The Five Minute Rule

Visiting the Colosseum in Rome

After we moved to Asia in 2003 my husband and I began to travel extensively. We were teachers in Hong Kong and every vacation or long weekend we hopped on a plane somewhere and explored another part of the world. The people we worked with at the international school where we taught, were almost all avid globe trotters as well, and so we loved to chat about our various holidays and travel adventures with one another.

I noticed however when we returned home to Canada that most people were interested in hearing us talk about our travels for about 5 minutes in a conversation. Unless they were avid travelers too or had actually been to the same destination their eyes started to glaze over after about 5 minutes. I soon learned to watch for the signals and then cut off stories about travel escapades as quickly as possible.

Opening the box with the first copies of my book

I am finding it is kind of the same thing when you have a book published. Of course, you are terribly excited about it and want to talk about it but soon realize there are many people you know or meet who don’t know about your book, haven’t read your book, didn’t think your book was that great, or have no idea about all the years of work that goes into writing a book or how slim your chances were of getting it published.

If I talk about my novel too much, even if someone has asked me a question about my book, their eyes soon glaze over, their attention is diverted by something going on around us, or they start an alternate conversation. Of course, the exception is other writers who know all about the process of writing and publishing a book and are eager to hear and share information and ideas. I am realizing when it comes to my book it is a good idea to not bring up the topic, but wait for someone else to introduce it, and then use the same 5-minute rule that I use for travel stories.

If you aren’t visiting with other educators its best to limit your descriptions of your teaching experiences in conversation

I think this isn’t only true when it comes to the topics of travel or book publishing. I have also found if you are with people who aren’t grandparents it’s best to keep your comments about your own grandchildren to a five-minute limit. If you are with people who aren’t teachers it is best to keep your wisdom about schools and education and your own teaching experiences to five minutes. If you are with people who don’t attend church it is best to keep talking about your church down to a five-minute quota. When I worked at the art gallery I noticed that waxing eloquent about some exhibit just made people who weren’t interested or familiar with art decidedly bored after 5 minutes.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always stick to the five-minute rule nor am I always as sensitive as I should be to situations where I need to use it, but I’m trying.

Other posts………..

No Christians Fed to Lions and Other Things You Might Not Know About the Colosseum

It’s Not Vanity

Five Things I Believe About Learning

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Filed under Reflections, Travel

Teen Targets

Someone told me a story this week about a teenager who had just started work at a Winnipeg cinema that had re-opened for business. The teen had already been bullied by people who didn’t want to follow the mask regulations dictated by the province. They became rude and angry when the teen requested they put on a mask before entering the theater. That brought to mind a conversation I once had with a group of my high school students about bullying.

Photo by Keira Burton on

Some told me they had been bullied because of their race. Some had been teased about their accent because English wasn’t their first language. Others had been harassed about their clothing or hairstyle or had their sexual orientation questioned sarcastically. There were students whose family background had been ridiculed and others had been the butt of jokes because of their unique physical characteristics.

But…….. the most common kind of unfair treatment surprisingly had come from adults who bullied them or treated them unfairly because of their age. 

One boy said he’d been browsing in a store when the business owner approached him and asked if he had stolen something. The young man said he hadn’t and turned to leave. The owner refused to let him go until he had searched him for stolen merchandise.  “He didn’t even apologize for falsely accusing me”, said the student. 

Other kids had seen people cross the road rather than walk by a group of teenagers. Teens had been the recipients of dirty looks for no apparent reason other than their age. Some felt discriminated against in the workplace where they believed employers felt freer to get angry with teenage workers.

Teen workers deserve the same respect as adult employees

Like the situation, I mentioned at the beginning of this post, customers sometimes feel they can treat teen employees less respectfully too. They feel freer to vent their anger at a teen thinking perhaps they won’t face the same repercussions because the teen isn’t as likely to retaliate or stand up for themselves. I know I experienced some of that kind of bullying treatment when I was a teenager and worked as a waitress.

As we slowly begin to enter post-pandemic life and start engaging with each other again in all kinds of settings we may need to remind ourselves of just how important it is for adults to be good role models when it comes to bullying or angry behavior. We need to accord everyone, including young people a full measure of respect.

Other posts………

Lessons Waiting Tables

Crossing the Line

A Display of Racist Anger

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Filed under Childhood

Summer Reading Recommendations

Truth and Reconciliation. Pandemic. Black Lives Matter. Immigration. As I prepared this annual column of reading recommendations I realized current news stories had certainly influenced my choice of books this past year. 

Five Little Indians uses rich language to relate deeply personal stories about five survivors of the same residential school. They each describe their own incredibly sad childhood. We follow them into challenging adulthood where their lives braid together and their strength of character, astounding resilience, and innate goodness are revealed. Author Michelle Good is a Cree lawyer who has represented residential school survivors in court hearings.  Five Little Indians has won a host of awards.

David Robertson’s memoir Blackwater was another favorite this past year. It describes how David developed a relationship with his father after they had grown apart, and how that new relationship helped David learn to understand and appreciate his Cree heritage.

In The Pull of the Stars Emma Donoghue takes us into a cramped Dublin Hospital maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. Julia is the courageous duty nurse, and the story revolves around her as well as a plucky volunteer named Bridget and Kathleen, a doctor and political activist. The depth of the author’s research gives readers a graphic and disturbing picture of a past pandemic. It makes you appreciate all the medical advances that are helping us navigate our current health crisis. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was fascinating.  The novel’s hero Count Alexander Rostov makes the most of his life despite being sentenced to a decades-long house arrest in a hotel in the Russian capital. The endearing Alexander provides a road map for how to live through a time of isolation with humor and hope. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet was certainly a page-turner!  The novel follows two light-skinned African American sisters from 1968-1988. As young girls, they witness their father’s lynching. One sister decides to pass for white and ends up living in the lap of luxury in Los Angeles. The other sister maintains her black identity and becomes an FBI employee in Washington DC. Although the two women break off contact, a generation later their daughters meet, and the sisters’ lives intersect once again.  The book definitely makes readers examine their own racial biases. 

The Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is about both racism and immigration. It tells the story of a family from Ghana who moves to America.  Gifty, the protagonist, is a brilliant neuroscientist trying to make sense of a past that includes her brother’s struggle with addictions, her mother’s battle with depression, and the systemic racism her family faced. Just as science and religion are often at odds these days, so is Gifty’s heart as she tries to balance her emotional attachment to her religious beliefs with her scientific sensibilities.  This is a beautifully written book that raises important questions. 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins tells the compelling story of Lydia and her young son. They are fleeing to the United States to escape the Mexican cartel that killed Lydia’s journalist husband. Along the way they meet other migrants who have remarkable tales to tell. I was totally invested in the characters and the book kept me in nerve-wracking suspense. It helped me understand in a visceral way what it might be like to be an undocumented immigrant. 

My recommendations this year certainly aren’t for light summer reading but at a time when our world seems to be at an important turning point, these books definitely widened my world view and gave me new ways of looking at things. 

Other posts………

A Book I’ve Loved For Fifty Years

A Heart Felt Book That Started on Instagram and Sold Two Million Copies

Librarians on Horseback

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Filed under Books

Clean Water

Elders from the Lhoosk’uz Dené community tasting water from their new water treatment system (Photo source)

I was excited to read recently about a small Lhoosk’uz Dené community in northern British Columbia which finally has a steady supply of clean tap water. Village leaders approached the University of British Columbia to help them develop a water treatment system that uses a combination of ultraviolet light and chlorine disinfection to ensure the water in the community is safe enough to drink.

The innovative system is simple to operate and can be maintained and repaired without having to call in specialists from other places or pay for expensive parts. The community partnered with a team of scientists and engineers that use a collaborative, community-driven approach to develop practical drinking water solutions for rural Canadian communities. The new water system in the Lhoosk’uz Dené village ends a 14-year boil water advisory.

The good news story reminded me of an installation I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario a few years ago by Ruth Cuthand. It was called Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink.  The blue tarp on the table is the kind used for hastily constructed shacks people on one reserve had to move into when black mold was discovered in the drywall in their homes.

The glasses of water on the table contain plastic and beaded representations of the different kinds of bacteria and parasites found in the water on northern Canadian reserves that have boil water advisories. 

baby bottles boil water Don't Breathe Don't Drink

The artist put some of the bacteria-filled water into baby bottles to remind us that children may be drinking this contaminated water too. 

I am glad those kinds of problems are over for at least one Indigenous community. According to a government of Canada website as of today, there are still 32 communities in Canada with boil water advisories in effect. Let’s hope that innovative solutions like the one found for the Lhoosk’uz Dené community can be created for those 32 communities as well.

Other posts………

She Is Gripped By Terror

Blackwater- A Book That Connected With Me

Locked Away

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Filed under Canada, Health

Aunt Olly

Olly Penner

We didn’t have Sesame Street or Paw Patrol or Blues Clues when I was a kid. We had Aunt Olly. Olly Penner hosted a program on the radio station CFAM for kids called Children’s Party and I was a devoted fan in my childhood.

Like many families in the late 1950s and early 1960s we didn’t have a television and along with thousands of other children from all over western Canada and the central northern United States I sat near the radio every afternoon while Aunt Olly read stories like Tall Fireman Paul, Big Red or Johnny Appleseed and played funny songs like I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly and There’s a Hole in the Bucket. If your mother sent in a request, Aunt Olly would also wish you a Happy Birthday over the air and even tell you where your Mom had hidden your present.

I remember hurrying home from school and sitting down at the table with the snack Mom had ready for me and listening to Aunt Olly.

Photo from the CFAM radio website of Aunt Olly and her sidekick Gus

In 1989 I was on the staff of the magazine The Mennonite Mirror and was assigned to write a feature story about Olly Penner for the magazine. I was excited to have the chance to interview my childhood idol. I found out that not only had Olly done a children’s program for CFAM she had also hosted a variety of other shows like Ladies First, Hints for Homemakers, The Garden Show, and Social Calendar. She co-hosted the radio station’s morning show with anchor Jim McSweeny for 13 years.

Remember this was a time when most women did not work outside the home, something Olly Penner was criticized for by some radio listeners. She said the support of her husband Vic who was the editor of the Altona newspaper The Red River Valley Echo but was often referred to by the public as ‘Aunt Olly’s husband’, made it possible for her to keep up with all her radio station commitments which included many public appearances. She also found time to write a regular newspaper column, publish a cookbook, and be an active participant in several community organizations, all while raising two sons.

Children’s Party souvenir from Greg Lindenbach

The day I interviewed her she showed me the thousands of fan letters she had received from children. Many had sent her photographs and drawings and I recognized some of the names. But Olly also had fan mail from adults; grandparents who enjoyed her show, farmers who listened to her while driving their tractors, recent immigrants who said they were learning English by listening to her, and parents who said they got their children to behave by threatening to take away the privilege of listening to Children’s Party. She even had a fan letter from a clergyman who said he’d ‘fallen in love with her voice’.

Olly Penner

Olly retired in 1987 and when I interviewed her in 1989 she was already a grandmother and was enjoying traveling with her husband, and spending more time with her family. Olly Penner died in 2015 at the age of 86. She had a legion of fans in a time when media programming aimed specifically at children was a rarity.

The full original article I wrote for the Mennonite Mirror can be accessed on page 4 of the May/June 1989 issue here.

Other posts………

Radios Good and Evil

What a Woman!

My Childhood Reading Heaven


Filed under Canada, Childhood, Culture, Media

Turbulent Times

Nearly 900 wildfires are burning in Canada right now.

It’s easy to let panic get the upper hand when we consider what is going on in the world. Rapidly transmitted variants of COVID-19 are continuing to spread and cause illness and death. It is scary to think about how many people won’t believe scientific evidence and refuse to get a miraculous vaccine that could save their lives. Wildfires and heatwaves are stark reminders of an impending environmental catastrophe that climatologists have been warning us about for decades. A whole string of events has provided proof that racism is still alive and well in North America. What turbulent times we live in.

President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963

I am working on a new novel set in the 1960s. Those were my childhood and teen years. Possible topics I might cover are the Cuban missile crisis that easily could have ended in an all-out nuclear war. Americans witnessed the assassinations of President John F.Kennedy, his Attorney General brother Robert Kennedy and civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Then there were the events that would lead up to the FLQ crisis in Canada, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in Germany. Violent race riots occurred regularly in the United States and the sixties scoop was going on here in Canada. Thousands of Indigenous children were being taken from their homes by welfare workers and placed with mostly non-Indigenous families.  What a turbulent time!

My parents survived the turbulent years of the great depression and World War II.

My grandparents survived the turbulence of the Russian Revolution and famine and World War I.

We are almost always living in turbulent times. Perhaps our current times seem more turbulent than in the past because of the way we have such comprehensive coverage of them in the media now.

It is important to keep our perspective and remember that turbulent as our times may seem those who came before us have survived turbulent times and we will too.

Other posts…………

They Wore Masks Too

The Berlin Wall in Toronto

A Where Were You Moment

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Filed under COVID-19 Diary, Reflections

Aspen Eyes and Apple Scab

I went to visit my trees on the weekend. My first stop was my aspen.

Eye, nose and mouth on my aspen

Earlier I talked about how one combination of the ‘eyes’ on the bark of my aspen looked like a face profile.

This time I found another group that looked like a pair of eyeglasses on a nose.

I wondered what created these eyes and found out that they form when the tree prunes itself by dropping small branches that don’t receive enough sunlight and that results in a scar on the trunk of the tree. Each eye is unique. Aspens have varying numbers of eyes. On another visit, I should count how many my tree has in total.

We have been having such dry hot weather and from what I can find out online that’s why my cottonwood tree has started losing leaves. The base of the tree is covered with leaves.

I’ve been studying the branch structure of the cottonwood. I want to sketch it for another post.

I can see that a major branch was at one point pruned from the tree or it came off in some other way. I am pointing to the knothole that is left. I wondered if I should use the word knothole. What did it actually mean? According to Merriam Webster, it is a hole left at a place on a tree trunk where a branch has come out. Another explanation said that knots mark the spot where a branch used to be before it died and fell off the tree. So technically I am pointing to a knot not a knothole on this tree and the eyes on my aspen are actually a kind of knot too.

There are these steel bowls full of petunias and wild grasses in my lilac bushes and although my lilacs have lost their blooms the petunias are thriving.

The planters are actually quite unique and look like sentinels guarding this entryway into Stephen Juba Park.

Sadly I think my crabapple tree is sick. The leaves are all turning yellow. Apparently, this can come from a disease called Apple Scab caused by a fungus that spreads on the wind or with rain. As the disease progresses, the leaves turn yellow and can fall prematurely from the tree; usually in midsummer.

I hope my tree doesn’t have Apple Scab but we will have to wait and see. There are three crabapple trees in a row on the lane but only mine looks sick. I guess by the time I report back to you again I should know whether it has succumbed and lost its leaves.

Despite the problems some of my trees are having, I am so glad I am doing this project. I have driven by these trees so often in the ten years since we have lived here, but have never noticed all these little things about each one, or how each tree has changed in some way almost every time I go by. Recording the changes in my own trees is making me more observant of all trees and appreciating how unique and interesting they really are.

Other posts about tree…….

Tornado Art

The Le Ceiba Tree

Spending the Day with Antonio and Jose

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Filed under trees

Not A Sad Movie

Dave and I finally watched Nomadland a few days ago. Since it was the winner of six Academy Awards I had read about its plot and had watched some trailers before I saw the movie. From these bits of information, I expected it to be a very sad film but surprisingly overall it was not.

It tells the story of a woman named Fern who has no children. Her husband dies. The key industry in the town where they lived ceases operation and so the town basically dies too and Fern decides to leave. She puts most of her belongings in storage and sets off on a trip in her van which she has outfitted so she can live in it.

Fern walks under the Arizona sunset

Fern drives through such beautiful parts of America. The landscape photography in the movie is stunning. One of the scenes in the South Dakota badlands shows Fern fairly dancing through all these wondrous rock formations and there are some scenes in Arizona where the camera shots of the desert are breathtaking. Fern whose character is played brilliantly by Frances McDormand thrives on the beauty of her natural surroundings.

Fern takes joy in the act of work, even the most menial tasks are attacked with determination. On her journey she picks up temporary jobs- working in an Amazon warehouse, cleaning a campground, doing food preparation in a restaurant kitchen, and harvesting sugar beets. She is able to view these jobs with humor and is thankful she has an opportunity to earn some money.

Fern and her friend Swankie having fun at work

Fern makes friends easily. It seems everywhere she goes people are attracted to her for her empathy, her no-nonsense approach, her straightforwardness, and her helping hand. She stays for winter with a group of seniors in Arizona who all live out of their vehicles and with them she finds companionship and joy and a kind of peace. Fern’s marriage seems to have been happy and loving and that gives her comfort even though her husband has died.

Although difficult circumstances force Fern to develop the transient minimalist lifestyle she adopts after a time she grows to appreciate it and feels comfortable with it. She has a sister who dearly loves her and invites Fern to live with her. Fern’s friend Dave also invites her to move in with his family. She just can’t! She prefers her own space. She likes living in her van.

Fern’s life is not easy, but she helps us to remember that when we take time to appreciate the wonders of nature, find workplaces where we can feel useful, are open to building human connections, and can maintain our sense of independence, then life can have meaning and mixed in with the inevitable sadness there can be a surprising amount of hope and joy.

Other posts……….

Poverty Porn

A Realistic Look at Aging

I Want to Be Like Anna


Filed under Movies

That Troublesome Capital “L”

When McNally Robinson Booksellers first listed my novel Lost on the Prairie on their website they spelled my name with a lower case l. Marylou. I told the store’s author liaison John Toews that my name was spelled with an upper case L right beside the ‘y.’ MaryLou. He apologized and said their computer program didn’t allow them to change it but assured me people would find my book on their website even if they spelled my name in a different way. Indigo also spells my name with a lower case L and Amazon did originally but they have corrected it.

Visiting a temple in Hong Kong with our sons

This problem with my name has happened before. When we moved to Hong Kong and I needed to get a personal identity card I caused a great deal of frustration for the bureaucrat trying to spell my name correctly. His computer program would not allow for that capital L without a space being left between the y and L. It frustrated the poor man nearly to tears but he refused to give up and finally after about an hour or so he figured out a way to do it.

Many people spell my name incorrectly all the time. Even people in my family routinely spell it with a lower case ‘l’. Friends and acquaintances get it wrong much more often than they get it right.

I am not sure where my Mom got the idea to spell my name the way it is. I know the Mary part of my name comes from my Aunt Mary who was a nurse and stayed with my Mom in the delivery room when I was born. I know Irene is for a woman who was my Mom’s friend when they worked at the Brandon Mental Hospital together as volunteers. I am not sure about the Lou part or why Mom figured she needed to put a capital on it.

When I was a kid my siblings just called me Lou and my family nickname was Loolie Poolie.

I’ve become accustomed to people not being able to spell my name correctly and so when asked for it I just automatically say, “MaryLou with a capital ‘L’ right beside the ‘y.’

The most common reaction however to people hearing my name for the first time isn’t to ask how to spell it but for them to burst into that song “Well Hello MaryLou” recorded by both Gene Pitney and Ricky Nelson in the early 60s. Someone did that just this week.

I am sure almost everyone has certain issues with their name and its spelling. Do you?

Other posts……….

Mennonite Names At the Movies

Gift From God

I Held You Before Your Mother Did


Filed under Family

The Unvaccinated Hair Stylist

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

I had gone to the same hairstylist at the same salon for quite a number of years before the pandemic. I really liked the place and the stylist. This past week I called for an appointment and asked the receptionist if she could tell me if my stylist was fully vaccinated. She said she couldn’t provide that information.

Since I hadn’t had my hair professionally cut or colored for such a long time I was told to come in for a consultation before making an appointment. I did. That gave me the opportunity to ask my stylist directly if she had been vaccinated. She said she’d had COVID and so she had natural immunity.

I figured I needed to do some research to see if that was true but went ahead and booked an appointment for the following week so I’d have a spot reserved. I learned from doing some reading online that even if you have had COVID and have recovered, epidemiologists say it is still important you get vaccinated to protect yourself and others.

A few hours later I got a text asking me to rate my consultation experience at the hair salon and make a comment. So I did. I said I’d like to visit a salon where I could be assured that all the clients and staff were fully vaccinated. The salon owner called me almost immediately and said she agreed with me but legally she could not force her staff to be vaccinated or ask her clients whether they were.

I told her that I was fully vaccinated, but that I spent time with a grandchild who was not, and so I wanted to be extra careful. The owner said she understood and offered to book me with another stylist who she knew for sure would be fully vaccinated. I told her I would think about it.

Photo by cottonbro on

The next morning I canceled my appointment. I just didn’t want to spend several hours inside a building with an unknown number of unvaccinated people. My feelings about that might change once a larger percentage of people in my province are fully vaccinated, but until then I’m going to err on the side of caution.

I think people have every right not to get vaccinated, but I also think the general public has a right to know who isn’t vaccinated in the places where they do business, so they can protect themselves and their families. I do applaud my stylist for telling me the truth about her vaccination status but I wish I would have had the courage to ask her if she realizes that almost all the patients who are taking up ICU beds in our hospitals are unvaccinated and that they are preventing people who are waiting for surgeries and other important medical procedures from having them. I wish I had asked her if she understands that until everyone is vaccinated businesses like the one where she works can’t get back to their pre-pandemic prosperity.

In the meantime does anyone know a good hair salon where everyone is vaccinated? If not, my hair will just have to get a wee bit longer before it meets the shears and gets a professional color job.

Other posts……….

Should there be Mandatory Vaccines For Long Term Care Workers?

Why People Don’t Trust Scientists

The Tsunami and the Pandemic

My Polio Vaccines


Filed under COVID-19 Diary