Wednesday, December 30, 2009


It's a shame that cats aren't welcome to roam freely in Toronto anymore. Back in the day, when I had a half-hour walk to school, I used to have a route with stops, like a bus, except I stopped to say hello to cats. Young cats on the prowl, old cats napping in a puddle of sun. They were all reliable friends to me, back in the days when I was lonely and in need of friendship.

These days it's a lot less common to see a cat outside, at least in any upscale neighbourhood. I understand why. Gardeners don't take kindly to cats crapping in their flowerbeds. People who put out bird feeders don't want to see their wee birdie friends massacred. Not to mention that cat owners don't want to see their pets run over by local traffic. So the cats stay cooped up inside, for the most part, and lose their minds.

My first cat was an outdoor cat. She would go out to survey the neighbourhood even on the coldest winter nights. She had her territory to explore and defend. She was also mentally the healthiest cat I've ever known.

All the indoor cats that I've met and cared for, much as I've loved them, have been neurotic, restless, and destructive. They go looking for trouble when they're bored, uprooting houseplants; chewing and clawing their humans' valued possessions; and eating things that aren't meant to be eaten. Instead of maturing into lithe, self-possessed mini-kings of the jungle, they grow up to be fat, whiny babies.

Take Shadow, for example, cat of my first serious boyfriend. That big, dumb lug would eat anything he could fit in his loud mouth. Don't get me wrong - I loved that silly furball. He was very affectionate, generous with the purring. But he didn't have an ounce of sense.

One of his weaknesses was curling ribbon. You couldn't leave an inch of the stuff anywhere around him, or he'd gulp it down like a long spaghetti noodle as soon as your back was turned.

One time, just before Christmas, I used my key to let myself into my boyfriend's apartment. I noticed two things. 1) Shadow did not show up immediately to greet me, as usual. 2) The apartment didn't smell very nice.

I called for Shadow. I heard him answer, a little whimper from a corner somewhere. Then I hear his paws on the hardwood, approaching, gaining speed, and finally running past me in a panic. I could see why. "Something" was chasing him. That something was attached to his derriere. The faster he ran, the faster he heard it coming behind him. Terrifying to his tiny, primitive brain.

After some chasing of my own, I finally pinned him down for an examination. The problem: a length of gold curling ribbon, still curly and bouncing, was hanging from his anus. It was itself "decorated". With poop. In between the poop bits, the gold ribbon glinted in the light. It was... mesmerizing.

That was memorable, but Shadow hadn't shown us everything yet. Several years later, when he was well into his senior years, he fell ill. He prowled the apartment for days, howling, refusing food, straining in the litter box unsuccessfully. At this point he was living with my boyfriend's mother. She made a vet appointment, but the problem resolved itself.

Shadow pooped an entire Bounce scented dryer sheet into the litterbox.

That's impressive in itself, but really. Think of it. How did he manage to eat that sonofagun in the first place? How would you like to gulp down an entire twin-size bedsheet, soaked in cologne? Let alone pass it through your gut, and then your butt. No wonder he was crying.

In the end Shadow passed away of natural causes. His cast-iron digestive tract survived all the punishment that he dished out.

There have been other dumb cats in my life, but Shadow is king in my books. God rest his stupid, snuggly soul. I miss him tremendously, and if I could have him back, even if it meant more chewed gifts and poop cleanups, I'd do it all over again.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Birthmas Parties

Every year, my Holiday Season is more about birthdays than Christmas, which makes sense when you consider that Christmas is itself a birthday celebration.

The evening of December 24th found me at my aunt's house for my grandmother's 89th birthday party. As my rickety old grandparents finished stamping the snow off their shoes and made their way into the living room, my aunt called me into the kitchen.

"I've been drinking," she told me conspiratorially, as she sauteed a panful of sliced mushrooms. "I've had a few glasses of white wine."

"Good!" I told her. "That's an excellent idea."

My aunt is one of the most wound up, anxious people you could meet even at the best of times. When she's hosting a family dinner, she's off the charts. Imagine a squirrel who's been nibbling espresso beans.

"Why aren't these mushrooms browning!?" my aunt yelled, in a slightly-drunky voice. "They're just sitting here in the pan!"

"Don't worry," I told her. "Just give them time to release all their water. They'll brown."

"I've had a few glasses of wine," whispered my aunt.

Believe it or not, it was the best dinner she has ever cooked. By a long shot. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that my youngest aunt's dinners are usually inedible. There's always something that's still frozen in the middle, or carbonized on the bottom. Her sauces turn to slime, her cakes fall, and she always forgets who's allergic to what so there's usually someone at the table (often me) who makes do with a tossed salad while everyone else has a hot entree. Given my aunt's track record with cooking, it's usually a mercy to be excused from the entree.

But on Christmas Eve, my aunt outdid herself. She made salmon filets which were cooked and seasoned to absolute perfection. The mushrooms did brown. The green beans were good. And everyone was able to eat everything.

I sat next to my Buby, the birthday girl. After dinner, she pulled out a plastic baggie full of little envelopes. Each envelope had a name on it, written in my Buby's award-winning calligraphy, in shiny gold ink. Around the names were little flower-blossom stickers.

"Hannukah gelt for everyone!" she said, passing them out. "Gelt" is Yiddish for money. Usually just kids get Hannukah gelt, but I guess when you're turning 89, everyone's a kid. Inside each envelope was a 20-dollar bill.

Then we gave Buby her birthday presents. After she unwrapped the first parcel, she leaned down and dug in her purse. Turning to me with worry in her face, she asked

"Have you seen a baggie of envelopes? I can't find my envelopes."

"Buby, you gave them to us already."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

She unwrapped the second gift. Then she went digging in her purse again.

"Where did I put those envelopes?"

She went searching for those envelopes three times after she'd already passed them out. She's also been asking more than one of her daughters to fetch her the same items from her shopping list, so that my mother will arrive with milk, bread, and fresh chicken, only to find that one of her sisters has just stocked up the fridge with those same items half an hour ago. They really shouldn't be living on their own anymore. They are seriously losing their marbles.

My youngest aunt (who hosted the party) told me that she has to go over every few days now to set out my Zaidy's medications. My Buby almost killed him by forgetting which pills he'd taken and which he hadn't, a few weeks ago.

They refuse to get live-in help. They refuse to move to a supervised facility. They are living alone in a house with stairs, doing their own cooking. It's only a matter of time before there's some kind of terrible accident. The three daughters don't know what to do. God knows, when it's time for me to take care of my own parents, I'm going to be a bully if I have to, to keep them safe. I say as much as I can in this situation, but in the end it's up to my mum and her sisters. I just hope that they don't end up with long-lasting regrets.

Worrying won't help, so I don't worry.


As for my Christmas Miracle Dinner, it was lovely. My father, step-mum and sister made a fabulous meal. The house was cozy and festive; the tree in one corner festooned with lights, sheltering a litter of gifts. It was both surreal and completely natural to have everyone sitting around the table together, chatting and enjoying themselves. I couldn't have asked for more.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How It Went

Hi y'all!

Thank you so much for all your encouraging comments! I really feel your support, and it gives me strength.

The service went well. I was a little nervous at the beginning, but with the whole congregation singing along with the familiar carols, I didn't get any sense of being scrutinized or judged. I didn't sing perfectly, but I sang well enough, and more importantly I had a great time. There was a tangible sense of togetherness in the church, more so than during any regular service, and it was sweet. Afterwards, several people came up to give me hugs and encouragement, including my mum, who says she was bursting her buttons with pride.

I feel happy again just thinking of it. :-)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Soloist

Usually, when I sing onstage at church, three women sing with me. Or rather, I sing with them. I'm the weakest voice on the team. We have one very confident singer with a good range, one who harmonizes, and one stellar soprano. Then there's me. If I'm really warmed up I can reach most of the high notes, but sometimes I quaver, and if the song moves a lot between high and low notes my voice tends to wobble "in the break". Yeah. So usually I let my voice fill in as background texture, while the other lead.

Of the three other women:
1) One is going to go into labour any second now,
2) One just lost her mother-in-law yesterday,
3) One is sick.

So guess who's singing tomorrow, in front of what will likely be a very full church? Full because the Sunday School children are doing their pageant tomorrow, so everyone will be bringing extra relatives, friends, and video cameras?

Oh, you guys are so smart! I knew you'd get the answer.

I won't be totally alone. But the other guy onstage is... a guy. So I can't hide behind his voice. I'll be exposed for everyone to hear. Fortunately my mother is attending the service, so I can count on there being one person who's thrilled to be my audience. As for the rest, well, what are they going to do? Fire me? If they don't like my best effort, they can come up and take my place.

In other news of things Christmasy, I went to a fabulous dinner party on Thursday night. My friend works for a very upscale retailer located in Toronto's Yorkville district. That's the downtown area where all the richest people in the city, and all the most loaded tourists, go to shop, eat, see, and be seen. In the summertime, wealthy, middle-age men cruise their mid-life crisis show-off cars up and down the narrow, boutique-lined streets.

My friend's employer has an annual Christmas party, and my friend invited me to be her date.

We ate a very fancy, multi-course dinner in the private function room of an uber-swanky restaurant. We downed delicassies such as braised octopus, gorgozola polenta, aged steak, and tiramisu. Wine flowed more freely than water. I ended up chatting with one of the two owners of the retail establishment, a 50-year-old Hong-Kong-born Chinese man, very cultured, accomplished, and, I assume, richer than sin. We were also surrounded by the Fashion People, so pretty, shiny, and charming that I felt as though I must be living in a TV show. It was slightly overwhelming, but whenever I found myself at a loss for words I simply dug deeper into my mushroom risotto or whatever splendid dish was before me at that moment, and sipped more wine. My anxieties floated away on a gentle, Italian-flavoured river of hedonism.

At the end of the evening my girlfriend declared that I'd been an excellent date. Then she went off, hopefully to end the night by licking the face of a particular co-worker. I've yet to follow up with her to see if that was successful.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Oops, I did it again.

Why the sudden obsession with cowboy boots? I can't rationally explain it. I never thought I'd be a urban cowgirl. But there's something about a good pair of boots. They're sleek, streamlined, and fun. Maybe it's because I don't drive. Instead of hot cars, I go for the pedestrian equivalent.

They were on sale, and my Christmas bonus was looking for a reason to live. That's my explanation.

Things are pretty busy here in my neck of the woods. Work has been threatening to overwhelm me. I'm working on projects that have me e-mailing brainstorms to myself from home on the weekend because I can't stop running all the scenarios through my head. My anxiety has been active. But this morning I put my foot down. My bare, just-out-of-bed foot. I declared:

"Not one more day of this nonsense! I am not going to be ruled by fear!"

I kicked fear out of my head and it hasn't crept back yet. So there.

For fun, I've been practicing Christmas carols with my church group. We're singing onstage next Sunday. I know more than half the tunes already, having grown up in a traditional Christian neighbourhood. As for the rest, well, the sheet music is in the hymnal. Good thing I can more or less read it.

One thing I've noticed is that the carols have a heck of a range. I've been working on hitting higher notes, with warm-up exercises and other techniques, but wow. I can't make those sounds. It's like, dog whistle high. Fortunately there's a girl I sing with who's a true soprano. She could crack a wine glass, given the chance. So I drop down an octave and let her sing the high parts solo.

Other than that, the purpose of my days has been to spend as much time as possible indoors. The chill, the damp, the dark: only serve to make my cozy home seem ever more inviting. A friend has invited me to be her date at her work Christmas party. It's happening on Thursday, when the temperature is supposed to drop to new lows. I wonder how my new wool dress will look over blue long johns and Baffin snowboots? Heck, if Uggs are considered fashionable, I should be able to get away with it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Christmas Miracle

Technically, I'm not doing anything special to prepare for Christmas this year. I'm not doing extensive shopping, putting up a tree, or hosting any parties. I've already ordered all my gifts via World Vision's charitable gift catalogue. I'll be working between Christmas and New Year's Eve so that my assistant, who has young children, can take the time off.

But this Christmas may well be the most important Christmas of my life. More important than the first time I decorated a Christmas tree, when I was 16. More important than my first Christmas away from home. Even more important than my first Christmas as a Christian.

My birth parents split up before my second birthday. The circumstances were complicated; suffice it to say that my mother never wanted my father around after that. I come from a long line of Champion Grudge-Holders, and my mum is a strong contender for Grand Queen of Grudgeholding. She let me know in no uncertain terms that my father was a Bad Man who lived in a Bad Neighbourhood and he was Not To Be Trusted.

Due to all these bad feelings, I didn't know my father very well until I grew up and took matters into my own hands. I decided I wanted us to have a proper father-daughter relationship. It wasn't too late to work that out. Still, my mother stuck to her guns and refused to forgive him.

Fastforward to two years ago, when my step-father left my mother after 27 years together. My family, already fractured into pieces from the long-ago-past, developed another irreperable split. Sometimes it felt like no two people I cared about could stand the sight of each other. How can I build a loving circle of family around me when they all hate each other?

My mother initially descended into depths of grief and bitterness. It was understandable, given her circumstances. I assumed that she would add another notch to her grudge belt, and power up her hating to last a lifetime. But I underestimated her. She's older, wiser, and, after the initial shock wore off, ready to take a look at her life and make some changes.

When my father's father passed away this spring, my mother decided to attend the memorial service. After all, my zaidy had been her father-in-law for nine years. After the service, she had time for a short chat with my father. It was a pleasant, if brief reunion. I can't remember the exact sequence, but someone followed up with an e-mail, someone else responded in kind, and some real communications were exchanged.

I knew that they were in touch, and I thought it was great. My mother was finally ready to put down the burden of all that angst, let go of the past, and move on. I expected that the most that would come of it would be a gentle, remote reconciliation. Should they ever, God forbid, meet again by my hospital bedside due to some horrible accident, they would be able to support each other instead of avoiding each other. That would be nice.

However, they completely surprised me. Without letting me in on their plans, they arranged to meet for walk in a park. I found out from my father after the fact that they spent two very enjoyable hours together, catching up on 35 years of history. Not to worry - my step-mum (who is cancer-free and recovering from her surgery very nicely, thank God) is aware of the situation and gives her whole-hearted approval.

I don't know if there's any way to explain how it felt when my father told me about him and my mum patching things up. Imagine that someone you know shows up to meet you, not in their regular car, but riding on a winged unicorn. If you can imagine how you might feel: shocked, amazed, confused, and delighted all at once - that's how I felt. Then he took it one step further and let me know that my mum and I were invited to celebrate Christmas Day with him, my step-mum, and my sister.

It would have been a dream come true, if in my wildest dreams I had ever hoped that my parents would get along again. But even as a child I don't recall that possibility ever crossing my mind. So this is better than a dream-come-true. It exceeds my most optimistic hopes and expectations.

I also have to tell you how wonderful it felt to know, for the first time in my conscious, remembered life, that my parents - my real, birth parents - as a team, (a TEAM!) were doing something together, for me, their daughter, because of how much they love me.

I am 37 years old, and I assure you, it's never too late. It doesn't matter that I have a few silver hairs and crows-feet of my own. I had this weird thought: "Finally, I'm like just any normal kid! With normal parents!" Not that parents staying together is necessarily normal anymore, but keep in mind that my inner child is still working from the standards of the 1970's. According to that standard, having two, loving parents is normal, and normal is all I ever wanted to be.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Highlights of the Office Christmas Party

I am seated next to a woman in her late 40's, wife of one of our senior businessmen. Early in our conversation, she tells me that she has a 5-year-old son. He's brilliant - does math at a sixth-grade level. He can subtract fractions. But he's very demanding. She repeats to me several times that she feels she no longer has her own life, and tells me that I've definitely made the right decision not to have children. The first course comes and we break off the conversation. Later, when she turns to talk to me again, she brings up this same topic. And again later, and once more after that. She keeps telling me how much she loves her son, but if only she'd known, she might not have had him. I listen and nod sympathetically, but what can you really say to that?

On the other side of my husband is the date of one of our clerical workers. Early in the evening he makes a show of tasting the wine. His tasting face: lips pushed out, eyes rolled back. It's so dramatic and silly that I laugh, thinking he's clowning around. He's not. I ask him if he's a wine connoisseur. He replies that he's a "connoisseur" in a general way, and then adds straight up that he's a snob. OK, good to know.

The Connoisseur is also a DJ. The DJ who's in charge of our party is killing him with random song segues. He has every possible kind of music on iTunes, from 1930's jazz all the way through to modern hip-hop, and it seems that he's put his system on ultra-random for the evening. Ultra-random is a setting beyond random, which ensures that no two consecutive songs will have any relation to each other whatsoever. As "Jingle Bell Rock" leads into "Sexual Healing", the Connoisseur mimes digging out his right eye with his fork.

Dinner is served. As usual at this venue, the food is excellent. It's surf'n'turf: steamed veggies, roasted potatoes, and steak topped with a pair of jumbo shrimp. As you'd expect at a Portuguese restaurant, the shrimp are perfectly cooked. Absolutely tender. Not at all rubbery. Six out of the eight people seated at our table declare that shrimp are sea bugs and therefore disgusting. If I had a bigger appetite, I could've eaten a lot of extra shrimp.

Despite the crappy DJ, music is music, and after dinner there's a good crowd on the dance floor. That's what I love best about our Christmas parties. People really get out there and shake a tailfeather. Couples in their 60's get up and do ballroom dancing moves to hip-hop songs, as long as the tempo works. Girls in their 20's dance to 1950's rock'n'roll without complaining. Most people aren't worried about looking cool, and they're not falling-down-drunk either. It's a lot of good-spirited fun. The businessman whose wife I was sitting next to at dinner dances next to me and sings along with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".

It's 12:30 am before we know it. My husband and I prepare to leave. The place is emptying out, but there's still a handful of dancers on the floor, and small groups of people enjoying the platters of seafood that were brought out at 11 pm. My heart is racing from the unusual exercise of dancing for two solid hours so late at night. Traffic is light and we're home within 20 minutes. It takes me extra time to get off all the fancy party makeup. Then I fall into bed and sleep like a log.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What next?

Let me begin by saying I had a fantastic weekend. Time with friends I love, new friends met and enjoyed, much laughing, good rest, and successful boot shopping. Oh yes, the boots. I tried them on for fun, and then, despite the price tag, couldn't bear to leave the store without them. And so I am now the proud owner of these babies, purple cowboy boots, size 7. They are more fantastic than the photo can express. The shade of purple is richer and brighter. They fit like slippers. They give me superpowers of confidence.

Good thing too, because last night I got a shock.

I work in an industry that's closely regulated by the government. Every once in a while, over the years, politics have threatened to shut down my workplace. There was no serious threat in the past eight years or so, since before I started working there, but now, it's starting again. I just got word that we'll have to put up an enormous fight or my work will be shut down come spring.

We were doing so well that we were in the midst of planning a move to larger premises. That's all been put on hold until this threat is dealt with.

The owners have fought this battle and won more than once in the past, but you never know.

The good news is that the businessmen I work for have other interests. There's already a plan on the table for a new business, something they were toying with before they got this bad news. So if my current job evaporates with the last of the winter snow, likely it won't be long before they hire me back to work on the next project. My boss told me so. My own safety and security is pretty safe.

However, it's still Big Bad News. Firstly, there's everyone else who works with me. They can't all get hired back to work on a fledgling business. There may be some tough times ahead for my colleagues, and I care about my colleagues very much. Especially my own staff. I will openly say that I love them all, like family. Being their Mama Bear, which is how I do being a manager, has given me my reason for getting out of bed and going to work in the mornings for many years now. I would miss them terribly if we were separated. Losing that element of my social circle and my heart would truly be devastating.

And secondly, but not least important, is the impact on all the people who receive our services. I won't go into detail for fear of compromising my anonymity, but I will state that we provide a service that is absolutely essential for to the quality of life of our clients. We have over 1,200 active files at the moment. What will happen to all those people if we and other businesses like us are closed down? Many of them will cope by becoming addicts, self-medicating with street drugs. It's likely that some will commit suicide when they cannot find relief from their suffering. It's a tough future to contemplate.

So we will fight, and fight hard, to keep the business alive. I couldn't really say what our chances are, but if we've done it before then we can do it again. If my spirits start to crumple, I will put on my Purple Power Boots of Optimism to remind myself that I can be my own superhero. And whatever comes, of course, I have my faith to carry me through. I will be praying over here, if anyone cares to join me.