28 November, 2005

On the Occasion of the Government's Fall

From the mailbox today:

I had just got my new GMC Yukon Denali, and had returned to the dealer the next day complaining that I couldn't figure out how to work the radio. The salesman explained that the radio is voice activated. "Watch this!" he said. "Nelson!" The radio replied "Ricky or Willie?" "Willie!"he continued, and immediately "On The Road Again" came from the speakers.
I'm pretty impressed with this radio. If I say Beatles I get one of their classics; if I say Green Day, I get a rousing rendition of one of their hits. One day a couple ran a red light and nearly smashed my new Denali, but I swerved in time to avoid them. "ASSHOLE! I yelled". Immediately I heard "O Canada started to play, sung byPAUL MARTIN, backed up by BELINDA STRONACH, with JEAN CHRETIEN on guitar,ANN MACLELLAN on drums and DAVID DINGWALL playing the keyboard. The anthem was then followed followed by their version of TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN!!!!

The apathy among the Canadian electorate isn't suprising. It's disgusting.


"I don't want a winter election!"
Well, you got one. I know, it's terrible, isn't it? You've gotta go door to door through the winter gales, flying all over the country, delays at every turn...photo ops in the middle of blizzards...your toes will freeze!
What was that? You're not running, you just have to vote?
The horrors!

"Why bother, this election won't change anything!"

It's this attitude that makes me want to bang my head against the keyboard. Every time I hear this little gem, I ask the speaker to write down his or her projected finish, by number of seats, for each of the four major parties. Nobody's taken me up on that, yet. I wonder why. Could it be that they don't even know how many seats there are in the House?
The point of elections is to effect change...or not, if you're happy with the government you have. And folks, if you're happy with the last twelve years, nothing I say will register with you, so go ahead and tune me out.
Look. The polls suggest another minority government...that much is true. But polls before the campaign even starts (oh, wait a second, how many billions of dollars in promises have the Libranos come out with in the past two weeks? Twenty-eight gazillion, right? Obviously the campaign HAS started...I just missed it.) Anyway, this early, polls are a fool's game.
But, you say, the Bloc will carry Quebec and thus make a majority even more difficult to attain?
Well, now, that's an intelligent assertion, if I do say so myself. So what are you going to do about it?

I'm going to do you a favour here. Everybody's bitching about a Christmas election (the latest bet is January 23, which is nowhere near Christmas, but)...I'll tell you what. Before your life gets too busy, check out the party websites below. I'll repeat this bit in the New Year.

You could vote Liberal. I throw this option out merely to cover all my bases. How their own mothers vote for them I have no clue, but you could, I suppose. Their website is www.liberal.ca
If you hate the corruption but like the direction the government generally takes, you could vote NDP. There's nothing wrong with a vote for Jack Layton's party. It's the party of Ed Broadbent, a man with more integrity in his pinky finger than Paul Martin had in his entire caucus. Check out the NDP site: www.ndp.ca
You could vote Green. They have some interesting ideas and deserve a much higher profile than they get...and the only way they'll get what they deserve is with more votes. Their site is www.greenparty.ca
Or you could be one of many Canadians toying with the thought of voting for Stephen Harper.
The Liberals will, of course, trot out the boogeyman every chance they get this campaign, just as they have in the last four. Don't let them...not without deciding for yourself. Check out www.conservative.ca to see how many of the Liberal accusations are based on the Conservative platform.

No matter what, vote, okay? I'm serious. There are too many places in the world where you can't: we take our franchise for granted.


26 November, 2005

A Day At The Movies

2005 has not exactly been a banner year for the movies. I think the box office stats bear me out on this. The problem, of course, is that Hollywood insists on producing tripe and marketing it as truffles. Totally unnecessary sequels (many to movies which never should have been made in the first place), unimaginative and endless reworkings of the same tired old cliches, and REMAKES, which stand indicted in their own little corner of cinematic hell.
There are two classes of remakes: those which serve only to remind you how good the original was and how sacrilegious it is to alter so much as a single frame...or no-more-palatable second helpings of film shit-kebab. (Did we really need a reimagining of The Fog?)
It is therefore not a coincidence that I have seen very few releases this year. Our usual practice is to wait until there are two movies we want to see--it's often, but not always, one for her and one for me--and make a day of it, starting with the earliest showing around noon and getting out in time for dinner.
We've been very lucky with this approach. For reasons entirely unknown and unknowable to me, it seems socially unacceptable to attend matinee screenings. Even when they used to be cheaper, it was possible to watch number-one box-office smashes on their first weekends in a nearly empty theatre...if you went at noon. You'd drive into the cineplex parking lot at 11:20 a.m. and be stunned at the sheer number of people standing in line...only to find out that three quarters of them were buying tickets for that evening's shows.
Strange, bizarre behaviour. You want to tell people that Galaxy Theatre is not a drive-in: it does not have to be dark outside for the movie to play; that in fact no film is ever in any way diminished by the time of day at which it screens.
But you just shut up, because you like mostly vacant theatres.

Our last two-pack consisted of War Of The Worlds (one of the most unnerving moviegoing experiences I've ever had, right up until the abrupt and Pollyanna ending, which almost ruined the show for me) and Madagascar (not a horrible movie, but probably at the bottom of my animated movie pile). Since then, all has been prelude to what we saw today: two movies I've been eagerly awaiting for a year.

FIRST ACT

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire breaks some unwritten law of moviemaking. It's axiomatic that sequels must get progressively weaker, and all but a certainty that the fourth movie of any series will outright stink. There are, of course, exceptions, but their rarity only enforces the rule. So what a pleasant shock to find out this fourth installment of a beloved series is far and away the best of them so far.
It's not letter-perfect, mind you: the pacing was far too rushed in some places. But perhaps that's inevitable when you've allotted fourteen seconds of running time for every page of text. Vast chunks of book were jettisoned, some regrettably. Count me among those who would have liked to see the Weasleys meet Dudley Dursley. And call me a sports fanatic, but Quidditch played at a World Cup level would have been a sight. Then again, Hermione's championing of elvish welfare came off too preachy by half in the book: not every cut nicked bone.
Some of the condensings actually improved on Rowling's vision. My friend Jen has already mentioned this, and what she said was spot-on: given Neville Longbottom's abilities, it was only natural that he be Harry's benefactor with regards to the second task of the tournament.
As for the film itself, the special effects were miles ahead of those in any of the previous films. The acting was also several notches higher. Two of the leads, Radcliffe and Watson, have credible futures outside the franchise. (Rupert Grint--Ron--not so much.) Daniel Radcliffe forcibly reminds me of an old friend of mine named Kieron...it colours my perceptions of his acting ability, but objectively speaking he's improved immensely since Philosopher's Stone. So has Emma Watson, who is, you'll pardon the Humbert Humbertism, um, hot.

All around wonderful movie, and I look forward to the next one.

INTERMISSION

Look, I know that entering the concession area of a Galaxy theater is akin to entering a different galaxy altogether, one in which dollars are as pennies back on Earth. I thought I was prepared for this. But the prices for popcorn and pop have gotten so ridiculous, so out of hand, that I can't help but believe they're trying to encourage people to sneak their own food in. Our food cost just shy of $18.00...for one pop and two popcorns. That's easily a four hundred percent markup and completely unconscionable. We will never pay that much again, believe me.

SECOND ACT

I like musicals.
There, I said it, and my wrists didn't sag.
I loved Evita, both the stage and screen versions. I adored Phantom of the Opera. I bawled most of the way through Les Miserables, prompting my then-girlfriend to denigrate my manhood all over her residence floor at Humber College, in turn prompting quite a few women to express some interest in me. Chess was sublime; Fiddler on the Roof fantastic.
Okay, maybe my wrists sag a little. Tho thue me, thailor.
One of my closest friends gave me a burned copy of the original Broadway recording of Rent last year and I've been singing along ever since. The music to this is simply captivating, and it hints at emotional turmoil that is the hallmark of any decent stage production. When I found out they were making a movie of Rent, I jumped over the moon. It truly lit my candle. When I discovered Chris Columbus was directing, it gave me some pause. Home Alone was one of exactly two movies I've ever walked out on. He redeemed himself, true, with the first two Harry Potter films, but Hogwarts is a long, long way from the gritty streets of New York City. Could Columbus remain true to Jonathan Larson's vision, or would he Giuliani up the streets of his Alphabet City and make the production childish and child-friendly?
I've never actually seen the staged version, so I can't say for sure. But I'd like to think Larson--who died of an aneurysm just before his play went big--would have been happy with what has become of his masterwork.
The singing is top-notch. This is only to be expected with most of the original cast having made the jump to the screen intact. Rosario Dawson, while adequate, was not quite up to the vocally demanding role of Mimi, in my opinion--her voice lacked edge--though her dancing and general deportment was stellar. The other newcomer, Tracie Thoms, nailed Joanne Jefferson and gave a whiz-bang performance.
The story is emotionally draining. For those who don't know, it concerns a group of eight 'bohemian' friends living, loving, and dying on the streets of New York in 1989-90. Thankfully, Columbus made little discernable effort to sanitize the original stage play for the screen: life is lived out in all its dirty detail. Four of the friends are living with AIDS; six of them are dirt-poor. All of them struggle, in their own ways, to define themselves and to make something lasting out of their too-brief lives. You'll laugh and cry and live and die with them, and in the end you will feel--or at least I did--both hollowed out and filled up in equal measure. Having seen this movie, I now want to see the play. Badly.

All in all, a great day at the movies. Both films are highly recommended.

24 November, 2005

Sing a song of winter

I believe Gilles Vigneault said it best. We sang this song in Grade 11 French and I've never forgotten it. My attempt at translation follows...let's see just how well I recall M. Yake's teachings.

MON PAYS (EXCERPT)

Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver
Mon jardin ce n'est pas un jardin, c'est la plaine
Mon chemin ce n'est pas un chemin, c'est la neige
Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver

Dans la blanche cérémonie
Où la neige au vent se marie
Dans ce pays de poudrerie
Mon père a fait bâtir maison
Et je m'en vais être fidèle
À sa manière, à son modèle
La chambre d'amis sera telle
Qu'on viendra des autres saisons
Pour se bâtir à côté d'elle

Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver
Mon refrain ce n'est pas un refrain, c'est rafale
Ma maison ce n'est pas ma maison, c'est froidure
Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver...
-------
My country's not a country, it is winter
My garden's not a garden, it's the plain
My road is not a road, it's snow
My country's not a country, it is winter.

In the white ceremony
Where the wind marries the snow
In this powdery country
My father had a house built
And I will be faithful
To his manner, to his model
The room will be so friendly
That we'll come from other seasons to build next to it

My country's not a country, it is winter
My chorus isn't a chorus, it's a gust
My house isn't my house, it's the Cold
My country isn't a country, it is winter

------
The wind chill factor out there tonight is -26. The squalls swirl in from the northwest, whipping the snow into malevolent foggy shapes. At times it's hard to see across the street. Countless drivers have found themselves taking the ditches less travelled. Somebody just walked by, struggling against the gale, hatless and gloveless, risking amputation.

Ah, it must be winter.

This is that most Canadian of seasons, the one that separates the schmucks from the Canucks. You can run from winter, but within our national boundaries, you can't hide. Even Vancouver and Victoria have been battered by icy blasts in recent years.

I believe in dressing for the season. Besides a toque and gloves, I have been known to don a scarf, long underwear, and even a balaclava as the temperature spirals down into the abyss. I may look ugly, but I'm ugly and warm...which is more than I can say for many people I pass on the street.
I used to shake my head at the number of university students who shivered their way into my store after last call, clad for May and complaining bitterly about how cold they were. I'd ask them if they lost their coats and they'd flash me a look of utter contempt. Some would tell me they wanted to save a dollar on the coat check, as if a dollar would buy them and their friends a round. Others would simply stare and me and explain, as if to a moron, that coats, hats, and gloves were Not Cool.
"But that's the point, isn't it?" I loved toying with drunk people, watching their minds spinning in the boozy slush.
"Huh?"
"You don't want to be cool, you wear a coat. And gloves. And a hat. You look pretty damn cool--"
"--hey, thanks, dude--"
"--in fact, you look half-frozen to me. What the hell were you thinking, man? It's thirty below out there!"
More often than not that would elicit some pitiful rendition of a rebel yell and our plastered specimen--"Leader of Tomorrow", I reminded myself-- would toddy off, six sheets to the winter wind. I often wondered if any of them ever came out of their stupid stupors with blackened toes and nerveless fingertips. I hoped so and doubted so in equal measure. God does seem to love the drunks.

The drivers are another story. Sallying forth in their SUVs with four-wheel drive, traction control, stability assist and anti-lock brakes, they consider themselves above Mother Nature (and pretty much everything else sharing the road with them). They insist on doing the speed limit even if they find themselves moving through a drive-in movie screen, and they gobble up every car length other drivers try to leave. They always seem so shocked when the laws of gravity and thermodynamics catch up. Of course, they blame the roads.
In my Canada, every single driver would have to retake their road test every fifty seven months. That's three months shy of five years, and the reason it's not an even number is to ensure that sooner or later, you'll have to take your test in winter conditions. It's not a perfect solution, but I think it would at least weed out a few of the people who treat highways like giant toboggan runs.

I like winter, although I have to admit as I age that most of what I like about it involves standing apart from it. I enjoy watching the streamers of snow floating across my field of vision...especially when my field of vision is on the other side of some high-efficiency windows. I like coming in from shovelling the driveway, waiting for my glasses to defrost, and discovering a savory stew...or a cup of hot chocolate...or a mug of hot apple cider...waiting for me. I love climbing under my jersey knit bedsheets and listening to the wind screaming around the eaves.

That song up there makes reference to my dad's house, with good reason. You haven't seen winter until you've spent some time up at Rose Point. One night in the winter of 1983 the windchill was a testicle-shrivelling -72...and there wasn't much wind. Just last winter we were confronted by a temperature approaching minus 40. The ice gets so thick on the river most Januarys that cars can and do drive across.

And "my house isn't my house, it's the Cold"...ask my wife. She will not bed down unless the bedroom window's open and the ceiling fan's going...it doesn't matter if it's minus umpty-chicken outside. The ceiling fan's supposedly for circulation, but what it actually does is turn our bedroom into a Frigidaire.

Speaking of which, I'm heading there presently, just as soon as I get this snowsuit on...

22 November, 2005

Today, I'm the It Boy.

Every once in a while, I get 'tagged'.
For my non-blogging readers, a tag is the blog equivalent of chain mail. One person comes up with a neat idea for a blog entry...and 'tags' everybody s/he knows, thereby perpetuating the post all over the blogosphere. In short, it's a game, and usually a silly one.
So the tag I got this morning asked me to go back to my 23rd post and examine the fifth sentence of it for any subtexts or hidden meanings.
Well, I was curious. Curious enough to see just when my 23rd blog entry was (Father's Day last year) and whether or not the fifth sentence thereof had any subtext to it. Frankly, I doubted it. As a writer, I don't do subtext. I've always operated on the principle that if I have something to say, the best way to say it is...to say it, not to hide it behind a bush of allegory.

"My first sight of John McCallum, the man who became The Man in my life, was in August, 1980."

Nope, nothing hidden there.

If there's anything interesting to be said about this exercise, it's that my straightforwardness as a writer and speaker is largely due to John himself. If there was ever anything hidden about the man, he kept it so well hidden that its existence could never be suspected: a more open and honest person would be difficult to find.

Now I'm supposed to tag five more people so they can do the same thing I just did. Sorry--ain't gonna do it. There aren't five people whose blogs I read, for one thing; for another, they've got plenty of good ideas of their own...or they wouldn't be bloggers in the first place.

So the chain breaks...if that means I'll die soon, so be it.

That reminds me. Last week, electricians came into our store and replaced all of our lights for the second time in two years. I guess now they're even more energy efficient. Now if they can do something with my bunkers, which use five times more energy than every light in the store put together...
Anyway, to get at the lights, they needed ladders: big ones, of the sort my mother would probably call extensibles. (My mom, bless her heart, has her own words for common objects, like thermomistats and knives with serengated edges...after years of hearing words like that, you get to thinking if they're not English, they should be.)
Anyway...boy, I do seem to be quadrigressing all over the place, don't I?
Yours truly walked under a ladder several times last week...on purpose. People around me, cashiers and customers both, were heard to gasp. "Did he just go under that ladder?!", I heard one older woman almost moan.
Puh-leeze.
I'm a pretty imaginative guy, and I'm very emotional, but superstitions just bore the shit out of me. I've owned a black cat, so I've had one cross my path on any number of occasions, to no ill effect. Friday the 13th is like any other day. I'm pretty sure I've broken at least one mirror in my life...so what?
My wife, being herself a rational being, has very few supersitions of her own, but I ran afoul of one early in our relationship, and now have the lesson engraved deep in my brain:

You don't mention anything whatever to do with car accidents whilst in a car.

Them's the rules. I'm free to think whatever I want about 'em...if I want to walk.

20 November, 2005

Total Mindblow

If you read one book this year, make it Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR.
As a thriller, it's fair to middling, with some exciting parts and Crichton's usual flat characters and contrived situations.
As a polemic, it's absolutely brilliant.
You will come away from this book, which deals with global warming, asking yourself some pretty hard questions. You will start to question just about everything you see in the media. You will start seeing agendas everywhere you look. You will wonder how it is so many people can be played for fools.
Crichton's position--and he makes a very compelling case--is that global warming is vastly overblown. According to him, they haven't proven a consistent link between the supposed global temperature rise and anything human beings have done. Every hyped report you hear about glaciers melting masks another, much-less-publicized report of a glacier somewhere else expanding. For every city whose average temperature has risen over the last century, Crichton can show you three whose temperature has remained static and two that have gotten colder. The assertions keep coming, contradicting much of what you've heard over the last fifteen years: carbon dioxide helps plants grow; sea levels have not risen perceptibly in the last thirty years; those fantastic windmills everyone environmentally positive have been touting for years are enormous bird guillotines; DDT was not carcinogenic; it's probably impossible to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere without a total reversion to the Stone Age; and on and on and on, with references from journals for each. The ecology of your mind will regenerate, like a forest does after a fire.
(Oh, did you think forest fires were bad?)
In case you're thinking that Crichton is obviously a shill for industry, he makes it abundantly clear he's shilling for nobody: somebody accuses his hero of being a spy for corporate interests and not caring about the environment at all: "You can oppose the death penalty but still favour punishing criminals...I can say that global warming is not a threat but still favour environmental controls..."
It's pretty clear that the only thing Crichton is for is the truth. And it may not be what you think.
Give STATE OF FEAR a read. It'll at least make you think. Few thrillers manage that.

Kennel Tales

One of my first paid jobs was at Kelly Kennels near Dorchester, Ontario. It was also the worst job of my career.
Every Sunday, I'd awaken a free man, be driven forty minutes into another world, and be dropped off a slave. The dual countdown would begin as the engine noise from our Hyundai Stellar faded over the hill to the west: one clock ticked off the hours until lunch, while the other tocked off the time until I got to go home. Both clocks sometimes stopped, and even ran in reverse if they wanted to.
Why would my parents offer their only child into slavery every week? They had their reasons. Looking back, I'll even concede (grudgingly) that they were good reasons. For one thing, it got me out of the house--which was not the easiest thing to do: it usually required something like a cattle prod. For another, I'm sure they felt that time around Bernie couldn't help but instill some sort of work ethic into me.
Bernie owned the kennel. He wasn't a harsh man, as slave drivers go, but he was demanding in that peculiar way that only old German men can be. He also worked his ass off: one of the few people I've met in my life who worked as hard as my stepfather. (My father-in-law's another such: why is it that all the workaholics tend to be in positions of some authority in relation to me? It only throws my inherent laziness into sharper relief.)
Bernie was actually a really nice guy with an infectious laugh. But something about his thick German accent made every utterance come out like a whipsaw and he ran that kennel with Prussian efficiency. I was there to work, and by God and sonny Jesus I did it. For fifteen dollars a day I worked pretty damned hard.
There were three outdoor wings of dog runs, a long room lined with pens on both sides, and an old barn off to the left that I rarely entered, not least because Hazel the bitch-monster lived in there.
My job involved proximity to a whole lot of dogshit and Javex. Shovel shit, pour Javex, scrub and repeat. That bleachy stench worked its way into every pore after a while: I'd exude Javex from Monday to Saturday, then go back on Sunday for another dose.
Once the runs were clean, I'd go into the puppy room and clean that. Puppies don't poop like other dogs, did you know that? What they mostly do is void seemingly impossible quantities of sludge with the consistency of jelly. If that grosses you out, think what I was going through.
I still remember the morning I was told I didn't have to clean the kennel or the puppy room. Sheer joy warred with extreme apprehension: I was spared my usual grueling tasks outside on a bitterly cold day...there just had to be something worse in store.
There was.
I was led through the house and into a large empty room with an ugly shag carpet of indeterminate colour. It looked like it might be yellow, but there was so much dogshit ground into it that you couldn't quite be sure. Apparently this had been the birthing room for a large litter of pups that had only recently made its way out to the kennel proper. A sane person would have ripped up the shag (along with the subfloor) and put something else down, something easier to clean, like stainless steel. Instead, I had to--I shit you not, ha-ha--clear a space to kneel down in before I could even start in with the trowel and two-tined shit-spearer.

I must hasten to say that this room was an anomaly, and a strange one: the rest of the kennel was kept spotless. No puppy mill, this. Bernie loved his dogs. I grew to love most of them, too.

Time passed.

Came the day of the septic tank. I've told this story so often now that I've got it into a well-worn routine. Endless repetition has leached the tale of much of its terror, which was, of course, the intention. It was, is, and I hope always will be the scariest thing ever to happen to me: I had nightmares for months.
I was performing my standard shit-shovelling duties when I noticed an iron plate laying on the ground in one of the runs. That same iron plate had always been there and I had never noticed it before: not unusual, if you're me. I further noticed (again, for the first time) a bunch of similar iron plates leaning up against the wall of the pen, and figured (not unreasonably, I still think) that the one on the ground had fallen and belonged with the others. So I dropped my shovel, entered the run, and bent to pick up the plate.
It wouldn't budge. It seemed to be frosted into the ground.
It being summer, this struck me as flatly ridiculous, so I exerted more effort. I was a scrawny kid, but I had some strength in me: I managed to get under the plate and began to lift it up. It was freakin' heavy. I took a step forward to get some leverage and was suddenly falling.

There was not even enough time to grab a breath before I was completely submerged into total blackness and implausible cold. I struggled to find my bearings but there were none to be found: I couldn't even determine which way was up. After thrashing about for what seemed like forever, I finally, inadvertently broke the surface and oriented myself. I had fallen into some sort of dark pool. An old routine of Bill Cosby's popped into my mind like an absurd Jack-in-the-box: how long can you tread water?
Except it wasn't water I was treading: it was a chewy mixture of dog excrement and Javex bleach. I still didn't know what it was I found myself in. I had a vague idea of what a septic tank was, but had never seen one before. If asked to describe one, I would have told you they existed out in fields and had an aperture wide enough to stick a hose in but no wider: no way, I would have said, could a human being fall into one.
None of that went through my mind. I could see the sunlight, could almost touch it, but couldn't get out. The walls were slick, with no purchase to be had...
...and I was beginning to tire.
I started yelling for help. The dogs in the runs on either side of me took up the cry, and spread it around. Hearing the melee, Bernie came running from the other side of the complex to determine what the problem was. He would have seen a wheelbarrow, a dropped shovel, an open gate, a hole in the ground, a bunch of dogs going nuts...and no Kenny. Pretty easy to put two and two together: he ran into the pen and plucked me out.
Back on terra firma, I was hit with delayed reaction as I regarded the hole I had fallen into. I couldn't have walked into it if I'd tried: not, at least, without breaking something. I had, by some miracle, stepped dead center into the hole and succeeded in only tearing off a few layers of skin on my back on the way down.
After a shower that lasted until I had used up all of Bernie's hot water, I went out to the kennel office and sat, bare to the waist, in a highback chair. Bernie asked me to lean forward so he could check out my back, and he crept up with a bottle of iodine and upended it.
Neither English nor German has words to describe that kind of pain. It can only be articulated with inarticulate screams and moans.
I was very articulate that day.

I owe both Bernie and his dogs my life. As it turned out, the tank I had fallen into was nine feet deep and widened as it went down. I had been incredibly lucky: the iron plate had not fallen back over my hole...I must have given it just enough of a shove as I was going down. I'd been down there for less than two minutes: I was told later that another minute would have rendered me unconscious from fumes I didn't even notice as I thrashed around.


The only lasting effect of my septic tank adventure has been a pure hatred for the smell of bleach.

*****

After a few weeks off, I returned to Kelly Kennels. I'm sure I didn't want to, but my parents were implacable: I had to get back on the horse. I resolved to avoid any iron plates I might see and soldiered on.
Most of the boarding dogs would retreat as you entered their pens to clean them. They'd scoot back into the indoor part of their run. Some of the less socialized animals would growl a little, but none would ever try to escape.
Until the second week after my septic tank hiatus. I opened up one pen and this little moppy thing shot out and took off for the high hills.
Grimly, swearing bitterly, I followed it. I didn't know its name, and I'm not sure it would have come if I had. I led it a merry chase around the kennel until it vanished into the cornfield that abutted the property. I tromped up and down the rows, but there was no sign of a dog anywhere.
I went and found Bernie. I can't say he was overjoyed with the news: the dog was a boarder, and its owners were to pick it up in two days. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I went home that Sunday in disgrace, expecting never to be allowed back and probably to get a hefty bill in the mail.
Again my luck held: the dog came wandering back two hours before it was to go home: just enough time to thoroughly groom all traces of field and stream off it.

****

You'd think I'd quit. I didn't. I went back, sure that lightning couldn't strike three times.
It did.
One sunny Sunday I was sent into the old kennel to clean a pen shared by some boarding cats. Until that day, I didn't even know Kelly Kennels ever boarded cats; had I known that, it would have taken some of the sting out of working there. While I love dogs, I am most definitely a cat person. The chance to pet some little balls of fur and strike up their purrboxes made me brave enough to skitter past the pen of Hazel the bitch-monster.
Hazel's pen was immediately on the right as you entered, which is why I went in as far to the left as possible. Hazel was Bernie's baby: a German-trained, German Shepherd attack dog. Bernie alone knew the command that would call her off once she latched on to you and began to tear you up. Most dogs don't scare me. This one terrified me.
So, as I say, I skittered past her pen and walked down to the other end of the barn. In the far left corner was the pen with the kittens: they were miaowing pathetically.
I let myself in and cleaned a couple of litter boxes. stroking the cats that wanted human attention. As I exited, one of the cats saw her chance to escape and took it. She beamed between my legs and kitty-scampered off down the barn..straight towards Hazel's pen.
Here we go again.
I took a second to evaluate the possibilities. I could run for help...but if I opened the barn door, I was sure the cat would repeat Moppy's romp and never be found again. And if I stood here much longer, Hazel--who was working up into a killing rage (never a stretch for that bitch, let me tell you) would lunge right through the bars and there'd be one less cat in the world. The choice seemed as clear as it was daunting: I had to retrieve the cat.
Knowing that dogs smell fear and that Hazel relished the aroma, I swallowed as much of my fear as I could and walked the length of the barn, keeping my eye on the escaped feline. She had reached the end of her road: a closed door ahead of her, a snapping dog to her left, a blank wall on her right, and a menacing human stranger striding towards her. There was only one way to go.
I blinked in disbelief as I watched Kitty climb four feet up a concrete wall. Hazel, growling and slavering just to my left, evidently regarded climbing cats as a delicacy and launched herself upwards. Not quite steadily, I reached out and got my hand between the cat's belly and the wall...

...whereupon she turned and sank her teeth into the webbing between my thumb and index finger.
By this point, I was a fair judge of pain. Having a cat embedded in your hand hurts quite a bit, but not near as much as iodine pouring down your raw, infected back. I gritted my teeth and brought my other hand into play, successfully grabbing the wriggling beast and getting her back to the pen where she belonged.

I'd had enough: that was my last day working for Bernie. I've since been through many jobs, but despite scads of job stress, my life hasn't been in danger since. And while my current job is occasionally cause for real anger, I take consolation that at least I don't come home each day smelling of dogshit and bleach.




16 November, 2005

Guess what? It's happening to ALL OF US....

It is my considered opinion that our society is very sick.
I think pretty much everyone agrees with me and will hasten to diagnose a myriad of ills, some of them undoubtedly terminal. But the particular ailment I have in mind is usually overlooked: indeed, its symptoms are routinely mistaken for signs of health--which is, of course, the crowning proof of how insidious this disease is.
I'm talking about Fountain of Youth Syndrome.
In the western world, anything old is beneath notice. And the definition of 'old' is getting newer with each passing generation, to the point where I've actually heard "like, that's so five minutes ago" out of the mouth of a mere teenager. While her usage was obviously satirical, it wasn't as satirical as you'd think.
Yes, anything "old" is contemptible. And so, by extension, is anyone old. This maxim, which our society has elevated to the level of a Great Truth, has become so ingrained that it is expected of everyone to look as young as possible for as long as possible. Every gray hair is a sign of impending doom. Every wrinkle is a crevasse with Death waiting at the bottom. The thought of growing old causes sleepless nights. It's madness, I tell you: madness.
If there's anything our society's obsessed with more than youth, it's profit. And so marketing gurus have sought to spread the disease, with great, ringing success. Oil of Olay. Botox. Sculptra. Facelifts, tummy tucks, laser surgeries, hair rinses, collagen injections, breast augmentation, the Hair Club for Men, and on and on and on. It's a multibillion dollar industry...quite possibly the most profitable concern on the planet.
And what compels people to keep the snake-oil salesmen in business? Is it an overwhelming desire to be young forever? Of course not: only to look young, as if your body is the only thing that matters. More often than not, these people who are absolutely determined to save their bodies from the ravages of time spend precious little time on their minds, and even less on their souls (or spirits, if you prefer that word.)
What's so bad, I dare to ask, about growing old? It can't be a terrible thing: everybody does it, unless they die young first. The same goes for death. Everybody's got a theory on what happens when you die, but they all basically boil down into two divisions: either you go on to something else, or you don't. Either way, we're all in the same boat.
When I see someone who looks old, the very first thing that comes to mind is "wow. I bet she's lived a full life. What wisdom she must have accumulated!" I would have been right at home in a Native tribe, revering my elders. It saddens me to no end that this is far from the norm in our society.

At 33 years of age, I'm only just starting to feel like I might have a grip on this thing called Life. Doubtless there are many things waiting in the wings to bite me in the ass (why is it, pray tell me, that so many of life's nasties have a taste for assmeat?) and it's entirely possible that when I get to be 66, I'll look back at my naive and hopeless 33-year-old self with pity and scorn. But I do know one thing: when I get to be 66 years old, I'll look it. Proudly.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting we should all try to hurry the Reaper up. But I do think we should embrace our inner crone, and I can only hope the baby boomers, as they age, eventually come to that realization themselves.
I can only hope.





14 November, 2005

Vote Liberal or Santa gets it!

"It will be up to them [the Opposition Leaders] to explain why they are forcing an election at a time Canadians least want one."
--Prime Minister Paul Martin

Well, let's see now, Paulie. Because your government is corrupt? Because you are a ditherer who can see only as far as the next poll? Because you've got Gomery in your back pocket, and we can't trust you to dissolve your own government when you said you would...just because you said you would? Because, in typical Liberal fashion, you're poised to bankrupt the treasury in a vain (we hope in vain) attempt to cling to power, like a leech?

That's just off the top of my head, you understand.

Fellow citizens and voters, please bear in mind that you will not have to interrupt Christmas dinner to exercise your franchise: the earliest election day could come would be early January. The Liberals will call it a Christmas election every chance they get, of course. If you're Orthodox and celebrate Christmas on January 6th, well, then you might have a wee problem. But wait! That's a Friday. Elections don't happen on Fridays. So in no way can you call this a Christmas election.
And besides, the election will most likely show up in the third week of January! The Boxing Day sales will still be going, of course, but Christmas will be so over...

Martin will try anyway. He's already started. Santa Paul and his elf, Ralph, are promising to give you back $29 billion dollars over the next, um, five years...only if they win the election, you understand. Wow, that's a lot of money. Amazing to imagine you've been overtaxed that much, isn't it?

But wait a second! If you're middle class, you won't see any of that money until 2010...assuming, of course, you vote the Liberals back in and keep them in for another five years. (And we all know what happens when you ass u me.)

You know, if Stephen Harper manages to win this looming election, I'm willing to bet you that one of his first acts as Prime Minister will be to thoroughly audit the federal books, using independent auditors and standard business audit principles and procedures. And I'll further bet you that a large percentage of the money Martin's so gliberally throwing around right now doesn't actually exist.

I've been waiting for people to get on board the oust-the-Liberals train since the day Jean Chretien took office. Now that some people are willing to be seen on Ontario televisions denouncing Paul Martin and vowing to throw him out at the earliest opportunity (I saw four of them tonight), well, the best late Christmas present I can get as a Canadian citizen and taxpayer is a change in government.

Bring it on!


13 November, 2005

Snapshot: Me

I've come down with a touch of writer's block. There's nothing going on in the news worth discussing...oh, I've been musing on a Paris riot column for about two weeks now, but the thoughts are too depressing to write out. My life is currently very comfortable...read, very boring. Hence my wordy-gurdy is wheezing a bit.
Luckily, there's a host of old writing, from my previous diary Past...Present...Fuschia to draw on. Paging through it, I rediscovered something I'd penned back in 1999, a recurring column called "Snapshot: Me". Rereading, I found it interesting to see how my thinking had changed on some issues and hadn't changed at all on others, in six very eventful years.

1999: "I am pro-abortion. Fetuses have no rights as they can't think for themselves. They aren't even humans, therefore legally lack human rights. (Babies can't think for themselves, either, but that's what parents are for...once they've decided to BECOME parents, of course.)"
2005: Wow, that was pretty harsh, wasn't it? I do like that I came out as 'pro-abortion' rather than 'pro-choice'. The latter is kind of ambiguous, really: not to have an abortion is also a choice, right?
You'd think, what with our failed adoption saga, I would have changed my thinking entirely on the abortion issue. I have softened somewhat: I don't particularly like the idea of abortion as contraceptive device. But I still have nothing but contempt for pro-lifers who seem to think it's better that a child be born into extreme poverty and/or domestic instability than not to be born at all. How exactly is that humane, again? As Spider Robinson notes in his masterpiece The Crazy Years: "I routinely ignore...any Pro-Life advocate who has not adopted and raised at least one unwanted child, to adulthood, and through college. No excuses for economic hardship: no excuses, period. Put up or shut up."

1999: I am pro death-penalty, but only in RARE cases. A shadow of a doubt is far too much here. Revenge? Damn straight. Spiritually juvenile of me, to be sure. But I do believe those few sick minds that derive intense pleasure from murder should be expunged.
2005: Not much change. See, I've read a whole bunch of studies that claim that punishment, no matter how harsh, is no deterrent to crime. That's as may be: but I've yet to read of a single person, convicted and given the death penalty, who has gone on to re-offend.

1999: I'm pro euthanasia. Very important, this. I see this as the benchmark of a compassionate society. If your life isn't your own, whose, exactly, is it?
2005: In memory of Terri Schiavo, I will amend this only so far as to make certain that personal wishes are well known in the matter. I myself have no interest in life once I've gone beyond being able to function at a reasonable level. In case my wife predeceases me, I'll define 'reasonable' here. If I can't form coherent thoughts and communicate them, or if I can't move, I expect to be put out of my misery. If I'm in such pain that I demand to be killed, I expect my demand to be carried out. At that point, I won't need a lecture from some uninformed twit telling me that other people have lived healthy lives in much worse pain that I could possibly be feeling. I'll need a certain plug pulled, and do me the dignity of allowing me to determine for myself just when that point comes, okay?
If you feel differently from me, that's great. You're more than entitled to whatever "life" you choose. Just don't choose mine for me.

1999: I am pro freedom of speech. And I haven't seen it yet. They still bleep out swear words on television and you can be thrown in jail if you criticize 'too harshly'. But THIS CUTS BOTH WAYS. The protests that are currently dogging Mike Harris every step of this campaign are annoying me, not because I intend to vote Tory (I do), but because they don't allow him the freedom to get his message out. I'd say the same damn thing if protests were dogging, say, a Depopulationist party advocating that one in ten people be killed off. (Actually not a bad id...oh, never mind.)
2005: I'm not sure to what degree I still agree with this. Ideally, I'm all for freedom of speech. But my idealism assumes a level of intelligence and critical thinking skill in the general population that clearly doesn't exist. When Pat Robertson says "many of the people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together", some people actually believe it. When Dalton McGuinty opens his mouth, some people are inclined to actually listen. I'm still working out how to balance people's right to say what they want with people's right to avoid dangerous bullshit. Ask me again in fifty years: this one's a doozie.

1999: I am pro gun control. Not the bureaucratese Ottawa likes, either. I say confiscate them unless they are (a) part of a collection, in which case they must be rendered PERMANENTLY inoperative; (b) used as a means of family survival, in which case proof of very low income must be supplied; (c) belonging to a licensed hunter, and the quantity of licensed hunters must be kept as low as environmentally possible; (d) property of a peace officer. Why the tough stance? Because guns are one of the very few items that serve no purpose except killing.
2005: Nothing to add.

1999: I am pro law and order. I'm really big on this. I like Singapore. They cane you for vandalism and fine you for spitting. Clean, orderly place. Maybe no freedom to, but lots of freedom from.
2005: You betcha baby.

1999: I am pro nudity. My favourite line: "If God had meant us to go around naked, we would have been born that way."
2005: I've said that line to dozens of people in the past seven years and many of them have looked at me funny and said, "uh, but we were born that way." Yes, indeed we were, and I firmly believe that the demonization of the human body is responsible for more self-esteem issues and sexual hangups than anything else.
There's this park in downtown Berlin where people go and have lunch in the altogether. Can you imagine a scene like that in downtown Toronto or Calgary? I can't. Our society is just sick. There's no other word for it. And sadly, at this point I think we're beyond help.

1999: I am pro prostitution. Strictly regulated, a la Holland. Studies have shown that rape almost disappears where whoring is legal (and to all you feminists who say that hooking is legalized rape, go to Holland and tap on the glass. Ask a sex worker there. Prostitutes CAN of course be raped, but not if THEY choose their clientele...and are respected.
2005: I think George Carlin says it best: "Selling's legal...fucking's legal. Why isn't selling fucking legal? Why is it illegal to sell something it's perfectly legal to give away?"

1999: I am pro gay rights. Gays are straights who prefer their own gender. There is no reason gay people shouldn't be able to marry, with all that entails...
2005: ...and now they can, and I've been to a gay wedding, and by Christ the world's still turning and the sun still comes up in the east. Whodathunkit?

1999: I am pro two-tier health care, with the strict proviso that the lower tier is at least what we have now. This is likely utopian of me, since the desire for double remuneration would likely draw doctors to the higher tier.
2005: Which is why you regulate. Either doctors must spend a number of years in the public system before they can go private, or you place a cap on private physician salaries. Something's got to be done, anyway, because our public system is not going to last much longer.

1999: I am AGAINST the socialist tradition that says, in essence, 'throw enough money at a problem and it will go away'.
2005: Witness: Africa; our health care system; Native Canadians; Toronto's homeless. The problems in and with each have been grappled with for years, in some cases decades...by throwing money at them. It's never enough; it never CAN be enough.

1999: I am AGAINST (in the sense of being very upset by) certain all-pervasive aspects of society like media. Used properly, the media is a boon to culture. Abused, it destroys culture, intelligence, and the ethic of personal responsibility.
2005: What the hell was that about?
I'm honestly not sure what I was writing there, or how I got on that train of thought, or where that train was going. I think I was trying to take a backhanded swipe at the culture of celebrity that enslaves much of the media, though I'm not at all sure where the 'ethic of personal responsibility' came into it.

1999: I am against multiculturism as official government policy. Culture should be supported by private interests: it's not government's place.
2005: Before you hasten to call me a racist bigot and kick me out of our multicultural mosaic of a country, let me hasten to say that WASP culture...if there can be said to be such a thing...is no more deserving of government funding than any other. I think it's for individuals to decide which festivals they attend and what shows they watch on television. I also believe that religious instruction belongs in one place and one place only: the church, or whatever analogue of a church a particular religion has. It most certainly does not belong in a school, much less one that is funded by everybody's tax dollars.

And that's how I feel about that.

11 November, 2005

Armistice Day

According to a local poll, I am one of seven percent who feel November 11th should not be a national holiday.
Being as 93% of the populace seems to be against me on this issue, I should probably elaborate.
I'm sure many of these people--the ones who feel we should honour our veterans with a holiday--have the purest of motives and intentions. But they're terribly misguided, because within a year or two, Remembrance Day would become just another day off. Two minutes of silence at the eleventh hour would go by largely unmarked. Kids would lose the poignant Remembrance Day assemblies that are pretty much their only chance to learn about the terrible toll that generations of veterans have willingly paid.
November 11th is the secular Easter: a chance to acknowledge that pretty much everything we have as a nation, certainly everything worth the having, has risen out of the deaths of multitudes. The burden of gratitude is heavy, but not a fraction as heavy as its price.

Herewith, a small poppy-field of some of my favourite war poems and songs, which detail that price in a way my words simply can not.

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in nineteen fifteen the country said, "Son,
It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done."
And they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As our ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, flag-waving and tears
We sailed off to Gallipoli.

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water.
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well,
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell,
And in five minutes flat he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

Now those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive,
But around me, the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dying.

For I'll go no more Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and free,
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more Waltzing Matilda for me.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind and insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.

And so now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory.
And the old men marched slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war,

And the young people ask,"What are they marching for?"...
And I ask meself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call.
But as year follows year, more old men disappear,
Someday no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me ?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong...
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me ?
*******

Christmas In The Trenches (John McCutcheon)

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day:
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!'' Each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht.'' "'Tis `Silent Night'", says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

"There's someone coming toward us!'', the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own;
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin...
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more,
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wond'rous night:
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?''

'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter, hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

******
And finally, the poem which I feel sums up the true horror of war. This was written by perhaps the finest of the World War I poets, Wilfred Owen. He was killed in action, at 25 years of age, just one week before the Armistice. As the bells were ringing in Shrewsbury, England, to mark the end of the conflict, his parents received a telegram informing them of the death of their son.

Dulce Et Decorum Est (Wilfred Owen)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
--Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
--My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

07 November, 2005

My eyes are dim, I can not see...

I was born very premature and very tiny. The second-born of twins (my twin died three days later), my survival was in doubt for more than half a year. I spent the better part of that half-year in an incubator, which permanently buggered my vision.
Being born too soon may have done other things as well, none of them particularly good. I am about as flexible as your average iron bar, and to this day I seem to be incapable of walking "properly". But my poor vision has had the biggest impact on my life.
I had surgery to correct a lazy eye at the age of three, but the nearsightedness went unnoticed until the third grade. And why wouldn't it? At home, I spent most of my time buried in a book. A person looking at me would have suspected bad eyesight, but that thought never occurred to me...as far as I was concerned, the closer I got to the words, the closer I got to the world within the words.
Once I got to school, you'd think my eyesight would have become an issue. It didn't, because I always made a point of sitting at the front of the class. Yup, I was that most annoying of childhood specimens, the little boy who wanted to be the teacher's pet. And usually was.
Likewise, I'd always sit at the front of the bus. Not because I wanted to be the bus driver's pet, too...because I wanted to see where I was going, and because the kids at the front were less likely to be bullied. To this day, I can glance at a male of any age and predict with near 100% accuracy where he will rush to sit on a bus...
Okay, fine. You caught me. I knew I couldn't see very well. Of course I did: how could I not? But I was extremely careful not to let anyone else suspect this. People who are illiterate have coping strategies designed to shield their inability from the world; I developed my own. They were pretty effective, too. I even fooled an optometrist. More than once.
He'd always get me to cover my bad (left) eye first. Stupid of him. I'd read off a perfectly respectable four lines of the eye chart using my right eye, memorizing as I went. When the time came to repeat with my right eye covered, I'd simply read back from memory what I'd seen. I wasn't too obvious about it--I figured if I was at an eye doctor, somebody suspected something. So I'd slip in a few pauses for dramatic effect: "A, F...is that a V?...T...I think P..."
Why the subterfuge? Because I didn't want glasses. Actually, that's an understatement: I would have cheerfully been shot rather than be forced to wear spectacles. If I was shot, I could parade around school exhibiting the bullet hole and showing off how tough I was. If I (shudder) got glasses, all the bullet holes in the world wouldn't matter: I'd be a nerd anyway. In fact, I was firmly convinced that glasses would encourage bullets. Or at least fists.
So one day, my stepfather took me out for a spin, and suddenly asked, apropos of nothing at all:
"Kenny, what's that sign say?"
Whew, I know where I am. "Humberview Drive." So there.
Several minutes later, in a part of town I'd never seen, it came again.
"What about that one there?"
"What about which what where?"
"That sign there. What's it say?"
I haven't a clue.
"Umm...John, what is this with the signs?" I know perfectly well what you're doing, and right now I'm squinting my brains out and I have no idea what the heck that sign says...
I think I might have even said the word fuck. Silently, of course: that word said aloud would cause my world to temporarily end. But if ever there was a perfectly justified occasion to say fuck, that was it. Found out. FUCK.
"I...don't...know." Those were three of the heaviest words I'd ever uttered: just forcing them out completely drained me.
I was back at the eye doctor within the week. And this time the bastard had me cover my right eye first...
It turned out my vision was much worse than even I had suspected. I didn't just need glasses: I needed Coke-bottles. My first pair actually gouged my nose. At least one subsequent pair (the dogs ate two pairs: don't ask) had to be made in Tokyo. And yes, I was right: Insta-Nerd.

I had another surgery performed when I was eleven, another attempt to correct my lazy eye. John told me to count backwards from 100 as the general anaesthetic was administered. He bet me I couldn't get past eighty five. So I fought the knockout with every ounce of my being. They had to shoot me up again, and I distinctly recall being well into the sixties before my universe blotted out.
(...)
(...)
(hmmm ha hmmm hummm hah hummm hm)
(hm pound-pound hmm humm pound-pound hah pound-pound hm POUND POUND HMM! POUND-POUND!)
"Waazzzzzht?" POUND!! POUND!!
"Shhh, you're okay. Just relax. Can you stop that? It's okay, you're fine..."

POUND POUND "Hazzzut!"
I can't exactly say I woke up. More like the world came back to me, through a glass, darkly. I felt...padded somehow, like I was encased in four and twenty layers of insulation. Gradually the whiteness around me blurred into a nurse and I found myself understanding her English. This seemed very improbable.
"Back among the land of the living, I see. How do you feel?"
"I...uh...don't...feel anything."
"That's pretty normal. You're going to have a headache, though. You were whanging your head pretty good against the bars of the stretcher, there."
"Huh?" Vaguely I seemed to recall some kind of rhythmic pounding. As it filtered through my mind that I was both pounder and poundee, I began to feel the first stirrings of pain.
I'm here to tell you that whanging your head repeatedly against a hospital stretcher qualifies as an Excedrin Moment, whether you know you're doing it or not.
The double dose of anaesthetic had another effect: it completely eliminated my appetite. I had absolutely no interest in food for three days. On the third day, thinking I should probably eat something, I tried a meatball.
It bounced.
I mean that quite literally: it went down my throat and came right back up, as if it was made of rubber. Okay. Food most emphatically not required.

And the lazy eye? Still there. In fact, my eyes malfunction in so interesting a way that I was a test case for an intern at the University of Waterloo. A very confused intern.
See if you can follow the bouncing meatball here. I never look through both eyes at the same time. I can't do it. I use one eye to track things in the distance: at a point about a foot from my nose I unknowingly switch to the other eye. An observer can actually notice the change.
This means I can never get the full effect from looking through any time of binocular device, be it a microscope or a telescope.
Another side effect of the lazy eye: I can be looking right at you--from my perspective, at least--while you'd swear my gaze is off to the left somewhere. This little weirdity I can at least control, although it grows pronouncedly worse the more tired I become. Add in faulty depth perception--if you throw something at me I'm apt to reach for it about a foot to the right of where it actually is--and a moderate photosensitivity, and you can perhaps understand why I don't drive a car.

I just got new glasses a week back: something like my eighth pair. I'm told the left eye has actually improved a little since my last fitting. My right eye, once my 'good' eye, has been getting progressively worse since childhood and now nearly matches its myopic mate.
These glasses are a wonder: Transitions, by Essilor. They darken when exposed to sunlight and they block out UV rays. They also eliminate the need for clip-ons (which I used to constantly misplace) and wraparounds (which worked very well, but made me look like RoboCop). And they look pretty good on my face.
Not as good as no glasses would look, of course. Even as an adult, and a married one at that, I'm still self-conscious about wearing specs. Silly of me, I know. I looked into laser surgery and it turns out my corneas are too thin. Contacts are out, for two reasons: one, I could never summon the courage to stick something IN MY EYE!!! and two, if they ever fell out, I'd never find them before I stepped on them. Kee-RUNCH!
So I'm bespectacled until I die or they pioneer eye transplants. It's become a part of me: so much so I've "lost my glasses" while they were on my head. There's one of life's little nonplussing experiences.

Every once in a while, I ask myself weird questions. (The better to come out with wierd answers, my dear...) One recurring question over many years was this: If you had to pick one, would you rather go blind or go deaf? Perhaps because I'd resigned myself to eventually going blind, I railed against the very thought of losing my hearing. No more music! Now that it looks like I will maintain some vision into old age, I find myself more likely to value my eyes--as flawed as they are--over my ears.


06 November, 2005

So you're STILL voting Liberal...

Hey, who can blame you? After all, Stephen Harper doesn't smile. Also, he's going to sell us out to the Americans, put toll booths in hospital waiting rooms, and torch every gay bar in Canada (after filling them with abortion doctors). It's all right there in the Conservative Party of Canada platform: you've read it. Haven't you?

It could be argued, actually, that the only person in Canadian politics with any reason to smile these days is Jack Layton. Here's a man who, by dint of third-party status and Paul Martin's colossal ego, has managed to hold our government hostage to his socialist demands. Then again, letting Jacky-boy drive the bus isn't translating into increased support for his New Democrats, so even Layton can't be grinning too widely.
The most recent polls show Grit and Tory support to be pretty close to dead even. That will, of course, change: it has before. In a week or maybe two, Ontarians in particular will have either forgotten all about the sponsorship scandal or at least forgiven their beloved Liberals for committing it. In fact, the forgiveness is already spreading. A letter in today's Toronto Star suggests that given the size of the federal budget, the amount mislaid in AdScam is really rather picayune. I heard something similar from a colleague at work (who, oddly, identified himself as a Conservative voter!)
Look, the amount of money involved in AdScam is far from the point. The point is that the Liberals have clearly been in power far too long. I'd say the same of any other party: thirteen years is clearly well beyond the shelf life of almost any politician...they go rancid, and things like AdScam become, in the unforgettable words of Jean Chretien, "the normal operation".
If the sponsorship was the only blight on an otherwise exceptional record of governance, I'd be inclined to let Bytown bygones be...but instead this scandal is merely the latest and greatest in a catalogue. Flip the pages and you will find sordid illustration to prove my point: Shawinigate; the HRDC boondoggle; the bloated and completely useless gun registry; a justice system in tatters and a health care system to match...the list goes on.
Martin has gone to great lengths to try and convince us that the Liberals involved in AdScam were yesterday's Liberals. Notwithstanding the image of Martin leading the House of Commons in cheering for Chretien, our Prime Minister was second in command during the whole mess. Despite Gomery's whitewashing, Paul Martin is in my eyes anything but clean.
And the Liberals, it seems, have learned just one thing from Gomery: not to get caught next time. To that end, they've crafted a tragicomedy called Bill C-11, which purports to protect whistleblowers and in fact does a much better job protecting the guilty. Check it out
here .

Under the new legislation, if you are in the public sector and you have reason to suspect that people around you are up to no good, you can report your suspicion to your boss. If it's your boss who's up to no good--as is often the case--you can report that to an independent complaints commissioner. The commissioner will then take your information, investigate it, and report back, not to an open Parliament, but rather to your own department head, who is basically free to turn the report into a paper airplane if s/he wants to.
Not only that, you're prohibited from going public yourself. Your complaint and its results can be sealed for at least five years: conveniently, the length of a government's term in office. And when I say "sealed", I mean sealed: the Access to Information Act is powerless against this legislation.
In this way will the next AdScam go entirely unreported. You have to admire the gall of the Liberal Party of Canada: their solution to being caught with their hands in the cookie jar is to hide the cookie jar.
But vote for these crooks again, Ontario...because they're smiling crooks, and they love you.

01 November, 2005

(Non)Judgment Day

So the man Paul Martin appointed to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal has (surprise, surprise) exonerated Paul Martin.
The full interim report can be found at www.gomery.ca. I'm not going to tell you it's worth reading: I suspect that the only people who will read every word of the thousand-plus pages will be lawyers involved in the next phase. (For a next phase there will be--pretty much everybody who has been excoriated in this report is musing, publicly, about lawsuits and counter-inquiries; the name Gomery shall resound from sea to sea for some while yet, I'd wager.)
The interim report may not be worth reading (who, really, has that kind of time?) But it's certainly worth skimming, and I would recommend anyone with the slightest interest on what went wrong, and how, take a gander at Justice Gomery's take on the matter.
Gomery notes that his conclusions do not have the force they would in a court of law. So many people had so many attacks of convenient amnesia on the stand that I'm surprised Gomery was able to come to any conclusions at all. He was also specifically instructed not to assess blame in the criminal or civil sense. It's surprising, therefore, to see so much blame so Liberally (sorry) scattered hither and yon.
A lot of the blame, according to Gomery, falls on ex-PM and Paul Martin nemesis Jean Chretien. Again, how convenient: not only does Paul get off pretty much unscathed, his archenemy gets a huge heaping helping of blame.
I'm not saying Gomery's wrong to assess Chretien some responsibility for the program he created and supposedly oversaw. My hatred for "Johnny Crouton", as a friend of mine calls him, runs so deep I find it very hard to be objective...the paragraph above is the best I can do, and that only because I don't like Paul Martin very much, either.
How could our Prime Minister, who was Minister of Finance during the years of the sponsorship program, have been entirely ignorant of the shenanigans? According to Gomery,

Mr. Chrétien, Mr. Pelletier and Mr. Gagliano, apparently motivated by a belief
that their political adversaries in Quebec would exploit information about
the Sponsorship Program to the disadvantage of the federalist cause, chose
to keep it a secret, even from Mr. Chrétien’s colleagues in the Cabinet, at least to the extent that that was possible, and for as long as possible.


I suppose I can swallow this if the alternative is choking to death. However, a second reading caused me to burp it right back up. Here's the thing: if you're so desperately afraid your foes will find out what you're doing and use it against you...why are you doing it?

That question goes unanswered by Gomery, at least as far as I can see. Johnny Crouton wraps himself in the flag and says he was saving da Canada. Except the referendum was in 1995: the sponsorship scandal came later, after the separatists had lost. Who mounts a battle after the war has been won? A blithering idiot, to be sure.
Why, I wonder, were Chretien and company sworn to such secrecy? Was it in case the malfeasance practically built in to the sponsorship program was discovered? Or was it that the mere existence of the sponsorship program was a colossal insult to the intelligence of Quebeckers?

More to come...