The man with his hands on his hips

There was an image that flashed across the TV screen Sunday afternoon. I can’t be certain but it might have been an ad for IBM’s artificial intelligence app, Watson. “Hello. I am Watson,” a voice intones at the end, a voice that sounds like what a computer calculates a human would sound like. You would think a company that the traitorous HAL computer was based on would want to get away from sounding like a HAL computer, but these are funny times.

The image whizzed by quickly, in sequence with other images flashing so fast they risked giving one a seizure, which, come to think of it, may be part of Watson’s master plan against the humans.

The image was of a man standing in the middle of a dimly lit control room, computer screens and monitors blinking around him, people at consoles, busy, busy busy. He stands there in a plain, white button-down shirt, open at the neck, no tie, his hands on his hips, legs slightly apart. As the control room buzzes around him and the workers monitor some emerging crisis (revolt of the AI robots?), the man is a bastion of calm.

The image lasted only a second, but I thought to myself: “This. This is what I aspire to.”

I want to be the man in the room with his hands on his hips, and not in a swishy way, nor with my hands balled into fists like I’m Charles Atlas, but sturdy and confident. A man who seems to say, “Neckties are for chumps or for strangling terrorists who make the mistake of infiltrating this facility, which happened this morning, and I didn’t even crease my shirt, though I did ruin a tie. It was my assistant Barlow’s tie, because I don’t wear them, not being in the least bit chumpish.”

He is a man who has seen many things, who has faced down his fears and insecurities. He no longer sees anything sinister in the rows and rows of perfectly straight teeth everywhere he turns, the result of aggressive societal pressures for cosmetic orthodontics. They are now to him just pretty smiles, and people smile at him. Because they respect how he stand like this, with his hands on his hips.

He never says the word “akimbo.”

He smells like wood shavings and the distant whiff of a fifties-style diner when you’re really, really hungry.

His hair colour is described as “nugget.” It should make no sense but everyone agrees it’s the only word that works.

He is a man who commands respect, simply by being there. Everyone else is working, while he simply stands, inspiring them, but not actually working. I want to be the man not working too. That’s the dream.

But he is thinking, always thinking. And inspiring. He thinks, “How can I inspire these people to continue working feverishly to contain hugely complex geopolitical crises that threaten the very existence of mankind while I stand here, earning a vastly superior salary and enumerating in my head under what scenarios I would, in fact, wear a necktie.”

If he did wear a necktie, he would wear it superbly, with the perfect dimple in the knot, and not hanging to his groin, like Donald Trump. In fact, that may be what is occupying them so intently in this command centre: Donald Trump’s tie has seized control of the White House. It is an artificial intelligence tie. For an artificial intelligence president.

Or maybe he is the guy who manages the guys who drive the snowploughs. I want to be that guy, especially in April. What a cushy job.

He’s the kind of man who uses words like “breakneck,” “providence,” “bellwether,” “cacophony.” He knows how to kiss a dame. He says “dame,” and not ironically.

But he doesn’t have to speak. Everyone simply knows what he wants and that the smallest mistake will result not only in the collapse of civilization, where the only form of currency is abandoned shopping carts, but also in his disappointment, which is worse. For without civilization, there can be no rooms filled with monitors to stand within, no crisp, open-neck shirts to wear, no lackeys to be worshipped by. In short: a tragedy.

If I were the man standing in the control room with his hands on his hips, I definitely wouldn’t be watching TV on a Sunday afternoon.

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Pump rage

My general state of being whenever I wait for a gas pump to free up can best be described as “seething.” I’m not great with waiting, even in a car surrounded by the endless possibilities of radio entertainment because, as it happens, I also seethe at commercial radio.

My end of Stanstead has one gas station with eight pumps. Located right off the highway at the second-last stop before the United States, it’s always busy. It’s probably even more busy now that it’s become less palatable for locals to cross the border to fill up. Gas is still cheaper in Vermont, yes, but who wants to brave the interrogation at the border: “What’s the purpose of your visit?” “Have you ever been arrested?” “Don’t you have gas in Canada?” “Do you subscribe to a Keynesian or classical view of economics?”

I once encountered an obstinately literal border agent while crossing to buy gas at the Irving station located directly across from U.S. Customs. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Just getting gas,” I replied.

“Where are you getting gas?”


“Here?” he barked, pointing at the inside of his booth.

“A-a-across the street,” I stammered.

“There you go…”

It was a patronizing exchange that served no purpose other than to make me feel small and stupid. And that was in the less paranoid Obama years. So, no, I don’t like crossing the border if I don’t have to, especially now that writing this has undoubtedly flagged me in the system as a radical, miscreant whiney-pants.

Waiting for gas in Canada, however, is no treat. The Stanstead pumps are slow. How slow? You can actually read the decimal cents whizzing by, that slow. Plus, the card readers are often broken, forcing customers to go inside, stand in another line to pay at the cash, while abandoning their cars at the pump, further delaying other paying customers. Or sometimes a pump might be out of order entirely.

These were all possible scenarios Monday as my car hovered at the edge of the service area waiting for a pump to free up, my eyeballs shifting left and right on the lookout for line jumpers. And what would I do if a car tried to nose its way in? I had not ruled out full-on ramming.

As mentioned, there were cars at the pumps, sitting empty as their drivers payed inside. No doubt there was only one cash open. Grumble grumble…

Nothing was moving. And this radio commercial break was endless! Grrrr…!

Finally, a woman headed towards the car at the pump I was poised behind. At last! But, no, she had paid in advance and was only now pumping! ARRRGH!

Oh, I wasn’t late for anything. I had lots of time. But waiting! AAARRRGH!

Eventually, a lane opened up, so I zipped in before anyone could swoop into my slot. The card reader worked, thankfully, though on the island opposite I could now see one of the pumps was indeed out of order. Of course it was.

I began pumping my gas and watched the cent decimals casually click by. That’s when I heard cursing at the pump one over from me. “Soggy box of Crackerjacks!” the burly man cried (no, he didn’t). “What the windshield-wiper is this?” He was looking up at the ceiling and then at the open door of his van. He was livid; water had dripped from the canopy onto the inside of the door.

Water, the most innocuous of all the liquids. Considering the fluids that have been spilled, sprayed and/or spewed in my car over the years, I would have laughed gaily at a little water on my driver seat. Yes, gaily.

Van-man stomped around the pump, looking for paper towel, but he couldn’t see the end of paper sticking out from the dispenser like I could from my angle, so he stormed over to the next island. I thought of pointing it out to him but I felt he deserved the nuisance because his anger was so out of proportion to the situation.

Oh wait…

I realized that the source of my seething was something equally mundane, namely people like me just trying to get on with their day. There’s enough to be legitimately angry about in this world without becoming a van-man over the small stuff. It worried me, though, that my irritation might have eventually exploded into honking, cursing and ultimately a viral cellphone video.

Thankfully, I was at the pumps now and my seething had subsided, so I’ll never know. In other words, there but for the grace of gas go I.


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Risky business for columnists

Hi there. How’s tricks? Does anyone say that anymore? “How’s tricks?” Sounds Damon Runyon-esque. That’s Damon Runyon, the American writer, not Damon Runyan, the Canadian actor and star of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” though, honestly, what kind of parent does that to a child? It would be like if my last name were “Frankenstien” and I named my child “Brideof.”

But seriously, how’s tricks?

That’s one of those greetings I like to spring on the members of the high school yearbook club I supervise. Most of the girls in the club are from Asia, so when I come in and say, “What’s up, Doc?” they just look at me. Then I ask them if they know who Bugs Bunny is, which they do, and the rest is fairly self-explanatory. I’ve also tried “What’s the story?” and “What’s cooking?” which likewise generate blank stares.

I have never tried “How’s it hanging?” nor do I intend to. Never once have I thought, “Would it be so bad, just to see what it felt like?”

Also, I would like to point out that I am not generalizing about Asian girls. I write this based on my own experience knowing full well that there may be many Asian girls, perhaps the majority, who are familiar with North American greeting colloquialisms.

Sorry. I’m a bit nervous, kind of stalling here actually, because I don’t want to inadvertently write something that crosses the line or displays bad judgement on my part.

Recently, Maclean’s columnist Andrew Potter had to step down as the head of a prestigious institute at McGill University over an ill-considered and poorly substantiated blindside of Quebec society, and this week, Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren got the Internet in a froth when she wrote about the time she attempted to breastfeed a stranger’s baby at a party.

I’m worried because I too have been to parties. I’ve been to lots of parties. I’ve done stupid things at parties. But there were never babies involved. That’s not necessarily true. Babies were sometimes present. But there was no nursing. By me. I have not nursed any babies. At parties or elsewhere.

I’m sorry you’re now picturing me nursing a baby.

You see? You see how easy it is? I set out to write something specifically about not ever having breastfed strange babies at parties and then I find myself telling about that time I went to a house party and had to go to the bathroom, and I noticed that the toilet was running, so I lifted the lid to fiddle with the doodad, because toilets – how hard can they be? And then suddenly there was a geyser of water shooting out of the tank. So I put the lid back on and left. A few minutes later, I heard the owner upstairs yelling, “What the hell!”

But, still, I didn’t break any social mores. Just a toilet.

I’ve got to be extra careful, because my deadline is looming, like maybe McLaren’s deadline was, and she was thinking, “Well, I have to write something…” Maybe like me she had tumbled down the rabbit hole of Netflix, letting hours slip away instead of writing, delighted by the entertainment yet coming away with a bloated sense of wasted time and chip crumbs down her shirt, which would make breastfeeding uncomfortable for both her and a stranger’s baby, I can imagine.

And that could easily get me talking about how it’s odd I don’t feel guilty about reading books for hours, which in turn could lead to me telling about that time I went to a party and saw a book I liked on the host’s bookshelf and took it home. People do that all the time, right? Perfectly normal behaviour? Hosts expect that. If you open your home to guests, you assume you’re going to lose a bestseller or two, especially in Quebec society, where people steal books because of the underground economy and instant teller machines that spew copies of pirated DVDs.

And I don’t feel guilty about it at all, because if I did feel guilty, or if I suspected this might be behaviour or a sweeping generalization that people might find really, really weird, I certainly wouldn’t write about it.

Or would I? That’s why I’m nervous, see?

So what have we learned today? That writing a column is fraught with risk, that vigilant editors are important, that I make Asian girls uncomfortable, that breastfeeding should be handled by professionals and that you invite me to a party at your peril.

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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, 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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