A father talks to his sons about being better men

Boys, you probably feel bad these days about being male, and you should. We’ve been terrible. Not you, specifically, but the rest of us. My generation definitely. But it wasn’t our fault. It was… the patriarchy. And the funny thing is, back then, we didn’t even know the patriarchy existed, but it did, boy oh boy! And was it fun.

Hot in the 80s.

No! The patriarchy was the worst, especially if you didn’t belong to it, even though, sex-wise, things were pretty tame back then. We didn’t have your leggings and your cleavage and your booties like today. And breasts were just these vague ideas under heavy-knit sweaters. Like flak jackets, those things.

But that didn’t stop us guys from treating girls horribly. When I think of the way we talked about what we did (or mostly imagined we’d do) with girls, like it was some kind of sporting event: getting to first base, getting to third base, choking up on the bat, using too much pine tar, dog on the field, rain delay…

But, boys, sex is not a competition. We have to stop thinking in terms of conquering our opponent. It’s not fair. Because girls aren’t as good at sports as men. That’s not sexist! It’s a fact. Venus and Serena who? Never heard of them.

So, no, sex isn’t like a competitive sport, and definitely not a contact sport, let’s make that clear. If you must have a sports allegory, sex is more like a footrace, where both participants run as teammates, respectfully, side by side, urging each other to reach their goal. But, again, the man usually finishes first.

But I don’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of sex and the need for proper footwear and how to prevent cramping and blisters, etcetera, etcetera. What I’m trying to say is that society is finally saying no to men just “expecting” sex. Again, I’m older, I’ve been married a long time; I don’t expect sex. But you boys maybe do. And what women are saying is, essentially, you’re just going to have to be nicer about it.

With everything going on, you may feel like sex and romance are simply too dangerous, that anything you do will be misconstrued or, worse, perceived as non-consensual. But that’s not what the movement is about.

Look: Imagine your sex drive is an all-terrain vehicle. It serves a very specific purpose, namely helping with chores around the farm, on private property, as nature intended. Making little baby all-terrain vehicles. That’s nice.

Okay, but sometimes you want to tear through the woods with your all-terrain vehicle, just for kicks – make a lot of noise, go real fast, waste energy, annoy the neighbours. Maybe do it with other people, whatever’s your thing, man. But there are rules. You can’t go too fast. You need to wear protection. And you can’t do it on public roads. As long as everyone agrees to the rules, it may look really stupid but everyone has a good time and no one gets hurt.

But then you get those jackasses who drive their all-terrain vehicles on the walking path, and they tear it all up and leave ruts. Deep, deep ruts! Scars in the path that will never heal! Well, until the town guys come and grade it. But these jackasses have no consideration for other people because their all-terrain vehicles are big and fast and not properly licenced, and it makes it very difficult to walk, and the police do absolutely nothing! God, I hate all-terrain vehicles! They’re the worst. We should ban them altogether!

What were we talking about?

Oh yes. Sex. Basically, don’t be a jackass. No rutting.

Also, don’t feel you have to be the alpha male. It’s not a coincidence that “alpha” starts with “A” like a certain other word. Just be yourself, be honest. If that’s who you are, you should feel perfectly comfortable walking up to a woman at a bar and saying, “Baby, I’m gonna make you cringe.”

So, like I said, boys, we made this mess, but you can make it right. Just take heed of what’s happening, treat women with fairness, kindness and respect, and soon we’ll have a happier, more equitable society.

Of course, the other day, I read a Facebook thread from a bunch of women who said they were only attracted to men who treated them badly. You know: jackasses.

So it turns out we all have work to do. Get your sisters in here.

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If my nose is running, my thoughts are leaking

Those scientists, always doing studies. It’s as if they have nothing better to do. Instead of “studying” things, why aren’t they working on those jet cars we were promised? Where’s my pill in a meal? And the current lack of teleportation is the great disappointment of my generation, second only to the career of Judd Nelson.

A co-worker recently sent me a link to a study that determined that people (like me) who drink their coffee black are more likely to be psychopaths. I swear if she sends me a link like that again, I will cut her!

Of course, for every study there’s a counter study. In response to the coffee findings, I decided to Google “Why black coffee drinkers are the best.” I found a reply, of course, but it was from some website called “BroBible,” which didn’t convince me that black coffee would allow me to “get shredded, show your Dad Bod the middle finger and get laid,” but it did make me fully embrace the impending demise of the Y chromosome, as predicted in, yes, a recent study.

My favourite study of the past year was one that concluded that middle-aged sex keeps the brain sharp. I imagine this finding led to countless husbands turning to their wives and saying, “Hey, honey, you’re looking kind of stupid tonight, so howzabout…?” In other research, middle-age divorce rates continue to climb.

This week, though, I read about a newly released study that found that having a cold nose means you are thinking too hard. The news story didn’t explain how researchers quantified “thinking too hard.” Did it mean trying to work out a difficult math problem? Or trying to remember the title song for the madcap 80s sit-com “Perfect Strangers”?

The cold-nose researchers are hoping to use these findings to measure workload stress in employees without disrupting actual workflow. Instead, facial monitoring will indicate when employees need a break. Of course, they will also need hidden cameras to ensure that workers aren’t sneaking off to stick their face in the ice machine.

The reason the nose gets cold is that heavy concentration alters breathing. (Heavy breathing also alters concentration, but let’s leave what the judge explained to me about “improper phone behaviour” for another time.) This diverts blood to the brain at the expense of the extremities, your nose being one such extremity.

But like Gene Hackman in the late 90s, blood is everywhere, which means other extremities must be vulnerable as well. This leads one to wonder what the cooling of other body parts might indicate, and by “one” I mean “me” and not researchers, who, it turns out, do have better things to do.

Cold ears: You are thinking too hard about all your exes and wondering whether they are living happy lives, though you secretly hope not.

Cold forehead: You are driving with your head hanging out the window again.

Cold left hand: You are on the verge of creating a new literary genre, Oh-Wellian fiction, in which everybody lives in an oppressive, dystopian society but just kind of deals with it.

Cold feet: Studies show that there is a 40 percent chance you will soon be sleeping on the sofa.

Tingling Ring Finger: You have just come to the realization that the totality of your life’s romantic success has nothing to do with looks or personality but consistently good lighting.

Throbbing kneecap: You have just come to the realization that morning riots are the most important mêlée of the day.

Sensitive inside elbow: Don’t let a difference of opinions keep you from your goals, sensitive inside elbow person. Friends and co-workers will come around to your point of view through a combination of reasoned argument and anonymous threatening texts. Remember that there is no “I” in “team” but there is an “I” in “grapefruit,” so you should probably eat more grapefruit. Pisces figures promiscuously. Money matters.

Frosted tips: No.

Frosty reception: Should have brought a hostess gift.

Chilly Willy: A highly underrated cartoon character.

Cool Runnings: An underrated 90s movie that did not star Gene Hackman or (obviously) Judd Nelson.

I hope this guide will be useful to you so that you know at all times what your body is doing. And I can assure you, as I’m certain you can guess, that right now my nose is very, very warm.

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A bad week for words

If you were in Hawaii last Saturday, you may have suffered 40 minutes of uncertainty when someone accidentally pressed a button warning that a ballistic missile was heading your way. I suppose it must have been horrible, but screw you! You were in Hawaii! Have you see the weather here?

The message people saw on their phones read as follows:

Clearly, this is a distressing message to read, but in my opinion not distressing enough.

I appreciate the all-caps, like an office worker complaining via email about the purloining of clearly labeled lunchroom snacks, but where are the exclamation marks? Or rather, where are the exclamation marks! If ever there was a call for exclamation marks, imminent destruction by a hostile foreign power is one.

People throw around exclamation marks like crazy. They’ve become virtually standard. You can no longer answer a text with a simple “Thanks.” It has to be “Thanks!” Otherwise, people are going to think you’re a selfish, ungrateful jerk-face. But more on Donald Trump later.

“Have a nice day!” “On sale now!” “Put some pants on!” All these are occasions when we happily apply one if not multiple exclamation marks. So clearly the emergency alert people should have capitalized on the drama with “THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!!”

And plain black Arial? No. This is no time for the blandest, least deadly of all the fonts. Cooper Black, Franklin Gothic Heavy, maybe even break out the Copperplate Gothic. “Comic Sans is the last font I want to see,” people would say, and in this case they might be right.

And it should be flashing like an early 2000s MySpace page. That’s how you get people’s attention just before they “take shelter” (as if that’s going to help.)

Incidentally, around here, I don’t think we have an emergency alert system. Instead, you just tell someone at the post office and in half an hour everyone knows.

But back to Hawaii (I wish!), it turned out not to be a real emergency, so in a way it was lucky this lacklustre, punctuation-starved alert had such little visual impact, otherwise there might have been real panic. Shortly after, a second alert was issued:

Again, lack of enthusiasm, poor punctuation. It should be “Repeat: False alarm.” Sloppy all-clears like this make me want to… EXPLODE! Like an intercontinental ballistic missile! And why can’t I go to Hawaii!!!

Also, I’m not sensing any real remorse in that second alert, no “whoops, our bad.” Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to add a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?

No one can explain how that first text got out, but the same can’t be said for President Trump. He knew exactly what he was doing last week when he described certain countries using a word that I can’t write in this family blog. Instead, I’ll write “sith-hole,” which, let’s say, is a place where Star Wars bad guys hang out, though I know you’re saying the actual word in your head right now, and for that I’m sorry. I’m sorry your brain has a filthy mouth.

There are no good substitutes for the word Trump used, no effective euphemisms. (Crumb-bum countries? Anus nations?) Consequently, news media were forced to break protocol and use the profanity, over and over and over. Outwardly, the standards people probably struggled with this decision, but the journalists themselves were undoubtedly delighted, since it is well know that journalists are the least mature of all professionals. Except maybe clown-fart inspectors. And humour writers.

But more disturbing than this breach of decorum — and, honestly, at this point, what is there left to breach? — is the spelling. I keep seeing it written as one word. That can’t be right. There has to be a hyphen in there, or two words. Otherwise, there’s the risk of running the T and the H together, making it sound like “shy thole.” And who among us hasn’t had a shy thole at one time or another?

And, yes, I’ve checked: “sith-hole” (the real word, the one I made you think again, written as one word) is not acceptable in Scrabble. But after this week, it might soon be.

So what do we take away from all this? 1. Hawaii is too close to North Korea. 2. If I were in charge of emergency alerts, Armageddon would really “POP!” 3. Language and how we use it are changing all the time. 4. Donald Trump is quite the sith-head.

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The spit is in the mail

My grandfather Harry Murray.

For Christmas, our eldest daughter ordered me an ancestry DNA kit. Through analysis of my genetic source code, I will soon know exactly where I come from and whom to blame.

That’s really what we look for when we begin researching our ancestry: culpability. Up to now, I’ve only been able to attribute my shortcomings to my parents, but soon I’ll have an entire Old World to pin them on.

When I open a new package of English muffins before finishing the old one, I’ll be able to say to my wife, “It’s not me, it’s my Germanic roots. Don’t you know the Germans traditionally leave a pastry behind for Saint Adalbert of Magdeburg? What: oh, the blob of jam on the counter? Das ist ein Potsjammer Splatz.”

Curiously, Deb and I have already had our DNA tested. We are both carriers of a mutation that resulted in our youngest daughter’s metabolic condition, tyrosinemia. As part of medical research to track the provenance of the mutation, we both gave a blood sample a couple of years ago. Tyrosinemia is relatively common in Quebec, and there is a corresponding Quebec mutation. There is also a northern European mutation. Deb’s family has been in Quebec for a few generations, so we assumed she had the Quebec variety, while I, an interloper with Scottish roots, would reveal the European variety along with a high tolerance for haggis.

The opposite turned out to be the case. I have the Quebec mutation, Deb the European variety. That’s essentially all we learned. Neither of us discovered, for instance, whether we were descended from a Romanian viscount or even what exactly is a “viscount.”

My cousin Jeanne, meanwhile, has been doing Murray family research, and about a year ago she told me that one of my ancestors was a Scot who was a member of the 78th Highlanders in Quebec City. Did he marry a French-Canadian girl? Is there a little French in me? Am I all out of excuses for speaking French so badly?

This new DNA kit may offer a few more details about this and the further commingling of my genes. Moreover, the company, with my permission, will put me in touch with other people who share my genetic roots. Pretty cool, but I tell you right now, I am not sending them Christmas cards.

The sample kit arrived this week, and I excitedly opened it to see what was involved. It turns out the “D” in “DNA” stands for “drool.” To complete the testing, I was required to fill up a small vial with my saliva. I don’t know why I couldn’t just send them my pillow.

Before dribbling into the plastic tube, however, I had to wait a half hour after eating, no doubt to ensure that I don’t get results indicating that I am 90% Dutch and 10% Moroccan chicken.

Next, I shook the sample up with some blue stuff. It said it was some kind of stabilizer but I think it’s to make the sample look less spitty, because some poor slob is going to have to handle this saliva of mine, someone clearly living the dream foretold by his or her high school guidance counsellor who, one afternoon during Period 5, uttered the fateful words: “Have you ever considered spittle…?”

This someone is in Ireland, it so happens. That’s where I’ll be mailing my tube o’ goober. Sadly, this will be the closest I’ve ever come to traveling abroad.

What will having this ancestry information change? Nothing at a practical level. But establishing that connection to a time and place going back generations creates a sense that we’re not merely some momentary speck of existence in history. We’re a continuation. There’s something reassuring in that. Plus – and, again, I can’t stress this enough – more cultural stereotypes to pin my faults on.

I’ve completed my kit as of this writing. Through a mix-up in the order process, Deb has one too. She’ll likewise be able to track her ancestry and, between the two of us, our children will have a complete picture of their ethnic and geographical roots.

As I was sealing up my sample for mailing, Deb said, “Whoever came up with this idea is bloody brilliant.”

Spitty brilliant,” I corrected.

She glared at me.

Don’t blame me; it’s the Flemish talking.

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It takes a village to start a car

When it came to our car battery, I knew we were playing with fire. Or rather lack of fire. It had come to the point where simply leaving the key in the ignition would drain it. But we had a solution: don’t leave the key in the ignition.

That tends to be our MO for dealing with automotive issues; we make due, Jerry rig, fail to meet safety standards. For example, this fall, the hydraulic suddenly drained from the rear hatch supports. I call it “hydraulic,” but for all I know the technical term is “thing that makes that ‘woosh’ sound when you lift the hatch so it doesn’t crash down on your head.”

We remedied the hatch problem by jamming in place a large stick the dog had been chewing on. I refer to it as an “artisanal hatch support.”

So naturally, rather than get another battery, we bought a battery booster to carry around in the car. This worked for a while. Whenever someone foolishly left the dome light on for 15 seconds, we would jump out of the car, open the hatch, jam the stick in place, retrieve the booster and, voila, the car would start and we would be on our way.

Then it got cold.

Over Christmas, the car sat in the driveway for a few days. Our son had gone back to Ontario by then with his (not his) car, reducing us again to just the one. And it was dead, and with the cold, our little Canadian Tire booster pack couldn’t get the job done.

That’s when the cavalry arrived.

Keri across the street pulled into the driveway, and we rigged up cables battery to battery. No go. Then ever-resourceful neighbour Clint walked over. He took my booster and fastened it to the cable clamps, which is something I didn’t know you could do, like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. But the only explosion was the sweet explosion of engine ignition.

But enough was enough. I called the garage and made an appointment for a new battery. This was Wednesday, and I made an appointment for Friday because on Thursday Abby had a driving lesson in Magog. I figured now that we had got the car running for a while, we’d be able to start it okay in the morning.


Thursday morning, the car barely had a pulse. Clint to the rescue again! He brought over his truck. We double-clamped with my pack. We triple-clamped with his pack! (Whoa!) But nothing.

Meanwhile, Abby had her appointment to keep. So we called our friends Steve and Karen, and they loaned us their car for the day. Clint drove me over to retrieve it, and while we were gone, he hooked up an electric charger to give it some longterm juice.

That afternoon, I phoned the garage to say we might need a tow in the morning. How much would that be? Sixty-five bucks! Deb had the idea of asking whether anyone would be willing to barter a call to CAA. I posted my pitch on Facebook.

Eric offered to bring a battery by and install it in the cold.

Patrick offered to drive up from Lennoxville in the morning.

Our son in Ontario wrote, “If only you had two cars…”

William offered to give me his card info and just tell the driver that my “son-in-law” had to go to work, but that was too much play-acting for such an early hour.

Kim and I nearly had it figured out, but the timing was off.

Finally, Joanne offered to drop by. It’s charging overnight, I told her, so it might start in the morning.

It didn’t.

I called for the tow, and Dany came up amazingly fast for such a cold morning with so many people in the same situation. Joanne drove over, and we gave her a cup of coffee as our car was rigged up, sign d for and towed away.

Later, Clint dropped by a set of keys so we could pick up our car in the afternoon.

Nothing particularly unusual happens in this story. In fact, I bet this was taking place in some way or another all over during these cold winter days and other minor crises. We all have our Keris and Clints and Kims and Joannes and Steves and Karens and all the others. Where would be without these gestures of help and kindness? Thanks to them, our car is back on the road, chewed stick and all.


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How The Last Jedi made me a little less stupid

EBE2A7F2-3036-4688-874A-853C29AA7F46.jpegI got stupider in 2017. My stupidity manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes it’s difficulty in processing instructions. Sometimes it’s mangling words. Sometimes it’s this blog. (See “My Therapy Toaster,” September 21.)

For a while, I attributed my new stupidity to my cell phone, its incessant pings and distractions keeping my mind from being still long enough to think creatively or at least remember what I walked into the kitchen for.

But I’ve had a cell phone for a few years, and I never felt especially stupid before now. Oh, I’ve always been stupid but clever enough to get away with it. Now, I feel my stupidity is out there in the open. (See “Giant Louise Penny,” September 14.)

Then I went to see The Last Jedi, the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, and it all became clear.

Without giving away spoilers, I liked the film. It took the series in a new direction and undermined certain assumptions about the Star Wars universe. It certainly had its faults, but I was entertained and had popcorn as a meal, which is about all you can ask of an evening out. The biggest flaw I saw was my purchase of a large root beer without considering the absence of a pause button.

Having avoided all reviews and comments prior to the screening, I now took a look. The critics loved The Last Jedi. Fans, however, hated it. Not just “didn’t care for it”or “were disappointed.” HATED it! They hated the movie, hated Disney, hated its “agenda,” hated the new characters, hated what they did to the old characters, hated the director, hated the director’s mother, hated the director’s dog.

On the critics’ side, multiple think pieces defended the film, in some cases clinging to rationalization like the last life preserver on a sinking ship.

But it was the haters who intrigued me, and I found myself drawn to the battlefields of Twitter and its free-flowing rage. Overwrought these fans were. Ye-e-essss! They let the hate flow through them!

To paraphrase these tweets: “The Last Jedi has betrayed my deeply held beliefs in a fictional universe built around a 40-year-old action film!! #hatethelastjedi”

“I hated this movie so much. I hated it even more the second and third time I saw it to make sure I really hated it, which I did. I want my money back, so I can afford to see it a fourth time and hate it even more!”

“I demand that my art conform to all my preconceived notions and never, ever challenge me in any way!!! #deathtothelastjedi”

I’ve strongly disliked movies before (looking at you Forrest Gump) but I’ve never petitioned one to be entirely reshot. I was fascinated by the force (ha!) of anger about something so inconsequential. You’d think these people were Habs fans.

Then I realized that not only was I wasting time reading these angry comments but something more: I recognized that anger.

For the past year, I’ve been feverishly scrolling through my Twitter feed to discover the latest horrible, spiteful, self-serving political misdeeds in the United States, a country I don’t even live in.

I shared and posted tweets. About Alabama. Alabama! I did this because I needed to express my anger, anger that the jerks were winning. I wanted — needed! — that anger reinforced by others feeling the same way.

In other words, for the past year I’ve been like an outraged Star Wars fan, lapping up the snark and sarcasm, wallowing in all that bitterness, ineffectively directing my futile rage, angry that things weren’t going exactly the way I wanted. It wasn’t that spending too much time hating Donald Trump on Twitter was making me stupid. It was the hate itself. All that negative energy echoing back at me was replacing reason, creativity and, in some cases, basic coherence.

I’ve stayed off Twitter for nearly a week now and have limited most of my other social media. I feel smarter already, this post notwithstanding.

This is not to say that, whatever your county, you shouldn’t be paying attention or getting angry at those determined to tear us apart or satirizing them within an inch of their lives. We, after all, are the resistance. But to succeed, we need to be smarter than they are, and we stay smart through creativity and hope. Anger only leads to the dark side.

That’s something else I learned that from Star Wars.

Happy 2018, everyone. May the brain force be with us.

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Muddling through somehow

This past weekend, while suffering from CSPD – Collective Seasonal Psychosis Disorder – I called up a Christmas playlist on my phone. That’s dangerous, the random playlist, because you never know when they’ll play Pentatonix and ruin your whole Christmas.

Google no lie

In this case, we went straight from Judy Garland’s melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Mariah Carey going pure id with “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Now there, I thought, is the evolution of Christmas in a nutshell.

I even did some analysis. In “Have Yourself…” Judy sings “you, yourself” four times, “we, us” five times, and “I, me” zero times. In “All I Want for Christmas…” Mariah sings “I, me, mine” 17 times. She sings “you” six times, but of those six, four are used, appropriately, as objects.

“Have Yourself…” is about being together, contemplating better times, wishing the best to loved ones. “All I Want…” is about gittin’ some! Continue reading

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