Jake and the Fatman

After a not-entirely pleasant night’s sleep, we ejected our cold, stiff bodies from the tipi and dragged our belongings back to the van. We made it to the Val Marie visitor’s centre right at 9am to drop off cots and thermarests and stopped for a coffee at the local museum slash coffee shop across the street.

Ten minutes after I’d ordered our lattes, I was still standing, empty-handed, despite the fact that we were the only customers in the place. ‘The espresso machine is taking a long time to get warmed up,’ the less-than-perky barista explained, ‘can I make you a coffee?’ ‘Sure,’ I relented. For what choice did I have, I was many miles away from the next Marzocco.

More minutes passed before she handed me two Styrofoam cups and I walked back to the car, ready to be restored to civilization. One taste of the hot liquid in my generic cup, confirmed the suspicions I’d formed while watching her technique: swill.

The professor returned from filling our car with gas and reached for his coffee. ‘You’re better off drinking yesterday’s cold coffee from the cooler,’ I sighed, before walking to the trash can to say goodbye to the hot brown liquid. We walked the half block down to the town grocery store, which also opened at 9, and I selected their smallest container of milk for the boys’ cereal.

After a delicious bowl of cardboard-esque healthy cereal and skim milk, we made our way to the border.

It’s always a slight rush of excitement, arriving at the border. Because even though we will spend 2 or 3 or more days in the car to get to our destination, it feels like an accomplishment to say ‘we’re in America!’

As in, ‘one country down, only one more to go!’ Practically halfway there.

We pulled up to the designated line and waited for our official summons to move forward. We were the only car there and I was quietly thrilled at how quickly we’d zip through: hand over some passports, answer a few questions, likely relinquish the 2 bananas remaining in our cooler and we would be in America.


After waiting several minutes, two guards walked into the booth – clearly having been on break from a busy day’s work – and summoned us to pull forward. The duo bore a very slight resemblance to that old television show, Jake and the Fatman. Purely because one had black hair and the other was somewhat heavyset. The dark-haired man was no Joe Penny and the heavyset man with the buzz cut turned out to be the antithesis of a cantankerous genius.

I handed the professor the stack of passports and he rolled down his window. As soon as I heard Jake bark: ‘pull all the way up to the line’ I knew, simply by the tone of his voice, that we were not going to breeze into America after all.

There are law enforcement agents who are professionals, who do their job and speak with even, bordering on pleasant voices. And there are law enforcement agents who have lower than average IQs, who thrive on abusing their position of power, and often end up in youtube clips and newspaper headlines.

Jake and the Fatman obviously fell in the latter category, and our ability to cross into the land of milk and honey in a timely manner rested in the hands of this wonder-duo.

They began with the standard line of questioning.

Where are you going? Indiana

What are you doing there? Visiting  family.

How long will you be there? One month.

Do you have any fruits or vegetables? Two bananas.

Any citrus? No.

Are you traveling with any currency? Seven dollars. Actually two – we spent the $5 on the swill back in Val Marie.

How are you going to get to Indiana with $7? Silence.

‘Why do you have emergency passports for two of your kids,’ the Fatman suddenly piped up. Of all the questions I might have anticipated, this was certainly not one of them. It was the equivalent of asking ‘why do you have legal, accepted-everywhere travel documents for your children to cross an international border? What kind of stunt are you trying to pull?’

We explained that their passports hadn’t been ready on time and they were issued emergency passports instead.

‘Well you don’t need passports for any children under the age of 16 to travel between the U.S. and Canada. You only need them to cross the Atlantic.’

To say this line of reasoning took us aback would be an understatement. We were dealing with a man who spends his days looking at passports, asking us why we had passports. Perhaps his most recent buzz cut had removed more than he’d anticipated.

‘Why are you crossing [the border] here?’ He changed tactics, asking the second least expected question of the hour. Clearly our unfashionable minivan with its Griswold-esque roof topper and family of five had raised some serious red flags.

‘We spent the night at Grasslands National Park,’ we explained.

‘You’re coming from Calgary, and instead of going down through Montana, on 15, you come all the way over, driving the worst roads possible, and cross here.’

He framed the question like we were playing poker and he’d just laid a royal flush on the table: Aha! Now I have you! You are clearly up to something, what with your passports and driving on these gravel roads, hoping the fine border guards near Val Marie will be too consumed with road construction concerns to care. Bet you weren’t anticipating Jake and the Fatman, super-sleuths who keep America safe from riff-raff and would-be terrorists.

There was a brief moment of silence and I fully expected them to order us out of the car so they could search it, or at least demand we hand over the two bananas, but instead Jake said, in his perpetually unpleasant voice: park the car over there and come inside.

Again, not where I thought this was going.

As previously stated, the professor is the yin to my yang. If left to his own devices, when dealing with stupidity of the mind-blowing variety, his voice will get an unpleasant edge and he may use words that are not wise to use in the company of people who could easily say ‘no America for you!’ Being a people pleasing immigrant, my strategy has always been to answer questions politely and be my most helpful self, in an effort to keep my exchanges with such people as brief as possible.

In the 30 second drive to our parking spot, I exhorted him to keep things pleasant and we climbed out of the car to wait in our video and audio recorded waiting room.

They conferred and emerged, asking more of the same questions.

What do you do in Calgary? Why do you have passports for your kids, anyone under the age of 16 does not need a passport. Why are you coming this way?

‘I’m from San Diego,’ the Fatman told us, ‘and if I’m going back there, I’m not going to drive to [Bismarck/Jamestown/some random town used to illustrate he would be driving east to go west.]

‘But we’re heading in the direction we need to go,’ I spoke up, thoroughly irritated.

Nonplussed, he continued, ‘I mean you’re driving on the worst roads possible. There’s construction starting on this road, a few miles away, and when there’s traffic – there won’t be today because of the holiday – you will be lucky if you’re going 35 miles per hour. And there’s a two foot drop off on either side. So if you go off the edge….And it’s a good thing you’re not on a motorcycle because the road is covered in oil. You’d have to turn back.’

We stared back, dumbfounded. What was there to say?

They retreated to their glass-walled office again. Either to confer, or pass sufficient time so as to give the appearance that they were pouring themselves into our ‘case’. The Fatman emerged again at some point and disclosed a rather embarrassing change of heart about the whole passport matter. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you lived in Canada, that’s why you need to have passports for your kids.’

Yep. People who work in a particular country tend to also live in said country.

‘Do you have any other identification?’ Jake asked, to let us know we were not yet off the hook. We handed over our drivers’ licenses.

‘Why do you have Canadian drivers’ licenses?’ Because Canada requires it.

There was more conferring behind their glass walls and I watched while they appeared to scratch the licenses, presumably to verify their authenticity.

They emerged from their fortress, having – seemingly – exhausted their repertoire of questions.

‘So,’ Jake looked at me, ‘You’re from South Africa? How did you get your U.S. Passport?’

Scratch that, this was the most unbelievable yet.

I stammered a little, completely caught off guard,’ through permanent residency.’  ‘Yeah, but who sponsored you to come to the United States,’ he insisted.

‘Nobody.  I was 12. I came with my parents.’

‘Yeah, but who sponsored them?’

‘Nobody, they went to graduate school.’

I didn’t realize I’d have to explain my emigration circa 1986.

Nearly forty five minutes after we’d first arrived, we were finally dismissed. ‘Goodbye,’ they took leave of us, which the boys reciprocated with polite goodbyes while their incensed parents remained silent.

We got in the car and I sensed the professor was about to explode. But I had to assume we were still under some kind of surveillance.

‘Not yet,’ I cautioned.

And we drove for several miles until it felt somewhat safe to dissect the experience.

‘We should have said we were doing some work for ISIS, when they asked us what we were going to do in Indiana.’

‘Or said we were doing an internship with the Institute for Specialized Information Studies.’

We approached the construction zone and looked for the ‘two foot drop offs’ on either side.

We’re still looking.


The Griswolds hit the road. Again.

On this, our 6th or 7th auto-journey to the heartland, I’ve come to an important conclusion. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend preparing for the great exodus, it won’t be enough.

This time, having learned a thing or two from previous years’ procrastinating, I decided to start pre-trip preparation three days prior to our scheduled departure.

A significant portion of one day was devoted to packing. I felt strongly that the boys should be responsible for packing their own things, which means I spent approximately 3 hours saying things like ‘please bring me 4 pairs of underwear,’ and hitting my head against the coffee table when each child came back with different interpretations of the same request. The bulk of the second day was devoted to cleaning the house and shopping for car-food. Which left the third day, I thought, just to ‘wrap things up’ and get in bed by 10 so we could be those people who get on the road at 6 and get to their destination at a reasonable hour.

But for reasons that are surely my fault, though I’m hard-pressed to identify precisely which personal deficiencies are to blame, the third day did not unveil in the expected manner. At all.

There were last-minute errands, yes. And more food planning and prep. But when I found myself standing in the kitchen at 10pm making pesto – because my basil plant was drowning in fragrant green leaves , and just imagine the after effects of leaving a drowning basil plant for a month – I knew I’d strayed, profoundly from my initial goal.

I crawled into bed sometime after 1am; my dream of getting on the road at a respectable time, just that: a dream.

When you combine my inability to focus singlemindedly on the task at hand, even at the risk of letting an unconsidered basil harvest go to waste, with the professor’s inability to focus on the task at hand, even at the risk of listening to a decade-old playlist on the ipod, you have a case of serious inefficiency on your hands.

While I was busy making pesto and cooking provisions for our first roadtrip dinner, the professor was busy adding the 20 CDs he had checked out from the library to his playlist.

Song, by painful song.

At the sound of the fourth-in-a-row Beach Boys tune, I called him over and quietly said something like: ‘I really hate all of the songs you’ve been playing. And if that’s the music we’ll be listening to, I won’t go on this trip.’

Some couples disagree about how to raise their kids, or how to spend their money, but we disagree about listening to music. He wants to listen to it. I don’t.  He wants to create playlists when we go on roadtrips. I think our time is better spent packing, getting the car ready, cleaning, and doing random things no one in their right minds would do before going on a trip.

Like making pesto and cleaning out the washing machine and organizing dresser drawers.

Suffice it to say our trip started with a bit of tension over the contents of the ipod. Especially when it turned out all the hours the professor had spent on acquiring and downloading music had been for naught. An hour before hitting the road, we learned his new playlist had failed to load properly onto our slightly ancient device.

After stopping at the library to return an IKEA-sized shopping bag full of architecture books and random cd’s, not to mention a host of unread cookbooks, we finally got on the road. Just before 9:30am. Which is not at all like the 6am of my dreams.

The first day of driving is the worst. Really, it’s all bad. But that first day is brutal as passengers (especially parents) are forced to acclimate to the limitations of car-life. The professor sits in his seat, making gasping noises, as though he can’t quite get enough oxygen, while saying things like ‘I’m not going to make it.’ And the boys eat all of the candy I bought within the first 30 minutes of the drive, inevitably spilling something all over the car-floor. And I fixate on time. How much time we’ve spent driving. How much more time we’ll have to spend driving. And how much time has to pass before I can broach the subject of stopping the car. Again.

All while awkwardly arranging (and re-arranging) my legs around the bag at my feet, bulging with books I do not have the attention span to read.

The focus of the first day of Roadtrip Summer 2015 was getting to Grasslands National Park. Which, for the uninitiated, is located in Val Marie, Saskatchewan. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry, I’m sure 101% of the world’s population hasn’t either.

I’d had a vague desire to go to Grasslands for several years because, wait for it, I’d seen a Calgarian photographer’s pictures of the park on Flickr. If you’re thinking to yourself: isn’t that why you drove all the way to Arches National Park during Roadtrip Summer 2013? You’d be right.

Social media really does ruin lives.

So we drove, and we drove, and then we got on a gravel road in nowhere Saskatchewan and drove some more. For reasons I can’t explain, driving on a gravel road increases my level of roadtrip misery one thousand-fold. And, yin to my yang, the professor becomes genuinely excited at the possibility of steering his car onto roads covered in tiny, and not so tiny, rocks. Preferably at speeds that defy the laws of common sense.

This might also be a good time to mention that the province of Saskatchewan, as I found out 12 hours before leaving Calgary, has been battling approximately 180 forest fires and the entire province is covered in a haze of smoke as a result.

Most people would hear such news and think ‘wow, poor province, hope they can extinguish those fires before too much natural scenery is destroyed.’ But all I could think was ‘wow, my pictures are going to suck.’ While images of Roadtrip Summer 2014 – driving through smoke-filled (and subsequently unphotogenic) British Columbia – flooded my mind.

All this to say my excitement at finally getting to see Grasslands had diminished considerably by the time we arrived, on account of the smoke. And the gravel roads. And the almost seven hour drive, which got us to the visitor’s centre a whopping 20 minutes before it closed for the day.



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.)