Thursday, 30 December 2010

curb your laundry

Just back from hospital again.  Glass of wine.  Honestly, it's becoming a routine.  I feel so typical here, part of a demographic stereotype.   The Jersey Shore types may have their Gym Tan Laundry routine -- for me and my group it would be, what: hospital, liquor store, home office?  (Sidebar -- definition of a successful piece of art is one you can reference with minimal exposure.  I have seen a total of ten minutes of Jersey Shore.  Ed inexplicably fascinated.  More on that later.)  
Not so funny moment in hospital today.  Or maybe it was.  Larry David rather than Jersey Shore, though. Here's what happened.  Mir's mom was in for a series of tests (she's one of the parents in trouble I talked about last time) and I was chatting in the room with her while Mir went to the atrium for coffee.  (Isn't that funny -- I was going to say lobby.  Hospitals don't have lobbies, but I have spent so much time there that the place is starting to feel like a hotel.)  Anyway, the lady in the next bed caught my eye and asked if I would get her a glass of water.  She's a quiet nervous type who doesn't seem to have many visitors.  I helped her to a drink and she thanked me with a nice smile.  The air is so dry in here, she said, slurping greedily through her straw.  I nodded, and then felt my own smile fall off my face and land on the floor with a crash.  Over the lady's bed was a sign that said:  DO NOT GIVE THIS PATIENT WATER EVEN IF SHE ASKS FOR IT. 
Like I said, Larry David.  I have seldom been more horrified.  I snatched at the styrofoam cup, but it was already empty. What had I done?  I stood there frozen, honestly expecting her to start frothing at the mouth or something.  
Hey, I said, finally, you aren't supposed to have any water!
I pointed at the sign.  The lady dismissed it with a gesture.  
Phhht, she said, or something like that, and turned over.
Now what?  I am no great believed in rules for the sake of rules, but this was a hospital.  Not a hotel.  Lives were on the line here.  The no water rule might be important.  I couldn't just walk away, could I?  Could I?  
I decided -- I know how dumb this sounds -- to compromise.  I asked the lady if she could get out of bed.  She rolled back over to stare at me.  
What? she asked.
Can you walk? I asked.
Of course I can walk.  Do you think I'm a cripple?  she said.
Still no frothing.  I smiled inanely.  Okay, I thought.  So she was capable of getting her own water.  So the drink didn't have to have been my fault.  And she seemed fine.  A little tetchier than before, but that probably wasn't because of the water.  That was me.
I went back to Mir's mom.  But for the rest of the visit I kept checking across the room. Mir commented on my nervousness.  
Maybe we ought to take you off coffee, she said.  

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


I can't help noticing how everyone's folks -- everyone I know, that is -- seem to be in trouble. Not legal trouble or moral trouble or fashion trouble (who am I to talk), but , well, words like angioplasty and elder care, overheard phrases like, Don't let Dad drive, and, How much did Mom remember are becoming very familiar. It's all demographics, of course. Life stages. I remember a time when virtually everyone I knew was getting married. Later they were all buying homes, having babies, building RRSPs, moving to the suburbs, choosing summer camps, divorcing ...

I was always kind of pleased, inside, not to be a part of these trends. I felt myself a bit of a rebel for renting, living in sin, struggling financially. Doing it my way. Not following my particular portion of the herd. Of course I ended up doing most of the herd things eventually, but even then I did them my way, waiting a decade, having more kids than average, moving way out of town, continuing to struggle financially ...

Maybe I'll continue to stay behind. I'm back in the city now, the kids are growing fast, and I still don't have much of an RRSP. Maybe it'll work with my folks too, and they'll defy anno domini ... maybe. But I have to say, listening to my contemporaries now, I miss the days of mastitis and projectile vomiting, when the biggest worry about your mom was that she didn't understand you, and would she babysit.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

residential street rage

Weird moment this afternoon. I'd say it was instructive but it wasn't. I didn't learn that much. Except that people are odd, but I already knew that. 
Mir and I crossed a neighborhood street ahead of a little Toyota which turned off the larger street onto ours, and accelerated past us. The driver was a kid - -22, 23 -- with dark unruly hair and a street-wise face. He was moving fast and Mir gave him the wave that says, Hey, slow down. The kid honked. Mir gave him another gesture. I had to smile at her tough Winnipeg attitude. I figured that was it, and began to walk on.  But now the Toyota backed down the street towards us, stopped, and the passenger-side window came down. And we had a real confrontation.
The following section of dialogue is inaccurate. But it gives you the intent
KID -- Why did you gesture at me?
MIR -- I thought that you were travelling too quickly down a residential street.
KID -- What on earth can you be referring to? The posted speed limit is 40 kms/hr, and I had not yet reached that speed.
MIR -- I do not believe you.
KID -- Well, that is too bad.
MIR -- No, it is too bad for you.
KID -- I think you should do something unlikely.
MIR -- I think you should do something even more unlikely, over and over again.
KID (staring) -- What did you just say to me?
MIR -- You heard me. Why are you getting out of the car? Do you wish to wreak vengeance on me? You are an impossible combination of attributes.
ME (stepping forward) -- Listen, listen. Do we have to do this?  Can't we find a way to settle our differences amicably?
KID -- Person with the glasses, you should do something --
MIR -- Richard, please desist.
There was more, but it was all along these lines. There were a few gestures, and repeated suggestions as to what we could all do. Then the kid geared up and drove off and we continued our walk.  
To me, there were two surprising aspects to the incident.    First,  that the kid  would  bother to back up half a block to get into an extended argument with a middle-aged couple.  And, second, that throughout the entire -- I don't know -- three minutes -- even the bit where the kid was thinking about getting out of his car -- everyone was smiling. There was no denying the emotion involved, but at the same time we were all aware that we were behaving in a ridiculous manner.  
Like I said at the top, I don't know how instructive it was.  Will Mir continue to yell at overly aggressive drivers?   Probably. Will confrontations ensue?  Possibly.  Are people odd?  Oh, yes.  But then, I knew that.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

what, me mature?

Got back from a weekend away to find the kitchen a mess. Darn it, Ed, I thought, pouring coffee into a slightly grimy cup. When he got home I suggested he clean up and he said he would.

Now that I think about it, mess is a fairly usual condition for the kitchen. Every now and then -- once a week, or maybe a bit less often -- I clean it, and I think of that state -- the clean state -- as normal. But I am fooling myself. One or two days a month my bank account is healthy. One or two days a month I go for a long run and feel fit. One or two days a month my kitchen is clean. But if I spend twenty-eight days out of thirty as a scrambling poor out of shape slob, then maybe that's who I am. Hmm.

Hang on. I got sidetracked there. I was going to talk about maturity. When are your kids grown up? That was my question. At what point do you simply have to recognize that they are mature responsible beings? When they are taller than you? Smarter than you? When they get a job? When you realize that you can't actually make do anything? When they leave?

None of these definitions quite does it for me. One I like has to do with routine tasks. Your kid is on his or her way to maturity when the job gets done when it needs to be done, and not because you ask for it to be done. I am not referring to chores. If your kid is supposed to make her bed every day and you tell her and you tell her and you tell her and then one day she makes her bed without being told, that's not maturity. That's resignation. But if she takes out the garbage because it's full -- that's a big step. If your kid returns the car with a full tank of gas -- that's a big step. If he washes the dishes because there aren't any left -- that's a big step.

By this definition Ed -- and now we are back to where I started -- is not quite mature. He's taller than I, and smarter, and he has a job, and it's been a while since I was able to make him do anything. But he did not clean the kitchen on his own. I had to tell him.

I don't know how mature I am. My bank account needs money. My body needs exercise. And I'm not doing all that much about it. Maybe I'll grow up one of these days.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

more on texting

Funny about texting. It seems complicated until you try it, and then you see how easy it is. How convenient. Soon enough it becomes addictive. The bell goes off, telling you have a message, and your fingers twitch. I have (I blush to confess this, and I don't do it any more) replied to texts while driving, which has to be one of the stupider uses of modern technology. I feel like a zombie, reaching out for my phone ... MUST BE CONNECTED. Yeesh.

Sam is a latecomer to texting. Last year his cell phone bill was non-existent. But he is an addict now, all right -- I was investigating a ridiculous phone bill a few months ago, and the person at the Rogers store told me that Sam had sent 3000 texts in that billing period. My jaw dropped. A hundred texts a day. Double yeesh. I changed plans at once. Forget long distance, internet, frequently called numbers: just give me more of that sweet sweet texting.

And it seems to be the way of the future. Friends have a toddler (also named Sam) who was playing with Mommy's phone last time we were over. Playing how? you ask. Well, remember how your toddler played telephone, holding it up to her ear, babbling into it? You probably played that way yourself -- they've had toy telephones since the 50s. But this Sam -- like my son Sam -- had the phone open in front of him, and was busy pushing buttons. That's right. Fourteen months old and already texting the infinite. I assume that Fisher Price has come out with a folding button-pushing toy, maybe with digital display. The old model with the the cord and rotary dial has about as much relevance as a Victrola Phonograph.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

texts from the boy

I hadn't heard from my son Sam in a while, so I was pleased to get his text. Ever had a pork rind? he sent.
No, you? I sent back.
No, sounds awful, he replied. And that was it for the night. He often sends me his random musings, and I enjoy opening my phone and finding out what is on his mind. It's a small and slightly grimed window into his life, but I am happy to peer and ponder. Aqua velva -- great invention or world's greatest invention? he sent last month. Of course my reply was along the lines of, What are you using it for? Turned out that he was putting it on his face. I told him congratulations, and that he now smelled just like his grandpa. He didn't reply.

The texts aren't always about him, and sometimes require some extrapolation. Recently he sent: Simon has 2d degree burns from our AMAZING new kettle! And when I asked if Simon (his roommate) should see a doctor, he replied, We're making more tea. From which I inferred that they had taken time off to deal with Simon's burn, and were now getting back to refreshment. I do not know if they are dealing with the rodent situation, because Mice are noisy was a one-off text. I asked for more info, but his next one -- Best half-book I have ever read -- went back to a conversation about a PG Wodehouse novel with some pages missing.

The last book I lent him was called Rats (I have to say -- is that a great cover or what?). Maybe it will prompt him to enlarge on his mouse problems. Or not. I'm happy to hear about whatever he wants to tell me.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

good idea bad idea

You ever run across an idea of yours in someone else's hands? Not just the, Gosh I wish I had thought of that, but more the -- Hey, that's mine! This is not about plagiarism. But sometimes two people can get hold of the same idea. For instance, there was a bad Robin Williams movie (a bit of a long list, much as I admire him) back in the early 80s that happened to have as a subplot the exact idea I was trying to build into a satirical novel about terrorism. I watched the movie, cringing every moment not simply because the acting direction camerawork and so on were iffy, but because so much of the film was so much like my book.

Then there's the idea of yours that ends up in good hands. Driving home tonight I was listening to a piece of music on the radio that sounded eerily familiar … and I realized that it was because I had written it. Well, not quite. Way back in high school, I was sitting at the piano when a melody came into my head. A simple walk-down melody, 16 bars of beauty. The chord changes fit, the ending satisfied … it was perfect. I performed it for my girlfriend at the time, who thought it was okay but that it needed something. I got angry and we split up, and I went into an emotional tailspin as I realized that she might be right. Maybe the piece did need something, but what? I waited for inspiration. I sat at the piano, and sat at the piano, but nothing came to me. I gave up on music as a career, and started writing a satirical novel about terrorism.

So this melody comes on the radio tonight, and it's mine. The same 16 perfect bars. After all these years it has finally found an audience. Then the tune ends and the composer starts playing around with it. There are, like, variations. Quite a lot of them, actually. The thing lasts five or six minutes. And, you know, it's good. Something came to this guy when he sat at the keyboard. I pull off to the side of the highway to write down his name. If you want to hear it -- my idea in good hands -- find the first movement of Handel's Organ Concerto in G minor, part of his Opus 7. It was his idea more than 200 years before it was mine.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

things that go bump in the night

Back from Vancouver now, and the locals are at it again. Toronto, city that can't help itself. A parking ticket on the dash, a used condom on the gravel, and raccoon poop on the bar of soap. It is to sigh.

Let me explain. The laneway at the back of our house (from which the boron-rich dump site was recently removed) is a daytime hangout for graffiti artists and home repair enthusiasts, who add beauty and noise and life to the place. Come nightfall, the sawyers and taggers go home, and the laneway becomes home to a more furtive crowd: parking cops, prostitutes and raccoons. We have tried to keep an open mind here -- even parking cops, we argued, were God's creatures (it had been weeks since B McGivern had ticketed us, and our hearts were softening). But you have to draw the line somewhere, and poop on the back porch and used condoms by the back fence were a bit too much. So we put a bar of soap (a piece of grandmotherly lore) on the porch to discourage the animals, and a garbage can (with a sign saying PLEASE USE!) by the back fence to encourage the johns. And for a few days it seemed to be working. The porch and back fence area stayed clean. I went to Vancouver.

And now I am back and the beasts are at it again. This morning I woke to find fresh spoor from all three nocturnal perambulists. Poop, condom, ticket. The cop is a new name. Monterey, it looks like from the signature. I wonder if the raccoon and sex trader are new too? I put out some fresh bar of soap. We'll see how that works.

If I am awake at 2:00 this morning I may head outside with a flashlight to catch whoever is doing what. Maybe the bar of soap trick will work with the parking cop ...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

a tale of 2 cities

We were sitting in the dining room of the Granville Island Hotel in downtown Vancouver, staring out at the morning. Sun, water, boats, condos, seabirds, mountains. Quite a vista. Ken said something like: Toronto doesn't have anything as beautiful as this.

I drank coffee and grunted something like: Grff?

He chewed a mouthful of hash brown. I go for walks through High Park and along the lake shore, he said, and it's nice. But it doesn't look as beautiful as this. It just doesn't.

We were silent for a moment. Joggers and cyclists hustled along the waterfront path across the bay, the sun glinting on spandex and spokes. I tried to put my thoughts together. On the surface, Ken was right. Few places on earth can match Vancouver's mix of natural and urban beauty. Toronto can't come close. But it has something, darn it. Something that Vancouver lacks. I tried to put it into words.

Outside my back door, I can see the corner of a low-rise industrial place, I said. There's some ivy trailing down the cinder blocks, and it looks kind of nice.

Ken just stared. I tried again.

They've drained the toxic dump site across from us, I said. The body shop parks its wrecks there now, and one of the feral cats likes to sleep on the hoods. Cute, eh?

Ken swallowed some egg, frowning, trying to work out if I was serious.

After a rainstorm there's a stream running down the centre of the laneway, I said, and the styrofoam cups and coloured condoms floating down to Richmond Street are quite cheerful.

Ken stood up and called for the check. Kidding, I said. Just kidding.

But am I? Well, maybe about the condoms. But to my mind there is something truly attractive about a harsh angular urban landscape, concrete and steam and people and noise. Vancouver doesn't have that. I know that it has tough neighborhoods and ugly problems, but to me, if you will forgive the stereotype, Vancouver has a cheerleader's beauty. Toronto is more like the girl who talks too much and laughs too loud. Yes, she can be a pain, but she is more fun to trade lunches with. And darn it, there's something about her ...

Friday, 15 October 2010

suburban idyll

These are the things that Langley BC is not. Surprising. Beautiful. Surprising. Ugly. Quirky. Old. Dirty. Did I say surprising? Langley is almost exactly like New Westminster or Coquitlam, or Pickering or Richmond Hill or West Bloomfield or Lackawana. It is a suburb, a just fine place where lawns are green, cars are washed, and Tim Hortonses are plentiful. Its streets are numbers and tree names. Its pedestrians are well fed and comfortably shod. I remember an ad from the 1970s for a hotel chain that went something like -- The best surprise is no surprise.

I am not crapping on suburbs -- well, maybe a bit. There's not a lot of apparent individuality here. But when you consider how nine tenths of the world lives, just fine is in fact pretty darn good. Anyone who has survived an earthquake flood riot civil war fire invasion pandemic lightning strike tornado (the one in the picture is from Greensburg Kansas, 1915) or other natural or human-made disaster will tell you that surprise is over-rated. May you live in interesting times is not a blessing-- it's a curse.

And the kids are great. They usually are. Bright and not so bright, eager and bored, wriggling and giggling and picking their noses, the kids and I had a lot of fun. And, hey -- there was a surprise after all. In the mall across the street from the library is an Army and Navy store. We don't have them in Ontario. I bought a pair of gloves.

I'm here in Vancouver for another week. Monday I go to Bowen Island. Ferry boat, hippies, and more kids. I hope my voice holds out ...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

boron and on

In case you have forgotten your tenth grade chemistry, boron is the fifth element in the periodic table, between beryllium and carbon. Nothing to do with Niels Bohr (most aptly named of all Danish physicists, as Bart says), it has something to do with borax, which is a kind of cleaning powder. The only other thing I know about boron is that my old squash racket contains some. It was why I bought it -- the slogan was Boron Power Serve! (Ah, they don't write 'em like that any more.)

So I didn't know what to think when I found out that some land down the laneway from me had been condemned because of trace elements of boron. Was this an example of the government worrying about something we all took for granted that was now known to be bad for us, like cigarettes or pregnant martinis? Or was it an example of government stupidity, worrying about something that wasn't harmful but had a bad rep, like marijuana?

I tried asking around, but no one could help me. Excuse me, I said to the lady on the health line, but I wonder if you could tell me anything about the dangers of boron? She couldn't. Excuse me, I said to the man at the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forests, but could you tell me anything about boron? He couldn't. Excuse me, I said to the kid at the Sporting Good Store, but could you tell me anything about anything? She looked up from her i-phone. Huh? she replied. Forget it, I said.

Conspiracy? Ignorance? I keep telling myself not to panic. I have moved my old squash racket to the basement, just in case. I don't know what else I can do.

Monday, 4 October 2010

mixed neighbourhood

My grandfather said that his west end Toronto neighbourhood was getting mixed when a ... Portuguese family (that's the way he put it, with a pause before Portuguese) moved into the old Astor place. I don't know what Grandad would say about our neighbourhood. Mixed puts it mildly. We live in an area bounded by a mental health facility, four auto body shops and a slaughterhouse. There's public housing, decrepit wartime bungalows, shabby Victorians, super-expensive condos, and the best dessert place in the city only it's never open (topic for another day). And in our back laneway, until recently, a toxic dump.

That's right. I noticed the low plywood hoarding a few days after we moved in. On the other side was what looked like a swimming pool of stagnant green sludge. I asked a neighbor about it and he said, Oh, that's the toxic dump site. Real casual, like you'd say, Oh, that's the Rec Centre (see picture --a Connecticut Rec Centre. An ornament to any community, no?) I wanted to show that I was cool too, so I said something like, Oh, ah or Sure, sure. And I kept my eye on it. It didn't bubble or anything. It didn't smell too bad. After a while I stopped noticing it. It became part of the landscape, like the raccoons and orange condoms and graffiti (apparently DAN IS NOT THE MAN). The toxic dump site. It even had its uses, the hoarding being so noticeable. I'd give friends directions to our parking spot by saying, We're four houses up from the toxic dump site.

And then, yesterday, I heard a rhythmic thumping and giant sucking sound. When I went out to check (surely not Dan? I thought) I saw a stream of water flowing down the laneway from underneath the plywood hoarding. Two guys were pumping out the sludge. They told me that the city had removed three feet of topsoil a months ago, after they found traces of boron. And now they were finally getting around to filling in the hole. Boron? I said. What do you mean, boron? They shrugged.

As of this morning, the hoarding is down and the toxic dump is gone. Cars in need of body work are parked there on clean sand. I have been researching boron.

On the whole I am not sad to see the end of the toxic dump site. Sometimes a neighbourhood can be too mixed.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


More about Dieter. He's the contractor who is turning a dump into a haven for us. We did not know it was a dump originally. We thought it was a slightly neglected place in a lovely neighborhood, that would show up wonderfully with a lick of paint and a couple of smiles. How wrong we were.

You hear horror stories about contractors. Actually, you hear horror stories about everyone, don't you. Husbands, mothers, agents, doctors, ghosts, car mechanics, lawyers of course, governmental employees of every rank and stamp ... Hmmm. I wonder if there is a single group that does not have a bad-guy literature about it? Puppies, maybe. Saints. Angels. Though now I think about it I have heard bad stories about slipper chewing and incontinence. (Down, St Theresa. Put it down! Sorry, couldn't resist.) Anyway, apart from a very few specialized groups, you hear horror stories about people in general.

But I do not believe that our Dieter is one of those horror story contractors. He is not, for instance, ignoring us, as some contractors do, so that a three week reno takes three years. On the contrary, Dieter and his team have been bee-busy, dawn to dusk, for about a month now. The problem is that he keeps finding things -- and not treasure, either. Dieter is not the horror story -- the house is. If I didn't like the place so much I'd be scared of it. We've had moisture, animals, rot, more animals, leakage, shortage, garbage, wastage, poundage, dunnage, slipshoddity of many different kinds, and still more animals. A zoo, it is. Peter's regular phone call begins: Hey Richard, you'll never guess what I found ... At which point I shut my eyes and imagine the worst. Human remains, weapons of mass destruction, an irreparable hole in the time-space continuum.

Fortunately, Dieter can fix most anything. For the ultimate non-handy guy like me, he is somewhere between a god and a comedian, juggling drywall, skunks, PVC pipe, shingles, and two by tens with ease. I am sure that if should find Dracula or Osama bin Laden hiding in our crawl space with the other toxic substances (Hey Richard, you'll never guess ...) Dieter will have him whirling in orbit with everything else. Maybe one of these days Mir and I will ll get around to painting. And smiling.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

lunch moment

September is the nostalgic-est month. Cool nights, turning leaves, migrating Monarchs, football, film festivals ... and, oh yes, school. We may have hated school, but it is one of the strongest youth memories. And looking back from our mortgages and deadlines and piles of laundry, school doesn't seem so bad now, does it. So you didn't understand trigonometry, so what?

For the first time in years, I am making lunches. Does it ever take me back! Fortunately Ed is not too picky. Bread, meat, cheese, tuna, peanut butter -- all good. Add a juice box, maybe a chewy bar, and he's fine. And if I am too tired or busy, Ed is perfectly able to make his own lunch.

Yeah, I said peanut butter. That's what Ed is having today. I can honestly say that I have not packed a peanut butter sandwich since I was in high school myself. Ed's school has adopted the policy that allergic kids can deal with it. Good for them, I say. A Darwinian approach -- weeding out the weak. After all, peanut butter is cheap, good for you, and spreadable. If only more of life was like that.

Monday, 30 August 2010

my weekend

Spent a fun weekend at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival in Thunder Bay, surrounded by scenery, history, and eager authors. The hotel was a stately relic, a bit past its prime but full of charm. The view out our window was kind of cool. There it is in the pic. Can you see the Sleeping Giant? Yeah.

We gave our presentations at the Fort William Historical something or other (I'd look it up but I'm too lazy) on the outskirts of town. It's an amazing recreation -- an extensive well-maintained pioneer type settlement complete with palisade, folks in costume, goods on display, and canoe rides on the mighty river. One of us visiting writers is a Canadian history buff. There were tears in his eyes as he described how he had lain down on an actual voyageur's bunk. I thought he was going to stow away and live there. He had to be lured back to the hotel with promises of free drinks at the bar.

Speaking of which, what did I see there (at the bar, I mean) but brides! Yup, our hotel was wedding central this weekend, and in Thunder Bay the tradition seems to be for the bride to wander up to the bar just like a regular gal. I bought one of the brides a rye and ginger because her man (I tried not to stare) had THE best beard I have ever seen on a younger guy. He looked like a Smith Brother, or Monet, or someone. Impressive as hell.

And now it's time for home. Can't wait to see what Dieter has found wrong with the house in the three days I've been away.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

b mcgivern, you suck

Okay, here is the object of my righteous wrath. The name is McGivern. B. McGivern. And he or she should be ashamed of themselves. This McGivern is a parking officer, a sad wanna-be cop with a book of tickets and a chip on the shoulder. It's too bad that I don't have a visual here -- I'd like to know if I am steaming at a Brenda McGivern or a Brian McGivern. (Benito is probably closer -- as in Mussolini. There is a fascistic authority-worshipping side to officers who hand out parking tickets.)

Yes, I have had parking tickets before. And I have resented every officer responsible for writing me up. But not the way I resent B McGivern. Because, you see, he (or she) is not only megalomaniacal insecure and full of rage and powdered sugar -- all ticketers are like this -- but also completely in the wrong.

The ticket reads: FAIL TO PROPERLY DISPLAY PARKING PERMIT. Think about that for a second. I purchased a parking permit. I went online and gave the city my credit card number, and the city gave me permission to park on the street for a week. B McGivern knows this. The ticket did not read: PARK WITHOUT PERMIT. B McGivern read my permit, knew it was valid. But B McGivern decided to ticket me anyway, because my permit was placed sideways on my dash, instead of straight up and down. (If you were wondering, that's how you properly display your permit -- straight up and down.) B McGovern had to turn his or her head for a second to read my permit, and that second was one second too many for B McGivern.

I don't think B McGovern feels any shame. They probably weed out candidates who possess the softer human emotions during parking officer training.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

street scenes

Two charming street vignettes today, night and day. Then I will embark on a crusade. A crusade, I tell you.
Sitting on the front stoop in Toronto last week late-ish at night (which ebbs and flows with age, don't you find? Late-ish to an eight year old is not lateish to an eighteen or twenty-eight year old, but by the time you hit middle age it starts to cycle back, so that by eighty lateish is back to where it was when you were eight) by which I mean, oh, eleven o'clock. A teenager walked past in her sandals, flip flop flip, a self-possesed confident stride. This was not strange in itself -- it's a quiet residential neighborhood and a girl alone at night (no matter how late-ish) is not remarkable. I remarked this one because her head was buried in a book. There was no natural light, of course, so she had to hurry from streetlight to streetlight to keep going. I wondered if she would bump into a pole or parked car, but no. There's a god who looks after readers.
I probably wouldn't have bothered mentioning her were it not for the fact that only a few minutes later another reader appeared, walking in the same direction. Another female, late twenties maybe, more formally dressed, went click clack clicking by, head lowered, oblivious to the world outside her page. I waited her out of earshot, then went to the sidewalk myself and peered down the street. Were more ambulant readers on the way? Was this a new movement? The thing recalled those strange mass migrations of the Middle Ages, where whole villages would suddenly head off on a pilgrimage.
The very next morning -- a warm and sunny one -- Mir and I were walking past two street guys, sprawled on their bench.
Hey, got any smokes? the larger one called to us, adding, archly, you have to be smokers because I can see the fire in your eyes.
We shrugged, smiled, shook our heads.
His buddy was lean as a rake handle, with Old Testament hair. Sometimes, he said, there's fire without smokes.
I laughed out loud, and gave him my change. Enough to buy a couple of smokes, maybe -- it's an expensive habit.

Okay, enough charm for now. It's time to expose a villain, a narrow-minded tyrant of the streets. I am working up my righteous anger. But it's getting late-ish and I have to go. So, until next time ...

Sunday, 8 August 2010

lay off the Asians, Lou. They're all right.

One of the shows my kids keep talking about, and I keep meaning to get to, is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Apparently it is brilliant, edgy, goofy, the best show on TV, etc etc. But it is hard to find, and I don't watch a lot of TV, and so I have never seen it. Why am I talking about it now, then? Because one of the early episodes (it may even be the pilot) sounded super funny when my kids were telling me about it, and the idea is interesting. The episode is called, The Gang Gets Racist.
I like the idea of racial-based humour (wait -- don't hang up. I will explain) because it shows that we as a society are loosening up a bit, trying hard to get a sense of perspective on our component parts. Getting rid of racism may be a first step (and no, we haven't quite managed that). But getting rid of, or at least laughing at, a knee-jerk humorless intolerance towards seemingly racist language is a good idea for a second step. Clear? I'll try to concretize. I am not a fan of the n-bomb (is it capped? N-Bomb? I have never seen it written down. Since it can only be derogatory, there'd be no point in capitalizing it, would there?) But occasionally talking about the n bomb -- shaking our heads at it, even simply referring to it as the n bomb -- is better, I think, than shutting our eyes to the situation and talking about the weather instead. The witness who describes a suspect to the cops as male, early twenties, two hundred pounds, shaved head, white t shirt, black jeans -- and neglects to mention the fact that the suspect happened to be Asian as well -- is not helping. Self-conscious correctness is one step removed from racism.
Speaking of Asians (wait again -- this is not going to be a joke), I was driving my son Ed and his friend Frederico to the movies a few nights ago, and Frederico said, Why do Asians only drive Asian cars?
I didn't know what to say. We were at a stop light. The Honda van next to us was driven by a lady with Asian features. This hardly seemed conclusive.
Ford and GM are making lots of money in China right now, I said.
I mean Asians here in Canada, said Frederico. You never see one driving a North American car.
I think it's because they're smart, and they know that Asian cars are better.
I was feeling uncomfortable with this conversation -- perhaps a sign of my own racism.
I don't know that you have that entirely right, Frederico, I said. First, most the Japanese and Korean cars you see here are made in North America. Second, Toyota had to recall a whole bunch of cars last year. Third, the idea of Asians as geniuses is --
At this point we arrived at the mall, and Ed climbed out hurriedly. Frederico followed. For the rest of the day I played race detective, furtively checking out other drivers. (I don't know about Asian Canadians, but as a European Canadian I felt kind of stupid.) Next time I see Frederico I'll tell him about the Hummer driver with the South Korean flag decal on his bumper sticker. Bastard cut me off and then drove for ten blocks with his blinker on....

Sunday, 1 August 2010

I ... kind of like ... Winnipeg

I'm in Winnipeg on summer family business, packing and moving a whole lot of boxes. The city is by turns charming, ugly, friendly, sad. I'm always glad to come, and usually ready to go.

Winnipeg is an up-front city -- citizens talk to you, yell at each other, tell you how they feel. The irony here is mostly about how pathetic things are. The Winnipeg Arcades Project show I went to last night highlights, among other things, a plan to improve local area businesses by pitting police-trained uniformed volunteers like the guys in the picture against streeters. The theme -- Isn't this ridiculous! -- is clear but never stated. The subtext is sadness and anger. The show is part of a series of unorganized art projects, a different one every few hours in a downtown space. (Think June weddings, rolling out the brides and grooms every hour of the weekend.) The show before the Arcades Project was all about preserving things -- from fruit and veg to memories.

Overheard conversations can tell you a lot about a place.

She's not my sister. She's a shoplifter!

Get off me, Dad -- you're crushing my smokes!

Why would I go home with you, a******? I live with you.

No wonder John Sampson writes the refrain, I ... hate ... Winnipeg and calls the song "One Fine City." No wonder Guy Madden can't leave.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

garbage thoughts

I worry about my garbage. Mir laughs and laughs when I tell her I want to get home to deal with it. It might be a question of control. Garbage disposal is one of the few parts of my life where I feel in charge. A friend told me about a crack addict friend of his who got help, put his life together bit by bit and is now doing okay, and always makes his bed. It was part of his therapy, early on -- one of the few things he could control -- and he still makes a Marine corps super tight hospital corners bounce a quarter bed first thing every single day. I guess that's where I am, tying to control my garbage because I can't control my health or kids or career or emotional life.
Except that I am not in control of my garbage either. Many weeks I dash downstairs to take it out just as the garbage guy is pulling away from the curb. I empty my plastic bin into the back of the truck while he frowns and goes, Tsk tsk. I apologize and vow to do better next week. Only I don't. I am nowhere near as successful as the crack addict. I figure it's like I worry about making my bed all day, and finally get around to it halfway through the evening news.

Recently I decided to give the problem away. I asked Ed to be in charge of the garbage. Okay, he said. Just like that. I breathed a sigh of relief.
No garbage was picked up the first Friday. Or the second Friday. Or the third.
Darn it, Ed, you're even worse than I am, I said.
Yeah, sorry, Dad.
The bin was overflowing, and smelling vile.
What are you going to do? I asked.
He shrugged. He may be in charge of the garbage, but he didn't care.

When I woke this morning, the garbage was gone. Vanished like dew. Like the last cookie on the plate. Like innocence. What happened? I asked Ed.
I took it to a dumpster last night, he said. I didn't want to wait until Friday.
My mouth opened, and closed. Ed went back to his cereal.
Don't wait for the truck -- just throw it out. Wow. Can I learn from my son? Would his approach to garbage work for life in general? These are deep waters.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

so much for tolerance

Excuse me for a second while I change my mind. Remember how I was being all non-judgmental about snacks, last time out? I have recently suffered a shock to my tolerance, and I am now prepared to talk about the worst snack ever. I can not understand how these things came to be. Can not imagine a product development meeting where some guy in an artistic shirt said: Hey, I have an idea!

I am not talking about cheesies -- they are simply silly. Not even the new KFC sandwiches -- that stuff is so hilariously bad for you it's almost endearing. No, I am talking about a snack combination -- product and flavour -- that lowers the bar so far that these ... things can hardly be called a snack.

I have always considered sunflower seeds to be a poor choice, delivery-wise. Like pistachios, they take time to eat, but pistachios are bigger and much better tasting, so they represent a realistic return on investment. Sunflower seeds are finicky and tiny, and only marginally tasty, so that the ultimate mouthful of flavour payoff never really arrives.

So much for product. Flavour-wise, I have favorites, acceptables, and losers. And my biggest loser -- by far -- is dill pickle. Dill pickles on their own are excellent, in a way that barbecue sauce (say) is not. Who grabs a quick hit off the Memories of Texas bottle? But barbecue flavouring enhances a potato chip enormously, while dill flavouring simply kills it, as it kills tortilla chips, rice cakes, popcorn, and anything else it touches. Dill pickle -- worst flavour ever. Don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I'm just saying.

So imagine my shock and horror when I returned from Knowlton (an excellent time there, by the way -- I'll post pix when I get them. Knowlton is a charming cottage town near Sherbrooke, with an active literary and artistic community) -- returned, I say, to find a package of sunflower seeds open on the kitchen table, and a disagreeable odour lingering nearby. Could it be? I thought, wrinkling my nose, reaching for the bag with trembling hands. Sure enough, the label read -- well, you know what it read.

I do not mind coming home from a week away to unwashed dishes, piles of garbage, unmade beds, and a general air of sleaze and grease and unfulfilled promises (Sure I'll tidy up, Dad. You can count on me!). In a way I'd be worried if the place looked neat and tidy. But ... dill pickle flavoured sunflower seeds? My mind is boggling, narrowing, squeezing my sense of tolerance to nothing. The picture up there makes me shudder. I want to find the responsible parties and shake them, as a terrier shakes a rat. Can there be a snack jihad?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

in a snacking state of mind

The perfect conversational topic? Let me suggest snacks. Yes, I know that much of the world goes to bed hungry, and that packaged foods make for a lousy diet. But, in the context of casual conversation, rich poor city country ethnic variety ... well, snacks are a winner. People don't dismisss the topic. I have never heard anyone say, I don't snack. And yet I have never heard anyone say that they like everything either. Sweet or savory, hot or cold, before bed or before exercise -- there are lots of places for the conversation to go. People will have preferences, and they will not be shy about expressing them. There is nothing, a woman said to me once, absolutely nothing like the first handful of salted peanuts from a freshly opened can. I would have proposed marriage on the spot except that I was already married to her.

Another thing I like about snack talk is that it is never earnest, the way talk on love or politics, art or real estate, or diet generally can be serious. (This little entry is about as serious as it gets.) Nor is snack conversation mean, as in, My God did you see what that woman had in her hand? At 2:00 in the afternoon? What was she thinking? No one talks about snackin' crimes. I do not, speaking personally, need chocolate in my life, but I know many people who do, and I respect them for it. Snacking begets tolerance. If only there were a way to extend this attitude -- the snacking state of mind -- to world affairs in general, what a heaven on earth this might be.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

teen eats

Notes from the teenage boy world. Ed is seventeen now, and wanting a little more responsibility around the place. I said he could pay his cell phone bill. He laughed and said, No, seriously, what could he do? I suggested the dishes, the toilet, the kitchen floor ... but these didn't seem to be the kind of responsibility he wanted either.
How about I go shopping? he said.
So I gave him some money and he went away (sounds like I'm talking about a blackmailer or a creepy boyfriend), returning an hour later with friends and boxes of groceries. They'd spent much more than I gave them, and bought enough food for an army of teenage boys.
Boy food. I stood in the doorway watching them put away cold cereal, sliced cheese and meat, buns and bread and bagels, hamburgers and sausages, potato chips, pizza, more cold cereal, Coke, ice cream bars, still more cold cereal -- and two apples.
Ed saw me smiling. You said to buy fruit, he said.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

kicked out

The other day Ed told me he wanted some privacy at my place. A little get together, he said. A summer thing for him and some friends. I was going to be in the city for the day and early evening, so I told him he could have all the privacy he wanted, and that I'd see him eight-ish.
I hope that's late enough, he said. Could you text me before you leave, so I'll have an hour of lead time.
I did this, and got a text back immediately.
Driving slow and safe, and arrived in Cobourg about an hour and a half later. I parked around the corner from my place and asked if I could come home yet.
NO, he texted back. WE'RE STILL AT IT.
I asked what they were doing.
I told him okay, parked, and went to Kelly's. One good thing about small towns is that there is no shortage of friendly local bars. Everyone at Kelly's was interested in my situation.
Kicked out by the kid, eh? said a lady with a neck tattoo. You'll find peanut butter on the ceiling when you get home.
I will?
Oh yeah. He's having a party, depend on it. Peanut butter everywhere.
Her tattoo was a snake. It wriggled when she swallowed.
YOU DONE YET? I texted Ed.
NO! 5 MINS! he texted back.
I finished my beer nervously, thinking of him armed with a jar of Kraft crunchy. I texted that I was on my way. AND WHAT IS PEANUT BUTTER SIT'N? I added.
WHAT? he texted back.
I heard the noise from the street outside. Giggles, screams. I pushed open my door and went upstairs, calling out in a loud voice. I did NOT want to interrupt anything.
There was a gaggle of girls on the upstairs landing, all variations on a theme of blonde, bouncy, long-nailed and flip flopped. They pointed down the hall.
What is it? I asked.
Check out what we did to Ed, said the blondest and giggliest.
Now do you see why I wanted privacy? he said.
Well well well, I said.
My boy was sporting the shortest haircut I had ever seen that was still a haircut and not a head shave. It made him look -- my heart turned over -- old. (Old for 17 that is.) Three of his friends had had it done too. I congratulated them all, and told them it was a fine way to start the summer. Shortly afterwards they all left in a group, still giggling. A super cute picture.

The only peanut butter in the place is in the jar. But for the last couple days I have been coming across tufts of hair. Not on the ceiling, maybe, but everywhere else.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

serve and protect

I am not going to get on a soapbox and talk about G20 and G8 and what a ridiculous amount of time and money and care Toronto is wasting. Security forces pulled in from across the country, closing of streets for motorcades, evacuation of buildings, the uprooting of saplings which might be used as weapons ... it's like having the Olympics, only instead of Shaun White and Jonathan Toews we get Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Angela Merkel. And we never get to see them perform.

No, I am not going to rant about that. I am instead going to share a moment I had the other day, walking through a downtown parkette. It was late afternoon, with a gray sky beginning to lighten. I was inhaling that most wonderful and evocative of smells -- rain on hot pavement -- while I strolled from the St Lawrence market to Queen Street. I did not have an umbrella because I am a straight middle aged casual kind of guy (the who carries an umbrella discussion will have to wait) but it didn't really matter because it was barely raining.

Anyway, the parkette is about an acre of grass and shrubs with one of those old timey wooden bandstands in the middle -- about right for a brass quartet to serenade weekend picnickers, or a couple of hobos to catch a night's sleep. There were no musicians or streeters there when I walked past. Instead, the thing was full of cops. Must have been twenty of them -- a variety of ranks and uniforms crammed under the overhang. They'd come in out of the rain from wherever they had been patrolling. And now they were peering out at the city they were sworn to protect, while the rain dripped around them.
The scene was so ludicrous I had to laugh. How much are we spending on security for this summit? A billion dollars? Something like that. I walked past the bandstand, laughing out loud, wishing I had a camera.

Is there an upside? At the London G20 summit cops charged into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. That's the picture up there -- a very ugly scene indeed. This kind of brutality is unlikely to happen in Toronto, as long the protesters take advantage of rainy days.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

dirty me

I feel dirty. Nothing to do with any kind of bodily abuse -- food, sex, drugs, exercise. This is a soul kind of stain. For the last few month or so, reviews have been coming in for the new book. I do not read reviews when they arrive. I compile a file and ignore it. But I can not ignore it any longer. My blog guy and publishers say I have to put the reviews on the website. This website.

So for most of today I have been forcing myself to read about myself. On and on and more and more, and all about me. Talk about your wankfest.

I hate bad reviews. Whether they are smartly or stupidly written, whether they make a good point or persistently miss the point I am trying to make, I hate 'em. Reviews that begin, Scrimger's disappointing new book ... or Until now I have always enjoyed Scrimger's sense of humour ... or I can not understand how Scrimger ... Yuck. I want to take these critics and throw them, collectively, off of a high place so that they land on something sharp.

But, see, I don't really like good reviews either. Scrimger is wonderful ... I think Scrimger is the best writer now .... Scrimger's brilliance is unmistakable ... (actually there aren't any reviews that begin this way, but you get what I mean). These reviews are not AS bad as the stinkers, but they are still kind of cringe-making to read.

Well, it's over now. Bleah. I have combed through the file, picked out the interesting and positive bits, and put them on the Me & Death page. Maybe I should give you guys -- you blog readers -- the real deal, and include the sentences that were not so positive. Maybe I will, at that. But not now. It's been a long dirty day. I'll have a bath in a moment, and feel cleaner.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

breathing lessons

When the bad guys lock Groucho in the bathroom in Duck Soup, he cries something like: Let me out of here! Let me out -- or throw in a magazine! I too like to read in the bathroom. I am not picky as to material -- romance novels, comic books, fine print on the back of prescription bottles, whatever. There's something about literature that concentrates my mind and lets my bowels think for themselves. This may be more information than you need to know about me, and I apologize for the visual, but it is germane to our discussion. Yesterday I was in a staff bathroom at a Lindsay elementary school, and I found I had come in without anything to read. My eyes went round the room looking for something -- anything -- with words on it. And I noticed I sign taped to the mirror. HOW TO WASH YOUR HANDS, it said.

You've seen the sign before, and so had I. In school bathrooms, doctor's offices, various public buildings. That's it up there, a series of diagrams with captions underneath, a short little safety comic strip on the subject of hand washing. I'd never read it. I know how to do this, I had always thought. Now, in dire need of something to help me pass the, well, the time, I did read the whole thing, top to bottom, poring over each diagram (why bar soap and not liquid), analysing each phrase (Backs of hands, Between fingers).
And of course I found that I'd been doing it wrong. Not all wrong -- I mean, I had the right body parts. But subtly, dangerously wrong. Not enough attention to detail. Not enough time. Not enough care. Oh dear, I thought. For decades I have been putting myself in danger of infection. If only I had been stuck in a bathroom without literature back in my teens or twenties! Think how much safer my life would have been.

I resolved to change my ways. This time, I followed the instructions to the letter. Step 1, Step 2 .... I took time. I took care. I paid attention to detail. When I finally emerged from the bathroom, using a paper towel on the doorknob, my host librarian had a quizzical smile on her face.
You okay?
she asked.
You bet, I answered. More than okay!
We thought you had got lost in there or something.

I laughed. You wouldn't believe what I was doing! I said.
Her face fell, and she changed the subject.

On my way home that afternoon, I noticed a store front. THE WALKING ROOM. I've passed it a thousand times, but never paid attention. The Walking Room.
I thought I knew how to walk, but now ... I wonder ...

Friday, 28 May 2010

way to go, wozniak

Whence loyalty? There I was on the goose-stepping machine at the Y, preparing my body for bathing suit season and catching up on my sports watching. Channel 24 had the NBA semi finals, Boston and Orlando in the second quarter. During commercials I clicked up to the French Open, and watched two women I had never heard of. I found myself disliking the brownette, a shorter chunkier woman with an awkward style. She had a habit of punching the air when she won a point, and reacted with disgust when she lost. Most of the time she wore a mean, grumpy, almost piggy expression. The lighter blonde by contrast was tall, slim, graceful, calm, mature, taking good fortune and bad with a small smile. They were in the decisive third set, the darker woman up by a break. Oh, well, I thought, and switched back to basketball.

When I returned to tennis, the blonde had caught up, but I was not pleased. I was horrified. Horrified, I tell you. The screen showed the full names of the players, and it turned out that the light blonde was seeded 5th or 6th, which made the brownette a serious underdog. I always like to cheer for the underdog. And she was Canadian! A Canuck doing well in the French Open. Instantly -- absolutely instantly -- my loyalty did a 180. And not just my loyalty. My whole perception of the two women changed. The Canadian was a feisty player, I saw now, with a lot of moxie and enthusiasm. She really got into the game. That's her in the picture -- don't you love her energy! The languid lifeless bland blonde princess type was hardly worthy of being in the same court. I hated that smug little smile of hers, the same way I loved the pugnacious battling grimace of the Canadian. Come on! I found myself saying out loud, as I stepped fascistically into the red zone of cardio-fitness. Come on!

I would not have called myself a strong nationalist. My heart does not beat faster at the thought of Wayne Gretzky or Terry Fox or Tommy Douglas or Margaret Atwood (well, maybe Tommy Douglas, that sexy prairie socialist). And yet the little icon on the TV set next to the name -- the red and white maple leaf -- had me cheering for a woman I had never heard of playing a sport I don't usually watch.

The girl on the machine beside me was watching the same thing on her TV set. She smiled over at me. Isn't she great! she said.

Oh yes, I said. I've been a fan for almost a minute now.

Monday, 24 May 2010

the big sleep

Thea and I were at a trendy/shlocky Kensington Market gift store the other day, buying a birthday present for a seven year old boy. (If you are interested, the Potato Gun -- a classic -- is still around, and still a winner.) We overheard a question from the next booth that made me stare, and her gag.
Do you have any children's chopsticks?
I peered around the corner. A couple of thirtysomethings, stylishly underdressed, with a young child between them, were examining a pair of regular chopsticks.
Marlowe here is too small for these, said the woman, but it's important to learn to eat with them, don't you think?
I thought she was kidding, but no. She was serious. She wanted little Marlowe -- at 4 years old or whatever -- to learn to eat with special chopsticks. I couldn't help thinking back to my own kids who, at that age, considered utensils of any kind a needless sophistication. Sometimes they didn't even use their hands, just dived in face first.
The man on the other side of Marlowe nodded earnestly. We saw them on the internet, he said.
The saleslady was cool. She did not snicker. Did not bat an eye. Just said she was sorry, and the couple left with Marlowe between them, hand in hand in hand.
When I got home I checked, and sure enough there are kids' chopsticks out there. They even have pet names: Smiling Sunshine Chopsticks, White Bunny Chopsticks, Little Chick Chopsticks ... Little eaters can use all your help when it comes to making mealtime fun and fulfilling, says the tag.
I sighed, thinking of poor Marlowe's future -- the teasing, the therapy, the unhappy relationships. He might get a gig as a Chinese restaurant stunt double, but that's small recompense for a dismal childhood. Would he ever know the feeling of power you got when you held a loaded Potato Gun?

Friday, 21 May 2010

two takes

Home from Paris now, and to answer your questions, Yes, we did get up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It was the last day, and we woke up extra early. By the time we reached the Champs de Mars, long long lines were already snaking all over the base of the tower. Imo was worried when I took out the camera to snap her standing there.

Is this going to be another one of those funny vacation picture of what we didn't see? she asked.

Don't worry, I said. We aren't leaving now.

I took plenty of pictures from the top of the tower, though. In almost every direction there was some landmark we had not got to. My vacation travelogue will have plenty of material.

There was an interesting moment as we were packing. CNN in the background was talking about the ash cloud from the unpronounceable volcano delaying flights and closing airports in England, Ireland, France. The two kids turned to me at once, their faces frozen for a second like the old Greek theater masks in the picture here.

Ed's was the tragedy mask. Horrified, lost, deeply sad. What if we're stuck here? he said.

Imo's was the comedy mask. Beautiful, hopeful, sparkling. Oddly enough she said the same thing as her brother. What if we're stuck here? she cried.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

one girl's dream

I am writing from Paris, city of love and tourists. Pleqse excuse my typing on this keyboard:: it's enough to get by but not as good as I'd like -- kind of like my French.
Ed and Imo and I have seen a couple of the big things, but missed some too because Ed does not do line ups. Notre Dame? Non. Musee D'Orsay? Pas du tout. Pompidou Centre? Quel horreur. But we have watched jugglers and other very cool Parisians, climbed on top of walls and guns, zoomed around on the metro, and drunk many cups of coffee and glasses of beer.
Ed's favorite moments so far include the crippled accordionist at the Pasteur metro station, (Did you watch his fingers, Dad? He was Super Fast!) and wandering around Invalides (That is one big ass tomb, eh?) His life ambition right now veers between these two role models -- he wants to be really good street musician, or Naploeon.
Imo's aim seems simpler. She wants to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. But will it happen? I don't know. Every vacation the kids and I fail to see something, and take a picture outside it to mark our failure. Two years ago I took a picture of them outside the Empire State Building (the line ups were around the block and Ed balked). Last year it was Fenway Park (scalper prices for a yankee game were enough to make me gag).
This year, said Imo on the airplane, can we NOT take a picture at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower?
We'll see, I said. And then the first day the crowds were horrendous. We have not been back. Tomorrow is our last chance . . .
I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 3 May 2010

be prepared

What comes to mind when you think boy scout? A neckerchiefed, good-conduct-badged apple-seller? The old-lady-helper-across-the-street? All I recall from my own experience with the organization (I was a scout for three weeks) is standing in the gym, holding out my hands for a fingernail check. (Yup, a middle aged guy inspecting a hundred boys' fingernails. Creepy even for a scoutmaster. And that's saying something.)

Don't worry -- I have nothing sordid to reveal. My point was that our scoutmaster was very keen on cleanliness not for its own sake but because it meant you were prepared. He shouted that motto out at us every week after inspection. Be prepared! he said. With clean hands you can take on the world! (I know. I know.) Later, when I had kids of my own, I heard an echo of my scoutmaster in my son Ed. It took me approximately skady-eight trips to load the van for a simple weekend vacation. Then I kept having to run back into the house for stuff I had forgot. When we were finally ready to go, and I couldn't start the van because the keys were sitting on my dresser, I started to laugh. Ed frowned at me from his booster seat. Dad, he said, I have three words for you: Plan. A. Head.

So yesterday I saw a kid roller blading down Division Street in Cobourg, and wanted to applaud. Talk about planning a head. The kid -- he would have been fourteen, I guess -- carried a hockey stick and a baseball bat, and had a skateboard sticking out of his backpack. Be prepared for fun! I wasn't close enough to check the state of his fingernails, but I felt sure that my old scoutmaster would approve.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

fruit in a bag

Quickie, as I am in the middle of revising and rethinking. (I have zombies on my mind, also a world where everything is upside down.) I was at the YMCA the other day, working out on one of those machines that forces you to step high and often. Good for the heart and gluteal muscles, bad for the self image because you look like a Nazi.

I was flicking through the TV channels trying to find sports. I don't have headphones, so I watch with no sound, and sports is best. I'm not picky about what sport I am watching, as long as I can follow what is going on. I'll watch anything to take my mind off my sweating painful goose-stepping body. Anything? you ask. Anything. I have watched golf, curling, tennis. I have watched darts, snooker, bowling. I have watched poker. Poker, people. I have no pride at all.

Anyway, I was doing okay this time because there was a baseball game on, and the score was close. (For a Jays fan, a close game is all you can ask for.) And then we cut to a commercial about growing tomatoes in a bag. Have you seen this ad? Apparently you hang the bag on a hook, and water it, and the tomatoes grow out the bottom. That's one of them in the picture there.

The ad showed some quotes from satisfied customers. My favorite was from a couple who had written in to say that: One tomato was enough for both of us! Really. That was the quote. At first I thought it was a joke -- I mean, one edamame would be enough to last me my whole life. But no, there was a picture of the couple with their arms around each other, smiling at their tomato bag. I pictured them setting the table, lighting the candles, pouring the wine, then sitting down earnestly to try to get through the tomato. Made me laugh out loud. I was still smiling when we returned to the game. The Jays gave up back to back to back singles to start the inning, and my good humour died away.

Friday, 23 April 2010

watching the snake channel

Here I am in Ottawa, teaching at a cool children's writing workshop called MASC. The kids in the classroom are funny and excited, the hospitality suite is always full of food and drink, and I get a "shadow" -- a volunteer who follows me around and takes care of all my small personal needs (mostly more coffee).
It's the closest I come to being a real teacher. I am used to standing in front of a gymful of screamers (or worse, yawners), and trying to entertain them for an hour. This is different. The kids are quiet; the notebooks are open; they want to learn. I open my mouth, and they lean forward, pencils poised. Quite intimidating, let me tell you. Because I have no real wisdom to impart. I can not teach them to become writers in a day. I am a fraud.
Thank heavens for my shadow. She takes attendance, shows the way to the bathrooms, and gives the whole thing a veneer of professionalism. She's much more of a teacher than I am. I just tell stories. There's one about me losing my bathing suit; another about a pet turtle who went for a walk.
One story yesterday was about a girl who sat on her own birthday cake. The kids laughed, and asked what happened next. Well, what do you think should happen? I said. And they suggested different things. Maybe her pants caught on fire, said one. Hey, that's good, I said. We followed that storyline along for a bit until we had the girl (whose name, we decided, was Iphigenia -- like I said, these are intimidating kids) falling in love with the son of a firefighter, and turning a backyard swimming pool into a place where they could play with their pet snakes.
So what do you want to call the story? I asked.
What story?

The one we just made about Iphigenia,
I said.
But that isn't a real story,
they said. That was a bunch of goofy lies.
Welcome to my world, I told them.

Friday, 16 April 2010

no worries

I drove Ed to school the other day, which I haven't done in a while. We were in no hurry for once -- I was early. So we got a chance to chat. I like time in the car with my kids. It's special time, separate from real life time - - a kind of lazy emotional backwater away from daily stress. This was a gray morning with a bit of light rain, and we were stopped on Ontario Street, waiting for a freight train to pass, talking about -- I don't know what. Fractions, friends, snack foods, that kind of thing. Not memorable but important. It started to rain harder. To pour rain, in fact. I turned to Ed, who was dressed for sunny Southern California.
You want an umbrella? I said. I think I have one in the trunk.
Nah, I'm okay, he said.

I couldn't help thinking back a generation, to conversations with my parents. On a day like this one, there was no way I would have got out of the house without looking like the kid in the picture there. My parents worried -- bless them, they really cared -- if I was dressed to deal with the weather. Snow boots, rain coats, sensible shoes ... I can not tell you how many hours I spent banging my head against the cement wall of their concern. If I didn't wear a raincoat I'd get wet, which would lead to a cold, which could turn serious enough to keep me out of school on the day we were doing something important, and I'd never really catch up or understand the subject, and maybe fail that year. And so my university career -- my entire life -- would be in jeopardy because I did not wear a raincoat. I am not making this up. My parents and I did indeed have these discussions.

A generation later I am not worried about Ed's lack of rain protection. I never have been, really. I don't worry if he's wet or cold or late coming home. I don't care if he watches a lot of TV, or eats cereal for dinner. He'll be fine. Am I smarter than my parents? Not hardly. See, there's always going to be something to worry about. Life is worry. I worry about Ed all the time: will he be happy? Will he get a chance to do what he wants to do in life? Thing is, I can't solve these problems. My parents worried: will he be wet? And that problem they could solve.

The train was a super long one, and by the time it passed and the barriers lifted, I was back in normal commuting mode -- that is, late. With the wipers going full blast I tore up Ontario Street and skidded around the corner onto Elgin.
Take it easy, Dad, said Ed.

Friday, 9 April 2010


The picture over there is called Hope. I have to say, it doesn't really work for me. You can find it on the web at The doctor on the site has analyzed Obama's psychology of hope, MLK's psychology of faith, and will help you break the texting-driving habit.

I got way more hope from my last conversation with Sam. He woke me up with a midnight phone call a few days ago.
Just want you to know I'm working hard, Dad, he said. Got the first eight words of my three-thousand-word essay.
I laughed. First eight, huh? That's good.
Oh yeah. I'm almost, like, halfway there.
Almost. When's the essay due?

Midnight, tomorrow.

Oh, well then.
I got lots of time, Dad. Pot of coffee should do it. I'll call you in the morning, tell you how I'm doing.
He hung up. I smiled into the darkness, and let myself sink back into sleep.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

mystery unexplained

Electricity is funny stuff. I was in the bathroom just now (I know, I know -- you do not need all these personal details) and the fluorescent vanity light over the sink came on. The bulb died about a year ago. I replaced it about six months ago, and it worked for a bit, and then quit. And I shrugged and forgot about it. The overhead bulb worked. I do not need to see my blemishes in vivid detail when I shave. But there I was this morning, and the darn thing flickered a couple of times and came on. Huh, I thought, and continued what I was doing.

Can you imagine feeling that casually about the performance of anything that was not electric? If you squeezed your accordion and no sound came out, and then a month later it did, you'd think that was strange, wouldn't you? If your sunglasses didn't block the sunlight very well, and then you tried them on another time, and they worked perfectly ... See my point? If your brother-in-law got a job, you'd be delighted. If your kid started bringing home Fs, you'd be worried. If Dr Seuss stopped rhyming, you'd think you were going crazy. But what do you do when your toaster fails? Or your radio? You tap the appliance a couple of times (don't try that with your brother-in-law unless he's much smaller than you) and then sigh and have cereal or conversation.

No biggie, here. Electricity is weird, that's all I'm saying. I didn't really miss my fluorescent bathroom light when it was gone. But I plan to enjoy it for as long as it's back. A mysterious gift.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

this is us 2

Great day to be outside yesterday. Warm, sunny, tree branches thick with buds. Walking to tennis (we play on public courts near a schoolyard, not quite as decrepit as the picture, but close) we passed a street blocked off with yellow tape, fire trucks and cop cars. A power line had come down, and they were securing the area before hydro crews came in. We chatted with the crowd, who were out there enjoying themselves. It was their street without power, but no one seemed to mind all. For now it was a definite non-emergency. Maybe it was the weather -- sunshine is a solvent, absorbing human angst.

Strangely one-sided tennis game. Mir and I play pretty level, but for some reason my shots caught the uneven bits of the court yesterday, bouncing at weird angles, and my backhand, usually a high-stakes gamble, turned into a certainty. Poor girl was completely unable to cope (this is all by the way, but you don't get many opportunities to brag and I believe in taking advantage). While we were playing, our attention wandered to an old couple who were walking across the grassy schoolyard. I don't mean old like me or you, or your parents. These were ancients -- he could have been ninety or more, and she could have been his mom -- hunched, hirsute, peering, plaid-wearing lizard people, who looked like they were outside for the first time since last October. She had two ski poles to keep her balance, and moved about as fast as an hour hand. Old age can be very disturbing (last time I was in the hospital I saw a geezer in a gurney, scared and witless and alone, and I thought -- Don't ever let me end up here) but I found this scene in the schoolyard very moving. Kicking against the darkness.

Later, sitting at an outdoor cafe as the sun went down, I found myself remembering that couple. When a taxi door opened in front of me, and a dapper elderly gent (hat, coat, suit, cane) emerged slowly, and reached back to help his friend out, Mir grabbed my arm, and I knew she was thinking the same thing.

Friday, 26 March 2010

word watch

I saw Kevin Smith on TV the other day, calling something gay, And I don't mean gay in the cool cocksucking way, he said. More in the very lame way.
Apropros of which, I had an interesting moment on streetcar yesterday. I was sitting in the middle of the mostly empty car, early evening, when a group of kids came on. Kids meaning maybe high-school seniors. Young adults, almost. Large, toughish looking, male. And I found myself smiling broadly as I listened to their conversation. They were talking, with the unself-conscious volume of the young en masse, or the slightly drunk, about a mutual friend named Derek.
(Hey, should it be un-selfconscious? Now that I've written that out it looks wrong, but so does unself-conscious.)
So did you know, said one of the young men, pronouncing it didja -- Didja know that Derek is into dudes?
What? said another.
I mean dudes. He's not into chicks. He's, like, totally into dudes.
Whaddaya mean? said the other guy. He had a higher whiny voice.
Well I was at a party and Derek was there too, and he was totally like hugging this other dude.
So what? said the third guy. Lot of dudes hug each other. Doesn't have to mean anything.
Sure, said the second guy. You see it all the time.
Well, they were like hugging and kissing, said the first guy. I was getting a drink at the party, and Derek and this guy were, like, making out.
Big pause.
Huh, said the second guy, stretching it out. Huuu-uuuh. (No idea where to put the hypen.)
Yeah, said another guy. Who would have guessed that, eh?
I know, said the first guy. I was going to whack him on the shoulder and say, Derek! I didn't know you were into dudes. But I didn't. I didn't want to ... you know ...
Bust in? said the third guy.
Yeah. What if he was embarrassed or something?
What if he kissed you? said the second guy.
And they all laughed.

There was an older -- meaning my age -- woman sitting across from me on the streetcar. She and I shared a smile at all this. At my high school, she said in a low voice, those boys were the kind that would have beaten Derek up. I nodded. My high school too. Not that Derek would have been hugging another dude at any party I ever went to.

Mine was the next stop. I waited by the middle doors. The guys were lounging all over the seats at the back of the streetcar, discussing Avatar in derisive tones. A totally gay movie, they agreed.