“If she weighs as much as a duck…”



This is the first time in my recollection that I was actually scared by a Hallowe’en display. Normally I don’t find Hallowe’en scary – on the contrary, I love it, especially with everyone in this neighbourhood competing to recreate the most realistic cemetery or charnel-pit their front yard might allow. It’s all that, and chocolate too. The best holiday of the year!

But this year I found myself looking at a display that truly disturbed me, to the point that I had to avert my eyes every time I passed that house. It was a great effort – a very imaginative and well-executed rendering of an historical event- and the family had clearly put a lot of work into it. When I saw it, though, I was filled not with admiration but with fear, and pity, and sorrow. Which was weird, even for me – a possessor of a very active imagination and very thin skin. How come all the other yards – full of open graves and severed heads – didn’t bother me, but this yard made me shudder, and hurry quickly away?

This was their display: a half-dozen life-sized, upright skeletons, arranged on the house’s small front lawn. Four skeletons were dressed as Puritans, in black greatcoats and tall hats; they stood in a semi-circle, in an attitude of intense discussion, or perhaps prayer. A little behind them stood a skeleton-priest, clutching a Bible and holding one hand aloft. Behind all these men was the skeleton of a woman being burned at the stake. Her hands were stretched above her head, pinioned there by chains; she was naked, and her feet were sunk into an active “fire” (real logs; electric-fan-blown tissue-paper flames; smoke-machine smoke). Her face looked directly at passers-by, as her red hair tumbled down across her shoulders. She cast her empty eyes out past the men who had done this to her, and begged for help.

In front of all this was a large wooden sign: WELCOME TO THE WITCH TRIALS.

I was horrified. For me, those witch trials were personal. Those women – women like me – were killed because they were perceived to be misbehaving. They did not toe the line; they were perhaps very smart – smarter than the men around them – and they perhaps knew things, like how to use poultices or brew healing tea. Or how to run the village. Maybe they spoke too passionately; rejected religion; enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) sex with men. Whatever reason, they were singled out, and they were killed. They were hung, burned, and even crushed. Because they were women who didn’t behave like they were supposed to.

So there it was – I took the display personally. A little strange, but perhaps understandable. But why the fear? After all, it was centuries ago. We do not treat women like that anymore. It’s not a current problem.

But I fear – literally fear – that it is a current problem. I was not just mourning the deaths of hundreds of years ago; I was afraid for what’s happening today, as exposed by the American election. It’s not just Trump’s boasts of sexual assault, and his threats to take away our reproductive freedom. It’s the orchestrated and intense witch hunt that is underway against Hillary Clinton, to the point where her safety is at stake.

What has happened to Hillary Clinton’s reputation is the quintessential witch hunt. I’m not talking about legitimate criticism of a political figure. Heck, there’s lots to criticize her about. But there are people out there – lots of people – who want her dead. They want to kill her, shouting out just about every ridiculous accusation, some of them right up there with “she turned me into a newt.” And she’s not the only woman at risk for being powerful – or just for speaking up. The women who came forward to out Trump’s sexual assaults have all gone into hiding, and the one who had the guts to bring a lawsuit has just dropped it. Hunted down, she gave up. She was legitimately afraid for her life.

If Trump is elected, who knows what will happen? Maybe there will still be due process in the States under Trump’s thumb. But let’s not forget that there is a cabal of FBI officers in New York City who orchestrated the bullshit “reopening” of the “investigation” into Clinton’s email server. If the highest law enforcement agency in the land so despises this woman that they would do something like that, what’s to stop Trump for having her arrested? Who’s going to protect her, if the agencies meant to protect people are all standing around doing nothing – like those Puritan figures with their backs turned to the woman in the flames?

And that’s what I found so scary, in my neighbours’ witch-hunt display: echoes not only of the past, but of an active present, and of a possibly-foreseeable future.

Working It All Out



Okay, so I joined a gym. I’ve done that before. Probably most of us have. But for me, joining a gym is a two-edged sword. On the one edge, there is the fun of it – the bouncy, booty-shaking, bass-thumpin’ fitness classes; the steel complexes of weights and chains, clanging and ringing like bells; the treadmills churning beneath your feet, while you race yourself against the ticking lap-meter. Yes, I find that stuff fun: yes, I love wearing myself out at the gym. I love my wobbly legs and my bright red face and the fact that I stretched this much further than I did two weeks ago. I might ask myself: why don’t I do this more often?

Well, that’s the other edge of the sword, isn’t it? Gyms are pretty inexpensive nowadays, so it’s not the money, and they’re usually open 24 hours, so it’s not the time. The other edge of the sword is the shame aspect. The fear of scrutiny; of analysis; of judgment. The shame of working out – while fat.

Gyms, historically, are not safe spaces for – ahem – people of size. I know we’re supposed to be past “fat shaming,” but once you’ve been bullied for being fat, it sticks with you. Especially in a gym, the House of Shame. You remember being the last one to make the twenty laps of the that hellhole known as the high school gymnasium, and the troop of girls waiting for you to finish, calling out the Fat Albert “hey, hey, hey” call as you jogged determinedly by; you remember – in adult years – the up-and-down look the other women in fitness clubs gave you when you walked into aerobics class. Sometimes, you’d get some helpful remarks in the change room: have you tried Weight Watchers? or You know, this club has a nutritionist. Gyms weren’t fun places, and it wasn’t because the workout was too hard: it was because of how clear it was made that you don’t belong here. How you ought to be ashamed, showing up here, looking like that.

But it is better now, and not just because I’m not in one of those glittery chrome-and-neon gyms where everybody seems to be more into showing off than working out. It might be partly age: as you get older in your fat-woman body, you become older-woman invisible, and the body that caused such disgust and vocal criticism when you were 12 or 21 or even 41 is now pretty-much your average middle-aged-ladybody, and nothing to remark on. So maybe the sight of me thundering along on the treadmill, my face as florid as a torture victim’s, is no longer worthy of comment. Maybe no one is saying anything – or giving me that look – because I’ve moved into another realm, where I’m not working out with the goal of looking gorgeous. Gorgeous is for the young. Me, I just want to be able to ride my horse without hurting his back; I just want to not to have wear a size 22. And my reason for “strengthening my core” is not at all about wanting to wear a bikini. It’s about not wanting to wear an incontinence pad.

I’ve been going for a week now, and after a day or two, I was able to shake off most of the feeling of being watched and judged, realizing that – in fact – nobody was watching. But I still am not completely enjoying my workouts. It sunk in a few days ago, while I saw myself in the mirror in front of the treadmill, that I was still hearing a terrible, mocking, censorious voice: the one calling me fatso, the one telling me I was going too slow; that everyone else was faster and sleeker and just so much better than I was. I was still seeing myself through the eyes of someone who was trying to shame me. And I suddenly knew that the only person shaming me…was me.

The trainer asked me yesterday about my fitness goals. Well, there’s not squishing my horse/not wearing a caftan/not peeing myself (see above). But my biggest goal is more subtle, and much harder for me than doing a 5K or planking for two minutes straight. For me, it will be to stop watching myself through the eyes of long-gone bullies. It will be to forget all those gyms of the past. It will be to run, and stretch, and play, in the moment I have now, and in the body I have now, in the gymnasium that I just joined, because I am not ashamed.  


Not Guilty. Guilty.


Ghomeshi not guilty. Not surprising.

 Women (and men) sexual assault victims, don’t let this chill you. Be brave. Be honest. Be circumspect in your communications post-assault.

Sexual assault is not going away. And the justice system IS changing, slowly, for the better. Just the fact that the victim no longer has to prove penetration, for instance, is a huge change from when I was a little girl. And there have been many, many other improvements (disallowing evidence of previous sexual conduct, for instance).

This was a pathological series of cases, where the complainant witnesses made many ill-advised choices in terms of their providing of information, and their post-reporting behaviour. That there was acquittal is not surprising.

For women, sexual assault is an everyday occurrence. We blow off the instances of subway frottage, of walk-by breast grabs, of the fingers thrust into our vaginas and bottoms when we move through crowds, of men we incorrectly assessed as “safe” turning out – with shocking suddenness – to be anything but, of full-blown rapes while we were unconscious drunk. We MUST report these things wherever possible. And we MUST, wherever possible, YELL fucking bloody blue murder. When some cocksucker grabs us in the subway, YELL. YELL. Call him out, call him every name in the book. Yes, he will sneer at you, yes he will laugh and say you’re crazy (that’s what’s happened when I’ve done it). But at least you have been heard. And YES, there are many who will believe you.

As for reporting to the police, yes, when you report the assaults you suffer, YES, you will suffer again. Yes, you will have the indignity of the rape kit examination (with the cop in the room while the doctor swabs you); you will have the eye-rolls and the “we can’t do anything,” from the reporting officers (although the one time I reported a sexual assault, the cop was extraordinarily kind, but sadly it was a stranger assault by someone who escaped, and there was no luck finding him). Don’t ASSUME you will receive no support. Do your best to be stay with it, despite the overwhelming desire to let it go at once. To “forget it ever happened.”

 We owe it to each other to expose this to the light, despite what happened in this extraordinary case of late reporting, inconsistent memories, self-serving hiding-of-evidence, and over-enthusiastic but perfectly-understandable I’m-gonna-get-this-bastard email exchanges. Even if there is an acquittal – which, because of the high standard of proof, is entirely likely to happen – you will at least have called the fucker out. You have NOT let him get away with it.

 Do your best to report it, if at all possible. Don’t let this shitshow shut you down.

Plus ca change, plus ca change


My mother says that the world has changed so much that it frightens her. She says it casually, as a passing remark, but underneath she means it. The world is a foreign place now. It’s a science fiction story wrought real. Videophones and spy cameras; computers no bigger than a biscuit. Jet aircraft passing her apartment window on unseen highways in the air, one jet barely passing out of range before another appears. She counts them to pass the time.

“It’s like trainspotting,” I suggest.

“I suppose it is,” she replies.

She came to Canada by boat. Not plane. Not jet. A terrible war had ended less than a decade before. She was Australian, and the threat of invasion during the war had been real and imminent. Her home town, Townsville, was bombed by the Japanese. The official report on the incident sneeringly advised the populace that the incompetent and not-to-be-feared-at-all Japanese had succeeded only in killing a goat. Nothing to be afraid of here. Carry on, Australia!

Mum says she didn’t care much about the war. She was 16 years old, and very pretty, although “small” (which was, apparently, not a good thing in the boys’ eyes). There were many armed forces stationed near her home, and she and her girlfriends would go to dances with the soldiers. They never lacked for dances. I have seen a picture of her in a dress with a billowing skirt, her dark hair in rolled curls, sitting at a dance, smiling to someone off-camera. I get the feeling there are cherries on the dress, but I can’t say where I got that idea.

One Saturday the girls went to the dance hall, and there was no dance, and no soldiers. They’d all been shipped out. The girls were surprised and disappointed. No more dances! How could that be?

“I was a little fool,” says Mum.

Eventually the Japanese were beaten, by the soldiers who were shipped out perhaps, and Mum went on to quit high school (as was done by girls in those days, even terribly bright girls like Mum) and to work as an office clerk while awaiting marriage. She worked for several years, saving most of the money, more by accident than by design, for there wasn’t much to spend it on.

Then, in 1950, when Mum was 25, an office chum named Cecily announced that she was going to sail to England, and then tour through Europe. She’d be gone for years, on a great adventure, Cecily said. Mum thought it sounded wonderful. She told Cecily she’d like to come along, and Cecily agreed. So off the girls went, boarding the Mooltan with all the other people leaving Australia.

Mum waved down to her mother – my grandmother – from the upper deck. Only years later did Mum recall the grimace on her mother’s face, as she tried to smile through her heartbreak.

The Mooltan stopped in India, where Mum and Cecily explored Bombay. She recalls the beggar children swarming around the passengers, crying out in what English they knew. No mother, no father, please give me, please give me. Then off again, across the Indian Ocean and up through the Suez canal. The canal, to her surprise, was winding, threading through the desert like a lazy snake. She saw great ships apparently stranded in the sand, and wondered why they were there, so far from the sea. But then the canal twisted and she saw they were resting on water, the canal being lower than the dunes.

Then they were free of the desert, and crossing the Mediterranean to Marseilles. The harbor there was filled with wrecked warships. The Mooltan negotiated her way through the wreckage, and docked. The girls disembarked, and took a bus tour with a driver who tried to cheat Mum out of her change. In her Australian private-girls’-school French, Mum declared, “Vous me devez quarante francs!” But he had no idea what she was saying. She was more disappointed at the failure of her French than at the loss of the forty francs.

The Mooltan landed in England; out emerged my mother and Cecily. Mum worked in London for a year. She worked for a company called Industrial Specialties, as a clerk-typist, a job that no longer exists. She recalls being teased for dressing strangely – a cotton dress with a gold belt; a hat with a splash of ornamental fruit. But otherwise, people were kind, even to an Australian girl who dressed funny.

She roomed with an English family whose name she forgets, but she recalls the address. I show it to her on Google Earth.

“That’s the place all right,” she says. “My goodness.”

She and Cecily hitchhiked all through Europe, down into Italy and up to Scandinavia. Not once did they feel they were in any danger, and not once did any of the men who gave them lifts treat them at all improperly. There was one American soldier in a Jeep who commented on the brevity of Cecily’s Australian-style shorts, but that was as close as anyone came to being even mildly impolite. In Germany, the girls ran out of money, so they worked at one of the camps that engaged travellers as workers, for room and board. She has photographs and names of the people she worked with, building houses on the rubble of post-war Germany. She has looked up their names on the internet, and found many of them.

“But,” she says, “they’re all dead. Except me.”

I ask her about Cecily, a girl (a woman) about whom I’ve heard so much over the years. Cecily and I did this, Cecily and I did that, Cecily on the Mooltan, Cecily going back to Australia while Mum went on to Canada. Cecily, with whom she never stayed in touch. To my surprise, the internet has revealed that Cecily is still alive. Mum says she’s in New South Wales somewhere.

“Are you going to get in touch with her?” I ask.

“Heavens, no,” says Mum. “I never liked Cecily.”

My Mum is the only one of her family that emigrated from Australia. Her mother, who had stood weeping on the pier as the Mooltan pulled away, saw her daughter only three more times in her lifetime. Perhaps she’d had a premonition, that her “little Margo” was never coming home. And that’s what happened: Mum decided to see Canada on her way home to Australia, and visit a distant cousin of the English line of the family, who lived in Toronto. She hung about long enough to meet Dad, and marry him. My grandmother came over in 1954 to see Mum (and meet her new son-in-law), travelling by a long series of propeller planes. She landed in the Malton airport after a journey of nearly a week. When Mum took my sister and me to Australia in 1968, we too left from Malton – a few runways in a field surrounded by farms. Malton is now called Pearson International, and has three terminals, a hotel, and a monorail. It spews jets into the sky for my mother to count.

            The last time my mother went home to Australia, her mother was 87, three years younger than she herself is now. But Grandma didn’t know her daughter at all. Mum read to her, showing her pictures in a book. She showed her a picture of a horse. “Ah,” said Grandma suddenly, after having said nothing before that at all. “A gee-gee.”

“What’s a gee-gee?” I ask Mum.

“A pet name for a horse. There were a lot of horses when I was a girl, and when Mum was a girl too of course. There was a paddock at my school for the horses. The children would come in from the farms and the stations, three and four on one horse.”

My mother went to a school that had a paddock for the horses. Now she lives in an apartment that has jet aircraft buzzing by outside. This in only one lifetime.

“It really is remarkable,” she says.

Mum did not really stay in close touch with her Australian family, beyond her Mum and her sister Pam. Pam is now in a home in Brisbane, “her mind quite gone,” as Mum puts it. She also stayed in touch with her cousin Val for many years. I knew Val as “Auntie Val,” and she was the daughter of my grandmother’s sister. She and Mum were quite close, and Val had come to Canada several times when I was young. Her husband – Uncle Wally – liked maple walnut ice cream, and called the family dog Snuffleguts. Mum and Val corresponded for years on blue tissue-paper air-mail forms. Eventually, they used email. But somewhere in their 80s, they stopped doing that.

Mum is now 90. Val is 91. And yesterday, their cousin Bill turned 90. Their daughters threw Bill a party. We “girls” set up a Skype call for the three of them – Bill, Val and Mum – to talk. After we struggled through the arithmetic of the time change (what time is it there? what day?), we managed to get the three of them seated and seeing one another, Bill resplendent with his medals and insignia (including his wings for flying a DeHavilland Mosquito in the war). We wave old photographs at the camera; Bill produces a large framed portrait of himself in uniform and holds it so Mum can see it, across the miles.

“Oh, I recognize that young man!” Mum says. “That’s Bill!”

Mum tells the story of how Bill, at age 18 and freshly inducted, arrived at Mum’s work one lunchtime, as a surprise. She was 18 herself, and working at Shell Oil as a clerk. All the girls were abuzz, because Margie had a visitor, a dashing airman in his uniform. They were all very deflated when it turned out the visiting young airman was only Marg’s cousin, and not her beau.

A little light goes on in Bill’s eyes. He smiles. “I seem to remember that,” he says. “Yes, I remember that.”

After we all log off, Mum seems quite unimpressed about the whole thing. Well, of course you can see people on the computer nowadays, she says. Of course you can talk to them, even if they’re in Australia. It’s computers.

“Do you remember, Mum,” I say, “when I was little, and you would make a telephone call to Grandma? And it was such a big deal, and so expensive? You’d call the operator, and the operator would call the overseas operator, and the overseas operator would call the one in Australia, and the operator there would call Grandma, and they’d hook it all up, and then they’d call us back, and we’d all be waiting in the kitchen for the phone to ring, and for it to be the operator calling back, saying, ‘Ready now with your call to Australia’?”

Mum shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I don’t remember that.”

The next morning, I get two excited emails from Mum. Now it is hitting her, that she had talked to Bill and Val. I tell her I made a little video of it, just a minute long, of the moment the three of them saw each other again. I tell her I’ll email it to her, or if it’s too big, I’ll upload it to Youtube or Dropbox and we can watch it at her place.

When she’s emotional, she gets confused and overwhelmed. “A video?” she says.

“Yes, mum, a little movie. Just a little one.”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I know how that works.”

She tells me that the first movie she remembers seeing was The Wizard Of Oz. People lined up around the block and waited all night to get tickets. When Dorothy opened the door to her transported house, and entered a world full of colour, everyone in the cinema gasped out loud. They could not believe what they were seeing. It was miraculous.

Now I can show Mum that movie on her computer. But she’s not that interested anymore.

“Everything has changed,” she says. “It’s a little frightening.”

Yes. And a little miraculous, too.

More Mortgage Than Mortar


house of money

It’s not news to say that in the city in which I live – Toronto – it’s very hard to buy a home. Heck, often, it’s next-to-impossible. A run-down lean-to in a dangerous neighbourhood will still cost you close to four hundred grand. That means a minimum $20,000 downpayment, and it takes a long time to save up that sort of money. Then you’d also need to have enough income to qualify for the mortgage payments, which even at the currently-suppressed interest rates, are still going to be pretty high. There are condo alternatives, of course, but those aren’t cheap either.  As someone who bought her first house when she was 19 – and whose entire working career was all about real estate –  I’m very sympathetic to people who want to buy a house in this city. I find it kind of sad that if things stay the way they are, many people are never going to be able to afford to buy a home here, no matter how many compromises they entertain.

But recently, I found myself quickly losing all sympathy for a young couple who were the subject of a financial-section article on home equity lines of credit, or HELOCS. HELOCS, as no bank will ever tell you unless you really insist on them dropping the borrow-more-money sales pitch and telling you the truth, are mortgages. They are no different from any other mortgage, except that they are often open-ended in terms of how much you can borrow (e.g., until you run out of equity, and often, beyond that). They also usually have a higher interest rate. But make no mistake: sign one, and you’ve just handed your equity over to the bank.

In any event, this young couple had bought a ginormous house in the outer GTA. If that wasn’t financially foolhardy enough (this childless couple bought a four bedroom, five-and-a-half bath house), they then mortgaged their equity with a HELOC, so they could use the borrowed money to buy more stuff. So there went their equity.

The couple’s income was about $130,000 a year, but they were spending all of it on debt. So they decided to have a baby. Soon finding themselves a thousand dollars short every month in making their payments, they tried to solve this problem by (a) asking a parent to chip in from his pension income and(b) applying for another credit card.


The article features photos of the young couple in front of the ginormous house and in their ginormous, vacant backyard (they have postponed plans to put in a pool, poor lambs). Apparently, it never occurred to these kids to buy a smaller house in the first place: say, a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath bungalow, at half the price of what they bought this Windsor-palace knockoff for.  Of particular irony is the fact that the couple works in the “in the financial services industry.” Apparently, you can work in the financial services industry and never learn how to add.

I didn’t want to get that grumpy and judgmental over this nice young couple’s plight, or go off like a bottle rocket over the breakfast newspaper, yammering at my Spousal Equivalent on the subject of people who go borrowing-crazy on the equity of their already-more-than-they-can-realistically-afford house. It’s also somewhat hypocritical of me to be crabby about these kids and their we-can’t-afford-our-house predicament, being as I live in a nice big paid-for house. I’m sorry the young couple is going to lose their house. I know what it is to love your house, and to want to own a house. As a lawyer closing deals, I really enjoyed working for buyers: handing them their keys, and telling them congratulations! I totally get how important and special it is to be able to own the place that you live.

But I did feel like taking this young couple by the lapels and giving them a good shake. You make that much money, you had a good downpayment, and now you can’t afford your house because you spent your equity? What on earth were you thinking? And…why are you surprised? Did you think there was a money fountain, designed to satiate your boundless sense of entitlement?

This couple’s dream home was indeed a dream – a bad one, cloaked in the dangerous gift of the banks’ offers of easy money. It’s a hard lesson to learn: buy what you can afford, and if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. Otherwise, you’ll end up living in a house of cards.