Most reasonable people would agree that the manual labour required to shovel a parking spot free of snow earns the shoveller a de facto deed to that place for the duration. But when J & I came home one evening to find “our” spot occupied by an interloper, I had to plow the car into a virgin bank of snow, marooning it there — two feet from and at a 30-degree angle to the curb — until I could dig it free next morning. I realized then that our theoretical claim needed to be staked more concretely. My first attempt — a plastic bucket filled with snow and topped with a rock, placed in the centre of our spot — lasted just one day; why anyone would steal a plastic bucket full of snow during a snowstorm? An upended garbage can worked well, but I could never quite shake off the fear that it, too, would disappear one day, and that we’d come home to find our spot annexed by my neighbor for his SUV. The first thing to go in a guerilla war is trust.
Most of our snow has now been washed away by the January rains, and our neighborhood is in a state of uneasy peace once again. Confirmation that these skirmishes have ended came late last Thursday when I heard my neighbor revving his engine and spinning tires — forward, reverse, forward, reverse — to buck, plunge, and slalom his Explorer through the remnants of the Great Wall of Plowed Snow and pioneer a brand new parking spot beside the curb. No longer would J & I need to risk the theft of our garbage can when heading off to work.
And back into storage would go — a block away — another neighbor’s garden furniture: two plastic chairs which he’d arranged on either side of a matching end-table, a few simple props which transformed his snowdrift-walled patch of asphalt into a beachhead of domesticity beside — well, actually in — a public road. It was the dramatic potential of the setting that I loved; whether they made use of the furniture or not, the possibility was enough. I pictured him sitting with his wife on their plastic chairs each weekday afternoon at 3:00, a steaming teaput centered on the tabletop between them, each of them cupping a mug of rooibos in their hands and sharing a plate of Christmas shortbread, oblivious to the cars whizzing past them just a foot away…
While being a bookworm may not be a precondition for becoming a mass murderer, it’s certainly no impediment.
— from a New York Times review of Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life
A lot of people ask me how I can live in such opulence, given that I make my living writing award-winning literary fiction that nobody actually reads.
Members of the t&p editorial collective were jolted from their months-long lethargy recently by an article in the New York Times which detailed a bailout package for the US publishing industry. “Heck,” we thought, allowing an uncharacteristic coarseness to creep into our language. “If poets can once again expect to dine regularly on truffled partridge and champagne, perhaps it’s time to take up the pen again!”
The text of the proposal analyzes the “irresponsible writing and irresponsible reading” practices which got us all into this mess, practices which “simply put too many families into books they could not finish”:
We are seeing the impact on readers and neighborhoods, with 5 million readers now behind on their reading. Some are just walking away from novels they should never have been reading in the first place. What began as a sub-prime reading problem has spread to other, less-risky readers, and contributed to excess inventories. These troubled novels are now parked, or frozen, on the shelves of libraries, bookstores, and other reading institutions, preventing them from financing readable novels.
For the past two and a half weeks J and I have poked about the backroads of Nova Scotia in a rented car, striking out towards the far extremities (aka Cape Breton) before allowing the gravitational well of Halifax to pull us slowly back. Our experience confirms that it is impossible to approach a large urban centre from one direction — Halifax from Truro, say, having watched the Fundy tidal bore complete its upstream pass on cue — hoping to deflect off the city’s periphery in a new direction — in our case: towards Lunenberg and Nova Scotia’s Southern Shore — without becoming completely lost in a maze of indistinguishable city streets (the confidence instilled by Google Maps is both false and cruel).
We have learned that:
- lobster is king in Nova Scotia; it is simultaneously the province’s official crustacean, its mascot, and the requisite souvenir (the airport duty-free sells it packed for travel, fresh or cooked). Every dish from chow mein to chowder has its lobster variant, and most towns offer some form of Community Lobster Supper (typically: a whole cooked lobster, accompanied by soft drink, coleslaw and potato salad, a roll with butter, and strawberry shortcake) where visitors are humiliated by being forced to wear silly plastic bibs which do absolutely nothing to pervent one’s being squirted by lobster viscera and other fishy liquids.
- every inhabitant of Cape Breton has mastered at least one of: the fiddle, the mandolin, the piano, the accordian, the guitar. At the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou we caught Eddie Cummings & Stephen Gillis one night, and Jerry Holland (flddle) & Marion Dewar (piano) the next (the pub offers excellent food to boot).
- pockets of the province persist in behaving as if the present still lay a century or more ahead. Visitors to the fortress at Louisbourg mingle with inhabitants dressed in period costume, who completely inhabit their characters: colonial French citizens about to be attacked by British forces later in this, the spring of 1745. As an alternative, Sherbrooke offers a complete village which carries on as if it were the late 1800s.
It was wonderful to get away from the responsibilities and routines of “normal” life for a while, and take the time to read:
- The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald)
- Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)
- The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai)
- Late Nights on Air (Elizabeth Hay)
- Lyubka the Cossack and other stories (Isaac Babel)
$86 profit isn’t bad when you consider that prices started at 25¢, with the average price hovering around 50¢ per item. J’s oatmeal chocolate chip and raisin cookies were a profit centre of their own at 25¢ each, and our day’s take would have been significantly higher if we hadn’t dipped into the cookie jar whenever business slowed. Which was pretty often, as things turned out; evidentally Sundays are not the best day to hold a yard sale. Or we could have blamed the weather: according to received wisdom, sunny days are not the best day for yard sales (although I should note that received wisdom is simultaneously of the opposite opinion: yard sales and rain do not mix well either).
The four of us (J and I and two friends) found ourselves on the receiving end of a lot of unsolicited wisdom during our joint yard sale a week ago. Browsers seem to become unsettled with four pairs of eyes fixed intently between their shoulder blades (their every hesitation noted and extrapolated—willed!—towards a sale). They react to this intense attention by reflexively throwing off bits of unsolicited advice like the aluminum chaff deployed by military aircraft under fire. Whenever a fresh face appeared at the end of the driveway we began our silent yard sale voodoo: “Make us an offer, any offer”; and “Please, oh benevolent God: don’t make us pack this stuff back into boxes.”
The largest single sale was a pair of shoes (“Brand new,” J emphasizes as she turns the shoes to catch the light. “I’ve never worn them.”) — priced hopefully at $35 but knocked down to $25 after vigorous negotiations. From this windfall a vertiginous descent: the director’s chair at $8 (“A steal! Complete with a spare set of canvas!!”); via the clay garlic baker-oven (“It’s priced at $4 but you can have it for a toonie. Better yet: make that a dollar. It’s brand new!”); to rock bottom: a mind-numbing assortment of 25¢ bric-a-brac, displayed on a sheet of plywood, their every scratch, chip and nick exposed beneath the glare of a noontime sun.
What did we learn? We learned that we had to employ all possible means of fanning the faintest spark of interest into flame. Which is why exclamation marks are de rigeur on yard sale signage; ours sported a crop of exclamation marks as vigorous and ubiquitous as crabgrass. You must read your signage as if you were a potential buyer: unadorned, the word “Cheap” is lustreless and unappealing; the eye slides off it without feeling any need to bring it to the attention of the brain. “Cheap!!!”, on the other hand, instantly sparks the synapses into action; a reflexive reaching for the wallet follows nanoseconds later.
We learned that children are the weak link in any family’s armour; you can be virtually guaranteed to divest yourself of the most god-awful bit of kitsch — as long as you can point out its cuteness quotient to a child before the parent intervenes. “Have you ever seen such a cute little fuzzy bunny?!!” you might exclaim; or “Isn’t this the cutest papier maché box you’ve ever seen? Wouldn’t it make a perfect treasure chest / jewelry box?!”
We learned that a “Free!” box is indespensible. Ours was positioned at the head of the driveway with a notice on it in black felt pen: “Every sale — no matter how small!! — earns you the right to select one item from our “Free” box!!” At noon the phrase “earns you the right” was vigorously crossed out and replaced by “comes with an obligation.” One boy was thrilled to find a Lord of the Rings keychain in the “Free” box; this treasure caused his older brother to rummage desperately in search of something even better. I’d almost sold him on the merits of our vintage answering machine (starting price: $4; knocked down to $2 during the Great Noontime Discouragement; consigned to the “Free” box at 1:00): “I’m sure a young man-about-town such as yourself must receive a lot of calls” — but his mother vetoed the idea before his hope could properly take root; evidently she knows junk when she sees it.
In the bookcase beside our bed is a shelf of books particularly suited for morning browsing, a temptation difficult to resist on those days when a more leisurely start is possible. Such as today.
J and I had spent Saturday evening preparing the house for Sunday visitors. A cake had been baked and iced; plates, cutlery and napkins had been deployed; a fire had been laid in the fireplace and sat awaiting the invocation of a match — for spring here is still taking its own sweet time to ripen, with the first magnolia blossoms opening to an April which is still more lion-like than lamb.
J had chosen a morning swim as her reward for completing our advance preparations; my reward was to roll over and consider the bookshelf close at hand — from which I eventually selected the revised edition of The Letters of E. B. White.
I love to dip into a volume of collected letters, hoping to find one written on the same calendar day. I consider this a gentle form of bibliomancy, and the selected letter often resonates with the day to come. What, then, might my day have in common with that described by E. B. White in his letter dated the 6th of April, 1952?
Writing to James Thurber from his office at The New Yorker, White gives Thurber advice on what to do when attending the birth of a lamb (apparently one chops off the lamb’s tail with an ax) and shares news of a party which the Whites had given in honor of William Shawn’s being named editor of The New Yorker.
132 people! With “dancing of a sort” and a “contrapuntal literary and emotional atmosphere, […] the kind of goings on that made you feel that the door would presently open and in would walk Scott and Zelda.” J and I had planned a more modest gathering for our own Sunday afternoon, but maybe with the right kind of music a “contrapuntal literary and emotional atmosphere” was still within reach.
White’s letter closes with a lovely run of sentences which helped align his North Brooklin, Maine of 1952 with my own stormy Deep Cove day in 2008:
Spring is making litle sashays about coming to town, but it has been a fairly unconvincing demonstration so far. It’s what Maine people call “crow weather.” I still think Maine speech is about the most satisfactory.
“Crow weather” — a most satisfactory Maine term indeed; well suited for this stormy Deep Cove day with friends just beginning, which will end with us all sharing a Reine de Saba cake before a crackling fire.
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