Frousin**: Not a Disney movie. … OK, maybe it is.

** Thanks to my friend Ted for this excellent portmanteau term. All will be explained momentarily. Read on…

When I was a kid, my best friend was a boy called Scott.

From the age of about 4 on, we did almost everything together: riding bikes, fishing, hunting for bugs and bats, building forts in the huge field behind his house, and constructing elaborate bear traps. (The only — and best, and cutest — prey we ever caught was his little sister Sue, who stood patiently, if mildly outraged, in the 12-inch-deep hole we’d cleverly covered with sticks and pine needles, and waited for us to pounce on her.)

Me at Scott's sixth birthday party. I'm the one in the blue dress, and he's in the yellow shirt. I always coveted that watch.

Me at Scott’s sixth birthday party. I’m the one in the blue dress, and he’s in the yellow shirt. I always coveted that watch.

I was at Scott’s house almost constantly. He lived around the corner from me (his family still lives in the same house), and not only was his back yard the gateway to The Field, with its bugs, bats, rocks, trees, and endless hideouts, but his house had the coolest basement playroom I had ever seen: there was a playhouse that his dad had constructed (and in which poor long-suffering Susy was apparently tied up by Scott & his brother Mike more than once, netting her a lifelong fear of enclosed spaces — and of little boys armed with skipping ropes, I presume); there were fish tanks and books and rock polishing machines and tools and electronic things and toys and stuffies, and every board game known to humanity.

His mum also made the best meals and snacks: coloured popcorn swimming in butter, cookies, and bologna and mustard sandwiches that I would still kill for. More than once she turned a blind eye on Scott’s and my weird antics — trapping wasps in bubble gum and tormenting them to death with magnifying glasses in the hot sun, putting her Anne Murray record on 78rpm and then doing the “worm dance” in her living room to the sped-up version of “Snowbird”, and leaving Oreo cookies in the sun for the afternoon to see if the filling would expand. (It would. Delicious.)

On summer evenings, I would look up from dinner at my own (much, much less fun) house and see Scott and his younger brother Michael on their bikes, patiently waiting on my lawn for me to finish eating and join them. First stop was usually the corner store for candy, after which we’d go see what the local bully (a kid I’ll call “Stinson” because that was his name) was up to, or round up more kids for a neighbourhood-wide game of hide and seek that would go on till dark.

We were usually near each other in school photos. I like that he never made rabbit ears behind my head.

We were usually near each other in school photos. I like that he never made rabbit ears behind my head.

In a world where boy/girl friendships are viewed with a mix of hope and suspicion, it was assumed by all and sundry that Scott and I would marry. We discussed this one day, in fact, when we were 9 or 10 years old, and decided that while neither of us was really the marrying type, we would buy a house together and live in our individual halves: he would have his own messy half, I would have my own surreally tidy half, and we would each have our own laboratories, of course. We would meet on the veranda for meals and discussions, and possibly to peg crab-apples at the neighbours where circumstances warranted.

When we turned 13, though (Scott’s and my birthdays are 2 weeks apart), things came to an abrupt halt: my mum, who was fast losing her battle with mental illness, celebrated my entry into adolescence by proclaiming that all males were essentially rapists and forbidding me to play with, or even talk to, Scott ever again.

It must be clarified here that this had nothing whatsoever to do with Scott, who is about the least rapey human being you’d ever want to meet, and everything to do with my mother and the demons flitting about in her head. (Far be it from me to cast aspersions on people who live with mental illness; however, growing up at the mercy of a mentally ill parent is something else entirely. Most of my adolescence is a blur. I spent some time in a group home. ‘Nuff said.)

And for all intents and purposes, that was the end of that. Although I still thought of Scott every day, I wanted to put as much distance between me and my childhood and the city where I grew up as I possibly could. I bailed off to university and didn’t look back.

Except I did…

Fast forward a tiny bit now to me at age 21, when I met my birth mother (I’m adopted). We exchanged information and photos, and since we live in different countries and have little in common other than blood, we keep in touch mainly via the occasional phone call.

Fast forward a second time to summer 2011, when I joined Facebook. Among the folks who found me there was a guy named Chris whom I’d known in high school, although not well. He was in Scott’s circle of friends, and not mine — and you can see where this is going, can’t you?

Chris arranged a get-together with Scott and me and another friend in my old hometown (where Scott still lives), and it was like Scotty and I had never been apart. He walked into the restaurant and I almost knocked over my chair jumping up to greet him. He gives excellent bear hugs. It was one of the nicest things that’s ever happened to me. We were both older and bigger, and a bit more wrinkly about the jowls, but essentially nothing had changed. There may have been a fart joke or two at dinner.

I had some ‘splainin’ to do, however, about my absence. More than half a lifetime’s absence. I ‘splained. He understood, and I think it helped him to know that it was nothing he’d done. (This tore my heart out… it still does.)

But in many ways it was like no time had passed at all: since then, we’ve met a couple of times a month, typically. We go on day trips to used bookstores, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and various model airplane shops and shows. Last summer we went to Point Pelee together to see the monarch butterfly migration, and this spring we went to Tobermory. We text each other most evenings to discuss Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or whatever. It is an utterly platonic friendship — still unusual between men and women, granted — and it works. And how.

So this should be where my happy story ends, right?

Wrong. :-)

About 10 weeks ago, I called my birth mother to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. During the call, I mentioned that I’d been to see Scott and his parents, and mentioned their last name: “I stayed at Mr and Mrs A’s house…”.

“Hang on a second — what was that name again?” my birth mother interrupted me.

I told her again. She said, “Do they have a relative called Linda?”

I texted Scott and his dad. The answer was immediate: Yes, they do.

And long (really long) story short, it turns out Scott and I are cousins.

Yep. Fancy that.

Cousin Lex.

Cousin Lex.

It’s taken a bit of getting used to. Although not as much as you’d think; it’s not like meeting strangers. His family are good people — very generous and low-key and welcoming (and also, his parents have this awesome cat called Lex) — and, well, it’s nice. It’s all still very fresh for me, and I still feel a bit dazed when I think about it all. I didn’t grow up with any sense of “family” or belonging at all, so using the f-word (the nice one) is going to take some time.

The hardest part? Catching myself saying “I was talking with my friend Scott” and subbing in the word “cousin.” It was my friend Ted (whom I referenced at the top of this really, really long story) who suggested the word “frousin.”

Works for me. Here’s to friendship. And family.

The Cheap-Ass Gourmet: Steel-cut Oats, Smiter Style

Steel-cut oats seem to be all the rage right now: they’re tasty and nutritious and they stick to the ribs in the way that, say, Cocoa Puffs don’t.

Mornings. No.

Mornings. No.

Trouble is, they take forever to make. I don’t know about you, but if I have to wait 45 minutes before tucking into my breakfast, someone’s gonna get hurt.

An acquaintance of mine recently posted on Facebook that Trader Joe’s offers frozen “pucks” of steel-cut oats: they’re already cooked, so all you have to do is bung one of the things into the microwave and two minutes later you’ve got a nice tasty bowl of cereal.

And of course, this got Yours Truly thinking: if oatmeal can be cooked and refrigerated/frozen for later, what’s stopping ordinary shlubs like you and me from doing it ourselves and saving a few bucks?

oatmeal - 7Answer: nothing.

So I gave it a whirl, and I’m delighted to report 100% success.

Here’s what you do:


1) Obtain a tub of steel-cut oats. I use President’s Choice.

Double, double, toil and .. . oh, wait...

Double, double, toil and .. . oh, wait…

2) Cook oats according to directions.

3) Remove pot from stove and set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.

If just refrigerating:

a) Pour cooled oats into a handy Tupperware container (or storage thingamajig of your choice).

b) Refrigerate. Cut yourself a nice slice of oatmeal, as needed, and microwave in a bowl for 2 mins. Decorate with milk, brown sugar, butter, dried fruit, etc. Omnomnom.

If freezing:

Ready for deployment.

Ready for deployment.

a) You’ll need to make individual servings. Use smaller/single-serving Tupperwares (or whatever) and freeze.

b) Microwave yourself a serving, as needed (no need to thaw beforehand!), decorate and engulf (see above).

There, now. Wasn’t that easy?

Cost per serving:

1 container (approx. 6 cups) of oats: $4.99

To the microwave we go...

To the microwave we go…

So about 82 cents (1 cup) for a pot of oatmeal, which makes six or seven servings…

…and therefore about 13 – 14 cents per serving.

Unless you want to add in the cost of the water and electricity, in which case you probably should have a stiff shot of Scotch with those oats. ;-)

~ Smiter out.


Sanity saver: Don’t have breakfast with your boss

Or, “How not to trash the day before it starts.”

grumpy cat MondaysI haven’t always hated mornings.

In fact, I remember, back in the day, actually liking them: a nice cup of coffee or tea, listening to CBC Radio, a bit of reading (the newspaper or a book), and then into the shower and on with the day. As long as someone wasn’t getting in my face (e.g., the roommate who used to think 7 a.m. was a great time to have a lively discussion about household finances), I was good to go.

But in the last year or so, I’ve noticed that my love of mornings has moved down the list to slightly below my love of invasive rectal procedures.

Worse, for the very first time in my life, I was lying in bed in the mornings, dreading getting up, dreading the treadmill of “URGENT! ASAP! Do it now!” that awaited me.

And finally, one day last week, as I was yet again stomping from the shower to my closet to my desk and angrily flinging open my laptop to a chorus of juicy expletives, I stopped cold and realized, “Oh my god. I hate mornings so much.”

And that made me sad. It also concerned me greatly, for two reasons.

First, what a colossal waste of time and energy, starting every day wanting to punch things. Is that really the person I want to become?

Hate this thing. Hate it, hate it.

Hate this thing. Hate it, hate it.

Second, and related, chronic anger can lead to serious health problems like heart attacks and strokes. As I get older, I am realizing the urgency of keeping this response controlled if I don’t want to end up in the ER – or a hearse.

I vowed to get to the bottom of it, and it didn’t take long: the culprit was my iPad.

I bought it last Christmas as (ironically) a means of relaxing and releasing stress. To that end, I do enjoy many of the online games (quizzes and word games, in particular), and the little chat functions in some of them that help me feel connected to my chums. The news apps are good too, and cheaper than paper subscriptions.

But on the downside, the iPad has an email app, and that, for me, was the rub: even when I  opened the iPad over breakfast to read the news or play my turn at WordFeud, the little email icon would be lit up. “Look at me,” it would taunt. “Look at all the urgent, annoying things that await you!” And invariably, despite my best intentions, I would open the thing.

So in other words, before I had even taken my second sip of coffee, before the work day had even begun, I was inviting all of my project managers and bosses into my living room to clamour for my attention. I had become one of those people who are unable to unplug from work, ever.lumbergh - come in on Saturday

This growing phenomenon (and its attendant mental and physical woes) is largely thanks to the ubiquity of Blackberrys, iPhones, etc., which has led to increased expectations that workers be available 24/7. And of course the reverse is true, turning the whole thing into an infinite loop: having a Blackberry or iPhone or iPad means you actually ARE available 24/7, and if you are available, work will present itself. Managers will call or email or text, and you ignore these at your peril. And around and around it goes.

(Even in the days before “electronics creep,” however, there were people who simply couldn’t leave the office behind; my former father-in-law always had his briefcase open somewhere in the house and spent chunks of every weekend creating the impression that he was indispensable to somebody, somewhere.)

This is a mushrooming global phenomenon, and as such is way beyond the scope of this blog. But the short version is that, for the most part, we are doing this to ourselves. Europeans, for example, generally have a much better work/life balance (ironically, despite enjoying far better and cheaper internet connections and rates for their many e-toys).

ipad with do not open signAnyway, long story short, in a world where so many things are beyond our control, I realized that this, at least, was one tiny thing I actually could change. So two days ago, on Sunday evening, I made myself a new rule: ”No opening the iPad before start of business. Period.”

I even put a little sticky note on its cover to remind myself, in case I’m on autopilot in the morning — “For a peaceful morning: Do not open until start of work!”

Instead, I eat my breakfast, sit peacefully with the cat and a cup of coffee, and read whatever book I’ve got on the go (right now it’s Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story, by Brian Nolan), listen to CBC Radio, and maybe write in my journal a bit.

The emails will still be waiting there, and all the problems and stresses they contain. But until the work-day has actually begun, they’re simply not my problem.

So far so good. I’ll keep you posted.

~ Smiter out.


Little Garter Man: a tale of thanksgiving

For many of us, Thanksgiving and other “family holidays” are days just like any other (granted, with a slightly higher chance of having to reach for an antidepressant or a stiff drink), and the less said about that the better.

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

My friend J., another “Holiday Refugee,” put it most eloquently this morning in her email to me: “If my sister puts up some [Facebook] post about being thankful for her wonderful family, I’ll have to puke. ”

Anyway, I woke up this morning with no agenda other than getting through the day, getting a bit of work done, and maybe watching The Hobbit again tonight.

And then I got The Text that Changed the Day: my downstairs neighbour, K, had been doing a load of laundry and found a baby snake in the laundry room.

It was too fast for her to catch, or even to see what kind it was, so I gathered my tools (flashlight, stick, collecting box) and headed down to meet her for a second try at rounding up the critter.

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. "Hey cool! I have a pool!"

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. “Hey cool! I have a pool!”

She was already there when I opened the door, and wordlessly pointed to a tiny little streak of darkness (maybe 5 inches long, as thick as a well-cooked spaghetti, if that), huddled miserably by the wall under the window.  We crouched carefully on either side of him, ready to nab him, and within seconds I had him safely in my collecting box (which sounds very fancy, but is really just a large Tupperware container with holes poked in the lid).

My plan was to make a little home for him (aspen shavings, like my ball python Boyd has, plus a hiding box and a dish of water) and put him somewhere quiet while I called Reptilia (reptile zoo/emporium north of Toronto) to find out what species he was and figure out what to do with him.  We passed a neighbour out in the hall who took a look (and a whiff) and said it was likely a garter snake; they are notoriously stinky when distressed, and this guy, while cute, reeked to high heaven.

Back in my place, I made up a “hotel room” and got my guest settled. Comically, his guest spot was on top of Boyd’s cage — it’s dark and warm and quiet there. Boyd had no idea he had a guest in the penthouse suite. (Many of my friends asked if I’d introduce them, but no: it likely would have been a quick introduction, followed by lunch. Not something I wanted to facilitate!)

"You know that this is for the best, right?" *sniffle*

“You know that this is for the best, right?” *sniffle*

I left a message for the Reptilia staff and Googled “baby garter snake,” just to see. Yup, bingo.

I did a bit of work and had lunch, leaving Little Garter Man well alone to settle down after his stressful morning. After a while, he “unfroze” and began exploring his new digs. First stop was the little water dish, where he had an enormous drink of water. Then he spent a happy couple of hours climbing all over his hide box, stretching out along the edge of the water dish (many snakes love to “soak”), and just trying to figure out how the heck to escape, most likely.

I called Reptilia back and, having ascertained that it was, indeed, a garter, asked whether it would be OK to release him into the wild this late in the season, as he was clearly just a baby. The man on the phone said that would be perfectly fine; many baby garters are born at this time of year and go on to hibernate through to spring.

I confess, it was tempting to keep Little Garter Man. One does get attached. But I already have one snake (the lovely Boyd), and another snake means more expense and more room given over to cages and housing. And, most importantly, garters are native to Ontario (where I live) and are wild animals (whereas Boyd was captive-bred and so knows no other life than one in an enclosure). It would have been wrong to keep him in a cage, plain and simple.

Ready for deployment.

Ready for deployment.

So I knew what I had to do. With a surprisingly heavy heart, I got out a smaller Tupperware, poked a few holes in the lid, and brought Little Garter Man’s bigger box out to the kitchen. I opened the lid and we had a little chat about what was best. He agreed. I transferred him into the carrying box, affixed the lid, and we set out for the valley.

There were a surprising number of people about, and all of them looked at the tiny box I was carrying; I suppose some of them must have thought I was burying a tiny pet or something.

It was a warm, sunny day, so I had no qualms about finding a nice place to release him. I had just the place in mind: a rocky, wooded area close to the river, with lots of stones and leaves and underbrush where garters love to hide.

"OMG! The world is so big!"

“OMG! The world is so big!”

I chose my spot, set the carrying box down on the leaves, and got out my camera. Then I opened the lid. Little Garter Man immediately poked his head over the edge, and then hung there for quite a while, sniffing the air and having a look-see. After a time, he scooted down and zoomed into the leaves. Garters move amazingly fast; Boyd, on the other hand, is quite leisurely when he travels.

And then something interesting happened. Little Garter Man stopped and turned right around, rested his little wee head on a stick, and seemed to look at me for a very long time. I leaned in close with the camera and he wasn’t fazed at all. He flicked his tongue at me a few times, and then he turned again and was gone.

I confess I cried when I said goodbye. I have a very, very soft spot for animals (as you may have noticed…), and I really hope this little guy will be OK.

And so ends the tale of Little Garter Man, who, all unknowing, helped turn this Thanksgiving day from “meh” to something much nicer — tears and all.

If you need me, I’ll be over here hugging my cat and cuddling Boyd (yes, he cuddles). And maybe having that stiff drink after all.

Smiter over & out.

Goodbye, my friend.

Goodbye, my friend.


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