Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Cardinal Rule

Our church bulletins often have some great photography on the front of them, and today's was no exception showing a bright red cardinal, head tucked back, plumage fluffed up. The cardinal is probably my favourite bird. No, that's not true; it is my favourite non-predatory bird. Thanks to The Hardy Boys, the peregrine falcon is my overall feathered favourite, but as far as your less aggressive types go, the cardinal stands out a fair ways. And I am saying that as someone who cares not a whit for either St. Louis baseball or Arizona football.

I've only ever seen a wild cardinal once. It was while we were living in Toronto, before Fenya was born. We lived in Etobicoke in a three story walk up (a 'triplex'), about two blocks from Lake Ontario. It was nothing to write home about, but we had the third floor to ourselves, and our proximity to the lake helped keep things a little cooler in the summer.

There was another triplex next door to us, and a narrow driveway threaded between them to the gravel parking lot where about a half-dozen modestly sized vehicles could conceivably park. Tall fence and a couple of significantly sized trees separated our lot from he back yards of the homes on the next street that backed onto us, so we didn't have to look into someone else's home at eye level. A tall wire draped between two utility poles passed directly above the centre of the small lot, where once I saw two crows working in unison to catch a squirrel between them. The crows were terrifyingly clever and methodical in their methods, but the squirrel was clever enough to twig to the scheme and leapt to the ground below in a daring dash to freedom, which made me happy, since I've no love for crows.

This same wire hosted a cardinal one winter, and I was completely spellbound. From the moment we had arrived in Etobicoke, I had noticed and appreciated the difference in birdsong. Given that in Edmonton magpies, crows and bluejays sit at the top of the ornithological hierarchy and dominate the springtime bandwidth with their raucous screeches and caws, even a robin can seem positively exotic at times, their red chests popping out like that pink dress in Schindler's List against the brown ubiquity of the sparrow population. But to see this cardinal in sharp relief against the white snow and brown gravel was to see something from another world.

I don't know how long I stood in the kitchen watching him, but my coffee cooled off like Joe Jackson's, so it must have been awhile. When he flew away, I felt better for the experience, despite the fact that the closest I have come to one since then is the decorative one Audrey puts on the tree every Christmas, or occasionally on a holiday card.

The bulletin today got me to thinking, though; what is the link between cardinals and Christmas? I'm no expert, but there is no mention of them in the gospels that I am aware of. No nativity set I have ever seen has tried to cram them in there, and trust me, given the sorts of things that merit inclusion these days, it can't be for lack of trying. At no point does a bright red bird lead Santa's reindeer on their appointed route, and there appear to be none in Whoville, one of the most colourful holiday communities.

It turns out in this case, it is simply a win for esthetics. The cardinal's scarlet plumage stands in stark contrast to the greys and whites of the winter season, and red being a festive colour is enough to bridge the gap and make the bird into a holiday tradition. Apparently the cardinal is the animal kingdom's David Lee Roth, wherein it matters less what he does, and more that he looks good doing it.

Which, at least in the cardinal's case, is certainly a hard point to refute.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Same As It Ever Was

Yesterday morning, while Fenya and I were peeling and chopping yams for stew, the doorbell rang. This in and of itself was rare, but certainly not unusual. Toweling off my hands, I went to the front door, accompanied by our dog Nitti, who barked incessantly. I recognize this is a territoriality sort of thing for him, but I admonished him anyways since it should be clear even to him that I was aware there was someone at the door.

I opened the door, and there was a brown lad of perhaps 15 on my front step,carrying a small snow shovel. Nitti wriggled out through the screen door as I opened it, and the visitor's first words were, "Is it all right if I pet your dog?"

Charmed by his courtesy, I said, "Sure. His name's Nitti and he doesn't bite."

The boy knelt down and exchanged pleasantries with Nitti while scratching him behind his ears. When he arose, he asked, "Is he the one I heard barking in there?"

"Sounds like he should be bigger, doesn't it?" which is true; he is a 25 pound Bichon cross with a deep bark that sounds like it is coming from a dog at least twice his size. "What can I do for you?"

"Some friends and I are just asking people if they want their walks shoveled," he replied. I did, but Audrey had already agreed to shovel ours in exchange for my cleaning the oven that afternoon. On the other hand, I didn't want to discourage his ambition.

"What's the going rate?" I inquired. He shrugged, "Five, ten dollars." I craned my head out the door. The snow had stopped and it wasn't too deep or heavy, but hey, it's Christmas.

"Tell you what," I said, "If you do my walk to the gate and the sidewalk out front, we'll call it eight bucks; does that seem fair?"

"Sure!" he beamed. I pointed out our shovel and broom if he needed it and learned his name was Aaron, and left him to his work.

I heard Fenya calling from the kitchen, "Who was that, Daddy?"

"A kid from the neighbourhood is going door to door shoveling walks. I haven't seen that in quite some time..."

"How long?"

"I think the last time I heard it, I was the one doing it." I was pretty sure no one had come to the door when we were at our townhouse in Wellington, and not in our first three years at this house, either. It was an unexpected but very pleasant and nostalgic association; anachronicious.

Looking up from her peeling, Fenya asked, "Is he poor?"

I knelt down and began picking up errant yam peelings from the floor where they orbited the wastebasket between her feet like an incomplete halo. "I don't think so," I said, "but it is hard for young guys to find actual jobs at this time of year, especially with the economy the way it is, and this is a good way to make a little pocket money for the holidays."

Thinking about it as I flicked the wet peels from my hands, if it took him less than a half hour to do my walk (and I would be quite surprised if it didn't), he would be making $16 an hour. For a moment I wasn't entirely sure if I made $16 an hour, and considering government deductions, union dues and pension contributions, I was even more unsure, and possibly even a little jealous. Still, one has to take into consideration all the walking and door knocking, the sheer number of people not home on the last Saturday before Christmas, and the fact that he was out there in the elements while I stayed in the warmth, teaching Fenya how to chop vegetables.

When the doorbell rang about 20 minutes later ($24 an hour? Clearly, I'm in the wrong line of work!), I stuck my head out again to inspect Aaron's handiwork. While by no means perfect, it was certainly as good if not better than any shoveling I had produced as a youth. I gave 4 toonies to Aaron, who thanked me, and I wished him the best of luck. Looking down the street as he walked away, I saw two or three other teens out shovelling, as well as a couple of my neighbours.

I think this may have been some of the best money I have spent this Christmas. For the price of two gingerbread lattes, I got a safer sidewalk, and gave my wife a tiny bit of the one thing she always needs more of during this season: time. It also felt good to encourage a young man and reward his going up to a stranger's door and trading service for currency, and to have it happen within earshot of my daughter. The memory of doing the same sort of thing in Leduc thirty years ago and the reminder of how much I might still have in common with 'the youth of today' was even more pleasant.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holidays, Holy Days, Wholly Dazed

Our Christmas tree got erected last night and decorated today, the latest it has been up in living memory. This is at least partially due to the disarray caused by our summer visitors (i.e. the bedbugs) and the fact that a lot of our seasonal doo-daddery is obscured by boxes, bags and Rubbermaid containers that contain the clothes that we can no longer trust to the embraces of our closets and furniture. It is partially due to having or being offspring or siblings, as in-laws and others drifted in for Fenya's choir concert and holiday visitations. But the tree is up at last, and we hope the Christmas cards will be sent out shortly, but I will apologize now for any that are late, and I am sure some will be.

I've never been the proselytizing type, but I have striven not to hide my faith under a bushel, either; at least, not once I started understanding I had one, at any rate. It turns out almost everyone does, really. We all do things or expect things based on a belief in things we can't prove or disprove, whether it is a Supreme Being, the Spirit of Creation, the Son of Man or more everyday examples like love or friendship or simple human goodness. I have a friend who is an atheist (one of many such friends), who I sometimes think has faith in a quantity that puts mine to shame, because of his devotion to democracy in a province with both a historical aversion to change and a cultural appetite for apathy. I recently came across a Franciscan blessing that made me think of him, and others like him:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

As a Christian, it's a foregone conclusion that Christmas should be an important time for me, and it is. Much the same can be said for my being an overgrown kid at heart, but I think Christmas has a lot to offer, both as a sacred and a secular occasion. For instance, I find it fascinating that two of my favourite Christmas stories have no overt references to the Nativity: Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

My love for the works of Theodore Geisel is a matter of public record, so we need not go into further detail here, but my favourite thing about A Christmas Carol is how, like Shakespeare, the heart of the tale can be imagined and re-imagined in countless ways, and still retain its integrity.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favourites, not so much because I am a fan of the Muppets, but because Michael Caine puts in a wonderful performance, and having a narrator (even one as unlikely as Gonzo the Great) gives us even more opportunity to hear Dickens' wonderful use of language. Even with as strong an example as this, however, it was still with no insignificant amount of trepidation that we all went to see the new Disney version, which is about as far from Alastair Sims as you can get and still be in the same medium considering it is not only a) in colour but b) computer animated in c) 3-D and projected on d) an Imax screen. I can picture Fenya or Glory talking to their grand-children in the distant future: "Oh, yeah, before Steve Jobs' clone created the iJack neural interface, we would go two or three hundred at a time into a darkened room where we had to put on funny glasses just so we could get even the slightest suggestion of depth from pictures they projected onto a blank wall!"

I needn't have worried; Dickens' tale is practically bulletproof, and say what you will about Jim Carrey, for a guy who made his bones doing little more than funny faces, he can be a hell of an actor with some decent material. Granted, there is a lot of theme-park, roller-coaster nonsense in-between the more familiar scenes to help justify the fact it is in 3-D, but the heart of the tale remains intact, and even the gimmick of having Carrey play all three ghosts comes off surprisingly well through some actual thespian exertions and some inspired design choices.

Most importantly, though, it is still a ghost story, and one of the best, which is what makes (Spoiler Alert!) Scrooge's eventual redemption so gratifying, whether it is shown to us by Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray or Jim Carrey.

Bill Murray's speech at the end of Richard Donner's Scrooged is another good one, which has little to do with any faith in particular but everything to do with values, the linchpin of Dickens' classic. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of terrible stuff in Scrooged, but the bulletproofing holds up like Q-Division made it, and in the final scene, Murray's eminently hate-able TV executive Frank Cross has a moment of pure satori where he says "I get it now," and "It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be."

I've always had more time for the "Don't forget the reason for the season" crowd as opposed to the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" folks. I don't see any percentage in being defensive, and Jesus never struck me as a guy with a huge ego. I think he would see Frank Cross' speech and smile in appreciation, not glower in condemnation because he didn't get a personal shout out, but your spiritual mileage may vary. At any rate, whatever you choose to believe, December 25th will be Christmas, and you may as well have a merry one, which I encourage you to do.

As with so many things, I think perhaps the denizens of Whoville said it best:

Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose
Welcome Christmas, dah who dah-moose
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Picture Worth More Than a Thousand Nerds

My dear friend Earl J Woods' blog post about our recent return to Dungeons & Dragons (at has apparently scared off his regular commenters, but I found it to be an even-handed and temperate account of middle-aged nerdery and fellowship. Upon reflection, however, I have begun to find the lead photo highly incriminating on a personal level. And not just becuase my wife's first comment about the picture was, "Wow, look at all those bald heads; what the hell is up with that?" I mean, I have always worn my nerd cred way out on my sleeve, but that picture is tremendously unflattering, especially when you factor in the following:

1) I am the Dungeon Master, as is evidenced by the screen before me; very hard to top that in terms of pure uncut Colombian-style nerdery.
2) V for Vendetta poster, while extremely cool, is a) a sci-fi movie based on b) a comic book.
3) Just left of that is an even cooler poster made by Mike Parlow commemorating the performance of our a) alien rock band b) at a sci-fi convention in c) full costumery.
4) In the background is the work area where I built and painted the miniatures we are using at that very moment; while this is something I greatly enjoy, cherish and value, this is not an activity that someone who self-identifies as 'cool' would ever partake in.
5) For no good reason, there is a cow-skull string tie hanging from a door pull on the bookshelf. It might be okay to have one of these, but one should at least have the common decency to conceal it.
6)The two top shelves of the middle bookshelf contains nothing but comic collections and graphic novels, including the oversized 'Absolute Edition' of Watchmen.
7) Above that are all 28 volumes of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's 'Kozure Okami' ('Lone Wolf & Cub'): over eight thousand pages of b&w samurai revenge epic, lovingly re-mastered from the original Japanese.
8) Next to that is a Warhammer 40,000 Commissar's cap I made from a belt buckle and cap I got at a surplus store and have worn on several occasions (including as emcee of the 2007 Games Day expo in Toronto with over 1700 attendees), to the delight of many and the envy of still more.

The worst part of all this is that as revealing as these things may be, I can't bring myself to forswear any of them, except maybe the cow-skull tie. The rest of it is all stuff that is still very near and dear to my heart, and besides, it is way, waaaaaay too late for me to start worrying about what the cool kids think.