Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bells Unrung, Cherries Un-Picked.

There are some moments in life when you stop and think to yourself, "well, after this there's no turning back."
These are the moments just before you gain motion on a path upon which taking the first step implies wholesale commitment to its destination.
Some words cannot be unsaid; most pain cannot be uninflicted; no potatoes can be unmashed.
Everyone's had them, these moments.
From minor adventure: the second that you are in the air between dock and lake, wondering to yourself, "Shit. It's gonna be cold. And are those rocks?"
And major adventure: wondering, "No one is forcing me to jump out of this plane."
To the romantic: the brief breath you take before walking into your girlfriends apartment and admitting, "I slept with your sister"
To the perverse: that same breath before admitting, "I slept with my sister"
Many of these are in business: putting on your jacket before stepping into your bosses office to say "I quit."
Well, I've sat for surgery twice in the last 6 months, and I discovered that these moments live in the operating theater as well. Twice now I've laid back, lucidly on an operating table folks in scrubs bustled around the room and thought to myself, "I don't have to be here. I chose to come and I can choose to leave."
It is the flight-impulse that rises up in your bile, I think. Your mind knows that you are there for your own good, but your animal being also knows that these people are going to knock you out and cut you. Badly.
Mastering the animal, you think to yourself what a good idea this is. The run through of the logical train is quick and easy, because frankly no one in Canada fights their way through the system without good reason.
But the moment is still very much there. "I can get up and walk out of here now; in a minute, I won't"
And after that minute, and the minutes or hours that follow in a darkened heartbeat, it's true: you can't go back.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brewsters Billions

"I've been dealing with skeevy lawyers since the Eighties," he thought to himself, "What are congressmen really other than a bunch of lawyers made out really good?"
Brewster looked up at the suits fidgeting behind their nameplates, and noted that most of them had worked up a good sweat under the lights of the camera coverage. He waited patiently until the old guy with two first names called the inquiry to order.
There was a good deal of "State your name" stuff which he handled without problem. So far, this seemed like it was going to be pretty easy. Brewster figured he might be on the street with his money in hand in plenty of time to catch the second half of he Yankees game.
"How did you get into the insurance business, Mr. Brewster?"
"Well, sir, I came into a good deal of money after my uncle passed and using what could only be described as very, um, unique strategies, I parlayed that into an even bigger stack."
"Could you be more specific?"
"I was told that if I could lose $30 million in a month, I would win $300 million. Which I did. And also I won the heart of an attractive accountant."
"This doesn't sound very American."
"On the contrary, Mr. Congressman, it's the most American story there is. It even includes baseball, the stock market, and an election!"
"Hmm. So this was in 1987?"
"Yes. So after I took down the 300 large and fought off a few minor law suits, I said to myself, 'Monty? You know what's better than $300 million? $300 Billion!"
"Indeed. "
"So I figured if i applied the lessons I learned from my Uncle's experiment, I would be a billionaire in no time."
"Well that does sound pretty American"
"Sure it is! I bought a little insurance company called AIG and we started writing some really funky policies. We invented a whole new language even."
"So far so good, Mr. Brewster."
"Not really, Congressman. At first the money was rolling in. People couldn't buy enough of these policies even though nothing ever went wrong. It was a total disaster! There were some nights when I thought to myself, 'I'm never going to get rid of all this cake!' "
"But you took it too far, Mr. Brewster, didn't you!"
"On the contrary, Congressman! It just took a little longer than I expected, but finally I guess we'd written enough policies such that I became much bigger than the market. Then Bear collapsed and shortly after the other investment banks I was geared to followed right down. It was really just a matter of days and we ran dry. "
"You are a charlatan."
"It kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it?"
"And now what, Mr. Brewster?"
"Well, the money's gone, every cent, and I have nothing to show for it but the Manchester United shirt on my back."
"And I'd like my $300 billion now."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fashion File: A Guide To The Semiotics of Power Ties

Growing up in the 1980's, watching Alex Keaton bring a briefcase to work on television, and Bud Fox learn to play squash on the fly, a young man grew to aspire to wearing a "power tie". Perhaps he would wear it to a "power breakfast", he might think to himself. What goes into such a meal, he had no idea, but certainly even this 10 year old knew that a power tie meant a bold coloured, solid or print tie; a tie that made sure everyone in the room knew he meant business.

According to a one of the surprisingly many fashion sites devoted to men's apparel, "In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan was known for his red power tie, as much a virility symbol in American corporate culture as a red convertible has been in the culture at large."

If you dig a little deeper, you'll find that though opinions vary about which ties contain the most power, there is very little disagreement that people will do as you say if you wear one.

So with that, it seems important that we clear up just which power the various styles convey.

1. Red, solid: I'm the president, or I've met him. I just finished breakfast with some powerful people. I am just stopping in here to let you all know that I have somewhere very important to be, but have taken a few minutes to speak with you so you'd better listen and listen good.

2. Yellow, solid: I'm incredibly important, but not the kind of jerk who would wear a bright red tie to meet with you. You should trust me. I'm a powerful man who is hungry for a power meal of some kind but I like you enough to stop in here and have a quick word. I don't eat spaghetti because stains show really easily on my tie.

3. Azure blue, with navy flecks: I'm incredibly powerful but speak softly. Listen closely so you can hear all the details because I certainly don't have time to repeat myself. I lost my drivers licence some time ago, but it's ok because I have a driver. Also, I like pasta. Some of these flecks are sauce.

4. Lime Green, solid: I got dressed in the dark. But it's because I live on West Coast time and as powerful as I am, I haven't convinced the sun to rise earlier to meet my needs. You should listen to what I say and comply with great speed because God knows when I do finally foreclose on the Sun, those who opposed me will be burned. But for real.

5. Blue and Red, stripes: I am a Republican. I do everything except hunt in this tie. I find it goes great with khakis and a blue blazer. It makes me feel powerful, but less so, say at a convention or something where everyone else is wearing the same tie. That and boarding schools.

6. Lavender, with light thorn pattern: I just a guy who likes spring.

7. Polka Dots of Any Kind: I am powerful but insouciant. I collect art but would rather not speak of it as it's a personal passion. I can tell a good joke but damnit you had better laugh like you mean it or there is going to be real trouble. I'm approachable, but please be sure to offer to pay for drinks before I tell you that I would never permit such a thing.

8. Bright Orange: I had better be the leader of the Ukraine or coach of the Dutch national soccer team. Possible I'm just a heavy hitter shopping for helicopters in the Caymans. I wear shaded glasses even indoors.

9. Salmon pink, Solid: I am Donald Trump.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Second Season

When I was in college and trying to find my worldview, I spent a good deal of time thinking about beauty. Between half-baked study of Plato & Nicomachean ethics, I began to form a sense that Beauty was akin to godliness.

I posted photos of perfect women neatly cut from pricey fashion magazines on my wall. Careful to note, of course, that despite what one of my friend's girlfriends described as a "a lot of nipples" this was no pin-up wall. These were pre-lad-magazine days so the line between wank-magazine and otherwise was still broad and easy to draw.

The smoky logic that followed from my enjoying these women who checkered my wall was that the closer I could be to their beauty, if only via observation, contemplation, and eventual familiarity, the closer I would be to God.

God made things beautiful because he could. And his most perfect work were angels; these angels were paid thousands of dollars an hour to be photographed in New York and elsewhere in order that they might look down on me and I might know them.

It follows then, that if you could find your real person in the company of models, via legitimate invitation or not, then you had in fact negotiated your way to heaven pre-maturely.

A quick ten years later and miles from the studios of Tribeca, I found myself at the Toronto Four Seasons for brunch with my wife in very advanced stages of her third pregnancy. Her parents were in town and insisted on our enjoying a "date" prior to the arrival of the deciding vote.

She couldn't muster the energy for a nighttime date so we took advantage of the offer and packed her appetite into the car for what is seriously the best brunch in the city.
It is usually quite a relaxing scene there - European couples gearing up for some Yorkville shopping, families walked over from nearby Rosedale, pods of New York types recovering from a big night, the occasional grey-haired wallet with his mistress enjoying some post-tryst sustenance; it makes for compelling people watching and the coffee is great.

After our first pass at the shellfish tower, we returned to the pancake station and we found ourselves surrounded in Models. They were everywhere. Tall, shockingly well-groomed (probably best saved for another post, but I have always found something deeply disingenuous about overly-groomed people, especially men; what are they hiding?).
You could smell the fashion.

The women were beautiful. And young. The men wore large watches and expensive boots and sported complicated facial hair. Truthfully, our conversation fell off. Their blow dried hair fell into perfect curves. They looked like money had made them.

We returned to our table with plates stacked high with breakfast items we had not intended to take.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

I had no idea.

But here's the thing. We broke into laughter. We couldn't stop. Instead of being impressed with this spread of beauty, we were appalled. I won't go into why, it would seem bitter or petty.

The point is one of perspective. Contrary to its nature, my Platonic form of beauty has shifted.
The sexpots at the omelet bar held no appeal for us relative to the cheerful little specimens waiting for us back home. Someone at brunch had missed the point of life and it wasn't us, we felt.

I had long since let the girls of my dorm wall go, my worldview having found new moorings many times over. But this was the first time these photos had found me again, and I was most surprised by how little they meant - how unbeautiful.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Violet May

We will buy very pretty things
A-walking through the faubourgs.
Violets are blue, roses are red,
Violets are blue, I love my loves

Violet May, born at 8:42pm on Friday, February 27th, weighing in at a fighting 7lbs.

Hard to believe it's only been 13½ months.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slumming It

I love movies. I love India. Frieda Pinto is a knockout. Danny Boyle is a wicked stylish director who knows how to put great tunes and great colours together on screen.

I loved Slumdog Millionaire. I really did. It was the quintessence of "a good time at the movies".

And having not seen any other movies nominated for Best Picture this year I am probably under-qualified to vote. But it made me very sad to think that as good as this Mumbai slum film was that it was the best the world had to offer this year. Is it too much to ask that all movies be entertaining and touching and pretty to look at with good music and be pulled together with snappy editing? This is what now qualifies for special mention? This dominates the awards scene?

Now of course I understand the awards are a result of savvy campaigning and the general whimsy of an academy of artists. But still.

Nothing of particularly innovative or novel nature happened this year? Really? If not, then boo movies; if yes, then boo academy.

Maybe this weekend I'll rent Shakespeare in Love and see how that's aging.

It is just another step down in the process of my decreasing interest in films and those who produce them; there is a reason that television serials have essentially replaced movies in my house. And that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review - Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

You know that you are reading a Book Club book when there is an appendix of special features including, "How to Fall In Love With Opera" and a series of suggested topics for further discussion.

Middlebrow is the word that kept springing to mind as I read it. It's certainly not "chick-lit" (there are zero shopping sprees and very little in the way of heaving chests) but with writing like this, it is not really deserving of serious consideration either.

While certainly lyrical enough (believe me the musical allusions are not tough to find), it is rife with purple passages that include the "drinking in" of various peoples souls and so on. "Gen's head was filled with Carmen" is the kind of stuff that makes my teeth ache.

The passages about music are worse. Which, to be fair, writing about music is really difficult - witness how even the most knowledgeable reviewers are prone to near meaningless cliches in their critique. The media simply don't lend well to each other and Ms. Patchett at least infuses Opera with a romantic enthusiasm. It's just that it's all, well, over-zealous.

Like here where a young boy sings in public for the first time after listening raptly (with bursting pants, no less) to the soprano in captivity:
He didn't seem to hear them laughing. His gaze was unfocused.
He was singing to no one in particular. It wasn't that he was mocking her
so much as he was just trying to fill up the space where she should have
been. It would have been mocking if it had only been her gestures he
was repeating, but it wasn't. It was her voice. The legendary
voice of Roxane Coss. He held his notes long and clear. He
reached down into the depths of his lungs for power, the volume he had not
allowed himself when singing alone under his breath. He was singing
now, a par that was too high for him and yet he jumped up and grabbed
onto the edge of the note. He pulled himself up and held it.

Is it a good story? Sure. Is it romantic? Absolutely. But as much as she is a good story teller and holds readers' attention with passable, even cinematic character development, there is a sneaking suspicion one gains early on that the power of music is going to save the day.

Does it? Not really. The ending is, in fact both well-earned and surprising. Which is cool, especially since I only had to groan through 315 pages to get there.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What is a Mustache?

Alex peered at his face in the mirror and considered his mustache. There seemed to be a little gray creeping into the bristle. Maybe it was time to lose it.

Maybe that's why Saturday Night Live hadn't called. At heart, SNL is a young people's show and if there is anything young people don't like, it's probably old guys with mustaches.

Certainly he was funny enough. And it's common knowledge that every episode of Jeopardy! features a free form questioning period of the contestants where his dry wit was often on display. No doubt about his ability to improvise in front of a live audience.
It must be the mustache, he thought to himself.
Bob Barker had been asked, though apparently declined. Something about being uncomfortable maintaining his tan to specification outside of California. Regis practically lives at Rockefeller Center. Shit even Richard Dawson had even made an appearance on the show once, though it was Alex's understanding that he had been too drunk to remember any of his lines.
They have had loads of Canadians on the show, so that couldn't be it. Come to think of it, American sketch comedy is literally teeming with Canadians. His flat accent and love of the absurd should be an asset more than anything else.
Shoot, there was even a recurring Jeopardy! skit on the show! How ironic would it be if he played, say superstar comedian Will Farrell as a celebrity contestant. Man, he would turn the tables right on that big oaf! Would that be just too insouciant? Probably less so without the mustache.
As far as technique goes, it was going to take some planning to get it off. When you're in television and traffic in your image (plus: your wit! don't forget that you're clever!) it's important to make these drastic changes with considerable forethought. But as soon as he got dressed and finished his hot yoga, he would call his agent directly.
A smooth lipped man, popular with the ladies, admired by men of all sizes, and able to deliver a chalky smooth punchline. Who is the next host of Saturday Night Live? Who is Alex Trebek?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Items of Which The First Is Incredibly Good And The Second Not Nearly So And In Fact A Bit Of A Letdown On The Whole

Pizza, Slice of

Egg McMuffin, with Sausage

The Matrix, film

Waterski, session of

Pint of brown ale, Smithicks comes to mind

Service, in tennis

Shampoo, Rinse and...

Coffee, cup of

Underpants, pair of

Shave, session of


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Food & WIne

"Oh, this is delicious."

"Right. And?"

"Well it's got to be at least $25"

"That's what I thought too! But in fact it's way better. $38!"

"Wow, I had no idea. I mean, when I first smelled it, I thought, 'north of $40 for sure' but then after I tasted it, it just didn't seem like a $38 at all."

"No, it totally is. I served it with ribeyes the other day and everyone was like, 'What's this wine, $55?'! It really depends on how the palette is formed."

"I guess you're right. Were the glasses expensive?"

"Yah. $25 per."

"That explains a lot. A good glass can add $5-$10 to any wine."


"What was that, Italian?"

"Something like that. $38! Delicious. I'm going to remember this one."

Monday, January 19, 2009

When a Tree Cries in the Forest

The woods were soft beneath his boots. The frost had given way to muck and there wasn't much left for the season. All was quiet except for the subterranean trickle of snow runoff somewhere somehow seeking lower ground.

Breathing deeply, he thought to himself how strange it is that Springtime represents rebirth and life, but smells more like rot.

Peering under the hood, he looked into the bucket: not much sap left. He pulled the spigot and a few drops dripped onto his fingers. Sweet but thin and watery. It was over.

He cleaned the spigot and emptied the bucket into the drum which he would wheel back to the shack for boiling. He looked back at the tree and noticed that a few tears of sap had squeezed from the hole drilled just a few weeks ago. In the sunlight, he could see a glistening trail was left behind as they trickled down the trunk.

"I'll be back next Spring," he said quietly.

"I know," she replied, "it's just that,"

"It's just that what?"

"I love you."

He didn't know what to say.

"Why?" he asked, meaning it.

But there was no answer. Trees, he thought, who could understand them?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sepember 12th, 2008: LEH, MER, DFW - RIP

On one weekend this past September, between the 12th and the 15th, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Merrill Lynch suffered near insolvency and was folded into Bank of America, and David Foster Wallace died.

A good deal was written about these three deaths and I read most of it. Like many who sit in seats like mine, the disappearance of the major financial institutions that we dealt with, competed with, or simply looked to for leadership (Bear Stearns had already been dispatched to Davy Jones locker in the spring) lead to my spending much of that week staring in rapt horror at my Bloomberg screen and reading about the tectonic shift in my industry.

Despite the hysteria found in most of the newspapers, the disappearance of some of our continents oldest and most venerable financial institutions was met with surprising ennui among those I know who don't work in the industry. And though the breadth of the repercussions of these failings have become more obvious in the following months of economic recession, at the time a sense of schadenfreude was palpable.

Imagine living in a small town, I said to my friends who felt it was time for finance-types take a fall. Imagine that there were five or six grocery stores in that town from which you could choose to shop, though you probably had your favorite one or two. One of those shops suffered from some kind of contamination (listeria?) in its deli department and a number of customers got sick.

You decide that maybe you'll shop at the other store this week until the local paper gives the all clear. But it turns out they have tainted meat too, since they use the same supplier. The first store goes out of business and you are feeling a little iffy about your other store so you start to cross town for your deli slices when you can. Then, without any further warning, two more stores go out of business. Worse still, the two that still have the doors open refuse to sell to most customers.

In a matter of days, your small town has gone from being careful where it shops to simply not being able to buy food at all.

How long do you think this town lasts?

What would you do if you were in the food supply business locally?

These are life-changing developments for consumers and suppliers alike and require a major rethink of past choices and future plans.

And yet, even while these very personally affecting dramas were playing out in the pink pages of the Financial Times, while friends were losing their jobs, the tragedy of David Foster Wallace's suicide transfixed me.

More learned readers and better writers all weighed in on his accomplishments and what his sudden absence meant for letters, but all I can say is I felt a very distinct downtick in the intelligence of the universe. The strange thing about authors (and DFW had actually written about this) is that the nature of their medium gives the impression of a serious intimacy to the reader; the author, or his characters at least, are literally inside the readers mind. To this effect, I really felt closer to DFW than to many people that I know in real life.

And as often happens when you lose something you really don't know how important it is to you until it's gone. DFW was supposed to have been turning out essays and vaguely promising to follow up his masterpiece novel for years to come. I was willing to be patient. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself scouring YouTube for interviews with him so that I might know him better, and quickly.

To get back to thinking about me: even in a week as surprising as that one, I was most surprised that the death of DFW affected me so much more deeply than those of LEH and MER. Sure, one was a person and the other two simply entities, but frankly none of them had been to my house for dinner and two of them represented (indirectly) my livelihood. DFW never once held out any promise that he would help keep my children in jeans. But he did tell me things that I had never known: things about the tennis, things about philosophy, things about addiction, things about grammar, things about obsession, things about myself.

It has taken me longer to post about it than I had meant, but nonetheless I miss him.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2008 - The Fed Bailout

I know, at first it seems like Roger Federer and I have a good deal in common. But if you look past the the grace under pressure, the similar hair-do, and the fact that we both apparently think its appropriate to date a girl for a decade before considering marriage, I think you'll find we're actually quite different.

And its more than just his Dubai address. He's clearly peaking earlier than me.

But this past year was a tough one for both of us. As a longtime fan, it was tough to watch him. It seemed like he wasn't enjoying himself as he used to. Lost that extra gear or something. He was *sweating* for God's sake.
And though he still had a pretty successful clay & grass season by most standards, something had changed; his sheen of invincibility was lost. Plus: Nadal really had his number. That cranky Murray was in his kitchen too. Shoot, my brother and I watched him lose to some teenaged French phenom in the 1st round here in Toronto!

But I think I understood him in a way that most couldn't. I too felt the crush of injury take the snap out of my serve. I wondered as I'm sure he did if it was the end of my tennis career, if age had finally caught me too. He would be relegated to a tumbling world ranking while trolling for a good draw at the Grand Slams while I would have to introduce a good deal of slicing and other trickery into my game. It was looking grim for us indeed.
Then came September. Roger quieted everyone with his US Open victory and I thought to myself, "I will not go quietly into the clubhouse." I booked my surgery and now as Roger no doubt runs his drills in the shadows of the Burj-Al-Arab, I will diligently work on my bizarre physio exercises (I've gotten to know our broomsticks well). We are both coming back.
Yes indeed. Together, Roger and I are taking 2009 by storm - look for us on the hardcourts this June.