An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Eyes firmly on the prize

Here’s a weird thing that I did once.

Last November I got eyelash extensions.

The impetus behind this decision?

“The Holiday Season.”

And just to try something different.

The process of getting them done was more bizarre than anything else. Beyond being uncomfortable, it was also weirdly vulnerable. Lying on a bed in some woman’s 400 square foot bachelor apartment, as she slowly separated each of my eyelashes and glued monstrously fake lashes to their roots, I was acutely aware of how little room for error there could be in this procedure, what with her disproportionately sized tweezers so close to my eyeballs.

I was sure that one rogue sneeze would see them forever lodged into the base of my optic nerve.

Halfway through I remember thinking, “THIS ISN’T WORTH IT.” This reaction is, of course, my modus operandi when it comes to all aesthetic services. At some point I always find myself wishing I hadn’t committed to whatever hair I am having removed, or roots I am having having dyed, and had instead bought a big muffin and went for a walk in the sun.

But getting back to eyelashes – as I studied myself in a small hand mirror (passed to me after the glue had hardened on the last lash) I marveled at how many of my natural lashes it seemed I had lost in the process. Eyelash extentionists (and their proponents) claim that eyelash loss during the procedure is a myth, because all they are doing is attaching a longer lash to the ones you already have. However, I am suspiciously sure that I had way more eyelashes walking into that apartment, than I did walking out.

Of course, this didn’t matter in the slightest, because what I did have in their absence were synthetic masterpieces so utterly grand that they not only took over half of my face but gave me powers of flight every time I made the mistake of blinking too hard.

Once I got used to the heaviness of the lashes during my normal day to day, and the utter wretchedness of not being able to scrub my face in the shower, I really did start to enjoy them. Of particular note were the reactions they solicited from both friends and the general populace. People seemed to think they were pretty neat.

Because the lashes were so big, I wore my glasses almost exclusively, under the belief that my large black rims would tone down some of their impact. Whether this was the case, I have no conclusive evidence either way.

img_20151224_104345151_hdr-1

In the end, the biggest problem with my lashes was how long it took my normal set to grow back once they all fell out. The extentionist had guaranteed that as I shed my prosthetics, my regular lashes would grow in at their normal rate, and the transition back from fake to real would be seamless and unnoticeable.

This was a big old lie. For weeks I was terrified that my vanity-driven decision to try out absurdly giant eyelashes had resulted in permanent, spiky, stumps, where once my lovely, natural lashes had flourished.

I even bought some stupid tube over the internet that advertised itself as an “all-natural, pharmacist approved growth serum“. A small part of me believed that I was fighting fire with fire, sure that I was going to end up both blind and eyelash-less; but I was desperate, and succumbed to the temptation.

I used that tube until the serum ran dry.

And in the end, my eyelashes did grow back – longer and thicker than before. Now, whether this is due to the serum, the fact that I had lost them all, or just luck of the draw – I don’t know.

What I do know was that I enjoyed my one exercise in tempting ocular fate. I won’t be getting extensions again, and have almost completely stopped wearing eye makeup. I figured best to lay low on the windows to my soul, and just let the sun shine through the way it was intended.

Plus now I can just fully commit to my lips.

Because there is no way that I would ever do anything to make them bigger.

And I like lipstick more anyway.

Mouth those words like you mean it

There are times in my life where I think to myself, “holy hell I was one weird kid.”

This happened a couple of days ago, as I sat in my office regaling one of my co-workers about the time in grade six when I wrote an award-winning speech on the life of Evita Peron. At the time I was unabashedly obsessed with the movie musical starring Madonna and Antonio Bandaras, and my presentation was written from the perspective of one of Evita’s childhood friends (played by me). In my zeal to create a compelling narrative, I fictionalized a series of letters that (I liked to imagine) the two women had sent back and forth between the time she moved to Buenos Aires in 1934 before her death in 1952. I even cried at the end, reminiscing about our lost childhood innocence.

It was pretty nuts.

(The reason that I was telling this tale in the first place was because I felt my work aesthetic that day to be very “Evita-esque” and had asked the same co-worker how she thought the two below photos compared):

Picture1

“Hair needs less bangs, and more height,” she rightfully critiqued.

Then we laughed like drains.

After we regained our composure, I told her about my speech, and my ever-enduring love for the Evita musical.

She again started laughing, before shaking her head and asking the oft-repeated question: “how did you end up being this way?”

To which I answered, as always, “I have no friggin clue.”

I was just a weird kid who was into weird things.

But not only that – I really, really liked the things that I liked, and even though I desperately wanted to fit in, I could never truly let my desire for social approval and acceptance outweigh my desire to be strange as hell.

Case in point: every year my elementary school held a day totally dedicated to airbands (or lip synchs if you will.)

It was a huge thing. Kids had to audition in front of their class and the king of teachers himself – the formidable Mr. Bell – in order to get on the program.

The best outcome one could hope for was to be cast in the both the morning and afternoon shows, which meant you were out of classes for the entire day and were able to showcase your routine for multiple audiences on different shows.

It was the best.

In grade five I was a new student to the school and, despite loving to be on stage and wanting desperately to perform, I was too nervous to put anything together for the auditions.

I remember very clearly the only acts that tried out from our class were two groups of boys who literally performed “air bads” – with guitars, basses and drum sets – to “Lump” by the Presidents of the United States of America and “Basket Case” by Green Day.

I had never seen boys hop around on stage, pretending to play instruments before. It was totally bizarre.

(I had also never heard the latter song and quickly became obsessed. I would sit by my radio with my blank cassette at the ready, poised for the exact moment it would begin to play.)

The next year however, I was primed and ready. I had a solid group of friends – some of whom who had even agreed to act with me!

Together we put on “Hakuna Matata” and “RESPECT.”

Imagine, if you will, the tallest, skinniest, whitest twelve year-old, harnessing everything her bad-ass, budding feminist self has to offer, so that for approximately four minutes, she WAS Aretha Franklin.

It just may have been the finest performance of my life.

I distinctly remember all the teachers absolutely losing their minds.

Hakuna Matata too was a pretty good show. We had an absolute blast, dressed head to toe in tie-dye, pretending to be the animals, and really getting into the spoken word sections.

Nothing like a farting warthog to get us going!

However, because I wasn’t one to ever leave anything well enough alone, I decided that I wanted to do one last airband to round out that year’s revue.

At that time of my life I was also pretty obsessed with the Forrest Gump Soundtrack (being as it was that I was Benjamin Buttons, and reverse aging like a fiend, from eighty to eleven) and I especially like the song “I Don’t Know Why I Love You, But I Do” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry.

(Holy shit.)

I mean, to its credit, it’s a solid, nice song.

But what I could have possible been thinking when I chose THIS tune as my third airband is an enigma wrapped in a mystery folded inside of an ARE YOU EVEN KIDDING ME?

The one thing that sold the entire act was that I committed like crazy. I dressed up in a suit, wore a tie and bowler hat, and carried a cane. The whole thing was so earnest I was basically Charlie Chaplin in an after-school special.

Evidently Mr. Bell really dug the performance, because he cast me in the morning and afternoon shows.

I never for a moment even stopped to think that what I was doing was brave, or nerdy, or subversive, or strange.

I just liked the song and thought people might identify with the lyrics!

The reaction I received left me absolutely stupefied. People were impressed! And not necessarily by my performance, but by my bravery for going through with the performance in the first place.

I’ll never forget Carrie Knoll coming up to me after the morning’s show and just blurting out “That was one of the coolest, cutest things ever. I cannot believe you had the guts to do it.”

I thanked her profusely. Being one of the coolest girls in our grade, her words were more than just a compliment – they were an act of legitimization, of the acceptance that I really truly did crave.

I was just flabbergasted that they were born from (what was perceived to be) such an extremely nerdy public endeavor.

Which just goes to show, you totally can kill two birds with one song.

Especially if it’s from a soundtrack you love.

I’m just a girl in the world

Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift.

Well, only one song really, but let’s not mince words. Blank Space is a bloody pop masterpiece of the highest order, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

Don’t even try it, ya jerks!

Because you all might as well resign yourself to the fact that, inevitably, we all must bow down to T. Swift, bubble gum goddess that she is.

So get your shin pads out.

The future is here.

I’m not sure about any of you, but I just listen to this stuff and immediately I am once again eighteen years old, filled to the brim with cusp-of-adulthood angst, heart-wrenching love, and mind-boggling lust.

The compulsion to jump in a car and just drive as far and as fast as I can is almost too difficult to control. So mostly I dance about the house in the most ridiculous and flamboyant of fashions, with Marc and Nymeria taking up the rear.

IMG_20141129_092728

They’re good partners in my insanity.

I’ll tell you, another thing that makes me feel like a confused, silly teenager is having the brilliant luck of finding my diary from grade 10, 11, 12, and my first year of undergrad.

IMG_20141130_092401

Holy hell was I one heck of a kid.

I spent about an hour yesterday reading excerpts aloud to Marc and just generally laughing my face off.

Marc too got a huge kick out of my daily captures of what it mean to be Vanessa Woznow, seventeen years of age.

Choice entries include:

June 2002

Holy shit Friday is just never going to come. I seriously am going to go completely insane (I am already halfway there, I can feel it!) Soon I will be sitting outside in a lawnchair and throwing spoons at all of the people who pass by, cursing them for their new fangled ways. EDADS. I talk like Mr. Lodge in the Archie comics. Call the medics I tell you!!! I miss Mark [ed. note: high school boyfriend], and I just want to get my damn vacation started with. [Redacted] gave me a ride to my socials exam. Made me feel bad about never phoning him. I really hate that. I got 90% on my math final, so I ended up with 88% in the course, which isn’t too bad. My socials final was so funny, some of the questions really killed me. I laughed really hard and was so tempted to put down that sexism was one of the causes of WWI. 

There were some questions on the test that I was just like WHAT THE FUCK!? How are we supposed to know THAT? I even asked Ms. [Redacted] whether or not she had taught that subject in the class and she just looked at me said “No.” before smiling and walking away. That killed me too. That’s classy as hell. I am really going to miss having [Redacted] as an English teacher. She’s really hilarious! I think I might buy her Chicken Soup for the Teacher soul. I think she might like it.

I’ve realized that sometimes my writing really reflects that of Holden’s in Catcher in the Rye. LOVE that book. Old Holden gets my goat, he is just damn hilarious.

JUST DECIDED. Going into writing when I graduate!!!

p.s. What to do for six month anniversary??

I also used the journal quite a bit as a scrapbook, for all of the ticket stubs and play bills of either the shows I went to, or acted in myself.

IMG_20141130_093531There is also a lot of BAD poetry.

IMG_20141130_092251(I can’t actually bring myself to publish a large photo of this gut-busting rubbish.)

However, I did kind of dig this little ode:

IMG_20141130_093140

I actually remember writing this ditty in my grade 12 math class. For a laugh, I used to always write poems for one of my best friends. Rosy was (and still is, to this day) one of the most beautiful, caring souls I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and I always wanted to either make her laugh, or make her smile, and as such, was compelled to write her stuff like this.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to my falling in love with Marc, and the early days of our courtship:

IMG_20141130_092548 IMG_20141130_092455 IMG_20141130_092417I can tell you, I absolutely loved that sweater. I actually get the goofiest smile just thinking about it, and I swear that my heart is beating just the littlest bit faster.

Unfortunately, there is also a large (VERY large in fact) portion of the book dedicated to chronically my eating disorder. In no uncertain terms do I take any pains to disguise this reality. Many pages are just lists of what I ate, how much I exercised, and how much of what I ate ended up in the bottom of a toilet bowl.

Scintillating reading it may be not, but still, it serves as a salient reminder of what it meant to live with this illness, and how far removed my present-day life is from these very real, and very hard struggles.

IMG_20141130_093439My heart too beats a little faster seeing these pages, for of course, incredibly different reasons.

Still, it’s all one. This is the girl who I was.

If she hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t be the person (girl, woman, epic pop-loving running champion of life) that I am today.

And I wouldn’t trade this for the world.

And if I had to put a wager on it, I bet Taylor would feel exactly the same way.

I have made a huge mistake

Today I went to take a Pepsi from my mum’s fridge and was instead completely duped by a can of Compliment’s brand club soda.

I’ll tell you – nothing messes with your mind more than expecting a VERY distinct cola flavour, and you are instead gifted with vaguely salty-tasting carbonated water.

It’s amazing that I didn’t keel over with shock.

But how was I to know?

Take a look at these cans from behind – they are practically mirror images.

IMG_20141113_164521481

It’s not until you turn them around (or in my unfortunate case, open one up) that you can clearly see that they are two different products.

IMG_20141113_164529492

As we were laughing about my mistake – and I was thanking my mum for taking one for the team and drinking the club soda – I got to thinking about some of the other times in my life where I have either witnessed someone drinking something they were not expecting, or experienced a jarring episode myself.

For instance, the first year of Marc’s and my courtship I was drinking vanilla steamed milks on the regular.

(I was about ninety years old.)

Because of this, Marc just began to assume that anytime I purchased a drink it would be some iteration of this hot beverage.

One morning, after a raucous night of cheap booze and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, we dragged our bedraggled bums out of his apartment and shuffled our way to the (now long gone) Bread Garden down on Broadway and Ash.

Since it was early April and the weather had recently shifted from winter’s cold perma-drizzle to the soft, cherry-scented winds of spring, I decided to change things up.

Instead of my usual, I ordered a lemon smoothie.

As we were taking our seats outside on the patio, I asked Marc if he wanted a sip.

He said yes.

And even though I passed him a cold cup with a straw, the dude still expecting the warm, sweet, liquid of a vanilla steamer.

Honestly, I thought he was going to die of a massive coronary right then and there.

He coughed and hacked, trying to both keep in the smoothie and spit it out across the table.

His faced reddened; his eyeballs bulged.

After a good pounding on the back, he turned to me and said, “Holy crap, that’s the shittiest vanilla steamed milk I’ve ever tasted.”

We both laughed so hard I thought we were going to topple over in our chairs.

The other great memory I have of acquiring the wrong drink is a doozy from when I was fourteen years old.

I was participating in a theatre camp down at Granville Island with about five or six other high school students. We were all between fourteen and seventeen, and we are all actors.

(This makes me laugh just typing out these words.)

One day after class, one of the guys asked me if I wanted to get a coffee with him.

Nearly toppling over in shock that a boy would ask me to do something as grownup as purchase and drink caffeine with him, I excitedly accepted.

We walked over to the market’s JJBean, yammering on about the different plays that we had done, and what we liked most about the class, and what we wanted to be when we grew up (ie. very famous and very serious thespians.)

When we got to the café, Aiden ordered a large coffee, and I, deciding that it was time to either go big or go home, ordered a double espresso.

A double espresso!

Other than a sip of regular brewed light roast when I was eleven and opening my first bank account, I had never drank any kind of coffee, espresso or otherwise.

To this day I can only handle lattes, and only because they are mostly milk and I am ridiculously liberal with the sugar.

“Wow!” remarked Aiden. “I thought espresso was a dessert drink.”

“Nah,” I responded. “I drink them all of the time.”

His eyebrows jumped to the top of his forehead, a mixture of both disbelief and incredulity.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know what a double espresso was, so when the barista placed a cup of coffee on the counter, I reached out to grab it.

“Umm, you ordered a double espresso?” Asked Aiden.

“Oh yeah!” I laughed, nervous as hell. “I forget.”

His eyebrows now reflected the type of confusion that only teenage boys can convey so well.

“Double espresso!” shouted the barista.

“There it is,” I said, eager to try and get Aiden back.

My success – if there was any to be had – was completely short lived because the moment I took a sip of that java I thought I was going to die.

That double espresso was literally (LITERALLY) the most disgusting, overwhelming, and completely horrifying drink I had ever encountered in my fourteen years of life.

Trying so hard to keep up my mask of maturity, I just shot the entire drink.

One gulp.

Bam.

Aiden just stood and watched, bewildered.

“You don’t like to, you know, sip it?” he asked.

“Nnnn – ope!” I sputtered. “I like t-to drink it fff – ast.”

I could feel my heart pounding like crazy and my eyes watering.

“Riiiiiiight,” said Aiden. “Soooooo, see you next week?”

We never got coffee ever again.

But honestly, I can’t really say who was more relieved.

What about you guys? Have you ever done anything like this?

In the meantime, I’m going to go searching for another blue can.

And hope against hope that this time, it’s the right one.