Friday, 27 February 2009

icon see clearly now ...

Iconography is an interesting and shifty business. People and things that are important at any given time can vanish utterly from the cultural landscape. In my last post I talked about Ed's ideas for a tattoo - icons that would sum him up. I wonder how long they would stay current? The image of the 45 rpm record adaptor, currently adorning the calf of a middle-aged commenter on the blog, would be mysterious to my kids -- or indeed to anyone under the age of, well, 45. And by the time my kids are 45 their tattoos of Nintendo characters will, no doubt, puzzle their own kids. Searching through the refuse of my household on this Garbage Day, I can't help wondering which bits and bobs from our particular civilization will endure and which will vanish, as it were, overnight. Cell phones? Eyeglasses? Plastic tags that show the best before date for bags of milk? Paper clips? Roach clips? I don't know. Listen -- I don't know. One of my alternative titles for the book Into the Ravine was Huck Finn In The Suburbs, but my editor nixed the idea because, as she put it, Kids today don't know who Huck Finn is. I disputed the statement hotly, and over the next month or so I asked various gymfuls of students if they recognized the name Huck Finn. Mostly, I was greeted with blank stares. My current project involves a disposable camera -- and as I am writing it I am wondering if my readers will know what a disposable camera is in, say, ten years....
I am not saddened or frightened by this ignorance of past culture. Indeed, I am heartened. A forward-looking civilization makes its own icons. The Iron Age did not spend a lot of time moaning for the good old days when things were made of bronze. Renaissance painters did not hearken back to a time when the world was represented in two dimensions and only two dimensions. (Kids today and their perspective! It's not art, I tell you -- it's a mess!)
What will last, I wonder? What common household face will still be current in five hundred years? Or one hundred? In 1925 the two most famous living people in the world were Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini and my kids couldn't pick either of them out of a line up. Hey, I couldn't spot Harry myself (that's him below, if anyone is interested).

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

go you Nugents!

The first summer job I had that did not involve ice cream was as a Junior Investigator for the provincial Ombudsman's Office. I wore a tie and sat at a desk with my name on a plastic name plate. I brought the name plate home at the end of the summer and put it on my own desk. My parents smiled and said nothing. But when my grandpa saw it he laughed out loud. "Is that in case you forget who you are?" he asked. I had no answer. When he left I put away the name plate.
My kids want tattoos, which when you think about it are a kind of name plate. When someone asks who you are, you point to the snake on your face. Or the skull smoking a cigar on your arm. Or, if you are Steve-o, you take off your shirt and show the picture of yourself on your back. I am not my grandpa (you know, I don't think I've ever said that before. The question has not arisen) -- meaning that I do not want to take away my kids' fun. Indeed, I am enough of a kid at heart to see the cool factor in a tattoo. But I have to wonder what icon would sum them up?
Ed, for instance, wants the family motto on his shoulder (DISSIPATE -- that's it in the picture) which is pretty good as family mottos go (the Gibbons family motto is I LIVE BY THE SEA, which is descriptive but not exactly powerful, and the Nugents have, HOW DELIGHTFUL THE TEMPLES which is just plain goofy) but not unique to him. I mean, there are thousands of Scrimgers, Scrimgeours, Scrymgeoures, and so on out there with as much right to the motto. In order to uniquefy (yes I made it up) himself, Ed will have to add more words or images. A soccer ball, a Mario character, a cymbal, a steering wheel ... I don't know where it'll end. He's a unique guy. In order to truly express himself he's going to end up looking like Travis Barker.

Or he could get a name plate.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


There are a lot of misconceptions out there, but every now and then they (yes, I am talking about them) get it right. I am back from a few days in beautiful downtown Winnipeg and do you know what? It's cold there. Yep. When they call it Winterpeg, they are dead on. Smart people, they are. You know that crisp frozen feeling on the inside of your nose, when simple breathing becomes an adventure? In Toronto that feeling means it's freakishly stay-inside-and-moan cold. In Winnipeg it just means it's December -- and you'd better get used to your nose feeling like that because the weather won't break until March or April. Throughout my five-day tour I watched locals trundle along the sidewalks without concern, while I shivered like a collection of castanets. Let's stop there, I'd say. Or there. Not because I wanted a coffee or pair of jeans, or because my vacuum cleaner needed repairing, but because the stores were open and warm. After the first day I got used to being the pathetic sniveller from Ontario. In fact, I began introducing myself that way -- So you're Jill? And Steve? Great to meet you guys. Yeah, I'm the pathetic sniveller from Ontario.
The other noticeable feature of outdoor life in Winnipeg is the potholes. I have driven down rough roads in my time, but not like the streets of Winnipeg. Some mighty fancy driving is called for. The problem is that these holes are surrounded by snow and ice mountains, so you are either skidding up and around, or inching down and around -- or heading into the oncoming lanes where there is a good chance that you will meet the back end of a pothole going the other way. And the size of the holes! Yeesh, if those are potholes, then until now I have only known egg-cup holes.
Why don't you fix the roads? I asked often. My question was greeted with shrugs and headshakes.
The Mayor is ... well ...
An idiot? A jerk? I finished.
But surely that can't be the only reason why the surfaces are so bad. I mean, our mayor does not wear Albert Eintstein's thinking cap, either. Few mayors do. It is generally agreed -- by them -- that Winnipeg is cold and mayors are jerks. But what's with the potholes?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

learning from other cultures

I don't often play the stereotypes game, but every now and then I run across a clear and present example. One such occurred a couple of mornings ago at the local YMCA. I was changing from squash gear into street clothes. Now, usually these are variants of the same species of clothing -- ripped, baggy, perhaps on their second or third wearing. But on this particular morning I was climbing into a suit, and my friend Dan commented. He's a chatty guy, Dan, always with a story or a joke. He's as Irish as a pint of Guinness and a black eye, and not trying to hide it. This morning he said something along the lines of, Well, now, Richard, aren't you looking smart. You might be on your way to a real job for a change.
I was frowning into the mirror, trying to get the ends of my tie to come out the right length. I turned with a serious expression and said that actually I was on my way to a funeral. Which was the case. Dan could tell I was not joking, and his face changed.
He did not say a word except, I think, Oh. Or perhaps, Tsk. But in that one utterance, and a quick grimace (a flash, no more), he managed to convey all the nuances of sincere sympathy, grief, and acceptance of the human condition -- and at the same time stay safely within the limits of our own casual friendship, and the public venue in which our conversation took place. It was a bavura performance, a real tour-de-force of emotional projection. I took comfort from it. And I remember thinking, as I walked across the parking lot to my car, The Irish are good at funerals. I don't know which of the cultural mythologies is responsible -- if it's the hundreds of years of oppression, or the soft wet climate, or the combination of whiskey and Catholicism. But if it's anything to do with death, the Irish are all over it. It's not just that they have lots of practice -- they (pardon the general statement, but then this whole post has been an exercise in stereotyping) seem to enjoy it. The lads in the picture are in fact on their way to a funeral. Next one I go to, I am going to try to think myself into an Irish state of mind.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

my great grandfather, the charioteer

Good news on the competent Dad front -- I can still help Ed with his math homework. I don't say I am smarter than a tenth grader, but I am at least able to keep up. Last night was all about polynomials and solving for x -- more or less familiar territory. I revelled in my usefulness. It won't be long before Ed passes into the strange country of logarithms and cosecants -- places which, on my map, are left blank except for the Here be dragons warning.
Considering how well informed he is on so many fronts, Ed and his class are astonishingly -- I use the modifier judiciously -- ignorant of history. He recounted the results of a general knowledge quiz yesterday, and I didn't know whether to laugh or weep. (Actually, I did know -- I laughed. Hard.) The questions all had to do with the year 1900. Ed's teacher was trying to get a sense of what the kids knew about that time in history, and the answer is, well, nothing. According to them, the top three jobs in 1900 were: blacksmith, gladiator, and charioteer. I am not making it up. Gladiator? I said to Ed. Gladiator?
Yeah, we were off by like four hundred years or so, huh, he replied.
Or so, I said.
Well, I just figured it was all a long time ago. Like the crusades and stuff. Why are you laughing again, Dad?
Reminds you of those views of America from the New Yorker perspective, where the five boroughs take up half the map, then there is blankness between New Jersey and the Mississippi River, and then nothing much until the Hollywood sign.
Perspective is all. Ask a kindergartener how old someone is. Oh, she's real old, they'll say. Like eleven.