Saturday, June 28, 2008

We may be boring but we're big

It's soon to be the First of July, which means this is a long weekend for all Canadians of any common sense, and certainly for the slackers, which includes many of us.
When I was a kid July 1 was called Dominion Day. Now it’s called ‘Canada Day’. Notice the difference? Me neither. For those of you south of the border, July 1 is our July 4, but with fewer fireworks.

I am ambivalent at best about Canada/Dominion Day. I tend to find it a bit like New Year’s Eve – a contrived holiday in which people are ‘told’ to have a good time. To celebrate!

To celebrate what, exactly? To celebrate the fact that some parts of this place are more equal than others? We actually have ‘Equalization Payments’ that prove that gem, as in the fact some provinces pack more political clout than others, so if they fall on hard times, due to their own fiscal ineptitude and corruption, the people in other provinces are called upon to bail them out – yet again.

To celebrate the fact we have one of the most inefficient systems of governance of any self-respecting western democracy? A system of governance which holds that all votes of consequence are relegated to the eastern part of the province and that we all must revere the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though anybody outside of Toronto itself couldn’t even muster detestation of the team.

It’s also a system of governance in which a nice old foreign lady has, for the sake of tradition and for little other reason, a great deal of constitutional sway over what we do. She has no actual power over us, but I think it’s time we grew past this colonial vestige and became a real grown up country.

Canada is, of course, a land of great physical beauty combined with the ghastliest climate outside of Siberia for the most part, and soggy and wet in the bit I call home. There is only solace in the fact that the worst climate in the known universe is to be found in Ottawa, the national capital.

One of our newspapers ran a thing yesterday in which Canadians, including British Columbians, were asked to name a group of Canucks they revered. Firstly, I don’t believe their findings, and secondly I cannot conceive of even one British Columbian who would see either Pierre Trudeau or (shudder) Celine Dion as symbols of anything other than what is wrong with this damn place.

But, for your enlightenment, here is the list with a few of my opinions:

* Pierre Trudeau: Not for anybody west of the Great Lakes or east of Ontario. The arrogant bastard was responsible for much of what is reprehensible in Canada.

* Terry Fox: OK, he deserves to be there.

* Wayne Gretzky: Remember when hockey players used to be Canadian? He was one of them, though he’s lived in the US for years.

* Tommy Douglas: To a degree, and certainly for Medicare, though not a lot else other than he’s Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather.

* David Suzuki: Not in any lexicon of mine. Not unless there is a category for boundless egomania without anywhere near as much substance as his acolytes believe.

* John A. Macdonald: Our first PM, a world-class lush, builder of a transcontinental railroad who gave Gordon Lightfoot something to sing about.

* Rick Hansen: OK, pretty darned admirable by any standard.

* Lester Pearson: Beloved by federal Liberals as a kind of icon (albeit with remarkably little personality), and he gets marks from me, as he was the first to feel the devious shaft of Pierre Trudeau.

* Celine Dion????????????? Why, at any level. I absolutely refuse to believe this one. For, if I did, I’d give up all hope for the country.

* Emily Carr: An overrated semi-talented artist who has been vastly surpassed by countless other Canadian wielders of brush.

What, no kudos for Pam Anderson, Howie Mandel, Alex Trebek, or the Unknown Comic?

But, at the end of the day, and for all its flaws, Canada remains a place that is relatively safe, relatively sane, relatively compassionate and, for all our lack of pizzazz, not such a bad place in which to live – especially in the summer months.

Happy July 1st for those who mark such things.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Joltin' Joe has left and gone away ...

I was never much good at baseball, and I was sorry about that. I was sorry because of all the team sports, most of which I find boring and pointless, the idea behind baseball wasn’t lost on me. I knew what was going on, and what had to be accomplished. On the other hand, I still haven’t a clue what a ‘down’ is in football, and have no desire to find out.

As for my paucity of skills on the diamond, it was like this. I could hit the ball well enough, and could even get a good hand-eye thing happening so that a bat (wood only, if you please) sometimes would make that satisfying ‘’crack’ of contact with projectile. Sometimes, less often, that projectile would be sent out somewhere in the field. More often than not it was foul, but I was still satisfied that I had hit the damn thing.

Part of my problem is that baseball is a dual skill sport. It calls for multitasking of a challenging sort. A body is up to bat, or a body is out doing field chores. The two don’t really relate. Slugger Babe Ruth, for example, was no screaming hell out in the field, so they always stuck him in the place where he could do the least damage, so that they could await the glories of the ‘Bambino’s’ time at the plate. I fancied myself a sort of Babe Ruth. I self-deluded a lot.

For me, being out in the field was a nightmarish part of the game. I was less than less than useless. A single prayer resonated through my brain when I took my place ‘out there,’ it was: “Please don’t hit the ball anywhere remotely near where I am standing.” I was like Lucy in the Peanuts strip, and to escape the pain of my incompetence out there – an incompetence that would regularly be called attention to by the wrath and scorn of my team-mates – I would try to immerse myself in other concerns in order to render it a sort of existential journey to the outfield. I would hunker down and permit myself to become engrossed in a laborious caterpillar trek in my little corner of the field, as fly balls whizzed past my ears. Juvenile obscenities would fill the air, but little did my team-mates know that it was better that I concerned myself with the task of the caterpillar than to make any vain attempt to catch that fly ball.

My problem with baseball was, I simply could not catch. I could be in possession of the most exotic flelding glove money could buy, and I still would have, at best, fumbled grievously. My fingers, alas, were indeed pure butter.

As I stated, I regretted the fact I wasn’t better at baseball, because it’s such a fine game, and one that is, to me, infinitely superior to so many others.

Football is predominantly a lot of long stretches of tedium, interspersed with a multitude of camera views of male posteriors – not the sort of thing dreams are made of; not my dreams at least. And then, for a couple of seconds there is a violent interaction between a bunch of guys and nobody really has any idea of what they are actually doing. At least, that’s how I see it.

Canada’s so-called ‘national’ sport, hockey, is too reminiscent of a Baghdad street scene for me to find it enjoyable. Anyway, I always had a difficult time seeing where the puck was, and I’ve never really trusted people with missing front teeth, regardless of the cause. Hockey is hardly Canadian any more in any case, since the vast majority of the teams are American, even if they are populated by Canadian (and Russian, and Czech, and Swedish) players. When Miami and Las Vegas have hockey teams, it kind of kills the connection with the ‘Great White North.’

I do like basketball as a spectator sport, especially if the basketball involves borderline incompetents, like a high school team, rather than pros. But, I was never any good at it.

Soccer is increasingly popular. Soccer is essentially ice-hockey on a field, in my esteem, and the players and spectators are of the same visceral and primal groups that give spawn to hockey. I was crummy at soccer, too.

So, back to baseball.

When I was a kid, a notable highlight of the year was the World Series. Some have been given to wondering why it is called the ‘World’ series, since it only involves two American leagues battling for the crown. Those knee-jerk and insecure Canadians, who look to blaming American arrogance for all ills in the world, see the name of the series as being typical Yank braggadocio. Actually, in terms of a point of trivia, the newspaper the New York World started the series concept, and it simply stuck long after the World ceased to exist.

For many of us in school in the 1950s, the Series provided a good excuse to retaliate against the authoritarian and humourless regimes that ran schools in those days. We would lug cumbersome, pre-transistor portable radios to school so that we could keep up on the action of the games. Of course, we weren’t permitted to tune in while class was in session, but we tried to, anyway. When we got caught, we would be warned, and then we would be punished if we tried it on again. The more severe teachers (which was most) would confiscate the radios. Some teachers (usually female) would outright ban radios from the classroom. Others would let us bring them in, but forbid us to turn them on.

Baseball in those days, especially World Series baseball, was the Dodgers. Not the Dodgers of today, but the Brooklyn Dodgers who played on their home turf of Ebbet’s Field. ‘Dem Bums.’ It’s never been the same since they left Brooklyn and moved to LA, of all places. Bums in La-La Land. It’s never really worked, in my mind.

The old Dodgers were everything that was good in baseball. They were polite, they were good to their moms, they brushed after every meal, they were patriotic, they were God-fearing, and to a man they all loved kids – especially boys – and even boys who weren’t very good at baseball. Maybe that was because the Dodgers sometimes weren’t very good at baseball, either. Even the heroes, like Duke Snider and Pee-Wee Reese sometimes had their off days. Often they had off-days, alas. They were the perennial underdogs, and we loved that about them.

The Yankees, on the either hand (their nifty pinstripe suits notwithstanding) personified for us all that was evil. They were the darkside, the antichrist. If the Dodgers were Macs, the Yankees were ubiquitous and vulgar Gatesian PCs. The Yankees, in our minds, were vulgar, crass and cruel, given to drinking heavily and beating their wives. And they hated kids. Especially kids who weren’t good at baseball. If the Dodgers were Gary Cooper, the Yankees were George Raft. Unfortunately for us Dodgers fans, the Yankees took the series far more often.

Some characteristics of baseball:

Baseball is a stately game. It is accused of being boring, but is only so accused by the lowly of mien that do not understand any game that doesn’t involve gratuitous violence and bloodshed. Baseball grew out of cricket, and cricket is even statelier. Cricket is so stately and complex that virtually nobody outside of the UK, Australia, and assorted steaming ex-colonial enclaves has an idea of what it is all about. Sometimes I think cricket is boring, but that’s because I don’t get it.

Many years ago, when I lived in England for a year, I made a concerted effort to understand cricket. I would wander down to the nearby green to watch them play of a morning. Each time I thought I had the ground-rules mastered, somebody would do something unexpected and throw my understanding askew. Ultimately I gave up. Any game in which single matches sometimes last for days is a bit gratuitously stately, in my esteem.

Something else I noticed about cricketers is that they seemed a bit on the gentlemanly side. They never adjust the paraphernalia below their waistlines, and they don’t spit.

Spitting seems to be a very important component of baseball. All ballplayers seem to spit a lot. There is a reason for this. It’s a vital aspect of a psychological ploy, much like the aforementioned ‘adjustments.’ It shows the player is self-confident. A player who can, with impunity, scratch parts of his body his mother told him he must never scratch in public, and who can likewise expectorate in a manner that would have gotten him sent to the woodshed, is afraid of nothing. The fact that he is unafraid is that he can carry out these seemingly antisocial activities before hundreds of fans in a public venue, shows a person who is prepared to throw caution to the winds – to throw Mom’s wrath to the winds – for the sake of winning the game. Of course, the fact that the guys on the other team do exactly the same thing tends to neutralize the psychological advantage.

I think if contemporary baseball can be faulted for anything it is that the players have become too good. If everybody participating in a ball game does what he is supposed to do, then nothing much happens. A game of perfect pitches, for example, can be just a little too stately for the fans.

What we need, maybe, is to have games that involve mediocre teams playing really terrible teams. Then the action would be almost constant. Errors and crises would abound, and anger would flare with regularity. A well-tempered ballet would become a Three Stooges film.

Then there would be hope for guys who play baseball like I once did.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

We're all doomed to perdition, anyway

Since I find myself in a certain place these days I thought I’d offer some further thoughts on our vices and how it all plays out in society. Oh, I dunno, it’s just the sort of thing that seems to be on my mind these days. So, here are some further musings:

Once upon a time it was waggishly referred to as a "sin-tax".

The sin-tax was the bite governments took in granting companies official sanction to sell the 'legal' drugs, alcohol and tobacco. So, as you went to purchase your bottle of 'Old Cirrhosis Rye', you paid about eight-cents for the actual substance, and many, many extra dollars for the privilege of indulging your vice.

In other words, it was the 'revenuers' greedy hand in the matter that made the wickedness costly. With tobacco it is the same. Governments -- and who can blame them? -- realized early on that people really like this nicotine stuff; some even 'have' to use it, so they should pay dearly to get it. The government coffers should swell handsomely thanks to the indulgences of the 'weak'. Blessedly they haven't yet found a way to tax sex, but they are assuredly working on it.

Since booze and tobacco are not deemed necessities of life, they are, in effect, luxuries, and those who have the wherewithal to purchase luxuries should also give a big bite to the taxman. If you don't have the wherewithal, but choose to indulge anyway, so be it. Those who would officially have their hand in your pocket are very democratic; they do not discriminate in terms of financial status. All in all, it's a pretty good scheme, except for one element that is rarely addressed: it puts our governments in the drug-dealing business.

And today, ironically, you have the contradiction of government sanctioned and financed health districts fomenting against the lifestyle excesses of their clients, and indeed the government itself takes a high-handed (disguised as high-road) approach to these health-assaulting substances -- especially tobacco -- yet 'Big Brother' continues to rake in the bucks from the flogging of the stuff, at breakneck pace.

If everybody were to quit smoking and drinking tomorrow, governments would be faced with a crisis of monstrous proportion. Yet, somehow those in the corridors of power do not appreciate this hypocrisy. This is especially true in the case of tobacco. Government officially fulminates against the weed, and tries, Quixote-like, to drive a lance through 'Big Tobacco' via doomed-to-fail lawsuits. At the same time officialdom continues to garner benefits from its sale.

It has not escaped the scrutiny of many smokers that if the government were indeed serious about the evils of tobacco consumption it would just outlaw the stuff as the public health hazard it genuinely is. But, we know that will not happen. The government is, with no exaggeration, in the position of being the 'clean 'dealer' of illicit drugs who despises his pathetic clients, but is prepared to take their money for the dope he can lay on them.

However, rather than rail against hypocrisy, which is to no avail, we'll instead assume there are those in power who take such matters as smoking and excessive drinking seriously, and would genuinely like to do something about public consumption.

For them, I offer a modest, yet deadly serious proposal. Rather than mount futile lawsuits against the companies that deal in alcohol and tobacco, why not hit 'them' with a 10 percent tax that is specifically dedicated to helping those who run afoul of the product? Statistics suggest (though they vary, depending on whom you're talking to) that 80 to 90 percent of those who drink alcohol, do so safely, sanely and sociably. However, 10 to 20 percent (at least) of drinkers are alcoholics. That 10 to 20 percent is responsible for the bulk of such social ills as domestic abuse, neglected children, impaired driving, road fatalities, assaults (both sexual and physical), psychiatric ward admissions, emergency room admissions, and so on, through a virtually endless list of costly societal woes.

Meanwhile, recovery and rehabilitation centres (a potential growth industry, to be sure) are strained well past the maximum in attempting to help those souls who are desperately attempting to get away from their addiction.

So, take that 10 percent tax on the distillers and brewers, and direct it towards funding alcohol rehabilitation facilities and their employees. In other words, why shouldn't the manufacturers of the stuff pay part of what is needed to help those who become addicted to their product?

Likewise tobacco. Most smokers would love to quit. They know their habit (an addiction some deem to be more difficult than heroin to break) is health-robbing. They would like to live to a ripe old age, too. A 10 percent tax on tobacco products (to be borne by the companies) would at least make available some resources and materials to aid in that objective. We could establish smoke-ending clinics on an ongoing basis, financed by this new revenue. We would be enabled to make nicotine patches, and other smoking cessation material available gratis. Pump some of this money into research on new means of breaking the back of this nefarious addiction.

Such would be a proactive step by government, infinitely more effective and honest than lawsuits and draconian bits of legislation and would genuinely show concern rather than greedy hypocrisy. We need a new sin-tax that will genuinely deal with the sin and sinner alike in a positive way.

By the way, hypocritical and enabling governments are the biggest sinners of the lot.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Now, here's the thing ...

Smoke-smoke-smoke that cigarette …
Smoke-smoke-smoke it ‘till you smoke yourself to death.
Tell St. Peter at the Pearly Gate
That you hate to make him wait,
But you’ve just gotta have another cigarette.

They say that nicotine addiction is more ferocious than heroin, and I suspect there is truth to that. As an addictions counsellor I know a lot of people who have quit the booze, and even cocaine and heroin, but still cannot or will not give up tobacco.

I confess – mea culpa – I still smoke. Not much; about 10 a day, which is dramatically down from what I used to smoke, but it’s still 10 too many. I lead a healthy life. I don’t drink, I eat very sensibly, I walk whenever I can and when Wendy and I go on vacation, hiking is very much part of our pattern, as is swimming – but I still smoke a bit. It's silly, really. I mean, why do I smoke a bit when I should smoke not at all?

I am about to embark (yet again) on a regime of quitting the weed. This time I genuinely want to succeed without a ‘maybe’ about it. My health scare last week hit this home with me. I love my life and I want to hang around for a long time. Smoking isn’t conducive to that longevity. Oh, I know there are exceptions and I’ve personally known people in their 90s who have been puffing away all their lives – but they are exceptions.

Added to which, why do I want to shore up the coffers of morally-bankrupt ‘big tobacco’? Why too do I want to shore up the coffers of governments via their huge tax bite, but paucity of balls to actually ban the stuff. Of course they won’t; they don’t want to give up the cash cow.

I come from a family of smokers. My father was a heavy smoker when I was a kid (though he ultimately quit), my siblings are smokers, my aunts and uncles were smokers, my grandfather was a smoker. Damn it, I grew up with it. To smoke was a mark of pending adulthood. And, smoking was ‘cool’. It was ‘way cool.’

And, the elders smoked in the house, and they smoked in the car, and it stuns me to think that when I began smoking, people smoked in grocery stores, department stores, even clothing stores. Nobody thought anything about it. It was a cheap, guilty-pleasure with cigarettes at about 35-cents for 20. Wow.

My celluloid heroes smoked. Bogey smoked, Mitchum smoked, John Wayne smoked, James Dean smoked, and so on and so on. I wanted to be like them.

Though, I actually first took stock of the effects of tobacco with the death of Bogey (at 56) and the lung cancer of Wayne. Hmm, that’s not so good.

But, I continued, largely heedless. My early newspaper days were the worst. Everybody smoked. The newsroom was perpetually in a haze of blue fumes. We smoked as we wrote, we lit up when we answered the phone, we lit up when we made a call. We just smoked and smoked and nobody thought anything about it.

I liked smoking. Liked it a lot. It was a time-out from the rigors of life. A pause that refreshed even more than Coca-Cola. Smoking was fun. Smoking was nearly my hobby. Even today, if I hated smoking, if I had chronic bronchitis, or even a smoker’s cough, it would make it easier, but I have none of the above. But, I do have a health issue, so I must bite the bullet; I know I must.

Even then, as years went by I altered my behavior, and some of my alterations came about because of public health decrees. They banned smoking in restaurants, which initially irked me, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I was astonished when we went to the Cook Islands a few years ago and found that eatery smoking was still acceptable there.

They banned smoking in the workplace. Again I chafed, but I also found I cut down considerably in my smoking, and that was a good thing. They banned smoking on airplanes. Initially it made me uneasy, but now I’ve made 10-hour flights to and from Europe and haven’t even noticed.

Then I married two women, neither of whom would allow smoking in the house. I acceded to their concerns, and ceased smoking in the house. That made a body cut way back. I do smoke in the garage in inclement weather, but never inside the house proper.

I’ve made forays into quitting before, and have for brief periods of time. Now I have a stronger motivation – my health. Wish me luck, and any suggestions would be appreciated.


Monday, June 23, 2008

So, here is the story I promised

I wrote last Friday that I would tell you more, and now I am so doing. Not that I like to ramble about personal health concerns but I felt some sort of explanation would be apt. So here is my bit of aptness.

We were away in Victoria for a day and I had a lovely day on Thursday, wandering around without much of a care in the world, aside from the one that convinces me with increasing frequency that we’re all going to hell in a handcart and there’s not much I can do about it.

Anyway, I awakened early on Friday in our hotel room, swung my feet over the edge of the bed and prepared to make morning coffee. Except my left hand was numb. Totally numb. Like a flipper on a dying fish it would only flop around. At first I thought I’d slept on it and I awaited the pins and needles that would indicate it was coming back to full circulation.

Except, that didn’t happen.

Ten minutes later it was just the same. I awakened Wendy. Her response was immediate. “We have to get you to a doctor.”

I didn’t argue. But I didn’t want a doctor in a different town. I wanted the familiar. So, we drove the 140 miles back to the Comox Valley and by 11 a.m. I was with my own sawbones.

By that time my hand had regained considerable strength. When we were still in Victoria Wendy had to help me dress. I had progressively regained gripping power, however.

Back to the doctor. I told him what had happened. “You have experienced a Transient Ischemic Attack,” he said. “Or, in layman’s terms, a mini-stroke.” I preferred the scientific name because it sounded less ominous; less frightening.

He was reassured, as was I, that the attack was extremely localized and confined to only my hand, not even my arm. That, he said, is a good indication.

What a TIA is is when a blood clot travels to a certain part of the brain and temporarily screws up the bit of the body that part of the brain governs, and then it moves on.

This can indicate a build-up of plaque in the blood vessels, and this is not a very good thing, obviously.

So, today, and for the next number of days I have to undergo a number of procedures to assess how I am doing in the old plaque department, in order to avoid another episode, or worse.

He told me not to panic and to continue life as ordinary, and to do what I do, work, have fun, and don’t alter anything other than grabbing rest when I can.

Tall order. Even if everything is AOK, this shit is traumatizing. One’s immediate thought is: “I’m going to die now.” Not so, but that is what it feels like at first.

Right now I am on blood-thinners, which is a pain mainly because I hate to take anything, even an aspirin for a headache. But, if that’s the way it has to be, so be it. I like my life and would like to hang around for a considerably longer time.

So, in a nutshell, there you have it.

RIP George Carlin

I would be remiss not to mention that the untimely death of George Carlin was entirely uncalled for. The wonderful, profane, and excruciatingly honest 'Hippy-Dippy Weatherman' was of infinitely more value to the sanity of the planet than any thousand politicians.

Rest in Peace, George, and don't let the fuckers drag you down.

You take me back to a time when you exposed all the cant and hypocristy in society. Your highly attuned bullshit detector smote them all.

Only problem is, guys like you are still needed, maybe even more than before.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Damn and drat

Apologies for being tardy about my blog over the past few days but quite unexpectedly a health concern manifested itself and it has knocked me for a bit of a loop. I’ll tell you more later.

Right now I have to book a bunch of middle-aged guy tests, and am not looking forward to those. Nothing ominous, just a reminder that, despite the fact I take pretty good care of myself, I am human after all.

Shall write large soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Something evil is afoot (sorry) here

Gabriola Island. Site of Foot #3
They found Foot #5 yesterday. In case you aren’t aware of this utterly bizarre tale from coastal BC, one that has stumped (no tasteless pun intended here) cops, the public, and assuredly beachcombers, it is this one. As follows is a news account of the latest pedal finding:

DELTA, B.C. -- A fifth foot -- this one a left one -- has washed up on an island in the mouth of B.C.'s Fraser River.
Delta Police Const. Sharlene Brooks said the human left foot was spotted floating in the water off Westham Island on Monday morning by two walkers.
"The [left] foot was encased in a shoe and was partly submerged in the water," Brooks said.
In previous months, four other feet have washed up on B.C. shores.
On May 22, one foot was found by a person walking on Kirkland Island, an uninhabited piece of land in the south arm of the Fraser River, just a kilometre from Westham Island.
Last August, two feet encased in shoes washed up on Gabriola and Jedediah islands, just south of Quadra in the Strait of Georgia. And in February, another severed foot was found on nearby Valdes Island.
All the previous finds had been right feet, found within about 95 kilometres of each other. Each one has been in a sneaker.
None of them appear to have been forcibly severed from their legs. And the first two were size 12.
Now, what could be better than a nice stroll on the beach? You saunter along at tide line just to see what you can find: shells, agates, if you’re very lucky one of those beautiful green Japanese fishing floats that still wash up, albeit rarely.
“What’d you find, Ralph?”
“Oh, you know, some pretty shells, some very cool rocks, foot, fishing float.”
“Foot with sneaker?”
“What else? They’re always encased in sneakers. Right one this time, about a size 12, I’d guess. So, a guy’s foot or a very large woman.”
“Damn, I wish we’d find something interesting sometime.
But, seriously. This is not something out of science fiction, and it is thoroughly distressing to law enforcement folks. I ask you, what can the explanation be?
- industrial accident? OK, but five industrial accidents, none of which were reported?
- Localized version on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No such crimes have been unearthed.
- Hospital somewhere in the heartland just a little too casual about amputated bits?
- Aliens amputating bits of human anatomy to study and then chucking them out the spacecraft when they’re done with them? Naah. Too far fetched. Mind you, five amputated feet are pretty far-fetched, too.
- People suffering from borderline personality illness not content with mere cutting of themselves, cutting themselves much more deeply?
- Some sort of Armageddon signal that the end of the world has truly arrived?

I have no answers. Quite seriously, what do you think? I’d love to read your theories. Just ask yourself, how would Grissom on CSI handle this? Surely he’d solve it in less than an hour, with commercials thrown in.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Doctor truly follows the oath he took

Periodically in the realm of journalism you meet a person who not only inspires you by his or her basic defiance of convention, but also a person who makes genuine sacrifices to carry out some sort of self-imposed quest. There are few such people in this world, more's the pity.

Dr. Gabor Mate is one-such, however. A few months ago I had the privilege of interviewing Mate; to find out what makes him tick, and why he, as a medical practitioner gave up a posh practice to work amongst the outcasts and rejects of the meanest streets in the meanest neighbourhood to be found in North America.

The result was an article I wrote for the Victoria Times-Colonist. Yesterday the article ran, so now I am free to share it with you. So, if you will grant me a bit of self-indulgence, I will offer it, mainly because I want to expose you to the work of a unique human being.

By Ian Lidster

Dr. Gabor Maté is a slight man with a somewhat reserved bearing that renders it difficult to envision him dealing one-on-one with some of the most challenged and challenging addicts from the streets of despair in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.

But, it is front-row centre in that appalling neighborhood that Maté’s medical clinic sits, in the aged and crumbling Portland Hotel, whence he has been carrying out his often thankless, challenging, and too often tragic chore amongst society’s ‘discards.’ Disease and death is the norm with them, rather than the exception.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, newly published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, and available in local bookstores for $34.95, is the tale of one doctor’s quest to minister to the health and well-being of the chronically unhealthy and unwell, who are unhealthy and unwell due to a ‘lifestyle’ that evokes either the despair or contempt of uptown society.

In the Realm is not, however, just a narrative of life among the junkies hookers and mentally ill who populate the mean streets and alleyways – though intensely readable narrative it assuredly is – but also a presentation of his view about officialdom’s failure to bring about solutions to a scene that afflicts us all, whether in Vancouver, Victoria, or countless other communities in the province.

It’s a story of usually benign, but sometimes prejudicially-inspired neglect and rejection. The addicted are, in the eyes of many, slightly less than human. They are unworthy of our attention unless they panhandle us for dope money (let’s be honest about the motivations of the guy or girl who hits us up), rob us, commit unpleasant acts like public urination, pass out in doorways, or aggress. Then they get our attention, and they get the attention of officialdom.

Far-removed from that squalor is a comfortable and elegantly appointed lounge at the Empress, though the human reminders of his client-base are never far away on the streets of the provincial capital. Therein a short time ago, Maté shared some thoughts on what inspired this particular book.

“In the first place, I am a writer who works as a doctor,” said Maté, by way of explaining that writing is more than just an avocation for him. He is also the author of such bestsellers as Scattered Minds, and When the Body Says No. He is the former medical columnist for the Globe and Mail, and still writes for that newspaper on such issues as health and parenting.

What is vital to Maté is that we must change our approach to not only the highly-charged concept of addiction per se – mainly for the obvious reason that what we have been doing hasn’t worked worth a damn – but for that change to happen, we must develop an understanding of the addict. Addicts do not choose to become addicts, but certain conditions, he has found, are common to most of them.

“These are people who persistently indulge in compulsive behavior with negative consequences,” he says. “The similarities among them consistently intrigue me.”

Another point made by Maté is that, their actual addiction, whether it is to heroin, cocaine, crystal meth or alcohol notwithstanding, the average street addict is not so very different from most of us. Their lifestyle is different, and the threats to their well-being are virtually constant, but the harmful addiction remains a behavior. An exaggerated form of compulsive behaviors many of us possess.

In one section of In the Realm, Maté refers to his own addiction – and he thoroughly regards it as an addiction and trivializes it not at all – to purchasing classical music CDs. His obsession about such music acquisitions defies all logic, and he even attempts to hide his purchases and to not make appointments for the sake of ‘scoring’. This is classic addictive behavior.

While one critic at least scoffed slightly at Maté’s analogy, Maté defends its inclusion in the sense that, while the harm in being a CD junkie may be minimal, it still gives him empathy because the illogic of the process is the same.

He explains one of his music-buying sprees thusly:

“When you get right down to it, it’s the adrenaline I’m after, along with the precious reward chemicals that will flood my brain when I hold the new CD in my hand, providing an all too temporary reprieve from the stress of my driven state. But, I’ve barely left the store before the adrenaline starts pumping through my circulation again, my mind fixated on the next purchase. Anyone who’s been addicted to any kind of pursuit – whether it’s sex or gambling or shopping – is after that same fix of home-grown chemicals.”

Yet, he also observes that while the chemicals coursing through the system at the moment of realization of the score are the same in both cases, the consequences for the street addict are gravely different and more disastrous.

Areas in common among most addicts with whom he’s dealt, says Maté, include childhoods that were often fraught with abuse, physical and sexual, multi foster homes in many cases, dysfunctional parents and many other societal negatives.

“Consequently the drugs they use are their only safe place,” he says. “They provide temporary solace from immense personal pain.”

There is also an immaturity that for many addicts is virtually incipient. They learned at an early stage of development that there were behaviors and substances that could take them away from the pain.

“These people get stuck at a stage of pre-toddler soothing and as they carry on they don’t develop,” he says. “Therefore, they’ll exhibit antisocial behaviors that are almost childlike. This isn’t just emotional; it’s actually a physical immaturity of the brain. It can be seen in the brains of longtime substance addicts in which no growth pattern is evident. The white matter does not increase. Consequently, in answer to critics who maintain that addiction is a matter of choice, many addicts literally do not have the brain ability to make considered choices.”

Solutions? Maté, with In the Realm, makes some strong suggestions. Suggestions that will demand a change in the ethic of western society. In that he supports the concept of harm reduction, despite how charged a concept that is for those who see it as pandering to dysfunctionals who, in the esteem of harm reduction critics, should be treated in a more unforgiving and draconian manner. Demands for abstention are unrealistic, he says, especially when the addict is heavily into his or her substance. They cannot make that choice.

“Addicts need a clear sense of ‘other possibility’; some sort of spiritual opening that will let in some light in their lives,” Maté says. “More addicts could ultimately get clean if the circumstances were right.”

That, he suggests, would call for a paradigm shift in which society would have to change a social ethic away from only valuing human achievement, rather than basic humanity per se. He sees the current approach to drugs as lacking in compassion. In other words, if you live a certain lifestyle, then you are unworthy as a human being and we owe you nothing. Persisting with such an attitude is bound to continue failing, as it is failing now.

(Victoria Times-Colonist, June 15/08)


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day, in a way

To the best of my knowledge, I have never been a father. I state this with some regret, but that was the way things panned out with my life, for various reasons.

I was a stepfather for a brief window of time, and I cherished that. But, that didn’t pan out, either, and I state that with some regret, too. No more about that.

So, while I wasn’t ever a father – I think I would have been notified by now if I had been one – I did indeed have a father. So, on this Father’s Day, I reckon it behoves me to share some thoughts about Dear Old Dad. My Dear Old Dad.

I didn’t like my father very much when I was a child. He was an angry man and when confronted by his ill-temper I found him frightening. It was only when I grew older I came to appreciate the sources of his anger. I gained an understanding, but no approval. To this day I won’t grant approval of his behavior towards my brothers and me.

I suppose I wanted a father like some other kids I knew. You know, genial sorts of fellows who would chuck a ball around in the backyard with a kid at the end of the day, or who would chuckle and one’s transgressions rather than raging against them.

I wanted a Ward Cleaver or a Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons, or even Robert Young’s Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best, although Billy Gray, who played son, Bud, later stated that Young was an utter prick in real life. But, you know what I mean.

I knew guys who had good relationships with their fathers. I knew guys who actually regarded their fathers as their best friends. My brother once told me the tale of a guy who he worked with who was really excited about the fact his dad was coming to visit for a week. “I wonder what that’s like?” my bro said. “Other kids used to be excited when their old man was coming home from work. I was filled with dread.”

Blessedly, Dad wasn’t physical in his anger. He never struck us. He just raged and let it be known to us that whatever we did was never quite good enough.

Where I gained my understanding came with an appreciation that his own father treated Dad like crap. My Grandfather was a hard-nosed prosecuting attorney who had been very successful. He saw his eldest son, my Dad, as a wastrel; a person of little accomplishment. Even though, Dad was actually extremely accomplished and well respected as a vocational educator and college dean. Ironically, I got along extremely well with my grandfather, much (I believe) to my father’s chagrin. And, contrarian bastard that I was, I played up that tie with Grandpa to the hilt. “Ha-ha, your dad hates you but loves me.” I didn’t really say that, but I thought it on occasion.

I thought it because I failed to understand how a man who had received such shoddy treatment from his own father should then turn around and treat his kids in the same way. Maybe that’s just one of the reasons I never had children. I was afraid of falling into a trap for which I wouldn’t forgive myself.

As I reached middle age the old boy mellowed a bit. I became more comfortable in his presence and he in mine. And, when he went into decline (he died at age 80 in 1996) I did feel something for him. Not a lot, but something.

Now, on this Father’s Day, 12 years later, I do think there are things I’d like to say to him, but I can only do it this way. So, today I remember my father, not fondly, but with a twinge of remorse over things that were left unstated, and a stronger twinge of regret over how it could and should have been better.

On the other hand, it could have been worse, so that’s a blessing in itself.

And, Happy Father's Day to the rest of you.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gimme a little kiss, willya huh'?

You must remember this ….
A kiss is just a kiss.
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply as time goes by.

And a kiss, being just a kiss, is also a fundamental thing. It is the base-line for one human caring for another, either superficially, or as deeply as one can feel. That's why I've always loved the Eisenstaedt photo of the sailor and the nurse on VJ Day. It captures the true allure of what a kiss can be, spontaneous, impulsive, celebratory (hey, the war is over!), sexy (even though they're strangers) and intensely human. So now, about the kiss.

First, I’ll be clinical and look at the blissful buss for what it is. Come down to it, at its barest elements (and if you are bare, it can be more enjoyable, especially if you are bare with somebody you really like being bare with, so bear with me) kissing is an odd thing. If it is a romantic kiss, it is a matter placing one human mouth upon another for a length of time that is determined by time, place, nature of relationship and whether or not children or extraneous family members are within proximity. In other words, this can be a kiss as an isolated event, or as a prelude to enchanting amorous endeavors.

That considered, the fact remains that the kiss is an age-old manifestation of love, trust, respect, and a thousand other positive things. Actually, nine-hundred-and-ninety-seven, but you get my drift. Kissing is practiced in almost all cultures, even though our majority, essentially European in heritage, probably developed kissing’s romantic connection in its highest form. However, to give the complete picture of the kiss, we should consider it in all its expressions, from the prosaic to the sublimely poetic:

The obligatory kiss: This is reserved for aged aunties at Christmastime. This represents the first instant in a child’s life in which he or she becomes aware of the fact that not all family obligations are necessarily fun, especially if the aged auntie has whiskers on her chin.

The family love kiss: These are the kisses between parents and children and grandparents and the family dog and all others that go to making up the unit. These are good kisses, as long as they’re not ritualized, because they indicate to the individual throughout his life, even if he ends up lying in the gutter at the wrong end of a bottle of rice wine, that somebody once cared because his mom kissed him.

The kiss of respect: This is reserved for the Pope’s ring, the Queen’s hand and the Bible. Such kisses indicate that the symbolic personages or icons are the keys to civilization as we know it and should be accorded the highest gesture of love and/or fealty. This is probably the most ancient form of kissing.

The kiss of death: This is a curious perversion of the basic idea that a kiss must be a positive gesture. The kiss from a Mafia boss to an underling indicates that he accords complete trust in the hit man to carry out his grim task. If the kiss is from the Mafioso to a perceived traitor, said traitor knows to not bother buying the green bananas.

Kisses between members of the same sex: This is largely a cultural matter. Women in our society are permitted, and even encouraged to kiss each other. Men, on the other hand, would be violating a significant taboo unless they either happen to be related, or are in a gay relationship. Otherwise, it’s a matter of a cringeworthy nature among straight men. Indeed, most men become stiff and awkward and uncomfortable and go out to buy popcorn at such moments in Brokeback Mountain, for example. Straight men also start to talk in much deeper voices under such circumstances. But, it is cultural, as I suggest. Go to an Italian railroad station at arrival or departure time and you’ll see guys puckering up for each other all over the place.

The social kiss: Usually a pleasant act of trust and friendship between compatible people at a time of arriving or leaving. This kiss is often accompanied by a hug and is directed at the cheek, just so there is no misinterpretation of what has gone on.

The party kiss: Much like the social kiss, but usually the disinhibiting element of booze has been thrown into the mix, such as on New Year’s Eve, and this can sometimes lead to social kisses getting a bit out of hand to the degree, in certain cases, that other amorous behaviors ensue between non-spousal individuals, leaving any divorce lawyers present to rub their hands in venal glee at the possibilities of new employment on the immediate horizon.

The blown kiss and the tiresome air kiss:
Hardly kisses at all, or kisses at their most symbolic levels. Both are popular with movie starlets and society matrons who really don’t give much of a damn about the recipients. Mere gestures that should be ignored.

Now that we have considered all those other kisses, let’s look at the real thing: the romantic kiss. These are the kisses about which songs and poetry have been written. These are the good ones, expresses ultimately with a definite conclusion in mind.

The first kiss: This can happen at sixteen or sixty, and in both cases if it is with an especially coveted and desired person, it is pure magic. This kiss is the test, as well. Does it measure up to all prior expectations? After all, you’ve probably been anticipating this moment for ages. Did the sparks fly? Was it sweet and promising; lusty and demanding, or maybe a tad disappointing? Relationships have truly been made or broken at this pivotal point. Just a reminder to newcomers, always lick your lips prior to that first kiss. It will go much better.

The good night kiss:
The bane of every teenager’s dating life (and some older daters, too). Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I let him or not? It’s an important decision. If he is too pushy, will she shy away? If he shies away, will she think he’s kind of a dweeb, or possibly gay? It is a quandary, but fortunately one that usually works itself out.

The unexpected kiss: You are expecting a soft and sweet meeting of the lips of the sort that has been promised by a certain biological impulse manifested from lingering eye contact and other gestures from a person with whom you have never indulged in this activity before, but he seems completely amenable to such an oral coming-together. When the kiss begins it is indeed soft and sweet, and then it becomes more and more urgent and powerful and promising. (ahem)

The ‘taking care of business’ kiss: This is the ‘preliminary’ kiss between lovers, marital partners and the like that is designed to take the couple to greater intimacies. If the mood is right, it is a wonderful thing in itself and a vital part of the whole package. Only one important point, take time after all the other stuff has been done to also indulge in a few kisses. Frosting on the cake, as it were and it’s a nicety that stands a body in good stead for a welcome return to such cuddliness at a later date.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Is everybody having a real good time?

“Sumer is icumin in” and that means lots of good times, especially for kids. Once the warm days come, the beaches beckon and so do, in these parts, the big woods, the tall timber, the back and beyond.

Why the woods? Simple. Kids who are inclined to want to do this head to the trees to get shitfaced, puke on your shoes drunk, without hassles from parents, and especially cops. It’s the wide world of teenage binge drinking without impediment, and such practices are very much the vogue today.

Of course the manufacturers and purveyors of potent potables, not to mention governments that glean huge tax revenues from alcoholic beverages are delighted with such behavior by youngsters as they head off on a course towards chronic alcoholism, rape, violence, sometimes murder, and they have to be lying if they deny it. If the fashion of teenage binge drinking were a source of distress, they’d do something about it. At least I think they would.

The only people who seem to hate the way this is going are parents (sometimes), cops, medical practitioners, emergency personnel and those who happen to inadvertently cross the path of a gang of out-of-control boozed up kids late on a Saturday night.

In the context of the above, I wish to share some thoughts that have arisen from my experiences as a member of the Comox Valley Community Drug Strategy Committee, as an addictions counsellor, and as a long-time journalist. Currently the Drug Strategy Committee has come to realize we have been negligent in not devoting sufficient direction to what is statistically the most lethal drug of all. As follows are some suggestions that arise from my own professional and community service experience.

While parents are justifiably frightened by the possibility of a child becoming involved with illicit street and party drugs, they often neglect to consider that alcohol remains the not only the drug of choice for many young persons, but that juvenile alcohol abuse is a distressingly growing phenomenon.

Health care providers, not only in this country, but worldwide, are becoming increasingly distressed by the ubiquity of alcohol consumption among the young. Indeed, the United Nations recently decried the fact that the alcohol industry seems increasingly geared towards enticing the young with its beer advertising especially, and the proliferation of so-called 'pop' beverages, which are especially favoured by young females.

Likewise, a British survey polling young females on vacation found it to be
common practice to consume on a seven-day jaunt, the same amount of alcohol
that might (by a normal drinker) be imbibed in a five-week period. Remember, even though we consider alcohol to be a 'legal' drug, it is still a hugely addictive drug, and for minors it is not legal for consumption in any other form than sacramental wine.

Booze, by the same token, is not going to go away. Nor should it for the 80 percent of those who indulge who are reasonable drinkers. But there are steps that might be taken to put the matter of liquor consumption into healthy perspective with the young. I suggest the following:

1. Drastically increase the penalties for bootlegging offences to at least
a $1,000 fine for a first offence, and significant jail time for subsequent

2. Consider returning the legal drinking age in the province to 21, as has been done in all US states.

3. Render the providing of alcohol to minors, including by the parents
within the home (except for religious or ceremonial purposes) as subject to
the same laws as bootlegging.

4. Any minor involved in an accident, regardless of how insignificant, where
alcohol consumption has been a factor should lose his or her licence until
age 21.

5. Make alcohol less of a feature in the home environment. Not all festive
occasions need to involve alcohol consumption, even by adults. Set an example.

6. If a parent or parents have a drinking problem, then they must address that
problem. Either get outside help (if the problem is severe enough), or drastically limit consumption. Parental example has a significant role in influencing youthful attitudes to intoxicants.

7. Parents or guardians should never regard youthful transgressions with alcohol as 'unimportant.' If a child is abusing alcohol, then the matter is 'always' serious. And never fall into the trap of feeling a sense of relief because the substance was "just booze, and not drugs."

8. If alcohol is a problem in the home, and a young person expresses his or her concern to you -- as a friend, relative, teacher, pastor or counsellor -- then encourage the young person to address the concerns to the parents (if possible), and to also get involved in Alateen. Keep in touch with the young person.

9. Any school programs that look to discussions on drugs should also address alcohol abuse in a frank and candid manner. Make available to students complete information on alcohol abuse and its consequences. And be as draconian as hell in any discussion on drinking and driving.

10. Don't pussyfoot! Be frank and graphic in your discussions. Booze kills kids by the scores in this province and country, and it's horrifying to think that a young person on the verge of adulthood should make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of making a terrible judgment call, getting loaded with a bunch of friends at a summer beach party, and then driving home. Your role, by the way, is to never-ever drink and drive yourself.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Sometimes muck just has to be raked

This past weekend I heard the most delicious piece of gossip. Actually, it’s better than just gossip because much of the story is true, but I don’t know the finer details.

Not only did I enjoy the gossip, I enjoyed the tale even more because it involved a schadenfreude thrill; that is, misfortune befell somebody I don’t like very much.

Then, as I revelled in the woe-filled scuttlebutt, I paused for thought: Is that a sin? Is it wicked to take pleasure in the fuckup of another? A fuckup that anybody with an ounce of common sense could foresee coming? Oh, don’t worry, what happened didn’t involve anybody else; everybody kept their pants on; nobody was injured; nobody fell ill. So, that being the case, I don’t think I am guilty of bad thoughts.

But, at another level, I don’t really care if it is sinful. I am sure there have been tales about transgressions of mine in years past that others took pleasure in. That’s OK. I was happy to add some spice to the vacuous and hollow lives of others. The point being, humans tend to ice to poke muck with a stick, just to see what they might find.

To the outer world, and to high school journalism classes, I always protested that I went into journalism because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great scribes of history like Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, HL Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, Nelly Bly, Edward Agee, and even Winston Churchill who first gained note a reporter in the South African War at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Yep, that was what I told folks, but I realized that along with such valiant quests as advocacy for the downtrodden, and assailing political knaves, I also was drawn the crud that governs the human condition.

We’re like that, we are.

In Canada, for example, there are stunning examples of valid and newsworthy matters involving such things as the hideous price of fossil fuels and how people are suffering, the Afghan War, the ineptitude of our immigration department, incompetent and cowardly judges who throw out charges against really bad people, and so on. You know, just like in any other country. But, what in this country has caught the intrigue of the public? A certain (now fired) cabinet minister and his erstwhile cavorting with a bountiful looking woman who is known to have had ties with the Hell’s Angels. That’s right, a big-titted biker broad easily trumps the state of the national economy in pubic interest.

So, from the day I first walked into a newsroom, I realized I was home. Gossip was always the order of the day, and news people know the bad stuff before the general pubic does. Sometimes we know stuff that will never be seen by the public due to libel laws, like the case of a long ago BC cabinet minister who used his government credit card to buy the services of hookers. Well, the public learned that, but they did not learn such details as what he really liked was to have the paid ladies of the evening (ahem) ‘urinate’ on him. It was felt that the public did not ‘need’ to know that. To that, I say, pshaw. I think the public has every right to see its tax dollars at work and to judge the ‘outflow’ for itself. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that last jab.

At one point in my career I thought that what I'd really like to do is work for a sleazy tabloid. You know, get right down to the vile underbelly of society. That is, after all, what really sells papers. Just ask Rupert Murdoch. However, I stayed with the mainstream. It seemed a bit more honorable.

When I left the regular day-to-day routine of newspapering in favor of freelancing, I commented to Wendy that what I would miss the most was being on the inside track and knowing things that the public might never know. Also, good gossipy tales tend, like watching Jerry Springer, to make us as individuals feel we’re nowhere near as bad as some other people.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Nasty little clique of uber hotties

So, like you’re a braindead little strumpet with a badly tuned sense-of-decency and kindness, and low morality of the human esteem sort, but you want to hang out with people because, you know, you’re kinda like social. Who do you choose?

Well, similar creatures to yourself, of course. Little ‘Paris Hiltons’ like hanging with other little Paris Hiltons, not with plainjanes getting their degrees in elementary teaching or business administration.

So, how do you go about that? Well, you set up a Facebook group, of course. A Facebook collective known as ‘Organization of Pretty People’. For Ashley (Barbie) Paras, founder of the OPP, she decided she only wanted to associate with young women as pretty as she. And, with a vomit-inducing sense of hubris in play, Ashley knows she’s real pretty and will be the first to tell you. She’s pretty, and slim and tiny and fashionable and her Facebook group wants similar sorts So, if you’re an ‘uggo’ or even relatively ordinary looking, maybe have a bit of a complexion problem, packing a few extra pounds, know how to read without moving your lips and other undesirable traits, don’t both to knock. The divine Miss Ashley don’t wantcha, nor do her execrable (albeit pretty Ashley lookalike) buddies.

One part of the equation that is clear with this group is that those admitted to the charmed circle cannot, indeed must not be more attractive than the initial coven. That would create unfair competition in the cabal when it comes to attractive equally vacuous males, which is the primary objective for these stunning little hotties.

If you think the foregoing is bunk, you would be wrong. It’s absolutely for real. Just when you thought the world couldn’t get stupider, meaner and nastier, you find out you are wrong. For, as Ms. Paras states, unattractive girls try to join the clique “all the time,” but to no avail. “Usually we just hang out with people who are small – like short, skinny and pretty, too.”

So, what is afoot here? Remember the widely held myths of the 1970s that maintained females were in all respects the gentler, milder and kinder sex? I do. I remember my schoolteacher ex wife telling me that the screeds from upon high looked only at schoolyard bullying from the perspective of boys thumping out other boys.

My point is, perhaps we stop looking at cruelty and viciousness as something gender specific and maybe re-examine the shoddy values of a society that gives spawn to the likes of Ashley and her friends. I am suggesting girls, grow up, and realize that, despite the public obsession with certain elements of Hollywood trash and their bad behavior, you might look to another direction in your likes. And, maybe society should also reconsider its fascination with the tawdry, cheap, vainglorious and nasty.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me

I seem to be on a transportation kick right now, so I will persevere in that vein. While on my last blog I decried cycling only because of the egomania of certain cyclists who, as many comments correctly attested to, somehow don’t feel that the rules of the road apply to them.

I also dismissed buses with utter disdain. I can honestly say I have never been on a bus anywhere at any time of which I didn’t want to get off at the earliest possible inst.

Airplane travel has become loathsome and grows increasingly more so by the day.

Ships and boats are quite lovely and I have been on a cruise, but I have no desire to get on one of those floating small cities just so I can share some ghastly eruption of the bowels along with everybody else on the craft. I only want to travel first class on the new Queen Mary, since I am too young to have travelled on the Normandie prior to World War Two. It was evidently close to heaven afloat.

So, I am going to now go to my absolutely favorite and most cherished form of humanity-shifting – the train!

I love trains and have done so since I was a very young child and would lie in bed at night at my grandparents’ house and hear the mournful and excruciatingly lonely (Hank Williams had that right) whistle of a CN or Great Northern train as it made its way through the misty darkness of Burnaby’s central valley on it’s way to Vancouver’s Main Street Station. That sweet sad song has never left my consciousness.

I only wish that one could travel from continent to continent by rail, and such a think could only be surpassed by Star Trek Transporter. To be ‘beamed up’ would be sheer heaven.

I’ve made a few memorable train journeys in my life. But even the not so memorable (as in Woody Allen’s comment about sex: “Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.”) were quite all right.

Here are my favorite rail journeys:

- Norwich to Great Yarmouth in the little BR (in those days) local commuter, two-or-three coaches long shuttle, which passes through some inviting Broadland scenes and then emerges from the woods and pastures to the wide expanse of Breydon Water as it nears Yarmouth.

- Across Canada, Vancouver to Montreal with full bedroom accommodation. Just sit and gaze out the window and watch the entire country go by. The Rockies by train cannot be excelled.

- San Diego to LA. A heavenly coastal journey through some smashing southern California scenery. I’d make that trip again in a heartbeat.

- Munich to Vienna on the then still existing Orient Express. Not a single spy on the train, alas.

- Grenoble to Lyons to Lille to Brussels on the SNCF. From well in the south of France to Northern Belgium in a trice on the most fabulous train I’ve ever encountered. The French may not do everything right (with the notable exceptions of foodstuffs and potables and a Café Au Lait in a sidewalk café) but they sure know how to run a railroad – other than when they’re on strike, every 20 minutes or so.

- London to Edinburgh. Have done that a few times over the years, and never grew weary of the trip.

- Eurostar from Brussels to London via Chunnel. Nothing else needs be said other than to note that the trackbeds in Belgium and France are infinitely superior to those in the England.

- The E&N from Courtenay to Victoria. Antiquated, mechanically unreliable, often late, but the great guys in the train crew make the trip memorable, not to mention the scenery. The breathtaking view of Niagara Canyon on the Malahat near Victoria makes the entire trip worthwhile.

There are others. Maybe you’ve had some great railroad journeys, as well. Would love to hear about them.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

And the seats are absolutely brutal

Last week – or is it this week? I lose track of these things – was/is ‘Bike to Work Week’. Do they keep stats on this stuff, I wonder. I wonder how much of an increase there was in incidents of flimsy velocipedes, operated by ‘PC thinking’ novices being schmucked by semis? Just askin’.

I didn’t, by the way, bike to work, or to the store, or to anyplace else that was either walking or driving distance. That’s mainly because I no longer own a bicycle, but secondarily because, considering the SUV-wielding maniacs on our roadways, I wouldn’t be prepared to take the risk.

In any case, I’m somewhat of the George Carlin school on the matter of bicycles. This holds that if I am driving my car and you’re on a bike, get the hell out of my way because you are using a ‘toy’ on a public thoroughfare.

I used to cycle a lot when I was a kid. When I was growing up cycling was a kid thing. At a certain age – 16 or so – I graduated to a car. Getting a car was sort of like shaving or having sex for the first time – it was a rite of passage. That’s why the ‘carbon footprint’ bullies are having such a hard time convincing people of my generation especially that they must rely less on four wheels and an engine, and downsize to two.

By the way, I am a great believer in the value of exercise, and am also a great believer in walking wherever I can, especially if I have the time to do so. I am very happy if I haven’t taken my car out of the garage on any given day and have carried out my errands on foot. My motivation here is to enhance my health and to not put any money into the coffers of tax-grabbing ‘nouveau enviro-embracing’ governments and the international petroleum trading swine who have inflated prices outrageously mainly because they can. And they can because we are addicted to the internal combustion engine. Drug dealers work in much the same way.

Part of the problem I have with cycling (aside from the anatomical assault on a part of my body of which the less I discuss ‘that’ matter the better) is cyclists themselves. So many of them are such smug bastards. The worst are those incline bike weenies, but that’s my bigotry showing.

But, you see them out there in their little helmets and their unspeakably hideous cycling garb (why is it necessary to look like a pool of vomited M&Ms in order to ride a bicycle?) riding along as if they owned the road; two-abreast sometimes. And too often they have one of those li’l ‘baby killer’ trailers on tow. Wow, that’s the ticket for taking wee Wendel out on a crowded roadway, but make sure he’s all trussed up in his expensive infant seat when he’s in a car – encased in steel rather than a flimsy hunk of canvas. The mind boggles, I tell you.
The only other people you see riding bikes a lot are guys with whom maybe you don’t entirely want to associate – either junkies or guys who have chalked up their 7th DUI.

So, for now I’ll stick with my car and my legs, and eschew cycling. Eventually, however, I might be forced to use (shudder) public transit. Sometime I’ll explore my feelings about buses. They are not good ones.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

It's all a state of mind -- isn't it?

Response to Junior asking about his inheritance

“You know what I hope?” I said to Wendy the other day.

“No, what do you hope?” she asked, not looking up from her knitting. Actually, she wasn’t knitting at all, but I thought the idea conveyed a nice and homey image. I don’t think she knows how to knit.

“I hope I don’t become one of those boring old geezers who bores people to death with their stories. You know, the ones who go on, and on, and on, and on, and just never know when to stop even though the eyes of everybody in the room are glazing over and they are desperately looking for an excuse to leave. Know what I mean? I mean, seriously, know what I mean?”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening,” she replied.

Actually, I fear many things about getting old, and becoming a bore is just one of them. Another inexplicable one is that odd propensity of certain males to wear their trousers above the waistline. Where do they get those pants with the really long crotches? Anyway, this is all uncharted territory for me. But, in spite of any denial I might want to call upon, signs periodically pop up that the old celestial clock is moving forward, whether or not I like it. Just like everybody else, I am getting older by the minute. I had a sign just yesterday.

Chatting with a clerk at my local supermarket. She’s a person I like to chat with as she is chatworthy, and very easy on the eyes, and charming and has an incurably infectious giggle. About 35-ish, I would guess.

“I love the smell of Certs,” she said, as she was stocking the confection shelf at one of the checkouts.

“But,” I said, “Is it a candy mint, or is it a breath mint?”

“Huh?” she replied, a look of bemusement on her pretty face.

“You know, like the old TV commercial: ‘Certs is a candy mint – Certs is a breath mint. It’s two, it’s two, it’s two mints in one!’. You must remember that.”

“I don’t remember that,” she replied. Then she uttered those heedless words: “I think it must have been before my time.”

Feeling a bit crestfallen, I continued with my errands in the store with just a little less spring in my step.

On the other hand, there is hope. In fact, if popular culture attests to anything (and I rarely think it does), then old fartdom is the new chic. Oldsters are not only vital and interesting, they’re also sexy. I like to keep that thought in mind. It helps me through trying times, like my Certs moment, though I do hope the word ‘codger’ didn’t cross her lips when she was recounting the tale to some of her young colleagues later.

It is indeed an interesting time in terms of human longevity and ages that were considered ‘old’ when I was a kid aren’t regarded in the same way. The response now in hearing that somebody of, say, 75 has died is: “Gee, that’s not very old. How sad.”

Look at some of our cultural icons. Harrison Ford is still slashing through jungles and is regarded with credibility and as a ‘hunk’ even though he is surely pushing 90. Well, I do know he’s older than I am, at least. The Rolling Stones are still the best damn rock-and-roll band ever and Keith has been dead for years. My former student Kim 'Samantha' Cattrall is 50 and is deemed to be sexy. Madonna is the same age as Kim, even though she is no longer ‘like’ a virgin. Deborah Harry is in her 60s, as is Helen Mirren, who still inspires untoward thoughts in males of many ages, and so on and so on.

At the end of the day we carry on and the key to it all, and this I do believe, is to ‘think’ young, but take advantage of whatever maturity we might have acquired along the way.

Now, before this becomes tiring and boring, I shall end it.


Monday, June 02, 2008

The curse of everlasting travel

There is nothing worse for mortals than a wandering life.
- Homer, the Odyssey

Well, there wasn’t really all that much point in Homer traveling, what with his being blind and all. Couldn’t see much. But, seriously, I think he has something of a point. I say this from the perspective of one who has traveled and wants constantly to do more wandering before my days exploring this sphere are done.

Travel, it is said, is “broadening”, and it is. Travel educates and it increases tolerance and some of the more bigoted people I’ve met are those who ain’t never gone nowhere, nohow.

“I hate the French!”
“Because they’re rude and arrogant and just assholes.”
“Have you been to France?”
“Do you know any French people?”
“No, and I don’t want to.”

Now, if you spend some time amongst the French, you will surely find some rude and arrogant people (they generally work in railway information booths), and you will find some charming people. Just like anywhere else.

I did my first major traveling when I took off for Europe when I was 24. I wanted to leave when I was much younger, but financial and educational considerations prevailed at the time.

So, I spent a very long summer amongst the English, Scots, Irish, Dutch, Germans, Austrians, Italians and Swiss. It was tiring and challenging and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. On a railway platform in Munich I fell into conversation with a young woman who I decided at the precise moment was the most stunning creature I’d ever met. She was from Michigan or Minnesota or someplace and she asked directly if I would like to go traveling with her. “Yes please!” said my heart and my loins – OK, especially my loins. But, “Sorry, but my wife is with me. She’s in the restroom right now.” I knew I’d gotten married too young, and later events proved that to be so. But, that’s another tale. Wonder whatever happened to the beauteous Michigan/Minnesota lady.

What happened from that trip is that I was left with the residuals of life-changing event Number One.

The life change left me with the realization that I could never be sedentary again. I would always ‘itch’. In that I must say that I love my home, and always love returning to it. But, once I’m there for a little while, I want to go again. Wanderlust is like heroin (I imagine, not that I’ve ever indulged) in that it feels wonderful, and then gets debilitating, then the ‘rehab’ of home is sought, but then another hit is needed, and it starts again.

Life-changing Event Number Two came in 1980-81 when I went to live abroad for a year. This one was even more transfiguring than the first LCE in that I didn’t much want to come back at the end of the year, especially after having become embroiled in and entranced by a liaison with a wonderful English lady during my twelvemonth next the Norfolk Broads.

But, I came back. I missed my dog.

But, that overseas sojourn, which also involved newspaper work in a foreign land, left me even more disquieted.

Consequently, following that, my life, and life with subsequent spouses (both of whom have been possessed of itchy feet) has been one of hitting the road as often as time and finances permit. We’ve been to Europe, to Hawaii many, many times, the South Pacific, Mexico, and all over the place in the US and Canada.

I notice from reading the people on my blogroll, I am not alone in my love of travel, and I probably chose people because they are similarly afflicted.

It is indeed a curse of sorts because I know this mild discontent will always be with me and won’t cease until I take that last big journey. But, as curses go, I suppose there are worse ones.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are traveling right now, I envy, and sometimes resent you just the teeniest bit because I want to be with you.


Sunday, June 01, 2008

A river indeed runs through it

The Puntledge River she be short in length (about 10 kilometres, or 7 miles) from the placid and pretty waters of Comox Lake to her confluence with the Tsolum River in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. But, short though she may be, at certain times of the year, she be fierce.

Her normal and very inviting green waters become a tempestuous and powerful flood that can only invite awe and the most experienced and hardiest (and arguably foolish) of white water kayakers.

Right now is one of those times. It is a time when, high above, the snows of the Beaufort Range (the backbone of Vancouver Island) are in full melt and their waters pour down into overtaxed Comox Lake and then into the Puntledge via the hydroelectric dam which regularly must purge the lake ere it overflow its banks.

This is the time to see the Puntledge at its most sensual. The roar of the crashing waters is virtually deafening, with the roar only being punctuated in an almost chilling manner by sirens every few minutes to warn hikers along the banks that another tsunami is to be released from the dam and higher ground should be sought. It’s one of those whooping sirens that seem to fortell missiles raining from the skies rather than just water.

Early today we wandered to one of the best vantage points for the river in its springtime fury – a recreation area known as Nymph Falls. There, down by the falls proper the magic is at its most turgid and climactic. Quite frankly, it’s thrilling. Nearly as thrilling as when the whole of the South Pacific bursts in thousands of miles of pent up fury across the barrier reef at Muri Lagoon on the Cook Island of Rarotonga. And that is thrilling indeed.

If you ever get such a chance in the springtimes of your lives, pay a visit to Nymph Falls.

This is not a paid announcement by the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce, but just a reminder to me: “Self, get your ass off the sofa and take a look around more often than you do.”