29 November, 2009

Don't Send Me Shopping

So with Eva out of commission, my responsibilities have increased a tad. I am Shopper Pro Tem.
This is not a position to which I am eminently suited, believe me. I don't drive, so my cargo capacity is somewhat limited--unless I break down and take a cab, which is hellishly expensive. But that's not even the half of it.

Like most men I know, I'm firmly in the "get-what-you-came-for-and-then-get-the-hell-out" school. Unless I'm shopping for books, I don't linger any longer than I absolutely have to. I detest crowds, I usually hate the Muzak playing in the background...the whole shopping experience is often one big drag.
And I freeze when confronted with too much choice. That's because apparently my name changes instantly to Murphy whenever I cross the threshold of a store. If there's more than one choice, I'm apt to screw it up. Sometimes even one choice is one choice too many...why'd you get that?

Yesterday morning, I sallied forth, armed with a list and some cash and a troubling lack of coffee. See, my first destination was the St Jacob's Farmer's Market, and that place is an absolute zoo starting about thirty seconds after it opens. I had therefore resolved to get-what-I-came-for-and-get-the-hell-out as soon as possible. The place is about a seven minute drive from our house if you count a couple of minutes of idling the car in the driveway...just far enough away that walking is out of the question. When you insert that seven-minutes-by-car number into the Public Transit Equation and work the calculations, you come out with 45 minutes-by-bus-and-you're-lucky-it's-that-quick. Actually, you're lucky you can get there by bus at all...it's a relatively new route.
This is just the price you pay when you don't drive. Most times I pay that price cheerfully, without even thinking about it. Travelling by bus doesn't bother me unless the bus is packed, and GRT buses rarely are. I can sit comfortably reading or listening to my iPod, knowing that for once I'm fitting in with the crowd: nearly everybody else on the bus is doing one or the other. And I don't have to worry about navigating myself through all the potentially deadly traffic. So it takes a little longer, big deal. Time I have. If I don't have time, I didn't get up early enough.

Yesterday, I didn't get up early enough. I weighed options in my head: dash out the door without coffee or breakfast and hit that market before it was overrun with Saturday shoppers moving at half the speed of smell...or take my time, fortify my brain and get swallowed up by the crowds, never to be seen again. The choice was clear.

The choice was wrong, as it turned out.

I had two stops: the market and the Wal*Mart store next to it. The first stop went by without much of a hitch, probably because I only had one thing to buy there. I had a few panicked moments when I couldn't find the 'Hacienda' stall I was instructed to look for, but even my java-less mind figured out that 'Hacienda' was actually 'Halenda' and that problem was dispatched effortlessly.
On to Wal*Mart...my least favourite store on the planet. But some sales are not to be ignored. It's not every day big bags of Splenda can be had for seven bucks, or Peek Freans chocolate covered digestive cookies for $1.98, or...just about everything this Breadbin needed or wanted, large or small, was on sale. TWO DAYS ONLY. Another reason I wanted to get there right early. I work in retail. I know two days can easily translate to two hours.

In hindsight, which is often the only sight I seem to bother with, what I should have done was sit my butt down at the McDonald's inside the Wal*Mart store and avail myself of their free coffee. Even I recognized how exceptionally dopey I was, and a jolt of joe would have cleared that right up. But no, I was here, I was ahead of schedule, and I was brimming with misplaced confidence at how easily my first errand had gone. It was TIME TO SHOP, DAMNIT!

Well, first there was the matter of what to do with my backpack. I knew Wal*Mart didn't take too well to backpacked individuals roaming their aisles, but I didn't want to surrender mine, not with a frozen bag of Eva's all-time-favourite spring rolls...and my iPod and earphones...inside. The greeter solved that problem by affixing a sticker over the zipper of the bag, and I was ready for the fray.

My list consisted of items all over the store, and so I trundled ass all over the store trying to fill it. Some things refused to be found. 'SPLENDA X3' said the list, but I couldn't find 'SPLENDA X1' anywhere. I approached someone for help. Girlish of me, I know, but you guys ought to try it...sometimes it works. 'Go to the sign that says sugar', I was told, 'and it'll be there'. I remonstrated that I had just been to the sign that says sugar and there wasn't even a hole where Splenda could go. Sweet'n'Low, yes. Equal, yes. Even generic sweetener. No Splenda. But hey, I've missed things a hell of a lot bigger in my time, so I'll look again.
Nada.
It's nothing short of incredible how I can walk into any big box or grocery store at any hour of any day and find a rep I know. Barely eight o'clock on a Saturday and who do I see but our Hostess rep working his aisle. After exchanging a little small talk, he asked me what I was looking for. 'I think they keep that stuff in the pharmacy', he said.

A memory breached, up from the depths. Oh, yeah, that's right. We got Splenda here before and that's where they keep it. It was the first place Eva looked, because her mind works differently from mine.
It really does, you know. I'd probably look in friggin' infants wear for the Splenda before I'd even consider the pharmacy, and if Mr. Hostess hadn't mentioned it, I never would have remembered that they stock just one brand of coffee sweetener in their pharmacy when the rest of it is with the sugar where it belongs.
But hey, look, there it is, SPLENDA X144 or so, a big block display right next to the shampoo. Splenda: it's good for your hair. I hate this place.

Ken, said an interior voice, calm down. You knew when you came in here that you weren't going to get help from the employees--this is Wal*Mart, after all. And who are you to criticize product placement? Where does your Price Chopper keep its horseradish, again?
--On top of the seafood bunker, right. And where's the gravy? Yep, the baking aisle, 'cause everybody bakes with gravy. So shut up and go find those Peek Frean cookies.

(Any Merkuns reading this blog, do you have Peek Freans? If not, go here and buy some. Yes, they're that good. So are a lot of other things on that Canadian Delicacies site.)

I had no trouble locating Peek Frean cookies. There was a giant wall 'o' Peek Freans staring me in the face as soon as I backtracked from the pharmacy/Splenda section to the grocery section. But do you think I could find chocolate covered digestives on that wall? I could not. I found a box that said 'Family Digestives' adorned with two pictures, one a chocolate covered digestive cookie, the other a naked digestive cookie. Hmm, half and half, I thought. I better not get that, she specifically said chocolate covered. Better not scratch that off the list.

A big 2-pack of Lysol wipes was in the flyer at some ridiculous price...and was only in the flyer, nowhere else.

On to the electronics. iTunes cards were on sale--never have I seen that before--and Eva wanted a 'Wii Classic Controller' to play her old-school Nintendo games. Also, supposedly, on sale. The iTunes cards were no problem, but the guy manning the electronics counter had no idea what a 'Wii Classic Controller' was. He showed me a giant pile of Wii Remotes, Wii Nunchuks, and other controllers that looked nothing like the little diagram Eva had so helpfully supplied me with. Another item I can't stroke off that list. They were glaring at me.

There were various and sundry other adventures before I finally made it to the check out. I called Eva to let her know the slippers she wanted weren't stocked in her size and I'd do my best to find something decent that was. I texted her a few minutes later to inform her the brand of socks she desired was not available and I was going to get what I thought was the next best thing. Knowing of course that it wouldn't be, but I was getting frustrated. This happens every time I'm tasked with buying something. It's never there, and so I have to decide whether to attempt getting a maybe-equivalent or to just let it go. It's enough to make me want to scream, some days. Like yesterday.

At the end of all that, having checked out and paid, I hefted the seven bags in one hand and hiked the six-pack of paper towels under the other arm and debated with myself. I can carry this. I should take the bus.
--You can carry this now, and by the time you get to the bus stop your arm is going to fall off. Call a cab.
--If you call a cab, it's going to cost like fifteen bucks. The bus you've paid for already, you've got a ticket, so it's essentially free. What are you, made of money?
--Yeah, I am. I'm also made partly of arm, and I don't want to lose it. Call a damned cab.
Alas, Wal*Mart doesn't have a direct line to a cab company, like every other large store in the Tri-Cities. What do you expect, they stock Splenda in their pharmacy! They do have a pay ph--wait a minute, Ken, you have a CELL PHONE IN YOUR POCKET.
I wonder how many months (years) it's going to take before my first thought is that cell phone.

Cab home, pay (ouch) $15 just as expected. Unload. Bring everything in. Start putting away. Discover that I did okay with the items I chose equivalents on. The socks and slippers were perfect. Explain the lack of Lysol Wipes and Wii Controller while putting away SPLENDA X1...

X1?

Look around several times. Check bill. SPLENDA X2 missing. Call cab company. Not there. Wonder what the hell I did with what was evidently bag #8. At least it only had SPLENDA X2 in it. Call store. They don't know either. $7 Splenda sale has, through the magic that is Ken, morphed into $21 Splenda butt-reaming. Maybe you should go back and get something for that. In their pharmacy.

"If I left it at the till, I'm pinning at least 20% of the blame on the cashier," I told my remarkably understanding wife. "Love", she replied, "for all you know she was running after you. 'Sir! Sir! You forgot a bag!'"

You laugh. You're not me. That's entirely possible. In fact, it wouldn't be the first time. And it probably won't be the last.

Eva really wants that Wii Controller, and some lunch stuff besides. (The Wal*Mart I'd spent half the morning in is not a SuperCenter--no deli, no produce, and pretty limited grocery stock.) So, like a glutton for punishment, I went out again, on a bike this time.

Future Shop first. "Yes, we have Classic Wii Controllers', the guy said. "Here's a third party brand for $16--oh! Here's an open box model that retails for $20, but we can knock that down, probably half price, ten bucks. And here's the actual Nintendo product for $24.95."
Choices, choices...
I looked at the generic brand. It looked flimsy as hell. The open box model, while a great deal, was some other generic brand, and whether it's rational or not, I don't like to buy stuff that might have been tampered with. Plus, the actual Nintendo controller was supposed to be at Wal*Mart for $20. What's $4.95 if get gets me out of here?
On to Sobeys, the full service arm of Price Chopper. I know this store. I know the products I'm looking for. Shouldn't be a problem in here at all, get the luncheon meats, get the buns, now let's go to the checkou--

--Peak Freans Digestifs Glaces--

Hey! Somebody didn't face that! I'm forever bitching to my staff, what are you, French? because they'll often stock shelves French-side forward. You get pretty fluent in French pretty quickly up here in Canuckistan just from shopping in grocery stores. I knew, for instance, that the above translated to Peak Freans Frosted Digestives. Frosted...with chocolate. The identical package I'd been looking at in Wal*Mart, but there I hadn't looked at the French side. If I had, I would have figured out it wasn't half chocolate covered and half naked, the way it was shown: it was all 'frosted', and the naked shortbread cookie was only pictured to confuse the hell out of any passing Kens.

I love my wife. I really do. I mean, any other woman would have lost her freaking mind at me. I'd left SPLENDA X2 behind, somewhere, somehow. I'd taken almost five hours to complete a shop that would have taken her (maybe) one. I'd had to interrupt her day twice to ask stupid questions. I'd wasted $15 on a cab. (Okay, that was budgeted, but in my mind it was still a waste.) I'd come back without Peek Freans that were staring me right in the face. On and on and on and what does Eva do? She gushes at me about what a great husband I am because I went out and shopped for her.

I'll go out and move mountains for this woman. I just hope like hell they turn out to be the right mountains.

27 November, 2009

Because I'm Feeling Romantic



Ken and Eva's wedding processional

I love you, love...

Iggy, this is your last chance

Mr. Ignatieff, I've been watching your nonperformance as Liberal Non-Leader for some time now. At first, I have to admit, I figured you were laying low because you had a Harp(er)oon up your sleeve somewhere, and you were only waiting for the correct 'winning conditions' (to bring back an odious Canadian political phrase) to arrive. Then the Harp(er)oon must have gone off in your face, or something, because I haven't seen hide nor hair of you for the last few months. Your party has been plummeting in the polls, and you don't even seem to care.
Well, listen up, Iggy: the PM is about to try to finish you off...or so he thinks. In reality, what he's fixing to hand you is a glorious chance to resurrect your moribund political career. And all you have to do is take that chance.
Harper is getting a little too cutesy for his own good, here. He's presented you with what he thinks is a dilemma: support his HST legislation, and reap a whirlwind of voter scorn and disgust. Or reject it, and piss off your provincial cousins in Ontario and British Columbia to no end.
"This is not a difficult decision", according to Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. "Either Parliament supports the right of the provinces to choose to screw their taxpayers even harder and deeper a harmonized value-added tax or it does not."
Iggy, here's a tip from one of those beleaguered taxpayers: choose "It Does Not."
That choice is going to rankle Dalton McGuinty, your Liberal cousin in Ontario, and Gordon Campbell, the guy who's not even a distant cousin of yours in British Columbia (his misappropriation of the term 'Liberal' is one of Canada's biggest political mysteries). Both these gentlemen have spoken of little else over the past half year. They've expended a great deal of energy presenting a giant pile of manure as a lovely and delicious chocolate cake. The HST, they say, will save businesses $100 million...which (of course) will be passed on to their customers.
Yeah, right. Passed like a giant pile of manure. Canadians aren't buying it. I've been trolling sites hither and yon for some time now, and if anybody actually supports the HST, they've chosen to keep their support real quiet. The closest I've seen to support comes from a few folks who are willing to pay an HST provided the rate is amended to ten percent, no higher. And that ain't happening.
So Iggy: the choice is yours. You're the only thing standing between Canadians and a punishing tax load they neither asked for nor want. I think Canadians can distinguish between the provincial and federal wings of the Liberals and vote accordingly. Contrary to popular Ottawa opinion, we're not quite that dumb.
If you choose to kill this legislation and the HST, believe you me, your political fortune will come back from the dead. If you don't...well, you might wish you were dead.

Black Friday

I don't get it.
I mean, I really don't get it.
I've noticed a distinct acceleration in the Canadian retail market over the past week. While we are nowhere near the orgasmic paroxysm called 'Black Friday' in the United States, we're well on our way: several major Canadian retailers are touting early Boxing Day sales. "THE SAVINGS START....NOW!!!"
I was laying in bed at 1:30 this morning (vacation-related insomnia), listening to 680 News covering the massive lineups at some mall in Atlanta, Georgia. Garmin navigation systems were on sale for $60, George Foreman grills for $9...not counting the cost of time or aggravation, of course. There were apparently traffic jams to get into parking lots.
This makes no sense no matter whose perspective you take. The retailers are running huge loss-leaders to draw people in, and do you really think people stick around to buy anything that might make the store money once the stock of 90% off crap is gone? If you're a consumer--which is all you are in America, forever and ever amen and don't you ever forget it--you're facing a near-riot just to procure that special gift that convinces the people around you that you're not maxed out on seventeen credit cards, almost foreclosed out of your house and facing The Winter Of The Collection Agencies.
And take just a minute to have pity on the poor employees. Says Wikipedia:

Black Friday is not an official holiday, but many employees have the day off (with the exceptions of those employed in retail, health care and banking)...

There are several professions that society utterly depends on. Law enforcement is one such. Health care is another. There are more: firefighters; those charged with keeping our power, water, and sewage systems running. Shelters for the homeless and abused. Superintendents. Doubtless you can think of others.

RETAIL IS NOT ONE OF THEM.

I work in a grocery store. I am under no illusions as to how important my job is in the grand scheme of things...though many other people seem to be. Our franchisee spends a good chunk of nearly every holiday at the store (sad, isn't it?) and he reports the phones ring almost nonstop all day long. If he was to pick them up, he'd be besieged with are you open? and why aren't you open? Last Christmas Day he stopped counting at a hundred calls. We close early on Christmas Eve, and this upsets a great many customers, too. When Wal*Mart announced last December that they were henceforth open 24/7 "to serve you better", more than a few people remarked "it's about bloody time". It made me want to show them a real bloody time, let me tell you.

The other thing I don't get about Black Friday is the timing of it. Oh, sure, it kicks off the holiday shopping season, I get that much. So, okay, you head out at midnight the night before in search of BARGAINS GALORE, brave the madding crowd, and come home with your Christmas shopping done. You're done...and there's a whole month ahead. The retailer's faced with the daunting prospect of enticing you to max out your eighteenth credit card...over a whole month. This retail strategy strikes me as stupidly shortsighted.
In Canada-as-it-was, not as-it-is-striving-mightily-to-become, there used to be no sales worthy of the name over the whole pre-Christmas season. They called them sales, of course, and items could be had for ten or twenty percent off, but there was none of this 'nearly free' madness. That was when retailers were smart and they took full advantage of their captive market. Everybody had to shop for Christmas, the prevailing wisdom went, so why should we lose money on that? Then there'd be the great blowoff called Boxing Day...to eliminate any excess inventory. Few people seemed willing to move their Christmas into January to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales. Remember those days? That was back when Christmas wasn't about stuff and how much money you could spend.
Now the Boxing Day sales have already started and they'll run almost into February.

Every year I'm holiday'ed out by mid-December. And it's only getting worse. This is a Black Friday, indeed.


26 November, 2009

ClimateGate

I was going to write something on the whole Climategate controversy today, but frankly, I'm just too tired. (h/t Catelli for getting to this first).

So instead, I'm going to take you to Peter Watts and he shall set you straight.

I will add two things. One, it's not called "global warming" anymore for several reasons (one of which is that people, particularly in Canada, tend to think that'd be a good thing and two, the globe is not uniformly, or even entirely predictably, warming). The second thing I'll add is that even if you're inclined to dismiss the findings of scientists all over the planet, replicated over and over and over again, all you have to do is head north to see climate change in action. Ask some Inuit. Their oral histories cover off quite a period, and they're seeing unprecedented things of late.

Look, we can argue amongst ourselves as to what degree we're at fault for this climate change. And we can perhaps quibble with the models, most of which predict data so far in the future that their creators will be safely dead. But we dare not dispute the evidence in our very faces.

Human beings are nothing if not adaptable. But, to paraphrase the motto of LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net, we need to deal with reality before reality deals with us.

A Gay Old Time

I've been watching the 'Brendan Burke is gay!" story play out over the last few days. Sparked by John Buccingross's fine writeup over at espn.com, the coverage has spread far and wide. An interview aired last night on TSN.

It's not really much of a story. Or at least, it shouldn't be. Brendan Burke, 19, is the son of Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brendan's gay. That's it.
Well, okay, that's not quite it. Brendan came out to his dad last Christmas. The elder Burke is the very definition of a 'man's man'--he came to Toronto boasting his new team requires 'the proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence." No nancy-boys on a Burke team, understand.
.
There are fathers all over the world, made more or less in the Brian Burke mold, whose reaction to a son's coming out ranges from disdain to rage, sometimes killing rage. This father said "we love you, this won't change a thing." He said "I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn't alter any of them."

"I wish this burden would fall on someone else's shoulders, not Brendan's. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him." -- Brian Burke

To be honest, once I determined Brian Burke fully accepted his son, I've been much more interested in the reaction than the story itself.

There are many online venues where people comment about hockey games as they unfold, and I usually have one tab open while I'm watching on TV, contributing my own observations on occasion. The interview between Brendan, Brian, and TSN's Dave Hodge aired in the first intermission of last night's Leafs-Lightning game, and the forum lit up with several species of disbelief. The dominant reaction seemed to be why is this a story? Who cares if his son's gay?
I felt a stab of Canadian pride, reading this over and over, because in an ideal world, this wouldn't be a story...and in Canada, at least, we're moving towards this ideal world rather than away from it. Gay marriage has been legal here for over four years. The hullabaloo has died down. On the surface, at least, most people accept gays.
But only on the surface. I kept reading the forum, and noticed something that extinguished my pride like a dash of cold water. More than a few people still have this deeply ingrained schoolyard tendency to dismiss anything they disagree with (or simply don't understand) with the words that's so gay. A person they disagree with is branded a fag or a homo. When tempers get heated, the epithets include cocksucker and queer and other even more colourful terms, all meaning the same thing: homosexual.

A confession: I used to be a homophobe. It was kind of a default stance, really: I hadn't considered it. In my cocksure teens (pun definitely intended), I'd never, to my knowledge, met a gay person and the thought of what gay people did with each other disgusted me. You put your dick where? EWWWWWWWW! (Interestingly--at least to me--lesbianism never so much as crossed my mind.)

Looking back, I can trace my first doubts about my homophobia all the way back to the schoolyard. I distinctly recall wondering why so many things were gay and so many boys were faggots. It didn't make sense. One wrong step in the schoolyard dance and you'd have that faggot burden on you...and once your classmates decided to label you that way, no amount of protest could get it off. Hell, at first I didn't even know what a faggot was, but I knew damned well I didn't want to be one. Unfortunately, it's ridiculously easy to become a faggot, at least in preteen imaginations. I was one in short order.

I never spoke up. Not once did I ask somebody why doing well in school, or singing to yourself, or any of a thousand other things made you a gaylord, particularly after I'd earned that label a dozen times over. I had the bullied boy's unerring sense of consequence, and I knew no good could come of questioning the judgment of my peers. Stupid and queer, too! That's two reasons to bash his face in! One reason was more than enough for the guys I went to school with, thank you.

There have been doubts about my sexuality shot at me from odd quarters over the years, well beyond the reflexive insults of elementary and high school. People wonder why I don't tend to fixate upon, or even notice, stunningly beautiful women, for instance. I rotate between three answers to that question:

--who cares? it's not as if stunningly beautiful women are ever going to fixate upon, or even notice, me
--I've never, not once, looked at a man and thought, wow, he's stunningly beautiful.

But I can put paid to such speculation even more easily. Like 37% of males (according to Kinsey, and the number could well be higher) I have had a homosexual experience--and I have no desire whatsoever to have another. Not out of disgust or shame, I'll say that. I don't regret the experience I had, although I did in its immediate aftermath. Actually, it was kind of fun. But once was enough.

How does one go from from homophobe-by-default to gay acceptance? Two short steps:

1) Make some friends, and be friends with them for a while
2) Find out your friends are gay.

You're then faced with a decision: reject your friend on the basis of this new piece of information about them, which, so long as your friend isn't attracted to you, doesn't impact you in any way, or...realize, understand and accept that homosexuality is okay.

"Things like gay slurs, I think once players realize there could be a gay person next to them or a gay person around them they stop using them. It's not that they're homophobic, it's just that they don't think about what the consequences for a gay person next to them might be."--Brendan Burke

Is it that simple, I wonder? There's a subset of the population that reacts with hatred and thinly disguised fear whenever someone around them is outed...almost as if they're afraid homosexuality is airborne, like H1N1. I get the feeling these macho types think they're so attractive to women that they must be attractive to any passing queer, too. Ludicrous.

My closest friend is gay. He's anything but flamboyant and to look at him, you'd never suspect. I'm given to understand that much of the gay population is like him: interested only in minding their own business, regarding their sexuality, on those rare occasions when they have to--as no different from the colour of their eyes or hair. Statistics suggest at least one in ten people is a homosexual, which means that chances are you know a gay person, whether you know you do or not.

As for gays in sport, I can state with certainty that there are many of them. I do hope Brendan Burke's courageous decision to make his sexuality public knowledge makes it easier for others to do the same. Because the people on that online forum are wrong: Brendan Burke's sexuality is newsworthy. But they're also right: it shouldn't be.


25 November, 2009

Lois Griffin Rebuts FOX News

First, the unbelievable claim heard on FOX News:




Lois Griffin responds:



Hmm. I haven't forgotten that terrorist attack, have you?

23 November, 2009

"That's Not News!"

Jim Kunstler embarks on his latest iteration of apocalypse with the following:

How infantile is American society? Last night's CBS "Business Update" (in the midst of its "60 Minutes" program) featured three items: 1.) The New Moon teen vampire movie led the weekend box-office receipts; 2.) Cadbury shares hit an all-time high; 3.) Michael Jackson's rhinestone-studded white glove sold at auction for $350,000. Some in-house CBS-News producer is responsible for this fucking nonsense. How does he or she keep her job? Is there no adult supervision at the network?

My answer, which dovetails nicely with his, is: no, there isn't. But that's no surprise, since there are so few adults left in America (or indeed, anywhere else in Western society) anymore.

Kunstler goes on to say that it's far past time America re-localized and called a halt to its financial shenanigans. He's been arguing the same thing every week for a number of years, and still few people seem willing even to give him a hearing, let alone take him seriously. I won't bother to enter into his world in this blog entry. I'll stop at his front door and ponder his opening question instead.

Back when I was a kid and often subject to The Question--"what do you want to be when you grow up?"--I was never really sure. I wanted to be a policeman like my dad for a while, until I realized my physical and mental limitations (poor eyesight, no co-ordination, and a decided tendency towards absentmindedness) weren't exactly conducive to a life of crime-fighting. I wanted to be a musician, but lacked the discipline to elevate myself beyond the pedestrian. Then I hit upon becoming a writer.

I took an English degree towards this end...and hated it so much I had to drop out to save my sanity. Between the professors telling you how to think (their way, always) and the mind-numbingly boring material, filtered always through professorial perception and stripped of any interest it might have had), I just couldn't take it after a couple of years. I saw myself as an editorialist-in-waiting, and literary criticism didn't fit in my worldview.

Then I found out that an editorialist-in-waiting is a de facto reporter, and I quaked in my boots. If there's anything worse than being a news reporter, I don't know what it is. I'd rather be a used car salesman. Hell, I'd rather be a politician.
A good reporter regards everything as his or her business. Privacy is irrelevant (except where it comes to sources, that is). I am a very open individual myself, if I know you and trust you, but that's me. You may be a private person, unwilling to share the intimate details of your life with the world...and I respect that. Particularly when (let's say) your house burns down or your child drowns. I fail to see how sharing your feelings in those instances with Mr. Action 7 will do you any good at all.
I could maybe change my mindset on this...heaven knows I've changed my mind on enough things over the years, and my attitude regarding privacy is riddled with complexities and inconsistencies. But there remains one fundamental issue that keeps me far, far away from the news business, and it's the title of this post.

I can't begin to tell you the number of times I have said these three words. Often silently, to myself, sometimes I practically scream them. But scarcely a day goes by without those three words springing to mind. That's not news.

It's not news when a Hollywood couple gets married, much less when they get divorced. Whoever wins or loses the latest reality treacle on television, it's not news. Pretty much the whole field of entertainment is, well, entertainment...not news.

Sports, likewise, are sports. They're not news. If your local team wins a championship, that's news, I suppose--it certainly affects a significant proportion of the population. But the results of a single game? Or the off-field antics of an athlete-celebrity? Is this important? Does it benefit me somehow to know this? If I follow the team, I already know it, and I have sports channels to see replays. If I don't follow the team, I...DON'T...CARE.

News is what is wrong with the world. More importantly, and often missing from other peoples' definitions, news is what's right with the world. Pretty much every problem ever faced by humanity has been, or is being, solved somewhere. Who, what, where, when, why and how? If the problem isn't getting solved in this particular part of the world, why?

Kunstler gives three examples of non-news from the business update (!) segment of 60 Minutes. The first is a box office recap. Unless you're in the business of selling Twilight merchandise, tell me, really, do you give a tinker's fart? Do we judge the worth of movies by their take, now? Scary thought.
The second--Cadbury shares are up--is, well, of marginal interest. In and of itself it means nothing unless you're one of that tiny subset of people who own stock in Cadbury. Taking the wider view--which I doubt 60 Minutes did--it says something about what sort of 'luxuries' people turn to in hard times.
And the third, that a piece of jewel-encrusted fabric once worn by a man who's now dead sold for over a third of a million dollars...

You know what? I take everything I just said back. That is news. It's news that fits squarely in the category of what's wrong with the world. And likewise, most of the pappy sappy crap out of Hollywood is news, for the same reason.

Congratulations, Ken, you just depressed the hell out of yourself.





19 November, 2009

There are no words

for how bad this Leafs team is. Pathetic, base, horrendous, peewee--well, peewee comes close, maybe. Wonder if they could beat a peewee team. Hell, I'm not sure they could beat the Timbits.

As of right now, you've got one forward--Phil Kessel--who knows how to play the game. For now, anyway: he's only been a Leaf for seven games. Give him time: eventually his hockey sense will desert him and he'll be able to miss an empty net on a clear-cut breakaway the way every other Leaf forward does.
You've got one all-round defenseman in Ian White who plays the game hard every shift. He's the obvious choice for captain, but the Leafs' braintrust evidently does not feel his game is worthy of emulation. Or something.
You have half a goalie in Jonas Gustavsson. He's great positionally and he has acrobatic reflexes but his rebound control is atrocious and he handles the puck like it's a live grenade.
This team would play better coaching itself than they do under Wilson--if Ronnie had any dignity, he'd quit. Every game, he makes boneheaded decisions--like insisting Luke Schenn play on his off side and scapegoating him for every mistake he makes, while continuing to trot out far weaker players shift in and shift out. Like demanding Kessel play with the least talented wingers at his disposal. Like selecting Stempniak to play in a shootout, based on--well, who knows, a dartboard, maybe. Certainly not on anything like his ability to score.
The Leafs blew a 3-0 lead to the only other team in their class tonight, the Carolina Hurricanes. The 'Canes had previously won just one of fourteen games, but they prevailed 6-5 in a shootout against the jugger-nought Leafs.
At least the Leafs got a point. Now they're on pace for a whopping 49 points this year, by far the worst total they've ever mustered, considering points are soooo much easier to come by now that you can get one for losing in overtime or a shootout. The standings say they have twelve points. If this was twenty years ago, they'd have six. Six points in twenty games, for a lovely .150 winning percentage.

You know what? I don't mind so much that they're horrible. I'm used to horrible. What really irks me as a lifelong fan is they just keep on doing the same things, playing the same lines, as if something that hasn't worked all season will magically work all of a sudden. It's the very definition of insanity. And this after all that blather about "a culture of accountability" and the need to continually earn your ice time.
To be perfectly honest, my misgivings started just as the preseason ended. They'd played very well in the exhibition matches, thanks largely to the play of guys like Kadri, Bozak, Hanson and Stalberg...only one of whom made the team. Kadri was sent down to junior, on defensible grounds that he was as skinny as a beanpole and if he'd stayed up he'd eventually be killed. But they also demoted Hanson and Bozak, both of whom clearly deserved to make the team. Stalberg was kept up, but lacking linemates with whom he'd established a fiery chemistry, he wasn't himself and was soon relegated back to the Marlies. Nothing against Mitchell and Wallin (well, okay, I've got something against Wallin: he can't play hockey)--those rookies are clearly the better players and deserve a roster spot you're taking up.
Burke has really backed himself into a corner. He's got a last-place team getting worse instead of better. He's hard against the salary cap, meaning he's getting no value whatsoever out of his payroll. He's got two, maybe three players worth keeping and the rest are trade bait--but who would take them, and for what? Even worse, he's traded away his first round picks for the next two years in the Kessel deal. And yes, Kessel is easily worth one of those picks himself and maybe even both of them. But man, that's hard to say when you're staring at a couple of drafts in a row with no first round pick in them.
The only, and I mean only, consolation is that half this dreadful team is on expiring contracts. (If this is how they play when they're angling for a raise...) Loads of cap room will open up in the off season and Burke will be able to target a bunch of free agents--that's if their current teams don't lock them up first. So it's that old Leaf chant. "wait until next year", coming out in freaking NOVEMBER.

I have box seats to a game this Saturday against the Washington Capitals. At this point, sorry to say it, I'm going (a) because it's free and (b) because I get to watch a real team play hockey. Until the Leafs decide they want to win hockey games, I've decided I'm not going to cheer for them. I'll be waiting with blue and white bells on, and--let's face it--I'm probably still going to watch, if only to see if they have, in fact, decided to show some desire. But I'm growing increasingly weary of cheering for a loser that seems perfectly content to remain one.

And that's how I feel about that.

Finding the Humour

I'm not really a funny guy. Certainly not funny like my brother-in-law, who can make a gargoyle guffaw. Or my father, who doesn't consider his day well and truly lived until he's caused someone to shoot something out of their nose.
Some people--my dad and brother-in-law among them--have a gift for transmuting stress into humour. I've seen it done often enough that I can make a passable attempt, but that's about it.

Remove the stress, though, and funny things bubble up in its place.

Like at the hospital yesterday. Yeah, I know we're in the middle of an H1N1 epidemic and I understand what this sign was trying to communicate, but the lobby of a hospital seems an odd place for a sign that says PLEASE DO NOT VISIT IF YOU ARE NOT FEELING WELL. I chuckled at it yesterday, before Eva's surgery; now that it's over with, I'm finding that to be a real knee-slapper.

Jesus, my father, though. We're on line at the Atrium Cafeteria and perusing the lunch specials. "What's a 'Greek burger'? I asked, innocently. Without any pause at all, Dad says "Just two buns".

Jim, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the message "I'M A VIRGIN BUT THIS IS AN OLD T-SHIRT", was looking around for shit to disturb to great comic effect, prompting Eva to tell everyone she was in hospital to receive a "brotherectomy". Incidentally, at the aptly named 'kiss and go' station outside day surgery, Eva and I exchanged tender I-love-you's. I told her I'd see her 'on the other side' and earned a punch in the shoulder for that weak sally. Jim told Eva "see ya, spaz" and she said "later, dork" and for perhaps the first time in my life I truly understood siblings: we'd all said exactly the same thing.

There's a weird humour (to me, at least) in the fact I have sent over seventy text messages in the past two days. Me, the guy who two weeks ago didn't have a cell phone and swore up and down he'd never get one until he had no choice; me, the same guy who's been saying for years that text messages make no sense whatsoever when you've got a freaking phone in your hand. I will say this: for the sake of my sanity and productivity, the number of texts is going to plummet when Eva gets home in less than an hour. It's damned hard to get anything done when there's an earthquake in your pants seemingly every other minute. I am not a multitasker. Hell, most days it's all I can do to be a tasker.

Anyway, my dad and I are out in his car on the grounds it's (a) substantially more comfortable than a hospital waiting room and (b) equipped with XM Satellite Radio and its comedy channels. There's a comedienne talking about finding the humour in everyday life. With my father snoring away in the seat beside me--that man can fall asleep instantly and with vigour--I reflected that I try. I really try to find the humour. Sometimes it's elusive, as when, for instance, your wife is going in for surgery. This comedienne said she puts it on her 'To-Do" list each and every day: "Find something funny." Then again, she says she completes her To-Do list every night before bed, writing down everything she did that day and checking it all off. Sounds like me.

I'd like to thank Jim and my dad for leavening the situation considerably over the past couple of days. It would have been entirely too serious around here without you.

18 November, 2009

Eva is fine

That's the gist of what this post is going to say: my wife is fine. She's being kept in hospital overnight because of her diabetes and (extremely mild) asthma. Truth be told, she probably could have been released this evening.

Everyone knows hospitals aren't fun places to be. I have to give Henderson Hospital some points for friendly, courteous doctors and volunteers. I was kept informed of where my wife was at all times; the minute the surgery was over, her doctor came out and told me she was okay, gave me a rundown on the procedure, and let me know what was happening next.

Oh, and they have this view off their cafeteria patio:
Nice.

The surgery started on time and was finished about twenty minutes ahead of when we were told it would be. They did not perform the riskier omentectomy, as the laparoscopic instruments were sufficient. In addition to the hysterectomy, they found and drained a cyst on one of Eva's ovaries.

Thank you to brother Jim for serving as transport and comic relief; also to my dad who made the long drive down from Britt to stay with me through what would have been a much longer day without either of you. Thanks as well for the outpouring of support from friends all over. Eva should be home by noon tomorrow. Me? I'm just happy the operation is over with and was a success.

12 November, 2009

Up In Smoke

I have a few flaws. Quite a few, if you get me on days that end in -y.

One big one: I never seem to grasp anything the first time you explain it to me. My grasping mechanism is continually on the fritz: whole paragraphs can go by, literally, as they say, in one ear and out the other; and then WHAMMO! with great force, my mind will snatch one detail and fixate on it. From then on, it takes an unconscionable amount of effort to divest me of that single detail. Plans or situations change, and the changes are explained to me, and three hours or three days later all I remember is that single word in chapter 4, paragraph m, subsection why the hell can't you pay attention?
My mind is most likely to seize on words I want to hear. Sometimes the words can be close to what I'm hoping to hear and my brain goes yep, that's close enough. You heard that, didn't you? I did. And now that we've heard it, we can't unhear it.
Words can not express how annoying this is for my wife, who must keep a mental hammer and chisel on hand at all times to prise the offending scrap of yep, that's what we heard out of my skull and pound in the correct version. She's used to this behaviour. It has, after all, been ten years. But it's still frustrating as hell, all the more so because she can never tell which detail I'm going to seize on and cling to.
Make all this about a subject on which my attitude already runs somewhere between scalding and nuclear--like, for instance, cigarettes--and the atmosphere can get really volatile really quickly.

Eva's an on-again, off-again smoker. Once, not too long ago, she was off for nearly four years. When her upcoming surgery was scheduled, she resolved to quit again, hopefully this time for good. We set out a schedule for her to gradually cut back, leaving her smoke free three weeks before the operation. I was told then--or at least I heard then--that smoking anywhere near the surgery date was extremely hazardous. Since this confirmed long standing knowledge--my every neural synapse might as well have smoking is extremely hazardous inscribed on it some place--this assumed monumental degrees of certitude.

Eva has explained to me more than once the difficulties of becoming a non-smoker when you're currently a smoker. And I nod my head and say all the right things. I tell myself I get it, I understand, I accept, I empathize.

But then I'm faced with the reality of her hellish addiction and her heroic efforts to overcome it, and I don't get it. I don't understand, I can't accept, and instead of support and empathy, Eva's treated to judgment and contempt. Which is just the sort of thing to help alleviate her stress and eliminate the need for a smoke, wouldn't you say?

Eva cut back and cut back and one day about a month ahead of schedule, she announced she was ready to stop. And she did, with a few minor slips that I (mostly) let go. Then as the surgery came closer, the stress, quite understandably, built up. Her Nicorette inhaler came out more often. On the one hand, I rejoiced that it wasn't an actual cigarette. On the other, much larger hand, I grumbled, silently, that you can't expect to quit a nicotine addiction if you keep supplying yourself with nicotine. And damn it all, the thing even looks like a cigarette. So of course that meant to me there was no difference. And the surgery's getting closer and closer.

Then last Friday night she was cleaning out one of her purses and found an old, really old, pack of smokes she swore up and down she didn't know were there.

I stared at them coldly.I knew in my heart she was telling the truth. Eva wasn't holding out on me...she had admitted every one of the few slips she'd had. But still, they were cigarettes, real ones, and I couldn't for the life of me understand why she was looking at them with such longing. I look at a cigarette and all I see is extremely hazardous no matter how many times Eva explains addiction to me. In my mind's eye I see my beloved wife--who doesn't have a smoker's cough except in my imagination--hacking in the immediate aftermath of her surgery and ripping apart every last stitch. Her organs would fuse together and she would die and all for what? How long does the good feeling from one cigarette last? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? Surely no more than an hour. Eva was going to die on the table for an hour's peace.

I chewed on this bitter cud over and over, and eventually it all just boiled out of me. It wasn't pretty. It looked, in fact, like the leavings of about a dozen packs of cigarettes, all vomited up and staining the air between us.

The argument raged for over an hour...probably the longest fight we've had in ten years together. (After we'd made up, we noted the reason we'd kept the heat on so long: Tux, who cringes if Mommy or Daddy so much as raises a voice, was at the kennel that night.)

And at the end of it, I still wasn't as convinced or as understanding as I should have been.

Yes, they'd like you to quit smoking. Of course they would, they're medical professionals. But they only insist you not smoke for the twelve hours preceding your surgery and as it turns out, if that's too onerous you're allowed to use...a Nicorette inhaler. Turns out that even though it looks like a cigarette and has nicotine like a cigarette, it ain't a cigarette. Or as Eva put it, "if you think this is the same as smoking, then I'm going out to get a pack right now."

The thing I refused to get through my brain--it still sits uneasily in there--is that cigarettes are the best friends of the addicted. They make life just that little bit more bearable while they're in there, and if you happen to be addicted to cigarettes, it's only natural that you'll want them more and more as the stress level goes higher and higher.

In truth, Eva has done a remarkable job fighting this battle. In truth, I shouldn't judge or begrudge her. Past battles won have no bearing on this one except as motivation: you kicked this before, you can again.

I can do better. I will do better.


11 November, 2009

Lest We Forget

No words of mine today. Instead, the words of Eric Bogle, as interpreted by the incomparable John McDermott:



...and a column from Sarah Hampson that perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on this, the holiest day of the secular calendar.

09 November, 2009

The Storm Before the Dawn

Pardon the break. In my experience, at least, a long run between blog entries is a product of either (a) too little happening or (b) too much. This would be a (b) break.
To be fair, it's not that a lot has happened...it's that a lot is about to.

My wife, Eva, is going in for some pretty major surgery a week Wednesday. The ablation she had back in May didn't take. The next step is a hysterectomy.

Now, hysterectomies in this latter age are not such of a much. Millions of women undergo them and six weeks later they're better than new. And while any surgery has attendant risks--people have died during tonsillectomies--a hysterectomy is pretty ho-hum as major surgeries go.

But there are issues.

The first is that Eva has not had children. This rules out a traditional vaginal hysterectomy. The second is her size, which may rule out a laparoscopic hysterectomy (one performed by remote control, as it were). They're going to try this first, but laparoscopic instruments are only so long. Accordingly, if this does not work, they must perform an omentectomy. The gentle way to describe this procedure: a long incision and removal of some or all of the fat pad surrounding the torso. That's the way I like to think of it. Sounds nice and clinical and safe, unlike, say, "open 'er up like a side of beef".

Wikipedia's description of a omentectomy seems quite benign: "the surgical removal of the omentum, a relatively simple procedure with no major side effects." Nice of them to put that right in the definition where I'm more likely to believe it. Most of the time. Ken, I tell myself, this is one case where you don't have to worry about your shitty peripheral vision. There are no major effects creeping in from the sides. So sayeth Wikipedia, and Wikipedia never lies. For long, anyway.

If the laparoscopy is successful, Eva will be home for dinner on Wednesday. If the omentectomy is necessary, she'll be hospitalized for three to five days. Or longer, if any back effects materialize. Back effects, the ones Wikipedia doesn't mention because apparently Wikipedia doesn't check its six. Infection is the big one. I mean, c'mon here, large parts of Eva that are not meant to be exposed to air are going to be exposed to air. And this being hospital air, there's just no telling what exotic things are floating around in it, waiting to make Eva's internal acquaintance. Howya doon, there, never seen you round these parts before. Howzabout I just settle in and proliferate a while?

There are a host--hell, a regiment--of other back effects, none of which has as yet announced itself in my brain. They're shadowy spectral wraiths, all the more ominous for lacking names. Like most of their kind, they own the nights.

Really, the emotional concoction here is complex and more than a little ugly. Fear is the prime component, of course, and fear in me breeds a number of base affects, irritability easily sparking into outright anger being the most common. A heady dose of guilt, as well: guilt because I have all this fear and it's not even me having the damned surgery. Oh, yeah, buddy, you think YOU'RE scared. What about your wife, huh? What about her? You have no right to be afraid. No right at all. How dare you. And so on: the end of that particular thought train is Admit it, you're just manufacturing this fear to get some attention of your own.

No, I'm not. While I'm nowhere near as scared as Eva must be, and indeed I can't even adequately imagine what Eva's going through, I am frightened. And I feel like a failure as a husband because I'm supposed to be Eva's rock in hard times. I'm not a rock. At this point I'm more like beach sand. More on this and its recent ripening into conflict in an upcoming post.

Mixed with the fear and the guilt is an unsteady hope. In talking about the upcoming surgery with Eva, I was surprised, shocked, stunned, to hear she was actually hoping like hell the laparoscopy would fail and they'd have to do the omentectomy. My mind reeled: given a choice between six hours in hospital, in-one-door-pull-it-out-and-out-the-other, and what could be six days in hospital, battling who knows what, well, my choice is clear, and so is hers...and they're the exact opposite.

So here's the argument for the omentectomy.

Eva is unlike most women her size in many respects. As I have mentioned more than once, there is a great deal of muscle under her flab and she is remarkably fit given her weight. She does have type II diabetes, a product of polycystic ovaries and their bastard offspring insulin resistance, but her sugars are usually in very good control. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are normal or better.
But Eva does share two characteristics with many other large women: she wants to lose weight...and she can't.
All too often I hear people--comics or would-be comics being painfully unfunny, most of them--telling fat people to "just lose weight, already." Because apparently it's that simple, and never mind that the diet industry makes billions every year. The problem is compounded with Eva: the above mentioned polycystic ovary syndrome and hormonal imbalances are largely (ha-ha) to blame. (Check out those symptoms. While not all PCOS-afflicted women have everything listed here, my wife does. In spades.) The hysterectomy should correct or at least ameliorate the hormonal issues and the omentectomy would help even more. It's not just that they'd be removing some thirty pounds--it's the immediate beneficial effect that Eva less those thirty pounds would experience. Her insulin resistance would abate, as would the PCOS, making it much easier for her to abate.

I suppose the cynic, reading this, will derive "instant tummy tuck" out of it, and that's fair as far as it goes. The truth is that Eva believes the benefits of an omentectomy are worth a week in hospital and an infection or three if it comes to that. Now that she's explained it to me, I've come around to her way of thinking...much as it pains me.

To be continued...

01 November, 2009

Fiction that has changed my life (1)

AZTEC, by Gary Jennings

My wife read this in grade seven. She went to give a book report on it and the teacher stopped her partway through and asked her to give the presentation after school, on account of the 'adult' nature of the novel. There was, Eva says, also some doubt as to whether she had in fact read the whole thing. She had.
Jennings was the second author Eva introduced to me and my first exposure to historical fiction. He remains the standard by which I judge the genre, and so far everything I've read has come up wanting.

Jennings immerses you in his cultures to the point where you start thinking the language and dreaming the set pieces. You'll come out the other end of any Jennings novel with a deep appreciation for the sweep of human history and the human beings who have lived it. And fair warning: you'll be exposed to sex, at times perverted, and violence, often casually graphic. Those of a prurient nature will undoubtedly question the explicit sex scenes. I'm pretty sure Jennings would respond that (a) each one is integral to the plot (which is true) and (b) humans are sexual animals. Ditto the violence: the author is, if anything, understating the brutality of the Aztec era.
Aside from being a hell of an epic well told, AZTEC gifted me with a whole new level of empathy and understanding towards other cultures. We look upon human sacrifice as repellent in the extreme, for instance. So did the priests who came to "civilize" the Aztecs. Through Mixtli's detailing of his life and times, we are given to understand and maybe even accept that his people saw things differently. To be sacrificed to a god was, in that time and place, a great honour to which anyone would quite naturally aspire. People almost always went to their deaths willingly, even joyfully.

Now I am by no means suggesting that maybe we ought to kick off Vancouver 2010 by throwing a few dozen people into the cauldron that contains the Olympic flame. I am suggesting that there remain cultures in which human sacrifice is considered an honour and a duty. One such culture is currently at war with ours, and our media tends to portray Islamic terrorists as evil and/or stupid. They are neither: just ask them.

At this point you're probably sniggering and sputtering and calling me a traitor to my society and civilization. That's fine and quite understandable. But having read AZTEC, I feel as if I've lived Mixtli's life, seen what he's seen, believed (for the time I spent in his world) as he did. And so I've come away with--not a moral equivalence--but the idea that different societies (indeed, different individuals in societies) have different morals. This, in turn, has helped me immeasurably in my day-to-day life. I try never to dismiss anyone's thought process without at least an attempt at getting in their head and thinking it for myself. On matters with any complexity at all, I'm far less apt to unequivocally agree or disagree with anyone than I once was. In short and generally speaking, I no longer see the world as black and white but in shades of grey.

Which doesn't mean I'm incapable or unwilling to make moral judgments: I do so all the time. I do, however, strive mightily not to impose my morals on others, or indeed assume they believe as I do. In AZTEC, this imposition happens on a grand scale and the results are nothing less than tragic.

Thanks to AZTEC, I've come to believe it is never my place to rob a person of an opportunity to define themselves. That quite possibly may be the strongest insight I've had in 37 years of life and it's surely a big debt to owe a single book.