I was so surprised when a neighbour asked me after Christmas: “Aren’t you going to take down your Nativity decorations now that Christmas is over?”
“You mean, before the Epiphany?” I asked in a state of near-shock. “What would even be the point of putting up the Nativity, if you did not celebrate the Epiphany?”
I understand that much of the world celebrates Christmas on December 25th. As Will Ferrell states clearly in “Talladega Nights,” “Dear 8 pound, six ounce newborn infant Jesus, with your tiny clenched fists…”
His character, Rikki Bobby, refused to accept the fact that Jesus Christ ever grew up or lived as an adult. He just loved the idea of Jesus as a new born baby, which we celebrate on Christmas morning.
As a child growing up in the Mid-west, however, my big sister Mary taught me the meaning of the Epiphany: Christ might have arrived on Christmas night. Unfortunately, human beings, dull as we are, did not grasp what His arrival meant until several days later. We are slow like that: God and Truth come to Earth one day. We figure out what it means weeks later. That’s just us. It doesn’t make us bad or stupid; it just makes us human. For some people, it takes days or weeks. For others, it takes years or decades; maybe a whole lifetime. The gap between the arrival and the realization is what makes humans, human.
Growing up in a family of 10 kids, doing dishes after dinner was a serious deal, and a real job. However, working with my big sister Mary, it never felt like work. I recall perfectly clearly the night she taught me the words to “We Three Kings” while she washed and I dried the dishes, pots and pans for dinner for 12 people.
“We Three Kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar…
Moor and Mountain
Field and Fountain
Following yonder star”
When we finished the dishes, I had to go find a dictionary to look up the word “moor,” which I had never heard before. Mary was mind-expanding that way; she also opened my mind to the fact that all people do not understand all ideas at the same time.
She introduced me to the ritual of moving the Three Kings around the house, moving them a little closer to the Nativity every day, although they never actually arrived until January 6th, the Epiphany.
Decades later, a co-worker complained to me: “Rita, your life is a series of endless daily Epiphanies!”
“And that is bad….how?” I spluttered. I always assumed an Epiphany is a GREAT thing.
Three years ago, we lost my big sister Mary to Alzheimer’s disease. How, I wondered, could a human being so full of sweetness and love could simply be…gone? It was an Epiphany I did not welcome.
This Christmas, my son David approached me and sighed, “Ma, I’m so sorry. Winner (his 100 pound Rottweiler) came to me with….a camel.” He held out a damaged camel, belonging to one of the Three Kings. The camel’s head had been mostly chewed off, puppy-Rottweiler style.
“Ah, well,” I laughed, “That will teach me to leave the Three Kings around the house, where dogs can reach them!”
Actually, I will still leave the Three Kings all around the house. Mary would have.
I have to say – and perhaps I have a selective memory, but I don’t think so – that every Persian person I have met or taught or worked with has been a smart, hard-working, impressive person.
Possibly it’s because many of the smart, hard-working, impressive people picked up and got out of Iran when the going was good, decades ago. Possibly it’s just baked into their culture….Homa Arjomand, who organized the globe to fight Sharia law in Ontario 2005 was born in Iran. Many of the students in my Carnegie classes (almost always engineers) were born in Iran.
One year, when I was hired to run the Taxis on Patrol program, we had 12 finalist “heroes” to honour, and 9 of them were from Iran. The winner, an incredibly humble man who really did not want to be awarded anything, had a knife pulled on him at the back of his cab. He popped the trunk, pushed the assailant in, and drove to 52 Division Police station.
“I need an officer to come out to my car,” he informed the desk clerk. “There is a man with a knife in my trunk.”
“What is it with Iranians, that they are so proactive they make 9 of 12 nominations in this program? What were you thinking when you locked that guy in the trunk?” I asked the cab driver.
“Well, maybe it’s because where we come from, if you wait for the police, all the damage will be done before anybody comes to help you; so you help yourself. Besides,” he sighed, “that guy with the knife was so old and weak and spindly, he really could not have hurt anyone. I felt sorry for him.”
Imagine my delight when a Persian couple moved in across the street last summer. To welcome them, I made up a tiny paper plate of cookies to leave at their front door with a little “Welcome to Milligan Street” note. The next day, an ENORMOUS pink geranium appeared on my front porch, which bloomed for the entire summer.
A few months later, after a trip to ARZ, I made up a platter of dips and stuffed grape leaves and zucchini so I could “share the wealth” of my favourite store with them.
The next day, my neighbour appeared at my door with an absolutely gorgeous glass bowl for my dining room table. It sits atop a beautiful fabric runner which came from Shiraz, in Persia. (Shiraz is famous for two things: the grapes from which the popular wine is made, and the poet Hafiz.) I have given up trying to out-gift my Persian neighbours: it’s impossible.
Now, thousands of men and women in cities across Iran are protesting in the streets, demanding a Democratic government and better economic policies. I always felt the West let Iranians down during their Green Movement in 2009; I can’t do much now, but here is what Homa Arjomand is asking us to do:
Support the movement of people in Iran for freedom, equality, prosperity and secularism.
• Distribute the news as soon as possible through various social media
• Join the demonstration in support of people of Iran organized in the West by activists and freedom seekers
• Request the Canadian government and all other Western governments to put pressure on the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights to adopt a resolution for closing down all Iranian Embassies around the world.
I have had two wardrobe malfunctions in December, one of which was funny and one of which was definitely not.
First, I was driving in a tricky situation wearing “Fake Uggs.” I don’t want to smear Uggs because these are cheaper knock-offs I purchased elsewhere.
I was cheerfully driving up the road to drop off a Christmas bag of cookies, pickles and burritos to Farmer Doug who works the field behind my house. (“Thank a Farmer!”) I could have just parked on the road, but instead I turned into the entranceway to the field, which is a fairly steep, short embankment which was also muddy.
When I moved my right foot to step on the brake, the rubber edge of my Fake Uggs got caught UNDER the brake pedal instead of resting on top of it. My car slid directly into a fencepost and under a fence board.
It was a really alarming experience! I cannot get out of my mind the picture of the consequences if that had happened elsewhere, say, at a crosswalk with a mom pushing a stroller, or on the 401 on an icy drive.
The good news is that it happened in a muddy field and a fence post stopped my car.
The bad news is, the impact dislodged my bumper slightly and dented my hood. Not a big dent, but noticeable.
When I got home and was able to survey the damage, I was dismayed. Damn! Money.
Recalling one of my favourite Red Green episodes, I decided to see if I could just hammer out the dent: I picked up a rubber mallet and tapped the bumper. It popped right back into place, which was great!
I decided not to approach the dent in the hood until the car was warmer; I assumed that would be better.
Yesterday, after a long day full of errands and a jolly Christmas party in Toronto which meant I got home at 8pm, I decided it was as good a time as any to see if I could tap out the dent in the hood, too. I was tired and space in the garage was tight; even with the light on, it was still pretty dim.
I propped open the hood and tapped from the underside with my trusty rubber mallet. Unfortunately, I could not tell from the underside of the hood if I was making any difference to the top, so I pulled out the prop rod and let the hood drop so I could check.
Whoops! The hood caught the edge of my favourite Christmas party sweater! “Crap!” I thought. “I hope I did not wreck the zipper.”
As it turned out, that was the least of my problems. Try as I might, I could not pinch the lever that releases the hood. I spent several minutes trying, and then finally gave up, too tired to persevere. “I’ll try again in the morning when the light is better,” I sighed, shrugging off my favourite Christmas sweater and leaving it hanging forlornly from the hood.
The good news is that in the morning, when I was not so tired, I realized that the reason I couldn’t open the hood was because it has to be popped from inside the car first – of course I knew that – and as soon as I did, my favourite sweater was released and the zipper was not damaged.
So what I learned this December: I won’t be driving wearing my Fake Uggs anymore. And I should be grateful for small miracles like helpful fence posts and sturdy sweaters. It’s not my wardrobe that malfunctions – it’s me.
I can’t be in Michigan for American Thanksgiving this year, which makes me very sad.
I have no explanation for this, but I cannot get Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” out of my mind. While slavery still exists today – horribly – in Africa and the Middle East, thousands of American men gave their lives to extinguish it in the United States of America. Yet somehow, if you consume very much of American media these days, you could come away with the idea that Americans are in SUPPORT of slavery. How did such a ludicrous idea take hold?
When Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was released, I booked the entire day off to attend the opening. I was surprised to see so few people in the theatre, as I assumed it would be considered a blockbuster.
The film lived up to every expectation that I had. Based upon Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” with a screenplay written by Tony Kushner (author of “Angels in America”), the story is absolutely thrilling. Lincoln decided, as the American Civil War ended, that all of the blood spilled and losses mounted during that war would be wasted if a new amendment to the Constitution – the 13th Amendment – was not passed. Lincoln made it his life’s mission to get it passed.
Frankly, I think every NFL player “taking a knee” during the national anthem should move to Somalia or Saudi Arabia ASAP.
Also, I am throwing down a challenge to every one of my American relatives: if you have not watched Spielberg’s “Lincoln” with your kids already, you should do so this holiday season.
One Christmas, my brother Pete built me a wooden Nativity. I loved it from the first moment I saw it and have treasured it ever since.
A generous friend saw how much I loved the Nativity structure and bought me a set of wooden figurines. Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the shepherds and angels were rustically hand-carved in Germany and very lovely.
Unfortunately, they were also extremely brittle. I learned this when my cat ran across the roof and tipped it over. Two of the shepherds snapped in half! I was dismayed, but philosophical. I could get by with two less shepherds.
Then, I stopped home one busy workday to be greeted by my housekeeper Krys and her daughter Kirsten. Krys had been part of our family as a babysitter since she was eleven years old, and we had a great working arrangement: after her babies were born, I offered to pay her to look after my house and bring her own kids with her. She did not have to pay for daycare and I did not have to worry about the endless important details of looking after a home. It made for a very happy house, and most days it worked out perfectly.
Except on this day, which was so traumatic I still cry thinking about it.
Krys met me at the door with four-year-old Kirsten, who had tears streaming down her sweet little cheeks.
“Show Rita what you did,” Krys commanded.
Sobbing and hiccupping, Kirsten held out her shaking hands. The Joseph figurine was broken into two pieces. Joseph’s head was in one hand, while his torso was in the other. I have never seen a little girl so frightened and heartbroken.
“Oh my God, those crappy Nativity pieces!” I exploded. “Who makes Nativity pieces that no one can touch?” Without even setting down my car keys, I turned around and left the house.
Krys had no idea of where I was going. She half thought she was going to be fired.
I jumped in my van and drove straight to FlatIron’s Christmas Market. “I have got to buy some Nativity pieces which are unbreakable,” I told the saleswoman.
“Oh, you need the Fontanini pieces,” she informed me. She led me to the back wall of the store – past numerous locked glass display cases of hand-carved wooden pieces, I observed morosely. Who makes Nativity pieces that no one can touch?
The Fontanini display was incredible! Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, angels, Kings, oxen, asses, camels, sheep, rams, dogs…all in hard, painted resin which could be endlessly handled and washed. I lost my mind, picking out all the figures I wanted. The Nativity, to me, represented every important thing humanity needs: love, hope, optimism, shelter, warmth, respect, caring. Joy. Work. Responsibility. Mothers. Fathers. Family.
I bought a duplicate Mary, Joseph and Jesus to give to Kirsten as a gift.
And then, I got to the cash register: $400 worth of figurines. I swallowed hard and presented my credit card; there was no looking back now.
I arrived home with my bags of figurines and enlisted Kirsten to help me set up the new Nativity. “You can play with these all you want,” I assured her. “That is the whole point of a Nativity: kids should play with the people. That’s how you learn what is important.”
Imagine my delight when, a few days later, I asked Krys if I should get my brother to build a Nativity for Kirsten.
“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Krys laughed. “Kirsten emptied out her Barbie house and put Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus in it. They already have a home.”
When I was a political staffer in Ontario, the Protocol Office was run by a brilliant and fabulous man, Ernesto Feu.
He had a dramatic accent and an exceedingly generous nature; calling him to ask a question on provincial, national or international protocol was always a delightful experience.
“Thank you for calling! I am so glad you called! What can I do to help you?” Ernesto’s enthusiasm about protocol was more than impressive; it was inspiring. If the purpose of protocol is to make people feel comfortable, Ernesto Feu was the living embodiment of it.
I called him once to ask about the protocol around the placement of flags on a stage when an international statesman visited Ontario. He carefully detailed for me the exact placement of the flags on the stage so that we would position them as a visiting dignitary would expect. He even sketched it out and faxed it over to me.
I recall, also, unpacking a set of Canadian flags at an event in Ottawa; the young event planner working with me burst into tears when she saw how wrinkled the flags were. She ran out to borrow a hand steamer and was frantically steaming the wrinkles out of the flags right up until the moment the Cabinet Ministers approached the stage.
All of which leads me to the events of the past few weeks, with NFL ball players “taking a knee” during the American national anthem and the flags waving while it is performed.
That’s one thing, I get it, they wanted to protest and opted to take advantage of the attention afforded them by the playing of the national anthem and the veneration of the flag at an NFL game to make the biggest splash possible.
While that has been hard enough to swallow, what’s even harder is listening to their spokespersons on multiple media appearances denying the fact that these actions are in anyway disrespectful.
“We love America! We love the flag! We respect our military!” one kept crying on FoxNews last night. He seemed oblivious to the fact that his words and his actions were in complete conflict.
Earth to the NFL: there are protocols which are internationally agreed upon, acknowledged and accepted, and they have been for centuries. It’s called “civilization.” Some protocols are actually written down and codified; others are only traditional but equally important.
If you feel you must show disrespect for the basic tenets of any nation’s most cherished traditions, at least have the courage of your convictions and admit that’s what you’re doing.
Disrespecting the flag, the anthem and the military and then hoping to get some kind of credit by claiming you love all these traditions is not just an insult to these symbols; it’s an insult to our intelligence. I’m sure there is some kind of protocol, codified or traditional, which states “Do not imply that your fellow citizens are complete gullible imbeciles.”
Ernesto Feu, God rest his gracious soul, must be rolling over in his grave.
There is no happier day for a political activist, a paid lobbyist or a concerned citizen than the day a government which shares their views is elected to office.
Whether you are an environmentalist fighting for protections, a business owner hoping for lower taxes, or a beleaguered driver who despises photo radar, the day “your” team takes over government is a day to celebrate and then double-down on your efforts to achieve regulatory change.
I worked for Canada’s conservative Minister of Health when we decided to ban Bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby products. This move was greeted with ecstatic support by the left wing group Environmental Defense, headed up by former NDP staffer Rick Smith. We worked together for a rare period of time when the desires of both sides of the political spectrum coincided completely.
It was one of the best initiatives on which I ever worked. The day before the event, I mentioned it would be great to have some moms with babies at the announcement.
“Oh, I know lots of moms,” Rick offered. “I can make some calls.”
The next day, a parade of moms came pouring into the media briefing, commandeering the entire front row in order to park their strollers. It was fantastic!
It was a surreal experience to have Rick at our press conference, not criticising our government but instead speaking in full support of the ban. He held his own scrum, competently taking media questions on the political and scientific implications in French and English.
Which leads me to draw a comparison between our BPA ban and the Charlottesville street riots protesting Confederate statues and monuments. In the event that any of my friends actually believe these outrageous violent clashes had anything whatsoever to do with Confederate monuments, I suggest you ask yourself: where were all of these people and their organizations during the eight years Barack Obama was president?
Had these groups truly been motivated to seek change, they would have had Obama’s office on speed-dial the day after his election in 2008. They would have held productive meetings, developed practical plans, and moved forward with the work required to get the Confederate monuments removed.
Obama would have held an announcement event, flanked by supportive members of a wide variety of groups. He would have pointed proudly to the initiative in speeches and press conferences. What could have been better than to have America’s first black president address historic grievances which were causing untold pain for millions of Americans?
Why did none of this occur?
Because the trumped-up Charlottesville conflicts were designed to achieve one goal: discredit President Donald Trump. You have to admit, it looks pretty bad on him; only six months into his presidency, and already race riots are breaking out across the nation.
The good news is, race riots are not breaking out across America. A friend just returned from a vacation in South Carolina and knew nothing of the supposed “race riots” until he read about it in Canada.
“There was no tension anywhere…there were white families enjoying the beach and black families enjoying the beach and Indian families enjoying the beach and mixed families enjoying everything, and everyone existed in harmony,” he wrote. No one was trying to tear down anything, he noted, mystified by the media hysteria.
Most of my family lives in Detroit and they report only booming business, Tiger games and weekend landscaping projects.
Ignore the trumped-up news. The Americans are alright.
THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! To all the YouTubers out there who take the time to organize, shoot, and post helpful videos, for free, on your own time, to assist all of us in learning how to solve problems or challenges in our lives, homes, or businesses.
My first experience in getting help – for free – on a really thorny problem was when I was able to figure out how to fix my running toilets, as detailed here.
I also used YouTube to learn how to post ads to my website: a real estate agent in Virginia actually posted a little lesson in coding to help people learn how to do it.
Of course, the cooking videos I watch are legend; there are some great volunteer videographers out there, and I love to keep “PhillyBoyJay” or “Hands that Cook” running in my kitchen while I am doing monotonous tasks.
This summer, I have been pestered by “fridge pee,” puddles of water leaking out of the freezer of my Maytag refrigerator (with which I am NOT happy, and Maytag has not been helpful at all. So much for the myth of the Lonely Maytag repairman! Basically, they told me, “Bite it.” Thanks for nothing, Maytag.)
So I went on YouTube and searched, “Maytag fridge leaking water” and immediately came up with several helpful videos, some amateur and some professional. This is the one I found most relevant and it did, indeed, solve my problem! Yay, YouTube! Thank you, smart people who give away video solutions!
I shoot and post cooking videos, too, so I know precisely how much time and work is involved in the process. Editing a 15 minute video can take two hours or more, easily.
The fact that knowledgeable plumbers, carpenters, appliance repairmen, cooks and computer specialists take time to share their skills is really a gift to everyone.
I am long past due in taking the time to say, “Thank you.”
More than 30 years ago, when I was just a novice cook (well, I started cooking when I was eight years old so I was not exactly a novice cook; maybe more of a novice gourmet) I bought the December issue of Chatelaine magazine with a cover photo filled with home made gifts you could make for Christmas.
The most appealing photo and write up on the recipes was Brandied Fruit. It looked luscious and colourful and was packed in a mason jar with a ribbon and a lovely label. I was so excited to make some Brandied Fruit, and give it away as a gift!
Then I read the recipe, published in December.
“Clean a quart of fresh strawberries,” it read. “Rinse a pint of blueberries, raspberries and red currants….”
“Well, for cripes’ sake!” I exclaimed in disappointment. “The ONLY way you could make this recipe would be if you started in July!”
I won’t say the Chatelaine Magazine was a complete waste, as it did motivate me to organize myself to get out and get picking all the berries required the following July. But advertising Brandied Fruit as a “home made gift” you could give away for Christmas, in December, was pretty misleading.
It is no wonder young cooks get discouraged.
The entire reason I started shooting cooking videos is because I so despise the current batch of cooking shows. They are all stressful to watch, with young chefs getting cut, chopped, fired and insulted, running off of the set in tears. This is NOT what cooking is about, not at all!
I grew up to believe cooking was a wonderful thing, work done with love for people that you love. My mom and my sisters were patient, persistent and purposeful, involving me in every step of numerous processes so that I would understand cooking.
When I was eight years old, my mom handed me a box of Jiffy yellow cake mix and a chocolate frosting mix.
“Here,” she instructed me. “Make this.”
She only returned to the kitchen once, to tell me not to try to frost a cake hot from the oven.
“Let the cake cool before you frost it,” she told me, before she disappeared again. That cake was actually pretty good, which is kind of amazing when you realize I only learned to READ the year before; and now, I was reading instructions including measurements and oven temperatures.
My sister Jeannie taught me how to brown hamburger meat. “You never put raw hamburger in spaghetti sauce or chili,” she told me. “First, you brown it, and drain away the fat.”
My sister Mary, who worked in food service her entire life, made endless Easy Bake Oven cakes with me and taught me about the fact that food can go bad. I had no knowledge of this before the day she sniffed a container of potato salad and exclaimed, “This stuff smells raunchy! Throw it away!”
Mary, who worked in the kitchen of St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged at Cornwall and Cadieux from age 12, came home from work one day and informed me that the public health inspector had visited the home that day.
“He took a swab from underneath everybody’s finger nails!” she described dramatically. “THREE PEOPLE had germs under their nails that could make residents sick!”
So I learned early on to follow instructions, to fully cook ground meat, and wash, wash, wash my hands.
Also I learned how happy it makes people to arrive home to a meal cooked with love. All of my older brothers had newspaper routes and were gone early in the cold, dark mornings to deliver bike loads full of copies of the Detroit Free Press.
On weekends, I was happy to stand in front of the stove and fry eggs and potatoes for each one of them as they returned from their routes. They ate with such gusto and appreciation, I felt I must have been the most brilliant girl on Earth, that I managed to get a plate of good, hot food in front of them moments after they entered the door.
One of the first winter Saturdays on which I took over the stove, I was dismayed that the potatoes had turned an odd orange colour – I did not know what I had done wrong, and was quite embarrassed at my failure.
“I’m so sorry,” I confessed when I served the plate of eggs, ham, potatoes and toast to my brother Wally. “I do not know why the potatoes are orange.”
“Rita, honey!” he laughed. “These are golden brown! They are perfect! This is exactly how you want fried potatoes to be!”
That’s how I learned about “golden brown.” Who knew? I was eight, and did not know from “golden brown.” I knew how it felt to be loved, and to share love, though. To this day, I believe this is what cooking is about.
Now I see that cooking has become a combination of complicated, competitive, and confusing. I subscribe to a number of channels that deliver a new recipe to my email box every day, and many of them are simply wrong: the photo of the finished meal cannot possibly be achieved with the steps described.
The worst offenders are crock pot meal recipes. The photo provided often displays crisp, caramelized meats which can ONLY be achieved by broiling or barbecuing. Nothing that comes out of a crock pot ever looks like that! It is so unfair to mislead new cooks this way.
Then there are the almost-impossible “simple” recipes demonstrated in 30 second videos which skip half of the steps required. A friend recently commented on my fresh Ontario strawberries, which are – as all real local strawberries are – much smaller than the giant, woody imported berries she bought at the grocery store.
“I was trying to make Jello shooters I saw on a video,” she described. “I was supposed to hollow out the inside, and then flatten the bottom. I hollowed out the inside, but by the time I flattened the bottoms, the filling was running all over the tray. It was impossible to do!” she moaned.
“It was a stupid idea, which has probably never worked anywhere but on that video,” I comforted her. “Cups are cups, and strawberries are strawberries. God did not intend for strawberries to be cups, I promise you. Just enjoy the strawberries; make a daiquiri, if you want. Pour it in a cup.”
When I was a teen-ager growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in rural Ontario, we got two TV stations: CBC and CTV. The CTV affiliate, CKCO-TV Kitchener, had a cooking show and a sewing show which aired weekly. Each show was half an hour long and featured a mature woman, who clearly knew what she was talking about, teaching something that was sensible and helpful. By the end of half an hour, I had learned something new and had a hope of re-creating it.
There was nothing complicated, competitive or confusing about those shows. They used ingredients or materials we could buy locally; nutrition and value for money mattered; the women were friendly and informative.
Nobody ever got fired, or ran off the set in tears. No one was ever required to make a “mystery basket” recipe including fish and pineapple. There was no swearing and no insults.
I realize that we will never go back to those simpler times; however, I still feel sorry for young cooks who will grow up thinking that cooking has to be difficult and challenging. Cooking should be about love, whether you are cleverly whipping up a paella or just frying some eggs.