Thursday, 24 December 2009

tastes like what?


Yesterday evening I was visited with a strong case of bad childhood memory. We were at a fancy restaurant in our small town, me and the kids, a kind of pre-Christmas I'm too tired to cook and we're spending money like water anyway celebration. General chat and giggles, making fun of Sam's bad hair and Imo's work schedule and my sniffles and Thea's taste in music and Ed's handcuff idea (long story -- another time), and working out how we would keep the tree alive and vertical. Chris the waiter came by with first courses, and I took a bite, and ... nothing.
Nothing, I tell you. I had lost my sense of taste. I took another bite. Still nothing. I could feel the fish in my mouth, and I had a vague sense of a spicy sauce, but no flavour. None at all.

I went right back to childhood, shedding decades in no time at all. I was nine, a hearty chunky boy with a good appetite, and, at that moment, a cold in the head. Mom had cooked spare ribs, one of my faves. I picked up my first rib, slathered on some barbecue sauce, bit good and hard, and tasted ... nothing. I was horrified and indignant. I demanded to know what was going on. My parents explained how taste and smell are connected, and I ... I was devastated. I wasn't going to take this. Not on rib night! My nose was stuffed tighter than my pants (which was saying something back then; anyone who was at all chunky back in the seventies knows what I mean). I wondered how I could loosen things up -- and thought of exercise.

It was a crazy idea, but I was desperate. I left the table, and started running up and down stairs. Mom called for me to come back. You're not supposed to leave in the middle of a meal! she called. I didn't listen. Dinner without tasting it? That wasn't a meal.

Up and down I ran, until I was puffing and panting and my nose was running like a tap. I blew hard, ran to the table, and took a bite of ribs. Mom was frowning, but Dad had a bit of a grin going on. Well? he asked.

Miracle! I could taste. Oh, what a heavenly moment that was. Sadly, three bites later I had lost my sense of taste again. I needed another couple of flights of stairs before I took my next bite. And three bites later ... It took me almost an hour to eat dinner, and when I was done I was tired and I had a cramp. But it was worth it.

All these memories came back to me in a rush yesterday. Sadly, I am now too old, or socially aware, or scared, to gallivant around Cobourg's best restaurant in order to recover my sense of taste. Or maybe I don't care about food quite as much as I did when I was a kid. Whatever the reason, I ate and smiled. But inside, I was dying.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

so this is christmas

Don't know whether this was the most hopeful, or the saddest thing I have ever seen. But everyone on the car commented on it. I was driving Thea and Sam and their friend Dean along the Rosedale Valley Road through downtown Toronto. It is a ravine road, wooded hills sloping up on both sides and bridges overhead. The visible inhabitants are squirrels and raccoons, birds and hobos. Today we noticed -- all of us, at once, as we flashed by -- that one of the hobo shelters halfway up the hill was decorated. In front of the plywood and plastic lean-to stood a small lopsided Christmas tree.

That is sooooooooooo sad! said Thea.

Sam, not surprisingly, disagreed with his sister. He thought the decoration showed that the hobo had some positive things going for him, and was therefore not as sad a sight as an undecorated shelter.

Dean wondered if it was sadder to know you had last something, or not to know.

Good question. I tend to think it's better to know things than not to know them, but in this case I wonder.

Friday, 18 December 2009

concert time



Ed goes to a Catholic high school, so I did not go to a Winter Concert last night. The Catholics are walking proud, talking loud, and calling it Christmas Concert. I don't know how I feel about that, after all the Solstice Kwanzaa Chanukah Divali (is that right?) discussions over the years.

The concert was the same. All school concerts are the same, no matter how they are billed. A few kids with real talent (including your and my children) and a bunch making noise. Nerves on the part of the performers. Smiles on the faces of the parents. Punch and home-made squares at the end.

It comes as a surprise to parents to find out that their kid is good at something. I mean, good in an adult way. Ed plays drums for the jazz band, and I panic-parented for a few seconds ... and then realised that he wasn't a baby any more. I stopped clenching my hands and worrying that he would get lost, or fall off the chair, or poke himself in the eye. I thought -- Hey, he's good. He's having fun. I actually relaxed, and hummed along with Superstition and Tequila! and a jazzed up Feliz Navidad. My applause was from enjoyment rather than a release of pent-up tension.

Not that the concert was screw-up free. There are always some mistakes, and they are often the best parts of the show. Your own kid screwing up is a tough, because you know you will have to live with it later. And you will have to lie. No, you were fine! you say. You were great! I didn't notice that your costume had come undone and that you forgot your lines. Nose bleed? Really? I didn't even see it. My favorite mistake last night was three girls forgetting the words to Silent Night. They were going fine and then -- like a car running out of gas -- coasted to a smooth and complete stop in the middle of the second verse. They handled it perfectly. One of them clutched her mouth. The other two burst into fits of giggles. All three ran from the stage.

I clapped extra hard. So did the grandma beside me. All around me I saw warm smiles. Yup, it was a school concert. You know, in a couple of years Ed is going to graduate. I am going to miss these evenings -- no matter what religious or non-religious festival they are named for.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Rrrr, matey!


Man, where does the time go? A week later, I am still with the zombies, still without a financial planner. The pasta sauce is gone, as are the decadent chocolate chip cookies. Christmas looms in and out of my conscience, a pirate ship chasing me through a fog bank. I'll forget about it for a bit, then remember and panic-shop, then drift into regular work and family mode, then spot it again, nearer now, its guns run out and its crew ready to board.

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Eaton Centre with most of Toronto, and my two girls. Imo and Thea are fond of picking out presents for other people. A generous trait, and useful for me since I have no talent that way. Thea will say something like, This candle would be perfect for Aunt Julie, and I'll say, Really? How do you know? And she'll say, I just do.

Aunt Julie, if you are reading this, better prepare for warm, waxy, Christmas-type light and scent.

I was able to offer some input into my son Sam's present because he told me, very clearly, what he doesn't want. A coat, he said. If you get me another horrible coat I may explode. See, I got him a motorcycle jacket for his birthday. Something like the one in the picture there, only more retro. I thought (and still do think; and what's more one of Sam's room mates agrees with me. Thank you, Dean) that the jacket was funky and stylish, capable of being worn both straight and as an ironic gesture. Sam disagreed. Violently.

Sam, if you are reading this, don't panic. No coats were purchased in the making of this Christmas. At least, not yet. (Sam and I have an odd gift-giving relationship. Some years ago, old enough to understand my taste in music and to have developed one of his own, he bought me an Eagles cd. Thanks! I said. You hate the Eagles, don't you, Dad, he said. Yes! I said. He smiled.)

I don't know who is going to help me shop for the girls. The boys have no talent for other people's desires. I may have to fall back on the icons of femininity: flowers and chocolate, silk and sunshine and love. Of course there is always technology. Nothing says I love you like an i-phone. And you can use it to order flowers.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

short and obvious


Two unrelated quickies today because I have no long thoughts, and because I just this moment had a real good thought (and about effing time) for the ending of the zombie book I have been writing off and on for a year now. After the football game the not-quite-zombie gets trapped in the remote laboratory with the actual zombie, and our intrepid hero and heroine decide to climb into the house and rescue him ... but enough about that. Plot synopses usually sound stupid. (Two kids fall in love but their families hate each other, and she's supposed to marry someone else, and he kills her cousin in a fight, and they decide to run away, and a crazy priest comes up with a magic potion that'll make everything right but he doesn't tell them how the potion works and they end up committing suicide. If I were Shakespeare and someone came up to me with that story idea I'd have said, Really? No, really? You're kidding, right?)

I was in the grocery store the other day and I overheard two guys talking an aisle over. They sounded like they were sixteen or so, laughing and telling each other to shut up. No you shut up. No you.
Then one of them got serious and said, What about those? The other one said, Yeah, I don't know what do with them. And the first guy said, They're all decadent, you know.
I had been listening with half an ear as I threw peanut butter and pasta sauce into my cart, but this last exchange got all my attention. To me, decadence looks something like the picture there. Anyway, I raced to the next aisle, and found two guys in uniform unloading a giant flat of President's Choice chocolate chip cookies.

You don't like that? I thought it was funny. My second quickie was a phone message waiting for me when I got back from Toronto. Not my agent wanting the overdue zombie book, or my kids wanting to borrow the car. This was a local stranger, acquaintance of an acquaintance, who wanted to become my -- get this -- financial adviser. I've got some interesting ideas about how you can grow your fortune, Rich, he said. If you are interested please take down this number and call me .... I stared at the phone for a second, and quietly deleted the message. It reminded me of the old joke about the definintion of an optimist: an accordionist with a pager. You could add: a kid's author with a financial planner.

That'll have to be enough for now. It's all I got.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

guys and dolls



First off, some business. Congrats to RONI for a brilliant cover design to my new book, Me & Death. Way to go, Roni.
Now, the actual cover will not look like that. (Publishing companies are stick-in-the-muds.) But RONI's school will win a visit from me in the near future. I will keep RONI's cover on the opening page of the website for a bit, and then show the actual grown-up designed cover of the new book so you can be thinking about it for the spring. Publication date is in April.
Actually, I have to say, the book looks great. I don't know if you'll like the story, but the visual is pretty cool. Wait 'til you see it.

OK, enough about literature. Let's talk about sex instead. And by sex I mean stereotypes. Men and women. Yes, this is going to be one of those what do women want discussions. Seems that all the girls in my life are fond of chocolate. They don't all like the same kind of chocolate, but in general the flavour is a winner. I don't know any guy who thinks this way. Not one. For myself, I'll drink chocolate milk, but I can't remember the last time I bought a chocolate bar, or got excited about a box from Ferrero Rocher or Pot o Gold. So when Miriam said, sometime last week, that as long as there was chocolate and sunshine in the world she'd be happy, I was surprised. I got to thinking about basic needs of the two sexes, viewed as Homer and Barbie stereotypes, and this is what I came up with.

WOMEN -- Chocolate, flowers, sunshine, love, silk.

MEN -- Beer, sex, meat, fire, war.

Pretty elemental, eh? Did I miss anything? I wonder where the sexes meet? Coffee comes to mind. Maybe cocaine. Maybe Paris. And of course everyone loves George Clooney. But most of the rest of the universe seems clearly divided.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

and we're back


For some reason my computer has not allowed me to access blogger.com for the last couple weeks. Another couple of websites too, but blogger is the one that matters to you. I should have addressed this problem AT ONCE, but I am not an AT ONCE kind of guy, and let the problem slide and slide. And then yesterday morning I plugged in the computer and -- on a whim -- typed in my website and hit up blogger and got in. There's a lesson there, but I don't really know what it is. Leave things alone and they'll get better, I suppose. I should have posted RIGHT AWAY but, like I said, I am not that kind of guy. Anyway, here we are, finally.
So how have you all been? It's been a while. Hope no one has died or got ill or lost their job or been turned down by someone they asked out, or spent a lot of money on a watermelon that turned out to be lousy. That happened to me a while ago, and it sent my whole day into a downward spiral.

Let's do movies. I saw two recently, and they illustrate something. I'm not sure what. Maybe it'll come to me as I type. First was Away We Go. That's the one with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph travelling across America, sampling bits and bites of culture and personality as they look for the right place to start their own family. It's a good movie. I'm not as big a Krasinski fan as my Office loving daughter, but he does a fine job. Rudolph is an even better. Together they make a totally charming loving funny couple. You want to be them. The sad and odd weirdos they meet along the way are all well conceived. The dialogue is spot on. Everything works.

You think there's a but coming, don't you. But nothing. It's a good movie, like I said.

So why did I like Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans so much more? It is a flawed movie. Nicolas Cage is out of control. The ending is wrong -- an odd mix of cop-out and kick in the head. The dialogue is not perfect by any means. Even the title is sort of dumb. I may not have it right. But damn it the movie is watchable. Cage is absolutely mesmerising as he chews the scenery. The action builds and builds. The visuals are stunning, from the opening shot of the snake swimming through filthy water to the break-dancing soul of the drug kingpin. There are drop-jaw moments - the singing iguana (that's the scene in the picture) and Cage roughing up an elderly lady come to mind right away. For all its imperfections, Bad Lieutenant is a memorable piece of film making.

Maybe that's the point I am trying to get at. Away We Go rolls smoothly along. It's a good movie. Bad Lieutenant stumbles, falls, gets back up and totters towards greatness.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

master of all I survey



This just in from the never believe a survey front. Last month, in what would have been a moment of drunken idiocy, except that I was sober, I agreed to participate in a broadcasting survey. (What can I say -- I got the phone call while my pot of potatoes was boiling over. Somehow it was easier to say yes and hang up than to say no and hang up.) The next week, the booklets arrived. Three booklets. One for me, one for Imo and one for Ed. (Somehow it was easier to tell the truth and say there were three people in the household at the moment than to lie and say only one.) I put the surveys on the counter, ignored them for a couple of weeks, and then began to feel guilty. Another week or so went by, and I figured we really should fill in the booklets.
The kids protested but I insisted. And, I said, there's a twoonie taped to the back page for you. Which was enough incentive. We opened our booklets together.
The survey wanted a record of age, marital status, ethnic background, and income level as well as radio listening patterns for a week. I spent a half hour on mine, trying to remember when and for how long I had listened to what station. On a scale of one to ten for accuracy, I would score my survey a seven. Imo and Ed finished their booklets in slightly less time, and went off to the convenience store to spend their twoonies. I mailed the surveys off in the envelope provided, and forget about them.
Yesterday I got a phone call about Imogen's survey. She wasn't around. I explained that I was her father and asked how I could help. The market testing guy wanted to know about a radio station nicknamed "The Bear's Den," which Imo claimed to have listened to a lot during the test week. I told him that it was an oldies station (now, for some reason, it was easier to lie than to tell the truth and say I had never heard of it. Though the picture up there looks more heavy metal, don't you think?). He thanked me and hung up.
When Imo came home I asked her about her survey. She told me how she'd filled it in, and I began to laugh. Not only were all the radio stations made up, so were the personal data. Imogen claimed to be widowed, of Polish descent, and 87 years old. Oh, and her income last year was $475, 000.
What the analysts will make of a well-to-do elderly east-European widow listening to oldies rock and roll I do not know. Especially since their verification source is her (presumably at least centenarian) father. Personally, I wouldn't trust any of their conclusions.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

halloween past and present



So Halloween has been and gone. My kids take it more seriously than I do. Indeed they take most things more seriously than I do. (I was reading a mystery story the other day, and one of the guys in it said that he had kids who were older than he was. I knew what he meant at once. )

Thea went to Kingston to visit Sam, and the two of them ended up at the same party. Both decided to cross dress this year. Thea went as "Babe" Lincoln, complete with beard and mole (permanent magic marker, which she had trouble getting off the next day) and Sam and his friend Simon went as the musical couple Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Sam was Courtney Love. He has the wild blonde hair to begin with, and he wore, Thea told me, the tightest skirt she had ever seen. Gosh I am sorry I missed that, I said, not completely meaning it.

Ed worried and worried about his costume. He wanted something memorable, but not too memorable. He didn't want it to look like he'd worked at it. Cool means not trying to be cool. It's the hardest thing in the world. I think he succeeded in the end (not in not worrying -- but in not appearing to worry). His friend Mark works at McDonald's, and Ed simply borrowed his uniform and name tag, and went to the Halloween party disguised as Mark. His costume won second prize. (I can't help wondering what it would have taken to win -- maybe if he had been Mark?)

Why do they take Halloween so seriously these days? I don't know. It isn't the candy. Is it the concept of identity, of being someone you are not? All I know is that I have not been to a costume party since seventh grade. (I was a mummy, wrapped in rolls and rolls of toilet paper that unravelled when I spilt Coke on myself. A sporty brunette named Robin, whom I rather fancied at the time, laughed her head off at me, and I ran away to the bathroom and wept the bitter tears of twelve years old.)

Geez, that took me back. You know, at that precise moment in my life I think I would have comitted a major crime to be someone I was not. Maybe my kids have the right idea. If I had climbed back into the saddle in Grade Seven, donned a pirate costume, or dressed up as Janis Joplin or Grace Jones (Ha ha, can't help laughing at that picture) maybe I would be better adjusted now. Hmmmm. Maybe it's not too late. You never know, do you? Next year?

Sigh. Sometimes you know.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

an elevator ride


An odd moment on the elevator yesterday. My mom had a doctor's appointment, and my dad and I were going along for company. We were alone for most of the elevator trip. Mom and Dad were sharing comments on the downtown traffic (bad) my driving (too fast) and the state of baseball (don't ask), with sidebars into grandchildren (gorgeous) and prospects for lunch (varied). It was in short a regular family piece of argle bargle, as has been served more or less fresh for as long as I can remember. Lots of laughing on their parts because these are fun topics to riff on. Lots of laughing on my part for those reasons, and also because my folks, in their 70s now, talk loudly, think quickly, and can't hear very well.

You should have gone down Bay, my dad said.
No, he shouldn't. He shouldn't have to. You should have paid,
said my mom.
Paid what?
said Dad.
He said Bay, Mom. Bay Street.

I did pay,
said Dad. The Yankees lost and I paid. I always pay my debts.
Oh, the Yankees,
said Mom. Don't get me started on the Yankees. And now what are you laughing at?
Nothing, I said. Nothing at all.

The elevator stopped, and a man got on. Rimless glasses, a white shirt, striped tie, shined shoes. He could have worn a sign saying ACCOUNTANT or perhaps SYSTEMS ANALYST but he didn't have to. He stared at us blankly, and turned away. My parents continued their discussion, managing to combine concert tickets, divorce, and automated parking in a breathtaking two-minute sequence. I wanted to applaud but I was too busy refereeing and laughing. The accountant got off, favoring me with one glance. (Can you have ice brown eyes? They were definitely chilly.) And I realized that he had not found our discussion amusing. Not at all. There had been no connection whatsoever. The door closed, and the elevator continued up.

That was a completely humorless man, I said.
I know,
said Mom. Scary, huh?
Kind of. What do you think, Dad?

He shrugged. He's pretty focussed, my dad.
I still think you should have gone down Bay
, he said.

speed dating in Surrey


Spent the weekend in beautiful (not really) Surrey BC at the wonderful (really!) Surrey International Writers' Conference. A great idea, this conference -- reminds me of the Humber Summer Workshop. It links the emergent writing community (that is, wannabes) with potentially helpful mentors (me, among others - stop laughing) and also with a large number of agents and publishers. Aspiring writers sign up for pitch sessions with agents, where they have five minutes to sell their book. One guy I talked to met his agent there two years ago, and is now signing contracts worth five times more than mine. I was seriously impressed (envious).
The toughest part of the weekend for me was what they call blue pencil sessions. You sign up for these too. You go to a large ballroom with your manuscript clutched in your trembling hands. For fifteen minutes you sit opposite your selected mentor (there are tables dotted about the ballroom) who reads some of the mansucript and gives you literary advice. The bell rings, and you move to make way for the next trembling-handed writer. It's a stressful as speed-dating, which it resembles. Stressful for you, listening to home truths about your work. And superstressful for your mentor. Yikes!! I tell you, it's hard to come up with truly insightful commentary, quarter hour after quarter hour. I kept saying to myself: Find One Thing to say that will help this person. Don't be flip or funny (Have you considered a career in chartered accountancy); don't be cruel (your main character could play in a TV ad as The Least Interesting Man In The World). Be of use.
Fortunately, all the manuscripts I saw were brilliant (you never know who is going to read your blog), so my advice wasn't necessary. Usually it was a case of: Good, good, but you might want to think about doing this or that. Now get back to work.
Maybe I'll take my own advice now.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

one fine province


More from the frustrated teenaged driver front. With the testers still on strike, ten weeks now, and going strong, Ed has a new plan for getting his licence. He wants to try Manitoba. Yes, that's right. He would rather drive than live in Ontario. We talked about it last night, he and Mir and I. It started as a joke, but got more serious when he found a phone number in Manitoba, and I talked to someone from the provincial insurance agency there. She was very clear. The provincial authority would give Ed credit for the time he has already put in as a learning driver in Ontario. He would need to take the Manitoba written test, and then he could do the driving test within the week.
Ed was ecstatic, overhearing me say this. Let's go, he whispered. Let's go now!
I held up my hand in a whoa! gesture. The situation was getting complex. To take the test, the lady informed me, he would need to have a piece of ID with a Manitoba address on it.
Like what, I asked her.
How about a gas bill addressed to him?
He's 16, I said. He doesn't pay for gas.
How about a cancelled cheque?
He doesn't have a bank account, I said. The only ID he has with an address is his passport. And that was issued in Ontario.
Ed was jumping around the living room. I could open a bank account, he said at the same time as the lady in Manitoba ws saying, He could open a bank account.
Yes, I said. He could open a bank account. And hung up.
I summarized the situation when Ed had stopped bouncing off walls. In order for you to get a drivers' licence, I said, we would have to fly to Winnipeg, borrow the address of Mir's friend Carol, open a chequing account for you, and return home. When the cheques come in a couple of weeks, we would fly back to Winnipeg, take the written test, wait a week and then you could take the driving test. So all we need, I said, is Carol's good will, a hotel for a week or so, and a bunch of plane tickets. So the cost of your driver's licence is ... oh ... 4000.00
His face fell like rain.
(You could stay with Carol, Mir pointed out. That'd save a week of hotel bills.
Hey! said Ed.
She's making a joke, I said. And his face fell again.)
But what's the alternative, Dad?
Or, I said, we could wait for the strike to end ....

Saturday, 10 October 2009

oh, geezers


There are times when I feel positively youthful. Visiting hospital is not one of them (all the doctors look like Doogie Howser, or his little sister. I was in line at the St Mike's hospital coffee shop yesterday and the guy in scrubs ahead of me looked -- I swear to you -- like he was there for take your kid to work day. I was seriously creeped out). But watching 60 Minutes while visiting my mom in hospital -- and if I watched the show regularly, I would be able to tell you which evening it was -- was like a trip to the fountain of youth. The bit I saw was an editorial by a crusty old codger (this may not be enough of a clue to identify him; he also had white hair and a large oak desk. In the photo there, he'd be one of the guys in the front row) on the subject of email. I watched this elderly gent gesticulate from behind his desk ... I listened to him rant on and on about how impersonal email was, how kids today didn't understand communication, how he himself looked forward to his local postie delivering the mail and nothing but nothing could compare with the joy of receiving news of a friend in an actual letter with a stamp on it ... and my smile grew like Topsy. I felt positively boyish. What an old fart you are, I said to the TV screen. What a fuddy duddy. What a (thanks, Bugs Bunny) maroon.
Like so many opinions stated emphatically and positively, this geezer's idea of youth culture is not only wrong, it is completely false. It could not be less true. The typical youth of today is not at all ignorant of communication. She or he or they or it embraces communication, loves communication, stays overnight at communication's house and has breakfast with it. Teens and tweens today are in almost total communication all the time, as close to a state of nirvana -- oneness with the universe -- as any generation in history. My kids can simultaneously talk to one friend online or on the phone, message another, check the price/availability of a pair of boots, and answer my probing questions about the state of their homework. In the time it takes to deliver a handwritten letter to an old man sitting behind an oak desk, a young man or woman (or whatever) can experience an entire relationship from first greeting to total intimacy, maybe even including marriage and subsequent breakup. They travel fast along the road of life, the youth of today, and, though they may miss some of the scenery along the way, they cover way more ground. I applaud them. The future of communication is in their hands, and I am pleased and hopeful.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

press *&%$*#


One of my more frustrating moments today, paying a parking ticket on the phone. I hate getting parking tickets. I know that they are a part of the cost of spending time in the city. But somehow the three or four times you get away with parking under the law does not make up for the time you get caught.
Anyway, I tried to pay online but the link was down so I ended up on the phone with Impark.com. If this happens to you, make sure you pour yourself a scotch or roll yourself a serious spliff first. The call begins with you giving them your credit card number (I guess they want to weed out pranksters). Then the compu-woman on the other end of the line becomes quite nasty. All she says is,
Enter the licence plate number. For letters press the star key and wait for instructions ... And she won't listen when you yell at her.
I tried. Dear Goddess I tried. The instructions after I pressed * were complex, and involved substituting 2 for E and 3 for X and so on. Somehow I kept screwing up. The compu-woman would calmly confirm my selections when I had finished, and my licence plate would end up reading something like AP24ZXBANANA99. I don't know what I did wrong, but whatever it was I kept doing it. After a half hour I felt like hanging up, but I was committed. Among other things, they had my credit card number. To speak to a representative, press the number sign, said the compu-voice. I pressed # so fast it hit twice. I'm sorry, said the voice. That's not a valid answer.
I'm sorry too, I said. Sorry you are not a real person so I could punch you in the nose.
When I calmed sufficiently (Scottish therapy helped) to press the key the right number of times, there were no attendants available. I did not want that guy with the BANANA99 licence plate to get a freebie, so I went back to the main menu and tried to pay one last time, and and finally -- finally -- finally! -- got it right. Then I hung up, and arranged some more therapy.
Hey, I read somewhere (dentist's office? friend's bathroom? someplace like that) about slang belonging to the unempowered or minority group. No such thing as majority slang. The article's example: the MINUTE white folks started to say, You go, Girl, black folks stopped. Makes sense. So maybe my (male, empowered, mainstream, ha ha no really) using Goddess instead of God means that earnest women are going to stop using it. Right? Just wondering.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

just out of reach


What is the worst possible thing to happen to a sixteen-year-old boy? A dropped touchdown pass? A test he hasn't studied for? Nope. An embarrassing accident in front of a pretty girl? Better. But my son Ed is in an even worse situation than that.
He has wanted to drive ever since he watched the car chase scene from Bullitt, back when he was about ten. I can't wait until I'm old enough to drive, he has said, almost daily, every since. He counted down to his sixteenth birthday, and took his written test the very next day. He signed up for driving lessons the day after that. And for the last six months he has been practicing hard with anyone who will get in a car with him: me, his mom, the driving instructor, his grandparents, other people's grandparents ... After all that practice he is -- I don't mean to sound like a proud papa here -- a real good driver. When we are out together I relax in the front passenger seat, and fiddle with the radio, and think long deep thoughts about love and death and art and rice pudding (with or without raisins? it's a tough question), and generally forget about Ed. I have no doubt at all that he will pass his test on the first try.
But he can't take the test. That's his nightmare. The driving testers are on strike. Talk about tantalizing. Ed can see his driving licence, but it is just out of his reach. (That's Tantalus himself over there, if you were wondering.) Ed is all dressed up for the prom, and his date is in the bathroom throwing up. He is standing on the high diving board, and they are draining the pool. He is ... well, you get the picture.

As a parent on the receiving end of Ed's more or less constant sighing (How'd it go at school today? Ohhhhh, Dad, I had to take the bus again. How was the new Megan Fox movie? Ohhhhhh, Dad, we walked to the theater), I want to know what the folks at the ministry are doing about the problem. Where are the replacement driving testers? Where are the scabs, willing to test for less money? When will it all end?
And should rice pudding have raisins or not?

Friday, 25 September 2009

weird email


Most of my email comes from friends or relatives saying hi let's get together. Of the email that comes from strangers, probably half is about my winning a lottery in Spain, or marrying a beautiful East European, or otherwise improving my financial or sexual life. (My favorites are the ones who ask if I haven't always wanted a magnificent bust. Oh yes, I want to say. And a beehive hairdo to go with it.) The remaining half of my stranger email has to do in some way with my professional life. Editors and publishers, conference organizers, teachers, students, media types. Much of this is positive (sixth grade students who sign themselves, Your biggest fan! Parent council members who beg me to come to their school). Some of it is disappointing (reviewers who comment on Scrimger's obscure plot line or clunky dialogue). And then there's the fragment of email I got the other day. Here it is in its entirety.
Scrimger yore book is disgusting. Why don't you
That's it. Weird, eh? I stared at the message in surprise. Which turned to dismay real fast. Then to puzzlement.
By now some time has passed. The surprise is going and the dismay is pretty much gone. It's no fun to be reviled, but I can certainly accept the fact that not everyone likes me. The man with no enemies is a coward, says the proverb (I guess because he is too frightened of offending people to put forth an original thought). So I am okay with the critique -- but I am still puzzled. Why don't you ... what? What does my anonymous critic want me to do?
Dear sir or madam, or kid. If you are reading this, please take a moment and finish your thought. I can't decide how much weight to give your opinion until I know more about it. I'm sorry that you find my work disgusting. If you tell me what your issue is, maybe my next book will be better.
So far, today's email seems normal. A couple of friends saying hi. A reader commenting on an earlier blog entry. A student submitting a chapter for review. And an offer to Wow her in the bedroom with your magnificent specimen.
I still think a beehive hairdo would be more effective.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

playing horsie


A memorable moment this morning. For the first time in my life I rode a horse. Well, when I say rode I mean sat on and let him follow another horse around the paddock. Pretty scary, since horses are (follow me closely here) big. Getting a knee up I seemed to rise and rise. It took me forever to get to the top. Once there I flopped around a lot before settling into my natural riding posture which my host, whose farm it was, described as, Saturday night special. Mostly I tried to keep one leg on each side of the animal.

From atop my steed, the world looked different. In front of me was the dark mane and bobbing head. Around me the glorious sunshiny morning, green and golden. And below me - far below, it seemed - were the people, smiling up at me, laughing, shaking their heads. This five minute ride (and it was no more than five minutes, though I was concentrating so hard that it seemed both longer and much shorter) gave me a sudden visceral insight into the class system. As I remember my European history, the upper classes rode horses and the lower ones didn't. The difference, I now saw clearly, was as much physical as economic. The upper class was in fact six feet or so farther up. Those people don't matter, I thought to myself, smiling down at my friends and fellow guests. They are below me.

It was a disturbing and unnatural thought. And when my oh so gentle horse bent forward suddenly, and I slid forward and fell, landing luckily on the soft grass, rolling over and standing up again, I felt -- well, I felt foolish, of course, but also in a way relieved. I was back where I belonged.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

bad art

I am writing from Mir's place in western Toronto this morning. Not much of a morning, weatherwise. The sun is hiding and the birds are coughing and clearing their throats. And Patrick Swayze is dead. I don't really have much to say about him, but his face popped up on my computer screen and I thought, Oh. Kind of the way I felt about Edward Kennedy. Oh. Patrick Swayze is not the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, but then Edward Kennedy is not the ghost lover of Demi Moore. I have to say, I know whom I envy here. Where was I? I never said, did I. Sorry. My topic today is art. Specifically, two bad paintings. (Didn't Beatrix Potter write a story called Two Bad Mice? I think so.) Anyway, I am staring at one of the paintings now. Mir's editor gave it to her as a housewarming present, calling it a piece of "found" art. It was found all right -- at a garage sale with a FREE, PLEASE TAKE! sticker on it. In the painting a smiling Irish Setter gambols around a landscape. That's it. The colours are muted, the action is limited, the dog is semi-realistic. There is nothing about this picture that stands out. It's bad art all right (maybe not as bad as the dog picture here, but pretty darned bad. ) And yet it makes me smile, probably because of the FREE, PLEASE TAKE! sticker, which is still on the top corner. When Thea saw the picture the other day she smiled and said, That's great!
The other piece of bad art is leaning against a corner of the living room, and I am trying hard to avoid looking at it. It's a piece of fantasy, heads and bodies floating over a void. The artist has more talent than the dog drawer, but the picture has less appeal. A lot less. In fact, looking at it makes me feel queasy (not as queasy as the piece here, but well on the way). Mir offered it to Thea, who has a student apartment to decorate. Thea shook her head. Too gross, she said.

Which leads me to the question: what is bad art? What makes it bad? If art is a dialogue between artist and viewer, and one picture makes me smile and another makes me ill, then the smiling picture should be good art, no? No? It's a version of Hemingway's morality. And yet I know that they are both pretty awful.
Personally, my favorite art is kid art. I have it all over my place, and it makes me smile every time I look at it. Not just because the kids are mine, either. Other people's kids' drawing makes me smile every bit as wide. Here's some to take the taste of the other two paintings out of your mouth. Enjoy.




Monday, 7 September 2009

and she's gone ...


Imo and I drove to Antigonish Nova Scotia yesterday, where she will be attending St Francis Xavier University. Seemed as if everyone in town was painted, shouting, cheering, clapping. (Kind of like the picture here, except that it was daytime and FX colours are blue and gold.) We drove through a gauntlet of enthusiastic greeters. A guy in a big hat and a bathing suit stepped out of the crowd to block our rental car. He held up a sign that said HONK. So I honked. The guy turned a somersault, everyone laughed, and we drove on. Before we got out of the car we were high-fived and given hand-outs and pointed where to go. The word AWESOME was used thirty-eight thousand times.
I found it all simple and charming -- what first year should be. But Imo is a pretty cool kid, and some of this over-the-top enthusiasm nonplussed her.
If anyone else tells me how FANTASTIC everything is, she muttered, I am going to brain them.
Come on, don't be too cool for school, I said. Join in and you will find yourself having fun. Why, I am tempted to hoot and holler myself.
Dad!
We were in her dorm hallway, laden like donkeys. A guy in a headband and face paint, a few doors down from us, threw his head back and screamed something unintelligeable at the top of his lungs. Very tribal, it seemed to me. Somewhere between Survivor and Lord of the Flies, with a touch of Manchester United thrown in.
Come on, Imo! I said. A big Wa-hoo! With me now. One, two, three ...
She pulled me into her room and began to unpack.

I don't know what I was expecting to come out of her knapsack. Symbols of all the little girls she had been over the years, I guess. Stuffed animals, plasticene, a notebook with her name written all over it, a poster of Dora or Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers...
Nope. First things she put on her desk were a can of Red Bull and a bottle of Tylenol.
I swallowed a big lump in my throat. My little girl is all grown up.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

turn around and she's 2, turn around and she's 4 ...


The week between Christmas and New Year is a time-out for the Western world. Kids are between terms, adults are between deadlines. Hiatus-land. No one does much. The French even have a phrase for it (can't remember it, but I am pretty sure it's cool).
Maybe you have had a similar sense of this past week, between the end of summer and a later-than-usual Labour Day. Not me. Since returning from vacation I have been bee-busy, while time has disappeared faster than a burning fuse. Kid stuff mostly. Course sign-ups, fees, laundry overload, computer repair -- DEALT WITH. New boots/coats/ printers -- BOUGHT. New tattoo -- PUT ON HOLD (not without discussion). Yesterday I drove Sam to Kingston for a new school year with his charming and wacky housemates. (There are, apparently, kitchen issues which are -- UNRESOLVED. My boy claims to be under-fridged - something no father likes to hear.)
Today I am off to Nova Scotia, where Imo is beginning her university career. Suitcases -- PACKED (mine is full of her stuff). Flight, car rental and hotel -- BOOKED. Sentimental feelings at my baby girl going so far away, worry about her being ready for the crazy world of college (see picture), and tears -- WELLING UP.
That's a lot of activity jammed into a few days. I'm due for a time out, but I don't know when the next one is due. Maybe not until after Christmas.

... and we're back


In the words of the National Geographic documentary: And so as the sun sinks slowly in the west we bid farewell to beautiful Pago Pago ... That is, we got the hell out of Dodge. Pouring rain, darkness, and the smell of ocean salt lingering on our clothes and skins and souls. Did I say Dodge? I meant Maine. Did I say souls? I meant sneakers.

My favorite memory might be the four of them climbing out of the surf on the first day's high tide, shaking their heads to clear them, smiling wide. Did anyone else notice, said Ed, that that was awesome!
My favorite memory might be the start of our day trip to Boston, getting stuck in the E-Z pass toll lane without an E-Z pass. The barrier wouldn't go up for me, and the traffic piled up behind me, and everyone knew how to use their horns. The uniformed woman who finally rescued me from two lanes over was not sympathetic character. I had had time to practice my Oops-sorry look, but it was not going over.
See what you've done!
she said to me, a vinegary old lobster of a toll guard. See what you've done here!
(Great local accent she had. Here came out like heah.)
I know! I said. Isn't it amazing!?
She shook her head darkly and called me a couple of names. I was hoping for chowderhead, but had to settle for asshole. Close enough.
My favorite memory might have been later that same day, working our way through the maze that is downtown Boston to get to Fenway Park. We started at the John Hancock building. Sam was riding shotgun, and kept telling me to turn right. Onto what street? I 'd say. And he'd shrug. Doesn't matter, he'd say. I'm on Charles' Gate, I'd say. (Or Huntington, Boylston, Storrow.) And he'd frown at the map and say, I can't find any of them. Better turn right. After a half hour of U-turns, wrong-way one-ways, and slow honk-filled circling (as the picture shows, there's a lot of rerouting, and no one seems too happy about it) we achieved the on-ramp of an eastbound expressway, and I caught a glimpse of the storied ballyard in my rearview mirror. I craned around. The expressway would take us directly away from Fenway. Found it! I pointed wildly, sounding like that page boy in the Walter Scott poem. There! Of course it was too late to get off the ramp, but we took the first exit off the expressway, and a block later found ourselves staring up at ... the John Hancock building. I burst out laughing. Imo, who is good at maps, took over the shotgun position.
Favorite memory doesn't matter. Four kids in their late teens who want to hang out together and with Dad -- that's the real point.

Crossing the border into Canada the customs lady stared at my passport.
Who's this?
she asked.
Me,
I said. My hair was short last year.
You look older
, she said.
How do you reply to that? Gee thanks? Shut up you fascist cow? The key at customs is simplicity. And no humour.
Uh huh, I said.
Thea leaned over from the shotgun seat. It's been a long week for Dad, she said to the customs lady. Who broke into a surprising warm smile. Totally transformed her face.
I bet it has, she said. And raised the barrier, letting us back into Canada.

Friday, 28 August 2009

creep city


The cottage is creepy, all right. How creepy? Bed and breakfast creepy. (Don't mean to get sidetracked here, but whenever I end up in one of those large dusty-shabby doilyful knickknacky places, with a collection of dolls staring down at me when I try to sleep, I wish I had opted for a chain hotel instead. Bland is not as bad as you think.) Anyway, our Maine cottage is like an extreme bed and breakfast, two hundred thousand years old, with broken toys, broken seashells, bleached barnwood walls, and a smell of salt and death.

The kids are one hundred percent bases full all hands on deck creeped out. They were already in freak mode, counting the cemeteries on our road into town (sixteen!). Now they are standing in the kitchen jibbering at me, arms waving, faces twitching, voices rising into the ether.
There's a baby Jesus with an arm missing!
There's a cover thing on top of the vacuum cleaner to make it look like a maid!

There's a stuffed dog!

There's spider webs everywhere!


Inside I am rolling my eyes (can you do this? Roll your eyes inside yourself, I mean) and cursing, but I smile, and try to sound like calm old reasonable old boring old Dad. There there, I say, and, I'm sure you'll get used to it, and, Spiders are our friends. Then I take them grocery shopping. Things begin to look better to all of us as we discover American junk food (You can't get that flavour at home) and an entire aisle dedicated to cheap wine. A week at a bed and breakfast, I say to myself. Not so bad.

That night I am awoken from a semi-vinous sleep by something large landing on my bed. Four somethings, I should say. My children are in my downstairs bedroom. Sam (Apache Chief, that is) turns on the light. Imo (Michilimackinac) speaks for them.
The place is haunted! she says.
Huh?

There's a ghost upstairs! In my room. I can hear it. We can all hear it! Can't we, guys?

I am not quite awake. There's a what? I say.
Dad, we want to sleep here!
They all nod. They have brought blankets, I see. They curl up on the bed (fortunately queen sized) like puppies. Shivering scared puppies.
I don't know whether to laugh or pinch their cheeks. They are soooo cute! But I am soooo unlikely to get any sleep if they are all on the bed.

I try for practical. Look, guys, I know it's a creepy looking place. But it's not haunted, I say. It can't be. Come on, go back to bed.
No, they say.
You can share,
I say. Girls in one room boys in the other. It'll be fun, I say.
I am yawning deeply. They shake their head, and curl up even tighter on my bed.
We're not leaving, says Ham Hock.

My will is weak. I cannot force them back to their own beds. If they won't leave, I will. Five minutes later I am upstairs in the ghost room, alone. I turn out the light and start the smooth smiling effortless drift back towards sleep. And then the rapping begins.

It's on the wall beside my head. Tap tappa tap. Then nothing. Then, after a moment, Tappa tap tappa.
Odd.
I turn over.
Tappa tappa tappa tap. Tap tap.
No denying it. It isn't ghosts, but it's something. I sit up and turn on the light.
Tappa tappa.
Probably animals. I pound on the wall. Which rattles a shelf full of knickknacks overhead. A thing rolls off and lands on the floor, startling me.
It's a doll. She's bald and sort of naked, with wide open eyes and a shocked expression. For a half second I wonder if I am in a Stephen King short story, where the doll will open her mouth and speak to me. I put her back on the shelf. And lie down. My heart is moving a bit too fast for sleep. I keep the light on for a bit.
Tappa tappa.
It's going to be a long night.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

vacationland?


I write to you from America's vacationland which I was surprised to learn is Maine. I know, eh -- you would have thought Florida or California. But license plates do not lie (10 000 LAKES, MINNESOTA) and Maine is, apparently, Vacationland.

First the backstory. When I was a kid, my family vactioned in a charming beach community in southern Maine. Four or five years in a row we were there. Those memories are the meat in my childhood summer vacation sandwich (YMCA camp being the slightly soggy bread). The cottages were roomy and full of character, the lobsters were succulent, and the surf was amazing though frigid. We spent most of the two weeks on the beach. On rainy days my brother and I would play cards, build plasticene snakes, and say NO whenever my dad proposed a trip to Boston. (What if the sun comes out? we said. We'll miss the waves.) Vacationland, indeed.

So when, a few weeks ago, I came across an internet ad featuring the very same beach community I remembered, with summer cottages still for rent, I took a chance and signed us up. The kids cleared their summer work schedules, and we were off.

Maine is ten hours from Cobourg. My kids are gung ho vacationers, and time is short. We decided to do it all in a day. The first thing we'd need, they decided, was juice boxes and snacks. The second: nicknames. These developed all at once as we were driving through woodsy hilly Vermont (GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE) and perhpas for that reason several of them have a decidedly native American caste. Imo, for some reason, became Michilimackinac. Sam is now Apache Chief. Thea is Ham Hock (not particualrly native) and Ed is Buttons (not native at all). I, I am proud to say, am Sacagawea. That's me in the picture.

As we left the interstates and drove for a long time on Highway 302, through New Hampshire (LIVE FREE OR DIE! possibly my favorite license plate motto) and Maine (VACATIONLAND) the kids began to notice that there were a lot of cemeteries. A lot.

This isn't creepy at all, said Ed who had the shotgun seat.

Sure isn't, chimed Imo from the back. I like cemeteries. And see how the trees close in overhead. A nice warm atmosphere, eh?

Shut up, Michilimackinac! said Thea.

We arrived at supper time, unloaded the car, and stepped into our home for the next week. Historic Bolton Cottage. Ten minutes later I was checking out kitchen supplies, wondering what we'd need to buy, when the kids came running downstairs screaming.

Dad this is the creepiest place ever!

Dad there's a ghost, and a hundred spiders, and and it's baking hot!

Dad, can we go home?

Can we go NOW?
They huddled together, four nearly grown children, shivering with fright. I smiled.
You can call me Sacagawea.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

doing time


I am back from exercising, and feel glad. And kind of awful. Glad because of all the good fitness I treated myself to for an hour and a half. Awful because I can't really remember any of it.

Oh, I have vague memories. Snippets from the cutting room floor of my mind. I can see ... pavement, hydro poles, sun in my eyes, sweat trickling, YMCA entrance, treadmill, Roger Federer, silver machines, drinking fountain, pavement again, sun on the back of my neck, and ... and then I was home, easing off my trainers and feeling glad and awful. An hour and a half gone.

I may be fitter than I was, but I will never have that hour and a half again. I have murdered time - a horrible crime when you consider how pathetically short is the span of human life. Is this how everyone exercises? I hope not. I hope there are lots of folks out there paying attention to their workout, enjoying it, savoring every exerting moment. See the picture? Like those guys (funny video from a few years ago featuring the band, OK Go.)

I am not there yet. Right now I am treating my workout as a kind of prison sentence -- a stretch in the big house that I will feel better after. The way to get through it is to turn off mentally. Don't think of the bad man doing those bad things to you. Zone out, and think of Roger Federer. I would not normally watch tennis on a bet, but if the alternative is NOTICING what I am doing to my body, well, bring on the sweaty Swiss.

They say you are supposed to live as if you are dying. As far as exercise is concerned, I am living as if I am already dead.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

old fashioned heat relief


Weird night last night. I can not recall being so hot. I woke up at two and four, and couldn't think what was wrong. I actually thought I was having an attack of some kind. Then I struggled through various layers of sleep, possibly mixed with red wine, and realized that my flat was hot enough to bake bread. I don't mind the heat usually, never use air conditioning (Never? Well, hardly ever) even when it is an option. It was not an option last night. And the heat was, well, egregious. I soaked a wash cloth, put it on my face, but it offered only momentary relief. I wondered what to do.
And then the wisdom of my Macedonian grandfather came back to me. A gruff old guy, usually unshaven and with a hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

When you're hot, drink something hot,
he used to say. Look at the Arabs. They live in the hottest climate in the world, and what do they drink? Coffee and tea.

Yes, Dedo, but the Arabs didn't have electricity, I would say. I was nine or ten.

So what,
he said. If they had electricity, maybe they'd use air conditioning. And maybe they wouldn't. I tell you they didn't need air conditioning. They drank hot drinks. And wore loose clothing. Long loose clothing, all over. Not like North Americans with their bikinis.

Which generally got him started on girls today and their lack of modesty.
I had not thought of my dedo in years, but his voice came back to me last night in my feverish state. I wondered if he had had a point after all. I decided to try out his ideas. Not the long flowing robes, but the hot drink. I boiled water and made a pot of tea.
Guess what? Going down, the tea felt as hot as hell's door knob. And when it go to my stomach it felt even hotter. And then ... gradually ... over the next minute or two ... I began to experience a feeling of comparative coolness. I repeated the procedure. I felt ... better. Not cool, mind you. Far from cool. But less hot. I drank two cups and went to bed, but was only able to sleep for an an hour or so before my bladder woke me up. Drinking hot tea will in fact relieve heat prostration, but you still end up with all that tea sloshing around inside you. If my dedo were still alive I might ask him how the Arabs dealt with that.

Monday, 10 August 2009

what is inside, and what is outside?


As I said, the restaurant was in a town with an army base, and most of the other people in the place were wearing camouflage. (Bad planning if they were hoping to blend in with the restaurant. A suit patterned in spilled eggs, brownish floor tile and orange formica table tops would have been way better.) The soldiers were intimidating in their brushcuts and broad shoulders, in the uniformity of their uniforms -- I couldn't tell the privates from the generals -- and in their silence. Hi there, I said nervously, walking past a table of ten. They all stared. The oldest one there -- lieutenant, field marshall, I don't know -- said, Howdy, and went back to his sandwich. None of the others said anything at all. I thought about making conversation about the weather, but didn't know what to say. Great morning for gunfire didn't sound right.

Miriam and I had coffee and soup, and planned our route for the afternoon. The nearby table of soldiers ate together, finished together and stood up together. The old soldier signed the bill instead of paying (which perhaps explained the popularity of the place) and then they all left in a group. They might almost have been chained together. I tried to catch someone's eye as they passed our table. No particular reason except that I like to establish contact with people. No one looked my way -- they were too busy frowning and adjusting their uniforms.

An interesting little vignette, I thought. And then, a few hours later, in the middle of a beautiful sunny afternoon, we passed a white club van with a discreet and tasteful WCCS on it. Up close the letters turned out to stand for Wisonsin Correctional Center System. It was a prison van. And in it were (you guessed it) a bunch of mostly young guys, sitting so close they might have been chained together, with short short hair and uniforms that made them all look the same.

I was struck. I really was. Two groups far removed from my sloppy tolerant middle-of-the-community sphere of belonging. One dedicated to protecting society's rules, another to bending or breaking them. The two groups face in opposite moral and philosophical directions. And yet there are these similarities. I could ask deep questions about who is really in prison here, but I won't. I will note that, like the soldiers', the prisoners' faces were blank, their thoughts seemingly removed from the present. And they were scary. Man, were they scary.

I felt bad for them. Mind you, I felt bad for the soldiers too.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

so much for preconceptions


Sorry, sorry. I know you've been worried. I just got back from a trip, and computers were not part of the luggage. Where was I, you ask? On the road from Winnipeg to Cobourg. I'll fill you in on a couple of interesting moments over the next few days. It was a fun trip, but I am glad to be home.

We decided to go via America because it's a bit quicker than the narrow looping Trans Canada, and because I have never been to North Dakota or Wisconsin. The drive out of Winnipeg was, well, dull. I was prepared for excitement at the border, though. The Pembina Highway crossing is, I am told, peopled with the most vile collection of power-hungry petty-dictatorial customs inspectors in the country. Famous for it, apparently. They make the Niagara Falls guys I'm used to look like the Welcome Wagon.

Be careful Miriam told me. No jokes, no attitude. Answer the questions straight and quick.
Can I pay compliments? I asked.
Like what: Nice country you have here?
I was thinking more like, What a cool uniform. Or, Hey do you work out? That kind of compliment.
No.
So as we approached the 49th parallel I was practicing my smile in the mirror. I wanted to seem friendly but not effusive. After a few false starts I thought I had it.
How's this? I asked.
Miriam looked over from the driver's seat, shook her head.
Your smile is too much like a simper, she said.
How about this?
She checked again. Now you're on the verge of leering.
Now?
Now you are leering.
Okay, now? Now?
She smiled without looking over. Try to act natural, she said.

What is it with customs inspectors? I wonder if it might be a combination of power and frustration. You want to be a cop or a soldier, keeping the world safe and blowing up bad guys, and you spend your whole life cooped up in a little booth, going through dirty laundry. That'd tick me off, I have to say. We all have our customs stories. I remember trying to cross at Detroit wearing a cowboy hat. (I was playing a game with the kids, and I forgot I had it on. ) After the fourth or fifth question -- asked in increasingly hostile tone -- I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and said: Oh my God it's the hat, isn't it? You are after me because of the hat. The customs guy asked me to step out of the car, and it all went downhill from there. Miriam has a good story about her son and a handful of grass stems.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that our guy this time was incredible. Chubby, balding, and with a real sense of humour. Totally charming. He asked what we did, smiled into the car, pumped his fist when Miriam said she was moving because of me, told a story about his wife and her mother and the moving guy that I kind of lost track of. Then he sent us on our way with best wishes and a cheery wave. What a guy! If it'd been anywhere near the end of his shift I'd have bought him a drink. I can't help wondering how he gets along with his colleagues, but as a representative of the daily thousands of people driving past his booth, allow me to say: Way to go, Mr Customs Man!

We stopped at a small town outside of Fargo, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone at the next table wore short short haircuts and camouflage uniform.
Hey, look at the army men! I said in a loud whisper.
Shhh, said Miriam, as they all looked over.
More next time.

Monday, 27 July 2009

old, new, whatever


Still on the topic of new and old: I am reading an Inspector Morse mystery. A pretty good one. And as I am puzzling my way through the investigation, sympathizing with poor Lewis and grimacing at Morse's alcohol intake, I notice that the front cover reads: THE NEW INSPECTOR MORSE NOVEL. Of course it is not new any more. It's new to me, but it's about fifteen years old. This book, towards the end of Morse's fine career, was published before my own modest one even began. And that leads me to wonder about the nature of the new.

Don't worry, this discussion is not going to get very deep. Or if so, not for long. A quick foray past the shallow end buoys, and then I'll turn around to where I can feel the bottom again.

Everything is said and we come too late, since seven thousand years, since we exist and think ... says some (I think French) guy. This new Inspector Morse novel is simply another reworking of an old old story. Humans have been killing each other and trying to get away with it for as long as we've been around. Cain? Sure, but I bet that (Christian fundamentalists cover your ears. You can skip this part) long before Cain there were murders, and lies. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the most popular stories around the fire were the ones about a body that was found in a locked cave with a flint axe in its back. (Thank heavens for Inspector Thag and his trusty henchperson, Sergeant Og)

My book does not look new. It is tattered and stained, and at least one page is missing. But at one point it was new, and that newness was real. This idea of the new reminds of ... now, dammit, which movie was it? Ivanhoe? Maybe -- or maybe something Arthurian or Robin Hoodian. I can't remember. Anyway, it was a historical drama set in an olde Englande castle with lots of gloom and dust, and everything looks old and decrepit and authentic. (Maybe not quite as decrepit as the picture there, but along those lines.) Except that it's wrong. Not authentic at all. The castle would have been bran spanking new at the time. The crumbling stones would have been perfectly smooth. Think monster home in a modern suburb, with the Duke and Duchess as medieval yuppies.

Everything new is in fact a reworking of something old. Fair enough. But remember that everything old was once new.

Friday, 24 July 2009

cheap thrill


A productive morning. While the car was getting something expensive done to stop it from leaking power steering fluid, I walked to the mall and bought myself some socks. Yep, it's an exciting and glamorous life I lead.
I need socks because my boys keep taking mine. Only a few months ago I had a drawer full of them. Nothing fancy -- just plain gray and black sport socks. One by one (actually, two by two) they disappeared. Every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of one of them peeping out at me from the top of a shoe.
Hey, I'd say. That's my sock.
Yeah, Ed would say.
(He seems to be the chief culprit.) I ran out of clean ones. I didn't think you'd mind.
And I don't mind. Except that as of a few days ago my sock drawer was empty.
I've tried buying him socks, but he hates shopping. It's easier if you buy them, and I take them from you, he says.
So this morning I dropped my car off and went out and bought nine pairs of socks from the local Zellers. They are ankle length -- shorter than the ones in the picture (which I chose because the model looks so much like me). They were on special, which made me feel pretty good. Adding to my good mood, the power steering leak did NOT require a 400.00 replacement part but only a twenty-five cent squirt of glue. That saving alone will keep me and Ed in socks for the next fifteen years.
While on the subject (and I don't visit it very often) I want to ask you: is there a nicer feeling than pulling on a new pair of socks? Mostly I like clothes that are well worn. New underwear doesn't do much for me. New shirts always feel itchy, and new shoes take some working in. But for some reason a brand new pair of sport socks makes me want to break into a buck and wing. A cheap way to feel good. I'd buy socks more often, except that I hate shopping almost as much as Ed does.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

THIS GUY


Funny and rather touching moment yesterday. Well, I think it's touching. Maybe it's just funny. Mir and I were walking along Bloor Street near University in Toronto, past the place where a guy named Greg used to sell home-made ice cream. (I remember the shop well from back when I lived in Toronto in the 90s. There were several brilliant cinnamon flavors, and one with Grape Nuts that I liked too.)
Greg's wasn't where it used to be, which was too bad. I had been kind of in the mood for an ice cream cone, and now that I couldn't get one I wanted it even more. I was wondering if Greg had gone out of business or perhaps moved, and if so where. And so I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a slightly lost expression on my face (actually, this is a pretty common look for me. You know how some people's faces settle naturally into a frown, or a smile? Well, mine settles naturally into a gormless puzzled expression -- an idiot who has lost his village) when up steamed the largest man I'd seen in a long time. Not tall -- shorter than I, in fact -- but wider than a church door, with a voice and features to match, so that he seemed even larger than he was. He pushed his bundle buggy right up to where we were standing, put his watermelon-sized head on one side, and positively bellowed at us.
WHAT'S WRONG? he asked.
Mir jumped back, a startled defensive smile on her face.
YOU LOOK LOST. DO YOU WANT SOME HELP?
I explained our situation. I have never thought of myslf as having a quiet voice, but it sure sounded hushed after this guy's.
GREG'S? WHY THAT'S EASY! he cried, his face shining with joy and sweat. HE'S MOVED DOWN THE STREET! CROSS SPADINA AND IT'S ON THE OTHER SIDE OF BLOOR. CAN'T MISS IT!
His sense of personal space was different from mine. A close talker. His bundle buggy bumped against my leg. I could see every pit and crease in his face, count the missing teeth (three) in his smile.
I thanked him for his information.
NOT AT ALL, he boomed. WE CAN'T HAVE FOLKS MISSING THEIR ICE CREAM. OFF YOU GO NOW!
He steamed away. We called our thanks after him. He waved his hand without turning around. We watched him disappear into the Saturday sidewalk crowd.
I like to think he was on the lookout for new strangers to help. Someone needing a place to stay, perhaps, or a bathroom, or directions to the Museum of Ceramic Art. Viewed this way he becomes a kind of civic hero. Wherever doubt lives, and indecision, whenever people need to know where to go but are too shy to ask, THIS GUY will show up with his booming voice and his answers.
All right, maybe it was just one odd moment in the day. But we did get our ice cream, which we wouldn't have without THIS GUY.

Friday, 10 July 2009

dude where's my life?


An odd moment this morning, after a late night last night. No, not that kind of late night. I stayed in, catching up on my editing. (The new book is in page proofs, but there are still tons of mistakes and sore spots and creases that have to be rectified, soothed and ironed out. Not just commas, either. Last night I came across a reference to a character I killed off two years ago in an earlier draft. It was like meeting a ghost. Ahh! I said. What are you doing here? I had to perform an exorcistic document search.)

Anyway, I was up til 3:00 or so drinking way too much coffee and swearing at the screen, so when I got up an hour or so ago I was not feeling perky. No, not perky at all. Getting the garbage from the kitchen to the curb was a saga of spills, mis-steps, and more curse words. But at last the quest was fulfilled, and I stood back and looked around, breathing in the new day.

I noticed that the place next to mine is for rent again. (Poor Marv can't seem to keep his tenants for very long.) I noticed a strange teenager slinking out of the crack house across the street. (I am probably libelling the good folks who live there. It may not be a crack house. But no one seems to go to work, and the building is falling down, and many of their visitors seem jittery and anxious. And the cops drop by now and then. Just saying...) And then I noticed that my car was missing.

I didn't panic. I was still groggy from no sleep. And having four teenagers means that your car is often missing. But I remembered that I had been out yesterday evening, and hadn't lent the car after that. Hmmm. Like an idiot, I went right over to my empty driveway, and peered down at the familiar oil stains. (I don't know what I was expecting to find. A ransom note? That my car was there all along but invisible through some Stealth-type technology?) Whatever, the thing was gone without a trace.

First things first. I went inside for a cup of coffee, which cleared my brain sufficiently for me to work out my next steps. Check that I had the car keys. Yup. Pour more coffee. Yup. And now call the police.

Upstairs, phone in hand, I looked across at the crack house, the big-screen-TV-guy's house (giant colourful images flash out of his livingroom window and into the street, visible day and night, winter spring summer or fall -- I don't think I have known the set to be off for more than an hour or two at a time) , and the parking lot where businesses on King Street load and unload.
And there, in the middle of the lot, was a familiar gray sedan.

Police, how can I help you? said the voice in my ear. I hung up.

The good news is that I didn't panic and put the cops to a lot of unnecessary bother. The bad news is that I have NO IDEA how my car got across the street. It's like that character in my book -- popping up unexpectedly, leftover from an early draft of my life.

Monday, 6 July 2009

jung at heart

Ugh. Haven't been awake so early in years. 4:30 am. What the heck am I doing up now? Mind you, there was a time when this hour knew me well. Yes, 4:30 was part of my routine. Up with the alarm clock, dressed and shivering, run to the corner of Smith and Jarvis where the stack of newspapers is waiting for me. Take an armful into the nearest apartment and ....

Whoa! Wait a moment. Wait just a moment. That is not my memory. Sorry. I never did any of that stuff. I don't know where Smith and Jarvis is, or if the intersection even exists. Now that I am wider awake I can't remember getting up this early since my kids were little. Funny how real it all seemed, though. I could smell the dewy grass, feel the darkness wrap me like a pullover. I must have tapped into someone else's dreams. Enough to make you believe in the idea of a race memory, a collective unconscious wherein we all have a bully of a big brother, and a high school sweetheart, and an early morning paper route.

Speaking of bulllies reminds me of a funny scene yesterday afternoon. Driving through a mixed part of town -- houses for rent, small retail outlets, old folks home, rundown church -- I saw a street gang. A dozen guys and girls looking very provocative with their tattoos and cigarettes. They were hanging out in front of -- get this -- a store that does alterations. Yup, that's right. Forget the pool hall, the scummy bar, the parkette with the basketball court. Here was the disaffected youth of Cobourg, sitting astride their bicycles, dead-eyed cool, and the sign in the background said: PANTS HEMMED WHILE U WAIT. It was all just too darned cute. Almost as cute as the picture up there. I honked and waved as I went past. One of the kids looked over, a half-frown on his face as he searched his soul for a collective memory of whatever it is that I am.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

where were you?


It sounded like a joke -- anything about Michael Jackson sounds like a joke -- so I didn't pay attention when my daughter told me that some of her friends had heard he was dead. Really, Dad, it said so on the internet, she told me. I gave her a hug and told her I was proud of her, and how pretty she looked in her new dress, and would she be late with the car, and all that typical post-graduation stuff.

Yup, I was at Imo's grad when I heard about MJ. I won't go into too much detail about the evening at St Mary's High School, Cobourg Ontario, since it was -- I bet -- pretty much the same as any other grad anywhere in North America. Certainly it was the same as Sam and Thea's a couple of years ago. That is to say: long, hot, charming, repetitive, long, sentimental, predictable, sweet, and long. Of course I had a mind full of memories of Imo as a newborn, toddler, camper, scrambler and little girl, all of which helped to pass the time. And of course, as Becket says, it would have passed anyway. But the evening was a long one.

Imo won a prize or two, as did almost everyone else in her graduating year. I have to say, I approve of the practice of making everyone's grad special. Hats off to the various do-gooding organizations of the town -- Rotarians, Oddfellows, Lions, Tigers and Bears -- for donating scholarships and bursaries and awards to make sure that there is an extra something to say after almost every name on the graduating list. It puts a little money in kids' hands, and a little self-esteem in their hearts, and what's wrong with that? And it gives parents something to gush about to other parents. Of course it makes the kids who did not win anything look like big losers. I made a point of clapping extra hard when they walked across the stage to accept a handshake and scroll. Life is full of hard lessons, and I suspect that this was not the first such lesson for any of these kids.
So, anyway, Imo dropped me home and kept the car and I went upstairs and there was the news on the TV. Where was I when I heard about Elvis? Can't tell you. Hendrix, Strummer, Cobain, Harrison? Can't tell you. Sid Vicious? Can't tell you. But Jacko, maybe the biggest combo of talent and weirdness in rock (lots of competition there, and the bar is set pretty high), is forever linked in my mind with my little girl's graduation.