Tirus Flattimus

September 20, 2010

Last evening, while making the turn out of my tiny side street onto the main highway (I should mention here that main highways in PEI are like two-lane farm roads anywhere else), I met with a virtually unprecedented occurrence, at least in recent memory—a flat tire. It must be the better part of ten years since my last one, an incident I remember well: I had just finished up a wee-hours visit to the ER of my local hospital after an adverse reaction to some shellfish; as I made ready to exit the parking lot, I heard/felt that distinctive whumpa-thump that let me know in no uncertain terms that my evening’s travails were not over.

Yesterday, however, I was not suffering from the double whammy of bad clams and annoying car problems, and I was basically still at home, where I had a second vehicle at my disposal, thus the repair could wait for another day. So this morning, I raised the Honda up on its minuscule (and fiddly) scissors jack, a process for which the term “man-hour” was undoubtedly coined, and replaced the wheel and tire with one of those silly looking “mini-spare” tires that seem ubiquitous in cars nowadays. I have to say, the logic of the mini-spare escapes me; it is an idea that, despite its implicit foolishness, refuses to go quietly to the graveyard of badly conceived notions.

“Implicit foolishness…?” you ask. Yes indeedy, and I will address that, but first let me offer a brief explanation of the initial logic behind the mini-spare. Back in the early days of pony cars (Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, et al), the style favored long hoods and short trunks. Short trunks, while infinitely more trendy, could not be expected to hold as much swag as those of their larger cousins (in Chevy Impalas, Ford LTDs, or the like), so some dim bulb came up with the idea of a mini-spare, which would not take up nearly so much valuable cargo space. This is, of course, only important when the trunk is full of luggage. The rest of the time it makes no difference whatsoever. So let’s say you and your three best friends are on holiday to the mountains, all of your camping gear stowed neatly into every available nook and cranny of the trunk of your beloved ride; the lid can be closed, but only with some coercion. You and your passengers are belting out what you believe to be a fairly credible version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, when all of a sudden there is a percussive accompaniment that is as unexpected as it is unsynchronized. You pull over to the side of the road, get out, and stare at your lovely and expensive alloy wheel, which now resides several inches closer to the pavement than is optimal. With a sigh, you pop the trunk, and begin the massive task of unpacking, because the mini-spare occupies a recess under the cargo floor (another bad design flaw, but not germane to our discussion today). Resignedly, you remove the tire, the jack, and the lug wrench, and proceed to remove the still-mostly-round tire from the car, as your friends sit on the sidelines chuckling, chattering amongst themselves and texting pictures or video of the incident worldwide. You install the mini-spare, and then start to repack the trunk—only your stuff won’t all fit in anymore, because the “real” tire/wheel combo is quite a bit larger than the space previously occupied by the mini-spare which now adorns one corner of your car.

It quickly becomes evident that somebody (although not you, as you are the driver) will have to carry the flat tire in his or her lap until the next gas station or tire store, a small but satisfying payback for the aforementioned gaiety and photo/video distribution. With any luck it will be muddy.


The Weird Things You Think About While Waiting in Line at Tim Hortons on a Tuesday Morning

September 15, 2010

Blame this on your least favorite politician from either party, as we are all wont to do, but the fact is that there are more homeless and mentally challenged folks wandering the streets of US cities than in any time in our history. Politically incorrect though it may be, we have all crossed a street or ducked into an open doorway to avoid interaction with somebody we perceive to be different from us, someone who frightens us on some subliminal level for reasons we cannot quite put words to. For me, it is one particular guy (henceforth to be referred to as “Person A”) who routinely carries on a heated conversation, sometimes elevating to the status of outright quarrel (much like a tropical storm is upgraded to a full-blown hurricane after reaching a certain critical intensity), with only himself on both ends of the dispute. Bordering on (but stopping just short of) unkempt, he flails himself along the sidewalk of a nearby small town, apparently engaged in some inner battle, which ramps up my anxiety factor exponentially as he approaches the entryway to Tim Hortons (that’s not a typo; Tim has no apostrophe) where I stand in line for my morning fix of caffeine and sugar.

Three people ahead in the line, a teenage girl (who shall be known as “Person B”) is reading her boyfriend the riot act via mobile phone, oblivious to the subdued grins and cocked eyebrows of nearby eavesdroppers. Apparently he did something pretty heinous, or at least she thinks he did; repeated references are made to someone named Megan, presumably his cohort in whatever mischief he may have been getting up to. Of course we cannot hear the boyfriend’s end of the conversation, assuming that he could even fit a word in edgewise amidst her rapid-fire tirade. Oddly, even though she is tattooed and pierced profusely, her jeans artlessly torn and dirty, and she is hovering at the thin edge of rage, nobody feels in the slightest threatened by her; she is just a minor harmless amusement in an otherwise humdrum weekday.

So what then is the quantitative difference, as perceived by onlookers, between her and the aforementioned fellow engaged in the argument with himself? Why do we shrink from him and treat her with, at the worst, mild distaste? I would suggest that it is the simple addition of a cell phone into the mix. If one were to give Person A a cell phone through which to channel his rant, nobody would feel threatened or nervous; in fact, nobody would so much as pay him a second glance. He would simply fade into the white noise of the Tuesday morning, just like Person B, no threat to himself or those around him, queueing up for his large Double-Double (Tim-speak for coffee with two creams and two sugars) and a Maple Dip donut.

Just a little (fast) food for thought…

Filling in the Blanks

September 9, 2010

It’s a fair bet that few folks read more mysteries in the run of a month than I do; even when I am not “on the clock” gathering monthly fodder for my BookPage magazine column, I tend toward suspense novels for pleasure reading as well. Every now and then I sneak in a bit of travel literature, or some classic I have missed along the way, but for the most part it is mysteries that occupy my nightstand and briefcase at any given time.

As there are so many authors out there, and so many books to read, I sometimes get a bit overwhelmed, especially when I discover a writer in mid-series. If it is somebody really good, I want to go back and read his or her previous novels. So, for the past couple of weeks, as I wait for my new box of books from BookPage, I have been catching up on some of the “missing links” from a couple of my long-time favorites.

First up is Giles Blunt, whose novels featuring Ontario cops John Cardinal and Lise Delorme have crossed my desk on numerous occasions, most recently with his 2002 book, Forty Words for Sorrow (the title being an allusion to the Eskimo people, of whom it is said that they have some forty words for snow), which called out to me from a remainder table at the Charlottetown Indigo bookstore. To the best of my admittedly sieve-like recollection, the last time I reviewed a Giles Blunt novel was for the June 2005 issue of BookPage. That book was Black Fly Season, and it was the Mystery of the Month (over such luminaries as Jeffery Deaver, Theresa Monsour and John Connolly!). In closing, the review noted: “All the genre superlatives apply here: taut, gripping, visceral, riveting (not to mention that the book appears just in time for black fly season).” Forty Words for Sorrow predates Black Fly Season by a few years, just as Lise Delorme is assigned as partner to John Cardinal. What Cardinal does not know is that Delorme is quietly investigating him regarding compromising information leaks to Ontario’s premier criminal, a slippery character who has thus far foiled every attempt to bring him to justice; it seems that Cardinal has been spending well beyond his means, and Delorme intends to find out how.

Giles Blunt has built up a considerable fan base, both at home in Canada and abroad. Fellow writer Jonathan Kellerman said of him: “He writes with uncommon grace, style and compassion, and he plots like a demon…” Val McDermid adds: “A taut and enthralling tale that is as dark as the Canadian winter setting is cold. Humane, intelligent and gripping…” The award societies agree: Blunt has won both the British Crime Writers Silver Dagger Award and the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for best novel. If you like Ian Rankin or John Connolly, give Blunt a try; you will not be disappointed. Meanwhile, I will seek out one last book of his that I have missed thus far…

The second novel in my recent acquisitions list is the third installment of John Burdett’s gripping series featuring Buddhist detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, Bangkok Haunts.

The last time I checked, there were four books in the series, this one and Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and The Godfather of Kathmandu. I have reviewed the other three for BookPage, and each time they won the Mystery of the Month, perhaps an unprecedented event in BookPage lore. In fact, of his most recent book, The Godfather of Kathmandu, I noted: “I pity any Mystery of the Month contender who has to go up against John Burdett; it is almost as if they should consider releasing their books in a different month.” I was surprised to see the review, in its entirety, on John Burdett’s website, when I did a quick search on Google: http://www.john-burdett.com/2009/12/22/tierney-godfather-of-kathmandu/  It is good to see that the authors are paying attention!

I had been meaning to pick up Bangkok Haunts for some time, but book prices in Japan and Canada conspired to keep me from getting it until a recent trip stateside (the US price for the hard cover edition is $24.99, which for some unknown reason translates to $32 Canadian, never mind that the US and Canadian dollars are about at par, and over $60 worth of Japanese yen at a Tokyo bookstore; go figure…). That said, it would have been worth either of those prices, and it would have won the Mystery of the Month hands down, but somehow it eluded my grasp at the time and never got reviewed.

You should read this series in order, as there are frequent references to people and events from previous books, but that should present no hardship to the devout mystery aficionado. Burdett’s books are a pleasure in all regards: pacing, plot development, originality, characters, dialog, and surprise twists. He is one of but a handful of authors whose work I would cheerfully pay my own money for, perhaps the highest compliment a reviewer can give.

Pavement Patty

September 9, 2010

One doesn’t think of Canada as being on the cutting edge of anything except perhaps political correctness, and its kissin’ cousin, politeness, but a recent news story out of British Columbia suggests that our northern neighbo(u)r may be leading the pack with regard to high-tech speed limit enforcement: the virtual pedestrian. It seems that the good townsfolk of West Vancouver, BC, dissatisfied with the policing effects of the low-tech old standby, the speed bump, have upped the ante on scofflaws by painting a weirdly wonderful trompe-l’oeil mural of sorts on the pavement adjacent to a local school, depicting a young child chasing a ball into the street. As the driver approaches the painting, it appears to “rise up” off the surface of the street, an effect not unlike the painted eyes of a portrait “following” the viewer around the viewing room. For a remarkable visual demonstration on just how effective an illusion this is, have a look at this short video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r26AwT7PTM&feature=player_embedded

The girl in the video is nicknamed “Pavement Patty,” no doubt an allusion to her two-dimensionality (think “hamburger patty”). Discover magazine had this to say about PP: “In what sounds like a terrifying experience, the girl’s elongated form appears to rise from the ground as cars approach, reaching 3D realism at around 100 feet, and then returning to 2D distortion once cars pass that ideal viewing distance. Its designers created the image to give drivers who travel at the street’s recommended 18 miles per hour (30 km per hour) enough time to stop before hitting Pavement Patty—acknowledging the spectacle before they continue to safely roll over her.”

Note that last: “…before they continue to safely roll over her.” Now there’s a concept that merits some discussion, or at least a bit of forethought. A tongue-in-cheek observation from thehighdefinite.com hits the mark, no pun intended: “Nothing promotes vehicular safety like desensitizing the act of running over children with your car. I’m sure this will end well.” Certainly there is the potential of Three Stooges scenarios in which one driver slams on the brakes to avoid hitting the “child”, setting off a chain reaction of rear-end collisions; the drivers of the second-through-the-umpteenth cars would see no looming danger, as flat Patty would be effectively blocked from their vision by the first vehicle in the line. It’d be a hoot to watch, though. Conversely, might drivers who become used to Patty and her soon-to-be-ubiquitous playmates inadvertently neglect to slow down for a real child? British Columbia Automobile Association Traffic Safety Foundation Spokesperson (does he really fit all that onto a standard business card?) David Dunne brooks no such balderdash: “It’s a static image. If a driver can’t respond to this appropriately, that person shouldn’t be driving, and that’s a whole different problem.” Well, harrumph, David! Me, I’m going to look on eBay and see if I can find a vintage bumper sticker from my halcyon hippie days: “Warning! I brake for hallucinations.”

Syck Physh

September 4, 2010

I have often been accused of doing things the hard way, not profiting from others’ experiences, and so forth. My mother referred to this trait as “swimming upstream”, and there was no undertone of admiration in the appellation. It was a charge I could not refute; indeed, I didn’t even have a smart-aleck answer when it was levelled at me. Swimming upstream was a characteristic I would carry well into adulthood, a source of both frustration and amusement to my family, my friends, and myself.

It happens quite a bit when I am traveling, as the places I most want to see nowadays are some of the more difficult locations to get to. In fact, the belated realization that life is a finite commodity has caused me to formulate a plan (gasp!) of the things I want to check out before ultimately checking out. Figuring that my current state of health is likely the best it is going to ever be, it only makes sense to scope out the hard-to-reach places first, while I am still hardy enough (and borderline young enough) to do the climbing, walking, and other strenuous activities required to get there, wherever “there” may be. I have been kind of lazy over the years, and have crossed off my list many of the laid-back and cushy destinations and sights to be seen in a lifetime of travel: the pink beaches of Bermuda; the low-tide crossing to Mont St. Michel; the view of Sydney Opera House from across the harbor at Taronga Zoo; Barcelona’s otherworldly La Sagrada Familia; the Lego-hued tulip fields of Holland; the tiered temples of old Kyoto; the clusters of pastel hillside homes in Santorini; the night tram to Victoria Peak, overlooking the sparkling lights of Hong Kong.

The places I have yet to see will take a greater degree of commitment, however (especially with regard to shedding the tenacious extra avoirdupois I currently carry like a ten-kilo belly-pack): the narrow-gauge train trip to remote Darjeeling, tea capital of Northern India; Peru’s ancient mountaintop city of Machu Picchu; Yellowknife, to witness the original laser light show, the Aurora Borealis; Kathmandu, which I somehow missed during my hippie years; Viet Nam, which (thankfully) I also missed during my formative years, but which I would very much like to see in peacetime; the alpine lakes and meadows of New Zealand, some of which are accessible only by narrow foot trail; and the steamy ferry ride up the Irrawaddy River from Burma’s capital, Rangoon, to the storied cities of Mandalay and Pagan. (Officially it is Myanmar and Yangon, but to those of us who are fans of Rudyard Kipling, it will always be Burma and Rangoon.)

So, the plan is to knock off one of these per year, all other things being equal; the most difficult ones first, the easier ones later on. I am open to other suggestions from time to time, though, and it was one of those that occasioned my trip to Newfoundland last month. While there, over a salmon supper one evening, a fishing guide acquaintance made mention of the fact that only the hardiest salmon survive the gruelling upriver journey from the sea, braving rapids and waterfalls to get to their spawning grounds, where, with luck, they will ensure the future of their kind. He went on to offer the astute observation that “only the sick fish swim downstream”, a throw-away comment for him, but an epiphany for me, or perhaps a challenge, or a motto for the third quarter of my life, even. So, for the time being, I guess I will continue the upstream swim, ‘cause we don’t need no stynkin’ syck physh at this table!