Tuesday, 28 April 2009

neighborhood vignette

Saw a great scene out my kitchen window last night. Didn't take more than a few minutes, but it made me smile all evening long. I hope I can get it across without sounding maudlin or mean.
I live around the corner from a kind of halfway house. Challenged folks living in the community. My kitchen overlooks a backyard with a picnic table and some lawn chairs, and I often see my neighbors out there taking the sun, or having a smoke. I was making dinner yesterday, with the windows open to enjoy the summery evening (I'm working on getting weather references into my posts), when I heard cries of astonishment and approval from outside. I peered down.
A younger guy, tall and heavy set, was sitting in an upright chair, wearing a table cloth around his neck. A woman stood behind him, mowing his dark hair in thick swaths with a pair of clippers while an older guy watched approvingly from the picnic bench. An even older guy was busy with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up the leavings. The scene recalled my own days as a barber in our basement. The kids were little -- maybe 4, 6, and 8 years old. I'd do them one at a time while the others watched, applauded, and swept up. The haircuts were ridiculous (not as bad as the picture. Mind you, when I finally took Thea to a real barber he asked, incredulously: Who did this to her?) but we all had a wonderful time with scissors and measuring tape.
Some of that same wonder was there in this scene in my neighbors' yard. I watched right through to the end when the young guy stood up, felt his shaven head, laughed, and felt the head of the lady barber who sported the same cut. The sweeper held up the full dustpan. They smiled at each other, went inside, and I felt warm.
Maybe I am being condescending. I sure hope not. The lady barber did a way better job than I ever did. What I enjoyed most about the scene was the authentic satisfaction of the players. They were having genuine fun, as I did with my kids. Would it be as much fun to watch hipsters cut hair? Don't think so. They'd raise their eyebrows and give that superior half smile, and view everything with ironic detachment.
(Shoot. Now it seems like I am making fun of hipsters. Sensitivity is a minefield, I tell you. It'll be way easier for my next post, when I'll talk about Sam's latest heroic adventure.)
Oh, if you were wondering about the measuring tape, it was to ensure evenness. I was a bad barber, but I was methodical. In retrospect, I would have been more successful with clipping shears.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

brother tattoos

I don't blog much about weather. Have you noticed? Certain themes seem to recur in these pages (I don't know what else to call them -- pixels, cyberspaces, ways from me to you), but I have avoided the physical atmosphere. Weather is important to our daily selves, affecting mood and clothing choices and travel plans and home repair, and a whole lot of other things I can't come up with right now because I haven't had enough coffee. Which is a topic that does crop up here from time to time. Today I am drinking the results of a roast from Sumatra, dark and earthy flavoured, cone filtered and piping hot. Good stuff. But I was talking about the weather. Sitting down at my parents' computer this morning I notice that it is foggy out.
Yup, foggy. So foggy that the apartment building across the park is not visible, as it usually is.
Well well.
That seems to be it. I don't have much to say about the weather. So let me revert to another common theme here at Scrimger.ca Sam and Ed told me that they are thinking of getting brother tattoos.
Sounds friendly, I said. You mean you will each get a Star of David on your arm? Or a lightning bolt? Or a dancing pixie?
They shook their heads as one head. We don't want the same tattoo, Dad, said Sam. That would be lame. We're going to get tattoos that are related.
Like the Karamazovs, I said, helpfully.
What are you talking about?
They're related, I said.
Sam explained that they were talking about pictures that relate to each other. But they didn't know which symbols would work best. I was happy to help out. I like the idea of paired symbols. Sun and moon, hearts and flowers, baseball and bat, alpha and omega. But of course these were all too lame.
How about if I get a ... knife tattoo? said Ed.
Yes, I said quickly, and Sam could get a fork.
They moved to another room, talking between themselves. Ah, well.
I look up from the computer. Still foggy.

Monday, 20 April 2009


This report comes to you from a remote outpost in Mississauga, where a kindly librarian has set me up on the end of a busy deskful of computer terminals. In the few moments remaining before my presentation to a mass of students from local area elementary schools, I will attempt to convey my impressions of an interesting encounter at the Shell station where I bought gas and gum earlier this morning.
"Great to see you!" said the lady behind the counter.
"Uh, thanks."
"Hope you are enjoying your day. "
"Well, so far."
"That'll be 31.57. Do you want coffee or a newspaper?"
"No thanks."
"That's fine!"
I handed over my credit card.
Not much to inspire in the lady's conversation. Nor did she leave a strong physical impression. Middle aged, middle sized, medium dark hair and skin is all I can find in my memory. But emotionally, she stood out like a beacon. Her smile was wide and white. Her eyes sparkled. Her overall attitude was so positive she glowed. You'd think she was crazy, or on drugs. But she wasn't. She was just ... and this is my point ... truly happy.
You don't expect to see true happiness in the service industry. The Walmart greeter, the chain restaurant hostess, the guy at the hardware store who directs you to the aisle with drill bits ... these folks may wear smiles but the expressions don't fit very well. By contrast, my gas station lady this morning had a couture smile, made to measure, and it was with a correspondingly genuine sense of pleasure (mixed with surprise) that I exited the gas station and resumed my westward trek. Several moments later the pushme pullyou traffic eroded the effects of her happiness, and I began to feel normal -- that is, grumpy. But now, an hour later, I am reliving that moment in the gas bar with renewed enjoyment.
Thank you, whoever you are.

Friday, 17 April 2009

can I be a philosopher?

Got some deep stuff for you today. My daughter Imo was excited by a conundrum in her philosophy text (the stuff they are studying in high school these days -- what happened to y=mx+b and Shall I compare thee to a summer's day and responsible government? That was knowledge you could use!). The conundrum goes something like this: If a ship rots all the way through, so the owner has to replace first one rib and then another, and then the outer planks, and then the keel and masts - has to replace every single piece of the ship, in short - IS IT THE SAME SHIP?
Wow! I said when Imo finished, her face glowing with excitement.
I know, eh, she said.
I am delighted that she is excited by her schoolwork (in my day we drooled with boredom over responsible government). But my wow had to do with philosophy as a discipline. What a wankfest! I guess we all ponder stuff aimlesly, but these guys get paid for it. I was envious.
Can I be a philosopher? Let me try. Here's one that came to me by email. My friend Susie was invited to a joint birthday party -- a good friend of hers was celebrating along with someone Susie does not particularly like. Buying the gift for Barb, she writes, was a genuinely inauthentic experience, adding (for she too is a closet philosopher) I wonder if that is even possible?
OK, then. The word authentic describes actions that engage us, actions in which our self is present. Life or death stuff would be totally authentic (The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Dr Johnson observes). We are not always wholly engaged, but most of what we do retains some aspects of authenticity. I think of myself as reading authentically -- it is a large part of who I am. But not every book engages me. Talking to my kids is something I enjoy hugely most of the time, but, as they will attest, there are plenty of moments (Dad! Dad! Wake up!) when my attention strays. More of those as I age. A movie might engage me strongly at the beginning and lose me towards the end. (Actually, this happens a lot.)
So we are seldom completely authentic. But can we ever act in a genuinely inauthentic way?
I pictured Susie poring over gifts, thinking: Would Barb like a scarf? A bowl? A puppy? A subscription to Scientific American? An artificial limb? I don't know and I truly do not care. That sounds totally inauthentic -- but is it?
(No, she did not get Barb an artificial limb. I just thought that would make a better picture than a puppy.)

Friday, 10 April 2009

ufc 2: bogey vs leni

Back to UFC, sport, theater, etc. I was talking last time out about how sport needs possibility to be credible. Unless we believe that everyone out there is trying to win, there's no point to watching. Best is when either side could win, and the outcome is in genuine doubt up to the last moment. Any given Sunday, in short ... which accounts for some of the NFL's popularity.
Truth matters to me in sports. Which is interesting because my taste in books and movies is exactly the opposite. I do not read a lot of non-fiction. I don't watch a lot of documentaries. I like a story because it is exciting -- not because it is true. I'd rather watch the unlikely history of Casablanca than the scary and real Triumph Of The Will. I like Shakespeare's Richard III much more than the historically correct portrait of a talented and unlucky statesman, who may not even have been a hunchback (speaking of which, that is some serious hunch in the picture, eh? Anthony Sher is not messing around).
You'd think, given this predisposition, that I'd prefer WWE over UFC. No question that the drama is higher in wrestling, the personalities larger, the visuals more arresting. And yet I can not watch it. Not for a moment. I'd rather watch curling. Or tiddlywinks. I'd rather watch any sport where the players care more about the result than the process.
One last thing before I shut up about UFC. Somewhat troubling, this is. I only watched a few rounds of one UFC bout, and a few commercials, and I may be wrong, but everything I have seen about the sport indicates that it is mostly filled with white guys. As opposed to boxing, another results-oriented combat sport, where the bodies tend to be darker coloured. Is THIS the reason for the sport's poplarity? (Like NASCAR? Like golf? Yikes! Are these really the most popular sports in America?) I sure hope not.
Enough social comment. The kids are at my place for dinner tonight. There's potato salad to make. Results count here too -- and process not at all.

ufc part 1 (I know, I can't believe it either)

So I was watching UFC the other day (you know, I don't think I have ever said that before) and I was intrigued at my reaction. Ed told me to watch. He says UFC is the third most popular sport in the US after football and NASCAR. (Golf may have been in there too. Anyone doing research on the topic would be wise to check these stats. Ed got his info from his buddy Frederico who heard it from his uncle. Not exactly a Nielsen survey.)
My point is that Ed said I should watch UFC because it is -- his word -- intense. I asked him what was intense about it and he said that the UFC guys really care. They train hard, they are jacked to the max, and they give it everything.
It's not like wrestling? I asked.
Nothing like wrestling. It's not scripted at all -- which means that sometimes it can get boring. But if you see a good bout, it's well ...
You got it, Dad.
So I was one of the new treadmills at the Y, with the built-in TV, flipping through channels to find something that I can follow without earphones -- curling, say -- and a UFC logo flashed across my little screen, and I stopped to watch a couple of rounds. And I was, as I said, strangely intrigued.
For those who need footnotes, Ultimate Fighting Challenge is a kind of organized street-fighting, only without weapons. It takes place in a totally enclosed ring, and you can do pretty much anything short of biting your opponent. Maybe you can bite -- I don't know. The match I watched had its boring moments but there was a lot of intensity. By the time the guy in the gold surfer shorts put a headlock on the guy in black spandex, and twisted hard enough to get him to "tap" or concede (to be honest I thought his neck was about to break) I had run a couple of miles without noticing. I nodded to myself. I could understand the sport's attraction.
Ed was right. UFC is not wrestling (WW whatever). I don't mean to offend you if you are a fan, but I confess that I find wrestling a dreadful bore. Yes, it is popular too. (I don't know where Frederico's uncle ranks it.) Yes, the competitors are in good shape and some of the moves are athletic. But the sport remains, to my mind, a combination of bad theater and a he-man competition -- a soap opera merged with an elk mating ritual. UFC is the elk mating ritual on its own -- brutal and obvious -- but infintely better for being unscripted. The moment you can not trust the immediacy of sport -- that it is real, happening now, and that either team can win -- it loses all appeal.
OK, enough for now. Believe it or not, I have a little more to say about UFC, but I have to go. More next time. Then maybe I'll get back to Winnipeg.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

useful weapons

While Ed is learning the value of flame throwers (low) cavalry (lower) and machine guns (very very high) in the first world war, my other son is imbibing another lesson. Before I go on to that lesson, though, I want to come back to Ed and his teacher Mr R, and ask -- why is this specifically a WW1 position? When aren't machine guns more valuable than cavalry? I was reading a pretty cool book the other day where, through the magic of time travel (another valuable weapon), the Confederate Army was gifted with a bunch of AK 47s -- and proceeded to whip the boys in blue to a frazzle. I'm sure machine guns would have been equally decisive in Napoleon's day, or Charlemagne's, or Ceasar's. In more modern times, I think that Dillinger or Tony Soprano would look pretty stupid showing up at the heist with a troop of light horse like the one in the picture.
And now back to Sam, who has spent the last month writing a year's worth of papers. Ah, how well I remember those days! University for me was a time of extremes -- months of indolence followed by short sharp periods of intense activity. If I had spent my life working as hard as I did in the last weeks of a university term, I might now be dead of a heart attack, but I would almost certainly merit a lengthy and glowing obituary. Conversely, if I had spent my life not working as hard as I didn't in the first months of that term, I might ... well, I might still be in university.
Sam's great discovery is not the value of forward planning (like father like son -- I never learned that either). He has learned that, given the proper tools, he can perform seeming miracles of industry. And by proper tools I do not mean flame throwers or gramnivorous quadrupeds. I am talking about coffee. Until now he has eschewed the stuff but, I could write all night, Dad, he told me over the phone yesterday, in an awed voice. I finished the essay at 4:00 am and I wasn't even tired!
I smiled to myself. And so it begins.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

learning from Mr R

Man it's been days and days! And days! Something wrong with my Mozilla (sounds like a medical condition) and I haven't been able to log on to the blog. Any of you out there experiencing similar difficulties, sorry. Those of you were saying, Scrimger is a lazy so and so -- well, I forgive you. For what it's worth, you're right.
I'll talk about high school teaching practices. I had more to say about Winnipeg, one fine city, but the trip is so long ago now that it seems irrelevant to me. I may come back to it.
A classical composer friend (I have only one, so maybe I should call him My classical composer friend) was commissioned to write a piece summing up the high school experience. He called it What Is Cool. Seems about right to me. I was chatting with Ed last night about his history class. His teacher, whom I will call Mr R, has divided them into groups and the first thing he demanded from each groups was ... a cool name. Yup, that's how high school kids are learning these days. Forget about The Conquest Stamp Act Responsible Government Louis Riel (Manitoba - one fine province) Conscription FLQ Crisis -- learning groups need names. I asked Ed what they were studying. World War 1, he said, and then proceeded to tell me all about the poster his group made. They are TEAM BLUE, and the poster showed the name in big letters dripping colour, with lightning bolts and skulls. It was the coolest thing ever, he said (sounding for a moment like his big sister whose every day is punctuated by the coolest lamest shortest fattest craziest best worst stuff ever).
Great to hear high school kids getting excited about history, but I couldn't help wondering if there was any meat on these very cool bones. There's a lot to be learned about WW1.
Did you guys get around to any of the politics and fighting? I said. Canada played a key part in a lot of the battles. Vimy Ridge, the Somme --
No Canadian troops in the battle of the Somme, Ed interrupted. We lost the most men at Passchendaele.
What about Ypres?
He frowned. Passchendaele was the 3rd Battle of Ypres, Dad. Summer and fall of 1917. Cold wet and muddy. Almost a million men killed. Hitler was there. Canadian troops took the village in November. We had a quiz on it and Team Blue won. The prize was a bag of malted Easter eggs. Go Team Blue! Tomorrow we're having an arms auction. We get to bid on weapons! Mr R has warned us that flame flowers are not as useful as you think. Did you know that there were tanks in the battle of the Somme?
I have decided to stop worrying about the way high school kids are learning. Go Mr R!