Monday, October 31, 2016

You'll Find No Sober Second Thoughts In These Parts

Turns out I am not going to be appointed to the Canadian Senate, after all.

PUNCHING BELOW MY WEIGHT: Insert gratuitous shot of J.T. here. 

I read it twice, just to make sure but turns out I won’t have to quit my day job; if I had one, that is. 

You might find this hard to believe, but there was an outside chance of my getting the call.

Early on after being elected, Trudeau announced that he wanted to make the senate less partisan. So he invited regular Canadians to apply for the jobs.

All told there were 21 positions open; six in Ontario. So Trudeau built a website—(given his age, I figure he pulled it together himself, maybe on a break from Grand Theft Auto)—and made the application process pretty simple.

So I, along with about 2,700 other Canadians went for it.

I sent in a CV, a longish essay about why I’d make a good senator, a criminal-record-check and three letters from other Canadians who agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to have me as a senator. The three letters were from Bob Gauthier of Cornwall, Rodney Frost from Orillia and my friend-since-high-school May Chang.

They were very generous with their praise and because I took the whole process so seriously, I started to delude myself. 

"I might," I thought, "have a shot." (Memo to anybody wondering if I ever make up quotes for stories. Of course I do. I just quoted myself thinking. But I digress.)

The FAQs on the website reinforced that Trudeau was looking for non-partisans. Now there’s a box I can check with enthusiasm.

I've been known to not make up my mind until I'm standing in the voting booth with the little pencil.

There've only been a few exceptions.

Two municipal elections ago, I planted a “Vote for Hannu” sign on my lawn.  Hannu is Hannu Piironen.

POSTER BOY: A senator would probably get clobbered for playing like this.

He and I go back a few years. We went to some high school and some university and some bars together so when he asked if I’d erect a sign, I was happy to. 

Never mind that I live downtown Toronto and he ran in our hometown of Sudbury.

Also, about 35 years ago, when my brother in law Al MacNevin in Little Current ON., launched his political career, I was the editor of the local paper, the Manitoulin Expositor, and I took Al’s campaign mugshot. Must have been a great photo, he’s mayor there now.

I just remembered. The same year Hannu ran, when I went in to vote for Toronto's next mayor, I  wrote in my brother Eddie's name.

I’m also on “hey-guy-how-you-doin'?” terms with our own Liberal MP, Arif Virani.  He and his beautiful family live across the street and a few houses to the east of us and they’re great neighbours.
And here's the kind of guy he is.

DEWEY FILING SYSTEM: Every morning, the books are dewey. 
We happen to have one of those little free libraries in front of our house. My daughter Ria and my son Michel put it together for Mother’s Day a few years ago, and for a guy like me who likes few things more than goofing off and talking to the neighbours, the little library’s a source of great entertainment—an instant conversation starter.

Last summer, I was on the front porch, pursuing my hobby of doing absolutely nothing except with a cold beer in hand, and I heard the following conversation.

Kid: “I want that one.” (He could have been pointing to a book or maybe a toy because people leave all sorts of things, like CDs or videos.)

Man: “Sure, but you have to remember to bring it back. These are for sharing, not keeping.”

Kid: “That one too, I’d like to get that one too.”

Dad: “That’s fine but don’t be upset when we return it later. Other children get a turn, too. That’s the way this works.”

I thought--and here comes me quoting my thoughts again--"what a conscientious dad!" Then, and he doesn’t know I overheard, I saw that it was Virani with one of his kids. I’m glad I voted for him.

But the more I think about it, I’m kind of relieved my name wasn’t in the paper this morning.

Senating probably entails work. I’d have to abandon my avocation of doing nothing all day. 

The job could well involve accountability. Receipts. Schedules. 

Worse, as I just realized when I was telling you about Arif, it occured to me that senators, MPs, my brother-in-law Mayor MacNevin—they can’t so much as blow their nose without people ratting them out, like I just did  to Virani.
2 OUTTA 3: A pair of hardworking federal public servants, my niece Jen and my MP Arif...and me.

I once asked our MPP Cheri DiNovo if she ever gets to kick back and relax. 

She told me she and her husband have to leave the country to do so.

Kicking back and relaxing is what I do best. 

Last week a Facebook friend posted the following: "If you haven't grown up by the time you're 50, you don't have to." 

If I were a senator, I’d probably have to start taking life seriously. Nothing good could come of that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Strippers and Smokes and Secrets: A Day At The Racies

Here’s what kind of good friend I am. I am going to tell you about an adventure a few pals and I had in a strip joint but I’m not going to name names.  

Except for the name of the strip joint: Starvin’ Marvin’s. It was on what is known as the Yonge Street strip, just north of Dundas. My friends and I were visiting Toronto from our hometown of Sudbury and we were probably I’m guessing 15 years old.

This was long before the Internet. Dirty pictures were rare in our Catholic lives; real live naked women rarer. We figured we could lie about our age, tell the woman at the ticket booth that we were 18, and see stuff we’d only ever talked about.

I’m pretty sure Starvin’ Marvin’s didn’t have a bar. I could be mistaken on that but even if it did, that’s not what we were interested in. 

The plan, I should add, included Groucho Marx glasses and moustaches. I don’t know whose idea that was, but we each carried a set and figured that if we wore them while we watched the show--I can’t believe this really happened but it did--we would be in no danger of being recognized.

Getting in was far easier than we had anticipated. I’m not sure the ticket seller even looked at us, and I forget the price of admission. 

I do remember, though, which way the hallway to the showroom led us, and how we found ourselves in the front row, right near the stage, surrounded by mostly empty chairs.

And we donned our disguises. 

A band was playing.  The lights went down, an announcer told us the show was about to begin; and, taking us by complete surprise, a house comedian walked on to the stage. The three of us instantly chickened out and removed the glasses. 

Which turned out to be his cue. The comic walks over and standing RIGHT OVER US, says,
“Hey boys! What’d you do
with the disguises?”

And then.

Him: “Where ya from?”

One of us, probably the one whose voice had broke: “Sudbury!”

Him: “Sudbury? I know Sudbury. Ever been to the Belton Hotel”? The Belton was a sleazy beer hall in the west end of town, about 10 blocks from OUR HOUSE.

Us, lying: “Yes!”

Him: I forget.

All I remember is that as soon as he said Belton, I thought, "if I say anything else he’s going to be like, 'Hey! You’re Tom’s brother! How’s he doin'?'”

From that moment I was in total hide mode, slouching as low as possible in the chair, glancing around the joint, trying to get a look at the other patrons and hoping that none would recognize me. 

It was the same when we left. I remember nipping out of there absolutely sure that standing out on Yonge Street would be our parish priest Father Feranzena, or maybe Mr. Blackwell our grade-eight teacher. 

Worst part: I don’t remember any stripping. Just guilt.

Why am I telling you this now?

Because yesterday, I had the very same feeling, though it had nothing to do with naked women.

Yesterday morning, I had to visit a small tailor shop here in Toronto and when I got to the front door, one of those horrible “Back in 5 minutes” signs hung in mid-glass. “Back in 5 minutes” doesn’t tell you anything. Except that the store’s closed.
I got in my car to wait. Five minutes passed. Sign remained hung.

Adjacent to the tailor shop was a small cafĂ©. “Maybe,” I thought, “He’s in there having a coffee.”

I walked over, opened the door, and was almost knocked down by the smell of ….I hope you’re sitting down…cigarette smoke. Inside, there were three men, my age or older, sipping coffee, watching TV and enjoying cigarettes. Sin-freaking-city!
I felt like I was in Starvin’ Marvin land again.  (Amazing how, within the space of a few years, what we deem socially acceptable can take such whiplash-style whoop dee doos.)

“Just wondering,” I asked the guy nearest the door, “if the tailor from next door’s in here. Sign says he’ll be back in five minutes.”

“Not here,” he said, “He’s just going to the bathroom. He’ll be done soon.”

And he was. Right on schedule. And I didn’t tell him about my conversation with the guy next door.

Here’s what kind of nice reporter I am. Just like I’m not going to tell you who my co-strip-club-goers were; I’m not revealing any geographic details about the smoky restaurant or tailor shop.

I didn’t say I was good reporter, just a nice one.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Today's Special: Hope For The Kids in the Cellar

An old friend just gave me a gift unlike any I’ve ever received.

The friend’s name:  Boris Hrybinsky. He died in late August and yesterday, my wife Helena and long-time pal Rick Mayoh attended a memorial service in Toronto.
 WRITERS IN ARMS: I know I'll learn from Adrian   

Boris, Rick and I lived together for two academic years when we were studying journalism at Carleton University. Truth be told, I could make that sentence far more accurate if I went back and inserted quotation marks around academic and studying.

I won’t go into detail about what life was like with Hrybinsky and Mayoh except that it was insanely fun, profoundly educational and I go to sleep at night happy in the knowledge that I reached adulthood before Facebook showed up. (As my brother Eddie says, “If we had the Internet when I was a kid I wouldn’t have gotten outta grade school.”)

And this story’s not about Boris. You can read an account of him here

This story pertains to his only child, Adrian. Although Boris and I worked together at the Elliot Lake Standard newspaper fresh out of school, we hadn’t been in close contact recently so it wasn’t until yesterday that I met 21-year-old Adrian, a third-year history student at the University of Manitoba. (Get this: When Boris and I were in our third year at Carleton, his father, also named Boris, also a writer and poet, was killed in a Christmas Eve car crash.)

Adrian looks like his dad and seems similarly soft-spoken and respectful. I asked if he intended to follow his father and grandfather and pursue a life of writing.

He nodded, adding that his dad had been mentoring him. Adrian would write stories and Boris would look them over and advise.

Without as much as a millisecond’s reflection, I asked if I could pick up where his father left off. Adrian said he would appreciate that.

Remember that big gift I mentioned up there in paragraph number-one?

That was it.

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a pushover when it comes to helping young people out of the starting gates. It’s my default position. 

Three weeks ago, Helena and I were in a drugstore and I asked the clerk, who looked to be my daughter’s age, what her chosen area of study was. She told me “dental technician.” My first response: “You have to meet my pal Slawek. He’s been in that line of work for ages.” 

Somebody once told me I should post a sign on my door: “Free Inside: Hope.”

But Adrian added a grace note--to pick up where his dad left off--that made the whole thing seemed downright mythic.

It’s the kind of idea you’d see promoted in one of those best-selling self-help books about becoming the whole you. Something everybody should do.

A chap I met just a few weeks ago, Alex McKee, is a semi-retired investment banker, and although I’m not even sure I know what an investment banker is, I do know that Alex and I agree that helping young people is in our genes. 

In fact, Alex recently launched a not-for-profit organization called, designed to link young people with veteran, experienced people who might be able to  offer them advice or assistance.

The platform is modeled on a dating service and Alex sums up his aim thusly:  “I want to get all those
ME&ALEX MCKEE: Helping millennials help themselves
millennials out of their parents’ basements.”

Alex and I have talked at length recently about the deep satisfaction we get from giving young people a step up. And I believe that if two people think something, lots of others do, too.

If you want to know more about Alex’s outfit, check his website. And although I didn’t start writing this blog with Alex in mind and I don’t want it to sound like an ad for same, what the heck? 

Alex is 76! He’s starting a brand-new not-for-profit venture! This could help him get into heaven!  (“Are you sure,” my late dad would ask, with a laugh, “your friend Alex is not just cramming for the finals?”)

Never mind that. As far as I can tell, he'a going to do everybody a whole hell of a lot of good.

I’d shill for that. Maybe Adrian can write about it. I'm sure Boris would approve.

A Print Guy's Thanksgiving Prayer

About 35 years ago, when I was just starting to work as a professional journalist, a friend gave me a beautiful gift: A matted, framed and magnificently illuminated print of The Lord’s Prayer as it appeared in the Gutenberg Bible, which was produced in 1450. It was the first book ever printed using moveable type.

I’m kind of sad to report that I know where neither the print nor said friend are now.  

But I do know that Time magazine once named Johannes Gutenberg “Man of the Millennium,” in recognition of the fact that his invention made books, reading, literacy and all that good stuff available to way more people. (Never mind the fact that Gutenberg put a lot of scribes out of work. Ha-ha.)

Also, earlier this week, in a Toronto Star story, a Ryerson University Professor named Anne McNeilly was discussing some print-magazine cutbacks at Rogers Publishing company and she called the moves another sign of the “end of the Gutenberg era.” 
We are now in what I guess is the digital age.

And as a guy who has lived, breathed, profited from, had way more fun than I deserved to and fed a family based on 
work done around the printing business, all I can say is…
"Phew! That was close."

Here’s what I mean.  (Because it’s Thanksgiving, I thought I’d pen a little prayer that sums up my feelings on the matter.  I’ve written lots of things before, but never a prayer. It feels weird but heck it can't hurt.)

Hey God! 

Thank you so much for putting me on this earth when You did.

You know my laughable skill set, Lord. And my aversion to hard work.

You know I was the poster child for ADHD before ADHD was invented.

And You of all people know what kind of physique I come with. Please forgive me for lying to my daughter Ria last week when I told her the reason I opted not be a professional athlete was that I don’t like showering with strangers.  

We’re talking about a guy who hit his stride in grade seven, as number 21 with the St. Albert Saints basketball team. In my best game, I scored five points—three for our team and, in a fit of exuberance that saw me run the wrong way down the court—two for the other guys. So sports was out.

You’re more than familiar with my wood-working skills, God. (Somebody else labelled them “would not-working” skills). If my kinfolk relied for survival on my hunting and gathering deftness, we’d be down to fried mice in a week.

Soldiering’s out, too. I fight like Tinky Winky the Teletubbie.

Me and business? Hah. My wife Helena tells me I’m the only person she knows who barters upwards.

Neither am I senior managerial material.  I can’t play golf and tend to suck down rather than up.  

I cook by ordering in.  I tried gardening once, but skinned my knee. Which reminds me.  About 14 years ago, we were visiting my wife’s cousin Bogdan’s house when his young son Kamil fell and cut his leg. His father and I whisked him off to the nearby emerg, and the attending physician asked if I would like to remain in the room to watch him work.

Because I love new experiences, I was like, “Sure!” As soon as he started, I realized that my eyes were never meant to be laid there. My stomach felt yucky, my temperature rose and I hightailed it.  I would have made a terrible health-care provider.

And while I have Your attention, thank You for covering everything up with skin. 

Plus I’m organizationally challenged and I’d rather do my own dental work than fill out a long form.

I can’t account for my productivity or explain why I do stuff. My fellow citizens will join me in thanking you, Lord, for peopling the public service and bureaucracies that serve our wonderful country with folks who aren’t me.

Add to my lack of skills the things I like to do—eat, drink, try new things, go on adventures, watch people, talk to strangers, read and invent stories—and You don't have to be You to know I would have been a lousy, say, 16th century peasant.  Or anything else.

So as we watch the Gutenberg era fade in the rear-view mirror and embrace the future, whatever form it might take, I have this prayer of thanks to offer.

Thank you so much for planting me on to this planet during these economic times and in this country and during the sole and very brief time in history during which a guy with my skill set could earn a proper living and have a hell of a time doing it.

Print journalism—populated as it is with so many people who put up with Yours truly--has been very very good to me.

Any other era, I’d have been, at best, village idiot.