After he died, I was interviewed a lot, asked about Douglas. I said that I didn’t think that he had ever been a novelist, not really, despite having been an internationally best-selling novelist who had written several books which are, a quarter of a century later, becoming seen as classics. Writing novels was a profession he had backed into, or stumbled over, or sat down on very suddenly and broken.
I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don’t even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they’ll realise that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won’t forget. Who can dramatise the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.
Once upon a time a long long time ago there was a downstairs kitchen in our house. It looked something like this:
…and despite its extreme ugliness when we bought the house we fully intended to use it for a time, then switch to the upstairs kitchen temporarily while we renovated.
But no. Once we started running water and flushing the upstairs toilet — and after my poor mother had spent an entire day cleaning the downstairs kitchen — we discovered that over in that corner the cabinets were mounted on a sheet of plywood, which Safety-Averse Former Owner (SAFO) had affixed there many years ago. It was there to cover for the fact that there was a massive, sewage-leaking crack in the house’s soil stack (the big pipe that carries all your wastewater to the sewer) behind the wall. It had been flinging sewage into the wall for so long that below cabinet level the wall/plywood/whathaveyou had dissolved, and the cabinets were full of dust and dried sewage.
Ew. Even if we had been able to clean the cabinets adequately, that wall had to disappear to get the stack fixed, which meant the cabinets had to go. Also note the extensive water damage on the ceiling due to SAFO’s ineptitude with tiling the upstairs bathroom. And there was no insulation in the walls, thus no space for wiring for things like lights and dishwashers. We’d need to build proper frame walls for that. Plus the roof developed a leak that ruined more of the ceiling and another wall.
So we ripped it all out, down to the brick. There was sewage soaked through all five layers of kitchen flooring, right down to the eighty-year-old joists.
I have no handy pictures of this phase, but here’s a shot down into the kitchen from the similarly destroyed upstairs bathroom to give a sense of the level of destruction:
You can see some of the new walls being framed in the lower room — they’re the new-looking 2x4s.
Then we got the plumbing and wiring totally replaced, closed the door on the kitchen and worked on the upstairs bathroom instead, because it’s really irritating to only have a functional bathtub in the basement. Especially one in a room with no heating vent and with the cast-iron tub touching the two outside walls — in winter, the tub got so cold you could burn your feet on it.
The bathroom’s now done but for several very tiny details and its very pleasantness has thrown the irritatingness of the tiny upstairs “kitchen” into sharp relief. If you can count the number of people that can work in a kitchen without bumping into each other, our upstairs kitchen is a zero-bum kitchen. You get in your OWN way in there, what with the fourteen inches of counter space, no drawers, and half-broken stove.
But look! Here’s that same corner of the downstairs kitchen yesterday morning:
Whee, drywall! (You can even see a bit of the ceiling there.)
And after drywall comes paint, and after paint comes the floor (which has been stacked up in the basement for several years) and the trim, and after the floor and the trim comes a crew of nice men who will install, you know, a kitchen. And there will be much rejoicing.
55: Approximate weight of a sheet of 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ drywall, in pounds.
9: Height in feet of our kitchen ceiling
639: Approximate number of muscles in the human body
600: Approximate number of those muscles that will hurt the next day if you spend a lot of time lifting 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ sheets of drywall up to the ceiling, balancing with varying degrees of precariousness on ladders and the corners of tables, and holding the drywall sheets up there while they’re screwed down. This includes the muscles between your ribs (the ones that make it hurt when you breath), the muscles in your instep, the full pectoral suite, the full gluteal suite, and more. Many more.
39: Approximate number of muscles in your face. I am happy to report that you can drywall without pulling these.*
*Assuming your marriage is good, that is. I suppose if you spend the day frowning and hollering at your spouse while also holding sheets of drywall over your head, you may be risking your facial muscles too. And then how will you call your RMT, hmm?
- Comments Closed
M: look! A robin! Do you know you are named after it?
Me: I see it! and yes.
M: I’m not named after anything.
Me: I suppose that’s true. Daddy isn’t either.
M: When I have a baby I’m going to name her after something. She’ll be called Tulip or Rose or Chrysanthemum or Petunia. Then she can do a flower dance after her name.
Me: What if it’s a boy? What will you call him then, Catnip?
M: Yeah. Lettuce or Catnip or Potato. Or Tree. Because we need more trees, and then he’d be one.
How odd to see this float through my inbox —
Quotation of the Day for April 4, 2008
“Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.”
– Alfred Sherwood Romer and Thomas S. Parsons, explaining the role of the human appendix, in The Vertebrate Body.
I remember doing a double-take on reading that sentence in that book, which is a formidable and otherwise utterly humour-free textbook. Thomas Parsons was a professor of mine, and a very good one, and in the vertebrate anatomy class in which we used that book he admitted to adding that sentence during the book’s revision.
As a professor he was old-school enough to wear a shirt and tie, but modern enough to wear his Zoology sweatshirt overtop and to get up on the lab counter to demonstrate the difference between reptilian hips and bird hips.
He taught me how to do excellent dissections with a blunt probe and an absolute minimum of scalpel, leading me to mutter disapprovingly when I later came across human bodies that had been dissected by scalpel-happy med students with no sense of subtlety.
He set insanely difficult bell-ringer exams, with specimens cut on the diagonal and all kinds of things where you’d waste half of your ninety seconds wondering what the heck the animal was, never mind identifying the bit of it with the pin in. His essay questions weren’t any easier. But then he’d scale up the marks so it was still possible to get a decent mark after all.
He had four season’s tickets to the opera and as his wife didn’t like opera he would take students. Not by invitation — by open call in class, first come first served. A brave thing, taking science geeks to the opera.
He was, in short, the sort of professor for whom you work hard not for yourself but because you don’t want to disappoint him.
He retired the same year I graduated and moved back to New Jersey to do some birding. I see he’s still doing that. We exchanged a few notes around the time I was applying to grad school. I’m sorry I didn’t keep up the correspondence, but it seemed he was settling very happily into retirement.
- Comments Closed
I thought I’d read about the craft of writing for this month’s challenge.
Quotation of the Day for March 19, 2008
“I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”
– William Gibson, writer
I don’t think William Gibson’s quite nailed it. If I sat and wrote for as long as the average person watches television I still doubt there’d be much in there that would be publishable — and if there were, it would be nonfiction almost certainly.
The art and craft of fiction writing is mysterious. All the authors in the book I read — Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times — pretty much agree. Nobody could, or would admit to, the faintest inkling of where their ideas come from. Some sit each day and study others’ writing, some meditate, some follow their dog around — it’s all very entertaining to contemplate — but the headwaters of the stream of fiction remain a pleasing mystery.
From the book’s essays, I think Kent Haruf (p.89) comes closest to a cogent explanation of the craft of writing:
Still, I have to say, writing is all messier and more a matter of dead ends and fits and starts than a recitation like this one makes it out to be. And perhaps because writing fiction — this weird practice of telling artful lies, this peculiar habit of inventing imaginary people who talk and move and sleep and dream and wake up and kick and kiss one another — is so bizarre in itself is the reason why writers have to find bizarre ways to make it possible even to consider doing it.
So of course they have to write in their underwear and face the backs of dressers. Of course they have to pull stocking caps down over their faces. Otherwise they might as well do something practical and ordinary, become doctors and lawyers and ditch diggers like everyone else.
- Comments Closed
- Comments Closed
If it’s a windy night, don’t put out your paper recycling until morning.
I’m not doing Earth Hour.
Yes, obviously I’m against climate change. But I think the whole Earth Hour notion is pointless and misguided for a number of reasons.
First, it’s yet more preaching to the converted. What’s the point of an event which caters only to those already sympathetic and in the know?
Second, it’s pointless. Turning off the lights for an hour is cute, but lights are only symbolic. My furnace uses more kilowatt hours than all the lightbulbs in my house put together. So does my stove.
Third, it’s a distraction, one of those things that makes people feel they’re doing something when actually they’re not. File it with those click-for-a-mammogram, click-to-donate-rice sites which exist to suck in advertising revenue far in excess of any donations. File it with driving a Prius, which is a. hardly clean to manufacture; b. only about 20% more efficient gas-wise than a normal car; c. reliant on electricity, which may well not be cleanly produced; d. a large chunk of metal taking up public space which could better be used for other things — i.e., it’s still a car. File it with switching to those hideous flourescent lightbulbs, which mean less heat produced, which means your furnace runs more and now you have hazardous mercury-containing waste instead of normal lightbulb waste, plus you get more migraines. You haven’t changed anything with any of these actions. They’re feel-good tricks that drive people to complacency and through their very triviality distract people from paying attention to the larger issues they’re supposed to highlight.
So yeah, I won’t be turning the lights out. But since I only ever have one light on at a time anyway, I doubt it would make much difference.
- In matters of plumbing, the answer to the question “Gee, do you suppose there’s still water in that pipe I’m about to cut?” is always “Yes”.
Additionally: Is it under pressure? Yes. Should you listen to your wife and put a bucket underneath, just in case? Yes. Is she going to roll her eyes as she makes a dash for the bucket and mop? Yes again.
- The successful installation of any sort of plumbing fixture always requires blood sacrifice. Mine, usually. If you ask me to help with plumbing you can be pretty sure it’ll be me who gets gashed/squashed/sanded/cut.
- Always pee before you get on the subway. The one time you think “oh, never mind, I’ll be home in twenty minutes” is the day there’ll be some massive delay and there you’ll be all squashed in there with twenty million other crabby people, and you with a bladder the size of a planet.
- Margarine is nasty. Buy butter.
- If you had a night of hideous insomnia, wash the sheets. Otherwise the insomnia cooties lurk in your pillows.
- As I discovered two years ago, always sit in the second of two exit rows on an airplane.
- Things on which one should not scrimp: facial moisturizer. Cat litter. Chocolate. Champagne. Tea. Jewelery. Concert tickets.
- Things which are perfectly good even though they’re cheap: non-Champagne sparkling wine. Train travel.
- Mayonnaise is not food.
- Neither is eggplant.
- Nor zucchini. Do not sully your body with these non-food items.
- Hit the “Save” button every time you pause for breath.
- Don’t litter. It won’t kill you to put whatever it is in your pocket.
- Shovel your sidewalk.
- Corrollary: Shovelling a neat path from your front door to your SUV while completely ignoring the sidewalk? Not cool. You will go to hell for that.
- Things you can do without but once you have them, there is no going back: air conditioning. High-speed Internet. Dishwashers. iPods.
- Libraries are truly wonderful places. Get to know yours.
- Life is a whole lot easier and more interesting if you are not squeamish.
- You come home and the kitchen is clean except for some yuckies in the drain which have been abandoned there by your spouse. You could think “that %#$%@ NEVER cleans the @#&^^# drain!” or you could think “hey, the kitchen’s practically clean — now all that needs to be done is to clean the drain”. Option #2 is better for your mental health and probably your relationship.
- Nonetheless, try to remember to clean the damn drain if it makes your spouse crazy when you forget.
- Rock, paper, scissors can be a very efficient decision-making tool.
- Quantum physics is very cool but it will make your brain hurt.
- If you need to replace a wax ring on a toilet, buy three. If you buy one, you’ll wreck it. If you buy two, you’ll wreck them both AND have a sore back from lifting the toilet twice. If you buy three, you’ll get it right on the first try.
- Don’t buy bottled water if you can help it. It’s absurd to package a zero-calorie item in plastic and then use yet more fossil fuels to ship it elsewhere. Let’s save the fossil fuels for shipping stuff that really matters, like the raspberries from Peru that make February survivable.
- Find work you like. Life is too short to do something you hate every weekday for forty years.
- Vote. If you don’t vote you don’t get to complain.
…or not. That’s a picture of my front garden as it appeared yesterday afternoon.
The other day I was going through my photos looking for something else entirely and I happened across this picture (below) from March 13 2007:
Note the lack of snow covering the garden. Note the beginnings of crocuses.
Today is March 20.
Hello? Spring? Please?
It’s a good thing Easter is super-early this year; at least we can console ourselves by grumpily biting the heads off chocolate bunnies.
- Comments Closed
- Comments Closed
Thursday evening I excavate M’s backpack and pull out two Magic Tree House books which she has chosen to bring home from the school library.
We’ve had week after week after week after week of educational nonfiction books about sea creatures. It’s entirely karmically appropriate given my own childhood reading preferences that I am now forced to spend hours reading aloud to my child about the digestive habits of sea cucumbers (in my professional zoological opinion, sea cucumbers are gross) and the locomotion methods used by brittle stars. But after months of contemplating the many uses and flavours of plankton I’m all OK, OK, I REPENT! PLEASE BRING ME SOMETHING WITH A PLOT!
I check out the Magic Tree House books. Nice — they look good, mostly fairly simple words with the odd challenging word (“sympathetically” for example) tossed in for interest and — oh thank you thank you — an actual plot.
Me: “Hey, these look great. Tell you what. I’ll read one to you and you’ll read one to me.” We have two weeks before they’re due and they’re pretty short books so I figure even if we crawl through them we stand a decent chance of finishing.
M: “I CAN’T READ CHAPTER BOOKS. THEY’RE TOO HARD.”
Me: “Nonsense. They have the very same words in them as all your other books and you read those just fine. We’ll give it a try. I’ll help you if you get stuck and if it gets too frustrating we’ll stop. The rule in your class is ‘try your best,’ right?”
After much fussing and resistance — TOO HARD! CAN’T! WON’T! SHAN’T! TOO HARD! — she picks the one about pirates. She climbs into the Reading Seat (a special recliner-cushion with armrests that lives on the foot of her bed and is only sat in by The Reader) and off we go. I mentally hold my breath.
But not for long. Four effortless pages and lots of positive reinforcement later I stop her only because it’s getting late and I don’t want her to get so tired she starts to fade. Plus it only seems fair that I do some reading too after she’s done all that great work. So I read a bit of the other book, one about an earthquake, and tuck her in for the night.
7am Friday, my alarm goes off. I curse at it as usual and then there’s this little voice from the other room:
“Mommy, are you talking in your sleep?”
“No, sweetie, I’m awake. Sort of. Not very. I was just shouting at the mean alarm clock for waking me up.”
…”Can I come do some more reading for you?”
- Comments Closed
My colleagues and I settled into our VIA trip yesterday. The snack cart went by, then the conductor came by to collect our tickets, perhaps 30 minutes out of Windsor. Just as the conductor was returning our ticket stubs his radio squawked: “Uh, we just hit something, over”. “OK” responds the conductor tersely, disappears. The train stops. Hm, I think, maybe I misheard that. I am constructing hopeful mental scenarios involving fallen branches on the tracks or maybe a stray dog.
We’re sitting in some fairly picturesque bit of landscape — Lake St. Clair on our left, some pretty cottages on the shore, some nicely-kept bungalows on the right, sun on fresh snow.
We sit there for a while, then there’s an announcement that there’s “been a serious incident with a pedestrian”. We could be delayed up to three hours. I’m not paying much attention up to that point; too busy fighting with the very spotty onboard wireless Internet to do a bit of work which nobody who was actually in the office that day was available to do. But “pedestrian” definitely catches my attention.
People in reflective vests check the outside of the train on both sides, front to back.
The Windsor Star shows up.
We sit there and sit there. The conductor wanders back in and the women sitting across from us ask if the “pedestrian” is OK. Don’t know, he says. Still alive? Don’t know.
Our student nurse wonders if she should’ve offered her help, and wonders how she would respond in a real emergency situation. We chat about that for a while: I say that I’m sure she’d be just fine, that in my experience you step up and do what’s necessary at the time, then once it’s over and you have time to sit down and actually process it a bit, the shakes and the panic start. I mention that after one spinal rescue I helped with at camp that all of our hands were shaking too badly to open a packet of coffee grounds (why we felt stimulants would help I have no idea, but we did) and we had to go find someone else to make the coffee for us. I also recall — but do not mention — being pulled out of lunch once to look for someone’s big toe after he did something foolish with a lawnmower, eventually concluding it had been more destroyed than severed, helping one fierce Scottish camp nurse talk the other rather wimpier camp nurse into giving him a decent whack of painkillers (“I’ll just give him a bit.” “No! It’s an hour to the hospital! Give him as much as you’d want for yourself!”), packing him and his mangled shoe full of blood (and, we hope, what’s left of his toe, but we’re SO not looking) into a car to the hospital, and then the deep strangeness of heading back to lunch. I don’t recall whether I ate anything else. I bet not.
It feels discordant to be sitting there looking out at the sun shining on the pretty lake.
Eventually it’s announced that in order to move again we need two new engineers and “clearance from the Coroner’s office”. Well, that answers that question, then. How are the engineers doing, we ask. Shaken up, says the conductor.
VIA announces that snacks are free for the rest of the trip and we all get a travel credit worth half the value of our tickets for the inconvenience of the delay, even though it’s not the slightest bit their fault. We compare this to Air Canada’s typical screw-you response to delays. More discordance as we munch free chocolate bars and debate whether we should risk the stinky train bathroom or whether our bladders might hold out until Union Station. No luck there. We risk the loo. The onboard Internet connection gets less spotty for a while and I finally get the unavoidable bit of work done.
More people in uniforms walk up and down the sides of the train.
After two hours the Coroner concludes there was no evidence it was an accident. Someone deliberately stepped in front of the train, it seems. Of course since it was deemed a suicide there is no news coverage.
I wonder if people who decide to step in front of trains recognize that there are real people driving them who’ll feel responsible for their deaths, or whether they just focus on the train itself as a source of oblivion?
- Comments Closed
Quotation of the Day for February 25, 2008
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allow us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
– Rebecca Solnit, from her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
- Comments Closed
The February challenge was to read and review a book about “heart”.
I intended to flake out with a fluffy and enjoyable romance but Telling Tales: Living the Effects of Public Policy (Sheila Neysmith, Kate Bezanson, Anne O’Connell, 2005) came up in my library hold queue and having read it I can’t think of a better book about heart.
The book is the final product of a three-year study which followed forty very diverse (in geography, income, ethnicity, generational makeup, etc.) Ontario households through the late 90s, interviewing them repeatedly and hearing in the participants’ own words the effects of the Mike Harris government’s policies on the participants’ lives. I read one of the early reports (c.1998) so I was very interested in the final results.
It’s about the lack of heart, really, and (although they don’t say so in so many words) the bloody-minded pointless punitiveness of the government of the day. They were elected on a platform of supposed fiscal conservatism and tax cuts, but let’s take one example from the book to see how that plays out for taxpayers. (Edited to add: this math and conjecture is mine; it isn’t from the book, although the book does include the descriptive bits I’ve mentioned below about Teresa’s situation.)
Teresa was a disabled young woman who had trained as a vet tech, but could no longer do that work because of her disability. Before the Harris government came in she was on welfare and was being retrained through the Vocational Rehabilitation Service as a medical secretary — IMO a good, suitable job for her. It would have built on her existing intelligence and skills and it is a job which allows part-time / temporary / intermittent work (because her disability might not permit her to work full-time).
Let us assume Teresa is 30 and let us assume that, because of her disability, she dies fairly young, say at 60. Let us also assume that for fifteen of her remaining years she is on welfare or doing her retraining, unable to work, so we only get fifteen years’ work out of her. Are we making a good investment in her retraining?
First, let’s give her welfare at $12,000 per year for two years for her living expenses while she finishes her college course. $24,000. But since she’ll stay on disability benefits forever unless she is retrained, she would’ve cost us this $12,000 per year even if she were not going to school so it comes out even with a permanent-welfare scenario.
Next, let’s give her tuition and books at $5,000/year. Another $10,000.
But then let’s assume that when she’s working she’s either covered or able to pay for her drugs and assistive devices herself. So we don’t have to pay for drug coverage in those years. Our total investment so far is still $10,000 additional dollars of public money.
However, during the fifteen years she does work, let’s assume she makes about $18,000 a year, and that she then pays, conservatively, 10% of that — $1,800/year — in taxes. We’ve now recouped $27,000 on an investment of $10,000 for a total profit of $17,000. Not a bad deal.
Not all of those dollars will go to the province but never mind; they’re tax dollars and I the taxpayer am happy they’re being received by whatever level of government receives them. During her working years Teresa will also be spending an additional $4,200 per year ($18,000 minus $1,800 in taxes minus the $12,000 we would’ve given her in welfare) in the community and that has further positive knock-on effects for the economy.
The Tories, naturally, cancelled the Vocational Rehabilitation Service when they came into office, so this fairly pleasant scenario never happened. Instead, they changed the rules so that you could no longer receive social assistance while also receiving OSAP. And if you took OSAP (which is not enough to pay for living expenses even for an able-bodied person) you lost not only your welfare but your drug card and your access to the assistive devices fund and all other supports. Teresa had to drop out of her course and apply for permanent disability benefits in order to retain her drug- and assistive-device benefits and thus remain alive.
Now since we’re kicking Teresa to the curb to save money, what kind of costs are we looking at?
First let’s assume that for fifteen years we come out even with the retraining scenario because Teresa would have been on welfare or doing her retraining during those years anyway.
Second, let’s be cruel and assume Teresa now saves us some money and dies at 55 instead of 60, because welfare is very bad for people’s health.
So she’s on welfare for 10 years beyond the 15 in the retraining scenario.
At $1,000 per month, which is roughly the disability benefit amount, we’re in for $120,000. Add in a conservative $100/month for drugs, and add in 5 instances of assistive-device replacement at a conservative $500 each time. Total: $134,500.
Let’s compare: $17,000 in public profit and a happy and productive client vs. a cost of $134,500 and a whole lot of misery. It makes no fiscal or logical sense.
Multiply this scenario by the thousands of people who were affected by these “cost-cutting” policy changes.
As one fairly well-off study participant noted on pp.97-98,
I have come to realize that we are living in an historical context where decision-makers are saying through their actions that we — as a society — are no longer responsible for vulnerable people. I find that very disturbing. There is something wrong with that kind of society.
Oh, and about those famous, precious tax cuts? p.166:
Not a single household spoke about the benefit of tax cuts as a buffer or replacement for needed services and employment opportunities.
You see what I mean about heart?
- Comments Closed
- Comments Closed
By David Rakoff
Don’t Get Too Comfortable is a series of Rakoff’s essays on the simultaneous pleasantness and embarrassing excess of modern American life — as it says on the cover, “the indignities of coach class, the torments of low thread count, the never-ending quest for artisanal olive oil, and other First World problems”. It’s presented as satire, but while he freely skewers trends and American society as a whole, he’s often surprisingly gentle to individuals (with the notable exceptions of himself and Karl Lagerfeld) — more “awwww” than “ooh, that must hurt”. On a man who has the peculiar and thankless job of working for an advocacy group of gay Republicans:
It is Guerriero who has used the word “bearable” numerous times over the course of our lunch, always to justify his remaining in the job. My delusions are of a different, somewhat patronizing variety. Looking across the table, I keep thinking that Guerriero will take off the mask at any moment. Here we are, after all, away from the dreary office, both gay, enjoying a sprightly conversation about politics without rancor or name-calling. At some point, he will see the futility of trying to fight for gay rights within the Republican Party and off we’ll go to the nearest independent bookstore (with a brief stop at the Phillips Collection to see its wonderful Edward Hoppers) to buy Al Franken’s latest tome, all the while laughingly shaking our heads at Guerriero’s misguided, delusional episode working for Satan. What I am feeling about Guerriero has been felt about intelligent, handsome, confirmed bachelors such as him from time immemorial. I am thinking: I can change him.
If it’s biting satire you’re looking for, this isn’t it. But he writes well and it’s a very pleasant read.
- Comments Closed