La version française de ces histoires se trouve sur En direct de l'intestin grêle

Wouldn't it be great if these stories were true? Unfortunately (or fortunately) they're not; they are just the product of my overworked mind. All characters and events are fictitious and if you think you recognize yourself or somebody you know in these stories, it was not my purpose and it is purely unintentional. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy reading this blog. Feel free to link this blog wherever else you hang out on the Internet and to post comments below. I enjoy hearing from you.


Friday, November 2, 2012

The Refrigerator

Eventually everything goes to rot as long as bacteria is provided with food, moisture, heat and time. For instance, take the delicious seafood fettucini that you forgot in a plastic container on the kitchen counter before leaving for a 3-week summer vacation.

pasta, fettucini, fettucine, seafood, shrimps, mussels, scallops, white plate, glass of water, white tablecloth
Fettucini (Italian for "little ribbons") is one of the 310 specific forms of Italian pasta. To complicate matters there are 1300 different names to describe these different kinds of unleavened dough. Pasta can be served with a sauce, in soup or baked. Seafood include fish, mollusks and crustaceans.

Upon your return, it is most likely that decomposition would be so well underway that the cover of the container would have popped open from the decaying gases and that a foul odour would be pervading your once sweet-smelling apartment.

From time immemorial, civilization has unsparingly devoted energy and creativity to food preservation. Salting, drying, pickling are all processes developed to keep foodstuffs edible. Comes a time however when you get tired of eating dried meat, pickled herring and catching gout from eating too much cured venison.

Fortunately someone discovered cooling and freezing.

ice box, cold storage, stone building, Middle East, straw bails
About 1700 years B.C. in the Middle East, bell-shaped buildings started to appear. With thick walls and insulating materials (such as sawdust or straw) these buildings allowed the preservation of snow and ice throughout spring and summer.

In the United States and Canada specially insulated buildings were built, usually near lakes, to store ice as household supplies until the middle of the 20th century. When electricity made its way into houses and refrigerators became common appliances, this industry became obsolete.

Today refrigerators are taken for granted. I am even told that some ladies will measure the quality of a suitor according to the cleanliness and content of their fridge. Gentlemen, please take heed and do not forget to also clean your bathroom and change the sheets in the bed.

It only takes a few weeks for rotting food to attempt to emerge from a plastic container forgotten on a kitchen counter. I wonder however how long it would take for provisions to open the door of a refrigerator in which they were left to decay.

It seems to me this would be the kind of experiment Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, would have enjoyed, he who once said: “In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything changes.”

chemistry, French Revolution, husband and wife. laboratory equipment
Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) with his wife Marie-Anne explaining to him why it is important to keep a refrigerator clean. Mr. Lavoisier, was a chemist but also a tax collector, an unpopular trade that probably caused him to be guillotined during the French Revolution.

A few weeks ago, I invited a few friends for dinner. I was to serve the seafood fettucini that I referred to earlier. However, because I had to go away for two days before the dinner date, I purchased the scallops, shrimps, crab and other ingredients in advance and placed them in the back of the fridge.

I came back Friday night, the day before the dinner. There was a strange smell in the apartment but it was late, I was exhausted so I postponed an investigation until the next day.

Saturday morning, I was awakened by a stench. Feeling sick, I wondered where the foul odour was coming from. While making coffee, I opened the refrigerator door to get milk and I was assaulted by the bacteriological process that had been underway for two days, starting when the appliance’s compressor failed.

Antoine Lavoisier could probably tell you that a refrigerator transforms heat into cold through a compressor that overheats a cooling liquid, turning it into gas that cools off going through a coil while becoming liquid once again.

The compressor failure raised the temperature inside the fridge to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit: a perfect environment for bacteria proliferation.

Refraining from throwing up, I emptied the content of the refrigerator into plastic bags that I carried outside to the shed where I keep my garbage until pick-up day. Then I called my guests to explain what happened and rescheduled the dinner invitation. I spent the rest of the day shopping for a refrigerator.

During the night, I was suddenly awakened by loud crashing sounds outside. I quickly dressed and went down to see what was happening.

A black bear, attracted by the smell of spoilage, was having a feast in my garbage. When it saw me, it cocked its head, surprised by the interruption, then went back to its banquet, totally ignoring me.

I did not know what to do when a bear strays onto one’s property. Should I call the Wildlife Service? At 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday, I doubted anybody would answer. Should I call 9-1-1? In my view, having a bear stealing your garbage is not an emergency and in Canada it is a crime to call 9-1-1 unless there’s an emergency.

So I decided to let nature be and allowed the beast to finish its meal. The next morning would be soon enough to assess the situation.

black bear, endangered species, couch, garbage, dump
The black bear (ursus americanus) is not an endangered species in North America and unfortunately gets used too easily to human presence. Many thanks to ZebraJay for the photo.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Geoff’s Beard

When people ask why I have a beard, I feel like they are asking why my eyes are brown. So I always give the same answer: I have worn a beard since I was a toddler and I even have a photograph to prove it.

children, beard, older ladies, dinner table,
The author at age 6. Despite being obviously talented, I never made it as a Photoshop artist...

Alas! This is far from the truth and Straight from the Bowels is the perfect platform to set the record straight. Let me tell you the story.

Years ago I lived in a small town in northern Canada; not the Great White North, but the Average Grey North nevertheless.

It was a miserable autumn night: cold, with relentless rain coming down furiously, trying to decide whether it should turn to snow or not.

I worked as a caretaker in a youth shelter, helping troubled teenagers cross over to adulthood. You know the story: kids having problems with drugs, alcohol, prostitution, petty crimes, and loneliness. Sometimes teenagers came to us on their own, sometimes it was their parents who would bring them saying: “Please take him/her, I don’t know what to do anymore!”

Often I felt like we should have been taking care of the parents.

That night I was alone. The five rooms of the old house were empty. I was reading in the kitchen by the woodstove which I was using before winter to save furnace oil.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door: it was two policemen with a young man, about thirty, dressed poorly, wet as a rag and holding a backpack in his hands.

– This “gentleman” came to the police station and asked us to keep him overnight. We’re not a hostel and he has no money. We could have left him in the streets but we would have had to arrest him later in the night for loitering so we brought him here since we know you sometimes accommodate people.

The logic used in the police force sometimes escapes me and I answered:

– This is not a hostel either but I will take this man as a guest since it is just wrong to leave anybody outside in such weather.

The two officers looked at each other, relieved they would not have to make an arrest, write a report and maybe stand as witnesses in front of a judge for an insignificant case.

When the two cops were gone, the young man humbly thanked me and told me his name was Roland.

“Welcome Roland. Take off your coat, put your bag in the corner and come and get warm near the stove. Are you hungry? Do you want to eat?” I added while giving him a towel so he could dry off.

I warmed up a big pot of stew I had on the electric range and served a generous helping to my guest who began wolfing it down as I made some tea.

While he was eating, Roland told me he had been hitchhiking to a small town 150 miles away to begin a new job that the halfway house had found him. He had just finished serving several years in jail for various offenses and wanted to start a new life, away from the city, hoping people would give him a second chance.

I have nothing against second chances nor third or fourth if necessary. Actually I would be at loss to know when a person should be considered beyond help.

Roland and I talked for some time, and then I took him to his room and wished him a good night.

When I got up in the morning, my guest had already gone, without a word, without a note. I put a log in the woodstove, made coffee and went to freshen up.

After my shower, I was getting ready to shave when I realized my electric razor was gone. In its place there was a shaving brush, a disposable razor and a can of shaving cream.

disposable razor, shaving brush, white mug, shaving cream, shaving kit, bathroom sink
The shaving brush can be traced to 18th century France where it is called a blaireau (badger) since the bristles are often made from the hair of that animal. Although at the time it was considered a status symbol to own such a brush, I find shaving using a straight or disposable razor and a shaving brush a tedious process.

Some people will say that the man I had kindly sheltered and fed ran away discreetly after committing his petty theft.

I would rather think that it was the Almighty or the Great Goddess who was sending me a sign. Or maybe it was the Great Vishnu himself – or one of his avatars – who came down from Heaven to take away my razor and make me understand it was time for me to rise above the ranks of the beardless.

That day I started to grow a beard. I have no regrets since wearing a beard is one of the few things I do well.

Vishnu, Indian god, baby, toddler, golden jars, white substance, shaving soap
The Indian god Vishnu as a child is sitting with two large jars of shaving soap he probably stole from people he wanted to grow a beard.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Deer Hunter

For Yves. Many thanks to Lucy.

One summer evening as I was on my way to my haunted house in the country. I was negotiating a long curve on the highway around a steep hill in my 1983 Renault Alliance. To my left, the sun was setting. As I was pulling down the sun visor I saw a shadow in the corner of my right eye.

BANG! I hit the jumping deer at 60 miles per hour. The windshield exploded and instantly the inside of the car was filled with flying hair and the musky smell of the wild animal. I slowed down to a stop on the shoulder of the highway.

I got out of the car as other motorists whizzed by and the unfortunate doe was quivering on the median strip of the highway, gasping out her last breath. Massaging the back of my neck, I slowly walked around to see the damage.

The windshield had completely shattered and tufts of hair were caught in the cracks of the glass. The right fender was torn and one of the headlights was dangling. There were deep dents in the hood and on the top of the car as well as nasty scratches on the trunk hatch.

“This is what happens when Mother Nature takes on Motor Trends’ Car of the Year,” I thought.

1983, Renault Alliance, Renault 9, Car of the year, Motor Trends, fuel consumption
The Renault Alliance was actually a Renault 9 re-packaged for North American markets following a partnership agreement between Renault and American Motors. Sold from 1983-1987, the hastily-designated "Car of the year" proved to be a nightmare for many owners because of chronic head gasket, clutch, transmission, suspension and exhaust problems. Very few are still on the road nowadays.

One car stopped and the driver asked if I needed assistance. I said I was fine, but I asked him to call the police so I could make a report for the insurance company.

I waited for over an hour before the police cruiser arrived. The sun had set, the sky was clouding over and it was obvious that it would rain soon. I answered the officer’s questions while he filled in his report. Then we walked to the median to look at the beast that had wrecked my car.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was lying on its side, flies buzzing around its open eyes and foamy mouth. I thought it would be a shame to let 100 lbs. of good venison go to waste so I asked the young police officer to give me a hand carrying the carcass to my car.

white-tailed deer, fawn, Bambi, spots
The white-tailed deer is found in abundant quantities in America from Canada to Peru. It is a least-concern species in terms of conservation status since its principal predator is probably the automobile.

– Erm, I’m not sure about that sir. Hunting season is not yet open and you should report this killing to the Wildlife Service.

– But I was not hunting, it was an accident...

– Yeah, well, in any case, I think the Wildlife Service has to offer roadkill to public institutions first, you know, prisons, hospitals, orphanages...

Not wanting to be responsible for Oliver Twist starving to death and knowing better than to argue with the Law, I did not insist and asked the officer for a ride to a garage where I could get a tow truck.

– No need for a tow truck if you can start the engine, he said.

– But there’s no windshield on the car and only one headlight...

– You’ll be all right, good evening sir.

He left me on the side of the road while the rain started falling. I got into the car, turned on the ignition and drove 15 miles under the rain with no windscreen. I smelled like a wet dog when I arrived home.

The next day, after calling the insurance company to report the accident, I asked a friend to pick me up so I could rent a car to keep me mobile while waiting for the insurers’ damage assessment. My friend was glad I was unharmed and invited me to come for dinner later that night.

I arrived at his home around 6:00 PM with a bottle of wine but something was not right. His 5 year old daughter Mary-Ann who considered me as her uncle did not greet me as usual; in fact she avoided me, sulking.

As my friend’s wife was opening the bottle of wine and I was telling her that it might take weeks before I knew exactly what the actual damage to the car was, Mary-Ann came to me in tears, holding her teddy bear and asked:

– Is it true that you killed Bambi?

I was shocked as I looked at my friend who was suppressing a laugh. What a terrible thing to say to his own daughter! I then explained to Mary-Ann that it was not actually Bambi I killed but a distant, very old and very sick cousin and that I did not do it on purpose, that it was an accident and that I made sure the deer received a proper and dignified burial. Giving my friend a dirty look I then assured the little girl that I was really, really sorry and that I would have much preferred that the whole thing had not happened and would she please forgive me?

I guess she sensed my alleged contrition because she gave me a hug and we were able to move on to the dinner table.

A week later the insurance company informed me the car was a total loss and that they would cover for the rental car until I found a replacement.

I bought a used 1986 Pontiac Acadian, a sub-compact built like a tank.

1986, Pontiac Acadian, brown, parked car
The Pontiac Acadian is the Canadian equivalent of the Chevrolet Chevette. A sturdy car with lots of steel and very little plastic, it was built until 1986. It was characterized by a very roomy engine compartment. In fact the person I sold it to replaced the original 1.6 litre 4-cylinder engine with a more powerful V6 engine without further modifications.

A few days after I got that car, I was coming back from driving a friend to the other side of town at around 10:00 PM. There was a group of young people playfully wrestling at a bus stop on my right and a car waiting for me to pass at a cross street ahead.

BANG! I hit a german shepherd that came running out of a dark alley to my left. I had never had a car accident in my life and now in the space of two weeks I had hit two animals in a row! I parked my car by the curb and went to inspect the damage. The left headlight was broken and that was all. Then I walked over to the dead dog.

The youths had hopped onto a bus that was now driving by and there was nobody around. No cops, no Wildlife Officers and Oliver Twist was nowhere in sight.

For a moment I toyed with the idea of taking the carcass home, having it for supper and asking a taxidermist to stuff the head for mounting on the wall.

Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, The Parish Boy's Progress
The Adventures of Oliver Twist, published in 1838, was Charles Dickens' second novel. It related the story of a young orphan in the shady 19th century London.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The mutt

The Government of Canada had undertaken a major review of its economic policy and was trying to decide whether it should return to the Gold Standard, adopt the controversial Porcelain Standard advocated by China and British economists, or endeavour to have the law of diminishing returns repealed.

Economics, Paul Samuelson, Maple bonds, reading glasses, newspaper clipping, Nobel prize
Economics is a social science and, as such, is sometimes viewed with scorn by partisans of fundamental science (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics). While there is a Nobel Prize in Economics, it was not one of the prizes established in the will of Alfred Nobel. Paul Samuelson was the first American to be awarded this prize in 1970.

Whenever serious people meet to discuss serious matters over a long period of time, there’s bound to be a serious report to be published that will require serious proofreading.

I received a call from someone who knew someone I knew. They needed a crack team of proofreaders to work around the clock ensuring that the 21-volume report was ready for publication in only 30 short days.

That’s when I met Joan.

Joan had been the chief editor at a major legal publishing house in Toronto and was called in to work on the project because she knew how to make things move. I liked her the moment I saw her.

She was 29, just like me, and she was smart, thorough, professional and focused. She exuded confidence and had a knack of finding a quick solution to any problem that was presented to her. She dressed with a quintessential elegance and could have given lessons to Dior, Cartier and Chanel. I sincerely believe all women are beautiful but Joan seemed to be the embodiment of this beauty.

I made an impression on her the first day when I noticed in a sentence that straight quotation marks had been used instead of curved ones. Back then, my eyesight was much keener than it is today.

We started taking smoke breaks together and became acquainted. With all the class Joan showed, I was surprised that she had a common upbringing. She came from a little town a few hours’ drive away. Her parents were uneducated and, being a good Catholic family, had seven children, five girls and two boys. Her father owned a small cartage company and Joan learned to drive a ten-wheeler truck before she could drive a car. Double-clutching held no secrets for her.

ten-wheeler, tractor, lorry, semi-trailer, white truck
Ten-wheeler trucks are often called "tractors" in the United Stated because one of their common use is to pull a trailer, turning it into an eighteen-wheeler. Ten-wheelers can also be equipped with a bin to carry rocks, sand and topsoil. They are more practical than trains because they can deliver their load right at the site where it is needed.

We worked long days on this proofreading project, 12 to 16 hours were the norm because we had a firm deadline to meet. One night after work, I walked Joan home since she lived just a few blocks away and, young men and young women being what they are, I ended up staying overnight.

Despite the hectic pace at which we were working in the office, people noticed that something was going on between Joan and me. Catherine, the general manager of the project, had hired Joan on the recommendation of the chairman of the economic review board but disliked her from the start: she was just too perfect.

When Catherine realized that Joan, a manager, and I, a staff member, were romantically involved, Joan became in her mind nothing more than the office skank and Catherine started to be overtly contemptuous towards her.

One weekend, as we were working on a difficult section of the report, we realized that there was a problem. Parts or whole sentences were missing, so much so that it was difficult to make sense of the text. Joan relentlessly searched previous drafts to find the missing content and we ended up spending much more time than planned to proof the section. The general manager was called in, quickly assessed the situation, blamed Joan for the foul-up and fired her.

When I heard the news, I impulsively resigned. To this day, I am still debating whether it was out of love, lust or loyalty. Maybe it was just that I knew that the proofreading project could not end well without Joan at the helm. I hate to be involved in projects that are doomed to fail.

That night, Joan called home for some comfort and her mother suggested that Joan come for a visit and spend a few days relaxing and reflecting on her options. Since I was now unemployed, Joan asked me if I would join her and two days later we left for her parents’ place.

They lived in the country in a large farmhouse on a gigantic lot. There were two hangars surrounded by farm equipment and several enormous trucks.

After the usual welcoming embraces and introductions, I realized we had arrived in the middle of a commotion.

Joan’s two younger brothers, Alan, 15, and Gerald, 12, had found and brought home a dog, a scraggly mid-sized mutt about one year old. Their parents had agreed to keep it but now the boys were arguing over who would be the master of the dog, Alan or Gerald?

Joan’s father intervened, saying:

– Since I will be paying to feed that mongrel, I should be its rightful owner!

There was an outcry from the boys who claimed that it would not be fair since they found the dog and brought it home.

The father then said:

– All right. Who is going to feed the dog?

The two boys looked at each other, and then Gerald, the youngest one, said:

– This is not fair! You know that I find dog food gross and it makes me puke!

Alan loudly cheered as he considered he had won the competition. But then Gerald added:

– Wait a minute! Not so fast! What goes in must come out. I will clean up after the dog if he ever has an accident. Cleaning up after a dog is as important as feeding him!

The father looked at his sons, sat on the porch and called the dog. He then picked up a piece of chalk and traced a line on the dog’s coat, around the waist, dividing it in two parts.

– All right, that’s how it will be: Alan, you will be the master of the front end and Gerald will be the master of the back end or otherwise the dog goes back to where it came from. Is that a deal?

The two boys looked at each other again, displeased at the proposal but understanding that this compromise was the only way they could keep the dog. So they agreed.

I was stunned at the wisdom of Joan’s father, an uneducated man who had managed to solve a jealousy and rivalry issue in such a simple way.

Maybe a good supply of chalk in offices and boardrooms would help those in power to make better decisions in this world.

dog, black and white drawing, sitting dog
Dividing a dog in half with a chalk line is not as drastic as King Solomon's method of splitting a newborn in two with a sword, but just as efficient.

Joan’s mother took us inside the house and served some food and drinks and I met the rest of the family. While we were sitting at the table talking, we suddenly heard a loud disturbance on the porch followed by the sound of objects crashing and the yelp of the dog.

The boys ran outside as we followed them to find the dog lying on the ground whimpering and rubbing its front paws against its snout.

It happened that the mutt had found a can of worms that the boys used for fishing and in which they had left some hooks and lures. They got caught in the dog’s jowls and now the animal was writhing in pain trying to remove them.

Gerald smartly exclaimed:

– Alan, it’s your end crying, you deal with it!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cannabis in Canada

People often come to me and ask me all kinds of questions, assuming I know the answers. I must confess that when I don’t have one (which is often) I make one up, just to please my enquirers.

Strangely, the question that I’m asked most often is: “Why is cannabis illegal in Canada?” This one is tough, I had to go back 50 years or so in history to come up with an answer.

In the 60’s, when the United States of America was at war against the ferocious enemy that was Vietnam, many young men dodged the draft because they were not allowed to smoke cannabis while enlisted. Some of these people fled to Canada for protection and to quietly engage in their psychoactive hobby.

Unfortunately, at that time cannabis was not yet growing in Canada. Its closest cousin was some low-grade hemp, good enough to make ropes to hang people with – pretty useless in a country that had just abolished death penalty. American people are smart and known internationally for their entrepreneurship, so it is not surprising that these young American deserters imported seeds to grow their favourite crop.

cannabis, marijuana, ganja, pot, hemp
A healthy cannabis crop in the great Canadian outdoors. The cannabis plant came to America from Eastern and Central Asia. The seeds were probably carried over by sea currents or the wind.

The summer of 67 was sunny, warm and humid: ideal conditions for pollination. Cannabis started to spread quickly in the great Canadian outdoors, so much that it became an invasive species.

Canadians are simple, hard-working people but they are not idiots. They soon realized the benefits of this new plant and began growing and using it.

Alas! Cannabis was growing so well in the rich and fertile Canadian country soil that it rapidly exceeded the needs of Canadian consumers. Regrettably, cannabis growers – who, like all farmers, hate any form of waste – started looking for external markets to get rid of their surplus.

This is how cannabis cultivation became what it is today, a flourishing export industry that would significantly contribute to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) if only it was not a more or less underground activity.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada, marijuana smoke
Every year on April 20, thousands of demonstrators gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to openly indulge in cannabis smoking. The smoke and smell from this activity can linger for days. This in a city where it is illegal to smoke cigarettes in a public park. I never thought I would live to see that.

Of course, Federal departments dream of legalizing this economic activity to increase tax and royalties revenues. However, few people know that since taxes were introduced in Canada, the Prime Minister goes to bed each night weeping for Canadian taxpayers who work so hard only to remit more than half of their income in municipal, provincial, federal and sales taxes. You understand that Canadian statesmen cringe at the mere idea of collecting or introducing new taxes.

As well, the machinery of Government is awkward and costly. To regulate cannabis trade, more civil servants would need to be hired to manage the new program, implement complex administrative structures and develop strict monitoring and enforcement. A real nightmare.

By keeping the status quo, the Canadian Government avoids all kinds of hassle and the income from this product is able to circulate freely within the Canadian economy. Also, all durable and semi-durable commodities and real estate purchased thanks to the gains of this industry are already taxable. Of course this economic activity is impossible to monitor through the System of National Accounts, but maybe it is a lesser evil.

So this is why even though weed grows like weeds in Canada, it is still illegal to farm and use.

The true story probably has nothing to do with the one I just told but mine could make sense and it is entertaining, don’t you think?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Working for the Russians

Lately Russian bots have been crawling my blogs. This reminds me of my early days as a professional writer and editor.

In the early 1980s, while Canada was in the midst of a recession, I reluctantly joined the ranks of the unemployed. With the jobless rate in the double-digits I decided it would be a good time to get an education, hoping that when I graduated there would be more work opportunities.

University was costly for me. Of course, tuition fees were expensive and the menial labour I had to do to support myself left me living in poor lodgings and eating cheap food. I was broke and indebted.

After completing my university degree I naively thought the days of despicable jobs were over. I was educated, I had paid my dues, I assumed it was time to reap the benefits.

I soon realized that employers were not easily impressed with my diploma: they wanted candidates with a degree AND experience.

With Canada slowly recovering from recession and nobody willing to hire me, I turned to freelance work.

The first job I found was writing essays for students who lacked the discipline to attend their classes but did not want to break their parents’ heart by flunking their courses.

With the name of their professor, the subject of the essay, and the bibliography and syllabus of the course, in two days I could whip out a decent 15-page paper for nearly any of the liberal arts.

First I would go to the university library to dig up the professor’s doctorate thesis to get a feel for his character, beliefs and writing style. All the while noting any of his ideas that I might be able to recycle to flatter his ego.

library, books, university
University libraries usually carry the doctorate thesis of all their faculty. That's where you will find what your professor sounded like when he or she was sitting on the other side of the lectern.

Then, I would read the introduction and conclusion of all the books in the bibliography connected to the subject of the essay I was to write, skimming through the content and taking notes in the process.

The speed-reading course I had taken one summer became a sound investment.

Then I would write for fifteen hours straight, peppering the document with any bit of general knowledge I had that seemed appropriate.

Without having attended any of those classes, I never got less than a “B” grade and my satisfied customers started referring me to their slacker friends.

Unfortunately, this kind of hack writing is only profitable around mid-term and at the end of a semester.

One evening as I was waiting for a customer in a university coffee shop, I met an adult student who was taking Russian-language classes and worked as a writer for the Soviet embassy press office. We became friends and after meeting a few times, she asked me if I would be interested in a position with her employer.

Starting to work in a potential Russian spy nest was somewhat frightening since the Cold War was still raging. However I had a powerful incentive for wanting that job: my landlord came straight out of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel and cared about the working class only if they paid their rent on time.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, public domain
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a 19th century Russian writer known for his lengthy novels, dependence to alcohol and poor gambling skills. Hate him or love him, he is considered as one of Europe's major writers and certainly his works should be part of anybody's general knowledge.

The interview I had with the press secretary went well and he offered me a part-time job as an editor. The Soviet embassy press office was located in two contiguous apartments on the 15th floor of a large residential building. Office furniture consisted mainly of ordinary chairs and tables crumbling under piles of papers and publications. The table that was assigned to me faced a bay window which gave me a splendid view of the city.

My job was to rework stories originally written in Moscow and render them printable for Canadian publications.

I do not know if this is still valid, but since time immemorial Russian writers had been paid by the page: the longer the text, the more money they would get.

Once you know that, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov start making sense.

The stories I was to edit were translated from Russian to either French or English. Regrettably, translators were also paid by the page and already long bland articles were getting stretched further in the process. I quickly became quite adept at turning a 4,000-word piece of logorrhea into a 300-word somewhat adequate news story.

I say “somewhat adequate” because the subject matter of the texts I received was often a hard sell. Canadian papers did not care much about the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) nor about the use of pesticides to boost agricultural reform in Turkmenistan, one of the Soviet republics.

From time to time however interesting stories would appear. Papers about the Soviet space program, medical research, natural wonders such as Lake Baïkal and so forth could be respun and placed in Canadian media.

Months passed and one day, looking through my window, I noticed building cranes had appeared in the skyline. Construction was picking up, a sure sign that the economy was getting back on track.

building crane, dusk, clouds, light standards
The construction sector is considered as a barometer of the economy. Commercial and residential building projects create wealth through job creation, accommodation for new or expanding businesses and lodgings for new homeowners.

One morning, 18 months after I began working for the Russians, the press secretary called me for a meeting and told me how satisfied he was with my work. However decisions had been made higher up to modernize. They were going to replace the typewriters everybody was using with computers. This meant efficiencies had to be gained elsewhere. That was the first time I heard that euphemism meaning I was being laid off.

But in that year and a half, my freelance worker status had improved and I was no longer writing essays for students. The experience I had gained was valuable and some of my clients, learning I was available, started providing me with more work.

I had gotten myself a career.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ghost story

I was 32 years old and I was tired of the city. The noise, the smell, the heat and the humidity were getting on my nerves. I could no longer tolerate living amidst the concrete and glass skyscrapers.

Three grey and brown 20-story condo buildings against an overcast sky. There is a 4-story above-ground parking lot in the front.
Highrise buildings are sometimes the only way to multiply effectively real estate within city limits. Centuries from now, historians might wonder what kind of people lived in those man-made caves built inside artificial mountains.

I went for a ride in the country. I saw an old house for sale, I made an offer and six weeks later I said goodbye to the city.

It was a large house built in 1925. There was a glassed-in verandah on two sides of the house, the kitchen, dining room, and living room were large, and there were four bedrooms. Furthermore the price was very reasonable.

It was an estate sale and the notary responsible for liquidating the assets told me that the previous landlord, Alberic McGrath, was too old to properly take care of the property before he passed away.

The exterior of the house was acceptable but inside it was in bad shape. The varnish on the doors and wood trims was peeling, the bathroom appliances were stained by the well’s hard water and the kitchen had only two cupboards and a tiny counter. Instead of a sink it had a tub like those that are found in coin washes. A few essential things had to be fixed before I moved in.

There was also a huge pantry with deep shelving on three sides. In the country, people make preserves and they must be stored somewhere.

In the two weeks before I moved, while I was taking care of repairs and upgrades, I realized my new neighbours thought I was strange. Why would somebody from the city want to live in the country? What a weird idea!

A glassed-in verandah with off-white vynil wall clapboard
In the 1920s in North America people built verandahs around their houses for health reasons. With increased industrialization and urbanization, respiratory illnesses were on the rise. Home owners would move the beds of sick people living in the house on the verandah so they would breathe fresh air. Nowadays, properly upgraded, verandahs make quaint features for older houses.

I went to the village to buy some supplies for the repairs I was making. When I told the clerk at the hardware store that I had just bought Alberic McGrath’s house, he gave me a suspicious look and became awkwardly silent.
I felt that I would not win a popularity contest.

I also had to be very obstinate with the phone company to get them to install a private line instead of a party line. Despite all my efforts however they would not give me a second line for the fax and modem. “Nobody uses a computer in the country, sir,” the lady from the phone company told me curtly.

Anyway, I had other challenges to tackle because moving in to a new house requires taming a new environment. You need to find a place for everything. Sometimes it is easy: pots and pans in the kitchen, clothes in the closets, beds and dressers in the bedrooms, couch in the living room, most things have a natural place to go...

But there are all those things that we cannot find a place for. They must remain in boxes until we find the will and time to put them away or discard them. Since I had lots of room, I turned one of the bedrooms into storage for a dozen boxes and other odd objects.

One night, as I was reading in bed, I heard a faint chime or rather a tinkling, like two glasses coming together. I listened carefully without being able to deduce where that strange noise was coming from. There was just one clinking “ting!” then nothing.

In the following weeks, I heard the same sound several times. I checked the plumbing and the heating system but found nothing unusual.

I had started to go to a bar in a neighbouring village called Chick’s Bar Saloon. On Saturday nights there was a country band whose 78 year old guitar player named Harry Jones introduced me to Hank Williams’ music.
One night, Harry and I were talking during his break and I mentioned I had bought Alberic McGrath’s old house. Harry started laughing and said: “You bought the sorcerer’s house!”

He then told me that Alberic McGrath had a reputation as a warlock and everybody in the area feared him; they said he talked to crows and wild animals and that they would answer him. He apparently could make milk turn bad and crops rot in the fields. He was praying to the moon and stars at night. He gathered herbs and plants to make potions and ointments that he would keep in his large kitchen pantry where his body was found several days after he died.

“Is that true?” I asked.

– Who knows? What I do know is that he could hold his drinks! He liked his gin!

With this, Harry finished his whisky, excused himself and went back on stage.

On my way back home that night, I thought that this could explain why my neighbours were giving me the cold shoulder. For myself, I am not superstitious and I thought this legend was adding to the charm of my new house.

A few days later, when I heard the noise again, I said to myself: “There’s the ghost of Alberic McGrath having a drink somewhere in the house!”

I poured myself a glass of wine and drank to the former owner’s spirit.

The next time my girlfriend was over to spend the weekend with me, I told her jokingly what I had learned about the house and about the ghost that I heard every night.

“You shouldn’t joke about that,” she told me gravely. “I always felt strange coming here. Now I know why. Please take me home, I won’t be able to sleep in this house.”

I was not expecting this reaction from her. I tried to reason with her but she would not listen to me. Against my will, I drove her back to the city.

On my way back, I was swearing against Alberic McGrath who could make cow’s milk turn bad and sour lovers’ hearts.
The next day, being still upset by what happened the day before with my girlfriend, I decided to empty a few of the boxes stored in the spare bedroom.

While I was working, I heard the eerie tinkling right behind me. I quickly turned around and saw at the bottom of a box I had just opened a small digital clock programmed to ring once every hour. The sound had been propagating gloomily around the house through a nearby heating vent.

That was the ghost I had been hearing.

A silvery well-worned Casio digital watch on the cover of Leslie Berlin's biography of Robert Noyce
When Robert Noyce (1927-1990) patented the semiconductor in 1959 he probably did not think that one of the most popular application for his invention would be the manufacturing of digital watches and clocks by Japanese industrialists in the 1970. He most certainly would not have guessed that one of these clocks would one day be mistaken for a ghost.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


It was a quiet Saturday morning and I was reading while having coffee in the kitchen of my haunted house in the country. I heard a car pull in, so I put down Francis Bacon’s Essays and went to the door.

My friend Monica was outside struggling with a plastic box and two heavy paper grocery bags.

– Hi! I have a surprise for you!

I took the bags and the plastic box from her and carried them inside. When I turned around, there was Monica standing and holding an overweight and very frightened tabby cat.

– This is Penelope. She’s two years old, declawed and housebroken. Isn’t she a sweetheart?

The cat jumped out of her arms, awkwardly landing on the kitchen floor. She looked around, terrified at the strange unknown surroundings, and then dashed through the hallway and up the stairs.

– You know my friends Paul and Andrea? Well, they split up. Andrea is staying with a girlfriend who’s allergic to cats and Paul is leaving on a six-month posting with the military in Germany. So I thought: Geoff is living alone in that huge country house, he needs company! Isn’t that a great idea?

“Uh... Sure, sure,” I said, shocked at the thought of this unexpected and uninvited feline guest.

– You don’t look happy. Come on! It’s going to be fun and good for you! And anyway, it’s only for a few months until Paul comes back from Europe!

– Uh... Sure, sure... Uh, you want a cup of coffee?

– Oh, Geoff, I’d love to but I have to scoot! I’m meeting Jenn, Rosie and Sally who want to show me a cottage we’re supposed to rent for the summer on Lake Patterson! You should come and visit us sometime! We’ll have a barbecue!

Monica gave me a peck on the cheek and rushed out, leaving me with the litter box, a bag of kibbles and the cat’s dish on the kitchen table.

I put some cat food in the bowl and set it down on the floor, and then I went upstairs to look for Penelope.

She was nowhere to be found. I checked everywhere: under the beds, in the closets, in the bathroom. I called her. She had vanished completely.

Cats have the ability to hide at the most unexpected places where adults cannot find them however hard they try. Photo courtesy of Zebra Jay, many thanks!

OK, I thought, it’s understandable. The animal has had lots of changes to adapt to lately; it’s normal that she is traumatized. I’ll let her be, when she’s ready, she’ll come out of hiding.

For three days, I did not see the cat. I knew she was there because the food was disappearing from her bowl and I could see that the litter box was being used but it was as if I had an invisible cat.

Then one night, as I was watching a movie in the living room, I saw Penelope cautiously sneak into the kitchen and go to her bowl. She crouched and started eating. I could hear the crunch of the kibbles under her teeth.

As I was watching her, a mouse emerged from a crack in the floor and scurried to the cat’s dish. The cat stopped eating, looked puzzled as the mouse took a kibble from the bowl and ran back in the floor with its prize. Nonplussed, Penelope returned to eating.

I could not believe my eyes. What kind of a cat was that? I was providing food and shelter to that beast, the least she could have done was help me get rid of rodents!

I was furious. As I got up, the cat saw me and ran back upstairs.

I went after her, determined to discover the freeloader’s hiding place. Again, I looked everywhere until I found her on the top shelf of a linen closet, lying on a pile of towels.

The next day, I went to visit my girlfriend and told her about my new guest and the incident I witnessed.

She laughed and then said:

– After all that cat has been through, she needs stability; she needs a home. Bring her here for a while, I’ll take care of her and the kids will love her.

My girlfriend had two children from a previous relationship: a five-year old daughter and a two-year old son.

For two weeks it went surprisingly well. Penelope quickly ran out of hiding places in my girlfriend’s house because the kids were too good at finding her. Once they found her, they pulled her ears and tail while trying to play with her. Penelope realized quickly though that if she went to my girlfriend, she would protect her from the children. After a few days she even let herself to be petted.

I figured female kinship had won out.

Then after two weeks, Mark, a friend of my girlfriend’s needing a place to crash for a while, showed up with Joe, a very old and meek German Shepherd with a bad case of flatulence.

Penelope did not get along with the new canine visitor and would viciously attack the huge dog when no one was watching. Being declawed, she could not hurt the dog too much but old Joe was so frightened that he regularly lost total control over his bodily functions.

Finally, my girlfriend called me to say I had to take Penelope back. So much for female kinship.

So I went to pick up Penelope and recoiled to my country house.

On our return, I noticed that something had changed. First, she did not run to her linen closet but walked instead. Then that night, as I was lying in bed with the light off, she came into my room, climbed onto the bed and lay down beside me, resting her head on my hand.

I guess she had realized that the large silent country house and its quiet owner were an improvement over noisy children and stinky old dogs.

When Paul returned from Germany six months later, he did not want his cat back. I kept Penelope until her death, ten years later, but never managed to make her understand that she was supposed to catch mice.

Maybe Penelope's problem with mice was ambition: mice were too small. She needed large and dangerous-looking animals as opponents. Who would make a fuss about a mouse anyway?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beware of the dog

“Fiona! Fiona! Vulcan had a nice big poop!”

Nothing pleased me more than being awakened in the morning by my neighbours, Greg and Fiona, letting the whole neighbourhood know that their dog, Vulcan, a Bernese mountain dog of 100 lbs, could relieve himself.

Life had been good for Fiona and Greg. Both held good jobs: she was a legal secretary and he taught welding at a trade school.

The couple owned a quaint little house in the quiet neighbourhood where I lived. To compensate for the small size of the house, Greg, who was a handyman, built in the back a huge wooden deck surrounded by lattice.

Greg and Fiona were in their forties when their only daughter, Danielle, left to live with her boyfriend.

After her departure, Fiona and Greg were enjoying a warm Saturday evening on the deck when they realized that their home felt empty without their daughter.

“We could get a dog,” said Fiona.

In her mind, she imagined a shih-tzu, a French bulldog or a bichon frisé quietly resting in a wicker basket in the living room or sleeping at the foot of the bed. You can imagine her surprise when, a few days later, Greg showed up after work with a two-month-old Bernese mountain dog. The dog was shy, awkward and needed to be house-broken.

The Bernese mountain dog is a member of the Swiss mountain dog family. Despite his clumsiness, he is loyal and affectionate. Some say that around the mid 20th century, the Bernese mountain dog was mixed with the Newfoundland terrier to make him friendlier. Many thanks to Zebra Jay for the photo.

However, she quickly grew fond of the cute black, brown and white puppy with his long curly hair. Greg took it upon himself to train the animal. Every day he would take him for a long walk and after a few weeks he had managed to teach him to relieve himself elsewhere than on the living room carpet.

They decided to call him Vulcan, the name of the Roman god of fire, volcanoes and metals and patron of blacksmiths, because of his dark black hair. Greg knew firsthand that working with metals will turn you dark as a devil.

Months passed by and Vulcan was becoming an impressive dog who could bark very convincingly (much to the neighbours dismay). He would bark when cats, raccoons and skunks visited the backyard. He would bark at strangers although fortunately he became friendly once he knew them.

During summers there were lots of strangers because Fiona and Greg loved to entertain on their large deck and serve large quantities of barbecued beef and pork ribs with lots of wine and beer.

One weekend in June, Greg invited one of his foreign students and a few other friends for dinner.

Manuel was from Guatemala and was a mechanical engineer whose degree and experience were not recognized in Canada. Since he did not have the money to go back to university and repeat the courses he had taken in Central America, he registered for Greg’s welding classes.

Manuel was thin and in his thirties. He had dark, intense eyes and the proud posture of his Catalan ancestors.

The guests arrived and Vulcan started to bark ferociously only to stop once he realized that neither his territory nor his masters were being threatened.

Fiona brought out beer while Greg grilled the mouth-watering pieces of meat. When the guests sat down to eat their salad – served with lots of ranch dressing – a busy, friendly chatter was going on, jokes were flying between hosts and guests. It was turning out to be an enjoyable evening.

After the meal, Greg picked up his guitar and started to play and sing to liven up the party. Everybody loved his rendering of John Denver’s Leaving on a jet plane. After a few songs, Greg put down his instrument to get another bottle of fine Chilean wine from the cellar.

When he came back, the mood of the party had completely changed.

Manuel had picked up the guitar and was playing a Spanish song, compelling and suggestive. The spellbound audience was listening religiously. Greg sat down, stunned by the mastery of his student. Fiona was sitting by his side, mesmerized.

After Manuel finished playing to loud applause, he excused himself and said he had to go and could not play anymore. He thanked the hosts, said goodbye to the other guests and left, going quietly into the night.

A few days later, Greg was coming back from a long walk with Vulcan. As soon as they were in the house, Vulcan started barking and bolted, knocking over the little mahogany table where Fiona kept her African violets. He ran upstairs and kept barking ferociously in front of the closed bedroom door.

Greg swore at the animal as he removed his shoes. The mahogany table laid in pieces on the living room carpet and the flower pots had shattered in the hallway near the stairs. The huge dog would not stop barking even though Fiona was trying to calm him down.

When Greg arrived at the top of the stairs, he had quite a surprise: in front of the bedroom, he saw Fiona standing helplessly wearing only a camisole, Manuel busy buttoning up his shirt and Vulcan growling menacingly.

Since then, the house was sold but from time to time I see Greg walking Vulcan, alone in the park.

In the ruins of the ancient city of Pompei were found mosaics such as this reproduction bearing the inscription Cave canem, meaning “Beware of the dog.” Pompei was buried under ashes and pumice from the Vesuvius, a nearby volcano, in August 79 AD, after 10 days of celebrations honouring Vulcan. According to the legend, Vulcan caught his wife, Venus, cheating on him with Mars. All the cuckolds of the Roman empire diligently venerated Vulcan whose temples were guarded by dogs. Mosaic and photograph © 2012 Martin Clowes (many thanks!)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Conductor

It was the last concert of the tour. Thirty North American cities in 40 days with a symphony orchestra performing works by Debussy and Satie, and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky as the pièce de résistance.

The conductor would have leaned towards works by Berlioz, Boulez, Varèse, Schœnberg, or any of the younger 20th century composers but the public preferred middle-of-the-road music, and the promoters knew that by playing it safe they would sell out all venues, so that was that.

For all that mattered, the conductor did not mind. At 53 he did not feel like rocking the boat anymore. During his career he had risen to many challenges and he knew he had nothing else to prove.

The conductor did mind however that, as years went by, his tuxedo was getting harder to fit into. He blamed it on the many receptions his duties called him to attend, too many bottles of fine wine, and soft, fat but tasty cheeses.

So for this tour he decided to stick to vegetables – carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, as well as all leafy vegetables – and to stay away from the ranch dressing fountain. Instead of wine, he drank carbonated water.

Vegetables are necessary to a healthy diet. The Canadian Food Guide recommends that a 53 year old male eat 6-8 portions of fruit and vegetable per day. However, balance is the key. Too much greens and not enough fiber might open the gates of Hell. Image: winnond /

This change of diet made him lose a couple of inches around the waist and he felt lighter throughout the gruesome travelling schedule.

However, there were unwelcome side effects.

As food travels through the eight or so metres of digestive tract, its nutrients are transformed into energy and the rest is turned into waste and gas. To cushion the passage of stool the anal canal is equipped with a network of vascular structures, called hemorrhoids, that facilitates a smooth transition.

A diet composed mostly of fruit and vegetable – compounded with mineral water – means that the soft excrement produced gets processed quickly yet unpredictably. Such rapid, frequent and brutal excretion of waste and gas imposes a great deal of stress on the hemorrhoids that tend to react by bleeding, hurting and itching.

For the last ten days, the conductor had been bearing the cross of his attempt at healthy eating.

There were uncomfortable moments, near-incidents, but overall the conductor managed well the crescendo building in his bowels, keeping everything andante and avoiding going allegro.

A conductor’s job is to keep a tight leash on the orchestra members, making sure that each musician plays his or her part in time and on tempo with the right amount of energy and emotion.

A talented conductor holds back musicians’ eagerness, controls their egos, fustigate their laziness, and releases them at the right moment to produce the most dramatic effect.

As the conductor walked to his lectern to begin the concert he was unaware that the harshest challenge of his career lay before him.

The first piece was La mer by Claude Debussy and it went remarkably well. It was followed by Première Gymnopédie and Gnossiennes no. 1, 2 and 3 by Erik Satie – all-time favorites of the public – which were wildly received by the audience.

At Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring things started to turn sour.

During the bassoon solo overture of the first part, the conductor violently and uncontrollably broke wind.

This totally took the conductor by surprise but noticing that the flawless acoustics of the concert hall had fortunately failed to convey the disturbance, he kept directing this difficult composition. The show went on.

But as the first part progressed he found himself struggling to repress the natural urges of his unruly digestive system.

The piccolos stirred his intestinal juices while the cellos and double-bass urged him in staccato to seek relief at once.

However years of classical training helped the conductor maintain the strict discipline necessary to quell the revolution threatening peace in the kingdom of his viscera.

The end of the first part brought respite and the conductor hoped that the quiet beginning of the second part might give him the strength to retain his composure.

He was not counting on the timpani joining the insurrection in polyrythmic fashion, vigorously demanding his surrender against the forces of nature.

With great difficulty he held his ground, mouth gaping, drenched in sweat, tightening his buttocks. To his dismay it felt like the great Nijinsky and the whole Ballets Russes were performing lewd pagan acts inside his large intestine.

With all the energy of despair, clenching his baton, he bravely fought the irrepressible forces while commanding the orchestra members to stick to tempo even through the brisk finale when the buildup inside called for immediate release.

Then he turned to face the audience which was already standing up in an uproar of acclamation.

He was exhausted and refrained from bowing to salute thus avoiding a disgraceful accident – a gesture the press would later interpret as snobbishness.

But at this point he did not care what the critics thought: he had fought the battle of a lifetime and came out as a conqueror.

If only he could make it in time to the restroom backstage...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Eye Exam

It had to happen. In the last few months I noticed it was getting harder for me to focus when I was proofreading or editing a text. Letters were blurred until I squinted and everything was fine as long as I kept squinting.

One morning my boss called me into her office.

– You have been paying less attention to your work lately. Look at this: those should be curved quotation marks instead of straight ones, and over there, there are two spaces when there should have been only one. Careless mistakes like these could cause our publications to lose credibility. So please try to be more accurate in your work. I’d hate to let an old collaborator like you go. Now get back to work, chop-chop!

I hated it when she used that tone of voice.

Later, I was having lunch with my colleague Aaron and told him about the incident and that my eyesight seemed to be getting worse.

– Ah, he said, don’t worry about it; everybody knows that she’s a kvetch. However, about your vision, I hate to bring this up, but how long ago did your wife leave you?

– About 12 years, but I don’t see what...

– And you’ve been playing solo ever since?

– Well, you know, from time to time I have girlfriends, but still I don’t see what...

– I’m concerned about you my friend, that’s all. Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time alone. You have a fertile imagination and it is not good for a man to take matters in his own hands too much, if you know what I mean...

In the 19th century, any good drugstore would sell devices like these to protect boys and young men against self-indulgence.

I was appalled at what Aaron was suggesting.

– Listen Aaron, I’m not a teenager anymore, I can control myself...

– It’s ok, it’s ok, no need to say more. I don’t want to know the details of your private life but listen to my advice: go out and meet people, mingle. That could help you. In the meantime take an appointment with your eye doctor to try to slow down the loss of your sight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to work.

He got up, I extended my hand to shake his but he ignored it and left.

Two days later, I was in the optometrist’s office, filling in a questionnaire about my medical history while waiting for my turn to see the doctor. I brought back the form to the cute Lebanese receptionist with a loose top that showed her cleavage and I thanked Saint Maron that my eyes were still good enough to enjoy the beauty of nature.

She looked at the card I handed her, scribbled a little bit on it and then asked me:

– Fine, fine, everything looks fine. So what brings you here today?

– Well, I noticed my eyesight getting poorer lately...

– I see, I see... Are you married sir?

– No, not at the moment, but...

– How long have you been single?

– Actually, I’m not single, I’m divorced, and...

She gave me an annoyed look then said:

– How long have you been divorced?

– It’s been about 12 years, but...

– Twelve years? she repeated, and started to scribble briskly. Then she said:

– The doctor will see you shortly. In the meantime, you can look at the frames we have, but please don’t touch anything.

What is surprising in an optician’s showroom is that all the frames look alike. It seems everybody wants to wear the same shape of eyeglasses, to feel part of the crowd, I guess. Curiously, they also all want to be different, unique, rich and famous.

After a few minutes of looking at the frames and feeling the receptionist cautiously watching me, it was my turn to go into the ophthalmologist’s office.

I sat down in the examination chair while the doctor – who looked like an older version of the receptionist, maybe her mother or her aunt, I thought – adjusted the projector that would display the Snellen chart on the wall facing me. Then she moved in front of me, leaning and flashing a small light at my face, she asked me to look at her eyes.

In 1862, Hermann Snellen, a Dutch ophtalmologist, introduced his eponymous chart to measure visual acuity. This chart can be found in every eye doctor office and, according to some sources, since it was made available it has been the most sold poster in North America. Admittedly it looks more professional than a psychedelic poster of Jimi Hendrix saying "I Chew Aluminum Foil."

She had beautiful dark brown eyes.

Then she moved behind me and set the refractor in front of me asking me to place my chin on the chin rest. As she was switching lenses in the apparatus I was now wearing on my face she said:

– I see you have been single for quite awhile...

“I’m not single, I’m divorced,” I replied, slightly annoyed that people could not make the distinction between an old bachelor and a man who has had misfortunes in his marriage.

“Hold still please. Do you see better with this one or that one?” she said, flipping the lenses on the refractor.

A refractor (also called "Phoropter," which is the trademark the manufacturer uses) is an instrument that measures the refractive error in a patient's eyesight and determines the strength of the eyeglasses to be prescribed. If this photo seems blurry, do not worry: you are not spending too much time by yourself. The lack of focus is only due to the photographer's poor skills.

“That one,” I replied.

– Do you spend a lot of time by yourself?

Surprised by the question, I replied:

– Doctor, are you coming on to me?

– No, no. Keep your head still. It’s just a standard question to see if anything in your lifestyle could be altering your vision.

– Well, doctor, I’ve been working as an editor for many years. I spend hours every day in front of a computer monitor or reading printed documents.

– I see, I see. Well, it seems your visual acuity has gone down a little bit. You will need new eyeglasses. My assistant will help you choose new frames. In the meantime, I suggest you vary your activities, maybe increase your social interactions, spend more time with people, entertain at your house, you know...

I was starting to get somewhat irritated by the innuendos but I got up from the chair, thanked the good doctor and reached out to shake her hand but she was busy writing on my file and did not notice my gesture.

Back in the waiting room, the receptionist made me try on several trendy frames but I ended up picking some that were very similar to the style I was already wearing. She said:

– You’re lucky, those kinds of frames are yellow-tagged so they will be free, you will only have to pay for the lenses.

I guessed that “yellow-tagged” meant “out-of-fashion.”

– Your new glasses will be ready in two weeks; will this be cash or charge?

I paid cash and as I was leaving the room, I saw that the receptionist had taken out a box of anti-bacterial towelettes and was wiping the countertop, the door handle, anything I might have touched...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Walking in Ernest Hemingway’s Footsteps

My love life was not going well. The woman I was dating had just told me that she was not interested in a serious relationship.

Needing a change of air, I decided to take a trip to Cuba to walk in Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps.

Ernest Hemingway – who spent winters in Cuba from 1939 to 1960 – was a great adventurer, a keen hunter, a war correspondent, an incorrigible drinker and a cultured man. He wrote seemingly simple sentences that kept to the fundamentals, ignored superfluity and let readers decide for themselves what the author meant.

I devoted the first day of my stay to a pilgrimage: I visited La Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s domain in San Francisco de Paula; I went to Cojimar, the village where Santiago, the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, lived; and I stopped by the hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway stayed before purchasing a property.

Ernest Hemingway's study in La Finca Vigia, his property in the suburbs of Havana in Cuba. Visitors are not allowed inside the house where some of Hemingway's numerous hunting trophies are kept as well as part of his personal library.

I had six days left to quench my thirst in every (and there were many) drinking hole where the Literature Nobel Prize winner found solace from the hard life he was leading.

At seven o’clock in the morning, the sun would rise suddenly without wasting time with dawn. Exactly twelve hours later, night would fall without waiting for dusk.

After breakfast, I would take a walk on the easterly beach facing Florida. There were old bunkers everywhere. Cuba was still expecting an invasion from the United States: once bitten, twice shy.

One morning, as I was walking on the beach, I saw a group of men dressed in blue overalls gathering seaweed under the surveillance of guards who were sporting machine guns. I kept my distance. However, one of the men in overalls, on seeing that I was smoking, came to ask me for a cigarette. Immediately, I was surrounded by workers, all wanting a smoke. The guards quickly came to disperse them, telling me to continue on my way.

That night at dinner, a hotel employee told me those men were patients from a “psychiatric hospital” doing “community work.”

I never got used to seeing armed soldiers. I was also surprised every time I saw a vulture perched on a fence or a brahma bull grazing, the only bovine that seemed to be raised in Cuba.

A group of tourists are entering La Terraza in Cojimar, the village of Santiago the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea. In the novel, the owner of this bar-restaurant was feeding Santiago and letting him have day-old newspapers so the old man could read baseball games results from the day before.

The locals I saw were often poor, sometimes dressed in rags. Despite this they had a striking dignity. They did not seem sad nor submissive. On the other hand, several times I was approached by Cubans who, sensing that I was a tourist, offered to buy my jeans or my shoes.

To better blend into the crowd, I started to wear khaki pants, a light white rayon shirt and sandals. This trick worked perfectly until somebody would try to start a conversation; my Spanish has never been very good.

On morning, on the beach, a tall blonde young woman came to ask me for a light for her cigarette. She spoke in Spanish with a strong English accent. I answered in English.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were Cuban,” she said.

“No problem; I see my disguise is effective,” I answered.

She laughed at my remark, took the lighter I handed her and we started to get acquainted while walking on the beach.

Margaret was Canadian from Ukrainian descent. She was a computer programmer, living in Saskatoon who was spending her vacation by herself in Cuba to improve her Spanish.

Although our hotels were only 15 kilometres from Havana, she had never been to the city. I invited her to join me for my daily outing in the afternoon.

We walked for a long time in the streets of La Habana Vieja. We visited small shops where ladies made cigars by rolling them on their thighs. We shopped in a bookstore. In a small record store, we saw the owner wrapping vinyl records in old newspapers to keep the cardboard jacket.

Margaret was a good companion. She was smart and curious about everything. She smiled easily and her laugh was infectious. I would be lying if I said that I did not like it when her hand brushed against mine.

It was a cloudy, hot and humid day. At the end of the afternoon, I suggested going for a daiquiri at El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s hangouts.

El Floridita is a bar-restaurant famous for its daiquiris, at the corner of Calle Obispo and Montserrate in old Havana.

As I opened the door to the bar for Margaret I noticed her giving me an odd look.

We sat side by side on one of the window seats against the wall, admiring the beautiful mahogany woodwork. There were three guitar players on a small stage at the back of the room.

As the waiter was bringing us our daiquiris, Margaret said:

“You are a gentleman. You open the door for me, you stand up to greet me, on the sidewalk you walk on the curb side. I have to say though, that I find it patronizing and a bit annoying after a while.”

I explained to her that in elementary school I had learned good manners. I applied them without thinking and I certainly was not trying to be unpleasant.

“That’s all right, I understand,” she said. “I just needed to let you know how I felt about it.”

“The Will of Woman is the Will of God,” I thought, promising myself not to offend Margaret anymore.

The musicians played well. The daiquiris were good. We lingered in the bar as it filled up with people coming back from work.

Margaret took my hand and laid her head on my shoulder. I felt good. The patrons were looking at us in a friendly way.

We had just finished our daiquiris when the waiter brought us two more. I tried to explain that we did not order any, that it was getting dark and we had to go back to the hotel. The waiter told us that the Cuban couple sitting at the bar was offering us these drinks. I looked up; they were looking at us, raising their glasses and smiling.

Courteously, I also raised my glass, nodding to thank them. After those two daiquiris, there were more; it seemed all the patrons in the bar wanted to buy us a round.

Margaret and I were laughing; the rum was making us tipsy. The guitar players came to play at our table. We danced. Our casual visit to the capital was turning into a joyful party.

Finally we managed to escape our hosts. It was very late and we had to find a cab to drive us back to the hotel.

The City of Havana shrouded in smog. In the background El Capitolio can be seen. The boulevard in the front is the Malecón, an 8 kilometre long esplanade stretching along the coast.

Margaret and I were walking and hugging on the sidewalk. We were quite drunk when I realized that I was walking on the curb side. Playfully, I swung Margaret around and, as she understood what I was trying to do, she burst out laughing.

At that moment, a car with embassy plates came speeding out of nowhere. The passengers were yelling in Spanish and one of them threw out of the window something that landed on Margaret’s blouse.

It was a freshly-used condom... If I had kept walking on the curb side it would have landed on me.

Margaret started crying. I tried to comfort her by holding her in my arms but to no avail.

We found a taxi and during the entire trip Margaret kept silent, sitting apart from me, looking nervously through the window.

She was staying at a cottage in a hotel a few minutes away from mine. I walked her to the door and told her how sorry I was about the incident that had just happened, and that it was a terrible way to end a day that had been otherwise so pleasant. Her wet eyes avoided mine. I took her hand one last time and told her I would stop by in the morning.

There was no answer when I knocked on her door the next morning. The desk clerk told me Margaret had gone out. I left a message saying I would be back later in the afternoon.

Margaret was not there when I returned around 4:00 PM.

The next day, the desk clerk told me Margaret left the hotel.

I never saw her again.
The fishing boats wharf in Cojimar.