Thursday, 29 May 2008

blind ambition

Geez where does the time go? Almost a week since I checked in with you guys, and it's not like I have solved global warming or anything. Life takes time, even if all you are doing is trying to make it from lunch until dinner. When you are trying to write a book and edit another one and run a writing program and talk to gymfuls of kids and read a dozen manuscripts there's no time for blogging. There's barely time for the bathroom. I took an afternoon to help Thea find blinds, because a girl needs a window covering in her bedroom. And I even managed an extra hour to enjoy my kids catching up to the rest of the world, entertainment-wise. Back to that in a sec.
First I'll finish the blinds saga. You may recall that my daughter Thea and I went to Wal-Mart a bunch of times picking out blinds that were okay-looking and cheap, but did not work. (Sometimes two out of three equals zero. If it doesn't work, no matter what else it has going for it it's no good. I might revisit that thought too, but probably not today.) So we gave up on Wal-Mart and went to the window treatment store downtown ....and what a difference. To begin with, the greeter wore pearls. (Good play title, eh? The Greeter Wore Pearls.) And asked us (actually, to put it in her accent, she awsked us) if she could help us in our search for the perfect window treatment.
What? I said. I was still getting used to the place. It smelled of pot pourri. The lighting was soft and pleasing. The background music was semi-classical. The rest of the staff went about on lissom clerical printless toes. There were displays of complex drapery and ingenious shuttery and bewildering blindery.
The greeter -- I never found out her name, but she looked like a Gwendolyn -- repeated her request.
Thea was too overwhelmed to answer so I said, Sure. And I held my hands apart. We're looking for a cloth blind about this wide.
Gwendolyn didn't blanch because she was already the colour of freshly fallen snow, but she blinked a couple of times. What are the precise measurements of the window you wish to enhance? she asked. (again, her accent would make the word mayzhuamnts. I nodded approvingly. I liked hearing her talk.)
I don't know, I said. But it's about this big. I held my hands up again. Right Thea? This about the size?
She thought a bit and held up her hands. Yeah, about that. We faced each other in the middle of the store with our hands out, comparing sizes. A couple of people stared at us.
You know, I said to Gwendolyn. A regular window. So, what do you got?
She smiled faintly and shook her head. I'm afraid I cawn't help you until I know the exact mayzhuamnts, she said.
Oh, I said, looking around. Well, is there someone here who cawn -- I mean who can help us without that knowledge? See, Thea and I aren't locked into a world where a centimetre makes all the difference. We don't really care if the blind doesn't fit perfectly. Say, let me help you!
I'd shocked poor Gwendolyn. She staggered, and I caught her arm to steady her. The scene stretched out a bit, but there's no time to go into it. What happened is that I caught sight of the price of a display draperies (something like the one pictured here), and the idea of paying more than my car is worth to cover my daughter's bare window just didn't make any sense at all. I grabbed Thea and pulled her --not unwillingly -- out of the window treatment store. We said good-bye to Gwendolyn, who looked puzzled (maybe it wasn't her name after all) and went back to Wal-Mart. We bought a different kind of blind, and Guitar Hero III, and came home. Fifteen minutes later the blinds were up and the rest of the kids came over, and I got to spend time listening to old rock and roll and the laughter of my children. Not bad for a too-busy guy.

Friday, 23 May 2008

blind rage

Social comment time. My topic is the irritability of the poor. I'm not good at class distinctions, usually, believing in the essential sameness of people, rather than their differentness. I figure, for instance, that just about everyone would want to have a time-travelling castle, and a cannon that fires alligators at people. The only difference between rich and poor is that the rich are more likely to be able to afford stuff like this.
But I went with my daughter to Wal-Mart this morning, and was struck -- hard, like a fish in the face -- by how grumpy everyone was. Outside it was sunny and bright, a great day in late spring. Inside, all was gloom and anger. Kids were bratty. Grandparents were vinegary. Parents -- peanut butter in the generational sandwich -- all seemed to act like Ralph Kramden. I was quite distressed.
That was my first trip to Wal-Mart today. By the third trip, late in the afternoon, I found myself feeling and behaving like everyone else, pushing, frowning, whining, threatening. I blended in. A 1984-type moment, really, as I joined the Big-Brother crowd.
Thea wants new blinds for her room. Simple pull-down blinds that screw into the window frame. You've probably got some yourself. Blinds shopping did not go well today. No, not well at all. Three sets of blinds have not worked, due to missing or malfunctioning parts. Which means that Thea and I have spent a great deal of time in return-merchandise lines, telling our tale to puzzled blue-vested store clerks, having our receipts processed and stamped and written up. When I dropped the third set of non-functioning blinds on the counter, the jolly middle-aged woman behind the counter said, You again? You guys practically live in the store! You should buy a tent and camp out!
Earlier, I might have laughed lightly at her drollery, or perhaps made a cutting but witty commment about the likelihood of a Wal-Mart tent's staying together long enough for us to be able to camp out. But I was tired, and irritated. I leaned over the counter, and raised my fist. One of these days, Alice, I said. I don't know if her name was Alice, but she gave me back my money with no questions at all. I took it -- all 21.94 of it -- and drove downtown to the store that sells window treatments to the upper middle classes. And on the other side of the aged wooden door with the wrought iron hinges was a totally different experience. Don't have time to go into it now, but it was night and day. We got the saleslady without the lorgnette.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

no French for you

More news from boy fantasy land. My son Ed, this time. He and his mates (no, Ed is not a pirate captain. But I don't know what other term to use. Chums or buddies seems ridiculous, and friends is too general -- Ed is friends with everyone. Close friends is a bit formal, and anyway too late now. I've already typed this far) were in a restaurant as part of their French class, ordering lunch. And the discussion turned to how much sugar Frederico could eat.
No, the discussion was not in French. The restaurant was not French either. I asked Ed what the French part of this French lesson was. He was unable to tell me. I asked if he had uttered one word in French during the entire outing. He shook his head. I asked what he ate for lunch and he replied, Spaghetti and meatballs. So much for the Ontario high-school curriculum.
Back to the story. Frederico, you may recall, is the boy who never gets dessert, and is able to eat an entire bowl of mustard. Turns out he is also able to consume an entire canister of white sugar. He simply tipped it up and poured it all into his mouth at once, gulping it down like a drink. Ed and his tablemates applauded, giving this feat their highest accolade -- Sick -- before turning their thoughts to one of the ultimate boy fantasies. What would you do with all the money in the world?
Many fine suggestions emerged, but the ones that Ed remembered in the car at the end of the day (we were on our way to his soccer game. Did I mention? Sorry. He won, by the way. Not that you care. Is there anything in the world more uninteresting than someone else's kid's soccer game?) were funny enough to stick in my mind too.
They all agreed that the place to live would be a castle -- but not just any castle. This one would be underground, and it would be able to travel through time. I nodded my head as I changed lanes to allow a speed demon to pass me (a small sigh escaping my lips). Not bad, I said. And there was more. The underground time-travelling castle would be guarded -- weaponry is vital to the teenage boy mind -- by alligator cannons.
You mean a gun you shoot alligators with? I asked.
He snorted derisively. No, Dad. That would be lame. I am talking about a cannon that shoots alligators at you. If someone is attacking the castle, you fire and boom! they get hit with an alligator.
I laughed all the way to the turn off.
I can't help wondering how a French kid would translate the slang word Sick. Not Mal, surely. Any francophones out there? What's the appropriate piece of argot? And I can't help wondering what I'll see if I google alligator cannon.
(Not much, is the answer. The pic up there is as close as I could get to a time-travelling castle.)

Monday, 19 May 2008

dingue bat

Dad, I have a plan.
Some fathers would be pleased to hear this statement from their teenaged son. Others would be frightened. I am philosophical. In the past, Sam's plans have involved living in an RV, rolling down the streets of his university town to park in front of the next day's class so he wouldn't be late. They have included weaponry stashed in key corners to deal with zombie attack. They have included eating enough for the entire week at one sitting, to save time.
Tell me about your plan, I said, pouring myself a strengthening beaker of coffee.
It's my job at the gas station, he said. See, I need money but I don't like working. So I plan on getting robbed.
I choked. Couldn't help myself.
I'm sorry, I don't quite understand, I said.
See, the owners tell us that if someone tries to rob us we just hand over the money, he said.
Uh huh.
But I noticed that there's a baseball bat behind the counter. And I thought, what if I try out the bat on the guy who's robbing me, and he shoots me.
And you die? I said. (So much for that first-year Logic course.) Now, granted, if you are dead you won't have to work any more. But --
Don't be silly, Dad. The robber shoots me in the shoulder or something. I come out of the hospital with a reward and a sweet scar. And no more work. Not bad, eh? I figure the worst that can happen is that I foil the robbery. I'll still get a reward and I'll be famous. And then I can quit work. What do you think?
I remember being a teenager, and having ridiculous dreams, though not about getting shot. (Mostly they involved girls.) None of my dreams came true -- not then, anyway.
I think you're crazy, I said.
That's what they said about the guy who believed he was Napoleon.
Yes, but he actually was crazy, I said.
And your point is?
I finished my coffee. I have no point, I said.
But I think I'll buy my gas at the station across the street from Sam's.

Monday, 12 May 2008

good memories

Hey, there! I've been off email for a few days now, and I missed you all. Lots of news to report, and the good part is that none of it is really important, so you don't have to pay attention.
The readers' choice awards in BC are over. Red Cedar, they are called. (Most of the readers' choice awards across Canadian schools are named after vegetation of some kind.) The big gala took place on Sunday in Surrey. Picture a thousand 9-12 year olds in a confined space, screaming hysterically over Canadian children's authors. Boggles the imagination, huh? We kid authors are not used to adulation, so we take our rock-star moments and savour them. I bonded with the kids, and hung out with the other authors, and all in all had a real good time. The award could have gone to my book, From Charlie's Point Of View, but it went to a very good book instead. I didn't mind, but there were some disappointed authors whose very good books didn't win either. One in particular broke down, and cried on my shoulder on the way back to the hotel. They hate my book, Dicky, he said. What'll I do -- they hate my book.
Then I spent three days travelling Vancouver by bus and Sky Train, visiting schools and libraries and auditoria. Interesting system of public transit you Vancouverites have out there. You take my money efficiently, print me a piece of cardboard, and then figure you've done your job. I went from one end of town to the other, holding out my Sky Train ticket, hoping for validation or at least recognition, but no one cared. No one took it, stamped it, ripped it up. I went on a ferry with this ticket. I went downtown, crosstown, back uptown. Transit people nodded politely to me, and went back to what they were doing. Are Vancouverites more honest than other folks?
One of my favorite memories was my presentation to a large (somewhere between 600-800) group. Supposed to have been in a proper theater, but there was a last-minute glitch and we ended up in a giant gymansium. Inadequate seating, bad sound, late arrivals. I was worried at first, but after a few minutes it was clear that this was going to turn out to be one of those impromptu parties where people show up unexpectedly and cram into the apartment and there isn't enough room and no one knows each other ... and everyone has the time of their lives. Great chemistry all afternoon. I nearly collapsed on stage with the giggles a couple of times. (That's not me in the picture, by the way -- no empty floorspace at my gig.)
Then off to the Sunshine Coast and a memorable day indeed -- partly because the sun actually shone. Partly. If you are ever in the Blackfish Pub in a town whose name I now forget, have one for me.
Enough memories. I am home now, laughing at my children. Sam and Thea are working at the same gas station, but with slightly different attitudes. Sam outlined his summer plan yesterday. My goal, he said, is to get robbed...

Friday, 9 May 2008

hitchhiker's glide

My last day here in the Kootenays, and I am wondering, What's with the elderly hitchhikers? That makes three I've seen in the last two days. No derelicts, either. Their outdoor wear was better quality than mine. They were on their way from town to town, and figured that the thumb was faster than the bus. Pleasant companions all, except perhaps for the lady who insisted on rolling down the window because she was claustrophobic. I apologized for the size of the car, shivering slightly in the chilly breeze. It's a rental, I said. If I'd known you were out there I'd have asked for something bigger. I meant it to be sort of, I don't know, humorous and cutting at the same time, but she just nodded grimly, head out the window, gulping.
My other two passengers were very nice, one of them pointing out the best bookstore in Nelson and the other explaining details of cabinetry to me, in French. I think they were details of cabinetry. He was a carpenter, and I tried to reply suitably. Gee, wouldn't it be funny if he had actually been giving me his opinion of Hegel or snack foods while I was talking about cedar and oak and glue (that's la colle, right? Collage comes from it).
I used to hitchhike, of course - heck, that's how I got to high school half the time. I was very smooth, gliding up the street with a shy smile on my face. (I used to get a lot of older ladies stopping from pity.) But it's been quite a while since I've, um, tried my hand. I must say, there's something appealing about the freedom of the roadside, the complete dependence on the upholstery of others. I'm tempted, I tell you. Of course out here in the BC interior people seem to stop for middle-aged hitchhikers (apparently none of my guys has ever had to wait more than a half hour for a ride). In the GTA you'd probably be faster to crawl, or maybe to wait until you got run over and the paramedics arrived.
Tomorrow, Vancouver and no more rental car. I'm looking forward to the Sky Train, but if it's taking its time, I may go down to street level, stick out the old thumb and see if it has retained its charm.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

quaint shmaint

How often do I give grumpy? Usually I am able to laugh at myself, or life that is going slightly askew around me. Day before yesterday I found myself unable to shake a nasty mood. Two reasons for that, I figure. First, I was cut off. That is my Room 101, I think. Not to be able to communicate. What I like most about writing is being able to chat with my readers, to tell them a story I enjoy, figuring that they will enjoy it too. (Yes, it's a bit of a fantasy, since I can't really see them and because some of them won't like the story, but there is still the illusion of connection.)Second, I was overwhelmed by knickknacks.
It was the hotel, I think. Too bad, because another person would have found it the high point of the tour. It was small and woody, quiet and quaint, tucked away by the water, and smelling of pot pourri. It was a perfect example of its type -- the folksy friendly B&B. It was the conscious antithesis of the chain hotel. And after I'd been in the room for five minutes, I was longing for the nearest Ramada.
I could feel myself getting grumpy the moment I arrived, brushing aside ornamental fishing nets that looped over the entrance, and knocking over a couple of throw pillows and a porcelain dog with my bag. The mood did not improve when the owner, with a self-deprecating smile, said that they did not have intenet, and that cell phone service was sketchy. Feel free to use my own phone, she said, smiling. It was a rotary phone.
Grrr, I said.
I beg your pardon?
Sorry about the broken dog.
Yes, the scenery was lovely. My room looked out on a pristine lake with six or seven mountains in the background, and an eagle or two hovering up high. But ... but I wanted to call home and check email. I wanted to wander around the room without knocking over figurines and flowerbowls, or having to look at depictions of royalty or animals in varying degrees of cuteness. I wanted to take a shower without having to crouch down under the charmingly old-fashioned nozzle. I didn't know what to do with the 147 superluous pillows on the bed (I finally threw them all on the floor). I didn't know what to do to the people walking their dogs past my large scenic window, who insisted on waving in a friendly fashion (I decided to wave back, half-heartedly).
Don't say it. I know I was behaving badly. I was at the wheel of a vintage Bugatti, wishing that it had air conditioning. But, darn it, there are times when you want air conditioning.
Anyway, all that was the night before yesterday. I am now ensconced in a boring utilitarian (is that a tautology? I don't think so) Best Western. I won't describe it to you since you know what it looks like. No individuality, no personality. But the phones and ethernet cables work, and I am back in touch with my world.
I stare out the window at my parking-lot view. Hmmm. Times I wonder about myself. An eagle would be kind of cool, right about now.

Monday, 5 May 2008

natural beauty

I come to you today from sunny BC -- the beginning of a ten day tour of the Kootenays, Vancouver and Sunshine Coast, which makes me seem much more important than if I had said I am driving around the southern part of the province, stopping periodically to talk.
When Stephen Leacock was interviewed on tour, he often got asked what he thought of the local women. (Ah, simple old-fashioned sexism, where have you gone?) I mostly get interviewed by kids, either for projects or school newspapers, and they don't care what I think of women. They're more interested in what it's like being a writer. It's lovely, I tell them. (Might as well get them used to being lied to by the interviewee.) Interestingly, Lovely was how Leacock always described the local women.
Back to my tour now. Here's an important word of warning. If you are planning to drive through the Kootenays, do not bring a camera. I can't tell you how many times I thanked my stars yesterday that I am not a photog. Driving from Castlegar Airport to Grand Forks, you head down and down and down, and then up and up and up, and every hairpin bend reveals a new vista of woods and lakes and trees with majestic mountain borders. The snow gleams high up, the streams glisten nearby, and the deer lift their heads to stare. It's treacherous. To do the trip justice you'd want to stop every few metres to take another picture. Think of the danger to traffic. If I had brought a camera I'd either still be driving, or I'd be dead at the side of the road, another scenery-related fatality (SRFs they call them here). As a billboard back in the 80s, that Brooke Shields picture you were just staring at caused a lot of traffic tie-ups. (Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.) Well, my drive yesterday was mother nature's version of a Calvin Klein ad.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

I have no son

T minus three hours and counting. This afternoon I talk to my son's school. Ed has been going around with a longer and longer face, ever since he learned last week that I will be standing on stage in his auditorium chatting about ... heaven knows what embarrassing topic.
His embarrassment goes back to a couple of years ago, when I gave a talk to his elementary schoool, and happened to mention, in front of everyone in the gymnasium, that Ed used to go by the nickname Bun Bun. (Not a very cool nickname, Bun Bun. Not like Flash or Magic or Hell Boy. ) With the persistent insensitivity of thirteen-year-old boys, Ed's friends called him Bun Bun for weeks afterwards.
How could you do it? he asked me. And I had no useful answer. Like Sam with his keys, I simply had not been paying attention. I kept on flapping my gums, and didn't realize what words were escaping.
I could sympathize with his position ... but only up to a point. Get over it, big guy, I said. They're just words. I'll try not to do something like it again.
No! he shouted. I'm serious, Dad. If you do something like that again I'll never get over it. NEVER!
Tears in his eyes.
I apologized. But, you know, it could have been worse, I said. There was a kid named Pee Pants in my grade eight class.
Ed went white, like a blanched almond. Pee Pants Scrimger, he muttered. Oh, my --
Don't worry, Pee Pants, I said.
Don't refer to me at all. You have no son, okay? You have no son.
Are you ever more embarrassable than you are at fourteen? I mean, ever in life? These days I can mortify Ed by simply whistling. (I must remember to use this power for good.) Seriously, I don't want to hurt him. But I say things without thinking sometimes. (All right, often.) And I will be talking to a roomful of kids about writing for kids. I'll have to be extra careful not to mention mine. Maybe I'll begin with a theme discussion: global warming, say. Scary stuff, global warming. Thinking about the consequences of that is enough to make you pee your ...
T minus two hours.