Friday, 31 October 2008

eleventh commandment

It's tough to be a parent at Hallowe'en. I used to make costumes for the kids. Ah, stressful times. As any parent of young ones knows, Hallowe'en is a key day and your whole identity is on the line. You are not what you eat, or what you drive, or what you wear. You are what your kid goes out as for Hallowe'en. The cooler the costume, the cooler the parent.
I tried. God knows I tried. How could I not try, staring down at their earnest eager faces. Help us, Daddy! they cried. Help us to fit in to the school and community! Help us to find validation and acceptance from our peers! Help us to become fully actualized as children!
So I worried, and thought, and planned. I bought and borrowed, cut and pasted and duct-taped my way through a dozen or more anxious years. Witches, ninjas, pirates, ghosts, M&Ms (don't ask), scuba divers .... I tried everything. And yet somehow there was always something a bit off about my work. The other costumes always looked more convincing than mine. I tried to work out what it was. Did other parents use better boxes (for the robots -- check out the picture!) than I did? Whiter sheets (for the ghosts)? Blacker sheets (for the ninjas -- though there was one black satin ninja in kindergarten who made me look at his mom differently). I never found out.
Last night brought me back. Imo and Ed had to come up with costumes for school today. And it was tough going. Every suggestion was ridiculed. Too hard. Too lame. Too boring. Too easy. Too popular. Too stripey. (I was surprised at this one.) The Hallowe'en stakes are high as ever, but the rules are more complex as you get older. Cool is more than simply how you look -- it is how the look is achieved. (Keen moralists, teenagers. Intent is key, as it is in a crime or a sin.) In order to actualize and validate your coolness in high school you must never appear to be working at it.
I'm glad I'm not a parent of young children any more. But I'm extra glad I'm not in high school. Thou shalt not appear to be trying too hard is a tough commandment to live up to.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

when things go wrong

Another driving story -- this one with Imo. She and I were in Quebec this weekend, checking out colleges she may be going to next year. I was driving and drinking coffee, she was map-reading and telling me how she got the bruises on her arm and cheek (I got kicked and then stepped on, she said, with a kind of sigh. I nodded sympathetically. Men, I said. Who needs them, eh? She gave me her rugby player's laugh and told me to take the next left.)
And then things got dicey. Montreal streets are being repaired right now. All of them. Imo had one eye on the map and another on the orange signs that said that roads were barré. She barked instructions; I leapfrogged across lanes of traffic and deked down alleyways that turned out to be one-way-the-wrong-way. Other drivers honked and gestured angrily. I got very good at a sad smile and half-wave. We finally got to Pont Champlain, only to find that access was barré from this direction, which meant more circling round.
When we did get to the other side of the river Imo turned to me. That was fun, she said. It's kind of cool when things go wrong.
My smile was too big for my face. What a great attitude to life.
Yes it is, I said.
The next sign looked ambiguous. Neither of us could tell if we were in the right lane to go to Sherbrooke. Imo shrugged.
At this point I almost hope we end up in Vermont, she said.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

first time

Don't you just love it when your kid's face lights up? Birthday ... summer holidays ... dinner -- ah, these were all great moments in my childhood. But as a kid, is there a moment you look forward to more than your first time behind the wheel of a car?
I took Ed driving last night. I haven't had so much fun in a parking lot since ... well, since I took Imo driving a couple of years ago. Climbing over me into the driver's seat, adjusting it and checking the mirrors, Ed wore an expression of solemn joy -- not the gut-laugh of belly-flops and farts, but the serious high happiness of achievement.
For the next twenty minutes we went back and forth, and left and right, and forward and reverse and forward again. My smile got wider and wider as Ed got closer and closer to a mystical oneness with self and machine. I'm surprised that there isn't a car called the Nirvana. Maybe the idea would be too peaceful, conjuring up a sense of immobility behind the wheel. (Mind you, there's a car called the Armada, which to me conjures up the idea of an immense body of ships crashing. )
They seem so mature, teenagers, but they aren't. Their souls are still fresh and sensitive. They are vulnerable to pain, and also to joy. That's why they make so many reckless decisions, fall in love so completely and so distastrously. They can be possessed by feeling in a way that we, with our old leather-skinned souls, can remember only vaguely.
Yeah, leather-skinned sounds about right. We have lived long enough to be kicked around by life, punted up and down the field by chance and choice, will and time. We know so much more than teenagers -- but we have paid dearly for our wisdom. The closest we can come is to experience vulnerability through them. Which can mean bailing them out or rushing them to the hospital; or taking them for the first drive around a parking lot.

Monday, 20 October 2008

generation why

The next night Thea called at 8:00 pm -- not in triumph. I was trying to follow the plot of the movie In Bruges (the two incompetent hitmen in the picture here hole up in the medieval town, and receive baffling instructions from their crazy employer. Charming but not for the squeamish. The ending is like Titus Andronicus, only bloody) so Imo took the call. She's a pretty good cook, Imo. Her end of the conversation was quick questions.
What's wrong with the turkey? she asked.
Well, what temperature did you set the oven at? she asked.
How long has it been? she asked.
Then a pause.
Oh, she said, and handed me the phone, her eyebrows disappearing into her hairline.
Thea, it turned out, had read the first line of the cooking instructions (preheat oven to 500 degrees farenheit) and skipped to the ending where the bird comes out brown and perfect. The middle bit (reduce heat to 350, cover the centre, baste frequently) was glossed over. She came back from a party two hours later to find that the bird was black on top and raw underneath. And she was hungry.
I did what I could to limit the disaster, and find some spin to put on the project. (Cats enjoy charred turkey flesh, don't they, and the sweet potato stuffing would probably not be affected by the extreme cooking methods. And there was some peanut butter left in the jar, wasn't there?)
Seems like I'm making fun of my daughter -- because I am. But I have to say in her defence that she did survive, and the turkey was ultimately cooked. And she attempted her first bird at a much younger age than I did. When I was at university I came home for turkey, or did without.
Which brings me to Sam, who seems to be starving to death. Almost impossible, you'd think, since Kingston has 24-hour grocery stores and Sam has access to money. But his voice on the phone is weak. I haven't eaten in a day and a half, he says. (It may be a trick of the line but I hear a hint of French accent, as if he has turned into Jean Valjean, forced to steal a loaf of bread.)
I fight my anxiety. For heaven's sake! I say. Funny, though. As he describes his very busy schedule I can see how hard it is for him to get to the store. Never the right combination of available cash, transport, time, and will. I try to work out what he wants from me.
Do you want me to drive up and shop for you? I ask. It'd only take me three or four hours, after all.
No no, he says, with a gentle tubercular cough.
Then why are you telling me all this?
But the answer is simple: like the famous Fat Boy in Pickwick (only Sam would be the Thin Boy) he wants to make my flesh creep. A very natural instinct. My own instinctive guilt and worry are likewise normal. And so the comedy of the generations plays itself out, as it has for thousands of years. My cave self might have taken the opportunity to clunk my cave son over the head for being an idiot, but I am too civilized for that. Alas.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

first thanksgiving away from home

Thea spent Thanksgiving in the city instead of coming home. My little girl is growing up. Her decision was perhaps made for her -- two shifts at work, an essay due, and her roommate coming home with a turkey and a stuffing recipe from his mom. Is it ok if we call for help with the turkey? she asked, somewhat plaintively. Of course, I replied in my deepest Daddy knows voice.
I got a call at five on Sunday afternoon. So, how's the turkey coming? I asked.
I'm about to start it, she said.
Thea has been known to put things off, so I was not surprised. Planning a midnight supper? I asked.
What do you mean, Daddy? For I have been known to make jokes.
Turkeys take a long time to cook, I said.
How long?
Depends on how big it is, I said.
A pause. The tag says 4-8 kilos, she told me.
That's a bit vague, I said. Try to find a specific number on the tag.
There was a loud thud, and scramble on her end of the line.
Sorry Daddy. I dropped the turkey, and it skidded all the way across the kitchen floor.
She laughed heartily. I love hearing my children laugh.
Skidded, eh? I said. Then a thought struck me. Thea, is the turkey frozen?
Well, of course. I don't want to get salmonella.
My turn to pause now. The bird would take a day to thaw and somewhere between three and six hours to cook. Thea, honey, what else do you have to eat in the house? Apart from turkey stuff.
What are you saying, Daddy? I've got some cheese and crackers. Some cereal. Peanut butter. You know the kind of thing.
Indeed I do. Ah, student living. Happy Thanksgiving, honey, I said.

Monday, 13 October 2008

diet shmiet

If you are what you eat, then I am a cup of coffee and a handful of salted peanuts. My boy Ed is a bowl of cereal, with another bowl of cereal for a chaser. The average Slovenian, on the other hand, is a mountain of meat, potato, bread, cheese and cabbage. I was flabbergasted at the sight of my first "typical" Slovenian meal. After five days in the country, I am fatter, and still flabbergasted. My publishers -- kind, generous and concerned to treat me well -- sat me down in front of a traditional lunch after a long morning talking to radio and school kids. I couldn't come close to finishing. I did okay with the sausages (wonderful, spiced and smoky) but couldn't manage more than a bite of the potato hillock in the middle of the plate, or the small swamp of cabbage nestled beneath it. I skipped dinner that night. Next day we were in another town, and they sat me down in front of the same lunch that the next table was having -- a platter of meat, meat, and more meat, with another platter of garnish for the meat. I tried. I did. First a sausage and then some tender pork. I had a bite of rice stuffing, and a forkful of spicy pepper garnish almost as good as my mom's (who will read this blog) and way better than my baba's (who will not). I skipped the special cheese that I was supposed to spread on the meat and allow to melt, but I did try some pickled cabbage. And then I pushed back my plate. But you haven't tried your salad! cried my publisher. I gave her a helpless look. I ... I can't, I said.
Beside us, the couple who had been eating when we sat down were still going strong. Their platter was half empty.
Why aren't Slovenians the size of houses? With this diet they should be waddling along, barely able to fit into the small cars they drive through the narrow winding streets of the old town. But as a nation they are slender, fit folks. Is it a trick of national metabolism? Or might it, perhaps, have someting to do with the dearth of fast food outlets?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

oh those Europeans

Went for a midnight run last night, and the city was alive. People all around the squares and up and down the main streets. Ljubljana is a city all right, but its night life is not quite New York's, so I was kind of surprised to see all the late-night activity.
Surpised, and yet not surprised. This is Europe, I thought. People are different here. They take their civil problems seriously, and are not afraid to show their unhappiness with the authorities. In North America we write letters to the editor. In Europe they throw Molotov cocktails and tear up cobblestones. North Americans march around for a bit and then drive home. Europeans erect guillotines.
I kept running. I don't move quickly, so I get a chance to see a lot as I jog along. The crowds were young, energetic, and focussed. I looked for banners, slogans, angry gestures ... but there were none. There was some bottles, but I didn't see any matches or gasoline. As I passed one knot of youths they called for me to join them, but I declined. I didn't think my meagre vocabulary (the only Slovenian words I know are Hello, My Name Is, Thank You, and Best Wishes) could help the cause.
On my way home I passed two youths lying on the grass. I was concerned -- were they the victims of police brutality? I slowed down to a near walk. The first youth groaned, heaved himself to his knees and vomited into a nearby bush. I approached with an expression of concern. Hello, I said. He climbed to his feet and staggered off, seemingly uninjured. The second youth sat up and opened the bottle in his hand. There wasn't much left. He finished the bottle, threw it away, and stood up, swaying gently. The expression on his face was not friendly. He said something in a low guttural voice, and staggered towards me.
Best wishes, I said brightly, and ran back to the hotel.
This morning I gave a lecture at the university. The professor apologized in advance for her students. Term began this week, she said. And many of them were up celebrating. How do you call the opening time for first year students?
I smiled.
Frosh week, I said.
Yah, that's it.
In some ways, Europeans are the same as we are.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

where am I?

So here I am in beautiful downtown Ljubljana, mildly jetlagged after a day of travel and a day of presentations. Slovenia is a small country worried about preserving its culture because it is surrounded by large and powerful neighbours. Kids are force-fed Slovenian literature and politics in school. Sounds familiar to a Canadian. But - so different from us - they seem to lap it up! My kids all complained about the Struggle For Responsible Government, that hardy perreniel of the Canadian curriculum. And I sympathized. Hey, I was sick of it thirty years ago. But here everyone seems to revel in their struggle for freedom, independence, self-government. One of the schools I visited today had a Richard Scrimger Day, and there were songs and dances in traditional Slovenian costume. And the kids were smiling. They must have heard this stuff a thousand times but it was still fresh.
Yes, they watch South Park and Simpsons and Family Guy. And their jokes reflect it. They are part of the world American culture. But they are Slovenian too, proud relicts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. They listen to Blink 182, but they also listen to something called Turbo-folk (imagine oom-pah-pah with a Euro-pop chaser. That's it in the picture -- scary, huh?) And one of the TV channels seems to show indoor soccer 24/7.
Sounds crazy but I tell you I'm getting hooked.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

the burden of bounty

I don't own an i-pod.
This is not a moral position. I am happy that music is out there, and that we can collect it and store it in vast quantities to use as we wish. I have no quarrel with the technology, either. Nor am I put off by people walking around bobbing their heads to sounds I cannot hear. Bless you all, I say, and the self-selected melodious diversity with which you surround yourselves.
But I don't want to join you.

More than anything else, it is the sense of oppression: the crushing burden of quantity. The idea of holding thousands of hours of listening in the palm of my hand puts me off. I like salted peanuts. But I like them in digestible quantities. A handful of salted peanuts is pleasant. A bowlful is delightful. But a roomful of salted peanuts is hideous. I know I don't have to eat them all at once. But the idea that I couldn't possibly eat them, even if I had a year to do it -- that's off-putting. Almost scary. To me, an i-pod is a concert hall full of peanuts.
And the fact that I have selected each and every one only makes it worse. I have contributed to my own oppression. Isn't there a Chinese curse about attaining your heart's desire? Something like that.
Imagine the most exciting hockey game. Tie score, end to end action, nerve-twanging tension. Great. But what if the game lasted for a year without a break? 24 hours a day of pulse pounding drama, day after day, week after week. You'd die -- or become so blase that you didn't care any more. Hockey would cease to be a source of enjoyment for you. I'd hate to feel that way about music. Have you ever sat in your driveway at the end of a journey, listening to the last few bars of a song on the radio? Kind of a nice moment, isn't it. But what if the very next song was another old favorite. And the one after that. And the one after that. And so on. You could run through a thousand tanks of gas waiting for your i-pod to stop playing songs you loved.
To my mind, there is nothing more delightful than stumbing upon a wonderful piece of music. A gem in the middle of a radio program, a song heard through the din of a party, a single cd in the middle of the shelf. The element of chance plays a large part in enjoyment. Considering that life itself is a happy accident -- whether you're an evolutionist or a theist, or a mixture, you have to agree that we're pretty darn lucky to be here -- I think it appropriate that my pleasures are equally accidental. After all, whose children grow up according to plan? Who sets out to fall in love?

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Enjoyment isn't all about quality. It's about timing, too. When you are hungry, food tastes good. The most memorable meal of my life was not a seven-course tasting menu with wines to match, but a plate of Kraft Dinner mixed with chunks of canned ham, which I ate at the end of a very long and exhausting trek into a campsite in the dead of winter. Timing, like I said. You know, I can still recall the first bites -- even the charred grit from the side of the cooking pot which got mixed into the cheese sauce tasted wonderful.
I don't want to extrapolate my argument very far, because the perfect meal would then appear to be the one just before you are about to starve to death. I don't like that picture much. But there is something important about our capacity for enjoyment that depends on context.
Which brings me back to music. Stumbling upon a baroque concert in the course of a long drive is a wonderful feeling. I settle back in the seat, turn up the volume and bask in the sound. But what if the concert is never-ending? How long can you bask? How long before you've had enough? I love a beach vacation, but I don't think I'd like a beach life.
(Another quick thought has to do with the chance of stumbling on the concert. If I have it on disc, and can access it at any time, it's not the same. More on this next time, I think.)
I've stopped listening to my all-baroque-all-the-time radio channel. I sampled down the remote, trying alternative rock, Franco-pop, and instrumental new-age channels, and have been appropriately amused, bemused, and lulled. I just this minute switched to the chamber music channel, and am enchanted by a hyper-romantic piano trio I really like and rarely hear. So I'll stick around for a bit. But I don't know how long that bit will be. What if the next piece sounds like sewing machines? A lot of chamber music does, you know. I fear boredom.
A few evenings ago I came downstairs to find Imo reading on the couch with the TV tuned to the big-band radio channel. She was smiling along with some very up-tempo Fats Waller. Pretty good, eh, Dad? she said. I agreed. The song ended. Next up was Goodman. Then Ellington. Imo's smile widened and widened. You know, I could listen to this stuff all day, she said.
Good for you, I said. I don't know if I could.
She laughed at me. I love it when she does that. Well, geez, Dad, of course not. You don't have any attention span.
Maybe that's my problem.