Tuesday, March 30, 2021

My brain on Scrabble

He's in the Scrabble Dictionary,
 it's short for education.

For at least as long as my wife of 30-odd years Helena has known me, my brother Ed's been coming around and we play Scrabble.

I almost always win. It's not because I know a lot of big words (and I do!) or that I am particularly adept at seeing patterns of letters. It's just that I keep score.

Ed has a head for numbers and Helena has a masters degree in science from the University of Toronto, but whenever we sit around the Scrabble board, they leave the scorekeeping and math doing to me

And they've never challenged my work.

As for me knowing big words, I think you'd be impressed by some of the language I get to use at my job editing at a magazine for lawyers. I deal with words like tortuous and sequelae and appellate but do you think I can remember any of them when Helena and Ed and I sit down to play Scrabble?
Is how many years we three have been

The nanosecond we start dealing out the little tiles, my brain goes into Scrabble mode and it's all I can do to come up with ALLEY or  TRIAL and  I forget how to spell THEIR and NEITHER. 

My noggin, when we're playing Scrabble, is like some people I used to know who, no matter how old they were, as soon as they went to visit their parents, turned into little children again. They forget how to turn on the stove or check the cat's dish. My brain on Scrabble is a 40-year-old man getting his engine oil checked by his 75-year-old dad.

But still I win because Eddie and Helena couldn't be bothered to a: keep score; b: check my math or c: give a hoot.

All we care about is being clever and using the Double Word and Triple Word spaces first.

It is, I believe a mortal sin, to not try with all your might to use up the Triple Word spaces, no matter how weak your word is. It's like Easter Duty. 

Every old fashioned Roman Catholic knows that if you don't go to Confession at least once a year, you've failed to do your Easter Duty. On the sin scale, it's nuclear.

The late word genius George Carlin had a skit about quizzing your parish priest about Easter Duty.  "Hey Fadda! Hey Fadda! Is it a sin if you're on a ship at sea? And it's January thirty first? And you still haven't made your Easter Duty? And then it's one minute past midnight? But then you cross the international date line?"

Where was I? 

Oh, right. Not doing your utmost to use Scrabble bonus spots is a sin. 

Last Saturday I was very proud of myself because I ended our game in a manner that will have other Scrabble addicts standing up and clapping.

Usually towards the end of the night I mean game, you're down to EON and PERT, and all the fancy stuff is over with. But this Saturday past, Eddie and Helena and I were at the three-or-four-letters- remaining stage, but the bottom right Triple Word box was still vacant.. 

INTERNE: Who knew?
I nailed it. 

Not with a lame DUCK (see what I did there?) or a wussy, like,  CLEAR. 

But SHOWY. SHOWY! 42 points! Scrabble should have exclamation marks for pizazz like that. 

Pizazz incidentally, is in our trusty Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which is what we turn to religiously if there's a dispute. It's good to have on hand, like a calm and unbiased referee.

Inasmuch as I like that old book, it might be time for an upgrade.

Pizazz is there, but internet's not. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Paw guards agree: Iris as Governor General? A shoo-in

IRIS REGIMENT: The incoming governor general's paw guards
When I was in second year university, I had a roommate named Vince Ramsay and at the end of that year he landed what sounded like an awfully impressive summer job: He joined the Governor General’s foot guards. 

Feet guards are the men and women who, dressed in red jackets and shiny boots, stand dead still for the entire summer, except when something called “changing of the guard” happens, at which time their boss yells really loudly and they move and stand somewhere else. 

Their other job is to stare straight ahead and remain completely serious faced when people like me try to make them laugh. 

Foot guards might have other duties but those are the only ones I know of and anyways, facts have never been my strong suit. 

I started thinking about Vince about 15 minutes ago because our cat, Professor Iris, is in her third week of the campaign to be named Canada’s next Governor General and I realize I am fully qualified to be one of Iris’ foot guards. 

For our non-Canadian readers whoever you are, a Governor General is a non-elected government appointment—officially the queen’s representative here in Canada. I'm pretty sure you don't need any official qualifications, and Iris is good on that front. Some people believe the Governor General’s job is largely ceremonial but I know they do some things like give out prizes. And tell the footguards when to change.

A TAIL OF ONE KITTY: Foot guards can't move without purrmission
But back to me. I know I could qualify as Governor General Iris’ foot guard because I already guard Iris’ feet. 

And watching over Iris’ paws is no mean feat. 

Here’s why. 

Since I stopped commuting last year, I realized that I loved and miss those precious moments I spent in the car in both directions between home and work. 

Five days a week, I was guaranteed two recesses from life, during which I could do nothing. Or something. It was completely up to me.

I could plan my day, listen to music I wanted to hear or maybe comedy radio or I could just daydream about all the fun I’ve had and all the fun I’m going to have. 

I think people are going to miss their commutes more than they realize. 

I replaced commuting with rocking.

In the same chair. Every workday morning and evening, for at least 30 minutes. No phone, no newspaper, no book. 

I just stare out the front window, think and enjoy the rhythm, best underscored if the chair is squeaking, like a slow-paced metronome. Sometimes I’ll sip tea but that’s okay because I could do that commuting. 

These leisurely rocks are so addictive and soothing I won’t be surprised when somebody way more industrious than me gets rich writing a book called “Idiot’s Guide to Rocking In a Chair.”

Which is where Professor Iris comes in. 

The only activity I permit myself during my rocks is skritching Iris, who is so presumptuous that every morning when I come downstairs she is virtually leaning against the left side of the rocker, awaiting her royal skritcher. Same thing at the end of the workday. I come into the living room and there she is.

If that doesn’t prove Iris has all the makings of a monarch, nothing does. (I’m also her litter carrier. I think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should name Iris G.G just to so he could get his paws on all these great puns!) 

And it’s all about Iris’ feet. They need guarding. 

As she lets me scratch her with my left-hand fingers, she sort of writhes and twists and moves around; and I think if you measured, you’d see that at least 50 per cent of the time, one of her appendages, it could be her long white tail or more likely, one of her feet, is actually positioned under the rocker. 

 Very dangerous spot. 

And frequently, she stops mid-writhe and said appendage remains under the rocker. It’s up to me to make sure nothing untoward happens.

I, just like Vince back in Ottawa, can’t move a muscle until the boss gives me permission. One wrong move and Iris gets hurt. Unthinkable.

As I type, Iris is in the window, regally watching her subjects shuffle about her realm. 

Me, I’m in the rocking chair trying to sit still, practising for my next job. 

 Of course if I don’t move soon, the changing of the guard’s going to have a whole new meaning.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Lessons I learned from my wife, a fallen woman

NOW MUSEUM NOW YOU DON'T: On a lighter note, two Marches ago
 right now, the much-loved Bug took us to, among other places,
 this factory museum in Bradford, PA.
Sometimes  I talk too much. 

Comes as a shock, I know.

But get this: A few days ago, on a Friday afternoon around 4:30, my wife Helena slipped and fell on the ice in the laneway behind our house. She's  okay except for a sore and scratched wrist but the end result could have been a whole lot worse. 

When Helena slipped, she was behind her black Volkswagen Beetle that I was backing up.

I’ll say that again in case you missed it. 

I was backing up on an icy laneway and my wife of more than 30-odd years fell down behind and less than one metre from her car’s rear right wheel and I did not see where she went.

At the moment she wiped out, I was looking frontwards, out the windshield. 

A millisecond earlier, I’d glanced over my right shoulder, saw her standing there, quickly looked ahead to see how the front of the car was and when I looked back again, she was gone. All the while the car was, ever so slowly, moving. On ice.

Many many things could have changed in that moment.

But in one motion, I jammed on the brakes, slammed the car into park and opened my door to exit the Bug. It is way too easy to imagine any or all of those activities not being completed satisfactorily.

I might have, say,  lost my footing. And smashed my jaw on the car door. I could have forgotten to change gears, in which case the VW would have continued backwards. Another possibility: Missing the brake pedal. That's happened before. 

Did I mention the laneway was an ice sheet?

Of course I'm here writing about the event happily because none of the above took place. By the time I got around the car to help Helena up, it was clear that we wouldn’t be going to emerg and there was no bloodshed.

teaches at Ryerson University whose website I stole this photo from
We got back in the car and resumed the errand that had almost been interrupted by a death in the family.

And it didn't take long for me to figure out that the near crisis taught me a whole whack of lessons; the first being this one:

I am a motormouth.

Here’s how I know. 

Carter family rules dictate I had to phone my brother Alex to tell him about Helena's near miss. 

A few years ago, Alex was carrying a box of books that he was going to send to Ed when he fell on the ice in his driveway, hurt his leg pretty badly and was laid up quite a while. (Interesting coincidence. When Helena went down, we, too, were delivering something to Ed. So yes, this is all Ed’s fault. What good are siblings if you can’t blame things on them? Also, if Ed heard me describe the laneway incident, he’d interject with “A near miss? Isn’t that actually a hit? If you nearly miss things, you hit them, right?” Sometimes there’s just no talking to Ed.)

Back to my phonecall. The moment Al picked up, I launched into Helena’s story.  

Alex is nothing if not a good listener, so he said very little as I described the ice, the fall, the subsequent visit with Ed, the traffic and who knows what else? I went on and on. (Pay special attention to the “Who-knows-what-else-I-went-on-and-on part.)

ROTARY CLUB MEET-UPS: Another victim of technology's 
relentless march forward
His response: “I’m guessing it’s my dad you phoned to talk to, huh?”

My nephew Alexander’s voice is exactly the same as his dad’s and similarly, Alexander II’s no slouch in the listening department. In fact he said afterwards, “as soon as you mentioned that Helena’s fall was like the one I took a few years ago, I figured you thought you were talking to my dad but I didn’t want to interrupt.”

When it has to, the human brain works very quickly.

“What,” my brain asked itself, “did Peter say to his darling nephew by mistake when he thought he was talking to his brother?"

Had I said anything, like, um, unflattering about any other family members? No. Impossible.

Did I utter something that would make my nephew think for one second I was anything less than a flawless uncle by whom all other uncles should be measured and who never has a nasty remark to make about anybody?

It’s in these situations that you realize that when necessary, your brain gets an adrenaline rush, so you can do the mental equivalent of lifting a sedan off a trapped child – or in this case a slipped spouse. 

Your brain works faster than any computer.

Realizing my mistake and reassured I hadn’t screwed up too badly, Alex Jr. and I laughed and he handed me over to Al my brother.

I sometimes might talk too much.

Second lesson.  The disappearance of landlines has removed another source of mystery and surprise from our lives. Time was, when a phone rang, it could be for anybody in the house. Remember handing the phone to a sister and announcing, loud enough for everyone to hear: "Norma. It's for you. And it's a BOY!" 

Another example of technology robbing us of one of life's joyful mysteries.

Lesson three: Remember three paragraphs ago I was rewinding my conversation to figure out if I'd said anything revealing to Alex Jr? 

My 15 nephews and nieces all know me better than I know myself. 

Who'm I trying to kid?

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Getting picked up by the fuzz hurts.

REBEL WITHOUT A CUSS: At that age, the only law
I'd broken was giving crossbar rides

I was 11 or 12 years old during the summer between grade seven and eight when I learned how cramped, uncomfortable and terrifying the back seat of a cop car is. 

 It’s an experience that never leaves you.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever confessed this to anyone before but here goes: I was with my good pal Paul, whose surname I’m not sharing because his mom is still alive. He might not have told her. 

It was a Saturday afternoon and we were hanging out at our “local;” a.k.a,, King George Public School on Regent Street in the west end of Sudbury.

King George was located precisely one and a half city blocks from the front door of the house I was raised in. Here’s how I got there. I walked out our front door, across the street, directly through Keegans’ yard to the laneway then through the United Church property out to Regent Street. King George was directly across Regent. 

Fact is, if you yelled as loudly as you could from our front steps, kids at King George might have been able to hear you. 

But to me, King George was a continent away. For one thing, King George was not in line of sight from our front door. 

Also, it wasn’t a Catholic school. All the kids I hung out with were Catholic and we attended St. Albert's, which was a block north of our house. I’m thinking things like sneaking cigarettes came way easier on Protestant soil. 

It gets better. King George was built on a hill. Good wintertime sliding. And in the summer, the grassy slope beside the basketball court was perfect for lazing around on. Plus there were cement steps leading up away from the court; ideal for looking cool and perching on or spitting sunflower seed shells off of.

The building also had about eight different entry and exit points and all sorts of alcoves and outdoor stairwells in case you wanted to do something secret. Plus there always seemed to be somebody to hang out with at King George. 

Except on the afternoon Paul and I got busted. We had the basketball court to ourselves. 

And we weren’t just hanging out: Paul and I were lighting Mister Freeze wrappers on fire. I don’t know if they still do, but back then, if you put a match to an empty Mister Freeze tube, it dripped technicolour flames. The excitement lasts, oh, five seconds, tops. It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to do again and again. 

HALF A CENTURY HENCE: Scene of the educational crime.
King George is now, aptly, a Montessori school.

On that afternoon, Paul and I had purchased way more Mister Freezes than we actually wanted to eat, just so we’d have the empty tubes to burn. Even as I write this, I get a twinge of a Dairy Queen headache thinking about all the sickeningly sweet slush I sucked that day. (Another thing that should cause distress is how hard my father worked to earn the money that he gave to me that I ultimately, literally, burned. So I won’t think about that. ) 

We knew we were in for it the moment the cruiser pulled up right on to the basketball court. One of the cops got out the passenger door and directed us to the back seat, where the interrogation and/or arrests would take place. 

Paul got in first and ended up behind the driver. I was on the passenger side and because the cruiser was pointed west, I could — in my mind — see the front door of our house on Eyre Street less than two blocks away. Behind that door were my mom, dad, sisters, brothers, our pet St. Bernard Casey and everything else I loved, and they were all going about life unaware of the fact that the baby of the family was about to be sent to Cecil Facer, which was the place south of town where we believed juvenile offenders (delinquents, we called them) ended up. 

I hope you don’t think I’m overstating my fear. 
A QUEST FOR FIRE: If we weren't supposed to
play with it, why did they make fire so fun?

The cops told Paul and me there’d  been a break-in, at another nearby school called Princess Anne and they were thinking Paul and me might have had something to do with that, too. 

We hadn’t been anywhere near Princess Anne. The nearest thing we’d done to breaking any laws up to that point was give our friends crossbar rides on our bikes. We were not tough guys. We were altar boys at St. Clement’s church. 

I was shaking. My mouth was dry with fear. 

I answered one question with “yes ossifer.” 

I know, at least twice, I farted. 

Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably more like 10 minutes of making us sweat, the policemen sprang us, and I sprang home. 

I sprang so quickly in fact that I forgot my jacket. 

It was yellow and on one shoulder had sewn an embroidered patch that read “Ontario Legislative Page.” The previous spring, I’d served a term as a page boy at Queen’s Park in the Ontario Legislature. I wore that jacket everywhere and just before Paul and I started our fiery fun, I had taken it off and hooked it over a fence post. 

But when I got out of that cop car, I ran home, leaving my appropriately coloured jacket behind. 

I went back the next day but no luck. Crime doesn’t pay. 

P.S. Should you run across anybody from Paul’s family, mom’s the word.