Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Country Etiquette

Have you ever wondered why people in the country are so polite, or as we folks from the city call it-- timid? I found out today the hard way, the way I learn everything. In Toronto if you go to a restaurant, then it is totally socially permissible to ask the waitress after 45 minutes of waiting for your burger, "Where is my food? I ordered a burger which isn't rocket science?" The waitress, who after all is hired to get the food to the table, and is no relation to the cook and does not feel in any way responsible for him, might say, "I have no idea. Those bozos in the kitchen must be on crack. I'll check for you right away." Job done.

This is not the case in Creemore, the small town where we own a farm up in the hills. I went to the only local pub for the Tuesday-night-half-price-burger-night, that stopped being half price about a year ago. For the last year people in Creemore now refer to it as Tuesday-half-price-burger-night-that-is-now-full-priced. Or some call it The- old-half-price-burger-night. It is a big social event to get out of your farm house, and drive into town especially in the winter when the snow is up to your hips. It's like on the TV show Bonanza when Hoss and Joe slicked down their hair and wore clean vests to go to market.

I was at the pub on a Tuesday with some other townspeople and after 45 minutes after ordering I asked where my burger was. It was croweded and I said, "What is happening with my burger? Is the chef still alive?" The waitress blushed and acted as though I was calling her out on some grave misdeed. The other people at my table were horrified and said to the flummoxed waitress that she shouldn't worry--that I was 'from Toronto' and that as they said, "was enough said". Then everyone at the table of eight assured the waitress that she was indeed doing a great job and I should be ignored.

When she left I said I didn't get it. Why was the waitress upset? What did she have to do with the cook? Is it a crime for a customer to ask for prompt service? They explained that they all knew the waitress who had three jobs and three children under four years of age and that her husband had lost his job. The cook was a man that thay all knew who was doing the best he could given what was going on in his life. When you know everyone personally who works in the restaurant and the stories of their lives then it is callous to act as though they are there to serve you and you do not have the right to make any complaints. Everyone has their issues and it is best to lay low if you don't know what they are. I was also informed that the waitress and the chef would never look at me the same way again. Complaining and expecting perfection was a big city feature that was not acceptable here. When I asked Sara, who writes for the Creemore Echo newspaper what one does when there food is 45 minutes late, and is served with a frozen roll that is only partly thawed, she looked at me with her big blue eyes and waited until there was silence at the table and said, "Suck it up."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

a talking car

When I was at a Canadian writers's festival it was my job to pick up a young German poet at the airport who was being flown into read at the festival. I was given the wrong flight information by the poet's publisher and the poor fellow had been wandering around the airport for hours. I finally found him in one of the huge multileveled parking lots aimlessly searching for a woman his publisher had described as "tall with pale blond hair who would be holding a sign that said VOLKERT". He was looking for Uma Thurman, but found me instead-- a woman old enough to be his mother whose 'pale blond hair' was really white. He was disgruntled thinking that not only was I not Uma Thurman, but I had been hours late. I introduced myself by saying "Well, I guess I am the first Canadian to greet you." He immediately snapped in a thick German accent, "No you are not. A car has already spoken to me. In fact it spoke in English and German to me." He said this in a tone that indicated that he was thrilled to find a bilingual car since I spoke no German at all. Figuring the guy had the equivalent of airport rage that had now gone into psychosis in an unfamiliar land, I humoured him by saying, "Well how hospitable of that bilingual car." Since he didn't smile I said, "I guess with all that is happening at General Motors even the cars have had to learn how to be more accommodating."

He looked at me with a superior smirk and said, "I realize that you think I am unhinged. I believe that is the English word." I didn't answer that it really doesn't take that much to 'unhinge' a poet in any country, but said instead that I simply hadn't been chosen by any car, let alone a bilingual one, to converse with.

At this point the man dragged me up two flights in the dead of winter to the top of the parking lot and stood very close to the front of a black Mercedes. Suddenly the car said in a unitone "You-are-perilously-close-to-my car". Then the voice went up an octive and said the same sentence again in English and in German and then the unitone said "Back-off".I smiled and said that I was pleased that he could have been greeted first by a countryman.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I live on a farm for the weekends and I love to sit on my 150 year old front porch and rock in my white wicker rocker and look at the cows in the next field. I often try to read a book on the porch, but soon become distracted by the one bull in the field. He is so ridiculous that he makes me laugh. When the barn door opens he prances into the field and makes a God awful screech and tears toward the dozens of cows who amble over to the opposite fence to get away from him. The cows hover together as though the bull is a nuisance and it is best to simply get away from him and not make eye contact. Sometimes, for absolutely no reason, he begins kicking his back legs in the air and bellowing. Then he charges into the middle of the huddled kine and they all scatter to be as far away from the bull as possible.

All the cows recognize the sound of the farmer's truck as he comes over to milk them and put them in their stalls for the night. They all amble toward the barn as he drives up the long driveway. The bull butts in front of them and never lets them in first and turns around and screams enraged epithets at them. None of the cows argue-- they just look the other way as you would if someone was a perpetual bully that you had to live with. Sometimes he tries to mount them and they always do a little two step to get away from him the second he starts any mating behaviour. They try not to hurt his feelings. They just pretend that there is a patch of grass on the other side of the field that they urgently have to investigate. He may go on to pester them and then they get mad and jump away and shake their heads as in 'No means no'.

I was telling the farmer how funny I thought it was that the bull has such bad mating habits and how he has no idea how to be charming. The farmer said, "Oh I know he is always making a fuss about something and pounding his chest in front of the ladies." I indicated that the cows think he is royal bombastic pain. The farmer started laughing and said, "I know he is such a show off. His name is Arnold, after Arnold Schwarzenegger who comes out guns blazing. The funny thing is that I have never had to buy that expensive sperm in a bottle like many of the other farmers have to resort to because, believe it or not, every one of these dozens of cows will be pregnant by good ol' Arnold come the spring." He said that they pretend to hate him "but they don't hate him that much."

I was shocked, but like the farmer, not that shocked because I thought of a scene in graduate school when I was in the psychology department thirty years ago that reminded me exactly of this field of cows. There was a single ( as in twice divorced) randy older (back then old meant 35-40) male professor who used to 'come on to' most of the female graduate students at various symposia and parties. I'll call him Professor Gold. He would use pathetic ploys like singing slow songs, albeit off key, in your ear when he asked you to dance. All of the female grad students used to huddle in the ladies washroom at the Christmas party and say that they would rather have sex with a lab rat than Professor Gold.

The neuropsychology department had several hard core feminists who wore blue work shirts and farmers jeans with bibs. Remember this was thirty years ago and there were not that many females in graduate school. We were a distinct minority. One day I went into the mail room where all graduate students went daily to pick up their mail and there was a huge sign with an empty sign-up-sheet below it that read: I SLEPT WITH DR. GOLD AT B.F SINNER'S ANNUAL BIRTHDAY PARTY AND HE GAVE ME HERPES. PLEASE SIGN IF THIS HAPPENED TO YOU. The graduate student was one of the aforementioned no nonsense girls from Neuropsychology. She signed her name. We all gathered around the sign and I said , But she thought Dr. Gold was a buffoon. I don't get it!" Someone said, "Well I guess she didn't hate him that much." This was.of course, before there were any laws about teachers having personal relationships with students. The words 'sexual harassment' had not been invented.

The drama did not end there. Within a week many other female graduate students had appended their names to the list and said that they too had herpes. Finally there were so many women that the list had to have another paper stapled on to the end of the sign-up-sheet so the other girls who had slept with Professor Gold could add their names. There was a comment section as well.( After all psychologists in the making knew how to write questionnaires.) The comments read 'What a scum bag' and 'It's all about numbers isn't it professor liar'. My favorite was "Fortunately I didn't get herpes, all I did was waste an evening or should I say one and a half minutes' Then she signed her name.

Clearly Professor Gold did not count on someone telling on him. His assumption 30 years ago was that no one would do that. Clearly he'd been infecting people for years and counting on their shame to work as a silencer. He would have been right if it had been 40 years ago but lots had happened to women's psyches in the 60's and 70's that he hadn't counted on. Every week when I went into the mail room new women had added their names. It was like in the move, Spartacus, when each of the men stands up and says 'I am Spartacus' Then another says 'No I am Spartacus.' This was the modern equivalent. 'I slept with Professor Gold' 'No, I slept with professor Gold.'

I admired these women so long ago who were not that worried about what other people thought about them. They knew it was worth warning others about a potentially life long sexually transmitted disease. They were heroes as was the Spartacus protectorate.

Aside from the tragedy of those women getting herpes, there was also an interesting sociological phenomenon buried within the situation. All of those women pretended in front of their colleagues, the other female graduate students, that the Lothario who was always obliviously on the make, was nothing but a nuisance. Yet Professor Gold's tactics were actually working since somehow, somewhere these women were sleeping with him. Professor Gold and the Arnold the bull knew far more about the female species than I will ever pretend to know.