Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?

Singlish damn shiok lah, can speak or not?

My latest article for the BBC is on Singlish, which is the local multilayered vernacular of Singapore. I’m not a Singlish speaker myself, but I happened to have a couple of good sources and a fair bit of useful research. It’s an interesting study in emergent language change – and social and governmental attitudes towards it. And the article is worth it just for the Singlish-overdubbed video I found of a scene from Frozen!

The language the government tried to suppress

 

ruins

A few months ago I talked about the disconnects that resulted in – and from – the closure of the waterpark at Ontario Place. It was being taken down, dismantled. As the summer has gone by, I have seen it from afar, the stair tower standing forlorn, the water gone, the slides gone.

Yesterday I got to see it up close. I got to walk among the ruins. It was nostalgia; it was picturesque as ruins can be; it hurt to see it so, too – I can never quite be inured to loss. I wandered, ruing the decision that led to its ruin, remembering what it was a mere four years ago. It seemed so much longer gone than that. You will see.

Ruins are picturesque, of course. The detritus of superseded civilization: Greek ruins, Roman ruins, medieval ruins: all decaying testaments to decadence, decline and fall. To decline and fall was, in Latin, ruere. That is what gave English – and many European languages – the word ruin, noun and verb. And the plural noun is now what we use for a set of things that have declined and fallen, collapsed into heaps of rubble. We look on these architectural mementi mori with a cultural nostalgia and a sense of the triumph of wild nature. What humans build falls, and plants overtake it. But we don’t always picture the life that went on in these places when they were in their full vigour. We weren’t there.

But I was there. This waterpark: I was there yesterday, looking, remembering when I was there so few years ago, in my swim trunks, grabbing tubes and running up the stairs to slide down curvy couloirs and land with a splash in these…

…now-fetid sloughs filled with not lively joy but inert smithereens.

How did I happen to be there yesterday? There was a run in Ontario Place. I won’t call it a race, because it was not officially timed, and the distance was really 4.3 km, not the nominal 5. But the start-and-finish area was in the open plaza that was just outside the waterpark. We gained entry as participants.

You could see the waterpark ruins right there.

And there was time to wander around before the run. There was even more time after: there was a beer festival associated with the run, and so we could fill our mugs and relax or wander around.

So before the run I wandered over toward the waterpark entrance. It was not blocked off. There were no signs prohibiting entrance, no fences, no dogs, no guards.

Apparently they relied on the fact that that whole area of Ontario Place is normally closed and inaccessible. But yesterday it was not. We had been given access.

After looking briefly, I went over to the start area and, soon enough, ran. The run was as enjoyable as a hilly 5k on a warm, muggy day can be. It was very interesting to see all around Ontario Place again. Most of it is closed but unchanged; it is not in ruins, dismantled, disconnected. They did, I noticed, remove the log that could be swung to ring the large bell. I did not take a picture. I was running.

Back at the beer festival, I knew no one, so I wandered over to look some more.

I went to the splash pool of what had been named the Hydrofuge but was informally called the Toilet Bowl: you slid down a short chute into a big bowl, swirled around a few times, and fell through a hole in the bottom into this pool.

There were a couple of kids climbing on the stairs there. A man and his wife were watching them – their kids. The man told me of the irony of the circumstance: his job was in construction safety. And here was all this out in the open and unsecured, the tractor, the acetylene torch on the landing, the myriad places to fall and be hurt. A checklist of what not to do.

He called the boys down and they went back to the festival. I wandered in farther.

Past the stairs to the path to the stair tower.

To the pool the tubes landed you in. You can see the cutaways in the concrete where the slides sat. You dumped into the water, splashed, gasped, grabbed your tube, walked up and out and handed the tube to an assistant or kept it and ran back up for another go.

It’s all gone down the tubes now.

Some other people were wandering around, taking pictures. One of them offered to take a picture of me using my phone.

Yes, my phone – these are all taken with my iPhone. You didn’t think I ran races with a good camera on me, did you?

That bulge on my left hip is a water bottle in my pocket, by the way.

There’s a taller tower in the background you can see and probably recognize. The two towers in the picture, both entertainment attractions, have another thing in common: my wife has worked at both of them.

I continued on.

The big family-size tubes that went down a big chute landed in their own pool:

NO DIVING. No falling into oblivion and wet entropy.

That warning comes too late. It’s all ruined now.

Reflect on that. From the dry heights we come to the wet depths, but when we look down we see the heights.

I walked up the hill.

At the base of the tower, I looked over and saw that other tower, its observation deck temporarily effaced by a cloud, its continuity maintained by memory and assumption – and physical persistence.

As I adjusted and saved these photos this evening I was playing Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions, some rescued and remastered recordings from 45 years ago. Just as I was working on these few, a live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” started playing.

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” But all that glitters is not gold, and not all gold glitters. And stairways that can be bought can be ruined. And you can climb for all eternity and not be any closer to heaven. Or any farther away from it.

I did not climb the tower stairs. I walked back down the hill.

I saw a few others sitting in the ruins. Beyond, the festival: beer and sweaty runners.

Concrete that has weathered not the assaults of decades and centuries but just of jackhammers and similar heavy equipment.

Nearby is the Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. I could look up and see planes flying away, taking others to new places, slipping for a short time the tangled vines of the earth – but as inviting as the sky is, they all decline eventually, coming back in their gracefully controlled falls.

As I walked out and back towards the beer, I took one last look and one last photo.

And my iPhone informed me that I had run out of room. It had no more memory available; it was too full of memories – and the present ruins.

brood [video]

I enjoy watching YouTube videos where people review cameras and similar consumer products. I decided I should do occasional videos where I review words. I asked people on Twitter for some suggestions. The first one came from Ann Marie Gamble, who suggested “‘brooding’ as a mood, not a thing a chicken does.” I decided to trim that down to brood. Here it is:

I’ll probably try a few different approaches to these videos over time. We’ll see which comes off best.

boardwalk

My wife and I live in a building on The Esplanade. An esplanade, as you may know, is a walkway along the water. Our street was once just such a thing, but the water has been pushed several blocks south by landfill. Now if we want a view of the lake, we look out our 27th-floor bedroom window, and if we want to bask in the sun we can go up to the patios at the top of the building. But in summer, we really like to escape to the boardwalk.

There’s no boardwalk right near us. There would be no point. Boardwalks – walkways made of boards – are for places like beaches, where a paved sidewalk is less suitable. Coney Island has a big, wide, long boardwalk, and below it one heckuva beach. Atlantic City has a very famous boardwalk, quite possibly the original. The first Oxford English Dictionary citation for board-walk, as they spell it, dates from 1872 – two years after the construction of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Generations of Monopoly players have learned that Boardwalk is the most valuable property, and some of them have even discovered that every single property in the game is in Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s boardwalk is the Boardwalk.

I’ve never been to Atlantic City.

I’m not sure which boardwalk Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick had in mind when they wrote “Under the Boardwalk,” the song that The Drifters made a hit in 1964. They both grew up in New York City, so Coney Island’s would seem the most likely (it’s the one I always assumed, too), but New Yorkers did like to vacation on the Jersey shore in the 1960s, and several New Jersey seaside towns have boardwalks – Asbury Park, Keansburg, Ocean City, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Wildwood, and of course Atlantic City. And there are other New York boardwalks: Staten Island, Rockaway, Long Beach. They’re all down by the sea, as the song has it.

I’m not sure how many of them have enough room under them for two lovers to hide, though.

The Drifters, by the way, had another huge hit two years earlier with “Up on the Roof” (a song I first knew in a version by The Nylons, a Toronto-based a cappella group). The Wikipedia article on “Under the Boardwalk” notes rather drily, “The opening line of the song references the Drifters’ prior hit ‘Up on the Roof’, showing the occasional thermal weakness of the rooftop getaway and setting the stage for an alternate meeting location, under the boardwalk.”

You can’t meet under the boardwalk in Toronto. Or at least I’m not aware of any point where there’s enough room. But never mind thermal weakness; our rooftop patios lack the charm of a beachside boardwalk.

Toronto does have a boardwalk. More than one, in fact. In the east, there’s one lining and connecting the beaches in the neighbourhood known by many as The Beaches but by the pedantic among its residents as The Beach (even though, thanks to discontinuity, there is clearly more than one beach there). Aina and I don’t generally go there.

There are a few small boardwalks near us, at Harbourfront. But they don’t count. There’s no beach anywhere near them, just quays.

We go west. Life is peaceful there. Comparatively, anyway. There is a boardwalk that stretches from Palais Royale and the bridge at Roncesvalles past Sunnyside almost all the way to the Humber River.

It’s Sunnyside that we go for. Sunnyside beach is lovely; it inspired the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins. And it has a huge 1920s-era pavilion for swimming – with a café on the boardwalk (café? well, I guess some people go for coffee; most go for beer). From mid-June to Labour Day the beautiful huge swimming pool is open, and we go there to swim and then to have food and drink at the café, where there are umbrellas to shelter you from the sun. The café remains open into September, as the weather cooperates. We went there yesterday. The sun sets at 7:30 now, so we’re treated to an after-dark view by the time we leave. (You can click the picture to see it larger.)

We don’t sit on a blanket under the boardwalk – really, there’s no room there (and it’s down by the lake, anyway, not the sea). We sit at a table and watch the water, the waves, the boats, the squadrons of dragon boaters training, the beach volleyball players (up to 8 courts, and sometimes stray volleyballs bounce off tables at the café).

And then we walk back eastward along the boardwalk, and up over the bridge to Roncesvalles to catch the streetcar.

This boardwalk was once made of wood planks. Most of it is now made of recycled plastic. The planks are durable but deform gradually over the years and occasionally need replacement. I do not care if you (like some Wikipedia editors, apparently) think this makes it not a boardwalk; I am pre-emptively board, I mean bored, with you already. It is exactly the same thing as any other boardwalk, just without the nasty splinters and the weathering. And, for us, it is our tropical retreat, complete with potted palm trees, right here in the city, less than an hour from home by streetcar or running legs.

The most valuable property indeed. While the season lasts.

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word

 

muggy

I wore the wrong shirt today, I’ll tell you that right away.

You know how sometimes some people will say “Well, dressed like that, you were asking for trouble”? I’m not generally sympathetic to these judgements, but oh boy, today it was real for me. That thin cotton shirt decorated with a riot of colourful tropical flora was… a bad idea.

I got mugged.

By the weather.

OK, I got outside and found the weather was muggy. Very muggy. I wound up as soaked and woozy as a sot, and my shirt stuck to me like so much muck. Yuck. A rolling stone gathers no moss, perhaps, but a walking son of rock in a floral shirt may be a fecund site for flora to take root.

Why would anyone make a tropical shirt in a clingy fabric? I have a few others that are made with coarse weaves, and they’re fine (yes, coarse is fine). This one has a high thread count and when the weather is humid it’s like wearing tissue paper. Gah. I had to change my shirt before going for a stroll along King Street to inspect the crowds assembled for the film festival angling to see stars mugging. So much for looking like a movie mogul. I would have been more like a moggie, mouillé.

But why do we call humid weather muggy?

The adjective seems to be derived from a word mug that is not the coffee cup but a word for mist, drizzle, or damp atmosphere. Other Germanic languages (in particular the Scandinavian ones) have a related word, usually spelled mugg, for similar gross and close climatic conditions. It is related to muck and probably to mucus.

Does that disgust you? Have a drink. Only don’t leave yourself feeling muggy – in the sense ‘tipsy’ or ‘groggy’, also related to muzzy, which means ‘gloomy’ or ‘tedious’ but also ‘muggy’ as in weather, which may come from mosy, which means ‘furry’ or ‘decayed’ or ‘befuddled’ or ‘muggy’, and which seems to be related to or derived from mossy.

All of which, mushy and fuzzy and confusing as they are, suit well such weather as conduces to lolling about hazy-headed and sweating in tropical shirts, quenching the thirst with beverages that only aggravate the turbid mind and torpid mug… wasting away in Muggaritaville.