Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Dvorak's blog - a must-read

Here's another entry in my infrequent, ongoing series on stuff I like to read when I'm not busy writing about the other stuff that gets under my skin.

John Dvorak is a longtime columnist for PC Magazine and a somewhat outspoken voice in the technology press. (His regular column appears here, and his other regular column, known as Inside Track, appears here.)

Considering the fact that I've spent the past decade solidly ensconced in the tech field, you may be surprised when I say I have little patience for mainstream technology media. Writers and editors in this space are always so focused on the latest thing that they forget what matters to mere mortals like us.

Dvorak's different. Reading him is refreshing in a Dave Barry-esque way, only take away the toilet humor. He's also a really funny guy, as evidenced by his relatively new blog, Dvorak Uncensored. Give him a read, then comment.

I'd ask you to tell him that Carmi sent you, but he has no clue who I am. Still, his words work. Enjoy.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A litle boy in the playground

I wrote this a couple of years ago after one particularly eventful trip to the park near our house. As you've gathered by now, lots of neat things seem to happen there.

Everything I write is given a tentative, working title, sometimes called a "slug". This piece was slugged "Letting Go," but I didn't publish it. I thought about submitting it at the time, but never was able to evolve this beyond a lovely little description of a typical day in a little boy's life. I might yet do something with it as my list of potential publishing venues continues to grow. But for now, I want to get the words out there so they don't shrivel up in some file that'll only get buried on my hard drive.

With that in mind, I hope you enjoy this scene, both as I described it, and as I captured it on film afterward:

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I never thought I would start letting go of my son before the age of three.

Parents often see themselves letting go of their kids after a 18 to 20 years. A trip to the playground with my two-year-old last week taught me the letting go process starts much sooner than that.

As we approached the park, Noah informed me that he didn't want to climb on the large, castle-like structures. "They’re scary," he said, his voice trembling just a bit more as the stroller got closer to the playground.

After we arrived and I parked the stroller, he reached his arms up for me to pick him up. He shivered every time I suggested we so much as walk up to one of the structures for a closer look.

His older brother, 8, and sister, 5, raced off to the playground and joined a beehive of kids clambering up down and through the multicolored structures.

Zach and Dahlia would stop playing every few minutes to make sure Noah was still watching them. They called out to him, inviting him to join them on one of the lower platforms. He shook his head, but continued to watch their every move with intense curiosity. He so very much wanted to play with his big brother and big sister, but he simply wasn't sure he was ready.

Curiosity finally got the better of him. He slid out of my arms and down to the ground. He put his little hand in mine and started to subtly pull me toward the imposing, multicolored structures. “Go closer” he said, “but not up.”

We walked up to the main staircase and I asked him if he would let me carry him up. He took a long look at his siblings flying down the side-by-side slides and slowly nodded his head.

The higher we got, the tighter he gripped my neck. But he didn't ask me to go down. He wanted to be there. He just wasn't yet sure was OK to let go.

Dahlia breathlessly jumped in front of me and reached her arms out to him. A petite five-year-old, she was barely bigger than he was. But he instinctively wiggled out of my arms and carefully crawled the couple of feet until she was able to reach him.

Hand-in-hand, she walked him over to the big twistie-slide and sat him down in her lap. I hustled down to the bottom of the slide and held my breath as she pushed off.

I needn’t have worried.

As they arrived at the bottom, Noah was smiling ear-to-ear, screaming “Again, again”. He got up, grabbed Dahlia’s hand and headed back to the rope ladder. No more fear.

Tears welled in my eyes as my little guy pulled himself up the rope ladder and waved off my offers of assistance. My hand remained outstretched, a few centimetres under his wiggling tush, suddenly useless now that my son had learned to do it on it own.

My son had taught me that it was OK to let go.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A relative sky

A setting sun fascinates me. It's breathtaking in a whole lot of ways: The richness of its color, the speed with which the shades radically change, and the way it makes you feel really, really small while you stand on the lawn and stare straight up.

People often stare at me when I do this. I get asked why I waste the film, my time, and my energy. The people who question this are the ones who believe photography is about getting the same head shots of the same people doing the same things at the same events.

My view of photography reflects my view of the world: let the neat stuff catch your eye, then capture it with your camera, then add it to the never-ending narrative that is your life. If you've done your job correctly, when you look at your pictures later on they will transport you right back to the moment when you tripped the shutter. What you were thinking then floods back into your mind.

It's a very comforting means of studying your personal history - and that of the world around you.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

King of the world speaks

I'm not a huge fan of James Cameron. Come to think of it, I'm not a fan at all. I find his work pretentious and derivative. Not coincidentally, this represents pretty much everything that I hate about Hollywood films as well.

Still, Wired Magazine had him write about his view of the future. And wouldn't ya know it, but he's a big booster of getting humans to Mars. Wow, first Leo going down with the Titanic, and now this.

His missive is called The Drive to Discover. And in case you were wondering, there's no picture of him with his arms outstretched over the bow of the ship.

Friday, November 26, 2004

A superhero/aviation conundrum

After we took the kids to see The Incredibles a few weeks back, I got to wondering about superheroes and the very special tools they use to help them fight crime and make the world a happy place for us puny non-superheroes.

Most of these tools are fairly easy to understand. For example, Batman’s Batmobile is a pretty slick car that can do all sorts of neat things. The technology, while somewhat far-fetched by today’s standards, is at least believable. Robin, while a gender- and orientation-challenged young man, is also fairly easy to relate to given the technology of the day.

Wonder Woman, however, has always made me, well, wonder.

First off, that bracelet stuff she wears is, on the surface, seemingly simple: it’s bulletproof. But what isn’t explained is her superfast reaction time that allows her to place her wrists right in the path of the bullet. This is an implied skill, and has never really been fully explored as part of her character development arc.

[Hey, I used the phrase “character development arc” in a post about superheroes. Fascinating!]

The fact that she wears it only on her wrists and doesn’t wear it in a more convenient place – like, say, all over – suggests a somewhat misguided approach to wardrobe development. Either this was an early version of a wardrobe malfunction, or her creators determined the safety benefits of covering her up with a futuristic Kevlar-like body suit were outweighed by the potential loss of babe-a-liciousness thanks to her minimalist and patriotic costume. This is a classic application of the ages-old struggle between form and function.

This also forces the blanket assumption that all bad guys will be shooting at her from the front. In her oft-repeating two-dimensional world, the evil criminal masterminds are too stupid to loop around the back and fire at her in such a way that she will not see the bullets coming fast enough to calculate the trajectory and position herself accordingly.

But the ultimate dopeheaded move involves her airplane. I know you’ve never seen it; that’s because it’s invisible. Well, not really invisible, because when she flies it, us proletarian viewers sort of see the outline. But that’s a story for another day. This piece of cartoon-aviation history begs a whole litany of questions:

  • Finding it: When she decides to go flying, how does she find her aircraft? Does she wander all over the tarmac until she simply bumps into it? If she stubs her Wonder Toe, does that preclude her from flying that day?
  • Getting it off the ground: Once she finds the plane, does her pre-flight and lights it up, how does she work with Air Traffic Control to obtain clearance for takeoff? As far as they’re concerned, she isn’t flying a plane. She’s just an oddly-dressed woman sitting all by herself in the middle of a huge expanse of concrete. If I were staffing a radar console, I’d send the padded wagon people to fetch her.
  • Pattern management: Assuming she manages to convince ATC that she’s for real, how, then, are other aircraft on the ground and in the air to be made aware of her presence? Does her plane carry some sort of transponder? Will other pilots laugh when they see a recumbent flag-wearer hurtling through the sky at near-mach speeds?
  • Stealthiness: Her plane may be optically invisible, but does it show up on radar? Based on my admittedly cursory analysis of the basic shape of the airframe, I’d have to say it is not remotely close to being a stealthy design. Its origins – I believe in the 1960s – pre-date the development of radar-absorbing-and-reflecting shapes and materials. If this assumption is true, then Wonder Woman is increasingly vulnerable in today’s higher-threat environments.
  • Lights on or off: Also, how do Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules apply to nighttime flight of this class of aircraft? Does she need to have lights on? She’s walking a fine line between flight safety and superhero derring-do, in my opinion. (And I haven't even raised the question of whether or not a government body like the FAA has jurisdiction over a superhero or her aircraft. That, too, is an issue for another day.)
  • Optical illusions: How is it that we can see Wonder Woman through the skin of the plane? If that’s the case, then she really isn’t invisible at all, is she? Similarly, where’s the fuel? Does the plane make that invisible, too? Come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen her arrange to refuel her aircraft. Perhaps the Superfriends already set her up with a lifetime supply of JP4. Or, horrors, the plane is nuclear-powered and we all live under the threat of an airborne nuclear power plant crashing into the corn fields just outside town.
  • You can't take it with you: And what about her luggage? Who jets halfway around the world to save humankind without taking so much as a good book or a healthy snack?
  • IFR or VFR: Are her instruments visible as well? Granted, the view is always side-on, so the viewer at home can’t really see the instrument panel. But on the assumption that we can escape from our two-dimensional televised jail just long enough to peer over WW’s shoulder, what would we see if we looked forward? Would it just be empty space (likely, given the fact that everything on the plane is invisible) or would we see dials and stuff? And if she’s looking at a blank panel, how can she fly by Instrument Flight Rules at the extreme heights and speeds that she routinely travels? Don’t tell me her eyesight is so good that all of this is moot. When the ceiling closes in and you’re battling thunderheads and wind shear, not even the Six Million Dollar Man’s bionic eye will save you. Optics can only carry you so far when you’re up in the sky. I honestly don’t think she ever achieved her instrument rating.

I could probably muse about this for the next few hours, but I think I’ve made my point abundantly clear. Are you aware of any other superhero – or even basic cartoon – inconsistencies that have vexed you for the better part of a generation? For example, what of the Flintstones series characters’ tendency to run past the same walls and furniture while being chased by a giant dinosaur. Their houses didn’t look that big from the outside, yet they seem endless during these chase scenes. What gives?

As I've said too often in my blogging past, discuss...

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Bad burger

Advance warning: If you've been having tummy trouble within the last day or two, kindly refrain from reading this post until things have settled down somewhat. I'm still feeling a touch of nausea a day after I first heard this news. Now, on with the show...

American fast food chain Hardees has unveiled its Monster Thick Burger. The basic specs of this thing are pretty frightening: 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat from its two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise and a buttered sesame seed bun.

As a point of reference, a Big Mac has 600 calories – which was pretty sickening in its own right until the arrival of this new generation of superburgers. For more background, MSNBC is running this story, and this one.

A really perceptive reader (thanks, Jeff!) brought this to my attention yesterday. My first thought when I followed the links in his e-mail was that this was a joke. But it's real, and it represents yet another milestone on society's apparently one-way trip to an obesity-laden dietary hell.

What bothers me more than the fact that the thing has two times the recommended daily allowance of fat, and almost a day's worth of sodium, is the attitude of Hardees head honcho Andrew Puzder. He says the new confection is "not a burger for tree-huggers.

"This is a burger for young hungry guys who want a really big, delicious, juicy, decadent burger. I hope our competitors keep promoting those healthy products, and we will keep promoting our big, juicy delicious burgers."

Um, right. I hope you can sleep at night, Andy. I guess the fact that you're actively promoting the proliferation of a killer doesn't seem to weigh on your conscience. Lovely. My belief in humanity has once again been reinforced.

Am I wrong in feeling this way? Should I be this riled up about an overblown sandwich from an otherwise-nondescript purveyor of grease patties? Does the world really change if someone pushes fast food to another egregiously dubious milestone?

Perhaps not. We are, after all, not obliged to consume this thing (even if I wanted to, I'd have to drive into the U.S.; yet another benefit to living in Canada.) And even if we were forced to stand at the 70s-styled formica counter and stuff back one of these bad boys, do we really think that all of society would be threatened because of what's inside the grease-stained wrapper?

Hardly. But this isn't a about statistics. It is about image, perception, and influence. Comparatively few people buy Dodge Vipers. They're horridly expensive, horridly bad on gas, and horridly useless for day-to-day living. But there they sit in the showroom next to humble Neons and PT Cruisers, casting their halo over the unwashed masses who can do no more than smudge the windows with their proletarian noses. The number of aspirants to these lofty machines will far exceed the number who ultimately roll one home, but the influence will extend far beyond the sheer number of folks behind the wheel.

Back to the food vernacular, the sandwich won't be a top-seller, but it will sit atop the menu, quietly establishing a new benchmark for adipose-soaked decadence. Lesser sandwiches won't seem quite so bad any more. We'll down whatever they offer with even less concern for its long-term impact on our health.

Indeed, even industry experts are shrugging their shoulders in a tacit admission that the battle for a healthy tomorrow is slowly – perhaps not so slowly – being lost. A restaurant consultant named Jerry McVety was quoted in the MSNBC article as follows: “Maybe this is a smart strategy because there are still folks out there who care about the taste and size of their sandwich, and less about their weight.”

Allow me to pause while I once again shake my head.

I'm no dietary angel. I eat my fair share of what my Yiddish-speaking grandmother would have termed chazerai – loosely translated as garbage, or junk food. But I can't help but shake my head at the prevailing attitudes that relentlessly drive ever more obscene creations into mainstream pop and food culture.

The Cold War may be over, but the Fat War continues to rage, and it's racking up more victims than any Soviet missile ever did. As odious as I find this new Hardees product, and the corporate message that has driven its introduction, I find it difficult to lay all the blame at one company's door. We demand this. We refuse to change. Fast food joints are simply adapting their offerings to deliver what we've asked for. The enemy, it would seem, is us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Fruitography

My photographic tour of the fruits that make us taller and stronger continues. I took the apple pic on the same trip as the orange pepper pic first seen in a post earlier this week. I was simply looking for color - indeed, any color that caught my eye - but didn't initially think green apples were really worth my time. The list specifically said Red Delicious, and my daughter helped me pick the best ones.

While we were busy discussing what made a good fruit and what made a stinker, little brother Noah was sitting quietly on the other end of the cart. He spotted the green apples next to the Red Delicious display and commenced the familiar chant of the 4-year-old: "I want..."

Normally, it would be some kind of more-sugar-than-cereal cereal. But this time, he was asking for green apples. And knowing how much our little guy likes them, I couldn't in good conscience say no to him when he was asking for...fruit! So we rolled the cart a couple of feet over and I repeated the scene with both of them.

As we picked and judged, their greenness jumped out at me and I knew a picture was brewing. So when we had filled the bag and carefully tucked it into the far end of the cart - to avoid bruising, y'know - I did the photographic two-step and snapped off some views of the apples that didn't quite make the cut.

Unlike the now-lost buildings I failed to shoot earlier this week, I know apples will always be abundant at the supermarket. So it's not like I wouldn't have been able to get a similar picture on any other day.

But that moment, when my kids and I first explored for the perfect red and green apples, was unique. I'm glad I recorded it with my camera and my pen.

With apologies, and thanks, to Wheelson for coining the term that graces this post.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A missed opportunity

I've been taking a lot of pictures lately. That's not really a big deal for me, since I've always been rather photographically inclined. Since I learned my way around a darkroom at summer camp a whole lot of years ago, I've found great comfort in capturing the world around me with my camera.

But this week, I can't stop thinking about the picture I did not take. Sure, I wanted to take it, and made one mental note after another to toss a camera in my bike bag so I could snap it on the way to the office. But I never did. And now I'll never be able to get that picture, for the object of my photographic curiosity no longer exists.

Some background: London is home to the University of Western Ontario. This renowned institution contains some of Canada's top faculties in business, medicine, law, and countless other fields of study. It is a center of research, and an integral part of the broader community. During the week, I ride through the campus to get to work. Weekends, the campus is a place to reflect and think.

The student population has grown significantly in recent years. Ontario's abolition of Grade 13, combined with the general trend toward greater post-secondary enrollment rates, has put a lot of pressure on UWO to grow, and grow fast.

This has had a direct impact on London's housing market, which has struggled to put more student housing units on the market to meet this soaring demand. The school has been actively building residence buildings since we moved here almost eight years ago, and the process shows no sign of slowing down.

Which brings us to a stretch of houses on one of the main roads on the edge of the campus. Most recently, they housed a daycare that catered to university families. They were fairly non-descript by anyone's architectural standards: they looked much like oversized side-splits. Nothing to write home about.

They sat across the street from a unique, home-made concrete round house that was once featured in the paper's architectural column. It was bulldozed a couple of years ago for a student apartment building that looks just like a half-dozen other such buildings within a four-block radius. It wasn't far from a running track that once surrounded a wonderfully lush athletic field. It was paved over two years ago and turned into a parking lot. Two weeks ago, the bulldozers crossed the street and started taking down the old daycare facilities.

When only one old house was left standing, I thought I'd take a picture and write about how important it was to take pictures of stuff – no matter how seemingly inconsequential said stuff seemed – because after it was gone, there would otherwise be no way to remember what was there. It's like when you come back to a neighborhood you haven't seen in months and there's a parking lot where you know there used to be a building. Only you can't quite picture in your mind what that building looked like because you never took the time to commit it to memory. Or film.

I wanted to get a picture of the last building standing. But I got busy this morning and left the house without the camera. As I came home in the damp, dark evening, all I could see was a forlorn pile of rubble topped by the still-extended arm of the backhoe. The scene, surrounded by a temporary chain link fence, was backlit, making it seem even more melancholy. Now, nothing stands between this site and the multistorey residence that will rise there in the months to come.

So, in the end I didn't get that picture. Over time, how I remember the buildings that stood there will gradually fade as well until, eventually, the corridor created by the ever-expanding march of block-long, five-storey buildings will define the streetscape and push any memories of what once was into the oblivion of forgotten memories.

I didn't take a picture of the round house, either. Nor did I snap the athletic field. And I won't be taking my camera to their old sites. The concrete and asphalt that has replaced them just doesn't seem photo-worthy. There is no history in them; only a bleak future of sameness, and an ever-present reminder that we have no understanding of the importance of our past.

Next time, I'll bring the camera with me. Just in case. I don't want to miss any more of where we've come from than I already have. I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Monday, November 22, 2004

More glimpses of the grocery store

I couldn't resist once again pulling out my camera on my last visit to the supermarket. As I learn the ins and outs of our digital camera, I'm getting better at overriding the idiot-proof auto-everything features (darn them!) Specifically, I've learned how to disable the flash and use available light instead. This increases my stealth factor and reduces the possibility of an apron-clad store employee busting me for fruity photography. Or vegetably. I know it's not a word, but it sort of fits here.

My wandering eye found some pretty neat bursts of color in the vegetable and fruit bins. I had our younger two kids with me on this trip, and as we wheeled around the corner and spotted the vegetable shelves, they said the orange pepper would look nice in a picture. My daughter then gave me a knowing smile as I quietly pulled the camera from my trench coat pocket (the right attire is critical for grocery store commando photography) and set up for the shot.

Not only were they correct (that orange just gets me!) but their suggestion proves they have already started thinking like me, spotting pictures in the most mundane of places. I don't know about you, but that both scares and excites me.

I'd best go now, since this is making me hungry.

Judgment under fire

By now, pretty much everyone has heard the news from Fallujah, Iraq where a U.S. Marine was videotaped shooting an Iraqi in apparent cold blood.

As armchair pundits everywhere - most of whom have become combat experts because they spend countless hours watching talking heads argue on CNN and Fox News - debate the issue, the power of the web as a journalistic medium has emerged.

Say what you want about journalism, but to me it is all about context. If we can paint a contextual picture that helps everyday folks make sense of the jumbled world of news, we will have done our job. More importantly, we will have succeeded to an even greater degree if, in our drive to help our audience arrive at this nirvana-point of sense, we went a bit further and actually helped them improve their own decision-making capacity.

It's a direct offshoot of the Five W Questions - Who, What, Where, When, and Why. To that I've always added How. In answering them all, journalists shed light on issues that may not have been clear. They balance our understanding of these issues, and bring us to the point that we can fairly draw our own conclusions.

Such is the case with the shooting in Iraq. On the surface, it may look one way. In reality, to those living through the hell of combat against an enemy whose concept of the Geneva Convention was never quite fully formed, it may need to be analyzed from a thoroughly different perspective.

With this in mind, I read an incredibly powerful account of the events by the journalist who witnessed them in the first place, Kevin Sites. His missive, called What happened in the Fallujah mosque, was first published on his personal blog, www.kevinsites.net, under the heading Open Letter to Devil Dogs of the 3.1. To its credit, MSNBC later picked it up and ran a link to it from the front page of its web site. It is an absolute must-read for anyone following this story.

The rest of his site contains more insight - through the eyes of a journalist with significant war zone experience - into what the environment is like, and how it shapes the decisions of those who are sent to fight there. It's compelling reading.

Similarly compelling is Rosie DiManno's column in last Wednesday's Toronto Star. The piece is entitled, Try to imagine the way U.S. Marine was thinking. As always, Ms. DiManno says it like it is and challenges us to avoid making the kind of snap judgments that those of us who live in armchairs seem content to make every day.

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Incidentally, I've noticed this blog is resulting in some bizarre behavior within the Google search engine. For example, type the words "Rosie DiManno" into Google and guess which site comes up as #1? Yup, this one. It works whether or not the search terms are within quotations. I guess I'm an even bigger fan of her work than I originally thought - and even a search engine algorithm seems to agree. Fascinating stuff!

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Oldest man dies

The world's oldest man has died just shy of his 114th birthday. In a somehat poignant punctuation to his life, Fred Hale Sr. lived long enough to see his beloved Boston Red Sox win baseball's World Series.

For some ridiculous reason, I always have to have a journalistically-focused thought as well. I've never been fully comfortable with the way these oldest-person-dies stories are handled by the media. They're typically dropped into the end of a newscast as a kicker, a lighter-brighter topic whose inclusion is supposed to end the show with a bit of a human touch.

I have no problem with kickers, per se. Rather, it's the routine way in which lineup editors pull in the oldest-person-dies ones. Like clockwork, we'll see 'em about once a month, and they always take on the same generic tone that patronizingly refers to the usual litany of senior citizen stereotypes. Something about driving? Check. Something about outliving a spouse? Yup. How's about some comment about the individual's smoking or drinking habits? Check.

After a cursory check of who the newest oldest-person is - nothing like flagging someone as the next high-profile person to die - it's back to the trustworthy anchor who, before signing off for the night, nods his (yes, his...men are still overrepresented on anchor desks, but that's an issue for another day) head and smiles like the half-wit that he is to let us know that this is supposed to be a Happy Story.

Yeah, I'm sure the deceased's family feels Just The Same Way, Lloyd!

Beyond the cloying level of disrespect shown for someone who's just passed away, the entire exercise strikes me as lazy journalism. Am I the only Andy Rooney-type who feels this way?

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Quite the recognition

Many thanks to Mellie Helen for an entirely-too-kind reference to me and my writing. If you haven't had a chance to visit Golly Blog Howdy, I'd like to suggest you do so - it's part of her regular Blog it Forward feature that regularly recognizes a blog of note. Like Paying it Forward and Random Acts of Kindness, it's one of those little things that people do that holds the potential to repair our world, a few well-placed words at a time.

For more info on the concept of Blogging it Forward, click here and here.

In case the Internet melts down and all of our links suddenly become the functional equivalent of a 1982 Lada after its predestined visit with the crusher, here's the actual text. In the blogosphere, this is about as nice as it gets:

Carmi receives this honor because he is a talented and gifted writer who takes the little things we all think and feel way down deep inside, and puts them into insightful phrases that we would use to describe them, if only we could. Reading his work is akin to hearing someone speak a foreign language that you are learning: you understand so much more than you can say yourself. Most every time I read Written Inc., I find myself nodding in agreement, “Yes, yes, that’s just what I felt about that subject!” Only I don’t write about it so eloquently – Carmi does. Example: A child’s playground.

My Neighbor to the North has the ability to reach across a couple thousand miles and touch my heartstrings in such a way that I feel like he’s a friend I’ve known for years, and who knows just what I’m feeling. He manages to take verbs, nouns, prepositions and the like that are just laying around, and weave them into a tapestry rich in emotion and description. While I take the same parts of speech and come home with a crooked pot holder.

Not only does this arteur de bon mots gift us with his writing; he shares his vision though intriguing photographs as well. Delightful.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Snowy fence

This is another one from my snowy walk to work last week. What caught my eye here was the nice little arc of the fence, and the warm color of the wood against the decidedly dull backdrop of the now-white and leafless forest. It's another one of those I-want-to-be-there scenes. Hopefully, I'll get to go back soon.

Cherish what you have

I've been closely following coverage of a house fire in a small town in eastern Ontario. A pregnant woman and her seven children all died when an overnight fire consumed their home. Husband and father Marc Woerlen is now left to live his life, alone. This is his story.

Whatever your situation, wherever you are, look long and hard at what you have, not at what you don't. Thank God or whatever being you worship that you have been so blessed. Think of Mr. Woerlen every time you think your lot in life is difficult. As you tuck your kids into bed tonight, kiss them an extra few times, and hug them tighter, and longer. They may not understand now, but they will, someday.

If you don't have kids, repeat the above with your significant other or anyone else who means something to you. Do anything to spread even a modicum of goodness beyond yourself. At the end of the day, it could be all that is left.

For one, I wish I could do more than simply write words that, while comforting, don't do a whole lot to concretely and obviously fix what's immediately wrong with the world. Their impact is felt over time - which is ironically all that a man suffering a loss beyond comprehension has left.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Life lessons from work

Warning: this is an uncharacteristically long post. I'm not quite sure why I'm so verbose in this one. I'm usually pretty clipped in my verbiage, but this time, I seem to have slipped into storytelling mode. Please read down to the bottom, as I'm looking for your feedback on an issue that's near and dear to my writer's heart - and to yours as well, I hope. Read well, and thanks.

The run-up to the end of the year always seems to spark a wave of introspection in pretty much everyone we meet. It's the kind of thinking that extends well beyond soon-forgotten new year's resolutions. Rather, it's a harder-than-usual look at ourselves and our immediate - and not-to-immediate - milieu, and the tabling of some serious questions about who we are, why we lead our lives as we do, and what else we could or should be doing to improve our place in the world.

The work world seems to have a profound influence on us in this regard. Now is the time when many of us have our performance reviews at work. Not coincidentally, it is also when many of us begin laying plans for a fresh career start in the new year. Even if you put on a happy face to those around you, I'm certain many of you are nodding your head as you read this. Although I don't have a webcam pointed over your shoulder as you peruse the Saturday morning paper, it's a safe bet that a good percentage of you are scanning the Careers section a little more closely than usual.

As these thoughts danced through my mind (yes, they do dance through my head...I have no control over them when they do) I received a link to a posting from the significant other of an Electronic Arts employee that throws this entire line of thinking into stark perspective. It's called EA: The Human Story. To make a long story short, the significant other (or "SO" in our acronym-crazy parlance) of a developer at this market-leading video game software firm wrote a highly detailed, highly emotional, highly effective critique of the company's work practices..

Although I can't say I have ever endured anything that comes close to the hell this person describes, I believe the thread is so unbelievably popular because it strikes a nerve in all of us. Regardless of degree, we have all experienced abuses at the hands of employers at some time in our respective career arcs. There's a little bit of truth in this person's message, and it's familiar enough that we all know how it feels and tastes.

This whole issue brings to mind some contract work I signed on for at a fashion magazine a bunch of years ago. I was still in j-school, but we were on break and I needed something to do. I called someone who was posting for writers on the school's bulletin board, and the next day I found myself in a nondescript building in Montreal's "Fashion District" - otherwise known as the Shmateh District - speaking to the publisher - a short, middle-aged ball of stress we'll call Herb - and his young, attractive editor who we'll call Charlene.

After the usual Reading Of The Resume and a stilted discussion of what a great writer I was, they proceeded to breathlessly share their "vision" of their magazine, a glossy, high-end rag that covered the latest happenings in kids' fashion.

The interview obviously went really well, because they offered me the job right there and showed me to my office. The writing was, frankly, not very challenging, and the overall project looked like a fun way to knock off a couple of weeks before school started again.

So I dug into researching the hot colors, fabrics, and designers of the season - mindless and fun - and had a fairly good first half-day. I turned in my copy just before lunch, at which point Herb and Charlene invited me to join them for the midday meal. Score, I thought.

I remember sitting down, ordering something simple, and watching their faces change from wall-to-wall smiling to dead-serious in the time it took us to reach for the partially-smudged water glasses the server had just brought. Herb, in a deliberate and serious tone, told me I'd better get ready for 24-hour days, and that he'd be bringing a cot in from home. Naive me, I thought he was joking.

Not quite.

I did my best to hide the visual impact of the blood rushing from my cheeks. I was all of, what, 20 years-old, and my work experience to-date - namely working as a lifeguard at my local pool - had been beyond charmed. Despotic bosses were alien to me. Until then, of course.

I remember feeling fear. Walking away seemed like a viable option at that point, but I really wanted to be published, and I didn't think a just-getting-started journalist could realistically walk away and hope to get hired in this town again, so I pretended to not be rattled. I said as little as possible through lunch, then followed them back to the office when we were done.

As I settled in at my computer for another afternoon of writing, I was suddenly jolted by Herb screaming into his phone. His partner was trying to rob him. His wife was a b---h. He hated his kids. Everyone he called seemed to get quite the profane, full-volume earful. My previously-virgin ears were assaulted by language I had only ever heard on the street in the rough parts of town, but never in an office supposedly populated by working professionals. Yeah, professionals: an apparent misnomer in this case.

When he meandered into my office after he was done, I held my keys in my pocket, ready to smack him hard if he came near me. Instead, he spoke to me in a soothing voice, telling me he hoped I didn't get the wrong impression of him (no risk of that, sir) and that publishing is an incredibly rough, dirty world, and you're always dealing with people who are trying to put you out of business. I nodded my head, thankful I didn't have to resort to a full frontal assault to preserve my person, and counted the seconds in the back of my head until he disappeared from sight.

Still the naive, young journalism student, I came back to the office over the next couple of days. I marvelled at my ability to essentially say the same thing seven times, but to spin it in a fresh new direction within each article. Did you know gold and silver were going to be hot colors this year? Did you know that sportswear represented the emerging paradigm of chic? My writing skills sure kicked into overdrive that week, even as I knowingly cranked out the BS.

The yelling continued, though, and by mid-week, the little troll's outbursts were directed at me. My desire to go home at a reasonable hour and return the next morning didn't seem to sit well with Heart Attack Herb. I kept my keys in my pocket at all times, just in case.

His partner showed up Thursday afternoon and almost came to blows with Herb. When the dust had settled, the partner then quietly walked into my office, and whispered "Get out while you still can" to me before disappearing into history.

I went into the office Friday with every intention of quitting. When I told the woosome twosome that their employee satisfaction efforts seemed to be a bit misguided, they threatened to not pay me unless I lived in the building for the rest of the agreed-to-time. They also threatened to tar-and-feather me to every editor, publisher, and media outlet in Montreal. After a bit of back-and-forth where I threatened to bring in Quebec's workplace compensation board for a look-see, they saw my perspective and agreed to pay me for the time I had worked. I don't think I ever cashed a check that quickly.

I never again saw Herb and Charlene. I'm sure Herbie's aorta exploded sometime after the magazine folded - what, you're surprised that it tanked? - and Charlene never did reach the heights of publishing wizardry to which she aspired (I googled her once...she's a hack, and a bad one at that.) I, however, was left with a deep appreciation of the need to treat those with whom we work - in any context, at any level of the organization - with nothing less than absolute respect. It may sound trite and obvious, but it's just as easy to be a hero as it is to be a doofus.

The point of this meandering mess, then, is to ask YOU for your thoughts on the following:

  • Do some employers take advantage of employees by making them work long hours for no overtime? Has it happened to you?
  • If so, what was the nature of the abuse (or otherwise less-than-stellar treatment of employees)?
  • What did you do about it at the time?
  • Knowing what you know now, would you change anything about your reaction?
  • What are some specific best practices employers should be using to ensure employees continue to remain engaged?

As I've said previously: Discuss...

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Publish Day - Beslan, 2 months later

My latest column in the the London Free Press, Beslan suffering knows no bounds, focuses on the aftermath of September’s hostage-taking and subsequent massacre in this Russian town. Through a colleague who went to the wall to ensure I could write this piece (thanks, Olya!), I was lucky enough to gain access to someone who lives in a nearby city (Vladikavkaz) and has visited the stricken town often since

Her stories were unbelievably poignant, which left me with a feeling of enormous responsibility as I wrote the column. I felt my puny little words needed to somehow step up to the plate to do justice to what this stricken town had gone through - and will continue to go through for generations.

My colleague will be sending her a copy of the article: I hope when she reads it she realizes just how much people care.

Interestingly, I used the thesis of disposable headlines as the basis for the column. We tend to forget today's big story when tomorrow's headlines push it off of the front page - and out of our minds. Yet what's always bothered me as a journalist is how stories seem to go on for significantly longer periods of time, and are virtually ignored by the media. It's not a knock against journalism, though. Rather, that's just the way media works: there is only so much space to go around, and that space has to go to the top stories of the day. Ongoing, lingering, quiet suffering typically doesn't garner top-level attention.

I can't change the way the world works. But I can try to redirect the flashlight every once in a while. I hope that's the case this time out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Scram!

This just in: NASA's last scheduled test flight of the X-43A supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) prototype has ended with the craft hitting at least Mach 9.6. Heady stuff indeed. Here's the early wrapup from ABC News

Comments following my earlier post on this admittedly esoteric topic centred on how little near-term impact this technology will have on our lives. I absolutely agree. We won't be boarding scramjet-powered airliners anytime soon, if at all within our lifetime.

But when the Wrights first lofted their Wright Flyer into the skies above Kitty Hawk, no one believed we'd all be routinely flying within a year or two. The implicit understanding was that a theoretical limit of technology had been surpassed, and that the commercialization of that technology would take a significantly longer amount of time to realize. It happened with flight, it will happen with private space flight, and it will happen with high-speed atmospheric flight. It's the way humans are, and I hope I'm around long enough to witness it.

I suspect this topic is a bit of a yawner for most folks, but it speaks to the geek in me. I hope it gives you a brief pause for thought to consider how all the technologies we take for granted today came to be, and how long they all must have taken to go from the hugely expensive, experimental and rare freak-stage to the anyone-can-buy-it-and-use-it stage.

Quite the journey we're all on, wouldn't you say?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Noah gets boosted

Little man reached another milestone in his young life today as he moved out of his car seat and into a booster seat. Please see the previous photo-post for some background on why we made the transition with just a touch of sadness in our hearts. My wife and I will be spending much of the week accepting the fact that he's not as small as he was just a few days ago.

Those footsteps in the sand seem mighty transient indeed.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A child's playground

I took the kids to the playground this afternoon. Although the stated goal was for them to have fun and blow off some pent-up energy, I think the ultimate - and selfish, I admit - benefit was for me to reflect on their rapidly-changing lives.

As they happily danced from the slides to the swings to the climbing tower with the red gabled roof, I quietly sat on a nearby bench and tried to snap endless mental pictures so as not to forget precisely what I was feeling.

It was, after all, just yesterday (or at least it felt like it) that I snapped a (real) picture of a then-two-year-old Noah climbing the rope ladder all by himself. He refused any help, and I stood uselessly a few feet away, holding my hands in front of me just in case he stumbled backward. He didn't. So I grabbed my camera and snapped the scene.

Today, he clambered up that same rope without a second thought. He's four years-old now. He'll doubtless get even better at this particular skill until, someday, he'll decide the playground just isn't for him any more. I dread that day. I love watching him play. I love the innocence in his voice as he dances around the sand, as he chases his big sister up the ladder, then down the slide. I love the way he belly laughs as he serves me "ice cream" from the little nook beneath the climbing tower.

He's got a few years to go before he tires of this game. But this year is almost over. The late-afternoon sun was already setting as we prepared to head back to the house. We zipped up our jackets and buried our hands in our pockets to ward off the sudden chill in an absolutely clear day.

Just before we left the playground, I pointed our camera at the sand and tripped the shutter. Little footsteps brought into stark relief by a low-angled sun. A day ends. A season ends. I hope we have ample reasons to return in the coming years before unbridled childhood play gives way to the stresses of real life.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

A fish pic

I took my camera into the grocery store again today. Lately, I've had this near-demonic need to take weird pictures at the grocery store. I'm not quite sure what's driving this compulsion, but I'm pretty sure that in the not-too-distant future, I'm going to be asked to leave the premises. Until then, I'll do my best to capture weird and wonderful images like this one. Happy fishing!

The need for speed...interrupted

If you've ever flown hours and hours to visit grandma, and have been frustrated at how gosh darn slow those pokey Jumbo jets seem to have become – heck, in this day and age, even 600 mph is dog slow – you might be interested to know that research into The Next Big Thing in aviation (namely, scramjet-powered atmospheric flight) is well underway.

Of course, in typical U.S. government fashion, no sooner will NASA test-fly its X-43A scramjet prototype to the obscene speed of Mach 10 than the feds will cancel further funding for the project.

According to this article in Wired.com, the flight is scheduled for later this week, at which point flight operations will immediately cease. This will allow the political geniuses who run the country to free up funds for $500 wrenches, and for research into building a new moon-capable capsule that looks just like something the U.S. built and successfully flew a generation ago.

I love the irony. Sadly, however, it means we'll be waiting a little longer for that shorter trip to grandma's house.

How will you survive the wait? As Thanksgiving and Christmas grow ever-larger in our near-term travel plans, what are your best-laid plans for getting there – and back – in one piece? And, please, no one suggest riding shotgun on that Pegasus rocket this week, OK?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Think what it does to your insides

I just finished reading what I first thought was a funny article in The Guardian. It's called Things grow better with Coke, and it explains how farmers in India, fed up with paying high prices for commercially-available pesticides, have begun spraying Coca-Cola on their crops to get rid of bugs.

The scientific community has yet to take time out from more pressing concerns - like, say, finding a cure for cancer or inventing an age-reducing cream that works - to investigate this vexing capability.

It gives me pause to think that if it's strong enough to kill bugs and we don't know how it accomplishes that, why do we wash it down our gullets with barely a second thought? Have we ever stopped to think what guzzling gallons of pop (sorry, it's an Ontario thing...I know the rest of you call 'em soft drinks or boissons gazeuses or something similarly local) to the exclusion of other, real drinks is doing to our bodies?

I have. But that's only because I've got a mind that churns through trivial matters as voraciously as a dog chews on its owner's sneakers.

If all of this isn't weird enough, India's Centre for Science and Environment last year discovered Coke and Pepsi were selling soft drinks laced with pesticide. How bad? Some 30 to 40 times the permissible EU guidelines. The story is here. Maybe it's a serendipitous way for the bugs to get back at us.

I'll be sticking to water, milk, and juice, thank you; though not at the same time. What are you drinking now? And why are you drinking that particular drink instead of somethiing else. I'd like to say enquiring minds want to know, but that catch phrase has apparently already been usurped by a publisher whose name I can't quite recall.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Raiding the Archives 10 - Remembering

The irony of freedom is never more starkly illustrated than on those days set aside to remember how fragile said freedoms can be.

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada, a day to remember the sacrifices made by our armed forces in the name of freedom. The cenotaph in London's downtown Victoria Park once again echoed with the footsteps of a generation that gave it all up so we could live our lives free of anarchy. Those footsteps grow more faint with each passing year as more of these heroes pass away, and those who remain find it increasingly difficult to make the journey.

I came along long after the war ended, so I always tend to feel incredibly inadequate when I'm amongst this group of people. My life, in comparison, seems trivial. After all, the worries of maintaining a career, a household, and a family seem fairly mudane when you consider a soldier's likelihood of never coming home, or coming home a shell of his/her former self.

I always wished that I could do something to show them how much we valued what they had done. Thankfully, my writing once again came to the rescue. They may be mere words, but if they bring comfort to one person who bore witness to war, they will have accomplished their goal.

The fact that I have the freedom to write whatever I wish because of their efforts is not lost on me. The fact that these witnesses to and participants in history are now passing away makes it even more important for those who follow - us - to pick up the mantle of remembrance and remind current and future generations why the passage of time should never erode the importance of the message.

---
Originally published Wednesday, May 5 in the London Free Press.

Battle of Atlantic never forgotten

History can sometimes be tough to fully appreciate when you weren't around to witness it.

But watching naval veterans commemorate their involvement in a pivotal battle of the Second World War, it was easy to understand how their actions very likely saved the freedoms we take for granted today.

They gathered at HMCS Prevost last Sunday to remember the 59th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Atlantic. It lasted from 1939 until hostilities in Europe ceased in May 1945, making it the longest battle of the war.

When fighting first broke out, German U-boats prowled the North Atlantic Ocean with near-impunity, picking off Allied ships with frightening efficiency. Had they succeeded in shutting down the sea lanes, Britain would have been choked off. And things might have ended up differently for the Allies in Europe -- and for us.

"We did it for freedom," said Walter Weston, who served aboard numerous ships during that time and never forgot why this mission was so important. "Britain would have failed if we hadn't gotten the supplies across. They probably would have lost the war.

"We had to get the food, oil, gas, tanks, ammunition and people over there."

To maintain the vital lifeline, Royal Canadian Navy ships began escorting the convoys across. By 1944, RCN vessels were the only units running the North Atlantic convoys. The supply lines for the Allied victory lay securely in Canadian hands.

But those hands suffered dearly. The Germans sent 24 Canadian naval ships and 70 merchant vessels to the bottom. More than 3,000 Canadian sailors and another 900 airmen died in the waters of the North Atlantic; a huge sacrifice for a country the size of Canada.

Despite the historic rationale for Canada's involvement, Weston remains humble.

"I'm a Canadian and I'm proud of our country," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "We did our share, and we did our duty."

Weston, a London native who retired from the reserves in 1961 and worked in the mechanical trades afterward, said despite enduring the hardships of shipboard life, he ended up with a lifelong extended naval family.

To many, the battle represented Canada's military coming of age. When Canada first declared war on Germany in September 1939, its tiny navy numbered less than a dozen fighting ships. As the war progressed, the RCN expanded by a factor of 40, and by 1945 was the world's third-largest naval force.

At 83, Weston remains actively involved in speaking to younger generations, whose only exposure to war has been via television and the Internet. He works with the Dominion Institute's Memory Project. The Toronto-based organization's mission is to improve Canadians' ability to remember and appreciate our common history. He regularly talks to students, sharing his wartime experiences and the lessons that remain applicable today.

"They don't teach nearly enough history in schools," he said. "We need to share what we know."

The ceremony, organized by the London branch of the Royal Canadian Naval Association, poignantly exhibited that sense of history and sacrifice. The bell tolled once for each of the 24

Canadian warships lost during the campaign. The echo of each barely had time to reverberate off the industrial green concrete walls of the gymnasium before the next ship's name was read.

The veterans in the colour party stood ramrod straight, flags high, throughout the ceremony. Their faces showed no emotion, but it was clear to anyone watching them where their thoughts were.

Afterward, they gathered in the officers' mess to quietly reflect and catch up with old friends.

I wasn't there in 1945, but for a couple of hours on a rainy Sunday morning, I was privileged to look through a window of history to better understand why it matters as much today as it always has.

------------
Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer. He may be e-mailed at
carmilevy@msn.com.

-30-


Carmi here: As I rode my bike to the office earlier today, I saw a number of vehicles with Navy or Army bumper stickers on them that were clearly on their way downtown for the ceremonies. I couldn't help but feel like I needed to do something to acknowledge them as they passed me. So as I pulled up next to one uniformed gentleman at a red light, I simply nodded my head - the standard cyclist's salute of respect - and said thank you. He smiled back, and made my day.

Everyone Generalizes

Discuss...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Winter's first

We had our first significant snow of the season yesterday. We went to sleep with big, fat flakes dancing in the dark skies, and woke up to impossibly soft fluffs of white perched on top of every vertical and near-vertical surface imaginable.

So I did what any OCD-suffering writer does: I dropped the digicam into my knapsack and headed off to the office. Along the way, I captured whatever caught my eye. Interrestingly, this picture is the least "snowy" of the few dozen that I took. But there's something about the s-curve of the bike path that makes this one burn in my brain.

It's a lovely summer-meets-winter message, and as I stood there drinking in the snow-induced silence of the scene, I half-expected someone on a bike to emerge from the top of the frame and ask me if I wanted my own picture taken. It didn't happen, and likely won't until spring. But it reinforces the notion that you never know who or what you'll encounter on these adventurous paths. And a new discovery often lies just around the furthest bend.

Incidentally, all the snow had melted by evening, and the scenes of that wintry, white-painted morning faded back into our collective memory.

Why Wired's worthwhile

I've never tried to hide my absolute adoration for Wired Magazine. The best way I can describe it is that it represents the ultimate meeting point of technology and culture. It goes well beyond the typically product/service-focused rag to examine the underlying societal issues which drive adoption of said technology in the first place.

As such, it was the first publication that first challenged us to ask why we use a given technology. Up until it burst on the scene, the assumption was that all technology was, by definition, good. And as a result, we should simply focus on the features and performance, and forget about the implications of said features and performance.

(Sorry, it's early in the a.m. I'm not feeling all that great, and I'm exhausted. So I'm rambling. Thanks for bearing with me.)

Incidentally, the Web site counterpart to the magazine is, surprisingly, called Wired.com. It's one of my must-reads every day, and has given me more ideas for technology and regular non-tech articles than virtually any other single site. If you want to think, and think hard, you can't afford to not add this site to your daily must-read.

Anyway, I've used up enough storage space on Blogger's computers for one night, so I'll get to the point: Wired Mag's article, The Decline of Brands, is a fascinating cultural commentary that is typically thorough in its intent and execution. It's feature writing the way I learned it all those moons ago. It's why I'll continue to log in, and why I'll continue to be impressed every time I do so.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Hyde Park at Sunset

I took this picture a few weeks back on another one of my impromptu bike tours of the nearby countryside. There's something about a rolling field lit deep golden-red at sunset that makes me so want to live right there.

Monday, November 08, 2004

When worlds collide

As you may have been able to determine from my messages thus far, I’ve got significant issues with large-scale commercialism wiping out the unique character of small town America (and Canada…the issue is universal, after all.)

I’m not opposed to the good things that corporately-controlled chains bring to the landscape. When you’re far from home, or it’s late at night – or both – and you absolutely need a certain something to keep your little one from spiking a fever faster than an ascending space shuttle, you appreciate the fact that big box stores can often afford to keep themselves open 24 hours.

The big places are also quite adept at keeping a hold on prices. And I have no interest in paying any more for the stuff I need to keep my family’s existence on an even keel.

Yet the loss to society is clear. The days of the mom and pop shop are rapidly drawing to a close. The loss extends far beyond the wholesale replacement of personalized service from someone you’d have over for dinner with corporate-sanctioned training of “personalized” service for minimum-wage-earners who likely won’t even be working there next week.

Perversely, this commoditization of all things local and unique generates some rich opportunities for writing.

For example, Rebecca Skloot wrote a powerful piece on this very issue in the October 17th edition of the New York Times Magazine. Entitled Two Americas, Two Restaurants, One Town, it profiled two restaurants in the town of New Martinsville, West Virginia. Baristas represented the homegrown, personally-owned-and-operated business that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Bob Evans, on the other hand, represented the ultimate expression of a chain restaurant whose mantra is to create exactly the same experience no matter where you are.

The story used the then-approaching election to highlight the differences in people – those who want predictability vs. those who are willing to take a chance on some local spice – but the message is just as powerful any time, and far transcends mere election-time reportage.

Interestingly, a quick look at their respective web sites might tell a rather revealing tale. Baristas is about as sophisticated as circa 1997 HTML-coding tools allowed. It’s a riot of color, fonts and fuzzy photos. Sort of like the chaos of home, and it makes me want to jump in the car now and head on down to experience it for myself. Bob Evans, on the other hand, is as slick as the latest development tools and servers allow. The sidebar on the left-hand side of the page lists “Our Company” and “Investors” first. Only then do they tell you about their recipes. I guess we know where their priorities lie.

I can get the same thing at any number of places nearby. And I'm sure it won't be long before they target my own neighborhood. Oooh, lucky me.

I fear the milquetoast brigade is winning. The Bob Evanses of the world are slowly creeping across the land while the Baristas slowly close up shop as their owners near retirement and tire of fighting the overwhelming pressure of a conglomerate.

It saddens me to see such heritage slowly heading into oblivion. When we talk about abstract terms like globalization of markets and commoditization of goods and services, the on-the-ground impact is felt here. This is where we pay for our efficiencies, and I’m far from convinced that we’re better off as a result.

Consequently, I’ll get off the Interstate and head for the side road if it means my experience can be more meaningful than the same homogenized garbage I can get at thousands of other identical outlets serving the same homogenized garbage. Life is too short for me to waste on milquetoast. I hope you, too, are willing to take a chance on finding that special experience no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

Note: The story originally appeared on the New York Times Magazine’s site. Because they retain free copy for only a couple of weeks post-publication, I have included a link to a mirror site at Bob Coffield’s Care Law Blog.

A couple of other related blog comments can be found here:

My final question, then: does this issue move you as much as it moved me? If so, why? If not, why not?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

A lost mentor

Anyone who writes – for pleasure, for a living, or anywhere in between – understands the role mentors play in the evolution of a writer. It's not something that is easily explained, for every mentor-protégé relationship is made up of unique personality-based intricacies that are often difficult to quantify.

It's like trying to explain a parent-child relationship: you can paint somewhat representative pictures of small slices of it, but you'll never be able to fully describe the complete entity.

Even though it's the kind of thing that I can't quite capture in words, I can safely say I've been lucky enough to have been mentored by some absolutely gifted writers. Whether they were professors in school, editors at newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, or just journalistic-types I happened to meet along the way, they all shared a number of gifts. The obvious one – the ability to write – was a virtual given. More rare was the ability – and the willingness, of course – to ably share that knowledge with a wet-behind-the-ears journalist.

Luckily, I always managed to end up in the orbit of someone who was both a great writer and a great educator. In other words, a perfect mentor. Each one has helped me take this crazy gift I was born with and shape it into something that would add something to the lives of people around me. They forced me to identify weaknesses and drill them out of my head. They challenged me to take on and master new forms of writing. They did so even when I didn't recognize my potential to succeed in these uncharted regions. They saw it, and they pushed me.

One such professor was James Stewart. He taught opinion writing at my j-school. I remember not looking forward to the course when I first registered for it. I didn't think it was hard-news enough. I resented having to lob softball opinions over the plate when I could instead be out there covering a right-now news story.

He changed my thinking not by drilling my head with the Gospel of the Editorial. He quietly showed me how to use my own emotions to elicit a similarly emotional response in the mind of my reader. He taught me that the editorial page was the heart of the newspaper, the spiritual center from which all reporters would reference their calling. When I exhibited an early aptitude for the genre, he spent whatever time I needed – in class, in his office, or wherever I happened to catch him in the halls of the j-school's building – to help me build my confidence and skills. Unlike most news reporting, opinion writing can be a soul-baring experience. He helped me get comfortable in my new skin.

I remember the in-class exercises best, where we would shape and refine raw thoughts until they resonated with our readers – actually, our fellow students – and stuck in their minds far longer than whatever news made it to the front page.

I learned lessons that semester that slept quietly in the back of my head for years before, one morning a couple of years back, I began writing a descriptive piece while sitting in the waiting area at the airport. I started doodling on my laptop about the scene outside the window: a rising sun, some condensation on the tarmac, planes backlit by the increasingly brilliant light. The lessons flooded back into my head as I turned it into a very personal, very powerful opinion piece on what really matters in life.

When I gave it to people to read, they cried. I knew there was something to this opinion writing thing. My life as a columnist started right there. And it's been an amazing ride since, one I hope goes on for a very long time. In truth, no form of writing fulfills me more than the opinion column. Using a limited space, you must tell a story and make your reader think – and think hard – about your perspective. It may start with facts, but you've got to build well beyond that. It's art, plain and simple. And I'll never stop learning how to push it just a little bit more every time I start with a blank page.

I found out earlier today that the man responsible for my developing such a passion for opinion writing, the aforementioned Mr. Stewart, passed away this past April at the age of 75. In an age when the Internet means instant knowledge of events that happen across the globe, the six-month gap from his passing to my finding out about it seems somewhat out-of-place. But with my university's insistence on sending my correspondence to my parents' house, and my parents', um, not-quite-real-time delivery methods, I just got the envelope this weekend.

In a way, the delay speaks volumes about who Mr. Stewart was. He quietly went about his business of teaching, writing, and sharing his gift with others. He was methodical in how he built a piece. His understanding of the editorial process was profound, and his ability to turn it into a compelling read was universally understood and respected. You didn't rush greatness. You just went out and got the job done in an unobtrusive manner. The results always spoke for themselves.

I write what I write today largely because of the influence of greats like him. I'd like to think that every word I publish has a piece of him and every other mentor in my life embedded within it. I'd be violating their collective memory if I didn't write about how much I owe them for all they've given me.

I know I'm not alone in this regard. We all have mentors who first helped us see beyond what we originally envisioned for ourselves, then showed us how to actually move into that new territory. My biggest regret is my consistent inability to let them know just how deeply they impacted my life and my career. I always seem to reflect in this manner only after one has passed away. I wish I knew a way to let more of my mentors know how deeply influential they have been, and how strongly I carry their gift each and every day.

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James Stewart - Veteran Montreal Gazette columnist

By The Canadian Press MONTREAL - James Stewart, a veteran journalist and Montreal Gazette seniors columnist, died of cancer Monday at age 75.

Stewart wrote about politics and public affairs for nearly half a century for newspapers in Montreal and elsewhere. He also taught editorial and opinion writing at Concordia University.

Source: Canadian Press, via Canoe.ca, May 2, 2004.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Need your help - addressing nastiness

OK folks, here's a not-so-hypothetical situation for which I'm hoping you can provide some guidance:

Many of you have heard about the rather strongly-worded and personal column I published in the paper last week. If you haven't, click here for the actual column, and here for my initial blog post on it (as well as your reactions).

As a response, I received my first piece of hate mail. My comments (and yours) on it are here. The person who wrote this message - I hesitate to call him a reader, since he clearly didn't read my column so much as skim it before lashing out in a fit of subintelligent, disconnected rage - has since e-mailed me a number of times with inflammatory text culled from the web, purportedly to support his point-of-view.

Normally, I would simply ignore it. The content of these messages automatically qualifies them for instant transfer to my webmail account's Junk Mail folder, so it's not like it's interfering with my workflow or anything.

The problem lies in the fact that he CCs a huge list of editors at my paper and other related media executives. (He also misspells my name, but that's another story.) I'm sure this must be annoying as heck for them, and I hardly think this reflects well on me because of it.

So, I have a number of choices here, and I'm not sure which one is optimal. They are:

1 - Continue to ignore him and say nothing to anyone.
2 - Continue to ignore him, but call/e-mail my editor to let him know how badly I feel.
3 - Contact him via e-mail, ask him for his phone number so I can speak with him.
4 - Contact him via e-mail and tell him to cease and desist.
5 - Contact him via e-mail and tell him his efforts would be better spent on letters to the editor.
6 - Contact his service provider, launch a subscriber/abuse complaint.
7 - [Please suggest anything else here]

It's a typical Hobson's Choice scenario, complicated by the fact that, as a publicly-identifiable journalist, I have ethical behaviors to uphold and an image to maintain with both readership and the media organization that engages me.

In many ways, this response totally justifies my fear in the first place. This is what we deal with on an everyday basis, and each possible reaction is fraught with peril and risk. Thus far, you have all been incredibly supportive in your thoughts and comments. I'm hoping you can share your thoughts - whatever they may be, I'm all ears! - to help me navigate my next steps in a way that will minimize risk to my journalistic career and, more importantly, to my personal safety.

It's times like this that I wish we were all back in Kindergarten, where a quick trip to the teacher would take care of the abusive bully once and for all. If only.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Surrounded by fear

I reached another milestone in my life as a journalist today: I received the first piece of e-mail from a reader that I could honestly describe as hate-mail.

I'll spare you all the gory details. But suffice to say that this individual wasted a lot of poor electrons, drive space and bandwidth explaining the Jewish conspiracy that lurks behind the entire media-entertainment complex. If you didn't already know, we're totally bent on world domination. And we'll start with the media and work our way out from there. (This is where all of you start laughing because you realize I'm being completely sarcastic. My correspondent, on the other hand, would probably stare blankly at his black-and-white screen and nod his head, mouth hanging half-open, in agreement.)

Sorry, I'm ticked. I have no patience for intolerance. And when someone whose cousins have promised to shove me and every last person like me into the sea so thoroughly misses the intent of my column because he can't see through the haze of hatred that envelopes his very soul, I feel the need to vent.

I see no reason to repeat his bile-soaked words. But this passage pretty much sums up much of the racist diatribe that drove me to write the column in the first place:
"I would bet that you were appointed to your position as a weekly columnist because of who you are (An Extremist Jewish writer who supports Israeli crimes)"
If anything, this individual merely served to validate why my column needed to be written. And to clarify his assessment of my journalistic employment, I was hired because I can write.

After misspelling my name and the names of a whole bunch of other famous people who he vilifies because of their religion (why am I not surprised by this?) he ended his rant by inviting me to tea so we can "unite to advance peace and justice and harmony in our community."

Um, not quite. I would instead suggest that he try to express his right to free speech in his ancestral homeland - a place that not only lacks this freedom, but lacks a basic understanding of what the concept means.

And, no, I have no intention of putting my pen down. How could I when there's obviously so much opportunity to educate the unenlightened among us?

The growth of a genre

Not a day goes by that I don't read something about how technology is changing the media we use to communicate. This constant state of flux is, in my admittedly biased view, what makes the whole world of messaging such an exciting one.

BusinessWeek is running this article, Too Much Buzz on Blogs, as a somewhat wide-ranging assessment of the blog's place in the wider world of media in the wake of the just-completed U.S. election. It's an interesting read that fits this mindset quite nicely.

How do I perceive this medium now that all the politicos are heading home to start planning for the next campaign? Simple: Time passes. Blogs evolve. Society changes. We all sit around the glowing computer monitor trying to figure it out.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Why we do what we do...

Our seven-year-old daughter helped put a whole lot of things in perspective for us earlier this week. Little people can sure be wise.

Limb temporarily unavailable

Like many Google Mail addicts, I've been receiving the following error message for the past couple of hours:
Server Error
Gmail is temporarily unavailable. Cross your fingers and try again in a few minutes. We're sorry for the inconvenience.
In typical Carmi fashion, it got me thinking about life and stuff. Thanks in advance for your patience. Let's roll...

Technology is interesting not because it is technology, but because it interacts with our plain old lives in so many fascinating ways. Gmail is one of those "fun" technologies because it puts a bit of a new spin on an old favorite. People with Gmail addresses actually like 'em, while the denizens of Hotmail do nothing but curse when discussing their web-based service of (non)choice. Message to - and lesson for - Microsoft: inject a little bit of funny into the way you conduct yourself as as organization. A little will go a long way.

But enough philosophizing. Back in the real world, I still don't have access to my Google Mail account. I don't know how it's doing. I don't know how all those cool words that I've sent and received over the past few months are doing. I hope they're safe and secure on their journey through the unknowns of the Internet.

How long Gmail will be out is anybody's guess. Well, anybody aside from the guru who's likely sweating the outage out in Google's offices. I wish him/her/them well as he/she/they sweat(s) this one through to completion. I'd hate to think that my actions would have such an immediate impact on so many people. Then again...

The pathetic thing is, I miss it. I miss the things that people might be saying to me. I miss the ability to log in from the library, if I so choose. I miss the still-sort-of-there cachet that one gets from a gmail.com domain. (I know it's waning rapidly, but humor me, OK?)

So I sit here at my desk, working away on real writing assignments to pass the time. When I pause to reload my brain (it's got a really small amount of RAM, after all, so your patience really comes in handy), I tap my fingers on the desk as I wait in vain for the service to come back.

It hasn't yet. Maybe it's time for me to put the technology aside and just leave it be for a while. Maybe this is technology's way of telling us we need to balance our lives a little better.

Television trumps education

I'm glad to see the focus of everyday life for most of us beginning to shift away from consuming mass quantities of U.S. election coverage. Now that we're no longer occupied by Bush vs. Kerry comparos, we're free to return to our usual, mundane, day-to-day lives.

For most of us, this means shifting our mass consumption engines from politics to entertainment. You Entertainment Tonight, E! and Access Holloywood junkies know who you are. As much as I despise the fawning emptiness of all of them, I'll admit their production values are so sophisticated that my senses are always piqued if I flip past them late at night while in search of more enlightening fare like, say, Seinfeld reruns and Discovery Channel's How It Is Made.

As my mind contemplated the meaninglessness of the entire entertainment-as-journalism masquerade ball, and the erosion of media - notably television - that we've witnessed in its wake, I happened across a frightening example of this trend. It represents yet another pathetic example of how the formerly lofty world of academia is being eroded at its very roots by the insidious influence of television. The Associated Press story, University to offer 'American Idol' course, is all you need to be convinced that television is truly the dark satan of our time.

By definition, then, Mary Hart would qualify as the horn-headed being on your left shoulder.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Publish Day - enough hatred, already

My column in today's London Free Press, For a Jewish journalist, hate talk is getting personal, marks another milestone in my evolution as a writer – or my descent into self-absorbed verbiage, depending on your perspective (that was really supposed to be funny, but it's early yet.) Long story short, I'm becoming less and less afraid to pull my background as a Jew into my so-called mainstream writing efforts.

In the past, I hesitated to identify myself by ethnicity or religion because I feared I would be stigmatized before having a chance to establish a broader reputation. That started to change earlier this year as the supposedly tolerant nation of Canada began to witness a major upswing in the frequency and ferocity of anti-Semitic activity. I felt like a coward for sitting on the sidelines while others stuck their necks out and wrote powerful pieces condemning this trend.

There's a lot of hatred out there that's being directed at pretty much any group you can imagine. There's no excuse for any of it. And when you mix my bottomless sense of righteous indignation, my perpetual support for the underdog, and my freakish ability to rant until well past sunset, you end up with articles that look much like this morning's column. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Found the cows

As a followup to my earlier description of my cow fixation, I have managed to find the picture (the picture, that is) that I took of the cows near my home. Like the leaf photo I posted earlier this week, I snapped this scene during one of my bike-photo rides. I figure these lovely animals were wondering why the heck a guy on a pink bike was parking along their fence and sticking his lens in their face. They just started at me as I snapped away. They were so cute!

Ironically, it was in the same general area as the leaf picture. These cows, like so many of my subjects, have a story.

They live on a farm that used to be on a sleepy regional highway just northwest of town. Then one day, some construction workers rolled into town and turned the fields across the street into a Wal-Mart. Before long, a bunch of other big box stores popped up in front of the Wal-Mart, and the neighbourhood was sleepy no more.

Our bovine friends watched as the road was expanded and traffic levels increased to urban levels. A year later, the construction crews returned - this time to the cows' side of the street, basically to the left of this photo - and put up a Sam's Club (yup, Wal-Mart wants BOTH sides of the street, it would seem). Traffic increased yet again as the area continued to be paved over - or is that under?

Fast-forward to today and little has changed. The cows are still there, living as they do mere metres away from zooming traffic. But the ominous zoning change sign has gone up in front of the farm.

The last time we were in the area, our kids waved excitedly at the cows, enthralled that they could experience a real farm so close to home. I paused and tried to record their reactions in the deepest recesses of my mind, for I feared moments like this would soon vanish from my family's reality. It is almost a foregone conclusion that pretty soon the farm will exist only in our dimming memories. This, apparently, is called progress.

Slowing the speed of life

Quick preface: I'm overwhelmed by election coverage on this fine evening. As fascinating and important as this process is, the months of wall-to-wall coverage punctuated by the inevitable acceleration in coverage leading up to tonight have combined to take the joy out of what should otherwise be a quiet evening at home with my wife. Besides, I'm Canadian. So I'm declaring a moratorium on watching U.S. news on the telly - at least until the ultimate non-journalist superstar, Jon Stewart, comes on at 10 - and wish to instead share this somewhat more serene post with you. Enjoy.

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I've always felt that life moves too quickly, and that we’d manage to squeeze more out of our time on this planet if we learned to slow down and enjoy the view.

As a child, I remember watching a television commercial about a headache pain reliever. It showed a stressed-out woman chasing a bus, then grabbing her head in pain after she missed it. Ominous music played in the background, and my first real impression of a hectic, adult world was formed.

I remember asking my Mom if the real world was like that. I think I was four or five years-old, and I thought life was as relaxing as my Lego-filled world. Typical for a child, I had no idea how fast people need to run just to stay in the same place once they hit adulthood.

My mother spoke soothingly about how it was just a commercial, and how advertisers always exaggerated to prove their point. She confirmed that, yes, the typical day for the typical person wasn’t composed of end-to-end bus chases and escalator leaps. That there was still plenty of opportunity for regular folks to chill out and, like me, play with Legos if they so wished.

Satisfied with her answer, I returned to playing on a floor strewn with toys, still mostly oblivious to the realities of the broader world around me.

Regardless, the image from that television commercial stayed in my head. As I grew older, I sensed things speeding up on me, and I felt I needed to run faster just to keep pace. From taking a bus cross-town to get to class on time to dragging mountains of books from one class to another and juggling school, work, and writing assignments, my life started looking more and more like that still-remembered commercial from my childhood.

Not that I’m a lazy person – quite the opposite, I never seem to know when to turn the darn machine in my head off – but I’ve always lamented the fact that I never seem to have enough time to just sit and think. Or, even better, to sit and do absolutely nothing. Vacations are a perfect example: I like to sit in a comfy chair on a beach or under a tree and do nothing more challenging than read a book or stare at the waves while my brain cooks up funny story ideas. And the idea-generation part is optional: usually while sitting in a vegetative state in a relaxing place on the planet, the old noggin will simply decide what I want to eat during my next meal. Not exactly a processor-intensive activity.

When I watch those cruise commercials where everyone’s busy running from rock climbing to sailboarding to jet skiing before returning to the ship for another night of overeating, I’ve got to conclude that they will all need vacations from their vacations after they get back home. Anything requiring a calendar, datebook, watch or any sort of time/date-based registration is emphatically not a vacation. Simply watching those spots on TV only convinces me still further that people don’t get it, and need to learn how to ease back and actually live.

ABC News is running a fascinating piece entitled Slow Down! You Move Too Fast. It discusses a number of perspectives related to this issue, notably how one can actually accomplish a slower, more meaningful lifestyle while still achieving the things that we rush so aggressively to acquire and keep.

I'm still exceeding the speed limit in the passing lane and lamenting the fact that I haven't taken the time to enjoy the two-lane roads that wind by the rolling farmland that dominates the countryside in our part of the world. But I'll do whatever it takes to get there. Maybe reading this article will help me get my start.