Once upon a time, a creative-writing instructor praised me in class a few times and I overreacted—I quit my job, bought a used typewriter and, with little to say and matching talent, set off into the blue.

I was a man with a jet pack on his way to the moon and had about two years to get there. “What will you write?” some asked. I hadn’t a clue. “Short things,” I replied. “Short stories, essays, things like that.” Business colleagues commended me for my courage, but it didn’t feel, at all, like courage—it felt like school letting out for the summer. It was all too carefree to be courage.

As I would soon discover, being a writer was somewhat akin to performing to an empty house and, a few months into it, hungry for applause, I began reading my work to others at every opportunity. A couple of times, I cornered and read to former colleagues in their offices. Once, I even cornered a guy at the end of a bar. Mostly, though, I read to groups of partiers, and there were parties galore that summer, so lots of opportunities. “Would you mind if I brought along and read some of my stuff to the group?” I’d ask.

They probably laughed about it later, but they sure weren’t laughing at the time. I wasn’t, either. I’d look up from a reading and there’d be two or three people had dozed off. And these were neither large groups nor long readings.

At one party, mid-way through my funniest piece, a guy slumped right off his chair onto the floor, startling the sleeper next to him, who also tumbled onto the floor, sending her chair crashing against an antique buffet. I blamed the hour and the booze and decided, after that, to read earlier in the evening when my audience would be sufficiently alert, still, to appreciate my talents.

But that wasn’t it. A couple of weeks later, after an early reading to an especially literate group of partiers on Toronto Island, I overheard my performance described as “fifteen minutes of turgid prose,” which it was, and, as my reputation spread, the flow of invitations slowed to a trickle and dried up. 

Undeterred, I resorted then, to going for a drink or two each evening at Phil's, a popular local bar from which I'd lure girls back to my apartment with expectations of sex, then read them stuff I'd written. “Well, wasn’t that something!” said one. “Oh my God,” said another, “look at the time!”

From Alistair Rutherford's best-selling Backstairs at Buckingham—"Every so often, after dinner, Queen Elizabeth would make herself up to look like Helen Mirren and, at dusk, slip out for a few hours of doing as she pleased. Well, not entirely as she pleased—adoring movie fans would occasionally oblige her to sign autographs and pose for photographs. Otherwise, she was rarely imposed upon."

The young woman walking toward me is smiling and looks surprised to see me, but I can't, for the life of me, place her.

As we draw abreast, she says, “I know you.”

I stop, expecting she will, too, but she walks right on by and, when she’s gone about ten paces, turns and shouts back at me, “YOU SWIZZLED ME WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER.”

She turns, then, and walks on.


Across the street, there’s a woman scowling at me.


She keeps right on walking.

I’m about to shout again but don’t, for it’s occurred to me that she thinks I’m Russell Oliver. Many do, these days. We’ve the same long grey hair and high forehead. My days of being mistaken for Frank Mahovolich and asked to autograph a hockey stick are long behind me—I’m mistaken, now, for an old, carnival-barking gold merchant in a Superman outfit whose TV commercials I can’t mute quickly enough.

A few weeks ago, a young guy called out to me from a passing pickup, “HEY, MISTER OLIVER—LOVE YOUR COMMERCIALS.” Across the way, an excited young boy was pointing me out to his mother.

CNN is reporting that a woman with a picture of Jesus taped to her dashboard was struck by a 9-pound rock hurled through her windshield from the back of a passing dump truck. It completely shattered the glass and broke her hand in several places. Had it cleared the steering wheel, it would most likely have killed her. She credits Jesus with saving her life and is apparently okay with His having allowed the rock through her windshield in the first place.

Knuck and I have been friends since he was 4 and I was 5. His real name is Ronald, which boyhood friends changed to Knucklehead, then Knuck, which I’ve called him ever since.

After teachers college, he taught for several years, achieved his BA after hours, married another teacher, then returned to school for his law degree. On passing the bar, he began lawyering in Guelph, where he continued to practice mainly criminal law till just recently. At the time, he and his family lived in Fergus, near Guelph, in a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street close to a river. When I had a car, I'd drop by from time to time.

On one such occasion, a warm summer evening after sunset, Knuck and I grabbed a beer from the fridge and strolled on over to the river, where we walked to the centre of a pedestrian bridge and stood chatting for a while in the quiet of night.

Though not our practice to exchange views of one another, in the course of discussing how long we’d been friends, Knuck said that what he'd always liked about me was that I never wanted anything.

Having always liked Knuck but never wondered why, and feeling obliged to respond in kind, I said that what I’d always liked about him was that he never made a fuss when I got up to leave.

A stranger might have thought I was joking. Anyone might have. But I wasn’t. And Knuck didn’t laugh, so I think he understood what I meant.

I've long admired the letter-writing ability of women friends. To some, I can email a couple of paragraphs I've laboured over for half an hour and, within minutes, receive back page-long accounts of what's going on in their lives, like they're sitting right there talking to me. With few exceptions, men friends, when they reply at all, do so briefly, as though writing for Reuters. For the most part, I suppose, we write like we talk, though, in my case, being on the quiet side, I write like I wish I talked.

Do you have a guardian angel? I do. Or so it seems. I imagine her a staunch Methodist with a soft spot, an ancestor of stern bearing who is loath to providing what I should be perfectly capable of providing for myself but, when I flounder, can’t help herself. Battling her principles to the end, she customarily shows up at the very last minute, on one occasion delaying an offer of employment till, at my lowest point, I’d all but completed an application for welfare benefits. I had little left to do but sign and date the forms when the call came.

She feels badly, I think, putting me through it like that, for, when she finally does show up, she nearly always goes overboard—in the above case, with a full-time job requiring little more than a firm grasp of the alphabet and a good alarm clock and freeing me at noon, each day, to be an artist. It paid well, too. It was perfect.

More recently, while struggling in vain to get comfortable in my Ikea chair (which, to compensate for a sheared bolt, I’d propped on a box, bound with duct tape, and backed against the wall), I imagined being granted a single wish, which, with all I might have wished for, I immediately squandered on a chair comfortable enough to fall asleep in watching TV—that’s how uncomfortable I was. A few days later, from out of the blue, I was given not one but two chairs—a little-used, black-leather recliner with ottoman AND a big, plush rocker-recliner which, I'd swear, hovers, as well. No longer must I go to bed to get comfortable—I fall asleep, now, during Jeopardy.

.   .   .

And my old chair? Callously shunted aside for a full-figured beauty half her age, she resides, now, broken and exhausted, on a mountain of waste on the outskirts of town, where, I imagine, she shares her feelings of abandonment with others like herself, perhaps tearfully recalling her many years supporting a man who splattered her with sticky stuff and clogged her folds with popcorn and pizza droppings, though allowing, in spite of everything, how very much she misses me and how truly grateful she is to have been slouched upon, for all those years, by someone of modest girth who liked the same TV shows, perhaps crediting her guardian angel.

I’m watching my neighbour, Maggie, and her Golden Retriever, Banner, on the grounds below. Wearing a cone, Banner is sitting contentedly on the grass by the walkway, seemingly oblivious to the frigid temperature and howling winds that have Maggie hugging herself and shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. Every few minutes, tugging gently on his leash, she encourages him to come, but he resists, so she leaves him be. After a time, he stands to stretch and, while he’s up, Maggie entices him a few steps forward with treats. Then he sits down again. But not for long. A man's voice is calling out from somewhere below, a voice Banner recognizes. His tail is wagging and he’s up now and making his way toward the voice with a beaming Maggie in tow.

I like that she allows Banner to set the pace. I do the same with Island Girl. If there's a half hour's worth of sniffing between here and the corner, we take a half hour getting to the corner. She accommodates human priorities most of the time—on her outings with me, I accommodate hers and, as much as possible, let her run free.


One place I can’t is around picnickers, where, unless I keep her leashed, she’s all over them for handouts. More than once, she’s snatched and run off with a kid’s sandwich. Where there’s food to be had, there is no calling her away, so I’ve made it a practice to leash her as soon as I spot a party of picnickers and not unleash her, again, till we’re well past them. And I do mean well past. She can be wily. Once, believing it safe to unleash her, I obliged her wish to cool off in a stream, where, after a few quick dunks, she sidled out of sight behind some bushes and, before I knew it, was up the bank and high-tailing it back to the picnic area.

I’ve become more wily, myself. On the rare occasions she won’t come when called, I walk down the trail a ways and hide behind a tree, which doesn’t bring her right away but hurries her up. Not knowing where I am makes her anxious.

“Naming a child at birth is a leap in the dark,” he proclaimed. “You risk naming a Douglas ‘Henry’ and a Zelda ‘Joanne’, and misnaming a child is not to be taken lightly—an ill-chosen name can seriously undermine a child’s confidence and sense of self-worth. It can completely alter a child’s destiny.”

I’m paraphrasing. It was early 50s, too long ago to remember exactly what he said, but that was the gist of it. The speaker was André Francois Bordilieu, a prominent child psychologist with a weekly radio show all the women were listened to, including my grandmother. I just happened to be there at the time.

“Before naming children,” he advised, “give them a year or two to reveal who they are.” He likened them to tulip bulbs. “Wait till they blossom,” he said, “till they show their colours.” 

Many followed his advice, including friends of my mother who, while waiting for their own precious little bulb to blossom, felt a need to call her something so called her Darling. Fifty years later, she’s still called Darling—Darly by those close to her. That’s the thing with names—however odd or inappropriate a name may seem at first, over time, you get used to it—the name and named become one. So, I didn’t see it mattering much what you were called.

Bordilieu, however, saw things very differently and, by the late 50s, had added a whole new twist. He was advising, now, that newborns be given generic names like Babe or Sonny till at least 5 years of age, then allowed to name themselves. He had a massive following, still, so it’s no surprise that name registries from those times show a profusion of Barbies and Cinderellas and an occasional Superman. There are quite a few Babes and Sonnys, as well.

I’m of two minds, these days, about the importance of one’s name in the grand theme of things—on the one hand still believing it makes no difference, on the other hand wondering where I’d be right now had I been named Adolf, for instance, or Elton, or Buckminster, and I can’t help thinking I’d be somewhere else.

I was a late talker and it was thought, for a time, I’d have to be sent somewhere and taught to talk. But it turned out I just hadn't thought of anything to say, yet.

Not much has changed. I have little to say, still, and through inactivity, my speech muscles have so weakened that, when I do talk, I mumble.

In medical parlance, I have what’s termed Labia Otiosi (Lazy Lips), which my doctor informed me “is more a male than female affliction, explaining,” she said, “why you’ve probably never known a female mumbler.” And she was right—I couldn’t think of a single one.

She told me that Lazy Lips is frequently accompanied by Sloppy Fingers (Digitos Sordidus), requiring the afflicted to both re-type as well as re-say a lot of their words.

That was me to a T, I said. What did she recommend I do about it?

For Sloppy Fingers, she said, there were things like Spellcheck. And, to improve my elocution, there were exercises I could do but, seeing as how I didn’t talk much, anyway, she didn’t see it mattering much. She recommended I mumble on.

Birthdates aside, I’ve come to think we’re pretty much the same age all our lives, not fundamentally different at 60 than we were at 20. That toddler sizing me up (and none too favourably) on the subway the other day? He was either side of 50. And the retired lady in the doughnut shop? I can see through her wrinkles. She’s 30, tops. Me? I’m probably mid-30s, early-40s. This inclines me to viewing much younger women as peers and, if not careful, to acting like an old fool.

Speaking of which, have you noticed that the words “old fool” always conjure the image of a man, never a woman? It’s not that there aren’t foolish women. There are. But their numbers are small. Being foolish doesn’t come naturally to women the way it does to men, and few, it seems, can be bothered to make the effort. We men—we’re fools by design, and often very noisy about it. We have to make an effort not to be foolish. Not all of us, of course, but enough of us to have earned the reputation.

I’m having a coffee and cigarette here by the open window. It’s early morning. There’s a fellow in gym gear walking backwards along Keewatin, more interested, apparently, in where he’s been than where he’s going, out there building muscles of little use for anything but walking backwards, and he’s the smarter of the two of us.

I’d bought some tickets on a dog, I thought, and here was this guy on the phone telling me I’d won a bog. I thought I’d misheard him but he repeated it and I hadn’t and, afterwards, when I dug up my ticket stubs, sure enough, they clearly read ‘bog’, not ‘dog’.

I should have been looking less closely at the vendor and more closely at the tickets, but a pretty young woman at the door can play havoc with an old guy's attention span. It had with mine, anyway, and here I was, now, signing deeds and things and being photographed for a local paper. For the first time in my life, I was a landowner—me of all people!—a landowner with full title to ten acres of bog just south of Bala.

I was surprised how good it felt to be a man of property, but what on earth was I going to do with a ten-acre bog?

I borrowed a friend’s car and his rubber boots and drove up there a couple of times, waded around for a bit, hoping to experience, first hand, the pride of ownership. But it wasn’t happening. What I was feeling, mostly, was cold and damp.

I waited a couple of months till temperatures had warmed, then gave it another go. But still nothing. No pride of ownership. No feeling of oneness with Nature. No sense of belonging. Nothing. I was an old city boy in rubber boots a couple of sizes too big standing in a swamp. So I decided to put the whole works up for sale, to which end I placed some ads in local papers and erected signs along the highway.

After two weeks without a single enquiry, I lowered it’s price and, every couple of weeks for the next few months, lowered it again, but, in all this time, there wasn’t so much as a nibble. So, to move things along, I began lowering its price weekly and, eventually, daily, till finally it was free and, still, no one wanted it. So I took it off the market, which, in the end, proved to be the right move—water levels rose high enough that, a couple of years later, I was able to unload it for a pretty penny as lakefront property.

I haven’t been anywhere near the place in quite some time, now, but a friend happened by it the other day and says it’s all lake, now, no front, and that, with water levels still rising as they are, he’s glad he lives in a high-rise.

Not long after listening to Melania Trump explain away those ill-chosen words on the back of her coat, I was strolling along Yonge Street, my mind adrift, and stepping suddenly into my path, this big guy in a red MAGA cap pointed at my “FUCK TRUMP” t-shirt and said, “I don’t like your message.”

I was prepared. “There’s no message,” I said, “simply nine letters aesthetically arranged on a black t-shirt. The words they form are of no relevance—it’s the relationship of each letter to each other letter and of each to the whole that matters.”

He looked ready to punch me in the mouth, so I told him I was only joking, that, in fact, to heighten its impact, all punctuation had been dropped and “FUCK TRUMP” was meant to be read as “FUCK!!! TRUMP!!!”—like there were 3 exclamation marks after each word—as in response, for instance, to who gets the biggest crowds, or has the best words, or the hugest brain. There were a multitude of choices, I said.

He brightened immediately and we bumped fists. Then, after feeling the sleeve of my shirt to gauge its quality, he asked where he could get one just like it. I told him and said he wouldn’t be sorry, that it was a very comfortable, well-made shirt. Plus, it would really set off his hat. He agreed and said he might order a bunch for his friends, as well. I gave him a thumbs up.

“These ‘Rewritten Rewrites’,” said Laura. “Do you intend, ever, to submit any of them to a publisher, or are you simply going to go on rewriting them forever?”

“Probably the latter,” I said. “Every now and again, I consider submitting something, but what stops me every time is knowing, from experience, how much better written it will be six months from now.”

Laura shrugged. “They probably don’t pay much, anyway, for unfinished stuff.”

My friend, Valery, in an email heavily laden with exclamation marks and bursts of red uppercase, insisted I immediately remove the photo of her I’d posted on my website and shred every last copy of it, as well. She wanted “... ALL TRACES OF IT EXPUNGED FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH AND BEYOND. THAT'S THE WORST PHOTO OF ME I’VE EVER SEEN!!!!!!! LOOK AT MY NECK!!!!!!” 

I’d thought it a good shot of her and couldn’t remember anything in particular about her neck but, sure enough, when I checked out the photo, she had an old woman’s neck. And why wouldn't she—she was an old woman.

I replied that I’d done as she asked and told her I hadn’t noticed her neck till she pointed it out and was worried, now, I might never be able to get the image of it out of my head.

She called to thank me for the laugh and said she may have overreacted “a touch” but had gotten used to seeing herself as the mirror saw her, and the mirror nearly always saw her leaning toward it, which smoothed out her neck. It had been quite a shock to realize she looked just as old as the rest of us.

A few days later, she reported that, quite without realizing it, she’d begun leaning toward people. “Its foundations crumbling, vanity presses valiantly onward,” she wrote.

Some years ago, a Jehovah’s Witness lady showed up at my door and, with a only a moment's hesitation, I invited her in.

I had reason to. Religion had been very much on my mind. During formative years, my grandmother had given me a Bible and my mother had given me Mark Twain’s “Letters from the Earth” and, siding with neither, I’d become an agnostic, or had come to think of myself as one, anyway. But was I? Had I really thought it through? I decided I hadn’t, so, the other day, had typed “Do you believe in God?” at the top of a page and had been following my every answer with yet another question to see where it led. I was nearly ten typed pages into it at this point and primed for religious discussion.

I hung her coat in the closet and invited her to have a seat. She thanked me, we sat down, and she started into her spiel. She was only a little ways into it, however, when I interrupted with a question, her answer to which prompted a further question, and another after that, which led to my suggesting I read to her what I’d just written on the subject. She didn’t so much agree as not object, which was all the encouragement I needed. I retrieved my ten typed pages from beside the typewriter, sorted them in order, and cleared my throat.

“Do you believe in God?” I began.

I wouldn’t be reading for long. A half-page into it, she was already checking her watch and, a few minutes later, I was helping her on with her coat. 

Reading my work to others had had people checking their watches and scurrying for the exits for many years by now, so I wasn’t offended by her eagerness to escape, only a little disappointed. I’d hoped she’d be an exception.

.   .   .

After recounting this experience to Laura the other day, I remarked that I hadn’t read my work aloud to others for many years and wondered, If I did, would they still be checking their watches.

Laura didn’t think so. “These days,” she said, “it’s much more likely they’d be checking their phones.”

That one about the FUCK TRUMP t-shirt? Not a word of it is true. In real life, I’m confrontation-averse, so would never wear a shirt like that. And I’m only quick-witted in retrospect.

an email to friends—

some may think my always signing off with tom rather than Tom shows me to be a person of low self esteem … others may deem it a crass display of false modesty … but it’s neither … it’s an aesthetic thing ... I simply prefer its looks

it’s a remnant from when, for a time, I wrote everything in lower case and punctuated almost entirely with three dots, as I’m doing here … I found it pleasing to the eye, and the visual is important to me … I wanted my words to not only flow but look like they flowed … punctuation, in my opinion, was unnecessarily complicated and too often interfered with that flow, as did capital letters, so I took it upon myself to dramatically simplify things, to discard the unnecessary

as I saw it, a paragraph had no need to be announced with a capital and ended with a period—its beginning and end were obvious without them, so out they went … commas, dashes, question marks, and my three dots—that was about it for punctuation … and it worked for some of my stuff … but, more and more frequently, for clarity’s sake, I was having to bend the rules and, after resisting for too long, was forced to concede, finally, that I’d been trying to reinvent the wheel and, to my readers’ relief, I abandoned the practice, though traces remain, including my name  


here by the window