guns


The problem with a .38 special is that it has no stopping power. One highway patrolman shot his assailant three times and his assailant still managed to kill him. That’s when, law or no law, some of the cops started taking the lead out of their shells and repacking the shells with more gunpowder. The increased velocity will drive a hole through a tire rim, knock down someone with a knife or gun. No one in fear of his life should have to get off four accurate shots to stop an attack.

Short barreled shotguns are better. Especially when the cop driving the patrol car says, “Just check to see that you can get that shotgun out from under the seat if you need to.”

I think he’s joking. Then I see him ease his pistol back a bit. We’re cruising through the dark, on the edge of a small town in Missouri. He flicks off his lights, slows to let our eyes adjust to the moonlight. The main street is a block long. There’s a general store, a garage, a church, a straggle of houses.

“The salt of the earth,” I say, kidding him a little.

“The salt stood in a circle last week and kicked the sheriff to death,” he replies, checking the spaces between the buildings as we ease by. I brush my fingers along the shotgun, wonder what it would be like if I had to use it.

The weekend before, we’ve been at a cocktail party organized by our wives. That haven’t had a chance to put on fancy clothes for the last couple of months and they’ve reached that point where they’re going to get made up no matter what. We’d rolled our eyes and put on suits and ties, but in the heat refused to put on ties. There are colored drinks in long stemmed glasses, desserts with pecans in them. The local people say peh-cahns. They’re the local cash crop. People go to nut conferences to learn how to take care of their trees. Wood rustlers wait until the local farmers go to nut conferences with their families, then pull up with a tow truck, cut down a tree, cinch it, lift it and drive off with a couple of thousand dollars of high grade veneer.

We endure the drinks and the shiny suits until around eleven o’clock then, without telling our wives, we slip out of the house, change into torn jeans, checked shirts, caps advertising the local bank. We put our rifles into the truck, then give it a push so it rolls silently down the driveway. Fifteen minutes later we’re in a version of hell. Flames rise in a dozen places. Thick, foul smelling smoke drifts by in clouds. After we turn off the truck lights, the rats start to squeal. They make so much noise that they seem to be everywhere. There are high mounds of trash that have already burned out. We each take a flashlight in our left hand, our rifles in the right, step outside and wait, isolating the sound of one rat. Micky’s light flicks on, picks out a rat as large as a small dog. Simultaneously, he fires and the rat jerks sideways, rolls over and is still. I turn on my light, pick out a rat and miss. The long barreled rifle is awkward, off balance when held in one hand. Slowly, we move away from the truck, into the mounds of burning garbage, flicking on our lights, firing, flicking off our lights.

Boys and guns. Guns and boys. They seem inseparable. My father first took me hunting when I wasn’t yet two. He packed me into a sleigh with a high back, wrapped a rope around his waist and towed me behind as he hunted rabbits for the pot. When I was four, he taught me how a rifle worked, held it while I aimed and pulled the trigger. Lying on the back steps at ten, I practiced by shooting bottles off fence posts with a BB gun. At fourteen, I got my first rifle, a single shot Cooye and a box of shells. I hunted the brush piles, kicking them until rabbits burst out in wild, jagged runs that meant learning to snap shoot. Eventually, I learned to whistle sharply, jerking them rabbits to a stop. After that we had rabbit for deep dish pies covered with flaky crusts, awash in gravy.

Later, I bought a pump shotgun. I used it for duck hunting in the short September evenings after school. I’d walk to the edge of town, wade into the marsh, find myself a muskrat hut and sit, waiting for mallards, but happy to try to bring down the teal that raced past just at bulrush height. It was nearly impossible to see them in the fading light. They appeared and disappeared with a suddenness that usually meant not firing at all or the shot falling far behind them. I never hunted geese in the stubble west of town. Perhaps it was because I had no car. Perhaps it was because, for me, hunting was a solitary activity and hunting geese always seemed to mean teaming up with others

Hunting was something between me and the land. In winter, I hiked up frozen streams, ate egg sandwiches filled with ice crystals, drank coffee from a thermos. I learned to sleep under the ground hugging branches of spruce. Even in a Manitoba winter, the space closest to the trunks, thick with needles is free of snow and sheltered from wind. In really cold weather, ice would form after a couple of shots and I learned to scrape it away so the bolt would set properly.

At some time, although I’m not sure when, I stopped hunting. I still went out. I still carried a rifle or shotgun but I never used them. Then I stopped carrying them. When I moved I left them behind in my parent’s basement. I’d started to take pictures instead, started to value what can be seen when you move silently, when you wait patiently.

Then I moved to Missouri. Had as a neighbor, a highway patrolman who took me with him to ease the boredom on sixteen hour shifts. Everywhere there were pickup trucks with gun racks

One night we took our families to a converted barn for fried chicken and saw angry, narrow faced men get up and start toward our table. Mickey dropped his hand to rest beside his ankle. They stopped, pulled their lips tight, looked at each other and returned to their tables. When I asked him what was going on, he pulled up the cuff of his pants. A .38 snub nose was holstered there.

“I’ve put some of their relatives in prison,” he said, then helped himself to more fries and chicken.

In the month before I moved back to Canada, there were three shoot-outs in Kansas City. They all occurred because someone stopped at a stop sign and someone else was driving too close and bumped into them. Fender benders. Not crippling, mash-my-family-to-a-pulp-and-I’ll-kill-you-in-the-seconds-before-I-die accidents. The drivers who were hit came out shooting. Two of the men were practiced. They killed the driver who had bumped them. The third driver was either slow or a poor shot and the other driver got him. That started me looking at .38’s, .45’s, shotguns, machine guns, hand grenades. The hand grenades seemed like the most realistic. If I bumped someone at a stop sign, there was a much better chance of my getting him before he got me. All you have to do is pull the pin and throw it. Besides, with hand grenades. close counts.

When I was on the verge of picking out some artillery, I was offered two jobs, one in Texas, one in Victoria, B.C. In Texas, I realized, I’d need a howitzer, maybe a pickup with twin .50 caliber’s bolted to the bed. I opted for Victoria. The pay was lower but two weeks after I arrived on the island, I stopped worrying about fender benders, about people shooting families eating fried chicken, about practicing getting a short barreled shotgun from under the seat.

Now, I’ve got raccoons that raid my garden and upend my garbage cans, gray squirrels who scamper across my lawn, deer who eat my tulips, neighbours who, when I do something dumb, worry about how to tell me without hurting my feelings. I haven’t thought about buying a machine gun and a bullet proof vest in years.

comfort food

I had Kraft dinner for supper. Well, actually, it wasn’t Kraft dinner. It was Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar.

I was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago. Three years without Kraft dinner. Not that I ever ate it that often but it was a great favorite when I was a kid. As an adult, I probably ate it once every couple of months but once I couldn’t have it, I longed for it. I dreamt about it. In the grocery store, I stood in the pasta section and stared at it.

Then I discovered Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar at the local Co-op store. That was a surprise but an even bigger surprise was that it was reasonably priced. Most companies sock it to celiacs. You want gluten free food, you are going to pay for it. Four cookies for five dollars—or more. When I discovered the Pasta & Cheddar, I bought all three packages. Just having them in the cupboard helped stop my craving. It’s taken me three months to eat all three packages. I’ll have to stock up again.

Comfort foods come from childhood. They usually come from mom. My mother was a great cook and baker. When my mother and father got married, he said he was going to have a lemon pie every day. I know my mother didn’t make lemon pies every day but she made them often. Great lemon pies with flaky crusts, with deep, tart lemon filling, with egg whites whipped into high, twirly mounds and finished off in the over so there was just a light brown on the tips. When you cut down with your fork, you could feel the layers: the crumbling egg white, the jelly like lemon, the crispy crust breaking apart. Putting each piece in your mouth was erotic. The three textures, the three tastes, separate and together. It tasted so good that after that first bite, I used to shut my eyes and sigh.

Stew with dumplings on a cold winter day. Coming home from school, my boots crunching through the snow, I could smell the stew from the edge of the yard. I’ve tried to duplicate my mother’s stew but have never succeeded. She made it in a large blue enamel roasting pan and cooked it for half a day. Chuck roast for flavour, peeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, maybe a pinch of nutmeg and, I suspect, some Demerara sugar under the roast. She would never say. Lots of gravy because after the table was set, she put in the dumplings, dumplings that fluffed up so they were light, cut easily at the touch of a fork, dumplings bathed in gravy, speared with a piece of meat. Imagine a meal like that followed by lemon pie.

My father made the pickerel fillets. Great golden mounds of pickerel fillets from fish he’d caught that morning. In season he fried the roe to go with them. Roe that was crispy and mild. Sometimes, if the pickerel were big enough, he’d take out the cheeks, dip them in batter and deep fry them. The fillets he dipped in a mixture of milk, egg and tomato ketchup, dredged them in flour, then dipped them again and dipped them in fine bread crumbs. No matter how bad my day had been by the end of a meal like this and the world had righted itself.

Comfort food. Food made with love, shared with love, containing memories of childhood, of family meals, of going to sleep with a full stomach and a smile.

twin towers

I was sitting at my desk writing when the phone rang. It was my friend Valerie. She was very upset. She said, “Turn on your TV. Something terrible is happening.”
“I’m busy,” I replied. “I’ll check the news later.”
“No, now,” she said. “A plane has flown into a building in New York.”
“It’ll be on this evening’s news.”
“No, this is different. Turn it on now.”
I did, just in time to see the second plane strike the second tower. I sat there, uncertain of what I was seeing. Was this, I wondered, a Hollywood hoax like War of the Worlds? It seemed impossible. The idea of a commercial jet flying into a skyscraper belonged in Superman comics or disaster movies.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nobody knows,” Valerie replied. And hung up.
I sat, staring at the screen. It was so unbelievable that I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing. And then the buildings collapsed.
After that it became a jumble. I no longer remember when I saw what. Instead, that day and the days that followed are like a crazy kaleidoscope of images. People fleeing before clouds of dust. People  so covered in dust that they might have been the living dead in a horror movie. People hiding in buildings. People jumping off buildings.
And a strange sense of helplessness.
The news of the Pentagon and the plane in which people fought back hardly registered. All the images were of the buildings being hit by two commercial jet liners, of the buildings collapsing, of people fleeing, office workers dressed for the business day hurrying to escape the horror behind them.
Later, it was the reports of firemen rushing up the stairs to their deaths, of police officers directing chaos, of people making minor decisions that meant they lived or died, of security personnel trained to give the wrong instructions, of chaos, chaos and chaos. Not just physical chaos but emotional, mental chaos as I tried to grasp what had happened.
And then, as I read about men from the Middle East taking flying lessons in which they were only interested in learning how to take off and how to fly, but not to land and wondered about all the millions spent on security that provided no security at all. Of the vast sums of money spent on meetings and salaries and expenses but didn’t pick up on the oddity of pilots in training who didn’t want to learn to land. And later, when the disaster in New Orleans happened, and it turned out that all the incredible millions spent in preparation for disaster was simply money wasted, I thought again of the twin towers.
And I think, each time I go through airport security that the destruction wrought on the twin towers was just the beginning of the destruction that has rippled out for the past ten years. When I take off my belt and shoes, when a security guard says you’ve been chosen at random to have your bags checked for explosives, the terrorists who hijacked the planes are at work. When I read that tourist traffic from America has fallen dramatically, when the US budget is vastly overspent, I see the ghosts of the terrorists grinning.
When terrible people do terrible things, the way we defeat them is to go back to living our lives normally. In so far as we haven’t done that, we’ve let them win. As far as we continue to let them change our lives, the twin towers are still falling.

earthquake

There was an earthquake today. 6.4. The house sort of rumbled and shimmied briefly. Thank goodness the 6.4 was well out in the ocean. Close in and it would have done significant damage.
We keep being told get ready for the big one. The only person I know who is ready for the big one is my daughter. She’s an accountant. She organizes things. Prepares. Most people, like me, think about preparing but then don’t do it.
When I was the Chair of a department at the university, I had to go to earthquake preparedness courses. They showed us what happened in California. Then said if you don’t prepare your departments for an earthquake and it happens, you’ll get no funds to replace anything destroyed. That meant fixing computers in place so they wouldn’t jiggle off desks.
 But the real problem was books. A lot of professor’s offices had books, big heavy ones along three walls. Imagine being hit by a falling OED. Or an entire bookcase. The solution was to fix the bookcases to the walls and put in railings along the book shelves.
The bigger problem was how do you provide toilet facilities, water, and food for eighteen thousand students? There was a plan to cook on outdoor BBQs. Propane rules. I assume there were backup generators to keep all the fridges and freezers working. I never heard the solution for toilets for eighteen thousand people.
Those emergency preparedness courses just about made me get ready for the Big One. There are plenty of reminders that we’re on a fault line. Sometimes I wake up at night and the furniture is shimmering and shaking. When I first came to BC, I would sit up in bed, ready to race outdoors. I even wore pajamas for awhile just in case an earthquake hit while I was in bed. Then I figured what the hell, if there’s a humdinger of an earthquake people will have more to worry about than me running around naked.
The scariest information that came out of these courses was that there’s only one water line into the city. It’s old and made of concrete. Any serious earthquake will break it. We were told to drink the water from the toilet tanks (don’t put those blue things in the tank) and from the hot water heaters. We can’t expect any help for at least seven days. Seven days without washing and nobody will want to help us.
We’re supposed to have bandages, pain killers, a propane stove, a generator, a store of canned and dried food. There’ll be no electricity.  The generator is to keep the fridge and freezer working so all the food in them doesn’t rot. However, that means we need to store fuel for the generator. Enough to last a minimum of seven days. It could be longer since the ferry terminals may be unusable and the tsunami may have swept the ferries all the way to Hope.
With the closest staging area being Edmonton and the lack of military helicopters, many of which break down on a regular basis, I think Victoria would turn into a set for Lord of the Flies. The disaster in New Orleans would look like a holiday camp. 
Maybe I’d better do it tomorrow. Buy water to store, canned juice, canned food, a propane BBQ, an emergency kit, dried food, matches. A shovel to use to dig a hole in the garden to use as a latrine. There’s probably a list on line. But then, the Big One might not come for a hundred years.

Cookies

When I got my first invitation to give a reading, I was terribly flattered. It’s not surprising. After all, I’d laboured in obscurity, if not the butt of my acquaintance’s derision, then the unwilling recipient of their pity. Invitations to read were a sign of acceptance, of success. The idea that someone would actually pay for me to get on an airplane and fly somewhere and then listen to me read my stories and, maybe, actually buy books, was astounding. I had fantasies of a wild life. I wasn’t sure what the wildness would actually consist of but I had seen TV reports of  adoring fans screaming in ecstasy when Elvis descended from a plane, heard stories of beautiful women bribing the bell hop for the number to his room, had seen mobs of teenagers beside themselves with joy when he touched the string of his guitar.
My first reading was in a town with one grain elevator, a church, a Co-op, and a curling rink. Remember that curling rink.
I got up at 5:00 a.m. I left the house at 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 6:00. I left Victoria at 6:50. I waited in the Vancouver airport until 9:30. I flew to Calgary and then to Regina. I ate a sandwich and a salad made of cabbage and carrots with three raisins in it. I caught a bus and rode to my destination, where a tall, thin woman in a large fur coat led me to her car. She said her name was Verna and she couldn’t stay to chat because they had the vet coming to look at a sick heifer. She dropped me off at the local motel. The local motel had a fine view of the grain elevator. There were the railway tracks, drifting snow, a snow fence that was propped up with pieces of two by four and a sun that was just starting to set. At five o’clock I had the peroghi special in the motel dining room. At seven, a woman who also was wearing a very large coat with a hood, a woolen cap and frosted glasses, and introduced herself as Agnes carried me away in her Ford station wagon.
“Brush the hay off the seat,” she said, “we’ve been using the wagon to haul bales the last few days.”
The library was decorated with Santa Clauses and angels, some paper snowflakes, and crepe paper. It was quite cheery. There were three kinds of cookies and a plate of dainty sandwiches. Coffee was perking in an urn. There were thirty-three chairs set up in a semi-circle and my book was prominently displayed on a small table facing the audience. The audience was made up of an elderly woman who was still wearing her fur coat.
“This is my mother,” Agnes said.
We shook hands.
People should be arriving soon, Verna said, going to the window. Like the motel, the library faced the grain elevator. In the dark, you could just make it out against the horizon. A prairie icon. As she watched headlights appeared from the west, then turned down the road toward us. We all leaned forward in anticipation. The car drove slowed, looked like it was going to pull in, then drove past. We all went back to the urn.
“People are working late,” Agnes said, helping herself to a cookie. “Why don’t you have another cup of coffee while we wait.”
Three cups later, Agnes’s mother said, “I think I’ll go and see what’s happened to Jeb. He said he was coming.”
She shrugged her coat into place, did up the buttons and disappeared in a cold blast of air.
“Jeb’s her boyfriend since my Dad died,” Agnes said. “They’re having an affair.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “We’re pretty liberal out here nowadays.”
“Your Dad dying, I meant.”
“Oh, that was twenty years ago. Cow kicked him. He should have known better. Everyone knew that cow kicked if you came up on  her left side.”
We drank another cup of coffee and I went to the bathroom. When I came out, Agnes was gone.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She’s gone looking for her mother. She’s worried she might have slipped and fallen. It’s terribly icy out.”
There were ninety-five cookies and forty-five sandwiches and nine-tenths of an urn of coffee left.
All at once, Verna said in an exasperated voice, “It’s that damn bonspeil. They all promised they were coming but they’re over at the rink. Nothing matters in this town except curling. Throwing a bunch of rocks down the ice.” She said it angrily, as it was something had stuck in her craw for a long time. “My husband’s there. You know what’ll he say when he gets home. He forgot. How can he forget. This has been planned for two months.”
She went to the stacks and took down a book. I thought she might open it. Instead, she clenched it in both hands, held it against her breast for a long time, then put it back.
“That’s all right,” I said, “I’ll read to you.” And I did. For an hour. Just her and me and the coffee urn. I read three stories and she listened and when I finished, she gave me three dozen chocolate chip cookies to take back to the motel with me.
When I got back to Victoria, one of my colleagues said, “Had a wild time while you were away?” and winked.  “Get lots?”
“I guess,” I said. I wasn’t sharing the cookies with him or anybody else.

Some of us aren’t Vikings


He peed on my shirt. When I fell into bed the night before,  I left my shirt lying on the bedroom floor and in the morning, he came upstairs, lifted his leg, and peed on my good shirt. Just like that. I bought that shirt at British Importers. It was the most expensive shirt I owned. I lay there too stunned to say anything. He put his leg down, turned his head to give me a that’ll-teach-you look and went back downstairs.
“Chico,” I yelled. “When I catch you, I’ll kill you.” Except I wasn’t wearing anything and the idea of running around the house nude trying to catch a very quick and agile Chihuahua didn’t really appeal to me. The curtains weren’t drawn. My neighbors are tolerant but not that tolerant.
I went downstairs and Chico was lying in his felt doghouse with his head over the edge. No apology. He didn’t even have the decency to look abject or get out of the doghouse and roll onto his back in submission.
“You’ve got a new girlfriend,” my daughter said. “And she’s allergic to dogs. He’s had  the run of the house for three years. You’ve locked him in the kitchen.  He escaped and let you know what he thinks of the new arrangement.” I’d thought my daughter would  be sympathetic. I thought it was an inborn trait of daughters. Coddle the old codger kind of thing.
“Do that again and you’ll go back to the pound,” I said as I shoveled corn flakes into my mouth. He hated it when I had corn flakes for breakfast. If he had his way, I’d have bacon and eggs every morning. Every lunch and supper. Unless I was having meat with a bone in it that he could hunker down over.  Cholesterol? He didn’t care if I had a heart attack just so long as he got one strip of bacon and a piece of fried egg. 
He walked with his tail in the air and his ears up. He was a babe magnet. Everywhere I took him beautiful women came up and patted him. I’d tie him up outside the grocery store or the bank and when I’d get back there’d be a magnificent brunette or two (why brunettes and never blondes, I don’t know) patting him, cuddling him close, cooing in his ear. When I’d appear, they’d leave. No patting me, no cuddling me, no cooing in my ear. He was cute but I’m not that bad looking.
The wonderful thing about him was that everywhere I took him people talked to me. Because I live alone, that was a blessing. It meant that I wasn’t reduced to telling my life story to bored grocery checkout clerks. I’d sit  on a bench on the Dallas Road walkway and within moments someone else with a dog would sit down and ask me what breed he was. You see, although he was supposed to be a pure bred  five hundred dollar chihauhau, I think his mother slipped out of the kennel one night and went partying. He wasn’t a trembling, fragile, timid mouse. He was barrel chested, strong and with a set of teeth when bared would stop most people in their tracks.
He joined me on West Coast trails. It took him a few attempts to figure out wooden boardwalks, but he plowed through water filled holes, over huge tree roots, down and up slopes, along beaches and over sea wrack. His limit seemed to be ten kilometers. Then he sat down and wouldn’t budge. It was like he was saying if you’re crazy enough to keep walking, you’re crazy enough to walk and carry me.
Threatening to send him to the pound was serious business. He’d been there before. He knew what it was like to be thrown in the clink, the slammer, the cage. One rainy afternoon . he’d slipped out the back door. I didn’t worry about it because I knew he always came back when he got hungry and thirsty /. He usually hooked up with Angel, my neighbor’s dog and they roamed around the yards on our dead-end lane. When he didn’t turn up, I went searching with a flashlight. I called in help. We all searched. No luck. I went up and down the main throughway, Richmond, looking for squashed chihauhau. Nothing. I got a friend to print up posters to put on telephone poles. It had a picture of him with his teeth baered and a statement saying if whoever found him returned him, I’d take him back if they gave me  five dollars. I figured if he peed on their best shirt, they’d be glad to get rid of him.
The following day I called the various pounds. “Yup”, the warden said,  “Chihauhau cross, red collar, no tags, pay his fine and we’ll release him.”
When I got to the pound, I was led along the walkway between the prison cells. It was a heartbreaking moment. He saw me. I saw him. It was just like in the movies. He scrabbled at the wire. I held out my arms. But I hadn’t paid his fine so I had to go back to the front office and shell out for his being picked up and transported (a well meaning neighbor had been the stoolie who turned him in), for his not having a dog tag and for a new tag. One hundred and thirty dollars. I could have done a lot of things with those one hundred and thirty dollars.
Then one of the guards brought him out and put him on the counter. He climbed up my left arm onto the back of my neck and then onto my head where he perched, his nails digging into my scalp.
“Nice Daniel Boone cap”, the guard said as I turned to leave.
Most people like to think their dog is supernaturally smart, smarter than other people’s dogs. I didn’t think that about Chico. He learned early on that being cute beat being smart any day of the week.
He’d been my friend Valerie Kline’s dog. Valerie and I had been friends for twenty years. She was born in Kampala, Uganda and spent her first years in an internment camp. Her father was Austrian, her mother, Hungarian. At the end of the war, the family went back to Europe, then came to Canada. A long time after we met, she became ill. She got Chico to keep her company. Later, when Valerie was dying of cancer, she was more afraid of what would happen to Chico than she was about dying. That’s when I promised I’d take him. I’d known him from the day she’d bought him. Chico and I had established a close relationship right away. If I fell asleep on Valerie’s chesterfield, he’d sneak up and stick his tongue in my ear. It was a gotcha kind of thing. I’d come in and play with him. I’d throw a ball and he’d look at it. I’d chase him around and around the coffee table until he got tired of being chased and would lie down under the table and let me run around it. He’d bark to encourage me.
When I said I’d take him, I only made one condition. He wasn’t sleeping on my bed. He slept on Valerie’s bed and on the couch with her. There was dog hair everywhere. I wasn’t having dog hair on my bed. No sir. Not under any conditions. A week after Valerie’s funeral, her eldest daughter brought Chico over, along with a large box of toys,,his felt dog house.and enough food for a Great Dane. Night came. I explained to him that this is where he slept from now on. I put him in his dog house with his special blanket. I gave him his stuffed lamb to cuddle. I went to bed.
I was just falling asleep when I heard a noise. It was very quiet. Not a whine. It was a whimper. A heartbreaking whimper. It was so quiet I could just barely hear it. It was filled with tragedy. It said I’m lonely. I’m sad.
I leaned over the bed. It’s hard to see a black and tan dog in a dark room but I saw him. Sitting there, looking up at me. “Go downstairs,” I said. “You’ve got a very nice bed downstairs.”
Whimper. Silence. Whimper.
I knew then, in that moment, in spite of my Viking fantasies when I was a kid running around with a wooden sword in my parents’ yard at Gimli, I could never have been a Viking. Vikings are strong. They endure pain without a whimper.  When they are fatally wounded, they make pithy statements about life. Maybe it’s the sentimental Irish blood. If I’d been a true Viking,  I’d have had an Icelandic sheepdog, not a Chihuahua, he’d have slept in front of the door protecting me from marauders. In spite of having read Havamal many times, when the crunch came I forgot all about being on my guard going through doorways and slaying my enemies. Can you see any Viking going into battle with a Chihuahua at his side? 
“Okay,” I said sternly “but just tonight. “ I reached down,picked him up and  put him at the foot of the bed. He was very good. He lay right down and fell asleep. And so did I, but he must have moved sometime during the night because in the morning, he woke me with his snoring. He was nestled in the crook of my arm.
He’s back with Valerie’s daughter now. She and her husband have moved to the country so they can have three dogs. Although the other dogs are large, he’s established himself as dog number two. He gets to play all day long and to go for country walks instead of sitting on my lap while I’m working on the computer. My shirts are stain free. But he’s everywhere around the house with me. I often think I hear him and see him even though he’s not here anymore. I’m going to visit him shortly. I’ll take him a treat. I hope he remembers me.

Dry Rot

This is an old house. By Canadian standards, that is. Not old like in Sweden or Italy. Old enough to have a certain lean to it. It’s built of wood as is appropriate for the West Coast. There are some stone houses around but they’re oddities, sort of like the places with sod roofs.
There are advantageous to a wood house. In an earthquake they’ll most likely shimmy and shake and except for some cracked plaster survive just fine. The problem is that this is the West Coast. It rains most of the winter. Things grow. If you leave something out for a few days, you come back to find it covered in periwinkle or blackberry vines or deadly nightshade. You have the feeling if you fall asleep in a hammock, when you wake you’ll need to call for help. A neighbor will have to come with shears to cut you free.
Visitors from the prairies rave about our gardens. These are the people who in late August put away their lawn mower and their shovel and hoe and rototiller for ten months. The snow buries everything so they can watch soap operas all winter or go curling.  Here, there’s no escape from gardening. If we get snow, it lasts two weeks, then disappears and leaves me with the job of chopping the broken branches off the rhodos. It’s nice that the Japanese quince blooms in late  January but that means gardening has begun again. The snowdrops soon appear and unless I resort to spreading Weed and Feed at night, there’ll soon be hyacinth and daffodils. I’ve barely had time to wash the stains out of the knees of  my jeans before I’m digging and fertilizing and weeding again.
With the rain comes mold. Not a little mold. Blue mold, black mold, white mold. Mold that covers everything. With the mold comes dry rot. Dry rot is a peculiar thing. Everything looks perfectly fine but when I step on the stairs one day, they collapse. When I look to see why, I discover the supporting beam has turned to dust. I can break apart the wood with my hands, push my fingers through it. Dry rot is a bit like marriages that disintegrate. They look great on the surface but in private they’re turning to dust. It’s like those people who appear on the news for having murdered their family or neighbours. Everyone says about them, they seemed quite normal, a little withdrawn perhaps, not hail fellow well met, but polite, considerate and then one day they butcher their family or friends. Rotten to the core under a veneer of politeness and paint.
That’s how  the steps to my back sun deck went. Perfectly sound it seemed and then dropping with a stomach clenching thunk. My father found a scrap of lumber and made a rough joint to hold everything in place but I knew I had to call  in a carpenter. He took the steps apart like a jigsaw puzzle, setting aside the good bits and throwing out those that had begun to dissolve. He hammered and sawed and banged and then the stairs were up again, sturdy as ever. He put a sheet of tar paper where the bottom step touched the ground.
“Earth and wood don’t mix,” he said. “The ground will rot out the wood in no time. Keep them separate as much as you can.”
I scouted around the property and discovered that when the lot next door was raised the contractor simply dumped fill up against the back of my carriage house. I got out my hoe and squeezed in between the embankment and the back wall and began to pull the soil away from the foundation.. The shingles were soft and punky.  There was no flat place to stand, no room to use a shovel. I had to hoe the debris back toward the lane, wrenching my hands each time I hit a rock. I’d dig that out and start again only to find another rock. I kept at it, though, because another winter and the shingles would be as soft as blotting paper, the uprights falling to pieces.
Now, I’m going around my yard, other people’s yards when I’m visiting, knocking on wood, checking the foundations, checking the beams that hold up our lives. I’ve got myself a small pocket knife, when no one’s looking, I press the point into wood just to make sure everything’s okay.

stove wood

I built a woodshed last weekend. It looks like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. My only defense is that come the fall, the rain will start.. Wet wood doesn’t burn well.  
There are lots of big trees here. I chose two that are fairly close together, then erected two posts and a 2×6 cross bar some distance away. You have no idea how reckless this project is. I’ve never built anything in my life. They only gave me a passing grade in shops because I caught my thumb in the lathe and they were afraid they’d be sued. I’ve still got the scar. The shop teacher told the principal that if I failed and took the course a second year, he’d have a nervous break down .
JO won’t let me use her power tools. There’s a good chop saw on the back porch, but she has visions of my hands flying off. I’m inclined to drift away and think about other things when I’m working. A handsaw can’t do much damage. An errant hammer usually just means a smashed thumb. A power saw is not so forgiving. Or a nail gun.
Salt Spring ground is uneven. Except for hollows filled with moss and deadfall, large rocks covered in moss are everywhere. When it rains, the hollows fill up with water. Next to where I chose to put the woodshed, a large cedar tree had fallen some years ago.  It’s old enough to have mostly crumbled into a heavy, deep red pulp. I had to break it apart in places with an iron bar and rake it so I could get back and forth easily.  I wished I had a yard of good Manitoba gravel to level the area. I probably should have called Ganges to see if I could get some crushed rock, but that would take days, maybe weeks, to get delivered, and I was in a hurry
When I began the shed, there were low grey clouds and fog so thick I couldn’t see Galiano Island. There’s no thunder and lightning here, not like on the prairies. Instead, the sky closes down on you, the mist rolls through the trees, rain starts a few drops at a time, then settles in to fall all day, all week, all month. Once, it rained thirty days straight. It wasn‘t raining hard on the weekend and there wasn’t any wind but the rain was relentless. I hadn’t expected to build a wood shed and hadn’t brought my Gortex jacket. As a matter of fact, I had no jacket. The weather report had said sun with broken cloud. I put on a sweater, cut a hole in the top of a garbage bag and at the sides. It made a perfectly good rain jacket except for the arms. It was a tight fit because every time I’ve picked blackberries, I’ve eaten them with ice cream.
I spiked two side beams to the trees and nailed them to the cross bar. I didn’t say this would be beautiful, just dry. I nailed some boards across the bottom to tie the frame together, then ransacked the scrap pile. There’s no hurrying. The rocks, moss and water with a tangle of wild rose bushes that never bloom see to that. The wood pile looks like someone has dropped pickup sticks. Boards that may be the right size have to be teased out of the pile. They’re often too long or too short. The too-long ones, I used for the roof. I put them on crosswise. That turned out to be a mistake.
The next morning, it was still raining. The pools of water were deeper. I’d thrown tarps over any wood that could be cut up for the wood stove. I wished I’d brought rubber boots. I started cutting and nailing boards on the walls vertically. With all the rain it’s better to have the boards up and down, with narrow boards over the cracks. JO came out to inspect my work and said “That’s called board and batten”. At least, I think that’s what she said. The rain was making my hearing aide buzz. During the night, I’d wakened up with a realization that I should have put the roof boards running from the peak to the eave on this shanty. If I do that and put slats over the cracks, the roof will be waterproof. No shingles needed.
The roof boards will have to come off but I decided to do that later. By the time the sides were finished[, my arms and feet were soaked. I needed coffee. I dragged a tarp over the roof. Everywhere on Salt Spring, you see tarps. They’re the islander’s equivalent to duct tape. The way I use tarps, you’d think I’d been born and raised on the island. If there isn’t a spare tarp or two, I feel unprepared for life. City people need jobs, bank accounts, lines of credit, to feel secure. On SS people are free spirits. A place out of the rain, some homemade goods to sell to the tourists at the Saturday market, an old truck or van, a half dozen tarps, and life is good.
The shed is not much to look at, but no rain comes through. It’ll do for this winter. The next time I’m here, I can change the roof boards and, if there’s time, saw and split wood and store it safely. SS does get snow and sleet. Once, the roads were closed for two weeks. The power does go out. It does get cold. If a blizzard knocks out the power, the wood stove will heat the entire floor.  
In the city, at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie but we don’t often remember to give thanks for electricity that nearly always works and when it doesn’t, it is rapidly repaired, or water that flows from a reservoir rather than our well, or streets quickly cleared of ice and snow but, away from the city, where people are on their own when things go wrong, we slip in thanks for a shed of dry wood in the face of winter storms.

Rob Ford’s Ferris Wheel

At one time it was Toronto the Good. Then it became Toronto the Smug. The people who lived there believed it was superior to everywhere else in Canada. Torontonians were supposed to be more cultured, better educated, more literate, more sophisticated than their country cousins. Winnipeg might have the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Rainbow Stage or The Winnipeg Art Gallery but that was small potatoes and look at the downtown. Decaying. The Portage and Main area haunted by people who sniff gas and drink cheap sherry in the stairwells of parkades. In any case, real culture was in Toronto. That’s where the class acts came to act. 
Vancouver? Well, Vancouver might have the Queen E, Vancouver Playhouse and the Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver also supports major civic facilities such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Museum, Maritime Museum, the Pacific Space Centre, and Science World.  But it’s brash, a city of all new money, a city of social climbers and misfits who have long hair and insist on parading nude on the beach. But, it believes in libraries.
Now that Toronto is no longer the cultural capital of Canada, the denizens of Forest Hill have to give up their attitude of superiority. All that sets them apart is the price of their houses. Vancouver can beat them on that. Imagine, if all you’ve got to brag about is that your house is more expensive than someone else’s? But those people who frequent Bloor and Young have got to give up feeling that just being in Toronto makes up for their daily lives.
For awhile, Torontonians can still wallow in the illusion that they’re superior. But we already know that’s not true. It’ll be hard on their vanity but no one can really blame us if we smile into our hand as Toronto shuts down its libraries. Replaces libraries with a ferris wheel. Toronto the Smug has begun the process of becoming a cultural wasteland similar to the physical wasteland of Detroit.
It used to be when some of those four million people came back home for a summer visit and you asked them where they were living, they said, “In Taronna.” In a voice that also said “And you aren’t.” They obviously felt superior. That’s all over. They used to brag about the CBC being headquartered in Toronto. All those radio and TV programs were produced there. All those stars lived there. So they felt like a star, too. That’ll soon be gone. A city that doesn’t believe reading matters is a city that can’t grasp the kind of programs the CBC produces. FOX NEWS will soon become the Toronto icon. It goes with the circus on the waterfront. You don’t need to know much to ride on a ferris wheel.
Was this how Rome fell? Because people quit believing that education mattered? That culture was an expensive luxury Rome couldn’t afford? If libraries don’t matter, one has to ask what is the purpose of universities? Essentially, universities teach people how to read. Imagine the money that could be saved if the University of Toronto were shut down. Those buildings could be turned into condos and pubs and strip joints. Except, of course, for engineering. You have to have people who can build big ferris wheels and carnival rides and keep them running. But those people could be trained at a technical college.
If Rob Ford has ambitions to become premier, he needs to make a list of all those institutions that are of no more value to the people of Toronto than libraries. Then show he is serious by shutting them down. Theatres jump to mind. Ballet. Art schools. Art galleries. Why would any real Torontonian want to watch a bunch of adults wandering around a stage playing let’s pretend, or grown men in tights hopping about a stage, or go to some place to look at a bunch of pictures? They can see pictures in the Sear’s catalogue.
Those few effete intellectuals who don’t like the new Toronto can leave. They can go other places where people are prepared to waste their hard earned tax money on libraries and those other things effete intellectuals like. They can go to places like Winnipeg or Vancouver or Saskatoon or Fredericton. They can go to Calgary. Even Calgarians believe in libraries. And some of that other stuff. Or they can go to my home town, Gimli. We’ve got a small but good library in Gimli. It’s named after one of the teachers who educated many generations of us. She taught us to read and to love literature. People go there to read, to borrow books, to do research. Teachers bring kids there to show them that we value reading and writing, that literacy is important.
Of course, we don’t have the biggest ferris wheel in the world, or dodgem cars or freak shows or roller coasters so most Torontonians wouldn’t be interested. And don’t protest, those of you who live in this fallen city. You elected him. He must reflect your values.

Pollution

“I’ve got a headache,” my daughter said, except she was three so it was heag-ache. “I fixed.” She held up an empty aspirin bottle.
 I was busy writing and said, “That’s good.” She was always playing at something, pretending one thing or another.  It wasn’t until after another four paragraphs that the empty pill bottle popped into my head again.
 “Did you give Nan an empty pill bottle to play with,” I shouted down the stairs to my wife.
 “No,” she said. “Why?”
 We pulled on our daughter’s winter clothes, bundled  her onto a sleigh and hauled her to the nearby hospital. There was a doctor and nurse but they needed my wife’s help in holding or daughter down while they pumped her stomach. Up came aspirin, two colors of crayon and a button. She’d been sampling whatever was handy. While our daughter screamed and flailed, I hid outside the operating room completely unable to assist. On the way home, I couldn’t stop shaking.
 “She’ll be fine,” wife said. “They got it all out. They’re just keeping her in overnight for observation.
 I couldn’t sleep that night. Instead, I paced the floor, round and round, too agitated to sit down never mind lie down.
 Over the years we ended up at emergency any number of times. With two kids that’s not surprising, especially when you’ve got a daughter who’s a jock. She slipped and dislocated a collar bone at school, broke an ankle at soccer, fell on her head during gymnastics–I’d sit petrified while my wife took charge, directing events, obtaining information.
 When our daughter got pneumonia we drove her to a hospital in Kansas and they whipped her into a nightgown and began a regime of a needle of antibiotics every four hours, I drove back and forth to the hospital every day frantic with anxiety.
 I was, I told myself, an absolute coward, unable to deal with crises. Ineffectual. Helpless.
Then one day, I was hiking with a friend. We’d stopped before crossing a small stream. Some branches had formed a barrier and, instead of pristine water, pollution was piled up against it.
 “That’s coming from somewhere upstream. Let’s see if we can find it,” he said.
 After two kilometres we came across an old sewage pipe. We’d have missed it because of the brambles but the water above it was clear and we backtracked. My friend knows people in the environmental movement. He told them about the pipe and they reported it. Awhile later he told me the owner hadn’t even known about the pipe. Someone else had put it in.
 I’d just made another trip to emergency and the pipe and the hospital somehow came together. The idea that everything had to come from somewhere. It was a startling idea. “When I was ten,” I said to my friend, “I came home one day for lunch and my mother wasn’t there.”
 “Your mother’s been taken to the hospital,” our next door neighbor said and I nearly collapsed.
 It turned out that she was pregnant in her fallopian tube and had to have an emergency operation. A number of days went by before I rode my bicycle to the hospital. I was in tears at the door and chewing on my fist by the time I got to her room. To my relief she was sitting up in bed looking quite healthy.
 Maybe that’s what brought it back strong enough to wake me up from a sound sleep. I sat staring into the darkness, listening to my father say when I was little, not once, or even twice, but over and over, “People go to  hospital to die.” He must have been twenty-three or four then because I was around four or five. That’s what happened to his mother when he was twelve. They took her to a hospital in Winnipeg and she died. An old event, forgotten and obscured, like that sewage pipe covered in brambles and fern.