Saturday, 27 December 2008

fastest turkey in the west

As of yesterday lunchtime, my entire Christmas bird -- 5.5 kilos of Grade A poultry -- has been consumed. There's not even a wishbone left. This is by far the quickest I have ever got rid of a turkey.
(Got rid of -- as if it's a tired old toy past its prime. Funny how something so carefully sought in the market, so fussed over, so much enjoyed on the night, can become so very tedious. This would be the time for an obvious comment on love or marriage. Consider it made.)
Growing up, I recall countless nights of leftovers. My mom fed a tableful of aunts and widowers as well as her immediate family, but there was so much else to eat at Christmas dinner that somehow they left enough for us to have what seemed like weeks of turkey fricasse, turkey a la king (that's it in the picture, which I got from something called the happy housewives club -- creepy or what?), turkey pot pie, turkey piccata, turkey newburgh, turkey con carne, etc.etc. I swear one year we were eating turkey thermidor (or something like it) on Valentine's day. When I began cooking my own family's Christmas dinner a dozen or more years ago, there were fewer plates around the table, and I bought smaller birds, but there was still a full week of leftovers each and every time....
Until now. Two Christmas vacation style lunches of turkey salad sandwiches (with clementines for fruit) and we're done. There is no more bird. I'm turkey-leftover free until Easter. Want to know my secret? It's not complicated. Pay attention now. 1) Invite a lot of teenagers. 2) Don't offer any appetizers to fill up on 3) Feed your guests late in the evening (Imo had to work so we didn't sit down to dinner until 8:30) -- by now they are starving 3) Don't serve anything good with the turkey. I recommend plain couscous (possibly the world's dullest food) along with a hard-to-like vegetable like fennel 4)
No, I think that's it. It worked for me anyway. Lunch today is going to be peanut butter or grilled cheese. We'll still have clementines because I somehow I ended up with four boxes of them. But no more turkey for three or four months.
Hmm. I wonder how clementines a la king would taste.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

oh oh tannenbaum

Catching up with the rest of the Christian world, we finally got our tree yesterday. It stands now on my porch, shedding snow and needles. As an adventure, the tree-getting was ridiculous and unplanned, painful and embarrassing, ultimately hilarious. It didn't take long. And it didn't cost any money. Kind of like life when you think about it.
The Optimists' lot has always had the cheapest Christmas trees in Cobourg (and of course the happiest attendants. Hey, that one looks great! they say. Good choice!) But when we got there yesterday the lot looked awfully bleak. We skidded towards the temporary fenced off area, and stopped. No Optimist van, no smiling folks in parkas. I thought we were too late, and would have to drive all the way across town to the Canadian Tire lot, and then I noticed it leaning against the sagging plastic fence all by itself ... a tree. The last one. It looks lonely, said Sam.
It looks terrible, said Thea.
I parked. (No! said Thea) and we all piled out.
The twins were both right. The tree did in fact look lonely, and terrible. (I suppose the two conditions go together.) Half of one side was missing, and much of the mid-section. Imagine a big sickly brother to the Charlie Brown tree. Like that. The hand-written sign on the fence post said: FREE TO A GOOD HOME.
We agreed (except for Thea) to take it. The remaining issue was practical: how to transport it? With no attendant to bundle up the tree and tie it to the roof of the car, we were left to our own devices. And those devices were pretty, um, basic. Tree on roof of car -- check. Rear windows open -- check. Boys in back seat leaning out -- check. Except that they couldn't reach, and we had to spin the tree sideways so that it stretched sideways across the car roof, overhanging the sides and filling the car with snow (Oh my Gaawd! said Thea).
Hang on! I shouted, and away we went. Thea was sure we'd never make it, but I took my tone from the tree lot itself. This was an Optimists' Christmas tree and so I was, well, optimistic. (Can you imagine buying a tree from the Pessimists' lot? Nope, don't take that one. No, not that one either. In fact, all these trees are pretty lousy.)
We cruised down main streets and side streets, whooping and hooting and noting many horrified and puzzled glances from passers by. The inside of the car is still filled with snow. (Oh my Gaawd!) Imo, seated in the back between the two boys, wore a look of quiet and intense delight all the way home.
And today we decorate.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

petit dudley

My memory is like a dog that can do the occasional showy trick but still pees on the carpet. It can forget to shave or vote or do the laundry. It can forget that my son's soccer practice ends in two hours. It can forget that Christmas is coming -- in fact, it does forget, every year. (Any day now I'm going to have to get to the present buying.) So my memory is not practical. But it can, now and then, recall items of no practicality from my remote past.
The starting point for this thought was my recent loss of my workout bag and contents: squash racket, clothes, towel, plastic bags, corkscrew (for some reason I have corkscrews the way some people have mice. They seem to show up everywhere) and combination lock. I went to a discount sporting store and replaced everything last week, and my first thought, on opening the new lock, was how little they had changed since I went to high school. And then, with the padlock open in my hand, I had a madeleine moment (In an old house in Paris all covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines -- no, I mean the other madeleine -- the one you dip in tea). My memory reached down deep and pulled out a sequence of three numbers: 45-25-50. Which was the combination to my first ever padlock. I used it on my ninth grade locker more than thirty years ago.
I wonder what it is doing in my head when I cannot remember dentist appointments and costume parties and the names of the characters halfway through the movie? I suspect the answer has do with the importance of a first time. Having your own locker is a big deal. It is institutional space that is yours and yours alone, territory outside the home that you control -- with the aid of a lock. It's a private and safe haven for books, old lunches, incomplete assignments, and notes from girls, and it functions because you know the combination to your lock and no one else does. So the lock assumes a significance much greater than a random sequence of numbers.
45-25-50. There it was, there it is, there it will be, for ever and ever amen. My ninth grade locker combination. I sure hope it's on some exam I'll have to take.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

ho ho huh?

I know how a turtle feels. A shell-less turtle, I mean. For the past few days I have been without internet and the world has seemed a very different place. No connection except telephone and mail and personal contact. In other words, I only communicated with the people I know well. What a concept that is.
I missed you guys: you facebookers, you blog-reading cyber-friends, you students and colleagues and casual email acquaintances. Every time I talked to someone THERE THEY WERE in my ear, in my space. What happened to distance and privacy and the time necessary for a measured response? The internet offers the luxury of distance. It's not pretend, but it's not immediate. You can care, but you don't have to come up with a feeling RIGHT NOW. I treasure that. I'm no good under pressure. If I need a tear or a firm manly hug (see picture) RIGHT NOW, I'll crack. My mouth will drop open, and an indistinct whuffing sound will emerge. Then I'll have turn away before I start to giggle. But my internet self has no seams or cracks. In the calm privacy of my own keyboard I am caring and sympathetic and earnest -- and I can be drinking coffee and playing solitaire at the same time. Emotional multi-tasking. I missed that, and am real glad it's back now. Christmas is upon us after all. And Solstice. And Chanukah and Kwanzaa and ... Karthigai (had to look that one up -- I am so ignorant). Anyway, a season of distanced goodwill, of fake-real grins and pretend-firm handclasps.
I am disorganized this year, as usual. I have bought no presents and put up no decorations and baked no cookies. But I figure there's still time. Why spend a month panicking about Christams when you can spend a week panicking about Christmas? Way more efficient that way. Yup, I think I'm about ready to start. Now that I have my internet back, I can begin by wishing you all the very best for the festive season. A big smile to all. And a firm hug or polite air kiss where appropriate (red seven on black eight).

Saturday, 13 December 2008

any questions?

Over the last decade or so as a kids' writer I have stood up in front of untold thousands of children. Mostly I have been aware of how much they have in common. No matter who they are, where or how they live, they swallow the same lies, laugh at the same punch lines, and ask the same questions. Which is just as well for me because I have only a limited supply of stories, jokes and answers.
Questions come in three varieties. Kids want to know where I get my ideas, how old I am, and how much money I make. That's really about it. I could cut question time right down by starting off with answers for these.
Every now and then I am surprised. I was surprised a couple of years ago when a self-important girl in the front row asked me what I thought of Immanuel Kant. (I was briefly tempted by a joke about Kant and Can, but figured I'd get an easier laugh by making a face and falling off the stage into the audience. Interestingly, given Kant's 4th Categorical Imperative, it did not occur to me to tell her the truth.) And I was surprised last week in Durham when a guy at the back of the crowd wanted to know if I was his father. And while my jaw dropped slowly, another kid towards the front of the crowd cried out, "Yeah! I was thinking that too!"
The teachers responsible for the two students leapt to their feet, frowning, but I waved them back down. "I like surprises," I said. I'd never been asked anything like this before. Not once, let alone twice.
I had the two kids stand up. They were both gawky and thin, with mops of hair. The crowd started to laugh. I quoted Shakespeare: "It's a wise child," I began ... and then my mind (never completely under control) conjured an image of me, fourteen or so years ago, wandering around Durham like Johnny Appleseed. And before I knew it I was giggling uncontrollably. We all laughed for a good long time, and then the bell rang to end my presentation. The kids filed out laughing. All the teachers were frowning now.
Not everyone likes surprises.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

prepare ye the way

I am torn. On the one hand I have always thought of pranking as essentially mean spirited. I am not fond of jokes at the expense of more or less innocent people. Getting back at the bully is one thing. Pulling the chair out from under a serious guy so that he sits down hard -- well, it's humour that's playing for the other team. There's an element of bullying in it.
That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I am genuinely amused at my son's seasonal project. He and his housemate A-Bomb (regular readers of this blog will recall that I took A-Bomb's shoes with me to Slovenia, which upset him) have decided to act out an Advent Calendar of pranks. Each day a different jape, leading up to the big day when their exams are over and they all go home for Christmas. What makes this Advent project so funny (I am wrestling with my conscience here) is that all the pranks are played on the same guy. Poor Dino, a fellow housemate, has been subjected to tripwires, mitten substitutions, noisily stuffed pillowcases, knapsack shenanigans (a long long string with a boot attached to the knapsack, so that he was jerked backwards a half-block from home when the trailing boot caught in the doorway). Their latest prank involves hiding five alarm clocks in his room, set to go off at ten minute intervals. As Sam tells it, the entire house reverberated from Dino's cursing when the first alarm bell went off. His reaction to subsequent bells got funnier, and funnier.
The success of Sam and A-Bomb's project revolves around two things. First, their seriousness. The very idea of an Advent Calendar devoted to torturing a fellow housemate is, well, funny. The application that the two guys put into their daily tasks speaks volumes. In a way, it shows how much they care. Second, and even more important to success, is the character of the victim. Dino is an enthusiastic lovable guy, tall, gawky, and good-hearted. His relentless victimisation is funny not because he does not deserve it, but because he takes it so well. To my mind, Dino emerges as the star of the show.
And Sam and A-Bomb owe him. Buy a big bottle of what he drinks, guys, and put it under the tree.

Friday, 5 December 2008

what'll it be, dear?

I was having lunch in a family restaurant last week. You know the kind of place: vinyl booths, hot turkey sandwiches and fountain coke, pay the cashier on your way out. And busy waitresses -- usually of a certain age and body type -- wearing white shoes and smiles. I'm writing today in a kind of homage to these waitresses. It seems to me that they represent the purest example of what I can call eglitarianism.
I can't think of anyone other group (they're almost a caste, aren't they?) with only one form of address for the whole world. No matter who you are -- pop star or pauper, male or female, grandparent or babe in arms -- you are "dear" to them. That friendly caring word is on their lips no matter whom they are addressing. You, me, Osama, Queen Elizabeth, Batman, everyone. If the Prince of Darkness ordered a hot turkey sandwich from a family restaurant, the waitress would smile and say, "And what'll you have to drink, dear?" And when he ordered boiling hot baby's blood, or whatever, she'd purse her lips and say, "I'll check for you, dear, but I don't think we have any."
Heartwarming, isn't it? Who can object to being called "dear" by a motherly woman? Not me.
The only other stereotype with something approaching a uniform salute would be the outlaw biker gang --only the term they use for everyone is not, "dear." I can't imagine that a family restaurant staffed by outlaw bikers would do very well.

Monday, 1 December 2008

saving private scrimger

They say that war is vast stretches of boredom punctuated by short periods of intense fear. Nothing happens, nothing happens, and then suddenly EVERYTHING is happening and maybe you don't even survive to the next bit where nothing happens. Sounds about right to me. I imagine firefighting to be something like that. And police work. Stacks of forms to fill out, months of practicing, and then maybe an hour when it's all on the line. Makes for good drama, whether you focus on the build up or the action, because the audience knows that at any given point the characters could be involved in a life-or-death struggle.
The stakes are high for doctors and lawyers too -- if they make a mistake, people die or go to jail. And these profesionals live intensely collegial lives, fighting and bonding with each other in the workplace. The human drama unfolds from nine to five. Again, good theater.
Writing is different. For all the romance associated with the arts, the daily life of the artist makes lousy viewing. I've been busy as hell for the last few days, but it occurs to me that nothing about my working life could be used in a story. What did I do? you ask. Well, I tapped away on this keyboard. That's what I do when I'm writing. When the work is going well, I am tapping away at the keyboard, muttering phrases out loud and nodding to myself. When it's going badly, I am tapping a little more slowly, muttering profanities, and getting up from the keyboard to make another cup of coffee. In between times, when I'm not tapping away, I am staring into space.
That's it. And that's all of it. I mean, I don't even talk to anyone. No wonder that Ridley Scott is not out there with a writing life movie. (Tap! Stare! Yawn!) Yes, that is a Jane Austen action figure in the picture. It is marketed ironically.
The only way you can sell a creative biopic is to set the story away from the typewriter or the easel. It helps if the artist has a surprising and deeply engaging personal life -- fighting hard, loving disastrously, keeping crocodiles in the bath tub. Sadly for you, reading this, my extra-curricular life is only marginally more interesting than my working life.
The best I can hope for is a spot in someone else's story. If a fire breaks out at my place, I could get a supporting role in some firefighter's triumph and/or tragedy. If a war breaks out at my place, I could become the object of a mission. Saving Scrimger. I like it.
OK, now I have to get back to work. Don't bother looking -- there's nothing to see here.