31 October, 2005

All Hallow's Eve

Hallowe' has certainly changed since I was a kid.
For one thing, the kids come around in packs now. Rarely do I open the door to find one or two little goblins: it's usually a crowd of six or eight. I used to go out alone some years, and other years I'd tag along with a friend, but I was never part of a...what's the collective term for kids soliciting candy? Of course! A cavity of trick-or-treaters. And I surely don't recall seeing such huge cavities, back in the day.
While the clocks did go back an hour last weekend, it seems like Hallowe'en's gone back two or three...most of the action is over by seven p.m. Sure, when I was four or five, I did my trick-or-treating early, too. But when I was ten I wouldn't start until seven--and again, there were plenty of kids out there sharing the street with me.
What has happened to the once ubiquitous UNICEF boxes? Last year we didn't see a single child collecting, and this year I was surprised early on to find a whole group of kids with boxes...but none since.
The costumes, rather predictably, have taken a quantum leap since the days when I went out wrapped in an old sheet. I've seen all manner of cartoon characters, animals, and students from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Every single one of the latter seems to be in Gryffindor, for some odd reason...I'd ask each one what house they belonged to, and that was the unanimous answer. "Too bad", I'd say sweetly. "Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs get triple the candy."
A couple of years back, we lived on the second floor of a three-story walkup. We went out and bought some Hallowe'en candy to give out, expecting every kid in the complex. We never got a single knock on our door. Not one.
That puzzled me mightily and still does. You'd think an apartment complex would be perfect for trick-or-treaters: it's sheltered from the elements, nominally safer for children, and it's possible to collect a dump-truck full of sweets in a very short period of time without even leaving the building. Obviously I'm missing something...but what?
The other thing I see a lot of now is kids far too old to be out mooching candy. I'm sorry, but once you have to shave or you've grown bosoms, you're too old for Hallowe'en. My rules: I make 'em up. If I remember rightly, I was eleven the last year I went around (dressed as Carol Burnett, that year...) and even then I thought I'd outgrown the whole thing. Teenagers trick-or-treating make me think of octogenarians waiting for the Denture Fairy.
I can't say if this next is a change from the seventies--I was far too young to notice, or care, then--but there seem to be an awful lot of people these days denying their children the pleasures of Hallowe'en. "We don't believe in it", they announce snootily, with their noses facing God. I pity kids in these families. Is there anything under the tree at Christmas, or do they tell the children that Santa is an anagram of Satan? At Easter, is the house declared a Chocolate-Free-Zone? For Christ's sake--literally--lighten up. I looked up and down the street tonight and there wasn't a pentagram in sight.
Back when I was a kid, my Hallowe'en candy more often than not would last an entire year...except for the chocolate bars. If I'd been allowed, those would have been gone before I even got back home. I wonder if kids today feel the same way.

30 October, 2005

L'anniversaire

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...
It's been ten years since the referendum. I predict the next one is fewer than ten years away. The last one was one by the forces of federalism by the comfortable margin of 50.6% to 49.4%. (In Florida they call that a landslide.) The next one...
I very much wanted to go to the big keep-Quebec-in-Canada bash held in Montreal. I had to work that day (it happened on a weekend...in five years, I got three weekends off.) Hindsight being perfect (depending on whose hind you've sighted), I really should have just buggered off and joined in the fray.
The sovereignty issue kind of fell off the radar in the aftermath of that oh-so-close defeat...everywhere but in Ottawa. On Parliament Hill, it was as if Jean Chretien, the engineer on the national train, had slept through a near-derailment only to jerk himself awake and initiate every countermeasure in the book once the moment of truth had passed. Chretien decided to plaster la belle province in Maple Leaves...and we all know what happened next.
The crushing irony is that Chretien's anti-separatist brainchild has directly led to a resurgence of Quebec nationalism. It's at least as strong as it was in '95...if another vote were held today, there's no guarantee the No side would prevail again.
I recall thinking in 1995 that Parizeau and his minions reminded me of nothing so much as an old boys' club, trying mightily to bar Quebec's doors to everyone who didn't fit their woolly definition of pur laine quebecois. When la roi Jacques famously intoned that "money and the ethnic vote" had lost Quebec its rightful place at the table of nations, he confirmed the essentially racist and snobbish character of the separatist movement.
A lot has changed in ten years, even though the threat of separatism remains. There still exist those who wish for nothing more than the total reversal of their ancestors' defeat on the Plains of Abraham, but they are, I think, a minority amongst separatists now. Many, if not most, separatists don't hate or resent Canada: they simply think Quebec would be better off on its own. The quality of governance seeping out of Ottawa over the last ten years suggests they may have a point.
Quebec has always seen itself as under siege. Over time, this mindset leads to a lot of us/them thinking, which is why the referendum came to be seen (in Quebec) as a battle between Quebec and what was labelled in English TROC...The Rest Of Canada. I found it interesting that les separatistes could so easily group the Acadian fisherman, the Torontonian financier, the farmer from Red Deer, and the Abbotsford store clerk together. Of course, this too points at the inherent racism corrupting the sovereigntist school of thought: it's a common assertion among whites, for example, that all Chinese people look the same.
The racism has largely leached out of the movement today. It may still lurk in PQ backrooms, but it no longer drives the bus. Instead, the driving force behind the push for Quebec separation is a rejection of Ottawa and its policies.
The nascent Western separatist movement has a lot in common with its Quebec counterpart, though it takes someone from elsewhere in Canada to see this. In the west, of course, the loathing of the federal government runs deep, and the consensus is that Ottawa exists solely for the benefit of Ontario...and Quebec. In Chicoutimi they may disagree with that last--the argument would be that Quebeckers might as well keep their money in Quebec and cut out the federalist middleman--but they certainly would agree with Alberta that Ottawa ought to mind its own business...
*****************
I see a rough, uncertain future for Confederation as it presently exists. The federal government is like an overprotective and domineering parent shackling its pre-teen children, the provinces and territories, at every opportunity. The provinces whine for more money and more freedom, and even when Ottawa says yes, it makes sure its left hand is poised to take back what its right gives. Father Paul is that sort of man to whom everything, and therefore nothing, is of supreme importance...and he really doesn't seem to have any idea how to run the country. Lacking any visionary alternative, is it any wonder many in Quebec would like to get off?
I suspect that within two or three electoral terms, if not sooner, Canada will begin the process of splitting up. I believe what you'll see should you come to Canada in the year 2050 will more closely resemble the European Union than the Canada of today: a common currency, shared government on matters of "national"concern, but territories largely free to set their own agendas as regards such things as health care and taxation. This sort of system, if adopted sensibly, would satisfy Quebec's wanderlust with minimal risk, free "the rest of Canada" from the colossal waste of bilingualism (which was adopted to please and sate Quebec, and has done neither), and also be a boon to the West, removing the handcuffs Ottawa has placed on it. I see no other course of action that has as much upside.
Should Quebec opt to secede without Ottawa's help, it ought to know up front that it won't be easy. Much of Canada's military is based on what would be Quebec territory, and if Quebec thinks it can simply take over the base in Bagotville without a fight, it has another thought coming. Prominent PQ spokespeople have mused about recruiting amongst the Canadian military for a new Quebec military--something that qualifies as treason. Then there's the nontrivial matter of Quebec's share, by population, of the national debt, not to mention an awul lot of federal programs whose proceeds would stop flowing into Quebec the moment Quebec separates. You can't have your country, and repudiate it, too. And we haven't even considered what Quebec's native population would have to say. Remember Oka? The band that held Canada hostage in 1990? Think they don't have it in them to do it again?

No--I like my way better.

29 October, 2005

A Hallowe'en Trio

This evening, we journeyed up to Palmerston to have dinner with our friends Dana and Bowe. Once dinner--a not-entirely-compatible-with-the-diet stew--was over with, we walked half a block to the Palmerston Legion, which was putting on a haunted house.

I like haunted houses. The fair-day ones, I mean; I've never, to my knowledge, been in a real one. (Well, there was that one experience in Ailsa Craig...but I'm not going to tell you about it. I'd like to get some sleep tonight.)

I mean it.

Okay, fine. Damn you.

My parents had this obsession: looking at houses. It didn't matter if we'd just moved, they were always touring open houses, looking for the perfect place. Some of them were newly built, but most of them were older. They had a real fondness for Victorian farmhouses, and so many of the places we looked at were either rural or in small towns surrounding London.

The Ailsa Craig home was an anomaly. For one thing, it was further out of town that anything we'd hitherto looked at. For another, it was bloody huge...the kind of house which, if plopped down in the city, would immediately be converted into at least a duplex if not a triplex. It was also, I suspect, well out of our price range. Despite all this (or knowing my parents, because of it), one very warm June day we found ourselves touring this almost-mansion.
I wish I could describe this place to you. I only remember bits and pieces, the way you'd remember an old nightmare.
I remember the acoustics were weird in there. I was upstairs exploring what seemed to be about seventy-umpty bedrooms and no matter where I went I could still hear Mom and John muttering downstairs.
I remember the wallpaper. It was uniformly faded and peeling, and in some of the rooms the walls seemed almost to bulge. My stepfather, who never met a home repair issue he couldn't diagnose and fix, would have noted water damage. I, however, much less prosaic and cursed with a hellishly virile imagination, began to speculate about other sorts of damage...
I remember the "secret" passageway. It was anything but secret, really, but to a twelve or thirteen or whatever-I-was-year-old, it was still way cool. I opened up the closet door in one bedroom and found a hallway, about ten feet long and quite narrow, leading to the closet of another bedroom. While traversing those ten feet I got the fright of my young life.
I've always hated and feared closets. For some kids, the boogeyman is under the bed; for some kids he lurks behind the dresser; for me, he was always just behind the closet door, ready to shamble out the instant I closed my eyes or turned my back. Well into my teens, long after I stopped believing in boogeymen, I couldn't go to bed without making triple-sure that the closet door was well and firmly shut. To this day, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night staring directly into the maw of some hideous beast from beyond, a Lovecraftian night-screamer that threatens to devour me whole.
But this was daylight and the house was vacant. There weren't even curtains on the windows..anything skulking about inside would have attracted attention.
There were no windows in this passageway. And vacant it may have been, but it sure as hell wasn't empty.
About halfway through the temperature plummeted. I don't mean I felt a sudden cold breeze, or that I stepped into air conditioning: I mean I froze solid. Or seemed to, anyway. My breath caught in my throat and the sweat congealed on my body. I forced my hand to my head, exerting considerable effort against some unknown force, and thought I felt frost in my hair.
The sensation only lasted a second because I didn't allow it to last any longer than that: I boogeyed myself right the fuck out of that hallway. Any kid napping in the bedroom into which I emerged would surely have screamed his fool head off. I shot out into the central hallway, pell-melled myself down the front staircase, and fairly flew out into the June sunlight. The dandelions lining both sides of the driveway nodded sagely at each other as I ran by: look, George, we got another one, ha-ha. My parents were gazing up at the house from the street, visions of ownership no doubt dancing in their eyes.
"Where were you? We were just going to come in and get you."
"Upstairs..."
And that was all I'd say about that. At that age, I knew better than to start raving about freezing to death in deserted hallways. Besides, out here in the sunshine, the back of my neck feeling warm again, it was easy to convince myself I'd imagined the whole thing. Look, George, we got another one. I didn't see anything, after all: no headless spectres or wispy presences. Beyond bone-chilling cold, I didn't feel anything, either. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I read real ghost stories, the ones that often mentioned cold spots, and I wondered...

*************
We take a wee vacation every year in October, if we can afford it, to commemorate our anniversary. Our first anniversary found us in Niagara Falls, Ontario, touring the neon and glaze of Clifton Hill.
There are three haunted houses along this stretch: the House of Frankenstein, Area 51, and the Dracula's Castle.
Frankenstein's place was really quite lame: dimly lit, with skeletons and clanking chains and yawn. Eva and I plodded through it without incident, regretting handing over the admission fee the whole way through. Area 51 was better: scuttling beasties slithering out to grab your pantsleg when you least expected it and at least some effort made at creating an atmosphere of foreboding. I think it actually unnerved Eva in a few places.
The day's allotment of money was running out when we got to Dracula's Castle. Surely that, and not the lingering residue of Area 51, was why I found myself entering this one alone.
I went in twenty nine years old. Somewhere in there I was reduced to a gibbering three-year-old, and the damnedest thing is I can't even tell you why.
I can say this: it was DARK. The darkness was just short of absolute: I was reduced to feeling my way along the walls. Occasionally I'd actually walk right into a wall, unseeing. And it didn't take long before I got the distinct impression somebody was following me. The adult mind tried to make light of the situation--it's a haunted house, you doofus, of course somebody's following you, any minute now they're going to leap out and yell BOO! Yes, I tried to make light of it, but there was no light to make: the darkness first subdued the adult mind and then overcame it entirely, regressing me to a toddler toddling through the dark.
Once, my hand crept its way into a wet spot on the wall and I jerked away, only to rush into the arms of a ghoul suddenly illuminated and going for my neck. Or something would reach out and tickle the back of my knees. It creeped me right out: a couple of times I damn near screamed.
With palpable relief I got out of there and rejoined my wife, who said I looked as white as a sheet.
If you can walk through this joint without feeling anything, buddy, you are one tough hombre.
*************
So tonight we went to the Palmerston Legion's haunted house. It would be an overstatement to say I had low expectations. Let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised...shocked, actually. A ton of effort went into creating this (very extensive!) haunted house. Many props were used to fantastic and chilling effect: some of the set pieces looked every bit as good as something you'd find in a movie. And yes, there were volunteers there jumping out of the shadows and growling...but I was impressed most of all by the Reaper that just sort of fell in behind me, displacing a bunch of kids, gliding silently. I looked back and thought it was just another customer, dressed up for the occasion...but then looked again and was actually a little spooked. He/it just moved so stealthily, almost as if it was on wheels. And it never made a sound, which was much more frightening than a predictable yell.
The floors were spongy in places: they had a "bottomless well", a big graveyard, some kind of projected flapping green ghost that looked real: all in all, extremely well done. If there weren't so many people both ahead and behind us, it could have been truly scary.

Well, now I have to go to bed. Sweet dreams, everyone.




28 October, 2005

Kashetchewan

Amid a flurry of finger-pointing, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have actually done the right thing for once in evacuating the wretched community of Kashetchewan on James Bay. The media has been going full bore to bring the water woes of this Native community to the top of the news.
About bloody time.
That all levels of government, of all political stripes, have fiddled and farted around while Kashetchewan and scores of like communities have been struggling to cope with Third World conditions...for decades!...is nothing less than a national disgrace, not demonstrably different from South African apartheid.
Kashetchewan is far from the only Native community in Canada with undrinkable water. And undrinkable water is far from the only problem affecting our Native communities. While some of them are functioning reasonably well, a very great many are afflicted with rampant unemployment, alcoholism, crime, and most of all, despair. Not all of these reserves are way the hell up in the bush where rich white people don't have to think about them, either. Deer Point is two hours north of Toronto, and it's been under a boil water advisory for six years.
How is it, exactly, that billions of dollars can be spent on a relatively tiny Native population, with little appreciable change in deplorable living conditions? I fear this is yet another case of ill-gotten profit taking precedence over people's lives and livelihoods.
Why is it that in Canada, this most multicultural of societies, we can have a plethora of different cultures living in relative harmony side by side, but the Natives have to be segregated 'for their own good' and subjugated 'for our own good'? Until Canada starts treating its Natives like the human beings they are, we have no right to call ourselves a compassionate, caring country. Nothing less than a complete overhaul of the reservation system is required. Unless and until that happens, the media will continue shining a selected spotlight on individual cases of misery every once in a blue moon, and paying lip service to the extent and severity of the systemic problems.


25 October, 2005

My Most Embarrassing Moment...

I'd like to say it was the time in 1975 when I was learning how to read. I read just about everything in sight, or tried to, in a child's piping voice. A packed donut shop. A miraculous simultaneous lull in thirty conversations allowed my three-year-old self to step right up and confidently read the sign over the counter:

Open! 24! Whores!

Naw, that doesn't count...because I had no idea why everybody was laughing at me.

How about this?

JULY 2, 1988: Niagara Falls, Ontario

It was a hot day.
Beastly hot--the kind of heat where you feel like you're breathing wet gauze. My mom and stepdad had taken me here, somewhat on the spur of the moment. I was having a great time roaming the assorted kitchy, tacky cheese on Clifton Hill, when, in the immortal words of Ace of Base, I saw the sign.

I locked eyes with the The "Be A Star!" sign and was guided as if by tractor beam to the video karaoke place...the first one I'd ever seen, or indeed heard of. For a shower-singer like me, it was an irresistable attraction.
My stepfather took me aside and warned me. "Don't try", he said. "You sing much better when you don't try."
Oh, if only I had listened.
I scanned the list of songs with a jaundiced eye. In that glorious year of 1988 there were literally dozens of songs I knew by heart: I'd croon to imaginary girlfriends (well, in my imagination, they weren't imaginary at all) every day.
None of those songs seemed to be here.
Wait a second...there's George Harrison's (I Got My Mind) Set On You. I know that one. It's not my favorite, and it's near the top of my vocal range, and the lyrics are a bit banal, but the sentiment's there. As a lovestruck teen, I'm pretty big on sentiment.

It's necessary for you to visualize me if you want to get the full embarrassment effect. Picture it: a reedy, bespectacled, geeky boy with acne, dressed in...well, my apparel demands a paragraph to itself.
I was clad in a bathing suit. It had wide horizonal stripes of yellow, red and blue, and went down most of the way to my knees. Above that, a red Canadian Tire T-shirt. Below, sneakers, and white socks worn about as far up my legs as I could stretch them. This was, of course, back when I hadn't yet learned there was a big difference between 'making a fashion statement' and 'looking like a complete fool'.

The first step was to choose the background for my video. I paged through the selections until I saw one composed of wide horizontal stripes of...you guessed it...yellow, red, and blue. It completely matched my bathing suit, and I was under the impression that this was a good thing.

Next, a practice run through the song with George audible in my headphones. I had the words down cold and didn't need the backup...I nailed it. I think I outsung the old guy. This was gonna be so cool...

Finally, my big chance. I fixed a picture of my Crush-of-the-Month in my head, took a deep breath, and started to belt it out. About three lines in, several trains collided in my head and re-arranged a chunk of mental geography.
First: this song isn't near the top of my vocal range...it's well beyond it.
Second...hey, Ken! You know how half the world's been saying you have a voice like an angel, and the other half thinks it sucks like an Electrolux? Yeah...the first half neglected the word 'fallen', and Christ that vaccuum cleaner's LOUD!
Third: ummm, you might want to MOVE a bit, instead of standing there rooted to the ground.
Fourth: Nope, nope, stop that moving business, now you look like a rusted-out robot.

I heard somewhere that if you want a job at the Stag Shop, you must take a thorough tour of the place, examining each object for sale...without laughing. I think a similar policy just had to be in place at this karaoke video joint, because nobody was laughing at me.

I was horrified with myself, but I'm not a quitter. For three minutes and eleven seconds I stuttered and stutter-stepped on autopilot through that song. All I could think of was that scene in Phantom of the Opera where the Phantom curses Carlotta and turns her voice into that of a frog. When the tumult died, I fairly leaped out of the booth, only to be confronted with the crowning horror: the sight of my own self on a huge television beaming out over Clifton Hill. I was stiffly swaying back and forth and because of the background I had chosen, I had no waist. There was a disembodied head and torso not-so-gaily cavorting over a...gap...and beneath that, a pasty, anemic-looking bit of leg wrapped in absurdly long socks...
...and damn it all to hell, there's an audio track.

People were looking up and wincing. Quite a few were giggling and one set of girls was laughing fit to piss themselves. I wanted to find the nearest hole and jump into it.

That video has only been seen by people I'm really close to...it's my own relationship test. It's impossible to watch the thing without laughing--I've tried many a time and failed myself. I wait for the laughter to start up and listen very closely to see if any of it's malicious. If so, I'm outta there.

In the meantime, I've never done another of those things and never will. And my voice is still not half bad...unless I try. Then it's wholly bad.

22 October, 2005

Lotto fever

"The 6/49 jackpot tonight is an estimated $30 MILLION DOLLARS!"
Well, slap my ass and call me Sally....I don't care. And furthermore, you couldn't make me care, not even if you turned in into a Powerball lottery and increased the payout by an order of magnitude.
If you play the lotto, more power to you. I hope you win. Myself, I choose not to.
I used to play, though. Back when I was a university student and money was almost a meaningless concept, I' d pick up a few scratch tickets now and again, and if the national lotteries (6/49 and Super 7) got above a certain threshold, I'd plunk down a two dollar coin or two.
(Aside: The popular name for a $2.oo coin in Canada is a 'toonie'. I can put up with 'loonie'--that coin does, after all, have a loon on it--but 'toonie' offends my English major sensibilities. At the very least, it should be spelled 'twonie'. I tried to--ha-ha--coin the word 'doubloon' to describe our two dollar coin...it looks like a doubloon, and it's a 'double-loon'...but my word didn't stick. Oh well.)
When I worked at 7-Eleven, my last task every morning before I went home was to boot up the lottery machine, make copies of all the winning numbers, and transcribe them into the book you find at every Ontario Lottery kiosk. On Sundays, this was a real chore: 6/49, Lottario, two Encores, Winner Take All, and Keno, together with a bunch of listings of Pro-Line winning scores and a (usually long) printout of upcoming Pro-Line games.
I kept an eye on the jackpots, because they directly influenced my job. On nights when a $15- or $20-million prize was up for grabs, you'd spend a good chunk of your time printing out lottery tickets. The day after the draw was always much worse: people would come in with huge piles of tickets and expect us to check them. Checking one or two was no big deal--maybe thirty seconds work. Checking twenty or thirty, on the other hand, when there was a line of customers waiting (there was always a line of customers waiting), could put a real crimp in your day.
I never understood the people who hoarded their tickets for six months before looking to see if they were winners. If I'm a millionaire, damnit, I want to know about it. Right NOW.

One Sunday, as I was printing out numbers and payout lists, I noticed the $20 million jackpot the night before had not been won. The machine told me that the next draw would be worth an estimated $24 million. As I was digesting that, a man came in and asked me to check his tickets. Fetching a not-entirely-invisible sigh, I started into the pile. About halfway through, the machine issued its familiar little tune and informed me my customer had won $800.00. Not a mind-blowing amount, but nothing to sneeze at, either. I couldn't pay it out (retailers are only allowed to pay out up to $200.00), so I gave him his ticket back together with an authorization slip for him to mail away to the Ontario Lotteries Commission. Whereupon he took out sixteen fifty dollar bills and proceeded to buy $800.00 worth of tickets for the next 6/49 draw.
That shook me up a little. Money may have been almost meaningless to me then, but not quite that meaningless: $800.00 would have bought me quite a few dinners, cassettes, books, magazines, and rounds of pinball up at the arcade.
Next Sunday, checking through his eighty (!) tickets, I was shook up even more. Care to guess how much that $800.00 yielded him in prizes?
Not one red stinkin' cent. Seventeen free tickets (and I don't know what came of them), but zero actual cash dollars.
That got me reflecting. The previous $20 million draw had not been won despite untold millions of tickets having been sold. This $24 million pot had been split three ways. Three out of even more untold millions of tickets. Yes, I know there are subsidiary prizes, but nobody ever buys a ticket in the hopes of winning the $70,000 you get if you're one number out.
Those struck me as rather crappy odds.
My mom, back when she ran a variety store, once bought up an entire roll of scratch tickets. Just to see what would happen. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall she got back about a third of her money. Again, pretty crappy odds.
Consider: would you select the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in a 6/49 draw? If not, why not? They have as much chance of coming up as any other set of numbers!

I have since decided that lotteries are for those folks who believe they don't pay quite enough in taxes. I believe I pay entirely too much in taxes given the level of government services I receive, so I choose to abstain.

There's another reason I don't play, though: because I might, just might, win. And I wouldn't want $30 million. Before you dismiss this assertion as a lie or the raving of a lunatic, hear me out a second.

I would take $100,000. In a heartbeat I'd take it. A million would give me a bit of pause, but I'd certainly accept the cheque. Thirty million, though? Let alone the three hundred and forty million in the U.S. Powerball lottery? No bloody way.
First off, what the hell would I do with all that money? Buy a house, check. Have one built, more like. That'd eat up, at most, a mil. Pay off the mortgages of friends and family: at most another mil. After that? Travel. There are a lot of places I'd like to see, and some of them cost a mint to get to. The thing about travel, though, is that it gets tiring: I enjoy coming home from a trip every bit as much as the trip itself.
Charity? Sure, but I'd pick my charity carefully. Most of them, I feel, are actually in business to perpetuate themselves. They'd probably be very angry to hear me say so, but when's the last time you heard anything promising coming from, say, the cancer people? Millions upon millions of dollars spent, and not much to show for it, eh? It's almost like...a lottery! If they ever get lucky and find a cure, a lot of people will be out of jobs...
I hear you saying, Ken, I'll take some of that dough off your hands. And yes, I'd gladly give you some, because I know your motives are pure...but should I win a huge pile of dough, everybody I meet from then on will be looking for their share, and I'm not prepared for that. No, I honestly believe thirty million smackers is more hassle than it's worth.
But good luck to you.

21 October, 2005

Clearing my mind, ignoring my hands...

Of course, the ideas come fast and furious when it hurts to type them out...

I hear this morning that the federal Liberals are now considering tax cuts. There must be an election coming. After all, for years now they've pooh-poohed the idea of letting us keep a little more of the money we've earned. But now that some reports have the surplus up around ten billion dollars, they want to buy your vote.
Funny thing, too, about that surplus. It keeps bouncing around, from $1.6 billion up to ten billion, depending on the political purpose of the person reporting it. Are there no accounting standards? Or is it just that the Liberals, as Canada's Natural Governing Party ("any other party is unnatural!") are above all that?

***

I'm sorry, I know I'm harping on a dead horse and mixing metaphors like mad. But I can't help it. Every time a child dies at the hand of his/her parents--whether from neglect or from something even worse--I wonder just what kind of monsters Family and Children's Services think we are. At least once a week, I'm confronted with three children thrown from a bridge, or a little boy starving to death in his own home, or children beaten and kept in cages (that last by adoptive parents no less!) and I can't help but mutter "...and they think we're not fit to be parents?"
Don't get me wrong--I'm okay with not being a father. What I'm not okay with, still, is being told I'm not suited to it. They may even be right--God knows, screaming kids set my teeth on edge--but I'd never dream of throwing a kid from a bridge, starving it to death, or keeping it in a cage.

***

What is going on with our climate?
The first hurricane of the year--Dennis--was also the most powerful ever seen before August. Since then we've seen three of the strongest hurricanes in the history of record-keeping and a plethora of lesser (though still nasty) storms. We're on the verge of uncharted territory: any further cyclones will take their names from the Greek alphabet.
I've been mulling this over for days now--it's just the sort of thing my mind seizes on and won't let go of. Let's say the next storm, Alpha, is a real ogre, and they retire the name, like they've done with Katrina, Mitch, and Andrew, among many others. What do they use the next time we exhaust the English alphabet? Hebrew?
And if they ever get to Hurricane Omega, just bend over and kiss your ass goodbye...

***

Toronto has recently been named the single worst Canadian city to do business in, by no less an authority than Canadian Business magazine. It cited crumbling infrastructure and crippling taxes as the two biggest reasons Hogtown ranked dead last among 40 cities surveyed.
Looks good on 'em. Given their police-hating, car-hating, progress-hating mayor and council, it really is no wonder. Toronto always considered itself the little brother of New York. Where's our Rudy Giuliani, I wonder?

***

There's lots more swirling beneath the surface of my brain, but I have work to do. Until tomorrow...

20 October, 2005

Lamehand Ken

I am a klutz.
Not a run-of-the-mill, garden-variety klutz, either. An All Star. (Wasn't that song by Smashmouth? Yeah? I've done that. Smashed my mouth, I mean. With my own fist.)
You have to understand just how severe this is: At least once a month I will come home with a cut, scratch or bruise I don't remember getting. I don't remember getting it because it's so routine, my brain edits it right out. More than once I have come home from work actually bleeding.
Eva: "What did you do?"
Ken: "Huh?"
Eva: "Your arm is bleeding."
Ken: (scrutinizes arm) "Huh?"
Eva: "Your other arm!"
Ken: "...oh...yeah...hmmm."
Ah, there's a boost to the ol' self-esteem. Not only am I a klutz, I'm also mentally retarded.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I tripped over something in the office at work--my own feet, a dust mote, a stray sunbeam, I dunno what. I reached out to grab a door frame to steady myself, missed, and bent the ring finger on my right hand back much further than its design specs ever intended.
It was nothing short of incredible how quickly I regained my feet. The pain was huge, nonpareil: it blotted out the room, and shortly after that my sense of self. I have some vague recollection of huddling myself against the boss's desk, trying in vain not to cry. Luckily, after a few minutes, my finger settled itself down to a dull throbbing ache that only hurt unbearably if I breathed on it, looked at it, or thought about it...shortly after that I could do any of those things gingerly, so long as I didn't move it.
A sprain. A bad one.
I thought.
By the next day, the pain had receded to something I could tolerate for long stretches, only spiking if I bent the finger the wrong way. And it stayed that way for two weeks.
A couple of days back, Tux decided, for reasons known only to Tux, to drive his muzzle up into my palm while I sat placidly at the dinner table.
"Nnnnnnyyyyyarrrrrrrrrgggggghhhh!" I stated.
"Hyyaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhooooooooooooooowwwwww!" I expostulated.
"Waaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" I explained.
"You're going to the hospital!", my wife intoned.
It was amazing how quickly the pain went away as soon as I heard those words.
The hospital was the second-last place I wanted to go, ranking only slightly ahead of the Pull-My-Finger Institute. Who wants to sit in a sterile yet pukey waiting room for seven hours, only to be given some Tylenol and sent home?
We compromised on a doctor's visit, from which I have recently returned.
It's not sprained. I've either torn a ligament or actually broken the damned thing. The X-ray will tell the tale. If I've been walking around with a broken finger for two weeks, I'm gonna give myself some tough-man points.
So now my ring finger is taped to my middle finger, which makes it pretty hard to type, I'll tell you.
I also took the opportunity to get my flu shot--a first for me...do it! It doesn't hurt a bit! Now, if I get the flu, it'll be the more exotic avian flu. And then I'll die. With an extra-wide upraised middle finger.

17 October, 2005

Fire 'em all

Readers who have been with me for a while know full well how I feel about strikes. For those who have recently squeezed into the Breadbin, very briefly: They're wrong.
Especially illegal strikes, such as the one spreading through British Columbia.
Teachers in B.C. are angry. They want a 15% raise. They want smaller class sizes. They want, they want, and they want. In all of this, it's the students who end up wanting...can't teachers see that?
Reading the BCTF's rationale for the illegal strike is fascinating. They claim to be angry because the government unilaterally extended a previous contract that had been allowed to lapse. In other words, in 2003 the contract was satisfactory; in 2005 it's not. Inflation since the contract lapsed, according to StatsCan, is a little over 2%. So teachers are abandoning their jobs over a little bit more than 2% of their pay.
But wait: there's more!

The previous contract, legislated in 2002,

decreed a 2.5%-per-year salary increase over three years. However,
that increase was not funded by government, nor were other increases in costs fully funded, such as medical premiums and other charges for government services. As a result, school boards had to cut the number of teachers. Some 2,600 teaching positions, nearly eight percent of the teaching force, were eliminated by school boards that no longer had enough funding to keep teachers in place. (italics mine)

I wonder how hard the federation worked to control costs before they came to the conclusion that teachers had to go. Somehow, I don't suspect they tried very hard. How much deadwood exists high in the Teachers' Federation tree? You'll never hear the answer, at least not from the union.

Notice that these contracts are always legislated, never negotiated. What does that tell you? It tells me that teachers would rather go on strike and deprive their students than negotiate the terms of a contract before it expires.

Whoever speaks on behalf of the teachers in British Columbia has no grasp whatsoever of basic economics. Here's another excerpt from the strike rationale:
When the B.C. Liberals were first elected, they immediately
created a large deficit by cutting taxes. This deficit was then given as the reason for making the cuts in many services, including education. Economic growth has now produced a budget surplus, even without increasing taxes to the previous rates. (italics again mine)
The economic growth experienced by British Columbia has been nothing short of
staggering since Gordon Campbell took control in 2001. The national and global economic picture has little to do with it, since B.C'.'s economy is growing faster than any other province's. The truth is that Campbell's tax cuts and service rationalizations are paying off. Of course, the teachers don't want to link Campbell's actions to the vastly improved B.C. economy; you have to read between their lines to do it.

Campbell's government has provided B.C.school districts with an extra $150 million--about $250 more for every student in the province--but it's not enough, the teachers whine.

The court has found them in contempt and ordered them back to work. They don't care. The government has declared education an essential service. I find it hard to believe, but apparently the B.C. Teacher's Federation doesn't agree. Here's what Campbell has to say on the issue.

Speaking to reporters, Campbell said that while he understands the
union may disagree with government policy, that did not give them the right to break the law and show "such flagrant contempt for the courts of British Columbia."

"We can disagree on the laws that are passed, and we often do. But the
foundation of our society is that once a law is passed that we agree to obey it. We do not get to obey the laws that we like and disobey the laws that we don't like," Campbell said.


I couldn't have phrased that better myself.

In the same way that governments worldwide refuse to negotiate with terrorists and hostage-takers, Campbell will not sit down with teachers to discuss their concerns until they deign to return to work.

The discord is spreading. Unionized workers throughout the province are, in effect, striking along with the teachers "in sympathy". Bus service in Victoria has been cancelled; municipal offices provincewide are either shut or moving at a snail's pace. The mayor of Victoria has stated that all this is illegal and informed these wildcatters that they will lose pay. Humph.
In my world--unless I'm sick and can prove it--three consecutive days of no-showing for work will result in my termination. I'd suggest that would be a reasonable option here, for both the teachers and their "sympathizers". Then maybe the government of British Columbia can tap into the doubtless deep pool of citizens willing to take their place.

We look to teachers to set an example. Obeying the law is the least we can ask, no?

16 October, 2005

"The Science of Governance"

This needs a wider circulation! Published in today's Toronto Sun.

Written by G. Mimms in Brampton. I only wish I could take credit for this one...

"A major research institution has announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science -- "governmentium."
It has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons and 111 assistant deputy neutrons for an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called "morons" that are further surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like subparticles called "peons."
Governmentium has no electrons and is therefore inert. It can be detected, however, since it impedes every reaction it comes into contact with.
A tiny amount of governmentium can take a reaction that normally occurs in seconds and slow it to the point where it take days.

Governmentium has a normal half life of three years. It doesn't decay but "re-organizes," a process where assistant deputy neutrons and deputy neutrons change places. This process actually causes it to grow as, in the confusion, some morons become neutrons, thereby forming isodopes.
This phenomenon of "moron promotion" has led to some speculation that governmentium forms whenever sufficient morons meet in concentration, forming "critical morass." Researchers believe that with governmentium, the more you re- organize, the morass you cover."

14 October, 2005

On This Day...

On This Day, we stand together
And pledge our love for one another
Oh my darling, I will love you
From this moment, there will be no other
--Jody Gregorash, "On This Day"


Today is my fifth wedding anniversary, so please forgive the exceedingly mushy tone of this (rather lengthy) blog entry.
It is our annual ritual to take the week around October 14th off to recharge the batteries. I highly recommend this to any working couple out there: take the week around your anniversary off. It lets you re-connect as a couple and it's a low-cost way to recreate a honeymoon atmosphere.
I've had just cause lately to examine my marriage, because it seems that everywhere I look I'm confronted with divorce. In the past two weeks alone, I've run across several in-depth reports on divorce in various media. Even Dear Abby seems to be covering the topic more of late. Recent stats suggest that if you make it to your fifth year of marriage, there is only a 17% chance of marriage failure in the years to come (half of all marriages dissolve in the first five years).
What I've noticed is that many of the divorced or divorcing couples being profiled everywhere I look were never really married in the first place, at least by my definition. They were either
  • friends who 'married' for convenience more than anything else, and have since drifted apart
  • people who had mind-blowing sex with each other and thought that was the only building block necessary for a well-built marriage
  • people who 'married' their mates to 'complete' themselves; who, when they say 'I love you', mean 'I need you'
  • people who get married just because the girl's pregnant...just because they've created a life together, they think they can have a life together
  • folks who get married simply to experience the perfect wedding day, forgetting they're going to wake up the next day

Marriage has very little to do with a piece of paper or a ceremony. Eva and I considered ourselves married long before October 14th, 2000; the paper and ceremony just made it legal. We got married simply because it was inconceivable to either of us that, having met, we should pursue any other course. Not all that long before I met the woman who was to become my wife, I was still thinking of a 'relationship' as a 'codependant' thing: you satisfy my needs and I'll satisfy yours. That's not what marriage is. Marriage has no need in it. Oh, sure, sometimes times get tough and you lean on each other for support, but if you fall into the trap of having various needs to be met, sooner or later your partner won't satisfy those needs and you'll be in trouble. Needs are a burden. Love isn't.

Less than a week before I met Eva, just as an exercise, I wrote down a set of questions to ask of any potential partner to assess compatibility. Here it is:

Do you smoke?

The ONLY acceptable answer to this is a resounding NO.

Name three television shows you try not to miss.

Here I'm looking for intelligent comedies like Frasier or The Simpsons, or intelligent drama, or educational stuff. Or "TV? I don't watch much at all." Serious black mark to any Beavis and Butthead fans; instant disqualification to anyone whose first words are "Jerry Springer".

Ever score more than 300 at Scrabble?

A no is okay if it's followed by "but I keep trying".

Who or what is GOD? Take as long as you like to answer.

Any answer will do here, but strong atheists should be tolerant and "fundycostals" will put me on guard.

Name three things you admire(d) about your mother.

I suspect the answer to this will age her 30 years. I only hope she can SAY three nice things.

Is one marriage vow enough, or do you see marriage as a continuing act of choice?

I think most people would answer the former. And I'd bet a good chunk of them will divorce. In making a commitment, I want it understood that I don't seee it as an obligation, spoken of once and then kept only because I said I would. People change. People grow. That's not to say that there is no value on my word. Actually, there's more value. Because I'll keep in mind, every day, just why I chose the relationship. And I hope she would, too.

Are you the hugging type?

The more enthusiastic the 'yes', the better.

Are you creative or pragmatic?

I'm neutral on pragmatists, positive on creativity, and the best answer for me would probably be "well, both, actually".

Rate the following in terms of their importance to your life, on a 1-10 scale, 1 being "not at all important":

Looking for:

  • Money 4-6
  • Health 7+
  • Sex over 5 but not much
  • Family somewhere between 3 and 8
  • Security the higher the better
  • Music 7 or more
  • Books 7 or more

Want kids?

Anything from "no, never", through "maybe", to "yes, but only one".

Wow, that was snotty, wasn't it? But I showed it to Eva when we started dating, and she scored very highly on it.

----------------

My recollections of my wedding day, directly from the diary I kept then:

OCTOBER 14, 2000

(weather: variable clouds, clearing by evening. Temperature: high 18, low 10)

Up 7:47...I'm intensely grateful to Jen and Doug for having me...Doug spirits his wife off to get her hair done. I content myself with the same diversions I enjoy on any Saturday morning: a leisurely read through the weekend Post and a long, leisurely shower.

Jen takes about three years to get dressed but once she's presentable (more than, really: she looks really sharp), I submit to her attentions. Good to have a friend who works for Moore's the Suit People: I've not been dressed up this much in my life. Cufflinks. Braces. Little doodads that accentuate the buttons on my shirt. A simple but totally foreign tie. (Jen had never seen one like it either). Shoes on and off we go.

Jay pulls in just as we do -- Mac has predictably been here for a couple of hours. (If you show up this early, you by-God know you won't be late.)

We're headed down to the basement, but not before Dad gives me a sip of something from a wineskin to loosen me up. Tastes like Buckley's Mixture.

The music starts up...Mac and Jason compliment me on my taste in music and I barely hear them. Okay, folks, I'm nervous. Scared, more like. I'm not scared of the marriage, only the wedding. I have no idea who's up there. I'm sure my mother arranged a boycott -- we have received two retractions from that side [...] I'd hate to get married in a half-empty church.

Jason cues me halfway through Palladio and up I go, concentrating on my breathing. The instant--I mean the barest instant--that I turn the corner and face the audience, my vision dies. It's a weird feeling.

Looking casually over the assembled gathering, I at first don't recognize anyone. After a blink or two, a few faces suggest themselves, Aunt Dawna the first to resolve. But for the most part it's like somebody unplugged me--I'm considerably more blind than usual, and, at least for the moment, there's not a single thought in my brain.

Five seconds after the last stirring strain of Palladio dies, we launch into

PROCESSIONAL: SERENADE (TO SPRING) Secret Garden

and everything changes again.

I still can't see anyone in the audience. I no longer care, because I can see the aisle, all the world's an aisle, Emily Kains walking up the aisle, her pacing perfect, what is she? Four? Five? I was positive she'd run, but no, she comes to rest at the end of her phrase and her mother Jane starts up right on cue, then Susan; the barest nod to Chris who had asked for a cue from me, unneeded, she's determined the start of her phrase; the flute tootles and here comes Eva into view, looking resplendent, magnificent, star bright moonsoft radiant beyond words that dress is a masterpiece my knees are weak here might fall down don't care if I do: slow pivot to face Janice and the music fades and my vision is back to normal but my hearing is now shot.

Janice starts the ceremony and if there is a sound in the audience for the next 25 minutes I don't hear it. Even parts of the sermon fade somewhat.

I reach for the wrong ring when the time comes: easily corrected.

The vows come out a bit deeper than I'd intended, but the firm inflection seems to be there.

I lift the veil for the kiss and Eva whispers "it's HOT under there" which of course carries to every corner.

SIGNING OF THE REGISTRY: ILLUMINATION (Secret Garden)

Here's our first glitch, rather ominous if you choose to look at it that way: the unity candle won't light on the first pass. This kills some time anyway and we light it fine on the second attempt.

We are presented Ken and Eva Breadner and now it's time for the short walk down the narrow aisle.

Well, that went all right, didn't it?

It did. It still does. And it will for many years to come.

12 October, 2005

Okay, where's the TV camera?

The flipside of yesterday's little rant: products I heartily endorse.

Disclaimer:

Pregnant women, the elderly and children under 10 should avoid prolonged exposure to Happy Fun Ball.
Caution: Happy Fun Ball may suddenly accelerate to dangerous speeds.
Happy Fun Ball Contains a liquid core, which, if exposed due to rupture, should not be touched, inhaled, or looked at.
Do not use Happy Fun Ball on concrete.Discontinue use of Happy Fun Ball if any of the following occurs:
Itching
Vertigo
Dizziness
Tingling in extremities
Loss of balance or coordination
Slurred speech
Temporary blindness
Profuse sweating
Heart palpitations

If Happy Fun Ball begins to smoke, get away immediately. Seek shelter and cover head.
Happy Fun Ball may stick to certain types of skin.
When not in use, Happy Fun Ball should be returned to its special container and kept under refrigeration...
Failure to do so relieves the makers of Happy Fun Ball, Wacky Products Incorporated, and its parent company Global Chemical Unlimited, of any and all liability.
Ingredients of Happy Fun Ball include an unknown glowing substance which fell to Earth, presumably from outer space.
Happy Fun Ball has been shipped to our troops in Saudi Arabia and is also being dropped by our warplanes on Iraq.
Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

(with thanks to Saturday Night Live, from the last season it was actually funny)

Pop: Diet Pepsi. I used to be a Coke Classic drinker until I found out there are TEN TEASPOONS of sugar in a can of Coke. That's your entire recommended daily allowance of sugar in one can, there, folks. If you don't care about that, consider this: it takes 32 glasses of water to neutralize the phosphoric acid in one can of Coke. What phosphoric acid does, in a nutshell, is break down the calcium in your bones. Drink enough Coke and you'll dissolve like those things Buffy the Vampire Slayer used to dispatch.
Still, if I have an addiction, it's to fizzy cola-flavoured sugarwater in an aluminum can, so I went off in search of substitutes. Being intensely brand loyal, I first tried Diet Coke...which tasted like cola run through a sperm machine and lightly flavoured with Bangladeshi saliva. Then we tried PC Diet Cola, which is okay as long as it's consumed ice-cold. Next on the docket was Diet Pepsi, and what a surprise: it tastes quite a bit like Coke Classic!
And yes, I know, aspartame is evil. You can't work in a grocery store without hearing legions of old ladies damning aspartame at every turn. I don't know how much stock to put in their rants--do you really think aspartame would have been released on an unsuspecting public without testing of some kind? (Okay, I take that back...Vioxx was, after all.)
Store Brand: Here's where I'm supposed to get all Price Choppery and say "Compliments and Compliments Value". I can't do it. Oh, some of the Compliments lines are actually quite good. Pretty much everything with a store label on it in my dairy department comes with my recommendation, and some of the frozen entrees (chicken and cheese meatballs, anyone?) are unique and delicious. But in grocery the quality is hit and miss, and in non-food it's mostly miss. Compliments Value tinfoil, for example, is actually rice paper.
I could be a traitor and speak highly of President's Choice. As a person in the industry, I am in awe of how well Loblaws has grown its brand. It's such a respected name that people routinely expect to find it in non-Loblaws stores, and get upset (some to the point of walking out) when told it's not available. But a point against PC: it's getting to be, more and more, a 'gourmet' brand, with gourmet prices that are often equal to those of national brands. Not what I think of as a store brand at all.
So I choose Kirkland, the house brand at Costco. I've yet to be disappointed with the quality of Kirkland products, and as long as you don't mind buying in bulk, the prices are often shockingly low. We've gone over a year on one box of laundry detergent that cost $13.69. And nobody goes to Costco without picking up Kirkland toilet paper.
Ketchup: Is there anything else besides Heinz? Here's a clue as to how respected this name is: Heinz has had to take repeated legal action against restaurants that put other brands of ketchup in Heinz bottles.
Soup: Campbell's. Unless it's pea soup, in which case it's Habitant hands down.
Toothpaste: Colgate. I don't trust Crest, because it always seems to market itself towards kids. If that's irrational, then so am I.
Macaroni and Cheese: I can't eat this stuff any more, but when I could, I was a real snob (not to mention a real slut) for Kraft Dinner, the number one prepared meal in Canada. (Number one in the States is tuna, which they insist on calling tuna FISH, as if it could be anything else.) I've tried every other mac 'n' cheese on the market. PC is passable, but the others tend to taste like the boxes they come in.
Yogurt: (I like the stuff--so sue me.) There are three I endorse: Source, by Yoplait (actually, Yoplait in general is pretty good); Activia, by Danone, which claims to have all sorts of health benefits and tastes damned good besides; and number one with a bullet, La Creme, also by Danone...the yogurt I'd recommend to people who hate yogurt. Its consistency is more like pudding, and the taste is heavenly.
Socks: HappyFeet, by MacGregor. Expensive...and worth every penny.

Miscellaneous, one-of-a-kind products that should be everywhere:


  • Renee's Extreme Cheese salad dressing
  • Reynolds Release tinfoil
  • Pretty much anything Swiffer's ever put out
  • Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser: this thing performs miracles
  • Anything with the letters C-L-R in it

And finally, in the realm of the big ticket item, I am a confirmed Toyota man, thanks to that company's legendary reliability and its industry-leading stance on environmental issues. (I'll take a Honda in a pinch.)

And that's it from my catalogue.

11 October, 2005

Stupid commercials...

Commercials, good or bad, don't affect me at all. Not once since I was a child has a commercial directly convinced me to buy a product or use a service.
I'm a market researcher's worst nightmare: when I watch a television spot, I see things evidently nobody else does, and I miss what everybody else sees, to the point where I often have no idea what it was I just watched.

Here's one current example. It's for the Mazda 6 series of automobiles, and if you've seen a Leafs game this year you've seen this commercial about thirty thousand times already. They've personified the guy's arm hair--stop laughing, I haven't even got to the funny part yet--and it muses about how it (the hair) is 'getting a real workout today'. Cue the narrator as the Mazda 'zoom-zooms' by: "All in favour of a car that drives like this...and looks like this...raise your hair."

That must be one scary automobile, friends and neighbours, because all the guy's hairs go up. I wouldn't drive it, not if merely looking at it caused your hackles to rise up. I'd run away. Fast.

Then there's the Coors Light spot where a guy presses a button on a remote control and causes a Coors truck to do the hokey-pokey As the truck bounces up and down, his friend asks him if he thinks it's a good idea. He says sure, and we cut to people in a house opening up cans of Coors Light, which blow merry hell all over everyone.
I'm sorry, guys: I don't turn my brain off just because my show's got a minute or two of hiatus. First of all, it's taken a MINIMUM of a couple of hours for that truck to be unloaded, the shaken-up product merchandised and sold, driven home and opened up. Am I seriously supposed to believe it's kept up such an explosive level of pressure all that time? I call bullshit. I've shaken up a few beer cans in my time, and I can tell you they go flat almost instantly if they aren't popped immediately.
Even granting this commercial a limited exemption from the laws of physics, what exactly is its point? That if you buy Coors Light you're going to get stains on your clothes and maybe a quarter of every can you open? Sorry--I'll stick with some other beer brand.

Kia Rio--which had a really good commercial a couple of years back featuring a demonic shopping cart--has a questionable spot on their reputation now: two robbers drive a Rio like maniacs, breaking about fifty traffic laws, 'til they get to a tarp-covered bait-and-switch car: doff
the tarp and we have...another Kia Rio. Bravo, Kia, you've just marketed your car to scofflaws everywhere.

The examples are legion. There is an underarm deodorant out on the market that somebody's christened 'Avalanche'. Who dreamed that one up? Yes, avalanches have an odor: DEATH.

There are some slogans so annoying they stick in your craw for years. You had to be here for this one, which ran on Woodstock, Ontario FM radio in 1990-91: "When you think freshness, naturally you think...(said all in a blur) Beckett Farmer's Market two-two-five Riddell Street Woodstock.
Ugh. The fact they played that one every three minutes did nothing to increase its appeal. Have I remembered it for fifteen years? Yup. Have I ever been to Beckett Farmer's Market two two five Riddell Street Woodstock? Not on your life.

Tampon commercials. Now, being a man, the slightest THOUGHT of Aunt Flo from Red River completely icks me out. Do they really need to show these commercials anytime a man might be watching? Especially at suppertimes, when I just might be eating fish stew? Don't you girls find out about these things from your mother?
Anyway, they've got one out right now that shows a guy and a girl in a canoe out on the middle of a lake. All of a sudden, a hole appears in the bottom of the boat--it's magic!--and the girl heroically dams the flow with her tampon.
I think all the ad execs who dreamed this dreck up ought to be forced to test it. Say, in Lake Superior: the deepest of the Great Lakes. Coldest, too.




10 October, 2005

Giving thanks

I don't have to look very hard to find things in my world to be grateful for.

If I look behind me, I see my wife of five years, sleeping the sleep of the sick. In the last month, she's worked 129 hours of overtime, converting to a new computer system at work and forcing it to accept thirty years' worth of exceptions and one-offs at a gulp. Since the stress is over now, her body has let its guard down. It's just a cold, but a bad one; she'll recover soon.
I'm thankful to Eva for marrying me and sticking with me. We've been through more in five years than many marriages see in fifty, and my love for her only grows stronger. Familiarity truly breeds content.

If I look over to the left, I see a little dog-ball named Tux laying on his pillow. A more enthusiastically affectionate creature would be -- truth be told -- frightening. He loves his Mommy and his Daddy and enriches their lives beyond measure.

If Tux wasn't in the room, our two little kittycats would be, and I'm thankful for them as well. As far as I am concerned, a house is not a home without a cat in it, and these two have made our house very homey indeed.

Casting my memory back just twenty four hours puts me in Britt with my father and stepmother, as well as stepbrothers and sisters and their families. These are people for whom I am enormously thankful. My father is a constant presence, my stepmother an inspiration, and I'm not sure I can express how grateful this only child is to be part of such a loving family. Even if I could, I'm not sure anyone would understand. (Oh, and Anthony--be sure to put in a word of thanks this Thanksgiving forAlexander Ovechkin: the only reason your Capitals will win any games at all this year. And yeah, I know, the Leafs suck. Hey, we're fans of bad teams. Aren't we thankful hockey's back?)

Looking around, I find myself in my own house, surrounded by comfort much of the world lives and dies without. I'm thankful for whatever it was that gave me a life in this great country. We bitch about the most trivial things without any conception of what it is to live elsewhere.

I'm off on much-needed (and not to be boastful, but much-deserved) holidays--probably the easiest time to say I'm thankful for my job. Even the worst days there are made bearable by the people I work with...and to think they pay me for the privilege of seeing these people daily!

And if I look straight ahead into the screen, I see a gateway to friends old (one of them dates back to 1987) and new. These people have been a bedrock for me throughout my life, and I carry a part of them with me wherever I go. Thank you, all.

Thank you, all.

06 October, 2005

And a right! And a left!

A few quick jabs tonight. That's all I have left in me; it's been one of the hardest weeks in my nearly five-year tenure at Price Chopper. Not because of any great burst of customer volume (although it is busy) but because we have been shorthanded every day for four days and counting. To use a hockey analogy (HOCKEY'S BACK!!! YAY!!!) , I feel like I've been killing two-man-disadvantage penalties all week long.

  • Florida just removed itself from my vacation radar with its ridiculous amendment that allows people to shoot you...to kill...if they "feel threatened". I wasn't even aware just how crazy the gun laws are down there: everybody has the right to carry concealed and if you buy your gun at a show, you can go directly to murdering hostile-looking turban-wearers without passing any of those pesky criminal record checks or psychological profiles. In the land of Mickey Mouse, that's just plain goofy.
  • Quick: name the product advertised in the last TV spot you saw which clearly showed at least one law being broken. Was it a car? Thought so. Why is it that even econoboxes must be shown breaking the sound barrier?
  • Smog advisories in October. Why not? We had one in February. If Bush gets his way, we'll eventually see them every day. But hey, the economy will be just a-humming. Want a nice cushy job? Just wait for the guy who has it now to drop dead of brownlung. And psst...wear your nose-filter 24/7.
  • After 17 seasons, The Simpsons has finally relinquished the Funniest Show On Television award to The Family Guy. Yes, I know, Guy's been on for a couple of years now, but Homer's clan is getting hit and miss, while Peter's just keeps getting better. It's like The Simpsons on acid, and is especially suited to people with next to no attention spans-- they pack so freakin' many jokes into every minute and oddly enough, at least half of them spike my chucklemeter. Several times I've found myself crying from laughter.
  • Have you ever wondered why it is we force children to learn four alphabets? That came to mind (not for the first time) the other day as I was doing a handwriting analysis on www.tickle.com. Yup, count 'em, four: upper and lowercase printing and upper and lower case cursive. What, exactly, is the point of cursive writing? This was never explained to me as I struggled with it in grades III and IV, and nobody's bothered to explain it since.
  • I HATE 'POWER CENTERS.' These monstrosities are like shopping malls without the hallway: every store is its own building, separated from every other building just enough to make walking a chore, and surrounded by hectares of parking. Knock 'em all down.

Growl.

02 October, 2005

I found this interesting.

This is from the website of one of the most intelligent authors I've ever read. His name is Dan Simmons, and he's written what are widely considered to be superlatives in nearly every field he's tackled. I've cut-and-pasted because, come next month, this message will be no more...and it deserves to be preserved.

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In a landmark 1979 controlled psychology experiment, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy set up a simple game-show-like situation in their laboratory where subjects were placed in front of a panel that looked rather like the starship control boards on the first-season Star Trek shows – i.e. they held only a green light, a yellow light, and a single spring-loaded button.
The subjects were instructed to try to make the green light flash as frequently as possible. In one trial, the subjects won money each time they caused the green light to flash. In another, the same subjects lost money when they didn’t. After the “game,” the subjects were interviewed about how much control they had over making the green light flash.
Their answers, as one might expect, differed according to certain variables. Mostly, it depended upon whether they were winning or losing money. When they were winning, all the subjects thought they had quite a bit of control. Most rated their control between 60 and 65 on a scale where 0 indicated no control at all and 100 indicated total control.
When they were losing, the subjects felt that they had little or no control.
In other words, the subjects – who were in a group that Abramson and Alloy labeled as “normal,” meaning that the main thing they had in common was no history of depressive mental illness – took credit for the good scores and handed off the blame when their scores were poor.
Then Abramson and Alloy sent Igor out to find some “abnormal brains” – i.e. subjects whose one common shared experience was a history of serious depression.
After playing the same game for real money, in both its variations, these depressed subjects – to a man and woman – had different responses when debriefed. It didn’t matter whether they’d been winning or losing; these abnormal-brain people believed that they had no control at all. They didn’t even believe the spring-loaded button was hooked up to anything most of the time.
They were correct, of course. The “game” was a fiction. Abramson and Alloy had been carefully limiting the amount of real control and dishing out “wins” and “losses” themselves. Ask not for whom the green light flashes, it flashes for the guys wearing white lab coats there behind the one-way mirror.
In the new book LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY by Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author quotes the science writer Kyla Dunn on the implications of this experiment:
“Previously, depressed people were believed to be drawing conclusions about themselves and their experiences that were unrealistically distorted towards the negative. Yet as this research suggests, one cognitive symptom of depression may be the loss of optimistic, self-enhancing biases that normally protect healthy people against assaults to their self-esteem. In many instances, depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people and finding it not a pretty place.”
Let’s let the implications of this statement on implications sink in for a minute.
Could it be possible that people who have chosen to live in a city that lies as much as 15 feet below the level of the water surrounding it – including the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, and a huge lake – and who have created a political structure dedicated to siphoning off money approved to improve such non-immediate-gratification infrastructure things as levees and wetlands and pumping stations for five decades and more – have little right to shout they that are “Shocked! Do you hear me? Shocked!” to discover that water flows in when their luck finally runs out, long after odds suggested it should, and the tip of a Level 4 hurricane finally taps their city and floods it?
Could it be possible that city and state planners who act as if “mandatory evacuation” means “hey, dude, if you’re in the mood to go, go, if not, cool” and who fail even to begin to act on their own emergency plans for providing vehicles to transport the poor and elderly and ill – and who then invite more than 19,000 of these poorest, least-self-enabling people in the nation to come huddle in their Superdome with no plans to feed them or provide air conditioning or sanitary facilities or security – have little right to scream “get off your asses” and “where the hell are you?” to either the federal government or the rest of the nation two days later?
Could it be possible that the mayor who told Oprah Winfrey – that arbiter of all things literary and moral and compassionate in America – that “They have people standing out there, have in that . . . Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people” might have some explaining to do when the coroner and saner authorities later report that there were no murders in either the Superdome or Convention Center?
Could it be possible that New Orleans Superintendent of Police Eddie Compass – later “self-evacuated” (to use his and Mayor Nagin’s favorite term) from his own position – was stuffed absolutely full of wild blueberry muffins when he announced on Sept. 1 that “We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten [in the Superdome and convention center]?” Follow-up investigations showed no such occurrences.
Nor did the media in the aftermath of Katrina show much restraint or professional discipline. It’s one thing to watch “reporters” such as Anderson Cooper or Geraldo Rivera or even Shep Smith break down and go buggy on camera after several days of standing on an overpass – but at one point I watched Geraldo, whom my daughter once described as “someone who’s always trick or treating at the dark houses,” grab a 10-month-old baby from its mother and thrust it at the camera lens and, while weeping, shout, “Here! What it’s about!! Baby! Baby!”
As we know now, the media rarely heard a story of wretched excess during this real tragedy that they took time to confirm before erroneously reporting –
there were 10,000 or more dead bodies in flooded New Orleans (Mayor Nagin’s statement soon taken as Gospel . . . the actual number will be in the low hundreds)
in the Superdome there were children with slit throats, women dragged off and raped, corpses piling up like cordwood in the basement and – Mayor Nagin’s coup de grĂ¢ce to Oprah – “babies being raped.”
according to an Ottawa newspaper, trigger-happy National Guardsmen gunned down one man simply seeking help. Nothing like that happened. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran with it
And everywhere the absolute outrage at the federal government in general and at “Bush” in particular. The Europeans know – and crowed about it in the press and official government announcements in France and Germany – that Bush had not only been incompetent in his reaction to Katrina and racist in his disregard for victims but had actually caused the devastation – the hurricane itself – by not signing the Kyoto Protocol.
When the green light doesn’t flash enough, it has to be someone’s fault. Nothing can be out of our control. Gambling casinos lined up for 30 miles like fat dominoes with their rear exits ten feet from the Gulf of Mexico have a God-given right to be there forever.
Many city residents who ignored a “mandatory evacuation order” – given in a bored monotone by a mayor whom one pundit succinctly described as “exhibiting the oddest extremes of detachment and agitation” – immediately after the flood began looting plasma TVs, electronics, sneakers, clothing, leaving nothing behind (besides their own shucked off clothing) in one Wal-Mart, according to its manager after the disaster, “except all the Country and Western CDs. If someone wants a Shania Twain CD, we can accommodate them.”
Are we to evaluate this as normal behavior given chaos and tragedy and flooding? If so, how are we to explain the massive flooding in the Midwest in the early 90’s when such cities as Des Moines IA, Lawrence KS, Hannibal MO, Quincy IL, and other cities were flooded and the residents turned out by the thousands to help one another until serious state and federal assistance arrived – sometimes weeks later – and during which there were almost no incidents of looting? Townspeople in one community along the Missouri or other tributaries would – after they sandbagged up their own makeshift levees and provided for their own temporarily homeless – move on to another town like Hannibal to help them fight the floods back and rescue and evacuate their people.
Perhaps the moral here is not WHO IS TO BE BLAMED FOR THIS? but rather the habitual melancholic’s view of “Most of the time events are not under our control” – only our reaction to events is.


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I myself have been guilty of taking media reports as truth, when I really should know better: the media, up here in Canada, knows that George Bush is an idiot, and his idiocy is self-evident no matter what he does. (Funny, the man scored in the 95th percentile on his S.A.T.s...okay, what to do with that factoid? Ignore it? Or insinuate he bribed somebody to get those marks?)

I've lambasted Bush on his Katrina response right along with the rest of the patsies, and while I stand by my criticism, it's obvious Bush alone wasn't responsible for Katrina's impact. Doing a little research, I read that the Sierra Club was instrumental in stopping a project to reinforce the New Orleans levees in the 1970s. Apparently they sued over the environmental impact. Isn't that funny? Yeah. You could die laughing.
This does not mitigate Bush's disdain for the environment, only shows that nothing is as simple as it seems. And it proves something else as well: the game is rigged, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't, and pessimists are actually realists. Who knew?

My name is Ken and I AM CANADIAN...

Every once in a while I think I'm getting too liberal. It's at those times when something of a conservative bent arrives in my mailbox and I think to myself, shit, I agree with most of this stuff. (Most of it.) So what the hell am I, anyway?

My name is Ken, and I am Canadian ...
I am a minority in Oakville, Toronto, and every casino in this country.I was born in 1965, yet I am responsible for some FIRST NATIONS PEOPLE BEING SCREWED OUT OF THEIR LAND in the 1700's.
I pay import tax on cars made in Ontario.
I am allowed to skydive and smoke, but not allowed to drive without a seat belt.
All the money I make up until mid July must go to paying taxes.
I live and work among people who believe Americans are ignorant. Thesesame people cannot name this country's newest territory.
Although I am sometimes forced to live on Kraft dinner and don't have a pot to piss in, I sleep well knowing that my taxes helped purchase a nice six figure home in Vancouver for some unskilled refugee.
Although they are unpatriotic and constantly try to separate, Quebec still provides my nation's prime ministers.
95% of my nation's international conflicts are over fish.
I'm supposed to call black people African Canadians, although I'm sure none of them have ever been to Africa, or east of Halifax for that matter.
I believe that paying a 200% tax on alcohol is fair.
I believe that the same tax on gasoline is also fair.
Even if I have no idea what happened to that old rifle my grandfathergave me when I was 14, I will be considered a criminal if I don'tregister it.
My fellow countrymen often badmouth the United States and then vacation there three times a year.
I believe spending $15 billion to promote the French language in therest of Canada is fair when the province of Quebec doesn't support or recognize the English language.
I'm led to believe that some lazy ass unionized broom pusher who makes$30 an hour is underpaid and therefore must go on strike, but paying $10 an hour to someone who works 12 hour shifts at forty below on an oil rig is fair.
I believe that paying $30 million for 3 Stripes ("The Voice of Fire" painting in Ottawa) by the National Art Gallery was a good purchase, even though 99% of this country didn't want it or will ever see it.
When I look at my pay stub and realize that I take home a third of whatI actually make, I say "Oh well, at least we have better health care than the Americans."
I must bail out farmers when their crops are too wet or too dry becauseI control the rain.
My national anthem has versions in both official languages and I don'tknow either of them.

Canada is the highest taxed nation in North America, the biggest military buffer for the United States, and the number one destination for fleeing terrorists. I am not an angry white male. I am an angry taxpayer who is broke. My name is Ken, and I am Canadian.

Notes on a (web) page

"There's more to music than notes on a page. I can teach you notes on a page. I can't teach you that other stuff."
--Richard Dreyfuss in MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS

I've been playing piano since I was three and composing since I was four. All modesty aside, I'm a pretty fair musician--removed from being a very good one by a lack of discipline. I was largely self-taught, and by the time money came along to enroll me in formal lessons, I had taught myself some terrible habits. For one thing, I had a total disregard for correct fingering. My attitude was 'hey, the right note came out, didn't it? Who cares what finger I used?' This was only a misdemeanor when the pieces were easy, but it became a felony when they got harder, and eventually it defeated my attempts to play anything truly brilliant. And do I have the desire to play brilliantly? You bet. Do I have the discipline to go back and unteach myself all the bad habits I ever learned? Not a chance in hell.
Or my imagination would get the best of me. I'd be playing a little etude by Beethoven--the kind of thing he'd toss off with one finger while he was mulling over the symphony in his head--and I'd have the colossal gall to try and improve on it. I'll never forget the one time I got my piano teacher to accept--very grudgingly--that my version sounded better. "But", she shrilled, "HIS version is what you're to play! Understood?"
Yeah, yeah, whatever. Damn it...straight-jacketed again.

There was a girl in one of my music classes--Yvette, her name was. She was taking her Grade X Royal Conservatory exam the year I knew her...and she could play piano like a hot-rodding angel. Some of the stuff she played seemed, at first glace, to require more than ten fingers, but she somehow made do with the usual human equipment and played it anyway. I'd be stepping on my jaw within three seconds of her taking her place at the keyboard--and she would deflect every shower of praise I or anyone else would throw her way.
The music room was open over lunch to anyone who wanted to use it, and I took every advantage. How else was I ever going to get to play a full-size Steinway grand? A group of us would take turns, showcasing whatever we were working on. Most of the time, I'd just doodle around, playing little snippets of melody and pairing them with whatever chords came to mind. Sometimes, a little epiphany would coruscate out of my brain and down through my fingers and out would come a song, fully formed. To compose flat-out like this requires, for me, a state of near-trance. I get the feeling I'm not creating anything but rather discovering what was buried in my head all along.
Anyway, Yvette would stand and stare at me in awe, which made me feel both supremely uncomfortable and very much flattered.
"Wow, Ken, that's amazing. You're incredible."
(Ah shucks ma'am, 'tweren't nothin' to it.) "No, Yvette...you're incredible. The stuff you play...there's more black than white on those pages, for Chrissake!"
"Maybe...but--how do you do that? I try to compose something and Liszt comes out. I can't change it. I can't write my own stuff. The harder I try, the more easily nothing comes out."
"Really? I don't know how I do it. I just...do it. "
And we'd gaze at each other, both thinking the other was immeasurably more talented. Yvette was further amazed that I had perfect pitch: she claimed to have a tin ear. And then she'd sit down and sight-read a Bach fugue flawlessly.
"Uh...Yvette...it took me three hours to get the first eight bars of that right."
"???"

The piano was my ticket to a social life for many years. It was the one saleable talent that poked itself above a sea of geekery. I'd keep up with popular music in large part so I could play whatever the girls wanted on command. There were certain songs that were mandatory: Van Halen's "Jump", "Alone" by Heart, just about anything by Chicago and Air Supply.
It was a very long time before I realized I was a pet dog--a marvellous animal, to be sure, one that could play all the latest love songs--but a dog all the same.
It says volumes about my self-esteem in those days that it took considerably longer for me to care.
My skill at composition did bear girlfruit on occasion. The girl I'd chased all through grades ten and eleven, no mean composer herself, eventually spent a lunch hour laying on my lap as I played her songs of undying (choke, choke) devotion, thus fulfilling a long-held fantasy. It happened again in grade 13 at another school, but by that time I'd just begun to understand that there was more to me than notes in my head.

It wasn't until my final year of high school that I even started to consider life without the piano as a social crutch. Even then, it was my first resort if I wanted to get the girl--whatever her name was that week. One of them wrote some top-notch lyrics for a song she called 'You Don't Need Me" and I fit them to a tune I'd already composed, all the while musing that, well, maybe I didn't need her, as such, but God how I wanted her. She wouldn't respond to my overtures--she wasn't averse to 'just being friends' and I was far too teenaged to see the value in that--so I moved on, never realizing that once we'd hopped out of the pressure cooker that was high school, we'd end up being very good friends after all.

I thought about taking music in university. I even made steps to sign up for the Laurier band before I was told, quite snottily, that only music majors were welcome in it. In the end, what dissuaded me was the oft-heard maxim that musicians starve. (Whereas English majors, as everyone knows, ask "do you want fries with that?")

I threw off the ebony and ivory shackles for good once I came here. Every friend I've made in the past fifteen years was a friend before he or she ever heard me play a note.
Oddly though, nearly all of them have at least some musical experience...something I wasn't aware of before I'd befriended them. That includes my wife, who has played saxophone and shows real promise as a pianist.

My keyboard, a wedding gift from that good friend who once wrote some lyrics for me, sits next to me as I write this blog entry. I still play, but not nearly as often as I once did. That's mostly because I have always gravitated to the piano when angry or saddened, and there has been very little anger or sorrow in my life since I got married.
But I'll always be a musician, just as I'll always be a writer. The two crafts bear real similarities: they're emotionally cathartic, creative pursuits that leave you both hollowed out and filled up when you've finished with them. The best music leaves you speechless; the best writing sounds like music. And both involve notes on a page...