Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

q10I commute to my workplace. Because I commute I know that — like the fairy tale children who ventured into the dark forest even though their nanny told them not to and then they were devoured by demons — drivers should not operate cell phones. It’s distracting and dangerous. And Werner Herzog will make a documentary about you.

But humans are reckless and adaptable, and sometimes the dark forest entices with the promise of risk. Which is why I sometimes plug in ear buds and converse hands free while driving. Not entirely hands free, since I must activate the voice dialing, but that’s comparable to sipping a coffee. While changing lanes. And adjusting the radio volume.

Once you’re on hands free a pleasant lady purrs, “Say a command”, and you ask her to call so-and-so, and the phone rings after a few seconds and you talk to the windshield. While plugging the power cord. Into the cigarette lighter. While changing lanes….

But, here’s the thing: the voice activated, ‘thingy’ doesn’t always work. You tell the pleasant lady “Call” and she pauses like a startled clerk and says “Please try again”. So you say, a little louder, “CALL”. And then she faux-apologizes “I did not understand. Please try again.” And now that you’re truly engaged, you summon all of a daily driver’s rage and yell “CAAAALLLL!” And the pleasant lady says “Cancel. Good bye.”

Now, I’m a man of science (which is to say, I took high school physics) so I assume that the phone has misunderstood me due to road noise. “Call” must sound like “Cancel”, I muse. So I yell, a lot louder, “CALL”. And the same thing happens. Three times.

But then I realize that this is a matter of culture not of science: this is, after all, a Canadian phone. It demands politeness; you yell at this device and it clams up like a government auditor. So I say, gently and calmly, “call”. And the lady says “Which number?” “Home,” I say, coaxingly. There’s a pause and I begin to hear ringing, just as the pleasant lady says, with just a hint of self righteous snark, “Next time, simply say ‘Call home'”. And then I really lose it.

Herzog is right. We should focus on driving and leave the phone calls to when we’re immobile. It’s best to keep the phone in an inaccessible location while driving. Like, for instance, ‘out the window’, which is right where I threw it.

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Stitched in our souls

I spent another night at the Rogers Centre watching the Blue Jays play the Minnesota Twins. I arrived late to my seats in the 519, thanks to yet another transit delay in a city collapsing under its own weight. A young man and young woman occupied the next pair over. A particular loud and funny beer vendor marketed his wares to the schmoes in the 520 (“over-priced malt-liquor, heeah! Who wants a pricey beeah…”). “That’s Dakota,” I said to my neighbours. “He’s hilarious.” It turned out that they were halfway through a summer quest to visit all 30 MLB ballparks; tonight’s tilt at the Ted was the T-dot’s turn (which is a lot of alliteration for a public-policy practitioner).

Reachelle Spieker and Patrick Smith are equal parts baseball enthusiasts and diehard Texas Rangers fans. (They’ve subsequently taken pains to inform me that they are not a couple, but just ‘good friends’. “Harry, meet Sally…”) They are couch surfing and driving across North America in search of the baseball quintessence that is ‘stitched in our souls’ (which is the working title of Reachelle book).

Baseball is the only game I know that breeds this kind of Grail quest, transforming playing fields into cathedrals worthy of pilgrimage. In an era redolent with speed and power, and with sports that amuse through brutality, baseball is the better angel that inspires reverence.

In some parks, that is. The Rogers Centre, the Dome, ‘the Ted’ – maybe not so much.

Still, I gamely related some “tales of the Ted”, including the infamous story of the lovemaking couple in the SkyDome hotel, as well as the inaugural Dome opening in a rainstorm that drenched some 50,000 Torontonians. I also lauded last Monday’s Canada Day game (which was a doozie) as well as the Fourth of July disaster when we got shellacked by Justin Verlander and the Tigers, on the same evening as the Rogers Centre twinks proclaimed it “Country Music Night”. (I think my quote was “An 11-1 shit-kicking, plus country music. Kill me now…”).

I also explained that Toronto, like other big NA cities, is brashly critical of each of our sports teams. Toronto’s local and national sports media eviscerate any squad or athlete that comes up short, be they hoopsters, wingers or batters. We’re not nice. Also, despite our apparent pluralist sophistication, Toronto is primarily a Canucklehead hockey town; baseball ekes a place as long as we see more World Series banners and fewer on-field flubs and less time in the AL East basement.

Toronto loved the team that night. Mark Buehrle pitched brilliantly, ‘Joey Bats’ scored a dinger, and the Dome opened like a summer dahlia half-way through the third inning. The 25,000 fans were chipper, we won 4-0, and it should have been a great night.

But I felt embarrassed by our park. The stands were dirty with bits of paper towel hanging like cellulose snot from the guard rails. The field bore the gridiron palimpsest of last week’s Argo game. I could see no handrail that didn’t need a lick of paint and the aforesaid overpriced food and beer tasted of corporate greed. As well, the night featured more snark than usual from the raucous chorus that is the 500 level, myself included. Hell, we were like, New Yorkers…gawd fohbid. But the beauty of a 160 game sked is you always get a 2nd chance at a first impression.

I’ll keep an eye on Reachelle and Patrick’s blogs (both are great writers, btw) to see how they (and we) fared. In the meantime I’m jealous of their passion for the game, and wish I had the time and gumption to join them.

My wife, Gabriella, and I visited Krakow, Poland in 2011 as part of some research I’ve been doing for a book. Krakow is where Oskar Schindler had his factory and drafted his "list", as well as where Steven Spielberg filmed the eponymous film. Krakow is an old, fraught and beautiful city, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities, enriched by the lucre of the salt mines and envied as the seat of the Polish kings. On occasion you can also hear jazz.

We dined one night in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. While we were tucking into our starters, the back door opened and three elderly people stumbled in, toting a pair of keyboards, two scuffed instrument cases and a couple of music stands. The first man, who looked like a white-haired Humphrey Bogart, sported a tan three-piece suit, striped bow-tie and a big felt fedora. A second man followed, less elegant, like Burl Ives in a paisley shirt and too-tight jeans. The other member of the trio was a slightly younger woman in a print dress and red heels — we’ll call her Betty, as in Grable.

Betty set up the music stand and Burl plugged in the keyboards, while Bogie ran a cloth through his clarinet and blew out the leadpieces of his piccolo trumpet. Burl played a few licks on the keys, and then went outside for a smoke. This was all happening about a metre from our table in a corner of the room. The waitress brought them a bottle of wine and some glasses, which Bogie declined but Burl accepted gruffly. The trio sat for a few minutes looking over a crumpled set list and then Bogie placed his hat on the table – crown-down, brim-up as you’re supposed to do with a good hat – and the two men readied themselves. Bogie counted it down, and Burl began playing an intro, and the pair of them swung into "C-Jam Blues" though with a Latin rhythm and flair. They followed with some Brubeck tunes and then Dixieland, Bogie switching back and forth between trumpet and clarinet, Burl’s mitts floating like clouds over the keys, and then Betty joined them belting out a Polish blues tune. Their first set lasted until well after our dessert and brandies.

Jazz is a neologism of the 20th century, but it has deeper roots in the music and soul of the past. We sat, listening, drinking, eating, on the ground floor of a old building that likely housed a Kosher butcher or bakery for hundreds of years. We sat, and the jazz wailed, and out the back door I saw the cobblestone street, smoothed by the shuffle of hesitant feet and the insistent stomp of boots. We sat in 31 Szerota Street, an address we recognized later that week when we visited the “Apteka pod Orlem” The Eagle Pharmacy. There we saw a collection of photographs and documents of life in the ghetto from its inception in 1941 to its eventual liquidation two years later. The documents showed many people from ‘ul Szerot’.
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The trio finished the night with "Just a closer walk with thee", a blues that was at once holy and melancholy, and dense with Krakovian memory.

Mecca for baseball fans

Well I can remove that item from my “bucket list”: I just finished a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

As you drive through the tree lined country roads of the Mohawk River Valley, it’s hard to believe that you are destined for such an important place. You could be en route to a farm auction, or a 4H meeting, or driving to a cottage–anything but a monument to a nation’s pastime.

But that’s the thing about baseball: despite the confounding salaries, and allegations of doping, and satellite broadcasts, it’s still at its essence a simple game played by 18 people on a grassy field. It makes sense that the cathedral of the game’s greats squats like a catcher on the shore of Otsego Lake in upstate New York.

Ode to the Dufferin Bus

I ride the Dufferin 29 bus route fairly regularly. It’s generally awful. Others feel the same way, including one of Toronto’s freebie weeklies “The Grid“. Rather than kvetching, however, I wrote a poem. So there.

Ode to the Dufferin Bus

Oh Dufferin Bus, Oh Dufferin Bus

You really are a train.

You come along four at a time

Then never come again

Oh Dufferin Bus, Oh Dufferin Bus

I’d really like to choose

Another way of getting home,

Without my getting bruised.

Oh Dufferin Bus, Oh Dufferin Bus

Why must I pay three bucks?

I never make it home on time

And no-one gives a…refund

Oh Dufferin Bus, Oh Dufferin Bus

I exit and I’m fried

And should I win the lottery

T’would be my final ride.

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“…for the world which seems to lie before us,
like a land of dreams,
so various, so beautiful, so new…”

From “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

These words came to mind as I viewed this vista, the morning after a blizzard visited Toronto. Not a “darkling plain” to be seen. Amen.

Another comedy success!

Noah Carrasco and I educate the audience in the finer points of business consulting at my February 7, 2013 comedy show “13 is lucky..in Italy”. The event, held in the Stealth Lounge at Toronto’s famous Pilot Tavern, raised over $1,500 for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Close to a hundred friends, co-workers and students from Humber College braved a fierce winter storm to attend my latest comedy experiment.

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