30 December, 2007

Swift Kick In The Year-End

With apologies to the old CBC radio and TV program Double Exposure, that's just too good a title not to steal.
The newspapers this weekend are full of top tens and year-in-reviews and looks ahead. You'll find none of that here. For one thing, I haven't seen ten movies this year. The number of television sitcoms and dramas I've faithfully watched in my entire adult life would be around, uh, ten. I have read considerably more than ten novels this year, but you probably don't care how I feel about any of 'em.
Celebrities--I make some token effort to keep up with them, just to impress my wife (the same way she will occasionally stun me by pulling some obscure piece of hockey trivia out of her butt). But once I've earned "points", I wipe the mental tape: the truth is, most celebrities are only worthy of contempt, not adoration (and certainly not emulation). You'll hear that sentiment expressed every now and again...often in the same places that spend the rest of their time cataloguing every last celebrity's every least life event.

I don't even celebrate New Year's...never saw the point of the whole exercise, really. Which shouldn't lessen the hearty Happy New Year I will offer at the end of this post. I can wish someone a Merry Christmas, and mean it, even if I'm not a Christian...the same goes with New Year's, as far as I'm concerned.

So...no top tens, no looks back--if something happened this past year in my life, Dear Reader, and you don't already know about it, rest assured there's a good reason. No looks ahead, either: hell, if the weatherman can't get tomorrow's forecast right and the economists are proving no better in their sphere of interest, I haven't got a hope. That said, I encourage everyone to pay close attention to the stories, especially the stories behind the stories, and be proactive. I have a friend who's taken most of his money out of the stock market because he thinks the volatility we've been seeing heralds an imminent crash. He may be right, he may be wrong, but my sense is you just can't be too cautious.

What's left to do, then? Just clear some mental clutter, I suppose. I may not celebrate New Year's, but I still recognize the symbolic importance of a clean slate. To wit:

I mentioned above--again--my disdain for celebrities, and touched on the curious schizoid behaviour of the media which covers them excessively, only to hold up every now and again and tear someone famous a new one. Here's an example that factors in my biggest pet peeve in the whole "wide" world: Jennifer Love Hewitt.
I'm sure those all of you who actually pay attention to these sorts of goings-on already know about the "unfortunate" pictures of her in a bikini. Cries of "fatty, fatty, two-by-four" resounded all over the net, to which she angrily retorted "a size two is not fat!" Whereupon some sites immediately protested that she was obviously much bigger than a size two:

You could strap those 'size 2″ bikini bottoms to a masted schooner and set sail across the seven seas and still have enough left over to make the crew matching vests and cummerbunds. They'd also make a great fire blanket or night-time sky in an elementary school production of 'Goodnight Moon.'

You know, not much in this world makes me homicidal. Talk like that comes damned close. Fair warning: if you ever meet me, and dare to utter such claptrap in my presence, best be moving backwards rapidly while you do it, lest my big fat fist makes contact with your yammering tofu-hole.

I've had this attitude a long time, and it's one of those attitudes I'll hold for the rest of my life.

Who gives a flying hamburger what size she is, anyway? Obviously a whole hell of a lot of people, every single one of which needs to have a priority readjustment, stat. As information, there are many places in this world even today where Jennifer Love Hewitt would be force-fed to make her look more healthy, and her Hollywood colleagues would be regarded as the freakish living skeletons they are. Meantime, our society gets fatter and fatter, thanks in no small part to so many people sitting around all day browsing celebrity gossip sites on the Internet. Hypocrites all.

People magazine is famous for this kind of two-faced mahooha. It's called People, but have you ever noticed every last one of those "People" is famous? That the "Sexiest Man Alive", year after year, just happens to be some actor or other, when most women know the real Sexiest Man Alive is their husband/boyfriend/lover/what have you? That after twenty five consecutive issues showcasing scanty female flesh, they'll put together an issue chiding the owners of that flesh because of the eating disorders for which People magazine is itself partly responsible?

Incidentally, Love Hewitt's right: a size two is not fat. And even if she fibbed about a little flab, a size eight isn't fat, either. If you absolutely require a number to tell you if you're fat or not, I'd suggest 14's a good bet: that's the smallest size you can buy in Canada's premier chain for plus-sized women--every one of which, no matter what size they wear, is a human being worthy of love and respect.
------------------
On a completely different note--I've had cause yet again recently to lament the stuff they should have taught me in school, and didn't. The more I meditated on it, the more I realized that the vast majority of public and high school education is a waste of time and resources. Most of the math you're taught, for example, you'll never use...but most students learn precious little to nothing about the numbers that do affect them, from little things like balancing a bank statement to bigger things like gauging a national or world economy. What used to be called "home economics" is unavailable in most schools; much of the high school curriculum should be grounded in it. The stuff that boys learn in Scouting (and doubtless, girls learn in Guides) is the kind of useful life skill everyone should be taught in school--shouldn't everybody know how to sew, how to build a fire, how to tie several knots, what to do in various emergency situations?
Spider Robinson suggests we teach kids how to drink. Good point, that: it brings to mind my stepfather, who told me more than once that if I ever had the urge to get drunk, he'd much rather I did it at home, where he could keep an eye on me. As Robinson says,

...how hypocritical can we be? We all know they're going to do it; why must they fumble their way to responsible drinking? Why must their experiments be utterly unsupervised? (The Crazy Years, pg. 108)

As far as I'm concerned, elementary school ought to be about the basic, fundamental life skills: literacy and numeracy, sure, but also socialization, teamwork, civics and critical thinking. High school should take that curriculum and expand on it. By the time someone graduates in to the "real world", she could detect bullshit at a hundred yards, nuture her artistic talents, run a business, and any number of other things that today's students never get to learn. I'm sorry if my readers tire of my citing Robert Heinlein, but the man was a treasure trove of quotable quotes, and this is one of my favourites:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

The people I admire most in my world are the people who have done most of these things, or could do them if the need arose.

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

I will close this with my own personal Song of the Year. (Surprisingly, it isn't by Brad Paisley). No, this one's by Mongomery Gentry, and it's called "Lucky Man":

I have days where I hate my job
This little town and the whole world too
Last Sunday when the Leafs lost
Lord it put me in a bad mood
I have moments when I curse the rain
Then complain when the sun's too hot
I look around at what everyone has
And I forget about all I've got

(Chrorus) But I know I'm a lucky man
God's given me a pretty fair hand
Got a house and a piece of land
A few dollars in a coffee can
My old trucks still running good
My ticker's ticking like they say it should
I got supper in the oven, a good woman's loving
And one more day to be my little kid's dad
Lord, knows I'm a lucky man

Got some friends who would be here fast
I could call em any time of day
Got a brother who's got my back
Got a mama who I swears a saint
Got a brand new rod and reel
Got a full week off this year
Dad had a close call last spring
It's a miracle he's still here

(repeat chorus)

Happy New Year, one and all. The best to you in 2008.

27 December, 2007

Stupid Is As Stupid Dies

Y'know, people probably think me heartless.
Maybe I am, at that.
It's just that when people get injured--or die--as a result of their own stupidity or reckless disregard, I just...can't...bring myself to feel all that sorry.
There's been a spate of such incidents this week. A mother lost a second son to gun violence in Toronto the other day. Confronted with the writeup in the Star here, it's hard not to feel some measure of sympathy. But then, the Star specializes in sympathy: its columnists even admit as much. In a recent radio campaign, one of them said "my job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted": the Toronto Star in a nutshell. Funny, I thought a newspaper's job was to report the news.
Anyway, it falls upon the sloppy, sensationalist Sun to
pick up the slack
and note just how well Karim Rashid Ata-Ayi was known to police. It appears this young man had been running with the wrong crowd for quite some time. I don't see his death as a tragedy: more of an inevitability.
Incidentally, in all the reporting of this story I've seen (Sun, Star, Post, and Global National last night--nobody ever mentioned the word "father" anywhere. That word was most conspicuous in its total absence. It's almost as if people are afraid to mention it...just like they're afraid to mention that it always seems to be the Karims and Kwames and Jafars that are shooting each other, rarely the Pauls and Jims and Jasons of the world.
Growing up fatherless in a culture that glorifies gun violence, it's little wonder so many of these kids wind up dead. At this point it's hardly news anymore when one of them is killed. And that is sad--very sad--but it'll never change if the root causes (a pet phrase of the "comfort-the-afflicted-and-afflict-the-comforted" set) are ignored. Those root causes, by the way, have very little to do with poverty: there are hundreds of millions of children the world over growing up in far greater poverty than anyone in Regent Park can even imagine...and they're not mowing each other down like weeds.
Moving on...just down the road a piece, and still in Toronto...we have the townhouse that burned to the ground just three days before Christmas. Three kids were able to escape; two others died with their mother in the flames. Sad story, yes?
No.
As reported in the Post here, it turns out the smoke detector had been deliberately disconnected, presumably by the mother, some time before. Apparently this is quite common: "People see them [smoke detectors] as a nuisance, not a life-saving device . . . (so) they find ways to get rid of them or de-activate them", says Kevin Nakamura, the chief operating officer for Toronto Community Housing.
Yet another example of the whole notion of consequence being thrown out the window in this latter age. You disconnect your "nuisance" smoke detector and then die in a fire, that's natural law asserting itself, nothing more. Just like what happens when you choose not to wear a seatbelt, then get ejected from your car and die in a bloody heap by the side of the road. On some level--and I know just how foreign a concept this is, lately--you're asking for it. Begging for it, even.
If it turns out that teen who
died at the San Francisco Zoo
actually did taunt a 350-lb. Siberian tiger (and I must stress that this allegation hasn't been proven), then he surely wouldn't have been all that surprised at the reaction. And yes, I know zoos are supposed to keep their human patrons and animal charges separate. That said, many different animal species are notorious escape artists, and no environment is ever, or can ever be made, wholly safe.

That's one of the dominant illusions of our time: that the environment can be made utterly safe, and that such safety is eminently desirable. The truth is, without exposure to at least some danger, children grow up thinking they're invincible, lacking the skills to recognize and cope with danger when it shows up.

But you see it everywhere, in the aftermath of almost every incident where someone is hurt or killed. Pickup truck slides off the road? There should have been a barrier to prevent it. Kids getting fat? Ban trans fats, that's the ticket. After some gun murders, you even hear calls for the banning of guns...which are already banned.

Look, there are cases, many of them, where people do everything "right", where they don't act like idiots, and still end up hurt or dead. And in those cases I still have the capacity to feel sadness. But I stopped grieving the endless stupidity of the human race a long time ago. Right about the time I realized it was endless, in fact.

26 December, 2007

Christmas 2007

...was pretty good. Despite many social obligations and a ton of driving, there are lots of people I didn't get to see, and places I didn't get to go, and I apologize if you're on that list. But everywhere we went and everyone we saw made us forget about the buttload of stress we've been carrying around since the beginning of the month.

You'll pardon me if this post tends to ramble a bit: I'm listening to a whackload of Brad Paisley as I write this, and so far every single song I've heard distracts me at least a little. Some of them lift me right out of the blog...hell, right out of the room. Maybe writing a blog to musical accompaniment isn't such a good idea...but hey, it's Boxing Day, we've survived the storm and strife of another Stressember, and I'm indulging myself.


I guess the music is where I'll start. This has been an exceptionally musical season: the iTunes cards from my loving wife provided me with four (count 'em) Brad Paisley albums, to go with the one I already had. I can't praise this artist enough. Not only is he my favourite country singer, he's probably my favourite musical act, ever, period.

Then there's the discs from my folks: Maroon 5's It Won't Be Soon Before Long and a Gordon Lightfoot box set. I'd never even heard of, let alone heard, Maroon 5 before yesterday...and was quite frankly stunned to find I like them quite a bit. As for Gordon Lightfoot, he's long been a favourite of mine...and I'm happy to have pretty much his career output here in one place, now.

Not quite music, but related: browsing the iTunes store, I was astonished (and ecstatic) to learn that the Vinyl Cafe is finally a podcast...not just a podcast, but the most popular podcast in Canada last week. Most of the people I know have never heard of Dave and Morley, Stephanie and Sam...and all I can say is how lucky all you folks are to have that experience ahead of you.

We reaped a whirlwind of gifts this year, all of it much appreciated...but when I look back on this Christmas, the gifts will be very much secondary to the atmosphere, the laughter, the love shared with family and friends. Which is what Christmas is supposed to be all about, right?

Eva and I made our annual Christmas trip up north last weekend. For once, the weather co-operated: nary a snowflake in sight going or coming (in fact, we could have floated back home, for all the rain).

Once at Rose Point, we found Jessie and his friend Maggie bellying up to the bar:

Two buds with their Buds


After a few rounds, the two pals decided to go out and terrorize the Christmas village:


Wolves at the door!


Some of the family weren't able to make it up this year, and they were missed. But we did get to see my step-bro Robbie, his friend Mihaela, and her daughter Lia, and together they added a great deal of merriment to the place. And dinner was magnificent, as it always is up there.


What was that about a long winter's nap?


I went into work on Monday, Christmas Eve, expecting Armaggeddon. As it turned out, the day was remarkably slow, almost dead, in fact. Once that shift was over, I came home to our puppies and awaited Eva, who had gone to see her parents.

Her parents are right at the top of that list I referred to. I haven't seen them in two years now: I think they must believe I'm imaginary at this point. Something always comes up: I either have to work, or have to stay here and take care of Tux and Georgia. Ah, well. Next year. Somehow.

My parents--my Mom and John, I mean, now (it gets confusing, I know)--2007 was the year we put estrangement firmly in the past and commited to a new, healthy relationship. They showered us with gifts this year, but never mind all that: I'm just happy to have them back.

Eva came home 'round eleven Christmas Day and since then we've had (almost) uninterrupted relaxation. Our gifts to each other over the past few years have been rather modest: we've established a Boxing Day tradition of hitting someplace frightfully early and getting one big family gift. This year it was Canadian Tire and an electric fireplace.


Laugh if you want, but this thing's ideal for this house: better than the real thing. A real fireplace, see, puts out heat, which Eva carries around internally in abundance 24/7. With this baby, the heat's optional: in fact, if you turn the temp all the way down, something akin to cold air comes streaming out. A cold fire. I do believe Eva has killed people trying to extract that particular secret. The dogs haven't quite figured out what to do with this thing. I can only hope they'll learn to toast themselves, because that's one of my archetypal images of home sweet home: self-toasting dogs stretched out, filling the hearth and heart.

And now: the World Junior opening game (yet another Boxing Day tradition), followed by a Leaf game. I'm in my comfies and I plan to stay that way for the rest of the day. Happy Boxing Day, everyone. Nobody ever wishes you that, and they should. It's a day off, after all.

24 December, 2007

....And Drink Responsibly!



Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and may you enjoy the holiday season as much as Fay McKay seems to.

17 December, 2007

Required Reading

...right here, folks.

"A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
'The Emperor is naked,' he said."
--Hans Christian Anderson, "The Emperor's New Clothes"


Every Monday morning, Mr. Kunstler delivers an inimitable dose of cheery pessimism. He's outdone himself this morning.

Only one question remains in my mind--perhaps he'll answer it next week: how long can they possibly spin out the denial? If your daily media intake consists of radio, television, and/or a cursory glance at a newspaper, you'd be excused for thinking everything is pretty much hunky-dory. The "newsertainment" services are going full bore with their usual Hollywoodies sticking out, distracting us from the real fun and games going on behind the curtain.
You get the occasional glimpse whenever the business reports come on. The Dow has dropped several thousand points on "credit concerns" over the past six or eight months...of course, that's in dribs and drabs, "corrected" the next day or even later the same day, the net effect being a stock market bobbing as if in a bathtub. Even those in charge seem to be unaware the plug's been pulled.
The late, great Robert Heinlein called it TANSTAAFL--"There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." I'd dare to update the master's saying thusly: FLOGOSL..."Free Lunches Only Go On So Long". You can't deny there have been a great many executives in a great many corporations taking home an obscene amount of pay in perks, bonuses and stock options, with no regard to their companies' actual performance. In Japan, CEOs resign in disgrace if their companies don't meet expectations. Not so here: run your concern into the ground and walk away with a free lunch of millions of dollars.
This can't go on, but I'm honestly curious to what lengths they'll go to preserve the illusion that everything is fine, or at least correctable. I'm also curious at what point people will stop what they're doing and point and stare at the naked civilization around them.

16 December, 2007

If they came in today, maybe they WILL come in at three in the morning...

I don't understand people.
Environment Canada had been on red alert for days. "Major Crippling Extreme Snowstorm/Blizzard/Kyag" Due Saturday night", they shrieked. (Kyag: Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.) Living here in Southern Ontario, you get used to this sort of thing: the media goes into a frenzy on the mere speculation snow might fall. I'd understand this sort of behaviour in, say, south Texas...but this is Canada, which is supposed to be "the true north", eh? Besides, more often than not, they forecast a foot, we'll get an inch.

This Time We Mean It

Browsing various weather sites, I started to think we might actually get some sort of storm this time round, not just a light dusting. The official public forecast had a little addendum after all the doom-mongering to the effect that there was a "high degree of certainty" among all the various weather models that this was a major storm and there would be no missing it.

Various forecasts called for anywhere between 20 and 50 cm (8" to 20"). Everybody agreed on the winds, gusting up to 70 km/hr (45 mph), which would produce whiteout conditions and generally wreak havoc. This was all supposed to start last night and continue throughout the day. Side streets would be impassable. Plows would be taken off the roads. Asses would be receiving big smacking goodbye kisses hither and yon.

I woke up this morning to 10 cm (about 4"), with almost no wind. But within half an hour we had freezing rain and the wind was picking up. By the time I got to work, we had normal winter weather conditions...for my dad's place, a few hours north and right in the buckle of the snowbelt. The roads were not pretty and getting worse by the minute. To be honest, I hadn't seen it snow this hard here in Waterloo for several years. "Nice slow day at work", I thought.

And it was. But not near as slow as it should have been.

I had to repeatedly restrain the urge to walk up to a random shopper and say something like "excuse me, sir. What in the almighty BLEEP are you doing in here? Will you starve to death if you don't buy those pear slices today? I mean, hey, we appreciate your patronage, but we don't ask that you risk your life!"

Then I heard we were going to be open Boxing Day. Again.

I don't have to work, so it shouldn't concern me. But it does--because it's yet another example of consumerist society run amok.
The cold, hard facts about Boxing Day at our store: we've been open two years in a row now, and if you took all the customers we served on Boxing Day 2005 and 2006, added them to the customers we'll serve on Boxing Day 2007, and hell, let's add in next year's as well...you'd still have a slow day. PEOPLE DO NOT BUY GROCERIES ON BOXING DAY. And why? Because they bought all their groceries in the three days leading up to Christmas. Also because they're too busy buying electronics.
But there will be a few customers, a very few, and heaven forbid we give them up. So we'll be open on Boxing Day for your convenience. We'll lose our shirts, but that's not important.

The call-in show on 570 News today (a repeat from earlier in the week, or believe me, I would have been on the phone posthaste) was on the topic of Wal-Mart, and how they're now open 24 hours during December: good thing or bad thing? The overwhelming consensus was that this was fantastic, and about bloody time. I listened with steadily growing anger until somebody finally spoke for people like me. "You don't have time? Make time. People had time twenty years ago. Nobody was clamoring for the chance to go out and buy stuff at three in the morning."

Amen to that, brother.

Besides, I'm willing to bet the Wal-Mart parking lots aren't exactly stuffed full at 3 a.m. In fact, I bet they're pretty much empty. But there's still the odd customer, see...

And here's where the Train of Logic runs clean off the Rails of Reality. What are people buying at Wal-Mart at 3:00 a.m? Mostly Christmas presents. Maybe the odd bit of grocery--most Wal-Marts in Canada still have a pitiful grocery selection, anyway. But because they might be buying the odd bit of food, all grocery stores have to extend their hours at the very least.

As we have. It was announced sometime in November that not only would our "summer hours" (open 'til 10 p.m. instead of 9, six days a week) be permanent, we'd also be open until 11:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. The rationale was this: "the malls are busy right until they close. We will be there to satisfy our customers' grocery needs."
I could get behind that sentiment, I really could...if our customers had grocery needs at that hour in the winter. Their cars are stuffed with Christmas gifts and all they want to do is go home. Who can blame them? It explains why, in the twelve extra hours we've been open so far, we've served something like...twelve customers.
Nevertheless, next year I bet we'll be open 'til midnight. Unless, of course, we're open 24/7/365...all hail the Great God Capitalism.

12 December, 2007

Week In Review

So many things to write about...so little desire to write about any of them in any detail. This will be a compendium.

1) Robert Pickton: Personally, I'd feed him to his pigs a la Hannibal. Given the damnable publication ban imposed by the judge, I'm not sure why he was found guilty of second degree murder and not first. Speculation is he had an accomplice--which is a chilling thought. Regardless: I believe the jury did its job admirably. They convicted on all six counts, and recommended a sentence that effectively turns the convictions into murder one. I really hope some future parole board doesn't take pity on the man and let him out.
For once, the justice system recognized that Downtown Eastside prostitutes are human beings. I wonder how long that sentiment will last...

2) Conrad Black: My interest in this particular individual, the covering of which has destroyed entire Canadian forests, rests somewhere below nil. His criticism of the jury that convicted him--"none of them know anything about finance"--tells you pretty much all you need to know about the man: he's a pompous, egomaniacal multimillionaire who (still) thinks he's above the law. Barring appeals, he'll serve six and a half years in an environment that will seem specially designed to humiliate him. I wonder if it will work. Somehow I doubt it.

3) Parvez case: Here we go again. This father allegedly killed his daughter over her refusal to dress in traditional Muslim garb. I will echo a sentiment I read elsewhere: it will be interesting to see who serves more time, this man or Robert Latimer.
This is yet another example of why I distrust religion--although to be fair, it's usually Muslims who fly into insane rages at the slightest provocation. What gives any human being the right to inflict his values on another? This sort of barbarity doesn't belong anywhere on the planet, let alone in enlightened, multicultural Canada.

4) The ongoing credit crunch: In what is described as "the biggest act of global economic co-operation since September 11", world banks are pumping billions of dollars into the economy. It'd be funny if it wasn't so sad. "Clearly, the central banks realized the severity of the situation and are taking on their most important role — to assure the efficient functioning of the world’s financial markets", says a chief economist with BMO Capital Markets. Really? From this angle, it looks as if "their most important role" is to ensure a free lunch in perpetuity. Trust me, these chickens will come home to roost eventually. Sooner or later there will be consequences for creating money out of thin air, then loaning it out to people who can never pay it back.

5) W007 W007: I majored in English, and I'm something of a stickler for proper grammar and usage. I can grudgingly accept the word "woot"...so long as it doesn't have numbers in it.
This has long been a pet peeve of mine, ever since I first ran across Sinead O'Connor's song "Nothing Compares 2 U". C'mon, Sinead, how hard is it to call it "Nothing Compares To You"? That's all of three extra characters. Or how about Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi"? "Skater's" been shortened by one whole character, and how'd she get through high school without knowing how to spell "boy"?
It's all due to the tabloidification of our culture. It's getting to the point where celebrities have shortened forms of their names, either alone (K-Fed, A-Rod) or in pairs (Bennifer, Brangelina)...are we truly in that much of a rush that we can't even spare the time to write out people's names any more?
And let me again state how much I hate text messaging, which is where these linguistic modifications are at their most extreme. What is the point of text messaging, anyway? Nobody's ever been able to explain it to me. You do it on a phone...what's wrong with calling people?

Enough. I'm supposed to be relaxing today.

09 December, 2007

Latitude for Latimer

I was going to try and compose a blog entry on Robert Latimer without delving too deeply into euthanasia. Unfortunately, what came to mind almost immediately was a snatch of lyric from "Gulf War Song" by Moxy Fruvous:

We got a call to write a song about the war in the Gulf
But we shouldn't hurt anyone's feelings
So we tried, then gave up, 'cause there was no such song
But the trying was very revealing...

Alas, I'm going to offend people today. On the one hand, I make no apologies for doing so: I'm merely writing my truth, and no matter what I write on this controversial topic, somebody's going to be offended. On the other hand, I make every apology: please understand, I never set out to deliberately piss people off.

For those living outside Canada' s borders (and any Canadians with news aversion disorder), Robert Latimer is a wheat farmer and father of four. Well, three, now. His daughter Tracy was born with the most debilitating form of cerebral palsy, and lived thirteen years with this disease, suffering five to six whole-body seizures daily and enduring a great deal of pain. She underwent several surgeries to manage her condition; the prospect of another, with resulting "incredible" amounts of post-operative suffering, motivated her father to end her life. He put his daughter in his truck and connected a hose from the exhaust pipe to the cabin, ensuring a painless death.

That Robert Latimer murdered his daughter is not in dispute (though he initially claimed Tracy died "in her sleep"--which is technically true but perhaps the worst lie by omission I've ever heard). Mr. Latimer later admitted killing his daughter...and a national furor erupted.
The case consumed Canadians as few have in my lifetime. Several trials ensued. Each one convicted Latimer; the facts of Tracy's death were never at issue. But with each trial came a different recommendation for sentencing, depending (it would seem) on the judge or jury's feelings about mercy killing.
The Supreme Court of Canada eventually decreed--unanimously--that Latimer's initial sentence would stand: life in prison, with no chance of full parole for ten years...though he became eligible for, and requested, day parole last week. To the surprise of a great many Canadians, who have become used to seeing murderous, gun-toting gangstas released at the first opportunity (if they serve any time at all, that is) Latimer's request was rejected. I can't predict with absolute certainty what will happen next, but it appears he will serve at least ten years, possibly much longer. It all depends on whether Mr. Latimer is prepared to abandon his belief that he did the right thing for Tracy. The parole board evidently wasn't prepared to hear that, much less inclined to accept it.

A 1999 poll found that 77% of Canadians believe Latimer acted out of compassion and should receive a more lenient sentence. The same poll showed that 41% of Canadians believe euthanasia shouldn't be illegal at all.

A significant number of those opposed to mercy killing are virulently opposed. I know this: I've seen their letters to the editors of various newspapers. Robert Latimer should "rot" in prison, they say, and ask why anyone would dare advocate "clemency" and "compassion" when none was on offer for Tracy. To exhibit any lenience in Latimer's case is to "devalue" Tracy's life and the lives of others like her, according to these people.

I'm not going to argue that the life a thirteen-year-old with the mental capacity of an infant is any less valuable to society than yours or mine. Even if I did believe so, that way lies madness: who makes the judgment call? On what grounds?
I will suggest, however, that Tracy Latimer's death, which never would have happened without a life lived as she lived hers, was an immensely valuable moment in Canadian society, as it forced a great many people to consider a very important issue.
For me, and I suspect a great many others, Tracy's grossly reduced mental and physical capacity is completely irrelevant. The myriad of advocacy groups for the disabled who have lunged to the fore, shrieking for all they're worth that if Latimer is accorded the slightest bit of leniency, the disabled will be murdered in heaps and piles by their caregivers, don't get this. For me, the matter is simple, and it has everything to do with pain.

Have you noticed, over the past twenty years or so, to what increasingly great lengths parents will go to spare their children any painful experience? You don't see near as many kids playing outside these days--they might get hurt. Lead-based paint might as well be liquid anthrax; child seats in cars are now inflicted on kids as old as eight. This overriding desire to prevent or allieviate pain is admirable (if a tad overzealous)...why is it not available to children like Tracy Latimer? Why is it perfectly acceptable (indeed, mandatory) for a person such as Tracy to suffer incalculable amounts of pain, with no prospect of relief? Not only that, but Tracy lacked the mental facility to understand why she was suffering. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I lack that mental facility too. If you saw your child suffering and did nothing, you'd be called a monster. Yet here is Robert Latimer, branded a monster (by some) for ending his daughter's pain forever.

For you Christians who believe that only God has the right to end a human's life when He sees fit, I'd ask you to consider two things:
--How much pain is Tracy Latimer suffering now, up in heaven?
--Is it not possible that Robert Latimer acted as an instrument of God?

No matter...that sort of spiritual avenue of inquiry doesn't have much place in a court of law. I do wonder, however, at the values of a justice system that routinely lets cold-blooded thugs out to kill again, while insisting a man like Robert Latimer must serve every minute of his sentence.

06 December, 2007

Bumper Stumpers

Mark this date down, because I'm about to do--in writing--not one but two things that are entirely out of character for me:
I'm going to defend an avowed Christian

--AND--

I'm going to praise Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

IN THE SAME POST.

First, the Christian. Now you must understand I have nothing whatsoever against Christians. Just as I have nothing against Jews, Hindus, or--well, I'll be honest, I've got something against Muslims, and will until the moderates of that faith decide they won't accept the radicals.
But as for Christians, I was one for a time...even earned my Christian stripes and read the Bible. All of it. It's amazing some of the stuff in there, particularly if you're willing to dig a little. For instance, most Christians of my acquaintance are unaware that there are two Creation stories in Genesis. They dovetail (mostly) but contradict each other on several key points--most notably, one of them refers to God in the plural. I've come to conclusions that work for me on this and most other Biblical mysteries; they fit me very comfortably in the tradition of such uber-liberal Christians as Tom Harpur and, especially, Bishop John Spong. (Incidentally, the more atheistic of my readers may wish to browse Spong's site and see if his God--so different from the "traditional" God--is more palatable.)
Got sidetracked there for a minute. I said all that to say this: where Christianity and I emphatically part company is that exact point where it starts to assume it's the only faith going--or the only one worth having. And I've found that attitude is frighteningly common in even the "milder" sects...the evangelical churches reek of it.

No matter. I wouldn't care if Reverend Joanne Sorrill" was a holy roller of the first order. The initial decision to strip her personalized license plate--"REV JO"--was utterly insane.
She'd had the plates for nineteen years. Some overzealous bureaucrat decided that that particular combination of letters promoted speeding. (It took me a second to make "rev an engine" out of "reverend"...)
Yeah, okay. So what about that little red Mazda Miata I used to see zipping all over town, license plate XLR8 ME? That promotes speeding, no? (Actually, I thought it was kinda cute...)

Undaunted, Rev. Sorill tried to get a "REVRND" plate. No dice, she was told: that promotes Christianity.
Oh, for Christ's sake, pun definitely intended, it does not. "Reverend" is a title. It's not like her plate read "JESUS SAVES" or even "JOHN 3 16". (And by the bye--so what if it did? If merely seeing a reference to a Bible verse or sentiment pisses you off, you have serious problems that require immediate and intensive therapy. And that's coming from--remember--a guy who hates hates hates proselytizers.)
The media outcry had the desired effect and got them to review the decision. Then came the kicker: the Ministry of Transportation said "REV JO" was unacceptable as it promoted drinking. I guess there's some kind of blue vodka cooler called "Rev".
At that point Premier McGuinty stepped in and sanity prevailed. Reverend Jo will get her plates any day now. Dalton, you old stopped clock, you. You got this one right.

I've viewed the anti-Christian fervor percolating away in Europe and to a lesser degree Canada with interest. As I have said, I can only barely be called a Christian and am, honestly, more comfortable with the label "spiritualist" if I have to be labelled at all; I have no vested interest. But it does strike me as extremely hypocritical that Canada must bend over backwards to accommodate any and all religions, including some much more offensive than Christianity (not even the stern God of the Old Testament demands the slaughter of all unbelievers the way the Qu'ran does)...and simultaneously eradicate any and all mention of Christianity. We're either all equal or we're not. Last I looked, each Canadian has the right to proclaim his or her faith--or lack thereof--without censure.

Dalton McGuinty's sensible intervention aside, I pray REV JO never gets a speeding ticket...

02 December, 2007

Simple like that.

"There never has been anything irrevocably wrong with our country and our world--just a horrid accumulation of silly mistakes that could be corrected with horse sense and the will to do it."
--Robert A. Heinlein, "Over the Rainbow" (found in Expanded Universe)

There's a scene the above cited story wherein a new President of the United States takes office --an African American woman, no less, not that it matters--and proceeds to do a whole hell of a lot of good in a very short time, mostly by making things simpler. A simpler sampler:
--she attempts to read the budget and finds it so stuffed with legal gobblegygook as to be incomprehensible; she therefore crafts and passes a law saying that all government legislation must be readable by a person of average intelligence. Including the tax code.
--she moves to outlaw the internal combustion engine, replacing it with the external combustion engine, i.e. steam power...reasoning that what oil we have left is far too valuable to waste on personal transportation. To further wean the country off oil, she mandates the use of unlimited solar power, such as can be found in orbit and harvested using existing technology. (This was written in 1980, I might add.)
--she solves water pollution by requiring each user to place their intake valve immediately downstream of their discharge. "It's self-enforcing. No need to test the water until someone downtream complains. Seldom. Because it has negative feedback...Complying with a law should be more rewarding than breaking it...."
--she dissolves the lobbying industry at a stroke, and I'm going to quote at length here because I absolutely love this passage:

"I intend to refuse to see any splinter group claiming to deserve special treatment not accorded other citizens and I will veto any legislation perverted to that end. Wheat farmers. Bankrupt corporations. Bankrupt cities. Labour leaders claiming to represent "the workers"...when most of the people they claim to represent repudiate any such leadership. Business leaders just as phony. Anyone who wants the deck stacked in his favour because, somehow, he's special...
"Any such group gets thrown out. But two groups will get thrown out so hard they'll bounce! I'm a woman and I'm a Negro. We've wiped the Jim-Crow laws off the books; I'll veto any Crow-Jim bill that reaches this office. Discrimination? Certainly there is still discrimination--but you can't kill prejudice by passing a law. We'll make it by how we behave and what we produce--not by trick laws.
"I feel even more strongly about women. We women are a majority, by so many millions that in an election it would be called a landslide. And it will be a landslide, on anything, any time women really want it to be. So women don't need any special favours; they just need to make up their minds what they want--then take it....
"Now, git...and don't come back! Not as a splinter group. Come back as Americans."

What a world that would be.

This particular story has had a major impact on me. While I'm able, at long last, to accept that the world is not black and white but is instead varying shades of gray, I still believe that most problems have simple solutions, and politics tends to needlessly complicate.

Here's some ideas...

The first thing I'd do is ban drive-throughs. Drive-through anythings. You want to poison your body with fast food, you should at least have to exercise just a little to get it; there's no need to poison the planet while you do it. According to the polls, the Canadian public is prepared to make serious sacrifices for the sake of the environment. Well, let's try a really small sacrifice and see if our money's where our mouths are.
While I'm on the subject of cars, let's make all new vehicles sold after, say, the 2010 model year meet extremely stringent emissions standards...the sort of standards that only hybrids can currently achieve. As technology improves, keep trimming acceptable emissions.
You can't tell me this can't be done, because hybrid engines exist. All that's required is a retrofit of automobile factories...and we'll even make that a tax writeoff.
We've got an obesity pandemic on our hands...and there are some simple ways to help cure it.
Mandatory physical activity in all schools, obviously, at least an hour a day's worth. A makeover of the food industry--let's tax junk food, take the profits and subsidize healthy food.
Simple like that.
We've spent millions and millions of dollars fighting an endless "war on drugs"...and it's patently obvious we're losing. Here's a thought: let's stop fighting. Let's legalize soft drugs, making it acceptable to grow, say, four marijuana plants for personal consumption. Consider: the black market and all its attendant crime would be almost entirely eliminated. The government would have an entirely new tax stream. Space in our jails would be freed up for those whose actions actually harm society. Win-win-win.

I'm sure each of us has a problem or two in our heads, along with its solution. They're the sort of things that finish off the sentence that begins, "If I was in charge..."
What if you were? Because we all are, you know. Perhaps we can't just pass a law in our heads and have everybody obey it. But the whole point of a democracy is, ostensibly, that the citizens are in charge. (And tyrannies only succeed so long as they convince people they have no power. The moment people begin to understand they are collectively more powerful than even the worst tyrant, the death of tyranny is a foregone conclusion.)

The thing is, just about any problem you can name has been solved somewhere, successfully. The issue isn't our adaptability or intelligence: it's a matter of focus. We humans have a remarkable ability to spread hate and indifference over the globe. It shouldn't be all that difficult to spread a little hope.

01 December, 2007

Face-to-Facebook

You know how skeptical I was about iPods? And cell phones? And just about every new piece of tricknology that comes out?
Goes triple for social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. I mean, come on. Besides being completely redundant (there's nothing on Facebook that doesn't exist in a myriad of places elsewhere on the Web), the whole phenomenon fairly reeks of high school. Here's the popularity contest: people racking up hundreds of "friends" they wouldn't recognize if they ran into them on the street (but of course, that assumes people still go running on streets these days). You've got your juvenile applications like Send Hotness, which give you a nice superficial feeling of being superficially judged superficially "hot". And you also get to know the least action of any of your least friends: I swear, some people won't fart until they post it in their status line. ("Ken is Bisquicking his underwear.")
Ah, Ken, how do you know so much about Facebook if you claim to be so skeptical about it, hmmm?
Ahem.
See...uh...there were these three friends of mine. Real friends, not Facebook friends. Each from a different period in my life. And each one emailed me within a week, and each email basically said the same thing: why the hell aren't you on Facebook already?

Inside me there's this teenager. I don't let him out much: he's prone to embarrass me. I kind of locked him away at about the age of nine, which is when I decided I'd about grown up, and he's been aging ever so slowly in there since. He's been the source of every social mis-step, every awkward moment, every last misplaced affection I ever had. Anyway, he's about eighteen now, and just as prone to peer pressure as most people of that age. He perked up with each email, and eventually demanded to get on Facebook, just on a trial basis, you understand. Rational, grown-up Ken said sure, okay, no problem, we'll join up on this site and see how infantile it really is.

And so I joined up. And that was that. Now it's a daily staple, and if you came up to me and told me that I could only visit one website from now on, it's no contest which I'd choose.

So what happened? Simple. I started looking people up.

Over here's the guy I went to school with back in grade four. He was the Rubik's Cube champion for his age group when I knew him, and the closest thing to a friend I had at that age...one of the very few kids who didn't look at me and want to re-arrange my face.
And over there are a pair of twins who lived down the hall from my ex when she went to Humber College. Lovely, both of 'em. (Truth be told, I had a crush on them...nothing I let get out of hand, but my ex knew, which is why I never got the chance to say goodbye to them, and why I remembered their names lo these sixteen years.)
Here a cousin; there an ex-boss; and here's my wife's matron of honour. Friends I met through other friends: a friend I've never met, but whose blog I read religiously; three aisles full of co-workers. (My store employs fewer than 100 people, and 77 of them are on Facebook.)

And while I'm looking people up, people are looking me up. One day I got a message in my Facebook inbox from a girl I'd never heard of in my life. She asked me if I had gone to Byron Northview Public School in the mid-eighties. I had. Twice, actually. I told her so, also confessing her name didn't ring any bells. Whereupon she told me she had been a grade ahead of me, and proceeded to detail an awful lot of (accurate) things about my grade five self. I didn't know whether to be flattered or alarmed. By that weird online alchemy, we've since become friends of a sort.
Then today: Craig Robertson.
Craig Robertson: my closest male friend for a while. He was a couple of years behind me, but even in grade nine played trumpet at a professional level. At some point after I moved away from London, he melted out of my life. Friends come in and out like busboys in a restaurant, have you ever noticed that?

Okay, so I've got friends on Facebook. So what?

Well, there's Scrabulous...I've played eleven games of Scrabble online, winning six and having fun even when I lose. There's an application called "Books iRead", which offers the opportunity to browse the entire Amazon.com catalogue, review anything you've read and read the reviews of others. There's "iLike", which does the same for music and goes one further: type an artist's name and you'll find out if they're on tour, where they're playing any given night, and you're even able to buy tickets. And this is anybody, not just teenybopper bands. You've got all of YouTube at your disposal to troll for music videos. And so on and so forth. There are groups a la Usenet for everything under the sun, popular or obscure. That's like a magnet to me: search my name under Google Groups and you'll very quickly find out what happened to the last eighteen months of my aborted university education.
In short, Facebook is the entire 'Net in microcosm. There are truckloads of rough, but more than enough diamonds in there to justify daily sifting.