30 January, 2013

Selfish

I'm glad we don't have kids.

Except when I'm not.

I'm not when I read the escapades of friends' kids on Facebook and think to myself my life could do with some of that entertainment.  There are two kids in particular, an old schoolmate's five and seven year olds, whose endless antics bring a smile to my face. These two children are precocious beyond words Their minds range far and wide, their tongues labouring mightily to keep up, and their Mom is diligent about recording the craziness that is her house. Then there's my stepsister's daughter...from birth to teen the quintessential "good kid". Yeah, I'd have liked one or two of those.

There's no doubt kids enrich your life the same way, for instance, our dogs do, only about a hundredfold. Unless they turn out bad. No doubt some of them do, despite parents' best efforts. That scares me: the thought that no matter what I do, my kid could grow up to be a thief or a killer is very frightening.

Never mind that: children of a certain age scare me. I'm afraid to even look at babies wrong, let alone pick them up, because as adorable as they are, wriggle wriggle splat.  I try to solve problems with words, and I'm lost just trying to imagine how to cope with a toddler to whom those words are nothing more than noise.

I'm well past caring about the money that children cost--it's an investment that obviously repays several times over. But I have to admit the life upheaval is disturbing to even contemplate. How do you young parents survive on no sleep at all? I get less than eight hours three nights running and my body just shuts down. Where do you find spouse time? How do you cope with every task involving young children taking three times longer than it would without them?

And the unpredictability. Some of you parents seem to relish it and no doubt the pleasant surprises are numerous and memorable. The unpleasant ones, though...nobody talks about the flushed rolls of TP that flooded the house, or the broken arm, or that party your teenager threw that resulted in several thousand dollars worth of damage and some priceless heirlooms destroyed.

Hell, if I clean up dog shit, I vomit. Baby shit, I'm told, is worse. (We have a deal in this house: on the rare occasions our dogs break housetraining or the B.B-cat barfs up a kitten...I clean the puke, Eva cleans the shit. This is because if Eva cleans puke, she'll puke herself, and that's just cruel; if I clean shit, I gotta clean puke, too. Not fair.)

To be honest, these are all concerns I raised prior to going through the failed adoption process. Ten years on, some things haven't changed. I still like my life relatively predictable. Some would say boring, and that's okay. I still get my pleasant surprises, only I get them from my wife and my friends and I like it that way. Any insomnia I suffer is self-imposed, not kid-imposed.

All this is so...selfish of me. I've tried to work past it, but it doesn't want to go away.

 I love kids...at a remove. I think the social worker that rejected us grasped that and couldn't articulate it. That rejection still stings, because I think I would have made a good dad and I know Eva would have made a great mom. But in order for me to be that great dad, I would have had to reinvent myself almost from the ground up...something I wasn't quite ready to do at the time, even if I convinced myself otherwise.

I still feel selfish about all this. Guilty. In my low moments, it's the biggest thing that makes me think I've failed at life. (I don't feel that way at all...except when I do.)

We're childless by choice at this point and (mostly) glad to be. But there are times when I wish things had turned out differently...


28 January, 2013

Body Issues

"You know how I feel about bodies? Think of the best Christmas/birthday present you ever got in your life. Something that made you cry, you were so happy to get it. Got a picture of that thing in your mind? Good. Now...what was it wrapped in?
Who cares, right? That's how I feel about bodies."
--Me, on entirely too many occasions to count

"A waist is a terrible thing to mind."
--Tom Wilson

I keep hoping that women, of my acquaintance and otherwise, will eventually learn to stop worrying and love their bodies. This is not one of my more realistic hopes, alas. At least in part because too many men of my acquaintance and otherwise insist on judging women by their covers. Hell, we're told not to do that with books...you think maybe we shouldn't be doing it with living, breathing beings? You think? Just maybe?

In all my life, I can count the number of ugly women I have met on the fingers of one hand. Three of those women were conventionally beautiful...one was actually a model, and if you didn't know that by looking at her you'd soon find out from listening to her. An honest-to-God moustache on the lady wouldn't have repulsed me as much as her personality did. Cue the Northern Pikes:

 Another of those ugly women was in her late twenties when I knew her, but she acted about twelve most of the time. She considered herself God's gift to men, and couldn't understand why men didn't feel the same way. I felt terrible for her, because she reminded me so much of me.

When I was a teenager, I was not exactly a rippling bundle of exotic man-flesh. (I'm still not, but I wasn't then, either.) But back then, internally, I was a mess. I was Mr. Nice Guy to any passing woman, and we all know where nice guys finish, right? Thing was, I knew I was ugly, knew it with an ironclad certainty. Glasses, acne, startling lack of musculature, and next to no social graces...what's not to detest?
Those insecurities wrote themselves in permanent marker on my personality, and so I was at least as ugly as I knew myself to be. Fast forward a quarter century, and outwardly not much has changed. I've more than doubled in weight and the acne's gone...but the misshapen teeth are still there (fixing that this year, hopefully) and I'm every bit the absent-minded professor I was back then. I'm still never going to make the cover of Playgirl--if there even is such a thing anymore.  (Quick check: yep.)

Difference: I no longer care.

I'm not saying that because I'm married to a wonderful woman. (Though I am.) Actually, what I'm saying is that my slowly abating insecurity was what allowed me to meet my wife. Ask  her--I was pretty damned insecure even after marriage...but if you ask me, I was considerably less so than I had been before we met.

I still have flashes of insecurity, momentary attacks of self-doubt, and so I'm sure it's pointless, not to mention hypocritical, to think women should just [snap] feel better about themselves. But "you teach what you have to learn", and in that light...

There's a commercial for Herbal Magic on television that offends me to my core. It's your typical success stories..."I went from a size 22 to a size 10, and I feel great"...but they take it waaay too far. There's a man who says something along the lines of "I can now present my ideas to upper management, and I'm a better employee"--yeah, because fat people have no ideas and are crappy employees, right? That's followed by a woman who says she's lost some trifling amount of weight and then gushes "I've got me back! I've got my life back!" I want to gain a couple of hundred pounds just so I can SIT on people like those two.

If your health is an issue, of course you should try and  lose weight. Bear in mind, though, that obesity, in and of itself, MAY be maintaining your health. (That article needs a wide, wide audience...our society deems it fair and funny to mock the overweight. It makes me sick to my stomach.)

There's this incredibly widespread belief that thinner equals sexier. Women go on crash diets to "look good" for their weddings--when they look fantastic already, certainly fantastic enough to attract a fiance. It's sad. And stupid, as Pink says. And it's NOT universal. Google "Reubenesque"...or go to Africa...and you'll discover that there are places and times where skeletons aren't sexy.

I'll keep banging my head against this here belly and bouncing off. Boing...boing...boing...The fact is, beauty is an internal thing. A beautiful and joyful spirit makes you beautiful. We're all gonna be ugly on the outside someday. Some of us are ugly on the inside already...try not to have a head start on the uglifcation, okay?







23 January, 2013

Hugs

It's cold outside.

Nothing out of what used to be the ordinary, mind you: it's -13 right now, wind chill -22, and people in Winnipeg (-26/-38), not to mention Rankin Inlet (-30/-48) are laughing bitterly at me. But we haven't seen this kind of cold snap since 2009. I'm double-layered, with jeans over jogging pants and two sweaters, and I'm still a little nippy. I'm thinking I'll have a nap since I have to work at five in the morning tomorrow (forecasted windchill for my walk to work is -28, oh joy, oh bliss). Thoughts of flannels and cuddle-Tuxing (the Peach will burrow and give what warmth she can, too) bring on thoughts of other warm things.. Fireplaces. Disney World (18 right now, which is five degrees warmer than my living room). Hot tubs and saunas and the pea soup I had for lunch which is just starting to unstick itself from my insides. Hugs.

Hugs are nice warm things. Not those awful fake letter-A hugs, the ones social protocol forces you to give when you really don't want to, but number 1 hugs, the kind with real affection in them. I'm not talking sexual affection, either (though there's nothing wrong with that); just the kind of good-friend hug that you really don't see enough of any more. Like winters, number 1 hugs are on the decline.

Obviously part of the problem is our hypersexualized culture that elevates every least form of intimacy into something perverted. I honestly don't know whether I should weep or scream over the fact that a teacher, for example, can't hug a child any more, no matter how badly the child might need a hug. That goes at least triple if it's a male teacher (the child's gender doesn't matter in that case)...obviously a pedophile, right?

Such bullshit. I had several male teachers over my scholastic career, the first one in grade two. Mr. Allard stands out in my memory for two things: one, he brought a Commodore PET to school, introducing his class to computers at a time when they were barely a ripple; two, he was liberal with his hugs. The same could be said of Mr. Sackville, in grade five. Caring, compassionate hugs were there for the taking when you needed one, and nobody needs hugs quite like grade five kids, who think they're all grown up until something grown-up comes along and regresses them to toddlerhood.

Then, grade 13 and Uncle Rog.

The Rev. Roger McCombe (and here I can just imagine the howls of outrage--teacher and priest? Kiddy-diddler for sure!) was among the most profoundly decent men I've ever had the pleasure to know, and far and away the best teacher I had in a long line of good teachers. I wrote about the man here and I didn't even scratch the surface. He touched countless lives in countless positive ways. Among the many sayings of his that resonates all these years later:

The shortest distance between two people is a hug.

I've always been a hugger, and while I respect the boundaries of those of my friends who aren't, I can't help but feel they're missing out. For all my love of words, a hug transcends any word in any language. It offers commiseration and sympathy better than any utterance can. It gives strength. It absorbs pain and radiates love...in precisely the required measure. You can draw nearly endlessly on a single hug for emotional sustenance, and a returned hug doesn't just add power, more like cubes it.

Hugs are free. They cost nothing. But every person hugged is enriched, and every hug enriches the hugger. So give your loved one, your friend, your sister, your Dad--give 'em all hugs, and watch your world become a brighter place.

Oh....and hug your enemy too. He won't know what hit him--no weapon you can wield will be half as effective.

20 January, 2013

Scrabbling for Blog Topics

There is some controversy in the Scrabble world. Seems that the language has outpaced the game, and that letters like Q and Z, once the bane of a rack, are now easily played and thus overvalued.

(In case you haven't played in awhile, qi (the Chinese life force) and za (short for 'pizza' are acceptable plays now.)

I've been playing Scrabble since I was about six. I am nowhere near tournament-level...I average a bingo every third game or so, whereas professional players can expect a minimum of two per game. But as a Scrabble dabbler, I feel the need to weigh in.

In family games, we very rarely used the dictionary because the rule was you had to know the definition of any word you played. Once you leave the familial shelter, you'll find yourself easy prey to people playing monstrosities like cwm (the Welsh term for a glaciated valley). Every single day somebody plays a word I've never seen before in my life--in the last 24 hours I've had wud and lagered used against me. I look up these words whenever they appear--not to challenge, since online Scrabble and its derivatives like Words With Friends will not allow you to play an invalid word--but to increase my vocabulary. Wud is a neat word: it's Scottish for "insane". My reaction to lagered was visceral, not just because it looks ridiculous--watch out, you've been verbed--but because my friend Craig scored a freakin' bingo with that word. Turns out that 'to lager' means to cold-store yeast in the world of beer-making. No wonder I didn't know that word, considering how beer tastes like moose-piss and all. But I'd be wud not to use either of those words next time I have the opportunity, um, wouldn't I?

I realize that word choice are arbitrary and that if something appears in a dictionary, it's a word. But...za? Seriously? Since that's obviously a contraction of pizza, it should be spelled 'za and thus an unacceptable Scrabble play. My scruples won't prevent me from using za to rack up points, but I feel a little guilty about it. It feels like sanctioned cheating. Oddly enough, I'm okay with qi, with the proviso that the q really shouldn't be worth 10 points any more.

More bothersome are the words that haven't made the dictionary, but are in common use. Some of them are a tad rude, like twink and shart--but you can drop an F-bomb or a C-word in a Scrabble game with impunity. Fuck is actually not a bad play--lay it down on a triple word and you've got yourself as many as 51 points. I've had opponents play nigger and yid and other racial slurs--hey, they may be ugly words, but they're words. A couple of weeks ago, I actually played jism for quite a few points. (Interestingly, the word 'gangbang' has at various times been deemed acceptable and off-limits.)

Zen has long bothered me. Supposedly it's a proper noun and as such unplayable. Actually,while it does refer to a school of Buddhism (and 'buddha' is a playable word!), it need not be capitalized in English. If stoner lingo like za is fine, then zen should be, too. Peace out, dude.

Never mind that: the word 'razzmatazz" is good to go on a Scrabble board...if you can find a way to play it. There's only one z tile and two blank tiles, so good luck with that, 

The word pwn has made the dictionaries, but it's not an acceptable Scrabble play yet. Ditto teh, which I still think is just plain stupid...but again, stupid words are still words, just like stupid people are still people.

If I was in charge of changing the letter values, I'd definitely drop the worths of q and z...but there are letters that I think should be rated higher, chief among them U and V. 

I hate Vs. They invariably show up in a rack otherwise afflicted with vowelitis. There are no two letter words with a V as either the first or second letter. I find them among the hardest letters to get rid of. And u? Yes, it's a vowel, but not a common one. It seems to me absurd that a u and an e are worth the same single solitary point. 

One last rule change: an automatic twenty points for anyone who gets a rack, as I seem to at least once per match, looking anything close to this:

AEIIIUU

Swap, swap, swap. I'd much rather draw out a rack like

CFJPQXZ

--find me an open i and I have pix, or an o and there's cox, an a and there's zax for a whole lotta points...not to mention neither the j (jo) the q (qi) or the z (za) pose any kind of problem to play any more. But AEIIIUU? Forget it. You're bound to waste at least two turns on hideously low-scoring plays just to deplete your surplus of i's and remove at least one u.

Happy Scrabbling, people. If you don't play, give it a try: it'll increase your vocabulary...and just maybe your qi.

 

11 January, 2013

In Burke We Bust

Oh, how good it feels to write about hockey again.

About three-quarters of the way through the lockout, with hope for a season all but evaporated, I wrote on Facebook that the NHL could go puck itself, that if and when it came back I'd be damned if I'd come flocking back to it.

Guess I'll be damned. There's no doubt Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr have conspired to punish me, a hockey fan, over the past four months. But now that the NHL's coming back, I can't remember why I should continue to punish myself.

There are several people I have talked to who have discovered, or re-discovered, junior hockey, college hockey, the AHL, or what have you. They've resolved never to watch another NHL game. That's perfectly fine, but it's not for me. The National Hockey League is chock-full of the most talented hockey players on the planet. Hockey at any level is an interesting game, in my opinion; at the top level it's a hyperkinetic ballet on ice. I admire the principles behind depriving yourself of such a display, but I'd argue you're missing out.

So. To business.

**************

I wrote about ten paragraphs of a blog defending the recently deposed general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, then deleted all of it and ran away in confusion.

That doesn't happen very often. My last blog entry was written almost without pause and published almost exactly as it was written, which is more typical of my output. But the more I wrote about Brian Burke, the more my righteous indignation at his dismissal turned to weary resignation. Because as much as I like and respect the man, and as much as I appreciate what he was building in Toronto, the fact is he deserved the axe he got.

There have been several excellent analyses published on Maple Leafs Hot Stove, which is to my mind the best Leaf site on the net. Burke was and is a polarizing figure. People tend to either love him or hate him. The ones who love him would go through a wall for him; the ones who hate him want to shove him through a wall themselves. Love or hate the man, most people have been questioning the timing.

It's not as if the Burke record is bulletproof. After all, the Leafs have not made the playoffs during his tenure. It's hard to see where they have improved since he came. (Team record in his first season: 34-35-13, 81 points; team record last season: 35-37-10, 80 points.) After four years, in a league where too many teams can get into the playoffs and you get points even when you lose games, this is not a record to be proud of. And yet...

You have to look beyond the stats to see the many good things Burke has done for the franchise. Let's start with the culture. When he arrived in 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs were, almost to a man, afflicted with what became known as "Blue and White Disease". The chief symptom of this disease was a massive sense of entitlement. Players suffering from this ailment would go through the motions of playing hockey, feeling they had nothing to prove to themselves, their coaches, or the fans.

Burke changed all that. It took him some time, but there is exactly one player on the Leaf roster who predates Burke's arrival, and several players Burked traded for or drafted have since been dealt themselves. Building a championship team is a slow process and it usually involves some missteps (see: Versteeg, Beauchemin, and Gustavsson). You start with a young team (the Leafs are the second-youngest in the league), acquire talent by hook or by crook (they have more first round draft picks playing in their organization than any other NHL team). You instill a culture of winning from top to bottom in your organization...and then you wait and let your team develop. That's how it's done. There are other ways to do it, but slow and sure is the best way, especially in a league with a salary cap.

The winning may not have percolated up to the top level yet, but it's coming. Look at the Toronto Marlies, the Leaf farm team. They have progressively improved over Burke's tenure. Last year they made the championship and might have won it were it not for a string of freakish injuries. History shows that AHL success translates, over two to three years, into NHL success for the parent team. It's coming. And that, too, is Burke's doing.

If it sounds like I'm defending him even now, that's because there really is something worth defending there. However...

Burke is cursed with a mouth that won't stay shut. It's great entertainment to listen to him, but he tells tales and some of them are rather tall. For instance, he famously sent reporters scrambling for their dictionaries when he promised HIS Toronto Maple Leafs would "require, as a team, the proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence". That hasn't really translated to the ice. Much more damning, he told the world that a Brian Burke team is built "from the net out". You'd think that after four years, that philosophy would mean the team would at minimum have a goaltender who could stop a beach ball. Yes, there are promising 'tenders coming up (Scrivens and Rynnas most particularly), but I'd have thought a top-flight netminder would be priority one.

So the failure to advance the plan can be the public reason for Burke's dismissal. It wasn't the real reason. If it was, Dave Nonis would be on the unemployment line today as well, along with the rest of the team Burke assembled. To fire the head of a management team, yet leave the rest of the team fully intact, suggests the motive was personal and political, not professional.

Brian Burke is more of an ass-kicker than he is an ass-kisser. And that, in the end, is why he was fired, and why, much as it pains to me to say it, he deserved to be.

I've seen it several times: highly qualified people, who excel in their position and achieve excellent results, are summarily dismissed and occasionally blackballed because they mouthed off to the wrong person. It doesn't matter if the person they mouthed off to is a grade-A prick who never should have been promoted once, let alone seven or eight times; such people have egos and they react swiftly and furiously when those egos are bruised.

In an ideal world, ass-kissing would give both the kisser and especially the kissee some kind of sexually transmitted disease. The real world, unfortunately, is chock-full of people bent over with their ass-lips puckered. Burke couldn't possibly have gotten as far as he has without knowing this. He probably didn't care. His first interview with the suits who now run the Maple Leafs, by all accounts, did not go well. I can't say for certain -- I wasn't there -- but I strongly suspect Burke had some questions of his own in that interview, such as what the hell do you know about hockey and how many effing Cups have YOU won. Because Burke has a ego too, and he has a plan, and his plan is bearing fruit...just not as fast as some would like it to. He also signed a contract guaranteeing him autonomy over hockey operations, which is critical in a market like Toronto that has been repeatedly plagued by blatant ownership meddling.

My great fear as a Leaf fan is that the ownership meddling is back with a vengeance. I truly hope this is not the case. Because if it is, the Leafs will be right up there with the Chicago Cubs in terms of championship droughts.

The tipping point, we are hearing, concerns one Roberto Luongo, of Vancouver and his availability on the trade market. Now, Luongo is a very good goalie. It is my contention he's the wrong very good goalie for this team, largely because he has a history of cracking under pressure, and there's no pressure like Toronto pressure. Reports have surfaced that Burke was lukewarm on trading for Luongo, believing the price to be too high, while most of the rest of the management team was and is ready to hand Vancouver most of the Leafs' farm system in exchange. This, too, is simply media conjecture. I hope. There's no doubt the Leafs need a capable, veteran goaltender first and foremost. What they don't need is Luongo's albatross of a contract, in exchange for multiple young players who will be benefitting the Canucks long after Roberto has retired.

Brian Burke will land on his feet. I have great respect for the man, the fatherand the GM--it is tremendously refreshing to see a man who doesn't kiss ass and doesn't demand his ass be kissed.


09 January, 2013

Wouldn't YOU Protest?

An old colleague of mine posted this on Facebook a minute ago and made me see red:

And the teachers are striking again, no surprise. Just be happy you all have jobs.

Grrrr. Here's the kicker: the guy who writes this belongs to a union. I kid you not.

That's the kind of statement I'd expect from an ├╝ber-capitalist robber baron. I'd still be appalled at the disdain for working people just oozing out of this putrescent mindset, but at least I'd understand where it came from. How does such a elitist mindset take root in the brain of a common, middle class person?

For those of you outside Ontario, our school teachers here have been embroiled in a bitter, bitter dispute over new legislation ("Bill 115, the 'Putting Students First Act') that the government has imposed.  There have been rotating one-day strikes across the province. Another is set for the greater Toronto area  on Friday--although the head of the teacher's union is being very careful to call it a 'day of protest' and not a strike, since teachers are not in a legal strike position (in part due to this very legislation). Political protest is still legal in Canada last I checked.

There's a common misconception that this is about money. It's not. Ontario teachers had previously agreed to a two-year wage freeze, and the 1.5% cut imposed by Bill 115 is far from top of mind for the union. But people want to talk money, because they say teaching is a cushy job that pays obscenely well. Whenever I hear this statement -- far too often -- I immediately ask the person why they're not teaching. I've yet to hear any kind of answer to the question, but I'll keep trying, and I'll report back when I get one.
There are a lot of misconceptions about teacher salaries. For one thing, they are salaries, not wages. Teachers are not paid by the hour. And that's a good thing, if you're a teacher, because I'd be out-earning the good ones in that case, and I do not have a graduate degree. Or any degree, for that matter.

If you're hoping to get into teaching for the money that's in it, be advised you'll almost certainly have to suffer through one to five years (or more) of temp work, with all the uncertainty that brings, at wages that will probably stun you. After that, you can expect a paycheque that's probably half to two thirds what you'd get working in the private sector with comparable education. But no, teachers do it for the money, right?

"Look at all those days off! They get the entire summer off, the bastards!"

Yeah, they do. Funny how when you were a student, you weren't exactly champing at the bit for school through July and August, but now that you're an adult you begrudge the teachers. Oh, and incidentally, they really do get the summers off, as in unpaid. Plus, they're expected to attend courses on their own time and dime through at least part of those summers.

You folks who wouldn't last a week in a classroom can go ahead and slander the teachers if you want. The very freedom that allows the teachers to protest shields you as well. But before you give voice to your your ignorant jealousy, you may want to look at what the government is trying to get away with here.  The following three terms and conditions are actually written, verbatim, into the legislation of Bill 115.  Per Wikipedia:


The Ontario Labour Relations Board is prohibited from inquiring into whether this act is constitutionally valid, or if it is in conflict with the Human Rights Code. 

No arbitrator or arbitration board is permitted to inquire into whether this act is constitutionally valid, or if it is in conflict with the Human Rights Code. 

No terms or conditions included in a collective agreement under this act may be be questioned or reviewed in any court.

I keep reading those three conditions, over and over again. The individual words make sense; the actual sentences they form are nonsensical and utterly terrifying. What kind of government tries to enact a law that can't be challenged on constitutional, human rights, or indeed any judicial grounds at all? Anyone have an answer? I sure didn't learn this in school, did you?

Wouldn't you be protesting too if the government--not even your employer, since teachers work for school boards--put this in legislation affecting you, or anybody you give half a shit about? Or would you just shut up and  be happy you all have jobs?



06 January, 2013

Hi, My Name Is Ken B....

and I have an Internet problem.  It’s been six hours since I was last online.

I know, it’s a bit absurd to think of the Net as a drug like alcohol and cigarettes. (Then again, website page views are referred to as “hits”, aren’t they?) The Net is a drug...my drug of choice for over twenty years.

I remember the first time...1992. I’d previously used that computer only for word processing -- a version of WordPerfect so old, even then, that you could smell the must with each keystroke. My first good friend Tim had a TRS-80 Model iii in his basement. This university computer didn't feel much different. 

Until it hooked up with another computer somewhere else. So help me, I remember wondering, with naivete pure as the driven snow, why anyone would want to connect to another computer when everything you needed was already on the computer in front of you.

I was young and shy, detached and sad
Spent my days indoors, a homebound lad
Hardly spoke, few friends, I kept myself to myself
Quite alone...

And the night was alive with a thousand voices
Fighting to be heard
And each and every one of them connected to me
And my life came alive with a thousand voices
Tapping out each word
Like a thousand people joined with a single heartbeat

 --'Proposal/The Night Was Alive', TITANIC: The Musical

Things were a tad different back then. Tim Berners-Lee was in the process of inventing the Web, which -- being is it is a 'net of nets' itself, is often mistaken for the Internet. My school was two years away from being connected to the Web--even then, an eternity in computer time. I subsisted on Usenet,...but you couldn't really call this endless feast 'subsistence'.
It's hard to explain just what kind of galvanizing effect this connectivity had on me. The song excerpt above (which refers to Marconi's telegraph) gives a little indication. I can't deny that part of the appeal, perhaps even a large part, was simply exposure to opinions other than those of my professors...and the ability to voice my own. (My sig. file, appended automatically to all my Usenet posts, read for a time 'The BREADBox/ Wilfrid Laurier Day Care Center -- oops, University, Waterloo Ontario/ These are my opinions, and my professors think they are wrong'.) Immature, eh? In my defence, I found my first and second year university classes endlessly stifling, and I lashed out at every opportunity, looking for and taking freedom wherever I could find it. Mostly I found it in the computer labs. Brickbats or bouquets, it didn't matter--I could say whatever I wanted on virtually any topic I could think of and people halfway around the world could hear me. 
Much of my opinion-venting, it's true, was on frivolous topics and momentary obsessions. I was a regular in rec.arts.pinball for a while, not to mention rec.sports.hockey (that one's more than a momentary obsession!) I 'met' and conversed with a wonderful person on alt.horror whom I'm still friends with today.
But I also spent a decent chunk of time trying to define myself. I subscribed to several religious newsgroups as well as alt.atheism, and I regularly contributed to alt.polyamory, and I was forever skulking around on can.politics. 

I do a search on my name in Google Groups, which has archived old Usenet posts, and I'm amazed at some of the stuff that comes up. I wrote that? Really? Me? Suffice it to say my political views have changed  a LOT in the past twenty years. My views on many things, actually. In some cases they've come full circle, and that's a weird feeling, to see something you wrote twenty years ago that you agree with completely now--but that you know you disagreed with, vehemently, ten years ago...
The other thing that's amazing, and a tad disquieting, was the sheer volume of posts. A deep search yields over 1500 of them. That's not counting private messages, of which there were many. This from a guy who was supposed to be in class, or in his room studying. My burgeoning Internet addiction was probably the biggest reason I never completed my degree. (The disgust at my classroom environment fuelled that addiction, true, but who am I kidding? I would have gravitated to the Net even if every class was a joy.)

It wasn't all about the opinions, though. I never lost sight of the people on the other side of the screen, even though I couldn't see them at all. I met one long-term girlfriend through soc.penpals; I read her personal ad in the same room in which she composed it. And, of course, damned and damning distraction-flowers that marked my relationships back then: all of them, without exception, bloomed online. There's a good reason for that. I don't make friends easily in real life even today: back then it was a Herculean task. It was ever so much easier to let my words speak for me online, free of the taint of my ugly mug. 
But man, did you have to be cautious. All the more so if you were female. That girlfriend I first contacted on soc.penpals? She responded to me not just because I happened to go to her school, but also because my blurb was one of very few she got without a marriage proposal somewhere in it. (I thought she was kidding about that. She showed me the thread. She wasn't. Most of the marriage proposals, oddly enough, seemed to come from the Indian subcontinent.)

I had my own run-ins with the seamy underside of the net. One girl who worked for a now-defunct airline in Georgia was all set to send me tickets to come meet her--and then she told my mom online that once I did meet her, I was unlikely to want to come home. Needless to say, we never met. One girl I flirted with turned out to be a guy; another from upstate New York sent me a rather racy picture through what even then was known as snail mail. (There were pictures besides ASCII art on UseNet back then, but finding them and downloading them wasn't worth the effort, at least for me.) Never met her, either; as intrigued as my male hindbrain was, the rational part of me really had to wonder about the kind of person who would do that on extremely short notice.

But the friends, the friends.The sense of community within a specific newsgroup on Usenet (not to mention ISCABBS, my first true internet home, was palpable. (I introduced one housemate to the site; she's been with someone she met there a good deal longer than I have been married.) Both places were essentially Reddit.com in miniature...which is probably why I spend so much time on Reddit.

It got...pretty bad. I would spend the vast majority of my day, every day, in the computer lab, mainlining the online world. After twelve hours, I'd get up to use the bathroom, intending to go home, and while sitting in the stall I'd wonder if someone had emailed me, or responded to any number of discussion threads...and back I'd go to the lab.
Ironclad proof of just how hellishly strong that addiction was: for the year after I completely dispensed with  the classes I was supposed to be attending, my girlfriend granted me access to her account. Technically I was trespassing on school property, but I wasn't afraid of getting caught; I still looked for all the world like a busy student. I learned enough Unix Kom shell scripting to craft a six thousand line program that created a second layer to her account, allowing me to surf undetected. (Should have majored in Comp Sci and not English, right?)

After she graduated, though, I was suddenly left without my lifeline. Home internet access in those days--well, my parents had it; I didn't even have a computer at home, and had no means to get one because of the other addiction that damn near ruined my life: wasting money on frivolous shit. Every meal out. Every least whim catered to. Like one song on an album? Buy the album. And phone bills! In this era of unlimited (landline) long distance, it'shard to believe I used to rack up $300/month or more in phone bills. I scoff at kids today and their incessant texting. But I understand the inclination. I've lived it.

I managed to go four years with only intermittent Internet access, mostly from an Internet cafe up the street. I truly felt half-dead in those years: I'd sabotaged most of my friendships and I was living in near vacuum. I started up a diary with a red cover and dubbed the manuscript 'Past, Present, Fuschia'. It's the direct descendant of the Breadbin, and it was the only thing that kept me nominally sane. Well, that, and and books, mostly spiritual books like A Course In Miracles and, especially, Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God series
.  Those books, and my own reflections, changed my life just enough to allow me to meet the woman who saved me from myself and remodelled my world , the woman I'm eternally grateful for. Eva saw through the wreck I'd made of myself and gradually, ever so gradually, returned me to something approaching an even keel. That she managed to do this with an absolute minimum of naggery still astounds me.
Over the fourteen years of our marriage -- and I still feel like a newlywed -- I must confess to some guilt about how much time I've spent online. The Internet still defeats my intentions at self-betterment. If I'm ever to become the serious writer I feel certain is buried somewhere in my soul, I'll need a computer to write on that is NOT connected to the Internet in any way--preferably one on a different floor of the house, behind a locked door. Oh, really, says the addiction. How do you plan on doing research, then, hmmm? Just in the course of writing this blog you've accessed, what, ten websites? Not to mention falling down the Google Groups hole and marvelling at a tiny fraction of your old USENET posts? Wonder what else you wrote about back then. Wanna go look? You've got hours to kill, you don't have to work tod---


whammo

That insidious wheedle. That damned whine. Spend more time online...what's in your friends' Facebook feeds, what just got posted on Reddit, what's happening? You don't want to disconnect yourself, you'll be an island, alone in your own head. Don't starve the beast! WE WANT INFORMATION!




It's strong, so strong. I have to fight it every day. I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering what's happening behind the screen in my living room. It's such a colourful, vibrant world, you understand. It...evolves. And it begs, cajoles, demands participation in its evolution. If I get out of bed, relieve myself, and get back into bed, I feel simultaneously proud of myself for resisting and guilty because I resisted.

What kind of jitterbug do you make of the 12 steps when your higher power is your goddamned addiction? I mean, the Internet is gradually assimilating the whole of human knowledge, all of our keenest insights and most appalling tendencies. It connects all of us, it allows for endless creation, and it judges harshly. That's not a half-bad approximation of a god.

And so I've made three rules, to keep my life in some semblance of offline order. Rule # 1:  NO SMARTPHONES. I'd crochet that in a sampler and hang it on the wall. Give me the means to go online away from this desk and sure as shit I'll be powerless to resist. I'll be online all the time, and the prospect of that terrifies me. I value my wife and the life she and I have built far too much to even place the temptation in front of me.

Rule #2: Limit my peregrinations. I interpret this rule loosely--my most visited site is a news aggregator, after all--but all the same, there are artificial limits I've created for myself. I use Google Chrome exclusively. Its homepage consists of my top eight visited sites, and there are maybe twelve others -- at most -- I occasionally check on. Those are broad limits, especially when Reddit, Facebook or Twitter might lead me through a looking glass. And some of those sites are freakin' HUGE, entire worlds in and of themselves. But any new site on my homepage means another has been removed....and even twenty sites is just a tiny, tiny fraction of what's out there. I'll spiral through my sites, checking up on them, and then be able to leave them alone for a while. Without that limit in place, who knows where I'd end up.

Rule # 3: The information you crave comes from people. Never forget that.

So many people appear to have depersonalized the Internet. I'm always trying to personalize it, myself. I have my share of Facebook friends I wouldn't recognize if I met them on the street...but not too many of those, and I feel close to most of them regardless. I've grown to love more than a few of these people, and I make sure to connect with them at intervals. I'm slowly working around to meeting my closest net.friends in real life. There are people not a hundred clicks from me I'm really eager to spend time with. Offline time. Real-life time.

The addiction is still here. It's still strong. I recall reading Stephen King, reflecting on his alcoholism. People would ask him how much he drank, and he'd look at them as if they'd grown two heads and say, "all of it". What other answer could there be? He'd watch in disbelief  and, yes, horror, when somebody three tables away would get up and leave with half a glass of wine still sitting there. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, he'd want to shout. DRINK THAT.

I understand this implicitly. I fight it constantly. Am I winning? I'm holding my ground. Against the whole of the Internet, I think I'm doing okay.

03 January, 2013

Violence

Every now and again I read something that makes me violent. This would be one of those things. The final two paragraphs sum up this guy's position quite well:


Violence doesn’t come from movies or video games or music. Violence comes from people. It’s about time people woke up from their 1960s haze and started being honest about violence again. People are violent, and that’s OK. You can’t legislate it away or talk your way around it. Based on the available evidence, there’s no reason to believe that world peace will ever be achieved, or that violence can ever be “stopped.”

It’s time to quit worrying and learn to love the battle axe. History teaches us that if we don’t, someone else will.

Square that with this book (which really is a must-read) asserting, and proving by means of rigorous research, that as awful as the past century has been, it's been by far the most peaceful century in human history.

We are getting better, albeit oh...so...slowly. "History", I once read, "consists of human beings finding better ways to kill each other with rocks. Once, we bashed our foes over the head with them. Now we split the rocks into atoms, and then split those...."
This is an awfully cynical view of human progress. Consider torture. As the linked review says, it was once (and not all that long ago!) considered public entertainment. Your disdain for the last movie you saw aside, torture is neither public nor entertainment nowadays; where it still exists, it's carried out in secret and obscured by euphemistic language. Why? Because the majority of citizens have come to disagree, strongly, with what they once found compelling.

It is true that violence is still far too common (for my taste, at least). And it is also true that the threat of violence is a useful tool. The media tends to blow its boogeyman-du-jour up out of all proportion. The current dark threat is of course fundamentalist Islam, which to be fair does satisfy all the boogeyman prerequisites: 1) They hate us; 2) They kill -- a LOT; and 3) in a hundred years' time, it's very likely bin Laden and his coreligionists will be a minor historical footnote, nothing more.

That Jonathan Kay article is really worth the read. Have you ever heard of Luigi Galleani? I certainly hadn't. Yet this man's followers were responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in the 1920s, one of which killed 38 people about five hundred yards from what we now call Ground Zero. That the death toll was comparatively modest speaks only to the tools available at the time and not the zeal that fuelled the attack.

Death cults like Galleanism and Islamicism do not last long. Eventually people get sick and tired of death. That's a human constant.

If we really wanted to speed up the pacifying of human society, we certainly could. I'm not arguing for the forced sterilization of murderers and rapists, along with all their first-degree relatives...but the approach would be undeniably effective.
(This idea comes from--is culled from, you might say--Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, which is among the best works of science fiction I've ever read.)
I brought this up in an online debate today and had to don flame-retardant underwear. "Sterilization is violence!" said one person. Oh, really? It's a painless procedure which leaves no mark and does not affect  a life beyond its potential to propagate.  (A sterilized father is still a father; a sterilized virgin is still a virgin).
Others were horrified that I would suggest punishing an innocent family for the crimes of one of its members. Well, I'm not suggesting anything, really. Neither, I think, was Sawyer. But eugenics is something we're going to have to come to terms with, and soon; already we know the genetic determinants of many diseases, and have the means to edit them out. All it would take for Sawyer's scenario to come up would be a subset of the population collectively deciding that violence is the symptom of a disease and the genes for that disease being decoded...