Friday, 29 January 2010

knockwurst before entering

An odd moment last night. What Malcolm Gladwell might call a teeter point (is that the phrase he uses? It doesn't sound right. I have not actually read Mr Gladwell). I was in front of -- also beside and behind and among and surrounded by -- a large group of kids at a school in beautiful Claremont Ontario. It was family literacy night, parents and kids, snow boots and Timbits and cider. And me. I was the entertainment, the keynote, the rocket launcher for the evening. The gym floor was covered with mats for the kids to sit on. They were not sitting. Their ages varied from ten months to twelve years, their behaviour from hyper to uber-hyper (uber meaning super or above, from the German, a language I know about six words of, one of which is uber. Let's see if I can work in zeitgeist). They roiled and bubbled and exploded across the mats, knocking into each other like uranium atoms in the moment before critical mass is reached. When I made a joke, they screamed uproariously, which would have made me feel good except that they also screamed uproariously when I wasn't joking -- sometimes, in fact, when I wasn't speaking at all.
Don't get the feeling that I was hating this. Not at all. I was having a great time. I love kids and energy. I admire parents who can find time after a day at work to drag their kid back to school in the evening. The point I am making has to do with my sense of crowd control.
Normally, I do not try to control my crowd. I enjoy a little bit of chaos. I like to ride it, like a runaway horse, steering the chaos across unfamiliar and scary countryside towards the safety of the home field, and a gentle trot back to the barn.
Last night the chaos was bigger and stronger than usual, a hulking sixteen-hand stallion, and I was almost thrown. My reference to critical mass (see the diagram) was apt -- I was afraid the whole gym was about to explode. I remember pausing in the middle of a joke, with the noise and energy of a hundred moving bodies eddying around me, thinking -- can I DO this? I didn't want to walk away, and have the librarian yell at the kids until they calmed down and the evening became another yucky hour in school. And I certainly didn't want to yell at the kids myself. They weren't my kids. I only yell at my kids. That was my odd moment, my tipping point (Gladwell's phrase has just come back to me. Maybe I should read one of his books). And then I looked out over the sea of arms and legs and wide open mouths and found -- her. An eleven year old girl sitting perfectly still, staring up at me with total attention, drinking in every word. She nodded at me, as if to say, Please go on. And I did. I finished my joke. She laughed appreciatively. So did her girlfriend, sitting beside her. And the boy doing a somersault behind her.
I took a sip of water and carried on. I didn't direct the rest of my talk at this girl, but I did check in with her from time to time. She was my anchor. When I finished speaking I thanked the crowd for their attention. The parents laughed heartily. The kids screamed. I nodded meaningfully at my savior, but by then she was talking to her girlfriend.
Shoot, I never worked in zeitgeist. Maybe just as well. I am not 100% sure what it means.

Friday, 22 January 2010

bye, coach

Kid memories are amazing. I was driving down Cobourg's main street with Ed the other day, on the way to his music lesson, when he turned very casually and said, So when can you get Miriam's car?
What do you mean?
I asked.
Remember when you said that you could probably borrow Miriam's car if I wanted to use it for my driving test?
(Footnote here for those of you without a sixteen-year-old at home. Driving testers -- the guys who sit beside you in the car and make little ticks on the testing form, and have no sense of humour as I know from bitter experience -- unlike the Dutch folks who came up with the picture here -- those guys finished a long strike about a week ago. Ed can finally take his test. He has a date booked next week. Still in the footnote, Ed loves driving my beat-up old Toyota, but it has a crack in the windshield which I will have to get to one of these millenia, and you are not allowed to take your test in a car with a cracked windshield. Miriam's car has no crack. It was, however, in Toronto.)
Yeah, I remember, I said.
Kid memories. The car conversation took place weeks ago. Ed has not called Nana to thank her for his birthday present, and I remind him daily.
Well, I want to try her car.
I said. I'll ask Miriam.
Can you do it now? I need the car for tomorrow.
The test is Tuesday, so I want to practice now. So can you get the car for me tomorrow?
We were at his music lesson now. Geez, Ed, I said. How about a little lead time? I wasn't going to go to Toronto tomorrow.
But you said you'd do it, Dad.

Well, I'm a sucker for keeping my word, and it was a chance to see Mir again. I picked up the car. After dinner Ed went upstairs to put on my long johns. Odd, I thought.
Okay, ready to go driving? I said.
Nah -- I'm off to Frederico's now,
he said.
Yeah. We're going to a movie. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?
But I got the car for you.
That's great! Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate it. But I have to go to the movies now. So we'll go driving tomorrow.
I had a brief nightmare vision of myself putting my foot down, insisting on Ed cancelling his movie with Frederico and practicing his driving NOW. I saw myself sitting beside him as we drove around town. In my vision my lips were pursed and I wore a grim, satisfied expression because I was teaching him ... something.
I shuddered. The nightmare passed.
Hey, how about calling Nana to say thank you?
He was already running downstairs. I'll do it tomorrow, he called over his shoulder. Remind me, okay?

Nothing to do with Ed, but I am feeling kind of bummed. Paul Quarrington died yesterday. One of the good guys.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

feeling pleaumb

Hey, how about this? Just back from a visit to the Rogers store, where I asked a simple question and got an answer. I said: Can you lower my monthly cell phone bill? And the woman said: Sure.
And then she did it. With a few mouse clicks and some keystrokes she saved me something like 200.00 a month on my phone bill. 200.00 a month -- do you know what that means? I could buy five big free-range turkeys with that kind of money. Five big turkeys every month. Think of that. With gas at 1.00 a litre and my car getting 8kms/litre I could drive ... some large number of kilometres, honking merrily. Every month I could do that. Or I could save up for a year and buy a closet full of lightbulbs. As God is my witness I'd never go dark again (unless there was a power outage).

Anyway, I am pleased at my savings. But I am also upset. I waited months and months to get in touch with Rogers. I'd get a huge phone bill and say: I must call these people. And then I wouldn't do it. Inertia gripped me more tightly than a sleeping child. By the neck it gripped me. And then there'd be emergencies (food, lightbulbs, gas) that would distract me from my phone bills. And another month would go by. And the cycle would begin again. If it weren't for Sam's broken cell phone (a four-alarm fire of an emergency) coinciding with a trip to a mall with a Rogers outlet, I wouldn't have been in the store in the first place.

So here I am waiting for this month's bill, feeling pleased and a bit dumb. And if you want to know how I can feel them both at the same time, well, it's easy. I have practice with this pleaumb feeling. (Should it be plumb? Dumeased?) Maybe it's because my sports teams lose all the time. Maybe because I have kids and an ex and an old car. Because I wear thick glasses, and publish books that not everyone likes. Because I am a person. Come on, haven't you felt pleaumb too?

Hey, speaking of books, my new one is coming real soon. Me & Death. There's some reviews out there that I feel pretty darn pleaumb about. If you get hold of a copy, let me know what you think.

stereotypes and truth

Mention Winnipeg to your typical Ontarian, and the first comment will be about how cold the place is. I think of my family as completely typical, and when they heard I was visiting there for a few days every one of them: kids, parents, brother, sister-in-law, aunt, nephews: said some variant of: Why would you want to go to Winnipeg, Dad (son, bro, nephew, uncle, Richard) ? It's so cold!

I am back now, and I can tell you that the city is sick to death of non-residents talking about how cold it is. Can't you smug Ontario people think of anything else to say? they ask.

Here's my answer: Get over yourself, Winnipeg! Yes, we are smug, but you are a sub-arctic soul-freezing ice drift of a place in the winter. Cold? Of course they are going to notice. Maybe if the pyramids were in Winnipeg, people would talk about them too. But the conversation would go something like: Those pyramids are great, eh! Too bad they are outside in the freaking cold! When you treat visitors to a casual -40 with wind on top, day after day after day, those visitors (unless they be penguins) will be shocked. And if cold is the first and strongest impression of a place, that's how people will describe it. If you were describing Goliath to someone who didn't know him, would you talk about his good taste in sandals? (Goliath? Oh, yeah, you know, that guy from Gath. Dark hair, dark eyes. Needs a shave. Doesn't believe in the God of the Israelites ...) Or would you say: Goliath -- yeah, he's the big guy.

Well, Winnipeg is the cold guy.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Not yet, not yet, a thousand time not yet

Happy New Year everyone. That's an easier wish than Happy Christmas Chanukah Kwanzaa Divali Solstice. And for those of you who follow a different calendar, Happy New Year when you get to it.

I am so ready for January. I have already thrown out the Christmas tree, eaten the fruit cake, read the new books, exchanged the pants that didn't fit. I am almost done my own zombie book (I can hear my agent saying, Hurry hurry!) and keen to start the next one. And thinking about words that fit and don't fit different languages. This last prompted by one of those dentist office articles. Everyone knows about the Inuit language with twenty different words for snow, but did you know that Gaelic (I can't remember if it was Irish or Scottish -- but that part of the world for sure) has no word for NO. There is, apparently, a word for NOT NOW or NOT YET. And one for NOT ALL. But the simple negative can not be put into one word.

First off, is this true? It doesn't sound likely to me. Have you heard different? Is my dentist's magazine collection letting me down?

And if true, is this weird, or what? I mean in addtion to No, English has the military Negative, and the slangy Nah, Nope, Nix, Not and Nay, and probably a few I can't think of right now. And all these words mean the same thing: the one-word expression of a simple head shake.

It's such a basic part of human interaction. Can the Gaels get by without it? Ethnic stereotypes come tumbling into my mind -- I picture a race perpetually talking around their problems, burying resentment in a colourful drift of words.

Take education. I see a schoolroom where little Seamus puts up his hand to answer 6 + 6 = and when he says, 11, the teacher shakes her head and says, NOT NOW. What about parents? How do they warn children? Just say NOT YET to drugs doesn't really send the message, does it?

And what about babies? What is THE baby word? What do they somehow naturally find themselves saying right after Mama and Dada? What's the word they shout over and over and over at dinner time, bath time, bed time? Their natural response to Do you want ... anything? I can not imagine -- simply can not imagine -- a Gaelic baby with its face screwed up, pounding on the high chair, knocking away the spoonful of peas and shouting, NOT ALL! NOT ALL!

The more I think about this, the more unlikely a language without NO seems. If I were to adopt a New Year's resolution to avoid the word NO, would I last a day? An hour? Another sentence?