Friday, 29 June 2007

garbage day panic

Garbage day. I hear the truck coming, and flee the keyboard in the middle of my sentence (I wanted to break the word off -- senten -- but my inner editor wouldn't let me. What a party pooper).

How many sounds are guaranteed to kick-start my adrenaline? I can still recall my first alarm clock experience. Twelve years old, taking over a friend's early morning paper route for a week. I borrowed my dad's travel alarm, and set it for 5:00. When it went off right in my ear with a sound like Judgment Day I thought my heart would stop. I have never -- not even when I first saw The Wizard of Oz and the Witch appeared out of nowhere and started throwing fireballs -- never been so startled. My limbs twitched uncontrollably for hours.

But alarm clock panic fades. By the end of the week I was able to take the early morning bell in stride. By the time I had to get up early for summer jobs and university classes (all right, one early class. I was an artsie) I had to put the alarm on the other side of the room to prevent myself from flicking it off and rolling over.

Sirens don't startle and fill me with dread. Nor does thunder -- not even that right overhead thunder that's more of a bang than a rumble. My cell phone sure doesn't do it -- most of the time I can hardly hear the damn thing. School bells, car horns, backfires ... nope. I'm sure an artillery barrage would terrify me, but I've lived a sheltered life, never heard one. No, for me, the only sound that's pretty much guaranteed to send me from my typical dreaming state into one of panic is the sound of air brakes, and a heavy truck gearing down. Because that means it's garbage day, and I have forgotten to put out the plastic bin and clear plastic bags.

Why I have forgotten -- why I don't put the garbage out the night before -- is a mystery. Short-term memory loss? Stupidity? Subconscious fear of overplanning? Deep-seated attachment to the past? Did I say stupidity? But forgotten I have, three weeks out of four, and for some reason wherever I live the garbage guy comes early. So the hiss of air brakes from down the street means I have ten or fifteen seconds to get downstairsintomyshoesoutthedoorandtothecurb carrying the week's refuse.

Failure is unthinkable -- another week of garbage piling up. Must not happen (though it does, on occasion).

This morning is a success. I dash downstairs at breakneck speed, shouting, Wait, to the garbage guy, Wait! lugging my plastic bin and two clear plastic bags to the curb as the big truck pulls up. He smiles tolerantly down at me, a big bearded guy in an orange vest and gloves. With my stuff sorted and stowed, he vaults casually onto the rear bumper, hanging onto the hand hold as the truck takes off. (When I was a kid we could imagine no cooler way to travel than back of the garbage truck.)

Next week it'll happen all over again. I'll be up early working, and hear the rumble, and leap from the keyboard in the middle of (your face, inner editor).

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

substance and accidence

When I said lover in my last entry, I meant book. I've spent far more times between paper covers than cotton ones. Interesting how you use a word mostly for a joke and it turns out to be true. Think of the time you spend with a book, one on one. You take it to the couch and to dinner. You fall asleep next to it. You are enthralled by it ... unless of course you're not. Then you drop it and walk away. Some books are a duty, others a pleasure, still others a joke. Some books you use and discard, others you return to time and again. A very few are with you for life.

Last week I got a chance to spend time with Crosstown, my first novel. (Which would make me Narcissus, I guess. Yeck.) Ten years ago it was well received but died quickly, making not much of a splash. (One small mag gave it a much better review than Fugitive Pieces, a book which sold approximately ten thousand times better). Seems there's a hint of American interest in Crosstown, but they wanted to see a manuscript copy rather than the finished product. So I spent last week with a word file, looking for typos and glitches. And realizing all sorts of strengths and weaknesses in a story I'd forgotten about.

Interesting to see what lasts and what doesn't. Sentiment doesn't. Overwriting doesn't. (I cringed a couple of times, and started deleting.) Funny lasts if it's truly unexpected -- I laughed out loud more than once -- but not if it's smartass (even clever smartass. More cringing). Story lasts.

And so does character. When the book came out, interviewers asked me how I came up with Mitch, the drifting alcoholic hero -- on the surface nothing like me. I shrugged and talked about imagination. Reading it again, I am bowled over by how much he was me. Fiction is not a lie, it's a code. The accidence of the story is made up, but the substance must be true.

That's enough self-abuse for a while. I think it's time I saw other people.

Monday, 25 June 2007

gone for five mnutes - back soon

Hi everyone. I've missed a few days because of an odd opportunity to revisit an old lover. Tell you all about it tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

life lessons at school

There's a lot of talk about winning at school these days. Partly because it's track and field season, and there's lots of events. Partly because it's graduation, a time of awards and summing up. The phrase, We are all winners is pretty common. (Sometimes it's, You are all winners.) And in a weird way it's almost true: everyone comes home with something -- a ribbon, a scroll, a certification of participation (Congrats: You weren't sick or in jail!) It's like the school wants to make sure that everyone has a grab bag when they come home from the party.

I wonder what life lesson is being taught here? Does the school think that an all-inclusive reward for participation is going to carry over into the world? When the waiter loses Mrs Flinders' bill, he doesn't get a consolation tip -- he has to cover it. When the ad exec blows the Flinders account, she doesn't get a scroll. When the surgeon botches the operation, he gets sued by the Flinders estate.

Listening to one of these You are all winners speeches the other day, I was feeling mildly ticked at the hypocrisy of it all -- until I looked around the room, and saw the eyes rolling and heard the snickering. And then I felt better. Kids aren't stupid. They know they are not all winners. The life lesson is a true one: Whole lot of crap out there.

The principal, unhappy at the snickering, told everyone to smarten up in an I mean it kind of voice. The kids smartened up. I smiled. The system works.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

virtual entry

All right, it's official. Into The Ravine is gone from me. I will not see those pages again until they are bound and shipped. Funny how many mistakes you can catch even after having gone over the book a bunch of times. Simple arithmetic, for example. If Jules travels two inches an hour (no, he is not a glacier; there's a map in the book) and it's five inches to his destination, it will not take him five hours to get there. It took him five hours several drafts ago when it was a bigger map. Whew.

Meanwhile, I have a new friend on myspace. Her name is Bethany. She is from California, and her headline -- this is the phrase that sums up your personality; mine, for instance, is, Well, hello, though there are some elaborate ones out there (A million death stars shine their hatred from my soul to yours or Love is the sum of all fears and did not exist until I met you -- two people I think I'd need time to get to know properly, though come to think of it they'd probably get along great if they ever met), anyway, Bethany's headline -- is: I can't think of a headline. Hmmm. On the other hand, Bethany is 24 and a gymnast.

Well, hello.

But I'm growing discouraged with myspace. I can't hang onto my friends there. Tom may or may not have disappeared. Helena is hounding me for personal information (credit card numbers; and we hardly know each other!) and Salerio hasn't written in weeks. Meanwhile, I read that JT has -- get this -- over two million friends on myspace. Two million! Apparently it is a new status symbol to have a lot of myspace friends, and celebs are constantly collecting and comparing (I think Adam Brody has only 1.2 million friends -- though I may have him confused with some other neglected fellow.) Two million friends -- can you imagine the birthday party? (Mom, can me and my friends have a sleepover? Now, Justin ... ) He'd have to rent a large city. Mind you, he'd sure get a lot of joke gifts.

So easy to editorialize here that we can consider it done. There. I just made a virtual comment on virtual friendship. Pithy, wasn't it? (Too bad all that pith sticks between your teeth. I'll try to make sure my next comment is peeled.) Besides, my daughter assures me that myspace is out. No one is using it anymore, she says (except I guess JT and his Montreal-sized posse). She and her crowd are all on facebook. Apparently it's like myspace, only different.

Yep. (Now that went down a lot smoother, don't you think?)

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Dow Jones, Lonnie Smith, Jesus

Mostly, I read fiction. I feel connected to fiction, in a way I don't feel connected to science, say, or current events. Fiction can move and interest me, can make me laugh or weep or say, Wow. When I saw the first pictures of Mars, I did not say, Wow! I said, Oh. When I hear about government excesses, I don't say, Isn't that awful! I say, Isn't that typical.

It's not that these stories are not important. I know that al Qaeda and the Dow Jones Average have far more impact on the world today than Jane Austen does. But I can't do much about terrorism or the stock market. I can enjoy Jane Austen's prose style, and look around and see her people in my own life. Why, just the other day I met a dead ringer for Mr Collins, the self-important toady from Pride and Prejudice. I talked with him for a half hour, laughing so hard inside that I almost wept.

The two non-fiction writers who do move me -- there are probably more, but these are the two who come to mind right now -- are both named Bill. One is Bill Bryson, who seems able to write humorously and knowledgeably about pretty much everything. (Maybe even finance, who knows. If he comes out with something called: The Dow Jones Average, I'll buy it.) The other is Bill James. Back in the 80s, in the BC era (that's Before Children) I had a lot of time for baseball, and Bill wrote a series of yearly Abstracts which absolutely captured my interest.

One of my favorite articles from this series related to an outfielder named Lonnie Smith. Lonnie was a pretty good hitter but a mediocre fielder. The article had to do with his ability to handle a mistake. Most major league players, said Bill, are so shocked when they screw up a routine play that they panic, and don't know what to do. The ball gets by them, and they freeze, or cast about hopelessly. Not Lonnie. He has screwed up so often that he can predict where the ball will go after it bounces off of him. In an important playoff game, Lonnie's ability to find a ball that had got by him resulted in a put out.

I liked that article because it applied to me too. The Lonnie Smith factor is part of my life. When I lose my keys I don't panic. I've lost them so often that I have list of places they could well be (including the top of the medicine chest, and that little compartment in the fridge door that opens like a garage, where you keep the butter -- what was I thinking?) Or, as I mentioned a few entries ago, if I find myself in front of a crowd I'm supposed to address, and find that my mind has gone blank, I don't freeze, smile nervously, cough, fumble, and then begin running around the stage in gradually narrowing circles, emitting girlish shrieks, until I collapse and the organizers drag me off. (Not since that time in Montreal anyway.) I am calm. Like Lonnie, I've been here before. I look around for an idea, and start talking. What a pain it would be if Jesus was a regular at your restaurant, I might say. (He orders the special, and then the rest of his party says, I'll have what He's having. Yeah, me too. And me. Then, from across the table, What did Jesus do? Oh, yeah. I'll have that too. You'd run out of something every night. I was the waiter, I'd make the other guys order first.) Or, if it was a business crowd, So who the hell was Dow Jones anyway?

Next time I'll bring you up to date on my myspace friends. I am so disillusioned ...

Thursday, 14 June 2007

terrible and cheesy

My boy Ed is on a field trip today. (Big surprise, that's what June is for.) He was really looking forward to this one, he told me. His grade eight class is on their way to the Holocaust Centre and then Chuck E Cheese. I was ... I don't know. Bemused, maybe. Nice juxtaposition, I told him. Yeah, he said. It'll be awesome.

At first I was off-put by the idea of the combo field trip. Holocaust Centre and Chuck E Cheese. There's no segue here, no connection or learning opportunity. (Who does the marketing here? It would be like packaging Today's Parent magazine with Soldier of Fortune.) I pictured my boy weeping silently into his pizza, surrounded by excited sugar-enhanced shrieks.

But as I got to thinking, I wondered if there might not be a lesson here after all. These elementary school teachers are wiser than I. Life is not an easy segue. Each of us faces terrible moments, and cheesy ones. Is it better to treat the Holocaust as a staggering horror from the past, like the Flood, to be taken out and dusted off every now and then, or as part of our everyday, ongoing, human existence? Exactly. The Nazis were not extraordinary -- that's what makes them so damn scary.

I strive for integration in my life. I want to enjoy my work, most of the time. I want balance and perspective, to see the good and recognize the not so good in everyone, to love and parent my kids, and to let them go. I want to connect what I do with who I am. As an integrated being, I can see the link between evil and banality, between the Holocaust and Chuck E Cheese. I hope Ed does indeed have an awesome day.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Wear was I?

It's been a couple of days since my last entry, and I'm here with coffee and no idea of what to say. Not a new feeling for me -- in front of an audience (all right, an imaginary audience, all twelve of you who have written in) -- with nothing particular on my mind. But I'm not troubled. Something will come to me. Let's see ... scanning over my last blog entry, I notice that I wrote wear when I meant where -- which isn't like me. I know how to spell, and my memory is visual rather than aural. I don't often make that kind of homonymic transfer (a term you don't hear nearly often enough).

I could talk about my weekend show at Booked event in Toronto -- me and Sean Cullen (a seriously funny guy), and an audience who could barely be contained by the walls of the theater. But who wants to hear about mob scenes? Though, now that I think of it, I walked onstage without an idea of what I was going to say ...

Somewhere between terrifying inexperience and old habit comes use. The first time a teacher stands in front of the class, she is probably scared. The four thousandth time, she may well be bored. Same with a stage actor in a long run. (And if you think I am wrong to compare teaching with acting, you've never taught.) In between those two states is custom, or use, or comfort -- a state where the performer and the audience are both likely to have a good time. By now, my witless unpreparedness in front of a crowd is familiar to me. The right amount of adrenaline kicks in, and I ride the horse, Spontaneity, instead of the tiger, Panic. (Most of the time, anyway. Memory of an audience of Grade 8s a couple years ago can still bring sweat to my palms.)

Gee, we've run out of time. And I was going to tell you my favorite Bill James article, which takes this theme and develops it nicely. Oh well, maybe my next entree. (A near homonymic transfer. And a pretty cheep joke to end on.)

Saturday, 9 June 2007

obsession -- not the perfume

Okay, here's the promised success kid moment. But I am still, alas, short for time. No, not the page-proof-edit for Into the Ravine -- that particular boot has swung and missed. No, this is another boot descending on me, an all-the-things-you-have-to-do-on-Saturday boot. Too many to list here, but they all start in about an hour.

So let me tell you about Sam, my elder boy, who was hackeysacking with me the other day. We were on our deck, kicking the sack around, a wonderful bonding experience that lasted approximately 8 seconds before he lunged after an errant kick of mine, got his foot on the sack and roofed it. The sack ended up in the eavestrough, twenty feet in the air.

Ah, well, I thought, and went back to preparing dinner (shish kebab on the BBQ). Sam had that determined look on his face. He hunted around for a ladder -- which wasn't tall enough to reach the high roof with the guttered sack. He climbed onto the low roof, but could not climb from there to the high (and steeply slanted) roof -- thank God.

Sam is no longer the 7-year-old boy who couldn't swim, but I recognized the look on his face. He couldn't do it, couldn't do it, and it bugged the hell out of him -- especially since his twin sister could do it. Over the course of a couple of hours of lessons Sam willed himself to succeed. I will swim, he said, shivering all over his skinny leggy body, or I will die trying. He practically did (die), going under time and again, but in the end he did (swim). He paddled across the pool to wear I was waiting and said, There.

The roofed hackeysack became an obsession for him. I watched, interested and alarmed, as he tried to reach it with stick, broom, lasso, and fishing hook, climbing up and down from the small roof. This is so not my approach to life. I wonder where he gets it? You know, I said, the sack is worth about 1.50. So what? he said. I nodded and went back to the barbecue. But I kept my eye on him.

He taped a pole to a broom, and asked me to help. I climbed up, and plied the pole/broom contraption myself. When I leaned way way out, with Sam hanging on behind me, I found I could actually reach the sack. I didn't think it would work, but when I pulled back with the contraption, the sack moved. I pulled again. It moved further. In two minutes we untaped the poles, and grabbed the sack with a hook on a stick.

Sam and I stood on the low roof with the contraption between us. Now you know, he said, my grown son, in a serious voice, looking me right in the eye, what not giving up feels like. My daughter Imo, deputising for me at the barbecue, called that the shish kebab was ready. And we jumped down and ate. (Tasty, but the meat was not as tender as it should have been. I blame the cheapskate who bought it).

Things get done by obsessed people. Things don't get done by people who shrug and say, Oh well, it doesn't matter that much, or, It's only worth 1.50. Things get done by people who have to get them done. I never thought about him that way before, but Sam has things in common with world leaders and CEO's and saints and Bono and -- well, all the people I am not. Hmm.

Sam has no idea what he wants to do with his life. It worries him. But I suspect he will find something, and succeed in a way I can not conceive.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

not tool guy

Last night Ed and I built the world's dumbest birdhouse for a school project. Laugh -- I thought I would die. If anyone ever put the darn thing up, the poor wee things would die of a draft, or else they'd impale themselves on all the nails sticking out at weird angles. We worked in the kitchen, because the kitchen table is the closest thing I have to a flat empty surface. I held the wood while Ed pounded. First he'd hit his thumb (holding the nail -- he'd curse), then the kitchen table, then my thumb (holding the plywood -- I'd curse). Then he'd hit the nail dead on, and drive it right through the wood and into the table, sticking the birdhouse fast. We'd pull it out, both of us cursing.

Yes, an R-rated project. Gangsta parenting.

What a failure I am as a carpenter. So many dads would do this better. St Joseph comes to mind -- or those guys on TV who do renovations -- or indeed anyone with more than one power tool. (I have a drill with two speeds: Low, and Even Lower.) But what a great bonding experience. If Ed had been older we could have had a drink afterwards. As it was, I had a glass of wine, and Ed had a bowl of Lucky Charms. Good enough.

Another kid tale tomorrow -- this one a success story. I'd give it to you now, but I am SO FAR BEHIND on editing my page proofs that I can feel the wind of the boot approaching my backside. I have ONLY HOURS before they are due. In fact I shouldn't even be TYPING THIS.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

violence and guilt

I am on next year's book, rewriting busily. Actually, I am staring busily at the screen, and out the window, and pacing busily over to the piano, playing a hymn while trying to sight-sing the bass part, then returning to the computer to mutter busily to myself as I rerereread a sentence that isn't working.

I should be looking at page proofs of Into The Ravine, which goes off the printers on Friday, but the deadline is too far in the distance. Wednesday night should be about right for the fear-induced adrenaline rush.

While staring at my rewrite I got to thinking about my jog in Central Park a couple days ago. I witnessed a mugging attempt that was disturbing in several ways. (Did you know that mugger is the Hindu word for a crocodile? I found out from Mr Kipling. Most of my general knowledge comes from reading mystery stories, but I have some popular classical fiction in there too.) Puffing towards a hairpin downhill turn I heard a gigantic voice shouting, Get out of here! I rounded the bend to see a big guy astride his bike, bellowing at two other guys wrestling for control of another bike. One of the guys was wearing bike gear; the other a shirt and pants. It was 8:30 in the morning. Joggers started to slow down and take in the scene. The shirt and pants guy backed away as the first bike guy continued to bellow (one of those leather-lunged voices you hear at a ball game). Keep going! he yelled. Don't take people's bikes! By the time I came up to the scene, the shirt-and-pants guy had dropped off the roadway, climbed down some rocks and run into a building maybe 50 yards away.

Lots of adrenaline in the air, lots of comment, and many questions. I kept jogging. I was passed by a couple of other bikers, one of whom I overheard say, I've always hated that bend. Looking down, off the side of the road, I saw a guy come out of the building the alleged (I never saw any of this) mugger had run to, and say to someone I couldn't see, No one came in here.

Violence is always upsetting. I ran on feeling ridiculous. Was it really a mugging? What kind of idiot would try to steal a bike in the middle of a crowded Saturday morning? He had looked and moved guiltily -- but innocence can appear guilty. (Half-finished cupcake in hand, I greet my daughter's frown with an extremely guilty smile. Was I not supposed to take one? I honestly didn't know.) I tried to think of another scenario. Maybe the biker had fallen, and the non-mugger tried to help him up. And he'd run because he didn't see how he could explain himself to leather lungs and the crowd. Cause no one would believe him. Cause he was black, and most of the crowd was white or beige.

No one commented on the colour issue -- I overheard no slurs at all. But the fact made me sad. My noticing it made me sad. And I couldn't help remembering that the guy coming out of the building saying that no one had come in there -- when clearly someone had come in there -- was black too. An accomplice or credulous bystander? Or, saddest of all, was he motivated by the race-sympathy that says, Innocent or guilty, no one is going to believe you.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

exercise in humility

Woke up early in my hotel room yesterday, and decided to go for a run in Central Park. I'm not a real runner, but I can usually put a few strides together without falling over or stroking. Started at the bottom, by the statue, did a few quick bends and stretches, and headed off in a counter-clockwise direction. In the small town I call home, the only people up at 7:30 on a Saturday are farmers. Our streets, parks, even our Tim Hortons (both of them) are deserted. But New York is famously alert at all hours (I wonder how much of the population of the city that never sleeps is in reality tourists like me who wake up early in expensive hotel rooms) and I was not alone in the park. Whole lot of puffing going on.

I started off great: crisp pace, smooth stride, passing people left and right. After five minutes or so, I settled into my running rhythm (I usually find myself breathing in time to some pop song or commercial jingle -- yesterday I was doing the ipod ad with that song by the Fratellis).

I was passed for the first time. Well, that's okay, I thought. This isn't a race. And the guy clearly knew what he was doing. Younger than I, leaner, better dressed (you know, more and more of the world is looking like that), and running as if on a cloud. Yawning, not working hard, he was still going twice as fast as I. I smiled to myself and kept going. I was passed again. It took him a while to catch me and I could hear his breathing from a ways off. This was a marine corps guy, wide shoulders, not a classic stride, but his lungs and legs were strong. He slowly pulled past me, arms pumping. I let him go.

I was passed by a woman, almost a girl, who floated over the ground. Then by her companions. All serious runners.

I began to realize it had been a while since I had passed anyone. I picked up my pace. And was passed anyway, this time by a guy who was even older than I. He had a mane of gray hair and those little 70s shorts, and he nodded as he breezed past. Hmm.

Up the big hill and on to the top of the park, and on down home, and I was concentrating on putting my feet down one at a time. I had stopped caring about who passed me, though I remember being mildly upset when a pair of overweight German tourists went lumbering by. Come on, legs, I said, and my legs said, Shut up.

No one had caught me for a bit. I was beginning to feel better. Second wind, I guess. The run was winding down. And then I saw that I was catching up to a pair of real runners. Two women in good shape, running stride for stride. I knew it was silly, but I made it a goal to pass them. I picked up my breathing, and my pace, and tried to imagine that a bear was roaring after me.

The imaging worked. I was so scared, I took off. I ran hard for a minute or so, and caught right up to the women. I didn't grin at them or anything, but I was feeling pretty good about my athletic self. I glanced over, and saw that they were running together for a reason. The one in front was leading her companion, who carried a collapsible white cane. Yes, she was blind.

My face froze in a polite smile (not that she cared). Inside I was laughing so hard I almost came to a halt. My lungs complained. My legs complained. Strawberry Fields appeared on my right. I slowed down out of respect. The blind runner and her companion kept a steady pace ahead of me.

Friday, 1 June 2007

oranges and lemons

I've noticed that a lot of bloggers write about their day to make it, and them, sound important. On my way to my one-woman show in The Hague, or, Just back from Rio, where I was mobbed, or, The gamboretti were excellent -- much better than they were on my last Italian tour in 05.

Or it could be that these people lead truly important lives. I don't know. I do know that my days don't look like that.

Going to talk about an interesting -- as opposed to important; it's not important at all -- philosophical concept today. The eleventh orange. This has nothing to do with Christian history (The Ulster Code). But have you noticed how your mind goes when you are rooting through the tub of bargain oranges (this also works for ears of corn) to make up the dozen for 1.99? First one is easy. Second one too. Third one is trickier -- you reject one before finding another round full one. Then fourth and fifth and so on. Round about nine or ten it gets tougher to choose. You've picked through a lot of oranges now, and you want good ones. The eleventh good orange is almost impossible to find. You've invested all this time in oranges, you want a really worthwhile one. You weigh them in your hand. You smell them. Hmm. After five minutes of figuring, you make your choice. And breathe a sigh of relief. There. Almost done. It's taken the morning, but it's worth it.

Oddly, the very last orange is easy. Only one more to go -- how about that one? And you take it without even checking to see if it's rotten.
Funny, isn't it?

You know, I sort of lied at the opening to this blog. Today is a bit out of the common run for me. I am actually off to the airport later this morning. I shall climb onto a plane which will land me to a different airport an hour or so later. Day after tomorrow I'll be doing it again, backwards, landing at my airport and driving home.

I am almost certain that they will not be serving gamboretti on my flights. Salted pretzel snacks, maybe. These will not be better than the ones on my last flight; they'll be about the same. I plan to bring a piece or two of fruit to tide me over.