Wednesday, 30 May 2007

sacred mindless tasks

Dusting. I've been at it for a half hour, and in that time I've thought of ... well, let's see. I approached the TV set and console-thingy it sits on, thinking of how long it had been since I last dusted (at least an administration ago), and then as I applied my dampened j-cloth in a circular motion, my mind roamed free, like a vulture over the Serengeti, looking for something dead to feast on. I thought of the way an old girlfriend bit her upper lip when she was excited, of dinner last night (couscous with peppers and onions and sausage slices in a spiced broth), and how maybe cumin would have helped, of how good the new Son Volt cd is, and how not quite so good the new Sigur Ros disc, and of how cul8r is faster than see you later, but dumber.

By now I had finished the TV set and moved on the the coffee table. Followed the couch, deep window sill and standing lamp with the goose-neck side feature. A positive dust trap, that one. I dusted and thought, picking through my past and current events, and coming out in favour of hb pencils and crunchy peanut butter and boxer-briefs and French roasted coffee and kissing. And dusting. Because without mind-freeing tasks, I would not have been able to indulge in this delightful thought ramble. I lack the mental discipline to daydream for its own sake. I need an excuse. Left on my own, I find tasks for my mind. But when already engaged on a simple task -- a beautiful repetitive mind-numbing, freeing task -- then I can allow myself the luxury of a real speculation. It's philosophy without rigour or cares. There may even be a name for it. But I'm not going to look it up.

The j-cloth is dirty -- time to rinse.

Monday, 28 May 2007

easy to like

My daughter Thea is a stern and judgmental teen (sounds like a tautology, hey? Teen morality, properly understood, is as narrow as the Inquisition's) and her opinion is quickly stated. Any fashion that is embraced by both babies and old people alike can not be stylish. Sounds correct, doesn't it. No way I will wear them, she says. They are without doubt the ugliest thing ever put on feet.

She is talking, of course, about crocs, those colourful plastic cloggy -- but I don't have to describe them, do I. (Like saying: A hot dog: you know, a frankfurter placed on a split roll ... or The Beatles: you know, a popular band from the 1960s ...) You know what crocs are. I agree with my daughter in her assessment of the shoe. Ugly. I do not own a pair, had no intention of ever putting them on ... and then this weekend, staying at a friend's cottage, I had to get something from the car, and there was a pair of crocs sitting by the back door. And I (forgive me, daughter, for I have sinned -- a fashion crime is still a crime, even if it is committed in the dark in a rural community) slipped them on and dashed down the drive. I was back in a few seconds, but the brief encounter changed my opinion. Crocs are ... easy. Easy on and off, easy wearing.

Hmm. Makes you think. If everyone likes something, maybe it's likeable. Maybe it's filling a need, striking a chord. I mean, I'll eat a hot dog. I'll listen to the Beatles. I won't rush out to buy a pair of crocs, but that has nothing to do with fashion sense (heaven help me) and everything to do with inertia.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

my friend sleep,

Happiness, says a book I read and enjoyed, but can not now recall, consist in getting enough sleep. (You're asking, How do you know you enjoyed the book if you can't remember anything about it except this one line? Don't have a real answer, except that in recalling this line I am aware of a feeling of pleasure. Good things are associated with this line. It's like the song intro you don't recognize, but somehow you know belongs to a good song. That happens to me all the time. Oh, yeah, I'll say, nodding my head to the beat, turning up the radio. What song is this? my kids will ask. Don't know, I'll say, but I like it. And they exchange that crazy old man look.)

So this book, which I enjoyed, defines happiness in terms of sleep. Now, I've thought a lot about sleep the last few days, since I haven't been getting much. (The more you have, the less you worry: money, sleep, sex, health. The more you have, the more you worry: speeding tickets, employees, balls in the air, letters from the government -- especially the ones that begin, It has come to our attention that .... They say money can be a worry, but I don't believe them. And kids are a worry whether you have one or ten.) Is there a better feeling than getting up slowly, stretching, and then settling back against the pillow? Luxury, peace, bodily contentment --it's all there, much more so than, say, pushing back your chair after a big dinner. Waking after a good sleep is like getting a huge hug from someone you love, only you're all by yourself.

I can go a long time on little sleep. In fact that's my default template. But there's a limit to wakefulness. Sleep is serious. Sleep is important. Mess with it all you like, with your caffeine and fear-induced deadlines. But know that it will find you. Sleep is like water -- it finds its own level. Sleep is a force, a sacrament, an absolute. I've been short this last week, and not even coffee, not even fear, is doing much of a job keeping me awake. I am yawning as I write this.

Maybe I'll grab an afternoon nap today -- the joy of sleep when others are working. (Like a midweek movie matinee in a quiet theater. Why are so many morally ambiguous activities associated with the afternoon? Topic for another day.) And ... ooh, another yawn ... maybe I won't last until afternoon.

boot descends

Wonderful weekend catching up from and trying to get over last week, sleeping, playing with the kids, sleeping some more, and now I'm faced with a deadline -- page proofs of Into The Ravine by Friday morning. No extensions. Some people are motivated by thoughts of a wonderful distant future. I am motivated by fear of a boot up the rear end in the next few minutes. Until I see the boot, I don't run.

In fact, it goes deeper than that. My inertia is in my marrow. See, an extension wouldn't do me any good. If time stopped for everyone but me, and I was suddenly magically gifted with a two-week extension, I'd probably take a week or ten days off, and then look over my shoulder, see the boot descending, and get busy. I don't look far ahead. It may have something to do with my short-sightedness. It may be philosophical: like Mr Wright says, Hard work pays off sometime in the future; laziness pays off now.

I wonder if I can get a marrow transplant? Get rid of my crippling inertia, replace it with good healthy ertia. Problem might be to find a donor.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

prom fashion

In my small town, high-school prom is, apparently, the second biggest day of a girl's life, behind only her wedding. My neighbor told me and she should know -- she's lived here all her life. I asked if she was kidding.

Heavens, no. Why, I can still remember every detail of my prom, she said, her muscles creaking and her rheumy old eyes misting over. And that was thirty years ago.

(Quickly counting on my extremities and running out, I realized my own prom was back about the same time as my neighbor's. I hastily revised my opinion of her. Her muscles firmed up. Her eyes sharpened and lost their rheum.)

This would be an appropriate spot to talk about sexism or small-town values, but in fact my mind goes immediately to my own prom. (Not the second biggest day of my life. Or the third biggest. In fact I don't know how far down the days we'd have to count. Yesterday I cooked ribs, and they turned out great! A darn good day.) Back to my prom. Chiefly I remember the tux, a gorgeous creation in powder blue with navy trim, and a fake velvet bow tie about the size of Cleveland. A classic piece of 70s culture. For years the very thought of it has made me laugh.

But fashion is a cannibal, nourishing and renewing itself on the carcass of its own past. (That sounds harsh and slightly confusing. I'll try again.)

But fashion, like two-headed Janus at the gates of the year, looks forward and back. (Better.) Awkward hard-to-wear 70s fashions are (or were recently -- I don't even pretend to keep up) in vogue again. My son Sam is wearing a standard black tux to his girlfriend's prom. When I described my own promwear, his eyes bulged. That ... is ... awesome! he choked. That sounds so cool. I wish I could wear something like that.

Wanting to look like his old man. My eyes misted over for a moment.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

carrots, trampolines, girls and boys

And we're back. Sorry, small time away from blogging due to busy in-town week, late nights early mornings and (causal relationship) lack of sleep. (Don't worry about me being a martyr. This was work-related but fun too.) Meant to go to sleep early yesterday, but it was prom time and my two eldest had parties to be driven to. I'm still a bit groggy, but duty calls me to the keyboard.

All right, I'm a martyr to my blog.

More on boys and girls today. A few years ago I was serving dinner to a collection of teen friends of my kids, boys on one side of the table, girls on the other. Everyone has to eat their veggies at my place but no one likes the same ones, so we'd found a lowest common denominator: raw carrot sticks. (Pretty darn low. If veggies were numbers, carrot sticks would be a 2, I figure.) One of the boys began nibbling daintily on the end of his carrot, tapering it to a point. Before I was fully aware of his intent he had turned to the guy next to him and, with a savage cry, stabbed him in the chest. "Take that!" he cried, flourishing his carrot-blade around.

Well, before you could say methahemaglobinemia (the word appears on the first page of my new book; it's going to skew the reading level to hell), the boys' side of the table was busy nibbling their carrots into swords, then reaching into the middle the table for more (stockpiling weapons! This is where it begins). A full- fledged fight ensued, thrusts and parries and cries of anguish. Across the table, the girls regarded the exuberant display with open-mouthed, wide-eyed incomprehension. Was this the stupidest thing they had ever seen? I think it was.

I smiled with sympathy for both sides. I am enough of a grown-up to realize that the boys were behaving idiotically. But I am enough of a little boy to think: Yeah, sword-fight.

I was reminded of this incident yesterday. On my way to the grocery store I stopped at a stop sign (what are you smiling at? I always stop at stop signs) by a house with a trampoline in the front yard, where a girl -- maybe 11 years old -- was bouncing sedately. When I drove back, the trampoline had been taken over by two younger wild-eyed boys, who were circling each other in giant leaps, swinging inflatable plastic hammers (the kind of thing I win at fun fairs when everyone has to win something), knocking each other down and bouncing back up again.

I wondered if the girl was staring and shaking her head. This was, after all, dangerous and stupid behaviour. I laughed so hard I nearly ran the stop sign. Nearly.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

me and the IRA

Spent a long day yesterday with the IRA.

No, not that IRA -- these guys are the International Reading Association, and the convention center in Toronto is full of teachers, librarians, booksellers, and suchlike. Yes, there's a bunch of jokes about getting the IRA conventions confused, but I'll forgo them. (Forgo -- to do without -- rather than forego -- to go before, right? If I weren't so lazy I'd look it up. Probably take less time than typing the sentence. And that one. And ...)

Anyway, there I was smiling and shmoozing and giving away copies of my backlist, having fun with American accents. New York is easy to spot, and there were lots of those. Ohio curiously nondescript (meaning like mine), Florida enormously like mine since the Floridians I saw were all ex-pat Canucks. Tennessee soft and Louisiana even softer, Texas hilarious because the lady was in a motorized wheelchair (you know, this sentence could have started better) which she couldn't control, and she ran over another lady's foot, and hollered, Whoa, theah! as if she was riding a runaway horse. Her apology was sincere, but I had to turn away to hide a smile. And then came a posse (I use the word advisedly) from Nevada. There was a line-up at my booth (I mean, the swag was free) and these dozen guys and gals held it up for a while, chatting, taking pictures, asking questions. I get along well with outgoing friendly Americans. Problem is, they take time. These guys asked me to come down (and over, I suppose) to Nevada next year to deliver a series of talks to schools and reading associations. I said sure, figuring that they were joking, or being polite. Rreally? Rrreally? Would y'all do that? (yes, that's the way the words sounded) they asked me. I looked up at eager non-ironic faces. They blinked, and conferred, and passed out cards, and talked about how grrreat that'd be. (Written down, it makes them sound like Tony the Tiger -- not quite right). Nice, nice people. They stood around me, not awkward at all, without any idea of leaving. I didn't know how to get rid of them. I'm no good at being polite -- not on purpose anyway. Thanks heavens for New Yorkers. Hey, people waiting! shouted a paint-stripper voice from down the line.

Monday, 14 May 2007

after Mother's Day

So, Mother's Day. Not quite the same as Valentine's Day (unless you're Oedipus, I guess) or Hallowe'en? I hadn't realized. I wished several female friends Happy Mother's Day this weekend, and got rebuffed. After the third, What are you talking about, I'm not your mother, I gave up.

Yes, I know you guys aren't my mom. My therapist and I have made real progress.

You see (and now I'm talking to the rest of you, my enormous blog audience; the women I spoke to and emailed yesterday may no longer be reading) I was just wishing a general many happy returns kind of thing. The way I might say, Merry Christmas or Happy Labour Day, or Have a Heckuva Swan-Upping Sunday. I didn't offer my best on Mother's Day to my male friends because the holiday isn't as appropriate to them. It would be like wishing my gentile friends Good Pesach, or saying, Happy Arbour Day to my tree-haters, or Happy Memorial Day to the amnesiacs on my list. (Who are you anyway? they would reply. They always do.)

So the only mom I can congratulate is mine? Okay. I sit corrected. And now I wish I'd made more of a deal about the day to her. Sorry, Mom. I let you down again. I'll have to make it up to you somehow. Sigh. (Hello, doctor? Are you there?)

I don't know what to think about all the hype. Nothing wrong with taking your mom out to brunch or buying her a vegetable. Nothing wrong with making her a card. When I think of the millions of kids in elementary schools all over North America colouring and cutting and pasting and mis-spelling themselves into a frenzy last week, I don't frown. It's cute, really. My favorite kid gifts are the spontaneous ones, though. The handful of limp dandelions. The bag of peanuts brought home casually because everyone knows you like them. In third grade or so (a while ago now) my daughter coloured a picture of a boat sailing to an island where a stick figure with long hair was waiting with her arms out. I lov you mom said the caption. Does it get better?

And now I'm wondering about next week. How specific is the holiday? I guess I'll risk it. I have no queen of my own, but to all you queens out there -- Happy Victoria Day.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

my life in coffee spoons

Finished off the can of shaving cream yesterday. It's odd the markers we use in our life. I don't shave every day, or even every other day, and I sure don't use a lot of shaving cream when I do, so a can lasts me a long time. I squeezed the last dribble of foamy soap onto my hand, dropped the can into the wastebasket and tried to remember when I'd bought it. Was it at the same time I'd bought that sonic (or perhaps supersonic, I don't pay much attention to dentistry) toothbrush for my then wife? Meaning that this shaving cream was more than two years old? Possible. Very, very possible. (I really don't get around to dealing with my beard as often as I should, and sometimes I'm at the Y and use plain soap.)

I thought about all that's changed since I bought the light blue can with the generic logo and advertising descriptor. (They describe the product as GOOD! Maybe that was what persuaded me to buy it) Lots, is the answer. The book I was beginning to write at that time is out, the one after it is coming soon. I'm living in a different place, with a different car (and two other cars in between -- not that I'm usually this much of a butterfly, flitting and sipping from one car to another, but I had a bad stretch there with an accident and lemons from the dealer). My then wife is my ex wife, or soon to be. My older kids are on their way out of high school and the youngest is on his way out of public school. (Note to self: write faster!)

Staring at the mirror, holding the left side of my jaw to shave the tricky bit, I experienced a momentary pang. That can in the wastebasket was a link with the past, the me from two years ago with a whiter smile, darker hair, and more money in the bank. I could almost understand the obsessive pack rats, who hang on to all the outmoded bits of themselves. (Almost. I am still very much a flinger away and marcher forward.) There's so much of me in the can with the GOOD label. It's not the same with razors or coffee beans, which I replace every few days. Or dentist appointments which I keep forgetting to make. Olympiads or World Cups would fit this idea, I guess, but I tend not to watch them.

I wonder where I'll be when I throw out my next can of shaving cream? Everything will be older. I can't imagine all the changes, good and bad. (At least my forehead will look the same. Thank heavens for Botox.)

Monday, 7 May 2007

lamb saga part 2 -- good rackets

The answer, in case you were wondering, is tennis rackets. It was a gorgeous day, and Imo likes her exercise. Tennis rackets were what we needed, apparently, and that's what we got. We found good ones -- and I mean in a moral sense. The guy in sporting goods talked about a large sweet spot, and mentioned that this particular brand of racket was, and I quote, Very forgiving. My tennis game, like the rest of my life, can do with all the forgiveness I can find, so I bought us rackets. And we went to our local court, and enjoyed the sunshiny afternoon. Sam got confused between tennis and baseball, and thought he was Barry Bonds, and had to keep wriggling through the hole in the fence to chase the balls he hit out, and when he was on the grass he'd hit the balls back onto the court, and we had a three-way game going there for a while, Imo vs Ed and me vs Sam, and we laughed a lot, and time passed.

Yes, time passed, and we got back to the house which was wreathed in smells of cooking lamb, and Imo and I knew we were too late. I ran for the oven, yanked the roast, drained the potatoes, and surveyed our options.

The meat was overcooked, (look what you've done to me, Richard!) but we served it anyway. The potatoes were not new any more (not even factory demo used. They were fourth hand potatoes, lots of mileage on them, practically ready for the scrap heap), so we mashed them, and served them anyway. There was red wine left over from the marinade, a few days old now but I poured it (I'd have poured it lamb or no lamb).

And we washed our hands and sat down.

Great dinner, dad! said Sam, getting up five minutes later. Teens (this just in) eat fast. Yeah, the others chimed in, chewing personfully. And, you know, they meant it. Like the tennis rackets, my kids are very forgiving. Course, they've had practice.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

lamb saga

I am interested in cooking the way I am interested in team sports -- I like them both, and can converse knowledgeably enough, and enjoy them when I come across them at friends' or my parents' place, or the right restaurant -- but I don't have a passion for them, or follow them on a regular basis. Somehow I don't have the time. But a few days ago I was in the supermarket, and this leg of lamb called out to me. Buy me, Richard, it said. Marinate me in mint and red wine and rosemary and garlic, and cover me with a crust of mustard and peppercorns, and serve me rare with new potatoes and spring greens.

All right, all right, I said.

And I made the marinade and dropped the leg in (Ahh, it said. That feels nice) and planned my dinner ... but circumstances conspired against me. The kids had early evening must-attend events (to finish the project, to go to the birthday party, to practice the soccer), and I didn't want to ruin my wonderful meal by eating it at 4:45. And then I got held up in traffic on my way back from some far-flung school, and despite my best efforts (which did not include speeding) I arrived home too late to cook the lamb, and had to cobble together a hurried pizza-from-the-freezer and salad dinner instead. I turned the leg over in the marinade. Hurry, it said. Please hurry.

And then came yesterday. Saturday. Good day for team sports and cooking. The afternoon wound its golden arms around me, warming me, giving me hope and purpose. I marched to the kitchen, washed my potatoes, made my peppercorn crust, and popped the lamb from the marinade (Darn it, I'm all pruny!) into the pre-heated oven, setting the timer to half past perfect.

My mouth began to water. And then Imogen came up to me and said, Dad, do you know what we need?

Finish tomorrow.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

definitely not speeding

What a day. Late for Ottawa because of car trouble, I flew down the highway praying for no cops. For some reason I seem to get a lot of speeding tickets. (I blame society for running about fifteen minutes faster than I do, so I am always hurrying to catch up.) This morning I was a full two hours behind society, and as a result I resembled a blue rental blur streaking across the landscape. By great good fortune I was passed around Kingston by someone who was even farther behind society than I was, and so followed him at speeds that caused the flesh to peel away from my skin. (In case any bored police out there are reading this blog, I will state for the record that I did not actually break the speed limit. My speedometer showed an astounding number, but I am sure that the car itself was travelling well under the posted rate.) Anyway, I arrived in time to tell jokes for four hours without a break (comedy guys talk about their tight ten -- meaning ten minutes. Ha ha. They should do the elementary school circuit), then back in the car and home, very sedately.

Felt pretty inadequate at one point in the early afternoon, when a boy in the fourth grade (scrawny, underwashed, perpetual sniff), came up at the class changeover and asked if I could be his dad. I had been talking about facing fear and building a strong story where you get back at the bully. I asked the boy if he had a dad, and he nodded kind of unhappily. The teacher was in the background, and I raised my eyebrows at her. She shrugged. A very good dad, she said. What I said to the kid was, I can be your friend. Then he asked if he could hug me.

This is a no no. You are not supposed to get physical with the kids. In pirate lingo, Here be dragons! But the teacher was there, and other kids milling around, and well, darn it, the kid needed a hug. So I gave him one. He didn't burst out crying or anything, but he squeezed pretty hard. I didn't have a candy to offer him, and he probably didn't want a sip of my coffee, so I gave him a bookmark. He thanked me, and I felt ... well, kind of inadequate, like I said. There's a kid like him in every single class. There always has been. I'd blame society -- if only it would slow down enough for me to catch up and talk to it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

kids are kids

Yesterday I visited an elementary school in the Trenton-Belleville area, and was whisked back to my own childhood. The typical school I visit these days is enormous antiseptic and brightly lit, smelling faintly of feet and fear. This one (in addition to the usual large smiling Vice Principal with a jaw and small smiling librarian with rimless glasses) had narrow dusty hallways, low ceilings, an office with a creaky door and a poky gym with echoes. Wow, I felt like little Richie Scrimger, peering around in my new glasses, hoping for a glimpse of Nancy, my heart throb from first grade.

Careful of the seniors -- they're a tough crowd, warned the librarian, and I mustered a smile, remembering the grade eights of my own childhood who had glowered at us and made our lives a living heck.

But it went well. Kids are kids. I put on my dog and pony show, and the gym echoed with the laughter of the sevens and eights. Favorite moment was a kid I used to illustrate a bad intro to a story, who laughed so hard I thought he would die. Oddest moment came after question time when one of the girls came up tentatively and asked if ... she might ... touch my hair. (My web photos were taken last year, and since then, for reasons not unconnected with laziness, I have let my hair grow into a luxurious mane / ridiculous mess.) Uh, sure, I said, bending obediently.

Were they a tough crowd? I don't know. Maybe they seemed tough to the first graders. Yeah, they sprawled around, and a couple of them glowered at the beginning, but they weren't that hard to engage. If you tell them a story, and don't talk down, kids are pretty sure to respond. How do you sell your product? Well, as one of my mystery writers says, Put an eye catcher in the window, and deal fair. Works for me.

Still no word from Tom or Helena on myspace. I may have to act. Friends look after friends.