Centennial Baby Blues

Our anointed queen

Our anointed queen

I am not a patriot. I have never bought a plastic made-in-China Canadian flag, tee-shirt or any other red and white trappings on July 1. As a gay Torontonian, Pride takes precedence for my family on that particular long weekend. There are Canada Day/Pride hybrid paraphernalia for the festively conflicted, but I am not one of them and have never indulged in a rainbow maple leaf temporary tattoo. While I do appreciate my extreme good fortune in being born Canadian, and applaud the courage of my parents who, separately, and both impossibly young, left all they knew in England to make a new life, I had nothing to do with it. My parents met, married, and procreated here. Luck made me Canadian. I didn’t earn it. It was thrust upon me in what was, ironically, the most patriotic of years.

I was born in 1967—aka The Summer or Love—two weeks before the country’s much ballyhooed centennial. Amid all the hoopla that included nickels emblazoned with bunnies, a confederation train, and a brand new font—The Jacques Cartier typeface—there was even a push for fornication in the name of the nation. I cannot claim the title of The Centennial Baby—that honour is bestowed upon Pamela Anderson—yes, that Pamela Anderson—who entered this earth on July 1, 1967 at 4:08 a.m. in Ladysmith, B.C. I am, however, numbered among the lesser Centennial Babies, some 370,894 of us, including Pamela, our anointed queen, who, according to Stats Can, collectively squalled into existence as our respective parents’ personal centennial projects. It was not a popular contest, apparently. There were 16,816 more live births in 1966.

While I have seen enough of human frailty in the form of early cancers and chronic pain to greatly appreciate the fact that I am still on the right side of the turf and in sort-of-okay shape, I can also tell you this—no one enjoys turning 50, not even Pamela Anderson. So, amid all the colonial claptrap celebrating 150 years of nationhood as defined by a dead white Scottish dude, I have a request. Can the Federal Government remember the now saggy pool of surviving Centennial Babies and cut us all a cheque? It doesn’t have to be a big cheque, but please do make it symbolic. How about $670, because, and I think we can all agree on this, $67 is just a little too cheap. The $670 would be fair recompense for the inability of any of us to avoid our 50th birthdays. For those of us who want to try to forget, it will also be more than enough to keep ourselves and those closest to us sufficiently lubricated or numbed in our drug of choice to deaden the cloying effects of all that orgiastic flag waving. One last request, and I think I speak for the remaining 370,893 of us who are still alive when I say this—please do go ahead and cut a special cheque of $6,700 for Pamela Anderson.

La Maison Rose

la maison roseWhen I was about three or four years old, I told my parents I didn’t live with them. I lived in The Pink House. At first, they chalked it up to a childish fantasy — an imaginary friend sort of problem they quietly hoped would go away before they might have to go public with it. I imagine my mother distracting me in her sing-song English accent. “Katy, do come and read this book with me.” My father would have tried an ice cream. But I was adamant. “I don’t live here. I live in The Pink House.” In fact, at the time, we lived in a large white stuccoed house in Oshawa on busy Simcoe Street North. The first week my parents moved in, my father built a tall fence because I developed the disconcerting tendency to dash out towards traffic. meanddadAlso, I could climb. Here we are in front of the fence, around the time of my pink house obsession. It made no sense. My parents wracked their brains trying to figure out the source of my odd fixation. There were no pink houses in Oshawa in 1970-71, as far as they knew. I wasn’t surrounded by hyper-gendered toys. Sure, I had the ubiquitous Barbies, but I never played with them, unless cutting off their hair and hiding them in the back of a closet counts as “playing.” Mostly, I liked toy cars, Lego and a cool six-shooter cap-gun my father acquired in Calgary when you could still buy kids war toys with a clear conscience. But there was one doll, just one — a beloved companion I dragged around by its hair and named Pink Baby.

Fourth birthday party. I'm the one in drag.

Fourth birthday party. I’m the one in drag.

The Pink House, my reasonable parents surmised, was the combination of a type A personality, a favourite toy, and, what my mother called a “vivid imagination.” It wouldn’t last. They were wrong. It got so bad that my parents decided to let me leave and “go home.” On the big day, I talked incessantly about finally going to The Pink House. But I couldn’t play with the bath toys. They belonged to the little girl who lived with them, not to the girl from the Pink House. My mother thought that would work. But I was undeterred. They let me go so far as to put on my coat and shoes, and start walking up the driveway to The Pink House. At this point, the way my mother tells the story, worry had my father skirting the edge of a total nervous collapse. I suspect it was my mother in that state. Regardless, they let me leave and held their collective breath. I walked down the driveway, looked one way, then the other,  and paused —what seemed a very long time. Then I turned back and came home. I never mentioned the Pink House, my real house, again.

It’s in Montmartre. Tour guides will tell you anything to keep you interested and won’t necessarily let the truth get in the way of a good story. With that caveat in mind, this is what we were told and what I want to believe about The Pink House in Montmartre. Towards the top of the wending Rue de l’Abreuvoir it sits, where it sat in 1916 for Maurice Utrillo’s famous lithograph, and where it sat in 1886-1888 when Van Gogh lived in the neighbourhood. According to the tour guide, it was a brothel in Van Gogh’s time, and he was a frequent customer. Perhaps this is where he took some of the little pleasure he ever experienced in his tortured life. Certainly he would have passed by it often. Today it is a restaurant and where Kim and I chose to spend our last evening together in Paris. It has taken me almost 48 years to get to Paris. Of all the places in that city I have read about maison rose nightand imagined in literature and history, Montmartre is at the beating heart of it for me — the one that artists called home. We saved the best for last. After walking through Montmartre, we spent a few hours at a little table th-2on the cobbled street outside La Maison Rose. We stayed until the sun went down. I know that Cafe Terrace at Night was set in Arles. But when the lamps came on, just for a minute, I imagined that the first piece of art I ever knew — the print that hung in my parents’ living room for 20 years  — could have been born here. We walked the route Van Gogh would have traced back home, perhaps after a prostitute he loved kicked him out for another paying customer. It was a short downhill trek, to the big blue door of number 54 Rue Lepic, made gloomy in the night. I curled my hand briefly around the spiralled brass handle and squeezed, as he would have done. Perhaps he would have leaned his weight against the heavy door to get in. Alone.

Kim and I walked on, our fingers laced together.lamplight




The List

I handed in my last paper to complete the course work for my masters on May 2. Since then, Kim has put me to work on The List. By work, I mean hard, physical labour that leaves us both exhausted and wishing for nine o’clock to roll around so we can call it a day and go to sleep. Last night I was even too tired to watch Mad Men.

Sad, really.

I had no idea this was her master plan when I set off to the reference library in late April and returned to mayhem. Kim had begun on a sub-section of Job One on The List—Paint the House. She had ripped out the front porch deck and privacy wall. “That’s great,” I thought. “What a good idea.” I knew we were going to paint the front of the house this spring. Neither one of us ever liked the colours we chose 13 years ago, but we couldn’t face the job again. Until now. I also knew there would be a lot of prep involved. I just hadn’t envisioned quite how much. In the meantime, Kim also began a project in the back, raising an interlocking brick pathway so that it wouldn’t be submerged in spring. In order to do that, she reasoned, she needed to get to the sand under our front porch. And in order to access the sand, we had to unearth the 14 years of scrap wood we’d stashed there. That was one trip to the dump in a rented van. There would be more. The picture doesn’t do justice to the Everest of crap we sent to the tip. Kim then muled at least 10 buckets of sand out from under the front porch to the back. I was still blissfully unable to help much, working on a 20+ page paper on the importance of the Toronto Bath raids to the gay rights movement. Lucky me. Kim endured spider bites and all things icky that lurk under porches. She pretty much built the sucker on her own.

Then she decided the limestone in the back garden also needed a lift. That required gravel, and lots of it. By then, my paper was done and I was on call. There were 14 bags of gravel in total. Thankfully, we have a dolly. “No problem,” I thought. And even, “This is kind of fun!” as I emerged from my academic lair, a pale and podgy thing, blinking into the light. Mel joked that after my year buried in books, I shouldn’t stand too close to an open window or I’d burn up. She wasn’t far off. Helping move gravel was strangely satisfying. I looked forward to the next job—power washing. It’s addictive. We power washed everything, all day long. An old orchard ladder even got  blasted. As you can see, I was quite happy to be power washing, in my Home Depot swag. It was still early days.

Moving on, or more accurately, up. Years ago, when we put deck boards on the balcony we never use, we neglected to factor in the effects of maple keys and leaves. They fell between the boards, and over time, formed a layer of deck-rotting humus. Time to pull them all up, clear out the guck, and re-secure the boards with no gaps in between. Sounds easy, right? Only we couldn’t just whir up the new power drill and effortlessly whiz out the screws, because I had stripped so many of them during installation. Out came the crowbar and much grunting and cursing from me. (I sounded like a character from Deadwood.)  And then, we had to re-cut the boards that fit around the house because the angles all changed after we closed the gaps. (Geometry was never my strong suit). Also, we installed heavy planters after we built the deck, so out came the circular saw. Kim cut the boards in order to lift them there. In short, this job was a bitch. It took us all day, and we still haven’t finished.  We bought some sheet metal to fit under the planters but haven’t quite got around to it yet. Here’s the precipitous view from the edge of our never-used balcony. The railing still needs to be reconstructed, but it can bloody-well wait until after we paint.

Speaking of paint, the job that began it all—it turns out the dark green we found so enchanting in 2000 is now outlawed by the environmental powers that be. In order to get any kind of paint to stick to it, we have to sand it all down. Another day-long task to look forward to. Somewhere in there, we also built the privacy wall in the front and in so doing, entombed an electrical cord used for Christmas lights. Kim says we’ll rescue it, but I’m calling it a goner. Because by now, clearly, I’m fed up with all of this HGTV bullshit.

“Will this ever end?” is what I sincerely wanted to know at the beginning of the long weekend. Kim answered the way I knew she would. “We’re getting there.”

We still had “build fence” on The List. The neighbour put one up and we told him we’d do our section ourselves, to save Kim’s beloved plants from his guy who was clueless about stomping living things into green sludge. That was two years ago. It was time. Kim ripped down the existing section of listing old pressure-treated while I sulked.

I pulled this out of the ground. It was heavy.

I did help. I even managed to heave this great hulking beast of a concrete footing out of the ground. I don’t think I ruptured anything, which is a small miracle. Once the hole was dug, we mixed cement. I have early memories of helping my father mix cement. They aren’t particularly fond memories. But the post was in by late Saturday afternoon. Then, Kim promised, came the fun part.

The fun part took all day yesterday, from the moment it was decent to swing a hammer on a Sunday morning until about 7, when I was more than a little bit cranky. But we are, as Kim would say, “getting there.” We still have to recycle the former fence into privacy screens in the back and put up a few finishing touches (nothing is open today—thank god.)  It’s also  frustrating that 75% of the hard work we’ve done is imperceptible. Who can tell when a crawl space is cleared out, walkways are raised or deck boards on a never-used balcony have been refitted? Still, there has been some payoff. The wisteria flowered through it all, for the first time since Kim planted it 13 years ago, and the quince survived the construction as well. But we still have to cross off the first item on The List—Paint the House. That’s next weekend.

On student loans and birthdays

In a few days I turn 45. I don’t have any strong feelings about this birthday, one way or another. As my maternal grandfather, who lived past 90, was fond of saying when his birthday rolled around every February 14, “It beats the alternative.” Point taken, Cyril Valentine. (I’m not joking – that was the man’s name). So yesterday, when the phone rang, I was neither surprised nor disheartened to see it was my bank on the other end, and not a friend calling to arrange a birthday pint or two. I had been half-expecting the bank to call. The bank calls quite regularly, and always about the same niggling thing. The day had come and gone when my student loan payment was due.

I admit it. I have a problem paying my student loan on time, where I have no trouble at all paying Roger’s a ridiculous sum for the privilege of internet and TV service every month, or any other annoying bill that happens my way every 30 days. But the student loan payment sticks in my craw. It’s simple. I can’t believe that at my age, I still have to make student loan payments. That’s it, in a nutshell. It just plain pisses me off. So every second month or so, I play this silly game with the bank. They call, and I ignore the call until they start calling early in the morning. That’s when Kim, awakened by the phone in the wee hours, insists I take the next call. So I do. And the usual blah blah blah …. student loan …. blah blah blah ….. yes I’ll pay it today …. blah blah blah …. any reason why you were late with your payment? It is at this point in the conversation that I have been known to pause, and consider my answer.

Once, I told them that as a freelance writer, I had no choice but to take the same tack with my creditors that so many magazines do when it comes to paying their writers – paying them whenever the hell they felt like it, or, up to a year after invoicing, as is the case with some magazines. That didn’t go over too well. Yesterday, I just sighed, and was about to say, “no special reason,” when it occurred to me that we had to be nearing the end of this charade. “Hey,” I said instead, “I must be getting close to paying this thing off.”

I should bloody well hope so. It’s been hanging over me since journalism school at Ryerson, and I graduated way back in 1999. It was more than a little galling when, three years ago, I started teaching at the same university, and still had student loan payments to make. The bank really had a hard time with me that year. Some of you must be wondering how this could have happened, particularly those of you who place some fiscal value on my two undergraduate degrees, the latest one being the cause of this ongoing student loan fiasco. What can I tell you? No one goes into writing professionally for the money, although those of us who do go into writing professionally should probably also book some professional couch time. Not that many of us can afford it. Last night I was flipping the channels and came across this financial nugget – the starting salary for pro hockey players in Canada is 700 – 800 grand, and the average salary is 1.3 million, with some players earning 7 or 8 million. It seems to me they can afford any after-care required of concussions suffered as a result of beating the crap out of each other in front of their adoring fans, of which I am clearly not one.  But, back to my chosen impoverished profession and the student loan guy on the other end of the phone.

He tapped a few keys and said, “You’re right.” I only had $159.51 left to be considered student loan free. Oh goody. No more annoying phone calls. I thanked him, promising to pay the full amount owed that day. And it wasn’t a lie. I did it. Just in time to be going back to school again. This time, I hope to avoid student loans given my scholarship, income from being a GA, teaching one Ryerson class in both the fall and winter terms, and anything else I have the time to wrangle, work-wise, while I’m hitting the books. It will also be nice to turn 45 without having a student loan. Then I read this little charmer in the Star this morning: Why people face an increased risk of dying on their birthday. 

Happy birthday to me.


A BBQ, Mel, and why I love Toronto

Our BBQ has had it. Not that it owed us anything. Ten years ago we bought it for $120, assembly included. I had learned the hard way with our first BBQ, an el cheapo Grillrite that I paid about 60 bucks for — sweet. That is, until we got it to our old townhouse and started assembling the sucker after a few beers at about 3 p.m. By 8:30, I was gnawing my own arm off from hunger and ready to toss the SOB off our balcony. We never did get it put together the way the indecipherable instructions indicated. We had planned on steak that night. In the end, I think we had cold hot dogs.

Now, I loved my old BBQ. It wasn’t fancy, though it had a green lid, which I thought made it a bit special. I cooked many a meal for friends on that grill, with a few spectacular disasters. (The calcified remains of a particularly gooey chicken marinade comes immediately to mind. And the time I forgot it, after a few too many white wines, and we were seconds away from having to call the fire department before Kim heroically did something to put out the flames. The blackened lid was forever after a reminder to grill sober). I had replaced its guts twice. I didn’t even mind when its grill rusted out toward the end of last summer and the retrofit version didn’t quite fit. The front end of the grill was elevated a good inch higher than the back.  No problem, I thought. Kim likes her steaks medium while I prefer mine passed through a warm room. I cooked mine far from the flame and Kim’s close to the action. They were done at the same time. I thought that was cool. But Kim said it was time for a new grill, and I love to shop. So Mel, who was visiting this weekend, got roped into coming with me to Lowe’s. (We left Kim happily at home.) I’d seen the flyer, and spotted a deal. Besides, it would be nice to have a new BBQ in time for my birthday next weekend.

For a second it looked like we would make record time. Lowe’s, unlike Home Depot, actually has staff on hand to help you. Mr. BBQ instantly steered us to the grill I wanted, neatly talked me into $20 extra for a custom BBQ cover and had the box loaded for us on a dolly all inside of 10 minutes. That’s how I like to shop. In and out, done. I paid, wheeled it out to the car, and, since poor Mel was useless today with a sore back, had a Lowe’s guy named Sujan waiting to help me stuff the box into my car.

But the box wouldn’t stuff, despite Sujan’s manly efforts and my un-spacial suggestions. Mel wisely procured a tape measure. It was never going to fit, either in the backseat, or the trunk of my Mazda 3. This wasn’t the first time I missed my old truck. I had opted to get the thing home unassembled, despite past experience, because I was assured assembly isn’t the pain in the ass that it used to be, and also, frankly, because I didn’t want to wait and pick it up another day. Now I was stymied by the proportions of my rather sexy but somewhat impractical car. Damn. But hey – how much could delivery be?

75 bucks. Ouch. (Assembly, btw – free.) So much for the deal. On sale, the BBQ was $158.  You can see why I was unimpressed with the situation. Enter the good Samaritans.

Imagine standing in a stinking hot parking lot at Lowe’s on a Sunday just before noon. Can you think of any other place you’d rather be? Right, just about anywhere else. A couple had been perusing the BBQ aisle, and I’d offered them my flyer, since I didn’t need it anymore. That was the full extent of our interactions before this moment in the parking lot.

“My husband says we can help you out.”

“Pardon me?”

“With your BBQ. We have a van. We can deliver it for you.”

I was gobsmacked by the generosity, and the Brit in me instantly declined. Thanks so much, but no, that’s too kind, etc. etc. We don’t live near here. But she was serious.

“Where do you live?” So, I told her. It was a good 20 minutes away. “Hold on,” she said. And went to consult with her husband. Two seconds later she was back. “No problem. He’s happy to do it. Because there’s no way you girls are getting that into your car, and the delivery charges are crazy.”

I couldn’t argue with that. But I couldn’t ask them to do it for nothing. “So throw him a few bucks for gas,” she suggested. Good idea. Done. And thanks so much.

Mel was very quiet during this exchange. It all came down to a basic  difference in our personalities. As Mel said later, “I’m naturally suspicious.” Mel worried that they were conning me. That didn’t even occur to me, until Mel suggested perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to let complete strangers load a brand new BBQ into their van and drive off with it. I know that Mel had a point, but I thought no, there is no reason not to trust these extraordinarily generous people. So Mel bit her lip. People have complicated, busy lives. Driving out of your way for complete strangers is going to screw up anyone’s Sunday. It turns out that Leanne (we had finally shared names) had arranged to meet  a friend at a paint store not far away. After making a call, it was clear that she would miss her friend, who was doubtless enroute to said paint store. So, we could either split up, and meet at my house after the paint store meeting, or… I said we’d be happy to follow them to the paint store and wait. I’m not a complete idiot, and Mel’s wariness had by then rubbed off a bit on me.

I guess Leanne just likes to do decent things for people. She gets a 50% employee discount at the paint shop, so we watched while her friend happily  loaded up with a ton of paint and accessories and saved a bundle. Then I led the way home. Matthew then helped me carry the BBQ box to our back yard, where we surprised the hell out of Kim and then all sat down together and had a get-to-know-each-other visit over beers. It turns out that Leanne loves to garden, so Kim gave her the tour and sent her home with some plants.

Who says  Toronto is  cold and anonymous? I love this city.

And the guy at Lowe’s didn’t lie; assembly was  a synch.