Archive for February, 2008

Grace is where you find it–and so are bugs

February 28, 2008

A couple of weeks before I left Berkeley for Halifax, there was an odd and quite localized event in my neighborhood. The weather was extraordinarily fine. Fred and I decided to go to Peet’s one afternoon and almost chocked on the 10-minute walk–on gnats–millions of swarming gnats, great clouds of gnats, unavoidable great galumphing swathes of them. We were beating them from our faces, covered with them on our clothes. The plague–which would have been Biblical had they been an insect more destructive–lasted for a couple of days. Carole, who lives south of us by about a mile, didn’t experience this at all at her house. The whole event was bizarre.

And I was reminded of it early this evening as I headed back to my neighborhood from work. There had been a light–very light–dusting of snow on the ground at dawn. It was long gone by noon as the temperature was well above freezing and there was no further precipitation. But aboard the Halifax-bound ferry, something was flying past the windows–not a lot of something, just something. As I walked from the terminal up to Argyle, it floated in the air–whatever it was–not so much falling as drifting, being lifted on the breeze as much as coming through it. “It” was relatively large, irregularly shaped–ultralight and extra large snowflakes? Gnats? It looked, truly, more like feather down. But what bird or pillow could be so large that its remnants would be spread for a half hour across the central city?

I completed a couple of errands and beat a retreat to Henry House. Somewhere nearby, a table of middle aged folk were discussing libraries. I didn’t want to hear. The book I had in my bag is one on RFID: workmanlike prose, largish print. I was doing fine between that and the wine and the salad, until the text turned to my former job, naming names. Then the whole evening went from exploded pillows (birds? gnats? extremely slow snowflakes?) to deja vu that felt more fiercesome than curious.

Happily, at this point, the waiter quietly asked me if I’d noticed the amazing resemblance between a new father across the room and his infant. Oh thank god for diversions!

By the time I left, nothing was drifting in the air. My tiny corner of the world is clear-skied again.


Unhappy diners

February 27, 2008

I should have followed my original inclination to eat supper at home….as Vi would chide: “Shoulda woulda coulda but you didn’t.” Instead I landed in what appeared to be the land of Unhappy But Loud folks.

I was the first in the restaurant, or, at least, when I got there, no one was creating a ruckus. My order was taken swiftly and the food was appearing when the parties of complainers began to stream in, full volume. There was the fussing toddler, who really was not bothersome except that he heralded the tone his elders were about to follow. As Clementine would say, “Okay, fine,” perhaps I was ready to be pushed into crankitude myself anyway.

The most outrageous (and the closest) was the young man who was telling his companion how much he likes Thai food (it was a Thai restaurant) as they seated themselves and picked up their menus. He then rejected “anything with beef or pork” because he’d had meatloaf last night that was made of both beef and pork. “And I eat chicken all the time, too much of it, so no chicken.” “Well, how about seafood?” his companion suggested. “There’s lots on the menu.” “I don’t like seafood.” “Tofu?” she asked a little less enthusiastically. “I don’t eat sponge,” he replied archly.

Meanwhile, at another table, two young women had seated themselves and, after a very preliminary exchange of compliments on how nice the other looked, one launched into a scathing diatribe about an absent third “friend” and that person’s shocking (to the speaker) lack of manners, restraint, and general positive attitude.

At this point, my waiter showed up to ask how my pad thai was and I replied that it was rather salty, before I could stop myself. Okay, fine.

But the waiter didn’t have to engage as a threesome had turned up at his shoulder whining that they couldn’t decide between two of the dozen or so empty tables available and declaring that he should help them solve this dilemma.

I paid. I slunk away. I came home. I revealed the crankiness. A bit like lancing.

Night air

February 26, 2008

Several weeks ago, I mentioned here a very small dog donned in four rubber boots against the rain. He and I crossed paths again this evening. The weather’s been clear and warmer than cold since Saturday, although clouding after noon today and beginning to feel damp. Tonight, then, his feet were bare, but he was dressed in what appeared to be a doggie version of Nick and Nora red flannel pajamas (I could not make out the print–although i could see there was a black and white figure of some sort–in the twilight).

Another bit of girding against the weather that has filled me with some curiosity is how a small office at street level on Barrington, called Filmworks, has designed an air excluder for its large front window. It’s not a new building and the door is set back a bit from the window’s plane next to the sidewalk, creating two small recesses on the interior which are used as display spaces. It looks as though thin plastic wrap–a la Saran–has been carefully hung as a curtain within, blocking any air leaks through the window joints. How the film is kept straight and true is beyond me, as I have seen people sitting right in front of it and imagine it must deal with the breezes from the opening door as well as through those joints against which it is protecting.

My apartment’s windows are also rather rigorously layered–three levels of glass do indeed keep out random breezes–and lead to a stuffiness that is unbearable unless I wrench open the layers. Which of course I have done from the first, feeling a bit guilty for destroying such a cunning lock against the weather. One night I came home to find a printed note–apparently left at every apartment as mine was addressed by hand in the corner and cut from a full sheet of paper–warning us all against leaving open our single screened windows, because the ensuing cold air, directed onto the radiator would lead to a flood. In all my years of winter and radiators and balancing indoor temps and air needs, I had never come across such a likelihood. But I feel duly warned and have been obedient…with the screen.

Money matters (lite)

February 25, 2008

By the time I attended ALA in Philadelphia last month, I discovered I had reached a point of having neither US nor Canadian coins seem quite right to the eye, although both seem familiar to my fingers. And I continue to find folding money disconcerting to the touch–expecting linen and feeling somewhat slick paper. Toonies, except when I am in line at Tim Horton’s, confuse me into wondering why I am carrying two-pound coins. I will get there, but I have not yet arrived.

Today marked a season that is clearly loved by Tim Horton’s groupies–which means about 75% of the population, as near as I can make it. Two coworkers each took the time to visit me nearly first thing this morning to indoctrinate me into Rrroll Up the rim, and each was pretty sure that this event causes such delight here in Nova Scotia because the Province is otherwise deprived of a winter holiday; this marketing event stands in the stead of paid time off, in their view (although the promotion is Timswide). One of the curiosities I am entertaining about Canada’s version of lotteries and prizes is that the winner goes untaxed on the prize: if one wins $1,000, one keeps $1,000. (This discovery has done nothing to awaken any latent gambling tendencies in me, leaving me to believe that there simply are none).

The day progressed with additional Canadiana that speaks to finances. At a meeting, in a (successful) try to steer a discussion into a slightly different path, someone declared that we might “change the water on the beans.”

And income tax season has arrived here as well as to the south. It will be fraught with complications for me this year, of course, but just reading the Canada Revenue Agency‘s publications is way more engaging than reading those produced by the IRS. Just for instance, in trying to pound home what it does and doesn’t mean to use your place of residence on December 31 as a guide to your actual place of residence for tax purposes, the situation of living, on that date, at a ski chalet is called into play. Positively picturesque!

Sunday break

February 24, 2008

Will sent me some Peet’s coffee, which arrived on Thursday, having lived in Toronto for about a month. Customs had taken care to push and prod it thoroughly and when I opened the padded envelope, the relieved pressure sent a geyser of coffee confetti into the air. So, Will’s kindness got dispersed more widely than he might have intended.

I did manage to corral about half of what he’d sent. This morning I made a cup. It’s been about three and a half years since I gave up caffeine on a daily–hourly–basis, and three and half months since I’d had a fully loaded cup of Peet’s. It is more wow than even my imaginative memory had suggested possible.

Even without the extra sensory boost, this would look to be a beautiful day, I am guessing: the sky is blue, the 36-hour-old snow is still white in the mounds that grace the curbsides. The temperature is high enough that tiny avalanches of snow and ice descend from rooftops to crash on the sidewalk in powdery puffs and glistening bits.

In the morning, I did a bit more neighbourhood exploring, going southwest for a while. There’s a house on Young Avenue that appears to be the size of a small hotel. Actually, several houses there might fit that description, but this one has a wrap around porch and pink trim and reminds me of the Garden District before New Orleans was swept away in Katrina.

Later I made my third and fourth efforts to find a packet of hooks and eyes–but again drew a blank. This seems to be a prevailing issue in my part of the world: finding the truly mundane, like hangers, vegetable brushes, hooks and eyes. My shopping list for my March trip to Berkeley is becoming rather strange.

I did, however, purchase a magazine, and can now relate to the hue and cry I’ve heard around their cover prices. I shall read it very carefully, without spilling coffee (caf or decaf) on it, or even opening kind packages from friends in its vicinity.


February 23, 2008

My weekly trip to the grocery store netted an absurdly tiny purchase–a multigrain roll and a pint of milk for cereal–but some amazing options stayed out of my basket. The frozen vegetable case included a box of fiddlehead ferns and the “pizza and frozen snacks” case included boxes of frozen sushi. The concept of either of these as frozen foods escapes me even after being confronted by the reality.

Also on offer is an abundance of Easter-themed candy. I don’t know if this year has seen a departure from the traditional chocolate shapes in the US, but here there seem to be few bunnies. Instead, there are chocolate skateboarders, penguins, footballs (almost lifesized), and other shapes that don’t seem to relate specifically to either the Christian or Roman antecedents that have devolved into a vernal candy glut. the boxes, however, all trumpet “Happy Easter!”

Earlier in the day, I toured a third NSLC store in the neighbourhood, ever on the prowl for the one with the best whisky collection. This one didn’t respond to that interest but it does have the most generous Canadian wine selection I’ve found so far. I bought a bottle of Nova Scotia Merlot–but saw a California wine with a label created by my old neighbor David Lance Goines. Nowhere in the store was there a sign of penguin liquor, fiddlehead liqueur, or anything so strange as what I would see later at the grocery however.

Reality shakes

February 22, 2008

I’ve been reading Howard Zinn and now need to see one of Bob’s favorite documentaries, the autobiographical You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Zinn’s title alone is a knockout, right up there with the title Sartre gave to his autobiography (The Words) or Hazel Barnes gave to hers (The Story I tell Myself), food for appetizer if not full thought before hearing out the text behind it.

I finished my current Zinn book at an early supper at Henry House, but just barely beat the crowd, it being Friday evening. In spite of the building’s evident solidity, a particularly heavy footed group made the room shake a bit as they snaked between tables to their seats. This jarred me from my reading with that singular thought that too many years in California seem to have buried near to my consciousness even yet: earthquake tremor! But of course not.

My apartment building, being less well built, shivers and shakes at all hours and without much duress, although not much sound penetrates the walls of my unit. I have almost–but not quite–stopped reflexively diving when a shimmy shoots across the floor or along the table top. Perhaps it is all a reminder that neutrality is not an option in life itself, that I am forever aboard a moving train.

Bygone business

February 21, 2008

Although the temperature was colder today, the sunshine remained unabated for the second day in a row. (I didn’t manage to stay awake and dressed suitably to descend to the street to watch the eclipse last night, but even the moon was bright between days, waking me today at 5 am by its light flooding in my window). For the first time in months, I used my lunch time to go out and wander the streets near my office.

And then I stepped into Sun Sun Cafe, on the off chance that the Chinese part of its promised “Chinese and Canadian food” menu might include tofu. The place could be in Missouri, Pennsylvania, or even England: a square room, with cotton candy pink walls, adorned with a golden dragon or two, mirrors, and laminate tables. A television set up into a niche near the ceiling was broadcasting silently but with Chinese subtitles: it seemed to be a celebrity report featuring a young man with a limo and multiple agents at his beck and call.

The menu was tucked behind the table’s napkin dispenser. Opened flat, it showed Western food on the left and Chinese restaurant staples on the right. The selections were fairly wide if you were a meat eater: liver and onions to beef fried rice. The prices on the left were startlingly low: buttered toast for less than a dollar and a cheese sandwich for $1.85. On the right, they were heftier than seemed necessary in comparison, and I seemed to be limited to either vegetable egg foo young or vegetable chow mein. I ordered the latter, since the only tofu dish mentioned anywhere also included pork, and got a heaping plate of stirfried bean sprouts, cabbage, and a couple of springs of broccoli (having failed to order, for an extra 50 cents, the addition of mushrooms). It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t much salve for the Chinese food longing soul.

My waitress–guessing from her conversation with a customer who seemed to be well acquainted with her–is wife to the cook. At only a bit past noon, the place was virtually empty, which made me feel apologetic for not finding the food either fabulous or inedible. The room was clean and bright, she was courteous, the food was hot, and some effort had been put into making it look attractive on the plate.

Later in the day, I was treated to a story about how Sun Sun’s near neighbors had once been a couple of competing biker bars, with strip action, which made its current deracinated state somehow more understandable. Without the contrast grunge, it’s just a slightly tired restaurant. But it seems easy to imagine that it was once the tasteful option on the block.

Counting the steps

February 20, 2008

Not a procrastinator by nature, I have been behaving in that fashion when it comes to getting behind the wheel. But, as my friend Kay would say, I am now “on the case.” With, I freely admit, a little help–in the form of unsubtle pushes–from others. Since turning over my new leaf, in the past 24 hours, I have been in contact (3 times!) with a driving school, and thoroughly read, and been amazed by, the length of the list enumerating “How to Obtain a Regular Class 5 Driver’s Licence [sic].”

This has been the first time I have come across a list here in which I frankly don’t understand what I am being told: step 2 is to purchase a receipt (as is step 8); step 16 gives pricing info depending on whether one chooses “same photo or…new photos” but same as what? I am referred to the Driver Handbook ($8.35) to learn more about some steps (e. g., “Pass road sign and rules test”), to phone numbers for others (e. g., “Make an appointment for a road test”), and to a web site that is marvelously layered and complex, although well enough laid out that I can take it on, as a catch all answer place.

The web site seems to be written on the theory that stating things three times over is a sure way to help numbskulls such as myself get the point. It is here that I find the explanation for purchasing receipts–and am warned several times that receipts must be purchased in advance, must be presented in advance, and no test can be taken without previous presentation thereof.

Because the site offers the pdf version of the Driver Handbook, I am able to see that it is 213 pages long, with the files nicely separated into sections so that you do not have to download for an hour at a whack. The table of contents offers me a peak at the possible emergencies I shall be facing: power failure, sticking gas pedal, and wheels leaving pavement are just three. The table of contents also provides a glimpse at some interesting internal logic: the section on drinking and driving is immediately followed by one called “getting caught.”

This morning, I actually started to register for driving classes online but was brought up short by the registration form’s request for a “Master number.” I asked around about that today and learned that one’s Master number is one’s licence number…which seems a bit circular and defeating. Plus, i have to learn this new way of spelling license.

But I am now officially on the case.

Everybody talks about the weather…

February 19, 2008

After at least 24 hours of blasting wind–frequently gusting up to 85 kms in the city–today was one of those pristine, warm sunny ones that in New England gives rise to the term “February thaw.” We are enough further north than I’ve ever lived that the difference from one (clear) day’s length to the next seems to be visible to the naked eye. It was going on 6 this evening when dusk fell, while only 10 days ago, it was 5, and ten days before that, it seemed to be dark by 4:30. None of this, of course, is intended to be a scientific observation!

This is the first clear evening I remember being abroad in some time: the moon is full and the sky seems starless–the first time I’ve even thought to look for stars here.

Just as the locals have been ever solicitous about how I am coping with cold, snow, sleet, slush, etc., I am now being warned against “falling for” this change in the temp. I have never met so many people who seem to take the weather as their personal cause to explain and excuse to someone from away. Being a fan of weather, I have no memory of ever being “sick of” any sort dealt except for the Santa Anas in LA, a weather form that I don’t even want to try to explain to Maritimers.

I am impressed at the vast improvement that weather forecasting seems to have developed across the years during which I wasn’t paying much attention (the Berkeley years of eternal spring). If, on Tuesday, the forecast for the weekend includes both sun on one day and clouds the next, by golly, that’s what seems to occur. Although the locals assure me that weather forecasting is just as dicey as my old memories of it.

But it’s been three and a half months since I’ve arrived, and, so far, there’s been a lot of talk about the weather, a lot of accurate forecasting, and–no, no one has done a thing to change any of it.