Are you reading me?

The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

– Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I am roughly ten weeks away from participating in my fourth Muskoka Novel Marathon. For those that don’t know, no this is not a marathon in which I run. Instead, I sit on my butt for as much of the 72 hours my butt can handle, and I write.

What am I doing? I’m trying to write as much of a novel as I can. I usually do somewhere between 150 and 250 pages.

Why do I do this to myself? That’s a fair question, because at the end of the four days (it runs from 8:00 pm Friday to 8:00 pm Monday), I’ve immersed myself into a world of my own creation, I’ve eaten far too much sugar, I’ve slept far too little, and I’m wrung out, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So why do I do it every year?

I write so that others can read.

Some history is likely appropriate here.

Five things have really led to me not only participating in the MNM, but also being a passionate champion of all that they accomplish.

1 – The first is obvious. I write stories. But the other four you may or may not know about.

2 – The second is, way back in the early 80s, when I was in Durham College, one of my courses was a computer literacy course. If memory serves, we were working on Wang computers with big 5″ floppy disks. You know, the kind of floppy disk that actually was floppy.


Anyway, one of our assignments was to write something. I can’t remember the details of the assignment, but we had to write something. Might even have been the lyrics to a favourite song, I don’t know. I remember labouriously typing out…something. Might have taken me a half hour or so.

But there was a girl in the class. She’d always been rather quiet, drew no attention to herself. She could draw, and hell, we were taking Graphic Design, so she was in the right course.

On this day, as I did my hunt-and-peck with two fingers, I remember seeing her pull the Led Zeppelin 4 album–yes, the record album, not the CD, this was the early 80s–out of a bag and open up the gatefold cover. Inside, I knew, were the lyrics to the biggest song on the album, Stairway To Heaven. I remember thinking at the time, man, doesn’t everyone have those lyrics memorized?


She did. But she was functionally illiterate. So, letter by painstaking letter, she had to go to the printed lyrics, then go to her keyboard and search for that squiggle that matched the other, then key it. Then move on to the next.

Almost 1400 times. Imagine that.

It was due to this course that her inability to read and write at even a basic level was discovered. She soon left the course. I don’t know what happened to her.

3 – The third thing was probably, in part, in relation to that college experience. I was recently married, no kids, with some time on my hands. I saw a call for literacy tutors and I signed up. We had to go through a training course, and it was an eye-opener. The two things that really stuck with me were that my general impression of someone who was illiterate was completely false: I pictured the homeless people hanging out downtown. What I was shown was that it was people just like me. People with jobs, some menial, some at higher positions than me. I heard the story of an illiterate CEO that blew my mind.

The other thing that really stuck with me was when one of the instructors flashed the letter b and asked us to name it. Then he flashed a q. Then a p. Then a d. But it was what he did next that opened my mind a bit. He took off his watch, held it up and asked us to name it. Then he rotated it 90 degrees. Of course, we still said “watch”. Rotated it 180 degrees. Still a watch.

“So why,” he said, “do we expect people to look at a watch differently when it’s rotated than we do letters?” And it showed me that this reading thing that I took completely for granted was a tougher problem than I’d ever given it credit for.

I tutored a young man briefly. In that time, I found out he could correctly identify about 18 letters of the alphabet. He really couldn’t read at all, counting on pictures, or trusting strangers to help him out. He wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was likely smarter and much more creative at problem solving than I was. I definitely learned more from him than he ever did from me. And by the way, both his parents were high school teachers.

4 – The fourth thing occurred a few years later. My daughter was born and took to reading much as I had, very quickly and with apparent ease. My son, however, seemed to struggle with it. When we moved to a new house and a new school district, we eventually got a call from his teacher. She’d been concerned with his facility with numbers and letters and reading and told us he was far behind the other kids.

I still remember the absolute fear that clutched at my heart when I heard this. My entire life had been enriched because I could read. At the time we got this news, I made my living from reading and responding to written correspondence from customers. I read for pleasure. I actually wrote stories for pleasure. And there was a distinct possibility that my son might have a reading disability.

Thankfully, the school had an incredible program and, in the span of a few very short months, were able to report that my son had made such progress, through both their efforts and through the homework that my wife and I diligently went through with my son, that he could leave the program. The kid that had been “far behind” the other kids was now reading at a Grade Five level. He was in Grade One.

But I never forgot that fear that I felt.

5 – Then I joined the Muskoka Novel Marathon. And the first year I was there, I met a wonderful woman named Nora. And she is the fifth and final key to my passion for literacy.

Nora had gone through the literacy program that the MNM raises funds for each year. She came in and met some of the writers as she was considering participating in the MNM the following year. She was a little shy, but her big smile cut through any barriers and we all felt we’d made a new friend by the time she left.

And the following year, she participated. And she has participated ever since.

Imagine that. Think back to that person I talked about that had to hunt and peck out Stairway To Heaven. Think about someone like that who might benefit from a literacy program so much that they have the confidence to sit side-by-side with thirty-nine other writers. And write. Personally, I have to admit that, even though I knew about the MNM since about 2002, it took another ten years for me to get the courage up to actually sign up. Nora did it a hell of a lot sooner. She’s a lot more courageous that I’ll ever be.

Whenever I find myself sitting in front of the keyboard thinking, I’m tired. Or, I should pack it in for a while, I look over and I see Nora, either writing away at her own computer, or smiling as she talks to someone. Then I turn back to my own keyboard and I keep writing.

I write for Nora. I write for that girl from thirty years ago that laboriously typed out Stairway To Heaven, character by character. I write for that young man that had to shop by looking at the pictures on the labels and counting on the trustworthiness of the cashiers to give him back the right change.

I write for my son and what might have been.

I write so that others can read.

But to do that, I need to ask for donations, and I’m really not good at that.

So, if you’ve read this far, and if something I might have written above touched you…touched you because you could actually read the words…then I ask that you click on this link and then on the Donate Now button. Donate any amount. It’s all appreciated.

And if you don’t trust the computer donation process, reach out to me at tobin(dot)elliott(at)bell(dot)net and we’ll work something out.

Thank you. For reading.

Cruising to Fifty, part four: Corfu cats, Christ and classic rock

This is the fourth part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October. You can read the others here:
part one | part two | part three

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Catch a painted pony
On the spinning wheel ride

Spinning Wheel – Blood, Sweat & Tears

October 8

Today, we left Italy and landed in Greece. Corfu, to be exact. Beautiful country, beautiful scenery, amazing mountains, cliffs, water.

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We left the ship and clambered on the bus for a trip to two different places in Corfu.

On the bus

On the bus

I had high expectations for our tour guide after Frederica yesterday. Today’s tour guide was an older woman, I’m going to guess 55-60, who seemed to amuse herself long before anyone else. As we drove to our first destination, she took frequent pauses to laugh at her own jokes or anecdotes.

Yeah. She wasn’t funny.

Okay, well, that’s sort of a lie. I’d say she wasn’t consciously funny. She did, however, have this habit of getting pissed if it looked like rain, which it did off and on all through the tour.  So, she’d exclaim “JESUS CHRIST” out of nowhere.  As an example, she might be pointing out a mountain, so the accompanying dialogue would be something like, “And over there is a beautiful mountain and JESUS CHRIST it better not rain!”

I can’t do it justice, but trust me, everyone on the bus chuckled every time she did it. She did it a lot over the four hours we spent with her.

The first place we visited was at the top of a mountain–with one hell of a ride up and down it. There were long, curving sections with honest-to-God hairpin turns…think about that for one second. Take one of those big comfortable buses designed for travel. Now, put it on the side of a mountain. Now, give it a super tight hairpin turn. Repeat. A lot. Now, add in a “JESUS CHRIST!” every time we encounter one.

The entrance to the Achilleon

The entrance to the Achilleon

We eventually made it up this crazy mountain to a half-castle, half-mansion, known as the Achilleon built  by the estranged Empress of Bavaria Elisabeth, better known as Sisi (or Sissi, depending on which spelling you prefer). Apparently she travelled throughout Europe avoiding her husband, eventually finding a home in Corfu.

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Catching ourselves in a mirror

Catching ourselves in a mirror

For anyone local to me that reads this blog, imagine Robert McLaughlin’s Parkwood Estate, but built up on a mountain.

Rubbing for luck...why does every tourist attraction have one of these?

Rubbing for luck…why does every tourist attraction have one of these?

Karen checks out an ass...

Karen checks out an ass…

...and she likes it!

…and she likes it!

We spent a solid hour or so there, and everywhere you turned, there was another beautiful section to discover. Really, the place was absolutely stunning. Then to imagine everything being hauled up this mountain and built with the technology of 1890…it boggles the mind.

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After the Achilleon, we got back in the bus for our next destination. Kissing for luck before we fall off the road and roll down the mountainThis involved a harrowing ride back down the mountain and through all those damn hairpin turns again. There were times when I looked out the window of the bus and could not even see the edge of the road, just a long drop to the ocean below. Got the blood racing, let me tell you. JESUS CHRIST!

Once we were down on more level land, we headed to the northern area of Corfu. The old tour guide droned on. I mean, you can only handle so much of:

“As we pass troo dis cahn-tree, don’ t’ink. Don’ t’ink, juss breede in all in, fill your lungs wit all de byoo-tee aroun’ you. Juss let it fill you and calm you and make you ‘appy.”

I have to admit, she put me to sleep for a bit.

We headed to a small monastery, also built on a mountain, but nowhere near the crazy trip we just experienced.

Outside the monastery

Outside the monastery

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I’ve decided, having forgotten the real name of the monastery, to rename it the Greek Church of the Holy Felines. Seriously, there was more cats than I’d ever seen collected in a single place, ever. Cats in the hallways. Cats in the gardens. Cats on ledges. Cats in flowerpots. Cats in boxes. Cats just hanging around. Chillin’ cats.

To be honest, I lost interest in the monastery and became completely fascinated with the cats…as you’ll be able to see from the pictures.

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Back on the bus, back down the mountain and tour guide did point out one thing that absolutely fascinated me. We passed a small inlet that had a large outcropping of rock rising from the waves. Apparently this was where Ulysses landed after his experience with both the Trojan War (as chronicled in Homer’s The Iliad) and his adventure-filled return home (as chronicled in The Odyssey). That outcropping of rock? That was supposedly the petrified remains of his ship. It totally captured my imagination and drove home how much history lived in these mountains and valleys.

We had a very quick stop in “old town” then back to the bus one last time and back on the ship.

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Loved that, whoever this guy was, now he was a bird perch.

Loved that, whoever this guy was, now he was a bird perch.

In the end, we got incredibly lucky, passing through at least two major rainstorms, but seeing only sun whenever we got out of the bus.Whether it was Jesus Christ or the Greek Gods smiling down on us, I’ll never know.

Our ship, the Splendour of the Seas

Our ship, the Splendour of the Seas

In front of our ship

In front of our ship

We grabbed a late lunch and then sat out on the balcony and watched as the ship left the Corfu harbour.

The light blue waves are the water stirred up from the ship turnig 180 degrees before leaving port

The light blue waves are the water stirred up from the ship turnig 180 degrees before leaving port

Heading out of port

Heading out of port

Then, once at sea again, had a nap. Hey, I’m old. I’m allowed.

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Woke up and got all dolled up for the first (and, though we didn’t know it yet, last) formal night. We sat with a nice couple from England and an older couple from Ottawa along with their son, which was a cool surprise. Even cooler, the mother knew people from Killaloe, the town not far from Barry’s Bay where I went to high school.

The Ottawa couple were taking their son on a cruise as a celebration for him gaining his MBA from Rotman. Turns out he works for PriceWaterhouseCooper, very close to one of the offices I work out of in Toronto. Even four thousand miles away…

After dinner, we scooted over to the Top Hat bar for a game. Now, I’m the first one to admit I’m not much of a game guy. But when you advertise Classic Rock Trivia, dude, I’m there.

The game consisted of them playing a three-to-four second snippet of a classic rock song, and then we had to provide the title of the song. Oh come on, this is like taking candy from a baby, I thought.

Turns out three-to-four seconds of a song is a stunningly short amount of time. Damn, this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. And what made it even worse? There was this guy and his wife a couple of seats over that obviously knew the damn songs too. The host would play a snippet, both of them would bop along with it, then immediately go to the sheet and start scribbling. Messed with my mind, I tell you.

Anyway, I got a little jammed on a Led Zeppelin song. I knew it was Led Zep, but I got stuck on remembering only two parts, the “gonna give you my love” part and the “waaaaaaaaay down inside” part. I. Could. Not. Remember. The. Title. JESUS CHRIST!


Got a much-needed assist from Karen with another song. I knew it was Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I wrote down What Goes Up. Karen looked at that and said, quietly, bless her soul, “Isn’t that one Spinning Wheel?” When she’s right, she’s right.

He gave us a chance to replay a couple of the riffs, and I had him hit that Led Zep song one more time, and Whole Lotta Love just popped in, just like that.

When it was done, we had to pass our sheets to a neighbouring table to mark. I got a 16 out of 16, with Karen’s assist. Turns out the table that marked ours had a teacher or two, so I had to laugh at the “16/16! Well done!” note at the bottom.

And that other couple, the one I was sweating over? 14/16. Yeah, baby! The Canadians kicked ass! Apparently the host had never seen anyone get a perfect score before. So, we scored two Royal Caribbean umbrellas. As the Boy would say, “Dope!”

Victorious, we came back to our room and ended up chatting with our room guy. He’s the one that decorated the room for my birthday and made sure everything was perfect. Great guy, from Romania, where Dracula’s castle is.

One of the towel animals our room guy left for us

One of the towel animals our room guy left for us

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Karen decided to pull down the birthday decorations down. As she’s doing it, she says, “Isn’t it cool how they got the little Royal Caribbean anchors on these streamers?”

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Yes, it was cool, but when I’d said that the night before when I noticed it, she’d looked at me like I had two heads. Typical woman. Ah well, it was good for a laugh.

And then, I finished up another perfect evening writing  the notes for the day out on the balcony with the distant lights of Greece in the distance, along with the running lights of a couple of other ships at sea with us, and enjoying the warm breeze of the Ionian Sea.

Really, does it get any better than this?

See part five here.

May Two-Four, Part Two

If you haven’t done so, check out part 1 here.

All done?  Okay, let’s proceed.

After the biker debacle, I felt it best to distance myself a touch from some of these guys.  Something that should be pointed out here is, though I attended all the college parties, engaged in several stupid things, etc, I’m still a bit of an outsider.  As I mentioned, I don’t drink, never have.  Don’t do drugs, never have.  So there’s a certain level of discomfort for friends of mine, knowing that, if I’m in attendence, there’s always one observer that’s stone cold sober and with a good memory.  That can sometimes give partiers pause.  It can also give many partiers a designated driver, but that’s only a side-benefit and not enough of one to overcome the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Watcher.


So, there were times through this weekend when I split off from the pack to do my own thing and let them wallow in drunken behaviour in peace.  It seemed to work for all.

There was a concert the Saturday evening by a Rolling Stones cover band, the Blushing Brides.  As I recall, they were really, really good.  I remember going only because I didn’t have anything else to do, but I actually had a great time.  They rocked the mud-pit, let me tell you.


Anyway, the next story picks up as the throngs head back into the main camping area.  There’s hundreds of us heading in one direction.  But, directly in front of me, there’s a woman about my age, working her way upstream, like a salmon to spawn.  Actually, that’s quite an apt analogy as it turns out.

So, somehow, this woman zeroes in on me, throws her arms wide and yells, “Baaaaay-beeeeee!”  The crowd is thick enough that I’m kind of pushed into her waiting arms.  The next thing I know, I’ve got a very drunk woman trying to insert her alcohol-drenched tongue in my mouth.  And yes, having that nasty, slobbery thing attack me is as disgusting as it sounds.  I push her back.  “Wha’s yer name?” she slurs.

“Dave,” I say, coming up with the first non-real name I can.

“Hey Dave, le’s go back to your tent.”

The throng is thick.  I can’t really escape right now.  So I decide to choose my spot.  “Okay,” I say and angle in the exact opposite direction to my tent.  A couple of minutes later, the crowds begin to disperse a little more and I make my move.  I disengage her arm from my waist, take one last look at her, then run like hell.

As I’m bolting, all I hear is a drunken, warbly, “DAAAAAAAAAVE!” 

I look for an adequate hiding spot.  There’s two campers parked fairly close together.  I jump in between them. 


I crouch slightly, catching my breath, then from behind me, I hear, “Hey!”

I think, please don’t be a biker please don’t be a biker please don’t be a biker… I turn. It’s a middle aged guy hanging out of the one camper window.  Decidedly non-biker.  “What the hell you doing?” he says.


I spread my hands out, palms down, placating.  “Nothing dude, swear to God.”

“Then go do it somewh–”


“You hear that?” I ask.


“That chick yellin’ for Dave?” he asks.


“Yeah, so?” he asks.


I wince.  “She wants to take me back to a tent.”  I let the fear creep into my voice.  “Dude, I really don’t wanna, you catch my drift?”


He winces.  “She sounds kinda nasty.”

“I don’t even know her!” I say.  “My name’s not even Dave!”

“Smart move,” he says.  “Cool.  Stay there long as you need.  Just don’t piss on the camper, okay?”

“Done,” I say, grateful.  “Thanks.”

“Cool.”  He slides back into the camper.  Eventually the “DAAAAAAAAAAVE’s!” drift off in another direction.  I give it a few more minutes and head back to camp.  I never see her again.

I crawl into my cold damp sleeping bag just in time for some guy to drag out his fully amplified electric guitar and tune it up.  While I’ll admit this guy is a full-on encyclopedia of Led Zeppelin riffs, he literally can’t play one entire song.  It’s like a riff-medley.  It goes on for hours.


Hours, I tell you.

Eventually he dies of alcohol poisoning or something, but the riffs mercifully stop.  I sleep.

Sunday arrives as bright and hot as Saturday.  I awake, wondering what adventures await me today.

The highlight of the day simply involves me watching a group of drunken imbeciles out on the motocross track.  Not sure if you’ve ever seen a motocross track, but it’s not flat.  It has a lot of large hills for the bikes to jump and fly off.


Clearly, this is not the place to take a car. Especially not something like a late-70s gas-guzzling behemoth.


It has no place on a track made for more nimbler stuff.  Nobody in their right mind would ever take something like that on to a track, nay, a MUUUUUUUUUUUUD PIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!  designed for motocross bikes.  It’s insanity.

And yet, there we were hanging around, when the sound of of the crowd broke through our conversation.  From the circle, we heard a large and growing chant of “…go, go, go, go, GO, GO, GO, GO, GO! GO! GO! GO!”  From the track, we spied three drunken figures around a 70s gas guzzler…something like an old Ford LTD or a Mercury Meteor or something.  The car was facing a particularly high hill used by the bikes to gain some air. 

I looked to my buddies.  “He’s not.”

“I think he is.”

“Dude’s gotta be crazy.”

“Dude’s gotta be wasted.”

And then, without further ado, dude revved the hell out of the car, backed it up, revved it some more, then a slight pause while one of his drunken assistants brought him a last-minute donation of a motocross helmet and strapped his booze-soaked melon in.  More revving.  More crowd chanting.  And he was off, wheels spinning, dust churning.

I’m sure he got to a sonic-booming speed of at least 35 mph before he hit the hill.  Maybe 40.  But I doubt it.

At this point, gravity proved how much of a bitch she could be, letting the front of the car leave the hill before crushing her unforgiving palm down and plastering the car into the accompanying gully.  Oh Gravity!  Such a harsh mistress!  Enemy to drunkards and cars on motocross tracks!

And maybe small rodents.  But I digress…

The car came to rest, the front end canted up at an unusual angle.  We all looked at each other and agreed the car was “dinnered”.

And yet, this was a scenario that was far from over, we soon discovered.  A large pickup truck was brought out to the field to pull the car out.  At this point, I have to say, watching four–now that the pickup truck driver was involved–men trying to determine how to pull a car from a gully is breathtakingly funny.  They stumble, they lean against each other and the vehicles, they wave their arms a lot.  They accomplish very little in an extended amount of time.

Somehow, though, they did manage to hook chains up from the pickup to the back of the car.  A large crowd noise came up again when, with one guy in the truck, two observing (and seeing nothing wrong with the current situation) and the final one standing in between the car and truck, waved the truck to go ahead.  Luckily, he was pulled to safety.

Then the pickup revved and gunned it.

And tore the bumper off the car.

Back to the drawing board, boys.

Eventually, I must report, they somehow managed to drag the broken and bleeding behemoth from its shadowy pit.  It looked like Bruce Willis in the final act of a Die Hard movie.

So then, we knew it was over and went back to our business.

But in the best tradition of TV hucksters…”Wait!  There’s more!”

They somehow (more than likely due to their drunkeness) managed to get the damn car running again.  Die Hard indeed!

Alas, it was a short-lived reprieve.  The original motocross helmet-wearing driver got the car into gear, drove it in a semi-circle to get it off the track, managed to find the path, got the thing out of the field of combat and promptly oversteered it.

Right into the side of a Winnebago.


More stumbling.  More hand waving.

From there, the car was pushed.  Likely the safest bet.

And that was the last real adventure of my May Two-Four, from Two-Four years ago.  The next day we packed up the stuff and made the long trip home again.

And what did we learn from this second and final installment of the May Two-Four chronicles?

Always avoid someone swimming upstream.

When in doubt, you’re always “Dave”…unless you really are Dave, in which case…well, it’s your fault having that name, so deal with it.

When hiding beside a camper, do not choose to urinate on it.

If you’re gonna learn Led Zeppelin songs…learn the whole frigging song!

Cars are not good motocross bike substitutes.

Gravity is a harsh mistress.

Drunken men, given the right amount of time, space and alcohol, can apparently accomplish much.

Late 70s gas-guzzlers are surprisingly resilient.

Winnebagos are easy targets.

And finally, Under the right conditions, May Two-Four Weekend can be highly educational!

Thank you.  Hope you have a great (and safe) long weekend.