Friday, December 1, 2017

We're not in grade seven anymore. Then again...

When I was in grade seven at St. Albert's School in Sudbury, our teacher Mister Gilbert Seguin asked a few students who our role models were.
KAREEM of the crop

My friend Trevor MacIntyre--easily the star player on the St. Albert Saints basketball team as well as the grade-seven boy most of the grade-seven girls were nuts about--cited Lew Alcindor, an American  basketball hero who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Me, I said Arlo Guthrie, a long-haired folk singer and son of Woody Guthrie and also the star of the movie Alice's Restaurant, which to this day I'm amazed I watched when I was in grade seven.

Mr. Seguin did not approve of my choice and told me I should be more like Trevor. (Some things a kid never forgets.)

The thing is, Seguin was right. I should be more like Trevor.

Trevor's one of those guys--I know more than a few who fall into this category--he's generous and funny and smart. A loving father and patient kid brother. Good provider. Actually, several of my pals set the personal performance bar loftily like Trev.

And they share another other trait, too; one they don't even know about.
ARLO can a guy go?

And it is this: For my entire adult life, whenever I run into a woman that I haven't seen in a long time, one of the first things--if not the first--that she asks is, "Do you know what Trevor (or one of the others) has been up to these days?"  I have about six friends who they ask about, other guys of Trevor's ilk.

Nigel Simms, who I've hung out with since university, is one such ilk.

I'll be at a conference and a woman will sort of look at me sideways, then be like, "Peter? Peter Carter from Carleton? I'm (FILL IN THE BLANK HERE.) Good to see you." But then--way before she gets to her kids, grandkids or  her Pulitzer prizes-- I'll get, "you used to be Nigel Simms' friend. Do you ever hear from him? What's Nigel up to these days??".

And while I don't exactly don't what Nigel is up to today, December 1, 2017, I will tell you what he was up to March 3, 1991, two days after our twin daughters were born. Nigel, in true ilk fashion, showed up at my wife Helena's hospital bedside bearing identical hand-knitted baby blankets that his mom created especially for our newborns.

That's the kind of guy that peoples Trevor's ilk.

Up to that point, I thought the only man my wife Helena loved more than me was the bearded anesthesiologist who 60 hours prior delivered Helena's first and only just-in-time epidural.

True story! Years later, when those self-same twin daughters were sent to the self-same hospital for same-day surgery, a rather ordinary-looking and come to think of it portly anesthesiologist who needed a shave entered the room, and Helena whispered, "he's  handsome." I remember telling her "you only think that because he's the one who gave you that epidural." But I digress.

The more I think about Trevor and Nigel and the others, I have to ask myself why am I even telling this story. It's not making me feel a whole hell of a lot better.

HAY! Good lookin''
I'm reminded of the standup comic--I forget which--who said guys like him (and me) know exactly how the Cowardly Lion and Tin Man felt near the end of the movie when Dorothy was saying goodbye to her three friends but after she hugs the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, she really throws her arms around Trevor, I mean, Scarecrow and says "But I'll miss you most of all." 

Not that it bugs me.

Besides, I'm sticking to my Arlo guns. How can you not look up to the guy who gave the world the world the Motorcycle Song?

"I don't want a pickle.
I just wanna ride on my motorsickle.
And I don't wanna die..
I just wanna ride on my motor sigh....

Take that, Gilbert Seguin.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Here Lies Peter

"I have a good idea," my wife Helena said last Saturday afternoon, just as I was about to begin the Toronto Star Premier Crossword puzzle. "You should write your own obituary."

And then she added, "You're good at stuff like that."

Stuff like writing my own death notice? There is no other "stuff" like that. Which is what I told Helena.

Then I mentioned that a colleague I really looked up to--the late Peter Worthington--penned his own obit and started with "If you are reading this, I am dead."  Pretty fair opener, I'd say.

What Helena likely meant was I would do a decent job regaling everybody with stories about what a fine upstanding and hardworking guy I am/was. Leaving out all the not-so pretty parts.
So to speak.

Because that's what most obits are.

I've given this idea what some might deem an unhealthy amount of consideration over the years. Death notices are the happiest stories in the newspaper. Sad things happen in the newsy parts of the paper, but in the obitverse? Nature takes its course.

First off, for the vast majority of people in the obit section, passing away is actually what my sister Mary might call age-appropriate behavior. With all due respect and anybody who knows me understands that I mean that sincerely--most people die old. Of, well, fatal illnesses. Which raises the question, "Doesn't anybody die of old age anymore?"

When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, that and keeling over with a heart attack after shoveling the driveway were the leading causes of bucket kicking.

The vast majority of the dead people--if you believe the little write-ups and I do--led reasonably long productive lives, with good jobs. Most started in the mail room but rose through the ranks. At Hydro.

Popeil's inventions worked. Ish.
The deceased were all very competitive bridge players and their bonsai trees the envy of the garden club. For their surviving loved ones-- some of whom stood lovingly at their bedside when the time came--summer weekends at Lake St. Joe just won't be the same without the tinkling sound of ice cubes in the deceased guy's tumbler of Crown Royal. Oh, and who'll ever forget that good ole Grampa O also liked to make the odd off-color joke?

In death-notice land, few guys had halitosis, showed up for work hung over a bit too frequently or drove like an idiot without regard for other people's safety. They might have been thrifty, but never cheap. And they all caught fish.

Helena's right. I am positioned to deliver a fine account of myself. Honest, interesting, and just about objective as a Popeil's Pocket Fisherman TV commercial.

Just two things. When I go, I don't want nobody having a "celebration of Pete's life." If I can't be there, I don't want any parties. I want tears and sadness and people wondering aloud, "How are we going to go on without Peter??" Also. I sure hope I don't "go doing something I love." It'd be way better to go out doing something I hate, like getting yelled at. Or having a root canal.

But I digress.

The important thing is, Helena suggested I write my own obit. Could she be up to something?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Where we answer the question, "How do you keep a guy with no life in suspense?"

"Hi," the familiar voice on the message machine said, adding, "It's me,  Cecile.  Just phoning to say 'hi' to Helena. Nothing important. I'll call back later....

Normally, I would finish that sentence with a period and closing quotation marks, but that would be inaccurate because Cecile left the message but she did not hang up.

Cecile's not her real name. I changed it because she doesn't know I'm writing this plus she gets pretty potty mouthed later on and the real Cecile might not want to own up.

But back to the call. She clearly meant to hang up, but instead of a "click", I heard a very familiar sort of empty-room silence. Suddenly,  I was, like, eavesdropping.

I couldn't hang up. I had to find out how this would end.

First thing I heard? The unmistakable rhythmic sloppy flopping sound of windshield wipers. Cecile was in a car.

A few seconds later? "In two kilometres, turn left," Siri--in that polite but horribly condescending voice--instructed.

More windshield wiping.

I was a good half a minute in. I figured that if Cecile hadn't said anything by now, she was very likely alone. Unless she was with her husband but they weren't talking. Not that that has ever happened in any car I've been in. But still.

More windshield wiping. I asked myself: "Pete, is what you're doing weird or what?" 

I guess my answer was, "Maybe, but not weird enough to make me hang up. Something's gotta happen. Who knows? Cecile might be one of those people who talks to herself, and she'll be like, 'Gosh Helena's husband is a talented, good-looking and hard-working man. I wonder if he ever stops to consider how humble he is.'"

But no.

Instead, Cecile started to whistle. And not one of those aimless whistles people produce by default. She whistled an identifiable melody.  I've always liked people who choose to whistle real songs when they're all by themselves.

"Blessed are the whistlers, for they shall see humour everywhere," Jesus meant to say.

But before I could identify the tune, Cecile stopped. I guessed she'd arrived at that left turn Siri had been going on about.

More than 90 seconds had passed. I thought, "For a guy who somebody described as hard-working only four paragraphs ago, I sure have a lot of time on my hands."

But no way could I hang up.

More whistling. More windshield wipers. By now, and I'm pretty sure this had something to do with the fact that Helena and I watched Psycho a day earlier, I actually found myself thinking, "I honestly hope Cecile made this call during daylight hours because listening to her drive at night by herself would just be too creepy, even for me."

More wipers. Decidedly noisy ones, too--a fact I found reassuring because the wipers on my car are pretty loud, but Cecile tools about in a rather up-market sedan. So maybe mine aren't so bad.

The whistling stopped. A pause. Cecile says, "Oh shit. I missed it."

Victory! Not that Cecile was lost; but rather, I enjoy it when Siri and other machines screw up. It proves they're not really that much smarter than me.

But what would Cecile do now? I was not to find out.

The call dropped. The answering machine had decided enough was enough.

A tad relieved, I could return to what I had been doing before the phone rang.  And it occurred to me: If  the machine hadn't hung up, I'd have kept listening.

So please, go back a half dozen sentences.

That thing I wrote about machines not having more sense than me? You didn't hear it from me.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Turns out I ain't ain't afraid of no ghost!

VOID: That's not only what the experience is called, it's also a
medical verb that came to mind when I was ascared.
"You were really scared, weren't you dad?" my daughter Ev asked me yesterday, at about 6:05 p.m.

"Maybe," I answered.

Except there's no maybe about it.

Just minutes before she put the question to me, I had been standing high above a major metropolitan city on a very flimsy platform with nothing but a few thin planks separating me from the dark abyss. Worse, the rickety platform was being shredded away--plank after plank--by an explosive thunder-and-wind storm.

A bucket fell off the platform and I watched as it sank into the darkness.

I really wasn't sure what my next step should be.

Which is really weird because where I really was was a small ground-level room in a downtown-Toronto restaurant entertainment complex called "The Rec Room"  wearing a virtual-reality headset. Ev had purchased a pair of tickets for me and her to check out the Rec Room's Ghostbusters VR experience. The official name of the ride is "The Void".

So after being outfitted with VR gear that included a very cool phaser-style gun that fired ribbons of sparks, we spent 13 minutes travelling around some rickety old building looking for and blasting, to pieces, ghosts.

Busting ghosts consumed 13 of the best minutes I've ever spent and it was one of the most memorable birthday presents yet and I've had my share.
MEET EVATAR: My daughter Ev presented me with this great birthday gift.  

I won't go into a shot-by-shot account of the adventure.  I simply recommend a visit.

But I did learn a few things in the process.

1) Let's deal with this one out of the gate. It's a good thing for everybody that fate made me a journalist as opposed to, like, a paramedic or search-and-rescue guy, because I'm a fraidy cat.

2) As sophisticated and as realistic as it is, the version of VR that we played with yesterday is still early-days stuff.  In the not-too-distant future--I'm thinking sometime later this afternoon--Ev's and my Ghostbuster adventure--with fancy headgear and almost lifelike avatars--will be viewed as quaint and nostalgic, about the same way we view steam engines now.

3) Speaking of steam engines, I actually remember where I was seated back in university when our professor Patrick McFadden told us the supposedly true story about a crowd running in fear from a movie theatre 100 and some years ago as they watched the silent film "Arrival of A Train at  La Ciotat." McFadden said moving pictures were so new people thought a real train was coming right at them. Last night, I joined that audience.

4)  After our 13-minutes of VR, Ev and I exited, exhilarated. My adrenaline was still pumping and heart pounding. The experience seemed so real it might as well have been. This VR stuff could be a game changer in several rilly rilly significant areas of activity, if you catch my drift. (On another occasion, Ev and I held a related discussion and agreed that anyone who says you can't fall in love with a machine has never owned a motorcycle.)

THE FALL HAUNTING SEASON: (Don't tell anybody but blasting
ghosts to smithereens is super childishly fun.)
5) If that's not scarier than standing on a disintegrating ledge high above a dark city I don't know what is.

6) Daughters can read your mind. At the height of our battle, after a screaming virtual reality elevator ride to the top of the pretend building, we found ourselves out in the "open air."  Ev bravely led the way and I tried to play Joe Cool and hang back near the wall. And even with headgear that made it impossible to see my real face, Ev sensed that I was really scared of falling to my death. I had to keep telling myself, "it's only pretend." Problem was, I wasn't believing myself.

7) Some part-time jobs are better than others. The following just occurred to me:  One of the rules they tell you before you suit up is, "If you find yourself having a hard time for any reason, just raise your hand and an attendant will help you." The thing is, once we were ready for battle, the only thing we could see was the pretend world. So...for the next 13 minutes, the two pleasant young men who helped us get ready must have been killing themselves as Ev and I flailed around an empty room like a couple of hallucinogenic-ingesting ravers. We were twisting and ducking and yelling things like  "Watch out!" "Quick shoot! and "Oh man this is nuts." I wish I'd seen us.

8) I'm hands-down the most dupable person I've ever met. And for that, I blame each and every one of my older brothers and sisters. And if you have more time on your hands, you can read why here.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why Saints Alive! is more than just talk

When I was a kid, we pronounced the capital city of what was then Czechoslovakia as if it had a long-A.

We called it "Praig."
called on the Infant a lot

I actually remember when the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, there was some talk of World War Three and I was worried that my older brother Tommy would have to go fight--in "Praig."

My question to you is, would you remember how you pronounced the name of a foreign capital that had nothing to do with your lives? And my answer to you is, you sure would if you had the same mom as I did, and her name was Huena.

And here's why: That city is home to a little statue of Jesus,  known as The Infant of Prague. And in the Carter household, the Infant of Prague was as alive as, well, a real baby. And she pronounced it "Praig."

My mom had Infant of Prague statues and/or pictures in, I'd wager, every second room of our three-bedroom house.

Huena prayed to the Infant of Prague and recommended we do likewise, whether it was in an effort to make sure one of my brothers didn't land in too much trouble or to help get a passing mark in high school. (I inched through grade 13 calculus with 51% . The I-of-P might well have helped.)

Turns out not everybody shared my kinship with the statue. Last year, when my wife Helena and and I found ourselves in Prague--and by now pronounced "Prog,"--I got all excited and said we had to go see the the statue that my mom had so adored, Helena was like, "infant of what?"

She did, though,  concede to visit the cathedral where the real McCoy was and I'd have to say, as my mother might, "she's no worse for the wear."

I learned something, too. When I  told one of the priests in Prague that my mom was a huge fan, he asked if I'd been raised in an Irish Catholic household.

My answer was of course "yes" but my answer should have been something like: "my mom had statues and holy pictures in every room in the house. She had us go to church on many days beyond Sunday and we prayed the rosary regularly and even if you weren't Catholic if you were visiting our house the nights we said 'the beads' as we called it, you'd be joining us. My mom brought all of the good things about being Catholic into our lives and as far as I can tell, none of the not-such-great things. So, yeah you might say I was raised in an Irish Catholic household."

We had lots of books in the house and more than one of them was called "Lives of the Saints."

Some people know their hockey players; Huena knew her saints. And she put them to work for her.

Like I said, when we were kids Huena sometimes wanted us to attend Mass in the mornings, even when it wasn't Sunday.

"Alex, Eddie and Peter," she would call  from the bottom of the stairs up to the bedroom room where I and my two brothers lay in bed, hanging on to our blankets, pillows and mattresses as if they were life rafts and leaving them would mean instant drowning.

"It's the feast of Saint FILL IN SAINT'S NAME HERE! Get up for Mass!" Eventually and almost always in the following order--Peter then Alex then Eddie--we would cave and get up.

In the Catholic faith, every day is some saint's feast day. It's usually the day they died or maybe the day they were canonized. There are more saints than days so sometimes, a day belongs to a small group of them.

Today, Thursday October 12 is the feast of St. Wilfrid and I'd be very surprised if my second cousin Wilf Stacey doesn't know this because his mother Mary was as big a saint fan as Huena.

Speaking of moms named Mary, tomorrow,  October 13, also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the sixth time Jesus's mom appeared to six Portuguese kids in Fatima. We had several Our Lady of Fatima statues in our house.

Tomorrow also happens to be Friday the 13th. And here's something you may not have read before--a Psychology Today article on "Why Superstitions work.  But I digress.

In the house I was raised in, saints were as much a part of our lives as aunts and uncles cousins like Wilf from three paragraphs ago. And they were a very helpful bunch.

If you were going travelling, you'd want to have a little statue of St.Christopher, patron saint of travelers nearby.

Even non-Catholics know that St. Anthony helps you find stuff.

Get this.

Last Wednesday,  I misplaced my new glasses.

This morning, I texted my wife with this:"Good news! I found my glasses."

She texts back: "Where?"

I typed,  "Er,  St. Anthony miraculously put them into a little-used pocket of my denim jacket." And Helena, who calls me the most superstitious person she's ever met, responded with, "Very thoughtful of him."

Just occurred to me. I've been  looking around for more than my glasses last week. And it wasn't until Tony came good with my specs that I realized I'd also been looking for something to blog about. 

Another couple of saints got a lot of attention chez Carter.

 For some reason I remember mom praying to St. Maria Goretti,whose name I always found euphonious and then very recently, I checked out her specialty; she keeps creeps away from young girls.

Sometimes, saints are so good at what they do that they graduate from heaven to having a secular job here on earth.  St. Francis of Assisi is one of those guys. I blame the hippies for that one.

And I just learned he's not the only Assisi. My daughter Ev Frances has a pal named Aaron and he has introduced a marvelous new product named after St. Clara of Assisi.  The product? Gluten-free water.  

Gluten-free water.  I tell ya. Some people will believe anything.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Where we learn how to truck the dog

After a long and selfless career making people healthier,  my friend Pete's father Jim had recently closed his medical practice. My wife Helena and I visited Pete and Jim at their family cottage.

We were on their dock when I asked Dr. Jim what he'd been doing with all his new-found free time.

Without a moment's hesitation, he said, "I just pretty much truck the dog all day."

Except he didn't say "truck".

He--a physician--utilized a verb that sounds a lot like "truck" but starts with "f."

I chuckled a bit and glanced at Dr. Jim. He was looking at Helena. Helena was looking at Jim's dog, laying peacefully on the dock. Less than one second had passed since Jim finished the word "dog"  before it became abundantly clear that my wife Helena had never heard the expression "truck the dog" (but not truck) before.

Imagine hearing a man you really don't now that well say he's just been trucking a dog but rather than truck he employed a verb that rhymes with it.

Come to think of it, Helena might have even got a little scared.

And so it fell to Jim and me to quell-- as fast as humanly possible--what could have morphed into a-- worse-comes to worst--life-changing perverse legal crisis. "Which of these two men" the prosecuting attorney would ask, "is doing WHAT to the dog?"

"Trucking [except, you know] the dog," we told Helena, is an extremely common industrial expression that means to do nothing. Goof off. Take it easy when the boss isn't around.  In virtually every workplace and community where I've spent time, from working as a truck driver to editing news stories at one of Toronto's biggest newspapers, The Toronto Sun, I've heard the expression "truck the dog."

Just last year, a colleague from New York asked me to describe somebody we both know. I said the man was a "serious dog trucker," and ONLY AFTER TWO WEEKS passed did I learn that  the New Yorker was talking to was not conversive with the "dog trucker" expression. Who knows what went through his brain?

I have no idea where the expression "dog trucking" comes from. I could Google it but I'm such a lazy dog trucker I'm not going to.

So widespread is the phrase,  to my ears, dog trucker doesn't even sound like a swear.

Shortly after the episode on the dock with Dr. Jim and his hound, I remember asking a very close friend who grew up in a mining town in British Columbia and then attended some seriously frou-frou universities where she earned all sorts of degrees in classical music before eventually becoming one of the top radio producers at Canada's national broadcaster, if she knows about "dog trucking." 

Her answer: "Doesn't everybody?"

This very morning, I found myself schooling my older sister Mary, who claims to have never heard the phrase before today.

We were walking up a street near my house and moments after I first expressed my surprise that she wasn't familiar with "dog trucking" we were passing a couple of gentlemen sitting in the doorway of a construction job. Without losing stride, I asked, "Hey you guys truckin' the  dog today or what?" (But I didn't say 'truckin'). One laughed and said "you betcha" and the other: "And gettin' paid for it."

In my world, trucking the dog is so commonplace it has become de-fanged. It holds neither rancor nor prejudice. It sounds like neither a swear nor, now that you mention it,  an act. Indeed, trucking the dog is the opposite of an act. It's doing nothing.

To my ears, the phrase has reached such milquetoast status that I shouldn't be surprised to hear Prime Minister Trudeau drop it. (I wish other words could become so defanged. This all reminds me of one of my favorite Carleton University Journalism school lectures, led by the late Wilf Kesterton, who said "In Canadian newspapers, you're allowed to write 'I've pricked my finger' but not vice versa." Or something like that.)

It just occurred to me that maybe the reason my sister Mary doesn't know about dog-trucking is that she never stops working.

I, on the other hand, was surprised Helena wasn't familiar with "dog truckers" because her husband is a past master.

I've known about dog-trucking since I can't remember. 

I do, however, recall in close detail when and which of my four older brothers told me the following joke when I was working in the mining town of Elliott Lake, Ontario, which is where he was living, too.

"A British truck driver pulls into a factory and meets a couple of Canadian guys working there. He asks them what they're doing and one of the guys says, "Nothin', just sittin' here truckin' the dog." And the second guy says,"Yup. Been truckin' the dog all mornin."

And the Brit says, "Good Lord you Canadians are honest. I trucked a goat once but I never told anybody."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Now hear this: 5 musical lessons learned on the great Upstate New York Motorbike Tour

LULLABY FOR A HARLEY: It's gettin' on. Sometimes it needs a nap. Now.
When my twin daughters Ev and Ria were tiny babies, my father Tom, who lived 300 km north in our hometown of Sudbury, called them the "tough girls from Toronto."

Tom died before Ria and Ev were even able to walk, but I know he would be thrilled that this past August, I and one of those tough girls, Ev, took a five-day motorbike trip around northern New York State; she on her 2002 BMW 650 GS and me on my aging but still reliable 1993 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883. The trip was unforgettable and as I mentioned to my neighbour Pierre only yesterday, sometimes, just recalling certain moments of our week make me feel good inside.
EARS LOOKIN' AT YOU KID: Earbuds took biking to a whole new level.

Among the grace notes: the soundtracks. 

During much of the ride, Ev and I wore earbuds and motorcycled to carefully compiled playlists. (Ev helped build mine, which led to quite a few wonderful surprises.)

Cruising around well-paved winding two-lane roads to music you love is a magical transcendent experience and it just occurred to me that I've never used the word transcendent before so I must have been subconsciously saving it up for a special occasion and this is it.

While I won't bore you with a play-by-play (get it?) account,  I want to share five musical highlights. In ascending order of emotion.

5)  Not sure whether it was Ev or me that added AC/DC's Thunderstruck to my mp3 player. And I'd never listened to the song closely before but here's what I learned on the bike.  Remember Pierre from a few paragraphs ago? Turns out, when his family's dog, Junior, fetches a ball, he makes a sound that is a lot like the growling noise you hear in the first few bars of Thunderstruck,  Turn up your speakers and here's Junior, fetchingAnd here's  "Thunderstruck." 

4)  One of the pieces I downloaded was the "William Tell Overture"; a.k.a. "Theme from the Lone Ranger and some Bugs Bunny shows, too."  What I didn't know was that you don't get to the Lone Ranger part until about 8.5 minutes into the 12-minute piece but leading up to it is some simply breathtaking meandering meadow-driving-past music. Lesson being, not every motorcycle song has to sound like Thunderstruck.

3) Which brings us to John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and it was on our trip that I first noticed that he sings the following heartfelt sentiment to his girlfriend: "All those times I've fooled around; they don't mean a thing."  I wonder if she was like, "Okay John. Since you put it that way."

2) Is a twofer: Two of the finest road songs are both called "On The Road Again;" One by Willie Nelson; another by Canned Heat.  I can't decide which is better. So it's a tie.

1)  Finally, I still remember which stretch of New York highway we were on when--moved by the scenery, the joy of being with Ev, the thrill of the bike, and well, hearing for the very first time this song that Ev managed to sneak on to my playlist, I started, well, crying. Behind my visor, real salty tears. Just a-streamin.'

Ev might be a tough biker girl from Toronto but she sure knows where her old man's soft-spots are. The song, which has stuff about biking with her dad, is performed by Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks; is called  "Daddy Lessons"  ; and  I hope I keep on learning them until I die.