Saturday, 27 December 2008

fastest turkey in the west

As of yesterday lunchtime, my entire Christmas bird -- 5.5 kilos of Grade A poultry -- has been consumed. There's not even a wishbone left. This is by far the quickest I have ever got rid of a turkey.
(Got rid of -- as if it's a tired old toy past its prime. Funny how something so carefully sought in the market, so fussed over, so much enjoyed on the night, can become so very tedious. This would be the time for an obvious comment on love or marriage. Consider it made.)
Growing up, I recall countless nights of leftovers. My mom fed a tableful of aunts and widowers as well as her immediate family, but there was so much else to eat at Christmas dinner that somehow they left enough for us to have what seemed like weeks of turkey fricasse, turkey a la king (that's it in the picture, which I got from something called the happy housewives club -- creepy or what?), turkey pot pie, turkey piccata, turkey newburgh, turkey con carne, etc.etc. I swear one year we were eating turkey thermidor (or something like it) on Valentine's day. When I began cooking my own family's Christmas dinner a dozen or more years ago, there were fewer plates around the table, and I bought smaller birds, but there was still a full week of leftovers each and every time....
Until now. Two Christmas vacation style lunches of turkey salad sandwiches (with clementines for fruit) and we're done. There is no more bird. I'm turkey-leftover free until Easter. Want to know my secret? It's not complicated. Pay attention now. 1) Invite a lot of teenagers. 2) Don't offer any appetizers to fill up on 3) Feed your guests late in the evening (Imo had to work so we didn't sit down to dinner until 8:30) -- by now they are starving 3) Don't serve anything good with the turkey. I recommend plain couscous (possibly the world's dullest food) along with a hard-to-like vegetable like fennel 4)
No, I think that's it. It worked for me anyway. Lunch today is going to be peanut butter or grilled cheese. We'll still have clementines because I somehow I ended up with four boxes of them. But no more turkey for three or four months.
Hmm. I wonder how clementines a la king would taste.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

oh oh tannenbaum

Catching up with the rest of the Christian world, we finally got our tree yesterday. It stands now on my porch, shedding snow and needles. As an adventure, the tree-getting was ridiculous and unplanned, painful and embarrassing, ultimately hilarious. It didn't take long. And it didn't cost any money. Kind of like life when you think about it.
The Optimists' lot has always had the cheapest Christmas trees in Cobourg (and of course the happiest attendants. Hey, that one looks great! they say. Good choice!) But when we got there yesterday the lot looked awfully bleak. We skidded towards the temporary fenced off area, and stopped. No Optimist van, no smiling folks in parkas. I thought we were too late, and would have to drive all the way across town to the Canadian Tire lot, and then I noticed it leaning against the sagging plastic fence all by itself ... a tree. The last one. It looks lonely, said Sam.
It looks terrible, said Thea.
I parked. (No! said Thea) and we all piled out.
The twins were both right. The tree did in fact look lonely, and terrible. (I suppose the two conditions go together.) Half of one side was missing, and much of the mid-section. Imagine a big sickly brother to the Charlie Brown tree. Like that. The hand-written sign on the fence post said: FREE TO A GOOD HOME.
We agreed (except for Thea) to take it. The remaining issue was practical: how to transport it? With no attendant to bundle up the tree and tie it to the roof of the car, we were left to our own devices. And those devices were pretty, um, basic. Tree on roof of car -- check. Rear windows open -- check. Boys in back seat leaning out -- check. Except that they couldn't reach, and we had to spin the tree sideways so that it stretched sideways across the car roof, overhanging the sides and filling the car with snow (Oh my Gaawd! said Thea).
Hang on! I shouted, and away we went. Thea was sure we'd never make it, but I took my tone from the tree lot itself. This was an Optimists' Christmas tree and so I was, well, optimistic. (Can you imagine buying a tree from the Pessimists' lot? Nope, don't take that one. No, not that one either. In fact, all these trees are pretty lousy.)
We cruised down main streets and side streets, whooping and hooting and noting many horrified and puzzled glances from passers by. The inside of the car is still filled with snow. (Oh my Gaawd!) Imo, seated in the back between the two boys, wore a look of quiet and intense delight all the way home.
And today we decorate.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

petit dudley

My memory is like a dog that can do the occasional showy trick but still pees on the carpet. It can forget to shave or vote or do the laundry. It can forget that my son's soccer practice ends in two hours. It can forget that Christmas is coming -- in fact, it does forget, every year. (Any day now I'm going to have to get to the present buying.) So my memory is not practical. But it can, now and then, recall items of no practicality from my remote past.
The starting point for this thought was my recent loss of my workout bag and contents: squash racket, clothes, towel, plastic bags, corkscrew (for some reason I have corkscrews the way some people have mice. They seem to show up everywhere) and combination lock. I went to a discount sporting store and replaced everything last week, and my first thought, on opening the new lock, was how little they had changed since I went to high school. And then, with the padlock open in my hand, I had a madeleine moment (In an old house in Paris all covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines -- no, I mean the other madeleine -- the one you dip in tea). My memory reached down deep and pulled out a sequence of three numbers: 45-25-50. Which was the combination to my first ever padlock. I used it on my ninth grade locker more than thirty years ago.
I wonder what it is doing in my head when I cannot remember dentist appointments and costume parties and the names of the characters halfway through the movie? I suspect the answer has do with the importance of a first time. Having your own locker is a big deal. It is institutional space that is yours and yours alone, territory outside the home that you control -- with the aid of a lock. It's a private and safe haven for books, old lunches, incomplete assignments, and notes from girls, and it functions because you know the combination to your lock and no one else does. So the lock assumes a significance much greater than a random sequence of numbers.
45-25-50. There it was, there it is, there it will be, for ever and ever amen. My ninth grade locker combination. I sure hope it's on some exam I'll have to take.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

ho ho huh?

I know how a turtle feels. A shell-less turtle, I mean. For the past few days I have been without internet and the world has seemed a very different place. No connection except telephone and mail and personal contact. In other words, I only communicated with the people I know well. What a concept that is.
I missed you guys: you facebookers, you blog-reading cyber-friends, you students and colleagues and casual email acquaintances. Every time I talked to someone THERE THEY WERE in my ear, in my space. What happened to distance and privacy and the time necessary for a measured response? The internet offers the luxury of distance. It's not pretend, but it's not immediate. You can care, but you don't have to come up with a feeling RIGHT NOW. I treasure that. I'm no good under pressure. If I need a tear or a firm manly hug (see picture) RIGHT NOW, I'll crack. My mouth will drop open, and an indistinct whuffing sound will emerge. Then I'll have turn away before I start to giggle. But my internet self has no seams or cracks. In the calm privacy of my own keyboard I am caring and sympathetic and earnest -- and I can be drinking coffee and playing solitaire at the same time. Emotional multi-tasking. I missed that, and am real glad it's back now. Christmas is upon us after all. And Solstice. And Chanukah and Kwanzaa and ... Karthigai (had to look that one up -- I am so ignorant). Anyway, a season of distanced goodwill, of fake-real grins and pretend-firm handclasps.
I am disorganized this year, as usual. I have bought no presents and put up no decorations and baked no cookies. But I figure there's still time. Why spend a month panicking about Christams when you can spend a week panicking about Christmas? Way more efficient that way. Yup, I think I'm about ready to start. Now that I have my internet back, I can begin by wishing you all the very best for the festive season. A big smile to all. And a firm hug or polite air kiss where appropriate (red seven on black eight).

Saturday, 13 December 2008

any questions?

Over the last decade or so as a kids' writer I have stood up in front of untold thousands of children. Mostly I have been aware of how much they have in common. No matter who they are, where or how they live, they swallow the same lies, laugh at the same punch lines, and ask the same questions. Which is just as well for me because I have only a limited supply of stories, jokes and answers.
Questions come in three varieties. Kids want to know where I get my ideas, how old I am, and how much money I make. That's really about it. I could cut question time right down by starting off with answers for these.
Every now and then I am surprised. I was surprised a couple of years ago when a self-important girl in the front row asked me what I thought of Immanuel Kant. (I was briefly tempted by a joke about Kant and Can, but figured I'd get an easier laugh by making a face and falling off the stage into the audience. Interestingly, given Kant's 4th Categorical Imperative, it did not occur to me to tell her the truth.) And I was surprised last week in Durham when a guy at the back of the crowd wanted to know if I was his father. And while my jaw dropped slowly, another kid towards the front of the crowd cried out, "Yeah! I was thinking that too!"
The teachers responsible for the two students leapt to their feet, frowning, but I waved them back down. "I like surprises," I said. I'd never been asked anything like this before. Not once, let alone twice.
I had the two kids stand up. They were both gawky and thin, with mops of hair. The crowd started to laugh. I quoted Shakespeare: "It's a wise child," I began ... and then my mind (never completely under control) conjured an image of me, fourteen or so years ago, wandering around Durham like Johnny Appleseed. And before I knew it I was giggling uncontrollably. We all laughed for a good long time, and then the bell rang to end my presentation. The kids filed out laughing. All the teachers were frowning now.
Not everyone likes surprises.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

prepare ye the way

I am torn. On the one hand I have always thought of pranking as essentially mean spirited. I am not fond of jokes at the expense of more or less innocent people. Getting back at the bully is one thing. Pulling the chair out from under a serious guy so that he sits down hard -- well, it's humour that's playing for the other team. There's an element of bullying in it.
That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I am genuinely amused at my son's seasonal project. He and his housemate A-Bomb (regular readers of this blog will recall that I took A-Bomb's shoes with me to Slovenia, which upset him) have decided to act out an Advent Calendar of pranks. Each day a different jape, leading up to the big day when their exams are over and they all go home for Christmas. What makes this Advent project so funny (I am wrestling with my conscience here) is that all the pranks are played on the same guy. Poor Dino, a fellow housemate, has been subjected to tripwires, mitten substitutions, noisily stuffed pillowcases, knapsack shenanigans (a long long string with a boot attached to the knapsack, so that he was jerked backwards a half-block from home when the trailing boot caught in the doorway). Their latest prank involves hiding five alarm clocks in his room, set to go off at ten minute intervals. As Sam tells it, the entire house reverberated from Dino's cursing when the first alarm bell went off. His reaction to subsequent bells got funnier, and funnier.
The success of Sam and A-Bomb's project revolves around two things. First, their seriousness. The very idea of an Advent Calendar devoted to torturing a fellow housemate is, well, funny. The application that the two guys put into their daily tasks speaks volumes. In a way, it shows how much they care. Second, and even more important to success, is the character of the victim. Dino is an enthusiastic lovable guy, tall, gawky, and good-hearted. His relentless victimisation is funny not because he does not deserve it, but because he takes it so well. To my mind, Dino emerges as the star of the show.
And Sam and A-Bomb owe him. Buy a big bottle of what he drinks, guys, and put it under the tree.

Friday, 5 December 2008

what'll it be, dear?

I was having lunch in a family restaurant last week. You know the kind of place: vinyl booths, hot turkey sandwiches and fountain coke, pay the cashier on your way out. And busy waitresses -- usually of a certain age and body type -- wearing white shoes and smiles. I'm writing today in a kind of homage to these waitresses. It seems to me that they represent the purest example of what I can call eglitarianism.
I can't think of anyone other group (they're almost a caste, aren't they?) with only one form of address for the whole world. No matter who you are -- pop star or pauper, male or female, grandparent or babe in arms -- you are "dear" to them. That friendly caring word is on their lips no matter whom they are addressing. You, me, Osama, Queen Elizabeth, Batman, everyone. If the Prince of Darkness ordered a hot turkey sandwich from a family restaurant, the waitress would smile and say, "And what'll you have to drink, dear?" And when he ordered boiling hot baby's blood, or whatever, she'd purse her lips and say, "I'll check for you, dear, but I don't think we have any."
Heartwarming, isn't it? Who can object to being called "dear" by a motherly woman? Not me.
The only other stereotype with something approaching a uniform salute would be the outlaw biker gang --only the term they use for everyone is not, "dear." I can't imagine that a family restaurant staffed by outlaw bikers would do very well.

Monday, 1 December 2008

saving private scrimger

They say that war is vast stretches of boredom punctuated by short periods of intense fear. Nothing happens, nothing happens, and then suddenly EVERYTHING is happening and maybe you don't even survive to the next bit where nothing happens. Sounds about right to me. I imagine firefighting to be something like that. And police work. Stacks of forms to fill out, months of practicing, and then maybe an hour when it's all on the line. Makes for good drama, whether you focus on the build up or the action, because the audience knows that at any given point the characters could be involved in a life-or-death struggle.
The stakes are high for doctors and lawyers too -- if they make a mistake, people die or go to jail. And these profesionals live intensely collegial lives, fighting and bonding with each other in the workplace. The human drama unfolds from nine to five. Again, good theater.
Writing is different. For all the romance associated with the arts, the daily life of the artist makes lousy viewing. I've been busy as hell for the last few days, but it occurs to me that nothing about my working life could be used in a story. What did I do? you ask. Well, I tapped away on this keyboard. That's what I do when I'm writing. When the work is going well, I am tapping away at the keyboard, muttering phrases out loud and nodding to myself. When it's going badly, I am tapping a little more slowly, muttering profanities, and getting up from the keyboard to make another cup of coffee. In between times, when I'm not tapping away, I am staring into space.
That's it. And that's all of it. I mean, I don't even talk to anyone. No wonder that Ridley Scott is not out there with a writing life movie. (Tap! Stare! Yawn!) Yes, that is a Jane Austen action figure in the picture. It is marketed ironically.
The only way you can sell a creative biopic is to set the story away from the typewriter or the easel. It helps if the artist has a surprising and deeply engaging personal life -- fighting hard, loving disastrously, keeping crocodiles in the bath tub. Sadly for you, reading this, my extra-curricular life is only marginally more interesting than my working life.
The best I can hope for is a spot in someone else's story. If a fire breaks out at my place, I could get a supporting role in some firefighter's triumph and/or tragedy. If a war breaks out at my place, I could become the object of a mission. Saving Scrimger. I like it.
OK, now I have to get back to work. Don't bother looking -- there's nothing to see here.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

superpower update

And now an update on the world of superpowers. Certain subjects seem to be eternally fascinating, and my son Ed and his friends spend an appreciable amount of time talking about which superpowers they would like to possess. (Different strokes for different folks. As a kid I used to have lengthy discussions with my friends about the perfect chocolate bar. And I remember a long evening at my ex-in-laws many years back, talking about which would be the best way to die.) Anyway, if you are interested in the mindset of smalltown youth in Southern Ontario, allow me to present ....TIMESTOPPER.
You got to admit, Dad, that's the best one, Ed told me. The ability to wave your hands and stop time is about as cool as it gets.
I agreed that time stopping was a useful skill -- provided of course that time had not stopped for you. So what would the hero's name be? I asked. How about TIMETOPPER? Or MR TIME -- except that sounds like a villain. And what he or she wear?
Ed rolled his eyes. He and his friends were not interested in the accessories of superpowerdom. (Kids today have no follow-through. My friends and I had the wrapper, the pricing, and the advertising slogan for our perfect chocolate bar.)
I asked for some more examples of cool powers. Well, we all thought teleporting would be pretty decent, he said.
I agreed again. So, your perfect superheroes would have dominion over space and time, I said. Two pretty enormous concepts. Good choices both. I was about to ask about summoning the superheroes in time of need -- whether a searchlight beaming an image of an hourglass onto the night sky would be too cheesey -- when Ed started to laugh. I asked him what was so funny.
It's Frederico, he said. (It often is. The boy marches to his own drum machine, which is permanently set on Random.) Frederico thought it would be brilliant to be able to .... Ed laughed again have objects appear in your hand.
I didn't get it right away. Ed explained. Frederico wants to be able to open his hand and have, like, a bird appear. Or a million dollars. Or a sports car. Whatever he wants.
My first thought was to laugh along with Ed. It's easy to laugh at Frederico. Only he would choose a sports car, or a roast chicken, over the ability to control whole dimensions. But now I wonder. The boy may have reached a deeper understanding of power than we knew. What he wants is ultimate creativity. To make something out of nothing. His idea of a superhero? God.
I can hardly wait for the comic book.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

not going to miss you

My computer is malfunctioning. Funny how important they are to us, and how little we care for them. This despite our propensity for anthropomorphosis. How many people are truly devastated by the loss of a pet? (Even goldfish -- my daughter Thea was traumatized for several moments when hers passed over to the Great Bowl in the sky. I hardly see the family dog any more, but I know I will think a few thoughts about the old guy when he goes.) Well, pets are almost human. But cars sure aren't, and yet many people truly seem to identify with their vehicle. Not just caring for them, washing and waxing, but naming them, seeing them with personality traits (doesn't like the cold, wants to run, temperamental in wet weather) and clearly thinking of them as extensions of their own personality. I for example am a ten-year-old Toyota with a cracked windshield, badly in need of a wash..... (You know, now that I think of it, there may be some truth there.)
Why do we care so little about our computers? We use them daily, are lost without them. They are personally ours in a way that cars aren't -- containing scads of very intimate data. And the language is there. We talk about computers having viruses. My computer is in the shop because its RAM is corrupt. So, why don't I humanise that? (It'd be easy. I mean, the RAM could be a small-town politician, open to bribes by visiting data from the internet.) But I don't think of it that way. I almost miss my little plastic soldier more -- the one mutilated by Ed's friend's in a moment of mindless kid-dom. Poor headless Grenade Guy.
I don't miss my computer for itself. I miss what it does. This loaner is fine. If I have to buy a new computer, I am sure it'll be better than my old one. Faster, more powerful, and cheaper. I'll be happy to upgrade.
Hmmm. Maybe cars are like us, and computers are like our jobs. Or maybe cars are the reality of our lives, and computers are the fantasy version. Wouldn't you like a personal upgrade?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

why oh why oh why-o

Turns out I was right about the decapitation of Grenade Guy -- Frederico did it. He saw the scissors and couldn't resist using them on the plastic soldier's head. I asked him why he'd done it and he shrugged and laughed (what would that be -- a shraugh?). Ed looked disappointed, but not at Frederico. At me. You're not supposed to ask why. Motive is such a grown-up question, and, the way grown-ups ask it of kids, implies blame. Why'd you do that? is grown-up shorthand for: Why'd you do that, you idiot?
Because in grown-up eyes kids are often idiots, and do things for no reason at all. If a typical grown-up question is: Why'd you do that? the typical kid answer is: I dunno. And, like the grown-up question, it is a short-form answer. The long form is: I dunno, and why are you getting so worked up about it anyway, leave me alone can't you? Sheesh! For the longest time all conversations with my son Sam were punctuated by the phrase: Chill the bass -- his universal response to perceived agitation. To worry about or even question anything is, well, in bad taste.
Listened to the new Kaiser Chiefs album with Imo in the car yesterday. The single "Never Miss A Beat" captures the attitude prefectly. The song is anthemic in its way.
What did you learn today (I learned nothin')
What did you do today? (I did nothin')
What did you learn at school? (I didn't go)
Why didn't you go to school? (I don't know)
It's cool to know nothin'
It's cool to know nothin'
Listening to the song, I had a smile on my face. I like the idea of a slacker anthem, and the Chiefs do a good job being ironic and serious (would that be serionic?) They sort of believe the words and sort of don't (however sincerely they may attempt to exemplify the slacker attitude, but it's hard finicky work putting out an album).
Closing, it occurs to me that all questions beginning Why did you .... have a negative subtext. You're not asking why because you think the other person did a great job. Why'd you cut your hair? does not imply that it looks better now. It means that it looked better before. Why are you reading this blog? implies, don't you have anything better to do?
So do it. See you next time.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

goodbye grenade guy

A strangely apt entry today. Normally I do not notice special days -- barely notice what day of the week it is. My job does not involve time off so I am not looking forward to any arbitrary date (except of course No More Parkas Day -- you know the one, usually in April, when it is actually Warm For the First Time In a Long Time, and I leave my computer and go for a long walk in a light jacket. Anyway, it's a moveable feast). But today I was going to talk about the headless army man, and then realized that it is November 11th.
So anyway, there I was reaching into the fridge for milk this morning, when I noticed that my army man looked different. I found him in the corner of a closet when I moved into my apartment a year or two ago. I don't know if he was in there by accident, or if the previous occupant of the bedroom had had the closet set up as a POW camp. I dusted the little green guy off and put him on the kitchen windowsill as a watchman. (Yeah, that's him in the picture -- or his pose. I figured anyone trying to climb in, he'd lob his grenade and I'd wake up.)
And now he was missing his head. Poor Grenade Guy, I thought, dropping him in the garbage. Victim of a brutal and absolute act. When Transformers lose body parts you can always snap them back together, but army men are more integrated.
I didn't wonder how it happened. I knew at once. No Holmsean insight required. I keep a pair of scissors on the window sill to snip the ends off the milk bags. My son Ed and his friend Frederico drop by from time to time, to hang out, drink chocolate milk and eat chewy bars. I figured one of them had seen the scissors and Grenade Guy and put two and two together to make, well, nothing.
I'll ask this afternoon. I don't think they'll lie. Denial is a huge part of boyhood, but this isn't worth denying. I wonder if they'll be able to accurately describe their motive. I suspect it's a kind of smorgasboard. Boredom, love of destruction, a side of naughtiness, a spoonful of cruel humour. Boys will be boys.
Ain't that the truth.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

best kind of injury

I shaved a boxer's face this morning. Or maybe a rugby player's. I am used to myself looking scruffy, puffy, bloated and blotched -- but not actually injured. This morning my left eyepitt is scratched, and the surrounding area is dark with blood pooling beneath the skin -- a serious bruise. From a distance, or with my glasses off, it looks like I am wearing an eye patch. Yes, dear reader, I am the proud possessor of a black eye. I'd say it takes me back but it doesn't. I don't think I've ever had one before.
I do recall a softball straight from the bat to my nose when I was seven. (I bled and bled. The batsman looked horrified and proud at the same time.) And I remember a right fist straight from the other boy's shoulder to my face when I was nine. (That was a very embarrassing moment -- he was so much smaller than I.) But no black eyes. I've spent most of my life staying out of fights. Those I couldn't avoid, I lost quickly.
And now this. Black eyes are good for attention, I find. If you feel underappreciated and unnoticed in your life, try walking into the room with a black eye. People stare and stare. A number of strangers have come up to ask how I got it or how I was doing, in concerned tones of voice. I don't mind the attention at all but because of my lack of experience I am unsure of the protocol. I can't pretend that it's a serious imjury. A jocular Ach, you should see the other guy! gets a laugh most of the time (where, Ach, you should see her does not. As a society, we seem to cling to sexist notions).
My daughter Imo is openly envious. Her aim all through her senior rugby season has been to get a black eye. The best players on the team have them, and she wants to join this elite. When she found out how I got mine (squash) she wanted to take up the sport. How long before I can get a black eye at squash? she asked.
This one took me twenty years, I told her.
She sighed. Well, it looks sweet, she said.
I can't remember the last time she has complimented my appearance. I'm going to enjoy the next few days.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


All right, it's happened. No, not that. I still have my hair. I mean the other thing guys worry about. No, not that either, thank goodness. Well, apart from that one time, and really it wasn't my fault .... Maybe I'd better just tell the story.
About a year ago a former mento of mine expressed shock at there not being a Wikipedia article about me. How can you claim to be a prominent author without a Wikipedia article? she said. I replied that I made no claim to prominence, and had never been approached by anyone wishing to write a Wikipedia article.
Why don't you write the article, I told my mento. Then I can claim to be a prominent author, and my only trouble will be getting people to believe me.
And I promptly forgot about it. But she did not. She got back to me a month ago with a long list of specific personal questions about me. Age (yes) hair (yes) tonsils (no) any history of (no, I tell you! Apart from that one time, and like I say ... ) And that was just for starters.
And so now there is an article. I takes some finding but it's out there. Apparently the wiki-monitors are worried because there aren't enough citations. I don't know what to tell them. It's all true, as far as I remember. (Well, except for the Orange Prize. That's not really me in the picture up there. It's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.)

Friday, 31 October 2008

eleventh commandment

It's tough to be a parent at Hallowe'en. I used to make costumes for the kids. Ah, stressful times. As any parent of young ones knows, Hallowe'en is a key day and your whole identity is on the line. You are not what you eat, or what you drive, or what you wear. You are what your kid goes out as for Hallowe'en. The cooler the costume, the cooler the parent.
I tried. God knows I tried. How could I not try, staring down at their earnest eager faces. Help us, Daddy! they cried. Help us to fit in to the school and community! Help us to find validation and acceptance from our peers! Help us to become fully actualized as children!
So I worried, and thought, and planned. I bought and borrowed, cut and pasted and duct-taped my way through a dozen or more anxious years. Witches, ninjas, pirates, ghosts, M&Ms (don't ask), scuba divers .... I tried everything. And yet somehow there was always something a bit off about my work. The other costumes always looked more convincing than mine. I tried to work out what it was. Did other parents use better boxes (for the robots -- check out the picture!) than I did? Whiter sheets (for the ghosts)? Blacker sheets (for the ninjas -- though there was one black satin ninja in kindergarten who made me look at his mom differently). I never found out.
Last night brought me back. Imo and Ed had to come up with costumes for school today. And it was tough going. Every suggestion was ridiculed. Too hard. Too lame. Too boring. Too easy. Too popular. Too stripey. (I was surprised at this one.) The Hallowe'en stakes are high as ever, but the rules are more complex as you get older. Cool is more than simply how you look -- it is how the look is achieved. (Keen moralists, teenagers. Intent is key, as it is in a crime or a sin.) In order to actualize and validate your coolness in high school you must never appear to be working at it.
I'm glad I'm not a parent of young children any more. But I'm extra glad I'm not in high school. Thou shalt not appear to be trying too hard is a tough commandment to live up to.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

when things go wrong

Another driving story -- this one with Imo. She and I were in Quebec this weekend, checking out colleges she may be going to next year. I was driving and drinking coffee, she was map-reading and telling me how she got the bruises on her arm and cheek (I got kicked and then stepped on, she said, with a kind of sigh. I nodded sympathetically. Men, I said. Who needs them, eh? She gave me her rugby player's laugh and told me to take the next left.)
And then things got dicey. Montreal streets are being repaired right now. All of them. Imo had one eye on the map and another on the orange signs that said that roads were barré. She barked instructions; I leapfrogged across lanes of traffic and deked down alleyways that turned out to be one-way-the-wrong-way. Other drivers honked and gestured angrily. I got very good at a sad smile and half-wave. We finally got to Pont Champlain, only to find that access was barré from this direction, which meant more circling round.
When we did get to the other side of the river Imo turned to me. That was fun, she said. It's kind of cool when things go wrong.
My smile was too big for my face. What a great attitude to life.
Yes it is, I said.
The next sign looked ambiguous. Neither of us could tell if we were in the right lane to go to Sherbrooke. Imo shrugged.
At this point I almost hope we end up in Vermont, she said.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

first time

Don't you just love it when your kid's face lights up? Birthday ... summer holidays ... dinner -- ah, these were all great moments in my childhood. But as a kid, is there a moment you look forward to more than your first time behind the wheel of a car?
I took Ed driving last night. I haven't had so much fun in a parking lot since ... well, since I took Imo driving a couple of years ago. Climbing over me into the driver's seat, adjusting it and checking the mirrors, Ed wore an expression of solemn joy -- not the gut-laugh of belly-flops and farts, but the serious high happiness of achievement.
For the next twenty minutes we went back and forth, and left and right, and forward and reverse and forward again. My smile got wider and wider as Ed got closer and closer to a mystical oneness with self and machine. I'm surprised that there isn't a car called the Nirvana. Maybe the idea would be too peaceful, conjuring up a sense of immobility behind the wheel. (Mind you, there's a car called the Armada, which to me conjures up the idea of an immense body of ships crashing. )
They seem so mature, teenagers, but they aren't. Their souls are still fresh and sensitive. They are vulnerable to pain, and also to joy. That's why they make so many reckless decisions, fall in love so completely and so distastrously. They can be possessed by feeling in a way that we, with our old leather-skinned souls, can remember only vaguely.
Yeah, leather-skinned sounds about right. We have lived long enough to be kicked around by life, punted up and down the field by chance and choice, will and time. We know so much more than teenagers -- but we have paid dearly for our wisdom. The closest we can come is to experience vulnerability through them. Which can mean bailing them out or rushing them to the hospital; or taking them for the first drive around a parking lot.

Monday, 20 October 2008

generation why

The next night Thea called at 8:00 pm -- not in triumph. I was trying to follow the plot of the movie In Bruges (the two incompetent hitmen in the picture here hole up in the medieval town, and receive baffling instructions from their crazy employer. Charming but not for the squeamish. The ending is like Titus Andronicus, only bloody) so Imo took the call. She's a pretty good cook, Imo. Her end of the conversation was quick questions.
What's wrong with the turkey? she asked.
Well, what temperature did you set the oven at? she asked.
How long has it been? she asked.
Then a pause.
Oh, she said, and handed me the phone, her eyebrows disappearing into her hairline.
Thea, it turned out, had read the first line of the cooking instructions (preheat oven to 500 degrees farenheit) and skipped to the ending where the bird comes out brown and perfect. The middle bit (reduce heat to 350, cover the centre, baste frequently) was glossed over. She came back from a party two hours later to find that the bird was black on top and raw underneath. And she was hungry.
I did what I could to limit the disaster, and find some spin to put on the project. (Cats enjoy charred turkey flesh, don't they, and the sweet potato stuffing would probably not be affected by the extreme cooking methods. And there was some peanut butter left in the jar, wasn't there?)
Seems like I'm making fun of my daughter -- because I am. But I have to say in her defence that she did survive, and the turkey was ultimately cooked. And she attempted her first bird at a much younger age than I did. When I was at university I came home for turkey, or did without.
Which brings me to Sam, who seems to be starving to death. Almost impossible, you'd think, since Kingston has 24-hour grocery stores and Sam has access to money. But his voice on the phone is weak. I haven't eaten in a day and a half, he says. (It may be a trick of the line but I hear a hint of French accent, as if he has turned into Jean Valjean, forced to steal a loaf of bread.)
I fight my anxiety. For heaven's sake! I say. Funny, though. As he describes his very busy schedule I can see how hard it is for him to get to the store. Never the right combination of available cash, transport, time, and will. I try to work out what he wants from me.
Do you want me to drive up and shop for you? I ask. It'd only take me three or four hours, after all.
No no, he says, with a gentle tubercular cough.
Then why are you telling me all this?
But the answer is simple: like the famous Fat Boy in Pickwick (only Sam would be the Thin Boy) he wants to make my flesh creep. A very natural instinct. My own instinctive guilt and worry are likewise normal. And so the comedy of the generations plays itself out, as it has for thousands of years. My cave self might have taken the opportunity to clunk my cave son over the head for being an idiot, but I am too civilized for that. Alas.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

first thanksgiving away from home

Thea spent Thanksgiving in the city instead of coming home. My little girl is growing up. Her decision was perhaps made for her -- two shifts at work, an essay due, and her roommate coming home with a turkey and a stuffing recipe from his mom. Is it ok if we call for help with the turkey? she asked, somewhat plaintively. Of course, I replied in my deepest Daddy knows voice.
I got a call at five on Sunday afternoon. So, how's the turkey coming? I asked.
I'm about to start it, she said.
Thea has been known to put things off, so I was not surprised. Planning a midnight supper? I asked.
What do you mean, Daddy? For I have been known to make jokes.
Turkeys take a long time to cook, I said.
How long?
Depends on how big it is, I said.
A pause. The tag says 4-8 kilos, she told me.
That's a bit vague, I said. Try to find a specific number on the tag.
There was a loud thud, and scramble on her end of the line.
Sorry Daddy. I dropped the turkey, and it skidded all the way across the kitchen floor.
She laughed heartily. I love hearing my children laugh.
Skidded, eh? I said. Then a thought struck me. Thea, is the turkey frozen?
Well, of course. I don't want to get salmonella.
My turn to pause now. The bird would take a day to thaw and somewhere between three and six hours to cook. Thea, honey, what else do you have to eat in the house? Apart from turkey stuff.
What are you saying, Daddy? I've got some cheese and crackers. Some cereal. Peanut butter. You know the kind of thing.
Indeed I do. Ah, student living. Happy Thanksgiving, honey, I said.

Monday, 13 October 2008

diet shmiet

If you are what you eat, then I am a cup of coffee and a handful of salted peanuts. My boy Ed is a bowl of cereal, with another bowl of cereal for a chaser. The average Slovenian, on the other hand, is a mountain of meat, potato, bread, cheese and cabbage. I was flabbergasted at the sight of my first "typical" Slovenian meal. After five days in the country, I am fatter, and still flabbergasted. My publishers -- kind, generous and concerned to treat me well -- sat me down in front of a traditional lunch after a long morning talking to radio and school kids. I couldn't come close to finishing. I did okay with the sausages (wonderful, spiced and smoky) but couldn't manage more than a bite of the potato hillock in the middle of the plate, or the small swamp of cabbage nestled beneath it. I skipped dinner that night. Next day we were in another town, and they sat me down in front of the same lunch that the next table was having -- a platter of meat, meat, and more meat, with another platter of garnish for the meat. I tried. I did. First a sausage and then some tender pork. I had a bite of rice stuffing, and a forkful of spicy pepper garnish almost as good as my mom's (who will read this blog) and way better than my baba's (who will not). I skipped the special cheese that I was supposed to spread on the meat and allow to melt, but I did try some pickled cabbage. And then I pushed back my plate. But you haven't tried your salad! cried my publisher. I gave her a helpless look. I ... I can't, I said.
Beside us, the couple who had been eating when we sat down were still going strong. Their platter was half empty.
Why aren't Slovenians the size of houses? With this diet they should be waddling along, barely able to fit into the small cars they drive through the narrow winding streets of the old town. But as a nation they are slender, fit folks. Is it a trick of national metabolism? Or might it, perhaps, have someting to do with the dearth of fast food outlets?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

oh those Europeans

Went for a midnight run last night, and the city was alive. People all around the squares and up and down the main streets. Ljubljana is a city all right, but its night life is not quite New York's, so I was kind of surprised to see all the late-night activity.
Surpised, and yet not surprised. This is Europe, I thought. People are different here. They take their civil problems seriously, and are not afraid to show their unhappiness with the authorities. In North America we write letters to the editor. In Europe they throw Molotov cocktails and tear up cobblestones. North Americans march around for a bit and then drive home. Europeans erect guillotines.
I kept running. I don't move quickly, so I get a chance to see a lot as I jog along. The crowds were young, energetic, and focussed. I looked for banners, slogans, angry gestures ... but there were none. There was some bottles, but I didn't see any matches or gasoline. As I passed one knot of youths they called for me to join them, but I declined. I didn't think my meagre vocabulary (the only Slovenian words I know are Hello, My Name Is, Thank You, and Best Wishes) could help the cause.
On my way home I passed two youths lying on the grass. I was concerned -- were they the victims of police brutality? I slowed down to a near walk. The first youth groaned, heaved himself to his knees and vomited into a nearby bush. I approached with an expression of concern. Hello, I said. He climbed to his feet and staggered off, seemingly uninjured. The second youth sat up and opened the bottle in his hand. There wasn't much left. He finished the bottle, threw it away, and stood up, swaying gently. The expression on his face was not friendly. He said something in a low guttural voice, and staggered towards me.
Best wishes, I said brightly, and ran back to the hotel.
This morning I gave a lecture at the university. The professor apologized in advance for her students. Term began this week, she said. And many of them were up celebrating. How do you call the opening time for first year students?
I smiled.
Frosh week, I said.
Yah, that's it.
In some ways, Europeans are the same as we are.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

where am I?

So here I am in beautiful downtown Ljubljana, mildly jetlagged after a day of travel and a day of presentations. Slovenia is a small country worried about preserving its culture because it is surrounded by large and powerful neighbours. Kids are force-fed Slovenian literature and politics in school. Sounds familiar to a Canadian. But - so different from us - they seem to lap it up! My kids all complained about the Struggle For Responsible Government, that hardy perreniel of the Canadian curriculum. And I sympathized. Hey, I was sick of it thirty years ago. But here everyone seems to revel in their struggle for freedom, independence, self-government. One of the schools I visited today had a Richard Scrimger Day, and there were songs and dances in traditional Slovenian costume. And the kids were smiling. They must have heard this stuff a thousand times but it was still fresh.
Yes, they watch South Park and Simpsons and Family Guy. And their jokes reflect it. They are part of the world American culture. But they are Slovenian too, proud relicts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. They listen to Blink 182, but they also listen to something called Turbo-folk (imagine oom-pah-pah with a Euro-pop chaser. That's it in the picture -- scary, huh?) And one of the TV channels seems to show indoor soccer 24/7.
Sounds crazy but I tell you I'm getting hooked.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

the burden of bounty

I don't own an i-pod.
This is not a moral position. I am happy that music is out there, and that we can collect it and store it in vast quantities to use as we wish. I have no quarrel with the technology, either. Nor am I put off by people walking around bobbing their heads to sounds I cannot hear. Bless you all, I say, and the self-selected melodious diversity with which you surround yourselves.
But I don't want to join you.

More than anything else, it is the sense of oppression: the crushing burden of quantity. The idea of holding thousands of hours of listening in the palm of my hand puts me off. I like salted peanuts. But I like them in digestible quantities. A handful of salted peanuts is pleasant. A bowlful is delightful. But a roomful of salted peanuts is hideous. I know I don't have to eat them all at once. But the idea that I couldn't possibly eat them, even if I had a year to do it -- that's off-putting. Almost scary. To me, an i-pod is a concert hall full of peanuts.
And the fact that I have selected each and every one only makes it worse. I have contributed to my own oppression. Isn't there a Chinese curse about attaining your heart's desire? Something like that.
Imagine the most exciting hockey game. Tie score, end to end action, nerve-twanging tension. Great. But what if the game lasted for a year without a break? 24 hours a day of pulse pounding drama, day after day, week after week. You'd die -- or become so blase that you didn't care any more. Hockey would cease to be a source of enjoyment for you. I'd hate to feel that way about music. Have you ever sat in your driveway at the end of a journey, listening to the last few bars of a song on the radio? Kind of a nice moment, isn't it. But what if the very next song was another old favorite. And the one after that. And the one after that. And so on. You could run through a thousand tanks of gas waiting for your i-pod to stop playing songs you loved.
To my mind, there is nothing more delightful than stumbing upon a wonderful piece of music. A gem in the middle of a radio program, a song heard through the din of a party, a single cd in the middle of the shelf. The element of chance plays a large part in enjoyment. Considering that life itself is a happy accident -- whether you're an evolutionist or a theist, or a mixture, you have to agree that we're pretty darn lucky to be here -- I think it appropriate that my pleasures are equally accidental. After all, whose children grow up according to plan? Who sets out to fall in love?

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Enjoyment isn't all about quality. It's about timing, too. When you are hungry, food tastes good. The most memorable meal of my life was not a seven-course tasting menu with wines to match, but a plate of Kraft Dinner mixed with chunks of canned ham, which I ate at the end of a very long and exhausting trek into a campsite in the dead of winter. Timing, like I said. You know, I can still recall the first bites -- even the charred grit from the side of the cooking pot which got mixed into the cheese sauce tasted wonderful.
I don't want to extrapolate my argument very far, because the perfect meal would then appear to be the one just before you are about to starve to death. I don't like that picture much. But there is something important about our capacity for enjoyment that depends on context.
Which brings me back to music. Stumbling upon a baroque concert in the course of a long drive is a wonderful feeling. I settle back in the seat, turn up the volume and bask in the sound. But what if the concert is never-ending? How long can you bask? How long before you've had enough? I love a beach vacation, but I don't think I'd like a beach life.
(Another quick thought has to do with the chance of stumbling on the concert. If I have it on disc, and can access it at any time, it's not the same. More on this next time, I think.)
I've stopped listening to my all-baroque-all-the-time radio channel. I sampled down the remote, trying alternative rock, Franco-pop, and instrumental new-age channels, and have been appropriately amused, bemused, and lulled. I just this minute switched to the chamber music channel, and am enchanted by a hyper-romantic piano trio I really like and rarely hear. So I'll stick around for a bit. But I don't know how long that bit will be. What if the next piece sounds like sewing machines? A lot of chamber music does, you know. I fear boredom.
A few evenings ago I came downstairs to find Imo reading on the couch with the TV tuned to the big-band radio channel. She was smiling along with some very up-tempo Fats Waller. Pretty good, eh, Dad? she said. I agreed. The song ended. Next up was Goodman. Then Ellington. Imo's smile widened and widened. You know, I could listen to this stuff all day, she said.
Good for you, I said. I don't know if I could.
She laughed at me. I love it when she does that. Well, geez, Dad, of course not. You don't have any attention span.
Maybe that's my problem.

Monday, 29 September 2008

flat baroque

I have satellite TV now. (Don't worry, this is not a post about my favorite shows. I have no favorite shows, and the ones I watch are with and because of my kids. If it's of interest at all, and while I'm still in the bracket, I can tell you that the most used channels are MTV2 and a rugby-soccer channel where all the announcers have North British accents. But that's not the point here.) Along with the 650-odd channels of television I get about 300 channels of radio. And one of those plays baroque music. I've had it on in the background for about a week now, except when the kids are over and switch to Viva La Bam.
As you'll have guessed, I like baroque music. Always have. The first record I remember listening to was Bach's transcriptions of Vivaldi's multi-violin concerti for multi-harpsichord. (My mom tells a charming story of me on the living room floor, picking my nose in tempo.) First record I bought with my own money was not "Sugar Sugar" but something by Giovanni Gabrieli. (Not that I can't sing the words to "Sugar Sugar." No one alive at the time escaped that song. Long after every word of the great poets has vanished from me, I will be able to sing "Sugar Sugar." That's the ineluctability of pop culture. I suspect that my last conscious thought will not be of art or destiny or loved ones. I can see me in the nursing home, friends and family leaning forward as I whisper, "Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed ...")
Sorry, where was I? Baroque music. Yes, I have loved it all my life. Pleasant, tuneful, easy-access music. Some pieces are old friends; others are new but they share so many features that I feel I know them. Scanning down the radio dial and finding a piece by Handel or Scarlatti has always been enough to make me smile at my good luck.
This past week I have smiled a lot. The baroque TV channel has the day blocked out in two or three hour segments, but they are all the same, sausage links of sound made of the same ingredients. But do you know -- I'm getting sick of it. It hit me this morning when I got up, flipped on the TV, and heard the old familiar strains. That's what this post is about. I am beginning to be oppressed by my own good fortune. If you are starving, a meal is an important event. But I am not starving for baroque music. I am stuffed.
More on this next time -- I feel that there are a number of factors involved in my sudden distaste for the soundtrack of my life. Right now, I am going to go back downstairs, turn off my satellite TV, and find something different to listen to. I wonder what would represent anti-baroque music? Mahler? Philip Glass? Blondie? Biggie Smalls? Jason Collett?

Maybe silence.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

say no! to sports

Changing at the YMCA the other day (is it necessary to add clothes, I wonder? That's what I was changing) I ran across Steve, an acquaintance of a few years. We got to talking of our children, which is what we seem to have in common (is it necessary to add that they are different children?) Steve is so proud he could burst -- his son is playing varsity football. Well done! I said, several times, since the topic kept coming up.
Takes after me, he said.
Well he would, wouldn't he, I said.
Steve looked puzzled.
I mean, he's your son, I said, going on to mention that my son Sam is also playing university sports. Frisbee, to be exact.
Steve looked puzzled again. Frisbee? he said. As if it was a concept with which he was unfamiliar, like abstract extension or string theory.
Oh yes, I replied. And not just toss-it-around-the-park-and-check-out-the-girls frisbee. He is on a team. They play games. My boy is quite the athlete.
Steve smiled down at me. Not condescendingly -- he's a nice guy. But not not condescendingly, if you understand. That's, uh, great, he said, and headed for the showers, limping slightly on the knee he injured all those years ago playing -- you guessed it -- varsity football.
I suppose we all suffer from the excesses of youth. Choices pursued avidly in our teens and twenties can come back and bite us in middle age. Serious and unlucky indulgence in love or pharmaceuticals, food or drink or any number of risky businesses can have lifelong consequences. But sports seems to be the most dangerous pursuit of all. Is there a retired pro hockey or football player who does not wake up in pain? And these guys at least have glorious memories and bank accounts. What about the college and minor league stars who were a step slow for the pros? What about the amateurs who gave up their health for the good old school? I can't help noticing all the trick knees, bad backs, and blown shoulders of guys my age -- and how many of these chronic conditions date back to high school or university athletics. And yet these ex-athletes -- the Steves of the world, gobbling ibuprofin like candy, limping and wincing through life -- are often quite pleased when their childen take up a sport that might well land them in hospital. Chip off the old block mentality. I wonder how many ex-drug addicts are pleased to see their children following in their footsteps?
I'm being facetious, but only up to a point. I am glad that Sam is having fun and running around the frisbee field. But at the risk of offending Steve, I am very thankful that my son is not playing varsity football, or rugby or hockey or lacrosse. I've heard some mighty scary stories about field hockey too.
Of course the genes are against Sam. I have no athletic glory to look back on. Mind you, on the plus side, I don't hobble or take pain killers, and my dad still jogs dozens of miles every week.
That's a block I am proud to be a chip off of.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

my first movie review

The purpose of this blog is not critical. I mean that in two ways. I am not expressing views of earth-shattering importance, and I am not poking fingers into anyone's chest -- with the possible exception of the iniquitous David Ogden, who scammed me on craigslist, and the OPP who continue to inhibit my fast driving (reading a detective story yesterday, I came to a scene where the hero is following one of the bad girls. The sidekick asks why she is driving so slowly, and the hero suggests that she might have points on her license. Talk about literature speaking to you: Of course she does! I thought immediately. Reminds me of the scene in Bardell v. Pickwick where Serjeant Buzfuz -- I think that's the name -- makes a joke about greasing oats and one of the jury laughs because he had done it himself that morning.) What I mean is that I do not aim to be anyone's watch dog, or moral compass, or arbiter elegantarium.
So it's a bit of step out of line for me to review a film. But, see, my kids have been talking about The Dark Knight since it came out. It is, they all (yes, all of them -- and they hardly ever agree on anything) claim, the best film ever. Imo could not believe she could enjoy a movie so much. It's long, she said, but you don't want it to end.
My parents had a different take on it. The word that came up first in my mom's critique was : loud. It didn't seem fair to criticize a movie on volume alone. I understand that a lot of things blow up, I said.
Everything blows up, she said. All the time.
So it seemed to be a generation thing. I wondered which side I'd come down on. I have disappointed both children and parents in my inability to join their enthusiasms for, among other things, the movie Supertroopers, most modern jazz, and almost all of Viriginia Woolf.
Not to leave you on the edge of your seats for long, I saw The Dark Knight, and enjoyed it. But not all that much. It wasn't Duck Soup or The Palm Beach Story or Casablanca. It wasn't Pulp Fiction or The Godfather, or even The Big Lebowski. It was ... let me think of the right word: okay.
When I told her how I felt, Imo was aghast. I don't know that I can stay here in the same room with you, she said. So I asked her what she liked about the movie. And as she talked I found that we agreed on a lot of the best scenes. (They were all the Joker's, of course. It's his movie. And though he's only got the one schtick, it is a good one.) Making the pencil disappear, the shot from behind of him in the nurse's uniform, the sympathy he shows for the cop who has lost six friends.... So if you like all these scenes, she said, and if the acting is good (it is, mostly) and the special effects are okay (they are; some of them are quite good) then why don't you think that the film is great?
That might be a generation thing, or it might be just my kids. When they talk about something they like it's often: Remember that bit when .... For them, the whole is a sum of its parts. If there are enough good parts, then the whole must be good. Maybe it's their attention span: they remember intensely, vividly, but no more than a few minutes at a time. They like clip shows, where you see a collection of funny scenes from Family Guy or Seinfeld or whatever. Me, I hate clip shows. For me, the whole has to work as a whole. So The Dark Knight is less than the sum of its parts.
And the problem with Virginia Woolf is that not enough stuff blows up.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

child development

One of the best things about having kids is enjoying the various new stages they get to. I never wanted to freeze them in time. Yes, they were cute at two years of age; but also at seven and sixteen. Every development has made them more fun to be with. Crawling. Walking and talking. Going to school. And now, for my eldest, drinking.
So exciting to share a bottle of red wine with Sam and realize he actually likes it. (I'm not saying he has much discernment yet -- he also actually likes whisky that tastes like cinnamon, and a mixed drink called a Jager Bomb which, as far as I can tell, is a simple way of inducing heart attack. There's three of them lurking on the bar in the picture there.) When I visit him in his new digs I must remember to bring a nice bottle. Pinot or cabernet, or perhaps a big zinfandel.
As for Thea, she is on her way to becoming a fully fledged -- I can hardly hold back my tears of pride -- barista. Yes, she is discovering the joys of good coffee. She can grind the beans, steam and foam the milk (in my waiter days I never learned the difference, but apparently there is one) and produce a cup of joy. We have already had wonderful conversations about the relative merits of French and African and Asian roasts. (I'd be happy to continue on this topic, but she seems to care more about her shifts, and co-workers, and pay. Blasé already.) More to the point, one of the perks of her job is a free pound of coffee every week. When I visit her in her new digs I must remember to bring an empty cup.

Monday, 15 September 2008

help from above

A few of you expressed real concern about my sightless state. Thank you. A couple of you laughed at me. Well, sure. St Anthony (patron saint of lost things and missing persons. That's him there, preaching to the fishes) was invoked more than once. And why not -- I'll take all the help I can get.
I found the glasses late last week (thanks, St A) wedged between the two rows of books in my double-stacked bedside bookcase. How they got there I do not know, since I place my glasses on the top of the bookcase when I take them off. Gremlins, earthquakes, and somnambulism are possible but improbable answers. The impossible (I'm sure I didn't do this) but probable answer is that I put my glasses on top of a book in the middle shelf instead of their usual spot. After all, I was tired.
I am not Catholic, but I rather like the idea of saints interceding for me, beavering away up there on my behalf. As I said, I need all the help I can get. And saints have, or had, human qualities, so I don't mind asking them for stuff. It's like borrowing from your big brother or sister. God is like your insurance company. You don't waste God on a dented fender. Save God for the total write-off, and hope your rates don't go up too much.
Which is stupid, I know. If you are going to believe in a benevolent and omniscient deity, why not let the deity do His or Her stuff. I understand that. But there are large and small jobs around the world, and my sense of scale gets thrown off, thinking that my glasses matter as much as famine or disease or global warming.
Next on my list of things to question about myself is the double-stacked bookcase. Not only is it inconvenient, it also creates a hole where small objects can disappear for days. I could get rid of the second row of books, I suppose, except that I don't like to throw books out, and I have no place to put them. I wonder which saint I can ask for a new bookshelf?

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

blur-world -- how could it happen?

No matter what time of day I wake up, I am in the dark. Without my glasses I can see ... oh, about as far as an inch past my nose. (Mind you, within that one-inch radius I can see everything, up to and including the teeny tiny typeface of the two-volume OED.) I'm used to the dimness of the morning world. I just fumble around the shelf near the bed, don my glasses, and the world springs into focus.
(Don my glasses -- what a silly way to put it. Any time you use a fancy word when you could use a simple one, you die a little in your soul. My friend Bruce has what he calls "the two don rule" when he's reading a new book. No, this is not a mafia joke. If the author uses a phrase like The hero donned his smoking jacket and proceeded downstairs, Bruce makes a mental tick mark. One more phrase like that and he puts down the book, and crosses the author off his list of people he should read.)
So, like I was saying, I put on my glasses and the world springs into focus. But this morning -- several hours ago now -- I fumbled for my glasses in vain. On my bedside shelf were kleenex, reading lamp, several books, and a week's worth of dust, but no glasses. I was puzzled. I hunted through the bedclothes -- had I fallen asleep with the glasses on? Nope. I got out of bed and felt around on the floor. No glasses. I still wasn't what you'd call worried -- I have several pairs of slightly-out-of-date glasses dotted about the place. But I was really surprised. I mean, how could the glasses be missing? I wear them all the time. When my kids lose their homework bike hairband jacket shoes wallet accordion toothbrush dessert penkife -- when they lose all the things they lose, my first question will always be: Where were you when you last had it? In this case, I was in bed -- I had my glasses and then I took them off. Are you sure you had it then? I'll ask the kids. My own answer here would be: Yes, I'm sure. Because when I take my glasses off, I can't see any more.
The situation had gone far enough. I groped my way over to the dresser, and scrabbled through the top drawer until I found an old pair of glasses. The world limped into view -- bit hazy, but clear enough for me to function. I put on coffee (I don't think you can don coffee, can you) and commenced Operation Glassesfind.
And now, at .... 1:27 by my computer (had to lean forward and peer at the time) I am still at it. The operation is ongoing. The glasses are not in the bedclothes, not on the floor under the bed, not on any of the shelves near the bed. Where oh where can they be? What can have happened? I've considered the idea that I was sleepwalking last night, or had had so much to drink that I don't remember correctly. Neither answer really fits the evidence. (I've never walked in my sleep, and I don't have a headache.) My current theory involves malignant elves. It doesn't make any more sense than my previous ones, but at least this way it's not my fault.
More next time. Meanwhile, if you have any theories, I'll be delighted to consider them.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

civics and the real new year

Not much more to say about New York, except that I'll be paying for it for the next couple months. Touring with a flock of teenagers is a twenty-four hour a day cab ride. The meter is always on. We're home now, and everyone's thoughts are on school.
Funny month, September. I have been out of school much longer than I was ever in it, and yet I still feel that the year starts on Labour Day. January 1 may have fireworks, but it's an arbitrary date in the middle of the school year. All things are fresh in September.
Ed came home after the first day and announced that he loved Ccivics. My mouth didn't drop open because I had coffee in it. I swallowed carefully and then let my lower jaw fall. Really? I said. Civics? Really?
I should have been more encouraging. A teen finds his calling in life, that's a big moment. Follow your bliss, says whoever it is. (That's from a self-help book, isn't it? Not Shakespeare or Eliot or someone I should recognize. Say, you know what would be a long list? Self help books I have not read. That list would stretch right down the page. I am not sneering -- heavens, all you have to do is look at the sales figures. But there are a lot of self-help books out there, and I have read exactly none. I should do something about that. I'm clearly missing out on a large slice of popular culture. It's like never watching sit-coms or eating pizza. Sorry, where was I? Follow your bliss. Right. Gee, maybe there's a self-help book about staying on topic.) So, yeah, I should probably have given Ed a big hug of congratulation and started career planning, instead of gaping in disbelief and wondering if the world had started spinning backwards.
It's just that I have never heard of a passion for civics. If I had to list school subjects that might inspire passion, civics would be right at the bottom. It would be below Latin. Below Wood Shop. Below Detention.
But I am a caring dad, and I want to understand my kids. So I asked Ed what he found particularly appealing about Civics. Is it the way you get to see how systems work? I asked. Is it something about the social contract? Or are you just fascinated by government?
His turn to stare. What are you talking about, Dad? All my friends are in that class. There are seven or eight of us, and we all sit together. It's going to be a sweet term.
So you don't care about Civics as a subject.
He had a mouth full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so his hearty laugh was not a thing of beauty. But I was able to join in. My son's passion is hanging out with his friends, and the world is spinning the usual way.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

holiday part 4 -- fun? yes. relaxing? no.

And so we finally made it to New York. I had no brilliant plans for the children -- a few days in a big city as a cultural counterweight to our small town. A chance to move briefly among a mass of people from around the world instead of seeing the usual crowd from around the block. A couple of good meals and subway rides, a show, a walk in the park, a tall building or two, maybe a museum or gallery. And of course a cab ride. That's how it started. There are a few experiences that kids should have if they can, and a New York taxi cab is one of them. I watched their eyes widen and widen. I heard their indrawn breaths. When we pulled in front of our hotel, two of them wanted to become cabbies. The other two wanted a bathroom.
Second day there, Sam and I had an intimate moment while the girls were buying gum at a specialty store and Ed was trying on shirts. He said, You really like this place, don't you, Dad. He did not mean Macy's.
I do, Sam, I said.
What do you like about it?
He wanted to understand. His mind seems scattered on the four winds at times, and yet he can be so focussed.
The speed, I say. The scale. The hot beef sandwiches at 3:00 am.
He thought about that.
How about you? I asked. You having fun? Would you come back?
Maybe, he said. But not with the family.
The girls phoned from Grand Central Station. They had got lost on the way to the gum store, and were trying to get back. Where was Macy's again? Hang on, I said, because Ed was talking. He wanted a rugby shirt, and he was hungry. Could he get a hot dog on the street like yesterday? Sam's eyes lit up, and the two of them raced off, leaving me holding the striped jersey and cell phone.
I told the girls to turn around, and begin walking towards the lower numbered streets, and to stop and call back when they got to 34th. I got in line to pay for the rugby shirt. And waited for the boys to call from Greenwich Village or Queens.
I have to disagree with Sam. New York with the family is a great trip.

Friday, 29 August 2008

holiday part 3: risk, comfort, joy

The Cincinnati airport is like a chain family restaurant. You order your pasta or ribs, your caesar salad, your draft beer. Nothing surprising, nothing really good, nothing too terribly bad.
On the whole, I find that approach to dining a let down. I want more risk at meal time -- the attempt at a truly great experience, even if there's an occasional weird and bad one. I like to meet new foods and wines, same as I like to meet new people. I don't mind familiar faces at a party, but I don't want to go to exactly the same party every time.
But these are low-risk enjoyments. At the extremes of life -- surgery, say, or war, or flying across the continent -- when the down side is a long long way down -- I find the chain restaurant approach very comforting. I don't want excitement at the airport. I want competence. If that means boredom, I will embrace it. I'd rather have a dull but able pilot than a drunken genius.
So, getting back to our trip, I was quite pleased with the Cincinnati airport's predictability. My children liked the place too. Not that they cared about flight safety. What they liked -- what they loved -- was the moving sidewalks.

Funny how time telescopes. Watching them frolic on the rubberized ribbons (the four of them reminded me of otters on a slide, laughing hysterically, skipping backwards and forwards, ducking down and popping up, jumping on and off and running around to do it again) took me back to their first time on an escalator. The years dropped from us like Friday knapsacks at the back door. I forgot that this was an airport, and thought only of holiday. I laughed and played along, until an irritated guy in a uniform told us to stop. That had happened on the escalator too. Back then we'd gone to a coffee shop to regroup with muffins and chocolate milk. Was there a muffin place at the Cincinnati airport? Of course there was.

Monday, 25 August 2008

holiday part 2: intolerance in the customs line

When I studied Latin, we learnt how to decline nouns and conjugate verbs (I sometimes forget what day of the week it is, or the age of my children, but I can still do amo amas amat and puella puellae puellas) and also many interesting facts about Roman history. In the time of the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians, the hero of the hour was a guy who put public good ahead of private good. He laid aside his plow to serve the city, even though his family might starve, accepting the fasces of the dictator. (The fasces was a bundle of sticks, and it was the emblem of the dictator. That's where the term fascist comes from! Miss Kennedy told us brightly. Huh? we said.) He saved Rome in a matter of weeks, and went back to plowing. (That, at least, is the way Livy tells it. I can't believe there are many successful dictators' families in danger of starvation.) The hero's name was Cincinnatus, and it lives on in a small American city known for its basbeall team and classical pops orchestra.
When my kids and I missed our flight to New York, and were standing at 5:30 am in the Toronto airport, grumbling, yawning, scratching our heads and blaming, well, me, the Delta representative fiddled with her keyboard, and said, What about Cincinnati?
I held my tongue. I have learnt that there is a time to show off a classical education, and a time to shut the hell up. What about it? I said.
There's a plane taking off in half an hour that'll get you to New York via Cincinnati, she said.
And so the adventure began. We were a little late, and heading in the wrong direction, but we were off. First, though, we had to make it through customs. Our line was the slow one. Our guy was mean looking, with a large bald head and close set eyes, black and shiny as watermelon seeds. Often a quick physical judgment is completely false, but maybe not this time. He sure seemed mean. The lady two ahead of us was almost in tears when he finally let her go. Next up was a woman wearing the burqah, and I found myself guilty of racial profiling. (Not that I thought she was a terrorist -- I just wished she was in another line.) But before she could step forward an airline staffer came by, pushing a man in a wheelchair past us to the head of the line.
My daughter was on this one quickly. She has a strong sense of justice. How come the wheelchair goes first? she asked.
Maybe he needs more time to get seated onto the plane, I said.
Then he should get here earlier, said Thea.
Yeah, the handicapped get all the breaks, I said, and Thea blushed.
You know what I mean, Daddy.
Yes, I did know what she meant. In an ideal society, those in wheelchairs would be treated like everyone else, except for the fact that they can't climb stairs or tapdance. But I was prepared to be tolerant this one instance.
Our customs guy wasn't. He didn't cut the wheelchair any breaks at all. Questions, frowns, fingerprint validation. It took a long time.
Then another wheelchair rolled up to the head of our line.
The woman in the burqah turned away, muttering under her breath. Could have been a prayer or a statement of compassion, or a reminder to herself to send an email, but it sounded very much like what I was thinking.
Dad, said Ed, as we ever going to get on the plane?
It's with Allah, I said, very quietly.
What? With Ellen?
Yes, I said. It's with Ellen. Ellen is most great.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

my holiday part 1: the drama of last-minute arrivals

Well, the editing got done. A four-hour phone call, interrupted a couple of times as I dashed away to rewrite key bits of dialogue. On the whole a more valuable day than the one I spent prying apart coffee filters and getting my hair cut, since I was able to convince my copy editor that the sex scene and most of the bad language should stay. (The book is for teens, after all, and it has to compete with television.)
After the phone call, I packed my bag and picked up the kids. Holiday time! What could be better than a few hilarious days in a big city with teenagers? At 6:05 the following morning, our plane left for New York.
Without us.
I would like at this point to mention my father. He is a planner, a file keeper, a filler-in of warranties. He is, above all, an abhorer of travel stress. He likes to confirm his flights the day before, and check in well (WELL) in advance. For a 6:00 am international flight, he might arrive at the airport at 3:00 . Heck, he might decide to show up the night before, and sleep over. All my travelling life I have heard him talk about how much he hates the drama of late arrivals.
Easy to make fun of a guy like that. Easy to laugh at his cautious calculations of time and distance, his preparations in case this or that or the other goes wrong. Easy to make fun of the ant -- until winter comes.
All my travelling life I have been the grasshopper, taking things more casually than my father, figuring I would rather spend time in the city itself than in the city's airport or train station. I have counted on my guardian angel, the kindness of fate and strangers, and the quick reflexes of cabbies. Yes, a couple of my arrivals have been somewhat last-minute. I have heard my name called over loudspeakers, and met the frowns of uniformed personnel with a rueful smile on my face. But I have not been caught with my travelling pants down until ... well, until the five of us arrived at the Delta terminal with just enough time to make our flight (there might have been a little bit of hustling through the airport, a teeny amount of panic firmly checked) ... only to be told that the flight had been oversold and that our seats were gone. The next flight left on four hours, and it was full too.
I looked round at my four children, who were reacting predictably. Thea, who had wanted to leave home much earlier (having inherited her grandpa's gene), was grim, Imo resigned, and the two boys were yawning uncontrollably.
I had a thought for my father, getting a phone call to say we'd missed our flight. Would his darker side get the better of him, after bearing all the teasing over all the years? Would a part of him, inside, be snickering quietly, or punching the air in a violent Told you so! gesture of victory? No. My dad isn't like that. He'd be shaking his head in sympathy.
But meanwhile I was in the airport with four kids who were looking to go to New York for a few days. What now? I wondered.

Monday, 18 August 2008

overpaid at .20/hr

A day for small things, I think. Up late last night finishing off the next round of editing for Me & Death, consequently up late this morning, with that feeling of unreality that overcomes me when I wake up after everyone else has gone to work. In the kitchen I spent almost a minute separating two coffee filters that didn't want to be separated. Separating coffee filters is a pretty sad way to use time, since they cost about a third of a cent each, which means (hang on while I work it out) that I value my time at about twenty cents and hour, or 64.00 a week on a 40-hour week. (Very sadly, there have been books that paid me less.)
This morning's labour was , it turned out, a total waste of time since one filter proved to be malformed, a sad anencephalic product with most of the top missing. I threw it out. While the coffee brewed, I tidied empty liquor bottles into the cupboard where I keep empty bottles (no, they were not all from last night. I do my editing sober) and, noticing that the cupboard was getting full, I found an empty box and filled it with the dead soldiers. I'll take it to the liquor store for a refund later today, or maybe tomorrow. Meanwhile, having no better place to store it, I put it back in the empty-bottle cupboard.
Coffee in hand, I went upstairs and found an email from my editor. We were supposed to discuss the revised Me & Death today, but she has an appointment. Could we could do it tomorrow instead, she asked. Sure, I replied.
So I'm trying to think what to do. I might get my hair cut. I'll certainly take the bottles back. And I'm about ready for some more coffee filters. It's that kind of day.

Friday, 15 August 2008

cricket test

It's seasonal advice time. Now that summer is almost over, those of you with cottages should make sure you take advantage of the limited amount of time left to sneer at all of us without cottages. We'll have fall and winter and spring to be thankful that we aren't responsible for another hunk of property taxes and leaks, but we'll be envious of docks and rafts and boats for the next month or so.
On a smaller scale and more practical note, here's what you do when a late summer cricket invades your residence. At least, this is what I did.
1) Identify. Yes, it is a cricket. And yes there is only one of them. Sometimes the noise seems too loud to be made by a little bug rubbing its legs together. I mean, when I rub my back legs together all I get is a rash. But it's a cricket, and you have to deal with it or it will drive your son crazy, and you'll have all that worry and those ridiculous medical costs.
2) Isolate. What room is the cricket in? It may seem like it's right beside you, but it is probably a hallway away. You'll know when you're getting close by the plaster dust. Can not for the life of me imagine how anyone in Victorian England would have wanted one on the hearth. Good luck? What's good about not sleeping for days?
3) Investigate. Exactly where is the noisy little sucker? It'll probably rub harder and get noisier at night. Do not use a light to spot it. It's unsportsmanlike, and also ineffective. The cricket will shut up when the light is on it. Oh, and focus your search attention below the waist. Crickets climb well, and adhere like limpets, but they are more likely to be low than high.
4) Indemnify. This is for after you have spotted the cricket and attacked it vigorously with a piece of two by four -- which you accidentally put through the common wall, bringing a section of your neighbor's kitchen or bedroom redecoration down around him. A smile and a cheque book will work well here.
The mnemonic is easy: IIII. Don't try to save time by skipping steps, or doing them out of sequence. You will confuse yourself, your cricket and your neighbor. Follow the steps, each and every one, in order. Maybe you'll get lucky, as I did, isolating the cricket in a closet, so that the hole in the common wall won't be too noticeable. Here's hoping.
Oh, and one last reminder. No matter how small your place (our closet is about three feet square), and how active you (and your son -- Sam and I were in there together, whacking away)are, you won't catch the cricket. Darn things are fast, flighted, and opinionated. They'll wait until you have gone back to bed, then start up again, driving your son to to wake you up, and force you to conduct another search. And so the cycle repeats. All you can do is go, Grrrr.
I think about October, and get this smile on my face. The cricket will be gone. (So will my son, for that matter.) And my friends' summer cottages will boarded up and mothballed. Yup, October is going to be my month.