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.

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.
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


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.
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 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.