Thursday, January 28, 2010

Baby boxing: Nano-weight division

In this corner, hailing from Canada and Los Angeles, wearing the brown onesie, weighing in at 8 pounds or thereabouts, Sana "Mommy's Little Monster". In the other corner, hailing from France and San Diego, wearing the white pajamas, Leon "Teddy Bear's Pique-nique."

Round one:

"Though smaller than her opponent, Sana is clearly at ease on home turf, refusing to even look in her opponent's direction. Additionally, at nearly twice Leon's age, Sana is counting on her experience and better gross motor control to dominate this match. Leon, understandably keeps his distance in the early going, but, eventually squirms to within flailing distance. Big mistake! Sana starts the hostilities with a straight jab to the face. It's on!"

"Leon isn't hurt - he shakes it off, with his Mom cheering from the ringside. He attempts to close the distance, and retaliates with a sucker punch to the back of Sana's head."

"Sana's unfazed, and doesn't even notice the blow. But... Oh! She changes tactics, and surprises Leon again with a shot to the gut."

"Hoping to use his superior size to his advantage, Leon's presses the attack, and attempts to disorient Sana with a ringing jab on the ear,"

"If Sana's shaken, she doesn't show it. Her retaliation is quick, and brutal - she ends the contest with a sharp uppercut to the jaw. It's over!"

All photos from our friend Candice. Her son and Sana actually got on very well, as far as we could tell.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A shady tale.

Yes, we're on a West Coast beach. No, it isn't California. I will compose a limerick in honour of the person who guesses where we are

See those sunglasses I’m wearing? They're prescription I’ve had those things for years – bought them in Montreal, at the urging of a fabulous salesman who assured they made me look “edgy.” I’m fairly certain he was simply trying to unload his stock from the 1970s and pegged me – accurately – as the kind of guy who would be flattered to be seen as possessing any quality that could remotely be described as edge-like.

While I do quite like them – you don’t often see glasses like this outside of seventies cop shows – they’ve always been a little loose on my face. Over the years, the arms have become particularly floppy, meaning that they are constantly falling off my shirt or head when I need to bend over.

Today, Amynah, my brother-in-law and I were running some errands around town. As we were pulling out of the parking garage and into the sunlight, I went to grab the glasses that had been, I thought, hanging from my shirt. They weren’t there.

I pulled out into traffic, reaching around my immediate area the driver’s seat, my various jacket pockets, on the floor. Nothing. I pulled over, and searched Sana’s car seat, the trunk, the grocery bags. No luck (well, in finding them - it probably was lucky I didn't have an accident doing this while driving without being able to see.

Finally, Amynah convinced me to return to the store where we’d just been. WE pulled back into the parking garage, and slowly cruised by the spot where we’d parked, now occupied by a SUV. Behind it’s rear wheel, Amynah spotted a twisted metal object, roughly where I’d been standing when folding Sana’s stroller.

“I think that’s them!” she said, excitedly. My stomach dropped – it looked like this was going to be worse than not finding them all. I stopped the car and dashed out, grabbing the glasses and handed them to Amynah, not even looking at them.

“Oh…” she said, solemnly. “I don’t know if they’re going to make it.”

I pulled the car into an empty spot. Sure, my glasses had been run over by two tons of Lexus, but I knew we’d been through too much, in too many places, for this to be the end.

“No! No! I can fix them,” I said. Gently, lovingly, I bent the arms back into position, aligned the frame, and pushed the lens – both, miraculously undamaged - back into place. I put them on: they fit better than they had in years.

I have another pair of regular glasses that have feeling a little loose lately. I think I’ll go leave them in the driveway for a while, see if that helps.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A rose by any other name would probably be something dirty

The very first article I ever sold was a description of a trans-Canada foot race that captivated the country in 1921.* I’d originally written it for my local paper, to be published roughly to coincide with the anniversary of the race’s finish.

They were interested, but in the end passed, as they’d already filled that spot in that week’s paper. I, having having already written the piece, and not wanting all those hours in the Nova Scotia Archives to have gone to waste, decided to see if there were any magazines that might take it. As it happens, I found a magazine that specialized in Canadian history. I mailed it to them, and promptly forgot about it.

At this point, I knew I was moving to Montreal to be with Amynah, but was living in a humid basement apartment with my friends Jon and Sue. One day, a letter arrived, bearing the letterhead of the magazine to which I’d sent my article. Jon had picked up the mail that day, and he passed me the thin envelope with a sympathetic expression on his face – if I’d got the commission, surely the envelope would have a contract in it?

Reluctantly, I took it from him, and opened it. I scanned the first few lines – then scanned them again. Then I let out a girlish shriek of delight: not only did they want the article, but they were going to pay me roughly three times what the newspaper would have.** I immediately called Amynah who – for reasons I cannot recall – was entertaining my friend Tim, passing through Montreal at the time. And thus I got to share with some of my best friends in the world, at the very moment when I set upon my career: I was going to be a writer. For real.

The magazine that took my commission changed my life: not only did it confirm to me that I had the chops to be a professional, but it also lit a passion in me for Canadian history. And it earned my loyalty: I went on to write several stories on odd corners of Canada’s past – Nazi librarians, forgotten Portuguese settlements on Cape Breton, draft dodgers hiding in seminaries, cannibals in Quebec , abstract artists in Saskatchewan… to name a few.***

And yet, without fail, whenever I told anyone the name of the magazine, they would titter, giggle, guffaw, and smirk. Because yes, the second-oldest magazine in Canada, and the only general interest publication solely devoted to our nation’s history is named for our national animal. The Beaver.

It is with great sorrow that I find that The Beaver is changing its name to… ergh… “Canada’s History.” A little on the nose, no? It's a little like calling "The Wizard of Oz" "Girl gets bonked on the head and has allegorical dream about the gold standard." In any case, it doesn't do justice to a magazine that's been going from strength to strength for the past decade or so.

More than being left utterly cold by the new name, I'm saddened to learn that our national rodent – the foundation of the fur trade that played such and important role in creating the country – was cast aside because, thanks to the wonders of this connected age, a few thousand dirty minded people kept washing up in the wrong place. I mean, in my mind, part of the whole point of a magazine about Canada’s history is to be above that sort of thing, and hold true to, well, Canada’s history. Most especially a magazine originally founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company which made it’s fortune selling the pelts of that proud and noble animal.

Because the magazine has such an important role in my own life, I will admit I feel the name change is a bit of a personal betrayal, and am thus probably more than a little biased. Lord knows, I was heartily sick of explaining that I was not, in fact, a pornographer when I wrote for them – I can only imagine what the full-time employees put up with.

But surely, isn’t there some chance that some sweaty-palmed 14 year old looking for nude pictures of Samantha Steele instead find an article on Canada’s most famous Mountie and realize, like I did, that there’s more to Canadian history than drunken Scots politicians and (probably also drunk) voyageurs ? Couldn’t the world use a few more educated perverts?

* The race was won by the only woman participating and – technically – her husband.
** I resold the piece a few years later to the same newspaper, so – yay me!
*** And I will name a few more, at great length, if anyone asks.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Fire proof

I like to think that, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve developed certain standards, and a particular tone that you, my readers have hopefully come to enjoy. Namely, aside from one or two forays into Canadian politics, the topics here have usually consisted of a) odd historical tidbits or b) me doing something stupid and hurting myself.

The latter are, understandably, much funnier than the former. What I don’t do, for the most part, is make fun of other people, except in the mildest and most affectionate of ways.

All of this is by way of a prelude to a post that is somewhat out of character for me, so I apologize in advance.

As most of you know, Amynah is an Ismaili Muslim. We agreed, long before she was a glimmer in her Daddy’s eye, that Sana would be as well (“informed indifferentism” not being a viable alternative). And so, once the bulk of Amynah’s immediate family had arrived in Los Angeles, we had her “Baiyat” – basically a baptism – in the library of the local Ismaili prayer hall.

I won’t go into the details of the ceremony, first because it was pretty much exactly like a Catholic baptism, and second because the relevant prayers were all in Gujurati so I didn’t fully understand what was happening. It was an emotionally moving moment though, and I was proud to be there.

After the ceremony, we had Amynah’s relatives and the few lab-mates that were in town over to help us dispose of the barrels of curry Amynah’s Mom had rustled up for the occasion.

Among the attendees was a girl I will call Azin. She was, technically, a former volunteer in Amynah’s lab. She was originally from Iran, where she apparently trained as a medical professional of some sort.

She had joined Amynah’s lab a few months before Amynah as a paid assistant, hired by Amynah’s generous boss, who hoped to help her in her planned application for grad school.

Sadly, it didn’t really work out: as Amynah explained it to me, Azin’s English comprehension made it impossible to keep up with her boss’s scattershot management style, and he grasp of the business of the lab meant she needed a lot of guidance: ”A lot” emphasized Amynah.

Amynah’s boss wasn’t willing to just kick the girl to the curb, and so he agreed to keep her on as a volunteer. Except that she still didn’t have anything to do, and no one in the lab wanted to be saddled with hammering through the language barrier to help her out. In the end, her presence was a hindrance to the business of the lab, and so, regretfully, her boss had to tell her she was no longer welcome. She was fired, as a volunteer.

Except, she came back. And she still comes back. Every week, wandering amongst the beakers and microscopes of the lab like a perfectly coiffed automaton, just waiting for someone to take pity on her and tell her to do something. No one ever does.

When Azin showed up at the party, I was delighted: I desperately wanted to meet the only person I’d ever heard of who’d been fired from volunteering – and somehow been impervious too it.

She was the strangest person I’d ever seen.

First, she was beautiful – there’s no arguing that. But speaking to her was deeply unsettling – her eyes, always somewhat glazed, were pointed just slightly to the side of your face, as if her home planet was instructing via a holograph over one’s shoulder. Her posture was ramrod straight, and she did not walk so much as glide. She was like a porcelain doll, and about as lively.

The most basic interactions escaped her. At one point, Amynah’s Mom approached her, and said “Please, have some food,” pointing at the groaning table and giving her a plate.

“Yes, thank you, I am having a lovely time,” replied Azin, uncomprehendingly, plate dangling uselessly from her hand.

Amynah’s Mom was flummoxed: “No… food! Eat!” she said, pushing her unresisting guest to the table. I didn’t watch the rest of the interaction, but I wouldn’t have been the least surprised if my mother-in-law had to then explain to our guest what Earthling food was for.

Later, seeing her conversationally stranded, I went over to speak to her, asking where in Iran she was from. Tehran, it turned out. Making polite small talk, I said I’d like to visit her country someday.

Her eyes snapped into focus: “Where?”

“Umm…” I said, flailing for some Iranian geography beyond Tehran, “Well… I hear the mountains are nice.” (I figured if Iran has a nuclear facility in a mountain, they probably have a few more peaks, and hey… mountains are nice everywhere).

“Yes! We have mountains. They are in the north and the west. We also have deserts. These are in the center. We also have beaches, both north and in the south, but the ones in the southwest are nicest,” she said, gazing into the middle distance, as if reciting from a cue card.

“Oh… that’s nice. So… ummm…” I was completely unnerved. Was she going to tell me Iran’s GDP next? But she had already moved on.

“Tell me. Why is there a pretzel on your tree? What does this mean?” she asked suddenly, pointing to an Alsatian novelty ornament on the tree.

Relieved, I replied “Oh, that’s from where Amynah and I used to live in France. It’s a common food there, so that was kind of a souvenir.”

Azin locked eyes with me, unblinkingly: “Yes, but what does it mean?”

“It’s… I don’t know… from Alsace… food… pretzel… friendship?” I stammered.

“Friendship?” she inquired, relentlessly.

“Yeah… you know, you have the two arms… linking together…..” I offered, making it up as I went along. “Like a handshake!” I finished lamely.

She nodded, as if I’d confirmed something for her, and then wandered off to peer at a section of our kitchen wall.

It turns out that I had been the last person at the party to try to speak to her, and everyone else had had similarly unsettling experiences. Soon after our interaction, Azin decided that she had observed enough of our planet’s customs and made to leave. One by one, ramrod straight, she glided over to Amynah, then Amynah’s Mom and Dad, then her Uncle, graciously and formally informing them that she had had a lovely time, thank you for inviting her, and congratulations on the beautiful new addition to your family.

However rote these formalities, so strange and otherworldly was her manner, a hush fell over the room, and every eye on her as if she was an albino tiger or equally exotic and unpredictable creature. Anyone else would have been self-conscious in the silence – but she was completely unruffled by the scrutiny. When she walked out the door, it was as if a spell had been broken. There was a titter of nervous laughter as the tension broke.

Bewildered, Amynah’s Uncle glared at me: “What the hell was wrong with her?”

I replied, looking at the door through which Azin had departed, yet somehow failed to close properly: “That, Habib, is a living legend. That was the girl who could not be fired.”