Monday, January 30, 2023

Yahoo rancheroo!

ME BUCKAROOS! Whatever I dreamt last night
had this bunch rolling in the bedroom aisles.
It's been a year to the day that my older brother Ed died. 

Although the following might strike you as callous, this very morning -- the anniversary of Ed's death -- I woke up laughing like a stoned teenager. 


From a deep sleep to laughing out loud. Drives people around you crazy when it happens, but to me, waking up laughing is magical.

I also know Ed would approve. Especially after I tell you why.

Yesterday, my wife Helena and I went for breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe, about three blocks from our house. 

I like everything about the Sunrise. I've never had better Eggs Benedict. 

One of the first times there, I was with a sales guy named Emerson and when the server asked what we wanted I pointed to the specials and said "I'm really curious about this 'Surprise breakfast.' What is it?" 

Immediately and as if she had rehearsed, she was like, "The surprise is, you're dyslexic. It's Sunrise breakfast." 

Back to yesterday. 

Sunrise tables are close together. 

Less than two feet to the east of me and Helena sat a pair of six-foot-tall-with-football-player-shoulders guys who looked like they were in their early 50s. Or 20s. I can't tell. They were fair haired, they slouched over the table the same way and wore similar glasses. 

They were speaking softly but at one point I heard the one closest to me go, "well, I wouldn't want to climb on a motorcycle if I had jet lag."

I kept quiet. Hard to believe, I know.

A few moments after I started eating my "Mexican Scrambled Eggs," our server, Lindsay, arrived with an unusual plate of something for the motorcycle guy. His tablemate asked him what was in it.

He responded. "Eggs, cheese, chilis, some other stuff and ranchero sauce." Except--and this is important--he pronounced it "rancheroo."


His friend, slowly: "I think (pause) it's (pause) ran-chair-oh." The guy realized his goof; they laughed. I liked these two.

I had to talk. 

I asked if it was their first time at the Sunrise. The not-the-motorbike man: "No. My brother and I have been coming a long time. We found it one New Year's morning. We were both hung over and just dropped in and been coming back ever since." I liked them more.

Me: "I gotta tell you; my brother died a year ago right now and I miss him like crazy. Just please never forget how lucky you are to have a brother to get hung over with and go to restaurants with." (I'm not griping here. I'm still spoiled and lucky to my brother Alex and four sisters Charlene, Norma, Bertholde and Mary still around. But Ed lived in Toronto and we hung out A LOT. From the time I was born.)

The cafe boys both said they were sorry about my loss and agreed they were fortunate. You know how you can tell sincere gratitude from the fake kind? These brothers were the real thing.

The conversation moved along, to growing up, travelling, motorcycles. They both ride. 

I said Ed never got his licence but sometimes rode on the back of mine, adding "we probably looked like a couple of cartoon characters."

'Til finally, I couldn't take it any longer. I had to ask. "Did I hear you (pause) um, say (pause) rancheroo?"

He laughed and was like, "I know, right?"

TOM, LAUGHING WITH HIS WIFE, HUENA : Not sure if he ever woke up laughing but I think he
went to bed that way. Frequently, I'd wager.

I said "It sounds like a kids' favourite, I dunno, candy." 

We're all laughing now. 

Me, in a little-boy voice: "Daddy daddy can we get some rancheroos?"

By the way, this talk of dads brings me to another question--one I find myself asking a lot these days. 

I am now the same age as my dad, Tom, was when I was in university. Did Tom do stuff like this? Did he ever wake up laughing and think, "I can hardly wait to tell everybody about my stupid dream?" 

He, too, had an older brother Ed who died too soon. So many many things I don't know about my own father. I've interviewed thousands of people, but never him. I feel another blog coming on...

Meanwhile, back at the Sunrise Cafe.

Lindsay delivered the bills; the boys said, "sorry about your brother" again, we all shook hands and left.  

Later, around dinnertime, I was trying to recall exactly how events in the restaurant had unfolded, but--and this will sound weird-- I had forgotten the most important word. 

Only six hours had passed, and whatever it was we were laughing about completely eluded me. Was it fava beans? Quacamole? Nacho? Warned you it was strange.

I went to bed.

Then, and I know because I have a digital alarm clock beside my bed, at exactly 5:48 a.m.,"rancheroo" weaseled its way into a dream starring my dad, my brothers Pat, Ed, Alex, Tom, and me. I forget what I was telling them but rancheroo got in there, it was hilarious and I woke up laughing. 

Ed would approve. In fact he had told me that he, too, over the years woke up that way sometimes. It's a gift.

I wonder if it ever happened to my dad. I hope so.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Why big city traffic is my jam

AS HARD AS IT IS TO BELIEVE...this is not a photograph 
(rendering by the author).
I want to tell you about a soul-lifting display of human achievement that I witnessed, a half hour ago. 

A moment worth celebrating. 

I'm writing this at 5:30 on a snowy January evening in my house in central west Toronto. My wife, Helena, and I just got back after an errand that, under normal conditions, would have taken 15 minutes but because of the snowstorm, lasted two hours. 

The whole drive was fun with all sorts of slipping and near misses, but the final five minutes were spectacular. Suspenseful in fact.

We were in our reliable VW Beetle -- loved the world over by brothers and sisters who view the car's presence  as permission to sock their sibling -- and we were three blocks from home.

I was turning left to a street that intersects ours, and from that corner it would be a 50-metre downhill run.

Negotiating the turn was tricky, because a public transit bus -- a casualty of the storm -- sat  stuck on the ice (See illustration.) I had to go around the bus sort of blindly to get to the street and the moment I got past the bus, I was facing an assortment of stuck trucks and cars aimed in all directions. A RushHour gameboard come to life.

One sedan was on the far right sidewalk, looking as if the driver had lost control. But clearly, she or he had tried to navigate around another stuck truck that was spinning its wheels on the icy incline.

A grey van, behind the wheelspinner, appeared immobile but was facing across the intersection. Perpendicular to the street.

Right behind him, an SUV, with its nose right up against the truck’s left rear fender. I am not exaggerating.

Behind the SUV? A Mercedes sportscar. 

I sat a bit mesmerized, wondering what was going to happen next.

One of the furthest-away cars started backing up. The Mercedes nudged forward and up the east sidewalk. I didn't think it would succeed, given the icy hill but up and around the corner it glided, somehow not sliding into anything. They sure make cars way better than they used to.  

The next move was simply acrobatic. The perpendicular van spun its rear wheels and steered the front tires to the left so the van actually moved around as if it were on an axis. It went from facing northeast to east to southeast then the driver quickly turned the front wheels hard to the right so suddenly it was pointed in the right direction, downhill. It slowly drove away, weaving its way among the other stuck cars and freeing up the rest of us. 

The street actually cleared, and I drove, without incident, home.

The scene reminded me of one of those highly complicated Polish folk dances where the participants glide around and beside and and over and through one anothers' arms and legs and you never know who's going to wind up where.

But those dancers are coached. This mid-city vehicular mazurka was improv'd. Nobody exited their vehicle or honked. Six or eight drivers just realized the fix they were in, used their noggins and calmly  solved the problem.

Remember the stuck bus I mentioned earlier? While all this other stuff was going on, it also got traction because two gentlemen in a delivery truck stopped mid-intersection, and for some reason, had a bunch of sandbags that they opened and spread under the bus's wheels. I love those guys.

My whole reason for telling you all this is that the show reminded me, once again, that 99.9 per cent of people drive okay.

The huge majority of vehicles get where they’re going with incident. They brake when they have to; they  avoid crashing into anything; they don’t cause problems. Hard to believe, I know. 

I've always loved driving, especially in the city. It's probably the only sport I'm any good at. 

Driving in the city as long as you're not in a hurry, is good for you: your reflexes; your mental health, you get to go places and see people and parts of the city you've never seen before, and city driving does wonders for the human spirit. 

Or maybe it's just me.

In any event, the extraordinary behaviour I just described happens in various contexts every day, in every country, all around the world; and you will never read about it anywhere. 

No crashes don't make the news.

Except here maybe.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Jumping to concussions

SOLES IN PURGATORY: Firewalking reads better than it flays.
You never know who you're going to be in debt to.

I'm thinking about a woman I met on an airplane, 30-some years ago. Whoever and wherever she is, that lady has no idea how much she changed my life. For the better.

Interesting, that. You never know what you're going to take to heart. Could be a comment from a stranger; or something you tripped across leafing through a National Enquirer  at Shoppers.

Conversely you never know what somebody else is going to remember about you!

Over the years, I've collected little observations and stuf that I've picked up by accident then clung to like gospel and I've also forgotten loads of stuff that I actually paid to learn.

When I was 18, I attended ground school because I thought I wanted to be a pilot. I cannot remember one single ground-school fact. (That'd be what you call foreshadowing.)

When I was way younger, my uncle Alex told me that if it's snowing big fat wet flakes, we're looking at a light snowfall. "Big snow, little snow," Alex said. Once.  

You've probably said stuff to people they still think about and you have no idea. (Lesson? Careful what you say. It might be something you're immortalized with.)

Which brings me back to the lady on the plane.

Yesterday, a fellow I work with invited me to try skydiving at his club down near Ottawa. I said no for a bunch of reasons. But the discussion reminded me of the flying lady. (P.S. The chap yesterday had no way of knowing I'd be writing this. See what I mean?.)

I now whisk you back to 1980-something B.C. (Before children.) 

A Toronto entertainment magazine called Metropolis assigned me a story titled "Offbeat Toronto Fun" or some such. The activities involved a hare-brained allegedly motivational exercise known as "firewalking," a slightly less flaky float in a sensory deprivation tank, busking on Queen Street, and finally, skydiving.

PLAYING FOR KEEPS: Need an ego-beat-down? Try busking?
I'll save the details for another blog, but they all left scars. Walking across burning coals hurt; the salt water in the sensory deprivation tank somehow learned that I had a hangnail on my left hand and attacked it like a pain-inflicting army, and should you ever want to grind up your ego like pepper and pour  it down a gutter, try standing on a downtown corner singing. Hundreds of people don't just walk by ignoring your best efforts, they look clean through you and you feel like mud.

But it was the skydive that really hurt. A lot. And not the way you're thinking. 

Actually, it hurt that way too. I landed badly and thought at first that I'd paralyzed myself. I crumpled on to the field and lay still, tied to my parachute, which was spread across the grass in what I remember as a northeasterly direction.  

My back felt like it had been lit on fire. I was afraid to look down because I thought my legs had been splintered. Above, I could still see the airplane circling. Through my head went "I've just screwed up my whole life and I have nobody to blame but myself." 

Turns out I was fine. The sudden shock went away and I was able to get up and limp to the car and drive home, unbruised. On the outside.

But inside? The details that follow I've never before made public.

The jump was preceded by about six hours of training. The instructor assured us that -- as long as we did it right -- landing safely would be no more uncomfortable than if we leapt off a six-foot fence. So we all -- about eight of us -- practised jumping off a six foot high barn rail. It wasn't scary at all. On the ground.

A few hours later, we were airborne. Going around and around above a farm field. 2,000 feet up. 

The instructor opened the airplane door. I looked down. And thought, "Jesus."

The instructor asked who wanted to go first. One of the big, hearty, Italian-looking guys stepped up.  And out. Just like that. 

Then another. And a third. Down down down they went.

By number five, I knew enough was enough. 

Stepping out that door went against every ounce of self-preservation I had. I made up my mind: I'm not going. Nobody would ever have to know. ... then up and out went the young woman --who, it's important to know -- was about half my size. And she didn't go until she looked around the inside of the plane and smiled in my direction. Away she flew. 

I followed. 

The ride down was quick and I don't remember much except thinking "I wonder what hitting the ground's going to feel like."

I landed badly. And my legs hurt for a bit. 

But having to admit for the next 30 years that I'd chickened out would have been way worse. For some reason, ignominy is a word that comes to mind.

So thanks, wherever you are. 

Oh, another thing somebody said to me I've never forgotten? I'm talking about my late brother Tom here, and what Tom said was something like: "I could never understand why a sane person would voluntarily step out of a fully functioning airplane in mid flight." 

Smart man, Tom.