I first encountered a Norton Anthology in first year University. It was the poetry edition, rather than the English Literature version but I think both were edited by M.H. Abrams. Mr. Abrams died this week at the ripe old age of 102. This makes him a shining example of ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, as anyone who tangled with the Norton Anthology in any literary incarnation will attest. Or actually that is only true in retrospect: we did think it would kill us at the time but we certainly did not think a lack of morbidity would make us stronger – it would only mean we would have no excuse not to write the final exam. Mr. Abrams, I belatedly apologize profusely for my lack of faith in your life’s work.
The survey course is a mainstay of first year university English studies. My course was called Poem, Play and Story, and Norton was the representative of the first instance. It was taught by Professor Blake, a card carrying scion of England himself and therefore (in his own opinion) extremely well suited to help us dive into the sacred waters of true ‘literature’. Little did we know they were shark infested, with the tweedy Professor Blake gleefully strewing bloody chum into the abyss in front of us.
As you probably know, females are rather over represented in the average post-secondary English class. But this was especially true at the University of Waterloo where the male to female ratio was 13 to 1 and no self-preserving engineering student was going to risk their first year GPA by selecting English as his bird course. So there we were – a class full of fresh faced coeds at the mercy of the Norton Anthology and Professor Blake, with a particular predilection for works that involved the phrases ‘globed fruit’, ‘sultry glances’ and ‘walking in beauty’.
But that was not the problem. The problem is that English teachers everywhere want you to figure out what a poem really means. And of course if you want to get the mark you think you deserve, it has to mean the exact same thing that has already been decided by the academics that have studied it as their life’s work but didn’t actually write the poem or even ever meet the person who did. Entering Professor Blake’s classroom during the poetry phase was like competing in the Hunger Games: ultimately no one was going to dodge the random deadly barbs of his distain at our lack of congruence with his poetic interpretation. Our biggest mistake, though, was thinking running the poetry gauntlet was the worst of it, while in reality Dickens and Daniel Defoe still loomed in our future.
I still own my frayed 40 year-old copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but not only for the same reason I still have my copy of Bleak House. And I can still recite My Mistress’ Eyes and My Last Duchess to anyone who is too polite to find the nearest exit. But now indeed my heart is ‘too soon made glad’ by reading anything that would have met Mr. Abrams’ high standards of exemplary prose.
A poem should not mean, but be. (Archibald McLeish)
I have not yet seen a crocus nor a rosebud or even a robin on the wing, but it appears that spring is here. Spring is a season that struggles with its identity. Unlike fall, which flaunts its brand of changing leaves and crisp nights, spring always has one leg on the dock and the other on the boat (or more accurately, one leg on the dock and the other on the receding ice flow), not sure where to land. And we all know how well that works out. Case in point: yesterday was well above zero. Today is a cold weather alert. On the sunny side of the street melt water streams into the drains. On the north side, glaciers jealously protect their shrinking real estate. Once you think the parka and snow boots can safely be retired, the inevitable March blizzard laughs in your general direction.
My particular coping mechanism for the fickleness of spring is expiry dates. For example, I just bought some eggs with a best before date of April 25. Surely that’s proof that April will come and even go. If you really want to live vicariously through the longevity of your food, buy bacon. I am pretty sure I saw some packages that claim to be hale and hearty well into May.
Another strategy I use is to start compiling the cottage provisions for opening weekend. Nothing says ‘the ice has to go out sooner or later’ more than a few canvas bags packed with mayonnaise, mustard, olive oil, and cans of tuna, waiting by the back door. Every time I trip over them, after I am finished swearing, I am reminded of the hope that spring will get its act together some time this year.
Of course spring has good reason to be so reluctant to establish its full presence. Because once it is here – that day or two – it is immediately gone. The spring green of new leaves lasts merely a nanosecond. The spring flowers struggle to break through the hard mud and bloom for minutes before the squirrels bite their heads off or the sudden blast of a 20 degree day wilts their petals.
As I was walking home from yoga the other night I saw the first star emerge from the twilight. Okay, not really a star, more likely Venus, but I digress. I was stopped at the light, waiting to cross the street. “Star light, star bright.” I said to myself. And I guess I said it out loud because the woman on the sidewalk next to me gave me a dirty look. I know you aren’t supposed to talk to strangers but I couldn’t help but repeat the rhyme “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight”, which only increased the depth of her scowl. “I can’t see it”, she said. “Maybe you are in the way”.
But who am I to judge a lack of ability to enjoy a simple pleasure of witnessing the sky reveal itself one star at a time (with apologies to the Tragically Hip)? Perhaps that’s the story of her life. Others are always in the way of something. And spring is always, always, always in the way of summer.
This year marks 40 years since International Women’s Year and 30 years since the end of the momentous United Nations ‘Decade For Women’. Luckily, these events were all it took to bring those of us with two X chromosomes on par with those fortunate enough to have a ‘Y’ in the mix. Oh. Wait. Not so much.
According to results of study published in the New York Times last weekend, fewer large U.S. companies are run by women than by men named John. Further, of the 1,500 companies included in the Standard and Poor’s index, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James for every woman sitting behind (as opposed to outside) the chief executive office door.
Certainly one thing that jumps out here is the unoriginal naming convention for boys. Over the past 100 years the top five names for boys have been James, John, Robert, Michael and William. (I’m guessing Michaels tend to be slackers since they don’t show up as much on the CEO list.) People take much more creative license when naming girls, with flagrant disregard for how that name might look when appended with ‘Vice President of Finance’ (parents of LaToya, Krystal, and Tifanni I’m talking to you.) Ironically, I think North West will make out quite well in that department since everyone will think she is a man (and she may well need this ‘leg up’ because of course by that time Kim and Kanye will be yesterday’s news both for the gossip rags and their respective revenue streams.)
But of course we know it’s conformity that is the real ticket. Those Jims, Bobs and Bills are most comfortable with their own kind. One of the things aspiring female executives are advised to do is learn to play golf. That’s because the guys get a lot of ‘work’ done on the golf course. The theory is that if you can join the game you can compete in it. This of course is not true. The guys will humor you on the links but the real conversations will happen in the men’s room on the 19th hole. Remember the kerfuffle when Ginni Rometty became CEO of IBM and much angst ensued at the Augusta National Golf Club about whether or not they would be forced to admit her as a member? And this was in 2012. And it took them until last year to acquiesce.
Back when I was only just learning the ways of the business world, a friend and I stopped for a bathroom break on our way to class. The women’s bathroom being as it always is (yet another prevailing injustice), while we waited in line for the next available stall two older women behind us remarked on our text books, marveling that things had progressed so much that girls like ourselves could be studying corporate finance.
Fast forward to a mere five years ago, when a male subordinate told me not to worry my pretty head about the progress of an important project. There are no words.
Three cities. Eight cab rides. Eight cab drivers that relied solely and completely on their GPS to find my destination. In five out of the eight cases, if I had not come prepared with a printed Mapquest map and detailed directions, I would still be circling the Atlanta suburbs or be hopelessly lost in downtown Bellevue. In three of the eight cases my destination was the airport. The airport, people! You know, the place where all the planes take off and land every day. The place that, if you look at the road signs instead of the computer on your dashboard, is clearly and helpfully designated by the image of a plane on the highway sign. The place that, one would think, is surely the most common destination for any cab driver.
On the plus side, using the GPS makes cab drivers more money, because even if it isn’t automatically set to default to the longest route, there will be ample re-routing along the way due to dead-ends, road closures (that flashing neon sign must just be a mistake) and one-way streets going the wrong way. The lack of direction issue unfortunately extends far beyond the confines of the cab to the dispatchers. When I called to inquire where I should be waiting for an airport pickup, given the fact that a three foot high concrete barrier separated my location from the road, there was a black hole of silence.
I am sure that map reading is the next thing on the endangered skill list (right in front of telling time on an analog watch and immediately behind memorizing telephone numbers). This is all fine and dandy while we have electronic devices to tell us which direction is north or south (except of course when they literally do not know which end is up), but what about in the zombie apocalypse? Which road goes out of town? Bribes being accepted (hard currency only) via Kickstarter if you want a spot on my team.
Apparently the posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, is much larger in London cab drivers than for the rest of the population. That’s because before they can put their shingle out on the road they spend on average four years memorizing every nook, cranny and obscure landmark of London in addition to all the streets, roads and avenues it contains. But even London cabbies, long a respected profession, are under siege by lesser services, like ‘mini cabs’ that are exempt from the rigorous geographical testing process. And Uber has also joined the fray. Hang on to your hippocampus, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The problem with electronic devices is of course they are only as good as the human(s) who programmed and populated them. Ever since 1950 when Mr. Turing asked whether or not machines could think we’ve been trying to make it so or at least trying to prove it so. Next thing you know we’ll start believing everything we read on the internet. Oh. Right. Never mind.
It was a simpler time back in the early 1970s. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe it was just a different time. And in many ways it couldn’t have been a more different time than today. At least by then we were ‘allowed’ to wear pants to school, the boys having long moved on to wearing jeans 24/7 without the bat of an eye from the principal. Girls, of course, had to pass through several more arbitrary hoops on the way to denim rights before finally earning that honour. Let me correct my earlier statement. Maybe it wasn’t that different a time.
Being able to wear pants did offer some small respite on the walk back and forth to school in the dead of winter, but even so, by the time we got to Birch Street any vestige of insulation in boots, mitts or coats was pretty much useless, so being invited in for tea at the Dixon’s was a welcome oasis. There was always a pot of tea waiting on the back of the stove, as tannic and viscous as crude oil.
If Mrs. Dixon wasn’t on duty at the hospital, she was sitting at the kitchen table, busy with the trifecta of simultaneously smoking, knitting and soaking her bunions in a hot water foot bath. The kitchen was the living room, family room, dining room, homework room, and after school hangout. With six kids, the room that might have been the dining room was much too valuable real estate to be relegated to eating. And the living room was, of course, for company.
Mrs. Dixon was remarkably calm for someone with six kids and, at any given moment, about four or five dogs. Because it wasn’t enough to work the kinds of shifts required to shepherd other people’s children into the world, put three square meals on the table every day, and wrestle with mounds of laundry, she also bred Yorkshire terriers. And by the way, she barely topped five feet tall and if the scale nudged as far as 100 pounds that must have been on a day when she had actually stopped to have a bite to eat of toast along with her tea.
I don’t remember what was up with the dancing (or lack there of). But I definitely recall that Mrs. Dixon Did. Not. Dance. She couldn’t have objected to the principle of dancing because I don’t think the Pope had a problem with it. Perhaps dancing was such a frivolous thing that she couldn’t comprehend anyone possibly having time for it. And you can certainly understand why she didn’t.
Mrs. Dixon died this week and with her passing and others of her generation goes the last remaining shards of memory of when nurses wore pressed white dresses and proper nurse’s caps. When people made do or did without. And when women made everything in life seem so easy: Like a duck gliding serenely on the surface of the water, those feet were moving madly to keep everything afloat. If only we had known.
I have found my new career: reviewing cat toys. I think it is a very underserved market. Surely I am not the only person who has bought perfectly good toys that languish in the toy basket because they have been found wanting. I’m not sure I will be able to discover the reasons behind why a toy falls out of favour after being played with for days and days, or maybe even cats have a maximum threshold for cat spit, but I will leave that off my job description. My mission will be to tell people how to spot a good cat toy at 20 paces.
I want to be the guy who invented the Cat Dancer. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have a cat (because if you have a cat, you will have gone through about 10 Cat Dancers so far), a Cat Dancer is a piece of wire with rolled up cardboard attached to the end. According to the fine folks at Cat Dancer Products Inc., “All of our handheld toys are manufactured in our factory in Neenah, Wisconsin. Our toys have been independently tested and certified safe. They have passed all the tests necessary for children’s toys in both the US and the EU.”
Now the fact that apparently reputable cat toys need to pass safety standards is news to me. I don’t think the powers that oversee this requirement are aware that cats do not make it a habit to bother with safety. Or at least my cats don’t. Otherwise they wouldn’t be busy jumping into random cars just because a door is open or climbing trees or relaxing on railings that are a good 40 feet off the ground. But at least I can rest assured that no peril will come to them from toys that have a cat safety seal of approval. But I digress.
The Cat Dancer retails for about $4. I would place the material costs at about one cent, and if we factor in the hourly wage of factory worker who crafts it, plus packaging and shipping, I still don’t think we can get much north of seventy-five cents in cost of goods sold. It is pretty much a license to print money because no cat can resist a Cat Dancer and it has built in obsolescence because both cat slobber and cat claws are kryptonite to cardboard. I’m guessing the grand poobah at Cat Dancer Inc has the fanciest house in all of greater metropolitan Neenah (which apparently graces the shores of Lake Winnebago and has exactly 25,501 people).
So this takes care of recommendation number one. Number two, no one ever went wrong with catnip. Just make sure you buy your catnip toys in shapes and colours that amuse you or go with your decor because they will be constantly under foot. Even though they seem to be more irresistible than the DayGlo green ones, do not buy the brown ones that look like cigars because after they have been mauled for a few days they start to look like something that ought not be lying underneath the coffee table. You’re welcome.
Next week, we’ll discuss the Turbo Scratcher. Scratching area and toy all in one? And they said it couldn’t be done…
Not that I’m complaining about moving. No, these are not complaints, but merely observations of annoyances, the type that could crop up at any time, not just when disrupting your life voluntarily. But they are annoyances none the less, and what better thing to do about an annoyance or two than to share them with others.
1. I got slipcovers for some of the furniture when I moved. This was a good thing because not only did it grant a new lease on life to a perfectly good couch and chair, it cost much less than reupholstering. The bad news is it still cost quite a bit. The other bad news is the cats, who are dealing with an involuntary disruption of the universe, have decided to calm their nerves by using the newly slip-covered expanses to sharpen their claws.
2. To deal with problem #1, I bought a brand new not-entirely-hideous-but-not-exactly-something-you-would-like-to-see-in-the-middle-of-your-livingroom scratching post. The law of the scratching post is that the amount of use it will get is exactly inverse to the amount of money it cost multiplied by the amount of damage the cats have already caused to innocent furniture. Also, whoever came up with the brilliant idea that carpet is a good surface for a scratching post forgot to notice that cats are not able to distinguish between carpet you want them to scratch and carpet you don’t.
3. I have two or three yoga classes left on my pass for the yoga studio in my old neighbourhood. To use up these classes means walking 10 minutes to the subway, taking the subway four stops, changing trains and travelling another three stops. Time invested: 35 minutes each way, plus the hour and a half spent doing yoga. Of course if I lived in the burbs I would have to drive my car to a yoga studio in a strip mall, set between a pool hall and a Walmart, and not exactly an ambience suitable for stilling one’s mind. So forget I mentioned this problem. Namaste.
4. I now have to drive to the grocery store. This means I have to park at the grocery store. In a grocery store parking lot. Grocery store parking lots were all designed by someone with less than a full grasp of how big a car is. It is impossible to get in and out of a parking spot without putting the side mirrors of your and everyone’s cars in mortal peril. It is also impossible to navigate between the rows of cars to get in or out of the lot when someone is waiting to snag an elusive spot (because the person who designs grocery store parking lots also has no idea how many people need to buy groceries in any given week, which would typically be all of us). On the plus side, when you avoid going to the grocery store you save a lot on groceries.
5. I have walls. Lots of walls. Lots of newly painted walls that look very, very blank. I have art. Lots of art. Lots of art that looked good in various places in previous dwellings. The problem is that when you have too much of something it is doubly hard to figure out where to put it. Maybe the answer is rotating exhibits. Maybe January through March is abstract expressionism and spring is the time to break out the post modernists. Maybe I should hire a curator. Maybe this is too trivial to even qualify as a first world problem.
In the grand tradition of looking forward into what the new year will bring, here are my predictions for 2015.
1. There will be no decisions about how to fix the transit situation in Toronto. Council will decide to swap subways for RTs, then decide to un-decide and perhaps go with horse drawn carriages (much more environmentally friendly). Then they will decide to table the decision for the next iteration of council in 2019.
2. There will be some new food trends. Barbeque and tacos are so 2014. This year we will embrace the retro irony of jellied salads (made from gelatin from rendered animal bones, therefore decidedly not vegan) and perhaps also iceberg lettuce will get a (well deserved) new lease on life.
3. Justin Bieber will get arrested until he can’t get arrested and we forget he ever existed.
4. We will complain about the summer. It will either be too hot, not hot enough, too dry, or too rainy. It will definitely be too short.
5. Gym membership will surge in January. By March there will no longer be long lineups for the elliptical machines and the spinning class will once again have spare bikes (spinning is so 2005, by the way).
6. The spare heir will be adorable and will not wear George’s hand-me-downs even if he is not a she. Although those puffed sleeved Peter Pan collared shirts would be appropriate for any gender. Just sayin’
7. Someone will win the lottery. It will not be me. I think you need to buy a ticket first.
8. I might find the corkscrew that went missing when we moved. And if not, I will continue to buy screwtop wine. Sorry about that, dinner guests.
9. Gold will rise. Oil will fall. Unless gold falls and oil rises. Either way, gas prices will go up and the dollar will go down.
10. Gian Ghomeshi will still be toast.
At the end of each season it’s time to clear out the old stock and bring in the new. This is especially annoying at this time of year when stores feel compelled to clear out the winter boots, which are only just becoming useful, to make room for racks of bathing suits and other summer accoutrements that won’t be needed by most of us for at least another five months. Herewith is my contribution to the year-end clearance sale.
1. Today I turned exactly 511,209 hours old. Of the useless things you can learn from the internet, this ranks right up there with what Kim Kardashian wore to the basketball game. Except of course learning how old you are in minutes (30,673,023 in case you were interested). Far too many of those minutes were spent doing things that definitely did not get me closer to enlightenment, earn me any money, or add any other tangible value to my life. Airport security lines, I’m talking to you.
2. I have seen various non-congruent data points with respect to the amount of the internet that is dominated by cats – 15% of content, 15% of searches, 15% of waking hours etc. The fact that the ‘15%’ number recurs frequently makes me rather dubious that anyone really knows how much internet real estate cats are (literally) sitting on and even more importantly, why cats and not dogs or some other animal. The answer is of course that dogs try too hard.
3. Somebody (or a bunch of somebodies) was able to land a space vehicle on a moving comet earlier this year. This indeed would qualify as rocket science. Given the amount of things that are not considered rocket science that didn’t get done, like deciding what kind of transit a ‘world class’ city should have, there are many people out there not pulling their share of the weight. Sign me up for a spot when they colonize that comet. It’s got to be more civilized than this place.
4. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt now wants to be called John (I assume the Jolie-Pitt part still stands). I think this falls into the category of uber-1st world problems. Maybe even the most ‘soggy baguette-cold latte (no it wasn’t meant to be an iced cappuccino)-scratched my new iPhone’ of all first world problems. This one takes a bit of analysis to fully dissect though. First, I think any jury of my peers (but perhaps not a jury of Angelina’s peers – and does she even have a full jury of peers even available on this planet? We may need to go to the comet for that one) would consider ‘Shiloh’ to already be a gender neutral name, if gender identification is your concern. Second, in the Jolie-Pitt universe, I would think that John is also a non-gender specific name. So it is very unclear what objective the child-previously-known as Shiloh is trying to achieve. No doubt all will be revealed in next month’s National Enquirer.
The one true way to figure out you have too much stuff is to pack up to move. All of those things stuck way in the back of the kitchen cupboards, in that place over the fridge or in the blind corner cabinet were probably never very useful to begin with, otherwise they wouldn’t be stored in the most inaccessible place possible. Or if they were useful, they have been replaced and you now have two of them because the item in question couldn’t be found when the need for a fish spatula, 5 litre casserole dish, or pot du crème pots urgently arose.
There seem to be two parallel planes existing in kitchens: the abundance one and the scarcity one. It does not seem possible to have a feast without a corresponding famine. And in my kitchen the famine manifests itself in lids, especially the lids for things that are completely useless without a lid. Like storage containers. Every so often I go through the storage area designated for storage containers and throw out the ones that no longer have lids. I have no idea where the lids go and I have never found a lid that is missing a container. I am certain that even if I pack only containers that are fully functional, when I unpack them at the other end somehow lids will have disappeared along the way.
While my containers are busy ensuring their obsolescence, my casserole dishes are busy multiplying. There is some justification for having several different casserole dishes because it is generally not advisable to make a soufflé in a lasagne pan, but that is not the primary reason for casserole dish sprawl. I think the blame for this situation lies squarely in the (recently deceased) lap of S. Donald Stookey.
Mr. Stookey, who died earlier this month just short of his 100th birthday, was the accidental inventor of Fotoceram, or the material that brought us CorningWare. Apparently Mr. Stookey chose his career at Corning Glass because he was fascinated by glass and the attempts of alchemists to harness a material so unique that it is not quite solid, liquid or gas, but rather a liquid frozen in an unstable state. Which kind of explains the number of mismatched glasses I own.
Anyhow, CorningWare’s claim to fame is its indestructibility, or in the immortal words of the commercial “from the freezer to the fire, CorningWare cookware can do it”. Or at least most of the time. I have personally proven that neither Pyrex nor CorningWare nor its spinoff Corel is impervious to smashing to smithereens on a ceramic floor or imploding when moved from a hot stove to a sink full of ice (seemed like a good idea at the time). But I digress. My experiments aside, casserole dishes hang around for a long time and stay perfectly good much longer than our willpower to resist buying that brand new 6 piece set that comes in bright red. So the avocado green versions migrate to the back of the cupboard. Too good to throw out.