less than a feeling

We go on vacation from August 3rd to August 22nd. To my wife's cottage on the Northumberland Strait (you can see the bridge to PEI in the distance). I keep a little notebook, as I usually do. The inscription on the inside front cover reads
A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
-- George Moore

This is, of course, exactly the kind of bullshit they put in little notebooks.

* * * * *

We leave Kingston on a Wednesday morning. As I haul the last few things to the car, the back yard is a gauntlet of hot hammers, a vortexing heat sink. As it's been for weeks now. It's also been like this *every* time we've left on vacation.

* * * * *

Another thing that happens to us every summer vacation? We cross the border into Quebec and the world becomes some kind of Kurosawa void, this land of ghosts and fog. Air like sprayed bleach. I kept expecting the blonde cop from Silent Hill to pull us over.

* * * * *

Someday, Liver & Onions will disappear from truck stop menus, because that generation will be gone.

* * * * *

C is clever enough to book a hotel with an indoor pool. Later, while the girls sleep, I stay up drinking raspberry vodka, watching this kid win his poker triple crown.

* * * * *

I can never sleep in hotels.

* * * * *

A million trees. At least. Up and down the same hill, over and over again, every valley with a little bridge at the bottom. Double lane, single lane, view -- over there, slow down for construction, right lane ending soon ... driving through New Brunswick can be like having someone pour cough syrup over your brain stem.

* * * * *

Then getting warmer, this hesitant sun poking around.

* * * * *

Someday there will be no churches left in this country.

* * * * *

Two days of driving. I think we will never get there but we get there. And there it is: the cottage. Needing things.

* * * * *

First morning at the cottage. I haven't gone into Amherst to do the wallet-emptying, three-trips-to-the-car's worth of shopping yet so toast is about all that's on offer.

* * * * *

What is a cottage but a smaller version of a house, with less amenities? Oh yes, there's the ocean.

* * * * *

The only people who swim at the shore are the tourists.

* * * * *

Rhythms all out of whack; these stutter steps to get through the day.

* * * * *

There's something off-putting about People magazine first thing in the morning.

* * * * *

Some people can get away with bathing in the sun.

* * * * *

Gray and Mel. An outdoor wedding, on the grounds of their farm. Everything very nicely done up. They also had lovely weather and the whole thing came off in the warmest, easiest kind of way.

Half of our wedding present to them. They wouldn't take Oona as the other half. "Poops too much," they said.

* * * * *

So we get two nice days. Auntie Catherine is here for a fly-in visit, just for Gray and Mel's wedding, just to make sure I made the ten pounds of potato salad that she signed up for, just to spank the hell out of Oona (O God she loves that), then leave. After that the weather goes sideways. Oh, certainly, one can sit comfortably in one's Ontario home and watch the meteorologist's national weather report, and it's all fine and good to see these cartoony little rain clouds dance dementedly around the Maritimes, but you don't *really* understand it until you make the two-day trip to see it for yourself. Yep, there it is: as bleak and tear-soaked as Thulsa Doom's heart.


* * * * *

One thing about rain is that you get to spend whole mind-collapsing blocks of time building fires.

* * * * *


At least the roof doesn't leak.

* * * * *

Strangely, I can write with people around, but I don't feel comfortable drawing.

So I get up early, before everyone else, to paint a t-shirt for a certain somebody.


* * * * *

Oona is nearly two. They say two year-olds are exhausting. So I guess Oona is nearly exhausting.

* * * * *

Day 6: steady rain. Late morning, we all go for a long walk on the sand bars anyway. We all get wet. After lunch, and building yet another fire, and after Oona goes down for her nap, I try for a siesta of my own. The rain patters on the roof. Two things happen while I lie dozing: C (impatiently, compulsively) stuffs enough wood into the fire to temporarily turn the inside of the cottage into Mexico (which then forced her to frantically throw open every door and window in the place) and, not only does Oona refuse to stick to her nap, but she decides to take off all her clothes, including her poopy diaper. She then smears the poop all over her arms and chest. Fun! Have you ever seen that poster of the baby eating spaghetti? Well, imagine that, only with poop instead of spaghetti. One second I'm sleeping, the next I'm waking up in a full sweat, listening to my wife try to clean Oona with wet wipes. Not effective! I sweep her up into bathroom, where she gets to experience her first shower (Oona, not C). At arm's length! Fun! I haven't scraped that much (wet) poop off a (wet) human being since I worked as an aide at a psychiatric hospital. Memories! Fun!

* * * * *

That night we watch Dark Water on C's laptop. Only now do I see how ironic that title is. Anyway, why are all Japanese horror films about little girls?


* * * * *

Day 7: Wind, rolling waves, white caps. Blow blow blow. I'm up at 6:15 and think I might draw but then C gets up so I have to build a fire and tell her not to touch it.

* * * * *

We have a little washer-spinner -- a giveaway from the neighbour's -- and C wants to do two loads. This means that Oona and I have to flee the premises. Immediately. Because any kind of housework makes C extremely angry. And it's best not to be around that particular grenade when you hear the pin pulled.

* * * * *


So Oona and I take a long walk. We mail a postcard. We poke around an abandoned house. New Brunswick is full of abandoned/haunted houses, and reminds me of Saskatchewan that way. Then we play in the puddles in the back lane. What a crazy vacation!

* * * * *

Day 8: Darkness, gloom. We all struggle with consciousness -- especially Oona, who seems to want to sleep big people's hours. So we go to the Moncton Zoo. Actually, it's a perfect day for it: cool with light mist. Of all the animals, the one I enjoy the most -- if I can use that term here -- is the Marabou Stork. It looks like a burn victim who's been handed a stolen coat. C's dad Graeme is with us, and he calls the Marabou ugly, but I'd rather say it's just been viciously misinformed about what's in style.

* * * * *

Day 9 we go to Sackville. Oona runs riot over the bone yard.

* * * * *

Haunted much?


* * * * *

Day 10: I haul the dead, rusted barbecue behind the tool shed in the back, where it will become part of the permanent architecture of the shore.

The tool shed doors are coming off their hinges again, so I sink deeper screws into the soft, decaying wood. Otherwise the structure is in reasonably good shape, leaning- and rotting-wise, the industrial-level exterior paint I slapped on two years ago having shocked the thing into some kind of temporary stability.

Mowing the lawn is certainly fun, in an OCD kind of way; the machine is about as wide as an electric shaver, so you have to go up and down the same lines over and over again. And you *still* miss spots.

C's family visits. I'm right in the middle of making burgers and sausages on the stove when the new barbecue is delivered. Perfect! At the same time, the teenagers move all the buns, salad, etc off the dining table so they can play Monopoly. More perfect!

Later, after they leave, and I finish all the washing up, I end another day by making yet another big batch of potato salad. And then I do the dishes from that.

* * * * *

One thing about all the wind is that it's blown away all the mosquitoes. For now.

* * * * *

Is it pleasant to float in the Atlantic, unmolested by jellyfish, not hunted by horseflies, watching clouds sit like the memory of exploded pillows in the sky? Of course it is.

* * * * *

I get a newspaper. The American economy is sliding into some kind of Japanese-style stagnation. No one believes in anything, no one is buying. Having 15% of your population on food stamps can't help.


* * * * *

C and I have a discussion about the cottage. I have to remind her that it's really "her thing" -- she's the one who spent her childhood summers here, all the people from the shore are people from her past, they're her friends, and all the work we do and errands we run and money we spend on the cottage -- not just while we're down here but year-round -- is really in service to that idea. "But I'd like it to become *our* thing," she says. This is a lovely sentiment but it belongs on a greeting card. I remind her what her eventual reaction would be to spending all our holidays -- every year -- visiting my family in Saskatchewan. Or going camping. This pretty much ends the discussion.

* * * * *

Later she admits that she feels like she has to come to the cottage every summer to make sure it doesn't fall apart.

* * * * *

And yes, of course, it has all sorts of significance beyond that, and she certainly enjoys it, at some point during every holiday, on a meaningful level.

* * * * *

I have my own point/epiphany when I do some math and figure out how much each swim in the Atlantic is costing me. Then I stop.

* * * * *

Day 11 at the cottage and I get up early -- company's coming and not only do I desperately need a shower (I smell like a towel that's been left in the bottom of a gym bag) but this might be my last chance to do any kind of work for awhile.

Is the sun nice on Day 11, as it rises and breaks across the ocean's surface, and fills the cottage with radiant gold light? Absolutely. I find it's also quite nice on my walk to work.

* * * * *

Anyway: Oona and I have the rest of the morning together while C goes off to buy a window in Port Elgin (a lovely place to get stabbed with a broken beer bottle, if you're ever interested). "I won't spend any more than $500 on a window," she promises. Capital!

* * * * *

We have a nice overnight visit from E and J and DJ. It's pretty relaxed, the kids get along and the weather, mercifully, holds its breath. We get outside. We drink beer. We complain about our jobs. Plus they're Irish so they're full of long-ish stories.

* * * * *

We need new chairs; our deck chairs are (a) falling apart, (b) temporary or (c) embarrassingly cheap.

* * * * *

And then I think maybe that's the cottage is, for most people: their one big, yearly exposure to being outside. C said something like that yesterday -- that she just wanted to sit on the deck and get lots of sun, get some colour in her legs, and be heated right through. I know that in the past, when I drove to work, there were many days that I was hardly outside at all. Are cottage holidays just a form of repackaging, a way to elevate and consume the idea of being 'outdoors'?

* * * * *

The fly swatter is a very efficient killing machine.

* * * * *

Early Sunday evening and I'm out of sorts: tired in a vague, diffused way. I'd like to read but C is intent on watching some truly shit television.

"I can't believe you're watching something with a laugh track," I say.

"That's the girl from Blossom," she says. "Do you recognize her?"

"Do you recognize that what you've just said further invalidates your viewing choice?" I ask.

The laugh-track bullshit is followed by some network bullshit starring Martha Plimpton and the guy who played the Hearst agent (and prostitute murderer) in Deadwood. I have no idea what it is but ... Martha Plimpton! Wow. Maybe Amanda Plummer will get her own show soon, too.

* * * * *

Day 13: gloom but not that cold. C has it in her head to paint two dressers, and once she has that idea in her head ... Oona and I go to the beach. It's windy and depressing but we have a boat.

* * * * *

One toy: I am an advocate of the One-Toy Theory, that one toy is infinitely superior to being offered infinite toys. C, on the other hand, believes in the Magic-Bullet Theory: that if you just keep offering enough choices, you will find that choice that makes the child happy. We argue about this quite a lot. Of course Oona sides with mom, because it's fun to be offered twelve things in the space of five minutes, and I get called "Bad Daddy".

* * * * *

That night, C insists on watching more television, so I insist on watching Bridget Jones's Diary. This bugs C to no end. "Ugh, this is awful," she says, going off to bed. I wait five minutes for the snoring to start, then turn off the television to eat ice-cream and write.

* * * * *

Frozen cappucino yoghurt is about as effective as low-calorie beer.

* * * * *

C says it's impossible for a man over the age of forty to keep his looks. "Even Magnum couldn't do it," she says. "Then why do I even bother dressing in anything except sweats and baseball caps?" I ask. "I don't know, why do you?" she asks back.

* * * * *

I feed the neighbour's dog a few times. Now he stalks me. Who knew you could buy undying love with a handful of barbecued Spam?

* * * * *

I read two books, and then halfway through an uncorrected proof about a charming, not-so-charming fox. Parallel ways running into each other. And I think I'm holding back on that one, doing more imagining than reading.

* * * * *


Murder City
Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

by Charles Bowden

Not a light romp. Not a heartwarming coming-of-age story. Not a breathless historical romance about a forty-something woman suddenly empowered by her divorce, a road trip and an imagined romance with the last Beothuk Indian.

This is a story about a city at the end of light. Where light has no meaning. Where no one tries to see anything, or understand anything. Where answers have the same meaning as magic.

Thousands of people are being murdered in Juarez, Mexico. No one knows how many for sure; all statistics are guesses. This is because, for every person dumped on the street, there are many more disappeared into the desert. Or beneath murder houses. Journalists who investigate such things get killed. The killings are done by the gangs. And the drug cartels. And the police. And the army. There is really no difference between any of these groups and they are all killing people for the same reason: the drug business. The drug business is the biggest thing going, which isn't difficult when up against the hand-to-mouth existence of the NAFTA-powered factories. Juarez is one of those dystopian alternative universes where all the honest people live in grinding hardship and all the bad people live like kings and there is no government and no truth and no future.

There are a few ground rules. If you say, the killings make you sad, well, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you say, it is terrible how people live in Juarez, how the poverty is awful, well, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you say, it is all caused by American imperialism, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you say, it is really an issue of femicide, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you say, it all the result of NAFTA, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you blame American drug consumers, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head. If you say, it all because of a war between cartels, you will be killed -- a bullet right into your head.


The book is bleak and mesmerizing. It reminds you how wrong things can go, how hope can disappear from whole societies, how close madness waits at the borders.

* * * * *


Jonathan Livingston Seagull
by Richard Bach

I read this as a sort of palate cleanser after Bowden's Murder City. It's the story of a seagull who wants to test the limits of flight. For this he is exiled by the Flock. He spends the rest of his days alone but also in a state of joyous learning, flying his little heart out, but saddened that he cannot share his knowledge with others. Then, in a sort of heaven (in that heaven is only a state of seeking perfection), he learns even more from seagulls like himself, seagulls who use flight as a transformative learning experience. Finally, he returns to earth and, eventually, the Flock, in an effort to liberate the minds of his fellow seagulls, to show them that life should have no limits.

A lot of new-age, Buddhist hoo-ha here but still a charming little book. Plus it only takes about ten minutes to read.

* * * * *

Day 14. It has rained over night. Everything sits sodden on the deck, in the grass. A soft fog covers the ocean. C says it will burn off. We'll see.


* * * * *

We are out walking on the sand bars at sunset. Not talking much, just walking and feeling the evening cool set in. I have Oona on my shoulders and she's methodically touching all the parts of my face. "I was looking in my journal the other day," I say to C, "and I saw that it was the fifteenth anniversary of starting my job." C looked back at me. She could have said anything at that point. She could have started a conversation about how fast time goes, or about careers, or about pensions. She could have just said, "Oh, that's nice." But instead she said, "What do you want, a fucking cake?"

* * * * *

Later on we play cards. Rummy. I hate her rules for Rummy, specifically the one about not being able to pick up something from the pile unless you can immediately lay it down. It takes away from the element of surprise. I like to burn my opponents, to catch them with a mittful of cards. Whereas C just goes for points. Despite this, I build up an early lead. She tells me to shut up and deal. Then, three glasses of wine in, she hits her stride, and makes a comeback. "God it must be hard to be such a loser," she says. When I ultimately win the game, she calls me a bad winner.

* * * * *

C always says I am a difficult person. She's probably right. I'm definitely not a team player. I also like to draw cartoons of cats being led up the gallows.

* * * * *


Day 15. Wind and rain. The cold isn't bad but I make a fire anyway. You can play this at Christmas, if you want.

* * * * *

The rest of the day isn't bad, either. I actually get some drawing done. And after breakfast C takes Oona to the hardware store at Cap Pele, so daddy gets a break. Of course, he uses most of it to clean the cottage, but it's still something. Then Oona has a long nap in the afternoon, I get a shower, the rain continues to fall, and things pass into a quiet evening rather effortlessly. The fire snips and snaps away. And sometimes cottage rainy days are the best days.

* * * * *

Is all children's programming computer-generated animations now? All the characters are fantasy creatures, there is some chickenshit mystery to solve, some act-along physical activity, and then a whole whack of celebration and self-congratulation at the end. Once Oona turns two, I'm going to have her watching nothing but Law & Order re-runs.

* * * * *

Last few days and I lose the thread: no more notes. There's chores to do, getting the cottage ready for renters. People visit (Gray and Mel, bringing beer and sausage and salad but steadfastly refusing to listen to anything but Def Leppard) or we visit them (C's Aunt Jane, still scandalously short but making a mean lunch), the drive home seems longer than the drive there, in fact it feels like someone has taken my guts out in two handfuls and given them a good squeeze, while my brain is a carcass fished from a polluted river, and I wonder why the people of Quebec love Elvis so much, or why the radio station from Maine is advertising a handgun giveaway, or if hell is the bathroom at certain Irving rest stops, and all the while Oona is actually a dream in the car, no crying or complaining, just endless jibberish to her 'babies', still, the last hour on the highway is one of the longest of my life, the radio is Casey Kasem torture, and C hates Bruce Springsteen, and I arrive home completely exhausted, the office the next day freezing, looking shabby, I have 142 work emails and 158 personal, none of it is important, my neck hurts, the end.

* * * * *

All two year-olds are miniature, maniacal gangsters. Full stop.

Comments

  1. This is the best thing I've read online all week.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I squealed when I saw this post, and in the process lost all my street cred at work

    I think I'd like Gray and Mel. Anyone who brings beer, sausage and salad, and listens to Def Leppard is ok with me. Oh, and I'd refuse the poop monster as well (as lovely as she is).

    ReplyDelete
  3. I got almost to the end and my battery gave up so had to read it all again - an even better read second time!!

    Ah - the things we do for love ;) You'll recover in time to do it all again next year, minus the wedding and hopefully those Irish visitors who put you to sleep with their stories!

    Love the pics of Oona on the beach in her raincoat . . . very Irish!

    ReplyDelete
  4. i had to start reading this post after three false starts, getting people to their destinations and beginning to talk work.
    i however, persevered and it was worth every second. think that your next book should be an illustrated version of collections of years of cottage visits.

    sounds like a heavenly vacation. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Funny about the Law and Order reruns...true though. When kids fail they have a major panic attack, because they don't know about the real world (much like myself) Nice photos, funny stories as per usual. Laughing with you of course :-) That bird thing at the zoo, can't remember what it's called...seems like a bit of loner. The cottage is really quite lovely...I like the pic of C reading her book, a cozy scene. And Oona well she is Adorable as per usual.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's funny, I was thinking the same thing as Susan about your next book, or a book at any point, being a journal of vacations/cottage stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous5:43 am

    Pretty insightful. Thanks!

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    ReplyDelete
  8. where is the pic of you wielding the fly swatter?

    it's the only thing that's missing from this holiday rehash.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is a wonderful holiday diary, I'm seconding peter's comment

    ReplyDelete

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