Father-daughter-Beyoncé bonding

Abby at the mic, Dad in the shadows. Photo/Rina Takahashi

Conversations these days with my 15-year-old daughter go something like this:

Abby (getting out of the car): “Can you write me a note? I’m going to be late for class.”

Me: “You’re not going to be late. Just be quick.”

“I won’t make it.”

“You’ll make it.”

“No, I won’t. I need a note.”

“In the time it takes me to write the note, you could get to class.”

“I’m not going to make it. I need a note.”

“What should it say? ‘Abby is late for class because she’s late for class’?”

And so on.

Abby and I get under each other’s skin these days – the sneering, the glares, the sarcasm, the outbursts and eye rolls. And Abby’s pretty ornery too.

I like to think it’s just a phase, that someday soon we’ll go back to the days when the sound of my breathing didn’t infuriate her and I didn’t lose my mind because she’s watching back-to-back seasons of “Friends” for, what is this, the fifth time?

So when Abby asked me to accompany her on piano for her school’s talent show, I thought only one thing: Don’t screw this up.

Imagine coming upon a deer in the forest and, not wanting to scare it off, you just stand there very quietly, no sudden moves. Now imagine that deer wanting to sing “Sandcastles” by Beyoncé.

Originally, Abby was going to both sing and play and asked me to teach her the piano part. “You only have a couple of weeks to learn it. Why don’t you ask the Music teacher to accompany you? Or I could play it.”

Hello, little deer.

She said she’d ask the Music teacher.

Some days later, Abby approached me and asked if I would play.

“Sure,” I said, all cool like, but inside I was like Sally Fields receiving an Oscar. “You like me! You really like me!” I asked her mother if she put her up to it. She swears she didn’t.

My piano skills are rudimentary, but this song was right up my alley: left hand octaves and simple chords on the right hand, nothing but whole and half notes. But we would be performing in front of the entire school. I did not want to screw this up, not because I would embarrass myself but because my daughter who barely spoke to me would never speak to me again.

I practiced every day. I listened to Beyoncé’s version. There were backup singers on the repeated verse. Could I be a backup singer? A few oohs and aahs? How hard could it be?

Don’t. Screw. This. Up.

“Abby,” I said in the evening. “Do you want to practice?”

“I’m too tired.”

“Abby,” I said the following evening. “Do you want to practice?”

“On the weekend.”

“It’s going to be a busy weekend. And then there’s school next week. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“It’s fine. You practice on your own, and I’ll practice on my own.”

“But we need to get used to each other.”

“Right, and we’ll do that this weekend.”

Step away from the deer.

We finally practiced. Abby sang beautifully. I kept screwing up.

“I keep listening to you and losing my focus,” I said.

“Just worry about yourself,” she cautioned.

“So, what if I add some ooo-ooohs on the second verse. You know, something a little different on the repeat. Want to try that?”

She was game. It sounded okay. I guess. I don’t know. Maybe it sounded like a 51-year-old wheezing at the piano.

“What do you think?” I asked, grabbing my cheeks. I found myself clawing my face and eyes whenever we rehashed our practices. Anyone watching would see a man uncomfortably worried about screwing it up.

We steadily improved. On the day of the show, we rehearsed at the venue with microphones, me at the piano on stage, Abby beside me. Just concentrate, I told myself. Keep the beat, oooh when you’re supposed to oooh, don’t screw up.

The night of the performance, however, a logistics change found me up on stage, Abby at a mic on the floor far from me, not how we had rehearsed it. That’s fine, I thought. Just play like we practiced.

“Ready?” I asked. Abby nodded.

I began the intro. The F key. It was stuck halfway. What? I had to really hit it to get a sound from it. There was a lot of F in this song. F as in “focus.” Focus! Do not screw up!

I did not screw up. I pounded the F out of that F key. The song flew by. The audience cheered. Abby turned to smile at me. We were so far away, I could only air high-five her. She air high-fived back – or maybe it was a hand gesture that said, “Oh, stop that, you’re so embarrassing!”

Still. I’ll take it.

or slightly closer on Facebook.

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The ¼ buck stops here

A Canadian quarter from 1907 turned up in my wife’s change from the liquor store last weekend. I like to think it ended up there by way of a slow-moving nonagenarian war bride in a cardigan purchasing her bi-monthly supply of Harveys Bristol Cream. She is also the last person in Canada to pay for items in small change, including pennies.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure where this coin has traveled over the past century-plus. Given that it’s been virtually rubbed smooth, with only a hint of scrollwork and a barely discernible “25” on one side and the worn silhouette and the word “EDWARDVS” on the other, how has it made it this far at all?

I mean, it barely looks like a quarter anymore. In other words, are liquor store clerks so inattentive that I could basically pay with washers and subway tokens?

The U.S. Mint reports that the average lifespan of a coin is 30 years. I expect that would be somewhat higher in Canada because our coins contain less cholesterol.

But still, 110 years! That’s a pretty rare coin, which raises the very important question: are we rich?

Before you start getting the gang back together for one last heist, according to coinsandcanada.com, a 1907 quarter in this condition (terrible) is worth about $3.60. But when you think about it – a 25 cent coin worth $3.60 – that’s a 1440% return on investment, or something mathematical like that. Not too bad. Also: not too rich.

Still, I can’t stop thinking about where this coin has been. How many times has it travelled across the country? Was it ever swallowed by a toddler? Should I wash my hands?

I know that 1907 quarters were minted in London, England; the Royal Canadian Mint didn’t begin production in Ottawa until 1908.

And that’s the last fact you’ll get out of me. The rest I can only imagine.
Perhaps in 1909, the coin jangled in the pocket of Lomer Gouin, 13th premier of Quebec, who always kept loose change in his pocket ready to fling at terrible children who made fun of his name.

The flung coin is retrieved by young Louis Petit of Quebec City, age 7, who gladly sports an angry welt above his eye in exchange for the quarter, which would have a value of roughly $5 today. Louis quickly spends the bulk of it on salt pork lollipops, which were a fad that year and, unfortunately, riddled with trichinosis. Sadly, Louis dies, but childhood mortality was commonplace in 1909, so we shouldn’t feel too sad. There were 10 other little Petits at home.

From the soon-to-be-bankrupt Palais-du-Porc-Sucette, the coin changes hands several times, ending up in Stitsville, Ontario, where, in 1914, Alice McCreedy, age 19, uses it to pay for entrance to the newly opened Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. While gazing enraptured at the fossilized trilobites, she meets her future husband, Stanley Ferguson. Together, they have four children and form the musical act well known locally as The Stitsville Six and unknown everywhere else.

From 1928 to 1937, the quarter is jammed beneath a wobbly table leg in Red Deer, Alberta. In 1938, the table collapses during a game of full-contact Pinochle and the coin is presented as restitution.

On September 10, 1939, Canada declares war on Germany. On September 11, the coin is swallowed by a toddler.

At this point, we lose track of the quarter for several decades, which is perhaps for the best.

The quarter resurfaces on a Halifax street in 1973, where it is flung nonchalantly into the open guitar case of a group of buskers whose band would probably have been a huge success if they didn’t insist on calling themselves “The Slow Drains.”

In 2007, recognizing that the coin is 100 years old, Marie-Celeste Lacasse of Alma, Que. puts the quarter in her jewelry box for safekeeping. Two years later, she spends it on a lottery ticket, after a vivid dream convinces her she is destined to win. She is not.

2017: Stanstead, nonagenarian, Bristol Cream.

The coin is now in my wife’s jewelry box. If we wanted to, we could sell it for $3.60. It’s not much, but it would buy a decent-sized bottle of hand sanitizer.

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Out of the crawlspace, into the tree house

When I was little, my older brother and I would spend hours tunnelling into the piles of snow at the end of our driveway. This was back when we regularly got snowfalls of 17 feet at a time. Or something like that. I was a lot shorter then. And less metric.

Andrew was (and is) a designer, so our snow forts tended to be elaborate and well appointed. He was management, I was labour. This may be faulty memory, but I remember one particular fort we could stand up in. It had a bed and a table, a sink maybe, possibly running water and a working snow pinball machine! Or maybe just the bed. But it was definitely a sophisticated snow cave. Until the bad kids in the neighbourhood came and wrecked it.

But really I think the thrill of snow forts was being in that tiny space. Without getting all Freud about it, for a kid, a confined space is a break from the everyday wide-open vastness of pretty much everything in the world besides himself. The confined world is the child’s world, where no adult can follow, unless they risk severe cramping.

Andrew and I had other spaces. In our bathroom (six people, one bathroom; these were savage times), there was a laundry hamper we could squeeze into during a rousing game of Hide-n-Seek-n-Socks.

But behind the bathroom hamper was a wall panel for a dark crawlspace that allowed access to the pipes for the bathtub and shower. And when I say “crawlspace,” I mean “clubhouse.”

Everything I know about international espionage I learned from this book.

Andrew and I could squeeze into that space and, armed with a flashlight, manage to pull the panel shut behind us. That was about all we’d do in there. Maybe we’d look at comics (including a very cool but borderline inappropriate 1966 James Bond Annual). Climb the wall framing. Shine the light around. Sniff the mildew. That was about it. But it was our space!

At one point, my brother posted a magazine article in there about the impending arrival of Comet Kahoutek, which was hyped to be one of brightest comets to pass Earth’s orbit in centuries. This was in 1973, so I would have been 7 or 8 years old. In my mind, I somehow transmuted the harmless (and ultimately disappointing) Comet Kahoutek into a cataclysmic, life-ending Earth-pulverizer. I don’t know where I got this idea but I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame my brother.

(Sometime later, I half-heard someone on the radio talking about 1984, presumably in relation to the novel. I convinced myself that 1984 was when the world was going to end. I was old enough to calculate that I would have just finished high school but not old enough to have ever heard of George Orwell. Imagine my relief.)

Was the crawlspace a science lab? A post-apocalyptic bunker? An especially damp spy headquarters? Or possibly none of the above. The excitement, I think, was due to being not just in an adult-free space but in a sort of alternate universe inside our house.

(I also used to stumble around our unfinished basement staring at a mirror pointed at the rafters and imagining I was walking on the ceiling. I was the youngest; I spent a lot of time alone.)

Eventually, Andrew and I abandoned the crawlspace. Maybe we outgrew it physically and imaginatively. Later, we had a tree house, which, again, my brother designed while I contributed by way of pestering and hanging around. This tree house was no confined space. It slept three people easily. It had a trap door, windows with sliding shutters, even storage spaces perfect for comic books and earwigs.

There was also purple shag carpeting, so clearly we had a thing for mildew.

Eventually we abandoned the tree house too.

Maybe it isn’t just the confined spaces that appeal to us as children but all the spaces we can escape to, away from the world of parents. It starts with a blanket fort, graduates to a crawlspace, climbs up into a tree house and eventually moves out altogether into the world and a new strange a life of one’s own.

Next thing we know, we have our own kids, and it’s back to snow forts – digging human-sized holes in snow banks, wiggling inside that frozen cocoon with its otherworldly sound and light, lying there under that roof of snow. Until your kids yell, “Dad, it’s our turn!”

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Re: New guidelines for the coming in/going out of March

img_4263The management would like to inform you that, in accordance with our recently adopted policy on heightened inclusivity and respect for species fluidity, March is no longer exclusively required to come in like a lamb and go out like a lion (or vice versa, i.e. coming-lion/going-lamb).

This policy is in accordance with non-binding recommendations by an independent panel convened to address a complaint brought against the calendar year by the Alliance for Animal-Mensual Plurality, which raised objections regarding the binary and mammalcentric approach to the third month of the year.

Embracing simile diversity

Consequently, we urge you to be sensitive to the fact that March may come in and go out like any creature it chooses. For example, March may now come in like a spotted sandpiper – barely managing to remain balanced as it runs to and fro in a bit of a tizzy – and go out like a slug – wet, repugnant and leaving a regrettable trail of slime.

Or March may come in like an unfriendly housecat with a weepy eye and go out like the majestic blue wildebeest, as inscrutable as it is difficult to spell.

March may even come in like your neighbour’s escaped python and go out like the bloated carcass of a beached whale.

In short, the animal kingdom is the limit.

Please note that if March does come in like a lion, which it is most certainly entitled to do, it is not required to go out like a lamb. March may come in like a lion and also go out like a lion. It may go out like a cuttlefish. It may even go out like seven chimpanzees on a first-name basis with Jane Goodall. That’s the beauty of animal simile diversity.

What about unicorns, etc.?

A number of you have asked about mythical beasts. Can March, for example, come in like a lamb and go out like a Yeti? We are sensitive to the need for openness regarding the varied interpretations of what is meant by “species” and at this point are willing to accommodate non-documented, faith-based species. This will be done on a case-by-case basis if the mythical species in question can be shown to be integral to one’s cultural/religious heritage. Please speak to Human Resources.

At this time, however, we cannot entertain purely fictional creatures due to the possibility of copyright infringement, among other considerations. For example, March may neither come in nor go out like Hobbes from the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes nor may it come/go like “a stuffed tiger that comes to life only in the imagination of its precocious and borderline sociopathic owner.”

And while we are sensitive to the fact that humans are, indeed, animals, we at this time are unable to allow March to come in like one’s cousin Alice and go out like Don Ameche’s loveable character in Cocoon.

Be aware as well that at this juncture we cannot countenance March coming in or going out like a box of chocolates, like a red, red rose, like a virgin, and so on.


Note as well that we now recognize that March is no longer constrained to a coming-going dichotomy. March may come in like a lamb, go partway out like a dolphin, come back in tentatively like a speckled trout in a cute bowtie, flit about briefly like an intoxicated Chihuahua and finally go out for good like an easily offended emu.

There is also the possibility, though unlikely, that March may come in like an antagonistic long-tailed weasel and simply not go out again. In such an event, please remain calm and await further instructions regarding vacation times, major league baseball schedules and fishing season.

In addition, we cannot predict the reliability of either the coming in or the going out of March now that, based on the recommendations of the panel, we have unfettered ourselves from the patriarchy-based calendar year and its artificial, linear construct. In fact, we have recently convened a separate non-partisan, cross-cultural advisory committee to examine the possibility of doing away with March and its related 11 months altogether. This would empower lions, lambs and all other sentient creatures to come and go in accordance to their natural rhythms.

Either way, we recommend rubber boots.

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City of Scars: Remembering Where We Were When La La Land Won/Lost

img_1084I remember thinking about my kids and what I was going to tell them in the morning. They’d been in bed for hours by then, like most people, and I thought, “Can’t they just go on sleeping? Do they have to wake up to this? Can’t they stay innocent just a little longer?” But I knew they couldn’t, that I’d have to explain to them that a frothy retro-musical had briefly reached the pinnacle, shining like a light of pure primary-color pleasure, only to be dashed to earth. Though I hear Moonlight is quite good.

– Martha M., West Warwick, RI

I was in my cab, waiting for a fare. It’s like 2 a.m. by now. I got CDs going so I don’t hear the news, and it’s just your average night, not too many whack jobs. This couple hales me over and gets in. I get the directions, and I notice pretty quick that something’s not right. They’re too quiet. Like they’re in shock or something. “Nice night,” I say. And they go, “Haven’t you heard?” And they tell me what happened. Now, I’m a black man, though I haven’t seen Moonlight yet – I hear it’s real good – so I’m happy, you know? But at the same time I’m thinking: How could this happen? In 2017? These poor white people. These poor people who have been defending the racial and sexual condescension of La La Land for months. “But the chemistry between Ryan and Emma…!” To have that moment and then to have it taken away like that. I felt so sad for them. I let that couple ride for free that night.

– Garrett K., New York, NY

I’ll never forget the look on Warren Beatty’s face. It was a look that said, “Our dreams died tonight,” though really it was almost tomorrow by that point. “Our dreams died tomorrow.” Yeah. I PVRed it, and I can’t stop watching it. It haunts me.

– Sarah V., Shrewsbury, MA

By the end of the broadcast, I was flipping back and forth between the Oscars and the Clippers/Hornets game, which was going into overtime. I didn’t think I could sit through another uncomfortable speech like Casey Affleck’s, so when I saw the La La Land crew jump out of their seats, I switched over to the game permanently. Then I went to bed. As long as I live, I’ll never get over the fact that while I was watching a meaningless sporting event, that was going on. It’s incredible. But the Clippers won, so that was good.

– Russell S., Oak Creek, WI

It’s funny what comes to mind in a moment like that. By this point I’d become essentially numb to the whole thing. Kimmel didn’t seem impish anymore, just secretly nasty, you know what I mean? Anyway, I wasn’t really feeling anything, not even when they announced La La Land, which was a delight, by the way. But when they announced Moonlight, which I have not seen, I was filled with this sudden rage. And I flashed back to when I was 12 years old and Star Wars lost out to Annie Hall for Best Picture and how utterly unfair and… and corrupt that was. In a way, I’m grateful. I must have been holding that in for a long time.

– Alex T., Maryville, TN

I found myself crying. I can’t explain it. I called my mom, because I knew she’d be up, I knew she’d be watching. And she was crying too. We couldn’t believe it. It was like I had to confirm it with someone else. It was good to have that support, knowing that other people were going through the same thing. “Have you seen Moonlight?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “But we should definitely see it.” “Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.” But we’ll probably go see Hidden Figures. It looks nicer.

– Mary L., Teaneck, NJ

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Mary, Thunder Road, responds

So I’m listening to the radio, some oldies crap that my stupid mother can’t seem to get enough of. Yeah, fine, I’m still living at home. You think it’s easy getting a job with a lousy high school degree? Anyway, I hear this car drive up, and I think, “Oh, God, no…”

I go out on the porch, and the screen door slams, which is, like, so annoying. And my dress gets kind of caught in it, and I stumble just as I see him, and he’s all, “Like a vision she dances across the porch!” Uh, sarcastic much?

Read more over at McSweeney’s, where I’m happy to be published today.

It’s been five years since I’ve submitted anything to McSweeney’s, and I can’t believe it’s been that long. McSweeney’s will forever be associated for me with my post-newspaper period in the mid-2000s, a highly prolific time when the ideas kept popping out like acne, but less gross. I felt unfettered after more than a decade of structured journalism, and McSweeney’s provided an outlet. I didn’t even care that McSweeney’s didn’t pay, I was so happy to be read on this cool site.

McSweeney’s still doesn’t pay* and it’s still cool. For my (non) money, it’s still the best site for humour, and they’ve been on a tear lately with brilliant Trump takedowns. Glad they’ve found a slot for this piece that’s been rattling around in my head for about, well, five years.

*For the record, McSweeney’s has paid me for pieces that ended up in two of their printed anthologies.

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Oscar’s Revenge

When my son James was in his final year of high school, I made him go to bed at the end of the third quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Antonio Spurs. He had a final exam the next day, and he needed his sleep, I explained.

As I wrote about previously, that fourth quarter turned out to be not just thrilling but pivotal in the series. My son has never let me forget it.

Last night, I sat through the entire Oscar broadcast. I hardly ever do. But whether it was inertia or wanting to see how this La La Land backlash would play out, I made it all the way through. Almost. Continue reading

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