Wednesday April 22nd – come join me!

The Hamilton Public Library is running a How-To Festival program, and on Wednesday next week I’ll be hosting a seminar on “How to use Social Media without embarrassing your kids….” Friends and family, too.

My sons have grown up in the newspaper. They both still speak to me, and they’re 23 and 20. There is a way to do this, and there is a way not to. Everybody has some great stories to share, and everybody has probably discovered there are landmines when you start sharing them. I’ll be talking about some of the things I’ve learned through experience – by getting things right and by getting things wrong. It’ll be a fun evening….I hope you’ll join us! Follow the link for more info.

Sherwood Branch
467 Upper Ottawa St
Hamilton, Ontario
6:30 pm….

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A snootful of oven cleaner

I decided to clean my oven. I forget I have one, but it occurred to me I should probably do that. I read the can of Grime-Off I found (or whatever it’s called) and it said to wear a glove. No word of a lie: I went into the drawer where such things are kept and found 6 rubber gloves. All left hands. If I go in the garage, I will find a dozen gardening gloves with the same affliction. Why don’t they just sell packs of right handed ones? I’d totally buy those.

Anyway. I put the left handed glove on my right hand, which is like putting your shoe on the wrong foot (which I’ve done, in winter, stuck in Sweden for two days with two left boots, story in the Volvo adventures elsewhere on this site if you’re so inclined to read more about my stupidity) but I really had no choice. I started spraying that noxious crap on, careful to hold my sleeve over my mouth. I had the window open and the fan on and then Ari came in the front door and asked me something and when I answered, I got a snootful and started coughing. But my oven is actually pristine now.

Speaking of food (sort of) I love this piecefrom Oxford American. Writer Chris Offutt is talking about food, but he’s talking about so much more. Our hierarchy of class derived from food – a literal food chain – is a fascinating read. My Dad was a champion garbage-picker who had zero qualms about ferreting through others’ discards to find some real or imagined treasure. It used to make my Mom nuts; reading Offutt’s piece, he deftly pokes at what that feeling was really all about. You know if you live it even if you can’t quantify it. Read it through to the end. It’s great.

Now, I’m just gonna sit here and wait for the first person who thinks they’re going to cook something on my clean stove. Nope.

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Get off Joni Mitchell’s back

In years and years now of working with many editors, I’ve had grammatical errors corrected and worse, I’ve had grammatical errors missed. There have been some typos; there have been discussions on direction and tone.

But I can’t remember when I’ve read a column that needed to be outright killed much as this one does.

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“Want me to help you barbecue?”

mark screen

(My girl kitten, Cairo, is a lovely tiny bundle of joy. This is not her. This is Mark (Marco, Markus, Stinky). He is a menace.)

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Closing up windows, counting up loss

We’ll all be at Rozzy’s today, she’s cooking. This is excellent news, because around here we’d probably have Easter pizza. We’ll all be there, Gilly and her family, both boys and their girlfriends and Arlene, of course, because, Arlene. 12 people who will no doubt end up having more than one discussion that bumps into this, because where there is Sommerfeld cooking there are onions and garlic, and where there are onions and garlic, there is Dad. Originally published October 22, 2012.

I’ve written of being 16 years old and not realizing I’d be losing my father in just 16 more. It’s now 16 years past that — this week, in fact — and he is all around me. I’d consider his timing magic or miraculous, but it’s not. He always knew when I needed him, and he knows now.

I’ve been stumbling a bit of late, and there is a trough beneath these words, beneath these times. I’m surrounded by unsettled, and for once my weariness is trumping my curiosity. I know I’m not alone. There are too many of us wandering around, masquerading as adults yet feeling the helpless emptiness and the hopeless weight of responsibility not borne and expectations not met; I want my Dad.

He’d no doubt tell me to smarten up. Part of a generation who cut their teeth on the Great Depression and the Second World War, he wouldn’t have much time for introspection or analysis. Funny now, though not in a very humorous way, the demons he tried to ignore are now the selfsame ones I am left deciding to run over, or from.

I went with my sister Gilly and her daughter Katya, 14, to close up the cottage last week. This place, more than any other, is where my father tried to purge the tendrils of his past that kept him firmly rooted in his pain. You didn’t talk about your feelings; you hacked away at the Canadian Shield and you took down trees, you sawed and piled and sweated and swore until you crashed into bed asleep before your head hit the pillow.

In the years since his death, my two sisters and I have frequently compared notes. My father, who used to hoot in derision when we spoke of ghosts and hauntings, is now the one who most often visits. His affinity in life for eating raw garlic and onions has apparently tagged along with him to some afterlife; if he’s around, the three of us are bolted upright with these distinctive odours. It doesn’t happen often, and it never happens when I beg for some sign. It happens the way my father happened when he was alive: on his own schedule, and usually at an inconvenient time.

As we closed up the cottage, I knew Gilly and I were thinking the same thing. Forget to lock something, and Dad will kick your butt. Double check the windows, secure the canoes, put away hoses. When we were small, he had giant wooden shutters he’d made to cover each window. Every fall we would pretend we were helping him, assembling a giant advent calendar that wouldn’t be opened until spring.

We don’t do this anymore. My father had a great fear of someone breaking into the cottage or the weather wreaking havoc, perched alone as it was in the forest for great stretches at a time. I’ve since come to understand you can’t prevent someone from stealing what they are determined to take, nor buttress what you love against elements you can’t control. All I can do is mitigate the damage done, and put less stock in anything I can’t carry in my memory or my heart.

As Gilly and I did our final rounds, shutting drapes and hitting breakers, closing doors and tugging on locks, we called for Kat who’d been off taking photos. As I rounded the truck to the driver’s side, following the same narrow path I’d taken when we arrived, I stopped and looked down.

“Gilly, get over here,” I said. “This wasn’t here an hour ago.”

At my feet lay an onion.

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My very own bus plunge

When will I learn how dangerous it is to go back to sleep in the mornings? It’s when you have the worst dreams.

I’ve had a migraine for a few days, which has been driving me nuts. I had to cancel a work thing this morning because I knew there was no way I’d be able to be up early, drive an hour and shoot video, and then drive home. Mornings are the worst for headachers. Ask any of them. So, cancelled that. But. Woke up this morning, early, and my head wasn’t as bad. There was a bird chirping outside my window (it’s been open a couple of inches for about 6 weeks) and I wanted to shoot it, but not having to blindly reach for drugs was lovely. One year I had a bird build a nest outside my window and have little birds. When they’d finished growing up I cut down the tree.

I rolled over and went back to sleep. This was great, because I had a few cats scattered around, Pammy had fed them, so everyone was happy. And another hour of sleep after not getting any sleep for the past few nights was a good thing. I thought. Instead, I rolled an RV down a cliff.

I dreamed that Ari and were driving home from McMaster U. Don’t know what we were doing there. But as we drove home, he went a way that was not my usual way, and in my dream I actually thought to myself, “okay, Christer does the same thing, they just take a different way, no big deal” which is an example of how calm I am. On we went in our RV. At some point along King Street in Hamilton, I was now driving. Ari wasn’t even with me anymore, which was a good thing considering what came next. I made a left where I thought we should have made a left and I was instantly in the forest and a skinny road. I don’t know where this road was. It looked like a road where you would take someone you were kidnapping.

I drove down a steep incline to a stop sign at the bottom, and had to make a sharp left. I kinda couldn’t stop because the RV was longer than the curve behind me. By now, I was cussing out Ari for making me take this wrong route even though a) Ari wasn’t with me and b) this wasn’t the route he chose because c) that’s what parents do. I made the left onto an even narrower road with no shoulder and long drop. You got it. Front tire left the pavement, and over I went. Somehow I was still steering, like the RV was now a spaceship, but I was definitely plunging an RV over a cliff.

But here’s the brilliant part. At the exact same time I was freaking out about how to tell Barb (the woman who used to run the RV stuff I did; I”m still friends with her, if she reads this, hi Barb) I’d wrecked the RV, I told myself, “this isn’t happening. You can wake up right now and not die and not owe anyone a nickel because it’s not real”. And I did that. I’m never that smart in my catastrophe dreams. I am improving. I woke myself up and Ari and I were back up standing on the road, and I was telling him what didn’t happen. We were still out near the same rural road, but for some reason we had a round yellow rubber dinghy with us (our new mode of transportation, I guess, really useful when there is no water in sight). As we talked about how to get home, a car pulled up and we ignored it. After a minute more, the car honked and pulled away, and it was a guy I’ve known for 30 years who I usually see for lunch every year or so but haven’t been able to for the last couple. He pulled away in his Pacer (don’t ask; no idea) with his family (3 kids; he doesn’t have any kids) swearing at me for ignoring him as Ari and I tried to figure out how to row a dinghy home, grateful I hadn’t plunged an RV off a cliff. Though we had also apparently lost an RV somewhere.

Then I woke up for real. Dream inside a dream, a damned onion dream.

Oh, I just saw this on Slate. It’s not a bird outside my window at all. It’s a mouse. Wooing me.

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Come for the sun, but go home for the cats

Two days ago, I was lounging in the bed of a Ford F150 with a handful of lovely ladies as we waited for the ferry to take us from Vancouver Island back to the mainland. It was so sunny and warm I had to scramble for sunscreen. As my plane landed last night, the pilot announced it was -6. Welcome home.

I’ve been on the left coast to do AJAC’s EcoRun, which is 20 journos driving 20 cars around for a few days. Most of them are electrics or hybrids or diesels, though we did have the new Hyundai Tuscon Fuel Cell – hydrogen. We weren’t pitting the cars against each other, just putting the new tech into real world applications. It’s fun, but I won’t deny that hypermiling a Mustang sucks on your soul just a little.

At the last minute yesterday, Air Canada pulled the scheduled plane and stuck in a smaller one. That meant they were bouncing people off the flight, and I didn’t know until literally ten minutes before it left if I had a seat. Some of us made it; some of us didn’t. A funny thing happens when you’re desperate to get on board a flight, and you’ve just been trying to digest something like that horrific German crash: there are always stories of people who *just* made it on the flight, and others who missed it because they got stuck in traffic. You realize how arbitrary that is. You really do. For all the snark that flies around these events, finding out about that tragedy when you’re in the midst of 50 people who seem to spend more time in the air than on the ground is sobering.

I got back to kittens who were happy to see me; so happy they thought I’d like to play a version of Bouncing Around the Bedroom until 1 am. I did not. They didn’t care, though it was certainly a better feeling to come home to instead of the way I left, with an early morning death threat delivered to my inbox. It’s been determined it’s a spammy mess, but they’re getting better at this, I tell ya. I’ve been so busy ignoring my Nigerian benefactors I forgot to remember the world is full of some pretty nasty people.

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Cowboy chords

While my undying love of writer Larry* McMurtry is hardly a secret (I swear you all down a shot every time I say ‘Lonesome Dove’), he’s only a ghost in this lovely piece about his son and grandson. They’re both musicians.

“…the son and grandson of Texas’s most-beloved living author swap songs and exchange badinage. “You told me that you can’t write a song about one girl,” James says, shooting Curtis a look. “You’ve gotta do a composite of about five of ’em.”

“I did tell you that,” Curtis admits.

“I realized you were right,” James says, flashing a rare grin.”

N Lonesome Dove

*Edit. Screwed up names, it’s Larry, not James. I need a better editor.

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Still my mother

In a few days, it will be the 15th anniversary of my Mom’s death. I’ll be on the road, but I’m reposting this because I want to. It’s from April 30, 2012

Are you my mother?

Remember that P.D. Eastman book from when you were young? A little bird that has tumbled from his nest approaches everything in his travels, wondering if one of them is his mother. I love that book. We still have it, and it’s the copy from when I was a kid. I knew it off by heart, and the ending, with the little bird hopping back in the nest to cuddle with his actual mother was always greeted with barely contained excitement. I know my father used to wonder how I could get wound up about a book when I knew how it ended. I just always felt it was me snuggling into that nest. I was so happy for that bird.

I play a version of that game myself, now. When I least expect it, I find myself searching for my mother. When my head is pounding from a never-ending migraine, it’s in the middle of night that I want her cool, cool hand stroking my head. My sons occasionally call for me if they’re sick, and I wonder how she did it all those years. She called me the Six Million Dollar Kid, a puzzle for modern medicine from my head to my feet. She was with me through all of it, including when I handed her Christopher, her first grandson.

“You look good in yellow,” said a friend the other day. When I hear this, I want my mother. She loved me in yellow or red, drawn herself to bright colours and happy when I’d finally ditch my ever present black. When we shopped together, if I chose clothing in yellow or red, she would always pay. I thought I was getting one over on her. Silly me; she was winning the whole time.
As I tug my yard towards spring, I carefully clear around the giant bearded irises that will soon emerge in their flirty splendour. That was my mother’s name: Iris. These are her flowers, tended by my father for decades. I want my mother now, to see that I’ve helped them spread throughout the gardens in spite of my limited skill and worse luck. These beauties will dance, just like my mother did.

It sneaks up on you, this searching for your mother. When I toss a box of granola bars into my cart, I remember how she used to bake batches and batches for us, altering the recipe for her picky brood. No raisins for Gilly, chocolate chips for me, almonds for Roz. A batch would show up on my counter while I was at work. I knew that tin would also signal the arrival of whatever was on sale that week: shampoo, detergent, soup, soap. I would sometimes find a bottle of Blue Sapphire in the cabinet, the cabinet otherwise empty because she knew I couldn’t afford gin. My mother was pretty cool.

I keep a calculator going in my head, drawn to women who are the age my mother should be. Gone at age 70, it’s now been 12 years. The women are getting older, and I worry what I’ll do when they too, are gone. “Are you my mother?” I ask them silently.

We had a rocky couple of years near the end, each of us making choices the other didn’t understand. It couldn’t be mended with red dresses and blue gin, and the only thing that would have helped – time – was no longer an option. She told me what I needed to hear just before she died. I looked at my sons differently after that, and I recently caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror.

Maybe I’ve found my mother.


(I know I’ve posted this pic a bunch of times. But I love it; it’s before all us damned kids came along…)

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maggie workingThis is one year ago. How do I know that? Well, it was tax time, and Maggie was, as always, helping. She was my junior accountant for 13 tax seasons.

Cairo workingThis is Cairo’s first tax season.

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