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Archive for the ‘REFLECTIONS’ Category

I’ve had a difficult time organizing my thoughts and getting them down on paper lately. It’s a problem I really didn’t expect. For the past couple of years, worry over finances and unemployment have dominated my life and sapped any creativity, but I honestly believed the words would just flow once life got easier. And it has. So what’s gone wrong?

The only explanation I can think of is that after feeling detached for so long, I’m transitioned into a phase that is very much the opposite. And it’s overwhelming. It sounds hokey, but everything seems intensified. Colours are brighter, the wind in the trees more soothing. I am mesmerized by the simplest of things, lifted up almost. And somehow, through it all, I find myself tongue-tied, unable to sift through the thousands of thoughts in my head and come up with one cohesive piece of writing.

Hamilton itself is a new experience in every way, more complex than anyhere I’ve ever lived. I never anticipated seeing squalor and hardship juxtaposed by beauty and prosperity. How could I know that a short walk to a wonderful park, the pride of the city, would take me past men and women so obviously sick and in need of help – not homeless, but desperately poor nonetheless? And what of the people who’ve lived here for decades? Have they grown accustomed to the pockets of poverty around them? Is that even possible?

Yes, it is a city of extremes. But the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” seems more due to circumstance than choice. My husband and I have just come through a huge financial upheaval ourselves, but we have renewed hope: a wonderful home, a new job, a true fresh start. It could have been very different. That middle-aged woman I see with the grey unkempt hair, the ratty sweater, the worn pink sweat pants? That could have been me.

Those are the thoughts that spin through my head. It makes me even more aware of our good fortune, but also makes me wonder about the stories of the people I pass each day. They were once precious babies. What could have happened to take them to where they are today? And why them, and not me?

And now I see I have finally written.

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In May of 2011, not long after surviving prostate cancer, and still mending after a hip replacement, Jack Layton, the charismatic New Democratic Party leader, accomplished what to many seemed impossible. He led his party to the level of Official Opposition, winning over Quebec separatists, and thereby achieving a record number of seats in parliament. NDP supporters were euphoric.

Two months later, shockingly gaunt and weak, he announced that a new form of cancer had taken hold of him, and that he was taking a leave from his position in order to fight it.

On August 22, just four weeks later, he passed away, surrounded by his loved ones and closest colleagues. Shortly after his death, a letter was released, written by him just two days earlier (http://bit.ly/netnCX). Moved by his message, the entire country united in an unprecedented show of grief.

Social media gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters, all asking that Layton be honoured in special ways. Across the country, people “Left their Porchlight on for Jack,” “Left a Burning Candle in the Window for Jack,” participated in “Chalk for Jack,” covering the concrete at Mel Lastman Square with messages to the man they admired so much. Orange lights, the colour of the NDP party, lit up Niagara Falls and the CN Tower at night.

He received a state funeral.

Since then, many journalists have asked “What is it about Jack Layton’s death that creates such passion and collective grieving?” After all, not everyone agreed with his politics or his passionate rhetoric during his three decades in politics. I believe there are several reasons for this surprising display of emotion.

The first that come to mind are his patriotism and his “generousity of self,” his willingness to get involved in areas that other politicians chose to ignore. He was approachable and emotionally engaged in every issue he tackled, and was a ray of hope for those struggling with poverty and homelessness. Unlike so many of our politicians, who seem emotionally detached from anything other than heated cabinet debates, he truly seemed to care.

Jack Layton had our back.

For years, there’s been talk of the apathy of today’s youth. Few have faith in politicians and the political process. They’ve “opted out.” They listen with wistfulness to stories recalling the activism and idealism of the sixties, but are often too jaded to believe that can happen again. Jack Layton challenged that belief and inspired so many of our Canadian youth. Years from now, that may be recognized as his greatest legacy.

On a personal level, Jack Layton did even more for me, and I suspect for many others growing up in the sixties and early seventies. He reminded me of who I was forty years ago. His principles, his passion, his belief in a better way, his concern for the disenfranchised and respect for humanity itself – those were the ideals I worked hard to emulate back then. I was young and hopeful and believed I could make a difference.

Somehow, as it does with many people, that idealism and energy faded over the years. Raising a family and working to make ends meet took most of my attention away, but not enough to miss the gradual changes taking place in our country – the focus on finances over people, the hostile and kneejerk response to anyone needing our help. Others set the changes in motion, but some, like Mike Harris, set them in stone. Like many of our youth, I’m afraid I chose to “opt out” rather than remain a teacher under Mike Harris, and with the subsequent election of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, my despair grew.

For a while, Jack Layton changed that. I saw more than a politician. I saw a human being – one who hid his private pain behind a moustached smile so he could lead his party to official opposition status, and who in the days before he died, still reached out and showed concern for others in a letter. As the NDP leader, he reminded his party to forge ahead, saying that the true power was always within them, and that his death wouldn’t change that. As a fellow Canadian, he urged people, young and old, to have hope in Canada’s future, to work to make it happen. As a cancer patient, he protected his fellow sufferers by keeping the details of his illness private, and encouraged them to have hope. His final words will always resonate with me:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

How many other politicians have ever spoken to Canadians before dying, and in such a manner? Jack Layton was a remarkable man – a tireless, principled political leader, and patriotic Canadian. And for those of us who felt a familiar fire awaken in ourselves because of his shining example, his loss feels very personal.

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Two weeks ago, our wonderful sons threw us a party. Its purpose was twofold: an official housewarming, and a celebration of our forty years of marriage. Surrounded by family, close friends, and some of our new neighbours, the day couldn’t have been more perfect.

In many ways, it symbolized a turning point for us. For over two years, we’ve been weighed down by sadness and a sense of doom, but on this day, we were ourselves again. Able to laugh. Able to feel joy. And everyone with us felt it too. They’ve worried about us for so long, but finally, they too felt hope.

The day was warm and sunny, ideal weather for entertaining. Our guests spilled over from inside the house to the backyard and front porch. Conversations were loud and peppered with belly laughs. I reminisced with friends from high school – women I hadn’t seen since the last alumni luncheon, nearly ten years ago. Being with them reminded me of who I was at eighteen, and who I still am inside.

My husband felt the same spark. At one point, my youngest son observed “I haven’t seen Dad this happy in a long while.” Later, someone made the same comment about me.

Towards the end of the evening, when most people had already left, we realized that we’d yet to make a toast to our anniversary. It seemed fitting that the ones remaining to share the tradition with us were these same high school friends – women who were there forty-five years ago, when my husband and I first met, who were there on our wedding day. With a finesse that only a veteran bartender can manage, my son cracked open a bottle of champagne and carried eight flutes back into the room. We toasted to love, to friendship, to new beginnings.

Later, when it was just the four of us, we drifted to the front porch of the house. Between the rush of preparation and the excitement of having so many wonderful people in our home, we were all too wired to sleep. For nearly an hour, we shared our feelings about the day.

We realized then that here, on our fortieth aniversary, not one picture had been taken of my husband and me together. Our porch “papparazzi” decided that had to be rectified. It didn’t matter that my make-up had melted hours ago, that my hair was askew, and my husband slightly tipsy. We were happy.

You can tell just by looking at us.

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We’ve now been in our new home for just over three weeks, and what a whirlwind it’s been! It seems that we’ve had barely a moment’s rest! But I’m not complaining . Compared to the sadness of leaving our last home and the limbo existence of the previous ten months, this is exhilarating.

The first five days here were a real challenge. It didn’t take us long to realize that we should have delayed the move by a week or so. First of all, my sister’s wedding was just four days later. There was a bachelorette party on Wednesday, the second day of our move, and a hair appointment for me on Thursday. Both meant a long drive back into the city. Each time, we made the rounds of friends’ homes where my husband still had things stored. Seriously, he could have easily filled a house all on his own, and my son had nearly as much to move. To give you an idea of just how disproportionate my husband’s and son’s possessions were compared to mine, someone said to me on the day of the move, “Are you sure you live here?”

The running around before the wedding wasn’t the only complication of the week. The biggest advantage of relocating later is that we could have cleaned first. I have never seen a house in such need of a good scouring. It had been sadly neglected for a long while – vacant for six months and before then owned by a widower who was in deep mourning over the loss of his wife. The house badly needed to be loved again, and that began with vacuuming and scrubbing things down.

Our furniture is now in place, and except for unopened boxes for the office, we are unpacked. We got a great deal on a used refrigerator that could pass for new. We’ve bought a few curtain rods, but no drapes yet. My husband has started to repair our double hung sash windows – original to the house. They must have ten layers of paint on them. They’re very hard to open and because the sashes are broken, they’re being held open by books. He’s removing all the paint and sanding them down to the original wood before repainting them. We’ve replaced locks on both windows and doors – almost all were faulty. We’ve fixed a leaky sink and replaced faucets, only to see that now, our water pressure in the kitchen is down to a trickle. Somewhere, there’s an obstruction.

The second-to-last owner was a big fan of big pot lights. Our bathroom alone has six of them, in addition to two wall lights. My kitchen has twelve of them, but only half of them work. None have covers, and many have wires hanging out. The wiring in this place is insane. We’re still trying to figure out why the lights on the staircase landing and second floor hallway don’t work. I have to use a flashlight to go up and down the stairs in the evening.

We’ve demolished most of the basement in preparation for new wiring. There is a walled off room that has us curious. Time capsule? Stash of money? Body hidden amidst the brick?

The most exciting work has been the complete transformation of our front and backyards. Okay, I’ll be honest. My job was just to supply food and beverages. My husband and sons did the serious labour. And what a wonderful job they did! Just looking at it makes me smile, and our neighbours are thrilled to see the changes.

The neighbourhood itself is a pleasant surprise. The area we’re in, which is just outside the downtown core, is built on a grid system. Daily walks with the dog are filled with new discoveries: heritage homes, gardens loaded with flowering plants that I’ve never seen before, stately homes that once belonged to the original “movers and shakers” of the city, and still show such pride of ownership. I take a different route almost every day. Cadeau, who’s never really experienced city life, is in paradise. Everywhere you look, people are walking their dogs; Cadeau stops every ten feet to pick up a new scent. Most nights, we head to Gage Park, a huge park just a few minutes’ walk room here. There are trees with trunks ten feet in diameter. There are gardens and a greenhouse, water features and playground equipment, a pink bandshell where summer performances take place and huge fountain that’s now being restored to its former glory.

This city has never had the best reputation. It’s quite solidly blue collar, home to Canada’s steel plants, once employing thousands. The view of the city from the highway is bleak. I used to watch the smoke and flames shooting from the chimney stacks of the refineries, and imagine that the air here must be awful.

The steel industry has had its share of troubles, and many have lost their jobs. The downturn has rippled throughout the city, particularly the downtown core. You can’t miss the businesses that have closed, or the higher than average percentage of poor people who appear malnourished, sometimes with signs of substance abuse problems. But this city seems to have a heart. The downtown core is peppered with services for the poor, the handicapped, the sort of person so easily forgotten and left to live on the streets in bigger cities.

We’ve seen that “heart” in the faces of strangers serving us in stores, and we’ve heard it in the voices of our neighbours. We’ve never felt more welcomed by a community. This is home, and after the difficulties of the past couple of years, this newfound contentment is almost euphoric.

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Today is my sixtieth birthday, and the only way I can describe it is surreal. To give you an idea of just how foreign the number “sixty” is to me, I first typed the title of this entry as “On Turning Thirty.” Even my fingers are in denial.

Unlike my teenage years, or young womanhood, or my years as a wife and mother, this is an age I never took time to imagine. It snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking; perhaps while I was asleep, or stuck in traffic, or playing my zillionth game of Spider Solitaire. Somewhere between forty and sixty, I lost time.

Despite feeling a little shell-shocked, reaching my sixth decade doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it might. I’ve watched so many of my friends die much too soon. How can I not appreciate each day that I am given? I’ve been so lucky. Healthwise, I don’t feel any worse than I did at forty. It may be one advantage of having the aches and pains of fibromyalgia for so long. My age has simply caught up with the way I’ve always felt. The asthma that plagued me at a younger age is under control now, thanks to medical advances. To think I once believed that it would probably kill me someday. I never could have predicted that I’d feel this good at sixty.

Surprisingly, I have developed a fascination with the aging process, as if it’s happening to someone else, as if the person in the mirror is not really me. I study the gradual appearance of lines in my face as if noticing them for the first time. I am spellbound by the skin on my hands, how much thinner and drier it seems. My nails have changed. I wonder when all of it began and why I didn’t notice.

And then there’s my neck.

A few years ago, I watched author Nora Ephron being interviewed on a women’s talk show. She discussed her new book on middle-age, and the procedures some women endure to appear younger. She ended by saying “but there’s nothing you can do about one part of your body.” The title of her book was “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” She was right. And the irony is in knowing that at a time in my life when I prefer to cover my neck, I can no longer stand the heat!

Yes, I am now sixty. I may have to say it again and again until it sinks in. I’d like to think I’m a bit wiser than I was at thirty, but the reality is that inside, I am very much unchanged, with the same values, the same passions, the same sentiments. The greatest difference comes from acknowledging that time has passed more quickly than I ever anticipated, too much of it forgotten.

From this point on, I have to try harder to savour each moment, to make the days count for something. Life is much too fleeting, and there are still memories to be made.

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As someone whose life has had its share of ups and downs, I am often asked how I’ve managed day to day living without showing more signs of the stress around me. The question always surprises me, because I don’t see myself as particularly complicated or brave. I simply do what I have to do, and much like Don Draper of Mad Men says, “Move forward.” But there is another coping skill I freely admit to. When faced with a stress that feels overwhelming, I sometimes give myself a break. I lock the problem away “Delay & Denial Depot,” deep inside my brain, and leave it there until I’m stronger. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, problems have stayed there too long.

My father-in-law used similar tactics. The older he got, the more he repeated a phrase that irked me no end. It was “I don’t want to know.” He used it whenever the mood hit him. He’d ask a question of you and if he realized he wouldn’t like the answer, he’d stop you halfway and say ‘I don’t want to know.” If a news story disturbed him, he’d begin to comment on it, and midway through his own sentence stop and say “I don’t want to know.” There were variations on the theme. If he felt someone wasn’t giving his opinions the respect they deserved, he’d say “he doesn’t want to know.”

It’s only as I’ve aged myself, and lived through my own trials, that I’ve come to understand his thinking. Many of us “don’t want to know.” It goes beyond ignoring warnings of impending doom if we don’t work harder to save our planet. It also happens much closer to home. We choose not to see what is right under our noses – job problems; issues with our children, substance abuse, adultery, rising debt, health issues – all because of fear. We fear the panic we will feel, the loss of control, if we face the demon head on. We surround ourselves with people who will support our denial, perhaps even share a similar altered reality, because they don’t challenge us on it. And all the time, we fool ourselves into thinking that problems that developed while we weren’t looking, will disappear quietly, the same way.

It’s dangerous thinking. It allows us to be manipulated, because we are deperate to believe these orchestrated “best case” scenarios. It’s rampant: among soccer moms, in company boardrooms, in political office. The more control a person is expected to have, the more perfect he/she is expected to be, the greater the chance of living in denial. As a former teacher, I can tell you that it’s everywhere in the education profession, particularly among teachers who worry more about everyone’s perception of them than admitting they need help. Image become more important to them than the welfare of their students.

We’ve seen a perfect example of willful blindness in the current media fiasco around Charlie Sheen. Somehow, over years and years, he’s been in denial of his condition, and surrounded by people who are too cowardly and/or self-serving to confront him on it. Do the people around him truly not recognize the illness that goes beyond his addiction? Can’t they see it in his eyes and hear it in his words? Do they care so little, or do they care too much to face it?

Margaret Heffernan, a former BBC producer and CEO of several multi-media companies, writes about this very human tendency in her book “Willful Blindness.” Yesterday, the Toronto Star carried an article on her book, and on the pitfalls of denial. I read it, and I thought “Wow! She’s dead on. That’s the perfect name for the self-sabotage of “survival by denial.”

To be honest, the subject fascinates me, so much so that the idea figures prominently in some of my writing. Years ago, I wrote a small piece on a woman whose life was built around “willful blindness.” It’s short and a little rough – never published – but I’m including it here.

SMALL MERCIES

Lorraine has learned to be grateful for lies.

She isn’t sure when it happened, for it was without her knowing; perhaps while she slept years of half-sleep laced with worry. It wasn’t always that way. Once, she demanded truth and would accept nothing less. She faced reality without flinching; watched the brutality of war and the viciousness of violence objectively, an emotionless observer; then went on with her day, her veneer unscathed.

Her entire world gleamed then. Her floors reflected satin images and her appliances gleamed. She clipped recipes from homemaker magazines and devised clever filing systems to catalogue them. Bills were paid the day they arrived, not days late. She ironed clothes straight from the dryer, before they were needed. In afternoons, while her babies slept, she sat outside, next to a vibrant climbing rose bush, and wrote long, gossipy letters to distant friends, or read sweeping historical romances with predictable happy endings. She nibbled fresh-baked scones and drank tea from a favourite china cup. Her world was free from blemish, her sleep peaceful, her vision nothing but blue skies.

Now, Lorraine mourns the loss of those times. Optimism has blurred to delusion, fairness to blindness, and she treads on ground that threatens to collapse beneath her feet. Nerves jolt at the first midnight ring of the phone. She flinches at the start of a harsh word and avoids the eyes of those she fears to understand. If the enemy is not seen, it is not there. Evidence stays buried, her gaze averted from that which she cannot bear to know.

Instead, Lorraine nods in agreement to half-truths, the small mercies meant to reassure her. She realizes, but does not acknowledge their feeble attempts at deception, necessary to protect the fragile illusion of her perfect world.

Lorraine has learned to be grateful for their lies.

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How many times have you heard someone say they bought themselves a certain item because they “deserved it?” How often have you said it yourself?

It’s called “entitlement.” In its most innocent form, it’s the inspiration for occasional things we bestow upon ourselves to reward our accomplishments: the designer purse, the top-notch golf clubs, that rich dessert. At its worst, entitlement becomes demanding. You deserve something simply on the basis of being YOU, not because of anything you’ve earned.

Entitlement is a relatively new phenomena, a by-product of a capitalist society. Our parents never experienced it at all. To them, the only things one could “deserve” in life were punishments brought on by bad decisions; or high marks resulting from good study habits.

Books like “The Secret” promote the philosophy, but the simplicity of the thinking behind “entitlement” scares me. In some ways it infuriates me. It suggests that there is a magic formula to achieving whatever you want, to living the perfect life you want. Let me tell you that the formula is not foolproof, that you can only plan so much in your life; and no matter how deserving you feel, you may not get everything you want. Or, you may acquire them, and lose them in the blink of an eye. You may get knocked clear on your ass, with no hand reaching out to help you up. That, my dear readers, is the way life often plays out.

I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. I guess I’m coming from a bitter place right now. I am disillusioned with those who think they’ve discovered the secret to getting all they deserve and look with scorn at those who haven’t managed the same lifestyle. They imply that others have only failed because they didn’t do enough to “deserve it.”

Once, feeling we “deserved it” was the rationale for a lot of the purchases we made. We deserved them because we worked hard. But financial experts warn that that kind of thinking can lead to problems, and it’s a big part of why we’re in the mess we’re in.

Seriously, should “deserving” even be part of the equation? Do the people born in third world countries deserve to live a life of starvation and sickness? Do children serving in armies deserve to have their innocence robbed from them? Does one person deserve a quick, painless death, while someone else deserves to be systematically tortured, dying piece by piece, hour by hour?

There are certain things everyone deserves. We deserve the love of a spouse and a few good friends. We deserve the right to work, to be paid fairly, and to be able to use those earnings to better our lives. But there are people in countries who work 80 hours a week, just to earn money for the bare necessities. Is that all they deserve?

Life is not simply input equals output. It’s also about luck. Sometimes, it’s about being positioned in the right place. You have to know that somewhere, there’s a big roulette wheel spinning, and wherever we land, that’s our fate. We can have a long run of good luck, and then a sudden drop of bad fortune that we can’t recover from. It’s undeniably there, waiting to knock the wind out of our sails whenever we dare to say “I DESERVE THIS.”

FOOTNOTE I woke up this morning to a comment from Bob Doe (see below), and I realized that the way this blog came across may have offended a lot of people. That wasn’t my intention, and I apologize. Please read my response to Bob for a further explanation.

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Tonight the world witnessed not only the brilliant performance of a Olympic figure skater, but one of the most poignant displays of courage ever seen. Just two days after her mother’s death from a sudden heart attack, Joannie Rochette took to the ice in the women’s short programme, and skated in her honour.

Commentators at the Olympics told stories all week of the closeness between Therese Rochette and Joannie, that her mother was a hard honest critic but also her staunchest supporter. Mere hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete, Therese Rochette was dead. She was only fifty-five, and had no history of heart trouble.

One can only imagine the shock of her loss, and the irony of such sorrow at a time that should have been the high point in Joannie Rochette’s life. And the inevitable question arises. How did this young woman find the courage to put her sorrow aside tonight and do what her mother would have wanted?

It wasn’t for lack of feeling. The tears broke through the minute her programme ended, and she bent over, hands on knees to regain her composure. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people, immeasurably moved by her performance and personal strength, wept with her. Still, she never crumbled, didn’t collapse in grief as many expect we would under the circumstances. Instead, she stood back up, straightened her shoulders and graciously thanked the crowd, who were by then on their feet. The ovation and outpouring of love must have seemed surrreal. She skated towards the place where her coach stood, and it was only then that the world heard her sobs.

The late Ernest Hemingway called courage “grace under pressure.” We witnessed it tonight in Joannie Rochette. and I doubt any of us will ever forget it.

Your grace and bravery inspired the world tonight, Joannie. Somewhere, your mother is smiling.

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Valentine’s Day is the yearly event that causes more headaches and heartaches than any other. Some may disagree, saying that Christmas is more stressful, but I’d bet my best red lipstick that more psyches suffer on February 14th. than on any other day of the year.

Think of it. The idea alone is masochistic. It’s the day chosen to show people how much you love them. Conversely, if you receive no such declaration, you may assume that no one loves you. It’s a logical deduction, even for a child.

Speaking of children, flash back to that brightly covered box in the front of the classroom, the one stuffed with carefully chosen paper Valentines? Remember how you waited with anxious breath for your name to be called, how everyone counted their cards, perhaps spread them out on their desks for others to admire? What must have been going on in the head of the classmate who received no cards? What a harsh reality for a child! Who knows what residual complexes remain once they become an adult?

I sympathize with people who are alone on Valentine’s Day, caught up in the melancholy envy of those in love who are out celebrating. But here’s the clincher: being in love does not guarantee Valentine’s Day will hold any romance, and relationships can be put to the test. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I love my husband dearly, but romantic expressions of love are not his strong suit.

His proposal to me was muttered under heated breath when, at 17, he pressed me against my parent’s back door for a goodnight kiss. “You’re gonna marry me, right?”

The budget for my engagement ring was negotiated between us. He would spend the proceeds from the sale of some musical equipment, not a dime more. I was too thrilled with the prospect of being engaged to dwell on the budgetary constraints.

To be practical, my wedding night was spent in our new apartment, rather than a hotel room. His best man and ushers had stayed there with him the night before, and the place looked like a charity bazaar after a three-day blitz. In the corner of the bedroom sat a partially dismantled car engine, evidence of his latest project.

Have things changed since our marriage? Over thirty-two years have passed, and my memory may not be the sharpest anymore, but truthfully, I can’t actually recall a Valentine’s Day that was the kind of romantic surprise women dream about. Therein lies the problem. Women fantasize about such things all their lives, but men are just not hard-wired on a parallel path.

I observed the “out-of-sync” interplay between my parents for years. Mom would watch soap operas where men planned extravagant and imaginative surprises for their loved ones; but Dad was another story. He’d leave a greeting card up on top of the fridge for her to see. Sometimes, there would be a heart-shaped box of chocolates with it. Once in a while, there would be a cheque inside the card, and his name scrawled hastily, devoid of any personal message. Of course, my mother did less. She was from an age where ladies did not bother to even reciprocate Valentine’s gifts. I can’t imagine how he would have reacted if she had.

So, though I’ve never really expected grand gestures from my own husband for Valentine’s Day, secretly, I’ve always hoped. I’d see the romantic gift a friend would receive, and I’d grow wistful.

As V-day approached, I’d inevitably become more and more anxious, gearing myself up for the inevitable letdown. Sometimes, he’d completely forget. Other times, he’d say he was planning various things for months, then he’d go on to tell me why none of it could be accomplished. To be honest, I believed him. An “event planner” he’s not.

“I wanted to take you somewhere special, but couldn’t decide where to go.”

“I was going to buy you roses, but they seemed such a waste of money.”

“I thought you’d rather pick something out yourself.”

“I didn’t know what you wanted.”

“I wanted to get you something sexy, but I figured you wouldn’t wear it.” Now, there’s a story behind this line. Years ago, he ventured into an erotic clothing store and bought me what the salesperson claimed was a negligee. Actually, it was four strips of very sheer blue material, two down the front, two down the back, perhaps three inches wide at best near the upper end and wider towards the bottom. Ribbons attached the strips to each other. Problem was, I could only wear it if I stood stock still. One twist and those two strips down the front no longer covered the “essentials.” At a time when two little sons might run into our room at any time during the night, it wasn’t too practical. We both laughed, he a little less heartily, and he’s shied away from sexy purchases ever since.

Another time, he brought me home a card and lovely wrapping paper but no gift. “I couldn’t find anything good enough,” he said, frustration dripping from every word. He seemed to have developed a “tic” while he was out too.

Sometimes he says, “What do you feel like doing for Valentine’s Day?” Of course, what I want is for him to plan it for me. If I actually suggest that, he looks like he’s about to have a stroke from the pressure of it. He’ll say “I thought we should go out for dinner,” but he’ll say it that night, at 5:00 P.M., when there’s no hope of getting reservations. Then he’ll squirm in remorse.

Once, we had a romantic dinner, and we followed it by going to a movie. “Total Recall” does nothing to keep the “warm and fuzzy feeling” alive, believe me.

But after all this time, I’m almost used to it. The truth is, he’s special in every other way that counts. He brings me tea and tells me I’m smart and beautiful all the time, even when I’m feeling like Phyllis Diller on her worst day. And I don’t think his lack of romantic inclination reflects anything more than an inability to recognize the special, small gestures that can be so heart-warming. In other words, big, expensive gestures occur to him, but limited by budget and circumstances, he flounders.

So, if Valentine’s Day is spent like so many other “dates,” I’ll be prepared. A dinner out if I make a reservation, followed by a tour around The Home Depot, and an early return home. Then, perhaps, a glass of wine each, a fast “I love you,” and we’ll each depart for our separate televisions. He’ll watch “This Old House” or The Antique Roadshow,” and I’ll watch a taped soap opera, probably General Hospital, so I can watch Jax as he plans a superbly romantic evening for his current lady-love.

If I grow envious, I’ll remind myself of what my husband said to me recently. He was removing wallpaper from a room, and he commented on the strong, unhealthy fumes from the stripper he was using. Then he added, “It’s okay. As long as I see your pretty face just before I die I’ll be happy”

Okay, so it sounds corny, but it goes a long way towards making up for Home Depot on Valentine’s Day

(published in the Globe and Mail, Feb. 14/05 under title: Valentine’s Day façade, Valentine’s Day feeling)

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I thought that once I began my retrospective account of our fall from financial grace, I’d want to go full-tilt.

It didn’t work out that way.

Having a house on the real estate market has a way of sapping the energy out of you. It’s the constant cleaning. Everything must be perfectly presentable, ready for inspection at short notice. I’d start to write, then notice a dust bunny floating near the furnace vent. Out would come the vacuum, and then I’d ask myself what the point was in putting it away after just one room? I’d do the entire house, top to bottom, even if it was just done twelve hours earlier. The thing is, if you looked closely, the floors needed it. Makes me realize that the carpets we removed earlier this year must have caught a ton of stash in its fibres.

Two cats and a dog have a way of carting around mess too. Little muddy cat paw prints on the stairs; my shih tzu’s faceprints left on the living room floor after his meal. He wipes one side of his face, then the other. If only I could train him to use a towel.

Bottom line then is that I’ve been crazy busy – and my husband has been too, with renovation jobs cropping up here and there. Of course it’s still not been like a permanent job – when each contract finishes, that old familiar panic starts to surface a little again- but it’s still been a godsend for us. We are seeing a glimmer of light shining through all those dark clouds that seemed permanently overhead in the spring.

Which is why, I guess, I left the idea of recounting how we got to “this place” in our lives. Suddenly, I just couldn’t talk about it anymore. The “why’s and “what-for’s” no longer seemed as important as “where do we go from here?” On one particular night, soon after I’d broken my wrist and was feeling pretty down and out, my sister-in-law said to me “This situation is not your fault. Stop blaming yourself. It’s not your fault.” She said it over and over again until I finally started to cry. Such relief, and even though we did make some bad decisions, sometimes the bad decision simply being “no” decision, it felt like she’d given me permission to forgive myself. The thing is, guilt and self-disgust over mistakes you make are self-destructive. You can’t move forward when you feel like that.

I finally feel like we can, baby-step by baby-step.

We’ve been lucky. We’ve had terrific support from family and friends. Their constant encouragement, job leads, “conveniently-timed” renovation jobs, even loans in some cases, have helped us maintain our equilibrium.

One other bright light came into our lives this year. He is a black and white shih tzu, about four years old, and he’s our good news story. I used to say that down the road, I’d like to get a puppy. How was I to know that one day, literally down a country road, we’d find him? It was late May, and we were heading north to look at a house that was for sale. A van sped by, going south. We crested the hill from where the van had just come, and there, in the middle of the road, was this little black shih tzu: wet and scared, and without a collar. We slowed right down, and he circled the car, barking as if to ask for help. I didn’t hesitate even a second. “Let him come in,” I said. I wrapped him in an old towel to keep him dry and he fell asleep in my arms.

We put a sign up saying we’d found him. For days, I hunted through local newspapers and drove country roads looking for signs that someone was missing him. Nothing. We took him to the vet to look for a microchip or tattoo. Nothing. And then it occurred to us that the van we saw speeding past must have dropped the dog off, because anyone going by at that moment would have slowed down for fear of hitting him, jus as we had We claimed him as our own and named him Cadeau, which in French, means “gift.” He was our gift.

They say pets lower blood pressure. I have never owned a dog, but I can attest to his healing powers. He makes us laugh again. He makes us get outside and walk. He is a creature to love, something to think about other than our troubles. He’s been heaven-sent and right now, I can’t imagine being without him.

That’s life today, but there is a bit more to add. On November 20, I submitted an essay to the Facts and Arguments column in Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. I wrote it to draw attention to the difficulties of unemployment in your fifties. Originally, the essay had a slightly more political tone, because at the point of writing, I’d just read that Ontario didn’t have the “Targeted Initiatives for Older Workers” programme that most other provinces had. That made me angry. If anyone needed help, wouldn’t it be Ontarians, considering the huge losses in the auto sector?

The people at the Globe asked me to make the essay more personal, and they published it yesterday, December 30. It’s titled “Unemployed, 59, and Trying to Stay Afloat.” You can read it online in the “Globe Life” section. In the past forty-eight hours, it has generated 170 comments (not all pleasant, of course) and been forwarded 54 times. I’ve received emails from all kinds of people with similar stories, but also from people wanting to help through possible employment opportunities. Today, I was contacted by the producer of CBC’s “Connect. with Mark Kelly” about doing an interview next week. Initially, I had misgivings – after finally getting to the point where I don’t feel like such a victim, I don’t want to look like I’m seeking sympathy on national television. I’ve thought over and over about whether to do it, going through every possible scenario. Something good could come from it, and if writing the essay empowered me, this might do even more. I just don’t want it to seem like a pity party for poor me – and certainly not for my husband, who I respect so much for his personal strength, integrity and work ethic. He’s my hero, and I don’t want him to come across as anything less than that.

We shall see. I’ll make my decision next week.

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