Category Archives: James H. Zant

“Riddle Me This!” No, thanks.

I am a bear of very little brain.

I am a bear of very little brain.

I do not like brain games, perhaps because I’m a bear of very little brain and prefer to use the limited powers in my possession to find the necessities of life – by which, I mean food and yarn.   For that reason I was relieved to read in a recent issue of Time Magazine[1] that there’s no solid evidence that playing brain games improves your cognitive abilities. They might be fun — if you like that sort of thing — but, sad to say, your premium membership in Luminosity may not keep the wolves of Alzheimer’s at bay.

You have my sympathy.

Remember those math questions they used to give you in school: “If a train is going fifty miles an hour and the town is twenty miles away and Johnny started the card game with two dollars, but has been losing money at a rate of fifty cents every two minutes, how much money will Johnny have when he arrives in town?” Yeah, well, I hated those questions. When presented with one, my brain would derail one hypothetical clause in; they had me at “train.”  A similar thing happened in the course in Pre-Socratic philosophy I took whenever a version of the verb “to be” appeared more than five times in one sentence: on those occasions my brain actually exploded.

My grandfather, James H. Zant, of whom I am inordinately proud, was a renowned professor of mathematics; he authored many of the first New Math textbooks.   Clearly, all the math smarts set aside for his line were gobbled up by him, leaving me without the ability to do so much as calculate a percentage.  The only time I ever did my own taxes, I free-styled percentages (that’s the only way I can think to describe it), with the result that Revenue Canada, upon auditing me, discovered I had grossly overpaid and sent me a couple of really nice refunds to remedy the error.  Just think of all the times that didn’t happen.

I think that the appeal of brain games must be that they are time-passers. Indeed, the only time I don’t resent a brain game being thrust upon me is when I am recumbent in a dental chair getting my gums planed and there’s a jumble taped to the ceiling.  On all other occasions, I prefer to listen to audio books and podcasts while knitting scarves and hats for people experiencing homelessness, blankies for people experiencing babies and socks for me experiencing cold feet. I never give away my socks. I hoard them. A girl can never have too many.

It’s not that I’m immune from fearing an age-related decline in my cognitive abilities. At sixty two I have already begun to notice aphasia kicking in. Oh, the words do come . . . eventually . . . but, whereas my word retrieval used to be jack rabbit fast, it is now more like a floppy eared old wobbly bunny that hops here and there, wheezing while she struggles to remember what the Hell she’s looking for.

Ursula Staudinger, director of the Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University (where, incidentally, my math genius of a grandfather did his PhD) says, “It’s like, you walk through fresh snow, you leave a trace. If you walk the same route again, the trace gets deeper and deeper . . . The fact that structural changes occur [in the brain] does not imply that in general this brain has become more capable.”  So what you are doing when you play brain games is, in essence, something akin to running around and around in circles. My Ur dog Ughy did that around our childhood swing set, wearing a deep groove in the lawn — a doggie crop circle, if you will. He did live to the grand old age of 17 — not bad for a pooch– but I’m not sure that he was any the smarter for his efforts.

I have no idea what to do with this . . . and absolutely no interest.

I have no idea what to do with this . . . and absolutely no interest.

So, by all means, enjoy your teasers and your riddles and your puzzles and your jumbles and your sudokus, but don’t expect me to join in. I’m too busy knitting and trying to remember the name of that thing . . . you know. That thing!

(And BTW, having to continuously canvas the room for the answer to the hint in your crossword puzzle . . . I’m pretty sure that’s cheating.)



[1] Time February 23-March 2,2015, Can Brain Games Keep My Mind Young, by Justin Worland, p. 87

Clan of the Dog People

Cave painting of girl with dog

Cave painting of girl with dog

When National Geographic’s Genographic Project was all shiny and new, my husband Ken and I joined 678,632 other individuals in over 140 countries in sending in samples of our DNA to be included in the database. This was not inexpensive, but we figured it was our contribution to scientific research and, besides, who doesn’t want to unlock the secrets hidden in their DNA?

In due time we received a package from National Geographic and the big reveal was this: our ancestors originated in Africa long, long ago, but had more recently hailed from Northern Europe.  To which we could only say, “Duh!”   As it turns out, we had opted for the Economy DNA Package. If we had wanted to know whether we had inherited a genetic predisposition to like cilantro or what percentage Neanderthal we were, well, that’ll be extra.

Or would it?

Our ancestral path from Africa to Northern Europe. Surprise?  Not really.

Our ancestral path from Africa to Northern Europe. Surprise? Not really.

My grandfather, James H. Zant, who liked a good story, told this one about an acquaintance’s visit to a local Cherokee chief.   “Dig deep, White Man,” the chief reportedly told his visitor.  “Puppy at bottom of pot.”

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, mired in thought,  when our dog Nellie deposited herself before me, trawling for attention. I obliged, closing my eyes as I scratched her ears, and conjured up an image of myself in my mind’s eye.  However, instead of picturing the little old lady  I am all too rapidly metamorphosing into and her (sort of trusty) dog,  what I saw was a girl — nine or ten, Neanderthal, grubby and sitting on a rock in a dark place barely illuminated by flickering fire light, scratching the ears of a wolf cub.

Now, my view of reality has always been a tad elastic — the result, no doubt, of coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies and all that that entailed — so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to conclude l that what I had glimpsed in my mind’s eye was a distant ancestor, one embedded in my DNA, that  I had, in fact, descended from those humanoids who, laboring in different places over vast expanses of time, succeeded in the magic trick of turning wolves into dogs,  that, just as our domestication of dogs impacted their genome, so their domestication of us  has impacted ours, meaning that the term “Dog People” describes something not superficial, but very fundamental.    Which explains SO much. Why I cannot imagine a happy and contented life without a dog. Why my father, speaking of his life in the nursing home, says, “The only thing I really miss is a dog . . . ,”  his voice trailing wistfully off.

Golden Retriever?  Hummm...

Golden Retriever? Hummm…

Back when we acquired Nellie, we were unconvinced that she was, in fact, the Golden Retriever the Kijiji ad purported her to be, given her ridiculously long legs, her narrow muzzle and crooked tail, and, all of it, the whole nine yards, completely wired. While we never suffered from Buyers’ Remorse – well, maybe just a little when she hoovered up a finishing nail, necessitating a $2,500  surgery – we were, nevertheless,  curious to know the ancestry of our whacky little bundle of fur and fun. So we tested her DNA.

Turns out she’s a Golden Retriever – quel surprise! — just the way it turns out Ken and I are Northern Europeans. As for delving any more deeply into our DNA, there’s really no need now. Not after my little epiphany.   I know who I am, down deep:  a  Dog Person with slightly more than a dollop of Neanderthal. As for Nellie, she’s clearly a wolf.


Ughy — My Ur Dog

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

My father courted my mother with puppies.  The first was a mixed breed called Pot, who was summarily run over. The second was a black cocker spaniel  named Ughy.  Ughy arrived on the scene four years before I was born, at a time when Mom and Dad were both married to other people, but clearly gearing up to bolt – you don’t give just anybody a puppy, not in my family. And Dad gave Mom two.

My mother’s childhood dog  was Poochie, a terrier who spent his dogs days asleep in the sunny middle of the street in front of their house in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  Unlike Pot, Poochie died in the fullness of time and of natural causes — for the dozen or so years he was on this Earth cars just edged around him.  If this seems extraordinary, consider this: my grandmother never learned how to back up a car.   She didn’t need to.  She only went two places — her beauty salon and  the grocery store — and both her hairdresser and the boy who bagged her groceries were more than happy to turn the car around for her so that she could drive herself back home.  That’s the kind of town Stillwater, Oklahoma was — women could drive cars in one direction and dogs could sleep undisturbed in the middle of its streets.  Of course, if you were a black man and dusk was approaching, you would have been wise not to count on the same degree of insouciance.   We’re talking Oklahoma here and some things don’t  change.

People assign names to dogs; their dog names emerge with time.  Thus Bill’s Fancy became Mary Frances; Luv (allegedly Danish for Lion) became Lovey;  Tennessee’s Waltz became Tenney, which also happened to be the name of the circle we lived on. Ughy’s given name was, improbably,  Lord Ogilthorpe, thence Oggie, thence Ughy, a.k.a, Boodle Dog.  My Grandfather Zant always called him, “Black Dog.”  “Hi, Black Dog,” he would say.  “Come here, Black Dog.” Ughy adored Grandaddy, perhaps because Grandaddy recognized his true essence.  He was, after all, a black dog.

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

My mother told the story of how Ughy would drop his toys into my bassinet. She maintained that this indicated a desire on his part to share his toys with me.  I think it’s more likely that he was actually trying to take me out from the air. Then again, he used to bring Mom mice that he had killed and how can that be interpreted other than as an act of largesse?  In his seventeen years, Ughy only bit me once and that was because I stuck my face in his food dish.  I would do the same to anybody who stuck their face in my food dish.  Consider that fair warning.

Growing up, I was convinced that Ughy could talk; I figured he was just holding out.  On weekends, my father would take me and Ughy along on various errands and, while he was in the Hostess Outlet Store or at the roadside corn stand, I would edge closer to Ughy and whisper in his silky ear, “It’s all right.  He’s gone.  You can talk now.”  That’s when parents left kids in the car and no one thought a thing of it.

Golden Retriever with false teeth.  You get the idea.

Golden Retriever with party teeth. You get the idea.

Ughy had two tricks.  He could sit up on his hind legs for hours  while wearing one of my Dad’s white t-shirts, and he would happily circulate amongst party guests, gag teeth clamped  between his jaws, for so long as people applauded. He taught himself those tricks in his spare time, which was copious.

Ughy buried bones in the carpet.  He would dig and dig and dig, creating no hole whatsoever, then deposit the bone in the no hole  he had dug.  There it would remain until someone glanced over at it, at which point he would promptly dig it up from the no hole and bury it in plain sight somewhere else.  Once a kid on our block dared to call Ughy fat and I beat him up.  He was the only person I have ever beaten up and I never felt a shred of guilt about it. Call my dog fat: you’ve crossed a red line.

Ughy was my first dog –  the original dog; the archetypal dog; the Ur dog.The worst thing I could imagine, apart from the death of my mother or father, was Ughy’s demise.  I would lie in bed at night and try and imagine what a world without Ughy would be like.  But then I’d have to stop myself; his loss was too painful even to contemplate.

The last year of his long life, blinded by milky cataracts and wracked by cancer, Ughy was falling apart the way old dogs do: at the seams. During that sad period Dad carried him tenderly up and down the stairs as required.  My husband and I can relate. For the better part of three years we hefted our aged and enormous Golden Retriever up and downstairs, hoisting him into cars and airlifting him onto beds. Recently a fit-enough looking neighbour  told us he had been forced to put his Springer Spaniel down because she could no longer climb stairs.  As soon as he was out of earshot, my husband and I looked at one another, aghast.    “He couldn’t carry a Springer Spaniel up and down stairs?” we asked.

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Every night Dad fed Ughy his green cancer pain pills, stroking  his throat to make him swallow, as he sang:

“Green pills, they taste so good/

when doggies eat them like they should./

Green pills, they taste so nice./

They taste like they’re made out of sugar and spice.”

He sang this to the tune of Green Sleeves.

Then one day it happened — Ughy was gone.  A chasm opened up in the earth and in we fell, only to struggle out, not twenty-four hours later, with the parti-coloured ball of fur and bad news who would become Crocapuppy – the infamous Frances of the Socks.  If Ughy was a true gentleman — and he was — Frances was bitch incarnate.  Life goes on and new dogs come on stream — one after another. And then they die, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you don’t.

. . .

And then you do.

I have three looks: gussied up, not gussied up and OMG.  My friend Catharine says that I should include ‘Gone to the dogs’ but I argue that that’s just a subset of OMG.  I used to have many looks: most of them pleasing.  .  . .  But now I have only the three.

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

My brother Peter once exclaimed at how my mother and I could go from plain to pretty in a matter of minutes with a little judicious hair and makeup.  For years the women in my now nearly thirty-year old book club were able to “come up well” . . . until we couldn’t.  We had a group photo done of us in those glory days.  We have not repeated the exercise.  Before and after. You don’t want to go there.

An old family friend used to say of women wearing housecoats and curlers in public, “It’s all right to look like that, but do you have to come out of the house?”  Every night I don a denim bag I brought used off of eBay, put my hair in pink foam rollers and my feet in Wellies and take the dogs out for their last pee, praying that we don’t run into anymore.   If I do not curl my hair, I look like a woman who kidnaps children from shopping malls.   No, really.  And blow drying isn’t an option.  I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror long enough to successfully pull it off.

At CREA PAC c.1993

At CREA PAC c.1993

Last year at the Canadian Real Estate Association’s Political Action Day in Ottawa I opened up a new publication outlining CREA’s lobbying successes over the years.  There was a candid black and white photo of me taken twenty two years ago.  I went around the conference showing everybody the photo and saying, “See! This was me!”  To my alarm and distress, most people looked incredulous and asked, “Really?” or, “Wow! You’re kidding!”  Needless to say, a downward spiral quickly ensued. I knew it was pathetic to persist in my quest to find somebody, anybody who would respond to my showing them the ancient photo by saying, “You haven’t changed a bit,” but, alas, I could not help myself.

Right now I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and watching Ken Burns’ Civil War for the third time, trying to wrap my mind around what tore my native country asunder during that conflict.  This is my idea of a good time.  I am a history nerd, a political junkie and a tree hugging, left leaning radical Obamist.  Documentaries are my guilty pleasure, a pleasure in which I indulge perhaps to excess.  I subscribe to serious podcasts and listen to them religiously.  I sit on the Steering Committee for the London Homeless Coalition, for Pete’s sake.  From all of which you might deduce that I am a fairly serious person, but you would be wrong.  You would be wrong because, at the age of 61, I’m still expending blood and treasure – that is to say, my dwindling stock of time – on pretty.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn't last.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn’t last.

Once, while visiting my then ninety-five year old grandfather, I gestured to a photo of my grandmother taken in her early twenties; she had predeceased him by a dozen years.  “Grandmother was awfully pretty,” I said to spark a lagging conversation.  To which Granddaddy replied, “She was OK, but she didn’t last.”

I guess none of us do.

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.  And then they didn’t.

Bare ruined choirs

Confessions of a Knitwit

My daughter Sabrina in the unfortunate sweater I knit her.  Her brother Will is enjoying her misery.

My daughter Sabrina in the unfortunate sweater I knit her. Her brother Will is enjoying her misery.

I’m a knitter.  I come by it honestly.  My mother was an Über knitter.  She taught scores of people to knit, myself included.   Once I visited her in the hospital after a major operation. When I entered her room, I found her trying to talk the nurse into letting her teach her how to knit.  “It’s easy,” she assured her. “I can show you!”   I knew then that she was going to be OK.

My grandmother excelled at fancy needlework – embroidery and lace-making, crocheting and cut work – but nothing so plain as knitting.  So Mom asked my grandfather to teach her to knit; this was in the days before video tutorials and Knitting for Dummies.  Grand Daddy hadn’t a clue, but he had watched his mother knit and he was a problem solver.  Two straightened-out wire coat hangers, a ball of twine and a few false starts later, he had figured it out. There was no stopping Mom after that.

I love knitting.  I can spend hours poring over pattern porn on websites like or     I delight in pondering new projects.  I revel in wool.  If you asked me to describe one moment in my life when I was perfectly happy, I would have to say it was sitting on the deck of a cruise ship sailing around a Greek island while knitting, listening to the audio version of Margaux Fragoso’s gripping memoir, Tiger Tiger and sipping on a bottomless gin and tonic.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

My passion for knitting does not, however, mean that I am a good knitter or even a competent one.  Au contraire. Once I was sitting next to a stewardess on a plane from LAX to Hawaii.  She saw that I was knitting, pulled out a piece she was working on – a complicated lace pattern — and asked me to fix a teensy mistake for her.  I then proceeded to completely and irrevocably (there is no other word for it) f-k up her entire project. The worse thing: I had to sit next to her for the next four hours.

Sometimes people say to me, “You’ll have to knit a sweater for me!” As if that would give me great delight.  It would not, but not for the reason you might think.  Chances are any sweater I knit for you would turn out to be oddly misshapen and then you would have to hide your disappointment.  You would most certainly never wear it and how could I blame you?  I remember the sweater I knit for my daughter Sabrina, which was elephantine, or the one I knit for my mother in law — if she was a large dachshund, it might have suited her, but, alas, she is not.

If, however, I knit that same peculiar sweater for myself, I can always unravel it and knit something else out of it, which I can then unravel and so forth.  My husband can attest to the fact that I spend a great deal of time unraveling sweaters.  He appreciates the cost savings; good yarn is expensive.   Recently a woman approached me at the Green Roof Diner here in Port Stanley and asked if I would knit a layette for a grandchild she’s expecting.  “I will pay you,” she said.  “Oh, no,” I hastily demurred.  “I couldn’t deal with the guilt.”

After Mom passed away, we hauled four large garbage bags of yarn down to the Thrift Shop – this was the yarn I didn’t take for myself.  For the next seven years, every time I visited my father, I would find additional bags of yarn and knitting projects in various stages of completion stashed here and there in cupboards and at the back of closets and under beds.  Like a squirrel, Mom cached yarn about her territory lest some unforeseen catastrophe befall her and she find herself without.  As it turned out, catastrophe did befall her — she died — and, as it also turns out, yarn is one of those things you can’t take with you.  I felt bad throwing out those semi-completed projects —  that dangling cowl neck, that half of a sock.  She had such big plans for them and they came to naught.  Like so much in life.

Ah, well.

It’s five o’clock, which means: time to fix myself a Bloody Caesar and break out the needles.

My grandfather and Darwin

My maternal grandfather, James Howard Zant, was born on a evolutionranch near Aspermont, the seat of Stonewall County, Texas, northwest of Dallas.  The town was founded in 1889; Granddaddy arrived on the scene in 1897.  His father, John Solomon Zant, was born in 1860 in Murray County, Georgia and migrated to Texas after the Civil War; he remembered driving a herd of cattle along the Shawnee Trail, which ran right through the centre of Dallas, to get it to North-bound railheads.   He married Mary Elizabeth Loving in 1889.   My relatives have sought in vain a for some kind of connection with Oliver Loving of Lonesome Dove fame; I remain hopeful.  Oliver Loving. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Granddaddy was one of twelve children.  They all went to University; even the girls — remarkable for the time and the fact that we’re not talking South Fork here. Granddaddy’s family all called him Bob, despite his being named Jim.  When Mom asked her grandmother why they did this, she replied that, after the last child – Royce Darwell Zant – was born, they realized that they had forgotten to name somebody Robert.  They made up for this apparently grievous failure by calling Granddaddy Bob.   I don’t know if they called somebody else Jim to deal with the problem created by their solution to the previous problem.

I know only one story about my Grandfather’s family.  His father, feeling that his mother was due some respite after twelve children, built her a playhouse where she could retire and, presumably, scream.  One day a tornado picked the playhouse up and deposited it, intact, as far away from the main house as you could get and still be on the ranch.  Apparently the forces of Nature felt that Mary Elizabeth needed even more distance from her brood and conspired to make it so.   In their West Texas community this ranked somewhere between a miracle and a phenomenon.  For a while people came from miles around to see the relocated structure and hear the story.  Then they stopped.

My Grandfather’s first teaching job was in the high school in Durant, Oklahoma.  He taught mathematics and saved up money for graduate school by coaching the school’s basketball team.  If you lived in a small town and taught high school in those days, it was expected that you go to church, so every Sunday, my grandmother and he would put on their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and head on down to the Methodist Church.  The year was 1925 and the Scopes Trial and evolution were being hotly debated nationwide.  In due course the minister, evidently not a big fan of Darwin, thundered, “If anyone in this congregation believes that man descended from apes, let him stand and be recognized!”

So my grandfather stood.  Despite my grandmother’s frantic attempts to get him to for-god’s-sake-sit-down-this-is-SO-embarrassing, he stood.

No one else did.


My grandfather looked around, then, realizing that the cat was well and truly out of the bag,   he picked up his hat, exited the pew and headed down the aisle towards the church door, my utterly mortified grandmother scuttling behind him, red faced and furious.  Granddaddy wasn’t the sort to pick a fight; he was no ideologue.  And his background wasn’t that much different from all the other people in that church.  It was just that, yes, he’d been to college and, true, he was a mathematician and, therefore, a kind of scientist, and, don’t you know, he’d had him a look at monkeys and they sure looked a lot like some people he knew, so . . . . yes. Yes, he thought mankind probably did descend from apes.  It just made sense.

Except for weddings and funerals, Granddaddy never set foot in a church again.  Instead he went on to earn a PhD in Mathematics from Columbia University and become one of the pioneers of New Math and the author of a number of influential text books.  Truth be told, he had a pretty illustrious career. There were a whole lot of reasons to be proud of my grandfather, but what he did in that church that day …  I think that’s what makes me proudest.

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