Archive for December, 2010


The other day I saw a skateboarder pushing along the sidewalk. He was wearing a protective helmet. First example I’d seen. I think the run-of-the-mill skateboarders still maintain a distance from helmets as being a knock to their image, whatever image they have of themselves. Is it that a helmet carries a wimpy image? Do they, like the hockey players of a few decades ago, feel it’s unmanly to need protection? But there it is: Protective helmets for skateboarders. What next? I mean, it’s not as if skateboarding was an obviously deadly sport. But the juggernaught of Protective Health levels us all. Every activity can be dangerous; people will be wearing helmets at night in case they fall out of bed.

Newer models simply have two wheels, one front and back, similar to roller blades, allowing the user to weave down the street like a snake.*

How about protective helmets for pedestrians? I’ve been knocked down twice by cyclists racing along sidewalks. There are little kids driving electric-powered cars along the sidewalk; cars perhaps a quarter of the size of a standard compact. Certainly big enough to make a dent in your standard pedestrian. The kids are maybe four or five years old. Hardly walking, and already they’re the Sterling Moss of the sidewalk.

How about the people who are handicapped and use these motorized walkers? Have you seen these people on the sidewalk? Those machines travel faster than ten miles an hour. Just wait till you’re hit by one of those. Here again, why is it always the pedestrian that seems to get the dirty end of the stick in all these “protective” deals?

Hockey helmet **

How about helmets for diners? And not just in restaurants. Even at home, I know I wave a knife around. I’m a dangerous man when I’m talking. Actually what I need is not a helmet, but rather a face guard. Jacques Plante, where are you when we need you? But stop and think: Aren’t these protective devices getting out of hand?

Everywhere we go we seem to be protected from ourselves or external dangers. I mean, where is it going to end? Free choice of any kind is becoming a dream. We’ll all be obliged by law to wear a helmet when we’re mowing the lawn. Police will keep an eye open for guys reading a newspaper on the patio without a helmet.

But skateboarders, cyclists, mini-Indy 500 drivers, motorized walkers — they’re all climbing onto the sidewalk, to the peril of the pedestrian. Still, let’s be frank and consider the youngsters. I think many of the kids need helmets. But you’ve seen them: Some of the helmets are about half the size of the kid himself. Makes the kid look like an extra at Cape Canaveral. In many instances their helmet prevents the child from seeing where the hell he’s going. The kid needs a supplementary protective device to protect him from the helmet he’s wearing.


* Photo: Ncapamaggio

* * Photo: Dan4th Nicholas


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Ogden Nash said that progress might have been all right once, but it had gone on too long.

Consider electronics. E-readers for example. E-readers will soon become multi-media devices (it’s probably happening as we speak), with interviews in real time with the author, and clips from his new novel and the trailer for it’s upcoming movie; pix of his dog fetching a frisbee; and his PR flack’s comments on the book. It’s no longer a book, it’s a production, a Cecil B. deMille movie with a cast of thousands! People will go back to printed books for a quiet evening.

Poets won’t write books of poetry. They’ll step into your life via the e-reader: “Hi, I’m Liz Browning, and I’ve written some terrific stuff, like ‘How do I love thee?’ Then I count the ways. Neat, eh? Bob thought it was great!”

Apple’s iPad *

I don’t need to tell you how far this sort of thing can go. Ask Steve Jobs. His iPad already does everything but shine your shoes.

Frankly, I’m with Ogden Nash: Enough, already. Almost every room in my house is lined with books. Thousands; more than half a century of books, collected, read with pleasure, and retained to surround me with a lifetime’s reading. To have all these books, books that carry meaning beyond their content, invisibly stored on an e-reader is meaningless.

Yeah, meaningless. I guess. But I have to be frank. I’m human. I’m weak. I’ve had half a dozen computers over the past 25 years, and I simply can’t see myself without one. And these days I’m lusting for an iPad. The only reason I haven’t bought one is my immutable common sense. I’ve tried everything, but I simply can’t justify its purchase. iPad: $500 (plus tax!); pocket notebook, and pencil: $1.95 (tax included).

If you can come up with a way of rationalizing the iPad purchase, let me know. Until then I’ll just keep sharpening that pencil.


* Photo:  Glenn Fleishman

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As a writer I’m a reader. All writers are readers, from their youngest years. And we amass shelf after shelf of volumes, comprising a vast seminar. I don’t doubt it’s an ego thing: “Look at me, I’m so-o-o literary!” But those books represent a world of knowledge. Knowledge, and a real joy in the reading of it, in immersing  yourself in the work of others.

Chethams Library, Manchester. My book shelves are, er, not quite like these. Similar in function, but … *

For those of us of a sensitive artistic nature there is also the aroma of the printed page: The printer’s ink, and the odor and texture of the paper, and its tactile pleasure. Admittedly it’s more expensive than golf, but carries fewer frustrations.

Books. At home I have close to 2000 books distributed in 14 bookcases throughout the house. Plus shelves, tables, chairs, and ultimately the floor. The house is a two-bedroom bungalow. We are surrounded by books of every possible genre — history, biography, westerns, who-dunnits, adventure, humour, lots of humour. Surrounded by books in almost every room in the house, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve read them all, they’ve been a part of my life since my late teens, which is quite a long time ago. To live in a house in which there are no books is absolutely unacceptable. I wouldn’t be able to live without seeing books everywhere I look in the house.

But they are a form of sickness.

Library, Durham University, 1842

Unfortunately, books, to some of us, are as much a pernicious drug as alcohol or heroin. Neither quite as expensive nor as physically or mentally detrimental, they are nevertheless a drug. Read one, buy two (or acquire two; vast numbers are available free from neighbourhood libraries, culled from the librarys’ shelves). Before you know it you have a shelf of books waiting to be read. In one of my bookcases there is a shelf of “to be read” books. There are 40 books on that shelf. As I say, it’s a sickness.


* Photo: Tom Jeffs.

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You get to know who your friends are after awhile. Especially those who believe friends are for dumping troubles on. Sharing troubles is seen as a way of lightening the load. Well, thanks a lot, pal, but yours is very much a one-way street. Your street, your way.

I guess it’s flattering in a way. I must look like a guy without a care in the world, and thus could carry a liberal slice of someone’s woe. Man, have I got exciting news for you, pal! Why, I may have just laid a good part of my own troubles on one of my buddies; why would I want some of yours? What is this, musical chairs?

“You think you’ve got troubles?! Have I told you about …”


My friend, don’t bare your troubled soul to me.

I’ll close my ears—and call your enemy.

’Tis he who wants your troubles each to know;

’Tis he who really wants to hear your woe.


If you don’t have any enemies, just let me know; I can introduce you to some of mine.

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The Chef

The chef/owner of one of my favourite restaurants regularly serves supper to 50-60 patrons at almost one and the same time.

Think: Over 50 people, arriving at different times — say, between six and eight pm — ordering any of 30 or 40 different dishes, rare, medium, or well done, and he handles it all by himself; no sauce chef, salad chef, fish chef — just him, the culinary one-armed paperhanger. The logistics are awe-inspiring.

I have a tough enough time getting the bacon and eggs to arrive at the table at the same time (but you’ll have to wait for the coffee, I forgot to turn the stove on under the kettle. I only have two hands, you know).

Chefs preparing dinner at the White House, Washington.

I have never heard of my chef ever making a mistake.

As the author Nicolas Freeling says in his book “The Kitchen”, a chef never uses a recipe book; he knows what to do because he’s done it so often before.And this is the aspect of chef-ing that saddens me.

Like so many occupations, it must rapidly become boring, the same dishes, prepared (for reliability) the same way, in the same place, same materials, same everything.

The Cook and the Cat, by Augustin Ribot (1823–1891)

So many other occupations, too, exhibit the same mind-numbing repetition, day after day, for a lifetime.

Creative pursuits seem to offer the most reward for our daily efforts.

Visual artists say, or writers, though I’m not saying for a moment that chefs are not creative artists. They might take exception to being classed as non-creative, and you don’t want to step on the toes of the guy who’s feeding you …


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Sometimes you talk to people, and think they’re not listening. But they are listening, they’re just not hearing.

This audio device even has an antenna.*

You might quite logically think that these people have serious hearing problems, but this isn’t true. For them, listening becomes purely an audio position, an attitude, not a conscious audio activity. They are not absorbing your words with the idea of forming an opinion based on them. Rather, they are waiting for you to finish (and don’t take too long, okay?) so they can introduce their own ideas — views or sentiments that have nothing to do with your words. It’s a form of audio marking time, a pause, like an audio semi-colon, except that unlike a semi-colon what follows is not related. When you have finished your remarks, their mental slate is wiped clean, ready to become the vehicle for their own thoughts. Your remarks have ceased to exist.

They’re nice people, ordinarily, but … well, no; I’m wrong. They’re not nice people. They are an exercise in frustration, and should be avoided.


* Photo:  D. Benbennick

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Bunkhouse Blues

Back in 1953, when I was in the arctic, winter storms were no surprise to the construction crews; even non-construction greenhorns like me tried to take the howling snow-filled winds with a casual indifference which most of the time was barely skin deep.

There was one old gaffer — “Old Pop” he was called by the construction crews — who, in the face of all storms, went casually through the arctic days and nights secure in his belief that so long as the snow and ice descended his paycheque was guaranteed. Others might moan and groan about the weather, but Old Pop laughed all the way to the bank, even though the bank was 2000 kilometres away in the southern metropolis.

Fifty years before, and a continent away (this is the Klondike of ’98). Our bunkhouses were not made of logs, nor did we wear fedoras, but the “feel” of the photo is the feel of Frobisher Bay in 1953.

Old Pop’s security was based on the simple fact that life in the camp revolved exclusively around the bunkhouse. Given the frequency of storms — and there always seemed to be one either looming or subsiding — outside the bunkhouse human life (for “human” read “southern”) could not exist. But who would want to go outside? Thermometers were a joke. Did you need a thermometer to tell you it was 30 below?! Did you care? Did you feel 25 below was an improvement?

So Old Pop would grin to himself, bless the icy storm, and go about his business: Filling the oil stoves in every bunkhouse, warehouse, and office, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he’d been doing it for years.

Snowmobiles, the sled dogs of 1953.

Old Pop? Not scared of talk; recalls the past,

Old adages, and humor wise, homespun;

Philosophy; a rural pun rerun.

He’s 5-foot-4, and 65; not fast;

In youthful face and form by Youth outclassed:

Old Pop’s a wrinkled unshaved son-of-a-gun,

He fills the bunkhouse oil stoves, sun to sun;

He’s happy as a clam; his job will last.

For us? We come and go, like night and day.

André, the Frenchman, said that Pop’s “Cray-zee!

He got no brain in head, dat’s why he stay.”

Yeah, like a fox he’s cray-zee, mon ami.

Old Pop, when e’er he gets his pay,

With overtime, makes three times more than me.

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