Thursday, October 29, 2009

What exactly is the Prince's job?

Next week, Prince Charles (known by close friends as Chuck) will be coming to Canada, and if a poll of 1,400 Canadians is a reflection of the country, then indifference will probably mark his 15th visit to Canada.

Out in the colonies, the British royalty are kind of like those distant relatives, who come to visit every once in while. They’re pleasant visits, but not really full of much substance. So, it doesn’t surprise me when I read that half of those polled no longer believe there should be a Queen or King as a Head of State, and that only one in five would make an effort to see the Prince of Wales if he were nearby.

What does surprise me about the poll is that almost 700 people thought that Chuck was doing a good job, while just 34% thought he was doing a poor, or extremely poor job. And 62% said the Queen was doing a fair, good, or excellent job.

Really? And what are there jobs? It’s not like the days of old when Kings and Queens led countries, oppressed their subjects, invaded foreign lands, and ruled distant empires. Even Chuck’s website is a little vague about what he does. Under the Work section it reads:

The Prince of Wales, as Heir to the Throne, seeks, with the support of his wife, to do all he can to use his unique position to make a difference for the better in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Yah nice, but aren’t many of us trying to make a difference for our respective countries and the world?

I was chatting about the state of British throne just the other day with my colleague, who apparently claims to be Canadian, but spent of her impressionable years growing up in London, so she talks a funny kind of English. She told me that the Windsors (sounds like it could be the name of a soap opera) took a much greater interest in British affairs than we hear about in the backwaters of the Empire. Maybe so, but it seems that the Royals of old had a much greater impact on the affairs of their countries. Take for instance William, the bastard, a French dude, who by the time he was 19 was dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. Later he sailed across The Channel and invaded England and proclaimed himself King. Talk about overachiever.

While I don’t often run out when Elizabeth or her sons come to town (though in school once we stood on the side of the street waving a little Union Jack while Liz and Phil drove by, and I did bid farewell to the Royal clan when they boarded their Yacht), I am a sucker for pomp and pageantry, and I don’t mean to sell Chuck short, because he engages in many charitable causes and speaks out about environmental degradation, but it just seems that these Royal visits are merely tightly controlled glad-handing events.

His website says that he and Camilla hope to meet a cross-section of Canadians during their 11-day visit. If his handlers would let the guy loose, I’m sure he would have a more meaningful dialogue with Canadians, but he won’t get much of a sense of Canada being hustled from one heavily scripted event to another. Not like his younger brother, Edward, who while staying in Victoria at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, apparently donned a ball cap and slipped out the side door at Government House without his security detail and walked downtown to take in the nightly concerts in the Inner Harbour.
I wish the Prince and his Princess a pleasant visit, but like most Canadians I won't be rushing out to see them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A long road trip

So I learned today that it may soon be possible to travel to Mars in 39 days. This thanks to a new Ion propulsion engine. Not sure what that really means, but it sounds fast.

Apparently Mars and Earth only pass close together every two years, so space junkies always assumed a crew would have to travel one way, wait a year, then fly back the next time the planets were close together--raising the same kind of fear you have when your in-laws visit for Christmas and they might have to stay a year before returning home.

55 million km in 39 days--now that's one long road trip. I'm not sure it would work for our family. These days before we leave the garage, the older one is always asking, "are we there yet...are we there yet?". And when the little one starts screaming in the car, the older one starts in. Soon the back seat is a symphony of shrill shrieks.

Where would you stop for snacks along the way? Are there rest stops? "Hey honey, can you pull over, so I can use the toilet? Imagine the kind of musical play list you would have to put together.

"Haven't we heard this song before?"

"Well, not since day 17!"

My son would be playing one of his favourite songs over and over. A ditty by The Backyardigans (A grunge band from the early '90s) called, We're going to Mars.

It goes something like this:

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars We're going to Mars A mission is what we've got

We're gonna say 'roger' a lot

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars We're going to Mars We don't know what lies ahead

But we do know the planet's red

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars

What will we find when we get there

Probably some dude that is red there

Who knows, maybe we'll see you out there one day on the Milky Way travelling to Mars.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I'm no Brad Pitt, but I have three toilets

I often hear my wife talking in her sleep. The theme goes something like this. Why didn't I marry someone with the rugged good looks of Brad Pitt, or the refined charm of George Clooney, or the wit of Louis CK. Then she wakes up. And sees my adorable face.

While I'm no Pitt or Clooney, I am a great husband, but for reasons that may not at first seem obvious. I have provided my dear wife with a house that has three toilets--one on the main floor and two upstairs. I know, the pampered luxury that my wife has become accustomed to.

Now before you minimize the significance of such facilities, consider that in rural India many young women are refusing to marry unless their suitor furnishes their future home with a bathroom. This means the ladies won't be inconvenienced by having to use community toilets or squatting in fields.

In one state, close to 1.5 million toilets have been built since the No Toilet, No Bride campaign started two years ago. One woman said she won't let her daughter near a boy that doesn't have a toilet. "No loo? No, I do," she was quoted saying in a newspaper article.

The culture of favouring sons, and thus aborting female fetuses (an illegal, yet widespread practice), means there are more bachelors than eligible brides. Women and their parents are now able to be more selective when arranging a match. There's always a price to pay for screwing with nature, isn't there?

Imagine what a catch I would be in India with three toilets. I just won't tell my wife that Brad Pitt's French home has seven bathrooms, with another seven in the outbuildings on the property.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

15 cent Metro

Those who know me well know that I'm a frugal guy. Not cheap...frugal, there's a difference. If I was cheap I wouldn't have given the homeless guy some money for volunteering the directions to my hotel, during a recent visit to Seattle. It's a trait I'm sure passed down from some Scottish ancestry, and tucked deep inside my DNA. My mind is often consumed by money--how much did that taxi cost me? And that breakfast? And those two belts I bought from a street vendor yesterday in Mexico City. $20, $12, and $8, in case you were curious.

I try to live by a simple philosophy. We all have a certain amount of money, and if we are careful with it, we can experience much more than if we squander it away. That's why I shared a room with 9 others a couple of years ago, and paid $35 to stay a night in midtown Manhattan, or stayed with a family in Bucharest with no hot water for $15. But back to Mexico City.

Yesterday afternoon, I left my hotel and started walking along the impressive Paseo de la Reforma towards Zocola, the city's historical area. The de la Reforma is a multi-laned road bordered by wide boulevards, and lined with leafy trees. After passing the impressive Fountain de la Diana Cazadora and further along the Angel of the Revolution monument, I stopped in at a tourist info kiosk, and asked how long it would take to walk. 30 minutes. So I asked about the bus. The helpful attendant pointed to stop on the far side of the round about, and told me it would cost 5 pesos, 40 cents. What a bargain. Frugal guy likes that.

After spending some time ambling through the central part of the city, I thought I would take the subway back to my hotel. I scanned the colourful subway map and figured that if I walked to the Pino Suarez station, I could take the pink line to Sevilla, which would deliver me two blocks from the hotel.

I descended beneath the street and into the baking and busy maze of tunnels below, like ants burrowing through the ground. I found the ticket counter, and handed over 2 pesos, 15 cents, for a ticket. Yes, 15 cents. For a frugal guy like me, that's like pulling three sevens on a Vegas slot machine. I could ride the metro all day long at that price.

In case you need to impress someone at your next cocktail party, here's a little information on the subway. Yes, time saved looking it up online. My gift to you.

The Sistemo de Transporte Colectivo Metro, the official name of Mexico City's metro. Opened in 1969, it is the second largest metro system in North America, next to New York's, and serves more than 1.4 billion passengers a year (the Tokyo metro is the most used with more than 3 billion riders each year). There are 11 lines and more than 450 km of track. And indeed it is the cheapest metro ticket in the world.

During the initial construction, two archeological ruins were discovered, along with an Aztec idol, which apparently is different than an American Idol, and the bones of a mammoth.

The trains are long, and normally full of people, although on one train coming back from the airport this afternoon, I was able to get a seat. The windows on most cars have been scratched up by delinquents, but I never felt unsafe. Vendors ply their trade selling tic tacs, freezies, flashlights, small toys, and presumably a factory of other things. The din of the train is sometimes disturbed, pleasantly so, by the pulsing music from someone's large stereo. Music is, after all, meant to be shared.

And the one thing I noticed is that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, people entering the train don't wait to let those getting off the train, before they barge on. Humans are idiots, but I love the 15 cent metro.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We're always waiting for something

“It seems like everyone is waiting for something,” my 10-year old nephew observed recently over a family dinner. And while he was referring to the chicken, or potatoes, or salad, I thought it was an appropriate statement for life in general. Seems we’re always waiting for something.

Before we are born even, we wait to be freed from inside our mothers. And our parents, too, eagerly await our arrival. And when we do arrive, they hold their breath waiting for that shrill cry, and the thumbs up from the doctor.

As a youngster we eagerly wait for Santa Claus to come. Then on Christmas morning we wait some more until our parents get up and breakfast is made. And if you have a father like mine, you’ll wait even more, because he takes hours to open one gift.

At school, we wait outside until the bell calls us inside, where we wait until the teacher shows up, and begins the roll call (do they still do that). Students with names at the end of the alphabet always think they have to wait longer. Turns out we all wait the same amount of time. We wait for the results of our tests, while our parents wait for our report card. I always waited for my mother to ask why I don’t try harder and apply myself.

When we graduate from grade school we wait on the stage for our name to be called out, only to wait even longer until those students whose names are at the end of alphabet get called up. Then we wait for our final grades to see if we’ve applied ourselves enough to continue our education. We wait for the university to accept our application, where the waiting begins all over, except this time there are no bells to let us know when the class starts. And there is no recess.

Travelling is all about waiting, too. We go to the airport and wait to check-in, then wait again to put our bags on the conveyor belt. We wait at security and then again at the gate. Sometimes if the flight is delayed, we have to wait some more. Once onboard, we have to wait until all the passengers and cargo are loaded. Once in Dallas we had to wait until a thunderstorm passed. And when it was safe to leave we had to wait for the back up of airplanes to take off. The moment we leave, our loved ones can't wait until we return. They stand at the airport waiting for our plane to arrive.

Some mornings we lay awake waiting for the alarm to go off, and then wait for the hot water to warm up the bath or shower. We wait for the toast to jump out of the toaster, or the coffee to brew, or the Rice Krispies to go snap, crackle, pop.

Sports, too is a waiting game. We wait to enter the arena or stadium, then wait for the players to skate onto the ice, or run onto the pitch. We wait for the warm up to finish, and the puck to be dropped, or ball to be kicked. During the intermissions we wait some more--in lineups for food and drink, and for the toilet. We wait for the final buzzer to see if our team won. Then we wait to get out of the building, and wait some more to get our car out of the parking lot or to find a train home. In some cases, we wait decades before our team finally wins a championship, while others still wait for the first taste of victory.

At the supermarket we wait at the check stand for the person in front to pay for their groceries. It always seems that I’m waiting behind the person fumbling for loose change in their purse? We then wait for the cashier to scan our items, only to have to wait longer because they don’t know the code for organic spinach. We then wait for the total payment to be displayed. The cashier in turn waits for us to get find some cash or a plastic card.

The unlucky wait for the test results and then wait a doctor’s diagnosis, only to be told there is nothing more that can be done. They then wait to die. Life is cruel that way.

I’m not sure how they know this, but apparently we spend 10 weeks of our lives waiting. I guess I’ll have to wait to see if that’s true.