Death and the double bed

As I was cursing the person who installed the wallpaper border in our hallway 22 years ago and wondering whether it would have been easier if I’d removed it 21 years ago, a song popped into my head.

It isn’t so much a song as a psychodrama. Over the chorus of bland studio musicians singing “Things get a little easier/Once you understand,” the listener is entertained by assorted spoken-word 70s-era generation-gap scenarios.

“Come on, Ma, what do you want from me?”

“Shut up and listen to your mother!”

And so on.

“Once You Understand” was by a fabricated studio band called Think (yeah, like, heavy, man…) and was released in 1971. I would have been at most 6 years old. Maybe I was older when I heard it, which would mean that our radio station kept playing it years after it had been a minor hit, but holy cow, I hope not. Regardless, I remember it well and associate it very specifically with lying in my parents’ bed.

The reason I would be in my parents’ bed was likely because I had been banished there from the bedroom I shared with my brother after one too many incursions into his side of the room or he into mine. Looking at that bedroom today, I can’t imagine how there could have been two beds in there. The size of that bedroom was more appropriate for primate study.

Banishment to the parent bed was no particular hardship. For starters it was bigger. Secondly, in the winter, my parents had an electric blanket. In truth, this thing was unsettling with its hard, hot coils spiralling within the material, and even at a young age I questioned the sensibility of sleeping underneath a fire hazard. Remember, this was the 70s, a less regulatory age, when seatbelt and smoking were optional for all.

But the electric blanket was equipped with his-and-hers dials that hooked over the headboard, each one with a dial that one could turn to the comfort setting of one’s choice. Doing so set off a soothing orange light on the dial, which afforded hours of fun and mitigated the potential terror of bursting into flames.

But the best part of the parent bed was the bedside clock-radio-lamp. All those dials and buttons to push and play with in lieu of going to sleep, and of course music. If I kept the volume low enough, I could listen to music while my brother had to settle for a boring eight-to-ten solid hours of sleep.

I listened to a lot of songs, I’m sure, but when I think of lying in my parents’ bed, “Once You Understand” always springs to mind.

Why, do you suppose?

Because at the end of the song, a cop comes to the door and tells a father his son is dead.


I’m six years old, I don’t know what heroin is, but I’m lying in the dark and CJFX Friendly 58 Radio is filling my tiny, impressionable head with innocence-crushing mortality. What kind of song is this? How on earth are things getting a little easier? Smaller grocery bill?

There’s another song I recall lying in that big bed at night: “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks. It’s 1974, and I’m now 8 or 9 years old, wise to the ways of the world but still apparently unable to keep peace with my brother in our sleeping pen. Let’s sample those lyrics:

“Goodbye, Michelle, it’s hard to die/When all the birds are singing in the sky.”


Some say we have no true memories, only copies of copies of copies of memories, essentially memories of memories. That may be so, but some things stick vividly in your mind, associated with a time and place, and nothing has a firmer hold on the brain than music. Add a big double bed and death? Indelible.

Not all my musical memories are associated with that bed, of course. During the recent census, I found myself humming a jingle that was used by the Canadian government to promote, I believe, the 1976 census: “June the 1st is Census Day, count yourself in. June the 1st is Census Day, count yourself in. Canada is counting, counting on you…” Thankfully, the jingle didn’t end with “… or you’ll DIE!” And yet, it still takes up valuable space in what is surely a finite brain of mine.

Clearly I must have been traumatized at that impressionable age by the idea of government.

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A soapless case

imageI had such high hopes for my soap. It had a revitalizing formula. Not merely a revitalizing blueprint or a revitalizing vague idea but a formula. That’s science, math, the stuff babies drink – any which way, very serious business!

Want more math? It was a Dove Body + Face Bar. Body + Face = 7/8ths of a human. That’s a pretty complete soap. Pair that up with a Hair + Appendages Bar, and you’re about as thorough as you can be clean-wise without getting into internal soaps, which, by the way, I do not recommend.

I should note that this was Dove Men + Care brand, and at this point, with all those plus signs, the math is getting far too complicated for me. Considering that boys are supposed to be better at math than girls, that’s tough on the ol’ self-esteem. Thank God for these gender-specific soaps to get a dude back on track and smelling like Aqua Impact.

You may be asking yourself, “What’s an Aqua Impact?” It’s what most people call a shower. But that’s the thing with soaps. While they’re building up your self-esteem, they’re also building up your descriptive vocabulary. “Honey, I stink after a hard day stirring the gluten. I’m going to have a quick Aqua Impact. Then I’ll be all clean and invigorated for the delicious Nutrition Swallow you prepared for us in the Culinary Zone!”

For years I’ve been using ordinary soaps to clean myself. Soaps that at best made lame promises like “For Cleaning,” or “White,” or “100% Soap.” Ambitionless soaps. Soaps that dared not dare. Soaps that just lay there. Soaps you’d be embarrassed to introduce to your parents. When I was feeling down about myself, worried about the lack of rich lather in my life, I’d look down at my soap floating in its boring dish scum and mutter, “You. You call yourself a soap…”

What I needed was a soap whose creatively named scent would make me think of Alpine summits and halcyon winds, without even knowing what “halcyon” means, a soap where meaning was secondary to the promise of a clean beyond clean, that point where clean stretches the very notion of time and space until it turns in upon itself to become the essence of clean – cleanliness as pure abstraction. With lots of bubbles. I needed a soap with extra “plus” signs.

I’d been disappointed before. I’ve flirted with soaps that promised to “rejuvenate with the purity of innocent waifs romping in fields of freshly folded T-shirts” or that suggested I could anticipate “the charged energy of 9-volt batteries against the tongue but not in a weird way” or warned that I wouldn’t even want to put clothes on after using such a soap. But time after time, I’ve come away feeling mostly damp, smelling like Dollar Store air freshener and going through my day still only moderately enthusiastic about things. I’ve worn clothes, always clothes.

But surely this time would be different. This wasn’t just any body + face bar. This body + face bar had a “patented design with unique technology.” Soap with a design, patented for my contours and crevices and bending parts! And it was written in CAPITAL LETTERS! Those were some serious adjectives with meanings and important-like feelings.

This soap not only had a “revitalizing formula” but a “revitalizing scent.” That’s a lot of revitalizing. That’s re-revitalizing. And a good thing, too. Because if you’ve been vitalized once, you want to be vitalized over and over.

So did the #1 Dermatologist Recommended Brand give me a “cool kick of active freshness that rinses off easily”? I remember teachers telling me as a young lad, “Ross, what you need is a cool kick of active freshness,” or words to that effect. Would this be my destiny fulfilled via an Aqua Impact?

In short: no. There was a tingling sensation, yes, but that turned out to be a poorly stored loofa. Did I feel uplifted? No. Lithuanian? Somewhat. Wet? Without a doubt. My aqua was impacted but not my life, not in any long-lasting, detergent-based way. I was not revitalized. As uplifters go, this soap was no cup of coffee.

So my soap has let me down. But my spirit is not broken. That’s because I still have my shampoo and its promise of Gratuitous Bounce and Hyperbolic Shine. My life will be perfect.


This just in: Apparently you can vote for me as the Funniest Blogger. I’m really not sure what it entails, but after this latest post, I suspect there will be a write-in campaign to have my nomination rescinded.

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How to talk to humans

Conversation game face

Conversation game face

Use words
It’s true that Donald Trump has the best words but there are still some pretty good ones around, so make sure you have some at the ready. “Pernicious,” “duodenum,” “colonial” and “patricide” are just a few of the dozens of words available. It will be up to you, however, to put these words in an order that makes sense. We do this by forming “thoughts” and then transforming those thoughts into “sentences” using our “mouths” as well as “facial” “expressions,” which we’ll get to in a “minute.”

Wait: did you say thoughts?
Yes, thoughts are the engine that drive conversation. It’s true that many conversations and entire political systems can transpire without thoughts, but these are not encouraged or even a tiny bit pleasant. You really shouldn’t speak unless you have an idea or at very least can do a good impersonation of Albert Brooks. Was Albert Brooks the comedian who pretended to be drunk? No, that was Foster Brooks. See? Ideas lead to stimulating exchanges like that.

Where do these so-called “thoughts” come from?
In the brain are thousands of thinkifiers that are triggered by external stimulus and celebrity news stories. These thinkifiers can be active or dormant, depending on such variables as barometric pressure and the proximity of Steve Buscemi. It’s good to have a thought in advance of speaking to a human because social situations depress the thinkifier, rendering it next to impossible to come up with something to contribute to a conversation, especially if the human is totally cute or has something distracting hanging from her nostril.

Practice makes practice
A good way to prepare to talk to humans is to practice in a mirror. This way you’ll be able to see how truly, truly awkward you are when you try to talk. It’s important to be mentally prepared for the worst. “Your mouth moves funny,” you can say to yourself, “like a walrus chewing a throw rug.” Note that when you are practicing in a mirror, your mirror-self will be talking back at the same time. This doesn’t normally happen when you are talking to an actual human, unless, of course, the human is an economist. Stay away from economists.

The most important thing to remember when preparing to engage humans in conversation is that they probably don’t want to talk to you. Why would they? Walrus face. Your best bet is to hover near the edge of an existing conversation so that it looks like you’re a part of it or preparing to lift someone’s wallet. This way, you can interject a comment (“You said a mouthful, busteroo!”), a wisecrack (“Not if you put it on a cracker!”) or a loud expletive (“!*&$#!!”). And just like that you are part of the conversation with the humans, although blank stares do not technically constitute a conversation.

Release the sounds
To speak effectively to humans, the words you choose (“paramecium,” “bursar,” “trillium”) need to come out of your mouth. Nose-talking has yet to be perfected, despite years of clinical research, so mouth it is. Opening your lips and letting the sound out with a bit of force behind it is the only way. Forget about what those lips look like; we prepared for this with the mirror. Mumbling never did anyone good, except Van Morrison, but he never seems very happy, now does he? And, don’t worry, that sense of awkwardness and embarrassment you’re feeling as you talk is completely normal for someone like you.

About those facial expressions
Stop twitching.

And other body language
Humans receive information not just from your words but from body signals. Nothing undermines the thoughts and words you’ve worked so hard to formulate quite like curling up in a fetal position. Do not wave your hands about or stick them down the front of your pants and definitely not someone else’s pants.

Agreeing to disagree to agree
If you’ve managed to spurt out a string of words that somehow expressed an idea, it is possible that the human may disagree with you, even challenge you. This does not (necessarily) make the human a jerk but rather constitutes the lively give and take of conversation. Your options are to a) politely defend your point of view with reasoned fact; b) sweat profusely while fighting back angry hot tears of shame; c) cave like a Tijuana sinkhole.

Ending the conversation
Remember: the human doesn’t really want to talk to you. So simply stop talking. You’ll be doing him or her a favour. After a minute or so of silence and long sips of drinks, the human will say, “Well, I’ve got to go digest some food now,” and before you can say “duodenum,” they’ll be off. Congratulate yourself on your successful “conversation.” You’ll have lots of time to do so now that you are once again “blissfully” alone.

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The Price of Privacy: Buy Two Privacies, Get One Free!

We talk a lot about Internet privacy and all the personal data that’s floating around out there. It seems these days that, like happiness, privacy is something money can’t by. But what if it could?

This piece originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway.”

Posted in Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

Gluten for punishment

There have been rumours for years. This time they’re true. People said it would never happen, but it’s already in the works.

Stanstead is to be the home of an industrial gluten repository.

But let’s not beat around the bushel here: it’s a gluten dump.

If you’re not sure what a gluten dump is or why anyone would need one, think about all the gluten-free foods that have been flooding the market like yesterday’s oat bran: gluten-free cereal, gluten-free cake, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free goulash, gluten-free gruel, gluten-free gluten.

They’ve gotten rid of the gluten all right, but where do you suppose all that gluten goes? Gluten doesn’t just disappear like your hopes of ever again fitting into your high school band uniform. Gluten has a half-life of 142 years, which is also, not coincidentally, the shelf life of a loaf of Wonderbread.

This is the problem with humanity. We’re so fixated on short-term gratification and avoiding cramps after binging on a box of honey-glazed that we just don’t see the big picture. Take electric cars, for example. On the one hand, we’re going to reduce our reliance on gasoline, but on the other we’re going to tangle up the planet in really super-long extension cords.

The same with gluten. We wanted it out, but now the food industry has a super-sized portion of unwanted, highly demonized gluten on its hands. Have you ever had gluten on your hands? Disgusting!

And faced with this gluten glut, what does industry do? They pass the bucket. The buckets of gluten.

Not an actual gluten dump.

Not an actual gluten dump.

Very big buckets, it turns out. Enough to fill the abandoned Druid Granite quarry in Stanstead, which will soon become the holding site for Glutenous Maximus Inc.

Many people are saying this is the turning point for Stanstead, that gluten is exactly what the town needs to rise again. It’s true that it will create jobs – gluten must be constantly stirred, obviously. And somebody has to guard the gluten, it goes without saying. So, sure, these may be the jobs we want, but are they the jobs we knead?

First of all, what do we really know about gluten? Not much, really, but that doesn’t stop us from blaming our stomach ailments on it. It is a proven fact we heard somewhere that gluten is bad for us. All of us? Probably. It’s hard to say. Better safe than sorry.

And yet we’re planning to flood our town with gluten? All that exposed gluten, the gluten spores floating through the air, the gluten runoff contaminating our water supply – isn’t that putting our children at risk? This is gluten! Won’t it give them tummy aches? And if they get tummy aches, won’t they miss school? And if they miss school, won’t they drop out? And if they drop out, where will they work? The gluten dump probably, lured by the half-baked promise of making a little dough. It’s a vicious, pun-filled circle.

What about safety? It has been documented in some place I can’t remember (no doubt because of gluten-related memory loss) that these gluten pits attract packs of pastry chefs, among the most savage of culinary industry professionals, second only to the roaming gangs of napkins-into-swans transformers.

Also, will Stanstead be accepting only domestic gluten? Or, being so close to the border, will we be flooded by the more volatile variety from the Home of the Brave and Land of the Gluten-Free? I think I speak on behalf of all Canadians when I say we do not want Gwyneth Paltrow’s cast-off gluten!

Town officials are saying that there will be economic spinoffs for the community, that secondary industries could be established to transform the gluten into building materials, McDonald’s shakes, buttock implants; that tourists will flock to our Gluten Moulding Festival; that Stanstead could hold an annual Gluten Ball. But quite frankly I find these ideas hard to swallow.

The Gluten Ball

The Gluten Ball

Turning Stanstead into Glutenamo Bay may seem like the greatest thing since sliced bread (which is poison, by the way), but what’s next? Trans-fat holding facilities? MSG pits? Carbs behind bars?

Call me gluten sensitive, but there’s a reason everyone in the world is saying no to gluten. I’m not quite sure what that reason is but I bet it’s a good one.

Please share your opposition to the Stanstead gluten dump on my Facebook page, Keep gluten out of Stanstead; let Ayer’s Cliff have it.


To non-local readers: Stanstead is my home on the Quebec-Vermont border. Ayer’s Cliff is a nearby town; I mean them no harm. This is all funnier if you live here. Come visit. We’re getting a Tim Horton’s.

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It ain’t $*@!!&! me, babe

I don’t recall ever swearing loudly at a large group of people. I’ve sworn loudly around a large group of people, usually in traffic, but never when they can actually hear me. I’m not the type of person who can swagger into a room and shout, “What’s up, mugglefuggles!” And if I were that type of person, I would hate myself, so it’s all for the best.

But last weekend I had the experience – dare I say pleasure – of dropping the F-bomb in front of a couple hundred people, and yes, I am the type of person who says “F-bomb,” because there is no polite alternative to the real word that doesn’t make you sound like your mother. It gets worse; in a couple of paragraphs, I’m going to refer to it as “salty language.”

I’m in a comedy at the Haskell Opera House, Rumors by Neil Simon, and if curses were food, the play would offer a well-balanced diet. Nothing gluttonous; merely a sampling of the four major swear groups.

This is a QNEK production, which is not known for doing blue. In fact, the posters for Rumors go out of their way to warn about the salty language (there it is!). There’s a notice at the box office repeating the warning. And just to be safe, the house manager announces before the show that there is “SC” – some cussin’. It’s considerate, but I wonder whether Shakespeare cautioned his audience that they’d be hearing “odsbodkins”?

Still, it’s all for laughs, and the audiences so far have taken up the challenge with gusto and guffaws. No one has stormed out, no audible gasps, no rotten tomatoes, no swearing back at us. Nothing they haven’t heard before; this is Stanstead, after all. And, again, let’s be clear: there’s some cussin’, not Scorsese-level cussin’.

I, for example, toss off only two words, one scatological and the other a variation on the fornicalogical, a word I have just made up and intend to use with regularity. The only person to mention my swearing so far is daughter Abby who wondered if it felt weird saying those words in front of everybody.

Well, no, because it wasn’t me losing my cool in front of that audience, it was Ernie Cusack, Manhattan analyst. As far as I’m concerned, my not-swearing-in-front-of-strangers record remains intact.

This is the beauty of acting: getting to be someone else. This is my third play with QNEK, and so far I’ve been a psycho killer, a comedic psycho killer and a psychoanalyst. I’m sensing a trend. I’ve tied people up, gone after them with knives, lied to the police and looked dashing in a tuxedo – which sounds very much like your typical prom night, but in my case are just the perks of pretending.

If I do it right, I actually forget myself. In fact, the worst thing I can do on stage is remember it’s me. “Hey. Wait a sec: I’m acting. I’m speaking words. Now someone is speaking words back at me. This is weird. My hands are gigantic. What am I supposed to do with these gigantic hands? Stop thinking about your hands. Hands! Hands! Hands!”

I’ve heard people refer to acting as a drug, which makes sense, and not just because of its addictive qualities or the pre-occupation with your hands. Drugs and alcohol are ways to escape yourself, to change personalities, to leave everything behind for a while. I don’t do drugs or alcohol anymore, so I’m stuck with me all the time. What a nightmare. Now I know how my wife feels.

What a psychic cleanse it is, then, to be able to hang myself up on a dressing room hook for a couple of hours and forget work, money, home repairs, haircuts, snoring cats, Donald Trump, people talking about Donald Trump and all the messiness that involves being me. I’m not home right now, I’m acting. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!

And this escape is passed on to the audience, who set aside their own lives to be entertained, giving the stressed out parts of their brains a rest while exercising the part that loves storytelling and feeds on the primal joy of laughing together. There’s nothing quite so communal as live performing arts, for both the giver and the receiver.

So if you want to witness me and my fellow actors pretend to lose our minds while entertaining yours, come see Rumors at the Haskell Opera House this Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30 or Sunday at 2:00. You’ll like it; I swear.

That's me with my play wife. That sounds wrong...

That’s me with my play wife. That sounds wrong…

Posted in It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

Steal this nap

I'm keeping the clip art description as presented: "Young Asian man in a deep exhausted sleep after studying from his book." Some book...

I’m keeping the clip art description as presented: “Young Asian man in a deep exhausted sleep after studying from his book.” Some book…

What happened to naps? One minute you’re snoozing at daycare, and the next they’re pumping you full of coffee in grade school. Or least that’s how things worked where I went, at Sacred Palpitating Heart Elementary.

Science has demonstrated that naps are good for you. And I believe science. Science has never steered me wrong. I’m a little nervous about how science is developing artificial intelligence, but until the computers rise up and vanquish mankind, science is A-OK with me.

Despite this seal of approval, naps remain unappreciated and frowned upon at department meetings. One of the reasons for the nap’s bad rap is because people don’t know how to properly have one. That’s why I’m here, your nap-master, to help you score some zee’s with ease. Oh, wait: I’m Canadian; some… zeds… in beds.

First, you need to fit the nap into your day, so instead of spending your work break or lunch hour looking for cat-themed tea cozies on Pinterest, take that time to recharge with a quick siesta. Either way, you’re avoiding contact with other human beings, and rightfully so.

But where to nap? Most workplaces don’t come equipped with beds. Except furniture stores. Unfortunately, we can’t all be lucky enough to work in furniture stores. That’s the dream but what can you do?

Instead, seek out a local park or somewhere in your workplace where no one ever wants to go, say Acounting. You might even consult management to ask whether there’s any wiggle-room in their No Blanket-Forts Policy. Hey, maybe they have an under-utilized Wiggle Room!

Once you’ve established your Dozing Zone, the key to the successful snooze is napping just the right amount of time, not too little, not too much. It’s like the line between not enough Sweet Chilli Heat Doritos and far too many Sweet Chilli Heat Doritos. By the way, do not eat Sweet Chilli Heat Doritos before you nap. The dreams you’ll have! Plus the crumbs are a nuisance.

A 10-to-20-minute nap is an ideal length. You’ll wake up feeling alert and refreshed. Unfortunately, you’ll also look unnervingly like Bob Newhart, but that’s a worthwhile trade-off.

But how are you supposed to know how long you’re sleeping? You’re asleep! You can set an alarm, but how do you know when to start the timer if it takes you a few minutes to fall asleep, and by then you can’t set off the timer because, again, you’re asleep! This is why it’s important to have a napping buddy, someone to watch you as your sleeping. It sounds weird but is perfectly natural, no matter what my old college roommate tells you.

Different lengths of naps have different results. A 30-minute nap will make you groggy and lethargic. A 60-minute nap will help improve memory. Alternatively, an 18-minute nap will help erase memories of being picked last for softball. A 22-minute nap will remind you to purge all those expired Kraft salad dressings from your fridge. A one-minute nap may be a sign of narcolepsy; you should probably see a doctor.

Ninety minutes is a full sleep cycle, including deep REM sleep where every dream is accompanied by the song “Losing My Religion” and filled with other fairly obvious jokes. You’ll wake up revitalized and alert, your cognitive powers will be restored, and you’re also probably fired. 90 minutes? Should have had a nap buddy…

A nap of 34.5 minutes will allow you to wake up deeply contented but speaking with an Australian accent. A 42-minute nap will result in more drooling than seems humanly possible. And a nap of 7 minutes and 21 seconds will trigger the revelation that the only regret worth having in life is that you should have moisturized more.

I hope that this little primer has helped you achieve a successful nap. In fact, you’ve probably already nodded off. Sweet chilli dreams!


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

Posted in It Could Happen..., Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , , , | 31 Comments