Sunday, 27 January 2008

teens, teens, good for your heart

To finish my last post here, my son's second choice for living arrangements next year requires an even greater suspension of disbelief than his first choice, which, you will recall, involved him and his buddies aboard a version of Nansen's Fram, frozen into the waters of the St Lawrence near the foot of Albert Street in Kingston. Scenario Two involves -- get this -- an RV. Yes, that's what I said. A rolling house party, three or more boys, one parking permit, one steering wheel. He correctly interpreted my pause down the phone line when he broached the idea. I know it sounds dumb, he said, but I want you to consider how surprisingly practical an RV is Cheaper than a house. Faster to clean. And think how easy it will be to get to class. I'll be able to roll right up to the building. Then cruise to my next class and do the same thing. I can come home for the weekends. Or (correctly interpreting another pause) not.
There is an element of irony in virtually everything Sam says, so I didn't how serious he was about the RV. I suspected the existence of an ad, and a vendor who was prepared to consider a rental agreement ... but I wondered if the boy knew how goofy his idea sounded?
Laugh all you want, he told me. Just remember what'll happen if I don't find a place to live soon.
I knew he wasn't talking about another year in residence. That'd be too easy.
I walked past a house today that was flying the quarantine flag, Dad. Big yellow Q flag in the front window.
That doesn't mean it's typhus, I said.
Doesn't mean it isn't typhus, though. More likely to be typhus than if the flag wasn't there.Which was a point, I suppose.
You know how they treat typhus, Dad? They spray you all over with this vile chemical. Do you want to put me through that?
And that did it. I laughed some more. Everyone should have teenagers in their lives. They keep you elastic. They are so big, so capable, so ridiculous. Nothing is impossible, nothing is quite what it seems.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

living arrangements, part 1

It's the middle of the school year, a time when all busy university students have to decide where they will be living next year. That's what my son Sam tells me anyway. Can't you wait until you finish your exams? I ask him, and he sighs down the phone line. You just don't understand, Dad, he says. And of course I don't. Houses in university towns rent from May to May. The way he tells it, the decision must be made this week. To wait even a few days means that the fun people, the nice people, the clean people, will have found other room mates and Sam will have to spend next year bunking in with (if I understand him correctly) cholera victims and crack addicts and ex-cons with shivs.
Cholera? I say.
Or typhus. It's bad here, Dad. My friend Joe waited until February to look for a place last year. And now he's in a house with ...
Mice? I ask, remembering my own university days. Roaches?
Frat boys. He shudders.
Wow, I say. Makes typhus look appealing.

So Sam and his friends have spent their study time scoping out the want ads. They have, he tells me, narrowed it down to two accommodation scenarios. Which do you prefer, Dad? The floating home or rolling home?
You'll have to explain, I say.
Scenario One, as he puts it, is a houseboat on the St Lawrence. For only a few hundred dollars each per month, he and his pals can live aboard. I assume he's kidding, but no. Fresh air, quiet atmosphere for studying, close to campus. And think of the river parties! he says.
But ... the St Lawrence freezes over, I say. (I feel like straight man.) You'll be stuck like what's his name in the Arctic.
Long pause. I can hear him shouting down the hall.
Check the ad again, I tell him. Are you sure it's a year lease? Are you sure it's not just for the summer? Sam! Sam!
He's back, breathless with excitement. Phil knows who you mean, he says. The boat was the Fram, and it was stuck in the ice for three years. Now we know that this is what we want to do. Dad, can you send a check for four hundred dollars for a downpayment? Can you do it today?
I have to smile at his enthusiasm. He really thinks this is all possible. What it is to be nineteen. What's wrong with residence? I ask.
Dad, you don't understand
Next post: Scenario Two.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

scrimger's travels

Odd experience at a school in Southern Ontario yesterday, chatting to a gym pretty much full of kindergarteners. They were giggling and wiggling on the polished wooden floor (it was an old-school school) and I strode up and down among them, a storytelling Gulliver. All very typical. Except that the kids wouldn't do what they were told. I had established an aisle down the middle of the group, and, about halfway through my story, one of the Lilliputian scrawled over to block the aisle. I asked her to move, and she paused, then shook her head. Still smiling. Did she not understand? "Please?" I said, and finally she skooched over to let me past. Immediately two little fellows, round and happy, rolled into the aisle and sat there, arms linked, grinning up at me. Made me laugh. I bent down, and gently moved them out of the way -- a harder task than I thought it would be. They actually struggled, giggling the while. They knew what they were doing, all right.
Interesting, because kindergarteners, though goofy, tend to do what they are asked. That's what school is all about, no? Training the young to follow orders. To understand when a grown up is serious. Well, these guys weren't getting it.
It takes a meaner man than I am to yell at little kids having fun (unless sharp edges or valuable electronics are involved). I shook my head and resumed my story, but I didn't get far. After reading a sentence or two, I looked down and found myself surrounded. My aisle had vanished. As far as I could see were laughing kindergarteners. My Gulliver analogy was apter than I had originally thought.
I held my hands up for silence, and they shut up immediately. "Could you guys go back to where you were?" I said.
Oh, how that made them laugh.
"I don't want to step on you." I said.
More laughter.
"No, seriously," I said.
The laughter intensified. They were killing themselves.
Now, don't get me wrong. I was pleased to have an appreciative audience. I mean, these were not even really good jokes. But I was aware of losing control of the situation. I looked over at the teachers, who were laughing with the kids. Did they think this was part of my act?
"Help!" I said.
That did it. A raking wave of laughter swamped the gym. Teachers, kids, the custodian, woman in a suit who looked like a principal or school trustee -- everyone in the gym threw their hands in the air and howled.
When you find yourself trapped by your own success, there is only one thing to do. I gave up, and let them have their way with me. No, they didn't knock me down and tie me to the gym floor, but the rest of my presentation was ... um ... unstructured.
After the bell rang, I accepted the congratulations and coffee mug with an outward smile and an inward shiver. I can't help wondering what kind of presentation I'll be giving these kids when they get to high school. As I recall, Gulliver did not have a whole lot of fun in Brobdingnag.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

deprived childhood

I'm not going to apologize for the last post. Every now and then I get deep on you guys. What can I say, I'm complex. I may spend most of my time watching comedy or sports, but I have been known to flip to the haunting lyrical movie channel. During the commercial breaks, say.
This one is a quick wtf. Ed brought a friend to dinner last night. When we were clearing away, I apologized for not having any dessert to give them, and this friend said a weird thing. I'm not used to dessert. I never get it at my place, he said.
Of course we all stared. He explained that he had never, in all his fourteen years, had a dessert at home. I wondered if he meant a home-made dessert -- I mean, I'm not much of a baker myself, and am likely to offer my kids or guests something from my mother (who is a heckuva baker, by the way. And if you're reading this, Mom, it's been a while since you've made oatmeal cookies) or the bakeshop down the street. But no. This young man claims never to have had a dessert at home. Not even an Oreo cookie? said Imo, for whom a meal without dessert is like a word without vowels. The boy -- I'll call him Frederico, not that it's his name, but I've always wanted to meet someone named Frederico -- shook his head.
Funny, huh? I know Frederico's mom well -- a wonderful lady, kind, caring, intelligent, generous -- and never suspected her dessertophobic side.
Are you allowed to eat dessert? I asked. I mean, if there was a dessert here, would you eat it?
Frederico nodded. So here's my question. He's coming for dinner again tonight and I don't know what to give him. You might think crocembouche or linzer torte, something astounding and fancy from The French Laundry, but I don't want to move too fast here. It's not fair to push a non-swimmer into the deep end. Frederico's a non-desserter. Maybe we'll start with pudding. Or apple pie. Hell, maybe I'll go out and buy a bag of Oreos.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

on party hats

Talked parties with my son Sam this weekend. He's having a wonderful time (too wonderful? No, just wonderful enough) at university, so he had more to say than I did. One of his comments was particularly insightful. I like those stupid party hats, he said, but, you know, they hurt.
I was dumbstruck (for a half-second). Then You're right!! I shouted down the phone line. I can not remember a single time -- out of the dozens of party-hat occasions in my life -- when I have taken the hat off and not felt physically relived. I'm always happy to put it on, and always in pain when I take it off.
There's a symbol there. The party is our life. We embrace it, smiling. We willingly pull it on our head even though it makes us look stupid, eager to join the crowd of other stupid-looking partiers. They laugh at us and welcome us to the festivities, and we're off, dancing and drinking and chatting up a storm. We forget about the hat. The party goes on, and the newness dies, but we keep smiling because this is a party and we want everyone to have a good time. Except that there's a growing stiffness around our jaw, and a pain from the elastic cutting into our cheek .... The very thing that makes it a party is hurting us. But if we take off the hat the party will be over, and we aren't -- quite -- ready for the party to be over. So we wait a bit longer, only by now we are very aware of the stupid hat. We look over at old whatshisname, asleep on the couch, his hat half off. He looks kind of pathetic. We think about sitting down ourselves, yawn hugely (and painfully), and realize that most of the guests have left. So we get our coats instead, and join the crowd at the door, and there in the hall we give our hostess a hug and, with a kind of rueful grimace that is oh so relieved, we pull off the party hat. And go home.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008


In the good old days (I mean the middle ages -- old but maybe on second thought not so good) they used ordeals as a way of meting out justice. Ordeal by water and fire and battle. Nowadays trials are more like ordeal by money, but don't let's get started there, for my topic today is not criminal justice but computer repair. And competence. Last week I underwent a searching and painful ordeal indeed, as I tried to get a length of ethernet cable repaired. My regular computer place was closed for Spock's birthday or an anti-virus convention or something, so I went to a dusty shop in the middle of town. "Just stick a connector on the end," I said to the guy behind the counter. "The old one has come off." I didn't have much time because ... well, it's a long story but the key parts are train schedule, daughter, and hair appointment, but this repair guy looked perfect -- a geek from central casting. Soft teenaged body, style-less clothes, thick glasses, pimples. In fact he looked like the guys in my regular place. Would he know about Spock's birthday? You bet.
So I was confident as he went behind the desk and began hunting through a tool kit for the correct size of connector. Seemed to be taking him a while. Finally he dumped the whole box onto the desk, and picked through the bits and pieces of junk for the two-cent plastic connector he wanted. Couldn't find one. "I was sure I had one here," he muttered.
Tick tick tick. My confidence was ebbing.
"Oh, I remember now," he said. "I used it yesterday."
"Uh huh," I said, not to encourage him.
"Have to get a new one," he said.
"Uh huh."
So he went to the wall display, and took down a bag of connectors. As he opened it, they spilled onto the desk, and he collected every one of them individually, put them back in the ripped bag, taped it shut, and put it in his tool kit. His fingers moved slowly and awkwardly. My confidence was ebbing at a Bay-of-Funday pace. By now my regular guys would have fixed the connector, waved away my attempt to pay the three dollars, and sent me home, all while de-gutting three other machines, inhaling a sleeve of cookies and kibbitzing each other about various characters in World Of Warcraft.
I love those guys.
This guy moved ... well ... slower. He stripped the end of the cable ... spread the wires ... counted them aloud by colour and type ... tried to fit the connector on ... failed ... spread the eight wires again ... recounted them ... fit the connector on ... then wondered if his configuration of the wires at this end matched the configuration at the other.
"I'll just take it," I said, but he wouldn't let me. With painful deliberation he took the connector off the other end of the cable, spread the wires. "See here," he said with satisfaction. "These wires are in different sequence. I'll have to fit another connector here." He opened the tool kit and began to hunt for the bag of connectors with the Scotch tape around it.
I'm not going to replay my ordeal by incompetence because it would take too long and make me seem kind of mean. (At one point he had a friend of his going through his truck to hunt for a nine-volt battery so that he could replace the battery in the tester he was plugging my cable into to see if his repair had been successful. By now I had my head on the desk.) What I want to come back to is how much we love competence. There is something really cool about a job well done. The cabbie that knows his side streets. The electrician who fishes the wire through on the first try. The busy restaurant where the staff hustle around with armfuls of plates which always make it to the right tables. I hate standing in line at the suypermarket, but if the cashier is whizzing up and down her machine, rolling the items through and bagging tight, the time passes faster.
(To finish my computer story, my daughter walked to the train station in the rain, ruining her hair. That's not her up above, but it gives an idea. She was, um, slightly more upset than the model in the picture. Oh, and my regular computer guys informed me that fifty feet of ethernet cable cost 10.00. "Cheaper to buy new than to repair," they said. I sighed.)

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

two bad moments

Two unrelated incidents today. First, following from my last post, a very unsatisfactory bath last night. Water was scalding hot, so I turned on the cold tap, and tried to estimate the exact moment when the temperature would be just a bit too high. And failed. Slightly too cold. On with the hot tap, but I ran out of hot water at just about the same time as I was running out of room. The level was well over the Plimsoll Line. Baths are like ships -- very hard to steer. I sat and soaped in near comfort for a few moments, then got out, shivering.
If this were one of those Did you know blogs, I'd tell you about the Plimsoll Line. I figure you guys know everything. And I have to say the derivation is only sort of interesting. Not like ... oh ... checkmate, say. (There are better ones than checkmate but suddenly I can't think of any.)
Second incident is a moment of pure visual horror -- very rare for me. Not that I haven't been horrified in my day. (I remember the twins at age one literally exploding inside their little suits on a trip to my parents. The car smelt like a buffalo wallow in the heat of the summer, and I did not -- did not -- want to change the diapers. When I got the suits off them they -- the suits -- weighed more than the kids did.) But movies do not, as a rule, scare me. Imo watches them all with one hand permanently at the ready to cover her eyes, and Thea screams during the G-rated trailers, but I just yawn.
Not Sunday night. I was flipping to the short film channel during commercials of the football game and saw the most visually horrifying thing I have ever seen. Quiet picnic moment, Mom and Dad lazing while the kids play, when there is a scream. Mom comes running over. A wasp is buzzing very near the baby girl asleep in stroller. Big sis is frantic. Mom soothes. The wasp lands on baby's face. Mom a bit worried now, bends forward, but too late. The wasp crawls across the sleeping baby's cheek, pauses for a fraction of a second on her lip, and then disappears inside her half-open mouth.
I shouted out loud. The calmess of the scene, and its speed, absolutely terrified me. Instinctively I clicked back to the football game. Real anger, sweat, struggle, noise -- even real injury -- was easier to watch than this fictional descent into my Jungian basement.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

pith and vinegar

When is enough not enough? Or, more accurately, when is too much just right? My old baba (I was brought up as a typical Canadian, meaning that there was another culture hovering in the background: in my case, Macedonian) used to say in cooking that if one egg is good, two eggs are better. Now this approach to life can get you in trouble (substitute wife or mortgage or even pack of cigarettes per day for egg and you see what I mean), but it speaks to a generosity of spirit that I try to live up to. Don't be stingy, don't be mean. Her husband (my old dedo) used to say that you should always shovel some of your neighbour's walk while you're doing yours.
Do all grandparents do that? Sit around and spew pithy advice? Mine did.
A variant on the a-bit-more-is-enough theme recently manifested itself in the tub. When I am merely dirty I take showers, but when I am cold and dirty I like a hot bath. The other day, when the wind was in the north, it was freezing in my flat. Fast forward to me easing myself slowly southwards into the bathtub, one or two bits at a time, my face charmingly contorted as I realized that the water was a shade too hot. Which meant that it was in fact perfect. When I finally worked myself down so that all of me -- well, all of me below the equator -- was immersed, I gave a painful and contented sigh. No, I am not a masochist. My sigh came from experience. The long even warm glow of a perfect bath -- the bath that highlights your evening -- begins with water that is slightly too hot. It may take an extra minute to get used to, but you can enjoy it for a lot longer. A bath you can sit right down in is not going to last very long. Give it thirty seconds and you'll start to feel chilly. You'll try to add some hot water, but you'll never get the temperature exactly the way you like it.
There are lots of times when just-a-bit-too-much is not better than just enough -- blowing up balloons, multiple choice tests, drinking before driving all come to mind -- but this is one I know about. If the water feels perfect when you step into the bath, it's not hot enough. (That's my attempt at pithy advice. I must remember it for when I have grandkids.)
Quick endnote: had a heckuva time finding an image of a regular bath tub on the web. Lots of jacuzzis, heart-shaped things, and of course naked ladies and bubbles, but not too many tubs that look like mine.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Hello Mozambique!

I was puzzled to get a comment on my blog in another language. I know I have tens of thousands -- well, tens of hundreds -- well, all right, tens -- of regular readers, and perhaps as many again who look in every now and then, but I wasn't aware of a foreign audience. The message, when translated, was flattering:
I very liked this post and its blog is very interesting, goes to pass for here always =) Later gives passing back in my site, that is on the CresceNet, waits that it likes. The address of it is One I hug.
I would worry about my blog being used to shill for the company, except for the emoticon. That sold me. What self-respecting soulless corporation would use emoticons? No no, I am convinced that there is someone -- someone loyal to the crescenet company -- who happens to like my blog. So you ten out there, you're not alone. Around the world -- in Portugal or Brazil anyway, or maybe somewhere else where they speak Portuguese -- Angola, Macau, or Guinea Bissau, say -- is another Scrimger fan. One I hug. Aww.