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.