27 September, 2009

Channelling Douglas Adams...

Before I was so Monsterously interrupted...

As I knew he would, Rocketstar came to my "Why I Believe In God" post with a skeptic's eye. In his comment, he says:

If everyone’s God was like yours Ken (just a basic higher power, creator of the universe and everything in it with no other detailed plan or rules to live by [correct me if I misstated that]) I may not even be an atheist (the conversion may have never happened) if that is what humans believed God was.

Some humans-actually, many humans--do believe in a god/higher being/power/what have you with these characteristics. Native Americans believe an animating force lurks within everything. There's no 'detailed plan' from the spirits on The Right Way To Live, although a person might, on his own or through his shaman, seek advice from them. That advice, from what I've read, is geared towards living in harmony with the life, the universe and everything.
Buddhists don't have a god. Their 'god' is a man who just happened to 'wake up' one day. He said anyone can 'wake up' like he did, and while there are many theories on how to go about 'waking up', you don't see Buddhists killing each other over them. Pretty much everybody in that philosophical tradition (you can't very well call it a 'religion' does agree (though they'll perhaps word it differently) that 'waking up' entails living in harmony with life, the universe and everything.
Hindus have scads and scads of gods and goddesses--in some traditions. There's also a very detailed set of rules for right living (called 'dharma', which translates, loosely, as 'duty'). But that set of rules is very widely interpreted...and some Hindus are atheists.
The first vice-president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, once said "Hinduism is not just a faith. It is the union of reason and intuition that can not be defined but is only to be experienced." Their concept of divinity permeates all living beings, and therefore their rules for right living can be said to allow one to live in harmony, with life, the universe and everything.

I can go on. If you're pagan, Wiccan, or a New Ager, living in harmony with life, the universe and everything is the central tenet of your belief system. Even in the Sufic tradition of Islam (and Islam itself is, for my money, the most rigid and unbending of faiths), sharia law is only the external manifestation of a largely internal process towards divine unity. Christianity also concerns itself with divine unity: the sermons of Jesus are chock-full of allusions to it.

People describe their belief systems with different words and occasionally they take differing approaches. You'll hear references to One God, many gods, or no god, for example, and that in and of itself seems to be an insurmountable difference...especially since so many people are willing to kill over it.
But the end goal of any belief system, be it religious or scientific, is knowledge. I myself believe that the division between scientific and religious thought will eventually melt away as science learns more about the smallest unifying components and energies in 'life, the universe and everything' and religion comes to realize and accept that it is merely one way of stating truth. (That latter might take a while: one detestable trait of humanity is the seemingly bottomless need to feel superior...and sole ownership of the One True Path to the Divine is a great way to feel
superior.)
I rejected Christianity as a faith when I realized one day that people all over the world, no matter what religious (or irreligious) tradition they live by, tend overwhelmingly towards the assumption that their own tradition has it right and everyone else is wrong. In other words, Christianity was suddenly reduced in my mind from the one true path to a he said/she said squabble. On the heels of that realization, I quickly came to another: that there was no way to prove any faith correct and any other wrong. Even a direct appearance by God Itself wouldn't cut it. Because no matter what this God-figure did, there would be many people determined to believe that (a) it was the work of the Devil or (b) it wasn't divine intervention at all but only some aspect of science in action we didn't understand yet. That divine action and science in action can be the same thing is something that never seems to occur to people.

So, armed with those insights, I embarked on a quick tour of world faiths. I didn't submerge myself in any of them: I was only looking for similarities. The above is what I came up with: pretty much every faith going has a stake in unity with the Divine. Pretty ironic, when you think about how divisive religious faith is.
I've come to a point where I'm usually able to discard all the dross and ritual in any faith you throw at me and discern an underlying sense and sensibility. I believe very much that, as Stephen Gaskin put it, "Religions only look different if you get them from a retailer. If you go to a wholesaler, you'll find they're all the same."

I don't accept religion from retailers. All sales are final and there's no warranty.

But wholesale? What I call "God" you might call "Unified Field Theory" or "Nature" or "Life, the Universe and Everything"...or you might not call it anything at all. That's fine. The God I believe in doesn't have the human need to be worshiped. Neither does it have the human need to judge. It's nothing less and nothing more than an animating force.
This may strike people as an impersonal God. I don't see it that way, not when we're all (in my belief) part if it. In Neale Donald Walsch's terms, we are all "co-creators" trying to experience the "next greatest version of the grandest vision" ever we had about Who We Are. Which is as close to a working meaning of life as I've ever seen.

Thoughts, opinions, protests?



22 September, 2009

Why I Believe In God

There are many, many people who believe in a God or Gods without ever having had what could be termed a divine experience. I suspect there are more than a few atheists who have had such an experience only to reject it--which is, of course, their right. It's very easy to say I do not understand this and extremely difficult, if one is being honest, to suggest this is beyond understanding.

I know all this.

And yet...

Anyone who knows me well knows that I just about drowned in a septic tank when I was a teenager. I've got a million stories, but that one's guaranteed to elicit an interesting reaction...particularly the way I tell it. I've got it into an almost-comedy routine. I always conclude with "All in all, a shitty way to go", and people laugh, and from that moment on I'm the guy who almost drowned in dogshit. It's worth it, because milking that story for laughs kills most of the terror in it.

But the fact remains that I came very close to death that summer day. Probably a lot closer than even I realize. The fumes alone would have proved lethal were I in that hole much longer. That I could well have died and didn't isn't why I believe in God. I believe in God because I can't explain why I didn't die. More: that I don't think it can be explained without invoking something supernatural, some Higher Power which passeth understanding.

In all the scores, perhaps hundreds of times I've told the story, I've only rarely mentioned the pipe. The completely impossible pipe. You'll only hear about the pipe if I really trust you. I'll usually double back to that point in the story after I've finished the tale and gauged your response. I do this because quite frankly, while I have no problem being the guy who almost drowned in dogshit, I have no least urge to be the loony guy who believes in invisible pipes. Also, I know I appear to be a pretty unreliable narrator, given that I'm right in the middle of a traumatic experience.

And yet...

First, I'd like to dispense with that 'unreliable narrator' dogshit. I've read many an account of near-death experiences, and almost all of them mention a heightened perception, also a slowing of time. Both these things I remember vividly. It seemed as if I was in that tank for an eternity, if not two. Certainly more than enough time to make note of my surroundings, which did NOT include a pipe floating at just the correct depth to allow my head to break the surface of what, I learned later, was a nine-foot-deep septic tank. I tell you now that pipe wasn't there. It couldn't have been there, else I would have bounced off it on the way down, or while I was thrashing around in the beef stew trying to figure out which way was up. (It seems obvious in retrospect, but you can't know how obvious until you experience it: shit is dark. REALLY dark.)
There is simply no way that pipe could have existed. There's no reason for a pipe to traverse a septic tank, and certainly no way this wholly imaginary pipe could have taken even my hundred and twenty pounds of weight.

And so it didn't exist...until it did. Until I began to tire of treading the heavy sludge. My legs sank, and I started to sink with them, and then my feet were resting on a good thick pipe at least six inches in diameter. Wide enough for me to walk it without the least bit of hesitation, and strong enough to let me do it. I walked from side to side in that tank, clutching the extremely slippery walls, still screaming for help and beginning to despair it would ever come. I could hear the dogs on either side going crazy. I could see the sky, four feet and a million miles away. Then I saw Bernie's hand reaching down and I grabbed it and was hauled to safety.

I can't explain it. I don't think it can be explained.

So I was telling this tale today for the eleventy-dozenth time...and for the very first time I realized I'd always skipped right over the other flatly impossible thing that nevertheless happened.
Rewind the tape: fzzzzurble bidle wisssht toblervidle schtetl zzzurp I exerted more effort. I was a scrawny kid, but I had some strength in me: I managed to get under the plate and began to lift it up. It was freakin' heavy. I took a step forward to get some leverage and was suddenly falling.
Now fast forward to the denouement: whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzht
I had been incredibly lucky: the iron plate had not fallen back over my hole...I must have given it just enough of a shove as I was going down.

Yeah, incredibly lucky. Impossibly lucky, more like. Consider the physics of this: heavy iron plate, scrawny kid lifting it from the ground to the vertical. Kid takes a step forward to get more leverage, which makes sense...except kid steps squarely into the black hole that plate had been covering.

If I had that iron plate vertical or very near to it, sure: then I could perhaps have given it enough of a shove to get it the hell away. But I didn't. I barely had one end at my waist, which is the whole reason I stepped forward, not to mention the reason I stepped forward without being able to see what I was stepping into.

Something saved me at least twice that day. An avowed atheist can choose to call that thing "shit luck", so to speak, and that's fine. Me, I call it God.

20 September, 2009

Fantasies and Aliens

Rachel Sa writes something today that once again has me confronting the irrefutable fact I'm an alien. To wit:

We may roll our eyes at the "kids today" who freak out for seemingly lightweight loves like, I don't know, the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus. But there's no denying that, in some form or another, we've all been there, done that. We've all had the pin ups on our walls and the ridiculous fantasies.

I haven't. I haven't been there or done that, I don't have the T-shirt, and quite frankly, I never understood all you people who went and did.

My teenage bedroom had one poster in it: Tiffany. And she didn't last long, maybe a few months. I'd got it into my head that kids my age had pinups everywhere and I figured if I put one up it would give me some small feeling that I fit in somehow. That was my motivation for pretty much everything I did in those years. And like pretty much everything I did, it didn't work.
This in particular didn't work because, as I said, I'm an alien. My body is humanoid, but my mental makeup comes direct to you from Altair-4. I didn't know this as a teenager (though I was beginning to suspect it). Further proof of my essential inhumanity: I had not the slightest idea what I was supposed to do with that Tiffany poster, once I put her up there. Gaze lovingly at her? (Make that lustily: I may have come from Altair-4, but I was raised as a healthy human boy.) Naw, it couldn't be that. How could someone feel lust for a person they'd never met and were almost certain never to meet? (I'd ask anyone under 20 who may be reading this to remember: this was 1988. We didn't have, couldn't even imagine, the Internet.)
I just liked Tiffany's music, especially "Could Have Been", which appealed to my uber-romantic and hopelessly virginal teenage ears. I didn't even find her image all that attractive, to be honest. But she was probably the only female pop idol candidate for my bedroom wall.
I have never understood the common human trait of idolizing celebrities. And sexual attraction to same is right off my personal bizarre-o-meter. Particularly actors. Not only are you never going to meet George Clooney, you don't even know him...you only know his characters. Are you seriously going to tell me you're busy fantasizing about a fictional character? I mean, hey, whatever floats your boat, but sheesh, why not a real person? What about that woman in the corner office or that hot mechanic who fixed your car free of charge? Don't you humans get considerably more spark out of a fantasy if you can convince yourself hey, this could happen?
See, I do. I get absolutely zero out of a fantasy that's so far removed from my reality. Perhaps that's a failure of imagination, I don't know. But I'll tell you this: it's a short, short step from convincing yourself hey, this could happen to imagining it happening. Whereas it's a quantum leap to put myself in a position where I could conceivably get to have sex with Kate Winslet. That's so patently obvious that I knew it at 16, when Kate Winslet was named Tiffany.

This is one of those questions I've asked people over and over through the years, looking for insights. Several women have told me that they fantasize about celebrities (or really, their personas) precisely because they are so far removed from plausibility. If it's impossible, this line of thinking seems to go, you won't attempt it. Whereas (I guess) if you get to thinking about your hunky neighbour, you might not be able to stop thinking about him, and before long you'll be acting out those naughty fantasies, and what will your husband do then?

(Maybe he'll want to watch. Ahem. Did I type that out loud?)

All joking aside, this kind of attitude suggests a few things. If you think this way, you're probably not very good at compartmentalizing your fantasy life. Maybe you have very powerful fantasies and you're a wee bit frightened of them. Also, you may not realize or appreciate that reality almost never lives up to fantasy.

Trust me on that. Fantasies are lovely, clean ephemeral things with defined beginnings, middles, and ends. You can turn them on and chop them off at will. Reality is often messy--the nice candlelit scenario you imagined can wind up by turns harshly lit and dark and shadowy.

But that's no reason to turn off your fantasies just because they're realistic, is it?

The few guys I've broached this subject with say, pretty much to a man, that it's not so much the person that they fantasize about, but what they fantasize the person's doing with or to them. Which tells you all you need to know about the male sexual response: it's as simple a mechanism as Nature allows to exist. We're dogs: ring that bell and we're salivating all over the place.

Incidentally, guys will talk until their faces fall off about their fantasies, and we'll use all manner of disgustingly crude references...but women, take heart: we're much more private about our realities than you are about yours. The few times a woman in my life has let slip some detail she's told her best friend, I'm appalled.
" She knows...THAT?"
"Yep, she does, and boy did she laugh. Oh, wait, have I said too much?
"YES!!!"
"Well, you wouldn't believe what her husband did..."
"SHUT UP SHUT UP LALALALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!"

Why do you women DO that? And yes, I've asked that, and I get "what's the big deal?" in response. The big deal is...is...oh, hell, I don't know, I just don't feel comfortable seeing my private life laid bare, as it were, with all its foibles.
"You haven't told your friend about the time we..."?
"NO! Why would you think he'd want to know that?"

See? Alien. At least I know that in this respect, my Altairian male mind lines up perfectly with the minds of male human beings everywhere.

But as far as celebrities go, I'm living on another planet.


19 September, 2009

40

I asked my wife this morning--"Love, knowing how you feel about the ones with the nines, are you okay being 40?"
"Yes," she said, albeit a bit dubiously.
"Do you remember how you felt when you turned 30?"
"Great," she replied. "Thirty means you're an adult."
"And 40 means...?"
"You're...middle aged."

I got to thinking about that term, "middle age". It's usually spoken of with some trepidation by those people staring into it. I don't think it should be.

I mean, granted, "age" might as well be a four letter word in this society--anything not dated today is, well, dated--but middle? That's a good word to pair up with age, if you ask me. It's a Goldilocks and the Three Bears kind of phrase. Not too young, not too old...just right.

But if you try to apply that term to my wife, it won't stick. Because Eva is and always has been a catalogue for the ages. She has the heart of a child and the soul of Methuselah; the curiosity of a newborn and the rebelliousness of a teenager; the drive of a woman half her age and the wisdom of a woman twice her age. She's been all of these things for a good fifteen years now and most of them for much longer...I don't foresee any of this changing just because her odometer rolled over today.

Age is just a number, being 40's no big deal
They say a woman's only as old as she says she feels.
Forget the cliches, love, and attend to what I say:
You're young...and old...and middle-aged...and I love you that way.

You stand convention on its head and tie my brain in knots
But every day I recognize the treasure that I've got
You embrace every perspective and you shine both night and day
You're young...and old...and middle-aged...and I love you that way.

Eternal youth burns in you with the fire of old age
You have the patience of a saint, the wisdom of a sage.
No calendar can harm you, and no date your years betray:
You're young...and old...and middle-aged...and I love you that way.

I can't imagine sharing life with someone who's not you
For you're the very soul of Life in all you say and do
And whatever we throw at ourselves as we grow old and grey,
You're Eva Breadner, my own wife...and I love you that way.


Happy 40th birthday, love.



15 September, 2009

For Catelli

after his experience...

I asked my dad, who lives not all that far (by Northern Ontario standards) from Killbear, if the bears were in fact particularly bad this year. He told me yes, the Ministry of Natural Resources was circulating a memo around all the provincial parks to that effect. Catelli, I'm surprised you didn't see it.

They're telling people to be prepared for bears in the backcountry. There are three things to "bear" in mind:

1) You should always carry a bear bell. The jingling will frighten off most bears.
2) In case your bear is not easily frightened, you should also have some specially formulated bear pepper spray (available at the same site).
3) Familiarize yourself, when travelling through bear country, with bear scat. The way to tell bear scat from other varieties of animal scat, says the Ministry, is that bear scat has little bells in it and smells of pepper.

14 September, 2009

Tightwaddery

According to a survey released by the Canadian Payroll Association, 59% of us are living paycheque to paycheque. By which they mean that 59% of people would be in financial difficulty if a single paycheque was delayed by one week.
"We were shocked by that number", said the chair of the CPA. Really? I'm shocked it's that low.

Meandering through the comments on the CBC's website (always an interesting, if frustrating exercise), we learn that this is entirely the fault of free trade/globalization/Stephen Harper. (For what it's worth, that's the considered opinion on such things as climate change and tooth decay as well, but...)

I have a different view. (When do I not?) Eight plus years of intently studying people as they walk the aisles of my grocery store has taught me that a very great many people have next to no shopping savvy. They cruise the store on autopilot, stuffing things into their carts while hardly even looking. They'll buy brand names, even when there's no appreciable difference between them and the store brands. (Sometimes, there's literally no difference, other than the graphics on the containers.) You might as well set your money on fire.

One gentleman bitched quite passionately on that CBC website that Kraft Dinner ("Canada's National Dish") now costs $1.69, and I would really like to know where that man shops. Price Chopper's regular retail is $1.29. But if you watch your flyers, a 12-pack of that stuff goes on sale somewhere five or six times a year for $9.99 (less than 84 cents a pack) or less. Or, if you're smart, you can make your own KD for a fraction of that price.


There's an absolutely staggering sense of entitlement among most people these days. The definition of "luxury" vs. "necessity" has shifted considerably over my lifetime. When I was a young child, a television had only recently crossed that threshold; the standard size was twenty inches. In 2009 it's hard to find a house with fewer than two televisions in it, and the size has approximately doubled. Twenty inch televisions are still available--and they're cheap!--but who wants one? Add in all the "required" peripherals--the Blu-Ray DVD player, the digital/HD boxes, the PVR, the video game console(s), and all of a sudden you've spent a couple of months' salary. Did you need to? You say yes, of course you did, and I say no, you've got your needs and your wants tangled up there somewhere.

People in Canada love to complain about how the cell phone companies gouge them to death. Everyone who's read my blog for any length of time knows my surefire solution to that problem. But if you really do need a cell--if you're actually the VIP you think you are--scrap your landline or go with Skype.

Do you buy a Timmies or two every day? I know you're doing your patriotic duty and Tim Horton's thanks you kindly, but two Timmies a day--weekdays only-- is $806 a year. Not quite the chump change you thought you were paying, is it? (I won't even crunch the numbers with Fourbucks, I mean, Starbucks. If you're actually giving them business, you can afford it and good for you.)

Moving up the expense ladder, how big is your house? Ours tops out at 1450 square feet--and we bought it expecting to raise two children in it. (The average American house size is 2349 sq. ft...and it has more than doubled since the fifties even as families have shrunk.)
When we became homeowners five years ago, we went about the process ass backwards, at least from what I've been able to determine. It seems as if many people find out how much of a mortgage they can carry, then find the nicest house they can at that price point. We deliberately toured the cheapest homes we could find, and picked the one that was (a) in the best shape and (b) the most livable. At the time, we could have carried a mortgage on a home at almost twice the price...but that was then. What do you do if (when) interest rates creep up? What if your pay is cut? What if...what if...does anybody ask "what if" any more?

Don't get me wrong, I do sympathize with people who are struggling to get by. I've been there myself. But, to borrow a slogan from one of Canada's banks, "you're richer than you think." Don't believe me? Amy Dacyczyn raised her family--six kids--on less than $30K (U.S.) a year...AND saved $49,000, while making several significant purchases. And yes, she and her family remained debt free.
Now granted, the "Frugal Zealot", author of The Tightwad Gazette, was rather...extreme. But I'd recommend that book for anyone interested in saving money. You can pick and choose: if you're financially comfortable, you may only implement some of the thousands of ideas in here. If you're balls-to-the-wall desperate, you might Dumpster-dive, and this book will tell you how to do it safely.

At the very least, before long you won't be living paycheque to paycheque.

13 September, 2009

Johnny Canuck and his Uncle Sam (I)

It's something of a cliched definition of Canada: "America with health care." Likewise, of America: "Canada with guns."
Robert Heinlein defiined Canada as a part of America so smart it's figured out how to avoid paying taxes to Washington. Here's a definition from Richard Staines: "Canadians are generally indistinguishable from Americans, and the surest way of telling the two apart is to make this observation to a Canadian."

You get the picture. Too bad it's wrong. Canada and America are different countries and we're diverging more and more as time goes by.

I'd thought that Obama was going to reverse that trend, but I was wrong. For one thing, despite being, in the words of his more ardent enemies at least, a socialist or a communist, he still falls well to the right of political center in Canada, something a very few Canadians are just beginning to understand. For another, there are mighty forces arrayed against President Obama and they're getting bolder by the day.

Health care is only a symptom of what a majority of Canadians regard as an American disease and a growing, almost-majority of Americans think is a Canadian disorder. Quite simply, we have wildly different views on the role of government in people's lives.

(Stipulated: there are many Americans, primarily residents in coastal states, whose mindset at least approaches a typical Canadian's. And there are many Canadians, mostly but not entirely confined to Alberta, who are Americans in all but name. I've had repeated online dealings with one resident of inland British Columbia that have had my question his citizenship and my own sanity. In other words, I know I'm speaking in generalities, caveat lector, your mileage may vary, &c.)

Mark Steyn--another Canadian who somehow missed the standard three dollops of Canuck compassion given to most of us in childhood and who, unsurprisingly, now resides in the United States, opines in his latest anti-Obama tirade that

"governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture — one in which elections are always fought on the Left’s issues and on the Left’s terms, and in which “conservative” parties no longer talk about small government and individual liberty but find themselves retreating to one last pitiful rationale: that they can run the left-wing state more effectively than the Left can. Listen to your average British Tory or French Gaullist on the campaign trail pledging to “deliver” government services more “efficiently.”

(Aside: the damnedest thing is, sometimes we believe them. Conservative parties have a dismal track record, both in Canada and the United States, when it comes to fiscal management. Go back half a century and in the majority of cases you will find that right-wing governments have left their books in far worse shape then they found them. In Canada, Mulroney almost tripled the national deficit he inherited from Trudeau --who, I'd been brainwashed to believe, was a fiscal moron. Bush took Clinton's surplus and created a deficit so large it's now for all intents and purposes a black hole. If the States ever manages to balance its books again, it'll be a blue-sky miracle.)

I look at Steyn's statement up there and don't know where to start. It seems to me that he assigns no weight whatsoever to the positives of Obama's plan (one big one: universality; another: cost-effectiveness). In Steyn's little mind, Obama's in this for no other reason than political gain.
Which is hysterical, when you stop to think about it. Obama won't see any political gain out of health care reform. If he's lucky enough to get it through a hostile House and Senate at all.

"The Left's issues and...the Left's terms". Let's reframe this bit of nonsense just a little. The American Left is, on most issues, smack dab in the middle of the global political spectrum--if not a little right of center. It's only because the American Right is so waaaaaaay out there that "the Left" is so sinister to your average American voter.
What does Steyn mean by "the Left's" issues? We all know what "the Right"'s issues are...abortion, gay marriage, and lots and lots of money for companies owned by people on the Right. (Perhaps I've simplified this...but not by much.) What would Steyn characterize as "the Left"'s issues, and why aren't all of these things American issues?

"Individual liberty"...it occurs to me that right-wingers have been misinterpreting "liberty" for generations now. Indeed, BushCo managed to frame the whole "war on terror"--which so far has removed a great many liberties--as an exercise in preserving liberty.

Ask a gay Texan how free he is. He can't marry, he can't adopt children...in many places he can't even display the slightest sign of affection towards his partner, not without endangering them both.
Ask an American freethinker the price of his free thought. He can't very well run for public office or even draw attention to himself without potential harassment or worse. (If McCain-Palin had won, most assuredly worse. I'm more and more convinced that woman would have worked her tail off to bring about a theocratic state.)
And how carefree is your average American Muslim these days? How free are the over twenty percent of the American population without adequate health insurance? How free are the millions who live in poverty, lacking the hand up that Fox News would mischaracterize as a handout?

My country is not perfect. Far from it. We treat our Natives worse than America treats most of its minorities; our current government is considerably further right than most of us would prefer, only kept in power by ineffectual wet-noodle opposition and that other most Canadian of traits, apathy.

And I doubt you'd ever see this in the United States of America, no matter how divided those "united" states are becoming.

But we approach things differently up here. We look to solve problems not to benefit the few, but the many. We don't treat civilization so much like a zero sum game, where there must be winners and therefore there must be losers. In short, the "character of our country" means we pull together.

11 September, 2009

TIFFed

Random compendium of things I'm snarked about these days.

1) TIFF--the Toronto International Film Festival. I would like to go on record as saying, in Dolby Surround, 'WHO...GIVES...A...FLYING...BLEEP.'

Well, judging from the coverage, the answer to that is everybody. You can't The newscasts are full of how-to tips on becoming a stalker; you can't turn on a radio or open a newspaper without some doofus informing you that here's the best place to spot a celeb and there's where they eat and oh boy oh boyohboyohboy all these Hollywood types are RIGHT HERE IN TORONTO!!!!!!

Wake me when the credits roll, okay?

2) Electile dysfunction.

As America tears itself apart over health care (which, to this Canadian, is beyond silly), our own country is facing down the threat of its fourth election in five years. I reserve an equal share of snark for both PM Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who's doing all the threatening. But mostly I'd like to announce to the general Canadian public that saying we don't want an election! means you're happy with Stephen Harper's government. If that's the case, fine. But I'm hearing an awful lot of people calling our PM an awful lot of uncomplimentary things and in the same breath saying but we don't want an election. Make up your mind, already.

3) C.R.T.C.

Can we please put this dinosaur out of its misery? It's been thirty years since it was relevant. Now it seemingly exists mainly to give Bell and Rogers anything they want and to dream up new ways of gouging Canadians. Even the name, "Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission" is mostly an anachronism: radio's doing a slow death march and television is migrating online (or it will in Canada as soon as the CRTC allows it to). Dissolve the CRTC!

That's enough for one night. I'll tackle something with some substance on Sunday.

07 September, 2009

Crying Wolf

I had a friend once.
(I've got friends now, of course--good ones, too--but this is about the friend-who-was-and-is-no longer.)
Oh, it's not that she's dead, or anything. In fact, I still follow her blog. It's all I can do not to leave comments, even though my having left a comment is what destroyed the friendship.
Well...that's not true, actually. The friendship was dead in the water when I left that comment; she just didn't know it yet. In hindsight, I probably could have told her a little more gently that I no longer wanted anything to do with her, but the end result would have been the same.

I don't make friends easily and I don't discard them lightly. To this day, I feel tremendously guilty for giving this one the boot. That guilt wars with the sure and certain knowledge that I had to let go: she was drowning, and if I didn't let go she'd take me down with her.

It took more time than it should have to recognize this, and longer still to do anything about it. That's because of all my friends, this one took the most effort to secure.

September, 1989

First day in (yet another) new school. I went to five different public schools, one of them twice, and this is my third high school. University awaits next year, another move, ho-hum. I've developed a love-hate relationship with the words "fresh start". I was bullied through elementary school, ostracized in grade nine; it was only at my last school that I finally started to come into my own...making friends, real friends, the kind of friends who came over to your house and you go to theirs. So of course I didn't want to leave Westminster. At all, no way, nohow. If the best of those friends hadn't moved away herself that summer, I think I would have elevated my grumbling and bitching to the level of a demand.
Or maybe not. I'm, well, let's face it, pretty meek when it comes to my parents. But I've got a Westminster-sized chip on my shoulder. My love for the place burns like a torch, a torch that wants to burn this school down for the grave sin of not being that school.

Anyway, here I am, and I'm about to be sick. It's two minutes to homeroom and I can't find my homeroom. This school is freakin' huge. And before I find my homeroom, I'd better find a bathroom, because I honestly can't tell if I'm going to throw up or soil myself

Neither, but only because a bathroom showed up at the last possible second. I sat on the commode, not feeling commodious in the slightest. Homeroom. What the hell's the point of a homeroom? Westminster--HOME--didn't have homerooms. You just went to your first class. My first class is English. Why can't I just go there? Why is my homeroom an automotive shop? It's not like I have any plans to take automotive shop this year. And as far as I can tell, it's on the other side of the damned school from my first class. I just want to go back, back to London where I belaaaaarrrrrrgh! Another gut-cramp wrenched its way through, wringing my intestines. Deep breaths, Ken. Deeeeeep breaths.
Calmed somewhat, I stumbled out, got my bearings, and made it to my shop-class homeroom just as it was being dismissed. I stuttered apologies to the teacher. I'd never been late to anything scholastic in my life. Then I went off to English class...and was hit by lightning.
Getting hit by lightning was not in my plans for this day. Lightning was Darlene, forever and ever amen, and even if it was possible for someone else to wield the lightning-spear, it couldn't possibly happen here. Nor could it happen a scant two months after I'd tearfully bid Darlene goodbye.

But it did. I was really, truly aware of only one person besides the teachers that day, and I found out as the week went on that she shared five of my classes. I was besotted. Again.

Her name was Jen, and that had its own mystique for me. Aside from the nice rhyme (Ken and Jen, a rhyming couplet, awww, how cute), I'd quite simply never met a Jenny, Jennifer or just plain Jen that I didn't like. There'd been quite a few of them, too.
This Jen was indifferent bordering on hostile. No matter. I'd seen this before. (Well, maybe not this level of hostility. And with Darlene it had taken two years. I only had one to play with here. Still, it'd give me something to do to take my mind off the fact I wasn't at Westminster any more.
It took a year. We circled around each other five classes out of eight, me throwing occasional love-jabs, her responding with literal jabs (and scratches, on one memorable occasion) when I got too close. I redoubled my efforts. She trebled hers.
I learned she loved the library, so I started hanging out there over lunch every now and again instead of my own beloved music room.
One day out of nowhere, she presented me with lyrics to to a song she'd written, entitled "You Don't Need Me", and asked me to compose a melody for it. Well, shit. You think I cared before... I stared at the lyrics, thinking, oh, Jen, I may not need you, but God I want you.

That's how my friendships with women went in those days. For some reason I had to go through a lovestruck phase before I could settle down and grow up.
I grew up (in this way, at least) in the summer between the end of my grade 13 year and the start of university. It didn't surprise me at all when Jen called me at home one day in the middle of July and proceeded to talk my ear off for almost three hours. It was, I told myself, inevitable. At the same time, I actually recognized the immature crush for what it was and realized I had a chance here to secure a real friendship--infinitely more valuable.

And I did. We did. I played piano for her wedding (stifling an insane urge at the rehearsal to launch into "You Don't Need Me"--teenaged Ken, surfacing again). She stood by my side when I married Eva, and neither she nor I cared one whit how unusual that was.

There were things about our friendship that irked me, even early on. I could rarely get a word in edgewise, for one thing. Jen was (and remains) one of those people who can talk for hours without taking a breath. Ask her a question, any question, and her answer will come in encyclopedia form, with loads of backstory, episodes that stop, start, double back on themselves, and twist into incomprehensible pretzel shapes. When I first heard Toby Keith's I Wanna Talk About Me, I immediately thought of Jen.

But hey, that's minor, really. I know other talkative people--they don't bother me much. And so what if she thinks she can cook? She can't--she damned near burned her house down because she tried to make Yorkshire pudding with olive oil, and that's just one incident among many--but I'm sure I've got things I say I can do that I can't. Just another endearing quality, right?

It was only over time and lots of it that I began to realize how needy Jen really was. She had absolutely no self confidence, and the only way she knew to get it was to drain it out of other people. It was actually scary how unrelentingly, soul-suckingly negative she was. She could find the cloud stuffed deep within any silver lining. She'd make a choice, any choice, and then bitch when the natural consequences of that choice asserted themselves.
Crises occurred monthly, if not weekly. Every time I'd call, I'd be catapulted into a story of gloom and woe, a story with no beginning and no end, the story of Jen's life. I don't mind saying it wore on me. I wore it like a hairshirt at first. I figured I owed her that. I tried to be supportive, I really did. Eventually it dawned on me that I couldn't be supportive enough: no matter how much energy I invested in it, she'd take every erg and ask for more.
I seized on one post detailing how incredibly terribly busy she was (with only 29 hours of leisure time a week) to give her a little reality check. Actually, Eva did it first. At the time, my wife was working at least eighty hours a week between two jobs, also studying towards her third and fourth professional designations--and not complaining, let alone publicly complaining, about any of it. Did Jen realize how silly she looked, putting the details of her oh-so-rough, only approaching typical adult responsibility, life out there for all to see?

It's an understatement to say she didn't. She veered wildly between treating her blog as if it were a private diary under lock and key and complaining bitterly about how few readers she had. I couldn't blame people for not reading. If anything could suck the joy right out of your day, it was a visit to that blog.
Things blew up from there, and I...withdrew. It had been a hell of a long time coming. I think I owe whatever sanity I have to the conviction that surfaced that day and announced I just can't do this any more.

But I continue to read her blog. Because it's a train wreck: you want to look away, but you can't. Nothing has changed. She still complains every chance she get about everything that happens to her. (She doesn't do anything...things happen to her.) I'm far from the only friend who has deserted her, and she complains most bitterly each time another energy source somehow escapes the black hole of her personality, never seeming to realize she's at cause for her own abandonment.

Except now the really bad things are starting to build up. She lost a pet. People close to her are falling gravely ill. Things like that. The wolves she's been crying about all these years are actually circling this time, and there are fewer and fewer people around to care.

I've found some sympathy remains for the woman who used to be my friend, now that her crisis of the week would be a crisis to anyone else. But that's marred by a cruel and at times overwhelming itch to tell her she asked for this.

I don't bear Jen any ill will, and never did. Maybe, just maybe, she will seize on the truly awful things that are going on and make of them a crucible. She's sorely in need of one. Alas, only she can make that choice, using her own energy, not someone else's.

03 September, 2009

A Diversion Into the Trench

In my five plus years of blogging, I have broadened my musical horizons considerably. I've done several musically themed blog entries, citing all manner of music I find interesting and worth a listen. What I haven't done is rave about a particular artist or a particular album. To me, it cheapens the blog, degrades it into something a teenager might write.

But I feel like a teenager right now. So pardon this fanboy enthusiasm, please.

Every few months, I browse the top-selling albums in Canada to see if decent music is showing any signs of coming back from wherever the hell it went about twenty years ago. I unearth many an earworm--modern pop is nothing besides catchy--and occasional glimmers of compositional talent. But until the other night it had been many a year since I'd heard something that made me sit bolt upright and start grinning like a fool.

Behold: Masterpiece Theater, by Marianas Trench.

It takes brass balls to put the word "Masterpiece" in your second album's title. It takes something a good deal more uncommon to actually make it stick. This Vancouver group is, at heart, a pop-punk band, like so many ho-hum pop-punk bands infesting the scene today. Unlike pretty much all of them, Marianas Trench has musical ability out the wazoo. Couple that with an utterly fearless eclecticism (this album has everything from doo-wop to an almost Broadway sensibility in places), sprinkle with infectious hooks, and stir in a three-octave-plus range from lead singer Josh Ramsay...and you have an album with staying power.
Standout songs include the three title tracks that together form a kind of symphonic rock suite (the last, "Masterpiece Theater #3" is, in fact, a megamix of most of the other tracks on the album, and how creative is that nowadays?); "Acadia", bright riff-rock about lost childhood; and most notably, "Beside You", a gorgeous love song with a "Life In A Northern Town" vibe to it.

Best of all, I can't detect a phase vocoder anywhere from start to finish. I'm heartily sick of these auto-tuning devices. Not only do they give the music an artificial sound, they make certain qualities--such as the ability to sing on key, or indeed at all--irrelevant. Ramsay prefers to let his voice croon and occasionally scream naturally--and the harmonies his group puts forth are (dare I say it) reminiscent of Queen. Highly impressive.

Masterpiece Theater has gone gold in Canada and deserves to do the same in the States. It's just that good. If this is what teenagers are listening to (and liking) these days, there may be hope. I'll be eagerly awaiting their next release. And if that makes me sound like a fanboy, so be it.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Breadbin...

02 September, 2009

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Watching the impromptu memorial for Darcy Sheppard—the outrage, the catcalls of “he didn’t deserve to die” directed at the camera crew, and all that—I felt more than a little peeved off. At that time, it wasn’t public knowledge that (a) Mr. Sheppard was fall-off-his-bike drunk; (b) that he had been in an altercation with his girlfriend, and subsequently with police, barely an hour before, and was therefore very likely to be belligerent; that (c) he had confronted Mr. Bryant and (it is alleged) attempted to choke him. Yet here were people acting as if they were in possession of all the facts: in their version of reality, Michael Bryant, without provocation and with malice aforethought, ran down a helpless cyclist, dragging him for 150 meters. Two wheels good, four wheels bad. It’s automatic.

I had a bad feeling about the whole thing right off—my wife, who has known a few bicycle couriers in her time, even more so. She was the one who noticed how everybody remarked about Mr. Sheppard’s charisma: the phrase “life of the party” kept coming up. A red flag fluttered around in my head, and on that flag was written one word: drugs. I figured that Mr. Life-Of-The-Party simply had to be on something if he thought that latching on to a car or its driver could possibly end well. Hell, I think it would take several somethings to convince me of that. High doses of all of them, too.

Sure enough, by this morning it was all over the news that Mr. Sheppard could hardly ride upright, he was so drunk.

Did Mr. Sheppard deserve to die? Well, yes, in fact, he did. When you engage in potentially suicidal behaviour (like, say, riding a bike drunk through downtown Toronto, confronting a motorist and then hanging off the side of the car) and find yourself dead, you’re in no position to argue the monstrous unfairness of it all.

That’s not a politically correct thing to say. Christie Blatchford writes in the Globe and Mail that in any encounter between a bicycle and a car, because of the extreme mismatch, “the cyclist is always inherently right.” Bzzzzt, sorry, can’t agree there.

Oh, I’d love to: after all, I don’t drive and I do commute by bike. I’ve had a few close calls (“brushbacks”, they call them) from drivers who were plainly in the wrong. But I’ve seen a very great many people on bikes that appear completely ignorant of even the most basic rules of the road, and I think Christie’s looking at this ass-backwards. Because of the extreme mismatch, any encounter between a cyclist and a car is likely going to render matters of right and wrong pretty much moot to the broken corpse of the cyclist. And cyclists know that. Or at least, they ought to, and ride accordingly. I do, anyway. The thought of consuming alcohol and then getting on a bike…what, was he deliberately trying to kill himself?

Even if Christie’s correct, in any contact between a cyclist and a driver…such as, for instance, if a cyclist tries to choke a driver…the cyclist is always and forever wrong, wrong, WRONG. Because there’s just no conceivable way you can make contact with a driver behind the wheel of a car…while you’re on a bike.

A prediction, and one I share with my dad: Bryant is going to have one of his charges, criminal negligence causing death, dropped, and the dangerous driving causing death will be reduced to dangerous driving. That’s if the court finds Mr. Sheppard bears any responsibility at all for his own demise—and I don’t see how it can find anything else. In any event, I don’t see Mr. Bryant getting jail time out of this, which will doubtless enrage a few of the “two wheels good, four wheels bad” group. Boo-hoo on them.