Archive for March, 2011


We all have our own freakishness (Freakacity? Freakinity?). You have yours, I have mine. I don’t know what yours is, but mine is mechanical pencils.

Sadly, though, it’s no longer as in the old days, say, at graduation time, when a traditional pen & pencil set cost as much as $25. Now, for $25 you’ll get a wooden pencil you have to sharpen yourself, and a pen holder (nib extra; user must supply own ink).

From bottom: Lamy (French), Caran d’Ache (Swiss), Faber-Castell (German), Porsche (German). Ten years ago pencils like these cost you fifty to sixty dollars. Today, anything you’d want to be seen holding will run you three figures. The silver Caran d’Ache was $180; wonderful pencil, great balance, smooth action, just the right lead advance so you don’t keep breaking the lead.

Today, pen & pencil sets are Expensive (note the capital “E” denoting “obscenely expensive”). Made with rare woods, and sterling silver or gold fittings, there are fountain pens, for example, priced from $600 (Faber-Castell) to $800 ( Caran d’Ache). The very thing for your graduating son or daughter — provided they’re going into law or dentistry or some other career gold mine, and will be able to repay you. A mechanical pencil alone can run three or four hundred dollars (sigh), but oh! they’re really worth the $400! Unfortunately I don’t have $400.

But there is a tactile pleasure in a top-of-the-line pencil, one that’s worth a bundle. Generally they have a greater diameter than an ordinary wood pencil, and your fingers sense that difference with satisfaction, even though it’s measured in fractions of a millimetre. They also come in varying lead diameters — .07 mm, .05 mm, and .03 mm — to suit your taste and graphic requirements. Expensive mechanical pencils are heavier than cheap mechanical pencils; they have a balance that seems created for your very own hand; you know unequivocally that you are holding a worthy instrument, a valuable tool to add substance and significance to your words.

Add to all this a passion for paper, stationery, note pads — and you have, as I mentioned earlier, a freak, a downright geek, an absolute no-nonsense unrepentant note-making nerd.


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Lake Ontario

Many people come here from relatively small localities, from what for centuries were tiny towns, villages and countries. They arrive in Canada … and are staggered by the immensity of the land, the wealth of natural resources, the vast areas that have never seen a human footprint. Even the lakes are beyond their imagining. Lake Superior sees storms that rival the North Atlantic; you could drop Ireland into it and the Irish would sink without a trace, just a few shamrocks floating on the surface of the water.

A few years ago a young friend from France came to visit us. She arrived in Kingston from which she took the train to Toronto. She stepped off the train and clutched my arm: “Is it … all the same lake?!” Lake Ontario, smallest of the five, and half the size of France.

Her trip from Kingston took almost three hours — on and on, forever, it seemed to her. I shrugged, the indifferent gesture of a native Canadian, and pointed west: “Three thousand more miles of it out that-away.” I casually chew a straw of Canadian hay. “Three times bigger than Europe. Twenty times bigger than France.” The Canadian yahoo points south. “There’s another couple of thousand miles down there that we rent to the Americans.”

Flying over the Rockies once, an hour or two before dawn, I looked down. Lost among the majestic mountains that seemed to span the entire world, I saw a single light, one spark of life in the darkness. Who could it be? I thought. Whoever it is, they’re 500 miles away from anything. It brought home to me the size, and potential loneliness, of the country. I was born and raised in the shadow of those great mountains, but the sight of that tiny light still made me gasp.


Map © Digital Wisdom Inc.

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“Out-sourcing” — an expression I believe that’s unique to the present generation — is now so common that no one gives it a thought. Except those of us who are on the receiving end.

The principle behind out-sourcing is simple: A north american telemarketer gets $20 an hour, plus benefits, medical plan, six weeks paid vacation, and three months sick leave; his third-world equivalent gets a whole two-bits a day, less what he has to kick back to the manager. Ergo, north american companies go the third-world route.

Telephone, 1896

The problem is: Where is this third world? The other side of the planet, mostly. So, when you’re having supper — which is when they all phone — what time is it in their third world? Must be around two or three in the morning! Maybe they get an extra five cents for the night shift. Anyway, you don’t have to worry, it’s their phone bill, not yours.

One of these telemarketers might sue me if I told him that I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he couldn’t speak English. I suppose he might sue me for discrimination, or racism, or failing to signal a left turn or something.

“… I’m calling on behalf of … yes, but … excuse me, sir …”

All these telemarketers start the same way: “How are you today?” A friend of mine, in exasperation, decided to tell him. My friend drew up a two-minute spiel, to be delivered in a single breath, non-stop, to prevent interruptions:

“How am I? I’ve just been diagnosed as having lung cancer, and it’s metastasized to my liver and my kidneys … my uncle cut his hand off with an axe. Apparently he’d been trying to murder his wife and had missed … my aunt was pushing her walker on a slight hill, and the walker got away from her and she ran after it, and halfway down the hill she says ‘Wait a minute! Why the hell am I running after this walker? I can’t walk!’ So, despite having run down the hill, she collapsed at the side of the road and waited for the ambulance … my neighbour’s dog bit me because I refused to return his frisbee to him, so thinking the bite might be infected, I went to my doctor and the doc wouldn’t treat me — ‘It’s a dog bite, dummy; I’m a human doctor. Now, if your neighbour had bitten you …’ — so he sent me to see a vet, but the vet wouldn’t treat me because I wasn’t a dog, so I went to my lawyer, but I didn’t get very far with him because my lawyer is my neighbour and he was already the dog’s legal counsel … my neighbour, while shovelling snow in his driveway, threw his back out, and filed suit against the weather bureau for having forecasted the stuff and they were responsible for it, after all …”

Long before he got to the end the telemarketer had hung up.

How’s that for a satisfying new twist? He hangs up on you! It almost makes telemarketing calls worthwhile.

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