Navel-gazing on a grand scale ….

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As so many of my posts are, this one is inspired by something I read in the newspaper. This time, it’s an article that originated in the Vancouver Sun, and was borrowed by the Ottawa Citizen. Here’s a link, if you’re interested:

http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Making+marriage+question/11291265/story.html

To summarize, simply asking your significant other to marry you is so over. Dinner at a favourite restaurant and a bouquet? Please. A proposal these days demands “flash mobs of dancing strangers, helicopter trips to pristine mountain tops, professional-quality movies that incorporate special effects”. Over-the-top proposals are now the standard, and one ordinary guy in love couldn’t possibly pull one off without help. Enter proposal planners. Now you don’t have to arrange for your one-and-only to be in the perfect place at the perfect time, or wrap your head around details like what colour the blimp should be or what style of sweater the emu should wear as it bounds toward you, marry-me note clenched in its beak. The planner will figure all that out. You don’t have to know how to use the timer on your camera to snap your beaming faces, or hide a video camera in a potted plant. The planner will hire a professional photographer, and a videographer, too. In fact, according to the article, a planner can even tell you exactly what time of day to pop the question so that the lighting in the pictures will be just how you want it! You don’t have to give the moment you ask someone to join you for the rest of your life any thought whatsoever – just outsource it! How romantic.

The existence of proposal planners should come as no surprise. People’s whole lives now are scripted, carefully orchestrated and professionally preserved. There are promoposals. No more boy ringing a doorbell, then shuffling his feet and mumbling something about maybe-kinda-sorta going to prom together. No, he has to beadazzle the girl’s name in three-foot-tall letters on the gym wall. Or he has to get fifty-seven of his friends to shout the invitation to her as she strolls by. No wonder the marriage proposal has to be so lavish, if even a prom invite involves a custom-made cake. Once the engagement has been established, people need engagement photos. No, silly, not a two or three shots of the couple snuggling in sweaters in a park! You need nauseatingly adorable poses. You might even need costumes. And these pictures can’t be taken by just anyone. They have to be professional, because they will probably be featured in a collage for the inevitably opulent wedding. No small gathering of well-wishers in a backyard or simple dinner and cake. How did anyone ever settle for that, when they could rent a ranch and ride off on white horses when it’s all over, or fly everyone to Hawaii and get married on the edge of a volcano?

Then, of course, it’s on to parenthood. Parents-to-be don’t just tell their family and friends about the pregnancy. No, they have to make a pregnancy announcement. This can involve anything from a play-on-words picture like a woman holding a can of Prego spaghetti sauce in front of her still-flat belly to a Youtube video spoofing a popular song. After the promposal, professionally crafted engagement and ludicrous nuptials, that bundle of morning sickness and mood swings is worth it. (As an aside, I’ve noticed that these impending parents are also the ones most likely to say we’re pregnant”. Ew.) Then, of course, there has to be a gender reveal. No, not just saying it’s a girl or boy when someone asks – we’ve been over this. You have to throw a party and serve pink or blue cake carefully hidden under neutral frosting. You might even have one of your multiple 4D ultrasound images displayed on your sixty-inch television with a red circle around the family jewels (or lack thereof). And don’t forget the pregnancy photo shoot. If you are pregnant, you need a photographer to capture your naked bulbous self frolicking in a bedsheet in black-and-white, because mere candid shots of you living your life pregnant just won’t cut it. If you are not the pregnant partner, you must be captured making a heart with your hands over her bare belly, and also staring in rapture at it.

Baby’s here …. now we can normalize, right? Uh-uh. A picture-a-week with the number of weeks cleverly included is now an expectation, along with a professional photo shoot for the first birthday (if the little one makes it that far without an Easter or Thanksgiving or Halloween session, because a picture of your lil’ punkin in a pumpkin is a must). Perhaps you can hire the same photographer you had for your promposal, engagement shoot, wedding day, pregnancy announcement, gender reveal and pregnancy shoot. You’re probably on a first-name basis with him or her anyway. If you play your cards right, you can develop such a long-lasting relationship with this professional memory-capturer that he or she will do your first-week-in-a-retirement-home for half-price! The next round of pics I expect to see are the back-to-school ones. I will take one of my own daughters, backpacks packed, probably on our front steps, or in the driveway. Maybe even in front of their school. I’m doing it all wrong, though, again. I don’t have slates prepared for them with their age, grade, likes and dislikes scribbled on them. There won’t be a stack of leather-bound, gold-leaf textbooks, the likes of which no modern student will ever use, or even a shiny red apple for them to clutch. Just the two of them, with their proud, optimistic smiles, side-by-side and heading out on their next adventure. That’s really what I want to remember, that’s all I need.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures and making videos, with the desire to hold a moment still and burn it into your memory because it is so precious. I love taking pictures. I love looking at pictures. I love sharing pictures – I’ve no doubt I bore some people to tears with my pictures. I love watching our blurry, choppy vacation videos. So much of life is special and deserves to be commemorated. There’s nothing wrong with putting a few extra details or some serious thought into how we want things to go. But I question the level of commemoration that’s so common these days, and what it’s really for – and what’s lost in all the scripting and sculpting. How can the rest of your life possibly stack up to seeing your name spelled in Christmas lights on your garage door in a bid for your presence at a highschool dance? Is it really love if a person is waiting on popping the question in order to set and capture the perfect scene? Are pregnancies, babies and children people or PR for their parents and grandparents? Whatever happened to winging it? To throwing caution to the wind? To being filled with messy, unpredictable, overflowing feelings? To simply being ourselves? Where’s the heart in the meticulous way people now plan, execute and curate heartfelt moments?

Chill out!

As I am a Canadian, I hear alot of talk about the weather. Whew, it’s windy, isn’t it? Gettin’ kinda nippy, I guess that’s fall for you. Beautiful sunshine, though. Nice to get rid of that humidity, too. How much snow do you think we got last night? A foot, foot-n-a-half? Cold enough for ya? Oh, the water is running today – thank God the snow’s starting to melt, I’ve been worried about my basement since November. Is spring ever going to get here? This is the coldest April I can remember. Snow in May? Come on! Were you awake for that storm last night? I swear the lightning hit the ground less than ten feet from my house. Rattled the dishes in the cupboards. You guys, it is so hot out there. Ugh, I’m sweating just sitting here. And on and on and on …. Right now, of course, people-who-talk-about-the-weather are talking about heat. We’re in the middle of a heat wave with no end in sight. It is hot. Searing, screaming-cicada, black-cat-on-a-freshly-tarred-roof, don’t-move-unless-you-have-to hot. Everything’s turning yellow and brown. Well, everything except the lawns of assholes who keep their property as well-watered as a prized race horse – because, you know, we were looking for something to do with all that water anyway.

So, today, I’m taking a break from navel-gazing, bitching and preaching. It’s too darn hot to do any of that. Instead, I’m offering some delicious cool-down recipes. As I said in my last post, I want to talk about popsicles. And a couple of other things, too. I’ve been experimenting with popsicle-making for a few years now, and it’s been rewarding. They’re quick and easy, and having them ready-to-go in your freezer when the mercury starts rising reminds your children that you’re a cool mom (see what I did there – and you’re welcome for the Amy Poehler clip). These are my family’s two favourite recipes:

DULCE DE LECHE LEMON POPSICLES

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2 cups milk

1 can condensed milk

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

pulp of one lemon

Mix all the ingredients together with a whisk, pour into molds, and freeze for at least four hours.

COOKIES-N-CREAM POPSICLES

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125 g oreo cookies

1/2 cup icing sugar

1/2 cup sour cream

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 cup water

Crumble the cookies. Stir together the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the sour cream, heavy cream and vanilla. Add the oreos and stir to mix. Pour into molds, and freeze for at least four hours.

Note: If you are using wooden popsicle sticks rather than conventional plastic molds, allow the popsicles to freeze for an hour before inserting the sticks.

Not in the mood for popsicles? Feeling more like something decadent? These squares are delicious. They taste like you slaved, but you don’t even have to turn on your oven. Again, my family loves these, and – the true seal-of-approval on a recipe – I took them to a friend’s house-warming party just a couple of weeks ago. They were devoured.

NO-BAKE CHOCOLATE PRETZEL PEANUT BUTTER SQUARES

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pretzels (enough to yield 2 cups when crushed)

3/4 cup butter, melted

1 1/2 cups icing sugar

1 1/4 cups smooth peanut butter

1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Make pretzel crumbs by crushing pretzels until the largest pieces are the size of peas (do not grind your pretzels into powder). In a medium bowl, mix pretzel crumbs, butter, icing sugar and 1 cup of the peanut butter. Press this mixture firmly and evenly into your baking pan. Combine the chocolate chips with the remaining 1/4 cup of peanut butter, and melt it in the microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring in between, until the mixture is smooth. Spread this over your peanut butter-pretzel base. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before lifting out of the pan by the parchment paper and cutting into squares.

And, after all that kitchen fun, the chef needs a treat, too. So, I leave you with sangria. Again, this recipe is so reliably yummy that I brought a pitcher of it to a party. The same party as the squares. Yes, I’ll be your friend, too. For a fee.

BETH-TESTED SANGRIA

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1 lemon

1 lime

1 orange

1 cup rum

1 bottle of cheap red wine (yeah, you could use the expensive stuff, but no one will be able to tell once you mix it with the rest of this)

1 cup orange juice

1/2 cup sugar

Stir all liquid ingredients together with the sugar, thoroughly. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a sugar sludge at the bottom of your jug (ew). Slice the fruit and add it to the jug of sangria. Sit down on a rickety lawn chair with a good friend (or by yourself – no judgement here), in the shade, swat the flies, and chat. Drink the whole thing, and then watch the sun set. You won’t mind the heat at all ….

A little more research should have gone into this move ….

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I was going to write about popsicles today. It seemed a seasonally appropriate topic …. However, as is so often the case, something else caught my eye, leaped to the forefront of my mind, spilled onto my keyboard and into my blog. Specifically, an article in the Ottawa Citizen about a man named François Bordeleau, and his family. They recently moved to Barrhaven, and they have a complaint: there are not enough city-offered French-language recreational programs for his children:

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/french-laugage-city-recreational-programs-lacking-in-ottawas-west-end

“It’s just not enough,” says Bordeleau. “I felt pissed off because you figure, why the hell can’t I get the services that I feel that I’m entitled to, and that anybody else that speaks the other official language can get very easily?”

I have a few problems with his side of things. First of all, there’s the word “entitled”. It is defined as having a right or claim to something. Does François Bordeleau feel that his sons learning to swim in French is a right? His sons playing on a French soccer team is right up there with air, water, food and dignity? Living in the capital of a bilingual nation, the Bordeleaus are entitled to essential services in their choice of English or French. Signage, paramedics, hospitals, policing, notices from the city, by-law information and officers, the city’s website – these things should be in both English and French. And they are. Any sort of municipally funded recreational program is an extra – a privilege. Municipally funded recreational programs at convenient times, in convenient locations, in a language other than the one predominantly spoken – that’s not even an extra. That’s a frill.

Another problem: François Bordeleau states that it’s easy for “the other official language” to access a wide variety of recreational programs, time slots and locations. Of course, it is! Newsflash, M. Bordeleau: the “other official language” is the most common one spoken in Barrhaven. There are far more people looking for programs in English than in French, because there are significantly more anglophones than francophones in this particular area of the city. As the article mentions, the French community in eastern Ottawa is far more robust than that of Barrhaven – and French services and programs expand correspondingly as you move in that direction. The City of Ottawa does an excellent job of serving and promoting the notion of a bilingual community – where it is warranted, based on demographics.

This is a map of Ottawa, colour-coded to cite the percentage of francophones living in any given area. The Bordeleaus, living in Barrhaven, are part of a community in which francophones comprise less than 15% of the population:

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Which segues into my final problem with François Bordeleau’s problem: he did a poor job of choosing a place to live, and now he wants the rest of us to fix his mistake with our tax dollars. The headline, which reads “Barrhaven ought to have been the perfect place for François Bordeleau and his wife to raise a family”, is not true – if something is perfect, it should not inspire complaints. If you want conveniently timed and located French recreational programs, you probably should move to a place where the francophone community is well-established. There is much to consider in the process of moving. Before you choose a community, you should do your research – make sure it suits your needs. The Bordeleaus could easily have found out whether there was sufficient support for French recreational programs in Barrhaven before buying a house there. Instead, it appears that they made their move blindly, and are now whining that it’s not what they wanted. No sympathy here.

Related question: How easy is it to find English recreational programs in Quebec? Shouldn’t be a problem. After all, the “other official language” is well-served there, right?

Deep in the heart of Texas!

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Well, it’s been over a week since we pulled into our driveway after two weeks of airing it out, with no clean underwear and no groceries in the fridge and a to-do list as long as all four of our arms combined (because, of course, we were not at home doing stuff) …. Once upon a time, in a much smaller life that included only me, a bachelor pad and two cats, I’d have written about the road trip the evening of my return. These days, though, life gets in the way of writing, so it’s taken me a few days to do this.

We did, indeed, travel to Texas – and we had a great time. We started our trip by sleeping in. Usually, we hit the road early on the first day and have a McDonald’s breakfast somewhere down the road. However, our road trip excitement had been running so high the night before that we stayed up til two, drinking wine and talking non-stop. Now that I’m thirty-five, I can’t get up at the ass-crack of dawn after staying up til two. Just. Can’t. So the traditional sausage-n-egg mcmuffins and hash browns were eaten at the McDonald’s on Carling Avenue. As we left Ottawa, retro Casey Kasem was playing on The Jewel 98.5. The Stones’ sexy, rough-n-tumble “Brown Sugar” contrasted with the hauntingly lonely and resigned “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be” by Carly Simon. Ryan wondered aloud if anyone’s ever hung themselves to the latter as we headed north through dark forests and roadsides strewn with wild flowers. I imagine they have …. It’s a terribly sad song. Lunch was a lakeside picnic, and we spent that night at the River Mist Inn in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario. It was very pretty and clean, with perfectly spaced geraniums hanging from the awning. We walked to Loi’s Canton Kitchen and ate a mountain of the kind of Chinese food that we love. Greasy, flavourful and not authentic in the slightest. That night, after the girls were tucked in, Ryan and I enjoyed made-in-Barrie Smashbomb Atomic IPA by Flying Monkeys, and the fresh, cool night air.

The next day, we caught a mass at St. Patrick’s in Sudbury, and enjoyed a solid homily about valuing people rather than possessions. It’s something we need to hear more of these days …. We crossed the border into Michigan, and found ourselves spending the night in a run-down joint proudly advertising its possessions: “colour TV, showers, tubs, carpets, electric heat”. Sadly, it can no longer possesses an intact sign, as I broke the neon tubes that spelled “no vacancy” with a frisbee. Fiona and Bridget fearfully high-tailed it back to our room upon hearing the unmistakable tinkle of glass shattering, and I shamefacedly made my way to the front desk to confess. The guy on the desk didn’t seem to care, which was odd but fine by me. For dinner, we went to the Lone Wolf Saloon next-door. We had a delicious handmade pizza, two hotdogs, two beers and two rum-n-cokes for less than $30. Ryan and I were inspired by the tacky once-owned-by-a-nearby-casino carpet:

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Seriously, if ever we come across this pattern, we are going to lay it in some lucky room in our house …. We tried to sit outside with our beers, but (this being Michigan) the mosquitoes were vicious. We clamoured into our car to escape them, then thought how ridiculous it was to be getting back in the car at night after spending all day in it – so we returned to our room instead.

The next day took us through Wisconsin, and afforded us an unexpected peek at Lambeau Field – and a terrible five minutes when rain lashed sideways and wind rocked our car back and forth. Cars pulled off the highway one after the other to wait it out. Fiona and Bridget were nearly vibrating with anxiety. Although I spoke reassuringly to them, I nervously watched as the water rose on either side of the car and prayed for the downpour to stop. It did, and we were on our way again. Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” inspired a sing-along, and the sun came out. I basked in the lovely feeling of togetherness, the sweet pleasure of being able to reach out anytime and touch the three people I love best. We spent that night in an Americinn in Rochester, Minnesota, where we had the pool all to ourselves. The motel offered us two drink vouchers at the Ground Round next door. We used them for two frothy glasses of a local brew, Grain Belt.

After taking advantage of the continental breakfast, we headed into Iowa. Brilliant sunshine sharpened all the greens and yellows of the rolling fields, and the blue of the endless sky – and, fetchingly, the traditional red of the occasional barn. We made it to Missouri, and decided to stop for the night before hitting rush hour in Kansas City. The pool was heavenly, as was the beer we had chosen for that evening: Oculto.

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It took me a minute or two to convince Ryan to try a beer infused with tequila. The kicker: it is brewed in Houston. It would have been against the spirit of our trip to turn this beer down. In any case, it was delicious – and I later declared it to be the beer of the trip. I wish I had another one right now ….

The next morning, an indicator that we were a long way from home came in the form of biscuits-n-sausage gravy, offered at breakfast in the motel lobby. We ran into yet another storm, this one even more violent than the one in Wisconsin. Clouds the colour of charcoal lowered as we watched – it became so dark in a matter of seconds that the street lights came on. Chain lightning leaped across land so flat we could see each strike. We sat it out in a parking lot. Again, there was knife-edge tension in the back seat, four big eyes tracking our every twitch, waiting for signs that they should either panic or take a deep breath and smile. The storm cleared quickly, and we hit the road again, stopping for lunch at a place called Spangles in El Dorado. The food was amazing. We particularly enjoyed the cold, creamy milkshakes. For obvious reasons, however – the foremost being that we like our lives coronary-free – none of us ordered this:

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Just like last year, Kansas was scorching. Oklahoma was even hotter, and at the next opportunity we treated ourselves to giant fountain pops, overflowing with ice cubes. We gave up the fight against the draining sun at Ruby’s Inn in Purcell, and enjoyed dinner at Taco Mayo. It was the Subway of Mexican joints, where we ordered from an overhead menu and watched an employee assemble it for us. It was passable, and certainly filling.

And then we were in Texas …. The welcome centre was lovely. Well-kept and cool, with information organized by region. Every year, I get a kick out of rolling through our destination, flipping through a pile of literature on my lap containing all the delicious possibilities – all the things we might do. Poring over the glossy pictures of attractions, consulting the map to see what’s where and planning a route that includes everything (and always turns out to be entirely impossible). Soon after entering Texas, we had to run the gauntlet that is Dallas traffic. Bumper to bumper, weaving in and out, fending off aggression on all sides …. At one point, Ryan tried to get ahead of a car trying to squeeze into our lane. He lost the impromptu game of chicken, the car shot in front of us and – with a shower of glass and paint flakes – shattered the tail lights and crumpled the bumper of the car in front of it. With a squeal and a roar, it pulled out again and raced away, with its victim in hot pursuit. We passed more than one exit ramp where drivers grew weary of waiting their turn and drove up over the grassy bank to bully their way onto the street. We stopped at a Subway for lunch. The Subway was connected to a convenience store where they sold a strange assortment of cigarette rollers, body jewelry, bandanas sunglasses and souvenirs. There was, oddly enough, an entire revolving rack of wooden signs that said “A spoiled insert-dog-breed-here lives here.”, accompanied by a sketch of the breed in question. Ick. I’m fairly certain that whoever created those signs is the opposite of me. The strangest thing for sale was a selection of giant incense sticks with names like “Black Magic” and “Evening In”. “Money Blessing” was, natch, sold out. There was one called “Obama”. And of course we bought it ….

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We’re saving it for a special occasion.

In Waco, we were drawn to the Dr. Pepper Museum. Didn’t know there was such a place? Neither did we! It was quirky fun for the whole family. There was even a life-sized horse made entirely of bottle caps, described as their most popular photo op. Dinner was at a Texas Roadhouse, where we were served gorgeous bread and falling-apart ribs. Everything had a just-right smoky flavour. My margarita was Texas-sized – and amazing. We stayed at a Rodeway that night. We drank Lonestar beer in the smoke of some guy’s parking lot barbecue, keeping a wary eye on the swarming cockroaches.

This motel was out of everything. Pool towels, shampoo and conditioner, muffins in the morning, quarters for the washer and dryer – even toilet paper. The ice machine was out of ice when we hit it up, and we had to hang around waiting for it to make more. We made change with a fellow guest, and cleaned our clothing in the well-equipped-but-reeking-of-urine laundry room. As we were assured by our quarter fairy, “the room ain’t much to look at, but, mama, does that dyer dry”. We left for Houston with something seasoned road-trippers cherish: a fresh stash of underwear. On the way, we left the interstate and enjoyed rural Texas. It was dry and yellow – it obviously hadn’t seen rain in days – and what little breeze there was burned its way into our lungs. Lunch was great, though – we ate at Los Pepe’s in Mexia. It was a hole-in-the-wall affair, wood panelling tacked together and a humming pop machine in the corner. There were handmade tortilla chips and salsa in cut-off ketchup squeezers. I had a beef burrito smothered in queso and flanked by the classic rice and beans, and it was glorious. Where we later ended up couldn’t have been more different – the Houston Hyatt Regency. There was a glass elevator leading to an ultra-modern room – clean lines in neutral colours, the TV displaying a welcome message that included Ryan’s name, discreetly placed charge ports, a roof-top pool on the sixth floor. We took in a Houston Astros game that evening. They played the Texas Rangers, so the game was heavily attended. The seventh inning stretch included a rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. I had a delicious hotdog – seriously, ballpark dogs are the best – and Fiona and Bridget had enormous snow cones. Ryan and I tried a craft beer by a local brewery, which went down a treat in the sultry evening air. The Astros won, and the roof retracted for a dazzling fireworks show. We left the stadium on a high, only to confront an annoying Houston reality: the streets were virtually cab-less. And on a Friday night in one of America’s largest cities …. We did our best to avoid dark, scary spots and, after what seemed like a very long time, we finally flagged down a cabbie who informed us that there aren’t enough cabs in Houston. Ya don’t say!

The next day, after a belly-busting brunch at an IHOP in the boringly tasteful pinky-brown expanse of Sugarland, we turned our course toward the bottom of Texas. The sun was relentless. The trees became twisted, and prickly pears showed up. The grass was brown and crunchy, the pavement soft. Most of the radio stations played Spanish music. After a half-Spanish mass at St. Joseph the Worker church, we had a solid dinner at Big House BBQ. Ryan had nachos covered with beef brisket and sausage. Fiona and I split a taster plate of mesquite brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Bridget enjoyed the biggest corn dog I’ve ever seen. That evening, over cold Montejos garnished with a gas station lime, Ryan and I planned our next move: South Padre Island. It was a typical beach strip, festooned with fluorescent touristy tat and over-priced grills – and I loved it. We didn’t spent long there, but we had lunch at a crowded, chaotic right-on-the-sand restaurant, went for a walk along the shore – and visited Sea Turtle Inc. For a small donation, we toured a series of tanks that house rescued and recovering sea turtles, as well as plenty of educational material – and, of course, a gift shop in which to tool around. Favourite Sea Turtle Inc. resident? The enormous – and delightful – Gerry:

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Being Beth, of course, I left my water bottle in the gift shop and discovered this fact as I was getting into the car. I dashed back in for it. Having an especially Bethy day, I left our camera in the gift shop while retrieving my water bottle and discovered this fact over an hour after leaving South Padre Island. Saint Ryan patiently turned the car around and headed back to the damn turtles, while Fiona and Bridget took turns patting my shoulder and trying to make me feel better. Nobody made even the slightest remark about my stupidity adding two hours to our journey, though we were all end-of-day weary and hot. I have the sweetest travelling companions. That night was spent in Brownsville, a border town, where Ryan and I enjoyed Shiner Ruby Redbird, a tasty beer made with ginger and grapefruit. Around midnight, when we had finished our third, a gentleman in a uniform came by to tell us that we can’t drink beer in public and there is a curfew anyway, so could we please move inside our motel room? Who know? Now, we do. When in Brownsville ….

We drove a few miles along the Mexican border, passing shaggy untethered mustangs and hardscrabble farms and looking wistfully to our left the whole time. We were so tempted to slip across – I don’t know who likes to cross lines more, Ryan or me –  but current travel advisories suggest that this would not have been a smart move. Anyway, it was time to go north again …. So, after a pee break at a rest area complete with a “watch for snakes” sign, we turned our faces toward home.The desert became scrubland, which became fields. We drove through winding, picturesque La Grange (recommended enthusiastically by a Best Western receptionist who’s never heard the song). In a dusty one-streeter called Hearne, we stopped for gas and snacks. I was delighted to see that, along with the usual fare, the store featured a wide assortment of weaves, including one claiming to be a “realistic Marley braid”. While we were there, several black ladies with very fine hair came and went, so clearly someone saw a market and jumped into it with both feet. These were next to a shelf devoted to sanctuary candles. This is just one of the many things I adore about road trips.

We bade Texas adios in Texarkana, sleeping on the Arkansas side after dinner at Cattleman’s Steakhouse. This place was old-school – dark, rich furnishings, classic soup-and-tossed-salad starters and huge slabs of meat. Our waiter, a Kings fan, spent a joyful fifteen minutes talking hockey with Ryan – I imagine he doesn’t have many opportunities for conversation like that in Arkansas, so I indulged him by not yawning and digging my let’s go elbow into Ryan’s side. Next, we were in Tennessee, enjoying a night in Hurricane Mills. For those who are not country music fans, Hurricane Mills is where Loretta Lynn’s ranch is. I love Loretta Lynn. I saw her in concert years ago, in Branson. She wore a fuschia sequinned dress and gorgeous heels (which she kicked off as the concert wore on), and about a quarter-inch of make-up. Her voice was the same as it always was, though she was about sixty. So, of course, we had to have dinner at Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen, where I ate chicken-fried chicken, okra and cornbread, and happily browsed through years of memorabilia. This poster was my personal favourite:
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The cashier told us Loretta still comes by often, and I was disappointed that she didn’t drop in while we were there. There is, of course, a gift shop. I didn’t buy anything, though I was awfully tempted by the china dinner bells with Loretta’s face on the handle ….

The next night was spent in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, our first night in Kentucky since our honeymoon twelve years ago. The mountains were gorgeous, and the air was fresh and cool for the first time since we hit Kansas on our way south. That night, because there was no pool at the motel, Fiona and Bridget had their first bath in about ten days – because it’s summer, and this lazy mother has decided bathtubs and pools are interchangeable. Kentucky’s gentle rolling hills became West Virginia’s rugged mountains, and the radio stations dwindled. We’ve always been a little wary of West Virginia. If you get lost there, you can run into people who have no interest in helping you – and they might just be sizing up how much marbling there would be in your muscles while you’re asking them for directions. We pulled off at a place called Cooper’s Creek for a pee break and encountered bathroom graffiti that you just won’t find anywhere else. Apparently, two fine gentlemen named Elroy and Bobby (who live in a trailer on a hill across the street from the gas station) are “Hep C junkies” and “gay incest cousins”. Bobby is alleged to have a baby with his sister, which is nothing, as Elroy has three with his cousin. This story was a joint effort, as someone signing herself Heather agreed with all of it, and added the intelligence that they perform sexual acts together in public. The whole thing was circled by someone claiming to be from Kentucky, who scribbled “white trash at its finest”. Anonymous Kentucky, I concur.

The mountains became majestic as we entered Maryland – blue shadows in the distance, rolling green just ahead, all of it punctuated by tufts of clouds that looked close enough to touch. We reached an ear-popping, water-bottle-crushing altitude before we began to descend again. The Slumberland Motel, an old-fashioned little place with a fountain out front, is where we ended up. There was a gurgling stream behind it, and charming wooden swings under a canopy of trees. There was an enormous liquor store across the street – easily the size of a supermarket – where we bought two Baltimore-brewed six-packs: Full Tilt, a cream ale, and Dirty Little Freak. This is definitely the oddest beer I’ve ever tasted – a dark one laced with coconut, chocolate and caramel. I’m not sure whether I recommend it, but I enjoyed the experience.

We knew it was possible to make it home the next day, but we wanted that last night on the road – so we stopped in Binghamton, New York. It was just as well that we stopped, as the night featured heavy wind and rain, and lightning that lit up our whole room when it flashed. We were sad that our road trip was ending, but we all had a list of things we were looking forward to about our return to Ottawa. The next morning, swinging along the walkway between the lobby and our room with a cruddy motel coffee in my hand, I felt good. The sun was soft in the pale blue sky, it was as lovely a day as a traveller could hope for, and we were heading home after another epic adventure. This was our second shot at Texas, and I think it was a good one – but Luckenbach, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo want their chance, too. Someday ….

Note: This blog post would not be complete without a mention of “The Golden Girls”. We watched reruns of that show at least eleven evenings out of the fifteen we spent on the road, and it has become the most unlikely family favourite. Also, the J. Geils Band’s “Angel is the Centerfold”, which played an incredible five times on random radio stations between here and Texas (another family fave). I know you’ve been reading this blog post for about three days now, but do yourself a favour and click on the link to this piece of eighties awesomeness. You won’t regret it.

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It’s THAT time of the year again ….

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The Chepitas are off on another epic jaunt across the country. The hamsters have been packed off to a friend’s house, and the plants have been watered and left to their own devices. We’re less than 24 hours from leaving, and – as usual – we still havn’t decided where we’re going. Texas is being given heavy consideration. When Fiona was a baby, we travelled to Texas and …. well, it’s kinda big. We managed to make it to Lubbock (which contains the Buddy Holly Museum, in case you ever go there), and to a Rangers game in Arlington. We drove to El Paso, and walked with Fiona in a stroller across the border to Juarez (this was, of course, before one was likely to be beheaded, burned and dumped in a mass grave there). Oddly enough, we drove past George W. Bush’s childhood home. There’s still alot of Texas to see, though, so we’re thinking it’s time to return. If we can! In any case, you won’t be hearing from me for about three weeks. And, unless someone’s dead (or suddenly dizzyingly wealthy and in a sharing mood), I don’t want to hear from you, either. I tend to tune out and turn off when I’m travelling. If you find yourself missing me (please, please, please miss me), here’s a list of posts I’ve written about road-tripping that could be worth a second look:

1) What happens to a car when you practically live in it?

2) How NOT to kill your kids when you’re trapped in a moving vehicle with them ….

3) You should go Kansas. Yes, you should! It’s got chicken-fried steak and a salt mine.

Maybe you should do a little long-haul truckin’, yourself! See you when we get back!

Ladies and gentleman, it’s Talent(less) Show Season!

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School wrapped up last week. This is always a welcome thing in our house. Last year, around this time, I wrote about how happy the end of school makes me. Ryan and I have cobbled together a few options for the summer weeks we need to cover because – alas – the office does not share a schedule with school. I used to righteously proclaim that becoming a teacher just to have summers off is wrong. Bullshit. Nowadays, I’d take that deal in an instant, and I wouldn’t feel the slightest tinge of remorse. However, I like my regular paycheques, and going back to school just sounds like alot of fuss …. So, day camps it is! I have this week off, though, and I used part of it yesterday to take Fiona and Bridget to Calypso – and that was a fantastic way to kick off summer! Our collective favourite was the Canyon Rafting ride, which we did seven times. We all slept like babies last night …. Which, as the kids pointed out, does not make much sense. Babies are known for not sleeping. So, um, I guess we slept like people who’ve spent seven hours at a water park.

Back to the end of the school year …. Now that Fiona and Bridget are officially big kids, it’s not just about digging down to the dark, nasty bottom of a backpack, looking at a year’s worth of scribbles complete with run-on-sentence narration, and being able to serve all the peanut butter you feel like serving. It’s also about talent shows. This year, there were two – one at their school, and one at their after-school program. Talent shows are the ugly child of childhood pageantry: adorable, but with a face only a mother could love. Well, there are a few fathers in the audience, and the odd grandparent – but the crowd is composed primarily of mothers. Children don’t have to take a year’s worth of lessons (or, indeed, any lessons at all) in any discipline to enter. They just have to write their name on a list, and – TA-DA – they are performers!

There are always a few singers who can’t sing. There is the odd comedy routine which may or may not contain anything even the slightest bit funny. This year, there was a pair of boys who did card tricks, and their act was cool. There was a kid who played the harp. Yes, the harp. His father, whose hair and complexion appeared to be inspired by Edward Scissorhands, set up the large instrument just before the show. The harp kid’s name was, of course, Malcolm. What else? Malcolm’s harp playing was unimpressive, but it was much better than last year’s oddest musical offering: twenty-three kids plonking away on plastic ukeleles and yowling “You Are My Sunshine”. Whenever a kid plays a musical instrument at a talent show, I always play a private guessing game as to whether the kid has physically encountered their chosen instrument before the show …. I feel that, most of the time, the answer is “no, nay, never”. (If you just mentally roared “right up your kilt”, I’m sure you’re not alone ….)

The majority of acts are choreographed dance routines to “clean” versions of pop songs. Hence, Fiona and two friends of hers danced to a version of “Uptown Funk” that did not include the words “damn” or “liquour”. I was unsuccessful in hiding my amusement when a whole gym’s worth of children cheerfully sang the real lyrics anyway. “Uptown Funk” being one of the most popular songs of the past few months, Fiona and her friends were not the only ones using it in their act. I watched no less than four “Uptown Funk” interpretations in the two talent shows it was my dubious privilege to attend. As much as I like that song, it was more than enough for me. A girl from one of the other groups cheerfully informed me that they were calling themselves the “uptown funkers”. I was a tongue-slip away from saying “well, I guess that makes me a mother-funker”, but (thankfully) my mouth behaved itself for once. Fiona and her friends, in matching fedoras and striped t-shirts, surprised me by giving a great performance. I am one of my daughters’ two biggest cheerleaders, but I am more realistic than they are when it comes to their own abilities to dazzle. This is as it should be; I am not looking forward to the end of their innocent belief that they can do anything. Those matching shirts were a source of angst for weeks. Fiona worried aloud almost daily about the fact that she and her friends did not own anything matching. I offered to take her and her friends shopping. This didn’t happen, because Fiona declared that she and her friends had decided on an outfit that her friends already owned. So, off with us to Walmart to find the outfit her friends had described to her. We couldn’t find it, of course, and Fiona was nearly hyperventilating as she declared that we had to go to some other Walmart, and if that didn’t do it we’d go to another, and on and on. I spied matching t-shirts, $4 each. In desperation, I said “I will buy these shirts for you and your two friends”. Basically, I paid $12 to bail myself out of a Saturday afternoon spent in every Walmart in eastern Ontario. Bridget’s role in the school talent show was an easier one: she was singing “Best Day of My Life” with a choir, and the song was one they had already performed at a choral celebration. No practice needed, and no shopping, either.

They both sang in their after-school program talent show – Fiona and a friend singing “Hot N Cold” and Bridget and a friend singing “Budapest”. Fiona has decent timing, and Bridget can carry a tune. Sadly, they did not magically meld into one fine singer – but they weren’t terrible, either. The show contained some awful singing, feather-dancers who dropped their feathers multiple times and three breakdancers who couldn’t breakdance. Looking around the room, though, I saw the same thing I had seen at the school talent show the day before: beaming, happy parents. It was easy to figure out which parent’s child was performing. It was the parent whose rapt attention was focused on the stage, as if wearing blinders, nodding or mouthing along (or both), glowing with pride. We all know our kids’ limitations (well, most of us do, anyway – there are always a few who think they’ve birthed the second coming), but we don’t care. We showed up anyway, and – for the few minutes they were performing – there was only one thing we could see. The sweet, shining face of our son or daughter, our one-in-six-billion. And those minutes were well worth all the stumbling, caterwauling, kerplunking and tooth-grinding of the alleged talent show. On the drive home, Fiona and Bridget mused over what they would do in next year’s talent show. Mercifully, between now and then, there’s a whole summer to not talk about it.

Here’s to the Dads!

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Father’s Day is always bittersweet for me. I miss my Dad. Even after fourteen Father’s Days without him, it stings that I can’t call him today. He never was much of a phone guy, and he’d probably only spend about five minutes chatting, but just to hear his voice …. This sadness is always countered by happiness, because I’ve spent the last ten Father’s Days celebrating Ryan’s role in our household. Watching him interact with Fiona and Bridget, sharing his goofiness, tenderness and wisdom, makes me so happy for the three of them. They’ve been blessed, and – because I love them – so have I.

Fatherhood seems to have become more complicated over the years. Television used to present Dad as a formally dressed man with no-nonsense hair peering over the top of his newspaper to speak sternly (but warmly) to his children. This was Dad in most real households, too. These days, that image has changed. Dads are often the goofballs and scofflaws of the family. Sometimes, they will have a deep talk with their kids as music swells in the background (ending with a pithy comment to bring on the laugh track). Sometimes, they are at home with their kids while Mom makes money – and domestic chaos ensues that would never happen on Mom’s watch. They may be bringing home the bacon like the old days, but they’re also frying it (with, of course, hilarious results like kitchen fires or dinners even the dog won’t touch). Or they’re just not there.

In real life, there are as many ways to be a Dad as there are Dads. I know of more than one home where Dad is the cook (and the results are delicious – not even remotely funny). There are many Dads who are at home with their kids, and doing it just as well as Mom would – presiding over well-run houses, clean piles of laundry and happy, well-behaved kids. There are as many Dads at the park and volunteering at school as there are Moms. Dad working outside the home is still the most common scenario, but he doesn’t always come home and sit behind a newspaper – or get the kids all wound up and leave Mom to play bad cop. He changes the baby’s diaper, and helps big sister or brother with homework. He might do man things like mowing the lawn, but he might also clean the bathroom or vacuum the rug.

Ryan is his own special mix of Dadness. He works full-time, and when he comes home he likes a nap. But he makes time to play Super Mario Bros. with Fiona, and drops his dignity to play Just Dance with Bridget. When dinner’s over, he’s the one who cleans up the kitchen. He does some of the housework, but he is also the payer of bills, mower of lawns, and keeper of the gas tank (I fill the car up once or twice a year, usually after Ryan reminds me the tank is low). He helps Fiona and Bridget with their homework more often than I do because I have very little patience for it. Also, math. He’s one of those odd individuals who enjoys math, while I am now third in our family when it comes to math proficiency. And this will probably only last until Bridget hits fourth grade …. He needs time to himself, but he eagerly shares his passion for music and scrabble with the girls. Ryan can be crazy with them, but he’s also the law in this here town. I may make alot of noise – I’m the official family screamer – but I’m also a softy. I’m the breaker of rules, contrary to what television thinks my role should be. Ryan is orderly, and likes rules. He’s been making his own as a father since the moment he cut the cord and announced “it’s a girl – I think“. His set of rules – his path – was a little more solid by the time he caught his first glimpse of Bridget, tears of joy blurring his vision because he had another daughter (he was always meant to be a Dad of girls). Now, he’s a seasoned father, most of the time approaching his calling with confidence, grace and gratitude.

Seems like most of the airtime when it comes to parenting is taken up by mothers – but this one’s for the fathers out there. The ones who are around all the time, the ones who only get every other weekend, the ones who work away from home in remote locations or  overseas on military missions. The goofy ones, the stern ones, the brand-new ones and the ones who’ve been around the block. The ones who are doing their best and praying for patience, the ones who feel overwhelmed by it all and the ones who know they’ve got this. No matter how much is said about Mom, you’re just as special – and needed. Your wisdom, your kindness, and the solid comfort of your presence will be with your children long after you are gone. Here’s to you, Dad!