Sunday, October 31, 2004


I am, apparently, still brewing some sharp words through my poor, poor keyboard. My run-in with swastika-boy last week seemed to throw my writer's sense of balance in a very defiant direction. Almost from the moment I saw the offensive symbol, my brain went into underdog mode and started shaping some very hard-edged thoughts on how the intolerance of this world has impacted my thinking as a journalist who happens to be Jewish, and who happens to write within a broadly non-Jewish world.

As my head tumbles through this process, I find myself crafting this week's column - for Wednesday publication - using a very powerful and personal voice. Anyone who reads this piece will know, point blank, who I am, why I do what I do, and why my thoughts on hatred and intolerance really do matter. I just have to stay out of too-hot-for-the-breakfast-table territory, so it may need a bit of a sleep-on-it approach before I do my final edits before submission tomorrow.

Incidentally, the title of this message refers to the process by which I initiate ideas and gradually evolve them through the various stages of creation, writing, and polishing before I have a final, submission-ready opinion piece. This process often takes months while I toss various treatments and focii around my head. Interestingly, it almost never gets written down. While the idea itself may exist on a storyboard list that I maintain on my PalmPilot, the actual evolution of the idea is not documented. It simply grows in my head until one day I wake up and feel that it's time to turn it into a concrete piece of writing.

In many respects, I don't control it. Rather, it tends to control me. If I try to force an idea before my head has had a chance to thoroughly churn it into something worthwhile, it almost inevitably comes out substandard. I cringe when I read some of my improperly-churned work, as it jumps out at me like a taunting child in an elementary school playground.

Please note that this process applies only to opinion pieces and other more personal forms of writing. The usual newsy or tech stuff doesn't tend to come from the same place. It's much more factual, direct, and impersonal. I don't feel like I give birth to those as I do my opinion pieces. I don't leave traces of myself embedded in those phrases and paragraphs. As a result, blasting out reams of copy is fairly straightforward once I've got a good handle on the voice of the publication in question.

But something changes when I use my opinions as the basis for my writing. Things slow down and each word becomes immensely more powerful. People are moved. Hopefully, to do good.

Tonight, the anger and fear of being a member of a minority group that is being repeatedly singled out by hate-mongers on a national scale is weighing heavily on my writer's voice. I feel accountable to deliver a message from deep inside that reflects that fear, and uses it as a catalyst to move us all beyond the here and now and into a somewhat more enlightened future. Who knows, maybe the power of the pen will prevail after all.

I'll head back to the process now, but not before I thank everyone who took the time to comment on my swastika post. I wish I could articulate how your words have helped me shape my thoughts and my writer's response in the days since this first occurred. You have once again reinforced and validated the wickedly subversive power of this rapidly-evolving medium of ours. I can't wait to see what happens as this audience of greats continues to expand.

Onward, with my thanks...

Colors from a lunchtime stroll...

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Sad news from the beach

Dear readers: It seems I've been dwelling in the land of mirth for the past few days. I don't quite think there's one all-encompassing reason for this. I think the world's been piling lots of things up at the front door, and I've just got to work through it before the sine wave swings back to its more familiar perch at the top of the chart.

To help matters, I thought I'd jazz things up with a lighter-toned observation from the world of entertainment. This should keep things in balance - at least until I dig into writing my next column. On that front, I feel some nastiness brewing yet again. Away we go...

It seems that David Hasselhoff, who this week pleaded no contest to a charge of drunk driving, will be spending the next six months in an alcohol treatment program. Reuters is running this piece announcing the sentence.

Like Patrick Swayze before him, Mr. Hasselhoff, who is apparently very popular in Germany, becomes only the latest celebrity to go down the road we should never travel.

What I fail to understand is why he simply didn't let the freako talking car do the driving for him. Similarly, I wonder if this will affect his eligibility to protect the swimmers at California's beaches next summer. I don't think Pamela Anderson can handle the rolling surf on her own.

Oops, looks like reality is colliding with the world of entertainment again. What can I say except they've both always been such convincing actors.

Like William Katt!

And Connie Sellecca!

BTW, for those of you who may have missed my earlier missive - Some thoughts on links - about the links within my messages, this simple rule continues to apply: you never know what weird and wonderful place I will send you with a simple hyperlink. Happy mouse-travels.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Stupidity personified. Again.

I'll warn y'all now before I get into this message: I am going to rant.

There, now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's proceed:

Without identifying the guilty party or where this actually happened, suffice to say I encountered someone today whose Halloween costume incorporated a swastika. He was dressed as a German Shepherd (an actual shepherd, not the dog.) As if to underscore that fact, he had draped a large sign saying - you guessed it - "German Shepherd" around his neck. Gee, I'm sure he was mighty proud of his questionably creative contribution to a ridiculously mindless holiday.

Um, how to put this delicately: there's nothing funny about a symbol that stood for what is certainly the most monstrous crime in the history of humankind. The passage of a couple of generations does nothing to dampen the visceral, nausea-inducing impact it has on me every time I see it. That someone felt it was a comical addition to a costume does nothing to mitigate how wrong the decision turned out to be.

Pacifist that I am, I said nothing. It's not as if I'm surrounded by legions of skullcap-wearing Jews whose presence would make me feel any more comfortable in opening up my mouth. Growing up in Canada, I long ago got used to being the token Jew in whatever group I happened to be in, and I learned to hold my tongue lest I become identified as - you guessed it again - "That Token Jew Who Always Whines."

Since moving to London, beautiful whitebread-where-visible-minorities-really-stand-out London, that feeling has only become more pronounced.

So instead of saying anything, I quietly observed the rest of the crowd casually ignoring the burning symbol on this guy's hat. As I did so, my vision turned red with anger. Still, I bit my tongue, because I knew I'd toss the dictionary at the guy if I started with even one word. Am I ashamed that I didn't confront him? You betcha. I owe my family, my community, and our history a little more than mere silence.

When I next saw our protagonist, the hat was gone. Maybe he picked up on the look of consternation on my face. Maybe he simply got warm and decided to doff his headgear. Either way, the fact that it was no longer visible did little to drop my blood pressure.

In this day and age, you simply never know what someone out in the real world will do when you open up and argue a point that is so obviously emotional - to you, anyway. There's little opportunity to educate morons who don't think before they act, and you run the very real risk of making yourself look worse in the eyes of everyone else because, frankly, they simply don't care.

So I sat back, seethed through the day, and decided to write about it here. I'm left with the gnawing feeling that perhaps a more direct confrontation might have reinforced my message more effectively.

Sometimes, being on the outside of a secular society can be more challenging than we'd like. Regardless, I'd rather be in my shoes working through the receiving end of issues like this than in a glorified bedsheet without a clue about why this stuff matters as much as it does.

Fun with the electoral process

In the runup to the U.S. presidential election (you are going to vote, right?) our collective inboxes are overflowing with various multimedia bits designed to toss a few laughs into the deadly-serious electoral proceedings.

The beauty of this is that we are, in the first place, allowed to poke fun at the process and the people who make it happen. If you want to slap a candidate’s face, you can. If you’d rather watch the 10 funniest campaign ads, click here and have a good time. This is precisely the kind of behavior that in some parts of the world would still get you shot. Yet here, it’s all considered part of the socio-political landscape.

With that in mind, an outfit called Boom Chicago has produced this really funny video about electronic voting machines in Florida. Its amusement is, in large part, derived from the fact that a part of your head believes, however remotely, that it could actually happen.

Laughs aside, if you are eligible to vote, I hope you’ll actually do so. No, it may not always be convenient. You may have better things to do on a Tuesday night, and you certainly don’t do it for money. But having a say in how you are governed is one of those intangible, priceless rights. It is not a given, however, for there are some – too many – people on the planet who would dearly love to take that right away from us. Over the generations, too many people have died to ensure that right stays precisely where it is: in our hands. For anyone to casually dismiss his/her participation in the process is, to me, thoroughly impossible to understand and, frankly, inexcusable.

Will I be voting on Tuesday? No.

Unless I am magically granted U.S. citizenship over the weekend, I’ll continue to watch this fascinating story from the sidelines, north of the border. Still, when it comes time for me to vote in my staid and stodgy country of Canada, rest assured you’d have to fight me off with a pool noodle to keep me from my appointment at the ballot box.

Whatever happens on Tuesday night, I hope all players on all sides of the political spectrum realize they are both individually and collectively part of this gloriously flawed process. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a ride, isn’t it?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

If you're reading this, Mom... may resume reading my blog. I'm finished discussing the peculiarities of fetishist corporate leaders.

For now.

Sox win!

It was a touching moment in history last night as the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series championship since 1918. In doing so, they lifted the mythical Curse of the Bambino and gave Boston sports fans something to cheer about after generations of endless disappointment.

Three links from the horse’s mouth, the Boston Globe, summarize the ecstatic tone of the hometown coverage:

YES!!! Red Sox complete sweep, win first Series since 1918

For multitudes, years of torment end in bliss

Victory transforms a region’s identity

How the Sox won was representative of a storybook in itself. Coming from three games down to take the American League Championship Series from the New York Yankees was about as classic as America’s game can ever be.

Which explains why, after the decisive four-game sweep of the Cards, I feel a tinge of sadness that it ended the way it did.

First, a bit of context: I’ve always been a major fan of the underdog. If someone is different, disadvantaged, or discriminated against, I’ll be right there in the corner, rooting for said person to prevail. There’s always been something immensely satisfying about overcoming an obstacle to win. The overwhelming favorites in anything just don’t do it for my psyche. When you’re already sitting on top of the mountain, you simply don’t deserve it as much as someone who has to claw up the slopes and knock you off.

One of my favorite cartoons when I was a child was the 1964-66 cartoon series Underdog (surprised ya, didn’t I?) Poor old Underdog could never get it together. Saving the world was never a linear process for him. Something always happened to him that kept him from using his superpowers to beat the nefarious dudes who were threatening to do irreparable harm to his city, to him, or to his girlfriend.

Despite the never-ending challenges and cliffhangers that defined his life, he always scratched out a solution. By the end of each episode, the good guy won. The conceptual hares who thought they would easily scamper over the conceptual tortoises to reach the finish line first were, ultimately, sadly mistaken in their smug assumptions.

The now-forgotten live-action series, The Greatest American Hero, starring the also-forgotten William Katt, followed a similar arc. But hobbled by a completely lame theme song and writing that made Falcon Crest look worthy of a Pulitzer, it sank fairly quickly. At least it starred Connie Sellecca in her pre-John Tesh days.

Enough cartoons, though. What does it have to do with baseball? Apparently, much. While the ALCS series represented the ultimate Boston gumption in my mind, the World Series was as outright rout. At no point in the series did the Sox ever trail the Cards. It seemed somewhat out of character for the perennial underdog team, and didn’t fit the storybook storyline that the team began crafting earlier this season, and whose climax seemed to have been reached during the series with the Yankees.

After the ALCS victory, the underdogs were nowhere to be seen. It was much harder to root for an all-powerful entity. No one ever cheers the Borg as they assimilate yet another species into their collective. Not that Boston has become a monolithic, robotic race that cruises interstellar space in huge cubic ships in search of more planets to munch, but they did become slightly less lovable when they were crushing the dickens out of the birdie-team.

In a similar vein, now that the Curse of the Bambino – so-named because while the team failed to win a series after trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the aforementioned New York team went on to dominate professional sport for generations – has been broken, what lore will Boston fans cling to? What do you do once the eternal fog lifts and you’re forced to live your life in somewhat more regular sunshine?

I’m not sure there’s a pat answer to this somewhat rhetorical question. But what is clear is that the world – the seemingly trivial one occupied by grown men who chase balls around an irregularly-shaped field for a living – has changed. Where it goes from here remains to be seen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

A delicate workplace issue

[OK, Mom, please stop reading now.]

Truth really can be stranger than fiction when it comes to this wacky new world known as the Internet. Thanks to an industrious colleague who shall remain nameless (what was said colleague doing scanning tech message boards for the word "porn" anyway?) a relatively new discussion currently making the rounds of the TechRepublic site somehow ended up marching across my screen. It's called CEO surfs porn and it should prove to be a more entertaining read than your usual dry-as-a-stuffed-shirt geek exchange.

With this funny still fresh in my mind, I have built the following Top 10 list of excuses a CEO could give after being caught surfing for smut on an office computer:
  1. I was conducting a critical bandwidth-overload test.
  2. I accidentally mistook for
  3. I was calibrating the color on my new LCD flat-panel display.
  4. I'm saving it for someone else.
  5. I resent your use of the term "porn". I think of it as "adult entertainment".
  6. It's part of my final project for film school.
  7. I'm taking one for the team.
  8. Pornography? I thought it was Cornography!
  9. I sure wish the shareholders could see this.
  10. Have you seen my wife's latest film?

Something smells

I know this story, Ontario funds power from manure project, practically begs for a childishly snide comment. But I can't get myself to do it for two reasons: first, I'm not feeling particularly childish or snide at this particular moment; second, it's frankly just the right kind of fresh (maybe not the best word choice, but it'll do) thinking that we need to start applying to our current and future uses of energy.

Similarly, Lucan is literally just up the road from London. So if I get on my bike and manage to avoid the speeders and the drunks on Adelaide Road, I'll eventually arrive in the lovely little village of Lucan where another step in our energy future is about to be taken.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Google Mail - from famine to feast

Like most tech geeks over the past few months, I've been an active participant in the Google Mail feeding frenzy. You know the drill: Google released its take on a next-generation web-based e-mail service into beta and managed to goose the buzz level beyond the apogee of SpaceShipOne by strictly limiting who could participate in the program.

By tightly controlling the supply side of the equation, this new-generation savvy firm guaranteed an insatiable demand for what is essentially Hotmail on steroids (I'll duck now to avoid the epithets which will inevitably be hurled by the Google Zealots who will proclaim the new service to be the second coming of some long-dead guy who, contrary to popular belief, never drove and wouldn't know what car to drive in any case.)

My sentences are apparently running on. Must be something in the air today. Either that or it is simply a Monday. Yes, that's it. I don't write well on Mondays. Which is a bit unfortunate given some of my most important deadlines seem to fall on Mondays. But I'm drifting off-topic. Another byproduct of Mondays, I guess.

In the beginning

How I came to get my first Google Mail (or Gmail) account was through the web site back in June. I remember the thrill I felt when I got an e-mail from a complete stranger letting me know he was sending me a coveted and rare invitation to set up a Gmail account. I imagine this is what Christmas would have felt like – assuming that I even celebrated Christmas. Which I don't, incidentally. (Geez, I hope my rabbi isn't reading this!)

The day a "You may invite up to five friends to join" link popped up on my account was another good day in the evolution of Carmi – yes, I know, I lead a pathetic, technologically-bound life, but I'm happy. I picked my favorite friends and colleagues – family members are still too disenfranchised from the whole wave of technology to make any use of such a resource, so I didn't

For some reason, my wife didn't share my elation upon gaining entry to the browser-based messaging revolution. I remember the nonplussed look on her face when I told her. She gave me a quick whatever comment and left me to my own playtime on the computer. When the extra invitations showed up, I told the cat instead. He rubbed up against my ankle.

Things have changed

Fast forward a few months and the whole Gmail situation has evolved significantly. The company has on at least two occasions significantly loosened the restrictions on who could invite others into the family and how many invitations would be given out in the process. The GoogleSwap site now engages in a completely different online activity (no, not that!).

Now, the "invite a bunch of friends" message is granted to pretty much anyone with a pulse. Most leading-edge mail users already have at least one account. Blog postings offering free accounts to whoever asks generally go ignored. Despite the fact that Google's stock price has been rising faster than the price of oil in recent weeks, its mail property has become decidedly ho-hum.

The bottom line

This entire situation depresses me because I'm sitting on ten (!) invitations and for the life of me I cannot think of even one person who would like one. So please consider this post my last desperate attempt to distribute them to the only ten members of the entire planet's population who have not yet heard of Gmail. They must have been camping out on an ice floe in the Antarctic over the past few months and are eagerly looking forward to reconnecting with the online world. Whatever their excuse, I hope they – or you, on their behalf, or even you on your behalf – will kindly step forward and help get these now-commonplace invitations off of my hands.

What do I expect in exchange? Unlike the denizens of Ebay, I do not wish to receive money in return for these intangible collections of electrons. I similarly don't want to be granted any favors. Please do not send me your semi-completed summer camp macramé project. You may save that batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies for your shut-in neighbor

The real payoff

In exchange for a Google Mail invitation, all I ask is that you consider paying it forward by doing something nice for someone else. It can be anything you wish. Large or small. But it must be altruistic and reflective of the kind soul that you so clearly are (I absolutely believe that only kind souls read my blog.) Please post your good-deed intentions as a comment to this posting, and I'll gladly send you said invitation (make sure you include a working e-mail address.)

We'll use the time-tested honor system; I trust that everyone who steps forward will gladly follow through on each commitment to engage in the greater good.

I'll keep giving 'em away until they're all gone. I'm sure the benefit to the world around us will extend way beyond access to a ridiculously overhyped piece of server-based software.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Let's talk about my paper

As many of you may already know, I'm not much of a morning person. I so enjoy my sleep that when night begins to turn to day and the world slowly stirs, I need to work through a whole set of predictable steps before I'm ready to face the world.

Part of that ritual includes a trip to the mailbox beside our front door to collect the paper. I know newspaper subscriptions aren't on my generation's priority list, but in an age when information comes at us faster and in greater volume than ever, the morning paper represents a trusted, repeatable means of putting that torrent into its proper perspective

Newspapers are no longer the first or sole deliverers of major breaking news. That's now become the domain of the cable news channels. But beyond a 15-minute news delivery cycle that tells you what's going on Right Now, accelerated delivery does little to build any sort of context for what you're seeing. If I want to understand what that news means, and how it all fits together, nothing approaches the power of a newspaper. The fact that I can pull it out of my mailbox before the sun rises and spend some quiet time absorbing it over breakfast is the icing on the media cake

London, like most fairly large cities in this day and age, is home to one daily paper. The days of two or more dailies are history in most centres. Ours is called the London Free Press, and it's owned by Quebecor's Sun Media.

The thing that irks me about it is the snideness with which it is viewed by visitors to our city. Typical comments include "It's so small-town," "It reminds me of a local paper," "I read it in six minutes flat," "Any thinner and I'd be able to see through it."

Never mind that I write for this paper. Most folks who insult the paper do so to my face, or they forget to whisper quietly enough when they're across the room. Rest assured, I hear you, and it bugs the fecal matter out of me.

My initial response is always a hot flush of frustration beneath my cheeks. I can feel my skin get red as my brain races to assemble some witty phrases to spit back at the media mavens in my midst. I never say anything, of course, because I'd only come across as rude and partisan in the process.

To put my thoughts in perspective, I'm not writing this as an unabashed cheerleader for the paper for which I am a columnist (though, to be fair, I love reading the paper for which I write…anyone who publishes will likely understand the curious mixture of pride and accomplishment associated with being a part of a major media vehicle.) Rather, it is the complete lack of understanding of how newspapers work, and the willingness with which the entire product is dismissed, that eats away at my journalistic soul. Someone who has likely never written so much as a letter to the editor feels eminently qualified to pass final judgment on a paper in a city which he/she does not call home. Everyone make way for our next journalism school professor, shall we?

My perspective is this: London is a city of some 350,000 people. The hinterland likely drives that figure above a half-million. It is an incredibly diverse population whose occupations span a wider range than you'd likely ever find in the corridors of a downtown megalopolis. We don't have countless millions of people here, and we may not be the je ne sais quoi of urban chic and leading edge. But a centre's relative size has little to do with the relevance of its media to the people who live there – something that's often lost on people who don't live here.

This particular paper is staffed – and freelanced – by some of the most gifted writers with whom I've ever worked. From a personal perspective, what I write here I likely wouldn't be able to write anywhere else. I draw from a deep well of human-focused topic areas that don't exist in the same manner outside of this region. It's a special place for a writer like me, and I'll never run out of great things to write because I'm surrounded by similarly great people and communities.

People here still care passionately about their neighborhoods. They're far more willing and able to step forward when they're not happy with the way things are. The degree of citizen participation in civic politics, media, and community organizations exceeds anything I ever witnessed in the big city where I was born. And it drives my writing in ways I could have never imagined before coming here.

So the next time someone feels compelled to comment on how my paper – "my" referring to the fact that I am a subscriber, I am a Londoner, I am a writer, and I am passionately involved in making both my medium and my community better through my writing – falls short of the lofty standards set by those in larger cities, I hope they consider the true depth of their error before they dig their feet any deeper down their esophageal tract.

I've always tried to follow the mantra of choosing to be part of the solution. If said cosmo-media-commentators are so compelled to dismiss our paper as small-town, they're always welcome to pick up a pen and try their hand at contributing.

In doing so, they may learn something profound about how lucky we are to be part of a medium that so richly contributes to the life of its community. They may never look at this paper – or indeed, any paper – the same way again.

Raiding the Archives 9 - A sidewalk lesson

I've fallen behind in my efforts to gradually post my columns that were published before they became available on the newspaper's web site. I'll do my best to cherrypick the ones that stick in my mind, and will try to keep the flow of older work heading your way on a somewhat more consistent basis. As I drop each one into the blog, I'll also share a thought or two on why I like that piece, and why I think it still matters even though it's been months and/or years since I first built the article in my head.

I've always liked this one because if represented one of my earlier attempts to paint pictures of life's small moments. It was spawned by my meeting a particularly friendly garbage collector as I rushed to get our green bags to the curb one morning. He so started me with his cheeriness that it stuck with me a days afterward. I realized that goodness - and good people - are everywhere. And we often find them in the darndest places. The garbageman piece, as I have come to know it, represents an early example of my unconventional journal of the neat people I've met in situations you wouldn't always expect.

It's one of the things I love about being a writer. Despite the loneliness of being at one with a computer when the world is dark and you're the only one awake, you also get to meet incredible people by day. Often, they're name-brand people who you meet through sanctioned interviews (the perks of being a journalist, I guess.) Just as often, they're ordinary folks who would otherwise never have any media spotlight shone on them.

I've found their stories can be every bit as compelling, if not more so, than the famous folks. And it's a privilege to be able to write about these snippets of lives not too different from yours and mine. I hope you enjoy this one, and I hope it helps you recall a similar story in your own life. If it does, don't be too shy to share it here.


Originally published January 14, 2003, in the London Free Press.

Spare a nod for little people in our lives

Our world is filled with people who cross our paths every day, yet we never seem to take the time to look them in the eyes and wish them a good morning.

They clean our offices, deliver our mail, and landscape our parks. We know they're there, yet in our rush to get out of the office, pick up dinner and make it to the kids' skating lessons on time, we briskly pass them without a second thought.

I didn't mean to get this philosophical this past Friday morning. The clock said it was 5:45. Thanks to London's always-entertaining garbage pickup schedule, I had - for the umpteenth time in memory - forgotten to leave the trash and recycling by the curb the previous night.

Waking up in a panic because missing a Friday pickup would mean 10 days of hoarding garbage, I ran downstairs hoping against hope that I would beat the truck.

This time, I got lucky: my neighbours' garbage bags were still there. So I grabbed ours and headed outside.

In my haste, I forgot to put a label on a garbage can with a broken glass lamp inside.

So as my head danced with nightmarish images of the garbage dude slashing his arms on an unseen fixture, I sat on the front porch and waited for the truck's arrival.

Before long, the familiar diesel rumble echoed through the neighborhood, growing louder as the headlights lit up my street. I strode over to the curb and probably scared the heck out of him in the process.

Me: "I'm sorry for forgetting to label this can. It has glass in it, so you may want to be careful."
Him: [Smiling broadly] "Good morning! Hey, no sweat about the glass. I am, after all, a professional."
Me: [Pausing at how customer-focused this guy seemed to be before 6 a.m.] "Thanks, sir. Have a great day and see you next week."
Him: "Sure thing, bud. Have an awesome weekend."

With that, he grabbed the cans, expertly emptied them into the back of the truck, waved at me and continued to the next house.

It was only a 15-second exchange with someone who's probably been by my house hundreds of times. Yet in those 15 seconds, a complete stranger transcended the stereotypical image of the garbageman - politically incorrect reference and all - and became, simply, a real person.

We seem to pigeonhole people based on what they do for a living. Some of us dump on restaurant servers every time a meal is too slow in coming or slightly overdone. We berate them and then leave them no tip at“ all for something over which they have no control. But because they're entry level employees, we seem content that our behaviour is justified.

Perhaps we really are in a rush and we simply don't have the time to talk to them. It's equally possible that we don't think they're worthy of our time. Perhaps they didn't go to the right school. Or they didn't go to school at all. Maybe it's bad for our corporate image to be seen chatting with "the help."

Think about it the next time you're in the office late one evening. Would you know the name of the person who empties your recycling bin? Similarly, would you recognize the lady who waters the plants if you passed her on the street?

I didn't make any new year's resolutions this year. We should be trying to improve ourselves every day of the year and not just in the few days following a drunken all-night party.

But if I focus on one thing in the coming months, it will be to personalize my encounters with those who are traditionally invisible in our status-driven society. I'll start by addressing them by name.

Corporate expediency aside, everyone has a story. If we took that extra time to find out what it is, we might learn more about our own. See you next Monday, garbage man.


Carmi again: The paper ran a letter to the editor a few days after this first appeared. The reader was somewhat upset with the use of the word "little" in the headline. The letter said this word choice highlighted my condescending tone to others. Interestingly, the headline is the one part of the package that I do not write. But readers don't know that, so I had to endure my first public whipping by a reader.

Interestingly, I was just as tickled with this response as I would have been with a kudo. Any response is a good one, and I'm perfectly comfortable if someone chooses disagree with me. Either way, I reached the reader. That's all I can really ask for.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Rosie DiManno revisited

I've written previously about how much I admire and respect Rosie DiManno for her unabashedly honest and in-your-face style of writing. Few columnists have the ability to punch you in the psyche with their words. Rosie is clearly one of them, and I know I'm better at what I do because I regularly read her work.

Her most recent piece, Do not push gently into that good night, will literally shove you back into your seat and remain in your brain for days afterward. Yes, she's that good. I'd give up a major organ to be similarly gifted.

But enough about me. Follow the link above to this article, and feel free to share similarly powerful writers with the readers of this space known as my blog. Funny how, as time goes on, this humble site is attracting a gradually growing legion of its own. Cool!

Ms. DiManno's online archive is located here. If you've got a bit of free time, I highly recommend you spend some time exploring it. Her coverage of the Athens Olympics was particularly human-focused and poignant. She's one of the few sports writers who avoids the cliché, and successfully manages to make the compelling stories of an athlete interesting and relevant to the sports anti-fan.

At some point, I'll integrate a link to her page into my sidebar. But not tonight. I finally felt well enough to finish installing the floor, so I got busy after supper. It's been an ordeal, again, because I'm just not as flexible as I was when I was 16. (Please hold your jokes until after the children have gone to bed.) But at least this time I didn't end up with pinched nerves in both my legs! So, on balance, it's been a decent outcome.


Friday, October 22, 2004

I'm a bad e-mailer

I was updating some addresses on my PalmPilot the other day when I realized how bloated my own entry had become. I have more e-mail addresses than any one person ought to have.

Let's run them down, shall we: a work one, a home one for family messaging, a Hotmail one that I attach to everything I publish, an address at the college where I teach, a Google Mail one that I use for everyday messaging, another Gmail one that I use specifically for blogging, yet another Gmail one that I set up for one particular, high-volume contract that I'm working on, and a few other free web-based accounts that I had set up over the years, then abandoned as they filled up with the inevitable tidal waves of spam.

That's seven addresses that I use more or less regularly, plus a bunch of long-forgotten mail folders sitting out in the internetworked ether. And that's just the ones I remember.

It's completely ridiculous, yet as long as an exposed e-mail address – meaning one that you freely give out to people, and use to sign up for stuff online – can be harvested by the scum who spread spam around the world, a surreptitious approach to e-mail account management will continue to be the order of the day.

Which leads me to the spark of an idea that originally inspired this message: the fact that I'm a bad e-mailer.

I think you've experienced it on your end as well: an acquaintance e-mails you. You're pretty busy when you first see the message in your inbox, so you make a mental note to answer said person when you have a free moment. Of course, you never end up actually having that free moment. So days, weeks, and months pass before you come across the now-stale message still sitting patiently in your inbox.

Do you answer the message and apologize profusely in the process? Do you reply and pretend as if no time at all has passed? Do you ignore the message and pretend you never got it? Is there a right thing to do when you're an E-mail Answer Slacker?

I'm not sure there is. But I know my various inboxes are littered with stale-dated messages from people I really like, but just haven't had the time to get back to. If you're one of those folks and you're reading this, don't hate me and the six generations of Levys who follow. Instead, hate the insidious rules of our planet that limit the day to 24 hours, and the year to 365 days. Yes, I know leap years don't count. But even then, the extra day does little to ease my e-mail backlog.

If the Earth flew just a little more slowly in its orbital track, maybe we'd be able to slow down a little. The late Christopher Reeve's Superman, with his much-maligned fly-around-the-world-so-fast-that-the-planet's-spin-is-reversed-and- time-goes-backward trick may not have been so off the mark after all.

At some point, I'm sure a Treo 650 smart phone would help my case. But that would only render me able to tap away while engaged in otherwise non-e-mail-conducive activities. Besides, I've already written about nasty CrackBerry addicts, so I'd be violating my integrity as a ranting-lunatic journalist if I simply joined the cult. It is, at the end of it all, a technology whose solution may be worse than the initial affliction.

With that in mind, my predicament will likely remain relatively unchanged for the foreseeable future. I'll continue to juggle too may inboxes and inadvertently ignore too many messages from people who matter.

It doesn't mean I don't care. I'm simply too busy keeping all these balls in the air to take the time to actually appreciate the subtle nuances of any one of them.

Still with the funnies

While I'm on the topic of interesting reads, I think at least one of you might find the Regret the Error blog an amusing timeout from the usual unending current of media sludge.

The site reports and links to some of the more interesting newspaper corrections out there. Beyond the actual corrections, some of the blog commentaries themselves are worth reading just for the wall-to-wall sardonic wit contained therein.

Remember our lesson from an earlier message on this very blog: swallow your milk or similarly-phased beverage, then proceed to read the site. Your keyboard, mouse, and related computing equipment within esophageal range will thank you.

Lego chief quits...

It's been a long, depressing week. Time for some levity:

This article, Kristiansen: Lego Chief Quits As Poor Sales Block Recovery
, weaseled its way into my browser earlier today.

I guess they finally succeeded in knocking his block off.

(Sorry, couldn't resist. Feel free to insert your own cheeky comment below.)

Publish Day - let's wash hands, shall we?

My latest column for the London Free Press, Lend helping hands in flu fight, was published in Wednesday's paper. I would have posted this on Wednesday, but as you've seen from my earlier post, I was busy learning the dynamic handling limits of a wheeled hospital bed. End result: not very impressive.

Thematically, the article matches much of what people have been talking about lately.

As the flu season approaches, my tolerance for those who don't take the time to protect themselves - and by extension, those around them, and us - from unnecessary exposure to illness decreases rapidly. Beyond the non-handwashers in the bathroom, I'll also lump in the heroes who just have to come into work to show how dedicated they are despite the ooze dripping from their noses.

Yes, so heroic that they've now guaranteed I'll be enjoying my very own vicious head cold within the next few days.

There really is no nice way to deal with these folks, but deal with them we must.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Fun with gurneys

Yesterday was quite an adventurous one in my little world. It was supposed to be a routine day. My latest column had been published (more on that later), so I went downstairs early and grabbed the paper. This little ritual of mine seems to become more quaint as autumn wears on - I end up reading it in a darkened kitchen, surrounded by total silence, with only the cat at my feet to keep me company.

And so it begins

As I was scanning my article and other opinion pieces around it, I realized I didn't feel all that well. Simplistically, I could have called it a tummy ache, but it quickly became much worse than that. Although I've never been beaten up, I imagine that it would have been similar to what I was feeling now: my lower abdomen felt as if someone had kicked it really hard. Regardless, I still tried to read the paper, only by now the words weren't having any impact on my brain.

When I felt my head go light and my skin go clammy, I decided to head back upstairs to the relative safety of bed. The thought of face-planting onto a hard floor while everyone else slept suddenly terrified me.

I figured a few minutes lying down would relax me enough to get back into the usual morning routine and get on with my day. Wrong. The pain worsened, and I started envisioning ambulance rides and hovering doctors and nurses.

My wife said I looked white as a ghost. I kind of felt like one, but didn't have enough energy to muster a funny response. The kids all came into our room and gently climbed into bed with me to make sure I was OK.

A quick time out - Carmi 'n docs 'n drugs

I thought now would be a good time to let you know how I generally feel about doctors and hospitals and the like. I'm the kind of person who almost never takes anything for a headache. I'd rather live with the pain and tough it out than submit to the easy way out. I believe I inherited it from my Mom, but I'm not entirely sure.

I go for my regular checkups and do a pretty good job staying healthy and strong (the biking and all that helps, as does having a wife who can outcook Martha.) But when I get sick, my first inclination is to work it out at home. I'll go to the Doc if I think it's more than a mere cold. But simple things like aches and pains I'm just as likely to try to get through on my own.

Why today was different

The aside above illustrated why everything changed when I told my wife I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I was bypassing the tried-and-true neighborhood Doc and going right for the big stuff. That was pretty much all she needed to know: I was hurting. Her voice immediately changed as she shifted into another gear.

So off the kids went into the car. I quickly called work and left a message, barely able to get the words out. My wife said she'd call the rest of my day's appointments/deliverables and let them know (funny how fast a schedule can be disassembled.) I tossed on my sweats and trench coat and walked like an old man to the car.

Getting there

I didn't want my wife to be late for work - she teaches, and I figured that was a little more important than my boo-boo - so I insisted she let me off a few blocks away from the hospital so she wouldn't have to detour too far out of her way.

Bad move. Walking was hard. I'm sure passers-by thought I was drunk. It easily took me twice as long to negotiate the few short blocks to the ER. Worse, the weather was cold and incredibly damp and added to my overall sense of misery. I did see a really beautiful tree along the way with red leaves that almost glowed. And for the first time this season, I tightened my big, soft coat and turned up the collar. So it wasn't a total loss.

The patient patient

As soon as I walked in, everything changed. Unlike all those times when I've been a visitor to those who are ill, I was on the other side of the equation. I no longer had the sense that I would simply chat with whoever, then leave. I had no idea where this was going to end up, when I was going to leave, and what I was going to go through between now and then. It was somewhat unsettling, but I decided worrying about it wouldn't improve matters.

I explained my predicament to the triage nurse, who listened to my whining, jotted down the particulars and sent me to another nurse who gave me a funky bracelet and asked me to wait to be called. There was only one other person in the waiting room - I guess morning is a good time to get sick.

Long story short

This post risks becoming a blow-by-blow accounting of my day, so I'll cut to the chase. I spent the entire day at the hospital, evolving very gradually from a room deep inside the rabbit warren of the ER to the ultrasound department upstairs, and ultimately to a central spot in the hall where I got to watch paramedics bring in a never-ending stream of new patients.

I was poked, prodded, tested and analyzed from every angle imaginable - and a few that I hadn't previously imagined - and was ultimately sent home with a prescription. They couldn't tell me precisely why I woke up in such pain - "maybe an infection" seemed to be the general concensus - but they were confident I wasn't suffering from some sort of horrible affliction. So home I went, just in time for supper. I'm hanging out at home today, still hurting, but nowhere near as acutely as yesterday. I'll take it as easy as my Type-A personality allows, and will hopefully be able to get back to the office tomorrow.

A number of observations

When you're sitting in a gurney on the other side of the patient/visitor equation, you realize many things:
  • There's always someone there who's worse off than you. The ravages of illness, age, and life in general seem to converge on the people who are brought into (notice word choice) the ER. If you haven't counted your blessings today, feel free to do so now.
  • Time becomes immaterial. Each step in the troubleshooting process depends on the availability of the next resource in the chain. It's normal to wait an hour or two between "events". Which is one ever said healing had to be delivered by a drive-through window.
  • You are disconnected from the outside world. As a sort of extension to the above, you have no idea what's going on outside. Indeed, the complete lack of windows, combined with the catacomb-like maze of the jumble of buildings and additions that make up the facility render you completely unable to tell what direction you're facing, where you're going, or how yo'ure going to get back to where you started. A GPS receiver would work wonders here.
  • We should all be thankful that we have access to the world's greatest health care system. Maligned as it is, it somehow manages to work.
  • Visitors matter, immensely. You have no idea how much you cherish a friendly face. When my wife managed to find me and spent the rest of the day with me, my stress level dropped by a couple of orders of magnitude because I no longer had to go through this alone. I can only imagine the multiplier effect on someone who spends days or weeks in hospital for something more significant (belay that: I practically grew up in a hospital...I should remember this better!)
  • People care, immensely. You can look, but you likely won't find people more expert or more dedicated to their calling than those in a hospital.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A late-night lesson from the produce aisle

When I was a kid, banks closed at 3 p.m. and weren't open on weekends. I remember this because trips to the bank had to be carefully scheduled. If you didn't go early enough, you risked having the rent-a-cop at the front door lock you out just as you approached the gleaming glass and chrome doors.

It was the same thing with regular retail stores. They were open regular business hours. Most stayed open late on Thursday night, resulting in big crowds in the checkout lane as working families headed out to fill their pantries and clothe their little people. Conversely, the world stood still on Sundays.

Over the years - don't worry, I'm not that old - the world gradually opened up. Changing legislation, an increasingly competitive business environment and evolving social mores made more liberal opening hours a reality for most of us. We now expect those doors to be open when we pull up - whatever time that may be - and are mighty ticked when they're locked and dark.

Quiet Sunday morning walks to the bakery to pick up bagels gradually morphed into noisier trips as traffic levels on this formerly non-working day built to near-midweek levels. It didn't evolve overnight, but evolve it did. Today's world looks, feels, and sounds nothing like the one in which I grew up.

These days, some stores never close. As I touched on in this week's photoblogging expedition to the grocery store, our neighborhood A&P has gone 24/7. I'll be the first to admit that when one of our munchkins involuntarily begins to violate the laws of gravity by projectile-vomiting supper onto the kitchen floor, I secretly thank the powers-that-be in some distant head office who decided to never lock the doors on this seemingly insignificant supermarket. Then, short non-denominational prayer over, I peel out in the minivan (yes, they do lay strips if you really try) and scoot my way to that friendly, glowing beacon in an otherwise dark night.

But as I cruise the aisles of the nearly-deserted grocery store on a non-emergency trip to top off our supply of breakfast cereals and bananas, I can't help but wonder what we've lost along the way to our need-it-now society.

There is no more planning. Period. As soon as we decide we want and/or need something (let's face it, want usually trumps need), it's off to the store we go. We don't time-discipline ourselves because, frankly, there's no longer any need to do so.

The silence of a Sunday morning stroll is history. The guarantee that there are certain days and times of day that are off limits to commercial activity is now an interesting relic of history, gradually fading in the memories of those of us lucky enough to remember.

I have short-listed a story on how stores - and regular folks like us - have adapted to a 24/7 world. I want to paint a picture of the 3-a.m.-shopper, to illustrate what's so unique about cruising the produce aisle at a time when normal folks really should be asleep. It's a picture I suspect most of us have not yet considered, but will ultimately need to as our own evolving existence makes middle-of-the-night shopping trips an increasingly real part of our lives.

On one hand, we gain. On the other, we lose. I'll leave it to you to decide how far ahead, or behind, we really are.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The adventurous shopper - Part 1

When I go grocery shopping, it is always a dangerous thing. I often get home with things that weren't on the list. I'm not an impulsive shopper by any means, but there's something about grocery shopping that calls out to me. I enjoy telling stories about my "special buys" when I get home.

If this isn't bad enough, time of day adds another level of unpredictability to the Carmi Shopping Experience. Specifically, shopping after 10 p.m. on my way home from a never-ending day of work and meetings is pretty much an adventure waiting to happen.

This time out, as I yawned my way down the aisles of the neighbourhood supermarket, it dawned on me that I had the camera in my backpack. So I did what any self-respecting shopper does to keep the late-night weirdos away: I took it out and surreptitiously captured scenes that I found amusing. Thankfully, I wasn't caught or asked to leave the store.

This time. I will leave it to you to furnish an appropriate caption for each photo. Have fun!

The adventurous shopper - Part 2

I'm posting this separately because I'm too sleep-deprived to figure out how to use the Hello software to post two pictures in the same message. My vote for interface-of-the-year will most certainly not go to whoever pieced together this collection of cantankerous code.

Then again, I likely couldn't do a better job, so I'll stop complaining. Enjoy the photos.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The name's Carmi, with an i

With a name like Carmi, I was destined to spend a lifetime explaining the origins of my moniker. I was also destined to have more nicknames than most people I know.

For the record, Carmi is a contraction of two Hebrew words:
Kerem, which means vineyard; and
Sheli, which means mine.

Hebrew lets you scrunch words like this together to form Carmi...which means "my vineyard" (such a surprise!) In its original language, the second syllable is stressed. In the anglo-centric world in which I live, the first syllable kinda rules. Carmi, like Army.

This is my full name, as it appears on my birth certificate. It is not short for anything.

There are very few terms of endearment for a name that already seems like a nickname. The single-syllable "Carm" is likely the most common. I can count on one hand the number of people who call me Carm. They're all direct relatives, and only ones I really, really like. One's my wife.

In my past lives, individuals have popped up here and there who feel an instant familiarity with me. Why they feel this way I do not know. I'm a pretty friendly person who always seems to find the good in people - even if they really don't deserve it and others would have written them off long ago. But some folks I just can't get to like. I'll tolerate 'em for the purpose of getting the job done. But beyond idle chitchat, I have little desire to spend any kind of quality time with them.

Right about now, you're all likely thinking that I'm a terrible person. Please don't think ill of me. The only folks who fall into what I like to call the Go Away category are the really self-centred, odious ones who we all wish would simply walk off the edge of the planet. In other words, you have to really suck as a human being to fall into my wish-you-weren't-in-front-of-me gang. Trust me, you would hate them too.

There's also a more pragmatic reason: the less time I spend yakking with airheads leaves me more time to hang with the people who matter; namely a woman who staggeringly wishes to spend her life with me, and the three little people we've created and are trying to raise into well-adjusted, bigger people.

So, to bring my circuitious ramblings back to where they began, I noticed a number of Go Away people over the years have assumed they can call me Carm. I have always wanted to open my mouth and say they simply don't deserve to call me by that name. In my head, while they're blathering away, the voices scream at me that I should put these losers in their place.

But I don't. I say nothing. I continue to smile and nod my head while they relate another story about their son's hockey stats or the sad and never-ending story of how they negotiated the lease on their SUV. They think I'm their buddy. I waste my time letting them continue the charade. It keeps everyone happy, so there's no sense rocking the boat.

For now. Now that I write for a living, I won't stop myself from skewering their personalities in some future work. Some people - no matter what they call me - are just too caricature-like to be ignored.

As long as they remember to include the i at the end of my name, that is.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

An idyllic peek

How many times in your life have you come upon a scene and kicked yourself for not having a camera to capture it for posterity? If I had a nickel for every time that happened to me, I'd be able to retire now.

My ability to overcome this obstacle is somewhat limited by my usual mode of transportation: my bike. Somehow, the concept of carrying around my old-but-precious Nikon 35mm SLR just doesn't feel right. Sure, if I'm taking a short ride to a specific place to take specific pictures, fine. But if I'm taking my usual high-speed, pedal-to-the-metal ride, I want something a little smaller, and a little tougher to drop into my bike bag.

Enter the little digital camera that my wife graciously lets me borrow. I know I bought it for her birthday, but she kindly indulges my photographic weirdness. That weirdness took me to the fields just north and west of our home in London after dinner last weekend. I took the bike out and stopped every few hundred metres - pretty much whenever the spirit moved me. I discovered there's a lot of visually fascinating subject matter in our immediate neighborhood, including this deceptively simple sunset vista.

In the process, I unintentionally panicked a few drivers, who slowed down as they passed me to ensure I was OK. I guess the sight of a cyclist sprawled on the side of the road to get a decent low-angle shot would freak out anyone who's never been struck by the insane desire to follow the light.

The cows living at the farm that's slated to be paved over by a Home Depot were, unfortunately, not out when I passed by. I'll have to take another trip over to get them on film before it's too late.

Much can happen in a year

A year ago yesterday, I walked out of a place whose employees often nicknamed it "cash for life" for the easy, cruise-control approach with which most folks there managed their careers. I had consciously decided to leave that place, to walk away from almost seven years of "service", and to pursue a career that I felt more closely matched who I was and who I wanted to become.

Part of me felt guilty for doing what many thought was unthinkable. The mothership, as I've comically called it over the years, represented all that employees of yesteryear sought in a career. It offered long-term stability, predictable career growth, health benefits, and a number of on-site amenities that only a multi-thousand-employee firm could provide. It's why I got into the big-company game almost a decade earlier, and it remained as true on October 15, 2003 as it did long before I even appeared on the scene.

What changed was me. I wanted more.

I wanted more than what the leaders in whom I had entrusted my future were willing to let me have. Sequential raises and the occasional assignments to work that I felt more closely matched my skill set just weren't enough for me any more. They might have been when I was younger and more willing to sacrifice for some future benefit. But after years of making sacrifices, only to be told by these same leaders that the payoff still lay somewhere in a murky future, I started to question why I was there in the first place, and why I was placing my trust in the hands of those who clearly weren't working in my best interests.

What I came up with surprised me: I hated the work. Maybe that's too harsh. I didn't hate the work itself. Day-to-day, working with really smart people to solve really tough technical problems for a large financial services organization was pretty cool, actually.

But at the end of the day, what I hated was the meaningless of it all. Hugely successful projects from the past were easily forgotten, your contributions to them dissolved by the mists of time and by a leadership structure that saw no need to return the loyalty of those who helped build said structure in the first place.

Interestingly, I wasn't alone. I was surrounded by people who hated coming in to work every day. When challenged to go and follow their dreams, they all lamented that they were too deeply invested in this grinding place, and they would just as soon ride it out until their inevitable retirement day.

I could have been them, but in the midst of my crisis of conscience, I rediscovered my love of writing. I started writing for the paper, and thrived on the responses I received from a whole new audience, a bunch of strangers known as readers. When I posted my work on the outside of my cubicle, people stopped by and read my work. Many wondered why I was still working there when I clearly should be writing. I wondered, too, but still didn't think upsetting the boat at the mothership was in the cards.

Still, over time, the urge to work toward a life of writing grew stronger. When a six-month project to deliver a major piece of documentation was rewarded by a team lunch and the subsequent removal of my author's credit from the end result, it dawned on me that no matter what I brought to the table, it would never be enough. When people around me started disappearing on stress leave, I knew I wasn't alone.

Eventually, I found the right role and snagged it. The rest is history. I'm in a role that challenges me and allows me to regularly produce tangible work that directly impacts a wide audience. I feel connected to those whom I serve, and am no longer a mere cog in the middle of a massive corporate bureaucracy that has no idea who ultimately pays its bills.

When I meet former colleagues, they universally tell me how much happier I seem. They say I don't even have to say anything: it's written all over my face.

I wish similar happiness on those who matter to me. I hate thinking of truly great people beaten down by a leadership structure that cares not a whit about their lives. I wish more people had the guts to throw off the shackles and pursue a dream. Life doesn't last forever, after all. What if you get to the end of it and wonder whether you could have spent your days in a better place?

I asked myself that same question time and again leading up to last October. I answered it when I dropped my letter of resignation on my leader's desk. When the HR rep asked me if I'd consider working for the company at some point in future, my response was simple: I'm leaving for a reason. Why would I want to come back and do the same thing? The whole idea in life is to grow, is it not?"

With that, I thanked her for her guidance, and walked out the door. Although I've been back for the occasional visit with former colleagues, it's freeing to know I can never really go home again. Nor would I want to.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The glory of shortness

North American culture seems to dissolve anything remotely different from the entertainment mainstream. The net result of this is a relatively small number of gatekeepers determining what we consume, and how we consume it. As a result, the world is overrun with Julia Roberts movies, Britney Spears music (oops, make that Federline - for this week, anyway), and beach-reading sanctioned by Oprah.

There's nothing overtly wrong with mainstream culture beyond the fact that its all-encompassing nature shunts anything even remotely divergent to the fringe of said mainstream. Given society's apparent desire to maintain a smooth cultural landscape (think melting pot, harmony and assimilation as the main touchpoints here), it's no wonder that the vast majority of us don't know (or care) enough to ask for anything different than we're already fed. We're content to pay time and again to see essentially the same Julia Roberts movie because we've been massaged into believing that predictability represents the zenith of modern culture.

With that in mind, I've always worn the costume of the black sheep, the perpetual contrarian. In doing so, I have come to love the short form. Of what, you ask? Of anything. Short stories, short films, short radio documentaries and their ilk have always appealed to me because they forced the creator to shoehorn a complex message into a tight box. Anyone can tell a story within a 1,000 pages or a seven-part, 14-hour miniseries. But how can a strong message remain strong when its folded into a box barely fit for a yogi?

My first published pieces were a couple of poems in my high school yearbook. I graduated (there I go with the puns again) to letters to the editor, another ruthlessly brief form that weeds out anything not perfectly salient to the central message. I now dip my literary toes in multiple forms, but the one that continues to capture my fancy is the short form. My columns fit a 650-word box. I typically overwrite them by about a hundred or so words, then trim down to fit. My blog postings are similarly tight (except this one, which seems to have taken on a life of its apologies.)

Which brings me down to my original intention when I started this post: to introduce iFilm's Short Films Channel, which serves as a launching point for a wide range of short-form independent films.

I've often made mental notes while viewing a particularly funny short - then come up, well, short when trying to find more background afterward. The Internet opens up entire avenues of access to this material - a good thing for those of us who don't subscribe to the mass market, broadcast-driven, mainstream-loving agenda of modern culture. Sometimes, smaller really is better.

Fast food ad critique

Fast food also-ran Burger King is bringing back its King as the centrepiece of a new ad campaign designed to kickstart its breakfast business. This is wrong on more levels than I care to count.

Still, Slate Magazine has published this biting critique of the first ad in the series. It'll appeal to those of you who find deliciously cynical targets in the manipulative marketing techniques used to sell society-killing products and services.

If I had it my way (could that be a pun?) every last fast food joint on the planet would be simultaneously encased in city block-sized agglomerations of arterial plaque. It would sort of be like the chicken coming home to roost.


My head is churning story ideas yet again. This would ordinarily be a Good Thing, except it's after 3 a.m. and I'd really rather be dreaming about churning story ideas instead of sitting in front of a whirring box running Wondows XP and (badly) typing them in.

I'm not sure why I've been waking up every night this week for a middle-of-the-night writing festival. It doesn't exactly do wonders for my head the next day, and it nails my productivity in all the extracurriculars of life - you know, the things you try to leave for after the kids are in bed because you really, really need to focus on 'em and can't afford to be interrupted - because by the time the little people are soundly in lalaland, I'm too snoozy to concentrate on anything more involved than covering the surface of a bagel with a relatively even layer of grape jam.

I wouldn't even consider toasting it because the combination of high heat and my general disconnectedness would, at this point in time, result in a lovely burn at the base of my thumb (my toaster oven hates me. I've learned the hard way.)

So here I write, wishing I could sleep instead, yet secretly pleased that I'm up because some of what I'm creating here will someday soon morph into a book. And the sooner I finish my book and publish it, the sooner I can not worry so much about getting up early to go into the office. I'll pay for it tomorrow. But the eventual payoff looms larger on my personal radar.

Which begs the question of why I work at all. Well, from a practical perspective, a 9-to-5 role provides sufficient life-stability while I work on the alternative author-based career path. The need to pay bills and be there for my family doesn't go away simply because I want to write books from my house for a living.

With that in mind, I love my current, "real" job because it allows me to write all day. But I don't love having A Job. I don't love the everydayness of it all, the grinding regularity of trekking into an office and feeling like you need to spend X hours there because, if you don't, you'll be looked at askance. I don't love the resulting silent ignorance of those who put in some hours from home, for those hours never seem to count in the overall march toward that magical 37.5 or 40 hours per week.

Authors don't count hours. They count words. They count the power of those words to move others. The politics of an office space matter less than the ultimate quality of the crafted work. The sooner I move toward a world where what I do matters more than how I do it, the less it will matter that my brain has decided to do its thinking in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

I've been humbled

Many thanks to Jill for posting this unbelievably kind message on her blog. I've quoted it here simply because it's one of the nicest things anyone's written about me in months. It makes me glad I decided to do the writing thing for a living, because it proves that words can have the power to move people:

Originally posted by Jill to her blog, A Woman Chained:

Thank you, Carmi.

What is it about his writing that makes my heart grow warm with familiarity?

The words flow so smoothly. Their depictions bring back memories from my childhood... seen through the eyes of the innocent. A feeling that I thought I had lost quite some time ago.

Reading his work somehow feels nostalgic yet full of discovery.

I encourage you to give it a look.

Anger management candidate

Looks like a 14-year-old Ukrainian girl has some self-control issues. Here's the lowdown.

The irony of where her little fit took place, Yalta, is telling.

Happy Birthday, Netscape

Hard to believe it's been 10 years since the seminal browser first made its appearance and changed forever the way we browsed the then-nascent World Wide Web. Yes, NCSA's Mosaic was technically the first real successful graphical browser. But Netscape took the concept and made it a reality for the rest of us. Until, that is, Microsoft weighed in with its ode to mediocrity and forced us into a desktop stupor from which we're only now beginning to emerge.

(For the record, the World Wide Web is NOT the Internet. It is a SERVICE that RESIDES on the Internet. In that respect, it exists on the same org chart level as e-mail, FTP, Usenet, Gopher, Archie, Jughead, Veronica, and WAIS; sort of like their prettier, younger sister. The Internet is the underlying infrastructure on which all of these services eventually evolved. It existed long before the Web came about. It - or some infrastructure like it, like Internet2/Abilene - will likely outlive them all. End of technical detour.)

Before Netscape, the few folks who even knew that a World Wide Web existed were more likely to be exploring it using a text-based browser known as Lynx. Once you got used to tabbing around the screen, you could usually find what you were looking for without too much difficulty. And since design hadn't evolved to the point that it has today, most web pages were efficiently designed (read small, fast, and with few or no graphics or other doodads.)

The last ten years have brought us bigger pipes carrying more data to faster computers, but that data is now choked with graphics-heavy blinking ads and other garbage. I seriously doubt we're more productive now than we were then. And back then, it still had a sense of wonder about it. Today, not so much.

If you want to go back to that time, to a simpler era when the screech of a modem marked the beginning of an online session - and a differently-pitched screech of a family member often marked the end of it - CNet has posted the original Netscape Navigator press release. It has also posted a comprehensive page of content devoted to this milestone. I know most of us don't give a second thought to what software we use to cruise the Internet. Indeed, we don't pay attention to our software at all - until it fails us. (That's usually the point at which my phone rings, but that's a story for another day.)

But taking a few minutes to think about what we use, how it came to be in the first place and how it evolved to the present can give us a greater sense of perspective on the sheer wonder of it all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Whiners return

I've spent the better part of the past couple of decades trying to stuff the '80s back into the pandora's box from whence they emerged. Now comes news that Duran Duran, likely the iconic band of that woeful era, today released its first album in 21 years. (See the Boston Globe's piece, New Era, Same Duran Duran.)

Entitled, Astronaut, I'm sure it won't be long before the airwaves are plastered with its synthetic sounds designed to evoke a certain nostalgia for a vanished time.

Logic escapes me. Those of us old enough to remember the band and its ilk wouldn't dare admit that we listened to it then, much less now. Anyone younger than, um, a certain age likely wouldn't remember the band at all, and as such won't have any compelling reason to "discover" this band. I hardly think their rehashed synth-pop-overlaid-with-overwrought-whining will stand out next to the overproduced, lip-synched pap that typifies today's apocalyptically-bare radio landscape.

Note to all: I am not saying that today's music is any better than this reconstituted tripe from a decade that is best forgotten. Duran Duran is, however, of an even lesser degree of quality than the current stuff that masquerades as music.

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled rant.

I'm often an incredibly nostalgic person. I take great comfort in going back to the places from our past that made us feel coddled. Yet this is one instance where my nostalgia hits its limit. I have no interest in rehashing something which, frankly, brought little comfort to anyone during its first incarnation. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'm in an even better (read more cynical) position to recognize this for the cash grab that it is.

In this case, the past may have been better off left alone.

Segway, Part II

One of the intriguing things about popular culture is its willingness to adopt leading edge technology as its own, even if the vast majority of those who would potentially consume said culture will never have a prayer of actually using or owning it in their lifetimes.

To wit, the Segway. Officially known as the Human Transporter, this computer-controlled, gyroscopically-balanced, electrically-powered broomstick-on-wheels was supposed to revolutionize inner-city travel when it first hit the market three years ago. Although hype was boosted to stratospheric levels by a near-brilliant viral marketing campaign in the weeks prior to its official announcement, reality has knocked the wonder-wheeled device down a peg or two.

First, the thing’s too expensive for words. Four grand for a glorified toy means only the early adopters will ever find virtue in the thing. The rest of us will save our pennies for more useful implements, like bikes, and roller blades ($200 will get you a heck of a pair, and a better workout.) Heck, even a car has more utility (I’ll duck now.)

Second, it looks dumb. Americans want their stuff to look good and substantial, since they believe if their stuff looks good, then they look good as well. It’s convoluted logic, but it seems to work for them. Which means a stick with wheels can never truly escape the grafted-scooter look that screams K-Mart Blue Light Special more than it does Sharper Image Premium Product.

Remember the Bone Phone? Similar concept – unique product – but Americans rejected it because wearing a flaccid snake-like radio around their necks just didn’t make them look cool enough.

Third, it’s a technology in search of a problem. Its limited range and speed mean it’s useful only within a relatively small radius. Yet, it’s fast and wide enough that many municipalities have banned it from sidewalks, making it pretty much illegal to use outside of your house. Its weight and bulkiness mean you can’t just carry it on the bus or pop it into your car for a quick lunchtime tour. Usually, fickle consumers need one compromise to justify complete indifference. In this case, the list of compromises runs longer than my arm. It’s no wonder this thing has sold like Edsel cars and Coleco Adam computers.

The January, 2003, BusinessWeek article, Is Segway Going Anywhere?, asks a number of valid questions about innovation and its apparent disconnectedness from market success. This research paper from the New Jersey Institute of Technology asks whether there’s room on our streets for these vehicles. Away from the questioning pages of the editorial world, they’ve even run into obstacles usually faced by cars: they’ve been recalled.

Regardless, the Human Transporter, despite the loser noose it wears around its slender, handlebar-graced neck, became a bit of a media darling. It has shown up as window dressing in more shows than I care to remember, including Frasier and The Simpsons. It has also managed to send Dubya tumbling to the ground when he managed to fool its foolproof gyroscope. And now comes word that its manufacturers have designed a four-wheeled sibling, called the Centaur. Popular Science has this to say about the new vehicle.

It would seem that another minute has passed, making it a statistical certainty that yet another sucker has been born into this world.

Superman, Part 2

I picked up this piece, Before accident and after, a hero, from this morning's Boston Globe (an excellent reader's paper, by the way). What struck me was this 1996 quote from Mr. Reeve. If only we were all so focused in living our lives on our own terms:
"I think that setting challenges is a great motivator because too many people with disabilities allow that to become the dominating factor in their lives, and I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery."

Monday, October 11, 2004

Superman's passing

I'd be remiss if I didn't devote at least a few words to Christopher Reeve, who passed away yesterday at the age of 52.

We measure the success of a life not by what we accumulate over the years, but by what we give back to society. Mr. Reeve was blessed to have achieved stardom earlier in life, but it was what he did with his life after he was paralyzed in a 1995 equestrian accident that made him such a righteous soul.

What he did for those suffering from spinal cord injuries is virtually incalculable. He was instrumental in helping raise untold millions of dollars for research and care. He was at the centre of efforts to lobby all levels of government to orient themselves toward finding a cure and easing day-to-day living for the injured, as well as their families. He raised awareness by devoting his life to this most personal of causes.

He was, in a word, irreplaceable. The world is lessened by his loss. Yet what he built while he was here will ultimately help those so tragically impacted by spinal injuries. May we always celebrate the achievements of those whose own tragedies would make it easy for them to simply give up. Mr. Reeve never gave up, and I hope his example will remain as strong tomorrow as it has been for the past nine years.

He was a super man, indeed.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Dressup Day at Levyland

Our kids have become quite the social butterflies in recent years. Hardly a weekend goes by when they're not invited to a birthday party for one of their friends. This morning, our two youngest attended a princess-themed affair.

Now, I'll be the last person to force my children to adhere to rigidly-defined gender-based behaviors. For example, if our little guy wants to play teacups with his bigger sister, that's perfectly all right with me. But I draw the line at dressing him up in something frilly. So his choice for the party was Spongebob Squarepants. It was decidedly outside the indicated theme, but we justified it by deeming him the prince of the undersea.

The neighbors smiled from afar as we took their pictures on the front lawn. Although he was a bit old for this one, Zach nevertheless got dressed up - as an Army dude - and is shown here chatting with his grandparents.

The rest of this morning's photos will follow in subeequent posts. Enjoy 'em!

Dressup Day - Part 2

Dahlia played the part of the magical unicorn. It's a lovely costume, but we soon discovered such whimsy is completely incompatible with the realities of a booster seat and a seat belt. Now we know why animals with tails don't ride in cars. Well, much, anyway.

Dressup Day - Part 3

Noah wholeheartedly approves his adoption of the Spongebob persona. Although he's always a happy child, he seems to find another gear whenever a camera appears. The other pictures in this series were mostly blurry because he wouldn't stop moving. I've been told I was similarly silly in front of a camera when I was his age.

Dressup Day - Part 4

The queen of the brood, Debbie, wears her tiara in a regal prelude to the grand ball. The headpiece had to come off when she got into the van, however. Despite the fact that our vehicle has a lot of headroom and she's, um, not as tall as I am, the bejewelled covering nevertheless wouldn't fit under the roof.

It's nice being married to such a pretty queen.

O Canada

Inspiration can hit you anytime, anyplace. This one occurred to me while we were walking our brood back to the car at the local big box megastore/neighborhood-economic-vacuum-cleaner.

Ordinarily, acres-wide expanses of asphalt - with their legions of really stupid middle-aged people not watching where they're driving and shopping carts strewn haphazardly because people couldn't be bothered to spend the 24 seconds to walk them back to their designated gathering places - don't really do much to inspire me. I go into a numb, trancelike state as I try to safely get myself and my family out of there before one of the aforementioned middle-agers mistakes me for a lost squirrel and tries to turn me into a hood ornament.

The flag was so loud in the blustery wind that I couldn't ignore it, even though I was parked a good 50m away from it at the time. Luckily, I had the camera in its pouch (I've started carrying it here and there to ensure I don't miss the little stuff that comes up when you're busy with the everyday activities of life) and racked off a few backlit pictures of our Canadian flag.

I've always loved the vibrancy of our flag, and something about the way it was backlit just caught my eye. I was tempted to salute, but the guy who corrals the carts was looking at me funny, so I put the camera away and headed back to the car.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Ride by the morning light

Tomorrow morning I will get out of bed before the sun rises. I'll quietly peek in on our still-sleeping children, read the paper and feed the cat before I throw on my biking gear and roll my bike out of the garage and into the frosty chill of an autumn morning in London.

Frankly, I'd rather sleep in. I don't get enough sleep as it is, so the thought of forcing myself out of the house at an ungodly hour when I should instead have my head warmly stuffed under my pillow while my head plays another in a series of happy dreams is, frankly, ridiculous. It's a weekend morning, and here I am giving up a sleep-in.

Yet there I am blowing warm air into my hands as I pause briefly over my bike frame and plot out the morning ride in my head. I consider where I'm going to go, how fast I'm going to peg my average speed, and what I intend to get out of the ride. Some mornings I wimp out and stay close to home, riding in 20 km orbits so that I can quickly head home if I lose the will to ride long. Other mornings, I head straight out and stretch my legs toward some faraway burg that I've never before visited. That way, I have no choice but to keep my legs turning for the fully allotted time. Either way, it's a mind game. And it's one I play on my own.

See, for all the complaining I direct at myself as I first hit the cold air of a frosty morning, this is the time I need to assemble my head after one tumultuous week ends, and before the next one begins. Although I carry a cell phone for emergencies, it does not ring. I don't meet anyone I know. I speak to no one else unless I absolutely must. It's as close to solitary confinement as I'm ever going to get, and if the price to be paid is a slightly blue set of fingers for the first few kilometres, then so be it.

Now that my living is made by the words I write, this is the time when the jumble of letters starts to coalesce into the directed flow of thoughts that will form the basis of the upcoming week's writing. Sometimes, ideas take root during this ride that will emerge as fully-baked pieces many months down the road. My head somehow keeps track of them all, but it needs this alone time, cold as it may be, to start working it all out.

I also ride because I am the child of a generation that did not believe taking care of yourself truly mattered. I am the child of a generation that spends its days taking a litany of pills, visiting a litany of doctors, and counting the days until the next surgery. And if it isn't their own troubles that ail them, it is the troubles of the people who surround them that occupy their respective days. Our society's epidemic of declining health - and the resulting crisis in the health care system - is in large part brought on not by chance, but by choice.

I may not be able to control everything that may happen to me in future, but I will do everything I can to prevent the preventable. And if it means cold air slicing through the ventilation holes of my helmet when the sun's just rising, the frost clings to depressions in the road, and I'd rather be in bed, then that's the price I'll pay for not giving up on a future that would otherwise doom me if I simply gave up.

Who knows, maybe I'll even see you on that endless road one of these Sundays. I'll be the one on the pink Specialized. I'll be smiling.