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So, you know that terrible feeling when you pat your pockets and you realize that you don’t have your keys with you? Now imagine standing in your parking pad with an armload of M&M frozen food and a six year daughter. Now imagine that you’ve just closed the door to your house and that you need to be to work in 20 minutes.

That was me at 12:40 pm today.

It was an in-service, so I was just about to drive my daughter over to a neighbour who has a girl the same age as mine for the afternoon, and then head on to work.
That was the plan, anyway. It all went sideways when I patted my pockets. I patted ALL of them, friend. Don’t you worry about that. I also tried the back door (twice!) and even the rarely used front door on the off-off chance that they happened to be unlocked.

They were not.

I had this box of M&M frozen food because I was taking to work since some of my coworkers bought some as part of my daughter’s school fundraiser.

At least the temperature was just below zero, and luckily the car door was unlocked so I stashed the box in the back seat and thought, “Well, I might as well still head over the neighbours, right?”

And so we did.

I kind of walked numbly, without really formulating a plan. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to work, but I could off-load my daughter. That part of the plan was still in effect, at least.

The neighbour was a street over, so it didn’t take long to get there. My daughter wanted to bring her new sled, make it into a bit of an adventure, but it was already enough of an adventure for me to introduce props. I declined. There were tears.

The tears had dried by the time we got to the neighbour’s and my daughter couldn’t wait to make the big announcement:


I smiled sheepishly at our neighbour and said, “it’s true.”

“Oh, man! What are you going to do?”

“Well, I think I’ll call my wife, if that’s okay, and see if someone at her work can drive her home so she can let me in and then I can get the keys and then I can take her back and I might only be an hour late for work, or maybe I could call my work and maybe someone there would come and get me and then I’d only be a half hour late for work or maybe I could take the bus from here but then I’d be about two hours late for work….”

I trailed off, realizing I was sort of sounding deranged in this person’s foyer.

“Well, you know, you could just borrow our car.”

“What?! Really?”

“Sure. I mean I’m not going anywhere today and my husband takes the bus home so that should be just fine.”

“But I work until 8:30 tonight. I won’t be home until around 9!”

“That’s fine. Let me just get my keys.”

I couldn’t believe how generous and kind my neighbour was being. I mean, she knew me, but I didn’t think we were at the relationship level where we just lend each other our cars, right?

She explained that it was a “hybrid” and that it had one of those “push start buttons”. I told her that a friend of ours had a car with one of those starters and I was “quite familiar” with how it worked. She also apologized that she didn’t have the winter tires on yet, so it might be slippy. I didn’t tell her that I never use winter tires. I was just glad I’d get to work today at some point. She told me that you don’t need to stick a key anywhere, you just need to have the fob “near” you. I restrained myself from saying, “Lady, after what I’ve just been through, that fob ain’t leaving my pocket for nothing.”

I got out to the car and climbed in, (head first, as is my way), and settled. I knew enough to put my foot on the brake and push the button.

Nothing happened.

No engine sounds roaring to life, no rumbles.

Did I not push it hard enough? I almost pushed it again when the car went into a weird “start up” mode, more like a computer booting up than a car turning over. The heat started blowing, so I guess the car was on. I still wasn’t 100% sure on this as I eased the car into drive, but it pulled forward slowly so I guess that’s how these hybrids work.

I know nothing about cars, you guys. And I know less about hybrids, but I do remember reading something somewhere where a hybrid won’t use gas if it is under 50 km/hour. Can that be right? I swung around, back to the house to pick up my frozen meats and off to work.

It was at this point I looked at the dashboard and saw an alarming sight. First: I noticed the yellow fuel gauge warning light was on, then I noticed the fuel gauge was right on empty,  and then I noticed that thing that tells you how many kms you have until you’re truly out of gas. Most newer cars have that. I don’t know what it’s called. A range something or other? A fuel related howdy whatsit, perhaps? I’ve personally never let that thing get lower than 50 km or so BUT THIS THING SAID 8 KILOMETERS!

I don’t know how accurate those things are, BUT I GUESS I WAS ABOUT TO FIND OUT. I think that maybe my work was about that far away? I’ve never actually measured it in my almost 9 years working there. Was it exactly 8 kilometers away? 10? Less?

Now my sketchy knowledge of keeping my speed below 50 km/hour was even more crucial. Could I just “putt putt” along and not “move the needle” closer to zero?

I suppose I could have stopped for gas, but I was already running late, and I didn’t know the first thing about hybrids. Do they take special fuel? I wasn’t expecting to stick gas in the fuckin’ thing. What if it took diesel? You can really mess an engine up if you put the wrong fuel in. I could just see myself later on in the day: “Um, thanks so much for the car loan. I MAY have caused $9,000 damage to your engine by sticking the wrong gas in it, but I’m sure it’ll be fine, right? You guys are insured for that, right? No? Welllll. I guess that wasn’t very smart to lend your car to a big DUMB DUMB like me, now was it? Hey, are you still on for looking after our daughter on the next in-service?”

And on that topic, what kind of irresponsible person let their car get to within 8 kilometers of running out of gas! I suddenly remembered this irresponsible person was also my good Samaritan so I rightfully tried to stifle any dark thoughts towards her and just concentrate on getting myself to work.

On the left hand side of the dashboard was some other gauge that I had never seen before on a car. I guess this was the “hybrid-o-meter” or something. I think it was showing me my fuel consumption in litres/100 km. It ranged from 0 to 30. My consumption was hovering between 5 and 10 liters, EVEN UNDER 50 KM/HOUR so there goes THAT theory, but it really shot up to 30 when I accelerated so I tried to keep any change in velocity slow and steady.

My range-o-meter was down to 6 kms at this point, but I’m pretty sure I had traveled more than 2 kilometers, so SOMETHING was working. I was going to make it! This was going to be fine! Were these REAL kilometers, or were they like, European kilometers?

Then: all of a sudden: I was at a red light and the hybrid-o-meter shot RIGHT UP OVER 30 and the engine suddenly revved EVEN THOUGH I WASN’T MOVING. WHAT THE FUCK!? WHAT WAS HAPPENING?!

My wife’s uncle and aunt have a couple of kooky friends who swear that Toyota hybrids will all of a sudden take off without warning and in fact this happened to the wife of this couple and SHE DROVE RIGHT INTO THE FRONT OF HER FUCKING HAIRDRESSERS’ FROM A DEAD STOP and it was all blamed on the malfunctioning hybrid. I had dismissed this story as just another crazy tale from my favourite people “down east”, but you guys: I was currently in a Toyota hybrid and it was revving like a son-of-a-bitch!

I’m happy to report that it didn’t lurch out into the intersection, and after the initial surge, the hybrid-o-meter settled down into some kind of relaxed, almost peaceful mode, on a setting even lower than 0 km/100 km. It was just marked “E”, which I gather was some kind of “ecology mode” or something?

So with both gauges on “E” (the fuel on empty and this weird gas efficiency gauge in some kind of zen trance mode) I cruised the rest of the way to work, leaving the range finder at 2 kilometers.

I was only 3 minutes late for work, you guys.

I’m here, and I’ve just written up this tale on my supper break so you’ll know what happened to me if I don’t ever show up again when I leave work tonight. The hybrid got me. It drove me into a hairdresser’s window and the airbags didn’t deploy…

Or maybe everything will be fine. I’ve googled “What kind of fuel does a hybrid take” and it seems like the good ol’ normal 87 octane will work just fine.

I think I’ll stick some gas in before I head home. I mean, it’s the courteous thing to do when you borrow a person’s car, right? It’s only right.

But more selfishly, I think I want to make it home in a reasonable hour, and a bit of fuel in the ol’ tank may be the only way I’ll make it. Sure I could rely on that “zen mode” but I really don’t understand cars, you guys, and I certainly don’t understand hybrids.

But I’ll tell you one thing: that fob hasn’t left my pocket all damn day. Continue reading


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Garage Days Revisited

So yesterday, about five minutes after my wife left for work, the phone rang. It was Jean (of DonJean fame, as regular readers will know). For the irregular readers (and I’m sorry for you if you are), Jean (and Don) were our “backdoor neighbours” (backdoor neighbours? Heyo!)  up until a week ago.

Jean was calling because my wife had called her earlier in the day to let her know that their garage door was wide open and had been for a day or two.

“I know you don’t actually live there anymore, and I don’t want to be a snoopy neighbour, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted it open and wanted to let you know” was how the earlier conversation went, allegedly.

The new neighbours haven’t moved in yet, and so they are in a weird transitional period where Don and Jean are still sort of looking out for their house, since it is one of their granddaughters who will be eventually moving into it.

“Well that’s no good!” said Jean. “I’ll just call Tony next door to go over and close it!”.

“Tony?” I said. “No need to bother Tony, I’ll just go across and do it. No problem,” was my response.

No problem, indeed.

As soon as I got off the phone I had to explain to Audrey that I had to go across to “DonJean’s” and close the door, but that just was the invitation for a deluge of questions.

“Why? What DOING? Why the door up? How you close it? Me want to see!”

I tried to assuage her enthusiasm by telling her she could sit up in the kitchen window and watch me do it.

“I will LITERALLY be out and back in a minute. It’s no big deal!” I told her confidently.

I got my on my boots and jacket and was out to the garage, looking around for the “button”. Well, it was a little further in to the garage than I had thought a button like that would be. I gauged the distance and thought I could push it and still have enough time to run out the big door, Indiana Jones style, before it closed behind me.

I don’t really know a thing about automatic garage doors, seeing that I do not have an automatic garage door myself, or even a garage door, or a garage come to think of it. I didn’t realize that as soon as I pushed the button and made a run for it that there was some invisible sensor or beam that would detect my movement and immediately stop the garage door from descending and in fact send it completely back up to the fully open position.

Now I think Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

CALL ME CRAZY, I guess, but I tried it again, running out the corner of the door instead, but that’s some strong beam, dear reader, and it caught me again.

I can hear you say to yourself, “Why doesn’t he just push the button and then exit by the small side door like a normal sane person?” Well, let me tell you that the small side door was/is PADLOCKED from the outside, so here I was in a bit of a pickle. I had promised Jean I would get that door down, and here I was, unsuccessful so far.

It was at this point that I hear sound outside the garage door. At first it sounded like a person walking their dog and I thought: “Oh crap! This is going to look really weird. It will be one of my neighbours and I’m going to look really sketchy standing in this empty garage with nothing to say for myself. I was scrambling for a cover story when I heard two words that brought me back to my senses:

“Hi Daddy.”

It was Audrey! Holy Lord, she had gone and got her boots on (on the wrong feet but STILL) and opened the back door of the house, wandering out through the snowy backyard, OPENED our back gate, came out through our parking pad, and most troubling of all, crossed a sometimes very busy back lane by herself. I was stunned, and also a little impressed.

“I want to see the button, Daddy.”

“Audrey, that was very wrong, what you did just there. You KNOW you’re not supposed to leave the house by yourself, right?”

She was unrepentant. “I look both ways, Daddy, I look both ways.”

It was then that I noticed that she didn’t have her jacket on, and she had a short little dress with bare legs. I knew immediately that when this story all came out, it would somehow be my fault. And yet at the same time I felt a little pride that she would have the gumption to get herself together as well as she did and STILL remember the lesson of looking both ways. That kid’s going to be okay, I thought to myself.

Then all of a sudden, I had an idea.

You know how in Dickensian times they used children as chimney sweeps because they could fit into tight places? Well I thought maybe Audrey would be just small enough to evade that pernicious beam and we could both go back inside and forget about this whole thing and get started on the hamburger helper.

Well, that was a disaster too. First of all, the button was too high for Audrey to reach, so if I held her up and she pushed it, I would still be in the way of the beam. So I found a step-ladder and I had the crazy notion that she could stand on the step-ladder, I would stand outside in the lane, she would push the button, jump down off the step-ladder and run out before the door slid shut.

NOW BEFORE YOU CLICK OFF OF THIS AND CALL CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICES, I want you to know that I DID NOT attempt this. Even dumb me knew this was child endangerment and the situation could have gone down with her pushing the button and NOT getting off the step-ladder in time and falling and breaking an arm or something and THEN having the door shut all the way so that I would have created a situation where I had an injured three-year old, improperly dressed for winter, locked inside a stranger’s garage.

I was about to “call uncle” as it were and thought that maybe calling “Tony the responsible neighbour” would have been the correct thing for Jean to do in the first place, when I looked up and noticed something curious.

Near the top of the door there was a rope handle, dangling down.

Like I said before, I know nothing about automatic garage doors, but apparently you don’t need to use the automatic part if you don’t want to. I pulled on the rope handle and the door started to close manually. I got Audrey and me out into the lane, (looking both ways, ALWAYS looking both ways) and pulled the door down the rest of the way and that was that.

*Editor’s note. I thought I would leave the post there, but in reality, I DIDN’T close the door all the way from the outside. My main concern was to get Audrey back into the warmth, so without thinking I carried her back to the house and got her out of her boots and settled in the kitchen again. I looked back out at the garage and realized that in my haste I had pulled the door down only halfway, so it looked REALLY half-assed. This may seem unbelievably poor parenting, but I ran back out into the lane to finish the job, and yes, you guessed it: in the 30 seconds or so that it took me to complete the job, Audrey had gone back and found her boots AGAIN (still on the wrong feet, we’re going to have to work on that) and came outside AGAIN, but that’s kind of a lame denouement to the story so feel free to ignore it. You know what they say about the truth and how it sometimes gets into the way of a good story and all that.
Til next time!

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Jack and John

Last Monday we got word of two deaths. Both men died of cancer. We first got to know both men in 2003. One was a person I never met but felt like I knew, the other one was someone I talked to on a daily basis but never really felt like I knew at all. The first was Federal NDP leader Jack Layton, and the second was our next door neighbour, John.

There’s not much I can say about Jack Layton that hasn’t already been said better by others elsewhere. Jack Layton was a fighter, and he fought for the very people who had the least power: the homeless, battered women, HIV/AIDS patients, the aboriginal community, the elderly, the poor. The list goes on. I’ll never forget his spirit of optimism.  Back in April, I wrote a post about the Vote Compass software and I called Jack Layton “trustworthy but delusional“.  It just goes to show that it’s a good thing that I don’t make my living as a political pundit. I was the delusional one. Not only did I not foresee the Conservative majority (or maybe I was just wishfully hoping it wouldn’t happen), the Orange Crush of the NDP and the destruction of the Bloc and Liberal Party weren’t even in my realm of contemplation. I’ll never forget watching Jack Layton’s victory speech, and the sense of optimism and hope I felt that night. To learn in late July that Jack needed to take a leave to fight another form of cancer, I wasn’t immediately worried. He’d been down this road before, and I knew he’d get the best care possible and that he wouldn’t, couldn’t leave us now, not at the very pinnacle of his career, at the cusp of making a real difference as the Leader of the Opposition. So it was all that much more hard news to receive when we heard on the 8 a.m. CBC news that Jack had passed away. The outpouring of grief across the country, the chalk memorials, the tributes,  matched my own personal grief and sense of loss. Through my tears, I said to Marla, “Isn’t this silly? I didn’t even know him.” “Sure you did”, she said. “We all felt like we did”.

"So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic, and we'll change the world." Jack Layton

Contrast this with our neighbour John. Our neighbour across the back called me over that night to tell me that our next door neighbour John had died while we were away on our vacation. Like Jack, John had battled prostate cancer the year before, and like Jack, it was generally thought the cancer had been beat. I knew something wasn’t right when John and his wife Marie had returned a month early from their winter holiday in Texas, but John wasn’t one to talk about his health directly to me, and I didn’t feel like I should pry. Our last conversation was in May when Marla’s Dad was parked outside of our house. His van and trailer were laden with things from my Mom’s old neighbour, and John was concerned that Marla and I were getting divorced or something. “I saw all that stuff, the mattress and everything, and I got worried you were moving out”. We had a little chuckle over it, and that was it. After that, his health took a turn and we never saw him out for walks or puttering in his yard. Soon, we only saw Marie out walking the dog, and then we didn’t even see her that much.

John and Marla rarely saw eye to eye. John would constantly spray his yard with harsh pesticides and herbicides, and Marla would rush inside and close all our windows. When Marla hung a bird-feeder in our yard, John hung over the fence and told her she’d never get any birds. The next day when I pulled into our parking pad, I thought I was coming onto the set of a Hitchcock movie, there was so much avian action. He was a gas lawnmower man, and I was electric. That pretty much sums up our relationship. There was a lot of “fence hanging” with John. He wasn’t a tall man, so he had a little step-stool he’d use when he wanted to talk. He was like a sitcom neighbour, really. When John asked me if he could store his trailer in our yard, I didn’t immediately give him an answer, so it took Marla to be the “heavy” and tell him no. When Marla had me dig a little garden the first summer we were in our house, John told her nothing would grow. I think Marla took some pleasure in bringing over some fresh cucumbers to him that fall.

Still, I feel like I’m not painting a balanced picture. When we first moved into our house, we didn’t have a lawn-mower, so he offered to lend us his spare one until we got sorted out. A year later, he wanted to replace the fence between our yards. I understand that it is neighbourly etiquette to pay 50/50 for a fence. John said, “No worries, I remember what it was like to be young and not have a lot of extra money. I’m the one that wants the fence, I’ll pay for it.” He even respected Marla’s wish that a tree that straddled our property be saved and built the fence around it. I saw a different side to him when his beloved dog, Sasha, passed away. It’s always unsettling to see grown men cry, and I was surprised a few weeks later when barking resumed next door. “Meet Sasha!” John shouted over the fence. “But, but, didn’t Sasha die?” I asked myself. From that day forward, Marla and I have referred to that dog as “Sasha 2”. It could bloody well be “Sasha 13” for all we know. Over the years, he would come over and warn Marla when he’d be spraying, so that she’d have time to close the windows or leave altogether. In the last year of his life, he built his own garage in the back, and offered to build us one too, if we paid for the materials. I was really thinking of taking him up on that when the cancer returned. Aside from our conversations over the fence, I never really knew him at all. In the eight years we’ve been neighbours, I’ve never been over to his house, and he never was in ours. When we first moved in, I had him pegged as the type of neighbour with whom I would have a beer on our deck. I guess I missed my chance. I’ll miss our chats as we both tried to have the nicer lawn, and struggle I had in finding common ground with him. There was no obituary in the paper and there was no service. I still imagine him puttering when I’m out BBQing.

Two deaths. One disease. Two very different men.

"Good fences make good neighbors". Robert Frost

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