Thursday, December 24, 2009

Habitual holiday message

"I'm not philosophical about Christmas," I said to Abby.

"I don't believe it," she said. "It'll come to the surface after those few layers of 'meh' get peeled away."

It's not like this lack of introspection is a loss to the world as a whole, but it was a bit surprising to me. I had just launched a newsletter, had to figure out travel plans, desperately wanted a few quiet days with family and hadn't thought much further than the logistics required to do as little as possible for the duration of the holiday. The best I can manage thus far is to call a truce against whatever's been bothering me for the last 90 days and recommend the rest of the world do so as well. Take advantage of everything being closed and quiet or indulge the few places that are serving really good Thai food and are open when you're bored.

If you're in a giving mood, you might want to think about this:

“The Ontario Association of Food Banks says there's been a record increase in the number of people turning to food banks in the province since last fall…The association says the economic downturn has made this its most difficult year, with the number of people served reaching historic highs.

There's been a 19 per cent spike in the number of people turning to food banks since last year — compared with an increase of 11 per cent in 2008 and 10 per cent during the recession of the early 1990s. In all, the association says 375,000 Ontario residents use food banks each month, even though one third of people in those households are employed. Many food banks have not been able to meet the increased demand, with one in four reducing the amount of food distributed in their hampers.”

- CBC News, Dec 1, 2009

In lieu of presents (and in response to the oft-repeated statement "I've got too much stuff" from various family members), everyone is getting a year-long donation to the OAFB via which helps you to do that sort of thing monthly. It supports a variety of Canadian charities right across the political spectrum, and in These Difficult Economic Times it won't go unwelcome. Just my two cents worth. And before this sounds too sanctimonious, I'm also coveting a LG Blu-Ray player at my local Best Buy. Full disclosure's always so embarassing.

Operation Eyesight was the favourite charity of my uncle, who passed away a few years ago. I maintain a donation in his memory. Both of my parents have been affected by cancer, I've made donations to the Cancer Society in the past but food banks seem more urgent this year. Karen Selick made a case against them in the National Post a few years ago that got under my skin; her case boiled down to them being inefficient and therefore should be eliminated. The whole hunger/unemployment/need aspect sort of fell by the wayside by her estimation (part of the larger problem that didn't get a fast cure) and yeah, there's got to be a better way. Agreed. Until then, you've still got to eat. Somebody does, at least.

As stated earlier, it's Christmas. The faithful can drag out the Dickens, dust off Dylan Thomas, dig out the long-past Christmas cards or photos or keepsakes or simply whatever image they hold of the season and try not to dwell (as unavoidable as it feels) on whoever is gone or simply lost from you. Allow a few hours for the unabashed sentiment (good or bad) and then look around at the present. My wife is making beeswax candles in the next room. My son, with a slight cold, is running around happily and I've made chicken soup with fresh carrots and celery and garlic and a little pancetta to brown it all at the beginning. I'm seeing family Christmas Day and the 27th. Nobody's sick this year. Everyone kept their jobs. There's enough for everyone and some left to share. That counts as a holiday for me.

Post-script, 1:07pm:

"What are you blogging?" asked Abby. "Something happy?"

"Let's call it happy," I answered.

"That'll do," she said cheerfully. "As long as it's happy."

'Tis the season.

Dec 24th, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The second shot went into the foot of an entire political party

This needs no introduction. Wait. Maybe it does. Some webmaster or some publicist or simply some screener saying "No. Really. This'll be great. Any publicity is good publicity. Let 'em scream. It's just a joke."

Inexcusable. Juvenile. Self destructive. Potentially harmful. Needlessly malicious. Providing fodder for their opponents and bringing the entire party down with one stupid gesture. Rabble and the National Post are weighing in with pretty much what you'd expect so...if you like that sort of thing, enjoy. If you're revolted, you're not alone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Parsing Harper and the CBC

The text in this piece is based on the CBC Newsworld page that originated at 10:35am EST on November 24, 2009. If you doubt the content or think it's been switched around by the powers that be, you could probably visit the Wayback Machine at to confirm the initial content if you're that kind of cat. And if you don't agree with my conclusions, well, good for you. That's how things work. Feel free to take exception on your own time, the rest of us get an early start in the morning.

From Don't muzzle testimony in detainee issue: PM

Let's take it from the top:

A parliamentary committee should not block testimony from those willing to offer evidence responding to allegations that detainees were tortured in Afghan prisons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday.

Although not mentioned by name, Harper was referring to David Mulroney, who used to run the government's Afghanistan Task Force.

C'mon. Let's be fair. Prime Minister Harper is, if nothing else, conscious of using the right, non-litigious words for any situation that might, if not shield him, at least make him look not-so-bad in the eyes of the law (the Cadman affair notwithstanding). If the good Mr. Prime Minister welcomes testimony from anyone in the know (such as bureaucrats, field-level workers) who might have two cents worth of opinion on whether or not the federal government a) knew about potential mistreatment of prisoners or b) actually thought this was a bad thing or c) actually cared if it was happening in the first place, so be it. Good on him. But if he's just referring to David Mulroney, well, I guess we can't stop him.

Mulroney, who is now Canada's ambassador to China, said he wants to testify to rebut the testimony of diplomat Richard Colvin. Colvin told a parliamentary committee last week that all detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says a parliamentary committee should not block testimony from officials willing to respond to allegations that detainees were tortured in Afghan prisons.

"The diplomat in question, as everyone knows, has a right to his opinion and has given us his opinion," Harper told the House of Commons. "We also know that a large number of his colleagues didn't agree with those opinions and … they have asked for their right to speak, so I’d encourage the opposition not to muzzle them."

One could suggest that he's obliquely referring to Richard Colvin, who recently said that he'd heard allegations of torture of Afghani prisoners. He also admitted that he'd "only spoke to four detainees himself, and he had no way to guarantee those prisoners had in fact been captured by Canadian troops." This isn't rock-hard evidence on Colvin's part. But it has introduced a note of doubt into the process, so those allegations have to be followed-up. Especially by a government who was elected under the auspices of transparency and accountability. Right?

But Opposition MPs have said they do not want to hear from Mulroney yet, saying they want the government to first release documents related to the torture allegations before he appears.

MPs are seeking cabinet minutes from that time period, all memos sent from Colvin and returned to him and human rights reports given to the Defence Department.

Harper said on Tuesday the government "has and will continue to make all legally available information available. But during question period, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said that "we'll hear from witnesses when we have documents, non-redacted documents. We don't want redacted documents."

Bully for Stephen and his betas. That said, why do I have the feeling that the opposition won't be happy with the level of disclosure (especially if there are big black lines pasted through the names of key figures) and that the Conservatives are going to be deeply hurt that the material they supply isn't welcomed with open arms and a cuddle? It's possible that they're going to score a serious point here and hand over everything related to the transfers and bolster their case in such a way that the Liberals can only whine about the whole "it's not what you did it's the way you did it" situation. Or it's possible that Harper's definition of 'everything' is represented by whatever his people have told him is presentable. We'll see.

Colvin has also said his concerns were ignored by top government officials and that the government might have tried to cover up the issue. Colvin further maintained that Mulroney told him to keep quiet about the situation.

Fine. Let Mulroney, in so many words, say "I did not tell anyone to keep quiet about the situation and I disagree with the logic behind Mr. Colvin's findings." Let him be definite and absolute about what happened. Or watch his tapdance. And, listening carefully, so far I'm hearing an overture.

Since then, the government has attacked the credibility of Colvin's testimony. Defence Minister Peter MacKay has claimed that Colvin's statements "cannot be sustained."

Mr. MacKay, define 'sustained' in this context. Assume I'm a moron (and a case surely could be made) and need these things spelled out for me. You haven't said that Colvin's statements are 'untrue', 'out of context', 'false', 'misrepresented' or 'incorrect' and I understand all of those terms. Define 'sustained' or defer to a lawyer who knows what they're talking about.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the prime minister must have known about the torture allegations because of the "cascade" of reports in 2006 and 2007. "It defies belief that this information never reached the prime minister," Ignatieff told the House of Commons. "How can anyone believe that the prime minister did not himself know about torture in Afghan jails and the risk that detainees transferred there would be tortured … How can he possibly justify his failure to act?"

Oh, I don't know. The words "need to know basis" appear to fit in here pretty well, and doesn't Prime Minister Harper hire people to take care of these things? I'm not suggesting that he shouldn't have known about it, I'm just thinking that machinations might have been in place to keep things, shall we say, delegated.

But Harper dismissed the accusation. "The fact of the matter is that whenever Canadian diplomats or Canadian military officials have concrete evidence, substantial evidence, of any kind of abuse, they take appropriate action."

Define 'concrete evidence'. C'mon. You've used the term, stand behind it and risk taking the hit if the rest of the country doesn't agree with your definition.

'Risk taking the hit'. And as soon as I type that, the karmic boomerang flies from my hand...

Rick Hillier, the former defence chief, is to appear at the committee Wednesday, where he's expected to rebut a claim that he was warned that his troops were turning over detainees to torture in Afghan jails.

Good for him! Let him cite dates, times, criteria, details. Nobody else has, Harper and Colvin included. Harper and Colvin especially.

Also scheduled to appear are Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, who led troops on the ground in Kandahar, and Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, who was responsible for overseas deployments in 2006.

Hillier has said he doesn't remember "a smoking gun" of the sort Colvin described. The retired general has said there were always concerns about transferring people to Afghan control, but he doesn't remember such a pointed warning.

The word 'remember' is very interesting. Speaking for myself, I have a lousy memory. I don't remember what I had for lunch on Tuesday of last week. I don't remember anything about my grade 12 formal except for the fact that Romanian red wine is a fine drink when you're seventeen. And if I'd heard rumours about mistreatment of prisoners and a) didn't believe them or b) didn't much care, I might not remember when I first heard the rumblings. I'm just sayin'. Like so many other people over so many other issues in this affair.

Read Colvin's affidavit before flinging mud and decide whether he's a well-intended dupe or whether he's revealing something that was kept out of the public eye. And maybe take a leap and assume that the rest, heaven forbid, is politics.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Alpha behaviour

From the Urban Dictionary: Keyboard Courage

1: A quality or characteristic displayed by a person through the written word that this person would not ordinarily possess.
2: The confrontational attitude exhibited by someone via an anonymous entry to an internet web-page or posting.
3: An attitude demonstrated by someone when they realize that actions taken by them or words written by them across a computer connection will have little, if any, personal repercussions.
4: A false bravery possessed by an individual who does not possess the true quality in person.

2003. The last few iterations of Bernie had been on a manic high of enthusiasm. Version 1.0 considered asking for a transfer out of Toronto to coach softball to Lions Club kids in the Ottawa Valley because he believed in the value of teamwork and determination. Version 1.5 had wanted to redesign the office's org charts and version 2.0 had decided to throw everything he had behind small entrepreneurs because they were our nation's backbone.

I blinked and missed 2.5, but Bernie 3.0 was a policy wonk with law and order leanings. He’d been extolling the virtues of watching 24 not because he necessarily liked the show but because it was important; he'd go onto explain that we (North America, presumably) needed a strong prime time conservative voice on the airwaves.

I was pleasantly indifferent to both the show and Bernie's politics. I didn't think 60 minutes of prime time was going to galvanize any political movement outside of the audience who thought that slogans on t-shirts and bumper stickers represented the alpha and omega of thoughtful political discourse. I felt he was shoving a lot of ideological issues into places where they didn't quite fit: he dismissed the movie 'Traffic' for not respecting law and order, or cheapening the family compact, or did something else that that didn't conform with a policy doc somewhere close to his heart. To each his own...right?

The only thing that genuinely bothered me was how familiar his approach was. I was raised in the Baptist church. I am intimately acquainted with that moment where a conversation turns into a sermon and the preacher expects a certain level of deference from whoever they have appointed parishioner.

I was most interested in how Bernie had started referring to himself as the alpha male at weird times. He'd loaned a book to a few people in the office and pointed it out to different departments with “I read the Anthony Bourdain book first and they're all reading it because I’m the alpha male,” or “They've all started going to my favorite biriyani place for lunch because I’m the alpha male,” and so on. He'd started using it with a deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery Bill Murray would have envied, but it segued into sort of a smug, self-confident smile by the fifth or sixth time it dropped into conversation.

The office thought it was a bit weird. Versions 1.0 through 2.5 of Bernie himself wouldn't have tolerated it from anyone else. His tongue was probably housed firmly in cheek, but that wasn’t a certainty; he'd dropped the phrase often enough that it started to feel like a series of trial balloons, a little experiment to see how this new paradigm played out amongst the locals. Maybe somebody would agree that he was, truly, the alpha male in residence and make the necessary arrangements for the rest of the tribe.

He used it one time too many over a plate of chicken tikka masala and somebody followed it up quietly with “Self-appointed, of course?” and the table erupted in laughter. Bernie joined in pretty much on time, laughed the loudest, and the group moved onto other topics. He didn’t refer to himself as the alpha male again. At least not while we worked in the same Ministry.

Long after that job was over, somebody sent me a quote from an online News & Politics forum where Bernie waxed rhapsodic about Greenland and Canada's defense of the Northwest Passage, a region he claimed to know very well having visited it repeatedly. I knew that Bernie made one visit when we worked together; it's possible his next job sent him northward on a monthly basis. Or maybe the high-octane Lions Club forum fuelled enough keyboard courage to simply seize the topic at the expense of the truth.

You can make a case for attention needing to be paid, but leave it to somebody who cares. Telling tall tales on a message board lacks dignity but isn't a shooting offence. I wasn't about to register to view the original post and I refused to be put onto any de facto firing squad over somebody else's snit. I deleted the mail, left the sender to settle their own score with Bernie and left Bernie himself to his own devices.

Years later, I'm sure that there are kids in the Ottawa Valley who found an alternate softball coach to dispense life lessons and seize a teachable moment or two during batting and catch practice. And those concerned about Canada's sovereignty over the Northwest Passage had a booster in Bernie 3.0 to assist them with their struggle.

Bernie's 4.0 specs are out of my purview and I sleep well at night.

Nov 2009

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Worse employment behaviour

It was late 2001 and 9/11's effects shockwaves arguments posturing politicizing momentum everything was still fresh and for anyone out of a job it wasn't easy to navigate. I had been in software for seven years and software abruptly wasn't unless you were with Microsoft and I firmly was not. I had a long list of wasn't, to be honest. Wasn't employed, wasn't confident, wasn't in the best of moods, wasn't finding anything and wasn't exactly filled with trust.

I was, however, involved in a job-finding course with Employment Canada. I thought that it had to help. Or couldn't hurt. If it was in the feds' best interest to stop paying out EI in my direction, perhaps their rather formal job seminars would suggest interview/sourcing/resume/searching tips that I'd neglected.

This formality included a few mornings of cold-calling each week. We were to go through the want ads/phone books/job sites and find a company that we wanted to know more about (regardless of whether it was looking for able-bodied recruits or not). We were to call the company and not ask for a job, but to ask about what they did and what they were looking for in new employees. In a perfect world, the person on the other end of the phone would at least outline what the company was all about and maybe even ask for your contact information for that distant day when they might actually be hiring again.

I understood the point of the exercise: it made you comfortable asking questions and convinced you that cold-calling didn't have to be terrifying (it was, but didn't necessarily have to be). And if you actually got somebody on the phone and they gave you information you'd asked for, you were supposed to write a thank-you letter to that person c/o the company in question.

Formal, yes. The thank-you note seemed a bit much. But desperate times, desperate measures, right? And what harm could it do?

I had done this a few times with software and consulting firms and a firm I'm going to call Document/Action. They advertised their ability to 'help our clients surpass their own goals and meet their clients needs by helping them to communicate their services in plain-language and with common-sense tactics.' I had no idea what they actually did. Their website implied that they had a system for improving workflow and streamlining documentation. It sounded like something I could work at as an editor.

I called and had a chat with Robyn, a bored sounding woman who wouldn't outline their system ("It's proprietary, but if you visit any of the big law firms you'll see our name on their outgoing docs") and said she'd keep me in mind if they were looking for office staff or consultants.

Two days later, she called back. The head of the company wanted to meet with me to discuss their system and potential job prospects. I showed up at their office a few days later to meet Lesley, the company's founder. Her manner was weird. She over-enunciated and smiled a lot in a way that suggested an image coach had told her to smile when there was a lull in the conversation. Everything was framed with a too-big smile (her "Could you pass the cream?" at the coffee machine was sold with the force of Broadway) and everything she said sounded vaguely patronizing. "Robyn was impressed by that thank-you letter. Wow! We've never got one of those before. Good for you!"

She beamed in a way that asked for a response. I had nothing. "Uh, I'm glad it..."

"Really, good for you! It shows that you're polite and that you think about other people's feelings. That's good in a communicator. That's great. We forget that a lot. But it's all about feelings eventually, isn't it?"

Sure it is. She talked about feelings a bit more then she talked about 'the system' which was sort of a template for editing the documentation of your choice. You'd put the most important aspect into box one and the secondary material in box two and summarize in box three and stick it into a database and charge the client $75.00 per hour to get their own material back. She made a few other references to communication and caring and the client's feelings ("They have to feel like we've distilled their thoughts into something stronger than they first imagined") but it was really just an editing exercise. And I'd have to learn 'the system' if I was to work for her company, and it wasn't difficult but it required a certain mindset. Some people simply didn't get it. Some did. If I got it, I might be able to work for them. They actually led seminars to teach 'the system' to some of their well-heeled clients.

I waited for the part where she told me I'd need to take a test, or to ask me for my approach to writing or editing. We never got that far. She pulled out one of their seminar sales-sheets and said "Now, the price looks a little stiff at first, but when you think about the rates we pay once you've learned it and a client has taken you into their firm..." and I tuned out. I was horribly aware of what was coming.

She'd highlighted one of her seminars and the fee (around $1800) and took a very long time to very gently explain that I couldn't work for them until I'd learned 'the system.' And it was possible that I wouldn't 'get' the system so I couldn't work for them. And Lesley wasn't just the presenter, she was also the adjudicator. She'd be the one taking the money, judging the results and placing me with their clients. If there were any clients. I saw seminar salesheets but very little staff and no client list.

This had not been a job interview. It had been a pitch. It had to look like an interview to get me in the door. It was so blatant a pitch that I actually was confused by it for a few hours. I didn't think that anybody would try to pull something that was such an obvious cash grab. She could have simply said "Give me $1800 and I might give you a job" and saved both of us some time.

Worst of all, it wasn't even a full-fledged scam. It was a functioning business with some decent clients (who were revealed to me on the way out the door). It just wasn't as groundbreaking or essential as their website and general attitude suggested. They probably had four or five full-time employees and a handful of consultants they'd trained to work offsite. Their primary revenue-flow was training. You wouldn't know it until you got there.

And the weirdest part was the barely concealed contempt behind it. No false sincerity, just a faint impatience that I wasn't signing-on immediately ("We take Visa and Mastercard," she'd said hopefully). I said I'd think about it, which was reason enough to shoo me out of the office, which was a blessing. I was a rube, sure. Having discovered my rubeness, I wanted to go home and wash it out. But she insisted - with the biggest smile of all - that I simply had to meet Robyn, my initial contact and the recipient of the thank-you note. Robyn was well dressed, grey haired and radiated 'you're an easy mark' with everything she said.

"I'd never gotten anything like that before from a phonecall," she said. "We thought this Michael person, he must be pretty special." And she didn't even sell the line. If you're going to scam, you've at least got to go for it. She was on script but was phoning it in. I was a potential $1800 and it wasn't worth her effort to go for it.

What's the next step past cynical? I can't describe it, but just I'd met it. When you're too bored to scam and its a large part of your lifestyle choice, it's straight downhill from there.

I went home and spoke to a few gainfully-employed consulting types and asked their take on it. They all said that learning a technique is sometimes part of a position, but it's part of doing business. Anyone who offers to teach you something for a fee under the auspices that it might land you a job with them has a seriously flawed business model or really likes collecting fees. I was disappointed but not surprised. I was also not entirely freaked out and desperate at being employed - that came later - so I wasn't going to shell out and hope for the best. But I knew there was a point where I would have done that, if the resources were available. Maybe a lot of people did.

Lesley called that evening with - surprise - a special offer on her next seminar. It would only cost me $1500 to possibly get work with her firm. I declined and said I wasn't interested, there were too many variables.

"Whatever do you mean by that?" she asked pleasantly.

"I can't see myself paying for training for a job I might not get."

"I can understand that, Michael. But between you and I, and trust me on this, I think you'd really get it and..." and a few other polite words and when it was clear I wasn't interested she made some disappointed noises and that was that.

Rick (aka The DI) wrote me later that night. We'd worked at the same software firm for a few years, he'd been laid off around eighteen months before me. I gave him a short account of the day's events and asked if I simply should have flipped them the finger of my choice and taken my leave most ricky-tick. He replied with:

"Based on your story, I personally would have whipped it out and pissed on their desk then and there but for an old bit of advice I hold dear.

Whenever anyone tells you 'trust me' when offering money or asking for it, think of this:

Who do you trust?

Trust in the lord.

You did okay my son

I went to bed and remembered the three-word message I'd sent him when he'd been laid off: Bastards. Bastards all. It applied equally well to the day I'd just lived.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Employment behaviour

It's October 2003. I had just been laid off from a small consulting firm (rather politely: the office manager cried when she did it) and was heading to an interview at yet another consulting firm while waiting for a job offer from a software firm (which I was sure I was going to get) and from one of the big Canadian banks. I went to the consultants believing that it was a 'safety' option since I was sure I'd get the software job. I was also sure that I didn't actually know anything and I shouldn't turn down any interview when looking for work.

The job posting called for somebody with copy writing and proposal writing experience. The office was downtown in a charming old building that had been a small hotel in the 40's and 50's and a swish wine bar in the 70's and 80's. I'd gone there with my sister and her friends a few times when it was still a cool place for U of T students to waste time in. Those days were long gone but I recognized the oak-lined walls and leather chairs. In fact, it still looked like the swish wine bar to the extent that they'd just taken out a few tables and re-purposed the bar (it held coffee makers) and left the rest of the furnishings.

I looked around for computers, printers, offices, cubicles, etc. Nothing except a few closed doors. "The rest is all downstairs," was all I got out of the Hiring Manager, which wasn't entirely unreasonable. I understood the outside office was for the clients. She wouldn't even show me the downstairs which was a bit troubling, but she was within her rights as an employer.

She asked me for some proposal and marketing samples and to explain my approach to work. And did I know how to use Nexis/Lexis (I didn't) and did I mind working late? I told her that I used to work in software and would frequently work weird hours, coming in at noon and leaving at 11pm.

She said "It would be more like coming in for 9am and leaving at 9pm. Sometimes. Not always, of course."

"It happens," I said. "How often does it happen here?"

She changed the subject. She also wouldn't exactly outline what the position required. She asked if I'd written sales scripts (I had) and had I ever delivered them to an audience? That sounded like a sales job and I'd never done sales outside of scripting and I didn't want to be involved in sales or to be interviewed for a sales position under false pretenses. I said that outside of scripts, sales didn't appeal to me and she changed the subject back to working late and still wouldn't say how often it happened.

She finally asked if I'd mind taking a test, "an advanced behavioural & IQ test employed by our firm." It was a fairly standard grammar test with some logic-testing questions at the end. I filled it out, shook her hand and went home.

That evening, she called and said that the owner of the firm would be calling me sharply at 7pm the following night. "He's very busy and tied to tight schedules so he won't phone you back if you don't pick up," she said. "And you did very well on our IQ test. You got 89 out of 100. We usually don't call anyone who doesn't get over 90, but your answers were very interesting even when they were wrong."

That sounded strange, if sorta-kinda complimentary. I said "Can I ask what IQ testing method you use?"

There was too long a pause on the phone. "What do you mean?"

"That test...was it Mensa, or that Yale test that they give to US students, or..."

"It's something we've compiled from the best of all the tests our clients have recommended," she said very quickly. "And you did well, Michael. You really did."

In all of our other conversations, she'd been more formal. I became Michael when I asked a potentially awkward question. This suggested that the standard test wasn't as 'standard' as they'd made it out to be.

They were, of course, free to use whatever kind of test they wanted, even if it'd been compiled from a few self-help or management books that the firm's owner was into at the time. But they'd implied that it was something different and I thought it was a bad omen for the rest of the proceedings.

The next morning, the software company called and told me I wasn't going to get the job. The consulting firm's position was suddenly a lot more tempting and I wasn't so bothered by the prospect of another test.

At 7:00pm that evening, the owner called. It started with a careful, slightly echoing voice saying "Michael, I'm on a speaker phone. I like to walk around my office while I interview somebody and even though you're not here I'm still going to walk around my office. I'd like you to be sure that nobody interrupts you and that you're quite comfortable because, although this isn't going to be a long phone call, it's very important that we not be interrupted and that I have your full attention. This might be a very significant step in your career and I think you should take it all seriously. Now. Are you comfortable?"

'Comfortable' doesn't come close. It didn't help that he sounded like Hans Conreid, aka the voice of Snidely Whiplash in countless Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. A milder, polite Snidley. Sort of what Snidley would sound like if he had you over for cigars and sherry. But the resemblance was uncanny. And the interview was holding less and less appeal for me. It felt like a lot of fuss over something that should take far less time and hold far less drama.

But I didn't have a job. So I said "I'm very comfortable, thanks. And what would you like to know?"

I can skip over most of the rest: his questions were along the same lines as the Hiring Manager and were almost entirely proposal based. I didn't particularly like proposal writing but he appeared to like my approach to it and kept suggesting that other forms of writing (marketing, technical) were in the works and I might be the guy to bring them into regular rotation. Between topics, he'd say with great gravity "It's important you answer this question honestly: on a scale from 1 to 10, how is this experience feeling for you?"

He was scoring solid sevens and eights until he asked about my salary expectations. I quoted the range that was listed on the job posting and put my expectations on the higher (but not highest) end, which was a bit higher than my salary in consulting.

He said, "That's very interesting. Now, if I said that we could start at..." and listed a far lower number (lower than I had been making in either software, government or consulting), "...with a guarantee of making up for it in time-and-a-half overtime every month?"

"That's interesting too," I said. "How much overtime is average?"

"We get a lot of rush jobs," he said. "Not every week, but enough to make a little extra. Maybe a lot extra. It's the kind of thing that I think would be very good for you, Michael."

That was the fourth or fifth 'This would be good for you, Michael' comment and I'd never heard anything like that in any other interview. He might have been deeply concerned about me as a person and I'm a bastard to mock it. Or he might just have been manipulative and pretentious.

"Can you give me an average number of extra hours?" I asked.

"It's hard to get an average. But you'd be busy. It'd be a great chance to work your way up very quickly."

I didn't ask 'Up to what?' because I thought the answer would be useless. He finally played the number game again and said "On a scale from 1 to 10, how do you feel about our salary discussion?"

I felt that the manipulative and pretentious scenario (not to mention cheap) was looking more apt by the moment.

"I'm saying 4 out of 10 for this one," I said.

Without missing a beat, he said "Alright. Now, what would get you up to, let's say, 8 or 9 out of 10?"

"I think another six thousand dollars per year would do it."

It sounded arrogant. It wasn't meant to. His offer was very low and the overtime details were very slow in coming.

He took a few seconds and said "I'm going to be honest with you," (as if this should be an option, or as if it was a favour bestowed upon me and few others), "I like your writing samples. I usually don't like that sort of thing because I want my people to write the way I want them to write. But I liked yours right when I read them. I think that this sort of firm is what a younger writer needs, especially somebody like you. So, Michael...I would we willing to put in writing that we would have a salary review every three months based on your performance and the amount of overtime that's required. This means that if you've had an above average level of time and a half and a salary increase isn't warranted, we'd let it slide for another three months. Does that appeal to you?"

My salary-score stayed at 4 out of 10, something he said he wanted to "take away and think about if I get some spare time tonight." He repeated his belief that his firm was just what I needed a few times more and it's not that it sounded insincere. Quite the opposite. It was polished. It was the sincere belief of somebody who sincerely needed a cheap proposal writer who might get lured in with the promise of great overtime for unspecified clients and a salary review guaranteed in writing which actually guaranteed nothing more than a chat every 90 days.

We parted cordially. I wasn't going to say no to anything. But 'yes' was going to be a difficult point to reach.

My wife and I went away for a week for a family wedding. While away, the bank called me and offered me the job. I accepted the terms with barely concealed glee (it had been a dark horse and was a good job) and called the consulting firm upon my return to politely withdraw from the process. I did, and they fell off the radar immediately.

Less than a year later, their office closed and re-opened as, you've got it, another wine bar. The oak-lined walls are still there, now festooned with a quasi-French look rather than the British gentleman's club aura of days past. This 'worldwide consulting firm' disappeared from the city and even the internet. I google the owner's name from time to time and he's listed as a senior partner in a number of other companies, all consulting/recruiting related, all of them about to hire exciting new people. I wonder if they all need to take IQ tests.

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 canapés 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. “ 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 cliché 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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Expiation: Part Two

Continued from Expiation: Part One

If I'm going to maintain my DH Lawrence snake thread, we should probably return to old DH flitting about in his garden in pyjamas for the heat freaking out about a snake (hey, I just report the poems). But let's drop that and bring Zoltan back for a moment. Why not? He likes to keep busy.

A few days after our dinner, I posted the first part of this story. Recollection. Account. Whatever. Wanting to give credit where credit is due (and to thank him for installing a dimmer switch in my criminally overlit living room), I emailed him with this:

I quoted you. Dammit. “You’re a writer, you can write anything you want” actually broke my writer’s block so, er, thanks. And I'll get better beer next time.

Yah, I already know - I already read it (off a link from Elora's blog). Glad to be of service. I won't even correct the factual errors in the entry, 'cause after all, it's your piece, not mine...and a fine piece it is. Don't worry about the beer, BTW - I'm not a beer snob, it was fine. We'll get together and wire your basement.

Yeah. It's one of a series. I'm just trying to drag some...wait a second...Elora LINKED to it??? Er...under what pretences?

It read like this: "High School. It haunts, us, Precioussss. I've been written about." And Hannah left a comment saying "Good lord. He's put himself as protagonist! How cute. Well, I guess when you're the author you're permitted." So there ya go. Make of it what you will.

I had/have no idea what to make of that. Putting something onto the internet is a public act, but this blog has so few readers (present company excepted) that I was relatively sure nobody but the cast of that particular casual comedy would be reading. I received 135 hits on the day Elora linked to the story, 65 the day after. This proves a few things:

a. People need hobbies. Present company included.

b. I now have an audience of largely indifferent readers or a few web spiders. I'd started writing all this for the amusement of a few of the people involved; it's odd knowing it went out to the (alleged) masses.

c. I don't care if the unwashed throng find out that I was a jerk at the age of fifteen (it's pretty much a black hole for most people), but confirming that I'm a hack writer at forty would be both annoying for the readers and damned depressing to me.

d. Most irritatingly, now I have to finish the damn thing. DH Lawrence and all.

e. There is a point to all the Lawrence quotes, believe it or not. They'll come back. Be patient.

f. Shall we begin?

"The beginning is a very delicate time," to quote Frank Herbert's Dune. Still with me? Then maybe you're up for a fast-track from 1984 to the present day. Here's what I had planned to post:

Elora and I went to see Dune. The Lynch version. The not-so-great Lynch version. It has its defenders (I reluctantly count myself among them) because it looks like the only Edwardian sci-fi spectacular put to film. But the script is pretentious when it isn't incoherent, and the few moment of genuine all-out inspired weirdness and vision are few and far between.

I'd found the poster art and everything. The good poster, the pre-release version that I coveted at fifteen. The piece was going to be followed-up with an account of what happened post-movie. However, it all got blown to hell during a chat with Elora.

I'm trying to write about seeing Dune.

I remember Dune. Ruby had tickets to the premiere, a bunch of us went. It was on TV the other day. I recorded it just to watch Sting and that levitating fat guy.

You saw it twice. I saw it with you sans Ruby.

we sat in the front row of the balcony, right?

Uh...not sure...I think I saw it with you alone.

You date?

Sorta kinda.

Honesty? I don't remember seeing a movie with you alone. Sorry, that really sucks. I don't remember much of my high school. They are pretty buried.

They were that bad? Or were they just uh, not-there? I've lost years to not-thereitude.

A bit of both.

A gentleman never asks.

When I started high school, my mother was so excited and said "Oh, darling! These are going to be the best years of your life!" And after I survived grade 10 I thought, my god. If these are the best years, just kill me now.

Not an uncommon state of mind for anyone actually enduring high school, so I suppose in some karmic/relativist sense it's almost a relief to leave those hallowed hallways and discover that, pretty much without fail, the rest of the world can also suck. At least everyone gets it in the end. But I digress.

So my narrative's screwed, especially that running theme about how some things stick in your mind for years. I have no idea when the fiction about having seen Dune with Elora came into being. Long enough after the fact to have associated the time with the recently released flick, I guess. For that matter, maybe she's wrong and we did see it and she's the one with the fractured narrative. In the piece she's not writing.

Never mind. Skip the Dune angle. Leave it at Elora coming to my place after an evening of something-or-another. It had to have been a movie or a play, we were in the same theatre class and had to review a few shows each year for credit. I suppose that doesn't make it an official 'date' by whatever rules of purdah were going at the time. I know that I hadn't gone out with Hannah that evening because a) I'd done something to piss her off or b) she'd done something to piss me off. I remember the low-level pissy but not the cause of same.

So I was out with Elora, not as second-choice but because I liked her and she looked like she'd want to drink peppermint tea at my house before calling a cab to go home. It would have been shortly before my birthday, I was around fifteen. I think Elora was younger. It was all going to be about tea.

Another Facebook chat:

I've been trying to listen to Don McLean to write about when I wanted to listen to Don McLean. The expression 'of its time' comes to mind.

The first time I heard Don McLean was in your bedroom.

I've got to follow that one up, don't I?

It sounds far more interesting than what actually came to pass. I don't remember playing Don McLean, although I'd gotten into American Pie and Vincent a few months before thanks to a shortwave radio and very long summer nights while vacationing in a small farming town. Nothing else to do but listen to obscure radio stations who were playing a lot of Don McLean. Even in the early 80's. Go figure.

The thing is; I don't remember playing it that evening. I might have given it to her on a mix tape. Or it might have been on the mix tape that was playing on the cheap Radio Shack repeating tape deck beside my bed.

And now I've got to follow that up as well. We weren't in my bed. We probably could have gotten away with it; the peppermint tea had been drained and my parents had gone to bed offering cab fare for Elora for later (safety conscious as always) so were were alone and flopped on said bed, listening to the mix tape which was heavy on Genesis (the self-titled album). Rather like the McLean, call it of its time. Just because one can hire the horn section from Earth, Wind and Fire doesn't mean that one should.

And - as the most frequent excuse goes - we weren't doing anything. Seriously. We were just talking. Probably about movies or Jabberwocky (she knew the poem by heart) or whatever scene-study we were working on at school. Every half hour the tape deck would click loudly as it reversed and played the second side, so I was aware of the passage of time only by that sound.

It was late; we were very tired. I had my head propped up on my arm, her head was on a pillow. I didn't want to call her a cab. I wanted to stay chatting and warm and dozy with her. And then I wanted to kiss her. Which (considering I had recently been kissing one of her friends and was designated to kiss one of her other friends) was probably not a wise thing to do.

I was fifteen. I kissed her and waited to be pleasantly told not to kiss her again. Or to be hit. I had actually kissed enough girls at that point in my life without being hit to have skipped fixating on that possibility, but these things happened. I thought she was lovely and had never noticed it before and had to kiss her again.

(Somebody commented on Elora's haircut in a recent Facebook photo; she said her hair hadn't been so short since she was fifteen. Another commentor told her she'd been 'all purdy' at fifteen, she followed it up with "Not purdy. I just learned good how to Fake It™." Regardless: I realized that evening that I'd always thought she was lovely.)

The rest is a blur. We kissed for a long time, slow and drifting. I had forgotten the fact that I'd never thought Elora would want to end up kissing me. We were decidedly different people. She'd lived on kibbutz one summer, I'd attended Parkway Bible Church's youth group the summer before. By all accounts, they were very different experiences.

More time. The tape deck would click and reverse and I'd think my god it must be late or that Genesis' Illegal Alien was not a make-out song. But it wasn't a make-out tape. Just circumstance. And pretty harmless, all things considered. Two fifteen year olds lying around kissing on a cold December night.

I was shivering, despite the warm room and being so close to Elora.

I said, "I can't stop shaking."

She whispered, "Poor little boy," between kisses.

A mess of pop culture fills the rest. Genesis and Don McLean and probably the Doors' Dance on Fire live album and John Cougar Mellencamp's Uh-Huh tracks all on one mix tape. And a copy (of all things) of Brideshead Revisited on my bedside table, an early birthday present from my Anglophile sister who'd loved the miniseries. At some point I realized that kissing - really wanting to be kissing - Elora was probably going to cause some kind of trouble, but I don't remember if I actually quoted or just wanted to quote Brideshead with "Where can we hide in fair weather, we, the orphans of the storm?" wistfully.

I was a drama student, remember?

Eventually it was 4am and we were holding onto each other at my front door, still kissing, waiting for a cab. We didn't say much. The kisses seemed far more important. I didn't know if they were going to be forgotten or followed-up or kept quiet or if it was all a really a bad idea. And as previously mentioned, decades later it doesn't matter and nobody cares. Point taken. But just for amusement's sake, keep an eye on the kid at the door. If any number of after-school specials or Archie comics from his earlier youth were to be believed (and he was relatively sure they were), everything would work out okay.

What could go wrong? He'd just spent a few weeks happily kissing a pretty babyfaced girl and had just spent the evening kissing a different girl who he never knew he wanted to kiss before that evening. Unexpected, yes. But nothing earth-shattering. This'll work out fine, he thought going off to bed, warm and sleepy and intoxicated with tea and kisses.

Yeah. Right.

Continued at Expiation: Entr'acte

Monday, September 14, 2009

Meant something to somebody

It was not, as far as I could figure, about me. I’m 40. There’s grey in my beard and what’s affectionately referred to as ‘dignified grey’ around my temples. The salt and pepper look is still dominated by pepper but appears to be heading in salt’s favour.

I’m standing on a crowded subway train at 7:45am. I'm wearing the low-impact business-casual chinos and golf shirt most often worn by men who didn’t get any ironing done because they’ve spent the previous evening with a three year old who didn’t want to go to bed. I’m reading a PDF of the screenplay of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and listening to an mp3 of ‘Peter Cook: In his own words’ on a smartphone.

In short, I am not the portrait of malice, toughness, danger, intimidation or chip-on-my-shoulder-what-are-you-looking-at thuggery. I’m a guy propped up against the back of the subway car in pre-rush hour traffic trying not to be bored. When the train stops at Chester station, a few seats become free. I head towards an open seat just as an older guy (I’d put him at 60 or so, balding, tall, white-haired here and there) has the same idea.

We both stop. I look at him, look at the seat, decide that he probably saw the seat a microsecond before I did. I back up one half-step and offer the universally accepted ‘It’s all yours’ nod in his direction. With that, as far as I'm concerned, the transaction (which takes approximately 4 seconds) is over.

I lean back against the wall and continue reading Fear and Loathing and listen to Peter Cook answer questions about how he spent his school days (“avoiding buggery” got a big laugh from the studio audience) when the older guy says “No. This is your seat,” in my direction, far too loudly for such a simple statement. Not quite a scream but incredibly close to it.

I look at him. Everyone looks at him. Let’s just say it’s very clear that he’s perturbed, like somebody who feels deeply intimidated and is offering a little pushback. As previously mentioned, I’m the last person to intimidate anyone on the train. But it’s apparently willed where what was willed must be that I’m going to take that seat, damnit. He looks impossibly upset that I’m not sitting down and seems quite sure that the situation has to be resolved as soon as possible.

You could look at it as an almost-interesting study of group dynamics: a bunch of people in a relatively tight space, somebody raises their voice an octave too high for normal chit-chat and the whole of the situation is no longer normal. Tired and cranky people in enclosed spaces like normality. The car abruptly became a balance between people eagerly thinking ‘Is there going to be a scene?’ and those trying to disappear into their Metro newspapers and pretend nothing was happening. For a second, I wonder exactly what will happen if I don’t take the seat.

Sanity prevails: this isn’t worth any further effort. It isn’t Pelham 1-2-3 or The Incident or even a screaming match in embryo. I sit down, continue reading Thompson, return to listening to the droll Mr. Cook. The 60-year-old calms down a bit and looks around at everyone looking at him. Another division; people thinking What the hell? or All he had to do was take the seat, is that so much to ask?

45 seconds later, everyone is bored by the non-incident. He stares out the window; the locals go back to staring at their shoes. The crowds thin out at Bloor station without incident. And somewhere, some sixty-year-old gentleman is secure in the knowledge that the right seat went to the right person. Damned if I know why it was important to him. I wasn't privy to the conversation that he believed we were having.

You’re taking the seat because I’m not that old and I don’t need it. You’re taking it because I don’t take charity. You don’t have the common courtesy to look me in the eye when I’m speaking to you, take the seat. Take those godamned earphones out of your ears and take the seat. You’ll take it because I told you to. Ad nauseum.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Circus (again)

Bryant vs. Sheppard. From today's Toronto Star:

"A cadre of cyclists assembled at the spot Tuesday night, blocking traffic and screaming, 'Murder!'"

Yeah. That just helps everyone, doesn't it?

The press at large is doing pretty much the same thing. Christie Blatchford has stopped writing about her dog just long enough to write a not-uninteresting piece about road rage without pointing a finger at Bryant or Sheppard (the Globe's RSS or a clever editor linked-back to a piece by Marcus Gee about cyclists needing to obey rules of the road). Adam Radwanski has decided its a good time to discuss Bryant's Type-A personality traits and his own 'misspent Liberal youth' because, hey, there's no better time, right? Somebody has already taken a swipe at Bryant's Wiki page on behalf of the Shared Highways In Toronto group (think about it).

NOW magazine has offered a thumbnail of the case and a thoughtful (or ghoulish) link to the Dearly Departed Cyclist map for Toronto. The Rabble boards are pumping out exactly what you'd expect, with three comments that pretty much sum up the rest of the street-level speculation about the incident:

" do not keep driving down the street with someone attached to your

"What if that person 'attached' to the vehicle is actually hanging on and punching you?"

"This is the hot button to end all hot buttons for me. I couldn't sleep for wanting to torture the driver last night (as in killing would be too quick).It takes some pretty hard rational thinking for me to control this reaction."

Noise, noise, noise. Did Bryant get special treatment from the cops, or was he just smart and lawyerly enough to keep quiet and agree to a list of conditions? Sheppard had arrest warrants out for him in another province, does that have anything to do with him being hit by a car? Is this incident a good excuse to take a swipe at Miller and McGuinty? (DRDon in the Post couldn't resist).

How about this: Sheppard had friends who think it's a good idea to shut down an intersection. Bryant has pockets deep enough to get a PR firm on his side on very short notice. The rest is on surveillance footage and eyewitness accounts. Nobody knows a thing.

Present company included.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


You never write about your family, somebody told me.

My son Matthew, from birth to kindergarten (almost - he starts in September).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Two opinions, one question

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."

- Associated Press (Google hosted)

"Mr. Obama also rejected the notion that his plan would frame a bureaucratic 'death panel' to make end-of-life health care choices, in an apparent reference to a Facebook post by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.'The rumour that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma because we've decided that its too expensive to let her live anymore. Somehow, it has gotten spun into this idea of death panels, I am not in favour of that, I want to clear the air here.'"

- National Post (Agence France-Presse)

Ask it frequently.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The whining may now cease

(speaking in a folksy, AM talk-radio sort of commercial voice) Y'know...the few days after a strike are a good time to think about things. Mostly, about all the people who walk around during a strike saying things like 'A strike is sure a good time to think about...' before leading into a diatribe about how they're being put upon and the other side really just don't live in the real world. That's why I...

Ah, skip it. But for the record, here's a snippet from today's Globe and Mail:

Councillors voting in favour of the deal:

David Miller, City of Toronto Mayor
Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre)
Sandra Bussin (Ward 32, Beaches-East York)
Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East)
Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River)
Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York)
Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre)
Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York South-Weston)
Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth)
Adam Giambrone (Ward 18, Davenport)
Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore)
Suzan Hall (Ward 1, Etobicoke North)
A. A. Heaps (Ward 35, Scraborough Southwest)
Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre)
Pam McConnell (Ward 28 ,Toronto Centre-Rosedale)
Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s)
Joe Pantalone (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina)
Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park)
Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West)
Bill Saundercook (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park)
Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina)

Voting against the deal:

Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East)
Brian Ashton (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest)
Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt)
Mike Feldman (Ward 10, York Centre)
Rob Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North)
Cliff Jenkins (Ward 25, Don Valley West)
Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough Agincourt)
Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River)
Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) – for Local 416 only, conflict declared on 79
Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East)
Ron Moeser (Ward 44, Scarborough East)
Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston)
Case Ootes (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth)
John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West)
David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) – for Local 79 only, conflict declared on 416
Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence)
Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre)
Michael Walker (Ward 22, St. Paul’s)

Absent for reasons I know nothing about:

Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport)
Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre)
Kyle Rae (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale)
Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West)
John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale)
Howard Moscoe (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence)

Now. Didn't like the strike? Google the names above. Get in touch with the ones who didn't vote your way. Or get in touch with the ones who did vote your way and tell them they did a heckofa job. Didn't like the results? Then work to change the playing field. Democracy in action. The system works. And the system sucks. Next time there's an election, you might be able to scootch things over a few inches to the left or right so that the system will suck in your favour for a change. The open forum of Toronto-based whining is offically completed, now you have to Google and fax and email and phone on your own time. Knock yourselves out.

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