28 September, 2005

On Tolerance

This blog's father was a journal with a pink cover I called "Past...Present...Fuschia." I began that diary in 1997 and it saw me through to my wedding day in October of 2000. In it, I did some of the better writing of my life. Most of it was introspective in nature: I was learning to accept myself as I was, and to do that I had to ask "who am I?" a lot.
Sometimes I look back through that diary (and its predecessors) to see if how I feel about any given issue has changed over the years. I've discovered there's no better mine for new writing than old writing.
At one point in 1998 I found myself listening to Josh McDowell on my radio. McDowell is a theologian who claims to have originated the "Lord/liar/lunatic" description of Jesus. Very briefly, he contended that one had to believe that Jesus of Nazareth could have been

(a) a liar: if so, given his words, one of the most arrogant liars in all history;
--OR--
(b) a lunatic: if so, he was quite thoroughly insane
--OR--
(c) Lord, precisely as he said he was.

McDowell's proposition had gained serious creedance in the Christian circles I once found myself in. And those circles didn't exactly welcome questioning of one's beliefs, for fear it might lead to dissent. So I'd never really listened critically to the argument: it made a kind of surface sense, so I never examined it further. That evening in 1998, I found McDowell invading my bedroom via radio wave. People don't get into my bedroom without some scrutiny, and I found myself spotting at least two alternatives McDowell had missed.

(d) Nonexistent--there is very little authoritative, extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus the Christ actually lived. One Roman historian, Josephus, mentions a Jesus, but doesn't dwell on him. That'd be kind of like detailing a history of the personal computer and throwing Bill Gates in as an afterthought.

(e) Misunderstood. Given that there are several dozen sects of Christianity, each with their own different musings on the meaning of Jesus, I think (e) is the most likely hypothesis. It's the one I choose to believe. To give but one example, according to the Bible, Jesus spent an awful lot of time emphasizing that he and the Father (God) were one; that we are all brothers. Yet that teaching is all but ignored in contemporary Christianity...to its great detriment, I might add.

That night in 1998, McDowell was meditating aloud on the topic of tolerance, and how he felt it had replaced truth. Whereas people had once criticized him by asking about other gods, or saying they didn't believe in god, McDowell noted that people now blasted him for saying that Jesus was "the way, the Truth, and the Life". They called him a bigot and told him he had no right to spread the word. Meanwhile, he said, his sons were taught in school to be tolerant (by which he meant unquestioning and accepting) of every "perversion"...every person...except the intolerant. Or those percieved to be intolerant.

Isn't that ironic...don't you think?

Well, not really. Because once again, McDowell is missing something. The continuum for belief is as follows:

Tolerance--->Acceptance--->Understanding--->Adoption

That is to say, you can tolerate something without accepting it, or indeed understanding it.

Let's take gay marriage as an example, just because it's something I'm sure McDowell doesn't tolerate--it being against his interpretation of Scripture and all.

The intolerant don't recognize it, would ban it--and, depending on their degree of intolerance, they'd criminalize homosexuality while they were at it. Some people believe the penalty for being gay should be death.
Those who tolerate gay marriage are uncomfortable with it, would prefer not to think about it, but can deal with it...if pressed. Many older people I've talked to feel this way.
Those who accept gay marriage don't feel strongly about it one way or the other. They still might not understand why gays would want to get married, but the concept itself doesn't bother them.
It is a very rare human with enough compassion to understand an position and yet still disagree with it. My wife is one such: I freely admit I am not, at least not often. This is the place people are at when they say "I can see both sides of the issue; both sides have merit; I believe..."
Adoption in this context means incorporating the belief into your worldview so that it supplants whatever was there in the first place. It's not necessarily the best place to be: there is a real danger of becoming closed-minded and of making data fit your theory. I have adopted a pro-gay marriage stance. I've honestly tried to understand the other side of the issue and I can't do it. I'm open to a concerted effort to change my mind, but it would take some real changing, using an angle of attack I've yet to hear.

I've digressed and beg for tolerance.

For McDowell, the issue is what he calls tolerance and what I call adoption. McDowell feels that his sons, by some magic teaching method, are being "forced" to adopt an attitude of tolerance to things he finds morally questionable (such as, probably, gay marriage). Further, he contends that they are being "forced" to adopt an intolerant attitude towards those who feel differently.

It takes some pretty nasty techniques to "force" someone to adopt an attitude. Our society calls that sort of thing "brainwashing". It's very difficult to brainwash an individual who has been taught to think critically. Such people usually fall somewhere between intolerance and adoption on most issues, simply because they understand the value of questioning. Rabid paranoiacs will tell you that all the teachers are homosexual, and they're recruiting people to live their "lifestyle"--a word, by the way, that every gay person I've talked to detests. A little critical thinking will assure you that there exists a great deal of space between outright rejection of a position and blind devotion to it, and that most people will try to get you into that space somewhere. In other words, you don't have to agree with what I'm saying--you don't even have to accept it--but you have to accept that I feel as I do...differently from you. That's called tolerance, and it's the oil that lubricates society.

"But Ken", I hear people saying, "what about rape? Or murder? Or child molestation? Are we to be tolerant when it comes to these things?"

Good question.

All three of these things have been very widely (though not universally) judged to be "bad". It can be hard to see with such extreme examples, but nothing is bad in and of itself. Society has judged murder to be a tolerable thing or even a good thing in several instances: war, self-defense, capital punishment. I can't rationalize rape myself, but no less an authority than God seems to have no problem doing so: see http://www.evilbible.com/Rape.htm.
(While you're there at that atheism site, you may feel an urge to look around. PLEASE don't assume I endorse anything or everything there. I accept atheism and to some degree understand it--I myself find it impossible to believe in the commonly-held Christian conception of God--but that does not mean I have adopted atheism, or even agnosticism. It just means I reject one vision of God.)
I'm not even going to go into child molestation--too many people will think I agree with it if I try to mount any sort of defense whatsoever--and I don't. I do not understand, accept, or tolerate sex with minors.
I will say this, however: no child molester thinks he's doing something evil, much less that he's an evil person. Nobody does anything without what they think of as a good reason. Sometimes those reasons reveal a sickness, is all.

So ends my little minilecture. How do you feel about it? Do you tolerate it? Accept it? Understand it? Adopt it? That decision is yours, always yours, eternally yours.

26 September, 2005

Assholery 101

This past weekend, Queen's University in Kingston--which likes to think of itself as a founding member of Canada's Ivy League--was witness to some bush-league behaviour on the part of some of its students.
A crowd estimated at between five and seven thousand, many of them intoxicated, went on a rampage, overturning and burning a car, throwing hundreds of beer bottles and taunting police with racial epithets. Thirty-five people were arrested. At least eighteen Criminal Code charges were laid, along with more than 200 liquor law violations. More charges are pending.
Queen's is co-operating with Kingston police, and says any students involved will be subject to its discipline policy.

Well, yahoo and all that.

The most Queen's can do with these people is the least that should be done: immediate expulsion upon conviction. (I'll be fair here: some schools actually write into their disciplinary policies that students so much as appearing to engage in criminal activity face removal.)
The police will do their job, and a very thorough job they do, but a judge will vanish most of the charges on the grounds that "boys will be boys" and that will be the end of it. If you can be arrested in downtown Toronto for shooting somebody and be home for dinner, how much weight do you think the judicial system will assign to this?

How much weight do you think the owner of the burned car will assign?

I'm very much of the eye-for-an-eye school of thought when it comes to hooliganism. I'd like to see Queen's round up all the cars belonging to the students involved for a mass burning. And never mind if it's Daddy's car. Try explaining that to your father. "Well, you see, Dad, I decided to, umm, burn a car..." Oh, yes, and they can whip some beer bottles at their former students' heads for good measure.

You can't even argue "root causes of violence" in this case: these students were all putatively middle class or higher...you pretty much have to be, to attend university in this country. These people--the ones who don't get expelled, and believe me, that'll be the majority of them, if not all of them--represent the future of Canada. Isn't that exciting?

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, let me tell you about the Ezra Street Riot.

It happened in Waterloo a little over ten years ago. On April 22, 1995, I was working the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven, three short blocks from Ezra Street. I worked a lot of nights at 7-Eleven, and thus got a frequent firsthand look at student (mis)behaviour.
On this particular night, an end-of-year bash, sanctioned by neither Wilfrid Laurier University nor its Students' Union, was in full swing. Over 1500 people were whooping it up to the point where I could hear them inside the store, nearly a kilometer away.

To be sure, most of these people were not students of either UW or WLU. Actually, one man wearing a McMaster jacket accosted me at 10:45, demanding to know where Ezra Street was.

At a little after eleven p.m., the police moved in. Clad in full riot gear, they swept people off the street. I'd estimate at least half of them ended up in my store. Which is where, predictably, the police presence wasn't...but that's another all-too-familiar story.
Two people were injured in the melee. One person sustained a fractured skull when she (she!) was hit with a chunk of concrete. Another student was hit with a Jeep as he tried to cross King Street. More than forty people were carted away in paddy wagons, twenty five kegs were confiscated, and more than $2000 in cash was seized.

Laurier's response to this was telling. No expulsions, just a few suspensions and some people put on probation. Four University of Waterloo students got off even easier: the associate provost (student affairs) said his approach will not be to impose punitive measures, but rather to use the Ezra party as a "learning experience."

A learning experience. Hey, parents, do you know what your children are learning at university?

The following year, Laurier held an official party inside its Athletic Centre, two days before the anniversary of the Ezra Street Riot. On the actual night--again, yours truly was behind his register--packs of students roved about, looking for action. Police were highly visible on every corner for blocks around. That was one of the few nights an officer deigned to check on me.

Doubtless every campus in the country has its own tale. I say again, these police-taunting, car-burning, bottle-chucking university students represent the future of our fair country. Meditate on that a while...and have a nice day.




23 September, 2005

I'm changing.

"If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."

--widely (and falsely) attributed to Winston Churchill; origin unknown

There's no way Winston Churchill ever said such a thing: he was a conservative at 15 and a liberal at 35. But I find myself meditating on those waggish words as I inch closer to my 35th birthday.

In my teens and early twenties, I was the most ardent of Conservatives. I first became politically aware in Mulroney's second mandate, and sometimes thought I was the only guy in Canada who didn't want him dead. To this day, the vitriol directed at the former PM amazes me. As far as I can tell, the hatred stems from two things: the GST and a too-chummy relationship with the United States.

You can blame Mulroney's regime for the institution of the Goods and Services Tax, but you'd need to reserve a share of blame for Chretien, who repeatedly promised to scrap it and didn't. Besides, the GST is simply a visible repackaging of the old Manufacturers' Sales Tax.
As for 'cozying up' to the U.S., it by and large served Canada very well. We had a voice at the table. Even the collection of unions who were so against NAFTA when it was implemented have admitted they were wrong. Softwood lumber aside, the Mulroney-negotiated free trade agreements have been very good for this country. Hate Mulroney if you will, but don't deny he did things, unlike Chretien, who governed by inaction, and Martin, who governs by dithering.

Anyway, I had all the 'Reformist' tendencies ingrained in my psyche from adolescence, both the good and the bad. I believed (and still do) that political parties should be formed from the ground up rather than the top down. I shared (and still do) large parts of the Conservative vision for the country: taxes should be no higher than necessary; we need a justice system to replace the national joke we have now; most notably that government should stop meddling in the lives of private citizens.
The mainstream media in Canada still love to trot out the bigoted cowboy that supposedly epitomizes the Conservative brand. At one time, I shared a lot of that cowboy's belief system when it came to social issues. I was once a homophobic racist who believed that immigrants should only be welcomed to Canada if (a) they had a job waiting which (b) for some reason couldn't be given to a Canadian.
As I get older, reactionary views grate on me more and more. My homophobia has entirely abated: all that took was the realization that gays are people too. Meeting a few of them helped.
My thoughts on immigration have changed as well: I have recognized that immigration is a huge net contributor to the Canadian economy. While I still balk at our Swiss-cheese refugee claim system, I strongly believe in sharing our wealth with those less fortunate.
My thoughts on religion have undergone several deep-sea changes since I was in my teens. I now have no use for it, and think it has no place in politics. Too many people cling to narrow, limiting visions of what God is and what He (it's always He) wants. As if an omnipotent God could be said to 'want' for anything.

The antagonism in politics disgusts me. It seems to me that too many people on both sides of any issue in this country are unwilling to even look at each other's point of view, let alone acknowledge the merit that might be in it. The people we elect to Parliament should be working on the daunting problems that face this country, not bickering with each other over every little point.

As I age, I find myself becoming more and more liberal (although NOT Liberal). Whereas in my teens I still believed in our dominion over the Earth (hey, it's in the Bible!), I've almost reversed my thinking now. It's hard work to support the delusion you're the most important thing on the planet when the planet keeps throwing hurricanes and moonsoons and droughts and viruses at you.

It has been said that liberals support government, while conservatives support business. I'm not naive enough to want to discourage business--I know where the jobs come from, after all--but the behaviour of various corporations worldwide has angered and dismayed me. It seems to me that there is more to this world (or should be) than rampant profiteering at others' expense.

One of my favourite authors, Spider Robinson, has written an epistle called The Crazy Years that has the curious effect, upon reading it, of raising your IQ level about three dozen points. In one entry, he details out a number of platform planks for something he calls The Sentient Party. I agree with nearly all of them and will reproduce one I feel very strongly about below:

--MSR. This is the RADICAL plank: Make Stockholders Responsible. At present, any fool may buy stock in any company and unload it five minutes later. The directors must court his good will and seek to fulfill his wishes--but since he could well be gone in five minutes, they must assume that his primary (indeed, his sole) wish is to maximize immediate short-term profit at any cost. Often enough that is his wish: we have all heard of companies purchased for the express purpose of dismantling them. Net effect: no major business on this continent is presently being run intelligently. Control is in the hands of strangers who happened to pass by, and will leave when they are finished looting.
Solution: a single law. Henceforth, no one may sell stock that he or she has not owned for at least one year. You want to buy a piece of control of a business, you gotta commit to stick with it for awhile. People's livelihoods are not game pieces. When the screaming finally begins to die down from that one, hike it up to two years...and keep hiking it. Presently the outraged stockholders will start to notice that they're making more money. And that it's sounder money, since it exists in a healthier economy. And that fewer people want to mug them for it. Even the rich can be made rational, with patience and a big stick.

See? Ideas like that. That's what we need: ideas for making the world a better place, not tired old platitudes that didn't work last century and won't work now.

I wonder what that person we all thought was Winston Churchill would say to me, a conservative at 20 who has all but abandoned politics entirely at 33. Do I lack a heart? Or a brain?

22 September, 2005

What the @#$%????

Crude oil today: $66.80 (U.S.) a barrel
Price of regular grade gasoline in southern Ontario today (confirmed): anywhere from 95.9 cents/litre to $2.25/litre

Record high price of crude: $70.85 (U.S.) a barrel, post-Katrina
Price of gas then: $1.34.9 at its highest point

The lineups at the pumps here in Waterloo have been something to behold. The price across the lot from my grocery store stood at $1.03.7 all day, prompting a rush of apocalyptic proportions. This morning, the radio reported a price of $2.25 in Stratford and $179.9 in London.

I will confess myself to be an ignoramus when it comes to the economy. Stock markets are beyond my comprehenstion: to me, they seem to be the place where shady, X-Files type world dominators gamble with imaginary wealth. The recent fluctuations of gasoline defeat my mind entirely.

Can you imagine the price ANY other product jumping up and down like gasoline does? "Well, sir, the milk was 99 cents a liter yesterday. But we're concerned about the milk supply next week, so we're charging $8.00 for a gallon jug now. Yes, that's still the milk delivered yesterday, at yesterday's cost. I'm sorry, sir...if you don't like it, you're free to go to any other grocery store and pay...the same price. If you're willing to drive an hour out of your way, you might still find a stubborn holdout selling milk at yesterday's prices. "

Wasn't the gas you frantically pumped into your tank today produced six or eight months ago at costs of, oh, I don't know, 40 cents a liter or so? Plus a bevy of taxes, of course. Wasn't that gas delivered last week, when retails were in the mid-nineties? How is it that oil companies are allowed to justify charging any more than that?

The high price of oil is supposed to be good for us. That's what we've been told, over and over again, so it must be true, right? The government rakes in millions of dollars every time the price rises. I haven't seen our government do anything useful with all that money, have you? I suppose the people who own stocks in oil companies have something to offset the shock at the pumps, but I'm resolutely middle class and I can't afford the price of admission to that little game.

I'd love to know just how much involvement Big Oil has in our government. Obviously they have a fair bit, because commission after commission has found no evidence of collusion when any five-year-old can spot it from the curb. Pierre Pettigrew had the colossal gall to suggest that cutting gas taxes would simply shift the wealth to the oil companies, through some unexplained and unexplainable mechanism. You can trust Pettigrew to say such a thing. After all, he's a Liberal, and as such he knows where the wealth belongs: in the pockets of the government.

I remain convinced, though, no matter what excuses come bubbling up out of the oilpatch, that we are running out of oil--which sort of makes the whole thing moot. I don't think you'll hear anyone oily admit that for another five or ten years: I hope to Christ it won't be too late when they do. But I bet next year's Katrina and Rita will drive the price of gas even higher, say, to $3.00 a liter.

The end result of spiralling oil prices, I predict, will be a total paradigm shift in the Canadian economy. You'll see local economies rather than national or multinational ones. That, ultimately, will be a good thing, fostering a sense of community that is largely lacking in today's society.

In the meantime, my best advice is to buy a bike. Or a transit pass: public transit is a great deal right now, since their fuel costs are hugely subsidized. Buy something, anyway, because sooner or later you won't have a choice.

19 September, 2005

Our justice system is fraudulent.

Who am I?
Who am I?
I am Paul Coffin!
And so Gom'ry, you see it's true

That man bears no more guilt than you!
Who am I?
24601!

--from Les Miserables (paraphrased)

Paul Coffin has not been chased to justice over a stolen loaf of bread. No, he has been convicted of stealing more than $1.5 million from Canadian taxpayers. That's a lot of bread!

And Paul Coffin hasn't been reduced to a number. Far from it. No, his "punishment" is to be confined to his lavish estate north of Montreal, between the hours of 9:oo p.m. and 7:00 a.m nightly. Harsh, isn't it? Don't feel too bad for the poor man...that's only in effect on weeknights. Except for those nights when he must give court-ordered seminars on business ethics.

That's right, business ethics.

As if we needed any further proof of the complete insanity of our "justice" system.

Has it occurred to anyone at all that this is akin to Paul Bernardo being asked, as a condition of his sentence, to give little chats on healthy sexual fulfillment? Or to Jeffrey Dahmer being required to teach a cooking class?

I guess the difference between Coffin and those other specimens is that when Coffin realized he was caught, he pled guilty. Oh, how my heart weeps for the man.

There have been a few times in my life when I've had someone deliberately set out to hurt me. Having accomplished their goal, they tossed off a "sorry" at me as if that would rectify things. They look insulted when I tell them

"No, you're not."
"Huh?"
"Sorry. You're not sorry."
"Yes I am! I said so, didn't I?"
"Sure. But if you were really sorry, you would never have hurt me in the first place."
"..."

Paul Coffin has to pay back the money he defrauded from the Canadian taxpaying public....because he was caught. If he hadn't been caught, don't you think he'd still be living high off the hog without a shred of so-called "remorse"?

In other news, Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski was jailed for a possible 25 years and fined $70-million. Kozlowski was found to have pilfered some $600-million from Tyco on lavish self-expenditures - including a $6,000 shower curtain in an $18-million apartment.

The jail time sounds good on the surface, although I'll bet he'll be serving it in a place not too much different from Paul Coffin's "prison". The fine is a piffle. When Kozslowski is a free man at age 83--old, but not dead--he could have hundreds of millions of dollars waiting for him.

Just goes to show the rich and the poor still have two entirely different justice systems.

17 September, 2005

Diet update

First, the numbers: 20 pounds down, 1/3 of the way to my goal.
Eva's done considerably better than that...clothing she couldn't fit into before this low-carb regime started are now baggy and loose on her; she swims in what used to fit her.
I'm still hearing from all over the place that low-carb diets are useless and even dangerous. (The most recent attack came from the Toronto Sun's doctor columnist, who said that low-carb diets deprive the body of folic acid, a deficiency linked to heart attacks.)
Even he admits that folic acid is available in pill form, including in the multivitamins I take daily, but of course that's buried in the middle of his column where many people won't see it.
Dr. Gifford-Jones, it's hard to argue with my bathroom scale. Or with the increased energy I have. Or with the fact that my stomach almost never sings doo-wop any more.
I've cheated twice. On one occasion, I had hot dogs--with buns. The next day...
Have you heard of the trots? These were the sprints. Accompanied by a kind of low groaning cramp that made it difficult to walk at times.
Tonight was my second cheat: a visit to a restaurant that used to be a staple of ours. A den of carbs, to be precise. And I'm sure I'm going to likewise regret this little excursion. In fact, I already do: after the first mouthful, which was sublime, the food actually tasted terrible. And the service this time out didn't help: we were stuck in a corner and promptly forgotten. We actually had to get up and walk across the place to get somebody to take our drink orders, and we were about to get up to request the bill when our server finally showed up. And it wasn't even busy. I guess our waitress didn't really need a tip.

I've noticed some changes in my attitude toward food. Specifically, I've learned the difference between "I'm hungry" and "I could eat". Fact is, I almost never felt real hunger before...and still don't, despite cutting my food intake by at least 50%. Skeptics might insist that this cut has more to do with my weight loss than what I have or have not been eating. I would argue that it's damn near impossible to just eat half of the junk I was eating before. Ever had one serving of potato chips and called it a day? I doubt it...that's eleven chips. Likewise popcorn, mashed potatoes, rice, french fries: what they call a standard serving of any of these things just leaves one wanting more immediately...and "hungry" again in an hour.

To reassure Dr. Gifford-Jones and others of his ilk, we're not on a no-carb diet, just a low-carb diet...and we will be adding 'good' carbs back in gradually, once we've accomplished our goal. But we'll never be back to the ridiculous 'recommended daily allowance' of 300 grams of carbs a day: I'm firmly convinced this, coupled with our society's absolute refusal to exercise, is what is causing the epidemic of obesity.

15 September, 2005

Addendum

Shootouts.

I meant to put my thoughts in on this very interesting wrinkle the NHL is trying out this year.

I haaaaaate 'em.

I know, they had to do it, it adds excitement to the game, a tie is like kissing your sister and all that...well, not having a sister, I can't really say, now can I? Suppose my sister was really gorg--

Okay, never mind that. People don't like tie games. Gotcha.

Still, I don't like shootouts. It's akin to deciding a baseball game with a home run derby, or a football game with a field-goal contest, or a basketball game on a series of uncontested three-point shots. Hockey is supposed to be a team sport. Reducing it to a one-on-one battle between goalie and shooter...well, why bother playing the game in the first place? Just have a series of players take potshots at the goaltender. Defense? We doan need no steekin' defense.

Granted, it's exciting. In fact, I can't think of a single sporting spectacle that gets me so het up.
But I can't think a shootout win is near as satifying as a win in regulation...and a shootout loss is excruciating.

When my wife was learning the game, she often seemed to put a huge amount of pressure on the goaltender. Every single goal he allowed was his fault, nobody else's; since the keeper's putative job is to keep pucks out of the net, a goal was a damning indictment. I, by contrast, feel that the defensemen and backchecking forwards are at least as responsible for most goals against as the 'tender is. Even the breakaway goals, where there is no defenseman to be found--well, where are they? Barring the power play, teams play at even strength. For someone to break free of defensive coverage implies a breakdown in that coverage, something for which the goalie bears no blame.

That's all removed in the shootout. Fans welcome the "stripping down of the game to its essentials", as if defense wasn't one of them. Ugh.

My solution? Simple: let the players play until somebody scores, just as they do in the playoffs. You'll never see that, of course--the owners like their money too much to ever condense the season enough to allow that proposal to fly. You'd have to have no more than three games in any week, with no matches on back-to-back nights. Or just allow ties. What's so bad about a tie? It means that on that night, the two teams were evenly matched. I like a game that doesn't have to have a winner and a loser. To me, that's a Canadian game.

And that's how I feel about that.

14 September, 2005

Non-hockey fans should probably skip this one...

Less than a month to go...
I can't begin to tell you just how much I am looking forward to the resumption of NHL hockey in T-20 days and counting. This has been a summer of frantic signing, punctuated by a few blockbuster trades. Most teams have come out ahead...or think they have.
I'm not sure what category to put my beloved Buds in. They've certainly been active, picking up Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, Alex Khavanov, Jeff O'Neill, Mariusz Czerkawski and Brad Brown and nudging right up against the hard cap. The rookies good enough to potentially overcome coach Quinn's veteran bias and crack the team out of camp will be up and down between the NHL and the AHL all season: every game Carlo Colaiacovo plays for the Marlies will give the Leafs $2800.00 worth of cap room. They may need that wiggle room come the end of the season, for good or ill. Allison's contract is laden with performance bonuses. Should he stay healthy and contribute, these bonuses will count against the cap. Even if the doomsayers' predictions come to pass and Allison and Lindros collide at center ice, concussing each other and ending each other's seasons sometime around game three, the NHL salary cap is unforgivingly tied to league revenues that might not be as expected. The good news: the NHL has a TV deal in the States, which it didn't have three months ago. The bad news: the network involved is not NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, or ESPN1 or 2...it's the Outdoor Life Network. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in '94, the American media enthused that hockey would soon overtake basketball and join the ranks of football and baseball as America's favourite sports. That was back when you'd find one or two hockey articles a year in Sports Illustrated. Now, hockey has joined tractor pulls and 1000-yard staring contests on America's 423rd-largest network, and Sports Illustrated will shelve its Swimsuit Edition before it dares to print a hockey column.
Well, I for one am ready to shelve all this economic, CBA chattering and DROP THE PUCK!

GAME ON!

John Ferguson Jr., the architect of the Maple Leafs this season, has taken a lot of undeserved flak. There is a certain class of nutjob Toronto fan--oddly enough, fans this stupid are usually Leaf fans--who think we can trade Nik Antropov to Pittsburgh and get Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury back. Memo to nutjobs: a Doug-Gilmour fleecing comes along once every thirty years or so, league-wide, and we've had ours.
Ferguson has actually done very well working with reality. The reality is that the Leafs have a lot of money tied up in McCabe, Sundin, and (especially) Belfour. Will the naysayers at least concede that this has been money relatively well spent? Sundin has led the Leafs in scoring eight out of the past nine years, McCabe has led the defense corps, and Belfour has exceeded all expectations, including mine.
The biggest knock I keep hearing is that we should have let Belfour go and signed Khabibulin...to save money. Funny, Khabibulin has cashed in on his Cup win and is now making more money than Belfour. While he arguably represents an upgrade on Eddie, is that upgrade worth the added cost?

Seemingly every day over the summer, the Toronto Sun's been agitating, saying this and that player was 'destined' to be a Leaf. Virtually every big-name free agent was linked to the Leafs at some time or another, largely, I suspect, to sell newspapers. All these rumours came to naught, and people were actually disappointed we only managed to get

  • a man only three years removed from being a top-five scorer, League-wide;
  • a towering player, gifted offensively, who has always yearned to be a Leaf*;
  • a former linchpin of the Carolina offense that put the Leafs out of the playoffs not that long ago;
  • a top-four defenseman projected for 20 minutes-plus a night
  • a sniper who, although streaky and prone to defensive mistakes, was still a driving force of the New York Islanders, not long ago
  • a tough, stay-at-home defenseman who has captained the Minnesota Wild

...all this on what amounts to a shoestring budget.

INJURIES

There we go again with the naysaying. And I'll be the first to concede that Lindros and Allison in particular are high-risk. Kind of like Mogilny was. Or Wendel Clark. The laws of probability suggest at least one of our pickups will miss significant time this season. The laws of probability also suggest that at least one of them will remain healthy and put up better numbers than expected. For the money invested, I say the potential reward is worth the risk. You have to remember that NHL players are likely going to be dropping like flies this year, the bitter fruit of a year away from the game. Any player can be hurt at any time. I for one am looking for a playoff berth and possible home-ice advantage.

* I'll stick this 'endnote' here before I move on to League-wide issues. I am not a Lindros fan and never have been. He has always proven himself in my eyes to be a arrogant and conceited momma's boy who can't even remember how to skate with his head up. However, he appears to have grown up and began thinking for himself...I'll reserve judgement.

THE GAME ITSELF promises to be a spectacle this year. I miss the firewagon hockey of the 1980s, when no lead was safe and no deficit was insurmountable. It appears the NHL has missed the run-and-gun game, too. They've promised for the umpteenth time to call the game by the rules, meaning no hooking, hacking, clutching, grabbing, or 'riding'. You're not allowed to impede another player with your stick--every defenseman in the game is going to have to learn a new way to play. I can only hope that this crackdown persists. I don't care if I never see 5-on-5 hockey for the first three months of the season--the obstruction has to go.

(I have doubts that they'll persevere, when some teams get twenty penalties called against them in a game and lose that game 12-1. But if they do...Just think of it! Some teams won't be allowed to pretend they're as good as everyone else!)

This will be the year of Crosby, but also the year of Phaneuf, a monster defenseman from Canada's world junior team; of Wayne Gretzky as a coach, of edge-of-your-seat shootouts to break ties; of excitement. I can't wait.


13 September, 2005

It's debit-able...

Do you use Interac?
If you are Canadian, chances are your answer is "yes". Or, even more likely, "hell, yeah!"
Canadians are among the heaviest users of debit cards in the world. As a nation, we purchased more on debit than the United States did in 2001, the last year for which I can find figures. Think about that a minute: they have more than ten times our population.
Having worked in retail for many years now, I have seen the rising use of Interac from the other side of the counter. Well over 90% of our grocery store's sales are paid for using debit cards. With numbers like that, it's not hard to imagine a cashless society, and sooner than you'd think.
I have a love-hate relationship with debit. I love the convenience. I hate just about everything else.

SERVICE CHARGES

It seems hard to believe, but there was once a time--not all that long ago, either, within my lifetime--when banks made money by prudently investing what funds we, their customers, deposited. Not only that, they returned a healthy interest rate on that money. Now, banks make money by charging us for every conceivable "service" they provide. They even charge us for NOT providing service: if your account lies idle for a month, you'll get dinged with an "account inaction fee". And interest? Unless you're rich, forget it: many banks return zero interest on balances under a thousand dollars, and as close to zero as they can on anything above that.
Is it any wonder our banks ring up billions of dollars in profits every few months?
One of the ways they ding you is through the Interac system. There are a couple of options here: you can choose to have money siphoned out of your account every time you use an ABM or make a purchase on debit. Or you can elect to pay x dollars a month for the convenience of accessing your money...but it better be through a certain machine, else you'll pay more. No matter what you do, bend over, 'cause you're gonna be cornholed.
The banks say that service fees are for system maintenance. Does anybody actually believe that? Maybe the kinds of people that answer emails from very sick Nigerian children who have won lotteries and want to share their winnings, but certainly not the rest of us. With literally billions of transactions happening every year, the cost of "maintaining the system", per transaction, just has to be negligible.
If the co-ordinated financial anal rape of Canadians by our big bad banks wasn't enough, they're in cahoots with a whole lot of retailers. I've tried to research the laws regarding retail Interac service charges with little success. It may well be there aren't any: the retailers may well be entitled to charge whatever their market will bear. Evidently their market bears quite a lot. Consider:
In Niagara Falls, arguably Canada's cheesiest tourist trap, some places charge $2.50 to let you spend money in their establishments. One place told me they didn't take debit and directed me to a little one-eyed bandit of an ABM in the corner, which tried to ding me $5.00 to withdraw $40.00. (Needless to say, that place lost my business.)
Just down the street from me, there is a Daisy Mart that has its Interac policy clearly posted: a charge of 25 cents will be assessed on any Interac purchase totalling less than $5.00. Knowing as I do that each Interac transaction costs the retailer 12 cents, I suppose I can grudgingly accept the quarter charge. But:
  • milk doesn't count
  • bread doesn't count
  • newspapers, no matter how many you buy, don't count
  • bus tickets don't count
  • tobacco doesn't count

The following is a fairly educated guess: the above counts for over eighty percent of that store's sales. Pathetic, isn't it? I don't frequent that store any more--even if I have cash.

If I go well out of my way, I can patronize a Short Stop or a 7-Eleven. Neither charges for Interac use, no matter the size of the sale or what it contains. I've worked for both chains, and I used to mentally roll my eyes whenever somebody bought a Slurpee or a pack of gum on debit. (This happens far more often than you'd believe.) I wanted to charge the customer for holding up the line, but then again, the delay was our fault...we had the slowest Interac connection I've ever seen. Besides, both variety store chains understand that Interac encourages impulse spending: even with all the less-than-a-dollar purchases, the average debit transaction was much higher in value than the average cash transaction. Service charges discourage trade. They certainly discourage me.

There's one last thing about Interac that, as a consumer, I appreciate, but as a retailer, I can't stand: "cashback". I can't begin to tell you how many times people wander into our store ten minutes after we open and expect to get $200.00 cash back. They tend to get right pissy when we tell them we don't have that kind of cash on hand. Ironically enough, we don't carry much more cash at open than I did at Short Stop...at least in part because almost nobody uses cash anymore.

What I want to know is, did we turn into a bank overnight? Does it say "BANK OF PRICE CHOPPER on the sign out there?

Didn't think so.

10 September, 2005

I Am Ken Breadner

I have finished Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. For all its flaws (and there were several, some of them major), this novel was an entertaining read. It also had the effect of catapulting me into my past.
The titular heroine is a poor but brilliant girl from Sparta, North Carolina, population 900 and most of them, you get the feeling, inbred. Despite her intelligence, she's fantastically naive about the world beyond. Because of her intelligence, she's got herself a one-way ticket deep into the heart of that world beyond: a full scholarship to Dupont University, the place Harvard and Yale dream of being. Charlotte undertakes an journey of self-discovery in what proves to be an environment entirely unlike anything in her experience or imagination...a place besotted, not with intellectual pursuits, but instead with sex and booze and status.

I was nowhere near as intelligent as Charlotte when I ventured out from my little town of Ingersoll, population 8,000 and most of them, I got the feeling, parochial in the extreme. But I nearly matched her for naivete. A clue to what awaited me was hung from an overpass just before the cut-off to Waterloo. Had my mother been driving, I do believe she would have turned the car around when she saw the sign reading


FATHERS THANK YOU FOR YOUR VIRGIN DAUGHTERS


Like Charlotte, I made a supreme effort to distance myself from my parents the instant we arrived at Wilfrid Laurier University, not out of shame but out of a fervent desire to assert myself. Luckily, I knew my residence room-mate going in...I'm honestly not sure whether I could have handled trying to befriend anyone on top of everything else that day. My brain bobbled. On the one hand, the first music I heard blasting way on campus was You May Be Right, by Billy Joel: not my favourite song in the world but certainly more than tolerable. Big relief: a part of me was expecting something truly vile. On the other hand, my welcome-to-Laurier kit contained some sort of rubbery sheathy thing I'd never seen before. It took almost as much brainpower as I had available to determine it was a condom. Had my parents seen that, I'm certain I would have been yanked off campus almost before I was on it. Oh well, guys, you were the ones bound and determined I get here a year ahead of my high school cohort...
Of course, it wasn't until slightly later that I realized just how young I was. Like later that day, when most of the people on my floor went out and got themselves stinking drunk--for the first of probably a hundred times that year. And Kenny (right about then I felt like Kenny, even though I'd been "Ken" since Grade 6 or so) stayed back...not only because he had no interest in booze, but because he wouldn't be legal for six months.
Laurier had outlawed panty raids the year before, so of course there were panty raids galore that week. It wasn't three weeks later, en route to my dorm room, that I stumbled upon three people having sex in full view of anyone who cared to look. Was that before or after the naked guy in the tree outside my window? I can't remember. Sleep was pretty hard to come by that year.
There must have been thirty or more people doing everything short of jamming alcohol down my throat in the first couple of months, and I did myself no social favours by absolutely refusing it every time. Most of Mac 2 West plotted for a week or two before my birthday about how they were going to get me out of my shell and get me plastered...and knowing that, when the day came, I made every effort to elude them.
I was only Mr. Goody-Half-A-Shoe by then, though: I'd successfully avoided alcohol only to fall into the snares of a few other vices. I'd found a use for that rubbery sheath in January, for one thing. For another, I'd bled money from every pore. It worked out to $16.33 every day from September to Christmas. It was perfectly clear I was in no way prepared for the distractions that university throws at you. But what the hell, I was having so much fun...
Academically, I got by that first year pretty much the way I'd gotten by in high school. Most of what I 'learned' I had already known, and it didn't take much effort to synthesize the rest. I hadn't...quite...fallen out of love with the classroom. Not yet.


In Tom Wolfe's novel, Charlotte Simmons eventually carves out a place for herself somewhere near the very tippy-top of Dupont's social scene, an unheard-of elevation for a freshman. I didn't do that. I couldn't, much as I may have wanted to. Macdonald House was a train wreck of eight months' duration; living right in the middle of it, I eventually developed somewhat of an immunity, but never felt much of an urge to jump in...that way lay a kind of suicide. I envied my room-mate...he'd arranged his classes such that he had Fridays off, and so went home every weekend without fail, thus avoiding the weekly 72-hour party which seemed to be the only reason most of my floor came to university.
My strategy was different: I'd cast my mind out, out from M2 West, out from Laurier, out to my girlfriend at Humber College, my best friend at Queens, and others hither and yon, creating one hellacious phone bill after another. I sent and received more "snail mail" than most of my floor put together. I clung to these lifelines out of Laurier with dogged determination: making friends has never been a forte of mine, and I was quite content with the coterie I'd already made, thanks.

Charlotte Simmons found an identity at Dupont...not one she would have recognized before and certainly not what her parents had envisioned for her. My identity was still in flux when I left Macdonald House, as it was two years later when my university career whimpered out. That wasn't what my parents had expected of me, either. Hell, it wasn't what I had expected. I don't know what I had expected, but it wasn't this.

I left residence with one ironclad certainty: it should be avoided at all costs. I had been steered into "res" by well-meaning people with no idea what lay inside those walls. They felt I'd make social contacts that would serve me well the rest of my life. It's true that my roomie became one of my closest friends, but that was born out of an "our room against the world" mentality. I've long swept my brain clean of everyone else from Laurier.
I still live here in Waterloo. Although I'm in an area where many students live, I'm far enough from the bar scene that I don't have to worry about my house being vandalized on a weekly basis. At this time of year, when students flood back in to the city, the twin thoughts recur: I was once one of them; I was never one of them.
I am Ken Breadner.

07 September, 2005

New Orleans times 200,000

As aftershocks from Katrina continue to resound, and literally hundreds of people have been made aware of the environmental issues of long standing along the Gulf Coast, it amazes me that I'm still seeing people dismissing them.
I guess it shouldn't surprise me overmuch. No matter how many Manhattan-sized chunks of ice calve off the Arctic glaciers, no matter how many studies show ocean and land temperatures rising, there are those who say that global warming is bullshit.
But there was one whacko writing in the National Post today who went further. I can't tell you his name, because to read the Post online, one must already have a subscription. (Aside: what brain-dead airhead dreamed that policy up? If I wanted a subscription to a newspaper, I'd get one...to a newspaper.)
This whacko, whatever-his-name-was, started off saying that "erosion is a natural process". From there he leapt to the startling observation that environmentalism is a "pseudo-religion"... an "anti-humanist" one. Environmentalists, says the whacko, only care about nature, never about man. He insinuates that Greenpeace won't rest happily until most of the human population of the planet is dead.
This is bullshit in exactly the way global warming isn't.
Those who hold this view believe that Man is superior to Nature. Further, that it is man's sacred duty to subjugate Nature.
More bullshit. As to the first assertion, just ask the surviving New Orleansians whether Man and his works can stand in the face of Nature. And as for the second--
Well, I'm not sure we can. To subjugate, one must stand at a remove...and we are inextricably a part of Nature, not apart from it. Every time we screw around with Nature on a large scale, she comes back to bite us in the ass. Drain the wetlands along the Gulf? No problem...until a Katrina comes along. Deforest the hillsides and plains of the Middle East? No worries...until the ground turns to salt before your very eyes. Burn the rainforests? Happy farming...for a year or three, until the soil just dries up and blows away.
There may be some extreme environmentalists who truly believe that humanity is a cancerous lesion on the skin of the earth, but most of them wish only that humans would learn to walk more lightly on the land. If that means redefining our economies, is that really such of a much? I suppose it is, if you're one of the priveleged few..."few" being the operant word. There are over a billion people on this planet living in some variant of New Orleans--and most of them are seeing their environments raped by large corporations who pay them slave wages and therefore claim to be working in their interest. Yet more bullshit.
The grim reality is that the environment is deteriorating fast. This is not pessimism or whinery; neither is it speculation. Those of us with eyes can see the signs: this has been the -est year in the history of the world. You name a superlative, somebody on earth has seen it recently. The wettest, dryest, warmest, stormiest year on record. And not a one-off, either.
We need to acknowledge these realities and take steps to mitigate them. Not just weaning ourselves off oil. We need a renewed emphasis on local economies of scale, a concerted effort to freely share resources, a concentrated, massive plan to alleviate Third World poverty--giving them access to fresh. clean water would be a start (and that does not mean bottling it up and selling it to them, Nestle!)
There is so much to do...and all environmentalists ask is for recognition of that fact. Is that too much to ask?
Is it?


04 September, 2005

At the Derby

Spent a good chunk of the day today at the Mitchell Fair.
Now, the Mitchell Fair is not something, I hasten to tell you, that I would normally be clamoring to attend. Fairs, particularly small-town fairs, rank just behind sorting my sock drawer and just ahead of brushing my teeth for sheer excitement. But Eva's brother had a car entered in the demolition derby. Jim wasn't the driver--he was the guy who built the car--but the way these things work, the driver, if he won, would be paid in prestige and Jim would get cash dollars. So we were there to cheer Jim's driver on.
We got to the fair a good three hours before the derby was to start. So we made the grand tour. Over there's the midway: Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, Berry-Go-Round, Round-Up, a couple of other rides, none meant for adults. Over here's the community center, filled to the brim with local colour. The Bake-Off entries are right here: some of them look quite tasty...too bad we can't try any of them. This here's the "sheaf competition", right next to the "field crop" competition; the point of either escapes me. And all around are dozens of earnest dioramas that public school students put lots of work into and which no doubt made their mothers proud.
Onward, please.
"Come Down On The Farm!" the sign intones, and we enter to find three prone bovines and a gaggle of hens and geese squawking away, all reeking that peculiar country reek that starts a John Denver clone singing away inside my skull: "Thank God I'm a City Boy!"
I think we've covered everything. Let's check the time: hmmm. Seven minutes have gone by. Only two hours and fifty three minutes to go.
My loving and understanding wife has allowed me to bring a book to kill the time. So I sit on the wooden grandstand bench, slather myself in sunscreen, and immerse myself in I Am Charlotte Simmons. A novel this engrossing can easily overcome a serious case of numbed butt; before I know it they're announcing the first heat, and the car Jim jerry-rigged together rumbles out to take its place amongst its fellows. A cloud of testosterone forms.
This is my second demo derby. The first one was in Elmira two years ago, and I'd had to steel myself for it: in a former life derbies were the sorts of things I would pay to avoid. They actually offended me on some primeval level. I mean, the whole object of these things is senseless destruction...even if there's little chance of driver injury, the point is to seriously cripple the cars. Yes, yes, I know that cars are inanimate objects. But you'd never know that, the way most men treat their rides, would you? They name them, they coo to them, and they react like cornered grizzlies at the sight of a little scratch on the paint. And yet, in derbies, even the winners lumber out of the ring looking like beaten puppies.
(Sometimes, like here, the whole concept of "context" mysteriously vanishes out of my mind. The sight of naked breasts signals dinnertime to an infant...to an elderly cardiac patient it might be fatal. Context, Ken, context...there is a place under the sun where cars go to die...to kill each other. Okay. Let's accept this.)
Today I am able to appreciate the skill involved in piloting these wrecks around. There's a little white car in one of the six-cylinder heats that REFUSED TO DIE. Everybody teamed up against it. Parts of it were flying all over the place, and still it careened around, bashing all hell out of everybody else as if that was its sole purpose in life. Eventually it was reduced to an engine on four rims, and when it finally sputtered out and died after a particularly vicious hit--leaving its sole remaining tormentor the winner--we found out it had merely run out of gas. If a pause to refuel was allowed, I'm convinced this little white beast would still be out there, probably destroying the grandstands. Nobody said what make and model (Sherman mini-tank?) this thing was, which kind of peeved me off.
I seem to have an ability to predict, after about twenty seconds of observation, which car will emerge victorious. I'm right about three quarters of the time, and even when I'm wrong, my bet's among the last things moving. I didn't bet on Jim's car, for two reasons: one, there were bigger cars in its heat, and two, the driver didn't overly impress me, getting himself pinned almost immediately. Sure enough, that car's the third one out...and there's no 'hard luck heat', so that's the last we saw of it.
I have to admit, that was kind of fun. Still not something I'd seek out, but at least it wasn't too much of a trial to sit through. Next one for Jim is in Stratford in three weeks. Hopefully he'll have better luck.

03 September, 2005

Katrina, Part II

It is widely believed that George Herbert Walker Bush lost the presidency in large part because of his administration's pitiful failure to provide meaningful relief in the face of Hurricane Andrew.
How history repeats itself.
The outrage many feel in the face of an even more pitiful effort to relieve suffering in the wake of Katrina is not the sort of thing voters tend to forget. It's possible to bamboozle your constituents into supporting an unjust war, if you play your cards just right. After all, you can make sure nobody ever sees the thousands of coffins containing what used to be American youth and idealism. And if you talk about weapons of mass des--umm, "liberation"--often enough and loud enough, then hey, some people are bound to listen, aren't they?

But, boy George! it's hard to equivocate your way out of leaving poor black people who didn't vote for you to die.

And let's not gild the lily. That's exactly what Bush did.

Hurricane protection funding to Louisiana has been cut almost in half since 2001. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was once a prominent and very-well-funded government organization, charged with keeping the United States afloat in the event of nuclear attack. After 9/11, it was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security and it had its funding repeatedly slashed.
Daddy Bush, in a rare concession to the environmental lobby, enacted legislation to protect the wetlands along the Gulf Coast. This policy was bolstered by President Clinton. Bush Junior overturned it all in 2003, allowing developers to rush in and remake the land in their own moneyed image. This is important because every two miles of wetland along the Gulf Coast decreases a storm surge by half a foot. A study came out in 2004 claiming that without wetland protection, New Orleans could be devatated by a relatively mild Category 1 or 2 hurricane. The Chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality dismissed the study, saying "everyone loves what we're doing".

And it's not as if nobody saw Katrina coming. In October 2004, National Geographic did everything but name the storm, saying tens of thousands would die and the city would be completely paralyzed. As my previous entry noted, New Orleans has been the victim of many hurricanes over the years.

But hey, Orleans county was the only one in Louisiana to vote strongly for Kerry. So at least Bush can be comforted by the removal of thousands of Democrat-leaning voters from the rolls.


"I assume the president's going to say he got bad intelligence... I think that wherever you see poverty, whether it's in the white rural community or the black urban community, you see that the resources have been sucked up into the war and tax cuts for the rich." -- Congressman Charles B. Rangel

"Many black people feel that their race, their property conditions and their voting patterns have been a factor in the response... I'm not saying that myself, but what's self-evident is that you have many poor people without a way out." -- Rev. Jesse Jackson

"In New Orleans, the disaster's impact underscores the intersection of race and class in a city where fully two-thirds of its residents are black and more than a quarter of the city lives in poverty. In the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, which was inundated by the floodwaters, more than 98 percent of the residents are black and more than a third live in poverty."-- David Gonzalez, NY Times

Don't let anybody try to tell you this isn't a racial issue. The truth is there for all to see, in black and...well, mostly black.

01 September, 2005

I'm very sorry about this...

...but the buggers have found me. Due to 'comment spam', I've had to enable what's called "word verification" on comments. This means that if you wish to leave a comment, you'll need to enter a random nonsense word first. I AM STILL VERY INTERESTED IN HEARING WHAT MY READERS--the ones who aren't selling something--HAVE TO SAY. I hope you're all willing to enter a few characters and save the Breadbin from being overrun with mouldy spam.

Thanks!

Ken

Katrina

I used to love violent weather.
Back when I was single, you could fit all my possessions into the trunk of a taxicab. I did so, more than once. A few of these had sentimental value, but there was nothing I couldn't, strictly speaking, abandon in the blink of a hurricane's eye. So I would get tremendously excited whenever the weather threatened to...well, threaten. And if somebody else was getting the nasty weather, I'd hover around the Weather Network, picking up vicarious thrills. St. John's got six feet of snow yesterday! Woo-hoo!
I must hasten to admit that when the weather turned truly bad--lethal--there would be an instant and total attitude adjustment. The shell-shocked image of the family emerging from their cellar to find open air where their house used to be has a way of slapping the silly grin off a face.
The really bad weather still fascinates me, and probably always will. But that fascination is muted, now. The excitement has largely leached out of it. I'm uneasy at just how pissed off Nature seems to be of late. Has anybody on the planet seen a two-year run of perfectly normal, unremarkable weather? Droughts. Monsoons. Blizzards. Ovenish temperatures. And hurricanes.

I've followed hurricanes for years. They offer a compelling mix of extreme climatology and human psychology, the latter as interesting to me as the former. What goes through the mind of a human being who builds his home in a cyclonic bullseye, over swampland, and then stays in it, daring the wind and water to do its worst?

As Katrina skittered over Florida, a mere Category One on the Saffir-Simpson scale, it seemed safe to make jokes. 'What a great name for a hurricane', I mused. 'Katrina and the Waves.' Not exactly 'Walking on Sunshine', are we now, South Florida?
Then the Gulf got hold of Katrina and turned her into a bitch-monster. That 80s group had one other minor hit, called 'Do You Want Crying?' Well, crying we got, whether we wanted it or not.

In the hours before Katrina made her second landfall, the newscaster on Global National made a point of saying this isn't the sort of hurricane where pretty-boy newscasters go out and stand on the beach, getting blown around a bit and making stupid remarks. This is a life-or-death situation.' This was shortly followed, of course, by pretty-boy newscasters crouching behind concrete garbage cans, screaming inanities: "This is the wind of a hurricane!" Really? Whodathunkit?

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by a man named Bienville. He must have taken his name--French for, roughly, 'good-town'--seriously, because he ignored the advice of his cadre of engineers, who pleaded with him not to build on the marshy, sunken site. If only he had listened. If only Bienville could have understood how vulnerable his city would be.

The Louisiana coast is no stranger to tropical storms and hurricanes, and several of them have done damage to New Orleans in the past century. Each successive hurricane after 1947 caused an improvement to be made in the levee system. For some reason, though, by the time Katrina came ashore, the levees were only rated for a Category 3 hurricane (max 130 mph winds). This despite Camille (1965) , a Category 5 weather-bomb that narrowly missed the city proper, but still caused over $2 billion (2005 dollars) damage in Louisiana alone...and killed 258.

At practically the last minute, Katrina wobbled off to the east and weakened slightly, sparing N'awlins a direct hit from a Category 5. (This hurricane was officially a Cat-4...just barely...on landfall.)
Little good that did, as it turns out.
-----------------------------------

By now we've all seen the pictures. We've all heard anchors for various newscasts acting so very concerned, and you can just tell they're imagining their nice comfortable bed in the nice dry home that's waiting for them at the end of the day. The mayor of New Orleans dubbed Katrina 'our tsunami' and I must admit, at first that struck me as an incredibly arrogant comment. When your death toll reaches a couple hundred thousand, then you can make that comparison, okay?
Then the images started to leak out.
Damned if they didn't look eerily similar to the horrors that filled the newspapers after Boxing Day last year. And the scary thing was, most of these buildings weren't Third-World tarpaper shacks.

The death toll continues to rise. There have been stories out of New Orleans that have affected me even more strongly than did the tsunami saga. The man, stuck for three days on a roof with his dog, told he couldn't bring his friend along when rescue finally came. (I wouldn't have gone.)The dogs howling for help in abandoned and all but submerged houses. (Who would be so heartless as to leave a pet to die that way?) The poor and infirm, trapped to drown like (and with) rats in houses they were unable to leave. People actually starving to death while they wait for someone, anyone, to do something, anything. Most of these people, needless to say, are black. If a freak hurricane was ever to devastate Boston, do you think the emergency response would be a little faster? I sure do.

The litany of terrors confronting the refugees of the Gulf Coast staggers the mind. Starvation. Dehydration. Heatstroke. The much-enlarged Lake Pontchartrain is now home to industrial and human waste, hundreds of toxic chemicals, poisonous snakes, alligators, and probably ten or more potential deadly diseases. I was naive enough to imagine a death toll in the low hundreds from this. Now I think it likely we'll see tens of thousands of casualties.

Bush was on television, saying all the right things...I wonder if he's even considered bringing his soldiers home from Iraq to help. I wonder how many Southern boys from Biloxi and Gulfport and Baton Rouge and New Orleans itself are tossing and turning in Tikrit tonight. I wonder.

Meantime, survivors are pitching their own little Mardi Gras in the flooded streets, looting anything and everything they can find. I can excuse the food--in point of fact, I'd encourage everyone down there to steal any food, clothing, and medical supplies they can--but what the hell do people think they're going to do with the shiny new plasma TV they dragged home? Plug it in?

I even heard, tonight, that medics are coming under sniper fire. If that's true, I shudder for the human race.
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What to do:

Donate, donate, donate. Give until it hurts, say, one thousandth as much as they're hurting. You can start by cleaning out your closet--there are millions of people on the Gulf Coast who need your clothes more than you do.
I would strongly urge our federal government to take the GST on our Katrina-elevated gas prices and donate it to the relief effort.
I'd strongly urge the oil industry to take some of the record profits they're making on our Katrina-elevated gas prices and donate them to the relief effort. (Not to bitch or anything, but with 92% of our gasoline coming from Alberta, how exactly did Katrina drive our prices up 30 cents a litre in three days? I'd really like somebody to explain this to me. If the money's going to to victims of Katrina, fine. Somehow I kind of doubt it is.)
I'd strongly urge any company with a sense of music, history, or social justice--which should be about all of them, no?-- to donate a percentage of its profits to the rebuilding effort.
I've heard cruise ships are being brought in to serve as floating hospitals. Great idea. More, please. If you had a cruise booked on the Lap of Luxury anytime in the next three months, so solly, Cholly, you've been pre-empted.

And when the streets dry out in about six months, level them. Level them all. Rebuild twenty or thirty miles inland, where New Orleans should have been all along.