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Peter is not a large man, but this did nothing to stop his daughter from coercing him into dressing up for her Halloween party as one of Marvel Comics’ largest superheroes. He painted his face and hands green and wore tattered black pants plus a matching green jersey for the chest over layers and layers of undershirts in an attempt to give the ensemble an illusion of muscle and bulk . . . for all the good
“What are you supposed to be?” asked Mary looking down at him. “A Little Green Man?”
“I am trying to be
The Incredible Hulk!”
To teach us all she knew about combustion, our science teacher filled a tiny aluminium pie plate with granulated sugar and held it over a flame as it slowly turned brown and bubbled, then smoke, then flame until there was nothing left but a brittle black crust.
But then, instead of explaining to us that all combustion—and indeed most of creation—is essentially a one-way street to maximum entropy, she promised an A to anyone who could find a way to reverse the process, a problem I’m sure one us would’ve cracked eventually had the school board not intervened.
The first stop on my trip back through time found me talking to my younger self as he was leaving for work on October 25, 1996.
“Stay home today,” I told him. “Or better still, take a trip somewhere nice. They can’t fire you if they can’t find you.”
February 9, 1980: “Listen, you are going to try to kiss her on the way home tonight, so you might want to practise a little first.”
June 11, 1974: “When that Grade 8 girl asks you if you’re going to the dance today, it means she wants you to take her.”
Our old neighbours, who were great neighbours, had grown too big for what was essentially a starter home. So, they were moving on up to a fully detached pile on the fancier side of Roncesvalles, leaving us behind in our modest semi to contend with the new neighbours—a young married couple plus kid—whose first order of business, before we had even met them, was to have the husband’s loud foul-mouthed friends lug sheet after sheet of drywall down the front stairs for what, in my growing depression, I could only assume would soon be an illegal basement apartment.
Were I as paralyzingly self-conscious as her, I’d do all I could to blend in. But here was a girl who dressed to stand out; who actively sought the attention, only to shrink from what little she got. It’s not as if I didn’t like her idiosyncratic style, and I was perfectly happy to have some of it rub off on me, but dating her felt sometimes as if I’d been cast in a remake of
The Elephant Man,
in which they’d given him a bullhorn so he could scream at everyone in the square not to look at him.
Miss Hudson, every morning, would bring her coffee from the teachers’ lounge and down the hall to her class in a little open box. The box was blue, with a red and yellow pattern painted on the sides, and with room for the mug and plenty left over for . . . what? I can’t remember. All I can see is that dirty old mug, full of coffee and loaded with sugar and cream, the smell of that coffee every morning, too close to my seat, filling the room and turning my stomach. And so, I don’t drink coffee. I’ve never even tried.
Louise hated the Canadian Cancer Society.
Sure, they’d helped her through her battle with cervical cancer, but she just couldn’t get past the stuff they had to say about her particular disease, mostly because they made her feel that if she’d been even the least bit promiscuous back in the day (and maybe she had) that she’d somehow brought the cancer down upon herself.
Just look at poor Farrah, she’d say. She’s dying of anal cancer. Which of you judgemental fucks wants to stand up in front of her family and friends and come up with a reason for that?
“Take it from me,” said the father to his son. “I popped a few pimples back in my day; and the trick is to keep squeezing until you’ve got all the stuff out, every last bit, or it’ll just come back. Squeeze till you bleed, and you’re done.” “The big exception to this—” and he’d been waiting most of his adult life to pass this information along “—is that spot right in the middle of your forehead just north of the nose. Fuck with that too much and you’ll be left with a crater where your third eye should be.”
Mr. Mason was the only gym teacher I’ve ever had. Until grade six, our regular teachers did the job, herding us all outside to play kickball or something, but in grade six they handed us off to Mr. Mason, who made us change into shorts—no matter the season—and run laps. In grade seven, he started teaching us all about sex and health. In grade eight, I asked him why the skin on my feet was peeling so much. He laughed and said I was probably going to die. And I decided not to take gym in grade nine.
Julie was always the odd girl out. The rest of us lived in the married-student apartments, while she lived across the street in the fancy tower with her single mother and the outdoor pool. Still, she once joined the tackle football game we were playing on the narrow patch of grass behind our building, although perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, and especially so during the pile on, when someone cried out that Julie had grabbed his crotch. The first time we could chock up to happenstance; the next time less so, especially when she herself announced the nuts she’d counted.
Nothing prepared me for turning twenty. One day I was 19 and the next I discovered a weird bump on the back of my hand down by the wrist: cancer, of course, or something worse, like whatever had happened to that guy I saw walking down Yonge Street on the way to my birthday movie. Surely he’d caught the exact same kind of wrist cancer, and it had spread towards his lymph nodes, wasting the muscles, and burning the skin so that his arm looked like so much cured meat stretched over the bone. That’s how turning twenty felt for me.
My mother gave me a photo of her grandfather to scan for a project my cousin was putting together: Major Marmaduke Lockhart Tindall in what looks, to my civilian eyes at least, like a pretty well turned-out uniform . . . except for the belt. The major might have been fifty or so when he posed for this, perhaps a young-looking sixty, but I’d bet that with every new uniform, from his time as private, he had kept the same belt. Five holes it has, and he’s on the last, but you can still see that each was used well in its time.
Floor hockey was one of the few games I was any good at. The rules were pretty much the same as regular hockey, except you played in the gym, with a thick ring of felt about the size of a dinner plate and sticks that had no blade. Our puck looked official enough, but there was no money for sticks, and Mr. Mason told us that, if we wanted to play, we’d better bring in a broomstick or something from home.
I’d like to see Mr. Mason ask my mother to give up a broom she’d paid good money for.
“You’re nuts!” said Corvus. “Didn’t you hear what he did to those kids last week?”
“He’s not so tough,” said Krebbs.
“No, only five guys catch him alone in the wrong neighbourhood and he stares them down. I heard he just singled out the biggest and said something like: ‘I don’t care what your ugly friends do to me, but I’m going to get you. I’m going to shove my fist down your throat, and I’m going to hold it there until you’re dead.”
“Big deal. He never even touched them.”
smart . . . and you’re asking for trouble.”
Poor Begonia Pope suffers from a rather serious case of anterograde amnesia, which means that, although she can still remember things from before her accident, she can no longer form new memories. She can’t recall what she was doing five minutes ago, for instance, but she still knows how to knit. She’ll be making a scarf, but soon forget why she started or even how far she’s gotten, yard after yard without once looking down, beautiful and eccentric creations that never fail to fetch a good price on the High Street.
And so her family just keeps feeding her yarn.
For one of our class projects, Mrs. May made us all sew, girls and boys alike. Nothing fancy: cut two identical halves, leave a gap in the seam, turn the whole thing inside out, stuff it, and stitch up the hole. An heirloom it would never be, but at least we’d have done it ourselves. She taught us the back stitch and the overhand stitch and warned us that there’d be hell to pay if she found out we’d been using a sewing machine . . . which, in spite of all my careful work, was exactly what she accused me of doing.
As a conscientious and rather cynical consumer, I try not to let myself be unduly influenced by particular brands. Sometimes I even like to think that I’m somewhat immune to their effect, but here I sit in my tiny basement office and within easy reach I have my CANON scanner and my CANON camera, my PANASONIC phone, my VIRGIN mobile, CRAYOLA markers stuck in an empty tin of SPAM, a stand I built out of LEGO to raise my monitor, IKEA everywhere I look, a SHARP calculator, HARMAN/KARDON speakers, a WACOM tablet I hardly ever use, and APPLE APPLE APPLE.
Things seemed simple enough when we started: try to ignore the fact most everyone at school is older, and therefore better, than you, do your time, and eventually it’ll be you at the top of the heap. And yet there we sat, looking down on the throng, only to see a new wave of kids coming in, with better clothes, better hair, and better music. And since we’d only ever been children
the ’60s and never
the ’60s, we’d never really developed a style of our own. We were the barbarians, and we had nothing better to offer.
Walking back to my place, along Eglinton Avenue towards Mount Pleasant, we came across the largest assemblage of police cars I’d ever seen. The closer we got to the Swiss Chalet, the more cops there seemed to be, and yet they weren’t warning us back, because as it turned out there was no danger. Apparently some poor sod had left the restaurant in a wheel chair and tried to cross the street. There down the road was what was left of his chair; and all those cops weren’t there for us, but to protect the cop that had hit him.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Groucho Marx. Not even close. In fact, like so much of the stuff that happened before I was born, I probably got my first inkling of him from an old Warner Brothers cartoon, or maybe the tired impressions of uncountable b-grade comics, and there’s every chance I’ve never sat through a whole Marx Brothers film, but still I was flabbergasted when Nicole confessed to me that she’d never even heard of him.
“You know those glasses you can buy with the fake nose, moustache, and the bushy eyebrows?”
“That’s Groucho,” I said.
There’s no room here to share the entire recipe for
John Baxter’s Curried Chicken,
I can’t even be sure that it’s his, although he certainly made it his own when I had him write it all down for me.
What I like most is that you steam the chicken in Step 2, then use the resulting stock in Step 6.
But most people prefer Step 1: “Turn on the radio such that it can be heard clearly over the din of cooking noises. Lock door to apartment/house. Pull beer from fridge. Open. Enjoy. Replace immediately upon completion of present beer.”
There’s been a deposit on beer bottles in Ontario for as long as I can remember, but ever since the province started putting a deposit on wine and spirits, I’ve been tossing those in the wagon as well for the long walk back to the store. Most everyone I talk to in my neighbourhood leaves them out by the curb to be collected by the more industrious vagrants that rattle up and down the side streets with their overflowing shopping carts. These are the people I happily wait with in line, because we are talking twenty cents a bottle here.
My first apartment had a living room that had once been a dining room, complete with panelled walls, and a plate rail that ran all the way round. It was there that I started my first collection of wine bottles, with the goal of having it too run all the way round the room, no duplicates allowed.
I no longer recall how far I’d gotten before I had to move, but I do remember deciding to recycle the collection rather than pack it. Back then you still had to soak off the labels, and that certainly took me some time.
I didn’t have that many records, but when my ABBA started to crowd out my mother’s Belafonte, it was time to come up with my own storage solution, and it sure looked like one of those plastic milk crates I’d noticed in the alley would do the job. I actually thought I was the first person ever to have this idea, and I brought along one of my LPs to make sure it would fit. And since someone had been using them for garbage, not milk, it’s not really stealing, if you’re stealing from the person who stole it. Right?
Noodling around the Internet yesterday, I found myself playing with the OneLook Reverse Dictionary, which lets you describe a concept, then spits out a list of related words. I entered “taking pleasure in the misfortune of others” knowing full well that, because there’s not a single English word that can handle it, I’d likely end up with the German word
So, imagine my surprise when I was presented with a perfectly good English synonym
I’d never seen before. It was like opening a Rhyming Dictionary and discovering the rhyme for
Which, by the way, is
It’s my theory that the real assholes of the world might actually be suffering from some mild form of mental illness. I’m not talking here about people that merely get on your nerves, but those who are suddenly so out of synch with acceptable human behaviour that you’re left with nothing in common but your indignity. When dealing with these assholes, however, it’s probably best to avoid confrontation. Because the asshole that can cut in front of you without a second thought is just as likely to be enough of an asshole to punch you out if called on it.
So, just how big an asshole was I on December 7, 1979 when I joined my friend waiting for the opening of
Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
In my defence, I did manage to arrive by 6:30 in the morning with only 30-odd people in line, and it had been my idea in the first place; but it certainly didn’t help our case when more and then more of our friends came straggling in . . . and who then were the bigger assholes: us for letting them cut or them for expecting us to hold their place for three hours in the cold?
How exactly do they expect you to clean a freezer? If you try to wipe it out when it’s running, whatever you’re using will likely freeze before it does any good. And if you do let it warm up enough for a proper clean, then where are you supposed to keep all your frozen stuff while you wait, your second filthy freezer? Come to think of it, the last time we managed to clean our freezer was only after that last long blackout left us without power for days, and we ended up eating things we’d had frozen for years.
We haven’t many traditions in our house, but we do like our advent calendars. This year it’s Lego again—one little model every day—and please forgive me, but I bought the damned thing in September, but only because they can be hard to find if you wait too long. One year we ended up with Playmobil instead, but they actually require you to assemble
24 little toys into 24 little boxes, and I’m sorry but, if I don’t get to play with the toys, I at least want the excitement of not knowing what those toys might be.
It was stupid to buy this year’s advent calendar so far in advance. Every day it reminded me of how little gets done in December, and how a whole year of not doing nearly enough can suddenly come down to the crunch . . . and how are you expected to get out from under all that when there are parties to go to and gifts to buy?
Then, to make matters worse, I opened the first day of
calendar with a message from Revenue Canada. The second was a meeting where the client didn’t show.
The third had better be chocolate.
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