Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Time for a Weird Christmas Story

As some of you may know, I have started writing.  Actually, that's not quite accurate.  I have always been a writer - a lot of my writing was technical or corporate and, of course, there's this blog.  I have written a lot of travel journals, a bit of poetry, and a variety of other projects.  But in the last couple of months I have started submitting some of my writing to various publications and entering a few contests.  Well, yesterday I received an Honorable Mention for a flash fiction story I wrote for the Weird Christmas Annual Flash Fiction contest.  My story was one of 12 selected from about 200 entries. You are welcome to click on the link at https://weirdchristmas.com to read or hear my story.  Weird Christmas read out the winning stories on their WC#14 podcast.  I was invited to record my story which they included in the podcast at about 04:20 minutes in.  Here's my story for your reading enjoyment:

Christmas Wishes

by Angelle McDougall

For the last three years Mike and Cindy have received a special gift from a mysterious source.  The first year it happened they had decorated their tree just like always.  Upon closing the box of ornaments, they noticed a small item inside.

“It’s just like the watering can we have outside.” Cindy showed it to Mike.

They were delighted with how sweet it looked dangling from the tree.  In the Spring they realized the real watering can was missing, but figured it was somewhere in the barn.   

The following Christmas, the box held an exact miniature of the scarecrow in their corn field.

“Look, his tie is exactly like Mr. Bojangles’s,” said Mike.  “I wonder who’s leaving these for us?”

Cindy shrugged. “I dunno, maybe your brother?  It sounds like something he’d do.”  Mike agreed, and they spent the rest of the evening on the sofa snuggling and dreaming about Christmas.  When the scarecrow couldn’t be found the following summer, they assumed the wind took it. 

Last year, they could hardly wait to see what their secret Santa had left them. 

“Omigosh, it’s the outhouse,” Cindy squealed.  Laughing, Mike took the ornament and put it on the tree with the other two.   It took two days for them to realize the real outhouse was no longer standing.  They couldn’t explain where it went, but it was old and rickety and needed to be taken down anyway. 

This year Mike and Cindy could barely contain their excitement.  Standing next to the bare tree, their eyes sparkling and with huge grins, they opened the box of ornaments.

“I can’t wait to see what we got this year,” said Cindy as they dug through the decorations.

“I’ve got it.” Mike held the item up to show Cindy.  As their eyes focussed on the ornament, their smiles faded.  Cindy’s mouth fell open.  Just then little Emma’s voice came over the baby monitor.  Mike dropped the replica and rushed up the stairs to the baby’s room.  Cindy picked up the perfectly crafted tiny wooden crib and clutched it to her breast.

Thanks to Craig Kringle at Weird Christmas for holding the contest.  It was great fun participating.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Pop Go the Memories

Memories are funny things.  Sometimes we have them handy and they come easily to us.  And sometimes they store themselves away on some distant shelf way in the back of our minds only to be found when triggered by a completely random and unexpected source.  It could be the smell of the top of an infant’s head.  Or the taste of a special cookie made by a favourite Aunt.  It could be a colour or the way something looks when the light hits it just right.  It can even be the way something feels – the softness of a blanket or the stickiness of dandelion stems (remember trying to get that off your hands!?).  Well the other day I had the pleasure of having a very old memory brought to my attention quite unexpectedly.  I was making French toast for our breakfast and decided to make some Sucre a Crème to pour over it (see recipe below).  Once it was cooked, I poured the boiling hot syrup into a mason jar and covered it with a proper canning lid.  A short time later I heard a slight “pop” sound come from one of the jars and instantly I was reminded of the canning my Mom and I did when I was a youngster living at home.  That popping sound meant that the hot syrup helped to seal the jar – and now it could be stored safely in the root cellar or cold room for a good long time. 

How many jars of peaches, tomatoes, pickles, jackfish, peas, carrots, potatoes, chickens, crab apples, pears, green beans, sauerkraut, eggs, strawberries, blueberries, Saskatoonberries, and jam did we can over the years??  Each year Mom and Dad would put in a “little” garden next to our house in town.  The “big” garden was out at our Uncle’s farm.  That’s where we grew a couple rows of potatoes (my guess is the rows were a half mile long each, but I might be mis-remembering that), as well as more peas, carrots, and other vegetables.  Whatever we didn’t grow on our own – mostly fruit – we bought by the case in the fall when the trucks from BC would come to town.  Mom and I would start each canning day the same way.  We would prepare whatever food was going to be canned.  That meant, shelling peas, shucking corn, snipping beans, mixing up brines for pickles or fish, peeling, pitting, slicing, cutting – all the things that made each thing even more delicious.  Next would be sterilizing all the jars and lids.  Sink after sink filled with glass jars and new lids with seals.  Once the jars were ready we would fill each up with whatever was on the menu for the day.  Green beans placed lengthwise into the jars all standing uniformly waiting their mission.  We’d top up the jar with brine or water and a bit of salt of sugar, add the seal and lid on and place them in the canner and pressure cooker.  The canner was easier to use, but the pressure cooker got the job done in half the time.  I was always afraid of the pressure cooker, but Mom knew what she was doing, and I don’t recall ever having anything serious happen.  Once the jars had cooked long enough on the stove, we took them out using a special wooden and wire grabber to pull them out of the pot and place the jars on the countertop.  As the full jars sat on the counter cooling off, they would give a little popping sound letting us know that they had sealed properly.

At the end of the canning season we always took a moment to go down into the root cellar (which was located under the stairway leading to the basement), to see the fruits (and vegetables) of our labours.  It was truly satisfying to see the row upon row of jars filled with brightly coloured fruits, vegetables, and other delicious foods. 

I hadn’t thought about any of that for years, and all those memories – the smell of the vinegar for the brine, the taste of canned crab apples, the sound of the steam releasing from the pressure cooker, the feel of the hot soapy water when washing the jars, and the look of all those lovely jars of food on the shelves – all of that brought back to me by the simple pop of a seal on a jar of syrup.  My but memories are wonderous things. 

Sucre a Crème

1 cup Heavy Cream
2 cups Golden or Brown Sugar
2 Tbsps Butter

Mix together in a saucepan and bring to a boil for 2 to 3 minutes.  Serve warm as a wonderful syrup for pancakes or French toast. Use cold as a spread on toast or drizzled over ice cream (or just eat it straight from the jar – I won’t tell if you don’t!).  This will keep nicely in the fridge for ages and can be microwaved over and over.  I store mine in a mason jar with a lid – that way I can just pop the jar (without the lid) into the microwave to heat it up. 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Let's Colour!

So I’ve decided to try my hand at adult colouring, which means that I’m an adult and instead of doing my daily chores, I’m sitting down with a colouring book, pencil crayons (called “colouring pencils” when used by a grown up), a cup of tea, and colouring to my heart’s content.  I am strictly a feast or famine sort of person and have never learned how to do the whole “grazing” thing, so last week we went to an art supply shop in Victoria to pick up a case of 150 absolutely gorgeous colouring pencils, a sharpener, and a few colouring books. 

Who can forget, as a kid, the joy of opening up that big box of Crayola crayons.  Everyone had the 8 or 16 piece, but what luxury to have the 48 or better yet, the 64 pack which I remember had a sharpener built into the side of the box.  If I close my eyes right now I can still smell the wax and see the rows and rows of beautiful colours with great names like “maize, teal blue, and periwinkle”.  The sharpened points were so pristine; it was almost a shame to use them at first – almost.  There wasn’t even a mark on the inside of the box!  Those first few moments of sensory bliss were pushed aside as we scrambled to open up our colouring books and begin the work of “colouring”. 

Well now I’m a grown up and to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how to start.  So, I did what a lot of people do these days when they want to learn (or relearn in my case) how to do something.  I went to YouTube to see if there were any videos that might give me a little insight.  Apparently I’m not alone in my quest to learn the basics of “Adult Colouring”.  There are exactly eleventy billion videos available showing everything from advanced shading and portraiture techniques to a 35 second video on how the hell to open the pencil sharpener.  I’m not making that one up.  I actually had to use that one because, you know, I couldn’t figure out how to open my new pencil sharpener.  Which lead me to wonder if perhaps I’d bitten off a little more than I could chew.  But once I mastered that skill, it was time to actually try to put some colour on the paper.  I choose a picture from one of my new books, sat down with my cup of tea (aggressively ignoring my housework), and applied beautiful shades of blue and red and yellow to my page.  It felt a bit awkward at first, but very quickly I could feel my heartrate and breathing slow down.  I felt my attention become more focussed, and I felt plain old happiness at again doing something that I enjoyed so much in the past. 

Those beautiful colouring pencils Kirk bought for me are amazing.  Tray after tray of every shade and hue I could ever imagine and they glide on with buttery smoothness.  Ironically, the pencil I use the most is a colourless pencil, used for blending and burnishing the colours.  How’s that for a funny twist – the colouring pencil I will have to replace most often isn’t “Tuscan Red”, or “Peacock Green”.  It’s one with no colour and no name.  

The photo above shows you the results of one of my first finished pieces.   I think it turned out pretty good – I know I certainly enjoyed doing it.  Who knows where this new adventure will take me.  All I know for sure that I’m going to need a bigger fridge!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

All That and a Bag of Yarn

What is it about a big bag of new yarn that makes me feel so good?  As you can see by the photo above, I was at my local Michael’s store last week and they were having an awesome sale on my favourite yarn.  I simply couldn’t resist and picked up a huge bag’s worth.  It took every shred of willpower I had not to take two skeins of each colour on the shelves  – and who knows, the sale is on for a few more days, so I still might.  I don’t have any specific plans for the yarn yet except that I know I’m going to loom knit many projects.  Although I enjoy larger projects, my favourite thing is making items that can be finished within a few hours.  There’s something so satisfying about seeing a big stack of completed toques, scarves, slippers, headbands, purses, and what have you after a short period of time. 

While gazing at the rainbow assortment of lovely colours, I thought about all the benefits, mental, emotional, and physical that I experience from knitting.  A recent article in the New York Times had some excellent thoughts and information about just this very thing.

According to the Craft Yarn Council, a third of women ages 25 to 35 now knit or crotchet, and more and more men and schoolchildren are joining the group too.  Why are more and more people doing it, and why do we love it so much and keep doing it?  Well according to Dr. Herbert Benson (a mind/body medicine professional and author), needlework like knitting and crotchet can induce a relaxed state similar to that of meditation and yoga.  It can actually lower your heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).  The only time I feel stressed when I’m knitting is when I run out of yarn.

Knitting can even improve a person’s self-esteem.  Think about it.  Knitters and other crafters have their wonderful finished products they can see and use – tangible evidence of their work.  And that feeling of accomplishment and pride can be multiplied whenever they see someone wearing or using what they’ve made.  One of the reasons I like to take photos of my work is so I can go back and relive the feelings of pride and happiness I experienced with each piece.

Knitting helps to give people a sense of purpose – I know a lot of people, myself included, who just find it difficult to sit with “nothing” to do.  I know that knitting while watching TV makes me feel like I’m not wasting any of my time.  And we all know someone in our lives who has that knitting purse with them that they open up any time they have more than a minute to spare.  They knit on the bus, in the Doctor’s office, during bingo, at church (okay, maybe not at church, but I bet they wish they could!).

Some studies have shown that knitting can actually help people to quit smoking or manage eating disorders.  It keeps their hands and minds occupied, taking the focus off the cravings.  Handiwork can also help arthritic hands and fingers stay a little more limber and less painful. 

I was especially happy to find out that crafts like knitting might help keep my brain function from declining.  In a 2011 Mayo Clinic study they found that although crafts won’t reverse cognitive impairment that already exists, people who engaged in things like knitting had a reduced chance of developing mild impairment and memory loss - which is awesome, because I’m always losing my knitting hook. 

So I am definitely not alone in my obsession.  I buy the yarn because I really just love how knitting makes me feel.  It’s all very Pavolvian – at least I don’t drool (publicly) when I see the rows and rows of gorgeous yarn in the store.  Well now that I know I’m doing it for my health, maybe a second trip to the store is in order!

Friday, 5 February 2016

Jewelry Making and the Meaning of Life

Even as a very young child, I have always been interested in gemstones and jewelry.  One of my earliest memories of my paternal grandmother is of me sitting on her lap and looking at her brooch.   As you can see from the photo, it was one of those vintage Aurora Borealis rhinestone pieces that were so very popular back then (1960’s).   I am very fortunate to have inherited that lovely piece of jewelry as a memento of my Grandmother, and it is something I treasure very much. 

I never considered myself to be a particularly creative person, especially where crafts are concerned.  I read a lot about jewelry and gems, but it truly never occurred to me to try my hand at making something myself.  That is until I signed up for a Metalsmithing workshop in 2012.  Now, you might think that the classroom where people go to learn how to make jewelry might be all pink and fluffy with women sitting around the table smiling while putting wooden beads on a string, stopping only occasionally to hold hands and sing Kumbayah.  But you would be completely wrong.

I walked into the classroom and was bombarded by hammering and sawing, the whine of some sort of sanding tool (which I found out later is called a Foredom).  Everywhere were razor sharp scraps of metal and pots of caustic liquid on the counters.  There were huge exhaust fans to ensure any toxic fumes didn’t reach our lungs, and myriad tools and vices on every table.  A small station to the side had something that looked like a modified anvil where someone was tapping out some metal to give it texture.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  My senses were completely overloaded and I felt….I felt like I had come home.  The skies opened up and the birds started singing.  Suddenly I felt like my whole world made sense.  And one thought kept thundering through my mind.  Why hadn’t I been doing this all my life?

I spent the whole day in that classroom, sawing and swearing, sanding and dapping.  I learned how to string a wire-thin saw blade into a frame and to hold it just so, so that I could cut the metal to the shape I wanted.  I learned how to make earring wires and simple wire wrapping loops and how to put it all together to create something new.   It took an entire day of trial and error and patience and hard work (you wouldn’t believe how labour intensive metalsmithing can be!), but I persisted and I was able to finish my first ever pair of earrings.  I learned a lot that day – maybe most importantly, I learned that I have something creative inside me.  Something that has always been there waiting for exactly this moment to show itself. 

Here’s a photo of the earrings I made (yes I am aware they look like fish hooks – not surprising considering the family I grew up in).  They aren’t vintage, or expensive, but I made them.  I came up with the design, bent and rolled the wire, cut, sanded and textured the metal.  I started with raw materials and finished with something I made with my bare hands.  I walked out of that classroom elated, exhausted, and totally surprised.  It was amazing.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Old Fashioned Meatloaf - More than a 70's Band

Cup your hand and hold it in front of you.  That is known as “this much” and is a measurement that has been used by cooks throughout the ages to signify anything from ½ teaspoon to 6 cups.  Fortunately, this is the type of cooking I was taught by my Mom and various other family members.  They all used these types of measurements whenever I asked “how much” of something to add.  The same types of instructions can be found in older recipe books.  The best old recipe books are not in pristine condition.  They have flour and dried cake batter on the cover.  Some of the pages have stuck together or have grease stains on them from oil or butter (probably butter, because what else would you use!).  And if you’re very very lucky, they have notes along the margins, handwritten by the recipe’s owner.  “Freezes well”, “don’t brown”, “excellent cookies”, “Dad’s favourite” – these are the true indicators of whether or not a recipe is worth your time. 

Some of the instructions can also give you a glimpse into a different era of cooking.  In a time when most of the family’s nourishment came from a wood stove, listing a temperature really wasn’t of any value.  Some of my old recipes say things like “bake in a fairly hot oven until done”.  I love stuff like that - it really speaks to the concept of learning how to cook, not just what to cook.  And of course, some of the very best foods are the simplest.  Take for example meatloaf.  I had the opportunity to cook for my family the other night and decided to go with a really old fashioned classic instead of any new aged haute cuisine.  What could be more basic and homey than meatloaf with tomato topping, mashed potatoes, and broccoli with cheese sauce?  So today I will share with you my recipe for homemade meatloaf, including two variations should you feel the need to get a bit fancy.  I hope you and your family enjoy it as much as we do.

Good Old Fashioned Meatloaf

1 to 1 ½ lbs ground beef (I like extra lean, but use what you like and drain the fat as needed)

1 egg

½ cup chopped onion (or about “this much”, see above for explanation)

½ to 1 cup fine bread crumbs

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional toppings:

Once the meat is in the loaf pan pour a can of tomato or cream of mushroom (or any other kind of cream soup) over the top of the meat (do not dilute the soup).  Spread the soup evenly over the meat and put the whole thing in the oven.

Cooking Method
Preheat oven to 350F.  Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands.  Add more breadcrumbs if the mix isn’t holding together and feels a bit too wet (you should be able to form a patty or meatball and it holds together).  Press the meat mixture into a loaf pan (you can also use an 8 x 8 cake pan, but shorten the cooking time if you do).  There should be about an inch or so from the top of the meat to the top of the loaf pan to allow for the fat to escape without spilling over in the oven.  Here’s where you would add a can of tomato or cream of mushroom soup (for fancy meatloaf).  Place the loaf pan on a small cookie sheet and place in the centre of the oven.  Bake until done (about 1 hour) – drain any fat about half way through cooking.  Remove the meatloaf from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes before slicing and enjoying. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Movies at the Aurora Theatre

I grew up in Lac La Biche, Alberta.  It’s a fairly small town, but has had a movie theatre for as long as I can remember.  Every Saturday afternoon my younger brother (whom I shall refer to as “Shieky” from here on out) and I would take our wagon (a classic little red jobbie) and collect as many glass pop bottles as we could find in the neighbourhood.  We’d count the empty bottles carefully, making sure we’d be able to make enough money from the returns to cover our admission and treats.  Then we’d take them clinking away down the sidewalk to the local confectionary where we would trade them in for cash.  Once we concluded our business with the shopkeeper it was on to the Aurora Theatre.   

Walking in to the theatre was always a special thing for me.  For as long as I can remember, the theatre was operated by a wonderful family from town.  The Mom, Dad, and all their children each had their tasks and as regular theatre-goers we got to know them all well.  The ticket booth was directly in front of the entryway doors with a small lobby leading to the washrooms on the right and importantly, the snack area to the left.  Once we’d handed over our hard-earned bottle money and paid for our tickets, on we went to the snack area to pick out our treats.  Even now I can hear the machine in the corner erupting with fresh hot popcorn, filling the whole building with its wonderful aroma.  The trick was always to find the perfect snack – it had to be within our budget and had to last for as much of the movie as possible.  As delicious as the popcorn might have been to eat, it would have been a rookie mistake to buy – there was no way we would risk filling up on it before scarfing down something with sugar.  Row upon row of chocolate bars and candy to choose from - a Pep bar was okay, but a Crunchie could last for quite a bit longer.  The ultimate for me was usually a box of Mackintosh’s Toffee.  Sweet and chewy enough to yank the fillings directly out of my teeth – perfect!

With our refreshments in hand we would walk through the open curtains separating the lobby from the theatre and make our way down the steeply slanted wooden floors to our seats.  Being the shortest two kids in town, the only way Shieky and I could be sure to see the movie was to sit in the first and second seat of the very front row.  We had to crane our necks the whole time and couldn’t really see the entire screen that close up, but it was totally worth it. 

We always arrived early (a by-product of our upbringing that I will no doubt regale you about in another blog), and took some time to look around and get comfortable before the show started.  Each seat was made of a dark coloured wood with armrests and cloth covered cushions.  The ceiling was very high with a large ornate medallion surrounding the main light fixture.  The walls had been renovated in the mid 70’s and sported sections of green shag carpet and wooden accents painted orange.  In front there was a stage, like you might see in a school gymnasium, and a set of very heavy dark green velvet curtains.  I’m not sure, but I think there was music playing softly in the background while the seats filled.  Suddenly the lights would dim, one of the theatre family members would close the lobby curtains, and a hush would come over everyone as the heavy curtains would gracefully retract revealing the screen.  The opening cartoon would start and Shieky and I were definitely in our happy place. 

Going to the movies in a small local theatre has its own charm.  If you listened during a quiet part of the movie, you could hear the film clicking through the projector in the booth upstairs.  And if you looked up you could see the beam of light from the projector streaming down to the screen.  On the rare occasion when the picture was out of focus, or the reel had emptied, someone from the audience would call out the family member’s name to let him know it was time to switch the reels or make an adjustment.  Every year for Christmas that wonderfully generous family would show a selected movie to all the school children in the area for free.  Not only did I get to enjoy this lovely gift, but 20+ years later, so did my children. 

I think I saw every Saturday matinee shown at the Aurora theatre in the 70’s, instilling in me a lifelong love of movies.  To this day watching movies is still a special thing.  My husband and I have visited and enjoyed movie theatres all over the world and we usually watch one or two movies a week at home.  It’s a long way from selling bottles to pay for our admission and treats, but it’s been and continues to be one of my favourite things.