Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Marriage Rehearsal

In early December, a University of Metropolitan Toronto (nee Ryerson) journalism student pointed me toward a website that -- surprise surprise--held a lot of material published before the whole world went online.  

One of my favourite finds: This story I wrote for Chatelaine, about Kiran Pal and Geoff Pross, who travelled the world and got married in eight different cultural traditions. 


The taxi ride between my house and Lester B. Pearson International Airport is about 15 minutes on a good day and on this particular Friday morning, traffic was light and the sky clear. So, for a quarter of an hour - and because I asked - I was treated to the story of a marriage as lived by one chatty Ethiopian cabbie.


He had arrived in Canada a dozen years ago. Here, he met and fell in love with a woman, but his parents wanted him to follow his two older brothers and have a traditional arranged marriage. He ignored them, listened to his heart and married for love. Now, he and his wife have one little boy who needs extra help at school and Dad drives a cab about 60 hours a week to make ends meet. Life, he said as I was exiting his taxi, is hard. "You know," he said, "after all these years, I realize something. My father was right. I should have gone for the arranged marriage." It seems that no matter where you go, marriage is complicated.


 If I'd told the driver why I was catching a plane, he probably would have wanted to join me. I was flying to Whistler, B.C., to meet Kiran Pal and Geoff Pross, two self-styled marriage experts. Their claim to fame: Kiran, 30, and Geoff, 31, had been married eight times in traditional ceremonies around the world. Eight times. To each other.


By the time you read this, they will have had a ninth wedding, scheduled for mid-July, in British Columbia Kiran and Geoff had been a couple for eight years since graduating from university. Then, in the fall of 2000, they decided to get married - but not until they thoroughly researched the roots of the institution. In the hope of learning as much about weddings - and each other - as they could, they took all their savings, left their Vancouver home and and pursued this eccentric year-long project.


The pair moved to eight different countries - sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few months - made friends and shared their plans with the locals. They would ask about traditional wedding ceremonies, find someone to perform the rituals and then hire people to throw the parties. The price tag on this elaborate 12-month wedding? "The price of a new SUV," Geoff told me. "A really fancy SUV," Kiran added.


Their first ceremony was an Aboriginal affair in South Australia. There, they became honorary members of a tribe, adopted honorary godparents and sat around a fire while an elder wielded a flaming stick and told the newlyweds about their obligations.


The sixth wedding was a Celtic celebration in County Leitrim, Ireland. For that one, Kiran and Geoff got bound to each other at the wrist. It's called a handfasting, and the couple is supposed to consummate the marriage tied up. (Each ceremony holds its unique appeal.)


At the Thai marriage, a pair of elders - spry ones, I might suppose - did the traditional job of warming up the marriage bed before the newlyweds hopped into it. (If experience is any teacher - I've got 16 years of matrimony under my belt - I bet the older married folks just read a bit, gave each other a peck on the cheek and nodded off.)


Kiran and Geoff exchanged vows in a Shinto ceremony in Japan, watched a pig get slaughtered in Borneo and drank litre after litre of some horrid drink called Kill Me Quick in Africa. I went to meet them not so much to hear details of their trips (I can wait until the book that they're writing comes out) but because I hoped they might answer a couple of simple questions.


First, what is up with marriage? Statistics show that most North American couples live together before they tie the knot, and even though some figures indicate a 42 per cent divorce rate in this country, we never seem to give up. The wedding business is hotter than ever.  Is it like this in the rest of the world, too? I once heard that the phrase "Till death do us part" was invented when a person's lifespan   averaged 34 years.


My question: are all cultures into this long-term business or are people who shill for the deathdo-us-part thing out of their minds? Some days, you have to wonder.


The second question I had was about wedding ceremonies themselves. Are they worth it? Anybody who's been involved in planning a wedding knows how stressful it can be, that you sometimes have to tread the steps from engagement announcement to marriage vows as gingerly as if they were littered with landmines.


One group of relatives wants a big to-do, the other kind of hopes the couple elopes. The groom would like to invite his university pals, but the bride knows they're nothing but a bunch of hard-drinking all-night-partying boors. I remember more about planning my wedding than I do about planning my career. I recall debating what kind of cutlery we would use at our reception but I don't ever remember talking about whether we'd raise the kids Catholic.


 It strikes me as pretty weird. When you think about it, weddings are but one small part of marriage. Just like giving birth is one of the tiniest parts of raising a child. So, there's really no point knotting ourselves up over the details, right? Wrong. There must be something to this long-term marriage thing because everybody's into it. Kiran and Geoff discovered people everywhere have similar attitudes toward getting hitched.


For example, here's what they were told when they got married in Australia: "With the Adnyamathanha people, if you break up you have to come back to where the marriage took place, find the burning sticks and throw them in opposite directions. And then you're not to see each other ever again and you cannot enter the community as a couple."


Only the Celtic handfasting ceremony offered any chance of dissolution. The others were for life. And that answered my first question.


As for No. 2, I realized, after meeting Kiran and Geoff, that the wedding and everything that leads up to it is a preview - or a trailer as it's known in the movie biz - for the epic thriller called Married Life.


"The funny thing is," Kiran says, "we went on this journey because we wanted to get away from people fussing over little things, like brides freaking out when their bouquets don't arrive on time. But what we found were people interfering and fussing wherever we went."


And let's face it: the way you handle the interfering and fussing prepares you for life together. "They say travelling is living life in a hurry," says Geoff. "And we had all these experiences in a short period of time - and we had our differences. Kiran would want to do it one way, I'd want to do it another. We had to shelve our differences, so we learned how to get past hurdles together."


Case in point: what's the most important word in the married person's lexicon? Compromise. A couple who gives in to each other once in a while stays together. And what teaches this better than hosting a wedding where you have to entertain 150 guests who include, for example, the bride's estranged stepfather, the groom's salacious brother-inlaw and a few people both families deny even knowing?


If a couple doesn't compromise when it comes time to getting married, they're doomed. Did Kiran and Geoff compromise? You're darn right they did.


At their very first wedding, among the Australian Adnyamathanha, they had to eat kangaroo meat. Kiran and Geoff are both vegetarians. "Yeah, we agreed," says Kiran. "But at least it hadn't been domesticated." A pretty tiny compromise, you might think. But eating things you hadn't planned on - especially your words - is a huge part of staying married.


What about the generations-old marriage-saver called living in denial? Of course, marriage is based on love, acceptance, trust and forbearance, but sometimes indifference and ignoring things that just don't make sense go a long way to getting you through the day. Weddings are perfect practice for this.


Everywhere. When Kiran and Geoff were getting married in the Iban tradition in Borneo, they had to pick little candies off a banana tree. Only after they did this were they informed that the bananas symbolize shrunken enemy heads. "An Iban warrior," Geoff says, "had to take at least one head before being allowed to marry."


We all adhere to traditions we ignore the meaning of. According to statistics, 96 per cent of Canadian brides get married in a virginal white or ivory gown. As if.


Weddings also groom you for the little surprises that life never stops springing on you. Back in Borneo, Kiran and Geoff were dressed up - he in a loin-cloth and she in a beaded shimmering dress - and they put on a feast for more than 100 people. And just like at my wedding, one trusted guest was responsible for videotaping the affair. At my wedding, my brother Alex was in charge of the camera and it became clear that he enjoyed our Polish dance band because during our ensemble's version of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," the camera starts polka-ing.


That scene adds a grace note to the cherished video record of our special day. "In Borneo," Geoff says, "the camera guy should have been zooming in on Kiran's sparkling new headdress - a silver tinkling thing with beads on it - and then you hear the squealing of the pig being slaughtered. So, guess what got videotaped? You guessed it - the pig intestines." In life, as in wedding ceremonies, sometimes you get the tiara and sometimes you get the intestines.


Weddings also make a couple say "I do" several times. That can't be a bad thing. Kiran maintains that their yearlong journey from wedding to wedding forced them to reiterate and demonstrate their love for each other on innumerable occasions. At least eight times they professed their undying devotion. "There's never too much reassuring the other person how much you love them," she says.


Their various weddings shared other characteristics. In Australia, the couple not only marries each other; in the Aboriginal tradition, once they marry into another family, they are responsible for the members of that other family. I, as well as anyone who's had a brother-in-law move in with them "until he gets a place," will agree that there isn't one society on the planet where you don't marry all the members of a family. It goes on. During the Iban ceremony in Borneo, Geoff had to do a warrior dance.


He recalls it this way: "I did my best, and the shrieks of laughter started up immediately." Like I said, I've been married 16 years. I have three children. I know from getting laughed at.


Finally, every ceremony that Kiran and Geoff found themselves involved in invoked unseen forces. Wherever they went, weddings were spiritual events. Kiran again: "We had to believe we were spiritually connected to the land in the Aboriginal ceremony. In the Shinto ceremony, God was called to witness the event. It was like that wherever we went."


I recently read that almost 75 per cent of Canadians who have traditional weddings include religion as part of the ceremony. And if nothing else preps you for life,  that does. Because God knows, sometimes it's pure faith that gets married people through their daily lives.


Still, with all of Kiran and Geoff's experiences and rituals, I thought there was something missing. So, I'd like to add one detail - maybe a moment of silence or a boring rest period during which nothing happens - to every wedding reception, wherever it takes place. Because you might as well rehearse for marriage's best part, too.

En route to Whistler, I spent a night in an inexpensive hotel near the airport. This place had walls so thin I could hear exactly what was going on in the next room. I'm not exaggerating. My neighbours were named John and, from what I could gather through the wall, Emmy.


I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but no sooner had I flopped down on my bed than I heard laughter coming through the flowery wall-paper. And I'm not talking faint giggles, either. I could make out each tee and every hee as well as everything in-between. Their mattress squeaked. While I don't know for certain that John and Emmy were a married couple, it sure sounded like it.


Because from what I could tell, Emmy was in bed reading the paper and eating chips and John was in bed beside her watching the game. He was also having a few beers.


Which, apparently, he didn't do very often, because Emmy sweetly chided him. It was OK, though, because "This," she reasured him, "is a special occasion." Then after a half-hour or so, I heard the newspaper rustle. She said, "I'm going to sleep. G'nite, dear. Don't forget to turn out the light." "G'nite," said John. Then there was silence, except for the sounds of two people getting comfy enough to nod off in peace.


Ask any longtime married person, including my Ethiopian taxi driver - the one who works 60 hours a week and really needs a break. I'm sure he'd agree with me. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Going cold turkey

Kerrene Tilson, Rick McCutcheon, Sue Smith,
me, Patsy Holder

Forty one years ago, lunchtime at the Anchor Inn in Little Current, Ont., found me sitting adjacent to one Sue Smith, who had just moved to town to work at the Manitoulin Expositor newspaper for a spell. (That's how we editors measure time. Spells. An editor's blood type? O. I wrote both of those great editor jokes myself.) 

Here's Sue ordering a sandwich: "Chicken, with mayo, on white."

There's Peter, thinking: "That is the safest sandwich I ever heard of. Completely neutral. Anybody could like that sandwich." Vegetarians might take issue with the chicken part, but I didn't know any back then. Vegetarians, that is. 

Every time I eat a turkey or chicken sandwich, I think of me at the Anchor. 

Why am I going on about this now? Because it's the day after Christmas and I had leftover turkey for breakfast. When I eat cold turkey or chicken there's nothing I can do about time travelling back to the Anchor.

It's not just turkey sandwiches, either.

AN OLD FRIEND: Ron Temchuk
I could be walking through the downtown Dundas West subway station after a Jays game but then spot an advertisement for a Teen Burger and wham! I'm in the back seat of a car munching on a Teen Burger, purchased by my buddy Trevor MacIntyre's dad. That memory is so strong and so positive that just thinking it makes me feel as carefree and relaxed as an 11-year-old boy going for burgers with his pal in his pal's dad's car.

Coffee in styrofoam cups? Welcome to Pete's Lunch, a block south of the garage where my dad worked and where we hung out as kids. 

Sometimes the garage guys sent us on coffee runs to Pete's, which was operated by an always friendly Chinese man whose real name probably wasn't anywhere close to Pete, and he let us kids play the pinball machine. Pete also had a way of mincing chopped onion into his burger meat, infusing them with a taste that I've tried in vain to replicate since. 

And that's what I think of every time I see coffee in a styrofoam cup.

Writing of of the dozens of reasons I like going into our office so much--even though I don't have to these days--is because of my lifelong (so far, anyway) friend Ron Temchuk.

Thing is, at our office, we get free coffee. It's a perk. Ha-ha. 

And one of the flavours this free coffee comes in is cappuccino. 

(as in Beatanik) lives a few houses east.

I only have to gaze at the froth to magically start shooting pool, sipping cappuccino and debating big-picture topics like what is art and whether world peace is attainable with Ron at an Italian joint up Bronson Avenue near the house he and I shared with, at various times, Nigel Simms, Jan DePater, Rick Mayoh, Boris Hrybinsky and Stuart Ziegler (among others) when a bunch of us were going to Carleton University.

It's the tangible memory of these visits with Ron that I like about cappuccino, way more than the taste of the stuff. 

This is fun. 

Here in Toronto, there's an onramp that takes you from the eastbound Danforth Avenue to the Northbound Don Valley Parkway; a half-a-kilometre swooping downhill curve to the right, and every single time I head down I -- for some reason -- think about my brother in law Al MacNevin and his brother Dave. Included in that memory is an early '70s P1800 Volvo sportscar, cornering so rapidly the car was up on two left wheels. I don't know if anybody actually did that, or said it sounded like a good idea, or if it's all something I imagined.

All I know for sure is the imagery is so strong it makes driving down the ramp way more fun. The City of Toronto should rename that stretch of street the MacNevin Ramp. 

As I type at this moment, on the wall over my right shoulder hangs a pair of oil paintings that we purchased 20 years ago from an artist neighbour, Beata Hasziuk.

Shortly after we got the art, I was visiting my doctor, Mark Huryn, in his downtown Toronto office and I noticed a Beata painting on his wall, too. Mark's a great doctor. I once asked him if I might have adhd because I'm so impulsive and have a hard time meeting deadlines. His response? "You're married, right? You got a house, correct?  You're working? No big debts? You're probably fine." 

We allow cookies.
Neither Mark nor Beata have the foggiest idea how frequently I think about them, just because I'm sitting under the paintings. 

Beata's name also reminds me of beatitudes, so here's a new one: Blessed are the artists for they shall remind people of stuff forever. 

We have a ceramic Christmas cookie jar that every time I look at brings me to my aunt Kaye's kitchen. Kaye, my mom's younger sister, lived up the street from us and loved me like crazy and in her kitchen on a shelf, for as many years as I can count, she had ceramic cookie jar though I think Kaye's was a pig. 

I remember thinking "That thing is always on the very same shelf, every time we visit. I wonder why she doesn't take it down and play with it. I sure would." 

So now, whenever I look at our ceramic soldier, I am reminded that we should all have as much fun as we can, right now, because you never know, you might just wind up remembering this exact moment forever.

Look. You are definitely going to create memories. Might as well make them happy ones.



Saturday, December 16, 2023

By the time I get to Reno

Helena's first contact with
the kitchen renovators. (Photo 
taken in a kitchen that isn't ours.)
We just had our kitchen renovated. 

I'm sort of embarrassed at how ecstatic I am about the fact.

Had you asked me a year ago, "Would a fixed-up kitchen make you happy, Peter?" I'd be like, "Of course not. It's just a room."


Entering our bright shiny kitchen is a wholly unanticipated experience. I'm reminded of the  time I first stepped into the Sistine Chapel in Rome. I recall the moment as vividly as if it happened 15 minutes ago. My first thought: "Mom. You have to see this."

I won't describe our new kitchen in detail because I'm really bad at that kind of writing. Instead, I'll tell you how fun and satisfying the renovation was, from start to now. 

What follows are 5 reasons the kitchen upgrade here at Pete's B&G was memorable and uplifting. 

If you think I'm being sarcastic, we've never met.

  1. Azerbaijan

    Emil floored us.
    Yes. The country. This being the first reason took me by surprise, too.

    Emil, the subcontractor who installed our new vinyl floor that I can now glide across in my socks, immigrated from Azerbaijan a few years ago. I've only met one other Azerbaijanian and blogged about her, too. 

    Back in Azerbaijan, Emil was a history teacher and took part in a few Mesopotamian archeological digs. "They're not," he said, "as exciting as Indiana Jones. You're always brushing and wiping little pieces."

    When the time came time to move our fridge (which hadn't been budged since we moved in), I warned Emil, "This might be like one of those digs. Don't be surprised at what you find."

    Then, when he did pull the appliance forward, we discovered a long-abandoned plastic serving spoon. I was like, "Look! They used tools!"

    Emil, clearly a gentlemanly scholar, laughed at my cleverness.

    A few days later I realized I'd missed a chance to channel my late brother Ed with, "That was no ladle that was my knife."

    wanted to know more
    about Stompin' Tom!
    Stompin' Tom

    "Whose signature," Kieran MacDonald asked me the first day of the renovations, "is on your guitar?"

    Kieran--the MacDonald in MacDonald Contracting, the company we hired for the job--entered our living room to discuss next steps but noticed my six string, which has the late singer's autograph a few inches to the right of the pickguard.

    Kieran, who was born in Saskatchewan, has Prince Edward Island-born parents (like Stompin' Tom) and seemed eager to hear about how my guitar got Connors' name magic-marker'd on it.

    Curious people are always interesting.

    Plus he gave me a chance to brag about my guitar. Then and now.

  3. The Kitchen Trio

    DRAIN: Eagles' fan
    Whether you're talking musketeers, blind mice or magi, many of the greatest stories of all time involve three lead characters. (That "kitchen trio" headline was a failed attempt at a Kingston Trio pun.)

    While I'm not saying the appearance or personalities of home contractors is important, when the job is done on time and on budget like ours was--if the heavy lifting's done by charismatic, photogenic and entertaining chaps like Kieran, Constantin and Zaid--that's a huge bonus.

    To whit: While he was adjusting pipes under the sparkling new sink, Constantin let it slip that his conception coincided with his parents' attendance at a '90s Eagles concert. Constantin, is--surprise surprise--a huge Eagles fan.

    (Constantin's revelation sparked me to look up the chart-topper nine months before I arrived on the planet. Singin' The Blues. Go figure.)

    All three of the guys were great conversationalists. Or, as my wife Helena put it, "They listened to your stories and laughed at your jokes, Peter." 

  4. Even this one

    "It's for good reason that the divorce capital of the U.S. is Reno."

    That hilarious play on words is one of those jokes that works way better written than told, because the city of  Reno is pronounced with a long e, unlike the e in renovation. 

    Also, most people under 60  likely don't know "going to Reno" was shorthand for a quickie divorce. Which means that before I could share my joke with  Kieran, Zaid and Constantin, I had to put it into historical context. More work for me,  I know. Still, they laughed.

    When I think about it, I provided those young professionals with so many important history lessons while they were hammering, painting, measuring, drywalling and cleaning up, I'm surprised the job went so seamlessly.

    Baked here at Pete's Blog&Grille
    Breakfast in bed

    My terrific reno joke and the major kitchen makeover notwithstanding, Helena and I remain married. One of us, as a matter of fact,  just had breakfast in bed prepared by the other of us in our glitzy new kitchen.

    If I knew how give to MacDonald Contracting a five-star rating on Yelp I'd do so.

    Rather, I'll  sit here at our kitchen table, admire the shiny new room, do a crossword and be glad that we rescued that little old ladle from behind the fridge. 

Friday, December 8, 2023

All I'm saying is give Pete a chance

CO-SIGNS: Get it? Mary's on left, mine on right.

This just in!

My sister Mary has created and hung a peace sign out front of her house. It's a beaut and it's in response to a challenge issued by our hippiest sister Charlene to spread the word.

I made one, too, though now that my excellent friend the writer, comic and smartass John MacMillan suggested it resembled a Mercedes crest, I'll never see it the same again.

John Schmon.

I'm very proud of this effort at making the planet a more peaceful place.

Here's the funny part.

SISTER ACT: Charlene's & Bertholde's

Mary hung her peace sign on the front of her house and she lives in the same one we all grew up in.

A storey-and-a-half home my parents moved into sometime in the 1950s, I think.

1950 is to now what 1900 was to 1973.

I find those ratios really intriguing. Here's why: I first became aware of peace signs and what they stood for in the mid 1960s. So let's agree that's about the time we all started teaching the world that they should embrace peace and forget about war and sing in perfect harmony and like that.

SISTER'N BROTHER ACT: Alex's on left, Norma's on right

At the same time, I wondered why people my dad's age didn't "just get over" the second world war. It was so long ago.

Turns out that in the mid-60s, the second world war was just about as far in the rear view mirror as is the street party we threw for Y2K and I think we might still have some empties, if not guests, in the basement left over from the party. Twenty three years.

And there's me thinking the adults should have gotten over the war.

Now I think the opposite. They got over it way better than I would have. Way better. Lord I was naive.

Where was I?

Oh right.

you want to fight my seester?

Despite housing a dozen Carters, innumerable strangers and overnight guests, dogs, cats, guinea pigs and at one point a live chicken leashed to our backyard clothes line; and despite parties--so many parties with endless loud music and drinking and singing; and funerals and weddings and more parties; our house was a peaceful place.

I cannot remember my parents arguing, there was absolutely zero what other people called "horseplay," and I can only recall one real fight taking place.

I was nine or 10. My older-by- six-years sister Norma had said something about my dad that I disapproved of. To teach her a lesson, I climbed up onto one of the upstairs bed so I could reach up and land a left hook on her chin,

"And a righteous punch it was too," Chatelaine reported Norma saying years later, in an account of the battle.

The worst part?

The only pain felt by any of the combatants was the sheer humiliation suffered to this day by yours truly because what Norma did when I slugged her was laugh.

I hurts to type the words.

That's the only fight I ever remember happening in our house.

Small wonder we're a bunch of pacifists.


(No sisters were harmed in the production of this story)