Archive for February, 2010

Small Cars

I notice there are a lot of the new microscopic cars on the roads these days. They look like a child’s toy. They’re so small you have trouble finding them in a full-page ad. They only have room for one coat of paint.

Looking at it reminded me of the time, half a century ago, when I visited Italy. It was back in the summer of 1955. I got off the train in Milano, and my Italian friends picked me up in their car, a small Fiat 500 called a “Topolino” (little mouse), and never was a car more aptly named. It was considered the smallest car in the world in the years it was produced (1936-1955). There was room in the car for one person, provided he exhaled before he got in, and didn’t breathe till he got out. There were three of us in the car, the softer parts of us bulging out the windows.

Fiat "Topolino" 500 B, 1948

Fiat "Topolino" 500 C, 1949

And I get the same impression looking at the new micro cars. I doubt if my wife could do her grocery shopping in one of them. She’d need two. I saw one yesterday, parked with the motor running. The engine sounded like a budget model of her sewing machine. Though I think the sewing machine analogy is a bit passé. There doesn’t seem to be a “budget” sewing machine anymore. The prices are bigger than the machine; big fat aggressive prices to cover the cost of the electronics. No more pushing the treadle with your foot.

Fiat 500 C, 2010

But these new small cars: I guess we should call them nano-cars (or has some imaginative ad man already come up with that?) Are they the new wave? The super ecology-centric, money-saving electronic machine? I could pick it up with one hand, so it must get a thousand kilometres to a litre of gas. Now that’s my kind of car …

… I think.


Read Full Post »

Marie Dressler

Marie Dressler (November 9, 1868–July 28, 1934) was born Leila Koerber in our small town, Cobourg. She eventually changed her name (to that of a favourite aunt), and after years in vaudeville and the legitimate theatre went to Hollywood, made a number of movies, and ultimately won the Academy award for Best Actress in 1931.

Her birthplace is a nicely-maintained house just around the corner from that other famous Cobourgundian: Me.

Marie Dressler (detail), c.1909

The house was a restaurant from 1937 to 1989, and was filled with the memorabilia of a life that had been a kaleidoscope of wealth, poverty, and renewed wealth; fame, notoriety, non-entity, and brilliant leaps back into the klieg lights of Broadway; and films that were utter dogs, followed by movies that swept the country and gave her the Oscar for Best Actress. Yet she rarely went out to see a movie. “If (the) performances are better than mine, I feel uneasy,” she said. “If they aren’t, I’m bored.” She must have been bored most of the time. In 1932 twelve thousand  film exhibitors were asked to list the top movie stars. The final list carried, among others, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Will Rogers, Norma Shearer, and Clark Gable. Marie Dressler was number one of the top ten. On average her movies grossed three times their cost; no one else was even close.

For years her Cobourg house had basked in the reflected glory of her life; the restaurant had served visitors from around the world who were drawn to Cobourg and the exciting story of the town’s favourite daughter.

Marie Dressler’s house, built c.1840. In the near distance is the Gothic tower of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, built in 1937, three years after Marie Dressler’s death.

But after the restaurant was seriously damaged by fire in 1989, it then became the town’s Business Development Office, a fact that might not have pleased Ms Dressler. The dry, boring facts and figures of municipal opportunities, though meat and drink for the visiting businessman, would have left Ms Dressler looking under the carpet, seeking in vain for the drama that was once her life.

Yet the memorabilia are still there to remind us (and businessmen and visitors alike) of the actress who, so many years ago, made us laugh, and cry, and love her without restraint.

Read Full Post »


The other day a neighbour made me a cup of coffee. Even with the addition of skim milk it was an excellent coffee.

“That’s because I grind my own coffee beans,” he said.

Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the secret. Well, I’m not so dumb I can’t appreciate a good idea, so I bought some coffee beans at the A&P. Columbian El Supremo 4-star deluxe, top of the line, $5000 a kilo.

I felt I was ahead of the game because we already have a coffee grinder.

My De Ve Coffee Grinder

Ours is a Dutch model; manual, you have to turn the crank and the fractured beans fall into a small cup. My mother gave it to us, must be 50 years old, but what else do you look for in a coffee grinder? It grinds.

So I started grinding the beans. After awhile I began to get a cramp in my hand. I checked the grinding: About halfway there? Not quite; maybe a quarter of the way there. I kept grinding. My wife came into the kitchen and gave me a long look.

“Why is your face red? Are you in a bad mood?”

“Almost,” I grunted.

After I had finally finished, my hand was useless for the rest of the day. I had to take my wife’s word for the quality of the coffee because I couldn’t hold the cup. It occurred to me afterward that my friend is a culinary freak, spends all his time in the kitchen, has every culinary gizmo known to man, including a professional industrial-strength electronic computerized coffee grinder that vaporizes the beans in 2 megaseconds with the mere flick of a button.

Later that evening I was reading the newspaper (my wife turned the pages for me) and saw that electricity rates were going up by 25 per cent. I chuckled smugly. I’d heard my friend’s coffee grinder and its deep powerful voice. People halfway up the street know when he’s having a cup of coffee. The machine probably uses more electricity than an air conditioner. His hydro meter must be spinning like a lathe.

I enjoyed a moment of malicious satisfaction and gave my injured hand a friendly pat. Small price to pay. Malice has its cost, but also its petty rewards.

Read Full Post »

The Sparrow in Winter

Winter’s still with us, though blessedly far from its usual mountains of snow. Still, Old Winter’s relentless hand cruelly squeezes the thermometer; both digital and mercury readings persist in carrying that miserable minus sign every icy morning. The sky is so high. Hard, cold blue and distant, it seems to rise indifferently above the small town below. Even the birds hide within their puffed-up feathers.


Such frantic feet that hurry ’cross the park,

Now stopping quickly where the snow is deep;

Sharp feet that edit any soft remark

That windblown snow might utter in its sleep.

You stop, perplexed, then hop along my path,

And come upon last summer’s granite pool

Where you were wont to wash your face, and play:

Your summer’s garden bath.

But now it’s motionless, so still, ice-cool,

In frozen memory of a sunny day.

I know the reason you’re still here with me,

Instead of playing in the southern sun.

Fast-food! The scraps we throw away—they’re free:

Discarded carbohydrates by the ton.

You’ll live another day on trash, somehow;

Consume the trash, and all nutrition leave;

Get fat on fat, and ’round the restaurants roam

…and ever hungrier now.

What strange genetic skein you blindly weave

To make the frozen north your winter home.

But home it is, ’neath shadows o’er the snow,

Defiant feathers puffed against the gale,

Near lost by trees, in blue-white banks below.

The trees, grey trees, mistreated bark so pale,

Hard-wrenched by Winter’s cold indifferent hand,

The callous hand that plucks your feathered coat.

With fast-food fat alone your feathers’ lining,

Can you the cold withstand?

Withal, no thread of song does grace your throat;

Sweet bird, is it for southern sun you’re pining?

Blue shadows on the snow; late afternoon.

Beneath my windowsill, so still, you lay.

Are you the one? To fall o’ernight? So soon?

The one I saw so busy yesterday?

So silent now, half covered o’er with snow,

Voice stilled…or no! Does it still sing somewhere?

Join others, brothers, on that southern shore?

And sing a song I know?

I seem to hear you still, your song is there;

Still singing to the snow, just as before.

Read Full Post »


You’re undoubtedly familiar with the Olympics — it goes back three or four thousand years. You are also familiar with the version we enjoy today, the one that mirrors the noble values of the original Olympics of ancient Greece. Well, maybe not quite so noble over the last few decades, perhaps, what with advertising and the natural rivalry of nations. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

There is also the unavoidable recent phenomenon, the spin-off. For some time now, unsatisfied with just the standard Olympic Games, we have enjoyed the Summer Games and the Winter Games. There is also the Commonwealth Games. Shortly there will be the Early Spring Olympics, and maybe the Second Thursday In August Olympics.

I mean, what next? A Beer Drinking Olympics? I know people who would be real winners, guys with years of semi-pro experience.

But different Olympics … interesting idea. You know what? I think I’ll inaugurate one of my own. The World Utter Incompetence Olympics, with a logo featuring five interconnected rings, and a sixth one off to one side that they couldn’t find room for. It will take place every three days, because there will be millions of potential competitors. Politicians especially will be lining up for the gold medal. The speed skaters and hockey teams could sensibly give it a pass. They wouldn’t stand a chance.

Read Full Post »


Memories of a soft summer patio seem the stuff of fantasy. The quiet shady area beneath the trees, the warm sun and shadow of an August day, is now a hard grey colourless no-man’s-land of fractured ice and dirty lifeless snow.

I ask myself, pointlessly, when did this happen? When did the summer birds say goodbye? Now there is just a lone squirrel checking for a peanut he may have missed last July. Now unfriendly air pushes me back into the house. My shoes crackle on the path; a gust of wind makes me gasp. Winter’s voice tells me he is here to stay. “Well, don’t tell me,” says I, “I’m not ready.” Winter’s coarse laughter is borne away on a harsh wind; a storm is building along the edge of the northern sky. I fight back and deliberately take down my summer hat from the closet. A scarf drops out, along with my winter gloves. There’s no escape.

It’s the relentlessness of it, the inexorable advance of ice and snow and plunging temperatures. I turn the thermometer to the wall because I don’t want to know.

Our town's new skating rink. Some people don't follow the snowbirds.

This is the time I mock my snowbird friends and remind them once again about Canada’s wonderful changing seasons, how those changes are so much healthier (“Flu? No-no,” I mutter hoarsely, “it — cough! — it’s just a light cold”) healthier than the boring sameness of the warm Florida days, and the sweet Caribbean air …

More guys who preferred the Canada seasons.

But I’m not there. I’m here, where the air has a sharp vividness to it, unlike the monotonous warmth of those Caribbean airs. Here, a deep breath tells you this air of ours isn’t the soft wimpy Florida stuff; ours is real air, the air that makes my lungs retreat whimpering into my armpits, that makes me appreciate what a cough really means, that fills my chest with razor blades and … and yes, makes me long, as I do every winter, to join the next flight of snowbirds.

Read Full Post »


The Road South

(For the uninitiated, check the dictionary: “Snowbird: A Canadian who moves south for the winter.”)

And now is the winter of our discontent made even worse by the annual sight of great waves of our fellow-townspeople tooling off to Florida for the winter. One of our town’s poets (mis)quoted a poet friend of his, saying “Why must we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous snowbirds on their way to Florida?”

“Look on the bright side,” says I. “It affords the rest of us no little satisfaction to know that they might spend half their exodus, growing older by the hour, sitting around in airports waiting for the plane that never flies.”

For many Canadians, the annual snowbird migration to sunny Florida is met with scorn. And the reason is a simple meteorological one: The seasons. Is it masochism that makes us embrace not Florida but the changing seasons? No, nor is it a twisted nationalism. There is real joy in the weather’s progress through the year. The freshness of spring, the warm satisfaction in the days and nights of summer; can anyone deny the peaceful pleasure of autumn’s changing leaves that announce the brisk (okay, freezing) months of winter? And before the snowbirds interrupt me to point out the obvious, all this is not a grouchy rationalization of our icy fingers and frozen butts.

A friend and resident Floridian (or is that “Floridite”? Hmm. No, floridite sounds like something to clean the toilet.) Anyway, this Florida pal writes complaining that while relaxing around his pool he almost froze when the temperature dropped to 75 degrees (that’s Yankee; 24 in Canadian degrees).

Now tell me: Is he a sadist?

Read Full Post »