the diary thing 
sl - slideMY BIRTHDAY WAS ACTUALLY ten days ago, but I needed a little break after putting up the travelogue. I'm now thirty-six. I was given some nice swag.

K. gave me a covered saute pan, a 12" Meyer Circulon™ in anodized aluminum with a stainless lid. I've been wanting one of these since my sister got one, a 12" Cusinart in stainless that she uses to make sauces for pasta -- it's the shit, I swear. All of our other pans, except the cast iron jobbies, look like utter trash now. 

K.'s sister Alex and her significant other Oliver the engineer gave me a Sea Monkeys™ watch, a Lego™ pontoon plane, and a book in the Taschen architectual history series I've been trying to collect. Greg and Vicki gave me a bottle of Bushmill's 10-year old and Thomas Merton's autobiography. Andrea and Dennis gave me some Century Sams, which Den and I smoked after dinner. K.'s family gave me cash -- boy did I ever need it. It was a nice b-day.

For years I didn't celebrate my birthday, out of some innate masochism, I suppose. What a mistake. The gifts are nice, of course, but it's nice to have an excuse to sit down to dinner with your friends and make happy. There just doesn't seem to be much opportunity to do that, lately.

"Man seeketh in society comfort, use, and protection."
- Francis Bacon
The Advancement of Learning

My birthday, the garden, a rant, some kvetching, and a really disgusting musing on my own asshole and its workings.

WHO ON EARTH STEALS A GARBAGE CAN? Honestly, I'm absolutely stunned by this. A couple of weeks ago, my buddy Scott and I headed out for lunch, and on the way, I stacked the now-empty garbage can, put out at the kerb that morning, by our front path, with the lid on the up-ended bottom. A couple of hours later, I came back home -- no garbage can. 

No garbage can on the porch, or out on the deck, where K. would put it if she came home. Nothing in the backyard, or in the coach house. Nothing, nowhere -- gone, gone, gone. Who the hell would steal a skanky, foul-smelling old Rubbermaid™ garbage can with raccoon gnawings on the handle and a residue of cat litter caked on the bottom? What kind of moron trawls through a residential street looking for just the perfect skanky garbage can -- with lid, of course -- to haul home through said streets to his skanky thieves' den? What is the world coming to?

I happen to believe that civic order -- the basic glue that holds civilization together -- is based on little unwritten rules like, for instance, "Don't steal your neighbour's skanky garbage can." The ten commandments are, among other things, a pretty nice summary of the essence of civic order, a decent prescription for keeping a society in working order, government ticking along with some semblance of efficiency, business capably turning labour into goods with minimum friction, and the overall polity facing the world clear-eyed and pink-cheeked. If you want to try and imagine your life without these basics, just move to Russia, or Belarus.

(Isn't it fascinating that this statement, once the province of right-wing red-baiters in the days of the cold war, is now a simple statement of truth. Communist Russia might have been a state tyranny with precious little consumer choice or career options, but the civic polity was maintained, desperately. The fall of communism has had one major side-effect, which is to make Russia resemble the impoverished, kleptocratic nightmare painted by anti-communists for decades. And now those people will tell you it's an improvement. One thing that should be obvious by now is that consumer capitalism doesn't work without a stable civic society -- something to think about the next time a candidate for office tries to sell you on the wisdom of dismantling, or reducing funding to, those structures that maintain the polity, like basic welfare programs, health care, education and municipal services.)

So we go out and buy a new garbage can. Now paranoid -- the state of mind that indicates an unstable polity -- I wait for the garbagemen to come by and empty it, but before I can make it downstairs to take it back in, some upstanding citizen deposits a little knotted plastic bag, heavy with dog turd, in our new can.

Okay, so everyone wants to cheat a little. Obviously, solid citizen is good enough to pick up after his pooch, but uncomfortable enough with the whole process that he wants to ditch his bag of turd as soon as possible. We all try to pay as little tax as possible, get a free ride every now and then, and I'm certain few of us complain when we find a quarter in the change return slot of a payphone, or a couple of twenties in the bank machine, left behind by some harassed, absentminded individual. (It's happened to me -- $200 in twenties, in fact, and I spent it right away. I can only manage the faintest guilt about this, two years later.)

We all cheat, and most of us justify our cheating by imagining that, somewhere, everywhere, someone with a lot more power and influence is cheating, and we're mostly right. In everything from petty crime to organized crime, from nepotism to political corruption, we have more than enough evidence that the cheating goes on, and the only thing preventing it from utterly corroding our society is the fact that we don't rob our neighbours, sneak onto the subway, vandalize our own neighbourhood or add to the ambient social tension by acting out, en masse, our tension, rage and despair in public with an orgy of assault, theft and murder. 

Toronto is a classic example of a city run by a corrupt administration, but one that understands that a sufficient level of stability has to be maintained in order for the citizenry to go happily about their business without worrying too much about where their tax money is going. The city is clean, quiet, and increasingly ugly, but since few people notice the last detail, the first two carry the day. The lack of sufficient subways, the free had developers are given to guide the city's growth, the utter lack of coherent city planning -- mere nuisances, it seems, provided that the taps run clean water and the lights stay on, and the imperative of commerce runs without a hiccup. The polity is maintained.

I wish I had some kind of prescription for improvement, but I just happen to believe that it's probably not possible. As long as the worst thing I have to worry about is a stolen garbage can, then my problems are pretty minor. It's far from perfect here, but I'm certain millions of people would like to have my problems, my apartment, my relationship, my elected officials, my lifestyle and the longing and ambition that makes me hope that all this will change.

That's my rant for the day, I suppose. I have, after two years of this diary, revealed myself to be a classic, disillusioned Liberal. So shoot me.


(This is the most disgusting thing I've written in a long time. Read it at your peril. I don't know why I feel so desperate to share this.)

I HAVE BEEN, for the last week, afflicted with the latest bout of a nasty case of the piles. I didn't know what pile was until I had them, and I'd always thought that hemorrhoids were something that only the really old had to worry about. I suppose I deserved them -- a tendency to linger on the shitter, reading, or to strain for regularity, pretty much guaranteed that I'd be visited by the affliction sooner or later.

The most surprising thing about piles is the way they make you painfully aware of your own asshole. My first bout hit me on a plane to Chicago, and I remember painfully walking through the steaming summer streets looking for a Walgreen's™, in order to buy some Preparation H™, a remedy I'm surprised I could remember from commercials. That I even knew what it was is a testament to how much "seniors-oriented" television I watched when I was younger.

Back at my hotel, my next big surprise came to me as I struggled with an introduction to suppositories. Once I'd wasted a couple -- theyd gotten soft in the heat on the way back to the hotel -- I finally got one home, and nearly passed out when I had the distinct sensation of another mouth -- the inner rectum, as it turned out -- ingesting and swallowing the little bullet-shaped, waxy pastille of ointment, as if exercising some ravenous appetite I was previously unaware of. It was, I thought with a shudder, a thoroughly Burroughsian moment, and images from The Naked Lunch came flooding into my mind. I hobbled from the bathroom to lay down on the bed, and pondered the mysterious workings of the human body while idly flipping channels on the remote.

I MISS SPAIN. I miss the sun and the sweet smell in the air, a mix of flowers and pork and black tobacco. I miss the bars -- ever since I got back all I can think is that the average bar here is just too big. Somehow, a great cavernous space where you can play pool, watch t.v., eat, drink, dance and sing karaoke comfortably in the area between your table and the bar seems hopelessly inefficient. I miss the little beers you order (cañas, they're called -- "Dos cañas, por favor.") when you don't want to get drunk and pissy in once place, and the little plates of tapas to keep your stomach working. 

I miss the rose bushes growing in every garden, by the side of every house and on every roadside wall in Rioja and northern Castille. I miss the faintly sour fruit of the new wine, and the fizzy cider at the Taverna Irati in Barcelona. I miss the anchovies and baby octopus, and the Galician ham at that little place in the Barri Gotic. I miss streets that curve, and the way that sandstone reflects warm light back on the rest of the street.

I am so thoroughly sick of small talk that it was a gift to know that no one could really understand me, and that any conversation would exist just to establish the basics -- where am I, how much does this cost, how can I get there, where can I get a cheap meal? 

What's the opposite of homesickness?

IT'S BEEN A COOL SUMMER -- not a single day of scorching heat or a single night of humid agony, twisting and gasping on the sheets under a fan. The deck garden took off slowly, then burst into bloom a month ago. Right now, most of the flowers are wilting and the leaves have turned from bright green to a faded colour tinged with yellow. The only things that continue to thrive are the herbs and ivy.

The tomato plants suffered their inevitable aphid infestation, but between spraying soapy water on them, and the cavalry charge of the ladybugs, they're producing fruit. The pepper plants we bought promised to be red bells, but instead we have long, thin, hot green peppers, much less useful, but far less attractive to the squirrels or raccoons. The basil, alas, isn't as happy this year as last.

The daisies our neighbour gave us -- a woman whose old-world friendliness is the exception here, rather than the rule -- grew like stink for a couple of months, developed buds a few weeks ago, and are now nearing the end of their life. The forget-me-nots went to seed awhile ago, and the radishes were finished before I left for Spain. The cool weather has extended the life of the peas, however, and they're continuing to provide us with pods, while last year they were yellow and wilted by now. We planted climbing beans last month, and they're already bushy and huge, but the first crop of lettuce is finished -- K. let it go to seed to get more arugula for the next crop.

The thyme -- all three kinds -- has already flowered, and I've cut it back to stop it from getting leggy. I'm trying to find as many recipes that use sage as possible, as we have a bumper crop this year. The marjoram and Greek oregano are already budding, and have to be cut and hung to dry in the kitchen before flowers appear. K. read that the marjoram will probably wilt or turn bitter if this isn't done.

The spearmint, once a huge bush, is getting long and leggy, and the parsley keeps threatening to bolt, and has to be trimmed often. The Italian oregano, which suffered so much with the cold spring, has come back in the bright sun that finally arrived. K.'s tomatillo, which we started as a seedling, is growing like a weed. I hope she knows what to do with tomatillos -- I suspect a lot of salsa.

I'm struck most of all by how a garden can go from thriving to fecund, and by how much planning is necessary to keep it green and blooming all summer. This weekend, we'll pull out the declining plants and replace them with new transplants, perhaps flowers and ferns.

I'VE BARELY LEFT THE HOUSE these last few days. Lack of money and the need to stay by the phone for work have kept me inside except for trips to the store. I've made K. lunch almost every night, packing it away in Tupperware™ and bagging it up in the morning, along with an apple, a juice, and maybe some breadsticks or some slices of fresh baguette. I've been such a good househusband. Compensation, I suppose for how poorly I'm contributing to the household financially.

Before the month is up, I have to revise my half-finished novel to get it ready for a grant application, write up the Spain trip for a travel piece, and finish off another couple of book reviews. I have no idea whatsoever that I'm making any headway in my career.

The undertakers' piece has stalled somewhere on the desk of the original editor I pitched it to, after the visual features section decided it wasn't a photo essay after all. Since I originally pitched it as an essay, I'm hardly surprised. I hate trying to work for this magazine; between the benign neglect of the editors, the plodding committee process of the boomer-dominated staff, and the shared conceit that infects the place -- it's Canada's longest-published "highbrow" general interest magazine, and I'm encouraged to feel honoured to be ill-used by it -- I'm already regretting my optimism of a few months ago.

Vainly, it seems some days, looking for light at the end of the tunnel.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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