Friday, 28 December 2012

not the humidity

Let's talk about hot sauce.  Every Christmas  there is one gift that dominates memory and conversation, provokes more comment and laughter than all the other gifts combined.  This year that gift was a kris kringle joke -- one kid to another -- the gift of hot sauce.

You don't think hot sauce can be exciting, do you.  Well, you are wrong.  Take a roomful of giggly Christmas teens and young twenties (sidebar:  what do we call these guys?  There should be a word for the years from, say, 18-24, especially if single and underemployed, more or less adult but essentially irresponsible.  Yadults? Adolts?  Groan ups?  Anyway...) and add a bottle of the world's spiciest product.  It's called Death Sauce and the bottle is covered in warnings.  Yeah, something like that one in the picture.  Sam put a drop on his finger, licked, and  immediately began to cough and hiccup. The spasms lasts fifteen minutes.

Yes it was mildly funny, and that might have been it -- a smile, a shrug, and a lesson learned.  But for some reason we (I was in on this too) couldn't quite believe that the stuff was as hot as Sam was making out.  Could a single drop could be that potent?  One drop?  And so, like gustatory lemmings, only stupider because we did it one by one, we sampled.  And one by one we succumbed to our own case of coughs and wheezes and hiccups as the stuff burned its way around our mouths and down our gullets.  Was it that hot?  Yes it was.  Yes it was.  Yes  it was. Yes it was. Yes. It. Was. Each time was funnier because more of us were in on the self joke.  

And then  ... you remember building up a static electric charge by rubbing your feet on the carpet and then touching the door?  And it hurt, but you did it again and again and again?  For the next hour or so we tried putting the hot sauce into things.  Was the sweet potato soup spicier with Death Sauce?  Ouch!  Yes it was.  Okay, how about a Bloody Ceasar -- was it too spicy?  Ouch!  Yes. My lips are burning!  What about salad dressing?  Gravy?  Shortbread cookies?  Ouch! Ouch!  (Ok not Gramma's shortbread.)

No prizes for guessing the sex of the hot sauce experimenters.  Imo suggested a card cutting lottery with the loser drinking a shot of Jose Cuervo and Death Sauce, but when Sam held the deck out for her to pick (we all had our cards -- mine, sadly, the two of diamonds), she laughed and shook her head.  That stuff is way too hot for me, she said.

Is she on her way out of adolthood and into adulthood?  Maybe not yet. When I was gagging and gasping from my Lava Tequila, Imo laughed so hard she fell out of her chair.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

stay what you are

If I were a Rob Ford supporter (now there is an unlikely sentence-opener ... reminds me of a conversation I had a while back where I caught myself saying, The good thing about Nickelback ... and started to cough because I was laughing so hard) I might be able to respond to his ouster by saying that he was being railroaded for being true to himself. Mountains out of molehills, I would say. We elected him because he seemed like a regular football-loving guy who didn't care about politics, didn't mind what he wore, hated the artsies and the gays, wanted to save money and look after the suburbs.  
All that is still true.  He may have bent a few rules but, hey, who doesn't?  (Do you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth on your income tax?  You do?   Good for you.  So do I, in case anyone from Revenue Canada is reading this.  Those trips to Vegas were all research! Fascinating place, Vegas.  My next book may be set there.)   Ford has not changed in the couple of years he has been mayor.  We liked him then - why not now?

Comparing the response to the Ford news to Obama's re-election is interesting. The same kinds of people are smiling because the "good guys" have won.  In the Obama case the smiles are from relief.  In the Ford case the smiles are tinged with this sense of wonder.   

Now, the thing about Nickelback is that ...

 ... well, come to think of it it's the same as the thing about Ford.  They are what they are.  When you walk into a strip joint (I am going to have to work on my sentence-openers) and hear Nickelback playing, you know where you are.  The world makes sense.  The time to worry, to check over your shoulder, to maybe run like hell, is when your strip joint is playing Justin Bieber ....

Monday, 12 November 2012


So I was at the Packaging Your Imagination conference in Toronto yesterday -- me and a couple of hundred other writers for children.  And you know what I remember most vividly about the day?  Lunch.  It's not that I didn't have a great time hanging out with old friends and making new ones;  it's not that I didn't learn stuff at the master classes, and get a kick out of prancing around on stage (yes, sadly, that is me in the photo) and making myself and others laugh.  But lunch marked a real change for me.  Not the meal itself, which was sandwichy salady straightforward.  It was the venue.

The conference took place at a college on the University of Toronto campus.  Lunch was in the dining hall, and there was a High Table and I -- this is where my eyes widened and my breath quickened slightly -- I was instructed in no uncertain terms to sit myself there.  

Are you sure?  I said.  
Yes, said the bossy lady with the bundle of sticks, standing in the doorway.
I've never eaten at High Table before, I said.  Are there rules?  Do I have to talk to the person on my left first?  Can I swear?  Do I have to finish my meal before I can get a dessert? 

She frowned, gestured, and I took my plate in my trembling hands, made my way up (yes up -- High Table is actually two steps above the level of the floor) to my place.  I sat between two people who were so at ease that they were clearly used to High Tables.  They were not a bit snobbish, and answered my questions very naturally. By the end of the meal I was able to make a small joke -- one of those zen master and a rabbi  and a necrophiliac jokes -- and the polite laughter all round the table told me I had hit the right note.  Then we dispersed to our afternoon sessions.  It took my blood pressure some time to come down.

All right, maybe I am making this a bigger deal than it was.  But I was not comfy up there.  I had a moment thinking, I am not a High Table guy.  There's nothing special about the way I eat lunch -- nothing to mark me out from the other lunchers.  If I ran the Packaging conference --- well, it would be a complete failure  because I would forget to book the venue or get the date wrong or something --  there wouldn't be a High Table.  Or, better yet, there'd be High Tables for everyone.  And no fascists telling us where to sit.

I ran into a very energetic forward-planning lady at the after party.  She is already thinking about next year.  She asked if  I had any suggestions.  Packaging Your Imagination is perfect, I said, except for one thing.  I turned to get my drink and when I turned back she was gone.  Oh well.  I wonder if she reads my blog?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

me and soap

Been a while, eh?  My apologies, but I have been busy travelling, talking, writing, going to school, and ignoring my kids.  This all takes energy.  I have also been practicing my tweeting -- something my publishers are keeen on.  Not that I am making them happy, since their goal is to PROMOTE MY PRODUCT AND BRAND (they actually talk like this) THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA and my goal is TO AMUSE MYSELF AND A FEW OTHERS AND NOT LOOK LIKE A DOUCHE BY SAYING LOOKIT ME LOOKIT ME LOOKIT ME NOW!  AREN'T I GREAT? (this is how I talk) THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA.  

So today's blog is about dish soap.  I have run out, and have to buy a new bottle.  And I glot to thinking about that, and realized that the last time I had to buy some dish soap I was in the middle of writing a book and wondering where I was going to live and listening to Ed drum for hours in the basement of the house in Cobourg and dashing around in my 2-door putt-putting car.  And now, 1 bottle of dish soap later, I am living in the big city with a bike and a book tour and a car with only 1 door.  (Long story involving a too-tight turn and a gentle crunching sound.  The net result is that when my kids join me in the car these days I roll down the passenger side window and they do a General Lee entrance -- see pic below.) 

My point is that time can be measured in numbers -- hours and months and decades -- and also in regular actions and purchases, and these vary as do chronometric units.  To say to someone, I'll see you in a couple of milk cartons would indicate a different time span than, I'll see you in a couple of dentist appointments or In a couple of major home renovations or, going the other way, In a couple of toilet flushes.   For me, dish soap is somewhere in between cereal boxes and bay leaves. 

Now do you understand why my publishers shake their heads at me?  I'm sure I could find something more career-related to talk about, but I don't want to.  I would rather measure out my life in dish soap than tell you about my upcoming book launch. 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

happiness for now

How long do we get to be happy? What I mean is, having wished for something and got it, how long are we allowed to simply appreciate the thing we now have before either beginning to resent it or to wish for something else? 

And the answer is:  two weeks.  At least that's the answer for me, in the case of the Toronto apartment where I am now living after more than a decade in a small town.  Two weeks and counting, that is.  I still get a kick out of walking downstairs and seeing Riverdale spread out before me like a deboned pork roast unrolled on a butcher block (probably the wrong image, since the area seems to have more than its share of vegans).  I still enjoy hopping on my bike to head downtown, or wandering over to a coffee shop with a view of the Don Valley and skyline  -- that's it in the picture there.  I still marvel at how few kilometres I have put on my car in two weeks (like, 25).   

My apartment, though not perhaps hot, is still a nice girl -- the mild romance has not gone out of our relationship. (In fact with the pictures up she looks kind of dashing.)  I have less space for things than I did in the house in Cobourg, but then I have fewer things.  And with space at a premium I can ask myself if I really need something and if the answer is no I can throw it out. 

I am not right in the heart of the happening downtown, but I am about 100 kilometres closer to it than I was two weeks ago.  There is not a fantastic bar right around the corner, but that may be just as well.  When I think about all the ways life is not working out  -- from global warming to impending war to embarrassing local political leaders -- I am doing okay.  Nothing much to complain of.

Oooh, except those bastards at the Cobourg cable company.   Would you believe they are trying to bill me for my old TV box and modem even though I already mailed them back????

 I know, eh?  Cogeco, you are getting a piece of my mind on Monday, I can tell you.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

good actions bad feelings

An ethical dilemma regarding football tickets occupied much of my yesterday. Should I have been upset? Should my daughter have been upset? How can a simple act of generosity result in so much heartache?
But first, an update. My new digs are charming, near-spacious, and 100 kms closer to downtown than my last ones. My books are up, my rugs are down, and I am almost caught up on my laundry. I have bought groceries, had my bike tuned, found an okay neighborhood bar and coffee shop, acted badly at a gas station, got a parking ticket (first of many, I am sure), and made an actual enemy. In short, I'm starting to feel at home.
More on moving week next time. Today my theme is generosity and stress. A friend offered free tickets to yesterday's Argo game (that's it there). I am not a fan but my daughter Thea said she would be delighted to go, so I drove uptown to meet my friend and pick up the tickets. All good. Yesterday was game day and I was on my way to Thea's to deliver the tix when I found myself stuck in film festival traffic. It got ugly. People were lined up to see who was going to get out of the long limousines. I fumed. Thea texted me: WHERE ARE U? I texted IN TRAFFIC! She texted: THE GAME WILL START SOON!! and I texted I KNOW I KNOW!!! (If you think I was being dangerous, texting and driving, all I can say is that you don't know film festival traffic. I had moved 0 feet in the previous ten minutes.) I'm sure she was not angry at me, but there was a sense of "Geez Daddy" in her texts. And I know I was not angry at her, but still there was an edge in my feelings -- a sense of having gone to some trouble for not much reward. And I got to thinking about how much happier we would both be if there were no football tickets and we were home doing our small daily things, and how a simple generous impulse can result in a lot of stress.
When you are stressed, it helps to have a villain to focus on. The mayor, the Prime Minister, the guy yelling at you for parking your moving van in the only available spot (which is how I made my enemy. Sooo cool). In this football ticket saga there was no villain -- except maybe George Clooney or whoever was in the limo, and he probably didn't want to be here either. It goes to show you.
Thea and her friends arrived in time for the game and had, apparently, a great afternoon. I don't know what I will do the next time anyone offers me a freebie.

Monday, 13 August 2012

signing day

A big week for the Scrimger clan. My daughter and I both sign leases, readying ourselves for an exciting year in downtown TO. I like her place maybe more than mine, but I can't afford to live there. (Thea has her first real job, and a pension plan and benefits. Landlords love these things. My royalty cheques cause them to look at me askance: can't a middle-aged man do better?)

Which apartment girl did I end up with? Of course it was the nice girl, with the undivorced parents and library card and bicycle clips and the no visible tattoos. My mom can't wait to meet her. Here's her picture.

Nice eh? She has a cute tile kitchen and an open-concept living area with blonde wood and exposed brick.

The easy part for me was the actual signing. I have a cheque book and a pen. Thea had a tougher time. She does her banking online and buys everything on credit or debit. She has never held a cheque with her name on it.

What'll I do Daddy? she asked, an overtone of panic vibrating at the top of her register. Thea has always been a good panicker. Fortunately, I am able to calm her down with practical fatherly advice.

Does your landlord own a fleet of tanker trucks? I asked.

What does that have to do with anything?

You could convince your landlord to enter the barter economy, I suggested. He will let you live on his property and in return you will manage his fleet of tanker trucks, keeping them clean and full and on schedule. Eh?

I thought this was pretty good -- specific, you know, and fair value for money. Thea is a sort of office manager. I don't really know what she does, but if I had a fleet of tanker trucks, I'd pay someone like her to manage them.

I'm going to have to open a chequing account! she said.

Yes, that might solve your problem too.

I'll be late for the signing and he'll be upset. Want to drive me to the bank? she asked. That would save time and we could have lunch afterwords.

Sorry, I have to earn another couple of dimes for my next royalty cheque, I said. My landlord doesn't trust me either.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

easy virtue

Ah, the slutty apartment. This one is cheap and available and a good size. The neighborhood is a little bit skeezy (maybe not as skeezy as the picture here), but I like that. It caters to my sense of myself as a devil of a fellow. And the hood is clearly changing -- there's a new library and a very trendy bar in the next block. I've already met a super friendly -- almost too friendly -- neighbor.

So why not take the place? A few reasons. There's the build-up of years of dirt on the stairs. And the windows that look out onto a blank wall two feet away. And the kitchen. Let me think how to describe the kitchen. How about this?

It's not much of an exaggeration. Would my mom be happy to meet this girl? I was afraid to touch any of the surfaces.

I viewed the place with a trio of art students -- two girls and a guy, early to mid 20s. Cute kids with big smiles and ripped jeans and, yes, lots of tattoos. While I tried to look away from the grime and the mousetraps, and wondered how much time I would have to spend cooking, these kids were over the moon about the place. There's so much space! they said. It's so funky! they said. I looked at them, and I looked at me, and I thought: This is their apartment. They should live here. Maybe they'll be late with the rent and leave their dishes in a pile and attract even more vermin, but they belong here and I don't. So I shook hands with my cheap and easy date, and left her.

Now the only apartment left on my list is the nice one -- polite, clean, open, attractive enough, in an unsurprising part of town. I think I'll give the landlord a nudge. Time to settle in with the right girl. My mom will be so happy!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Continuing in my no doubt dubious analogy between apartments I have known and girls I have dated, last night I heard from the hot chick. 

This one is a beauty, eh?  Cool funky neighborhood, tons of curb appeal, show-stopping main floor with  high ceilings, big windows (you know how some guys are about big windows), sexy mouldings and countertops. This apartment smiles at you when you walk in, and you melt.  But, like so many hot chicks, there is a potential for trouble.  This may be a high-maintenance apartment, with emotional baggage in her lower floor.  There's a whiff -- just a whiff -- of mildew.  A sense that maybe all is not right with the plumbing or weeping tiles (you know how some guys are about weeping). 

There were a bunch of offers on this place, and I crossed my fingers, at the same time wondering about long term issues.  This is a year lease.  And when I heard last night that I was NOT going to be going out with her, I sighed partly in sorrow and partly in relief.  And I booked an appointment to see the easy slutty girl again.... 

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

love and apartments

Apartment hunting, people. It's an ugly business right now. The city is full of homeless, and it looks like I will be joining them shortly. I line up to look at apartments, I fill in forms, smile hopefully ... but no one smiles back. No one says my name. No one wants me for a tenant. Reminds me a lot of my high school romantic career.

Actually, there's a pretty good parallel there. I am the eager suitor, wandering up to various unattached girls. I find myself revising my standards, trying different opening lines, chatting easily, winningly, desperately, wondering which one of them will say, Sure, I'd love to go to a show and how I will feel about that.

Right now there are three candidates in view, three very different apartments with my bid. If they were girls (is this anthropomorphism or objectification?), they would be: the smokin' hot one, the cheap and easy one, and the nice one. And there are good things to be said about each of them. (Guess which one the pic is supposed to represent.)

I'll let you know how the romance goes, but before I get to the individual characterisations, did you know that the average downtown apartment is renting far above the asking price? Open houses generate multiple bids, and the competition can get fierce. One realtor was telling me about a place in Little Italy listed for 1600/month that went for 2200. That's a pretty good hike.

Because you see the same people over and over again at various open houses, you find yourself bonding with them. You are fellow travellers on a tough pilgrimage. There's an incredibly cute younger (everyone is younger than I) couple from the States I've seen a half dozen times. We seem to like the same things about places, and I said a couple of times, If I don't get it I hope you do. So far, we are all still looking.

More soon. I'm on my way to take a look at a 2 bedroom with den in a nice neighborhood close to amenities laundry ensuite girl. Maybe she'll be the one!

Friday, 22 June 2012

stinking is fun

Is there anything better than watching your kid do something well? (Not arson or Amway sales, but something nice). Yes there is. I just got back from watching Ed co-host a music night at the golf club, and he was charming and funny and also played a tidy snazzy drum kit. BUT that experience, pleasant as it was, was NOT as much fun as watching him try to play the washboard.

Yup, all this has been lead in. Here's the point of today's bit. My buddy fronts a jug band (you know, I have never had occasion for that phrase until now) and, needing a percussionist for an upcoming concert, offered the gig to Ed, who went over to learn how to play the washboard and came back shaking his head in dismay.

You know what a washboard is, right? There's one there. Playing it seems pretty straightforward, simple even, but apparently not so. Ed insisted on demonstrating for me. I sat in the living room and he stood in front of me scraping and banging away, grinning wide.

"Man I am bad at this," he said. "The motion is wrong and all my stresses are wrong. I stink. But you know, I can not stop smiling. I love this thing."

He kept on for another few minutes, then went to the basement to practice some more. And I thought, how wonderful to have genuine fun doing something you are not good at. Because life is full of those things.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

i am bad at the agm

Back from Vancouver, where it was cold and wet and everyone told me so. BC was hilarious, partly because I like the beer and scenery (even in the cold), and partly because I was there for the AGM of the Writers' Union Of Canada, and sat on a panel and attended actual meetings with chairs and minutes and rules of order and motions and seconders and all that giggle-worthy stuff.

I didn't only giggle, though. I also yawned. Call it a yawggle. I am a bad AGM-er. The guys in the picture over there are way more attentive than I was. I fidgeted and scratched. I drew pictures of giraffes and cereal on the pad they had given me to take notes. I yawggled. I slept. I am not proud of my behaviour -- I merely note it. I can't help rolling my eyes at earnestness. I mean, there we were at 9:30 am arguing seriously for a half hour about whether we should establish a working group or a task force (yep, it was a real hot topic: task force or working group: apparently they are two different things) with a duty to (I think) look into the volunteer situation and see about ways to attract more of them.

Pretty funny. Also deadly boring -- which is why I say I think that was what I ended up voting on -- I honestly cannot be sure.

But I am not here to slam the union. I am a grateful member. Yes, we spent a morning diddling our hoo haws. And yet the union has done and continues to do great work for people like me. Not just intangible things like raising the profile of the writing community, or giving us a voice in the halls of government. TWUC has been a contributor to, well, to my bank account. Every year I get money from the libraries across Canada thanks to the union. Every year the union pays me to talk to school kids. How dare I laugh or yawn at the hand that feeds me? The officers may be earnest, but it is earnest people (and obsessed - the two states are not dissimilar) who get things done. Dorks like me just stand on the side lines and laugh.

You know who else gets things done? Volunteers. That's right. Someone -- or a group of someones -- should look into the volunteer situation and see if we can attract some more of them.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

glasshourse blues ...

New music time.  Ed has brought home a harmonica (or harp as we both make a point of calling it.  I have no idea who are impressing).  I like the idea of the harmonica.  It is soulful and portable.  The sound conjures up images of loneliness in a sad but not awful way.  Riding the rods, late nights in the hoosegow. Simpler times.

Hey, sidebar.  How come the old slang terms for jail -- hoosegow, calaboose, stoney lonesome, cooler -- seem so much nicer than the modern ones?  Was it a happier place, or were people in general kinder?

My own ability on the harmonica is limited.  I can sound like a train -- whuffa chugga whuffa chugga or something (you know, it is difficult to convey musical quality through text) -- and that's all.  Ed got farther than I ever did after only an hour on the internet, and he has spent the last few days getting better and better.  Now he can sound like Neil Young for most of one song.  Not bad, except that I have had to listen to that song more often than I really want to.  (It was on my iPod -- it isn't any more.  As I said, I like the idea of the harmonica.)   

That's another connection between harps and trains:  in the distance, at night, softened by nostalgia and a glass of wine, they produce warm feelings.  Ed leaning in the doorway with his hands up to his mouth and his eyes half shut and his heart of gold ... makes me smile.  Maybe it's the wine.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

wisdom from a teen ...

All right, it's official, my boy makes more money than I do. It's a stage in growing up for both of us. Walter Gretzky went through it too, and Kirk Douglas, and Scott Young. My grampa went through it back in the 50s when my uncle left the family corner store and started doing well in the schmatta trade. Last Saturday my son Ed (with his snare, tambourine, ukelele and friend Frederico) went busking. They stood in front of our local liquor store for four hours and made over 100.00 each. When I went to hear them they were midway through a reggae version of "Uptown Girl." (You have to give them what they want, Frederico told me later. People like upbeat melodies, easy rhythms.) His light pure tenor floated over the crowd like whipped cream on a cafe Viennoise, Ed contributed masterful brush stylings and chorus harmonies, and their guitar case was overflowing with silver and paper.

I was impressed as hell. And at the same time aware of a certain sadness. Time's winged chariot and all. Seems like only last year Ed was asking me for allowance, and here he is in the financial big time. I told him this and he laughed and said I was a real kidder.
I assured him that I meant it.
You don't get the economics of children's writing,
I said. You guys did way better than I did today.
This prompted a moment of seriousness. I could see Ed evaluating, pondering, coming to a conclusion.
You should change jobs, Dad, he said.
Or maybe I should give people what they want.

Hey, I remembered, and I think there's space. Here's my homework from a few weeks ago: the piece where I attempted to write like a Jarman story I didn't understand. Ready? Ahem ...

He had knuckles like Brazil nuts and chipped pink nails, and he held the knife with nervous familiarity, like an elementary school friend’s hand during a museum visit. (Buddy up, class.) Our end of the bar went silent except for Gladys singing, and he lunged across the counter, catching me in the throat before I could move. When I did jump back the knife came out and the blood after it, a thin urgent stream, pulsing like a sprinkler, splashing, spilling on the coasters and in the beer and on the polished wood. I turned to Denny and said Do you believe this guy? Except that no words came out and I tried again, I don’t even know his wife. Not bad for off the cuff but there was still no sound. Old Denny’s Eskimo pie eating face told me how bad it was, how bad I was, cause I didn’t feel a thing. I staggered away with my hand to my throat and the liquid trickling out from under my fingers, listening to Gladys on her midnight train to Georgia. Thinking, Me too. Thinking, After all those open mikes I’m really dying here. Thinking, how many changes can I ring on the one joke?

Talk about escalation, the tapster had tapped us and we’d tipped him and then I’d topped his joke about how large it was with a comment about his wife telling me something different heh heh and thirty seconds later I’m stumbling and splashing and people are getting out of the way and the room spins. Pain is a transforming force, a portal to the future, and I see myself in my black suit and t shirt in a dingy cavern grabbing the mike off the stand and saying, Hello Hades it’s great to be here; I just dropped in for the eternity and I’m thinking long-range investing. But the words won’t come out and I start to sweat and now I can see a face whirl away from me and boomerang. Is it the bartender or one of the Pips? His eyes are holes and his mouth is coral-lipped and wide open. Whoo whoo whoo.

Fourteen year old Robin was the first lipstick wearer in our class. She would look over her shoulder at me and lower her eyelashes before climbing onto the school bus. I fell so far in love I thought I would never climb out. I walked home incapable of speech. I dreamed about her shadowed eyes and calves and pointy chin, her hand raised in Geography, the flash of brassiere I sometimes saw between the buttons of her blouses. When she approached my bank of lockers the day before the Halloween dance, and slipped her hand into Denny’s (he had the locker next to mine) I thought I might as well die. They walked away, no backwards look, and I could feel joy gurgling from me like bathwater, leaving a ring of dirt and cold. My locker was open and I turned to the picture of Sly Stone I’d taped to the inside of the door and said Do you believe that girl?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Cool Cute

Ed has bought a ukelele. He thinks it is the cutest instrument in the world. And it kind of is. Plinka plinka plinka, like a little girl in tap shoes and a big smile. Funny the way the uke has come back. It's cool again, like the banjo and accordion. Remember Weezer with the Muppets? Remember Ryan Gosling serenading what's her name in Blue Valentine?

Let's consider cool-cute for a moment. Where does
it come from?

What does it mean? And where does the ukelele come in? I think

cool-cute is about caring and laughing at yourself at the same time.

Tiny Tim played a mean ukelele but it
is hard to think of him as cool. Cute maybe (and maybe not), but there

really isn't enough care in him to be anything more. Now Jimi Hendrix was cool -- maybe the coolest rock star

ever. But he was not much for laughing at himself. Can you imagine him playing a ukelele? Didn't think so.

Ditto Jagger, Plant, Dylan, Young. For all the talent and drive and care and sense of personal integrity, not a lot

of self mockery in these guys. Young's song about his old car actually ends up sounding moving and kinda

deep, where Bohemian Rhapsody, say, makes fun of murder. Can you see Freddie Mercury with a ukelele?

Course you can. (Here's the pic of Ryan Gosling with ... is it Michelle Williams? Cool-cute or what?)

This is not a value judgement. Artists have to take their work seriously. But I am impressed at the way some artists can do this and laugh at themselves at the same time. It makes them seem more like people you would have a good time with at dinner. The ukelele as a litmus test .... think about it. Oh, the dreamy guy in the picture at the top is Rudy Vallee, a ukelele crooner of the 30s, who was at his self-mocking best in The Palm Beach Story, one of my favorite movies EVER.

Darn it darn it, I still haven't got to my take on the Jarman story. Next time. If you want to read the original, it is called, "Burn Man On A Texas Porch" and it is weird and cool but not cute at all -- no ukeleles in it.

Monday, 19 March 2012


Before getting to this week's homework assignment, I must say a word about things. Which sounds vague -- let me explain. I was glancing at an article about one of the dragons -- you know, the rich investor guys on TV. ( I think that's him in the picture.) And he was talking about the things in his life that he really really likes. There is something charming about enthusiasm, so I was smiling as I read about his genuine (I think) love for his sports car and designer suits and I don't know what else. But I realized that my feeling about material things is diametrically opposite from his. I am pleased at all the material things I do not have in my life.

Speaking of suits, for instance, my dad recently gave me a bunch of his old ones, since he doesn't wear them any more and we're about the same size. I kept one, in case a wedding or bar mitzvah leaps out at me, but I gave the rest away. I got antsy thinking about them hanging up in my closet. Even a drawer of pants makes me feel uneasy. Who needs more than a couple pairs of jeans? There is too much weight there, dragging me away from my ideal which would be to live out of a suitcase.

This all sounds pretty stupid coming from a guy with four kids -- nothing ties you down like family responsibilities. A Mercedes is cheaper and less trouble to run than a college student. True. But it's not trouble or expense that bothers me. It's physical weight, and things are heavy.

I'd make a lousy dragon.

Oh, shoot. I forgot I was going to give you another example of my homework. We were looking at a story by Mark Anthony Jarman last week. I don't understand it at all, but I tried to write like him. I'll post next time.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

homework -- wow!

News! I was going to say good news but maybe not. I am going to be a little more regular in my blogging. Not that the world needs to hear more from me but I am finding myself with a little more material on hand these days. Maybe that is good news and maybe it's just news.

We have to do writing exercises for school, and some of mine are turning out ok. So I thought -- why leave it mouldering in the hard drive when I can show the world (well, you guys) what you are missing not being in class with me?

Yes this is my homework. And if reading someone else's homework doesn't sound like fun, think of it as peeping through the window into the forbidden world of the MFA. Oh it's a freaky private place, the mid-level graduate Arts degree -- like being backstage at the Roman Coliseum , or in a Turkish harem, or at a Jedi training camp. For a couple of hours every week we sit and chat, all of us knowing WE are the chosen and yet struggling for precedence even amongst our talented selves, stressing the buttons of our souls to find literary insight, fawning at the teacher's smile and whimpering at his frown. Luke never had it so tough.

Our exercise last week was based on a very weird story where the narrator actually spends more time talking about another character. We had to write a scene working that way.

"Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson?" said Laredo, who sits across from me.

"Perceptive comment!" purred the teacher. And Laredo looked cooly down at his paper, and we all nodded like we thought it was perceptive too, even though inside we all wanted to kill Laredo.

OK, so here is my attempt. Hope you like it. But hey, if this idea is not working for you -- if you don't want to read my homework -- that is totally cool. You can stop here. I'll be back next week to introduce another scene in a different style, and you don't have to read that either.

When we got to the ID ward they made us take off all our clothes – every last seam and stitch. We put on hospital gowns that dont do up the right way, only we were so small that the gowns trailed on the floor around us like we were wearing our moms’ dresses. Moishe started to laugh. Not just at the gowns but at the way they all looked at us through the glass – the row of faces pursed up and worried. They must have been worried before but we hadn’t seen that because they’d been wearing masks.

We had to put our old clothes into a plastic bag and seal the bag and then put the bag into a special metal container and then seal the container. A tough gramma type told us how to do it step by step. Her voice boomed and crackled through the loudspeakers, filling the small bare room. She was real patient. That’s good Barry, she told me. Now find Moishe’s sock. It’s over there by the chair. See it? See it? Good boy.

Because I had the fingers and attention span of a five year old the operation seemed to take about a week. I had to dispose of Moishe’s clothes as well as my own; Moishe skidded and spun around the room. He was singing the song we learnt that morning in kindergarten – Row row row your boat. When I told him to come over and help he said Nah and kept singing.

The big blue doctor asked questions. Which of us saw the bodies first? Which of us touched one of them first? Where were the bodies? Where on the playground? Where? Where exactly? I started to cry. I couldn’t understand what he was getting at. Tears ran into the corners of my open mouth. The doctor told me to stop crying and be a man. The gramma nurse said Come on now Barry please help us.

Moishe came over to ask me what the hell was wrong with me – he said the word hell which stopped my crying like a sudden mouthful of ice cream sandwich. I told him I couldn’t answer the doctor’s questions. I couldn’t remember anything about the bodies. He shrugged. So what? he said.

He asked where our parents were. The old nurse turned her head away. The blue doctor coughed and said all four parents were on their way to the hospital. Moishe called him a liar. The doctor didn’t reply. Moishe spun around so he was facing away from the wall of windows. Then he bent over and lifted the back of his gown up, exposing his bare bottom. The blue doctor said to put down his gown and turn around. Moishe told him to go to hell, and started to sing in a loud voice. Row row row your hell he sang. Gently down the hell. Merrily merrily merrily merrily hell is but a hell.

It became our anthem at the orphanage. Whenever life got beyond us – curfew or the cops or the big Mexican coming after us for stealing his weed – Moishe and I would start singing the hell song. With a lung missing he didn’t have a very powerful voice, but his eyes shone with anger and a curious kind of purity that didn’t fade, and I was glad to be his friend even when things went badly for us.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

unworthy cause

Last week I attended what my daughter Thea would call the silliest fund raiser ever. If I had had any doubt that we are living in a pretty privileged society, that event in a small Ontario town (which I shall not name because I don't want them to feel bad, but it rhymes with Sweden Hills) laid those doubts to rest.

I do not have a ton of experience with fund raisers. I don't seek them out. (Does anyone?) I am quick-tongued and teflon-conscienced, so the average police benefit or alumni building society finds me unmoved or away from my phone. And the people looking for major sponsors for hospital wings know better than to approach a children's author ordinaire.

This one I fell into. It was a concert, and the music was stuff I liked from a guy I know. I was not aware of a larger cause until I saw the programme. Then I realized that my friend was donating his time and we were donating our money to help ... are you ready? ... PARKING LOT RESTORATION. That's right: our ticket dollars were going to help Sweden Hills resurface and beautify the lot where our car was sitting at that moment.

I nearly plotzed. Sweden Hills has a very small tax base, and the lot was a little bumpy, but I could not restrain a hoot of laughter. Or maybe two. And when the emcee arrived onstage in his corduroy jacket and beard and single malt voice, and thanked us for our generosity and our concern for a cause that was dear to the hearts of the community, I had to hoot some more. I was speculating to my neighbour (a fellow hooter) on the amount of restoration required to turn the current parking lot into a thing of serious beauty. There were several hundred of us paying 20.00 each. Where would the money go? Would the town want some architectural work? Perhaps a pergola? (Not that I knew what a pergola was until I googled it just now. That's one in the picture. Nice, eh?) Electronic monitoring? Deer? We got so loud and giggly that a lady in the row ahead of us turned round with a stern expression.
"Do you mind?" she said. "I'd like to hear what he has to say."

I bit off my reply. I wish I could have told her what I thought. But I'm a polite guy, and yelling or laughing at her would have offended her to no useful purpose, and I'd have felt bad for acting like a smart ass. So I shut up and tried (unsuccessfully) to compose my face. The lady turned back with a sniff of disdain. The emcee rolled richly along. And then the concert happened, and the music was great.

Still ... a freaking parking lot?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

spanking and the state

Yikes, feeling guilty at not blogging more. But life will take over your virtual reality if you let it. Your kids, parents, friends, job and love life will just eat away at your time -- to say nothing of your parents' friends whose kids have love and job problems ... Anyway, my month-after-new-years resolution is to be more responsible towards my online self.

One last Addis thought to share. My hotel was in the middle of extensive gardens, with a swimming area and tree-lined walks. Security was an issue. The gardens were walled, and uniformed guards were stationed at the three or four entrances. The hotel itself had an airport customs-style metal detector set up just inside the front doors. It was all somewhat disconcerting at first, but after a few days I got a truer sense of things.

The guards had uniforms but no weapons or phones. They spent all their time sitting down. Never saw one on his feet. Generally they'd be in a cafeteria style chair, tipped back to lean against a wall, sun shining down on them. (Except that the dozing guy seems to be Asian rather than African, this pic is spot on.) I'd walk by and they'd nod. I thought I might be getting an easy ride because I was a visible minority so I watched, but no. The next guy through would also get a nod, and so would the family after him ... Same story with the metal detector. I'd walk through it and it would go off, and I'd stop, and one of the hotel guys would smile and wave me into the lobby anyway. The couple behind me would go through the detector, and it would go off for each of them, and they too would be smiled at and waved in. The detector went off every single time anyone came into the hotel and no one ever did anything about it.

I'm puzzled. There is the potential for oppression. You are aware of a security presence. You get the feeling that an oppressive act could happen at any time. But it doesn't. And it doesn't. And it keeps on not happening. So is this actually oppression? I don't know. And I don't know what it does to a society. A dad who threatens to spank you all the time but never gets up from the couch is certainly better than a dad who is always spanking. But it's odd parenting.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

who to hate?

I hate not knowing who to be mad at. All this anger, you want to direct it at someone or something. Do you know about doctors and phone messages? I just found out, and now I don't know how to feel ...

If one of my kids has an earache and I want to make an appointment at the doctor's office, I must call between 8:30 and 9:00 am. That's my window. If I call before 8:30 I get a recorded message telling me the office is closed, and if I have an emergency please go to the hospital. By 9:00 the slots are all full. So I have this one half hour of grace, thirty minutes to make contact with the office. And -- this is what drove me crazy -- I can not leave a message. The doc does not have a service or a machine. I call, along with every other sick person in town, and get the busy signal, and redial.

Ooh, I used to grit my teeth. I'd have a moaning child in my lap and a receiver in my ear telling me beep-beep-beep that the line was busy, over and over and over and over again. It was the senselessness of it that bothered me the most. My doctor was smart enough to get through medical school, why wasn't he smart enough to install an answering service? Hey, I had an answering service, and no one was calling me with any kind of emergency whatsoever. (Please, Mr Scrimger, can you come to talk to our book club? It's a matter of life and death!!!!) When I asked him about it he shrugged and said they just didn't do things that way. No one does, he said. Jerks, I thought.

And then Sophie enlightened me. I met her at a party and when I found out she was a family doctor my first question was about answering machines. She doesn't have one either. She explained very simply -- as if I (like Jeremy Irons in the stock market movie) was a golden retriever.

If Mr Smith leaves a message on the doctor's machine saying he is having a heart attack,
she said, and the doctor doesn't call back for an hour or two, and Mr Smith dies, his heirs can sue the doctor for negligence.

I know, eh?

But ... but that's stupid,
I said.

You don't realize how vulnerable family doctors are,
she said.

But redialing and redialing seems so inefficient and stupid,
I said. It makes me mad. Who can I be mad at?

She shrugged. You can still be mad at the doctor. Knock yourself out. We're used to it. Just don't sue us.

I want my anger to be justified, I said. It's not the doctor's fault. I don't want to blame him. But there's no satisfaction in being angry at a litigious society. Give me a face!

Dr Sophie left to freshen her drink and I haven't seen her since. I called my doctor yesterday sharp at 8:30. When I got the busy signal, I hung up the phone and stared into space.