My Spirit Animals

Cub Scout camp was always a drag. Oh, there was canoeing, and catching wasps with toothpaste and daring other boys to eat them. There was throwing batteries into the campfire to climax a ghost story with blue-green explosions of chemicals and flames. But there were also educational, character-building Life Experiences inflicted upon us.

I avoided Baloo’s and Bagheera’s efforts to make a man of me by hanging out with the buffalo.

Next to the camp lay an open field where grazed a herd of domesticated bison, each about six feet tall, nine feet long and weighing a tonne. I was three feet tall (until the age of 30), built like a meerkat with love-handles.

Despite their having an entire field as a buffet, I was dumb enough to assume they might be scrounging. I approached the biggest one clutching a generous fistful of grass.

“Are you hungry, big guy?” I simpered. “Would you like some yummy, delicious, uh…”

The bull stopped chewing and stared at the stupidest thing on earth, debating which of his massive horns to put through my eye. Eventually, belatedly, recognising danger, I gingerly deposited the offering (“I’ll leave it here in case you want it later…”) and backed slowly away.

Years later, telling this story to my friend Shirley Bear — a Maliseet native from the Tobique tribe in New Brunswick — she laughed.

“When an animal could — and probably should! — kill you, but doesn’t,” she chuckled in her slow, lilting accent, “it is giving you its animal spirit.”

I told her how my grandfather once told me he was one quarter Sitsika Blackfoot, making me one sixteenth. This, Shirley informed me, was enough to qualify for a Dances With Wolves-style name, a title earned in life by which I would forever be known.

“I hereby call you,” intoned Shirley, “‘Dumber Than Buffalo.’”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking, so I told another story.

At Skeleton Lake in Alberta, my Aunt Madge had parked a dilapidated caravan/trailer. By ‘parked’ I mean the wheels had long ago dissolved or been stolen. Probably by my cousins.
Summer ‘vacation’ consisted of my mother’s entire Scots/Irish diaspora family, as many as 20 of us, shoving off to Aunt Madge’s on the spur and spending two weeks fighting for a bed. Some ended up on the beach. I usually got the bathtub because the taps only ran hot and cold spiders. Nobody else wanted it, and I could sleep in peace. Except, of course, for all the spiders wandering up my nose.

Dotted around the lake were outhouses. Some were larger­, better constructed ‘crapthedrals’ (or so we called them), with two holes placed side by side in one space where strangers could meet and discuss their similar circumstances.

One day I was about eight, and having an emergency. I was squeezing my legs so tightly to keep it in I ran by swiveling my ankles. I ran into the crapthedral, shut the door, latched it secure, flung myself upon a hole and yanked my pants down all in a single graceful movement. Sunlight creeping through cracks in the walls made me dimly aware of the other, hairier body sharing the pew.

I heard a low, gurgling rattle, like a rattlesnake under water. Sdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsdsddsdsdsdsds…

Hunkering over the next convenience, not two feet away, snarled the biggest, meanest badger I had ever seen, with huge black claws and teeth bared in a mouth the size of an eight-year-old’s head. It was a wolverine, an animal so vicious even grizzly bears are scared.

Fear is the greatest laxative. I shot out of the booth on a jet of shit, mincing an escape with ankles manacled by underwear, my shrieks echoing across the lake and startling a flock of ducks on the other side to take off and fly into each other.

When I told Shirley Bear this story she almost peed herself laughing.

“So you have two animal names!” she exclaimed when she caught her breath.

“What’s my other name?”

“‘Shits At Wolverine’.”

Dumber Than Buffalo and Shits At Wolverine are considerably less glamorous than Dances With Wolves, so I cast my lure for one more.

I grew up poor, but blew what I had on adverts at the back of comic books.

X-Ray Glasses, sea monkeys and do-it-yourself Frankenstein Monsters could all be had for a few bucks and a steady chipping away of consumer innocence. Granted, the glasses were based on advanced squinting technology, the sea monkeys were naked brine shrimp and the Frankenstein was a balloon with Boris Karloff’s mug stenciled on it. Unless you already owned helium, your creature was doomed to meet the torch-wielding villagers lying on his face.

None of these past disappointments stopped me from sending six dollars (a fortune) on a Real Nuclear Submarine with Working Periscope And Deadly Missiles.

My vessel arrived in time for summer vacation. I packed it, unassembled in its box, for Skeleton Lake. Before the car pulled to a complete stop at the shoreline I leaped out and started inserting Tab As into Slot Bs.

Once shipshape and seaworthy, I clambered in and launched. I paddled furiously towards the centre of the lake, steadily submerging.

First I tried the periscope (cardboard tube with shiny silver stickers for mirrors) to find some enemies, but there was too much water pouring in for me to see, so I fired torpedoes (toilet paper roll tubes) at random. However, the brackish lake gushing in through the torpedo bay hatches (holes) made it hard to aim. I was setting off a Sea-to-Air distress flare (tampon tube with day-glo red ribbon stapled to it) when the submarine (heavy corrugated cardboard coffin) folded in on me.

Thrashing about in a six-dollar deathtrap I managed to find my feet. I stood up, finding myself chest-deep, about ten feet from shore. Too angry to care about being alive I marched into the trailer to sleep with the spiders, and spent every evening after everybody had gone to bed throw flashlight batteries in the dying campfire to blow the stupid world up .

“So, Shirley,” I asked hopefully, “is that worth another Indian name?”

“Yes,” said Shirley, staring at me with distress. “Should Never Leave House.”

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Dostoyevsky's Dilemma

The candle quivers in the icy draft and the shadows shiver with the grasping chill. Fyodor Dostoevsky regathers the threadbare blanket round his shoulders, knuckles vainly to crush the exhaustion from his sunken eyes, and dips his quill in a jar of ink for the zillionth time.

…Piotyr knew well the significance of the toothbrush and the consequences he, and all his teeth, would face if the a fresh supply of mint flavoured baking powder were not procured before war broke out, and the subsequent consequence of beauteous Alexandra’s affections waning in direct proportion to the increase of tartar and plaque and the consequent subsequence of halitosis and unsightly cabbage stuck between his–

Two men burst into the study, one tall and thin, one short and stout, both wearing cheap suits and expensive gold watches. Before Dostoevsky can utter a single objection they set up a PowerPoint display showing a pie chart, a flow chart, a graph chart and a picture of two kittens in a teacup.

“Mr. Dostyosky, this is an honour, allow me to introduce myself and my colleague,” says the tall one.

“My name,” says the short one, “is Fitzglove, and this is my colleague, Shufitts. I represent a company called Costco, and we love your books, especially the one you wrote about Russia.”

“While I am Regional Profit Ombudsman for a much larger company called Wal-Mart,” says the tall one, “and we also love your books set in Russia, especially the ones where the action takes place in the north.”

“Did my housekeeper let you in?” cries Dostoevsky. “Maria?” he calls into the dark stairwell, but the blackness occupying the remainder of the house is silent and still.

“Maria is dead,” shrugs Fitzglove. “Really sorry, but consumerism is a cut throat industry and we really need to speak to you.”

“Now, Fyodor — May I call you Fyodor? — The thing is this: The American dollar is down and not likely to get up again in a hurry. We’ve used up our resources, outsourced the jobs, lobbied to lift the burden of taxes from all but the poor whose jobs we slashed, and now — nobody saw it coming! — the American currency is kaput. Hell, even the Canuck Loonie is doing better.”

“Y’see Fyodor,” Shufitts breaks in, “we represent the two largest stores in the world and we wanna break into the book selling business big time. Dreams and knowledge set to paper are the only untapped margins left and we wanna get the jump on cracking that opportunity wide open. We’ve reduced our prices on books and magazines to rock bottom, and if the independent book dealers in, say, Canada, wanna compete, they’ll have to match us. In Vancouver alone, last week Book Warehouse, Duthies, Blackberry Books and some other schmuck were forced to meet our prices or look like assholes. Consumers are delighted because they don’t stop to think that America has ten times the consumer base and considerably higher profit margin.”

“By the time they realise that cheaper books for them means fewer stores that can afford to buy stock to sell, we’ll have wiped out everybody. Then the public can swallow what we give ‘em.”

“Paris Hilton’s new line of cookbooks for Chihuahuas,” adds Fitzglove proudly. “It’s called Widdle Snackie-poos For Cuddly-Wuddlykins. We’re gonna market it as WS-POOZ4C-W. More text-friendly. We’ve done the market research.”

“But that’s monstrous!” protests Dostoevsky. “Once there were seven thousand different kinds of apples in the world. Now there are less than two dozen because people like you only wanted to sell apples with the longest shelf life.”

“Y’know,” snaps Fitzglove, “even for a Russian, you talk too much. Now, listen up. We love your books, really we do. But they’re too damn long.”

“And hard to read,” adds Shufitts. “We checked with the public.”

“So we’re bringing in somebody else to write your stuff. I’d like you to meet Mr. Fyddy Dosko, your replacement.”

A young man in a Barbados Barney designer T-shirt wearing a suspiciously unnatural beard strolls in.

“Yo, D!”

Shufitts and Fitzglove help Fyodor Dostoevsky from his stool and guide him gracefully towards the door. Fluthering and foostering to collect his things from the desk, gasping and gawping his shock and anger, the red-faced old man feels himself being swept away like a dust bunny down a garbage chute.

“Look at it this way, Dustyusky,” smiles Fitzglove warmly, “you’re joining the New Rich, outsourcing your job so you can relax and enjoy a 4-hour week. We’ll send you a copy of The Secret so you can wish some money into your RRSP accounts. From now on you just kick back at your dacha in the Caucuses and count the royalties.”

“Of course,” smiles Shufitts even more warmly, “we’ll be needing to hang onto those royalties. Internet piracy is digging into our bottom line and we need every penny for lawyers to stop people feeding their souls without paying us. I’m sure you understand. Thanx.”

“Dudes,” says Dosko, unhinging the beard from his ears and setting it on the desk. “I need a better chair, a laptop and a proper light if I’s gonna write in here, a’ight?”

“Just get started, we’ll look after all that,” shouts back Shufitts as the two Regional Profits Ombudsmen muscle the Russian father of Existentialism past the eviscerated corpse of his housekeeper, Maria. “We need that book by Tuesday if we’re gonna get the jump on Chapters/Indigo/Coles’s new version of W&P by Lee Tolsty.”

…Petey got it, how his teeth would look shit without some hip new toothpaste that could really bust up plaque and make for kissable gums. Good thing Wal-Mart’s selling Family Economy Packs of Crest for $4.99, he thought. With war a dead cert unless the terrorists were sent packing, there was no way he’d bag Alexia­– that hot bit of so-fine, lookin’ at her made his eyes sweat! Mm-MM! – if he didn’t get him some pearly whites and breath like candy. Slipping into his Lululemon Pants For Men and a Barbados Barney T-shirt, he whipped up some canapés from a recipe in WS-POOZ4C-W (Costco, $6.99 while supplies last) for his dachshund Rommel and…

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My High School Reunion

STILL NO OLD MAN SMELL

Ten minutes into the prom, my date, looking spectacular in a blue dress and wilderness of blond hair, glared at the DJ and hissed in my ear, “The music sucks. I’m bailing.” Finding two other guys similarly abandoned, one of whom had nicked his dad’s gold card, we fled to Hy’s Steak House. There they sympathetically served us martinis but sat us by the emergency exit. Later, we made our way to the after-grad party in an open field dotted with hobo fires and unconscious teenagers in puked-on rentals. Several clever clogs had brought tents to have somewhere to crash for the night. The Ursulak brothers, twin captains of the football and hockey teams, were amusing themselves pissing in people’s tents.

I vowed there and then I would never go to my 20th high school reunion.

Recently I attended my 20th high school reunion. Before anyone whips out their slide-rule, calculus cheats and abacus to reverse-engineer my age, I’ll make it simple: I graduated at 6. That I’m almost completely bald now is a ruse I came up with at 12 to get into R-rated movies.

My good friend from school, Christina, a degenerate who lived in Head Hallway (every school has a Head Hallway) and the least likely person to ever grow up, let alone organise something as grown-up as a reunion, got me drunk one night at Bosman’s a while ago. A few days later she emailed to “remind” me I’d agreed to MC the event.

I don’t know if I really consented. The next morning I’d woken up under a bush wearing nothing but thin vomit and a note taped to my chest saying, “You promised!” That sort of thing happens to me all the time. It was signed ‘Christina, Organiser of the Strathcona Composite High School 20th Anniversary Reunion in Edmonton, 2007’, but a squirrel could have done that. They practice our handwriting, you know. They watch where you keep your cheque book. Squirrels invented banking, along with pine-cone fraud — don’t kid yourself, they won’t stoop to identity theft.

Regardless, I was now obliged to host the damn thing.

Despite the possibility of squirrel-scam (“squam”) I decided this was maybe a chance to sleep with all those girls who wouldn’t look twice at me back then. Now that I’m bald, fat, broke and popping Viagra like gummy bears, they’ll jump my bones for sure! At least I haven’t developed Old Man Smell. I had that when I was a kid.

(Suffice to say, at 26 I am not aging well.)

(By the way, you can get Viagra in gummy bear form. They’re for men who still want sex but don’t have teeth left to chew tablets. I saw an ad for them in my monthly 26 Alive! magazine.)

(HA! BUT! I was kidding about me taking Viagra! Don’t worry, ladies, my wood is all-natural. I just apply a thin coat of varathane to bring out the grain of my love-shillelagh.)

The first night was a meet-and-greet at a bar on Edmonton’s outskirts to puzzle over each other. Faces still familiar after two decades gathered, along with strangers who turned out to have once been best friends. Memories well-tended or hoary with moss were compared. Cliques, rivalries, and broken hearts were suddenly mended after half a lifetime. Mostly. I bribed the bartender to insinuate my urine from a jar into the beer of the Ursulaks if they turned up, but I couldn’t recall what they looked like.

“They’re, uh, big and… have penises…”

Hopefully the bartender spotted them, but if he topped up any wrong pints just to be safe­, well, the beer wasn’t great, and nobody noticed.

Stumbling back to my billet’s home, after two hours of walking I noticed the diminishing presence of strip malls versus the increase in wildlife. Like, elk. I flagged down a passing car.

“Is this the way to downtown Edmonton?” I asked.

“Naw,” said the driver, “that takes you to Calgary!” He and his shrieking girlfriend zoomed off, mightily impressed with the human capacity for getting lost.

I managed to hail a taxi finishing its rounds for the night.

“I have twelve dollars left on me. How close will that get me to Whyte Avenue?”

“You’re are an honest man,” said the cabbie, “Get into my car. I will drive you wherever you wish to go.”

His name was Manny and he gave me his card. Presumably if I was ever again marooned on the prairie I could rub it and he would magically appear. Manny From Heaven I called him, and laughed. He looked at me in his mirror and wondered what sort of honest crazy he’d picked up.

I had accidentally (read: drunkenly) walked four miles out of the city. If Manny hadn’t saved me, next year those elk would have been grazing from a mound of composted me, halfway between Edmo and Cow Town.

The next afternoon on a guided tour of Ye Auld Schoole, I realised how much time I’d spent instead in pool halls and donut shops. Wandering into a gymnasium clearly 70 years old or more, I wondered aloud, “when did they put this in?”

“Alan, this is the gym! Grade 10 basketball? We did final exams here?”

“Nnnnnn-ope. Hey, what’s that?”

“That’s the front entrance of the school! You don’t remember walking through these every d–”

“Hey, look! I can see my old bar from here! It seems so small now…”

Today there’s a miniature police station next to my biology class. Across the hall is a sign announcing new courses for grades 11 and 12 in CSI forensics. The worst crime I remember getting up to was skipping three days of classes to drunkenly fling processed cheese slices at the ceiling until it formed a stinking orange scab a foot thick and seething with flies. Now there’s an in-house cop shop and classes in blood spatter? Why aren’t the kids out sinking 8-balls and scarfing jelly-filleds instead of hanging around stabbing each other?

Oh god! That sounds so old! I mean, yo homies, stab away, dudes. Or you’ll have nothing to study in CSI 11. Just don’t stand under that cheese clod or you’ll have petrified Velveeta lodged in your pointy skulls.

That evening was the actual reunion. The caterer (another unlikely adult, Kim McClelland) did an extraordinary job. My repartee went well enough and the DJ spun an endless stream of nostalgia that nobody bailed from. Looking around at the strangely aged faces, I discovered that everybody looks better as adults. Complexions had finally cleared, hairstyles no longer seemed inflicted. Baby photos were actually interesting while tales of marriage and career brought home that I, who has neither, am basically Peter Pan. Despite remembering nothing, childhood feels no more than a few years ago. Although I’ve traveled the world meeting amazing people doing amazing things, I’m still waiting patiently for my life to start.

However, I’m happy. Confident of my life’s path. Sometimes, though, I wonder where all the elk are coming from. I just keep walking, rubbing my Magic Manny Cabbie Card and dreaming of a warm bed.

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Kill Dog Haters

IGGY AND ELLEN 4 EVER

This week talk show host/comedian Ellen Degeneres broke down in tears on her television show while telling the heartbreaking story of Iggy The Dog. Ellen, who loves to adopt animals and keep them somewhere, spent $3,000 to have the dog’s balls clipped off and to have a professional dog-sleeper stay and sleep with Iggy so it could get used to normal life outside the pound. Eventually he was forced to give cute little Iggy to her hairdresser’s kids since he didn’t get along with her cat. The animal shelter, however, claimed that if Degeneres was not going to keep the dog, it had to be returned to the shelter. The people from the pound took back the dog, breaking the children’s, and Ellen’s, hearts.

The transcript of the segment is posted on Ellen’s website. Following it is 16,011 comments (at press time) from about three people. “Susan” writes ‘How about “Drowning out Donna is a lunatic”.’ Around 5,000 times or so. Some anonymous person responds, saying everybody should stop posting on the site until the ‘lewzer spam’r trol’ stops her crazy posting. This is posted 5000+ times as well. A third party, in an attempt to bring some real meat to a heated discussion, proceeds to write out the Constitution of the United States a further 5000 times, because it’s “true.”

Meanwhile, the animal shelter people are receiving death threats. The story is being covered by every major news network, both terrestrial and cable. Inches, feet and miles of column space is being devoted in newspapers across the continent to this incredible story of a dog. Radio talk show hosts, bloggers and political activists, not to mention lobbyists in Washington and numerous members of both political parties, are engaging in screaming matches over the subject. Protesters in every city in America, from both sides of the argument, are currently facing each other over busy roads waving placards, half of them reading. “KILL THE DOG HATERS!” The other half, on the other side of the road, say “KILL THE DOG HATERS!”

In Europe, the capital cities are burning. A rumour started that the French prefer cats and the Swiss — a normally docile people much given to collecting small pats of butter wrapped in paper depicting scenes of the countryside whenever they order bread rolls — rose up en masse and murdered millions of their Gallic neighbours. The whole of Germany has declared it simply will not leave the house until this whole Iggy affair is sorted out.

Africa is in under considerable duress. As the birthplace of all miniature terriers they feel especially responsible for Iggy’s predicament. If Africa had not been the cradle of life a billion years ago, perhaps Iggy would have never existed and wouldn’t feel so miserable today. Instead the poor animal, through no fault of its own, has caused terrible suffering to be inflicted upon the staff of an animal shelter for doing nothing more than tearing a puppy from the arms of a shrieking girl. We all know it’s not Iggy’s fault. It’s Africa’s. An entire continent is joining together, despite being ravaged by disease, war and poverty, to pledge their determination to kill all dog haters.

Billions of people are parading through the streets of India, China, the Middle East and the Vatican, chanting and demanding justice. Those too young, old, sickly or short are helping by jabbing knives and farming implements into the ground in an effort to saw off large pieces of their respective countries and send huge landmasses floating out to sea. While experts are somewhat at a loss to explain how this will help, everybody is agreed that at least something positive is being done.

NASA is in discussions with the Russian, Chinese and European space agencies, as well as with Richard Branson, to come up with a means by which the moon can be blown up. Nuclear weapons from every warmongering nation are being collected. World leaders gathered together today at the UN to have a drink with the president of Iran, and in a joyous and somewhat hysterical mood, passed a motion allowing the previously vilified country to pursue nuclear ambitions so long as they agreed to help destroy Earth’s only satellite. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was overheard to say “I only hope Iggy can forgive us for not doing this sooner. I love that little guy!”

There are dissenters, of course. A man named Carl Passekandy in Winnipeg, Manitoba declared aloud at his local Bingo that he thought a big fuss was being made over nothing. The other seniors in the room fed him to ants. His arms and legs were bound in magnetic tape from Mrs. Kathy McNally’s collection of Zamfir albums, his eyes were gouged out with watermelon-ballers and honey was poured over his body. Finally he was left in a field with a note pinned to his ear saying “Ants! Come and Git it!” The only other non-supporter on the planet was Carl’s brother Leroy, who opined that folks went a bit far gouging his sibling’s eyes out. Leroy was tied to one hundred ducks down by the pond in the park and old ladies threw bread crumbs in every direction. Leroy was torn to pieces. The pieces were then fed to the ducks.

Otherwise the campaign to make Iggy happy again goes well. With any luck the animal shelter where he is imprisoned will be demolished with bazookas and tank shells and the darling doggy can be rescued and returned to the family Ellen Degeneres gave him to. If this can be done before next weekend, her hair stylist should be able to make an appointment to give her a trim, and maybe some highlights before she starts taping the next week’s shows. The alternative is just too awful to contemplate.

Let us pray.

And don’t forget: Kill the Dog Haters.

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Grin and Colbert it

I Am America (And So Can You)

My only beef with Stephen Colbert is he churns out quality jokes at such a relentless, furious pace that soon there will be no more jokes left to create. In the same way that before television was invented there was nothing left in the world to invent, three more years of The Colbert Report will ensure every joke that can ever be will have been made already.

Even worse for myself, as Science Editor for Only Magazine, every night on his show it’s like he has a team of lab-coated eggheads and dedicated chimps in a sterile room redefining the physical universe just so he has fresh fodder to comment on. It leaves me nothing but second-run jokes and slightly soiled science.

If only there had been more inventions available for scientists and crackpots to come up with back in the 40s! The modern world would thus be spared the boob tube and Colbert would have to make do being a radio personality. He could still do visual gags on vaudeville, but it would slow him down a bit.

As it is, in just three years there will be nothing funny left.

Correction: In a year and a half there will be nothing funny left.

Stephen Colbert has published a book, hastening the consumption of all things hilarious, called “I Am America (And So Can You)”, which is funnier than a bull in a helium balloon shop, smashing and bellowing in a squeaky voice. Ignoring the risk of becoming the next Bill Cosby, Colbert writes about childhood, relationships, religion, employment, school, building walls around America to keep Mexicans out and the imminent threat to Stephen Colbert’s heterosexuality of baby carrots. All once-solid Cosby territory. It ends with a full transcript of Colbert’s genius, seat-of-the-pants appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. I know I watched it on the seat of my pants. Pants wet with laughing.

The basic shape of the book resembles the popular Colbert Report segment, “The Word”. Alongside each punchy, pithy, penetrating, pedantic, alliterative paragraph are comments from his subconscious printed in red. Like the Bible, the words in red are often the funniest. Even more so than _The Daily Show_’s book from last year “America (The Book)”, “I Am America” plays with what a book can do. The closest comparison to Colbert and Jon Stewart in print is the columns of Myles na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien (aka Brian O’Nolan)) that ran in the Irish Times from 1940-66. Na Gopaleen wrote daily rants and musings that played on various levels of humour, from Rarified to Fart, including ridiculous technical illustrations of his own devising and ‘facts’ of his own revising, but he would also refer to other sections of whatever page he was printed on that day. Myles (Flann (Brian)) was known frequently to hang about the printing room where the printers printed the newspaper print, and would actually draw lines, arrows and doodles right on the metal plates connecting other stories to his own outlandish blather.

Colbert doesn’t do this. For a start, all the blather is his in the first place. But the same sense of irrepressible freedom is evident. The rampant glee bouncing about the pages of “I Am America” gives the impression Colbert (and the writers who joined in) knocked the thing out in a long, drunken weekend. Levels and layers and subtext and Rarified Farting infuse this handsome tome in something we poets call “permanence,” and we scientists of humour call “disaster.” Between this book and his still-running programme, I will soon have no material to work with and will have to resort to real journalism, writing actual, boring news. Legitimate work. And I am the laziest person I know. This bodes ill for me.

On a legal note, this book isn’t actually on sale yet. It is due to hit the shelves October 9, embargoed from sale until then. I employed the Mask Of Literary Criticism and the Crowbar of Keenness to get a hold of the book in advance. On the off chance Colbert’s lawyers read this review and try to sue me, my official position is that I love Stephen Colbert’s work so much I couldn’t help myself, and pray and plead he feels sorry enough for my impending obsolescence, and pathetic addiction to pictures of him in chunky sweaters, not to press charges.

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My Hobo Suit

A Birthday Dinner At Cioppino’s

“May I take your coat?”

My leather jacket is about as attractive as a burst basketball with sleeves. It’s a hobo suit, cut from the hide of an animal so lowly even PETA wouldn’t argue its case. The texture even resembles faux-chicken or tofurkey. Or maybe it’s just tailored duct tape. Whatever. I love this jacket. I’m sentimental and it keeps me dry.

The coat check woman politely slipped my rags on a hook and gave me a ticket that was nothing less than an American Express credit card with a hole punched in it and a number written in gold felt pen.

I knew then we were in trouble.

My sister was taking me out for a belated birthday dinner, and she had waved down my first suggestion, Subway, saying she had money these days and wanted to treat me. I then suggested this quaint Italian place I’d passed by numerous times, Cioppino’s. The reek of money should have driven me out, but my sister, bless, who must have realised before me what a pit of opulence we were entering, gamely continued following the maitre d’ to our table placed directly before the open-faced kitchen.

A wine list thick as a phone book was shouldered to our table. Flipping it open halfway the first bottle I noticed was listed at $888. I checked the floor around us for the decimal point that must have fallen out. The next bottle in my random inspection cost $1,255.00. Towards the end, but not the very end, I discovered a bottle of fermented grape juice somebody somewhere was prepared to pay $6,777 to drink and slammed shut the tome.

“I think,” I whispered loudly enough to be heard over my hammering heartbeat, “this place might be a bit much for us! Let’s sneak out now.”

“We can’t,” whispered my sister just as loudly, staring over my shoulder at the entire staff of the kitchen paused in their work to stare at us. “They have your coat, remember? Just find something we can afford…”

My three-dollar coat or a dinner that could swallow a mortgage?

I’m sentimental. It keeps me dry. We stayed.

Now, the go-to plan here, obviously, would be to order the seven grand vino, sip the waiter’s obligatory sample and turn up my nose.

“Ew! Corked, I’m afraid, dear boy! Rum luck, eh what? Chizz chizz!”

After the sobbing waiter had poured the hundred year old bottle of Chateau de la Chateau down the sink, while the chef’s staff stared hard at my throat, testing the heft of cleavers in their hands, I would have to sit and watch as the kitchen staff, their bloodshot eyes never leaving mine, formed a queue to hurk and spit openly in my food, fart wetly over my plate, crouched over my dessert with their pants down, coiling fresh mousse onto the delicate Madeleine biscuits. A huge heap of Italian mousse on French biscuits. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

What if I had simply ordered the wine and drank it? When the bill arrived and I didn’t have the gold brick needed to pay for it, what would happen? What’s the punishment for Grand Theft Ambrosia?

I would be sent to a prison in the Okanagan where the prisoners while away their penance treading barefoot in vats of bubbling grapes. Where else would they find the manpower cheap enough– in BC– to make the stuff? Hidden away in golden orchards, beyond hills lined with green vines and glistening grapes, lie walled compounds filled with unwashed men covered with shiv scars and tattoos of heraldic crests and Latin mottoes of ancient families of Langue d’oc and Champagne, trudging rhythmically in huge buckets, naked from the waist down, taking extreme care not to drop the soap.

“What are you in for?”

“Drank a bottle of Chateau de la Chateau on my birthday. You?”

“Killed a man who lied about a corked bottle of Maison sur la Maison.”

“Bastard…”

Newbies — fresh fish who would’ve had one last cleanse in the days before incarceration — would make nothing fancier than Merlot. After a few years building up scabs, crabs, lice and armpit lobsters, they work their way up to Burgundies, Syrahs, Bordeaux, Barolos and Chiantis. The oldest, leprous men, wielding crutches made from the bones of dead cell mates get to make Semillons and, if they are especially rancid, Retsina.

That is the only way I can see a bottle of wine, intended for drinking — for washing down good food and putting a warm fuzz over a lovely evening with friends or a beautiful date — somehow costing $6,777.00: because a man gave his life to produce it.

Let me say, however, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the staff of Cioppino’s were incredible. There was never a single instant of bad behaviour on their part. Never, not once, were my sister and I made to feel like anything less than the wealthiest patrons there. In fact, swarming our table, administering to our slightest care, they actually put more attention to our comfort than they did the customers who were clearly spending thousands of dollars on their meals. If I owned a gold mine I wouldn’t hesitate to eat there again.

When I made a passing joke about it being my hobo suit, the coat check woman handing me back my jacket, dismissing my humbleness with a smile.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You’re fine. You folks are welcome anytime.”

I slung on my coat and slunk out into the rain, ashamed of my cynical fantasies, but lushly sated and dry.

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