Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Been back for a week now, managed to throw Christmas together without putting a lot of worry into it. Africa puts things into perspective. One of my favorite things about Addis was the way no one seems to be complaining. The place must have its share of whiners, but I didn't meet any. You'd think that leading your leprous grandma around to beg for change was a totally normal thing to do. It was a blazing hot day and our van taxi was stopped to pick up passengers (love the system -- taxi pulls into the stop with a kid yelling the destination out the side window. At the stop are 4 other van taxis going to different places, with 4 other kids yelling their destinations. You can travel all over town for about a quarter.) The little girl in question was calm, neatly dressed, patient. She met my eye, smiled, nodded gravely, and moved on to the next taxi, pulling the old lady after her by her rotting stump.

In the same way, people would tell me about walking 50 or 100 kms to Addis from their village as if it was a normal way to get around. And why did you leave your village? I would ask. My parents died, they would say. That's terrible, I would say, and they would shrug. It happened, and I had to find a place to live. How old were you? I would ask. Twelve, they would say. Or thirteen or fifteen. That's terrible, I would say again, and they would shrug some more and drink their (lovely but oh so strong) coffee. I must have heard that story four or five times, from tough street kids, from twenty year old students, from the sixty-something director of my NGO. And not one trace of sentiment or self-pity, though my director did admit that they were hard years.

Lunch time my first day home Ed said, Dad, would you make me a grilled cheese sandwich? And I had to smile. Sure, I said. Do you want me to cut off the crusts? I'm not knocking my kid, of course. He has to bear his life, as does the little begging girl and the orphans and everyone else. But like I said, I didn't worry quite as much as usual about who got what for Christmas this year.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

travel thoughtfully

It's 1:00 Ethiopian time which means 7:00 am, and I am getting ready for breakfast and then my gig. I've been here a few days now and am starting to get the hang of it. For instance, service. You can't do it yourself. There's a chef station in the breakfast room, and a guy in white who whips up a great spiced omelet for you, but you can't carry it to the table. You make an I'll take it gesture, and he shakes his head. A pompous guy in a tux points to a demure waitress, who takes the plate from the chef, ducks her head at you and leads you to your table. She brings you coffee one pot full at a time. (Looks like a standard metal pot but does not spill -- that's impressive). She has to make the first pour, then ducks her head again and leaves and lets you finish.

If you want to take food or drink upstairs to your room -- well, forget it. I tried to carry my last cup out of the restaurant a couple days ago and was chased down the hall by an old guy with a tray shouting, Mister mister and looking really unhappy. I tried to explain my situation to him and he tried to explain his situation to me, and he won because he simply would not allow a guest to carry anything. We marched to my room, him in front with the tray and me behind looking sheepish. It wasn't about money -- I offered but he shook his head and marched away.

I don't really like being waited on but it's not my country and I'm not going to insist. Maybe this is a way to deal with unemployment. Everyone gets a little something to do. Like the ladies I saw sweeping the walk in the courtyard of the ministry where I am teaching. I was early yesterday (rare for me) and the sessions started late, so I was able to observe them for almost 45 minutes. There were three of them with brooms and dustpans. The first swept a small section of walkway, the second scraped the leavings into the dustpan and slid them carefully into the third lady's bucket. Then they switched jobs and moved on. I watched in fascination. The tiled walkway was maybe as long as two first downs and no wider than a residential sidewalk. Someone with a leaf blower would have finished in a minute or two. After 45 minutes these ladies were less than half way down the walk.

This is not me making fun of primitive ways of working. Not at all. A leaf blower is never a better answer. I did feel some initial frustration at observed inefficiency -- very similar to my feeling last year watching a large road crew take an entire week to dig up and then fill a hole in my street. (Their work to chat ratio was lower than the sweepers, and the project was completed at umpteen thousand times the cost and mess.) But the three women seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the work was so dogged and painstaking and plain weird to me that it wasn't long before I was hypnotized. Got me pondering on the importance of efficiency. Why do we care so much? What is there about the finishing that matters more than the doing? Maybe there is something to be said for driving slowly through life...

But now of course I am running late and have to hurry if I'm going to enjoy my omelet and coffee. I'd order room service but I am afraid of how many people would show up.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

does anybody really know ...

So, Addis Ababa. It's a real city, in that there are masses of people on the roads and sidewalks, walking and arguing, smiling and sitting around, driving with hands on the horn and heads out the window (love the drivers here -- no sense of lanes or right of way, plenty of smiles, and horns as conversation), selling food and I don't know what and shoes (lots of shoes, seeming like pretty good quality though I am no judge) and generally doing their best to get along and have some fun in the process. It helps that the sun is shining. It may help that it is Sunday and hardly anyone has to work. And it may be that I am missing something. I won't lie to you guys -- there's a whole lot here that I don't get.

Like the guys in the uniforms. They seem to pop up all over the place. I haven't seen a lot of consistency but there are brass buttons and caps and stripes galore. No guns, no agenda that I can work out, but they stay where they are, at ease mostly, and we regular walking-around guys leave them alone.

I say we but I kind of stand out. I am not a regular guy here. The gifts of a city are invisibility and unconcern, and they don't apply to me here. I get stared at. Not heckled or approached, but noticed. I did not see any other white folks on my walk. None. I don't think I was in a tough part of town. The streets were wide and there were all sorts of women and babies and old folks walking calmly. But no tourists except me.

I am gradually getting used to the time thing. After 24 hours on airplanes crossing who knows how many zones, I have no sense beyond day and night. My various electronic devices tell conflicting stories. Computer: 5:13 am. Cell phone: 11:14 am. Wrist watch: 1:15 pm. I set my watch to the clock in Tesfaye's car last night. It said 10:00 but I know that car clocks lie. (I still haven't switched mine to daylight savings.) When I asked him whether the time was correct he shrugged.

Sometimes in Ethiopia when we say 10:00 we mean 4:00 pm, he told me.
I nodded but had to ask: Um, why?
4:00 pm is ten hours past sunrise, he said.
Of course, I said. But what do you do at night? Do you call 5:00 am 23:00?
He laughed heartily. He's got a good laugh.
At night we sleep, he said.

So when I say I am getting used to the time thing I mean I am getting used to not knowing. With luck I may get around to not caring.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

me straight him funny

The problem -- no, not the problem; my problem -- with Frog And Toad Are Friends as a subject for close textual analysis, is that I wouldn't be able to do it without laughing at myself. I have enough trouble taking myself seriously under normal -- even harrowing -- circumstances. So the picture of me poring over these stories comma by comma, discussing how Lobel achieves his comic and revelatory effects ... well, I just had to shake my head. Like taking a spade to a souffle, as someone said, reviewing PG Wodehouse.

So I did a Saki story instead. That's him in the pic looking characteristically somber. He may not be as brilliant as Lobel but he's pretty brilliant. And easier to analyse without feeling like a piece of fruit. Turned out to be a good choice since my instructor is a big fan, and we had a lengthy discussion about Saki's place in the continuum of a certain kind of English humorist stretching from Wilde to Kingsley Amis.

You probably know Saki. A lot of his famous stuff has a surprising chilling flavour -- "Tobermory" or "The Reticence of Lady Anne" or "The Open Window" -- and these are great great stories. But I have a soft spot for his goofy surreal side, where he launches on a fugue of weird fantasy that takes the humour point and just runs away over the horizon with it. Wilde doesn't do that. Waugh doesn't do that. Leacock does it now and then, and Twain, but not as well as Saki. Anyway, it makes me howl with laughter. If you don't know "The Talking-Out Of Tarrington," give it a read.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

keeping up ...

So the first term of my school year is drawing to a close. Where do the weeks go? I am behind on all my assignments -- in class and out -- and I have played hooky a couple times and I owe money to the registrar and the coffee lady and there are three or four things I haven't signed up for. Geez -- you'd think I was I an undergrad again. I have learned NOTHING about time management in all my years of writing and raising kids. I am the oldest nineteen year old in the western world.

Today was a workshop day. I was supposed to present a piece of prose I found life-changing but forgot it was my turn. (Man I am no good at this.) So we spent more time analysing each other's work. It's a fun group -- scary talented and super good-natured. I try hard to keep up with them. Next week we all have to write like Nicholson Baker which is kind of cool. (That's him in the pic. A month ago we had to write like Henry James and that was much less cool.) And, if I remember, I will present a piece of prose. Wonder who I'll pick? Other presented authors have included Paul Bowles and Donald Barthelme and Sheila Heti and important guys like that. Can I do Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad All Year? I am tempted.

Maybe I'll add my work to this blog. You guys can join the rest of the class in laughing at me. Kids today have no respect for their untalented elders.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

free stuff

Here's a touching story involving car repair. It didn't happen to me -- all my car repair stories are grim. But the brother of a friend of mine (see how far removed from me this story is? I do not even know this man) had a simply wonderful moment at an auto body shop recently.

Seems that my friend's brother -- I'll call him Steve -- had had his newish Lexus dinged up pretty good in a parking lot and took it to a nearby garage to get an estimate. The mechanic looked the car over and made some notes and came up with a figure rivalling the Greek national debt. Steve blenched (I have this on my friend's authority -- Steve is a blencher) but -- as my friend says -- what are you going to do? Car repair guys have you where the hair is crisp. And then the owner of the car garage came out of his office at the back and recognized Steve.

Is it ... Dr Curtis? he said, in a thick accent of indeterminate origin -- kind of like the wine I buy. Steve, I should mention (this is the key to the story), is an eye surgeon. The garage owner gestured dramatically to his employee.
This man saved my eyes, he said. I was blind but I can see thanks to this man! He is a genius! How can I help you, Doctor Curtis?
Steve pointed to his car.
The owner shook his head and said to the mechanic, This man does not get a bill! All our work is free. All the parts are free. This man's car will look better than new when we are finished.
It is a privilege,
he continued, to be able to repay a small part of the great debt I owe you, Dr Curtis. I want to say ...
Apparently he went on for about five minutes, causing Steve some embarrassment, and when the dust settled Steve got a new-looking car for free.

Like I said, touching. As my friend was telling me the story I thought: some professions are really set up for gratitude. Take war heroes, for instance. Go into a store with a chest full of medals and some people will fall all over you for protecting their freedom. Crime fighters too -- if Superman walked around Metropolis in his cape and spandex he'd run into all sorts of thankful citizens who would be happy to offer him donuts and drinks and car repair. Surgeons are in this category. Doctor, you saved my eyes (heart, legs, whatever) means you get free stuff.

What if Steve sold shoes for a living? Would the garage owner be likely to honour excellent in-store assistance with free body work? I don't think so. Or take me. My car needs brakes. I have an appointment tomorrow. Will the guy who owns the local Midas dealership turn out to be a grateful ex-creative-writing student who recognizes me and says, Mr Scrimger, you ... improved my syntax! Thanks to you I can write clearer prose. For you -- no charge!

I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, 28 October 2011

notes on a white board

Alison Kuipers wrote a good novel a few years back that consisted entirely of notes between a girl and her mom with conflicting schedules -- the kind of notes that get stuck under frig magnets or scribbled on bulletin boards. I enjoyed the story of love and loss and humour and growing up, but couldn't help wondering how it would have played with male characters. Would a boy and his dad express their feelings and interests through notes? Well, Ed and I have been sharing a kitchen and white message board for more than a year, and the answer is ... well, what do you think?

We Scrimgers are not afraid to communicate. The board is often full of writing. We are not fond of feelings, however. Or should I say we are not fond of mushy feelings. No LOVE YOUs or TAKE CAREs. But we do not mind expressing our displeasure. The suggestion WASH DISHES was up there for two days when I was away a few months ago. When I came back the dishes were still undone, so I turned a suggestion into an order by adding an exclamation mark. WASH DISHES! Came downstairs the next day and Ed had added a third screamer and a curse: WASH DISHES DAMMIT!!! I confronted him later. He was yawning and I was making coffee.

What is going on with the dishes? I asked him.
I'm waiting for you to do them, Dad.

I was surprised.
That was my note, I said, pointing to the white board.
No, I wrote it,
he said. I hate the dishes piling up. See, there, that's the way I write my M, all loopy like that.
, I said. I was sure I remembered writing it. I did the dishes and rubbed out the note.

Later that week the board was co-opted to record the results of home-made crokinole tournament played on our dining room table. Ed and his friends picked countries to represent, and I was interested to note the progress of Macedonia (Ed) against Brazil, Sweden, and Cote D'Ivoire.

Not the stuff of story, eh? I know. Not many movies of the week based on these plot lines, specially when people's choice Macedonia went into a tailspin and finished fourth.

Currently we have a shopping list on the board. You could read it as a poem, I suppose. Or a piece of cryptic prose. HOT SAUCE, BREAD, FEAR. I know where to find hot sauce and bread, but wonder about FEAR. What does Ed want with it? And where can I buy it?
Unless it's BEANS.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

sandwich generation

Epic conversation last night -- my son and my dad on technology. I was in the middle, aware of the incomprehension on both sides. They were fish and bird, and I was the worm between them.

Sam began by describing a new game he and a buddy were playing on the PS3. It involved -- well, it doesn't matter what it involved, killing aliens or filling holes or stealing cars or mining for gold or something. The point is the PS3 platform. My dad wasn't interested in a video game dispenser, but when Sam explained that you could also use the PS3 to watch movies he started waving his hands.

Are you saying that this device of yours does more than play games?

We were in my parents' living room. Sam and Dad were both on their second or third drinks, which may have influenced the conversation. The baseball game played along quietly in the background.

Totally, Grampa. It's like a computer. You can use it to get Netflix.

I was thinking of ordering Netflix. But I thought I could use it to watch the movies on TV. Dad to me.

You watch Netflix on TV, but you need the PS3 to connect your set to Netflix, I said.

Stupid system. What kind of world is it where you need a zombie game device to watch a movie? All these machines hooked up to all these other machines. It's worse than 1984. Dad.

Yeah, I know. Me.

You should get a PS3, Grampa. Sam.

Hmph. How big is it anyway? I don't want a great big box sitting on the floor.

It's ... Sam.

Is it bigger than a breadbox? Dad, smiling. This was a phrase from my childhood. Many a game of Animal Vegetable Mineral revolved around this question. On TV the batter swung at a breaking ball way out of the strike zone, and missed.

What the heck are you talking about? Sam.

A breadbox. You know, a box where you keep --

Whoa! Slow down, Grampa. Sam was laughing now.

Don't you know what I'm talking about? A breadbox is a wood or metal box you kept on the counter. The boy knows what a breadbox is, doesn't he? Dad to me. I shrugged. The batter fouled off a pitch.

They used to keep bread in a box? So weird! What kind of a box? How big was it?

What do you mean? It was as big as a breadbox.

I finished my drink. The pitcher threw a belt-high fastball past the hitter, who was so upset he slammed his bat onto the plate and broke it. The inning ended.

Why, Grampa? Sam had his hands up, pleading.

Why what?

Why did you keep bread in a box? Why a box? Why not leave it in the bag? Or in a drawer? Why take up counter space? Why go to the extra trouble? Who were these people? Sam, to me.

Yeah, I know.

We were people who could turn on the TV and watch it, said Dad. We didn't need a box to connect to another box to connect to the internet to get a movie on the TV. Who's crazy now?

There was a tire commercial on TV. A car spun out of control on an icy road.

A PS3 is about the size of a square cake pan, Dad, I said. And, Sam, a bread box was about the size of a microwave oven. And I need another drink.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

school daze

I've never been busier.  More to read, more to write, more miles to drive, more people to try to satisfy (do NOT go there) -- and the same old amount of time.  Thank heavens for coffee, for not needing much sleep, and for low standards.  These last (the standards, I mean) are in fact invaluable.

All this is by way of apology for not posting more often.  I think of you guys sometimes.  I want to talk more often, really I do.  Only every time I turn around or look up I find another deadline ready to pounce on me.  Deadlines are like mountain lions.

You want to know about school?  Well, it's really fun.  I sit at the back with the cool kids.  I mark up my textbooks and pass around notes.  We trade lunches and everything.  I can hardly wait until birthday season! 

Seriously, it's more work than I thought, and the other students are way more talented than they have any right to be at their age.  I suspect them of mentally patting me on the head when I make a comment.  Poor old fellow, let's humour him.  He thinks we're back in the 1980s.  While I am struggling to keep up at school, I am also trying to finish a book about a kid with an accidental tattoo, and a kid who falls into a comic ...  and do some mentoring o my own ... and of course there are still my kids to drive around, and when I go too fast there are speeding tickets to collect.

Last time I was stopped I tried to tell the officer how busy I was.  She listened with a smile of sympathy.  You shouldn't be driving around at all, she said.  Say, do you want me to charge you, and confiscate your license so you can stay home and rest?
She was laughing, but I tell you I was tempted. It'd be a totally great excuse for not doing the week's assignment -- and a DUI or something might get me some more respect in school. Scrimger the bad ass.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

3:20 moment

The saddest moment of my kid year was always Labour Day Monday, 3:20 pm.  At that precise moment the holiday ended.  Today might as well have been a school day, I would think, year after year.  If it had been a school day, I would have the same amount of time off as I do now.  I am already back at the grind.  Hello Grade 3  (or 4 or 7 or 12).  Three hundred more days until summer. 

Cheery little fellow, wasn't I?  No wonder I didn't get invited to many late summer barbecues.   (Sure, I'll have another hot dog.  Who cares about indigestion?  Holidays are over.  There's nothing to live for except the present  ...)

In fact, it was even worse than that.  I lived the entire season in a state of diminishing expectations.  I would divide the nine or ten weeks into little playtime-sized pieces, and count them like a miser:  how many were gone, how many remained. I loved the first week or two of July, but as the month stretched out I would be increasingly aware of time passing.  In the middle of August I would think:  Only a couple of weeks left now.  It isn't really a summer-sized holiday any more.  More like Christmas.  Another week and summer would be the size of a March break.  (March break?  Why, that passes in a flash! It's barely a holiday at all.)  I would play harder, faster, in an attempt to get more out of my shrinking freedom.  In the last week I would count down the days, until there was only a long weekend left.  Then a weekend.  Then a holiday Monday.  And then ...  3:20.

I told Ed about this last week -- one of those early morning coffee and toast musings.  I don't know what I was expecting.  A laugh, a head shake, a moment of sympathy.  He stared at me over the comics page.

What a weirdo, he said.

Saturday, 27 August 2011


Sometimes I don't know whether to be impressed or appalled. A particularly daring move at an intersection will elicit my mental applause even while I am slamming on the brakes. A mean but truly funny comment at a party will leave me speechless. I would never allow myself to drive or speak that way, but my hat is off to those who do so dare. I guess I am both impressed and appalled -- impalled.

Which brings me to today's incident. I was at the Y, huffing away, adding my own internal dialogue to the soundless TV screen (a movie with Nicolas Cage and a brunette who spent part of every scene with her hand to her mouth. Her lines were easy: Mmmff, she would say. What kind of mmmff do you think I am?) when a young woman in impeccable workout gear took the machine next to mine and said, That's not all! in a loud voice.

I looked over but she was focussed straight ahead, talking on her blue tooth type phone. I know it's ridiculous, she said, punching buttons on the treadmill. But there's more.

And there was. For the next twenty minutes she spoke without stopping or moderating her voice. It had been a tough shift at her restaurant, and she had every detail fresh in her mind. It did not occur to her that we (I was not the only one in earshot) might not want to hear about the picky patrons, jealous co-workers, missed orders, lousy tips, etc. None of us told her to shut up. I think an older guy wanted to, but she didn't give him an opportunity and he was too nice to interrupt.

I have to say, I was fascinated. She was a storm, heedless and destructive but entertaining, in an awful schadenfreudey way. (Imagine living with her?) I gave up on my TV movie, which had developed a boring office plotline (What is the mmff on those sales figures, JB?) and paid attention to the totally unself-conscious public monologue. Not the incidents so much as the idea that she thought this was okay behaviour.

On and on she went, swinging her muscular arms, working the treadmill hard, and talking all the time. Nothing wrong with her cardio shape -- just her personality. She had no sense of other, no concern for the world outside her own experience. Total self-absorption. I was ... impalled.

Friday, 19 August 2011


After-dinner conversation overheard through my office window. Ed and a friend on the back porch, talking about a concert in Toronto the following night ...

ED - We're going to miss the last train home. For sure.
FRIEND - What're we going to do? I don't want to leave the show early.
ED - I know. How about staying overnight?
FRIEND - In the city? Could get expensive.
E - No man, my brother and sister and grandparents live there. I'll just call up.
F - At 2 in the morning?
E - Well, not my grandparents.
F - Cool. But there's like five of us. How big a place does your brother have?
E - Doesn't matter. There's a couch and a floor and a bath tub. Better than nothing.
F - What about your sister?
E - Maybe. But it's easier with my brother. We can just show up. Mind you, he gets up real early to go to work. He's going to be pissed.
F - You sure we can do this?
E - Totally. You don't have a brother, do you. Trust me, we can do it.
F - Oh. Okay.

A beautiful late summer evening. The breeze was picking up, carrying with it a hint of earth and cool. The boys were talking excitedly about a TV show. I smiled and went back to work.

Sunday, 7 August 2011


Back from Vancouver now -- the city of shame. Everyone I talked to there referenced the hockey riot a few weeks back. They all shook their heads. They all swallowed in embarrassment. They all talked about what a change it had been from a year previously when the entire city had united in a moment of shared good feeling. Get over it, city.

An exciting trip for me, I have to say. Caught up with some old friends, talked to some very nice audiences, stayed in a hilariously sleazy district, visited a nude beach, and found time to hit two great bars. If you get the chance, visit the Alibi Room down at the eastern end of Gastown. More hoppy IPAs than you can shake a stick at. And there's a place on Commercial Drive called Bier-something that has a fantastic mussels and beer special. Don't mention the hockey riot, though. They'll apologize for hours.

All right, all right. I'll get to the nude beach. I had never been to one before. Not even as a twenty-something travelling around Europe. Somehow the opportunity never came up, or if it did I was always sick or asleep or something. My friends would go and I would listen, yawning or vomiting enviously, to the stories they told when they returned to the hostel. So when I was visiting UBC and saw an arrow pointing own and a sign -- CLOTHING OPTIONAL BEACH -- and I had a free half hour, I thought, Now is my time!

I confess to a teenaged heartlift as I approached. What kind of wonders would be unveiled? (All right, I guess I knew what kind of wonders -- but not the precise ones.) I wondered if I'd be too embarrassed to disrobe, or if people would laugh and kick sand when they saw my pathetic scrawny torso? Imagine my chagrin when I found myself part of a small but impeccably dressed group of beachers. Every one of them (and I checked) wore shorts and tops, dresses, bathing suits. There was a guy in a vest and bowler hat, for heavens' sake. Not exactly like the picture there but you get the idea. Clothing was optional, and they had all opted yes. My heart sank back down to middle-aged territory. I walked along the shoreline, totally in fashion in my shirt and rolled-up trousers.

Maybe Vancouver should be ashamed of itself after all. That recumbent couple at the hockey riot were way more risque than anything going on down at the nude beach.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

ugly? yes

Do I own the ugliest chair in the world?
Seems a sweeping statement, doesn't it -- a grand claim. In the world? But you know, it might be true. It's pretty darn ugly. Ed found it in the Goodwill store, and came home and told us, his eyes alight with the joy of the true philosopher. When something is a perfect platonic example of itself -- when it ideates a single pure form -- you are drawn in a way you cannot resist or comprehend.

We have to get this chair, guys, he said. We have to. It's perfect. It's big and ... words failed him here ... there's blotches and blobs and it's squishy when you sit down and it's so ...
Imo was looking a little dubious.
Um, I said.
And it reclines, said Ed.

Imo turned to me. She was getting it now. She was on the trolley. Like all my kids, she loves a reclining chair. I've never owned one, but when we are in a mall we spend a lot of time in the free test chair section
A recliner, Dad, she said. A blobby squishy recliner....
They were both giving me the eyes. Ok, I said. Ok.
Actually, I was getting intrigued myself.
They went together to buy it, and when they carried it through the front door fifteen minutes and about as many dollars later, my mental staggers matched their physical ones.
Wow, I said.

There can be a fine line between beauty and horror. With some high-fashion models you don't know if they are so ugly they're gorgeous or so gorgeous they're ugly. Well, this chair is not like that. It's way over the line, way over any line. It crouches, squat and menacing, the colour of fear and ice tea. It is warm and soft to the touch, like fresh vomit. It reclines with a groan and a snap of tired springs when you pull the lever at the side -- a lever which wears a matching fear and ice tea sock over its polished wooden handle.

Days later, I am still giving the chair a second look every time I enter the living room. It still makes me laugh. It is the world's ugliest chair.

Monday, 18 July 2011

really fake

Going to talk about essence today. What a thing is. (Is that ontology? My philosophy has been picked up second-hand in mystery novels. It's cheap but shabby, and sometimes it doesn't work.)

Imo found a package of gummi worms in the junk drawer. Oooh! she cried, taking a couple and chewing appreciatively. These are the real ones.
I was puzzled. What other kind would there be? I asked.
Well, there are those all natural ones, she said. My friend's mom buys them. They're not nearly as good.
I spend a lot of time in my mind. I don't get out much.
All natural gummi worms? I said.
Yeah. You know. You get them at the bulk food stores. They're kind of good for you.
I shook my head. No, I said. I don't know. I don't know at all.

Which brings me to essence. Can we agree on some basic definitions? A thing is what it is, and not something else. Right? Right. So what in the name of all that's advertised is a natural gummi worm? Surely the term is self-contradictory. Taking away the thing that makes it a gummi worm and calling it a gummi worm is an affront to sense. Who are these manufacturers? It's like pushing a breadless sandwich (less caloric) or a noiseless car alarm (easier on the neighborhood). If you eat gummi worms, then you want an instant hit of sugar and gelatin and chemicals. You are not craving something healthy. That would be an orange.

Imo caught the idea right away. The gummis in our junk drawer are the real kind, because they are not all natural. Real because they are fake.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

me and tommy lee

So I made my course selections yesterday. Couple workshops, couple lectures. That's right, I'm heading off to school in the fall. Time to catch up with the kids and their fancy degrees. I wonder if I'll get along with my dorm mates? I hear that one of my profs is a real hard case. I hope she likes me.

Okay, I'm kidding about the dorm, but everything else is true. I'm going to crack me some books (not the ones in the picture -- those books would crack me). It's been a few decades, but I'm sure college life will start coming back to me. Keggers, all nighters, maybe some embarrassing experiments. I might even remember how to write an essay. And when it's all over I'll have some extra letters to write after my name. Totally worth it.

Oh, and I was kind of lying about the prof too. She seems really nice.

Got my room numbers. Got my knapsack, and Hilroy notebooks, and some freshly sharpened pencils. I'm good to go. I haven't quite decided how to handle frosh week. I'm okay with drunk and disorderly, but what if there's hazing? I'll buckle -- I know I will. When the going gets tough I fold like origami. My best chance may be to convince people that I'm some crazy kid's dad, come to pick them up.

(Speaking of kids and craziness, I found my i-pod in a Kleenex box. Whew. But I am still a prank pin cushion. Imo's latest involved unplugging everything in the house. I came back late last night and nearly killed myself stumbling around in the dark. One of these days that girl will go too far. No, wait. She already has.)

Saturday, 2 July 2011


I'm carless and elder-daughterless for a bit. The one has left me with the other. For the next month or so Thea will be exploring highways and byways and (knowing my car) transmission service centers and brake specialists across this great land of hers. Of course I went through the usual sentimental Dad visions of my little girl behind the wheel (see picture) but on the whole I am neither worried nor terribly bereft. I figure it'll do me good to walk or bike around, and when I have to go out of town I'll have Messrs Go and ViaRail and Mesms Hertz and Budget lining up to help me. I'll be fine. Odd to look out my front window and not see the car, though. In a way, odder than not seeing the daughter.

Speaking of whom, my other daughter, the practical joker, has finally got my attention -- by hiding my iPod. I'm not plugged into the thing but I do use it regularly, and noticed its absence yesterday. After the picture moving incident, I figured that this was by design rather than chance. I called Imo this morning and was rewarded by (and rather moved to hear) her squeal of delight.

Come on, where is it? I asked.
Keep looking,
she said. You'll find it. It's not far away.

Got a cold?
she said. You sound all stuffy.
I'm fine. Where's my iPod?
Another squeal.
Does Ed know where you put it? Does anyone?
Thea knows. She thought it was a great hiding place.
I sighed. Thea had driven off about a half hour ago.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

notice much?

Imo stared at me from across the living room yesterday evening. Notice anything different? she asked. Anything?
I shrugged, shook my head. She raised her hands in a wordless gesture of frustration.
Sorry, I said. What is it now?

She was not talking about her hair. Imo and I do not have that relationship. She doesn't need me to comment on her appearance.
Our father-daughter dynamic is dysfunctional in a different way. Imo is a committed practical joker and I am a natural non-noticer. Or maybe non-carer is the word. You know those little things that make all the difference to life -- the favorite mug, the way the light falls on a certain ornament or corner of the room, even the daily newspaper. Somehow they don't register with me. Or rather they register, but do not matter. Their absence does not alarm or even puzzle me for a moment. So that when Imo hides a coffee mug I like (as she did once) or my alarm clock (as she has done several times) or the morning paper (yes, she did that too) I notice the absence and move casually to the adjustment phase. I take another mug, glance at a wall clock (or if that too is gone, my watch) and find a section I missed from another paper.
It drives Imo crazy. I remember finding the kitchen clock in a junk drawer and assuming that my son Sam -- a light sleeper -- had put it there because the ticking was driving him crazy. I told Imo about it over the phone and she went berserk.
It was me ! she cried.
I didn't know you were a light sleeper.
I'm not! I hid that clock ... a month ago! How can you only notice it now?
, I said.

The living room looked a little different yesterday evening, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Imo shook her head sadly and pointed at the white board on the wall.
What? I said. Oh, yeah. That should be in the kitchen, right?
While I was at the beer store earlier, Imo had changed all the downstairs pictures around. The movie poster was in the bathroom now, the little print was over the mantel, the kid drawing of a carrot was in the kitchen, etc. A dozen things shuffled at careful random. Then she'd sat and waited for me to notice. And I hadn't.
No wonder she was upset.
When I think of it, I'm kind of upset too. All that effort and I didn't care enough to pay attention. Imo is working on a kind of performance art and I am yawning through it. Would you yawn through your kid's standup comedy? No you wouldn't. This is not good parenting. I must do better.
By the way, that is the original Prince Albert in a can up there. Better let him out.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


I spent a lot of yesterday ransacking the dilapidated mansion of my memory, hunting through room after undusted room, turning over bits and pieces, bric and brac, flotsam and jetsam, mental lumber from early childhood all the way to late breaking news -- but I could not come up with the object of my search, the name on the tip of my tongue.

Elvis Costello.

Sure it's easy now. He's right there where I can see him. Elvis Costello. You're probably wondering how I could forget him for a minute, let alone all day. I dunno, but I did. I simply could not come up with the name. I could remember the glasses and the knock-kneed stance and the voice and a bunch of other things but not the name. The closest I came was Mickey Rooney and -- you know -- that's not very close. Come on, I said. You know the guy. Whatshisname.

I did other stuff yesterday too. I do have a life. It wasn't all whatshisname all the time. But I kept coming back to him. In the middle of answering email I'd think: whathisname again? Frowning over a manuscript. Reading. Washing dishes. Driving kids. Whatshisname?

No google. That'd be like looking at your neighbor's test paper when you know the answer yourself. Because I did know the answer. Whatshisname.

A much more interesting question is why? Not why the passing obsession but why Elvis Costello? He's a cool guy all right, but not a giant headliner and not important to me. Maybe that's the answer. If he mattered more I'd remember his name. But there are a whole lot of unimportant (to me) mid-grade newsmakers I can call up at the drop of a fork. Condalisa Rice for instance. There she is, anytime I want her. Tommy Douglas. Pia Zadora. Mark Messier. Hey, there's Mickey Rooney again. I got millions of them. Why not Elvis?

I dunno. Some names get lost. They just do. A while ago I spent the longest time trying to remember Keith Jarrett. I mean, the guy's on my i-pod but I couldn't think of his name. Grrr. When I finally did turn him up (he was behind the couch in my memory's living room) I wanted to make sure I didn't forget him again, and came up with a mnemonic based on a public school with his initials backwards (Jesse Ketchum in Toronto, on whose baseball diamond I cost my team a city championship -- a story for another day). Every now and then I'll think of Keith and nod in satisfaction. Still got it.

You're shaking your head, aren't you? I don't blame you. I really should let this stuff go. After all, I may lose Elvis, but I'll always have Condalisa.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

open secret

There's something about an elementary school in June -- an air of barely suppressed excitement that pervades halls and classes, playgrounds and staffrooms. Lot of giggles and yells, hardly any discipline. I visited a junior school the other day and tried to come up with a word for the way everyone looked. The word was HAPPY. Simple as that. Even the teacher bent over her desk with a stack of report cards was happy.

Not happy like they're getting married or having a baby. Not happy like winning the lottery or getting the promotion. They are happy because they are sharing a wonderful secret. And the secret is -- wait for it -- that school will soon be out for the summer. Two long hot beautiful months with no work. Wonderful all right!

Everyone in the school is aware of the secret, but no one seems to be talking about it. And when you think about it, some of the biggest secrets are quite well known. Death is scary. Games matter more to us than world hunger. We don't love our children equally. We cheat -- a lot. Everyone knows these things but we don't talk about them very often. They are (for lack of a better word) unhappy secrets. So isn't it great to share a secret that makes everyone smile.

School's out soon.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

poor colin firth

One popular author (and I would tell you who, only I can not for the life of me remember his name. I am pretty sure it was a him and not a her) claims that the secret of his success is always to have two books on the go at once. The idea being that when one of his stories starts to sag he can switch over to the other one. A change is as good as a rest, or something. Sounds like a great plan, doesn't it? I wonder if the guy has two houses to live in, so that when one gets dirty he can move. Two partners (one per house), so that if one gets tiresome he can switch...

I don't know. I have enough trouble hanging onto one plot line at a time. Imagine trying to keep two sets of characters and motivations straight. I'm sure I'd always be getting them mixed up, even if they were two totally different genres. I'd have Piglet (say) showing up in the middle of Gone With The Wind, worrying about Heffalumps. Scarlett would make sure she didn't go hungry that evening, but Pooh and Christopher Robin would be so disappointed. And what a mess the Union army would make of the 100 Acre Wood! Nope, I don't think I could write those two stories at once. (Not that I could write them separately either, but you know what I mean.) Can you imagine juggling Beowolf and Bridget Jones? Me neither. I'd end up with what's his name's arm coming off.

So why -- getting back to the real world -- do I myself have two new projects on the go right now? Why am I adopting the routine of an unremembered popular writer instead of following my own past practice and predilection? I don't know. Except that I am not writing both books, only thinking about them. I have two ideas floating around in the back of my mind, plot points jotted on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes. If both ideas turn into books, they will be dealt with -- but not together. I don't want to risk looking up from my computer to find Little Orphan Annie struggling up Mount Doom with the Nazgul after her. Leapin' Lizards indeed.

Monday, 23 May 2011


It's generalization time. I'm all caught up for now, and feeling philosophical. Not, you know, seriously philosophical. Don't go expecting Kierkegaardian metaphysics. I'm not that caught up. But I have emptied my in-basket, and washed the vegetables for dinner tonight, so I've got a moment for depth here.

The way I see it, you start off in life without any preconceptions except maybe that falling is bad and milk is good. You pick up more preconceptions as you go along, believing the authorities in your life: your folks and teachers, the TV set, the friends who don't fart in the car and then deny it (I hate that). As time goes by, preconceptions begin to bump up against each other, and you make choices. Your parents were wrong about this, your old boyfriend was wrong about that, your church was wrong about everything ... whatever, until you end up comfortable in yourself and your tribe and your particular set of preconceptions. Welcome to adulthood. Then you have kids and philosophy goes out the window. Ha ha, actually that's kind of true but, no, seriously, then you have to be careful not to be too comfortable. You don't want to get set in your mindset. You have to be ready to be surprised.

If you are not surprised by life, you aren't paying attention. Driving towards Houston last week I was shocked and impressed, and one of my preconceptions was altered for a moment. It happened like this. I approached the city along Highway 10, brimful of liberal northeastern-ness, pretty sure that there was not going to be much to admire here. I was proved wrong almost immediately. Not that I saw any evidence of sexual tolerance or social justice or universal health care. Even the driving was kind of narrow and veering to the right all the time. But I had thought the place would be as ugly as the politics -- and it wasn't. My view of the roadscape around me -- the net of aboveground arterial highways interweaving and converging towards the downtown -- was, well, breathtaking. That's part of it in the picture up there. Not bad, eh? I leaned forward, staring up and around through the tinted windshield of our rental car, muttering, Oh my, oh my, like the Mole at the start of The Wind In The Willows. It was elegant, majestic, inspiring. For a moment I saw the scene as someone from the dawn of the automobile age (Toad, say). What a hopeful paradigm for The Future.

It was only a moment. Oh my, I said again, and then some dork cut me off and forced me to swerve right, and the guy behind me honked, and I honked back, and then I wondered if maybe I shouldn't have done that because what if he had a gun? All Texans have guns, don't they? Some preconceptions are hard to shake.

And now it's time to cook the vegetables and I'm out of generalizations.

Friday, 20 May 2011

hair today

What does it mean when your kid tells you to get a haircut? Ed wasn't being mean or bossy -- just expressing an opinion. We were eating in front of a movie (the new place does not yet have cable, so our culture comes pre-packaged from last season) and Ed looked over and said, You know, Dad, you should get a haircut.

I was surprised. Not that my hair doesn't need cutting. It always does. But it would never - never - occur to me to tell my dad to get a haircut. All too vividly do I recall his flashing eyes as he ordered my ten-year-old psychedelic self to get a haircut. (In justice to my father, my hair grows awkwardly. When it reaches my collar it flows out, not down, so that I begin to resemble a bird with giant wingspan. At the time of the edict, my hair was wider than my shoulders. I could barely fit through a doorway. Not quite like the guy in the pic, but you get the idea. What I mean is that my dad had - maybe - a tenable aesthetic argument.)

Really, I said to Ed.
He nodded. Get it buzzed, he said, his mouth full of pizza, eyes back on the TV screen. (We were watching The Fantastic Mr Fox -- charming and quirky but not, somehow, riveting.)

I am not thinking of getting a buzz cut. That happened once, by mistake, and my ex laughed so hard I thought she would die. She made me wear a hat for a week just so she would be able to look at me without dissolving. I am thinking instead about fathers and sons and life stages. I am pleased that Ed feels close enough to me that he can offer personal grooming tips. It makes us more like pals, equals, which is really cute because he is also a little boy who still asks me to cut up his apple for him.

So ... should I call my dad? Because, you know, I've been thinking that he'd look really good in a beard.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

big easy

The kids and I have returned to New Orleans, having spent a few days here last week, and then a couple of days travelling through Texas -- a vacation with a teeny bit of work involved. I like New Orleans and am glad to be back. It's a walking tolerant friendly city. But, you know, I don't love it here. Maybe because we've spent most of our time downtown, in the areas near French Quarter and Garden District, which are charming but incredibly touristy. There's certainly a vibe, a lazy dirty boogie thing, but it's hard to warm to a place where nothing seems real except the hangovers. Even the seediness is quaint, and the panhandlers all have a romantic soulful decrepitude -- as if, like the rest of Bourbon Street, they are on all the time.

I have never been in a place that parties so relentlessly. At 5:30 this morning the bars in the Quarter were still pumping out last night's beats and cocktails (and if you are wondering what I was doing out at 5:30, well, shut up). That doesn't happen in Paris or Manhattan because, for all their tourism, they are working cities. New Orleans is a party city.

No complaints about the food. It's as good as they say. If you like heavy earthy tasty spicy stuff -- and I do -- this is the place. I am still getting over last night's shrimp and grits. Tonight I'll be back home, and the Kraft Dinner or whatever is going to look pretty darn sad. But it'll be real.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

what a drag it is

Such an interesting moment today at the YMCA. I'd finished my squash game, and was strolling towards the locker rooms past all these women, dozens and dozens of them, waiting outside the gym for the popular Zumba program to begin. (Zumba is the latest fitness craze, combining aerobics and martial arts and dance music in a workout that looks -- to me -- very much like every other fitness craze of the last decade.)

It being 9:00 ish on a Wednesday morning, the women were mostly of a certain age. Fit and feisty, chatty and jolly -- and well over forty. Gray hairs and neck wattles were bouncing up and down as their owners jogged in place, warming themselves up. (Does that sound grotesque? Heavens, I have my share of gray hairs. Anyway, as can see from the picture there, I do not mean to make fun of old folks.) There were greetings and catcalls as I walked past in my sweaty shirt. These were confident and friendly women, outgoing and collegial, strong in numbers and shared commitment to a better self. I smiled and joshed back.

And then I saw her. She stood alone by the door of the gym, a much older lady, thin as sticks and fragile as tissue. Her hair was white, her skin so pale the blue veins shone through. Her sneakers and metal water bottle were heartbreakingly stylish. She held her head slightly forward, looking down. She did not smile, but there was a sense of hopeful shyness about her. She was the new kid at school, hanging out by herself on the playground, knowing she doesn't belong and yet hoping against hope that one of the older cooler girls will notice her ... I thought about how we move up and then down the ladder of life, standing on many of the lower rungs for the second time on our way back to ground level. It's a sad business. Ask Samuel Beckett.

I said hello to the old lady. She smiled up at me, but I could tell that she was disappointed. Oh, hello, she said. Meaning, It's only you. And that took me back to my own playground years where I was -- so often -- not as cool as I had hoped to be.
Enjoy the Zumba, I said.
You should change your shirt, she told me.
And I went to the locker room.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

gauguin daydream

Saskatoon is a dream. Not because the weather is warm, the sun is out, the muffins in the hospitality suite are bursting with freshness, and I am hanging out with helpful strangers and old friends I only see in hotels - though all these are true. Saskatoon is a dream because the house was a mess when I left, a litter of unpacked boxes and unworking phone jacks and junk on the front lawn, and I just walked out. Packed a knapsack, turned on the i-pod, and caught the early morning train. I feel like a deadbeat painter, leaving my wife and children to sail away and live in Tahiti.

Guilt is a funny thing. I should be enjoying myself here in the warm friendly mid-west. But I can't help thinking of all the things I have left undone back home. I hope Ed's buddy with a truck can get the stuff off the lawn. I hope Ed can empty the boxes, deal with the phone company, find something to eat, and get to and from school. I hope the car doesn't break down on him.

I wonder if Gauguin had any moments like this? Did he think sadly and guiltily of his family back in Arles, or did he blot all that out, and focus actively on enjoying his years in the sun, painting and infecting the native girls? I wonder how real Tahiti was to him?

If only I had Gauguin's talent, think what I could do in Saskatoon! The prairie, the potash, the fields of rippling wheat. So much raw material for art. (That picture there reminds me of the hotel sauna!) I'd stay here forever, slip into syphilitic old age, never go back east ... except that my flight is booked for Thursday evening, and I feel guilty.

I hope Ed remembered to take out the garbage.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

day before moving

Tomorrow is moving day. I have put off packing long enough. It is time to begin. I could have started yesterday or the day before. I could have started last week. But the way I see it, the earlier you start packing, the longer your place is in an uproar. You don't pack better if you pack earlier. You just spend more time wondering where the cheque book is, or the corkscrew or the TV remote.

Am I looking forward to moving? I am not. But there are a couple of positive factors. One, Ed is excited. He saw the new house for the first time this morning, and ran around saying, Yup and, Bing and other youthly enthusiasms. I stood there and smiled. Two ... hmm. Now that I think about it, I can't quite come up with a second positive. All I see ahead of me is work. Specifically, packing, carrying, and unpacking boxes of reading material. Subdue your thirst for books that you may die not babbling but at peace, says Marcus Aurelius. (That's him there. Check the eyes!) Too late. Book boxes stack higher and weigh more than everything else I own put together, and that includes some pretty hefty debt.

The good news is that I've done this before, so I know what I am in for. Or is that the bad news? Anyway, I have no time to spare for chit-chat like this. Nice as it is to talk to you guys, I have back muscles to strain. Next room: kitchen.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


The courtroom was low ceilinged, carpeted, with bright lights and a lot of wood accents. Kind of like a basement in a nice suburban house. I was dressed in clean clothes that matched pretty well. I was shaved, gargled and combed. I was ready for my battle with the law.

We rose. We sat. The clerk read the charge. On or about the 16th of March the defendant -- me -- was found to not be wearing a seatbelt in contravention of Section something or other of Statute this and that.

The prosecutor shook his head sadly. (Seatbelt crime is tough. You hear some pretty grim stories.) The judge asked if I had anything to say. Did I? You bet I did. I stood up, shot my sleeves (no cuffs on my sweatshirt) and addressed the Bench.

My original thought had been to go with the stout denial defence, to maintain that I had been wearing a seatbelt all the time, that I always wore one, never took it off, not even to get gas, was in fact wearing one now ... but the case on the docket before me had attempted such a defence (I don't even own a cell phone!) and the judge had shut him down pretty hard. So I went with plan B.

I held out my hands, palm up. I raised my left eyebrow and cleared my throat. I was attempting the "C'mon, really?" defence. The idea is to make the crown feel bad for prosecuting such a silly crime when there are rapists and murderers and drug kingpins out there who are much better targets for legal stricture.

Yes, Mr Scrimger? said the judge. I maintained my pose. No words are uttered in the "C'mon, really" defence. It's all in the attitude. The prosecutor asked a couple of questions. The judge too. After a few painful minutes I was led off over to the window to pay my fine.

What were you thinking? the prosecutor asked me as I passed his table.
You mean about how stupid the charge was? I said.
No, I mean what were you doing, not wearing a seatbelt? This isn't BC, you know. There's rule of law here. This province prides itself on being tough on seatbelt crime.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

don to dusk

Some pleasures are for rich folks only. It's like the sign at the amusement park: YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO GO ON THIS RIDE. Poor folks don't fly first class. Nor do we drive Lambos, sit courtside, wear cashmere, eat truffles, or own anything haut.

But there are just dozens of genuine pleasures that rich and poor can share. And I don't mean the big obvious ones -- love and kids and ice cream, sleeping in late, and the smell of rain on hot pavement. I am talking socks. Is there -- I put this to you in all seriousness -- is there a better below-the-ankle feeling than putting on a new pair of socks?

Quick side-bar here. I wrote putting on just now because that's what I do to socks. I put them on. Most people do -- until they get inside a book. Bruce Jay Friedman, the American humorist, enforces what he calls the "2 dons" rule of literature. And it has nothing to do with the Mafia. When I come across a scene where someone dons a coat, says Mr Friedman, I sigh and keep going. But if it happens again, I close the book. 2 dons and you're out.

Back now. Really, what is not to like about new socks? Apart from the crisp, clean, freshness and overall good vibe, there is no pressure with socks. If you spend a lot of money on new shoes, you feel compelled to like them (unless of course you are rich; which is the point here). If the shoes start to pinch, or if on second thought they don't look as cute at home as they did in the store, you're stuck. You have to wear them or feel guilty. But if you change your mind about your socks, so what? For 8.00 you can get another dozen pairs.

The reason why new socks are on my mind is that they are also on my feet. I am wearing a pair of virgin grays right now, ankle length, cotton poly lycra blend (I am totally making this up) a gift from Imogen. Happy Birthday, Daddy, she said, holding out a plastic bag and smiling shyly. I got you some socks.

I thanked her and donned a pair immediately.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

there was this dyslexic Nazi ...

I feel so grown up. Here I am twitting away about food and traffic and noise outside my window, even deep stuff on music and feelings. And all in 140 characters, like I'm a poet or something. Who is this guy in the mirror? When did he put on his big boy pants?

And now I have an official announcement. Mostly I use this blog to chat casually. I amuse myself and a few others, I stay out of bars, and no one gets too worked up. But I have been asked by powers that be (her name is Joy) to act like a professional blogger for once. So I am going to talk about a cause. Not global warming. Not earthquake relief. Not poverty. I care about these things, but can not imagine what active good any words of mine are going to do, especially since I am talking to you guys. Hey, global warming is bad! I'd say, and you'd say, Yeah, so?

I am going to mention a reading camp for dyslexic kids (would you believe I typed kdis -- weird or what?) this August. It's my scale of good cause, because you might actually know a dyslexic kid who is interested in reading and writing and has a free day or two this summer. And if you mention the camp to the kid or the kid's parents, and the kid goes, the kid might have a good time. There's a link I am supposed to include ... hang on while I find it ... here we go ... ... Good folks are involved here (Joy, for instance). I'll be showing up at some point too. I'll try to watch my mouth. There's lots of dyslexic jokes.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

stout denial

Two topics today. First, to my sorrow, I am no longer brother to the lady at the laundromat. She has started calling me sir. What a come down! Yes, sir sounds more North-American "normal," more idiomatic, but brother was way more friendly, way cooler. I am saddened at her cultural assimilation.

I am also angry. Not about the brother thing. A week ago I was stopped for not wearing a seat belt. Waiting at a stop light a block from my place, and a cop motions me over and writes me a ticket. Come on, I said. He shook his head, said nothing. Really? I said. He handed me the yellow form, told me to have a nice day. And this was not just any ticket -- this one is for 240.00 and two points on my licence. I don't have that many points to spare. Two points to me is like ten pounds to a supermodel -- the licence is getting awfully tight around my hips.

I have decided to fight the ticket. It's such a big penalty for such a small infraction. I called the court house and arranged a date to talk things over with the prosecution. I wonder what my defence will be? I must think on it. PG Wodehouse, the British comic novelist, used to recommend stout denial as a defence. Maintain your innocence in the teeth of the evidence, he said. No proof, no punishment. I may try that.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

tweets and murmurs

I have been chatting on this blog for years, but I am not a real blogger. I am happy to share bits and pieces of my life with a charming and select community, but I am not part of the larger blogosphere. I don't use this forum to talk about my work or publicize my upcoming appearances. I only recently -- like, yesterday -- learned what a blog tour is.

I am not knocking those who use their blogs for publicity purposes. Far from it. These people are, without doubt, acting in a more savvy and professional manner than I am. I should be less diffident, more web-aware. I should say, I'll be on Letterman tomorrow, make sure to watch... Thank you, Amazon, for making my new book pick of the week ... The problem is that I am too shy. And, well, the statements aren't true. And saying that I'll be at such and such a library, or this and that elementary school, or that I'll be talking to teachers in Saskatoon or dyslexic kids in Vancouver -- while true -- would surely result in little more than a shrug or raised eyebrow among my blog readers. So, you would all think, what? And you would be right.

So why would I open a Twitter account? ( I know. I know. Close your mouths, okay? You are embarrassing me.) I can understand the popularity of Twitter as a way of connecting to strangers without having to follow them around. With a few clicks of the mouse you can find out what Charlie Sheen thinks about whatever it is he is thinking about. And he is a weird and funny phenomenon. I have to say, I find the whole thing kind of creepy -- like authorized (indeed encouraged) stalking. And when it's not creepy, it's dull. But that's our society. We invite the cameras into our homes. A few years ago I watched a scene -- there may well have been more than one -- of The Osbournes where Ozzy was sitting on the toilet, and I remember thinking: the only thing stranger than going to the bathroom in front of umpty million people is watching someone go to the bathroom. At least he's being paid. These days Charlie Sheen might (indeed he might) tweet about his bowel movement.

He would be at the top of the Twitter tree right now, I guess. With all the one-named stars nearby, and the B-listers and C-listers lower down, and the specialists -- well known in their field but not prime-time popular -- lower still. And at the very bottom of the tree, drooping into the humus of the forest floor, me.

I opened an account a few days ago and have posted some half dozen times. I have -- I confess it -- no idea what is going on. The caption in the picture up there sums it up. I feel like a teenaged driver taking the family car up and down the driveway. I'm having fun, but not going anywhere. 140 characters disappear in a flash. My tweets emerge sounding like haiku, or shopping lists. I should take lessons. And then, who knows -- I might even get around to using Twitter as a publicity tool. (Thanx Amazon!) My next book will go on a Twitter Tour.

Friday, 25 March 2011

dismember me ...

Sam opened a bank account of his very own the other day. It's taken a long time, but all that talk about financial responsibility is paying off. I congratulated him on entering the nineteenth century.

Thing is, to the average idiot like Sam -- or me -- the keep-your savings-in-a-sock school of banking almost makes sense these days. (If you are a savvy commodities trader, you will know better. Mind you, if you are a savvy commodities trader what are you doing reading this? Go back to your ticker.) I remember checking the interest payments in my first bank book. Kind of a Norman Rockwell glow to that picture, isn't there? Simpler days. My kids have grown up in an age where bank interest rates hardly stay ahead of their service fees. With all the compound interest in the world it'll take most of a lifetime to double Sam's investment. His best chance for financial success might be to become a savvy commodities trader, but for that to happen he'd need to start working on it eight years ago -- and he'd need parents with different genes to pass on.

The good news is that if he loses a limb, the bank will pay him. Apparently Sam's new account comes with a penny-a-day insurance package. And what kind of insurance is most appealing to a college kid? Of course: dismemberment insurance.

Dad, I just had to get it, he told me on the phone. I laughed. No really, he said, do you realize that if I lose a finger the company will pay me 5000.00 Just for a finger! Isn't that awesome?
Awesome, I said.
So if I lost, like, three fingers that'd be 15,000.
I told him that I understood the concept. What do they give you for a leg? I asked.
There was a pause.
Dad, get serious. I don't want to lose a leg, he said. And then, Dad? Why are you laughing again?
No reason, I said. No reason at all.

All during the rest of our conversation I was picturing this smooth-talking dismemberment insurance salesman, oiling his way into college dorms and frat houses with his slide show and his box of props ...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

tant pis pour moi

So I was having a marvelous conversation in French the other day -- and by marvelous I mean that I understood what was going on. The topic itself (local rental properties, their location, cost and availability) was pretty dull, but I was working hard and catching on and basking in the radiance of my own linguistic competence ... and then it emerged that my interlocutor was an anglophone.

Quoi? I said, my bouche hanging open.
But it is the truth, he said.
You are making a blague, I said.
But no, he said, his sourire illuminating his visage.
And you speak Francais so bien, I said.
He shrugged.
He had a French name. He came from Montreal. And he looked French, if you know what I mean -- kind of darkish, with a hidden lazy power. Like Jean Reno. When he shrugged he looked more French than ever.
So we could have been speaking Anglais all this temps? I said.
You betcha, big guy. He punched me on the shoulder.
Merde, I said.

My words flowed more smoothly in English, but the thrill was gone. The conversation was dull, not marvelous. After a minute I shook Guy's (I wasn't pronouncing it Ghee any more) hand and left the rental property office.

I should not have been surprised. This has been a personal Catch 22 for me going back to a high-school band trip to Quebec City, where local girls dissolved in laughter and my initial confidence turned to blushes and stammers. I can speak French -- but not to French people. Any francophone over the age of about six is going to go too quickly and idiomatically for me. And most non-francophones have English as a second language. So my French is adequate only when there is no need to speak it. I've been invited to join a club that never meets anywhere. Merde indeed.

so I guess december is a midnight snack ...

Sam's random texts are among my favorite moments in the day. His choice of topic ranges from Aqua Velva to 100 Years of Solitude to his latest, somewhat puzzling question: What month is brunch? I took a moment to ponder this one (which goes to show you how easily distracted I am -- happy to shelve a story outline problem to contemplate something utterly ridiculous) and the pondering took on a life of its own, and here we are.

So, if the year is seen as a waking day, and if brunch is between breakfast and lunch, but tending towards lunch, then I suppose that brunch would be somewhere in late spring. May, let's say. Does that work?

What other connotations does brunch have? There is a festive quality to it, I think. It's a weekend thing, so no work is associated with the day. And it's a bigger than usual meal, with foods you do not get regularly. Bacon, pancakes, maybe roast beef and pie if you go out to a restaurant. You look forward to it all the way there. You might even dress up for it -- a colorful sweater for no real reason. Sounds like May, doesn't it -- at least in southern Ontario. The first really warm day is one of the true treats of a 4-season climate. No day in the San Diego calendar makes as many people happy as the first really warm day up here.

And this is where the May-brunch analogy breaks down. Brunch, like all festivals, has a downside, a dark aftermath stemming from excess. The day after your birthday finds you hungover and grumpy and a full year older than you were the day before. You wouldn't want another birthday any more than you want a fourth plate of roast beef. But who wouldn't want more May?

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have an outline to finish before Sam texts again.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


There's a difference between free time and time out. One seems to be more valuable than the other. As an example, take the crossword puzzle. I am not an addict (I can quit any time, really. I do it because I enjoy it, not because I need to do it), but I find it a pleasant way to start most days as the coffee perks and the bathroom waits.
But part of the appeal of the crossword -- I am frightened to think how large a part -- has to do with the fact that I should be doing something else. Instead of playing silly little word games I should be doing something worthwhile -- writing or reading or working out or phoning my mom or paying bills or making Ed's lunch or trying to solve any one of the dozens (who am I kidding -- hundreds!) of problems with my life.
It is the lure of holiday. The fifteen minutes of mental gymnastics is a tropical island away from trouble -- a place of near tranquility where only I and the compiler exist. When the puzzle is done, the day begins in earnest. And pretty darn earnest it can be. Especially at the beginning of the month when the bills come due.

I wonder what would happen if I did not have these other duties pressing on me? If I were actually on holiday, with nothing in front of me all day except self-gratification? A walk on the beach, a movie, lunch, a nap ... (Gee, this is sounding pretty good. Add a glass of wine and a couple of giggles and I'd never come home) . In this idyllic scenario, would the crossword appeal as it does now? Probably not. Which makes me wonder how much of any pleasure comes from its being stolen from things more "important"? And yet what an odd idea that is, for what could be more important than pleasure?

Sorry, this discussion seems to have got a little earnest. Time to go pay some bills.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

brother up

Just back from my new laundromat and I am smiling. Not because of the clean clothes -- or not just because of them. I get a huge kick out of the lady who runs it.

When my old laundromat went out of business a couple of months ago, I was disappointed. The place was handy to my house and the liquor store, and over the last couple of years I'd enjoyed chatting with the people who worked there -- the wide-eyed superfriend, the tattooed demon, the tough old denture-smacker ... all of them. Laundry staff seem to be different from other types of service worker. More personable, somehow. Fewer boundaries. Maybe because they spend so much time with other people's intimates? Anyway, my disappointment at the ending of these relationships vanished the following week when I drove uptown to the new place, and was greeted at the door by the lady in charge. Good afternoon, brother, she said.

I've been called lots of things in my day. (Twerp a couple of weeks ago, but I am not talking insults here.) I don't get Mister or Sir very often, thank heavens, but older guys will call me Buddy or Pal. (Older ladies -- especially if they work in a diner -- call me what they call everyone regardless of age or sex : Dear.) Younger women will call me nothing or You, men will call me Man or Guy. My kids' contemporaries have been known to call me Ed's Dad (Seriously -- Hi, Ed's Dad, is Ed there?) But I don't think I have ever been called Brother. Bro once or twice, in a dim light, thinking I was younger (Yo, Bro, pass the -- oh, hi) but not the full fraternal.

I like it. The laundromat lady has a regal bearing but a warm friendly face. She speaks excellent English with a faint accent suggesting that it is not her first language. But whether she has uses brother as a slightly wonky piece of idiom, or whether she has adopted it consciously as her own greeting, it suits her well. Have a wonderful afternoon, brother, she said to me today. And I did.