Lions and tigers and ticks, oh my!

Say hello to my little friend.

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it because everyone’s afraid they’re going to get lyme disease? Probably. This summer, the tiniest of insects are public enemy number one and people are avoiding the woods in droves.

Good! There were too many people in the woods anyway, especially in those stupid droves of theirs. When I go to the woods, people are the last people I want to see. So thank you, deer ticks.

Everyone’s afraid of tick-borne lyme disease this summer, even people whose only exposure to the woods has been photographs in Sport Illustrated’s 2013 pinecone-themed swimsuit edition. (Favourite portfolio: “Strapless But Not Sapless.”)

That’s because lyme disease is this year’s Ebola scare, which was 2014’s H1N1 scare, which was 2009’s West Nile virus scare, which had a good run there from 1999 to 2007. (Get your West Nile 10th Anniversary T-shirt today!)

If you believe the hype, the woods are teeming with ticks, hanging out in little tick gangs, swinging little tick chains and snapping their little tick fingers. They make lewd tick comments as hikers stroll by: “I’d love to embed my head in you, baby!” and “Mmmm, check out the bare shin on that one! I feel myself getting engorged already!” They drop down from the trees like ninjas. Or they push you out of your drove and tackle you to the ground. Next thing you know they adhere themselves to you; they tick.

Ticks are gross, of course, and they’re terrible conversationalists too boot. It’s natural to hate them. No one wants another creature plunging itself headfirst into your body, unless it’s Scarlett Johansson. But the truth is most people wouldn’t know a tick from a tock. In addition, surveys show that 2 out of 7 Canadians have no idea what lyme disease actually is. Another 3 out of 5 Canadians believe those statistical figures that I completely made up just now.

We recently learned that our dog has lyme disease. Symptoms include sleeping a lot, climbing on furniture, smelling bad and pooping on the basement floor when we’ve left her in the house too long. In other words, business as usual. The only change is that twice a day we have to give her two big pills, which we hide in a piece of juicy chicken or a soft chunk of cheese. So the dog and lyme disease? Big fan!

Not that I’m making fun of lyme disease. It is a serious illness. I think. I’m 2 out of 7.

But to get back to the woods, people love to have something to be afraid of, especially if it’s an excuse not to go outdoors. But in fact, everything carries some risk. People have been killed using treadmill machines but you don’t see people avoiding the gym. Well, this people does, but that’s not due to a fear of death but a general fear of humiliation with an overarching sense of laziness.

If you think about it, lyme disease is just the tick of the iceberg. Here are other things you should fear in the woods:


Steep hills.

Things with teeth.

Poisonous mushrooms. Sure, you say, just don’t eat any mushrooms. But what if you trip and fall mouthfirst onto a Freddy Kruger skullcap or an amoral morel?

Tetanus. Recently we had our roof done, and our daughter stepped on a nail. It punctured her skin, which is how you get tetanus. Also Roofer’s Syndrome, which is similar to shingles. Anyway, we checked our records and her tetanus shot was up-to-date, so it turns out this isn’t a very exciting story. But, tetanus is in dirt, the woods are very dirty, and much like this story, tetanus is bad.

Bengal tiger traps. (Not available in all woods.)

Bengal tigers. (See above.)

Treadmills. Dangerous in gyms, doubly so in swamps.

Teddy bear picnics. If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: botulism. Teddy bears put out a great spread but have no concept of refrigeration. Avoid the teddy bear creamy coleslaw and stick instead with the teddy bear bean salad. Also: never ask for a bear claw.

Seniors. They walk super slow, they weave all over the woods, and they never use their turn signal. A menace of the woods on par with the Bengal tiger.

Falling trees. The silent killers.

Arboreal extremists. They hate our lifestyle, and they hate our protein gels. And rightfully so.

Of course, chances are you’ll stay perfectly safe this summer. Them’s the odds. But if you do end up with lyme disease, remember: treats!

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My appropriation apology

Appropriated fictional town cartography

In 2016, I published a novel entitled A Hole in the Ground. In this novel, I referred to a First Nations people, the Muskawatipaq, as well as their ancestral territory, Petawodimocto. These references were entirely fictional, created for the purposes of establishing a setting for my story and making up words that sounded kind of cool.

I regret that I culturally appropriated faux-native culture. I apologize as well for making only passing reference to the history of the fictional Muskawatipaq before quickly moving on with the story of the fictional white settlers and forgetting about the Muskawatipaq entirely. But that’s usually how it goes.

I also express my deep regret for making my main protagonist a woman, having had no experience being a woman. As a white, middle-class male whose only brush with disenfranchisement has been a culturally unacceptable inability to spit, I acknowledge that I can never fully understand women. (But who can, am I right, fellas?)

Nonetheless, I did my best to portray my female character, Jemima, as a well-rounded human being. In fact, one interviewer told me, “She’s a real girl,” to which I replied, “Some people have said the same thing about me.”

Furthermore, on at least one occasion Jemima expresses her relief at not wearing a bra or alludes to the relief of removing her bra at the end of the day. I apologize for this gender-based assumption. I have no experience wearing a bra and historically limited experience in removing them. As a man, I cannot fully appreciate the full-on encumbrance of bra-dom, and it was wrong of me to appropriate the blessed relief a woman must feel at becoming thusly unhampered.

In my defence, I have personally suffered the agony of restricting undergarments, having once worn an overly snug pair of boxer-briefs that had a bullseye painted on the crotch, which is just begging for trouble, if you ask me. However, I have no legitimate position from which to complain, due to tighty-whitey male privilege.

Moving on to other clothing, I feel compelled to point out that the same female protagonist, Jemima, is depicted as habitually wearing rubber boots. The book is set in 1998. I began writing the novel in 2012. In 2014, as I neared completion of the novel, rubber boots became fashionable for women. I therefore must express my deep regret for pre-appropriating contemporary fashion culture in a 1990s setting. It was future insensitive of me. The boots did, however, come in handy when Jemima found herself traipsing through the marsh with a visiting biologist.

I would like to apologize for making one of my characters a visiting biologist. I did so without fully understanding biologist culture, although I did take Biology in high school, a course that included briefly poking at a formaldehyde cat carcass until it was put away for next year’s class. This did not necessarily inform my understanding of biology; it was just kind of gross.

It was insensitive of me to feature a biologist, given that biologists have traditionally suffered significant marginalization at faculty meetings and cocktail parties. I did so only to establish a character who could interact with turtles.

I would like to apologize to all turtles and those of turtle lineage for exploiting their heritage for my self-serving fiction needs. Turtles are noble creatures who have too long remained silent. They’ll likely remain silent too, being turtles, but that’s not the point! The point is I appropriated the turtleocracy without a full understanding of the turtle lifestyle, other than a little time browsing the Internet and emailing my brother, who is a real turtle guy. You want to know turtles, my brother’s your man!

I would like to apologize to my brother for dragging him into this miserable morass of appropriation apologizing. He was not consulted about his inclusion nor could he have anticipated that I would be exploiting his presence here for satirical purposes.

I would like to apologize to satire for dragging this bit far too long.

Finally, I am sorry that all the characters in my novel are white, English and straight, but they say write what you know.

Posted in It Really Did Happen!, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

Searching for the parental sweet spot

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I liked it better when he used to write about his kids.” It’s true. I wrote about my children all the time. But then something happened:

They grew up.

Our four children are all adults now or on the verge of adulthood. They have relationships, jobs, serious schoolwork, plans, uncertainties and lots going on in their lives that really isn’t anyone’s business. The last thing I want to do is embarrass them.

And yet for years I did. When I first started writing this column, I didn’t hold much back when it came to nap times, stitches, school, squabbles, sports and, of course, the farting. Nothing wrong with writing about the farting.

At one point, though, I started asking them, “You mind if I write about [recent awkward yet humorous event]?” This was because they had learned to read. That’s probably when and why we bestow privacy on our children: when they can bust you.

Their privacy also has to do with their independence. Their actions are no longer necessarily interactions with Deb and me. They go their own way, making decisions that result in a broken bone here, a tattoo there.

And yet we continue to worry. We will never stop worrying.

At one point, I thought we had hit the sweet spot. It was probably three years ago. The older ones were in university and CEGEP and the youngest was a newly minted teenager who still liked us. Deb and I could feel satisfaction that we had done a good job as parents, that we could look on with relief and say, “It’s all right, they got this.”

But the sweet spot never lasts. There is usually some cause to fret. For example, a small thing: right now our eldest Emily is visiting Turkey. Risks are everywhere, I tell myself, but Turkey! It’s the bungee-jumping of countries!

James, meanwhile, will be attending Concordia University in the fall and playing basketball. We’re proud and excited for him as he gains increasing independence.

Sounds good, right? But university sports are fraught with risk. Last Christmas, he got nailed in the kidney and ended up overnight in the hospital. The next morning, the doctor asked us to join him in a nearby empty room.

“This is the room.” I thought. “This is the room where they tell bad news. They’ve found something on his kidney and now he has to tell us. This is the private freakout room.” My heart sank and my head began to swim. “It’s just a bruise,” the doctor told us. “He’ll be fine.”

He’ll be fine.

They’ll be fine.

I could write so much about the children, how Abby is going through all the drama that comes with being nearly 16, about the worries we have for her, for all of them. I could write about how we spent a good chunk of Tuesday at yet another hospital after concussion-prone Katie whacked her head at work, a visit that began with a phone call: “Dad? I have a problem.” I could write about dropping everything and jumping in a car to rescue them, no matter how old they are.

I could write about their crises, their heartbreaks and the disappointments, decisions and indecisions, the ups that seem so up and the downs that feel so down. But I don’t because, unlike when they were children, their stories are no longer simply cute. They have impact on their lives. Their stories are theirs, their futures, their reality. Life for these young adults is suddenly real. Deb and I are reduced to spectators with a standing offer of support, shelter and short-term storage.

When I first starting writing about my children, I was like most young parents: I believed they were the most unique, amazing creatures that had ever lived. No other parents had ever undergone such discoveries. I know now that every parent feels this way.

I don’t pretend, then, that we’re the only parents who worry about their young adult children, who will go on worrying as they get married, have children or decide not to do any of those things. I’m not telling anything new here.

The only thing new is that it’s a bit of a surprise.

I expect there’s another sweet spot somewhere down the road. Why? Because they’re good kids, with smart heads and compassionate hearts. They have an exciting, unpredictable future ahead of them, and I expect that theirs will be much like their parents: unpredictable, chaotic, happy. And that’ll be sweet indeed.

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Fear and loathing in auto repair

Beyoncé gets it.

Dear Mr. Murray,

As requested, we have given your automobile a thorough inspection and are pleased to report to you our findings.

In a nutshell – or as we mechanics like to say, “in a DIN 6923 swivel flange nut” (ha-ha!) – you have made the fundamental mistake that 9 out of 10 drivers make: you have driven your car.

Over 85 percent of mechanical problems in cars are the result of using your car in such a way that it transports you (or, in other cases, family members or, in other other cases, members of an international drug cartel) from one destination to another.

The other 15 percent of mechanical problems, incidentally, are caused by nesting vermin (wasps, mice, Fox News executives, etc.). Continue reading

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Let us now praise little sandwiches

A friend from high school ran into my mother at my parents’ church this week, which got us talking about church potlucks and comfort food and, of course, little sandwiches. This all reminded me of this post from a few years ago, one of my favourites (and tastiest). A Sunday morning is as good a time as any to repost it.

Drinking Tips for Teens


Is there a more perfect food, in circumstances that require as many fingers free as possible, than the little sandwich? Finger sandwiches, they call them, and not without reason. The mad gesturing small-talker can wave a chicken-salad sandwich-ette with impunity, with bravado, even mucho gusto, confident that no filling will be flung. The nibbling-challenged and those prone to dribbling; the party guest who lives in dread of his crab careening off his canapé; the gastronomically green – for these tender souls, infant-sized sandwiches are sublime.

Little sandwiches, you make life better, one egg salad at a time.

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Who are the pickles in your neighbourhood

Ever since the snow melted, I had been eyeballing this jar of pickles at the bottom of our street. It was a litre jar of bread-and-butters lying on its side next to a cedar hedge right there by the stop sign. The pickles looked fine, but then pickles are already green, so that’s an assumption on my part.

There was no label on the jar, so either they were homemade pickles or the jar had been there for so long that the label had disintegrated. But really it doesn’t matter; it was a jar of pickles where a jar of pickles had no reason to be.

Day after day I walked by expecting someone to have picked up the pickles, but day after day the pickles were still there.

“The pickles are still there,” I would tell my wife.

“You’re not bringing them home,” she would say.

Why would I bring them home? It’s not like I wanted to eat them, although I was curious whether they were still good. Pickles are, after all, the hardiest of all the preserves. In my fridge, I’m currently working on a jar of homemade zucchini relish labelled “Sept 04/11.” I have two more jars just like it in the basement. It’s up to me to eat them because obviously we can no longer give them away as hostess gifts – except, perhaps, to hostesses we don’t particularly like. Continue reading

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Our celebrity commencement speaker is unavailable

Madam Chancellor, distinguished guests, parents, Class of 2017:

I know you are expecting me at this point to introduce our celebrity commencement speaker. After all, the least we can do after your three to five years of academic struggle and astronomical student loans is to provide you with some sort of A-list entertainer offering high-minded bromides to create the illusion that at long last you got your money’s worth.

Maybe a celebrity speaker will be a lasting memory that will inspire you – specifically, inspire you to donate to the alumni fund when some doomed Philosophy major interrupts your very important Netflix marathon and swallows every ounce of what’s left of his pride to beg you for your Visa number.

Yes, perhaps the celebrity convocation speaker’s words will inspire you, even though said celebrity commencement speaker’s idea of inspiration is casually dropping the F-bomb, probably in regards to the sitting American president, though I don’t know why we should expect insightful political commentary from the star of Jetpack Poodle 2. Continue reading

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