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The four Scrabble tiles of the Apocalypse

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The Scrabble Teacher, as these little demons are called, pops up every time you play a word online. I have more pointed names for them such as, from left to right: DearGod, WellHey, Fabgasm, and YourMother.

DearGod means you have played EVER when you could have played DIVERTED with a V on a double word tile. The Scrabble Teacher is quite disappointed and will be lowering your Elo rating as soon as you have quit the game.

WellHey looks like the greeting of someone you meet for lunch who feels obliged to be there but could no longer put you off. It means you managed to come up with DIVERT but really should have put the extra time in to get that bingo. You know better.

Fabgasm is for the whole bingo. In fact, Fabgasm would like you to post your bingo on Facebook to humiliate your opponent, and is really sorry you declined, but understands you are a classy player.

YourMother pops up when you only came up with VERT. You were distracted by a text message. YourMother says that’s okay because she’s always known you have trouble focusing.

Planet Sabi

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Since we returned from a South African safari at Sabi Sands in Kruger National Park friends have asked questions such as, “What did you see?”, “What was it like?”and “Will you go back?” Here are the answers:

  1. In Sabi Sands we saw elephants, hippos, warthogs, lions, leopards, giraffes, rhino, impala, zebra, crocodiles, water buffalo and other bouncing jeeps filled with dazed travellers. I briefly fantasized about writing a movie script following all the members of one jeep in which they feed the vegan to the lions.

  2. What it was like was like visiting another planet. From a life in Canada I know bears and deer and little black city squirrels as creatures. African animals are aliens. Now that I’m back home I imagine giraffes walking among Ontario spruce or oak or past the telephone poles of downtown Toronto and it blows my mind.

  3. Will I go back? No. South Africa is extraordinary but it takes 24 hours of flights and layovers to visit. The weather was sunny and plus 40 degree Celsius. It’s the most expensive trip we’ve ever taken, by far. Most important, I have no desire to try to replicate something unique and perfect. Enough is as good as a feast.

Notes from a non-Inclusive

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It is appalling how little Spanish I speak, but my sister Elaine has taken classes so while we are in Mexico and someone asks us a question I just gesture towards her, even if she doesn’t want me to. It is part of my emoji-lingual repertoire. Flexing your arm means, “that water bottle is tough to open, isn’t it?” Wiping my laptop means I have used too much sunscreen. Choking my hands around my throat means “the chef is worried whether you have allergies to seafood.” This was motioned to a Portuguese couple during a teppanyki dinner, during which Mexican chefs trained in Japanese flaming of food enjoy themselves a little too much.

My sister asleep in a lounge chair.

My sister asleep in a lounge chair.

Me asleep in a lounge chair.

Me asleep in a lounge chair.

Vacations by women travelling with their husbands are known as boot camp. Vacations by mothers travelling with their grown daughters are known as Travels with My Ancient. The term for vacations with sisters is ‘parallel play’, just as when we were toddlers, because we spend contented hours without speaking to each other. We bring books to the dinner table. We do not judge each other’s food or swimsuit choices. I wondered if we should pose as a lesbian couple to get the romantic seating on the beach but Elaine said we look too much alike. “Isn’t that what happens to all couples?” I asked.

On day one of this vacation I swam ten laps of the pool, applied sunscreen religiously, read a history of al-Qaeda, sketched, ate prudently, snorkelled and went with Elaine on the double-decker bus to a restaurant elsewhere on the compound. Day two I bicycled at the fitness centre and played Plants vs. Zombies. I spent day three under a towel murmuring ‘agua’ to passing ladies with trays. It would be useful to Canadians if we could trot out this level of sunshine at home once a week in November instead of blasting our brains for a week with an airplane trip on either end.

The buffet building was a kilometre from our room, which made for a beautiful breakfast stroll by the ocean as we passed a promenade: prams draped with linen protecting the wee ones inside, open strollers with babies snacking on their feet, divas of babble, toddlers screaming their heads off, young disdainful rajahs and lustrous-cheeked children so deeply asleep they had fused with the parent carrying them.

A couple in the cabana opposite us at the adults’ pool.

A couple in the cabana opposite us at the adults’ pool.

Why a history of al-Qaeda, you may ask? I’m delighted to tell you. It was The Looming Tower by exceptional journalist Lawrence Wright, which details the road to 9/11 beginning with an Egyptian fundamentalist who became a martyr who begat some jihadists who begat Taliban and mujahideen and Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden and Isil and all the evil feels against a Western world too wrapped up in spending money. I am trying to understand whether our era, yours and mine, is aberrant, or what always happens when privileged people like me don’t pay enough attention.

As the week progressed I went from saying a few words in Spanish over and over (how are you and thank you) as some pompous show of my bona fides, to using my English as politely as I could (‘thank you very much’), neither of which showed much respect at my hosts’ language. I gave up the emoji-linguists up after I mimed a request for milk for my coffee by milking a cow. I was tired of acting like an idiot, for one reason, and also the Mexican woman watching me with level eyes made me realize I was not acting like an idiot, not at all.


An evening with Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow looks small, probably from being weighted down by his achievements. I went to see him last night at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Front St. in Toronto, in conversation with no-slouch of a journalist herself, Robyn Doolittle of the Globe and Mail. He was late and it was great, because Doolittle had time to answer questions on the award-winning Unfounded series she wrote for the Globe and Mail about police power to decide hundreds of women's claims of sex assault did not happen and they did not need to investigate them.

Farrow is the New Yorker investigative journalist behind the uncovering of Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator, which lit the fire of the #MeToo movement and has led to abrupt disappearances of other powerful men in media and other industries. Among the scarier costume T-shirts for Hallowe'en this year was "There's a call for you: it's Ronan Farrow.” He said so, laughing about the absurdity of it.

Farrow is also the author of a book, The War on Peace, an account of his years with Richard Holbrooke of the State Department and the shift from diplomatic to military solutions to world problems. He has just submitted his Ph.D to Oxford University, where he was previously a Rhodes scholar. In 2009 he graduated Yale Law School. From 2001 to 2009 he worked for UNICEF and the Genocide Prevention Network. He was an advisor to Hillary Clinton and worked for the Obama administration in international affairs. He has hosted his own news series on television, written essays for most major international newspapers and done voiceover work for animated films. He was voted one of Time' most influential people in the world this year. 

 He is 30 years old.

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He was sometimes hard to watch. Not him, personally, but in front of us at the Bluma Appel Theatre was an infatuated couple that could not keep hands off each other. A woman next to them rearranged her coat rather obviously, hoping to alert them that they were at a public event. Others of us looked at one another, including my daughter, who mouthed Oh My God but prevented me from finding a cup of cold water to accidentally throw over them both. Finally I covered the eye that couldn't avoid watching his hands and watched the stage with the other. 

It was an exhilarating discussion. Farrow and Doolittle exchanged serious talk about ethics and investigation which made us former journalists very proud, and bantered over what to do about interview subjects who a) hate you, b) ignore you or c) phone you up every week a couple of years after your story has been published just to say, "Hi Ronan! How's it going?" He spoke of the affairs of the world with compassion and clarity, although I could only see him from one eye.

Lest you hate him for being superhuman, Farrow is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, who caused pain and suffering for the family in all ways from selfish to hideous, including his marriage with one of Farrow's sisters. In June of 2012 there was a small glimpse of that in Ronan Farrow's tweet: “Happy father's day -- or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law's day.” But for the most part, he just goes about his outsized life and, last night, seemed grateful for it.

On December 19 he turns 31. Happy Birthday, Mr. Farrow, or as they call it in my family, I really could be doing more with my day.

Your film is about to start. Really.

Zip Tanner is interviewing some B-list actor from some B-list movie who will coincidentally be the answer to a Game Play trivia question as well as the the Turn Off Your Cell Phones Now announcement. Zip says goodbye, the popcorn bag contains only the orange kernels that break molars, and we move on to the trailers demographically designed to appeal to the audience that paid tickets for the movie about to see. Mine are a succession of British historical costume dramas/comedies/thrillers in country estates/gardens/London flats starring Kit Harington or Richard Madden.

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And on to our film! No, wait, first there are self-indulgent mini-movies we must watch. A small animated box moving at high-speed through grass for Bad Robot. A rooster mobile for British Pathé. A bunch of flying stars dip into a lake like Princess Jasmine did with her fingers from the magic carpet in Aladdin. Today’s movies cost so much to make you may see four or five vanity plates before — wait, there’s the production company’s name again in the opening credits! — The. Movie. You. Paid. $15. To. See. Starts.

In the business they are called vanity plates for obvious reasons. Producers’ vanity plates reflect their sense of themselves and their power in the film world. Watch this YouTube video https://youtu.be/HaOmp140NvU to see the most powerful. It was, however, recently edited to exclude an earlier company owned by the Weinstein brothers. Mira and Max are no longer quite so proud.