Have you ever been in one of those conversations where someone asks “What’s your favourite movie?” Or book, or song?

Most people are keen to pipe up, act out their favourite film scenes, prattle on about some airport novel, maybe hum a few bars from Hotel California. But I just can’t do it. I can’t pick just one, even though I’ve tried a few times.

Ask me my favourite meal and I’ll answer: “Buffet.” Some people like to fantasize about what they’d order for their last meal on death row. Sorry, but I don’t think I’d be very hungry if I knew I was about to face the needle or the electric chair.

Of course, the rebel in me wants to challenge those who get all pretentious in these moments and claim their favourite book is Tolstoy’s War and Peace – “But you really must read the full version, all 1,300 pages, and in Russian, of course.”

My stock answer when I get lured into such a discussion is, “It depends.” Not surprisingly, that signals to everyone that my turn is now up, and it’s time to listen to the person beside me fidgeting with uncontained enthusiasm.

But it does depend, doesn’t it?

When it comes to movies, for instance, I could say Apocalypse Now, which is one of my favourites, but it isn’t exactly a rom-com. Not with all those helicopters, machine guns, excessive drinking and drugging, napalm – and did I mention decapitation? Or I could say The Grey Fox – I studied Canadian cinema for a time – but that would draw a blank and end my turn again. And I wouldn’t dare cite a French, or Italian, or German film. I did that once: 37.2° le matin. Huh? See the reference to pretention above. And the reference to drawing a blank.

As for books, my first favourite writer was Ernest Hemingway, but I couldn’t even choose one of his books: A Moveable Feast or Death in the Afternoon? How’s that for a combination? From the sublime to the bloody … again. At one time I might have chosen Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, but then again, The Stone Angel is good, too. Or something by Anthony Doerr, or Hilary Mantel, or Umberto Eco. But which book? See what I mean? And don’t dare mention a collection of poetry, the script from a play, or something in the non-fiction category. Some unwritten rule says they don’t count.

A favourite song? Hmmm … To dance to? To sing along with while driving down the highway? To listen to quietly and pensively with a glass of wine in hand? Let’s be specific here.

Mostly I have favourite lines, or bits, which come in handy at just the right moments. Such as when you’re driving, windows open, past the landfill in Hawkesbury on a warm summer day. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Or, on those rare December days when the bay in front of our house freezes over smoothly and solidly before the first snowfall messes it all up. I might sing, “I wish I had a river to skate away on …” Actually, I do. Or, on a late fall day when I look up in the sky and Joni Mitchell pops into my head again as I watch “the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow.”

If I’m feeling whimsical, or I’m staring in the mirror at my unkempt hair after I take my toque off, I can’t help but tell myself: “There’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.”

When I quit my full-time newspaper job and moved into academia, I’d spend countless hours sitting in a chair reading.  My mother-in-law Bernice – an eldest daughter who’d been forced to quit school as a teen and work on the family farm near Neepawa, Manitoba, sewing and baking and cleaning when she wasn’t in the fields – would stay with us from time to time. Seeing her son-in-law sitting on his duff, reading, with a cup of coffee nearby, didn’t fit the definition of work in her mind. Intellectual labour? Don’t be ridiculous.

I don’t recall Bernice’s exact words when she could no longer contain her scorn, but I knew exactly what she was thinking: a line straight out of The Diviners, when the landlord of the central character Morag, a writer, scoffs: “Well, it must be nice to be able to earn a living just sitting there.”

I’d just smile to myself. She didn’t know how right she was.

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