30 August, 2009

The quality of mercy is much strained

...it droppeth, as a bombed plane from heaven
upon the place beneath.

(with apologies to Wm. Shakespeare)


I'm afraid my first reaction upon hearing that al-Megrahi was freed "on compassionate grounds" says more about me than it does about him. I was angry. Where was the compassion when 270 people lost their lives in a horrific terrorist attack? What's so awful about dying in prison?

Well, dying in prison is pretty awful, actually. Especially if you're innocent of the crime that put you there.

That's "if"...I'm not stupid enough to state unequivocally that al-Megrahi was framed...I merely note there's compelling evidence to suggest his conviction was politically motivated. He was not tried by a jury. He's always maintained his innocence. I'm no psychologist, but I find that telling. Most terrorists gloat over their crimes...because in their value system, they aren't "crimes" at all, but acts of heroism and valour.
Moving beyond such vague generalities and delving deeper, we learn that vital documents were withheld; that there are allegations the chief witness was paid off to the tune of $2 million; that at least two other witnesses were offered huge sums of money (and two forensic "experts invited to be prosecution witnesses were deemed totally unreliable); and that a key piece of evidence was faked.
Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Not only does the above cast doubts on his guilt, I think it makes a strong case for his innocence. Oh, yes, and he's writing a book to prove it.

So there's a chance--a good one, I believe--that the actual Lockerbie bombers are Iranian--or at least were hired by Iran--and out there walking free. Disgusting, isn't it? Premeditated mass murder on such a grand scale, committed for no good reason whatsoever? We'll ignore the matter of Iran Air Flight 655, shot down in Iranian territorial waters by an American battle cruiser after being "mistakenly" identified as an attacking F-14 Tomcat. For the record...
This is an F-14 Tomcat
This...isn't.

But hey, mistakes get made, right? And when somebody in your military makes a little oopsie and kills 288 civilians (66 of whom were children), you immediately discipline the man by giving him the Legion of Merit. And then you profusely apologize to the aggrieved nation of Iran by saying, as George H.W. Bush did on more than one occasion (showing true contrition!)...

"I'll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are."

After having done all that, you'll naturally assume the case is closed, right? And that no reasonable country would feel the need to exact revenge? Nah. Never happen.

al-Megrahi, of course, was welcomed as a hero when he arrived back in Libya. That stuck in the craws of observers around the world, who simply can't accept that there are people out there who hate the United States with the sort of raw passion with which only Americans are allowed to hate other countries. Now there are new allegations that al-Megrahi was released as part of a prisoners-for-oil swap (which is undoubtedly crass as all hell, and would be especially damning if it actually took some kind of economic impetus to release an innocent man). There are reports that al-Megrahi may not be quite as ill as previously thought: that he might have as much as eight months left to live as opposed to three.

Well, then.

You really have to question where all the outrage in the United States is coming from. It's especially palpable in reaction to Kenny Macaskill's "Christian compassion". I hate to drag this back to the subject of my previous post, but there really do seem to be an awful lot of Christians in the U.S. who have forgotten whatever they ever learned about the teachings of their Lord Jesus Christ on the matter of forgiveness. Christ supposedly forgave his torturers as they were murdering Him, after all. Yet so many seem unwilling even to let their God forgive this man, let alone forgive him themselves. And that's even assuming he's guilty--which is, as I hope I've shown, a very shaky assumption indeed.

29 August, 2009

The Woman I Might Have Married


I got your letter yesterday, and I'm
Not really sure what to say
So far gone, I think my job here is done
We used to be so close, we used to be so free, until the
Good Book took you away from me

--The Paperboys, "Salvation"


Perhaps that should be women...long before I met my wife, I was engaged to one person and might as well have been to another. But the particular woman I'm speaking of was my first love, predating either of them.
I met her the first day of grade ten. She walked into my second period music class wearing a denim jumpsuit she'd fashioned herself, and I was instantly and irrevocably smitten, all the more so as she grabbed a baritone and sat two seats down from me.
She noticed me right off, too: it's kind of hard not to notice a guy who's (a) instantly and irrevocably smitten and who (b) has not the slightest idea how to exhibit his smittenness in anything resembling a mature manner.

Somehow--maybe it was my own sheer force of will, but the smitten teenager I was thought it preordained--Darlene and I became friends. That only intensified my longing, nay, my torrid yearning. I've chronicled all this before, of course--the two-year chase almost but not quite culminating in an evening meadow--but I've never explained why things never worked out. Why I didn't pursue this woman past high school. And why--despite the fact we're still friends of a sort two decades later--I'm glad of that.

It goes without saying (but I'd better say it anyway) that I'm glad first and foremost that I met and married Eva. I haven't had a moment's regret on that score in the decade plus we've been together. I'm writing here of alternate realities, dimensions in which I never found the love of my life.

And in those dimensions, I might have married Darlene. If I had, I would have regretted that: of that I have no doubt.

It's funny, in a way. Just the other day she told me (on Facebook) she thought we were "kindred spirits"...and I agreed. After all these years, we still share an odd kind of telepathy. We can finish each other's sentences. Considering I haven't seen her since 1992, I think that rather remarkable.

But she's religious.

She always has been. But where I was once, and grew out of it, she's only grown into it...which is something I for the life of me can't understand.

It's like a full-on mental block. All the things she derives comfort from--the daily devotionals, the pretty much constant prayer, the whole shootin' match--make me acutely uncomfortable. Her blog has a link to Focus On The Family, a group I find beyond abhorrent, not least because their definition of "family" and mine don't match.

I got to thinking about her, again, this morning reading Michael Coren's latest diatribe against liberal Christianity. Coren asserts that people are abandoning the United Church in droves for more evangelical denominations. If that's true, it scares me. Because I've yet to meet an evangelical who doesn't cast the world in us/them terms, "us" being, of course, the narrow strip of people who believe exactly as they do.

If somebody put a gun to my head and told me I had to join a mainline Christian church, I wouldn't have to think twice before picking the closest United Church. Mostly because of all the things Coren decries: they by and large let people worship in their own way and concentrate on the world around them. Would that other churches could be so kind.

Religion, actually, frightens me in any context, even in moderation. I can almost always find common ground with anyone on politics, but religion occupies an entirely different sphere of thought to which I no longer have access. When I read that Stephen Harper is a lot more concerned by "God's verdict regarding [his] life than that of historians", my fear grows in leaps and bounds. Mostly, it's uncertainty. What is his God telling him to do? One never knows until the thing's done and the divine inspiration is cited. What is his God's attitude regarding unbelievers (like, presumably, Omar Khadr, Suaad Hagi Mohamud, and Abousfian Abdelrasik)? Or, for that matter, me?

Yes, it's fair to say I'm uncomfortable with religion in general and Christianity in particular. One reason is that so many Christians see fit to violate their own Scriptures in matters large and small, every day. I'll give you one for-instance that's not often thought of

Even the most militant of atheists is likely to know the Lord's Prayer, the one that starts "Our Father, Who art in Heaven..." Very few Christians can cite you chapter and verse where that prayer occurs in the Bible...and even if they can (Matthew 6), they're not likely to know the instructions Jesus Himself gave to His apostles immediately before He gave them the model prayer. Here they are, straight from the Saviour's mouth, as it were:

MATTHEW 6

1 Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

How many Christians pray in public? I'm tempted to say pretty much all of them.

(I have met a few, a very few, individuals whom you'd never know were religious unless you asked them. My mother and stepfather are two such. I admire these people greatly, and have nothing but respect for the faith by which they live their lives. But I have no time for faith proclaimed publicly. Nor, it seems, did Jesus.)

It bothers me to no end to see people subsume their lives into a single interpretation of an ancient collection of song-stories, proverbs, political propaganda, and prophesy. It permeates everything: the Bible becomes the answer to every question. Which is patently ridiculous, since the Bible doesn't have anything to say, pro or con, on any number of things that might affect your life...and much of what the Bible does say has been historically and ritualistically misinterpreted down the centuries by people with various political and doctrinal axes to grind. (Go to bible.com and type "abortion" into the search engine and prepare to be shocked. Use any synonym you like: you won't find so much as a single verse.)

I couldn't live that life. I'd feel stifled, inprisoned. It boggles my mind that a woman, especially, can live a life in which her husband is always and forever the unquestioned head of the household. What century did that come from, anyway? That wouldn't work in my household and I'm the freakin' man.

It would never have worked out between Darlene and I, no matter how well our personalities mesh, no matter how much we're "kindred spirits". Because I grew out of my faith...and she grew into hers.

27 August, 2009

Getting back to business...

I've shied away from the politics over the last few months by design. I've sorta kinda kept up with events, but not to the degree I did, say, last year...because pretty much everything going on depresses the almighty hell right out of me. There's only so much of this kind of thing I can write before I go mad. And so I decided to take a little break, not from blogging, but from the immersion needed to look like I know what I'm talking about on matters political and economic.

Break's over.

First off, let me extend condolences to America on the loss of Ted Kennedy. Oddly enough, he's the second famous Ted Kennedy to pass away this month. Admittedly, the first one's only famous to Toronto Maple Leaf fans...but for many of the same reasons the political Kennedy was famous. Ted "Teeder" Kennedy was a lion of a hockey player. He won five Stanley Cups with the Leafs, captaining the team to three of them. His determination and heart are well known to anyone who ever played with him or against him. He commanded respect.

Edward Moore Kennedy commanded a different kind of respect, mostly because he gave respect so freely. America should mourn his death because he might well have been the last of the conciliators...and America has never needed conciliation as badly as it does today.
Nobody seems to be able to talk for long about Ted Kennedy the politician without mentioning a certain bridge and a certain woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. What actually happened that night will never be known, but Kennedy's actions and statements in the aftermath were indefensible in any event. And yet, the American people saw fit to forgive him. He might well have been nominated for President had he chosen to run. He might, in fact, have won more than the nomination...and what a different America that would have made. For one thing, we wouldn't be seeing this unseemly fracas over health care in 2009, because the United States would by now have had a single-payer system in place for the better part of forty years. Health care reform was, after all, Kennedy's life's work.

I'll be writing in the next few days on Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the convicted (quite possibly wrongly convicted) terrorist supposedly behind the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. I've soaked up a ShamWow! full of outrage over this and I'm almost ready to wring it out right on screen. But not tonight. I've got to ease back in to this political muck and mire.

24 August, 2009

Stink

I bike to work, weather permitting. It's about a twenty minute ride, and the last seven or eight minutes I tend to ride somewhat on autopilot. There's a bike lane, the road is straight and relatively flat, with few cross streets.
So this morning at 7:2o or so I was merrily pedalling away, pulling into the Price Chopper lot, waving hello to Jim and my ice cream, just pulling in ahead of me. I rounded the corner...
...and damn near fell off my bike.
The smell hit me, pummelled me, enveloped me, clenching my throat in warm, gelatinous tendrils of stench. I hurriedly covered my nose, riding one-handed, but that was no help: I could taste it. Whereupon I covered my mouth, riding no-handed, and the fetid reek obligingly seeped into my eyes.
Before I was forced to cover my eyes and ride negative-one-handed and blind besides, I arrived at my makeshift hitching post, hurriedly dismounted and locked up my bike, and high-tailed it back around the building into the store. The smell dissipated as I went: by the time I entered the lobby, it had disappeared entirely.
I resolved, right then and there, not to go into receiving that day. Then I realized I couldn't very well do my job without practically living in the back room. Just another manic Monday: Nestle ice cream, Chapman's ice cream, Natrel milk, Neilson milk, Liberte yogurt, Astro yogurt...and those were just my orders. Doubtless I'd have to receive a host of things for other departments besides. All while trying like hell not to upchuck.
Because I knew what this miasma was. Or rather, I knew whence it came: from the compactor out back. Not in it...under it. Some unutterably foul liquid from the armpit of Hell had...oozed...its way out from under the compactor, smelling for all the world like a baby diaper full of vomit, seasoned with overheated crankcase oil, all cooked medium well inside the asshole of a dead gopher.

It was, in short, a perfectly horrid aroma.

Oh, we called right away to get the compactor dumped and the lot spray-washed. But they told us they were behind, and it would be some time before they could get to us. Perhaps tomorrow.

Blech. I debated what to do. I couldn't very well pour bleach out on the bare pavement, where it would wash into the drains. Besides, the smell of bleach has its own special resonance for me: one whiff of that, combined with the gangrenous demon-smell out there, and I WOULD throw up, and possibly pass out.

(Now that the day's over, of course, I wonder why I didn't just grab some kitty litter. Okay, well, actually I know the answer to that: because I would have been the one who had to apply it...and no way on earth was I venturing outside.)

I did nothing, except contemplate coming home.

I read somewhere that it takes twelve minutes of sustained exposure to a smell to acclimatize. Yeah, right. Twelve days wouldn't suffice in this case. I was sure of it.
Nevertheless, I gotta keep this family in air fresheners, so off to work I went.
The day rapidly assumed farcical dimensions as vendor after vendor came to the back door, rang the bell and was admitted heaving and retching. The guys we don't like overmuch, we allowed to marinate for awhile before we offered sanctuary (such as it was: the back room stunk...just not nearly as nauseatingly as it did outside, right next to the accursed compactor). Our favourite drivers were of course admitted without hesitation. To a man, they all made ribald remarks I won't record here. (The language in our back room can make a sailor threaten to wash our mouths out with soap.)

Well...not quite to a man. Three of the twelve drivers I saw today made no mention of the reek. I watched them carefully for telltale signs they'd noticed it. Nothing. I stared at them, quite frankly dumbfounded. They appeared to have noses. Yet they were going about their business as if they couldn't smell. My damned eyes were watering.

It gradually dawned on me as the day went on. How do I put this gently? Oh, hell, out with it. Every white guy who came to our door looked like he'd gone five rounds with Death in a colostomy bag. Every...person of South Asian descent...seemed not to notice or care that their noses were under assault.
I mentioned this to a few of the friendlier reps I saw, later in the day. Very racist (and very funny) remarks were exchanged. But underneath all the banter, I was sincerely curious after the third turbaned man left the store without a word. I wanted to ask him: did he smell that? But I didn't. I think I was actually afraid he'd say "smell what?"

I almost hope that reek is still around on Wednesday (I'm off tomorrow). Purely as a social experiment, you understand. Almost.

On second thought, no. I'd live longer and die happier if I never smell...that...again.

22 August, 2009

Future Excursions

Behold, five places I want to go/things I want to see before I enter the Void:




1) Agawa Canyon: In days of yore, when I was in my early teens, Ontario used to put out something called the Traveler's Encyclopedia annually. I keenly looked forward to each edition, and brought it with me on our frequent car trips throughout Southern Ontario. Every town of any size had a writeup, with population figures, a thumbnail history, and a list and description of local attractions. I enjoyed reading up on each place we passed through...and, of course, I spent just as much time reading up on places we didn't.
Agawa Canyon has had a prominent place on my must-see list ever since I first learned of its existence. It's got everything I look for in a perfect vacation: isolation, peace and tranquility, spectacular natural scenes at every turn, and as an extra added bonus (he repeated again redundantly), you get there by train.


2) Alaska Cruise: This is planned for our kickoff to retirement...we want to take the train across Canada, embark in Vancouver, and float north. I like the idea of a smaller ship, one where I'm not obligated to join in nineteen-course meals or competitive shuffleboard. Truth be told, I could probably spend my entire shipboard time sitting on my balcony watching the world go by.


3) Las Vegas: How pedestrian of me. But I have no intention of gambling when I go. Well, okay, maybe a little. But mostly I just want to see the glitz and glamor and take in a few shows.



4) Dawson City, Yukon Territory: Never mind visiting, I look at a picture like this and think I'd like to live there. Except in the summer. Light twenty four hours a day would drive me mad in short order.



5) Hawai'i: I can't think of anywhere else on the globe with such breathtaking scenery...every picture looks like a painting. Some day, ah, some day...

What do you want to see before your foot makes contact with the fabled bucket?


19 August, 2009

Knaves' Buffet

Time was--and not all that long ago--you had two choices if you lived in the Tri-Cities and you were craving a Chinese buffet. You could eat swill, presented to you at a wide variety of places posing as Chinese buffets...or you could drive an hour to an entirely different city.

Then Kings Buffet came to town, shortly followed by a Mandarin. At least three of the swill-places closed down immediately, their game up.

Mandarins are pretty much the same, chainwide: good food and lots of it, but they can be a tad pricey. Kings are a notch below, pricewise, and they vary widely in quality. Until today, I would have put the Kitchener location near the top of the list.

Like most people I know, we skip the salad bar at any buffet: bring me right to the mains, baby. Eva had just launched into her second plate when she stopped and extracted a twig from her mushrooms. The damn thing was four inches long.
"I don't think you should be seeing twigs in your food", I said.
"Me, neither."

That wasn't what upset us. Overmuch, anyway. Hey, in the immortal words of Sugarland, "shh...it happens." No, it was what happened when Eva sought the attention of the manager.
Our waitress--who was very good--got the manager and explained what Eva had found. Whereupon the manager strode to our table and, without giving Eva a chance to say a word, announced "this is a spice. I'll show you"...and strode away.
He was gone for quite some time.
Eventually he came back with...a clove.

"This is what you have there", he said. "This is what it looks like before it's cooked."
Eva stared at what was in his hand and said "That's a clove." She pointed at the other hand, where her "cooked clove" was, and said "That's not a clove. That's a twig."

Until this point, I think we both would have been happy with a simple, sincere expression of regret and a fresh plate of food. Speaking as someone with extensive customer service experience (it is, after all, my job), I knew better than to expect a direct apology. You never outright apologize for things like this--it's an admission of guilt, and it can come back to bite you in the ass.
But that's not to say you can't express regret. Indeed, you must express regret: your customer is not happy.


But there hadn't been the slightest hint of regret and the outright lie rankled. I mean, come on, we're not stupid. Mushrooms are grown in dirt, and if you're not overly scrupulous about washing your food, you end up with a twig on your plate.

Even I know what a clove looks like. To try and pull something like that over on Eva--Eva, my wife, whose knowledge of food and cooking is encyclopaedic--is really beyond the pale. Nevertheless, he tried to say again that the twig she found in her mushrooms was, in fact, a clove.

No "sorry this happened". No nothing. Still, rather than cause a real uproar and interrupt other diners' enjoyment of their twigs, we chose to wait and see if they'd quietly offer some sort of discount on the meal.

No dice. We were charged full price. Eva summoned the manager, a different manager this time, and explained once again what she had found in her food, and more importantly, what she was told she had found in her food.

"What would you like me to do?" the manager asked. Internally, I was running this confrontation through on both sides, and I reluctantly gave the man a point. "What would you like me to do?" is exactly the right question to ask in a situation like this. It shows you're listening, and you're ready to assist in solving the problem in any reasonable manner, and also allows the customer to state what's reasonable. You'd be surprised how many people choke up when the ball's thrown back in their court.

Incidentally, from the other side o
"Well, I don't understand why I should have to pay for a meal I didn't get to eat", said Eva.
"How much did you eat?" asked the manager, and I subtracted the point I'd awarded earlier and assessed him a ten point penalty. Wrong question, buddy, I said silently. You just made it look like you don't care about your customers, only about maximizing any profit you can out of this regrettable incident. I thought about speaking up on this point, but held my tongue.
"One plate", said Eva, in a tone that suggested there better not be any further questions.
"What if I subtracted your dinner from the bill, would that make you happy?"
"It would make me happier," said Eva, "but I think you should know we won't be coming back."
I was left to pay the amended total. I made sure to add a tip for our waitress, who had nothing to do with this, and the manager noticed and said "thank you for your understanding."
"I don't understand much of anything," I said, "but I do know this wasn't the waitress' fault." And I left...never to return.

16 August, 2009

Depressing

Tabitha Southey weighs in on the American health care brouhaha in yesterday's Globe and Mail. In so doing, she writes possibly the most depressing thing I have ever read:

"[I]n America, where anger is the most validated emotion, even the feeling that things are actually pretty good in one's life is considered best expressed as fury that they might not continue to be that way."

I've noticed that myself over the past decade or so, as politics has become increasingly polarized in both our countries.

I'm not smug. In Canada, our own "most validated emotion" is self-pity, which is arguably at least as damaging. We're world-class whiners, black-belt-bellyachers. We bitch incessantly about everything: the weather (too hot, too cold); the government (by turns too uncaring and caring too much)...life in general is an endless litany of unpleasantries, even when--sometimes especially when--our attention is forcefully drawn to just how comparatively good we really have it here.
Anger exists here, but it simmers well below the surface. Expressing it openly is a social faux pas along the lines of going out in public with your gitch showing. So the anger mutates into boring and unseemly whingeing about "unfairness". We moan and groan theatrically, begging for intervention from anyone who will listen, knowing deep down that nobody really cares, and moaning and groaning about that.'

Not so America. In that hallowed land, the angrier you appear, the more likely you'll be listened to. Maybe that's in part because down there, if you're really pissed off, you just might pull a perfectly legal gun you've perfectly legally concealed about your person and proceed to not-so-perfectly legally (but oh so perfectly cathartically!) blow the head off your anger, so to speak. I don't know.

It amazes and confuses me, though, this health care debate. It's inexplicable to me that so many people are so ready to fight--violently, if necessary--to maintain a system that turns its back on almost twenty percent of the population.

One wonders why this fight never happened over education, which is (correctly) considered a human right in the United States, and administered in most cases by the big bad government. There are fundycostals who reject the education system out of fear their children might learn something, and a smattering of others who home-school for more valid reasons...but by and large, most American children are taken away from their parents by the government for seven hours a day, five days a week, over a period of many years--without a peep out of the parents.

But make it about some kind of health that's not academic and BANG! Jack springs out of his box primed to go off. Threaten to alleviate a disparity and you'll be threatened right back. I just don't understand it.

Americans can think collectively--indeed, they have a sense of collective national pride that's deeply felt and easily expressed. I'd like to see them think about health care collectively. It's not hard. We up here in Canada have been doing it for almost forty years--more than sixty if you're from Saskatchewan. It's become a habit, and a comforting one. Even after all this time, there's still endless debate about the form our system should take (and all but the most blinded zealot would agree it needs change)...but that debate is framed in terms of collective outcomes ("what will this accomplish for society) more than individual inputs ("what will this cost me?")

What to know the damnedest thing? The damnedest thing is that our system, for all its flaws, is substantially cheaper per capita than the American system. If America really wanted to, it could cover everyone and save a lot of money doing it. That's not pie-in-the-sky thinking, it's verifiable fact, because every other Western democracy has universal health coverage at a fraction of what America pays for selective coverage.

Creating such a system would be an act of political will that would reverberate down the generations and forever change American society...mostly for the better.

But bringing a gun to a town-hall meeting and "doing your best Al Pacino" will get you on television.

15 August, 2009

Function Over Form

That's got to be one of my fundamentals. I was reminded of this today gazing upon a $300 purse.
Said purse was brandished by a girl at work, a girl who's pretty, stylish...and obviously independently wealthy. I mean, this is Price Chopper we're talking about. The phrases part time cashier at Price Chopper and $300 purse may go in the same sentence, but they chafe together uncomfortably.
Or so I think. But then again, I'm of the male persuasion. What do I know?
Anyway, she brandished this purse together with its receipt. I looked at it. It was...a purse. Red leather, a huge metallic logo affixed to one side, broadcasting the Cool Brand Name to all and sundry. (I wish I could remember that brand name. It wasn't Gucci, but it sounded kind of like Gucci. Or maybe there's a point behind my not remembering the brand name. Maybe. Hmmm.)
"It's gorgeous!" she gushed.
"It's a purse!" I gushed back.
She looked at me. I've seen that look before. I see it every day, in fact. It's a weird fusion of pity, contempt and incomprehension. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what I was feeling looking at that purse.

There was a time, ah, there was a time when I was all about the brand name. My first year of high school, every teen was wearing either Roots or Northern Reflections gear. Both stores are not cheap, incidentally, and we were not exactly rich. But I wouldn't shut up about how badly I needed something from either store. I pleaded. I begged. I wheedled.
My wish was granted: a burgundy sweater with the largest Roots logo imaginable awaited me under the Christmas tree that year. Unfortunately, wearing that sweater didn't make me fit in at all. If anything, the teasing and ostracization redoubled.

I did notice something, though, and I can trace the moment I started to enter adulthood to the moment I noticed: that Roots sweater was probably the most comfortable thing I owned.
Shortly thereafter I got a Northern Reflections sweater. A blue one. I intentionally chose one on which the logo was comparatively tiny, almost unnoticeable. I revelled in the comfort and obvious quality, but I no longer felt the need to tell the world about it at top volume.

And so I have some small measure of understanding in these matters: you buy cheap, you get cheap, right?

But...a purse?

What is the purpose of a purse? To store things in, correct? There's no comfort involved here that I can see: you don't wear a purse, you carry it. I can grant you that a $300 purse is probably a good deal more durable than one at a tenth the price...but I've yet to meet the woman who buys one purse and sticks with it for life. My own wife is on a perpetual search for The Perfect Purse. She hasn't found it yet (she's come close)...and I can pretty much assure you that when she does, it'll cost us more than $300...because she'll buy eight or nine of them.

I've never understood fashion. Or rather, I've never understood why fashion continually changes. When I buy clothing, I ask myself three questions. The first is can I afford this? I'm not near as frugal as my best friend Jason, who will not allow himself to spend more than $10 on any item of clothing (memo to anyone trying to accomplish that: it helps to live in southern California.)

The second question: is this comfortable? The most comfortable shirts in my closet are from Wal-Mart: they cost $9 each. So expensive doesn't always mean comfortable, and if you're poor (a "temporarily embarrassed tycoon") you can still find comfortable clothing if you're willing to dig a little. Places like Value Village are an absolute goldmine.
Regardless: what's comfortable never changes.

The third: do I like the look of this? Notice that isn't will I look good in this--as far as I'm concerned, they're the same question, but I recognize others may not see it that way. I recognize that, but I don't care.

I'm partial to greys and blues, with occasional forays into the brown palette. Grey has been my favourite colour almost as long as I can remember. I'm seriously tempted to say the answer to do I like the look of this? never changes, either.

So: two things never change--what's comfortable and what I like. What I can afford may fluctuate, I'll grant you...and yes, as shown above, the expensive clothing can be extremely comfortable...but so can the cheaper stuff. So much so that I often find myself wondering if the Tommy Hilfigers of the world--or whatever brands are au courant now--charge so much simply because they can.

Fashion. It's just silly.



09 August, 2009

Life, the Universe, and Everything...melting...

42.

That's the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything in Douglas Adams' immortal work The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It's also the humidex reading today. That's about 108 F. Yep, summer's here. Rather than bore you with yet another weather rant, I'll rant about something else. I gotta vent about something in this heat or I'll go redline. (Sorry...)

I was reading a review of a video game called Dawn of Discovery--well, it's called that in the U.S. and Canada, because apparently we're too stupid to translate a single word of Latin: off this benighted continent it goes by its real name, Anno 1404. Can't find the review online, but it made a point of saying that in Europe, video games are decidedly less violent than they are in the United States, and speculated why that might be: there are still people alive in Europe who remember war and occupation, and thus the culture is not inclined to view violence as entertainment.
Well, duh.
It strikes me as utterly mad that we inundate our children with violence and then suggest that just because it's on a screen it's somehow less real to them. (Indeed, these days I've taken to wondering if teens believe things on screens to be "more real than real"...but that's a rant for another day.)

I can't help but wonder: would we have to experience the horrors Europe is so prone to, if our culture is to, in the end, become more sane? Why should that be? What is wrong with people?

When I was a pre-teen, I was briefly in counselling for something or other, I disremember what, exactly. In the course of my appointments, it was discovered (or rather, asserted) that I had great difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality...because I unfailingly reacted to fantastical images and stories as if they were real.
I thought that was utter bushwah then and still think so. How else was I (am I) supposed to react? Am I supposed to watch a man mutilated on a big screen, shrug my shoulders, and think to myself, well, that's just fine, because hey, even if it happened in front of me, it didn't really happen in front of me?
My first question, viewing such, is why. In a world as sick as ours, is it truly necessary to infect even our escapist fare with sickness?

In discussing this blog entry with my wife prior to its composition, I sketched out the above and was rewarded with "well, that explains a lot."
"Huh?"
"Do you think this is why you are so adamant about the difference between reality and fantasy?"
"Uh...I never really thought about it, but yes, probably."
When you come with an overdeveloped empathy gland, people are forever making little assumptions about you, assumptions like "he can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality." My response--"of course I can, but who cares?" draws mostly puzzled stares. So I'm always trying to make it perfectly clear what I find real and what I find fake. Which, come to think of it, is probably the underlying reason I hate so-called "reality" television...because it's so obviously fake, and yet dares to call itself real.

Violence and death--whether it shows up on a screen, in a book (fiction or otherwise) or on last night's police docket--is distasteful to me. There's a passage in Pat Conroy's excellent novel The Lords of Discipline that crystallizes this fundamental difference between myself and seemingly everyone around me:

Nothing made the college prouder than the death of a graduate in combat. We kept a tally of those fallen heroes and felt that we were in direct competition with the service academies as to who would have the most graduates killed in Vietnam. Careful records were kept, and when Colonel David Foxworth Johnson was killed while leading a night patrol in October of 1966, we pulled ahead of West Point for the first time. When the Regimental Adjutant announced this fact, the mess hall ignited in a spontaneous chant from the Corps, "We're Number One. We're Number One. We're Number One." It was done with the highly oxygenated esprit of boys still young enough to laugh at death. The black, grisly humor of the barracks even viewed the death of heroes with a gruff and vigorous irreverance. Until we began to recognize the names of the graduates killed, until we began to hear the names of friends included on the fatality lists. Then, the war became ugly and serious; then, and only then, did it become real.

Reading that for the first time, I was appalled. But, I thought to myself, even if I don't recognize a name, somebody does. Everyone is somebody's friend: does the mere fact that nameless, faceless soldier is not mine grant me permission to laugh at his death? I think not. War is real ugly and real serious no matter where it happens.
And then I'm checking myself: Ken, it's a book. A work of fiction, albeit strongly autobiographical.
So what? That scene is certainly written as if it actually happened. I have little doubt it did. Conroy wants me to believe it did in the context of his story, at any rate.
I think people thought I'd outgrow this oddity. I haven't. It's still here, still strong, and still, on occasion, very hard to live with. But I'd rather have it than not. Lose the empathy and I might as well lose my sanity.

Now the humidex is 43, but I feel a little better.


07 August, 2009

Serious admiration

...for this woman.

Her husband woke up one day and said "I don't love you. I'm not sure I ever did. I want out."

I've thought about that scenario every now and again, because I've seen it myself a couple of times. I've always considered my marriage to be an exercise in continuing choice: I choose to remain with my wife and she with me. Marriage, contrary to the single man's assertion, is not a prison.

I can't imagine Eva ever saying such a thing to me. But if she did (I've told myself) I'd let her go. Our marriage is not a prison and nor am I a warden. No doubt I'd be deeply hurt, and I sure wouldn't just throw in the towel without a good and long talk or ten--but if leaving me was Eva's perceived best option, who am I to stand in her way?

Now I read Laura Munson's reaction and am humbled before it. Because here's a woman who lives up to, indeed surpasses, every spiritual principle I try, and so often fail, to practice. You know the saying "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional"? Munson doesn't allow herself the option of suffering. When her husband came out with those stinging words, instead of reacting with pain, anger and melodrama, she took ten mental steps back and looked at the situation with a cool and level head. She saw her husband had a problem. And she positively refused to allow him to make his problem hers.
In short, she called his bluff. She told him he could have all the distance he wanted, so long as he didn't hurt the family. His initial reaction was puzzlement, followed by anger, the very anger a child feels when the script isn't going the way he thinks it should. Then he resentfully took the freedom she freely gave, pretty much ignoring her and his kids for a few months. (She told the kids that "Daddy's having a hard time, as adults often do. But we're a family, no matter what.")
And wouldn't you know, her approach worked. Her husband got over himself and his little crisis of pride. Sounds like he realized--maybe for the first time in years--how lucky he was to have married the woman he did.

This is how you play a midlife crisis. And this is an example of living life without suffering. All I can say is, bravo Laura Munson.

02 August, 2009

...And after...


Outside the beautiful bathroom looking in and contemplating changes

Like the sink: sleek, simple, and elegant.



And the toilet, an American Standard Champion, recommended by our plumber as "the only toilet worth buying". It's incredible: flushes in three seconds flat, no matter what you ate.


The new and improved tub...



...with new and improved shower doors!


A lot brighter than it was...and no more mirrorwall.


Master bedroom closet: Double the size!

Thank you Dan and your helpers: you did a wonderful job and we appreciate it. For those interested, Dan's website is under construction and I'll post a link when one is available.

Before...

The renovation is done. Mostly. We're finishing up what's left. Blogger will only allow so many pictures in one post. So, without further ado:


Outside the bufugly bathroom, looking in and contemplating changes

Like getting rid of that vanity. There's really nothing vain about it.


And that toilet! It does add colour to the room, but not a colour anybody would want to look at...



Ugly tub

Covered up with...an ugly shower curtain
Dark stairway. Note the carpet, which is impossible to keep clean; also the oh-so-seventies mirrorwall at the bottom, complete with missing tiles thanks to overenthusiastic throws of the Georgia-ball.

And the master bedroom closet, better befitting a slave's bedroom...


Scofflaws

Interesting article in today's Toronto Star posing the question "Do cyclists need to stop at stop signs"?
Not in Idaho, it turns out. In that state, and as of this writing, only in that state, cyclists are permitted to treat stop signs as yield signs.
The Star watched 159 cyclists approach a four-way stop. Only 21 of them actually fully stopped. Many others performed an "Idaho stop"; quite a few barrelled through the intersection as if it didn't exist.
Quite frankly, I'm amazed that 13% of the cyclists they saw obeyed the law. Nearly every cyclist I see on any given day wipes his or her ass with the Highway Traffic Act. Seriously: police could easily pay their own salaries solely by handing out tickets to people on bicycles. From riding on the sidewalk to lacking legally mandated lights and "sounding devices" to--yes--running traffic signals and stop signs, people on bikes generally believe themselves to be a breed apart.
I'm not really sure whence this attitude comes. In a bike-car collision, it's a given the cyclist is going to come out much the worse for wear, and yet the vast, vast majority of them behave as if they're invulnerable.

I do think I know why police officers routinely ignore any illegal behaviour they see on a bike. It's because in North America, bikes are toys.
Not in Europe. In Europe, a bike is a legitimate means of transportation--in some places, more legitimate than a car, given that gas can cost $7 or more a gallon. Cyclists are licensed and expected to obey all traffic laws. In return, drivers treat cyclists with a great deal more respect.

But here: bikes are toys, and bicyclists--no matter how old they be--are indulged as if they were little kids. Madness.

I'm not perfect and don't claim to be. I've been guilty of my own "Idaho stops" every now and again, for instance. But ever since I was run over by a cop, I've generally behaved myself on a bike. I use hand signals. My bike has lights and a bell. And I ride on the road where I belong. It's not called a "sideride", after all.

I actually agree with the notion of "stoptional" signs. But not just for bikes. Let's abolish stop signs for everyone. While we're at it, let's get rid of traffic lights, too, and lines demarcating lanes, and speed limits, and...

Do I sound like I've gone crazy? If so, the craziness is contagious. Again I look to Europe, where they're trying this out in various places with surprising results. Unsafe, as it turns out, is safe: "accidents" have declined, since drivers under this system are forced to watch where the hell they're going.
Now that would be a welcome change. Almost as welcome as cyclists obeying the damn traffic laws.