31 December, 2004

Out with the old....

I used to hate New Year's Eve, perhaps more than any other day of the calendar.
On December 31, 1991, I went in to work the midnight shift at 7-Eleven without any sense of foreboding, lacking any premonition at all. I emerged very much scathed ten hours later, my opinion of humanity battered, my soul seriously hardened.
I had started at 7-Eleven scarcely two months prior, and was not yet entirely comfortable in the job. But because of my rookie status, I wasn't entitled to stat holiday pay for New Year's Day--only to time and a half--and so it was deemed profitable to throw Ken to the wolves. Alone.
The night was cold, and it was snowing heavily. The first hour of the night dragged by with very few customers, and the streets were all but deserted as midnight approached, struck, and passed.
Half an hour into 1992, it hit.
Seemingly from nowhere, a flood of drunken revellers cascaded into the store. The torrent quickly intensified until there seemed to be no room for anyone else to enter; yet still they came. There was no space for something as civilized as a line to form: instead, people gathered around the till, yelling, screaming, and shoving each other. Through the crowd I glimpsed flashes of semi-human animals stuffing things into their coats, throwing chips and canned soup around, and spraying pop all over each other. An unmistakable sound momentarily overpowered the din and a jet of vomit coated a goodly part of the potato chip aisle. At that, I tried to leave the till, to confront the barfer, but a solid wall of people prevented my passage. He was long gone by the time I got through with a bucket and cloth and made a few perfunctory wipes of the chip racks. While my back was turned, at least five people walked out with handfuls of merchandise and I hurried back to the register.
The floor was already black from the snow being tracked in and around, and it wasn't even one in the morning yet. The bars wouldn't even let out for another seventy minutes.
Somebody demanded I call a cab. Unthinking, I complied. The first two cab companies wouldn't answer their phones; the third yielded a fast busy signal. After several tries, I managed to get through to a dispatcher, who informed me the wait for a cab was at least an hour and a half and would likely lengthen as the night went on.
I can't say the assembled multitudes were very happy to hear this news. A number of them settled in for the duration, the more honest of them actually rejoining the line every twenty minutes or so to purchase something or other, a (probably larger) number not bothering to pay for anything at all. Meanwhile, more and more people crowded in, at least one in every ten demanding I call a cab. I began to hear rather ominous musings. "Hey", said somebody with a drunken slur. "If we can get the cops here, they'll take us home!"
This didn't exactly reassure me. In fact, I called the police, for the first time in my life, and asked them to come and disperse this. I told the dispatcher that the situation here was volatile and had the makings of a riot. She promised a cruiser would be by. I went back to my register. The next two and a half hours passed in a senseless blur. I became an automaton, hammering away at the register, bagging chips, trying to ignore everything going on behind the first rank of people. I declined to call any more cabs, directing people to the pay phones outside. One gentleman was unhappy with this and showed his displeasure by whipping a container of nachos smothered in hot cheese at my head. I managed to dodge that, which was probably lucky for me--the cheese had just been dispensed at a temperature of well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
I threw a glance outside at one point and saw a couple of cruisers with their lights flashing.
Finally, I thought. The officers were busily breaking up a fight out in the parking lot. The combatants were ushered into separate backseats, and--could it really be true?--an officer came in to check on me.
By now, the flood was receding, although I still couldn't leave my till. I tried to tell the give the constable some idea of what I had been going through. He asked me to describe the person who had thrown the nachos. I told him that was impossible; there'd been a sea of people in here tonight...was "drunk male university student" enough to go on? I confess I was getting a bit testy. The constable left soon after, shaking his head in the same way I was shaking mine.

At four o'clock on the dot it stopped. The last customer left the store and disappeared.
I surveyed my surroundings. Never before or since have I seen such a mess. The floor was completely and totally black, with slush melting into sick-looking pools. The chip aisle was almost completely stripped; most of the few bags remaining had been ripped open, their contents spilling out all over the place. A vomitous smell lingered. From the pop cooler, a half-eaten sandwich winked at me. I walked around in a daze, not knowing where to start.

At exactly four-oh-three a.m. my boss's blue car pulled in. She'd hardly opened the door to the store before the yelling began. What had I been doing all night? Why had I allowed the store to become such a God-damn mess? I was useless. I was worse than useless. I was a disgrace. I should be fired.
A man with any balls would have dared her to fire me. A man with any sense of justice would have railed at her for putting me on alone for this. A man with any self-confidence at all would have simply walked out and never returned.
I was none of those men, at that point in my life. At nineteen I still considered bosses to be something like parents. Parents were to be obeyed without question, right?
I did try to defend myself. I asked Jo to take a look at the till tapes, which would show I served over five hundred customers in less than four hours. I started right in on the puke, the threats, the nachos. Jo heard none of this. Her sole concern was getting the sales floor restored to some semblance of normality.
It took me six hours. Jo even helped, for about twenty minutes of that, before she slammed into her back room office to review the security tapes. Soon after. she stormed back out and asked me if I was aware that there had been shoplifters in the store.
Gee, do you think?
I can date my passage into adulthood precisely to that moment when I lost my temper, thoroughly and completely, in front of my boss.
Did she have the slightest idea what had transpired in here over the last four hours? Why in the fuck would she put a still-green employee on alone on a night which broke all store records (and would have shattered them had all the merchandise that was consumed been paid for)? What exactly was I supposed to do, leap over the counter and subdue the thieves? That contradicted everything in the training videos, I said, and added that the training videos didn't, couldn't, prepare anyone for the kind of night I'd just had.
I thought about walking out. Couldn't bring myself to do it. Jo was one of those people who would intimidate the hell out of you until you stood up to her, at which point she'd immediately back off. I'd never met anyone like this before and I had no idea how to act and react. Her abrupt withdrawal confused me. I couldn't have won that confrontation, could I have?

I never worked another New Year's Eve alone. I did work them, however, being foolish enough to forget to book that night off three months in advance like nearly everyone else did. It was an important night, obviously: it was required to go out and get blotto because tomorrow you'd wake up in a whole different year. Co-workers of mine were quite upset when I finally got a New Year's Eve off in 1995, reasoning that if I wasn't going to a bar, there was no point in having the night off. I cheerfully told them to get bent: I'd fucking earned a reprieve.

The bitterness has faded now, five years since my last 7-Eleven New Year's Eve graveyard shift. It recurs like chronic heartburn if I allow myself to remember watching one inebriate take a dump on the floor in full view of thirty or more onlookers, or the New Year's Eve when a few cars outside had their windshields kicked in, but these things are much easier to block out now than they once were. I think I've written out the last of the bile just now. It's gone. That feels good.

I'll be spending tonight at home with my lovely wife, relaxing in peace and tranquility. And tomorrow it'll be a brand new slate.

Happy New Year, everyone.


29 December, 2004

This will be among the most difficult blog entries yet. But it must be written.
In fact, to write about anything other than the earthquake and resulting tsunamis that have ravaged ten countries...would be an insult to the tens upon tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives. To even pretend that something happening in my own life should take precedence over this catastrophe would be unspeakably arrogant of me.
Nevertheless, I want to shirk this duty. I'm afraid my limited skill as a writer will utterly fail to convey the sheer scope of devastation and horror. I'm not sure words exist in English to describe it. I'm not even sure it should be attempted. But it has to be. It has to be.

Before all else, flocks of birds.
They darkened the sky overhead, thousands of them, millions; blotting out the moon, screaming as if the winds of Hell were after them.
Then, flocks of animals.
Predator, prey, it made no difference as they trampled through the forest, an overpowering urge to flee governing every thought. Confined pets wemt wild, howling, yowling, pacing, and pawing frantically. Humans observing this behaviour were perplexed; those trying to quell it were likely bitten or clawed for their efforts.
Minutes passed, perhaps hours. Dawn came.
Without warning, the Earth shook. Those on land were spared the full force, but even diluted, a 9.0 quake is not something to be ignored, or indeed endured. If you happened to find yourself outside, with a vine to cling to, you might have lived. Maybe. Those still indoors were simply flattened as their homes came down on top of them in the blink of an eye.
They would have been the lucky ones.
Almost immediately on the heels of the killer quake would have come a giant sucking sound.
In a different context, it would have been a comical noise, an amplified version of armies trudging through thick mud, or of water gurgling down a drain. There being neither armies nor mud nor drains here on the beaches of Aceh province, the sound of all three converging was bewildering. It came from everywhere, all around. Searching for the source, our shell-shocked earthquake survivor gazed in wonder at the rapidly emptying harbour. Dozens of boats were abruptly grounded as the water receded.
Very few people have seen this sight, heard this noise, and lived.
The water went out so far it was lost to view, revealing a sandy plain, dotted with boats and covered in flopping fish. The sucking sound briefly quieted, simultaneously deepening.
Then, a roar.
The harbour water had been gathered up into an immense wave, and that wave was coming back in now, so fast it was hard to credit. Grounded boats were suddenly immersed, and then lifted with the wave's force.
The ignorant call these tidal waves. No tide on earth could produce such a thing. The sound was deafening. The sound was the wave, the wave was the world, and the world was ending.
The tsunami reached the beach, slowing but building, ever building. Where the works of man offered a trifling impediment to its passage, the wave broke over them and simply...removed them and all they contained from existence. Unless a cliff intervened, the wave would continue inland for several kilomtres, scouring everything in its path, then depositing its cargo of wrecked houses, cars, boats and bodies into unkempt piles. Smaller islands would be entirely obliterated. Entire villages and towns would be washed away. Tens of thousands of human beings, swept out to sea, to wash up along the shores of two continents days later, bloated and fish-pecked.
If this is not Hell, it is Nature's best approximation...

One of the thorniest issues for most people grappling with a Christian concept of God is the problem of evil. If God is all-seeing, all-powerful, and entirely good, where does evil come from and what purpose does it serve? To solve this problem, we have created a devil to act as a foil for God and to take the blame for the evil in the world. I could write a book on the fallacies behind this reasoning. But I dragged this seemingly irrelevant aside in here to make a point: in insurance parlance, this tsunami will be classed as an 'act of God'.
Pretty evil act for an omnibenevolent Being, I'd say.
I can't begin to answer--definitively--why such things happen. But I have a theory, and the key to it can be expressed very simply:

WHAT DO WE DO NOW???

In this almost unprecedented chaos comes almost unparallelled opportunity for great acts of kindness, of charity, of love. The entire afflicted area belongs to the Third World. Such catastrophe, the scope of which nearly defeats the imagination. But it certainly should shift a few perspectives in the world.
Indonesia has been a hotbed of terrorism and a civil war has been festering there as well. The poverty, in Indonesia and elsewhere, was its own disaster, made all the more damning to our Western way of life because we have abetted it. The tsunami offers redress. We have a responsibility, individual and shared, to those members of the human race who are suffering under a burden of loss and sorrow. In the pictures beamed across the planet we see people just like us, having to cope with terror and despair. We are less than human if we do not respond in kind. And while we're at it, we don't have to stop at restoring lives to their former squalor. We can rebuild and improve. It's not as if we don't have the means.

Perhaps this is what 'acts of God' are for. To remind us to act more like human beings.


25 December, 2004

Happy Boxing Day

You never hear anybody wishing you a Happy Boxing Day...so I thought maybe I would. Just to be, you know, different.
Just got back from the in-laws and Christmas #2. Again, really nice to be up there, but this time even nicer to be back. Their house is emphatically their house. They like it warm. Really warm. The kitchen has an indoor/outdoor thermometer and the indoor reading was topping out at 28 degrees at one point. Add to the the effluent from a couple of chain smokers and the floating fur of three large dogs and a cat, and let's just say the air here tastes sweet.
It was a wonderful Christmas, though. We reaped a whirlwind of stuff, and I got a CD and signed sheet music from a pianist/composer friend of Eva's mom's. Just the right level of difficulty for me, too. Watched A Christmas Story, which is the funniest Christmas movie ever made, for my money; got to chow down on Eva's brother's turkey, which was delicious. After five years, I'm still not as comfortable as I'd like around my wife's family, but it's obvious I am accepted as part of it.

While it's still Christmas Day, I'd like to steal a page from the Toronto Sun and, in the spirit of the season, bring forth some holiday wishes:

To Jean Chretien, a Merry Christmas.
To Paul Martin, a Merry Christmas.
To Carolyn Parrish, a Merry Christmas.
To John Clarke and his band of anti-poverty crusaders, a Merry Christmas.
To George W. Bush, a Merry Christmas.
To Jerry Falwell and televangelists everywhere, a Merry Christmas.
To Todd Bertuzzi, a Merry Christmas.
To Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow, a Merry Christmas.
To Stan and Frank Koebel, a Merry Christmas.
To Dalton McGuinty, a Merry Christmas.
To those who are offended by the words 'Merry Christmas'....I'm sorry about this, Merry Christmas, and may you develop enough strength in your own spiritual convictions or lack thereof to accept these words next year.
And finally, to Arlene and John McCallum, who may never read these words (but then again, I rather hope they do), a Merry Christmas.

There. That wasn't so hard.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. I'm going now for a long winter's nap.

23 December, 2004

Some of you have undoubtedly been waiting for this...

Remember Ken, the guy who loved winter? The guy who would would cheer every time there was a blizzard and just generally spread totally unwelcome joy on everyone with every centimeter of snow?
Yeah. That guy died.
He died tonight, shovelling the driveway for the fifth and by far most difficult time this season. You could hear the sound of his death. It sounded remarkably like the shovel that snapped in his hands as he tackled the oft-cursed mound of plough-snow left like a titanic pile of guano at the foot of the driveway.
Winter-loving Ken's last word was, predictably, an expletive.

Meet the new Ken. This Ken detests snow. While he shares with his predecessor a strong dislike for summer, with its searing heat, soaking humidity and sticky ickiness, he wouldn't be at all disappointed with perpetual autumn. He'd still like the nights to plunge below zero--the better to cuddle you with, my dear--but he'd very much like it if he never saw another flake he had to shovel.

Old, winter-loving, crazy Ken awoke this morning to about ten centimetres. The shovelling went pretty well, all things considered: less than half an hour. It was invigorating, actually. It woke me up. Strictly speaking, the driveway did not need to be shovelled. Not really. But a lesson from my stepdad has sunk deep into my winter fibre.

Many years ago, in the middle of a storm at least as bad as the one that hit us today, I arrived home from school to find John busily shovelling. (John did everything busily. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the man built things and tore them down every night, in his sleep.) I asked him what the hell he was doing (well, I didn't use hell--a hell was as bad as a fuck, in that household), given that I could hardly see him in the blowing curtain of snow. Why shovel when you're just going to have to come out and shovel again, I asked. And he replied, "better to shovel four inches three times than a foot once."
I didn't believe him, of course. Three times the work just didn't appeal to a lazy boy like me. So the next time it snowed a foot...which, by the bye, used to happen with much more regularity... I let it accumulate before going out to whisk it away.
Oops. Should have listened to Mr. Smartypants, there, Ken, you idiot.
So, lesson learned, I've been shovelling this driveway religiously. There's a sense of pride in it...I can pretend it's my driveway, even though it's really the bank's and will be for an ungodly number of years yet. And I can look up and down "my" driveway and say, there's a job well done.
It took me two hours to get home by bus today...four times as long as normal. And once I got here I was confronted with, you guessed it, that mountain of misery at the foot of the driveway.
I was going along pretty well, there, for a while. There was at least twenty fresh centimetres, drifted in places to nearly twice that, and it was wet snow, too, but I was managing. I got the driveway cleared from the car to the sidewalk. Then my mood started to sour. I haven't got much sidewalk to clear--maybe ten or twelve meters--but damn it, this shouldn't be my job. Every city I've ever lived in (and that includes the booming metropolis of Ingersoll, population seven thousand or so) has sidewalk plows, clearing every sidewalk in town immediately after any snowfall. Waterloo has sidewalk plows, but they only use them on sidewalks adjoining city property. I wrote city hall about this once; they responded rather snottily that sidewalk plows would necessitate a huge tax increase. Don't get me started on the things this city has seen fit to waste tax dollars on since I wrote that letter. Anyway...

The short stretch of driveway from the sidewalk to the road was brutal. It was very deep, packed very hard on top, and full of slush on the bottom. And my little plastic shovel wasn't built for this kind of snow, obviously. Without any warning at all, it snapped right where the shaft meets the blade. I actually fell over it, it happened so suddenly.

Ever tried using a garden spade to clear a mountain of snow?

I have, and I can report that this is not something that works very well. On the plus side, it does bite right down to asphalt and it's a lot more sturdy than a plastic shovel. But on the other hand, it's a lot like using a teaspoon to dig a hole. It sucks, in other words.

New Ken was born in that moment where the shovel met the snow and said "no thank you". And "no thank you" is exactly what the new Ken has to say about snow.

21 December, 2004

Ban the butt?

First of all, let me get something crystal clear: I hate cigarettes.
I hate cigarettes with a visceral fury that overpowers rational thought. The mere sight of one dangling from somebody's lips repulses me. Whenever I see somebody smoking, there's a small part of me that wants to reach out and grab the cancer stick and crush it between my fingers. And when I see smokers drop their butts on the ground, I want to plant their faces into the pavement and make them eat the damned things.
Given this incredibly strong feeling, you'd think I'd be happy to hear about Cambridge Memorial Hospital. Here's a place that has outlawed smoking...everywhere. Not within the building. Not on the grounds. Not even in your car. If you're caught smoking anywhere on the property, you can be charged with trespassing.
Yeah, you'd think I'd be applauding this place.
I'm not.
I understand their rationale...to a point. Cambridge Memorial Hospital is, by definition, a health care provider. As such, it's to be expected they would not look kindly on smokers. After all, as everybody on earth knows by now, cigarettes cause four point three eight hackillion diseases, are the leading cause of zombification in humans under 127 years of age, and contribute to global warming, perverted sex practices, and mass hysteria.
Don't get me wrong. I was happy when Tim Horton's went smoke free. I wasn't overly fond of the nicotine Timbits. You may scoff, but I assure you, no matter what fumy Tim's I visited, their Timbits tasted like tar. The smoking crowd squawked at first...how can you possibly have a coffee without a smoke?-- but the squawks have subsided, as I knew they would.
Then they went and banned smoking in bars and bingo halls. The squawking grew in volume and invective. The ardent anti-smoking zealot in me rejoiced...that'll hit 'em where they live!--but the sane part of my brain began to have doubts about this crusade.
Cigarettes, last I looked, are still legal, you see.
I wish they weren't. I'd love to live in a world where cigarettes are treated the same way we treat heroin or crack. But the government needs money to treat all the smokers, and so tobacco is legal and heavily taxed.
(But pot's still..wink, wink...illegal. Go figure.)
I'm surprised no smokers' groups have challenged the constitutionality of these bans. I'd love to hear the Supreme Court's reasoning why it should be illegal to consume a legal product in an environment filled with consenting adults.You'd get some real doubletalk there, I bet.
Now, we have Cambridge Memorial Hospital threatening to charge smokers with--of all thing--trespassing. I'd love to know how that works, too. You go to see your ailing mother and you're a welcome guest, but you light up a smoke in your car before you go in and suddenly you're persona non grata? Or, better yet, you are an ailing mother, who just had her hip replaced. You've been smoking since the time cigarettes were said to be full of vitamin C and a cure for the common cold. (Yes, smokes were once marketed that way, hard as it is to believe now.) And you're hooked through the bag. You wheel yourself outside and light up in the parking lot. What are they going to do, throw you out of the hospital?
Let's get real.
I'm going to state something here that is so ridiculous, so counter to current thinking, that most of you will dismiss it as the ravings of a lunatic.
Cigarettes are not addictive.
Did you catch that?
CIGARETTES ARE NOT ADDICTIVE.
Okay, I guess I need to qualify that. Cigarettes are not addictive for everyone. Granted, all I have is anecdotal evidence to support this startling claim, but I'd ask you to query your smoker friends and acquantances, if you have any who haven't died yet. Chances are either you or one of them knows somebody who only smokes when they're out with their friends, every Friday night. I used to work in a variety store. I met countless people who bought a small pack once every other week...or even less often. Now I ask you, if cigarettes are so maddeningly addictive, how is it that some people can smoke only every so often, and keep up this infrequent smoking over a period of years? You don't hear that kind of thing with crack cocaine. "Sure, I do crack, but only when there's a full moon. I just don't have the urge, otherwise."

WHY ISN'T MEDICAL SCIENCE INTERESTED IN "SOCIAL" SMOKERS?

It seems to me that Rebecca, who limits herself to one smoke a day, is somehow--genetically?--different from Bob, who would smoke three at a time if he could.Somebody ought to look into this.


In the meantime, it is the height of hypocrisy for the government to sell smokes with one hand, and limit the places where they can be smoked with the other. A truly progressive government would fund smoking cessation aids on their health care plan, don't you think?

20 December, 2004

Broken Koebels

Stan and Frank Koebel were sentenced today.
Their negligence was directly responsible for seven deaths and over two thousand sickened people. Some of those sickened people have not yet recovered.
Some of them never will.
The Koebels were in charge of the water supply in Walkerton, Ontario. For those of you with a short memory for scandal, they deliberately falsified records, neglected to monitor chlorine levels, and ignored repeated warnings that the water was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
An inquiry seemed to place equal blame on the Koebels and their putative boss, the provincial government. The government "failed to make reporting of positive tests for contamination mandatory" and the Koebels were not properly trained to do their jobs.
A couple of thoughts spring to mind here. Let's create a little town somewhere in Ontario. We'll call it Breadbinville. Congratulations: you're in charge of the water supply in Breadbinville. What was that? You don't know the first thing about keeping water safe to drink? Well, there's seven thousand Breadbinvillians who expect their water to be safe, so anything you don't know, don't you think you'd, umm, ASK?
Let's shove that issue aside for a second: After all, you know the basics of the job...how to monitor, how to chlorinate, what the warning signs for contamination look like. Now, let's trigger those alarms. Let's have somebody offstage somewhere dump a whole bunch of manure into one of the town wells.
Oh-oh. You've tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter jejuni. This stuff shouldn't be here. This stuff will make people sick. Could even kill them.
Your next move? Time's ticking.
I can't speak for you, but I know I'd be on the phone with Somebody Important pretty damn quick. I wouldn't have to check to see if my boss, the government, required me to inform them of this. The government shouldn't have to tell people this is mandatory. Anybody with the brains God gave a wombat would know they couldn't just ignore this and hope it would go away.
Evidently Stan and Frank Koebel don't have the brains God gave a wombat, because it took them days to puzzle out what to do.
Now, there are those in Walkerton who want the brothers' heads. There seem to be many more who feel they've suffered enough. These latter are either saints or people with acute bleeding heart syndrome.
Seven deaths.
Twenty three hundred people sickened.
The most the Koebels could receive was two years in jail. Stan got one year. His brother got nine months of house arrest.
Let's do the math together, shall we?
Twenty three hundred people ill. That works out to just a titch over three hours of jail time per person, for Frank Koebel.. And I haven't even put a premium on the seven deaths. Stan gets less than three hours of comfortable time in his own house, per person his actions affected.
I think these sentences are eminently fair, if you'll allow me one...very minor...addition to them. It'd have to do with the water supply. Just a little E coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter jejuni. Just a pinch.
But I wouldn't tell the government about this one.



19 December, 2004

No heat, please, we're Britt-ish...

We left yesterday at 5:00 in the morning for UP NORTH. Why so early? Several reasons:
  • leaving Friday night after work means Toronto's rush hour
  • it also means braving snowsquall country in total darkness. No, thank you
  • 5:00 isn't too much earlier than we normally arise, anyway.

I'd been paying serious attention to the weather. At any given time you can expect one of our three televisions to be tuned to the Weather Network. Eva sometimes asks me why I can't just look out the window, and I have no satisfactory answer for her. I just like weather, that's all. But as much as I want to see doom and gloom, when there's a road trip afoot, I'd prefer that said doom and gloom keep to the right and left of the highway ahead.Of course, there's a snowsquall warning in effect along our route. Thankfully, it's confined to an area north of Pointe Au Baril Station: that is to say, the last twenty minutes of our jouney.

For once, the trip up was completely uneventful. You can usually count on a squall floating in somewhere along Highways 400/69, (no matter what the forecast), usually between Barrie and Parry Sound, turning the road ahead into a blank drive-in movie screen. Or if it's not snowing and blowing, you can bet on the road behaving like something between a slushpile and a skating rink. And until you get north of Barrie into areas where people are used to winter driving, you can count on encountering a series of assholes, scumbags, and would-be suicides out for a weekend careen.You can't even relax your guard near Parry Sound; some percentage of cars are manned by yahoos from Toronto even there.

This time--for the first time in years--bare and dry, with little to no traffic and an absolute minimum of Road Rectums (tm).

We got gas in Parry Sound. It was cheaper there than in Waterloo, by a full five cents a liter, which is all but unheard of.We stopped in Nobel for a Timmy's (I may be used to these early hours, but I must say I'metting used to my go-juice, too.) Then, on to Britt.

The welcome was as warm as the weather was cold. No snow as yet, but I can see it coming: the sky is the color of a gun's barrel, loaded with leaden flakes and frigid air shot direct from James Bay. Forecasted temperature tonight is -17, with a -31 windchill.

The first Christmas of the year went very well, and dinner (prime rib, which I have decided I prefer over turkey) was exquisite. I got a couple of very nice (and warm!) sweaters and a Tim Horton's travel mug--a badge of Canadiana that will bring a warmth to my heart on a few blustery mornings. Eva got an in-drawer spice rack she's been coveting and a couple of beautiful angel figurines. And both of us got a whole lot of love and good cheer. It's always nice to be up there.

I was all but certain my father, a volunteer firefighter with the Britt and Area Fire and Rescue, was going to get a call as leaden day deepened to charcoal night: the wind was walking and talking outside and the snow spat down. No call came, which in a way was too bad: watching my father respond to a fire/rescue call is inspiring, after a fashion. The man is 58 years old. and has an artificial hip. He shouldn't be able to go from the kitchen to the car without touching the ground.But somehow...

After breakfast this morning I went out to warm up/scrape off the car. Half a second outside has proven convincingly that Environment Canada has botched the forecast. If it's only -17 out here, I'm a monkey's uncle. A flash-frozen monkey's uncle. (As it turns out, the forecasted windchill of -31 is the base temperature...the windchill is -43. It's been years since I have had to consider weather like this.

Harold growls at me a few times, then starts, and I begin the laborious process of clearing snow from the windows. Score, score, score, scrape, scrape, scrape, brush, brush, brush, and repeat. Before I've got so much as one window cleared I can feel my flesh starting to freeze. Holy shit, I think. I'm wussing out. It's not that cold out here, is it?

It is. About a minute later I'm resting inside for a spell. My glasses aren't fogged...they're iced up.

It takes almost forty minutes to get the car fully scraped. The trip down is considerably more hazardous. At least it's not snowing, but the road is snowpacked and coated in glare ice. It's center-bare south of Parry Sound but we don't feel dry pavement under our wheels until MacTier. When we bought Harold, we opted for the larger diameter wheels...I'd done some research online and discovered that a Toyota Echo equipped with standard wheels has a tendency to flit all over the road in high winds. I'm glad we got those wheels now, and doubly glad we're both fat people. If we were little drinks of water and our car had the 14" wheels I do believe we'd be airborne still.

Now, I'm home. About ten centimetres of snow has come down here since we left yesterday morning, so I'm out shovelling. After the crisp freeze-yer-balls-off of a Britt morning, the -25 windchill here feels almost balmy. Mine appears to be the only driveway within view cleared of its snow. The sidewalk is clear out front, too, and I can't say that for anybody else's on the block. I feel a mix of pride and exasperation at this. I own; quite a few others on the street rent. Still, that shouldn't be an excuse.

As I said, it's always nice to go up north. It's also nice to come home.


13 December, 2004

All of life's a game...

I would have been eight years old the first time I saw a video game. Mr. Allard, my grade two teacher, saw the future coming. He brought a Commodore PET into the classroom. The PET was the grandfather of the Commodore 64. It had minimal sound, exactly one screen colour--light green on dark green--and less memory than today's dollar-store pocket calculators. Nevertheless, there were games written for it, some of them educational in nature, and I can remember playing one of them during recesses. An addition problem was presented at the bottom of the screen and various possible solution numbers came floating down from the top. You had to shoot the right number before it hit the ground.
My father bought a Pong game soon after, and that was my first time playing a game that had no educational value whatsoever. Pong, for those of you under a certain age, was all the rage in the late seventies. It was table tennis, played with bleep-bleep sound and blocky graphics. The paddles were rectangles; the ball was a square, and this game was way cool, believe it or not. It was cool because you played it on a computer...what a concept!
Soon after Pong, Dad sprung for an actual computer system: a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer. I have fond memories of this machine: playing Monkey Kong, Castles, some kind of Space Invaders knockoff, and Wizards, a text adventure. How they crammed so much gameplay into 16K of memory is beyond me. These days, you can go to the dollar store and buy a pocket calculator with more memory than that. And the upwards of $2000--in 1982 dollars!--he spent on that would buy you a top-of-the line multimedia system in 2004, with enough money left over for a big screen TV.
My mother and stepfather, meanwhile, were still in the Atari 2600 era. Mom was the household champ at Space Invaders and Pac-Man both. I wasn't really very good at any of it, not that it stopped me from playing. And when a computer finally came to that house, an Atari 800XL, the games multiplied.
Oh, those were the days. If I sound like an old fogey, that's because I feel like one. The video games today have evolved farther than anyone from the eighties could have imagined. (Unless they ever played Dragon's Lair, the laserdisc game, in an arcade. That one was a decade or more ahead of its time.) But the ways in which they have evolved are disturbing, on a number of levels. First, of course, there are the Grand Theft Autos of the world, games that demand you kill police officers and, well, just about anyone else who gets in your way. Extra points for blowing out the back of somebody's skull.
I'll admit a bias here: I have never liked violence of any kind. pretend or otherwise. I used to burst into tears watching the Swedish Chef on the Muppets. No, I didn't think he was real; I knew the difference between television and reality. But I could still insert myself into the televised situation quite easily. I still do this today, in fact. Did the Swedish Chef HAVE to throw those pots and pans and plates around? If I ever tried that in real life I'd catch holy hell from on high. So how is that supposed to be funny, I ask you?
And I wouldn't feel right going around killing cops and molesting kids, or whatever it is you do in these games today. I wouldn't do any of this in real life--I'd never even think of doing any of this in real life. And yet kids today spend hours directing this filth. Is it any wonder that violent crime among teengers has skyrocketed since I was a child?
I still have simple taste in games. The kind of game I am most likely to enjoy is the kind of game that could be reverse-ported to a Commodore 64. Such games are all over the Internet now...three great sites for them are

www.addictinggames.com
www.ebaumsworld.com/games
www.popcap.com

We've bought a couple of games off popcap and have spent hours playing them. Thoroughly addictive. You don't need to learn a language to play them; there's no pull down menus and endless options. They're just...games.

And I think I'll go play one of them now.

11 December, 2004

The pen may be mighter than the sword, but...

...the Ken is much mightier than the pen.
I've never met a pen I couldn't break. In fact, most pens last less than an hour on my person before they either run dry (annoying) or blow up (even more annoying). About once every two weeks, the pen I bring to work in` the morning accompanies me home that day, still functional.I'm sure it's breathing hard, though. And cursing my name in its quiet, scritchy-scribble of a voice.
I'm sure your workplace, dear reader, is just like mine: you see a pen and YOINK! into the pocket it goes, right? One of the people at my work, I kid you not, has twenty or more pens on her at any given time. She sucks them up as if by magic. Pens are forever getting lost and found and making the rounds from employee to employee. More than once I have asked to borrow a pen, only to be given one I tossed away months ago. Didn't work for me, you know. I have become Death, destroyer of Pens. I pounce on them with alacrity, only because I know the current model is destined for doom in about three....no, two...minutes now.
This condition I have--appendiohshitus--has been with me my whole life. I can still remember opening my school bag back in grade thirteen and finding its contents literally coated in ink, as if a whole cotillion of pens had exploded, not just one. The same thing happened in grade five. And most of my jeans pockets are no longer white inside, at this point. Shirt pockets...pens never blow up in my shirt pocket. They dry up instead. Often almost instantly.Not once have I ever kept the same pen long enough to actually see the ink run out.
It's getting to the point where people are afraid to lend me pens. And I've about had enough of it
Only once have I ever had a pen that lasted me as long as the average Bic lasts everybody else I know.That pen was a SpacePen, given to me as a Christmas present two years ago from one of my dairy reps. Truly amazing pen, this was. You could hold a piece of paper against a wall and write on it; the thing would even dispense ink straight upwards with nary a protest. It lasted me almost two months, then ran dry. Two months with the same pen! Unheard of. I was singing this pen's praises to everyone I knew. (Weirded out more than a few of them, I'm sure.) I even named him: Old De-Pen-dable.
I threw D in a milk crate that's hanging from the top level of racking in my cooler. Truth be told, I didn't want to lose him...at that point, he was an old friend
Three months later, I was cleaning out my 'desk' and found D, comatose, at the bottom. Lifting him out gingerly, I looked him over and then asked him to write something. "Attention Staff: Please remember to holy shit this pen freaking WORKS!"
He lasted another month before going dead. Being as I couldn't see the reservoir, I can't tell you if he was sucked dry or not.
I miss him, though. If people wouldn't look at me as if I had completely lost my mind, I would have buried him, given a full ceremony, erected a little headstone: In Memory of D, who did his job.
If only there were more of him around.




08 December, 2004

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of Canada will almost certainly recognize same-sex marriage.
Today, I read the first coherent argument I have seen against the prospect. It was written by a Catholic priest (surprise, surprise) in the National Post. I have tried to retrieve the article electronically, but alas, in order to read the Post online you must subscribe to it. Silly. This forces me to paraphrase what I read,and it went something like this:

Gay marriage is not the beginning of the end of marriage, but rather the end of the end.
The beginning of the end came with no-fault divorce, a development which allowed married couples to break their contract pretty much on a whim (why stay married?); the middle of the end was common-law relationships (why even get married at all); and now we have same-sex marriage, which allows any two people to marry. Marriage has thus devolved from a sacred contract, almost impossible to break, into something that seems meaningless, since any couple can do it, arguably nobody needs to do it anymore to gain its benefits, and it can be broken so easily.

I really have to give this columnist credit for advancing something a little more thought-out than the usual "God hates faggots" tripe I see so thinly veiled from propagandists with Focus on the Family and their ilk. Indeed, he has forced me to think a little bit in order to refute his claims. He has not fallen prey to the slippery slope fallacy that enchants moralists (what's next, polygamy? A man marrying his sister? A woman marrying her cat?") Nor has he fallen into the "marriage is only for raising children" trap, which , frankly, amazed me given that he is a Catholic priest. He seems to have given a good deal of thought ot his position. I respect that. So I will respectfully try to rebut his arguments.

In examining his arguments, it occurs to me that he views marriage as a social contract, made primarily for the benefit of society. I'm not so sure I agree with this assumption. Marriage, to me, is an intensely personal commitment, made between you, your spouse, and whatever Higher Power you may or may not believe in. The public declaration is an indication of how strongly you feel about the rightness of your action. The benefits that marriage confers are largely personal.

When I married Eva, I didn't think for one second about forming 'the basic building block' of human society. I did think long and hard about the kind of commitment I was entering into, and how we would grow together. Somewhere between a third and a half of all couples divorce. So what? We're not other couples.A whole whack of people choose to live common-law. So what? We're not them. Now, Adam and Steve down the road will be able to commit themselves to each other in the manner of my wife and I. We're not Adam and Steve, either. Their marriage, or the marriage of my friends Jen and Doug, or the marriage of my wife's parents, or any other marriage or common-law relationship you'd care to name, do not affect my marriage in any way.
We did prominently mention children in our vows, because we meant (and mean) to have them--or, as it turns out, raise them. But children are not an obligation of marriage. There are married couples who choose not to have kids at all, and this choice does not invalidate their marriage. There are married couples--lots of them!--who choose to have or adopt children, and who turn out to be phenomenally bad parents. This also does not invalidate their marriage. Likewise, there are parents who choose not to get married, and they too fall all along the parenting spectrum from awesome to awful. Their relationship is not something I would choose for myself, knowing what I now know of marriage; but that's just it. It's not my choice to make, it's theirs.
Now, there will be gay couples. Some of them will even be parents. Whether they are good parents or bad parents, or not parents at all, in no way diminishes their commitment to each other. Should they get divorced, just as with heterosexual couples, it wouldn't mean they were never married. (The Catholic Church is the only institution I know of that tries to rewrite history in this way.)

If the arguments against marriage truly had any weight, we would see a marked decline in the number of marriages. According to Statistics Canada, the number of people getting married in Canada has increased every year for the last three. And the number of divorces has decreased every year for the same period. Clearly, people are disregarding all the reasons listed above why they shouldn't get married. They are instead commiting publically to each other in greater and greater numbers.

Tomorrow, I predict that gays and lesbians will be able to join the parade to the altar nationwide, should they choose to. Tomorrow, at 9:45 a.m., think of your spouse and remember all the reasons you married him or her. Can a court judgment render those reasons any less a treasure?

I don't think so.


06 December, 2004

A few items of interest...

Judging from the carnage on the roads today, many Canadians have once again forgotten how to drive.
It happens every winter: the first bit of snow and ice magically causes mass amnesia in the part of our brains concerned with responsibly operating a motor vehicle.
It's not as if there weren't enough assholes on the roads in the middle of June.
I never found driving, what very little I did of it, fun. That's because I couldn't banish the thought that I was supposed to be controlling a ton and a half of hurtling steel and glasss, while trusting a bunch of utter strangers were doing the same...all at speeds up to ninety or more feet a second. That thought wouldn't leave my mind; it wouldn't even recede into the background. Ninety feet a SECOND! Christ! Put baldly like that, it almost seems an invitation to suicide.
There are still a lot of people out there who claim to enjoy this kind of thing. Their numbers do grow fewer, though, as the proportion of utter strangers who so obviously can't control their steel and glass grows ever higher. I've heard from more than a few people who report that driving is no longer an activity they enjoy.
As usual, I blame cellphones.
Well, that's one of the things I blame. Think about what you do at home while you're on the phone. Chances are, whatever it is, you're not concentrating on everything going on around you. Never mind "hands-free"; cellphones should not be allowed in cars. Period. Pagers, okay. Pagers with a button that connects you to 911, great. Telephones, no way.
People these days tend to think of their cars as little mobile living rooms. If your car is your living room, buddy, you need a life.
This stuff is exacerbated when conditions deteriorate...particularly, it seems, if you're in a minivan or something like one. Glare ice? Driving snow impeding visibility? Fuck it, the speed limit's eighty, so eighty I'll go. I might even go faster, because I can. And if you get in my way, you get the finger. Get off my road.
In my world, a driver's license would expire every sixteen months. You'd have to retake your road test to get your license back. Why sixteen months? Because that guarantees that, sooner or later, you'll be confronted with winter driving.
With this kind of system in place, I'm willing to wager we'd see fewer cars in ditches, fewer people spinning their tires...fewer brain-dead morons...on the road.
-----------------------------------------
The papers suggest the government might fall over the gun registry.
A rogue Liberal MP (the best kind of Liberal MP!) is proposing a bill that would effectively kill the gun registry. All 99 Conservatives are certain to vote for it. The NDP will vote their conscience. Most if not all of the Bloc will vote with the government. This last is no surprise: the Bloc has a vested interest in the status quo. They have arguably more power now, with the balance of a minority government, than they did when they were Her Majesty's Official Opposition.
So that leaves the dissident Liberals. Enough of them and poof! new election.
Won't happen, I know. But a taxpayer can dream.
No, I don't support the gun registry. It's redundant (we've had one since 1933); it's costly (approaching two billion dollars and still not even implemented yet); and it's useless. Correct me if I am wrong (somebody, please, I'm begging you, correct me!), but I don't think the gun registry has saved a single life.
Now, just because I think the gun registry is an appalling piece of trash legislation, does not mean I am against gun control. Again, if I may be indulged, in my world three groups of people would be allowed to own guns: soldiers, peace officers, and hunters. Showing a gun in the commission of an offense would add two years to your sentence; firing it would add five; shooting a person, regardless of where, would add twenty. These sentences would be mandatory. You couldn't plea-bargain them away. (Actually, I am viscerally against the whole concept of plea-bargaining, but that's another blog.)
I'm sorry to any NRA members out there (okay, really, I'm not), but guns, in my view, serve no purpose except killing. I'm reminded of a song by the Arrogant Worms, a Canadian folk group:

Wouldn't it be great if everybody had a gun?
Wouldn't it be great if everybody had a gun?
Nobody'd ever get shot, 'cause everybody had a gun (Makes sense!)
Wouldn't it be great if everybody had a gun?

Okay, so I'm all for gun control: fanatical on the subject, perhaps. Why don't I like the Liberal gun registry, then?
Because it so obviously doesn't work. Criminals have this nasty habit of leaving their guns unregistered. Sad, but true. And even when the gun is registered, the registered owner is so rarely the guy who fired it.
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This may seem a heresy, especially today, on the 15th anniversary of the biggest mass shooting in Canadian history, but I really don't like programs that deal with 'violence against women'.
I don't deny it exists. On the contrary, a part of me aches every time a husband shoots his wife or a boyfriend stabs his girlfriend.
However...
Whatever happened to violence against MEN?
Most of the violence perpetrated by men is against other men. And women, though they are 'the fairer sex', are not exempt from murderous urges. There are no programs for this...only for violence against women. How about we change the focus and make it violence against PEOPLE?

Just a thought.
---------------------
Did you know the Waterloo Regional School Board can suspend you for throwing a snowball? Even if it doesn't hit anyone.
Given those standards, almost every kid in my public school growing up would have been suspended...or expelled. As would more than a few of the TEACHERS.
What's wrong with this picture?
When I was a kid (he wheezed), fights were common at school. You settled things with your fists, and win or lose, you went home. Weapons were unheard of.
Now, Johnnie and Jimmy are as like to stab each other with pig-stickers, and Jeremy and Jordan will whip out their cellphones (goddam things) and call up their respective gangs, and before you know it, you've got an all-out brawl on your hands.
Suspension...never understood that concept. How many suspended kids actually enjoy school? Wouldn't they much rather be at home? So why "punish" their misdeed by sending them...home? Makes no sense to me.

I tell you, there are days when I would like to go and live in a cave somewhere.




02 December, 2004

Why are you reading this blog when you could be reading...

I received an email today from Robert Sawyer (www.sfwriter.com), perhaps the best known and most-accomplished Canadian science fiction writer. I had written to praise his recent trilogy The Neanderthal Parallax...and also to point out a little boo-boo I found in the third book. More on that later.
The Neanderthal Parallax is on my "this book really ought to be required reading for everyone" list. (More on that later, too.) Sawyer posits an alternate Earth wherein Homo sapiens died out and Homo neanderthalensis went on to found a civilization. Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, breaks through into our universe (right into the heavy water tank at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, in fact). Rescued, he is confronted with his first sight of Gliksins, a variety of humans that had been extinct in his world for thousands of years.
He's then confronted with our society, which is radically different from his own. Sawyer has done a masterful job at world-building here. The Neanderthal society is plausible and its differences from ours provoke thought.
Just to give one example, in Neanderthal society, everyone is implanted with 'Companions' that function as super-intelligent Palm Pilots (it's through Ponter's Companion that he learns English). The Companions also transmit everything you're seeing and doing to an 'alibi archive'--viewable by you at any time, viewable by the court system only if you are accused of a crime. The first order result of this system is that crime is almost nonexistent.
Ponter meets and eventually falls in love with a geneticist from our world, and subsequent books see each come to terms with the other's world. There are striking thoughts about religion, human nature, and politics scattered liberally throughout. The book and its sequels, Humans and Hybrids, are an absolute joy to read.
One of the things I enjoy most about Sawyer is that he is unabashedly Canadian. His characters watch CTV and CP24, listen to CJMX-FM in Sudbury, read the Globe and Mail, and stop in at Tim Horton's. I find it almost intoxicating to stumble across intersections and towns I know well.
(The boo-boo I found in the third book was, in fact, an error in geography. Two characters are driving from Toronto to Sudbury. They've passed Parry Sound on Highway 69, and one character is looking past the driver, out at Georgian Bay. I don't know that stretch of road quite as well as my father does--he's patrolled it for a goodly portion of his life--but I do know there's only one place you can see Georgian Bay from the highway, and it's well to the south of Parry Sound. Sawyer's response? "Oops". )
Anyway, read this book. You'll be glad you did.


MY "WHY HAVEN'T YOU READ THIS BOOK?" BOOKLIST:

Aztec, Gary Jennings
Spangle, Gary Jennings
The Truth Machine, James Halperin
the Callahan series, Spider Robinson
The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood
Tomorrow's God, Neale Donald Walsch
Beach Music, Pat Conroy
To Sail Beyond The Sunset, Robert Heinlein
The Sarantine Mosaic, Guy Gavriel Kay
The Neanderthal Parallax, Robert Sawyer

If you actually sit down and read these books, you'll notice a common theme. Most of them concern a world different from the one we live in here on Earth in the year 200-. Some of them are historical fiction, and some are speculative fiction, and two--Tomorrow's God and the Callahan books--concern our world as it could be, if only we were a little more human. For that matter, Sawyer's work falls into that third category even though (or perhaps because) he is a superlative writer of science fiction.
The exceptions on the list (The Robber Bride and Beach Music) are simply--to my mind, anyway--the best examples of Canadian and American writing I've come across in a very long time. Your mileage may vary, of course. But these are books I return to again and again, learning new things and seeing the world a new way with each successive reading.

Caveat lector: some of these novels are not for the prurient or faint of heart. Gary Jennings in particular brings his subject world alive as few writers ever have, and that world contains sex, some of it deviant, and violence, some of it graphic.