Friday, 29 May 2009

the city that rhymes with so what

Yikes, a week without posting. I am such a lazy slob. The good news is that you guys already know this about me so I'm not letting you down. Spent time in Regina, the city that rhymes with fun (such an old joke -- I remember hearing it decades ago, and laughing my teenaged head off. I told it to my son Ed last week and he laughed just as hard) and then Winnipeg, that city that rhymes with, I dunno, Minnibeg.
Actually, at the risk of sounding heretical, I rather like Winnipeg. Yes, it is cold and pot-holed, but there is more to it than that. Guy Madden and The Weakerthans (that's them over there, if you didn't know. Cool folky punk sounds, great lyrics, but their promo people probably wish they looked more like Feist or what's his name from Nickelback) have a love-hate relationship with the place. Me, I like its grittiness, its defiant run-down quality.
A few years ago Regina had a serious campaign about loving the city, complete with I heart Regina T shirts. (The charming librarian who drove me around last week gifted me with one of the shirts. I thanked her profusely, and almost immediately re-gifted.) Winnipeg does not run campaigns like this. Winnipeg runs campaigns against their idiot mayor (this isn't libel, is it? I mean, how can anyone -- let alone a mayor -- prove lack of idiocy?) and cherishes headlines like the one I heard about when I was visiting last time: WINNIPEG LEAST VIABLE CITY IN NORTH AMERICA. I don't know what makes a city viable -- infrastructure, tax base, crime stats, housing -- but whatever it is, Winnipeg has less of it than anyplace else on the continent. And Winnipegers, God bless 'em, think this is hilarious.
I'll try to post soon, but no promises. I'm behind on a rewrite and, as you know, I am lazy.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

knives out

Which brings me to place settings (one of the big universal themes, right after loss, quest, self, and tucking in your shirt). When I was learning to set the table, back when the table was set every night, and form mattered enough to earn me a quarter a week, the rules were straightforward. Knife on the right, fork and napkin on the left. It took me a while to learn this formula, but the teaching took, and for decades I have set the table without thinking. The other evening I was clearing away after dinner (which used to earn me the other half of my fifty cent a week allowance - nowadays I do it for free), and I stopped with my hands full of knives. How often, I wondered, do I actually use the knives I set out?
Do you eat meat that requires cutting every night? I don't. When I consider the average week of meals, there are hamburgers, stew, pizza, spaghetti, tacos, sausages, pizza, chicken fingers, Chinese take-in, pizza, and pizza (that makes twelve days, which is above average for a week, but you get the idea) -- and none of these meals requires the use of a dinner knife. Half of the meals don't require cutlery at all. My mom taught me appropriate table setting for 1970. Times have changed. We don't write letters any more, don't go to church, don't worry about cussing. And we don't all sit down to carved meat dinner together every night. A few times a year I will roast a large piece of meat, the eating of which is made simpler by knife and fork, but for 90 out of 100 days (I guess that's below average for a year) I have absolutely no need of the full place setting.
And now that the idea has swum into my brain, I can't get rid of it. I'm sure I am not alone in my dining habits. There must be millions and millions of underused dinner knives out there. I can't stop thinking about them. Do they end up in basements and attics and antique stores, joining the napkin rings and shaving mugs and ink bottles and typewriters of a bygone age?
I wonder what other practices am I keeping up out of habit? I tell you, I am afraid -- afraid to examine my life in detail. And that is no state of mind for a writer.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

fashion question

When did tucking in your shirt become a ridiculous gesture? I went to the Y with Imo a couple of days ago, and our squash game ran late. I huffed and puffed through the changeroom, meeting her at the front desk. Her eyes widened when she saw me, and she looked away hurriedly. She kept her head averted as we ran through the parking lot.
What? I demanded. What is wrong? Do I have a thing hanging from my nose? Is my fly undone?
She did that sighing headshake thing that teens use to show that their parents are lamer than lame. Your shirt's tucked in, she said in a low voice.
I looked down and there it was -- a clean flat expanse of black t shirt tucked into my jeans.
So pull it out. Now!
(Honestly, you'd think I had exposed myself at a Remembrance Day assembly.)
I rearranged my clothing and started to explain how the whole thing had happened, my hurry to get changed, pulling on my shirt and then pants without thinking, buttoning while I ran for the door ... and then stopped talking to think.
Whoa, I said. What's wrong with tucking in your shirt?
Everything, she said.
We were in the car now, on our way to pick up dinner.
Uncle Dave tucks in his shirt, I said.
He wears a fancy ass suit, she said. Of course you tuck in your shirt if you are wearing a fancy ass suit. Does he tuck in his shirt at home?
Well, no. (Mind you, Uncle Dave doesn't tuck in anything at home. For my brother, fashion is an on/off switch, not a rheostat. He has banker clothes and hobo clothes, and not much in between. His favorite sweat shirt and running shoes are older than Imo, and are both held together with duct tape.)
Grampa tucks in his shirt, I said.
She raised her eyebrows as if to say, Yes, go on.
Grampa's a styling dude, I said.
Her eyebrows stayed up. In fact my dad is a styling dude, though perhaps a little hidebound. His internal fashion compass hovers around 1978. Nothing wrong with that, and on him it looks good. But I did see Imo's point.
I spent yesterday checking out guys (not a statement I've ever made, now that I think on it) in my small town and the large city nearby. And, apart from one exquisitely dressed person of a sex I could not from a distance ascertain -- apart from (maybe) him, and a private school field trip getting off a bus, the only men in casual dress with their shirts tucked in were, well, old.
And scrolling though online images of guys, the only ones I can see with their shirts tucked in are avatars, like the ones in the picture here.
It doesn't sound right, does it. Surely there are some trendy youngsters out there bold and skinny enough to walk down the street with their shirts in. But I can't find 'em.
What has happened to all of us? Is our current fashion sense due simply to advancing waist size (untuck and cover)? Or is it an unconscious reaction to all the times we heard our parents and teachers tell us to neaten up?
Kipling says somewhere that the Russian is the most agreeable of companions until he tucks in his shirt. The idea being that as the most western of Easterners (the untucked hemisphere) the Russian is fine. But when he pretends to be a Westerner like us, and tucks in his shirt -- Look out. Kipling's politics are usually suspect, but it's an interesting point. Now a hundred years later, as the Chinese economy is supporting the rest of the world, are we Westerners trying to be Eastern?
All right, all right, I said to Imo, when we got out of the car. I promise henceforth to keep my shirt untucked at all times. Will that save you from embarrassment in my presence?
She did the headshake sigh again. Of course not, she said. But it'll help.

Monday, 11 May 2009

wake up call

I woke up early to the telephone. Never a good thing. No good news arrives at 6:00 am. I ran downstairs fumbling my glasses onto my face and thinking of possible scenarios. The call was from Sam, who, you will recall, was walking home from Kingston with two friends, a tent, a packet of hot dogs, and a knife that will cut bullets in half. I did not waste any time asking if he was all right because he began at once.
Dad, do you have any idea how cold it gets at night?
He sounded grumpy and a bit defensive. I relaxed.
Tell me, I said, how cold it gets.
Pretty effing cold. Say, um, how close are you to a set of car keys?
The day before the boys had risen early and walked and walked and walked and walked, reaching Napanee, a town I know because it is the birthplace of -- oh, shoot, what's her name -- the spunky little teeny bopper pop star a few years ago -- sk8ter grrl, da da da -- don't like her music at all -- oh dear, where is my memory, I am sounding like my father -- you know the singer I mean. I'll look her up when I finish this. Anyway, the distance travelled was about 45 kms, which is not bad for a day's toil but a long way from the end of their journey. The boys were cold, sunburnt, blistered, and done. I picked them up at the Empire Diner in downtown Napanee (I'm sure whatever her name is would know the place), looking glum but relieved to see me and my car.
So, I said, driving home with the heater on full blast, are we never to speak of this again?
No, no, they assured me. It had been a fun trip. A real wake-up call, said Scott. We'll have to plan better next time. Wait until it's warmer, for one thing.
And bring better shoes, said Spenser.
And sun block, said Sam.
Uh huh, I said. Don't forget insect repellent either. And make sure you know what poison ivy looks like.
There was a collective, Hmmm, as they worked out the implications of hiking in the summer. We drove for a few minutes in fetid silence.
And did the famous bullet-splitting knife work out, Scott?
Oh yeah, he said. We used it to chop down a tree for firewood.
He was leaning forward in the front passenger seat, warming his hands at the air vent. I stared at him. He was not kidding. A tree? I said.
Well, a small tree.
I may have to get me one of these knives. Bullets, trees ... maybe it can cut through red tape from the receiver general's office which is festooning my desk these days.
Hey, for all the wonderful poetry and mathematical formulae and children's appointments I have forgotten over the years, it's good to know that I can also lose stuff I don't care about. Avril Lavigne. That's her up there, of course. With any luck I'll forget her again soon.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

adventure part 1 - the tools

My son Sam wants to walk home after school. Two years ago that would have meant a six-block stroll. Now he goes to university 150 kms away, so a bit more planning is called for. When he told me his idea on the phone my first thought was, of course, sure. Good exercise, a chance for some self-reliance, a way to enjoy the spring weather and the wonderful scenery of southern Ontario. Could he borrow my old backpack and tent? Sure. And could I give a lift to Bucky and Ted when I came to pick up his computer and move him home for the summer? Sure. And could I think of anything apart from food and drink and fire he might need along the route? A map and a cell phone, I said. And a VISA card. (I am not much of a camper.) He laughed.
The first thing Ted did when he found out about the trip (Ted and Bucky are old friends of Sam's, by the way, in case you thought they were gerbils or stuffed animals) was to buy -- get this -- an expensive hunting knife over the internet. He showed it to me when I picked him and Bucky up. I made appreciative noises.
This thing is so strong it'll cut through bullets, Ted told me, seriously. He's a tall fit guy with an earnest expression.
I did not explode into laughter, did not even smile, but it was a strain.
Bullets? I said politely.
I pictured a matrix-like slow motion scene, Ted turning in mid air to slice a bullet in half, then wheeling to deflect another shot.
Do you expect to meet a lot of bullets? I asked.
No, but it just shows you, he said.
It certainly does.
We drove to Kingston with the setting sun behind us and the birds saying goodnight to each other. The boys' plan was to start bright and early the next morning, and reach Cobourg sometime on day three. I loaded Sam's computer and squash racket into the car, gave him a hug, and left him and his friends on the brink of adventure.