27 March, 2007

A Whole Lotto Trouble

Back when I was a child--oh, hell, probably up into my teens--I used to lie as a matter of course. I lied for the same reason most people lie: because the truth was unpleasant, better avoided. And of course the truth could never be avoided for long, and of course I'd be in trouble, and of course it would be twice as much trouble because I had lied.
And yet...I'd just turn around and lie again the next time I had the opportunity. Over and over and over again. Why? Because this time I'd get away with it, is why.
It never worked, you know. Not once. My greatest, most elaborate lie was also my last of any consequence: for well over a year, I said whatever came to mind to keep people from finding out I had dropped out of university. I had three excuses for maintaining this fiction: one, as usual, the truth was not pretty; two, I felt I had to hide my Internet addiction, which contributed; three, at the time I couldn't even explain myself. I had what to me were damned good reasons, but to others they'd probably ring hollow.
Oh, I harboured few illusions throughout: I figured people probably thought I was a fraud. But if I didn't actually admit it, I could just continue on with my life, and maybe it would all go away. After all, I am not a piece of paper.
But then...I work in a grocery store. The truth will out. It becomes a matter of accepting the truth, and working with it...something I think I'm pretty good at, all things considered.

That all came to mind as I read the headlines regarding the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation scandal. It is alleged by the Ontario ombudsman, Andre Marin, that OLGC knew some of its retailers were scamming the public out of tens of millions of dollars...and did nothing. They were more concerned, Marin suggests, with the impact of bad press on their bottom line than with the fraud itself.

Well, hey. Now they've got the fraud and the bad press--and a whole lot more of both than they would have had if they had simply admitted the problem when it was discovered and taken immediate steps to rectify the situation.

But that's not how it usually works, is it? Fraud and misdirection are so rampant in society today--from the widespread cheating that goes on in schools everywhere to the even more widespread cheating of the public engaged in by the Enrons, Bre-Xs, and Nortels of the world--that we don't even bat an eyelash when something comes out in the wash. It's expected. Jean Chretien referred to it, famously, as "the normal operation". It's so expected, in fact, that whenever somebody actually dares to publically admit wrongdoing, not only are they forgiven instantly, the admiration of their public only grows. Think Bill Clinton.

I attended OLGC training way back in the late nineties, just as the first documented instances of fraud were occurring, and there was almost nothing mentioned about security or how to spot irregularities. Much more time was spent discussing all the ins and outs of operating the terminals...which I had been operating, at that point, for six years, I might add. Retailers were never discouraged from playing. In fact, I specifically recall somebody--I wish it had been me--asking why that might be, since most retail contests are off-limits to people who sell the product.
The answer was telling: "There's no conflict of interest", we were told, "since there's no way to determine a winning ticket ahead of time."
Oh, really? In 2004, the OLGC 'discovered' a practice they dubbed "pinpricking", wherein a retailer would lightly scratch the surface of an instant ticket to see if it was a winner.
As for 6/49 and other online games, sure, you might not be able to tell a winner ahead of time, but it's child's play to hide a winner after the fact.
Say somebody comes in with a jackpot winner. The cashier inserts the ticket into the machine, punches in a four digit verification code, and the machine launches into a catchy little song. If you've been in a variety store in Ontario, you've almost certainly head the tune more than once. Indeed, I was heartily sick of the little jingle...because it was exactly the same song no matter how much was won.
A little sheet of paper ejects from the machine, stating winnings. "Free Ticket", it says, or "$10.00" or, presumably, "$24, 518,989.24". 7-Eleven's policy when I worked there was to immediately give that slip to the customer. Little Short Stop, on the other hand, insisted the slip be kept to ensure the tills were in balance at shift end. I disagreed rather vehemently with this policy, and made a point of at least showing the customer what she had won. Very occasionally I'd get a winner who wanted that slip as proof--and there was no way to get a duplicate. Those are the moments as a retailer that you hate: when you have to obey a patently stupid and possibly illegal policy.
I always thought Short Stop's system was ripe for fraud, but even 7-Eleven's can be beaten: simply keep a bunch of free ticket slips on hand and substitute when appropriate. Don't think it doesn't happen: from 1999 to 2006, at least 209 retail owners or employees "won" major lottery prizes. Chance would dictate eight to ten winners over that span of time.

As one who has worked in the industry, I have one piece of advice for online lottery customers: check your tickets ahead of time. It never failed to amaze me how many people would meander in to the store at ten o'clock of a Sunday morning and proceed to produce twenty or forty tickets dating back as much as six months. I never could even begin to understand this practice: if there's even a remote chance I'm a millionaire, I want to know about it. Like right now. But there's a more compelling reason: if you know what you have won before you hand your ticket over, you're much harder to scam.

In the meantime, I would expect the minister responsible for this fiasco to step down immediately, pending a full inquiry. And it goes without saying that retailers must not be allowed to claim prizes, or to have them claimed on their behalf.

25 March, 2007

The Brick = Shithouse

If I've had a worse retail experience in my entire life, I can't remember what it might be.

Okay, so first we bought an air conditioner: a floor model Danby that leaked all over our library. Hey, a dud: happens to the best of us. We called The Brick, and had a new one delivered reasonably quickly...just after the heat wave broke, of course, but oh, well.
So far, so good.
Except the new one didn't work overly well, either, and sure enough, within a month, tops, the red light indicating a full hopper began to flash, and continued flashing after we emptied the hopper, and while that light flashed our $626 air conditioner was reduced to acting as a simple fan.
So we called for service. And it took three and a half eternities, but we eventually managed to line up a service call for a time when one of us could be home. The repairman fiddled with the air conditioner, called his superiors, called Danby, and decided he needed to order a part.
By the time that part came, summer was of course long over. No matter: there's always next year, right? Besides, if this global warming thing gets much worse, it won't be long before we're using our a/c in January.
Repairman II: The Return. He dismantles the whole thing--wow, lots of parts in an air conditioner!--jimmies out a doohickey, inserts a new doohickey, and then reassembles the air conditioner. Of course, the damned thing refused to work, so it was carted out the door in ignominy.
That was October.
Comes the middle of February, and--my wife being the furnace she is--we got to thinking about our air conditioner, and where it might be, and why we hadn't heard anything about it since it left our happy home. A few investigative calls later, we discovered they never were able to find a part, and what's more, they couldn't replace the unit again. Not sure if that model had been taken off the market, or what. Wouldn't surprise me.
By that point, of couse, we'd lost all interest in a Danby floor model air conditioner. But still we had nothing (much) against The Brick, and welcomed the $626 credit we were told we had.
In the meantime, we had consolidated a bunch of debt and closed out our Brick card...no problem, we were told, and given a big long string of code that would entitle us to that $626 of store credit.

Today, we both woke up in a spending-money frame of mind. You know how that is, when you merest whims become wants and your wants transform themselves into urgent needs? Yeah, like that. And hey! $626 was just sitting there begging to be spent. So off we went, devising ways to eat up that credit (mmm, yummy!) Our cordless phone is slowly losing its ability to hold a charge. Our microwave is just starting to get dodgy. The kitchen television--one of the few things of any value at all I brought into the relationship--is really showing its age. And so on and so forth.
Of course, me being who I am, I'd scouted replacements for some of these things long ago. Our next microwave will be a Panasonic, because of that Inverter they have. And lo and behold, The Brick sells what we're looking for. A simple 13" TV is increasingly hard to find, but they've got one left, a Toshiba that looks good. There's a cordless phone. There's a DVD/VCR combo on sale--a Sanyo, no less--for the unheard of price of $48.00.
(In case you're wondering, on many things I really couldn't care less what brand I've got. But on electronics, I've found, you buy no-name, you're just going to turn around and buy another one within weeks. And so I have developed a simple rule: if I haven't heard of the brand, I won't even look at it.)
So, armed with anticipation, we entered the store and started picking out stuff.
Practically none of it was in stock.
Item after item we hunted down wasn't in stock, even though we could see it, touch it, hug it, squeeze it, love it and call it George. The saleslady was apologetic and did a good job of acting exasperated. "We've got a small warehouse", she said. Yeah, I thought, smaller than your store.
The microwave wouldn't be in until Wednesday. The TV, not until sometime in mid-April. Casting around for other things to buy, we happened upon a Dust Devil vacuum broom that might be good for the kitchen, the one place our vacuum won't go. Not in stock. We tried every conceivable Panasonic microwave. Not in stock. A wardrobe/pantry thingy that we really could use. Not in stock. Shades of Monty Python's cheese shop.
See, Wednesday wouldn't be all that bad, except Eva's going in for surgery that day--wisdom teeth--and will be out of commission for some time after that. Besides, it's the principle of the thing. You have something advertised in your flyer, you ought to make at least a token effort at having it available, right? I know that's what I do.
Still, worse things were yet to come. After finally finding three things that ate up at least a good chunk of our credit and which we could actually take out of the store with us, the saleslady went off to complete the paperwork. And came up somewhat flummoxed wondering why she couldn't access the $626 on our Brick card.
"Because there is no Brick card anymore", I told her. "We were told this code here would entitle us to $626 in store credit."
"Well, it's on your account, but I can't access the account. I need to call customer service and I need to have you with me when I do."
At that point I ran out to get Eva, the original cardholder. She saw me coming and started the car, thinking we were all set to drive around and pick up our stuff.
Not so fast.
She got back to our saleslady just as she was hanging up the phone, only to be told that there was nothing that could be done for us today, as their Head Office or whatever was closed.
Nice waste of a couple of hours, eh?
I've decided never to visit a Brick again. And I won't put any stock in anything they tell me until they start putting stock in their stores.

Did you know you need a quarter to put air in your tires?

Or, the high cost of inflation

I've blown the budget on budget blogs for this week, but let me address one point out of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's final (I hope), NDP-ish budget: the raising of the minimum wage in Ontario to $10.25/hr (in three years). I had a wee change of brain on this one a couple of weeks ago, as a result of something I read in the Toronto Star.

Digression: the price of prejudice is constant mantenance, the checking of your cherished truisms against invading facts. Whenever one of mine gets overturned, I feel momentarily naked and unsure of myself. I'm like a baby who's had his security blankie snatched away. Far from feeling liberated, I actually feel a tad threatened. I've betrayed myself: there will be reprisals, yes? Never mind the good reasons, they aren't that good at all, you're thinking like them, stop that!
Thus do prejudices re-assert and perpetuate themselves.

I used to side with practically every economist in the world in saying that raising the minimum wage is reckless, irresponsible, and just plain wrongheaded. The general consensus seems to be that employers will simply refuse to pay people a decent living wage, even if mandated by law, and will eliminate jobs wherever possible. So government would be hurting the people it's trying to help.
There may be some validity to this argument. All you have to do is think back to the dawn of office computerization. Remember all those naive fools who predicted a four day work week and undreamed amounts of leisure time? Yeah, like that happened, right? Instead, companies quickly figured out how to do more with less, eliminating jobs galore. Hey, the thinking went. If right now we're forcing one guy to do the work of two, and a computer can do the work of ten, well, then, now one guy can do the work of twenty. Or something like that. There is no God but Greed, and Dollar is His Profit.
What's to say that companies, mandated by law to pay their employees a reasonable minimum wage, won't find new and brilliantly creative ways to beat the system? And never mind that "enlightened self-interest" crap.
The answer is simple, really: they need their minimum wage workers. More often than not, they are the face of your company, the front line to your bottom line, as it were. You can't eliminate your grocery cashier, your burger flipper, or your telemarketer (although wouldn't that be nice?)
Almost seventy percent of those earning minimum wage work for companies with more than 500 employees. Surely they can afford to dole out a little of their CEOs' obscene salary packages to the people who really drive their business?
Sorry, thinking like a socialist, there. No, wait a second. Never mind the minimum wage: I wish somebody would enact a maximum wage. Make it, say, ten times the minimum. Nice metric figures. You could call it a remuneration rating, or RR for short. If the minimum wage is $10.25 an hour--call it RR 1--then the maximum would be $102.50 an hour...RR 10. If there's anybody out there reading this blog who currently makes more than $102.50 an hour, I would please invite you to (a) justify your wage and (b) explain why you require more than that to live your life.

There. Socialist to outright communist in one paragraph. And they call me a Conservative. Ha. But all that money above and beyond $102.50/hr that lots of people make, but I contend nobody really needs--can you imagine the positive impact that would have, loosed upon the world?

What really got me in line with the idea of a minimum wage increase was a single sentence in one Toronto Star column. (I wish I could attribute it better than that: I feel a sense of gratitude for having been Shown The Light.) The Light read thusly:


If, in 1972, the minimum wage had been tied to inflation, today it would be $10.25/hr.

I actually felt the impact of that sentence in my head. It reverberated around my skull: rrrrrrrrrippppppp! as my blankie was torn away.

I've never felt it at all fair that your buying power could stagnate and decline as a result of economic factors completely out of your control. Life's not fair, goes the parental voice in my head, but come on, that's just barbarous. It's possible for your salary to have doubled or even tripled over your career, while your take home pay remains the same or even falls, in terms of what it can buy. This is acceptable? I think not.

As far as I'm concerned, ALL wages, including welfare rates, should be fully indexed to inflation. Companies can't even say they'd be losing money, since the buying power of their profits is also tied to inflation. I'll admit I'm nobody's economist, but doesn't this make sense?




21 March, 2007

Budget Thoughts (II)

After yesterday's media sampling, I've been reading the forums at the Globe, the Star, and CBC.ca to get an inkling of what average Canadians thought of the budget.
Not that I needed to. I could have told you the whining would be deafening. Still, the shrill, high-pitched scream ("MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!") eventually caused me to bolt away in horror.
I'm a single man in my fifties. Where's my tax break?
I walk to work and support the environment by caring for my pets. Perhaps I should get a tax break.
Quebec cries, Ottawa shovels. (Oh, yeah, and where's my tax break?)
Why I am supporting other people's kids?
These are all comments I saw. If the four or five hundred responses I read are representative, this has got to be the most selfish, uncaring, entitled country on the face of the earth.
Harper scattered his tax breaks around, but most of them were loosely targeted at suburbanites with children: the same group he courted last year. In CPC terminology, they're Tim Horton's people, not Starbucks people. They, or rather their children, are also the future of the country, such as it is: unless our birthrate jumps dramatically, Canada will look increasingly different in coming decades. (Google "world demographics" if you don't believe me.)
We don't have kids. It was not our decision. But we have no problem subsidizing the future of the country. I for one can't understand the mindset of people who do: it's like they have a deathwish, or something.
Yes, we'd all like a tax break. These days, I'm happy when my taxes don't go up. But I don't hold with the idea that reducing everybody's taxes by some huge amount will have any positive consequence. It would drive the economy. Yeah, the economy seems to be driving itself pretty well right now, and besides, there's more to life than accumulating a bunch of crap. And tax cuts cost money. What services do you want to see cut? If you're anything like the Canadians whose comments I've been perusing, you want to see MORE services. Universal childcare--so you can be relieved of the burden of raising those kids you inflicted upon yourself. Free, of course. More money to health care...hell, why not just put all the money in health care? Free tuition. Hey, as a university dropout disgusted with the high cost of education, I like this one...on the surface. But we should maybe pay professors something, not to mention the costs of running our institutions of higher learning. You get what you pay for.

The more environmentally-minded people seem to want greenhouse gasses cut dramatically, which would have the first order effect of putting most of us on welfare. Quick question for the Suzuki school among us: what do you propose would run our post-industrial society? I've yet to see so much as a single factory that runs on solar or wind, or gamma rays, or whatever other imaginary panacea is de rigueur of late...let alone a whole industrial park. And there's a big difference between reducing consumption (which I'm all for) and eliminating it. As Spider Robinson once said, there's a word for things that don't consume. That word is dead.

As for Quebec, hey, rail against it all you want. I do too. But it's how politics works in this country. It didn't take long for the Bloc-heads to announce that all that "fiscal imbalance" money Harper threw it would go to funding programs in an independent Quebec. Until a Canadian PM has the cojones to force the Bloc out of Parliament (easily done, too: all it would require would be a rule that poltical parties must run a candidate in every riding, coast to coast), we're stuck with this model. Besides, what Quebec does isn't any different than what Ontario does. Or Newfoundland. Or British Columbia. Every one of those provincial governments looks to the feds to bail them out. Every one of the cities in every one of our provinces looks to the provinces and the feds to bail them out. It has always been thus, and always will be, until we do something really sensible and abolish the provincial governments.

No, I am not an enthusiastic supporter of this budget. But neither am I a knee-jerk dissenter. The Harper/Flaherty budget is nothing if not pragmatic. Could there have been other priorities? Of course. But no matter what they were, they wouldn't have reduced the bitching one iota.

The lifelong Canadian search for the Free Lunch continues...


20 March, 2007

Budget Thoughts

There's nothing like a federal budget to bring out my schizophrenia.
Scratch that: there's nothing like this federal budget to bring out my schizophrenia.

Anyone who's been poking around this here Breadbin for any length of time knows I was raised conservative, if not Conservative, and have become more and more progressive is many (but not all) respects. Such an animal as I, when confronted with Harper's conundrum of a budget, is apt to twirl himself into a tizzy.

ITEM: TAX CUTS

Last year I railed against the Liberals' infamous proclamation that parents would blow Harper's child care allowance on "beer and popcorn". I still believe that parents are much better qualified to raise their children than a government could ever be, but at least now I understand where that comment was coming from.
I used to parrot the right-wing mantra that taxes are my money, damnit: give it back. Indeed, some days I'm still apt to say that out loud, usually when I see some egregious example of government waste and incompetence I've come to realize that we pay taxes for a reason: to fund all those things we're loath to pay for on our own. There are a lot of things that fall into that category...left to our own devices, it's a good bet we'd blow our dough on trivialities and items that, sadly, "enrich" ourselves without enriching society. Accordingly, I have no trouble paying taxes, so long as that money's doing something useful.
I think that in this one way I'm actually becoming more and more like an average Canadian. Certainly the majority of Canadians are happier with broad-based spending rather than broad-based tax cuts.
The Toronto SUN seems to hate this budget, hurling the worst epithet in their arsenal: "Liberal, Tory, same old story." By this they mean they are incensed that Harper's increased spending by some nine percent and neglected to cut taxes by any "meaningful" amount. But they concede that politically, this budget is "brilliant".
The Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom, examining the budget from the sinister side of the political spectrum (my inner neocon loves Latin, in this instance) also seems to hate this budget (while calling it "politically clever") and he proves that you can find secret agendas everywhere if you're absolutely wedded to them.
The Kitchener-Waterloo RECORD, owned by the Star and usually at least as left-wing, surprised me with their editorial, entitled "Smart budget, brilliant politics". The first paragraph reads as follows:

"The hidden agenda of Stephen Harper is finally out in the open for everyone to see: After 14 months in power, after Canadians coast to coast have worried, whispered and speculated what he is really about, the Prime Minister has dropped his mask and revealed in every paragraph and page of the latest federal government (sic) the deepest desire of his Conservative party. And that desire is nothing more nor less than re-election."

The plaudits continue: "serious, sensible"..."positive benefits are considerable"..."deserves to pass". I just know that's going to provoke a flood of letters to the editor from people who didn't pay any attention to the budget beyond the fact the evil Conservatives authored it. Of course it's all about re-election, they'll say. He gets elected with a majority and he'll destroy the country. Mark my words, somebody's going to say that.

But then I get to thinking. What are the so-called good points here? For one thing, the document purports to solve the much-ballyhooed "fiscal imblalance". That's government code for taxes are my money, damnit: give it back. See, here's where my inner right-winger makes an appearance--and where I wish Harper's inner right-winger had. There is too much government in this country, too much by half, and it really gets my goat when one level of government bleats to another about a lack of funds. Who cares who does what? Just get it done, already! And live within your means while you're doing it!

On the plus side, there is a new gas-guzzler levy of up to $4,000 on SUVs, while you can get a rebate on an energy-efficient vehicle of up to $2,000. That's the way to go. Things like this ought to be expanded. Of course, anybody that can afford a Hummer isn't going to balk at an additional $4,000, but I'm Grit-picking here.

The almost-unanimous consensus is that Harper's budget is designed to appeal to middle-class parents and Quebecers. I say "almost unanimous" because, as expected, Stephane Dion (a Quebecer) has a different take. I watched him on Global National last night repeatedly say there was "almost nothing" in this budget: "almost nothing" for cities, "almost nothing" for families, "almost nothing" for the middle class, and so and on so forth. Gee, Stephane, $233000000000.00 is a whole hell of a lot of "almost nothing".

The Bloc has said it will support Harper, so his government won't fall just yet. In crafting a budget almost indistinguishable from one a Liberal Minister of Finance might table, Harper has made it very difficult for the Opposition to criticize substantively.

And that, of course, was his intent all along. I think I find myself once again in the camp of most Canadians, unsure about where Harper's going but willing to concede he's doing an okay job.

18 March, 2007

Five for Fighting

Me work hard five days a week
Sweeping garbage from the street
Come home not want book to read
Not 'nuf pictures for me see!
Sit right down in favourite chair
Wearing only underwear
Favourite night is Saturday night
'Cause me can watch hockey fights!
Me Like Hockey! Me Like Hockey!
--"Me Like Hockey", the Arrogant Worms


Fighting in hockey: should it stay or should it go?
This is one of those issues that can consume a group of Canadian hockey fans, almost driving them to blows themselves. Supporters of fighting are called Neanderthals and worse; detractors are called nancy-boys and told to go watch figure-skating, or "AIDS on blades", as one friend of mine dubs it. (And before you get all PC and tell me that's homophobic, that friend is gay.)
I guess what really bothers me about this whole debate is that both sides drag out arguments that have nothing to do with their positions.
Those who support fighting in the game will tell you hockey is the fastest team game on earth, that the rivalries in it are intense, and that players need some sort of relief valve. They have no real answer for why, then, when rivalries are at their most heated (playoff time), you so rarely see fights; nor why, even in days of yore, the number of players who actually dropped their gloves and started chonging away on each other were reasonably few.
Fighting fans will also tell you that the prospect of a fight will deter opponents from dirty play. That can't be right. While there have been some nasty incidents way back in NHL history (such was when Eddie Shore nearly killed Ace Bailey on the ice in 1933), such disgusting acts are much more commonplace in later years, despite the fights that result from them. The biggest reason, I think, is that players now wear helmets and thick padding. They (and their opponents) think they are invulnerable.
People who are against fighting in hockey, meanwhile, will tell you the perception of brutality is what's holding the sport back in the United States, where television ratings are practically nonexistent. But nobody leaves the room during a brawl, and people in attendance are invariably standing, stomping and screaming.
Fighting's foes will also say that it cheapens hockey--which is a perfectly valid opinion. Those who play the game largely with their fists, however, will tell you theirs is an honourable profession, and by and large those who fight consent to it beforehand: indeed, you often see combatants smiling at each other after they've fought. What really cheapens the game, they'd tell you, are the cross-checks from behind, the two-handed slashes, the slew-foots, the knee-on-knee collisions. These acts draw suspensions; fighting means a five minute penalty and nothing more.

Some of the most respected players in the history of the game have been fighters. I'm not talking about goons like Dave "Tiger" Williams or Tie "Pugface" Domi; nor even those with some talent, such as Bob Probert or Wendel Clark. No, I mean some of the all-time greats. To this day, a "Gordie Howe hat-trick" means a goal, an assist, and a fight. And while Bobby Orr didn't fight often (you had to catch him before you could hit him, let alone punch him), he more than held his own against league heavyweights when he had to. In one of his Art Ross years he had eight fighting majors. That's the same total Toronto's designated enforcer, Wade Belak, has to this point this year.

Some of the best games I have ever seen were full of fights. Other great games had nary a whiff of one. These days, it's rare to "go to a fight and a hockey game breaks out", as the old joke goes. There are still certain unwritten rules the breaking of which invites a dropping of the gloves: running the goalie, firing the puck into the net after play has stopped, a late hit, or--sad to say it--a perfectly legal hit on your star player. But fighting is on its way down. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

17 March, 2007

A Little Levity (But Not Much Brevity)

Since two of my friends have done this meme and I really don't feel like blogging on (a) hockey fights (tomorrow!) or (b) anything else of substance, I'll fire this off instead.


How tall are you barefoot?

173 cm (5'8")...I still remember one visit to Science North, back in my tween years, where my height was measured and fed into a computer and out spat a prediction that I would grow to six feet even. Even at that age--ten or eleven--I had read that height is destiny: men, in particular, who stand six feet or taller are generally more successful, more powerful, happier. Accordingly, I was prone to brooding in my teenage years when I failed to meet that target...until I figured out height and happiness need not have anything whatsoever to do with each other.

Have you ever flown first-class?

Never. I've only flown six times within living memory. In all honesty, I think I'd prefer first class train travel, or even a car trip (in something a little more comfortable than an Echo, mind you). I'm not entirely comfortable on planes. Every conceivable little luxury could surround me and I would fail to forget that, in Mike Warnke's words, I was in a hollow metal tube with wings under the command of a guy named Bob. I can tell myself all I want that flying is safe as houses and that even if my plane does crash I stand only a twelve percent chance of dying...and then I'd think of the clutter in my house and how it's not all that safe, and that other stat means only that I'd stand an 88 percent chance of serious injury. Uck.

One of your favorite books when you were a child?

Oh, so very many! You'd have to define childhood. I went through phases, starting with Little Golden Books and Wonder Books, moving through the Hardy Boys and a whole lot of Choose Your Own Adventure and Which Way? Books. But the first real fiction book I ever read still stands as one of my favourites: Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time.

A good restaurant in your city?

There are several. Now we have both a Mandarin and a King's Buffetin town, which makes up for years of horrible swill masquerading as Chinese food. For semi-upscale dining, nothing beats Golf's. But my all-time favourite place, the one I beg to go to any time a dinner out is contemplated, is called At The Crossroads. Yummy...and inexpensive.

What is your favorite small appliance?

Geez, that's a hard one. You kind of take that stuff for granted. Well, on the order of really small stuff, I'd nominate my Starfrit Little Beaver, which makes opening cans a damn sight easier. If it's gotta be something that plugs in, I'll go for my coffeemaker.

One person that never fails to make you laugh?

Eva's the facile (and true) answer here, but if you're looking for my taste in comedians, my top five would be:

Ron James
George Carlin
Bill Engvall
Nikki Payne
Robert Schimmel

(warning: the last two in particular are definitely for adults only.)

First LP you ever bought?

Y'know, I don't think I ever bought an LP with my own money in my life. Could be wrong there...I think I might have just cajoled my parents into buying Thriller (funny that: I'm one of the few I know who will admit to ever owning what stands as the second-biggest selling album of all time (The Eagles, Greatest Hits 1971-75 is #1). C'mon, people, 'fess up.
I know the first cassette I ever bought was the Ghostbusters soundtrack.

Do you do push-ups?

Pardon me while I break into hysterical fits of laughter. Anybody ever remember that Canadian Fitness Awards we used to be inflicted with in public school? There were six events at my school: push-ups, sit-ups, a 50-metre run, a shuttle-run, a standing long jump, and an endurance run. In all but the endurance run, I was forever saddled with little "Participation" pins. But I actually managed to get the "Award of Excellence" for endurance. As for push-ups, whatever the standard was to get a lowly bronze medal, it was beyond my ability.

What was one of your favorite games as a child?

Aggravation.

When you were twelve years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I've been asked that question many dozens of times in my life and have yet to come up with any sort of answer. When I was younger, it was because I thought of myself as a grownup from about the age of seven on. In my teens, it was because I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And a few years after I left home, I stopped answering variants of that question with occupations. (Notice how they never ask you what you want to do when you grow up?) If I had the wisdom as a child I have now, I would say one word: "loved."

Your favorite Soup of the Day?

Our first time at Golf's, above. Valentine's Day, several years ago. Something possessed me to order the cream of broccoli soup. I have no idea why I did it: I don't even like broccoli. Or at least I didn't until I had this. Now I'll order it if it's available. If not, I'm happy with French Onion (though Eva isn't, later); or clam chowder.

Have you ever met someone famous?

I have to stretch a bit here. I've served Elvis Stojko, at 7-Eleven, unknowingly. There exists a picture of a six-month-old Ken Breadner in Bobby Orr's arms...but you can't really say I met him either, can you? I've shaken hands and exchanged words with John McDermott, my favourite singer, but his fame is limited. Short answer: I don't think so.

Date Of Birth?

February 6, 1972

From what news source do you receive the bulk of your news?

CFTR, 680 News, channel 958 if you're a Bell Expressvu customer: at some point, every TV in the house magically tunes itself to this channel, whereupon my put-upon wife will change them all back to The Nanny. (Cripes, must that show run 27 hours a day?)

Current worry?

None. It's the weekend, what have I possibly got to worry about?

Current hate?

The Toronto Maple Leafs, or more specifically, their damned inconsistency. One night world-beaters, the next night chumps. Okay, it's a love-hate relationship...they win tonight and all will be forgiven.

Favorite place to be?

Abed, in a big puppy-pile consisting of myself, my wife, Tux, and Georgia. Tux is the pillow, Georgia is the furnace, and Eva is the love.

Least favorite place to be?

Work, I guess, although it's actually not turning out too badly.

Do you consider yourself well organized?

Well, now, that's kind of personal. I'd really prefer not to discuss my organ in this forum...

No. I'm not. Not at all. Eva's the Fount of Organization for this household.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Yes, I do. And I believe it works the same way life here does: it is what you make it.

Where do you think you will be in 10 Yrs?

Probably still right here. It's possible we'll have moved by then, but unlikely. Current plans are to move just once more, just before retirement.

Do you burn or tan?

Neither, if I can help it. Both are unhealthy.

Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Personally, I'm an eternal optimist. Globally, I'm, well...Leonard Cohen once said "I think of a pessimist as someone who's always waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin." That's my worldview in a nutshell.

What did you fear was going to get you at night as a kid?

An entire catalogue of spooks, some of them rather esoteric. My grandmother's room divider, which I called an 'oom-dabadah'; a clock I called Harold that was full of beckers (black, stick-shift-shaped things that liked to eat boymeat); blue spruces; and whatever Nameless Thing hid in my bedroom closet.

What’s in your pockets right now?

Nothing at all. If I'm at home, there rarely is.

Last thing that made you laugh?

Georgia. She's part bulldog and she snots all over everything.

Worst injury you’ve ever had?

Broken my nose three times, had the odd sprains and strains...probably the worst pain I ever had was the time I just about drowned in the septic tank.

How many TVs do you own?

Four. One in our bedroom, one in the living room, one in the kitchen, and one in Eva's exercise room. Two on 680 News, two on The Nanny.

Best compliment received?

I'm wearing it. It's a ring that says 'Ken and Eva 10-14-00'

What leaves you speechless?

Reckless stupidity.

What is your favorite book?

Do I have to pick just one? Right now I'd say The Terror, by Dan Simmons...but there are about a hundred others I could have just as easily mentioned.

Last meal you cooked for the opposite sex?

Chicken and pasta.

What were you doing at 12 midnight last night?

Sitting at this computer, waiting for supper to digest so I could go to bed. That's standard Friday nights when I don't have to work the next morning.

14 March, 2007

Bullshit is a source of global warming too, you know.

If anyone has or can make a free 73 minutes of time, I would very strongly urge you to go here and watch this video, entitled "The Great Global Warming Swindle", courtesy Britain's Channel Four.
Very interesting and powerful stuff. It does not deny the Earth is warming--there's a broad consensus that it is--but it does raise many serious concerns with the idea that we as a species have anything whatever to do with it; also with the motives behind the whole global warming movement, which it likens to a religion.
These are actual accredited scientists here, not talking heads. A couple of them are Canadian. Given that people who appeared in this programme are receiving death threats and are standing by their findings, I think it important the rest of the world sees what they have to say and judges for itself.
Having watched this--which I'll admit lends credence to much of what I have been saying for a couple of years now--I now have more ammunition to use against the doomcryers:

--If carbon dioxide is so terrible, how do we account for (a) our minuscule contribution, when weighed against those of the animal, vegetable, volcanic, and especially oceanic sources and (b) the fact that see-oh-two concentrations don't seem to have a reliable correlation with climate?

--If storms, as any meterological textbook will tell you, are the product of temperature differences between the tropics and the poles, and temperature at the poles is rising, why do global warming theorists predict stronger and more frequent catastrophic storms? An attention-getting device, perhaps?

--I've also read that with global warming, such tropical diseases as malaria will move northwards. Sort of like what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1920s...all the way north to the Arctic Circle and beyond...?

--People who dare to be unorthodox on this issue are routinely being accused of being in the pay of Big Oil or right-wing cabals. The reality is much closer to the opposite: many of those who continually reinforce the prevailing "wisdom" are in the pay of government. There are enormous sums of money out there for anyone willing to link "man-made global warming" into any study they propose to undertake.
--What is the rationale behind forcing the poorest people in the world to use the most expensive power (solar, wind) in the world? Is that not a giant First World foot crushing the Third World? "Don't touch your coal. Don't touch your oil. Use this unreliable windmill instead." That's suicide. That's anti-human. That's anti-development, anti-globalization, and anti-capitalism all rolled into one. Be anti-globalist or anti-capitalist if you want, but if you're human and anti-human, it's a contradiction in terms...and if you pervert science to forward your political agenda, you're a hypocrite.

I am viscerally against fundamentalism in any form, and man-made global warming is rapidly becoming the new fundamentalist creed. As such, I feel I must speak out.

I am not, repeat NOT, suggesting that global warming isn't happening. I am also NOT a person who advocates the befouling of our nest. Indeed, I believe there are many serious environmental issues that need to be addressed worldwide, starting yesterday. I just don't think greenhouse gasses are one of them.

[EDIT: in the interests of responsible debate, be aware that this video has its detractors, and at least one rebuttalappears to be impeccably well-sourced. Still, I believe the twin thrusts of the video (carbon dioxide appears to have at best a tangential relationship with climate change, and politics and ulterior motives abound on both sides of the divide) are worth examining.]


12 March, 2007

Yet Another Way I'm Out Of Touch

The New York Times reports that separate bedrooms for married couples are becoming almost normal. This was reported on my local newscast this evening, making me cringe. I've got to blog on this, I thought, or I'll go mad.
So I looked up the article. After reading it three times and scraping my jaw off the ground, I think I'm ready to rebut the insanity.

In interviews, couples and sociologists say that often it has nothing to do with sex. More likely,
it has to do with snoring.

Uh, not to put too fine a point on it, but my wife snores. Sometimes almost loud enough to drown out one of the fans we keep running in our bedroom to (a) chill the air and (b) keep exterior noise at bay. But her nocturnal noise is nothing to what our puppy, Georgia, puts out. She can reverse the direction of all three fans when she gets going.
Also, when I'm tired--which is pretty often--I snore too.
There are many reasons people snore. Some of them, such as sleep apnea, are dangerous. Nearly all of them are correctable. The love of your life leaving the room might help her sleep, but it won't do a thing to fix your snoring problem.

Or with children crying.

Huh? Children sleep in their own rooms, if they're old enough. Even if not, what does this have to do with sleeping single? A wailing rugrat will either wake one, or both, of you up. No matter where you are in the house.

Or with getting up and heading for the gym at 5:30 in the morning.

Every Friday morning, I get to sleep in until seven or eight, but Eva still has to go to work, so the alarm--which in our bedroom is a television--blares and glares at 5:11 like usual. Sometimes I sleep right through it, as Eva is considerate enough not to blow trumpets in my face or dump cold water on me. Often, though, the TV does wake me, as after over eight years I'm pretty much conditioned to wake up when it goes off. And on those Fridays, I mumble an I-love-you to my wife and relish the fact I still have 90 or 150 minutes of sleep left to sleep.
We both do it, actually: on those rare days when we both decide to sleep in, sometimes we'll forget--accidentally or on purpose--to turn the alarm off. When the light dawns and the chefs on the Food Network start up with the sizzle and squeal, we wake up, look at each other, smile, and drop back off to sleep. It's indulgent. Decadent. Much better than just sleeping right through.

Or with sending e-mail messages until well after midnight.

Here's a thought: get the damned computer out of your bedroom, if it bothers you so much.

The article goes on to do a little mini-case study of a wife with a snoring husband who had other issues:

“He cannot have his feet tucked into any of the covers; I have to have them tucked in. So I took all the linens and split them with scissors. Then I finished the edge so that half of the sheet would tuck under and the other half he could kick out.”

Eva and I have this problem, too. I love to be completely immobilized, the more covers the better, while she's unbelieveably picky about what's allowed to touch her skin...and she too must have her feet hanging out in the breeze, in a brazen imitation to any marauding boogeymen. Here's how we solve this, no scissors required: I take a sheet and coccoon myself in it. Then I lay the quilt over both of us, tucking it in on my side. Finally, I place the duvet on the bed and fold it over so it's doubled on me. (If it so much as grazes my wife, she's liable to burst into flame.)

The newscast I saw posited shiftwork as another valid reason for separate bedrooms. This I really don't get. If I work nights and Eva works days, we both end up with our own bedroom. It's the same room. Neither of us sleeps particularly well because the other's not there, mind you. And again, on Thursday nights I've usually crawl into bed around midnight, long after Eva's asleep. Usually she doesn't wake up. Sometimes she does, mumbles an I-love-you, and drifts back off to sleep in seconds.

Husbands, the Times article notes, are less likely to opt for separate sleeping arrangements. The unspoken assumption is that men want their wives available for sex whenever they feel like it. And yet, Eva's even more vociferously against this whole sleeping solo thing, and it doesn't have anything to do with sex for either of us. It has to do with sleeping together. We sleep better together. To us, it says something if a married couple sleeps better apart, especially if they haven't done much to try sleeping together.

There is a legitimate case to be made for separate beds, sometimes. Some people like a soft mattress and others like to sleep on something approaching concrete, and not everybody can afford or is interested in a Sleep Number bed. Thats when you buy a couple of single or double beds and push 'em together.

As far as I'm concerned, the word for spouses who don't sleep together isn't spouse but something even less intimate than room-mate. House-mate, maybe. Isn't that romantic?

11 March, 2007

And We're Supposed to Save Daylight Why?

Did you remember to "March Forward"?
Man, it's scary just how governed we are by time. I'd have to say the measurement of time is, by and large, one of humanity's suckier inventions. Necessary to our civilization, to be sure, but probably not required to be civilized. See the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy for related commentary: its opening sequence had a profound effect on my young mind. (I was nine at the time.)
How much of a hold does time have over this household? Well, I spent half an hour last night changing clocks simply because the American government decided (on the basis of not much evidence at all, that moving the clocks ahead three weeks early would somehow save energy. The Canadian government followed along, of course: problems can ensue when your largest trading partner is living an hour ahead of you.
(Oh, really? And yet, while everybody notices the three hour difference between, say, Pacific and Eastern time, nobody seems to care overmuch about it.)
Most annoying of all, I'm going to have to repeat the process with all our electronics in three weeks, when they're programmed to jump ahead an hour, not realizing they've already done so.
I lost an hour of blessed sleep for this?

As a kid, I always thought "daylight saving" time was what you called it in the winter. After all, aren't you "saving up" daylight, then, so there can be more of it in the summer? That was before I came to understand that more or less daylight isn't a function of what the clock says, but rather an astronomical determination that, like most matters astronomical, appears simple but is in reality rather complicated.

These days, the shifting of the clocks doesn't have much of an effect around here, beyond the inevitable discovery--likely about three weeks hence--that we forgot one clock, which will be gamely labouring away keeping time, an hour behind all its fellows. But even though this DST business isn't earth or life shattering, I do resent it a bit. There's no good reason for it, in my mind.

According to Wikipedia (which I still choose to trust, despite its recent scandal), Daylight Savings Time as a unified concept was first proposed by an avid golfer who didn't like having his rounds called on account of twilight. So start them earlier, says I: a common refrain around here. Late for work? You should have left earlier. Tired? You should have gone to bed earlier. Many people would dismiss me for a simpleton, but there's much to be said for a simplified life, not least of which is not having to worry so damned much about time.

So: all this for someone's golf game? Well, yes and no: it turns out that most people like being able to do more in the evenings. (Odd: Edison's lightbulb and its proliferation came long before DST.) Eva and I are anomalies: one of the reasons we like winter is because we're both photosenstive to varying degrees. We prefer darkness. Hence we harbour dislike for anything specifically designed to inflict more sunlight on us.
What with the human race's increasing disdain for sleep, it wouldn't surprise me to see Daylight Saving Time extended so sunset occurs around midnight in midsummer. There certainly seems to be no shortage of people willing to stay up that late. Of course, that would mean a later sunrise--no problem for a night owl.
More and more, it feels as if the world is leaving me behind. Today it's only an hour. Tomorrow...

08 March, 2007

Blowing off steam

Okay, so, the new boss has been in place nearly two weeks now. Of course, I spent the first of those weeks in Florida...and can I just say I wish I was still there? This has been a horrid week, and it's not over yet: for the first time in nearly six years, I am required/expected/sorry to have/ to be present this Saturday.
That didn't take long, did it?
This was, sadly, expected. It's just not natural to work in retail and get every weekend off. For reasons I don't pretend to understand, nearly half of our week's business is routinely compacted into two days. (You say you don't have time to shop on weekdays? Me, I don't have time not to. You'd have to pay me to havigate our aisles on a Saturday, when it can take ten minutes or more to get from one end of the store to the other...and we're small as grocery stores go, just a shade over 2,000 square metres of sales space.)
On the plus side, it seems to be just every other Saturday I'm expected to work, with certain exceptions due to particularly hot ads, and I'll get Wednesdays off in weeks where I work the Saturday. That's not too onerous. It's still a damn sight better than working for 7-Eleven. Except for vacations, I got three weekends off there in five years.
Also, it sounds like I am getting a raise, which is certainly welcome.
It has been an adjustment with this new boss...not in a bad way, necessarily (except to reiterate that I really don't handle change all that well)...it's just a totally different management style. Before, I was left to manage my department on my own, for the most part. Not so much anymore. New boss has certain ideas on how much product ought to be ordered. I'm not sure where these ideas come from. Certainly not from his old store, which did about half our volume. Suffice it to say my shelves are groaning and my freezer is--well, best not look in there, it's like a teenager's closet. In my darker moments I feel as if "my" department has been stolen from me, not least because I'm now expected to focus on dairy and leave frozen, for the most part, to my assistant. (We'll switch roles in three months: this isn't a demotion.)
I see advantages if I take off the bitch-glasses: the department looks beautiful when it's jammed full and I kind of doubt I'm going to run out of very much very often. (But will anybody take the time to rotate anything, when doing so means taking forty units off a shelf to put up eight?) And concentrating on dairy, always my strong suit anyway, should make life less stressful (though it sure doesn't seem like it yet).
We'll see how this all washes out. As I've said, change and I are not friends, particularly unnecessary and ill-advised change. But I'll adapt. I always do.

05 March, 2007

Danger, Stephen Harper!

According to the polls, Stephen Harper is opening up a commanding lead on Stephane Dion and the Liberals. Or rather, Stephane Dion and the Liberals are watching the bottom fall out of their polling numbers, even in what is always referred to as "vote-rich" Ontario. Chantal Hebert in today's Toronto Star, muses that Harper--who admires Jean Chretien's political savvy while sharing pretty much none of his politics--must be gleefully watching Dion stumble and bumble, bringing the prospect of a federal election closer with every passing day.
Here's some free advice to Stephen Harper: don't do it. Don't call an election, and don't engineer your defeat in the House to arrange one, either.
There are several reasons for this. The first is that there is no compelling reason to go to the polls right now. The Opposition periodically floats out trial balloon issues, centering mostly around Afghanistan and the environment, but neither of those issues can sustain a campaign.
Afghanistan is, granted, a thorn. The Conservatives still haven't done enough, in my view, to educate Canadians on why we're there, what good we're doing, and where we're going from here. But you can bet that in the middle of a campaign, Harper wouldn't hesitate to go for the jugular--the Liberals sent our soldiers into harm's way, the argument would go, and there have already been two Parliamentary votes (the first largely forgotten) confirming the resolve of the House. Our mission is in place until 2009. If Harper wanted to fight dirty, he could accuse Dion of not caring for the women and children of Afghanistan, since pulling our troops would almost certain result in more oppression for both groups.
And, as the attack ads have noted, even fellow Liberals (Michael Ignatieff, in the ad I saw over and over last month) have begun to realize that the environment, far from being Dion's strong suit, is actually his Achilles' heel. While the Conservatives badly flubbed the environment file out of the gate, they're beginning to come around: my guess is that you'll see some strong initiatives put forth by the end of this month. Meanwhile, Dion was, as is famous by now, a do-nothing Environment Minister.
The problem for Harper, though, is that Canadians aren't in the mood for yet another trip to the polls. The minority government is working, far better than the last one, and polling shows that many are still leery of giving Harper the majority he craves. It's not that his numbers are so good: it's more of a case of Dion's being so bad.
I read recently--in the Sun, I think--that going back ten federal elections, no party, leading in the polls at the outset, has ever gained in popularity as the campaign wore on. In other words, Harper's numbers likely have nowhere to go but down. That must gall our PM: even his foes admit he's run a fairly competent government and exceeded expectations in many areas, and yet people are still afraid he'll morph into Dubya if they trust him a wee bit more. Nevertheless, as is often said in politics and in life, perception is reality. So Stephen Harper would be ill-advised to call an election just yet.

04 March, 2007

Our "house on the hill": Jameson Inn, Cleveland, TN

A view of Destin



Swan dive, anyone?




Utter peace and tranquility





Aunt Dawna, relaxing








Dad, Hez, and Palm Tree






Ken and Eva in the front foyer of the shark's house










There's a big Gulf below you, love!




I almost stepped on you...



McGuire's Irish Pub,
site of a memorable meal. Yes, that's real money...there's $550,000 worth and counting.

What a fantastic trip. Thanks once more to all.

03 March, 2007

Tripping, Part II

[Note: yes, we have pictures. No, they're not into the computer yet--we've barely mastered the art of taking digital photos (or rather, Eva has), but at least to my knowledge we haven't introduced the camera to the computer and let them become friends. This will be rectified tomorrow: I have a Spousal Promise. In the meantime, I have no alternative but to try and peddle word-pictures: a poor substitute, no doubt.]

We arrived at the Pelican Beach Resort in Destin, Florida shortly after two o'clock local time. I thought I had missed the sign telling travellers they'd entered the Central time zone, but as it turns out there isn't one. (???) This was four hours sooner than I'd planned, due in part to leaving an hour earlier than scheduled each morning and in larger part to the braincramp I had designing our route planner, having added a hundred miles to the distance between Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala. (That state is plenty big enough, thank y'all very much.)
Yup, by this point my vowels had started to elongate. My speech was starting to mirror that of the people around me, all of whom seemed to be residents of Tara, and I no longer found the drawl irritating but rather charming. Everybody was friendly, whether they were paid to be or not, and it got me thinking about stereotypes. My own country was supposed to be the friendly, polite one: Canada's routinely caricatured as the country that wouldn't say shit if it had a mouthful. (Well, except in the South Park movie--there, it seems all we do is swear).
But down here in the Soww-th I'm very quickly convinced that we in Canada have a lot to learn about friendly and polite. For one thing, asshole drivers are at an absolute minimum. Even the speed demons are patient speed demons: they're perfectly willing to let you get past that transport you're passing and move over before they whip by you. For another thing, people will just up and talk to you in elevators, on the street, wherever. That doesn't happen in southern Ontario, in my experience--people that friendly are almost always simple-minded. Sad, isn't it?

Dad's resort is a revelation. I can see why my Aunt Dawna and her fiance Barry decided to stay out the season after having originally come down there for only a couple of weeks. It fronts directly on the Gulf of Mexico: the surf is a constant low drone and dolphins and pelicans are daily visitors. Both suites are on the 17th floor (called the 18th: when will the human race get over its aversion to the number thirteen?) and the views are nothing short of spectacular. The hallways are all outside, which means thrills and chills for the height-averse among us, most notably my wife and my aunt.
Pelican Beach is convenient to everything and loaded with facilities: indoor/outdoor pool, fitness centre, hot tub, sauna, steam room. We stayed at my aunt's two-bedroom unit (thanks again, Aunt Dawna!) which has ensuite laundry, two bathrooms, and a huge balcony offering a panorama of Destin and the Gulf. Dad's balcony is practically over the water and you can see the sun rise and set above the surf.
But it's that beach that captivates. The sand is gleaming white and it stretches for miles and miles in both directions.
After three days I can very easily see myself as a snowbird in my later years. The weather is perfect: mostly sunny with highs in the low twenties Celsius and night-time lows around ten degrees. (It can get surprisingly cold down there this time of year: tonight's low is -1). But the pleasant weather is just one small part of it. Notwithstanding the melee out on highway 98, the place is peaceful in the extreme.

The prices down here, particularly in grocery stores, have to be seen to be believed...and sometimes even seeing them won't help. Here's a random sampling of dairy/frozen items (you just had to know I'd be looking). Note that these are regular prices. These items are not on sale.

*1 dozen large white eggs, $1.22
*1 gallon (3.78 L) 2% milk, $3.49...buy one, get one free, every day
*Michelina's frozen entrees, 98 cents
*Philadelphia cream cheese, 236 grams, $1.64
*Kraft Singles cheese slices, pack 24, $1.78
*Haagen-Dazs ice cream, 500g tub, $2.76

I could go on. Many food items retail for about half what you'd expect to pay in a Canadian grocery store.

And then there's the clothing. One chain we visited called Bealls was having a two-day senior's event, for which 15% was knocked off your total bill. Fair enough...but then concurrent with this sale was another one, with many items 30, 40, or even 50% off. And if you wanted even more savings, you could apply for a credit card and get 10% more off. I have a new summer wardrobe thanks (much thanks) to my dad and stepmom.
Oh, yeah: a "senior", as far as Bealls is concerned, is 50 or over. I'm less than fifteen years away.

We had a grand time shopping the myriad stores in Destin, and an even better time relaxing in the suite with Dad and Hez, Aunt Dawna and Barry. It's just plain nice down here, and having them here makes it all the nicer.

It's not all perfect in what Allan Fotheringham always called The Excited States, mind you. I'm here for NHL trade deadline day, one of the high holy days of a hockey fan's year, and despite there being--last I looked--not one but two NHL teams in this state, hockey is barely an afterthought. I had to watch what seemed like hours of college basketball just so the ticker would come around to a limited selection of NHL scores and news. Not even pro basketball, which I could maybe understand, but minor league college crap.
(Props to the Northwest Florida Daily News, the little newspaper at our door by four in the morning each day. It's tiny, befitting a town of twelve thousand, but there's world news in it, even a story from Canada each day, and lo and behold, NHL hockey scores.)
But it's gotta be hard for a hockey fan to cope as the winter progresses. My dad's best friend Monty, who is also in the same building, really misses his beloved Leafs. He's always the first to know the score, despite the media near-blackout. Well, it's always good to have a member in good standing of Leafs Nation positioned on the beaches of Florida.

Another absence is felt even more strongly. There are a few Tim Horton's scattered throughout a few of the northern states (fewer than there are on one side of my street, for joe's sake!) but none down here where they're really needed. It's puzzling. It seems like half the population of Canada buggers off to Florida every year. The first guy to open a bunch of Timmies in the Sunshine State will be able to buy the Sunshine State in very short order.
There isn't even a poor man's substitute for a Tim Horton's along most of the length of I-75. What, do these Americans not drink coffee?
We did manage to visit one corporate store in Middletown, Ohio, both going and coming. Just doing our little bit, you understand. The large coffee is bigger than an extra-large in Canada, the breakfast sandwiches aren't toasted and--God, it's depressing--both times I went in there, I placed my order, had it filled, and left without seeing a single solitary other customer. Fellow Canadians can attest: that just don't happen here. Coming back yesterday morning, we went in to get our dearly missed coffee fix and found they'd had 00002 winners so far in Rrroll Up The Rim To WIN! By contrast, the Tim's we visited mere hours later, just this side of Windsor, had had 157.

One chain I CAN heartily recommend in the Southern U.S. is Jameson Inns. I will sing the praises of this hotel chain to all who will listen and a few who won't.
We stayed our first night at a substandard Ramada Inn in Middletown, Ohio. Good thing I had found and clipped a coupon in a traveller's magazine, or we would have paid $100 for a lumpy mattress, very few TV channels, and a really horrid bathroom, with no cold water and a light that flickered like something out of a horror movie.
So our second night, in Cleveland, TN, we resolved to do better. Following Dave Hunter's recommendation in Along I-75, we pulled into the Jameson Inn high on the hill. Before we even got out of the car, Eva predicted we'd be paying $120, minimum, for our night's stay. The place just had that aura about it: spotlessly clean and luxurious.
$77.00. After all taxes. For that, we got a room about the same size as the Ramada, with a 25" TV and a full channel lineup. Jameson Inn has "Dreamium" beds, which are damn near the equal of the bed we have here at home, and they come with five pillows. Before I'd even gone to bed I had perused their hotel locator and selected our stopping point for the trip back.
The Louisville, KY room was more expensive--$102--but that got us everything we'd seen in Cleveland plus a microwave, a fridge, and a positively huge work centre, the biggest I've ever seen in a hotel room.
No, this is how unique Jameson Inns are: they have a money back policy, no questions asked, if you are unsatisfied with your stay in any way. Amazing.

Our trip home was done in two days instead of three, saving some time by taking I-65 through Tennessee and Kentucky, but even so the drive blurred. We were dodging serious weather at every turn, having missed the tornado that levelled the high school in Enterprise, AL by about an hour, battling winds and rain for most of the trip and encountering snow squalls once we got back into Canada. Total fuel costs were just over $110 and that counted the fill-up in Woodstock at a ludicrous $105.9/litre once we got back.

Now we're home, reunited with a very relieved Tux and Georgia, who spent an eventful week at Auntie Suzie's place (thank you so much, Sue: we owe you big time). Our driveway was clear thanks to our friends Mindy and Jamie, who also took care of our cats and kept an eye on the house, and a hearty thank-you goes out to them, as well. But the biggest thanks of all must be reserved for my family--you didn't have to pay for everything, guys!--who, never mind the stuff, showered us with love and warmth that was at least the equal of the Florida sun.

Thank you. Very much.

Pictures tomorrow: I promise.

Tripping, Part I

We put just shy of 4000 kilometers on our Harold over the past six days. It was a voyage of discovery through a land we've never seen, and various and sundry impressions were made. I kept a trip diary, noting all the mind-numbingly boring details that will serve as a kind of memorial shorthand (if you're me, that is), bringing each day's experience to mind in the years to come. The minutiae of travel--room numbers, details of each meal eaten out, what have you--is endlessly fascinating...if you've lived it. If you haven't, any attempt to make you live it will very shortly result in suicide. Not wishing such a fate on any of you, my Faithful Readers, I'll employ something of a different approach for this travelogue.

When we first contemplated going to visit my dad and stepmom in Destin, Florida, we weighed our travel options carefully: fly or drive? Flying seemed to have one undeniable advantage: it was cheaper. It was, we discovered, possible to fly to northwest Florida from Buffalo, return, for $129 Canadian, all taxes included. (Flying from Toronto nearly triples that figure: it's almost as if Pearson International Airport is deliberately trying to drive away passengers.)
Upon further reflection, however, we realized we would have to rent a car once we arrived in sunny climes, negating any cost benefit to travelling by air.
Flying, of course, means you're there very soon after you've left here: it takes about ten times as long to drive to our Destin-ation as it does to fly. Not counting, again, the drive to Buffalo, the airport delays, the drive at the other end, or any other flightpath-block that might be thrown in our path once we ceded control of our travel to someone else.
Then there's the matter of what you see. Driving somewhere means you see the country you're travelling through up close and personal. Flying means you see...clouds. I've seen clouds before. They look pretty much the same from above as they do from below.
Okay, I'll admit it. The idea of flying did no more than flit across our minds: we had decided very early on to drive, and to make that drive part of our vacation. I spent literally hours planning out our route and itinerary, trying to avoid cities at rush hour, reading up on the country we'd be passing through--hell, that in itself was exciting for me.

CROSSING THE CANADA/U.S. BORDER BY CAR IS A CRAPSHOOT

Did I need a passport? Everywhere I looked, I found the phrase "not necessary as yet but recommended". That activates every paranoid fibre of my being, particularly since I do not drive and thus lack the driver's license that is, by far, the most common means of identification on this continent.
Are you a human being, or some kind of weird human-car hybrid?...Never mind, that's a rant for another post.
I've gotten over the border before with nothing more than a birth certificate and a health card. But with this new emphasis on security, I didn't think that would cut the mustard this time.
So I set out to get a passport.
Yeah, right.
The wait for a passport in Canada right now is steadily climbing towards six months. Travel by air between Canada and the United States is impossible without a passport and despite the fact it's been all over the news--for over a year--that this requirement was coming, it seems to have caught many Canadians off guard. To the tune of 21,000 a day.
Meanwhile, terrorists will continue to use the same passports they've always used: so much for enhanced security. Never mind, that's a rant for another post.
Lacking any alternative, we trusted to fate, my ratty old birth certificate, and my health card, the picture on which makes me look like a terrorist.
Paranoia reigns supreme over my mind at the border crossing. I mean, these guys (and gals) have so much power it can't be anything other than frightening. They can delay you for hours on a whim; they can rip your car apart if they choose to (and putting it back together is your problem, so solly, Cholly); they can deny you entry altogether and scuttle your vacation before it's fairly begun.
Just over the bridge from Windsor to Detroit and we seem to have drawn a stickler. Cars wait in orderly rows, and if everybody turned theirs off it'd make a big dent towards meeting Kyoto requirements, if the United States had any. After what seems like days but is really more like half an hour, we've reached the front of the line. We declare our citizenship, hand our documents over and wait.
"Ken, do you drive?"
Oh, shit, here we go.
"No, I don't. My vision is too poor."
"Well, that doesn't stop anybody!"
We laugh, dutifully. Our interrogator's in his late fifties and quite friendly. Oddly, this only increases our unease: he's almost too friendly. What's more, he talks at a snail's pace, with lots of pauses into which you are supposed to spill your guts. We get the distinct feeling that he really doesn't give a flying fig whether we're the only car he deals with all day.
"Where are you going to?"
"Destin, Florida."
"Why are you going to Florida?"
Why does any Canadian go to Florida? I think to myself. Sunshine. No snow. Eglin AFB's near there, we thought we'd maybe blow it up.
I keep these thoughts to myself. Now is not the time for Mental Sarcastic Bastard to show up.
Eva: "In-laws".
Then he wants to know how long they've been down there, and how long we're staying ("a week"), and then he starts in on my vision again and I think maybe he's got an eye chart he's going to drag out at any moment and after he's ruminated on all this for a while like a cow chewing cud he says "okay, so you're going to Florida for, what, a couple of weeks?"
Nice try, buddy.
Eva interjects, with just the right amount of calmness I for one don't feel, "No, just a week."
"Okay, pop your trunk, please."
CLUNK
Our trunk is rummaged through, briefly, then closed. He ambles back into his booth. There is an interminable pause, and then our documents are handed back and we're given the all-clear.
Whew.

Coming back to Canada was altogether different. My paranoia centered less around my own entry back into my home and native land and more around the entry of the walloping pile of clothes and souvenirs, much of it very generously bought for us by my father and stepmother. If you added up the stuff we purchased ourselves, you came out well within our allowable duty-free limits. If you tacked on all the whopping gobs of stuff they got for us...well...you didn't. And there was no easy way to prove this latter stuff was bought for us. What's more, it turns out it doesn't matter. Gifts and prizes are not duty-free.
The prospect of paying duty didn't bother me. Well, it did, actually: why should the government be allowed to collect a tax on items bought in a different country? We had already paid Florida's six percent sales tax. None of our items were restricted in any way. If we had wanted to pay additional taxes, not to mention what I'd always thought were acceptable prices but have now learned are in fact outrageous, we would have stayed home and bought this stuff in Canada.
No matter. What really bothered me was the thought, rising unbidden like gas, that if we lied about the value of all that stuff and our lie was found out, it might be assumed we were lying about other, more important stuff. That wouldn't be good.

We spent much longer in line coming home, a lot of that time 152 feet over the Detroit river, buffetted by winds I'd estimate at 70 km/hr sustained which threatened to pick up our little Echo, heavily laden as it was, and throw us overboard. I'm not afraid of bridges. Nevertheless, this was unsettling. Eva, who will drive over anything so long as she doesn't have to stop on it, wasn't impressed. I refrained from enthusing about just how well this bridge had held up since 1929.

I've learned something about paranoia. Whenever I obsess about something, worrying it to the quick, it invariably turns out to be something of no consequence whatsoever. If something is going to bite me on the ass, it's always something I haven't even considered.
Having spent forever contemplating everything that could possibly go wrong, I was rather surprised when we finally got to Customs. "We're home", Eva announced.
The Customs agent, this time a woman, asked how long we'd been away.
"Six days."
"Where were you at?"
"Florida."
"That's not a long time to have been in Florida."
"In-laws", Eva said with a smile. Hey, I thought. That's awesome: an all-purpose answer to any thorny question.
"Bringing anything back?"
"About $300.00 worth of stuff", said Eva.
We were waved on. No CLUNK of the trunk, which hid considerably more than $300.00 worth of stuff--then again, there was no way to prove we hadn't brought it all down with us. You know how some women--not Eva, some women--pack. Hey, unless you own a Toyota Echo, you probably can't even guess at just how much you can cram into its trunk. No questions about liquor or smokes, both of which we had with us (within allowable exemptions). Hell, we weren't even asked for our documents. They stayed in our hands the whole time.
Go figure. Last time I'd gone over the border, getting back to Canada was by far more difficult.

IN YANKEE-DOODLE LAND-Y

(Disclaimer: we saw bits of: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Although it may look as though these observations are applied to the United States as a whole, they aren't and probably shouldn't be.)

This is a country of paradoxes. Also of markedly different values than those I've learned at the knee of Johnny Canuck. I've always suspected this, and elevated my suspicions to the level of Known Facts. Now I have evidence.

The Motor City has some of the worst roads I have ever seen, but they are an exception. Every other Interstate, U.S. Route, and State Route I travelled on was smooth as a baby's bottom and remarkably litter-free. (Fines for littering, that vary between $100 and $500, probably have something to do with that.) Looking at the shoulder of any Interstate you'd easily convince yourself that these Americans care profoundly about their environment. Until, that is, you looked up and saw the vast quantities of industrial pollutants belching out into the air at many, many places along I-75 through Michigan and (especially) Ohio. Or until you looked carefully around, everywhere you went, and noticed there was nothing analogous to the ubiquitous blue box you've grown up with in Canada. That's right: so far as I could tell these people don't recycle. I did see green bins marked for recycling in one Wal*Mart, but they were being treated largely as rubbish cans.

I had always thought of the United States as extremely urbanized, especially in comparison with Canada. Newsflash: it's not. Or at least not entirely. Once we got out of Ohio--which fit my preconceptions neatly: there's a city or town every ten miles or so--we entered The Wild. There appear to be vast swaths of Kentucky, Tennessee, and (particularly) Georgia and Alabama that smack of utter desolation. Something I found odd, though: even the small cities do their damnedest to look big. Take Dayton, Ohio, for instance. It's population is supposedly 158,873, at least according to Wikipedia, which hasn't steered me wrong yet. But I have a hell of a time believing that. Passing through Dayton on I-75, you are treated to a profusion of interchanges that belie the idea that this is anything other than a city of at least half a million people. It's got 38 radio stations, three more than Toronto, Ontario. And the traffic! While it's nothing to get alarmed over if you're a 401 veteran, it's insane for a city this size.
This phenomenon was repeated time and time again. Chattanooga--by far the most beautiful city we saw, well deserving of its official nickname "the Scenic City"--is even smaller than Dayton by population. But even though it's contained by ridges all around, it seems to go on forever. Montgomery, Alabama, is a little bigger, but again seems much larger than it is, due in part to the unnaturally low speed limits on its expressways.

A note about speed limits to any Ontarians considering an American driving holiday. Have you ever seen those signs on the 401 that say "100" in big bold numbers? Ever wondered what those were? They are, of course, signs denoting the speed at which your fellow drivers can safely be given the finger. Not so in the United States. The equivalent Interstate signs, saying things like 55, 65, or 75 MPH (88, 104, or 120 km/hr) note the speed above which you may be pulled over and fined. While certain friends of my father have mastered the means by which it is possible to safely ignore these signs, this is not recommended for mere mortals, especially Canadian mortals. We spotted many police officers just itching to pull us over. I believe, though I am not certain, that there are more coppers armed with radar guns in any given state than there are in all of Canada put together.

NAKED JESUS GO BOOM

We found, in general, that American Interstates are exceptionally well-signed. It's difficult to get lost. There could stand to be a few more speed limit signs, especially since the limit seems to change at any time for no reason at all, but the direction signs are great. Even better are the signs approaching each and every exit letting you know what food, lodging, and fuel you will find should you venture off the "I". If there is no lodging at a given exit, you'll see a sign half a mile ahead informing you of that fact.
But great as those signs are, they aren't strictly necessary. In a great many locations, you can easily see a wide variety of approaching motels, gas stations, fast-food outlets, and stores. You can see them coming up on you because most of them have pillars fifty or sixty feet high. Many Canadians may see these as eyesores: I, who have always been a man of function over form, think they ought to be mandatory.
It's amazing what you find along the roadway in the States, and it alludes back to that marked difference of morality I mentioned above. There are whole stores devoted entirely to firecrackers. Many of them. Fireworks are illegal all but two days out of the year in Ontario, so this was something of a shock. So, for that matter, are drive-through liquor stores. Like the radar detectors that are legal throughout many states, these would seem to have no purpose other than to make it easier to break the law.
We saw several "ADULT" stores prominently pillared along the Interstate. They don't go so far as to mark them on the signs: ("Lodging, exit 69: Comfort Inn....Deep Lodging, exit 69: Dildos 'n' Dolls"), but you can't miss them. They're overshadowed by Christianity at every turn, though: the further south I got, the more cross-eyed I went. We found a book warehouse in Cleveland, Tennessee overflowing with thousands of differing versions of the inalienable unchanging Word of God. In Alabama, we went into a store where displays of filthy T-shirts stood cheek-by-jowl with images of Christ on the cross. Jarring, to say the least.

FLORIDA

...is big. Looking at the maps and satellite images, I had deluded myself into thinking that once we crossed the Alabama/Florida border we were a mere flap of a pelican's wing from my dad's place. Not quite. It was still nearly three hours before we spilled out of rural isolation on to US-98, which is chock-a-block with condos and palms and crazy with traffic. And then we pulled into
the
Pelican Beach Resort where Dad and Hez have been since the end of December. All the stress of the travel began to magically leach away....


TO BE CONTINUED