Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut

Of God and Plumbing

It’s 10:00 on Monday morning. I am hungover after playing a drinking game with Rob during Mad Men that involves taking a swig of vodka every time someone lights a cigarette.

The banging downstairs hasn’t stopped in over two hours. Normally, the carpenter will saw some plywood and then hammer it in somewhere and take a break. But not this morning. This morning, there are two carpenters and they are going at it double time. At our status meeting last Thursday, Le Bruce mentioned that they were going to build us new stairs.
“What’s wrong with the old ones?” I asked.
Rob shows me the plans for the umpteenth time. “We are going to put a sink where the old stairs are. They are taking those stairs out and putting new stairs over here. He points to where the fridge used to be.
“Wow,” I said, clearly impressed. “You can remove stairs and build new ones? How do you do that? Do you get in a big huge truck and use dynamite and one of those string things with the heavy ball?” I was getting excited.
“Actually, two carpenters can do the trick. They simply saw the stairs out and then build new ones?”
“What do you build stairs from?”
Le Bruce and Rob were so happy that I was taking an interest in this project that they both answered at once:
“No fucking way?” I said. “You mean, under all that paint or carpet or..what’s that word that always sounds vaguely pornographic...linoleum... there is just, wood?”
“Yup,” said Le Bruce. “Just wood. Just some dead trees.”
“That is very cool.”
LeBruce and Rob looked at each other. They were clearly pleased with my reactions.
“That is very very cool.” I said again.
And, you know, it was cool. When I was sober. But now that I had a raging headache, it was far less so.
I called Rob.
“Can I stop the renovation?”
Rob took me off speaker phone.
“No, Natalie. You can’t stop a renovation.”
“But I have a hangover. My head hurts. I’m tired. I need quiet and chamomile tea.”
“Then go to the coffee shop on the corner. You can hang out with all the other hungover college kids and talk about social networking.”
“I don’t want to go to the coffee shop. I need to work you know. Someone has to pay for all of this.”
My salary is about 1/10 of Rob’s. Sometimes he reminds me of this fact and sometimes he doesn’t. Today, he declined comment.
“OK. What do you want to do? Do you want to come down to my office and work?”
The idea of showering, dressing for Bay St., getting on the subway and taking the elevator to Rob’s office on the 4000th floor of a skyscraper is beyond me.
“Nah. I’ll stay here and suffer.”
“Well, don’t martyr yourself. You can come here if you need to.”
I feel like martyr though and wonder what sort of music a martyr would listen to. Clearly, the soundtrack from Yentl.
The soothing voice of Barbra Streisand eases the pounding downstairs and I go back to work reading about economic relations in 500 CE Rome.
Papa, Can you hear me? Someone is singing in the bathroom. Then I hear drilling.
Papa, Can you see me? More singing. Then drilling.
Papa, Can you feel me? The drilling drowns him out.
I go into the bathroom where a young child with a Montreal Canadian hat is taking apart my sink.
“Excuse me. What are you doing? Shouldn’t you be at school?”
The child with the Montreal Canadians hat does not look at me. He looks slightly to my right.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I am the plumber. I need to take out the sink. You have a leak that is dripping onto the drywall downstairs.”
Two weeks ago, I would have had to ask what drywall is, but since there is quite a bit of it in my former dining room, I feel I know enough.
“How do you know there is a leak in the sink. I don’t see water anywhere.” I surveyed the bathroom floor.
“Well, it’s leaking into the wall. If we were to open up the wall, you would see a lot of dampness.”
“You can’t open up a wall. It’s a wall. If you open it up, the house will fall in.”
The child looks at me. Actually, he looks around me. I move into his line of sight and he shifts his gaze left.
“I’m sorry Miss. But you have a leak in your sink and I need to patch it before it drips into the new walls that are being built downstairs. That is what is being built down there, you know. New walls.
I choose to ignore him.
“Where is your father? Is it “Take Your Son to Work Day?”
“He’s at home with my wife and twins. Why?”
I pause for a rare moment of stunned silence.
The child removes his hat and wipes his forehead.
With the cascading down of his brown forelocks and revelation of a small kippah, the morning’s mystery is solved.
“Shalom.” I say politiely holding out my hand.
“Shalom.” He replied, just as politely, but his right hand remains at his side.
“Oh. You are that kind of Jew.”
“Yes. Yes. I am that kind of Jew.”
I sit down on the bathtub step.
“And you are a plumber?”
“I am a plumber’s apprentice to be precise.”
“How does your father feel about that?”
“Well, at first he wanted me to be a rabbi. And then, he wanted me to be a lawyer. And then, he wanted me to go to Eretz Yisroel and get into the tech industry.”
“But you wanted to fix toilets?”
“I wanted a job. I wanted to marry Aliza. I wanted a family, and I wanted a house and I didn’t feel like spending years going to school and working at a big place and having to wear one of those smart phones and having to check it during Shabbas.”
“Do you like it though? Is it fun?”
“Work is not fun. Work is work. Reading is fun. Studying is fun. Playing catch with my 6 year old is fun. Work is about making money to have fun. But yes, I like this job. I have to solve problems. I make people happy. I go home at 5:00 and don’t think about it until the next day. What’s there not to like?”
I think about Rob who comes home and doesn’t get a half an hour’s peace from his BlackBerry.
“And I’ll always be employed, you know. Always. As long as people have to pish, I’ll have a job.”
“How old are you anyway?”
“You are 24 and you are married with 2 kids?”
“No, I am 24 and I have 4 kids. A 6 year old, a 5 year old, and a set of girl twin two year olds.”
“Oh my God. You are so young. I am 16 years older than you and I have a 6 year old and a 2 year old.
“I wanted to see my grandchildren and hopefully my great grandchildren. Who has time to waste? As I said, I wanted to marry Aliza and I wanted children and I wanted a house. So, I became a plumber and now I have everything I want. Why did you wait so long?”
I thought for a minute.
“I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought I wanted to be a professor, then I wanted to be a lawyer, then I wanted to be a rabbi…”
“You can’t be a rabbi.”
“I realized that when I told the director of admissions at Hebrew Union College Rabbinical School that I was an atheist.”
“It wouldn’t matter if you are an atheist or not. You are a woman and you can’t be a rabbi. And if this Hebrew Union whatever whatever even considered that you could be a rabbi, then it is not a House of HaShem.”
“Your sort of Jew isn’t very tolerant is it?”
“It’s not my sort of Jew. It is Jew.”
“How can you say that with such conviction.”
“Because I have conviction. Because I believe in something. You don’t believe so you twist a bit in the wind. You are not grounded. The Torah said Marry a Woman, I married a woman. The Torah said Multiply. I multiply. The Torah said don’t work on the Sabbath. I don’t work on the Sabbath. My life is simple but I’m happy. My uncle Moshe was like you as a kid. Restless. Wandering. He went to Woodstock and got high and the Lord came into his life and grounded him. Now, he is married with kids and has a big business in New York. HaShem works in strange ways, does he not?”
“I once saw God when I was playing hockey. It was midnight and we played in a snowstorm. Some little 25 year old gay guy tripped me and I fell on the ice. I looked up at the snowing sky and the stars and saw God.
“ You don’t know your place.” He sighed.
I went back to my office and digested the plumber’s words, but before I could get very far, Le Bruce called me downstairs.
“You look a little miffed.” Said Le Bruce. “What’s going on. Did someone unfriend you on Facebook?”
“I just got a lecture from the plumber. Apparently, I don’t know my place.”
“Well, I could have told you that, Princess Pee Pee.” Bruce thought.
“You can say what you think. It’s just us here.” I said.
Le Bruce looked a little sheepish. “Oh. Sorry. What about not knowing your place?”
“He thinks I should become religious and respectful.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Some days it seems easier.”
“An unexamined life is always an easier life.” Le Bruce said philosophically.
“That’s what I thought. But there are moments when I think the plumber is right.”
“Do you want to spend your days with your hands in someone else’s shitter?”
“Well, when you put it that way.”
“Take a load off, Natalie. Go get yourself a Pork soup. And before you go, use the can, we are turning the plumbing off again.”
I went upstairs and removed my Urinelle from its hiding spot between the maxi pads, realized I was broke, took 5 bucks from Raffi’s piggy bank and went to find lunch.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut

The Five Constipated Men in the Bible

Rob is in a strange place between heaven and hell. Heaven is the place straight in front of us in the outskirts of Toronto where you can find stores that house huge sheets of granite which we are currently the market for. Hell is the place behind us—downtown Toronto where Rob is chained by his BlackBerry. Right now, we are somewhere in the middle: sitting with the kids in Tim Hortons eating Timbits and drinking French Vanilla cappuccino.

I need to say something first about French Vanilla cappuccino. When I was a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, I would buy these tins of French Vanilla cappuccino powder that when mixed with hot water would create a most delicious beverage of sugar and caffeine. I would drink at least four of them before my first class and about 20 over the course of the day. By dinnertime, I had caffeine induced Tourette’s Syndrome and no one would eat dinner with me...I was wired yet peaceful in my solitude...

“Nat, I gotta deal with this call. It’s my client out in Flin Flon."
“Are you fucking serious? I thought we were here to look at granite for Scarajevo?”
“I gotta go. Sorry. This deal is worth millions of dollars.” Rob goes outside and gets on his BlackBerry. I am inside the Tim Hortons with two kids.
“Mama..I don’t feel well. I think I have swine flu.” Says Raffi.
I take a swig of the French Vanilla cappuccino.
“You don’t have swine flu.”
“I do have swine flu...I really do, Mom, really. I am fucking serious.”
“I am fucking serious too.” Chimes in my 2.5 year old daughter, Olivia.
I take another swig and motion to the Tim Bitch behind the counter to make me another.
“Guys. We don’t swear in public.”
“But you just did, Mom. You just swore at Daddy.”
“I know, I know. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”
“If you can swear, I can swear.” Six year olds are beyond aggravating.
“Well, you can’t swear and neither can I.”
Olivia is up on the chair. “I am fucking serious.” She announces.
I down the remnants of the first cup of coffee and then proceed to the second. My vision has turned double and I now see four kids in front of me.
At moments like these, a mother has two choices. You can either put your head down on the table and wait for the moment to pass or you can channel other moments in your life when you have been in similar positions. I chose the latter.
“OK, you guys, ready.” I stood up on my chair with Raffi on one side and Olivia on the other and began to sing:
Me: "There were five."
Olivia: "Five"
Me: "Constipated Men in the Bible."
Raffi: "In the Bible."
Me: "Well, there were five, five, constipated men in the Five Books of Moses."
Raffi: "Well the first."
Olivia: "First"
Me: "Constipated Man was Cain"
Raffi: "He wasn’t Abel."
Me: "And the second"
Olivia: "Second"
Me: "Constipated Man was Noah"
Raffi: "He had an arkful."
Me: "And the Third"
Olivia: "Third"
Me: "Constipated Man was Moses"
RAffi: "He took two tablets."
Me: "And the fourth"
Olivia: "Fourth."
Me: "Constipated Man was Samson"
Raffi: "He brought the House down."
Me: "And the fifth"
Everyone in Tim Hortons: "FIFTH"
Me: "Constipated Man was Baal"
Raffi was confused. “Whose Baal?”
Another mother stood up on her chair:
“He had a Movement!” she sang.
And then me, the unknown mother, and the rest of Tim Horton’s stood on our chairs to sing the finale
There were Five, Five Constipated Men in the Bible, in the Bible
Yes, there were Five, Five Constipated Men in the
We all clapped for each other and sat down.
Rob came back into the Tim Hortons.
“You guys OK?”
“Fine.” I said
“I’m sorry Nat. I am really sorry about this.”
I gave him a kiss. “Don’t worry. We’re cool. Seriously, don’t even think about it anymore.”
“But are you fucking serious?” asked Raffi.
“RAFFI!!” said Raffi’s parents.
“I AM FUCKING SERIOUS!” said Olivia.
The Tim Bitch came over.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Some of the other customers are getting upset with all the profanity. You need to leave.”
I decided not to argue thinking that my family getting kicked out of Tim Hortons for profanity was the perfect Facebook status update. Which indeed, it was.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut


I do not microwave.
I do not microwave because I think it is unsafe.
I do not microwave because I think it is unsafe and causes cancer.
Prior to this morning, I was the only person in the whole world who believed this to be the truth.
After this morning, there are now three people in the whole world who believe this to be the truth.


Every Thursday morning, Le Bruce, Rob and I meet in Scarajevo for a status meeting. This is when we are meant to bring out the SmartBuild spreadsheet and make sure that we are on time and on budget. Since we don’t have a SmartBuild spreadsheet, this exercise is moot. However, Rob prepares a list of items that he wants to raise with Le Bruce and this is how we spend an hour. An hour that once passed can never be retrieved. It is gone forever...

“It is gone forever, I guess. My dream of having a French door fridge.” Rob is trying to reconcile the fact that we don’t have space for a French door fridge. Apparently, we are about 4 inches short.
“Well not really.” Le Bruce said. “I have a French Door fridge at my place and we are a few inches short as well. All that happens is that you can’t open the bottom door all the way.”
“It seems a bit strange that for all this money that we are spending, we won’t have a functional fridge.” Rob and I said in unison.
“It will be functional. It just means you can’t keep a BBQ chicken in the bottom drawer.”
Oh my God. I’m starving.
Didn’t I just watch you eat an entire bowl of granola and yogurt?
“It’s low fat. My personal trainer....”
Le Bruce stops me mid-thought: “Oh, Princess Pee Pee has her own personal trainer now, does she?”
“Princess Pee Pee works full time and has two kids. Princess Pee Pee has no time to go to Spin Classes like you and your little slice of non-Kosher pie.”
“Her name is Tovah...she’s Israeli. And my mother raised four boys and has the Order of Canada for her contribution to medicine.”
“Really...that is interesting. What did she research?”
“The impact of microwaves on people’s health.”

I looked at Bruce. “Really?” I mouthed.
“Yes, you can’t keep a BBQ chicken in the bottom drawer.” Bruce answered and winked at me.
Not that, you beefcake, I mean the microwave.”
Oh that...well, she was investigating whether microwaves cause cancer.”
Oh my God. I believe that too. Rob thinks I’m nuts. What did your mom conclude?
She died before she could prove it definitively. But not of cancer, lupus.
“Well, I would like the flexibility of putting a BBQ chicken in the fridge.” Said Rob.
“You can, Rob, you can.” Le Bruce was getting edgy. “Just not in the bottom drawer.”
“What happens if we lose the microwave and give that space to the fridge?” I offered.
Rob looked at me. “Natalie, we have talked about this a billion times. We are getting a microwave. We have not had one in a decade. It is ridiculous. Everyone has a microwave. They are fantastic. Think about when we visit my mom in Winnipeg and we microwave hotdogs for the kids. They have lunch in 30 seconds. It’s a total time saver.
“And you don’t have any time, right Princess Pee Pee. So what’s it going to be: a microwave so you can attend Spin Class like the rest of us plebs?”
“It’s a plebe, you moron. From “plebeian” meaning “common people.”
“Why don’t you run up to your so-called office where you do your so-called work and check on your fancy lap top that your husband bought you so you could spend your days on Facebook with the friends that you met at your fancy Jewish day school and your fancy Jewish camp?”
I whipped out my iPhone and googled “Plebs.”
“What are you doing, Nat. We need to solve the problem of the fridge. We are short about 4 inches and I don’t know where they are going to come from?”
“Sorry, I’m just checking the standard sizing of a French Door Fridge to confirm the measurement.” I said without understanding a word of what I had just uttered.
Told you.
Ok. Plebs. Fine.
“Natalie. I know the measurement of the fridge. We have to find 4 inches. It’s that simple.” Said Rob.
“Well, I think we should forget about the microwave and use the extra space for the fridge.”
“Not happening.” Said Rob.
“Then I don’t know what to tell you. If you aren’t willing to trade off a cancer-causing instrument of death for fridge flexibility then we have a problem.”
We both looked at Le Bruce. Le Bruce looked at us. He opened his mouth to speak but just before a word came out, You owe me Princess Pee Pee drifted over.
“You know, Rob, she’s right. I don’t have a microwave and I raised a kid without one. My mother raised 4 kids and had the Order of Canada for medicine and didn’t have a microwave. She actually did research on the effects of microwaves on people’s health.”
“And what did she conclude?” asked Rob.
“She died before she could determine anything conclusive. But not of cancer, lupus.”
Rob sat down on the pumpkin that we had bought for Halloween and thought.
Can you hear what he is thinking?” Le Bruce asked.
“Nah. Sometime I think I can tell what Rob is thinking like right now, he is about to ask you what you think we should do.”
“So what would you do, Bruce. You’ve been doing this for a long time. You have seen plenty of kitchens.”
“I’d lose the microwave, Rob. Really I would. Food tastes like shit when its been microwaved. Those hotdogs turn into shrivelled mystery meat when they have been in the microwave and I always find that microwaved milk tastes metallic.....
Rob put his head in his hands: metallic milk....flexible fridge...metallic milk...flexible fridge.
Is he OK?”
Yeah, he’s fine. He just needs to say it a few more times and then he’ll agree with you.”
“OK. OK. Lose the microwave.” Rob said sadly.
YES!!! I jumped up. Bruce gave me a warning look.
“That was not an appropriate response.”

What you so excited about?” asked Rob.
“Oh nothing. Nothing at all. I’m just glad that we solved the problem and can return to marital bliss.”
You really need to get better at keeping your thoughts to yourself. Chided Le Bruce.
Rob, Le Bruce, and I left Scarajevo together with a fragile truce between us.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut-a saga in 16 week parts

I have to go Pee

“The plumber is turning off the water, Natalie. If you have to go to the bathroom, go now.” Said Le Bruce two weeks into the renovation.
“No problem. Thanks for letting me know.” I am trying to be more civil toward Le Bruce.
I go back to reading about the history of technology. A minute passes. Another minute passes.
I have to go Pee.

Women who have never gone through the human rights violation known as childbirth cannot relate to the following but those who have will completely understand. It’s called incontinence and it is gross and vile and unbecoming of hip 40-somethings who can still wear low-rise jeans.

I go downstairs. Le Bruce is talking to the plumber about moving the drain pipe.
“The copper pipe is the pipe that brings you water; the black pipe is the pipe that drains the water.” Bruce explained to me.
“That is really interesting.” I said meaning it. “Where does the water come from?”
“What do you mean where does it come from?”
“Where do we get the water from?”
“The ground.” How can she know where Pyongyang is but not know where she gets her water from?
“Yah, I know it comes from the ground, but where does the ground get it from?”
“There is a lake due south of here called Lake Ontario. Perhaps you have heard of it.”
“Right, of course, Lake Ontario. Interesting. See, I’m learning something here.”
“Glad I could be of help.” Said Le Bruce.
“Actually, Bruce, I have a real problem. I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Well, now is not a good time. We are moving a pipe and turned off the water. Didn’t I mention that about 5 minutes ago?
“Yeah, I know. I’m really sorry. But I have to go the can.”
Le Bruce thought for a moment. He does this by putting his arms over his washboard stomach.
“I have a solution.” He said. “There is a Port O Potty outside. You can use that.” Take that Princess. He looked deep into my eyes.
I am not a princess. I looked back into his eyes.
Then use the outhouse. C’mon. You can do it. Think of all those workers’ hairy asses that have been squatting on it for the last week.
Trying to keep a straight face while not retching is harder than you think.
The electrician is cute and looks like he practices basic hygiene...the carpenter washes once a week...
The Demo crew, Natalie. Think Demo crew. I can tell you that at least one of them recently got out of jail and the other lives in a halfway house. Bruce returns my stare.
“To the outhouse.” I sang. “Thanks for the suggestion.” I walk out my front door and gingerly open the turquoise door of the Port o Potty.
The smell knocks me out and it is only by the hand of God that I am prevented from falling into the hole to certain death or at the very least, succumbing to a sonic shower at the nearby hospital. I tumble out of the outhouse. Le Bruce is watching me and giggling. I give him the thumbs up and go in again, but again I am rendered unconscious and fall back against the door and out into the fresh air.
Le Bruce holds his nose and points back to the Port O Potty. Clearly, he is enjoying himself. I go back in and hold my nose. But I don’t sit down. Instead, I stand there with my nose plugged for 2 minutes hoping that this a male’s perception of how long it takes a woman to urinate.
When I come out, and take a deep breath, the parting scent of the outhouse drifts out of my olfactory nerve. I have not vomited and for this I am grateful.
Le Bruce opens my front door and claps. “See, not so bad. Princess.”
“Yup. No biggie. Just had to get used to it.” I go back up to my office. I am in pain. For the umpteenth time, I wish I was a male. A male who had no compunction about pissing into a bottle. My roommate Greg Hite did this when we lived together at Oxford. He would pee in Coke bottles and line them up under his bed. Once a week, he would empty them and start over. My mother turned visibly green when she visited me and saw the bottles under the bed. Today, I yearned for such bottles and for the physical component that would allow me to fill them.

“Oh well,” I thought to myself knowing that Le Bruce was too far away to hear my thoughts.” I guess I’ll have to go up to the Korean Pork Bone soup joint and use their can.
I went back downstairs. “See ya Bruce.” I called. “Want me to get you some pork bone soup?”
“Nope. Kosher. My mother would roll over in her grave if I ate pork soup.”
"Pork BONE soup." I corrected him.
Whatever. Its not good for you. It will give you the shits and then you will have to use the Port o Potty again....” Le Bruce crossed his arms over his washboard stomach.
Are you patronizing me? I inquired politely.
Well, someone needs to look after you. Clearly, you are not very good at it. Le Bruce thought smugly.
“OK. Just thought I’d ask. Trying to be polite and all.”
“Enjoy, Enjoy.” Le Bruce turned to walk back into Scarajevo.
I grabbed my keys and then I had a Eureka moment. The same kind that Hugh Laurie has on every single episode of House and yet after 5 years, it still does not bore me.
I ran down Bloor Street clutching my mom’s housekeys. Dufferin, Gladstone, Havelock, that street after Havelock that I never remember...Ossington. Thank God you are only 5 streets away!!
I ran down Ossington to number 119 ½ (I’m not kidding...it really is 119 ½), opened the door, felt the first sad little tinkle down my leg, ripped the zipper on my only pair of jeans, and relieved myself. I sat there for a minute letting the pain of the experience slowly ebb. Then I stood up, flushed, washed my hands, and came outside.
“Hello, Hello, whose there. Is there a burgler there. Who is in the house. I have a baseball bat you know.” My mother, who is known to all simply as Bev, flew down the stairs in her mauve bathrobe carrying a child’s baseball bat.
“Oh its you, Natalie. Come in, come in. Would you like some tea, I have some organic toast and soy milk.”
“Thanks Mom. Thank you so much. But I am actually en route to get some Pork Bone soup. I just needed to use your can.”
“Why can’t you use your bathroom? Oy, its that renovation again. So hard on you, sweetie.” She pats my hair. I’m 40 years old and yet I appreciate the gesture.
“It is really hard on me, Bev. I have to tell you. I thought I could handle it being a former camper and all, but I’m too old for this.”
“I know I know. Can I tell you something, I am 67 and I still can’t shit in other people’s toilets.”
“So what do you do...you can’t hold it in forever.”
“I take Imodium.”
“Seriously. Imodium? Wow. I never thought of that.”
“It’s great. If you take one, you won’t shit for a week.”
“Oh my God. What a relief. Do you have some kicking around.”
“Of course. I have a closet full.” And she did. Literally. One one side was her Imodium. On the other, ExLax. I helped myself to a few packets.
“So now, what you do is, take an Imodium, then get the Pork Bone Soup and you won’t shit it out until this time next week. You can then plan to come here and use the bathroom. It’s terrific for organizing your time.”
“Oh Bev. You are a saint among women. Now answer me this: what about when you need to make a Number One.”
“Oh that’s easy. She showed me under her burgundy bed skirt. There, lined up were several Coke bottles. “Your roommate from Oxford taught me this trick.” If I am going somewhere, I just slip one of these into my handbag. I often take the Prada in such a circumstance so as not to arouse suspicions."
“But how do you do it? How do you pee though the small opening?”
She produced an adorable pink funnel. "Its called a Urinelle. I picked one up in Paris. The French are so functional, n’est-ce pas? Here. Take it. You can use it for the renovation.”
“Thanks Bev. You are the best!” I gave her a big hug and went back home. So excited was I to try my Urinelle that I forgot about the Pork Bone Soup.
“Where’s the Pork Soup?” Asked Le Bruce as he peered at me through Scarajevo.
“Uhhhh...I forgot it.” I said skipping up the stairs to the third floor bathroom where I would be far away to think and pee in private.
Ah Hah....Princess Pee Pee...I saw your Urinelle!!
Whathefuck...how do you know about Urinelles?
I make it my personal business to know how the female body works...in all its miraculous ways....
But I was out of range and his thinking never reached me. I went into the bathroom on the third floor and put the Urinelle in a safe place between two packages of Stayfree Maxi Pads. I went back downstairs, popped an Imodium, and set back out to get my Pork Bone soup.
Princess Pee Pee. I looked at him. Really, can’t you do better than that. My 6 year old is more creative.I slammed the door before he could think of a response.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Renovating The Winter's Hut: A Saga in 16 week parts


16 weeks. 16 weeks. 16 weeks, we will cook in a kitchen the size of a solitary confinement cell. 16 Monday mornings, we will make coffee in a shower stall. 16 Shabbat dinners the chicken soup will be poised on a closed toilet seat.

Welcome to Scarajevo.
When the demolition of our kitchen began, we still had not gone from 0- 60. We did not know how much the renovation was going to cost, we did not have a SmartBuild spreadsheet with line items. When we asked how long the renovation was going to take, we were told breezily, 16 weeks.

Like Management Consulting, SmartBuild was a scam.

“No it isn’t.” LeBruce was inspecting the brickwork on our former wall where the fridge used to be.
Rob came home and put his nose against the plastic door that separated the first world of our front foyer from the third world.
“Holy Shit…it looks like.,..like….!”
“London after the Blitz!” I shouted
“How come she knows about the London Blitz.” Bruce thought. “My girlfriend thinks the Blitz is something you get at Dairy Queen.”
“Ah…don’t worry about it, Sprucy, she’s probably better in bed than I am.”
Bruce looked at me for a minute. “Yeah, she is probably is.”
“Glad we got that settled.” I thought.
“Greenwich Village after 9/11!!” Rob yelped.
“Pyongyang after…after…the nuclear reactor overreacted!” I shouted.
“Is it better to have a girlfriend who can used the word “Pyongyang” in a sentence or to have a girlfriend who is good in bed?” Bruce wondered.
“In your case, the latter. Definitely the latter.” I reassured him.
“No…it’s Sarajevo.” Rob said softly.
We all stood in silence in our naked kitchen with the wires scattered in piles in each corner and the windows covered in plastic.
“Sarajevo.” I repeated reverentially.
“Sarajevo.” Intoned Le Bruce.
A moment of silence.
“Nah,” said Rob. It’s not Sarajevo. It’s Scarajevo!!”
And it was. Emes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut: A Saga in 16 week parts

Going from Zero to Sixty with Le Bruce

“I’m going to take you from Zero to Sixty.” Le Bruce repeated.
“What do you mean ‘Zero to Sixty'? Rob asked.
“He means that we are feeling relaxed and now he is going to tell us how much this is going to cost so that we can both have simultaneous heart attacks.” I said. “Duhhh.”
“Yes, but just think about the simultaneous orga…”
“We don’t have sex in the kitchen, Bruce. We just cook in it.” I was having a very clear visual of Le Bruce and his 25 year old slice of non-Kosher cutie pie in my kitchen and it was getting in the way of my going from Zero to Sixty.
“Ok Ok. So, take us from Zero to Sixty.” Rob said with a little more confidence then I think he felt.
Le Bruce took out his calculator from his man purse. He started a fresh Excel sheet and began filling in items:

1. Fix existing knob and tube.
“What’s knob and tube.” I asked
“It’s wiring. It carries electricity.” Rob said. “Didn’t you know that?”
“What’s wrong with wiring that carries electricity. That sounds very necessary in a house.”
“Jewish Princess.” I heard Bruce think.
“Oh please. I’m sure 99% of the female population regardless of religious affiliation has no clue what knob and tube is. Quite frankly, it sounds like a euphemism for getting one’s tubes tied.” I telepethied back.
It’s ‘irregardless’, not’ regardless’.”
“Oh no it ain’t. I might be a Jewish Princess, but at least I’m literate.”
Rob explained. “Because knob and tube is more exposed than other wiring, it is considered a fire hazard.”
Calmly, Le Bruce said. “That’s why we are going to fix it. So that you won’t have live in a fire hazard. This is all part of going from Zero to Sixty. You thought we were just doing a kitchen renovation, but we are going to do all kinds of things.”

2. Air Conditioning“Well thank God. I have an asthmatic condition you know.” I said.
“An asthmatic condition, not just plain old regular asthma?” asked Le Bruce.
“It’s like asthma but not as serious.” I explained. “I just have an inhaler, no Epipens although once when I was a counsellor at a nice Jewish camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, I once stole one of my camper’s Epipens and stuck it through my thigh just to see what would happen. It was a total rush but not nearly as much fun as taking their Ritalin.”

Rob’s Blackberry is bleeping out of control, but Rob is in another world—a world of gleaming 36 inch stoves and French door fridges and granite countertops. He is excited and terrified all at the same time. And while I cannot share his enthusiasm, I promise to make more of an effort. But not right now. It’s enough. Really, it is absolutely enough.

“I can only digest these things in small chunks.” I declare to Le Bruce. “I know you want to take us from Zero to Sixty, but could we call this Zero to 4”?
Le Bruce looks at me. “Fine. I appreciate that it’s a lot of information.”

“When you say ‘fine’ does it mean ‘fuck you’? because that’s what it means when I say it.”
“You got it, dear.”
“Do not call me dear or I will call you a Poutine Lovin’ Panty Waist.”
“Poor Rob.”
“No, poor you. Your stuck with me for…how long?”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut: A Saga in 16 week parts

Le Bruce and his SmartBuild

Rob and I looked at the Excel spreadsheet. Every detail of a kitchen renovation had been given its own line with a dollar figure next to it.
“Wow,” I said it complete awe. “That seems so logical. I feel like I’ve seen something like it before.” I thought very hard. “Wait, I do this kind of budget every single day to create a new book. We have to do it. We are accountable to it.”
Le Bruce looked at me anew. I heard him thinking: “Maybe she’s not a little Jewish Princess after all. Maybe she actually has a brain.” I mental telepathied back at him: “True dat.”
“Natalie is right.” Le Bruce folded his hands over his washboard stomach—one of several clues that he was divorced and dating someone younger. “This is what keeps me accountable to you. I lay out every line item on this spreadsheet and put a dollar figure and a time limit and we stick to the plan. We have never gone over budget and we are never late. Ever.
Emes.” I asked.
Emes.” He responded.
“Well, you can’t argue with him if he says Emes.” I looked at Rob. Ah what the heck, even an Emes needs to be questioned once in awhile.
“OK Bruce,” I said. “If this keeps renovations on time and on budget, why don’t more people do it?”
“Good question, Natalie. I don’t know the answer.”
Rob’s eyes which had lost their characteristic sparkle in recent days became bright again.
“I like this Bruce. I like it very much. Everyone complains about their general contractor’s being full of shit but this seems very honest and clear.”
“It is Rob. Really, I could do a sales job on you, but I don’t have to. SmartBuild speaks for itself.”
“What do you think, Natalie.” Rob asked.
“I’m feeling good about this. I’m feeling relaxed and ready to go.”
“OK. Now that you are relaxed, I am going to take you from Zero to Sixty.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut: A Saga in 16 week parts

The Arrival of Le Bruce

The phone rang. Tina advised that during a renovation, you should only pick up the phone every third time your spouse call. This was only the second time, so I let it go to voice mail. A peaceful hour went by and I happily read about the medieval monestaries. Then the phone rang again.

“Hey...what’s up?”
“Are you busy tomorrow morning?” Rob asked with some excitement in his voice.
“I’m not moving to Winnipeg.”
“No no no...I know. Neither am I. You know what the problem with moving to Winnipeg is?”
I could name about 400,000 problems in the space of a minute.
“Even though you live in a mansion, when you go outside, you are still in Winnipeg.”
“And you will die of cancer.Everyone who lives in Winnipeg dies of cancer. Winnipeg has the highest incidence of cancer anywhere in the world. That’s because you get no Vitamin D and the air is sprayed every summer with toxic chemicals to keep the hordes of mosquitos which plague their 2 week summer.”
Rob sighed. “OK, listen. Tomorrow a guy named Bruce Danner...”
“Didn’t he play the Incredible Hulk?”
“Not Bruce Banner...Bruce Danner. He’s coming over tomorrow to talk to us about his process.”
“Bruce Danner was a working man...He used to load that Econoline van. A sparkle was in his eye. But his life was in his hands.” I started to sing.
“Nat...for godsake, give it a rest.” But I was too far gone to stop. I grabbed my hockey stick and belted:
“OK. Are you done yet.”
“Yup, I’m good. Ok, so we are going to talk about process. What process?”
“The process for making us a new kitchen.”
“Process...that sounds kind of serious. Is this going to be a big job?”
“Nat, don’t you want a new kitchen. Don’t you want a beautiful space to cook in. Don’t you think that if you have a clean, big kitchen with lots of cabinets and a big fridge and a stove that even you can understand how to use, don’t you think you would cook more...maybe even better. We could get you a little recipe holder where you could follow directions...”
“Not happening. This I promise you.”
“I bet when you see it, you’ll change your mind.”
“Not happening. Emes.” I said. “You can’t argue when I say Emes.”
“Ok. But can you at least try and participate. Can you try and proffer an opinion.”
“For you, I will do this.” I promised.

Bruce Danner arrived exactly on time. He wore pressed blue jeans, a blue button down with no white undershirt underneath. His socks were blue and he had on brown penny loafers.
Bruce Danner was either gay or a Jew from Montreal-it was hard to know which since they are often confused, but I required him to turn to the side and check his profile to know which.
“Wow, Those are beautiful!” He said turning his head to look at the stained glass on our bathroom window.”
Montreal Jew.

“Should we get started?” He asked. We sat down in our dining room.
“Hey, look at this. This lesbian I went to Sarah Lawrence College with is now marrying a guy. A Jewish guy. And a doctor. Wow. She totally scored.” I am going through the Wedding Announcements in the New York Times. Le Bruce is not amused.

“Natalie,” he says. “Aren’t you interested in what your kitchen is going to look like. Doesn’t this mean something to you?”
“No. Why should it?”
“Because you cook. And once I create a nice kitchen for you, you will have a nice place to cook.”
“I don’t cook.”
“What do you mean you don’t cook.”
“I don’t cook. I hate it actually. Rob does most of the cooking.“
Le Bruce looked confused. “Rob, I thought you were a lawyer.”
“Yes, he’s a lawyer that cooks. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
“ Enough. Nat, remember last night. Remember what you promised.”
“Ohhhhh Kayyyy,” I whined.
Bruce opened up his man-purse and took out an Excel spreadsheet.
“You know how everyone complains about renovations..how they take too long and go over budget, yada yada.”
“We know.” We responded in unison.
“Well, let me introduce you to SmartBuild

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Renovating the Winter's Hut: A Saga in 16 week parts

Abandon every hope, ye who enter here

“My husband and I don’t renovate.” Stacy said in the changing room of the JCC after spin class.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because our marriage couldn’t take it.” She said matter of factly.
“After we gutted our house, I went into labour 3 weeks early. The doctor said it was because of the stress.” Tina added. “I was trying to breastfeed and talk to the painters at the same time.”
“Rob wants a dream kitchen. Better than a dream girl.
“Have you tried telling him that you will commit to reaching the national average of number of times having sex per week if he forgets the whole thing? asked Stacey.
“Have you told him that you won’t have sex if goes ahead?” giggled Tina.
“It’s that bad, eh?” I asked knowing the answer.
“It’s worse.” They said in unison.

“You see, “ said Monique-our fabulous French designer. “You see…you will put ze new wall here and the table it will go ici and on it you will put ze champagne so that you can be romantic at night.”
Rob just looked at me. I knew that he was ready to scream.
“OK, Monique. That sounds fantastique. We’ll be in touch.” I said showing her la porte.
“I can’t….” Rob started.
“I know, I know. We’ll fire her tomorrow.”
After Monique came Cowboy Nigel.
“Would you like to see some plans before you tell us you can do the work?” Rob asked.
“Don’t need no plans. Nigel been doing this shit for 30 years. Plans are for pussies, you get me. We’ll just move this wall here, put the table here, put up some cupboards here and move the fridge. Sis boom bah… designer kitchen!!
“How much do you think that will cost?” I asked.
“Hard to say, miss, hard to say. Can’t know until you start..old house like yours going to have surprises.”
“OK,” Rob sighed. “We’ll be in touch.”
After Nigel left, Rob sat down sadly.
“I’m 39 years old. I spend most of my day at a job dealing with assholes and sosnovitches. All I ask is to come home to a nice kitchen. I want enough prep space so that I can properly rub my meat and then I want a space designated for my meat to rest. And then I need somewhere to unpack my groceries and then I need a dishwasher that works for left handed people...”
I patted his shoulder. “If they can put a man on the moon, they can make you a kitchen.”
He looked up. “Maybe we should just move to...”
“Nuh Uh Uh. I’m not moving to Winnipeg. Not for anything, not even a big kitchen.”
“But we could have a kitchen the size of this entire main floor. I could bring home an entire pig and roast it in my restaurant-sized oven. I could smoke an entire brisket...a brisket Nat. We could eat it for weeks. And....” he paused for a minute. “I could learn how to bake. I could bake challah to go with the roast pig and we could eat it for Shabbat dinner....”
I have to admit that I did allow the thought to cross my mind, but once it had crossed, I dismissed it forever.
“Not happening.” I kissed his head and left for work. He sat at the two crates which served as our table with his head in his hands. Just as I closed the door, I heard him mutter, Winnipeg...kitchen....Winnipeg...kitchen.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Scene #5: Jewish Day School - The Musical

When Karen Blatt was 17 years old, she received a very unpleasant letter in the mail. Despite her 4.01 average from a prestigious New York City Jewish Day School, a brief stint in the New York Philharmonic at age 10 as a solo flautist, and a top ten national ranking in trampoline, Karen did not get into Princeton. Her Baba and Zaida had sweat blood on the Lower East Side to get her father into Princeton. Her Bubby and Tata had sweat blood on the Lower West Side to get her mother into Princeton. Her brothers had gone to Princeton but Karen...Karen was going to have to make do with Yale. She vowed that day that any offspring that sprung from her loins would go to Princeton.

This was the song she sung to herself as she dropped off 3-year old Tali to Grade 2 and 6-year old Tal to Grade 7, at that very same Jewish Day School.

(Karen dressed in black pants with an orange Princeton hoodie comes to the centre of the darkened stage. Mournfully, with her guitar, she sings to the tune of Edelweiss):

Every morning you taunt me

No P-ton orange and black, only Yale blue and white
Why oh why did you reject me?

Please Ha-Shem, let my children go
Go and succeed forever

Princeton, Princeton
Accept my children early decision

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oxford University Blues: A tale of madness, molotov cocktails, and Hugh Laurie

STRIP! Commanded the former captain of the Israeli Defense Force.
NO! said the composed red-headed female whose head came up to the captain’s underarm.
A scene from The Unforgettable Lightness of Being. No. This is the second floor bedroom in the rented 2-floor apartment of my Oxford University tutor.


"What part of “no” don’t you understand!"

I am standing on his bed wearing the robes that we have to wear when we meet with our tutors. It’s hot and I’m not wearing a whole lot underneath. But in my left hand, where in the past baseballs used to nestle before I threw them at the plate in junior high, and where the in future my pink taped hockey stick would rest, poised to be thrown at the head of this former captain of the Israeli Defense Force was a glass Coke bottle with a gasoline-soaked rag stuffed halfway through. In my right hand a match.


FUCKING ISRAELI PIG!!! And I hurled the bottle.

“Nice catch.” I said.

“Nice throw.” He looked impressed.

“Thanks. I’m not sure I got the rag in properly. It kind of slipped out as I let the bottle go.”

“Yes. I noticed. More work. Come, let’s go back to the kitchen and make again. Damn. No more Coke. Ok. Next week, I go to the store and we get more bottles. Go now. It is almost the Sabbath. Good Shabbes. And next week, you wear a t-shirt and short pants under your robe. Today, it opened a bit and I can’t teach you properly when I can see your boobies. You understand, yes?”

Nachon. I gotcha. See ya, Zevvy”
“Shalom, my little red firecracker.”

I had decided to do my third year abroad at Oxford University because my academic advisor at Sarah Lawrence College told me that having Oxford on my resume would give me an advantage in life. Zev Levi was the tutor assigned to teach me Middle East politics at renowned St. Antony’s College where, it was rumoured, Salmon Rushdie stayed in secret. Actually, and I’m sorry if I’m about to relate a top-notch security secret, but we all knew when he was there because the road leading out from St. Antony’s was totally blocked and access to the only decent pizza restaurant in the whole city denied.

After my tutorial, I met my roommates, the Christines, at the King’s Arms pub.
“Your hands stink,” said Christine.
“Yeah, Nat. They are really bad today. How many did he make you prepare,” said the other Christine.
“Not many. But I kept spilling the gasoline all over myself and then the whole rag got soaked and you can’t have it all soaked because then it burns too quickly and the bottle will blow up in your face. Or so he tells me.”
“Aren’t you worried about your grades? I mean, what’s he going to evaluate you on? Throwing ability?”
“He said not to worry about studying. He’s giving me firsts for the year and told his buddy at Princeton to give me a scholarship for graduate school.”
“Wow, said the Christines in unison. “That’s insane. Didn’tcha think you were going to work this year, being at Oxford at all.”
“One would have thought. Anyway, next week, he is taking me behind Magdalen College to practice shooting.”
“That’s Maudlin you fucking Yankee arseholes,” said the greasy PPE students in unison at the next table.
“Listen Commander Fucknuts, first of all, I’m Canadian, eh. And where I come from: M A G D A L E N E is pronounced Magdelen, like Jesus’ fucking mother, you feel me?

I’ve had 8 Pimms and Lemonade and need to go home to sleep it off.

“Time to go play dodge the barf.” sighed Christine.
We walk outside the pub and start the 30 minute walk home in the rain and wind. Puddles of vomit from the evening’s afternoon slosh around the gutters. I can’t even count the times I’ve stepped in it and had to air my shoes out for days after. Zevvy told me that such problems would be alleviated if I stopped going to bars. At these times, I would pretend to go spontaneously deaf.
“You know what collagen is?”
“You’re a nice rich Jewish girl from New York City and you don’t know what collagen is?”
“I’m a nice middle class Jewish girl from suburban Toronto and I don’t know what collagen is.”
“Collagen is this shit that when the doctor puts it into your boobies they don’t move like you were 16 again. “
“My boobies moved when I was 16. They have never not moved. This is the cross I must bear.”
“OK. Fingerhut. I am going to put collagen in your fingers so that they will stop shaking like a little baby girl.”
“ I just had too much coffee, Zevvy. Just a coffee high.”
“You can’t be high and be in the IDF, Fingerhut.”
“I’m not going into the IDF. I’m just here for a year because my academic advisor thought having Oxford on my resume would give me an advantage in life.”
“I know, I know this. You keep saying. But you have much to learn, much much to learn. And so little time. It’s MIchaelmas already, we only have Trinity term and then you leave my tutelage.”
I start doing rapid finger exercises to try and excise the caffeine. At no point do I question Zevvy’s sanity nor my own.
“OK. Pass me the rifle.” He holds it out in front of him. 20 years later, my very cute hockey coach would do the same thing with a hockey stick.
I grab the long part with my left hand and put my right hand on the trigger.” “Fingerhut! Get your fucking hands off the fucking trigger!”
“Why? Is this thing loaded?” I drop it on the muddy ground.
“Of course it’s loaded. All guns are loaded. What is the purpose of a gun if it is not loaded. You see, Fingerhut, this is why I asked for a male exchange student but your advisor in New York said you were the closest thing they had. Now pick up the rifle and clean it off. Show it the same respect as your boyfriend’s shlong.”
Only now do I realize the absurdity of the moment. But then the moment passes. I gingerly pick up the rifle and wipe it down with my sleeve.
“Good. Now. You hold it like so and aim at something moving. Then you will wait until it stops moving and that is when you push on the trigger.”
“Wait a second. If it’s moving, that means it is living. If I shoot , I’ll kill it.”
Zevvy sat down. He put his greying head in his hands. “Rachmunis, Ha-Shem, give me mercy”
I sat down next to him. “I’m sorry Zevvy. I’m just not cut out for this kind of work.”
“Ok Fingerhut. I guess this is the time when I explain you what I need.” He took a deep breath.
“Before I came to Oxford to be your tutor, I was student Zevvy at Cambridge? You’ve heard of it yes all the way in New York? And I wanted to row for the university team. I was quite good, you know. I have big hands, big something else too, but that is not for you to know. Anyways, I rowed nicely for my college but I had this bigger aspiration and so I tried out for the big team. I did very good that day. My team—it won every race, but it came down to me and this silly English funny boy named Hugh and his last name was like a girl I slept with last week.
“HUGH LAURIE!!! Like A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Hugh Laurie. Like Bertie Wooster, Hugh Laurie. I FUCKING LOVE HUGH LAURIE.”
Zevvy grabbed the gun and pointed it between my eyes. “You never say that again.” Ever. I hear it, I blow your head off.”
You know what was really strange about those few seconds. I didn’t defecate all over myself. I had often read that this was something people did when they had a gun pointed at them.
“OK Zevvy. I’ll keep that to myself.”
“Anyways, the Hugh had a father who was an Olympic rower and so they picked the son over me. Over me. Captain Zev Levi of the Israeli Defense Forces. Unbelievable." Zevvi was reliving the moment. I let it wash over him yet again.
“OK, Fingerhut. So I want you to make the Cambridge boat team lose at the big race at the end of term.”
“You want me to shoot the Cambridge rowing team?”
Zevvi paused for a minute. He was living that possible moment. I let it wash over him.
“No. I don’t think they need to die. But they do need to lose. They need humiliation.”
Well thank God for that. Humiliation I could do.
“So what’s the plan, Zevvi.”
“I want you to throw a Moly into the river while the race is on.”
“You want me to stand on the bank of the river, make a Molotov Cocktail on the spot, and throw it into the Thames in the middle of the Oxford/Cambridge regatta?”
Nachon. I knew you were a smart girl.” He patted my head.
“Zevvi. Forgive me. This does not sound like the sound plan of a former Captain in the IDF.”
“Never former, always still a Captain. Till death, I will be Captain Zev Levi.”
“Zevvy. I can barely make the cocktail in your kitchen, let alone behind some trees near the river.”
“Not behind the trees. They will see your fiery head. You must be in the trees. That is where you make the Moly.”
I need to meet the Christines in 5 minutes and have no time to argue.
“OK, Zevvy. OK. If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
“Good. Now we must practice.”
“No, now I must drink. Good bye, Zevvy. Shalom. Next week, we practice.”

Do you remember the training sequence in Rocky One? When Rocky runs all around Philly and then punches raw meat. This I did for Zev Levi. The children of Oxford followed me and people lined the main roads cheering me on. We told them that I was going to run across Britain like Terry Fox ran across Canada to raise money for cancer. “Whose Terry Fox?”, they would ask. “A hero.” I would respond, and that was good enough for them. After my run and meat punching, we would go back to Zev’s kitchen. There were 18 bottles lined up, with 18 rags, and a medium size jug of gasoline. Zevvy would stand behind me with a stop watch as I prepared Molotov Cocktail after Molotov Cocktail. Within weeks, I had 10 cocktails prepared in under 3 minutes. The Christines were ready to call the Guiness Book of World Records but I didn’t think that would be good PR for my career.

After I had nailed down the prep, I spent an entire week throwing. And when I say an entire week, I mean we didn’t stop. The Christines came by three times a day to feed chips into my mouth and to spoon Knorrs Chicken Noodle soup down my throat. By Thursday, Zevvy needed an IV which he did by himself without missing a catch. The week before I had decided I was Shomer Shabbes, so we did stop on Friday evening at sundown.

Full of pride and accomplishment, I slept soundly the night before the big boatrace, probably more soundly that the nervous rowers who had no idea what was in store for them.

I rose late on that Sunday morning, had my usual breakfast of McVitties chocolate biscuits and waited for Zevvy. We walked toward the Oxford Rowing Team’s clubhouse. As we neared, I saw the pasty white complexions of the rowers who despite all logical to the contrary remained pasty despite spending so many hours outside. The Cambridge men’s team was stretching nearby. They were also pasty and equally unattractive. I harboured no sympathy toward any of them which was a necessary precondition to deliver successfully on the task before me.

“OK. Fingerhut. You see that tree. The one with lots and lots of brown leaves. Yes, you go up there. It will camouflage your ginger top. Maher, Maher. Go quickly. You’ll see the steps that others have carved before you.”

“You’ve tried this before?”
Zevvy sighed. “You are the 13th to try this. 12 others before you have fallen. Some to their deaths, some burned beyond recognition. Perhaps you shall succeed. Perhaps my pain will be sated at long last.”
“Failure is not an option.” I declared.
“You will look nice in a Princeton cap and gown.” Zevvy looked at me for a minute. “I’m going home. If you succeed, I’ll know. Good luck.” And with that, he was gone.

I scampered up the tree in the time it takes to make an Americano and nestled into a previously used nook. There, I assembled the cocktail in the time it takes to make another Americano. Zevvy and I thought having a back-up in case something happened to the first was a good plan and so within minutes and I had two Israeli Army grade Molotov Cocktails.

If my mother could see me now, she’d be damn proud.

The rowers took their positions in their boats.
“Up at the catch," yelped the coxens. “And row.”
As soon as the Cambridge eight passed the bridge about 100 metres away from my tree, I picked up one of the cocktails, lit it, counted to 10 and tossed.
A beautiful flaming Coke bottle flew through the air, hit the rock where the front oarsman had just passed and exploded perfectly.
They kept rowing-a half a boat length ahead of Oxford.
I threw the second one. Again, it arced expertly through the soggy grey of English spring and exploded off the bridge where the middle of the boat was passing.
They kept rowing-a full boat length ahead of Oxford.
The finish line was in sight. I had seconds to defend the honour of Captain Zev Levi. And I did, not by kitchen-made Molotov cocktails, not by AK-47s, but by the one sure thing that will stop any male in his tracks: a white, wet, t-shirt.
This I sustained by nailing a beautiful forward dive in the pike position out of the tree and into the Thames landing just before the finish line. The Cambridge coxen screamed: “let it run” which makes no intuitive sense since it translates to Stop. The stern beckoned me to grab onto his oar and even though I could beat Michael Phelps on any given day in any given week as long as its not the week where I am menstruating, I flailed helplessly in the river. As the Cambridge team debated what to do with me, the Oxford team rowed into the finish line. A huge cheer went up on both sides of the river. I decided I had better make myself scarce. I pulled a Denis Pankratov and swam 25m underwater surfacing past the crowds. I jumped out of the river and into the Christines who had been watching the whole spectacle.

“You better tell him that you would look better in Harvard Crimson.” said Christine patting my hair dry with a towel.
“Yeah, said Christine. That might have even deserved full scholarship to Yale Law School.”

That evening as I sat down to my regular dinner of Knorr Chicken Soup, Zevvy stopped by.

“Very impressive, Fingerhut. Not exactly the way of the IDF, but effective. I give you almost top marks. He patted my head. “I can finally sleep knowing my honour was defended by a pair of New York Knockers. Like the basketball team, nachon.”
Nachon, Zevvy, Nachon.”
Layla Tov,Good night, my little wet t-shirt with red hair.” He chuckled.
“Night, Zevvy.”

A few weeks later, I received a full scholarship to Princeton and a welcome note from the head of their international security studies program. I clutched this in my hand as I got on the plane back to Toronto and contemplated my future.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Love Canadian Style: A Poem

As I gazed at your hot chocolate eyes
Over the donut distressed table
At Tim Hortons,
I traced our initials in the foam of the $1.95 Cappucino
And licked the contents off my finger.

A taste of things to come.

We watch Hockey Night in Canada:
I touch the scars on your left cheek
With my right fingers:
Remnants of Pee Wee hockey.

Remember the first time I knew you
In that wilderness way
I took you in my arms
In the canoe…


As if it could have been anywhere else, my toque wearing teddy…

(interupts) Bear.
You were going to say.

Woman: And now
So many years passed
I still recall the soul of the hinterland
Trapped in the fabric
Of your skipants.

Ah…tu remember my petite pamplemousse
Our trip to La Belle Provence
How we sailed down the Mountain Royale
In our snow scuffed snowshoes

Woman: And how we heated our lips
On the warmth of the Depanneur wine
That stained our teeth
The colour of love

Scampering in the Quebecois sleet and stopping
To read the license plates.
Murmuring the sleek sensual sound of : Je me souviens over to each other
And wondering out loud
What it actually meant.

Together/Tout Ensemble
We celebrate our unity
On our Hudson Bay beige and rainbow blanket
And after the festivities:
Lying together listening to the familiar sounds of
Our beloved Leafs losing.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries: Monk-y Business

The summers of my youth were spent in what my curmudgeonly but darling friend Bram calls a Jewish cult in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. If indeed Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute was a Jewish cult, it was a benevolent one. We did pray twice a day including on field trips to Farmer Max’s (who was a suspected pervert) and at the Milwaukee Zoo to the stares of various Wisconsin goyim. There was also a lot of sugar saturated juice. But there was also a lot of pot and loosely organized circle jerks.

In the ten years that I attended at the Institute, there were several incidents that as a law-abiding member of civil society, I’m not terribly proud of. I did take 75 campers down the Wisconsin River in an electrical storm while a little high. Actually, a little more than a little high since when our fearless leader, Joe, stood at the front of our canoe convoy and shouted: “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger”, I attributed the quote to Machiavelli and not to Nietzsche. This filled me with much shame and I remember the mistake as if it happened five minutes ago. The taking of 75 campers down the Wisconsin River in an electrical storm was hardly troubling as it was simply de rigeur. My counsellors did it to me and their counsellors did it before them. L’dor v’dor-from generation to generation as my people say.

Nor am I proud of neither correcting my counsellors nor my campers when I caught them engaged in fumbling acts of amateur sex. Had I intervened, I could have saved them much confusion and misery not to mention therapy bills later in life. Instead, I laughed at them. Or worse, I walked away.

None of this though can compare to the incident with the Monk.

The Institute was located on one bank of a small body of water called Lac LaBelle. Every afternoon, we would undergo rigourous swimming lessons in water that at its deepest reached our midriffs. Across from the lake and well within our vision rested a tranquil brown structure known as a monastery. There, in the peace of the corn fields that made us all into allergy medication addicts, monks would retire to their monastery to do whatever it is that monks do.

One of the things that the monks did was take an early afternoon walk around Lac LaBelle.

“Aviva,” I would ask my adorable counsellor. “Why do they time their walks when we are walking around in our bathing suits.”
Aviva would just sigh. What else was she going to do. I mean really, if you had me as a camper, wouldn’t you just sigh?
“They are just going for their walk, Natalie. Don’t bother them. They have taken a vow of silence.”
A VOW OF SILENCE!!! Now that was a challenge.

“Seriously. A vow of silence? What does that mean exactly.”
“It means that they can’t talk. They need to pray and be at one with God.”
“Double dare you to say hello to them. Triple dare you. Infinity Disneyworld dare you!!” I was jumping up and down refusing to let this one go.
“Nat. You can’t disturb them. You have to respect their silence.”
Aviva was a nice girl. She was well-raised and understood human decency. I however did not.
“Respect is overrated!” I declared. And with a toss of my red hair, I approached the monk.
“Natalie...get back here.” I heard the thin high voice of Lincoln Shlensky—one of the male counsellors whom I swear was assigned specifically to deal with me at such moments.
But I was right in front of the monk, and I knew I had about 45 seconds to get this guy to talk before Lincoln went medieval on me.

“Hey, you. Cute guy with the brown dress on. I betcha if I take off my bathing suit right here and right now, you’ll talk, yes?”

I had my hand on my pink bathing suit strap and was all ready to go when Lincoln grabbed and hoisted me over his shoulder. He then delivered a devastating sleeper hold which knocked me out.

When I woke up, I had been hog-tied to the flag pole. The entire camp surrounded me: a sea of red, white, and blue. A ghetto blaster was blasting the lyrics for a song that only Satan himself could have commissioned:

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up

I started screaming. Screaming to drown out that infernal chorus, that cacophonous nightmare, that musical malignancy that despite my pleading refused to go into remission:


And not just once. And not twice either. But four fucking times the campers and counsellors of the Institute repeated that line. And that was only the first stanza. I remained tied to the flag pole for what seemed like an eternity but which was really the entire Born in the USA album. The camp turned my suffering into a party: drinking Budweiser and dancing late into the Oconomowoc night as I died a thousand deaths. Voldemort’s Cruciatus Curse would have been a soothing balm compared to this.

And for what? Because I wanted to strip for a monk to get him to talk? Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime.
And yet, it did.

I have felt guilty about this incident for decades. In the middle of my praying for the Leafs to get into the first round during Yom Kippur services, I would ask God to forgive me for my indiscretion. I begged Him or It or She to give me the opportunity to say sorry to International Monkdom. But how? And where?


“MONKS!!!!” I screamed at Michelle. “There are monks here!!”
“Yes, Natalie. There are monks. The Middle Ages had a lot to do with religion-the rise of Christianity, you know.”
“Can I talk to them? Can I go up to them and speak and they will acknowledge me and listen?”
“Of course.”
“But what about their no-talking rule, their vow of silence?”
“Well, why would they be at a conference if they couldn’t talk?”
“You make a good point.” I spot a monk sampling some of the dark chocolate munch at the Sistine Chapel snack booth and start walking in his direction.” I take a few steps and then feel someone tugging on my LuLu Lemon hoodie.

“What are you doing?” asks Michelle.
“I need to say sorry to the monk.”

Michelle is torn between wanting more details and feeling that ignorance is indeed bliss. She lets go of my hoodie and starts talking to a trim but tall medievalist wearing a pink corduroy jacket with a paisley tie. Perhaps he is going to come out at K-zoo? Realizing I don’t have much time to think about that possibility, I mad dash it to the Sistine Chapel snack booth and come face to face with a very attractive monk.

Oh shit. What do you call a monk? Brother? Father? Saint? Mr.?
I run back to Michelle. Surely she will know this.

“I don’t fucking know.”

I run back to the Sistine Chapel snack booth.

“Father, sir, Mr. Monk. Hi. I’m Natalie. Can I borrow you for a minute. I need to talk to you.”

He is really cute. The fact that he has not had sex in a very long time if ever inspires all sort of lascivious thoughts but I am almost 40 and I suppress them.

“Yes, Natalie. How can I help you.”
“Can I take you for coffee?”
“I don’t drink a lot of coffee. Could we have tea instead. I bring my own. From the monastery, you know.”
“I would love to try some tea from a monastery.”

“We go outside and climb up the hill that I now refer to as Mount Snorelson and sit down on the grass. He pours me some tea from a stainless steel thermos from Eddie Bauer. My husband has the same one.

“I have a confession to make.” I say.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m not a priest. But there are some inside. Shall I get one for you?” He pauses.
“Wait. You are a Jew, no? Why do you need to do confession?”
“How do you know I’m Jewish. My nose isn’t that big is it?”
He points to my necklace.
“Oh yeah right. The Jewish Star around my neck. Dead giveaway, I guess.”
“Indeed. Now what would you like to “confess” about?”
“Well, I have to tell you something that I’m not proud about.”
“Go on.”
“The summers of my youth were spent at a Jewish summer camp in Oco...”
The monk starts to pale visibly.
“nomowoc, Wisconsin. Do you know where that is?”
He puts down the Eddie Bauer thermos.
“Well, it’s on this little lake, Lac LaBelle, not really relevant, but so one day, when I was very young, like 14 years young, I tried to break a monk’s vow of silence by....”
“Taking off your bathing suit!” He jumped up and started walking away from me.
“Come back, come back.” I called to the monk. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. I have learned respect and couth and civility since then. My mother sent me to military school. Look at me. I’m here in Kalamazoo with you and 3500 medievalists. I did good. I am a fine upstanding member of this world!” I stand up and remembering the time I went to a Catholic wedding and Rob pretended he was Catholic to taste the host which he claimed was really a glorified shrimp chip, I got down on my knees. “Bless me Monk, for I have sinned. I will never so help me God offend a member of Your team.”

He reached into the pocket of his brown gown. Oh Fuck. Is he going to pull out one of those necklaces the Christers use. What are they called again? Rosemaries? Rosacea? Wait, what did we chant when we did that Abortion March on D.C. in the late 80s....Keep your something off my overies??

He pulls a device out of his pocket and presses a button.
“Blast it! I hate my Blackberry!” He threw it over Mount Snorelson. “I told Brother Will we should all get iPhones.”
“I have an iPhone.” Is Apple really going to intervene on my behalf against God?
“Natalie. I forgive you. We all forgive you. But I must borrow your iPhone.”
I hand it over to him perplexed. “What for?”
He points it at me, and I hear the familiar sound of a mobile picture being snapped.
“Can you e-mail it to me?”
I e-mail him the picture of my genuflecting outside the Exhibits Hall at the International Medieval Studies Conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
He starts to laugh and takes my hand.
“Natalie. You are a legend back home.”
Huh? Me. A nice Jewish girl from suburban Toronto a legend at a monastery in Wisconsin. I feel mildly flattered.
“I am from that Monastery in Oconomowoc. When new monks come to train, our senior leader, Brother Abe, tells the story about how a red-headed teenager from the camp across the lake tried to get him to talk by taking off her bathing suit. It always gets a big laugh. And now I can tell my Brothers that I met you, and I can show them your picture.”
“OK, but for the record, I didn’t take my bathing suit off. I just said I would. But then Lincoln Shlensky got me in a sleeperhold, and tied me to the flag pole and made me listen to Bruce Springsteen. I felt like Jesus on the Cross.”
“Hey, don’t insult the Boss or you’ll have to apologize all over again.”
And then for the first and only time in my life, I apologized for insulting Bruce Springsteen.

Me and my new friend walked back to the Sistine Chapel snack booth where he offered me some bourbon-infused fudge and honeysuckle mead to wash it down. We shook hands and promised to have tea on Mount Snorelson next year.

“Only 360 days away,” said Stephen J. Rose cheerily as he sampled some fudge.
I went back to the booth feeling peaceful and spiritual.

“Take down,” said Michelle. “Let’s pack up and hit the road.”
And we did, our path home shared by a red and white 1950s Oldsmobile with a sculpture of Elvis carved into the trunk.

Don’t even ask.

Kalamazoo Diaries.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries: The Pose of Stephen J. Rose

His name was Stephen J. Rose. And had he lived in India, he would have been an untouchable. But, now that I think about it, he was just exactly that from the minute he entered primary school in Green Bay, Wisconsin until he discovered Dungeons and Dragons in Grade 9. But from that moment on, his fantasy world and reality merged and he found true happiness.

Stephen J. Rose’s annual climactic moment began when he drove up in his lime green Pontiac Sedan to the entrance of Goldfinger Hall to register as an Independant Scholar for the international medieval studies conference. From there, he walked to the souvenir stand to purchase the two tags he would wear over his somewhat blossoming left bosom which, and I kid you not, read as follows:

Greek Geek
Latin Lover

Everytime I saw those red labels on the chest of Stephen J., I saw porn magazines. There was absolutely nothing I could do about this vision. Inevitably, Stephen J would make his way to our booth and proceed to buy one of my books. This time, it was a book on medieval gardens.

“I want to plant one at my house”

“What makes a garden medieval?”

He leaned onto my stand, his feet in what we former figure skaters call a spread eagle and starts talking, but I am easily distracted by the the uber perky blonde at the Pearson booth who has started to giggle. As did the uber perky blonde at the Brill booth and the uber perky blonde at the Brepols booth.

OK. I have to digress here. I know its a bit early, but it has to be this way. I suffer from this weird syndrome that Rob has diagnosed as Echoalia. If one suffers from echoalia, they will hear a word and then repeat it constantly often accompanied by hysterical laughter.

Let me give you a few of my favourites:

“Ness” (a street in Winnipeg)

“Lagimodier” (another street in Winnipeg)

“Niedermeyer (as in Joe and if you don’t know who that is, you should feel shame)

“Fufaika” (Russian word meaning warm coat mentioned in a book I read as a child called The Endless Steppe)


“Brepols” is another one. I echoaliad all over that one while I was breastfeeding my daughter because it seemed like the perfect combination of breast and nipples. Whenever I hear Brepols, I see a breast pump. Again, there is nothing I can do about this visual.

I’m not sure why the Perkies are all laughing at Stephen J. Rose. I actually think they are rude. I take Stephen J’s money which, because we are in America is all the same colour and therefore terribly confusing, and bid him a good conference. He tells me he will send me pictures of his garden and I am very gracious. I do wipe my hands with one of Olivia’s baby wipes. I can’t help it.

“Can I get a copy of your book on Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

“I’m sorry, what are you looking for?”

“Can I please get a copy of your book on Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

There is a mass of grey bangs in my face that smells like Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific and large blue glasses with a tint in them that keeps shifting.

Snorri Snorelson. The manic laughter begins at the base of my throat. I need to leave. Michelle knows I need a time out. She tells me to go take a break. I dash out the back door and run up the hill behind the Exhibits Hall like Jamie Somers on crack and collapse on the grass, tears pouring out of my eyes.

Snorri Snorelson. Snorri Snorelson. Snorri Snorelson.

After about 2 hours, I can finally think of something other than Snorri Snorelson. I collect myself and go back down the hill. Tess and Michelle are tidying up the booth.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, are you OK?” Tess asks. She’s never been in Hell with me and looks a little concerned.

“I have to tell you guys something really important. I was just reading in the Kalamazoo Gazette that there is a serial killer on the loose.”

Michelle rolls her eyes. She knows exactly what’s coming.

“Seriously, a serial killer.” Tess is concerned. “And it’s so deserted around here.”

“You know what his name is?”


“SNORRI SNORELSON!!!!!” Michelle just points to the door again.

I take a long walk and wonder yet again if I need to be put on some sort of medication. I type this exact question into the Notes application of my iPhone so that I can bring it up with my shrink when I get home.

“Can I fix your hair?”

“I’m sorry. Can you do what?”

“Can I please fix your hair.”

The Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific medievalist is back in my face. She is a short medievalist and she needs to stand on her turquoise painted toes to reach my head.

“You have such beautiful long red hair and its a little wild. I would like to tame it with an Alice.”

My hockey stick reappears magically into my left hand. I proceed to slash her gracefully like Hannibal Lecter did to the Brandenburg Concertos when he sliced open a prison guard. However, I must confess that I do prefer Brahms Requiem at such times.

She proceeds to take out one of those fuzzy pink elastic band type things and starts to wind the first quarters of my hair on either side.

“Oh, you want to pull it back into a Woogy”

“Yes, I want to tame it with an Alice.”

“Oh, you want to pull it back into a Woogy.” I say a little more forcefully.

“Yes, I want to tame it with an Alice.” She says a little louder.

“Do you know what a gogoplata is? I ask sweetly.

“Yes, its a mixed martial art chokehold that was invented in 13th century Gaul.”

“No shit. Are you serious.”

“Totally serious. Do you watch MMA?”

“Nah, I’m old-school. I watch WWF.”

“WWF is for pussies and panty waists. Let me show you on my iPhone.”

Me and my Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific medievalist grab a Starbucks and go hang out by the fountains and the Canadian storks, I mean pelicans, I mean geese. She proceeds to show me some MMA on You Tube. I counter by showing her how The Undertaker took down 5000 lb Big Daddy V with the gogoplata. She is smitten. We watch a bunch of Undertaker matches and then I show her the greatest 5 minutes in Sports Entertainment History: the entrance of the Undertaker. Actually, I don’t show her in as much as I perform it for her since I have been practicing it daily when I walk Raffi into his Jewish day school every morning.

“Natalie. You need to come back to the booth. Stephen J. is looking for you.” Michelle is motioning to me.
My medievalist looks at me with a touch of melancholy. “Come back soon.” I think I’m in love.

Stephen J. Rose is indeed back at my booth.

“Did you know that your name means Thimble in German?”

Yes, you dipshit. Of course I know that. It was one of the more polite terms of reference that I heard growing up-the others being the obvious Pizza Hut, Fingerslut, Fingernut and the highly creative but kind of gross Finger Up Her Butt.

“I had no idea. You learn something new every day.”
“Oh yes. Well. It’s because..well, you know. A house on a finger is what a seamstress might have used in Carolingian times when she was sewing. A thimble if you will.”

I won’t actually...and who the fuck is Caroline. Michelle kicks the back of my knee.

“Would you mind selling me your last copy of....Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

I have grown up in the last half a day and I calmly procure the last copy and hand it to him. I bid Stephen J. Rose goodbye as he leaves the booth. But the Perkies are giggling again and even though I am not perky and will never be so, I am tired of being left out of this joke.

“Whazzup?” I go over to the Brepols booth.

“Oh my God,” says the representative who bears a wonderful resemblance to my favourite of all my gay male loves, the late Douglas Laird Robinson. “Have you not seen it?”

“Seen what exactly?”

“It. Look, he is leaning over the Palgrave counter. See it now? On his...his....derriere, his hindquarters, his...”

“Plumber Butt....oh Dear God. I am looking at the barest skin, a portion of nakedness, on the lower side of Stephen J. Rose. His Wrangler jeans having deserted him by 5 cm. And there it was in red for all eternity:

K-Zoo 4-Ever

OK. That’s it. I have had absolutely enough. Nowhere does it say in my contract that I need to bear witness to this madness. I start to hyperventilate. Michelle grabs the EpiPen and there before 3500 medievalists, she expertly jabs me into the fleshy side of my left thigh.

“I’ll be back.” She sighs to Tess whose mouth is wide open. She won’t be accompanying us next year. This I already know for certain.

“Michelle bundles me into the backseat of the white car, and drives me back to the spaceship. The epinephran turns the world into double vision and instead of 10 medievalists crossing the street into Goldfinger on a red light, there are 20. Instead of 1 Happy Spa, there are 2. Instead of 90 Starbucks, there are 180. You get the idea. But maybe you do not. Maybe you need me to sing you the song that I sang to Michelle on the way home. Maybe only then, you can start to appreciate my pain.

“On the first day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: a book about Snorri Snorelson.”
“On the second day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: two purple Alices, and book about Snorri Snorelson.”
“On the third day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: 3 pairs of Wrangler jeans, two purple Alices, and a book about Snorri Snorelson.
“On the fourth day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me...”

Michelle has cranked up the music. Her husband and she have this radio program called the Mich Vish Interracial Morning show. You should listen to it. CFRU 93.3—Wednesday at 7:00 am. They play music that I have never heard of because it was created post 1991. Neither have ever heard of Carole Pope. But I have, and now I am singing High School Confidential. And the windows are all open. And I’m just about to get to that line...you know the line I’m talking about, when we arrive at the spaceship.

“Go up to the room and relax. I’ll be back later.”

I do what I’m told. I’ve exhausted her and more importantly, myself.

I go up to our room, pull out the emergency stash of Absolute that I keep in a little pink girl flask that Rob gave me for such occasions and take a delicate sip because that is all one can with such a device. I take 422 such sips and then pass out to everyone’s great relief.

Kalamazoo Diaries.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries

The Journey Begins...

It’s 7:45 am. I am bidding good bye to civilization. Good-bye to espresso. Good bye to fresh bread. Good bye to my listeria that is growing in my garden. Or is it wisteria. Who can possibly know the difference.

I have a bus to catch. The bus that will take me to Guelph, Ontario and from there into a white rental car that will carry Michelle and I to the 44th meeting of international medievalists held annually in a medieval garden in Rome close to arugala salad, homemade pasta and passion fruit gelato.

“OK, Nat. Can you map out our route to Sarnia on your Iphone.”

Sarnia, Ontario. And from there to Flint. And from Flint to Battleship or Battleford and then to the hotbead of international medievaldom: Kalamazoo. To the pros: K-zoo. And to the amateurs: The Zoo. But to me, the annual piligrimage to summer camp for medievalists can simply be referred to as Hell.

We stop at the Subway in Sarnia like we did last year, the year before, and the year before that. I order a tuna sub and something that is called soup but isn’t. My iPhone is losing battery life and with that loss goes my only connection to the 21st c. I need to do something. There is no outlet in Subway nor in the bathroom at Subway. We go the pet store and ask them to charge my iPhone. This they do. I look at the chameleons changing colours in their holding tanks and wonder if someone is going to pitch me a book idea on Medieval reptiles. Michelle says it has been done already by 231 different publishers. I breathe a sigh of relief.

On the road again. We go over the border where we are not stopped and therefore not given respite. Faster than a Michael Phelps lap, we are confronted with the worst roads in the entire galaxy complete with dead deer and discarded pieces of tire.
What’s that you ask? Discarded pieces of tire? Yes. Lots of it. I know, I don’t get it either. How does the truck keep driving if it has lost pieces of tire.

“It just sheds the tire, Natalie. The tire is still there.” Michelle sighs and keeps staring into the tree-lined highways that remind me of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. People tend to forget about Belzec and I feel personally responsible for always including it.

“I think if someone wanted to create a death camp, they should do it here. It really is quite perfect. You have railway lines and lots of trees and areas for mass graves.”

“Can we listen to Flight of the Conchords now.” Michelle has done this trip with me before. I don’t know why she volunteered to go again. Perhaps it is because no one else will go with me anymore.

At 3:30, we get the call.

“Hi Natalie. It’s Suzie. Suzie from the warehouse. Your books aren’t there Natalie. They aren’t there.” Suzie is our hot, young, frequently breathless Distribution coordinator. Her job it to ensure that books arrive from the warehouse to Kalamazoo. This is what she is paid to do.

“Why aren’t they there?” I ask mildly concerned but not panicked.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“I don’t know is not an answer.”
“I know. I don’t know. I just don’t. Know.”
“Let us know when you know.” I hang up.
“This is going to suck.” I said to Michelle.
“I feel you.” Said Michelle.

We drive into Kalamazoo. There is a sign for the airport that says Air Zoo. I need to leave.
“We can’t leave. We just got here.”

I see a tall roadside ad for a massage parlour called the Happy Spa. “Personalized massage available.”
“You know what that means dontcha? Says Michelle who is far hipper than I will ever be.
“Ummm. That you can design your own massage?” I respond. A true naïf.
“It means “to completion.”
“Completion of what? The massage? One would hope so. I pay serious coin for a massage. They better finish it.”
“Oh my fucking God. Do I have to explain everything to you.”
I take a minute to think about “to completion.” Nah. That’s can be it. Why would someone want that from a complete stranger.
“I don’t think you have that right. I wouldn’t want some grody guy touching me like that.”
We are at a red light. Michelle has her head on the steering wheel.
‘You have been married wayyyy too long.” She pronounces.

We drive in silence past the football stadium that is the size of Toronto, past the pond where the pelicans and storks frolic (“They’re Canadian Geese, you moron. Please write that they are Canadian Geese. Natalie, I’m going to proof this before you post it on your blog.”) and into Valley 3 of the Goldfinger Dorms at Western Michigan University.

“No books.” Tess arrived yesterday and is sitting at our empty booth in the Exhibits Hall where 4000 other publishers are busy setting up their medieval wares that include numismatists, coffee, fudge and munch made by monks, and an entire wall bedecked in amber jewellery from the former Soviet Union with uneven quality. And books. Lots and Lots of books.

“We heard.” Said Michelle.
“They’ll be here tomorrow.” Said Tess.
“Lets go to the mall.”

We leave our booth empty;the sounds of other publishers’ boxes being ripped open a reminder of how bad we are going to look tomorrow at 8:00 when the medievalists storm the Hall looking for books on lapidary formation in the 12th c and we have none. But, we are living in the moment and it is 6:00. We have an hour at the mall.

The Gap in Kalamazoo is the last place one would find a medievalist and so I treasure my time there. Michelle tries on a beautiful dress. We are blissfully transported to any Gap anywhere and for a minute, I forget where I am.

“If you buy a membership card, you can get 10% off all future purchases.”
“I don’t live here.”
“Oh, are you from out of town. Grand Rapids? Flint?
“From Toronto.”
“What state’s that in?”
And then I remember exactly where I am.

We leave the Mall and drive to the Radisson hotel which looks exactly like a spaceship.
“Fingerhut. Ha Ha. That’s a funny name.” Says the perky hotel person at the check-in desk.
I find that ironic coming from a woman named Buffy Duberman.
“Are you with that medieval conference?”
“You medievalists are some of the nicest people that we get here at the Rad. So much better than those management consultant types.
She has a point you know. I’ve worked with management consultants and they are almost without exception assholes. In fact there is an inverse relationship in management consultants between how dumb they are and their asshole quotient. But I digress. But then again, I’m at a medievalist conference. Digression is de riguer.

We drop our items off in our room and head down to the hotel bar which is capable of seating the Western Michigan football team, their coaches, groupies, cheerleaders, and water boys; the Western Michigan wrestling team, local personalities like Ben who was a finalist in American Idol and who sometimes plays the piano at the hotel bar, and 3500 medievalists.

“I’ll have a Kalamapolitan.” Says Michelle. Last year, we drank about 6 of them and then proceeded to sing the entire soundtrack of Les Miserables.
“I’ll join her.” I said.

At some point, we order dinner which like most things in the US is super sized. (The obesity problem in the US is easily understood if you spend half an hour in any American city). A little drunk and a little full, we go up to bed and watch a bit of James Bond, but just as Pussy Galore enters the room, we are already asleep.

Kalamazoo Diaries

Friday, May 1, 2009

Killing my Inner Figure Skater

Every morning THEY made me wear a purple satin skating dress with green flowers
Every evening, I fished the sports pages out of the garbage can and read the Leafs game notes.
Every morning THEY made me practice moves with names like salchow, axel, and camel spins.
And every evening, I curled up to watch the Leafs or if they weren’t on, to watch news about the Leafs.

In the wilds of suburban Jewish Toronto, the girls did not play hockey. The girls figure skated. We wore white figure skates with purple guards. We wore little skirts with panties sewn into them. We did not eat because if you were thin, it was easier to jump. We got yelled at by Yasha Shmushkin for not doing enough strength training. We got yelled at by Diana Williams for not being graceful. We got yelled at by our parents for not practicing enough. And then finally, I turned 14, began smoking and drinking, and discovered punk rock, and that was the graceless ending of my figure skating career.

But it was not the end of my love for hockey.

Hockey has been a constant theme in a life that has seen periods of studying genocide, dressing up as a HeartSmart chicken in Brandon, Manitoba, writing computer manuals, and postering as a management consultant. It saw me though the early death of my father, my mother’s breast cancer, the birth of my kids (I credit surviving the labour of my daughter on being able to distract myself through a wild Leafs game against the Islanders), and the raising of my kids.

About five years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Hayley Wickenheiser, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever wear a Jill. During the course of speaking with her and appreciating what she had done for women’s hockey, I began the slow process of killing my inner figure skater. I watched Hayley and the girls win gold for Canada. I watched women practice slapshots at the local rink. And I said, “ I can do this.”

At the tender age of 39.5, I figured it was time to lace ‘em up.

I was the first one signed up for the Dufferin Grove Learn to Play shinny Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. I showed up at 9:30 There was a scrappy game of women’s shinny already ongoing. I just stood there in the freezing cold watching them and wondering if I would ever be able to play with them.

When coach Dan arrived, he asked me if I needed a stick. I said: Oh my God, are you really going to let me have a STICK!! My own STICK!!
“Well, you really can’t play hockey without one.”
“No, you don’t get it. Holding a stick for me is like holding a Torah.”
“A whah...OK, never mind. What side do you shoot from.” He held out a stick.” I grabbed it with my right hand and put it on my left side holding it the way I had seen Salming and Sittler do it a million times.

“Looks good. Time to hit the ice.”

I gingerly got on the ice and took a few baby steps. “Oh spare me,” I thought to myself. “I can skate better than this.” And so I did. Long graceful strides, picking up speed, head up, knees bent. All of those thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of figure skating finally paying off.

“Grab a puck and try skating with it.”
There I was flying around the ice, stick handling as though I had been doing it for years.

“OK. Now stop.”
What do you mean stop. How do you stop. When you figure skate, you use your pick. But hockey skates don’t have picks. I thought I killed my inner figure skater but it is pulling a Lazarus.
“Dan....how do you.....CRASH.”
My father’s voice in my head: “Get up or you’re going to get cold.”
“You OK?”
“Yup. Fine.”
Dan looked at me and winked: “Good for you. When you fall, it means that you are trying something new.”

For two days, my left knee is one big bruise; my right elbow is a mess and I have checked the weather forecast obsessively to make sure that the weather will be OK for Sunday night’s drop-in class.

One of the last things Hayley Wickenheiser said to me was: “You have the right to play the game.”

Thanks Hayley. I will.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Rabbi Who Tried to Kill Me

Its 5:30 on a Friday morning. I am sitting in the basement of Holy Blossom wondering half consciously to myself how I got talked into doing the morning shift of the Temple’s Out of the Cold homeless shelter.

At about 5:45, three men walk into the program. The first two look about as bad as I do—like they just rolled out of bed. The third is wearing a seriously coordinated running outfit: black running shoes, black socks, black running tights, black t-shirt with a black running vest with the fashionable mid-80’s neon green stripe made famous by the fashion criminals that ran amok just after the release of Flashdance.

The only coherent thought I have is how the hell did this guy have the presence of mind at this hour to actually get himself into something so coordinated.

One week later and the scene repeats itself. At 5:45, the same three men walk into the program. The first two looking just as bad, but the third is wearing the exact same thing. And the next week, and the week after that.

After about 4 weeks, I think the guy might be a bit obsessive.
After about 2 months, I imagine his closet to be like that of Mickey Roarke’s in that salute to soft core porn known as 9 1/2 Weeks: hangers filled with black running tights and running vests with neon green stripes.
I have no clue who this guy is but I suspect strongly that he is certifiable and that something needs to be done.

One Friday morning, I summon up my courage and go into the kitchen where the Gang of Three are theoretically making breakfast. The first guy is attempting to open up a can of apple juice and mumbling about being in the South African army. Somehow, I can’t see this 50-something Jewish guy hanging out in Soweto but who knows these things. The second guy is on the kitchen phone yakking about human rights and the UN and The Hague. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are about 50 homeless people waiting for their eggs. I am relieved to note that the third guy is attending to the task at hand and is busy scrambling. There is a large aluminum bowl filled with the first batch and I go over to take it out to our starving buddies.

Oh my God…so gross I can’t even speak. The eggs are greenish and overcooked and I see shells on the sides of the bowls.

“Umm Kids…”

No response.

“Yo…guys…hello…these eggs suck…I mean seriously, these are inedible eggs…”

Bang Bang Bang with the can opener, “But Madame Justice… Article 69 of the Charter…”and the third member of the Gang of Three stirs obliviously…

I pick up a red, white and blue rubber ball that had probably been there since 1978 and throw a wicked fastball against the wall.

What’s a girl to do, I ask you? It’s 6:00 in the morning, I’ve got a bunch of homeless people waiting for breakfast and three Jewish males who can’t get it together.

“Whadya do that for” asked one of Pik Botha’s finest.
“What in God’s green earth do you want me to do with these eggs…these are a human rights violation…”
“Human Rights violation…did you say Human Rights violation…” the other guy has just got off the phone.
“Who are you anyway…”
“Who cares who I am…we have a situation gentleman, now I know your wives aren’t here to help you function but can you attempt to finish making breakfast…”
“Listen sweetheart, says Apple Juice man…just chill out..

There is nothing that will make me roll my eyes faster than an over-40 year old using the expression “Chill Out”.

“Jesus Fucking Christ and all of the Saints and their wives…you go and “chill out” and while you’re at it, why don’t you go and employ some Township Rules to the riot that’s about to erupt outside…”
“Relax”, says The Hague…and by the way, have you met…

Now..for all the women out there…you will appreciate this moment. It was one of those where you have two thoughts going on in your mind that completely contradict each other. Because just before the third guy turned around, I kind of thought to myself: “You know…that guy’s got a nice…” and then he turned around.

“the Rabbi…”

Oy and Veh.

I crossed myself and began saying 30 Hail Mary’s and a few Oh Father’s—why wait until confession…and got myself right out of that kitchen.

It took me two years to get back into that kitchen—two years before I thought the Almighty would forgive me my moment of mild salaciousness directed at one of his Representatives on Earth. Many have suffered His wrath for far less.

Two years later and Gang of Three are short a toast maker and dishwasher. Putting bread in a toaster obviously not a skill picked up the SA army, The Hague, or the Seminary. The toaster is off to one side so I don’t have to talk to any of them and I wash my dishes quietly.

And then one day, He speaks.

“Miss Fingerhut..”
“Yup.” Wash, wash, wash.
“How are you Miss Fingerhut?”
“Can you pass the soap.”

“So..Natalie…what’s up”

These God types. They like to get into your head very quickly. If you ever notice, when you talk to one of God’s representatives on earth, they love to make direct eye contact and ‘cess you out. Hence, if you’re smart, you keep your answers short.


They also want to find out how committed you are to the Tribe. They usually have creative ways of getting that out of you, as you will now witness:

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Yeah…a sister…but you wouldn’t know her.”
“Why is that?”
“Cuz she aint into the God thing.”
“And you…are you into the God thing.”

See what I mean.

“Towel please…these dishes are dripping all over the place” And God isn’t going to provide maid service at this hour.

“Where did you go to school?”
“Well, I did nursery school at Hillcrest, then moved onto Steelesview, then Harrison Rd Public School, then ….”
“Actually, I mean university.”
“Some left-wing loonie bin in New York—you’ve probably never heard of it”
“Really…I went to a left-wing loonie bin in Califonia.”

OK..I have to admit at this point that I’m mildly interested. I actually contemplate a response.”

“Really, which one.”
“You’ve probably never heard of it.”
Ha, Ha, Ha, you are so funny…
“Well, I went to Sarah Lawrence.”
“Really”, he looks amused. “I went to Pomona.”
“No way…Pomona…and in the 70’s…man you must have had fun…what did you study?”
“Who said anything about studying.”

Uh-Huh. OK then. The Rabbi at the Holy House of Forest Hill Village in Toronto Canada was a pot smoking hippie slut dude. I’m riveted.

“What do you do now?”
“Computer stuff.”
“What kind of computer stuff.”
“I help people figure out how to use their computer.”
“I don’t know how to use a computer.”

Long pause.

“Sorry, did you say something.”
“I said: If you need some help one day, let me know.”
“We’ll be in touch”.

And indeed he was. A few days later, I receive this call from his assistant imploring me to do something about His Rabbinical Lord’s inability to perform the most basic tasks on his desktop.

Now, you’d think a guy who can read a book written in an archaic language could learn Microsoft Word but that was simply not the case. Typing was not the issue, no, that would have been at least mildly understandable. It was things like “Save” and “New Document” and “File Name” that really got him messed up. And as for formatting, forget it.

We start very slowly. Like as in how to turn the computer on and off. I direct him to open up the Pandora’s Box that is Word.“OK now what.”
“You type your sermons.”
“How should I type my sermon.”
“Well, you put your fingers on the keys and allow your thoughts to penetrate through your cerebellum and onto the screen. Let your fingers do the talking.”
Ha Ha Ha—OK, he’s not laughing. I’m going to hell—I know it this time.

He types a sentence. Its all in small letters and the occasional period has gone missing but it’s a sentence and I feel like we have made progress.

“Terrific. Really, that’s great.”
He’s totally non-plussed. “I could have written it faster…why do people say this is such a time saver—its taken 15 minutes to write one sentence. Really, this technology is very stupid.”

I try to motivate him. I try and explain that people in their 80’s are capable of using Microsoft Outlook and Excel and that if he would just give his computer a chance, he would find life much easier. One of the other rabbis came in one day as I was explaining the print function and told me, in that kitschy rabbinical way that I was doing “God’s work.”

“I’m an atheist.” I responded.

One Sunday morning, after a particularly awful Saturday night at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern where I had decided that scotch had replaced my water glass, I stumbled into his office nursing my Orange Gatorade which incidentally is the only thing to cure a hangover, and began the odious task of explaining italics and underlining. No matter how many times I showed him how to highlight words with his mouse and hit the “I” on the menu bar, it simply evaded him. After about an hour, I needed to get out of there or I was going to throw his mini Torah at him.

“Do you want a ride to the subway?”
His driving was legendary, but I was in no state to argue.
“Yeah sure…Eglinton West would be great.”
I mean really, the subway station was about 5 minutes away—I saw no downside.
We get into the car. There is paper everywhere. I could have sworn that I was sitting on a tallis of some sort which incidentally looks cute as a wraparound skirt. As we get to the corner of some street in Forest Hill and Eglinton, he makes a right. I let him go a few blocks and say kind of shyly because its bad karma to correct a member of God’s team:

“Ummm, you’re going the wrong way.”
“No, I’m going to Eglinton subway station.”
Being a typical female, I start to apologize profusely.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry…I actually need to go to Eglinton West subway station.”
“Eglinton, Shmeglinton…its all the same thing.”
No —they ain’t the same thing. Time to come down from Mount Sinai and come back to Bathurst St.
“Well, no, not really. One station is at Yonge St. and the other is about 25 blocks west.”
“Fine, fine…I’ll turn around.”

He drives down Eglinton to the station. But instead of dropping me off in front of the station like the rest of Toronto, he casually speeds past a 10 ft. sign that reads and I quote verbatim:


He pulls into a bus lane and looks at me expectantly.
“Well, here you go.”

I have turned white.

A bus drives slowly behind us, the driver and passengers stare open-mouthed.
“Miss Fingerhut…what seems to be the problem..I need to go.”

Excuse me. You have just tried to kill me .I could have been mowed down before I reached 30 by a bus, and you are asking me what the problem is?

“Didn’t you see that sign?”
“What sign?”
“The 10ft sign that says this is for buses only.”
“Oh…I don’t pay attention to signs like that…they don’t interest me.”

“OK…well, that’s beautiful, truly, that’s great. I’m leaving now…I’ll catch you later…much much later.”

And he drives off, past another bus who has also stopped in shock.

I stand alone knowing that I had better think and think very fast. Because if I do not, if I do not use my brain to its maximum, the headlines on tomorrow’s Canadian Jewish News are going to read:

Ignorant female drives recklessly and gets Rabbi of Holy House of Forest Hill fined $500.

And I’ll have to leave town and move somewhere like Iqaluit where the circulation of the Canadian Jewish News is limited and often used to wipe the paws of the resident snow dogs.

A security guard, kind of cute in that security guard kind of way, greets me as I enter the subway station.

“Miss…do you understand what you just did.”
When in doubt, play the helpless female, there is no other way. Trust me.
“Sir…Oh Sir…my brother, he’s just visiting here from LA…and he doesn’t know from subway stations because you know in LA because of the St. Andreas Faultline, they can’t have subways and really its not his fault that he drove into the bus lane because he’s from LA—didn’t I mention that—and they are all crazy there anyway…really seriously nuts…think OJ.
“Miss…calm down…just calm down…”
I touch his shoulder slightly hysterical but also kind of flirty.
“Sir..you have to believe me…my brother didn’t know, he just made the turn to drop me off so he could go home and see our poor mother who hasn’t seen him in months because when he was about 25, he got hit on the head and ever since then has become this total religious nutcase.
He touches the large gold cross around his neck.
“You know…you shouldn’t call religious people nutcases.”
“Oh yes Sir…you are so right. I cross myself desperately hoping that my 15 years of Jewish education would not prevent me getting the right to left part across my chest correct.
“Is your brother a priest?”
“Oh yes sir..I mean no sir…well kind of sir—in a matter of speaking..
“What do you mean—it’s a basic question..is he or isn’t he.”
He looks like he’s bought Vatican Two so here goes.
“Well…he’s a priest whose Jewish.”
“Oh a Jewish priest…I get it.”
I desparately need to sit down so I motion to the bench just beyond the turnstiles.
“Sir…I’d love to expand upon this fascinating subject, but I really need to sit down…my brother almost killed me and I’m feeling a little funky and a bit confused and wondering who should I tell first: my poor mother or my shrink.”
“OK Miss, can I get you some water…you look a little pale...”

He goes off to the little store in the subway—I need to get out of there. Should I make a run for it…jump the turnstiles like I did as a nouveau riche punk rocker in 1980’s York Mills…
“Here you go Miss.”
“Le What…sorry my French isn’t very good…anyway, you were saying that your brother is a Jewish priest.”
He is so very interested and I am so very tired.
“Yeah…they call them Rabbis…they are basically Jewish priests.”
“Rabbits did you say…hmm…and can they marry?”
“Oh yes…absolutely…I mean you wouldn’t want to marry one of them because as you can see they are complete maniacs…”
He touches his cross again.
“Sorry…right…yes they can marry and have children—In fact I think both are highly encouraged-you know, Be fruitful and multiply and all that.”
“I have a wife and two kids…one on the way.”
“That’s terrific…Mazel Tov!!”
“Muzzle who.”
“Just an expression” I pat him gently on the shoulder. “Listen, sir, I really appreciate the water and have enjoyed our little conversation but my husband is waiting for me at home so that I can prepare Sunday dinner…”
“What do you Jewish people have for Sunday dinner.”
“Oh the same as you…usually some ham, potatoes, I like Baskin and Robbins for dessert.”
“Well then you run along and make sure to tell your brother never to go in the bus lane again. Its mighty dangerous and while I know the Lord Almighty would protect him, he still should be careful.”
“Oh I will Sir…I promise Sir…really Sir, you are most kind. I’ll say a prayer to my God to tell your God that you did a good one…I promise Sir…thank you.”
“Quite allright Miss…but do me a favour, don’t be forceful or anything with your brother, I don’t want to get on the Good Lord’s bad side..you know with the baby coming and all…just tell him gently..thank you kindly.”
“Will do Sir…Ciao”

I stumbled down into the underground, my brain completely messed up. Thankfully, the roar of the Southbound train silenced the noise in my head and it was only when a nice 80 year old Asian man typing on his Palm Pilot offered me his seat, was I finally able to laugh.