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.

So when this shiny new IGA opened in 2004 with its wide aisles and exotic fruits and horse meat! Remember the horse meat? In Stanstead! There was a ray of retail possibility. There was hope. There was cilantro.

It even made the front page but with little comment.

It even made the front page but with little comment.

But this is about more than how the removal of the giant “IGA” letters from the building Monday is symbolic of a town that just can’t get a break. It’s about more than the way that, like the mayor years ago, everyone seems to be in denial about what this means for the viability of our community and the availability of cumin.

It’s not about that. Here’s what it’s about:

For several years, our IGA has been giving away weekly freebies to shoppers who purchase $70 or more worth of groceries. I think I understand the strategy behind this. Most IGAs are located in larger markets with multiple grocery chains. Savvy shoppers pick up the specials at this store, then hop over to a competitor for the specials there. Hop and shop, as it were. The IGA giveaways were designed to lure customers into the store and encourage them to spend more than they otherwise might.

But there is only the one grocery store in Stanstead. So unless you’re doing your shopping in nearby Magog or (for shame!) in the United States, you picked up your full load at the IGA. For a family like ours that never stops being hungry, that’s a lot of trips to the IGA in a week. That’s a lot of free stuff.

We got sauces and noodles, TP and yogurts, doughnuts and crackers. We got storage containers and soups. We got gas discounts we couldn’t redeem at either of Stanstead’s two gas stations (nor in the United States where everyone gets their gas anyway, which doesn’t bode well for Stanstead’s two gas stations).

We got enough cutlery, mugs and wine glasses to outfit one-and-a-half children’s apartments.

We got bottles of eco-friendly glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, wood cleaner and disinfectant that still fill the cupboard under the sink three years later because we’d rather be shopping and eating than wiping down surfaces.

We got boxed cream sauces and tubbed rosé sauces, “healthy” cookies and suspect cheese spreads, all of which felt like either test products or items that didn’t sell elsewhere so someone said, “Ship ‘em to Stanstead.”

But we took them, happily, because they were free. And if people didn’t want them, well, that’s what the food-donation box is for.

Sometimes, the giveaway was chocolate, and if we spent over $140, which was often, the cashier would ask, “Would you like dark chocolate or milk chocolate?” and we would answer, “Yes.” Sometimes they’d run out of the free sponge and the cashier would say, “We’ve run out of free sponges. Would you like chocolate instead?” and we would answer, “Yes.”

But Monday, under the new banner, when I forked over my 80 bucks, all the cashier offered me was my change.

So you see? Do you understand now? This is what it’s about: How am I going to get my free chocolate?

I realize it’s not the end of the world for my one-grocery town. We do have the new Subway (which replaced the old Subway). But I swear, if they get rid of the little cheese-on-toothpick samples, we’re moving.

Posted in Reading? Ugh! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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!

A: Nice move.

B: Oh wait, he’s just asking to go to the bathroom.

A: Still, good form. That arm was straight up, solid wiggle on the hand-wave.

B: Look at that. The teacher’s totally ignoring him. Come on, teach! He’s got a leaky bladder! How do you expect him to concentrate if he’s thinking about peeing! Ridiculous!

A: He’s really got that going-to-the-bathroom move down nicely.

B: Oh, and now this. Seriously? He has to pee and you’re asking if a dam releases 120 gallons of water per second when 30 percent open, how much water would be released at 40 percent open? How about teaching fair for once! Teach to the test!

A: Come on, Grade 8! You can answer this! Solve. For. X! Solve. For. X! Get those variables in there, Makayla!

B: Get your finger out of your nose, Dylan!

A: Yes! Good problem-solving, Makayla!

B: Oh! He nearly had that one.

A: Nice try. “Lots” was a pretty good answer.

B: He doesn’t know this! How is he supposed to answer if he doesn’t know it! God…. So, did you do math as a kid?

A: I’ve been known to plot a quadratic function or two back in the day. Used to be able to run circles around pi. I don’t like to brag, but I was recruited.


A: YMCA. They needed a bookkeeper. But then I tore my inverse tangent and that was it for me.

B: What! Are you serious!

A: It’s true. I can barely get by with a graphing calculator now.

B: No, the teacher. He just called a pop quiz! Boooo! Hey, teacher! Why don’t you adhere to Piaget’s theory that children have difficulty with concepts due to passing too quickly from the qualitative structure to the mathematical formulation, for Pete’s sake!

A: With only two minutes left? Makayla! You gotta bring your A game! No wait: you’re A-plus game!

B: Dylan, it’s not worth crying about! Oh no, this is just like inverse proportional situations all over again.

A: Wait, look at that kid. Hey! That’s not a No. 2 HB pencil. What’s he writing with? Aren’t you going to call a foul on that? Why do we only have one teacher? How can they properly invigilate without a student teacher? Makayla! You’ve got to nail this! You’re this close to going into the lower Math and your life will be ruined. Stay focused! No pressure.

B: Oh no, Dylan’s hit the wall.

A: Exhausted?

B: No, he went to sharpen his pencil and walked into the wall. Yeah, he’s down.

A: Come on, Makayla! A minute left. Look on your neighbour’s paper!

B: What?

A: Elbow in there!

B: Hey, can I get a make-up test over here? Hey!

A: Ten seconds left! A negative exponent becomes positive when placed in the denominator! Negative! Positive! Denominator!

B: Three! Two! One!


A: Noooooooo!

B: Great effort out there! You’ll pass next time.

A: Man… Well, it’s only a core subject, not like it’s hockey. See you in History?

B: Oh yeah. Dylan kills in the French Revolution.

A: All right. Oh — here they come. Let’s line up and shake hands, everyone: “Good class, good class, good class…”


A version of this piece originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway.”

Posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments

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.

The feds have addressed this evil by rushing through Parliament Bill C-51 (“The ‘C” Stands for ‘Circumvent’”), which will allow Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, to disrupt threats to the security of Canada or its institutions, even by means that violate the Charter of Rights and Freedom. The government and/or CSIS can act if it perceives that a threat may (not will) occur, with virtually no additional oversight for any of these actions.

Clearly, to introduce such severe measures above and beyond the existing measures that are already doing a pretty darn good job of ferreting out threats to national security (although, to be fair, they were probably only so-so evils), we must be living in scary times.

But still I wish I knew just how scared I should be.

Should I feel the paralyzing fear that prevents me from going out in public in case terrorists are lurking around every corner, even though statistically I have a far greater risk of being killed by heart disease caused by eating the fast food available at every corner, which is non-violent consumer jihadism, though in suggesting this I’ve made it clear that I really have very little idea what “jihadism” actually means?

Should it be the irrational fear of everyone who is Muslim or looks kind of Muslim or defends Muslims or has ever visited a Muslim country or Googled “Muslim” or mumbled something that sounds like “Muslim”?

Or should it be the paranoid fear of never knowing if something I said or did or petitioned or marched in or posted online could be perceived as a threat to Canada? Or a threat to hockey, because that’s a Canadian institution, and Stephen Harper loves hockey, and I once described hockey as “soccer made needlessly difficult” – I mean I read that somewhere. I only read it, I swear!

Or maybe I should feel the political fear of, say, the federal Liberals, who are worried that if they come out in opposition to C-51 they will be accused of being soft on terrorism, like, really, if they love terrorism so much, why don’t they marry terrorism.

Or maybe it should be the fear of persecution that Canada’s Muslim community must feel when they walk outside given the general climate of xenophobia being fostered by our leaders for their own political gain. But heck, I’m white and Christian-ish, so this is probably not the right kind of fear for me.

Perhaps instead I should be filled with the intellectual fear that by demonizing Muslims we are further alienating the more vulnerable among them and perpetuating radicalization, ironically feeding the very terrorist threats that despite our best efforts will continue to pop up here and there, but (let’s be rational) not likely often enough to justify sacrificing our own privacy and civil liberties.

Or maybe I should fear simplistic, pandering clichés, like “the terrorists hate our freedoms.” That’s what we’re told. They hate our freedoms the way some people hate broccoli, even though maybe they’ve never tried our freedoms. Maybe they should try our freedoms lightly steamed with ginger and oyster sauce. Maybe the freedoms they tried that one time were neglected for too long and had gone all yellow and gross. “Oh, sorry. These freedoms are disgusting,” someone said, and they threw them away. We should never throw away our freedoms. At very least, we should compost them.

Or maybe I should simply be afraid that Canadians will fall for the manipulative window-dressing of Bill C-51 (“The ‘C’ Stands for ‘Cavalier’”), which will lead to the re-election of the Harper Conservatives, thereby allowing them to continue their campaign to erode the overall character of Canada. Because that’s really scary.

Posted in Canada and/or Quebec, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

For your consideration: The 9th and 10th Oscar-nominated films

The Blindest Spot

ansonwilliamsA story of triumph over adversity, dreams over tragedy and eggs over easy. Set in a futuristic Brooklin after the letter Y has been outlawed, the film tells the story of Branflake Dodson (Anson “Potsie” Williams in a stunning and unnecessary comeback), a humble custodian at a two-bit wax museum who works the night shift polishing the Kardashians (brilliantly portrayed by one-and-a-half Olsen twins and a CGI rutabaga).

Branflake’s dream is to become a cab driver. In a touching moment of inspiration over ignorance, numerators over denominators and somewhere over the rainbow, Branflake tells his best friend, the fortune-telling, transgendered, paraplegic former NFL player known as The Magnificent Pam (Taylor Swift in a game-changing tour-de-force), “People gots ta move. They gots ta move places, all da time, all da time. That’s where dey’s goin’. An’ I wanna git them there. Tha’ be somethin’… Now, quit breathin’ that ol’ garlic breath on me, you damn Pam!”

Unfortunately, Branflake suffers from distationmentia, a congenital inability to parallel park. He is also racially discriminated against for going around talking like an old black man. Continue reading

Posted in Never Happened | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments

13 questions from men about 50-You-Know-What

For many men, Valentine’s Day can be a bit of a tightrope, and this year it threatens to be even more so because of, well, tight ropes.

This weekend will see the premiere of that movie about that book that’s not about drab paint chips but whose name I can’t bring myself to write because it’s been so over-discussed and over-troped as to provide it more publicity than it deserves, and yet here I am.

When that book not about the variant veneers of U.S. naval ships first became a publishing sensation, most men were mystified by the appeal of poorly written, low-grade S&M erotica, but, you know, it was a harmless book, and by “harmless” I mean harmless to the men because thankfully they didn’t have to read it. If their girlfriends and wives wanted to cuddle up with a little bondage-lit lite, hey, whatever floats your libidinous boat, baby.

But now that the thing is a movie, there’s something very, very bad afoot, namely all those women who quietly read the book to themselves are going to want to see the movie. And they’re going to want their men to take them.

And they’re going to want to go on Valentine’s Day.

272And the men will have no choice but to take them, because it’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when men absolutely must be submissive to their women, which is pretty ironic given the context. Continue reading

Posted in It Could Happen... | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 67 Comments

I don’t even know these people

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I can tell you the exact day and pretty close to the hour when I first read Nick Hornby. I was attending the annual English community celebration here in these parts of Quebec, something called Townshippers’ Day. It was September 16, 2000, probably around 1:30 p.m. in the tiny village of St-Felix-de-Kingsey. And it was snowing. Not real snow, just the kind of early autumn unpleasantness that makes people put on brave faces and duck inside at the earliest convenience.

I was a ducker. I took shelter in the local Catholic church, which, like most small Quebec villages, was at the heart of town. A women’s world-music choir was set to perform for other snow-duckers, and I was early. So I pulled out the paperback copy of High Fidelity that I had just purchased from a table of used books up in the parking lot.

It would be too easy and altogether wrong to call it a religious experience right there in that church — and, honestly, it’s just Nick Hornby — but I remember starting the book and being instantly delighted by the characters and their obsessions with music, women and optional maturity. I was smitten with Hornby and his compassionate humour there and then and since. I’ve often told people, if I could be any writer, I would choose to be Nick Hornby.

But this isn’t about Hornby. Continue reading

Posted in It Really Did Happen!, Reading? Ugh!, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 64 Comments

Flap packets and other travel tips for 21-year-old daughters

“You should have brought a deck of cards,” my wife said on the way to the airport. Deb did the Europe thing 25 years ago with a friend, almost at the same age and along the same route that our middle daughter Katie was set to embark on. Deb knew a thing or two about touring Europe by rail, namely you’re going to want a deck of cards. Also: if you accept a stranger’s offer of a place to spend the night, be prepared to wake up to find that stranger staring at you.

“I thought about it,” said Katie about the cards.

“The good thing about playing cards,” I said, a bit sarcastically, “is you can buy them, oh, anywhere.”

The women didn’t comment.

“Of course,” I went on, “if you buy them in England, you have to call them ‘flap packets.’”

“What?” Deb turned to me.

“In England. Playing cards are ‘flap packets.’”

“Really?” Katie said from the back seat. Continue reading

Posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , | 41 Comments