Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What then do you think?

I see creepy Mark Karr is off the hook on the JonBenet Ramsey matter. Was there ever any doubt? Karr, who has already been convicted on child pornography charges, and has stated his fascination with young girls, including an intrigue with the murder of little JonBenet of Boulder Colorado back in 1996, seemed made-to-order and a perfect candidate for a rush-to-judgment.

But, he seems, rather than being a child-slayer, just another weird false-confessor. And, while false confession seems like a bizarre manifestation emanating from certain warped psyches, it is more common than we might think. As an example, in the case of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in the 1930s, nearly 200 people confessed to committing the crime. In the notorious ‘Black Dahlia’ case in Los Angeles in the 1940s (never solved, but soon to featured in a new film in a theatre near you), over 30 people confessed to having killed her.

Reasons for false-confession can be manifold. Surely there is grandstanding – a momentary bite of publicity for people of remarkably little accomplishment. Better to be remembered for something, even if it’s something bad, goes their warped logic. It’s a morbid wish to be a celebrity at any cost. Currently this is known as the Paris Hilton Syndrome. Just kidding – sort of.

Another motivation, according to psychoanalysts, is a subconscious psychological need to be punished for something the individual actually wants to do, but has never actually done. Mark Karr is, I think, a dangerous dude, and it is quite within the realm of his fantasies that he could kill a little girl.

Whatever really happened to little JonBenet will likely never be solved; the entire investigation has been so thoroughly screwed up since day one, that there will probably be no resolution at this stage. Some suspect that aspects of the truth accompanied Patsy Ramsey to her grave a few months ago. Maybe so, but we’ll probably never know.

Whatever the case, I have my suspicions about the case. You likely have yours. Yours might be the same as mine.

The woods abound with unresolved issues. Life isn’t like CSI or Law & Order, wherein a transgression is solved and all wrapped up within a neat hour’s viewing. Real crime is much more like the often excellent series Cold Case, in which a tired, old and long-forgotten crime is suddenly resurrected and, like the other shows mentioned, neatly solved within the allotted time constrictions. Would that life were like that.

If life, and crime-solving were like that, we would know the truth about the OJ trial and the felon would be doing hard time.

I’m not saying OJ was the perp. But, I have my suspicions, and you have yours. Yours might be the same as mine.
Was Michael Jackson the pedophile he was accused of being in two high-profile trials? I cannot say. I have my suspicions. You have yours. Yours are possibly the same as mine.

Did the British Secret Service on a directive from the Royal Family bump off the beauteous Princess Diana? Was she a victim of Islamic terrorism directed at Dodi Fayed and his seeming concubine? I don’t know. You and I will likely never know. You and I are likely not meant to ever know. But I do have my suspicions. You have yours. Yours might be the same as mine.

In truth, an amazing number of nefarious doings are never solved. An old cop once told me that if you want to bump somebody off, and you cover your tracks well enough, you will likely not be apprehended. If you are apprehended and go to trial, you will likely not be convicted. If you are convicted, you will likely only do a fraction of the time you are sentenced to.

What’s that all about? I have my suspicions. You have yours. Yours just may be the same as mine.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sorry, but where's the substance?

Do you ever get worried that the fate of the world (hence, all of us) rests in some highly inept hands connected to questionable brains and fuelled by agendas that are not shared by most of us?

I do.

Maybe it was always thus and I have merely reached an age in which I have come to question the competence of the leaders and the rules that hold this place together. It’s not just that these are perilous times – these were always perilous times, no matter which era in which human beings lived – but that the price we pay when we screw up (which we seem to do with tiresome regularity) is such a big one.

I am reminded of that old and fairly inspired satirical album by Firesign Theater back in 1971 called I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, mainly because I have a sneaking suspicion that we are all bozos on this bus. Some of us are well-intentioned, and some of us are knaves. Some of us are smart; too many of us are stupid. And, most of us are easily led by the promised nostrums of yet another uber-bozo who promises to lead us into some sort of promised land.

As a working journalist for many years I have dealt with politicians coming from all directions – left-wingers, right-wingers, wingeing liberals, and slick conservatives – and I must confess, I have met few who have failed to disappoint. I have met few who, at the end of the day, are not ultimately self-seekers. If they are self-seekers who are certifiable morons, that is bad enough. If they are smart self-seekers, that seems to be worse because they suck in so many more gullible souls. But, how much substance do we get from the so-called smart ones?

"Terrorists might be getting on our airplanes. What to do? What to do? Let's ban people bringing on slurpies, books and laptops! That should solve it, and will distract the lamebrained public just sufficiently to delude them into thinking we're on top of this shit. Let's not look to real solutions, because we don't have any. We can't, after all, just go out and shoot potential terrorists -- or can we?"

Our problem in our societies is that we are seeking ‘daddies and mommies’ to help us through tough times. And, because we are frightened and insecure we tend to believe the bullshit of the new guy or girl more than we still believe the bullshit of the former guy or girl, even though in essence it is destined to smell just as bad.

We witness our contemporary leaders and we look at George W. and Tony Blair and see how they have failed us. Yet, their constituents elected them because they seemed to offer something new. Bush replaced the chronically randy Bill Clinton, and Blair replaced the stunningly inept John Major, who replaced the tyrannical Margaret Thatcher. Now, in a turnaround, the Clintons just don’t seem to be so bad because there are those who think that Hillary, who turned a blind-eye to semen-stained dresses, would make a good president. Maybe she would. I dunno.

Where are such leaders as Roosevelt and Churchill, some are driven to ask? Roosevelt, a chronic philanderer and Churchill, the world’s most famous functional alcoholic, somehow seemed more trustworthy. But, people forget that Churchill was no friend of those who toiled in the lower social orders in Britain, and that Roosevelt was an aristocrat who did not end the Great Depression other than by embroiling America in a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Iraq is a walk in the park on a day in May when compared with World War Two.

And so it goes.

I am not for a minute suggesting I am above all of this. I am as susceptible as the next person to somebody who actually seems to be offering some kind of a solution to the woes of the world, and doesn’t seem to be feathering his own nest in the process. But, I also know I have been wrong so many times, and will continue to be wrong in the future.

Call me a world-weary libertarian who would much rather make love than war, but who would also like to see all the bad people neatly excised from the planet.

But, my ‘bad people’ are probably different from somebody else’s ‘bad people’. And, the people I see as bad this year, might seem not-so-bad next year.

So, I guess we really are all bozos on this bus.

Monday, August 28, 2006

God meant for the seat to be up, Son

Used to be that a fellow, no matter how browbeaten, nagged, neglected and abused by his spouse he might be, could at least go into the bathroom, unzip, take a long leak, and then damn well leave the toilet seat in the pointing skyward position.

But now it seems some enterprising Dutch woman has invented a thing called the 'Pmate', which even removes that last bastion of masculinity from benighted menfolk everywhere.

Guy is out for a walk in the woods with his wife, and he would formerly, gloatingly say “I have to have a pee. I’m just gonna unzip by this tree. If you gotta go, honey, I guess you’ll have to find a secluded spot, drop pants and panties, expose your elemental elements to all and sundry, and then let go so that any passer-by could catch you in a very undignified position.” No longer. He can make ready to make water, and she can stand right beside him and do the same thing through this little cardboard device.

It’s not right, I tell you. For a long time now men have found it increasingly difficult to, well, be men. Now they are going to find it virtually impossible. “We can stand to pee,” can no longer be gloatingly recited. That is just one of the societal adjustments with which males now must contend if they want to survive in a world in which conventional mores and behaviors are being rent asunder and are dropping away faster than Sharon Stone’s underpants once did.
Let it be understood that earlier generations of males had it easier, primarily because they still made the rules. My old man, for example, had it easier. That is because life was simpler, and wants and expectations were fewer. A man could dream and ponder, but if he was a member of that great middle-ground of North American males, he knew the dreams would remain just that. With few expectations, there are few resentments.

Men didn’t actually need much to carry them through their days, either. All they needed was a roof over their heads, three-squares a day, a wife of some sort, a deck of cards in the sock drawer that illustrated 52 sexual positions (49 of which seemed exotic and alien in terms of their life experience), a pack of cigarettes, some power tools, a pint of rye on the upper shelf in case company dropped by, and a job to go to. Same job. Day in, day out, until retirement.

A scenario: My old man is out in the driveway doing a valve-job on the 1953 Chev. A man could do that sort of thing in the 1950s. As life was simpler, so were automobiles. Manufacturers simply assumed the average male owner could grind his own valves, replace a head-gasket, carry out an oil-change and lube, and rotate his tires without the intervention of a mechanic. I, on the other hand, look beneath the hood of my contemporary vehicle, and what I see there frightens me, and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything other than checking the oil level. Just too many damned electronics. Cars didn’t have electronics once; they merely had electricity and electrical connections. You had a battery, distributor, coil, spark plugs, ignition and assorted lights and fuses, and anybody who had passed grade eight had learned all this stuff in school.

So, back to Dad and his valve-grinding. He’d work there for a while, cursing a bit, and smoking cigarette after cigarette. The neighbor from down the street would wander up. He would look under the hood, too. The two men would get into a conversation about valve-pitting. They would reminisce about other cars of their experience – “I had a 36 Willys, and it was hopeless with valves,” – and they would continue to ‘jaw’ in that regard. Sometimes conversation would switch to power tools. If they talked about women – their wives or others – they didn’t do within my earshot. Kids were rarely if ever privy to adult conversations back then.

Generally, men didn’t talk a great deal – especially to kids. They were men, you were a kid. You had little to contribute, so you were going to be ignored or, at the most, be asked to hand the Old Man a particular wrench that was just beyond his reach. No, men didn’t talk to kids, but they did yell at them. My Dad yelled at me a lot. He didn’t hit us, or “whale the bejesus” out of us, like some fathers did, but he sure did yell.

Eventually the scenario for men changed. We became more affluent; women became more assertive and evolved from Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver into ‘modern’ women like Mary Richards and Murphy Brown. Not always a salutary transition within households, but if men were going to survive within the family unit, albeit with a diminished role, then they had to find within themselves sensitivities they’d never been forced to bother about in the past.

So, men came to be involved with ‘nurturing’ for example, and learned that nurture went beyond saying things like: “Buck up. Be a man. Boys don’t cry,” and “Never hit a girl, no matter how dirty they fight.” The ‘new’ male was expected to ‘relate’ to his kids. When with other males they started to talk about ‘relationships’ and ‘sharing’, and less and less about valve jobs.

With that sort of man, for whom Alan Alda provided a kind of role model some twenty years ago, all elements of lifestyle like smoking or excessive drinking came to be eschewed, and were replaced by running, cycling, and going on family hikes with the entire family. Such men also persistently and tiresomely tried to relate to their kids, and to form strong bonds with them.

Some men refused to go along with the new ethic and they either backslid, or they carried on regardless. In fact, they became even more adolescent than males of yore, and took to wearing backward ballcaps in lieu of ‘man hats’, restored venerable ‘muscle cars’ and took to riding Harleys well past an age in which they should know better. For such cases of arrested development, Sturgis SD became the New Jerusalem.

They also, as new men, went to retreats, beat drums, and felt it was their bounden duty to be carnal with any and all females that came within their scopes. If the other guys chose Alan Alda as a mentor, they selected Tim Allen, with all his grunts and brain-dead posturing.

Such guys – guys’ guys – could also rest assured that they never needed to return the toilet seat to horizontal, and that they were the only ones who could pee standing.

Until the 'Pmate' appeared on the scene.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Blackberries are more than trendy electronics

Today we picked blackberries.

Blackberries are the cockroaches of fruit in that the wild blackberry, like the cucaracha, will survive flood, wildfire, and probably nuclear holocaust, and will still thrive. Fortunately, they are not like cockroaches in any other respect.

But, wild blackberries will grow anywhere, and do, regardless of climate or inclemency. They grow and thrive from the subarctic to the tropics. It is on pain I believe of instant execution to bring a blackberry vine into Hawaii, for example. Enough feral plants abound there that native species have been eradicated in many areas. Blackberries would only add to the misery.

But, blackberries, despite their tendency to thrive anywhere from vacant city lots, to pristine gardens, forest-fire ravaged wilderness, remain wonderful. They are tasty, juicy, and challenging enough to pick, for they pack some nasty barbs, that bringing home a bounty always seems like a task well accomplished. A victory over nature, and the fruits of the labors are all free.

We have a wonderful blackberry patch in a wooded area only a couple of blocks away. It is going to be gone soon due to the speculators and developers who are determined to turn this pristine area into an obscene mass of condos to accommodate an even more obscene mass of 'contribute nothing to the economic wellbeing of the community' retirees coming from every place but here -- but that is another rant for another time. The paved streets, sidewalks and lamp standards are already in place so we know it's on the way out.

But, for now, the blackberries still proliferate. So, we set out this sunny August morning, armed with our one big bucket and two smaller pails and we picked. It was good picking. The wasps weren't too plentiful, and the berries were still attainable at the lower levels of the vines. It didn't take us long to have sufficient of this entirely gratis bounty. I had been feeling a bit under the weather for the past few days, but the balm of the sunshine and the berries improved my sense of well-being considerably.

Bringing them home, I turned my attention to making jam and a blackberry crisp (which is still in the oven even as I write), and we still had extra left over to freeze.

And, it was all free. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Friday, August 25, 2006

This is infamous!

In a word, I am outraged! I guess by now you have heard the dreadful news that the erstwhile planet Pluto -- a perfectly well-respected chunk of our solar system -- has now been downgraded by an international consortium of dweebs to 'dwarf planet' status. How dare they?

Just who do the collective mass of nerds victorious who comprise the membership of the 'International Astronomic Union' think they are to meet in Prague and then, in a virtually unanimous move, downgrade the much-cherished-by-many ninth planet to some sort of inferior status? A dwarf planet? Oh, guys, why not go the whole hog and just call it a big chunk or rock way out there.

I guess in a perverse way you have to admire these guys. While the rest of us are fussing and fretting of minutiae like international terrorism, starvation in Darfur, slaughters in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are lying awake or peeing in their panties over the really important question of whether Pluto is or is not a 'real' planet.

Their ill-advised (for most us) decision is going to wreak havoc at all sorts of levels of society, and indeed might change the very complexion of our widely-held beliefs in contemporary life. Since 1930, when Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, it has been there for us; asking little from us other than recognition -- and acceptance. And indeed we did take Pluto to our hearts and eventually we came to believe it was what it was, and permitted it to take its place alongside Jupiter, Neptune, Mars and even Earth. We were cool with Pluto. Anyway, I think if they were going to downgrade a planet, why didn't they take a long look at Neptune? I don't know, Neptune just never did much for me. But Pluto, on the other hand, had a nice feel about it. Added to which, it is so far away, it never did cause much in the way of bother.

And, we might well ask, what about the Disney folk? After the discovery of Pluto, when it was accorded full planet status, they, as an act of commemoration, name their new cartoon pup after the Planet. It was a nice gesture. (as an aside about that, have you ever wondered why Pluto, a dog, has to act like a dog, cavort on all fours, bark, etc. in pure canine fashion? Yet Goofy, also a dog, walks upright, wears clothes, hangs out with Mickey and probably rarely pees against a tree or hydrant? Just wondering). Anyway, I've as yet heard no word from the Disney folk as to what their plans are.

Personally, I hope the Disney people follow my plan, which is to say 'fie' to the dorks of the IAU, and to continue to regard Pluto with the respect it deserves. I know it shall always be a planet to me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

And tell your hoodum friends outside, you ain't got time to take a ride

When I was in grade eight I once stood off to one side and watched my best friend of the moment being beaten bloody by a couple of guys.

My reluctance to become involved in the brawl on his behalf may seem like craven cowardice of the lowest sort (it was), but it was also perfectly honorable at another level for a number of reasons.

My friend was being relieved of a quantity of his corpuscles by a couple of older ‘hoods.’ My friend – Chuck was his name – was sort of an apprentice hood. He was a little bugger, but wore black pegged chinos, motorcycle boots, a chain wrist bracelet, and smoked Export ‘plain’. If Export had produced a ‘harsh’ grade, he would have smoked those just to prove how tough he was.

Chuck qualified as an apprentice hood for two important reasons: he rarely showed visible fear no matter how outrageous the circumstances in which he found himself; and he had a juvenile record. Whoa – cool, a record! Oh, it was a picayune record, to be certain. Some sort of minor B&E transgression in which he’d been dumb enough to get caught. But, a record was a record, nevertheless, so it counted.

Another reason for which it was OK that I assumed a spectator role at the time of the donnybrook was because I was not relevant, in the eyes of the real hoods, to what was going on. While I was indeed a buddy of their victim, I was not a part of the hood scheme of things inasmuch as I was just a kid in grade eight who generally went to bed when his parents told him to, hardly ever slashed tires and, arguably most humiliating of all at that age, wore glasses. I mean to say, I wasn’t a nerd; I was just ordinary.

I never did find out what happened to Chuck after grade eight. He moved at the end of that school year. But, I do know that he wanted to become a real hood. I don’t know if he succeeded, but I can of hope so. It’s deemed a good thing to work out a life plan at an early stage so that you then can work towards it and learn what you need to know.

But, Chuck’s hood-wannabe aspirations notwithstanding, real hoods were much more heavy-duty. They were generally on probation, or had done time at one of the popular reform schools of the day (remember reform schools?), a seeming misfortune that actually earned them bonus points in the realm of hood-dom. Real hoods did not worry much about not being “allowed” to go out on week nights. If they had parents, they were capable of beating them up – and did so regularly, or so went the mythology. A mythology utterly believed by ordinary boys in grade eight.

Real hoods carried switchblade shivs, which they would flash at the slightest provocation. They would jeer at references to the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause because they knew that villain Buzz, in real life, would have gone for Jim’s pretty face. And, Jim, if he had been the real goods, would have revelled in being slashed. A facial scar radically boosted your cachet with babes. It made you look mysterious and evil.

Speaking of babes, real hoods were, again in the legends, almost constantly sexually active. When they weren’t fighting or being arrested, they were screwing. Who they were screwing was headlight-breasted, black-sweatered girls who smoked menthol cigarettes, swore copiously, and got loaded on shoplifted vanilla extract. They were also often Italianate-looking and sported crucifixes in the cleavages between their stiletto-pointed boobs. These were girls who, by the way, attained all the secondary sexual characteristics of puberty by the time they were ten.

Most of all, to this impressionable lad, at least, hoods were very, very cool. I admired them. I wanted to be one of them. Well, not ‘really’ one of them, since I had no desire to commit crimes or go to reform school, but just to be regarded as one of them. I wanted to look the part. I wanted to look the part because aside from such obvious benefits, such as striking fear in the hearts of bullies everywhere, I would also get to hang around with girls with well-filled sweaters who talked dirty – and maybe even acted dirty.

In any quest I had to become a hood, however, I faced certain limitations. In the first place, I lived in the wrong part of town. I was bused to a junior high in the bad part of town, but my home neighborhood consisted primarily of nice kids who wore crew-cuts and ate their vegetables. Secondly, my father was a teacher. Real hoods, if they had visible dads, didn’t have dads who were teachers. They had fathers who swore like longshoremen, drank copious amounts of booze for much of the day, sported tattoos, screwed around on their long-suffering moms, and were reputed to have done time themselves.

Adding to my consternation, my status as a hood-manqué was kind of assured because my mother steadfastly refused to let me even dress the part. I was not permitted to wear pegged pants My mother believed trousers of a zoot-suit nature were only worn by degenerates, by, in a word, ‘hoods.’ “That’s exactly the point, Ma.”

While I was grudgingly permitted to wear my hair in a bourgeois imitation of a ducktail, I was never permitted to actually get it styled in that manner. Haircuts were the order of the day at our house, and Mother was unwavering about that. “I won’t have you looking like some sort of drugstore cowboy.”

I managed to surreptitiously acquire a pair of Cuban-heeled shoes, much to my mother’s chagrin. I was never quite certain that I actually heard the term “pimp” in description of my new footwear to my father, but I’ll swear I did.

But, that which I couldn’t get away with at home, I did on my way to school. Reminds me of a story told me by a female who, at school at a slightly later point in fashion history, would leave the house in conventionally-acceptable skirt, and then when she got far enough away from the family home, would roll it over and over at the waistline until the back of the skirt just barely covered her panties, and then she would continue on her.

In my case, I would leave the house and get halfway down the block, and then turn up the back of my shirt collar, and open at least four buttons of the shirt, regardless of the weather. I would also shove my dungarees down until they were at about mid-hip level. Then I was set for the day – image-wise.

I also, about this time, realized there was something else I could do that would earn me points, both with peers and potty-mouthed girls, I could start to do badly in school. This was difficult for me, and I was forced to overcome all sorts of natural instincts, such as the fact I truly did enjoy reading and really was interested in the cause of the Wars of the Roses. But, in the name of the cause, I persevered. I became sullen and sneary at the back of the class. I purposely misspelled words on essays, I even skipped a few classes until I was caught, and the principal threatened to call my father, whom he knew and regarded as a colleague. I refrained from skipping after that.

Needless to say, I eventually outgrew my intrigue with hoods, recognizing them as the certifiable morons most of them were. I began to do a basic modicum of work at school. I also lost some of those negative role models since at that time in history, most hoods dropped out of school by high school age. Those hoods that stayed actually became progressively more mainstream.

And one guy whom I, in junior high, regarded as almost the crème-de-law-crème of juvenile outlawry, not only joined the mainstream, but he was at university when I was, even toting a briefcase rather than brawling chain, and ultimately went on to become physics professor at MIT, when last I heard.

No word on Chuck yet, however.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

It's a bum deal -- OK?

I have noticed with increasing frequency of late that the world ‘bum’ has slipped into the parlance of the United States, not just as a reference to a hobo sort, but also as an alternative vulgarism for backside.

I like that. It’s a better word than ‘ass’ for the same gluteal territory. Not that there was or is anything wrong with ass, and at certain times under certain circumstances it is almost ideal. But bum is such a cute word. It’s fun and bouncy. Children just past nursery age will use it, and moms will simply smile, because they use it themselves.

Canada got bum by way of default from England, but for some reason the Yanks didn’t pick up on it until recently. I suspect the popularity of certain BBC offerings has a role in this, as well as English movies. But, I am happy for the Americans. With all the other stresses in the world they must endure, I think they’ll be comfortable that bum has entered the lexicon in its backside sense.

I find bum to be just an ideal reference to that part of our bodies. It can be slightly sexual when used in certain contexts, but it can also be innocent and, as I suggested, even children friendly. Little children also think it’s a screamingly funny word. At least they did when I was young and I hope they are not now so jaded and corrupted by the crass crap on television that bum has lost its ability to amuse.

Bums, as we have come to know and love them, have gone by many different references throughout the history of the language. At the clinical end, we have buttocks, gluteus, and the disagreeable sounding rectum. At the polite parlance end we have derriere, or seat, or even backside. We also use fanny when speaking pleasantly – which residents of the United Kingdom find both shocking and hilarious since ‘fanny’ there describes a bit of female anatomy a bit to the front of the bum, and is not considered a polities usage at all.

Then we come to the vulgarisms. I mentioned ass, which has its virtues, and the more venerable arse. There is also butt, heiny, tush, slats and it goes on and on, and indicates to students of the language that this is a mighty important part of our structure. I mean, how many alternate words do we have for elbow, for example?

The bum has a prominence in culture that is astonishing, considering its rather rudimentary function, aside from looking cute. After all, we design toilet seats to provide just the right amount of comfort at a time of elimination. Aside from sitting down, it is also ‘us’ at our most basic.
Our involvement with our bums is an extensive one, not all of them pleasant. In the days when it was acceptable parental behavior to give a kid a damn good licking, the bum was that which received the admonitory blows, since to be spanked there was considered less potentially harmful than to be pummelled on any other part of the body. We also use the bum clinically, as the recipient of assorted, and always unpleasant inoculations. On the other hand, it is also the area that can be playfully smacked by lovers who might not yet be at a stage of overtly caressing its contours.

The bum has other functions that range from the poetic (as in looking good in a pair of white shorts), to the ridiculous, with its outline exaggerated in a clown suit, to the extreme, as in sticking it out undraped from a car window if you happen to be a bored adolescent on a Saturday night.

It would be unfair to close this gluteal thesis, however, if we did not pay homage to Miss Vikki Dougan. Miss Dougan was a lesser-known D-class starlet of the stodgy 1950s who decided that she might make more of a name for herself (since she was no Sarah Bernhardt in the talent department) if she should model a dress that was, as the folk group the Limelighters once celebrated in song, “cut so low in the back that it revealed a new cleavage.”

But, times change, and what was shocking a half century ago can now be espied with too much regularity by observing the thong-clad teen girls sitting on a bench in any neighborhood mall in North America. As such, it’s a bit of puerile exhibitionism that, rather than being shocking, is commonplace enough to be deemed ho-hum.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

My Punk Pilgrimmage

To grow tired of London is to grow tired of life, said Dr. Johnson, indicating all that was happening of worth in the 18th Century world was indeed happening in Britain’s capital.

What was true then, may or may not be true today, because one ‘can’ grow weary of London very quickly. It is too big, too crowded, too congested, too noisy, too unfeeling, and too obsessed with the belief that it just may be too stuck on itself. At the same time, as one might grow fatigued with all that is there, one can never be uninterested.

As is the case with New York City’s residents, Londoners frankly don’t give a damn what any outsider (or even resident) might think or feel. They do what they do; whether Chelsea toff or Whitechapel villain, and they know that life is harsh and fundamental, so don’t bother interfering.

However, one aspect of la vie de Londres that has always prevailed is existential trendsetting nature. Existential in that, to the Londoner, it exists for itself, with no heed about what the outside world might think or not think. ‘Swinging London’ of the post-Beatles 1960s set trends all over the world, in music, fashion, literature, film and much more. Knickers-flashing, Mary Quant-skirted dollybirds offered a certain flair that the rest of the world aped, but never got quite right. A similar phenomenon transpired about a decade later with the rise of ‘punk’. While punk extended beyond the confines of London, London remained the spiritual home of the movement in music, style and attitude. And it remained the home for jolly good reason. That reason being, there was little need for it elsewhere.

I lived in England at the peak of the punk phenomenon and, quite frankly, as a colonial boy, I was fascinated. Furthermore, I was interested enough, in those slightly cynical days of Thatcheresque Britain, that I wanted to see the punks and punkettes in their natural setting.

My motivation was somewhat sociological. Punkism, as a collective categorization of anarchistic defiance by disenfranchised and disenchanted nowhere boys and girls, had fascinated me for some time back then in 1981, by the very overtness of its nature.

Before my expedition to England, my exposure to punk had been minimal, and indeed I believed the movement to already have become passé – that it had left the scene with the demise of Sid Vicious (who “died for our sins,” according to a graffito I saw etched on the wall of a derelict factory near Dagenham, in the East End.) Quite frankly, on the west coast punk was never really a factor. While it had a big impact on the New York scene, with the Dolls, Blondie and the Ramones, among others, it didn’t translate easily to, say LA, and the other La-La Land wannabe places up and down the coast, like my own laid-back and resolutely stuck-on-itself Vancouver. Punk was ghettoes and anger, not Starbuck’s and smoked salmon.

One time my wife and I were staying with a friend in North London -- we were down for a few days from our temporary home in Great Yarmouth (where punk was not much of a factor, either) – and one of my motivations was to see punks in their glory. I had made earlier tries, including a vain attempt to secure tickets to a Siouxie and the Banshees performance that ultimately ended up being cancelled due to Miss Sioux’s perceived antagonism towards the draconian censorship rules of the day. I had also walked through Piccadilly and had spied plenty of spikes adorning the pates of the chronic glue-sniffers in that London focal point. But, I wanted to walk among them on their home turf.

So, I got in conversation with my friend. I always enjoyed conversing with Lois, as charmingly neurotic as she was, because she was a true free-spirit who had once been married to a very well-known movie star (who shall remain nameless), so I loved her gossip. Anyway, I asked her where might be the best place to see the punks in full flower in their natural habitat. She said Piccadilly was indeed the most popular spot, but so many remnants of the 20th century dream were inclined to gather there that the place was neither savory nor entirely safe. Furthermore, a lot of the Piccadilly punks were poseurs – there to encourage the tourists to take their photos, and then to seek payment for the photos on threats of bodily mayhem if the pounds and pence weren’t forthcoming.

So, she recommended the street markets; at such places, she said, the punks were out for show, and there was also less chance of the unwary tourist being mugged.

Camden Market, complete with the ghost of Bob Cratchit and winos in the doorways of the shabby and filth-littered high street – only a stone’s throw yet a million miles from the Bentleys of Hampstead – was the venue of choice.

The market punks were all that she had promised they would be. The cliché of ‘Fellini-esque’ was unavoidable as garish face after garish face crossed one’s line of vision, in painted, pierced and piercing waves, as one wove amongst stalls cluttered with overpriced leatherwork and exotic ‘eastern’ jewelry that had likely been turned out on the domestic assembly line of a bed-sitter in Hackney.

Dress was ill-defined, as was gender, unless one made an uncomfortably close perusal of the crotches of the bondage-leather pants that ran a close second to the paramilitary school of trouser modishness. With the baggy camouflaged fatigues, it was excruciatingly difficult to tell boy from girl.

Most striking was the hair; multi-hued, shaved, ducktailed, mohawked or teased into a tressfallen Deborah Harry look-alike – at least in the days of ‘The Tide is High’ – and none of it truly inviting to the eye. But the disagreeableness was, of course, part of the intention in punker fashion.

Punk was protest, and the hair and garb were part of that protest. But, it was in the faces wherein ‘anarchy rules’ (as the popular slogan went). The contradictory punker credo had to be reflected in a deformed, violent and defiant visage that attempted to both fascinate and frighten – much as does a clown’s face, if we honestly grant him his purpose.

Consequently, paint, though part of the package, was secondary to laceration (the mark of the borderline personality disorder, by the way), which was permanent and seemed to indicate a greater devotion to the cause. The entire point of mutilated noses, ears, cheeks and even breasts lay in its pointlessness. Oglers would regard with horror an ear pierced in a dozen or more places (now as commonplace a fashion statement as thong undies, even among respectable kids), and the punks were pleased with the response. It had worked! Small children, equally socially impotent, gain the same perverse satisfaction over a parent’s horror over a gashed knee.

At the time we were there, the press reported an incident in which a punk was charged with assorted counts of vandalism and general mayhem. He appeared in court in a swastika-emblazoned leather jacket, and it was reported that each ear was pierced in 25 places.

“Why do you dress like that?” asked the nonplused, yet bewigged and robed judge.

“Because my aim in life is to shock people,” the punk replied. “I shocked you, didn’t I? Anyway, why do you dress like you do?”
It was not reported whether or not the judge was shocked, but the eloquence of the punk summed up the philosophy of one who might not be able to spell anarchy, but understood it well enough to melt the heart of Harpo Marx.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Oh, really, it's not so bad

Life is a Shakespearean tragedy in that it does not have a happy ending. It is a terminal illness. Or, as Samuel Butler suggested, “Life is one long process of getting tired.” Or, if you are feeling really down and blue, you can opt for Woody Allen’s view that “life is divided into the horrible and the miserable.”

No, I am not feeling especially negative today, it’s just that as I scan the headlines of the morning paper, I see tales of crime, war, pestilence, politics (closely equated to war and pestilence, and often crime), corruption, cruelty, disgusting self-indulgence, the extolling of the moronic glitterati, depravity and vile tastelessness (and those are all on a good day).

An advantage of newspaper news over television news (which is hardly news at all, at least in the Cronkite and Murrow tradition) is that I can pick and choose what I care to read. I am not bombarded. I just turn the page. I never, ever watch TV news. In any case, I have worked in the print trade for too long to see electronic renderings of the news as anything other than sensationalistic pandering of the ickiest sort.

The world today is really no worse than it has ever been, and in many regards it is better – for us at least. But, like old Sam Butler I sometimes find that I just get “tired.” And, when that happens I know I have to change my focus and call to attention those things I do cherish and that keep me from getting just too tired to bother.

This all came to mind from a domestic discussion the other day based on one of those lists concerning the 10 (20, 50, 100) things you would like to do before you die. Well, I attempt to do my utmost to live for today and have, for about a decade, believed in the adage that “If you want to give God a laugh, make a plan.” I mean, sure there are things I want to do before I die, but I just prefer to keep them to myself so then, if they happen, I am delighted. If they don’t, then I’m not grievously disappointed. It’s similar to the process I go through when I go on a wonderful vacation. Obviously there is some planning involved but, at the same time, I refuse to get into anticipatory excitement. My excitement starts when the plane touches down on the tarmac and I know I have arrived safe-and-sound. But, even then, it is only ‘guarded’ excitement. My true exultation only begins when I am safely ensconced in my hotel or condo and the hostelry has proved to be everything it purported to be on the website or in the brochure.

However, this blog is not intended to be a negative, so please don’t construe it as such. There are things, many things I’ve experienced, or continue to experience that give me a reason to just carry on and see what indeed is next in my life.

So, here are some of ‘my’ things, in no particular order:

1. The fragrance of new-mown hay on a ride in the countryside.
2. The sensual sculpting of a perfect rose.
3. A book I dread to see come to an end, such has been my enjoyment of it.
4. Holding hands with a special person on a long walk.
5. A long walk.
6. A special person.
7. Seeing something I have long wanted to see, for the first time.
8. Cherished friends.
9. Watermelon so sweet and crisp it actually snaps when I bit into it.
10 The fragrance of the ocean on a moonlit night.
11. The rustling of the sea breeze in palm trees.
12. Hugging a tearful little girl, or grown woman and trying to “make it better.”
13. An eye-mist inducing film.
14. Laughing so hard I’m fearful of peeing my pants.
15. Candlelit dinners.
16. Making love.
17. Making love on a very private moonlit tropical beach.
18. An ocean swim.
19. Snorkelling through canyons of multi-colored coral and shooing the beautiful fish to one side, such are their numbers.
20. An Orca breaking the water near me.
21. Whale song.
22. A day fully at my disposal.
23. The first day of vacation.
24. A medical check-up in which everything is A-OK.
25. Watching brilliant border collies work the sheep.

There are more. Lots more. Hey, life’s not so bad after all.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Naked as a jaybird on an alien shore

"Bracing” is the term they use in Norfolk, England for the prevailing North Sea wind that wafts over the flat coastal plains of East Anglia. Bracing, you must understand, is a term that represents English understatement of the highest order.

The prevailing wind, “straight out of Siberia,” as the locals would have it, predominates through much of the year, and it is also said that such a wind as this, again according to the locals, “Can make a grown-man weep.”

I experienced such a wind as this one autumn day in 1980 when my then wife and I were joined in an expedition to the seaside with two friends, a married couple, visiting from Canada. My wife and I were already resident in the village of Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth, a resort town on that aforementioned coast. We were to be there for a year while my wife carried out a teacher exchange from our Vancouver Island home.

The day in question was, in fact, a little less than ‘bracing’ (for a welcome change). There was a distinct autumnal nip in the air, but the sun was shining brightly, and we felt a beach excursion was in order. Especially in light of the fact we had held a bit of a mini-reunion with our Canadian friends the previous evening. A reunion at our newfound local pub that included introducing our compatriots to liberal dollops of an exquisite local brew known as Norwich Castle Bitter. Consequently we were all slightly in the rigors of some self-inflicted injury, and there is nothing like salt air to neutralize that residual impact.

We checked out a number of seaside spots along the Anglian coastline that day, as we headed south into Suffolk. While the North Sea, in terms of immersion, is excruciatingly cold at virtually all times of the year, the beaches themselves on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts are just as inviting as strands of golden sand as those of Hawaii.

We finally settled on the beach at Corton, a few miles to the south, about halfway between Yarmouth and Lowestoft. I hadn’t been there before, and thought it was a splendid looking place. We walked along for some time, watching the scudding blackheaded gulls and pondering the geographical provenance of a North Sea freighter that was wending its way towards Yarmouth – Hamburg? Bremen? Perhaps even Leningrad, as it was called still. All very romantic. Next to this same sea there was a time when spotters watched from the shoreline in horror as Viking raiders approached. In 1916 a Zeppelin came across and staged the very first English aerial bombardment, with Yarmouth as the chosen target.

Lost in my reverie, a nudge to the ribs snapped me back to reality. It was my friend calling my attention to a sign on a post immediately ahead of us. It read: It is not necessary to wear clothing on the beach past this point.

Our none-too-quick minds were a little befuddled as to the meaning of the sign. Then the message, so discreetly stated, hit home. This was a nude beach! We could get ‘nekkid’ here on this lovely beach right on our own English doorstep. Wreck Beach Anglo-Saxon style. My mind became inflamed with images of assorted Julie Christies, Jenny Agutters and other lovelies of the day, showing in plain view their rosebudded breasts and all their nether trappings. What a wonderful thing. How civilized.

We were actually a trifle nonplused. Nudity one expects in Germany, and it goes without saying on the Riviera. England somehow seemed different at that time, the London strip clubs notwithstanding. In our minds, nudity seemed about as out-of-place on Blighty’s shores as a licensed bar at a Mormon convention.

My wife, bless her heart, suggested that perhaps we could stay on the south side of the sign. However, masculine will, combined with an affirmation by my friend’s liberal minded wife, prevailed, and we decided we should forge on, just to see what might lie before us. Would it be a dissolute debauch of Chaucerian proportion, or would it be as sedate and sophisticated as a tailgate champagne picnic at Ascot?

The nude beach, I must confess, was a disappointment. The visions of lithe, oiled, California-tanned limbs were supplanted by the reality of a man, easily the far side of 70, who sported a physique not unlike that of a Holocaust survivor, huddling against a canvas windbreak, obviously trying to keep the ‘bracingness’ of the day from aggravating his hypothermia. I suspect he was too cold to have considered the fact that there might be those who would consider him a symbol of all that is evil and depraved in the world.

Sitting beside him on the beach was a rather lumpy looking older couple, fully clothed who, by their attire and general demeanor looked as if they had just stepped out of a Giles cartoon. I suspect they had become resigned to the fact that poor eccentric Uncle Bertie was possessed of an overwhelming passion to doff ‘trou’ at the simplest excuse, and they were merely there to make certain he didn’t get up to anything even sillier.

Realizing that we were there in the off-season, I looked around, hoping to spot tell-tale signs of previous orgies, just to give myself hope for the following year’s spring and summer. Alas, there were no discarded undies or any other hints of frolicking alfresco. There wasn’t even so much as a discarded beer bottle. In fact, it was the cleanest English beach I experienced during my stay there.

This either attests to the fact that nudists are scrupulously moral and reasonable folk, or that the North Sea is so consistently bracing that only the bravest and maddest venture forth. Such mad courage might indeed have been concentrated exclusively in poor old Uncle Bertie, the sole member of the UK naturist brigade.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I was 'born' on the day the music died

Where were you the day the music died? That was a question asked many years ago (and far too often, in the esteem of some, like my wife) by folkie Don MacLean.

I remember precisely where I was. I was riding a big green and cream Pacific Stage Lines bus from Burnaby to New Westminster for an appointment with my hack butcher of a dentist – I still suffer from his shoddy craftsmanship, but that is another matter.

I had taken a seat on the bus next to a girl I knew from my grade 10 homeroom. As I seated myself, I noticed that her face was a mask of grief. Oh, maybe that is hyperbole, but she did look disquieted.

“Did you hear that Buddy Holly was killed?” she enquired. “And Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper!”

“Not the Big Bopper!” I exclaimed, cursed with an inability to predict future icon status for budding martyrs. “Then, this must be the day the music dies!”

“Right on,” she said. No she didn’t People didn’t say ‘right on’ for at least another decade. So, I don’t remember exactly what she said. Indeed, I suspect that none of the foregoing conversation actually took place, at least in the manner it has been presented. But, it is true that a girl from grade 10 did tell me about Buddy Holly and those two other guys.

If truth were known, I actually remember Buddy Holly from before he was dead. I saw him once on Ed Sullivan, and I was well-pleased. Pleased not only because I thought he was a fine practitioner of the rock genre, but also because he wore glasses.

Few were the bespectacled teen heroes in those days, so a lot of pathetic four-eyed kids (like I was) were lying in wait for a Buddy Holly to appear on the scene. He only stayed for a short time, but it was enough to break the glasses-equal-nerd equation forever.

In later years we ‘lens-challenged’ had John Lennon, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Michael Caine, among others. It was also revealed that the mega-cool James Dean was also a glasses-wearer. However, with the astigmatism-stigma of his day, he never allowed himself to be photographed wearing his specs.

But, those who have been open about needing a bit of vision enhancement know that their professional careers would have suffered a blow if it hadn’t been for Buddy. After all, who were the glasses wearers before Buddy? They were the likes of Harold Lloyd, Arnold Stang, Ed Wynn, Wally Cox and Clark Kent. Dweebs to a one.

I had my glasses imposed on me when I was in the fourth grade. They were to correct some sort of muscle deficiency that led to, in the succinct ophthalmologic terminology of the day, a “lazy eye.” Mainly, if I hadn’t had corrective lenses, I would have ended up cross-eyed, which may have worked for silent flick comic actor Ben Turpin, and one-time sexy actress, Karen Black, but would have done diddly for my self-esteem, not to mention visual acumen.

I was spec clad from fourth grade until my twenties. Then, blessedly, I was able to chuck them and enjoy a brief hiatus from enhancement until I needed reading glasses at around forty. Today, I just wear my readers. Otherwise, I don’t wear glasses.

But, my point is, I had to go through the bulk of my school days as a ‘four-eyes’, and kids are never kind or diplomatic about pointing out flaws they might see in another. My personal flaw they saw in my glasses.

Glasses in those days were extremely ugly. There was no fashion statement about them. They were as aesthetically appealing as Long John Silver’s crutch. But, worse than looking homely was the fact that if you wore glasses, certain personality traits were automatically ascribed to you. Those who saw through a lens, either lightly or darkly, were deemed to be bookish and nerdy. They were the benighted little souls who wore their shirts buttoned up to the neck, and hiked their pants up to the ribcage. Even if that wasn’t the case with all glasses-wearers – like me, for example – that was still the impression those windowpanes in front of your eyeballs conveyed.

I went through years of this, and it was stressful. Having to wear glasses violated my image of what I should be like – excruciatingly cool.

There were other deficits that had to be endured. If you wore glasses you were immediately deemed to be lousy at sports. I was lousy at sports, but it had nothing to do with the glasses. But, the glasses simply added to the insult of always being last picked.

If you wore glasses, teachers automatically assumed you were scholarly. Teachers, not always the brightest bulbs on the tree (or they wouldn’t be teachers), tend to live on archetypes. I know, I was one, once. Consequently, their expectations of one were higher than they were for the specs-free. As a result, my report cards ended up being filled with the “Ian is not working up to his capacity,” sort of comment. Hey, maybe I was working to my capacity. It was just that the glasses combined with lower scale marks didn’t tie in with the geekish image.

And then there were girls. Girls were the worst. Even girls who wore glasses disdained guys who did. Well, they may have had a genetically valid point in that they didn’t want to produce progeny that had myopia coming from both sides of the gene pool, so they sought out 20/20 boys. That hurt.

But then, when I was at my most vulnerable and insecure (adolescence) Buddy Holly came onto the scene, and he changed my world, and the worlds of many others.

He wore glasses! And such cool glasses they were. Thick, black frames that looked masterful and strong. At the same time, his music was magnificent. Everybody, including girls, grooved on his music and the sentiments of his songs.

I begged and pleaded to get such spectacles as Buddy wore. On this rare occasion, pity was taken on me, and I was able to get them. My life changed. Not instantly, but it did change. I grew taller, my voice changed, and I got the same eyewear as that martyred boy from Lubbock, Texas. Some friends were even driven to suggest, when I first sported my nifty black frames, that I even looked a bit like Buddy Holly – albeit alive.

For, one February day his little plane cracked up in an Iowa snowstorm, and he became an instant cult-figure, and even the clear-of-seeing saw a certain mystique in the specs, and they ultimately became his symbol, even more than his guitar.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Aren't some people just plain rotten?

Where did all the bad kids go? When I was a kid, there were generally two categories of behavior, and even good kids could do bad things. And when they did bad things they were -- yes -- punished. They might end up like the fellow on the right, the photo of whom was captioned: "What bad kids get for Christmas." And that was like it was. We had to pay for our transgressions, and pay we did. Maybe the omnipresence of penalties for our transgressions didn't make us better humans, but in a way I suspect it did.

As there was punishment, there were also punchers. They came in the forms of parents, teachers, cops and preachers. Not only that, no parent batted an eye if a neighbor took us to task. Indeed, if a neighbor was driven to such a state of exasperation by our behavior, there was often more punishment to be meted out when we got home. We had, after all, disgraced the family and had cast aspersions on the disciplinary astuteness of our parents.

If we were punished at school, then we kept our traps shut about it. If we didn't, then again there was to be further punishment for bringing about that aforementioned family shame. Oh, by the way. Teachers were always right, so the idea of a parent taking his kid's side against the severity of a teacher or principal's punishment was unheard of. Not only were teachers right. Adults in general were right. Kids were very, very rarely right. About the only time they were was if there had been some sort of misunderstanding about the nature of their sin.

That was the whole point, you see. Children were born in sin and it was up to judicious adults to flail that out of them. Kids categorically did not know anything. Adults, on the other hand, knew all that there was a need to know. Kids were expected to defer.

Nevertheless, there were, even in those days, rotten and dreadful kids. These were the kids that stole, that spat, that fought, that urinated in public places, that sassed, that perpetrated unspeakable transgressions of every nature. The process in dealing with them was straightforward enough. Strap the bejesus out of them during their school years, and look forward to the day when they would drop out -- often at the end of 8th grade -- and then follow their careers through reform school and ultimately prison. I mean, it was all pre-ordained. Of course that was their destiny, for they were 'bad' -- they were bad to the bone.

It seems we don't have a lot of 'bad to the bone-ness' in contemporary society. What we have in lieu is excuses. Kids today, regardless of how atrocious their behavior, are transgressors because:
- they come from dysfunctional families (don't we all?)
- they are ADHD (kids don't do badly in school because they misbehave, they have a condition)
- they are autistic (there seems to have been a quantum increase in autistic kids in society, despite the fact that it is a gravely serious condition afflicting rather limited numbers)
- they are from a minority (works in some cases, but not in many others. There are also hugely successful people from all ethnic minorities)
- they have suffered abuse of a physical, emotional, sexual or even spiritual nature.
- they come from a home where both parents work
- they come from a single-parent home
- they come from an impoverished home
- they come from a home that is too affluent

And so on, and so on. Now, all of the above possibilities are applicable in some cases. They always were. My basic point is that there was a time in which we weren't so quick to exonerate a person for just plain bad behavior. If a child messed up at school, parents weren't so quick to indict the teacher. If the kid messed up in society, parents took ownership, rather than blaming the police, or the lack of sufficient youth facilities or other such fatuous nonsense. Other than a broken down ballpark I don't remember anything resembling a youth facility when I was a kid, nor do I remember any kid or adult being particularly exercised about the lack thereof. The point here being, we were usually too busy to actually worry about such things. We actually did have chores. We were also expected to be home for dinner, and to do our homework on weekday evenings. Not saying we always did. As I suggested, we were sometimes bad, and there were bad kids. But, there was always a price to be paid.

All the aforementioned, that are regularly used as excuses may indeed be 'reasons' in some cases for malefactions. But, a reason doth not an excuse make.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

It's no longer 'over there'

Over There was a popular patriotic tune in the First World War, and it made reference to the fact that while 'we' were here, we would be sending troops to straighten out the mess in Europe. Within the memories of most, that was where war happened -- over there. Those of good heart will wring their hands at the plight of those in war zones, and we may even send soldiers, but we will send them 'over there.' On the other hand 'here', as we understood it, was always safe from hideous international conflict. Until 9/11 that was the case. With the exception of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, foreigners had never encroached on North American sovereinty within anybody's recall.

But, I was put in mind of the huge change that we are still emotionally adjusting to -- a change brought about with 9/11, with the recent arrests of terrorists in Britain; terrorists who seemed to be planning to blast thousands of innocent victims out of the skies in a series of acts that can only be described as murder of the most barbarous sort, and with the opening of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. I'm an emotional coward. This is not a film I want to see. I do want to assume an ostrich posture as much as possible. I do want to continue to pretend that it is still safe over here, and all the horrors are a world away. Anyway, I am no admirer of the oeuvre of Stone, a filmmaker whom I have always considered hyperbolic, deceitful, and sometimes downright lying in order to make his points. Points which are always heavily politicized. On the other hand, considering the source, Trade Center has been fairly well received critically. But, I still do not choose to see it.

I've mentioned before that when 9/11 happened I was thousands of miles away from 'anything', on the island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific. Only Antarctica would have been more remote. Raro, in the Cook Islands, is about 1500 miles from New Zealand, the only place of substance in the neighborhood. Otherwise, the only other centers can be found in French Polynesia, Fiji or Tonga -- hardly pivotal centers by any standard. Yet, when the incident happened, we were in immediate contact with it. A guy in a little shop called me to his computer and there on the screen was the famous image. It was thousands of miles away, and still right next door in my sensibilities. Electronics have killed 'over there.' We are all connected. We are all in the epicenter of anything that is happening.

"Well, when something like this happens, you couldn't be in a safer place," said Margaret, our charming Maori landlady on Raro, as she swept her arm wide to encase a world of a splendid lagoon, palm trees, jungled hills and anything pastoral and serene you could think of.

And all I could think was, Margaret, you dear soul, you are so wrong. Rarotonga is no longer remote. Nothing is remote. We are tied and we cannot genuinely get away. All we can do is make our psychological adjustments to a world that became alien -- in an instant. Everything happens in an instant now.

When l lived in Britain 25 years ago, we adjusted to IRA terrorist bombings. They were a fact of life, and the Brits simply went about their business, largely ignoring the terrorism that was on their doorstep. I got caught up in their attitude of pluck, and also accepted certain realities as a way of life. Likewise, the Brits tended to think that maybe America went over the top in its hysteria about 9/11. But, putting it into perspective, they are a people who lived through the Blitz, and those aforementioned IRA bombings.

They're probably right, but they will have to forgive the rest of us for having to adjust to the new reality. It will take some time. I know for me it will.

Friday, August 11, 2006

What's with all this damn hugging going around?

We have become a very 'hugging' society, I've been finding. I don't mean it as a criticism. I cherish the fact that people have become open enough in formerly uptight North American society that we no longer look askance when somebody wants to throw their arms around one.

Nowadays, hell, you can throw your arms around somebody you scarcely know and they will not feel you are guilty of misbehavior or weirdness for wanting to encase them. Sometimes people go a bit overboard with this, in all likelihood.

"Harry, I want you to meet my sister, Griselda. She's just back from 20 years in Istanbul."

Harry is delighted to meet Griselda for the very first time and immediately enwraps the unfortunate woman in a bear hug. Griselda, who has been in an Instanbul convent, is a bit nonplused, but since you are her brother's old friend, she accedes to the hug.

At one time hugging people of casual acquaintance would have been quite unacceptable. It was the sort of thing Italians did, but not WASPs. I don't remember ever hugging my mother. Really. Sometimes there were old aunts who wanted to hug. Frankly, it creeped me out. Hugging was something you did with somebody that you wanted to separate from their underpants at the earliest possible instant. In other words, for an entire generation, hugging was a sexual thing. And, blessedly, it's still a sexual thing, but not just a sexual thing. Now it is a friendship -- and also acquaintanceship, sometimes very casual acquaintanceship -- thing.

Even more revealing of changing mores is the 'guy hug'. Now that is something quite different: two heterosexual grown men throwing their arms around each other has been deemed acceptable. Formerly that would have been considered certifiably weird, and just a little too bohemian for the average guy.

Personally I like hugging. I think this change in dynamic is healthy. That is because hugs are healthy. They are genuinely therapeutic -- you could look it up. I mean, I am old fashioned enough that I largely prefer to hug ladies, but there is nothing wrong with hugging another guy if the situation warrants it.

When I was bossman at the rehab centre I ran, no client ever finished his 28-days without a big bearhug from all the other guys in the place, as well as from everybody on staff, male and female. Sometimes these were mightily wounded souls who had never had affection and care of a non-sexual nature, and often the gesture would move them to tears. This included some of the big, tough, jailhouse tats mothers who had come to us from the joint. And they would mist up. Hugs therefore are powerful.

A few years ago I reunited with somebody I had known in school, and had not seen since high school. I found her on the internet and contacted her. She was delighted that I had. Since she only lived about 60 miles away, we agreed that we should meet for lunch. It was a neat idea, since decades separated the last time we had been eye-to-eye. When she arrived, we immediately hugged. We didn't even think about it, we just did. I will confess that when I knew her in high school, all those days ago, I had a bit of a crush on her. Consequently, in light of the mores of the day, I wouldn't have dreamt of spontaneously hugging her back then. Now, the rules have changed, and I am very glad they have.

But, there is an ironic flip-side to this. While we have become more demonstrably affectionate as a society, we also feel much more alienated than we did when she and I were at school together. Neighbors no longer know neighbors, and we are wary of the folk three doors down because they might be operating a meth lab. Kids pack heat to school, and sometimes blow one another away. playgrounds are trashed and graffiti of the most disgusting sort is splashed on public edifices. Road rage actually takes lives, rather than just pissing people off.

So, yeah, it's great that we hug, but I think we've got a hell of a lot of work to do on all the rest of it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Gin Lane revisited in 2006 style

In the 18th century the English engraver Hogarth did a series of masterful depictions of a metaphorically named London backalley known as 'Gin Lane'. Horrifying in some of its imagery, it showed the down-and-out residents of the neighborhood devastated by the abuse of very cheap booze. How this had come about was that early distillers found that they had a surfeit of cheap rotgut that they could sell to the poor for mere pennies. The result was cheap and deadly intoxication all around. Hey, if you lived the wretched lives these people did, you would want to be drunk, too.

Eventually the government smartened up and realized this booze was devastating to society. Their answer to the problem was a simple and effective one. They slapped a huge excise tax on the liquor. At the same time, they cut down on the excise on beer, and that was how beer became the working-stiff's potable of choice. He could afford it. He could no longer afford the hard stuff.

I was put in mind of this as the result of a two part series I just wrote concerning the out-of-control party scene at a local resort area. Horror stories abounded from this place and no matter how you sliced the tales, the word I got from the cops, from social workers, from residents, and from a youth addictions counselor, was that the culprit in the matter was unhampered access to alcohol on the part of the young.

Thus, there are the tales of 200 or 300 kids on a beach basically drinking themselves senseless and then getting up to the behaviors that overindulgence in booze can bring about. In the last three years there have been three deaths among intoxicated partiers. Girls as young as 14 and 15 have been found face-down in sand and vomit on the beach. That is not to mention the other girls in that age grouping who have been sexually assaulted by predatory males, some as old as their late 20s. All in all, not so very different from the world Hogarth depicted, albeit in a more pastoral setting.

It is statistical fact that alcohol takes more youthful lives than all other drugs combined. Takes 'far' more lives than all other much-feared drugs combined. Why isn't alcohol a "much-feared" drug? Only because it is legal, and because those who make the rules also enjoy a bit of a tipple, either infrequently or even frequently. So, the stuff ain't going to go away. They tried that with prohibition, and look where it got them. It is also a statistical fact that the toll alcohol takes on young females is especially devastating. Surveys in England have found girls as young as 16 in the early stages of liver cirrhosis. Believe me, that is not a pretty way to die.

Don't misconstrue what I am writing here. I am not a prohibitionist. Alcohol used with respect is a perfectly acceptable substance that arguably, for the majority of the population, does more therapeutic good than harm. But, when I was working at my 'other' calling as an addictions counselor, I also saw it at the other end, and there is nothing amusing about the DTs, alcoholic seizures, or cirrhosis. Sometimes in clients who weren't very old.

What I must wonder about is a greed-ridden society that encourages (there is no other word for it) heedless alcohol consumption by the young. Check out TV beer ads if you disbelieve this. I must wonder about a society that markets alcoholic beverages with a youthful consumer in mind. Coolers are a good example. No adult who enjoys a good scotch or gin and tonic is remotely interested in coolers. So, there is a pandering to this huge market-share and an encouragement of the consumption of alcohol at virtually all events. This encouragement is, as I say, especially directed at an age demographic that is not noted for making great judgment calls. It's also an age demographic that is not particularly concerned about the long term effects of a behavior.

When I was younger the legal drinking age here in British Columbia was 21 -- and it was enforced. Sure, we snuck into bars, but it was pretty difficult before you were, say, 19 or 20. You simply looked too young. Furthermore, we literally didn't have the money to spend on the stuff in an unfettered way. A beer bash of any kind was a special occasion thing.

Access to alcohol was also much more difficult. There were no corner liquor stores, and bars were very limited in number, and pretty scrupulous about checking IDs.

As I say, I know that booze is not going to go away, nor would I ever advocate such a thing. I just think there is something wrong with a society that watches young people throw away their health, welfare and possibly their lives in such a frivolous and pointless manner.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Born to be LOUD!!

Get your motor runnin',
Head out on the highway.
Lookin' for adventure,
And whatever comes your way.
Like a true nature's child,
You were born to be wild ...

Ah -- the lure of the open road; a throbbing engine between your knees; unlimited heights of speed and derring-do with the fresh air in your face all the way. What could be better? If you are there on your 'hog', probably not so much else. If you are trying to get some sleep at 2 a.m. while Mr. loudpipes outlaw wannabe is screaming up your street just seconds after you've dozed off, then a bit of blessed silence and some respect for those who don't share your passion for two-wheeled motorized velocipedes.

A few years ago I got pulled over by the local constabulary for the reason that the pickup truck I had at the time was too loud. The muffler had blown out a few days (weeks, or months earlier, I'd lost track) earlier and I hadn't bothered getting it fixed. The enthusiastic and slightly strident young cop demanded that I get it fixed. He gave me two days to show up at the copshop with a vehicle that purred at a respectable level for polite company, or I would be ticketed. I was irked, but I followed his decree. What else could I do?

Yet, any day of the week virtually muffler-less motorcycles scream by you, me and everyone else with noise emanating at the decibel level of a 747 carrying a cargo-load of rehearsing heavy-metal rock groups, and authorities seem to bat nary an eye. Why is this? Why aren't the biker-boys ordered to cut the noise pollution as I was, and as have been the drivers of many four-wheeled vehicles throughout the years. When I was in my teens hotrodders were busted for glass-pack 'Hollywood' mufflers, and God help anyone who even considered opening up his 'lake' pipes anywhere other than on a competition track. Yet, bikers emerge unscathed from such considerations.

What I find this misbehavior and lack of consequence does for me is arouse my worst prejudices; one of which holds that the stupider a person is, the louder he is. The intellectually satisfactory generally like muted tones, use their 'indoor voice' when speaking in public venues, are comforted by softer music, don't get publicly drunk and obnoxious in the wee smalls, and even hold domestic arguments that drip with sarcasm and irony, rather than screaming expletives. Even sex among the brighter bulbs is a matter of soft endearments and muted moans rather than screamed orgasmic cries of triumph. In other words, when I am really pissed off with that chopper noise at 2 a.m., I automatically assume the driver is a certifiable moron.

Don't get me wrong. I like motorcycles. Some of them are truly magnificent machines and I can look on the hardware with much admiration. I mean, I am a coward about them, and I prefer having four wheels under me and a bit of metal surrounding me when I am out on the highway. So, for driving fun, I have always preferred sportscars. But, I admire in a way those who are prepared to throw caution to the winds (figuratively and literally) and are prepared to deal with bugs in the teeth and semis on the tail. Not for me, however. The underwriters' mortality demographics for bikers are just too damn high for me.

No, all I am complaining about is the damn noise. It is unfair, irritating, and unnecessary. Bikers proclaim, illogically at all levels, that the noise keeps them 'safe' from other vehicles. I say, most politely and respectfully, in a pig's eye. The loud noise is only discernible to another driver when the biker is accelerating away from one, not when he is coming up behind. All sorts of laws of sound transmission belie what bikers fancy happens with the cacaphonous post-manufacture muffling. The bikes make a huge noise when they are accelerating away from a scene, and that is what 'certain' (certainly not all) bikers like. Those are the loud boys who are always desperate to call attention to themselves.

In the city of Vancouver they are changing the law, and they plan to ticket loud bikers. I wish them luck. The same thing has been done in a number of US cities. I hope it catches on everywhere. It is about time. Then I won't resent having to get that muffler replaced quite so much, because the world will seem a little more fair.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Baby, take a walk on the wild side

Oh, for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumor of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more.
William Cowper

Today I wanted to get away. Not far away, but just away enough that I didn't need to worry myself about deadlines, writing dreary tales about the problems of others for the sake of a small reimbursement payment or two. Not that I don't like what I do, but sometimes I just have to get away, to remind myself there is a world out there. Not a world assaulted by war, starvation, terrorism, crime and pestilence, but a world where all that exists are those elements that have existed since the earliest dawn in a mythical garden at the beginning of all that we know.

What I needed was pastoral. Indeed, what I needed was a shot of wilderness. In that I am fortunate to live where I do. The wilderness is never far away. I couldn't afford an entire day away, but I could give myself until early afternoon. Therefore, Mt. Washington beckoned.

Mt. Washington, in the Beaufort Range of Vancouver Island is wilderness enough from me. And the scene pictured here, in the beautiful Paradise Meadows of Strathcona Park is just a little over a half hour drive from my front door. It's a mere matter of getting out of town, through a few miles of lush farmland, then up through the woods, and then the climb up the hill, virtually to the top, and there you are. At 4,000 feet the air is clear, and the sky is blue. The trees, bedecked with huge inundations of snow in the winter (this is a primo ski facility, second only to Whistler on the BC Coast) are tall and never bedecked in lateral branches because the snow will break them off.

But, a walk through the alpine meadows or into the hinterland lakes restoreth the soul, for me. There are birds, so-called 'whiskeyjacks' (gray jays), who will take food from your hands and land on your shoulders; sparkling rivulets boast tiny rainbow trout, gaining in size before they head to the heavier competition downstream, near the lower levels. And, there are other wild animals, squirrels and raccoons, and maybe even "lions and tigers and bears, oh my." Well, no tigers, but lions of the 'mountain' sort, sleekly wonderful to the eye, and as unpredictable and dangerous as a tiger shark, and bears, oh yes. I have never seen a cougar (mountain lion, puma, or whatever in the wild, alas) but plenty of bears have crossed my path. They have always nodded obligingly, and continued on their way.

As I said, I did not spend a vast amount of time up Mt. Washington, but was there long enough to restore my perspective on the world and to realize what a blessing I have in being able to access such a place so quickly.

Time was up. I drove back down the mountain -- at one point on the downward trail (actually a beautiful bit of roadway) a vista opens up to reveal the waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Mainland mountains (over there in North America, we Islanders call it), south to Vancouver, and eventually Seattle, and north all the way to Alaska if you were to keep going.

Not such a bad place to be. Thanks.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Some fairytales just don't turn out OK

"Where's your bunting," said a Green Lane neighbor one early August morning 25-years ago. Being uncertain exactly what constituted 'bunting', I muttered something about not having gotten around to it yet. However, being the very quick study that am, I deduced that bunting was all the Union Jacks and assorted bits of Royal-centric bric-a-brac that hung from all the houses on Green Lane, throughout the village of Bradwell, and spilled over to the broader environs of Gorleston, and the large centre of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, that had been called home by me for the previous three-hundred and sixty something days, and would soon be relegated to memory as my (now ex) wfe and I departed for home in Canada.

The reason for the bunting and bunting discussion centered around the forthcoming nuptial vows of one Charles Windsor and Lady Diana Spencer in early August of 1981. People in the Great Yarmouth area were mighty pumped about the wedding, and were especially enchanted since the rapturously lovely Lady Di happened to be a Norfolk girl, born a few miles to the north, on the Royal estate of Sandringham.

Anyway, it was too late in the game for us to get bunting, so I found a Union Jack plastic shopping bag in the house and hung it from the porch light fixture. That seemed to work. I mean, we're not a big bunting sort of place in Canada, so it all was a bit alien to me.

Anyway, Chuck and Di got married, and we watched the rites on TV. We had even toyed with going down to London to actually catch sight of the principals and the entourage as they made their way to St. Paul's Cathedral. However, when we realized what crowds there would be, we opted for the televised version, instead.

I, of course (like many red-blooded males) fell madly in love with the winsome, doe-eyed Diana at almost first glance. Consequently many of us were astonished when we realized this was not a bond created in heaven. Chuck, it seems, retained his horniness for that Camilla person, who actually had the cheek to show up at the wedding, and offered Charles a lewd wink and even more questionable gesture as he took his place at the altar of the cathedral. Well, actually just made that up, but she might have done just that, knowing her. Anyway, Chuck knew she was there, and so did Di. Now, those of us less in the know would be excused for thinking about Diana's chagrin over Camilla, "What are you thinking, girl? No contest. You are just the hottest little patootie in the whole realm, and she looks like somebody who should be cleaning the toilets at your local pub. You won the boy. Relax, lie back, think of England and produce a couple of heirs, and that's about all you need to consider."

Anyway, the fable (and fable it was, because our fantasies didn't approach reality) didn't have a happy story book ending. It reached it's dramatic and excruciatingly tragic denouement in a Paris roadway underpass nearly nine years ago. Chuck then married the toilet scrubber a few years after that, and nobody paid his behavior and horniness much attention after that.

But, I have often thought that Diana played it foolishly. There were things she just did not get. The most important one was, Royal do not marry for love. They screw for love, but marriage is another matter, and all revolves around lines of succession. So, Diana could have had it made if she had played her cards right. She would have produced her lads, and then she could have taken her own lovers, if she had been discreet. Meanwhile, she would have had money, gorgeous clothes, nice houses and cars and the only price she would need to have paid was to offer her Royal 'babe-ness' at certain official functions. Not a bad job. But, she chose not to. She chose to be 'out there' with her lovers, and to diss the heir to the throne in public places, and ultimately came, as they say, 'to a bad end.'

So sad really, and such was not among my thoughts on that August morning when I hung out my shopping bag bunting. I resented Charles for having laid claim to such a peach, but still congratulated him for what seemed like wonderful taste. Well, his taste was ultimately not quite so good, but if he's happy, I don't really care.

The day of the wedding was a good one. The sun was shining brightly. We wandered through the streets of our village, and even attended a few street parties. We then went down to the Gorleston waterfront and watched the tall ships parade. I was glad to be there on such an occasion.

Now, an awful lot has happened to all of us in that quarter of a century. and the lovely Diana is merely a postscript. That's kind of sad.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In Vino Veritas

Far be it from me to kick a person when he's down. Except in cases where the person damn well deserves to be down -- so in this case I will make Mel Gibson one of those exceptions. Whatever his sheer stupidity brings about in terms of trashing his career, is quite called for. He called for it himself.

As a human being I will make all sorts of exceptions for people who get on the wrong side of drugs and alcohol. I bear no malice towards Robert Downey Jr., Courtney Love or Nick Nolte, along with countless others in the public eye going back to WC Fields and John Barrymore. But, I will countenance no backpedaling from somebody who got pissed up, and then responded to the situation with profane arrogance and vicious bigotry. He fucked up bigtime, and therefore chose to blame not just the arresting officer but an entire race of people.

Wow! And, do you know what. Blowing a .12 doesn't make you all that drunk. It's only point zero four over the legal driving limit. Big boys can usually hold their booze pretty well at that level. Therefore, let's suggest that the ever-so-successful Mr. Gibson used that as an excuse for some appalling behavior. I mean, take a look at his mug. He really doesn't look all the worse for wear. Where are the rheumy eyes and the hangdog expression. Why doesn't he look like Nolte did in that infamous mug shot. I used to run a rehab, if a guy came in looking like Mel, I would say he was in pretty darn decent shape.

It has been pointed out that most people, when they drink excessively, do things like talk too loudly, decide that a recent barfly acquaintance is his best friend in the world, maybe make a pass at an old family friend, go out and puke on his shoes, or maybe just plain pass out cold. Most people when they get drunk don't launch into a diatribe against a specific ethnic group unless they happen to already think that way. That's how I see it.

Many years ago (and this is something I am still ashamed of) I was busted for DUI. I was beside myself, and could offer no excuse for my behavior other than the fact I acted thoroughly irresponsibly and deserved whatever punishment was coming my way. Needless to say, the lesson stuck, and there is absolutely no chance of my repeating the act. And, by God, when they took me in, I was the politest and humblest little puppy in the world. It never once crossed my mind to blame another race of people for my misbehavior.

I am experienced enough now in dealing with substance abuse, from a clinical end, that I harbor no delusions about the effects of intoxicants on people but, you know, I do not accept substance abuse as a mitigating factor in courts. "I molested my stepdaughter, your honor, because I was drunk." In a pig's eye, you did. You molested your stepdaughter because you already harbored carnal and controlling thoughts about her, and being drunk just gave you the courage to carry out what you had always wanted to do.

"I maligned an entire culture, your honor, because I was drunk." Like Hell. You maligned the Jews because you already harbored anti-Semitic thoughts, and your being drunk gave you the courage to express what you really thought. Also, the realization that you had screwed up so badly put you in a panic, and you were desperate to blame somebody else.

Of course, I could be wrong. But I don't think so.

In Vino Veritas, in wine there is truth, said the Romans. They weren't wrong. Anything you have ever done or said or tried when drunk is something you likely always wanted to do, say, or try out while sober. Get a snootful, and anything you've harbored in your little heart seems like a good idea. The guy who lights into his boss at the office Christmas party is the guy who always wanted to light into his boss, but just didn't have the balls. If your sister-in-law looks pretty damn hot late in the evening after a few snifters, it's because she has always looked pretty damn hot in your esteem.

So, I am not about to say that Mr. Gibson is an anti-Semite. Only he knows the truth of that. But, I can say that his behavior says something about him that is extremely negative, and with which he, in his good Catholic conscience should be wrestling.

He says he is going to get into a program and get treatment. Good for him. Alcoholism is a hideous affliction that kills thousands every year. He should be thanking the cops who nailed him and kept him from killing himself or others. He should be thankful for being granted the realization that whatever he was doing to control his drinking behavior, obviously wasn't working.

And, he should now be cognizant of the fact that any recovery program, especially if it's 12-Step based, calls for complete honesty and complete humility. I expect for him that will be a tall order.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Sartorial splendors of childhood

Whatever happened to striped T-shirts? Stores about with Ts. Some of them very classy, some of them relatively ordinary, some of them vulgar and distasteful enough that the designers should have their souls scrubbed with lye-soap and water. I like T-shirts and wear them a great deal of the time.

But, I still want to know what happened to striped Ts. When I was growing up, that was all that we had. We all looked like little jailbirds as we fooled around in the schoolyard or on the playground. I can look at class photos from elementary school, and every second kid at least is in a striped T. Yet, nowadays you never see them. I don't understand that. If you look back in the popular media, right back to the Our Gang films of the 30s and 40s, there the lads were, all be-striped. At a slightly later period of time, young Opie of Mayberry wore one, as did Beaver Cleaver, Dennis the Menace, and countless others.

The striped T was one of those rites of passage things. Past a certain age you graduated out of them and moved on into adolescent's estate. To still be wearing a striped T past the age of 13 or so, automatically labeled you to be a dork -- a square -- a suckhole -- or whatever other pejorative was operative at the time.

When I was growing up, the drive was to always look older than your age. The process began once you got past short pants. Jeans and a striped T were just a little more sophisticated than shorts and a striped T. And then, when I got into my early teens, the old T-shirts were kissed goodbye, and I never looked back.

Yet now, there is a whole generation of boomer males of roughly my age, who probably remember the old striped jobs with something resembling nostalgic affection.

So, here's my plan. I'm going to start manufacturing and selling striped T-shirts. There should be a fortune in them, if I read the nostalgia impulse correctly. And, if the Ts work, I'm going to move on to a line of Davey Crockett coonskin caps and Roy Rogers gun and holster sets. There could be a fortune in this for me.