I traipsed through snow in my ankleboots. All while Percy, aka Paul Bunyan, stopped at every short-ish tree he encountered and tried to saw it off.

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Fortunately he applies virtually no pressure with a saw, and it would take him at least thirty years to sever anything.

We found a tree and cut it down. As we made our way back to the car, I marveled – silently – at the absence of tears and complaints, and the fact that our oldest son was dragging the tree back and the professor and I were following behind our boy-children, instead of one adult leading the pack while the other lagged behind picking up the emotionally depleted pieces.

It was a Christmas miracle. Of sorts.

Once the tree was shoved into the van, I bought the ‘starving’ boys hot dogs, which they inhaled by the fire. An adorable Wheaten Terrier pup named Snickers was playing nearby and we chatted with its owner. ‘I hear it’s pretty bad out,’ she mentioned when we told her we were heading back. ‘A lot of people are getting stuck. Whatever you do….don’t stop!’ she cautioned as we parted ways.

Back in the car, the professor steered the van out of the parking lot for our return to Calgary. Just past the first corner, a car was stuck in the middle of same hill we’d traversed an hour earlier. We continued on, optimistic that we had somehow dodged a roadside bullet. At the intersection near Highway 68, the professor rolled through the stop sign so as to avoid the fate of the [stuck] Scion we’d seen on our way in. Another roadside bullet dodged.

And then, roughly two minutes later, we were plum out of luck.

Hill. Ice. Van.Sliding backwards. On the wrong side of the road. Woman having complete meltdown in passenger seat.

I may have many, some, one or two strengths, but remaining calm in a car that is not doing what it is supposed to be doing while the professor is at the steering wheel is not one of them. Chances are, if you’re driving a car and I happen to be sitting inside it during such a moment, I will likely gnaw the insides of my cheeks, or clench my fists into sweaty oblivion, without saying much. Unfortunately I can’t seem to do the same when my better half is at the wheel.

Lucky for him.

At some point during what I was certain was our imminent demise, we found ourselves in a pile of snow on the left side of the road, watching helplessly, silently, while cars drove semi-carefully around us. Hoping not to be struck by said cars.

An older, black Ford Explorer stopped; the driver motioning for us to roll down our window. ‘You want me to pull you up with my truck,’ he shouted. At which I fully expected the professor to say ‘no, that’s okay,’ with some sort of hand motion to indicate we were mere seconds away from finding a way out of our predicament. (Even though, of course, we weren’t.) So I was thoroughly surprised when instead I heard him say, ‘actually yes, that would be great.’

Come again?

I mean, I’m no automotive expert, but can a Ford Explorer tow a Toyota Sienna up an ice-covered hill/mountain? Rather, should a Ford Explorer tow a Toyota Sienna up an ice-covered hill/mountain? We did not have the luxury of ‘weighing our options’ since one scenario involved sitting on the wrong side of the road and the other involved being towed uphill by an orange rope attached to an SUV.

With the kind stranger’s wheels spinning madly, and the professor doing whatever it is one is supposed to do when possibly being tethered up a hill, I held my head in my hands and hoped the end result would not be two vehicles collided in a heap at the bottom of the hill.

Eventually we made it to a point on the hill where it seemed reasonable for our unfashionable minivan to continue driving without assistance. We stopped, and the good samaritan untethered our vehicle. ‘Can I get your address,’ I asked awkwardly, ‘we’d like to send you something.’

He rattled off his Calgary address. ‘And your name? Last name?’ I asked, leery of sending a nameless envelope out into the world, but not wanting to sound like a creepy stalker-type, either.

‘Pompana,’ he yelled back, before getting in his truck and waiting for our spinning wheels to gain traction.

We drove back in quiet gratitude, unable to exhale until our tires hit asphalt.