31 December, 2010

Year-End, Part II

2010 will go down in history as the year we put the blinders on.

Blinders, of course, come standard with human beings. It's as if they're attached in utero, sometime around the beginning of the third trimester, just after fetal humans can open their eyes and follow a light. Donning blinders allows us, as a species, to invoke "pretendsies", to make things didn't happen. It's childish behaviour, but hey! we're by and large a childish species.

One of the things we made didn't happen was the oil spill in the Gulf. Remember that? The media screamed of nothing else for a couple of months. The initial rate of spillage doubled, trebled, then quadrupled. Eventually the well was killed. Gotta love the terminology there: the bad guy's dead! Everything's fine!
...except not really. Up to 75% of the spill remains in the Gulf environment. The U.S. government has been very precise in its terms, leading the chief scientist for Defenders of Wildlife to say "Terms such as 'dispersed,' 'dissolved' and 'residual' do not mean gone. That's comparable to saying the sugar dissolved in my coffee is no longer there because I can't see it. By [NOAA] Director Lubchenco's own acknowledgment, the oil which is out of sight is not benign. Whether buried under beaches or settling on the ocean floor, residues from the spill will remain toxic for decades."

What else dispersed and dissolved in 2010? The recession...at least if you believe the Wall Street Pollyannas, whose stock markets have largely recovered to pre-2008 levels. Strangely, unemployment levels remain high, particularly in the U.S. Cynics would suggest these two situations are somehow related. I'm not cynical. Naw, not me.

Blinders. Nothing else explains why Stephen Harper maintains his popularity, even as Barack Obama struggles to keep his; why sexual assault is suddenly legal, but only in airports; or why there remain folks who feel the best way to cure the world of its dependence on cheap credit is...to offer lots more cheap credit.

Or riddle me this. We've been told ever since 9/11 to look out for suspicious behaviour, and to shout out when we see it. Yeah. Worked out pretty well for Pte. Bradley Manning, didn't it?

I'm not going to make predictions for 2011--I'm no visionary, and my crystal ball is on the fritz. I will say this. There's comfort in blinders: I can certainly understand and appreciate their ubiquity. I, however, am getting new glasses...

Happy New Year, one and all.

29 December, 2010

Year-End, Part I

To say that personally, 2010 was a good year for us would be to understate things a tad. When this year dawned, my wife was stuck in a thankless job, hated by her boss for no reason she was ever made privy to. Fast-forward twelve months and she finds herself working in a much more convivial atmosphere. A place where she is appreciated. A place where a "fun day" is scheduled every month, complete with games and prizes.
At Hallowe'en, there was a contest to produce the grossest gourmet set-piece. The previous year's winner was a kitty litter cake. Eva went all-out on this contest, producing two dishes. The first was an ear fashioned out of clay, complete with long painted ear hairs. The judges had to take marshmallow "Q-Tips" and dip them in the ear, coating them in caramel "wax" (complete with Skor-bit chunks)...and that wasn't the worst of it. The other dish, the one that had me ready to puke my guts, was this inspired monstrosity:



Pita "baby wipes" were provided...

Needless to say, Eva won. The judges almost refused to sample her dishes.

It's not all fun and games there: less than six months after hire, Eva is the go-to person on an exceptionally large project. I'm intensely proud of her...and not at all surprised. Ten years of marriage to this remarkable woman has made it very difficult to feel surprised at her achievements.

Ten years of marriage. We celebrated our tenth anniversary in grand style, at Disney's Old Key West Resort. That was only ten weeks ago...hard to believe. We booked the trip in February, thus ensuring each month between then and October would take a year to pass. Oddly, the weeks since seem to have taken just as long.
Disney was far and away the best trip of my life (not that there have been many). I'd dearly love to go back--there's enough to see and do on Disney property to keep two adults busy for at least a month--but then again, there's a whole world out there, and I'd like to see a lot of it.

Eva's anniversary present was a white sapphire ring...

...and mine was this Mac Mini. I think she's at least as happy with her gift as I am with mine, which is to say: very.

The lid on our home was replaced, and we sprouted a deck. We had been batting around the notion of moving--this house was chosen to suit a life we weren't meant to live--but that deck has forestalled things, adding a whole dimension to the place.

At my work, things are chugging along. We finally have a date for renovations that have been put off no fewer than five times already...hopefully this date will stick. I have to say I am not looking forward to the renovation process one bit: I've heard entirely too many horror stories from too many people who have already gone through it. Hopefully I come out the other side relatively unscathed.

For me, one of the biggest highlights of this past year was the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, the place where Canada both grew up as a sporting nation and got a chance to engage in totally uncharacteristic braggadocio. The remarkable national sense of bonding those Games achieved
lingers still.

Song of the Year: Wavin' Flag, K'naan. Although the original was recorded two years ago, in 2010 this song was everywhere. It was used as a rallying cry after the Haiti earthquake; a considerably lightened version was chosen to be the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (the omnipresent vuvuzelas at which threatened to drown K'naan, and the rest of the world, out).

Book of the Year: Luftslottet som sprängdes ("The Castle In The Air That Blew Up")--otherwise known as The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, by Julian Assange. Okay, well, it might as well have been. Stieg Larsson's third Lisbeth Salander novel dominated bestseller lists: its protagonist, were she real, would undoubtedly be working right now, behind the scenes, for WikiLeaks.

Which is the perfect segue into the next post, coming Friday, about the world in 2010. That, sadly, isn't near as rosy a picture...

27 December, 2010

The Hollow Days

The Aztec solar calendar had eighteen months of twenty days each, plus five nemontemi--"hollow days" --at year's end. The nemontemi were nameless, unlucky days on which nothing of consequence was done or attempted. Rituals both ceremonial and quotidian were suspended. Fasting and abstinence were strongly encouraged. Children unlucky enough to be born in the hollow days were often killed outright: better that, it was thought, then let them live a life clearly cursed.
I've often thought of the week between Christmas and New Year's as the modern nemontemi. The luck or lack of it notwithstanding, there's no denying these are hollow, useless days. Many people take the week off work, to the point where offices are either shut or might as well be. And while the electronic stores are packed, in grocery, it's the slowest week of the year.

It's also far and away my favourite week. Especially in years like this one.

Boxing Day, you see, fell on a Sunday this year. Which means I am not only getting paid for a day off, I also get a day off in lieu. The upshot this year is two consecutive weekends off, one of which is three days long. AND I still get my customary Wednesday off! I like my job, but let's face it, not working beats working any day of the week.

This is the week in which we wrap the old year in a big ball, pausing every now and again to examine some aspect, troubling or triumphant...and then we drop the ball off a tall building in New York City. The new year springs forth from the dying cocoon of the old, bringing with it new possibilities and perils.
Until that moment, everything seems to be in stasis. This is an introspective week, a week for deep thoughts. Anticipation gathers, foglike, in the air, only hardening into conviction come January.

2010 has been beyond a doubt the most eventful and just plain great year of my life so far. Over the next four days I'll kick the year-ball around and examine its spots. In the meantime, happy hollow-days.

25 December, 2010

So This Is Christmas

and what have I done?

Went to to the inlaws' place for Christmas slunch today (hey, if "brunch" is between breakfast and lunch...) We helped a woman from Eva's work get to her aunt and uncle's place for Christmas, which felt good. And we listened to Stuart McLean's Christmas stories all the way...a holiday tradition that still makes me chuckle and which had our riding companion periodically in tears from laughter.
Christmas dinner--slunch--was unexpectedly amazing. Not that it's ever been bad before, but...well, I can't remember the last time I had turnip. I usually turnip my nose at it, because...like you need a reason? TURNIP! BLECH! I took some this afternoon to be polite, and...hey, not bad. Also not bad was the broccoli and cauliflower drenched in cheese sauce made predominantly of Cheez Whiz. Those are three things I generally can't stand. I sat for them today, and liked them. Go figure.
Lots of gifts given and received. I loved everything I got, but must reserve special praise for the weather station--something I've wanted for years. "Now," I said to the room at large, "my house is complete." I was only half-joking. Add a grandfather clock and I'm pretty much set.

I don't even know what it is about a weather station. This one's a nice wooden model with thermometer and barometer, and I can get a great deal more weather info off my computer dashboard or by turning the television to channel 505. But then, I can tell the time off any of the umpty dozen digital clocks we have liberally scattered hither and yon around here, and yet I'm a sucker for interesting analogue clocks, the more interesting the better.

Jim and Ally, it was great to see you both. I know you're in for a good 2011.

Family. Just part of what Christmas is all about...

Merry Christmas, one and all.

19 December, 2010

Pre-Christmas Cheer

It's like this every year. Christmas is less than a week away and it sure don't feel like it.

"Peace on Earth"--not at the grocery store, there isn't. "Hell on Earth" is a closer approximation.

It used to be busier. Hard to convince myself of that, but numbers don't lie: five years ago, before everybody and his hairdresser started selling groceries on the side, it was considerably busier than it is now. Customer attitude seems to deteriorate every year, though, and that's what really puts the stress into your day.

It didn't help that they put Turtles on the front page. Nestle Turtles, the 200g size, for $1.97. We booked fourteen skids. For reasons never explained--probably because they're inexplicable--we got one. One skid.
We could have sold all fourteen skids on Friday, the day the ad broke. You can imagine how long one skid lasted. And is there any more forthcoming? We're trying, but frankly, I doubt it.

This--surprise, surprise--was not welcome news for many customers. At one location in our fair city, a gentleman expressed his displeasure by kicking the front door of the store off its track. Nobody has threatened that kind of reaction in our store. So far.

As a person on the receiving end of vitriol, you're really torn when things like this happen. Part of commiserates as best you can. It's always good practice to agree with an IRAAC--an Irate, Rude And Angry Customer--as a disarming tactic. "Yes, I understand how frustrating this is for you." Believe me, I do. "Yes, I understand you came here specifically to buy 48 boxes of Turtles." By now we could have sold 48,000 of the damn things, buddy, so you tell me who's really more upset they're not here. "I agree, this is completely unacceptable." Somebody should lose their job over this, you're right. Nobody here, though...we ordered them, after all.

And part of you--a part you keep locked up, if you know what's good for you--is all the while thinking things like they're fucking chocolates, buddy. You're acting like they're crisp new $1000 bills. Get a life.

"I'd really like to help you out. Which way did you come in?"

"You never have anything I need!" Proclaimed by someone who invariably has half a cart full of groceries. My standard response to this--I've used it several times--is to smile sweetly and exceedingly politely offer to return all the items in their cart. "You know, since you don't need them." One of these days somebody's going to kick my door off its track, but it's worth it just to watch the sputter.

Work life could be worse. I could work in the produce department. Yesterday, we received 800 cases of produce we didn't order and don't have room for. This happens, from time to time: the warehouse is overloaded with product that the stores aren't buying (on account of their customers aren't buying it) and so, periodically, it's time to pass the buck "encourage supplemental sales opportunities". Good thing we have a hollow shell of a building next door, or we'd be putting bins of produce in the parking lot.

Pardon the vent, but this last week has been gruelling. I'm sore all over, with cuts on each finger of my right hand. The time has come--after nearly a decade--to start wearing gloves at work, like a normal person. I rarely do, because I find I can't grip anything with them on. My hands are used to temperature extremes...a Ken-shower is typically about 50C (122F) and my frozen bunkers are -27C (-16F) and I'm comfortable in both (especially the shower, mind you). My co-workers look at me like I'm some kind of freak, but really, gloves are yet another thing I'd continually be misplacing, like my box-cutter, my pen, and damn near anything else I can possibly misplace.
No matter, though. What with all the cardboard boxes I continually root around in, I get nasty paper cuts, often right around the nail. It'd probably be worth pudgy, unfeeling fingers and a case of the dropsies if I could just stop cutting myself already.

Outside of work, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Last weekend, we met my dad and Heather, and aunt Dawna and Barry, for lunch. Our Christmas get-togethers are always too short, this one very much so, but it was wonderful to see everyone. My boss held a gathering at his home that night...a perfectly lovely affair, with excellent catered food and warm hospitality. And we've spent some time with two sets of friends, in whose company I really do feel I can relax.

Eva is the primary shopper in this house, a fact for which I am eternally grateful. My Christmas shopping skills are negligible. I go out with the best of intentions, only to find...well, nothing, really. The stuff I really want to buy is either out of stock or waaaay out of my budget. And by that I don't mean "this person's only getting a gift worth $10 because, hey, I'm cheap and besides, I don't really like him anyway." I mean "damnit, that's the perfect gift and he's worth the $500 it costs....let me check the money tree...argh, no fruit yet."

I still have some shopping to do, just for my love. We're only doing stockings this year, which is perfectly fine by me every year, but especially this one. What with a deck, a Disney trip, a new computer and a ring for Eva, we've had several Christmases already. Really, Christmas isn't about gifts anymore for me--either giving or receiving. It's nice to get and even nicer to give, of course, but for me, now, the best thing about Christmas is the atmosphere. The cheer. The long winter's nap after it's over.

Into the homestretch we go, faster than a skid of Turtles.


15 December, 2010

Musical obsession

It all started with Alkan.

Actually, it started with one of my occasional, peripatetic Internet crawls. The term was something like "hardest piano piece" . I'm always on the lookout for music that makes my jaw drop. Doesn't matter the instrument. I mean, you may hate the pan flute, but this is insane:




Google led me down the YouTube into a world of wonder. Mind you, the first video I viewed was a female pianist, claimed to be the world's fastest, absolutely butchering the piece she was playing...breakneck speed, yes, accuracy...not so much. One particular comment suggested anyone wanting to play something really challenging, and prestissimo, should check out Alkan's Scherzo diabolico. Well, didn't that title bear further investigation.




What impressed me wasn't just the formidable technique, but the musicality. This piece is beautiful. I'd never heard of Charles-Valentin Alkan before--to this day, few have, even though he was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his age, with an ability that humbled his more famous friends Chopin and Liszt. Fame didn't so much elude Alkan as Alkan eluded fame. He was reclusive, particularly in his latter years, and didn't perform much. Today, his music is championed by Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist-slash-freak of nature who performs ivory impossibilities with an insouciance that leaves the listener honestly confused.

If you can read music, read this, and weep.



I've been playing piano since I was three. I got to Grade VI in lessons before I dropped out in free-spirited disgrace. If I had stayed in lessons for another, oh, roughly 428 years, I might have attempted a piece like this. To me, this is piano's Mount Everest.

So I bought me some Alkan off iTunes and set out to tell the few friends I have who might appreciate (ugh) piano music about Alkan and Hamelin. My best friend took that ball and ran with it. He came back a couple days later with an email saying, in effect, "you think Alkan's good? Check out Kapustin."

I have to admit, it ticked me off a little. Like, hey, my unknown composer eats your unknown composer for breakfast. I held off investigating this Kapustin upstart for almost a week out of some ridiculous species of spite. Jay emailed me a few times in that week, saying this Kapustin was the best thing since sliced or whole bread and he was going to buy a CD.
That got my attention. Jason, buy? As in, spend money on? Music? The guy torrents so much he might as well run a whitewater rafting company.

A week later, and here's the state of things. I have 989 songs on my iPod. Twenty three are composed by Charles-Valentin Alkan. Nearly 200 of them are by Nikolai Kapustin.

Kapustin is Russian, but you'd never know it from his music. The best way to describe it is jazz done in classical form: preludes and fugues, concertos, sonatas, and so on. Now, I am not a fan of jazz. I can appreciate the musicianship, and there are a few standards I like, but improvised free-flow jazz is just not my thing. I like my music with structure. I like recurring themes my mind can latch on to. Most of all, I like to visualize what I'm hearing, by studying the score. Jazz doesn't usually have scores--too restrictive.
Kapustin's 'jazz' does.

It's been a week now and I've listened to nothing but Kapustin, and the damnedest thing is I can't even tell you why. If you'd told me a month ago that I'd be jazzing out to this stuff, I'd have said you were nuts. But I find the music supremely relaxing--even the lightning quick stuff--and conducive to deep thinking. I'm amazed that he manages to capture every jazzy detail in meticulous notation.
This happened to be the first piece of his I heard, also performed by Marc-Andre Hamelin:



Hamelin takes this too fast, in my opinion. The musicality is almost lost. It works better about four metronome ticks slower. The more I listen to Hamelin, the more I'm in total awe of his technique, but I also think he occasionally speeds things up just because he can.

Perhaps most surprising? I'm now officially a pirate.

I'd happily buy this music...if I could. Most of it is available one of three ways: off YouTube via one of the video-to-mp3 sites; off a torrent; or by going to Russia and travelling back in time twenty years or so. The vast majority of Kapustin's work, especially his orchestral work, has not been released outside the Soviet Union. Like Alkan before him, the man shuns fame.

I've mostly figured out how to download/extract and import. I'm still having trouble with track names occasionally going missing or coming out totally scrambled. I'm kind of anal about having the right names for the pieces in my library. It's necessitated a lot of YouTubing.

I figure it'll be about a year before this obsession passes...


12 December, 2010

Julian Assange, Citizen of the Internet


Sarah Palin suggests that Julian Assange should be "hunted down like Osama bin Laden". I'm all in favour of this. They've done such a good job killing bin Laden, after all.

Others, a great many others, have called Julian Assange a traitor to the United States of America, forgetting that he is not a citizen of the United States of America and owes it no allegiance. The "traitor" label better fits Pfc. Bradley Manning, who actually stole his government's diplomatic cables and 'leaked' them, so to speak, to Assange. That is, of course, if you believe such actions to be traitorous. Many don't. Many, in fact, view them as heroic.

WikiLeaks is nothing less than the next evolution of society staring us in the face. Most of us have seen this evolution taking place over the past six years, if not in our personal lives, then in the lives of those younger than us. Like all evolutions, this one is disconcerting to the old guard. In this case, it's particularly frightening since it seems to be embracing a set of values that is in every way inimical to those of the previous generations--all of them.

It is, truly, world-changing, and it can be summed up in one word: TRANSPARENCY.

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE STREAMED

In February, 2005, three former PayPal employees banded together to form something called YouTube. The instant that site went online, WikiLeaks became inevitable. (You may choose to backdate the shift to the initial proliferation of the Internet, and if you do, I won't argue.)
YouTube's mission statement says its purpose is to "provide fast and easy video access and the ability to share videos frequently". The word share is prominent, and crucially important, because it promises to be the foundation of our entire culture for some time to come.

Facebook, Google and YouTube: the top three most visited sites on the Internet. One of them connects users with information...most of which ends up being shared on the other two. It's bewildering and more than a little scary to watch this "sharing" culture in action, especially since the notion of "privacy"--so integral to one's life in pre-digital culture--has been turned on its head. It has mostly been discarded entirely as more and more time and effort is invested in virtual life: so-called "real life"--it's getting hard to tell the difference--is becoming more and more transparent and open.

To a point. "Privacy" still holds sway in Internet forums, replete with comments by anonymous users who are unlikely to spew such filth if they were required to attach their real names, or indeed if those real names were easily discoverable. And even those most heavily immersed in openness online will retreat behind a curtain of 256-bit encryption if enemy entities come a-calling.

"Enemy entities" of online culture are not hard to enumerate. They are those entities which seek to curtail the prevailing Internet norms: governments and corporations. Adults, in other words, clumped together in hive-organisms that seek their own survival and profit above all else. (Charlie Stross, in one of those leaps of perspective he's famous for, says that corporate culture is proof positive that Earth has been invaded by aliens.)
There is a certain gleeful abandon with which the young have always attacked the morals and values of their elders. Here's Hesiod, from the eighth century B.C.E.:

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint."


Now, though, the younger generation is--for the first time in all human history--uniquely positioned to expose and mock the hypocrisy of the older, on a worldwide scale impervious to any countermeasure employed to maintain the status quo. (We saw this used first to defend "sharing", as every attempt to shut down Napster resulted in a hundred sites like it blossoming like a fungal bloom.) Now, of course, there are more than five hundred mirrors of WikiLeaks operating. Short of shutting down the entire Internet--which, even if it were possible, would result in civil unrest the likes of which has never been seen--there's no way to put the cat back in the bag.

"WikiLeaks is just an example; there's going to be a lot more of this to come"
--Michael Calce, a.k.a "MafiaBoy"

"For most of us, the Internet is a means to an end. But for a certain community of people, the Internet is an end in itself....they're not identifying with the U.S. or the U.K. or Sweden--they're citizens of the Internet."
--Alexandra Samuel, Director, Social and Interactive Media Center, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

See that job title? Could you imagine, say, thirty years ago, a "University of Art and Design" with a"Social and Interactive Media Center"? Media never used to be social or interactive in the slightest. It was a top-down construct defined by actors at the controls and passive consumers. But that was before the community, the new sovereign nation called Internet first expressed itself and then crafted a foreign policy...including, of course, a policy of defence.

So this blog about Assange, by design, has nothing to do with him. He is a mere figurehead: if his name wasn't Julian Assange it might be Rachel Zimmerman or Marek Stanski. Assange's personal life and its drama exists entirely apart from his website that has disseminated hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. He may not be a "good" man and his motives are certainly not pure. But his goodness or motivation is largely irrelevant.

I, for one, don't believe that he's guilty of rape, even by Sweden's strict definition of the word (The joke in Sweden, and it's not entirely a joke, is that you'd better get written permission for a sexual advance.) Rape is one of two crimes--the other is child molestation--which are almost universally abhorred and which are essentially unprovable. Fact of life, if you're a man: you'd best not allow yourself to be behind a closed door with a woman you don't trust or a child you don't know. Assange, if anything, is guilty of gross stupidity. But that's surely not a hanging offense.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I don't know. But I have some ideas.

WikiLeaks and its iterations yet-to-be-born have the potential to utterly destroy our current geopolitical system of nation-states. In fact, I believe that's one of Assange's unstated ultimate goals. He won't live to see that goal, if it is a goal of his, achieved. Even with today's hyperaccelerated pace of change, I suspect none of us will. But I think we're on that road: the road that will eventually yield a one-world government, with citizens as aware as they choose to be and wrongdoing, whether personal, corporate or governmental, instantly and ruthlessly exposed.

The fight between what we have now and what we may have then is going to be fierce. There are some very powerful people who resent having their power exposed, let alone stripped. But I put my money on the 'hacktivists' and their cause. In the end, the truth will set us free and we will all be citizens of the Internet.

05 December, 2010

I Need Glasses. Again.

My eyesight's been poor since birth, but for the longest time as a kid I gave that flaw short shrift. Just hold the book closer was my motto, and it worked well enough; when school forced me to lift my head, I could always sit right up front and kid myself it was to ingratiate myself with the teacher. Well, it did have that effect. It also let me see the blackboard.
My parents had their doubts that all was well in the sight of little Kenny, but little Kenny did his damnedest to dispel them. Little Kenny did NOT want glasses, no matter how badly he might need them: he knew that glasses were a one-way ticket out of the land of popularity and into the land of Nerd.
And so little Kenny exerted considerable effort into making his eyesight appear better than it was. He was aided and abetted in this effort (at first) by the unthinking gullibility of eye-doctors. Why they would unfailingly perform their arcane vision tests by getting little Kenny to cover his bad eye first was a mystery for the ages, but one our myopic hero was happy to exploit. Presented with a vision chart, left eye covered, he would read off three or four lines and take a stab at the fifth, memorizing as he went. Then he'd cover his good eye and...
Little Kenny was not stupid: he figured somebody was suspicious. It wouldn't do to just rattle off the chart he'd memorized as if everything was hunky-dory. So he'd insert pauses for dramatic effect, purposefully "guessing" at a few of the smaller letters, even getting some of them wrong. Not too wrong, though. A C and an O look similar enough, after all.

This strategem worked faultlessly...twice.

Did little Kenny get too smug? Perhaps. Or perhaps his stepdad was perceptive enough to see right through little Kenny's unseeing ruse. One day John took little Kenny out for a ride. Several blocks away from home, he pointed out a sign and asked what it said.
Now, it wasn't as if I could read that sign. But I'd read it at some point in the past, and I could recite it no problem. So I did, figuring that'd be the end of this mad obsession people had with turning little Kenny into a Nerd.
It wasn't.
Several klicks further on, in a part of town I'd never seen before, the request to read a sign was repeated.
"John, what is this with the signs?"
"Just tell me what it says." I think he actually framed it as a reading/comprehension test. Smart man.
Blind boy.
Little Kenny was back to the eye doctor posthaste. And this time, at his parents' urging, the eye-doctor covered his right eye first...

We moved to London the same year. Either transition alone could have been overcome. If I'd stayed where I was, I would have gone to great pains to make sure everyone knew I was still Kenny, just Kenny-with-glasses. If I'd moved without getting specs, I would have simply made new friends on the strength of my personality. But no, I moved and got glasses: INSTA-GEEK!

It didn't help much that I really needed glasses. My first few pairs were of the Coke-bottle, nose-denting variety. It might have been possible to get thinner lenses, but I doubt it: at least one of my prescriptions had to be prepared in, and shipped from, Taiwan. I'm pretty sure those glasses cost upwards of $400 a pair. In early '80s dollars.

You'd think I'd have taken better care of them. But then, you'd also think I'd have appreciated these things that let me see. Truth is, for a long time I deeply resented wearing them. I would have preferred to remain near-blind.
And so the glasses were subjected to all manner of indignities. At least two pairs were eaten by dogs. (Did you know that dogs like to eat glasses?) Other pairs bore scratches in short order, and I was forever forgetting to clean them: the dirt would accumulate almost to opacity before I'd think to give 'em a wipe. Dozens, scores of times I've been asked how can you see out of those things? Same way I could see without them. Piss-poorly. But who needs to look at the world? The world inside my head was so much more interesting.

My antipathy towards glasses melted away over time, not-so-coincidentally in lockstep with the attitude of society at large. Apparently some people choose to wear glasses nowadays. People who don't even need them. That would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. Likewise, my glasses themselves have become considerably more stylish, thanks in large part to my wife, who once ran an eyeglass store and has an eye, so to speak, for what looks good on me. My two most recent pairs have been Transitions, by Essilor--built-in sunglasses, in other words, and I swear by 'em. You would too, if you'd lived my life of where did I put those sunglasses? ah, screw it, I'll go without.

But my yearly eye tests are still a source of some stress. My eye doctor isn't: she's really nice (and pretty too, but I'm not supposed to be able to see that, I don't think). The tests themselves, though, still feel like exams I have to pass, if only because my glasses are not cheap. Repeated assurances do little to calm my nerves: a little of little Kenny persists in muttering half a grand and all you get is a little better vision? What a ripoff.


I don't like the tests, though. Any of them. Which is clearer, one or two? Or three, or four, or eleventy eight? Fer Chrissake they all look the same. They're all blurry. Some of them maybe a shade more or less blurry, but it's hard to tell in the three point eight microseconds you've got. What a pleasant surprise it would be if lens 42 suddenly brought everything into sharp clarity. Never happens.
I don't like eye drops AT ALL; I positively loathe the sun that Dr. Apfelbeck insists in placing three millimeters from my eye; and if there's a term stronger than hate for the peripheral vision test, that's the term I'd apply to it.
For those of you who have never had the experience of a peripheral vision test, all you have to do is click a little clicker when you see a flash of light. They do it one eye at a time, the other one's covered, and you're supposed to stare at a center circle--no cheating and moving your gaze--and then these lights flash. Some of them are unmistakeable, some of them are so dim you're not sure you actually saw them, and a few of them flash off in a spot you're not supposed to be able to see if you're staring at the circle in the center.

I have tunnel vision...not literally, in that I can see some things on the periphery, but a brain-induced state of tunnel vision that mimics the real disorder. Tell me to stare at a single spot and if I concentrate hard enough, that spot will be damn near all I see. Actually, "concentrate"'s probably the wrong term, because I fall into that tunnel vision state without thinking about it. I have to think about seeing things off to the side. And so this test is torturous for me. I'm required to balance my unmoving center-circle gaze against the knowledge that little dots of light are flashing all around and I need to click when I see one. The urge to look off to the left or right even a little is overpowering. Then there's those dim flashes: was that a light? I'm not sure. Do I click? Did I see that? If I click and that wasn't a light, I fail. Maybe that was a light in my so-called "blind spot" and if I click it, they'll believe I'm cheating. Or maybe I was supposed to click there and if I don't, it means I have no peripheral vision at all. Damn it, stop setting me up to fail here.

I've looked into laser surgery: I'm not a candidate. My retinas or corneas or something are too thin. It's too bad, really. As much as I'm terrified of the procedure, if I could undergo it I wouldn't have to stand for these horrid eye exams every year.

Occasional gripes aside, I'm pretty much okay with my glasses now. I kind of have to be. They're the first things on in the morning and the last things off at night. Without them, the world blurs such that I can only assume the Eva-shaped standing four feet away from me is in fact my wife. I have heard of people who have "lost" their glasses while they were on their face. It's just the sort of thing absentminded little Kenny would specialize in, were it not for the fact that it's immediately apparent whether or not Kenny's got his specs on.

For much of my life, I assumed I would eventually go blind. I had plenty of time to come to terms with that, but it turns out that barring some unforeseeable trauma, I'll remain a seeing person. My vision's been doing odd things (or at least odd to me) over the past decade: sometimes getting a little worse in one eye, sometimes getting a little better in the other, something I had long thought impossible. Every change of any magnitude necessitates another pair of glasses. I'd really love it if a pair could last longer than two years, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards...

02 December, 2010

WikiLeaks (II): Whirling Dervish

Damn, posted too soon. Should have done my research. Better yet, let others do it for me.

Everybody, especially those who agreed with my last post, please go here and read this.

Don't have time to delve deeply right now--have to go to work--but if I'm skimming this stuff correctly, it turns out Assange knows perfectly well what he's doing, and any collateral damage, while regrettable, is necessary to the higher end he's seeking: the elimination of the lobbyist groups (he refers to them as 'conspiracies', not in the tin hat sense but in the conspiracy-to-commit-crimes sense) that really own governments.
It's a worthy and admirable goal...if it works. But by gar, I hope Assange has at least ten doubles walking around and about thirty safe houses. He's angered a great many very powerful people.

(Love how Mike Huckabee is calling for his arrest on charges of treason. As Charlie Stross notes, "by definition it's not treason if he's not an American citizen and isn't acting within the USA."

01 December, 2010

WikiLeaks

As with most completely polarizing issues nowadays, I don't know what to think when it comes to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Reddit, populated as it is with youthful idealists who believe they're highly intelligent, is about ready to canonize the man. Meanwhile, Tom Flanagan, who used to be chief adviser to our PM, is openly calling for Assange's assassination...that's "cannon-ization" of a whole other sort.

Look, we'd all love to live in a world where government practiced openness and accountability, and hey-can't-we-all-just-get-along mated with power-with-not-power-over to produce utopia.

I don't do drugs, myself.

Calling what Assange does "journalism" is kind of like calling global thermonuclear war a "skirmish". WikiLeaks is a data dump, pure and simple. As with any dump, combing through this is apt to net you some overlooked treasure...not to mention a few diseases.

Oh, some of the stuff is trivial and obvious. For instance, the revelation that Canadian TV is replete with anti-American stereotypes that confirm this country's "inferiority complex". (Psst: wanna hear a secret? That inferiority complex often masquerades as a superiority complex. Quite convincingly, too.)
That class of revelation is hardly likely to provoke confrontation. But how about the confirmation of Iran's involvement in Iraq? How about the nitty-gritty on American espionage procedures? And who knows what's next down the leaky pipe.

SOME OF THIS SHIT SHOULD STAY SECRET.

Not all of it. Perhaps not even most of it. But some of it should stay secret. To thrust everything out into the open endangers lives, and not just the lives of those trying to keep the secrets. The world is not Facebook. Privacy and confidentiality are important.

Perspective

"So I was sitting there in the bar and this guy comes up to me and he said 'My life stinks'. And I saw his gold credit card, and I saw the way he was looking at people across the room, and I looked at his face, and you know, what a good looking face. And I said 'Dude, your perspective on life sucks.'"
--Mika, "Blame It On The Girls" (introduction)

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

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.
--"Richard Cory", Edward Arlington Robinson (published 1897)

Who's right?

Is Mika right, suggesting that outward appearance should mirror internal reality? Or can the suicide of Robinson's Richard Cory possibly be justified?

Since the day many years ago when a close friend referred to himself as Richard Cory (and scared the crap out of me), I have been inclined to take Robinson's perspective over Mika's. That friend is (thankfully) still among the living, and still living what most people would consider a charmed life. I know better. His life stinks, and I wouldn't wish I was in his place for anything.

We're often admonished to "count our blessings", and most of us have at least a few we can enumerate. Richard Cory amassed more than his fair share. But it's worth noting that for some people, the accumulation of "blessings" on one scale (usually, but not always, the material) is an attempt to balance a deficit on another scale...an attempt, more often than not, doomed to fail. You can lack for nothing and yet keenly feel a hole in your life where--for example--a loving companion should be: the ensuing despair can be all-consuming if you let it.

I've said often that "pain is mandatory, suffering is optional", and it's true. But that doesn't mean suffering should be dismissed. This is particularly true for those like my friend Richard Cory, whose suffering is even more strongly felt because society says that people in his position are clearly above suffering....


28 November, 2010

From the Mailbox

I'm sure we've all seen this one, from Robert Hall...it keeps popping up in my mailbox like clockwork every three months or so. Unlike most of these perpetual email circulars, it is correctly attributed--it was Hall's blog entry for February 19, 2009.

Hall is a Vietnam vet and Massachusetts State Senator. I strongly agree with some of his views, and even more strongly disagree with others...


I'm 63. Except for one semester in college when jobs were scarce and a six-month period when I was between jobs, but job-hunting every day, I've worked, hard, since I was 18. Despite some health challenges, I still put in 50-hour weeks, and haven't called in sick in seven or eight years. I make a good salary, but I didn't inherit my job or my income, and I worked to get where I am. Given the economy, there's no retirement in sight, and I'm tired. Very tired.

I'm tired of being told that I have to "spread the wealth" to people who don't have my work ethic. I'm tired of being told the government will take the money I earned, by force if necessary, and give it to people too lazy to earn it.

Okay, right away we can tell the writer is American.

"How, pray tell, did you come to that conclusion, Ken?" Mostly because I've written essays. When you write a polemic like this, you want to get one of your strongest points right out front and hook your audience. And if Hall considers this his strongest point, he surely must be American.
"Spread the wealth" is probably the dirtiest three words you can string together in American political parlance nowadays. This is in direct contrast to the rest of the Western world, where spreading wealth is generally seen to be a good thing.
It also seems to be perfectly okay in America to demonize the poor. If you're poor, you must be "lazy" and lack a "work ethic". Memo to Mr. Hall: Poor people work pretty damned hard for their money, too. They just get a hell of a lot less of it.

Google "American income gap" some time. Sources vary as to exact numbers, but everybody agrees on two things: middle class income started stagnating in the 1970s and has actually fallen over the last forty years when adjusted for inflation; and the top ten or twenty percent of income earners take home an ever-increasing piece of the pie. Many of these rich folks, I'm sorry to say it, don't work hard for their money at all. It just shows up in their bank accounts regardless of their company's performance, and the most strenuous thing they have to do in a day is attend a stakeholder's meeting.
Mr. Hall may have earned every cent of his money, and I'm not suggesting he hasn't. But others who earn less do that and more.
I have long supported some sort of maximum wage. I would suggest that, rather than assign some arbitrary number like a million bucks a year, the maximum wage in any company should be directly and irrevocably tied to that company's minimum wage. I think ten or (at most) twenty times the minimum wage is more than reasonable.

I'm tired of being told that Islam is a "Religion of Peace," when every day I can read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters, wives and daughters for their family "honor"; of Muslims rioting over some slight offense; of Muslims murdering Christian and Jews because they aren't "believers"; of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning teenage rape victims to death for "adultery"; of Muslims mutilating the genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the Qur'an and Shari'a law tells them to.

Right on. It is widely known (and yet, for some reason, not widely accepted) that Islam does not mean "peace": it means "submission". Interestingly, Christianity is also replete with demands to "submit" to the will of God. Of course, Christianity is a religion of peace...its founder was even called a "Prince of Peace". Which makes the Crusades and the Troubles and the whole idea of "holy war" (in a Christian context) rather hard to explain.

I'm tired of being told that out of "tolerance for other cultures" we must let Saudi Arabia use our oil money to fund mosques and mandrassa Islamic schools to preach hate in America, while no American group is allowed to fund a church, synagogue or religious school in Saudi Arabia to teach love and tolerance.

This is a good point. Tolerance is a core value of Canadian society, right up there with universal health care and hockey. We do have a tendency to take it too far on occasion, even expressing tolerance for those who wish us ill. That's where I draw my own line: I'm exceedingly tolerant of all but the intolerant. You believe what you want and act as you will; provided it doesn't harm me or anyone else...and provided you allow me the same courtesy...then I have no problem with you.

I'm tired of being told I must lower my living standard to fight global warming, which no one is allowed to debate.

You know, if we're not allowed to debate global warming, nobody's bothered to tell the deniers. I've never heard such a shrill and strident chorus in my life. And it always comes down to "my standard of living", ever notice that? As if you're paying for any climate change initiatives all by yourself. You see this attitude expressed in Canadian society, too. Usually the phrase used is "my tax dollars", as in, "you're using my tax dollars to fund WHAT?!" Obviously the income gap is a hell of a lot wider than I thought it was.
I don't recall anybody ever once suggesting that living standards should be lowered. What I've often seen is a call for a reduction in the accumulation of stuff. The two are seen as one and the same: they're actually close to polar opposites.

...they bought things. They just acquired. Because many people in this country, for reasons that escape me, still believe that he who has the most things when he dies, wins. Well, you're dead, fucknut. So....you didn't win.
--Lewis Black, "Rules of Enragement"

I'm tired of being told that drug addicts have a disease, and I must help support and treat them, and pay for the damage they do. Did a giant germ rush out of a dark alley, grab them, and stuff white powder up their noses while they tried to fight it off?

Yeah, actually it did. A giant germ called poverty rushed out of a dark alley and grabbed them. This poverty germ affects different people in different ways. Some people get it and throw it off with a combination of hard work and good luck. When most of the people in their immediate surroundings are also afflicted with the poverty germ, fighting it off is much, much harder. Especially when everything you see and hear reinforces the idea that if you're sick with that particular disease, it's your own fault. Maybe if we actually put some kind of concerted effort into fighting the poverty disease, the other diseases it tends to spawn wouldn't be so prevalent. But no, that'd cost you money, Mr. Hall, so we can't do that.

I'm tired of hearing wealthy athletes, entertainers and politicians of both parties talking about innocent mistakes, stupid mistakes or youthful mistakes, when we all know they think their only mistake was getting caught. I'm tired of people with a sense of entitlement, rich or poor.

Yep, I'm tired of that too. I'm tired of hearing people say they worked hard for their money and implying that other people don't. I'm tired of people who are living far beyond comfortably saying that a portion of their money shouldn't go towards making the rest of society a little more comfortable.
As for mistakes...I'm a pretty forgiving guy, for the most part, if the mistake fits my definition of mistake. A mistake, to me, is something the consequences of which couldn't have been reasonably foreseen. Crimes aren't, and should never be called, mistakes.

I'm real tired of people who don't take responsibility for their lives and actions. I'm tired of hearing them blame the government, or discrimination or big-whatever for their problems.

There's a happy medium here that Hall is missing and I have been known to miss myself. I agree that there is a disturbing lack of accountability in society. We all have frivolous lawsuit stories; in Canada at least, there is a distressing tendency to blame the government for anything that isn't perfect; many folks have an annoying habit of crying racism or sexism or what have you whenever a standard life roadblock appears in their path.
And yet...discrimination exists, and is a pervasive and insidious force. "Big-whatever" is in business to make money, and it's relatively recently been decided that a great way to make money is to outsource every job you can, reduce wages and benefits on those you can't, and force one person, wherever possible, to do the work of two or three. And government, needless to say, doesn't always have its citizens' interests at heart.

Yes, I'm damn tired. But I'm also glad to be 63. Because, mostly, I'm not going to have to see the world these people are making. I'm just sorry for my granddaughter.

I'm not. Well, in some ways, maybe--that climate change we're "not allowed to debate" will be a real and pressing predicament for her. But despite Hall's doom-mongering (which I, as you well know, am prone to as well), it must be said that we've got it pretty good. Compare the prevailing standard of living from five or six centuries ago to ours today: all but the poorest of us live like lords. That's a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.

A word of caution: the foundation of all we've attained is an abundance of cheap oil. That's running out, and its decline is the biggest reason I'm sorry for Hall's granddaughter and others of her generation. His daughter is apt to be mighty tired at the end of each day, doing things once relegated to machines. She may not have time to muse on just how tired she is, either.
But...consider the words of Harry Chapin, or rather, his grandfather. These are words I first heard as a small child, and they have stuck with me.

"My grandfather was a painter. He died at age 88. He illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry. He was looking at me one day and he said, `Harry, there's two kinds of tired. There's good-tired and there's bad-tired. Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day in which you won, but you won other people's battles, you lived other people's days, other people's agendas and dreams, and when it's all over, there's very litte you in there, and when you hit the hay at night, you toss and turn, you don't settle easy.
Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day in which you lost, but you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days. And when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy, you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say, "Take me away."
Harry, all my life I wanted to be a painter. So I painted. God, I would have loved to have been more successful. But I painted and painted. And I am good-tired, and they can take me away.'"

21 November, 2010

"The Axis of Upheaval"

Niall Ferguson suggested, a year and a half ago, that major western countries were on the cusp of going bankrupt in a crisis he said would play out over the next eighteen months. "Forget about the axis of evil", he said. "Welcome to the axis of upheaval."


(Note: Ireland said as recently as Friday that it would not negotiate a bailout from the EU or the IMF and even denied such a bailout was necessary. Must have been quite a weekend.)

How long before Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Spain crowd into the lifeboat with Ireland and Greece? How about the United Kingdom? When does the lifeboat reach capacity? And when it goes down with a colossal sucking sound, what will it drag down with it?

The idea that an entity as large as a country can go bust is terrifying to me. Talk about "too big to fail". What's interesting to me about Ireland is that as recently as three years ago, it was called a Celtic Tiger. The boom of its economy was heard around the world. And now look at it: reduced to beggar status, its unemployment rate at a whopping 14.1%, it's no more a tiger than my pet cat.
Greece is another case entirely, done to death by lavish social programs and legacy costs that anybody could have told them were unsustainable. (When the Constitution guarantees you can't be fired from a government job, your country's probably doomed. When a father's pension is automatically transferred to his daughter upon his death, and said daughter can hold that pension in perpetuity so long as she remains unmarried, your country is definitely doomed.)

We are witnessing the first stages of a slow-motion collapse that I can only hope is slow-motion enough that I'm safely dead before the endgame...




17 November, 2010

Brainwave

Rocketstar posted a few days ago on a topic which, considering my childlessness, is surprisingly near and dear to my mind and heart: education. Specifically, he said something I've long agreed with: TEACHERS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM.

There is a fundamental disagreement on the very purpose of primary and secondary education. Some people believe it should be all about jobs: about teaching every child the skills required to function in later employment. Some people believe schools should place their emphasis on rote learning and memorization; some think that's bunk. A minority of people, myself among them, believe that empathy and critical thinking should be core curriculum concepts, instilled on an ongoing, basis from an early grade.

By either standard, our education system is a failure.

Not a complete failure, by any means. There remain a fair number of students who go in one end of the education tube and come out the other not just with the credentials, but with whatever it is you believe education is supposed to engrain. Some kids have attained both knowledge and wisdom, and you hope those kids will go far in life.

But too many kids slip through the cracks. And the cracks aren't scholastic: they're almost always domestic. In other words, as Rocket so succinctly says, "[t]he problem is with the PARENTS".

It's usually, but by no means always, a cultural and class thing. There are plenty of lower-class parents who raise their kids well and take an interest in their education, just as there are middle and upper-class parents who don't give two shits...but odds are, if a child is struggling--not just with academics but with the so-called "Life Skills"--that child is poor. Either his parents are too busy trying to get food on the table to spend as much time as they should on their child's education...or (and there's no way to gild the lily on this) education is not culturally important.
Compare the showings of Asian children--whose parents generally place an extremely high value on education--with those of inner-city black children or rural hillbilly white kids. This begets a chicken-and-egg question (which came first, the success or the attitude which breeds it?) The answer to that sort of question is always attitude, and parental attitudes transfer to children long before they're of school age.
Too many parents--of all socioeconomic classes--treat schools as dumping grounds. Here, take my kid and parent him for the day. Oh, and he better get an A on that paper. Schools are forced to devote time teaching students life skills--there's that phrase again--that should, by rights, be taught at home.

This problem has bothered me for years, because it's so big. How do you change a culture? How especially do you go about changing a culture which demeans smart kids as geeks and nerds and elevates the school jock to herohood? Most importantly, how do you make parents care?

I give up. I don't think you can make parents care, and so my solution is simple: take the kids away.
Not permanently, no. I envision something like the British boarding school system, built and maintained--just as schools today are--by taxpayers. You build these schools out in the country, as far away from the inner-city slums as you can get. Perhaps they have working farms attached. Perhaps they become the centerpieces of rural villages. The idea here is to build community and to expose the kids to a way of life they've likely never suspected.

Admission would be by application at preschool age. Most parents, I suspect, would want a better life for their kids than the life they're living. Perhaps that's a naive assumption, but I think it's an assumption worth testing.

Speaking of testing, you would test the aptitudes and attitudes of each child at various stages in her education. No matter what you do, some of them will fail to make the grade academically. Maybe you stream those kids into the trades, which would also be taught on site. Regardless, ALL children would get a thorough grounding in the sort of life skills they were probably lacking at home...backed up by discipline when necessary.

This is not an ideal solution. An ideal solution would be to have all parents take a direct interest in their childrens' education. That's not happening and likely never will. So this is maybe the next best thing. Odds are, removed from a culture that encourages and in some cases actually celebrates failure, a child has a much better chance at success. By whatever definition you care to use.


A death in the family

I've often said that the people I work with are akin to family....a large, surprisingly close-knit family. If that seems to be overstating the case a tad, consider: assuming you get the proper amount of sleep (an admittedly iffy assumption in this day and age), and further assuming you work full time, you spend as much or more wake-time at work as you do at home...five days a week, anyway.
Every family has its tensions. We don't all get along all the time. But for the most part we function pretty well as a team.
And every family has its friends. In the case of our grocery store family, the friends are representatives. Most of them forge long-term bonds with us their clients. The best of them are eventually seen as extensions of the family.
Rick Kent, our Parmalat representative since our store opened a decade ago, was such a man. One of the most gregarious souls I've ever met, he was the epitome of friendly professionalism. We'd see him at least once a month, and he always had a funny story to tell. He was one of the truly great representatives, in that he wasn't afraid to call his own company out whenever their decisions made no sense whatsoever. (Which--if you listened to him--was pretty much every day.)
Rick used to drive a truck around to all his stores, first writing an order and then building it. He'd chatter to himself all the while, keeping up a running monologue and calling himself "Ricky".
Hey, Ricky, those warehouse dweebs didn't put any 580s on the truck, pretty stupid, eh Ricky? Yeah, pretty stupid all right there, Ricky, stupid for sure, and don't forget the 604s, Ricky, you can't forget those or Ken will be mad, and we don't want him mad, now, Ricky, do we? No we don't.
...just loud enough to be heard. It was entertaining as all hell waiting to see what was going to spill out of Ricky's mouth next.
I still remember him telling me, years and years ago, that he wasn't going to leave much of an order for Thanksgiving because "you can't stuff a turkey with yogurt." That became a running joke with us. As Thanksgiving approached three years later, I told Rick he was in the wrong line of business at this time of year.
"How's that, Ken?"
"Y'oughta be selling popcorn. Haven't you heard? Everybody stuffs their turkeys with popcorn now."
He'd probably heard the joke--it's old--but he obligingly played straight man. "Popcorn? How does that work?"
"You stuff the bird with popcorn, see, and then you cook it, and when the oven door flies open and the turkey's ass sails across the room...it's done."

Wednesday is my usual day off, but I've been known to go in on Wednesdays now and again to complete things I don't get a chance to do on other days of the week, like shelf relines. One Wednesday--and it bothers me I can't even remember when exactly it was, early summer, I think--I was merrily relining away when what to my wandering eye should appear but Rick, burbling and babbling up the dairy aisle. He caught sight of me and smiled and said he was in a day early because he had a doctor's appointment the next day and holidays the next week. He was goin' fishin'...a popular Ricky-activity. We swapped fishin' stories--the time my dad caught a fully skeletonized pike, the time he hauled in a largemouth ----THIS BIG---- and then he went on his way and I never saw him again and now he's dead.

A curtain of privacy descended very quickly once word leaked out that the doctor's appointment had gone spectacularly badly. I foraged around for details not out of any desire to publicize them but because I was concerned. I'm one of those people who would rather hear bad news, even horrible news, than no news. I could understand completely why his company was so tight-lipped, but it rankled. Rampaging rumours didn't help matters. Rick had had emergency surgery. He was home, recovering, and would probably pull through. Then I found out--on Facebook, no less--that he was gone. From diagnosis to death in something like six months.

I never got the chance to say goodbye. I don't even know for sure what felled him.

It doesn't seem like I have much right to hurt here, but damnit, I'm claiming what right I do have. Rick was what I've seen called a HOAG...a Hell Of A Guy. He touched a great many lives in a great many positive ways. And now he's gone. Death I can accept, grudgingly--like I have a choice. But I would have loved the opportunity to share just a sliver of his pain and thereby lessened it a tiny fraction. If I've learned anything at all in my short time on this planet, it' s that shared pain is lessened and shared joy is increased.

Unable to share the pain of Rick's impending death, I will at least go on Saturday to a memorial service to share in the joy of Rick's life. A life well lived, but far too short.




14 November, 2010

Life Skills

Like many grocery stores, we serve as a work placement for kids in special education. For reasons unknown, all of the teens who spend a school year at the Chop do so in my frozen/dairy department, under my tutelage and supervision. On 'down' days, I ask myself what, exactly, this says about the job I do. Then I remind myself that I'm not just a stockboy, and even if I was, the people I work with are what make the job enjoyable.

(Quick spiritual/linguistic aside: that word 'enjoyable' is one of many English words that people rattle off without really examining. It's interesting if you break it down into its component parts. The prefix EN- means "entry or conversion into the specified state". JOY we know, and crave, even if, or maybe especially if, we don't experience enough of it. And-ABLE means just what it says. So when you say something is enjoyable, you mean it is able to be infused with joy. That hints at an underlying Great Truth: nothing is a joy in and of itself: it's up to you what is "en-joy-able". Or as my stepdad used to tell me, "Life is what you make it.")

I have to admit that when I found out mentoring 'challenged' kids was part of my job description, I balked a little. I wasn't sure what to make of it, or even if I could make anything at all.
I couldn't have guessed, a decade ago, that this aspect of the job would be half as fulfilling as it has turned out to be. Or that I would be told at the end of every school year what a wonderful job I had done with that year's student.

I owe my brother-in-law a debt of gratitude for all of this. Eva's brother Jim is a larger-than-life man and one of the funniest people I've ever met. Like his sister and just about everyone else I've met in that family, he's a person of many talents, not all of which are immediately discernable. You look at Jim, you think mechanic, and he's a damned good one. But he's also a Life Skills coach for developmentally delayed children. He loves them dearly and he makes a huge difference in their lives.
When I told him, nearly a decade ago, that I'd be doing some coaching of my own, and was unsure about it, he said something I've never forgotten. "Just treat these kids like kids", he said. "Don't talk down to them. Don't treat them like retards."

Privately, I was skeptical. Well, aren't they? Aren't they retards? I honestly wasn't sure. I'd never knowingly met a retard (although up til then it had been an easy slur to throw around). That realization--I've never met one, but I seem as if I hate them--made me think about the disgust I'd once harboured concerning gays. That was before I found out my best friend was gay. Maybe these kids are like Jim, or Eva, I thought. Maybe there's lots more to them than meets the eye.

To this day, I'm not sure what labels are affixed to these teens before I ever meet them. I don't care. Following Jim's advice, I have tried my damnedest to treat them the way I'd treat any new hire. For the most part, it has worked, and worked wonders, even if (as has usually been the case) the kid isn't employable by the end of the school year.

Case in point: Justin. He was a little runt of a kid that, physically at least, reminded me of a younger me. Looked just like your stereotypical '80s nerd, Coke-bottle glasses at all.
The trick with Justin was to harness his attention. He was the very definition of scatterbrained: give him one task to do and he'd interrupt it every chance he got to go and do something else. Then he'd interrupt that and who knows where he'd end up. Now, hell, I have days like that myself, but this was excessive.
We did discover, however, that Justin had a knack for fixing things. Things nobody else in the store could fix, he'd take one look at and presto. It was a little unnerving, considering I can break things with both hands closed and my eyes tied behind my back, but fixing them is beyond my ken, so to speak.
Writing my end-of-year review for Justin, I noted that a grocery store was not a suitable environment for him, and suggested a factory job or maybe an auto shop. I'd talked to Justin myself throughout the year and confirmed that an auto service center was where he really wanted to be. He'd told his teachers this, of course; they didn't listen. Of course. But they listened to me: I ran into Justin on the bus last year and he was gainfully and happily employed at a service center and looking to get some credentials.

Or take last year's student, Brandon. He was distinctly average as these kids go. Some days he'd complete everything at an employable standard with little supervision; other days you'd have to babysit him and correct a host of simple mistakes. It was really frustrating, because he'd do a task correctly six times in a row and completely flub the seventh.
On his lunch breaks, Brandon would sketch. In seconds, he could generate an astonishing piece of artwork, and given half an hour, he'd create something that should be hanging in a gallery some place. It became clear to me very quickly that my job here was to keep him performing his job at a minimally acceptable level so that he'd stick out the year. Every chance I got, I would encourage his artistry. He didn't think he was all that special. The ability just came naturally to him and he didn't have to think when he had a piece of blank paper in front of him. Thinking was painful for him, so you can understand why he'd retreat into his mental canvas at every opportunity, but even so he didn't consider his artwork anything to be proud of. We all worked to correct that: every person who saw him sketch told him he could make a living off it if he wanted to. I don't know if all that encouragement worked. I hope it did, I really do. Brandon came in two weeks after his last shift and gave me a Tim Horton's gift card (from his teacher) and a cartoon-sketch I still have somewhere. That sketch might be worth something someday. Check that: it's worth a great deal, right now.

There has only been one student I've had to turn away, and that was only because he was physically unable to perform the job. A milk crate was too heavy for him. Every other student, even the ones who have failed, has been a success story. But two of them really stand out.

Michael came to us four years ago, if I recall correctly. He was a tall drink of water who dressed like a gangsta and, as I was told more than once, acted like one too. He'd already been in trouble with the law and I got the sense that Price Chopper was a narrow and greasy tightrope he'd have to walk if he wanted to go straight. I had real and sincere misgivings about this kid, but did my best to mask them. Talking to him, I learned that Michael came from a bad, bad home. His dad was abusive and his mom was a dishrag and his sister had been kicked out of the house at least twice. Work represented an escape for him and he threw himself into it.
These students usually work two shifts a week. Their work placement is a school day for them, and so if school's not in session, they're not at work. Imagine my shock to hear Michael, the week before March break, say this:
"That ad you've got next week looks brutal. I can come in if you want."
That floored me. What kid would willingly give up any of his March break to come in and work for free? We couldn't take him up on it--in the unlikely event he injured himself, we'd be in a world of trouble with Workers' Comp--but we resolved then and there to hire him on at the end of the school year. And we did, and he worked out so well we eventually moved him to full time night crew. Not long after we'd done that, somebody neglected to lock up the cigarette delivery and I guess the temptation to make a quick buck was too much for Michael. He and another guy on that crew kited the smokes out the door and next day they themselves were kited out the door and charged to boot.
I took that really hard. Yeah, the kid had made some bad choices--knocked a girl up at seventeen, for one--and he came from a family that made trailer trash look lordly...but damnit, there was a good kid in there somewhere and I'd spent over a year teasing it out. To have him step so boldly off the straight and narrow felt like a betrayal and it made me feel like a grade-A failure.

The 2010-11 prospect's name is Nathaniel, and he insists on that. Not Nathan, not Nate or Nat. Despite the fact that most of these teens have easily subverted my first impressions, my mind insists on making them, and I disliked Nathaniel on sight. He's 16 but looks easily 20: 6'4", 220 lbs, with a muscular build and a face that had, at least when I first met him, all the expression of a wind-lashed cliff. I always make a point of asking, when the kid's not in earshot, what issues I should be prepared to deal with, and in this case I was told that Nathaniel had a problem with anger management. And he didn't want to work in a grocery store.
"Really," I said, stunned almost speechless. "And you're putting him in a customer service position he doesn't want to be in?"
"He's one of our higher-functioning students," I was told, "and...call it a hunch. I think he might do well."
The night before Nathaniel started, I talked myself to sleep, wondering how best to manage a kid with anger management issues in a job where misplaced anger could easily lead to a lawsuit. Jim spoke up in my mind: "Treat these kids like kids." I decided, tentatively, to pretend there was no problem, and then try and nip it quick if I could see one developing.
As is usually the case, the teacher spent the first day helicoptering over her student. I'd give Nathaniel a task to complete, starting off really easy, and she'd hop right in and try and micromanage it. I could see Nathaniel glowering, clearly resenting the interference, and so I took the teacher aside and told her point-blank to go check on her other student at a different store. "I think I've got this well in hand", I told her.
"There", I said to Nathaniel after she'd left. "I've got her out of your hair. Now let's work this skid of yogurt together."
He smiled, the first one I'd seen on his face. Up to then, I didn't even know he could.
The next day, Ms. Busybody came in again and I shooed her away before she and Nathaniel could even see each other.
That was two weeks ago, and Nathaniel is already light-years ahead of where most kids are at the end of their terms in June. The other day he went and stocked milk without being asked, having never done it before, and did it as well as I could have. Last Friday was a P.A. day; echoing Michael, he told us he could come in, if we wanted him to.
"I thought you didn't want to work here", I told him, half-joking.
"I didn't," he said, "but that was before I found out it was fun."

Last Thursday, I approached my boss and we stood watching Nathaniel work for a minute. "If you're looking to hire," I said, "you could do worse than that kid." "Yeah," he said, "I've been watching him. Talk to his teacher on Monday and see if we're allowed to hire him before the school year's up."
Worst case, Nathaniel will work for free on two weekdays and be paid for weekend shifts. Best case, we can spring him out of school entirely. And once again, my first impression has been proven 150% wrong. Yeah, the kid has anger management issues...at school. Know what? Lots of kids do. It comes from them being talked down to and treated like retards.


11 November, 2010

Heroes

I'm a little late for Remembrance Day--how many people spare a thought for it after the eleventh hour?--but, as somebody who believes every day should be Remembrance Day, I don't think this is at all out of place.

10 November, 2010

Memories, misty watercolour memories...

What's the earliest memory you can recall? Better yet, that you can date with any precision?

When I was younger, I used to tell people I could remember watching Sesame Street when I came home from the hospital after being born. Utter nonsense, of course. The hospital visit I was referring to actually happened when I was three or four--the first of a few eye surgeries I've had. And I don't remember coming home from that any more, if I ever did.

My closest friend in high school once admitted to me he couldn't remember a single thing before grade five. That gobsmacked me: I have vivid memories of everything from kindergarten on up. I can name every teacher I ever had--admittedly, it took me a few minutes of thought to recall Mrs. Capstick, who taught Junior Kindergarten, and Mrs. Harris, who taught Senior. But geez, there are days from grades two and three I can practically relive. I can tell you the name of my first crush (Alison Edmed, first grade) and the name of my first love (Laura Baldessara, grade three). I shared Laura (and her friends Sonia, Catherine and Anna) with my friend Gordon...for a period of months we'd all play kissing tag every recess. No jealousy accrued, incidentally, although all of us knew it was "supposed to"...the underlying easygoing tone of that experience has, now that I think about it, gone a long way towards shaping my current attitudes about love and sex. To this day, I wonder what would have happened had I attended that school another three or five years.
One thing I find interesting--now--is that playground-monitoring teachers in 1979 didn't give two hoots about what we were doing. They thought it was 'cute'. Today, I suspect...no, I know...we'd all be expelled. Which is patently ridiculous. Nobody was coerced into the game...many other Grade Three girls and a couple of other boys would occasionally join in the fun, but it was always their prerogative to play or not.
There was this one time we all faded off into the field that abutted the school property and swapped clothes on a lark. Everybody was dressed 'boyishly' that day, so I wasn't presented with anything I didn't know how to put on. As I recall I ended up wearing Catherine's clothes, since we were closest in size. Gordon and Laura swapped duds; Sonia and Anna, who were both tiny pixie little things, donned each other's outfits.

That was an odd thing. We knew, somehow, that what we were doing was--well, wrong isn't exactly the word I'm looking for here. Maybe "fraught". It was a Big Deal, we all knew it...but, speaking for myself at least, I didn't exactly know why. Even a year later, I don't think we would have had the requisite levels of naive innocence to pull that off. And ten years later, if something like that had happened to me it would have rapidly turned into the mother of all Penthouse Letters.

Just picture a current school administration's reaction to that little escapade. Expelled wouldn't even cover it: Gordon and I would be charged, I'm sure of it. Never mind that it was the girls, Laura and Catherine especially, who came up with the idea and dared us all to do it. Never mind that nobody touched anyone else inappropriately or even caught a flash of skin. And don't even imagine the truth: the next day, everything went back to normal, as if the cross-dressing episode had never happened.

Caught up in the memory riptide there for a minute...


Going back even further: The earliest memory I can precisely date: three weeks before I turned four, I can remember standing at the top of the stairs in my house and bargaining with my mother over the right to suck my thumb. She eventually told me I could do so, but only until I was four. Why I should remember that, and not the taste of the hot mustard Mom daubed on my thumb to help me hold up my end of that particular bargain, I have no idea.

I remember music. Ours was a musical household, and I came by a deep and abiding love for melody honestly. I used to prance around the house to the Bee Gees, Boney M., and Tony Orlando and Dawn. The first song I taught myself by ear was Neil Young's "Heart of Gold"...ranked number three, incidentally, on the list of the 50 Greatest Canadian Tracks of All Time". I knew there was a reason I love my country's music.

I have earlier memories, but I can't date them. There is, for example, the First Nightmare, the archetype from which all my childhood nightmares were drawn. I was probably a few months younger when that 'mare foaled itself. Most of my earliest memories involve something scary (to a three-year old, certainly not to an adult). I was terrified of many things; that clock, which for reasons lost in the sands of time I christened "The Herald Call"; blue spruces (you try being chucked under an ominously leaning, thousand-foot tall and unnaturally blue tree at an impressionable age and see where it leads you); and perhaps most interestingly, my Grandma's room divider (which I dubbed an OOM-di-ba-da, almost like it came out of a Discovery Channel special, or something). Again, it was the sheer height of the thing which disturbed me. Did it have to touch the ceiling?
And, of course, the closet. God alone knew what was in there, and He wouldn't dare open it after nightfall. Into my TWENTIES, I would reflexively shut that door before retiring for the night. By that age, I knew damn well that nightmares don't seep out of closetes. I also knew they couldn't if the door was well and firmly CLOSED.

My childhood had its moments of nastiness--whose doesn't? But it was also filled with warmth and joy and love. Mom used to regularly bake things for my school class. Can't do that now, either, lest little Molly over there catch one whiff of a peanut and keel over dead.

Oh, to be a child again...

09 November, 2010

And I was going to post something optimistic...

I was in a pretty good mood today. I'm not sure why. It went beyond my usual Tuesday mood--I love Tuesdays for the same reason you normal people love Fridays, i.e., I'm off Wednesdays. But today I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty damned good.

Then I got home. And read this
Bobby Tillman, 18, was kicked, stomped, and punched to death by four teenage thugs. His crime? He was "the next man who walks by."
Seems there was a fight in the aftermath of one of those out-of-control house parties that are all too common nowadays. A girl slugged a guy, and he declined to hit her back. He said, however, that he would hit the next man who walked by. That chanced to be Bobby Tillman. Three others joined in the attack; the rest of the crowd, apparently, stood around and cheered.

I'm not sure what sickens me more: the random attack, or that it was widely viewed as some kind of game.

I'm getting increasingly liberal and softhearted as I age, but when it comes to incidents such as this, I remain just as far right as I ever was. These four should die. Preferably painfully, but I'd settle for quickly. Even thinking about murder dehumanizes a person; anyone who actually goes through with this kind of pointless atrocity has lost any vestige of humanity, as far as I'm concerned. Human rights are for human beings.

And while we're on the subject, I'm positive I'm going to read or hear in coming days about how Bobby Tillman was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." This expression needs to die a quick death, too. Bobby Tillman was doing nothing wrong. He wasn't anywhere he shouldn't have been at any time he shouldn't have been there.

I actually had to remind myself that nobody I know would be a party to this madness; that most 18-year-olds wouldn't ever consider doing such a thing. There's a reason this is front page news. Mind you, given how impersonal the world is getting, I doubt this will be the last attack of its kind I hear about.






07 November, 2010

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Why, oh why are people so dumb?
This week's big special is a 3-pack of Philadelphia Cream Cheese bricks for $4.97. This would be a fair deal even in the U.S.; here, where a single 250g brick regularly retails for $3.79, it's rather incredible.
These come on sale once a year, and the first thing I do each time they're on--before we open on the first day of the ad--is construct a sign saying

"ATTENTION CUSTOMERS: The 3-pack Philadelphia Cream Cheese is in the bunker at the front of aisle 8"

I then strategically place this sign such that it blocks the individual bricks of Philadelphia cream cheese completely. I then sit back and observe the fun.

WHERE IS AISLE EIGHT?

This question comes up a minimum of five times each day. I hear variants when other items are on sale, some of them even stupider: "where is the center aisle?"..."where is the produce department?" That one boggles the mind considering that in every store I've ever visited, produce is the first thing you see when you walk in the door.
There are a shocking number of people who have apparently never been in a grocery store in their lives. Sometimes it's all I can do not to say "aisle eight would be the aisle with the big eight over it". Instead I smile and lead them gamely to the bunker of cream cheese and its REGULAR ONLY" sign, then wait for the inevitable "where is the light?"
I will gently point to the REGULAR ONLY and apologize. The customer-slash-dumbbell will retrieve her cream cheese, like as not ignoring the LIMIT 4 PHILADELPHIA CREAM CHEESE PER FAMILY PER DAY signs (signs, multiple) deployed around the bunker. That I'll let the cashiers deal with, just so I don't look like some kind of grocery Nazi. It's entirely possible I will soon be summoned to till three to (a) inform the customer of the limit (because cashiers evidently lie about things like that, just to piss customers off); (b) inform the customer that yes, there were signs stating said limit (sometimes I'll even have to run back and grab one, because evidently I lie about things like that too); and (c) grab the six or eight additional 3-packs the customer has picked up and return them to the bunker.

Whereupon I'll probably find six or nine or twelve individual bricks dumped willy-nilly amongst the 3-packs. I'll return those to the shelf, reflecting that whoever placed them in the bunk actually had to move a sign out of the way to even see them.

I don't get it. I just don't. WHY DON'T PEOPLE READ SIGNS? This has been a pet peeve of mine for going on ten years now, and it seems to be getting worse, not better. You get the odd person who reads signs a little too closely--let's just say that the size you've got marked on the sign had better be the exact size of the product--but to most people, it's as if the sign's written in hieroglyphics.

Every grocery store in the city starts their flyers on Friday. Including us. Every Thursday, without fail, we get people coming in to the store, next week's flyer in hand, expecting to score tomorrow's deals. Not just some people....many people. The problem here is that the flyers start landing in mailboxes as early as Tuesday each week. Well, no, actually the problem is that people don't notice the SALE EFFECTIVE FRIDAY TO THURSDAY, with handy-dandy dates, at the bottom of each and every flyer. More words. The post-literate society has arrived...


03 November, 2010

Memo to the United States of America

Re: midterms

You flunked.

That is all.

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

No, wait, that's not all. I watched some of the victory high tea parties last night. They made me think of my cousin, who once bragged to me that he got 9/100 on a test. Yes, bragged. The gloat was unmistakable. To a brown-nosing scholarly type like me, this behaviour was inexplicable. Just as American behaviour was yesterday.

Barack Obama must shoulder a good deal of blame: I'll give you Usians that. His health care bill took a horrible situation and somehow made it worse. He's looked for consensus when he should have been governing with an iron fist, and opted for the fist when a velvet glove would have been preferable. And there's no doubt the economy sucks rocks--always a bad sign for anyone in power, no matter the country. Furthermore, Obama made the critical error of referring to voters as "irrational". That's rule number one in politics: DON'T DO THAT, EVER EVER EVER. The craziest loon you ever did see is completely rational in his own mind, thank you very much.

All that said, do you folks really think you stand to benefit from the "message" you so bluntly sent? Obama's job has just gone from impossible to "why even bother". He's still got some moderate Republicans to work with (if he can), but now he's also got what in essence is a third party, one with little experience and an outsider's antagonism to government in any form--which should make being in government an interesting proposition.

And let's just look at what Americans claim to be so peeved off about, shall we?

  • Jobs. That, to me, is a legitimate concern...about as legitimate as concerns get. That said, were they expecting Obama to just give them a job? Of course not...that'd be socialism. They were probably expecting Obama to somehow create conditions that would allow for resuscitation in
The economy. Yeah, good luck with that. As I've argued here before, the boom times are over and done with; barring some kind of miracle we're unlikely to see their like again. No matter who's in power or what he/she/it does. Why do I say this? Many reasons, but this is the biggest (literally!):







  • Taxes. Apparently they're too high. Trying to unravel the American Paradox here bedevils the brain. They don't want government--at all--except when they do, and when they do they insist on not paying for it. Every government service and infrastructure project is, I guess, supposed to pay for itself automagically.
  • Government spending. Trust me, the Republicans would have spent--will spend--at least as much. They have to. That's how you keep the party going. The Tea-types want to cut, cut, cut spending. Great idea...until it affects Jack and Jill Frontporch. This kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma is a defining characteristic of a predicament...which, as I said last month, is precisely what America finds itself in. Its biggest problem is that it only thinks it has a problem.
  • Health care. Don't get me started. This one, and this one alone, is Obama's baby almost exclusively, and you can't drink this baby cute. Even so, the previous system, wherein thousands of people went bankrupt every year to pay for health care, was untenable and, in Canadian eyes, barbaric. Nevertheless, it seems to be what Americans want to go back to. Irrational? You betcha. (But don't say that out loud!)
All bets are off over the next two years. The U.S. government has been effectively paralyzed. I have a sinking feeling that this falls into the category of "be careful what you wish for...you just might get it."