Just me thinking about the philosophy of retirement

There’s been a lot of talk in my neck of the woods about retirement / retirement planning, these days. Another colleague has bid farewell to my workplace, there have been discussions in government about pushing back the age of retirement to 67, Hubby is concerned about his ability to retire in x number of years . . . But every time I hear someone mention looking forward to retiring, or having the right to retire — Hubby included — I’m honestly bothered.

Being able to retire is, in my mind, not necessarily a granted right. I think it’s become something of a given, but it’s a privilege in a society with increasing costs but static pensions. And historically speaking, in Western society, retirement didn’t really become an expectation or a reality until sometime during the 20th century.* Think about it: pensions were introduced at a time when most people didn’t live to see their 60th birthday. We worked until we died. It’s not a pleasant thought, yet that was reality for most of recorded history. And those who didn’t die on the job eventually became either revered elders, cared for by their (grown) children and communities, or paupers who were dependent on whatever system was available. The idea of being able to step away from one’s job or career to make room for a younger adult, enjoying one’s “sunset years” in a degree of comfort, seems to be a widely-accepted social goal.

I get it. You work and work and work and then you stop and you enjoy the years remaining to you (or months, weeks, days) as much as possible, reaping the rewards of your years of work. That depends on whether you were able to save for that eventuality, something that more of us are finding it difficult or impossible to do. And thanks to modern medicine, better nutrition, healthier lifestyles, etc., most Baby Boomers and the generations following them can expect those sunset years to turn into decades. Heck, the parents of the Boomers are still going, too, in many cases. My paternal grandmother passed away in her 80s, my maternal grandmother in her early 90s.

But it bothers me that this hope, this expectation, is now so widespread. The game has changed and now, financially, our goals have to include being able to provide for not only ourselves and our kids as they’re growing up, but also the potentially three or four decades after we’ve retired. It’s not surprising how many retirees end up having to go find part-time jobs, especially if they end up caring for elderly parents, grandchildren, or other expenses. And yet — my mother-in-law is about to officially retire, and every time she visits, the subject comes up that she feels she’s earned it. She’s earned the break from working, and deserves the time. Yes, of course she has. But that sense of entitlement — that it’s a part of the cycle we all get to have — how true is it outside of our sphere of #FirstWorld living?

There was a Star Trek: Next Generation episode involving a culture in which all members of society are expected to end their lives at the age of 60, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. The story involved a man who wasn’t ready to go; he still had important research to do and wanted to marry again. But most of his society expected that their lives would finish up at that age, partially to keep the population in check, and for other reasons including ensuring quality of life (given that quality may decline sharply after the 6th decade). It was a controversial story in many ways. After all, the majority of human beings would prefer to live as long as possible, fighting for another day — or hour, or minutes — of life even in the most dire of circumstances. It’s not improbable or impossible for us to stop making contributions to society after 60. How many successful thinkers, inventors, doers, artists, etc., reached their peak after 60? Or 70? Or older?

And yet . . . Maybe it’s the attitude with which some people approach their retirement that bothers me. When someone speaks of their retirement as something that is their due, as though nothing else could be expected, that everyone will or should enjoy it no matter their financial circumstances — I think it’s the lack of gratitude and amazement that bothers me the most. Retirement is a gift. It’s not an award granted to those who work hard enough and long enough, because death could and does happen at any time. If you find yourself in a position where you can step away from paid work in order to spend time on other things you enjoy and do out of choice, whether it’s travel or family or hobbies or sports, that’s not something to which you were entitled or that you had a right to expect. It’s an amazing and beautiful gift, because you’re in the minority of the world which will receive it. To be perfectly honest, I think successfully retiring with the ability to withdraw completely from paid work is like winning the lottery. You may have done an awesome job with the finances, saving appropriately and investing wisely, building your nest egg as we’re all advised to do, but you also could have had a major medical crisis or worse, died. If you can retire, completely, then you’ve won a gift from nature.

And be kind and understanding of those who must continue to work even when society says they’ve “retired”. Because that’s what we’ve always done, we humans. We live, we work; we work to live, and then we move on to another journey.

Maybe that’s really why people focus on retirement as The Goal — because what happens after that is what is most feared and unknowable.

*ADDENDUM: Found some interesting articles on this, if you’re interested in further reading . . .

http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/21/jobs/the-history-of-retirement-from-early-man-to-aarp.htm

http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2022570647_apxretirementhistory.html

http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/pensions/cpp-a52-wcr_e.shtml

http://mapleleafweb.com/features/canada-pension-plan-overview-history-and-debates

http://actionplan.gc.ca/en/initiative/eliminating-mandatory-retirement-age

Wanted: Mary Poppins and a House Elf

Preparation for second semester continued today. I’m not done my exam marking, so I brought the remainder of the exams home with me in the hopes of getting them done. I did manage to get ahead on a few things for Monday, though:

  • Revised and copied course outlines for my three classes
  • Rearranged my classroom, organizing the desks into groupings of 5 (with one grouping of 3), borrowing an idea from Ally, a friend and colleague who tried it last semester
  • Adopting old couches and easy chairs from my department head, who no longer needs/wants them, creating a comfy reading lounge / writer’s den in my classroom — something I wanted to do a decade ago but lacked the necessary resources (a truck) or energy to make happen on my own
  • Cleaned off my desk
  • Marked one set of exams
  • Copied readings for Professional Learning Team’s in-class project on literacy
  • Took down old posters of student work from last semester

Here’s my to-do list, for work anyway:

  • Lesson materials and handouts on active listening, mindfulness, note-taking, annotations (content for first few weeks)
  • Revise my poster on classroom expectations
  • Make a poster with Restorative Questions
  • Construct prompt cards for desk groupings — I want to have reminders on MLA, brainstorming techniques, the writing process, and note-taking on each set of desks
  • Bring up novels for grade 9s (Cue for Treason) — we’re waiting on the shipment of the novels for grade 11 (Yes Man)
  • Sketch a loose outline of lessons for the first two weeks. I have learned through bitter experience that it’s better to overplan but also to be prepared for the students’ needs to be vastly different than expected.

As my friend and fellow teacher Kim pointed out, it’s like this every year. We always think or hope we’ll have enough time for the turnaround but it’s never sufficient. I try to power through but without frequent breaks I lose focus. And yet with frequent breaks I feel like I’m churning my wheels in a rut of loose, chewed-up snow, getting inches forward and then having to slide back in order to find momentum to get moving. Among the pressures and anxieties of having things ready to go on Monday morning, starting off the new classes with an effective tone and set of expectations, I know I’ll be deluged by grade 12 students who want to know how they did overall, whether they passed or failed, and in either case, what their final marks are.

Meanwhile, life continues at home, too. My daughter’s skating lesson is cancelled tomorrow due to competitions, so there’s a bit of a break at least, and then there’s skiing lesson in the afternoon. It’s going to be cold tomorrow, too. Well, as cold as it was today, which was substantially colder than yesterday — positively balmy, it was, at only -8 C. I want to step up the family’s cleaning efforts by adding a visible allowance to motivate the 9 year old. I calculated today that if I give her $0.25 per chore — daily and weekly — she could earn up to $10 a week. I am thinking of getting it in quarters and putting it in a clear jar so she can see it. Then, every time she is scheduled to do a chore but doesn’t do it, she loses a quarter. I take it away while she watches. At the end of the week, she gets to keep — and spend — whatever is left over. I got the idea from a Berenstein Bears story, in which Sister Bear is given a handful of dimes as incentive to avoid chewing her nails: every time Sister chews, she loses a dime for that week.

So there’s that. In addition to trying to jumpstart collaborative cleaning and going skiing, marking exams and setting up my lessons for the first week, I’ve got a board meeting for the local theatre’s revitalization project on Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth needs to be bathed, the dog needs walking, laundry (no, wait, those last two things are chores I need to delegate to the kids), and we need to start prepping for the teenager’s birthday party and sleepover next weekend.

And then sleeping. I would like a nice, long, uninterrupted sleep without weird dreams, if possible. Last night I dreamed I was performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but I was Falstaff, and I had taken the role very last minute so I was struggling with the lines and I was worried about making a bad impression and never being cast again, but having a good time nonetheless. We were onstage in the old theatre, and suddenly there was a flood of people walking through, carrying chairs and tables and filing boxes and things — as though their work day had ended and they had no other choice but to interrupt the performance to get all of their stuff put away. They seemed apologetic about it. I was torn between trying to sneak peeks at the script on my smart phone and looking at the book in my hand. There was a difference, too, in the interpretation of the character: on the one hand, he was supposed to be a clown, the comic relief, and he (I) was using a sock puppet as a foil. On the other, the stage directions in the book I’d found indicated a much more painful back story — each line he spoke was layered in subtext about loss, heartbreak, frustration, and misunderstanding. I wanted to perform the part with the second interpretation, but how to change up the direction in the middle of the show?

Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to deal with all of this if we had relatives closer than an hour and a half away. But then again my mum and dad managed with my brother and I, and we never lived in the same town or city as our relations — I think the closest we ever lived to an aunt and uncle or grandparent was 45 minutes. But then again, it is much, much easier than when the kids were younger. And I’m grateful that they’re healthy and intelligent, that we have easy access to clean water and food in our cupboards, heat and light, that we can walk about without fear of landmines or being questioned about our papers. In the big picture, I have nothing to complain about, really, so I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

But I feel what I feel. I do good work at school, but I’m constantly aggrieved by the state of my house and my inability to get my kids to participate in the housecleaning. It’s at the point where if I start to clean, my daughter asks, “Who’s coming over?”, and that’s not right. We’re back to that question of how to get a stubborn 9 year old to do what you need her to do, particularly when one’s own energy levels are low after a day of getting stubborn teenagers to do what they need to do.

I need a memory stick for my brain.

I had this great dream last night that was half of a nightmare. It involved an old Victorian or Edwardian house, with stained and polished mahogany floors, stairs, and banister, and an investigation into paranormal activity. We’d leave a room, and the furniture would move on its own — at one point, shifting as violently as lawn chairs on the deck of a cruise ship in heavy seas.

It was fairly frightening, until I remembered that I was dreaming and I had some control over whether the ghosts were hostile or in need of help.

And then after I’d left that house, I walked up the path to another building that seemed familiar. It was a duplex, and as it turned out (in the dream), one in which I’d lived before but didn’t remember having lived there. It was as though my experience of living in this split-level with a big round window by the front door had been erased and was being reformed in my memory as I toured the dwelling. And I realized that the adjoining residence was also haunted. I wanted to explore more but suddenly my husband was pointing out that we had overslept by nearly 30 minutes and I had to get moving . . .

I think there is something to the idea that the dream world is as real as the one we wake up to after our sleep. Sometimes I picture the world I go into as a map, especially considering that I tend to find myself in the same locations, though in a generally random way: Long, winding highways along which I am either driving (until I realize I am trying to steer and brake while sitting in the back seat or passenger side), riding a bike, or walking; the second-floor apartment my hubby and I lived in during university; rural farm areas connected to a house in Honeywood, Ontario where I lived when I was 13; certain streets in Orillia, Peterborough, Toronto, and places I’ve never been or that don’t exist, like archipelagoes with volcanoes, razor-edged mountains, train stations linked to canal-lined streets next to waterfalls and grottoes. It’s always so frustrating to leave these places, and the characters who inhabit them — as frustrating as my own self changing character within the dream. The Incredible Morphing Human.

There was a great Wim Wenders movie I watched once with William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin, called Until the End of the World (1991). It was a fascinating futuristic / apocalyptic yarn about a woman — Claire — who accidentally gets involved with a man who has invented a way for the blind to see. The apparatus is very much like the Oculus Rift, actually. At the same time that she is on this journey, a weapons satellite goes rogue and various populations of the earth are on the move, evacuating cities in the hopes of surviving its impact (should it hit near this place or that). So this couple end up seeking shelter in a cave in the Australian outback, and they discover that the apparatus he’s invented not only records images for the blind to be able to see — it also records dreams. And they learn that being able to record and watch your own dreams becomes addictive. Claire in particular gets hooked on the need to watch her dreams, studying the images that her subconscious mind produces and trying to determine what they mean. To me, that is very relatable. Imagine if we could record what our heads come up with while we rest, in perfect detail. 

I envy artists who are able to render their dreams in the colour and shape with which they were formed. Pictures speak more eloquently than words, especially if the images are fragmented after we’ve awakened. I’m left with a scattering of ideas of that damned haunted house, pictures that may solidify themselves right when I’m about to fall asleep again.

The Theory of Sentient Food; or, the Weirdness of Anthropomorphizing Everything

True story:

When I was a little girl, I believed that my mouth — my tongue, my cheeks, and my teeth — would get jealous if I ate more on one side than the other. It came out of a feeling or a need to be balanced: doing things as much on the left as on the right. So I made sure to alternate sides, even if I had a canker sore (although if I had a canker I’d sometimes have to wait until it was gone to make up the difference). I still do that even now. I know, it’s weird.

I also had this funny idea that came out of images of food being sentient, particularly advertisements. I mean, why would a small square of breakfast wheat want us to eat it? Or the berries with which it fills itself? Or a hot dog at the movies? Or an ice cream bar? Anything that’s given a face, arms, legs — shouldn’t it be actively trying to avoid becoming prey? I mean, eventually food that is not eaten will rot. (Poor VeggieTales characters!) After all, most animals and plants have defence mechanisms of some kind to avoid being eaten. Why would a food be advertised as wanting to be eaten up and therefore wiped from existence? This bothered me a lot when I was a kid, although not enough to stop me from eating. Eventually I came to the revelatory idea that if food is sentient, when it is eaten it experiences death by ecstasy: the fulmination of existence in the moment of consumption. That when it is selected for eating, and is chewed and swallowed, the food achieves a — dare I say it — orgasmic experience as it is destroyed. Being eaten is an achievement of glory, the highest point in its limited lifespan.

Yeah. I know. It’s out there.

And I thought, when I was a kid, that carrot sticks and pickles and french fries and what-have-you competed with each other for attention. That they were rivals in achieving presentation, deliciousness, texture, etc. Therefore my food had to be admired before I ate it, and everything had to be spread out equally: syrup in every square of a waffle, butter on all parts of the bread, gravy on the whole surface of the mashed potatoes. This naturally resulted in some rather messy eating, and the habit never really went away. In fact, when I got married, my mother threatened to make me a plastic white lace apron to put over my wedding dress.

Faint echoes of those childhood fancies remain. I know, logically, that prepared or raw food isn’t sentient and doesn’t have feelings. But the idea of fairness and the achievement of some kind of goal has stayed. I no longer separate and organize Smarties or Skittles by colour, eating one at a time out of fairness. I try really hard not to care if I’ve had an uneven number of bites. I suppose it’s a matter of a habit that has never left my imagination, although I’m far from the picky eater I used to be.

ADDENDUM: Other things I used to pretend (or on some level actually believe) were living beings with thoughts and purpose:

  • lamp posts along the highway — they were angels guiding our vehicle safely along the road
  • trees in the dark — sleeping monsters who may or may not want to grab small children and drag them away
  • shoes — you kick one off or forget to undo the laces and it will hide itself on purpose to get its revenge on being poorly treated

In which I make my daughter’s most recent ski lesson into a sonnet.

Glistening orb, sliding ever lower,

Transitory pearl of emotion’s swell,

Its shape held perfect by freezing winter,

But whether genuine, I cannot tell.

She weeps when she does not get her way.

And protests loudly ‘gainst things she fears,

Stomping her foot, keeps entreaties at bay

Hoping mother will give into her tears.

Resolves are pitted, will and stubbornness,

Guidance resisted, lower lip outthrust,

My patience tested, but convictions less;

Grudging and sharp as midwinter snow’s crust.

And as blinding is her smile when fear’s gone,

Her giggles and whoops join in the wind-song.

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Bridget on her third journey to the top of the ski lift (T-bar). Perseverance was worth the tears and angst!

Here’s to hoping that the next ski lesson will be free of tears, gnashing of teeth, stomping of feet, etc., etc.

A Foray into Vehicle Upkeep

I am not a “car person”. I do not enjoy the fine details of vehicle ownership. I cannot tell at a glance what an automobile has under the hood, its year / model / make, assess its performance, or know its value. My brother can do all of these things, as can my dad, and a few other people I know. My hubby can do it, to some extent. But my brain, for whatever reason, just filters this information into the circular file. I can’t even remember what year our Suzuki SX4 is — I have to ask my beloved, every time. (It’s a 2007, btw. I’ll probably have forgotten that by tomorrow, though. Not going to lie.)

So whenever our vehicle needs work of some sort, I typically leave it to hubby to take care of the details. Part of this is my own prejudice or lack of self-esteem — I worry a lot about making expensive mistakes, silly mistakes, the kind of errors that my hubby or my brother or my dad might shake his head at with a disappointing “tsk” — and my fear that I might get taken advantage of at a garage because I’m a female who lacks experience with mechanical things. I’ve read too many articles and heard too many stories about some woman being scammed because some unscrupulous fixer got her number and sold her on parts, service, and labour that weren’t necessary, and somehow, I suspect it will happen to me.

Well, today, I took a step forward. No, I didn’t do anything as monumental as change my own oil (at best, I can check the oil . . . if I’m very pressed, at least) or order the new blower that we desperately need. For me, though, it was the next best thing. We’ve had a steady leak in the front passenger tire for months now, bad enough that every two or three weeks — more frequently in the colder weather — I’ve had to fill it up with air at the gas station. Hubby suggested that I take it into one of the local tire places that was open until 5, so after school, I dropped my daughter off at home where my son was waiting, drove to the tire place, and went inside.

By myself.

Alone.

First time ever.

Terrifying. I managed not to give myself a lot of time to get all anxious about it. I walked in, said I had a problem with my tire and wondered if they had time to look at it. (Fortunately for me, the mechanics weren’t busy at all.) The nice lady behind the counter asked me what the problem was, I described it, and she directed me to pull the vehicle into the service bay. Woohoo!

It was nice, too, that I recognized two of the personnel, although I couldn’t remember their names. As they got to work with the nuts and bolts of it all (please don’t nag me if I’m not using the correct terminology: remember, not a car person), I texted hubby to let him know that they were working the problem.

The leak was in the sidewall, as it turned out, so they had to order a brand-new winter tire for me. I informed hubby of this.

The tire can be in tomorrow, they said. Okay, no problem.

Did I have another tire to put on it for now? No, I told them — they’re buried in snow at the moment. So they put the doughnut on as a temporary measure.

I drove away happy, ending up at the drug store for fresh toothbrushes and shampoo. Satisfied that I had handled the proceedings without much angst. Proud of myself for taking care of business.

And then hubby called me.

“Why did you let them put the doughnut on the car? We have extra tires here, you know.”

But they’re buried in snow . . .

“Not that buried. I was trying to get a hold of you to tell you not to let them put the spare on. I have to drive to Larder Lake tonight.”

I didn’t know that . . .

“Well, I hadn’t mentioned it to you, but we could have pulled out a tire to put on and I’d have paid them for the labour.”

Well, #$&% this shit.

This is why I am not a car person. This is why I don’t take care of car stuff. In the end, hubby was fine with going thirty minutes out of town and back on the spare; he took his time, had no problems, and didn’t say anything else. But I will admit that my brief rise in automobile-self-esteem has flattened a bit again. I’m crossing my fingers that the new tire comes in on time and gets installed without problems tomorrow. You know that adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself”? When it comes to our car, if hubby wants something done a certain way, he needs to remember to take care of it on his own or not complain when I do something that he wouldn’t have done.

Or I need to be less sensitive.

I mean, this is not the 1950s. I’m an grown-ass, independent, intelligent woman who ought to be able to learn how to whatever I need to do. If I’ve skipped a step, or if I haven’t asked for details that would help me to make a decision, then that’s on me to get all the information next time. And that’s about being relaxed enough to see all of the elements around the decision instead of rushing to the end goal because I’m nervous.

To be perfectly honest, though, my comfort level with vehicle upkeep is such that I actually would be happy to give up my car and not have to worry about it. Rent when I need to, cab when necessary, walk and bike everywhere else. At least, I tell myself this while I have the luxury of access to a car. There was a time when I was without vroom for weeks in a row, when the children were smaller and we had less budget for cab rides, let alone an expensive rental. But we got by. Geez, that makes me sound so old . . .

If luck stays with me, the tire will arrive on time and be fitted to the rim or whatever it is they do, and I’ll be able to zip over and get it after school. Bob’s your uncle!

Cross your fingers for me!

Lady-wolf: the Untold Story

We had always kept our distance from the two-legs — they were loud, they stank (usually of fear), and they couldn’t communicate. But the prey had been hard to find for a few days, and we were hungry, as were our pups. My mate’s stomach was growling as loudly as I’d ever heard him when he had to warn away coyotes.

So when the two-legs had quieted down, well after dark, we followed our noses to the scent of food.

Although there was no moon, the faint glimmer of starlight coupled with the orange glow from the fire help us find fish spines on a rock, and crumbs of something yeasty on the beaten ground by the hot place. Strange clear round things, too, like small bones that had been cleaned of their marrow. I sniffed one and sneezed at its oddly acrid scent, like broken mushrooms after a rain. Nothing edible there. While my mate licked hopefully at the fish spines, I padded over to a sack that smelled promisingly of food. There was a small hole in it that my claw was able to rip open just a little bigger, letting slimy guts spill out. Not particularly appetizing, but better than nothing.

As I was pulling the innards further out, a wind rose that blew the bag away from me. It tumbled end over end toward the strange cave where the two-legs were sleeping. I snapped up the morsel I’d taken and followed the rest, easily fastening my teeth around its neck to drag it away.

The two-legs inside must have heard me, or maybe it had to mark its territory. Suddenly the big leaf moved aside and its ugly face was there, its eyes staring into mine over its flat snout. We both froze. I’d never been this close to one of them before. I let my hackles rise and growled in warning, advising it to keep its distance. I thought I could scent that it was a male, but there was female odour as well. I could smell yeast here, too, very strong, and that odd smell like mashed fungus. I wasn’t about to get closer to find out more, but then I heard a sound in the cave. Maybe it moved, or something else, but I didn’t like it. I let my teeth show, growling louder, and heard my mate answer in kind.

After too many rapid heart-beats to count, I decided to take a chance on moving back. I put a paw on my prize, intending to drag it away also by snagging it with my nail. But there was a second sack there, something else next to the first I had chased, and it was heavy. The two-legs said something loud, and reached out quickly to stop me. I snarled, snapping a stronger warning.

The stupid two-legs gripped my prize and yanked it back. I got close to its stinking face, fighting for what was mine. My mate responded, approaching, and then when the two-legs looked away, I seized my chance to sink my teeth into its forelimb. I expected it to cry out, but it did something else: it bit me back, fastening its jaws on the tender skin of my ear. Instead of the two-legs yelping, I heard my voice in the pain. Surprised and hurt, I spat out its dirty tasting body and scrambled away, leaving my prize — and my pride — in the dirt.

My mate found me later, attempting to lick my wound, but my tongue wouldn’t quite reach. He obliged by cleansing it as best he could. Every lave of his tongue on my hurt reminded me of the shocking strength of the two-legs jaws trying to rip my flesh from my bones. I knew I would never go near their kind again, no matter how hungry I might feel.

The bites took a long time to heal. Flies swarmed over my hurt ear, where pain rumbled like thunder. But by the time the lesser light was rising nearly full and round in each evening sky, it pained me not at all. I felt wonderfully energetic and playful, approaching my mate for penetration when he didn’t expect and increasing my range of hunting until I was angering our neighbouring families. I tumbled and played with our litter until they were worn out and slept where they fell. I couldn’t help it, though; it felt like the glow of thousands suns under my skin, powering my muscles and pushing me to run as fast as I could. I had to run, because then, when I stopped, I would be able to do the other thing that I couldn’t resist, and that I knew my mate would not understand.

Grasping a firm twig in my maw, i traced shapes in a space of dirt I cleared with my tail. A winding path, like the river carving through the valley. Lines crossing each other and blending downward into one thick reach, like the veins on a leaf or the tall trees that rose about me. The unnatural hump that had been the two-legs’ cave. My jaw made these images clumsily, and I found that I could hook my forepaw around the tip of the tool, and by moving it carefully and slowly, I could do it better.

It disturbed me, these moments, and I would eventually rise shuddering, uncertain of the reason or the purpose behind these things.

It was when the lesser light rose in its fullest that I learned the truth of the two-legs’ curse on me.

The pups, my mate, and I had settled in for the night. I had brought home a fat rabbit and our bellies were full. But as they snored in our den, the white light in the forest beckoned me. I wanted to stay warm and safe, listening to my family breathing, but the desire to go crawled on my fur like a thousand insects. There was no comfort in remaining. I silently and swiftly ran away up the mountain, seeking a private place in which to howl my discomfort away.

And then I stumbled.

I fell, as I ran. Nothing had ever happened to me like that, at least not since I had been a pup. I got up to run again, and my forelegs wouldn’t grip as they had done before. I dragged myself, whining, my bones burning, to a clear flat place on a rock, and lifted my nose to the sky.

But my nose no longer angled before my eyes, jutting proudly before my face. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the painful tingling, as the black tip shrank away and my teeth and tongue with it. I raised a forepaw, panicking, confused, and scrambled back as I saw the hairless limb waving in the space where my nose had been. The limb ended not in my fuzzy paw, but in something flattened and naked, my knuckles stretched and unfamiliar. My bladder released in my fright, and although my skin wrinkled for hackles, cold air whisked across my neck where the raised fur should have been. A strange sound ululated from my throat — neither a bark, nor a whine, but a low keening wail. I fell back, and in my panic, I recognized an absence of pain where I ought to have jammed the bone of my tail. I twisted around to see, and to my horror, my beautiful thick tail was gone, swallowed into a strange smooth round surface. I tumbled over and over, crying out as the mountain rock and brush left stinging scratches on my suddenly tender skin. When I finally skidded to a stop in a cradle of stone, the light of the moon revealed my new body and I wept.

How would my children feed from me, with only two bulbous mammary glands where six had been? And how could my mate accept me, without my fur? I curled forward, protecting the underbelly which had grown long and felt so hollow. When I tried to stand, my back legs were ungainly and awkward, hitting the ground in two places, bending at an unnatural angle. And I was cold, so cold. I missed the warmth of my family, our bodies piled together in the heat of our den. Something leaked onto my face and ran from my nose, and I knew I must be dying. Wolves did not leak in this way. I was sick and I would not be able to return to my home.

The night wore on. I managed to find grips on the rock, moving slowly as I grew accustomed to myself. The freezing wind tore my breath from me. My body ached and shivered. The fur which had been left to me was long on my head, shorter than a newborn kit’s on my legs, matted patches between my legs and under my forearms — not nearly adequate for protection. If I was now a two-legs (for that certainly seemed to be the truth), I understood better their reason for building hot places when they lived in their strange caves. Why their dens were filled with bedding like a bird’s. Naked, they could not survive.

So when I saw a two-leg place with a fire, I had to swallow my revulsion and panic in order to get close enough to be warmed.

As before, the beings were gone. I could not smell them this time, or smell any food right away. The heat drew me in. There was a pelt by the fire, something scratchy and the colour of blood, left hanging on a strange bush. My teeth were unable to pull it over me, but as I had done with the stick in the dirt, I was able to use my forepaws to stretch the pelt onto my body. Between the pelt and the fire, I was soon able to stop shivering.

I do not remember falling asleep, but it must have been true, because a touch on my shoulder woke me. Again, I tried to growl, but a high-pitched noise hummed from my throat instead. Two-legs were looking at me, making soft sounds. I snapped my teeth, moving backward away from their outstretched limbs. Behind them, the sky was still dark. I felt dirt under my nails as I clawed the ground. I looked down at the marks these long knuckles could make, and felt calmer. I made furrows, digging, and traced the spiral of a cut tree stump, while the two-legs made more noises.

The shock of understanding — it exploded in my chest, when one of them made a sound I could interpret: “Water.”

I looked up at a hollowed bone, filled with clear water. “Aa-der,” I intoned, and crawled forward, hanging my tongue out. It was difficult to lap the drink into my mouth. I tensed at the feeling of the bone touching my teeth, but when the water poured in, I found it easier to swallow. When the two-legs took the bone away, I whimpered. I watched as more water was poured into it from a sack, and then it was offered to me again, this time with a soft touch on my forepaw which made me flinch back.

The smaller two-legs was holding a bone, too. I watched as it curled its ugly knuckles around the bone and raised the liquid to its mouth. Astounded, I realized that this was something I could do, too. I dropped the bone and spilled the water with my first few attempts, but I had always learned things quickly. I found that I could drink like a two-legs, after all.

“Who?,” they kept saying to me. “Who?” Like monstrous owls changed by sorcery into poor mockeries of the birds they had once been.

“Where?” It sounded like a growl, but wasn’t. The noises were intelligible, but I did not know their language. “Hurt,” they said, but what did it mean?

They gave me food, hard like tree bark but tasting of berries and wheat. They built the fire, placing more sticks on it, so that I would not be cold. These were not the terrifying two-legs of my nightmares.

So when the sky brightened and I shuddered back into my normal form, perhaps their screams were also to be understood. As soon as my four legs were under me, my tail brushing the air once more, I ran from them as fast as I could, retracing my path back to home. Far better that I had frightened those who had bitten me, changed me, than my own offspring and pack.

Skittles vs Elizabeth — or, A Dog’s Jealous Suckery

As we get more accustomed to having Elizabeth Reptile as part of our family, more adjustments are being made. I’ve started removing her from her tank for 20 minutes, at least — handling regularly is highly recommended as a way of getting to know and “taming” a Bearded Dragon. Skittles has noticed and radiates concern, mostly over not receiving her fair share of petting. I have found myself stroking two creatures at once, in an effort to reassure our nervous pooch that her place in the hierarchy has not been usurped. If Skittles could communicate in words, maybe this is what she would say: There she goes again. She’s holding the little scaly not-dog and petting it. I see her fingers on its not-furry skin. That should be me getting the cuddles! Maybe if I snuggle up to her legs she’ll pet me instead. I’ll shove my nose into her arm. Notice me. Notice me. Ah! I love it when she rubs the scruff of my neck and scratches around my ears! Put the not-dog back in the big clear box and scratch me with both hands. Put it back. Put it back. Is there room for both of us on your lap, then? The not-dog isn’t really on your lap. It smells funny. Now you smell funny. You smell like not-dog. Is it a squirrel? A naked squirrel? I’ve never seen a naked squirrel. It doesn’t smell like a squirrel. Will it scratch me? Should I taste it? IMG_5188 Why won’t it let me sniff its bum? Little naked squirrel, why does my person like to pet you when you have no fur? Where are you going? Why are you climbing onto the back of the couch? Maybe I should go and have a nap. Is she going to lie on the bed, too? I like it when we are both on the comfy bed. No, she is sitting back down on the couch. She’s playing with the not-dog again. I’ll come and curl up next to her.  Notice me. Notice me. Sure, I can go outside! See me jumping with excitement! Yes, put me out! Right now! It’s okay if Smallest Person puts me out.  It’s cold. My paws are cold. My nails are cold. I don’t like my bum touching the snow. Let me back in. Let me in!  Where is the not-dog? Why doesn’t the naked squirrel go outside? Can I lie on your arm, too? I want to — just let me — if you push me off I’ll just stick my nose under your arm like this. Why do you shush me? I just want lovings! I will stand here for as long as you keep petting my head and rubbing under my chin. Yes, and my chest. Let me just roll over so you can get my belly, too.  Why did you stop? I’ll stand closer so you can reach. I will be more comfortable for the lovings if I am curled up on the floor by your feet. Why did you stop? Are you okay? Let me sniff your wrist to make sure you’re okay. I will stay for as long as you want me to, so you can keep petting me. Yes, under my chin.  What is on my neck? Why are you putting the not-dog on my back? I’m not — I don’t — well, okay, but — this is not normal, you know. I’m going to hold very still but I don’t know for how long. I don’t think the naked squirrel likes it. Why are you aiming your small pocket-box at me? Nope, I don’t like that, I’m going to move away now. Put the not-dog back in its box.  Can I play with the not-dog? I see it moving in there.  Oh, I see you sitting down. May I lie on your shoulder now?  It’s moving again! What’s it doing? I want to sniff it!  I’m so confused. I’ll follow you around for a while. I’m hungry. I want a treat.  ———- Wow, that became much more poignant than I thought it was going to be. I had been thinking about writing this piece earlier, daydreamed a little about the creative aspect of it, and I honestly didn’t think it would be so wistful and sad. Poor Skittles. I’ll have to take her for a nice long walk tomorrow. Actually, I keep meaning to start nightly dog walks again, or even right after school, and I’ve been postponing that. I’d love to get a pair of cross-country skis of my own so I wouldn’t have to leave her outside of the Complex while I rent a pair — same with snowshoes. It might be possible to pick up a set on sale, now. The nice thing about taking her on the trails is that I can let her off-leash, except when linx have been seen, and it’s much smoother than trying to walk on the streets or sidewalks with their lumpy snow-and-ice bumps. Even after the ploughs have gone by, it’s not always nice for a stroll. I prefer taking her for walks at this time of year, anyway, because there aren’t any mosquitoes or black flies to be irritating. I thought about taking her after my daughter and I got home from skiing, but I was wiped out and chilled and only wanted to be warm and cozy. If the weather is as nice tomorrow as it was today, then we will definitely get out for a jaunt, and maybe I’ll pop into the pet store to see whether they have any doggy booties. See, the other problem with walking her at this time of year is on the frequent periods of -30 or colder, she can’t be outside for more than 5 minutes or she starts lifting a paw in protest because her feet are numb. If she were smaller, I’d get her a doggy jacket, too, but she’s got sufficient fur (and mass) to keep the rest of her warm. Plus, I’ve got a backpack that I can fill with weights to give her a good workout. I am hoping, though, that she gets used to Elizabeth in time, and they become “friends”. I think it’s a good sign that they are so far tolerating each other, and that Skittles seems curious but not aggressive towards her. I’ll know they’ve accepted each other if they actually, voluntarily, cuddle together at some point. But first that requires me lizard-proofing the floor and blocking up any escape-spaces. Hmmm . . .

————

ADDENDUM: I took Jealous Dog for a nice 20 minute walk. I neglected to put on either leggings under my jeans or my ski pants over top, my thighs froze into cold hard slabs after the first 10 minutes in -17 C that felt like -28, but continuing to stroll vigorously got the blood moving and by the time I got home, I could almost feel my skin again. And Her Majesty (dog, not lizard) is peacefully lounging on the loveseat once more.

It’s a flurry of finals! or, A Teacher’s Survival Guide to Final Exams

The first semester is winding to a close: we had our first round of examinations this morning, and it was (for me) uneventful and really rather pleasant. Even though I prefer not answering any questions at all during an exam, I found that my students were earnest and making effective observations, so I ended up having a few brief, but effective (and quiet) discussions with some of them as they analyzed short films as site passages.

I’ve invigilated exams which weren’t nearly as pleasant in the past. One year I had to send a student to the office for blatantly taking out a cellphone and texting during the final. Another time, a young person left the room in tears and I had to ask a colleague to take over while I went out and coaxed the individual back in to keep going (and ended up passing!). But exams don’t always cause dramatic moments.

Sometimes they’re downright amusing, though.

Some students will write lovely notes to me about their experience in the course, and others will leave me deliberate attempts at flattery or hopeful (and overblown) assessments of their own work. I’ve had some panic as they realized that they were not double-spacing through most of their work and attempt to start over — I did the same, during an English exam in grade 9, and ended up getting a lower percentage because I wasn’t able to finish, having taken the time to write everything. Consequently, I just tell my students to keep going from that point instead of redoing their work. It’s not funny-funny, but I enjoy those moments because they’re so familiar and repeat themselves with surprising frequency.

But the best experience I ever had was with a male senior who was wrapping up his final English credit, in my class. He’d finished his work with 15 or 20 minutes left of the time allotted, and so he decided to clean out his binder while he waited. I make it a general rule to leave the exams with the students until the time is up, so I hadn’t yet collected his package. When the clock’s hands finally rolled around to the prescribed time, he stood up with a grin and straight shoulders, ceremoniously tore his old notes in half, marched over to the recycling box, and dropped the papers in. He was about to leave the room when I asked him, “May I have your exam now?”

The look on his face when he realized that it had gone into the recycling bin along with all of his course notes . . . torn in two . . .

It took him a half an hour to tape the pages back together once he’d fished them out from among the remains of his course work. The good news, too, was that he had a sense of humour about it. We both couldn’t help but keep laughing at the ridiculousness of it. I’d never seen something like that happen before, and I’ve not yet seen it since.

Aside from the tension, insight, funnies, and relief that is palpable in the exam room, over 13 years of teaching I’ve developed a system for surviving the fast-turn-around flurry of marking before Semester 2 begins. It has to be fast, because marks are needed at this time of year for students applying to colleges and universities, and I have to leave time to prep for my new courses. So here’s what I do to get through it as painlessly as possible:

1) Keep Up on Other Marking. There is nothing worse than having a great pile of overdue marking to complete as well as the course culminating activities AND final exams. What is intended as a wrap-up week becomes a massive effort with lost sleep, carpal tunnel, hair torn out trying to keep track of all of the numbers, and a last-minute rush to throw together the report cards while second semester students file into the first class. Yeah, I’ve been there, multiple times. But a few years ago I actually got it together enough that I had everything else done before the exams started, and the freedom was . . . glorious. I’ve tried to keep it that way ever since.

2) Hydrate. I keep a beverage handy while I’m working, because sometime after the first hour, the eyes start to feel a bit dry and tired. At work, I tend to consume vast quantities of tea interspersed with pop — tea when I’m cold, pop when I’m hot — which also ensures that I’ll get up and moving every so often to go pee. Gets the blood moving! This year, I’ve introduced coffee to my system as well, to really stimulate the senses. At home, it’s also tea, or pop, or coffee, but if I’m feeling especially je-ne-sais-quois, I’ll pour a small glass of wine. Quelle sophistication! When I’m marking with the wine and a bit of music on, I feel like I’m a teacher in a movie. I can imagine that I’m marking with my feet up by a fireplace, or perhaps sitting in a study with rows of polished books, instead of cross-legged on my sofa with papers balanced precariously on my mounds of blankets. (In the summer, I get to take the exams out to the back yard and lounge in the sunlight while bugs alight in my drinks and the wind attempts to carry the work out from under my paperweights.)

3) Take Frequent BreaksSee above need to hydrate and its logical consequence. Plus, after a while, there’s a knot which forms in between the shoulder blades. A break which includes more than just a run to the bathroom — a walk around the school or my block, a shower if I’m at home, chatting with a friend or a colleague, or doing some other needed chore like reorganizing my desk — these things help to refresh a mind that has gone a bit numb with reading. But I have to be cautious because what starts as a break can quickly turn into the demon Procrastination.

Confession: my breaks also include gaming sessions on Facebook. CandyCrush, PetRescue, Words of Wonder, Farm Hero . . . plus a few more on my phone, only. I rationalize that the strategizing helps me to wake up. Or I’ll knit for a little while, because it’s mindless and tactile and gets my wrists moving in different directions. Again, reeeaaallly easy to turn into PROCRASTINATION. And that is bad.

4) Motivational Music & Movies. I can work in silence, and sometimes I prefer it. But I like to mix it up with upbeat, energizing tunes as white noise. Sometimes it’s just a matter of throwing on a movie or tv show that I’ve already watched, just for the soundtrack. But I find I can’t do audio books or podcasts or even the radio for long — if it’s the spoken word, my attention quickly drifts away from what I’m trying to get done and into the dialogue or what-have-you. Best preference is closing my classroom door so I can sing along with the lyrics, which requires little concentration and actually helps to keep me focused, at least until I get tired of it. And then it’s quiet for a bit. And so on.

5) Noms. I need snacks. Knowing this, today I asked hubby (and he obliged) for a large baggie filled with veggie slices: red and green bell peppers, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and grapes. Otherwise, I’m bound to head to Timmie’s to stock up on doughnuts. Or to the grocery store for chocolate. If you’re going to be stuck behind a desk for a while marking papers, it’s obviously better to eat healthier, but honestly, sometimes I just want the comfort foods: lardy, sugary, with tasty fillings and savoury toppings, deep-fried and finger-licking good . . .

6) Warm Feet. It’s difficult to concentrate with cold feet. I have my shoes at school, and slippers at home, and when even those fail to keep my tootsies happy (as they sometimes do when it’s 40 below outside), a stool or low table or whatever to put my feet up. I’ve attempted to mark papers with my feet in warm water but that leads back to having to pee, plus the added risk of dropping the papers in the water . . . And using my foot massager just ends up with messy marking.

In the summer, I get to just kick my shoes off and soak my lower limbs in beautiful hot sunshine. Yeah. It’s that good.

7) Frequent Self-Talk. “The sooner I get through this, the sooner I can do the report cards and be done with the semester.” It’s easy to get pulled into the lure of second semester planning, but I have learned through bitter experience not to fall for that trap. Also works if there isn’t also a massive pile of other marking to complete (see #1).

8) Master Copy. Preparing an answer sheet for the exam is an essential time-saver, as well as good practice. It’s easy enough to know what you’re looking for in short-answer or essay questions when you make the exam up, but the rationale can slip away in the time between photocopying it and collecting the students’ work at the end. And it really sucks when you, the teacher, can’t make your brain remember which multiple choice option was the right one. But it’s particularly necessary to have an answer sheet in case the worst case happens and you’re not able to mark your own exams or independent projects. It’s happened to me: one year, I was sick in bed with influenza for five days in a row and I couldn’t finish my own exam marking or my culminating activities. My amazing department colleagues stepped in and saved me, pooling my students’ work so I wouldn’t miss the report card deadline, but I remember slogging through phone calls and emails with them because I stupidly hadn’t made up an answer sheet. Lesson learned on that, too.

Pro tip: Make your answer sheet up at the same time that you make up the actual exam. Great time saver. (shifty eyes) Please don’t ask me if I actually did that this year, though . . . (scuffs foot against floor)

9) Stay Healthy. Get enough sleep, take your vitamins, dress for the weather, wash your hands, and remember to hydrate. That year I was sick in bed, even though my colleagues were fine with helping me, I felt just awful that they’d had to step in because I’d failed to keep myself healthy. We have to remember, fellow educators, that we are human and we can’t just keep going until all hours of the morning like we did when we were young. Rest must be had to think and write coherently and competently. Even multiple choice questions, true-and-false, and matching answers can be marked wrongly by mistake when you’re tired.

10) Mark In Pencil. I once had a student chortle when she saw that I’d marked with pencil, because as she said aloud in front of me, “Great, now I can change my marks before my mom sees them!” I switch it up a lot, using whatever writing utensils my daughter hasn’t yet sneaked out of my purse or school bag. When I’m marking a test that students will see, I like to use green for “go” instead of red for “bad” — red looks like blood, and in some countries, it’s considered unlucky or offensive — and lately, I’ve been on a highlighter kick because I can more quickly highlight errors than circling them. But there’s no worse feeling than marking something wrongly and having to make that “x” into a checkmark, or making an error in addition and having to switch the numbers up, or writing a comment and then the tired brain realizing that the words you wrote were the lyrics to a song and not the thought that was in your head to put down . . . much easier, in the end to eliminate these problems altogether by using a pencil. I prefer the standard No. 2 to mechanicals. I tend to press down a little harder than the average bear (in fact, I distinctly recall being told over and over in grade 1 to stop pressing so hard with my thick red pencil because I was ripping the pages of my notebook), and mechanicals constantly break on me. The other trouble that I find with pencils is keeping a sharpener handy. Again, I look to my second child for that . . .

So that’s it — that’s my survival guide, my little mental list written down for your enjoyment and edification. Now I’m off to Bedfordshire, as they say across the pond, hopefully not to dream about the damned exams AGAIN. Last night it was superheroes on a vacation tour that started in France, then went to Britain, and then into an underground mall in China. So weird . . .

The Value — and Comfort — of Silence

There are some days when so much talking has been done — so much hectic running, problem-solving, bargaining, sympathy, storytelling, explaining, restating, revising, assessing, interpreting, guiding, restraining, smiling, frowning — so much of everything that the only remedy for the knots of stress drawing shoulders together and creasing the brow is a good long space of silence. preview Doesn’t have to be absolutely quiet, although that’s nice for a while. Music in the background works nicely, too. Tonight, though, would have been a good night for a long walk with the dog with only the hush of wind sweeping over the snowy hillocks and houses. I, however, was extremely tired when I got home and opted for a lovely short nap instead. I think I ought to have gone for the walk after supper, maybe. Debating now whether it’s too late, or too cold. There is a comfort in being alone with one’s own thoughts. When you have kids, sometimes that quiet is dangerous. Children who are quiet are either asleep or up to something. Tonight, they are neither — since I was sick for those three days, they’re making up for lost time. It’s just frustrating to feel so  . . . drained. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of the bond we have, or that I have the luxury of time and space in which to spend time with my children. But as I recently read in another person’s blog, sometimes it’s hard to enjoy the moments with the family when exhaustion is in charge. It’s a different kind of exhaustion from the work of babies and toddlers and preschoolers, but it’s still there. And January doesn’t help either. Bloody long and cold month, with one more to go (albeit a few days shorter) before the hope of warmth returns. This is when people who can afford it start planning their spring break vacations away, in places hot and sunny with sandy beaches and lapping waters. Several of my students are paying into something called an S-Trip, which is a young-person-only, supervised holiday at a tropical resort, sans parents or teachers. I would enjoy planning a getaway with our children, taking them to Florida (the great Canadian rite of passage: March Break in Disneyworld!), but that prize remains out of reach as long as student debts remain. The other side of it is that I have done a tame version of Spring Break in Florida, and I found that coming back to dirty snow and damp cold was almost worse than not having left it at all.

IMG_5194When I was in university, my mother took myself and her mum to Marco Island for a week. I was grumpy, missing my husband of only few years, struggling with undiagnosed mental health issues as well as feeling hormonal, a bit bored at staying off the beaten path so we wouldn’t tire out my 80 year old Gran, and frustrated at having still another two years of school until I could graduate. I forgot to value the silence. And given our collective personality similarities and differences, there was a tension that built until my Gran got upset and stated that she would be happier at a hotel. We had a sit down and discussion, worked it out, got through, and it really was a nice holiday after all of that, but it’s always going to be one of those, “if I knew then what I know now” kind of deals. I ended up giving my Gran a pedicure, I remember that, and having lovely walks along the beaches as well as visiting family friends.

IMG_5196But it was over all too quickly, and flying away from the warmth, colour, palm trees and sunshine back to grey roads and frozen car doors was horrible. No wonder Snow Birds leave before the first snow and don’t come back until it’s all gone away. Still, I am grateful that my kids have learned to respect when I need quiet, for the most part. And hubby helps as well. Increasingly, they’re valuing time to themselves also, retreating to their own rooms to play without being a bother or making a worse mess than what already exists. Family patterns and behaviours are necessarily dynamic, shifting as we all age and move into different stages of our lives; perhaps we’ve entered a place where we’re all now capable and prone to introspection, even Bridget. Certainly the children have learned to value the fact that their rooms are valuable for activities that would be too noisy or crowded for the living room, and how to negotiate taking over our common space when they want more than one friend to stay overnight.

There are still some nights when I wish I had Holly Golightly’s pretty earplugs, but they’re getting fewer and farther in between.

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