31 January, 2016

The End Of Local

Not long after I got here in 1990, our local newspaper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, ran a story on page A1, above the fold.

Its title was:

A) Councillor Retires After 33 Years Of Service
B) Potbellied Pigs Make Perfect Pets
C) Ethel Bloodthwaite Gets New Screen Door

Bear in mind that this city had a population, at the time, approaching 400,000 people. It wasn't quite a metropolis, but it was quite a long ways from being a one-horse town.

The correct answer is B, and no, I am not making this up: the most important story of the day, that day, was that potbellied pigs make perfect pets.

I very rarely read an edition of the local rag after that. Every once in a while I'd pick up a copy, confirming with one glance at the front page that if it didn't happen within city limits, it didn't happen. Ethel Bloodthwaite and her new screen door would come up every time I talked about the Record, to my wife's unending chagrin. Oh, look, she'd say when I brandished a copy of the Globe and Mail prominently featuring a piece of Toronto-centered fluff. It looks like Ethel done up and moved. 

Yes, but her pigs are still rooting around town, and damnit, they make perfect pets!

-------

Guelph, Ontario, population 175,779, just lost its local paper, the Mercury, in business since 1867. Very nearly a century and a half, vanished, leaving a thriving city without a local newspaper.

I'm sure many of my readers don't care: newspapers. How quaint. Next he'll be lamenting the loss of video stores and blacksmiths. 

Here's where I admit to a lifelong love of newspapers. I still have a weekend subscription to the dead-tree edition of the Globe and Mail, and it's something I look forward to every Saturday morning. There's something about an actual newspaper that bespeaks seriousness of purpose. This is the news, it says, in indelible ink. The pixels on your screen are peripatetic, winking in and out of existence, but the paper? Stored properly, it will outlast me.

I've read the Toronto Sun since fairly early childhood. Now, the Sun has its detractors, and I am often one of them. Let's see: sensationalistic, unabashed right wing trash, riddled with typos; and let's not forget the daily portrait that used to grace (?) the inside cover and now resides somewhere near the back: Sindee, 19, who loves dancing, shopping, and anal sex. Oh, and while the Sunday edition used to push 300 pages at times, 200 of them would consist of full-page ads.

Yes, the Sun was and is heavily flawed, and its reporting of the news is more biased than most papers. But it had two things going for it back in the day. One, it wore its bias proudly and didn't even pretend to be evenhanded. Two, and much more importantly, it allowed and encouraged its writers to express whatever opinions they had, regardless of whether or not they fell in line with editorial orthodoxy.

I can't begin to tell you how exhilarating that is for a reader like me, watching two writers feuding with each other in print. You could learn something. You could learn a lot. It was much better than the Toronto Star, a paper with whose politics I generally AGREE: there was and is no room for dissenting opinion in the Star, and it leans at least as far left as the Sun does right.

Then there's the National Post, also very unapologetically right-wing, but at least it has an excuse: it's marketed to millionaires. Their HOMES section ought to be called ESTATES or MANSIONS or some such, and rare is the car review of something plebeian like a humble Ford or Toyota.  What the Post does have going for it is a dearth of advertisements. In their place there is lots of long-form, meaty journalism.

The Post is on life support and has been for years. Because of so few ads? Possibly. More likely there was never room for a second national newspaper in a country with less population than metro Tokyo.

Finally, the Globe and Mail, which bills itself as Canada's paper of record. I find it strikes a pretty fair balance, and it employs a number of my favourite columnists, among them Tabatha Southey and Elizabeth Renzetti.   Its Arts section on Saturdays is a treasure trove.

Pardon me that digression. I just wanted to say I've been reading papers for a long time, and I don't read them online very much. Somehow they seem...I don't know...cheapened online, like virtually (ha-ha) everything else.

I'm an old curmudgeon that way, I guess. Because everything is migrating online. Information longs to be free and all that, but free doesn't put food on the table for those who gather it, edit it, or opine on it. And so the Canadian media has lost ten thousand jobs in the past decade, and the American media is shrinking at the rate of a thousand jobs a month. Newsrooms are consolidating in major centres: local papers, like the Mercury, are being crumpled up and thrown in the garbage bin of history.

It's not just newspapers. Canada may lose half of its local television stations by 2020. Again, the major reason is that people aren't watching local news any more, preferring to get all their content online.

Except if there' s a reliable source of local news online, I've yet to find it.  It's certainly not in any sort of convenient package.

We haven't had access to local television news for many years. For a long time we had Bell satellite, and it would show my dad's local news, and Eva's mom's local news, but not ours. Now we don't have the satellite any more (and what a trip through bureaucratic hell THAT was: I don't look forward to ditching our landline by the end of next month, let me tell you). We've got Netflix and Shomi and we'll almost certainly get rid of Shomi soon. Primewire and Putlocker have everything those two do and much, much more, and they're free with your unlimited Internet connection. Hard to beat that.

Local is disappearing, at least for now. (I don't believe forever: for one thing, I don't believe the Internet will exist in anything like its present form a century hence). But for now...

Local is boring. Who wants to stay close to home when there's a digital world, a galaxy, a universe, out there just beyond the next click?  Why talk to the person in the same room when you can text somebody halfway around the world (or in the next room?)

Progress isn't always progress, you know. It's the secular equivalent of Satanic to say this out loud: it's apt to brand you a heretic, a Luddite loser who wants to go live in a cave. (As if there's nothing in the whole of human existence between "cavemen"--very, very few of whom actually lived in caves--and the present day!)

But progress isn't always progress. Sometimes, maybe even often, it's regression instead. Compare the respective quality of a 1970s appliance with its modern counterpart. Today's has more bells and whistles, to be sure, but it will also be a brick in five or seven years. Rather than face this truth, we've created a world in which novelty is a virtue. Well, guess what? Novelty is often pointless. Why buy a new something when your old something does what you want it to do?

Pity about the collateral damage as we chase the newest gadget and the cheapest way to get news of the world. We're losing a very valuable sense of locality, a grounding in the here and now. Some of us are losing livelihoods. Adapt or perish. Survival of the fittest.

What's fit, again?

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get Ethel to close her screen door before the last pig gets out.

23 January, 2016

I'm hard on things

I'm really hard on things.

Shoes. I'm hard on shoes.
It would probably help if I owned more than three pairs of footwear. One pair of sandals for summer, one pair of slippers for winter in the house, one pair of steel-toed boots for...everywhere else. There'll be another pair coming in April, steel-toed shoes this time. Walmart sells its employees a pair a year at cost. Last April, trying to be thrifty, I got the cheapest pair of steel-toed shoes we carry. By October they were falling apart. We spent money we really didn't have getting these boots (also at Walmart, full price this time)...and they have to last another three months. They should. I hope.

The thing is, I have extremely expensive orthotics in my shoes. My arches are so high it caused bemused comment at the podiatrist: without those orthotics, walking becomes rather painful rather quickly. With them, all footwear feels the same: comfortable. But swapping them out is a royal pain in the butt, and so I have black steel-toed boots for winter and black steel-toed work shoes that triple as dress shoes (for the once in a purple moon occasion I need dress shoes) and casual shoes in the summer. Steel toes: absolute Walmart requirement, for some reason I can't fathom. I'm not and will never be power-trained (you think I'm hard on shoes? Watch how much I destroy if you hand me the keys to a powerjack or a stacker!) Sobeys and FreshCo didn't require steel toes. Walmart does. At least there's that pair at cost every year.

But before the steel toes, I'd been wearing Doc Martens, on the grounds they'd last me eight months instead of three or four. I'm hard on shoes.

Pens. I'm really hard on pens. Or maybe they're hard on me. I have had dozens, SCORES, of pens explode in my pockets, or in my hands. Probably averages out to one every two weeks that does that. It's annoying as all hell.
If they're not exploding, they're running dry on me. That's a constant: I can rarely keep a pen writing longer than two or three shifts. The only time I've kept a pen going for a remarkable period of time, it was a hero pen. I mean that quite literally: this pen was heroic. Here is its story, from the first year of the Breadbin.

And headphones. I am extremely hard on headphones. To wit: the pair we bought four days ago is already pooched.

I like headphones, not those in-ear scrapey metallic 'bud' things so common today. I hate the feeling of those things in my ear, and they hate being in my ear, because they're always falling out. Give me a good pair of wireless headphones--wireless because the wire is the thing that I'm really frigging hard on--and I'm golden.

I HAVE a good pair of wireless headphones. Not a luxury pair, but far from a bottom-of-the-barrel pair. Eva bought them for me back when money was, for my night shifts at Sobeys. Pop 'em on, fire up the tunes, and I'm a machine for the rest of the night: a machine that occasionally whistles and often breaks out into song (sometimes in French) and (sssh!) every once in a while, when nobody's looking, some high-steppin' dance moves. (You DON'T want to see that. Trust me. I look like a rusted-out C-3PO when I dance.)

Walmart's a little more strict on the headphones. At Sobeys it was just me and my skids of product, alone in my solitary aisle. There was absolutely zero danger of anyone intruding on me and my music, either in person or by page. Here, there are people ferrying pallets hither and yon, and a zamboni cruising around washing floors, not to mention pages every other minute (seriously, managers, we'd get more work done if we weren't always having to stop working and run to a phone to check in!) But, you know? They leave Joe and I alone. It took about six months, but I finally got them to stop pestering me. I did this by...just doing my work. By knowing that at five in the morning, it was time to "zone" (face) my aisles. By not having to be reminded to face a certain part of those aisles, because I face it all. I do it every night, you don't have to tell me...and now they don't.
So they're a bit lenient on the headphones with us, too. As long as it's quiet, it's okay.
Well, quiet isn't ideal. I want to crank up my tunes until my ears bleed. Classical, country, heavy metal: it doesn't matter what it is. What matters is that I have about fourteen full shifts worth of music before I have to hear the same song twice. Contrast that with the music provided: if I hear Adele crooning "Hello" again...I mean, it must have been a thousand times...arrrrggh....
But quiet is better than Adele, which I did like the first thousand times I heard it, and oh my god infinitely better than this, which I hated before I'd heard a full line of it. And it's on every night, too.

And then there's the walk home. It's too cold and icy to cycle right now. Call me a wuss, but my limit is about -15, windchill included, and the roads have to be bare and dry, which they aren't. So unless I can bum a ride, I'm on shank's mare. Music helps. Music helps everything.

Headphones. I have this nice pair of wireless headphones. They've been unusable for more than a year now...since just before our cruise, if I remember right. Reason: The charging cord has done gone and vanished.

At first I just tucked the headphones away and waited for the charging cord to reappear. Things lost usually do, in this house, sooner or later. I looked everywhere, of course (well, apparently not) and nada. There was a vacancy of charging cords. A void. As far as charging cords were concerned, there was nought. Zilch. Zero. Sweet Fanny Adams.

The one place I checked most obsessively was my computer desk drawer, because that was where it ought to have been. I must have checked a thousand times (oh, hello again, Adele).

Nothing.

So I've been subsisting on crap headphones: three pairs in the past fifteen months, one of which Eva superglued back together to extend its life. When it died, we got the super cheapies from work, nine bucks with my discount...and they lasted four days.

Amazon.com has a 15' charging cable for my model of headphones for ten bucks. Amazon.ca...doesn't. That ten bucks U.S. is likely to turn into thirty Canuckbucks once the exchange and tariffs are factored in. Sigh. Looks like I'm going to have to make buds with earbuds.
Eva searched the internet in vain for another place she could buy a charging cable for a Sony MDR-10RBT. Then she sauntered over to my desk--I was playing a pinball game on Steam--opened its drawer and plucked out the missing charging cord. I don't think she even looked in there, she just reached.

Well, fuck me pink, as an erstwhile colleague of mine used to say.

That cable wasn't in there until she reached for it.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I'm hard on stories, too.




Now I get it

Good grief, Ken, a hockey blog followed by a political blog? The two topics that both your wife and one of your closest friends have said bore the breasts off them? Back to back? What the hell are you thinking?

Sorry. In my defence:

A) It's been a while since I have done anything political;
B) This one is important;
C) I'll try to inject some personality into it.

I'm indebted, as I often am, to John Michael Greer for clarifying my thinking.

So.

How have things been for your family since your father was your age?

Your answer likely depends a great deal on something you might not consider: whether your grandfather earned a wage or a salary.

If Granddad earned a salary, there's a better-than-fair chance your dad is university educated and earns a salary himself. Which means you grew up reasonably privileged, and, while life may not be all sunshine and lollipops, you're probably fairly comfortable. If you married, you likely married someone with a similar background, since that often tends to be the case, and -- with or without kids -- you're doing at least okay.

If, however, Gramps earned a wage--all bets are off. Because over the past forty or so years, the "wage class" in North America has been nearly obliterated. Wage earners have seen their real income -- their purchasing power, in other words -- actually decline since 1970.

Before that date, it wasn't just common, it was NORMAL, for there to be one breadwinner per family. Usually the man, of course, but for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn't matter. Because that one breadwinner, who often was paid by the hour, could afford a mortgage, a car, and the expenses of raising two or three kids, with enough left over for a few luxuries here and there.

Try that today. On a wage. You can't: you and your family would be living out of your van. Assuming you could afford a van.

This is something I've brought up a few times in the history of this blog, and I get the feeling I'm talking into a stiff, stiff wind. It's a very uncomfortable truth, that what one person used to be able to do, two people often can't do together anymore. And the thing to do with uncomfortable truths is to overlook them, because maybe then they'll go away.

But they don't go away, not when your job is outsourced and you're thrown into crisis. And while this does happen to some salaried individuals, it overwhelmingly happens to those who earn a wage. My city, Canada's tech hotbed, has lost thousands upon thousands of well-paying -- wage-paying -- manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. Those jobs are gone, and they're not coming back.

Whose fault is this? We like to blame the uber-rich, the fabled 1%, and they are certainly complicit, but fault also lies in great part with that salaried class. As their lifestyle and position in society have been squeezed, they have simply moved the squeeze down on to the wage class, what's euphemistically called "the working class". There's overwhelming pressure to keep the toys cheap, to keep the clothes cheap, and above all, to keep the working class down.

I'm a member of that working class. I have never drawn a salary in my life. And I have seen firsthand how people in the salary class look down their noses at me and my friends, most of whom are like me. We don't have "real" jobs, they say, sneeringly ("real" meaning pushing numbers around computer screens and paper around desks instead of pallets around warehouses and forklifts around factories). Many of the (often unfounded) criticisms levelled at those on welfare also get thrown at us: we're stupid, lazy, and lack the ambition to better ourselves.  To which I say: stupid I may be, and I'm lazy as hell on my own time, but when I'm on a clock my work ethic is exemplary. I work my ass off most nights, and that's been the case for many years now. Moreover, most of the people I work with are the same way. As far as I'm concerned, I do more actual work than many of the (salaried) individuals who are putatively my bosses, and that holds true from job to job to job. There are, of course, exceptions: lazy workers and dynamo managers--but they're exceptions, not the rule, especially as the levels go up and the air gets rarer.

I still have no idea what a CEO actually does. As far as I'm concerned, whatever it is, it certainly isn't worth getting my annual income by lunchtime on the second of January (and it's only that late in the year because the first is a holiday).

Just look at the way society treats the working class, though. Really look at it. Here's a hot-button word to better focus your attention:

UNION

If you draw a salary, chances are you hate unions with a white hot passion. I'm not going to defend or indict unions in and of themselves here: I'd only ask you to notice the visceral reaction you may have had to that word, and remind you that whatever their faults -- they have many -- the purpose of unions was primarily to ensure wage earners could do what your wage-earning grandfather did. But they've been under attack for two generations now (and no, they haven't done themselves many favours)...with the end result that many formerly unionized factory jobs now pay minimum wage or as close to it as makes no matter.

You know what minimum wage is? Minimum wage is "we'd pay you less, you scum, but regrettably the fucking government says we can't."

And we're played off against each other, have you noticed that? The few unionized jobs left--the ones that pay a comfortable wage--are not held up as a shining example to those making less. No, it's ALWAYS "that asshole makes too much money". NEVER "I don't make enough".

The "American Dream" is often expressed as "any poor schmuck can become rich". This is demonstrably false, because being poor is self-limiting in a myriad of ways: if you have to spend most of your time and energy making sure you can eat and keep a roof over your head, there just isn't much time or energy left for bettering yourself. Not to mention money: tuition and ancillary education fees have increased by about 300% since 1990. You could get a loan...you could also tie a giant concrete block around your waist and hop into the nearest pool.

A better, more realistic expression of the "American Dream" is: any wage-earning schmuck can become a respectable, salaried individual". This is increasingly illusory, too: there just aren't that many salaried positions to go around, and they require that damned education that refuses to be affordable. The salaried people who run banks and universities are still out there hawking that dream for all it's worth, but let's face it: outside a very few tech fields for which the competition is insane, your chances of landing a job with even a Master's degree are...suboptimal. I'm not even going to mention a Bachelor's--they're glorified high school diplomas nowadays.

To recap: we have a large number of wage-earners and former wage earners now on welfare who are despairing, disillusioned, and justifiably pissed off.

Behold: three people whose appeal I never understood until just now: Rob Ford. Stephen Harper. And of course, Mr. Donald Trump.

These three individuals have a lot in common besides their odious politics. They are all moneyed (some of them more than others). They are all clever, clever people who thrive on being portrayed as stupid by the "smart" ones.

Oh, it's fashionable to say all three are stupid, the same way it was fashionable to say Dubya was stupid. Anybody you disagree with is stupid now, right?

Except they're not stupid at all, none of them. All three have, or had, a remarkable political instinct and an amazing ability to exploit their underdog status. Did anybody think Stephen Harper would be the sixth-longest serving PM in the history of Canada? Did anyone imagine Rob Ford could poll so high as the sideshow around him went supernova? And would you look at Trump down there in the States? Everything the man says is an outrage, and his polling numbers keep going up and up.

It's calculated, all of it. Look at the supporters of all three people and you'll notice they're almost all wage earners, or former wage earners now on welfare, often through no fault of their own.  Harper characterized himself as the Tim Horton's PM, always at war with the (salaried) intellectual elites who went to Starbucks. (I went to Starbucks for the first time in many years a couple of days ago. A small hot chocolate -- I refuse to drink the road tar they call 'coffee' -- cost almost FOUR BUCKS. How do you people afford that? Seriously!) I always wondered how a poor person could even think of voting Conservative, since that party is so transparently for the rich, but now I get it: identify with the wage earners, the people just trying to make a go of it, and you've won half the battle.

Rob Ford was also at war with "eggheads" and "leftist snobs", most of whom probably haven't been paid by the hour since high school. His very crassness seemed like something out of a factory or a dock. He was just so very...just so very...wage.

And Trump? Trump, uh, trumps 'em all for the way he's been able to tap into the wellspring of wage worker wrath. Notice his pet issue: immigration. I personally favour immigration by whatever means necessary -- our birthrate in Canada is below replacement and declining, so if you actually want to be taken care of in your old age, you best take up with me -- but let's be honest, immigration from Third World countries is another thing that has driven wages down. Offshore the jobs so there's fewer of them to go around, then boost the competition for them so people will take whatever scraps they can get.

In comes Trump promising to stop Muslim immigration completely. We've all, me included, focused on how incredibly RACIST AND BIGOTED that is, and how many of us noticed it's actually CLASSIST? Most Muslims--even the white-collar ones--end up blue-collar on this continent. The system is rigged that way. (Rigged by who? I leave that as an exercise for the student.)  What Trump is really saying -- and don't think his core constituency doesn't get it -- is that he's got your back against the guy competing for your job. The fact that guy is brown is irrelevant.

Now Trump is promising to address the other half, the offshoring of jobs. Is it any wonder the man is drawing support like crazy? He's cast himself as a the workingman's friend, the guy who tells it like it is and doesn't cave to the "smart" people. And he's not just hitting all the right buttons, he's hammering on them. Every single time the media gasps and says "he didn't just say that!", the people who plan on voting for him cheer "oh yes, he did!"

Now I get it.

Bernie Sanders is doing some of the same thing on the left, and for that I applaud him. I'm extremely glad to see that the anointing of Hillary Clinton has run off the rails. I have long wanted to see a woman president, but with all due respect I don't want to see Herself in the White House ever again. She has always struck me as insincere, and even more so as a preserver of the status quo. The same way Dubya was. The same way, for all of his talk about hope and change, Obama is.

The status quo is not an option, or it won't be for much longer. Because those wage earners...there are a lot of them, and their anger is only growing as time goes on. Trump and Sanders are game-changers. My politics being what they are, I'm siding with Sanders...but at least now I understand that he and Trump are actually two sides of the same coin. I can respect a Trump supporter who has thought his position out, even if I could never bring myself to vote for Trump.

Now I get it.

If their candidate is defeated, especially if it's done by deceit...well, there's no telling who the next candidate of the wage class--the trumpenproletariat, you might say--is going to be. Certain infamous dictators were first revered by the working class as heroes who restored dignity and prosperity. America is lacking both right now, whatever the salaried people on Wall Street might believe.

Hang on, folks, the next years and decades are going to prove mighty interesting. Even if...perhaps especially if...you detest politics.


19 January, 2016

This is a hockey blog. I'll try to make it interesting.

For a guy with the sense of humour I have (thanks, Dad)--I take things way too damn seriously.

Hockey, for instance.

There's this NHL player named John Scott. You are instantly forgiven if you've never heard the name in your life: a player more different from Wayne Gretzky would be kind of hard to find. He's 6'8", has played 285 NHL games, and has five goals and six assists for his career.  Five hundred forty two penalty minutes, though, which SHOULD tell you all you need to know about John Scott.

It should, but, inexplicably, it doesn't.

You see, John Scott was voted by the fans to be captain of an All-Star team this year. If you're wondering how that happened...so am I. Fans are permitted to vote up to ten times a day (also inexplicable--imagine that in federal elections!) and evidently some social-media fuelled prank went viral.

This kind of thing has happened before with the NHL All-Star Game, which hasn't been a real game since sometime in the late '70s. Fan voting was instituted in 1985 and every now and again the fans take it upon themselves to elect...unusual choices to the game. The NHL, wanting to restore at least some dignity to the event, restricted the fan vote to just the captains of the teams, and John Scott is what the fans think an All-Star captain looks like, I guess.

The NHL shares my idea of what an All-Star is and isn't, and they were anything but happy with the fans' choice. First they asked him to gracefully step aside so he wouldn't deprive an actual hockey player of a place in the game. Then they (sssshhhh!)...orchestrated a trade that sent Scott from Arizona to Montréal, where he was immediate dispatched to the minors and thus made ineligible to participate. (Montréal didn't want Scott included in the trade they made, and were told they had to take him. Hmmm.)

I have been flamed to a crisp online for suggesting that John Scott is not an All-Star. I get it: the NHL handled this poorly. They should have let him play (as of now, thanks to a public relations shitstorm, he may still be allowed to). They should let him play...and then scrap fan voting altogether, if this is the kind of thing that results from it.

I say this in spite of the fact the NHL All-Star Game is the only hockey my wife pays the slightest attention to, precisely because it's fun. I appreciate the fun in it myself: Carey Price, the Montréal Canadiens' goalie and perennial All-Star, and Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' Russian dynamo, are both huge jokesters and make the game a real hoot and a half to watch.

Carey Price is arguably the best goalie in the world right now (when healthy) and Alex Ovechkin is one of the all-time great goal scorers. My point is both of them belong in an All-Star Game, no questions asked. If you let the John Scotts and Joe Blows of the game be All-Stars instead...why bother with the game at all?

This is not a popular opinion, but it's mine. I have nothing against John Scott the man, but I have quite a lot against John Scott the hockey player.

17 January, 2016

Baby steps

I didn't bother with a grand pronouncement of resolutions for 2016, for several reasons. One, I've never bothered with resolutions at all in the past, viewing them as a condemnation of what has been, up to now, a pretty damned fine life. Two, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans (or at least, I've always thought that way).  Three, even when I set out with the best of intentions, I lack staying power: stating my intentions is pointless when I don't follow through on them.

These three reasons are all linked.

Only one person has openly questioned me about my life goals, insofar as I have any, and she made me feel absolutely terrible. She didn't mean to...I really should phrase that "I chose to feel" rather than "she made me feel". But knowing the world knows your inadequacies and sees right through your self-rationalizations is...disconcerting. It shouldn't be: hell, I'm 44 in a couple of weeks and in a job meant for teenagers, that pays teenage wages. It's not like people don't notice that; likewise, they can't fail to notice I got a certificate in French from Conestoga College last year--the picture of the certificate itself was my most-liked photo on Facebook for 2015--and that I haven't exactly done anything with it. But hey, you tell people that you aren't your job and you really like what you're doing anyway -- which is true, mostly -- and that's the end of it.

Except in your head, where it festers.  You spent $2000 and a fair bit of skullsweat, got some of the highest marks in your class every class, and for what? If all you were going to do was moulder away in some grocery store freezer?

I don't have to look very hard to determine the roots of my mindset: it comes from childhood. I started a diary in 1988 (I was 16 that year) and one of the first things I complained about back then was feeling "like I was strapped to the nosecone of a guided missile whose guidance systems were seriously out of whack". I went to four schools from kindergarten to grade eight, one of them twice, and then three high schools. I won't kid myself and say I was ever comfortable at school, at least until the second high school, but I never really had the chance to get comfortable. My life would get uprooted after a year or at most two, and I rarely knew why. What did I want to do when I grew up? How the hell should I know? I never knew what the next year would bring, why would I bother making plans that far out?

I've carried that attitude with me throughout my adult life thus far. Once I stopped dwelling on the past, it has served me well in many respects. It has allowed me to accept (again, mostly) each moment as it comes, and find the little joys that keep me sustained and centered (with time out for a major depressive episode).

Yeah, that's not really all that convincing, is it?

There are four reasons people keep doing the same thing over and over. Habits, addictions, rituals and status quo bias. I have a habit of showering in the dark and shaving in the shower...that explains the little tufts of facial hair in odd places. I have a bona fide Internet addiction. I have a ritual when I go to sleep: I start out on my right side, flip to my left side after a bit, then flip back to my right side and spread out and zzzzzz.

Status quo bias is an insidious force. It's the irrational preference for what is over what could be...even when "what could be" is demonstrably better.

Many people are subject to it without admitting it. Me, I'll fully admit its power over me. If I don't risk anything, I won't lose anything. I won't gain anything, either, but that's irrelevant. Be content with what you have; don't get greedy.

It used to be much worse. Within this blog's lifetime, I used to read the same books over and over and over again. I knew what I was getting, and that what I was getting was good.  I don't do that very much anymore. But I do feel very strongly about risk and rejection and it's easier to just reject myself in advance than let other people do it for me.

There are many excuses for why I'm still in retail, despite shouting from the rooftops a year ago that I'd never be in retail again. I let my job search experience convince me retail was all I was good for (two interviews for office jobs out of dozens of resumes sent out, and I evidently bombed both). That French certification isn't enough to brand me fluent (that's not me talking, that's a pure-d fact) and further education is out of my financial reach right now. I need the benefits I have right now for Eva's sake. Looking for a job is a full time job and I don't have the energy for it when I already have one. I have ZERO experience in other fields and so much to learn before I can be considered employable (hell, I've barely even OPENED Excel). My God, the effort--it's daunting to even think about. It's easier to do what I'm doing. Much easier.  

Sometimes I think people think me less of a person, not because I work retail (well, okay, that too) but because I could, presumably, be doing so much more with my life. I would like to be in a position to make a real difference. You don't get that in retail; you don't get that in run-of-the-mill office jobs either.  I don't know what you get that in, much less how to get from where I am to wherever that is. THAT makes ME think I'm less of a person.

If this sounds like I need a change in medication: no. I don't. Just routine self-doubt that hits me every January like clockwork. It occurs to me that this is because I have been thinking wrong all these years.

People don't make resolutions because they hate their lives. Not generally, anyway. It's entirely possible to love your life while still thinking it can be better. It's also possible, and probably well advised, to actually take "life is what you make it" seriously and stop thinking that life is what happens when you make other plans...if they were real plans, you'd make THEM happen instead, wouldn't you?

As to intention. I think I poison my chances of success at anything before I even start. I've made it into a joke: I think positively! Instead of saying "I won't succeed, I say, "I WILL fail!" I'm going to make a serious effort this year at learning how not to do that.

Baby steps.




11 January, 2016

The Proust Questionnaire: Ken Edition

How'd I get almost to 44 without having heard of this thing?

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Cuddling. For absolute perfection, add a fire, soft classical music, and some kind of inclement weather outside that's just audible.

What is your greatest fear?

Rejection. That one hasn't changed in 30-plus years.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? 

The void where my discipline should be.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Hatred. Especially hatred based in ignorance (most of it is).

Which living person do you most admire? 

My wife, Eva. Trite answer. It also happens to be the truth.

What is your greatest extravagance? 

My life has been an ongoing process of shedding extravagances. I'm honestly not sure I have anything left worthy of the description. Love, I suppose: that I have in abundance, much more so than most people I've run across.

What is your current state of mind?

Pensive, mildly out of phase with myself and most of the rest of existence. It's making this questionnaire harder than it should be.

 What do you consider the most overrated virtue? 

Chastity. The whole notion of sexual "purity" is very strange to me; that people put such stock in it mystifies me. The strangest thing about it is that it almost always exemplifies a meek willingness to live life by somebody else's moral compass.

On what occasion do you lie? 

When the truth hurts too much. Don't we all?

What do you most dislike about your appearance? 

Virtually everything, most of the time. Most? Its banality and nondescriptness.

Which living person do you most despise? 

That''s such a strong word. I make it a point not to despise someone unless and until I know them well enough to understand their motives and intentions. And there isn't someone I know that well whom I even dislike, much less despise.

What is the quality you most like in a man? 

Integrity.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? 

Softness.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

Depends who you ask. I'm sure some would say "polyamory'....I fall into word-ruts on occasion and find myself using the same word or phrase more than I should. Lately it's been 'at any rate'. I overuse the em-dash -- and also the ellipsis...

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

"Who" is easy, it's Eva again. What...is love itself.

When and where were you happiest? 

Disney World in 2010. Most specifically, in our suite at Old Key West Resort. Truly the happiest place on earth.

Which talent would you most like to have? 

Athleticism. It's the measure of a man by many standards, and I fall so woefully short at it that I try not to think of it.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

"If I could". There's a whole suite of qualities I'm missing. Perseverance, patience, purpose. They're all related to that fear of rejection.
 
What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Finding someone who loves me at least as much as I love her.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? 

I really have no idea how to answer this question. Whatever the next turn of the wheel brings...I'll have a much better idea of that when THIS turn has finished.

Where would you most like to live? 

The place is unimportant, except water should be visible from its windows. A self-contained, off-grid home, surrounded by the people I love and the people they love.

What is your most treasured possession? 

A photo of myself in the arms of Bobby Orr, taken in August of 1972 in Parry Sound, Ontario.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? 

Dying alone and unloved.

What is your favourite occupation? 

Only an occupation in the sense that it occupies my time: writing. I'd much prefer to break the shackles of employment slavery altogether and simply string words together for my meals. That, alas, given my makeup (see above) is much easier said than done.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I'm told it's kindness.

 What do you most value in your friends? 

Their presence.

Who are your favourite writers? 

Stephen King, for his sense of character. Guy Gavriel Kay, for his prose and intrigue. Gary Jennings, for his fusion of bawdiness and erudition. And Spider Robinson, for his warmth and humour.

Who is your hero of fiction? 

Mama Maureen, from Heinlein's TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET. She is an iconoclast, a person who develops her own code radically at odds with that of her time, and she has the courage of conviction to follow it where it leads.

Which historical figure do you most identify with? 

None of them. Historical figures make history, after all.

Who are your heroes in real life? 

The people who live with indescribable pain, but who still give their life and light to the world.

What are your favourite names? 

For girls: Ayla, Laura, and Leigh. For boys, Jason and Kieran.

What is it that you most dislike? 

Wilful ignorance.

What is your greatest regret? 

I misplaced a decade between 1990 and 1999. In that time I managed to derail my life.

How would you like to die? 

At home, preferably painlessly, surrounded by loved ones.

What is your motto?

Shamelessly stolen from Spider: Shared pain is lessened and shared joy is increased; thus do we refute Entropy.

10 January, 2016

Polyamory: New things to say, new ways to see

Just in the eighteen months I've been 'out' and surveying the media coverage of polyamory, there has been a marked mellowing, a decided difference in tone in much of it. Even as recently as a year ago, articles on polyamory were routinely referring to it as "ethical cheating" and focussing rather intently on who was putting what genitals where. This would lead to some positively toxic comment sections as people reacted harshly to what they perceived was an attack on monogamy. We polyfolk were branded irresponsible, narcissistic and commitment-phobic, to use three of the milder terms. Kind of funny when your responsibility and commitment as a polyamorous person involves more people and you're considerably less concerned with yourself when you're emotionally invested in more than one other.

Not so much anymore. This is happening in lockstep with an increase in awareness. There's a show called "Love, Sex and Neighbors" coming to NBC for 2016-2017, in which a straight-laced Midwestern couple moves to Orange County, California and discovers that the parents at their kids' school are experimenting with poly. The fastest-selling video game in history, Fallout 4 (three quarters of a billion dollars in its first 24 hours of release!) incorporates polyamory in a no-muss, no-drama fashion.
A sure sign that we're at least approaching the mainstream: Conservatives are getting scared of us. (I love this article, which dates back to before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. It invokes a slippery slope: if gay marriage, then why not polyamory, why not incest, why not bestiality? Fundamental misunderstanding of 'consent', there. And yet it does highlight one thing I've remarked upon myself: many people are more comfortable with unethical rather than ethical non-monogamy:


...a girl he met invited him to fly to her home to have sex with her, with her husband’s consent. What’s interesting about this is how the man’s conscience kept trying to stop him. For example: 
 “Is your husband really ok with this?” 
 “Do you want to ask him?” she asked. 
 “No!” I quickly exclaimed.

Both of us have run into this repeatedly. Most people who are actually polyamorous would generally consider it imperative to clarify ahead of time a new partner's relationship status. Some will take a prospective partner's word that their other partners are aware and consenting; others, like me, would prefer to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak, the better to understand rules, boundaries, and guidelines, which are different for each set of people.

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

PERSONAL DIGRESSION AHEAD

The distinction between the three is important, and it's why communication is such a vital part of successful polyamory. A "rule" is something, usually but not always made by two people without anyone else's input, that can't be broken without severe penalty and certainly can't be negotiated away. The most common in poly has to do with safer sex, but some people have reams of rules that serve to protect the "primary" relationship and elevate it over all others. I have found the more rules you have in play, the more drama there is and--paradoxically--the less likely you'll be successful at polyamory.
Another very common rule is veto. I feel threatened by Billy-Bob: you must therefore cut all ties with him, or else. This, needless to say, is a real dick move to pull on someone and runs completely counter to what polyamory is supposed to be about, but some people really do like to cloak their monogamy in poly trappings.

Billy-Bob may be a real asshole, and I may be very uncomfortable with you dating him, but that's grounds for a "what the fuck do you see in that guy?" talk and not an outright veto. If the reason I'm uncomfortable with Billy-Bob is my own insecurity--maybe he's stacked, or rich, or stacked and rich--well, that's my problem. If I sincerely think Billy-Bob is going to hurt you, that's not your problem, it's our problem.

I've been vetoed. Once. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life--it almost turned me away from polyamory entirely--and it will not happen again if I can help it, even if it means I never have concurrent relationships. I will never inflict that kind of pain on Eva or anyone else. EVER.

Eva and I have one rule: the rings stay on, no matter what. We have this rule because people who take their rings off are usually (not always, but usually) cheaters. Keeping the rings on shows both us and everyone else that we are committed to each other.

That's our one rule. Everything else is a boundary.

Boundaries are different from rules in that they can be negotiated and changed as conditions warrant. Perhaps you've grown close enough with someone to "fluid-bond" with them: the boundary on "safer sex" has moved for that relationship. Perhaps you have grown emotionally in one relationship and it moves the boundaries for all the others. Perhaps it's a specific act that becomes acceptable as insecurities wane. There are all sorts of possibilities. Note that you can have very strong preferences with respect to your boundaries: the key is to recognize that those preferences are not set in stone. It takes a certain security to set boundaries instead of rules, or at the very least a willingness to overcome your insecurities.

Boundaries also, by necessity, are negotiated by all parties in the wider relationship: not necessarily all together--it can get awkward--but the lines of communication have to remain open all around. This dramatically lessens the tension, especially for newer partners, who need to feel validated. It's not exactly fair for a couple to put rules on 'secondary' relationships without input from the people those rules will affect.

Guidelines are even more vague (but still important). I have one simple one: DON'T BE A DICK. Would a dick do this? Yes? Then I'd better not. If I feel like doing it anyway, I need to talk to somebody or somebodies about why.

 I'd much rather be friends, or at least on good terms, with any prospective metamour right out front. That way, I'm hopefully not viewed as a threat (because I'm not: I'm, just another sensible person who loves the same woman he does. "Do you love my wife?" "Of course I do, anybody with any sense would!")

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

Polyamory is primed for a cultural explosion, and as such, it's nice to see people who mostly understand it out in the vanguard of public perception. Here's an article from the gay magazine The Advocate, for instance.

Now this one really gladdens my heart. Because contrary to popular straight opinion, gay people can be some of the most socially conservative folk around.

The article itself does contain a couple of nits I'd like to pick. One is the term "active bisexual", which is a real head-shaker in a gay publication until you remember that gays and bisexuals don't really coexist very well. At least to me, the term "active" bisexual heavily implies you're only a real bisexual if you're currently dating a man AND a woman, the same way I'm supposedly only really polyamorous if I'm maintaining two or more committed loving relationships. Nuts to that: I've been poly and in less than one relationship. If I were bisexual, my relationship status likewise wouldn't signify.

A much more glaring issue I have--and I'm trying to come to terms with the fact it's my issue--is the blurring of lines:

Also known as “consensual non-monogamy,” polyamory comes in a number of flavors, including swinging, polyfidelity, open relationships, and relationship anarchy.

Sigh.

Once more, with feeling:

  • "Consensual non-monogamy" is an umbrella term that includes poly, everything else listed here, and more: kink and BDSM-based play, for instance.
  • Polyamory is multiple, committed, loving relationships (type of love deliberately unspecified) with the knowledge and consent of all involved. That's the -amory part of the word, and I wish people would quit sidestepping it: it makes others think I'm out for a quick shag and nothing else.
  • "Swinging" is an almost exclusively heterosexual couple-centered sexual activity. In swinging, it's generally okay to feel fondness for your partners, but anything beyond that is DANGER DANGER DANGER. (Here's a primer from a swinger's point of view on the differences between swinging and poly. I can state with some certainty that most swingers would react with horror to the notion that their lifestyle is a 'flavour' of polyamory.
  • "Polyfidelity" IS a flavour of polyamory: it's a closed group. It's exactly like monogamy except there are three or more people. Those three or more people are not allowed to date/love/have sex outside the group. Fairly common; often includes a man and two bisexual women. Or two straight couples.
  • "Open relationships" is another umbrella term, it too is generally couple-centric, in the sense that the couple is the primary relationship and other relationships are secondary, or in many cases tertiary. To me, at least, there is a seriousness of purpose to polyamory that is lacking in open relationships (not that I'm suggesting seriousness of purpose is necessary in all relationships). 
  • Relationship anarchy (RA) IS a flavour of polyamory, a rather radical one, which erases all distinction between relationships and starts from a blank slate. No relationship is valued more or less than any other, and especially not on the basis of whether or not it includes sex.
******************

PERSONAL DIGRESSION AHEAD

I should state for the record that I am exploring RA. It's probably the closest thing I've yet found to describe how my poly works...but I still have some really big issues with it.

This is the original manifesto for RA, dating to 2006. A lot of it makes perfect sense to me. This in particular:

Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything — it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings.

I read that as "sex is not automatically linked to love". Sex is linked to love for me in that I can't do loveless sex--but at the same time, there are people whom I love very much that I've barely hugged and never so much as kissed. Would I like to hug, kiss, cuddle, and have sex with them? In some cases DEAR GOD YES; in others, not at all. The "not at all" people: I still love them just as deeply.

Poly people in my experience can be just as sex-supremacist as monogamous people, sometimes even more so, and it drives me crazy. RA offers a nice cosy escape hatch from all that.

I hate that word 'anarchy'. It's synonymous with 'chaos' rather than 'freedom' in my personal mental framework.  I'm absolutely dead set against the complete negation of rank in relationships: I have seventeen years invested in one of them and I'm not going to put it on the same level as a brand new one. "Let each relationship find its own level", of course. Negate my marriage? Never.

And my biggest issue with RA is that it seems to morph very easily into a narcissistic, "what satisfies me must always be right" kind of shitshow that I have no least desire to emulate.  For those reasons I don't think I'll be calling myself a relationship anarchist any time soon. It's hard enough to explain polyamory to people!


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


The Advocate's piece goes on to state that polyamory is viewed as more morally acceptable than swinging or open relationships"...which, if true, really makes me feel good. Not that I particularly care about somebody else's moral vision...it's just that I suspect the commitment in a poly relationship is beginning to be grasped and recognized for what it is.

One more blog entry I'd like to link.

Here.

This encapsulates so beautifully what it really means, to me, to be polyamorous.
It's about authenticity. It's about letting each relationship blossom to whatever level feels comfortable for everyone involved, and not putting limits on relationships just because other relationships exist.

I carry this label of “polyamorous” as a badge, as something integral to who I am as a person — and it is, in the sense that it is inextricable from me. But the focus is all wrong. It’s not about romance. It’s not about physicality. It’s not, in the end, about polyamory at all. It’s about human connection in whatever shape it may take.

Amen, amen, and amen again.

Cards Against Humanity

My dad texted me earlier this evening to let me know a very close friend of his had suffered a massive heart attack and passed away.
John, his name was. A sailor, a general handyman, a hale and hearty human being with an infectious laugh, packed with both knowledge and wisdom. He's been suffering excruciating back pain that I have to imagine contributed to his heart just giving out--so at least that's gone. But that was supposed to go away without taking him away with it.
John was one of those Up North People that always added something to my trips up to see my dad. But he was so much more to so many people, and why do people have to die, anyway?

We were just about to leave for a little get-together when I got that news, and it added yet another layer of emotional complexity. I was already nervous as hell. The thing was hosted by a guy named Glitch that worked at Walmart until a few months ago. A more easygoing guy would be hard to find...but Eva and I didn't know anybody else there, and that always puts me on edge.

I wish I could explain why. "What's the worst that could happen?", Eva asked me as I battled another stomach cramp, unsure if I was going to throw up, soil myself, or both. "I don't know, that's kind of the point",  I said. "Do you want to cancel?" she asked? "Hell, no!" I answered, and gathered myself together.

The get-together was to play Cards Against Humanity. This game has been around for almost five years and (of course) I only first heard of it a few months ago. I swear I exist in some alternative universe in which there is no such thing as popular culture. If you do, too...

Cards Against Humanity bills itself as "a party game for horrible people." The gameplay is dead simple: somebody reads a question with one or more blanks in it and everybody else fills in the blank(s) with responses printed on the cards in their hand. Whomever's response is the funniest, as judged by the questioner, gets a point. The whole notion of points and winning goes right out the door as everyone tries to gross each other out or drop each other's jaws with the dark humour of their response.

Did I mention this is not a game you want your kids to even imagine exists? The content goes beyond "adult" into a sick and twisted dimension packed with perverted depravity and depraved perversity. The extent to which you find this amusing will tell you how much you've been missing out not playing this game.

Glitch has the game and every damned expansion pack there ever was. So there we are, Eva and I, Glitch and his friends Brinn, Coralee, Jiminey and Ashlea, and Gaelan--five of those people I either didn't know at all or only knew by vague reputation. And....

It was a hell of a lot of fun, by which I mean we're all going to hell now. Eva and I won our fair share of rounds, but again, it wasn't as if anybody was really keeping score. Horrified laughter was the order of the evening and a good time was had by all. Including me. Really lightened my mood. Sooner or later I'm going to take to heart that there's nothing and nobody to be afraid of at these things.

Thank you, Glitch, for having us. Good to meet your gang and let's do this again sometime.

08 January, 2016

I Don't

"How do you know so much stuff?"

I get that question from time to time, and I'm always quick to refute its premise. I don't know very much at all. In fact, I'm demonstrably pretty frickin' stupid, pretty frickin' often.

Like anyone else with a deficiency, I have devised ways to cover it up. I make it a matter of great urgency to avoid having to do anything mechanical, for instance. I just try mighty hard not to be around in any place where gobsmacking whoozits into thingamajigs might conceivably occur.

The reason for that is quite simple: I have the mechanical aptitude of a common amoeba. Part of it is innate: my vision, especially on the periphery, is piss-poor and my depth perception is waaaaaaaaaaaa thump holy shit that's deeper than I thought; my co-ordination, likewise...isn't; and for whatever reason, I just don't seem to be equipped to visualize changes in three dimensions. This has resulted in my abject public humiliation more than once, most memorably when I was trying to pass the final test to be a summer intern at CAMI Automotive in Ingersoll.

I dearly wanted the job: it paid substantially more than I make now, in 1990 dollars. I'd aced all the preliminary tests and interview, and last up was a physical aptitude test. It came in two parts. The first involved putting discs on brakes and tightening them. I did okay on that: it was pretty straightforward. The next test was something called the "subassembly"...a word that coils my stomach 26 years later.

We sat at big tables. On each table was a subassembly. I have no idea what a subassembly actually is or does, and believe me, for the purposes of this test it didn't matter one bit. To describe it: it was a...thing. A complicated thing, with fifteen or twenty or eleventy squillion component...things...making it up. Each of us had a completed model on our tables, and a giant bucket of components: the object was to recreate as many exact replicas of the model as we could in 45 minutes. We were shown how, first slowly and then quickly...and that was it.

I might have done marginally better with a schematic in front of me. I would have done a great deal better with strictly textual instructions and each part labelled. (Take part A and screw it into the left side of part B...") Lacking both these things, I bombed in a way I'm not sure any candidate has ever bombed before or since.  The best subassembler completed 26 replicas in 45 minutes, I remember that. I think the average was around ten to fifteen. Guess how many I did?

Zero. Zilch. Sweet fuck-all.

I'm not sure words can describe the self-loathing I felt while I was trying to figure out what went where, and what step three was...wait, did I even do the first step right? what was the first thing I was supposed to grab, anyway?  Tears were threatening within three minutes and openly falling within five, then they dried up and were replaced by a cold hard ball of anger, which gradually dissipated into soulless despair.

A more resilient person would have taken such an abject failure that as motivation to improve a skill set he didn't have, and worked at it and worked at it and worked at it until could be not just a subassembler but a SUPERsubassembler. Me, I  slammed a door on a wide array of useful life skills. Then I locked it, bolted it, and put a whole bunch of furniture up against it just to be safe.

Oh, yeah, I know a lot.

A few jobs ago, we used to play various quiz games at lunchtime. I was usually the quizmaster, asking all the questions. It allowed me to soak up the answers for use weeks or months later, when everyone else had forgotten they were ever asked the questions. How do you know so much stuff? I read it once.

That's almost always the cold hard answer, really. Because I read it once. I piggyback on authors' research: historical fiction writers are at least as good as historical fact writers when it comes to interesting tidbits. Many of them have something to do with language, which I'm endlessly intrigued by and which offers many windows on many different worlds.

 Did you know the word 'fascinate' derives from the Latin fascinum, meaning  "godly penis"? (Isn't that...fascinating?)  The D in "D-Day" stands for "Day", making "Day-day" almost as repetitiously redundant as the La Brea Tar Pits ("the The Tar Tar Pits").  O.J. Simpson was originally cast to play the Terminator, but the studio balked, thinking he'd be unconvincing as a cold-blooded killer. Russia considered beer to be a "soft drink" until 2011.

Many Evas would say "that's nice, dear" to any of the little factoids I dredge up. Many other people might actually concede that those are actually interesting facts. I like to take it a step further, in my head, dragging in etymology whenever I feel like it. The O.J. thing, for instance. That's an instance of something that is astounding common: people mistaking persons for personas. ("Persona" is actual Latin, meaning what you'd expect, "mask" or "character"...and "person" derives from the same word. Which makes all persons personas. There's a deep thought.

 Bill Cosby is a good current example. When the first accusations against him surfaced many years ago, the women who made them were reviled...how DARE you, that's Cliff Huxtable you're impugning! DOCTOR Cliff Huxtable, if you please!

Or beer being classed as a soft drink in Russia. That makes me think of vodka, which is the diminutive of voda, "water". We have common tap water, and then "little" water, which is potently alcoholic. Did the very language make rampant alcoholism in Russia--the cause of 30% of all Russian deaths in 2012-- inevitable?  These are the things I think while I'm stocking shelves.

Back during a certain TV show's reign at the top of the ratings, the U.S. Coast Guard used to field dozens of calls a year from people very concerned about the folks stranded on "Gilligan's Island".  This seems moronic to most folks today, even as we read something on the Internet and believe it. I get caught every so often myself forgetting to fact-check something which conforms to and confirms my biases. Then somebody -- it's usually either Eva or  my friend Susannah -- calls bullshit on me and I learn something.

Bullshit, incidentally--see, now, there's an interesting word. Why do we say "bullshit" when we mean nonsense? Because it stinks? Lots of things stink...why "bull" in particular? Because "bull" in this sense actually isn't a male cow at all. It derives from old French bole, "deception; fraud; trick". (The shit was added for emphasis.)

My mind is always doing that with words, playing around, looking at similar words to see if they are in fact related. It makes me look smart. I'm not. I'd trade all this book knowledge for a nice thorough grounding in reality, the kind my brother-in-law, my stepfather, and all sorts of other Real Men (tm) have as a matter of course. In a heartbeat I'd trade it. I'd doubtless be living a much more productive life, and it wouldn't change my core beliefs on love...which means in all the respects I consider important I'd still be the same Ken. Hell, I know a man who is at least as book-smart as I am and who works with his hands all day, the kind of guy who can fix something by staring at it for a a while and telling it in a firm, manly voice to behave itself.  Mark my words: I envy that man. A lot.

But to even approach him in utility--in value, in other words--would require a complete tear-down and rebuild of my brain, starting in diapers (if not -- who knows? -- before). As it is, as fiercely as I'd like to know how to rewire a room, or something equally meaningful, I'd much, much rather download the skill, Matrix-style, than actually exude the gallons and gallons of skullsweat necessary to learn it.  You just know I'd zot myself into the next dimension.  You try teaching your cat algebra and see how far you get.

In the meantime, if I have to answer the question "how do you know so much stuff"? positively, I'll say "because I didn't know anything, once" and leave it at that.



04 January, 2016

Human Connection

I would ask my readers, if they can spare the time, to go here and read this. Please. You may find it illuminating.

Addiction, this article asserts, is not caused by "addictive substances"--at least not by those substances alone.

This runs so counter to the established mode of thinking that it sounds ridiculous. Of course heroin is addictive, and therefore using heroin will made you addicted to heroin.

Except in hospitals. Take diamorphine in a hospital for pain relief, over weeks and months...get discharged, and odds are next to nil you will turn to the streets to support your "habit". Even more telling, the stuff you get in the hospital is a hell of a lot more pure than anything you can score on the street. If the 'addictive substance' model of addiction had any validity, you'd have junkies streaming out of every hospital in the country. You don't.

Further examples are cited in the article: it makes a persuasive case that the 'addictive-ness' of a substance has surprisingly little to do with how people get addicted to it.

So what does? Isolation. Loneliness. Lack of human connection. Note the findings when Portugal decriminalized all drugs: addiction to injectable substances dropped fifty percent. But it wasn't because the drugs were suddenly quasi-legal: it was because Portugal took a caring, nurturing attitude towards its addicts, who were virtually all broken human beings beforehand. They gave them subsidized housing. They found them jobs. They made them responsible for each other.

THEY GAVE THEM SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR.  Besides the drug.

They CARED.

This dovetails rather well with the justice policies of another European nation: Norway. In Norway, the prison system would positively enrage a right-winger. The prisons look like spa retreats...so cushy you might be tempted to commit a crime so as to be sent to one. The recidivism rate? Sixteen percent. By contrast, Canada's is 28% and it's ALMOST 68% in the United States. It's pretty clear that if the object is to reduce crime,  giving people every reason in the world to "act out" is not an optimal strategy.

It turns out, in case after case on topic after topic, that human connection is absolutely vital to our mental health, both as individuals and as a society. This used to be implicitly understood, as recently as the 1950s, when most people knew their neighbours and those who kept themselves secluded in their own homes were looked at askance. Now, precisely the opposite often obtains: you're considered mildly crazy if you talk to strangers.

Your friends and loved ones were once strangers, you know.

Now, I'm not certain this tells the whole story: There is an undeniable genetic component to addiction. But even that link posits the percentages at 50-60% genetics and the remainder "poor coping skills".

How do you develop good coping skills? Three guesses and the first two don't count.

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I really have to be careful here, because I find myself solving every social ill under the sun with the words "empathy" and "connection". But you know...even if that's the wrong or incomplete answer to some of these things, it would still make the world a better place.




03 January, 2016

Movie Night

Eva and Mark and I just got back from watching MOCKINGJAY part 2, the finale of THE HUNGER GAMES series. Yes, it's still in theatres. Well, theatre. We had to go to Guelph to find a place still screening it. Given its release date (November 20th) and the way a certain space opera has supposedly utterly overwhelmed everything else showing at the cineplex, we expected an empty theatre.

Bzzt. It was packed. If it wasn't sold out, it was damned near. Not an issue for us: all three of us have no problem sitting in front rows. But what a shock.

I was a bit ambivalent about the first HUNGER GAMES movie, before I saw it. I hadn't yet read the books, and it was one of the few times I let a wave of popular culture carry me along. Eva and I very much enjoyed that movie, and the second instalment was even better.

The third was was bad verging on terrible: a blatant example of a Hollywood cash grab. There was no need, no need whatsoever, to split the conclusion of the trilogy into two parts: it turned a tight, lean franchise into a lumbering, plodding gabfest. Still, the charisma of Jennifer Lawrence operated as its own imperative: stick with me, she said to me, and I'll show you a spectacular finale.

Which this...wasn't. Quite.

Maybe it was the umpteen commercials we sat through -- a number that was excessive even by movie theatre standards, and which seemed positively farcical after a steady diet of Netflix. Or maybe it was the fact it was about four in the morning by my personal clock and I'd only slept three or four hours. Maybe I'm too picky: I've read the source material, after all, and I knew what was coming. But something seemed slightly....off about this film.

There were some incredible set pieces: one in a booby-trapped city square and another underground that's going to stay with me for a while. There was a morally nuanced plot that left me in mind of the maxim that war never determines who's right, only who's left. And Lawrence and Hutcherson give their best performances of the series. Still, what really bothered me was the sense of anticlimax -- a ferocious battle cut away at the climactic, pivotal moment to a hospital where the pivot point was explained!--and a multi-segmented epilogue that dragged interminably.  Perhaps the Hunger Games trilogy (it should have been a trilogy!) is a victim of its own success, but I was hoping for more.

And yes, I'll say it.

There's a scene in this movie, lifted almost verbatim from the book, between Katniss' competing love interests, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson)  and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Peeta asks Gale which one of them Katniss is going to choose, and Gale responds, "that's easy: Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can't survive without."

In one sense, of course, that's neither of them. Katniss Everdeen is a remarkably resilient character: if anybody can go it alone in the dystopian world of Panem, she can. But in a much larger sense it's both of them. Peeta was instrumental to her survival in the Hunger Games (though not quite as instrumental as she was to his), and Gale has been caring for her and her family for most of her conscious life. The bomb Gale won't admit to designing that kills Katniss' sister Prim makes the choice much easier for Katniss than it otherwise might have been.

I feel bad for the guy, I really do. He saved about 800 people from his district; he took care of Katniss' family while she was in the Games. He even volunteers at one point to go and save Peeta, which really ought to tell you all you need to know about his love for Katniss. I can't for the life of me think he meant to kill Prim--hell, he saved her and her cat from certain death in a bunker earlier in the series--but war can do some funny things to your moral compass. Things Katniss, of all people, can understand and heal him from.

Point being that Katniss would never have survived without Peeta AND Gale, among many others, and this talk of 'choices'  sounds awfully funny when my wife is watching it flanked by Mark and I.

Just saying.

Anyway, I'm still mulling over the movie in my head, picking nits but also unearthing some real chewy morsels of morality. So I have to say that despite some misgivings, it was a fitting end to a remarkable franchise. At least until the prequels come out. Gotta milk every last drop of money out of people, after all.