Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Strange Dream

Last night I had one of the strangest, yet most convincing and compelling dreams, I’ve had in years.

I was in a pleasant mall somewhere in southeast Asia. It was one of those malls that ambles and has short sets of stairs and the way meanders instead of taking you in a some orbit around the centre. I came to this one set of stairs with a car on it. The car was badly accordioned in the front, as if it had hit the stairs at high speed. The front end was pretty much just rust, as if it had been there for decades. The right side of it was pressed up against a flowered abutment. People just went around it. Then I noticed there was a skeleton inside it. I noticed another car further ahead. This one had a family of skeletons in it.

Someone started talking about the whole thing and it turned out there’d been some kind of disaster. The man said “if only they’d driven faster, they wouldn’t have been inundated”. I took that to mean the place had flooded. The cars, the bodies… they’d just been left there. If there were more victims visible, I don’t remember, but I suppose there must have been.

Then it turned out it had actually been a poison gas attack. Four NATO fighters had attacked the mall with missiles… one of them was Canadian. The missiles were small spheres, softball-sized grenades of some sort. In the dream, I saw a the planes fly up to me, launch the missiles… my viewed followed them down into the mall, where they swept up to three women in combat fatigues. The middle one reminded me of Sigourney Weaver. She caught one of the balls with a smug, derisive look, but quickly realized she was choking. They all began to run, but they couldn’t get away. Then I saw panicked people driving their cars in the mall itself, trying to get away, smashing into the stairs, dying.

At the end of the dream, crews began clearing the cars and skeletons away. It was as though my notice and my interest had shamed them into finally acting to do due diligence. I remember being a little miffed because I wanted to look them over more… shameless rubbernecking. That was pretty much it. Strange dream, but it felt surprisingly real at the time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why no Emancipation Proclamation Rock?

Driving to and from work the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to presentations on the US Civil War by Yale professor David Blight. It got me thinking again about one of the odd, glaring omissions in the Schoolhouse Rock series in the early 70s on the lead-up to the US Bicentennial… no mention of the Civil War or the principles at stake in it.

I’m sure it must have come up across the table when they were deciding what aspects of US history to emphasize. Obviously they steered clear of this rather definitive moment. The reason was undoubtedly that it was controversial. But there’s a tinge of hypocrisy there. They had no problem demonizing and even dehumanizing the British in at least three of the presentations. But white slave owners who, by then, had been dead for at least two generations, were beyond reproach? The only reason could be that there were still people in the US in the 1970s who identified with those people and wouldn’t have taken kindly to any treatment of the subject that laid out the facts. Yes. Controversial. But I think they missed a real opportunity to elevate the tone beyond just “rah rah USA” and let kids know that sometimes threats to principles are to be found at home, as well as abroad. But the courage to imply that some Americans fought for the wrong things was lacking.

Leave the war out of it, even, if you must. What about simply the glorious idea of emancipation? For me, that’s a more important event in US history than simply breaking the bonds with Britain and accelerating democratic principles that were already in the works in the English-speaking world for centuries. No need to stress that some people were wrong, some to blame… they could have just pitched it as the people finally coming together and doing what was right. The song, the animation… I can imagine it set at the Lincoln Memorial, with kids gazing up in admiration, with cutaways to black people working hard in the field, and then being set free, and building their homes and hoisting Old Glory. Solemn, respectiful, inspiring. What would have been so bad about that?

I think even that, though, would have been touchy. This was an era where civil rights struggles were just finally beginning to cool down, but people were getting upset about things like busing (which happened even here in Canada; I myself was destined to eventually be bused to a different high school, but for a move to a different province before I was old enough). So I suppose in the end, the early 1970s—a hundred years after the Civil War—was still not enough time for the wounds to heal and for a presentation of those ideas to be something uniting instead of divisive.

Something else that’s come to up in Professor Blight’s dissertations is that some people still think the US Civil War could have, should have, been avoided; that if abolitionists in the North hadn’t been so pushy, slavery would have died of its own accord. This, in spite of that fact that it persisted till nearly the turn of the century in places like Brazil… and that’s with the example of the Civil War to inform and shame them. But I’m not convinced gradualism would have eliminated slavery in the US, and we have an example that contraindicates the idea. Eli Whitney produced the cotton gin in 1793. In the twenty years prior to that, the US imported 56,000 slaves from Africa. In the twenty years after the introduction of the cotton gin, the US imported 203,000 slaves from Africa… and this is at a time when most of the northern states were  slavery. The slave population in the US went from just under 700,000 in the 1790 census to nearly 4 million by the 1860 census. The implications are clear: slavery’s fortunes were revived by the cotton gin, which made cotton—for a time the most important single product of the United States—both more profitable and easier to produce en masse.

Now, with that example, ask yourself what the fortunes of slavery would have been if it had still existed when, in the late 19th century, the principle of the legal personhood of corporations became accepted and entrenched. What kind of world would we be living in today if corporations in much of the US—and perhaps elsewhere—could have availed themselves of an unpaid work force? And one that could not strike, refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and could be traded and sold like equipment; unborn children auctioned off to pay the bills. In a world free of slavery (ostensibly), we still have Third World child labour and starvation wages. Is it really believable that slavery would have gradually disappeared if corporations could have gotten hold of it in the 1880s? That the US Civil War had to be fought is unfortunate… such bloodshed was avoided elsewhere in the struggle for abolition… but in having to be fought, it’s clear that it came at the last possible moment. We should be grateful we are the inheritors of that world, and not of the alternative. I’m not a religious person, but the US Civil War brings me close to seeing the hand of God at work in the world.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Best sign bombing ever

Larry got a shot of this sign in my old neighbourhood yesterday morning, on Leslie Street looking north near Van Horne Avenue. He said it was completely gone that evening. Wanted it saved for posterity so here it is. :)

Once more unto the breech dear friends

I've had a weight problem most of my life. I think I was about seven when kids started teasing me about it. The check on it was that till I was 11 or 12, I had someone looking after me after school. Once I started coming home and looking after myself and having full access to peanut butter jar and the cookies and stuff, the restraints came off and my weight really took off. Not to labour the point, but by the time I was in my early 30s, at one point I tipped the scale at just over 300 lbs.

One of my friends, a fellow who stood about 6'3, was just shy of 400 lbs. He got into a men's weight loss program and was getting good results simply eating sensibly. I joined, though it was crazy expensive (over a thousand dollars a year), and put my shoulder to the wheel. In the space of about 11 months I went from 285 to 182. That was my low water mark.  My friend went from 396 to 190-something literally less than half his original weight.

I did pretty well maintaining for a couple of years but the old habits die hard, and as time went by, my weight crept up again. I've tried putting the brakes on several times over the past 12 years or so but the truth is, it's been unrelenting, and in the wake of Twinkle's death, it's really been considerable. I have no idea what my actual weight is at the moment but I'm pretty sure it's approaching what it was when I got serious back then. Of course, I'm considerably older now, well into middle age, and a lot of the assumptions about what my youth will absolve me of don't really apply.

There are some strategic problems, based around my life and lifestyle. I live alone. I don't have anyone pushing me. That said, I don't have anyone bringing anything I shouldn't have into my place but me. My problem isn't so much what I eat at home. I have a pretty good control over that. Most of the time.  The problem is that when I finally get together with my friends, I just want to forget everything else and have a good time. Laugh, converse, listen to music, complain about sports teams we don't really follow. Generally that means sinking into a pub two or three times a week, having umpteen pints of beer and chicken wings and congratulating myself that I ducked the fries.  I need it; I need to see the guys. But it's expensive, and it's doing me harm. I haven't been comfortable in anything I wear for a couple of years, and I'm back to feeling fainting embarrassed whenever I'm in public. I want to change that. But I've wanted to change that for years. The trick will be find a way to make it stick.

In mulling it over recently what was different the time it worked from every other time I think one of the things that contributed to my success back then was that I was going through it with friends… other guys going through the same thing. You know you have to show up. And you know if you're going to show up, you better have results. I think that's what made it easier to stay the course. Now, it's true that in the best of all possible worlds that I should be able to do this for myself, without needing that crutch. That it should be a matter of finding the will power; resources from within. But the reality is that that just doesn't seem to work for me.  Making it social did. The problem is that when that support is gone, the weight goes up again. So it's kind of a spiral. I can't really see my way out of it.

Nevertheless I want to try again. I'm gearing up for another go at it. I'm trying to see if I can talk Larry into turning our Thursday evening 'eat, drink, and be merry' thing into going to Weight Watchers. He's not that overweight but he does complain about it, works out, etc., but never seems to shake it off either. My thinking is that if we can do it together for a while, by the time he's lost what little he has to lose, I'll have lost enough that I have momentum and the success will be reinforcing. That's kind of how it worked before. Sort of a push on the swing till pumping my legs will be enough, if you see what I mean. I don't think he'll go for it, but he might surprise me.

Anyway, it's time for another charge at the breech… if not a tilt at the windmill.

Friday, June 06, 2014

On Jody, ten years on

Occasionally on the blog here I’ve mentioned Jody, a friend of mine I knew only over the internet. That’s hard for me to believe now, but it’s true. Despite the fact that we never once sat in the same room, I can see him vividly. Flashes of movement I never saw based on photos of him at home, in classes, at work. I remember his voice over the phone, quiet and shy. Mostly I remember him as someone at the other end of ICQ, like a friend a couple of cubicles over at work, all the time.

Jody died of cancer, after a two-year battle with one sweet, brief remission, on June 7, 2004. Ten years ago this Saturday. While it was abundantly clear he was very unwell and probably had well under a year to live, his actual death still came like a thunderbolt. That day was a Monday. I came back from a meeting that morning to a flurry of ICQ messages from his dad, who had himself become a close friend of mine in his own right (and would remain so until his own death, also from cancer, two years later). The first message said that Jody had collapsed and that his death was close. The next from a few minutes later said that Jody was actually gone. It was all over before I even read the first message.

Jody was keeping a Live Journal about his experiences, and that was what prompted me to start blogging not too long after his death. I started on LJ myself but moved most of those posts over here several years ago for continuity’s sake. Jody’s journal was about the process of trying to overcome his cancer. It’s hard to read because he was honest about the results, and even though I don’t remember him ever surrendering to despair, he couldn’t and wouldn’t hide his disappointment. I remember him having to deal with my unrealistic expectations, at least once on ICQ gently telling me that he probably wasn’t going to get better. Smiley-face. I think that was when I knew, too. But we buttressed each other’s hope, always, right till the end. I’d like to think Jody needed that in his life at that moment… people who weren’t going to stop hoping. Some kind of oxygen when you’re drowning.

Jody was only 26 when he died. He was shy and didn’t really value of his own worth, in spite of the fact that everyone around him did. When he died, his company put up three 10-foot abstract statues of him in steel out in front of their building. That's the kind of guy he was. I know he was a programmer, and a particularly good one, but exactly what he did is kind of obscure to someone like me. If he’d lived, I imagined he’d be married by now, a great father, and probably in the six-figure range. He was a gamer, too, and just turning his talents to that when he got sick. I wonder what he might have come up with if he’d had more time. It makes me angry that he was robbed of all that, and we were all robbed of him. But it’s pointless to be angry. There’s nothing to be angry with. Some genes in one of his cells took a wrong turn one day, and we don’t yet know enough to have saved him. At least he lived. At least I knew him. All that’s left to do is to fund research, find answers, learn about stem cells and gene switches and targeted treatments so that future Jodys will get the chance he was born too soon to have.

One of the worst things about it all was that the first brush with cancer had completely turned Jody around. When I first met him online, he was a teenager afraid of life, full of fantasies about creatures he could never be, and deeply dissatisfied with reality. He was often depressed and at one point during college, a mutual friend became so concerned that he called across the country to Jody’s college administration in fear for Jody’s life, got him some counselling, and arguably saved him. But it was fighting cancer to remission in 2003 that really changed Jody. He learned the value of his own life, and finally acknowledged its value to the people around him, and he was ready to really make something of it that summer. He was happy, grateful, and empowered. And then it was autumn, and it was back. Pointless and cruel.

It’s strange for me to reflect that while I was never in the same place with him in life, in a way he’s been with me every day ever since. Jody was cremated and one of the things his roommates did, at his request, was to portion out a certain amount of his ashes to the people in his life. So I came home from Texas with a tiny vial of Jody’s ashes, in a cheetah-print pouch I have never opened; and I’ve kept that little bit of him in a cedar chest with a bronze plaque with his name and dates on it ever since. For a long time I’ve thought about taking the vial out on the tenth anniversary of his death and finally laying eyes on Jody himself for the first time. I’ve thought about it, but I probably won’t do it. Odds are I’ll never actually do it. But I think it matters a lot to me to know I could. That in a way, he’s still there, still with me, even if he’s long beyond “being”. Ten years later, he is dead ashes, but he is also still-living memories. I guess the two shouldn’t mix.

Monday, June 02, 2014

On and on at Duffy's Lane

There’s a scene in the movie 2010 in which the crew of the Alexei Leonov sends a probe down to Jupiter’s moon Europa, only to have the probe vapourized for intruding. Not long afterwards they send out Max in a small space craft to approach the Monolith in orbit, and the same thing happens.

P-Doug and I have been experiencing something like this in our recent attempts to update the photos of the work going on on Duffy’s Lane at the Humber.

I’m not sure when we were last out there in 2013. Sometime in the autumn, of course; but I can’t remember exactly when. Naturally our inclination to do these little hikes drops off with the temperature, but we did go back out there in January. The gate was open, so, stupidly, we decided to drive down a bit instead of walking. But the roadway was covered with ice. Prudently (if belatedly), we stopped before we got too far, only to find there was no way we were getting the car back up under our own steam. It took a tow truck pulling another tow truck pulling the car, three or four hours later, to get us back up on a driveable surface. We didn’t get anywhere near the bridge work that day and the entire thing was a mega-bust all around.

We went back in March, this time proceeding on foot. A lot of work had been done, but the road was an increasing sea of mud the further we went. We got within about 20 yards of the bridge before deciding that was a close as we and our dry shoes wanted to get. So, a partial success, but again, we didn’t reach the bridge and got no really good shots of the new supports being put up.

Saturday, the last weekend in May, we headed out again. This time we were convinced we’d do okay. The weather’s been warm and dry, and Saturday was no exception. We parked up at the barrier and headed down on foot.  The view was spectacular! They’ve done so much work. The new roadway is being bermed up. There are at least five supports in place now. The course of the road on the far side of the river is clear and was, in fact, being worked on when we were there. I got some great follow-up shots to the same views as in March… but… just as we were approaching the bridge and ready to make some real headway for the first time in half a year, a pick-up truck came down the road and a security guy politely let us know we couldn’t be there for safety reasons. Damn!

P-Doug took the opportunity, at least, to ask some questions about the plans for the site, and we learned that the old bridge will indeed become part of the trail system; there’ll be a place to park; the wide detour to the south on the west side is going to be the trail to the old bridge; the new bridge is being built for four lanes but initially will carry only two till the need for more is there;  the connection at Hwy 50 will be a roundabout; and the route’s due to re-open this October. I’d like to get out there and get some more shots sometime when they’re not working; both of the bridge area and, when it gets rolling, the connection at Hwy 50. There’s going to have to be a temporary detour there and I think that alone will make for some interesting shots for people in the future to see.

For now, though, time keeps passing, work keeps progressing, but my record of it remains pretty lackluster.

Queen Elizabeth should be able to retire

On my way into work this morning I heard on the news that King Juan Carlos is going to step down from the throne of Spain in favour of his son. I think this is a brilliant policy for a modern monarchy. I’m under the impression it’s also being done in the Netherlands and some of the Scandinavian monarchies. I think it’s time this became a feature of ours.

I’m kind of ambivalent about our monarchy. On the one hand, I like it. My ancestry is largely from the British Isles and so it resonates with me as a longstanding part of my history. I like seeing the crown on Ontario’s highway signs and having a “Royal” Canadian Navy, Air Force, Mounted Police, and so on. I think there’s something charming about those ties with the distant past in a modern 21st century democracy. I like that it makes us one of a family of nations who share those traditions.

On the other hand, I have to admit it strikes me a little odd that no Canadian can aspire to actually be Canada’s head of state (yes, I know the Queen is technically “Canadian”, but you know what I mean).  And then there’s the fact that the majority of Canadians are not ethnically British, and haven’t been for a long time. People of other backgrounds don’t have the same ties to the monarchy as people like me. At best, they might look kindly on it as a feature of their native or adoptive country and its traditions. But it’s not really in the bone. And, of course, for the quarter or so of Canadians who are ethnically French, no matter how much they may like the Queen as a person, the monarchy must be, at least in part, the symbol of an ancient military defeat, and of being handed over from one empire to another like a card in a game of Risk. These facts incline me to think that, sometime soon, we should probably quietly transition into a republic on the Irish model… essentially, just making the Governor-General into a figurehead president, disconnected from the role of representing the monarch, and avoiding creating a powerful executive role that would compete with that of the Prime Minister and cabinet.

But anyway, that’s a debate for the future. For the moment, Canada remains one of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms. Recently we’ve all gotten together to update the rules of succession for our shared institution.  Once all the implementing legislation is in place in all the countries, succession will follow absolute birth order, rather than favouring males. Also, marrying a Catholic will no longer make someone illegible to succeed (although the person of the monarch must still be Anglican, since that person is the head of the Church of England, a constitutional position in the UK). With these changes made, I’d like to see the establishment of a new convention, if not actually a hard and fast rule, that the monarch can, and should, resign around the time that anyone else would… say, around 65 to 70 years of age. I personally feel that Queen Elizabeth should have stepped aside for Prince Charles about 15 years ago, and that about now, King Charles should be preparing to make way for Prince William. Waiting your whole life for a job you were born to have, and for your parent to die in order to get it, just strikes me as crushingly depressing.

How much more uplifting to have younger people on the throne; men and women just starting families. William is in his thirties now; in a few years he’ll be closing in on 40 and about the appropriate age to be king, with a pretty wife and a family around him. And why not? After all, that’s about the age Jack Kennedy was when he was elected President of the United States. “Camelot” holds a charm even for people who weren’t even born at the time. How much better a “Camelot” with a real king?

I respect the seriousness with which Queen Elizabeth takes her coronation oath… “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” But I don’t see anything in that oath that obliges her to serve exclusively in the role of Queen. Her mother certainly served the Commonwealth without being the monarch; so have her children. I’m sure Queen Elizabeth could still find a way to serve her peoples without actually having to bear the weight of the crown. And she deserves a chance to relax, and let someone else take on the day-to-day burdens of dealing with heads of government. Other monarchs are giving themselves the gift of watching their children and grandchildren grow into the role. Why not ours?