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Wordsmithery: ignite your #writing with best-selling-author metrics Demystifying #Goodreads~maximize its potential to promote your book #Writing style: adverbs to modify “said”? Weird Christmas flash! Excelsior! Part 2

Stephen Harper, Grade Eight

Beverley McLachlin cleared her throat. She’d been teaching junior high for thirty years, long enough that she’d started thinking of things in self-coined aphorisms. There are all sorts of troublemakers, went one of them, but the smart ones are the worst. That definitely applied here. “Stephen,” she said sharply, and tapped her foot until he turned around.

“Sorry, Ms. McLachlin,” the boy replied. “We were having a caucus meeting.”

She managed not to sigh. Ever since little Stephen Harper had been elected class president, his ego had been swelling steadily. This was even though he’d won more out of luck than popularity. His rival Iggy had managed to staple his hand to a bulletin board while trying to put up campaign posters. And still, Stephen had only won because a number of students had actually written “Anybody but Stephen” on their ballots instead of voting. 
“Stephen,” she said, very calmly, “whispering with your friends in the back of the class is not a ‘caucus meeting’.”

“But we were discussing how to make student elections more fair – ” he began.

Ms. McLachlin pulled down a roll-out map of Canada, making just enough noise to drown out the boy’s protests. “Today,” she announced, “we’re going to discuss the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Stephen raised his hand. “Ms. McLachlin, before we start I think we should talk about Billy Smith’s punishment.”

“Why would we discuss that?” the teacher replied.

“He swore in class,” Stephen continued, “and he wasn’t punished for it.”

“That isn’t any of your business.”

“But anyone who swears in class should be punished, and he wasn’t. He’s practically getting away with murder.”

The teacher straightened up. “It’s none of your business, but Billy and I discussed the incident, and he understands now that Samuel L. Jackson is not an academic source, and we went over how he should have done the research for his presentation on snakes.”

“But there has to be a minimum penalty for breaking the rules – ”

“It’s not your job to discipline your classmates.”

“But as the democratically elected leader of the student body – ”

Stephen,” she said in a tone of voice roughly equivalent to applying pliers to one’s jugular. “What did I say about referring to yourself in the third person?” Last time I tell them not to use ‘I’ in their essays

She took a deep breath and began again. “The St. Lawrence Seaway is here.” She gestured with a pencil vaguely around the Great Lakes. “It was constructed in 1959, and – ” Stephen had his hand up again. “This had better be about the St. Lawrence Seaway,” she growled.

“Almost,” said Stephen breezily. “I thought I should tell you my plans for the red chamber.”

“The old detention room?”

“Yep. The room of sober second thought. We’re just using it to store useless old junk these days, so I came up with some plans for it.” He read from a sheet of paper on his desk. “Idea #1: Make it into a party room.”

“Stephen – ”

“Idea #2: Let the students vote on what to do in there, and I’ll make the final decision. Idea #3 – ”

Stephen. You do not get to decide what we do with the old detention room.”

“But why not?” The boy looked at her with apparent shock. Whether it was feigned or real she couldn’t tell.

“Because it’s not your room.”

“But – ” the boy stammered. “But the room has the foul stench of corruption!”

“That’s the hockey bag you left in there. Listen.” She struggled not to get angry. “If you have some ideas for what to do with that room, you can make a presentation to the board and get seven out of ten of them to agree.”

“But I can’t do that!” said Stephen. “They’ll never agree to making it a party room. They’re all old and boring and stuff. And what about my base? I promised them red chamber reform.”

“Please stop calling your friends your ‘base’.”

“But I’m the democratically elected – ”

“You,” said Ms. McLachlin, “are in class. So quiet down.” She gave him a glare, honed through decades of teaching, that could make a charging rhinoceros lose control of its bladder.

Stephen harrumphed and crossed his arms.

“All right, then,” she said with exaggerated sweetness. “The Saint Lawrence Seaway was constructed in – ”

There was a knock on the door. What the hell is it now? she was careful not to say out loud. She opened it to find a pudgy, balding man with a very unassuming look, as if his dream was to be an accountant but he’d never had the gumption to try for it. “Who are you?” she snapped.

A familiar face slid over next to the visitor, and a familiar voice grated, “This is my friend Marc. I think he’d be an excellent candidate for the new French teacher.”

Ms. McLachlin paused and chanted three times to herself, You’re not allowed to hit students. “Okay, Marc,” she said slowly, “if you speak French and have an education certificate, you can leave your resume at the office.”

“Thank you very much,” said Marc. “Though I don’t quite speak French.”

“Excuse me? How are you going to teach French if you don’t speak it?”

“He used to work in Quebec!” Stephen chirped. “That’s close enough, right?”

Ms. McLachlin clenched her teeth. “Stephen, go sit down.”

“By the way,” Marc said, “this job isn’t full time, is it? Because I don’t usually work full-time hours – ”

Ms. McLachlin slammed the door in his face. She spun on one heel to face Stephen. “Sit down. If you disrupt my class one more time I will have you suspended.”

“But I’m the d– ”

Now.” She vested the syllable with the force of a claw hammer to the skull.

Stephen’s face turned pink; he clenched his fists; his sneakers stomped on the floor as he went back to his desk. Several girls in the back row snickered.

“All right then,” said the teacher, trying to piece together the tattered shreds of her composure. “The St Lawrence Seaway was constructed in – ”

“Ms. McLachlin called me up,” Stephen blurted out.

“What,” said the teacher.

“She totally did. She called me up one night and she was all breathing hard and moaning and stuff. And she went, ‘Ohhh, Stephen. Talk to me about Marc Nadon.’ And I was like, ‘Ms. McLachlin, I don’t think this is appropriate.’ And she went, ‘Oh, Stephen, I love your aloof demeanour.’ Yeah, it totally happened.”

The teacher only realized how hard she was clenching her fists when she heard her pencil snap in two. She was focused on her mantra: You’re not allowed to hit students. You’re not allowed to hit students.

A metaphysical interview with some protesters in eastern Ukraine

Last night I had the opportunity for a metaphysical interview with a group of protesters in eastern Ukraine. (As I explained in a previous post, a metaphysical interview is one where instead of talking to a person you speculate about what they might say.) While the kids were watching Johnny Test I nipped over to the town of Kramatorsk. 

Kramatorsk looked to me like a typical East European city, a pretty centre with old buildings and tree-lined streets surrounded by the enormous grey concrete blocks that passed for housing in Soviet days. On a street corner outside a little butcher’s shop I spoke with Pavel Aleksandrov, a muscular young man with a bit of a slouch, and two of his friends, both of whom introduced themselves as ‘Ivan’.

“We are ordinary Ukrainian citizens,” said Pavel. “And our country is being ruined by the fascists who have seized power in Kiev. And so we decided – we were sitting in the pub one night discussing this – we decided that we had to protest this fascist government, just like they did in Maidan. We came to that decision in the pub, with no support or inspiration from any other country. So we got together a few friends who are also ordinary Ukrainian citizens like us, and we organized a little sit-in. To protest.”

“Mm hm,” I said, writing in my notebook. “And where did you hold your sit-in?”

“The police headquarters.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s quite a protest. You stormed and occupied the police headquarters.”

“No, no,” said Pavel. “It’s just a sit-in. There might have been a little storming before the sit-in, possibly some shots fired in the air, but you know, we were just exercising our right to protest.”

The two Ivans nodded enthusiastically, and one of them said, “It is very normal protest. We sit on floor and sing the John Lennon songs.”

“I don’t mean to push you guys on this,” I said, “but that just seems like an odd site for a protest. I mean, if you’re trying to take over the city, sure, but aren’t protests usually held in the town square? Or marching down a major street – that’s popular too.”

“It is the traditional place for protesting,” Pavel replied. “Our townspeople have been holding protests there for generations.”

Inside police headquarters.”

He and the Ivans nodded.

“And where are the police now, and the other officials from the city government?”

“They, um, went to the pub.” Pavel fidgeted with his belt. “There’s a football game on.”

“Go Arsenal!” one of the Ivans shouted.

“Guys,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t mean to sound suspicious or anything, but there are a few things here that don’t quite make sense.”

“What on earth do you mean?” said Pavel.

“Well, for one,” I said, “those look like Russian army uniforms you’re wearing.”

“No they’re not.”

“Camouflage shirt and pants, army boots, and I think those are Russian insignia.”

“No, no,” said Pavel. “I am dressed as a typical local of my profession. We all are. See?” He pointed to a pocket protector holding pens of different colours. “I am an accountant.”

One Ivan pointed to his cowboy hat. “I am rancher.” The other showed me his horn-rimmed glasses. “I am hipster university student. Rest of outfit is ironic.”

“What about those?” I pointed to the assault rifles each one had slung over their backs. “I’m pretty sure those are Kalashnikovs, the same kind used by Russian soldiers.”

“They might – also use rifles like these,” said Pavel. “I wouldn’t know anything about that. I am an ordinary accountant who has spent his whole life patriotically in this city.”

“Sure, whatever. But where did an accountant, a rancher, and a hipster get automatic weapons?”

“eBay,” said Pavel.

“You bought automatic weapons on eBay.”

“Yes. They’re from, um, Arizona.”

“You’re telling me that you ordered fully automatic weapons and had them shipped to Ukraine.” I thought for a second. “Never mind. That probably is legal in Arizona.” I shook Pavel’s hand, then said, “Before I go, can I just get you to spell your last name for me?” He did, and I added, “And where’d you grow up?”

“Here,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life in this town.”

“Mm-hm. How do you spell that?”

Pavel eyed me suspiciously, and mumbled, “T-H-A-T.”

“Thanks, wiseass. I meant the name of this town. How do you spell it?”

“This town?” Pavel glanced worriedly at the Ivans, who shrugged. “This town is our home. We love our town.”

“Right,” I said. “But what’s its name? I’m very sorry, but I kind of forgot. K-something.”

“Yes,” said Pavel. “K-something.” The Ivans nodded.

I waited for a second, then said, “What’s the rest of the name?”

“The rest?” said Pavel.

“Yes. Of the name of this town. The town you all grew up in. Can you spell it for me? Or at least say what it is?”

“The name of this town…” Pavel mumbled. The three of them started looking in all directions, as if hoping to catch sight of a sign. “The name is…”

I coughed. “You can’t remember the name of this town. The town you say you grew up in. How could you possibly forget the name of the town you grew up in?”

Pavel grabbed the side of his head. “A stroke! I must be having a stroke!” He started pacing around in circles, one arm limp, dragging a foot behind him. “The whole left side of my body is numb!”

I turned to the Ivans, but before I could open my mouth one of them yelled, “Epileptic fit!” and they both lay down on the ground and started thrashing their limbs.

This went on for several minutes, and then an eight-wheeled armoured personnel carrier drove up to the curb. It had a turret with a machine gun barrel poking out and a little sign on top that read TAXI.

“Ah,” said Pavel, suddenly recovered from his debilitating stroke. “Our ride’s here.”
The hatch opened, and a man in camouflage popped out. “Greetings, ordinary Ukrainian citizen!” he cried, and gave Pavel a salute. “Colonel Sakharov needs to speak with you.” He glanced at me and quickly added, “I mean, your wife called and said lunch is ready.”

A metaphysical interview with Vladimir Putin’s mom

In recent weeks Vladimir Putin has invented a new sort of Russian reversal. This is where you send troops to Crimea and take control of the government and media, then hold a vote on whether you should send in troops and take control of a region’s government and media. The notion of consent involved here – as in “Crimean voters consented to annexation” – is a little bit peculiar. But it turns out that this sort of behaviour is a Putin family tradition.

This morning I had the opportunity to conduct a metaphysical interview with Maria Ivanova Putina, Vladimir Putin’s mother.

The  Putin family in 1985 (from

A metaphysical interview is just like a real interview, except instead of talking to the person you speculate about what they would say. It’s one of the key techniques of the philosophical journalist. You may never have heard of philosophical journalism, because for some reason the liberal media refuse to hire us.

I was surprised to find that although Ms. Putina’s son had been leader of Russia for almost twenty years, she still lived in the same Soviet-era apartment building in St. Petersburg. The corridor walls were bare concrete. I think there might have been brown carpet, but I couldn’t quite tell – the lights were mostly burnt out.

The woman who answered my knock wore a thin dress with a floral pattern that hung loosely off her. She must once have been stocky, but now she had to be at least ninety, or even a hundred. (I should probably have researched that before beginning the interview.) Despite her age, however, her eyes were bright and spirited.

“Ms. Putina?” I asked.

“Dr. Lipak?” she replied in a voice hardly at all like a vulture’s. Then she lunged forward and grabbed my tie – I’d worn a suit for the occasion, and even shaved – and yanked me into her apartment.

I coughed and tried to loosen the knot at my throat – her yank had cinched my tie to the point that I couldn’t breathe. She slammed the door shut behind me. “Won’t you come in?” she shrieked.

“What?” I gasped.

“Won’t you come in?”

“I think I just did.”

She snarled, baring her teeth, and leapt at me, grabbing my wrists and pulling them behind my back. I couldn’t believe that someone that old could be so strong, or maybe I really am that much of a wuss. Still, I managed to wriggle out of her grip. “Ms. Putina, please!” I cried.

The old lady grabbed a cane from the coatrack behind the door and cracked me in the back of the head. She pummeled me over and over, then stabbed the butt of the cane into my solar plexus. I collapsed onto my knees, coughing. She grabbed my coat and began peeling it off my shoulders.

“What the hell is going on?” I moaned.

“May I take your coat?” said Ms. Putina.

“What?” I said.

“May I” – she pulled my arms behind my back again so that she could strip my sleeves off them – “take your coat?”

“You beat me up so you could take my coat?” I struggled to my feet and felt my head – my hair was sticky and wet with blood.

“Beat you up?” she said with apparent shock. “No, no. You are my guest. When you came in the door I asked if I could take your coat. I couldn’t ask a guest to hang up his own coat, could I?”

“You beat me with a cane, took my coat, and then asked if you could take it.”

She frowned at me. “You worry too much about these details of when this happened and when that happened. You have to look at the big picture.”

“What big picture?”

“That you are a guest in my home, and I took your coat to hang it up.” And with a triumphant air, she hung my coat on the rack. Then she picked up the cane, took a handkerchief out of her pocket, and wiped clean the end she’d beaten me with.

“Seriously. My head is bleeding. Look.” I bent over so she could see.

“Dry weather,” she replied.

“Excuse me?”

“Dry weather makes heads bleed.”

“That’s noses. Sometimes lips. Not the fucking back of your head.” I try to avoid using language like that around the elderly, but by this point I was getting a little annoyed.

“Western fascist plot,” she said.

I stared. “How exactly do you get from your beating me up to ‘Western fascist plot’?”

She motioned to my head. “Fake blood. So Western fascists can stain good Russian carpets.” She brandished the cane again. “Get out! Get out, fascist Russian-hating pig, before you ruin my carpet!”

At this point I basically lunged for the door. I managed to get it open and into the hall before she hit me again. Cowering against the far wall of the corridor, I squeaked, “Can I at least have my coat back?”

“Bigot!” she screamed. “You think Russians don’t deserve carpets, so you kick down my door and try to ruin mine!”

“Right,” I said. “Yeah. Just keep the coat.”