The Times They Are A-Changing

My older son got braces last week, and has been basking in the glory of having “teeth bling” ever since. He has received myriad compliments about how cool his new braces look; I expected them from the adults in his life, but was surprised to hear that his peers have also been commenting on his awesome new metallic smile. It made me think about how braces have morphed into an exciting status symbol/ rite of passage for young teenagers, when back in my day they were considered a curse.

It seems like half the population of tweens and teens are showing off their shiny metal grins, whereas when I was in junior high I knew a girl who refused to show her teeth for the two years she was undergoing orthodontic treatment. Brace Face and Metal Mouth were actual insults, whereas now braces are so commonplace and, frankly, desired, that no one would think of making fun of a child with braces.

It really made me think of all the things that have changed in perception from when I was young.


Remember how people would dress up like a nerd for Halloween? Revenge of the Nerds? Can’t Buy Me Love? Being a nerd was considered to be social suicide, whereas now I think we can all agree that being nerdy is where it’s at. After all, those nerds can really make the big bucks, and with computers being so deeply entrenched in our society, acceptance of the nerd is now at an all-time high.


It’s not like anyone thought smoking was a particularly good idea back in 1990, but it was certainly acceptable. At high school, there were designated Smoke Doors and even a part of the compound that was the Smoking Section. When I got my first office job as a summer student in 1997 some people still smoked in their offices, and I remember one professor telling me about the days when he and his students would smoke in class. I think someone would get pelted with rotten tomatoes if they tried lighting up in a lecture hall now, and at a school? Forget about it.


When I was a teenager I went to school with some real punks: the big boots, the leather and chains, and the Mohawk haircuts. These guys – and some girls – were badass and maybe even a little bit scary to a princess-type like me; they threw parties with lots of booze and drugs, some of them didn’t live with their parents, and there were always a few hanging out at the Smoke Doors. Only people who were very cutting edge and part of the punk culture had a Mohawk; now you see it on any given toddler coming out of Beaners’ with a lollipop.

Hair Colour

Speaking of punks, the only people who had hair colour that wasn’t a natural shade were the same people wearing Mohawks and chains. In fact, I don’t really remember anyone in junior high who coloured their hair; there might have been a few highlights and perhaps a Body Shop henna shade on some girls, but it certainly wasn’t common. And green, pink, purple, or blue hair colour? That was not for the pedestrian. Nowadays, though, it’s completely mainstream and even on fleek to have at least a streak of bright colour. Walk into any junior high class and you’re guaranteed to see several rainbow shades of hair.


I have three earrings in my right ear and one in my left, and let me tell you, people, back in 1989, in my house, that was a scandal indeed. I had my ears pierced courtesy of an aunt on my ninth birthday, but when I was 13 I got a double piercing, followed by my third the next year. I snuck out to a salon in Estevan, Saskatchewan while visiting my grandparents that summer. My grandma knew and vowed to keep it a secret from my father who would flip out at such wanton behaviour. I had successfully hidden it for eight months until one unlucky day when I had pulled my hair into a ponytail. “NICOLE. What is with the DUAL PIERCED EARRINGS?” he said in his Scary Dad voice, and because I was evidently not very savvy, I said, “Actually, Dad, it’s three earrings, I just don’t have the bottom ones in.” With the brou-ha-ha that ensued, you would have thought I would have come home with a prison neck tattoo or something. I mean, it’s not like I had a tongue stud, which I think we all can agree has but one connotation. My dad might have been conservative even at the time, but he wasn’t totally alone in this. I knew several men of his age who would have fainted if their sons had come home with an earring, let alone two. I mean, think of the guys now who have those circular earrings that stretch their lobes out. THAT’S a crazy fad, to me, but maybe in 20 years everyone will have them. Or, those guys will just have droopy earlobes and deep regrets.



While reminiscing about Valentine’s Day with Hannah and Allison last week, I remembered a strange little detail from junior high that had been hereto repressed, deep in a dark place in my soul.

As I suspect most of my peer group did, I loved going to school dances in junior high. It was just so exciting; who would dance with whom? Would there be a slow dance? Would teachers tap a slow-dancing couple on the shoulder and tell them that there had to be a six-inch separation between bodies? What exactly were you supposed to do when slow dancing to Say You, Say Me? The middle part speeds up considerably, should you continue slow dancing or start fast dancing? Would they play Mony Mony and would it get forever banned from subsequent dances because of the entire gymnasium chanting the Hey motherfucker get laid get fucked part in the chorus?

Answer to the last question: yes. Every year at the first dance that song would get played, and then stopped mid-song, never to be played again until the following September.

At my junior high, there were a couple of big dances per year, and they would be held in the evening. These dances were usually the semi-formal one at Christmas, and then again in the late spring. Throughout the year, however, were after-school dances for Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and the like. At other schools, so I hear, this type of after-school dance was commonly referred to as a Sock Hop.

Not at my school, though. At my school, an after-school dance was known as a Shag.

Now, apparently this is a common name for a particular kind of dance from the 1930s, which involved vigorous hopping from one foot to another. However, I did not go to school in the 1930s and I seem to remember that dancing in the Eighties was less like vigorous hopping and more like this:

But I could be wrong.

The point is, I spent my entire youth thinking that a Shag was an innocent after-school dance. I was in university, going to see Austin Powers with my then-buddy-who-became-my-boyfriend-who-eventually-became-my-husband, when the other, better known meaning came to light.

That moment caused me to reflect back on everything I knew as a youth. Everything was a sham. My eyes were opened and to this day, I have to do a quick check to make sure I’m not naively saying something that has an entirely-different meaning.

That was the end, my friends, of innocence.


Back before the days of VCR, way before you could pause and rewind live television, back in the days of looking in the TV Guide to see the television programming for the week ahead, I had two favourite shows: Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness, and The Muppet Show. I would watch the clock and then settle in front of the television five minutes prior to the start of the show, just so I wouldn’t miss a thing. I haven’t seen either of those shows for many years, but I have a feeling they would still hold up today. I mean, how can you go wrong with a nature show? Not to mention that just watching the opening theme song for The Muppet Show puts me in a happy place.

The Muppet Show was a delight to me for many reasons, and my teenage love of the theatre and acting in plays probably started with my fascination about the backstage excitement on The Muppet Show. I loved watching the Muppets interact with the guest stars, I loved watching the backstage panic and the “show must go on” activity, I loved the various skits and sketches, but most of all, I loved Miss Piggy.


Maybe it’s the diva in me, but I could identify with her the way I could never identify with anything else, back then. It wasn’t so much that I admired her, it was that I wanted to BE her. I received a Miss Piggy puppet doll for my birthday and I loved her immoderately. I called her “my little sister” but that wasn’t entirely correct. Really, that Miss Piggy puppet was my secret identity. Instead of brown, Dorothy Hamill hair, my real hair was long, blonde, and perfectly feathered. Instead of corduroy pants and striped t-shirts, I wore purple satin gowns with long gloves, tiaras and fur stoles. I was the star of the show, my own private imaginary show. I was beautiful and fierce and commanded adoration from my fans.


Please note the tiara, flowing hair, fancy dress, and fur stole. C’EST MOI, MISS PIGGY.

The romance with Kermit (Kermie?) wasn’t something I focused on, really. It was all about being a sweepingly beautiful pig with fabulous fashion sense. I didn’t really want to be dating a frog, particularly one who was one third of my size. I thought, even back in 1979, that Miss Piggy was better off on her own rather than being desperately in love with an amphibian who wasn’t even clothed most of the time. Kermit didn’t appreciate her. He didn’t appreciate her beauty, or her talent, or her larger-than-life personality.

When it came down to it, I wanted Miss Piggy to plant her own garden rather than wait for someone to bring her flowers. I wanted this:


Rather than this:


This week the news came out that Miss Piggy and Kermit have officially called it quits. They are no longer a couple, which is fine, but there’s more. Kermit has a new love, and it’s another lady pig. A LESSER lady pig, I might add. I guess after all those years of dithering, Kermit seems to have a type, and that type is lady pigs. The new girlfriend’s name is Denise, which strikes me as a ridiculous name for a pig. Miss Piggy, now that’s the name for a pig. DENISE? I don’t think so.

Well, she can have him. I mean, really. He’s not a catch. He was discovered playing the BANJO in a SWAMP, FFS. Aim higher, Miss Piggy. A pig with your beauty and fashion sense – not to mention kick-ass karate moves – can do so much better.



If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my dressing room.


Your mother wears army boots.

It’s back-to-school time, so of course I found myself in the mall the other day, shopping for shoes for me. What? Moms need new back-to-school looks too, even if they are not actually going to school.

Truthfully, I needed some new shoulder season shoes, because mine were worn down and in bad shape, and I needed something to bridge that month between strappy sandals and full-on boots. So, I found myself attracted to a large Sale sign on the window of Steve Madden. Now, I had never shopped there before, mostly because Steve Madden reminds me of The Wolf of Wall Street, which was the most disgusting book I have ever read in my life, and which I regret reading and therefore contributing to the wealth of one of the worst people on earth.

My disgust about The Wolf of Wall Street notwithstanding, I wandered into the shop, thinking that a nice pair of ankle boots would be just the ticket for me. Since I walk a lot, I need boots that are very comfortable, with a good rubber sole, but I also like to be at least a little on-trend. After picking up and trying on a few pairs, the very young salesgirl brought me the latest trendy ankle boot.

Dear Readers, it was an army boot.

Despite my misgivings about them being exactly like a pair I wore almost daily from 1990-91, I tried them on. They were comfortable. They had a good rubber sole. They were – if the cute young salesgirl was to be believed – very on-trend.

Dear Reader, I bought them.

Before buying them the salesgirl reassured me that I was totally not too old to wear them and I was way younger than her mom! With that somewhat unsettling reassurance, I carried the box to the car and went home.

I fretted the entire way home. What’s next, I thought to myself, am I going to start wearing them with babydoll dresses? Am I going to wear them with tights, ripped denim shorts, and oversized sweaters? What am I trying to prove? Am I going to be a living monument to Mutton Dressed As Lamb?

It’s not that I didn’t love the look of army boots, back in 1990-91. It’s not that I didn’t rock them out with my floral and black babydoll dresses, with my tights and ripped denim shorts that had peace symbols embroidered on them. But it’s not 1990-91, and I am no longer in high school.

I got them home and tried them on again. My husband, who has likely never noticed my footwear before, and likely never will again, looked askance at them. My kids, running through the kitchen, stopped and looked at me quizzically. I looked at myself in my full-length mirror, wearing my regular clothes that did not go with army boots in any way. The bottom half of me was 16-year-old punk rock. The top half was 40-year-old mom.

The next day I took them back to the store, something I have actually never done before, and vowed to stick to the fashion rule that if you wore it the first time around, think really hard about the second time.

Of course, if babydoll dresses come back in style, I’m going to be very tempted.

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. Recap Part 2

When last we saw Margaret, she was wearing the smallest bra available from Lord and Taylor, she was Mavis in the Four PTS’s, and she was preparing to visit temple for the very first time for Rosh Hashanah. Is she going to finally figure out God, boys, and sixth grade? Let’s see!

Chapter 9

Margaret gets a new suit and hat, plus white gloves for Rosh Hashanah. Remember the days when we would dress up to go to church? Not to sound too much like my own grandma, but I can’t get down with the whole casual wear-jeans-to-church atmosphere of these days. It’s been many years since I’ve actually been to a service, mind you, but I think the world is too casual now. I also feel this way about how people dress when they are on airplanes. Remember when you’d dress up to fly? Now we are one step above hobo in our bid to be “comfortable.” There’s a difference between a nice pair of yoga pants and wearing what amounts to pajama bottoms in public, people.

Anyway, back to Margaret. She goes to temple and admires the hats, flowers, and organ music, but can’t understand what’s really going on because the service was in Hebrew. She expected something else, to see God, maybe, but no. Not today. She meets the rabbi, and Grandma is very excited to show off her granddaughter. The rabbi says Good Yom Tov, which means Happy New Year, which is what Rosh Hashanah is all about. Margaret goes home no more spiritually enlightened than when she set out.

Chapter 10

Three important things happen: first, Laura Danker wears a sweater to school, inciting boob-related jealousy throughout the female population, and googly eyes from the male population. Second, Margaret goes to church with Janie and realizes it was just like temple, except in English. She hopes that she’ll see God, but just like in temple, she does not.

Maybe you need to look within, Margaret.

The third important thing to happen is that the PTA is holding a Thanksgiving square dance for the grade six classes…a SQUARE DANCE. Is this a thing that happened in the Seventies? Was square dancing really popular at the time? I feel like this can’t be right, but yes, the Four PTS’s and the rest of the kids are excitedly preparing for a square dance. Nancy’s mother is on the committee so Nancy offers to pair up her friends with the boy of their choice…but all of them choose Philip Leroy, so Nancy renegs on that agreement. She is not a miracle worker, people.

It’s two solid weeks of square dance lessons in gym to prepare for the big event. Mr. Benedict uses Laura Danker as a partner to demonstrate the proper steps, ostensibly because she’s tall, but Nancy raises her eyebrows at that reasoning. In any case, she’s taller than all of the boys in the class – the very tallest only reaches her chin. That was me! I was the tallest girl by far when I was in grade six – in fact, only one boy was taller than me and that guy is now a seven foot tall man, so I think that says something. I feel for Laura. It’s okay, Laura! I’m 5’7″ now and I have never once had to hem a pair of pants.

Anyway, the boys are mostly interested in stomping on the girls’ feet whilst square dancing, which feels like a realistic representation of grade six relationships. But, the day of the square dance is exciting nonetheless. The gym is all decorated with hay and scarecrows, and Nancy’s mother is a chaperone, dressed in a plaid shirt and a straw hat, which – needless to say – is mortifying for Nancy. Hey, in my memory, any time parents were en evidence was mortifying for preteens. I remember once when my parents had to chaperone a dance – they HAD to, because the shortage of chaperones meant that the dance was going to be cancelled – and it was incredibly embarrassing. I’m sure it wasn’t how they wanted to spend their evening, either, inflicting pain and mortification on their only daughter, who pretended to not know them.

The PTA has hired an actual square dance caller – WERE there professional square dance callers in the SEVENTIES? This seems more like a nineteenth century thing. – and Margaret gets to dance with Philip Leroy! Unfortunately, he is one of the jerks who is out to squash girls’ feet, so it was kind of a letdown. Nancy was so upset that Margaret got him for a partner, she almost CRIED, the big baby.

Chapter 11

The Four PTS’s gave up on their exotic secret names (Kimberly!) and their Boy Books, because everyone keeps listing Philip Leroy and it’s getting kind of old. Gretchen gets her father’s old anatomy book out so they can see what a naked boy looks like. Janie mentions that her aunt once spent a month at a nudist colony, to everyone’s shock and amazement. Margaret sneaks her dad’s copy of Playboy to show her friends, and the centerfold inspires them to do fifty rounds of “we must increase our bust” exercises.

Chapter 12

Grandma’s going on a cruise! She goes to the Caribbean every year and gives a bon voyage party in her room on the ship; this year Margaret is allowed to go.

Wait. People could just GO onto the cruise ship and hang out? Those rooms are pretty small. Plus, she’s only going for three weeks! Is a bon voyage party really appropriate in this situation? Oh well, any excuse for party snack food and champagne is a good excuse, in my mind.

Anyway, once they get home from the cruise ship Margaret’s mother gets busy addressing Christmas cards, which she calls “holiday greetings” because the family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Margaret’s mother sends cards to her old friends from Ohio, to keep in touch, and Margaret discovers that this year, she has also sent a card to her estranged parents. Cue ominous music.

Meanwhile, the school is putting on a Christmas-Hanukkah concert, and Margaret’s class is the choir. There’s a bit of a mutiny since one of the Jewish boys refuses to sing the Christmas songs, and one of the Christian girls refuses to sing the Hanukkah songs, despite Mr. Benedict’s assurances that the songs were for everybody, but the aforementioned children bring notes from home saying that they need to be excused from this exercise in religious harmony.

Chapter 13

MARGARET GETS A LETTER. THERE IS A LETTER THAT CAME IN THE MAIL THAT IS ADDRESSED TO HER. I REPEAT: A LETTER FOR MARGARET. There’s a whole page devoted to this: the description of the envelope, Margaret’s stunned and excited reaction to receive a letter, her sense of wonder and excitement about said letter, and the way she very carefully opens it so as not to rip the envelope.

It was an invitation! I knew right away because of the picture – a bunch of kids dancing around a record. Also, it said, HAVING A PARTY.

Who’s having a party, I thought. Who’s having a party and invited me. Naturally I could have found out right away. I could have looked inside. But this was better. I considered the possibilities.


Finally, after wondering and thinking and looking at the postmark on the envelope, Margaret opens the invitation. After all that build-up, we discover it’s from Norman Fishbein, the biggest drip in the class. That’s a bit anticlimactic, but a party is a party, and this is even a supper party! Not only are the Four PTS’s invited, but so is the whole class, which prompts Margaret’s mother to say “Mrs. Fishbein must be crazy!”

I kind of think so too. Twenty-eight sixth graders? I had eight fifth graders over for a birthday party and halfway through I felt like I needed to wash down some Xanax with a nice Syrah.

Margaret gets ready by washing her hair and getting a crème rinse, putting her hair in rollers and going under the dryer, wearing new fancy lace-trimmed underwear, tights, and a velvet dress. Then, she stuffs her bra with cotton balls! She looks in the mirror and likes what she sees.

Chapter 14

Nancy’s father drives the Four PTS’s to the party, and they’re all excited and prettied up. Norman’s mother greets them and she’s super fancy in velvet pants with a sparkly sequined top. See what I mean about people dressing for occasions back then? Their house is huge and they have a maid! Nancy’s been there before and knows the way to the rec room where the party is.

Do people still have rec rooms? Are they called that? When I was a kid we had a little picture that said “Rules for the Rec Room” and one of them was not to use pizzas on the record players. Just in case someone was considering that, I guess. The hilarity.

The boys are all wearing jackets and ties, and Laura Danker is there. She looks gorgeous. Mrs. Fishbein serves the food, and the boys basically destroy the rec room by shooting mustard through a straw at the ceiling. This is why you don’t have twenty-eight sixth graders over for supper, Mrs. Fishbein. As the kids are eating cupcakes, Freddy Barnett and Nancy get into a shouting match, which ends with Freddy ripping Nancy’s pocket off of her new dress. Mrs. Fishbein is shocked at their behaviour and thinks they are all a bunch of ill-mannered hooligans.

Norman suggests games to keep everyone from destroying the family home and ripping parts of their schoolmates’ clothing. It’s Spin the Bottle time! Eeek. GRETCHEN GETS PHILIP LEROY. Then Philip gets LAURA DANKER, who looks shyly down, causing Philip to get a mouthful of hair. At this point, one of the boys suggests “Two Minutes in the Closet” where everyone gets a number (girls odd, boys even) and then each person calls a number, and they go into the bathroom together for a maximum of two minutes. Pervs. After some time, Freddy the creep gets Laura Danker, who is blushing red. Margaret wonders why – she should be used to this kind of action. Hmm…

Then Laura calls number seven, which is Philip Leroy! When they come out of the bathroom Philip is smiling but Laura sure isn’t. Hmmm…

Philip calls twelve, which is Margaret’s number! Philip gives Margaret a really fast kiss on the lips, after she stops nervously giggling. Also, thank God he doesn’t try to cop a feel, since her bra is still stuffed with cotton balls. Margaret calls number nine and gets Norman Fishbein, who tells her he really likes her! Margaret instructs him to kiss her on the cheek.

Later, Nancy tells Margaret she’s totally jealous of her time with Philip, and how was he, as a kisser? Margaret lies and says great, they kissed so many times she lost count.

Chapter 15

Margaret goes to Christmas Eve services with Nancy, and enjoys the music but doesn’t feel like God is there.

Grandma comes home from her cruise and decides to go to Florida, sadly, because New York City is nothing without “her Margaret.” She sends tons of postcards and phones every Friday.

The class is going to see a movie! Boys will see one movie, and girls will see another movie, and it’s SEX ED TIME. The movie the girls see is all about menstruation and is sponsored by the feminine product company Private Lady. There is time for questions, and Nancy asks about Tampax. The Private Lady representative is kind of shocked, and says that internal protection is not advised until the girls are considerably older.

Remember when people thought that using tampons would result in a loss of virginity? I had a book called Girltalk, that supposedly answered all your questions about life, body, friendship, etc., and there was a whole section devoted to feminine hygiene products and this EXACT THING was addressed.

The girls in the class all get a booklet that – surprise! – recommended use of Private Lady sanitary supplies.

One week later, Gretchen gets her period! Gretchen holds up her end of the PTS bargain and describes the experience. She feels a little crampy, a little drippy, and her mother gave her a lecture to watch her weight and wash her face with soap. It’s all very anti-climactic for the girls who want to know what it’s like. Margaret’s super jealous: she wants her period too! Don’t rush things, Margaret. One day you too will be sobbing while watching commercials and eating Family Sized bags of chips; it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Nancy and her family go away on a trip and Margaret gets a postcard that says only “I GOT IT!!!” Margaret’s devastated. She thinks there’s something wrong with her! She doesn’t want to hear any more about Nancy and Gretchen and their fancy periods.

Chapter 16

Since Grandma’s in Florida, Margaret and her mother use the Lincoln Center subscription, which isn’t as fun, and Margaret writes to tell her grandma so. Grandma writes back and says she’s met a nice man named Mr. Binamin. Mr. Binamin is widowed; he wants to get married again, his grown kids want him to get married again, and Grandma? Grandma’s not saying anything. But she’s WRITING to Margaret to say that she’s not saying anything. I think I can, with certainty, say that Grandma is getting a little action down in Florida. Well, who doesn’t? Isn’t that why all the kids go there for spring break? That and the booze, I guess.

In other exciting news, Grandma thinks Margaret should come and visit her in Florida during spring break. Maybe even meet the fabled Mr. Binamin.  Margaret is over the moon! She’s never even been on an airplane before, let alone head off to Florida – FOR SPRING BREAK. Pack your bikini and some Alka-Seltzer, Margaret! Can I get a what what?

Will Margaret go to Florida for Spring Break? Will she ever get her period? Will she get another letter that will be even more amazing than an invitation showing a bunch of kids dancing around a record player? Tune in next time!

Easy Mark

When Angus was in grade one, he made a friend named Eric. Eric was short and small and cute and red-haired. He was also a champion bullshitter, and there came a point in their relationship where if Eric told Angus something with absolute authority, nothing I said would sway my sweet, naive little boy to believe differently. Everybody in their class was failing math? Eric’s bed was on fire and firemen came to his house and carried the flaming bed down the stairs and up the street to the firehouse? There was a ghost haunting Manotick Pool? All true – Eric said so.

It’s hard for me to fault Angus for this, since I was the world’s most gullible child myself. One might think that all the reading I did would have broadened my knowledge base and created a little cynicism, but I think it might have done the opposite; it made it seem that anything was possible, so when people told me things that were outlandish and highly unlikely, I believed that they were… possible.

In kindergarten, there was a word scratched into the top of the play structure. Another girl told me it meant friendship and said I should use it in class. I could read a lot of words by the time I was in kindergarten, but my vocabulary was not wide enough to know that F-U-C-K does not mean friendship – at least not until I tried using the word in class.

In the small town where I lived, there was a place called Anderson’s Farm. It was a collection of buildings, a barn and a windmill near an elementary school; in the winter, we cross-country skied around the fields. In grade one or two, I was in my backyard with a friend from my street and we could see the windmill in the distance. She told me in a hushed, intense voice about a girl who was taken prisoner by people who lived at the farm. They cut off her head and her little finger (for use in some profane pinky-requiring Satanic ritual, no doubt) using the windmill, and if you looked at it up close there was STILL BLOOD on the blades. I told this breathlessly to my mother later on, who asked drily if I supposed that it hadn’t rained in all the years since this foul deed had taken place. I shook my head sadly at her laughable logic – rain doesn’t wash off blood used in demonic rites, MOM. It had to be true, after all – Tammy said so.

I also remember crying in grade four because one of my best friends said she had heard that some psychic lady had predicted that the world would end at midnight on the upcoming New Year’s Eve. She had made other predictions, and she had NEVER BEEN WRONG. I tried to tell myself it was nonsense, but at the same time I kept thinking, well geez, the world is really old now, maybe it makes sense that it’s almost done. My teacher clearly didn’t know whether to give me a consoling hug or smack me for being such a dough-head.

I had to kiss and hug all my stuffed animals and tuck them in every night just on the off chance that all those books about toys coming to life after their owner left the room were true – how horrible would it be if they were, and my toys felt unloved? Chain letters were absolute torture – my hand would be curled into a useless claw, but if I didn’t finish them all, surely dreadful things would happen. Séances? I would nearly vomit in terror (thank-you, grade six camping trip from which it took me years to recover).

In a way I regret how world-weary I’ve become since then. Miracle cures? Cosmic coincidences? Near-death experiences? I roll my eyes at everything. If I can’t verify it with two independent sources, it didn’t happen. A balance between the two extremes might be nice – having your head on straight but leaving a little room for magic and mystery. I guess that’s why I still read.

As a child, were you a susceptible sucker or a sophisticated skeptic?

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Recap Part 1

As far as I can tell from my non-scientific research, if you were a girl growing up in the Seventies or Eighties, you loved Judy Blume. Maybe there are exceptions, but I haven’t met any of them yet. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. was the ultimate guide to growing up; maybe it still is. My memories from this book were about first periods and bras, but it’s so much more than that: friendship, crushes, spirituality, family, and shame. Let’s get started!

Chapter 1

We meet Margaret Simon through her conversation with God – like a dear diary, but with God. We find out that she’s moving from the big city of New York to suburban New Jersey. As a child growing up in the Calgary suburbs, I would never have realized how significant such a move would be. Interestingly, this book was published in 1970, and if I’ve learned anything from Mad Men fashion blogs, it’s that New York in the 1970s was a cesspool. Or, as Pete Campbell so succinctly said, “The city’s a toilet.”

In any case, Margaret has come home from summer camp to find out that their NYC apartment has been rented to someone else and her family now owns a house in Farbrook, New Jersey. Now, this part went over my head because I probably didn’t even set foot in an apartment building until I was about thirteen years old. It didn’t really register, at the time, what a difference it would be, going from an apartment to a brand-new suburb where all the houses are alike, Margaret can go to public school, and her mother can have all the grass, trees, and flowers she ever wanted.

We also discover that Margaret assumes the move is to get away from her paternal grandmother, who adores her only granddaughter, pays for her NYC private school tuition and summer camp in New Hampshire, and knits her sweaters that have labels sewn inside saying “Made Expressly For You By Grandma.”

My mom crocheted baby blankets for both my babies that had a label like that, and I always kind of wanted a sweater with such a label for myself. Alas. Also, when I was a kid, I didn’t realize how many New York City kids would be sent away to a full summer camp, presumably to get some of that grass, trees, and flowers that they didn’t get in their apartment buildings. I mean, I went to summer camp for one week, and it was Lutheran Bible camp up at Sylvan Lake. It was awesome, but I’m guessing it was a different experience than a summer-long hiatus in New Hampshire. All I know about New Hampshire, really, is what I saw on Breaking Bad, and that is that they live free or die there. I’m guessing summer camp would be a refreshing change from the hot town, summer in the city, with the back of Margaret’s neck getting dirt and gritty.

Speaking of Bible camp, we also find out that Grandma is Jewish and hopes that Margaret will have Jewish boyfriends. Put a pin in that, because it becomes significant later on!

Chapter 2

The Simon family has moved into their new house for no more than an hour when a girl comes to the door. It’s Nancy Wheeler and she knows all about Margaret from the dossier that the real estate agent sent out to the neighbourhood. Can you imagine that happening now? Privacy issues ahoy! Anyway, so Nancy knows that she and Margaret will be in the same class at school, and she asks if she wants to run under the sprinklers, every single suburban child’s favourite thing to do on a hot summer’s day. Nancy loans her a swimsuit – ewwwww – because, of course, the Simons aren’t unpacked yet.

Nancy has something I always wanted: a dressing table with a heart shaped mirror and a fluffy organdy skirt. I also wanted a canopy bed.

Margaret shyly puts on the bathing suit in front of Nancy, who has no boundaries, apparently, and not only will not leave the room to allow this girl who she’s known for ten minutes to get changed, but who giggles about Margaret’s non-development in the chestal region. Nancy boasts that she’s already developing, and in a few years she’s going to look JUST like those girls in Playboy, which is something that twelve year old girls really shouldn’t aspire to. Margaret calls bullshit on this, in her mind, because her dad gets Playboy and she’s seen those centerfolds.

HOLD THE PHONE. Why is Margaret reading her dad’s Playboys? For the articles? Oh right, this is the Seventies, era of permissive parenting.

Nancy is relieved to see that Margaret isn’t some fast-paced city girl who seems to find out early how to open doors with just a smile, but instead has yet to kiss a boy. Nancy shows how she’s been practicing kissing, on her pillow, so that when the opportunity arises she WILL BE PREPARED. This is shocking to Margaret, who, despite years of summer camps in New Hampshire, has never seen another girl make out with her pillow. Nancy also mentions that Margaret’s hair – which is in the growing-out stage – is kind of LAME, which made me think: didn’t we all have a Nancy in our lives? A frenemy who would passive aggressively talk about your crappy hair, your boobs, and your lack of make-out experience. I guess if you didn’t have a Nancy, chances are you WERE the Nancy.

Through conversation with Nancy’s mother, we find out that a) Margaret’s mother is an artist, and b) Margaret doesn’t go to Sunday School. Shocking! Mrs. Simon doesn’t even play BRIDGE for chrissake, and they moved to the suburbs? The girls go play in the sprinkler, and get totally drenched by Nancy’s older brother Evan, who cranks up the water pressure. That is totally something my own brother would have done. Nancy runs crying to her mother because her perfectly coiffed 1970 ponytail is all wet.

Evan is accompanied by Moose Freed, who mows lawns in the neighbourhood and immediately mentions this to Margaret. Five bucks a week, and I trim too. That’s a steal of a deal! Moose Freed. I’m in the phone book. Put a pin in that one too, because Moose awakens all sorts of feelings in Margaret. She even names her pillow “Moose.” Just kidding! She doesn’t really. Or does she?

Because Nancy’s a big crybaby about the water spray, Margaret goes home, but not before she’s informed that she needs to wear loafers with no socks on the first day of school to be part of Nancy’s secret club. Because wearing socks will make her look like a baby, unlike sobbing because your brother soaked you with a sprinkler.

Chapter 3

Margaret’s dad isn’t going to call Moose Freed – he’s in the phone book! – because he wants to cut the lawn himself. Unfortunately, the city slicker/ lifelong apartment dweller reaches his hand in the bag on the mower while the engine is running, and he has to go to the hospital for stitches. There’s an exciting scene wherein Margaret goes to look for the severed body part; anticlimactically, we discover that all his digits are still basically intact, and eight stitches are all that are needed.

After that, arrangements with Moose are made.

The day before school starts, the family gets a surprise visitor. It’s Grandma! She came all the way out on the train even though it’s full of germs. She also brought deli food because there ain’t no deli like a New York deli. She assures Margaret that they are going to be as close as they’ve ever been, even though they’re geographically separated.

Chapter 4

First day of school! Margaret doesn’t wear socks and gets blisters. She notices a very tall girl in the class with huge breasts, who no one talks to, so Margaret thinks that maybe she’s new too. She’s not! But more on that later.

Their teacher is male, and it’s his first year of teaching. He’s pretty bright-eyed, though, and gets the class to fill out a form about themselves. Margaret says that she loves tuna fish but hates religious holidays. MAJOR PLOT POINT.

Chapter 5

The secret club meets, and there are only two girls besides Margaret and Nancy: Janie and Gretchen. Gretchen is immediately fat-shamed by Nancy, who asks how much weight she gained over the summer when Gretchen reaches for the cookies. Aren’t girls fun. After fat-shaming Gretchen, Nancy begins to slut-shame Laura Danker, the tall girl with the rack. Margaret, innocent Margaret, says that she noticed her right away – she’s pretty!

“Pretty!” Nancy snorted. “You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My brother says she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”

“And,” Janie added, “she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.”

POOR LAURA. I had a bra in fourth grade and let me tell you, it was no picnic. Nancy goes on to say that the teacher was ogling Laura, like all men would. They cannot help themselves, they must look lustily at a twelve year old girl who wears a bra.

It turns out that none of the other girls have their periods yet, but they promise to dish the deets the second that they respectively start. They also agree that to be a part of the club – dubbed the Four PTS’s for Pre-Teen Sensations – they all need to wear a bra. They need to maintain a Boy Book that details their crushes, and share them at each meeting. Hilariously, they decide that they will all have sensational secret names: Alexandra, Veronica, Kimberly, and Mavis. Margaret gets to be Mavis.

We find out that not only does Margaret not go to Sunday School, but she also doesn’t go to Hebrew School, so whether the family will join the Y or the Jewish Community Center is unknown. The reason Margaret’s family isn’t a part of organized religion is quite romantic: her mother was Christian and her father was Jewish, and they eloped! Margaret’s mother is estranged from her parents for marrying a Jew, but Grandma Simon – as we have seen – is accepting of the situation.

Chapter 6

Moose comes to mow the lawn, and Margaret watches him while pretending to read a book. ROMANCE AHOY. There’s nothing sexier than an older guy with a power lawn mower, am I right? Moose is awakening all sorts of feelings. Plus he smiles at Margaret, so let’s all sigh in unison. SIGH.

Margaret and her mother go bra shopping, where she has to get the smallest size available. She runs into Janie who is also buying the smallest bra available, and there is a lot of blushing going on.

Chapter 7

Margaret tries her bra on at home, and stuffs it with socks to see how she’d look. She likes it! But she takes the socks out, because SOCKS. In her BRA.

Her dad gives her a “my girl is growing up speech” which, if that was delivered to me by my own father, I probably would have died of embarrassment. Thank god that never happened.

The Four PTS’s meet and they’re all wearing bras and they’ve all listed Philip Leroy as their number one choice in their respective Boy Books. Margaret’s REAL number one choice is Moose, but she can’t write that because what would Nancy DO. They practice a few “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” exercises and they get BUSTED BY MOOSE AND EVAN OMG. Ha, busted. See what I did there?

The class is assigned a year-long personal, unmarked, meaningful research project. Yawn. Due to some disruptiveness, the desks are all rearranged and Margaret, much to her chagrin, is next to Laura. OMG I HOPE HER SLUTTY REPUTATION ISN’T CATCHING is what Margaret thinks. She’s not even going to LOOK at Laura, but fortunately, and sadly, Laura doesn’t look at Margaret either. She looks straight ahead at her work.

Despite the desk rearrangement, the class is still playing pranks on their first-year teacher: they hand in all their test papers with no names on them. Margaret is very irritated because she studied really hard, but she goes with the flow because peer pressure, and if no one is putting their name on their paper, then she won’t either. She’ll jump off the bridge with everyone, feeling very indignant about it.

Chapter 8

Ha ha! Mr. Benedict the first year teacher is not so dumb after all. Everyone gets their tests back, and they all have their names written on it, so Margaret’s study efforts did not go to waste. She got a ninety-eight, while the guy who initiated the “no-name” thing got a fifty-three. KARMA, BEE-ATCH. Mr. Benedict reminds them of their research project, and Margaret, after some soul searching involving bras and Moose, decides to write about God.

Margaret’s grandma has gotten them a subscription to Lincoln Center, so Margaret gets on a bus to New York by herself. Margaret’s mother is extremely nervous – don’t sit next to any men! – but the bus trip is uneventful and Grandma is there to meet her. They go for lunch and Margaret tells Grandma she’s wearing a bra – can she tell? Of course Grandma can. She looks very grown up, says Grandma.

For the record, in a thousand years I would have never told my grandma about my bra. NEVER. That conversation would not have happened. In my house, one would not discuss one’s underpinnings.

After the concert at Lincoln Center, Margaret asks Grandma if she can go to temple with her sometime and OMG YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES. Grandma is thrilled! She always knew she was a Jewish girl at heart. Margaret says no no no, that’s not it at all, but Grandma doesn’t care. She’s just happy Margaret is showing an interest. Margaret’s parents, on the other hand, are NOT. They think it’s ridiculous for Margaret to think about religion, but grudgingly agree that Margaret can go to temple for Rosh Hashanah.

Will Margaret find God in the temple? Will she still have to sit next to Laura? Will Nancy stop being a bitch? Will anyone get their periods? Tune in for the next installment!

can I get a hallejulah

Summer vacation is just around the corner, and many of the parents & kids I know are talking about camps. Sports, science, theatre, dance, you name it. Prices of camps vary from “reasonably affordable but that’s because it’s mostly free play loosely-supervised by teenagers” to “you will need to take out a second mortgage but your eleven year old will be scouted by the NHL”.

And then… there is Vacation Bible School, or VBS.

When I was a kid, the VBS bus would pull into town around mid-August. This is not a metaphor. It was a literal bus, painted in blue and white with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” emblazoned on the sides. Following behind it was a caravan of RVs, converted Dodge Econoline vans, and wood-panelled station wagons. They had a huge tent – one of those big old canvas jobs that could easily seat fifty people or more – and a stockpile of folding metal chairs. They always set up in someone’s field or unused back pasture.

For a few days before the start of the week-long camp, they would drive around to as many houses as they could within a 30km radius, knocking on doors with pamphlets in hand, inviting all children aged 5 – 18 to come to camp. They would pick everyone up in the morning! We’d drive to the tent in the bus! We’d stay ALL DAY and they’d bring us home in the late afternoon, and all the parents had to do was pack a lunch. IT WAS FREE AND THEY PROVIDED TRANSPORTATION.

In rural Nova Scotia in the 1980s, camps and other summer activities were pretty limited, especially if your parents didn’t have much money. All of my friends went to the “Gospel Tent” camp. It was like school, if school was run by Ned Flanders. My little sister and I would meet the bus early in the morning. We’d sing kids’ Bible songs all the way there. God said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floodie-floodie!

On the first day, every kid got a little cream-coloured folder to keep. Every morning, one of the camp leaders would attach a sticker with a Bible verse; we had to memorize the verse and recite it back the next day. My final year of Gospel Tent, the older kids (just me and two other girls) moved beyond the sticker process and instead were challenged to a contest; who could memorize the most verses from the Gospel of John in order. I learned 22 verses in four days, recited them all in front of the whole camp, and won a Bible. (A Bible that my two year old brother later scribbled in with purple marker, but that’s another story. He’s probably going to hell.)

At camp, we painted plaster-of-paris wall hangings with Bible verses on them (usually John 3:16, natch). We played with a Noah’s Ark flannel board. We had big group singalongs and there was always a sermon delivered by the camp director, Mr. Barry, a bald man in his early 70s who had been travelling around North America with the Gospel Tent since the 1960s.

Twice during the week they also held evening services for the larger community, and if you’re a Little House on the Prairie fan and remember the “revival meetings” from the later books, that’s basically what these were. There were no flannel boards, no plaster-of-paris, no happy songs like Pharoah Pharoah – instead it was much more fire and brimstone, and I still remember the meeting I went to with my grandmother where Mr. Barry thundered “all not in this tent tonight will see those fires of hell!” A little girl somewhere in the tent burst into hysterical tears and wailed “MY DADDY IS AT WORK!”

It was an annual tradition, Gospel Tent, and my sister and I loved it… which is really weird, in retrospect. We were not churchgoers. My dad is a lapsed Catholic and my mom was nominally Lutheran but mostly disliked organized religion in all forms. Every night when we came home, muttering our Bible verses to ourselves in order to commit them to memory, she’d sit us down and deprogram us from the day. Every summer though, back we went, for years.

Now, as a parent myself, I try to imagine how I would greet the news that a band of traveling revival preachers was coming to town and would entertain my children for free for a whole week. Can you imagine the uproar? I know that many churches now run their own VBS programs – still free, but your parents have to bring you, and from what I can tell it’s pretty light on the “Bible School” bit – but I’m pretty sure the Gospel Tent has long since rotted away and Mr. Barry, if he were still alive, would be over 100 years old.

I’m even trying to picture explaining this to my kids, and drawing a blank. It’s another relic of an era that is passed forever, the same era that brought us no seatbelts in cars and smoking in hospitals.

Tell me again why we’re all so nostalgic for the 80s?

Hopelessly Devoted To Beauty Products, 1988

Those of you who know me know that I am a beauty product devotee; in the spirit of this blog, I would even go so far as to say that I am hopelessly devoted to beauty products. I become so enamoured with a particular product that I even panic, a little, when I think that one day this might be discontinued. Do you know what I mean? When I find the perfect skin cream/ lipstick shade/ thermal hair protectant it’s all I can do NOT to stock up on it so I have enough for the rest of my life – think Elaine Benes with the “sponge.”

What I need to remember is that as time goes by, my beauty product needs change. For example, recently I realized I have to retire my deep, rich shades of lipstick because they are making me look like a hookerish clown. Sadly, I now have four completely unused lipsticks in my cupboard, because I was stocking up. I recall a similar thing happening back in high school when I wore nothing but Revlon’s Love That Red until I started university and realized that colour no longer suited me or my style.

The moral of this story is that there is no need to stock up on beauty supplies, because your beauty needs WILL change with time. These are the items that I could not live without, back in 1988.

Salon Selectives

This line of hair products made me feel like I had arrived. The fruity scent, the extra-super-strong hold that kept my four inch high bangs in place, the mousse that put the special spring into my spiral permed curls. I went through a bottle of hairspray every two weeks, so devoted was I to that agonizingly high-maintenance hair of the late 1980s. My friends and I all kept travel-sized bottles in our lockers, for emergency touch-ups throughout the day. I lived in Calgary, city of high winds, and keeping that extra-special curly hair with giant teased bangs intact was a great deal of work. Not to mention the winters; no one would dare put a hat on over that teased mass. We used earmuffs instead, the adjustable band inevitably getting painfully tangled in our hair in all that cold wind.


Image from

Side note: girls with hairspray bottles in hand was such a common sight at my school that many smuggled in alcohol to school dances in washed-out (I HOPE) hairspray bottles. For the record, I was not one of those girls. No teacher would think of checking the contents of a Salon Selectives or Aussie Sprunch Spray bottle, so groups would surreptitiously pass the bottle around. Meanwhile, gaggles of girls would be congregating in the washrooms to a) fix their hair, b) gossip about who was dancing with whom and whose behaviour warranted snubbing/ mean girl behaviour, or c) cry. Crying in the washroom at junior high school dances: a proud tradition.

Remember Aussie Sprunch Spray? That was also heavily utilized in my circle. The whole world was obsessed with everything from Down Under back then, including the hairspray and the fizzy Koala-themed flavoured water, not to mention INXS.

Kissing Potion

Kissing Potion was so goopy and drippy that I’m sure no guy wanted to kiss any girl wearing it. I’ve learned over my lifetime that men, in general, do not like to get lip products on their faces. Although, back then, maybe the guys weren’t so choosy about it. I don’t know, in any case, I loved wearing Kissing Potion. I loved all the flavours, and I loved how it went on like a roll-on deodorant.


Image from

Secret Roll-On Deodorant

Speaking of roll-on deodorants, wasn’t that weird? Why would you put something so wet under your arms? The tag line for Secret was, as you will recall, Strong Enough For A Man – But Made For A Woman. Some might be outraged at this, but honestly, guys do smell more than women, so there is something to it. What I chiefly remember about this deodorant is that it would sting when I put it on, it would be wet so I couldn’t immediately put my shirt on, and it smelled very sweet, like a cross between baby powder and sweet peas.


Image from EBay. GOOD LORD SOMEONE IS SELLING OLD SCHOOL DEODORANT ON EBAY. This means someone has stockpiled more than I have. Perhaps I should EBay my old lipsticks.


Love’s Baby Soft

I remember getting this for Christmas and thinking that dreams do come true. I loved this although the advertising was a little suspect…


Image from



Hannah would like me to mention Exclamation! perfume, which was incredibly popular back in the day. Sadly, I never had it although my girlfriends did. Allison remembers Body Shop perfumes in various fruit scents like Mango and Peach. Why did we want to smell edible? I don’t know, but we all slathered on vanilla perfume in the early nineties, leaving a trail of teenage boys who really, really wanted some chocolate chip cookies in our wake. And that is not a euphemism.

The Body Shop

Those who came of age after 1995 will never know what a cultural phenomenon The Body Shop was. Suddenly, we were all activists with our “Against Animal Testing” t-shirts and our fair-trade Satsuma Bubble Bath. I clearly recall shopping at the location that is a ten-minute walk from where I am right this moment. I would save up all my babysitting money to buy some treasured item like White Musk Body Wash, and I would covet those little baskets of goodies at Christmastime. How exciting it was to get Peppermint Foot Cream, Raspberry Ripple Bubble Bath, and a strawberry-scented glycerin soap! These items were so exotic back then; so far removed from the usual beauty items purchased at Zellers after school.


Image from


Kissing Koolers

This was the more colourful, less glossy cousin to Kissing Potion, and I loved them too. I probably bought them at Zellers, and I remember very painstakingly choosing which flavour best suited who I was. Ah, the teen years, it’s all about finding yourself and figuring out who you are, and who I am is a person who loves lip products.


Image from


Great Lash Mascara

Here’s the thing about Maybelline: they really know how to appeal to the teen market. Not only were they responsible for Kissing Koolers and Kissing Potion, they also sold – and still sell – arguably one of the best mascaras out there, Great Lash. I don’t even think they’ve changed the packaging much since 1988, but I always, always wore Great Lash in Very Black. These days I wear Maybelline’s The Falsies, but I have a special place in my heart for Great Lash.


Image from


After all, I didn’t just wake up in the morning looking like this – it took effort!


the birds and the bees

There has been a lot of talk about sex education in schools lately, what with the new revamped curriculum in Ontario and all. I have no intention of making this blog all political (although for the record, I am definitely in favour of the new curriculum and wish it would come to Nova Scotia, too) but it got me thinking about what passed for sex ed back in the late 80s / early 90s.

And oh boy! Have I got tales to tell.

Our first brush with Sex Ed in School came in the fourth grade – would have been 1988 for me. The public health nurse came in one afternoon and showed us a jittery film strip (remember those?) all about menstruation. Ten minutes of a cutaway view of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes, and when the red arrows headed briskly southward as the narrator dispassionately explained about “the monthly cycle” the kid who sat across the aisle from me actually fainted in horror.

Poor guy, he was woefully unprepared.

In grades five AND six, we were shown films that were supposed to give us reassurance? I guess? from both the male and female points of view. They were so terrible, I have never forgotten them, and I have often asked friends if they remember seeing them at their schools.

The answer was generally “no”. I guess in rural Nova Scotia we were pretty underfunded.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know what I’m going to say next.


First up, Am I Normal? I distinctly remember watching this in grade six and thinking to myself no, you are not normal. Normal people do not give public speeches about their penis to the girl they like. 

If you think I am exaggerating, well, crank up the volume and be prepared to awkwardly cry-laugh.

That poor, penis-obsessed boy. My god. He just never stopped thinking about his penis. And talking about his penis. And asking people about his penis. He learns about erections (note: not a bone! it can’t snap or break off! thank you, helpful narrator); about how masturbation will not turn you into a blind wolfman (there is a great cartoon illustrating this principle); and he even asks a zookeeper about penises. A ZOOKEEPER.

There is a bestiality joke in there somewhere, I’m quite sure.

The other movie was called Dear Diary, and despite my very best efforts I was unable to find any clips anywhere. You can borrow the VHS tape from the Stanford University library, though.

I recall that Dear Diary was more fraught with tension, and there was less laughing in the classroom. Menstruation just isn’t funny, I guess. In my fruitless search for clips I found several sites that discuss Dear Diary, and overall it gets more favourable reviews than Am I Normal.

And that was it! That was the last sex ed I recall until grade nine, when we all had a boiled egg “baby” for a weekend, and also practiced rolling condoms onto wooden phalluses in class one day (the phalluses were made by the seventh grade woodshop class, and no, that’s not a bad joke). In high school we talked about HIV and pregnancy, and how to avoid both – there were condom machines in the washrooms and we were encouraged to use them. By then, it was really too late.

At no point in any of this did we learn about consent, what a healthy relationship looks like, homosexuality, other STDs (lots about HIV, but apparently the clap was just a given), or much beyond the mechanics of the human reproductive system.

Certainly we came away from Am I Normal? and Dear Diary with many kids still believing that douching with Coca-Cola immediately after sex would prevent pregnancy, and I knew girls who had babies or abortions before we finished high school, so clearly the ten-year-old educational film approach didn’t work.

How did your school handle sex ed?