The Swimmer

riverThe swimmer stood on the dock, contemplating the lazy current in the river. The warm spring, followed by the sunny days of early summer, had warmed the water enough to make the crossing less a challenge than a few weeks back, when he had first done it. It was still early enough in the day that the boaters weren’t on the water yet. The morning was calm and quiet, the sky clear and bright.

The perfect time for a swim.

He dropped his robe on the dock beside his towel, and prepared to dive.

“Just a moment!” a voice from the shore interrupted him. He turned to see a man in a dark grey suit striding purposefully along the dock towards him. He carried a briefcase in one hand and was holding a cellphone against his left ear with the other.

“Can I help you?” the swimmer asked, somewhat confused by the stranger’s interruption.

“Busby. George Busby. Municipal policies and planning department.” The stranger stuffed the phone into a pocket, and shoved his hand at the swimmer, who shook it automatically, but hesitantly. “You intending to swim today?”

“I am. Why?”

“Your plan, of course. We need to see your plan.”

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The Tribulations of an Evil Mastermind

Despicable MeSome days it doesn’t pay to be an evil mastermind plotting to destroy the very fabric of our community. Seriously. It’s just too damned hard keeping all the bits and pieces together.

Take today, for example. Here I was, out with my co-conspirator minions at a local restaurant this morning, trying to come up with some new, despicable act to commit and what do they want to talk about? Grand kids. The weather. Snow plow blades. Pickup trucks. The Republican candidates. Movies. Christmas dinners. New Year’s Eve plans. Monty Python skits.

Monty Python skits! How can you seriously concoct a plot to overthrow democracy when someone keeps breaking in with lines from Holy Grail or Life of Brian?  Then they go into the back-and-forth, trading lines from the cheese shop skit or the argument skit.

You just have to wait it out until the laughter dies down because you’re not supposed to bring out the whip in public places.

Worse, they had toast. Toast! Can you imagine how difficult it is to focus their nasty little minds on being evil miscreants when they’re always asking the waitress for more jam or peanut butter? And then you have to repeat everything because they can’t hear you over the crunching noises.

And don’t get me started on the interruptions for coffee refills. What kind of Machiavellian has to get up in mid-plot to go get more coffee? Everyone else has to shut up and wait until he gets back because otherwise you just have to repeat yourself all over again. As if it wasn’t bad enough doing it when they had toast.

I tell you, being an evil mastermind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Then I was supposed to go home and print up a bunch of Evil Manifestos to distribute to the populace, and thus destroy confidence in our local government and foment the populace to revolt against them. But I ran out of printer ink.

Why does the printer never run out the day before you’re ready to run riot in the streets? Couldn’t it give you some sort of warning?

It’s really hard to get the revolution started in Staples where you spend an hour trying to figure out what printer model you own so you can buy the right ink cartridges. I mean, why can’t they give printer models names instead of those stupid code names? PRZ6103ZC2. C3PEO-455DWX. LMNOP7890.

I can’t even remember the manufacturer’s name, let alone all those letters and numbers for the model. Why don’t they make it easy? I’m an aging evil mastermind, not some twenty-something nerdy one. My computer and my car dashboard are already covered with sticky notes so I will remember to pick up milk when I’m out bringing down western society.

By the time you’ve found a sales associate (yeah, that takes a while in itself…) who can figure out which one of the 1,500 possible printer models you have and then tell you the ink’s out of stock until next week, well the glow is pretty much off the revolution by then. And even when they do come in, you have to shell out $100 for the damned things. I sometimes think I should charge people for the manifestos instead of just giving them away. Or just print them without cyan. Who needs cyan ink to ruin the world, anyway?

But then, even if I had the ink and was ready to overthrow the establishment, I have to walk the dogs first. You can’t bring down society when your dogs need to pee. You’d only have a wet spot on the carpet afterwords, if you didn’t do it beforehand.

Mrs. Evil Mastermind does not take well to wet spots on her carpet.

I tell you, I’m getting to old for this stuff. Maybe I’ll trade in my secret decoder ring (necessary for getting all that confidential information translated) and my membership card in the Despicable Me Society and stick to playing the ukulele.

Next time, I’m ordering toast, too.

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Is This Your Bar of Soap?

Firesign Theater

This is side five. Follow in your book and repeat after me as we learn three new words in Turkish:
Towel.
Bath.
Border.

So begins Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, from the first album released by the Firesign Theater, in 1968 (on later albums spelled as Theatre). Everything in it is a misdirection, a sidestep, a pun, an unexpected segue, a joke-within-a-joke, an opening to another place you hadn’t expected to be led to.

May I see your passport please?

Yes, I have it right here. (sounds of busy airport terminal in background)

Uhum. Uhum. Uhum. Look at this. This photograph doesn’t look a bit like you, now, does it sir?

Well, it’s an old picture.

Mmh, mmh. Precisely.

Is there, uh, anything wrong?

Oh no, no, no, no. Would you mind waiting over there, please? Just… leave your bags.

But my passport…

Next please.

Who can forget that journey into the surreal that starts with these words? It’s dark, it’s zany, it’s deep. Very Firesign. Within a few moments they have created a world, and an Orwellian world at that, a world that draws you in.

If you’ve never heard it, then listen to this little snippet:

I had one of those moments, recently, when writing an email to someone, an acquaintance, when a line from the FST just popped into my head. That happens with song lyrics, at times, but less frequency for FST lines than it used to. But it still does; lines that just float to the surface unbidden. Dr. Benway. Nick Danger. Ralph Spoilsport. Antelope Freeway, one half mile…

I just tossed it in, a throwaway in my letter. And to my surprise, in his response, he noted he recognized the source. So there are still some of us left out there who remember.

That sent me scampering through my library to look for The Big Book of Plays, the scripts of the first few FST albums, a book which I once owned. Apparently not any longer. Lent to someone, I suppose, years ago, and it was never returned.

I spent some time looking to buy another online only to discover it has been reprinted with another FST book under the title Marching to Shibboleth.

Of course, I had to order a copy.

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Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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Creating a New Citizens’ Group

ProtestRecently, I’ve been told that what this town needs is a new citizen’s action group. I imagine it will be a group of residents concerned that the precedents set by the last council might spread to this one. That’s clearly a worrisome trend to some folks. Like progress, good ideas must be nipped in the bud.

What this town needs, it seems, is a group of citizens who will eagerly file OMB challenges to stop any chance at growth, development, prosperity and jobs before they become endemic. Citizens who will fight to retain our brownfields, to ensure we have store closings, half-finished developments and the slow withering away of the downtown.

Citizens who want the town to work aggressively against businesses, event promoters and developers for the long-term failure of this community. Citizens who demand council be at loggerheads with anyone who wants this town to grow and prosper or, gods forbid, open a business here. Scare them away. Close the door and keep them out.

So I’ve been thinking about what we might call this group and the causes they might stand for (and against). I’ve come up with a few ideas, based in no small part on reflecting on the groups that masqueraded as ratepayers’ groups in our past:

CARECitizens Advocating to Repeal Everything. In the next four years this council has plenty of time to revisit every decision the last council made – and I’m sure the bigger decisions will come back to the table in short order to be reverted or repealled. But why stop there? Why not repeal the whole Official Plan so we could remake the map of Collingwood from scratch? This group would be dedicated to the proposition that, just because a decision made by the last council wasn’t wrong or improper doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. It might even go right back to repealling the town’s name and changing it back to Hens & Chicken Harbour. One might even think the majority of this council already belong to this group.

I had thought to call this RDROEDDFPResidents Determined to Re-Open Every Damned Decision From the Past  – but it’s too hard to remember.

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The Story of Chicken Little

Chicken LittleChicken Little was out one morning walking around town. It was a fine morning, and he decided he wanted a cup of coffee. He wanted one so much could even smell the coffee in the air. So he walked into a local restaurant. But then he stopped and his mouth fell open in horror.

He saw three horses sitting together at a table. Chicken Little didn’t like horses in general, but these were the Three Horses of the Apocalypse. The Three Horses he hated more than any other horses in the whole wide world. The most evil, nastiest, ugliest, horses he had ever seen. Talking. Laughing. Drinking coffee.

Clearly plotting. That’s what horses do: they get together to talk, to laugh, to drink coffee, and to plot. And when horses plot, it means the sky must be falling.

“My, oh, my,” he said to himself. “They’re talking. They’re laughing. They’re drinking coffee. The sky is falling. I can feel it. A piece just hit me! I must run and tell the Weasel about it!”

And Chicken Little skedaddled out of the restaurant as fast as his little legs would carry him while he sent text messages to all his friends.

“They sky is falling!” he texted.

“WTF?” they texted back, but he was too much of a hurry to explain.

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Thurber’s Writings & Drawings

James ThurberBooks of James Thurber‘s cartoons and writing were always on the shelves at my grandparents’ home, as well as on my parents’ bookshelves. I read them, as I did everything else on those shelves, when I was quite young.

I still remember his odd, eccentric cartoons with their primitive lines but sharp and bizarre wit, although I can’t recall much if any what stories I read of his back then (and I am looking forward to reading today what I haven’t read since I was in my early teens).

Yet despite my fuzzy memory for literature of my past, I still recall the enjoyment of doing so at my grandparents’ home during the Sunday dinner; a house full of family; uncles, aunts and cousins bustling about. Me sitting in a stuffed chair reading while the adults fussed in the kitchen and drank wine, and the younger kids played on the living room floor. The books were worn, hardcovers well-thumbed and a little yellowed. Some had tattered dust jackets, others none. I loved their feel and their smell.

There were other titles I recall, too from that era: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Boys’ Own Annual, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), Beano comic collections (sent over every Christmas by my English grandparents), encyclopedia volumes, The ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping, a big family bible, some pre-war books on engineering and mechanics. I eagerly read them all.

That redolent warmth of family get-togethers; the shared, noisy space and the pleasures of reading and playing, followed by a homemade meal and then crowding around the TV to watch Ed Sullivan – it all came back to me when I recently found a collection of Thurber’s works in a local used book store – mint condition, too!

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The Hunting of the Snark

Hunting of the SnarkI’ve always wondered why Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, The Hunting of the Snark – an Agony in Eight Fits – has never been redone, rewritten in a modern version, with modern references and people. It seems to lend itself to revision, at least to my eyes.

Perhaps it’s because this sort of whimsical, satirical poem is not popular these days (it was written between 1874 and 76, a decade after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and three decades after Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense).

Perhaps it’s because it’s a long poem, and reworking it all would be a considerable effort. After all, it’s roughly 4,400 words and you need to make it both scan and rhyme.

Perhaps it’s because of the language: a combination of formal and nonsense writing. Wikipedia reminds us Carroll borrowed from himself with eight portmanteau words he coined earlier:

Eight nonsense words from “Jabberwocky” appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in “Jabberwocky”), outgrabe and uffish.

The Jabberwocky, from Through The Looking Glass, was equally brilliant, perhaps more so because of its brevity. Who can forget those wildly imaginative immortal opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Perhaps it’s because Carroll was just too brilliant to imitate that these works have not been widely imitated or mimicked. Who, today, could out-Carroll Lewis Carroll with similar language and fancy?

Snark has been replicated in various – sometimes odd – ways, such as Mike Batt’s 1986 concept album, released as a musical on DVD in 2010. But these are tributes, not reinventions.

And what did Carroll himself mean by the poem? Is it just entertaining nonsense, or was it an allegory? Late in his life, Carroll “agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.” Others have suggested it was:

  • an allegory for tuberculosis,
  • a mockery of the Tichborne case,
  • a satire of the controversies between religion and science,
  • the repression of Carroll’s sexuality, and
  • a piece against vivisection
  • a “voyage of life”,
  • “a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,”
  • Carroll’s comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos
  • comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation,
  • “attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos.”
  • dealing with existential angst
  • Carroll’s satire of himself.

So it’s pretty much open to interpretation. Reads always have to answer for themselves what or who the Snark represents – and what a Boojum really is.

Hunting of The Snark
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Collingwood: 2114

I had one of those odd dreams recently; a crazy mix of future and past, where rotary dial phones and smart phones co-existed, where past and future intersected. A retro-future dream. I was in Collingwood, an odd Collingwood, but it was still my home town: recognizable,familiar,  but also changed. Modernized in striking ways, old-fashioned in others. A calendar  told me it was 2114. It looked a bit like 1964, too. Odd how dreams do that.

Admiral CollingwoodI thought I’d share some images of that dream, of what Collingwood might be like in a century. Using a combination of arcane and highly secret technologies (as a member of a secret underground conspiracy, I have access to them…), I was able to capture some of the images for your enjoyment and enlightenment. Click on the images for a larger version of the image.

In my dream, I wandered around the town, looking at the old landmarks, and the new developments. My, how our small town had grown! It was bigger, brighter, happier.

First, I saw in the bright world of 2114, that the Admiral Collingwood development finally got completed. It combined both graceful, heritage-like style and soaring height for a breathtaking visage. The additional landscaping was a nice touch, but I wonder what the NVCA of my day would have said about the water feature that dominated part of the old lot.

HarbourThen looking towards the north end of the downtown, I saw that the waterfront development had also – finally – come to fruition and completion. It was packed with crowds of people strolling along the bay in the sun.

No more gaping holes in the ground. No more unfinished and uninviting streetscapes. No decaying hoarding trying in vain to hide the incomplete footings. No weeds. Instead there were beautiful condos, wide walking paths, beautiful landscaping, and plenty of boats in the water.

Eat your heart out, Wasaga Beach! This was the most beautiful waterfront on South Georgian Bay!

But there was more to see.

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Archy and Mehitabel

Archy and MehitabelI can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages.  That old book smell.

Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*

The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?

Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle  cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.

Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.

MehitabelI was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.

Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.

The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.

Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.

All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.

Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.

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The Enemies List

TyeeCanadians barely lifted an eyebrow in surprise when it was revealed that our Prime Minister had an “enemies list” compiled as a warning to newly-minted cabinet ministers laying out who they can’t trust. I mean, we’ve lived with Harper as leader long enough not be shocked by anything that seems petty, autocratic, paranoid or Republican.

So what if the list was so long it had to be delivered in several boxes and had more names than the GTA white pages?

The Toronto Star editorialized about how the “PMO’s derisive and adversarial tone is rightly ringing alarm bells.” Clearly they haven’t been paying close attention to the PMO these past several years. Most Canadians assumed the PMO had trademarked “derisive” and “adversarial” as their own.

Then they threw in what’s become another meme: the comparison between Harper and former US President, Richard Nixon and, inevitably, Watergate:

The comparison to Nixon is unsettling. The disgraced former president was thought to view dissenters as adversaries to be destroyed rather than debated. The enemies list is just the latest piece of evidence that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a tendency to think the same way.

Uh huh. Harper-as-Nixon isn’t necessarily a bad thing, from Harper’s perspective. After all, Nixon made a successful comeback from being the butt of media jokes to being the President. Sure he lied and schemed his way into the job; he was mistrustful, suspicious, controlling, manipulative and dishonest. But that’s not a bad role model for Stephen. Some might argue Stephen is far more cunning and treacherous than Nixon ever was. Maybe he considered it high praise.*

And Nixon had a List. Twenty names, that’s all. Well, that and the 576 names on his Other List. But for a country with more than 200 million at the time, 596 enemies isn’t all that many. Barely enough to fill a regiment. Stephen can do better, Surely he can muster at least a division’s worth of enemies. Maybe even a whole corps of them.

Andrew Coyne, writing in the NatPost with biting tongue-in-cheek, basically made the point that the list of perceived enemies might actually be close to infinite.

The PM (or at least the PMO) is suspicious of or fears anyone who doesn’t share Stephen’s ideology. That person goes on the list.

That’s a big list, since one of his favourite political games seems to be “guess what I’m thinking” – the loser gets booted out of caucus, the winner gets to sit in a minister’s chair (until the next round). Just ask Helena. Or Peter Kent.

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The CAO Conspiracies

John BrownCollingwood has appointed an interim CAO, John Brown, former city manager of Brantford, St. John’s and Oshawa, to help the town’s administration and governance during the interim while we search for a full-time CAO.

This will, of course, send the bloggers into a frothing tizzy of frenetic accusations and conspiracy theories. So to save them the effort of having to explain this, I have written some plausible conspiracy theories for them to consider for their own use:

1. It’s actually Paul Bonwick, cleverly disguised by cosmetic surgery to look shorter, older and bald. Paul was last seen boarding a plane to the Orient this spring, where skilled Asian surgeons operating out of a secret Liberal off-shore medical facility funded by casino resort developers, cunningly changed his appearance by artificially aging his skin and removing several vertebrae to shorten him. Most of his hair was removed and the remainder dyed white to help the disguise. He returned to take control of the town as soon as his scars had healed. He has already sent secret, coded emails to Justin Trudeau about his success. The giveaway is the Liberal red in his tie, and his resemblance to his sister.

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