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A Very (COVID) Birthday

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my mother threw me a surprise birthday party. Well, the “surprise” part didn’t happen. My neighbourhood friend Kenny sort of gave it away early on. We were playing at his house a few days before and he couldn’t help saying “I’m so excited! I can hardly wait! Oops!” covering his mouth and giggling. I knew something was up.

On the day of the party, my mother sent me across the street to play in the park, while she secretly decorated the back yard. When she called me home, she put a blindfold on me and took my hand to lead me outside to the yard. It was very still and quiet, until I heard a giggle. Yep, it was Kenny. He just couldn’t keep quiet.

My blindfold came off to reveal all of my neighbourhood friends gathered to celebrate my birthday. It was a wonderful day.

Birthdays are a far more complicated event for parents these days. Theme parties, dress up parties, movie parties, adventure parties…you name it, there’s a way to make a kid’s party out of it. It’s exhausting to think about.

But this year…

Yes, this year, it’s a whole different story. Suddenly you can’t just book a party room at the movie theater, or arrange for a pool party at the rec centre for your kids. Even something as simple as my little surprise party in the back yard is better left for another time.

There have been some pretty inventive alternatives, though. Decorating the front yard in birthday balloons and paraphernalia, for instance, so that people can honk and wave happy birthday. Or sending your child an “animal gram” in the form of a video created for them with their favourite animal.

A birthday parade is a big hit this year, with friends and family decorating their cars and driving around in a fancy show. There are even virtual scavenger hunts and, in some special cases, the local fire department will drive one of their big trucks by the house and turn on the siren as a birthday wish.

My oldest adult daughter’s birthday was not ordinary this year, but not because of COVID. It took place back in mid-February, before there was any thought about Armageddon. We were in Hawaii, where she had never been, to celebrate a special year of accomplishments for her. We even went to a Luau the night of her birthday to celebrate. All was well in the world, and it turned out that she had the most normal birthday out of all of us.

Because by the next birthday in our household, my husband’s in early May, we were full fledged into the pandemic. I wasn’t ready to go into the mall to buy a card yet, even though the mall had opened by then. I ended up creating a book of photos from a big trip we took a couple of years ago, and making the card myself, the one pictured here, after researching some ideas online. We ordered in some food, had a little cake with candles, and did our best to make it normal.

This past week, my other daughter and I had our birthdays a few days apart. We’re in a different kind of birthday routine now, adjusting to a new way of doing things. In fact, it’s my birthday as I’m writing this. I’ve spent most of the day doing what I love to do, writing and painting, so it doesn’t take much to find my happy place. But right now there’s some whispering in the kitchen, and a match is being lit.

Something’s going on.

I swear, I can hear Kenny giggling…

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Call Me, Maybe – How Phones Have Changed

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I worked at the Vancouver Public Library as a Library Assistant. Once, for a couple of months, I was asked to fill in for someone at the library’s main switchboard. Although smaller, the switchboard looked very much like the one my Aunt, Edith Jackson, worked on. That’s her, pictured here when she was a phone operator for the Vancouver Phone Company in the 1940s.

Most people called the library to ask questions. My job was to answer the phone, and then plug the caller into the line of whatever department could answer them.

Most of the time, the caller’s questions were pretty straight forward. When was Diefenbaker the Prime Minister of Canada? I put them through to the History Department. Who painted the Mona Lisa? Arts And Literature Department. Well I knew the answer to that one, but it wasn’t my job to say it. And every now and then, you’d get a question that you really had to think about. How do you waterproof a zipper? Yes, that was an actual question from a caller I got one day.

I took a wild guess and put them through to the Science and Technology Department. Whether or not they figured it out, I have no idea.

And then there was an elderly woman, a regular who would call and yell loudly “What time is it, dear?” I would just look at my watch and tell her.

Any questions you had about anything, you could count on getting an answer at the public library.

A few years later, around 1991, I was working at a Victoria radio station in the Promotions Department, when one day my boss handed me a contraption the size of a one litre carton of milk and told me to take it with me to the promotions van.

“What the heck is this?”

“It’s a mobile phone. I might need to call you.”

“What’s a mobile phone?”

Much to my delight, I found out that I could ACTUALLY CALL PEOPLE while sitting in the van! On a phone! A mobile phone!

The order given to me was to use it for business purposes only. Predictably, the first call I made was to my husband.

“I’m sitting in the promotions van! On a phone! A mobile phone!” It was so totally cool.

When cellphones started to become more widely available, I was the first one in my household to get one. It was still pretty clunky and had an antenna so it didn’t fit easily in my purse. But, of course, the first thing I did was drive to the local mall, sit down in the food court, and call my husband again.

“I’m in the food court! On my new cellphone!”

Fast forward to today, and we rarely use our cells as phones anymore. That is, unless a scammer is calling. We don’t even think of it as a phone, really. It’s a camera and a calendar, it’s a step counter, and it’s a computer linking us to the rest of the world. It’s also something that we absolutely can’t leave the house without.

Because, you know, we might miss something. Something important. Like a Facebook message or text, or a news alert. Beep! Blip! Boing! Ding! The thing goes off at all hours and we’ve got to look. Even if it’s utterly useless stuff, we’ve got to check. Just in case.

I do remember one time being in the grocery store before I realized I didn’t have my cell with me, and I almost panicked. What if someone is trying to reach me? How will I know how many steps I took and calories were burned? What if the world ended and I didn’t know about it?

Yeah, pretty ridiculous. But I really did feel panic.

Up until this pandemic hit us, most of us were probably texting or messaging or scrolling Twitter more than we were calling each other. But when you’re in isolation or cut off from your usual group of friends and family, a voice or video call is a lot more comforting. If you have a parent in a care facility, it has literally been a life line speaking with them on the phone. Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot more people talking on their phones in the last few months.

When those in my generation were kids, if your family even had a home phone, you had to share the line with others in the neighbourhood. It was called a “party line”. You’d pick up the phone and listen first, just to make sure they weren’t using it, and then you dialed. Rotary dialed. I’ll admit, I listened in on a few neighbour’s private conversations longer than I should have back then. Hey, I was a little brat. But to be honest, the conversations I secretly listened to weren’t that interesting.

Today, every kid has their own phone. I mean, I do understand why parents would want their children to have one. You’d feel better knowing that you could reach them if you needed to. But for the kids, it’s different. They just want to have something to shoot their latest YouTube video or play their games.

Me, I like having so much information right at my fingertips. My phone is like a little pocket library, and the switchboard operator is now Google.

And I’ve turned into the old lady yelling “Hey Google! What time is it, dear?” Google doesn’t answer me unless I drop the “dear”. Little snot.

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You Gotta Laugh

I was out for a drive a couple of weeks ago with my grown daughter, just to get out of the house. We came to a red light on Cook Street, and along the boulevard across the street there was a big tree just covered in birds. Starlings, I think.

I said to my daughter “Bird meeting.” She immediately mimicked a bird, saying “I guess you all got my tweet!” I laughed so hard. She makes me giggle like nobody else. It was perfect comic relief.

It’s not something we get much of lately, but “comic relief” is a definitely something we need more of these days. It’s a relief to laugh, a release, even. For just a few moments, you forget everything else in the world. And in this dark time that we’re trying to get through, a little break from the doom and gloom is wonderful.

Babies usually start smiling and laughing at about 6 weeks old. There’s nothing more contagious than a baby’s laugh, or more satisfying than when we make them cackle. But where does that ability or instinct to laugh come from?

Because I’m always curious to know how we humans tick, I did a little research and discovered some interesting facts.

As it turns out, studies say that laughter is actually more about communicating and bonding than anything else. It isn’t the joke, it’s the interaction. Laughing together creates that bond, and helps us feel and become a part of the group. And in an uncomfortable situation, or in meeting someone new, sharing a laugh can make everyone a little more relaxed. We work better together when we can laugh together.

We are also more likely to laugh along with another person than we are to do it alone by ourselves, which is one of the reasons why laugh tracks on television sitcoms came into being. Psychologically speaking, laugh tracks and live audiences on TV make us feel like we’re sitting right there in the crowd, and we can’t help but chuckle along. It’s infectious.

If you are a fan of TV talk shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, have you noticed how different these shows are lately without their live audiences? Minus the energy and laughter of all those people, it really hasn’t been the same. The jokes and the banter don’t seem to be nearly as funny. I mean, there’s no doubt that it’s funny, but that silence right after the joke just makes it seem awkward.

In my LOL research, I found out to my amazement that rats can laugh! Theirs doesn’t sound quite like our giggles, of course, but they can be brought to laughter by tickling, and they also tend to hang around with other rats who laugh. I’ve seen them in groups before, but never realized the noises they were making might be laughter. That’s okay, as long as they’re not laughing at me.

I also discovered that women laugh 126% more than men do. I can vouch for that. When I golf with my girlfriends, we can literally make ourselves hysterical with laughter, but the male groups that are ahead of or behind us don’t seem to be nearly as amused. Lighten up guys. It’s just a game.

The physical effect of laughter releases endorphins, those “feel good” chemicals that relieve stress and pain, something you may be feeling a lot of these days. That’s why laughter is literally the best medicine. And why a smile is a curve that sets everything straight. There are at least a million idioms and quotes about laughter out there.

For instance, you might be a bundle of laughs, but you don’t want to be a laughing stock. You might laugh yourself silly, or laugh your head off, but you don’t want to kill yourself laughing!

There have been plenty of COVID jokes and memes out there too, of course. Like the new COVID Edition of Where’s Waldo.

Hint: he’s really easy to find.

And a sign I saw in the window of a book store lately: “Please note: The post-apocolyptical fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs.”

Well, you gotta laugh.

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Home Invasion – A Bug Story

I skipped my usual weekly Zoom meeting with my friends the other night because I had to catch the flies in my kitchen.

You might think I’m kidding. But if I don’t catch them in my special way, someone in my house will pull out that disgusting bug repellent and spray it everywhere with reckless abandon. I hate bug spray. Mostly, I hate seeing bugs and flies squirming on the floors and counters as a result of it. So I’m a capture-and-release kind of gal.

We had the doors open the other day for hours as we sat outside with some friends celebrating Canada Day, and I guess that’s when the flies took up residence. And apparently, all the rain that we’ve been experiencing lately also brings out more flies. There were literally dozens of them in the house, although we didn’t really didn’t notice how many right away.

So last night, I pulled out the old cup and piece of cardboard, and one by one I captured them and released them outdoors. I accidentally beheaded one, much to my regret, but the rest, maybe 30 of them, got out alive. Lucky for them. Someone in my house would not have had the patience.

I even have one of those spider catchers. It is basically a brush with a long handle that opens and closes on the spider without harming it so you can safely move it outside. Brilliant invention.

This time of year, especially when we are outdoors more, we come face to face with all sorts of creepy crawlers. When I’m working in the garden, I see a lot of them; worms and beetles, fleas and flies and ants. And yes, I will do my best to avoid killing them. I will put them to the side or brush them away from wherever I’m working so that I don’t smush them.

When I’m out for a walk, if I see them, I will avoid any ants crawling along the sidewalk. I’m sure that the sight of a 60-something year old woman springing sideways off the sidewalk just to avoid an ant must be a curious, if not bizarre vision.

To someone in my house, these are not just ants, they are antagonists and must be quickly and mercilessly destroyed. I’ve tripped over traps and slipped on newly sprayed floors many times over the years. And I’ve cleaned up many carcasses. Yuk. It doesn’t help matters much that I have a hummingbird feeder right outside the kitchen door, because the feeder actually leaks a lot. Ants like that. They hang around, drink up the spilled nectar, and then an army of them find their way inside the house.

I am not an ant lover, don’t get me wrong. They are bugs. It’s no accident that the dictionary defines “bug” as both an insect and an annoyance. Not only do they bother us, sometimes they even cause damage. There’s nothing worse than an infestation of carpenter ants, chewing away at the wood frame of your home. And I don’t want to find beetles in my lettuce, or fruit flies in my glass of pinot grigio.

The answer to the invasion of the ants, I have discovered, is vinegar. They hate vinegar and will do everything to avoid it. So you get your spray bottle and spray vinegar anywhere ants accumulate, and that keeps them away. This will be my new plan of action.

Which will hopefully please someone in my house.

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Canada Day – A Different Way

Last week, I asked a few of my students what their plans were for Canada Day. Usually, that’s just a casual question you ask when a holiday is on the horizon. This year, however, the responses were decidedly different.

They would stop for a second, stare off somewhere, maybe chuckle, and shrug their shoulders.

Some had definite plans. “We’re going fishing,” one said. That seems safe enough. “Off to our cabin for a couple of days,” said another.

But most had no plans at all. No picnics or barbeques, no street parties, no fireworks or live shows to watch. Not even the usual Canada Day show from a stage set up somewhere in Ottawa, with all the Canadian stars and politicians in attendance.

Oh, there were other shows. Some live streaming and some on TV. But we’re getting used to those new formats now, aren’t we? They’re either live from their living rooms or some kind of “virtual” celebration. Or ninety-three people singing Oh Canada on Zoom.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve come up with a lot of wonderfully creative ways to celebrate special occasions lately, from solitary graduations to drive-by birthdays and weddings, and holiday car or bicycle parades. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to celebrate, and we Canadians love to do that. Especially on Canada’s birthday.

Normally, our family would either go down to the lawns of the legislature and be a part of the living flag, or maybe over to Fort Rodd Hill to celebrate our nation’s birthday there. At night, from our back deck, we always hear the fireworks going off. And the inevitable screech of seagulls flying above as they escape Armageddon.

My husband and I decided that this Canada Day it was time to see and be with our friends. In person. We have a great group of four couples who golf together, spend Christmases and birthdays together, and have done so for many years. It’s very unusual for us to go any longer than a month or two without seeing each other in person, but the last time we had been together as a group was last Christmas. That’s more than six months.

So we decided to host a back yard get together at our home on the afternoon of Canada Day, where everyone would bring their own appetizers and beverages, and we’d all sit an appropriate distance apart and just spend some time together. And it was great. It was wonderful to laugh together again, to share our COVID stories and experiences, to catch up on each other’s news and views. It lasted about 3 hours and it was perfect.

Three years ago, on Canada’s 150th birthday, I wrote a blog about having recently returned from Europe on our first big vacation there. I remember, very vividly, seeing Labrador through the plane’s window on the flight back, marveling at how massive Canada is and how little I’ve seen of it. It was a wonderful European vacation, but it was an especially warm feeling to come back home.

But this year, on Canada’s 153rd birthday, to be honest, I was really just happy to be here. Weren’t you?

We Canadians might have our disagreements. Okay, who am I kidding? We have lots of disagreements. We are certainly not perfect and still have a lot to work out for ourselves. But in spite of our differences, I think most of us would agree that we are darn lucky to live in this great country. And that has become so much more evident in the last few months as we’ve negotiated this strange new and frightening pandemic.

One very important reason for our luck is that we’ve had some well educated and intelligent people leading us through it all. And our humanity has been brought to the surface; instead of fighting each other, we’ve come together to help each other. We’ve learned to follow the protocols, listened to those who know what they’re talking about, and put up with new, uncomfortable rules. It’s been rough on a lot of us, and we’ve still got a long way to go.

But, Oh, Canada! I’ve never been prouder to stand on guard for thee.