North Dakota Mountain Men

You may have heard
Of the Rocky Mountains
Or the Smokey Mountains
But have you heard of the mountains
In North Dakota, the Great Flat Mountains.

Running from Fargo to Bismarck
As far north as Winnipeg
They tower over very little
But are majestic just the same
Their peaks are covered in snow
From November till May

There’s a special brand of people
The North Dakota Mountain Men
Clad in walking shoes and floppy hats
They go striding across the plane.
Looking for adventure
Trying to avoid the rain

Back in the summer of ought nine it was
There was a big old controversy
Every Mountain Man had planted a flag in a different county
Claimed to have found the highest spot in North Dakota
And every one of them was right

And then there was the big flood of ninety eight.
Heavy winter snow and spring rains left the whole region under water.
It was a lake across two states and two provinces.
Mountain Men still talk about it
The year their ankles got wet.

But to be a North Dakota Mountain Man you have to be tough
Have to be able to handle the worst that nature can throw at you
Winter cold, summer heat
Boredom, ennui, apathy, lethargy, monotony, flatness.
It’s a kaleidoscope of experiences being a North Dakota Mountain Man

But the North Dakota Mountain Man is a dying breed
Their numbers are declining, they’re fading away
The young folk just don’t feel the call
They’re lured by the modern world
By computers, and airplanes, and air conditioning
Indoor toilets, regular meals, basic hygiene.

But, here’s to the North Dakota Mountain Men
Men who lived by their own rules, their own code
Or maybe they were just too stubborn to ask for directions.

Hydra

The Hydra with a hundred heads
Each with a forked tongue
Take one out and two more appear
From its scalp they are sprung

Each snake head has a voice
Filled with hate and lies
This one is dressed in a fancy suit
That one a toupee and long tie

One is bombastic and blames Islam
Another blames the poor
One points fingers at high taxes
Division is the gas they pour

Valiant warriors young and bold
Strive to kill the beast
Though they defeat a snake here and there
They make no difference in the least

You see the problem isn’t the snakes
It’s the head upon which they’re worn
The beast laughs at their naiveté
He believes they’ll never learn

For until the monster is taken down
Ripped out twig, branch and root
It will continue to spread its misery
And pocket its stolen loot

The Hydra with a hundred heads
Each with a forked tongue
Take one out and two more appear
From our apathy they are sprung

The Post-Polling Era

So the writ has dropped and they’ve called an election in British Columbia. As Pooh would say “Oh Bother”. Actually this will be good because it’s our first opportunity to vote in Canada. What I’m not looking forward to are the polls. Every week this or that poll will say this party or that one is ahead. They put out press releases and the news and talk shows lap them up. Hey, it’s good filler. There is some gaffe by a candidate and spot polls are out within a couple of hours to indicate any shift in public opinion. During debates real time polls are shown after every answer. There is lots of sound and fury, and it all signifies nothing. The reason is simple. Polls mean nothing. Polls are always wrong. Even when they get one right, it means nothing, broken clock and the village idiot can get something right occasionally. A blind man throwing a basketball will once in a while sink one. In reality, polls are fatally and irreparably flawed and we should stop paying the slightest attention to them. We are entering the post polling era.

A week ago CBC interviewed a person from some polling organization. I don’t offhand remember which one. She was blathering about their improved metrics, and systems and such. Finally the announcer asked her why, after the polls blew it over Brexit, and Trump, and the Alberta NDP, and a hundred other elections why anyone should believe them any more. She cheerily replied that they’ve looked at the times that they’ve gotten it wrong and improved their methodology. They’re making an effort to include groups that have been under-sampled in the past. They’ve learned from the earlier mistakes so we can trust them in the future.

In other words, she was an idiot.

You see the problem with polls and polling is irreparable. They cannot be fixed. In this always connected, social media, cynical age it is not possible to do an accurate poll. There are three reasons:

First a majority of the general population will not answer polls. They have no interest in chatting with some pollster on the phone. We’re busy. We’ve got things to do. We certainty don’t have time for this shit. Add to that cynicism because of things like push-polling, and tricky questions intended to get the answer whoever is paying for the poll wants, and sales calls that start out masquerading as a survey and the inclination to respond is even lower. In many ways the polling organizations have poisoned their own well. Top it off with a healthy Snowden inspired dose of paranoia and it’s amazing that anyone is answering polls at all. What’s most important though, is that those of us who don’t answer polls do not see the world the same as those that do. My neighbour may be the same race, income, and live on the same block as me, but if he is willing to spend five minutes talking to a pollster on the phone, I can guarantee we disagree on a lot of issues, especially political. Polls asking about a subject will simply not have data from the population that won’t answer polls. It is a fundamental flaw. That is something that cannot be corrected for by oversampling a particular demographic or applying mathematical corrections. If the data isn’t there, it isn’t there and a conclusion based on flawed data is meaningless.

Next, most people have a cell phone. Indeed the population that only has a cell phone is growing. In many areas the majority do not have a home phone, only cells. In most jurisdictions you cannot make polling or sales calls to a cell number. I think it’s safe to say that the opinions and attitudes of people on the go who live on their cell phone are different from someone who is home enough to have a land line. Regardless of age, or income, or race. If you are around the house enough to have a land line then your world view has to be far different from an identical person who isn’t. The opinions of habitual cell phone users are completely missed in polling. Once again, that is something that cannot be corrected for by oversampling a particular demographic or applying mathematical corrections. If the data isn’t there, it isn’t there, and a conclusion based on flawed data is meaningless.

The last reason polling does not work is the Boaty McBoatface effect. There is a large part of the population who will answer polls, but give ridiculous answers for the fun of it. Who just want to skew the data. Who, perhaps out of annoyance or paranoia, will just not give their true opinion. This means not only are the polling organizations not getting a good statistical sample of the population and their opinions, not only missing huge specific demographics completely, it means that the data they ARE getting is terminally flawed and cannot be trusted. The results are meaningless. You cannot add corrections and fiddle with flawed data any more than you can calk a boat with a screen door in the bottom to make it float.

The data they get is irreparably flawed and is missing whole demographics they cannot correct for. The data they have is so full of noise and deliberate errors that it cannot be trusted despite any cleanup and corrections. There’s an old saying in computing: Garbage in Garbage out. When you are dealing with bad data you cannot get anything of value out of it. the results are worthless.

We are now in a post-polling era. It is no longer possible to take an opinion poll and have it mean anything. I put no credence in polls and polling and I wish everyone else, especially news organizations, would do the same. Their numbers mean nothing. They are of no value. They are as significant as the homeless person in the corner yelling about the voices in his head. To take the polls is a waste of time because the results have no value. The only bigger waste of time is any attention paid to polls.

They are utterly worthless.

Dear Fellow Human Being

You are my doctor, my pharmacist, my accountant. You are my coworker, the person running the register at the store, or a kid in the class I’m talking to about dinosaurs. You are all around me and I have something to tell you.

I don’t care.

I do not care who you are fond of, or what your gender is or if that gender is in flux. I do not care any more than I care if you are a straight man or a straight woman or if you go to church, mosque, or temple, or how much melanin is in your skin, or where your ancestors are from. I just simply don’t care. Our relationship has nothing to do with that. It’s none of my business.

You are another human being. I will treat you with respect. I will be polite. I will help you if you need it, and ask you for help if I do. We’re all in this together. Professionally I will treat you just like all of our other customers and I expect the same in return. But I have to focus on what’s relevant to what we’re doing.

I’ve had coworkers, friends, bosses even, that were male, and some that were female, some that were gay, and some straight. It was irrelevant to the job at hand. I’ve tried to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, unless you are thinking of hooking up with someone, gender and orientation are irrelevant. I dream of a day when who you sleep with, or if you chose to not sleep with anyone, is as unimportant as what hand you hold your fork with. I dream of the day when we stop trying to divide ourselves into little boxes marked Straight, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Two-spirited, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Pansexual, Agender, Gender Queer, Bigender, Gender Variant, Pangender, and whatever else. We are all people. We are all trying to get along. We should all be allies.

So when I say I don’t care, I mean it. Your gender or orientation makes no difference to me. Now if someone tries to put you down, to beat you up, or otherwise make life hard for you, I will be in your corner. I’ve got your back. But then, that’s true regardless of why they’re doing it. Otherwise though, it’s irrelevant. If you are the pilot on my airliner, I just want you to be the best damn pilot in the air. The same goes if you’re my plumber, or the cop in my neighbourhood, or the teacher in the local school, or one of the students. I want you to be the best damn you that you can be. But as far as your private life,

I just really don’t care.

Children

Recently a friend of ours said something to my wife and I:

“You two are such nice people. It’s really surprising. Most of the people we know that don’t have kids are jerks.”

We found this to be quite funny. I mean, what about all the people who are jerks who DO have kids. But let’s set this aside for the moment.

Today I was looking up some background information on the song When I Die. We use it as one of the songs for people entering to see Exit the King. As I was looking around I found that it has been covered by a lot of people. Peter Paul and Mary did it first. Then others. The Blood Sweat and Tears version was the most famous. More recently Billy Childs and Alison Krauss did another cover. Honestly I prefer the Blood Sweat and Tears version. It’s the one I grew up with. To me it will always be the quintessential version. It’s always going to be a tent-revival song that tells mortality to fuck off. The others, especially the Allison Krauss version just seem slow, mournful and more than a little bit creepy. At heart it’ll always be a happy song.

In reading about the song I came across a blog called Jeff Meshel’s World where he discussed the song. Now his post’s a little ‘churchy’ for my taste, but then that may have come from the lyrics of the song. He also prefers the slower versions of When I Die over the Blood Sweat and Tears version, which he refers to as “criminally vulgar”. I guess to each his own, but I can’t even listen to the Krauss version.

Early in his essay though in reference to the line “and when I die there’ll be one child born in our world to carry on”, Meshel makes the following statement:

But when I think on the people I’ve known who do not have children, there’s a pinch in my heart. A discord. An arrhythmia. A missing link. Sorry, I’m a child of OzzieandHarrietLand. If we don’t contribute a link to the chain of life, what was it all for? What is it all about?

Really? That someone else decided to not have kids makes you feel strange? Like there’s a discord in the universe? Like its all meaningless? Why does it matter to you? Some people want kids. Others don’t. Isn’t it far better for the latter to not have them. The alternative is for them to have them and then raise them badly because of resentment or incompetence.

You see my wife and I are in our fifties now. We don’t have kids. When we decided to get married, nearly thirty years ago, we sat down and discussed all sorts of things. Money, responsibilities, long term plans, and children. I made it clear that I didn’t want any. I wasn’t a parent, I never would be a parent, I had no desire to try to learn to be a parent. Fortunately my wife was of like mind. As I’ve joked for three decades: I didn’t want to raise them and she didn’t want to bear them. We fit well together. We’ve had nieces, nephews, a few god children, but none of our own. Their visits were always temporary and brief. Once they left the house could return to the peace and quiet we prefer.

As I was growing up, kids, even my peers, were noisy, messy, and above all irrational. I was regularly embarrassed by something one of my peers did that made no sense to me. I went all the way through High School wondering if there was a set of rules, an instruction book, or something I had missed. I just didn’t understand the kids around me or what they did. As they were playing baseball I was reading about relativity. As they were fishing, I kept feeling sorry for the fish. When they made plans to get married and settle down after graduation to a job in the mill and a bunch of kids I kept wondering why could not see the bigger world out there. I never saw myself as having a family. Indeed I just didn’t understand why anyone would. I still don’t. There are things each of us want to do while we’re here. Kids prevent you from doing anything else. They are a full time job. So unless you really above all want kids, why have them? It’s not just that I didn’t want to have kids. I can’t even understand why anyone would. It’s an utterly alien concept for me. People who dream of growing up to have a family aren’t even talking the same language as I am.

I have a nephew who got married about seven years ago, and last year they had their second child. They’re thrilled. Both him and his wife love being a family, teaching the little ones to do things, watching them grow up, even cleaning up various, uh, leakage they produce. More power too them. If they’re happy then we’re happy for them. But I’ve never changed a diaper and I never will. I do not want to deal with that. I do not have the patience for temper tantrums, or potty training, or adolescent brain rot, or two in the morning trips to the ER. I just was never willing to deal with that. That is not me on any level. Just after we got married my mother kept saying “It’s different when they’re your own.” Yeah, because then you’re trapped. I was smart enough not to fall for that one.

The trouble is that even when kids are not making a mess, they still do things. Things that make me uncomfortable. Embarrassing things. Unpredictable things. Weird things. And that is the biggest issue. I don’t understand children. I’m not comfortable around them. But culture says you grow up and have a family. That’s what you do. If you get married and don’t start popping out kids within a few years people start to look at you funny. Society expects that. There must be something wrong with you if you don’t. You have to be selfish, a jerk, or worse. Or there’s a medical problem. The idea that some people just don’t want to have kids doesn’t sit well with some people. Worse, some people cave into this pressure and have a family they don’t want. I’ve seen a lot of misery that comes from taking that path.

Fortunately as I was growing up my parents taught me something fundamental: To do what I wanted to do, not what others wanted me to do. I learned that other people could spend all my free time if I let them. I was encouraged to chart my own path and let the others pass “like water off of a duck’s back”. It let me not be afraid to walk away from that kid in school who wanted to do something illegal. To just say “no thanks” when the guy in college offered me drugs. And to decide for myself whether my future involved a bunch of kids. I made my path. I’m happy with it.

So the fact is, I just never wanted to have children. I didn’t have the desire in any way. Indeed I’ve had a long lasting aversion to having children. So far from being a problem or unnatural, not having kids was and is the right path for me. To have done otherwise would have been “A discord. An arrhythmia”. Nothing good could have come from it. I, the world, the universe as a whole, is better for my not having children.

Most people remember the line from the song “And when I die there’ll be one child born to carry on”. I always focussed on the line earlier “Give me my freedom for as long as I be. All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.

The Mystical Quality of Cats

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Cats are mystical creatures. Most people, even most cat owners don’t realize just how much. We think we own a cat. In reality cats come and go where they know they can do the most good. Such was the case with JarJar.

She showed up in downtown Minneapolis and hung around the building where our friend Leslie worked. She could have picked any building, but she chose that one. She had been declawed on all four feet and so could not hunt. Hungry, pathetic, bedraggled, she hung around the building. Leslie at first fed her and tried to find the owner. None ever came fourth and now the reason is clear. JarJar had no previous owner. JarJar just appeared where she was most needed in a form that she knew would elicit the desired response. Even though Leslie was going through some very difficult times, she ended up adopting JarJar. Just when she needed a friend, a companion, someone to share her pain with, JarJar was there. Such is the mystical quality of cats.

On the surface JarJar was a crazy and clumsy cat. In reality she was very shrewd. She knew just when to run into the room and trip. Knew just the right moment to jump into her box and start ripping at the cardboard. Just when to break the tension. Also when to hop up in Leslie’s lap and just be there. Such is the mystical quality of cats.

At one point Leslie decided to give JarJar away. In reality JarJar knew she needed to go on a temporary assignment. She got herself transferred to the one house that did not have a cat, but needed one, occupied by the only people that would eventually give her back. JarJar knew that her assignment with Leslie was not complete. While at our house JarJar chased birds and squirrels (through the window at least), developed a strange addiction to chive, and built a fort under the Christmas tree. The purpose of all this was to prime the pump. To set the groundwork for Geiger and later Momiji, and Imoto. Other cats that had not even been born yet. Cats take care of their own. Such is the mystical quality of cats.

And now JarJar has departed. Personally I’m not completely sure she has in fact passed on. This may be just another transition. JarJar may still be out there. Somewhere she is hanging around someone else’s door. Someone who needs a friend, a companion, someone to share their pain with. She may be black, or calico, or orange, or even gray again, but inside it’s JarJar and JarJar goes where she’s needed the most.

Such is the mystical quality of cats.

Fly Fishing

It started two years ago. I got a call from Clary, a guy I knew in college. He was all excited. I hadn’t actually talked to him for a couple of years before that, so it was a bit of a surprise. He said I had to come over. It was late so I put him off. I’d meet him the next day, Friday. I distinctly remember it being Friday. I drove to his town, he lived about four hours away, and arrived about three. He met me at the door. His enthusiasm was effervescent.

“I’m so glad you made it here,” he said excitedly. “I know you’ll be just as excited as I am about what I’ve built.”

“Calm down,” I replied laughing. “Let me get my coat off.”

He lead me through the rambling old house of his, to the workshop at the back. It had been the garage, I know because I’d helped him convert it into a family room. Which was odd, now that I think of it. Clary never married, never had a family. Anyway, It wasn’t the same family room I’d seen. It had been converted into a workshop with benches along the sides, a small CNC mill at the back along with a 3D printer. In the middle of the room was a…thing. I’m not sure how to describe it. It was a grey box but the outside was covered with display screens and controls. Knobs, switches, keyboards, and such. Clary stood next to it beaming like a proud papa.

“Well, what do you think?” he said finally.

“I don’t know,” I stammered. “What is it?”

“Oh, of course you don’t know. I’ve been kind of shut off up here. All of my food and supplied has been delivered. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit of a hermit. So let me start at the beginning. Remember when we were back in college, how I was fascinated with Earth History?”

How could I forget. Clary came from money. Old money. While I and my other friends were slogging away, working toward a degree that would pay the bills, he was studying whatever caught his fancy. And he was interested in everything. Obsessively so. After a year or so he settled on the Geosciences. Eventually, long after I had gotten my Engineering degree and was building a career, he ended up with two Batchelor’s degrees, Palaeontology and Biology, and a Masters in Physics. He did research for a while, then when his parents passed away he inherited this house, and all the money they’d collected from a lifetime as wall street lawyers. That was when Clary sort of retreated. I saw less and less of him as the years went by. The last time I’d spent much time with him was about five years before when I’d spent a week up here helping him convert the garage and remodel the kitchen. After that our contacts became more sporadic.

“Yes, you were fascinated with it. What does that have to do with this?”

“I’ll get to that. First you need to understand something. One of the biggest limitations of Palaeontology is connecting the dots. We know this animal and that one, but the transitional forms are hard to locate. Also some creatures seem to come out of nowhere. Mosasaurs and Ichthyosaurs. Or Pterosaurs. One day there are lizards, the next you have them flying around. Where did they come from? What was their ancestor. With just a few fossils it was hard to say. Also with convergent evolution things end up looking alike even if they have no connection. Ichthyosaurs and Dolphins for example. You really need to do a genetic analyses of each to see where they came from.”

“OK, I said. “But unless you can find a freezer with dinosaur steaks, that’s just not going to happen.”

“That my friend,” Clary said triumphantly. “is no longer the case.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Clary gestured at the device in the middle of the room. “This is Time’s Arrow.”

“What is it, a time machine” I said laughing.

“No nothing that grandiose,” he replied. “It does not move through time. Rather it reaches back and collects a one cubic centimetre sample of whatever was in this exact spot, from any point in the past.”

“But what if nothing was here?” I wondered.
“Oh I’ll get back an empty sample container. Actually a container of air, which could be informative too. But it does not take much energy to collect a sample. I can reach back hundreds, thousands of times. Most times it will be nothing, but every once in a while it will come back with a piece of a dinosaur. Or a cynodont. Or a trilobite. Or whatever happened to be in this spot. With all of the last billion years to sample there has to have been millions of times when something was in this exact spot. And I’m going to grab a piece of them.”

“So you’re fly fishing for dinosaurs?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” he replied laughing. “I guess that is one way of looking at it.”

“But why?” I wondered. “What good does a piece of fresh Trilobite or Gorgonopsid, or Entelodont do you? Are you just going to mount it on the wall?”

“No,” he laughtd. “I can sequence the DNA. I can determine once and for all what is related to what. Here let me show you.”

Clary walked over to the machine and flipped a switch. The system came to life, the computers booted up and soon the low humming of fans filled the room. Clary dropped a small stainless steel capsule into a slot on the front and hit a button marked Retrieve. There was a audible pop and the capsule fell into a basket on the floor. Clary retrieved the capsule and walked to one of the workbenches. Carefully he opened the tiny cylinder over a petri dish. A small piece of wood fell out.

“You see I set the machine to grab something from 100 years ago. Back then this land was all a forest. This is part of a tree that was growing on this spot.” He was very excited. “There’s no limit to what I can recover.”

It was amazing. I told Clary how pleased, indeed proud of what he’d accomplished. It was amazing. We chatted for another hour or so and then I had to leave. I apologized but it was a very long way home and my wife was waiting for me. I told him to keep me in the loop, to let me know what he discovered. I was truly excited for him. Then I departed

A year passed.
You know how it is. I didn’t hear from Clary for a few days. Then our daughter got sick. Then both my wife and I got sick from what she’d brought home. Then there was this big rush job at work. You know life. Without realizing it a year had slipped away. Then one day I realized that I hand’t heard from Clary. I decided to call him. He sounded tired. I asked him if I could drop by, to see his progress. He was hesitant, but after a bit of prodding he agreed.

A week later on Saturday morning I was on Clary’s doorstep again. He answered the door. This time he wasn’t smartly dressed like I’d always seem him before. Rather, he was wearing baggy sweats and a dirty t-shirt. Several days stubble encrusted his chin as well. He let me in with only a grunt and led me back to the workshop. There he collapsed into a chair and motioned me to another next to the device. The room was a mess. Samples lay on the table. Cylinders, both empty and full, filled the baskets. Papers were scattered on the floor.

“My god Clary. What’s wrong?” I asked in surprise. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this. Have you not been getting usable samples? Is the experiment not working?”

“No, no,” he started. “The experiment is working fine. I’m getting lots of samples. About one in a hundred casts comes back with something. You see I do remember your fly fishing analogy.” he smiled. “Sometimes it’s wood, or leaves. sometimes it’s chunks of bloody meat. Once in a while I’ve gotten sand or rocks. One even came back with hot lava inside. Oh I’ve been getting LOTS of samples.”

“Then, what’s the problem?” I asked. “Maybe you’re just working too hard. You know you could afford to get an assistant. I mean with your connections at the University we could get a grad student out here to help you. To sort through the…”

Clary waved me off. “No that’s not the problem. I’m getting lots of samples. I’m having no problem processing them, sequencing the DNA and determining everything about them. Everything but the one most important thing.”

“What?” I asked, almost shouting.

“If we find a new species today we can do DNA analyses and tell what it’s related to. Yes that’s a red winged blackbird. We can tell because it’s DNA is very similar to a common blackbird, and not quite as similar to a robin and a crow.”

“So?” I asked.

“I’m getting lots of samples back. but I don’t know what they’re from. Yes I can sequence the DNA and see that this hunk of bloody meat is more similar to that hunk of bloody meat, but less so from that chunk of kind of rubbery white meat. But I don’t know what these things are.” He suddenly rose, walked to the side wall and pulled back a curtain. Behind it the wall was covered with little index cards. Each had a sample number on it and the time period it was from. Red lines on the wall connected the cards forming an intricate tree.

“I’ve gotten hundreds of samples. I’ve even created this tree of life. But I don’t know what anything is. The DNA is so different from anything alive today that I can’t tie it down. The form of this tree doesn’t match any of the fossil cladograms people have drawn.” Clary walked across the room and bent over, putting his face close in front of mine. “All of this data but without any way to anchor it to the real animals it means nothing.”

Clary collapsed into the chair again and buried his face in his hands.
After a second I gathered my courage and spoke. “Listen old man. You’ve been working too hard. You’ve let this get to you. So here’s what we’ll do. Let’s clean up the lab. Then you’re going to come back to the city with me. You’ll get away. See a movie. Eat at a restaurant. Sleep. Hell it looks like you haven’t slept since I saw you a year ago. Sleep, nap and follow that with a siesta. Then after a week or two you can come back here with fresh eyes. What do you say?”

Clary looked at me. It was the look a drowning man gives you when you toss him a rope. “Yeah, that might be a good idea.” he said finally.

We spent the next hour cleaning the lab. I disposed of the samples he hadn’t processed. Some of them had sat for days and I doubt they would have been much use anyway. The rest of the house was surprisingly clean. Clary apparently hadn’t been using it. Then we packed a bag, piled in the car and set off for my house. I made a quick call to my wife to warn her of our unexpected guest. As it turned out though, Clary only stayed with us one night. He moved into a hotel near the University. For the next week he visited with his favourite professors, stopped by the Student Union, wandered his old haunts, and slept. I think he was getting at least ten hours a night plus afternoon naps. And he was eating. Within a few days his colour and energy had come back. He was the same old Clary I’d known a decade before. I took a few days off of work and we just bummed around together. The rest of the time he was off on his own.

After two weeks Clary appeared at my door one morning. He was clearly fully recovered. Clean shaven. A new suit. Fresh shoes. “I’m going to head back now.” He said. “Thank you so much for bringing me back to my senses. But it’s time to get back to work.”

“OK,” I replied. “If you think you’re ready.”

“Oh I am. I do want to thank you again for helping me. I had really lost sight of how things were. Lost my perspective. Thanks for bringing me back to reality.”

“Any time. But you keep in contact now. Don’t let it be so long. I worry about you sometimes.”

With a smile Clary walked back out to his van. I noticed he’d bought one while he was in town. I couldn’t tell exactly but it looked like it was full of stuff. With a final wave he backed out of the driveway and disappeared around them corner.

And life got in the way again.

The time I had taken off had left me behind at work. I had to put in a week or two of overtime to get back on track. Then our daughter was starting school so we had to get her ready for her big day. Then my wife let me know that we were going to have another baby. There was all the excitement and upheaval from that. So it was just shy of a year later when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and was surprised to see a policeman standing there.

“Uh, yes,” I stammered. “Can I help you?”
“Are you Peter Davidson?” he asked. When I nodded he handed me an envelope. In it was a card from Clary that read. “I figured it out. Time’s Arrow was running backwards.” I looked at the officer confused.

“I’m going to need you to come with me to the gentleman’s house.”

“Oh, uh sure. Why? What’s going on?”

“This is a missing person’s case. We’re hoping you can help us figure out where he might have gone.”

Confused I went back inside and told my wife that’I would likely be gone the rest of the day at least. She agreed and called her mother to come over and help with the kids until I got back.

The drive to Clary’s house was long and quiet. The police let me take my own car. I suspect both so they wouldn’t have to give me a ride back, but also so they wouldn’t be pestered with questions that they could not answer.

When we got to Clary’s house I saw the van that I’d seen him drive away in a year before. It was  parked in front of the house. Going inside, I immediately noticed that the house smelled musty, like it had been closed up for too long. I followed the officers to the workshop. It was much as we had left it a year before. It was still neat. Lab equipment was lined up on the side wall. It looked like Clary had not processed a single sample since his return.

The officer spoke “There was a report that the gentleman had stopped paying his bills. A collector came out to the house and saw that it was deserted. As the gentleman is well off it was unlikely that he had skipped, so fearing fowl play he called us. We entered the house but found no recent trace of him. A search has found that none of his credit cards have been used in months. The food in the fridge had all spoiled. His passport is still here. We’ve searched the local area in depth, but there’s no trace of him anywhere. We got your name and address off of that card. It was on the table next to the front door, stamped, ready to mail. He however never got a chance to send it. We are hoping that you might have some idea where he might have gone. Who he might have been dealing with. Some clue as to what happened.”

I looked at the card. Clary’s familiar handwriting on the front of the envelope. Then I looked around the room. It was just as I remembered it. Almost anyway. The lab equipment, the mill, the 3D printer, the wall full of cards with numbers and dates. Something was not quite right though. Then it hit me. I looked at the outlet on the wall. A cord was plugged in. It ran across the floor to the centre of the room where it ended abruptly as if it had been cut with shears. The machine, Time’s Arrow, was missing.

“Time’s Arrow was running backwards.”

Now I knew what it meant. I turned to the officer.

“He’s gone. No one will never see Clary again.”

Exit the King


I just finished a run performing Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. I was The Doctor. The last show was Saturday. I wish I could say it was the best one ever, but no. The play was hard. With most plays you settle in a groove, after a few shows it runs like clockwork. We fought with this one to the end. The words were just hard. We all struggled. Then last night combination of fatigue and stress meant that I flubbed a couple of lines. Annoying and noticeable but it is what it is. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was a bit off. We all had trouble that night. But that’s the way it is with live theatre.

There were several memorable things about this play. First I was playing a bad guy. A Doctor, Executioner, and all around sadist.

This was a stretch for me, but there was a certain delicious fun in being the doctor. He was nasty, from the implication of being a sadist and killer to his casual reference to where he said

“The only children left in the schools are congenital retards, mongoloids, and hydro-cephalics with goiters”.

He was just a cruel person who never missed a chance to twist the knife. For example when a nearly hysterical Marie is begging Berenger to not die the Doctor quips:

“He will be a page in a book of ten thousand pages, that sits in a library of a million books. A library that is one among a million other libraries”.

A cruel, arrogant, sarcastic, mean bastard. But I have to admit playing him was on some level a lot of fun.

As I mentioned this was a hard play. Theatre of the Absurd is just strange. Apparently Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more normal plays which makes me wonder at his more absurd works. All of us struggled with the lines. In a normal play the dialogue is based on conversations.

“Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes I would, thanks.”
“Sugar?”
“Yes that would be nice. Did I ever mention my family had a sugar beet farm?”
“Was that in Iowa.”
“No, in Minnesota”

That sort of thing. The conversation flows and even if you stumble, there’s a clear ad lib you can do to get back on track. In Exit the King though, the dialogue is a lot of one character or another pontificating with multi page monologues. If you get stuck, there’s nothing the other actors can do to bail you out. Then what vaguely normal conversation there it is spiced with the occasional statement dropped from orbit that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the exchange. (The statement above about “he’ll be a book…” for example). It’s hard to learn, hard to remember, and hard to get right. There is very little of what we’d think of as normal conversation. I’m glad I was part of this seldom produced play, but I’m also glad it’s over.

The play is very dark. Death, dealing with death, the inevitability of death, how everyone will react to the Kings death is the focus. Now I’m a dark person. I like dark humour. This play was a comedy, the darkest comedy you can possibly imagine. I like that sort of thing. But, you know, after three months, I’m kinda tired of that. I want some happy, silly, fun in my next play. Maybe a light musical. The Music Man. Arsenic and Old Lace. Noises Off. Same Time Next Year. Something like that.

The play, like all productions had memorable moments. One happened toward the end of the run. Juliette, the maid, was walking across the stage. This night she didn’t step on the centre of the platform under the kings throne. For some reason she stepped on the edge, and the trim snapped off, tripping her. Those of us backstage heard a crash. We looked at each other thinking “That wasn’t normal”. But the actor saved it. She didn’t fall down. Almost, but she stayed on her feet. She even had the presence of mind to take the broken piece of the set off with her. Then there was the night early in the run, I think third or fourth show. There’s a spot where the King and Juliette are wrestling over the King’s sceptre. This night they got a little enthusiastic and it broke in half. We all heard the crack and pressed on with the dialogue. We covered it up, except for where the King ad libbed in a crushed voice “They broke my sceptre”. All of us fought to keep a straight face. For act two we used the sceptre we’d been using in rehearsal. The King then ad libbed “Kings always have a spare sceptre” at the start. Most memorable for me was toward the end of the play Queen Marie is begging the king to not die …If you forget me I can’t exist. I’m nothing…” She was able to summon an amazing degree of emotion into the scene. Her voice, her actions, she even cried. It was amazing. It gave me a great base to be the arrogant, dismissive, uncaring, bastard Doctor.

Then there was the time Queen Marguerite was walking through the Green Room when someone mentioned that something was caught to the train on her dress. She looked and started to giggle. Apparently as she walked through the room it had tripped one of the mouse traps in the corner and it had gotten a grip on her train. Soon we were all in hysterics. Robb, the Director, said that it was the funniest Green Room moment he’d ever seen. The best part though: We don’t know when it happened. She probably picked it up at intermission, but she might have gone through the whole first act with it clinging on. I would like to think one of us would have noticed it, but you never know. Then of course there was the running gag all through the show. You see to symbolize how the kingdom was decaying they had arranged for some of the set to fall down. The Stage Directions even said that walls should collapse. We didn’t go that far, just assorted trim pieces came off and fell to the ground, pipes breaking, and such. The trouble was that we had a chronic problem with one or two not falling when they were supposed to, or falling not when they were supposed to. We never really knew if the theatrical “punctuation mark” was going to work when it was supposed to. It was a wild ride.

My favourite part though, well there were two. First the “Benny Hill Scene”. At one point the King Says “I won’t listen to you. He then runs offstage. Literally out the door with us in hot pursuit. We’re all screaming and yelling as we go. We looped around through backstage trying not to trip or step on each other’s trains in the dark, and through the other door back on stage. Then across, down the stairs, back up on the stage and resume our positions. The Guard then banged his halberd and the lights returned to normal. The king looked at the audience and proclaimed “What the fuck was that?”. It always brought down the house. Interestingly though they played Yakkity Sax during the chase, hence the Benny Hill name, none of us ever heard the music. We were so intent on completing the chase without tripping or otherwise hurting ourselves we just tuned it out. The other spot I loved was when Queen Marguerite accuses the Doctor of being a murderer. He replies

“Execution Majesty, not murder.” Normal
“I was just obeying orders.” Lower and a little darker.
“I was merely an instrument.” Even lower and darker.
“An Executor not an Executioner.” Borderline crazy.
“And everything I did I did Euthenassstically.” Truly psychotic, remembering what I did and enjoying it. Then I chuckled in a low evil laugh.
Looking over I saw the horrified queen, and realize that I had said too much. I pull myself together and finish in a normal voice, patronizing, condescending, trying to cover up.
“An-yway. I regret all that now…sorry.”
It was a blast to do.

And let’s not talk about the weather. Winter on Vancouver Island is rainy and dark. We’re used to that. This year though it was snowy. We almost never get snow, at least snow that sticks around more than a day or two. This year though it started snowing in December and stayed. We missed two of the five rehearsals we’d scheduled. In January it kept snowing on and off. We missed a rehearsal, and several more had one or two actors missing because they simply couldn’t get to the theatre. Even right up to the second to the last performance it snowed, turning the parking lot into a slushy swamp. Oddly enough as soon as the play wrapped up, the snow stopped. I’m not superstitious, but I started wondering about an Ionesco curse. Anyway the weather might have been part of the reason attendance was poor. Many shows had only 20 to 30 in the seats. No shows sold out. The top three were 130, 70 and 60 people in the 170 seat auditorium. Weather may have had something to do with it. However the subject matter may have had a lot to do with it as well. I talked to several people who said they enjoyed the play but if I or someone else they knew hadn’t been in it, they would have passed. The description didn’t entice.

But it’s over. After the show we hung out and got some photographs. Then we got out of our costumes and makeup and partied for a bit. They had put out a nice spread. Then came the Crew Show. I think it’s just an Nanaimo Theatre Group thing. The Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and the people in charge of Costumes, Makeup, Props and more all got together and did a ten minute parody of the show. I was surprised how truly funny it was. We enjoyed it a lot. Then we went back to partying. My favourite part, aside from Queen Marguerite not only wearing a unicorn head, not only drinking a beer through the unicorn head, that she has her own personal unicorn head that she keeps in her purse for this sort of occasion. No, for me the high point of the evening was later. during a discussion of movies. Someone commented

“Mahatma Ghandi. Why aren’t there more films about him. Sure there’s Ghandi, but other than that, nothing. Name one other film about Ghandi.”

To which I replied “Ghandi With the Wind?”

The double entendre’ just slayed everyone.


On the Sunday after the last show we took part in another Nanaimo Theatre Group tradition: Cleanup. They make the cast help with cleaning the dressing room, green room the stage area, theatre seating, booth, and tear down the set. I could really have passed on it though. I understand why they do it. It makes us be a bit more careful, and cleaner, in the dressing rooms. It builds esprit d’ corps. It saves on costs. But I do not like seeing the set come down. You see, it was more than a set. It was a place, a real location where I lived part of a life. Oh sure, there will be other sets, the stage will be used for other things. But it was real to me and it’s kinda sad to see it unceremoniously pulled down and cut up. It was too soon.

Finally when things were all done I was alone in the theatre looking at the empty stage. I started to sing. Quietly to myself, with a tear,

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places have their moments
With people and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved you all

Then I put on my coat, went out to the car, and drove home. No longer the sadistic Doctor to the dying Berenger in a nightmare kingdom running out of time. Just me, a guy who lives in Canada, who wanted pizza for lunch. There will be some time for mourning, but I’m already on the lookout for my next gig. The next life I can step into for a while.

Restaurants

This list will grow over time as we try more places. It is a “living document”. It’s also, at this point in no particular order. If I get enough I’ll alphabetize them.

  • ABC Family Restaurant. (Nanaimo) We really like the place. Just normal home cooking at good prices. Nothing fancy. A couple of friends of mine don’t go there because “it’s the same stuff I could make at home”. True but you don’t. If I feel like a turkey dinner or a plate of really good French Toast, or a dynamite milkshake this is where I go.
  • A&W (Nanaimo and elsewhere) While the chain has essentially collapsed in the US and the few left are really lousy, the same is not true in Canada. Up here they are doing well. The quality is good. Service is good. Love the burgers, fries and onion rings. The only problem is the milk shakes which are mediocre. Otherwise we like them a lot.
  • Boston Market (Nanaimo and Elsewhere) Sports Bar. Decent food and prices. Comfortable. Nice pizza.
  • Dairy Queen (Nanaimo and elsewhere) What you’d expect from a DQ. Good food, fast food ambiance. Their ice cream is great if a bit spendy. That’s not their fault, dairy is expensive all over Canada. Recommend the Blizzards, shakes, and Peanut Buster Parfaits.
  • Dinghy Dock Pub (Nanaimo, Protection Island actually) You have to take a water taxi/ferry to get to this little place making it a bit awkward. It is however good enough to have survived despite the inconvenience. It’s wonderful. The food is great. In the summer you can sit on the patio and watch the boats in the harbour. The bar is great. We don’t go as often as we’d like to, but we’ll be back.
  • The Doghouse (Duncan) Nice little diner. Known for their pie. Our friends favourite place. We’ll stop there if we’re in the area but don’t make a special trip just to go there.
  • The Keg (Nanaimo) Good if not memorable food that’s a bit on the expensive side for what you get. Dark inside. A bit hard to get to. There’s better places so we don’t plan on going back.
  • Lefty’s (Qualicum Beach) Nice. Good food at decent prices. Nice little small town diner. There’s another one in Parksville as well but we haven’t been there yet.
  • Lantzville Pub (Lantzville) Bright ambiance. Great view. Good prices. Good pub food. We go there a lot.
  • McDonalds (Nanaimo and elsewhere) No. Just no.
  • Mekong Delta (Parksville) Our new favourite asian place. It’s run by a relative of the person who runs Saigon Kitchen. It feels more like the old Saigon Kitchen. The portions and prices are good. The quality is very good. Plus they have a few unique dishes.
  • Milano’s (Nanaimo) Quite good food. Good service. Light and airy. Great Pizza. Their Fish Tacos use halibut, where most use cod or salmon. We go back often.
  • Original Joe’s (Nanaimo) Decent food if not spectacular. Sports bar ambiance. The service is terrible so we tend not to go there.
  • Ricky’s. (Nanaimo) We went there and found it quite sub par for ambiance, service, and food. The place changed hands and the new owners remodelled it and updated the menu. Amazingly enough it’s worse. We do NOT go there.
  • Saigon Kitchen. (Nanaimo) Formerly our favourite asian place. The food was terrific and the prices were very fair. In the last year the prices are creeping up and the quality has slipped. The dishes are still well made, but they’re using cheaper fillers. The prawn plate used to have a pile of them, now it has three or four plus rice and noodles. The sizzling hot pans used to be about 50% veggies/50% meat. Now they are about 80%/20%. Overall it’s just not as nice.
  • Simon-Holt (Nanaimo) Very good food. Very good service. We frequent it regularly. It’s a bar/restaurant with very nice ambiance, and a surprisingly broad menu. They even have a band in occasionally. The only drawback is the name. Simon-Holt sounds like a textbook publisher. But once we realized that it was really a restaurant  it quickly became one of our favourite places.
  • Tim Horton’s (Nanaimo and elsewhere) Decent pastries. Good sandwiches. Nicer than the usual fast food places. Often some even have decent seats and a fireplace. Tim’s coffee is apparently a big deal up here. I don’t like coffee so I can’t comment on that. Overall we hit Tim’s a lot.
  • White Spot (Nanaimo and elsewhere) A chain that made it’s name by being inoffensive. The food is OK if a bit on the bland side. Ambiance is pleasant enough. They also do the food service on BC Ferries so we do eat there occasionally. However it’s not our first choice.
  • Comedy Lesson 1: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

    Lets take a joke I heard today and dissect it:

  • Stanley died in a fire and his body was burned badly. The morgue needed someone to identify the body, so they sent for his two best deer hunting friends, Cooter and Gomer. The three men had always hunted and fished together and were long time members of a hunting camp.

    Cooter arrived first, and when the mortician pulled back the sheet, Cooter said, “Yup, his face is burned up pretty bad. You better roll him over.” The mortician rolled him over and Cooter said, “Nope, ain’t Stanley .”

    The mortician thought this was rather strange, So he brought Gomer in to confirm the identity of the body. Gomer looked at the body and said, “Yup, he’s pretty well burnt up. Roll him over.” The mortician rolled him over and Gomer said, “No, it ain’t Stanley.”

    The mortician asked, “How can you tell?”

    Gomer said, “Well, Stanley had two ass-holes.”

    “What! He had two ass-holes?” asked the mortician.

    “Yup, we never seen ‘em, but everybody used to say, there’s Stanley with them two ass-holes.”

  • Here is an opportunity to learn one of the most important lessens about comedy. Keep It Short. Nothing kills a joke more effectively than talking it to death. I believe it was Henny Youngman who said any joke can be made better by cutting it, either shorter or completely. At the very least over long jokes blunt the punch line and risk telegraphing it before you can wrap it up. It’s called a punch line for a reason; it has to hit before the recipient sees it coming.

    So how could this joke be tightened up. How about this:

  • The coroner thought the body from the burned house was Stanley’s but he needed positive identification so he brought in two of his friends. They couldn’t tell who it was so they asked the coroner to turn the body over. immediately both of them said “Nope that’s not Stanley”

    “How can you be sure?”

    “Whenever we were out we’d hear people saying ‘There goes Stanley with the two assholes.’ This guy only has one.”

  • See how much tighter the joke is? From seventeen lines to seven. It cuts all the unnecessary chaff out and gets to the critical bits. It doesn’t telegraph the punch line four lines before the end. Remember, you are telling jokes, not writing a novel or a screenplay. You don’t need to paint a textured scene. The audience’s mind will do that. Just the set up and then the punch line. Before you tell a joke, examine it, dissect it, if there is anything that doesn’t have to be in there cut it out.

    Remember: Brevity is the soul of wit

  • (Said by Polonius in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare)