Making. And rather a lot of paddling.

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Thirty years ago a bunch of things happened. The first naked-eye supernova since 1604 (a long time ago — before Galileo built his telescope, even) appeared in the southern sky. (Apparently one of my favorite albums was a key part of the discovery process. Learn something every day, I guess.) The system where this text is being edited was created. And my one and only piece of something-not-totally-unlike-matchmaking bore fruit nuptials (#2 — completely accidental, I assure you). It all started on a warm summer day a few years earlier.

Once upon a time there was a poo-coloured building next to a bile-coloured one. (They’re both still there if you care to look. Over the years I’ve occasionally curled with the (then) owner of the poo-coloured one; he’s getting on but is still active. I’ve never met the owner of the bile-coloured one.)

Nobody lived in the bile-coloured building (since it housed a funeral home there wasn’t really much in the way of accommodations there for, you know, live people) but the poo-coloured one had a host of mostly alive and kicking inhabitants. There was a professor with a moustache. There was a stoner without one (who lived with his mother — maybe she didn’t like them). There was a budgie named Cornflake. And there were two kinda nerdy gradual students in apartment 12 — a taller, better socialized one and a somewhat shorter but significantly more misanthropic one who wasn’t yet named after a houseplant. As it happens, that one had a friend (A physicist? With a friend? InconCEIVable.) who was (significantly) shorter still, who was a doctor not a gradual student and who was even a girl. One day Mr. Misanthrope got a phone call from Dr. Even Shorter.

“M? ES here. I’ll be passing through your dreary little burg with my posse on Saturday and I thought I could stop by. You could make tea.”

The Saturday arrived and, being an idle layabout (autocorrect suggests ‘ladybug’ but I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate replacement), Mr. M decided to go sailing before the arrival of Dr. ES because his dreary little burg was (and still is) a good place to do that sort of thing. He left plenty of time because Dr. ES was known to get a little testy at times, especially if kept waiting. Unfortunately, when he was about seven kilometres from his boat’s ‘home’ (really just a patch of concrete with a number painted on it) the wind decided to call it a day. Lake Ontario became a sheet of glass. That almost never happens.

“That almost never happens” Mr. M said to himself. “I guess I’ll just have to paddle back. Good thing I left myself plenty of time.” Then he discovered that, no doubt because of his near-legendary attention to detail, he had left his paddle in the trunk of the car.

Uh oh.

So Mr. M lay down on the front of his boat and started paddling. With his hands. It worked, but was not what you’d call ‘breakneck’.

Meanwhile, back at the poo-coloured building, Mr. Taller Gradual Student went about his day, blissfully unaware of the life-changing event bearing inexorably down on him.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. He answered it and discovered a diminutive physician and her coterie of loyal henchlings (this was in the days before the word ‘minion’ had entered common usage). “Where’s that no-account M? He’s supposed to be making tea.” “He’s not back yet. He went sailing.” Slightly mollified, Dr. ES and her wingmen filed in. (What happened after that is a bit of a mystery but I’m told it included a scene something like this.)

Eventually Mr. M ceased being a gradual student and moved to a little house two kilometres away from the poo-coloured building. Mr. TGS also ceased being a gradual student and moved rather farther — about a hundred miles up the road. Some years later (which brings us back to thirty years ago) he put on a red necktie and married Dr. ES. And they lived happily ever after.

I mean, as far as I know. Hopefully there was tea.



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What’s the difference between overalls and coveralls?

Just as you might expect, it’s one of those cases where the answer appears to be ‘it depends.’ (Oh, all right. The most common distinction hereabouts is that ‘coveralls’ are more or less boilersuits and ‘overalls’ are those pant thingies with the attached bib-and-suspenders, typically worn by clownish rustics in bad comedies or murderous psychopaths in horror films. I was thinking of this because…)

I wear glasses. Well, some of the time. I’ve mentioned this before. When I was young I didn’t wear them much, preferring to put them on only when they were needed. Well, the more things change — these days I also don’t wear them much but now the reason isn’t adolescent vanity or stubborn denial.

It’s presbyopia.

(I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve so far not needed reading glasses. It’s been enough to take my regular distance glasses off, leave them somewhere stupid and then become helpless and unable to leave the house for three days when I can’t remember where I left them. Oh well, I don’t need them to play video games. Silver lining, I guess.)

I can’t really remember how old I was when I got my first pair — my best guess is around fourteen. (Hence the ‘adolescent vanity’ reference above — at the time the ugly glasses of the 1960s were gradually being replaced by the ugly glasses of the 1970s and I was somehow convinced that all of them made me look nerdy and pathetic. Which brings me to the ‘denial’ part… I’ve grown up a little since then. A little.)

I don’t remember what I was wearing That Day — based on the era, it was probably a pair of ill-fitting polyester knit pants, possibly in houndstooth, with an equally ill-fitting shirt in a clashing colour and pattern. (Think Robert Carradine in ‘Revenge of the Nerds’. It was an ugly time.)

Everything else I remember pretty well. I crept into the mall (malls are almost as soul-destroying as airports but in those days there was a small Ottawa-area chain of opticians and that’s where their local storefront was) much like a prisoner on death row heading toward an appointment he’d really rather skip. (Fortunately, the term ‘Drama Queen‘ wasn’t really a thing in those days so I didn’t really know I was being one.) Into the storefront I went.

“I’m here to end any possibility of having a social life.”

The nice optician nodded. “Have a seat. Name?” He disappeared into the back and came back with an envelope. (Huh. It seemed too small to crush all my hopes and dreams but heck, it was the seventies; everything was miniaturized.) He took my albatrosses out of the envelope, put them on my head, frowned, adjusted, bent, fiddled, frowned again and then asked

“How do they feel? Can you see okay?”

I thought so. I looked around the room – everything seemed clear, everything seemed fine, until I looked down and to the left.

There on the carpet was…

a chimpanzee.

In overalls. That fit. And matched his shirt. And didn’t scream ‘dweeb.’

It somehow figured that a hallucination would be better dressed than I was. (Story of my life, really.) But speaking of hallucinations, I’m pretty sure they weren’t listed as a possible consequence of eyewear. That seemed unfair.

“I can see okay but I think I’m seeing things that aren’t there.”

The nice optician looked confused. “Say what?”

“Well, I see a chimpanzee in overalls.” I prepared myself for the inevitable discussion on the difference between overalls and coveralls, which one was more fashionable and which one was more appropriate for an imaginary primate to wear but the discussion never happened. Instead, the nice optician looked down and said

“Oh, hi Oscar.”

Wait, what? He saw it too? And knew its name? Not only were hallucinations not one the advertised features of glasses, but shared hallucinations? Who ever heard of such a thing? Maybe it was really there? That seemed patently ridiculous — a chimpanzee in overalls visiting an optician? Glasses-induced shared hallucinations were more likely, I felt sure.

Eventually it was explained to me that no, I wasn’t hallucinating: Oscar lived with the owners of the pet store next door and most days he’d go to work with them. From time to time he’d go for a walk and flaunt the fact that he was better dressed and better looking than most of the teenagers in the mall.

Not to mention glasses-free so he didn’t look like a dork.

I still wear glasses but I’m still less well-dressed than most chimps you’re likely to imagine see.




Trimming (2017)

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I don’t always do what I’m told.

You can ask anyone. Ask Ms. Rose (she’s not here right now but she’s not far) and she’ll tell you how long it takes me to pick up the dirty socks I leave on the living room floor. Ask Sir Rose (she’s not here either but is only three hours thataway) and she’ll tell you, well, all sorts of things. Ask Dr. Brutal (apparently his students called him that; he wasn’t supposed to know). He’ll tell you how I’m supposed to throw the rock AT THE BROOM, DAMMIT but I usually throw it at something only I can see twenty feet off to the right. (Or left — I’m flexible that way.)

I don’t always do what I’m told.

But sometimes I do. Like last Friday.

Various people (like ‘everyone that has walked by the house for at least the last three months’) has been telling me that it really was time to trim the radish. (And no, that’s (still) not a euphemism. ‘The radish’ is a three-and-a-half-meter-tall Taxus (not) in the front yard. Once a year it gets a haircut to keep it looking vaguely like, well, a radish.) Since the weather forecast on Thursday mentioned frost and since it looked like a two-day job I started assembling trimmers, clippers, poles, rubber bands, ladders and motivation. (I’ve been looking for that last one for several months. Some days were too hot. Some were too cold. Too wet. Too dry. Something on TV. No clean socks. And so on.)

The montage of tool-assembling wasn’t too tiring so Thursday also included a once-or-twice-over of the bottom two-thirds of the radish and the filling of several large bags with mostly-green detritus.

I was a little disappointed, though. One of the ‘features’ of the Annual Trimming Of The Radish is that it ALWAYS brings a story with it — someone ALWAYS stops by (usually someone I’ve never spoken to in my life) and provides ‘insightful’ commentary. On Thursday, however, no one stopped. No one said anything. No stories. Nada. Bupkis. “Oh well” I thought, “maybe tomorrow.”

On Friday it was more of the same but without the necessity of disturbing puppet images I could spend more time creating fighting entropy. After about eleventy-zillion years of a not-quite binary search (Math 373 pops up in the damnedest places) for the Ideal Radish I was hot, sweaty, covered in little green bits and above all tired. Was I done? Was it good enough? Could I rationalize quitting? A comfy chair and a cold beverage were looking pretty attractive but there was that little bit near the top that wasn’t quite right…

Just then a couple that I had never seen before walked by, pushing what I’m guessing was their first grandchild in one of those monster strollers that seem all the rage these days. They stopped and cast a (well, really four) critical eye over my feeble attempts at topiary.

Perfect” they said.

Sometimes I do do what I’m told.



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I was browsing the web site that will eventually kill me when a suggestion to write something about (of all things) tea materialised in my inbox. What a coincidence — I had a mug of it next to me so how hard could it be? (That mostly rhetorical question was rendered not entirely rhetorical when I discovered several pieces of onion in it. Not exactly your typical breakfast of champions.)

While picking onions from my teeth I decided to look up ‘tea’ on the Website Of Doom — what did it have to say? Lot of things, but it reminded me that Tea Solves Everything.

Like yesterday afternoon — I was enjoying a mug of tea (actually, more of a pail with a handle on it) when I received email from my cell phone carrier. Uh oh — that’s rarely a good thing, even though the subject line said “AWESOME NEW SERVICE.”

Despite the capital letters it wasn’t bad news — they were actually claiming to give me something (for nothing). Neat. (Hard to believe, but neat.) Tell me more.

The email was a little sketchy. It was long on self-congratulation (“We’re giving you something for nothing — aren’t we kewl?”) and short on details (“Details aren’t kewl.”) but there was a link. Not a particularly good link you understand — I would have preferred actual documentation written out in English or something approaching it but they gave me a video instead because apparently Reading Is Too Hard For Their Customers. So I clicked on the link — what did I have to lose? It took a long time. Good thing I had that pail of tea. So I was calm, relaxed and reasonably well hydrated when the link failed.

“The connection has timed out” it said. 35 hours later it’s still saying the same thing. (Apparently you can buy that kind of quality.)

Hm. So they sent me email about an AWESOME NEW SERVICE and the not-really-documentation-at-all that might explain what it was and how to use it doesn’t actually exist. Really? Maybe I should try (shudder) tech support. After all, my pail-with-a-handle was still reasonably full. I decided to try the “Live Chat” option.

Predictably, it didn’t work. At least it didn’t work in the web browser that I was using at the time. This is one of my pet peeves: in my not really humble at all opinion all web services should work in all browsers and if they don’t they should say so. So this failed on two counts — it didn’t work and it didn’t say it didn’t work. Counting the initial link not working they were already up to strike three. In some games you would be out at this point — but not a technology-related one.

So I switched browsers and before long I was ‘talking’ to a nice man who clearly wanted to help but had no idea what my problem was. Apparently I don’t communicate as well as I like to think I do. But eventually he mailed me some actual Documentation. Success.

Well, not so much. Because the documentation was written in HTML (well, what isn’t these days?) and every image failed to load.




(What are we up to, strike 4? Or is it 5 by now?) But in the actual, you know, words I found a hint that led me to something that looked promising. A button. In an app that up until now had no obvious use. I pushed it. Inevitably, it failed.

Interestingly, the error message claimed that it had failed because I wasn’t connected to the carrier’s wireless network. “That’s odd” I thought “the phone claims it is. And you’d think it would know.” I told the nice man at the other end of my chat session what had happened. Did he have any suggestions?

Turns out he did. Because apparently he had been trained in the “have you tried turning it off and on again” school of tech support. And Lo! After being turned on again the phone said it was connected to the same wireless network it had been connected to before but the error message WENT AWAY and I could actually see the thingy that they said they had given me. Apparently I had emptied my pail Just In Time.

So I learned a few things:

Three strikes are for chumps. Or small children. Or something. Just not cell phone carriers.

Turning it off and on again works more often than you’d think.

And I never could have done it without the tea.



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I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

I didn’t say that. I’ve never said that. I mean, after studying it for a decade or so I probably come closer than some people but I would never, ever claim that I understood it. I’m arrogant but not that arrogant. No, those words were uttered by someone I knew in grad school. It’s been more than thirty years so I don’t remember much about him — just his appearance (a physicist, so bad haircut, distressed (but not fashionably) jeans and a T-shirt with an allegedly humourous saying on it). In particular I don’t remember his area of study (given the quote, possibly astrophysics but I’m far from sure about that) or even his userid name.

I didn’t know him all that well (he was approaching graduation when I was starting and there wasn’t whole lot of ‘generational’ interaction among grad students) but he was the TA (teaching assistant) for a sophomore course in electricity and magnetism — a course I had come uncomfortably close to failing only a few years earlier. I considered myself lucky that I did not TA this course.


I was sitting in my office one evening recovering from one WAB (being pre-internet, we called it a WADG) and preparing for the next when the phone I had (against all rules) tampered with began to ring. It was another senior (ish) student that I didn’t know all that well.

“Hello?” (I probably didn’t actually say ‘hello’ but it’s the conventional response.)

“Rose? Dude!” (Being pre-Farglik, people didn’t often say ‘Dude’ which is one of the many good things I remember from that era. I’ve inserted it to sort of illustrate the tone of the phone call.) He continued:

“I’m sick as a dog so I’m looking for someone to take my lab tomorrow. It’s actually a tutorial so you wouldn’t have to learn any of the experiments. It’s kinda last minute and I’m a little desperate.” I wondered idly how many people he had tried before getting to me and if I should be flattered or insulted. But this seemed like an opportunity to unload one of my Friday afternoon labs, so…

“Yah, I can do that. What course? What room? What time?”

“Thanks. You’re a life saver. It’s 230 with Dr. H–. Room 4-something at 2:30 — it’s on the schedule in the break room.”

Crap. 230 was the course I had come uncomfortably close to failing. (As an aside, it just occurred to me that doesn’t narrow things down as much as I’d like it to.)


I was doomed.

And to make matters worse, it was the same prof that ‘taught’ it to me so he would be acutely aware of my, um, let’s call them ‘shortcomings’. Damn. And it was a tutorial. Labs involve more prep work, it’s true, but they’re a little easier to fake. In a tutorial, you actually have to know the material. Or at least look like you know the material. And I definitely didn’t.

Did I mention I was doomed?

Turns out some parts weren’t as bad I thought. Professor H– treated me with something approaching respect (which was more than a little unexpected and almost certainly undeserved). Some of the tutorial problems I could actually do. For the ones I couldn’t, I figured out who the class brain was and asked him. The other TA was experienced, knowledgeable and congenial (that last one is often hard for a physicist). It wasn’t that bad.

Yeah, right.

About two thirds of the way through the list of ‘suggested questions’ was a Difficult Problem. An extremely difficult problem. A scary difficult problem. I had no idea. The class brain had no idea. The other TA had no idea. I was going to have to ask Dr. H–, at which point he’d write me off as a brain damaged moron and probably ridicule me in front of the entire room. It was time to sing the doom song.

It was at that moment, though, that the other TA went up to Dr. H– and said about that particular problem

I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

Way to take one for the team. Many thanks. I owe you one. Still.

All of this went through my head on a recent Sunday as Ms. Rose and I drove northward towards crows, pigs and guys with flamethrowers. It was the weekend that in Canada semi-officially marks the start of spring — not only can you incinerate pigs but you can plant your annuals and get your white clothes out of storage. It’s kind of a big deal to Canadians after a long winter.

It’s apparently also some sort of Significant Date for people who like to fish. I mean, I don’t know much about fishing but that day it seemed like every second vehicle on the road was bristling with rods and towing a boat. Not only that but every boat launch ramp that we passed looked like a Buy More on Black Friday.

So I learned something. Not exactly a revelation or an epiphany but a discovery. Guess you do learn something every day, even if that something might be small. But then I learned something rather bigger and rather unexpected.

Now I don’t fish. I haven’t fished since that time I flung someone else’s fishing rod out of a canoe forty years ago but I thought I sort of knew how it was done: you climb into a boat with a hook, a string and a tub of annelids and then you let mosquitoes bite you until your sunburn is so painful it drives you indoors. Simple. But speeding toward the Verona boat launch was something that suggested that fishing is rather more complicated an activity than I had suspected.

It was two guys in a pickup. (No surprise yet.) Behind the truck was a boat (ditto) with what looked like several hundred fishing rods in it (double ditto). What was revelatory was what was in the bed of the pickup — a piece of equipment I had never, ever associated with piscatory activities.

Because there (barely held down — you could tell they were in too much of a hurry to secure their load properly) was a trampoline.

A round one. If that matters.

It’s a good thing Ms. Rose was driving because I spent the next several minutes wracking my brain to try and guess how one (or two I suppose) might use a trampoline to catch fish.

I failed.

But then I remembered that TA back in ’82:

I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

Even though you might learn something every day doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.