Friday, 29 February 2008

mud pirates

A strong sense of deja vu yesterday night, sitting in the ER at Peterborough General Hospital with my son Ed, tight lipped and glassy-eyed, holding his left arm in a sling fashioned by the ski patrol people. Same thing happened last year at almost exactly this time. I need a story, he told me. I want a cool story about how my injury came about.
I looked around the waiting room. Babies with runny noses, old people with resigned expressions, a guy in hydro company coveralls, a woman with a limp. Ed was the only one in ski pants.
Snowboarding accident isn't good enough? I said.
He shook his head. Come on, Dad.
He wants something cool, so he comes to his old man. Aww. I put on my thinking pants. (Nothing special about me, you know. Kid authors are regular people. We put our thinking pants on one leg at a time, just like you.)
How about this, I said. You were leaping over a sleeping ostrich on your way to school, when its mate misinterpreted your actions and chased you over a cliff. You damaged your shoulder in the rock slide that followed.
He was silent. Not bad, he admitted. But I want it cooler. And shorter.
An ambulance gurney swung in, two EMTs working hard as they pushed past us and into the bowels of the hospital. Our faces dropped.
Did you see the tube in that guy's throat? Ed asked.
I nodded. Did you see how they bypassed the triage station?
We'd been there for over an hour already. I don't know where broken collarbones rated, triage-wise, but they'd be a long way below crushed windpipes. I exchanged glances with one of the older guys. He nodded, his resigned expression getting deeper.
Cooler than ostriches? I said to Ed. Okay, I'll try. How about ... Red River Cereal? We could come up with a story about that. Or a broken heart? A mechanical device for measuring windspeed?
You mean an anemometer, he said.
I did, but I couldn't think of the name. Yes, I said. Any of those.
He shook his head. Come on, Dad. Cool.
By the time Ed's name was called we had roughed out a storyline. The nurse took us to a cubicle with a pull curtain. Now then, she said, clipboard in hand, what happened to you, young man?
Ed looked off into the distance. Mud pirates, he said. I hi-jacked one of their anti-aircraft lasers, jammed my collarbone on the recoil.
The nurse laughed heartily. Ed glared at me. I wanted cool, he said.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

parent nights

Up late for me this morning, because I was up late for me last night. No, no trouble sleeping -- I'm as regular as the post office there. Neither leaky tap nor midnight espresso nor past-due GST (must get to that soon) nor heartbreak will keep me from my appointed five or six hours. But my dreams are susceptible to a few sounds. And one of them is a kid being sick.
Strangely enough I do not worry when the kids are out late. Perhaps I should. They are only teenagers, after all, and Cobourg is full of dangers. They could bump into buildings and bruise themselves. They could go blind trying to read all the memorial plaques by moonlight. They could be startled by old people driving slowly and craftily, sneaking up behind them. But all these terrors are beyond my control, so I leave the door unlocked and trip unconcernedly up to bed.
Until one of them is ill. It was Sam this morning. The sounds were unmistakeable. I fumbled on my glasses and headed to the bathroom before I knew what I was doing. Stopped at the door and stared down at the kneeling figure.
So many memories. When kids are small it seems that you are wiping up vomit every few nights. You know it's probably not serious, but they are hunched over the toilet so uncomfortable and sad, and there is nothing -- nothing -- you can offer but sympathy and a towel. You rub their backs, you hold their hair out of the way, you yawn. And you put them to bed wondering if you should wash the floor yet, or if there is more coming up the pipe. And then an hour, a few days, a week later, you do it again. As they grow up, their bodies settle down and these moments become less frequent. Thea told me a couple of months ago that it had been four years since she'd thrown up. (Funny that she thought to work it out. I too hated throwing up more than anything, and I can remember realizing at age fifteen or so that it had been a few years since my last bout of flu.)
So last night was a throwback. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and yawned. When the bout was over Sam sat back on his heels. "Ohhh," he said.
"There there," I replied. So far, the dialogue was about the same as when he was two. But life does move on, and I ventured a new question. "Is this," I gestured, "bad luck or did you, um, earn it?"
"Oh, I earned it."
"Good party, then."
'Well, right up until the end."
I felt like I was asking Mrs Kennedy if she'd enjoyed her visit to Dallas. I decided to shut up, and offered a cup of water. He declined with thanks.
"You know, you didn't have to get up," he said.
I gave a crooked poignant smile, but he was too preoccupied to notice. He had that look, in fact. As he bent over the bowl again, I patted him on the back.
"There there," I said. "There there, you idiot."

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

how do you forget Barbara Stanwyck?

I have an itch. It's right in the middle of my back and I can't get it, and it is driving me crazy. I can be a bit dull when it comes to global warming (Lights off, Dad, Imo reminds me. Oh yeah) or phone bills (this is your final notice, Mr Scrimger. Oh, shoot, yeah!) or even foods my kids can eat (Why ham, Dad? None of us likes ham. Oh. Yeah?) but my mind is a razor when it comes to a small, immediate, and personal irritant. Like this itch. (Pencil can't reach it. Rubbing against the door frame doesn't work either. Grrrr.) Doesn't have to be a physical itch. I get mental itches too. Like who starred in The Lady Eve? A question like that can walk into my mind with a gun, and hold it hostage. (Henry Fonda was the guy -- a fine goofball role for him, but who was Eve? It's her movie.) I'll try to work, but keep coming back to the question like a dog to a favorite fire hydrant. (Bette Davis? No. Rosalind Russell? No. Grrr.) A few days ago I lost hours trying to remember the other song by Boston. (Not Oh what a feeling -- the other one. They have two, you know.) This last example is especially irritating because I don't even like Boston that much. So, while I am trying to concentrate on the next chapter in the zombie book, I am thinking of 40s movie heroines, and zeroing in on the need for a ruler to scratch myself with. A wooden spoon won't work as well and, besides, I don't want my back smelling of spaghetti sauce -- or vice versa, come to that. Found! Found! Found! An old foot long wooden one from public school. It was at the back of a desk drawer. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. That's better. Back to the book now, and about time too. Seriously though, who was she? Funny, I can remember that Charles Coburn was her card-sharking dad in the movie -- great part. Eugene Pallette, one of my favorite bit part players, was in it too. There's a breakfast scene ... which reminds me that I have to buy something for dinner tonight. Maybe some ham.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

no advice to give

My son (he finally finished his Who am I? essay, by the way -- turns out he's Ed Scrimger) is tall, handsome, athletic, and popular -- all things I was not at his age. I have no advice to give him. I never have had much advice for my kids. Do your homework, eat your fruit, dress warmly, go to bed .... this isn't advice. These are orders. Mind you, my kids tend to treat my orders like advice, or maybe suggestions, so that a half hour after bedtime they are still up, and many meals pass through them without benefit of fruit. (Did you finish your apple? I ask Thea, and she shakes her head. Hoping that if you do nothing I'll forget about it? I ask, and she nods, without taking her eyes off the screen. Hmmm.)
But I really have no advice for Ed. A couple of years ago we were walking down by the beach and a group of girls came up to us (all right, who am I kidding -- they came up to Ed. I was simply the old guy with Ed) Want to play? they asked, real excited, and Ed, calmly, shook his head. We walked on. That kind of thing happen a lot? I asked him. He nodded. Yeah, it's kind of embarrassing. What should I do about it, Dad? I choked on my coffee. How about ... enjoy it? I said, thinking back to Grade Seven, a year when no girls came up to me and asked me to play. (Which did not sharply differentiate it from any other grade. Indeed, even now ... but let's not go there.) He sighed.
He still asks my advice (he's in Grade Nine, taller, more athletic, more popular than ever) and I still can't help him. We were standing in the body spray aisle of the drug store the other day, and he spritzed a sample into the air. What do you think of this one, Dad? I sneezed. Or this one? Spraying again. I choked. I am so not a cologne guy. Soap and shaving cream is about as exciting as I get. Maybe that's why there's no one asking me to play. Hmmmm.
Maybe Ed has some advice for me.

Friday, 8 February 2008

what was I thinking?

I don't read self-help books. I don't sneer at them; in fact I care deeply about a lot of the things they talk about -- living well, doing the right thing for myself and for others, healing my hurts, losing those stubborn pounds and getting the man of my dreams (all right, maybe I snicker at the books a bit) -- but I don't read them. I'd rather find my own answers than someone else's. Emotional plagiarism, I call it.
Which may be a mistake, because I now find myself in the embarrassing position of not knowing what I was going to say when I started. Here I am in the middle of my -- I don't know, two or three times weekly -- entry, and the idea at the top of my mind when I poured the coffee and began to type has vanished like smoke on a windy day. I am sure there are books out there, in the section of the bookstore I don't visit, that would tell me how to hang onto my memory. If only I had thought to buy one of them, I'd be able to continue. (Funny, how we treat memory and water so differently. Water retention is bad, memory retention is good. And yet water is essential to our life; and memory is often very painful. Sorry, just a little sidebar.)
Back to my vanishing memory. I don't think my topic today was self-help, per se. As far as I can recall, I was going to use self-help as a driveway to bring me up to the door of my topic ... and yet here I am several miles up the driveway, and for the life of me I can't see the house (I guess my topic is one of those stately homes).
Hoo, boy. This is awkward. So .... what do you want to talk about? Anything bugging you? My son Ed was trying to write an essay for Religion class, and the topic was Who am I? He hated it. I don't know what to say, he complained. I don't want to be the kind of guy who talks about himself. The idea of a self-help book for guys is tricky, come to think of it. Not that we don't need help; or want help; but we don't want to ask for it. We don't want to be the guy reading the self help book.
Maybe that's what I should write: a self-help book disguised as something guys read. Stock Portfolio Analysis it'll say on the cover, with maybe a graph or pie chart, and then, inside, Hello there. Are you feeling scared? Has your heart been broken? Have you lost your memory? Do you want to lose those stubborn pounds....

Thursday, 7 February 2008

sorry, Bayview middle school

Back from my morning work-out, sweating profusely, heart rate way up and pleased to be sitting at the old computer, ready for the new day. By work-out I do not mean a run or swim or squash game -- no, this morning's was the commuter version: meaning I sat in a car with the heater on, sipping stale coffee while travelling at ridiculously slow speeds through snow and ice (mostly forward but occasionally and alarmingly sideways), passed by maniac trucks, peering through a filthy windshield (my driver-side wiper blurs everything except a small perfectly clear spot just above the dashboard, which meant that my driving posture was a kind of foetal crouch), trying to follow the lane markings as they appeared and vanished like loreleis beneath the slush. Blood pressure, fear, rage, and stress, oh my. I did not have a cigarette going. I was not eating a piece of Kentucky-fried chicken. But I think they were the only ingredients lacking in a classic heart-attack recipe. The commuter version of the morning work out is not healthy.
The sad thing is that I did not even get to where I was going. After taking forty-five minutes to travel twenty kilometres, I gave up, turned around, and crawled home. (When Harpo rides off, leaving Groucho in the sidecar for about the third time, he says something like, I've been driving for hours and I haven't been anywhere yet.) As an occasional commuter to the city, I enjoy my time on the road, thinking deep thoughts about music and donuts and girls, noticing new buildings and potholes, generally getting my ducks in a row and having a good time. I wouldn't even have attempted the trip this morning, except for my promise to Bayview Middle Schoool to come and talk to them. When I think of the packed auditorium, kids whispering and giggling in anticipation, and the sadness that must follow the principal's announcement that I will not be visiting (What did he say? I dunno. Who's coming? Richard something. Who's he? I dunno. Does that mean we have to go back to class? I dunno. Do you have any gum? No.) I feel bad. But not as bad as I'd feel if I had decided to continue my trek. For one thing, I'd still be on the road -- unless I was in the ditch.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

guys girls and mustard

Nearly lost control of the car the other night, driving Ed back from a ski day. Nothing to do with weather or road conditions -- he was telling me what he'd been up to on the slopes.
Boys are different from girls. (I know I know -- this just in.) But I am part of the generation that believed in total equality. y = x. Boys = girls. If you treat them the same they will react the same. And it's not true. You have to bear in mind that y is different from x. They may represent the same number but they are intrinsically different letters. Essentially, boys are dumb. (Yes, yes, another startling insight. ) I do realise that girls are dumb too, in their way maybe just as dumb as boys (y=x) but it's a different kind of dumbness. I can not, for the life of me, imagine a group of girls planning to live in an RV for the school year in order to save on parking. (Sam's master plan involves his vehicle slowly creeping through the streets of Kingston, one block ahead of the meter maid.) My other son, Ed, is only fourteen, so his kind of dumbness does not involve driving. Yet. It involves eating.
Dinner time at the tacky ski chalet, kids sitting around cafeteria tables with plates of pizza and fries, and Ed's friend Frederico remarked casually that he loved mustard. (Not a lot of dessert at his house, if you remember from a previous post. Frederico didn't have as many options as the rest of us.)
Oh, yeah, said another kid, how much do you like it? I'll give you five bucks if you eat ... a whole bowl of mustard.
And so (as Ed put it) the epic began. Money was collected from various zippered pockets in the kid's ski outfit. Mustard containers were gathered from surrounding tables and squeezed into a common bowl (yeah that's the picture. The long skinny thing is a French fry).
We were so excited, said Ed, that we didn't even laugh when the plastic squeeze bottles made that little farting sound.
You didn't laugh at all? I said.
Well, maybe a bit.
News of the feat spread around the big dining area, and dozens of kids from neighboring public and high schools clustered around Ed's table to watch. Some stood on chairs for a better view. And Frederico grabbed a small plastic spoon and started in.
I won't go into too much detail here, in case sensitive people are reading. Let me just say that the task proved tougher than Frederico had expected, and he began slowing down after the third or fourth spoonful. The spectators cheered him on, and he plugged away gamely. Another couple spoons and he was asking for something to drink, to wash away the taste. Half a dozen water bottles were thrust at him. He gulped dizzily, and went back to the bowl. Cheering reached a crescendo. And then, said Ed, guys began throwing money. Big guys from high schools, even grown ups, tossed quarters and loonies. One guy with a beard threw a five dollar bill. By the time Frederico got to the bottom of the bowl there was close to twenty bucks on the table. The cheers was deafening. And then of course everyone got out of the way as Frederico ran for the bathroom.
What is courage? Frederico wanted to back out, but didn't. Fear of failure in front of a crowd? Determination? I wonder. Maybe it's part of being dumb. What I like about the story is the way everyone appreciated Frederico's situation, and wanted him to win. The extra money was added incentive, like the spotter telling you you can lift the weight an extra time.
I steered carefully away from the ditch, and asked Ed if there were any girls throwing money on the table.
Oh, no, he said. Girls are different than guys.