Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mousey behaviour

1994. I was sharing a house on Eglinton West with an lovely environmentalist friend from high school and an intense Japanese exchange student. Neither of them have anything to do with this story.

My friend Llewellyn (nicknamed Welly) was fighting with a synthesizer on my desk and with his girlfriend on a wonky cell phone. He was trying to convince the synth to provide a series of cello, violin and viola sounds so I could write string quartets while he was in Japan to teach English (he made it to Japan; my composing talents were never uncovered). The synth didn’t want to create the sounds and didn’t want to record the sounds it was creating. He was sick of messing around with it.

I don’t know what he was fighting with his girlfriend about; he was claiming to be innocent about something and she was apparently being unreasonable about something and it was convoluted enough that she asked me to get on the phone to hear her side of the story and he was sure enough that I would agree with him that he volunteered me to do it. I declined and he was now sick of me in addition to the phone and the synth.

My girlfriend Louise was on her way over, and I wasn’t sick of her. I was beginning to feel that she was more attracted to my word processor than to me (she didn’t own one) but she’d promised to spend the afternoon and evening without the need of it. I didn’t quite believe her but wanted her around anyhow. And of course, there was the mouse. One of several, I suppose. Our cat Allegri had been having a mouse buffet for around a week, but had either eaten enough or decided that mousehunting was a younger cat’s game and gave it up in favour of sleeping at the end of my bed. The mice hadn’t worked their way upstairs but were frequently seen under the couch and in the boot tray at the front door.

The events pass by rather quickly:

1. Louise arrives. She is welcomed with kisses and cuddles until she takes some handwritten pages out of her coat and asks if we’re using my computer. At the same time,

2. Welly comes downstairs yelling into his cellphone saying “I’m going to go outside because I’m losing the signal and I don’t mind yelling into this thing…because…because you’re not listening and if I yell there’s a chance you might…” as he

3. Heads to the boot tray while I take Louise upstairs to show her the synth, the mixing board, the diskettes, the instruction manuals, and the coffee cups on my desk. It has made the computer impassable. She asks carefully if maybe we could move everything to the dining-room table instead so she could do a little work when we’re working and I ask if if maybe she’d like to save time and borrow the damn computer and maybe send me a postcard from time to time if isn’t so busy occasionally when

4. Welly makes a new foul sound downstairs. It doesn’t sound like one of the foul sounds he’s been making into the phone recently. I hear the front door open and close and

5. Louise looks hurt that I’m accusing her of visiting me simply to use my computer and she’s within her rights to be hurt. She puts her documents away and asks my permission to sit on the couch downstairs and do nothing while Welly and I fight over the synth. And would I mind terribly much if she read a book or should she simply sit and wait for m’sieur to be ready to receive her? After a few minutes of this very cheap theatre


6. I’m apologizing for being oversensitive and for the fact the synth is taking so long to set up. I look out the window and see Welly standing on one foot in the snow on the sidewalk on Eglinton Avenue. I’m wrapped up in synth issues and don’t pay much attention to the fact he’s only wearing one boot. So

7. We go downstairs and Louise starts taking off her coat and goes to the kitchen to pour a glass of water while Welly half-walks, half-hops into the house wearing one boot and one wet dirty sock. “Mike, can I tell you something?” he says with something close to a sheepish smile on his face as he leads me upstairs on one squishy foot. He closes the door and says “I don’t want to gross Louise out, but I think I stepped on the mouse.” I ask

8. Exactly how one can step on a mouse? They’re experts at not being stepped on or made into canapĂ©s by hungry cats. He says “I stuck my foot into my boot and I heard a weird squeaky noise. Then I felt something on my toe. So I took my foot out and I saw blood. Look.” He shows me

9. His sock which is wet and muddy and with a few drops of blood near the big toe. Now. There’s a new issue. How does one remove a presumably squashed mouse from a size 10 workboot? We head downstairs. Louise is sitting on the couch with a very odd look on her face, something I mean to inquire about after making sure the mouse is either okay or fully dispatched. I pick up Welly’s dry boot, knock the heel on the ground, wait for the mouse to fall out. No mouse is forthcoming. Welly comes downstairs and

10. Takes a good look at the boot. The mouse is among those not present. It got away. Where is it? Has Allegri found it? Is he playing with it? We lift the other shoes and boots off the tray, looking around the hallway. Louise finally says, very loudly (motivated by forces I couldn't understand) “Are you looking for the mouse?”

“Yes,” I say, “he thinks he squashed it. Where did it go?”

11. Louise, very quickly and loudly says, “I found him and I put him in the potatoes so he could die in peace!”

12. It gets very quiet. Welly and I both look at Louise. She’s sort of laughing. The whole thing is sort of funny. Right up to the dead mouse in the potatoes part. I ask her exactly why she thought putting a damaged mouse in the potato basket at the back of the house would be a good idea.


13. She says “I was sitting here and I saw this little mouse…walking sideways…and there was blood on its head and its little nose…I didn’t want to put it outside and I knew Allegri would find it so…I looked around the back room and just put him in the side of the potato basket…its quiet and warm and he can curl up and it's an okay place for a mouse to die.”


14. Welly and I continue to look at Louise, silently. This clearly strikes her as perhaps a little unconventional but a legitimate way to deal with a very injured mousey. There’s

15. Not a lot to say after a speech like that. Welly goes upstairs and I go to check out the mouse. It’s slightly breathing and barely twitching. I’d been finding mice in traps for a few weeks without being squeamish but this was different. I decide to put it out of its misery. The only way I can think to do this is to put it in a paper bag and drop a heavy object on it. The paper bag part is easy. The heavy object proves to be

16. A challenge. The first thing I find is a heavy book, which turns out to be a history of death squads in Chile. It doesn’t seem right to use it. I look around some more and find a rhyming dictionary which I bought during a Bob Dylan phase and don’t use very often. I take it all outside and drop the book on the bag. The bag is flattened sufficiently to ensure that the mouse is no longer in pain.

17. These activities sort of killed the afternoon.

18. Welly finally shrugged and told me I’d figure out the synth while he was away. He left the house and for a few minutes I envied him.

19. Louise asked me to stop looking at her like she was an alien for putting a dying mouse in with the potatoes. I tried. It took a great effort.

20. Louise didn’t use my computer after all. We ended up watching a French movie on the tiny TV in the small room I called home.

Allegri slept through it all.

Naked behaviour

1989. I was dating Oskana when I was a film student at York and she was attending Trent as a lit student. Her roommate Lily was taking sports medicine and worked in a kitchen on the side. Lily was petite, dark eyed and looked like a Celtic twin to the very Russian Oskana. I’d met Lily once or twice before and thought she was a nice enough person, if perhaps a little reserved. She had a large boyfriend who was taking law enforcement classes and was refused from the Army due to an almost imperceptible heart condition.

It had taken two busses to get me to Peterborough (one of them rear-ended a tractor trailer on the 401) on an unseasonably cold and slippery night. I was irritated by the overlong trip and didn’t want much more than a cup of coffee and a slow kiss from Oskana when I knocked on her door. I heard the bolt slide back and “C’mon in” from Lily (in a charming light Scots accent) before entering.

Everything got low-level weird from that point on.

I opened the door to see Lily walking away, naked. Not “Hiya, big boy” naked by any stretch of the imagination, just naked. Sort of the-rads-came-on-early-and-they’re-overcranked naked.

She turned the corner into the kitchen and I put the story together- I’d gotten her out of the shower. Or bed. Or she didn’t think I’d open the door so fast. Or didn’t care if I saw her, which was a facet of her personality that I didn’t much want to examine further. In any case, I was pretty sure that the incident was over. I dropped my wet bags, jacket and shoes and headed into the living room to what I was hoping was a nice warm couch.

Lily had cut through the kitchen and claimed the couch. “Oskana’s at the drugstore, she’ll be back in ten,” she said. She was still naked, sitting down and leaning over the steamer-trunk coffee table to cut an apple and a piece of cheddar. She was listening to a cordless phone without interest and watching Saturday Night Live (a re-run, Steven Segal was the host). She absent-mindedly handed me a cup of cranberry tea and skootched over a few inches to allow me to sit beside her.

I was of two minds about this unexpected nudity. The first was (not surprisingly for a 3rd year University student) reminiscent of any one of the dozens of letters to Penthouse magazine I was familiar with from the very early 1980’s. These thoughts were stricken from the record when I remembered that Lily had shown no signs of attraction to me other than saying ‘thanks’ for a package of cinnamon Dentyne I’d donated to her purse one time. A scenario along the lines of ‘Goodness. Your girlfriend’s not here. So whatever shall we do to pass the time?’ wasn’t likely.

My second school of thought was that Lily was drunk or depressed enough to perhaps not realize that she was naked around me. That prospect was downright sobering and made me regret the initial Penthouse letter scenarios. I didn’t know if Lily had a drinking problem; Oskana hadn’t mentioned any depressive issues. Or any exhibitionist tendencies for that matter.

A quick look around the room didn’t reveal any empty bottles. The only thing I hadn’t seen before was the open course syllabus on the coffee table with a few listings underlined in pink highlighter. She was probably using the touch-tone system to enrol for evening classes or was on hold trying to do the same thing through an operator. In any case, her nudity clearly wasn’t a topic for discussion. She looked too bored to be doing it for shock value and she definitely wasn’t flirting.

There wasn’t anywhere else in the room to sit other than some large cushions on the floor, so I stayed on the couch, drank tea, and watched Steven Segal. I could probably have camped out in Oskana’s bedroom, but I thought that (somehow) it would be easier to explain the naked woman on the couch to my girlfriend if I were fully dressed and on the same couch when she finally arrived. The idea of Lily's boyfriend arriving suddenly also didn’t amuse me. It wasn't going to degrade into a door-slamming bedroom farce but I didn’t feel like explaining the situation. It’s also possible that he might just have come into the apartment, looked at us on the couch and shrugged because this was a thing that Lily just, you know, did, but it struck me as weird all the same.

Oskana didn’t arrive in ten minutes. She took a very long twenty minutes.

She finally walked in the door with a beaming smile for me, which turned into a very surprised half-grin at Lily’s state. By this point, Lily was punching numbers on the phone with the end of a pencil and sort of waved in Oskana’s direction by way of greeting.

Oskana gave me a look that said What the hell? and I returned it with a look of Could we please leave the room? when she took me by the hand and led me into her bedroom.

She put – threw, really – her bag on the bed. “Want to tell me why?” she asked.

“I came in, she was nude. I averted my eyes. There’s nowhere else to sit. She’s been on the phone. She gave me tea. That’s it. Does she do this often.?”

“I…no,” she said. Followed by “Yes. Sort of. Once or twice after showers. Just around me. Not anybody else!”

“Is she okay?” I asked, and went on to outline the drunk/depressed theory. But she didn’t drink, or at least there wasn’t any booze in the house. She would sometimes flit about in her panties in the early morning or late evening when, as far as I knew, women were most often between outfits. Or something.

More discussion – assurances that she didn’t suspect anything and that I didn’t think I was Lily’s type in the first place – confirmations that this is a bit weird but probably not a sign of anything too scary – and did I want more tea? I did. So did Oskana.

The situation resolved itself – Lily had decided to warm up some pizza, had burned it, and had opened a window in the kitchen to let out the smoke. Somewhere between the initial baking and the smoking she’d put on a floppy Trent sweatshirt and gym shorts, maybe to combat the cool breeze from the window. She offered burnt pizza and other snacks (“I always have apples and cheese in front of TV,” she said in that still-charming mild Scots burr) and Oskana returned with tea. We decided Lily was slightly flakey and left it at that. The rest of the weekend was pleasantly uninteresting and not awkward at all.

Tactless behaviour


It was November, 2002. I was working on contract in a Government of Ontario Ministry. Nissa worked two desks away. “I’ve been here too long,” she asked on my first day on the job, “what’s it like in the private sector?”

“Pretty much the same,” I said. “Everybody complains that there isn’t enough money and feels overworked. We just got free coffee. And slightly different cubicles.”



Nissa was friendly, if a bit paranoid. She was convinced that government officials were reading her email (I recommend that she not send anything that she didn’t want anyone to read). I installed Winamp on her computer, which she was convinced wouldn’t work and would result in me being fired. A few days later, I un-installed it when I found out that, indeed, it was a firing offence to install 3rd party software. I then re-read the rules and re-installed it in such a way that I was not violating any directives whatsoever (it involved a CD and a folder outside of the shared drives) so she decided she liked me.

Everyone likes to be liked. But being liked by Nissa was becoming surreal. One morning, she walked past my desk laughing, looked at me, and said “So, anyhow. Carl was there. And he’s got that beard down to here. And he listened to that track and started laughing because it was his car in the first place that had that old tape deck, and…”

And so on. She’d dropped me into a conversation that I’d hadn’t been having in the first place. She did this occasionally, but she liked me and I was new to the job and my father was still alive but getting sicker day by day. She asked after him, and how I was doing, and our coffee breaks were spent like that.

By November of that year, the medication wasn’t working and my father was spending more and more time semi-conscious. It was around the time that our daily phone calls stopped – it was within days of the first call where he forgot who he was talking to, or simply fell asleep and was unable to remember why he was on the phone. I was quietly devastated (a loud, public devastation wasn’t going to help anything) and was trying to keep my hopes up by whatever means possible. He wasn’t gone yet. The next wave of meds might help. And everything else I could muster.

We had gone upstairs for coffee when she was quizzing me. “Has he been awake at all, recently?” she asked.

“Only around six hours a day. But this happened around a month ago and when we changed doses it helped a lot. We’re also going back into chemotherapy before Christmas…”

“Really?” she interrupted. “You really think that it’s going to help?”

She looked angry as she said it. I also knew that I wasn’t the best judge of character and intonation at the time. It’s possible that I had heard angry when she was just being inquisitive.

“It could help,” I told her. “It’s something worth trying.”

“Yeah, maybe,” she said. “But...you do know that it might just kill him, right? You’ve got to think about that. You realize that he’s really sick and he’s going to die soon, right? You’ve got to face that he’s going to die.”

This time, it didn’t feel like her being angry. Like a lecture, yes. A concerned one. And with a complete lack of tact, yes. You can’t plan something that tactless. The old clichĂ© about children under the age of six and anyone over the age of ninety saying the first thing that comes into their mind struck me as very true just then.

Welcome to Nissa. Who wasn’t under six or over ninety. And even as I wanted to kill her, I liked her. Sort of simultaneously. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t mean. She was trying to be supportive or at least to be sure that I wasn’t deluding myself. But she had obviously hit some kind of breakdown about the way that one should do this. I hadn’t reached the despairing stage over my father – you can’t give up on somebody until they’re gone – but I was unenthusiastic about another wave of chemo.

I didn’t need her to understand all that was about to be lost – and she had no right to tell me.

I also didn’t need to be expending the energy in understanding all of this on her behalf. A cup of coffee and a chat would have been lovely. A long game of ‘What I Said vs. What I Meant’ was on the horizon and I didn’t have the strength to deal with it.

She put sweetener into her coffee. “That stuff causes cancer,” I told her.

It doesn’t. Not according to most doctors and scientists. But she got the point and we went downstairs talking about Christmas, which was no less painful. Just less immediate. We could at least agree on the fact it was going to be cold.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seen on a recent trip to New York



From our hotel window, 377 Greenwich St.



A few blocks west of the Chelsea Market. He plays accordion all day. When he doesn't think anybody's paying attention to him, he puts on the mask and plays John Williams' closing suite from The Empire Strikes Back. Everybody's got a dream.

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