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.