November 28, 2017

Holiday Preparations

I've had a busy month. I left my job at the cafe and started another at a bakery much closer to home. My brother-in-law accepted a position at the resort where my husband is employed and he's been staying with us on his days off. My sister and their younger daughter will be moving here this week, so I've been assisting with advice and house-finding and moral support and everything I can do from here, three provinces away. I knew, somewhere in the periphery, Christmas was beginning to creep into view in shop windows and in people's windows as well, the ones who put their tree up in mid-November, but I had yet to allow my consciousness any tangible participation in the gradual and intentional takeover of the city scenery. The only Christmas-related things I had been doing were paying attention to the price of Brazil nuts for my Christmas cakes which have to be baked by the end of November each year, and hoping the price would go down (It did not), and practicing carols with the choir I am a member of for our upcoming concerts

For many of us, the Holidays mean family coming home, decorating, baking, cooking, cleaning, list making, shopping for and/or making gifts, in other words, a fair amount of work. Add to the list the fact I must have everything ready to transport up to the resort where we will spend Christmas again this year. I enjoy hosting my family at Christmas and feeding them and all that, but I honestly had not even begun to think about it. Last Saturday, while we were having our usual Saturday afternoon beer together, my brother-in-law, Brent and I chatted as I began to prepare supper. Having him around a couple of days per week has been fun. As my daughter says, 'he is so mellow and easy to talk to'. I lived with him and my sister many years ago when I was in university, and we had always been good friends. Brent was impressed I still had the mixed tape he made me for my birthday in 1988. He sent a photo of the cover with all the songs listed to his older daughter who is away at college, and she made a Spotify playlist of all the songs for herself. Some of those old songs wear well - I still listen to my tape from time to time. Anyway, we were chatting, which can make it hard for me to concentrate on cooking, when he said, out of the blue, "Do you like Dylan Thomas?" I said, of course, A Child's Christmas in Wales is my favourite Christmas story. He clicked a key on his laptop and Dylan Thomas' deep, whiskey-soaked voice filled the room. I smiled as I spoke along with the words,

I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve 
or if it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

I let the author tell the rest of his story alone as I made supper. It was at the moment when Dylan Thomas sang Good King Wenceslas in the hesitant voice of himself as a small boy when I felt the magic and the possibilities of the coming season. I rather suddenly began to look forward to making the Christmas cakes, despite the price of Brazil nuts. As Brent, my daughter and I sat down to eat we talked about our favourite Christmas music and I put Charlie Brown's Christmas on the stereo and said it was the only Christmas album my kids could all agree on. Brent told us about a jazz album his family had bought at their local variety store in the small town in Manitoba they are leaving behind and how it had become their family's trademark Christmas album. We had a festive evening listening to music and chatting away happily about traditions and families and such.

The next day, after Brent had left to go back up to the resort, I gathered up the necessary energy to drive in the pouring November rain to the local Christmas craft market where I started my shopping in earnest. I bought some handcrafted gifts and talked to vendors, some of whom I knew from other annual markets I attend. I entered the door prizes, voted on my favourite Holiday themed flower arrangement and tasted all the free samples I was offered. I missed my husband, who usually shops there with me and helps me navigate the maze of stalls with his keen sense of direction (I am admittedly geographically challenged) but somehow I found my way out of the massive building without him after circling it a few times.

The next evening I took out some Seasonal piano music and played carols and songs for half an hour missing the resonance of our old upright piano we had to give away, but grateful for the digital one our son decided to leave with us. My husband, home for his days off, came over and put his hands on my shoulders. The twenty-five Christmases we had celebrated as a family fell like cascading notes from my memory onto the piano keys. I played those Christmases with the halting style of a musician who rarely practices but enjoys it all the same.

For anyone who would like to be told a wonderful story, here it is, A Child's Christmas in Wales

November 6, 2017

Yes, #metoo

I would be remiss as a mother, an aunt, a sister, a daughter, and most of all a woman, if I did not somehow in this blog address a certain campaign recently on the minds of most people who roam the many halls of the internet. At first, I did not want to join my voice to the others. I have never been one for jumping on a bandwagon, and I honestly thought I owed no one my own stories, but that pesky issue of sexual harassment keeps on rearing its ugly head, even exposing the seedy underbelly of our beloved Hollywood movie mill. Harvey Weinstein, that other director I can't remember the name of, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, even Dustin Hoffmann all have allegations of sexual harassment against them, with some of them accused of even worse. In an interview, actress Emma Thompson said the allegations against Weinstein were 'just the tip of the iceberg' and her words are becoming more painfully true all the time. These men have all created great art and entertainment which most of us have enjoyed some time or other. (If either Kevin Kline or Bill Pullman turns out to be a perpetrator I am going to need a steep hike up the nearest mountain followed by a very strong beverage. Not that there are any rumours at all, I just really like those guys.) The #metoo campaign hatched a few weeks ago was an emotional one for me as I am sure it was for so many others out there. Introduced by someone in response to the first allegations against Weinstein, #metoo was meant to show how widespread the problem of sexual harassment and assault is. Let's face it. It's a systemic problem and the remedy is long in coming.

Certain types of men abusing their power to use or control women is nothing new, but I suppose many of us had thought our stories were not worth mentioning up until the #metoo campaign picked up so much speed. Many of us were raised not to make a big deal out of minor sexual impositions. "Oh, that's just your uncle George being funny" when he pinched your bum, or "Oh, that's just Mick. He's harmless" when we were invited into a neighbour's tool shed and saw the walls plastered with hard core pornographic images of women. I did not have an Uncle George exactly, but I did have a neighbour like Mick. Mick also had a brother - let's call him Fred - who lived up the street. We kids were always looking to make a dollar or two. Fred asked for some help washing his windows and invited a posse of pre-teen neighbourhood girls up to his place. Five of us walked up the steep hill to Fred's one hot summer afternoon. He answered the door in a tube top, except it wasn't covering his top, it was covering his hips and was the only thing he was wearing. I just about turned around and walked out but the others went in the house so I thought I had better follow. Fred showed us the windows he wanted washed and gave us the cleaning supplies. Then he went back up to his roof to suntan in the nude. We washed the windows as quickly as possible. He invited us to stay for a drink of pop or something but I wanted out of there, so I left. I'm not sure who stayed. To this day I hope nothing worse happened to any of the other girls. Also, to this day, I wonder what possessed Fred to think it was okay to behave as he had, answering the door in such a way, leering at us and making us all so uncomfortable. What a jerk. He would be reported now.

Several years after the 'Fred' incident I was at my local club dancing the night away. I had just met a  nice guy who was visiting from the States and was enjoying myself with him and a large group of friends. Most of us danced in a group on the floor, so I was not paired with anyone when the next incident happened. I was really getting into the music and having a great time flailing about when a man, a much older man than I, came up to me and grabbed my crotch. I was so shocked I went into an immediate rage and shoved that man so hard he flew across the room and fell on the floor. I then turned, grabbed my coat (it was the Christmas holidays) and ran the seven blocks home so fast my feet barely touched the ground. The next day, the nice American boy called me. He said he and his friends had seen what had happened, followed me out of the club, jumped in their car and tried to find me, but I was long gone by then. I never reported what I would now call sexual assault, and I decided it was my liberal, energetic quality of dancing that encouraged that man to touch me. I toned down my dancing for a while after that incident so as not to lead men to think I was open for business, but fortunately I was too free-spirited to let the actions of that one complete jerk determine how I was to express myself on the dance floor. These days I tone it down merely to keep from putting my back out.

I have other, more complex stories, but I choose not to share them in this way at this time. Some things are too personal, too painful or weird to talk about, especially when I didn't feel like I 'won' the situations. Luckily, I learned from those experiences and went on to marry a true gentleman.

When I was reading all the reports of the actresses who came forward in the Weinstein case, I was relieved to know how many of them had been able to assert themselves and escape his greasy clutches. Still, their ability to escape does not somehow erase the attempts on their bodies and their dignity. Where did Weinstein and the others like him, get the idea their desires trumped the rights of their victims? Their attitude has to come from somewhere. Did it come from their own fathers? From other authority figures in their lives? From television or film? I remember watching a documentary when I was a teenager called Not a Love Story, about the world of pornography and its impact on society. The documentary was made by a woman with hidden cameras. She and her crew went inside the seediest sex shops and strip clubs to see what was going on. The filmmaker's conclusion, and it made a huge impact on me at the time, was no matter how small and innocent we think our participation is - maybe we've been to a strip club, bought a Playboy magazine - we have contributed to the incredibly lucrative machine that portrays women as objects and excuses men as users of those objects. Some may laugh it all off as 'just a little harmless fun' but I am not laughing anymore and neither are the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women who have come forward in the #metoo campaign to share their stories and speak out against abuse, assault and harassment. And, now some young men are coming forward with stories of being used and abused by more powerful men, as in the Kevin Spacey case, and in some cases women as well.

Where will it stop?

It stops with each of us. It stops when we not make concessions for men simply because they do some great things in the world. It stops when we treat other people with less power than us with respect. It stops when we honour and completely respect each other's personal space and chosen boundaries. It stops when we not allow our own ambition to put us in potentially harmful situations. It stops when we truly listen to warnings from others with more experience than ourselves. It stops when we stand up to bullies, not counting the cost to our reputations. It stops when we dismantle the 'old boys network' and its ideas that make allowances for 'boys being boys'. It stops when we parents pay more attention to the true needs of our children, especially our daughters, and work diligently to form the attitudes of our sons. It stops when we are strong enough to see what needs stopping, and act on it.

And to rephrase that old song, "What the world needs now, is justice, sweet justice." We have all the tools to make the world safer for each other. Let's use them.

November 1, 2017

Sears: The End of an Era

Recently, my coworkers and I were discussing the impact of the demise of Sears Canada when one of them said, "That means no more Wish Book, I guess." A sudden rush of memories hit me. Sears was not only the place where I had, for the past several years, purchased my socks and underwear, it was the stuff of childhood dreams as well. How my brother and I pored over those Christmas Wish Book catalogues, marking the things we wanted and discussing them in detail! Kids all over the country did the same with their own treasured copies of that Wish Book every year. The Wish Book was tradition with a capital T. From the gaudy fruit cakes to the plush monogrammed bath robes, the annual Holiday Barbie to the wood burning kits, gift ideas pored forth from the pages and filled our young heads with 'visions of sugarplums' throughout the dark days of November and December.

If I remember correctly Sears came out with a new catalogue every season. Or maybe there were only two per year plus the Wish Book. Whatever the case, while the Spring and Summer catalogues were not nearly as fun as the Wish Book I still went through them page by page (We only had two television channels at our house). I longed for a white canopy bed with Holly Hobby bedspread and accessories until I was in my teens. Many nights I lay awake wishing hard for the sudden appearance in my closet of a certain black velveteen outfit complete with trousers, button up vest, jacket and skirt. How smart I would look at school, I thought. I replaced all my parents' mismatched living room furniture with turquoise French Provincial sofas and Lazy-boy recliners - in my imagination, at least. The Sears catalogue represented a lifestyle quite foreign to me, where parents bought their children huge Barbie houses and Bugs Bunny bedroom curtains. The minimal exposure I had to daytime soap operas convinced me their characters shopped at Sears. Their living rooms were always perfectly clean, serene and decorated like in the catalogues.

Sears, in my hometown, and many towns like it, was not a brick and mortar store. It was a small counter, if memory serves, at the local Greyhound bus depot, where mail orders were given and picked up after a long awaited phone call. The only other department-type store in our town at the time was Woolworth's, so Sears offered many things we could not shop for in person. My parents ordered their trusty Kenmore appliances with excellent extended warranties from Sears. My older sisters were always ordering new clothes from the latest Sears catalogue, and often, due to them not fitting properly, sending them back. I suppose one could say the Sears catalogue and other catalogues like them were the precursor to today's online shopping, which is ironic since online shopping is being blamed for the demise of Sears. The entire retail landscape is going through a major shift, and I do not think we can blame only one thing for that major shift. Sure, online shopping is often a great source for a better value - my daughter's Otter Box for her iphone purchased recently for half the price of the one available at our local Best Buy, for example. I think globalization, saturated retail markets (and their by-product - discount outlets such as Winners and HomeSense), and brand loyalty are also factors. Here's an example: I like Jockey underwear. They are 100% cotton, well made, and oh, so comfortable. With our city's brick and mortar Sears closing I know of no other place in my city that sells them. I will have a good look in the possible shops, but if I cannot find my Jockeys, I know I will look online. I know my size, my preferred style and price, so purchasing would be easy. Would I buy shoes or other clothing online? Rarely, if never. I have to try them on, and if possible I like to support my local businesses.

I am sad Sears Canada is closing. I shopped there often. They had great sales, good products, and friendly staff. Unfortunately, despite their monumental efforts at rebranding and revamping, they cannot carry on. Like Eatons they are going the way of the dinosaur, taking their beloved Wish Book with them.  I am sorry for their thousands of employees across the country. Where will they go? Sears hired many older people and now their pensions are evaporating along with everything else. The world does not feel like a very merciful place today. Progress, as usual, leaves many casualties in its wake.

For more information on the history of Sears Canada, have a look at this article, which, by the way, I read after I wrote this post.

The last Canadian Sears Wish Book - the end of an era