Monday, 30 July 2007

where's Hercules when you need him?

I do not think of myself as a stuff guy. I do not collect china, or weapons, or art. Or ceramic chickens (a friend does this -- her house is full of the darn things. Makes Christmas and birthday present buying easy, but I can't imagine moving her. You'd need a separate van for the poultry.) I'm a minimalist. I own two pairs of jeans, a dozen shirts, a suit, a sport jacket, and three pairs of shoes. So you'd think that moving me would be easy. One suitcase. Add a couch, a can of coffee, and a computer, and that'd be it, right? Well, not quite. There are the kids, for one thing, and they need beds. And food (yes, I am an indulgent father). And entertainment.

But these are not the biggest time-takers in my current move. Not at all. It has happened before, and it is happening now. I am coming, once again, to realize how wrong about myself I am. I don't think of myself as a stuff guy, but I am. I may be exaggerating, but I swear I have carried seven hundred and fifty thousand boxes of books to and from house and moving van and house. It's not that I'm a packrat. Every move I make, I throw out books. But every move I make, there are more books than there were last time. How does this happen? Why does the universe conspire to fill my space with words on paper? If I collected rare antique autos they'd take less space (way less -- in fact, they'd take no space at all since I couldn't afford any). Or ceramic chickens, say. The dumbest aspect of my book collection (I don't like the word, but don't know what else to call it) is that they are mostly books I don't like. Books I mean to read but don't get round to. Books I start, and then put away. Books that I should read, if I weren't too busy reading murder mysteries, or playing frisbee, or trying to finish my new book.

I'll give you an example. Romola. I've mentioned this baby before. A masterpiece, say some. Maybe, say I, but I don't know since I have never been able to get past page 104. I have carted that book around since college, starting it eighteen or twenty times. I can't remember for sure what took my attention away from page 105. The Blue Jays were in the World Series, I think. Which shows you how long ago this all was.

I'd like to give up on Romola and Tito and the rest of the Florentine crew. But I feel as though, having invested this much time and labour in lugging the book around, I owe it to myself to finish. There is a bit of compulsion involved here, I know. I'm like a gambler who keeps doubling up in order to break even. Maybe if I read Romola this year, I won't have to carry it to my next place.

But I'm scared. For every book I throw out, two more appear in its place. If I chuck Romola, who can say what might show up to replace it? Maybe (shudder) Daniel Deronda.

No, I can't risk it. Romola goes in the box -- same one she travelled in last time.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

maybe Austin Powers looks like me

I was going to talk about moving house -- nothing too brilliant, no new insights, but there's still lots to say as you strike the old set and get ready to put on your show from a new theater -- but I just caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth and considered shaving, and was mesmerised by the fact that I look like someone else.

I guess we spend our lives looking like other people. It's one of the reasons why it's so hard to hang onto an identity. As babies, we look like boxers, or monkeys, or Winston Churchill (those are the three basic baby types, though I did see one newborn recently who looked exactly like a Pouting Buddha). Later on we come to resemble TV stars or politicians or figures in art (a good friend is the spitting image of Parmagianino's long-necked Madonna -- except for her neck, which is normal length). As a high-school student I looked a lot like Austin Powers (true -- there's a picture). I could have used some of his mojo then, but of course the movies were still to come, and no one knew.

Or sometimes you'll remind someone of a friend from back home. I get that a lot: a stranger will stop me on the street, or come up to me at a party and stare. Hey! Did you know that you look exactly like Irwin Michaels? Hey, Stephanie, come here and look at this guy. Doesn't he look like Irwin? Hey, you ever been to Beamsville? These conversations can go on a long time as I explain that, no, sorry, I am not related to their friend, though, yes, I suppose it is theoretically possible that my mother or grandmother could have had a secret Beamsville boyfriend named Michaels ... I figure I must have one of those lowest-common-denominator faces, looks like a lot of people.

I do not resemble Austin Powers today. I'm aiming higher. With a case of monumental bedhead, the image is almost perfect. I am the Sun King, in those pictures where his hair shoots out like rays of the sun. Now, if only I had a bunch of people running around to dress me. Unfortunately, I do not even have a change of pants, since my dresser is at the new place and I am here. I'm moving, see, and it makes for some life complications. I'll tell you about them sometime.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

complements to the chef

My friend Don is an excellent cook, a bit of a perfectionist in the kitchen (gee, is that possible? Is perfectionism relative? Like calling something mildly unique. He really is a perfectionist, but I don't want him to sound weird), which his wife is not. It's not that she can't cook. Her meals are less frequent and more casual than his, but quite tasty. Her gift is appreciation. She loves Don's food. His face lights up when she praises his craft. The set-up works really well.

You might say that he's a tireless giving person and she a carefree lazybones, or that he's a compulsive control freak and she a self-denying saint. Neither description fits. They are both happy. And lucky to have found each other.

I don't know about opposites attracting -- I think it might be more like an awareness of different gifts. Robertson Davies described his relationship with his wife in a phrase (I don't have the interview in front of me, and I'm not going to bother to look it up) something like, We complement each other. She can drive, and I can spell.

Me, I'm tidy. I'm not a clean freak -- not at all. I mean, I shower and change my clothes every now and then, but I can stare at the same small stain on the door for days (in fact, I'm staring at it now) without feeling compelled to wipe it off. A pile of laundry, on the other hand, affects me viscerally. When I see a stack of dirty dishes or a sprawl of magazines, I shiver. Returning from a trip, having left my teenage daughter in charge of the house, I find myself moving towards various offending areas in a haze, muttering like a superhero under my breath, Must ... put away. Thea is not tidy. (I wonder how she'll do next year at university, in a room about the size of our shower stall? I figure she'll either adopt neatness, or suffocate.)

What kind of person would complement my tidy gift? Someone who would vacuum, maybe. Hmmm. Not bad. So to all my friends out there who have been offering to set me up: my ideal partner would be clean. Of course, knowing how to spell would be an asset too.

Monday, 23 July 2007

not tidy and clean

Surreal conversation in the hotel bar the other night, when I was accosted by a very drunk lady in charge of a software convention. I said something unintentionally funny, and she followed me outside to the table I was sharing with another writer and her husband. What should have been a brief conversation took a long and winding turn when the husband, for reasons known only to him and his psychiatrist, said that he wrote clown porn.

Lots of things go to making a good joke, but surprise is close at the top. I was so surprised by Neal's statement that I laughed out loud. So did his wife. But the drunk lady didn't see it as funny. She could not -- simply could not -- get enough of the concept. She insisted on details. Neal (who for the record does not write clown porn) cited websites and statistics, and the drunk lady got more and more excited, practically climbing into his lap. (His wife smiled and gave a you-go-girl wave.)

I got to thinking about the progress and limits of humour. An inspired idea is like a glob of butter on a piece of bread. You spread the butter to enjoy it better, running the changes on the joke, but there's only so much there, and as time goes by the humour begins to get thin and just a little ... mean. I don't mind making fun of drunks, who are almost co-conspirators in the joke, but I was glad when the lady finally left us to return to her neglected software party.

Clown porn? I said to Neal. He nodded. Real deal. Costumes, false noses, big feet, XXX rating. A buddy sent me a link. Want me to write it down? I shook my head. I didn't find the idea repulsive -- just bizarre. I didn't know whether to giggle or make a face. I compromised, and had a sip of scotch.

All right -- next time we'll do tidy versus clean.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

not clown porn

And we're back from five days at our remote location. Home to domestic bliss -- or the amount of bliss you can get when moving day is approaching and your teenage daughter is in charge. (At the end of the month I will be changing headquarters, from my charming slanted unheated house on a hill to a slightly less quaint but more practical dwelling in town.) Thea has been moving some things in my absence. And by things I mean the contents of her bedroom and the bathroom, and the couch and TV. Things that matter to her. She picked me up at the train station, drove me home and disappeared with the car, leaving me towel-less, pillow-less, and unable to sit down in the living room. Fortunately I had lots of unpacking and laundry to do.

And putting things in boxes. Don't forget that. An important part of moving. I am a winnower (there's a speech impediment joke here, but my ex-wife is in good health and I am too politically correct to stoop) which means that my book collection gets fined down every time I move. I tend to hang onto unread classics, and chuck detective stories. (There's a copy of Romola that I will take to my grave, I think.) I'll put off buying the new Peter Robinson until I've moved in.

I think that's all for now. Next time: either the difference between tidy and clean, or clown porn.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

star treatment

This entry comes towards the end of a rock star week. The Humber School For Writers offers an intensive seminar in July, and I have taught there several times now. I always enjoy connecting with students, but what makes the Humber gig special is the ... what shall I call it ... ambience. I am a working stiff writer, slaving away in the trenches of literature, quite unused to luxury in my professional life. So it makes a nice change to wake up in a five-star hotel, climb into a limousine and punctuate my teaching day with fine food and wine at the college's expense. And when I say a nice change I mean it never happens to me anyplace else. For a week, I am a star. And it's fun.

I wonder how long it would be fun? I'm serious. I like a deep bathtub and a soft bed as much as the next guy. I'll certainly take a glass of wine. But I have real trouble with being treated as special. The first time the limo driver opens the door for me, I smile and climb in. But after a few days of this treatment I start to wince inside. The students here are so deferential, the perqs so plentiful, the service so eager. The assistants are all incredibly helpful. Anything I can do for you, Richard? Anything you need? Don't worry about me, I want to say. I'm okay. I'll pour my own coffee. I'll sit in the front.

Perhaps if I had grown up in the lap of luxury I would be better able to handle this. But I was on some other part of luxury's anatomy (I bet there's a joke here, but I can't seem to find it. Luxury's elbow? Shoulder? Nope, it's gone. Damn). Perhaps if in addition to being insecure I was also crazed and talented and superrich -- if I was a real rock star -- I could take it all as my due. But I can't. I enjoy the Humber gig, but a week is enough. Tomorrow afternoon I will return to my real life with a sigh that is partly kids/laundry/deadlines/groceries and partly relief.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

go down kicking

One of my favorite characters in fiction is Nigel Molesworth, a slacker who attends St Custard's skool along with a variety of cads, swots, snekes, prigs bulies and headmasters (all sic) in a series of books penned in the 1950s by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. I remember laughing myself silly, even when the light of meaning was so faint I could barely make it out. (A chiz is a swot or a swindle as any fule kno.)

One of Molesworth's guiding dicta came up in conversation the other day. No matter wot skool you go to, your team always lose. I got to thinking about the truth in that statement. It's not that we lose every game or fail every test or get dumped by every employer -- but those are the moments we remember. Somehow -- some asinine how -- we focus on the losses in our life. They matter more. When I win at poker, I am pleased. When I lose, I am sickened. The stakes are not high, but somehow I can get quite upset thinking about ten dollars I no longer have to spend. Sinking a long putt (this never happens, but if it did) makes me feel good -- but not as much as a missed short putt makes me feel bad.

I can tell you (thirty years later!) how it feels to miss the home-room class presidency by one vote. I can tell you (more recently!) how it feels to have her shake her head and say, Oh, Richard, I don't think so. I can't tell you much about my good reviews, but I sure remember the bad ones. (There's a librarian in Ohio who urged people not to read one of my books because the premise was so disgusting. Don't buy it, she wrote. If you have bought it, take it back without opening it. She didn't offer any advice if you had read it. I guess you were beyond saving at that point.)

Why are we made like this? Why is pain stronger than joy? Is it a deep-seated all flesh is grass kind of thing? I do not believe in original sin, but if I did, this would be one of my arguments in favour.

Molesworth shrugs off losing. So wot, he says. Go in and hack someone. Maybe that's the best approach. At least you get in a few kicks before the referee blows the whistle.

Friday, 13 July 2007

they called me Herschel

Our topic today was going to be TV remotes and their management, but I got distracted, thinking about nicknames. Yes, they can be hurtful, but at their best they can enhance a personality. My son Ed and his friend Petey were hanging (see previous entry) with older boys at a friend's cottage a couple of years back. The big kids mostly ignored the two little kids until Ed's big brother Sam, bleary-eyed at 2:00 in the afternoon (no alarm clocks at the cottage) sat up in his sleeping bag, peered over at Petey (a skinny, quiet, self-contained boy) and said, You need a nickname. How about ... Bonesaw. He lay back down and recommenced snoring. Petey blushed. A couple of the other boys (early risers) overheard the pronouncement and nodded around their cereal spoons. Bonesaw, they muttered. Not bad. And that was it. Petey was cool. All it took was the name. That night someone asked if Bonesaw was up for poker. He was. If Bonesaw's playing, I'm in too, said a third boy, passing Petey (forever Bonesaw now) a can of Pepsi. When I was trying to come up with a cool name for an important minor character in my new book, I didn't have very far to look.

How different from my youth, when one of the kids in my class was called by everyone (including himself) Toad. What that did to his psyche I can not imagine (let alone his love life. Think about cuddling up to someone named Toad, whispering in his ear: Oh, Toady, you're so hot!) How cruel we were, how thoughtless, but it seemed perfectly natural at the time. I mean, he really did look astonishingly like a toad. More so than several toads I have met.

I was briefly nicknamed by fellow waiters at a trendy downtown restaurant in the 80s where the guys gave each other girls' names for reasons not unconnected with sexual preference. I felt Groucho Marx-ish about the club, but hated to be left out. So, what about me? I asked.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Dr Freud, it's for you

I am sitting here with my coffee, enjoying my freedom from near future pain. When he gets up in an hour or three, my son Sam is going to take me to the YMCA. We'll work on chest and back, he said last night before falling into bed suffused with health and fitness.

When I go to the Y by myself, I use machines that simulate activity: pretend running, pretend stair climbing, pretend sit-ups. This works for me: I'm a fiction guy, and I'm middle-aged. Sam is neither one. His workouts involve heavy weights placed on a bar and lifted at great risk to self. First time he told me to spot for him, I asked how come. So I don't drop the weight and crush myself, he said. I gulped. (So far it has not come to this. The few times I have helped him there seemed no danger of crushing. I think he was trying to make my flesh creep.)

Typically, Sam sweats through one set on the bar, then turns it over to me. In order for me to lift it at all, we have to remove half of the weight plates. Sam shakes his head sadly -- his dad is a weakling. I lift the weights nine times, ten times, eleven ... no, not eleven times. But Sam won't let me stop. Come on, he says, you can do this. I shake my head. Yes you can! He helps me get the bar up to full extension. One more, he says. I give him Jack Benny. Now, come on, I tell him. No talking -- lift! And he's not kidding. I am shaking with fatigue, but we get through one more repetition. Then we add the weights back on so he can repeat. Then take them off so I can repeat. (Weight training involves a great deal of time lifting the weights off and on the various bars. Though come to think of it, that's a kind of weight training too.)

In between lying on our backs to lift weights, sitting against an inclined bench to lift weights using different muscles, kneeling on a bench to lift with still different muscles, Sam does sets of chin-ups. I do too, but my sets are smaller. (One is a set. I remember from fifth grade. I wonder if nothing a set?)

Sam is encouraging and dictatorial -- the best kind of coach. And he's clearly having fun. Me too. Despite the pain, I'm having the time of my life being bullied by my son.

Just wait til I get him on the squash court.

Monday, 9 July 2007

don't unpause

So here we are, keeping summer hours for our blog. Heavens, it's 7:30. Practically lunch time. And our word for today is -- unpause. Which, as you know, is what you do when you've hit the pause button in your video game or DVD and wish to resume playing or watching. Pause, which used to be an intransitive verb, has starting taking on an object. Pause it, my children will shout when the phone rings in the middle of a movie. And whoever has the remote will press the appropriate button. (Almost never is this me, but remote management is a topic for another day.)

Your language is like your neighborhood. New words and phrases are always moving in or moving out. Some of them don't make much of an impact, but others seem ubiquitous, at least for a while. (Ubiquitous moved out of our neighborhood years ago. I still stay in touch, though.) Over the last couple of years my children have spent a fair amount of time hanging. They are not hanging pictures, or meat; they are not hanging lefts or rights; they are simply hanging. That verb (without an object in life, the lazy thing) moved in a while ago and doesn't show any signs of moving. Chill, which moved in just ahead of hang, has moved a few streets away. My daughter used it the other day, but she was embarrassed. You know how it is when you run into someone you used to know, and don't have much in common with any more. Seinfeldisms took over the whole block a few years back, and stayed for while. Most have moved on. Boratisms barely had time to unpack before they were gone.

Which brings me back to unpause. Interesting word. First time I really noticed how interesting was during an exchange among my children that went something like:

Ed (to Imo, holding the remote): Okay, I'm back. Unpause the movie.
Thea (on her feet, poised): No, I want to make a phone call. Don't do it.
Ed: Unpause.
Thea: Don't unpause.
Me: You know, I don't think I've heard that before. Don't unpause. You could say, Don't start. Or even, Don't do anything.
Thea: Quiet, Dad. Don't unpause, Imo.
Ed: Unpause.
Imo (waving the remote): I tell you what I won't do ...
Sam (yawning): Whatever you do do --
Ed (laughing): Do do.
Thea: Quiet, Ed.
Sam: Well, make sure you don't not unpause.

See, you start a car; you stop the car; you restart the car. You boot the computer (actually, boot moved out of our neighborhood a while ago -- we turn on the computer), then shut it down, then restart (we used to reboot. You know, I kind of miss reboot. We had some good times, just hanging together). But with the remote in hand, you start, stop, then un-stop. I wonder why we choose here to undo rather than redo. Is there another example like this? If your heart stops, they don't un-stop it, they restart it (you hope). Cancer does not go into un-remission.

Don't get excited, thinking I'm about to make a killer observation here. I'm not going anywhere with this. I'm just a neighbor with a welcome basket, wondering how long unpause is going to stay. So far it seems friendly and easy to use. Might even have wider application -- summer certainly seems to be hiatus season, and in a couple of months we'll all be pushing the unpause button in our lives.

Friday, 6 July 2007

fire from heaven

Athletes are performers, more like actors than anything. And what liars they are. All those interviews where the star says the only thing that matters is that the team wins, well, that's pretty much not true. Sure, they'd rather be on a good team than a bad one -- like actors who would rather be in a hit than a flop. But their own performance is what matters. In a way, actors are more honest than athletes. They'll tell you they're out for themselves.

I don't point fingers at the attitude. Me first makes the best kind of career sense. Hitting fifty home runs a year, or scoring fifty goals, will get you into the Hall of Fame even if your team stays in last place. Letting the ball or the other guy get by you on a regular basis will get you fired. (Some actors lift every scene they are even, even if the play or movie is a turkey. These are the actors who will get phone calls from their agents.)

All right, so this is not a giant insight. But I was interested to learn how far back me first goes. I was in the car with my son Ed the other day, driving home from his soccer game. (Quick sidebar here. What a fine thing to watch your kids play organized sports. Especially small-potatoes organized sports -- house leagues, intermurals, that kind of thing. The couple of hours on the sidelines chatting with the other parents while the little folks scoot up and down the field or the ice is, well, stolen time. Fire from heaven. Savour it, even if you are behind on a deadline - say - and should be writing. On the ride home you talk about the game, but also about music and friends and ice cream. The whole experience is intimate, warm, precious. ) Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Back to Ed. His team is not very good, and they lost the game, as they tend to do. But he was pleased with himself, and his good mood filled the car, kind of like the familiar smell of his soccer socks (I will not wax romantic here). I congratulated him on his performance, but, Would you rather win? I asked. He frowned and said, Yeah. (Parents -- what idiots). Would you rather win, even though you yourself played badly? I asked. He blinked, considered, shook his head. How come? We were listening to a mix CD Thea made for the car last summer, and Queen's "Good Old Fashioned Loverboy" came on. He turned it up. How come? I asked again. Are you worried about letting the team down? Or letting (my voice went deep and meaningful here -- radio DJ or guidance counsellor) yourself down?

Ed laughed. I just don't like to screw up, he said, and we sang the next verse along with the band.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Einstein scheduling

The rule growing up with me was very straightforward: make me laugh, and you can get away with anything. I well remember fighting the giggles when the kids were little and had misbehaved. I'd assign a ridiculous punishment like cleaning out all the lego from behind the couch (ridiculous because impossible: Hercules couldn't do it: the stuff bred back there). We'd collect a basketful of mismatched pieces and build a monster.

So the other day Thea was going to tidy her room, and didn't. I mentioned this to her, and she said, Gosh I've been busy -- I'll do it tomorrow. Only she didn't, and her week got busier, and the room tidying kept getting put off. Finally she said, Dad, you are right. This is taking too long. And I've got to go out right now, so I can't tidy. You know, I think I'm going to have to do it yesterday.

Yesterday, I said.

She nodded solemnly. It's the only free time I have.

Now, I don't know what I'd have done if the task involved was truly important -- say, getting the garbage out to the curb -- but Thea is a big girl and it's her room, and keeping other people's places tidy has never been a vital part of my life. Anyway, her line was so surprising and apt that I burst out laughing. She nodded, mission accomplished, and left the house. Her room remains untidied.

Her line has stuck around as the perfect answer to time-related difficulty. The other day a friend and I were trying to arrange a meeting, but simply could not match schedules. How about yesterday? I said finally. Are you free then?

Silence down the phone line. All day, she said.

Perfect, I said. Let's do lunch.

Monday, 2 July 2007

two profiles

Profile in courage. A kid in line with her dad, surrounded by conversations she can not understand, her eyes wide, knowing that in a few minutes she will board a bus alone, drive to a place she has never heard of, and live among strangers. When the time comes, she gives her dad a hug. Her lip is wobbling but her chin juts firmly.

Imo and I are in Montreal, sending her on to a month of French immersion in the Quebec hinterland. Her idea, and it did not (as do most of her summer fun ideas) involve chartering a plane or overthrowing a government, so her mom and I jumped on it. Now Imo is wondering if her brother's summer fun ideas (bed, beach and be bored) might not make more sense.

Across our country this summer, kids will be setting off into the unknown, swallowing their fears, hoping to survive. (Hey, I still have a scar from Camp Pine Crest.) I think a small salute is in order. Living in tents or cabins, hanging out with strangers who may not like you, playing with canoe paddles or tennis rackets or horses or other odd, possibly radioactive objects -- it's tough. These kids are middle class heroes.

The farther you are from your comfort zone, the more you learn. Strange is necessary to grow. But as a wise friend of mine quotes, Uncertainty without doubt equals adventure. Uncertainty with fear equals nightmare. (Our topic that day was faith.) So I want to make sure that Imo believes in something. Love you, honey, I whisper. Uh huh, she whispers back. I hope it's enough.

Now another profile. A dad behind the wheel of a rented car in a city overrun with a soccer tournament and jazz festival, where every other downtown street has been turned into a tourist mall and most of the others are under construction. Barricades pervade, as do police, traffic cones, and driver frustration. But I am not the focus of this profile. I am behind a delivery van driven by a charismatic madman. I follow in awe, my frustration swept away by the tidal wave of his rage. He rolls down his window to berate traffic cops, he gesticulates, threatens, honks his horn and wrenches the wheel over to make seemingly impossible lane changes. When we come to yet another access ramp that is blocked off, he turns anyway, scattering plastic cones like bowling pins, roaring away defiantly. I follow, thinking, So this is how revolutions happen. In the rearview mirror I see the cop stare after us, and then shrug her shoulders. (I wonder if a Toronto cop would have reacted that way? Or a New York cop? Somehow it seems a very Gallic moment). A minute later, I am on the expressway, keeping close to the speed limit (enough revolution for one day), hoping that Imo is on her way to an adventure.