31 January, 2006

If In-laws were outlawed...

I mentioned my in-laws in my last post, and how they don't really understand me.
The feeling is heartily mutual.
They live about a three and a half hour drive from here. Pardon me: the tangent beckons...
Ever notice that in Canada, we measure distance in time? I don't know if that holds true across the entire country, but I know it's not the case south of 49, where they measure distance in...distance. Maybe it's because this land is so vast: if I say my dad's a four and a half hour trip, it sounds slightly better than saying he's 232 miles away--or 374 kilometres, for that matter.
Where was I? Oh yeah, my in-laws live three and a half hours away. That's about right.
Don't misunderstand me. I think my wife's parents are great. They bore and raised Eva...that alone makes them special in my book. That they did so good a job of it--that Eva is so strongly self-reliant, intelligent and empathic--just increases my debt to them.
My in-laws live in something that was once a doublewide trailer. This elicited a predictable snobbish reaction in me, before I saw the place. Truth is, with every addition, it resembles a trailer less and less. In fact, I have come to imagine myself retiring to a place not much different from theirs--only mine will be on water of some kind.
Besides their growing-on-me domicile and the fact they brought up my beloved, there are many things to recommend Anne and John. Anne is the only person I've yet to meet who reads more than her daughter. And since Eva was the first person I met who reads more than I do, that should say something right there.
The adjective that best fits my mother-in-law is fierce. Almost everything about her fairly screams that word. Even when she's being friendly, you get the distinct feeling the claws have merely been retracted, and wait, hidden, ready to rip you a new one if you should step out of line. (Her daughter has inherited that in spades, with one crucial distinction. Anne can sand down her rough edges and imitate Eva, should she choose; Eva can scuff up her sides and imitate Anne, if she wants to.)
Eva's dad is a cipher. In some ways, he's like mine: the same sense of humour; the same manly keep-the-feelings-bottled-up demeanour; the same ethic that shouts "I will protect my family at all costs." But he's even quieter than my father is: it's even harder to guess what he's thinking at any given time.
Talk about strong: his rotator cuffs are essentially destroyed, and you'd never know it to watch him. His muscles have torn lose--he can do a remarkable, and just plain wrong, imitation of Popeye--and while you know he's gotta be in intense pain, he won't show so much as an inkling of it. (Then again, Eva's mom was told she would be in a wheelchair by the age of thirty: they both seem to delight in proving people wrong. Yet another trait my darling has appropriated.)

I'm not at all comfortable going to visit them. It's not that they make me feel uncomfortable, so much. It's that after a few hours I get to musing on existential questions, like "Do I exist?" "Am I really here?" "Have I perhaps donned some sort of fabric that grants me limited invisibility?"
You know, questions like that. It's possible to spend three days with them and exchange fewer than two dozen words.

If Eva's brother is up there with us, then Eva gets some idea of how I feel. My wife is not the black sheep of the family by any means...it's just that Jim is so...god...damned...white that his merest presence eclipses everybody in the room with him. But they don't play favourites. Ask them, they'll tell you so. No, they don't play favourites. They work at it. Hard.
Here's some indication of just how hard: it's now been over a year and a half since we moved--since Daughter bought Her First House. Have they been here? Nope. Do they have any plans to come here? Nope again. Have they gone to see Anne's mom, not to mention Anne's Sainted Son, both of whom reside less than an hour from here (and we're conveniently on the way to either of them)? Oh, yes, several times, in fact.

The last time this happened, we finally managed to get some sort of half-assed explanation out of her. Anne smokes; so does Jim. It's been over three years since Eva left that particular club. So Anne's got a nice Smoking Area whenever she ventures out this way...the fact the Sainted Son lives in the Smoking Area is just co-incidence, I guess. Does she actually expect Eva to take up the cancer sticks again, just so they can come see our fucking house?

Sorry, I got a bit emotional, there. Eva's had a lifetime to get used to carrying this burden around...having to call her mother on her--Eva's--birthday; having to call her mother, period--any time your call display says Anne and John are calling, you know somebody's dead or dying; just generally being ignored. I still don't know how she stands it. As an only child, I was many things, but never ignored.
I try not to let their behaviour bother me, but it rankles nonetheless. It's one of the reasons that back when I wanted kids, I was so adamant about having no more than one. I'd be terrified of perpetrating the same kind of crap on my son or daughter.

No wonder my wife is so self-reliant. She kind of has to be...

29 January, 2006

Taking the Hard Road

"To a nonconformist, the only thing worse than a conformist is another nonconformist who doesn't conform to the prevailing standards of nonconformity."
--author unknown

I can't remember where I picked up that little tidbit--it was at least fifteen years ago--but it resonated with me then and still does.
I am a nonconformist, not easily pinned down. Strangers don't know what to make of me. My in-laws, who have known me for eight years now, fare no better. Sometimes I wonder if anyone understands me. Sometimes I don't understand myself.
One of my defining characteristics is a rabid unorthodoxy: I do almost everything--from trivial daily duties up to shaping my life--at least slightly differently. I'm convinced everyone who knows me has felt the exasperation at some point, and many of you have let it boil over into words: "WHY DO YOU HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING THE HARD WAY?!?"
To which I have no easy answer. Oh, there are crutches aplenty: I'm as flexible as your average two-by-four, which means I'll kneel or lay down where others will simply bend over or squat. I'm not exactly the most, um, focussed individual, which means that given a task, I'll eventually find some way to do it, often missing at least three obvious ways. And my life is ruled by twin fears of rejection and the unknown--both of which explain, at least in part, why I am not a professional writer or musician.
My parents tried to deal with the physical inflexibility by enrolling me in karate classes. They spent what must have been a great deal of money on a "black belt membership", a one-time fee that entitled me to attend class and use the facilities until I had a black belt. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate the intention and expense, but even then I could have told them it was a waste of money. I never got my black belt. I never got any belt. The classes were torture several ways for me. First, of course, there was the physical torture of stretching. My Sensei could do the full splits, placing his head flat on the ground in front of him and then behind him. I could do that too, with help and specialized tools. Like a chainsaw. Hell, I haven't been able to touch my toes since kindergarten. Endless attempts to touch my toes every Saturday morning never got me any closer.
Second, there was the humiliation of having all my flaws bared in public. Nobody likes that, I'm sure, but even more than most, I exerted maximum effort to avoid it. It was bad enough that I was ostracized and bullied for the things I could do, academic and musical prowess not being high on the list of things schoolyard thugs aspired to. I certainly didn't need to hand out ammunition.
And then there was the massive hits to my self-esteem. It was frustrating for my Sensei; it was doubly, trebly frustrating for me. Karate is supposed to build self-confidence. It pretty much destroyed mine. Because I never seemed to get better. You could work with me one-on-one for half an hour and see little or no improvement. It got to the point where people thought I was deliberately not trying. But I was. I was. In other spheres, I didn't need to try to succeed. Here, trying as hard as I could, I still failed. I found that almost debilitating.
I don't know where my absent-mindedness came from. Neither does anyone else. Outer space, maybe. It certainly seems to be where I spend a lot of my time. If pressed for an explanation, I might suggest my poor eyesight bears some responsibility: my brain simply got used to ignoring the gibberish bombarding it from my optic nerve. But that doesn't explain why I can read a book once and never forget it.
I'm fully capable of applying fearful amounts of discipline to any undertaking, however dubious, that I really want to excel at. But my mind throws up objections like so much chaff when it comes to the big stuff, stuff like making my way in the world as a writer or musician. I'm afraid I'll be rejected. I'm afraid I'll be exposed as an amateur. That somewhere, somehow, everybody will be snickering at me behind my back. I can read that FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real all I want, but it never seems to sink in.
This blog has been a lifeline of sorts for me. Heinlein wrote that "writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of--but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards." I've never been ashamed of writing. But blogging has taught me not to be ashamed of what I'm writing, and given me the confidence to believe I can write. A few more years of this and I might think I can make money from writing. As usual, I'm taking the hard road. But I'll get there.

28 January, 2006

Every once in a while, the stuff that comes through the mailbox asking me to "pass it on" is actually worth being passed on. Like this.
I got this from my cousin, who is a forensic detective, and my dad, who is a volunteer firefighter and retired police officer. It could have come from my uncle, an O.P.P. officer who passed away while on duty. Or it could have come from my mother, who was an ambulance dispatcher at one point and an auxiliary police officer at another. Or it could have come from another cousin, who is a firefighter. Or...well, you can perhaps see why I feel people should read this...

Dedicated to Paramedics, Fire and Police Officers and their Dispatchers:


I wish you could comprehend a wife's horror at 6 in the morning as I
check her husband of 40 years for a pulse and find none. I start CPR
anyway, hoping to bring him back, knowing intuitively it is too late.
But wanting his wife and family to know everything possible was done to
try and save his life.

I wish you knew the unique smell of burning insulation, the taste of
soot-filled mucus, the feeling of intense heat through your
turnout gear, the sound of flames crackling, the eeriness of being able
to see absolutely nothing in dense smoke-sensations that I've become
too familiar with.

I wish you could read my mind as I respond to a call, Is this a false
alarm or a working fire? How is the building constructed? What Hazards
await me? Is anyone trapped?". Or to call and ask what is wrong with
the patient? Is it minor or life threatening? Is the caller really in
distress or is he waiting for us with a 2x4 or a gun?

I wish you could be in the emergency room, as a doctor pronounces dead,
the beautiful five-year old girl that I have been trying to save during
the past 25 minutes, knowing she will never go on her first date or say
the words, "I love you Mommy", ever again.

I wish you could know the frustration I feel in the cab of the
ambulance or engine or cruiser, the driver with his foot pressing down
hard on the pedal, my arm tugging again and again at the air horn
chain, as you fail to yield the right-of-way at an
intersection or in traffic. When you need us however, your first
comment upon our arrival will be, "It took you forever to get
here!"

I wish you could know my thoughts as I help extricate a girl of teenage
years from the remains of her automobile. What if this was my daughter,
sister, my girlfriend or a friend? What were her
parents reaction going to be when they opened the door to find a police
officer with hat in hand?

I wish you could know how it feels to walk in the back door and greet
my parents and family, not having the heart to tell them that I nearly
did not come back from the last call.

I wish you could know how it feels dispatching officers,
firefighters and Paramedics out and when we call for them and our heart
drops because no one answers back or to here a bone chilling 911 call
of a child or wife needing assistance.

I wish you could feel the hurt as people verbally and sometimes
physically abuse us or belittle what we do, or as they express
their attitudes of "It will never happen to me".

I wish you could realize the physical, emotional and mental drain of
missed meals, lost sleep and forgone social activities, in
addition to all the tragedy my eyes have seen.

I wish you could know the brotherhood and self-satisfaction of helping
save a life or preserving someone's property, or being able to be there
in time of crisis, or creating order from total chaos.

I wish you could understand what it feels like to have a little boy
tugging at your arm and asking, "Is my Mommy okay?", not even being
able to look in his eyes without tears from your own and not
knowing what to say. Or to have to hold back a long time friend who
watches his buddy having CPR done on him as they take him away in
the Medic Unit. You know all along he did not have his seat belt on. A
sensation that I have become too familiar with.

Unless you have lived with this kind of life, you will never truly
understand or appreciate who I am, we are, or what our job really
means to us...I wish you could though.

26 January, 2006

Three Lessons I'd Like to Teach The World, Part III

To recap, the first two, in essence, were that happiness, like any other emotion, is a choice; and that you should always think for yourself, drawing wherever possible on verifiable fact to do so.

The third can be summed up in the oft-quoted, and just-as-oft-ignored, maxim "work to live, don't live to work".

My first job was picking apples at Cornell's Fruit Farm, which used to be just outside London, Ontario. It seems to be out of business now: no doubt kids ride their bikes and play road hockey (who am I kidding?...ride their couches and play NHL 2K6) where, not all that long ago, apple trees grew by the seeming millions. My best friend Tim and I worked all the same shifts, and usually our shifts would degenerate into all out apple wars.
There was only one rule in these sometimes bloody affairs: ammo came off the ground, not out of a tree. I'd pick up a fallen apple, calculate how best to get it over two rows and down the line of trees, and let fly. Unbeknownst to me, Tim would creep around from where he'd been thirty seconds ago and sidearm a Granny Smith at me from behind. That was, of course, my cue to bring out the dirty bombs: rotten apples that almost, but not quite, fell apart in my hand. Get hit with one of those babies and you'd know it: the stench alone would gag a skunk.
God, those were the days.
Along came Mary Brown's Fried Chicken..."best legs in town!" I worked cash there, and I lasted about a month before I was quired. Ever been quired? That's when your boss comes up to you and says "hey, bud, you have a choice. I'm going to ask you to quit. If you say no, I'll tell you to quit."
Then came that place...you know, the Place. The Place Where Everybody Has To Work At Some Point In Their Lives. I speak, of course, of McDonald's. I started there in September of 1986, making the princely wage of $3.55 an hour. I still remember the first cheque I got that cleared a hundred bucks. I thought I was rich.
For a while there it was touch and go. If you've never worked at Mickey Dees, don't poo-poo it: the job is not as easy as you might think. In fact, it used to get downright hairy some days, demanding a combination of intense focus and lightning reflexes, neither of which I had at the age of 14. The prospect of getting fired from McDonald's , of all places, caused me to develop just enough focus and at least a few reflexes: they kept me on.
Eventually, I got good enough to train others. But I was still prone to spectacular accidents...none of which ever got me fired (or 'quired') because they were often so goddamned funny. Herewith are two of them.
One day, some asshole left the sear tool on the grill. I won't say just which asshole it was, because it was almost certainly this asshole. Anyway, as I was saying, the metal sear tool was sitting on the metal grill, and the metal grill was heated to a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Get the picture?
I didn't.
Yup, without thinking--who wants to think? Not thinking's so much more fun!--I reached down and grasped the tool with my bare right hand.
Not for long.
I managed to pick the thing up--throw it up, actually, in one spasmodic jerk--and it sailed over my head and across the kitchen. I started to turn around, and I'm pretty sure I yelled something articulate such as "YAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" at the top of my lungs. Before I could complete my turn, there was the chunkle sound of the sear shattering the clock on the wall behind me, followed by the sizzling splash of the sear falling into a vat of hot oil and Chicken McNuggets. That was followed by some very un-McDonalds-like cursing from the shift manager, who had just been roundly spattered with the oil.
Hey, who would can me when I provided entertainment like that?
Or then there was the day the bigwigs came through on an annual inspection. As one of the best employees there (no modesty in my family, I have it all, ha-ha) they saw fit to schedule me that day. They weren't aware that I am a walking embodiment of Murphy's Law. In fact, I firmly believe that Murphy was an optimist. Even if something can't go wrong, it will...around me. Some days, anyway.
This day.
For those who would rather walk the sewers than see the workings of a McDonald's kitchen, let me give you a quick tour of one, circa 1990 or so. Things have changed radically since--McDonalds uses microwaves now, although they'd really prefer it if you called them 'Q-ing ovens...the 'Q' stands for 'Quality', of course. But this is the kitchen I spent the first half of my McD's career in: You had your grills. Behind them, you had the 'dressing table', where the buns were arranged on trays and the toppings were put on; toasters flanked the table on both sides, one for Quarter Pounder buns and one for Big Mac and hamburger buns. On the other side of those dressing tables were your vats--great for throwing hot sear tools into, but also useful to cook McChicken patties, Filet-O-Fish patties, pies, and McNuggets. There were more dressing tables on either side, holding cabinets for Chicken McNuggets below and a filet steamer and extra toaster at hand.
Okay, now put me in there making Filet-O-Fishes. These are probably the simplest sandwich on the menu to prepare: one squirt sauce out of something that looks like a giant caulking gun, one fish patty, and one half slice of cheese, all between steamed buns.
The bigwigs were just rounding the corner when my filet sauce gun slipped out of my hands somehow. It did a lazy somersault in midair and landed on its handle, which depressed and shot a large dollop of gooey tartar sauce five feet straight up into my face. The shift manager at the time (whom I eventually followed to 7-Eleven) took one look at my splooged countenance and shook her head slowly, back and forth. 'That's Ken', she thought.
Now look. If you take a thousand filet sauce guns and drop them, you MIGHT recreate that scenario once. Maybe. If you're me, I bet it'd happen slightly more often, say once in every three attempts. Put Very Important People around me and the chances of a money shot rise towards an effective one hundred percent.
We used to have so much fun at McDonald's before the Q-ing ovens came in. I don't know whether it was radiation or just some bad vibe those things gave off, but in late 1990 the morale at our location went right down the crapper. I started to hear all kinds of people bemoaning their awful luck to be paid for doing a job. I couldn't go an hour without hearing somebody whine "I wanna go home!"
"Well, go home, then," I'd say. "Just don't bother coming back." Funny, they never left after I said that. I guess they didn't wanna go home that bad.
At McDonald's I learned two things: one, it's absolutely amazing how much you can get done in a minute if you're organized; and two, it's the people that make any job bearable. I was on good terms with probably eight different guys on grill, and I had secret crushes on, well, pretty much all the window girls. It made it pretty easy to go to work.
After McD's came a stint in a variety store run by my mother. I learned only one thing of value there: don't work for your mother. She went out of the way to make sure there was no favouritism shown, so I got all the shit jobs.
Then I went off to university, was hired on at the local McDonald's, lasted a bit over a year there, and left for 7-Eleven. After five hellish years in that job, I transferred stores, away from the student ghetto, only to have my new store close on me within six months. That put me out of a job for the first time, and I kept looking lower and lower down the food chain until I discovered market research. The woman who interviewed me for that job eventually married me...so I'm one of the few who can truly claim to have worked both for my mother and for my wife.
I was back at my old 7-11 when I married; I left that not long after for my present job...and finally, for the first time, I have the word 'Manager' in my unofficial title.
That's my resume in a nutshell. Nary a well-paying job in sight. In fact, none of my jobs have been particularly rewarding in and of themselves, until this one.

But I don't mind, because what I do isn't who I am.

Ask me who I am, and my job title won't be among the first hundred words I say in response. The job is just for money...if I could get money some other way, such as, for instance, by growing it, I certainly would. But this job works fine for me, until I find that money tree. I get along well with my bosses and co-workers. I feel like I'm an integral part of the team. The work itself is secondary.

In this, I really believe I've got it right and much of the world doesn't. So many people work themselves into a frenzy at jobs they can't stand, clocking up the overtime, ignoring family and friends, and rushing around like kamikaze pilots. All for what? Prestige? Power? Prestige is a state of mind, and power is largely an illusion. Money? Work in retail any length of time and you'll see money for what it really is: bits of metal and pieces of paper.

Don't live to work. Work to live.

24 January, 2006

P.M. P M's P M*

* Prime Minister Paul Martin's Post Mortem

My first thought upon seeing the electoral results: boy, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver got exactly the government they deserve.
Not a single Conservative from any of Canada's three largest urban areas. I just know Stephen's thinking something he can't say out loud: Good. Now you people might understand what it's like to be Alberta.
Seriously, the red tide in the Greater Toronto Area distressed me. I've tried to get into the head of your average Liberal-voting Torontonian, only to find the atmosphere dark, brown, and smelly. Many writers more erudite than I have suggested Toronto is the wife of an abusive husband, and last night, she covered up for him yet again.

Fellow blogger Peter Dodson suggests that "this result speaks not to the fact that Canadians [his unfortunate phrase for those who voted Liberal] forgive corruption, but that they don't want a socially conservative agenda." But Harper wasn't running on a socially conservative platform...not even close. The Conservative agenda would fit neatly into the center of the American Democratic Party. Remember them? The Americans we liked?

No, the only possible answer is that Torontonians (and Vancouverites, and Montrealers) fell once again for the promises of the abusive husband. I'll change. I'll clean myself up. Subtext: you're weak. You need me.

Well, Toronto, standing by your man got you squat this time.

I almost caught myself feeling sorry for Paul Martin last night. I'm sure his daddy used to read bedtime stories in which little Paulie grew up to be the Prime Minister of Canada. Little Paulie used every weapon at his disposal, and disposed of many potential weapons, trying to climb the tree of power. And once he got to the top, he found out there was nowhere to go but down, and that right quick.
I have to admit his resignation surprised me. I fully expected him to stay on: men who have plotted for power all these years don't generally give it up of their own accord. In stepping down, Martin restored a little dignity to himself and his party.

As my readers know, I run the dairy department at a grocery store. My two largest yogurt suppliers are Danone and Yoplait. Danone has been the world #1 in yogurt for as long as anybody can remember. Yoplait, by contrast, was a brash upstart, treading water, until they introduced something called Source: a sugarless, aspartame-less, but far from tasteless yogurt that people have taken to in droves. If you listen to the legions of Source consumers, aspartame supposedly causes everything from bald spots to body odour. (Which makes me wonder how diet soft drinks ever got to market, but anyway...)
Danone's response in the battle of bacterial cultures was to sit back and do nothing for more than three years. Then they suddenly reformulated their Silhouette brand so it had no aspartame....
My rep has been throughly indoctrinated in the Danone Way. She said to me, in tones of great import, that Danone was going to recapture all those people who had been buying Source for the last three years. "They're just displaced Danone customers", she said.
It was all I could do to keep from laughing.

The Liberals think last night was nothing more than a time-out in the corner: that soon they'll come back with a new leader who has no aspartame and reclaim all those displaced Liberal voters. That arrogance is no small part of what cost them this election in the first place. People who disagreed with them on anything were branded un-Canadian, and they got sick of it.

Where does Harper go from here? He has a real juggling act on his hands forming a cabinet. Assuming he can get through that process unscathed, he will act quickly on his five priorities:

--Clean up government by passing the Federal Accountability Act;
--Cut the GST by one point (with another point to be shaved off sometime before his mandate's up);
--Crack down on crime;
--Implement his child care program, consisting of money to parents and tax breaks to companies that create daycare spaces; and

--Work with the provinces to establish a Patient Wait Times Guarantee.

You'll note that most of these priorities almost seem designed for a minority government. Clean up Parliament? Who would dare vote against that, post-Gomery? Cut the GST? Only the NDP believes in higher taxation...even the Liberals repeatedly pledged to scrap the GST! As for cracking down on crime, all three major parties had similar platforms on this; nobody wants to be seen as being on the side of the crooks. Health care waiting times? Anybody voting that initiative down will find themselves in the political ER, stat.
It's only that fourth priority, child care, where the Tories are, sorry to say it, vulnerable. The three parties in Opposition are all for some version of what I've taken to calling a "child registry": a national child-care program where, in effect, the government raises your kids for you. The Tories, in contrast, believe in a quaint old thing called 'parental choice'. It will be a dogfight to get that notion through Parliament, believe me. What? Let the PARENTS decide how to raise their kids? You're kidding, right? Why...why...they might raise them with values that are un-Canadian!

Stephen Harper's going to have to govern exactly the way he ran his campaign: from dead-center. In doing so, he's bound to alienate a few of the more socially conservative members of his party. Trust me, Steve-o: that's a small price to pay. If you can walk this tightrope for eighteen months to two years (about as long as it's going to take the Liberals to find a new leader, find some money, and find some trumped-up reason to bring you down), Canadians will reward you with a majority next time out.

As for Toronto? Maybe it should separate.

That was a joke.

Sort of.

No, really. That was a joke.



22 January, 2006

Vote early, vote often

If you haven't voted in the advance polls,

GET OUT THERE AND VOTE ON MONDAY.

Nuff said.

The magic's in the music and the music's in me...

No more memories, no more silent tears,
No more gazing across the wasted years...
--Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd-Webber

Practically everybody has them...songs that define chapters of their lives. They come on the radio and transport their time and their place up to you in the present, packing a lot of emotional punch into three or four minutes. If you close your eyes while one is playing, you can practically smell the past. I used to find that aroma intoxicating. Now it just seems musty.

As a composer who has lived his life around music (and not just popular music, either), my hit parade is considerably longer than most, and when it starts up it still detours most of the traffic in my brain and slows it to a crawl. Put a name from some point in my past to me and chances are I can immediately give you eight or ten songs that bring her (it's almost always a her, although my close male friends have some songs all their own) into sharp relief.
In some cases, the hit parade float encompasses an entire musical. I will forever associate Les Miserables with my first engagement, because I saw the play with her by my side, and because our relationship ended, well, miserably. I lived by the lyrics from something called Chess for about three years--everybody and his sister had a song in that one.
And then there's Phantom of the Opera.
Ask my wife: when something catches my interest, I tend to get a little obsessed with it. After seeing the movie Titanic, I went out and bought four related CDs and over thirty books, and eventually could quote you sections of the frigging cargo manifest. Why I do this, I have no clue--I just feel compelled, somehow.
Phantom was my Titanic at the age of seventeen. I identified pretty strongly with the titular character--I felt myself just as unappreciated, almost as as shunned, and at least as lonely. And I wrote music, although hopefully nothing half as discordant as his. Music was, in fact, pretty much my sole companion through most of high school.
And I had my Christine, too. A succession of lesser lights circled her in my mind, occasionally taking a turn in the spotlight if she was treating me badly that day, but one innocent smile from her and all thought of anyone else would vanish.
Most teens go through this sort of thing at least once, I think, although I also think it's far more common among teen girls. My 'love' for this woman went a fair ways past the bounds of rational. If you went back through my daily diary, 1988 and 1989 editions and counted up the instances I'd written her name, you'd recoil in horror: it worked out to more than once a day for two years. Even as late as 1997, five years after I had last seen The Object Of My Obsession, I would still dream of her on occasion and wake up singing snatches of an aria from Phantom:

And though it's clear, though it was always clear
That this was never meant to be
If you ever spare a moment
Stop and think of me.

No, this should mark the intersection of two obsessions: I bought the sheet music, worked harder at it than I had any other music in my life, eventually memorized the entire play, taped myself playing it, and presented TOOMO with the tape. Somewhere in the world there exists a tape of me playing the score of Phantom of the Opera with so much affection it's comical. And pathetic, come to that.

My parents got me (and my then-girlfriend) tickets to the production of Phantom that played at the Pantages theatre in Toronto. Second row. Too close, for such a wide stage: it was almost impossible to follow all the action. And when the chandelier came down, so help me, I ducked. I felt the wind.
It wasn't the first time or the last that I was emotionally unfaithful to that girl--with that other girl, either, come to that. From curtain rise to curtain fall, I was completely unaware of the audience around me. Even as I drank in the scene, in the Paris opera house of my mind I was up on stage, playing the Phantom and Raoul as it suited, and TOOMO was playing Christine and all was right with the world...

Yup. Pathetic.

Fast forward some sixteen years. I just saw the movie production of Phantom of the Opera yesterday. My quick review, since if its box office was any indication, very few of you out there care: Christine and Carlotta were perfect, Raoul slightly less so, and the Phantom was a disappointment, not fit to hold the mask of Michael Crawford.
And yes, the movie did bring my teenaged geeky self crawling up from whatever hindbrain hiding spot he'd found. I even felt a wisp of nostalgia for TOOMO. .

And then I felt dirty, and embarrassed, and more than a little disgusted with that remnant of myself. I shooed him away and back into the hindbrain he crawled. Whereupon I found myself singing the number I first thought of when I met the woman who eventually became my wife. This one's also by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, but it's from Aspects of Love:

Love, love changes everything
Hands and faces, earth and sky
Love, love changes everything
How you live and how you die
Love, love can make the summer fly
Or a night seem like a lifetime
Yes love, love changes everything
Now I tremble at your name
Nothing in the world will ever be the same.

Thank heaven for that.

20 January, 2006

Beat me! Harder!

On the one hand, I'm astounded. On the other, I'm not surprised at all.
With three days left until Election Day, the polls seem to be showing that Harper's Conservatives have peaked. They were into slim majority territory as recently as this past Tuesday, and now only lead by nine percentage points. It looks like a Tory minority right now, and a Liberal minority is (amazingly) still not out of the question.
My partisanship aside, the Liberals have run one of the worst campaigns in my political memory, full of stupid gaffes and outright bald-faced lies. Apparently, they've even stooped so far as to level a
false accusation of sexual assault against a Conservative. "Get power at any cost; hold power at any cost" has been the Liberal mantra for generations now.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have run a largely gaffe-free, factual, issues-oriented campaign--pretty much as close to perfect as you're going to get. They entered the campaign eight or ten points back and will finish it--maybe--eight or ten points ahead, having scored major gains in Quebec and lesser gains in rural Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
Jack Layton's New Democrats have also run an excellent race, little good as it's going to do them. They have credibly positioned themselves as an alternative: if you don't like the Liberal corruption and you fear the boogeyman Harper, why not vote for the NDP? Trouble is, not many people are listening. The Dippers will pick up a few votes and a few seats and that's about it.
Toronto is still Liberalville. If you took the GTA out of Canada the Conservatives would have a respectable majority government locked up. Instead, we're headed for, at the moment, a minority--there's no telling how slim or which party will lead.
Canadians should think long and hard before they take this course.
A Tory minority government, with the socialist NDP and separatist Bloc holding the balance of power, is inherently unstable. We'll just be going through another election in less than a year. A Liberal minority is unthinkable. Martin would linger like a bad fart; there would be increased stirrings of separatism in both Quebec and Alberta; all the scandal and wrongdoing would be perceived to have been forgiven. Gun crime will continue unchecked. (Did you think a second ban on handguns would have any more effect than the first?) Our relations with the United States will continue their slide; after all, the Prime Minister has denigrated the Americans at every turn this campaign. (And for all you rabid isolationists who really do hate America and think that Canada-U.S. relations should suck, do bear in mind that they have in their power to make life so very, very uncomfortable for us.)
Martin has campaigned on what he calls "Canadian values". Most of the voters outside Ontario see this as the insult it is: if you don't think as we do, you are not Canadian. Many Ontarians do get it, too. Just not enough. Too many seem to actually believe, along with their beloved Liberals, that there's no better choice to lead the country than a bunch of liars, cheats, and frauds.
The smear campaign is working again, you see. No matter what Stephen Harper says, Martin claims to know better what's actually on his mind.
The Liberal war room hears Stephen Harper say that he will not proceed with an abortion agenda. Last campaign's strategy was to respond 'Well of course he'd say that' while solemnly winking. But why bother with insinuation when lies work so much better? Barely three hours had passed before Martin was announcing that Stephen Harper would proceed with an abortion agenda.
That's amazing. What's even more amazing is that people believe Martin when he says this.

Somebody, please tell me. What have the Liberals done to merit so much as a single vote?

19 January, 2006

The Fear That Would Not Die

From the diary of Ken Breadner

SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001

…dawns clear and seasonably cool, an entirely regular, routine and boring Tuesday. The morning ritual completes itself as the sun breaks the horizon and we pull into the Price Chopper parking lot. My mind is already on my Tuesday workload, or lack thereof--three orders due in and one to write, far and away the lightest day of my week. Al’s off; Larry’s due in around ten and Mike about noon. The truck order is done well before eight: I’m getting good at it. Greg’s in early with the milk, pulling out about half past eight. Part of me is thinking about my father undergoing hip replacement surgery in Toronto today.
Just before nine, the phone rings, and Crystal pages me to pick up line one. It’s Eva, with news: a plane has crashed into one of the World Trade Centre towers in New York.
Ugh. What a horrid image that makes: a plane completely out of control, spiralling into a 110-storey building. My ‘guess the picture on tomorrow’s Sun front page’ mental game just got waaaay too easy. Ah, well, nobody I knew was likely to be on that plane, or in that building. Jay’s safe in San Diego, so far as I know. Better call him tonight, on the exceeding off chance. Meantime… I’ll just go ahead and put this out of my mind, shall I?
Shortly after nine, the phone rings again. It would ring and ring all day long now…the only thing that would stop it from ringing would be both outgoing lines being in use. There was a lot of that as well.
Another plane. The other tower. What started off as a horrific accident suddenly turns ominous.
Not for the first time, I curse the fact that work has no radio access. The need to turn in to 680 News is almost overpowering.
I’m starting to get a little nervous as the Erb truck pulls in with my Danone order. A fairly large one. That’s hauled out to the floor, all of us waiting for the phone to ring again…and sure enough, it does: this time for Mark, who informs us the Pentagon has been hit.
Nervousness is gone. Now it’s something quite a bit closer to terror.
I mean, come on, the Pentagon? My mind is just starting to come to terms with the idea that somebody somewhere hates the United States enough to fly two civilian jetliners into the symbol of America’s financial might. Nobody but nobody should have been allowed to get a plane anywhere near the fucking Pentagon.
The store is almost magically empty. A good thing, too: I’m jogging back and forth from my dairy aisle, to the deli, to receiving, to produce, waiting and waiting for one of the phone lines to be free. Visions are flashing through my head at light speed. Eva’s been unconsciously preparing for a day like this for most of her life.
We have a tacit agreement: I do all the paying attention to the news, on the grounds that it doesn’t bother me, and she will outfit us for the getaway and assume a leadership role should an emergency requiring quick flight arise. It seems to have arisen.
No solid plans have been made as to our destination. One set of parents or the other to begin with, I suppose--I’d prefer my father’s only because I think we’d best be somewhere near Port Severn on James Bay before too long, and Dad’s sort of en route. But then, we kind of have to gather everybody, don’t we? How do you justify leaving your parents--your friends, too--to face this?
Half a second--what IS this, exactly? Nobody knows where this is coming from or when it will stop. There was absolutely no warning of any imminent attack in the media--I would have seen it, heard it, something. Christ, the headlines lately have been full of Gary Condit/Chandra Levy--just the kind of O.J. Simpson story I assiduously ignore.
The news keeps filtering in. All airplanes have been grounded for the first time in history. The Canada-U.S. border has been closed. (Karen Tiffin, our deli/bakery manager, is in Florida on holidays, trapped there at this point.)
A plane that didn’t immediately identify itself was shot down over Pennsylvania. This is reported with as much authority as anything else today, although later the story is changed significantly: it was in fact hijacked, but passengers--great heroism here--battled the hijackers to a draw. Although there’s plenty of evidence this second telling is the true one, part of me remains convinced that flight 93 was shot down.

So where the hell is the enemy? Who is it, and what will the White House do?

I got home, turned on CNN, and at last saw the dreadful pictures--surely by now some of the most infamous footage in history. Nausea, never far away today, threatens to boil over. The world has changed. Not, I suspect, for the better.

Tomorrow’s Toronto Star will strike all the right sympathetic chords on the surface—you’ll have to look inside the paper to see how this horrible sneak attack was America’s fault. Every other paper will be full of righteous (and rightful) anger. If any papers publish tomorrow at all.

Who knows? They might be dusting off the warheads even as I write this.

Dad's fine. What must it be like to Ichabod Crane your way through the most world-shattering event in recent history? I wonder, does he feel a disconnect somewhere?

Those of us left to face this cowardly new world...I can't decide if we're lucky or not. Time will tell.

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

Something truly evil birthed itself that day. In the manner of births since time immemorial, most of us have forgotten the pain of its coming. We say we remember, but unless the holes ripped in the fabric of normality swallowed loved ones, the pulse-pounding immediacy has long faded. Probably a good thing, because that level of fear kept up for any length of time cannot but have disastrous effects on a society. Deliberately trying to sustain the terror of 9/11--something that has been done occasionally by al-Qaeda but more often by the government of the United States itself--should, in my opinion, be a capital offense.
The evil's still in its toddlerhood as I write this on January 19, 2006...taking baby steps here and there (Bali, Madrid, London) and falling flat on its face at least as often. God forbid it should survive to reach puberty.
The voice of that evil popped up today on an audio tape sent to al-Jazeera. This isn't the first time it's spoken, merely the most recent, and arguably the most unexpected. We thought we had shut it up for good more than once.
Of course, we have only the CIA's word that the voice on the tape does in fact belong to Osama bin Laden. I've long suspected the United States, having killed bin Laden long ago, is keeping him 'alive' for its own purposes. This is one of those situations where I can't decide if I fear I'm right or hope I'm wrong.
Regardless, somebody purporting to be bin Laden is threatening fresh attacks on United States soil. Supposedly bombings. I'd let down my guard quite a lot since the last set--in fact, on more than one occasion I've sneered at the terrorists. They had (and still have) most of a great nation scampering around in fear, and what have they done lately? This voice turned my complacence on its ear: attacks, it said, take time to plan. I wonder what takes fifty-some-odd months to whomp up? I don't think I want to learn.
We Canadians, smug as bugs in a rug, think we're above attack, despite having been named on a hit list. This is, of course, nonsense. We take great pride in staying out of an 'unjust war' in Iraq, and chiding our neighbours at every turn for their own actions. It's one giant glass igloo up here, though, and I'm terribly afraid that some day a whopping great stone called Afghanistan is going to come smashing through it. We are UNDER FIRE in the war on terror, folks. We have taken casualties. Most American citizens may be completely unaware of the great job our troops are doing in Kandahar at present, but you can bet the terrorists know...and care. Given that our country's borders are a joke, we shouldn't be sleeping so easy at night.

After the disclosure of this tape, I'm not sure anyone should be.


18 January, 2006

Ah, Sleep...

I should be sleeping right now.
Well, at the very least, I should be preparing to go to sleep. That's an hour-long routine with me, and it usually begins between 8:00 and 8:30 in the evening. By 9:30--10:00 at the latest--I'm deep in dreamland. Nearly every night.
Several lifetimes ago, in high school, my days often began before seven in the morning and often ended after midnight. What with the part time jobs and piles of homework, sleep was a rare commodity. It never bothered me much, back then. I practiced and eventually perfected the art of dozing at my desk without missing a word the teacher said.
In Grade 11 a geography teacher crept up to my desk and thwapped a ruler down about an inch from my lowered head. After I gathered up the crap he had scared out of me, I proceeded to answer his question and summarize what he had been talking about since the period began in terse, rapid point form. I was tempted to add a few things he hadn't mentioned, things I'd learned through supplementary reading, but one look at him dissuaded me. Oddly, he was becoming more and more mutely furious with every point I made, so I thought I'd better shut up.
I distinctly heard him mutter the word "smartass". At that point, my lips moved of their own accord and words spilled out.
"My ass is no smarter than your ass. Sir."
We both looked at the spilled words, staining the air like ink spilled in haste. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times and I was forcibly reminded of a flapping fish. Then he did something no fish could do and no teacher had ever done to me, not since Grade Two at any rate: he sent me to the office.
I told the vice-principal--so called, I think, because he was in charge of dealing with vice in all its forms--that I had been listening intently to Mr. Flounder, whatever he had thought; that Mr. Flounder had found no fault with my summary of his lesson, and my being sent to his domain was a ridiculous over-reaction on Flounder's part. Mr. Vice tsk-tsked at me a couple of times, but that was all. After that, Flounder would occasionally call on me (several times asking questions about things he'd only hinted at) and I would pick off the queries, sometimes without even raising my head. Satisfied that I was indeed listening, he pretty much left me alone.
I worked my first night shift in my final year of high school. I would go on to work many, many more throughout my aborted university career. I never minded the deep of the night, but I hated trying to sleep during the day. It didn't matter how much I darkened my bedroom, my daily sleep was fitful and restless. Often I'd wake up even more tired that I'd been when I went to bed.
My current job allows me to indulge my inner lark: I'm up at 5:30 and at work by 7 a.m. While the zombies are stumbling through their pre-opening routines, I'm spreading chipper chatter hither and yon, annoying the hell out of everyone. And that's before I've had a coffee. One large double-double and I'm a hummingbird.
How do you do that, I'm asked, sourly. Simple. I go to bed early.
A bed salesman said something to me once I've never forgotten. You spend a third of your life in bed. Isn't a good mattress worth the price? I couldn't help but agree: for a time our bed was worth more than most of the rest of our furniture put together.
You do spend a third of your life abed. Or at least you're supposed to. Today's time-starved society would rather do...well, whatever it is all those weirdos do in the evenings. Me, I'd rather sleep.
I've always been like this, even when forced by circumstance to be up into or throughout the wee hours. Unlike most kids, I never quibbled about bedtime. As I grew up and eventually discovered the really neat-o dreams I could have once the lights went out, I relished bedtime all the more. To sleep, perchance to dream: Ay, there's the rub...rub-rub...rub-rub-rub-rub-rub...

Until people understood this strange quirk of mine, they were apt to ask if I'd watched any number of shows last night. I'd tell them that I was asleep long before Slut Island began, and they would roll their eyes and give me that "you are so alien" look I've come to know and love.

At this time I should reprise the epigram at the top of my blog:

I have lived and I have loved;
I have laughed and I have wept;
I have sung and I have danced;
I have woken, I have slept.
All these things were weariness,
And some of them were dreariness,
And all these things, but two things, were emptiness and pain:
Love, it was the best of them
And Sleep, worth all the rest of them.

Without further ado, I bid you adieu. Night-night, sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite.

15 January, 2006

It's a beautiful day in the neighbourhood...

I am a living conundrum, a study in opposites. I'm one of the most open men you'll ever meet--there's no detail, no matter how personal, I'm not prepared to reveal to you, Dear Reader. Only two things stop me from spilling every brain-bean I have out on to your screens. One is the ironclad knowledge that there are things, many things, about me to which you would rather not be privy. (That my mind often resembles a privy is merely the most obvious of them.)
The other is my wife, Eva, or rather the suffusion of Eva that exists in my cells after five years of marriage. If the beans involve her in any way, I must check with her before they're spilled. It's not that I'm whipped. Even though she's at least as open as I am, it's that I value her privacy.
As, despite my own openness, I value mine: very highly. While I will open up right quickly to anyone with whom I feel comfortable, people shouldn't assume I feel comfortable with them and proceed to ask me nosy questions: depending on my mood, they'll get silence or more nosy questions in return.
I am not, to put it mildly, "neighbourly". I spend a great deal of my time indoors, behind locked doors and drawn shades. It's not that I have anything to hide...in fact, back in my nudist phase, I was apt to forget to close the curtains, on the grounds that anybody curious enough to peer into my window deserved whatever they saw. (Oh, wait...was that one of the things you'd rather not know? Sorry about that.)
No, I have nothing to hide. I have mild to moderate photosensitivity, therefore I am not a big fan of sunlight. The way I look at it, the sun is very much "outside" and it should stay there. Possibly related is a case of reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder--is that real? You bet...Eva and I are both afflicted. Only on cloudy, grey days are we fully ourselves. And yes, our curtains open up then, to let the soft and dusky daylight fall where it will.
At any rate, my desire not to upset anyone's private applecarts is doing battle with my un-neighbourly aspect right now. Having recently read Magazine Man's blog entry about his Crazy Neighbour gives me the determination to write about my own Really Annoying one.
He's not the first, not by a long shot. Back in the 70s, we were fully engaged in a Stereo War with the People On The Other Side Of The Wall (it was a war of attrition: we outlasted them).
The first place I officially lived with Eva saw crazies boxing our compass. Patrick upstairs was in the habit of letting his homeless friends crash at his place. An act of kindness? Perhaps. One of them took a prodigious dump and clogged Patrick's toilet. Rather than--oh, I don't know--plunge, or at least call a plumber, he proceeded to lay toilet paper down (TOILET PAPER!) across the lip of the bowl and close the lid. He then passed out on the living room couch. Oddly enough, the toilet paper had zero effect, and a bunch of shitty water ended up coursing down through our ceiling and pooling on our kitchen floor. Shortly thereafter, Patrick was found wandering around downtown Kitchener, stark naked.
Downstairs, a man who was maybe not crazy, but certainly annoying. He called the police over every little noise and we learned never to ask him a question unless we had a spare week to stand there and listen to his ranting answer.
Our next building brought, after a time, Waterboy. This fine specimen was in the habit of running his bathtub full blast for five hours straight--say, from nine at night until two in the morning. Anybody who's lived in an apartment complex can recall the way running water seems to amplify itself and boom through every wall. One night, after an endless, unrelenting cascade, I called the superintendent. "Listen", I said. "I'm sorry to wake you--I know it's two a.m.--there's a guy in an apartment that's got to be adjacent to ours. His bathtub's been running nonstop for four hours now. I'm afraid he maybe left the plug in and right now you've got an apartment maybe flooded waist deep.
Together, we walked around the building, trying to isolate the noise that sounded, from within our master bedroom, like it was six inches away. The echoes made it hard to determine, but we eventually tracked the sound down to the apartment next to ours. The super pounded on his door and after a time he came to answer it: a tall, reedy guy who nevertheless, in the manner of Crazies everywhere, filled me with fear. "What's going on?", said the super, drawing herself up to her full four foot three.
"I'm cleaning," said Waterboy.
"For four hours?"
"Yeah."
"Could you turn your water off, please? People are trying to sleep and you can hear the noise all through the building."
Waterboy regarded her, and me next to her. I could feel him marking me. Some night soon, that gaze said, I'm going to break into your apartment, turn on your bathtub, and start cleaning. Come morning, I'll drag your waterlogged corpse out to the Dumpster and there'll be one less nosy neighbour in the world.
Thereafter, I tried to avoid leaving my apartment during nocturnal hours if I could help it. Waterboy kept up his cleaning, usually once a week or so, but never again for five hours straight. More like two.
We lit out soon after for drier climes: our own house. We once again share a wall. At first, it was with a couple of terms of university students; despite my well-publicized fears, they were relatively friendly, the noise was kept to a minimum and largely, they kept to themselves. Perfect neighbours. Then that side of the house spent eight months with a "For Sale" sign posted prominently on its front lawn. Eight months, man. In the prevailing market, that equated to approximately seventeen point six eternities. We got to wondering what horrors lurked just beyond the concrete wall that separated us. Maybe everything was painted black in there. Maybe there were pentagrams on the floor.
Then again, maybe they were simply asking too much.
Eight months gave us plenty of time to wonder who was going to buy the place. We hoped for a young family--at the time, we thought we were months away from being a young family ourselves. More students would work in a pinch: any really bad lot would likely be replaced within four months. On the other hand, a couple of nasties might be lasties.
The man who eventually bought the place is single and in his twenties. He's also a handyman nonpareil: within a month of moving in, he had
  • made a doorway from his kitchenette out to the backyard
  • built a deck, so there was some reason to use the doorway
  • put a hot tub off his deck
  • built a little shack to enclose his hot tub
  • put a gas furnace in from the ground up, ductwork and all

He did all this largely by himself, with occasional help from an older man I assume is his dad. And this is just the stuff we know about. For all we know, he's also put in three levels of sub-basement and an indoor pool.

Eva and I were fairly emerald with envy--the door out to the backyard alone is something we would really like--and something we'll have to enlist professionals to build for us. That in turn requires money, something we won't have in sufficient quantities for at least another year.

Occasionally his stereo is a tad loud, and he has execrable taste in music. But that's nothing we can't ignore.

He has two dogs, Tora and Titan. They're both purebred Dobermans, with docked tails. (I know perfectly well that show Dobermans are expected to have their tails cut off--but damnit, I still think that's barbaric.)

Never mind that, though. The thing that really riles us is that we're not entirely sure why this guy has dogs at all. They're certainly not pets. He hardly talks to them, certainly never plays with them. He hasn't bothered to housetrain them, or at least he's done a (pardon the expression) piss-poor job of it. And when Tora pisses in the house, he becomes enraged, yelling and screaming and hitting the dog with something or other, then throwing him outside.

This kind of behaviour is senseless and stupid. As I thought anybody who's ever trained a dog knows, you've got to catch them in the act for punishment to have any effect at all. Yelling and beating a dog because he pissed somewhere five hours (or even five minutes) ago will only confuse the dog. Eventually, he'll turn on you or someone like you. And a turned Doberman is not a thing to be taken lightly.

I've thought about calling the Humane Society. The coward in me (he's quite prominent) has so far dissuaded me. At some point, though, the dog-lover in me will take over and Tora and Titan will have new homes, damn the consequences. My neighbour's right to privacy doesn't extend to cover cruelty to animals.

14 January, 2006

Ten...Nine...

...days left to go, and then I'll be boring the snot out of everyone blogging the political aftermath of what looks certain to be a Tory victory.

Before I get started, a quick one question survey of my readers is in order.

The question: should I open up another blog for strictly political musings?

I don't want to--I think that if I did that, one or the other of my blogs would wither and eventually die. I am in awe of all you blogspotters out there who maintain two (or even more!) separate blogs. I'm not in a position to write full time right now...I have a full time job and a full time marriage.
But I can't deny that the Breadbin has been getting more and more political lately, and it may be turning some of my readership off. I work in retail; I'd rather redirect a reader to a NEW AND IMPROVED fine bloggery product (also owned and managed by Ken Breadner Enterprises, etc) than lose him or her. Your call, folks.

Now, on to the meal.

APPETIZER: a steaming bowl of none of your damned business

Warren Kinsella is one of the biggest trees in the Canadian blogforest--he got more than two hundred thousand hits on his site in one day last week. I suspect that's more than most newspapers get. Kinsella is a former Liberal advisor and strategist who did a lot to earn Chretien his consecutive majorities. He's not a Martin fan. (Isn't this Liberal civil war interesting? You so rarely see this rancour in a governing party.)
At any rate, he mentions in passing that people have been asking him how he'll vote. He first says "it's none of your damned business" before grudgingly admitting he will vote for his local Liberal MP, adding in haste that a Stephen Harper minority is "a-ok" by him.

I've never understood the mentality that how one votes is "none of your damned business". I think voting is important...important enough to put serious thought into, important enough to discuss with friends and family, important enough to indulge in a little good-natured proselytizing. I'm not suggesting we should jam our voting preferences down each other's throats, but recruiting votes for your party of choice can only be a good thing, if you believe in the vision they have for the country. I'm not ashamed of my vote. If I was, I'd be even more inclined to justify it unto others..."yes, I'm voting Liberal--I know all about the scams and the incompetence, but I don't want to see the second coming of Dubya up here in Canada". How you mark your ballot in the privacy of the voting booth is, indeed, your own business. But the truth soon outs. It always amazes me how many people claim not to have voted for Dalton McGuinty here in Ontario last time out. You'd think he didn't get any votes at all. And yet he's our Premier.

ENTREE: Roasted Political Behavior in a Closed-Minded Sauce

I've been talking politics with all sorts of people lately, asking them that dreaded question.."how will you vote?" I must work with a more politically aware subset of youth. For many of them this is their first national election as eligible voters, and most of them do intend to vote. This heartens me.
(Actually, one of the few who told me she has no intention of voting also gave me the one good reason I could think of for not voting: she not only has no interest in matters political, she has next-to-no knowledge of same. She avoids all news, and while she could name our Prime Minister, she had no idea what party he leads. Her non-vote gets my sincere blessing.)
It's the older people at work--people who have had time to set their minds in cement--who baffle me and occasionally rile me up. One of them said she wasn't sure how she would vote, but it wouldn't be for Harper, because of his "beady little eyes: he gives me the creeps, he does". "Why, K", I said half in jest, "I had no idea you were so shallow, voting for somebody based on what you think they look like." "Well, that's all we've got to go on, isn't it?" she practically yelled at me. "Everything else is promises, and that's all lies to get elected!"
That's Canadian political reasoning for you. And what most of these people don't seem to get is that much of it derives from the actions of Liberals. Paul Martin, who never met a priority he couldn't hump. Jean Chretien, who made an art of saying one thing and doing another. Dalton McGuinty, who famously intoned "I won't cut your taxes, but I won't raise them, either"...and then whacked us over the heads with the largest tax increase in decades.
I'll say this for Conservatives: they had plans, they told us what their plans were, and then they acted on them. Mike Harris is the best example. He told us exactly what he was going to do, people voted for him, and damned if he didn't do most of it. That seemed to piss off a great number of people--proof that in politics, you can't win for winning.
Mulroney was another case. This most vilified of Canadian leaders professed not to care what the polls said--he had an idea about what was good for the country and he acted on it.
Both Harris and Mulroney won back-to-back majorities before complacence and corruption set in (a strong argument, in my mind, for an American-style two-term limit).
I suspect Stephen Harper actually is of the Harris/Mulroney ilk, much as that may terrify some folks. He says what he means and he'll probably do what he says.
It frightens me when I hear people say that Harper (or, for that matter, Layton or even Martin) will "destroy" Canada. The only person who would destroy Canada is Gilles Duceppe--and he thinks Quebec leaving us would actually strengthen Canada. No matter either way, since Duceppe can never become Prime Minister.
So can we put away our little bugaboos about how if so-and-so is elected, the country will go to hell? Please? We still have dessert to get through here.

DESSERT: a slice of "don't worry, be happy" drizzled with Canadian maple syrup

Whatever a Prime Minister may say, his first priority upon getting the keys to 24 Sussex is to keep them. You can call that a lust for power if you want; God knows most of us have it. Should Harper win this thing, he'll be no different. Ergo, he won't do anything radical that will kill his chances of re-election. He won't gut the health care system, even if he wanted to (and he doesn't). He won't make abortion illegal no matter how many times people try to get him to say he will. He may indeed drift us a little closer to the orbit of the United States, our largest trading partner, but given how much antipathy exists between our two nations right now, that can only be a good thing. But we won't become the 51st state. Not until Washington says so.

So concludes our political meal.

12 January, 2006

Three Lessons I Would Like To Teach The World, Part II

What are the facts? Again and again and again--what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell", avoid opinion, care not what the neighbours think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"--what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

--Robert A Heinlein, "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long"

If only I always lived up to this lesson. Still, you teach what you have to learn...

A while ago I walked into a Coles bookstore and asked when the reissue of Robert Heinlein's Expanded Universe was due out in paperback. The girl behind the counter--ostensibly someone hired, at least in part, for her knowledge of a wide range of things literary--had no idea who Robert Heinlein was. I wasn't sure whether the shock I felt should be paired with pity or contempt. I settled for informing her how lucky she was to have the full breadth of that man's works ahead of her.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) was the first honoured "Grand Master" of science fiction, and one of the top-selling authors that genre has ever seen, right up there with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
Many people read Heinlein--specifically his juveniles--and are stuck by the cliches, until they reflect and realize he wrote many of these "kids' tales" in the 1950s and thus invented the cliches. Whenever a children's writer uses an extraordinarily intelligent and resourceful teenage protagonist, she's mining Heinlein's well; most of Heinlein's juveniles were initally considered too sophisticated and difficult for younger readers, until they sold through a dozen or more reprintings.
Anyway, I'm not here to expostulate on the work and life of Heinlein, and if you, too, are lucky enough yet to experience reading his novels, for God's sake stop reading this blog and get thee to a library. Suffice it to say the man was a genius--he invented the waterbed, the spacesuit and the waldo--and he married someone he freely admitted was much smarter than he was. Even when you disagree with his take on the world (which will probably be quite often, since the man was the epitome of an iconoclast), you should probably take a minute to make sure you're clear on why.

About that quote up there. It was penned in 1973, and it's never been more true than it is today.
We as a society have never had such easy access to so much information--the vast majority of which, to put it bluntly, is bullshit. There is a tendency to render bullshit into fact, depending on whence the bullshit came: "It must be true! I saw it on TV!" or, more commonly now, "It must be true! I saw it online!"
Once a week if not more often, I get something in my inbox that purports to be fact. It could be pictures of the Space Shuttle exploding, taken from space. It might be a political expose on how Canada pays refugees more than senior citizens. Or it might be a threat about some strange new virus that will disable my computer if I open a certain message.
The first thing I do when I get one of these things is check out Hoaxbusters, which is the definitive list of Internet scams. There I find out that, in the first case, those pictures are actually stills from the movie Armageddon, and in the third case, I am informed told that any real virus warning (a) will almost never turn up in my email, (b) if it does, it will have a verifiable PGP signature on it and (c) it will most certainly not ask me to "forward the info to all my friends".
The second case is more problematic. It sounds perfectly possible. It took me about fifteen minutes with Google, searching several different sites, to discover that most of the "facts" in this expose are wrong. Of course, then I had to do some further research to assess the veracity of the counterinformation. How many people have the time or inclination to follow up stray email? The only reason I did, in that second case, was that I was preparing to write a furious blog entry decrying this abomination and it occurred to me I'd better "get the facts".
Oh, yes, I've got plenty of biases, and especially in matters political, I'm apt to ignore them and get burned. You have to admit, it's difficult getting the facts out of people who seem to be trained to equivocate on everything.
Witness the now-infamous Liberal attack ad--"Soldiers. With Guns. In our cities. In Canada."--that have so enraged military personnel. Since news of that commercial hit the blogosphere, we've heard
  • that it was a "mistake" and "crafted by an idiot"
  • that it was "never intended to air"
  • that it did, or did not, appear on Quebec television (about the only way to ascertain that is from footage off somebody's VCR)
  • that Paul Martin never saw that ad
  • that Paul Martin did see the ad, but disapproved of it, saying it "wasn't very good"
  • that Paul Martin says his intent was to show that Stephen Harper would spread our forces too thin (how, exactly, that's supposed to be implied from either the text or the subtext of the spot is so very unclear)

I'm left with precious few facts, and lots of suppositions--some of which could very easily be wrong. But I do know that even now, we have "Soldiers. With Guns. In Our Cities"...they're called reservists, and they take rightful pride in the job they do, helping out whenever disaster strikes.

"We did not make this up". Cue Joey from Friends: "So now you're lying about lying."

And to be fair, one of the biggest "ouch" moments for Stephen Harper in the debate the other night was Paul Martin saying the Conservative leader once called Canada a "northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term". Yes, Harper did actually say this; the Liberals did not make this up. He now claims it was tongue in cheek...but he sure sounded serious at the time. You can read his speech here . Although he says his views have "evolved" since, I wonder just how much. In any case, the speech is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our likely next Prime Minister.

Geez, I just can't seem to get off the political soapbox. Please forgive me. I'm finding the politics absolutely gripping lately.

Religion is another area where truth becomes muddy. Often enough, people will cite a particular holy text as divine truth. This gets me to thinking of that 'telephone' game I used to play as a kid. You know the one: where Susie starts off saying "The two blue Foos live in the Foo Zoo" and after twenty kids have had their way the message ends up looking like "The new Lou's Brews is mighty fine booze". I picture generations of monks playing telephone with their Bibles, errors compounding upon errors down the years until nobody has any idea what the original actually said.

The Book of Genesis is often thought to be a literal history of the beginning of the world. It only makes any kind of sense at all if it's seen as a history--fanciful in places-- of one tribe, the Jews; else who did Cain marry? (No fair saying 'it's a mystery' or 'God works in wondrous ways, etc'...we're looking for truth here.) Hard to find, after so many years. That's why I reject any faith that places divine authority in one book, or on one path.

People decry moral relativism in today's world, not understanding that morals have always been in flux. Every generation charts its own general moral course, and each individual in that generation does the same. And that's a good thing, because if I've learned anything at all in thirty three years on this planet, I've learned that LIFE IS CHANGE. Stand still, morally or spiritually, and perish. By all means listen to your elders: they've learned valuable lessons. But don't take everything they say as immutable Truth. Live your own truth instead.

Basically, Heinlein's quote up there can be boiled down simply to think for yourself. It's a good thing to do.

10 January, 2006

Eternally Apart from Apartments

My friend Jen--a homeowner like myself-- just wrote a miniature paean to apartment living. I love Jen dearly, but holy God is she out to lunch on this one.

Here she is, with three reasons she misses living in an apartment. My comments to follow:

1) Security. It's rare for uninvited people to just show up at your door when you live in an apartment building. Once a week or so, I get door-to-door salesmen, or Jehovah's Witnesses ringing the doorbell trying to sell me energy providers or a new faith. I miss not having to deal with those people in as polite a way as possible.


Jen, I too have lived in apartments...several different ones. I was never rich enough to live in an apartment building with any real security. Unless your complex has a doorman on duty 24/7, the security in any apartment building is pathetically easy to outwit. I've done it myself, on the numerous occasions when I forgot my front door key. The trick is to wait until somebody legitimate approaches an entry and either unlocks the door or is buzzed in. Then you just sort of unobtrusively and nonchalantly stroll in behind him or her. If a resident can do it, so can some ne'er-do-well with nefarious purposes. You call that security? (And if somebody comes to my door here in this house I own, I can look out the window and see who it is...and then answer or not, as I choose. Try that in an apartment building--one of the older ones, without closed-circuit television connecting you to the lobby.)

2) Neighbours. While I currently enjoy being able to play my music at any volume I choose, and not have a guy named "Ian" be worshiped sexually on the other side of the wall while I am trying to sleep, I do miss the nods in the hallway, and the pleasant half-conversations in the elevator. Right now, I barely know the neighbours on our right, and I don't know our neighbours on our left at all. At least, I knew Ian's name, and that he was good in bed (though obviously, not from personal experience).

Ack, the thing I hated second most about living in an apartment. You just can't get away from it. The weird smells that permeate the entire floor. Are those guys in 1A having garbage-truck potluck for supper? The noises at all hours, with no recourse but to call (and wake up) the super--usually an old guy whose hip would break just looking at that monster in 404.

Okay, I admit it...I'm definitely a "man's home is his castle" kind of guy, and said castle should always come equipped with some sort of symbolic moat. My friend Jen is a people person. With certain exceptions (my friend Jen being one, the other readers of this blog being two through four) I'm really not.

But here's where Jen jumps right off thediving board of sanity and into the Whirlpool(tm) of Madness. Read on:

3) Laundry. Weird as it may seem, what I miss most about apartment living is the laundry room. Where else (besides a laundromat) can you get six loads of laundry done in less than four hours? Currently, it takes me 8 hours (or longer if I don't time it correctly) to do the same six loads of laundry. This is frustrating, because it's a whole day dedicated to one thing. On the other hand, it does allow me to play The Sims 2 with impunity.

I think my first piece of advice is, Jen, get a bigger washer. If you have to do six loads a week in your household, you must have the Liliputian Mini Teeny-Weeny Extra-Small size. That aside...

Having my own washer and dryer was one of the best enticements to owning a house. When we lived in an apartment, laundry day was a hellish chore. I'd gather up the laundry, leave the apartment (the door locked automatically behind me...one piece of "security" I'd as soon have done without, for reasons which will become obvious in just a second), go downstairs, unlock the laundry room door (there was a sign on the door saying it was to remain locked at all times, but I figured, hell, how else was I supposed to get in there?) cart the laundry in..oops, forgot the $1.75. Back upstairs, unlock the freakin' door, get the money, go back downstairs, unlock the laundry room door, enter, go to my storage locker, unlock THAT, get the Tide and Bounce out, and start a load up...oops, wait a second, somebody's using the washer. Or at least they were. Their load's still in here, at any rate, getting mildewy. So: wait. Or go to another building, where their washer might be in use too.

So I'm paying $3.75 per load to wait around for somebody else to finish their laundry. And I've got to remember to lock my storage locker up again afterwards. If I don't (and once, I didn't), somebody will steal my laundry soap. Or something else.

(Ken, why not carry your laundry soap downstairs with you? Because I only have six arms, that's why not. And those huge Tide boxes from Costco--bought because I had to feel like I was saving some money at $3.75 a load--don't carry well even when you're not trying to haul a laundry basket in your other hand.)

Yes, I have lived in buildings with more than one washer--still no guarantee than even one of them will be available when you want it. And an awful lot of people just forget about their laundry and go off to Zanzibar or somewhere, and there you are, wondering whether you should leave their unmentionables in a heap on the dryer or just throw them across the room.

Now, I do laundry when I want to. I don't need coins. I don't need keys. And our three loads a week take no more than an hour of actual work, tops...most of that's folding it and putting it away. I'll bet, too, it costs me a damn sight less than $3.75 a load.

Sorry, friend Jen. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. You couldn't pay me to go back to an apartment. I'd rent a house first. With its own washer/dryer.

But I love you anyway. Peace?

Time to fish or cut debate

A confession to make: I tried my damnedest to sit through last night's debate. About seventy minutes in, I finally turned the television off in disgust.
That wasn't debate. I'm not sure what it was, but it certainly wasn't debate.
Okay, I suppose it was marginally better than last year's screamfest. But every time somebody started to say something interesting, the moderator would leap in and cut him off. None of the leaders was allowed to adequately defend himself...and Harper had to, because Martin was flinging every bit of mud he could think up in the hopes that something would stick. The facts be damned...
I offer one example. Martin seems utterly convinced that his income tax cut would benefit the poor more than Harper's GST cut. As a long-time Minister of Finance, you would think Martin would know that poor people don't pay income tax. Then again, as Minister of Finance, you'd think Martin would know all about the monies being strewn hither and yon throughout Quebec under his watch...oh, wait a sec. That's right. Justice Gomery "exonerated" him. So that just means he was totally clueless.
Martin did make one major policy announcement on the fly: he said his "first action" if re-elected would be to scrap the notwithstanding clause of the Charter. I suspect many Canadians would ask me to translate that last sentence from the Martian, so here goes: Paul Martin believes the Supreme Court should have absolute power over Parliament, forever and ever, amen.
This is all well and good when you agree with the Supreme Court's position (as I do, for instance, on same-sex marriage). But Harper missed a golden opportunity to make a fool out of Martin here...he should have immediately asked him about that Charter ruling which opened the door to a two-tier health care system. Without the notwithstanding clause, Paul, you're stuck with whatever the Court decides. Who's to say that's always a good thing? Those judges are not elected, and many would argue that they have too much power now as it is.
As usual in these things, Gilles Duceppe impressed me. Even in his second language, he's capable of getting off some solid zingers and holding his own against attack. It's too bad he's a one-trick pony, because I've talked to many Canadians who say they'd vote for him if given a chance. Wouldn't that send a message to Ottawa?
Jim Harris of the Greens was excluded, to his unending fury. Many people feel this is patently unfair. Myself, I'm not so sure. While he is running a candidate in every riding, his party has yet to hold a single seat. If you let the Greens into the debate, where does it end? Christian Heritage? The Marijuana Party? The Sex Party? (yes, there is one...its motto: "Government's job is to screw you. We can make you enjoy it". Okay, I made that up.)
I had the priviledge of seeing Jim Harris on Global's Focus Ontario before Christmas. He was asked how he'd deal with the gun crime in Toronto. Know what he said? That gun crime "isn't the real problem...the dioxins in our air kill more people than guns do".
Wow. Further questions, such as
  • so, does that mean there will be a dioxin registry?
  • do you actually care about the people in cities throughout the country who have lost family members to gun crime?
  • isn't your job to make Canadians want to vote for you?
  • do you have a brain? or a heart?

were not forthcoming.

Anyway, the debate didn't do anything to change my vote. Did it do anything for you? (Oh shit, there's that Sex Party again.)