Letter from Aunt Jane

"Alice!" said Erin from the front seat of the car. She pulled a piece of mail from the pile she was sorting. "You got a letter from Aunt Jane!"

Alice clasped her hands together. "Let me see it!" she squealed.

Erin passed the envelope to the back seat. Alice tore it open and studied the red card found within.

"So many words!" she exclaimed.

Alice handed the letter back so that Erin could read it aloud. It was lovely note filled with news of Santa Claus parades, vintage band uniforms, and dogs sprayed by skunks.

When it was finished, Alice leaned back into her car seat, smiled, and looked out the window. She sighed.

"Who is Aunt Jane again?"

Collective Wisdom: who was your most important teacher?

In my CBC Radio column this month, I ask: who was your most important teacher when you were growing up? Take a listen over at the Island Morning website.  

I thought this month I'd include a transcription, for those more inclined to read than listen.

****

No one liked my grade-five teacher Mrs. Griffith.

She was ancient. Gosh, she must have been almost fifty. She made us sit still. No talking. And... she made us learn grammar.

It was awful.


My grade fell through a gaping hole in writing curriculum. The class ahead of us was the last to be taught with phonics. The class behind us was the first to learn with whole language. My class, well, we didn't get taught either.

One day, after Mrs. Griffith watched yet another kid struggle with turning words into a sentence, she threw up her hands.


"Okay," she said. "Books away. For the next two weeks, I'm going to teach you grammar. Don't tell your parents."

Everything was done on the blackboard so it could be quickly erased to leave no evidence of this rogue teaching. 

In two weeks, we learned about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. We learned to punctuate. We learned about the difference between a definite and indefinite article. We learned about subject verb-agreement. And we parsed. 

Oh, did we parse. 

At the time, we hated it. 25 years later, I can see it was the most important two weeks in my 17 year schooling career.

 Let's seek some collective wisdom. Who was your most important teacher when you were growing up?

<streeter tape>

I remember confessing to my grade four teacher the year I wanted to write a novel.
He didn't exactly scoff, but he made it clear it wasn't worth trying.

The next year, I said the same thing to Mrs. Griffith. She ordered me a book about how to develop plot and characters.


So I wrote. I filled a Hilroy notebook with a novel which borrowed heavily from the plot, structure, and characters of the movie Back to the Future.

Mrs. Griffith taught me the basics--the stuff she thought was important. But she also gave me the freedom and encouragement to chase after the thing I thought was important. 

I think about that a lot, because we're homeschooling our kids. Just this week, my son Henry created his own card game. The characters, rules, and card layout are almost identical to the Pokemon Trading Card Game.

I'm just as proud of this accomplishment as I am when I watch him parse a sentence. Which, I'm happy to say, he can do like a pro.

Secret snowman

Sunday afternoon. The kids are outside. A three-inch layer of perfect packing snow blankets the yard.

The back door opens.

"Dad!" exclaims Alice. Her cheeks are red. Her hat is dusted with snow. "I need a carrot, two buttons, and a scarf. I can't tell you why. It's a secret!"

"Okeedokey," I respond.

The door slams shut.

A moment later, it re-opens.

"Do we have a black top hat?"

The Log Driver's Waltz

Saturday afternoon. In the kitchen.

Erin's in town. The kids are playing outside. I am chopping vegetables for supper and singing the Log Driver's Waltz in my head.

If you ask all the girls from the parish around, 
what pleases her most from her head to her toes?
She'll say, "I'm not sure it's business of yours, 
but I do like to waltz with a log driver."

Just as the light-footed log driver goes birling down a-down the white water, I'm birling down the stairs to the back door so I can check on the barbecue. I lift the lid. The potatoes sizzle in their foil packets. The trout is nearly done. I sway back and forth in waltz time.

For he goes birling down a-down the white water
that's where the log driver learns to step lightly;
Birling down a-down the white water,
a log-driver's waltz pleases girls completely.

I close the lid on the barbecue and step back inside the house. As I shut the door behind me, I cease humming and start singing in my best Kate McGarrigle voice -- up an octave and full of warble. I waltz myself up the stairs singing at the top of my lungs.

I've had my chances will all sorts of men
but none as so fine as my lad on the river.

I prance up the top three steps to the landing as I belt out the next two lines.

When the drive's over, if he asks me again,
I think I will marry my log driver--

I stop short.

I am staring into the face of the nine-year-old boy who lives across the street.

He must have let himself in.

He looks me up and down.

"Hey," he says.

I nod. "Hey."



Unvirtuous Abbey, the correct way to eat pumpkin pie, and some news

Hiya. Bit of a content-dump on tomato transplants today.

First, CBC Radio's Maritime Magazine recently ran a documentary of mine about an abbey of virtual monks who pray for our first-world problems. It's called Unvirtuous Abbey, and you can take a listen to it over here.

Second, my Collective Wisdom parenting column aired this week on CBC Radio. This month, I sought collective wisdom about the food traditions we pass down to our kids. Listen here.

Third, gosh, I just last week signed a contract with Nimbus Publishing in Halifax for a book I've been picking away at for a few years. It's a novel for kids aged 8-12. I can give you more details when we get closer to the publications date, which I'm told could be about a year away. But, y'know. Fulfillment of a lifelong dream and all, I kind of wanted to tell you about it.

Broken needle

Erin snapped the needle on her old Singer sewing machine. She took it to the store to find a replacement.

"You’re supposed to replace these every eight hours of use," explained the clerk as she examined the old needle. "How long did you use this one?"

"Oh," said Erin, "about twelve years."

Bathtime

Thursday morning.

I need a bath. I didn't take one last night. I'm going to do something I wouldn't  normally do and have a morning bath.

Everyone else in the house is sleeping, except for Henry and Alice. They play quietly in the living room.

"Guys," I say. "You okay in here? I'm going to take a quick bath."

"Take a bath?" says Henry. He cocks an eyebrow. "What day is it?"


That explains a lot, actually

Suppertime. Erin is telling a story.

Alice is enraptured. Her eyes are locked onto her mother's face. She smiles. Her eyes sparkle.

Erin finishes her story. Alice's eyes open just a bit wider so she can say something important.

"Sometimes, when you're talking and I'm not listening, I can make it so I can't even hear your voice."

The Special K commercial that was filmed at our new house

Erin sits at the kitchen table and takes a sip of tea. We've spent most of the day unpacking boxes and moving furniture at our new home -- a lovely house we'll be sharing with our good friend Margaret.

"I just love the light in here," says Erin, admiring the way sunlight fills the room.

"That's why they filmed the cereal commercial here," says Margaret.

I stare at her. "Cereal commercial?"

"Kellogg's shot a commercial here in the '90s," she replies. "They paid the family who lived here big bucks to move out for the weekend. I've never seen it, but it was apparently a national ad in the states."

I look around. It is a nice bright space. I'm intrigued.

"Neat!"

***

The PEI Film and Media directory mentions a Special K commercial shot on Prince Edward Island in 1993. YouTube has several Special K commercials from that year, most of which feature women in bathing suits climbing in slow motion out of a pool and proceeding to eat a bowl of cereal. And then there's this one:




I remember this ad!

It makes sense that they would shoot a hockey-themed ad in Canada. The inside of the arena looks, suspiciously, in some shots, like Simmons arena in Charlottetown.

As for the house, I'm pretty sure it's our place. If it is, they used the kitchen island as the breakfast table, and shot it over several takes from both sides to avoid the cupboards in the background.

It might be. It might not be. Either way, it's a lovely airy kitchen, and I'm happy to call it home.

Sick

Sunday morning. We're at a yard sale in front of our friends' house. It is a smorgasbord of toys, but four-year-old Alice doesn't seem to notice. I pick her up.

"How are you feeling?"

"Not good."

She pushes her face into my neck. She seems so small.

***

Early afternoon. She seems even smaller as she curls up on the couch.

"Alice, are you falling asleep?"

No answer. I rub her back.

"Oh, sweetie."

She sits bolt upright, her eyes wild.

"Bucket!"

***

Moments later.

"That's better. That'll make you feel a bit better."

***

Early evening. She's asleep on the couch again. It's late enough that we can safely move her to her bed without ruining her night's sleep.

I pick up her little body and carry her up the stairs. She is a limp doll, but her arms manage to find their way around my neck.

I place her in her bed and pull her blanket over her shoulder.

"Sleep well, little---"

Her eyes are wide open.

"Close those eyes, sweetie."

Two giant unblinking eyes stare at me. Everything else about her -- the slack jaw, the way she has melted into her pillow -- tells me she is asleep.

I snicker. None of our kids have ever slept with their eyes open before.

Her eyes dart around the room. They bounce from the lamp to the clock to the ceiling.

"Sweetie..."

Her eyes lock onto mine. Silent. Assessing.

Okay. This is a little creepy.

"Sweetie. Close those beautiful eyes."

She doesn't.

What if her subconscious self has taken over? What if it has been fighting for years to grasp a bit of control from her conscious self? What if here, in this pink bedroom, her subconscious has finally commandeered a tiny fragment of this little girl's body?

It can see.

I shiver.

"If you start speaking with a man's voice, I'm going to run out screaming."

***

Later.

"I think I'm going to sleep with Alice tonight," says Erin.

"No, no," I argue. "You don't need that. Let me sleep with her."

"No, really. I'd like to take care of her tonight. I really want to do this."

***

Middle of the night.

I can fly.

I have always known how to do this. It is as easy as breathing. Why haven't I done this before?

I thrust my arms to my sides as I soar over fields of rippling green grass. Hey, that's the farm where I grew up!

Cool air whooshes past my face. I am free!

***

Down the hall in Alice's bedroom, at the exact moment I am dreaming of flying, Erin is being sprayed with vomit.

***

Monday morning.

"You look brighter! How are you feeling today?"

"Pretty good!"

"Let's take that temperature."

102.9 degrees.

***

Tuesday morning.

"You look brighter! How are you feeling today?"

"Great!"

She runs a full lap of the first floor of our house.

"I am super fast!"

***

Same morning. Seven-year-old Jane is still in bed.

"How are you this morning?"

"Good."

She rolls over. She sighs.

"Maybe too good."

Just don't call me sooky


My monthly Collective Wisdom parenting column on CBC Radio is posted over at the Island Morning site. Go take a listen!

Imaginary frand

click to enlarge

For a few days, Jane had an imaginary friend named Johnny with which she attempted to get double servings of dessert. It didn't work out quite that way; Johnny got dumped pretty quick.

About a day after Johnny left, Darth Vader showed up in Alice's life. He is a constant companion and has none of the personality traits displayed in any of the Star Wars films.

My son, the blanky hog

click for full size

Erin: You're going to open a can of co-sleeping worms with that one.

Me: You think?

Erin: Yup.

Me: They'll get over it.

PEI to Ontario road trip, part five

click image for full size

We've been back on PEI for more than a week, but I remembered this day and thought I'd comicify it for y'all.

Speaking of comicifying, a teensy announcement: I'm easing back on my three-updates-a-week pledge. I am having lots of fun drawing these, but some of my other creative thingies have had to take a back seat in the last couple of months. Sorry about that.

My father-in-law the knuckleballer, part two

(Part one is here.)

The last thing Danny remembers is leaving third base. After that, it's all a blank.

Concussions tend to do that to a fellow's memory.

It is the last game of the provincial finals. The Leamington Juniors are playing at home against a team from Thorold. It is the eighth inning. The game is tied.

Danny is running hard from third. The catcher has the ball in his glove. Danny quickly decides not to slide, as he'd make an easy target for a tagged out. Instead, he plows full speed into the catcher.

It is a tremendous hit. Both men go down hard. When the dust clears, Danny and the catcher are on the ground. Danny lays motionless for several minutes.

Two things are certain:

Somehow, Danny's foot managed to touch home plate.

Somehow, the ball ended up 30 feet away from the catcher's glove.

The run counts. If the Leamington Juniors can hold onto their lead for another inning, they'll win the game and the provincial title. 

Danny is coaxed up and escorted to the dugout, where he coolly shrugs off an attempt to fight by the angry catcher. His teammates are concerned about a possible injury,  but Danny insists he's fine. He returns to second base for the ninth inning. He even throws a guy out at first.

The game is over. Leamington wins.

As the players assemble for the team picture, Danny is slinking away.

He has a bit of a problem. He can't seem to remember his name.

He is rushed to a doctor, who confirms his concussion. Which is why everything in this story past Danny leaving third base comes to us from second-hand sources.

It's also why, in the black-and-white team photo for the year the Leamington Juniors won the Ontario title, their knuckleball pitcher/second baseman is strangely absent.

Hand-me-down boots

click for full size

Back home on PEI after a lovely visit to Leamington.

My father-in-law the knuckleballer, part one

My father in law hates playing second base.

Put him at shortstop. Put him at third. There, he can drill the ball to first as hard as his arm will allow to make the out.

You can't do that at second.

And yet, that's exactly where you'll find him. Second base. He is not happy about it.

Danny is 21 years old. It is his final year of eligibility for junior men's baseball. He's playing for the Leamington Juniors.

It is mid-way through a game, somewhere in the middle of the season. The Leamington Juniors this season are hot, but today, their pitcher is not.

"Put Danny in," suggests someone, as the coach grasps for a reliever. "He can throw."

Danny is tapped to finish the game at pitcher. He takes the mound. He tosses a few warm-up pitches and indicates he's ready to roll.

The batter steps into the box. Danny looks to his catcher for a signal. The man behind the mask wears a wicked grin. Danny knows why. The catcher knows something about Danny that no ones else present at today's game knows.

Danny throws one hell of a knuckleball.

***

In 1959, Sports Illustrated published a feature on a knuckleball pitcher by the name of Hoyt Wilhelms. Danny poured over the article, which included detailed illustrations of how the pitch works.

The trick is to release the ball without any spin. Spin is the knuckleballer's enemy. Spin is what allows a fastball or curve ball to travel smoothly through the air. Without spin, a knuckleball dips, dives, and dances in a way that is nearly impossible to predict, let alone hit.

Danny spends hours tossing a baseball against a piece of plywood propped against his basement wall. He later tries it with his best buddy and catch partner, Jim.

Jim just happens to be the catcher for the Leamington Juniors.

***

Jim calls for the knuckleball.

Danny shakes his head. Not yet, he thinks.

Jim signals again for the knuckleball. He won't be deterred.

Danny relents and winds up. His release of that first pitch is perfect. Not a whiff of spin. It approaches the batter nice and slow, as a knuckleball does, then dances its way around the bat.

Strike one.

Jim tosses the ball back to Danny and calls for another knuckleball. They both wear smirks a mile long.

Danny tosses knuckleball after knuckleball. They baffle the opposing team. One batter drops his bat as the pitch breaks past him: his mouth agape at the magic of that untouchable pitch.

Jim and Danny cannot stop smiling. Between innings, their coach tells them to get serious and keep their heads in the game.

On the mound, Danny can't control his giggles. He turns his back to the plate and takes a few deep breaths.

"Come on now," he says to himself. "You're not playing catch with your best friend. This is serious."

***

Danny joins the pitching staff for the rest of the season, only playing back at second base for the games he doesn't pitch. He finishes the season with four wins, two losses, and and ERA of .195.

***

The night before we pile the kids in the car for the long drive back to PEI from Leamington, Danny and I take our ball gloves to the front yard. We've been talking so much this week about his knuckleball, I want to see it for myself.

"I'll just try a few warm-up throws before I try the knuckler," he says.

He's lying.

The first pitch drifts across the yard. I watch the seams stand dead still as the ball soars toward me. Ten feet in front of my glove, the ball decides to veer wildly to my left. I barely catch it.

Danny grins. "I never know which way it's going to break," he says.

I throw it back. He winds up again. This pitch again veers left, then at the last second breaks right.

"See what I mean?" he says. We're both grinning now.

By pitch five, we both have goofy smiles on our faces. The pitch is hilarious. Sometimes it floats in like a beach ball, then swings wildly upward. Sometimes it dives at the last second into the dirt. You never know where it will end up.

I've heard the story of the Leamington Juniors many times. I finally understand where the smiles come from.




(Note to Danny: I hope I've been true to your stories. If I've messed anything up, let me know. I'll fix it right away.)

Collective Wisdom: the birds and the bees


My latest Collective Wisdom parenting column on CBC Radio is about talking to kids about the birds and the bees. Go take a listen!

Friends

There are friends, and then there are friends. Y'know?

Hey! We're taking a little trip over the next couple of weeks, which means I'll not be around to churn out the comics in the usual way. But fear not! I'll try to maintain my Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule with some rough journal comics I make on the fly.

Maybe it will be great? Maybe!

That's MISTER Fancy-Pants


Please permit me a little braggy-brag. This weekend, I won the 2102 Atlantic Journalism Awards gold medal for sports reporting (of all things). It was for a story I did last year for CBC Radio as part of their Hockey Day in Canada coverage. You can listen to it here.

I went to Halifax for the awards gala. It was a bit overwhelming, but lovely to see so many of the great people I've worked with over the years. Before I left for the trip, I had a little chat with Henry.

Henry: I wish you didn't have to go to Halifax.

Me: It's just for one night. Hardly long enough to miss each other.

Henry: I know. I hope you win. If you don't, the whole trip will be a complete waste of time.

Reading


click to enlarge

I've been a bit disappointed lately with how the painting on a few comics has turned out. I thought I'd try to do leave some black and white, and see how I like that.

The lesson for the kids: if you're not good at something, don't do it.

Erin in spring

(click for full size)

We stopped by our community garden plot the other day so Erin could check on the garlic she planted in the fall. I swear, she flew back to the car.

Also... it's Erin's BIIIIIIRRRRTHDAAAAAAY today, did you know that? Well, now you do.

Wednesday sketchbook


A sketchbook scan instead of a comic? WHAT A RIP-OFF. Well, gosh. Monday's comic essay took a little longer to make than my usual comic. Jeesh.

NEWS: I've been nominated for an award! A real one. I'm a finalist for the Atlantic Journalism Awards (under the sports category, of all things). It's for a short radio documentary I made as part of last year's CBC Hockey Day in Canada coverage. Take a listen, if you like, over here.

Lessons from a dead whale

I've been thinking a lot lately about the spring of 2009. So much happened that spring. So much changed. 

I was still working at the CBC. Times for the CBC were tough. There was talk about budget shortfalls and shrinking revenue. There were rumours of show cancellations and lay-offs. Then came the day when we were all gathered into a room to find out just how bad things were.





I--naively--didn't see it coming. I was a wreck. One of my co-workers, who had been through several rounds of job cuts, found me  a few hours later in my office, staring at the walls.

"Oh, I get it," she said. "You were under the impression your job loved you back."

***

These things never happen like you think they will. There was no cardboard box waiting on my desk. No pink slip sitting on my keyboard. In fact, for the next few months, everything was eerily normal. I came to work every day and did all my normal work things. Which was pretty okay, because I loved that job.


Every day was different. Every day, I woke up and wondered what my next adventure would be. After the adventure, I’d come back and tell people about it on the radio.


As the weeks crept by, I realized I had just a few adventures left. What would be my last adventure washed up on a beach in northern Nova Scotia.


A giant sperm whale strayed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and swam too close to shore. He died on the beach in early winter, but wasn’t discovered until the ice started to recede in the spring.





I’m not quite sure why my producer let me do the story. It’s not unheard of for whales to wash up on the beach. We do live on the ocean.


Maybe my producer liked the idea. Maybe she sensed that I really wanted this one. I don’t know.

**


The biologist who told me about the whale asked me to meet him at the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We walked a couple of kilometres through a bush which ended at a cliff overlooking the sea.

Then, we hiked.


The whale was like a creature from another planet.



I thought about how far this giant fellow had travelled in his life. I thought of all the things he must have seen. I thought about how sad it was that all his adventures had come to a quiet end on this cold, nameless beach.



I had always told myself that I hadn't tied my identity to the CBC. I wasn’t Dave The CBC Guy. I was Dave, and I worked at the CBC.


I realized that was a lie.

**



I no longer wake up and wonder what adventure the day might bring. I work in a small, windowless room that I share with the two nicest, funniest guys you could ever imagine. I bore them daily with tales of adventure that they may or may not believe.


And I am happy.


I know now it wasn’t the daily adventure that I loved most about my old job. I loved telling stories.


I can still do that.


I do it every day at work. I do it  with my comics. I do it with my fiction. And I do it one other really important place.


Mittens

(click for full size)

Okay, maybe this doesn't make sense if you don't knit. But knitters, AM I RIGHT?

Pounce

(click on the comic to see it full size)

The dog dragged the cat half way across the house. She didn't seem to be bothered at all.

10-4, good buddy. Over. Roger that. Over.

(click the comic to see it full size)

We have walkie-talkies now. Over. Now we talk like this. Over.

Cut finger


(Click the comic to see it full size)

If a band-aid can't fix your problems, you are beyond help.

Cereal


(Click the comic to see it full size.)

Spilled milk, crying, et cetera, et cetera.

Flush


(click the comic to see it full size)

The cat has also learned that if she sits and waits until the tank refills, she can flush AGAIN. And again. And again.


Broken army guys


(click the comic to see it full size)

I want to start a new comic called Broken Army Guys in which these fellows sit around and talk about feelings.

The story of Frosty: a very good dog

Start a conversation about dogs in my family and we will eventually steer it towards Frosty.

My dad has always been partial to English Setters. They're great bird dogs. More importantly, they know when when it's time to work and when it's time to let some pesky kid climb on you and pull on your long, floppy ears.

We had a string of English Setters when I was growing up. Frosty was before my time. By the time I was hearing about him, his adventures and attributes had grown to legend.

"I could tell that dog to sit when I was mowing the back lawn," my dad recalls. "Twenty minutes later, in the front lawn, I'd realize I'd completely forgotten about him. Sure enough, Frosty would be stuck like a rock to the place where I told him to sit."

"I'd let him get a good sniff of a stone before I threw it deep into the cornfield," remembers Dad. "You could tell he was just itching to go get it, but he wouldn't move a muscle until I told him to. Finally, I'd say 'okay,' and that dog was off like a shot. He'd be back in a minute with the stone in his mouth."

"I swear he could tell time. I was working at Jackson's then, and came home every night at twenty to six. At twenty-two minutes to six, he'd be on the front porch waiting for me."

One Saturday afternoon in early summer, Dad was hoeing weeds in the tomato field behind the house. Frosty was with him and had wandered into the woods that bordered on the field. Dad had been working a few hours when he heard the repeat of a .22 rifle from the woods.

Not all of the neighbours in that area were above shooting at a dog if they thought it had strayed where it didn't belong. Dad stood up in the field and darted for the woods.

He found nothing. No shooter. No gun. No dog. Frosty was gone.

***

Two months later, my dad's little brother Jim--who was still a teenager at the time--was riding the bus to his first day of school after summer break. As the bus got closer to town, the two boys sitting behind him started talking about their summers.

"Oh, we got a new dog," one boy exclaimed.

"What kind?" asked the other boy.

"English Setter," he replied. "You should see him. If you tell him to stay, he sits there, like, forever."

"Wow."

"If he gets the scent of a stone, he can find it again, even if you throw it into a cornfield."

"That's amazing," said the second boy. "Where did you get him?"

"It's the weirdest thing. One day, we were out in the yard, and he just was suddenly there running like a bat out of hell. We stopped him and calmed him down. Something scared him bad."

At this point, my uncle Jim turned around. "Does that Setter have one black ear and one white with black freckles?"

"Yup."

The more they talked, the more Jim was convinced it was Frosty. He didn't tell my dad, but he arranged to go to the farm to get a closer look at the dog.

There was no question. Frosty recognized Jim right away. The people who had cared for him were sorry to see him go, but understood: a dog that good had a home that loved him very much.

***

Dad got home that night from Jackson's at twenty to six...

Of course it is





Thank you, Jane.

I drew this one with one of those brush pens all the kids are talking about. Some of my favourite cartoonists and illustrators seem to like them. Tricky pen, that brush pen.

It's hard to be a good dog


Can you believe the nerve of that dog? Bad dog. Baaaaaad.

Nice kitty. That's a good girl.

Pretending to be friends


Every now and again, the girls play a game called Pretending to be Friends. This comic displays the dangers of this otherwise fun and lovely game.