Tuesday, June 27, 2017

#11. Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Son's Name in Vain

Some days, I think God called his only son Jesus Christ because every once in a while, depending on the circumstances, that’s the first name that springs to my mind when I see what my only son Michel has gotten up to.

Like this morning.

I left the house at about half past seven and started walking to where my white 2011 Chevy Malibu (I call it Barbie—Malibu Barbie, get it?) was parked. 

It was raining a bit

I glanced up and noticed a tall, slender young-ish man wearing a frontwards facing baseball cap, jeans and basketball jersey coming my direction. And he wasn’t walking, like, happily. Sometimes you can just tell.

Just 30 minutes earlier, I had said “have a good day” to and watched my son Michel leave the house for his new job. A gig, he says, he really likes and one that holds lots of promise. And he was wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a summery shirt.

It was at that moment I thought about God naming his kid. 

"What now?" I thought. Was the new boss suddenly an ex-boss?

Turns out quite a few guys fit Michel’s description.  And I really savored the rush of relief that came with knowing it wasn’t him.

I’m also dead certain there’s a direct link between that medium-grade euphoria and what happened next.

As the stranger and I got closer, it became clear he wasn’t alone.  I saw another individual—a woman—crossing towards him from the other side of the street. They met at a Ford SUV parked directly in front of my Malibu and when I was about four cement sidewalk squares away, he got into the passenger door; she climbed into the driver’s seat.

Like I said, it was raining a bit. I could tell by their facial expressions and gaits neither he nor she was very pleased with the world.

And then, just as I reached the front right fender of my Malibu, I saw the SUV’s reversing lights go on and watched as the SUV backed right into my Chev. And not just like touch it. 

“Crunch” is exactly what one of the vehicles said. My car actually moved backwards a hair.

The Ford pulled up. The driver started out almost in tears and began apologizing. I put my hand on her right shoulder and I think surprised her with, “Don’t worry about it. That’s what bumpers are for. Have a good day.”

She said, “Are you sure?”

I said, “Yup. See ya.” 

I thought, "It's only a car for heaven's sake."

And feeling very pleased with myself, I drove away. "Why make that pair's day worse than it already was?" I asked myself. "Because that's the kind of nice guy you are, Pete," I answered.

"Indeed" I said to me, "the best place for me to park this vehicle will be on --wait for it-- moral high ground."

Except I can't. Instead, I parked on the street, went around to inspect Barbie's front end, saw this plate and immediately remembered what God named his son. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

10-grand square feet of brainpower and fun

ALL MAKEWORKS AND NO PLAY make Jack a pretty cool guy, actually.
Three weeks ago I started renting writing space in a place called MakeWorks; an open-concept shared office that's a 15-minute walk from my home in Toronto. And now, 21 and a half days in, I'm thinking of changing my name to "Leon". As in "Ponce de". As in the guy who thought he discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Check this out.

At its simplest, MakeWorks is 10,000 square feet of office away from home for, oh, let's go with two dozen people. There's a wonderful concierge named Amy, a big kitchen with free coffee and tea,  printers--including a 3-D model--plus we have access 24/7 in case the urge to create (or escape) strikes mid-weekend. 

MakeWorks is also home to some truly come-hithery-looking leather couches and if I decided to have a little nap right here and now, in the middle of the afternoon, nobody would raise an eyebrow.

Almost all the MakeWorks inhabitants poke away at laptops; most have headphones or earbuds on. That way, it doesn't matter that the place is so open-concept;  whatever they're listening to serves as walls. Invisible musical walls. How cool is that? Plus music makes you happier, right?

On any given day, I am working alongside:

* computer programmers; 
* tv-commercial set designers; 
* digital-mapping experts;
* at least one telecommunications lawyer;
* a stand-up comic;
* one of the most successful freelance writers I know (not me);
* customer-service specialists for a used smart-phone company called Orchard. Orchard does other stuff too but re-juvenating and reselling phones is the only part I understand;
* a 27-year-old  East Berlin native named Simon. First day I was here, I introduced myself,  he told me his name and I said something like,"I can always relate to Simons because my name, Peter, and Simon have the same linguistic root." He said, "I know." He's a mathematician who helps German social agencies meet up with volunteer professionals. Or something. But trust me. You could count on one mittened hand how many people know that Simon and Peter are linked. Simon and I are now
IMAGINE, ALL THE PEOPLE: Maria's Portuguese
sports bar is right next door. World Cup starts exactly
one year from today. God give me strength.   
Facebook friends.

Tuesday I met a new office mate, recently graduated from York University and hoping to find new accommodation locally so his folks from Dubai can come visit soon. Another millennial who often sits across from me has an undergraduate degree from Waterloo University (not bad!) and a masters from OCADU, the country’s biggest (probably) arts school (not bad on steroids!)

Other co-workers are from  Great Britain, Argentina, Sweden, India, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Scarborough and I haven’t talked to everybody yet.

When I first got here I spotted on the on-line list of participants a name I just knew I had to contact: "Valkyrie Savage.”

I emailed and asked if her parents were big Wagner fans because one of the few things I know about opera is that composer Richard Wagner composed Ride of the Valkyries.

I loved her response: “My folks know Wagner, but the story of my name is a little longer and weirder than that... I'll leave it mysterious for now.”  

Valkyrie, who I met in person earlier this week, calls herself a "Digital Fabricatrix" and holds a PhD--get that? a PhD?-- in Digital something from Berkeley in California.

Speaking of opera.

MakeWorks is also HQ for one Larissa Koniuk, a touring operatic soprano who currently administers The Bicycle Opera Project, "the world's first and only opera company that tours on bicycle. When you're done my blog, check it out.

See why I love this place? It’s a smarts factory. 

Hang around these people and you can’t be anything but optimistic.

Two days ago, again, in the communal lunchroom, another MakeWorks resident and I were talking about nephews and nieces and she said something so sweet I almost cried. (P.S. The Carter tearing-up-at-the-slightest-sweet-gesture gene is an endemic familial annoyance. And material for another blog.)

My office pal was like, “I’m sorta worried about having my own children. I’m wondering if it’ll be possible to love them as much as I do my brothers' and sisters' kids.”

I understood but reassured her. “Don’t worry, Alex," because that's her name, I said.

"You’ll love your own kids as much," I continued. "Even more so, if you can believe it. There's no end to your love supply. It's not like gravy that you only have so much to spread around.

"Love doesn't run out."

If I didn't know better, I'd think my new office mates' smarts are starting to rub off on me. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Where a couple seated together cheated together

A prickly pear indeed
I would hate to have to learn language from, like, scratch. 

Here’s why.

Last Tuesday, I was riding what we in Toronto call a streetcar, which is an electric bus that runs on rails. I was doing the Toronto Star crossword and got stuck on the very last clue.   

Without so much as an “excuse me,” I said loudly enough for my seatmate to hear, “What’s a five-letter word starts with N-O ending in A-L that means prickly pear?”  

She shook her head to indicate she didn't have the answer but kept looking toward the front of the streetcar. It’s a very healthy reaction when you’re a 20-something woman and really don't want to encourage some strange old guy beside you chewing his pen.

I re-focused on the puzzle. I do crosswords every day and it seems like every single one comes down to one or two impossible answers.

And then without so much as glancing my way, she said “Now it’s going to bug me.  What’s the first letter again?”

Me: “N.”

Her, eyes straight ahead: “You could cheat using your phone.”

Me, after a brief pause: “I really liked the way you said that. You put the accent on 'phone' and not on 'cheat'.”

Her, still looking out the windshield but now with a slight smile: “I know.”


If she had put even the slightest little extra breath of air when she said the word “cheat”, it would have meant that she was suggesting there’d be something devious about using my phone to look up the five-letter word for prickly pear.

But no.

She stressed “your phone”.

By her reckoning, “cheat” meant “solve the problem.” The phone was simply the best vehicle for doing so.

Turns out Mira (I'm not using her real name) is—surprise surprise—a professional communicator. She works in one of those hip advertising agencies. “You mean like the ones Toronto Life’s always writing about?” I asked? 

“You got it,” she said.  But I digress.
WHO KNEW? Okay, if you're Kate, you know. 

I also, by the way, had to plead guilty when she asked if I knew the capital of the country where she was born. I didn’t. Unless you are my good friend Kate Zimmerman, who has traveled there, I’ll bet a day’s wage you don’t know the capital of Azerbaijan neither.

Anyway, here’s what I think about Mira, who graduated from college just three few years ago and who promised to tell all her pals at work about the guy on the street car who bought and actually read “Tender Wings of Desire,” the Colonel Sanders novella published by KFC on Mother’s Day. When I showed her the book cover on my phone, she said I should get a poster made of it.
Spoiler alert: Like KFC chicken and the potato salad that comes with it, the little book was surprisingly tasty! The dedication reads thusly: “For mothers everywhere, I dedicate this to you—a brief escape from motherhood into the arms of your fantasy Colonel. Whoever he may be.” 

I think Mira, whose mom and dad believe it’s high time her only sibling got himself a job--put the accent on phone and not on cheat because in her very considerable brain, I started cheating the nano-second I asked for help.

By the time she suggested I use my phone, the cheat horse had long left the morality barn. It was no longer a matter of if I would cheat or not; it was simply a matter of how. 

Pretty subtle, huh? The only difference was how she said the words. 

See what I mean about learning English from scratch? 

One more thing. If you're wondering about the prickly pear? The brilliant, quick-witted and open-brained Mira Googled it. The answer is NOPAL.

To that I say, “Of course nopal of mine is what you’re going to be if you’re prickly”.

And the capital of a Azerbaijan is BAKU. But don't take my word for it. Ask the stranger next to you. You never regret doing so.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Spell it however you want, he's ok by me.

BIG-HEARTED BIAFRAN: The Nigeria-Biafra conflict was the first to bring
pictures of starving Africans into our living rooms.
In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, May 30, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the day the African nation of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria.

It was a declaration that never actually "took" mind you.

Biafra is still officially part of Nigeria. But that doesn't stop Biafrans from recognizing the independence movement.

And I'm telling you this for a very good reason.

Tuesday, I had lunch with an extremely good friend named Okey Chigbo. His first name is pronounced "OK," it means something like "He holds God's gift in his hands." He was born in Biafra but now edits CPA Magazine, a slick award-winning business journal published here in Toronto, where I just signed a contract to do a bunch of work.

(I'm beyond thrilled about this chain of events and if you click here BUT ONLY AFTER YOU'RE FINISHED THIS BLOG!!!! you'll see another story I wrote for them recently but that's grist for another day.)

My point here is, Okey and I met Tuesday to discuss my role around CPA, but we ended up going down another path altogether.

He told me that he remembers exactly where he was when Biafra announced its independence. Okey was a little boy at boarding school in Biafra, and the principal--a Scottish-born Roman Catholic priest--told the students they could take the rest of the day off in celebration.

What followed couldn't have been worse.

War broke out.

This is what Wikipedia says: "Over the two and half years of the war, there were about 100,000 overall military casualties while between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died from starvation."

Okey was in the middle of it.

And while his parents and brothers and sisters survived, he knew scores of people who didn't make it.

I told him I remember growing up in Sudbury and filling specially designed donation cards with dimes that were then sent to the starving kids in Biafra.

That's right. The starving babies we saw on our screens could well have been somebody Okey knew or was even related to.

Happy doesn't come close to how I feel about the fact that little Okey grew up and moved to Canada to study and wound up working as a writer in Toronto.

And on Tuesday, when I mentioned the little dime-holding cards, he said "thank you," he wasn't joking, and it touched my heart.

I should also mention that he bought lunch. We ate at a chi-chi Irish-style pub called Fionn MacCool's, the type of joint that's always packed with fit and good-looking yuppies where a burger will set you back $20. It was probably one of the most memorable meals I've ever had in my life, never mind that I have no idea what I actually ate.

Today it's Thursday and I dropped into the CPA office.

Okey greeted me and asked how I was doing and I told him that I'm okay except that I remain mystified.
SATURDAY AFTERNOONS: I think mine were spent different from Okey's.

I'm mystified: Why, I ask, was I chosen to be born in the most prosperous time in human history in this, the most civilized spot on the globe, at this point in this time--the very acme of peace and harmony? I freaking live in a world where it takes seven seconds to Google the word "acme" to find out if I used it correctly. Turns out I did. But I also remember seeing it in Saturday afternoon Wile E. Coyote cartoons and thinking it was pronounced Asim. Just occurred to me. I must ask Okey if he spent a lot of Saturday afternoons in the '60s slouched in front of a TV set. I think I know the answer. But I digress.

Okey responded to my question with "I know! I know! We are living in at time of unprecedented comfort."

He and I started listing all those things from the good old days and other parts of the world that my generation in the West has managed to escape, starting with, oh, you know, starvation. And war.

Me: "I own not one but two brown leather jackets."

Him: "I know. I have so many toys I don't have enough time to play with them."

Me: "Deodorant! We have soap and shoes with form-fitting insoles."

Him: "Penicillin"

Me: "Last year, I read a book about what life was like in castles. It stank."

Him: "Yes, even for the aristocracy. They didn't have toilet paper. They had, like, wet--what do you call it--corn husks."

Me: But  not in quotes. Just here. At  the end of my blog: I  have nothing to bellyache about.

Especially when I have guys like Okey around to remind me.