Monthly Archives: October 2012

Beware the Flu Pumpkin

Pumpkin carving at our house is an event to be put off until the last possible moment, like the night before Halloween. Carve them even a week too early in this cold weather and their tops will have caved into their heads in a gruesome sort of way by Oct. 31, perhaps a desirable look when trying to create a creepy masterpiece.

Designing jack-o-lanterns with the kids (we vetoed any designs that were too fancy: “Google’s broken”).

Usually our jack-0-lantern designs are boring and benign, generic even. But this year I recalled Extreme Pumpkins, a pumpkin carving book that I wrote a blurb about back in my Calgary Herald brief-writing days.

Beware extreme pumpkins — they sometimes cannibalize one another.

We let our daughter design her own pumpkin, which we’ll call “Happy Pumpkin” because, compared to the other two, that’s what he is:

Meet Happy, Avery’s creation.

I was trying to carve a “catumpkin,” but the ears ended up looking like horns. Then Bennett declared, “He’s mad, Mommy!” and so I dubbed him “Angry Pumpkin:”

Meet one pissed off, anguish-ridden gourd.

Blake spent many more minutes on his creation, channelling a “drunkumpkin” at times. I thought the orange globe looked sick more than intoxicated and, thanks to the discarded seeds and pumpkin innards (mixed with coffee grounds), we came up with “Flu Pumpkin:”

Not sure why he threw up on the Globe and Mail? Must’ve been the headline about the Monster (storm).

We can only hope our children will not mimic his performance after eating too much candy.

What about you? Do you carve traditional pumpkins or pull out all the stops?

Trick or treat? Our Climbing Kili for a Cause campaign wraps up on Oct. 31st

Before Blake and I went to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro I was invited to appear on Global TV in Calgary to talk about our trip and the reason we were doing it. I re-appeared on Global last weekend as a follow-up to the first interview, to talk about the actual climb (the highlights, the hardest part) and how much money we have raised for Renfrew Educational Services.

Mt. Kilimanjaro looks very far away on Day 2. When the clouds cleared we snapped this picture, our first good view of Kili’s iconic domed summit.

When you appear on TV (totally nervous, especially the first time), you wonder if anyone will watch and, if they do, whether you’ll get your message across successfully (e.g. will every person in Calgary donate money to Renfrew Educational Services?). There’s really no way to know, which is why it’s always nice to get viewer feedback. This e-mail (edited and excerpted, below) arrived in my in-box shortly after my appearance and made me feel like it’s all been worthwhile:

“I just saw your Global TV story, and was promted to write to you to say congratulations to both you and your husband for your efforts to help Renfrew Educational Services.

My daughter attended the main campus of Renfrew in the N.E. for two years, she too was special needs.  She suffered from a very rare neurological condition, which left her wheelchair bound and although she struggled with fine motor and gross motor skills she LOVED going to school on the bus everyday.  I agree with all you said, about the teachers, the aides and the support teams there for speech and other therapies…simply incredible people who helped her in so many ways. I will never forget all they did for her and for our family.

Sadly, she passed when she was just four and a half, but not many days go by where I don’t see a school bus and think of her joy and excitement of going to school each day.  I commend you for your efforts and just wanted to let you know how grateful many will be for your efforts which will be helpful to so many other families.”

Of course I know our fundraising campaign has been worthwhile and successful — we’ve raised $7,470, passing our goal! — but this e-mail still made me cry. I know it can be hard for parents of “typical” kids to understand how great a school like Renfrew is for “special” kids like my Bennett. So to hear it from someone who has been there, literally, really hit home.

Renfrew recently asked me to write a story for their semi-annual magazine about our Kili climb and fundraising campaign. I wrote:

“I think the short-term challenge of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was small compared to the life-long mountain of challenges and obstacles that face parents raising children with special needs.

Making it to the top of Kili filled me with a feeling of, “I did it!” It was inspiring — it made me wonder what else I’m capable of doing. Raising Bennett? I now know, thanks in part to Renfrew, I can do this.”

My hope is that other families with children at Renfrew will feel like they can do it, that they’re not alone in a world that becomes harder to navigate when your child has special needs. And of course my other hope is that Renfrew will continue doing what it does best — helping kids soar — thanks to donations like those we received during our four-month-long campaign.

Our Climbing Kili for a Cause fundraising campaign officially wraps up on Oct. 31st, so if you’re feeling generous…

Thank you! Asante sana!

Drink of the Week: Elderflower G&T

Ever since returning from Africa I have been loving gin and tonics. The sundowner drink of choice (read more about sundowner cocktails in my next Calgary Herald column on Nov. 10), I became quite accustomed to my daily G&T whilst watching the sun set over Tanzania.

I didn’t always love them, however. Both tonic and gin are an acquired taste, I find, so adding a little something to soften the duo can help. A lot. Enter elderflower cordial to make an Elderflower G&T.

The elderflower cordial tones down the tonic and brings out the gin’s floral notes.

My friend Liz Tompkins introduced me to this lovely libation last week. She was camping this past summer with gal-pal Laura Jackson, who supplied the ingredients, and they enjoyed this civilized twist on a classic. I think you will, too.

Elderflower G&T

  • 1 oz Hendrick’s gin
  • 1/2 oz elderflower cordial
  • Top tonic (2-3 oz, to taste)
  • Squeeze lime
  • Ice

Build the drink in a rocks glass, stir, then add enough ice to fill the glass and chill the drink.

–Recipe courtesy Laura Jackson

If all else fails, go as a Vampire Pig

“Mommy, for Halloween I want to be a …”

Those eight words strike dread into my heart. What if my daughter wants to be a Ballerina Robot or a Pregnant Ostrich or some other creature where you actually have to create the costume instead of just going out and buying it? Oh, Halloween, you suck the creative juice right out of me.

Last year’s costumes were both warm and available for purchase. The face painting plumbs the limits of my creative-costume well.

When I was a kid my mom sewed an Indian Princess get-up for Grade 1. In Grade 5 she fashioned me a flesh-coloured, robe-like Conehead costume (not sure why I was watching Saturday Night Live at age 10? 70s parenting?), complete with a pointy hat-head-thingy, that warranted a call home from my teacher — the school thought I’d marched in the Halloween parade as a KKK member (clearly I did not look like a Conehead). Yes, my mom was somewhat crafty, if totally clueless about SNL characters. I’m the opposite — I can name all the members of One Direction but I can’t sew on a button.

I think the key to this costume is getting the head right. A pointy hat thingy sends a different message.

Back in September Avery wanted to be a bat. “I could make wings using black fabric and use two wired-together hangers as the skeleton,” I thought. “I could paint her face like a bat!” Um, who was I kidding? By October 1st I was suggesting other possibilities: “How about a witch? A ghost? Oh, I know! A pirate!” (Cuz, like, all that stuff is in the storage room, including Daddy’s old white puffy shirt.)

My son, bless him, is much more easily influenced by my Jedi mind tricks.

Bennett: “I want to be A.J. for Halloween. He scares me.”

A.J. is the neighbourhood shar-pei, who lays in wait for small passersby and then lunges up to the fence barking maniacally. It’s  gotten to the point where Bennett makes me carry him past A.J.’s house while he buries his face in my shoulder and whimpers until we’re a safe distance away.

This is scary, right? Squint your eyes a bit and it kind of looks like an Ewok.

Me: “Oh, I’m sorry honey. We don’t have a wrinkly-dog outfit. Why don’t you go as Superman instead?” (Cuz that hand-me-down costume is in your closet, and the “S” lights up — so cool!)

Bennett: “I want to be Superman.” That’s my boy.

In the end Avery chose a witch costume because that’s what Zellers had on special (Jedi mind tricks work really well at the point of purchse). The only problem is its light-weight fabric is more appropriate for a Florida Halloween than a -7C and blizzarding Canadian one. Which got me thinking. Maybe she could go as a skier? I know, that’s lame, right?

An easy and practical costume for Canadian children.

Then I had an epiphany. On Tuesday Avery wore her pink and purple parka and pink snowpants to school along with her pink pig hat. She’d scored a pair of vampire fangs on a playdate and was wearing those, too. Now, all we need is some face paint and my kid will be the freakiest child in the ‘hood, a beast of Amityville Horror proportions who is also dressed appropriately for the cold weather: a Vampire Pig.

Ahhhh! Run away! A Vampire Pig!

We put down a deposit on a dog (gulp!)

Our neighbours brought home a black lab puppy last winter and Avery fell in love. Whenever she saw Mack out with his owners she would run outside to pet him, play with him and, as he got bigger, walk him and throw balls for him. Thus began the never-ending plea: “When can we get a dog?”

We’ve put down a deposit on a Brittany puppy. ETA: April or May.

Life is already complicated with two little kids, so surely I must be crazy to even consider adding a puppy to the mix? This is what friends-with-dogs tell me, anyway. “Are you sure you’re ready for that? It’s like having another child,” I was warned just last week. A puppy chews on shoes, pees in the house, cries in the night like a baby and needs to be taught obedience. It’s a lot of work, so why would I want to go there when my youngest pup (Bennett) is — almost — finally trained up?

Taking care of a fish, on the other hand, is so simple. We purchased our betta, Blue-blue, on Jan. 25, 2010 as a reward to Avery for giving up her soother. Blue-blue just floats there all day and doesn’t complain about going hungry or his filthy bowl. Against all odds he is still alive. Yes, Blue-blue is boring, and I think Avery realized what a lame pet a fish makes after a couple months when she started asking questions like, “When Blue-blue dies can I get a hamster?”

Our fish is sure lame but he’s so easy to care for.

If there’s one thing I learned from my childhood: don’t let kids have rodents as pets. Or birds. Cleaning out those cages is disgusting. Before Blue-blue we had a cat named Moggy. Moggy was an okay pet until I developed an allergy to her, at which point we kicked her out of the bedroom and she began the annoying habit of standing outside our door meowing mournfully in the night. By the time we moved into our current house and Avery was born, we were locking Moggy down in the storage room when we went to bed. When I was pregnant with Bennett we shipped Moggy to Arkansas to live with my mom.

Aloof and with an insanely loud meow, Moggy went from cuddly cat to pet pariah in the span of three years.

That, dear readers, is our track record with pets. We exiled a cat and neglect our fish.

I should confess up front that I am not a dog person. I grew up with cats and so developed somewhat of an aversion to slobber and stinky dog fur. Any yet. I see the amazing bond that families develop with a dog. I marvel at the lengths (and expense!) my friends will go to to keep their dogs healthy (knee surgeries, etc.). I get excited thinking about our future dog curled up at my feet while I write, I fantasize about hiking with her in Fernie (she won’t complain about the distance like our children do), and I get weepy imagining what a good friend she’ll be to Avery, and especially Bennett. Our family doctor says dogs make great companions to children with autism.

So (gulp!), we’re getting a dog. Am I crazy? Or will this be the best thing ever?

Drink of the Week: Honey Tree

Gin month continues here at Drink – Play – Love, where I discovered this most enticing recipe while flipping through the October 2012 issue of Chatelaine. The game changer is the ginger and honey simple syrup — sweet in a subtle way with just a tiny kick. The vermouth mellows the gin, the cider adds a taste of fall harvest and the sparkling water an uplifting fizz. Another Honey Tree, please!

Gin meets apple cider, sparkling water and ginger-honey syrup in this pleasing cocktail.

The recipe was created by mixologist Raj Nagra for Chatelaine. I didn’t have any basil on hand but figured mint would work well with the ingredients (it did) so I used that instead. I also didn’t have raw ginger and so substituted a 1/4 tsp of ground ginger. The only thing I didn’t like about the recipe is the number of ingredients required — it’s not the kind of cocktail you can just whip up on a whim; you have to plan ahead.

I am seriously loving gin after a week of forced safari consumption of Gordon’s while in Tanzania.

Honey Tree

  • 3 tbsp Bombay Sapphire gin
  • 2 tbsp ginger and honey simple syrup*
  • 2 tbsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp Martini Bianco
  • 3 basil leaves (I used mint)
  • 2 tbsp apple cider
  • 2 tbsp sparkling water

Combine Bombay Sapphire gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, Martini Bianco and basil leaves in a shaker. Cover and shake for 10 seconds. Strain the mixture into a rocks glass filled with ice. Add apple cider and sparkling water. Stir gently. Garnish with basil leaves.

*Bring equal parts honey and water and a few pieces of raw ginger to a boil. Strain into a jar and cool before using.

— Recipe from Chatelaine, October 2012

My new mantra: Pole-pole

Before we even set foot in Tanzania, the materials mailed to me and my husband by our trekking company, Climb Kili, warned: “Your guides will set the pace and you may find it almost intolerably slow — bear with them it’s for a good reason.” In Swahili they say, “Pole-pole”  (pronounced polie-polie) and it means “Slowly, slowly.” It’s one of the secrets to helping hikers acclimatize as they gain elevation on Mt. Kilimanjaro — going slowly prevents over-exertion, keeps the heart rate down and helps the body retain water instead of panting it away.

The pace out of the gate was “pole-pole,” which means “intolerably slow” in Swahili.

Indeed, we set off on Day 1 walking at a speed that can only be described as slooooow moooootion. We cracked jokes like, “Hey, let’s stop and take a picture. Wait, never mind! It’s like I’m standing still!” Poor Evance, our pace-setting guide (whose Swahili nickname is actually Pole-pole), had probably heard it all before. (In fact, we were ambling along at such leisure he spent most of Day 2 trying to teach me useful Swahili phrases, such as “Haraka haraka haina baraka,” which means, “There’s is no blessing for going fast.” Got it.)

By Day 3 pole-pole was the new normal. No… Need… To… Rush… The phrase took on a life of its own and became applicable to a lot more than just the pace. Free of my iPhone, camera (Blake took way more pictures with his fancy Pentax) and unrelenting schedule dictated by life with children, I slowed down in a way I hadn’t for years. I let my mind wander as my measured steps transported me up Kili. At the time it felt meditative, and it was. In between thoughts about the kids back in Calgary, writing, life and travel, I noticed rocks and flowers and trees and birds, and always the snowy, domed peak of Kilimanjaro, looming closer by the day.

The summit looks so far away from the Shira Plateau on Day 2. How will we ever get there going pole-pole?

Mostly though I was in the moment, agog over the spectacular scenery, and thinking about the people around me: the tireless porters, the guides who had climbed the mountain over 100 times between them, and our fellow trekkers who, like us, had chosen to spend a week of their life climbing to the highest point in Africa. I enjoyed and relished each day on Kilimanjaro, instead of looking ahead only to the night of our summit hike. As our lead guide Good Luck repeatedly coached us during our before-bed briefing about the next day, “Don’t think about the summit. Hakuna matata (no problem).”

Good Luck took this picture for me at sunrise right after we summited. I didn’t dare remove my gloves!

Well, it was always there, waiting, and we knew where the hike was leading (and that it might be a problem for some because of the altitude), but the pole-pole philosophy was huge in terms of helping us enjoy the journey. Below are some other key elements to our success and enjoyment.

1. Poles (the other pole-pole). I used to scoff at European hikers toting poles. But they really are knee-savers on the downhill, and I credit them with getting me down Kili — we descended some 12,000 feet in two days. Plus, I think they helped tone my triceps.

Our group strikes a pole pose.

2. Gaiters. Well, not really (they did keep my legs remarkably dust-free. And warm), but I did go on about them daily: “I really love my gaiters!” I just embraced my inner hiking dork to the max. That includes the sun hat.

Behold! Gaiter-clad hikers. I wore mine every day, religiously.

3. The porters. These guys were amazing. Even though we left camp before them every morning, they soon passed us on the trail carrying heavy loads (up to 60 lbs) that included our gear, sleeping tents, dining tent, food, table, chairs and the chemical toilet. They did not go pole-pole and when we arrived in camp in the afternoon our tents were set up with the duffles waiting inside.

Our porters ascend through the forest on Day 2 carrying heavy loads.

4. The guides. We had one lead guide and three assistant guides between six clients. Evance (a.k.a. Pole-pole) set the pace, while Good Luck, Francis and Godbless brought up the rear. They also observed us constantly, and asked us how we were doing: “Jambo Lisa?” After so many trips up Kili, the guides probably knew by Day 3 if we would make it. Did I mention they even carried our day packs during the summit push?

Good Luck, a.k.a. Mr. 100 Percent, rests on the trail.

5. The group. Blake and I met our fellow hikers on Day 1. You never know how the group dynamic will be — after all, you’ll be eating every meal with these people for eight days! Fortunately, we had a good group: four men from the U.S. who made great hiking company. As a bonus they thought our jokes were actually funny! We were all in it together from Day 1 and supported one another across the Shira Plateau, over the Barranco Wall, and through the cold night as we pole-polied to the summit.

Our group, minus Jeff and Alan (who were taking summit pictures and missed the group photo memo), poses by the summit sign.

Taken all together, we made it to the top. Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata!