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Archive for the ‘humor’ Category

Whole wheat, sour dough, rye, pita, challah,  foccacia, poppadom, and naan – no matter what form you serve it in, I have an obsession with bread that amounts to gluttony. One of my most memorable meals was in San Francisco in 1992 with Margo Skinner, where we sat long after closing while the cook — delighted that Margo had lived in India — served us bread after bread, and I still wasn’t sated. But for me, no bread comes close to matching the bagel. Whether Montreal or New York style, the smell of a bagel causes me to salivate uncontrollably.

Understand that I am not talking about the round pieces of bread that are sold by the half dozen in grocery stores that purport to “New York Style Bagels” – a euphemism for “not a bagel at all.” The only thing that these upstart buns have in common with an actual bagel is their round shape, and the hole in the middle. These alleged bagels are frauds, one and all, and in a civil society would not be tolerated for a moment.
For one thing, a true bagel is not sprinkled with onions or bits of cheddar cheese. Nor is made from whole wheat flour. No! These ingredients are a snare and deception played upon the unwary. All these innovations may be fine on other breads, but the true bagel is covered, both top and bottom,  in either sesame or poppy seeds, regardless of whether you eat it with cream cheese and lox, or simply hot, melted butter.

A true bagel uses a touch of malt to activate the yeast and harden the outside when they are dropped into boiling water before cooking. Even more importantly, a true bagel rises for half an hour before being punched down and rolled into shape, and  for another twenty minutes, making it the sort of dense foodstuff that sentients of taste and refinement must eat on high-gravity planets across the galaxy. Such a bagel is the breakfast of heroes, the yeasty equivalent of a bowl of Scottish oatmeal whose dozen bites, when eaten at 6am , can sustain you until noon even when you are doing heavy labor.

Yet this is the sort of bagel you rarely find in most cities. In fact, you can forget Pokémon Go – what I want is an app that can locate a proper bagel when I am traveling. In Vancouver, Solly’s makes a decent bagel, although the true masterpiece of all its branches is challah. Seigel’s is genuine, too, with the mild sourness of malt as an aftertaste, and is, in fact, the only bagel found locally on grocery shelves that is worth buying.

Stray out into the suburbs, though, and edible bagels are rarer than Tsonqu’a. In fact, before you are fifty kilometers down the highway in any direction, the prospects of a true bagel is several thousand kilometers down the road.

For that reason, a few years  ago I finally learned to make my own. Even, as sometimes happens, I have to substitute sugar for malt, the result is better than what I can buy in most places. But the do-it-yourself  approach does help me to understand why bagels worth eating can rarely be bought. Bagels are labor intensive, and making them circular is  a craft that takes several batches to learn; my own approach is to poke a hole in one end of the dough when it is rolled out into a flopping rope, then insert the other end into the hole and twist the ends together. Personally speaking, though, I would rather go to the trouble than condemn myself to lesser breads for breakfast.

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My younger ghost is walking,
He kissed you against the wall,
I hear he looked a lot like me,
Would you know him now at all?
-Oysterband

Last Saturday, I went to my high school reunion. If that sounds unlike me, that was the point. However, what struck me most during the evening how varied and sometimes strange the opinions about me were. Walt Whitman may be vast and contain multitudes, but I could only wonder how one uncomplicated person could inspire so many opposing opinions that were at odds with my self-image today.

I went to a large high school, and it has been (mumble, mumble) years, so I wasn’t surprised that some people failed to remember me at all. Another person remembered me as a basketball player, pretending to remember only when I said that I had always lacked the coordination for basketball. I tried to demonstrate my clumsiness by make dribbling motions with my hands, but either I had drunk too little or too much to get my point across, because the person with the faulty memory wandered vaguely away, leaving me to imagine myself Afro-American and fifteen centimeters taller.

Almost as bad were the women with whom I had once been infatuated. One I saw across the room, but she seemed defeated by life, putting in the time until her death; I waved at her, but by her lack of enthusiasm I might have been inviting her to a meal of slugs and tripe, and I inferred I was not a welcome memory. Another women, whose last exchange with me involved me angrily unfriending her on Facebook arrived late, watched me all evening the way a squirrel would watch a hawk, and left early, possibly fed up with the dance of keeping away from me.

A long-ago friend was more accurate and more enthusiastic describing how I used to run everyone else into the ground at track meets “Oh, thank you very much,” I said, referencing my bad knees and suggesting that, these days, a two legged dog could outrun me without breaking into a pant.

Still another went on in embarrassing detail about how, when I ran, I wore a look of concentration that nothing could shake. That was news to me, but when they went on to say that my example had inspired them later in life, I wanted to cringe. Ten years ago at another reunion someone had professed to admire me, but they had built me up too much in their own mind, and my ensuing fall from grace was as quick as it was inevitable. I didn’t want a repeat, and was embarrassed to be someone else’s example, because I was sure I would sooner or later fail to match expectations.

Then there were those I had gone all the way through school with, or known even earlier. They knew who I was, but their assumption of my intelligence and abilities made me squirm, making me squirm with the knowledge that at best I had only feebly fulfilled whatever promise I might have had. We were glad to see each other, but after the initial welcome, we didn’t have much to say. The mutual sympathy was there in several cases, but our meeting sometimes felt like a convocation of our younger ghosts than a meeting of our current selves – wistful and even pleasant, yet always with a sense of a gulf that would take more than good will or a single evening to cross.

On the whole, it was easier to deal with people with whom I had struck up a casual exchange with over the Internet, involving a lot of jokes and little beyond the present. That was a persona I could slip into easily, enjoying and, I hope entertaining others without giving too much away.

The exceptions were one or friends from long ago with whom I could simply talk. Soon after arriving, I had a long conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, and later on one about British punk-folk bands. The kindness of these friends was part of the reason I could relax, but another part was that these topics bridged the past and present for me. In these topics, my authentic self (or what I imagine to be my present self) was to the fore, and I could relax.

Unfortunately, a reunion was not the place for the deeper conversations I would have preferred. On the whole, the evening was enjoyable enough, but, on the long taxi ride home, I kept thinking that while many people go to reunions to reconnect, or to prove something to others, I must be one of the only ones to have brought home the rags and tatters of former selves, many of which had never fit, and most of which certainly did not any more.

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Online dating sites often advertise themselves as scientific. They ask you to answer hundreds of questions, and encourage you to take endless tests, all in the hopes of finding someone to love. In my experience, the results are about as accurate as a horoscope, and another example of how science is evoked to justify flimflam and phony services. Still, I have to admit that some of the questions do tell you a thing or two about the people who answer them – just not always what the question intended.

The best example of such questions are those that ask you how sexually confident you are,  or how strong your sex drive is. I realize that social media has long ago conditioned most of us to answer any question put to us in a web browser, but these questions are an open invitation to lie.

Think about it: statistically, the only truthful answer for the majority is the choice that identifies them as average. If nothing else, very few of us have the experience to have a statistically meaningful idea about how we compare to others of our gender and age. However, nobody wants to admit they are average. Average is boring, and nobody on a dating site wants to appear boring, which may explain why I have never seen such an answer to those questions.

Still less is anyone going to identify themselves as below average in confidence or sex drive – unless, perhaps, they are under twenty and unusually repressed or inexperienced. I mean, who wants to nurse someone along in order to have a relationship? Not even the unusually repressed or inexperienced, really.

That usually leaves labeling yourself as above average or far above average. Even  if you secretly consider yourself a sexual athlete of world cup standards, you’d have to have the intelligence of a bed of kelp to admit that in public. Not only does it sound like boasting, but it sets an impossibly high standard for your eventual performance.

In the end, the only answer – and the one most people usually give – is that they are above average. However, since the other answers aren’t useful, nobody knows whether the answer is truthful. More likely, identifying yourself as above average only says that you are modest and have given the question of how to game the system some thought.

In other words, the supposedly scientific system cannot be trusted. In fact, for some questions, it encourages users to lie – and we all know how important lies are for building a lasting and mature relationship.

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Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

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As with many men, a daily shave is part of my morning routine. But I didn’t realize how ingrained the habit was until yesterday. I was up at 6AM, rushing so I could catch the ferry to Gibson’s Landing, when my razor became quieter and quieter then died out altogether, leaving me with one side of my neck and both cheeks unshaved.

The problem wasn’t a social one. My hair is a muddy brown and my skin reddish, so anyone else would have to get within a few centimeters to notice the incomplete shave.  However, so far as my sense of myself went, my half-shaved self was a surprisingly strong violation of my self-image.

The problem was not the idea of a beard, although I’ve never been strongly tempted to grow one, even as a young adult. Admittedly, a few days without shaving leaves me with the impulse to scrape the skin off my cheeks and necks in the hopes of stopping the itching, Then, too, a beard would be high-maintenance compared to being clean-shaven, especially for someone like me for whom sweaty exercise is part of most days, and sooner or later one of my parrots would find it irresistible to pull or climb across.

Nor do I have any desire to add anything to my morning routine that would require me to stare at myself in a mirror just minutes after waking. I simply lack the vanity, and would far prefer using a safety razor while reading.

All the same, I have sometimes toyed with idea of growing a beard. I associate it with ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, and a few periods of ancient Rome, so I am alive to the romance of facial hair. If I had ever found myself in the usual time-honored circumstances, such as a week long camping trip, I would succumbed to the temptation and endured the skin irritation just to see what I looked like. If nothing else, in my earlier years, I might have been tried the look simply in the hopes of looking my age.

However, under almost any circumstance, I would have shaved off any beard in a matter of days. Even though five o’clock shadow is a problem for me, starting the day clean-shaven matters to me. It is as important a part of personal hygiene to me as having clean and trimmed finger nails. Without either, I am vaguely uneasy just under the surface of consciousness, and haunted by the feeling that I am at disadvantage. My confidence, as flimsy as it is at the best of times, always feels like it is about to buckle and snap unless I am properly shaved.

Unfortunately, yesterday morning I could only endure. I caught my bus, glad it was still dark so my neither-nor state was concealed. Arriving downtown, I was just in time for the start of the Boxing Day sales, and when I missed my connection, I resisted with difficulty the impulse to dart into the nearest department store and buy a razor to use on the ferry.

Somehow, common sense took hold of me. Catching the ferry was more important than my personal preferences, I told myself. The relatives I was going to spend the day with wouldn’t care what I looked like, even if I did. Anyway, it was a holiday, and many men around me hadn’t bothered to shave, although mostly the unshaven were younger than I am, and more obsessed by fashion as well. Never mind that they were trying for a casual elegance and I only felt scruffy.

With a mental grip like an eagle’s talons, I marched self over to the queue, making a point of making eye contact with the driver, the man at the ticket booth, and the servers in the ferry cafeteria. Resisting the urge to lower my head and scurry through the shadows, I willed a firmness to my stride and tried to project an air of confidence as I approached the relative who was picking me on the other side of the water.

Then, after exchanging the greetings of the season, I looked my relative squarely in the eyes. “Can we stop by the drug store?” I asked, with just a hint of a self-pitying whine.

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When people call British Columbia “Lotos Land” or “the California of Canada,” they’re not just talking about the alternative cultures or the casual standards of dress. They’re also talking about the weather in the southwest corner of the province, which has fewer extremes of heat or cold than anywhere else in Canada.

Unfortunately, this reputation has one overwhelming problem: the locals believe it more than the tourists.

Most of the year, this delusion is harmless. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few years is unlikely to carry an umbrella, much less wear rain boots, but the weather is mild enough that going through the day slightly soggy is no great hardship – especially since half the locals have stripped down to shorts and T-shirts at the first sign of the temperature inching above five degrees, so that no dry cleaning bill is involved.

However, denial of rain is one thing, and denial of snow another. Because the average winter has only a few weeks of snow – and, every few years, none at all – the general population has convinced itself that the region never suffers snow at all. Every year, a majority of drivers resist adding snow tires to their cars at the end of October. It isn’t unheard of for local municipalities to forget to set aside money for snow removal, or to run through the entire budget for that line item halfway through winter. And only in the Vancouver area could the provincial government pay $3.3 billion for a bridge so badly designed that snow and ice falling from the cables is a major danger to traffic.

Consequently, the first half centimeter of the season sends the entire region into a panic more commonly reserved for a visit by a radioactive monster from the sea. Within an hour of the first flakes falling, the downtown core is deserted, except for the people crowding the Skytrain stations waiting to flee. Often, they have a long wait because, true to regional form, the system wasn’t designed to minimize the effect of ice on the tracks. One memorable year, the doors iced shut, and a uniquely Canadian solution had to be found – beating the doors with hockey sticks to knock the ice off.

Meanwhile, on the roads, the refugees from the office towers are demonstrating their total ignorance of physics, sliding over the snow in their summer tires and slamming on the brakes every thirty meters. Soon, cars are being abandoned in the middle of the road. Occasionally, someone from back east can be seen holding themselves upright on the frozen lampposts, unable to stand because of the helpless laughter that has possessed them as a few stray flakes of snow cripple a city. The easterners have seen real snow storms, and driven in them, too.

The next day, as likely as not, half the city will take the day off on the excuse that no one can get into work. This response to the weather fits well with the casual work ethic, but it’s not just an excuse. The chances are that only the major roads have been ploughed overnight, and getting to them can take hours.

Even if you leave your car at home, your odds of getting anywhere are remote. No municipality clears sidewalks, insisting that home and store owners must do so. Most do not.

As for public transit, forget it. You’re lucky if a few extra buses or Skytrain cars are put into service. And, even if you are lucky enough to find a place on a bus that takes you where you need to go, water is running over its floor as slick as any ice, and the steam rising from people’s clothing leaves you half-blind and disgusted by the prevailing levels of personal hygiene. All you can do is bury your face in the old scarf you hastily pulled from the bottom of the closet last night and do your best to avoid eye contact.

All this is discouraging enough, but it gets worse. Of those who stay home, few will spend the extra leisure winterizing their cars. Instead, what happens is that most people get an unexpected holiday, and the snow disappears in a freezing deluge of rain that floods the streets for a day or two.

Then, like trauma victims everywhere, the locals promptly forget their experiences. A few weeks later, they go through the whole experience with the same details, and again a few weeks after that, until the cherry blossoms appear, and the regional delusion comes slowly into some kind of rough sync with the weather and reality.

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I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.

That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.

That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.

I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.

It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.

I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.

After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.

Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.

Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.

It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi  and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.

Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.

On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.

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