Cathy’s 2014 Winter Instruction Manual

If the obese squirrels lumbering about my yard provide any indication, we could be in for a long, cold, hard winter… again. (Seriously, IMG_20141209_123550look at the size of them! They must be preparing for something. Sorry for the poor quality image. They waddled away before I got a good shot.)

We don’t know how bad it will be, but we might as well get ready. Last year was horrific.

I have crafted a Winter Instruction Manual for myself, in the hopes that in Ontario’s (literally) darkest days, I can avoid a nervous breakdown. Maybe you will find it useful as well.

  1. Dress for the weather. No one gives a ___*fill in the blank*___ what you’re wearing. If you honestly think about it, do you care what your neighbour is wearing? Be warm. Be comfortable. Be dry. Wear the hat. Wear the mittens. Wear the heavy boots. Same goes for the kids. Avoid the whining and plan for extra time to get ready.168628_1857690161632_6852963_n
  2. Find a winter sport, and do it. Downhill or X-Country skiing? Skating? Snowshoeing? Luge-ing? Ultimate snowball fighting? You won’t resent the snow so much. Get the kids involved.
  3. Schedule time for intentional relaxation… Every. Single. Day. Whether this means meditation, yoga, tai chi, or bubble baths, find some way of relaxing.
  4. Make time for people you genuinely like. I’m talking about the people who make you laugh so hard your sides hurt; the people who let you be yourself and make you feel comfortable. You will have to spend enough time at obligatory functions during the holidays.
  5. Don’t forget music. It makes you feel good. If you play an instrument, pick it up. If you have two left thumbs, listening is good too.
  6. Plan plenty of indoor activities and things to look forward to. Find ways to occupy your children on slushy, wet, or blisteringly cold days. Invite friends and your children’s friends over often (they actually don’t care how messy your house is).
  7. Create reasons to spend time outside. Force yourself to walk to the school, take over (at least some of the) shoveling and have a snowman making contest.
  8. Eat well.
  9. Keep active. If outdoors isn’t an option, dust off the treadmill in the basement, or go to the gym, or pool, or dance around your living room in your underwear (Just close the blinds. No one wants to see that.).
  10. Finally, find beauty in unusual places. Be mindful and remember to look up.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”     

Albert Camus

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“Free To Be Me” Day

I know, I know, two posts in as many days.  But, I was heading back from a school drop-off this morning and a blog post blogged itself into my head and demanded to be put on paper… er … screen.

Today is “Free To Be Me Day” at my son’s school.  It is part of an anti-bullying campaign that has been taking many different forms in the past few years.  They also have “Wear Pink” day, and a variety of assemblies and speakers during the year.

Living, as I do, in a relatively tolerant country, in a friendly neighbourhood, with liberal friends and family, it is easy to sometimes forget that intolerance exists. I even fooled myself into thinking that today’s children were more open-minded than yesterday’s.

As a child who didn’t fit in very well in elementary school (but desperately wanted to), I am perhaps a little more sensitive as I watch my own son learning the ropes and navigating these dangerous, shark-infested waters.

My son has always marched to a different drummer. He likes to experiment and to do IMG_7583things his own way. Telling him how something should be done is a guaranteed way to get him to come up with something else. One day, he asked me to paint his fingernails. As I refuse to push gender stereotypes on my children, I gladly agreed. He wasn’t keen on pink, so I got him blue and green. (Gender boundaries can only be crossed to a point it seems). He was very pleased with his nails and wore them to school a few weeks ago. Other kids were not so impressed.

Boys, he was told, do NOT wear nail polish.

Did that stop him? No, he kept it on a few more days. I thought maybe he would be turned off the nail polish at that point. Nope, he wanted the sparkly blue back on for his birthday again. Then, when the kids in gym class told him to go join the girls’ line, did that stop him? Nope, he then wanted the polish tidied up for “Free to be me day.”

Kid, I am so proud of you.

This story probably doesn’t sound all that significant to adults, but if you think back to how it felt to be in elementary school, the small things really do matter.

But I do wonder at the effectiveness of these campaigns.

Does “Free to be me day” imply that on any other day the children are NOT free to be themselves? On the same note, would “Wear Pink” day imply that boys can’t wear pink on any other day of the year? Not that I’m opposed to the concept, but I’m not sure it gets the point across. If we started celebrating  annual “Don’t Hit Your Brother Day” or “Help with the Housework Day,” wouldn’t that undermine family ideals of day-to-day non-violence and helpfulness? I’m not sure. It’s something to think about.

Similarly, I am puzzled about “Random Act of Kindness” Day. Suggestions include things like “opening the door for someone” or “paying someone a sincere compliment.” Don’t people just do these things? I’m a fan of the idea in general, but it saddens me to think it is necessary.

Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what my brave, creative, unique little boy comes up with next. Surprise me!

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A Parenting Dilemma: Safety vs. Sanity

As cooler weather descends upon us, we parents of the Great White North must resign ourselves to the dreaded daily struggle that is the snowsuit. But it doesn’t end there…

I recently came across online recommendations saying that when you strap your children (of any age) in their carseats, you must remove winter clothing first. Here is a link. (Note: The images in these articles always feature smiling children sitting cooperatively in the back of a spacious mini-van. The angry, red, chapped, tear stained faces with drippy noses never make the cut).

Do you do this?

We have always been careful to follow carseat rules, using appropriately sized seats and _ 100adjusting them correctly. Heck, these days, they won’t even let you leave our local hospital with your newborn until you can prove you have a carseat and know how to use it. When the kids were itty bitty little things in bucket seats, you could buckle and then bundle them up appropriately indoors and then just pop them into the base in the car, no problem. (Note, my son was not yet appropriately bundled for winter in this photo).

Getting my 2.5 year old toddler into his snowsuit these days could be compared to wrestling an angry octopus into a mesh bag. Through all of the running away, kicking, screaming and flailing, I eventually get all of his limbs into the correct holes, and I carry the bundle of tears, often football style out into frigid temperatures and into the car. Then, he adopts a variety of plank-like positions and ear-splitting screams in order to prevent the buckling of the seatbelt at all.

However, the seatbelt always gets fastened, and tightened. You’re welcome son.

Tell me to add the removal of the snowsuit before getting into the car and to put it back on at the other end, and I’m going to look at you like you’ve got two heads. (Please see update below).

There was a time when people rebelled against wearing seatbelts, and then helmets. Now these things are the norm. (Here’s a link to the history of the carseat and a slideshow of how they progressed ). Perhaps snowsuit removal will become the norm too. Maybe I’ll change my mind on this one too. Who knows?

But isIMG_20140116_104542n’t there a point when too many rules and regulations make things so complicated people just stop going places?

I have two sons. They climb, they fall, they wrestle, they bump, they bruise and they
bleed. Some days I feel I will be lucky if I can get them safely to adulthood. I do everything that I can, within reason, to keep those two little men safe. I am a worrier. I am a stickler about helmets on bikes, parental supervision, and following the rules. But sometimes, I just have to buckle those kids into their seats as they are.

I did another post on reasonable risk a while back.

Spend half an hour online and you will find a dozen ways you are endangering your children’s lives on a daily basis. Carcinogens in the baby soap? Non-organic vegetables? Co-sleeping? (Oops … three more strikes).

How are you failing your children?

(Disclaimer: Do not follow my lead. Always follow manufacturer guidelines.)

So…as an update, after a lot of online research, we are looking at possible compromises. It seems one possibility is leaving the coat unzipped, and buckling against the chest. Still not ideal but better. The guilt got to me once again.

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It’s a Small World After All: Kids and Hotel Rooms

I will admit it. My kids don’t always get along.

If yours do, I want your secret.

Nah …. scratch that …. I refuse to believe yours do either.reading

So just between us: As much as I like to post beautiful pictures on Facebook of my boys cuddling together reading, the reality is that these moments are typically book-ended with blood-curdling shrieks and angry growls that could easily serve as sound effects for a horror movie. Don’t tell anyone.

But, have you ever noticed that kids seem to get along better in natural settings?

As we enter another season of colds, croup, bronchitis, and this year, a new addition to our viral and bacterial family, walking pneumonia, I sadly lament the demise of autumn days where we could easily slip into the woods for a relaxing walk.

That said, we just returned from a holiday down south, designed to escape the dreary Canadian November weather. We thought, naively enough, that a constant stream of entertainment would be sufficient to distract the boys from their typical battles. We planned the perfect trip and eagerly anticipated a delightful week together as a family. Oh, the fairy tales we parents tell ourselves. Aears combination of upset schedules, crowds, the unaccustomed sharing of sleeping quarters, constant excitement and a sickening surplus of sugar (due to a serious lack of available healthy food) was a recipe for disaster. It did appear, however, that almost all of the arguing occurred in the hotel room.

So, why does camping work? Lots of these factors are still present while camping. Marshmallows are delicious cylinders of pure sugar after all.

One study I read (Dyment and Bell 2008) found that natural play areas promote inclusion and cooperation. There are also plenty of other studies that demonstrate pro-social behaviour in children as a result of natural settings. It could be a result of our evolutionary roots, and a desire to establish territory. When space is not at a premium, children can carve out their own places and materials for play. In my experience at home, or in a cramped hotel room, personal property and space are the most frequent causes for dispute.

Natural areas are well-known to reduce stress and improve general psychological well-being (Kaplan 1995), so it would naturally follow that people can get along better in them. I have previously noted that adults seem to be more pleasant in campgrounds.

So, camping is good, but you typically have to wait until summer, and hope that it doesn’t rain. A tent is even smaller than a hotel room. I think we will wait a few years before trying any long car trips.

To all you desperate Buffalo parents trapped in your houses under mountains of snow with your children: You have my sympathy.


Kaplan, S. (1995). The urban forest as a source of psychological well-being. Urban Forest Landscapes: Integrating Multidisciplinary Perspectives. G. A. Bradley. Seattle, WA, University of Washington Press: 100-108.

Dyment, J. E. and A. C. Bell (2008). “”Our garden is colour blind, inclusive and warm:” Reflections on green school grounds and social inclusion.” International Journal of Inclusive Education 12(2): 169-183.

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It isn’t any trouble just to S-M-I-L-E!

Last week, I went to the doctor’s office with a funny cough and what I was pretty sure was a contagious lung infection (I was right, but I’m fine now). As I neared reception, I saw a sign and, good little rule-follower that I am, picked up and donned one of those sexy blue masks. (You know the ones I mean? They threatened to become a new fashionSurgical-mask trend in the wake of SARS and H1N1.) I’m guessing most people don’t read the sign, because the doctor laughed and said it looked like I was going into surgery.

But I digress….

Little did I know at the time that putting on this mask would turn into my own little personal social experiment and blog post. As soon as I snapped it over my ears, I found myself immensely uncomfortable: Not because my glasses were fogging up, or because the mask quickly got warm and humid (ok, maybe those things a bit too too). Mainly, it was because I realized that I couldn’t communicate with my face. I couldn’t smile as I thanked the receptionist or nurse, or at the people entering the waiting room. I couldn’t smile at the doctor. I actually felt like I was being rude (however, spreading infectious bacteria around the room would have been somewhat less considerate methinks).

This left me wondering, when people don these masks regularly, as surgeons, dentists or nurses, do they feel they can adequately sympathize and communicate with their patients? How much compassion and comfort are Ebola victims missing out on when treated by nurses and doctors in hazmat suits and masks? Not that there’s any choice in the matter in West Africa right now, but it does make me think about how important the simple act of smiling can be in communicating with people on a daily basis.

(As an unrelated side-note, I think the doctors, nurses and other staff dealing with Ebola right now are some of the bravest heroes out there. They have my utmost respect and admiration.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program …

There are people who don’t smile. You’ve met them: The cashier who refuses to make eye contact. The receptionist who communicates in one-word sentences. The bus driver who grunts in your general direction. Not that these people are the norm … far from it! These are just the people who need help the most. Whether they are having a bad day, year, or life, I really believe that smiling at these people can make a difference.

IMG_7608Manners aside, research has demonstrated that smiling can improve your own mood and even immune system. Here are some articles on the benefits of smiling:

Smile Therapy

Reduce Stress


So … and this seems blatantly obvious to me (and probably to you as well), but apparently not everyone:

Smile at people you pass on the street. Smile at old people. Smile at teenagers. Smile at the receptionist, the cashier and the bus driver. Smile at strangers and smile at friends. When someone smiles at you, smile back.

And of course, most importantly, always smile at children and babies. They’re learning from you.

What a simple way to change the world!

Doctors, nurses, dentists? Have you had this experience?

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Time to Spruce Things Up!

Halloween is over. It’s the beginning of November, and if the decorations in the stores or the recent Southern Ontario snowfall are any indication, it’s time to start talking about Christmas!

Ok! Ok! Don’t yell at me! I happened to take some pictures of a tree a while ago, and wanted to write a “Species of the Week” about it. It just happens that this particular tree is also a very popular Christmas tree.

This is a Spruce tree. More specifically, if I’m not mistaken, it is a Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens), and our Species of the Week! As usual, if there are any experts out there, please feel free to correct me!

IMG_20141015_091007 Blue spruce needles are 4-sided, sharp, short and have a dull blue-grey colour. Needles on a spruce are arranged all around the branch, rather than in a plane (the fir tree needle arrangement). Blue spruces are also popular ornamentals and grow up to 115 feet. They are not native to Southern Ontario, but are common in the Rocky Mountains area of the States.

While Blue Spruces are popular as Christmas trees, I prefer friendlier trees that hurt less while decorating, (pungens means “sharp” in latin), so please see my post on the Balsam fir.


Some other interesting facts:IMG_20141015_090946_1

Spruce trees are typically used for basic construction and paper-making purposes. Historically, woodsmen often chewed spruce sap like gum, and it was sold in stores. If you are so inclined (although I’m not), there are a number of online sites that demonstrate how to make and purify spruce gum. (Anyone tried it before?) Also, as with most other species of flora I have discussed so far, various parts of the spruce tree have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes.

And, of course, Blue Spruces provide shelter and food for birds and small mammals.

Happy Holidays!  ;)





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The Battle of the Sexes

We wondered when it would happen. It hadn’t been a problem up until now, but it had to happen one day….

As I have mentioned before, we live on a friendly street and have many good friends here. Our children have grown up together. Some of my son’s best friends, as a result of this arrangement, happen to be girls. This past weekend, one of the girls rang our doorbell and asked him to come and play. He happily skipped out the door and ran to her driveway, only to find that they were playing with …Gasp! …Oh no! Dolls!

Now, as a side note, we don’t believe in “boy toys” and “girl toys.” We never labelled these things, and encourage our children in (almost) anything they choose. But, there are cultural norms that we simply have no control over. That said, I never really played with dolls either (although I am female). I always found Cabbage Patch kids and Barbies equally repulsive.

So, back to the story…. my son, understandably, was at a loss when he arrived at the house. After a few minutes of awkwardly hanging around while the girls brushed hair and changed outfits, he sadly turned around and went home. He returned with a ball and some scoops, hoping to coax at least one of them into a game of catch. No luck. This time, he returned to our house in tears.

DSC00252Then, with a stroke of what I can only call parenting genius, my husband came up with a plan. He loaded up a wagon with scraps of wood and sent him back down the street. He said…”go build those girls a dollhouse.” Our little guy arrived with the wood, and the girls cheered! The dolls were promptly dropped and all of the kids worked on building structures together.

Give that man a medal! He may have missed his calling as a mediator!



That wood has since been requested for other driveways for similar purposes. Wonderful!


This also brings to mind adventure playgrounds and the theory of loose parts. Check these out if you’re interested:

AND, if you live in my area, look what’s coming:

Sounds like fun, right?

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