Breakdown of a breakdown ….

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The tomb of the unknown soldier, at the foot of the cenotaph, was a peaceful resting place for the remains of a man of whom we know nothing, save that he served his country and, in the end, gave his life for it. I’ve walked or driven past it many times. I’ve stopped there a few times, too. The last time I stopped there was during the summer of 2013, when my brother, André, and his wife, Janelle, were visiting. I walked their legs off all over downtown Ottawa, and the tomb was one of the things I chose to show them. People were chatting, snapping pictures, eating lunch, enjoying a fresh-air escape from the office. Two guards played a game with my daughters, handing them cards with clues describing certain parts of the beautiful monument. They, along with a few other children, scurried around the memorial, eagerly finding each piece of the puzzle. I can’t ever think of it as peaceful again.

Just two days ago, Wednesday, October 22, the peace of the tomb was shattered by a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A lifelong loser trailing a long history of petty crime and addiction, an angry, unstable wanna-be mujahid whose goal was to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Somehow, he got his hands on a gun he wasn’t allowed to possess and murdered the soldier guarding the tomb. Nathan Cirillo, father, animal-lover, soldier, was shot at point-blank range, from behind – the favourite angle of the cowardly. Brave bystanders tried frantically to save his life, but he died in their arms. Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was confronted – and later shot – by the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. Even though Zehaf-Bibeau was dead, it was unknown whether he was operating alone. Were there other gunmen? Had bombs been planted? Was the killing a standalone act, or was it the harbinger of mayhem? Nobody knew, so the surrounding area was swiftly shut down and closed off. All government offices were put in lockdown, as were several schools. Civil servants were told to stay in their building, including (of course) Ryan and I. Phone lines were tied up, and the internet was creeping at a snail’s pace (or, at times, completely stalled) as people all over the city frantically tried to find out what was going on and reach loved ones to reassure each other.

I was in a meeting when the news broke. I can’t tell you anything that was said in the meeting after hearing about the attack. My mind shut down. I was able to hold back the tears that sprang immediately to my eyes until it was over, then I took refuge in the washroom – of course, it is a fact that, if you are trying to cry quietly in the washroom, people will bang in and out and force you to converse with them. But I couldn’t stop. I cried in a washroom stall, then – when I thought I was ok – I made it back to my desk in time to start sniffling again. I texted my mother and her husband, then André and Janelle, to let them know that we were safe. Mom called, and I talked to her for a few minutes around the lump in my throat, trying not to let her hear my fear. I’ve been leaking tears at odd moments ever since. It is, I suppose, some sort of breakdown – a response to the tension that you can almost touch, floating in the air, thick enough to choke on. An overwhelming sorrow at the thought of two young men wasted, a peaceful place stained with blood, a city transformed by terror. The dissolution of the thin mental membrane between my usual state of calm and the sickening, screaming state of panic.

My emotions were even more difficult to control when I realised that we were nearing school dismissal time. Fiona’s and Bridget’s school, which had been secured at first, was now operating as usual, even though it is only a few blocks from where I was locked down. Somewhere between my office tower and their school, somebody had drawn an invisible line – apparently, was not safe and they were. Who decided that? How did they decide that? I wasn’t supposed to stand near a window or on a rooftop for fear of potential snipers, but my children were about to leave their school and walk down the street to the Y Kids Club. I must have called their group leader’s number twenty times or more. Ryan took over the task of calling their school – maybe the school staff could tell us if things were ok. I couldn’t do anything about school dismissal or them walking to their after-school program, I couldn’t even leave my damn building – so I needed to know that they had reached the church basement where the Y Kids Club is held. I couldn’t stay still, couldn’t put down my phone – could barely breathe – until I learned that they were safely inside. After that, it was easier to wait out the lockdown. Sometimes, in fact, I managed to forget for a few seconds – then I’d look out the window at the empty grass and paths and picnic tables, and remember that a nightmare was happening even though we were all awake.

The lockdown was lifted just before four (for us, anyway – the downtown would remain shuttered and surrounded by police until well into the night). As we left the building, I drew in a grateful breath of fresh air, my first since walking in that morning. My shoulders were tight and my eyes were roaming – every sound was magnified in my mind, and I couldn’t help but look behind me every few paces. Cars were backed up all the way to the parking lot, because every car going across the bridges to Quebec was being monitered – and, because this is a border city, there were alot of cars heading across those bridges. After picking Fiona and Bridget up from daycare, tears were threatening again – this time, tears of gratitude at the simple blessing of the four of us reunited in our filthy car. I was exhausted, and my head pounded, and my eyes felt raw – but we were together, and unhurt, and going home.

There’s been a great deal of poetic waxing – journalists are reaching the dizzy heights of sports writers as they scramble for words that are deep and wide enough to encompass this event and the fallout. “Loss of innocence” is used often. It’s not really that, though – most of us have known for years that this was coming. We’ve watched the United States and Europe suffer through much worse, and really we’ve just been lucky until now. We all know that things will change, but these things are mainly of a procedural nature, and won’t stop everything we want them to. What has happened to us lives in some dark, airless corner of our mind with the other spiders – it’s always been there. The only difference now is that this corner has been disturbed, some of its denizens have come howling into the light. The word I keep coming back to is breakdown. The shooting of Nathan Cirillo was a breakdown of security, of trust, of humanity. It is a breakdown of the line between our bad dreams and reality. It is a breakdown of our illusions of peace and easy living. It is a breakdown of my feeling that all’s right with my world. My calm façade – that’s all it was, I know that now – cracked in the face of our collective tragedy and grief. This is just a description my experience – I can only imagine what it was like for the people downtown, in the eye of the storm, for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for Kevin Vickers, for our soldiers who know they have become moving targets merely because of their uniform. I’m praying for them all, because that’s all I can do. In the meantime, we’re all back to work and school and life, because that’s what we must do. We won’t let this breakdown break us.

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“For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

So, with Thanksgiving behind us (at least, in Canada) and myself being someone who never gets there until everyone else has already been there a while – I thought I’d write about gratitude. Every Thanksgiving, Ryan and I, together with his family, rent a chalet in Collingwood for the long weekend. We bring homemade soups and desserts. We decorate the chalet with an art collection the kids have been making since they were toddlers, as well as gourds and ears of corn that we buy at a farm on our way there.

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This tradition goes back so far that we all call it “Collingwood”, not “Thanksgiving”. Once we’ve arrived at the chalet, we do …. whatever. We play poker, and whatever other games someone might be inspired to suggest. We do crafts. Ryan and his brother, Derek, play a deadly serious tennis match. They bring their guitars, and we all sing along – and cheer enthusiastically. The guys watch hockey and football, the ladies have cocktails and talk about the guys. There’s usually a hot tub, and sometimes a foosball, ping pong or pool table. This year, we added a soccer ball (one of my powerful-but-aimless kicks nearly took out the next-door neighbour as he was watering his tomatoes), Jenga and the dispicable “Cards Against Humanity” to the list, as well as a spa experience.

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Because the chalet belonged to everyone, so nobody was playing host, everyone pitched in with everything. So there was time. Time to sit down and sing a favourite song with the guitar players. Time to take anyone up on any game. Time to lie around with cucumbers on my eyes and some mysterious goop on my face and feel the presence of others in the same situation. Time to chat whenever anyone felt like chatting. Time to cuddle. Time to close my eyes and breathe in the smell of the delicious whatever-happened-to-be-simmering in the kitchen. Time to just be. I took some of this copious time to teach Fiona and Bridget to sew. Nothing fancy, just how to close a rip and how to apply a button. They loved it! And now they have another life skill that will save them money and grief down the line …. Years from now, when they are in therapy over all my glaring inadequacies, at least they won’t be able to say that their mother never taught them to repair clothing. Also, the loved-hard-but-still-smiling Sleep Sheep has a new blanket.

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And, of course, there was time to consider what we have received. On the funny side ….

- Ryan and I packed the car to maximum capacity, and duked it out over what’s essential and what’s not. But we didn’t fight.

- Fiona carried a phalanx of live ladybug larvae on her lap all the way to Collingwood and back (about fourteen hours, round-trip) – and none of them escaped or even, as far as I can tell, shuffled off their mortal coil.

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- Nine grown-ass, full-blown human beings stayed in a chalet together from Thursday to Monday, and nobody lost their shiz.

- No dinner was eaten before seven on any given night, and – still – zero shiz was misplaced.

- We ate the Perogie Palace out of perogies. No, really, there were no perogies left by the time we were finished ordering. But it was fine – we shared, and there was more than enough. (As an aside, if you like perogies and schnitzel and a few cool twists on traditional Polish food, go to the Perogie Palace in Meaford!)

- Two kids were learning to sew, so several people were treated to a needle in the foot. But, again, everybody’s shiz stayed right where it was – and nobody died of sepsis.

- These same children were subsisting on a diet of sugar layered between sugar, rolled in sugar, drizzled with sugar and dusted with sugar, served in a sugar cone – and staying up about three hours past their bedtime every night – but they didn’t kill each other, and no one killed them.

- People over thirty played soccer, but nobody had a heart attack or broke their self-bone.

- I acquired a three-blister-shrivelled-skin burn from a sloppy gravy boat and yelled at everyone to “do something” while doing nothing myself because the pain lit my brain up like Canada Day fireworks, and nobody hates me, and I still have a right hand.

- After several straight two-a.m.-or-later bedtimes, we made that long drive home – and unloaded the car, which looked like our whole life vomited in it – and we didn’t fight.

Then, there are the not-so-funny things.On our way to the chalet, we passed two terrible accidents. Broad daylight, dry roads, and crumpled cars. But not for us …. Did we miss it by seconds? We were able to afford to come together, and in style. How many people are separated from their loved ones because of distance and money? While we were together, we could say whatever we wanted, whenever the thought occurred to us. Not everyone can say that. Any given person in the chalet (aside, of course, from Fiona and Bridget) could walk into the grocery store for extra supplies, not even consider the cost, and cart it home. Once it arrived at the house, any of us could lift it up the stairs and into the kitchen, because we are blessed with health and strength. We can prepare the food, wash ourselves and even our clothes and surroundings with perfectly clean water. None of us are sick. And, if we were, a few hours in a waiting room is the only price we’d pay to get back on track. Any time we wanted, we could plant a sloppy kiss and a tight hug on some of the people we love best in all the world. Our girls, when they are in Collingwood, are surrounded by love – and they know it. Oh, the beauty of that!

I write about all these factors in the context of Thanksgiving, and this one lovely weekend we spent together, but really what I’d like to see is this level of gratitude expressed every day. God knows we have received alot. We don’t live in Iraq or Syria or North Korea. Nobody we know has Ebola, or has even come in contact with it (yet). The hospitals, care facilities, schools, libraries, churches and roads we use are free to any Canadian citizen. If we fall on hard times, there are people and institutions waiting to help us. We can look however we like, be any colour or creed or non-creed. Our race is not a source of shame. Who we love is our business, not society’s nor even the state’s, and most people are happy to celebrate our love with us. How high we rise does not depend on the achievement of our forbears. And, if we reach out, we can find people with whom we can share ourselves because so many people are just waiting to be tamed.

For what we have received, let us be truly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (There. I’ve published this just in time for our neighbours to the South to enjoy and reflect. Not bad, Beth, not bad.)

Lessons from “The Little Prince”

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A couple of years ago, I received a gift from my brother-in-law’s fiancé. (Back in May, Di shortened her title to my sister-in-law by having a wedding.) The gift was a beautifully illustrated copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”. Somehow, I had never read this lovely little allegory about the travels of a prince from another planet. I made up for that all in one evening. I thought it would be a light read, an imaginative romp. I was wrong. It made me cry. It occupied my thoughts for days. There is so much to learn in this book.The lessons are jumbled, and don’t really follow a theme, but they’re so clear and sweet and true that I want to share them with you.

“Because where I live, everything is very small ….” When we meet the little prince, he’s imploring the narrator (a man whose plane has crashed in a desert) to draw him a sheep. The narrator offers an elephant, but the prince says an elephant would get in the way. It has to be a sheep, and the sheep has to be small, because his planet is small. It’s so small that he wonders if there’s enough grass for the sheep to eat. He laughs at the notion that the narrator would draw him a tether for his sheep – there’s nowhere the sheep can go anyway. Everything he has can be surveyed in one sweep of the eyes. I thought about the similarity of my situation: my world is very small. My home, my circle of friends, my concerns are like a drop of water in an ocean. At least the little prince is wise enough to know that. I keep forgetting.

“But, of course, those of us who understand life couldn’t care less about numbers!” We are told that the little prince’s planet is called Asteroid B-612, which was discovered in 1909 and presented to the astronomical community in 1920. The author tells us these cold, dry facts so that we’ll believe his story. To him, the proof that the prince was real is “that he was delightful, that he laughed and that he wanted a sheep”. But he knows that most people focus on how old something is, how much it cost, how many others there are like it – not the intrinsic value of its beauty and dearness.

“…. if it’s the seed of a bad plant, you must pull the plant up right away, as soon as you can recognise it.” The little prince details how he spends his time on his planet. A good deal of it is devoted to tending his garden, including ridding it of baobab trees. They are, apparently, as tall as churches and would destroy the prince’s tiny planet if they were allowed to grow to their full size. So, the prince pulls the baobab seedlings up as soon as he knows what they are; they start out looking like all the other plants, “charming, harmless” sprouts “reaching toward the sun”. Would our tendencies, criticisms, regrets and troubles grow so large and overwhelming if we spent more time inside ourselves? Maybe a few minutes every day of reflection over the state of our life would help us cope with it …. “When you’re finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.”

“You know, when you’re feeling very sad, sunsets are wonderful ….” Little things give the prince great joy – even when he’s feeling down. We, too, can find contentment in the little things – but we need to actually notice them, and make an effort to focus on them.

“I should have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions …. but I was too young to know how to love her.” In the eighth chapter, we are introduced to the flower …. On the prince’s tiny planet, there were only plain flowers – until a rose grew. She’s vain, unfurling slowly, “selecting her colours with the greatest care” and “adjusting her petals one by one”. She has only four thorns, but thinks herself “ready for tigers”. She needs a screen to protect her from drafts, and glass over her at night. She coughs occasionally to make him mindful of her delicacy and guilty about his lack of concern for her. The prince grew tired of her neediness. She was too complicated for him. So, he left the bell jar over her, and flew off to explore other planets. It is only when he is away from her that he realizes what she did for him every day. “She perfumed my planet and lit up my life …. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words.” We all have people who love us in clumsy, complicated ways – ways that are not always easily recognizable. We’ve all, at some point, thrown kindness aside because it comes with obligations and mixed feelings. Sometimes, it takes a long time – and great deal of examination – to truly appreciate what we have received from the people around us.

After bidding adieu to his flower, the prince visits several planets before falling to Earth. He meets a king who “insists that his authority be universally respected”, but has no real authority. So he will only command what can be performed, when conditions are favourable, convincing himself that he is in charge because his demands are always for the obvious and inevitable. A vain man, alone on his planet, demands and happily accepts admiration – which is easy to give him, because he’s the only man around (a fact he conveniently ignores). There is a businessman who believes he owns the stars, because he’s the first person who’s ever thought of owning them. Owning the stars makes him rich, because he can use them to buy other stars. It doesn’t make him happy, though, because now he is obsessed with the need to take inventory – and he just can’t count all the stars. The prince meets a geographer who demands information about the Asteroid B-612. The first thing the prince mentions is the flower, but the geographer explains that he doesn’t want to hear about ephemeral things – things that are “threatened by imminent disappearance”. Hearing this, the little prince regrets leaving his flower.

He then visits Earth, where he encounters the narrator and coaxes him to draw a sheep with a crate and a muzzle. He also meets a yellow snake who pities him, “being so weak on this granite earth”. The snake offers to send him back to his planet, but the prince isn’t ready to leave yet. He has more exploring to do. He comes across a blossoming rose bush, and weeps. He thought his flower was the only one of her kind; now that he knows there are thousands like her, he is disappointed. “I thought I was rich because I had just one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose.” He was happier when he focused on what he has, rather than everything he doesn’t have. Sound familiar? He isn’t crying over the rose, but the loss of his innocence – the feeling of being special just isn’t there anymore, because greed has eaten it up.

“It was then that the fox appeared.” The little prince’s encounter with the fox is the loveliest part of the story, in my opinion. The fox greets the weeping prince, and asks to be loved. The fox explains to the prince what it means to love and be loved (or, as the fox calls it, to tame and be tamed). “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” He explains that if they love each other, the prince’s footsteps will become precious to him – he won’t notice other footsteps, but the prince’s footsteps will call him out of his burrow “like music”. Wheat means nothing to the fox, because he doesn’t eat bread – but the wheat would become dear to the fox, because it’s the same colour as the prince’s hair.

“I’ll discover what it costs to be happy!” In the same conversation, the fox tells the prince about the sad side of being loved – that now he will have something to be anxious over, something to lose. In time, the prince and the fox tame each other – coming together and sitting side by side, every day. Edging closer together. Not speaking, because “language is the source of misunderstandings”.

“You’re lovely, but you’re empty …. my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen …. Since she’s my rose.” When it is time for the prince to return to his planet, the fox says “I shall weep”. The prince points out that the fox asked to be tamed, and expresses sorrow that the fox will “get nothing out of it”. The fox answers that he does get something, “because of the colour of the wheat”. He urges the prince to go back to the roses before they say goodbye. Upon returning to the roses, the prince – having had his eyes opened to the beautiful and terrible world of love – sees that the roses are nothing special, because none of them is his rose. When he comes back to the fox, the fox reveals a secret:

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes …. It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important …. People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

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After leaving the fox, the little prince meets the narrator again, and they go in search of water. They find a well, and they agree that the water is sweet, because they are so thirsty. That the desert is lovely because “it hides a well”. That the stars are beautiful because, somewhere in the midst of them, the prince’s flower waits for him. The surface of anything is only that: the surface. Trappings. “What’s most important is invisible.”

At the end of the story, there’s one last lesson – that of death. The narrator is heartbroken because he knows his little friend is about to leave him. The prince pleads with him to understand that he cannot fly away unless he leaves the shell of himself behind. “It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me. It’s too heavy.” He needs to return to his planet, to the core of himself – to his rose. Holding onto the solid is keeping him away from all that. Sometimes, we have to let go of what we can see, touch and quantify – to fly free and find what’s essential. And, though we grieve, we must give those we love the same chance.

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I can tell when you don’t care. I keep talking anyway.

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I know my beloved readers are overdue for another dose of Beth …. There’s been alot going on lately. There was an impromptu visit from my cousin, who – annoyingly enough – ran a marathon a day or two before joining my crew for an enormous plate of nothing healthy and a beer the size of her head. Then, there was a planned visit from my mother and her husband to celebrate the birthday of their precious youngest granddaughter. There was a welcome-back BBQ at the girls’ school, where we were swarmed by wasps while meeting teachers and having blurs of colour pointed out to us as “the girl I was telling you about”, “the new boy”, “that kid who’s always in trouble”, and “the guy who picks his nose all the time”. Then, we toured their classrooms. They’ve done an impressive amount of work already. When I was a student, by this point in the school year, I had done – at most – a review of all the stuff I forgot and a two-page essay about how I spent my summer.

Then, there was Bridget’s birthday. We threw a party for a handful of her friends (Bridget being an introvert, a handful is the number of people with whom she can spend more than fifteen minutes without attempting to hide in her room). It was lovely. The group was small enough so that I could make all the food myself – with some help from Ryan, who likes to chop celery and assemble sandwiches. He also blew up fifteen pink balloons. I’m terrified of balloons, so it suited me to outsource their inflation. He mowed, I vacuumed. Purpose of vacuuming before a children’s party: unclear. But it had to be done …. because. He also gave up his other religion, Sunday football, so the girls could use the Wii. This is no small thing for this man and his football.

Bridget is, possibly, the only child on earth who doesn’t like cake. She licks off all the frosting, then claims to be full. As soon as you throw out her naked cake, she says she wants another piece because she’s not full anymore. So, I made mini-cookies-n-cream cheesecakes instead – she loved them:

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The best thing about them: they’re even easier to make than a birthday cake, and people are impressed by them anyway.

I know that birthday parties these days are almost on par with proms when it comes to planning, significance and expense. However, the little girls enjoyed themselves just as much at our house eating finger foods and ransacking Bridget’s room as they would have at mini-golf or bowling or laser tag, and the party didn’t cost $25 per kid before cake and loot bags. One child was particularly concerned that the party didn’t have a theme. She asked about it three times. Finally, I said “ok, the theme is yay, Bridget is seven“. She relaxed, and turned her attention back to the group. At that point, a song they like had come on the radio, and they were dancing with the glitter shakers I had laid out for the craft they were supposed to be working on:

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There is glitter on the floor, the rug, the furniture, our clothes, our hair. None of us will ever be glitter-free again. This is nothing new, though, in a family that includes two little girls. I don’t mind. Glitter everywhere is a sign of a good life. I said this to a dear friend of mine when she arrived to pick up her daughters. She affectionately told me I’m effed up. I pointed out that this was true even before I confessed my affection for glitter, and she agreed. After the crafting and some free time, they descended like a plague of locusts on the table I had prepared. Particularly popular were the “fancy” drinks (grape juice):

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* See? Glitter. Everywhere.

Collectively, they ate about three baby carrots, a tenth of a sliced pepper, a dozen grapes and their own weight in party mix and mini-cheesecakes. As they sang “Happy Birthday” to Bridget, she glowed. That moment was so worth the planning, the mess and the post-party crash. After the party, eyes still shining, Bridget even confided her career choices: 1) rapper, 2) tattoo artist and 3) nurse. In that order.

Some of you, while reading what I just wrote, were smiling. Maybe even saying “aw, how sweet” – and enjoying the level of detail. Others, though, were bored by it all, and annoyed that they were spending time reading about a kid’s birthday party. These people, if I were talking to them, might also have said that it was sweet. The difference would likely lie in their tone and frequency of eye contact. After reading what I wrote about the code many parents speak – what we say to preserve our children’s feelings and innocence, as opposed to what we want to say – Ryan said three things that made me think. First, he pointed out that I don’t always use code. Sometimes, I am brutally honest with Fiona and Bridget. He’s right – that happens. From time to time, it’s because they need it. Other times, it’s because they’ve started talking before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee the morning after a late night – or because we’re all running late and this is no time to wander down memory or speculation lane. Either way, sometimes the code gets dropped. Second, he reminded me that there’s a code among grown-ups, too – friends, neighbours, colleagues. It’s used when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or we don’t want a bad relationship with that person – in other words, we have good intentions – but we just aren’t into whatever they’re saying.

No, I don’t want to hear about your new workout routine – I’ll be fine if I never know how many times you flexed your inner thighs before you showered and drove to the office. I also don’t care that you’ve cut out gluten and you’re not as gassy anymore. But I’ll probably say something vaguely encouraging like “oh, good for you – whatever works, right”. I guess there’s some part of me that really is happy that your son has landed a summer job or you’ve bought a new couch – but that part is very small, and hidden beneath layers of actual interests. So, while I say “oh – congratulations”, the tone might be a little flat or my eyes might be drifting over your shoulder to the water fountain or washroom, planning an excuse and a getaway. If we’re on the phone, I might be speaking in code if you’re hearing a string of mmm-hmms and yeahs. If you’re reading your daughter’s report card line-by-line, or listing the types of birds that have arrived at your feeder lately, or telling me about your neighbour’s new interlocking brick driveway, you probably shouldn’t expect anything more than that.

“That’s nice.” This, you may remember, appeared in the post about parents’ code words and phrases. It is not only used on kids, and it means the exact same thing when it’s used on grown-ups. Of course, I don’t think it’s nice that you wasted a whole weekend laying down hardwood flooring or regrouting your shower tiles or staining your deck or wandering around Costco. I don’t think it’s nice that your kid is in gymnastics, jazz dancing, hockey, and saxophone lessons, along with learning the art of Japanese cooking and presentation. It’s also quite possibly the opposite of nice that you’ve finally succeeded in your effort to instate those neighbourhood by-laws that make it illegal to drive above 20 km/h, paint your house anything other than desert shades, or have grass more than four inches high. But, again, maybe I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Or maybe you are my superior, and I don’t want to offend you and make my office life miserable. Or maybe I’m just not in the mood for a debate. So, “that’s nice”.

The third thing Ryan said is that people use the same lines of code on me sometimes. This didn’t come as a revelation – I know people don’t always care about what I’m saying. I know they are sometimes uninterested; I’m not oblivious to long lines of mmm-hmms and yeahs. And I know that sometimes you don’t really think whatever I’m saying is nice. However, I appreciate the code because it means that the person with whom I’m talking, however boring they find me, doesn’t want to crush me by admitting it. It’s your way of being kind to me. Thank you! Also, even if I know you would rather be sitting in a white room listening to the sound of your own heartbeat than my voice, I’m going to keep talking. Fair’s fair; you’ve probably done the same thing to me.

“Sweet Pea, do you know yet if the school is doing Pizza Fridays this year?”

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There are so many ways to mess kids up …. Some obvious ways include letting them grow up thinking that Froot Loops and potato chips count as fruits and veggies, howling insults at them all the way through tee-ball or minor hockey and shedding guilt-inducing fake tears whenever their behaviour is less-than-stellar. Oh, and telling them that Rover didn’t die – he just went to a nice farm where there’s lots of room to run, plenty of squirrels to chase, and an endless supply of rawhide. Another way to crush them would be to say what we really want to say …. All those things we mutter under our breath when they’re leaning on our last nerve – we can’t just say those awful things out loud to our kids. So, we speak in code. I found myself thinking about this code a few days ago when it was way past bedtime and Fiona and Bridget were duking it out for the title of Most Annoying Child in Canada, If Not The Entire Flippin’ World. I said, in a creamy voice, “you guys need your rest – you are going to be so tired tomorrow, and you won’t have a good day”. This is a line of the code. What it really means is “the pitter-patter of little feet is going to make me run screaming into the night if it doesn’t settle into its bed and leave me to my near-homicidal thoughts”. Here are some other coded phrases I use – and what they are masking.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Good one!” Every now and then, our girls crack a joke that is actually funny. You know, about 7% of the time. The rest of their jokes range from the merely lacking-in-humour to the impossible-to-understand. They are good at making each other laugh, but that’s about it. However, I don’t want their little spirits to wither like a balloon from last week’s party – so I laugh. Even when I’m thinking “um, ok”. And I don’t tell them they’re at their funniest when they’re being dead serious – that’s when the real laughter happens. Hopefully, they can’t tell the difference yet.

Speaking of laughing, something else I never say – but always think: “Ok, it was funny the first time. Maybe even the second time. Now, stop doing it before I give in to the temptation to have you appraised by a black marketeer.”

One-word answers …. If one of the girls asks a question and I respond with “yes”, “no” or “maybe”, and there’s no elaboration, what I’m really saying is “no more questions, please”. This is especially true of “uh-huh” and “mmm”. I am making a grocery list and I just wrote “butter” three times. Go away.

“Oh, sure, maybe we’ll do that sometime ….” Translation: you’ve pulled this one out of the wild blue yonder, and I’m thrown off. This string of words can mean anything from “yes, let’s think about this and maybe even do it” to “your cray-cray proposal has the same chance as a snowball in hell”. Either way, I need to think it through.

In the same vein, there’s “maybe”. It can mean anything from “never” to “yes, sometime when I’m not so tired or we’re not so busy” to an honest “maybe”. Sometimes, it’s mumbled meaninglessly while I’m driving or cooking or cleaning the bathroom, in an effort to head off an exhausting exploration of everything that could possibly be associated with the topic that has just been raised. Maybe your hamster would enjoy wearing a hat. Maybe your teacher’s actually crazy. Maybe we could go to a movie Sunday afternoon. Maybe you can have a sleepover with your friend. Maybe we could buy you a cellphone when you’re fourteen. However, none of that can happen right now, because I’m flossing. So let’s just sit on this one for a while ….

“That’s a great idea!” This one’s usually accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile and frantic nodding. It may or may not be a great idea. Whatever. I want you to get completely immersed in making the idea happen, so I can finish this chapter or bubble bath or phone call.

“Wow – what a lovely drawing!” This one’s tricky. Sometimes Fiona or Bridget creates a truly lovely drawing, and I’m telling the truth. About half of the time, though, it’s not a lovely drawing. It took them five minutes or less to make it, and it looks it. But what kind of asshole would criticize a picture held up proudly for inspection and praise? Not this asshole.

“You’re a big girl now! You can do this.” In other words, I’m tired of doing this for you, and change happens now.

“It’s good for you! Have some – you might find that you actually like it.” It’s probably good for you. You might like it, but you probably won’t. Truth is, I bought the ingredients, threw them together after a day that’s already been twelve hours long, and I will lose my shiz if I have to scrape it off your plate into the garbage can. It may or may not be good for you, but it will cut me to my quick if you don’t eat at least a few bites.

“That’s nice.” Whatever it is, it isn’t nice. If it were nice, I’d have found a different word for it. Oh, your friend wears $100 sweaters? That’s nice. So-and-so gets cookies after dinner every day? That’s nice. That kid who bullied you all the way through the second grade offered you a lick of his lollipop? That’s nice. Your school’s selling chocolate bars / candles / gift wrap and there’s a prize for the kid who sells the most? That’s nice. Mrs. Has-No-Life-and-Therefore-Volunteers-For-Everything showed up to tie shoes just before P.E., and gave her kid a big hug before she left to resume placing consumer complaints and watching daytime television? That’s nice. None of this is even remotely nice. I just don’t want to smother the girls with my cynicism before they’re able to make these sorts of judgements for themselves.

“Is your school doing Pizza Fridays this year? Because I havn’t seen the form, and I know how much you guys like your Pizza Fridays ….” In other words, we’re not even one month into the school year, and I’m already trying to weasel out of packing lunches.* Three cheers for the code!

* The Pizza Fridays form arrived yesterday. I nearly cried in relief and gratitude.

Saying “no” is allowing us to say “yes”.

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Fall is the season when kids usually go back, not only to school, but to scheduled activities. Hockey, gymnastics, music, ballet, pottery, swimming …. Of course, some kids go to these lessons all year long, or switch to something different for the summer, like soccer, but many families choose to synchronize their children’s school and organized activity attendance (like we did).

We’re no strangers to the kid-tivity circuit. When Fiona was five, we enrolled her in rhythmic gymnastics. It didn’t seem to be inspiring her, though, so the next year, she tried ballet. She liked it a little better. Ryan’s parents bought the girls swimming lessons for Christmas, which they attended during the winter and spring of that year. The following fall, when Bridget turned five, she started ballet, too. We had an unofficial family rule that there were no extracurricular lessons until the age of five, mainly because we both think that classes for babies and toddlers are pretty silly. (The swimming lessons were an exception, as we were about to spend a week at a cottage with its own beach, and we wanted the girls to have at least a rudimentary grasp of swimming.) Even though both of the girls were attending ballet, it wasn’t overly stressful – their lessons were at the same time, and the ballet school was in the same building as a Food Basics. Ryan and I would do the weekly grocery shop while they did whatever it was they did in ballet class. Learn ballet, I guess. There was a recital, in which they both demonstrated that they had spent time in the same room as the other kids on stage, and then it was summer again. In mid-July, as if they both knew the drill by now, they started talking about which activity they’d try when fall came. Neither wanted more ballet. Fiona said she wanted skating; Bridget said she wanted gymnastics. Since extracurriculars for children are simply what one does, we signed them up. Fiona’s skating was on Mondays. We’d get home from work and daycare, scarf down spaghetti, then Ryan would take Fiona to her skating lesson while I stayed home with Bridget and we made the next day’s lunches together. Bridget’s gymnastics was on Tuesdays, earlier in the evening. We’d have dinner at Subway, then drop Ryan off at home, where he’d slap together tomorrow’s sandwiches while I drove Bridget to gymnastics. While she was at gymnastics, Fiona and I would shop for groceries. I enjoyed those little slices of one-on-one time with each girl. But I didn’t enjoy our family’s schedule, and neither did Ryan. Neither did Fiona and Bridget, after the novelty of skating and gymnastics wore off. Sure, they had fun once they arrived and started their lesson, but many weeks the announcement that it was Monday or Tuesday and we were working around the corresponding activity was greeted with sighs and groans. “But I wanted to play with my hamster / make a craft / read my new library book / play a game!”

The girls were tired. Two scheduled late bedtimes every week isn’t good for kids. And heaven forbid something else was added to the week, like a birthday party or dinner guests or a weekend away – or something equally disruptive but less pleasant, like a major homework assignment or head lice or a water main break. That could push them to the cracking point. Ryan and I were tired, too. Tired of saying “no, you can’t do insert-requested-activity-here; it’s Monday / Tuesday, and you know we have skating / gymnastics today”. “No, we’re not reading one more story, you need to go to bed early – remember you’re up late tomorrow night.” “No, we really can’t fit this in right now, we’ve got enough going on.” Tired of going to bed Sunday nights with the one-two punch of Monday and Tuesday hanging over us. Tired of dragging kids who’ve already had a long day at school and daycare to yet another place where they needed to pay attention and play along. Tired of thinking the girls should miss their class this or that one time, then guiltily pushing them to attend anyway, because we’d paid big bucks for each lesson. Tired of strangling spontaneity with the chains we’d forged ourselves. Just tired. And we only had two kids in two extracurriculars! I can’t imagine how families manage more than that, yet I know they do. There are families who live in their minivan, eating drive-thru dinners behind the wheel, ferrying the kids all over the city four or more nights per week, and maybe Saturday mornings, too. Kids who do their homework in the waiting areas of dance studios, arenas and gyms while their sibling is taking a lesson. Why? Because it’s what one does, of course.

This year, after much discussion, Ryan and I decided to say “no” to organized activities. We didn’t sign the girls up for anything. They considered their options again, but never actually asked for any particular lessons. So we let the registration deadlines slide by …. At first, it felt like a negative choice. Every other family does the extracurricular thing; so should we, right? Our girls are enrolled in …. nothing? Really? It’s just not what families do. It felt strange even discussing it with other parents. Some parents expressed admiration for our choice, and said they wish they could do the same (without explaining why they couldn’t, of course). The father of one of Fiona’s friends confessed that he doesn’t enjoy the extracurricular grind, and he doesn’t think his daughter does, either. Yet, he has enrolled his daughter in a couple of weekly lessons because he doesn’t want her to end up outclassed by her peers – a misfit because she is just a regular person with no sharply-honed talents. This thought has crossed my mind the odd time, too – I don’t want Fiona and Bridget to feel out-of-place when they are all grown up and their friends are showing off their mad skillz on the oboe, the balance beam, the rink and the canvas. But do they need to be experts in any of these areas to be well-rounded? No. This is simply what we’ve been programmed to believe. They’ve had many different experiences in many different situations, and I highly doubt they won’t have anything to talk about when they are older just because they’ve never spent a summer’s worth of Saturday mornings on a soccer field.

We are heading into the third week of the school year, and already it feels like we’ve made the right choice – and it doesn’t feel negative anymore. In fact, by not scheduling our kids’ downtime, we’ve been able to say “yes” more. “Yes, you can explore the pet store at the mall, even though we’re only here for Subway and the bank – we’re not in a hurry.” “Yes, you can tell us this long, complicated story of what happened on the playground today, because we can linger over dinner.” “Yes, you can spend a bit of extra time with your hamster – it’s no big deal if bedtime shifts by fifteen minutes. We can make up for that tomorrow.” “A two-birthday-party weekend? Sure – nobody’s overtired and in need of make-up sleep.” We just said “yes” to an outdoor concert on a Thursday night (Dear Rouge, Lorde and Serena Ryder were wonderful) – and all four of us had a great time. We might not have done that if Thursday came after two or more late bedtimes, or if there were lessons of some kind scheduled for Thursday evenings. Fiona once wistfully said “I wish I could just relax today”, and I remember thinking “how sad that she is saying that at the ripe old age of eight“. Everyone should have time to relax, especially kids. They should look for shapes in the clouds, compose short stories with fantastic plots, inventory their rock collections, watch ants at work, spin until they’re dizzy, empty their mind and just be.

We’re not going to spend all our free time dong nothing …. We’re planning to go swimming and skating together, and maybe we can spend more time at the park. We used to go for walks alot – maybe we’ll start doing that again. I’m going to start teaching Fiona and Bridget how to play the piano, and some basic sewing skills. Ryan and I have been toying with the idea of one-on-one dates with them, where we split them up to spend quality time with them as individuals, then trade kids the next time. We’ll still be busy – but the schedule will be a flexible one that we set ourselves, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be happier as a result. There will definitely be some couch spudding, though, and that’s ok, too – because we’ll have time for it now.

Nobody goes to Kansas! (Except us ….)

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I know it’s been a while since I last posted anything. We went on our annual big-ass road trip, and I don’t do much interwebzing when I’m travelling. The day after our return was the first day of school – fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Bridget. (And how did that happen anyway? I feel so …. old. Or, at least, middle-aged.) For days, I told myself that it was ok that I hadn’t posted in a while because we had just gotten back from our trip and it was the first week of school and we had weekend guests coming …. but we’ve been back home for a week now, the guests have been and gone, and it’s now the second week of school. I can’t seem to find any more excuses – so I’m writing.

We went to Kansas. Take a moment to think about whether anyone’s ever said that to you. You probably came up with the same line that we heard from the border guard when we told him we were going to Kansas …. “Nobody goes to Kansas! Why are you going there?” Great, I thought, we’re going to get cavity-searched because we decided to go to Kansas for this year’s family vacation. Thankfully, he didn’t do that; he simply shook his head in bemusement and wished us a nice trip. And it was! It was raining the day we left, as often seems to happen on the first day. Bridget mentioned that she didn’t have her umbrella, and then asked, panic-stricken, what she would do if she needed to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t get out of the car in the rain, could she? I pointed out that she’s not made of sugar, and Ryan and Fiona razzed her. She didn’t take it well. Not wanting to ruin the first day of the trip, Ryan offered to let Bridget call him the baddest thing she could think of. She thought for several seconds, then her face spread into a devilish grin and she gleefully declared him a “butt-faced pooper”. We cracked up, and the term stuck around for the entire trip. It was later upgraded to “lovable butt-faced pooper”. I admit that some of my laughter was due to relief that what she came up with was so tame, since I am aware that both girls know nearly every swear word English has to offer.

That first day was also Fiona’s ninth birthday. She had asked if she could have another birthday on the road – so we left a day earlier than we had planned, with a cake that I had decorated inside a plastic container and thought about every two minutes or so until it was safely pulled from the trunk and presented. She wanted a “little green alien”:

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She chose Cracker Barrel for her birthday dinner, which made all of us happy. She wanted a swim in the pool, but it was dark by the time we finished dinner and the pool had closed. So we swam the next morning in the rain. Extremities were numb by the time we left the pool, but we had done right by our birthday girl. Our little Bright Eyes is nine. Already. I’m happy and sad all at the same time – but that’s another post entirely.

The rest of the day involved rolling through scenic New York and Pennsylvania, simultaneously admiring the mountains for their wild beauty and cursing them for interfering with the radio reception. And a speeding ticket around Allegany. New York has a bizarre system where you take a piece of paper from the cop and mail it to the nearest courthouse, declaring whether you wish to pay up or contest. If you want to pay up (and we did, since our car was going too fast and we really didn’t feel like showing up at a courthouse in rural New York a week later), the judge will decide what your fine should be based on your driving record in the state of New York and how many miles you were over the limit and mail you the judgement. Then, you mail back the money. Which I imagine goes to the First Stagecoach Bank of The New Worlde, in keeping with the antiquated system …. It ended in a lovely little town called Ridgeway, at a motel attached to a delightful Italian restaurant. We enjoyed beers in front of our room door, listening to a crowd of rednecks outside their room, arguing about whether a Canadian-style healthcare system should be adopted by America. Wonder if it was inspired by our license plate ….

The next day, we attended mass at a local church called St. Leo Magnus, then left Pennsylvania for a few minutes in West Virginia and the rest of the day in Ohio. We stopped to roll down a steep, grassy hill, just to shake off that been-in-the-car-too-long feeling. Dinner was at a Mexican place called Tumbleweeds, in Zanesville, Because margaritas were only $1.99 each, Ryan enjoyed one for the first time. I enjoyed two because, you know, $1.99! Fiona ate her first jalapeño pepper, and we all howled as she gulped water like her belly was on fire. Our six-pack that night was a yummy honey brown, which we had purchased at a drive-thru beer store. Yes, a drive-thru beer store. God bless America. We watched the MTV Video Music Awards together. Aside from Iggy Azalea’s and Rita Ora’s performance of “Black Widow”, I wasn’t overly impressed – but Fiona and Bridget enjoyed seeing all the glitter and glamour.

Monday brought us fully into the searing, screaming-cicada heat of the Midwest. Iced coffee was how I got my caffeine fix, in a gas station’s 16-ounce “medium” cup. I love how the US has ginormous everything, particularly the Midwest …. After panting our way through Indiana into Illinois, we stopped in Effingham (joke potential: endless) at an Econolodge. We spent over an hour splashing around gratefully in a pool, then sauntered across the parking lot to a restaurant called Niemerg’s Steakhouse, which gave me fried chicken done right.

We reached our destination on Tuesday, but did not encounter one of those lovely welcome centres that guide us through our visit to any given state. This was a bit dispiriting, but it’s happened before and we weren’t overly concerned. We joked that perhaps Kansas didn’t have any promotional material because, as many people had implied, there’s nothing to promote. We stopped in Lawrence, where the lobby of the Old Virginia Inn was fully stocked with what-to-do-in-Kansas pamphlets and books! After a delicious steak dinner at Longhorn, we spent the evening watching an Elvis biopic and excitedly flipping through pages and pages of Kansasia (not a real word – until now).

The next morning, we left the beaten track and headed down the back roads into the heart of the Sunflower State. I decided the occasion called for a little Hank Williams, and he wailed his way through golden cornfields, rolling hills dotted with hay bales and crumbling towns that seemed like they really were something once – all of it pressed down by an endless swath of bright blue. We stopped at a playground in one of the towns (Overbrook, I think), and burned off some energy. The playground was old, with scorching metal slides and a merry-go-round and a real jungle gym you could actually hurt yourself falling off (as opposed to the tiny plastic facsimiles that a toddler could conquer), and we loved it. We had lunch at a diner called Cindy’s Family Café, which featured beaded pennants made by the mother of one of the waitresses, and other assorted tat. I tried chicken-fried steak for the first time, and fell in love. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was really tasty …. The waitress yammered away with everyone in the restaurant, including us. She asked us why we were in Kansas, because “nobody goes to Kansas”. When she asked us where we were from, we told her Ottawa, and added that it’s the capital of Canada. She said “oh, really – I thought the capital of Canada was Cue-beck”. We also talked briefly with a one-legged man named Bob, who rasped that he he spent most of his life trucking grapes to Winnipeg and then wheat to Lodi. In Hutchinson, we discovered “one of the eight wonders of Kansas” (yes, the sign actually said that): Strataca Underground Salt Museum. Going down in a rickety mine-shaft elevator to 650 feet below the surface is something I never thought I’d be bold enough for – but I did it, and so did my three travelling companions. The salt mine was dark and frightening, yet strangely beautiful. The walls sparkled, and the air was purified by the salt. Apparently, this underground salt stash was created when the water covering North America dried up, and it runs all the way to New Mexico. We rode a train through the mine, hearing little snippets about miners’ lives in particular and salt in general, and peering into parts of the mine that have shrunk over time (or even collapsed). At times, panic would well up inside my chest, and I’d fight it down. It was irrational, I knew, and I wanted to make the most of this odd experience. I have yet to hear about the other seven wonders of Kansas, but maybe we’ll have a second go at Kansas someday and make them our goal. We had a late-night dinner at a Denny’s in Wichita, and the girls practically fell into bed. Ryan and I sat under the low-flying planes from Wichita’s airport (classy location, I know) and planned our Thursday.

We spent the next day seeing more of the Kansas countryside on our way to Kansas City (yes, technically, Kansas City is in Missouri – but it’s pretty close anyway). We checked into an uncharacteristically nice hotel (for us, anyway) – a Four Points by Sheridan directly across from the K. We had a little swim while our nasty old-suitcase-in-a-hot-trunk laundry traumatized the washers and dryers of that elegant establishment, then headed to a Royals game. While I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about baseball, I love ballparks. I love the hot dogs and cotton candy, the buzz of the crowd, the cheesy-but-infectious chants and clapping. I love watching people love their team. Ryan and I were excited to see that the K is catered by a local brewery called Boulevard, which means a decent selection of beers was on offer. We each had a truly refreshing “lemon ginger radlers”, and went back for more. Unfortunately, the Royals lost in the tenth inning to the Twins, who – annoyingly enough – had lost in their home town when we saw them last summer. Being in the ballpark of the winning team is a very cool feeling, but it seems that teams lose more than they win when we’re in attendance ….

We enjoyed a badly-needed sleep-in on Friday morning, and had brunch at an IHOP – the crepes I ordered were amazing. We had one of those conversations that happens rarely in day-to-day life, but all the time on a road trip – a conversation that was allowed to meander down all sorts of side trails because there was time. Bullying, and whether Ryan and I were popular when we were kids (answer: no-yes-maybe). A sad story about an unpopular kid in their school whose brave attempt at a talent show number was a bust, which added to her social woes. My advice to Fiona and Bridget was just to be nice. Be generous, be kind, be themselves, and one day they’ll find their crowd – and understand that popularity is not as important as being true to yourself and the people you love. Down Syndrome, and what chromosomes are, and how two Xs make a girl and an X and a Y make a boy. The connection between chromosomes and aging. I wish we could have more of those conversations …. Not long after that, we ran into crazy, blinding, road-flooding rain. A gully washer. Despite Ryan’s assertion that all the gullies had been washed, the rain followed us into Iowa, accompanied by the occasional sky-splitting bolt in the distance. In Mount Pleasant, we had the bad luck to encounter the Old Threshers’ Reunion. We were turned down by a Best Western, and scored the second-last remaining room in a Rodeway. Yet another amazing thing about road trips: you discover things you never knew were things. Mount Pleasant lived up to its name anyway. We had a mouth-watering dinner at a Pizza Ranch, then a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. Amazingly enough, neither facility was crammed with squealing little FFAs – and it was a relaxing way to wind down after the stormy drive.

Saturday took us into Wisconsin. The mountains reappeared, and the trees became thicker and darker. We ended up at the Best Night’s Inn in Sparta, a pretty little roadside motel with wooden cupboards smelling of summer camp and (bizarrely) scarlet carpet and mattresses. The air was crisp and clean. Sparta calls itself the “cycling capital of America” – you can file that under stuff-you-never-knew-because-you’ve-never-been-to-Sparta. We attended mass at St. Patrick’s Church, where prayer requests were announced for Annemarie Cooter and Benjamin Semen. Ryan and I managed to keep straight faces, against all odds. You just can’t make this stuff up …. We walked to a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint called Slice of Chicago for what might have been the best pizza we’ve ever had, accompanied by wonderful local beers. For the first time since Pennsylvania, the night air was cool. We dragged a radio outside with us to listen to a broadcast of retro Casey Kasem from the very station we listen to online every Saturday night. It was a perfect evening; how often do we get to say that?

The next day was long …. We stopped to climb some hoodoos, but mainly we were pushing our way home. We saw the promise of fall in a patch of undersized-but-already-bright-orange pumpkins, and in the splashes of red, orange and gold in the leaves. There was the gentle glow of a late summer dusk beside Lake Michigan, signs advertising pasties every twenty-five feet, and something called “The Honest Indian’s Tourist Trap” (hailed by a hand-lettered sign). That evening’s dinner was at a seafood joint on the Michigan side of Sault Ste Marie, with quite possibly the best crab legs I’ve ever had. We crossed the border the next morning, the first day of September, and knew we were in Canada when we passed two Tim Horton’s in less than ten minutes. It was nice to be home, and fall is great in its own way, but there was that bittersweet feeling that always comes at the end of a road trip: we wanted just one more night.