Archive for June, 2010


Newspaper headline: “Foxes dig den next to daycare” (John Goddard, Toronto Daily Star).

Must have been a slow day at the newspaper.

The kids at the daycare centre were delighted, of course, but apparently they were the only ones interested in real-time nature studies. Parents and neighbours muttered darkly about disease and children being attacked. One neighbour saw, on three separate occasions, a fox kill and skin a squirrel in her backyard. “She lets her three cats out only twice a day, closely supervised.”

Red Fox. *

A local church trustee said “We have been seeking information on how to get rid of them.” (Great syntax. Get rid of the cats? Splendid idea; they probably annoy the foxes).

The 20-odd children in the daycare facility don’t seem to give the foxes any concern; nothing appears to divert the animals from raising their three cubs.

One suggestion had been for humans to urinate around the den site. This method had been successful in other areas. “Male urine works best,” said a supervisor at Toronto Animal Services.

Grey Fox. * *

Well, now, wait a minute. I think any guy who popped by one night to pee on the daycare centre would get a hard time from the cops.

But that would be nothing compared to the treatment the members (yep, a pun) of the male fraternity would get from the mothers of those 20-odd children.


* photo: M. Thyssen

* * photo: Animal Detector


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There’s a satisfying democratic side to our small town: The area encircling the town’s downtown centre caters to the poor. Well, maybe not “poor” as in “poor”; nobody’s really poor these days, at least not around here. Cobourg’s doing fine, in most ways. But if you’re short of the coin of the realm, you don’t live in the eastern lakefront area. That’s democratically reserved for the rich (“Democratically”; that is, the rich took a vote, and unanimously decided to reserve the eastern lakefront for themselves).


Loosestrife in autumn (photo: Sue Sweeney).

The town along this shore seems to retreat;

’Tis Nature, not the town, beneath your feet.

No sounds of commerce; peace: the wisest choice;

The lake alone, its waves the only voice.

From rocks the loosestrife’s blossoms rise so straight,

Their thick red ranks on guard at each estate.

Estate is not an idle word; it’s there.

There’s butlers, cooks, and junior’s own au pair.

The lake’s edge draws the moneyed matron’s soul;

Makes vulgar pomp and circumstance her goal;

She longs for status, lusts for lakefront land,

And spurning taste, to ego gives her hand.

Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle of Ludwig II of Bavaria (reigned 1864–1886). Ludwig’s “home” is a little more ornate than those along our lakeshore, but you get the idea.


And ego has a lot to answer for. Too many people put money into enterprises in which they have no knowledge or experience — pence before sense, waste before taste. These wealthy lakefronters often seem to have called the architect-of-the-month and given him carte blanche, which is frequently a mistake. Two elderly people, awash with funds, that end up in a small mansion of maybe 20 rooms, but living aimlessly in only three or four of them.

As I said, Cobourg’s doing all right, and those along the lakefront are doing even better.


Oh sure, there’s lots of money here. The lake

Has always drawn the rich. Each has his stake

In lakefront view and stretch of sandy bar.

“But are they happy?”


Bet your life they are.


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Being a pretty easy-going agreeable kind of guy, I’ve never seen anything wrong with being a yes-man. Every king has a jester, and every manager needs a yes-man, because all these managerial types are as insecure as a snowman in Spring and need stroking continually. “Gee, JB, I never thought of it that way, but you know what? You’re right!” or “(chuckling in anticipation) And what did you say then, JB?” All of it good, solid, outrageous fawning.

But it’s a delicate business being a yes-man and agreeing with everything the chief says. Big shots are naturally and justifiably suspicious and will tend to think: “If this idiot agrees with everything I say…hmm, I’d better keep my eye on him in other things, too.”

Every king has his jester.

There’s also the ethical aspect to consider. How can you, in all moral self-righteousness, be the yes-man to a proposal that is wrong, wrong, wrong? Double problem here: Morally wrong, yes; but also to be considered is the fallout when the idea’s wheels fall off: What happens when the proposal bombs, as it surely will? Right; the yes-man is blamed. “Dammit all, Throckmorton, any fool could have seen the fallacy in Abercrombie’s idea! Just because I agreed with it … I mean, I knew it would fail of course … I was just testing your judgement …”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way. In the hope of appearing a positive thinker — you know, a creative guy, of definite value to the company and all that — you put forward an ingenious, sensible, sure-to-be-a-winner alternative to the garbage under discussion. Watch what happens. For maybe 20 seconds there will be a deathly silence; one of those silences whose weight you could measure on a set of scales. You can hear the wheels going around: “… good idea, dammit … how can I make it mine while avoiding responsibility just in case … got to watch this guy; very sharp … is he after my job?” Three days later you’re transferred to the Baffin Island branch and you don’t speak Inuktitut.

Life is never carefree for a yes-man.

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Because I am one of those people who reminisces a lot, I think back — away back — to some of the places in which I’ve lived when I was young. Up to the age of about 25 you can live anywhere, a culvert or a packing case under a bridge, or a palatial suite in a hotel. A lot depends on your wallet (under 20, who has a wallet?). Mae West once said: “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” Can’t argue with that. But sometimes living conditions are forced upon you whether you like it or not.

In 1950 (I was 19) I was living — if you could call it that — in one quarter of a garage. A space perhaps six feet by eight feet. For the metrically inclined, that’s a little more than ten cubic metres, floor to ceiling. Big enough for a bed, a chair, and a case of beer. Not much more. Across the alley was the Canada Dry warehouse. Trucks in and out all night long. This was in Vancouver. Just up the street was the house where I was born. I liked to think I had progressed, but one quarter of a garage is not much of a step up.

The garage was not quite as bad as this, but close.

The garage was my landlady’s idea, after I had been asked by the police to “assist them in their investigations.” My very staid landlady just couldn’t handle police officers in her boarding house at the best of times, but in the line of duty was completely unacceptable, so I was moved from my room in the boarding house down the driveway to the garage. Hobson’s choice: The driveway or the highway. I didn’t feel like moving, so I took the garage. My landlady preferred the garage, too, for economic reasons: it was a slow season for boarders.

In the many years since the garage, I’ve lived in a shack where it was me or the rats (the rats won), and I’ve spent brief periods across the street from the Governor-General’s mansion. I’ve lived in a refuge in the Italian Alps, and a hut in the Arctic, and I’ve slept on boats, planes, trains, buses, and cars (haven’t tried bicycles). Varied experiences, but pretty tame, really, by some standards, but varied enough (negatively) so far as I was concerned. I wouldn’t have wanted it any more varied. But all these somewhat awkward living conditions have served to make me appreciate what I have now, and I think it should happen to all young people. Though, at the time, I wasn’t especially happy when it was happening to me.

And no, I will not tell you about the Vancouver police, except to say that I hold them in the very highest regard.

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For starters, the name of the stuff is zucchina (plural: zucchine). There’s some loose talk about “zucchino” and “zucchini,” even to the extent of a listing in an Italian dictionary, and a mention that the Italians in Tuscany (one of whom is a “toscano,” two or more of them are “toscani”) call it “zucchino” (and thus “zucchini”). Me, I’m of the Feminine School: Zucchina and zucchine. After all, the word is a diminutive of “zucca” (a feminine noun) which is the plant itself, zucchina being the fruit thereof. The “zucchini” people are probably the same ones who say “scaloppini” instead of scaloppine (one is a scaloppina, two or more are scaloppine). Same guys say “salami,” using the plural form of salame to mean one sausage. And the odd thing is, these guys are not uneducated; you’ll never — or rather rarely — hear them say “The dog are” or “The dogs is.”

One or two, whole or sliced, the result is the same: Nothing, niente.

Anyway. Let’s look at “zucchini.” You’ve tried one, I suppose? What do you think? Tasteless, right? Like eating air. That’s my feeling, anyway. They’re squash. Or squashes (squashi? squashæ?) The whole family or genus or species or whatever, is without a single redeeming feature, really. How about you? Maybe you use a special sauce to liven them up, perhaps a cup or two of oregano, or a 5-day marinade in Trinidad Hot Sauce. Incredibly, my wife — who doesn’t seem to like food at all — thinks zucchine are great. Eats them cooked squishy (squishy squashi squashæ), with a touch of butter.

In a sense, I feel bad about not liking zucchine. All these squashes try so hard to please us. Look at the varieties! Every shape and colour imaginable. But, in my mind, their only purpose seems to be winning ribbons for size at county fairs. In the matter of zucchine I follow Hamlet: To eat, or not to eat — is out of the question. You want my opinion? (pause) Well, I’ll give it to you anyway:  In the culinary horse race, zucchine is a non-starter (or rather are non-starters).

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The Foreman

On the Baffin Island construction site, where I worked in 1953, they offered a six-month contract. Before you could sign up for a second six-month stint, a minimum of two weeks “vacation in civilization” was mandatory, for obvious reasons: More than one man — even before he’d completed his first six months — was shipped out suffering from “mental fatigue,” which was a nice way of saying he had gone crazy. The overwhelming sense of isolation had a strange effect on some men.

The lure of cognac …

Others fought the sensation of isolation by surrounding themselves with a home-like atmosphere. The labour foreman had laid down a nice carpet in his room, added a couple of comfortable chairs, a record player and soft classical music, two lamps with warm-coloured shades, and a small table with a chess board. He and the camp superintendent would sit over the chess men every evening. The foreman had long since established a profitable relationship with the pilots on the American air base nearby, and on his sideboard he always had a box of his preferred Havana cigars and a bottle of special old cognac smuggled in by one or another of the American pilots.

When I was there the foreman had a month or two to go in his second six-month contract.

“And I think I’ll take a month down south this time,” he said, “instead of two weeks.”

… and chess.

But he’ll come back; he’s said as much, and more;

To face the chessboard’s challenge once again;

Enjoy a glass of cognac as before,

The music of the masters in his brain,

The music of the North beyond his door,

Aurora’s lumière its great refrain.


Some went crazy, yes, but others, like the foreman, found a kind of peace within a structure of work and responsibility they understood and accepted, and evolved a home-away-from-home that they found satisfying.

And hey, with a foreman’s paycheque, you couldn’t beat the money.
Chess Photo: A. Light

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Poets are insane

I have mentioned in the past, more than once I’m sure, that a poet’s life leaves a lot to be desired. And that statement has to be the Understatement Of The Year.

Think of the negatives:

Poets don’t get paid. The annual Governor-General’s Award For Poetry is $25,000. The Also-Rans each get $1000. Nice. Beats starving. But for every poet that gets that money, there are 500,000 poets that don’t (even if you’re nominated, and it’s not that easy, but even so you’ll have to fight your way through a tidal wave of prospective finalists. This year there are over 140 nominations from which perhaps five will be selected as finalists).

Lord Byron, poet. Died of a fever in 1824, denied official burial in his own country.

Oscar Wilde, poet. Spent two years in prison.

Poets are, for all practical purposes, not only not honoured in their own country, they’re not honoured in any country. Anywhere. Anytime.

Poets are the lowest form of life. I was going to say “human life,” but the term “human” is still being argued in artistic and biological circles.

Poets are insane. They labour for years, unseen, unthanked, unrewarded, unread for the most part (someone once said that the number of people reading poetry is exactly the same as the number of people writing poetry; a sad commentary). They are hardly ever understood, regularly mocked, and for all this they get nothing. The only thing they are guaranteed is scorn and indifference. And the poets know this, thus proving they are insane.

Barmaid.* Possibly a poetry enthusiast.

Some time ago I gave a reading in a coffee house in our town. Publicized in all the newspapers. Bold headlines. Photos of me. Complimentary text.

Not one single person showed up.

I read to the barmaid. She thought it was “awfully nice.”

And there it is: The sad, so often humiliating, and for many the degrading, tearful, thanklessness of the entire affair: Just the barmaid and me. She liked my work.

And you know what? This is the ludicrous part: I felt ten metres tall. Through the barmaid, one glorious moment of fame’s ecstasy had been mine.
* Photo: Rodhullandemu

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