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.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

fun and competence

I just got back from an early morning run. I tend not to do life that way -- treating running as fun (which it is not) and writing as work (which it is -- sort of) and therefore putting off the "fun" of running until I've finished the day's "work" of writing. What happens is that the day's work stretches out (sometimes because I am actually having fun at it -- more often because it just takes longer than I figured) and I don't get to the run. And since I am lying to myself about how much fun running is, I don't mind. And another day goes by without running. And I find myself wheezing as I climb the stairs.
So today I started with the run. I've read enough articles about how getting the blood flowing through the brain and body early makes for a productive day. So far, so pretty good. My heart rate has slowed, and I've written half a blog.
All this is by way of intro to today's topic: can you love something you can't do well? I'm not saying you have to play basketball well to enjoy it on TV. Or play an instrument to enjoy a concert. But the things you do -- you tend to do because you are good at them. And the better you get, the more you do them. Which is how you end up being Lang Lang or LeBron James. I, for instance, did not do math in university. I did English. And I guess I still am doing English. I may not be good at it, but I am better at it than I am at math.
It's true in my leisure activities as well. Squash is my favorite athletic game. Non-coincidentally, it is the game I am best at -- I mean, I suck, but I suck even worse at tennis or golf, or slow pitch (I played lob ball for the first time in my life last weekend, and almost killed myself).
But take pool, say. (That's where this whole idea started.) I was thinking about the last time I played pool. It was a few months ago now and, you know, I had just the best time. I'd love to play again, and will, and I bet I enjoy myself. But I am a terrible player. I enjoy figuring out the angles and trajectories; I see the shot in my mind, and then manage to send the white ball in the wrong direction. But that doesn't stop me from looking forward to my next shot.
Maybe one of these days I can work out why I play a game I like so much so infrequently. Probably has something to do with work, or kids. Maybe I need a willing partner. But that'll take us to a whole new post.

minor victory

Over-focussing is not usually my problem. I am much more likely to need ritalin than whatever drug they use to handle OCD. But I can not tell you the feeling of satisfaction I got when, at 9:15 am this morning, having got up late for me, dashed to the Y to lose a squash game, shower, and return home for coffee (yes, that's how late I was -- not even time for coffee before the game) I found the pea.
This pea was the one that had rolled off my plate last night at dinner. And onto the floor. And then vanished. My kitchen this year (like Philip Marlowe, I move often, care about coffee, and wear a trench coat. I think he's a little more focussed than I am, though. He'd be back to the main thought by now) has vaguely earth-toned kitchen tiles, hiding dirt nicely, and also food. I remember dropping a grape a while ago, turning in my chair to look for it and actually stepping on it without seeing it. Anyway, last night the pea rolled off the table, bounced off my knee and disappeared into the wild greeny-brown yonder. I hunted under the table and around the my chair, even getting down on my stomach and putting my eye down to floor level to check out countour change. Darn pea had vanished.
Well, like I say, I'm not compelled by stuff like this. I did not lie awake at night. I did not dream of an army of peas coming to crush me. I didn't even wipe the floor. But I did feel that upsurge of satisfaction this morning when, after pouring my first cup of coffee, adding my dollop of milk, picking up the cup so quickly (as you recall, I was late with my coffee) that I spilled some, sighing, grabbing a sponge and bending down by the counter, I spotted: the pea in question.
It was a very small satisfaction, of course, nothing like the relief when you find a lost child in the mall, or your wallet in your other jacket. But there was the same sense of scoring one against the prevailing trend, looking fate in the eye and saying, Gotcha. The way I figure it, everything in the universe is flying away from everything else. Entropy, right? (Unless that's the embarrassing disease.) Mr Yeats had it a century ago: the centre cannot hold. Galaxies expanding, planets drifting off their orbits, kids leaving home, money disappearing from your bank account, crime rates, heart rates, pollution counts, nasty new diseases, up up up. To say nothing of all those lost socks and jigsaw puzzle pieces. So any victory, no matter how small, is worth celebrating. I found my dropped pea. That's one on the right side of the balance sheet. Next thing you know I'll mend a broken heart, find some courage, and get my brain functioning again. Then it's on to global warming.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

morning reflection

I cleaned up after a party this morning. Not a newsworthy item, you say? Fair comment. But it's a kind of new thing for me. My routine is to clean up after a party the night of the party. Guests leave, I head to the kitchen and put on my apron and rubber gloves, tie my hair back, and start in a-scrubbing. But last night the guests left and I yawned, and poured a last glass of wine, and said, in effect, to hell with it. Who is this guy, and what has he done with the old me? Maybe as you get older the idea of delayed gratification makes less and les sense. Drink now, sleep now, play now, for now is all the time you have.
And maybe I was just too tired.
It struck me, as I was washing burnt bits from metal surfaces in unfamiliar sunlight (not the dish detergent, which would be familiar, but the actual stuff pouring through the kitchen window - like I said, my usual party clean-up is a deed of darkness), how writing is like eggplant. I know I've compared the act of writing to exercise and prayer, making it sound active and empowering to the writer, but there is a lot about writing that is passive, demanding, absorbent.

Writing sucks up your time and attention, as eggplant sucks up oil. You pour all of yourself into your writing, and it's not enough. I've been working on the zombie book for months now. I finally finished my draft yesterday, and felt pretty good for an hour or two. Then ... the eggplant needed more. I got to worrying. Couple of the scenes might be too slow. Couple of characters aren't as strong as they could be. Couple of jokes aren't as funny in restrospect as they were when I wrote them.
I was thinking I'd be able to take a week off, but now I wonder. Maybe I'll start pouring myself into the book again on Monday or Tuesday. Sigh.
Eggplant is one of my favorite foods. But there are times when I long for something less demanding. I wonder if there's a career that's like bread and butter, or apples. Yeah, an apple sounds good right now.