Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

I first must start with an apology: I know that no one who lives on the thinning ice of the North Pole needs to be lectured on the importance of climate change by me. And Lord knows, I am well aware of the sacrifices you’ve made for the planet already: your transportation fleet is famously carbon neutral, your delivery system remarkably efficient, your workforce – though not unionized – appears to be content and well-remunerated in cookies and egg nog. You don’t even appear to have a heater in your sled: for someone traveling in an open-top vehicle in December, that bespeaks an admirable commitment to the cause.

So it grieves me greatly, to point out that there is an enormous blind spot in your ecological practices. Santa, you have to stop with the lumps of coal.

Now, this isn’t just my revenge for the Christmas of ’83 – I was horrible to my little sister that year, and I know I deserved that carboniferous rebuke. I’m over it, really. I’ve changed, and it’s time for you to change too, Santa.

According to the census data, there are roughly 2.2 billion nominal Christians on Earth, all of whom I’m assuming mark Christmas in some way. Slightly less than a third of them are children under 14 years of age. I don’t know exactly how you calculate your bell curve to decide who is “naughty” or “nice” in any given year, but using a formula devised by calculating the number of disruptive, bullying, or potentially criminal kids I remember from my grade five class (yeah Trevor Vowell, I’m looking at you), I’m going to say one in ten.

That means one in ten children will receive a lump of coal. Now, I’m not sure how your elves calculate a “lump” precisely, but I’m going to assume that you’re old school and haven’t converted to metric yet. Is one pound reasonable?

So, we have roughly 61,600,000 kids on your list, of which one tenth is “naughty.” If each one of them gets a pound-sized lump of coal in their stocking, that works out to 30,800 tons of coal. Of course, individual coalmines extract millions of tons of the black stuff from Appalachia’s mountains, so your contribution barely ranks as a molehill. But it’s only by each of us taking small steps, and making small sacrifices, that we can make big changes. And lets face it, as small steps go, 30,800 tons of coal is bigger than most.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not suggesting dropping what the coal represented. While simply not putting anything at all in the stocking might seem to be the simplest solution, we both know the psychology you were employing: leave nothing, and the miscreants could simply convince themselves that you’d forgotten them. Putting a big old lump of something so un-fun in the stocking is the equivalent of Uncle Travis leaving me one Canadian dollar in his will: a middle finger, notarized.

So you have to give them something. And, though it breaks my heart to say it, you also have generations of coal-pushing to make up for. While it’s tempting to stay in the energy line, the virtuous alternatives – wind turbines, solar panels – won’t fit in a stocking. Unpleasant as they would be, some sort of methane-based fuel source would probably be a little too vindictive (though not to Trevor Vowell, that rock-throwing SOB). Also, I assume you don’t want to overburden Donner, Blitzen and the crew, so we’ll stick with a one-pound-per-brat limit.

Might I suggest a tree-seedling? They’re small, after all. And they will grow, sucking up carbon and storing it away for decades. You could make up for your centuries of coal-profligacy in a few decades. Plus, if you give away pine seedlings, you’re even providing Tannenbaum’s for Christmases future. Not to mention, by giving away seedlings that kids will have to water and nurture, you’re providing them with a responsibility, and a lesson about the fragility of life on Earth. In short, it’s earnest, boring, and a chore they’ll be stuck with for years: much nastier than a rock they can throw out and forget.

And if they’re still on your naughty list the following year? Give ‘em cabbage seeds. Trevor Vowell hated cabbage.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Don't worry, the car was fine.

When you’re within a week or so of the predicted due date of your first child, it should not come as a surprise if you’re nudged awake at some ungodly hour with the news that the moment of truth has arrived. I had convinced myself that some part of my brain – the automatic bits that function in my sleep that stop me from falling out of bed – would remain alert to the possibility. I believed – subconsciously so prepared – that when the day ultimately came, and Sana was going to make her appearance, that I would be calm, smooth, efficient, and on top of things.

Let me set the scene. It is 4:30 in the morning, Thursday before last. It is a tradition of mine, religiously observed, to be asleep at 4:30 AM. So I perhaps did not initially respond so well when Amynah tried to interrupt my devotions.

“Mark” (nothing). “Mark!” (Thump! as her elbow connects with my back)

“Fwah! Whuh fah?!!” I said, pleasantly.

“I think my water broke.”


“But I’m not sure.”

Slowly, the message sank in. There was something wrong with the bathroom sink, and it was Amynah’s fault, but I was supposed to fix it. Damnit… there was probably WAIT! WATER! BROKE! IT IS TIME FOR ACTION MAN!

I leapt (well, stumbled) out of bed, and fumbled for my wallet, where I kept the number for the maternity ward of the Ronald Friggin’ Reagan Memorial Hospital. I then spent five minutes attempting to locate my cell phone, which was on the lower floor in my jacket pocket… no, my desk… the kitchen counter?… another part of the desk??…. the living room?… my OTHER jacket pocket!! Phew. I ran upstairs, and dialed the number, pausing to catch my breath. Amynah was lying in bed, eyes half closed, in the middle of a contraction.

A nurse answered.

“Hi,” I said, calmly, coolly, in control of the situation, “My water’s wife just broke.”

“Excuse me?” said the bewildered nurse.

“My water thinks her wife just broke, but she’s not sure. We’re due in a couple of days,” I clarified, though confused by her reaction – surely they get calls like this all the time?

“Maybe I should speak to her,” said the nurse gently, sounding strangely amused.

I handed the phone to Amynah, who was holding back her giggles - not easy for someone in the middle of a contraction.

They told her to wait a few hours and, if it became more clear that the contractions were real and the wife water had indeed broken, we should come in. And so we went back to bed, lying awake and wide-eyed, pondering the momentous and awe-inspiring change that was about to occur in our lives… for about three minutes. Then we fell asleep until about 8 AM.

By 11 it became clear that this was the real deal, and so we grabbed the hospital bag with the needful items: diapers, baby clothes, clothes for Amynah, pajamas for Amynah, snack food for Amynah, water for Amynah… “Should we bring the car seat to bring the baby home?” Naw… (why I concluded this, I do not know). I remembered to bring the camera at the last minute, though I forgot any pajamas, changes of clothes, or toothbrushes for me. We piled into the car, throwing our small and insufficient pile of luggage into the trunk.

The Ronald Friggin’ Reagan Memorial Hospital is only a half hour walk from where we live – ten minutes by car. There is very little scope for something to go wrong in that distance. And yet….

Because I had, somehow, never managed to figure out where the parking for the hospital was, despite having nearly accidentally turned into it at least a dozen times, we elected to drive to the Emergency entrance and use the valet parking there. We pulled up, parked, and I popped the trunk. We hopped out, I grabbed the bag and slammed the trunk closed.

It bounced open.

I slammed it closed.

It bounced open.

I slammed it closed. It bounced open.

The valet looked at me, questioningly. “Sir?”

“This happened before… I can fix it,” I said, vaguely remembering an incident in Manitoba where my Dad had… reached in here… pulled that thing… yanked a cable…. Jiggled a latch… and slammed it closed!

It bounced open. I eyed the car angrily.

“I can figure this out… just a second…” I said, rolling my sleeves up like a proctologist.

“Umm, Mark? Maybe…. Ungh,” said Amynah, contractively.

“Right! Ummm… here’s the key. Look after it, will you?” I said the valet.

We went up the fourth floor of the Ronald Friggin’ Reagan Memorial Hospital, where Amynah was promptly, and with some urgency, draped in unflattering gowns, plopped on a bed, stuck with an IV, and covered with enough monitor patches that she rather resembled a medically-sponsored NASCAR driver.

And then we waited. And waited some more. We were visited by a host of medical professionals – nurses, charge nurses, residents, orderlies, specialists, nurses’ assistants, technicians… they all took pains to introduce themselves, but after the twentieth, I gave up trying to keep track of who was who, and instead identified them, like exotic syringe-wielding birds, by their plumage: blue gowns were nurses, purple were residents, a different shade of purple was a specialist, and our regular doctor – the doyenne of the delivery room – wore her own sweater and jeans, thank you very much.

To make a long story short, when we had gone to bed the night before, we thought we had five days to go. When we showed up at the hospital, they said we’d be parents within 14 hours.

We were still absorbing the implications of that timeline when a Purple-plumed Resident (Docotoris hospitalis violetus) appeared at the foot of Amynah’s bed. She had a serious, yet reassuring expression of her face, a mixture so self-contradicting and finely balanced that I can only assume she spent hours practicing it in her bedroom mirror.

She explained that Sana’s heartbeat was not responding well to Amynah’s contractions – it dropped considerably, though not dangerously, during the stronger ones. Our Doctor was recommending a C-Section. If we agreed, we’d be in the operating room in an hour, and parents within an hour and ten minutes. Things were moving fast.

After she left, Amynah looked at me, somewhat shocked: “This is a bit overwhelming,” she said, shakily.

“I know!” I said, “It looks like my betting-pool average came out almost exactly right. That’s amazing!”

More doctors and nurses came in to explain what was going to happen. Basically, Amynah’s head would be on one side of a curtain – the doctors and their scalpels would be on the other side.

“You’ll be able to watch what they’re doing if you want,” said a nurse to me. “How are you with blood and things like that? It can be pretty disturbing for some people. We need to know if you’re going to faint.”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I’m a writer - I’ve managed to lead a pretty sheltered life when it comes to stuff like that,” I said, “But I don’t really need to find out. I’ll keep my head down.”

I made a few phone calls to let our parents know what was happening, and before I knew it, they were wheeling Amynah away to be prepped. Shortly thereafter, a – nurse? orderly? friendly passerby? – told me to put on a space-suit they’d left for me and wait out in the hall, pining for the good old days when I was born and expectant Dads were free to smoke nervously in a waiting room, instead of worrying about fainting in front of a flock of giggling nurses.

Soon, I was asked to join the party in the operating theatre. As promised, there was a curtain separating the guest of honour from the festivities. I was given a chair. On our side of the curtain, there was just Amynah’s disembodied head, me, and a chatty anesthesiologist.

The anesthesiologist did not normally work deliveries, and she was thrilled - thrilled - to be here for our special moment.

“Wow, so December 10th. You know, that’s the day that property taxes are due in California. That’s what I spent my morning doing, meeting with my accountant.”

“Err… really? I didn’t know that,” I said as my mind screamed Why are you talking to me?

“Yeah! So you can tell your daughter that the day she was born, her anesthesiologist had to pay $5000 in taxes. That hurt!” she burbled on.

“Yeah, haha! We’ll do that,” I said, wondering how, exactly, I came to be forced to feign interest in someone’s taxes while at the same time clutching my wife’s shaking hand as she underwent major surgery to bring a new life into the world.

Fortunately, the conversation was interrupted by a nurse peeking around the corner – “The baby’s coming out now! Do you want to see, Daddy?” just as a sharp wail came from the other side of the fabric. Daddy?

“Umm, no that’s all right,” I said – I was perfectly content to wait until Sana was processed by the competent authorities, but my preferences didn’t matter – the excited anesthesiologist grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet to witness Sana being rescued from the Lovecraftian spectacle of horror that the doctors’ art had made of Amynah’s lower abdomen.

"Lovecraftian spectacle of horror? You haven't even read any Lovecraft, you jerk!"

I am proud to report that I didn’t faint – didn’t even come close – but I was right - wonder of birth or no, I didn’t want to see that.

A couple of minutes later, the same nurse returned: “Daddy – do want to cut the cord?”

“Ummm… do I have to?” I said (thinking I’m not your Daddy!), but again, I was pushed out from behind the protective shield of the curtain with a hearty “Go on! We’re fine here!” from the anesthesiologist, who I was frankly beginning to believe had it in for me for some reason. Carefully averting my eyes from the area where Amynah’s viscera were being aired, I made my way to where a team was checking Sana’s vitals. Someone in purple handed me a scissors-like device.

“Congratulations Daddy! Just cut here,” she said. “It’s kind of rubbery, so you have to cut hard.”

Isn’t this something a doctor should be doing? I thought, panicking. I don’t even know how to pick up a baby, let alone use sharp medical implements on one. And why do they keep calling me Daddy? They knew my name this afternoon!

“I’m left handed,” I said, in a last-ditch plea to get out of it. “I don’t know if these scissors will work for me.”

“It won’t be a problem,” someone said, guiding my hand. It wasn’t.

And it wasn’t a problem when they handed my daughter to me either – I carried her like I’d been doing it all my life. I wasn’t a problem when I brought her back to Amynah – there was no need to avert my gaze from the gore on the table this time, because I was too busy staring into Sana’s eyes, which were wide open, staring at my white-masked face, at this strange new world of colour-coded people, of tubular florescent stars and beeping boxes and finally, once I cleared the frontier of the curtain, her mother, The Disembodied Head.

And there we sat as a family – me, my wife, my daughter – for a precious moment, it was the three of us, in a tiny little world of our own, together for the first time. Except, of course….

“My God, she’s beautiful,” said the anesthesiologist, softly.

What a wise woman, thought Daddy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sana Myriam

6 lbs, 19.5 inches, born Dec 10, 6:02 pm by C-section. She's sleeping in my arms as I type this one-handed.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Rudolph the sun burned reindeer

One of the things that made us feel at home in Strasbourg was when we realized that the merchants in the Palais Rohan farmer’s market were recognizing us from week to week – just as they were a part of our lives, we had, through our patronage – become a part of theirs. It really made us feel that we were a part of the city.

So we were delighted to discover that Los Angeles has similar outdoor markets as well. There are four that we’ve been to so far, but our favourite is also the closest. It’s small: tucked into a parking lot of the local library, and there isn’t a lot of variety in the stalls.

The highlight, as far as I am concerned, is the “food court” area, where merchants sell crêpes, tamales and – my favourite – really excellent coffee. Though I’ve cut back considerably on my coffee intake, the West LA Farmers’ Market coffee-pusher sells the best brew I’ve ever had. Given his perpetual vibration, he clearly stands behind his product.

The market is a real neighbourhood hangout – there are activity tables for the kids, locals selling their handicrafts, and tables for people to enjoy their snacks. Best of all, there’s a stage, occupied every week by a resident DJ who keeps the mellow reggae tunes pumping.

There are also local bands that come to play as well. This week was a Hawaiin ensemble, strumming island-tinged Christmas tunes on their ukuleles for an appreciative crowd. Even better, the musicians were joined onstage by hulu-dancers in training, ranging from age 6 to 60.

I suppose this is what Christmas looks like in a place where the lyrics to “Let it snow” are purely theoretical.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Once in a lifetime

Haven’t been blogging here much due to other writing obligations. Also, we’re sort of in hunker-down mode – we’re only 5-9 days away from our two due dates, and so making the most of our relative freedom from responsibility by… laying around watching TV and reading. On the other hand, we did take follow many of our friends’ advice and go out for one last “grown up dinner.” It was at Arby’s, sure, but we didn’t make off with any ketchup packets to stock our fridge. That was pretty grown up, right?

Moving on… A couple of years ago I did a post about music that I associated with the various cities I had lived in to that point.

That post was marking the anniversary of our move to Strasbourg. Of course, now we have another city to add to the list, but I don’t want to do a music post about it. Other than the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under the Bridge” all the songs I can think of that are about LA seem to hate the place: Bran Van 3000 (“What am I doing drinking in LA?”) The Decemberists (“How I abhor this place/ Its sweet and bitter taste/Has left me wretched, retching on all fours/ Los Angeles, I'm yours”), Tom Petty (“It’s a long day, living in Reseda/There’s a freeway, running through the yard) even the Mama’s and Papa’s “California Dreamin’” was more about being unhappy with the East Coast winter than any specific love for LA.

Of course, all of that says less about L.A. than it does the temperament of musicians.

My brain connects music to people much more strongly than to cities anyway, and there’s something about road trips in particular that makes the association really stick. I’m always going to think of my friends Carol and Jocelyn when I here Len’s “Steal my sunshine,” as that song playing on the radio roughly five hundred times the day we shared a U-Haul to move from Halifax to Montreal (me) and Toronto (them). My friends Yann and Félicie will always spring to mind when I hear Kool and the Gang’s “Ladies Night,” thanks to Yann’s DJ-ing choices on our trip to Provence earlier this year. And I can’t ever hear Inuit throat singing without being transported to a rental car somewhere around Thunder Bay Ontario, en route to Winnipeg with my friend Jon.

In any case, the strongest association I have is for a road trip I took years ago with my friend Todd in the months before he went to London. A friend of his from McGill who I didn’t really know was down to visit him, but I had some time to kill and so we three hit the road to show her the sights: Peggy’s Cove, Mahone Bay, the Anapolis Valley and Lunenburg. At some point, as we pulled out of the visitors’ parking lot in Peggy’s Cove, a Talking Heads “Once in a lifetime” came on: “You find yourself in another part of the world… you may find yourself with a beautiful house, and a beautiful wife. And you might ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” And yes, I now know that the song is about alienation, but I’d always heard those first few lines as if they were sung with incredulous joy, like David Byrne couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“Hey, turn it up. I love this song,” I said from the back seat. In the front passenger seat, Amynah obliged me. I’ve associated this song with that day ever since.

But as Amynah and I move into yet another whipsaw change in our life (the last four years have, after all, seen us get married, quit our jobs and live in three different countries on two different continents), that song keeps returning to me: Once more, I find myself in yet another part of the world, wondering, precisely how I got here, but deeply glad that my beautiful wife’s favourite Talking Heads song didn’t play that day instead.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Place your bets!

The video has nothing whatsoever to do with the post. But you people deserve some entertainment.

This is for you readers who don't know me on Facebook (and why is that, anyway?)

I'm soliciting your best guess as to when the baby might arrive - the due dates are either December 9 is you believe our American doctor, or December 13 if you believe our French one. I'm running a bit of an experiment - I'm averaging all the guesses so far, and seeing how close our collective wisdom matches reality.

Closest guess wins a prize! But not a good one!

Comment away!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Be true to your school

Most of the time, the culture in the U.S. is not so radically different from that in Canada. The friendliness of the people is more-or-less, the language more-or-less the same, the merchandise on the shelves more-or-less the same.

This weekend, I had probably one of the first “I’ve moved to another planet” moments. And that was when one of Amynah’s cousins invited us out to his part of the city to watch his high-school marching band in a parade.

Of course, I was familiar with the concept of a marching band, of course – my hometown is home to one of the world’s larger military tattoos, so I’ve seen a few drum lines in my time. Not to mention, I was in my high-school’s music programme, albeit as a percussionist, thus saving me the trouble of having to learn any music.

But the American high-school marching band… that is something else entirely. It’s a quasi-military spectacle, as interpreted by a Vegas Casino – all sequins, showmanship, and saxophones.

The parade, it turns out, was not a parade but a competition, with some fifty middle- and high school bands, plus their associated drum-lines, colour guards and cheerleaders, strutting their stuff in front of thousands of onlookers and a raised stage of stern-faced judges, whose eyes were unreadable under the shade of their Stetsons.

The colour guard introduces the next band

Amynah’s cousin explained to me that the judges were scoring the musical platoon on a number of factors: music, obviously, but also the orderliness of their ranks, their stride, the choreography of their “colour guards” (these were basically cheerleaders carrying signs and banners of the school colours), the sparkliness of the uniforms, and “spirit.” This last was measured by the band shouting their school team’s name at top volume en masse.

Of course, each school had its own traditions, which were reflected in their remarkably elaborate uniforms. A number of the bands on parade came from schools that evidently had some Scottish connection, as they were in full Highland regalia: kilts all around, bearskin hats, a stepdancing colour guard, and – to my delight – bagpipes.

Now, being from Nova Scotia (New Scotland, for those of you not up on your Latin) I’ve seen more than one kilt and bagpipe consortium in my time. Most men I know – let alone high-school boys - cannot be induced to don a skirt unless they have some connection to the hills and lochs of Scotland, however generationally distant.

Not so here. The area where Amynah’s cousin lives has a very large population of Chinese immigrants, meaning that most of the kids suffering the full Scottish regimental first thing on a chilly late-fall morning were more likely to have descended from families that hailed from Dhezhou than Dunbar.

Give me an ach!

When we first moved to the U.S., people who showed us around would frequently point out some local oddball – like a burly biker on a neon green Harley-Davidson – while saying “only in America.” They were usually wrong: in my experience, there’s no country that can’t boast its share of eccentrics and obsessives. But I really think that only in America would you find hundreds of East-Asian descended high-school kids marching in lockstep to the keening cadences of “Scotland the Brave” while their sequins glitter in the early Saturday morning light. It was strange, and kind of inspiring.

Yeah, I know I already posted on this in French. I’m not going to be twice as interesting just because I’m writing twice as much.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conan II: You really shouldn't have encouraged me

Part One of this far-too-long post is over yonder. We return to the Late Night With Conan O’Brien taping, where our hero, battered, bruised, and cowed, sits near the back of the theatre. The taping is about to begin.…

Their raid into the audience complete, the Max Weinberg’s Psychological warfare unit returned to their glittery barracks to one side of the stage. Andy Ritcher lumbered to his booth off to the other side of the stage. And then a great hush fell over the studio… Ladies and gentlemen, Conan O’Brien!

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Aaaargh! I didn’t notice the sign, and I’m so dazed from the abuse, I forgot to clap. A glowering page glances at me, nudges his colleague – I start hammering my hands together with a vigor that could crush a golf ball, would security had let me through with one.

Meanwhile, the curtains in front of the stage have parted, and out bounded the star of the show, a gawky mess of dangling limbs, goofy hair and dead, soulless eyes.

The applause sign flickered madly, but it needn’t have – we knew what to do. We rose, five hundred quislings welcoming the tanks in Oslo, and gave him a standing ovation. Yet it wasn’t enough… the light kept flashing, demanding more APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! it went on far longer than the sight of a man walking into a room warranted. Finally, as Conan came forward, he raised his hands for quiet – we double checked with the sign to make sure it was ok, and slowly stopped clapping.

“Well, that’s all the time we have tonight,” he said, and we did laugh obediently, with a hint of hysteria. But wait, what was that? A flash of movement, by the camera. Is that guy holding cue cards? That was the first joke of the evening? You mean all of this – the abuse, the threats, the menacing stack of cattle-prods off to the side of the stage, all of it was in aid of using us for the set-up for a lame joke? I feel so used.

That moment would be one of the few in which Conan interacted with the audience at all. As the monologue continued, I was surprised – naïve me – to realize that he was not addressing his words to us in the studio at all, but rather to the camera now blocking the hallway through which we had entered. In the vague mental picture I’d had of late night television, I’d always believed that there were people sitting in the general vicinity of the camera, to whom the host was facing. Not so – the performance was for the camera – we were merely to act as prompts for the audience at home, creating an atmosphere of “excitement” – because after all, spontaneous applause sounds much the same as applause extracted under duress.

This was driven home for me when I watched the episode as it was broadcast later that night. At one point in the monologue, he started a joke “So, the 7/11 convenience store chain announced that they were going to start selling their own brand of wine [pause for laughter] they’re going to make it out of grapes that had been sitting in the store for three years.”

On the broadcast, this punchline got big laughs, while the set up only got a few titters. In fact, it was the other way around – the idea of 7/11 wine was funnier than the joke Conan’s writers spun from it. However, with the miracle of sound editing, the audience at home was convinced that Conan was knocking us dead.

Of course, we jumpy and gun-shy at this point, and so were inclined to make offerings to appease our sign-flashing overlords whether overtly demanded or not: other lines that inexplicably got applause, sans prompting, and before their accompanying punchlines were delivered: “President Obama is visiting China” (Yay! Clap clap! Woo!) “So, research shows that people are watching more TV” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap! Wait – is this a good thing?) “Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry have announced that Aerosmith is not breaking up,” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap clap! Yay! Wait – this is not a good thing).

On to the next joke! “There was a study done that proved that big breasted women…” at which point he was interrupted by a woman’s cry of “woo!” from somewhere behind me in the audience. I cringed: we aren’t allowed to independently “woo!” They specifically, and very emphatically told us that there was to be no “woo!” permitted outside of the context of general applause. Averting my eyes in anticipation of the crack of the Greyshirts’ pistol as she was summarily executed, but Conan was merciful: he waved them off, noting that she did possess very large breasts, which did pleaseth him.

The joke continued: large breasted women, according to this study, apparently have higher I.Q.’s than their less endowed sisters: he was interrupted again by applause from exactly half the women in the audience. I also heard some guy audibly remark behind me “but… that doesn’t make any sense.” I hope he wasn’t trying to impress his date, because in so doing he either called a buxom woman dumb or a smart girl flat. Either way, he proved that that people with no breasts are often the most intellectually handicapped of all.

Lost in this reverie, I missed the punchline (well, can’t be bothered to repeat it – it boiled down to “men are pigs”) but I was brought back to the studio through the insistent blare of the band starting up the recessional as Conan finished up his monologue.

You might remember from my previous post that I had come with Dylan, from Amynah’s lab, and his coworker Chris, and his wife. Now, here’s something about Chris that is important: he’s a Republican. A thinks-Sarah-Palin’s great, huntin’ fishin’ traditional-marriage-protecting healthcare=communism Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican. A Republican who disdained a ride to the studio in my Japanese-import Honda Civic, with it’s un-American fuel economy and conspiracy-of-the-One-World-government metric odometer, in favour of his patriotic SUV.* His kind is a rare bird in Los Angeles, and his views are alien to my worldview, but Amynah assures me he is a very nice, if somewhat argumentative guy. (*Though, granted, that might have been because he had to be somewhere else after the show).

His politics would be utterly irrelevant, except that Dylan had no idea who the guests were going to be when he made the reservations. I suspect, given that we’re heading into Oscar-movie season, that he had been hoping for a Hollywood star of some variety.

I invite you to imagine the general disappointment when Conan looked at the camera, and uttered the most bald-faced and nonsensical lie I’ve ever heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a very exciting show tonight – Al Gore’s here!”

The applause sign was flashing insistently, the band was wailing away, the audience was cheering. Dylan was clapping dejectedly. I hazarded a glance down the row to where Chris sat. He was scowling, his arms crossed.

Suddenly, I knew that it was going to be an entertaining evening after all.

We were now in what would presumably become a commercial break. Conan took his place behind his desk, in front of a window that looked over downtown Los Angeles (sadly, I regret to inform you, this too was fake. Were there a window in that spot, it would look over a Lovecraftian spectacle of horror – the writhing breeding colony of comedy trolls from where the warm-up comic sprang).

Meanwhile, the band continued to drive home subliminal messages to compel our compliance (why else play a cover of the Clash’s “Clampdown?”). Conan sat behind his desk, reviewing his notes, Ritcher perched perched behind his announcer’s kiosk, like a kid at a lemonade stand on a rainy day. He doesn’t look very comfortable in that APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! And we’re back!

First thing first, Conan tells us what will be happening on tomorrow’s show: “Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon will be here!” APPLAUSE! “Star of the new movie Precious, Gaboures Sidibe!” APPLAUSE! “And musical guest Kris Allen” (who? Nevermind!) APPLAUSE!

Again, for viewers at home, there was some creative sound-editing going on, because it turns out that while I was just happy that tonight’s guest was someone I’d heard of, my fellow inmates were less pleased. Chris, of course, was fuming that he had driven halfway across Los Angeles in order to breathe the same air as the arch-fiend, but he was not alone in his disappointment. The words “Reese Witherspoon” and “tomorrow” elicited a collective groan from the crowd: instead an evening swooning over the sweet nothings uttered by America’s Sweetheart® we were getting an evening of thinly-veiled digs about our lifestyle choices from America’s Sanctimonious Uncle®.

Zipping right along, Ritcher was allowed to grace the stage with Conan for a “In the Year 3000” segment, in which I noticed that what few funny lines there were went to the host: Ritcher strained mightily, but failed to make funny a joke about baseball player Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin to join NASCAR. It occurred to me that if it is the writers who are coming up with all this stuff anyway, would it kill them to share out the few scraps of humour they generate, instead of sacrificing their entire harvest to the insatiable maw of Conan as if appeasing some jealous god? The man’s the host after all, he doesn’t need to APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!… and we’re back to commercial: the band is playing a salsa version of “Stay in your seats and no one gets hurt.” Ritcher has been banished back to his lemonade stand in the corner and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re back, as Conan introduces Al Gore.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Us marionettes rise on our strings to give Gore a standing ovation, apparently for navigating the distance between the studio’s stage and Conan’s couch without being blocked by the Supreme Court. The elephant in the room (yes, that was a clever reference to the Republican Party logo. No need to congratulate me for my cleverness – I’ve got it covered) was sitting on his hands, his eyes shooting daggers at the stage.

The interview was a strange experience. I’d seen late night talk shows before, so I wasn’t expecting a Frost/Nixon-type interrogation. Nontheless, something about seeing it in person made me contrast it with how I conduct my interviews: a question, listen to the response, a follow-up question, maybe a clarification, then on to the next topic.

After the initial queries about Gore’s Nobel Prize win, Conan brought up the book the former VP was on the show to promote. There’s a children’s version – Conan says he hasn’t read it, then goes on a tangent about scaring his kids with predictions of climate doom. Gore makes polite noises about the youth of today solving the problems of tomorrow – I steal a glance at Chris, who is clenching his fists. No matter - Conan’s now on to geothermal power… Gore says there’s enough to power the US for 35,000 years – what? How? What happens after that? Do we run out of Earth? – no matter! Conan’s off windmills killing birds, largely as excuse to show funny looking graph in Gore’s books. The graph is duly laughed at by everyone – I look at Chris, who doesn’t want to do anything positive Gore-related, but would like to believe he’s being ridiculed. So he splits the difference, and rather than laugh, he smirks, angrily.

The graph purported to show windmills were not – as some opponents claim – as much a threat to ornithological life as your average housecat or tall building. “It’s not a real problem” asserted Gore confidently. “Wait” thought I, “Windmills are usually located in different ecological zones than housecats or skyscrapers – we can spare a few million pigeons, after all, but not so many whooping cranes.” No matter! Conan’s off to Afghanistan now – should we invade them for their geothermal stores when we run out in a few millennia? No, it’s something about Obama’s current choice, and Gore’s diplomatically saying he wished Johnson (wink wink) had figured out an exit strategy when he went into to Vietnam (wink wink) all those years ago. Chris’s wife is restraining her beau with a whiteknuckled grip, as his face turns purple from the effort of not screaming “Liar” when Gore suggested that perhaps the presence of American soldiers might be resented by the freedom-craving citizens of Central Asia, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re done with Gore, and now on to our next guest – some dude from a sitcom I don’t watch. He’s amusing, but he’s clearly terrified of by the juxtaposition of Conan’s idiot smile and his pitiless stare, as he’s squirming like a five year old with a bladder disorder. They pretend to joke about Star Wars, and then the guest (Jim Parsons) oh-so-casually mentions he used to do a commercial where he had to pretend he was raised by wolves and oh what a coincidence we happen to have that commercial right here says Conan. They ran the commercial, which featured Parsons pretending to nurse at a wolf’s teat. The APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign made its demands above me, but by now I couldn’t be bothered. I was wrung out, wearied by the sham. We in the audience were clearly key to the feeling of spontaneity a show like this required. But couldn’t they give us a little credit? Did they seriously believe that we didn’t know this was discussed and possibly rehearsed ahead of time? Stop lying to me, Conan!

“Well, we’ll have to have you back, you’re so much fun to talk to,” said Conan to his horrified guest and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! we’re off to commercial.

Now, despite having just said how much he enjoyed talking to his guest, during the intermission, while we waited for the musical act to set up, Conan – despite sitting right next to Parsons – did not say a word to him. That menial task he left to Ritcher. Instead, he got up, wandered to the front of the stage, surveyed the huddled masses arrayed before him with a sociopathic blank expression, wandered back behind his desk, and stood for three minutes next to the apparently animated chat his supposedly buddy-buddy sidekick and “so interesting” guest were having, while making no effort to participate or even feign interest.

Observing this strange non-interaction, I was inclined to chalk it up to our host’s focus: he was clearly psyching himself up for the last part of the show, preparing his lines and delivery in his APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! and we’re back!

“Ladies and gentlemen… Jason Mraz, the Tonight Show band, and the San Diego Gospel Choir!”

That was it. So, apparently, not psyching himself up so much as being a bit of a jerk. But no matter, we had the musical guest to endure! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!

Again, having re-watched the show after the fact, I can assure you that the song that was broadcast was not at all the song I heard in the studio. The song that was broadcast was a low key, happy little number with an uplifting chorus. Such are the wonders of mixing boards and sound engineers. Lacking those ameliorating mediators, what we experienced, in that over amplified echo chamber of a studio, was a man miming at playing guitar while occasionally signaling his distress via an improvised semaphor system – that being the only way he had to communicate over the cacophony emanating from behind him. If you watch the show online, you can see the panicked look in the eyes of the choir members behind them – they can’t hear themselves think, let alone sing, have no idea if they’re in the same time-zone as the song’s key, and are clearly unsure as to whether they’ll survive the racket long enough to see their loved ones again. It was an auditory horror show – if a jet engine opened to full throttle been added to the mix, it would have not been out of place, and in fact might have been an improvement.

The song mercifully clanged to an end, and we all shifted in our seats – finally, now we could leave. Right? No, not quite. Conan leaped on stage, shaking hands with the musicians as we pounded our palms bloody at the behest of the sadistic bastard running the APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign. But still, they would not let us go. Eventually, our arms tired, and the clapping petered out. Conan came forward, and sang a comical little ditty to thank us for showing up. Then, in a puff of sulfurous black smoke, he was gone. Andy Ritcher walked out a side door, Jim Parsons went through the back stage. The musicians chatted amongst themselves, packing up their instruments. And still, they would not let us leave.

When will they let us leave?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No, I'm not writing about Twilight to drive up my traffic.

The Bruin Theatre, with red carpet

Ah, another lovely California morning. As I meander through the Westwood Park on my way home from walking Amynah to work, I pause to take in the scene: behind me, the pok-pok-pok of socialites on the tennis courts behind me, in front indignant pigeons glare at me for interrupting their bath with my camera. Off in the middle distance, on a spot carefully chosen to avoid the sweep of the jets coming from the water sprinkler, an elderly Asian woman practices her Thai-Chi, her movements apparently undisturbed by the throbbing of the helicopter above, which is monitoring a possibly dangerous cloud of estrogen developing two blocks north of Wilshire Boulevard.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the face of madness up close, and it looks like a Twilight fan.

The second movie in the Twilight series had its premiere last night at the Bruin theatre. Ordinarily, I would not be aware of this development, and would not have come prepared with my camera, except that that theatre is on the way to Amynah’s work, and there were people camped out for the premiere five days ahead of time.

Five days.

Now, I won’t comment on the literary value of the books, nor of the cinematic value of the books – I’ve consumed neither. And in my day, I’ve been known to camp out in far less hospitable conditions for cultural phenomena for which I had an embarrassing zeal (cough… Aerosmith).

Of course, I was 19 at the time, and it was only one night, in my hometown. The woman in the front of this line – according to the Los Angeles Times – was 37 years old, and had driven all the way from Arizona. That level of fandom – be it for glitter-vampires or pseudo-Buddhists with laser-swords – is utterly beyond me.

Cardboard cutouts at the head of the line. Insert your own joke here about Robert Pattison's acting here.

According to the article, and my own observations, the crazed Arizonan wasn’t all that unusual – at least one other person interviewed in the Times story was in her mid-thirties, and evidently willing to spend over 100 hours sleeping on concrete in order to show their devotion to fictional characters half her age (or perhaps the actors portraying those characters, also roughly half her age). However, as one traveled further down the line, the average age of the fans descended out of the pedophile zone and closer to what you’d expect to be the target audience for a movie based on young-adult novels. Roughly half, for reasons that are a mystery to me, were wearing branded cardboard crowns from Burger King.

I stopped to get some pictures, and as I did so an old man on a bike stopped to ask what was going on.

“It’s the premiere for New Moon,” said one of a quartet of black-mascara wearing girls applying the final sprinkles of glitter to their handmade “Team Edward” sign.

“Oh, that’s… good,” said the man, obviously no further enlightened.

I will confess I do not at all understand the logistics of camping out for an event like this. Presumably, one wants to get closer characters/actors that moved you. But if you want to impress “Jacob” or “Edward” (or “Bella,” should you be that way inclined) do you really want to do so smelling like someone who’s been sleeping in the same “Edward ruined it for men” t-shirt on a sidewalk for the better part of a week?

The line stretched all the way around a city block.

In any case, I got whacked with the second-cousin of all migraines last night, and therefore missed the excitement of the actual premiere. Amynah (Team Jacob for those wondering), specifically timed her departure from the lab to check out the madness.

Parking, which that morning had been $8.00 for the day had gone up to $30.00 for the evening. Helicopters clattered overhead. Traffic was chaos, as half the streets in Westwood were either blocked by the police, thronged with fans and stages for the television crews, or slowly draining a thick stream of black stretch limos. There was also a line of young women Amynah described as "VIP party girls" - done up to the nines in short dresses and heels, apparently there in some official capacity, presumably hired to inject some glamour for the television cameras that could offset the tediously unfamous, average-jane fans lining the security fences.

Undisturbed by this the girls – and let me assure you, there was nary a Y chromosome to be seen in that line – were screaming at the blackened windscreens of the limos, waving their signs, clutching laminated pictures of their heroes on popsicle sticks. Sadly, the big stars were in the last limos, so when Amynah went by, no one recognizable was on parade.

Amynah reports that even the hardcore fans were sometimes confused as to who was who, although always retaining a firm grasp on their importance in the canon: “Who’s that?” “Oh, he’s one of the Vulcani. He’s really cute.”

* Part II of my Late Night with Conan experience is coming soon, though I don't know if I can muster the same bile. I'll try.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Conan is at war with Eurasia. Conan has always been at war with Eurasia.

This image most likely belongs to NBC.

There is a technician in Amynah’s lab who arrived in Los Angeles at roughly the same time as we did. Dylan’s originally from Reno, Nevada, and was unsure how long he was going to stay in Los Angeles. He had therefore promised himself that he would ensure himself at least one “showbiz” experience, and so booked himself four tickets for the Late Show with Conan O’Brien. He offered a ticket to Amynah, but her brother and sister were scheduled to be in town at the time. Not to mention, the tickets contained dire warnings about highly restrictive toilet-access conditions to which Amynah's current pregnant state would not permit her to comply.

So her ticket went to me, and the other two went to her other co-worker, Chris, and his wife.

We’d been instructed to be in line no later than 3:30. Apparently this was so that we could go through the essential audience-softening technique of standing around in an iron cage for an hour in the hot sun. Once we were properly dehydrated and footsore, the NBC pages released us from our paddock and herded us, single file towards the studio. And lest you think I mean “single file” in the sense that most grown-ups understand it i.e. small groups of people walking behind one another, let me assure you: they meant single file, like we were in kindergarten lining up for gym class.

After one particularly officious page ordered Dylan and I to separate – one behind a tree, the other in front of it because if one of us stood beside a tree it wouldn’t be single-file anymore I mentally dubbed them Greyshirts. I wasn’t alone in this assessment – the guy behind us said “Jeez, I’m looking around for the guard towers.” He whispered it though, because he didn’t want the Greyshirts to hear.

As we approached the studio, a Greyshirt explained that we would have but one chance to use the bathroom before entering the studio. After that – assuming they were satisfied with how we made it through the metal-detector and frisking - you would have to hold it, until such time that we were released from the confines of the studio.

The Greyshirts directed us to our seats in the very back of the first tier of seats, to the right of the camera above the entrance in this photo. Not bad.

The auditorium filled up, and then we waited. Janitors vacuumed the set, technicians wandered to and fro, music blared at a level that pretty much forbade conversation amongst audience members. In retrospect, this was clearly because they were worried we were formenting a plot. Clearly they were concerned that our previous humiliations had not left us docile enough – the stage was defended by four beefy security guards, arms crossed, glaring at the crowd in front of them. Greyshirts patrolled the aisles, keeping a gimlet eye out for potential transgressors of Order.

More telling than the puffed-up martinets with the peacock badges was the two producers, standing near the stage entrance. They stood, a man and woman dressed with a casual sloppiness that spoke to their authority on the set, surveying the crowd ranged in front of them with hard eyes and distrustful expressions. Even when they spoke to each other, out of the corners of their mouths, they never once dared take their eyes off the rabble.

Clearly, constraining our movements and asserting their control over our bodily functions would not be enough for them. And so, they brought out the warm-up comic to destroy our souls.

“So, any of you Twitter? Yeah? You’re stupid. Go suck on a muffler.”

There was a murmur of protest at that “joke,” but after ten minutes of similar abuse (“You’re name’s Tannis? What, your doctor not know how to spell Janice?”), we were beaten, emotionally drained, unable to resist. It was Stockholm syndrome. We were ready to laugh maniacally when told, sit when told, stand when told, and applaud until our palms bled as long as the flashing white sign told us to.

To test our Pavlovian conditioning, the producers then brought out a test-celebrity, to make sure that we would behave with the appropriate docile mindlessness when a real one arrived. And so Conan’s sidekick Andy Ritcher was brought out to introduce the show.

It was at this point that I realized that NBC was even more evil than events to date had made me believe: when Andy took the mike from the warm-up comic I saw what the distance and strange dimensions of the studio had hidden from my perception before – the warm-up comic was, in fact, a homunculus, probably purpose-bred in a studio backlot, raised to loath humans, nursed on bile and posion. Either that, or Andy Ritcher is a giant of Himalayan proportions, because he could have crushed his colleague with his thumb. In fact, his distaste for the gibbering goblin before him was plain, and the temptation to do just that must have been great. I suspect the only reason he didn’t is because purpose-bred comedy-trolls don’t come cheap.

Andy then introduced the Max Weinberg band (performing without its eponymous leader) which proceeded to further reduce our capacity for resistance, by overwhelming our sense of balance and hearing via a very long, very loud, trumpet-heavy jam session that demanded… I choke on the horror of the words… audience participation. Like the agents of many a totalitarian system before them, Colonel Max Weinberg’s melodic shock-troops ensured compliance of the herd through randomized acts of terror. Shoot one, and the rest will fall in line. We did not know, in that darkened studio, who they would come for next – a neighbour, a loved one, but please, we prayed to our indifferent gods, do not let that iron fist point the microphone at me. Clapping fearfully, shocked under the barrage from the brass-sections, we sat sweating as one by one our comrades were plucked from our number to squall “Baby baby baby” into a mike. It was awful: there were no mercy, no regard for age, race, handicap. It was relentless, cruel, and effective: “Please, take my neighbour, don’t pick me! I’ll tell you anything! Laugh at anything! Just let me live!”

Our capitulation was complete. We were ready for The Presence Conan.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Besides, think of how much cheaper gloves will be!

Does anyone need more baby-related blogging from me? Well, tough, it’s the only thing I got going on in this town until I go to a Conan O’Brian taping on Thursday.

Amynah and I have been slowly acquiring the considerable infrastructure seemingly required by babies – dressers, clothing, bassinets, car seats, diaper pails… the list is endless. While diaper pails, changing tables and bassinets are all very important, there are specific items I see as being relevant to Dad-specific-tasks. Strollers are one, largely because they have wheels, and therefore belong in the domain of things governed by the Y-chromosome.

In preparation for this purchase, both Amynah and I have been accosting random pram-pushing strangers on the street and asking them what they like and dislike about their wheels.

It’s been an interesting experiment in gender perceptions. Most of the women we’ve spoken to recommend strollers based on how easily they fold, whether they have a storage basket, and how heavy they are. Men, on the other hand, seem to like cup holders.

Personally, I seem to be attracted to carriages with big wheels, the better to go hiking in the local mountain parks. The other day, I stopped a woman pushing a stroller that seemed to match what I’d like – not too big, large wheels, fairly stylish. I asked the woman about it, and she said “Yeah, it’s great! Except it doesn’t fold very easily. And it isn’t car seat compatible. And my first child outgrew it very quickly. And it’s way too heavy for me.”

Needless to say, her husband had bought it for her.

I didn’t want Amynah transporting our child on a white elephant. Her choice of stroller, after polling friends and strangers, was the MacLaren Tech XT. I can’t help but laugh at the model name – whenever I hear it I can’t help imagine it in a commercial, zipping in slo-mo over the Salt Flats trailing a dramatic plume of dust.

Image from themaclarenstroller.com

Saturday we drove out to the Babies R’ Us store to pick one up: no luck – they don’t carry it. This was deeply frustrating to me – I had decided to get a stroller, so goddamnit, I wanted to come home with a stroller. So yesterday, I headed out again, walking this time to a baby matériel depot.

I walked in and told the friendly woman at the desk the model I was looking – refraining from using my Monster Truck rally voice (“Maclaren Tech XT …xt… xt… xt… Versus… The Bugaboo Brawler! This Saturday! In the Diaperdrome!”) She immediately pulled one out for me, showed me the various features (it holds a baby… and rolls. No cupholders, iPod stations, or DVD players). Apparently, the promotional material for this particular stroller boasts that it was designed by aircraft engineers.

I would have been happy to have paid and wheeled it out of there on the spot, but she told me that the store had received a recall notice on the stroller just an hour before. Being more irritated at having had walked twenty blocks* only to be thwarted again, I didn’t ask why. The saleslady took my name and number, and promised to call when the strollers had been fixed.

It wasn’t until that evening that we learned what the recall was about. Amynah’s uncle called us in a tizzy, telling us that the MacLaren strollers were being recalled in their millions because they are apparently amputating the fingers of their passengers. Somehow, the saleslady neglected to mention this.

Now, there’s a certain amount of panic about this online , with plenty of people saying they’ll never use MacLaren strollers again. For our part, we’re still going to buy ours.** The defect is only relevant if the child sticks their finger in the hinge while the stroller is being folded – in other words, if they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do, something happens that isn’t supposed to happen. It doesn’t strike me as particularly onerous to keep an eye out to make sure that infant digits are out of harms way when folding the stroller, especially as the problem is now being fixed. Other things that will hurt your fingers when you stick your fingers into them include bagel cutters (me, age 22), car doors (my younger sister, age 3), and dogs (me again, age 7, 9 and 18). Not to downplay the trauma suffered by the parents and children involved, but the world is full of risks and, quite frankly, 12 non-fatal injuries out of the millions of buggies sold over the last several years is a better safety record than pretty much any other household item I can name, including telephones and houseplants.***

Nonetheless, I can’t help but be somewhat concerned. If the MacLaren was designed by aircraft engineers, I’m not quite sure that I’ll be comfortable flying ever again. Maybe next time, they should try using baby-stroller engineers.

* It would have only been 12 blocks, were it not for having to circumvent the iron fencing defending the enormous Mormon temple complex between my apartment and the store. That is, the enormous complex for the Mormon temple – it isn’t a temple complex for enormous Mormons. I think.

** Nonetheless, in honour of its monster truck heritage, I’m going to call it “The Mangler.” Take that, Bugaboo Brawler.

*** Besides, don’t babies’ fingers grow back?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Arguments for helmets

Two years ago at roughly this time, Amynah and I were still rubbing the soreness out of our legs from our 160 km bike ride from Strasbourg to Basel, a trip we undertook, in retrospect, largely so that we could have a crazy story to tell at dinner parties. It was the first trip we had done of that length, and it really opened up the region to us: after that epic, the prospect of pedalling to Obernai, Offenburg or Baden Baden wasn't so forbidding.

We put on a few thousand kilometers on our bikes in France, and desperately wanted to maintain the habit here. So, we bought a rack, roused our Canadian bikes from their three-year slumber in a Montreal friend’s basement, and carted them all the way to Los Angeles, visions of beach-side bike paths dancing in our heads.

When we told Amynah’s Mom we were doing this she laughed, promising us that if we ever used the bikes, she would buy us a baby carrier, in the same way one might say “I’ll eat my hat.” So far, she has nothing to worry about: with Amynah’s pregnancy, she’s been unwilling to hop on her bike, and I’ve little incentive to explore the distances this city requires of its commuters on my own. So the bikes are gathering dust (well, greasy smog residue) on our balcony.

We’re actually not in a bad neighbourhood for biking by local standards – there are dedicated bike lanes that actually go places. Unfortunately, as with most North American cities, motorists tend to see cyclists as their enemies. In our short time here, we’ve met two people that have come out on the losing end of run-ins with cars while on their bikes (to say nothing of someone we know who was run down by an SUV while at a crosswalk).

Earlier this week, a Los Angeles doctor was on trial for aggravated assault, for an incident in which he cut in front of a pair of cyclists and deliberately slammed on his brakes, causing them to smash into his car. He told the responding police officer that he did it to “teach them a lesson” because they were biking side by side, so that he couldn’t pass them.

Now here, as in most jurisdictions, bikes have all of the rights (and responsibilities) that cars do on the road. If you can keep up with traffic, you’re allowed, as a cyclist, to occupy a car lane.

The cyclists had GPS equipment that proved they were traveling at 30 mph when the incident occurred, which was the posted speed limit. Meaning the driver’s defense was, essentially, that he attacked them because they weren’t letting him speed.

He was found guilty.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Anarchist with an accordion

My friend Félicie sent me an email the other day, recommending I watch this video of Renaud's "En Cloque - Renaud is a French singer that Félicie described as "half rocker, half anarchist but very sweet." He made his name writing political protest songs.

"En Cloque" is a French slang terms for pregnant - this tune is about watching his wife progress through her pregnancy. I really have no idea what he's singing about - the lyrics riddled with slang terms I can't follow even with Félicie's helpful translations - but for some reason I can't stop watching this and getting bewilderingly emotional (it is a pretty little tune).

French anarchists obviously are a bit more multi-faceted than their English speaking brethren - I don't see Johnny Rotten sneering his sentimental way through an accordion based-tune about the miracle of childbirth.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hallowe'en on the high seas!

Hallowe’en is almost upon us, and so – following a tradition honoured as much in the breach as the observance, I give you The Mark Reynolds Hallowe’en Tales of History Horrors. Previous editions have featured Alsatian folklore and cannibal Canadians. This time, I’m going back to the maritime well, for the incredibly stupid and horrifying tale of The Saladin.

The Saladin was a barque, built in England but based out of Gaspé in Quebec. In 1843, she was under the command of Sandy McKenzie, who had taken her to Peru to pick up a cargo of several tonnes of guano to deliver to England.

The Figurehead of the Saladin. Image from the Nova Scotia Museum

While in the South American country, McKenzie was accosted by a Mr Fielding, who had recently escaped – along with his son - from a Peruvian prison, and were now stranded in an unfriendly country without funds. Taking pity on a fellow English-speaker – even one with so sketchy a history - McKenzie agreed to allow the unfortunate duo to work for their passage out of Latin America.

McKenzie should have listened to his Mother: Never pick up a hitchhiker.

Once aboard, Fielding learned that in addition to the reeking piles of excrement in the hold, the Saladin was carrying a substantial shipment of Peruvian silver - bars and coins - across the Atlantic. Fielding decided that he would like that silver to be his own.

Mckenzie’s poor judgment of character apparently did not stop with his dinner guests: within a matter of days, Fielding and his son were able to recruit half of the Saladin’s crew into a ruthless mutiny. With calculated brutality Fielding and his new allies butchered the officers and half the crew of the vessel, throwing the corpses overboard.

The Saladin was now an outlaw vessel – a floating rat’s nest stuffed with birdshit and manned by murderers, thieves, mutineers and pirates. Worse, they were murderers, thieves, mutineers and pirates with serious trust issues. With weeks ahead before any landfall could be made, the brigands made a pact: all weapons – swords, firearms and blades – would be thrown overboard.

The pact made, the sailors made to sail to an isolated cove where they could abondon ship, part ways, and spend their ill-gotten gain. But then one of them searched Fielding’s cabin, and discovered a brace of pistols. Clearly, the chief mutineer was not playing by the rules.

Within the day of leading the mutiny against Sandy McKenzie, Fielding joined him in the dark Atlantic, followed shortly thereafter by his son, despite the boy’s pleas for mercy.

Now there were only six crew left – Fielding, his son, and all the officers were dead. Unfortunately for the dirty-half dozen, they had not thought to spare the life of anyone with any knowledge of navigation. I repeat: they killed the navigator, leaving no one on board who knew how to drive the poo boat.

So, instead of following the original plan and sneaking into an secluded and empty cove, the Saladin drifted into Country Harbour, Guysborough County, a small fishing port on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, running aground on a rocky point. The locals were suspicious that the name of the ship had been inexpertly obscured, (kind of like taking the plates off your car), and that the boat was remarkably understaffed, and that all offers of help were rebuffed by the mysterious vessel’s hostile crew. So they called in the authorities.

The Saladin killers were brought to trial – four were found guilty and hanged. As murderers, their bodies were not interred in a proper cemetery, and instead were buried under a crossroads – their corpses (possibly) further mutilated by being impaled on an iron spike before burial, as was common practice at the time. Two are believed to be resting under the sidewalk by the Public Library on Spring Garden Road in Halifax.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The universe still exists. You're welcome.

This girl barely came up to my knee. I wouldn't try this even if you put me in a suit of armor first.

We had our first visitors this week – our friend Chihiro, from Amynah’s former lab, and Brigitte, her former boss. Brigitte didn’t stay with us, but as she has many scientific collaborators here in California, she spends a month here every year to touch base and recharge her batteries.

On Saturday, she took us to Venice Beach, where we were hoping to gawk at the assembled freaks. Amynah, in particular, was hoping to go to Muscle Beach, haven for those whose anatomy requires topographic maps to describe. Sadly, the temperatures were just cool enough that most of them were flexing to keep warm in their gyms, with the exception of one barrel-chested guy in roller-skates and a Star-Spangled speedo, whose intimidating scowl was considerably undercut by the fact that he was holding a radio blasting Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely.

The Venice Beach boardwalk is a circus of jewelry sellers, noxious clouds of incense, medical marijuana dispensaries, and street performers of unreliable quality. There’s a skateboard park, where we watches a serious four year old girl whip around an empty pool like she was born with wheels on her feet. I would have been jealous, but while it seemed effortless, her expression made it look like she’d rather be doing her taxes.

At one point, we all sat near the water’s edge, watching sailboats in the distance. As we chatted, a pair of girls in bikinis came in our direction. One stood in the water, the other got ready to take her picture: as a wave came in, the girl in the water jumped up, kicking up her heels and putting on her “laughing” face – striking the kind of pose you see in fashion magazines when they’re trying to capture “carefree youth.”

It was one of the more “meta” moments I’d ever witnessed: they weren’t having fun – they were playing at having fun, mimicking photos of people pretending to have fun. I would have taken a picture of them taking a picture of something they’d seen in a picture, but I was afraid the paradox would cause the universe to collapse in on itself. Plus, I didn’t want to look like a pervert.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Of course, I can still only drive one car at a time.

Anyone want more driver's permit's stories? No? Tough, it's all I got.

When I converted my Quebec driver's permit for a French one in 2007, it was a straight exchange - I marched into the prefecture with the appropriate documents and a photo, handed them over, and a week later I received a cheap-looking piece of pink paper granting me leave me to drive the roads of La Republique.

When I returned to North America, things were not so simple, but since I had a Canadian permit on record, I didn't need to turn in my French one. So, now I have a Canadian and a French permit.

California doesn't exchange permits with any jurisdiction, so when you show up from out of state you have to, at a minimum, take a written test. If you're from out of country, you have to do a road test as well.

Mine was Monday. I showed up bright and early, taking my place near the head of line. An employee came out, and demanded my registration and insurance information, then told me to wait for the guy who would be testing me. I sat in my little Honda, looking up at the approach of… the same guy who had the confrontation with the far-sighted Russian the month before.

He turned out to be very nice when not defending the integrity of the DMV eye charts, and I did fine, but it was strange being re-tested for something I’ve been doing for half my life. I felt like I was being judged by my composure. Should I make small talk, or would he mark me down for being inattentive? If I’m too quiet, will he think I’m too nervous? All in all, it was a little like being on a date, complete with the concerns about being seen as “too fast.”

That said, I really had nothing to worry about. They can’t confiscate the permit issued by Nova Scotia (let alone my back-up permit from France): If I flunked, I’d simply have driven home.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

All right, I'm calming down now.

Wow! I want to thank everyone who left advice or encouragement on my last post, as well as those of you who emailed me. It’s all very encouraging, and has helped steady my nerves a great deal - it's comforting to know that babies don't necessarily turn your life upside down. I can deal with merely being knocked sideways. However, if any of you have more ideas or thoughts, keep them coming – they were much appreciated by us both.

While Amynah understandably nervous about labour, she’s much calmer about the “ever after” part than I am. For Mothers, I think there’s a certain confidence about the fundamentals: warmth, love, and food are biologically provided for. Dads lack the same innate knowledge – I’ve seen our daughter on the ultrasound, and felt her kicking, but it’s an intellectual understanding. And since I lack the anatomical tools to provide for my daughter’s basic needs, I turn to the traditional solution of homo habilus: somehow, I am certain, that if I can just acquire the right stuff, I can make everything all right.

Comparing the barren, utilitarian space that is “the baby’s room” with the rainbow-bedecked fantasy suites that fill parenting magazines in our doctor’s waiting room was filling me with anxiety: shouldn’t there be colour in there? A Hanging Garden of stimulating mobiles? Calming pictures of barnyard animals and puppies? We have an open staircase in our apartment with rough concrete steps: shouldn’t I coat those with rubberized foam or something? Is it crazy to want to sand the corners off all of our furniture? (Yes, it is).

Of course, I turn to technology because there’s not much else I can do, other than make life easy for Amynah. Also, to be frank, I am not completely at ease with children, especially babies. Nor are they completely at ease with me. A couple of weeks ago, we bought a bassinet from a woman in Brentwood. Her four-year-old daughter was enchanted with Amynah, laughing whenever Amynah laughed. As those of you who know Amynah can guess, this meant the girl was laughing a lot. In contrast, whenever I looked in the kid’s direction, she would cling to her mother’s leg, saying at one point “Mommy, I don’t want to see that man anymore.”

Sure, I was a stranger. But a mere month before, my friend’s similarly-aged daughter had done her level best to ignore me during our recent visit, while fawning over Amynah: "Amynah, do you want to see my room? Amynah, can you read me a story? Amynah, are you going to stay here?" Though she'd met me before, I was wallpaper to her. In fact, the only time she deigned to recognize my presence at all was in the morning, when Amynah was sleeping in. The little girl looked at me: “So, Mark…” she said, pushing aside her bowl of cereal. “Yes?” I replied, grateful to be acknowledged, ready to be the star. She put me in my place immediately: “What do you think Amynah would like for breakfast?” Apparently, she thought I was Amynah’s manservant, as she later ordered me to water the plants in front of her house.

Then there was the little French girl who tried to blind me. It’s not just the ladies I fail to charm: my friend’s son, when two years old, pressed himself into a corner in abject terror when left in a room with me, and the following year refused to say my name – I was just the guy living in Amynah’s apartment. He also head-butted my nose, but that was an accident. Probably.

Of course, babies are a different kettle of fish, and I’m sure ours will like me just fine. If not, I’ve already started buying stuff to win her over: who wouldn’t love the guy who puts this doll in their crib?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Shifting gears: help! baby!

I’ve been told by more than one person that my increasingly erratic posts here have been trending negative since my arrival in Los Angeles. That’s not at all why I started this thing – there’s plenty of cranky people elsewhere on the internet, after all – so today, I’ll try and switch gears.

As I mentioned here to zero fanfare a few months ago, Amynah and I are expecting a baby girl sometime in December (I say “sometime” as our various French medical professionals gave us two different dates, our calculations gave us a third, and our new American doctor gave us a fourth. I feel that I should start a betting pool).

Like most new parents, Amynah and I have absolutely no idea what we’re in for, or what we’re doing. We’ve picked up a couple of stuffed animals, and a meager selection of clothes, and a couple of things like a bassinet and some sort of vibrating baby-massage chair doohickey that I wish was ten times larger.

We’re many thousands of kilometers away from our immediate families and closest friends, and I, for one, am terrified. So I’m throwing this one out to you, dear readers. After all, all you are parents, or had them, have kids or were kids.

Give me your advice, both technical, emotional, practical and philosophical. What courses/videos/books were helpful? What advice did you get that was helpful? What was useless? How did you get through labour? What do you wish you had known, getting into parenting? What do you wish your parents had known, when they got into it? What are the frustrations? What are unexpected joys? What gets you through the long nights of crying (please assume that “coffee” and “love” have already occurred to us). How do you change a diaper? How do you trick your spouse into taking your turn to change the diaper?

How do you raise a good person?

I realize nobody is born to be a “Mom” or “Dad” – you’re born to be whoever you are, and the Parent/Role Model part is figured out as you go along. But as long as I have readers – even if most of you never comment – I figured I’d try to learn from your collective wisdom.

So please, whether you have kids or not, or normally read me hear or not - leave a comment, or email me your thoughts –big picture, small picture, whatever you got. It’s either you, or my daughter will be raised according to the wisdom of Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Well, isn't that... nice.

This is the Los Angeles Cathedral - also called Notre Dame (well, "Our Lady of the Angels"). They aren't fooling anyone.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Star watching in LA

Smog over LA. To be fair, there are fires in the region and actual fog near the coast, so it looks worse than it is.

I posted about this on my French blogalready, but here it is again in English…

We visited the Griffiths Observatory this past weekend, as part of a massive tour of the city organized by a colleague of Amynah’s. The Observatory is a fascinating place: it was built in the 1930s as a “public observatory” – that is, one not to be monopolized by scientists, but rather by amateurs keen to discover the wonders of the galaxy themselves.

Hollywood sign, as seen from the Observatory

It is still used as such. The night we showed up, the lawn in front of the facility was crowded with amateurs with their own telescopes, some of whom were there with their expensive devices solely in order that visiting children could peep into the cosmos.

We weren’t there for the science (though I was sorely tempted to check out the film in the Leonard Nimoy Theater) but rather for the view of the city.

One very, very, small part of Los Angeles, as seen from the mountains

The sun sets quickly, and early this far south, so we were able, in the course of half an hour, to sip our drinks while watching the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles skulk in and out of the thick smog, witness a tremendous sunset, and then watch the streets emerge from the gloom with their endless strings of lights.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Risky business

Health care reform is a huge debate in the U.S. right now. As Canadians who spent the last few years in France, Amynah and I are still grappling our way through the American system – learning the differences between HMOs and PPOs, and the complexities of private health insurance.

So far, our only direct experience with the medical system was last week, when we had our first appointment with Amynah’s new obstetrician. The contrast with France was astounding.

We had visited several different doctors in France – our GP, a specialist when I broke my arm, and the “gynecologue” to monitor Amynah’s pregnancy. In each case, the doctors in question had exactly zero staff. They took their own appointments, did their own paperwork, answered their own phones. And they were, without exception, very good at what they did.

When we showed up in our new doctor’s office it was a bit of a shock. There were three people behind the reception desk and a nurse’s aide we had to get through before seeing the doctor, who was accompanied by an intern and who handed us off to a nurse for the ultrasound.

This, in itself, was not too surprising – it’s a hospital-based practice, and not shockingly overstaffed when compared to a Canadian practice. Still, our insurance is paying for it all.

What did shock me was the feeling that we had walked onto a car lot. It’s a for-profit health system, operating in a legal system that allows for massive lawsuits. Which means that it is in the doctor’s interest to “sell” you on tests that will a) earn the practice money and b) further cover people’s butts if things go wrong.

In this case, the tests we were being sold were for inherited disorders. According to the papers we were given, the American Geneticists Association recommends that everyone be tested for these illnesses – impeccable family histories notwithstanding - at a cost of roughly $800 each.

The documents we were given threw up some scary numbers for the diseases “One in 150 women is a carrier” for Fragile X (which, incidentally, is far higher figure than I’ve seen online, leaving me to feel even more manipulated) was one number that was particularly emphasized. That the actual incidence of the disease was only one in 4,000 was barely mentioned at all. Amynah and I declined the tests, at which point we were forced to rethink our decision by having to sign a ominously-worded waiver absolving the doctors of liability for our choice.

All of which seemed designed to push prospective parents – nervous and overwhelmed as they are – to shell out money for tests that they probably do not need. Meaning the technicians, labs, doctors and pharma-companies are - 3,999 out of 4,000 – wasting their time with tests that needn’t be done, however profitable they might be. While those resources are being consumed, the parents-to-be are sitting on pins and needles and out of pocket to the tune of $2,400, money which might have gone to their child’s college fund.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mountains and molehills

This weekend, friends of our from Amynah’s lab took us on a massive tour of Los Angeles, the only way that Los Angeles can be seen – by car. We covered some 130 miles (which is… errr… 200 km?).

The most interesting thing we saw (in the picture above), for me, was this dune in a park near Manhattan Beach, a ritzy part of town south of Santa Monica.

College and high school football is a huge - huge deal here. Roughly half the LA Times sports pages are dedicated to the sport.

This park, with its enormous sand dune, was used by a select group of athletes in the know. They would race up the unstable, mushy slope as a means of strengthening their calves and thigh muscles, the better to do battle with their meathead peers on the athletics field.

However, with the internet, word got out. Soon, athletes from all over Los Angeles were converging on the little park. And they brought their friends, their girlfriends, their cars, and their car stereos.

This picture has nothing to do with this post. This thing isn't a real island - it's manmade, built to hold an oil rig.

The local residents were somewhat discomfited by this invasion. The newcomers were loud, they stayed all hours, and their presence denied others the use of the park. Unavoidably, there were class and racial elements to the conflict – the locals were rich and mostly white, the invaders poor, and mostly black.

And so, the authorities solved the problem by putting up a fence, forbidding anyone the use of the dune.

I think all of this could have been avoided if people here just played hockey instead.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Yeah well... so's your mother.

The crowded fountain in the apartment courtyard

I suspect there are few places in the world better for people-watching than Los Angeles. The city is renowned for attracting the odd, off-kilter, and bizarre.

One of these is my landlord.

Our landlord was German who spend part of his early life not far from Strasbourg (he was the son of a factory manager posted to Lorraine in 1940, until the family suddenly had to leave in 1944. “We were refugees from the West,” he told us, seemingly expecting sympathy. No comment.) He now owns our building and at least one other in our neighbourhood, as well as a mysterious “business” in Chile.

He is rich as Croesus, and owns at least three identical Mercedes Benz (white, black and red). He wears a cowboy hat at all times, as well as a Bolero tie fashioned from some kind of animal horn. He wears two $15,000 watches, one on each arm – one is set to German time, the other to local time.

As a landlord, he’s not bad – the place is well maintained, and most of the initial problems we had moving in were dealt with expeditiously. Nonetheless, I am plotting against him.

Why? Well, the day we viewed the apartment, after chatting about eastern France (and glossing over what, precisely, his father’s affiliations were that earned him, at age 28, the strategically important position of manager of a steel mill in occupied territory during wartime), he asked where in Canada we were from. I told him Halifax.

“Oh, Halifax, I have been there!” he said.

“Great! Were you on vacation?” I asked, expecting polite noises about my hometown’s many charms.

“No, no. My friend was visiting, and he had a heart attack. I went there to visit him in the hospital,” he said.

“Oh, that’s too bad…” I began, but he interrupted me.

“Let me tell you something about Halifax. I’ve been to many countries all over the world…” he began. I began a smile, expecting that he would finish “and the people in Nova Scotia were by far the friendliest!”


“… and the women in Halifax were the ugliest I’d ever seen. Really. The portrait of the Queen in the hospital was the best looking one I saw the whole time I was there.”

Now, Dear Readers, I would like to be able to report that at this point I drew myself up to my full height and launched into a furious defense of the womenfolk of my home province. But understand: we had not yet signed the lease. I had no home, Amynah really wanted the apartment, and this Stetson-wearing pseudo-cowboy held the key to my future comfort.

“Oh, well…” I smiled weakly, “I guess you were unlucky then.”

Forgive me. Though in my defense, I'm considering hiding a dead fish in one of his lovely cars.