Media Smarts

I haven’t felt much like blogging lately, because I have been very, very busy watching Dancing With the Stars and eating an entire pan of brownies because my children all REFUSED THEM, I am the mother of aliens. However, just so you all don’t think I have gone comatose with sugar (actually, come to think of it, it’s touch and go), I thought I’d post my final column for Capital Parent here. This was for their May edition but was never published because the paper folded. Enjoy!)

Not too long ago, our 11 year old son came to us and asked if he could start watching The Big Bang Theory. “Everyone else watches it,” he said – a parent’s least favourite words, along with “I didn’t do it” and “it was like that when I found it.” As further evidence on his side of the courtroom, he had a book of Big Bang posters he’d bought at the school’s Scholastic fair – “Even Scholastic thinks it’s safe for kids, Mom.”

Now, my husband and I, we enjoy television. We even watch it often with our kids, as family time. There’s reality shows like Masterchef Junior (which has us casting a side eye at the children, wondering why it is that they aren’t preparing us salmon en croute on a daily basis.) There’s silly sitcoms on Disney Junior like Good Luck Charlie that make us all laugh (Amy Duncan is the ba-bam!). There’s more complex fare on Netflix that leads to talk about morals and science around the dinner table, like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Avatar: The Last Airbender (apparently the colon in the title is a harbinger of smartitude).

But The Big Bang Theory is decidedly a Grown Up Show. Awkward post-puberty social interactions between girls and guys are the basic premise. Sure, he’ll be learning a bit about dark matter, the NASA space program, and obscure superheroes – you know, the essential basics – but there are also a lot of mature situations that would be hard to explain.

I mean, it’s not on at 8 p.m. for nothing. We might have to have some tough parenting talks about… coitus. It’s funny how watching some superhero pound on an intergalactic bad guy with your kids feels much less uncomfortable than watching two young people share an intimate emotional moment – especially when, in real life, I can pass teens kissing in the mall without a second glance, but would consider taking my kid to a bar fight to be out of the question.

I have a pretty romantic, rose-coloured idea of what TV was like when I was a kid. Eight o’clock shows meant solid family fare like Happy Days or Family Ties. If I went and put my jammies on and brushed my teeth, I might be allowed to stay up for Charlie’s Angels or The A-Team. It all seemed so innocent, so charming.

But looking back, I think a lot of things just went over my naive little head. I never once thought the jiggly jumpsuits on Charlie’s Angels were too risque; rather, I just thought they’d look great on my Barbies. I was a regular watcher of Three’s Company, but didn’t actually understand that Jack was playing gay until years later, when I read an article about it in a magazine – I just thought that Chrissy was funny. And practically every single episode of The Facts of Life qualified as a Very Special Episode, but my takeaway from seasons of devoted watching was basically that I’d never be as cool as Jo. I started thinking that things might not be as different “these days” as I thought.

So I caved in to the peer-pressure-by-proxy and let him start watching it — on a trial basis at first, although that slippery slope soon slid right into a regular gig. We gingerly kept an eye on him during the whole show to gage his reactions, ready to jump in with a primer on human relations if need be – or alternately, to hide under a blanket singing “LA LA LA” at the top of our lungs to avoid the shared mother-son bonding moment of seeing Wolowitz in his underwear.

But here’s the weird thing: it turned out to be not so bad. In fact, maybe kind of a good thing. There was sex stuff, which was yes, uncomfortable at times, but led to a lot of teachable moments. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to having “the talk” with my kids, but I did it, and then I realized that it’s not just a one-time thing – it’s a whole series of discussions, a whole encyclopedia set of learning to navigate this wild world of living among people. There’s romance but there’s also the complex interworkings of friendships, of work relationships, of the minefield of being an adult child – all things they don’t cover on Masterchef. And when we’re talking about Sheldon and Leonard and Penny, it seems a lot less threatening than getting personal – we can talk about things in the abstract that I hope will prepare him for experiences that are right around the corner.

Now our 10 year old daughter, newly obsessed with Warblers videos on YouTube, wants to watch Glee on Netflix. Teen pregnancy, fake pregnancy, crumbling marriages, crushes on teachers… maybe not quite yet. Soon, though – and I’ll be ready.

Happy Number 19

This morning, after the breakfast rush:

Sir Monkeypants: Oh hey, by the way, happy anniversary.

Me: What? That’s tomorrow.

Sir Monkeypants: [eye roll]

Me, thinks it over: Cripes, you’re right. Happy anniversary!

Sir Monkeypants: I know we have never been big celebrators of the anniversary thing, but I think we have sunk to a new low.


Agreed. This is number 19. Even our very first wedding anniversary – spent in separate countries, he was away for work – was more romantic than this. Today’s activities include grocery shopping and laundry, supervision of a Scouts field trip in the evening, the slim hope of squeezing in shoe shopping. I’ll be trapped at home waiting for the hot water repair guy. He’ll be having a usual work day, then rushing home in time for me to rush out to Scouts. He’ll put the girls to bed while I go door-to-door in the rain. Maybe we’ll have time for a chat over a cup of tea just before bed.

I love our life and I love our family and I used to think there was no need to celebrate our ordinary happiness. But now I think that 19 years of love and laughter and having someone take your side when the kids are being jerks is worth a major celebration. I absolutely could not do this without Sir Monkeypants. I could not be here, could not take it, could not survive it.

Nineteen years, and he’s still putting up with the way I talk over every single movie and TV show, the way I never put anything in the dishwasher, and the way I continue to balk at any new activity or suggestion of change. He’s a good guy.

Next year, 20. My mother last week mentioned this upcoming milestone and I was all, “Yeah! We’ve actually been thinking…of maybe getting takeout.” And we both laughed, but it’s time to get serious. Twenty deserves a party. Hell, every day deserves a party. But I promise, next year at least, I’ll be better.

At Your Service

Yesterday I went over to the school five times. And that’s with Sir Monkeypants handling the usual morning drop off.

I got a call to bring the Little Miss her forgotten library books.

I combined the book drop off with my planned visit to pick up Gal Smiley for her dentist appointment.

I hit the office again to sign Gal Smiley back in after her appointment.

Then I got a call letting me know that Gal Smiley had fallen in mud and needed new pants (for the FIFTH TIME since Easter, GROWL).

Then I got another call from the Little Miss letting me know she had a “very sore tummy” and could not possibly last the remaining 45 minutes of the school day (totally fine once we got home, of course).

And then I had to go back less than an hour later to pick up the big kids at the end of the day.

I’d also like to mention, for maximum sympathy points, that it was pouring rain and about six degrees and every single time I went out my coat and pants got wetter and colder, and I must say I got to feeling rather trodden upon.

Between lost things and forgotten things and falling in mud, and literally a dozen separate dentist and doctor’s appointments in April, I have seen more of the office staff at my kids’ school this month than I have in the entire preceding eight years they’ve been pupils there. It used to be I could go into the office and no one had any idea who I was. Now I show up and they just ask me if it’s the Captain, Gal Smiley, or the Little Miss today. Or at least, which kid for this particular visit – and we’ll see you again in an hour.

Sometimes I feel as though as long as I am here to catch them, they’ll never learn to stand on their own. I should put my foot down, and declare that I am no longer available during the day except for health emergencies. I should tell them they have to learn to manage their own gear and issues and life.

Sometimes I feel like it’s nice to have a safety net. At least for a little while.

Guess I’ll stay on call for a bit longer, at least.

We Day

I want to write something about We Day, which was last Wednesday.

I went, and I feel kind of cheap about it because I weaseled myself a press pass, even though I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything about it, because I don’t feel like I have that kind of blog. I get lots of pitches on a daily basis and I turn away 99.99% of them because my blog is a space for me to think things out and work on my writing and I never want it to feel like a job, even if the offer is a weekend at a spa (SOB) or totally awesome movie passes (SOB SOB).

But I was very curious about We Day, and I really really wanted to go, and more than that, I wanted to take my older two kids in the hopes that they’d learn something and get excited about something, so not only did I take the press pass under (potentially) false pretenses, I also weaseled “helper” passes for my oldest two kids, which, GAH. But there you have it.

So, off we went to National We Day. What’s We Day? It’s a day of celebration (there are actually a few across the country, but the one in Ottawa is the biggest one). You can’t buy a ticket. Instead, you have to register on their website to do one local act of charity, and one global act of charity. It’s usually youth groups or school classes that register, and work as a group on their projects. You can do anything from growing a garden full of food for the local food bank, to putting on a talent show to raise money to buy goats in Kenya, to tutoring to improve literacy in your school, to sending a few students to Indonesia to build a school. Just about anything counts, as long as you do SOMETHING.

The idea is the brainchild of Craig and Marc Kielburger, brothers from Toronto. They run their own charity full time – it’s called Free the Children — and We Day and the We Act program fall under that charity. On We Day, kids who registered for the program and completed their activism commitments head over to the Canadian Tire Centre – 18 000 teens were there – for a day of inspiring speeches, videos, and music. It’s a kind of reward for having done their jobs and motivation to keep going.

So, what did we think?

First, the good stuff. Craig Kielburger, who I got to meet in a small press group first thing in the morning, is the real deal. He’s a passionate believer in the idea that everyone, even young people, can change the world, and that the smallest of changes can make a huge difference. He’s a compelling speaker and what I like most about him is that he’s very down to earth – he doesn’t talk just about Big Ideas but also has real, concrete ideas for how YOU, personally, can make a difference. Sometimes the world seems like a really big place with really big problems but listening to Craig makes you believe that we can do SOMETHING. He’s very inspiring. I particularly loved his story about how his mother had a very present and constant belief in charity work and had a huge impact on her sons. It really makes you think about the example you’re setting, as a parent, and how the small differences you make can snowball through generations into something a lot bigger.

Some of the other speakers were great, too. Marlee Matlin was there (she’s on the teen-appeal show Switched At Birth) and she was AWESOME, hilarious and inspiring and just so cool. HIV positive teen Caitlin Tolley was amazing, and local teen activist Jonathan Pitre brought tears to my eyes with his amazing attitude – I wish my kids were as well-spoken and clear-eyed and positive as those two. I also loved rocket scientist Natalie Panek, who talked about women in tech, and there were very brief appearances by Free The Children regular speaker Spencer West, who I wish had talked more because I could listen to that guy all day long (short version: he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro – on his HANDS, because he has no legs. YEAH.). My kids were excited to see the Governor General because they are nerds like that.

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For the kids in the audience, although there was general cheering and a very loud, positive mood, it was clearly the musical acts that appealed – they rushed the stage and sang along to musicians I am far too old to have heard of. For instance, this guy “JRDN” sang this song and it got crazy in there:

But it wasn’t all stardust and glory. Gal Smiley is 10, and she had a good time overall, enjoying the music and, although she doesn’t seem motivated to activism, she’s at least thinking about things and curious. We happened to run into a class of kids from her own school who were there – older kids, from grade 8 – and that was actually the most influential moment, getting her thinking about things she might do herself when she gets to that age.

For the Captain though, who is 12 – he noticed something else going on. Midway through the day I asked him what he thought about We Day, and he said this:

“I feel like I am being marketed to.”


Here’s the thing: you can’t do major acts of charity without money. And you can’t get that kind of money from a bunch of teenagers (although some schools did do AMAZING feats of fundraising). To get the really big bucks, you need corporate sponsors.

And those corporate sponsors, as well intentioned as they may be, are not going to let the chance to market to a captive audience of 18 000 teens with disposable income go to waste.

And so, we sat through “inspirational” talks by the CEO of Ford. The CEO of Unilever. The CEO of Telus. The CEO of WestJet. These people tried, they really tried, to Talk Teen and bring some sort of environmental/activist slant to their talks. But there’s no getting around the fact that their central message was, if you want to do good in the world, BUY OUR STUFF. It felt kind of icky, all these older people (mostly grey-haired men) trying to be all hip-grandfather and sell on the side. The one company I thought that got it right was CAA – they had a young person deliver their message (a girl on the Canadian Women’s Hockey team). She had been a part of their safety program – they train kids to be crossing guards at schools – and their entire message was about that program. I mean, not that teenagers are the major market for CAA but at least it felt like they had a message that was FOR TEENS, and not about shopping. GAH.

Plus, Free The Children itself is a charity, but that charity needs to raise money. So they were selling stuff – jewelry and t-shirts and posters – that would raise money for Africa, which is good yes, but also heavily advertised and marketed with several videos throughout the day. They also have a new phone app, and when you download it Telus gives money to charity, so DOWNLOAD THE APP was all over every presentation, which actively started to bug the Captain.

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I’m conflicted. I don’t know how to feel about that. I understand that change cannot happen without money, and that money is not going come from some anonymous billionaire out of the blue. And I want change to happen. But I also don’t want potentially unaware teens to be manipulated and marketed to, without really understanding what is happening. I want them to know that there are many ways to spend their money that will help the world, including direct donation to a charity of their choice that they feel personally passionate about, and not just by buying Unilever products. I want them to understand that when Unilever makes a charitable donation, they get an enormous tax break, and so by funneling your donation money through them you are helping them, which is maybe not bad, per se, as you got some shampoo and they got a tax break and Kenya got goats, which is win-win-win, but at least be AWARE of the chain of events, you know?

So we talked a lot on the way home about what we’d seen, and what we’d learned, and how corporations play a part in charity and are possibly a necessarily evil, or maybe even a good thing. We talked about how a charity can sometimes be a business and what that means.

And we talked about changing the world, and who we want to be, and how we want to do that. So I’m going to call We Day a success, and my press pass was worth it.

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A Hell of a Week

It’s been a hell of a week.

I’m usually a pretty appreciative person and that’s with good reason, because I have a pretty cushy and happy life. I mean, I have fantastic friends, who rush to tell me what a great writer I am when I lose my favourite writing gig. And a wonderful husband, who is gentle and supportive when you smash the van into the side of your neighbour’s parked car. And sweet kids, who lead you away from the sink full of dishes when they find you sobbing into the suds because you’ve pushed yourself physically too far, then make you a cup of tea and a plate of strawberries and crackers in the shape of a happy face. And kids who don’t complain one bit when they have to submit to a barrage of tests and possible new medical issues, or the daily turning of the crank inside the roof of their mouth that is widening their jaw. And extended family who tell you they love the Easter dinner, even when you forgot to put salt in the pie crust and the turkey went a little too far to the crispy side. And clients who are understanding when things just get away from you and you don’t finish their stuff on time and feel totally unprofessional and stupid.

But still – a hell of a week.

The Business of Spring

Thanks so much to everyone who left a comment on yesterday’s post, you guys are awesome. I have been making the children give me lots of extra hugs, big tight squeezes, that some have embraced and others have met with eye rolling, but that is just too bad for them. It’s what we all need, I have decided.

Today I dropped the kids at school – Sir Monkeypants usually does this – and I was surprised at how normal everything seemed. Kids with backpacks, kids dashing across the road to join up with friends, one kid even riding his bike. It felt strange but also hopeful. The world ticks onward and spring might actually arrive soon and those are good things.

In the spirit of returning to business as usual I’d just like to hijack the blog for a moment to promote an event I run annually, called Blog Out Loud. It’s an open mic night for bloggers where you can read your favourite post of the year in front of a live audience, at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival where some pretty big headliners have appeared as well. If you’d like to read a post, you have to submit (up to two posts) by emailing me a link at There’s a panel that picks out a great combination of posts to be read that night, and the deadline for submissions is this coming Sunday, March 29. It’s a very cool thing to read your words out loud, but if you aren’t selected, I hope you’ll still come out to hear the selections – it’s on Tuesday, April 28.

And now we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

To My Family, After I’m Gone

A cousin of mine passed away yesterday. She was a few years younger than I, in her late 30s, with a loving husband and three small children – two tweenage boys and a girl, just turned six.

It was pancreatic cancer, which is a pretty evil thing. No known risk factors, can strike at any age. Very few symptoms, the kind that can just be brushed aside, until it moves into other organs. The vast majority of patients aren’t diagnosed until it’s already stage 4 – giving them less than a year to live. My cousin got just six months out of the deal.

I live pretty far away and so it was easy to pretend that nothing was wrong. She was cheerful about it, and had a strong faith in God that meant that her Facebook posts were upbeat, showing her feeling like everything would work out according to the world’s intended plan. She never complained, only cherished those around her; she didn’t look sick because she didn’t undergo any major treatments – there wasn’t any point.

So it’s been a bit of a shock. I am sad. I am angry. It doesn’t seem right to be eating or sleeping or reading a book when there is such a wrong that has been done.

When the kids were still a twinkle in our eyes, I used to think the worst possible thing would be losing a child. And don’t get me wrong – that’s still completely unthinkable. But after they were born I gained a new top fear: the fear of something happening to me. The fear that I wouldn’t be there to hold their hands, wipe their noses, help them figure out this crazy thing called life. The fear that they’d be sad, or lonely, or sick, and they’d call out for me, only I wouldn’t be there to make it all go away. It made me be extra careful every time I walked down the stairs or crossed the road. I started eating more vegetables.

It seems like some sort of hubris to think that I’m irreplaceable. That no one could ever make them a cheese sandwich in exactly the right way, that no one else could ever keep the names of all their stuffed animals straight, that no one else will remember what brand of underwear is the only acceptable brand (different for each kid, of course). It even seems conceited to think that no one could ever love them like I do.

And yet, I do think that. Recently Gal Smiley told me that when I die, she plans to take my brain and put it in a robot version of myself so I can be with her always. That’s just about the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. I want that too, honey.

I want that for my cousin as well. She has a strong church community and loving relatives and I know her family is going to be okay. But they’re never going to be the same.

Stories like this are the kind of thing that make you feel like you should be spending every moment, every day, cherishing the time you have with your kids. You should be thankful for the chance to be together, grateful for this life. But you just can’t be like that every single second, just like you can’t not complain about the food because people are starving in the world, or not feel frustrated at traffic because some people don’t have a car. Kids are frustrating sometimes, and sometimes you have a bad day, and sometimes these things collide to mean you’re not quite as thankful and grateful as you should be. That’s okay. But today, for just today, I will value them. I will feel joy that I am their mother and wife, that I am here and they are here and we are all healthy.

People sometimes ask a fun party question – what would you do if you found out you only had a few months left to live? I know my answer. I would write. Write through the sadness and the anger until my hands were too sore to continue. I’d try to pour everything I am and everything I think and everything I value onto the paper. I’d try to give my children a lifetime of my advice and caring and love in page after page of words. Words they could come back to time and again, words that kept me alive in a little way, a small way. Words that showed them that I didn’t want to leave them; words that would help them tell their own children about who I was.

And so: this blog. May this little diary keep me alive long past my assigned years. May these words tell my family, over and over again: I love you.

A Couple of Minor Complaints

Lately I have been watching Jeopardy faithfully, because I am on a trivia team and it’s research, and totally not one step closer to embracing my future life in a nursing home.

Here’s something that bugs you when you watch Jeopardy all the time: people who say “please” every single time they ask for a category. “Civil War Battles for $400 please,” “Role In Common for $1600 please,” “European Bodies of Water for $1000 please.”

I realize this sounds curmudgeonly (one MORE step towards embracing the nursing home), but when you watch it all the time, it gets so annoying. You have the RIGHT to choose a category, players. TAKE IT.


Also bothering me lately: recipes that say “salt to taste.” I am a science cooker. I cook a lot, and not by choice, not because I enjoy it or because I have some sixth sense about flavour or want express my creativity in the kitchen while salting-tasting-salting-tasting happily over a steaming pot for an hour. No, I want to follow the directions as quickly as possible and get that food on the table.

Would it be so hard to give me a general guideline to follow, say “1 tsp salt, or to taste” or “dash of salt, or to taste” or “1 Tbsp salt, or to taste.” I think we can all agree that these three salt amounts are very different, and I am not looking for guesswork. JUST TELL ME HOW MUCH SALT TO PUT IN. Thank you.

Time and Again

Today is the Captain’s 12th birthday. I rarely post on the girls’ birthdays, but the Captain’s birthday usually brings about a good wallow on the theme of They’re Not My Babies Anymore, eventually coming around to the personal growth moment of Perhaps That Is A Good Thing. This year: lather, rinse, repeat.

Working in my favour this year: no real signs of puberty yet, as he’s still safely below my shoulder in height and weighs less than most people’s pet dogs. I keep having to buy him bigger socks, and yet his shoes and boots seem to still fit, so possibly his feet are growing, but possibly not. Puberty! It’s such a mystery.

(Puberty, by the way, is his most hated word in the English language, giving him the willies like the word “moist” does to some people, and the word “lover” does to me, except when used ironically in a “Hello, lover” kind of way to refer to chocolate cake.)

Twelve seems like kind of a big number, though. By the time I was 13 I had a paying job. By the time I was 15, I was working all summer, and by the time I was 18 I had moved out to go to university. I feel like our lazy Summers of Awesome are limited, and that makes me sad.

Counteraction: make family memories! Now! As much as possible! CRAM IN THE MEMORIES.

So this year we are planning a Big Family Trip, something we have been saving for since we went to PEI. Our trip to PEI was awesome, we all had a fantastic time and were very sad to leave, but rather than go back we decided there was so much more of the world to see, and that we better get On It. We spent a lot of time out east talking about geography and oceans and tides and the different environments you’d see right here in Canada, and that led to a lot of talk about the Rocky Mountains, and THAT led to a lot of talk about how Sir Monkeypants has always wanted to go out west, so…

Calgary, Banff, and Jasper – Summer 2015. IT’S HAPPENING.

Happy birthday, Captain!