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FORK IN THE ROAD: Happy new new year!

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NEW YEAR, NEW WORLD A Hudson’s Bay advertisement featuring “a slinky young woman wearing a slinky black dress and matching slinky black COVID-19 mask.”

You know it’s definitely a new kind of new year when an old retail stalwart like Hudson’s Bay features in its holiday advertising a slinky young woman wearing a slinky black dress and matching slinky black COVID-19 mask. (I almost said old Canadian stalwart there, but cut myself short after dredging up from the misty moil of my mind that the same U.S. private investment firm that once owned Lord & Taylor bought Hudson’s Bay Co. more than a decade ago, and that was after The Bay’s previous American owner died.)

So what do you do when life gives you a pandemic? Some people, generous souls that they are, have been making pandemic-aid. If you’re in the right business, you obviously sell face masks in myriad iterations, including black sparkly ones. But if you’re lying low figuratively or metaphorically (hopefully not both), you’re probably handling things like the rest of us—looking for ways to best keep your dear little brain cells and the rest of your lovely self safely stimulated and engaged. 

In a nutshell, when life gives you a pandemic—and don’t kid yourself, it’s going to go on for a while yet—try something new. Which is my New Year’s resolution in rhyme: Something, anything new will do. And don’t buy it through Amazon. 

No. 1 in the “new” department in terms of ease and availability: New food to pique our senses—and use up those bloody tins of whole bamboo shoots from Japan I grabbed when local store shelves were emptying. (What on Earth was I thinking!?) 

You may well already be doing what I described in my earlier column on getting antsy in your pantry. Trying wild new dishes and flavours. Whipping up some new comfort food à la dulce de leche or home-baking (again, see a recent column). Figuring out those fat bamboo shoots. Or tinned sardines in tomato sauce.

If you’re still surviving on Kraft Dinner and takeout, hey, nothing wrong with that. But consider this a little New Year’s nudge to check out some new food angles, the more playful, or sustainable, the better. I tried a little whipped cream on my cheese and crackers the other day. Not bad. And cutting down on the meat you eat reduces carbon emissions and influences the food choices of others.  

No. 2 on the new list: Authors I’ve never tried before (Jenny Diski). Or ones I’ve always meant to (Jerzy Kosiński). And playing with old art supplies and drawings in new ways. A little collaging here, a little acrylic paint there, and Bob’s your uncle.

For No. 3 and onwards, how about some new routines, like making a phone call instead of texting or emailing. Getting up an hour earlier—or later. Driving home along a new route. 

Then there are all the quirky new ways of dressing that don’t use a single bit of new “store-bought” clothing from The Bay or anywhere. How about a nice sweater on top for that Zoom session, and something ridiculous, like nothing, below? Or outrageous lipstick under your mask—something you guys can really have fun with. Personally, I’ve been playing with my middle-aged-Italian-man persona and growing out my moustache lately.

All of which brings us to the newest and most obvious clothing accessory we’ve all had to adapt to: The Mask. Jim Carrey must be so groovin’ it, but here’s where I really want to tip my not-so-new hat. After four tries, the No. 1 best reusable masks I’ve found for not steaming up glasses outdoors is the V4 model from Seattle’s Tom Bihn. Easy to wear, easy to wash, great materials and design, and no steamy lenses! (Thanks, WIRED magazine, for that tip!)  

If you think all this is just another New Year’s pep talk to boost your spirits and keep you going, well, you’re partly right. But all this “new” fandangle-angled talk isn’t just because everyone’s getting fed up and burnt out. 

The science is in, and anything “new” is good for you and your brain, anytime. 

As we age, we lose about four per cent of our brain volume every decade, and the best antidote for that is building new neural pathways. 

According to an excellent article by Erin Blakemore in Popular Science’s Winter 2020 issue (never read one of those before!), molecular changes happen in our brains every time we learn or experience something new. And each time we learn new info or alter our neurons with new experiences, our lovely brains release chemicals that subtly alter our synapses and generate new neural pathways. 

Those new changes are dynamic—you’ve heard of neuroplasticity, right?—and make up for loss of brain volume. Bonus, they only stop when we die or suffer a degenerative disease. And you might have been worrying that the sluggish lockdown brain you’ve been dealing with was a new permanent setting.

So here’s more stimulating news for your little grey cells. Lord & Taylor, formerly the oldest and most venerated U.S. department store is, or was, a mere enfant compared to The Bay, which started in 1670 and has the distinction, some would say an inglorious one, of having been the largest land holder in North America. Remember that and all its implications next time you see a creamy wool Hudson’s Bay coat with its trademark yellow, green, black and red stripes.

Ironically, Lord & Taylor was later purchased by Le Tote—a leader in, get this, women’s clothing rentals, as in just rent the dang dress, never mind buying it for one lousy party. But the whole shebang—Le Tote and Lord & Taylor—filed for bankruptcy protection last August due to that nasty little bug that’s been bugging us all for nearly a year. 

So best of the new new year to you. Keep things fresh and sparkly, and maybe even consider one of those slinky masks to stay stimulated. For even with vaccines in hand, it’s going to be a long winter.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who welcomes the bravest and newest ideas.