Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Jokers can be wild but can they be trump too?

A pretty alarming notion goosestepped across my alleged mind yesterday morning. I'll explain later but first I'll tell you my way of thinking.

First of all, I love watching TV. (Which reminds me of the famous movie Being There, starring Peter Sellers, in which an extremely challenged TV addict gets elected president. I recommend it strongly but I digress.)

Second, I can’t make my mind up about anything.

I can be walking from one end of my block to the other and when I start, the first neighbour I run into will convince me that our local government’s plan for a guaranteed annual income, no strings attached, is the worst idea since unsliced bread. (Unsliced bread must be bad, right?  I don't have numbers--we'll have them later in the week--but I do know an awful lot of people agree the sliced version is the best invention of all time.)

Then, I’ll take, like 40 steps and run into another acquaintance. By the time she’s through with me, I’ll have done a complete 180 and thrown my support behind the annual-income idea.

I change my views more often than some people change their underwear. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra. I don’t know.

Sometimes, I find myself in a position to engage freelance writers or photographers or home-repair types. Who do I turn to first? My friends. And of course I'd hire my kids. If my brother Ed's not busy, him too.

I'm so vain that last week before a visit to Paula our family's delightful dental hygienist, I clipped my nose hair.

I can do a wicked combover.  

Even though I’m a self-employed freelance writer which means I can work any hours I choose, I like to goof off on weekends. 

Plus, as recently as one week ago, under extremely dangerous circumstances—and I’m talking something akin to terrorism here--I used my phone as a flashlight. What happened was, I was on my way home from visiting my nephew Hugh and brother Ed at the Pilot Tavern in downtown Toronto. (The Pilot. I think's foreshadowing.) Part of my journey involved riding on what we in Toronto call streetcars; i.e., electric bus-type things that run on rails.

SPREADING DIRT: Way lots of people think that's what
we in the media do best.
While I was waiting at the streetcar station, I saw the operator exit his streetcar, go over to a bin and extract a shovel full of something and with the shovel, re-enter the vehicle. I approached him and asked what he was up to. Turns out—and I’m glad I asked—streetcars carry a load of sand that the drivers can spray out onto the tracks if they need extra traction or improved braking power! Who knew? 

The streetcar operator was pretty happy telling me about the sand. Then, because he still had a few minutes before departure time, he escorted me back outside the car and told me to bend down to shine my phone at a certain valve under the chassis while he re-entered the car and pushed the sand button.

So, it’s very possible that on some transit-system security camera that authorities might be examining right this moment, there’s a suspicious image taken at about 10:30 p.m. last Tuesday showing a grown man kneeling down beside a streetcar and, like, fooling with something on the public-transit system. They might have even launched an investigation for all I know. And I don't care if they have.

I also have a very pretty European spouse with strong business-sense.

I really like it when people like me.

Finally, I couldn’t tell you, without Google, where Yemen is.  

Just call me Forrest Trump.

Good thing I'm not running nothing, nowhere.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bum Wars: Trevor and Pete's Guide to Profitable Panhandling

Over lunch this afternoon, my long-time excellent friend Trevor MacIntyre and I discussed the fact that we’re both pushovers for panhandlers. So’s my wife Helena. She is quite unable to pass somebody with his or her hand out without looking him or her in the eye, talking a bit, probably patting a hand or two and ponying up. 

So after lunch, on the drive home after the lunch that Trevor paid for, I decided I could probably write the definitive “A-to-Z Guide To Getting Money Out Of Pushovers.” 

What follows are the top 10 tricks.

10) Be Entertaining. About 11 years ago, my nephew Alexander said he saw me on a TV show called Kenny Vs. Spenny.  I had no idea! Kenny and Spenny used to compete with each other in rather unorthodox competitions, like, “who can sit on a cow longest” or “who can wear a dead octopus on his head longest” or “first to be mean loses.” Alex thinks he saw me in what must have been "who can panhandle the best." When he reminded me, I recalled the incident in detail. I had been walking up Toronto’s main drag, Yonge Street, in midafternoon,when a man in his mid-20s sitting on the sidewalk says, “Hey! I betcha two dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes.” Me: “You’re on!” Him: “You got’em on your feet!” He won.

9) Hit me where I live. Two weeks ago. First warm day of the year. Two blocks from my house. A gentleman with a European accent holding a beer can in his right hand, his left outstretched, caught up and walked beside me a few steps. “Can you help?” he asked. “I shoulda  known better. I only had enough money for one beer and the thing is I knew if I bought it I’d really want a second but I went and bought it anyway and now I’m trying to get another." That, I could relate to. I reached in my pocket found two twenties and said, “I’m not giving you $20 but if you hang on a sec I’ll  get change.” When I told the clerk in the store why I wanted to break the bill, I kinda think she didn’t believe me.

8) Hit me when I’m on the road. I think we all feel most generous when we're away from home. I’ve forked over in Havana, Shanghai, Manhattan, Moscow and most recently, Gdansk, Poland, where  I had so many gypsies trailing behind me around a big church I could have formed a dance troupe. When I was in The Lonestar State a few years back I really tried to get out to the Texas Panhandle just so I could say something funny when I got home because that’s the kind of thing that’s important to me. 

7) Which is why the next tip is, “Laugh at my jokes.” There’s an intersection near my house (the corner of Parkside and Lakeshore) where the panhandlers are so predictable Helena labelled it a tollbooth. Once, a guy approached my Malibu holding a cardboard sign that read, “Homeless, broke and hungry.” I rolled down my window, handed him some cash and said, “You have to change your sign now. You’re not broke no more. Hahaha.” And he took my money and laughed too.

6)  A few weeks later, same tollbooth. This time, it’s a woman, with a similar sign. But different ending. When I got to the "not broke no more," she laughed and added, “Oh you're the guy. My husband told me about you.”

5) Location location location. Trevor recalled leaving some downtown Toronto musical theatre production one night and watching the post-show panhandlers jockey for position. “I think it was after Les Miz,” he said. “How can you not be giving them money after something like that?”

4) Trev and I not only talked about panhandling, we also discussed how we are so lucky to live in the most prosperous and most comfortable cultures in history.  We both have far more worldly goods than we ever imagined we’d have and we come from supportive and lovely families and we’re safe and happy and we've got all our hair and teeth,too. It just occurred to me it might have something to do with panhandlers because almost every transaction ends with “God bless you.” If all those blessings over years amount to a pinch of duck poop, Trevor and I should be loaded. Which we are. Do the math.

3) Which begs the question, "Does a God-bless-you after a handout have the same divine heft as a post-sneeze God-blessing?" And what if the blesser is an atheist just pretending to be a believer just to make the blessee feel better? Does it still work? 

2) Speaking of working, Trev and I agreed that there’s probably no tougher job on earth. Moved and seconded: People who beg for money deserve every penny they might get; they sure work for it. Here’s Trevor on that matter: “How much would they have to pay you to actually do what they’re doing, all day long? Whatever they paid me wouldn't be nearly enough.”

1) Now that I think about it, that might be one of the reasons I’m such a pushover. Trevor and Helena are simply generous souls. But me?  At least once every waking hour I somehow remind myself that I am but  two or three bad decisions away from panhandlerhood myself.   

Monday, April 10, 2017

Pete Goes to Vimy Ridge

FOR THE LOVE OF PETE MacFarlane a hero I like to think I was named after
Yesterday afternoon, my older-by-29-months brother Eddie showed up on my front porch at 5:05 and by 5:15, we were clinking beer bottles and laughing like stoned teenagers.

We were talking about Vimy Ridge.  

The thing is, before Ed arrived, I had been reading poems by my late great uncle Walter Scott MacFarlane. Walter was my maternal grandmother’s brother and one of  my mom's favourite uncles.

In the house Eddie and I grew up in, Walter was a real hero. The irony is, he wasn't a hero because he fought and got wounded at Vimy, which he did. In the Carter family solar system, Walter Scott was a star because he was a poet.

Google him and not only will you find a mention of the book I was reading, “Songs of the Valley,” you’ll  also learn that Walter’s grandsons--brothers Scott and Kris MacFarlane--are prominent Nova Scotia musicians. Scott played in the bands Crush, Sandbox and Kilt, Kris drummed with Lennie Gallant, Great Big Sea, and Paperboys.

I’ve never met Kris or Scott but a few years ago, I contacted Kris and asked him if he was influenced by his poet grandpa. He told me Walter’s artistry persuaded him to pursue a creative career. (Me too.)

I only ever met Walter twice, at his home in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and the last time I was about 10 so I don’t remember much.  I do recall seeing him on his front porch with a glass of something in his hand (sorta like Eddie, on my porch, yesterday) and I thought, “THAT’S the famous Uncle Walter? I thought he’d be way bigger!”

He certainly had a huge presence in our growing up. In our Sudbury home, where books were as important as food, Uncle Walter was revered like a saint or some ancient philosopher. Whatever he did for a living didn’t matter, what counted was, he wrote.


And songs.


My mom and her brothers and sisters used to quote Uncle Walter the way some people cite Shakespeare or the Bible.

One of my favourite Uncle Walterisms?

“There are days that haven’t been touched.”

Songs, too.

If you had dropped by my place yesterday, you would have heard me belt out—for Eddie’s benefit—two verses of a song called “They Had Neither Pole Nor Paddle,” a Walter Scott creation  that I’ve known the chorus of since I was a little kid. 

Until yesterday though, I was under the impression “They Had Neither Pole Nor Paddle” was about some epic military journey or something like that but then I actually read the lyrics and found out it’s about three of Walter’s yahoo buddies getting their car stuck in the mud on their way to a party. I like it way more now.

He wrote in both English and, as it says in the introduction of the book, “the Gaelic.”

If you’re wondering why Eddie and I were laughing, it’s because Walter--same as Ed--had a kid brother named Peter. When my great uncle Peter was all of 19, he and his older brother Walter shipped off to Europe and both found themselves in the battle of Vimy Ridge.

Both boys were shot and wounded there. Peter actually got hit, again, in another battle at a place called Paaschendaele.  And get this--Peter went back for a third time, for more, in World War Two. (There’s at least one poem about Peter’s adventures, on page 40 of “Songs of the Valley.”)

I know it must have been horrific. But I really love the thought of brothers Walter and Peter over in Europe, so far from home and in the middle of the chaos, trying to make each other laugh to take their mind off the ugliness that was unfolding all around them.

I like imagining young Walter, in  the middle of  the blood the mud and the pain, thinking, “This is worse than hell. I better find a pencil, sharpen it, and write a poem.” (Seems like a natural reaction to me.)
PETE, ALEX & EDDIE: Portraits in courage

And then he might yell “Hey Pete! Heads up! Incoming! But more importantly, what rhymes with Themis?” (Themis is a Greek Goddess of Law and Order. She appears regularly in Walter’s poetry. And I had to Google the name to learn that.)

My late brother Pat told me that Walter penned one poem that I’ve never seen about Peter standing up on the edge of a trench dancing a jig between battles.

So that's what Eddie and I started talking about as soon as he arrived yesterday. 

As I said to Eddie, “I don’t even know those guys and I love them.”

Me to Eddie, laughing: “Imagine you and me at Vimy Ridge”

Eddie: “We’d make Monty Python look lame. I’d be like, ‘Hey Pete! I found a place we can hide 'til the fighting’s over.”

All of Canada should be grateful that the country’s fate was in the hands of truly brave guys like Walter and Peter instead of seasoned runner-away’ers like Eddie and me. Or for that matter, any of my siblings. Here’s our older brother Alex, who has also written a poem or two, on the matter: “Brave men run in our family.” Eddie and I toasted the fact that he and I are probably members of the first generation of men in the history of generations to not have to worry about going to war.

I'm very proud to come from a peace-loving family that prizes poets. And forever in the debt of men like Walter and Peter who made it possible. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why jealousy's nothing to sneeze at

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE: Cormier was so good-looking
I'm using his mugshot to make my blog prettier.
Yesterday afternoon at about 2:00 p.m., if you were driving in the lane beside me and glanced over, you would have seen me seem to sneeze and then quickly reach up to adjust my glasses.  Except it wasn’t a sneeze that I burst out; it was a spontaneous laugh. Followed by the wiping away of a laugh tear. The exact word I said, loudly, with a forward jerky motion of my head, was “Hah!”

I was listening to the radio. And while I’m not naming names, the announcer was talking about a new CD that was about to hit the stores.  “And this,” he promised, “is going to be one for the annals.” And he pronounced annals as if it only had one n.

I know, I know.  I'm immature because I think that's so funny. Which means so is my older smarter sister Norma Fairman. Because when I phoned her immediately to tell her about the announcer’s slip up, (as one does) she had the very same reaction: “Hah!,” said Norma.

Come to think of it, I am more mature than Norma because, and this is where we get to the true-confession part of this blog, my “hah” was only one third because of my little-boy brain.

Mostly, I laughed for professional reasons.

Here’s what I mean.

The announcer wasn’t just any random voice. He is also a successful musician and recording artist. I also happen to know what he looks like. The CD he was referring to was produced by his friend and colleague.  They’re both younger than me and they have really cool major-market media jobs and I was stuck in traffic behind the wheel of my aging Malibu that one of my nephews—the aforementioned sister Norma’s son Paul, to name names--deemed a “dad” car. 

I was guilty of driving while jealous.

And I’m dead certain my envy fueled my response to the announcer’s delightful mispronunciation of “annals.”

I know, I know, you’re like, “What???? Peter? You've got a great life; a loving and never-a-dull-moment family, the aforementioned Malibu, a motorcycle, four brothers, four sisters, four guitars. What could you be jealous of???”

As I told Norma, I’m jealous of every other person in my line of work and then some. Like that disc jockey.

When I see a great story in a magazine, I think, “Rats! I wish I wrote that.”



We subscribe to the print version of the Toronto Star. On page GT2 of Saturday's paper, there was a story about garbage in the part of the city known as the Distillery. The headline? “Distillery District in trash can-undrum.” Clever huh? I hate it.

When I was editor of the magazine Today’s Trucking, if we produced what I thought was a great feature about, say, a one-legged trucker from Lesser Slave Lake who wins a Nobel prize for literature, I would be perfectly glib and happy until the competition, “Truck (spit-pitooie) News” scooped us with their take on the trombone-playing driver who rescues foster puppies in Romania.

I hate when that happens.

I know I’m not alone.  A friend of mine who makes a living as a fine artist—meaning she paints pictures that people buy and hang up in their homes—told me she has the same issue.

I once asked her if she participates in the annual art show at Toronto City Hall. It’s a big deal and hundreds of artists bring their best work to display hopefully and with any luck sell.

“Not me,” she said. “I don’t like what it does to me.”

She said she’s so competitive that if she had a booth at the show and the artist next door asked her to watch his work while he went to the bathroom, she’d take the opportunity to run over to his booth and push all his work over and rip his canvases. And she doesn’t like her inner Mr. Hyde. So she avoids those shows.

I get that completely.

Quite a few years ago, I lost a good friend named Jim Cormier. He died in his sleep when he was 39. Left a fabulous partner Cynthia and two perfect kids Russ and Colette. I’m still mad at him for dying and I think about him every day.

I loved Jim and I don’t throw that word around.

He gave me my very first magazine job. He helped me find work when I needed it. Then, near the end, we happened to be writing for competing publications. He penned columns—mostly about his young family—for a magazine called Canadian Living. I, meanwhile, was producing lots of stories about my home and kids for Canadian Living's chief competition, Chatelaine.

I remember one time we had both families altogether at the Toronto Zoo and Jim was like, “if something funny happens here I’m going to write about it before you are.” 


Because he was so widely and deservedly loved, his funeral service packed the really big church where it was held. For a few days, it seemed like Jim was the only topic in town, especially among the set I moved in. And I’ll be damned if all the praise of Jim wasn’t justly deserved. He was funny, generous—my wife will tell you he was gorgeous to look at—and talented as a writer and musician. He would have really liked my "annals" story.

But three days after his funeral, an editor in town who knew both Jim and me well sidled up to me on the street.

“Tell the truth, Peter,” she said. “Are you a bit jealous of all the attention Jim’s getting right now?”

I told you she knew me well.