These essays were published in the Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments section.  

You can also find some of my writing in The Goderich Signal Star and The Goderich Focus.

Houseguests of a Feathered Kind

Published May 3, 2013

I’ve finally come to terms with our house guests. I don’t exactly look forward to their arrival every spring, but when I hear them fluttering about in the bathroom fan vent, I no longer cringe.

“Ah, my starlings have arrived,” I say to myself. “They’re getting an early start this year.”

The first time they came was shortly after we moved from Toronto into a new development in a small town. In typical small-town fashion, no less than four of my neighbours informed me at different times that they’d noticed birds making a nest in our upstairs unused dryer vent. It was suggested that we get some chicken wire to cover up the vent, or nail it shut since it wasn’t being used anyway. But I was worried the starlings may have already laid their eggs.

I would never engage in a “when does life begin” debate regarding starlings, but I’d had some experience with murdering potential baby birds when I was in college, and never really got over it.

Living in an apartment building, I had agreed to cat-sit for a couple of months. Since the weather was nice, I’d put the litter box on the balcony. The cat eventually left, but the litter box remained. A month later, I discovered a pigeon had made her nest in it.

My first thought was, “Gross!” and I took away the box – nest, eggs and all – and threw it in the trash. When Mother Pigeon arrived the next day, and the next, and the next for what seemed an entire month, searching desperately for her babies, I knew how it felt to be a murderer. I would never again do something so thoughtless, so horrendous.

The starling eggs could stay.

When it became clear, from the chirping and fluttering, that the babies had arrived, blocking up the vent was out of the question. I would wait until the babies had grown up and flown the coop – or vent – before dealing with the issue.

It isn’t as if starlings are the nicest birds – their Latin name is Sturnus vulgaris. I don’t know anything about how stern or vulgar they are, but it certainly doesn’t sound very good. They aren’t as pretty as sparrows or as revered as robins, and I doubt anyone has ever written a song about a starling, unless Bye Bye Blackbird counts.

I’ve found websites dedicated to the elimination of starlings and their ilk that list all the horrible things these birds can do – such as damage buildings with their droppings, spread diseases, destroy crops.

I certainly didn’t want the starlings in that dryer vent. Since the end of the dryer’s hose wasn’t hooked up to anything, and since I knew nothing of the internal workings of vents, I feared that baby starlings would come tumbling down into our linen closet.

When autumn arrived and I was certain the birds had gone, I hired someone to blow out the remains of the nest, feathers and all, and block up the vent from the outside. No more starlings, I thought.

Of course I was wrong. Early the next spring, there they were again. Upon discovering the blocked vent, they had simply moved over to the bathroom fan vent a few feet away.

I had the same plan in mind. I would wait until the babies had flown away, then have the vent blown out and put up some netting. But that year, autumn kind of snuck up on me, then it snowed quite early, I didn’t get around to hiring anybody, and before I knew it March had arrived, and so had the starlings, busily augmenting last year’s nest.

We got used to hearing the frenzied chirping and fluttering as we got ready in the mornings. I admired the stamina of the parents, constantly flying in and out, bringing bits of grass or hay, building blocks for a solid starling home, I was sure. I started to think we were doing quite a service to this lucky family, sponsoring them, so to speak, almost like Habitat for Humanity for birds.

I’m not worried about them coming in through the vent, and I can’t see that they’re causing any real damage. I’ll have to have the vent cleaned out this autumn for sure. Who knows what kind of detritus the family has been leaving behind? They’re dedicated parents, certainly, but I really can’t speak to their housekeeping skills.

I know I should get the vent blocked up as well, but I’ll admit I don’t want to. While soaking in the tub, I’ve become accustomed to seeing them at the window, hearing the excitement of the babies when the parents arrive with tasty worms or grubs from our lawn. I wonder what they think when they hear us singing in the shower, or if they like it when we turn on the fan and they feel the movement of the air around them.

I know I should make more effort to be rid of them, what with all the diseases they supposedly spread, but I have a hard time taking such warnings seriously. (I grew up in an old farmhouse and our resident snakes and bats never caused us any harm, other than a scare or two in the middle of the night.)

Still, come the fall, I’ll make sure the vent gets cleaned out and closed up, and I’ll get ready to say a final Bye Bye Blackbird. Until then, I insist on enjoying a little bit of nature from the comfort of my own home.

The Joy of Salvage

Published September 1, 2011

We were clipping along one of our county’s great paved back roads when we saw it, green plastic gleaming in the setting sun.  I braked, veered around where it lay in the middle of the road, and pulled over to the shoulder.

“What are you doing?” my husband asked from the passenger seat.

“It’s a colander,” I said, a bit excited.  “I like the colour.”

Earlier in our relationship he might have expressed surprise or disgust at my scavenging habits, but after eleven years of marriage he chuckled and even volunteered to jump out and grab the prize.

He picked it up and held it gingerly with only his thumb and forefinger, examining it dubiously.  “I think it smells like vomit.”

I leaned my head out the window.  “No, it looks brand new.  We’ll wash it.”

My husband deposited it in the back of our van.  “It’ll go with our toaster,” he said, amused.

Our toaster is great.  We’ve had it for about seven years and I’ve never had a problem with it, though if we have many guests and it’s used a lot it will complain with a clacking noise.  We just give it a rest for a few minutes and it’s as good as new.  Did I mention I retrieved it from the curb on trash day?  When people find out they sometimes suggest we get a new one, but I cannot see why.  The idea of replacing an item simply because it is no longer new makes absolutely no sense to me.  As long as it does what it’s supposed to do, it’s still good in my eyes.

I acquired my brass magazine holder in the same way.  It was dirty and covered in cobwebs, but after I cleaned it up, it looked fine.  It even had a bit of a rustic shine.  I might not use it as the centerpiece of my home, but for holding books beside the toilet, it’s perfect.

It is not only household items that I bring home with me.  Ever since I was a child, my parents collected bricks.  Living in the country, there were always lots of uses for bricks, and when I moved away from home and settled in cities, this habit stayed with me.  I was able to collect enough bricks from the back alleys of North Toronto to make what I saw as a picturesque little path from my back door to our car pad.  The bricks did not all match, but I think I arranged them in such a way that their overall effect was quaint, if not pretty.

Having a marine-loving father who seemed to find an element of romance in beachcombing and finding what he delightedly termed “Salvage!” perhaps left a lasting impression on me.  Picking up discarded things off the side of the road was never considered disgusting or cheap in our household.  On the contrary, leaving something lying in the gutter that might be perfectly usable would have been considered wasteful and even, perhaps, a tad snobbish.

Of course, there are extremes.  I recall one day when I was quite small that my family was on the way to a friend’s place for dinner.  The car directly in front of ours hit a pheasant and continued on.  My father quickly pulled over, grabbed the pheasant, threw it in the trunk, and presented it to our friend as the evening’s main course.  I can’t recall who was responsible for plucking and preparing the creature or if it ever made its way onto the dinner table.  

Personally, I draw the line at road kill, but I despise the wastefulness I see in society.  Though we may complain at garbage taxes and pay-as-you-throw policies, trash is cheap.  As soon as it makes its way out our door and into a garbage truck, we don’t have to give it another thought.  But that’s an attitude that works only on the individual level and only in the short term.  

Growing up, the expression “Waste not, want not” was branded into my brain.  My family certainly wasn’t poor - we had more means than most in the area – but the vice of wastefulness was still forefront in my home education.  I’m not sure it is anymore.  As a society, we are very good about recycling, but we don’t give a lot of thought to either reducing or reusing.

It’s very understandable.  Why spend money repairing your television when it’s cheaper to buy a new one?  Why pick up a discarded colander or toaster when you can get one at Walmart for a few measly dollars?

I don’t know how to change society’s attitude towards these things, but I hope that I can convey to my sons that wastefulness is bad and that there is no shame in adopting items no longer wanted, even those found in a ditch. 

I was proud when my oldest son picked up a discarded plastic truck in our neighbourhood, insisting on finders-keepers.  I said we should wait a while, just in case its rightful owner missed it.  After a week, we figured the laws of salvage applied and it now belonged to us.  My sons have collected quite a few abandoned items – mostly toy cars and figures, but a discarded license plate as well.  Personally I don’t see a lot of use in the license plate, but little boys have a different set of priorities.  I think their grandfather would be proud.  

By the way, if anybody reading this has misplaced a shiny green colander, too bad.  I think the laws of salvage apply only at sea, but I’m pretty sure the law of finders-keepers applies everywhere, or at least to abandoned items in the middle of the road.  


Gathering the Fabric

Published June 8, 2011

It was time to clean out the closet.  I went through old clothes, deciding what to keep and what to give to good will.  I had soon amassed a large pile of t-shirts too uncool to wear but too precious to discard.  

There was the t-shirt my husband bought at his first Metallica concert, a large selection of high school sports’ shirts from the early 90s, debating tournament t-shirts, and my favourite, a Hostess Munchies t-shirt that I won when I was fourteen from a lucky bag of chips.

I couldn’t throw these out or give them to charity, but there was no chance of them being worn again either.

My solution:  I would make them into a quilt.  Of course, I didn’t know how to quilt and had little patience for meticulous work, but I did own a sewing machine and a pair of scissors.  I set to work sewing the fronts and backs of our special t-shirts onto a large piece of fleece.  It wasn’t the neatest job, but the finished product was both fun and warm.

I showed my mother my creation the next time she visited.  “Look,” I said.  “I made a quilt.”

She admired the different t-shirts.  “Very nice,” she said, “but that’s not really a quilt.”

She was right.  It would be an insult to quilters to call what I had hastily pieced together a quilt.  There was no hand-stitching, no pattern, and the whole thing had taken me less than a day to finish.

But there is one similarity between my crazy t-shirt blanket and a quilt:  they both tell stories.   Every misshapen square on my blanket represents a memory.  I bought that t-shirt the day my high school relay team won the regional championship.  That t-shirt, proclaiming the greatness of the Yokohama Bay-Stars, was a gift from a favourite student in Japan.  And that t-shirt was from a camping trip that helped turn a lanky and awkward pre-teen into a confident and outdoorsy young man.

Of course not all quilts tell stories.  You can go into a sewing store and find neatly packaged bits of already matching material for a quilt, but what’s the point in that?  In my opinion, a true quilt is in the gathering of the fabric.  Just as the pieces of my t-shirt blanket were gathered over many years in many different ways, so should the pieces that make up a quilt.

My mother has always sewn.  My sister and I often had hand-made clothes when we were children, and my mother kept every left over scrap of fabric that ever made its way into her sewing room.  They were organized by material - cotton here, flannelette there, shinier polyester in a different drawer, and all of it put away in plastic bins beneath piles of trimmings and zippers of every length and colour.  She moved them from house to house, home to home, keeping them ready for when she would make a quilt.

She has not made too many, for the time, energy, and eye strain is almost too much to make it worthwhile.  Still, once or twice a year I’ll go over to her house and find one of the beds decked out in an intricate pattern of different coloured strips of fabric.  

The patterns have names - log cabin or flying geese - but these don’t interest me.  What interests me is the fabrics used:

That piece of yellow gingham was from a butterfly shirt my mother made me.  My sister had one in pink and my cousin’s was purple.  I can remember a picture of the three of us, taken outside at the farm.  It must have been summer.  There we are, in our matching shirts, arms outstretched, flying, my tall beautiful cousin slightly in front - our leader.  My sister stands behind her, to the left, looking serious, and me on the other side, making a silly face, trying to be comic relief.

And that scrap - pale beige with tiny red rose buds and tinier green stems.  It was from a dress I once loved.  It had a beige, shiny sash and a ruffle along the bottom.  I can remember wearing it with black patent leather shoes that had little rainbows stitched into the toes.  They made tapping sounds on the hard floor.  I thought myself quite the dancer.

Then there’s the scrap of kelly green corduroy.  It wasn’t from my clothes, but from my grandmother’s pillow.  It was big and patch-work, in different shades of green.  It lived on the floor beside her flower print sofa.  She would prop it up against the front of the sofa, on the carpet, and lean against it while she watched her shows -The Edge of Night and Matlock.

A quilt (or t-shirt blanket) should be like a chapter of your life, and each square, or each bit of material should evoke a specific scene, either significant or mundane.

When I see the huge selection of mass-produced, cheaply-made quilts in the super stores, I worry.  Unless I am mistaken, there are no young quilters.  A t-shirt blanket is something, but it’s no substitute for a hand-stitched quilt.  Will quilting die out with my mother’s generation, or is quilting something women do as they age?  

It seems to me that when people reach a certain level of maturity, when they have lived more of their lives than they will live, they want to look back over what they’ve experienced.

Many people write memoirs as a way of looking back at the chapters of their lives, but quilting is another way to do this.  The pieces of a special quilt are like pages of a journal.  The stories lie together, patterned and soft, waiting to be pulled up over a set of shoulders and read.  


My Home is a Battle Zone

Published November 16, 2009

As I sit at my kitchen table, a war is raging above me.  I hear screams and shouts, shots ringing out, and the crashing of debris – no doubt collateral damage.

I do not live in the West Bank or Chechnya, but in relatively peaceful Toronto.  Still, there has been a war going on upstairs in my house for close to forty-five minutes.  

All the soldiers fighting in this war seem content to keep battling.  I hear no suggestions being made for a ceasefire or peace talks.  No one has even come crying down the stairs to find me, requiring a kiss to mend their wounds.  No, the soldiers upstairs are tough, and happy to keep on fighting until someone gets bored or grossly injured.  

Perhaps this is what naturally happens when four little boys, ranging in age from three to five, get together to play.

For those of you out there who think I am a bad parent for allowing my children to play with toy guns, let me be clear – there are no toy guns in my house.  Okay, okay.  We have two small, orange and green plastic water guns covered in Lightning McQueen stickers, but other than that, no guns.

We do, however, have sticks, markers, plastic hammers, and yes, thumbs and fingers.  My five-year-old even made himself a gun out of mega-blocks, but it is actually big enough to be considered an anti-aircraft weapon.

Almost every day, one or both of my sons will approach me and ask in their sweet baby voices, “Mommy, do you know where my gun is?”

I invariably reply that I do not and that I hope they are not shooting at anybody who doesn’t want to be shot at.

“No, no,” they reply.  “We’re shooting the bad guys.”  Sometimes they are shooting bears, and I have suggested a few times that maybe they should simply tranquilize the bears and then conduct research to make sure the species is still thriving.  They like to practice saying, “tranquilize,” but apparently simply shooting the bears is still more fun.  

I have wondered where the love of guns and shooting comes from.  Neither I nor my husband has ever gone hunting, but it does not stop my five-year-old from announcing to his kindergarten teacher every once in a while that, “Today is hunting day!”  Yes, he has one of those checked red and black coats – the Kenora dinner jacket – that hunters seem to wear, and he went through a period where he loved The Fox and the Hound.  Perhaps that is enough. 

Yesterday, at our local park, my sons built an entire war setting in the sandbox.  They used little pieces of sticks as soldiers.  “Bang, bang,” they shouted at each other, for about thirty minutes.  I don’t think a winner had been declared when I finally dragged them home.  Perhaps having a much-loved uncle in the armed forces is enough to bring on this passion for war.

Now that my sons have discovered transformers and the million-years’ battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, I foresee this love of guns and play killing lasting a long time.

People have told me it is natural for little boys to love playing with guns and acting out wars.  They insist my boys will not grow up to be warmongering ruffians.  Play fighting is how children learn to figure out right from wrong, and I should be grateful that at least they usually pretend to kill the bad guys and not the good ones.

Still, with shrieks of, “Quick!  Shoot them!” and “Bang, bang! You’re dead!” piercing my ears, I find myself thinking, no wonder there are so many wars going on in our world.  No wonder there are so many weapons continually being made, traded, bought, and sold.  No wonder there is no really meaningful push to end some of the military conflicts that have been going on for so many years.

I don’t consider myself a cynic, but I do think that this excitement for fighting is an inherent part of humanity, and that “peace on earth” is just a concept, unattainable in reality.  

Still, I hope that by trying to make my sons find empathy with the other side, any wars – great or small – that they might get involved in will be short-lived and without too many dire consequences.  

Atticus Finch said something about having to walk around in another person’s skin to understand their motives and actions.  I have attempted to have a discussion with my sons about how they know whether someone is good or bad and the concepts of perspective and point of view, but three and five is a bit young to understand ideas that millions of adults can’t seem to grasp.

Still, I will continue to try to explain these concepts to my sons, and when they are old enough or when it matters enough to them, I hope they will understand.

Until then, I will live with “Bang, bang!  You’re dead!” and be grateful that I live in a country and a neighbourhood where I can be worried about my sons playing war, and not actually fighting in one.    


The Art of the Thank You Note
Published December 23, 2004

The End of the Road for Trucks and Tears
Published February 10, 2009

The Comfort of Condolences
Published March 27, 2008

Run, Jump, and Wag in the Spirit of the Dogs
Published January 6, 2004

Crossword Puzzle Man
Published 2004 under "What's a 13 Letter Word for Compassion?"
Reprinted in Reader's Digest, March 2005