The Worst Drive Ever

Although we’re currently experiencing a few weeks of bitterly cold temperatures, it’s been a fairly mild winter with little snow – a few inches here and there, but nothing that requires shoveling and so far no major storms. Now with the Polar Vortex settled in, it’s too cold to snow, (very cold air contains very little moisture) but when I think of all those long brutal winters when I drove through hell, it makes me angry that now that I’m retired, there’s practically nothing. Last week in part one, I blogged about Snowmageddon – the storm of the century, now in part two – let’s talk about the worst drive ever.

Those of you who live in regions which experience the four seasons in all their glory, may appreciate snow when it first appears in December, that nice white fluffy stuff that makes you want to book an inn in Vermont.

These people sensibly took the train…

But by February most people are sick of it, and almost everyone dreads winter driving.   Oh, you get used to, but I bet you secretly rejoice when spring arrives and you don’t have to continually check the weather forecast for storms on the horizon.   If you’re working from home now, lucky you, you get to escape it altogether this year. 

Even if you’re a good driver, and have the ultimate heavy duty vehicle with snow tires and four wheel drive, you still have to worry about other people’s driving. And isn’t it always the worst during the first snowfall of the season, when it seems everyone has forgotten how to drive, and the police, called out to fifty or more cars in the ditch, are reminding everyone to slow down – winter is here.

If you do go slow, then inevitably there is someone on your tail, desperate to pass, usually a big truck. Once some impatient young man finally passed me on a bare stretch, then spun around on the next snowy patch, right into the ditch. I was tempted to wave at him as I drove past, but a farmer had already come out to help him. Why do people always expect farmers to pull them out with their tractors – get a CAA membership.

Snowmageddon made me think about my worst drive ever.   There are two in particular which stand out in my memory.

The first was when I was in my twenties and had a little two seater Fiero.  (Yes, I know, not exactly practical). I didn’t have much winter driving experience as I had gone to school in Toronto and took the subway. The Fiero’s engine was in the back for stability, but the car sat so low that you sometimes felt like you were plowing the road. 

It was late November and I had gone to London with my parents to Toys R Us to buy Christmas presents for the grandkids-who-had-everything.  It was a mild sunny day otherwise we wouldn’t have gone, as London is in the snowbelt area, but shortly after we got back to the farm, a storm came out of nowhere and I decided to drive home before it got worse.   It was dark by then, and the snow was that heavy wet stuff and by the time I came up to the train tracks just outside of town the windows were coated with it. The red warning lights were on so I stopped, but they had been having problems with those lights for quite awhile and they would sometimes flash even if there wasn’t a train in sight. By then I was having a hard time seeing any distance at all. I opened both windows to check if a train was coming and the windshield fogged up, but I accidentally hit the trunk instead of the defogger button so the trunk lid flew up obscuring my rear view.   I sat there for a few minutes, not sure what to do, until there was a long lineup of angry cars behind me, and finally some guy with a truck (it’s always a truck) blasted his horn. Maybe he could see better than I could? So I went over the tracks, too quickly and promptly spun out on the other side in front of an oncoming car but I managed to get back into my lane just in time. I arrived home quite shook up – not one of my better drives.

Is there a train on the track?

The other episode involved a particularly bad stretch of country road and a dark and stormy night.  I was working the late shift and it had been snowing heavily for hours, and was really getting bad out there as every second person who came in insisted on telling me,as if I wasn’t already worried enough about the drive home.   I should have stayed at the B&B in town, a newly restored Victorian with a skylight and claw-foot bathtub in the bathroom, but it was pricey and I wanted to be home in my own bed as I was off for the weekend.  Both ends of this county road would usually be plowed out, but the middle section was always a no-man’s land. With no houses or buildings to block the wind, just wide open fields, it was the perfect storm for winter white outs.  Luckily this section wasn’t well traveled as on many a snowy night I would often be the only fool on the road. 

On this night it was so bad I couldn’t even tell where the road was.  There was zero visibility.  Was I too close to the ditch? Where was the ditch? If you’ve ever driven a county road in the dark, there are no streetlights, only the light from your headlights.  I crawled along, plowing through the drifts, chewing gum (as opposed to clenching jaw) and listening to Pachelbel’s Cannon on repeat – my routine for those white-knuckle drives. I’m sure there was an angel on my shoulder that night. When I finally drove out of it, the road was still heavy with drifted-on snow but I could see the light from some of the farmhouses on either side – a navigation point , signs of civilization.

A friend of mine ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes one night in that same section. They must have become disoriented in the snow to have come so far out of the bush and refused to move off the road.   She finally drove through them and they parted – what a strange sight that must have been, a bunch of eerie eyes glaring at her, as if she had invaded their territory.

Hey, get off our turf!

 I’ve had other bad drives too (hey it’s Canada), and some thankfully, where I wasn’t driving.  Men always think they can drive through everything, and maybe you can if you have a big SUV/truck. At least then I could close my eyes and pretend to sleep or read a book to take my mind off the fact that we might be following a long line of red taillights right into a ditch.  I’d much rather drive in heavy rain than snow, more traction, but recall one horrible night drive in a fog so thick I could barely see the lines on the road. Where was Rudolph when you needed him?

Now that I’m retired, I’m grateful to be able to stay home when the weather outside is frightful, and looking back, I often wonder how I did it for thirty years? I’m not such a brave driver now that I’m older – I’ve become a weather wimp. If there’s a blizzard outside, I stay home and bake cookies, and say a prayer for those poor souls who must brave the elements to go to work.  

What’s the worst drive you’ve ever experienced?

Snowmageddon

The nor’easter which hit the US and Maritimes recently reminded me that it’s the ten year anniversary of “Snowmageddon” – the storm of the century in my part of Canada.  A  raging blizzard so bad that a massive dump of snow closed the major highway for two whole days.  Police patrolling the area on snowmobiles counted 200 tractor trailers and more than 100 cars trapped in the drifts, but the unofficial count put the number much higher, with estimates of 1500 passengers stranded and 700 rescued, with many vehicles simply abandoned on the country roads.

The storm started brewing on Sunday. Snow squalls coming off the lake usually move, but this one stayed stationary dumping over 40 cm of snow on the roads with 70 km/hr north winds making for blustery driving conditions. A state of emergency was declared on Monday and the national guard was called in, complete with rescue helicopters to airlift passengers who had been stranded in their vehicles overnight or longer.  

Send in the helicopters…

A snowplow towing a school bus was dispatched to collect people along the route and bring them to warming stations in the nearby villages.  By Tuesday night close to 300 motorists had been rescued from the worst hit section, but it took several more days for the plows and tow trucks to clear the 30 km stretch of highway and start in on the side roads. At the rescue centres, residents of the small towns and villages were generous with food donations, blankets and cots and some even opened up their homes to grateful strangers.  

Now, it’s nothing new for this highway to be closed periodically in the winter, usually just for a short period of time as streamers coming off the lake make the area notorious for sudden white-out conditions.   I should know, as I drove to work in this region for over thirty years.  As an essential worker, I was used to driving in anything, but even I did not go to work that day because all the roads in the area were closed.   People who had detoured off the main highway soon found themselves on roads less traveled but just as deep with drifts.   Friends of mine took in a couple who were stranded in front of their farm – for two days they fed them home-cooked meals, and played cards and told stories and so people from the city got to experience a dose of rural hospitality until their vehicle could be pulled out of the ditch.    

When I was working, I dreaded winter.   It might be bright and sunny when I left home, but by the time I reached the snowbelt area it would be a raging blizzard.   If you didn’t go in you were home safe but sorry, as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and a 12 hour shift and you’d make up for your day off with an increased workload the following day.  But I was a dedicated employee who seldom even took a sick day, so I’d go in and the drive would be predictably awful and my nerves would be shot by the time I got home.   

When I worked at a rural hospital, I was lucky as I drove in daylight. If it was bad out, I might leave a bit early to get away before dark, and if it was an exceptionally wicked storm I was allowed to stay home, at my discretion.  This would happen maybe once a year.  As so many of the employees lived out in the country, the hospital had a contingency plan where the current staff stayed over, and someone’s husband with a snowmobile could always be counted on to go out and collect the staff who lived in the town.   There wouldn’t be a lot of admissions on those days, surgeries would often be cancelled if the surgeons couldn’t get out, (once one of the doctors had to do a C-Section by phone when even the ambulance couldn’t get there), but the ER would be busy with the usual disasters that such weather always brings on – heart attacks for the snow-shovelers (best stock up on clot busters) car accidents, (hopefully minor, but not always, hence my anxiety about winter driving), and once someone frozen under the ice in a creek overnight (miraculously he survived intact).   

After I changed jobs and started working evenings, there was no backup plan.  I drove through everything as the only excuse for not showing up at work was if you were dead.   Snowmageddon was the only time I ever remember my workplace being closed, and that was only for one day.   Even my boss didn’t go in that day, having turned down the offer of a snowmobile ride.   It was one of the few occasions where there was nothing open and nobody out and about. The hospital was open of course, so it’s not like people were without medical options.   In fact, ER was doubly busy with all the stranded people who did not have their insulin/inhalers/critical meds with them.   And just for the record, this storm had been predicted – there had been plenty of warnings and advance notice starting on Sunday, so it’s not like it came out of nowhere, but some people don’t pay attention to the weather forecast.   I always had the weather network and the winter road report on speed-dial, and my emergency car kit would go in the trunk in the fall and stay there until May 1st.  Once November skies darkened and the flurries began to fly, my snow anxiety level remained on high alert.

Although I was some distance from the worst hit region, I didn’t have a snow day. I offered to pick up a shift for someone who lived along the lake and had no hope of getting here – she actually started crying on the phone, so great was her relief.   I only had a short drive and once I made it out of my subdivision it was okay.   It always amazed me how busy we would be on snow days, but I’ve reached the conclusion that some people just cannot deal with the claustrophobia of a snowstorm.  They must be out and about in the worst of weather conditions – to the grocery store to buy eggs, the library to return books – any excuse will do.

Waiting for the highway to reopen….

The next day, when the county road was still closed, I called my boss and told him I was not coming in.   This was met with a stony silence (and probably some degree of shock) and then a small voice….well couldn’t you come in later, if the road reopens?   It did finally at 4 pm, but no, I did not, as I would have had a miserable drive home in the dark, and there would have been no hope of booking in at the only B&B with all those stranded passengers. I didn’t even feel guilty as there was no thanks for helping him out the day before, and it’s not like he was by himself as someone who lived in town had come in to help him out.  The next day the sun shone and my courage returned, but there was hell to pay, as we were still backed up, but personally I’d rather be safe than dead in a ditch.        

We’ve had very little snow this winter, a few inches here and there, but no major snowstorms so far, although there has been in other parts of the province.   When I think of all those years I drove through hell and now that I’m retired, practically nothing, it makes me mad.  It also makes me wonder about climate change.  Maybe blizzards will soon be a thing of the past?    Maybe I’ll be like one of those old people telling tales about walking ten miles to school in two feet of snow….and reminiscing about the big blizzard of 2010. (Next week – Part Two – The Worst Drive Ever)

PS:   Does your workplace have a snowstorm contingency plan?   It seems to me that some places are open when they needn’t be.  Like the library for instance – is that an essential service?   I wish administrations would think about their staff when they make decisions, especially if they are driving home at night.   Even closing early would help.

Easy Comfort Food

It there’s ever been a time for comfort food, it’s now, in the winter of our discontent. Eating well is one of the few things we have to look forward to, locked in our homes day after day and our favorite dishes can return us to a time when the world seemed a more secure and safe place.

Comfort food is defined as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any dish with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.” (Oxford Dictionary) We may feel nostalgic for a favorite dish our mother used to make. Wikipedia even lists a breakdown of favorite comfort dishes according to nationality. (link) I’m glad to see butter tarts made the Canadian list, but my childhood butterscotch pudding did not. While nursery type foods such as puddings and oatmeal are often considered comfort foods, so are more hearty dishes like soups and stews and macaroni and cheese. Calorie dense, high carb, high fat foods may trigger the reward system in the brain, leading to a temporary elevation of mood and relaxation. Whatever the mechanism, we take comfort in refueling our bodies.

Today’s recipe is for Easy Microwave Rice Pudding. I’m not a big fan of rice pudding, but my mother loves it and those individual packaged portions are a staple on her grocery list. Last week when I was confronted by a whole container of leftover white rice from the Chinese restaurant (they insist on adding it to the takeout order even if you don’t want it), I decided to look for a recipe online, something simple, nothing to do with steaming in a double boiler etc. I’m all about easy these days, when we’ve been spending way too much time in the kitchen, and also against waste, when so many people are suffering from food insecurity.

1/2-3/4 cup sugar (I used brown sugar)

2 tablespoons cornstarch (30ml)

3 cups of milk

2-3 cups cooked rice (I used 2 1/2 cups as that’s what was in the Chinese food container)

1 teaspoon vanilla

The recipe also called for 1/4 teaspoon salt, one egg and 2 tablespoons of butter (the butter is optional) – all of which I omitted. I’m guessing the egg would add a creamy texture, or maybe the microwave would just hard-boil it, but eggs were in low supply so I left it out. I also added the vanilla at the beginning instead of the end, so it acquired a nice vanilla flavor as it cooked.

Whisk the ingredients in a large microwave bowl. Add raisins if you want, (I added them at the end as some people don’t like raisins and I didn’t want to overcook them). Put in microwave and cook 1 – 1 1/2 minutes. Remove and whisk. Put back in microwave for another 1 – 1 1/2 minutes. Remove and whisk again. Continue above steps until desired thickness – but don’t let it get too thick. You want it a little less than desired as it will continue to thicken as it sits. I repeated this four times but mine was a bit too thick, but then I only used 2 cups of milk initially.

Add anything else you want, cinnamon or nutmeg. Serve warm, or you can reheat with a splash of milk if it gets too thick. Makes six servings.

I forgot to take a pretty photo of it but here it is packed up in a container to be taken to someone who appreciates it more than I do.

A form of bribery…

Hot chocolate is a comfort food I associate with childhood snow days, but now use as a reward after my daily exercise. Walking in such frigid temperatures (it’s January-cold now), definitely requires a treat.

Imported French brand

I put a teaspoon or two of a good quality cocoa in a mug, add milk and sugar to taste and microwave the whole thing for a few minutes, stirring frequently to dissolve. So much better than those powdered pods, mixes or heated chocolate milk with it’s six teaspoons of sugar!

Chicken pot pie with biscuit topping….

Chicken pot pie is one of my favorite comfort dishes this winter. I’m spoiled by the deli’s takeout version, (it’s rich as they use cream) but if you have leftover chicken and frozen veggies you can whip up an easy meal. I tried this one with a biscuit topping, but think I prefer puff or regular pastry.

Mom’s homemade chicken soup

Any kind of soup qualifies as comfort food. My mother still likes to make a big pot of chicken soup occasionally, but Campbell’s chicken noodle is always my go-to on sick days, and scrambled eggs and toast when I’m feeling better but not quite recovered.

Stouffer’s mac and cheese with bread crumbs…..

When I was growing up, my mother made wonderful macaroni and cheese from scratch, something I’ve never bothered with as my cheese sauce never turns out as good as hers. Stouffers frozen mac and cheese is a close second, and if you spread bread crumbs on the top the last twenty minutes in the oven and bake until they are toasty brown, it can mimic homemade. Served with a green salad it makes a comforting and filling meal. A hearty homemade chili or beef stew is also a nice wintry dish, especially served with some nice fresh pumpernickel bread.

Today’s menu was meatloaf, just because it’s January and below zero.

Combo heaven…..

But the ultimate winter comfort food award goes to that old favorite – grilled cheese and tomato soup. Best served after shoveling out the driveway.

Oatmeal with brown sugar is a particularly filling start to the day, but I sometimes like it before bed, especially if I’m in the mood for something sweet.

I hope I have made you hungry! What are your favorite comfort dishes?

Postscript: Don’t forget to give the birds a treat…..and all creatures great and small. (Is anyone else finding that mini-series just a tad disappointing? Usually Masterpiece is spot on in their casting, but the actors seem either too old or too young for the part. The best acting so far goes to the cows and last week, the racehorse. The scenery is beautiful though, you can’t go wrong with sheep in green fields with stone walls.)

The squirrels didn’t like the panettoni either.
Gourmet bird seed…..and not a blue jay in sight….

Extra Time

Many of us have extra time on our hands these days, especially if you’re currently in lock-down and no longer have that daily commute to work – extra time to read, start a hobby, or attack that long list of things you always wanted to do. For some people staying home more has been a difficult adjustment, for others it’s a prelude to what retirement might be like someday and an opportunity to think about how you might like to spend your golden years.

This month’s Literary Salon pick, is Extra Time – Ten Lessons for An Aging World, a non-fiction book by Camilla Cavendish.

Publishers Blurb: (from Goodreads)

“From award-winning British journalist, Camilla Cavendish, comes a profound analysis of one of the biggest challenges facing the human population today.

The world is undergoing a dramatic demographic shift. By 2020, for the first time in history, the number of people aged 65 and over will outnumber children aged five and under. But our systems are lagging woefully behind this new reality. In Extra Time, Camilla Cavendish embarks on a journey to understand how different countries are responding to these unprecedented challenges.

Travelling across the world in a carefully researched and deeply human investigation, Cavendish contests many of the taboos around ageing. Interviewing leading scientists about breakthroughs that could soon transform the quality and extent of life, she sparks a debate about how governments, businesses, doctors, the media and each one of us should handle the second half of life. She argues that if we take a more positive approach, we should be able to reap the benefits of a prolonged life. But that will mean changing our attitudes and using technology, community, even anti-ageing pills, to bring about a revolution.”

Discussion:

With average life expectancy reaching into the mid-80’s now and people retiring early, we may have another 20 or 30 years of extra time. This thought-provoking book takes a look at the culture surrounding ageing in our society, and changes to the way we view ageing now. While not everyone agrees that 60 is the new 40, it’s true that many more of the “young-old” are enjoying active healthy lifestyles much longer than before. I remember thinking my parents were middle-aged at 40, and now people that age are going back to school, having babies, taking up sky-diving.

It’s no secret I like a good non-fiction book, especially one with a well-researched basis. This book delves into how different countries are handling the ageing epidemic without producing a strain on their economies or health-care systems, by exploring different ways of caring for the elderly or “very old.” Certainly the number of COVID deaths in nursing and retirement homes is telling us our current system is not working, and calls for government reform are ineffective if standards are never enforced. Many homes are understaffed and underfunded, as we have found out during the pandemic. Here in Canada they had to call in the military reserves to help feed and care for patients in particularly hard hit homes in Quebec and Ontario, a national disgrace, especially as many of them were privately-owned-for-profit places. I wonder how much cognitive decline ensues when residents are locked in their rooms every day without the stimulation of activities or even company at mealtimes.

There is a chapter on research into anti-aging strategies and one on implementing programs to give seniors a purpose in life and a meaningful way to give back. Think of how many healthy seniors there are whose talents are wasted as they are considered too old to work or contribute. Certainly it helps to have a purpose in life or a passionate pursuit of some kind, like my mother with her art – taking up painting at the age of 87 when she stopped driving. Of course my mother is fortunate to have her health and with all her relatives living well into their 90’s, a good dose of genetic luck. In a recent interview about her late-in-life art career, the radio host remarked, in her introductory comments, “Many people have second acts in their lives, but few well into their 90’s…..”

What would you like your second act to be? For those who dread old age, I found this book to be a positive, hopeful and uplifting read.

PS. Of course, the most tragic disease of old-age is Alzheimer’s. Just as I was posting this, I received an email about a new book by neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta. As I find his COVID advice to be both realistic and scientific, I’ll add this one to my future-to-read list. Keep Sharp – Build a Better Brain at any Age – by Sanjay Gupta.

(762 words)

Cabin Fever

By this time of year many of us are experiencing Cabin Fever – loosely defined as “irritability, listlessness, and boredom from long confinement or isolation indoors.” That feeling of being trapped is generally caused by snowstorms when you can’t go out even if you wanted to – those severe blizzards where they’re telling people to stay home, off the roads and wait for the snowplows to do their thing – but it’s been made even worse this year by the pandemic lockdowns. 

Although we may be stuck inside, we have all the comforts of home – a warm dwelling, good food and plenty of entertainment available.  It’s even possible to ignore things altogether if you don’t look outside, especially if you have a cozy fire to sit beside, a hot beverage and a good book or movie.  Winter can be very hygge.

While I would normally appreciate these quiet January days after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, lots of time to read and write and putter about pretending to reorganize, this year when we’ve been cooped up inside so much already, it seems downright claustrophobic.   So let’s call it pandemic fever instead.  In fact the term cabin fever had an early association with typhoid fever and quarantine.

As the term originated with the pioneers who spent long winters by themselves, when severe weather and long distances from neighbors were truly isolating, let’s take a look at how people coped with cabin fever way back when there were cabins.

The Log Cabin

I often wondered how my ancestors survived their first winter here.   They came from Ireland in 1846 during the potato famine, three brothers and their families, and after jumping ship in the St. Lawrence to evade the cholera epidemic, arrived in Toronto, starving and penniless.   They had to borrow one pound from the Immigrant Land Agent (National Archives Document Oct 16 1846) to pay for water transport to the area where they would settle.  The land was all wilderness then, and arriving so late in the year, they would never have survived the first winter were it not for the help of the Indians and a neighbor who helped them build a hut dwelling and showed them how to hunt for game.  (Most likely they ate a lot of venison stew).  They were unprepared for the cold and the snow as the posters advertising Upper Canada boasted about its abundant game (true) and tropical climate (well maybe in the summer).   Did they even have any warm clothing?   My great-grandfather, who had stayed behind to go to school, arrived later wearing a straw hat.  They would gladly have returned to the misery of Ireland in those early years. 

The First Winter

Their first homestead was on swampland and the water was bad, so eventually they moved to a different site a few miles down the road, where they build a log cabin, similar to this one I blogged about in my Pioneer Village post.   

The inspiration behind the painting….

This cabin dates from 1870, and is fairly large, with room for a farmhouse table and a sleeping loft above.    

A warm stove…

Another cabin on the site of the local Heritage Museum is much smaller, and housed just two people, a widow and her young son.  

The original Tiny House…

It was constructed in 1857 of lumber rather than logs, as there was a sawmill nearby – the interior is pine. With only two rooms, this typical first home was built quickly, as more effort went to clearing the land and planting crops.

While small in size, it was snug and warm with the long stove pipe circulating the heat across the house.  There was an additional sleeping space in the attic over the kitchen.

The rope bed was covered with a straw or feather mattress.

While the quilt is nice, it does make me grateful for my comfy bed, with its deep mattress, soft sheets and down comforter, and there’s certainly not much counter space in that kitchen!   

Now the local heritage museum is fund-raising to restore another log cabin.  

This one has an interesting and well-traveled history.   Originally built in 1840 in the Goderich area, it was disassembled in the 1930’s and floated down Lake Huron to a lakefront property where it was used as a summer cottage. In the 1970’s it was donated and moved to it’s current site in a local park where it was used for community events such as Christmas in the Park, until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was deemed unsafe and they decided to tear it down and build a replica.   A great hue and cry ensued from the public and the local historical society, so they relented and at a cost of $50,000 are paying to have it relocated to the museum site for future restoration.  I know, it seems a lot of money to spend on a derelict old building but they waste money on other things, and how many 180 year old log cabins are left?  This will be it’s third move, but just look at that solid construction.    

No chilly drafts would come through those thick walls, but they do need to do something about the broken windows.      

I’ve been feeling bad about my house lately. My renos remain undone, dust bunnies abound and I don’t seem to have the energy to give it a good cleaning. My cleanliness standards have slipped considerably since no one is seeing it but me. Hopefully in March I’ll be motivated to give it a good spring cleaning.

But after a look at these humble abodes, I’m appreciating my own home and hearth more, and feeling better about cabin fever. We have so many more creature comforts today and all the modern conveniences. Maybe it really is all about perspective.

With no internet or Netflix to occupy themselves with what did they do for entertainment back then?   Being Irish, I’m sure there was music – the fiddle – and story telling often took the place of books, and I hope there was comfort food too – warm bread and  apple pies and taffy treats.  

So perhaps some things haven’t changed – after today’s dose of wintry weather it’s time for some beef stew. 

Supper by candlelight…

PS.  While researching this, I came across two books, The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, a fictionalized historical novel based on the life of Susanna Moodie, a genteel English writer who immigrated to Canada in 1832. Moodie wrote about her experiences in the Canadian wilderness and subsequently published her memoirs as Roughing It In The Bush and Life in the Backwoods. I enjoyed the fictionalized book more, as it was rich in historical detail, although the first half in England was not as interesting. Both books depict a harsh life with many hardships and little in the way of fun or luxuries, a sobering look at the reality of pioneer life for many women.    

(1128 words)       

Bucket List – 2021

       It’s that time of year again – time to review last years resolutions (Bucket List 2020) and see what I’ve achieved over the past 365 days, and the answer is….not very much.   It’s not entirely my fault though – blame it on that little COVID creature we didn’t even know existed last January, or if we did, it was a mere rumor on the distant horizon.   While I was able to achieve some of my goals, most of them will be put back on this year’s list.     

Who moved the goalpost?

Exercise – I was more successful at walking this year, except for the month I hurt my back lifting the Pandemic Picnic table and the two months in the summer when it was too hot, but I’ve been diligent ever since, even in sleet and rain and snow…well we’ve hardly had any snow – two small storms which melted faster than Frosty. It’s been a very mild winter so far with daytime temps above freezing – I haven’t even worn my down parka yet. Perfect weather for walking, which gives me a daily dose of fresh air and music, and helps with the Cabin Fever.  (next weeks blog).  

Cabin in the Woods

Renos: The house projects never got done.   I was deep into quotes for new window dressings (shutters versus pull down blinds) when the March lockdown happened.  Same with the bathroom floor.  You would think with the pandemic things would be cheaper, but business was booming as everyone seemed to be doing home renos, but the main reason I didn’t proceed was I didn’t want anyone in my house measuring and installing and spreading germs.   It was bad enough when I had to get the furnace fixed in September, a job which involved two subcontractors (gas leak and new chimney liner) and three service techs.  They were mostly good at wearing masks, except for the guy who who kept disappearing on smoke breaks.   

Purging Possessions: The closets got cleaned out, but as the garage sale didn’t happen, most of the stuff eventually found its way back to its place of origin, including a whole bunch of Christmas decorations.  I’ve decided not to do a major cleaning-out this January as I normally would, better to buy a house with a big attic or loft. This shift away from simplifying was provoked by a simple comment someone made, “Why are you giving away all this perfectly good stuff?” (see blue lights at the end, so pretty but so ancient it came with a cord). If I do anything this winter, it might be my clothes closets. Someday I hope to be able to dress up again, and wear lipstick.

As for the rest – the low-fat cookbooks never even got opened (we needed comfort food), the new camera never got bought (required a trip to the camera store), the short story never got written (so not inspired), and I remain the last Netflix holdout in the country – lots of books got read though, more this year than ever.  (Thank God for library curbside pickup).  As for the shorter blogs, things started out well under 1000 words, but lately they have ballooned up to the two to three thousand mark again – with not much else to do, I wrote.

One bright spot this past year, was that my mother’s art exhibit went ahead despite the pandemic.   It’s up until next April, and even if not many people have visited, they put it online virtually – although they did such a great job with the display it’s simply stunning in person, all that color against dark gray walls.   Just after we did some local press in December, the province-wide lockdown started again – bad timing, but I did my first LIVE radio interview with a national news show – a nerve-racking experience, especially at that hour. I’m not a morning person but I set my alarm for 6 so I would be fully awake and somewhat coherent by 7 am.    My mother refused, as she said she would be too nervous, but I wasn’t about to turn down a producer from Toronto.  So add that to my agent resume!  

2021 Goals and Resolutions:

My first goal is to try and not get COVID before my turn in the vaccination lineup.   Our stats here were so low for so long that it was easy to go about doing essential things without too much excessive worry, but now I think I’ll revert to my hermit ways and my big three-week grocery marathons.   I don’t see general public vaccination on any large scale happening here until May at the earliest, so it will be a long cold winter spent hibernating. I have plenty of things to occupy my time though, reading, writing, blogging, and I may sign up for an online art appreciation course. Maybe a bit of TV watching – if you are a fan of Masterpiece, the mini-series All Creatures Great and Small based on the James Herriot books, is debuting this Sunday Jan 10 on PBS.

January is often a time for quiet reflection and my goals this year are tending towards the more philosophical.

Lavender in the snow….

Time for Reflection:   One of the striking things about this year is how much less rushed life has been.   Sometimes it’s good to slow down and be still, contemplate life in general and sift through what needs to be done and what is just busyness. Think about what’s truly important. Give thanks for each day, especially the small things we take for granted, like smelling coffee and breathing.

Christmas Card – CWL

Talk Less and Listen More: I used to be a quieter person, but my job for many years entailed extroverted qualities.  Leading such a quiet life this past year has brought me back to my quiet centre.  I’ve ordered Julia Cameron’s (of Artist’s Way fame) latest book, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention. Creativity is a quiet pursuit, thriving on time and solitude, both of which we have in abundance this winter.   May this year be a creative one for all my fellow bloggers!

Have faith – there is light at the end of the tunnel….

(988 words)

A COVID Christmas – The Corona Diaries – Part Three

Bah Humbug!

            Like many other people, I’m just not in the mood for Christmas this year.  Call me Scrooge, call me the Grinch – let’s just fast forward to January.

Many years ago, I read a book called Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham.  (goodreads link) It was a departure from his usual legal thrillers and in this short novel, the protagonist, fed up with the fuss and expense and drama of their elaborate and ever-expanding Christmas celebrations, announces to his wife his intention to skip it altogether. Spoiler alert – of course, he didn’t really skip Christmas, they just had a scaled down version of it, a simpler celebration, more in honor of the true meaning of the season. 

Many people will be having smaller Christmases this year with just those in their immediate bubble, and some people will be staying home alone.   While it’s nice to have a bit of a crowd around at Christmas there’s something to be said for quieter times too.  Christmas is often a sad time for those who have lost loved ones or who are alone and lonely, but pretending to be jolly when you’re not, can be exhausting too.   If you have to get in the Christmas spirit, because other people are depending on you to be a merry little elf, this song may help, because we all need a little Christmas, even if it’s just in small doses.

For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older….

I love the lyrics to this song, “Haul out the holly, Put up the tree before my spirit falls again, Fill up the stockings, I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.”

Feeling better now…perhaps a bit more gleeful?

Part of the problem with getting in the festive mood this year is that so many of our yuletide traditions have been modified or cancelled.   Who would have predicted this time last year that we’d be in the middle of a pandemic, and simply singing a Christmas carol would be forbidden – all those droplets spewing forth possible germs – yuck.   Other activities have adapted, so in Part Three of The Corona Diaries lets take a look at a few of those old favorites and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, or maybe even improved – yea more cookies for me! Fortunately the parts of Christmas I love the most, the lights, the decorating, the music and the food, tend to be COVID-resistant.

The Festive Special: 

Swiss Chalet has been offering their Christmas Special for over 30 years now.  It usually starts in mid-November as a kick-off to the season, in order to capture those hungry shoppers smart enough to do their shopping early.   This Canadian restaurant chain is known for their rotisserie quarter chicken dinners, and for three dollars more the Festive Special gets you a small scoop of (box) stuffing, a thimbleful of cranberry sauce and a gift box of five Lindor/Lindt chocolates.

Hey it’s a family tradition…..

This years TV commercial features a little girl excited to see Nana and Papa and then a shot of the family dining inside the restaurant, cut to the Door-Dash guy delivering a meal to the grandparents, and then the family zooming with them via an I-Pad on their respective tables.   Creative marketing at it’s finest.   Ours was take-out this year, and the cranberry sauce was as skimpy as ever, but the chocolates were good.  You can’t go wrong with Lindt Chocolates, even if you have to pay for the the free ones.

Musical Interlude – because mid-Nov. is still a bit too early for non-stop Christmas music. Anyone remember this song by the Queen of Soul? (youtube link)

 Nov 25 – Santa Claus is Coming To Town:

Last year’s nighttime parade….

The Santa Claus parade may be canceled, but Santa’s coming to a neighbourhood near you!   While many Santa Claus parades have become stationary drive-through events or are being conducted on football fields sans spectators and broadcast live (the annual Toronto parade), in the smaller cities and towns, the parade may come right to you.  I had forgotten all about this, until I heard the sirens and looked out and saw all the little kids in the neighborhood running down to the corner.   Kind of negates the idea of not congregating, but Santa can’t cover every street in town.   This year’s parade was really scaled down, only one float and two firetrucks, but Santa was on one of them.  Go Santa!         

Christmas Charities:

The Salvation army buckets are out in full force, but not manned this year, although some had the new tap and pay feature. Other charities have adapted too. Although there were no toy drive drop offs, just cash donations, Christmas for Everyone is still doing food and toy hampers, as the need is greater than ever this year.  The Legion and church offered take-out turkey and roast beef dinners as a fundraiser and sold-out in days – because who isn’t sick of cooking?   

Christmas Shopping: (or you’re a mean one, Mrs. Grinch)

I remember one year buying presents for 32 people – talk about insanity.  Only half of those were for family and the other half, friends or employees.   I was a department head and decided I would buy my staff a small gift, personally geared to their interests – I ran myself ragged shopping, and I don’t like Christmas shopping at the best of times.   I only did that one year, the next everyone got the same holiday candle and Tim Horton’s gift cards.  Work was always so busy that time of year that eventually I learned to shop early in the fall and would not go near the stores at all in December.  A hospital can be a sad place at Christmas and I can’t imagine how the staff are coping now, burnt out and exhausted, with all time off cancelled due to lack of staffing.  

I didn’t do ANY Christmas shopping this year – a few small gag gifts from the dollar store, but I did not go to any store for anything other than essentials.  Being retired now and our stats still good, I thought I had all kinds of time, but I left it too late and by then the numbers were ticking up and they were telling people to stay home. The few things I bought online had to be returned, so I just gave up, as Canada Post couldn’t promise delivery after Dec 3.   I don’t like online shopping anyway, preferring to actually see the item first, and on my one return-and-dash trip to the mall, it was so crowded I felt unsafe and left after half an hour. So this Christmas will be money stuffed in an envelope – not even gift cards.  I didn’t realize until recently that Visa gift cards expire if you shove them in a drawer and forget about them – yes after a year they start to subtract a monthly fee.   There’s nothing wrong with cash, you can take it to the bank and deposit it, and I had cash lying around I hadn’t used from the spring – so now it’s used up!    Easy-peasy!      

Dec 1 – Mad for Plaid:

My sole purchase for myself, as you need to treat yourself at Christmas too, was these plaid face masks.

I asked a neighbour where she got hers and she said Old Navy and she liked them as most masks were too big for her narrow face and these have side loops you can adjust, so I got a pack of the Christmas plaid ones on sale – $11 for 5.    Plaid is festive at Christmas and matches my plaid scarves from those new coats I blogged about last year, now sitting in my closet with no place to go.  (link to Joni and the Amazing Technicolor Coats).   You might think it’s too much plaid but style icon Kate Middleton wore one, so that’s good enough for me, and I find anything plaid immensely cheering.

Dec 9 – Baking:

Speaking of treats, we all have to eat, so why not treat yourself to Santa’s Favorite Chocolate Cookies (link to blog).  I only make these rich decadent cookies once a year at Christmas and normally would make several batches to give away, but this year I don’t have to!   I made my first batch in early December – 28 cookies I don’t have to share!  Well, I shared some…..but still…more for me!  Baking is also a good way to use up all that flour you stockpiled in the spring with the best of bread-baking intentions.

Dec 12 and 15 – Deck the Halls:

I was late putting up the decorations this year, so I didn’t put up as much, either inside or out, as in a few weeks I’ll just have to take them all down again, and that’s always a downer. I’m keeping it simple.   A few wreaths outside, no lights, but candles in the windows.   I know everyone is going overboard with lights this year but they sold out early and I forgot to ask the electrician when he upgraded the hydro if I could still use the front outdoor socket.

Instead of buying those overpriced pine arrangements  I stole this idea from my neighbor, after watching her out my kitchen window one morning, hacking branches off her pine tree with pruning shears.  Saves money ($35) and the rustic look is in.   I just love the plaid ribbon, and the cattails were from a ditch. 

My mother’s evergreen tree willingly donated some branches,

It needed a trim anyway….

 so I did one for her with a few dollar store decorations from previous years.  

And then one for my front porch.

Personally I think there should be a law against those blow up decorations – if you’re already feeling deflated this Christmas, a sight like this doesn’t help.  

Charlie Brown looks so sad….

Someone in my neighbourhood has so many of them on their small lot that I lost count after thirty. There should be a bylaw – two per household, and only if you have little children.   

 A Charlie Brown Holly Bush:

My holly bush is keeping it simple too.   I planted four of these one year, one male and his harem of three, but two died and the surviving one is really just a Holly Golightly twig.   As they’re sandwiched in between a row of lavender and a row of rose bushes (not one of my better landscaping decisions) they never really did well.  But one sprig of holly is all you need for atop the store-bought Christmas pudding. 

Holiday Movies:

The Sound of Music (check), White Christmas (check), that one with the annoying kid with the BB gun (check) – my mother loves A Christmas Story, it reminds her of growing up in the Depression. I haven’t watched Scrooge or It’s A Wonderful Life, but they’re always on Christmas Eve day.   

Holiday Music:

I started listening early, as motivation to walk – fresh air and music.  As well as the usual Christmas favorites, I’m enjoying some of the old Christmas hymns I remember from Christmas Eve services.  (link to blog – Joy to the World – Christmas Playlist)   There won’t be any midnight mass here this year, certainly no choir, just an early service you have to register for online, and a video broadcast link later. We usually tune into the church channel with the Basilica from Washington DC, if they are allowed to have it this year?  

I always enjoyed this Christmas reggae song by Boney M – very uplifting.

The Reason for the Season:

If you’re feeling frazzled, like the jolly guy here, clinging to the tree, remember this too shall pass, and remember the reason for the season.   Keep those traditions you can and those that have meaning for you and let the others go for this year.   Peace and goodwill to all.  Wishing everyone a Merry Little Christmas!

PS.   Will you be staying home for Christmas? Are there any Christmas traditions you are especially missing? Any new ones you have started?

A Christmas Carol – Food, Glorious Food!

     I’ve written before about A Christmas Carol being one of my favorite books, and in part one A Christmas Carol with Recipes, I review the Book to Table classic edition of this perennial favorite. I had expected the recipes in that book to be related to what they might have eaten in Dickens time (1843) instead of the usual modern dishes, but after staring at all those mouth-watering photos I’m hungry, so in part two, let’s discuss the food in Dickens famous novel – food, glorious food!  

From the 1967 musical Oliver Twist

There are many glorious descriptions of food in A Christmas Carol – who doesn’t remember the famous goose or the pudding singing in the copper?

The first mention comes in the introductory scene where Scrooge is nursing a head cold beside his meagre fire.

I’ve often wondered about the gruel.   Yes, I know it’s that bland watery substance that Oliver Twist got in trouble over, asking for more, but what exactly is it and what does it taste like?  According to the dictionary, gruel is “a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water.” It was a staple for the poor in the past, peasant food for the masses. According to Wikipedia (link) it was on the supper menu for the third class passengers on the eve of the Titanic sinking. (How about that for your last meal?) No more for me thanks, I’d rather have Quaker Oatmeal, thick like glue with raisins and brown sugar, and maybe a hot toddy for my next head cold, or one of those hot lemon drinks designed to knock you out.   

The first major description of food and drink comes in the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, at Old Fezziwig’s work party and will have your toe tapping and your mouth drooling over the festive spread.   

Negus is a beverage made of wine, often port, mixed with hot water, oranges or lemons, spices and sugar – an old-fashioned name for mulled wine. Yes, to that and to the cake and mince-pies too. Mince pie is another tradition which many people don’t care for anymore, along with fruitcake, but I love them both. Port is a type of fortified red wine, often blended with a spirit such as brandy, making it stronger and more shelf-stable. My father used to have a class of port with a piece of fruitcake on Christmas eve, while watching midnight mass, and sometimes I would join him, but it’s a strong drink which would send me straight to bed. A tradition inherited from his Irish ancestors, that was the only time of year the bottle was brought out, so a bottle could last for years.

You have to admire generous old Fezziwig for having an open bar for his poor overworked underpaid employees. I like to re-read this passage as I don’t recall ever having such fun at an office party myself.

The next major food section takes place with the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the big jolly guy with the cornucopia of food spread out at his feet.

I’ve always wanted to make a twelfth night cake, twelfth night being Jan 5.   An old British tradition, it’s a rich fruitcake with royal icing into which was baked a pea or a bean or in modern days a trinket. Whoever gets the piece with the lucky charm is crowned King or Queen for the Day.  I found a package one Christmas in one of those overpriced boutique stores – basically it contained a dry cake mix and a gold foil- covered coin – a gimmick for $20 and probably not worth a trip to the dentist over a broken tooth, especially in these times of COVID precautions, but it’s an intriguing idea – perhaps more suitable for a New Year’s dinner some other year.

While Scrooge is out wandering the streets, he comes upon a poulterers, home to the prize turkey, and a fruiterers shop.   

Fruit and nuts were a rarity in Dickens’ time, in much the same way as older folks remember getting an orange only at Christmas.   When I was growing up on the farm, after the dishes were done (by hand, no dishwasher with well water) and the table cleared, a bowl of fruit and a bowl of mixed nuts was set out to be nibbled at leisure, for no one was truly hungry after the main feast. The nuts were in their shells (hazelnuts, walnuts) and they required work to get at the meat. We’ve lost this old tradition, but I still have the silver nutcrackers and the slender picks. The Cratchits put a shovelful of chestnuts on the fire after their feast, but I’ve never tried roasted chestnuts before, although I’ve seen them in the grocery store this time of year. Which brings us to the grocer’s…    

Not sure I would rhapsodize about grocery shopping like this, as it’s still my least favorite essential activity, but I am grateful for the ability to buy food.

Not my grocery shopping experience….

I particularly like his descriptions of the good cheer expressed by the shoppers – I’m not sure that is still applicable today, when people pummel poor sales clerks over having to wear a mask or fight over the last Sony Playstation on the shelf.   

Scrooge pays particular attention to the dinners of the poor, for not having an oven of their own their meals would have to be conveyed to the Bakers to be cooked, and then fetched back home again.  

Some of that pixie water might come in handy….

There was much hunger and poverty in Dickens time, with poor houses and work houses being common experiences for many. The ghost warns of the dangers of Want and Ignorance in the two malnourished youths at his feet.   

It’s heart-breaking to see those long line-ups of cars at the food banks during the pandemic, many of whom have lost their jobs and have never had to use such a service before.   

The Cratchits were a “working poor” family, and of course Dickens most famous food scene is that of their Christmas dinner.

It was tradition then to have a goose for the feast, and my parents, being rural people recall having goose for Christmas dinner in their younger years. Most farms had a goose on the premises which could be sacrificed for the cause, whereas a turkey was a rarer bird.

Photo from 1920-30, sent from Seattle relatives after a visit home.

Although turkeys are mentioned in the book – the prize turkey hanging there still which the remarkable boy goes forth to purchase for Scrooge – they did not become the more popular Christmas fare until later.

And oh the pudding, born aloft in a blaze of holly and fussed over as to the quantity of flour, and Bob Cratchits compliments to the chef for pulling off such a grand feast on such a small budget. This is one tradition I do uphold but this year my plum pudding will come in a box complete with prepared sauce, although normally I would make the sauce.

And at the end of the book, a reformed Scrooge extends an invitation to his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchit, to share in a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop punch.

Smoking Bishop was another type of mulled wassail drink, with the lemon or orange spiked with cloves and roasted over a fire before being added to a mixture of port wine and spices. (Wikipedia link)

As Tiny Tim proclaims at the end, “God bless us every one!” 

Wherever you are and whatever you are eating this holiday season remember to give blessings for the food on the table and the company around it.  And if you happen to be home alone, as the young Scrooge was reading by the fire, then a book such as a Christmas Carol is always good company.    

PS.  Portions of this were adapted from A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life – Dec 2018.

A Christmas Carol – with Recipes

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books, and I make time to re-read it every December.  In fact I’ve read it so many times I have entire sections memorized. No matter how Scrooge-like I’m feeling (especially so this year), it never fails to get me in the mood for Christmas.  I came across this beautiful hardcopy on the bookoutlet site recently, one of the Book to Table classic series, and decided I needed a new edition – because who doesn’t like a new cookbook too!

Publisher’s Blurb:  A deluxe, full-color hardback edition of the perennial Christmas classic featuring a selection of recipes for your holiday table from Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Trisha Yearwood!

Have your book and eat it, too, with this clever edition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol featuring delicious recipes from celebrity chefs. Plan your perfect Christmas feast with a carefully curated menu of holiday dishes, from succulent baked ham to smashed root vegetables. And top it all off with fruitcake cookies and pecan pie. Celebrate the holiday with a good meal and a good book!

Book includes full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, interspersed with recipes, food photography, and special food artwork.

My Review:  It is a lovely book, there’s no doubt about it, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed in the recipes.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps something from the Dickens era?  What’s in a bowl of Smokin’ Bishop punch? (see Part Two) Or at least a recipe for plum pudding?

My turkey breast is never that perfectly sliced….

Instead, it’s the standard holiday fare, turkey, baked ham, mashed potatoes, with an assortment of the traditional side dishes, cranberry sauce, candied carrots, buttermilk biscuits, pecan pie. The recipes for spinach salad and asparagus with hollandaise sauce look good, but that’s spring-time food in my opinion! There are 13 recipes in all, grouped according to starters, entrees, side dishes, and desserts.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new, and these recipes by Martha & company look delicious, but this is the time of year we crave tradition, even more so this year, and there’s comfort and joy in having the same menu year after year. Besides, every family has their own version of these old favorites, a time-honored way of preparing the potatoes or the stuffing. In my dad’s big Irish family, the  dressing/stuffing was made outside the bird, in pans so there would be enough to go around and the recipe is pretty basic – sauteed onions in butter poured over stale broken-up bread crumbs and sprinkled liberally with savory, and a pinch of thyme and sage, cooked in the oven until soggy and then re-heated later.   We still make it that way, but in a white Corning-ware casserole dish.   From my maternal grandma, we inherited mushy peas – smashed peas with butter.   No green bean or sweet potato casseroles here in my Canadian family, nor pecan pie – that’s southern fare. Our other vegetable is squash – acorn only. And although the buttermilk biscuits in the book look good, we must have the same soft white dinner rolls bought from the same bakery, but only for the holidays. (I wonder what we’ll do if they ever go out of business.)

Dessert is plum pudding served with rum caramel sauce, and occasionally mince or apple pie.  When I was growing up, dessert was just sliced fruit cake and cookies, served on a gold glass cake platter and a big bowl of fruit jello, red with bananas and grapes and topped with whipped cream – because everyone was just too full and what kid lingered at the dinner table when there were new toys to be played with! Back then the turkey was a twenty pounder, straight out of Norman Rockwell, as there would be turkey pies and stew later.   My mother would get up at 5 am to put it in the oven as we would eat at 1 pm after church. Now with a smaller number, a double turkey breast is better and far less messy, while still leaving plenty of leftovers of white meat, which is all we like anyway.

Since I won’t be making a fruitcake this year, I might try the fruitcake cookies, but I don’t need 5 dozen.

and the apple-cranberry crisp might be nice on a cold January day.   

Overall, it’s a visually appealing book, and if you don’t already own a copy, it’s well worth the discounted price ($9 vs $34 Cdn), plus it would make a nice Christmas present for someone who likes to cook.   

PS. What are some of your traditional Christmas recipes?

PS.   Charles Dickens was a master of description – so if you’re in the mood for some more food, hop on over to part two – Food Glorious Food – for a sample of his fare.