January 29, 2015

Coming To A Boil


Scout came home recently with a swath of hair stained red from a cooperative artistic venture gone awry. I dug it though, it was kinda punk. But with an unprecedented city-wide boil water advisory in effect, the best effort we could muster in doing away with it was Kerry squeezing Scout between her legs and wiping her with a damp cloth. Our child guzzles bathwater with a quickness – like any opportune almost-two-year-old does – and her nightly bath ritual was suddenly a no-splash zone.

Now in the advisory's third stupefying day, a cavalier attitude I inherited as a kid regarding water quality – combined with a disdain for the cultural and generational shift that effectively bubble-wraps children – has my childhood definition of common sense butting heads with 21st-century common sense.

I ate snow. I sucked on icicles plucked from back-alley garages. I drank from the garden hose. I dipped my metal cup in and glugged tea-toned water from rivers in the Whiteshell (only swift-moving water; no bogs or lakes with motorboats). Tumbling mountain streams were fair game during a family vacation to the Rockies, despite the posted warning signs. I'd seen enough beer commercials in my time to know that if cold, crisp, glacier-fed water was good enough for Labatt Ice or Old Vienna, it was gonna be good enough for a growing boy. 

As the popular saying goes, I turned out all right.

In 2007 Kerry and I set out on a road trip that touched on four of the five Great Lakes, and during a muggy day-hike we came upon a pristine, postcard-worthy stretch of Lake Superior coastline (see photo above). I splashed my face with the cold, clear water. Then I chugged it. Kerry was aghast, but it just looked so good. Beer commercial good. I recall my defense: I wouldn't do this in any of the other Great Lakes. There's no science behind my decision-making, mostly gut instinct. So long as my gut doesn't rot from lake pollution or cryptosporidium, my gut is usually right.

I know our water's OK. You know it, too. You know it. I know you know it. (Breaking news: the City knows it too, as of 3:30PM CST.) But I'm a parent now, and I need all the arms of Vishnu from keeping Scout from tasting that sweet, tepid bathwater. Young children know not what they do, E. coli is a bitch and fortunately enough, boiling water has only become easier in this high-tech day and age. So yes, I did boil up some mighty pots of water. But I also gulped from the tap after brushing my teeth.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: If you're gonna drink straight from a Great Lake, make sure it's Lake Superior, and you'll be golden. Probably.

January 27, 2015

The Birds And The Birds

A couple of years ago some co-workers of mine engaged in a Big Year challenge, which for bird-nerds like myself is the nerdiest, birdiest, bird-nerdiest thing a bird-nerd can engage in and OK, you don't care anymore. But I joined in, and for a year in which my daughter was born and my birding time fluttered out our drafty chimney, I tallied 122 species. Many days were squandered in a zombie-like state, and I probably wouldn't have been able to differentiate a black-backed woodpecker from a three-toed woodpecker even if a rep from each species was woodpecking right into my eye sockets.

I identified 133 species during the second year of keeping track, including three I'd never spotted before (brown creeper, long-eared owl and Nashville warbler). I also saw a harmless black-backed woodpecker, pecking a tree. Three dozen or so of these birds passed directly by my office window, merely requiring a crane of my neck and a subtle shift of my duff (a Harris' sparrow ambled onto my ledge and peered in one blustery spring afternoon – I opened my file and dutifully typed Harris' sparrow). I'm sure I've mentioned before that I work in a marsh – otherwise my annual list would consist of 1) pigeon, 2) house sparrow and 3) Toucan Sam.

These types of numbers wouldn't impress the hardcore, or even above-average birdwatcher. I'm no Claes-Göran Cederlund. I can't tell my thrushes apart, let alone my confusing fall warblers. And hawks? Empidonax flycatchers? Forget about it/them. But I'm keeping a log once more this year. It always starts off tremendously slow, when it's just us and the resident hard-asses and crazy-asses holding court until spring when the migrants return. I've listed 11 species this month, and that likely won't change until the snow and ice begin to ebb. A Northern hawk owl has been the lone standout so far, and that was actually pretty cool.

January 24, 2015

What The Cat Saw

I often see these two, passing by the window of the bookstore – the dad and the little girl. On their way to the bakery on Saturday mornings for a morning glory muffin. Sometimes just the dad, racing to meet his carpoolies. When he's not in a rush he taps the glass, and I let out a majestic yawn. He likes that. The kid loves it. She'll squeal, or hide her face in her dad's chest. I can hear her through the glass. Kitty, she'd exclaim back in the day, but lately she says Hi, Dos. She knows my name. Her dad must have taught her that trick. Once they came through the door and she touched my nose. I wasn't so keen on that.

Friday evening they stop by, and I hop from the counter by the cash register and meet them at the window. Looks like a pleasant night out there, really too warm for this time of year. The dad's wearing a different jacket, a nice one, and a black flat cap. Not his usual grubby toque and parka combo. The little girl has her pink winter coat on, speckled with tiny white hearts. Her hat with the chinstrap. A neck-warmer.

Something's a little off with her tonight – I don't think either of them realize it. I squeeze through the tchotchkes and get right up to the glass and blink. I could let out a majestic yawn, bare my fangs, but she might get too excited for her own good. Dad's trying to get a rise out of her. He points at me. He grabs her arm and waves it. Hi, Dos, he says, hoping she'll do the same. But her eyes glaze. She tucks into his neck.

He should get her home. I think he's enjoying the hug, or what he thinks is a hug. He gives her a little boost, securing her in the crook of his arm. She looks at me. Poor thing, I think. She lets loose a torrent of barf, down the front of her coat. Beige stuff. Looks like muffins and apple pie filling. Dad's eyes balloon, but neither of them make a sound. It keeps coming, and coming. On both their coats now, and their pants. They should get moving. It's a block or so to their house, but dad's feet won't work. My stars, it isn't stopping. Someone passes by. They face me to hide the spectacle. Dad looks around. Looks like he has his wits back. About time. They bolt, and veer sharply into the back lane.

January 23, 2015

The Watershed Moment

My city is bruised, declared Canada's most racist by Maclean's this week in response to a spiraling series of events that has now, more than ever, pit residents against the city's burgeoning indigenous population. And I have spent the past hour scouring the house for the evidence that I helped perpetuate this label – a diary post from 1987 I wrote after an incident when I was eleven years old. I couldn't find it, but I can paraphrase. It's not hard. It sticks with me to this day.

It was in the winter, or early spring; I remember that. I was a paperboy for the Winnipeg Free Press, pulling my load of newspapers on a sled from my house to the start of my two routes on Walnut Street. Across from Sam's Payfair at Chestnut and Westminster I was tracked down by a pack of "Native kids", as I posted in my diary that night – some older than me, some younger. I was aware of them coming, but I knew enough to plod on and try to ignore what I sensed was inevitable. One kicked the back of my sled, and it knocked the backs of my boots. I kept pulling. Another kicked the papers onto the snow. There was laughing. I stopped and went to gather the papers. I knelt down, was pushed over my sled. I know I said something then – it was more than likely, fuck you. I was kicked in the face, and I lay on the frozen sidewalk. I wasn't knocked out, but I figured if I stayed in this position they'd likely consider the whole thing over with. I was right.

Laying there for a moment, I looked up at the trees. This was in the dying days of afternoon delivery, and it was dark already. A woman crossed the street to check if I was alright; I told her yes. My lip was swelling. I got up, found the rope for my sled and headed for Walnut Street. A short time later, a police cruiser stopped alongside me and an officer asked me to hop in. It was really cold. That woman must have called the cops. There wasn't much to tell, tears welling in my eyes; I remember one of them trying to cheer me up by making a crack about my lip. I told them I needed to finish my route, that I was OK. They would watch out for these kids. Nothing became of it.

I was into my second route, on Purcell Avenue near Maryland, when I crossed an alleyway and came face-to-face with a kid walking alone, about seven or eight years old. My eyes went wide; he was one of them, from earlier. I can remember us both stopping in our tracks, staring at each other – I wanted to cold-cock him something awful. He was scared. I pushed him. I yelled. Get the fuck out of here. He did, and he ran.

That night I wrote in my diary. I seethed about those Natives, using a laundry list of expletives. I was eleven years old. I wrote, those Natives have ruined things for themselves. They only have themselves to blame. My writing was like buckshot, aimed at the sky. I now wonder if I tossed this diary. I know I didn't finish it, that the entries petered out after a few months when I was on the verge of beginning junior high.

I grew up.

The sentiment passed. I had the benefit of living in a diverse neighbourhood, gaining friends of all stripes, learning in schools downtown rich with culture. As a teenager I took a job at a drugstore, delivering prescriptions in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. All of this gave me empathy, and there are thousands of people in this city who could stand for some themselves. I am not the biggest optimist, and I do not think the Maclean's article has positioned my city at the watershed moment it is seeking. It has stirred a necessary reaction. It is top of mind.


Very few people change, but generations do. Slowly, and I feel it will happen here. We will grow up.

January 21, 2015

In Deep

Scout and I arrived home from daycare in record time yesterday. There was still a scrap of daylight left (huzzah for mid-January), and the air was warm, hovering about zero. Sliding the key into the front door, I asked Scout – perched in my free arm – if she'd rather stay outside, figuring she'd opt instead for CRACKERS or GO-PISH or BABIES (i.e., YouTube clips, don't ask).

She said YEAH. I asked again: You want to stay outside? YEAH.

I plop her on our sidewalk, anticipating the inevitable request to be lifted back UP-UP (she's not been the biggest fan of walking in the snow thus far this winter). It doesn't happen, and she ambles down to the public sidewalk, and looks back at me watching.

O COMING, DADDIE?

I ask if she wants to visit Dos, the neighbourhood bookstore cat.

NO.

Do you want to go see the neighbour's snowman?

NO.

She picks up some snow in her knitted mittens and tosses it towards me. I jump in feigned fear. Giggle giggle giggle. This is repeated five or six or a few dozen times. It's the most fun I've witnessed her having in this, her first real winter so far. She kicks at the deep snow, wanting to venture in. HOPE? HOPE, DADDIE.

(Hope=help.)

I grasp her curled-up hand, and lead her so far as I can without filling my shoes with snow. She shows no hesitancy. I'm beaming. O COMING, DADDIE?

She was hesitant to take her first steps in life, waiting until she had full confidence that her feet would work for her. Then, once mobile, she did not enjoy taking that act from smooth surfaces to grass, or snow. She's yet to find a relaxed state in the pool, curling like a bug over floating like a starfish. A thought would sometimes bubble up inside me, that she was watching me closer than I imagined, that she was absorbing my own habit of reticence.

She tramps through the fresh snow, coating her brown cords. She's so happy. Squealing. Her woolen mittens are a patchwork of crusted ice. I know it's seeped through by now. Scout, let's go inside and get some proper mittens on.

NOOOOOO.

Do you want a cracker and some milk?

YEAH.

It's dark now. OK. Let's go inside. We'll come outside tomorrow.

YEAH.

January 19, 2015

Me Write Gud

The point of all these recent postings has been a reinvigorated desire to practice my writing. I like doing it, even if it's only, you know… fooling around. I feel the need to note this, as Kerry and her writer friends presently sit downstairs and discuss their writing. Their published, passionate, professional writing. Their writing careers. Me? I'm just tinkering with my hobby. Having a good time.

I wanted to be a writer once. A journalist – to the chagrin of my lifer journalist dad who, sensing a great change coming in the field during the sunset of his career in the late 1990s, subtly asked me if I was sure. I steered myself into college, surprised as anyone that I was accepted into Creative Communications, and proceeded to become a solid C… er, C- student.

But my best marks came in the journalism portion of the program, largely due to a lack of spelling errors of names and places – a crime that came with an automatic assignment fail. (Even that achievement came with an asterisk – a classmate once flunked an assignment for not writing Portage la Prairie in full, yet I somehow escaped using the more colloquial "Portage".)

My journalism career ended soon after, before it even started. Tasked one day to attend a police newser and file a story by day's end, I was let loose with two dozen other student scribes to cover the mop-up from an armed North End standoff. Pounding on neighbours' doors, ambushing locals, describing a depressing scene. I can't remember what I even came out with for a story. But I didn't want this.

At the same time, we were filing scripts for radio ads in advertising class. I penned a 30-second scene in which an ad agency used a finicky gorilla to help sell beets (tagline: Manitoba beets, deliciously pink). There was slightly more to it than that, but I earned an A and basically, that was that.

Well, that and my journalism instructor explaining to me one morning while sitting side-by-side on a transit bus that I wrote solid lead paragraphs and that "maybe I should try advertising". Ouch.

January 18, 2015

Dear Diary: January 7-19, 1985

January 7, 1985

Today is the first day of school after the holidays. Jacob got mad at me. I hate Jacob, he is a inconsiderate bumb. Sorry I have to leave now. Bye!

I know Jake and I had better days in 1985; there's one near the end of January I'll expand on another time. I was an ace speller and grammar stud, but the word "bum" was a nemesis. I'm sure I was thinking along the lines of crumb, dumb and bumb. Jacob is a dumb crumb-bumb. That sort of thing. Why would bumb be different? I'd still like to argue this, but society and the dictionary have moved on.

-----

January 9, 1985

I scored the only goal for our soccer team. The score was 3 to 1 for the other team. They like scoring overtime, but they do it for fun. They still agree about the score. My team was very proud about me. I didn't even know I would score a goal. Anyway, I had a good day.

I'm spacing, but I believe this was Tuesday night open gym pick-up games at Mulvey School, and not during phys-ed class or recess. I was a pipsqueak – I didn't reach 100 pounds until I was thirteen – and wasn't destined for footy greatness by any stretch of the imagination. Even though I can't visualize this moment, I know how much it would have meant to me.

-----

January 14, 1985

I got to use the computer today. It was exciting! We used it in enrichment. We had that instead of gym.

A year later, our school had a MODEM and sometimes we were permitted to type messages to kids at other schools that had MODEMS. My friend Addison and I messaged with kids at Cecil Rhodes during one lunch hour because our teacher trusted us with the machine. We asked them if they were a BOY or a GIRL, and if they were a GIRL, if they were CUTE.

-----

January 15, 1985

It is Monday and sorta warm. It was boring today, so I don't have one thing to say today.

I still don't.

-----

January 17, 1985

I had a nice day. We got a new telephone today. It is burgundy purple. On the news a teenager was found since November 30th 1984.

Suspicious. I have a feeling my mom snuck in later and slid in that purple reference using my handwriting. She was deep into purple. Our house had purple trim, purple window frames, a purple porch. I can walk by the place even now, and some of the purple is still there. I know that phone was burgundy, skewing red. I know it. I cleaned and wiped it every Sunday.

The teenager found was Candace Derksen, found frozen and bound in a shed. Her death was a cold case for years and sadly, her story is still very much alive and in the news again this year.

-----

January 19, 1985

It is very very VERY late. It is 2:14 a.m. We watched two movies, 9 to 5 and a other movie. I am going to read my book now. Good night!

Friday night with sweet, confused dreams of Dolly Parton bounding through my nine-year-old head (that second movie must've been a pile of puke; I wish I remembered what it was). And this Jeope, 30 years later, is reeling at the notion his younger self needed book time to achieve sleep at 2:14 in the morning.

January 16, 2015

Pain In The Mouf

Look. Listen. I've got my phone at the ready; I'm calling the waaaah-mbulance. I don't care if your sinuses are acting up, or if you have a splitting headache from ear to ear and here to Kingdom Come. Don't bother me with the dripping details of your six-week-old cold. The epic of your eczema. The continuing saga of your swollen sacroiliac. I don't care if your trick knee can tell if a storm is coming, and it won't faze me if your ankle's twisted, your arches have fallen, or if your dogs are barking. Don't beak to me about phlebitis, arthritis, gingivitis, cirrhosis, halitosis or your Zemgus Girgensons. I don't want to hear about your back pain, migraine or any insanity in your membrane. I don't care if you're dizzy, woozy, sniffly, whiffly, jiffly, itchy, scratchy, shaky, achy, breaky or achy-breaky. Suck it up, Buttercup.

Because I have a canker sore, on my tongue.

January 14, 2015

Lost Horizon

There's something equal parts Zen-inducing and terrifying about a scene like this, a snippet of the winter drive near where I work (shot last March as a passenger, but entirely representative of my trip home this evening). The pros, if you can call them that – that the road itself on this day (and today) is dry, and mercifully straight – take the edge off the countless potential cons lurking in that low visibility. It's the city side of the commute I dreaded today, the 40 minutes it took to cover the initial 40 kilometres undone by the 50 minutes spent completing the final six klicks. 

I am thankful, however, there were plenty of tunes, grapes and other distractions for Scout, who handled that sluggish final hour strapped into her seat and coat like a twentysomething-pound boss.

January 13, 2015

Where In The World Is A Good Night's Sleep?


There's a teenager deep inside me that still views going to sleep as a defeat, who wants to rock-and-roll all night and a gradually decreasing portion of every day. To combat this cagey party animal, I match his dimming wits with my equally defiant inner geography nerd. The two wage battle on most work nights as I lie in bed attempting to find sleep. 

Kerry finds it odd that, rather than tune out with books or whale-song, my approach is to instead force my brain to perform overtime. Fortunately this brain is a great deal like the rest of me; when challenged, there comes a likelihood it will zone out. It's like listening to that womp-womping teacher in a Peanuts cartoon.

Geography is a passion – commence your own womp-womping now, if need be – and on a typical night, this is how things go down. OK brain, I say – typically not out loud – tonight we're going to name ten U.S. cities that start with each letter of the alphabet. And because you were such a smartass about it the last time we did this, an added rule: only one per state. Go.

Anchorage. Astoria. Austin. Albuquerque. Anaheim. Ann Arbor. Akron. Albany. Augusta. Annapolis. Easy peasy, Albany-zy.

Bellingham. Boise. Billings. Bismarck. Berkeley. Baton Rouge. Boulder. Biloxi. Brainerd. Birmingham.

Carson City… Cheyenne… Zzzzzzz… *snork*

… Des Moines… Zzzzzzzzzzzzz…

The next night: World cities. But nothing in Canada, the United States or Europe, big guy. Go.

Adelaide. Auckland. Agra. Amman. Algiers. Abidjan. Ankara. Acapulco. Aomori…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. The lights go down in the city.