December Monkey

This is the last of the 12 Monkeys! The theme is “give me a year.What would you do if you had a free year, all to yourself, to dedicate to whatever you wanted? Assume money was not a problem — you’ve just received a $60,000 Monkey Grant.

Would you spend your year travelling? Reinventing yourself? Would you go back to school to reorient your career? Would you try to see every movie you ever wanted to see? Forget about crazy things like flying to the moon or whatever — think about what you would really do, if you could spend a year doing something you really want to do.

Remember, you have to dedicate yourself to something. What would it be? (Note: monkeys en français can be found over here.)

(Here’s mine. Oddly, it involves neither travel nor writing — the two things that spring to mind whenever I wish I had more free time…)

Wow! 2 MHz!Don’t tell anyone, but lately I’ve been thinking about changing my career. I’ve been a technical writer since about 1991, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’ve done about all I care to do in this line of work, which leaves me at a bit of an existential loss when I trudge into work each morning.

But what else could I do? Any transition would involve a huge step backwards in terms of status and salary while I established myself and acquired the necessary new skills. Starting over like that scares me — what if I made a big investment in time and money (in term of opportunity cost) and then found myself no better off, or worse, than I am now?

On the other hand, if I had a “free year” in which to do some thinking, studying, and to work a poorly-paid job or two (perhaps as an intern), then maybe I’d find the courage to make such a big move.

strong like bull!Perhaps more important than my career is my health. For a number of not-very-good reasons I’ve let myself slip over the past 18 months. Part of this decline is because going to the gym is more inconvenient than ever — an issue made larger than itself because of a problem with my foot and another problem with my shoulder. As a result, my level of physical activity is at an all-time low, and my level of physical expansion is correspondingly at an all time high.

Wouldn’t it be great to spend a whole year dedicated to sports and physical activity? Imagine spending each day in a healthy (but not fanatical) dedication to your bones, muscles, organs, and cardio-vascular system. If you didn’t have to worry about working, that would be easy and fun! Can you imagine ending that year feeling ten years younger than when you started?

However, when it comes right down to it, there is one big thing that is really slowing me down in life — one 800-pound gorilla on my back that impedes my progress even more than my career woes and my emerging corpulence. That is my apparent inability to learn a manageable amount of conversational French.

It’s insane, really. I’ve been living in Montreal since 1987, yet about all I can manage is “restaurant French.” No, that’s not entirely true — I’m pretty good at short declarative sentences. La soupe est trop chaud! Mon doigt n’est pas mauve! Il y a cinq lapins sur la rue! Unfortunately, Hemingway novels are the only places where I find conversations made up of short declarative sentences, and those are all in English.

If I could get a handle on that, it would change everything. OK, not everything, but a lot. You might argue that all I need to do is to practice more, or watch some French television, but I’ve tried that with only limited success.

I’m just not good at learning languages. Ditto mathematical formulas — they make sense when you explain them but two minutes later it’s all vapour. One of the problems is that I’m a very visual learner, and there are not a lot of visuals involved in stammering your way through butchered French and having the other person always switch to English because it is easier for everyone.

Therefore, if I had a year to dedicate to one thing, it would be to finally learn conversational French. That would involve a few immersion sessions in places far away from anglos (Gaspésie? Provence? Côte d’Azur?) and a lot of study and practice, but if I didn’t have to work I think I could do it, and I think it would be successful.

Note to self: Is this a cop-out? Am I just using this “I need a year” thing to avoid knuckling down and doing the hard work it takes to do what I need to do? Must think about this more…

November Monkey

November’s monkey is "Border Stumblings." I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel and cross a number of international borders over the past ten years and I have never encountered any real problems. Plenty of lineups, but no searches or questionings or inconveniences.

sharp!There were a few times, however, that could have been eventful. For example, I am in the habit of carrying a folding green-handled Opinel knife with me. I use it for peeling fruit, opening bags, picking my teeth, you name it. It is sharp, reliable, and has been my handy companion since 1993.

That knife has been with me on all of my trips. Nowadays, I’m careful to stow it in my checked baggage, as such a thing would not be allowed in carry-on bags. However, as they say; this is now, that was then.

When I went to Portugal in 1999 I took only a small carry-on bag even though my holiday lasted 18 days. My trusty knife was with me the whole time, even on the airplanes. I barely gave it a thought.

Similarly, I remember being in line for the X-ray machines at the airport in Prague, enroute to Amsterdam, in 1995. There was a delay because the trench coat-wearing geezer in front of me had a can opener in his pocket. To his chagrin, the security people wouldn’t let him take it on the plane. He finally relinquished it and moved on. My turn came, and my shiv-packing day bag went through the zapper without even a blink.

Only once was I ever busted for the Opinel. In 1997 I was at the small airport in Sydney (Nova Scotia) preparing to fly to Halifax on a small Dash-8. My handbag went through the zapper and the security lady said to me, in that Cape Breton way, "Now dear, I think you have a knife in that bag. Do you mind if I take a look?" Damn, I thought, she’s going to take away my trusty friend. Instead, she took out the Opinel, measured the blade with a ruler, and found it was a hair short of three inches. "It’s no problem, dear. It’s under the limit so go ahead and have a nice flight!"

Here’s another stumble. It is May of 2001 and I am scheduled to fly to Chicago for a conference of technical writers. It is a morning flight, quite early. I’ve just gotten back from a week’s holiday in France, and the past 24 hours have been hectic and chaotic, with little sleep. As I queue up for U.S. customs (which is located in the Airport in Montreal — you have to clear customs before you get on the plane) my foggy mind starts thinking about what I will say to the customs agent.

I recall the last non-holiday trip I had taken to the U.S. — two years earlier I had spent three weeks in Las Vegas preparing for a trade show. A few knuckleheads at the company I worked for then had convinced me to not reveal I was going to Las Vegas to work. "They’ll give you a hard time" they said. So, prior to that flight, I told the customs agent that I was going there on holiday.

For some reason that all comes back to me now, and in my fatigued state I don’t fight it. A moment later I am face-to-face with a U.S. customs agent. She asks me where I am going (Chicago) and what I do for a living (technical writer). Then she asks me the reason for my trip. "To visit friends" I blurt out. "Really?" she says. "What kind of friends?"

"Oh, you know… people" I stammer. "Work-related friends?" she asks, her eyes drilling into me. "Uh, yeah, I suppose."

"Do you know there’s a technical writer’s conference in Chicago starting tomorrow?" she asks, one eyebrow raised.

So busted.

"Uh… yeah, I guess." By now I am as red as a monkey’s butt and starting to sweat. "Are you going to the conference?" she demands. My choices are to confess that I lied and probably not get on the plane, or to play it cool and pretend it’s a coincidence. Yeah, that’s me — cool like a red-hot poker. "Well, I might, ahhh, you know, drop by or, um, you know…"

"Why are you lying" she cuts in. Uh… fess-up time.

So I tell her I am tired and it is early and I just thought it would be easier, that she would ask me fewer questions. After all, I say, it’s not like I’m going there to work. I will visit friends, I just didn’t mention the conference part.

Oddly enough, she lets me through, but not before delivering a lecture on why it is a crime to lie to customs agents, and not before making sure I understand that she could not only refuse me entry but could press charges.

I must have an honest face. Or maybe in those pre-9/11 days we just didn’t sweat things so much.

Late Monkey!why

Who knew that November would be so busy? With only one day left in the month, we’ve almost missed the November monkey, even though Martine and I discussed the theme more than a week ago.

So here it is: November’s monkey is "Border Stumbles." Talk about awkward, annoying, or freaky things that have happened to you while crossing international boundaries.

If you’ve never crossed an international boundary… what the heck are you waiting for? In the meantime, perhaps there are other boundaries that you have stumbled across.

October Monkey


Image from The Wooden Monkey Restaurant in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Used without permission (but I’m sure they won’t mind…).

October’s monkey is “Dining Horror Stories.” Tell us about a bad or strange experience you had while dining at someone else’s home. Restaurants don’t count.

Was the cooking exceptionally bad? Did you have a gas attack? Did someone pour wine into your lap? Did the food explode? Tell us all about it.

Here’s mine:

Not long after I moved to Montreal, my then girlfriend and I were invited to dinner at the home of her master’s thesis advisor. The advisor was a classic English professor-adventurer type, equally comfortable on a barren mountain outcrop or in a lavish university faculty club full of ascot-wearing twits. His wife was a teacher, aspiring writer, and home gourmet from upper-crust (or at least a convincing faux-upper-crust) Ontario.

We arrived at their sturdy and heirloom-filled home in St. Lambert, chatted for a bit, and then sat down to dinner with out hosts and four other guests. The atmosphere was friendly but a bit constrained, as all guests were either students or spouses of students — clearly denizens of a somewhat different world. The hosts were relaxed and made every effort to be inclusive, but one had a sense that a single slip of etiquette could shatter the warmth and set a layer of icy crust upon the entire proceedings.

The first course was steamed artichokes. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about food — short of what hole to shovel it into. I had seen artichokes in the grocery stores, and had even managed to eat a few artichoke hearts in salads and antipasto plates, but I had never been confronted with a large green spiny artichoke on a plate. Fortunately, I was still rather clever in those days, and much better at misrepresenting myself, so I coo-ed and nodded a bit, and took some time to arrange my napkin and silverware while waiting for someone else to start eating so I could watch.

Fortunately, the chef — the professor’s wife — was the first to tuck in. She held the artichoke in her left hand, pinched a leaf with the fingers of her right hand, and rocked it back and forth until it came loose. Then she brought the leaf to her mouth, and popped it in.

I looked to the side and saw that other people were doing the same, so I followed suit. I rocked a leaf loose and brought it to my mouth, feeling a bit skeptical as the leaf felt pretty dense and woody. I stuck it in my mouth, tender end first, and started chewing. It was a long, hard chew, but eventually I managed to shred it enough to swallow it.

I wondered how I would get through it all as I popped the second leaf into my mouth. As I gnawed and gnashed away, someone at the table said “This is interesting — I’ve never had whole artichokes before.” The chef replied “Yes, they’re quite delicious once you figure out how to eat them.” I would have said something at that point, but all I could have managed was something like “Mrrrffff!”

Then someone at the table said “At first I thought you were supposed to eat the whole leaf, but then I saw that you were only eating the soft tip.” Everyone tittered, but I froze, instantly realizing that I had been too quick to look away during my research. I had not seen the critical second step, which is to draw the leaf back out of your mouth, using your teeth to scrape off the tender bit.

Having only eaten two leaves, I thought I would get away with it by simply switching to the proper method. That’s when my girlfriend pointed at me from across the table and let out a big guffaw followed by “THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE DOING! YOU’RE EATING THE WHOLE LEAF!”

That’s when I turned into a big green hulking beast and tore the house down. Fortunately, everyone laughed it off politely, but I could feel my stock plummet. I’m not sure it ever recovered. Not that it matters, as I haven’t seen any of those people in over ten years.