Monday, 30 June 2008

me and death - one

I had many moments in which to ponder this weekend. Many, many moments. Small-town hospitals have their charms, but readily available doctors are not one of them. So as I sat in the Emergency waiting room (and that's an interesting idea, isn't it?) watching the sun sink, and set, and twilight come and go, and the moon rise, and, later set (I'm serious -- poor Imo, her mysterious spots, and I spent Saturday afternoon and night, and some of Sunday morning, in the ER) -- as time passed in a dream of worry, crossword puzzle clues, jokes from The Simpsons and vending machine snacks, I pondered the cover for my new book.
That's it over there, of course. The preliminary draft. My publisher floated it by me last week and I've been thinking about it.
Covers are important. They are the first thing a reader sees, and very (very!) often the deciding factor in whether to buy. They are designed to get you to pick up the book. Once it's in your hand, you're halfway to the check-out.
Sometimes you know about a cover. The first time I saw the cover for Mystical Rose, I knew. That lady in the dated photo, staring away from the camera, was perfect. Same for Into the Ravine. I opened the email attachment, saw the rough mock-up, and went, Wow.
I'm not saying, Wow, this time. Not right away. My own first idea was to have a dead black cover -- Metallica style -- with the only writing on the spine of the book. Cool, huh? I said to my publisher. No, she said. But it's about death, I said, all cool and black. No, she said. (She's got her considering and thoughful side, my publisher, but when she doesn't like something she lets you know. I still hear about a shirt I wore in 1998.)
So you've had a minute or two to look at the cover. Look again. No, not the Metallica one -- mine, up at the top. Okay. What do you think? Let me know. Pixel art is supposed to be a hot ticket right now. Retro-chic. The designer has just come up with another version. I'll run it in a couple days. You can get in touch here or through the website contact page. (If you are too lazy to check back it's I'm interested. Would you (this is the question) -- would you, without knowing anything about the book, pick it up?
Okay, enough for today. Imo's awake now. I'm afraid to ask how she's feeling.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

I wants to make your flesh creep

More tales from the job hunt front. This one from Imo, who has finished school and is handing out resumes.
Does your neighborhood have an officially creepy building? When I was growing up there was an old house with a turret which, we believed, was owned by witches. I remember walking past it one Wednesday night on my way home from choir practice (this was during my brief flirtation with organized religion, a story for another day -- briefly, I was attracted not by the theology or music but the prospect of a monthly salary) when the front door opened and a tremendously tall thin lady emerged. Her face was chalk white, bloodless from being drawn up to the full moon. I ran as from a hound of hell. Here's a picture that looks something like the place.

There's a tiny restaurant on the main street of my small town. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever crossed the dusty threshold. My children hurry past the place, faces averted from the fly-specked front window that always displays the sign: OPEN. So I was surprised to hear that Imo had applied for a job there. Ed was not surprised. He was ... I don't know what. Flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. I know no word strong enough to express the strength of his gob-smacked-ness.
You went inside the Mid-Town Restaurant? he said.
Imo nodded. I was walking past it and I thought, Why not? she said.
(Quick sidebar: How many horror movies have begun with the words, Why not? I'll just check on that noise in the creepy dusty attic. I'll run down to the abandoned campground where the kids were all murdered years ago. I'll investigate that funny thing I saw in the corn field. Why not? )
I couldn't help wondering what kind of tips Imo could expect in a place with no customers, but I wanted to encourage her. Good for you. What happened? Do you think you got the job?
She sat down and clasped her hands together. Gathering our attention.
I walked in, she began slowly. The floors were sticky. The air was clammy, with smells of rot and mildew and old old grease. No one was there except ...
She paused. The kitchen clock ticked loudly.
Except what? asked Ed.
Except an old man in a table off in the corner. He looked up from his cigarette, his face wreathed in smoke, and said (making her voice all raspy) , They're waiting for you ... in the back ...
Ed's eyes were the size of saucers.
What did you do? he whispered.
I ran, said Imo. I'm never walking down King Street again.
I didn't feel like laughing. The place sounded awfully darn creepy.
I wonder if the library is hiring storytellers this summer. Imo would be a natural.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

life cliches

I'd have got up earlier, only the alarm clock didn't work properly because I didn't set it right -- which makes it my fault. Hmmm. Or you could say that I'd have got up earlier, only I was too dim to buy an alarm clock I could use. Again, my fault. I want to blame the alarm clock, but I can't seem to get there. It's hard to overcome your early training, and one of the phrases of my childhood was: It's a poor workman who blames his tools.
Don't know why my parents picked this particular life cliche to fasten on, considering that my dad is possibly the least handy guy in the world after Stephen Hawking (and what a cheap joke that was. Apologies, Dad. You are way handier than Stephen Hawking. Apologies to you too, Steve. Problem is that there aren't enough famous quadriplegics. You and Christopher Reeve are it, no? I suppose I could have used a blind icon instead of a paralysed one. Helen Keller: not handy around the house. Ray Charles: lousy choice to host a home reno show. You would not want to give a reciprocating saw to Louis Braille, or John Milton, or Tiresias, or Michael J. Fox for that matter, which brings us to a whole new aisle in the supermarket of bad taste) -- but that was the phrase we heard most often. No matter what went wrong -- broken bikes, broken hearts, goals unmet, goals against -- you were never allowed to blame the outside world. My parents were teaching us a tough truth: whatever happens to you, it's your fault.
Kind of a bleak life cliche. Not a lot of room for miracles or metaphysics. Bad luck if you are born in disease or abuse or Darfur. But there's a strong element of usefulness there too: your life is what you make it.
Compare a poor workman blames his tools with some other life cliches. A high-school friend had: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. What does this teach? Don't bother dreaming, kid. I'm kind of partial to dreams myself. I'm glad I didn't get that drilled into me. Or a how about the classic: Never complain, never explain. I didn't hear that until I met my ex in-laws, and then I heard it all the time. Surely that advice is just plain wrong. Communication is a good thing. We'd never know about abuse or Darfur if no one complained. Mind you, I have never been described as the strong silent type, and complaining does make you look like a bit of a ween (my kids' new favorite word. I want to use it while it's still current).
Notice that all these rules for living share a basic underlying philosophy: Life sucks. Sheesh. Are there any happy life cliches?
Time's up for today. Back to real work. Hey, I've seen the cover for my new book, and I don't like it. I'll get to that next time.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

the kind of guy I am

I do not shop for sport. I buy food and electricity and things like that, because without them I will suffer. I do not shop for the pleasure it gives me. But I do quite enjoy shopping with my daughter Thea, because she is having so much fun. Don't get me wrong about Thea. I may be at one with nature in my shopping habits, eating what I kill, but Thea is not Buffalo Bill. Not by any means. She enjoys shopping but doesn't have to buy much. I guess she's an amateur, in the true sense of the word.
We were at Ikea the other day, and her only indulgence was a magazine rack which she plans to use as a file organizer. Won't this be perfect, Daddy? she enthused, beaming away.
I don't know about perfect, I said, since it's not designed to organize files. You know, they have actual file organizers here. Why not get one of them?
Because this (holding out the magazine rack) is cooler.
But it's not a file organizer.
Yeah, well, a cow is not a potato. She walked off with the magazine rack under her arm. I had no comment.
Then I saw the alarm clocks. There was a shelf full of them, and I quickly bought the cheapest one, because that's the kind of guy I am.
Buy this round one -- it's weird looking, said Thea.
What about that one? I pointed. You turn it off with a laser.
Oh, Daddy, that's just dumb.
Really? I said. (There it is in the picture. I was tempted, I tell you.) Well, they're all alarm clocks. And this one's the cheapest.
What a classic case of false saving! I spent the rest of the day programming my cheap clock. For six dollars more, I could have saved twelve hours. (What's that -- fifty cents an hour. Yup, that's the kind of guy I am.)
You know these clocks? There are only two buttons, MODE and SET, and in order to get the clock to do anything -- even tell time -- you have to punch each button in a strict pre-determined sequence. To activate ALARM function, first press MODE button six times, then press SET button until the correct HOUR appears. Press MODE three more times, and then press SET until the correct MINUTE appears. The alarm is now activated. To activate ...
Turns out I programmed it correctly, because the alarm went off at the right time this morning. I jumped out of bed feeling chipper, reset the alarm for tomorrow morning, made the coffee and got to work. The alarm went off again an hour later. And again an hour after that. I apparently programmed a TIMER function without meaning to. I could spend another hour figuring out how to de-activate the times. Or I could take out the battery -- but if I do that, the clock will need to be re-programmed.
I think I may have to go shopping again.

Monday, 16 June 2008


So much to report. Let's see. Sam decided, after much internal philosophizing, to visit the shearer, reasoning that hair grows back and job opportunities do not. His ears and neck appeared to the world after an absence of many months. I could see he was somewhat traumatized by the appearance change. (Casey the dog reacts similarly, requiring much encouragment and sympathy after a haircut.) Thea, ever the sensitive twin sister, told Sam he looked like a dork. Then stared at the rest of us. What? she said. It's what we're all thinking. Sam smiled and shook his head -- he's known his sister since they shared a womb.
He took his haircut to the interview and between the two of them managed to secure the job at the yacht club. Now he gets to wear a golf shirt and navy shorts and hang around with nautical people.
That is so cool! I told him. Do you salute them?
No, he said.
Do you talk about starboard and port?
Sometimes, he said.
I tingled. I love sea stories. In my dream life I sail with Nelson or Cook. Or Edward Teach. (And thank heavens for dreams. The only time I have ever been on board a real yacht at sea -- well, at lake -- I was sicker than a dog.)
And do you use the nautical words for things? I asked. Decks and bulkheads? Heads and hatches?
No, he said.
You should. I'm sure it would impress people if you talked about swabbing the deck or battening the hatch. They would think you were knowledgeable.
They would think I was a jerk, he said. Or a pirate.
That was enough for me. I got all misty eyed. I remembered Sam in diapers, in kindergarten, in the science fair (this was not one memory, you understand, but a series. Sam was toilet trained well before his science fair days). Now he was all grown up and out in the big world. Some parents beam and brag at their children's success in medicine. Not me.
My son the pirate, I said.
He sighed.
I was going to give him a big hug, but the phone rang. It was my editor, wanting to argue about the cover for the new book. I told her I was in no mood to fight. How would you feel, I said, if you had just learned your son was going to be a pirate?
My editor knows me well. Call back when you're sober, she said.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

morning pensees

Very philosophical, this post. Sam and I at the kitchen table at 8:00 -- after his shift, and in the middle of mine. I've been up and working for a couple of hours, but am always eager for a break. (Talking to your teenaged kid is a great break.) We were discussing the haircut he needed to apply for the summer job at the yacht club. Sam was having second thoughts about his looming appointment at the ... haircutting place.
Sidebar -- what to call the place where a modern guy gets a hair cut? Hair Dresser is still pretty much a woman's term. Barber Shop sounds too 1955 -- a place where you get a brush cut and your dad places a bet. Salon sounds too Christopher Street (not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld says). But a lot of guys are going to feel uncomfortable putting down their beer, wiping their mouth, and telling their pals they are off to the Salon. Hmmm. (Seriously, now -- is there a word and I'm just drawing a blank here? I guess I don't get my hair cut often enough.)
Anyway, Sam was having second thoughts about going to the place where guys go to get their hair cut. And he was tired after his night at the gas bar. Which may explain his mind bending towards the Jansenist school.
If I don't get my hair cut, I've lost the job, he said. If I cut my hair, and get the job, I've lost my hair.
This was starting to sound familiar.
But Dad, what if I get my hair cut for the interview, and they still don't give me the job? Then I've lost everything.
He sounded quite anguished. I wondered what Pascal's dad (that's Pascal in the picture, by the way. Our local yacht club wouldn't give him a job with that hair.) Probably what I did.
Have some more Froot Loops, and go to bed.
Next time: Sam gets the job -- or does he? Startling revelations!!!! And I get tough with my editor.

it's protest time!

I don't get many chances to take an ethical stand. No one has ever tried to bribe or threaten me into acting against my principles. Galileo tortured for the sake of scientific truth, Serpico the honest cop, all those suffragettes and conscientious objectors and union agitators and Christian martyrs --- they make for gripping stories, but not ones I can relate to personally. Shaw talks about the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character. Well, mine is pretty flabby.
Fortunately I am able to live my life through my children. Sam has an ethical dilemma right now, and it's so exciting I can hardly stand it.
He decided, after several weeks, that working midnights at the gas station and never being held up at gunpoint is boring and tiring. (No, that's not the dilemma. Wait. It's coming.) He investigated other summer job options and, behold, an opportunity arose at the local yacht club. I don't quite understand the job, but it involves driving around in a golf cart and being polite to yachters. It pays better than the gas station, and doesn't involve night work. Sam called me after the interview yesterday. They like me, he said, but (here it is!) they want me to cut my hair.
Isn't that great? A classic 60's confrontation. Sam is a polite young man, really good at looking you in the eye and shaking your hand, but he is, well, flocculent. He's skinny, and his hair is long and dirty blondish and quite wooly, so that from a distance he resembles an ambulant floor mop. Management at a yacht club tends to be on the conservative side of conservative. (You can tell a rebel at a yacht club party because his blue blazer doesn't have a crest on the pocket.) They don't want their fresh-painted buttoned-down golf cart driven by a hippie.
So what should I do, Dad? he asked me. Youth requesting guidance. Self-doubt and inexperience prepared to absorb the wisdom of years. Moments like this are why you become a father.
I think ... it's protest time! I said.
We'll get banners and signs, and picket the place. Yacht Club Unfair. How does that sound? Or Navigate -- Don't Discriminate! Ooh, that's a good one. I'll call the press.
Dad? You're kidding, right?
2, 4, 6, 8, sailors we don't need your hate! Is there a railing in front of the yacht club? Maybe you could chain yourself to it. A great photo that'd make.
I started humming, We Shall Overcome. He hung up.
They say you shouldn't work out too hard your first day. Maybe that's true of the moral gymansium as well.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

i feel so un-canadian

I said about a thousand posts ago that I would have something to say about Tim Horton's coffee, and now is my chance. I'm sitting in a busy airport, and Tim's is the only place I can get caffeine. (Another Velvet Underground moment for me. And no I am not talking about a walk on the wild side. This is the waiting for my man moment. Me and the wild side will be the subject for a post in the very distant future.) So anyway I am here in the waiting area by gate C56 and the Tim's cup is on the seat beside me (why didn't I stop at Starbucks on the way in? In this section of the airport it's Tim's or nothing), and I almost don't want to drink from it.
What do they put in the mix? There's a definite something. Or maybe it's something lacking. I do not have a brilliantly finicky palate. I don't care if it's Coke or Pepsi, butter or margarine, fresh squeezed or frozen. I can't tell one type of chocolate from another, and wine talk (overtones of cherry, leather, smoke, etc) makes me snicker. My mom can taste a sauce, pause, and then, with that inward eye, proceed to list all the ingredients. So can my daughter Imo. All I can tell is that the sauce is whitish or reddish or brownish. (My comments are more based on how it clashes with the table cloth or shirt I have spilled it on.) I guess these things skip a generation. But this coffee -- this coffee I am drinking now, while the perky lady announces that my flight is boarding its business class passengers -- is different from what I make at home. Different, and not as good.
So what is it? The flavour is ... mmm, let me roll the liquid around on my tongue. Now let me wipe the dribble off my face. Now let me roll again .... the word I want is .... DUMBER. Sounds mean, but I think I'm going to allow myself to say it. Tim's is made from dumb coffee beans. There's no sharpness, no depth, no excitement. The coffee does not grab me by the throat and say WAKE UP, SCRIMGER. It does not run a finger down my arm and say, Well, hello, big boy. It does not even smile at me. It clears its throat and says, Uh, hi. Then it turns away and coughs into a kleenex. If I met this coffee at a party, I would excuse myself and walk away.
Now that the business travellers and small babies are on board, my flight is ready for me. I have a couple of swallows left. My caffeine jones is gone for now but, like MacArthur, it will return. Should I finish the cup?
No, as it turns out because I knocked it over. One decision I won't have to make. Oh dear, it's all over the seat next to me. You know, I should pack up and go. But when I land in Vancouver I'm getting a coffee right away. There's a city that knows its coffee. Maybe my second favorite thing about the place.

Friday, 6 June 2008

old technology

Down memory lane yesterday, visiting one of the elementary schools I knew well as a kid. I never attended the school, but I lived in the neighborhood and played on its schoolyard. In fact I remember walking hand in hand with a girl (gasp! a girl) after dark when I was in grade seven, one of the top five moments in my life up until then. Ah, me. But that is not the point of this post.
Sometimes when I visit a school, the gym is festooned with Scrimgeriana, but not this time. What I did see was an old-style multi-bar apparatus folded back against the wall. We'd had one at my school too. When you pulled it out from the wall it became a mini climbing gym, about twenty feet high, with ladders to race up down and swing yourself across, ropes to wriggle on, bars to chin yourself. Did you see The Silence Of The Lambs? The climbing gym looks a bit like Hannibal Lecter's secure cell in the middle of the big room. Anyway, like I said, it was folded away, but I couldn't resist climbing up one of the ladders anyway. My muscles sang with energy. Yup, I still had it. I freed one of the ropes, and overhanded myself down to the gym floor as the kids were filing in.
They were amazed. Look what he can do, they said. From the dust on the bars, I was obviously the first person to use the apparatus in a generation. After my introduction a dozen hands shot up. How did you make that thing work? they asked, over and over.
I explained the gym to them it to them, and they nodded enthusiastically and peppered me with questions. This was obviously more interesting than novels about ravines or noses or blind guys. They must have wondered about the climbing gym for years, sitting there like a dinosaur skeleton in their back yard. I was reminded of the scene in the post-apocalytic Riddley Walker where our hero finds the giant machines and wonders about humankind's past. What they were, he says in wonder, and then, sadly, and what we are. On a more prosaic note I recalled the awe I felt when, as a small boy, I went with my grandpa to a store that sold phonographs, and he, without hesitation, opened the lid, found the crank, wound it up, and placed the needle on the record. How did you make that thing work, grandad? I'd asked.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

me and ariel

As I write, Thea is in bed, with her window covered, and Sam is behind the counter at the gas station, waiting and hoping to be held up. I am back from a long day dealing with editors and publishers and fellow writers and student manuscripts. It's purer at home, me and the kids, me and the zombies, but every now and then I have to venture outside into the world. What is the song that Ariel the little mermaid sings: I want to be where the people are. Yes, that place. I don't think I have ever identified with Ariel before -- don't know how comfy I am doing it now -- but I sympathize with her desire to do what the strange creatures are doing, walking around on their feet. I want to be like the rest of the world too -- I want to be where the money is.
But I don't want to live there. I want to visit, and go back home to what I care about. It's not that I don't care about money -- I do. It's an important part of a balanced and nutritious bank account. But it's not real to me. I use money to buy wine and hamburgers and tuition and electricity and car repairs and soccer cleats and concert tickets -- and soap and long long-distance telephone calls -- and those are real. (Funny how the wine came first, eh? I think it has something to do with the time of night.) But money itself is as hard to wrap my head around as a quantum physics problem or a board meeting.
There are people out there who do understand money. (Probably not you, if you are taking the time to read my blog.) To them, money is a living flowing entity, as real and powerful as the tide. I am envious on the surface, I guess, since these people are often rich enough to afford better wine and more concert tickets than I can, but deep down I don't care enough. And that's what the real world is: it's what you care about. Maybe I'm not Ariel after all. I want to visit with the people on land, but live under the sea. I'm off to Toronto tomorrow to help Thea look for a new apartment. That's real. And right now I plan to spend an hour or two on the zombies. Strangely enough, they are real too.
So my question is: if I'm not Ariel (and I'm okay with that), which Disney character am I? Opinions welcome. More later.