Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Old Spaghetti Factory

It was Duncan's birthday the other day, and he wanted to go to the Old Spaghetti Factory with his extended Calgary family to celebrate.  A lot of people like to mock the various family-friendly Italian franchises out there (particularly the Olive Garden), and it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and take a few cheap shots at Duncan's favourite restaurant.  But how can I disparage a place that gives my son a plate of spaghetti with meatballs as big as his fists?

Duncan is our younger son, and he just finished his first decade, but I clearly remember the day he was born.  He arrived angry, screaming and bawling, his face contorted into a purple mask of rage and defiance.

In short, he was one ugly baby.

You hear about them: parents who are completely oblivious to the aesthetic deficiencies of their progeny.  Parents who spring their little ogres on friends, family, and even strangers, saying, "Isn't he/she just beautiful!"  And of course, even as you repress a gag reflex with all of your might, you are forced to agree with the parent, because everyone knows that all babies are God's perfect little gifts.

Well, I'm here to tell you that's a bigger load of crap than the one left in a diaper by a baby drinking expired Similac.

Alison and I suspected we were very probably those same delusional parents when our first son, Will, was born.  Now, he was a beautiful baby.   He arrived without complaining, an angelic smile on his lips, and with a full head of neatly coiffed blond hair.  Sure, his head was slightly cone-shaped from being squeezed like a tube of toothpaste, but the little cotton toque the nurse put on him covered that one minor flaw.  Trying very hard to be impartial, we figured we were probably unduly (but understandably) biased in thinking he was the most beautiful newborn we had ever seen.

Then, about four years later, Duncan was born.  His utter disgust at being born seemed to condense itself into a focused point of rage located at the bridge of his nose, a black hole of fury that seemed to pull his entire face in towards it.  After the nurse cleaned him up, Alison and I looked down at his still howling face and both said, "Maybe he'll be smart."

So, if we can be that objective with our second son, we must have been fairly objective about the first.

Fortunately for Duncan, and for 10 years of subsequent family Christmas photos, he changed dramatically in the first few weeks of his life and became quite adorable.  Most importantly, he learned to smile and he hasn't stopped since.

A true Extreme Makeover!  Amazing what just a few months can do.

Duncan has been known everywhere - at school, in sports, at birthday parties - as the little boy who has a big grin permanently stapled to his face.  It's a pretty good thing as reputations go, except for one major exception: swimming.  Duncan is a competitive swimmer, and he practices most days after school, but smiling the whole time you are doing the front crawl or worse - the butterfly - has unpleasant side effects.  As most pools tend to be, the swimming pool where Duncan practices is heavily chlorinated.  (They probably even add a little extra after the Mom & Tots pre-schooler swimming classes.  Huggies Little Swimmers can only filter so much.)  Therefore, swimming with his teeth exposed like a whale straining the oceans for krill just means that Duncan ingests more chemically treated pool water than most of the other kids.  Following that up with a car-ride home (remember what I said about Gregsons and motion-sickness?) means that both Alison and I have had to equip our cars with plastic buckets in the back seat.  I remember once, before we installed the RubberMaid pails, Alison was driving Duncan home when he started to make tell-tale gurgling sounds.  Alison was not on a street where she could immediately pull over, and she commanded Duncan to lean/aim out the window.  Duncan tried to obey, but Alison's car had those child-safe windows that only roll halfway down.  If only the sneeze-guards at salad bars were as effective at repelling discharges.  I don't even want to think about what ended up down in the window well.  (Alison contends that it was actually Will who unsuccessfully tried to hurl from a moving vehicle.  If we still had that car, I suppose we could have rolled up the window and sampled what appeared, but one has to wonder what effect peanut butter and Kraft Dinner has on DNA testing.)

At any rate, the smiling seems to work for him otherwise; Duncan's a big hit with the older girls on his swim team, and he holds court with them in the hot-tub after every swim practice.  And the “smart” thing worked out pretty well, too.  He has always been borderline OCD - as a toddler he would park his Matchbox cars in elaborate "crop-circle" formations in our living room - but that has developed into a mastery of mathematics well beyond his age.  It's just a pity that math has no bearing on his personal hygiene or his ability to match clothes.

Duncan isn't a fussy eater, just really slow, but his OCD tendencies do mean he has some favourites that he would be happy to eat every meal of every day.  At the top of that list is pasta, so if he gets to choose where we are going out to eat, it is inevitably the Old Spaghetti Factory. 

The Spaghetti Factory has been around since 1969 (what a great year: we landed on the moon, Sesame Street was created, and yours truly was born!), and I remember going there as a kid when some locations still showed old silent films while you waited for your table to be readied. The food isn’t innovative or frou-frou enough to ever be featured on the Food Network, but it has a comfortable, home-made quality that is dependable from location to location.  Alison and I ordered the spiciest thing (naturally) we could find on the menu, the Chorizo Canelloni, which barely registered on the Scoville scale but was pretty good anyway.  Will had a penne dish, and Duncan finished everything on his plate short of half a meatball.  Will, our teenaged garburator, took care of that oversight for his brother.

I had hoped, with Duncan’s young cousin Quincy (AKA “Q-Ball”) in attendance, that there might have been some mischief to liven up this review, but aside from dangling spaghetti like worms about to be consumed alive, all of the kids were pretty well-behaved.  I find myself often conflicted in this way: as a parent, I hope for perfect manners and civilized behaviour from my children; but as a writer, I secretly wish for utter chaos. 

Admit it, you know which you’d rather read about.

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