Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Wintering Has Begun 

It has begun. Despite being only mid-November, Buffalo is under 2 metres of snow in some places and most everywhere else is suffering from skin shrivelling arctic wind. Today was the first day I broke out a pair of new winter boots. I would’ve been happier if they never saw the light of day. Yesterday, I donned my winter coat about a month earlier than I expected. Toronto is supposed to have a measly 5 cm or so of snow this afternoon. If previous weather forecasts are an indication of what we’ll expect, we’ll probably get fog. But this isn’t how the Wintering begins.

It starts internally, like a clock switched from Daylight Savings Time to Bear Sleepy Sleepy Nap Time. I’ve already packed on a few pounds. It’s been too cold to really feel like going for a swim. Expectation of snow and ice means I’ve left the bike at home and the only thing I really want is a chocolate dipped bacon double-cheese burger dropped into my mouth while I recline on a sofa.

So that’s it then. So long “well-fitting trousers”. Say good-bye to wakefulness, focus or ambition. From now on the only goal my primitive brain desires is to convert carbohydrates to fat at all costs. This is what my winter brain commands me: sleep as much as possible and if you happen to be awake, then please fill your always open maw with bread, muffins, cake, suet, shortening and sugar. Tamp it down with a hockey stick if you have to. Turn off the lights, turn up the heat and lock the doors. It tells you to give up. From now until March, my mouth will be a one-way drive-thru where stewed meats, pies, biscuits, cheese, bacon and chocolate will enter and – like The Hotel California – never leave. I will bloat up and spill over all furniture. Don’t bother exercising. It’s useless, unless I enjoy the lie that if I work up a bit of a sweat I then deserve a pile of poutine. I don’t. I won’t worry about my dry, flaking and pallid skin. No one will see me beneath every woollen cap and scarf I can wrap myself in.

Let it happen, bring it on. This is my nature. Why fight it? This is what millions of years of evolution have led to. I like to think of it as a Slightly Slovenly Princely Period. Oscillating between bouts of ennui and gluttony, I’ll take my place under the blankets while the grilled cheese sandwich I ate settles and I douse my thirst with a heavy winter ale. For this is the only thing a northern European male is any good at. Eating, sleeping and gaining weight. I hope there’s something on television at least. It doesn’t matter. I’ll watch it anyway.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I Remember This One Time… 

A couple of years ago, during November, I was unlocking my bike somewhere on Queen Street West when a man approached me and politely asked,
“Excuse me, but could you tell me what that is?” He was pointing to my Remembrance Day Poppy.

“This?” pointing to the plastic flower pinned to my jacket, “It’s a poppy…” I’m sure my response sounded incredulous.

“But what is it? What’s it for? Why is everyone wearing them?” He really didn’t know?

At this point, I’m guessing my face was like a kid who’d just bitten her first Brussels sprout, “It’s for Remembrance Day.”

“What’s that?”

Was this guy some kind of idiot? Was I being pranked on a hidden camera reality show? “…Armistice Day? The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”

Now I became my mother, “What do you mean you don’t know what that is? Marking the end of the Great War, World War I, WWII, all wars…”

“But why the flower? Sorry, I’m not from here, I’m American”

Okay, now I was getting pretty peeved – “In Flanders field, row on row, the poppies grow (something, something)… the famous poem about war. I mean, Americans died in that war, too.”

“But we don’t have it”, now he was the one sounding indignant.

“It’s like Memorial Day,” then remembering that Memorial Day weekend was more like our May 24th, I quickly added, “or Veteran’s Day – it’s a time for remembering all those who died in war and those who served in any war.”

“Oh, okay, I didn’t know. Thanks.” and he continued on his way while I stood there thinking, “Americans?!”

I can’t say I came away from the encounter feeling good about informing a visitor to our fair city about a solemn time of year. I was honestly angry that almost every American I’ve met really expects the rest of the world to know their stupid holidays and traditions by rote, and yet they can’t be bothered to know an event their closest neighbours and important European allies follow. Come to think of it, Brits are a little the same way. They genuinely think you should give a toss about the Battle of Agincourt but are perpetually ignorant about Canadian history, politics or geography. I mean come on, it is a pretty large land mass to be completely blind to. You wouldn’t believe the shock when I tell them that Newfoundland is about half the size of Great Britain, but the combined size of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is about four times the size of Great Britain. Yes, that is the size of one of the provinces of a country you completely ignore. Anyway, this is beside the point.

The point is two-fold. One, it is disheartening when people don’t take Remembrance Day to heart and two, that poppy pin is one of our greatest icons, yet the pin itself is unfathomably badly designed. There are so many options that it could be. The straight pin could be coiled at the top to keep the bits together. Or it could be an actual button with a clasp on the back or it could be a stamped and screened one piece plastic token like the kind you get at a museum, or alternatively a metallic one printed with a sort of flocked ink with a bendable tab which is like a more traditional pin that museums use. I don’t mean this as a design snob but as someone who thinks we should treat a cherished icon and tradition with more respect (much much more respect). Every year I think of prototyping something and it’s always too late, but this year I’m giving myself a deadline and actually going to do something about it because the people who have died in conflicts deserve better. The poppy isn’t a symbol of neo-colonialism as some wonks have said, it’s a symbol the waste of human life and the devastation that war brings and we should remind ourselves of that by treating the symbol itself a little better.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

a Rainy Day in November 

See the full album or download shots at Flickr

I had a handful of reasons for my recent trip to Newfoundland. Seeing family for one, visiting my father’s grave for another and as I didn’t really take a holiday this summer I felt I needed a good block of time away from work. I took a week to move in May, a smattering of days off in the summer to run errands and that was it. So I felt I was due for a break. Primarily though, my niece was getting married and I wanted to be there for that. Coincidentally, the wedding date was close to another brother’s birthday so that was a bonus.

Unfortunately, November is just such a crap month. For me it’s up there with March as one of the worst times of the year. I had grand plans of renting a bike or getting out and about if the weather co-operated which of course, it did not. Partially it is that very turn of the weather that causes the suck-apocalypse that is November. Though technically still autumn until December 21, November is when this part of the world tilts its shoulder into winter. Then there is the almost fetishistic remembrances of deathly wars and sacrifice which surreally bumps between the obnoxious drunkenness of Halloween and the excessive and nauseating early advertising for Christmas.

It was no surprise really that for the fourteen days I was home, it rained on twelve of them. Sometimes it rained violently. Other times it was that heavy mist, fog and drizzle that leaves you soaking in a velvet covering of droplets. The wedding day was like all of those days rolled into one. The sky was a torn sheet of grey and white; sometimes the rain was light while at other times it assaulted you. For all of that, it was a great, great day that I won’t soon forget. I’m glad I went and I’m really glad I got to meet some of the twenty-somethings who are Newfoundland’s greatest resource* (oil and mining aside and fishing having vanished). My mother was flummoxed by all the parties and loud music but in the end she stayed late, late, late at the reception and genuinely basked in the fun of it all. I think I originally thought the largesse of the event seemed ungainly and aspirational, but I have to admit that it was the size it was because that was the size it had to be.

I should also say, for the first time, in a very long time, my faith in Newfoundland “cuisine” has been renewed. By God how I’ve missed the carnal pleasures of a hot turkey sandwich with chips, dressing and gravy, or one of Aunt Mabel’s cakes or my mother’s partridgeberry pie. Even simply saying the phrase “chips, dressing and gravy” is a salve to my soul. It could be Newfoundland’s unofficial motto. Though it pains me to say this, so long Ches’s, you are but a late night stomach lining compared to the fish and chips (dressing and gravy) of the Duke of Duckworth. By volume I drank far more Coor’s Lite than anyone should admit, yet it is the Q.V. Honey Brown that stole my heart (from the Quidi Vidi Brewery). I’m proud that I only gained a few pounds on this trip rather than a few dozen I probably should have – coinciding as it did with the sugar-fest of Halloween

It’s funny, but I sort of rushed buying a camera I had my eye on for this trip (it went on sale at just the right time) thinking I’d take tons, metric tonnes, gigabytes of photos with it. I quickly realized it was a little more camera than I was accustomed to and I could not see carrying it around with me, thus I resorted to my old faithful phone. In the coming weeks I’m getting a new phone too, but in a sense it will be like getting a camera upgrade. I’m particularly looking forward to super slo-mo on the iPhone and continuing to use Instagram’s great app, Hyperlapse. Having said that, I’m also looking forward to getting a compact lens for the new camera and exploring a lot more with a lighter more compact camera.

Maybe with new cameras in tow, I’ll get out in the messiness that is November in Toronto and enjoy being out in the elements a bit more. There are definitely times when I feel like I’m not Canadian enough because I prefer the comfort of a couch over the damp of a duck blind. I just don’t celebrate the outside very much, unless I’m running, biking or driving through it. Maybe a good lens is all I need to stop and soak it up more. Or maybe I’ll get soaked. That’s okay though as the best part of getting wet, is the drying out and warming up.

*unavoidable cliché alert which is slightly funnier read in the trembling timbre of Rex Murphy


Home is Where the Hearth is 

Why can't I have nice things?

Recently, I rushed into a sizeable purchase with terrible consequences; I bought a house. Worse, of my main reasons for buying it were in this order a) the location - downtown, close to everything including work, b) it had a parking space, c) it had a backyard, albeit a small one, d) it had a real live working fireplace. Sure there were some downsides like electric heat, but I saw an opportunity to convert to natural gas (a neighbour had a clearly visible gas meter). Yet somehow all the pluses have gone sour. The location is downtown, maybe “too” downtown. For me to get to work, I have to cross through the most congested and busy part of the city. Despite being relatively close to work, it’s a harried and stressful bike ride. The parking space is there, but I never use it because I don’t own a car. I have not used the backyard and the fence, the deck and the shed all need to be replaced.

Here’s the kicker: I discovered today that the house does not have a working fireplace. Sure I could use it but a recently built condo building is too close to the stack thus disrupting air draw causing smoke to back fill into the house. To make matters worse, it’s what is called a factory built fireplace, essentially a small firebox, more akin to a wood stove with no front door. Basically, it’s really just a hole in my house to let a draught in. This means I cannot have a wood stove insert. Additionally, I can’t get natural gas to the house without incredible expense. Yes my neighbour has access to a gas line but I would require easements across two properties to get the line. The gas company has told me it would take six months just to get an estimate.

I do, however, have a plan. First find out the cost of making the fire place work (think: scaffolding to roof, extending stack 20 feet, tearing out the fire place and replacing it with a free-standing wood stove and so on and so on), then find out the cost of a new fence, paving (possible drainage issues) and a shed for the back yard, then find out the cost of updating the upstairs bathroom – new toilet, floor tile, re-tile the shower, replacing the vanity and possibly the tub. Then compare those costs and ask myself what would give me the greatest pleasure and use. Hands down my list would be in this order:
  • 1. Back yard
  • 2. Add A/C
  • 3. Bathroom redux
  • 4. Fireplace - wood stove
And that’s just the way it will be. Sometimes you just have to say these things out loud to know what to do.

Crisis delayed. Decision made.


Monday, November 03, 2014

Seen in October 

The Battered Bastards of Baseball tells the short but spectacular life of a single-A ball club, the Portland Mavericks, owned and operated by Bing Russell, actor and father of actor Kurt Russell. Image via the Cleat Report

This must be unprecedented. In the entire month of October I saw only 2 films? Watching series two of Ripper Street clearly took up the bulk of my viewing (not counting repeats of Brooklyn Nine-nine), which I guess accounts for about nine hours of viewing but still, it’s hard to believe. I mean, I feel like I watch a lot of television but maybe it’s more like a drawer of odd socks than full suits?

Ripper Street series 2
The 19th century never seemed so thrilling and excruciating than this. This police procedural set in 1800s London Whitechapel makes the City seem so seedy, unseemly, vile and violent, it’s a wonder anyone wanted to live in what essentially was a cesspool of humanity. Why not just work in a coal mine or a farm or something? Better yet, take a boat to America. Still, it’s great viewing and the primary characters have all had their turn. The lonely, too-noble-for-his-own-good Captain Edmund Reid always takes the moral high ground until that ground shifts uncontrollably beneath him. Reid’s Sargent Bennet Drake loses his taste as Reid’s attack dog after losing his wife to a weirdly Victorian cult (based on a real occult organization of Victorian London). Lastly, the shiftless but innovative and talented American doctor, Captain Homer Jackson finally loses the faith and trust of his wife, Long Susan, who in turn decides to never trust another man. All of this season long turmoil did give the series the feeling of ending but without any real resolution so it’s disappointing to discover the BBC cancelled the show only to have Amazon pick it up – meaning it will only be available to Amazon subscribers.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Chris Pine plays marine Jack Ryan as he is recruited by the CIA as an analyst only to be later thrust into action as a field agent. Kevin Costner is great as Ryan’s mentor and handler. The story combines the dryness of a financial analyst tracking unscrupulous Russian investors with the action you’d expect of an American spy thriller. Kiera Knightley has a strangely large role as Ryan’s fiancé. I say strange because I was convinced of an entirely different sub-plot that never developed which involved her character. I’d be surprised if Pine didn’t reprise this role in the future.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Highly entertaining Netflix documentary about an independent minor league baseball team (meaning unaffiliated with a major league club) owned and operated by the actor Bing Russell, Kurt Russell’s father. I’d always known Kurt Russell had played minor league ball but never imagined it was his father’s club. It’s also surprising given the Bad News Bears type back story that this hasn’t been made into a feature length Hollywood film. Maybe no one would believe that a Portland A-league team (that’s a single “A” instead triple-A) made up of cast-offs and guys who showed up to an open tryout would go on to have sold-out home games and contend for the league’s pennant against teams consisting of players with big league contracts biding their time in the minors. They certainly didn’t play for the money and looked like they had way more fun than should be allowed in any profession. In short, they played for the only reason anyone should play sport, for the love of the game.

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