Saturday, 29 December 2007


Just time to relate a scary and hilarious middle-aged moment. Driving back from my son Ed's soccer tournament, and he is starving. Dad, I'm soooooo hungry, he moans from the front seat. My poor little boy! I investigate my pockets and come up with kleenex, gum, and a parking ticket. Not a lot of nourishment in any of them. So we take the next turn off, and find a fast food megaplex: five or six outlets, each with their own drive thru. In effect it's a food court only you don't have to leave your car. Pick one, I say.
It's dark, and raining, and my windshield wipers don't work very well.
I don't care, he says ... only of course he does, and as I pull up to the place-your-order microphone at McDonald's he says, No, not McDonalds, and so I keep going and when I get to Wendy's he says, No, not Wendy's, and I keep going, around the outside of the complex. There! says Ed, but I don't see. He points through the fogged windshield. There's a Tim's, he says. I want a toasted bagel with cream cheese. And a sprinkle donut. And chocolate milk. So I pull up to the next microphone, roll down my window in the streaming rain, and proceed to place my order. What size chocolate milk? I turn back to ask. Ed is staring at me. His lip is quivering. Dad, he says. You are talking to the trash can.
And so I am. There's a picture of a donut and coffee on it, so I guess it looks something like the thing you order into. But not very much. It's a trash can all right. Just like this one.

Oh, my. I have a picture of myself a few seconds ago, a dad in the rain, talking earnestly into an open trash can, and lose it. It's not like I'm turning into my own father here -- I've bypassed him and gone straight to Mr Magoo. I begin to sputter. Ed of course is laughing heartily beside me. This is definitely a story for the whole family.
I pull ahead to the real order microphone, and almost lose it again. The lady behind the window asks if I'm all right. I don't know, I say.
The Chinese pictograms for crisis and opportunity are famously linked. (I recall Homer Simpson using the term crisitunity.) I wonder if there is a similar relationship between pictograms for amusing and horrifying?

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

thrift, Horatio, thrift

One of my defining character traits is thrift. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from not wasting things -- adding the end of Thursday's barbecue sauce to Sunday's spaghetti and meatballs, picking three pennies out of my pocket so that my change comes out even, reaching the low-price gas station as the fuel gauge warning light comes on, driving extra blocks to find cheaper parking or cereal, cramming one more -- no, two more -- appointments into my full morning, or hanging onto the dog-eared coffee card at the bottom of my wallet to obtain, at the end of several months, a free cup. I tell you, I sympathize with Hamlet's mom, using one caterer to handle the funeral and the following wedding.
I know that my little savings do not add up to much. If I bought cheaper coffee, drove less, or went meatless I'd save a lot more. I know that the amount of time I spend worrying about these things is wasteful too. (Not that I'd be solving Global Warming or bringing peace to the Middle East, but I might get more work done.) But I don't seem to be able to help myself.
So here's a good news story. I have been carrying around Season Two of The Office for months. Bought it in Vancouver on sale at the Rogers store near my hotel. A perfect Christmas gift for my daughter, I thought, back in October. When she told me that her new room mate had showed up with the same season of the same TV show as a housewarming gift, I died a little. Duplicate copies of a DVD almost defines my sense of waste. I resolved to exchange the DVD. But -- my point -- there aren't a lot of Rogers stores near me. I kept my eyes peeled, and the DVD (with receipt) in my trunk, but could not hook myself up. I'd bring the DVD with me when I went shopping, but would find myself in a mall without a Rogers store. Or I'd walk past a Rogers and realize that I'd left the DVD back in the car (parked cheaply, but eight or ten blocks away). Or I'd drive by a Rogers store, but not have time to stop because I was already late for that extra morning appointment. Never the time and the place and the girl all together, or whatever the phrase is.
And then, three days ago, a miracle. A last-minute cancellation meant that I had fifteen minutes between appointments. Luxury. I drove slowly, generously. When a parked car wanted to pull out of a spot ahead of me, I did not honk a warning and drive by. I braked and smiled and let the car in ... and realized that I was idling next to a Grand Opening banner. A brand new Rogers store had just opened its doors across the street, and I was in the right place at the right time. With the DVD in my trunk. I zipped into the empty parking spot, into the store, and made the exchange (for Season Three of The Office). When Thea unwrapped it yesterday, her eyes lit up. But her pleasure did not match mine. I was happy to give her a gift she liked, but more than happy -- overjoyed -- to have got rid of the wasted DVD. My thrift principle had been satisfied.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

contributing to the delinquency of minors

The things you don't know about your kids.
Last night was a wonderful oportunity for Scrimger spotters. We were at my parents' place for the seasonal family gathering -- even rarely sighted aunts and cousins from far-flung places like North Toronto and Pickering (Can't you feel the romance in those place names? Glen Manor Road. Pleasant Boulevard. Altoona Drive. Can't you smell the spicey off-shore breezes, and catch a mind's-eye glimpse of bright colour against the verdant tropical backdrop. Ah, for my seven league boots!) Anyway, we were all there, clustered around the festive boardgame eating hors d'oeuvres that would harden the supplest artery, when I heard a quiet popping sound from the next room, and champagne flutes began to make their appearance, two by two in the children's hands. Each of the adults got a glass, and we toasted the season in a charming and traditional way.
I'm not fond of champagne. Not even good champagne, which this was. (Sorry, Dad, if you are reading this. I know champagne is appropriate and festive and all. I just don't like it. As I am about to tell you, there are things you don't know about your kids, and this is something you now know about me.) As an indifferent champagne appreciater, I was happy to share my glass of bubbly. Have a sip, I said to Thea, who hesitated, and then took a cautious mouthful. I watched my mom share her glass with my kids too, and my aunt (the North Toronto one) share her glass, and my sister-in-law (the Pickering one) share her glass ... and I began to realize that my kids were getting a whole lot of champagne.
Imo turned to me, her eyes wide. This stuff is good! she said. She was holding a glass now -- I don't know who had given it to her. Glad you like it, I said. Can I have another sip? asked Ed. My glass was still half full. I gave it over. My dad gazed benevolently around the room -- the noise level had risen by a couple dozen decibels in the past ten minutes -- and wondered aloud if we needed more champagne. There was a semi-drunken cheer from my teens. Glasses were raised. It had only taken a few minutes, but the family gathering had begun to take on the atmosphere of a pub brawl. I was waiting for someone began a drinking song, or to start smashing furniture over someone else's head. Hmmm, said Dad.
The secret life of kids. Mine like champagne. Who'd have guessed? Not me. I wasn't going to serve it at Christmas dinner, but I'm almost tempted now....
Nah. On second thought, maybe I'll introduce them to red wine. If they like it, we can all enjoy. If they don't, all the more for me.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

skidding around

It's F12 time, my book in the background as usual, thirty things to do in front of it, and only a few moments to do them all, thank heavens I can multitask, so there I was ....
Deep breath. Start again. So there I was, late late two nights ago, driving Sam home for the holidays down a deserted stretch of super-highway. Forest and field, snow falling gently, and my son sitting next to me. Sounds lovely, huh? It wasn't. What are your least favorite driving moments? For me they are the times when the car is not quite under control. The road is snow-greasy and the tires are balding and the traction is ... let's call it intermittent. You are one piece of ice or one sharp wheel turn away from the ditch.
That's what we had -- about two hours of it. I was concentrating hard, keeping the tires in the darkened ruts, speed steady, turns very gradual, foot off the gas when the car started to skid, correcting slowly so as not to spin out, then drifting back under control, adrenaline coursing through me like smallpox through a native village (that's a nasty image, isn't it) ...
Anyway, I was stressed, feeling like Philip Marlowe, old and tired and full of no coffee, when Sam observed that we were all alone on our side of the highway. I mean, all alone. No red lights up ahead in the distance, no white ones in the rearview. Just endless black. Coming towards us, on the other hand, was a solid line of trucks, crawling forward, their progress slowed by a scarily jackknifed trailer we'd passed a few miles back. Weird, eh? said Sam. All these guys going away from town, and we're alone, heading in. Know what it reminds me of?
A moment of no traction, here, and we skidded slightly. I gripped the wheel harder (not like that was going to help) and breathed a sigh of relief when the tire treads bit again, and the car straightened back out. What does it remind you of? I asked.
Z-day! I could feel him grinning. The zombies have taken over, and the citizens are fleeing in their thousands. We are the only ones heading back into Raccoon City. Isn't it cool, dad!
I didn't dare take my hands off the wheel, but for a second I saw the world from his perspective. I forgot about the real chance of us spending the night waiting for a tow, cold and wet and maybe injured. I forgot about being a grownup.
I cant remember the name of the movie, but it was a story of the London blitz told from the POV of a twelve year old boy, and what stays with me is the fun our hero had, running around in the midst of ruin, climbing and smashing and hiding and seeking. A boy's perspective on the horrors of war. I completely bought it. Anyway, I was reminded of the movie in the car with Sam. He's got a lot of twelve year old inside him, and I was able to find some myself. We were alone on our side of the highway (and you have to know the 401 to realize how utterly unlikely this is) with a million headlights stalled on the other side. A postcard from the apocalypse.
Yes, I said. It is cool.
Then the car lurched, and I went back to worrying.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

weather or not

Back from London in time for a bit of weather. I guess you always have weather, the same way you always have a temperature, but you only talk about them when they're bad. For those of you not in southern Ontario or the northeast US, we are in the midst of a pretty big winter storm here. A good storm, if you want to make snow angels or drink hot chocolate and admire the view. A bad one if you want to travel anywhere. Value is in the pocket of the assessor, after all. Here are a few different assessments, taken not entirely at random, from members of my family. First my mom, who called me early this morning to make sure I was not still planning to drive into the city. The storm is awful, she said. The wind is howling; our balcony is covered; the main street isn't even plowed yet. The radio is telling everyone to stay home.
I told her I had decided not to drive in.
Really? Because you can be stubborn, Richard, she said.
Can not, I said.
Can too, she said.
Can too, I said, proving her point.
Ed, sleeping nearby, asked what was going on. Nana doesn't want me driving in the snowstorm, I said. He poked his head out of the covers.
Snowstorm? he said, with that little-boy perkiness in his voice. (I'll come back to him.)
Thea looked at the storm and said, I'll drive to Mom's to say hi. I'm not used to driving in snow, and it'll be good practice.
For a hint of a fraction of a second I felt typical silly parental concern: what if something happens? She could end up in a ditch. In an accident. In the hospital. In the morgue. It was a visceral reaction: I reminded myself of my mom.
Okay, I said, but be careful.
She withered me with a look. I blushed. I wonder if my mom had blushed earlier.
Finally Ed, who needed a textbook he'd left in the car to finish his homework. (Thea had returned by then, having avoided the ditch/hospital/morgue nexus.) Look at that snow come down, he said. Does anyone want to dare me to go to the car in bare feet?
I sure do, said Imo.
I smiled and went back to my book. Five minutes later Ed came in limping and swearing. Imo whooped with laughter. I was flummoxed. He'd actually done it. But .... but why? I asked him.
He stared, as if I'd questioned gravity. Because Imo dared me, he said.
Is that how it works? I asked Imo. You dare someone, they have to go?
And now it was her turn to wither me with a look.
Why did you let him do it, Dad? said Thea. That was horrible parenting.
I didn't know, I said. I thought they were kidding.
Horrible parenting.
Was not, I said.
Was so.
Was not.
Only as I sat back, sipped my hot chocolate, and thought of my fourteen year old hopping through waist-deep drifts in bare feet, I began to laugh -- which pretty much proved her point, I guess.
As I write this, the snow is coming down as hard as ever. My inner little boy is thinking, Snow day tomorrow! But I think I'll keep my boots on.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

with 'is nose, tooked, underneath 'is arm ...

This is a quickie from the heart of darkest London (well, a cheap hotel near Euston Station). Let me tell you about a marvellous moment from our sightseeing yesterday. Not our hour at Mmme Tussauds, possibly the worst waste of time and money in the tourist world (and that bar has been set quite high). Not our lunch, which was much more fun. (We got lost on our way to Petticoat Lane and ended up taking part in the "battle of the Baltis" -- an informal contest among the approximately 175 Indian Restaurants on one narrow four-block-long stretch of Brick Road.) No, I am talking about our tour of the Tower of London, when we realized that we were standing on the exact bit of ground where all those queens had been beheaded. This is so cool, said Imo. Everything here reeks of blood! She took pictures of horrific instruments of torture and battle (we figured that Sam would want to know how they'd kill zombies in the sixteenth century), and shivered as we got lower and lower, and the walls got narrower and the light got dimmer and the smell of blood got stronger ... and we almost fancied we could hear ghosts wailing ... until we recognized that the faint eldritch shrieking had words in it: and the words were: Rudolf the red-nosed reinderr, had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it .... That's right. In the heart of the grim fortress, down at dungeon level, there was this absurd sound byte -- as funny and strangely human as a fart at climax. Unless of course the words really were sung by ghasties and ghoulies.
(Maybe that's it. Maybe Rudolf was killed there, and his nose put on a pike on the castle walls, to serve as a warning for other treacherous reindeer. Brrr!)
Seriously, do they do this kind of thing at other world heritage sites? Is there an informal chant-along of O dreidel dreidel dreidel at the Wailing Wall at sunset? Do the Gettysburg re-enacters stop in the middle of Pickett's Charge to sing Frosty the Snowman?
Funny folks, the English. And I haven't even mentioned their TV programming yet...

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Happy Chanukah, Imo

This is a letter from a foreign correspondent -- our man in London England. I'm here as a tourist with my daughter Imo, who wanted a trip abroad for Christmas. Since flights and hotels cost a lot more after Christmas than they do before, she is getting hers now -- Think of it as a Chanukah present, I told her.
So far we have seen various touristy things -- Big Ben, Buckingham, Picadilly type things. It's been great. No false affect, just a lot of pointing and going Oooh. The horse guards standing with no change of expression, the ceiling of Westminster Abbey stretching up and up, the swans and geese and pelican (or pelican type -- I'm no ornithologist. It reminded me more than anything of the Maribou bird in the Babar books) in the Green Park. Tomorrow we are doing Sherlock Holmes and Madame Tussauds. Imo wants to do Abbey Road too -- we'll see. It's not on the tube. We may take a bus, but the last time I was on a London bus it took me twenty minutes to travel one block.
Know what I am finding strange about London? The accents. In the tourist part of town no one sounds English. Most of the service staff seem to come from East Europe. Lot of Sikhs too. I'm not complaining, of course, but it is interesting how this extra hint of the exotic actually makes London sound more like ... well ... Toronto.
Know what else I found strange? The guards at Buckingham Palace. They look positively dangerous now -- like they could shoot someone. The ones we saw today wore gray uniforms with flat caps, and a couple of them carried their automatic weapons like poster boys for Soldier of Fortune magazine. This I do think is too bad. I kind of liked it that the Brits knew how to do modern nasty stuff (SOCO-type grotty police work, or SAS anti-terror) while retaining a sense of perspective about the silly Ruritanian changing of the guard. Once you start worrying about the relevance of your ornamental institutions you might as well get rid of them. I want the RCMP to be a good and effective modern police force, but I hope that the for-tourist Mounties never lose their funny hats or musical ride.
Thank heavens for the tabloids, which still plaster the Royals across the front pages. The Brits do this kind of blind-adoration-and-yet-isn't-it-shocking! better than we do, I think. Maybe because they've been bowing to nobility longer than we've been bowing to movie stars. And thank heavens for Brit TV. Imagine an entire afternoon devoted to snooker. Or steeple chasing. Or quiz shows about art. Makes me laugh.
Crikey, it's 3:00 am. I'm still on Cobourg time. Better sign off and try to get some sleep.

Friday, 7 December 2007

can't fuggetabout it

I added significantly to my stock of gray hairs yesterday, thanks to my daughter and her room mate. I was peeling along the Gardiner Expressway on my way to become for a few months, the thing I hate (I'll explain in a bit) when I got a call from my daughter Thea, who was upset. One of her room mates, in a dispute over money, was acting strangely. Thea was worried about leaving him alone in the place when she went to class. I pulled into the parking lot at Humber College, where I was due at a meeting. I'll try to find time to come downtown and see you later today, I said. Then I grabbed my briefcase and ran.
The thing I hate is a corporate guy. I have spent my adult life avoiding meetings. I would rather wait tables or sweep floors than worry about the Henderson account. But Humber, in their wisdom, asked me to babysit their writing program for a few months while Antanas is away, and I in my strapped-for-cash state said yes. So I was prepared for a day of meetings, dressed for success in matching socks and a fresh shave, not to mention a shirt with no stains, and practicing my corporate team-player smile. Yes, JB, I muttered to myself. No, JB. Three bags full, JB. Twenty minutes later, in the middle of my first meeting, my phone rang.
Hang on a minute, JB, I muttered.
It was Thea. Her room mate had gone a bit nuts and begun to vandalise the place. Couches and clothes were involved. Thea was beside herself. He's locked himself in his room now! Could you come over and kill him, Daddy? she sobbed. I felt momentarily like Tony Soprano. (A different kind of corporate guy, come to think of it. Instead of losing the Henderson account, he'd be losing Henderson.)
When my heart had stopped racing and I'd made sure that she was no in danger, I said I'd be over there as soon as I could. I told her I was glad she could make jokes. Who's joking? she said.
Quickly, because I am running out of time here, I left my meeting, raced downtown, and calmed Thea's room mate. We agreed that he'd be happier living somewhere else, packed his stuff in my car, and I drove him to a friend's. (He is not a bad guy, more goofy and impulsive. And he's just a kid. I was the calm grown up he wanted to talk to, to hear his side of the story. I actually ended up kind of liking him.) He felt sorry about the whole episode, and gave me his keys. I waved goodbye, and drove off, feeling a bit of all's well that ends well.
On my way back to my meetings, I tried to put myself in the place of the JBs of the world, and the working moms they employ. Speaking for the JBs, it's hard to run a company when your VP finance has to leave the AGM to deal with a sick kid. That was my intellect talking. My viscera were saying something else. Screw you, JB, they said. My kid is sick. And sick kids trump everything.
I'm off on my travels again, back next Wednesday. I'll post when I can (which may be next Thursday). Right now I am staring, appalled, at my gray. It's the stress, I figure. No wonder so many working moms dye their hair.

Monday, 3 December 2007

day off or off day?

Response to unexpected reprieve says a lot about you. I was supposed to spend today at a small community school an hour north of my town, acting as writer in residence. This would be the fifth of five Mondays spent with mostly charming students from Grade 3-7, working them through the elements of story writing from conception to completion with stops along the way at character, story structure, style, and rewrite ... and now it won't be. Thanks to last night's precipitation, my school visit is cancelled. Like my students, I have a snow day. I also have a deskload of work that I should have done yesterday, maybe the day before or, heck, last week. I have a God-given chance to make up for lost time, to make a dent in my In-Basket, to -- in short -- be a responsible person.
So what will I be doing? As soon as I finish this, I am going back to bed.
Isn't that always the way? I recall slaving like a slave (hmm, if I ever edited this thing I'd make a note to come up with something better here) to think of an extension-worthy excuse for the weekend-late handing in of a university essay, getting that extension ... and then dashing off to go toboganning. You'd think that, having gone to the trouble of wrapping my leg in an old soft cast, and walking across campus and up three flights of stairs on borrowed crutches, I'd use the extra time wisely. But I didn't. As Harold Skimpole (that's him over there -- I feel quite cultured pulling up a PBS image) would have observed, a weekend saved is a weekend gained. Monday morning 4:00 a.m. found me surrounded by notes, candy wrappers and cold coffee. I finished a scant hour before my extended deadline. Halfway up the three flights of stairs on Monday morning I remembered the cast and crutches. An embarrassing interview followed, my contribution to which was a muttered reference to Lourdes. The prof's sad and superior smile haunts me still.
So now I have an extra day to finish a lesson plan/book review/zombie chapter ... but I will doze instead. There's always tomorrow to work. And anyway, what kind of person plans their goof-off days? If you can schedule the time you're going to skip work, you're way too organized to be a proper goof off. You might as well plan your impulse buying, or your binge drinking. Half the fun of these things is the surprise. You can't plan to surprise yourself.