The Blissed-Out Curmudgeon

Simon, my beloved Inca Trail companion, writes:

You seem to be the latest benefactor in my slow adoption of nearly all of my father’s habits. He clips and snips newspapers, leaving a small pile of cuttings on the bed in my old bedroom for me to read on my return to the familial home. Little notes adorn each clipping “Simon’s House File”, “Thought you might be interested”, “Now’s a good time to buy”.

In a similar vein, I saw this in today’s Guardian and thought you might be interested.

In my defence, my fathers’ clippings are usually motivated by my parents’ poorly disguised agenda to make me buy a house (presumably so I might move the mountains of my crap that clutter their own), whereas I present this link merely to entertain and inform.

Well, it worked. The link is to a great interview with one of my heroes, Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus, also known as Elvis Costello. As for the article title, I would like it as my epitaph, please.

“Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

Last night I cooked up a dinner that would shock my mother, who thinks my tastes are dainty: what we call “a big feed of bacon and cabbage and spuds” (boiled ham hock). I saved the ham stock for soups all week.

Summer is late at Lake Superior, but Autumn comes early. It’s about 11°C/50°F today, and the wind is whipping rollers and whitecaps on the lake. Great thunderstorms roll in in the evenings, knocking out the phone lines. The skies are grey. The campers and the college-student rangers have gone home. The animals are gobbling the rest of the harvest before winter.

It feels like the west of Ireland, like mornings walking the windy cliffs in Kilshannig, Co. Kerry. Last night I cooked up a dinner that would shock my mother, who thinks my tastes are dainty: what we call “a big feed of bacon and cabbage and spuds” (boiled ham hock). I saved the ham stock for soups all week.

At night I read the Brehon Laws and Brian Merriman’s poetry (and because I have the best sister in the world, I’m about to get an Amazon package with the Seamus Heaney translation I wanted). The stereo is stacked, five CDs deep, with Irish music, though I hardly realised until I listened to them all through. On No Prima Donna, a Van Morrison tribute album, I listen to Liam Neeson’s spoken-word cover of “Coney Island” (the real Coney Island, in Van’s northern Ireland). It is rapturous. If Lou Reed were Irish, this is how “Perfect Day” would have sounded. Suddenly I want to be drinking Guinness with soft-spoken people again. (You can get the MP3 here.)

On the same album, Sinéad O’Connor sings “You Make Me Feel So Free”, whispery Colin Farrell vocals backed by an over-the-top orchestra. I have a love-hate relationship with Sinéad, the poster child for neurotic Irish women, and this cover is dreadful. No amount of Nelson Riddle strings will convince me that she has ever felt free in her religion-addled life.

A Tired & Emotional Mary Coughlan takes modern Ireland to a Midnight Court of her own on her smoky Galway blues albums: “I want tah be se-jooced,” she purrs in an accent straight out of Ringaskiddy. She was faintly scandalous when I was growing up in the 1980s: a thirtysomething single mother, a blousy redhead who sang about drinkin’ and smokin’ and _men_. Gay Byrne clucked like an old hen whenever she was on _The Late Late Show_. Ireland has changed so much.

It is fourteen months since I was in Ireland, the longest I’ve ever gone without a visit. Time to go back soon. In the meantime, I’m halfway there.

Violently Happy

Another storm at Lake Superior. At 8am it’s still dark in the cabin, and I am snuggled up with an unplugged laptop that’s as warm as a cat. Listening to Björk’s Debut, an audio timeport that makes me 21 again. That was the last time I lived this way: working, writing, cooking, on my own time. It makes me violently happy.

Jogging in Jellystone

Last night I was jogging down the Trans-Canada Expressway, or whatever they call it. It runs right through the park. I jog for transport since I still can’t drive, and I was heading over to see Ranger Tim’s evening naturalist program, ‘Canoeing at Lake Superior’, in the hope there might be National Film Board of Canada cartoons. That’s how media-starved I am.

Last night I was jogging down the Trans-Canada Expressway, or whatever they call it. It runs right through the park. I jog for transport since I still can’t drive, and I was heading over to see Ranger Tim’s evening naturalist program, ‘Canoeing at Lake Superior’, in the hope there might be National Film Board of Canada cartoons. That’s how media-starved I am. I will run four miles down a highway roaring with 18-wheelers on the rumour of an educational Canadian cartoon from the 1960s, shown in an outdoor amphitheatre with wet seats and shouting six-year-olds.

(Canadians seem to have real affection for these cartoon shorts. Maybe they are like those weird kids who have never tasted sweets: ‘Mum, can I have a raw carrot? Ple-ease?’
Maybe they didn’t suffer the psy-ops tactics employed by our national television station in the seventies. ‘…and now, children, after the Núacht, there will be cartoons.’ Cartoons! We would sit through twenty minutes of dandruffed bumpkins reading the news in phlegmy, unintelligible Gaelic, waiting for some Chuck Jones relief. Instead, often as not we got The Story of Caves, or worse, the fecking Log Driver’s Waltz. For my baited-and-switched generation, The National Film Board of Canada opening titles inspired as much love as the nine times tables. Educational cartoons? If I were Elvis, I would have shot the telly out.)

Back to the highway. A few seconds after a truck passes, my baseball hat is grabbed by displaced air. I play a little game: I guess when it will happen and try to grab my hat just in time. I lose my hat and retrieve it from the middle lane, fast as a squirrel. Many of whom are now squirrel pancakes.

These days, truckers schedules are so tight that they make no stops at all. The shoulder of the highway is littered with what look like half-full bottles of dark iced tea. It turns out these are the pee-breaks of dehydrated men. Annick the maintenance ranger drives around to pick up them up, which is more than I would do for six bucks an hour and a beige uniform. There are dark rumours among the rangers who hitch-hike that some truckers can lift their seat cushion to reveal a hole right through the floor, an inhouse outhouse.

Truckers are too busy even to honk at sweaty women, so the endless caravan of bikers picks up the slack. The bikers are chunky middle-aged men on two-wheeled SUVs, and I like watching them when it rains. I save my sympathy for the real bikers, pedaling a foot-wide shoulder through the endless drizzle of Superior. They are the only ones lower on the highway hierarchy than me: I can see where I’m going, at least when I stop veering towards wild raspberries.

A woman in an SUV stops and rolls down the window.
   ‘Watch out,’ she says, ‘There’s a bear just over there by the side of the road.’ She points about 20 yards ahead and drives off.

I am two miles from home and two miles from the campground, and naturally the road is now completely empty. I jog a little more slowly, which is very slowly indeed. My brain, never one to say nothing when it has nothing useful to say, is humming.

I try to calculate the odds that I will be the first person ever mauled by a bear on the side of the Trans-Canada Expressway. Then I realise I’m innumerate, and therefore incapable of assessing this probability. (When I report this later to Adam Stein, he says: ‘My mother’s advice in this scenario would be, “Someone’s got to be first.” ‘)

I remember Tim’s bear from a few weeks back. That story ended up on the CBC radio news. I don’t want to end up on the news unless I am telling the story myself. A wry, self-deprecating anecdote that nevertheless reveals me as both sensitive and heroic.

(Perhaps I save a toddler from the bear. The child has wandered out from the campground, and is lost on the side of the highway, crying for her mother. The bear is maddened by her cries. He snorts and stamps. He charges the child, swiping a huge paw to scoop her up. He holds her close to his face, examining the morsel before he gobbles her up.

I…jog over and make special bear noises. I win him over with my easy charm and gentle wit. Or something. Anyway, the creature is transfixed. He begins to croon, perhaps to weep. Gently, he sets the little girl down and ambles towards me. The little girl follows; she is no longer crying. The bear lays his head on my shoulder and snuffles. The little girl clings to my leg. We have a moment. A crowd gathers. Then the TV crews arrive. I am feted: a humble immigrant with a touch of greatness, like Wayne Gretzky. Soon afterwards, Chrétien calls, offering to make me an honorary Canadian citizen in recognition of my ‘eroism. No paperwork.)

It is more likely I will win a Darwin Award. I am still running cautiously towards the unseen bear. The road is still empty. A year ago I was so terrified of domestic dogs that I didn’t like to walk by myself in the suburbs, let alone the countryside. I decide it will be a good progress milestone if I can now jog past a black bear. I have no mop to defend myself, but not to worry. Bears are smart, I tell myself. I like bears. It’s berry season, I tell myself. They don’t want no trouble.

Cut to Adam Stein’s instant messenger commentary again:

Cue Marty Stauffer voiceover: “Although these beautiful creatures might appear docile, even playful, their placid exterior belies terrifying strength and appetite. Let’s see what happens when a jogger stumbles upon a mother and some cubs.” Cue canned audience gasps, followed by laugh track and applause.

Well, I’m sorry. This story is going nowhere. I’ve wasted your time again. I wasn’t mauled by a bear. The bear didn’t even appear. I made it all the way to the campground, pumped up. Tim showed two National Film Board of Canada cartoons and a slideshow, a media feast that left me as buzzed as the first Matrix. We sat on very wet benches, which the Michigan kids next to me found a great source of wit.
   ‘AN-drew! Did you PEE your PANTS?’
   ‘Andrew, you shoulda gone to the BATHROOM instead of wetting your pants. You are so disgusting and gross.’
   ‘Ew, Andrew, do you need DIAPERS?’
I leaned over and told them what was really in the soda bottles on the highway. For future emergencies.

Postscript: My young bear, most likely the brother of the fellow shot last month, has been wandering the campground and the rangers’ work centre. The junior rangers laid a trap, but the park superintendent told them to take it down. He is just acting like a bear, not bothering anybody. When last spotted, he was sitting in a patch of grass outside the work center, happily eating a bunch of daisies.


Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.