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.