Vacation envy

My wife and I were discussing whether envy could be positive. She was of the mind that envy could be a motivator, that seeing what others have can spur ambition. I felt that the resentment inherent in envy undermined any positive outcome. After all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, not one of the Seven Really-Not-So-Bad Sins.

Studies have shown that social media can make people feel bad about themselves, and not just because they clicked on that post entitled, “She Dressed as a Stripper at an IODE Meeting And You Won’t Believe What Happened NEXT! But Then Again, You Might!”

The reason is envy. There you are, sitting in your boxers, eating leftover Kraft Dinner, when you stumble upon Facebook photos of friends frolicking in the tropical surf. They’re sipping vodka drinks piled with exotic fruit. And they’re not even wearing sunblock, because wherever they are, the sun is cancer-free.

You see that and you wonder, “Why can’t I be somewhere warm? Where’s my exotic fruit?”

I know several people who have escaped this relentless winter in this way. I don’t think I’m envious but I do wonder how they manage it. More to the point, I wonder why we can’t.

Deb and I make a decent income. Or at least I assume we do. Maybe I’m underpaid and don’t know it. It’s not like I can go up to my co-workers and say, “I make X-thousand. How much do you make?” It’s just not done. While we share almost everything about our lives these days, personal income is one of the bits of privacy we cling to. Why else do you think it was so titillating to learn, in the “Blurred Lines”/Marvin Gaye lawsuit, that this single song generated $16 million? $16 million! That’s X times more than I make a year!

Whether our income is above or below average, we nonetheless always seem to be just getting by. Without going into greater debt, there’s no way we can afford a getaway. Plus, the roof needs to be redone, the cars need repairs, the gutters are falling off, we need new kitchen counters, there’s tuition to pay, I need new glasses and probably a root canal, there are braces coming, and our ancient furnace – the furnace! It’s freezing sitting here in my boxers!

Just last week, we had two automatic withdrawals refused at the bank. The two companies that we owed the payment to charged us penalties, and the bank assessed us two service charges of $45 for non-sufficient funds. That’s right: the bank took money out of our account because there was no money to take out of our account.

I was thinking all this lying in bed Monday morning, the start of a week of vacation to coincide with Abby’s March break. Outside was snow and ice and unrelenting cold. There would be no frolicking this week, no exotic fruit. I wallowed. Wallowing is one of the Not-Very-Good-At-All Sins.

But once the sun came up and I got on with my day, I experienced the small thrill of knowing that I was lounging mid-morning while everyone around me was working. There’s something illicit about that, like faking a sick day. It felt a little like freezing time, but maybe that’s because I had just read a book about a man who can freeze time. Of course, he uses his power to remove women’s clothes, so maybe we should just forget I mentioned it, along with my reading habits.

There was something liberating in stopping what I was doing in the middle of the day and repairing a tuning post on Abby’s guitar. A little later on, I sat and played piano for a while, the first time in weeks. I ate a cupcake for lunch.

I realized that free time, not the destination, was the real vacation. Call it rationalization, but I could imagine myself in some tropical clime fretting about travel connections, what we were going to eat, what might eat us, what to tip, who to tip, worrying about our possessions, complaining about the (other) tourists, wondering what the cats were destroying back home.

Plus, I don’t even like exotic fruit that much.

I’m grateful to live in a solid house where everyone is healthy, eats well and sleeps soundly most nights. I’m grateful to live in a part of the world where, in the middle of a vacation day, I can put on my boots and go for a worry-free walk.

But just a quick one: it’s friggin’ cold out there!

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We could have died out there!

It was shortly after I said to Deb, “We should have brought a compass,” that I began to wonder who would eat whom.

Logically, it made sense that I would cannibalize my wife because, seriously, look at me. There’s no meat on these bones, hardly any sustenance whatsoever. I’m the watercress of human flesh. I would prolong her life by two days, three at best, and then we would both be dead, so really, what would be the point? It would make much more sense for me to eat my wife. Not that I’m in any way implying she’s a KFC Double Down…

It’s this kind of thinking that gets you nowhere – not with your marriage and not lost in the woods either.

And by “lost,” I mean “slightly disoriented in several acres of wooded area within the boundaries of our small town next to the snowmobile trail.”

But wait. Like Deb and I ended up doing, let me back up…

In an “if you can’t beat em, join em” mood during last weekend’s snowfall, Deb and I decided to go snowshoeing through the woods. It was my first chance to use the snowshoes my daughter bought me at an end-of-season sale. (Ha-ha! “End-of-season”… rich!)

We bundled up as light snow fell and headed down to the bike trail, quickly veering off into the woods, and by “woods” I mean “someone’s back yard.” At first we walked along an existing track but soon we broke our own trail in uncharted territory, and by “uncharted territory” I mean just north of the sewage plant.

This was my first time on snowshoes, so I’m not clear on the terminology, but we either mushed, shooshed, ploofed or snarfed around the woods for about an hour before finding ourselves at the snowmobile trail. We walked down the trail for a ways and then saw footsteps going off into the woods to our left. “Want to try this?” I asked Deb. “Sure,” she said.

Oh, how we would rue those words…

Not really. Calm down. It wasn’t that dramatic. But let’s continue…

Some time later, we passed the gravel pit and then we hit the snowmobile trail again. Wait a sec. If we had been walking straight through the woods, away from the snowmobile trail, how were we back at the snowmobile trail? And even though the gravel pit was right there, we couldn’t tell which side of the pit we were on. The safe thing to do would be to stay on the snowmobile trail. But which way? One way would take us home. The other way would take us to – gasp! – Beebe!

There was a third option. “I think it’s this way,” I said, and we headed further into the woods.

Soon our path came to a dead end.

It was then that I mentioned the wisdom of a compass and my thoughts first ran to cannibalism.

I knew we weren’t in any real danger, but still I could feel the delicate tendrils of panic tickling my stomach. Or maybe that was just the way my long johns were riding. Regardless, I could see how easily a person could get turned around in the woods. I mean real woods.

A few years ago, I read how a blindfolded person who tries to walk a straight line will, without visual clues, start to veer off in one direction or the other. Eventually the person will come full circle, and, if he walks long enough, in ever tighter circles.

I tried this experiment one winter in the big snowy field behind our house. I closed my eyes at one corner of the lot and began walking towards the opposite corner. I stopped when I walked into a tree.

But, sure enough, when I looked back at my path in the snow, what I thought was a straight line curved distinctly to the right.

So even though we were in a wooded area about the size of a down-scale amusement park, not knowing where we were, with no sense of direction, no cell phone, I knew this was a recipe for panic and circular walking. Soon night would fall, and there were animals in these woods. Deer, to be precise. But death by deer nibbles, that’s no way to go.

But here’s the nice thing about snowshoes: they leave footprints. Or shooshprints. “I think we should backtrack,” I said. So we did. Plus, I was starting to get hungry and, well, you know…

Considering the carefree spirit in which we had set off into the woods, I have to admit that backtracking felt like a defeat. But as the saying goes, better defeated than eated.

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The query

My novel has been rejected again by yet another publisher. Maybe it’s my query letter…


Dear publisher:

Please find enclosed the manuscript for my debut novel of fiction, entitled The Scrubbing!!! As you can see, there are three exclamation marks at the end of that last sentence, two of which are part of the title, The Scrubbing!!, and one because I’m so excited, and I know you are too. I bet you spilled coffee just now because of the excitement. “WHOOOO!!!!” you shouted, with four exclamation marks. Risky business, publishing, and hard on the dry-cleaning bills, but who can resist the romance? Not you, that’s for sure.

Now that you’ve put on a clean shirt, you’re probably asking yourself, “What is The Scrubbing!!?” I’ll get to that shortly, but first let’s answer the question, “Why is The Scrubbing!!?”

I think you’ll agree that the world – and Canada in particular, because of cultural metabolism – needs more novels by unknown authors with little experience writing fiction. There just aren’t enough novels being published – period, and the ones that are published are by authors everybody wants to read. How bourgeois, or as they say in French, bourgeois. What we need are fresh voices, voices that capture the passion of the now and the here and the that-thing and the this-thing-over-here and the I-don’t-even-know-what-that-thing-is.

But we also want wisdom and perspective. And beavers. We can’t forget the beavers. As I don’t need to tell you, every Canadian novel must have beaver-related content if it is to qualify for the federal Let’s Get This Published Whether Anyone Wants It Or Not grant. See? I’ve done my homework, much in the same way that I have briefly skimmed your submission guidelines.

In short – but really not very short – I am that writer. A voice of experience with no experience. And The Scrubbing!! captures that essence, or as they say in French, le stationnement.

So what is The Scrubbing!!? What sets it apart from other beaver-inclusive Canadian novels? Well, as I’ve explained to the 11 other publishers who have mulled over my manuscript meanderingly (with each rejection sending me into a spiral of Oreo-cookie-fuelled doubt, mitigated solely by the encouraging remarks about my bold choice of 18-point comic sans or how surprised they were by all the glitter), as I’ve explained to those short-sighted IMBECILES, The Scrubbing!! isn’t just a novel. It’s an experience!

As you know, there have been countless dystopian fantasies in recent years – The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, the Harper government. Well, my novel is set in a bleak but bubbly future in the years following the Great Palmolive disaster of 2035 – yes, it’s a dish-soapian fantasy! And only our middle-aged but still rakishly handsome hero, Ssor Yarrum, holds the key to the Scouring Pad of Destiny. Will he vanquish the Greasoids of Bakonnia? Or will he be devoured by his own irresistibleness to women and, for some reason, very small toads?

The Scrubbing!! It’s part epic, part memoir, part graphic novel, part pop-up book, part scratch ticket, part absorbent pad. I think the 300-page sample I’ve enclosed will give you a small taste of the brilliance of my debut novel. Oh, and it’s Part One of a seven-book series.

Look at you already reading it! You know what? I’m so confident that The Scrubbing!! is going to ripple your butterscotch that you should just hang onto my self-addressed stamped envelope. Go ahead and use it to mail me bundles of cash, because everyone knows getting a novel published makes you rich, rich, rich!

I await your positive reply within the next three working days!!!

Best regards,

Ross “Give Me That Giller Now” Murray


 You can listen to the original here.  A version of this post originally appeared on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway.  You can listen to the original here

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So, you’re coming to meet the parents!

It's really my house.

“It’s really my house.”

Congratulations on dating our son/daughter. Rest assured your sweetheart is the culmination of generations of only the finest natural selection, with the exception of a brief period in the late 1800s that no one in the family likes to talk about. But as Great-Great-Uncle Walston used to say, “Let’s let bygones be penguins.”

In the coming days, you will be arriving at our home for the first time to meet us, your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents. Welcome! To make this important rite of passage as pleasant as possible, we encourage you to review the following information. After all, an auk may be a bird, but add a “word” and it’s “awkward.” Ha-ha-ha! Of course? Yes! So let’s go ahead.

  • We have four cats and a dog. We trust that’s not a problem. Don’t let that be a problem.
  • We are aware there are cobwebs in some of the corners of the ceiling. We prefer not to mention them and suggest you do likewise.
  • That light switch doesn’t do anything.
  • Please inform us if you have any allergies: cat hair, food, cat hair on food.
  • We reserve the right to refer to you as “the suitor.”
  • You will find that throughout the house several piles of clever and/or important novels have been distributed upon surfaces in an ostensibly casual but clearly self-conscious manner. The purpose of this is twofold: 1) to determine whether you a) are well-read b) enjoy reading c) can read; and 2) to demonstrate how cool we are, because as important as it is for us to like you, we really want you to like us. Like, wouldn’t it be neat if we hit it off and could have long chats about Haruki Murakami or the vintage Brian Eno that just happens to be playing in the background? Wouldn’t it be great if, later on, you said to our son/daughter, “Your parents – especially your dad – are really cool and hip”?*
  • We keep the thermostat at a brisk 17 degrees Celsius. This is our way of sticking it to Big Oil, although we end up being somewhat beholden to Big Sweater. Bring slippers.
  • You might not want to sit there.
  • Or there.
  • We don’t always flush the toilet. Don’t be alarmed. When we do flush it, however, sometimes a cat will come running, so excited about the fresh drinking water. It’s not mandatory but you should totally try it.
  • Remember how cool and hip we are? It will be no surprise, then, that we are respectful of your privacy as young adults and will allow you to make whatever sleeping arrangements you’re comfortable with, bearing in mind that it is a small house, we are light sleepers and please don’t do anything.**
  • At some point during your stay, you may find yourself alone with one or the other parent. Be aware that, despite the outward charade (which we pronounce “sha-rawd”) your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents are socially inept and at this point will likely have covered all the basic points regarding family, geography and area of study/work. That’s it. Nothing left in the tank. It’s all up to you now. This might be where one of those books lying around comes in handy. Other safe topics:
    • How weird are feet?
    • Look how fat your cats are, but in an endearing, not-at-all offensive way!
    • The Toronto Raptors’ motto “We The North”: is it the verb “are” that’s missing or would a comma suffice?
    • Five-syllable words that make me feel diabolical.
    • Ways in which I won’t disrespect your daughter/son.
  • Doing the dishes equals big brownie points. If you want to tackle those cobwebs also, who are we to stop you?
  • At some point during your stay, the conversation will turn to he aforementioned toilets and the usage thereof. This is who we are; don’t be fooled by the clever books. How you participate in this conversation (appalled, amused, engaged but not so engaged as to be disturbing, etc.) will be observed and discussed in great detail after you leave.
  • Please understand that if we make fun of you, it means we like you.
  • We’re not big huggers.

*The maternal half of the parental welcoming group would like to point out that none of this was her idea, and that in fact she knew nothing about these desperate cries for acceptance, though really she’s not surprised. And the Brian Eno playlist? It was sent to him by a friend three weeks ago.


Posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , | 50 Comments

IGA = It’s Gone Away

You don’t understand. This is about more than my hometown‘s only grocery store changing ownership. It’s about more than the parent company Sobeys demoting our local IGA down to a second-tier Marché Tradition because there aren’t enough clients to support the IGA brand. It’s about more than the fact that too many people on this side of the border shop in the United States. It’s not that.

It’s not even about how it was such a big deal 11 years ago when the IGA opened. Just a couple of years prior, the 2001 Canadian census had revealed that, for the first time, Stanstead’s population had dipped below 3000. I remember the mayor at the time asserting that the figures were wrong, implying that you could not rely on the national census, and this was long before Stephen Harper got his hands on it.

And who can blame her for being in denial. No one likes to see his or her town decline, but there it was: 2,995 people in 2001; 2,959 in 2006; 2,857 in 2011, and yet I still have a hard time finding a parking spot at the post office. Continue reading

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Math parents

Parents have been known to get somewhat heated while watching their children play sports. But what would happen if parents were spectators in other areas of their children’s lives?



A: Let’s go Algebra… Let’s go Algebra…!

B: You have a kid in here?

A: Yeah, up front, second over, with the glasses. You can do it, Makayla! You?

B: By the window, chewing on a wad of paper. Dylan, pay attention!

A: Oh yeah, I’ve seen him. He’s… er, coming along.

B: He really nailed that graph function the other day. Drove the numbers along the X axis and then up the Y. Beautiful arc!

A: I guess you could say he’s improving… exponentially.

B: Huh?

A: Exponent-ially…

B: Oh… Hand up, Dylan! Hand up! That’s it. Get in there! Continue reading

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Bill C-51: The C Stands for ‘Conniving’

Canada’s proposed anti-terrorism law, Bill C-51 (“The ‘C’ Stands for ‘Could Happen’”) is receiving wide support across the country. There are some, though, who say it doesn’t go far enough, while others feel the Harper government is both exploiting and propagating a climate of fear.

I feel the bill doesn’t go far enough in defining how fearful I should be.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has told Canadians that a “great evil has been descending on the world… violent jihadism.” Not a pretty-big evil but a great evil. I’m no evil expert, but I suspect he’s talking at least an 8 or 9 out of 10 evil. “How was the evil?” people ask concerning the violent jihadism. “It was great,” Canadians respond, and considering that the traditional Canadian answer is, “Pretty good,” that’s something. Continue reading

Posted in Canada and/or Quebec, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 46 Comments