Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rolling on the River

I've hurt my right arm, so typing is difficult (and driving, and drying my hair and...) I've decided to post an old piece originally published in Canoe and Kayak Magazine.

My adventure as a Wild Woman began one frigid Christmas Eve in Montreal. My husband ordered me upstairs while he placed one last Christmas gift under the tree. Despite my uncanny knack for guessing gifts (and sensing the presence of chocolate in the house) he was confident that I would not guess this one.

I felt a rush of cold air as I climbed the stairs, then heard a crash and mumbled cursing as my mystery gift was maneuvered into the house. Ah, so it was large and it survived minus 30 temperatures. Unlikely to be that lovely Moorcroft vase I’d had my eye on. After several minutes, my husband emerged triumphant and with a smug little wink, he climbed into bed.

The next morning our three children waited at the top of the stairs while we took the annual family photos. They inched down the steps in a tight knot, tickling each other and pondering the nature of The Gift, then ran into the family room. Shoved under the tree, over the couch, across the kitchen table, its rudder resting just under the light fixture (now missing one bulb, which explained the crash and the cursing) was a bright yellow, 17-foot kayak.

“It’s a one woman kayak,” my husband said proudly. “I could have purchased a two seater, but I thought you needed to have some private time, without me or the kids. You can just take it out on the lake at the cottage whenever you feel the need. There’s even a storage compartment if you want to take a long trip.”

Wow. This was the equivalent of having my own cabin, albeit a floating one. And one available only in summer. And I’d have to paddle it. Nevertheless, I hugged my husband who had heard my pleas for quiet time and answered them with a big yellow kayak. Not exactly a week in the south of France, but still...

The following May, I arranged an all day lesson with “H2O Adventures.” I had had my own H2O adventure as a child when I tumbled off my grandmother’s dock. It triggered a life-long fear of drowning, and I could still recall the panic and disorientation as I flailed and choked before being yanked up to safety by my ashen faced grandmother.

With some trepidation, I drove to the mouth of the river where the lessons would take place. Fear of drowning was supplanted by a different kind of anxiety as I sized up my classmates. The great divide between the young and hip, and the middle-aged and big-hipped, is never so great as when both are clothed in bathing suits. My classmates were bronzed, bikinied young girls and buff young men in bandanas who slid their kayaks off roof-racks with ease. I couldn’t even reach my kayak, let alone lift it off the family van. Pete, one of the young instructors, appeared before me.

"Let me help you, ma'am."

Exsqueeze me? Tell me you did not just call me "ma’am.”

You know you’ve crossed the great gulf of youth and plunged into middle-age when cute young guys call you ma’am. I looked around at the flat stomachs and pierced navels and hugged my life jacket closer, painfully aware I hadn’t shown my belly in public since my third child was born. With a sigh, I wriggled into my fetching kayak apron and lurched to the shore of the quiet shallows where the lessons took place.

Wedging myself into the kayak without flipping proved to be my first challenge. They say women come in either Pear or Apple shapes? I’m more Idaho Potato, and it soon became clear there was no graceful way to ease myself in. Once in, I feared I would never get out, and they would have to grease me and pop me out like those portly passengers on airline toilets who inadvertently flush while sitting, thus creating an airtight buttock vacuum necessitating an urgent plea over the loudspeaker, for “all those with leftover butter pats, please report to the rear.”

Next came the Eskimo Roll, or as one of the Vegan participants corrected the instructor, the more P.C. “Inuit” Roll. Recovering from a capsize was of prime importance. However, my kayak was a stable sea kayak, so it could not easily roll over and up like a white water kayak. After a few spluttering attempts, someone took pity and tossed me an old pair of nose plugs. My young classmates rolled and shook off the water as easily as slick seals. Though I suspected I looked like an aging, synchronized swimmer who took one too many dives in the shallow end, I smiled and waved as my kayak was ignominiously flipped over by a couple of strong assistants.

While dangling upside down in the water, I hugged the kayak and brightly tapped three times on the hull to let Pete know I was okay (twice on the pipes, tap tap, if the answer is nooo....) Then, I was supposed to either execute The Roll, or do a Wet Exit - while still hanging upside down, I must lean forward, unhook the skirt, and slip out of the kayak “as though removing a pair of pants,” then swim to the surface.

Now unless I’m wearing pajamas, when I remove a pair of pants it takes several minutes to peel them off my hips and wiggle them from side to side down to my toes. My motivation for a nimble Wet Exit came in a vision of me being carted off to the local ER jammed in a bright yellow kayak, the rescuers having been unable to extract my lifeless, nose-plugged body, my family forced to build a custom designed crypt to accommodate me and Old Yellow.

However, as the day wore on, I mastered the J-stroke, the low brace turn and the reverse paddle, though the roll would continue to elude me. I learned to right an upturned, waterlogged kayak in the middle of the lake, bail it and climb back in (not something one wants captured on video if one fears blackmail.)

Our day ended with praise and an invitation to attempt a crossing of the rapids, a place referred to as The Drop. Though not part of the course, we were deemed an adept group ready for the challenge. We paddled to the base of the roaring rapids and watched as white water kayaks, built for speed and maneuverability, whipped around rocks, their helmeted occupants spinning and popping up in the roiling foam like corks. I looked at the raging river, swollen by spring rains, and my mouth went dry.

“Ma’am? You can just wait here in this quiet eddy and watch.” Pete gave me a benign smile.

There was that cursed "ma'am" again. It worked like a red flag. In my mind’s eye, I could see my husband slapping his forehead.

“Oh, really? Well, I will do it, or die trying.”

Pete waited with me as one kayaker after another struggled against the current to the other side of the river. You must lean into the current, almost to the point of water washing over you, and once you start, you can’t stop paddling, he explained. You have to resist your instincts to lean back, as the water will push the boat over and drag you, upside down and over the rocks, to the base of the river (where your lifeless body will be crowbarred out of the kayak surrounded by youngsters shaking their heads and whispering, “Dude, if only you’d mastered the Inuit Roll. Rest in peace, ma’am.”) My classmates were anxiously watching from the other side of the river. It was now or never.

“GO, GO, GO!” I could hear their shouts above the roar of the rapids. Pete was right behind me, shouting to lean in, to keep going and paddle hard (like stopping midway was an option?) My arms were leaden, a full day of paddling in the sun taking its toll. I was almost there, just a bit further. My back ached from the effort. Then suddenly, I arrived on the other side. I was surrounded by cheering kids, pounding their kayaks and waving their paddles – my comrades-in-arms. I grinned back through my tears.

“Hey, nice going.” Pete grinned and gave me a high-five.

And he didn’t call me ma’am.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cat Butt, Little Mutt

Any doubts as to who rules the house?

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Stitch in Time

Every so often, I find myself at a garage sale or one of those small town, cluttered stores we used to call a Five and Dime. I make a point of searching for vintage knitting and crochet patterns. I paw through them with purpose, hoping I’ll find one of the chosen ones, and when I find That Which I Seek - my buried treasure, my pearl, my gold nugget of knitting patterns – I feel I have won another grand prize at Ultimate Vendetta Bingo.

Back in the early eighties, I got a job managing a tony gift shop. My boss was a relatively benign oil executive, who opened the shop as an investment. I was to have almost complete autonomy while he periodically checked in to review orders or approve a staffing change. He was pleasant and hands-off, and the business did reasonably well, so the arrangement worked for both of us.

However, there was the small problem of his wife.

She appointed herself as Chief Executive Consultant, much to her husband’s chagrin. And whenever she darkened my threshold, she took the bounce right out of my bungee.

Gliding past the counter, eyes missing nothing, she’d pick up a vase, and shift it a half inch into the “correct” place. Using a display case like a barre, she’d perform a graceful arabesque and drag her finger along the baseboard to check for dust. The window displays were never good enough, the paintings usually needed straightening, the vacuum always missed a spot. She used the royal “we” and ask why “we” ordered certain pieces. They’re selling well was not a satisfactory answer. We have an image to keep up, she’d remind me, while smoothing her cashmere sweater set over her tiny hips or twisting her pearls. She’d usually look me up and down at this point, sigh, and say she expected me to do better in future. To say she was a bit of a pain in the ass is like saying Hannibal Lector is sometimes a bit peevish.

One day, my boss let it slip that his wife used to work as a model. Now, this was curious. She only stood about five feet tall. What kind of model was she, exactly? Clothing, he said, you know, a fashion model. Fashion model? When pressed, he was vague and said she’d given it up after she had kids.

One day, I paid a visit to my mother, an avid knitter, and I came across a basket holding some old knitting patterns. I browsed through them, doubling over as I looked at what passed as groovy duds in the 60s and 70s, then I stopped and looked more closely at the face of one of the models. Imagine my delight, nay, my unmitigated exultation, when I realized what I held in my hands.

There she was, the boss’s wife, in full flaming colour, modeling a hat not unlike a polyester helmet pieced together with potholders, fastened under her chin, and embellished with what appeared to be goat testicles. Ah, life can be sweet again when the bane of your existence is thus preserved forever. She never bothered me much after that. To this day, I still stumble across the odd photo of her, and my delight hasn’t faded with time.

And if you want to see what I’m talking about, go check out Stitchy McYarnpants and the Museum of Kitschy Stitches, and Threadbared. Check out the categories in the index. Go directly to the 70s. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nature bites

My cottage is my sanctuary. It's the quiet place I go when life is moving too fast. I also go for the nature. I love nature. And when I say nature, I mean chickadees and flowers and fluffy clouds. Nice nature.

I've seen foxes, hares and deer frolicking in my hostas, though not all at the same time. I have nesting sharpshin hawks in our white pine, chipmunks in the rock garden and a woodchuck in the wood pile. We even saw two baby moose galloping down the middle of the road. Sometimes the sheer number of birds, chipmunks and red squirrels milling about the feeder seem almost Disney-esque, especially when the chipmunks take peanuts out of our hands.

But then the neighbours talked of several bear sightings.

Last summer, I was alone and preoccupied making chicken wraps for a swim meet. I had about twenty pounds of warm, spicy chicken cooling on my deck when suddenly, I heard something crashing about in the woods. Whatever "it" was, it was rustling and moving bushes and was big enough to break branches underfoot. Not a deer, which are more sure-footed. Not something small, like a raccoon. Nothing Disney about this noise.

Dressed in a bright red sundress and armed with a three dollar plastic mosquito zapper, I ventured outside for a look. The thought did occur to me that this was like the part in any horror movie when the audience shouts "Look out behind you! Get back in the house!"

I tried not to make a sound on the gravel driveway and stopped beside the woodpile. I strained to hear or see the source of the rustling and held my breath. At that moment, the resident woodchuck popped out of the woodpile for his evening constitutional and - clearly not expecting a human, dressed in a red sundress and smelling of Italian chicken - he squeaked his annoyance and caused me to start so violently, that I came as close as I've ever come as an adult to filling my pants. I beetled back to the house, and left whatever was in the bushes to its business, and the woodchuck to his woodpile. My husband, of course, didn't believe me.

Later, I took this photo on the back step:

You tell me...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

My Secret Shame

I love almost everything about Autumn. The low sun filtered through blazing maples on our street, apple crisp in the oven scenting our home, cool nights replacing the humid nights of summer – all make my heart sing. Unfortunately, the change in temperature also signals a return to my secret shame.

Our black Labrador Rosie died five years ago, and we agreed our next dog would be smaller, but with a similar, easy-going temperament. After a lot of research, I decided on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Despite the fact that this new puppy was akin to having a toddler in the house again – a clingy toddler with sharp teeth and no diaper - I loved Buddy, also known as The Love Sponge, and he certainly has lived up to both monikers.

When I chose this breed, I admit I did not take into consideration that Cavaliers do not tolerate the cold very well. The regal name should have been a tip off; even his colouring smacks of gentility. He’s not brown and white, but “Blenheim” after Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. However, everything I read said that even though ladies of the court kept warm on long carriage rides by cuddling these little critters, Cavaliers were also hardy hunting dogs who have been bred for centuries to run through the countryside and flush game.

What the experts did not say was that after allowing your Cavie to run and sniff through aforementioned countryside with all of its detritus, people will wonder why you are walking a dirty Swiffer. And if there is any snow on the ground, it will collect on the long chest and leg feathers as though someone wrapped the dog in a length of pom-pom fringe. But most importantly, at the least hint of cold weather, a Cavie will turn into a whiney baby who will persistently and stubbornly claw at your legs, begging to snuggle into your coat. To his tiny dog brain, a down-filled jacket is really no more than a fashionable, portable duvet with buttons, one which was clearly transported on a human’s back just to be available to him. Heck, he sneaks onto beds at home. Why should this be any different?

The only solution was a dog jacket or sweater, and therein lies my shame. The dog could tolerate wearing a jacket, but could I tolerate walking beside him while he wore it in public? It wasn’t as though I was putting bows on him, or rhinestone collars, or little doggie sunglasses and a hat. It was for a very practical reason. Shouldn’t I do everything in my power to make my dog comfortable? I resisted, but after yet one more walk beginning with a bouncing dog and ending with a shivering, wet mess stubbornly refusing at the halfway mark to walk another step, the answer was a qualified yes.

In my quest for a simple, unobtrusive and practical dog ensemble, I was amazed by the vast array of outfits available for the fashion conscious canine - fuzzy pink pajamas with a discreet tail hole, a faux-leather Harley Davidson jacket and cap, a hooded sweatshirt with pockets… Come on. A hood? Biker jacket? Pockets? A dog needs pockets like a fish needs shoes. I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of it. I just wanted something functional and low-key to keep the little critter warm. So I did what any resourceful suburban mom would do when she needs information – I went to the park and asked around.

Sure enough, I spied a feisty Jack Russell in a fetching yet modest little jacket (without pockets or emblems.) Turns out it was made by a local woman working from her home. I took her business card and wondered how I was going to explain to my husband that I was taking Buddy to a canine couturier to be fitted for a couple of custom, made-to-measure, dog coats. I thought I’d hit a new low when she snapped her tape measure shut, tilted her head, and suggested matching boots to protect against road salt. I figured I had to draw the line somewhere and declined.

Now my husband, like our kids, refuses to walk Buddy unless the dog is in his birthday suit. So each Fall, when the air has a bit of a nip, I take a bit of a nip too before heading out with Buddy in his lined, waterproof, tailored, plaid coat. My husband jokes that in his next reincarnation, he wants to come back as my dog, minus the goofy wardrobe. I steel myself for the comments or looks of disdain from the owners of those big rugged, manly dogs. Ah, what do they know? Are their dogs descended from royal laps and hunting parties? Doesn’t my dog have the same rights as….oh, what’s the use. I admit it. I’m ashamed I have a girlie-boy dog in a jacket. Sometimes, life’s a bitch, disguised in togs for dogs.

And in case you don't believe me, just look at the poor bugger:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Eh to Zed of Childhood Accidents

Years ago, someone challenged me to come up with an A-Z of childhood accidents.

Never challenge a writer. (And please ignore the inconsistencies in grammar.)

Almost drowned when five.
Broke front teeth when eight.
Cut fingers too many times to count.
Dove off roof with patio umbrella to test the theory of gravity. (Flunked test.)
Electrical shock experiment. (Which, contrary to opinion, is not a warm and fuzzy feeling.)
Frying pan burn on wrist making pancakes.
Grater accident, resulting in skinned knuckles beefing up the coleslaw.
Hung, suspended, from crotch in apple tree until rescued. (Tree's crotch, not mine.)
Icy post/tongue incident (Who hasn't had one of those?)
Jumped from roof with garbage bag parachute. (Didn't learn lesson from umbrella.)
Kite, homemade, flew into head not sky.
Leapt from scooter, also homemade, over curb and missed.
Major food poisoning from Aunt Lily's famous egg nog made with raw eggs.
Nasty spill from the first and last time waterskiing. (Full body enema.)
Orange segment incident, in which I chipped yet another tooth chewing a piece of fruit.
Peed myself laughing. (That constitutes an accident, no?)
Quest for minnows in grandparents' lake resulting in blood suckers wrapped around toes.
Rollerskated into fence. (These were attached to my sneakers with a key. Yes, I'm old.)
Slashed sole of bare foot on rusty can. (See grandparents' lake.)
Trod on by horse. (Used at summer camp, not as a means of transport. I'm not that old.)
Unnerving bum-tumble down a flight of stairs into the basement.
V-neck sweater caught on earring in pierced ear.
Wrist sprain after fall on cement floor while eight months pregnant (which, while not technically a "childhood accident" I did cry like a baby.)
X-ray of my wonky spine, which is deemed so strange, am asked by professor, rubbing her hands in glee, if I'm willing to donate it to confound medical students.
Yanked fish hook from face when I tagged a Styrofoam flutter board and pulled hard.
Zambonied into road from bike, knocking out front teeth the day before kindergarten photo.

Light posts and manly bits

The Boy was unloading the tires from my car and "somehow" they fell out of the car because they hadn't been "stacked properly." Now our metal light post is severed it from its base and is teetering precariously over my car. And a snow storm is in the forecast.

So today, instead of my weekly manicure and foot massage, I will go forth in search of electricians and a new light post. Meanwhile, Middle Child is slaving away writing a book report on the cultural history of the penis for her anthropology class and reading bits aloud for my edification. While she found the book enlightening, she was critical of the lack of "visual support" in the book. She claimed to be referring to the lack of photos on the instruments of torture used in witch hunts, but I suggested she might want to clarify that bit.

And I was kidding about the manicure and massage. Never had either, probably never will, as all our money is going to replacing light standards and education so our kids can learn about the history of the penis.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Man Cold


Frozen hot chocolate from "Serendipity" New York City, that is. Found it. Blended it. Drank it. Dealt with the brain freeze.

Life is good again.

I'm out of chocolate

It's November in Montreal, which means gray, drizzly, cold and I can handle that, I really can, IF I have chocolate. My Swiss stash has run out, the dark chocolate biscuits are history and the kids found my hidden Chipits. There isn't any leftover Halloween candy. I'm not that into Halloween as a holiday, and I don't normally get dressed up, but since we were invited to a party this year, we both got into it. And it was on our street which meant we could walk there and stagger home.
This is me with Death. I started out as a Witch, but after poofing my hair and adding false eyelashes, I decided to go as Death's Mistress. Despite the fact that I'm middle-aged, married and my face was painted gray with green highlights, it didn't deter some of the (older, nearsighted) men from making passes, which certainly made Death take notice.

Anyone who knows me knows I love animals and while I don't hate spiders I don't exactly like them either. I'd say it's more of a wet-my-pants-when-I-see-'em type phobia, actually, but I generally let them be.

This puppy was on my front door. A teenage girl first alerted us to the fact that it was hanging there by screaming in the way that only teenage girls can. I reacted without thinking, and grabbed a shoe to thwack it, not realizing it was a she, and she was carrying eight billion babies, resulting in the yellow goo. If Halloween had not just passed, I'd have been tempted to leave it on the door. Okay, who am I kidding. The spider is gone, but the spider spackle is still on my door.