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Money is meaningless! And other great quotes from a great man.

Flipping to the preface of Outlaw Journalist, a book about the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson, I read the following quote:

Word of his death was a shock to me, but not particularly suprising… More than anything else, it came as a harsh confirmation of the ethic that [he] had always lived but never talked about… the dead-end lonelines of a man who makes his own rules…

I don’t even know where he’s buried, but what the hell?  The important thing is where he lived.

It’s not only a perfect introduction to a fascinating book about a great American writer, it sums up what I’ve been feeling for two years now about the death of a dear friend.

A few days before Christmas, 2007 I also got a shock.  I learned from a mutual friend that an old friend I’d met in my first days as a student reporter had died, found in his ramshackle house along a stretch of road across from a farmer’s field about a mile outside a very small dot on the map.  As the police put it, he’d passed away “on or about November 15,” so I guess he’d been there in the Quebec autumn cold for a while even before someone found him.

Malcolm Stone newspaper shot

I’d heard about Malcolm Stone a few weeks before I met him.  Our journalism school teacher, Peter Scowen, simply called him Dr. Feelgood.

Malcolm Stone was the man who went out with me on my very first assignment for a real newspaper: the kind that people actually pay money for. I was on a summer break from school in Montreal, and at the suggestion of that same Peter Scowen – who was also the paper’s owner – I spent a week in the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships working for the Stanstead Journal in Stanstead, Quebec.

“You know Ian,” he told me as we were hanging out in his kitchen my first day there, “there’s this horse-breeder fellow I know who’s just started breeding elk. Elk! Can you believe it? You’ve got to get out there and do a little story on this guy.”

And he leaned back and slowly broke out in his wide smile. “I’ve already got the headline for it!” he said, tobacco-stained right finger waving in the air.

Stanstead farmer breeds horses of a different elk

That was back in the day before Google Search Engine Optimisation killed pun-filled headlines.

Malcolm was someone I deeply admired.  He came up in conversation I had one morning in the kitchen of a prominent Montreal television personality, the wife of the journalism school teacher whose paper I worked on.

“So is living in the middle of nowhere on the edge of poverty some sort of lifestyle you aspire to?” she asked.   It wasn’t a challenge, just an off-hand remark about how the man obviously had very little money to spare, but I said, yeah – if I can live my life enjoying what I want to do where I want to do it without having to answer to anybody and not have to wait ’til I’m 67 to do it, then sure.

Malcolm’s career path abruptly stopped somewhere in his mid-30s, about 25 years before I’d met him.  He was working as a flack, er… public relations officer and mouthpiece for one of the two schools that merged to form Concordia University in Montreal, when he got into an ugly mud-fest with his employer.  He was going to quit, but before he got a chance to, they offered him a whack of cash if he’d just leave.  So he took their money, bought an old two-storey wood-frame house on a plot of land near a farmer’s field outside a tiny town in the Eastern Townships, and lived out the rest of his life.

Not many retire at 37, but he knew what he was doing, that’s for sure.  The town was smack on the border with the States.  When Malcolm wanted to stock up on Camel cigarettes and cheap gas for his beater car, he’d head over the line and be back home within 20 minutes, pushing a bit of blue all the way.  If he needed to see a doctor, he ‘d of course stay on the Canadian side of the border and go to the guy in town.

He lived alone, so if the house hadn’t seen a spray of paint inside or out for the past 30 years, if the floorboard cracks in his kitchen were caked black with grime the dog brought in, if newspapers were piled to the ceiling at the top of the stairs leading to his scatter-house bedroom, if he walked around barefoot everywhere in an old shirt hanging out of his pants, if he got up at nine to walk the dog, tend his garden, listen to some jazz or NPR talkshow on the radio, have another smoke while contemplating his next move, he’d nobody to tell him to do it any differently.

I admired him because he had absolutely no need for the very things most of us strive for, yet was the happiest guy I knew.

“I want to leave The Record,” I told him one day after another of our rousing games of Scrabble.  “Two hours into the drive down from Quebec City last week I looked out the window and thought, if I’m going to start earning some real money, I’ve got to get out of here.”

“Ian! Money is meaningless!” he shot back, slapping the table and, in a way, me upside the head.  “Fuck it!” he said.  “Fuck ’em.  I’ve got everything I need here – a place to go when I feel like writing or doing a bit of farting around, friends who come loaded with tunes, toots and juicy local gossip. What more do you want?”

Part 1 of 2   (or maybe 3)


So nice to see you after all these years

We’re going to a reunion this summer, a three-day fest on the Rhine gathering together former employees and spouses of Hong Kong’s German-Swiss International School.  My wife was a teacher there in the early nineties, had been for three years before I landed in early 1994, got a job, found a girlfriend, broke up, met K, moved in, married her, had our daughter, quit my job and then moved to Germany.

Along the way I met many of her colleagues, some of whom we’re still friends with after all these years.  Looking over the list the other day of those slated to attend, we smiled and said how much we were looking forward to seeing many people who up to now have existed only in that place and time we filled before moving on.

There are at least a half-dozen I want to have a long catch-up with.  One of K’s girlfriends back in the day will I hope recall an incident barely a week after I’d started going out with K.  The three of us were at a bar somewhere up near The Peak and Karin was wearing a dress that showed off that great figure she still has.  When K went off to get some drinks I turned to her friend and said something like, “damn, she looks fantastic, doesn’t she?”  She gave me this horrified look and spat back, “WHAT did you say?”   With the loud music and her not understanding English very well, she thought I was making a pass at her the moment K’s back was turned.

But as much as I’m looking forward to the reunion, there’s a certain dread about it too.  Not that I might feel like an outsider, because I do know a lot of the people.  It’s just that I know exactly what’s going to happen.  If you’ve ever been to a high school reunion, you know the drill.

Not long after you arrive you’ll see the people you’ve been thinking about all these years and you’ll rush over and greet them.  After the first excitement of recognition has blown by you’ll have the catch-up gab, the what-you-doing-now where-you-been-in-the-meantime chat, the great-to-see-you-again tap on the arm for good measure when you go refill your drink.

It will go on like that until someone gets up to make a speech or the buffet is served.  With any luck the food will be decent and drinks flowing.  By now you’ll have coalesced into groups you used to hang out with ‘way back when, avoiding those you don’t know or only had a superficial relationship with.

The evening will be a pleasant one and it will all end a bit too soon.  If there are events the next day and evening, you’ll enjoy them, basking in the memories and nostalgia which, if the atmosphere is right, will come in bunches.

As the last event draws to a close and everyone drifts off saying their final farewells, there will be hugs and shoulder shakes and thumps on the back, cards swapped, telephone numbers, email, website and blog addresses scribbled on the back of napkins or scraps of paper, and sincere looks exchanged as you look each other in the eye and say, “It’s been so much fun to see you again after all these years.  We must keep in touch.”

But you know what?  You won’t.

EDIT and update:  It was a great time and we’re looking forward to the next one.  Really, it was wonderful.


The brother who speaks my language

It doesn’t matter how many months – or, lately, years – it’s been since I’ve seen my older brother Gordon, we always greet each other the same way.

One of us will say, “Hi, how the fuck are ya?”

The other will say, “fucking great, man” and we’ll give each other a bear hug.

Then we’ll step back and the next thing one of us will say is Well. That was never five minutes just now.

Anyone witnessing this or any other exchange between the two of us could be excused for thinking we’re more than just a little bit daft, because if each of us has his own particular set of quirks and foibles, stir Gordon and me together for a while and a whole lifetime of slang, sayings, even our own rhythm and cadence kicks in, and nobody else really gets it.

One of the main things we get into is adding the suffix -age onto everything. Length, for example, becomes footage. So to ask, “how far is it to…” we would ask, what’s the footage to get to….

It can sometimes get to ridiculous extremes. Damn, I’m hungry. I need some foodage, and maybe some drinkage too, at which point we silently call a truceage and cut out the crappage before we drive each other around the bendage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of it stems from late-1960s to mid-70s pop culture and television, which coincides from the time Dad bought our first TV ’til Gordon left home to go to university.

If someone’s having trouble opening something, we’ll say really fast just jiggle it a little, it’ll open. Try it. Justjiggleitalittleit’llopen. It’s from an episode of I Love Lucy.

Greetings can also be Hey Goob or Hey Goobah, which comes from Gomer Pyle, USMC. From goober we get goobernatorial, a play on the real word gubernatorial, which as Canadians we always found should refer to something stupid anyway. How goobernatorial is that?

If we’re playing a game and it’s the other’s move, we’ll say itchy goom, something our Dad mis-heard when we were telling him we were watching the TV game show It’s Your Move.

Have some crispy french fries, cousin Cesspool is a set phrase we throw in when offering any type of food to the other. It comes from a misunderstood TV commercial for Crisco Oil.

If we see or hear something stupid, idiotic or just a little weird, one of us will say eww, ginchy. Ginch is a derivation of that classic Canadian slang term for underwear gaunch.

To ask the time we’ll say time diddehhh? – drawing out the second syllable for some reason. We can also ask the time in French, but instead of the simple Quelle heure est-il? we’ll say Quelle heure est-il maintenant ou pas? adding the nonsensical now or not? at the end.

We also invert many things so that they sound French, but aren’t. A CD player will be a player de CD, a paper bag a bag de paper, a hockey stick a stick de hockey and so on.

To say excuse me we say Scoozay-mwah, see-voo-play, that is all my French to-day.

To offer milk to the other we say Would you like some Millek with your Fillem? I was the one who introduced that, because I had a teacher in Grades 6 and 7 who used to prononce film as the two-syllable affectation fill-em.

A helicopter is not a helicopter, it’s a hobbidy-cobbidy, a knife is not a knife, it’s a kaniffy, McDonald’s isn’t McDonalds it’s Flap-doodles but the latter is more Gord’s and I just adopted it.

If you noticed the Monty Python reference in That was never five minutes just now, that’s just scratching the surface. We both know the entire repertoire inside-out, dragging up snippets of skits and sometimes whole monologues to fit various situations. If death comes up on the panel the high point of the Dead Parrot sketch will be played out, if one of us says Could be the other will say, Could be, could be taken on a holiday, and any reference to Christian religious ritual one of us will start reciting the monologue of how the Lord sent an Angel to comfort Victor for the weekend, and entered they together, the jacuzzi.

Here endeth the lesson.

Well, not quite. Because if all this stuff and nonsense has you thinking we do it because we have nothing at all to talk about and it’s just filling dead air, that’s not it. We know how much is too much, had tons to discuss and argue over and contemplate and laugh about, and had been doing for an entire week despite my being ill for half of it, before he left yesterday for London and then home.

Dammit Gord, great funnage. Sorry I was such a wreckage when you got here. See you this fallage.

© 2008 lettershometoyou


Giving in to the Facebook Temptation.

Stuck for juicy blog fodder Too curious for my own good, I finally contacted Nicole, girlfriend of 21 years ago whom I found dangling there in two dimensions on Facebook some weeks back. The post drew a lot of comments, some very thought-provoking. About half were in favour if my contacting her again, the other half saying, nah – just let the past stay in the past.

What intrigued me about the whole story is part of my growing interest in how we adapt to the rapidly changing capabilities offered by new technologies.

Twenty years ago, no-one would never have even been put in the position of having to decide whether or not to click a button to re-establish contact with anyone. The process would have been so difficult, so time-consuming, it would have taken on the aura of obsession.

But now it’s so easy, it’s like: why the hell not?

So I did.

Here’s what I wrote her:

Hi Nicole,

West End Vancouver, summer of Expo ‘86? Four months of fun and three months of none? How are you? Are you still nursing? In case you’ve ever wondered what became of that guy who didn’t know what to do with the rest of his life, here’s a short update for you. I quit wasting my time with that awful job with those awful people, went skiing for a while and kicked around a bit, left Vancouver two years later to live in Montreal, went back to school for journalism, worked as a reporter in Sherbrooke and Hong Kong, where I met my wife and where my daughter was born. We’ve been living in Hamburg, Germany for the past decade. I’m still in media and still enjoying it. Hey, guess what? That post-university quarter-life crisis I was going through when you knew me? It now has its own label, website, support group and everything! And you can now – perhaps too easily – get ahold of old girlfriends on Facebook, but believe me: I hesitated a long time before hitting the send button.

Pretty much what I said I’d write.

She answered right away.

Here’s what she wrote:








I don’t want to be mean or anything but i don’t know you. I’ve never seen you in my life.
I think you must have the wrong person.
I’ve never been to Vancouver.
and in 1986 I was only 12 years old and i didn’t have a b/f.
I’m happy to hear that you have success in your life and that you found the right girl.

I still can’t believe it.

Looks exactly like her, and the age she should be. Same name. Does this sort of thing happen every day?

Her full profile – now that I can see it, because I couldn’t when I wrote that other post – puts her birthdate in 1974, so yeah, she would have been around 12.

Good thing it wasn’t her, or I’d probably have a few jail stories to tell.

© 2007 lettershometoyou


Murder, she messaged

I’m a collector of tales of how human beings do nasty things to one another, but I missed this story completely. Passing it along in case you did too.

A man is to go on trial in Buffalo, New York today, charged in connection with the killing of a colleague in a love triangle that raises serious questions about how we conduct ourselves over the Internet. It’s one of the most bizarre stories I’ve heard in a while. Though it apparently has been out there for nearly a year, I only caught wind of it on a recent BBC Podcast. (scroll down to get the audio)

Forty-eight-year-old factory worker Thomas Montgomery, married with two teenage kids, went to a website two years ago and started to pretend he was someone he wasn’t.

computer.jpgHe became an 18-year-old Marine. Taller, stronger, fitter, richer, more well-endowed. A perfect catch for 17-year-old blonde student Jessi, who fell in love with him almost before their first IM chat came to an end.

Soon the middle-aged man and the teenage girl were spending several hours a day online, professing love via instant messaging and getting horny. He sent her pictures of a man who fit his description. She sent him panties and trinkets. He proposed marriage. She accepted.

Then the man’s wife found out. She contacted Jessi and told her who the man she thought she was in love with really was.

Jessi, suspicious that the wife might actually be a jealous teenage rival, found another man online to check out the story for her. Brian, a 22-year-old who worked part-time with Thomas, confirmed what the older man’s wife had told her.

And then, Jessi and Brian also started an online love affair.

You’d think Jessi would have cut off contact with her older and fraudulent friend, but no. They stayed in touch, and sure enough, Thomas caught wind of her relationship with the younger man. In a jealous rage, Thomas shot Brian to death one day after work.

Bear in mind that Thomas had never met this young woman in person.

Police soon had Thomas as a prime suspect, and located Jessi in West Virginia. Local police went to her house, but when they knocked, it was her mother who came to the door.

Jessi was away at school, she said, and wouldn’t be back for weeks. No, she wouldn’t give details.

But soon the mother was forced to admit the truth: She was Jessi. The 17-year-old sweetheart infatuated with the 18-year-old marine was in fact a 45-year-old housewife in a fake relationship with a 48-year-old factory worker. In another sick twist that makes you wonder where the woman’s head is, she had used her 18-year-old daughter’s real name and sent him actual photos of her.

Thomas confessed to the shooting, but before sentencing in late-August changed his plea, saying he wanted to go to trial because he claims his lawyer gave him false information in hammering out a plea bargain.

Beyond the lurid details and chatroom transcripts you can find in this excellent Wired story, what interests me is how often we come across examples of how the Internet renders possible what a decade ago would have been almost inconceivable. Contacting old friends and lovers via Facebook, for example.

Second Life, anyone?

Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale.

Live in the here and now. Cherish your loved ones. Be real.

© 2007 lettershometoyou

PS: Sockpuppetry has a long tradition. This recent article looks at a few high-profile examples and shows how you can spot and thwart them.


The Facebook temptation. Poke, send message, or just ignore?

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

– Oscar Wilde

I was feeling homesick for Canada and all things Canuck early last month, which as any North American dressed in a tuque for pond hockey will tell you was around the time for Canadian Thanksgiving. But with no turkey, stuffing or pumpkin pie in sight, I went looking for a little home comfort in the CBC and Radio-Canada sites as well as a few Canadian blogs.

Stumbling upon a Québécois one, I could hear that familiar twang and drawl come through in the writing and it brought back a flood of memories, and of course they included certain people. So I got to thinking that since I’m now on Facebook, why not see if any of they are there too?

Big mistake.

Because now I’m tempted to send a message to Nicole, a Québécois woman who dumped me more than 20 years ago. Her name is very common so I had to scroll through a few pages, but when I saw her picture, I knew it was her. Maybe a little puffier around the edges, but otherwise still the same.

We had been living together in our 14th-floor apartment for little more than six weeks when one day she said, “I think we both have to face up to the fact that we’re just not compatible. We have to break up.”

It wasn’t out of the blue. I could see there were problems germinating even before she started hanging out with her friends all the time instead of with me, and soon I was doing the same, both of us avoiding the inevitable.

The endgame was difficult and painful, but at least I learned who my real friends were. Like Max, who helped me move, offered tea and sympathy and beat me sometimes at Scrabble in French, as I beat him once in a while at squash. Or Brad, – gay as they come in Vancouver and sick of all my hetero turmoil – who said one day: Ian, to hell with it. Just ditch the bitch and make the switch.

Didn’t switch, though I did fight a lot, eventually giving up and moving on, the stained fabric of her memory faded yet interwoven with a time I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself.

A generation ago this temptation to contact someone again would never even have come up. You’d move, change phone numbers, avoid people they hung out with, places they’d go, and even if you lived in the same city, that would have been it. You’d never have had to see them again, unless, too late diving into the frozen food aisle, you’d be forced to spend a couple of awkward moments at the supermarket.

Yeah, not much. You? OK, uh… see you.

Now she might be living on the other side of the world, but because contact is only two clicks away, why not? It’s not as if I had to devote weeks of intensive research and detective work into tracking her down, so I won’t come off as having some ulterior motive, sinister or otherwise.

But why, 21 years after a woman pushed me out of her life, do I even feel the slightest pull to do this? Is it mere curiosity, or is something else at work? Is it the desire to say, See? I was a bit of a lost soul back then, OK, but I’m not anymore? Why should she care? Why should I?

And what is it about the temptation to contact her, but not others? The three pricks who called me Chicken Bones and shoved me around all the time in Grade 8 gym class because, having skipped a grade, I was a year younger than they were and a hell of a lot weaker? Canada’s most toxic waste dump / flute player? The no-talent colleague from my Hong Kong TV days who blatantly tried to use our so-called friendship to bolster her relentless career ambitions, and, when I refused to give her a crash course in Economics 100 from Adam Smith through stock markets to the Federal Fucking Reserve, had a screaming, arm-waving histrionic shit-fit in a newsroom packed with gaping journalists, later topping it off by spreading vicious lies about me?

Not that I harbour a life-long grudge or anything, but I’d sooner be strapped naked to a massive block of ice and let a pair of starving ferrets chew through my eyeballs to the back of my skull than see so much as a blurry thumbnail of these losers again, let alone waste a nanosecond searching for them on Facebook.

But how about this:

Salut Nicole!

West End Vancouver, summer of Expo ’86? Four months of fun and three months of none? How are you? Are you still nursing? In case you’ve ever wondered what became of that guy who didn’t know what to do with the rest of his life, here’s a short update for you. I quit wasting my time with that awful job with those awful people, went skiing for a while and kicked around a bit, left Vancouver two years later to live in Montreal, went back to school for journalism, worked as a reporter in Sherbrooke and Hong Kong, where I met my wife and where my daughter was born. We’ve been living in Hamburg, Germany for the past decade. I’m still in media and still enjoying it. Hey, guess what? That post-university quarter-life crisis I was going through when you knew me? It now has its own label, website, support group and everything! And you can now – perhaps too easily – get ahold of old girlfriends on Facebook, but believe me: I hesitated a long time before hitting the send button.

I don’t know. I might do it, but then again, just because the Internet has rendered effortless something which was impossible only a few years ago doesn’t make it worthwhile.

© 2007 lettershometoyou

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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