Thursday, December 27, 2007


This is the way my family celebrated Christmas. My son Stevie is playing with his toy gun, front left.
Cousin Gracie is holding my 1 year old daughter Alex in back left, next to her cousin Lynette, Auntie Grace, my friend Sylvia, Mom holding Gracie's baby, cousin Merilyn, my Dad standing right front. At the table playing checkers, Uncle Frank and my husband Mike. Watching are Gracie's husband Gordon and cousin Adele.
We celebrated every Christmas in this way with games and entertainment after our turkey dinner. Lots of good cheer as we drank gingerale and ate Christmas cookies around the Christmas tree.

This was a different kind of Christmas.


Christmas for me has always been a family affair. From the time I was a small child, it meant visits from the relatives, everyone gathered around the tree on Christmas eve drinking ginger ale, eating the delicious Christmas goodies Mom had baked while we played games like monopoly and crokinole or snakes and ladders. The men would tell funny stories. My Uncle Frank always recited “’Erbert Burped” and Dad’s famous singing of “When Father Papered the Parlour” never failed to send us into rollicking laughter. Mostly Christmas meant remembering the true meaning of the Season with carol singing and stories of the birth of the Baby Jesus.

The children (me, my sister and various cousins) would be tucked into bed with the proverbial visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads, convinced Santa could be heard stomping on the roof, and going off to slumber-land with happy dreams of the surprises we’d find Christmas morning under the tree and in our stockings.

Christmas dinner was a festive event. Turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding with money hidden inside, and everyone gathered around the table with bowed heads while Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Frank said the blessing.

This is the way my Christmases always were in my family. And I thought it that way for all everyone.
What a surprise I got when I got married and was introduced to Christmas at the Ukrainian in-laws. The first time my husband took me home to spend Christmas with his family I was shocked and amazed. It was my first introduction to a hard-drinking, hearty-eating Ukrainian way of celebrating the holidays.

There I was, the new bride, sitting in the midst of a party of elderly folks, a bottle or two of rye whiskey plonked on the coffee table and water glasses filled to the brim -- neat! It was the first time I’d tasted rye straight and it made me gag. I guess I was too polite to say ’no’, so when nobody was looking I passed the glass down to my husband who eagerly downed it, matching glass for glass with the old folks. As the afternoon wore on, the merriment grew more boisterous and argumentative. It was a wonder to me how those elderly folks could drink so much.

I’ll never forget one of the Christmases we were invited for dinner. We’d already had my family’s Christmas dinner but we also had to go to the in-law’s house or they would be offended. Lena, my father-in-law’s common-law wife, was a great cook. She made the best cabbage rolls and perogis. This Christmas she had prepared a very large turkey to feed all the friends who were to drop in. By the time the bird was cooked and ready to come out of the over, she was so drunk that as she removed the turkey from the oven she teetered over and the bird slid off the pan and dropped on the floor. Without missing a beat she picked it up and plonked it on the platter. I was an eye-witness. The others were probably too drunk to notice. Anyway, it was a delicious dinner and as usual, she was constantly filling your plate. “Eat! Eat!” or your glass “Drink! Drink!” It didn’t occur to me, the naive youngster from the tee-totalling family, that all that booze was eventually going to be my husband’s downfall.

Oh yes, those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable. Especially the one when my father-in-law almost cut off his hand when he was demonstrating the new chain saw he’d got for a present. He was drunk, of course, and hardly felt any pain. But he bore the scars forever after and in fact caused serious nerve damage so his hand was never the same. Did that deter the constant partying? Never!

They were good-hearted folk though, and I know their intentions were well-meaning.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a different story. My husband’s parents had been separated for many years and it was easy to see why there was no communication between them. She was a Seventh Day Adventist, strict and totally lacking the joviality and good nature of Lena and Harry. In fact, I was sure she had the ability to put the evil eye on me and quite frankly I was a bit scared of her. She had weird eyes and would sit scowling at me when I arrived with my husband and baby. She had her own ideas of how I should be handling my new baby boy and I know she didn’t approve of me one bit.

She’d cook us dinner once in awhile, never Christmas dinner, because she didn’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of us did. In fact, my husband’s younger brother, still a teen-ager, lived with her, and at Christmas he was not given any gifts because she said it wasn’t Lennie’s birthday. It was Jesus’s birthday. I always felt sorry for Lennie so we’d invite him to our place and made sure he had lots of presents, and of course he’d drop by his father’s for the Christmas meals too. Maybe the way he was brought up warped him because he grew into the most avaricious nasty man, a bank-manager who had total control over both his parent’s finances and wills and made sure when they died neither of my children got a cent -- it all went to him, his Ukrainian wife, and their two kids.

Those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable, mainly for the vast amounts of food and booze that were consumed and the chaos that reigned as a result. Invariably it would somehow end up with a fight breaking out. I didn’t realize it then, but my father-in-law was not the jolly guy he seemed to be and poor Lena was often the brunt of his drunken temper.

It was an experience worth remembering, but to this day I prefer the old fashioned Christmases of my childhood.
Instead of spending Christmas with a massive hangover I’d rather enjoy what it is really meant to be, a time of good cheer spent with relatives and friends, presents stacked under the tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care and children nestled in their beds waiting for Santa to arrive. (He didn’t get a glass of whiskey at our place, just some ginger ale and home-made Christmas cookies. There weren’t any fights, Mom never ever dropped the turkey on the floor, and nobody ever cut their hand off with a chain saw!)

* * *

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Grandpa's house in Stratford Ontario.

Christmas in the ‘40’s was a time when all the relatives came to celebrate at Grandpa’s house. We would troop down to the train station and stand waiting on the wooden platform, our breaths puffing like the steam from the locomotive engine, the frosty winter air nipping our cheeks into roses. The train chugged into the station, the coach doors opened and travelers spilled out onto the platform. Happy greetings filled the air as merry as caroler's songs, families embraced and made their way down the snowy streets.

When my uncle, aunt and cousins arrived, we all went back to Grandpa’s house. How my grandparents found room for everyone, I can’t imagine. All the Aunts, Uncles and Cousins crowded into the small living room around the Christmas tree to chat, the crackling of the flames in the hearth sounding like pop-corn. After a few games of monopoly and Chinese checkers, my Uncle Frank would performed a comical rendition of “Herbert Burped”, tongue-in-cheek, about a little boy who gets swallowed by a lion. Then all of us children were tucked snugly into beds, often three in a bed, the middle one squished between the other two, warm in our flannel nighties, while the grownups sat up late eating Christmas cake and drinking ginger ale.

One particular Christmas stands out in my memory. That was the year I bought the best Christmas presents I’d ever bought before. Certainly, the most memorable!

I was nine years old, and I felt very grown up as I went off to town to do my own Christmas shopping. I headed straight for the Woolworths Five and Dime store where you could always get the best bargains. I looked over all the trinkets, trying to decide what would be the finest gifts. It was difficult to decide. I wanted something unforgettable. Something everyone would love.

Then I saw it. A little Chinese clay dragon on a bamboo stick. The head of the dragon was made of painted clay, and it had a red felt tongue that looked like fire shooting from its gaping mouth. The body was accordion-pleated tissue paper. When you waved the stick, the body expanded and the head shot out, tongue flickering, like a real fire-breathing dragon. The Chinese dragons would make the perfect Christmas gifts!

I bought one for each of my relatives and excitedly headed for home, proud of myself for making such an extraordinary purchase. But when I showed them to my Mom, she was not impressed. In fact, she
was upset with me for ‘wasting’ my money on such foolish toys as these instead of buying something more ‘practical’. I felt crushed, disappointed. However, it was too late to return the dragons to the store, so I wrapped them up and put them under the Christmas tree with the other gifts.

On Christmas morning I waited nervously for everyone to open their presents. I felt embarrassed thinking that my relatives would think the presents I’d bought were foolish and useless.

Instead, when the gifts were unwrapped, everyone was amused and delighted. especially my Uncle Frank. He played with his dragon all day. Of course, Uncle Frank always was the life of the party!

My little sister Jeanie and me.
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Tuesday, December 18, 2007



"Each story will dictate its own rhythms."
Jonathan Penner

Here it is three days from the winter solstice, the end of Autumn, and I haven't totally finished my novel, which had been my goal. I am, however, much, much closer to the end and will carry on forging ahead with the hope that it WILL be done in a very short time.

The problem at the moment is 'bridging the gaps' That is...those pesky transitional parts. I have a lot of the story written that I'm threading together and right now I'm puzzling over what to add and what to leave out. I had a lot of ideas written down from long ago but now I'm wondering if it's just too much baggage. Shall I write it in anyway and then edit it out later. Or? I'm trying not to let the internal editor take over because every word is important and I think I'll do what I've done all along...write what seems to want to be written and worry about editing later. It's not that I'm about to go off on any tangents or anything, just that I've been through some heavy scenes and the tension is high at the moment. I don't want to risk losing the tension by adding things that are going to take the story off track. What to do? Hmmm...well, I know it will certainly be figured out very shortly.

It's kind of like being at the cross-roads. Where to go next? Well, here we are at the end of another year and New Years is always a time for new directions. Mine, I hope, will be in the direction of and editor/publisher.

"There's nothing which faintly resembles glamour about the work I do. I spend all of my working hours alone, facing a blank sheet of paper, and myself. For I have to dredge through my soul and my memories every day of my life. Writing novels is the hardest work I've ever done, the salt mines, really. I sit long hours at my desk -- til my neck and shoulders seize up. I make tremendous social and personal sacrifices for my writing, but after all, I chose to be a novelist. Nobody held a gun to my head. So why do I go on? The answer is easy. I can't NOT do it."
Barbara Taylor Bradford

***author's quotes from "The Writer's Handbook."

for a couple of little Christmas Away memoirs, check out my travel blog at:

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Friday, December 14, 2007


"Muse of the round sky, daughter of Zeus,
I sing my poems loud and clear to you."

I spent most of yesterday trying to sort out some small errors I'd made in my novel, the sequence of some events that didn't seem right. I'd intended to do a lot of writing but mostly puttered away the day, managing only about an hour of work taken from the notes I'd made the night before.

The day was cold and wet, very bleak. I only went outdoors once and that was just to mail some Christmas cards overseas and pick up a few groceries. I played on the computer, watched some TV, cleaned out the drawers sorting my winter stuff and packing away my summer. The whole day went by and really, I didn't accomplish much as far as my novel writing was concerned.

It was very late when I tucked into bed and whereas I usually fall asleep quickly, this night I tossed and turned and could not get to sleep at all. Then, She spoke to me. The Muse. At first it was just a line or two which I knew I had to get up and write down. Then, when I was settling back into bed again, there was another line...a whole paragraph...and I realized that She was telling me what I'd been trying to figure out all day. So I got up and started writing. I wrote about four pages and then I went back to bed and fell right asleep.

Today I got up really in the writing mood. No more procrastinating. Thanks to the Muse, I had a good start on the day. I managed to solve some of the strategy problems I was having, things became a lot clearer to me, and the notes I'd made during the night had actually brought me right up to a crucial anti-climax of the novel. With a few added scenes in between I should be able to sail quickly through this next part and then I'll be on the homeward stretch, with the end very clearly in view.

It's exciting when that happens and it's been awhile since the Muse spoke so strongly to me. I recall when I used to live in the shepherd's cottage in Lala, Euboeia, that often She would speak to me in the night. I had no electricity there, so I'd have to get up and light the lamps and sit by candlelight to write the words, knowing that if I didn't, I'd have forgotten them by morning.

As far as the progress of Shadow of the Lion, I may not meet my goal of finishing by the last day of Autumn, but I'll be very nearly done by the end of December. I'm already visualizing the 'wrap' party I have planned at a Greek taverna in my neighborhood.
Yesterday I consulted Cecilia Holland in regards to whether or not I should find myself a mentor before I start doing the final draft which will entail a good deal of cutting. I feel I need someone who understands the history as well as the techniques of writing. She suggested that I might find someone at the university, but to make sure it's someone I trust or it might not work out. So I'm still thinking about this. Perhaps I will get just as thorough a reader's critic from my Athens friend, Dinaz, who has requested I send her the MSS when it's done. What do you other writers think of this idea? Have any of you had a mentor to advise you on your final drafts?

written while living in a shepherd's cottage, Lala, Evvia, Greece

My Muse comes after midnight
Nudges me awake,
Whispers urgently:
"Get up! Write!"
I curse her, stumble across the dark room,
Search for matches, light the candle wick.
Where has she been in the daylight?
How many hours did I want for her
Listening for her voice?
"Where were you?" I ask.
"Was it your voice I heard
While I daydreamed in the sun.
Or was it only the sound
Of sheep bells on the mountain,"
"Write!" she demands. "Write!"
If I wait til morning
The words she whispers to me
Will be extinguished
Like this candle flame
As I snuff it out.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


As Shakespeare said "The play's the thing..." (Hamlet) and recently I've attended several wonderful theatre events.

Last month I went to see a play about Tennessee Williams, my favorite playwright, "His Greatness", which was about a period of time Williams spent here in Vancouver while one of his least successful plays was being reproduced. (It bombed!). Williams (1911 - 1983) was a prolific playwright and author and when I wrote my play "The Street" I was very influenced by his work. Of course one of his most memorable lines was from "A Streetcar Named Desire", spoken by Blanche " Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Just after "His Greatness" was performed here, there was a production of "The Glass Menagerie" which I unfortunately missed.

The next play I went to see was Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten". This may be the first O'Neill play I've seen and I was totally captivated. It's said that this play was an attempt to understand a brother he had once idolised then watched fall into the seedier side of life. O'Neill was born in a Broadway Hotel room. (His father was an actor who toured in "The Count of Monte Cristo") His family life was unhappy and he used his own experiences as themes for his plays. He was the first playwright to write a play with a major role for a black actor,
"The Emperor Jones".

Then I went to see a play by a Canadian playwright, George Ryga, a prairie boy from a poor Ukranian family who left school after grade six and worked at a variety of jobs, then won a scholarship to the Banff School of Fine Arts. His first play "Indian" was perfomed on TV in 1961. He received national acclaim for his next play "The Ecstasy of Rita Joe" which was first performed here in Vancouver in 1967. This is the play I finally was able to see, with a cast that was mainly First Nations people. I always thought Ryga himself was part First Nations but he wasn't, which makes this play and it's subject, all the more remarkable -- the deep insights he had into the plight of Indian people who come to the city from their reserves and so often fall into such tragedy. This play, by Ryga is considered by many to be the most important English language play by a Canadian playwright.

This weekend I went to see my most favorite of Shakespeare's plays "Richard III". It's the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, when I was 13 years old, and it resonated so much and influenced me so much that I've never forgotten it. Perhaps that's what propelled me to write tragedy. I was riveted by the acting (especially the actor who played Richard); the costumes, set and makeup all added to the eerie sense of evil and darkness. Who can ever forget those famous opening lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious suumer by this sun of York." I remember that the first time I visited London, in the mid '70's, I had to go to the Tower to see where the young prince's were murdered. Seeing the play brought back so many memories.

One sad memory of my own...the day I came home from the theatre, a young impressionable kid just bubbling with enthusiasm for what I'd seen and heard, I was met at the door by my Mom who sadly told me our very dear pet Spaniel Duchess had been killed by a car that day.
Talk about being immersed in tragedy! I have never forgotten that day, or the play.

I needed some inspiration for the next part of my novel and just being there, listening to Shakespeare's words being spoken by the dastardly Richard, and the various dramatic roles of the women in the play, gave me lots of ideas. So it's back to work on Shadow of the Lion. And I'm getting closer to the end!

Friday, December 07, 2007



Okay, I confess. I've been committing some pretty dreadful crimes of murder and mayhem lately. It's been a grueling task for someone like me who generally abhors violence but is still fascinated by crime and criminals. I was once in charge of the crime files of the newspaper I worked at, my first job as a fledgling journalist when I got out of high school. I ended up in the news-library instead of on City Desk covering the local crime scene, but my job was bios and crime files and I got to know about all the inside dope in the gang warfare and crime scene of the city.

Early on, I used to love Mickey Spillane books and read all of them. But usually I don't read crime or murder mysteries. I did find "Silence of the Lambs" fascinating in the way it was written and research. I love true crime stories such as "Compulsion" and Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood". And I do enjoy some movies about true crimes and stuff like "The Sopranos". Somehow, having to write about it now myself, I've become a little inured to it I suppose. When I had first started writing gory scenes for "Shadow of the Lion" I held back a lot and my workshop critics said "More blood! More blood!" Once I had to kill off an Athenian senator. He was an interesting character and I had described him well in the novel and much to my surprise then met a man who was an Athenian, who fit the description (physically) to a T. But when I got to know this particular person, he turned out to be a real jerk. This revelation happened about when I had to kill off the senator so I must admit I did the deed with great relish. Heheheh!

Now I'm getting down to the nitty-gritty of my novel, near the end when disaster looms at every corner of Alexander's empire, a lot of it propelled by his mother, Olympias, who is on a rampage of vengeance. Consequently, I've killed off a lot of people over the past few weeks and yesterday administered the final blow to a couple of my favorites. And there's more to come...
Here's a little snippet from the most recent turn of events...

Adeia-Eurydike, the 18 year old queen (wife of Philip Arridaios) who has staged a coup against the Regent Polyperchon, is now on the lam, trying to leave the country to get support from her ally, Kassandros, because her own faction has deserted her, all of them terrified of Olympias.

Adeia-Eurydike was captured at the port of Amphipolis where she had intended to board a ship bound for Euboeia, hoping to secure more troops there. Her own faction had deserted her. Nobody wanted to fight against the Epirote witch.

Her youth and arrogance had made her believe she could outwit her enemies, but Aristonous, the garrison commander, under orders from Olympias, sent Thracians to the port and they arrested her there without a struggle. Thracians were wild people, and easily bought. Olympias had offered them more gold than she had, so they had betrayed her.

“Woman, what is your name?” one of them asked in hesitant Greek.
“Are you the slut who claims to be Queen?” queried another. He looked her over as if she were one of the port whores.

They were tough, rugged men, half-clad in tribal tartans and animal skins, their naked skin showing off the swirls of blue tribal tattoos that Thracians bore to show they were warriors. One of them gave her a hard shove. She staggered backwards, then caught her balance and held her head high.

At first she tried to fight them, but before she could draw her sword they overwhelmed her and disarmed her. She refused to throw herself at their mercy and beg for clemency. Implacably she stood her ground. Defiant, she spat in their faces and mocked them, believing that Kassandros would by now have received her desperate messages and would soon invade Macedon and rescue her.

There was no way she would accept surrender, so she drew herself up and faced them fearlessly. “Don’t you know who I am?” she screamed. “I am Eurydike, daughter of Amyntas, wife of King Philip Arridaios.”

They answered her with grunts and insults spoken in their tribal language which she did not understand but she knew by their disdainful looks that they considered her little more than harbor trash. They dragged her away, oblivious to her curses and threats of vengeance.

She had hoped for splendor and victory, dreamed of her triumphant return to Pella, the flower-strewn streets, the Macedonian cavalry escorting her, splendid in their maroon crested helmets and flowing capes, their horses bedizened with gold. Instead, rough heavy hands bound her in chains and threw her into a two-wheeled cart as though she were a piece of camp baggage.

She was spirited away with a grim escort of heavily armed guards. At each town along the way sightseers stood in expectant clusters watching in silent awe, shamed by the sight of her, yet daring not to make a protest. She huddled in the cart bruised and humiliated; her head ached; her wrists and ankles stung, rubbed raw from the fetters. Now, on the threshold of her final defeat, she felt desolate, yet strangely indifferent, still believing that Kassandros would soon send help to free her. A vivid recollection came to her of that night long ago on the Sardis road when she and her mother had been beset by Perdikkas’ men; how once they had recognized her as Macedonian royalty, they had protected her. As the two-wheeled cart rattled and jolted over the stones, she recalled her mother’s saying ‘You were meant for great things. It is your destiny to rule as a warrior queen, not to grow old at the loom like other women. Your father should have been chosen as king, not Philip. If you had been born a boy they would have chosen you when he died . Now the gods mean you to right the wrong that was done to him.“ She felt a shiver of rage and grief. Surely someone would come and overpower her captors. Did they not recognize her as their queen, Eurydike? She heard a few hesitant cheers of “Long live Queen Eurydike! Long live King Philip!” and gruff murmurs of sympathy, “Poor maid. Forgive them, Lady. Surely they have done wrong.” Still, no one tried to rescue her. It all seemed unreal, dreamlike, as though she might waken and find it all a terrifying nightmare.

When they entered Pella three days later, she noticed the deserted streets, as if dread had seized the populace and kept them hidden indoors. She had heard rumors of Olympias’ blood bath, the arrest of dissenters and killings of Antipatrids clan members. Now she sensed the full realization of the tragedy, smelled the death. It’s certainty made her feel nauseated.

She was taken first to the palace where the guards escorted her to the audience hall where Olympias sat in state on the throne that rightfully should have been hers.

Olympias gave an order to one of the guards and she was shoved forward, the weight of her shackled wrists and ankles causing her to stumble.
“So! Here stands the valiant Adeia-Eurydike, child of a traitor! My men say they found you at the harbor about to board a ship, like a vermin steals aboard.”

Adeia held her head high. “I am Queen Eurydike, wife of Philip Arridaios, daughter of Amyntas, who was the son of King Perdikkas. Your husband, Philip, was my grandfather.”

Olympias’ face tautened with anger. “And your husband, my little trollop, awaits you in the bridal chamber we have prepared for your joyful reunion.” She smiled, baring her teeth, and with a dismissive wave of her bejeweled hand said to the guard. “Take her away. Her husband is waiting for her.”

They led her out, dragging her fetters, their dead weight chafing her ankles as she staggered in an ungainly gait between the guards. She was trooped through the streets of Pella like a felon going to an execution. As they approached the lagoon she saw the row of gallows where corpses of Olympias’ victims had been nailed up like rotting carcasses in a butcher’s larder. Most were no longer recognizable since the carrion birds and scavengers had had their fill of flesh. She glanced at some of the names painted on boards beneath their mangled bodies and recognized several as men who had led her faction. And under one, the name NIKANOR, SON OF ANTIPATER. Her heart sank. Even Nikanor whom she had trusted to help rally her men?

When I first started writing this novel, I felt emotionally attached to the first character I had to assassinate and cried after I did it. Now I'm nearing the end and I suppose I'm used to the carnage because I felt strangely unmoved by what happens next to Arridaios and Adeia, yet I am fond of them because both have been amazing characters to write about. Do real mass murderers become this detatched? (A scary thought!)

I just finished writing another blog on my "Conversations With Myself" on the subject of "Making the Punishment Fit the Crime." I wonder if this applies to me? (LOL) But wait...I haven't finished yet!


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Sunday, December 02, 2007


playing in the snow, me at aged 18 months
Estevan Saskatchewan

"One Christmas was so much like another, in
those years around the seatown corner now and out of
all sound except the distant speaking of the voices
I sometimes hear a moment before I sleep, that
I can never remember whether it snowed for
six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it
snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
Dylan Thomas 1914-1953 "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

me (age 6) and my little sister Jeanie
taking our dollies for a walk in the snow
Lloydminster, Saskatchewan

I love the snow. So when we had the first snowfall of the season yesterday I felt compelled to go out in it and take some pictures. By today it continued until the snow was deep enough to make snow-men and go sledding. But, as usual here on the "wet" coast, by late afternoon when I finally did go out, intending to take more photographs, it had turned to rain. Now the rain has set in and the snowfall has melted causing a lot of problems with flooding and a slushy mess on the sidewalks and roads. It was pretty while it lasted. I stayed indoors with the fireplace on yesterday and did some work on my Christmas cards, made more notes for my novel, and generally enjoyed a weekend of reasonable leisure. I'm only sorry I didn't get out in today it while it was really coming down, thick white fluffy flakes of it, just like I remember as a child living on the Prairies.

I have lots of happy snow-time memories and so long as I'm dressed warm enough I still enjoy it. However, a storm called "the Pineapple express" is heading our way from Hawaii and the weatherman warns of flooding and torrential rains setting a record for the season. And winter has barely even begun! Enough, already, with the rain. I say "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!"

The first snowfall in the park

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