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My grade one teacher probably thought she was wasting her time the day she ordered me to stay away from my friends. Her stern warnings about cutting myself off from sighted students had little theoretical chance of registering, after all, drowned out as they were by the incessant laughter of the two fellow blind kids sitting at the lesson table with me. The clatter of our braillers, the chatter of our audio books and the click of the abacuses on which we mastered math calculations was more than enough to compete with the scratch of pencils emanating from the classroom next door where our sighted peers were also hard at work. As far as my blind buddies went, her words certainly fell on deaf ears. They couldn’t understand why our merry trio should split up during the only fun time scheduled in the day. What good would it do them to seek out “seeing guys” simply so they could be excluded from a game of tag or soundly defeated during the first round of Red Rover? They shrugged off her reprimands for spending too much time together and openly defied her the day she meted out punishments for avoiding sighted classmates, likely assuming I bore them company in their feelings as I always had before. They were wrong, however, and so was my teacher. Her words hit home, the very place where I had heard them for the first time, and proved oddly prescient in my dealings with the two worlds I inhabit.

I grew up with the notion that blindness was to be rejected as much as possible. This attitude may have seemed normal to my parents, who welcomed a fully sighted infant into the world and brought a blind toddler home from the hospital nine months later after cancer destroyed both retinas and threatened to do much worse. They grieved, as any parents would, fearing that their child would be doomed to a life of limited prospects and social isolation. No daughter of theirs would spend her life weaving baskets or tuning pianos, they vowed..and so their active pursuit of a “normal” life began. Not for them the nursery school where most blind children attended…They found it lacking and promptly enrolled me in an alternative program featuring mostly sighted children of varying abilities. They had always planned for me to get my earliest education in French, the language spoken by all my maternal relatives. Why should blindness change that? Kindergarten passed in a blur of Allouette and Le Petit Prince, all of which shielded me from any knowledge that I was different.

My parents’ alternative leanings prevailed when primary school began, too, deciding to send me to an integrated day school where both sighted and blind students learned side by side rather than the residential facility specifically for the blind that many other families advised instead. That integration was emphasized to me as I prepared to switch schools, and indeed I felt no qualms. Hadn’t I spent my final days of kindergarten promising to marry the sighted guy who sat next to me on the carpet and sworn we’d build a house next door for our other friend so that we could always stay together?

But something strange happened when I arrived and met my blind classmates. They were more like me. Not in appearance or attitude or even sense of humour, but in ways that were even more fundamental. They understood concepts the same way I did, had the same curiosities about the sensory world beyond what most kids wanted to explore. This was never discussed, of course, it was just understood. So well, in fact, that we gravitated towards one another and formed a clique so tight that it aroused the anxiety of our erstwhile teacher. She understood, as my devastated parents had, that the mainstream world didn’t function like this. A blind person hoping to make his/her way among sighted peers would need to master their frames of reference and acquire the confidence to literally walk their walk. My friends, both more rebellious by nature than me, ignored this traditional advice and went about doing things their own radically different ways. For me, that wasn’t an option. My teacher was just reinforcing the lessons resonating in my earliest memories. Her cautions were no different than my mother tilting my chin to teach me to look at others when I spoke, or preventing me from rocking back and forth when forced to stay stationary. Both Mom and my teacher were only trying to negate the impact of my blindness and make it as easy as possible to act sighted. Why should I fight against that?

Their lessons paid off. By grade four I had transferred to my neighbourhood school, joined an extra-curricular choir and become an enthusiastic piano student. Periodic bullying commonly experienced by artistically inclined kids was compensated by the true friends I made, many of whom remain close to this day. I maintained regular contact with my two blind pals of primary school days, but no longer could we weave an auditory world around ourselves. That time receded further into my memory as middle and high school flew by, all in the company of sighted friends who embraced me and absorbed me fully into their everyday lives. The trappings of blindness that I did carry, such as my cane and braille textbooks, were conversational icebreakers rather than isolators. As I aged, my parents’ wishes became my own. Feeling grateful for the ability to mesh in a world that I knew was not easily accessed, I made it my goal to assimilate into it as much as possible. I never actively denied the limitations of my blindness, but sincerely believed it would never hold me back from anything substantive.

Reality checks came thick and fast starting the summer I worked at a camp for blind people. I chose the job as a poor man’s alternative to the regular camp I’d attended for years, which very understandably declined to hire me because of my inability to be a lifeguard. 🙂 While there I saw many examples of people who had become isolated from mainstream society and the bitterness such solitude could spawn. I felt a kinship to these people, yet also experienced internal tension as I fought to distance myself from that feeling. Things were different for me, I told myself. This sense of connection was downright dangerous and could jeopardize my chances of being normal! Such were the absurd musings of a seemingly confident teenager who was fighting to stem the rising tide of insecurity. Challenging one’s place in the world was terrifying and not the way an ordinary person spent the summer, after all, so I quashed the questioning voice and continued to do so for the next several years. University made it fairly easy to keep my head in the sand, feeling as it did like a continuation of my high school experience. Learning skills from my sighted housemates, going on tour with sighted choir friends and landing satisfying jobs at major corporations that epitomize mainstream life only deepened my sense that my blindness was an occasional inconvenience rather than a salient part of my personality. But there’s nothing like a change of career into an inherently questioning atmosphere to force a person to do some soul-searching and face the facts they find there.

Breaking into journalism first taught me that my facade of sightedness wasn’t going to pass muster under real scrutiny. I was outright told I couldn’t do the job and should pursue a career in academia instead. I flouted that advice and excelled in the journalism graduate program I attended, but received the same message when it came time to get a job. Only persistence, networking and extreme good luck got me the break I needed, first at a national newspaper and later at the wire service where I work to this day. The five years I’ve spent there have taught me a lot about the truths I tried to ignore. I am blind, no matter how much I may be able to ignore it. There are barriers in the sighted world I will never be able to cross, despite my own efforts and the best intentions of those who try to help. Being blind comes with frustrations and challenges that only a select few can truly understand. Pursuing that understanding is healthy, not a sign of sliding standards.

There’s a flipside, too. Too often I hear blind people rail against the iniquities of “the sighted world.” They lament that those who can see simply don’t care about the struggles taking place on the other side, or are simply too busy succumbing to the superficial lure of pretty exteriors to engage with someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Such thinking is grossly unfair — the disability world’s equivalent of reverse racism. Why should stereotypes and truisms be applied to sighted people if they’re not acceptable to the blind? Why does an “us vs. them” mentality have to exist? Don’t the concept of blind and sighted worlds only deepen the divides that circumstances have entrenched without any help?

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that teacher from so long ago, as well as to my adored parents that worked so hard to smooth my path. Their lessons created a dissonance that I still struggle to resolve, but also gave me access to a community that I could so easily have shunned. The conflicts I felt growing up seem so much simpler now. My blindness is a part of me, much like my dark hair and love of writing. Just as I wear red to play up my colouring and read voraciously to keep my language skills sharp, I must embrace my blindness and bring it to bear in a way that helps bridge the two perspectives I’m lucky enough to have. One of the people I love most in the world lives this reality in a much more concrete way, having neither enough vision to be considered legally sighted nor enough telltale signs to let the world know he struggles to see. He’s channelled that experience into a profound empathy for nearly all around him and a sincere desire to help in matters great and small. I wish to emulate him by helping connect the dots for blind and sighted alike. If I can facilitate dialog between groups that may not instinctively connect, then I have indeed found the place where I belong.

First things first — thanks to all who took the time to fill out my blog evaluation survey! Your feedback was really valuable, and I’m delighted that you all want me to maintain my current focus! Btw, for those who haven’t filled it out yet and want to do so, be my guest!

Now that you’ve recommitted me to my previous blogging path, be prepared to be taken deep into a web of neuroses also known as my mind. Yes folks, today I tackle what will no doubt be the first of many posts on this topic, since it’s one that has had to assume a fairly prominent place in my life. I’ve written before about my body image struggles, but I never felt the urge to expand on those thoughts as the problem spiralled out of control. I was trying everything from Weight Watchers to a personal trainer, but the weight kept piling on, climbing higher and higher every month. I finally reached a point of actual terror for my health and decided to take more decisive action — I sought medical help and now attend a full-service clinic run by a physician and devoted entirely to weight loss. It takes a multi-faceted approach and features a diverse staff of doctors, dieticians, physical trainers and psychologists. I was greatly relieved to learn that I am sound as a bell health-wise, even with my weight at an all-time high. Still, I realized full well that this could change at any moment, and I embarked on a dedicated quest to shed the pounds once and for all. Making wholesale changes to your lifestyle has a way of triggering the soul-searching reflex, and I’ve come to an interesting realization over the past few weeks — blindness and weight loss are just about the worst combo ever!

Think about it. Common weight loss wisdom suggests you won’t be able to slim down unless you zealously monitor every bite of food that enters your mouth and radically step up your activity level. Neither of these things jibe whatsoever with the life of the average blind person. I’d be perfectly happy to measure out precisely three ounces of hallibut for my evening meal or an exact one ounce of goat cheese to top off my lunch-time quinoa salad…except I can’t read the display on my inherited kitchen scale. As for reading the callorie content on my breakfast cereal of choice and determining the designated serving size, I may as well try to drive a car. Measuring out level tablespoons worth of olive oil can be tricky with the standard-shaped utensils, and slicing that whole grain harvest loaf into dietician-sized slices relies a little too heavily on hand-eye coordination for most blinks’ tastes. Then there’s the exercise component. Mosts sports require the average blind person to ask a sighted friend or family member for help, a request they may not be able or willing to accommodate as regularly as necessary for sustained benefits. Gym equipment is increasingly difficult to manage, since digital displays and touch-pad controls are quickly honing in on their more accessible, push-button cousins. Blind folks who struggle with mobility issues are as likely to take to the streets for an independent walk as they are to play Pictionary (it may happen, but isn’t too likely :)). Even if they do take the time to learn a route or two and attain the comfort level to travel it independently, they soon get tired of literally covering the same ground every time. Add in the fact that the blind population is chronically under-employed and often lacks the financial resources to make the right food purchases/enlist professional help, and you have a serious conundrum.

Many of these issues don’t really apply to me, so I am in no way using my blindness as an excuse for my current size. I have a great job with a more than adequate income. I live with a partner who’s well able to read me labels, coach me on how to use the treadmill in our building’s workout room and generally pitch in where it’s needed. My fleet-footed guide dog sets a brisk clip on our walks and gives me the confidence to stray far from the routes I would only tackle as a cane user. The rest of it is all too familiar to me, however, and I’ve had to get creative in finding the right coping strategies. Fortunately there’s an answer to everything. Measuring ingredients becomes a snap when I’m careful to buy very concave measuring spoons that hold the fluid in place while I use my fingers to make sure I’ve reached the rim. Ditto for measuring cups, which are the dieter’s best friend provided they come in the right units. A simple set of detachable scoops in 1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4-cup measurements will give you all you need to accurately portion out solid food, while a single one-cup liquid measure gets me through on the fluid ingredients. The vessel is small enough that I can tell when it’s half-full vs. three-quarters empty, and it also prevents me from overdosing on any one ingredient. The manual dexterity to produce perfect bread slices has only come with practice, but a really top-knoch, razor-sharp chef knife did wonders to help me refine my technique. Even the label challenge can be conquered with some help from my friend the internet. Calloric and other dietary details for just about all common brands are readily available through a simple google search, while SparkPeople is the perfect accessible web tool for the enterprising cook who wants to get a callorie breakdown of her latest random creation. The web is also, of course, a bottomless source of first-class recipes on days when creativity is running low. The only issue left to sort out in my own kitchen is the problematic scale, and technology will likely solve that one for me too when a talking unit is released (there may very well be one out already).

There’s no doubt that this new effort is very labour intensive, as it would be for anybody. My blindness compounds the effort I put into the program, but may also be arming me well. I’ve become accustomed to working my way through issues that may seem insurmountable at first blush, and resourcefulness has become my watch word in all facets of my life. It’s also bred in me a certain level of determination that I know I’ll need to draw upon if I hope to succeed at this weight loss game for good. It hasn’t let me down yet. With some luck I’ll cross the 15-pound threshold tomorrow…perhaps my blindness and the qualities it’s given me may prove to be an asset afterall.

My poor, neglected readers…no, this isnt’ my idea of a ghostly halloween prank! I’m alive and actually putting up a post after an obscenely long stretch that I can’t even attempt to justify. I can plead health, life, work and laziness, all of which would be true, but even that combination of factors is pretty damn lame. 🙂 I don’t even know if there are any of you left in this little cybercorner of mine! If you are here, though, I hope you’ll humour me as I ask for your help.

This extended hiatus has definitely rekindled my desire to blog more regularly, but also made me question the approach I’ve been taking so far. I’ve compiled a very brief survey for you fine folk that will hopefully result in a better blogging experience for us all. when I say brief, I really mean it — it’s only four questions. It’s an external questionnaire, since the WordPress survey software is the suck, but it is completely anonymous and confidential.

Go ahead, you know you want to take it!

Many thanks in advance for taking time to provide some input. I hope you’ve been well the past few months, and I look forward to reconnecting with you all in the coming days!

A picture of me dressed in the outfit I wore to usher in my 30's. The bottom half is all black, with mock crock 2-inch heels, microfishnet hose and a pencil skirt that hits just barely above my knees. I've paired all this with a deep red top that has a pattern of black flowers, and I've synched it in at the waist with a wide black belt with a mock croc buckle. Around my neck I am wearing five strands of similarly sized white pearls, which are knotted in a cluster at the front and lie evenly around the sides and back. I'm wearing deep red lipstick and my hair is loose around my face.

Dressed for success...bring on the 30s!

I’m not usually much for birthdays, but turning 30 last week brought on a flood of reflections. Allow me to indulge a little and share some of them:

1. I had a very sheltered childhood. It was full of happiness, love, fun, privilege and safety, and yet it’s not a time I would choose to relive. I prefer the independence of adulthood, despite the insecurity that comes with it.
2. I had an uncharacteristic progression as I grew up. Most people dread their teens, and though mine started off disastrously, they proved to be a wonderfully fun and happy time. It was the reverse for my 20’s, which started out blissfully but were trying and sometimes even painful on the whole. Fortunately they ended better, and I’m hoping lessons learned will form a good foundation for the next decade. And yes, I’ll discuss the good parts.
3. I am gregarious and friendly, but at heart very insecure and sometimes even melancholy.
4. Fear of doing wrong has been a persistent theme throughout my life, and to this day I am incapable of dismissing others’ opinions to the degree I probably should.
5. My blindness has become more of an issue as I aged. This seems counter-intuitive, but makes sense upon further reflection. The protective childhood I had instilled me with a boundless confidence and the firm belief that lack of vision would never interfere with my personal plans. Maturity brings reality checks, and this has been a major one that I confronted in the latter half of my 20s. Blindness will put up barriers from time to time, and not all of them can be overcome to my satisfaction. I’ve learned to deal with it, and ultimately it’s better to be stripped of that delusion, but sometimes it’s still hard to swallow.
6. A lot of my natural impulses, emotions and characteristics have been toned down as I got older. I’m still sensitive, emotional, social and any number of adjectives, but to a lesser degree than I used to be. The only trait that seems to have intensified over time is my impatience.
7. Though insecurity is a key part of my makeup, I’ve gained assurance in other areas. I’m a nerd, and am finally proud of it. Nerdiness is the kiss of death to an anxious kid, but tremendous fun as an adult when you can surround yourself with like-minded people who love the books, music, films, games and passtimes that make you most comfortable.
8. Those preferred passtimes haven’t changed a whole lot from when I was 20. My musical horizons have broadened in large measure due to my boyfriend, who has introduced me to some artists I used to ignore, but my general preferences were well-established as I exited my teens.
9. My priorities, however, have changed immensely since then. I remember at 20 being determined to be as interesting a person as possible. This meant exploring people, places and art forms that would provide me with limitless material for sparkling conversation, profound writing and the like. This hilariously idealistic notion has been set aside, thank goodness. At 30, I now want to be successful, and this entails a lot more than just financial security (though that’s there too). I want to be competent in as many areas as possible (career, house-keeping, relationships, social endeavours, etc).
10. I am on my way to achieving some of those goals. Much to my surprise, I find I’ve been able to create and maintain a home that my boyfriend and I are happy to return to each day and that I’m eager to welcome my friends into at any time. I’ve found an interesting career, but haven’t excelled the way I hoped. I’ve rebounded from some savage lows and no longer feel like a social dud as I once did. Still, this goal is far from accomplished, which ultimately is a good thing…it’ll keep me honest!
11. I need to be kept honest and focused on a goal, because I have discovered an inherent lack of drive that trips me up surprisingly often. I was an over-achieving teen who has turned into a very ordinary adult, and it’s entirely due to my own lassitude. It frustrates me and fills me with self-recrimination sometimes, and I must get the better of it.
12. Many things have suffered from this lack of drive, but music is probably the most notable. I devoted much of my teens to piano and singing and achieved a fair bit of success in both. My time in classical choirs gave me some of the most joyous experiences of my life, and I took great pride in completing the second highest level offered by the Royal Conservatory of Music. I have let it go, and I don’t know why. I miss it, but can’t seem to get going again. One major barrier is the lack of affordable, decently transcribed braille music. It’s a genuine problem, but sometimes I wonder if I’m using it as a cop-out.
13. Reading and writing have helped fill some of the void left by my music, and I’m happy to report that the quality of my scribblings has improved over time.
14. My figure has gone much the same way as my music, and this actively triggers my self-disgust. I let it get this way and can’t seem to reverse things. I must do it for a variety of reasons, especially health, but my own paralysis in this area frustrates me more than I can express.
15. There are flipsides to all this, of course. While I’ve let myself down in some ways, the trials of my 20’s have made me realize that I’m a stronger person than I once believed.
16. I make my 20’s sound like a decade of unending misery, and it wasn’t like that at all. I gained a lot during that time, chiefly a partner who genuinely loves me and who I deeply love in return. We’ve supported each other through a great deal, and I honestly believe we’re better for the experience. His 20’s were rocky in the extreme, and I’m hoping our 30’s will prove more fun for us both. Fortunately our shared sense of humour ensures much laughter in our current home, and hopefully in the future ones we hope to own.
17. Other gains from my 20’s: independence, a great education, amazing guide dogs (both my retired golden retriever McClure and adorable little black lab Reva), a sound and engaging career, a deeper appreciation of my family, wonderful friends (many of whom have seen me through from my teens), a more sarcastic sense of humour, better awareness of my good and bad qualities and better knowledge of how to balance them.
18. Lighter discoveries have revolutionized my list of guilty pleasures, which now include Harry Potter, American Idol, and V.I. Warshawski from Sara Paretsky’s series. More substantive fun finds include pot luck parties, tea, hydrotherapy, the novels of Khaled Husseini and Kazuo Ishiguro, the fun in fashion and style, thai food, the buzz you get from actually working out properly, film (learning to appreciate it more), tv comedy like 30 Rock and Arrested Development, and the music of Eva Cassidy, Donnie Hathaway, Tori Amos (most of the time), Opeth (most of the time), Jeff Buckley and Giacomo Puccini. 🙂
19. I’ve lost a number of things in my 20’s, and I really only miss a handful of them: my self-confidence, my physique and a couple of key friendships.
20. I used to be big on new year’s resolutions, but have now totally eschewed them in favour of more general guiding statements. For example:
21. I’m nostalgic by nature, but can’t let that get the better of me — I have more of my life ahead than behind me, and that should be my focus.
22. I am not too young to cry if I need to.
22. I am not too old to sing and dance when the mood is upon me.
23. I’m probably too old to keep a favourite stuffed animal in my room, but I don’t care — here he stays. 🙂
24. I am definitely too young to hate long flights of stairs and/or steep hills. Must change that.
25. When embarrassing moments attack in my 30’s, I must always remember that it will never be as bad as the time my prosthetic eye fell out during a job interview at age 27. 🙂 A well-developed sense of the ridiculous has kept me laughing so far and can’t be spared now!
26. I’ve had extraordinarily good luck throughout my life. I’ve been at the right place at the right time to meet incredible friends, land influential jobs, even find my current apartment. One of the biggest strokes of luck I’ve experienced was the timing of my birth. The rapid advancements in technology make this a great time to be blind, and I’ve benefited enormously from them all. That said, there’s a traditional streak in me — when it comes to personal contact, give me a phone call over an email/facebook message every time.
27. I have personal qualities that I should nurture through the next decade: cheerfulness, humour, empathy and my ability to truly listen to others all come to mind.
28. Less admirable ones, like selfishness, impatience, oversensitivity and excessive bluntness, should be weeded out as much as possible.
29. Self-care is not shameful, and indeed is probably now more important than it used to be. By insisting on getting enough sleep, taking care of my skin and making time for myself to work out, I’m not being frivolous — I’m using forethought and ultimately benefiting more than just myself. I want to extend this to care for broader concerns, such as living in a more environmentally friendly way.
30. Getting older feels good! I only recently stopped referring to myself as a girl, thinking of myself as a woman for the first time. It’s empowering, and I’m ready for more!

Details matter

I wanted everything to be perfect when my teachers came to dinner. It was to be a milestone in my nearly 15-year relationship with them, as it was to be the first time I felt I was giving something back. Mr. and Mrs. C had shepherded me through high school, teaching me so much more than the lessons in latin and classical civilizations they planned so carefully. Their example of a well-suited married couple who managed to work comfortably in the same school set many of us a shining example of what matrimonial harmony should look like. Their compassion and humour levened even the dryest subject, and their quiet competence made lessons in archaic languages seem both effortless and fun. Indeed, his humour, her empathy, and their shared sense of intellectual curiosity made them unlikely favourites among the student body, and their inherently uncool classes were always enrolled to capacity. The special attention they paid me helped restore my confidence after a bruising few years in the private school system, and I gradually came to see them both as mentors rather than mere teachers. Their presence at extra-curricular piano recitals filled me with gratitude, their phone calls and emails never failed to make me smile, and the regular dinners they treated me to through my university years became highly-anticipated social occasions.

Once ensconced in apartment and equipped with the culinary skills to give them something worth having, I lost no time in inviting them for dinner. A phone call in June secured a date in July, and I filled stray moments planning menus of increasing complexity. The week of the gathering I phoned to confirm and received a dreadful shock: Mr. C, who had beaten cancer once before, was showing every sign of a relapse. He was suffering from chronic fatigue, considerable pain and shocking fluid retention, all of which kept him from enjoying the retirement life he’d only begun enjoying a few months before. Two days before our scheduled soiree, he got word that his cancer had indeed returned, this time as isolated cells floating in his entestinal area rather than a single, concentrated tumour. Despite his obvious weakness, Mr. C wouldn’t hear of cancelling our dinner, and I resolved to make it worth his while in any way I could.

Mr. C’ s diet restrictions, which became legion after his diagnosis, cast my menu meditations in a whole new light. He cautioned me that he likely wouldn’t be able to eat more than a few bites, but I was determined to make those few mouthfuls as enjoyable as possible for him while still providing a good dinner for the rest of the guests. My original plans included such inappropriate fair as red meat and my specialty spicy guacamole, which clearly wouldn’t do for a man in my teacher’s condition. Smoked salmon spirals took the place of the guacamole, while spanakopita and homemade hummus rounded out the selection of appetizers. Dinner was to be an Italian-inspired dish, as an homage to Both Mr. and Mrs. C’s favourite type of cuisine. The veal piccata I had planned was easily changed to chicken piccata, served over angel hair pasta and alongside fresh steamed asparagus.

A picture of my chicken piccata in a large frying pan. About eight chicken breasts are covered with a smooth, creamy sauce with a few capers floating in it.

Chicken Piccata

A light, seasonal salad seemed like a worthy addition, and I decided a simple combination of tomato, mango, red onion and basil (with a simple vinaigrette) would complement the meal while hopefully tempting less robust appetites.

A picture of my tomato and mango salad in a metal bowl. The dominant colours in the dish are red from the tomatoes, yellow from the mangoes, and green from the lavish helping of basil leaves.

Tomato and Mango Salad

I suspected Mr. C wouldn’t be up for much in the way of dessert, but that wasn’t going to prevent me from trotting out a dish reserved for my most special guests. My homemade tart, with shortbread almond crust and lemon curd both made by hand, is a time-consuming enterprise that always proves to be worth the effort. My lavish decorations — comprised of fresh seasonal berries — allow me to indulge my taste for aesthetically pleasing objects while deluding myself into believing I’m actually serving up some nutrients, and even my sugar-averse boyfriend usually comes back for seconds. Fresh fruit was available, too, for those who wanted an alternative.

A picture of a large lemon tart sitting on my kitchen counter. The tart is 11 inches in diameter and has a scalloped crust. It's filled to the rim with thick lemon filling and scattered with fresh strawberries and blueberries.

Lemon tart

My delight at receiving Mr. and Mrs. C into my home was tempered with shock at his condition. At least 30 pounds had melted from his frame in the three months since I’d seen him last, and his usually jovial voice had been replaced with the tremulous quavers of an old man. His agile mind was unimpaired, but his probing questions, political barbs and witty repartee were punctuated with long stretches of silence while he tried to recover his strength. He insisted on trying every dish I had made despite my insistence that he eat only what he felt like. He was quick to praise every one, even lamenting the fact that he couldn’t indulge his wish to tackle a giant slice of lemon tart. When the focus shifted to conversation, he thanked me repeatedly for giving him a break from the house he’d been confined to, saying the evening out did nothing but good for his spirits even as it taxed his strength. As we hugged goodbye, he thanked me for putting so much effort into the evening, and I promised to out-do myself when he was well enough to return.

Little did I know that I would never get that chance. The evening at my home was the last social occasionMr. C ever attended. His rapidly deteriorating condition prompted some emergency chemotherapy treatments, which stretched into a month-long stay at a local hospital. He warded off blood infections, pain, and every imaginable discomfort before briefly returning home, where he died in late August.

Bitter-sweet emotions colour my recollection of that evening, which could have been so commonplace at any other time. I rejoice that I had a chance to host him in my home, while regretting the messages of thanks I never got to pass along verbally. I hope, however, that my gratitude to him was communicated another way. Knowing he recognized and appreciated the effort I put into his final dinner out, I like to think the small details spoke to him in ways I didn’t. I hope they showed that, by at least one student, he was loved.

When I rhapsodized about my personal magic brands, I focused on the cut and fit of their merchandise and the way they felt like they’d been made to order for my figure. I completely neglected one key element of any brand worth it’s salt — strong customer service. Take it from me, blind shoppers make extraordinary demands on retail staff, and those who are able to rise to the occasion immediately earn my respect. Every now and then, however, someone proves to be so exceptional that they deserve to be singled out and praised to the skies.

I recently had such an experience at Laura Canada, one of my aforementioned magic brands. I’ve been pretty lucky with their sales staff in the past, but one of their employees recently blew me away with her combination of personal charm, style savvy and exceptional understanding of my own individual fashion quirks. Below is a letter I wrote to head office that sums up what she did and how the results turned out. I am only making slight variations to the text, since I don’t imagine she’d want her full name and exact work location broadcast on a random blog. 🙂

Hello,

I was given your name when I contacted the Laura _____ location to sing the praises of Stephanie, one of their sales associates. The manager informed me that commendations were best directed to head office, and in this case I am happy to comply.

I am a long-time Laura customer who has been consistently impressed by the high quality and current styles available at various locations. My shopping needs are complicated, however, since I am totaly blind and require sighted assistance to keep me informed about such key details as colour and fit. I have been frequenting the ____ location for several years, but not until recently have I found a sales associate who is able to give me consistently excellent advice. That person is Stephanie.

Every time I come into the store, Stephanie takes the time to walk me through all relevant sections and describe the various offerings in the sort of detail I need. This approach may seem tedious and time-consuming, but Stephanie’s patience and positivity never fail her as I pump her for as much information as possible and scour the store for exactly the right pieces. Stephanie has helped me close gaps in my everyday summer wardrobe on two occasions. Her sharp eye and honest feedback led me to select a variety of pieces, but her coup de grace took place this past weekend.

I was in search of cocktail-wear that would be suitable for the various weddings I will be attending in the next few months. Based on my previous positive experiences with her, I called Stephanie to ask specifically about your selection of formal, knee-length dresses. She obviously remembered details about my size and style preferences, as she immediately urged me to come into the store. She informed me that a certain blue frock, with a v-neck and ruffle detailing over one shoulder, looked like exactly the type of dress she could see me wearing. She remembered my pentient for clean lines and vibrant colours and further recalled that most shades of blue tended to flatter my skin and hair. She also recollected my size and checked to make sure the store had it in stock.

I had already acquired a cocktail dress that I felt would do the trick and had not planned to come into the store, but I changed my mind based exclusively on Stephanie’s urging. It was one of the best fashion decisions I ever made. The blue cocktail dress she singled out turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in every detail. I purchased it on the spot, wore it to a wedding the very next day and spent the entire evening fielding complements on how it looked on me.

A picture of me as I'm about to depart for a wedding. I am wearing a sleeveless, cobalt blue cocktail dress that ends just above my knees. The dress has a straight cut and has vertical seams down the front. It is made of a shiny fabric that gives what someone called an "icy cast" to the blue shade. There is a ruffle detail that moves diagonally over my right shoulder and terminates in a stylized flower on the right side of the v-neckline. My hair has been styled into a moere voluminous bob. I have matched the dress with sparkly silver sandals, a silver satin clutch, a tripple strand of pearls with the odd silver bit in them and diamond stud earrings.

As you can see, she was right on target

This is certainly a testament to your styling team, but even more so to Stephanie’s customer service skills. Her ability to remember details about her customers and zero in on styles that work for them is truly exceptional and deserves the highest commendation. Equally praiseworthy is her sales technique, which has been effective without ever becoming intrusive. She has been a delight to deal with on every occasion and is now one of my main reasons for shopping at Laura.

Kindly share this note with Stephanie herself, as well as her bosses at the _____ location and anyone else at head office who monitors employee performance. I would like to spread the word of what a winner you have hired in her.

Should you have any further questions or need any more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me either by email or by phone.

Many thanks for your wonderful products and the superior customer service provided by first-rate employees like Stephanie.

Magic Brands

CAVEAT: Sorry for the sideways pictures in this post. We don’t know what’s going on, but we’re working on fixing it!

I’m not always a big one for brand loyalty. I couldn’t care less whether my peanut butter sandwich contains Kraft or Smuckers jam, I’ve been known to have both Royale and Cottonelle tissues on my night table, and my clothes have been washed with everything from Tide Liquid Fresh to Sunlight Powder and a lot of things in between. But every now and then I stumble upon a brand that hits all the right notes and inspires lifelong loyalty in this fickle customer.

I don’t know about you, but nothing psychs me up more than stumbling onto my personal magic fashion brands. You know how it goes. You walk into a store, grab a handful of items, then alternate between gasps of shock and squeels of joy as piece after piece slips onto your body and settles into a glove-like fit. Styles you thought were incompatible with your body type settle effortlessly over your problem areas. Colours that make you radiant and that are nowhere to be found in lesser stores populate the shelves. Those accessories you’d dreamed of for months and despaired of ever finding are positioned right by the counter as a casual afterthought. You want to scoop up armfuls of clothes en route to the cash screaming “budget be damned, I’ll take it all!”

Everyone has these individual fashion meccas, and I currently have two — one on either side of the border, no less.
The Halogen brand from U.S. retail giant Nordstrom. has recently blown me away with the quality and fit of their relatively affordable pieces, while closer to home the offerings at Laura Canada feel like they’ve been designed and cut specifically for my body.

Busty girls everywhere can attest to the fact that woven tops and jackets are notoriously hard to fit, particularly if you throw a defined waist into the equasion. If it closes at the chest, it looks like your torso went on a camping trip and pitched a tent. If it fits through the lower body, you’re likely to be recruited by the next Hooter’s manager you come across. So imagine my delight when I recently ordered two Halogen jackets from the Nordstrom Anniversary sale. Not only did they fit perfectly, but they felt great and fulfilled my number one criterion for styling myself!

A picture of me modeling a grey blazer, which has a single-button closure and rolled-back cuffs revealing a cream pinstriped lining. I'm wearing it with dark-wash slim-cut jeans and a red silk tunic shirt.

It fits!!

A picture of me wearing a collarless, black and white tweed jacket with a silver chain trim around the neckline, placket and cuffs. The jacket has three-quarter sleeves and a small fringe detail around the neck and black satin edging around the front pockets. I've just thrown it on over capris, which is not how I would wear it in real life!

And so does this!! Please ignore bottoms 🙂

Woven tops, particularly those with button closures, pose similar challenges for the well-endowed. Enter Laura Canada with their great offering of crisp, high-quality summer tops that actually make me feel polished and appropriate. The sleeveless blue impressed me so much that I promptly duplicated it in white! The selection of bottoms was equally exciting for a tall girl like me who struggles to find capris, or clams as I’ve taken to calling them, that hit me at the right point between my knee cap and the widest part of my calf (the secret is to buy them in petites). .

A picture of me in a store modelling two eventual new purchases. I'm wearing white clams that end just above my calf. I've paired them with a silky v-neck top that has a pattern of leaves in shades of blue and green.

Pant length and pattern and fit, oh my!

A picture of me in the same store. This time I'm wearing black clams that hit at the same spot paired with a sleeveless, v-neck cotton blouse with buttons down the front. There's no pulling or gaping, which allows the two small tuxedo-type stripes on the lower half of the top to lie properly just under the bust and run down to the bottom of the shirt. The blouse is a fairly vivid shade of blue.

More proper clam length? And a woven top in a signature colour that fits right? Yes please!

These are just the basics of what my two current magic brands can do! More on their myriad wonders in another post.

So what are the brands that make your heart skip a beat and your credit card cry out for mercy? How about on the other end of the spectrum…are there brands or stores that consistently fail to deliver the goods for your body and style?

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