Happy Halloween

October 31, 2020

A woman dressed as a human-sized banana sat breastfeeding a baby, dressed as a bumblebee, next to the little kids’ play structure at Ossington-Old Orchard Public School. Nearby a scavenger hunt unfolded – princesses, pirates, a Super Mario, gathered around a guy dressed in a green leotard that did not quite flatter his body, with his green eye-mask pushed up over his forehead.

Under a maple tree a family sat eating burgers.

A group of Brits played cricket with tennis balls behind the Catholic school. Three guys stood chatting in the field, one nursing a can of beer; the batsman hit a fly ball and one guy stopped talking long enough to catch the ball and casually toss it back.

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The two chests

October 16, 2020

Paul, my father, liked to build furniture from cedar; mostly from Western red cedar driftwood he collected on the beaches of Vancouver Island. He built a chest out of cedar. Like most of the stuff  he built, the chest has no right angles. It’s made from hand-hewn slabs of cedar knit together with pegs. A single hinge runs along the entire back of the lid. Twisted driftwood makes up the handles. He put casters under the chest, and used to roll the chest back and forth from under his tall bed, in the strange little shack on a farm in eastern Ontario where he spent his summers in the last decade of his life.

Chests, as an archetype, hold the promise of riches. Pirates bury treasure in chests. A chest, by its very nature, keeps stuff safe. A chest’s owner might lift the chest onto a stagecoach, or a galleon; therefore, the chest must be durable.

My father was in many senses a nomad – often on the road, and owning nothing that anyone would call a house. Yet he built a chest that does not travel well. My father died in the summer of 2018. After my father’s memorial, in October, I put the chest, heavily loaded, in my car, took it to my farm and put it in the barn. The sides came apart a bit during the chest’s travels.

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The postcard

September 9, 2020

Years ago in the National Post I wrote a series about my childhood. My father helped me with the research. He produced photocopies of dozens of letters both by him and to him, during the period he spent in prison in California, in 1969, 1970 and 1971.

When my father died about two years ago, my siblings agreed that I could have a chest full of his papers. Paul, the chest revealed, kept hundreds of letters and drawings from his children. He also preserved a remarkable trove of letters written by himself, which the recipients apparently gave back to him over the years.

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The size of my pole

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his early days as a writer in Paris, Hemingway recounts how he acted as a consultant for his fellow author, Scott Fitzgerald. In the chapter, “A Matter of Measurements,” Fitzgerald worries about the size of his equipment: “Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy.”

I felt a bit like Fitzgerald the other day. Our dog and I went into the forest at our property in Madoc with my bow saw, to cut down a cedar pole for a new clothesline. I selected the largest tree that I could carry out of the woods on my shoulder. I felled the tree, lopped its branches, and brought it home. I dug a hole, put the pole in the hole and affixed bracing to place the pole straight before pouring cement.

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Etobicoke, ma belle

August 31, 2020

I don’t go to Etobicoke that often. Etobicoke got a bad name after our daughter spent four years at the Etobicoke School of the Arts. From my experience, high school can poison you on any place.

Etobicoke is the first suburb west of downtown Toronto. The other night my wife and I got on our bicycles to ride to a dinner party for a friend turning 50, on a road called Park Lawn. We rode down to the Martin Goodman Trail, the path that runs along the shore of Lake Ontario, and turned west. We crossed the Humber Bay Arch Bridge. Twin arches made from steel tubes painted white support 44 stainless-steel hangers that hold up the bridge deck. What’s unique about this bridge, apart from its graceful design, is that it’s only for pedestrians and bikes. No cars allowed. When David Miller was Mayor of Toronto, someone asked him for his favourite spot in the city. Miller singled out this bridge, completed in 1994. Once you cross the Humber River (as this bridge does) you are in Etobicoke.

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Mr. & Mrs. Big

July 9, 2020

One advantage of Covid-19 is the opportunity for me to work in the back yard in the shade of our trees. This morning with spring in my step I strung out the extension cord and plugged in my laptop. At about the same time, a big hulking green tanker-type truck parked outside the wall of the Cadbury chocolate factory across from our house. A worker in overalls fired up the truck, from Smits Tank Maintenance Inc., and stuck a hose into a hole in the factory wall. A loud growling groan came out of the truck… and kept coming out.

Every once in awhile the growl gets deeper and throatier. The din fills the neighbourhood; work in the back yard is out of the question.

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My secret sanity spot in a pandemic

May 18, 2020

We have a lab. Labs like to swim. We have a cottage. When the ice melts on our neighbour’s pond, our dog swims there. But in obedience to the instructions of public health authorities, we have stayed away from our cottage this spring.

My therapist meets me Friday mornings at 10 a.m. in a lowrise office building at Spadina and Bloor streets. The pandemic has closed her office.

This confluence of factors led me this spring to discover a lovely, wild place in Toronto. Circumstance can be the engine of discovery.

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Bay Street Ghost Town

April 24, 2020

The other day I went for a bicycle ride to the epicentre of Toronto’s financial district. I wanted to experience that particular spot, about a month into strict government pronouncements asking people to maintain social distance to defeat the novel coronavirus.

It’s a great time to ride a bike downtown: the streets are deserted. It’s pretty incredible to see what a virus can do the pulsing heart of Canadian capitalism. There is absolutely nobody around. The streetcars are vacant. The taxicab stands, normally clogged with cabbies looking for fares, are empty.

I went to First Canadian Place, the home of the Toronto Stock Exchange. At first I thought the security guard at the big white marble front desk would stop me, but he didn’t look up. I stood there, on a Monday at lunch hour: the sole human in the vast lobby with 10-metre ceilings. The Bank of Montreal bank machines stood glowing against a wall, but had no customers.

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Pouring cement in a pandemic

April 23, 2020

Odd detail about this pandemic: Most of the economy is shut down. My office is closed. I have to work from home. At the hardware store yellow caution tape prevents customers from browsing. Yet despite all these restrictions, apparently Toronto needs an unincumbered and continuous flow of cement.

This came to my attention on Friday when I went to drop off our car for an oil change in the east end. I sailed through empty streets, passing shuttered shops and schools and deserted playgrounds. At the garage, all the doors were locked. A mailbox contained envelopes. A sign asked motorists to fill in their name, phone number, the car’s odometre reading, and check off the service required. I left the key in the envelope and slipped it all through a slot.

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Nothing but blue skies

April 16, 2020

I woke up in a grouchy mood. Can’t leave town because of coronavirus, can’t see friends, newspaper full of bad news about the stock market, the spreading disease, the more than 100 deaths overnight across the country. My sweetie asked me at breakfast to list three things I was grateful for; I growled before I answered.

Then the dog and I went out for a run. We waved to the letter carrier. Morning sun glittered in the crystalline, still, clear sky. The blue air tasted clear as the Arctic circle. No planes buzzed. The roads are empty; it is rarely worth it to wait for a light to change. My spirits quickly brightened. We ran east into the morning sun and then down through Trinity Bellwoods Park. We waved to couples and their dogs.

Running towards home, we bumped into a young woman we know because her dog, Zeus, was for a long time a friend to our dog. Zeus died a couple of years ago. We have remained friends, though we now rarely cross paths. She is a tall woman with long black hair, and wore an a stylish black wool coat on this chilly spring morning. She works as a property manager at CityPlace near the CN Tower, and said she was walking in to work.

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