Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Provincialism, Eh?



A little while back I found myself getting a bit annoyed at Jaimie Weinman's dismissal of The Listener. I'll admit I got a bit heated, and wish there was an edit button so I could smooth out a few awkward statements, but my central complaint remains the same.

During June, the wife and I watched The Listener from beginning to end. It's still airing in Canada now, but it had already aired around the world, garnering some pretty eye opening ratings.

I don't what it was that made us like the show as much as we did. At first it was just nice seeing Toronto as Toronto on television, looking a heck of a lot nicer than I remember, and a heck of a lot nicer than where I live now. But as we watched the first few episodes, we found ourselves enjoying the "non-detective" elements - the repartee between Toby and his partner, the funny side bits where the glaring boss walks in on them, the light tone, and the back story. Eventually I found myself agreeing with Weinman a bit, in that I found the "mystery" elements less satisfying.

My wife loved the partner elements, and at some point in every episode, she would laugh out loud. The fact that almost everyone in the show seemed not only normal, but like someone who would believably be living that sort of life was also a selling point. Mind you, I did think that Charlie was a little too good looking for her role. The tight fitting outfits reminded me a bit too much of the usual CBS method of making female detectives wear tight pants, and form fitting t-shirts with plenty of cleavage.

Other than that small quibble, there wasn't much to complain about.

What I liked most is that, from a sci-fi perspective, Toby really has no guide to go by but himself. Also, he has control over his own gift. In Medium, Alison has no control over her gift, she just goes to sleep and a dream comes along. In season five, there were some hints that her dreams may be "heaven sent" in a manner of speaking, but all Alison can really do is sleep and hope to dream the right dream. In the Ghost Whisperer, Melinda is usually a passive receptacle for whatever spirit bumps into her. Toby, on the other hand, can actively go out and use his gift, and as the show progresses, he gets smarter in how he uses it.

I like that the writers really thought about the implications of not only the gift, but of others learning about it, and how they could interact with Toby. In one episode, when Charlie is tied up and held at gunpoint, she could communicate with Toby without the bad guy knowing, allowing him to successfully fool the bad guy into thinking that Charlie's back up had arrived. As the season progressed, and more people became privy to Toby's gift, the level of danger he was in began to increase, and events began to spiral out of control.

A number of my colleagues here had watched the show and loved it as well, and it has performed solidly in Canada so far. As far as the negative critical reaction goes, I guess it may just boil down to the self-critical nature of Canadians, because the show is a heck of a lot better than 90% of what was on the US Networks this year.

A Poem in Thanks and Gratitude

He would come over to see
she would see him and smile
he would step in a room where
she would see his progress
two pounds that week

They would go for a walk, holding hands
she would ask why he stopped
he said a coffee, something warm
she would say no, he didn't need one
snow fell softly that day

They would walk to a door
she would run faster and if
he did not move even faster to open it
she would call him inconsiderate
recriminations and apologies followed

She would slap my hand when
he reached for more meatballs
she would remind him of the correct fork
they used to twirl the spaghetti properly
using two hands, not one

They often watched movies together
his friends were not there because
she only wanted his attention, so
he'd tell his friends "another time"
popcorn was okay, but only diet cola

She taught him so very much
he didn't know how to thank her
except to turn and say goodbye

Monday, June 29, 2009

In Their Defense

These days any news about Google seems to be bad news, and always along the line of no good intention ever going unpunished.

The good deed they've been getting the most flack for these days has been their bold, unprecedented attempt to digitize the world's books.

When I first heard about this initiative, I loved it unreservedly, because I had wanted to do something similar myself.

Indeed, a lifelong ambition of mine has been to build a house somewhere with a lot of space, and add on a big circular library. You know, one of those tower like structures that's three storeys high, the shelves rise up to dizzying heights, with a massive stained glass window on the top. It would be like my own little wizard's enclave, a place where Raistlin would feel at home.

But could I hold the world's books? And for what purpose? In the event of Armageddon, or some sort of nuclear holocaust, a place that could help the world rebuild. It would be the center of a brand new civilization, and oasis of knowledge and learning in the midst of ignorance and savagery.

But when was the last time the whole world ended?

Maybe one day I will build a library like that, but it would only be an ornament, really. Not something that could enrich the lives of others, unless I wanted to turn my home into a public space, and I'm sure the wife would have reservations about such a plan.

Besides, what I imagined doing was and still lay firmly in the realm of my own imagination. In practice, I seem to have gone in reverse, as I have become one of those people who now sheds books after using them. But Google isn't talking about a cool idea, or a grand notion, they're in the business of making it happen.

And that's where I get mystified by the response Google has gotten. A huge number of the books they have been dealing with are out of print, the author has died but no copyright owner can be found, or their is no indication of the clear holder of the copyright. In other words, these are books existing in a form of purgatory, of no real use to society at large, yet representing a massive amount of intellectual capital.

What Google found was a gold mine that nobody wanted, and nobody had ever bothered to even look at. So when Google staked their claim on all that empty territory, put a ton of resources into making something out of what had been abandoned as nothing, why only then did the howls begin. Accusations of monopoly where flung with abandon. Google was said to have vile, nefarious plans for locking up all the world's information, and leaving mankind in the dark.

All because they began digging up books that had been left to rot.

The whole thing struck me as the rawest of hypocrisy. Let's say I found a book they had dug up, and I had to pay a fee to access it. Well, the very fact that I found out about the existence of that book was due to Google, and the fact that I could actually obtain access to a copy was due to Google. So why they heck shouldn't they be allowed to charge me? They did all the work, and I am reaping the benefit of that work.

As usual, what strikes me as common sense, often seems to be less than common, and I find myself on the thin edge of an argument wedge. Which is why is was gratifying to see Slate.com come to the rescue with an argument that puts paid to all that nonsense sprayed about by all those howling nincompoops.

Now if only a way can be found to make digital storage and retrieval permanent, then worries about the loss of information can be put to rest.

Crystalline storage, anyone?

One Night at the Legion

Grandfather pauses
darts swing down to his side
“Goddamn ragheads!”
he glares at the door
where three turbaned men
have just come in
“Got no respect!’

Shocked I put my hands on him
forestalling movement
“Don’t say that. They’re Ghurkas,” I say
he mutters darkly
I am ashamed of him and show it
and start to say so when
my Grandfather’s friend pulls me aside

“Leave it.
It ain’t for you to be talking so
Not to him.
His words is just the liquor
You should know better
For chrissakes he’s your Grandfather
Smarten up.”

I look forward to next week
when my Grandfather and I get to play darts again

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dad, That's So Lame...

The BBC brought out a strange, but oddly feel-good story recently. It's about a young man named Scott Campbell, who was asked to put down his beloved iPod for a bit, step into another generation's shoes, and get down with an old school Walkman for a week.

I remember back when I got my first cassette Walkman, but by then the technology had advanced enough to make them less monstrous than they had originally been. Still, CD Walkmans had come out just as I was hitting my teens, so I thankfully never had to live through the era of cassette tapes, and making mix tapes for girls I wanted to impress...or, err, not many, in any case. At least not enough to elevate the practice to an art.

In any event, remember taking all of my Christmas money, back when I was in my mid-teens, and plonking it down on a Sony CD Walkman, the best brand on the market. I carried that thing with me everywhere, listening and re-listening to The Canadian Brass as they played some of the great Baroque pieces. Using this I made my acquaintance with the Barenaked Ladies and their first album Gordon. On and on the list went, from MC Hammer to Tom Cochrane to The Little Mermaid. I never had a set taste in music, so an eclectic mix of music that didn't suck (or didn't seem to suck at the time) piled up in the bedroom.

Yet when I think back, even though I was a decade away from the iPod generation, those like me, raised on portable CD players really had the same experience as kids like Scott Campbell have today. That is, we were all raised in the digital realm. And even though I can chuckle a bit as I read Scott's findings, after spending a week with his Walkman, I can't connect to the irony in a way someone ten, even five years older might be able to.

It's funny, that. I lived through the formative years of the home video game market, old enough to have played ColecoVision, Atari, and even on the Commodore 64. I owned every iteration of Nintendo up until the N64, and fancied myself somewhat of a knowledgeable person regarding video games. Computers were the same for me, though I didn't really have access to my first home computer until around 1996. I used other people's computers and the school computers every chance I had until I finally had one at home to play with. But I jumped in a little later than some, hitting my stride in the era of Windows 95, never bothering to really have learned much of Windows 3.1 or DOS, other than what was necessary to reformat and reboot a computer.

Windows 3.1, is like the cassette Walkman. New technology, groundbreaking in a way, but yet awkward for all of that. In both instances there was yet a sense of limited potential, of how these items could be useful, but not in a way that really blew the mind. They were just difficult enough and limited enough in their use that they never passed the threshold of indispensability. But with their later iterations, the iPods, the Windows XPs and OS Xs, that all seemed to change. At some point information and entertainment technology metamorphosed into something else, something for more useful, flexible, beneficial, and at the same time insidious.

And looking at the latest gadgets, fitted with wireless power sources, biofeedback, and too many options to count, phones that are also computers, televisions, radios, and more, I have to wonder what sort of experience my children will have. How will technology mediate their life? Was I one of the last generations to see how life was lived before the digital era changed all of that for us?

Equity

Equal does not equal
equality
equality requires achieving
equitablility
a Brave New World where
Baryshnikov
is hobbled by leaden shoes and
Mozart
performs with fingerless mittens and
Einstein
is lobotomized to ensure he does not suffer
greatness

Why should anyone else
soar
while I am firmly on the
ground
it is not fair that I am not as
agile
and it is not fair that I am not as
talented
and it is not fair that I am not as
intelligent
and I demand that this situation be made
equitable

What others have I should also
have
for the act of my birth the world owes
me
and my payment shall be equality through
equitablility

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Napoletana

Previously, I mentioned a terrible experience my family and I had gone through at an Italian restaurant named La Dolce Vita, at the Jumeirah Beach Residence. And while I am sure there have been and will be many customers who will have enjoyed their food and their experience, the experience for us will be one best forgotten.

As we strolled away, slightly abashed after getting the phone back, the question was where we should try our luck. The wife wasn't so much in the mood to eat, afraid that the next place would be as bad as the last, so she lagged behind me as I soldiered on with a two foot whirling dervish, and a still sleeping tot in a a Phil & Ted's stroller.

Eventually we came upon Napoletana. It was an Italian restaurant, just like La Dolce Vita, with one key difference - it was packed.

That is usually a good sign.

So we went in, and our night went from bad to oh-my-God!

As in...Best. Night. Ever.



Instead of relying on low light and dark fabrics to hide dirt, this restaurant was awash with white. The reviewer in Time Out Dubai criticized Napoletana for it's sterile look, but I tell you, after seeing half a pound or whatever of dirt end up on my pizza at the last place, clean was fine and dandy with me.

We wasted no time telling our hostess the story of our misfortune, and a table was drawn up pronto. In fact, it seemed that half the staff wandered over to hear our tale of woe, and at least one manager was thinking on their feet that night, because they went out of their way to make sure that our experience with them was the polar opposite of what we'd been through.

And it was. The pizza had my wife flabbergasted. She went from monosyllabic grunts of pure enjoyment, to non-stop babbling about bringing her parents along, coming by for our anniversary dinner, and making this a regular stop from then until forever. And that was just three bites into her first slice.



The smells and noise woke the littlest one up in a hurry, and when she awakens, be at at home, in the car, or wherever, she gets testy of food isn't coming her way forthwith. Thankfully the other daughter was just waiting for her sister to wake up, so she could help her taste the wonderful food that had her mumma melting in her chair.



By the end of it all, we'd savored the bread basket with fresh oil and balsamic vinegar, more than enjoyed the pizza that came with a salad of rocket leaves and cherry tomatoes, and finished off a wonderful plate of fusili with rosee sauce, topped by fresh parmesan cheese.

One thing was for sure. We'll be back.

Wait Until Tomorrow

Today,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
into an old man
coming his way

the small man yells
grabs and then kicks
taking the old man’s things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
breathless and still
not my business I say
So I keep on
Going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
into a young woman
coming his way

the small man leers
runs his hand down her body
taking her things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
brooding and still
but it is not my business
so I keep on
going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
and into a child
coming his way

the small man shouts
knocks the child to the ground
takes the child’s things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
hesitant and guilty
but it’s not my business
so I keep on
going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
The small man sees me
as I run into his alley
after that man
going his way

I scream and I hit
the small man cries
I have ruined his things
remorseful I go
running away

I was wrong I know
I’ll say sorry, repay him
and he will have learned
we will become friends I know
the very next day

The Next Day
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
and into a woman
coming his way

Friday, June 26, 2009

Caveat Popina

With summer holidays approaching fast, and feeling relaxed and wanting to stretch our legs a bit, we packed the family into the Fortuner, and headed off for a drive to wherever.

I've always enjoyed heading out in that fashion. Just hop on a bike, or into a car, and start moving, without an agenda in mind or a particular direction you want to travel. Then as chance, traffic, and sudden whim dictates, a direction is chosen, and a path is set. On this particular night, our path, at first, led us to the French Bakery, just behind the Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road.

The French Bakery has been in Dubai for quite some time. In truth the "French" part of the name appears to be mostly for marketing purposes, as the bakery is actually Lebanese owned and run. You can get the most lip smacking manakeesh this side of the Al Reef Bakery, and beef fatayer that nobody, but nobody in this city can touch. And the sandwiches? Golly. They are about the only place that will freshly roast turkeys every day, carve them up, spread on a touch of brie, and place that between two soft, pillowy sheets which cannot be called bread, because to use that label would be to sully their magnificence.

Quite simply, they take the " out of luxury, and put it in lunch.

The interesting thing about the French Bakery is not necessarily what items you can buy there, but where you can buy their items. Their sandwiches are on the shelf of every Caribou Coffee and countless cafeterias across the city. The muffins rest in the display of every Second Cup. Indeed, these days, shop after shop, super market after supermarket, I always seem to see their wares popping up. And it make sense. Quality, in the end, brings the customers, and only with quality can you charge enough to make bringing in those customers worthwhile.

After our pitstop at the French Bakery, which was an adventure in itself since the normal road leading there was entirely dug up, and we were forced to take a winding circuitous route that led to the loading dock of the building, where a single lane led to a temporary cul de sac, big enough only to pause, kick out a passenger, and squeeze around to make room for the cars behind. Heading back down that little one lane path was a lesson in silent non-verbal negotiation where flashing hi-beams were the medium of communication.

Eventually the wife returned, and we were off, again to no particular place, just letting the flow of traffic dictate our path.

We eventually ended up at the Jumeirah Beach Residence, and, feeling hungry, we decided to park and look for something to eat.

The wife felt like Italian, and felt like Italian in the strongest manner possible, and staring out at use, just as we parked, like a shining star in the distance, beckoning us forward, was La Dolce Vita - "A Taste of Italy."

My daughter ran forward, entranced by the water fountain, and I follwed behind here, smiling at the waiter. Taking a menu in hand, I noticed the kids menu labeled "Bambinos" and I chuckled. Patting my little one on the head, I gave the waiter a wink and said "This is my little bambina."

And he laughed, a short chuckle really, winking back right back at me. It was like an episode of Leave it to Beaver shot in Gino-town.

When my wife finally arrived with the stroller, and the other wee one, blissfully asleep at the moment, we headed on in. An older, short, thick necked, and eerily quiet man showed us in. By the one or two syllables he let slip on the way, I we guessed that he probably was an honest to God Italian. I mean what could be better than that! It's like having Pancho Villa wander by when you order the flavorless, queasy making quesdailla at On the Border: Mexican Grill. And by gosh didn't he just look like an extra from The Godfather: Part II? Su-per!

Sitting down, an odd note was struck upon noticing the place mats, which had little diagonal slashes down the middle, separating the La Dolce Vita logo from the Wok Away! logo.



There's signs from heaven, and then there's placemats screaming at you to f'n rear in gear and bust a move down the road. Except all the signs in the world are no use when you're an obtuse ass being a bigshot Canuck and acting like he has a clue.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?

The menus came, and we, sorry, "I" decided on the fried calamari rings. I have this thing, in Dubai, where whenever I go to an Italian place, or some place that has "Italian" on the menu, I order fried calamari rings. Johnny Carino's, TGI Fridays, I've never been disappointed.

Until now.

When the "appetizer" came, it looked a bit odd, but we decided to give it a go. The fries were soggy and stale tasting, and the rings were flavorless, greasy, and rubbery, and for all intents and purposes appeared to have gone straight from the freezer to the under heated oil, and onto the plate, complete with a side of "tartar" sauce straight from a Kraft bottle.



We both ate a few, not that there were many to begin with, and tried to interest our daughter, who normally rips fries straight from our fingers, disallowing us any part of a share until she had had her fill, was entirely uninterested in what she saw on the plate. But in the end, we just couldn't finish this small appetizer. It was awful, terrible even, in the most terrible way.

Still, one bad appetizer is not enough to get me grumbling overly much. No, to do that, you have to serve the pizza with no plates to eat off of, have sand and dirt visible on the pizza, have the crust be such a soggy piece of mush that it makes wet paper look stiff. And on top of that, you have to bring my pasta order over with something entirely other than what I ordered in the bowl, smiling like you're some angel on high bequeathing a blessed gift, even though I specifically repeated the order four times!

My wife took on bite of the pizza, and spit it out. She had to wash her mouth out with the tepid water, which we'd poured into the whiskey glasses we'd been provided with.



I'm not much of a scene maker, or at least not very good at making scenes, but for the first time in my life, I stood up, told my wife to get up, got the kids and headed off.

Pushing through a crowd of waiters, all puzzled and alarmed at this behaviour, I wheeled the stroller over the the exit, the littlest one still blissfully asleep, and made my getaway.

Of course, being the Canadian I am, I paid the bill on the way. Though I did make them knock off the pasta, since the plate never touched our table.

But darned if I didn't make sure that everyone in the restaurant heard as I listed my grievances.

Actually, I sort of just mumbled a bit, confusing the Filipino hostess. But it was a good thing I wasn't over the top a-holish, because my wife had forgotten her phone on the table.

So there was at least one bright spot in the evening, and it came in the form of the same waiter I'd shared lamest chuckle in the world with earlier. He ran up to us, smiled, handed over the phone, and handily nipped our self-righteous anger in the bud.

Still, we were hungry. And we needed some place to go.

Motivator

Listen up here while I say
once more into the breach
chin up and all that
you know like Ice Cube said
you can do it
put your back in to it
and I will
in a little while

Really I am ready to go just
I need to be in the right mood or
I need a cup of coffee first
something to
get me going

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You Tell 'Em Ray!

"[T]o hell with the internet!...It’s distracting...It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

- Ray Bradbury

Old people are awesome. I can't wait until I am a cranky old dude who can say anything I want, to anybody, because I am old and I could give a rat's behind about what anyone else thinks...or am I like that already?

In any event!

Ray Bradbury is trying to save his local library. The story about this is interesting. I especially enjoyed reading how he met Bo Derek. How a fellow his age managed not to have a coronary when she said "I love you!" to his face, is a mystery for the ages.

Also noteworthy is some of the stuff that pops out of old Ray's mouth. One thing in particular he said has taken root inside me, something so true that it's truth smacks you over the head and makes you take notice.

“I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Growing up I was a library fanatic. I'd go to the library several times a week, enough so that, even though my family seemed to move every year, wherever I was the librarians seemed to know me by name. And no matter what library I was at, I always managed to find one of those comfy chairs that allow you to sit back and just read, forgetting all concerns about time and space until someone tapped my shoulder to let me know that the library had just closed.

Like Bradbury, libraries were my real schools. Sure I sat in class at high school, but more often than not I'd just be propping up my textbook to hide the book I was actually reading, while waiting for the endless borning-ness to grind to a finish. Since I had the habit of reading the entire textbook in the first week of class, it was rare that my attention was pulled away by something new and interesting my teachers thought to get across to me.

I wasn't the best student, for sure, but I wasn't a disruptive student, and what I did not know, or had trouble with, I always knew I could find what I needed at the library, and where I lived, I could always find a local library.

Funny how quickly times change.

We really need a new Andrew Carnegie today, someone of means who makes not only the spread of knowledge, but founding permanent homes for knowledge their own personal crusade. If, instead of spending gadzillions on the "schools of the future," organizations like the Gates Foundation could spend it on local libraries, directed more towards hard assets like books, and less toward more nebulous and capital intensive things like "internet access," then maybe libraries would not be in such a state of crisis.

As someone who sues the internet everyday, and almost every waking hour at times, I'm far from being a luddite. And while I do not personally prefer to store thousands of books in my own home, I do feel that there does need to be a place, a public place, where those books are stored, and made accessible. E-books and the like may be low cost and easy to distribute, but any electronic information far more susceptible to loss, corruption, or tampering than a book can ever be. When the day comes when I access an e-book file that is as old as the 1952 high school English text I keep at my desk at work, then maybe I'll revisit that view.

But until then...

a few more bon mots from Bradbury!

"I have total recall...I remember being born. I remember being in the womb, I remember being inside. Coming out was great."

“The children ask me, ‘How can I live forever, too?’ ...I tell them do what you love and love what you do. That’s the story of my life.”

The Battlefield at Night

Two occupants stretch across darkened plain
over time, first grappling, then coming to terms
they had marked their territory
apportioned areas, set conditions
achieving a peaceful equilibrium
until the newcomers came.

At first there were small incursions
a new party encroaching, moving in
settling down temporarily
and could be easily quieted
shifted away, to someplace else
but as surely as moon follows sun
they always came back.

Three parties danced around the darkened plain
two long established, one newly arrived
lacking the age or wisdom to understand limits
yet unceasingly aggressive, unremitting
and in their wisdom, the indigenous inhabitants
felt appeasement was best.

The strategy succeeded until another party arrived
three became four, the quest for space heated up
and nightly battles waged, the newcomers lashing out
eager to establish their space, at others' expense
the fighting leading, at times, to land for peace deals
territory temporarily ceding to necessity.

"What should we do?," he asked.

"Get a bigger bed," she said.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

At Last, an Iota of Sense

Roy Blount Jr. has gone and done the entirely unexpected - he has shown some common sense. Since the advent of Google Books, the Author's Guild has fluctuated from ambivalence to hysterics, managing to come off looking like a woodcut print of horse's rear in the process. When Amazon announced the Kindle 2, and the new text to speech capability, the Author's Guild sealed that image by swinging around their metaphorical billy clubs, smacking down the blind and visually impaired in an orgy of self-indulgent, grasping bleating.

Thankfully Blount ate his Cheerios today, and grew a little bit smarter. It seems that, after careful consideration, Blount has decided that scanning millions of books that are not published any more (out of print), cannot be found in any bookstore, and have disappeared entirely from the public view, and offering those up for sale, may actually be a good thing for writers. These "orphan" books, which provide no income for any party, yet are trapped by the inescapable realities of economics and copyright law (not worth printing in quantity - unavailable in the public domain) are finally getting a chance to find a new life in the minds of readers everywhere.

There are many times I have come across a writer whose works I have enjoyed, only to learn that many of their other works are unavailable. They have not been printed in ages, and unless I haunt the used book stores for a time, or search across the internet to track down an errant copy somewhere, anywhere, I am out of luck. Many, many excellent books have been published with small print runs, and have faded into obscurity, with copies being lost over the years, destroyed, or packed into little cardboard boxes, to be stored in the attic indefinitely. A literal Library of Alexandria disappears from our world with frightening regularity, and has ever since the mass printing of books began five centuries ago, but for the first time this attrition can be stopped, those lost books can be found, and new books in future can be preserved for generations yet to come.

While this may seem trivial to some if this was only about fiction, but what Google Books will do is scan everything. Biographies, memoirs, poetry collections, books on history, geography and more. This includes books from the US Civil War, or from before Confederation in Canada. Voices lost to general view may yet have a chance to resurface. In many a small town there are tiny collections in tinier museums, holding a single copy of a journal or diary from long ago. A single copy that never leaves that shelf, forever destined to be a curio looked upon by families and small groups on summer holiday, before they donate $5 to the local historical society and head out to go to Dairy Queen.

Of all the atrocities of the past, the great massacres, pogroms, and wars of extermination, I've always felt that the greatest atrocities were not what mankind did to itself, for that behavior is endemic and eternal, but what mankind does to the record of itself, to it's own mind, and capacity to rise above it's nature. The destruction of information has long been the greatest tool in the arsenal of every tyrannical regime that has existed throughout the history of mankind. By repressing information, or limiting access to information, human bondage is assured.

If there is one thing the recent turmoil in Iran has shown, the ability to disseminate information is the one weapon every repressive regime fears. When the information disappears, and the messages are destroyed, those voices disappear, and the cycle of repression, violence and lies is free to continue again.

But if a way can be found, to keep those voices alive, to record them permanently, for posterity, then that can only be a good thing.

In the Maker's Eyes

Everything needed was arrayed in a circle,
all the necessary elements,
the essential building blocks.

The brow tightened in concentration
taking in what was at hand,
a plan beginning to form.

No blueprints ware necessary,
nor instructions, for the maker knew
not only the what, but how.

Slowly things began coming together,
from nothingness, a form takes shape
begins to rise above the chaos.

Ever higher, with greater detail
the Maker builds, and at long last
adds the last, finishing touch.

Stepping back to view this masterful creation
the Maker gasps in horror, the form shatters,
and pieces rain to the ground.

The Maker sprints away in a rage
through the hallway, into the bedroom
as her sister laughs and hides.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There's Still a Pot of Gold Out There for Some

It seems that Alistair Reynolds hit the jackpot recently, when British publisher Gollancz offered him a ten year, ten book deal worth £1 million. When I first heard of this deal, it immediately put me in mind of Steven Erikson, who in 1999, signed a nine book deal with Transworld, worth £675,000.

It used to be that large multi-book deals were a staple of the mainstream publishers, a trend that fell away to the point where new authors can only expect one book, and if that does well, provisional two or three book deal. In the book "The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada, 1946-2006," Roy MacSkimming made reference to a practice publishers had of shepherding talent, giving them time to mature, and time for audiences to find their books. The mainstream publishers felt that readership built slowly, and there was little point in investing in any author unless it was for the long term.

Today that attitude has disappeared...except for genre publishers. Unlike contemporary fiction, where multi-book stories are relatively rare, genre fiction depends on the extended series. The trilogies, the decalogies, the 22 books and counting runs where readers can once again spend some time with Detective X, or go on another campaign with a daring space ship Captain who had won their hearts fifteen books earlier. For every Stephen King, who has built a career mostly on stand-alone novels, or Harlan Coben who has mostly done the same, there are five to ten successful series authors, people like James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, or David Weber, who cater to a very large, and very voracious fanbase all waiting for the next novel in a certain series.

For the author who is lucky enough to land massive deals as Erikson and Reynolds have, it must seem like winning the lottery. But from the point of view of the publisher, such extravagance may actually be a smart and conservative move. Give your writer enough money that they can live comfortably enough that they won't have to rush about on side projects just trying to make ends meet, and that writer will supply you with a steady stream of books that can be marketed to their fanbase, then packaged, and resold abroad.

The Peyton General Store

It’s pretty touch and go
at the Peyton General store
and it’s just like this
in each and every town

A beribboned little girl
sullenly takes a bag of candy
and limps awkwardly away
as her Father watches closely

A pretty young housewife
in a yellow summer dress
has trouble seeing prices
through oversize sunglasses

The High School Science Teacher
stands by the magazines
furtively waiting
until everyone has left

A middle aged woman,
Church Bingo regular
empties a purse full of pennies
to get a lottery ticket

A well known constable
pours himself a coffee
and casually walks out
leaving without paying

Who there would say anything?
To whom would anything be said?
Down there in Peyton,
good business, is quiet business

Monday, June 22, 2009

Going Seperate Ways

In the past two days I have come across two stories of family breakdown and separation that have managed to seep past the granite shield I affectionately refer to as my skull, and affected me. The first is by the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who often writes features for The Atlantic. In Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, Sandra outlines why she is ending her marriage, her actions, thoughts, and feelings behind embarking on her path. The second is the news that Jon and Kate Gosselin have filed for divorce.

Families fall apart all the time, for various reasons, an occurrence so frequent and common as to pass without comment. But when comment is made, and a lens is turned on to the reasons for a divorce, that's a different story.

In the case of Jon and Kate, assuming this is not some long term ratings gimmick, I can see how the pressures of celebrity, and conflicting personalities can conflict and lead to a less than perfect union. I can understand how two people can become disenchanted with each other, but what I have trouble comprehending is how any of that would matter when children are brought into the picture.

I am a child of divorce, and while the normal thought is that children who have lived through divorces will often find divorce to be socially acceptable, my experiences had just the opposite effect. Going through one divorce was bad enough, but witnessing my mother marry, and divorce twice only imbued a hard eyed view of divorce as a concept, and the behavior and attitudes that people will point to as reasons, or excuses, for their actions.

In the case of Sandra Tsing Loh, her reasons for divorce, which perhaps make sense to women like her, of her age and with the same outlook on life, don't appear similar for someone like myself. They appear frivolous and unforgivable. In her article, Sandra discusses her situation, and the situation of others she knows, others who all seems to have the same complaint - they want more excitement. Their husbands are to nice, too much "like women" for their tastes. And stable life, wonderful children, excellent living standard, nice house, beautiful things, and safety and security notwithstanding, they claim to be miserable. Even though for at least 99% of humanity the life they lead could only be the culmination of the wildest, most hopeless dream for the rest of humanity. Sandra and the women she describes are so blessed, so very lucky, that their complaints seem utterly incomprehensible.

In both cases, with the Gosselins and the Tsing Loh family, there are children in the picture. And like any children, they will accept what comes and adapt to their new life. But the reasons they had been put in that position are anything but legitimate. To escape violence, or an abusive situation, is one thing. But petty selfishness is another.

In Jon & Kate's case, we have a woman who has an obsessive need for control, and a man who resents being emasculated, but is too much of a coward to grow a pair and assert his prerogatives appropriately. They may be parents, and they may be adults, in a legal sense, but mentally and emotionally they come across as adolescents. Something which I think may be quite commonplace in North American society today.

In Sandra's case, there is a women, and men have often been guilty of the same thing, whose thoughts turn so inward, and become so self-centered that they espouse their selfishness as a virtue, by cloaking the baseness of their actions with lofty words and ideals. It's not selfishness, no, it's expressing a desire to "grow and change" and to "discover themselves."

On the NPR a few months ago, there was a story about Debra Gwartney, who decided to leave her husband, and take her two daughters with her, from Tuscon, Arizona, to Eugene, Oregon. While the plight of the father was mentioned briefly, how he became depressed, and desolate, the focus of the story was on how this woman was striking out on her own, discovering herself, pursuing her desire to change and grow, entirely oblivious to the fact that there were two other human beings for whom those motives were not theirs. She simply assumed that as she found her bliss, her children would follow her lead, grow up according to her plan, and act, think, and be as she intended.

But it didn't work. The daughters bitterly resented her, resented being torn away from their father, being cast into a new life, and for what? To the mother, it was the sensible quest to explore their personhood. To the children, it was an inexplicable act of selfishness. The rest of the story chronicled the dissolution of that family, of how the daughters grew ever more alienated, and how the mother, entirely unable to discipline or even influence her daughters, lost them entirely, to drugs, and to the world, for a good long time.

In the case of Debra Gwartney, the inability see past herself, to truly try to see the situation as her daughters might see it, led to this tragedy. As the story of the Gosselins and the Tsing Lohs progresses, the question will be whether their narratives will follow a similar track.

The Optimist

He said he was an optimist
She said "Let's see if that's true."

She asked him to hold up both of his hands.
With one hand he had to count the negatives.
With the other hand, count the positives.

"And remember," she said, "the rules."
He looked at her blankly for a moment.

"For every negative, count two positives,
and look for that cat who
just might want your tongue."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Milestone, English!

Congratulations are in order for the English language. It appears that the 1 millionth English word was officially accepted into the English language last Wednesday.

One million words. Actually, a million and two or three, since there were other words entered into the official canon in the same batch.

Web 2.0 has the honor of being the millionth word, the word which establishes English as a language no person can hope to master in their lifetime.

How big would the scrabble dictionary be, to incorporate all those words? Even with condensed definitions and small font, you couldn't list more than 50 items a page. Which would make it, how many pages? Two pages for a hundred, twenty for a thousand, two hundred for ten thousand, two thousand for a hundred thousand, and twenty thousand pages for a million.

You would need a twenty thousand page dictionary to list all those words. Heck, even if you doubled the number of words per page, could you still imagine carrying around a ten thousand page book?

That's the entire Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan right there, with way more words per page. Which means that you wouldn't be carrying around a dictionary, so much as a shelf busting reference set.

Of course you could fit it all on a Kindle nicely, but good luck flipping through quickly.

Even if you find the perfect medium to carry all those words around in, there is yet the fact that this collection could never be truly authoritative. With every branch of science, industry, sports, and academia constantly creating new terms, or changing the meanings of old ones, it truly is an impossible task keeping tabs on the entire English language.

Which is why I can see just how a student of English might see the task of learning English itself. For even if you, as a teacher, manage to help your students learn several thousand words, what you would have given them would only be a mere cupful, with the ocean itself right outside the door.

Floyd

Sitting on a bench in Centennial Park
a small stream of water whistles near
right out to the bay
tiny wavelets on the rocky shore.

I could smell, see
only peace
contentment
quiet this morning.

Hi,” a dirty hand appears
inches from my nose.
I look up into blue eyes that
challenge until the hand is shaken.

I walked a long way.
Orillia by Rama, to Toronto,
" he says
"And then back here.
I walked that whole way
,” he says

I’m Floyd by the way,
and who are you?,
" he asks
I used to sell stoves and appliances
That was the last job I had,
” he says

I have a degree you know.
Finance. I have a Masters actually,
” he says
I graduated, you know.
Magna Cum Laude,
” he says

And after grad I worked at a bank,
for Royal, actually.
” he says
For twenty years.
Then they told me to take a hike
.” He says.

I got another job
But things got bad,
" he says
"And they told me to take a hike.
So I did,
” he says.

In an hour he’s gone.
I stretch and sigh,
reaching for relief
that doesn't come.

As he shambles off,
his back moves from side to side
in rhythm
with his arms and legs.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day

As I was driving to work this morning (or late last night on the other side of the world), my phone started ringing. I'd left it in a pocket of my bag, one of those many zippered, multi-pocketed Delsey affairs, so it took a minute for my blindly groping hand to find it. Though I'd half swerved into another lane, I was lucky only I only had to bear the honk of an outraged Nissan Sunny speeding past me. As I reached for the hands-free, I stopped, startled by the display.

Once in a blue moon, at this time, if the kids are extra energetic and have decided to drive their mother crazy at that early hour, I'll get a call from the wife informing me of this fact. So while a call from home at that time was not a regular occurrence, it was not unusual either. But It wasn't a call from home, or at least home as it exists for me here. It was a call from my other home, the one far away on the other side of the world. It was a call from my father.

Growing up, I'd had a tumultuous relationship with my father. When I was 9, he had moved from Vancouver to Toronto to find work, and a place for our family to move to since the economy on the west coast had collapsed, and we had needed to move. A few months later, my mother, sister and I had followed, only instead of going straight to Toronto, we went to Ottawa, to visit my grandparents. What I wasn't told then, nor would be for a few more months, was that this stop wasn't temporary. We weren't going to be joining my father later, because my mother had filed for divorce.

I never learned the reasons why, or I had learned "reasons," but those were fictions, created for the convenience of the moment, with the truth sacrificed on the altar of need. You see, while I did have a tumultuous relationship with my father while growing up, up until that point in my life, that wasn't the case. Sure my father could be stern, strict, and had a temper (all of which are present in myself in abundance), he was also an integral part of my life. Some fathers neglect their children, eternally unaware of what their kids might be doing, who their friends are, or what they wanted in life. Some fathers pay attention, but stand at a distance, encouraging their children, but otherwise going about their business in a hands-off manner. My father wasn't like that at all. He loved being a part of my life. He was a coach on my soccer team, and on the many t-ball and baseball teams I played with. He volunteered with the Beavers and Cubs I had joined, helping to lead camping expeditions, and was always ready to go outside to play catch, or to drag me and my sister off on a camping trip. But when I was 9, that all ended, and I would never have a chance to know that father again.

What developed after that is a story familiar to many children who have gone through a divorce, whose custodial parent has decided that keeping their children hundreds of kilometers away from their other parent is "for the best." Visits with Dad became a strange, almost alien affair. At first he would drive up to pick up my sister and myself, take us to where he lived, then drive us back a day and a half later. As a kid, I never thought much of this, other than that we had to sit in the car a lot. But from where I am now, I can only see what a commitment that was. Toronto to Ottawa is six hours one way, which meant that my father would drive 12 hours on a Friday, losing a day of work, and 12 hours on a Sunday, just to see us for a single full day. And for a sub-contractor who gets paid by the hour, who only gets paid when working, this was hard to do. Especially since court ordered support payments don't take any of that into consideration.

As I grew older, seeing my father only a few times a year, when he was allowed visitation, I found myself drawn into a narrative that cast one side as a villain, and the other as the suffering victim. My father, I was told, was many things, and none of them positive. If I needed money for something for school, for some new shoes, or whatever, I would be handed a telephone receiver and told to ask my father for some money. I didn't like doing this, but didn't know what else to do. And as my father put it one time, "how come whenever you call me, it's only to ask for money?"

It was quite an indictment, and it hurt. I felt ashamed every time I had to ask, because I'd realize that the last time I had called, had also been to ask for something. When I would visit my father, at times he would be angry, which at that age seemed like anger directed towards me. From where I am today, I can see that anger wasn't directed towards me, but towards the whole situation.

Eventually my father couldn't afford to drive up to Ottawa any more, but since I was old enough, I would go with my sister on the Greyhound to see him. The visits were generally brief, and with each successive visit, I seemed to connect less and less with him. By the time I was in my mid teens, we had nothing in common at all, and could barely even speak to each other without getting into a fight.

I had read about this sort of alienation between parents and their children, especially between fathers and sons, and while the writers always approached the subject for the point of view that this was not a natural state of affairs, I couldn't see it that way. It seemed perfectly natural to me. He and I, my father and me, we were two different creatures, speaking a different language, entirely unable to comprehend the other. So it was, and so it went, until one day in my late twenties, when we had an all out, roof-raising argument.

Up until that point, for nearly two decades, I had been soaked in a narrative about my father, not as he was, but as I was meant to see him as. The facts of what had happened, the facts as I knew them, I learned, weren't facts at all. Just a version of events, grounded as much in truth as in fantasy. He was angry that he didn't know me, didn't really know me, that had not been allowed to be a part of my life, to get to know the man I would become.

As I sat with my daughters last night, talking with my wife, and thinking about our next child, due in a few months, and whether it would be a boy or a girl, the thought struck me. How hard must it have been for him? Every day I get home from work, and two sets of running feet start screaming my way, to welcome me home, to give me a hug, and to ask for a kiss. Every day, at some point, we'll wrestle or read or play. As they grow older, they will want to do other things, things that I know, absolutely, and without a doubt, that I will want to be a part of. I want to coach their soccer team, or help out at their dance troupe, or drive the van filled with their friends over to band practice. The want that I feel is so powerful, so pervasive, that I simply cannot imagine what it would be like were I suddenly, one day, prevented from doing so. The very thought that I would lose my girls, have then taken out of my life, fills me with terror.

Should that happen, I am sure I could go on living. But it wouldn't be a life I had chosen, or wanted. It wouldn't be a life I could face with equanimity. But it would be a life, I am quite sure, that I would feel undying anger and enmity at being forced into. The same life my father was forced into.

This morning, as I spoke to my father, I truly felt that I really knew him, because he was also me. We weren't really different at all. Beyond just being fathers, we share a similar character, a similar view of the world, and a similar sense of the importance of family, and of our own responsibilities for our families. And though we can never changed the gulf of years where this wasn't so, I can only hope that with my own children, and with my own family, I can use that experience, and ensure that history stays in the past, so that a new narrative can form.

The Functional Truth

We're all liars.

We lie like we're breathing air.

It's just a part of our disgusting nature.

We're always told lying is wrong.

The truth, whatever it may be, is always better.

No matter how painful, the truth is always best.

Just tell the truth.

The truth, you see, will set you free.

And it surely would.

Which is why it is better to say -

Honey, you look beautiful in the morning.

or

I'd love to take out the garbage,
right now, right this second,
with only two minutes left in the game.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Go Lanka!

I was chuffed, I tell you, watching Sri Lanka absolutely emasculate the West Indies at the T20 World Cup tonight. I had cheered for the Windies throughout the tournament, wanting them to do well. But Sri Lanka, you see, them's my boys.

The destruction really started with Matthews destroying the Windies opening lineup in the first over, by bowling three wickets, ending the over at 2 for 3. Commentators have already gotten used to saying "The Three Ms" meaning Mendis, Malinga, and Muralitharan, in reference to Sri Lanka's powerful bowling lineup (by far the strongest set of bowlers in the world today), and as my wife commented during the match, they are going to have to change it to "The Four Ms."

Prior to Matthews destruction of three of the Windies best four batsmen, there was Tillakaratne Dilshan's incredible innings where he stood, not out, for the entire 20 overs, ending just shy of a century, with the highest single game run total of the tournament. But that's not all. He has the highest overall runs of the tournament, and by far and away the most boundaries. As the former Sri Lankan giants, like Jayasuria, and Jayawardene fell ignobly during the innings, Dilshan remained, both the unmovable object and the unstoppable force. Put it this way, Dilshan's total came close to doubling the output of the rest of his team - combined.

Now our household is getting set for the big showdown. The Pakistan vs. Sri Lanka match will be more than just a match, more than just a finals with a World Cup on the line. There is still a lot of bad blood between the two squads on account of the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan squad a few months ago. Pakistan, finalists during the last T20 World Cup, will be itching to ring that bell, but this is Sri Lanka's first real encounter with Pakistan since the attack.

Watch for sparks to fly.

Gibbon's Decline and Fall

Kicked and smashed and hammered by fate
in a most cruel and uncompromising manner
the possibility of defeat approaches fast
and there are no friends left to help you

The Pax Romana was once thought eternal
but they succumbed to a vice of vision internal
adamantly refusing to see what they were
they preferred to see what they once had been

Americana, Britannia with hubris and might
has developed a narcissistic affliction
like the Romans who passed in flames
at least one sun of empire has already set

Who are the screaming barbarians now
the rampaging Visigoths who will appear
carrying a banner of night with a bloody roar
preceding the next fall of man

Take from this a single thought
if you consider yourself in too much detail
you will convince yourself you only exists
and then there will be no reason to live

So you must make a pact with yourself
if ever to earth you tumble and fall
there is one thing to refuse to do
and that is to refuse to stand again

Per Ardua Surgo

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hanna Montana and the New Age of Equity

I came across a small item on a New York Times blog called "Moral of the Story" about the singer Miley Cyrus (Well, to be honest, it wasn't that small). It seems that Ms. Cyrus feels that the prices scalpers charge are totally not fair, and has decided to, like, do something about it.

Sorry, I sound like I'm making a mockery here (can't help it - it's my nature), but in truth I'm entirely behind what Ms. Cyrus is doing.

As someone entirely raised in the digital age, I'm sure it struck Cyrus as odd that paper tickets would even be needed. Airline tickets are sold electronically, money is transferred the same way, and pretty much every form of communication between living and breathing human beings has been placed within an electronic medium. What's a videophone for if not to eliminate the unnecessary tedium of actually going over to see see someone and have a chat? So paper? Not only "how analog," but also "like, why?"

Every generation, up and until the current one, has marked special moments of their lives with physical mementos. Be it a Polaroid of a drunken house party, the stub of a movie ticket from that first date, or the concert ticket you saved, which reminded you of the night you "became a man (or) woman" it was always something physical, some tangible connection to a past event or place. The current generation uses digital photos, texts, and emails in the same way. So much so, that everything else is only so much useless junk. Indeed, why keep a ticket stub from a concert when you have hundreds of photos and videos stored on your mobile showing the event itself? What would be the point of keeping that little stub?

In that sense, perhaps Miley Cyrus was the perfect age to see as obvious what most everyone else wouldn't have been able to fathom. The way things were done, need not be the way things continue to be, and the accepted, or at least acknowledged practices of the past (i.e. scalping) do not necessarily have to be carried forward into the future. In that sense, I salute this move, though I do see it as a noble, though mostly futile gesture.

Electronic form or not, I think scalpers will find a way to keep on keeping on. Instead of hawking the physical tickets outside a concert, they just carry around an iPhone, ready to transfer that e-ticket to the highest bidder.

Johnny Mac

Since this is bad poetry week, here is an early "historical" poem I wrote about Sir John A. MacDonald.

I was looking for you the other day
but you weren’t there
I heard you’d left long ago
I don’t think I’ll find your like again

Things might not be as they are
if you were still with us
to hold us by the hand
guiding us with your fire

You bound us all in ferrous ties
from sea to shining sea
de la mer ver brilliante la mer
un mare usque ad mare

When the annexationists advanced
the old flag, the old man
the old policy you screamed
infusing us with that belief

The doctors said you wouldn’t live
but you soldiered on
so your dream would not die
though it may stop your fading heart

A father to the nation
Riel became you curse
as you bowed to orange anger
nearly tearing us asunder

You often staggered drunk
into the town and to the House
everyone knew the truth of it
yet you still kept going

Healing the rifts as best you could
you held us all together
defiantly shouting down defeat
emerging triumphant in the last

You are where our journey starts
not at Vimy r at Normandy
or Johannesburg or Ypres
but at a tiny grave in Cataraqui Kingston

I may be the last to know of your sacrifice
aside from the face on a bill
or the names of a school or road
your descendants have forgotten you

I remember what you once said
“when fortune empties her chamberpot
on your head, smile – and say
we’re going to have a summer shower”

I wish you were here right now
you’d know what to do
you’d get us by somehow
I know you would Johnny Mac

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Transitions

Last night was an interesting night, full of twists and turns and changes of plan. When I arrived at home, it was only to be informed that our eldest daughter was sick, or more accurately, still sick. She has had the same hacking cough, with the same fluid filled lung sound for about a week and a half, and although we had been to the doctor before, it appeared that the prescribed treatment was ineffective. Our daughter was still coughing like she had consumption, which was worrying, yet was still so full of energy that she appeared the perfect picture of health, which alleviated our worries somewhat.

So it was up to me to sit at home and watch the little one, daughter no. 2, Kathleen, as her sister Mackenzie was led out to see "The Dock-or" as she, in fact, made sure to tell Kathleen in person.

"I have to see the Dock-or, okay. I'm sick. I go see the Dock-or. You stay here."

It was odd and illuminating to see this little two and a half year old take on the airs of an adult, imperiously deliver her orders, then kiss her little sister goodbye before heading off. Apparently she imperiously told the other kids at the clinic that she was sick and going to see the "Dock-or." After the Doctor had seen her, so I am informed, Mackenzie made sure to remind her that she was owed a lollipop, like she'd been given the last time she had seen the "Dock-or."

Hearing my wife tell the tale, I had to laugh. Not only at what seemed my daughter's surprisingly prodigious memory, but at how she seems to have taken on airs of royalty, and commands all those around her. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. Colds are one thing, which don't cause me to bat an eye. They are common enough as it is, and incredibly common for children. But persistent colds that produce lungs full of fluid, such that at night it creates a symphony of rattling breath is another matter.

As an asthmatic, who has lived with the disease for twenty years, I'm well past the age were my breathing would grow shallower and shallower without my noticing it in some way. Asleep, half-asleep, or awake, I respond in the same manner. Get up, stumble over to a certain drawer, take two to three puffs from a certain inhaler, and go back to bed, breathing freely and easily. I've done this same routine awake, half awake, and even asleep, as far as I can gather from the few times I've awoken with an inhaler in my hand and no recollection of how it had gotten there.

But a little girl like Mackenzie hasn't developed the same responses, and at night over the past week, I can, at times, swear that her breath grows ever more shallow as the night progresses. And it worries me to the point of nightmares. I worry that she may have something worse than a cold, like pneumonia. But that's an acute problem, a doctor can solve in relatively short order. Which leads me to my greater worry, that she will be like me, an asthmatic.

I grew up in houses filled with second hand smoke. There was second hand smoke in the cars, in the houses of friends and relatives. I could never scape it. IN the car, I could alleviate the onslaught somewhat by rolling down the window and sticking my head and shoulders out the window as we barreled down the highway - which provoked no end of motherly screaming. But by issuing an ultimatum, I usually managed to convince the others in the car to put out their cigarettes, at least for the remainder of the ride. I wasn't an asthmatic at that time, but as I look back on it, maybe my body knew something was up, for on my 12th birthday, I had my first real asthmatic episode, strong enough that I ended up in the hospital, and left a day later with a bag full of medicines, and a diagnosis of chronic, life long condition.

Second hand smoke is what I blamed for my asthma. I had been healthy as a child, and only became an asthmatic after years of constant exposure to second hand smoke. But as I listen to my daughter's rattling breathing, I begin to wonder. Our household is smoke free, and always has been. Nobody, but nobody, friend, family, or important guest, is allowed to light up here. With the punishing heat of the summers here, I usually keep my daughter inside in the summers, and only outside when the weather is clear and relatively cool. This could mean that particulates in the air inside are the culprit, but my wife is fanatically clean. Dust, and particulates don't survive her housekeeping kung-fu, and even if a spot was missed, the wife insists on bringing in outside help one a week for extra special concentrated attack on whatever had missed her eye.

Which leaves my sitting confused and dispirited. I worry my daughter has inherited my condition, regardless of the lengths I and my wife have gone to ensure that our environment was clean, and entirely free of all those elements that I had always believed led to what happened to myself. I imagine my daughter, wanting to go run as fast as she can, and slowing down, drained of energy, like I was so many times, struggling to draw in shallow breaths. I can just see my reaction, at sometime or another, as I hear my daughter's breath get shallower and shallower, as the lung engages in a vicious cycle, that leads to ever more breathlessness.

When the same happened to me, my mother went to the pharmacy to get the medicine I had been prescribed that day. A kindly lady at my school had dropped me off at the hospital, in contravention of school policy (which, if followed, may have eventually resulted in my own tragic end), where I informed the doctors that I'd already had thirty or more puffs of my inhaler that day, which had my heart beating at a massively accelerated rate. They put me on a mask, but that meant only giving me more of the same medicine I had already overdosed on, but at least I had a prescription, even though I had no money to buy the medicine with. So ended up on the street, barley making it home by a combination of bus, taxi, and foot when I ran out of money for the taxi, and ended up on a couch at home.

The feeling of little to no energy, and even less will to get up and do anything about it scares me to this day. My inhaler had ceased to be effective in relieving my breathing for anything longer than five minutes, and by that point I had used an entire inhaler in one day, at least 40 times the limit inscribed on the side of the canister. When my mother got home after work, and saw me lying on the couch, she didn't seemed particularly worried, which is entirely reasonable, since she had no personal experience with asthma. She couldn't see how seriously wrong things were with me, and in my state, I didn't have the breath to tell her. I didn't have the energy to move, and was literally trapped in my body, unable to cry for help, or even help myself at that point.

From my mother's point of view, I am certain it appeared like I was having one of my frequent migraines. I'd been getting those since I was six or seven, frequently enough that seeing me in that state was nothing new. Luckily, however, I had my prescription in my hand, and my mother was perceptive enough to notice what it was, and left to get my medicine. When she finally returned, a bit more concerned at that point since she'd spoken with the pharmacist about the mountains of pills she had to give me, which went far beyond the normal puffer she would pick up, I was almost gone. With my breaths growing steadily shallower, and without the energy to scream, speak, or even whisper, I felt the world around me start to fade. Things became blurry and faded, and I began feeling that thread of thought, of who I am, where I was, and what was happening, slip away. And then, the next thing I remember was hands pulling me upward, putting a handful of pills in my mouth (12 of one kind, 4 of another) and pouring water in my mouth to wash them down.

The doctors called it "shock therapy." The basically shocked the lungs with steroids, to to stop my lung's asthmatic reaction, forcing the airway open. The pills continued for a few weeks, in addition to a new inhaler I had to take along with my old one, but I could breathe again. Eventually I was weaned off the pills, and well enough to be as active I was used to being. I was never sure if my mother realized just how close she had been to losing her son, as we never talked about that night. But the memory of coming so close to dying was permanently ingrained in me, to the point that, on at least three occasions later in life, when the very same vicious cycle kicked into gear, I knew enough about what to do, and had made sure I always had a reserve of cash just in case, that I was able to get the appropriate help in time.

Which brings me back to where I was last night, as I listened to my daughter's rattled breathing, overwhelmed by worries accrued through a lifetime of personal experience. I had no choice but to shelve my worry for the nonce, as by that point we were late for a Christening party my wife's old schoolmate was hosting. It was a big, fancy affair at a hotel, and we had to get going.

By the time the party was over, I felt I had less to worry about. Though my daughter still cough that rattling cough, she had spent almost the entire time at the party out there on the dance floor. She danced for two hours straight, then ran around playing hide and seek with a couple other girls almost up until it was time to leave. The few times my wife or I had ventured onto the dance floor to dance along side her, that imperator regina had surfaced, and Mackenzie quickly ordered us off the dance floor. At two and a half, she was already acting like a fifteen year old, mortified at the thought that mom and dad would get down and boogie in sight of her.

The crowd seemed happy to have her up there and dancing, and the Emcee even started mimicking her dance moves. My little one really got that party started as, one by one, a laughing adult came on to the dance floor, looking down at this little girls bopping away, and began dancing along side her. The hostess was o taken with the whole thing, that she brought out a big present and gave it to Mackenzie on the dance floor. Mackenzie only stopped dancing long enough to take the present, run over to me, and say "Dada, hold this," before returning to her place in the center of the gyrating mob.

One thing about asthma is that it robs you of energy. You cannot draw enough oxygen into your lungs because your lungs secrete a certain fluid that actually forces the lungs to close. So the wet, rattling breath of an asthmatic means that the lung walls are collapsing. It is a serious, and dangerous sign. But for a non-asthmatic, the rattling sound of fluid in the lungs is not a sign of superb health, but it also is not attended by the same loss of energy, and downward spiral into further and further breathlessness.

Watching my daughter there, using up more energy than a CANDU reactor can put out, I didn't feel so worried any more, at least about the possibility of asthma. I'm sure if she keeps this love of the dance floor going forward, I'll have entirely more prosaic concerns, especially when she hit her teens and starts chatting about the last cool club she'd heard about. But that's a problem for a different time, and a different me. For now, I can only be thankful, that a little music, and a little dancing has allowed me cease worrying so much, to smile, and to gain a precious memory that I can bore friends and family with for the rest of my days.

Wait Until Tomorrow

I think this was the third or fourth poem I ever wrote. I wanted to try and create a structure that was somewhat loose, but still recognizable, with a small, faint rhyme scheme. I wasn't overly successful in that regard, but it was something.


Today,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
into an old man
coming his way

the small man yells
grabs and then kicks
taking the old man’s things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
breathless and still
not my business I say
So I keep on
Going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
into a young woman
coming his way

the small man leers
runs his hand down her body
taking her things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
brooding and still
but it is not my business
so I keep on
going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
and into a child
coming his way

the small man shouts
knocks the child to the ground
takes the child’s things
and jumps into an alley
running away

I see this and stare
hesitant and guilty
but it’s not my business
so I keep on
going my way

The Next Day,
As I walk down the street
The small man sees me
as I run into his alley
after that man
going his way

I scream and I hit
the small man cries
I have ruined his things
remorseful I go
running away

I was wrong I know
I’ll say sorry, repay him
and he will have learned
we will become friends I know
the very next day

The Next Day
As I walk down the street
I see a small man
he jumps out of an alley
and into a woman
coming his way

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

RIP Age of the Broadcast

Not long ago I got into listening to podcasts. I'd discovered I enjoyed audiobooks, as long as the narration was decent, but as I delved further and further into the depths of the iTunes store, into those dusty online back rooms where they shove the free podcasts, I discovered a host of great stuff that I had never heard of before. I ran into Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, then came across The Leviathan Chronicles, and after that I met up with Mr. Garrison Keillor, and found the brilliant folks at This American Life.

Each one of these podcasts has been incredibly engaging and enlightening. Hardcore History deals with history the way only a very few (and the best) of my old teachers took on the subject. The Leviathan Chronicles was an eye opener. Though the writing wasn't as polished as it could be, and the odd anachronism or historical mistake that momentarily pricked at my willing suspension of disbelief, the sheer aural feast this podcast provides puts most modern radio dramas to shame. It is true theatre of the mind, with the same speed, intensity and action packed pace of the Bourne movies. Fans of Lake Wobegon need no introduction to Garrison Keillor, though I would point out that if they enjoy that kind of humor, then they will also enjoy CBC's The Vinyl Cafe. And when fiction, comedy, or ancient history are not in order, This American Life really seems to be able to delve into the complicated and complex issues of the day and illuminates them, making them understandable to the average Joe on the street.

As of late, I find myself filling up my wee iPod shuffle to the brim with these podcasts, listening to them on the way to work, at the gym in the afternoon, on the way home, and whenever I'm sent out of the house on a mission to procure milk, bread, or anything else that Command General Better Half thinks is needed. I used to queue up the news online, waiting for The National and CTV News to load, but as of late I find the stories flat, the in depth analysis lacking, and little to really hold my attention. Forget watching CNN International, which is mostly back to back Quest Means Business, or promos for something or other Cristiane Amanpour did lately. If I'm in the mood for watch the news with an ironic smile, I might turn on Fox News, but I can only stand up to 20 minutes of that at a time. Plus, you can't really take TV with you, let alone watch any while driving. But podcasts? Pdcasts can come from anywhere, and can go where you go.

And that's where the genius lay. Ten years ago, I could never have tuned into the BBC Radio 4 Friday Night Comedy's "The News Quiz." To say the least, Canada was outside of the BBC's broadcast radius. Even today, with time shifting and 1,000 channel cable packages, it would still be hit or miss whether I could tune in, and even if I could, I couldn't take the show with me. But with podcasts, the very best the world has to offer, from comedy, to news, to stories, can be had by anyone, anywhere.

Lying Flat in the Grass as the Clouds Float By

In truth, I should really burn all these early poems, bury the ashes, then salt the earth around them, but what the heck. Though I have never been a stoner, I decided to put myself into the frame of mind of a 4/20 philosopher. Back in university, there were any number of dorm mates who I could draw on for inspiration.

Then :
The ‘Golden Days of Yore’
the good times, it seems, are gone
what did Hobbes say?

Now :
Light arises from darkness
look at ancient Greece and us
any resemblance?

Laws :
Human, Natural, Divine
inane, insane, mere magick
but a requirement for life

Self-Organization:
A term
from chaos patterns arise
a perfectly organized tapestry

Entropy:
Lack of order
Reason why things blow up
Science seems to know this

Nothing:
Emptiness, absence
occurs when order is absolute
quite dreadfully boring I hear

Sky:
Place of endless freedom
but science has shown
even the sky has limits

Neutrino:
Unstoppable
particle without limits
absolute freedom, yes?

Marble :
Toy in a child’s hand
look at the Earth from space
does God play marbles?

Cockraoches:
Ugly little bugger
no matter what you do
they have trouble dying

Orange-Pekoe:
A jolly good tea
quite a stimulating sniff
and good to taste

Afternoons:
Hot affairs
does funny things to the mind
as the clouds float by

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Samurai Eats Grass

I lived in Tokyo about five years ago, and enjoyed my time there immensely. With no one to talk to outside of work, other than a housemate I saw every couple of weeks, I spent my days and nights mostly in silence. At first I thought this would be difficult, used as I was to talking up a storm wherever I went, but in the end I found this silence to be oddly liberating. Like my grandmother always said to me, it is better to keep your eyes open, your ears open, and your mouth shut. You learn more that way, and in Japan I did just that.

From a North American perspective, Tokyo felt like a city with multiple personality disorder. At once polite and proper, the place also abounded with a seedy underside that outstripped even the sleaziest joints on Yonge St. in downtown Toronto. Though the people were law abiding and circumspect to a fault, it was also an accepted part of the culture that working men, salarimen, would get absolutely gobsmacked drunk, and weave their way home, urinating in the streets when the need arose. In some respects it is similar to what you would see outside of the Air Canada Centre after a leafs game, but in Tokyo this sort of behaviour carried on every single night. Not just after the game on Saturday.

These extremes were something I grew used to, and often became a source of humor. The government censored adult movies by blurring out the naughty bits, yet you could sit on the train and the dude next to you would be openly reading pornographic manga, without an iota of shame or discomfort. Or, for the equivalent of $50, you could walk into a replica train car, complete with a "schoolgirl" or "office lady" the randy salariman could then "molest" for a set period of time. The level and avidity of the fetishisation of innocence and purity was breathtaking. But it appears that things are changing, that the pendulum is swinging, and a real reaction to the licentious, besotted workaholism that afflicted so many men in the country is transforming into something entirely different - asexual, vegetarian, anti-consumerist asceticism. The media calls them "herbivores."

For a country with a rapidly declining population, with the lowest birth rates in the modern world, and an almost maniacal aversion to increased immigration, this is not, demographically speaking, a positive development. Between 40 to 60% of men in their 20's to 30's, that is, the new working generation, consider themselves to be "grass eating men." For these men, marriage is a laughable, old fashioned tradition that holds no interest for them, and women enter into their frame of minds as conversation partners, but nothing that would distract them from the more enticing worlds online and in video games.

One passage in particular seems to tell the whole story -

"Unlike earlier generations of Japanese men, they prefer not to make the first move, they like to split the bill, and they're not particularly motivated by sex. "I spent the night at one guy's house, and nothing happened—we just went to sleep!" moaned one incredulous woman on a TV program devoted to herbivores."

Someone ought to get Jared Diamond in on this, because we may be witnessing the first real case of a modern society choosing to commit suicide.

Geek!

Again, in the grand tradition ofWilliam Topaz McGonagall, another early attempt at what I thought was poetry.

Geek! They shout
Oh my what a nerd!
And then they start wonderin'
Hasn’t he heard?

Books are dead!
We don’t read them no more
For it’s from movies and TV
That we get our lore

How can you sit there
Reading such crap?
I’d rather stare at a wall
Or go take a nap

Urchins! I reply
You never will know
The rapture, the pleasure
The joy of the flow

It’s images, not words
I see in my mind
As I learn of new places
And treasure to find

So now you must leave me
Go run down the way
For now I am reading
And here I will stay

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Introducing the Secretary of Education - SkyNet!

California, however you look at it, appears screwed right now. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had a few laughs over the state's predicament, but the truth remains that the people and government really painted themselves into a corner. The government is unable, by law, to raise taxes, but due to the citizen referendum initiatives that are allowed by California law, the government is constantly checked when it tries to act to correct their situation. The state, the 9th largest economy in the world, is so crippled economically, that the recent drastic cuts to almost every sector of government spending look a lot like the drastic austerity measures New Zealand had to impose decades ago, from the mid-70s to the early 80s, just in order to survive.

While the news is bleak all around, at least one bright spot appeared this week. You see, the Governator, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has decided to eliminate the $350 million that California spends every year on textbooks. Instead of carting thousands of tonnes of dead tree to the waiting hands of children every year, the California Department of Education will be providing e-book versions of the same texts.

It has not been determined what platform will be preferred, or whether there will be a single platform, since the e-reader demand whipped up by the millions of students in California school will probably outstrip the supply the e-readers of all formats nationwide. Are there a million Sony e-Readers lying about? The last I checked, Amazon Kindles were weeks behind demand, with Amazon scurrying to get the reader out to the market. So what, then? Will Arnold authorize the distribution of a million iPod touches?

It is a thorny question, and critics are right in saying that this move won't save money - initially. But over time, once the logistics are sorted out, this move will not only save the state hundreds of millions per year, but may very well revolutionize education, as well as change the face of the publishing industry.

Hyperbole, perhaps? Perhaps not. With a massive (read millions) market of e-reader users, used to reading on a electronic platform everyday, suddenly stepping onto the stage, the economics of publishing will change. That market will be coveted, and marketed to heavily. Instead of begging millions of children to walk into a book store once or twice a year, those millions of children will carry bookstores with them wherever they go, day in and day out.

Simply by making the devices ubiquitous, and forcing the students to utilize them in classroom after classroom, the idea of using an e-reader to read, just about anything, will no longer be a novelty. It will seem to be a normal, everyday activity. And not only a normal activity, but a comfortable and regular activity.

Reading could even become cool again.

The Ballad of Tom Larkin

It is believed that the worst poet to add his graceless touch to the canon of English literature was William Topaz McGonagall. Personally I think McGonagall has been unfairly slandered, as my own first attempts at poetry, late into my high school years, surely out-McGonagall McGonagall.

Below is the first poem I ever really attempted. Is it worse than the work of McGonagall? You be the judge.


Hello there, you all
In places, well, near
Sit yourselves down
And, oh, grab me a beer

The name is Tom Larkin
From the County of Zerkins
Where they all still like wearing
Those nice deerskin jerkins

I’m getting on in my years
As I’m sure you must see
So don’t worry if I leave
For often I must pee

I’m talking to you now
So’s to make you all wise
And to dispel some untruths
And fat ignorant lies

The story I tell
Is of the great world itself
Knowledge I have more
Than any book on the shelf

I’m a learned man
Knowing great heaps of lore
So no question at all
Or I’ll more than just roar

Now getting this knowledge
Is not very hard
For I’ve a TV in here
And a dish in the yard

Every day, you see
In the large world around
Rapes, murders, wars
And strangeness abounds

Over in Asia
The news blew the whistle
Of the Paks and Hindus
And nuclear missiles

We’re all getting scared
‘Bout the terrorist threat
But the Yanks'll sure whip 'em
On that I will bet

And then my own country
Home of the Canuck
Where the best place to fight
Is ice with a puck

Where the French and the English
Do nothing but fight
One calling night day
One calling day night

Then there’s the Russians
Their bloated corpse of a land
Where all money and oil
Is controlled by one hand

Then there’s the Chinese
With their sooty black sky
With two boys to one girl
And a conquering eye

And don’t get me started
‘Bout the faraway Brits
Who, over a game
Lose all of their wits

Now there’s the Yanks
That gods-be-damned nation
Where Presidents and clerks
Try the act of creation

What about them Japs
Way out far East
Where money and tech
Grows like fast rising yeast

I once used to hear
‘Bout how they would buy
Most of the Earth
Then some of the sky

If you need answers
You should just come to me
I know it all
I’m sure you can see

For I am Tom Larkin
Of the County of Zerkins
Where we still like to wear
Our nice deerskin jerkins

And of my great knowledge
It does not come easy
For it I must garner
On my widescreen TV

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Self Love (Kindle Edition)

Call me behind the times, but I just learned about Amazon's Digital Text Platform. Basically it is a vanity press for the masses. You want to self-publish? Why pay some blowhard a couple thousand bucks to print and hundreds of copies of that book of yours that nobody wants to read? Now you can publish those books that nobody wants to read, but for free!

Then again, looking at the state of the publishing industry today, and the sales for even bestsellers, You might be better off with the percentage you get from Amazon than the little to nothing the publishers will leave you with.

For enterprising editors, those with a modicum of talent and the wherewithal to scrounge up a few willing authors, I think it may be a great way to enter into the world of publishing with a low cost approach, where, should a work suddenly start to sell, both the editor and the writer stand to gain, without the need to pay for the massive overhead and associated costs that come with publishing the old-fashioned way. Indeed, the case can be made that with all that overhead saved, an enterprising duo might even be able to afford to hire a freelance publicist or two to whip up interest in their work.

Something to think about.

Autumn

Isn’t this the most wonderful thing?
Driving by all these beautiful trees
turning so many wonderful colors,
and the carpet, (that’s a good word isn’t it?)
of leaves everywhere.
Too bad my husband is stuck in his own head.
"Honey look,
isn’t that precious?
Children are jumping in a pile of leaves.
Can you turn the heat up a little
it’s too chilly in here.
When we get home
let’s get the maid
to make one of those piles
and we’ll do a family fall thing."


Where are the cleaners?
I asked for them over a half hour.
Can’t enjoy a good view
with all this junk on the window.
The wife was supposed to double check.
Can't anyone do anything right?
I don’t understand
why they didn’t cut those those trees
those menaces down, years ago.
Only thing they’re good for is
littering the ground once a year.
Who needs a tree that big anyways?
My doctor said I need less stress
and I got to finish these audits
and I can’t even see out the bloody window!
Where are they? I wish they’d hurry up.

You know, as many times as I’ve looked
at that picture on the fireplace,
the one with all my ancestors
when they used to live out on a farm
north of Winnipeg,
there is something I just can’t understand.
"Juanita, can you pass that ski wax over?"
I mean look at it.
It's like Mom and Dad, redux, you know,
but, like, way back in the past.
All that nature and there they are,
looking like it’s the end of the world.
That’s what’s wrong with people.
Don’t look at anything the right way.
It says Autumn, 1896 – Winter Is Coming.
Stark words if you ask me.

I like fall best.
We have Thanksgiving and Halloween.
Christmas is good too,
but I don’t get as much candy.
Mommy wants me to be something
something that isn’t gender
determinator…shun (or something like that)
for Halloween
like, I want to be Malibu Barbie
but she says I should be the Prime Minister
but I don;t want to be.
I saw her costume when we went to yesterday.
My teacher said we can come to class in our costumes.
I know Nicole and Lucy who think they’re so cool
are going to have good costumes.
Mom says I should go outside but I don’t want to
because I want to play here and watch TV.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Look Who's Coming

I was surprised and heartened to see a column in the Wall Street Journal by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai.*

In particular, there were two passages which really stood out. Specifically that "the Middle East must create 80 million new jobs in the next five years just to keep apace of [the]demographics...Fifty percent of the jobless are under the age of 25..."

That's quite a startling statistic. To put it in perspective, the Middle East needs to create six times as many jobs as can be found in Canada, a G8 nation. With the UAE being perhaps the sole expanding economy in the region, economic crisis notwithstanding, where those jobs will come from is a serious question. Unlike Indians, or even Filipinos, nationalities that are used to working abroad, it is significantly harder for young men and women from the Middle East to do the same. Visas are extremely hard to get, not to mention the fact that, as Sheikh Mohammed points out, "[s]ixty-five million adult Arabs are illiterate and two-thirds of them are women. More than 10 million Arab children between the ages of 6 and 15 are still not enrolled in any schooling, and on current trends this number will increase by 40% over the next decade." The lack of education is perhaps the single largest factor inhibiting to mobility of labor in the Middle East.

Absent massive, unprecedented economic growth region wide, there is little chance this situation can be remedied quickly. Hopefully there is a miracle on the horizon.

*In case this seems to be a strange introduction, for those of you outside of the Middle East, in the UAE, that's the correct way to introduce the Ruler of Dubai.