Monday, January 31, 2005

A New Hobby

He wheezes, holding his hands up in an absurd gesture of protection. He won’t look at me.

“Please man…please don’…just don’…please…”

He has these strange, green gloves on against the cold, those crappy hobo gloves you always see guys wearing in heavy metal videos. They wave randomly in front of his face.

“I got nothin’ man…just don’….”

I stand at clinical distance. There is nobody around. The stony hallway is empty except for some trash containers. No windows. Nothing else to interrupt our conversation, not even a passing car. Vapour clouds through my balaclava, hanging with meatlocker stillness in the narrow alley.

He is sitting on a pile of cardboard. Weren’t there shelters? It makes my job easier, anyway.

He begins to moan. Apparently, acting coherent and sober is possible for only a few moments at a time before the act breaks down. All he emits now are animal grunts and whimpering. In the dirt beside him is a Coke can, flattened on one side and perforated with dozens of pin-pricks. His crack pipe.

I pull my pistol from my pants, fully loaded. My .45 ACP. Seven in the magazine, one in the chamber, a design perfected a decade before the first American soldiers in their pie-plate helmets took them to the trenches in World War I. I have it cocked and locked, the safest way to carry this piece around when it's in your waistband. I point it at his face.

“Look at me,” I say. He begins to sway his head, the palsied dance of an old man. But he is 30, tops.

I squat, reaching out with the .45 to press its hard eye against his forehead. “Look at me,” I whisper. Big dogs don’t need to bark. “Look me in the eye.” Stoned or not, he knows he’s about 10 seconds away from getting a hardball plunged through what’s left of his grey matter. Nothing is more scary than a guy with a gun who is whispering things at you.

This isn’t thrilling or anything, this knowledge. It's just a tool you use, like telling a woman she looks beautiful to get what you want.

Finally, he looks up. He is crying. His eyes are strawberry jam.

“Who deals around here?” I say. “I just want a name. I’ll let you live.”

“Fuck you, yo…you’ll fuckin’ cap me, what do you care,” he says. He hangs his head like a bad dog.

“Just a name. Give it to me. I’ll cap you if you don’t, I don’t give a shit.” I didn’t.

He considers his options and spills it.

“Smurf does. Smurf, yo.”

“Where.” I’m getting cold, and bored. I’d actually prefer to beat what I want out of this stinking heap of rags. It would feel better doing it, but then I’d get all sweaty. Also, I might leave something behind.

“He goes to da Side Bar. Weeknights. Too many kids onna weekend,” he says.

I stand, head cocking. No people nearby. No cars. I can’t hear a thing. I have two routes to my car, parked in the dark two blocks away with swapped plates.

“Thanks,” I say. I flip off the safety. A .45 is subsonic, so the sound won’t carry the way say, oh, a 9 millimeter would. I step away, damning him. I also want clean pantlegs.

Hold still, you. I wait until his panicked hand moves enough so that I can put the bullet into his eye socket without him blocking my aim.

I grab my brass and clear out. The drive home is uneventful – not even a single siren to race my heartbeat.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Public Bathrooms

Using public bathrooms are a pet peeve of mine. I actually have quite a few, but this one is on my mind the most because I have to deal with it more often than any other.

Why don’t I like them? I have any number of reasons. A bathroom, in my mind, should be a place of solitude and contemplation. Someplace private and protected, a place where you can do a somewhat filthy business alone and unobserved, in such a manner that it’s almost possible to believe nobody else does it at all. Like, if you never see anybody do it, you can suspend the belief that everybody has to suffer the indignity of taking a crap every now and then. You never think about celebrities in the bathroom, right? Because you don’t, you never have to confront the reality that yes, these are people too, and they probably excrete shit on a daily basis.

Why does it matter to pretend that people don’t use the bathroom? That’s easy – anything related to our bodies or body functions is taboo in our society. Think of our swear words, the really bad ones you got in trouble for as a kid. Here’s a brief list, in alphabetical order:







Taboo things aren’t talked about - we aren’t comfortable doing it. It’s been ingrained into our society, probably since Victorian times, that anything related to what our bodies do is bad, and that we should all just pretend that we don’t do them. We can’t help it; we’re just a product of our surroundings. A parallel example that will enable you to understand this concept is French Quebecers. For them, the taboo subject was religion – throughout most of recent history, for hundreds of years, their society was ruled with an iron fist by the Catholic Church. You didn’t dare do anything that the Church thought was a sin, or else you’d go straight to hell. So they ended up having swear words like these:

Calisse. (Chalice)

Tabernac. (Tabernacle)

Sacrement. (Sacrement)

These are all things related to a church. They don’t sound very bad, do they? Sacrement? In English, this is probably a good word, but as I understand it, this one is one of the Baddest of the Bad swear words in French. And it works the other way too, of course – English swear words don’t mean anything at all to French Quebecers. They just aren't taboo. For instance, I was watching “The Big Lebowski” with my Quebecer girlfriend one time, and she got a kick out of imitating the actors:

“What da fuck is going on?”

“Donnie, shut da fuck up!”

“What da fuck?”

She laughed hysterically when she quoted these lines, because these sound like baby words to her. Me, I’d known her for months as this refined, ladylike and modern woman – so it was shocking (I wasn’t insulted or anything – it was just weird as hell) hearing her talking like a sailor on shore leave with obvious enjoyment.

So because being in a public bathroom necessarily exposes us to these taboos, they can be uncomfortable places. They are to me, at least.

It's possible to trace the line back even earlier than recent history, though. Have you ever watched a dog doing its business? What about a cat in its litter box? Think about what their faces and body language express: they look uncomfortable. Sure, there’s a certain amount of anthropomorphism that goes on with people and their pets, but really, there is no mistaking the expression on a dog’s face when it’s taking a shit: it feels vulnerable, and it doesn’t like it. My cat, when she’s in her box, she’ll perch there stoically over the little hole she dug, desperately pretending you aren’t there. You can poke her repeatedly and she won’t do a thing until she’s finished. She knows she’s trapped, and her face betrays a total loathing for the duration of the experience.

Think about cavemen, back in the day. For the majority of your daily routine, you were out in the woods or in the savannah somewhere. If you had to pinch off a loaf, that probably meant that you had to lift your furs and put down whatever weapon you were carrying. It left you in an exquisitely vulnerable and delicate situation, ripe for attack by another caveman, competing for the same scarce resources you were. Wouldn't you want to be able to do what you had to in total solitude? The instinct to feel discomfort when you are moving your bowels therefore must extend back many thousands of years. It’s only been recently that we’ve been able to perform these necessary functions in complete safety – imagine the novelty the first time it was possible to read a book, subconsciously secure in the knowledge that you wouldn’t be clubbed from behind for your sack of mammoth meat. And why else do we feel so relieved when it’s all finished? It’s because the threat of danger is over.

Public restrooms arouse all those nervous, instinctive feelings in me. Most particularly, my office restroom, the one I’m forced to use the most often. For some reason, using a bathroom at a bar or arena never bothers me – maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ll never see the other occupants again in my lifetime. Or maybe I’m just drunk. Either way, I can use the facilities in those instances without inhibition.

By the way, I’m certain this isn’t a unique phenomenon, these feelings of discomfort. In fact, I think the majority of men dislike using public bathrooms. How can I be sure of that? Easy, I’ll show you:

The Urinal Situation # 1

A man walks into a bathroom with 3 urinals. They are all unoccupied. Which one does he take? That’s right – the one that’s furthest away. Statistics have shown that the urinal (or toilet stall, for that matter) used the most often is the one furthest from the door. Keep that in mind if you’re one of those types that worries about a clean public toilet – the cleanest one will be the one closest to the door, because it’s used the least. The reason for the selection of urinal/toilet stall? Because of the instinctive need for privacy.

The Urinal Situation # 2

A man walks into a bathroom with 3 urinals. The one furthest from the door is occupied. Which one does he take? Of course; it’s the urinal furthest from the one currently in use. The man’s instinctive need to be away from other competitors kicks in, and he relieves himself at a discreet distance.

You’ve probably noticed I’m talking about men only here – there’s a good reason for that. First, I’m a man, and I can only relate bathroom behaviour I have personally observed. Secondly though, a simple observation of women outside the bathroom proves that women don’t feel the same way about bathrooms as men. The old joke about women going to the bathroom together exists for a reason – because they do it. They like to. Every time I walk past the ladies restroom at work, I can hear women chatting away in there, or amazingly, the sound of a hairdryer humming away overtop a conversation. When you’re at a bar or restaurant, ladies go to the bathroom together – and talk to each other while in the stalls! Needless to say, this rarely, if ever, happens in a man’s bathroom. Go to a bar on a Friday night, and enter the man's bathroom, and what you’ll find is stony silence, with rows of men using the urinals in funeral stillness, as the muffled beat of dance music thumps through the concrete walls. So why do women blow my theory?

The thing is though, they don’t. Back to our caveman example, and we can see why. Thousands of years ago, the primary role of women was child-rearing. Men were the fighters, the protectors, the hunter-gatherers, diligently roaming the woods and fields for food and supplies for his family. This meant that the camp was probably left mostly unguarded. So what do you do when you feel threatened, are vulnerable, and have to make water in the bushes? You stick together. Interactions of all types become a group activity for our ancestral women out of the need for safety, so they evolved with the instinctive need to relieve themselves with others for the greater protection that a group of women could afford. It’s not a crazy idea at all. Look at herds of antelopes, or lion prides; the females all hang out together to protect the young and enhance the overall security level of the social group. Is it so hard to imagine these instincts remaining programmed in humans today? It’s very reasonable to make that comparison. Other kinds of animal behaviour is clearly still exhibited by modern humans, so why not this?

At my workplace, the way the bathroom has been constructed, it’s almost like it’s been done in such a way as to make it as uncomfortable an experience as it can be, in order to violate all those imbedded instincts as thoroughly as possible. Consider these sensations:

The Sights

The urinals are squeezed, side-by-side, in one corner of the bathroom. No divider is between them, and they are right beside the sink. It is impossible to wash your hands or look in the mirror without seeing some guy in stark, florescent clarity standing against the urinal three feet away.

The Sounds

Many bathrooms have music piped in to obscure the sounds we make. This would be great, but we don’t have it where I work. Everything is conducted in library silence, and every single squelch, cough, or splash can be heard by everyone in there (and outside too, actually - an anonymous suggestion was put forth by my colleagues to install a sound baffle outside the man's bathroom, something that was discussed with some hysteria at a team meeting). I’d definitely accept a ventilation fan for some background white noise, but even this basic accessory is not included in my office bathroom. Which leads us nicely to…

The Smells

If any of my colleagues happen to be struck with a diarrhea attack (it’s happened – you spend the rest of your day wondering, “was that the guy?”), the smell lingers inside the bathroom literally for hours. Not to mention any other, but no less unpleasant odours that might be produced within. A guy I used to work with had this incredibly potent body odour – the rancid stench would stay in the bathroom the entire day, every day.

The Touch

Like I said before, the urinals are squeezed so close, that should you be unfortunate enough to need to use one, there will be elbow contact with your neighbour. It’s unavoidable. Why is this bad? It just makes me feel like a homo, and I want to avoid that sensation.

The Tastes

Thank goodness there are none of these – although I’ve seen empty candy wrappers, coffee cups, and glasses in there at any given time. WHY does anyone feel the need to bring food into the bathroom? Can’t it wait a couple of minutes? It must be the caveman instinct kicking in again: guard the nourishment at all times. Try not to think about the statistic about how few people wash their hands after they take a leak.

So as a consequence of this assault of the senses, I am forced to interact with colleagues in the bathroom every now and then. Something I’ve gotten into the habit of doing is using the bathroom only when it’s empty; if I go in and see some guy at a urinal, or a pair of feet in a stall, I just head back to my office for a few minutes. I can wait.

[As an aside, why are bathroom stalls made so you can see the feet of the occupant? Or are open at the top? Current stall construction seems like a really half-assed (pun not intended) solution to create a concession to privacy. That is, if you’re going to put walls up between the toilets – why don’t they extend all the way to the floors and ceilings? I would love a bathroom made this way. As they are made now, there might as well be nothing there at all if you can see the lower half of the person in there. I was actually in a bathroom once where the walls of the stalls were mounted high enough that you could actually see the ass of whoever was sitting on the toilet. The workers had to be either drunk or retarded not to notice that error. But I digress.]

But sometimes, no matter how carefully I plan my bathroom visits, I am forced to interact with other users, who don’t seem to share my feelings about bathrooms. Some of them act in a distinctly anti-social manner while in the bathroom; anti-social in this case meaning, ignoring all normal rules and etiquette you’d expect from a fellow male in the can. These are examples of people I work with who I have encountered in the bathroom. You might have seen versions of them wherever you work, too:

The Mumbler

This man, regardless of whether he is in a stall or at a urinal station, mutters to himself. The mutters usually seem profane and hostile. I’ve entered the bathroom before to hear him cursing to himself, only to suddenly stop talking, knowing that someone might be listening. I’ve also been sitting quietly in a stall, minding my own business, and heard him come in – he immediately began muttering angrily until he noticed my feet in the stall, at which point he silenced himself. There’s really nothing here that goes against the understood rules of public bathroom use, I just think it’s weird.

The Talker

This guy, regardless of whether or not he or you is using a urinal or a stall, will strike up a conversation with you. Every office probably has a guy like this. He’s also impossible to pass in the hallway without getting caught up in his web of conversation. If I see him coming outside the bathroom, already beginning to smile with happiness at the chance to talk to me, I quicken my pace and look at my watch, as though I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. It rarely works. The Talker is ignorantly oblivious to any kind of body language.

The Reader

As I explained before, I’ve tried to plan my bathroom visits to be as solitary and as brief as possible. The Reader ruins this strategy, because he is always in there, at any time of day. He’s only predictable early on – the first thing he does every morning is use the bathroom, always in the stall I think of obscurely as “mine.” I know he reads in there because I’ll hear the rustle of newspapers, and if I happen to go in there after he’s used it, they are always lying on the floor in little bunches, reminding me somehow of a hamster nest. I always know The Reader must be in there, because he wears these stupid-looking white sneakers. Other than recognizing his shoes, I’ve made no effort to know his identity outside the bathroom. What happens in the bathroom, stays in the bathroom.

The Moaner

Amazingly, on multiple occasions, I have been in the bathroom and heard this man groaning in a stall. He is well aware that I (and others) are in the bathroom, but he holds nothing back. Unfortunately, I have been unable to shield myself from knowing his identity. So I end up worried that I’m going to be traumatized by another moaning episode every time I see him. I’ve coughed loudly in order to alert him that I’m in there, or even struck up a conversation with another occupant at a urinal (a big taboo, something I normally never do) in order to try and convince The Moaner to quiet down until we leave. It never works:

The Moaner, inside his stall: Uhhhnnnn! Uhhhnnnn!
Me: (loudly) Ahem! Say, did you see that goal last night?
Urinal User: (staring manfully and correctly at the wall) Yeah, I saw it on the highlights this morning.
The Moaner: Aaaahhh! Uhnnnn!
Me: Well, goodbye now.

This sounds horrible, until you learn about…

The Talking Strainer

Amazingly, this person breaks all the conventions of public bathroom use. He is willing to talk to other men while he is in a stall, which is bad enough, but does it when he is actually struggling to move his bowels:

Talking Strainer: Hey…so (now straining) how was your weekend? *grunt*
Me: Oh my god.
Talking Strainer: Huh? (hideously straining again) Did something happen?
Me: …

Maybe this will help you understand why I mostly use the bathroom 16 floors below my office; always blessedly solitary, with music AND a ventilation fan to conceal things I’d rather not know about.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Shooting Method

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One summer day, the kind when the sun beats down on you like a physical thing, my father called me into the backyard. I was doing something bright like riding my bicycle in circles in the dirt of the driveway, trying to keep the front tire in the track I had just made. Cicadas buzzed in the still, high trees, and my lips stuck together from the Kool-Aid popsicle I had eaten at lunchtime.

“Come on over here,” he waved at me. I finished off my lap and pedaled over to him. The shredded-wheat grass flicked musically in the spokes of my wheel. It never mattered how long it got. It died anyway. Our lawn was too big to water. We only had one hose, so we ended up having this pretty green blob of grass in the middle of the front lawn. The blob never got any bigger because mom was too busy doing other things to move the sprinkler around.

“Want to try something new?” Dad asked. It was one of those questions that are more like an order. He had a couple of his pistols lined up with display-case meticulousness on the picnic table.

“Okay,” I said. “What?”

“You’re going to fire this pistol,” he said. “You’ve been using that pellet gun Gramma gave you for a while now, and that’s good. So perhaps you can apply what you’ve learned with it to this.”

“Sure,” I said. “What do I do?”

“First, get some targets. I want you to go into the garage and get a few pop cans out of the box. Bring back a bunch of them.”

I ran into the garage, skidding to a stop with surfer flourish, and filled my arms with the heavy cans. In those days, they were that skinny 280 ml size, the hard tin ones pop came in before the bigger American sizes were introduced. You used to find them rusting in the ditch beside the highway when you went bottle-picking for pocket change. I ran back out.

“Now what?”

“Set them up out there on the fence. Line them up on the top rail, but don’t put them too close together.”

I stomped gleefully through the struggling annuals in my mother’s flowerbed to arrange my cans on the fence, giving them a bit of a twist on the wood as though this would somehow affix them in place. The cans shone on the knobby rails, starkly colourful and manmade against the wood and the empty fields beyond. The wind pushed down the field grasses there like a huge, invisible hand, smoothing the long hay in the same way it would the fur of a cat. When I jogged back to the table, Dad was messing around with one of the pistols.

“This a .22, a semiautomatic,” he began. “That means, every time you pull the trigger, the gun will reload itself and be ready to fire, every time you pull the trigger. Like this,” he said. He pointed his finger at the cans. “Bang-bang-bang! It has ten shots - not one like your pellet gun. But a .22 isn’t very loud, so you won’t need the muffs.”

“Wow! Okay, can I shoot it?…I mean, can I do it now?” The handgun had caught my eye the moment I saw it on the table. It was shaped with incongruous smooth contours and hard angles. Like the cans, conspicuously manmade, but compelling in a way that the cans weren’t. I wanted to hold it.

“Sure,” he said. Dad picked up the pistol and handed it over to me. I reached out for it, but just before I was to touch it, he lifted it out of reach. “Wait,” he said. “What do you do first?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, and then I remembered when he had done this with the pellet gun, months before. “You have to make sure it’s unloaded.”

“That’s right,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an unloaded gun. Never assume because I hand this to you that there isn’t a bullet in there. That’s how accidents happen, and they happen to anybody. Never touch this, or any gun until you know it’s unloaded.”

Dad liked to lay things out this way. I listened quietly. I was a compliant kid, and I knew that as long as I paid attention, I was eventually going to get my chance to try out the gun.

“Okay, is it safe? Is it unloaded?”

“Let’s check,” Dad said. “First, you press this button, which releases the magazine.” The slender black magazine slipped out of the oak grip into his callused hand. He held it up; as far as I could tell, there was nothing in it. “Okay, it’s empty. The next thing you check is the chamber – a bullet could be in the gun itself. You do that by working the slide.” He put the magazine on the table, and reached up to the back of the gun, pulling the machined slide back until it clicked open, locked in place with a secure snick! sound, like a type of tiny safe. “Can you see the chamber?” He turned the pistol around so I could see inside it.

“I guess it’s empty…I see a hole? Is anything in there?”

“No, it’s empty. If it was loaded, you would have seen one of these,” he said. He reached into a box on the table, and pulled out a bullet, the new brass flashing hot in his fingers. It had the same kind of look the gun did – purposeful, machined, engineered; made that way for a reason. It was small, and reminded me somehow of jewelry, like the heavy wedding band my Dad wore on his finger like a chunk of plumbing pipe.

“Okay, it’s unloaded. I’ll give it to you in a second,” he said. “What’s the next thing you have to do?” He began to load the magazine, pushing the gleaming bullets inside one at a time.

I knew this one without prompting. He yelled it at me anytime he saw me with my pellet gun. “Don’t point it at anything you don’t want shot.”

Dad laughed. “It’s true – even if the gun is empty, never aim it at anything you don’t want a bullet hole in. That’s the only reason you should use a weapon like this for anything.”He handed me the gun, which immediately pulled my hand to the ground like a magnet when I took it. It felt like it weighed about fifty pounds.

“All right – keep it pointed towards the field. It’s not as heavy as you think, it just seems that way because it’s small. Here’s the magazine,” Dad said. He slapped the clip, now filled with shells, into my hand operating-room style.

“Okay, slide the magazine into the grip - that’s right…push it all the way up until it clicks.

“Keep it pointed at the field, now.

“Last thing. Push the button on the side with your thumb to release the slide. It will snap forward, pushing a bullet into the chamber.”


“Okay. You’re ready to go. Put one through a can.”

I stared out at the fencerow, picking the centre can as my target. It was wobbling maddeningly back and forth as I struggled to aim properly; if I didn’t pull the trigger soon, I wasn’t going to hit the can at all. I just had to hope that I would hit it. I tugged the trigger.


The can didn’t move.

“Try it again.”

I huffed in frustration, and concentrated. The gun didn’t feel as heavy now, at least. I slid my left hand to beneath the grip to support the automatic like I had seen on television. I blinked and…


The ejected shell bounced off the picnic table.“I didn’t mean to do that! I hardly pulled the trigger at all!” I complained.

“One more.”

I lifted the pistol again, my lips a tight line as I worked to put the logo on the can in my sights. The sights were wide, black squares, and the front post almost completely covered the can when I aimed at it.

The gun bucked in my hands. Miss.

Dad just smiled. “Take your finger off the trigger,” he said, reaching out for the gun. He took it from my hands like it was an egg, popping the clip out, and placing it carefully on the picnic table. He left the muzzle aimed out at the cans, irritatingly intact on the fence.

“In the 1950’s, American G.I.’s experienced the same troubles you just had,” he explained. “These doughboys, they’d join the army, and some of them hadn’t ever seen a gun in their lives.

“Some boy from Arkansas or someplace, who might have spent his childhood shooting at squirrels in the woods, had no trouble shooting the army rifles. These guys were usually the ones who ended up being snipers or elite marksmen. There is no substitute for years of practise. They didn’t need anyone to show them how to use a rifle – they knew how to use one instinctively, just like you might know how to ride your bike.

“But the other men, the ones who had never seen a gun except for in the movies, they had to learn. And it had to be second nature to them; their lives depended on the use of their weapons. These recruits though, they weren’t doing very well at all. They were intimidated. But it wasn’t their fault. It’s like going from zero to a hundred in a second – you can’t do it. It’s impossible to make that adjustment. The army issued them big .30-06 M1-Garand rifles that deafened them and turned their shoulders into hamburger after a day of shooting. Their shots were all over the place, and their scores were very bad.

“So the army came up with an idea: Start small. They gave the men air guns to practise with. Makes sense, right? It might seem obvious now, but back then it seemed like a crazy idea. Giving grown men, soldiers, a kid’s toy? But it worked.”

Dad had an old magazine on the table, flipped open to an article, and he showed it to me. In the black and white photo, I could see two smiling American soldiers holding Daisy BB guns. They looked like they were having fun.

“So, they began with BB guns, shooting targets and cans, just to get them used to the idea of holding a weapon.

“Here’s where it gets neat. While they were practising with the BB guns, the army did something very interesting, and is the reason this article was written. They trained the soldiers on rifles with no sights; they removed them from the guns.

“What they found was, after initially doing poorly, the soldiers began hitting the targets every single time. They began to try moving targets – throwing blocks of wood into the air for the soldiers to shoot.

“Then, they threw pennies in the air.

“And finally, drill sergeants would throw BB’s. Just one BB, the actual steel shot the guns were loaded with. The soldiers would shoot at that flying BB – and hit it. Almost every time.”

Dad flipped the page of the story to show me another army guy aiming his Daisy up into the sky. There was a black circle around a smudge in the photograph – an aspirin another soldier had tossed in the air, vaporized by the BB gun.

“The reason they did this was so that shooting became instinctive to the soldiers. They didn’t need the gunsights, because it was their body, their eye, aiming the rifle. It’s called, ‘point shooting.’ These soldiers, after a while, they could shoot like Annie Oakley. And after the men were that comfortable with the BB guns, they were more than capable on the M-1’s. Many of them became expert sharpshooters.

“It wasn’t magic, or some skill they were born with. It’s just a shooting method; a method you follow until you forget about it and then it becomes a learned reflex. In anything, there are results in using a method.”

“I’ve done that sometimes,” I said. “I forgot the pellet gun has sights, but I hit something anyway.”

Dad winked. “Okay…try it here then. Do it the same way.” He handed me the pistol again. “Clip,” he said, putting it in my hand.

I took the pistol and popped the clip back inside, liking the way it felt. Twenty yards away, the cans stood unmarked on the fence. I raised the gun. Dad began speaking behind me:

“Now, relax…point the gun like it’s an extension of your finger – you’re only pointing your finger at the target. It’s your finger. The gun isn’t even there. Just look over the barrel at the can, and ignore the sights. There is no gun, no sights, just your finger. Reach out and point with your finger like you’re saying, ‘look at that can over there.’"

I relaxed, looking at the can. I cast my mind out to it, reeling it closer like a fish. My eyes widened. All I could see was the lacquered sheen of something that shouldn’t be there, that didn’t look right against the backdrop of field grasses and distant trees. I imagined the speeding bullet flying right where I was looking. I thought about exploding aspirins, thrown in the air by laughing soldiers.

“Squeeze the trigger. Do it slowly, don’t yank it. If you make sudden moves, you’ll lose sight of your target. Keep your eye on the can.

“Just point. You’re pointing at the can.

“There’s no gun.”


A black hole stabbed through the heart of the can, flying off the fence.

“Do it again. Next can. Point at it with your index finger. There is no gun.”


“One more. Three is the magic number.”


Another can joined the two in the grass. Three cans down now; there was one left. “This is awesome,” I said.

Dad smiled, and put his hand out for the gun. I handed it to him carefully, keeping the muzzle aimed towards the field.

“After a while, when you practise something, and get really good, you forget the steps you took to learn it. That’s the way it should be. The skill becomes an extension of yourself.”

The gun popped out, cuckoo-clock quick. No aiming.


A hole appeared right in the middle of the last can. It wobbled, remaining standing on the fence.

“You’ll never remember when you couldn’t do it.”

Dad fired again and again, the action of the pistol hammering in his hand. The can lifted off from the fence, tugged by an invisible string, jumped again in midair, and then jerked one final time, spinning into the dirt, with wrecked shards of tin glittering nickel-bright in the summer sunshine. The slide of the pistol locked open; empty once more, with tiny chimneys of smoke coiling up from the bore.

“You can apply this line of thinking to almost anything in life, too,” Dad looked at me. Campfire streams of gunsmoke puffed from his lips, drifting fragrantly around his head in the summer air.

“Any of us, we are capable of anything.

“Talent is practise.”

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Today is January 23, 2005.

In the National Hockey League, 699 league games have been cancelled due to a player lockout. Everybody knows by now that the key to the dispute is cost certainty; the owners want to know how much running their clubs will cost them on an annual basis.

I find it interesting how many people side with the owners on this issue. Most couldn’t care less about the cost certainty or the morality of the owners’ position though – it’s about, “the players make too much. Screw them.” Simple human envy of millionaire hockey players is the source of the support that the club owners are publicly drawing upon. If you have any doubt about that, just read newspaper quotes anytime there is a labour dispute between any union and the establishment business here in Canada:

“Teachers? They’re soft. They get summers off. I don’t get summers off – they don’t deserve a raise.”

“Government workers? They don’t work at all. Why do they deserve a raise? I never got one.”

“GM workers? These guys have a grade 12 education – they are lucky to be employed. All they do is put stickers in doorframes for $30 an hour. Sign me up!”

Too many people refuse to wrap their mind around the idea that anybody should make more money than them – because surely, they are more deserving of that money themselves. Especially grown men playing a kid’s game, living out a dream that died for them ages ago.

Think about this: a few years ago, recognizing the fiscal plight of Canadian hockey clubs, the federal government came up with a plan to subsidize NHL teams across Canada in an effort to compete with American teams. See, at the time, the Canadian dollar was floundering by comparison to the U.S. greenback, two clubs had recently left their parent cities to start up again in the United States, and most of the remaining Canadian teams were barely solvent, publicly musing about moving themselves. The aid package for the six Canadian hockey teams amounted to about $20 million a year, total – about $3 million per club. $20 million; peanuts compared to what other programs cost, yet would have made a meaningful difference to the teams.

Predictably, the motion was a public relations disaster. The general public saw the funding as millions of public tax dollars as lining the pockets of rich hockey players and richer owners. In a stunning reversal, the plan was pulled off the table only 72 hours after it was proposed thanks to massive public outcry.

None of the critics of the plan thought about how much money an NHL team brings to a community. Selfishly, all they thought about was how much money hockey players earn, and how little they do by comparison. These guys are lucky to have their jobs, right? Why, some people would pay to play on an NHL team.

If a city is lucky enough to have an NHL hockey team, these are but a few of the benefits as a consequence of having it there:

Property tax dollars from having an arena in town.

Taxes gained from the owner of the team – millions of dollars going to the government that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Hell, in Ottawa, the city charged the Senators something like $88 million dollars to install a highway overpass to the arena location. Ask yourself: Is having all that money going into the system a good thing or bad?

The tax dollars from the NHL players. Literally hundreds of millions over time.

Peripheral businesses that inevitably spring up around hockey arenas. Restaurants, taverns, souvenir stores, housing complexes, shopping malls, for people spending money at all of them.

Jobs for people working at the arena, at all those places mentioned above.

Equipment sales. Pucks, sticks, jerseys. It might not be made in the same city where the team is, but do you think hockey pucks are made in Hong Kong? Hockey jerseys? It’s all in Canada somewhere, and people are making a living producing it.

In case you didn’t notice, the unifying theme throughout the above examples is that all of those things produce money for the government. Nobody likes paying taxes, sure – but indirectly, having an NHL club in a city is helping to cover things like the costs of hospitals, our children’s education, or new roads to drive on. In a big way. Millions of dollars that wouldn’t be there otherwise. And if people are paying taxes, that means they have jobs. Not just NHL players, but everyday people in the community. Nobody can argue that this is a bad thing. These jobs do not arrive at the expense of other ones.

Why doesn’t anybody complain when political parties pledge monetary support to businesses in Canada? Why isn’t there public outcry whenever a multi-million dollar grant is given to Bombardier in Quebec? Probably because that money appears to be going to the average Joe working at the plant. In terms of "worthiness", there is no distinction between Joe at the plant and a player at the rink. But in terms of the big picture, the player at the rink is actually providing far more to the country overall than the guy at the plant is. That's why players are given multi-million dollar salaries. They earn them, every penny.

So now - thousands of people are now laid off across Canada, entertainment spending is down, and sales of all kinds of hockey merchandise are down. The impact on entertainment spending is already tangible - Statistics Canada revealed information showing that entertainment spending alone in Canada is down $17 million per month as a direct consequence of the NHL lockout. Over the course of an approximate 9-month season, that's $153 million, gone. CBC is expected to lose $20 in profits as a consequence of a lost season...and even beer sales are down 3% over last year.

Let's say there was no more hockey, ever: in order for the government to fund necessary programs, where do you think that shortfall of cash is going to come from? What about decreased spending in other, as-yet-undiscovered places?

This isn’t about supporting players over the owners. This isn't about me saying that hockey is part of our national fabric or any other sentimental argument.

We all suffer for the absense of NHL hockey, directly or indirectly, in the only place everyone can understand: in our bank accounts.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Ordering a Sub

The small, tarnished chime sounded – ping! - as the door whooshed shut behind me on its pneumatic elbow. Entering the Subway, I was the first customer. I know this because I had watched the short, aging hippie flip the deadbolt open for the day after giving me a scrutinizing appraisal through the glass. As though I was a suspicious character of dangerous motive. I must have passed his test, because after that first look, he flashed me a wide, off-kilter grin.

“Just a moment, man. This’ll be the freshest sandwich you’ll ever have,” he proclaimed. He proceeded to switch on various overhead lights and display signs. The warm, yeasty smell of baking submarine bread drifting around the restaurant reminded me somehow of beer. I couldn’t really have one of those - I was on lunch break; early, in fact - 11 o'clock. A dusty sunbeam slanted through the front window, and the day’s virgin newspaper lay folded neatly on the counter. Finishing his quick opening ritual, he clapped his elvish hands together.

“Okay, what’ll it be, dude?,” he asked. The lopsided grin was still there, and I had a feeling it would be there for anyone as he attempted to hide his contempt for his job. His small eyes glinted ferally beneath the bill of his cap.

“Pizza sub, 12-incher, on Italian, extra cheese,” I rattled. As a veteran sub eater, I knew all the pertinent information to provide up front. I knew guys like these got tired of prodding the customer at each step of the process: “On what bread? How long? Cheese?” And so on.

The sub jockey cackled. “Hey, I’m a 12 inch Italian myself,” he said. How many times had he recited that joke, I wondered. I was sure for him it was as automatic as saying, "fine, thanks." He grabbed the bread, and turned to apply the toppings.

“So, extra cheese…,” he wondered aloud. He looked up at me with another speculative look, and the cracked grin resurfaced. “You know what, man? There’s lots of fat in this cheese. But our bodies need fat. This will thicken you up.” He laid the triangles of cheese atop the salami and continued. “If you were in the wild, man? You could live off a block of butter for a month. Your body converts the fat into useable sugars and energy so you can live. That’s why we have kidneys, man. To process this stuff. I mean, we need protein and all, but we just piss it all out. But fat?,” he paused reflectively. “Fat we can store, and you’d be in good shape after a month.” He finished putting the toppings on and looked at me expectantly, mouth working. I could tell he was waiting for a comment, and I realized this must be a game he plays daily: Freak Out the Customer. He wanted to appear strange, so I’d tell my friends about the far-out Subway guy I happened to bump into that day. It made him different.

“That's true enough,” I said. “Also, if you attempted to live off of a rabbit in the wild, you would starve to death in short order. Rabbit meat contains mostly protein – the kind you’d 'piss away' – and less than 1% fat. You would probably be immobile under a bush after 3 weeks, unable to hunt down the meat that was failing to sustain you.”

My answer wasn’t part of Hippie Sub Man’s routine. He stared, now motionless above the sandwich. “How…how did you know that, man? Nobody knows stuff like that,” he murmured wonderingly. In an instant, I had cruelly ripped apart his disguise to reveal a mostly stupid person who had memorized an obscure fact or two in order to randomly recite them in an attempt to look like an innovative weirdo. He wasn't unique. He was no different from the guy I saw drinking Listerine every morning on my way to work.

I decided to up the ante. In my very best Schwartzeneggar voice, I quoted the Terminator: “I know everything,” I paused, unblinking. “I want my sub hot,” I snarled, the Austrian accent garbling the command. The order put Hippie Sub Man back into his place. I was the Alpha Weirdo in this restaurant.

“Sure, sure! Sorry, man!,” he stammered. He jumped to perform my demand. “Man - I have to tell you. You are totally on my team, man. I need guys like you out in the woods,” he babbled. He looked only at the floor, unable to make eye contact. He rang up my sandwich on the register, $7.29, and handed me my change.

“Some other time,” I replied robotically. Leather jacket creaking, I snatched my lunch from his paw and marched heavily out the door as the second customer of the morning entered. Get out of my way. I am the Terminator, a deadly submarine-eating cyborg.

“What’ll it be, man? This’ll be the freshest sandwich of the day,” I heard him begin.

Last Night's Dream

I am running across a limitless cow pasture, past crouching thorny shrubs and sunken, rocky molars. I can feel the hot breeze on my cheeks and ears, and hear the droning –reeeeeeee- of crickets in the weeds as I rush past. I inhale a deep draught of the air, and I can smell the fresh, wet scent of hay, newly cut in a nearby field. Ahead, the country becomes hilly and uneven, and in the distance, I can see more pasture, wavering and hazy in the chromium June sunshine.

I approach a steep hilltop, and my view broadens; far below, Holstein cows graze in slow motion. A rusted trough brimming forever with mineral springwater is pressed into the center of the valley like a blue jellybean by some giant, unknown thumb.

I reach the peak of the high hill, and I leap, with one jeans-clad leg stretched in front of me to make the biggest long-jump in Olympic history, and the other sneakered toe pushing deep into the soft soil for traction. I leave the Earth with such muscular ease, I gasp in surprise, and now I’m flying over the land I left behind, soaring higher and faster, with my maniac’s grin stretching so wide and so hard my face hurts. I accelerate effortlessly through the air and aim my fists ahead of me in the legendary way, and I whoop with pure joy as my pants flap and my ears roar in this most amazing of moments. Below, the plump cows stare up at me in dumb, bovine wonder as their heavy jaws crush and squash soaking mouthfuls of plentiful grass. Their expression causes me to laugh rolling, spontaneous laughter – they will never experience such a thrill in their entire long and dim lives. This experience is for me alone. My glistering, excited saliva spackles my cheek as I turn my face back up to the sky.

Far away, the burning dime of the sun has only begun its descent into the west, and I know if I fly hard enough, it will never go down. I reach deep inside, and I sense an incredible force responding to my will, a power I instinctively know will propel me as fast as I want to. I open the tap all the way, and I just can’t stop laughing. I will catch the sun.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Steve Has an Idea

“Fuck, I’m tired, babe. Where’s the water?,” Steve asked. He folded his long frame into the futon. Lying down, he pulled the light sheet up over his nude body with a groan. It was mid-July, and they couldn’t afford air conditioning. The soft sounds of distant traffic puffed through the cheap green drapes of their century apartment. The minimal insulation the sheet provided was unnecessary in the sultry weather, but Steve couldn’t stand to sleep without coverage of some kind. He liked what he called "containment." He wore only briefs, not boxers, for similar reasons.

“Here, hon. Put it on the book over there - I don’t want a water mark on the new table,” Andrea said. She held out the glass, slickly gleaming in the dim bedroom. Drops of condensation depended from its straight sides, and Steve was tempted to guzzle it all right away. Only chlorinated city tapwater, it tasted like mountain spring water if you were thirsty enough. Steve mused that the key for happiness must lie in the denial of desire. When finally rewarded with our needs, we appreciate them even more. He’d drink the water later.

“Those tacos we had rocked,” Steve said. He put his hands behind his head. “I mean, where do we go anymore to get a taco? Taco Bell, and those aren’t tacos. There need to be more taco places,” Steve declared. He had been on a taco kick all day, ever since he had watched “The Doors” on television. At the end of the movie, Val Kilmer closes the film by mumbling, “Come on…let’s go get some tacossss,” in that Marlboro man voice of his. So that meant Steve had to have some tacos. Andrea had returned from work that afternoon to see Steve stumbling around the living room shirtless, screeching “Light my Fire," using their remote control as the "mike." She was a long-suffering girlfriend, the girlfriend of a 28 year old boy. By tomorrow, thoughts of tacos would be forgotten.

“Yes, tacos are good,” Andrea agreed. It was her "oh-kay, it's time for bed, Steve," voice. The tacos had been all right, nothing more. With his customary exhilaration, Steve had consumed five of them in only a few minutes, chased down by a few bottles of cheap Mexican beer, announcing the meal a total success. Andrea went along with it mostly to keep him happy. She wished he would get a job though, rather than stay home and attempt to live up to the image of pop culture icons he saw on TV every day. Not that taco consumption represented a very high standard.

Steve was still slightly buzzed on beer and full of beans. “C’mere, baby! Taco-taco-taco! Lemme see that hairy taco!,” he chanted. He puffed hot air into Andrea’s ear and gave her a little squeeze. She was putty in his hands; he knew she loved when he acted this way.

“Steve…I have to work tomorrow! Stop that,” Andrea giggled. He knew her like himself. She was into it for sure. He pulled her close, and the already hot futon grew even hotter. They kissed, wetly and longingly, with Andrea moaning extravagantly. She had consumed a couple of those beers, too, and Steve knew of no other panty remover so reliable. Stopping suddenly, Steve frowned.

“What is it, Steve? What’s wrong?,” Andrea murmured.

“My butt kind of hurts. I think there is a zit on it…it’s really sore. Can you look? I mean, can you check? It’s been bugging me all night,” Steve said. His face worked as though there was not only a zit down there, but a freaking boil. Steve did not know the meaning of subtlety.

“Sure hon…come on, up,” Andrea instructed motherly. Steve complied instantly, crouching on the bed on all fours. Andrea pulled the sheet down for her inspection. Steve shuddered suddenly.

“Cold, Steve?,” she asked softly. She ran a finger down his flank.

“Just a chill, babe,” Steve replied. His silhouette against the window was stark, angular, thin; a portrait of urban poverty. Andrea checked around, giving his butt a playful little slap. “I don’t see anything, hon…are you sure?,” she asked. She reached around and hugged his waist.

“No, I’m sure…look close. It’s like, inside the cheek, you know? It’s stinging,” Steve insisted. He shuddered suddenly again…odd, given the humidity of the evening. Well, maybe he was nervous. He didn’t get his butt inspected every day. Andrea leaned in, running her fingertip over Steve’s buttcheek, feeling nothing but smoothness.

“Where?,” she asked. “The left…uhm, kind of…ah, inside,” Steve said haltingly. She pried a little, still seeing nothing. “Get close…it’s dark, after all,” Steve’s voice implored in the darkness. She frowned in concentration, and peered closely.

Suddenly, Steve farted. An entire decadent evening of taco eating and beer drinking was contained in the fart, nauseatingly redolent of decomposing animal matter. The blast blew Andrea’s hair back from her forehead, and she fell backwards in shocked surprise.


Steve leaped from the bed, gasping laughter and pointing wildly. “Bah, ha, ha, ha! Oh my god, that is so great! I could barely keep it in! Bwah, ha, ha! You should see your face, holy shit!,” Steve roared. He collapsed on the bed in his hilarity, weeping tears of joy. His sides shook, and he struggled for air.

“Oh, Andrea, I can’t BELIEVE you fell for that! Oh my god, what a good one!,” Steve raved.

Andrea was speechless. She had never in her life expected such an act, such a disrespect. Steve was always a prankster, but this...she staggered to the closet, grabbing random articles of clothing as she went, pulling them on in short, savage gestures.

“Andrea, what are you doing? Come back here! Babe, I’m only teasing…Andrea!” Steve insisted. He patted the bed harder, and then, realizing she wasn’t coming over, got up and went over to where Andrea stood.

“Andrea, stop this, now! It was just a little joke.”

“Steve, that was totally disgusting. I can’t believe you did that. Especially after I paid for your stupid tacos, and then, you…you do that while we were fooling around! What the hell were you thinking?!,” Andrea shrieked. Flecks of spittle flew from her lips. Steve stood stunned.

“I’m going to stay tonight at Jen’s. I can’t stand to look at you right now,” Andrea seethed. Fully dressed, she grabbed her purse and grabbed the doorknob. “I don’t know when I’ll be back, you asshole.”

Steve stared at the door. Unbelievable - it was only a prank! Women. Steve grabbed the water beside the bed and drank it down, and stalked out to the living room. He was glad he had taped “The Doors” earlier.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Shared Experiences

I never understood these guys who like to go to movies alone. And it’s always guys, never girls – just think about those giggling bathroom visits at restaurants. Girls have this down pat; they know innately that they should do certain things together.

My former roommate, for example, was a guy like this. He’d take off inexplicably for a couple of hours, and I’d only find out after the fact that he’d just seen a new movie that I might or might not have wanted to take in as well. He’d shrug in this exaggerated Generation-X way of his and say, “Oh, I didn’t know if you’d want to see it.” It would never cross his mind to ask if I wanted to go. That kind of thoughtlessness always drove me nuts. But he was also one of those guys who would go to animé features at the local arthouse, something I had no interest in seeing, so maybe this blanket inconsideration was a good thing after all. What kind of animé, you ask? I’m not sure – all I can say is, he spent a lot of time in his room with the door shut, "downloading Japanimation." You can piece it together.

My best movie memories have always been with one or more people, and more often than not in a packed theatre on opening night. For instance, a couple of years ago I went to see that movie Signs, accompanied by a girl I had been seeing for a couple of months. Signs was, I believe, the next movie after The Sixth Sense, the wildly popular “twist” movie by that director, I can never remember his name, that Joey-Joe-Joe-Junior Shabadoo guy. Signs was apparently going to be another creepy kind of suspense movie with a similar “reveal” at the end (just like every one of Shabadoo’s movies since then, but that’s a story for another day). So in consideration of all this, Signs was a full house that night, and more so for it being the opening night for a widely-anticipated summer blockbuster.

Anyway, there’s this scene in the middle of the movie I remember: so far in the story, a lot of unsettling and creepy things had been happening around Mel Gibson’s farm (I’m going to assume here that you’ve seen the movie and know what I’m talking about), building up over the course of 45 minutes or so. We were being led by the nose to believe that some kind of space alien might, just might, be outside the farmhouse in Mel’s cornfield. So naturally, that meant that Mel had to go investigate by himself in the dead of night with a flashlight.

So Mel was outside walking around his cornfield, nervously shining his flashlight all over the place at any innocuous crackle or pop that might signify the location of a possible alien. At this moment in the theatre, nobody was doing a thing, not moving in their seats, and barely even breathing. Usually you can hear people eating popcorn, whispering, getting up to go to the bathroom, but not at this moment – and it was a packed house, remember. A couple of hundred people were seated side-by-side taking this all in. Everybody sitting there knew that Something Was About to Happen. A long, faint, and ominous violin note was being held, on and on, just to let us know that a sudden explosion of sound was about to assault our eardrums. We clutched our armrests and the damp hands of our dates. You could see it in Mel’s eyes: What the hell am I doing out here?

It was then that I was seized by an irresistible compulsion. I knew that the tension was about to be broken, but I wanted to be the one who did it. If you know anything about scary movies, there’s always the bait-and-switch suspense moment: something sort of scary will happen, relieving you momentarily just before the really scary thing happens, causing the weaker audience members to leave a wet spot in their jockeys. So I waited with the knowledge of a veteran moviegoer that the bait-and-switch was imminent…and there! A sudden sound on the screen, but not the Big One. My moment!

I screamed out loud, erupting with the most girlish, high-pitched and cowardly screech I could possibly summon. And it was the greatest – the entire theatre instantly roared with this total release of sound-stage style laughter. You can’t do that in an empty theatre, you just can’t, and you can’t do it if you go to a show by yourself. Why would you want to? My date was wiping her eyes she was laughing so hard, and when the actual scary moment happened onscreen, nobody jumped at all. I had successfully defused the tension, to everyone’s obvious enjoyment.

It’s reasons like these that I have to share movies with other people. And it’s not because stories like these happen every time you go. And movies aren’t particularly deep or meaningful either, like going to church with your family on Christmas Day might be. It’s just all about simple, good fun, and it's better with other people around you. At the very least, it gives you someone to talk with later on when you’re eating tacos from the drive-through and recalling the cheesy lines the characters said in the movie. For god’s sake, if you think you want to see a movie, don’t be a pathetic turnip in the back row all by yourself. Call somebody before you hit the road – unless you want some quality time with the Kleenex box and animé behind closed doors.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Movie Critics

Movie critics are elitist snobs.

How often have you picked up the newspaper to read about an upcoming movie, only to be scared off by the merciless shredding the reviewer inserted in his commentary? These guys take themselves pretty seriously; they make the mistake of thinking movies are like vintage wines. They are held up to the light in order to properly admire the colour and clarity of the drink, passing it beneath the nose to appreciate the bouquet, and swished lovingly around in one’s mouth before being unceremoniously spat into a silver cup. Where’s the joy in that? The reality is, most people don’t drink that way. They pop the top, do that aggravating flick-the-cap-at-you-like-a-jock-at-a-high-school-party thing, and slam it back. Done and done. Movies are seen by the general public in much the same fashion. You pay your $10, hopefully enjoy the next two hours, and forget about the experience pretty much when you come out. There’s no reason to get all huffy about it. It’s just entertainment, not art. Real art died a long time ago – if you want to compare movies to wine and art, well, seeing a Hollywood movie is like drinking Bud while you watch your kid fingerpaint.

The hilarious thing is, I’ve read many reviews where you know the critic didn’t like the movie – but they gave it a good rating anyway because they could appreciate what the director was trying to do, or maybe because they thought movie was powerful “within the genre.” The average guy though, he’d see the four stars beside the movie title, go to the movie, and come out feeling completely depressed and ripped off because he followed the directions of the movie critic. Or worse – didn’t go to a genuinely entertaining movie at all because it got bad ratings. A movie I can think of in this category is Dumb and Dumber. You can summarize it in two sentences:

Two guys find a lost suitcase full of money, and are determined to return it to its rightful owner in Aspen, Colorado. Comedy ensues.

What else do you need? It’s your typical road movie, loaded to the brim with sight gags, sound effects, and slapstick humor. It’s a movie for 12 year old boys, which probably means most men would enjoy it too. And did – it’s not the greatest movie of all time or anything, but the majority of people I know who saw the movie had a great time.

But the critics tore this one to pieces when it came out, so I didn’t go see it in theatre. This turned out to be a big mistake, because when it was released on video a few months later, I rented it on a lark and subsequently enjoyed one of the best comedies I had seen in years. Sure, it’s lowbrow – so what? Who am I trying to impress? Watching Jeff Daniels dump his bowels into the non-functional toilet at his date’s house remains near the top of my all-time favourite movie moments – just imagine this guy Harry, his hair wild, pants down, attempting desperately to flush the mess down the toilet:

“Come on, flush, you bastard…”

Comedy genius. I had to rewind it a few times in order to fully appreciate the scene. Haven’t you been uncomfortable at one time or another at your new girlfriend’s house? Wouldn’t taking the world’s biggest and most fragrant crap into her broken toilet be one of your worst nightmares? My sides ached for days after this movie. What else…the slapstick content in the film was lovingly mined from classic Stooges movies, and the movie had just enough heart – Jim Carrey’s character, desperately in love with “Mary Swanson” - that you could actually even identify with him. Just a little bit. You liked these guys, you were pulling for them. You wanted them to succeed.

And the majority of movie critics almost universally hated it. Here are some quotes, lifted directly from some of the most prominent reviewers in the country:

“The title says it all.”

“An abominable, abominable comedy.”

“A virtually laughless movie.”

“The director does not appear to have the slightest clue about comic timing.”

These guys, they missed the point. Movies are supposed to be fun – but don’t confuse that with “funny.” Fun – you are supposed to have a good time watching them. Shouldn’t you? I guess not though - guys like these award five stars to grating character studies like Requiem for a Dream, jizzing endlessly in their reviews about the multilayered genius that the film possessed, the incredibly convincing portrayals of heroin addiction, and ended up nominating it inexplicably for various screen awards.

Sucked in by pretentious and aristocratic reviews from guys like these, I went to see the movie and walked out of it two hours later armed with a new determination to stab myself repeatedly with a spoon at my earliest convenience. It was literally the most depressing movie I had ever seen in my life. It's a no-holds barred depiction of heroin addiction - a relentless two hour slog featuring a cast of irredeemable characters, without a second of comic relief to lighten the load. How did it end up with so many undeserving accolades? Who could possibly enjoy it?

Only stuck-up and provincial Hollywood movie reviewers, that’s who. I’m sure they get together regularly for circle-jerks to talk about complete wastes of celluloid like Requiem:

Snobby Reviewer Number 1: It’s amazing, the total abandon Jennifer Connelly exhibited with her portrayal of the junkie. Utterly believable.

Snobby Reviewer Number 2: Yes. The sex scene was rather – what’s the word I’m looking for? Forensic, in the way she let the drug dealer have his way with her body. Not even momentarily arousing, despite the total nudity.

Snobby Reviewer Number 1: Quite. But then, when has a woman ever given you a stiffy, Stephane?!

Snobby Reviewer Number 2: Touché, you bad boy!

When it comes to movies, make up your own mind about whether it’s worth seeing or not. Trust your instincts, and partake of your own personal guilty pleasures, no matter what anybody says. You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Insurance - a Ripoff

...and that's nothing new to anyone who pays it. We pay for car insurance, home insurance, life insurance. Whatever, we pay it. And heaven help anyone who dares to make a claim - they can expect their premium cost to send them into the poorhouse for the rest of their life because they ran the Caddy into a tree and wanted a "free" car. But all this, it's another story. It's just the usual knock against insurance companies in general. I just want to relate my own, very recent experience.

In Ontario, insurance has been kind of a hot issue for the elected Liberal government. They were supposed to lower insurance premiums of all kinds - but most particularly, on cars - shortly after election. While not quite managing the percentage cut they promised for a lot of people, friends and colleagues have been telling me that their renewals have come in this year a bit lower than last year. The advertised rate reduction was supposed to be about 10%.

My premium last year on my motorcycle was $1365. The mail came today - and whoopie! It was down to $1242. For your information, that's about 9% less. I should be happy, right? I decided to call the insurance company to double-check my policy, something I do as a matter of course every time I get papers from whatever trained monkey works in their mailing department. I do this because one time, a rather large mathematical error was included in my paperwork, and I don't feel like giving insurance companies any more money than I have to.

And as I always do when I'm on the horn with Joe Insurance, I asked if I could price the insurance tab for a different kind of bike. I'm always interested in seeing what else is out there, and how much it would cost me to ride it. Bikes, they have new ones every season, in all the colours of the rainbow - I gots ta know, right? I currently ride a 2001 Suzuki SV650. The one I was wondering about was the upgraded SV1000. The 2005 edition is all black, all of it. Frame, paint, body panels, rims. Black. It looks like Batman's motorcycle, and I've been eyeing it up for a while. How much, man?

So I had Joe key in the stats. For the identical coverage that's currently on my 650 - fire, theft, $1,000,000 liability. It's all standard. All he had to do was enter a few keystrokes for the 1000, and he had my quote.

How much was it?

Wait for it. While you do, let me explain the differences between an SV1000 and an SV650.

1.) First, they are made by the same company. Suzuki. One has an engine displacement of 650 cc's. The other, 1000. Simple enough. One has a bigger engine. You're familiar with this concept, I'm sure, from driving cars around.

2.) The SV1000 I got the quote for was a 2005. What the heck. My 650 is a 2001. Still a fine bike, but 4 years older, nonetheless. And I'd know the worst-case scenario regarding insurance coverage on a brand new bike - because they cost the most to replace.

3.) Here's where it gets exciting. The SV1000 has about 115 horsepower to the rear tire. My SV650 makes 70 horsepower on a good day. Back to the calculator, and we find that the 1000 is 64% more powerful than the 650. And just so you know, 115 horses between your knees, in grand understatement, is a lot of power. Most likely, it's too much power. My car makes 80 horsepower. Most entry level Civics and Cavaliers make about 115 horsepower - 2,500 pound vehicles. An SV100o is a 400 pound motorcycle. My little 650 pulls my arms from their sockets when I hit the gas - it'll go from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds when I want it to (and often do). That'll beat 99% of the cars on the road.

But a 115 horsepower SV1000? You'd better have arms like an orangutan to hang onto it. That's a shitload of ponies, pardon my French.

4.) The SV1000 is worth more. Replacement insurance value, $9,000 (you can get one easy for that.) My 650, well, it's more like $5,000. The upside of this is, I should theoretically get an insurance break because my bike costs less to replace, right?

5.) Top speed. I previously explained that my 650 is a fun and quick bike, but is capable of going no faster than 130 mph. 135 down a hill, with the wind on my back, maybe. The 1000? Well, I've read that it can make 165-170. I have no doubts that it can.

Maybe you see where I'm going with all this. The 1000 is a superior bike in every single measurable way to my 650. Faster, newer, worth more, upgraded technology - look, let's cut to the chase. It's the cat's ass. How much does it cost to insure it?

$965 for the year.

I'm telling you, I had to hear it twice before that sunk in. Okay - so you're telling me that it's about $300 less to insure annually than my current bike? (I rapidly laid out the points I wrote down above). And...this makes no difference? How on earth could it not?

"It's all in how the bike company rates their bikes, sir," Joe says.

What about how you rate them?

"We have actuaries for that."

I guess actuaries don't ride. Or else they wouldn't encourage me to buy a newer, faster, cooler motorcycle to kill myself on and cost their company even more in payouts. Seriously, what's the message here? The figures are no mistake, I was told.

"I'm going to double-check your policy, though - I'll get back to you later, all right?"

No sweat. If the line is busy, it's because I'm buying an SV1000.


Friday, January 07, 2005

The Goal

It was April 8, 1952.

On this chilled spring evening in the city of Montreal, the storied Montreal Canadiens hockey club was deadlocked in the Stanley Cup semi-finals with the Boston Bruins, tied at three games apiece in the seven-game series. The winner of that night’s game would go on to challenge the Detroit Red Wings for the cherished Cup; the hopes for each team were now dependent on the results of one game.

The city was a powderkeg of expectation over what was at stake. Of course, les Glorieux were the greatest team in the National Hockey League – everyone knew it, and the people in the province of Quebec were sure to remind each other of this fact on a daily basis. Later on, those who remembered the great Canadien teams of their youth could never recall any of their losses. In all their techicolour memories, the Canadiens were forever and gloriously victorious, defeating any contenders for the crown in every single season. Every game had been a win, and each shot had scored a goal. But even to those who watched the Flying Frenchmen of the Fifties back when they were actually playing, a mystique of invincibility surrounded them, appearing in stark, mercurial photographs in all the daily newspapers. So on that evening, it was a nervous but confident crowd of fans that filled the Montreal Forum. They pocketed their bright ticket stubs, took their seats and clapped their hands in anticipation. Spectators were dressed in their Sunday best, because although it was a Tuesday night, attending a hockey game at the Forum in the 1950’s was like going to church. It was something very special, in a time and place when the only thing of any consequence in even the most ordinary of winter days was the Montreal Canadiens – and this game would determine the Cup finalist.

And deep down, inside of all true Canadiens fans, they all believed with absolute conviction that they simply would not lose this game. The reason for their sublime faith was in the lips and hearts of every Quebecer, the image of one man, enshrined and illuminated there like a beacon, warming a loyal soul throughout the coldest winters. Each night before bed, Catholic children would blasphemously pray for him. During the days, men who had never seen him would tell stories about him, and gushing sportswriters had long ago run out of adjectives to shower upon him in their daily columns. He was the iconic phenomenon who was Quebec’s greatest son – The Rocket, Maurice Richard.


To understand the significance of Maurice Richard is to understand the Quebec people of the 1950’s – and more specifically, the French people. In this relatively modern era, this was a society who had never experienced any significant success of any kind, in any walk of life. The poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment rates for French Quebecers were many multiples of the English ones. Few businesses were run by francophones, and the majority of their representation in Canada’s Parliament was by elected English officials. And even in Montreal, the heart of French society in Quebec, the town was divided disproportionately between the wealthy English and impoverished French. Supposing that the French found they had any amount of money in their pockets to spend, the vast majority of the goods to be found in the pretty shops were in English neighbourhoods under English names. A walk to the Forum down storied Saint Catherine Street would take you past a rainbow of glowing neon in storefront windows, all of them writ in the puritanical language of the English elite. It is difficult for some to understand militant modern-day language laws in Quebec, but for those who have experienced a true culture shock, they realize very quickly that the largest component of such an impact is language. It is impossible to be part of a culture if you cannot understand the language. And many sociologists draw no distinction between language and culture – language is culture. By the middle of the twentieth century, the French culture in Quebec was dying, becoming incrementally rubbed away one business and one street sign at a time, the culture of a proud, good-hearted and working-class people too small to withstand the force of the relentless English machine. In the face of this quiet and merciless eradication, the French people craved a symbol for their collective struggle, a hero of their own who could be lifted to their shoulders, a champion who would lift a torch and who could illuminate their darkened spirits.

And he came - Maurice Richard, whose family had emigrated from the chipped, windswept mouth of the St. Lawrence River to settle in Montreal’s poorest neighbourhood. He joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1943, instantly galvanizing the last-place team with an emotional and dramatic brand of play that would immediately become legendary throughout the National Hockey League. With his arrival, the hopes and dreams of the French people who had never legitimately felt like they had the best of anything was placed rightly or wrongly upon his capable shoulders. Through his incredible strength and speed, a generation of people vicariously identified with him, understanding immediately that he was one of their own. He was known as, “The Rocket Richard,” for his reckless, unstoppable speed, who was an incandescent presence on the ice; exquisitely skilled and ferociously determined to apply the iron will he had forged in the dozens of hockey leagues he had once dominated throughout his hardscrabble childhood. The poor Quebec French lived each of his greatest triumphs as though they had done them on their own, finally feeling good enough and strong enough about who they were in the eyes of their harshest critics – themselves. He became the living embodiment of everything they had ever wanted to be and to become. Across the province, his famous number 9 rode the backs of entire teams of village children as they all struggled heroically to stickhandle frozen blots of horse manure between makeshift goalposts. And amazingly, his very existence in the hockey rink is credited today by many experts as being at the very least, a co-initiator for many of the sweeping reforms that have changed the province of Quebec in only a few decades.

For as long as he ever played, Richard always innately understood his tremendous responsibility, and each and every night, he steeled himself to perform and live up to the standards he had made for himself and knew were expected of him. He could not and would not disappoint those who believed in him. Even when offered the opportunity to join the hated Toronto Maple Leafs for many times his annual salary, he was ultimately unable to abandon his people. Richard’s greatest desire above all else was to be the absolute best that he could be in every single game, and to do it for the people who mattered most to him.


The deciding game began with the customary energy that had fuelled the previous six entertaining contests. Both teams fought like caged animals, each attempting rink-length dashes and dramatic plays designed to destroy the heart of the opponent. It had been a long and satisfying series for the fans of the game, and the players of each team lusted to finish it with a well-deserved victory. Although widely perceived as the superior team, Montreal began the second period tied 1-1 with the Bruins despite numerous excellent scoring chances. The crowd murmured on every occasion the Rocket touched the puck – a rippling buzz of energy that flashed through the fans like a brushfire, a sound that had special reservation for him. But would he score? In the neutral zone, Richard snatched a loose puck and instantly kicked his skating into high gear. This was the moment! The clapping of the wooden Forum seats could be heard around the arena, snapping beneath the fans that had leapt to their feet: Oh, go! Go Rocket!

But then, the unthinkable happened. Richard attempted a slick move past Boston’s powerful forward, Leo Labine, and was crushed by a vicious body check, his head bouncing frighteningly as he fell into unconsciousness, with a gaping wound ripped wide and bleeding down the side of the Rocket’s face. Eyes closed, he lay utterly motionless on his back as an astonished crowd immediately hushed, knowing their hopes for the Stanley Cup were draining away along with the Rocket’s blood to the hard Forum ice. All remained standing and watched as Richard was reverentially placed on a stretcher and taken into the darkened tunnels of the arena. In an instant, the fans of Montreal had lost all their confidence. The Rocket had been carried to the dressing room, bleeding and unconscious! How could he ever return? Fortunately, the period ended without another goal against, and the fans filed into concourses in funeral silence with friends and loved ones to visit restrooms and concession stands. The vibrant, celebratory mood that had had invigorated fans since the beginning of the night was utterly gone, and there was no reason at all to be optimistic for its return. The Canadiens were the greatest team in the NHL, but without the Rocket…worried spectators trailed off when they spoke the words. It was too difficult to think about what that meant.

In the Canadien’s dressing room, Richard regained consciousness long enough to refuse hospital treatment, against the vigorous wishes of the team trainer. He lay groggily on the table in the training room with a patch of dripping red gauze hastily taped to his forehead. His teammates quietly considered the possible outcome of the game, looking in on him on occasion to see if the Rocket had recovered from his injuries. As always, the Rocket was their example. With just a glance, he alone on the team had the ability to summon the necessary feelings of confidence and determination from his mates that were essential for victory. Veterans and rookies alike looked up to him, knowing to a man his expectations from all of them, and unfailingly performed when required. For more than any reason, the members of the Montreal Canadiens played for Maurice Richard. Any respect earned in his estimation was for each their own secret and priceless treasure. But now, their ferocious warrior heart was motionless and unable to infuse them with the motivation they needed. They would do their best, but unless Maurice could play, they would simply not be the same, and nothing would make it otherwise.


The third period began. Sensing weakness, the Bruins started ruthlessly, attacking and punishing the demoralized Canadiens with renewed energy and dedication. The Canadiens struggled mightily to compete, but they had begun to tread water; they had stopped trying to win the game and were now playing not to lose. It is a mindset that almost always results in failure. The scoring chances were now coming to Boston more often than they were to Montreal; the balance of power in the game was subtly shifting, slowly but surely, to the Bruins. All who were witnessing the game were sickened by the sight. It was evident that it could only be a matter of time before one of the chances finally resulted in a goal – and in consideration of the expiring minutes of the period, a probable Boston victory.

The Rocket was unable to rouse himself from his stupor. He had joined the team on the bench during the third period, momentarily reawakening hope to see him sitting in his customary spot. But that was the extent of his participation. He remained motionless at the end of the bench, not taking the ice for any of his regular shifts. By all accounts, the Rocket should have been in a hospital. “What’s the score?,” he’d demand of a nearby teammate. He would sway drunkenly, and nod upon learning the tally, staring blankly at the ice for a moment, before asking again, “What’s the score?” His coach tried to ignore these obvious symptoms of injury. Possibly, hopefully, his mere presence on the bench could motivate the team to victory. It appeared to be the only chance the Canadiens had.

It was in one of these dark, ruminating moments of reflection, with only four minutes remaining in the game that the impossible happened. At the end of the bench, the Rocket suddenly recovered his senses and leaped over the boards, to the utter astonishment of the team. At last, seeing his motion, the crowd began to revive along with him: Look, there he is! Maurice is on the ice!

Dickie Moore, the stalwart defenseman of the team, had control of the puck near the Montreal zone when he spotted Maurice’s appearance on the ice. For just an instant, he goggled at the sight of him. But he recovered himself quickly, and reflexively snapped the puck to him just like he had done so many times before, placing it right on the tape of the Richard’s stick. Looking down the ice, he could see that Richard was virtually trapped – three Boston players were between the Rocket and the Boston goaltender.

It had to be the clouds in Richard’s concussed brain, because he began his dash towards the opposition net as though there was nothing at all standing between them. In a flash, he was past the first Boston player, accelerating towards the Boston blue-line with the legendary speed that had earned him his name. Just as quickly, the entire stadium was on its feet for the first time in nearly an hour, an unintelligible roar raining down to the ice, a torrent of sound that even a concussed Rocket could hear.

Either as a result of surprise, the incredible pressure of the situation or maybe just out of sheer ham-handedness, Richard stickhandled a sensational move at the Boston blueline between the legs of the second Bruin’s defender, embarrassing him with a flashing movement that left him floundering for the Rocket’s sweater as he passed. Richard left him behind, and now there was only one left, one last defender between Richard and his goal.

In the Forum, there were no chants now, no cries of the Rocket’s name to speed his advance. The complete focus of fifteen thousand people was now directed through a single, unified bellow, a ripping animal cry to one point on the ice. The players of each team plumbed deeply to their last reserves of energy to reach that place, where Richard carried the puck.

The final Boston player could see the culmination of all these forces, accelerating towards him in the form of a man, a flying scarlet spectre, his bloodsoaked black hair whipping behind behind his head, and the essence of it all - the scorching charcoal intensity of his eyes, which affixed upon him and burned a hole on his heart that he would carry for the rest of his life. With his gaping maw, the Rocket marked him, stretching his body to the absolute limit of his capabilities, suddenly reaching past him with the final increment of blazing lefthanded speed.

Overcome, the defenseman attempted one last check to stall the advance, but the Rocket was a goalscorer before all things. In tune with the Rocket’s movement, the Boston goalie moved to his right, and Richard saw the only opening he would need. Nobody would remember the shot, only the puff of mesh behind the goalposts made by the force of the winning goal.

The sounds in the greatest cathedral of hockey detonated in an outpouring of absolute joy and abandon never before witnessed in the game. Around the arena, overcome with emotion, women fainted at the sight of it all, men threw their fedoras to the rafters, and children wept into their hands. The crowd stood on their feet as one, and saluted Maurice Richard for four long minutes, an unheard-of ovation for their greatest hero that left their hands stinging for days and their hearts tender for years to come.

And in this, in what would be the signature moment of a career that would anoint him forever in the pantheon of hockey’s finest players, Richard flew past the goal crease, completely expired from the effort that had delivered his team to the Stanley Cup final, skating in the wide half-circle he always executed after scoring a goal. Doubling over at the waist, his legs were failing him; already threatening to tumble him again into unconsciousness. In this gathering twilight, Maurice knew only the unconditional love from the people he loved the most. He skated into history, with rough, brotherly arms catching him before he could fall.