Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Overcoming Brick Walls

I'm reading Randy Pausch's, The Last Lecture. It's one of those, makes you think kind of books, and one that should be required reading.

For those of you not familiar, Pausch was an accomplished professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2006, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On July 25, 2008 Pausch died. That in itself isn't overly significant. More than 30,000 Americans die each year from this hideous disease. It's the legacy that Pausch left that is significant.

In September 2007, he captivated an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University, when he delivered the Last Lecture called, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. The lecture became a phenomenon, as millions of people around the world viewed his lecture on the web.

Throughout the book, Pausch uses a brick wall as a metaphor to describe the challenges we face in our lives. He writes: "The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough." and "They [brick walls] give us a chance to show how badly we want something."

Throughout our lives, each of us face brick walls. Sometimes we want something bad enough that we climb over that wall. Other times, we look back and regret that we didn't want something bad enough. If only we had done things differently. The point isn't to dwell on those "if onlys". The world isn't a perfect place and neither are we, but if we can learn from those experiences, we'll be ready when we come to the next wall.

Pausch talks a lot about childhood dreams, and as the title of the lecture suggests, really achieving those dreams. As I was reading the book, I began to realize that I didn't really have a whole lot of childhood dreams to reflect upon. I remember telling my parents that I would move out when I was 18, spend six Christmases by myself (whatever that meant), and then get married when I was 24. Not surprising, my life didn't play out like that. It was my parents that moved out when I was 20, and I didn't get married until I was 28. And when I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I used to pace when I was talking, especially when debating and arguing different points of view. I would also act as an arbiter in some of my parent's disputes. My mother said I would make a good lawyer. But when I hit that brick wall, I suppose I didn't want it bad enough.

I asked my wife if she had any childhood dreams. And apart from marrying some handsome, brilliant and charming man, she rattled off three--swim on the Great Barrier Reef, jump out of an airplane, and go on safari in Africa. She's done two of the three...she still yearns to see the world's biggest zoo.

Not long ago, my three-year old son, Jack, said to me, "Daddy, I would like to go to Paris one day." I'm sure he's not alone, but it is refreshing to see such a young boy with big, worldly dreams.

While I don't have a lot of childhood dreams, I surely have many as an adult. And maybe that's how it should be, as our life experiences show us opportunities that we didn't know existed as children.

So, I started making a list. In a sense sharing your dreams with others can make you feel vulnerable, but vulnerability is one brick in that big wall. It keeps forcing us to ask the question, how badly do we want it?

In no particular order, here are my dreams
  • take Jack to Paris, so he can ride the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower
  • there isn't a place in this world that I wouldn't want to visit, but high on my list are India, Pakistan, South Africa, Morocco, Vietnam, and Granada, Nicaragua. My wife and I attempted to get to the latter, but circumstance foiled us, and despite a great story to share about spending the night in an impoverished Nicaraguan village, I still yearn to get to Granada.
  • walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem
  • take my parents to a part of Europe (Venice, Vienna, Prague) they might not normally go to. A reminder there's more to Europe than Britain.
  • show my in-laws some vibrant cities in East Asia
  • explore New York City with my family, and take my sons on the big Toys R Us Ferris wheel in Times Square
  • Visit New York, or Chicago, or Boston to watch a Vancouver Canucks game with my wife, or father-in-law, or my friend, K2
  • drive across the United States
  • go to the World Hockey Championships in Europe
  • raise $1,000,000 for charity
  • have an article published in National Geographic or National Geographic Traveler (even better would be for my wife's photos to accompany the story)
  • interview Robert Milton, who is the Chairman, President, and CEO of ACE Aviation Holdings, the parent group of Air Canada (I had been chasing an interview with Mr. Milton for a few years, but kept running into brick walls)
  • work in the aviation industry, whether for an airline or airport
Maybe you have a list of your own.

A link to the Last Lecture website

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Yes, Carrie, there is a Santa Claus!

Last night the jolly old fellow from the North Pole paid a visit to our house. I know this because the cookies that Jack left out for him, and the carrot for his reindeer were gone. The only evidence that something had once been on the plate were the crumbs. And he left some gifts under the tree. Oh, and the deer droppings in our backyard.

About a month ago, we all went to see Santa at the Mall. He asked Jack what he wanted for Christmas. A video game was the response. This sounded like a reasonable request. Santa then looked over to me and asked what I wanted. I told him I would like a book. Again, a very reasonable request. Then he turned to Carrie and asked what she would like Santa to bring her. She paused for a minute, and then said she would like a trip to Hawaii.

Somewhat surprised by such an audacious request, Santa looked to me with one of those, "well Dad, how are we going to get out of this one," looks.

"I'll see what I can do," Santa said, after a moment's hesitation.

Maybe Carrie had some doubts about whether Santa could really deliver, so she decided to test him. Never underestimate Santa, I say.

On Christmas morning we each got a gift from Santa. A video game for Jack, a book for Dadddy, and a trip to Hawaii for Mommy. It was at that moment, when Carrie unwrapped that last gift, that all doubt had been erased.
With apologies to Francis Pharcellus Church--Yes, Carrie, there is a Santa Claus!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leave Santa alone

So, some do-gooders in Germany want to get rid of Santa Claus. They claim he has commercialized Christmas. Right! And Santa is also responsible for the current world economic downturn, and much of the scourge and deprivation that afflicts our world.

The jolly, bespectacled, old man, who wears a red coat trimmed with white fur, and calls the North Pole home is an easy target. Much easier than taking responsibility for our own actions. It's not Christmas that has become commercialized, it's our society.

If we're going to blame Santa, then let's blame Jack O' Lantern (by the way, does anyone know what Jack Lantern's middle name is?) and the Easter Bunny, and St. Valentine, and teachers, too, because they are surely responsible for the commercialization of going back to school. And good God if we're talking commercialization have you been to the Vatican and seen all the kitchy (and tacky) souvenirs they sell to the masses.

Every year we here how the true spirit of Christmas (as if Christmas has been around since...well, since Christ) is being ruined by our indulgent pursuits. I disagree.

In my 37 years of life, Christmas has changed very little. It's still a time for family to come together, and for most to share a big meal. It's a time when Santa stocks me up with socks and underwear. And those who go to church and celebrate the birth of Jesus, do so gladly (you know he wasn't really born in December) . They even get to catch up with the C&Es. They're the ones who only go to church at Christmas and Easter.

Sure, some people go a little crazy. Like the lady on the news who says she usually spends $1,000 on each of her four kids at Christmas. But her ridiculous behaviour isn't exclusive to Christmas, I'm sure.

Hands off the old man! Santa isn't to blame. If we feel society has become too commercialized, then maybe it's time we looked at our own behaviour. In the meantime, tomorrow night not a creature will stir in our house, not even a mouse. We'll hang our stockings by the chimney (how does Santa deal with gas fireplaces?). And we'll have oranges (I'm not fond of sugar plums) dancing in our heads. Since I don't hear anything when I'm asleep, my wife will have to open the shutters and pull up the sash, when she hears the clatter on our lawn, announcing the arrival of Saint Nick and his herd of reindeer. And in the morning we'll race downstairs and see what magic he has brought.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers, published in 2003 by Lonely Planet Publications, is a compilation of travel stories proving that even the most hardened traveler will come to rely on the helping hand of a stranger.

In that book, seasoned travel writer, Don George, wrote:
"In 25 years of wandering the world, I have learned two things: the first is that when you travel, at some point you will find yourself out of money, out of food, unable to find a room, lost in a big city, or on a remote trail stranded in the middle of nowhere. The second is that someone will miraculously emerge to take care of you--to lend you money, feed you, put you up for the night, lead you to where you want to go. Whatever the situation, dramatic or mundane, some stranger will save you."

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of my own brushes with the kindness of strangers. While exploring the world, I have never run out of money, or food, but like most people, I have come to rely on strangers to help me on my way.

Fifteen years ago (longer ago than I care to remember), I visited France, as part of a two-month, trek through Europe. I had always heard, and still do for that matter, that the French are rude and not overly helpful towards tourists. But my experience on a cool, windy day, in a small French town shattered those pre-conceptions.

We were the only ones to step off the train in Arras. It was eerily quiet. Our intended destination was Vimy, a sacred place where thousands of Canadians lost their lives in the First World War. From the station, our guidebook suggested that Vimy was a “healthy hike”. But not knowing if the author was a marathon walker or a couch potato, we weren’t quite sure what a “healthy hike” was.

We wandered around to the front of the station, which looked just as deserted. The only clue to our destination was a small guidepost, which pointed in one direction. After a few minutes, we waved a car down, and I tried to summon all the French I had learned in school, which wasn’t much. There were three people in the car, and we spoke to a man, probably in his forties, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

He told us his father would return and drive us to the Memorial. Minutes later we found ourselves in the little car, zipping along a country road. The older man chatted away in French, and I in English. It all seemed to make sense. I could tell that he was grateful for the sacrifice made by Canadians. When we got to Vimy, he arranged with another visitor to drive us back.

The day ended when a couple from North Vancouver drove us back to the train station and offered us a bottle of wine, one of many they had purchased on their travels through France.

While on the same trip, we found ourselves in St. Goar, a quaint village on the banks of the Rhein River. The youth hostel was located in an old castle. Most castles were built in difficult to reach places. This particular one was perched on a cliff-side, high above the river. As we searched for the trail that would lead us up the mountain, a man stopped his car and asked if we were going to the youth hostel. “Jump in,” he said, “I’ll drive you up there.” The man lived in St. Goar and always felt sorry that visitors had to walk up to the hostel, so whenever if he sees someone, he offers them a ride.

In early 1998, Carrie and I were in Seoul, Korea. Carrie’s health was deteriorating, and we spent many days at the hospital seeing doctors. On one occasion, she had to have a number of tests, all of which had to be paid for in advance. Each wasn’t overly costly, but after several of these tests, my wallet had been emptied of cash. Turned out the hospital didn’t accept credit cards, so I went to a bank machine in hospital lobby. At the time, only a handful of ATMs in Seoul accepted foreign bank cards. And this wasn’t one of them.

Another test was ordered, but now I had to show my empty wallet to the nurse. It was difficult communicating to the nurse. How did I tell her that I had money, it was just in the bank not my wallet. Then an older woman, who seemed like a hospital volunteer, overheard our conversation and offered to pay for the tests. She gave me her bank account number and I assured her we would return the money in a few days time.

The next day, I was telling my students about this woman’s kind gesture. At the end of the class one of the students offered to make the deposit for me. I gave her the money and the next day she gave me a receipt from the bank.

A number of years ago, my wife and I were in Sydney, Australia (not to be confused with Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the odd wayward traveler some times ends up instead). It was late afternoon and we left the downtown area for my brother-in-law’s house, north of the city. We had the vaguest idea where we were going. Instead of taking the bus all the way, we decided to take a small ferry part way before connecting to a bus.

After some uncertainty as to which bus to take and where to get off, we arrived at a shopping centre, which served as a hub for city buses. We weren’t far from Bob’s house, but we still needed to find the right route to his house.

I should point out that it was May (late Fall in Australia), and I was the only person wandering around in shorts and a t-shirt. A cool rain had already started falling. And everyone we asked had no idea how to get to Bob’s house. Finally, after looking lost and being told to wait at various stops, a bus driver came to us and said, “My shift is over, you can hop on my bus.” He was delivering his bus to the depot, but on his way he made a detour, and dropped us off in front of Bob’s house. When we told my sister-in-law, a native Australian, about the kind bus driver that just dropped us off. She didn’t believe our story. “Our bus drivers aren’t that nice,” she said.” Well Des, there’s at least one.

When Carrie and I visited Iran, a work colleague arranged for her brother, who we had never met before, to tour us around Tehran. In the morning, Fereidoon arrived with a bouquet of flowers for Carrie. We climbed in his car, and drove through the crowded and chaotic streets of Tehran. Then we visited his parent’s home in the northern part of the city, where Iranian hospitality included copious amounts of tea, oranges, and cake. After filling our stomachs we headed off to Fereidoon’s home, about 40 minutes west of the Tehran, where his wife had prepared a gastronomic feast.

After a lazy afternoon, sharing stories with Fereidoon and his family, he drove us back into the city. The following morning we left Iran for a few days and traveled to Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates. We spent a few days here before returning to Iran and visiting Esfahan and Shiraz. Fereidoon offered to pick up our plane tickets and hotel reservations from the tour company, and would meet us at the airport around noon on the day we were scheduled to arrive back in Tehran.

As it turned out our morning flight from Sharjah to Iran had been cancelled. We were booked on on another flight, but it wouldn’t leave until 11:00 pm that night. This delay meant that we would miss our flight to Esfahan, and Fereidoon still had our tickets for the rest of our trip. He assured us by telephone that someone would be waiting for us at the airport with the tickets. When we arrived in Tehran, at 1:00 am, Fereidoon was there. But how and when would we get to Esfahan. Turned out Fereidoon had arranged an overnight taxi. And so we found ourselves racing across the Iranian desert in the middle of the night.

After a few days ambling through two of Iran's most beautiful and historic cities, we flew back to Tehran, where Fereidoon was again waiting. This time he took us back to his parent’s place where we stayed the night and enjoyed dinner with what seemed like family. Fereidoon's kindness and that of his family were a reflection of Persian hospitality.

Before arriving in Bucharest, my impressions of Romania were largely negative ones.
From all the stories I heard, I half expected to be attacked by roving gangs of gypsy kids at the airport. Instead, I was offered a ride into the city. I was looking for the bus outside the terminal and asked someone where the correct stop was. A man pointed to the stop a short distance away, but said that he was driving back into the city, and offered me a ride. What a pleasant introduction to Romania, as we drove into the city past wide, tree-lined boulevards.

I often reflect on these stories, and wonder if we would do the same. Would we open our homes or our wallets to someone we had never met? Would we go out of our way to drive a stranger somewhere? I like to think we would. You too must have stories of your own, when a stranger offered you a helping hand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why we should care who Jørn Utzon was

Jørn Oberg Utzon died last month at the age of 90. If not for a brief mention in the latest issue of Maclean's magazine that piqued my interest, his name would have meant nothing to me, as I'm sure is the case for most people. Yet, he designed one of the world's most iconic buildings. And while it is arguably this city's most photographed site, Utzon never got to see the completed building. In fact, when it was opened in 1973, he wasn't invited, nor was his name mentioned.

In 1957, Utzon won the competition to design this building. It was his first competition outside his home country of Denmark. From the beginning the project was mired in political interference. And it was politics that would eventually befall Utzon, when he was forced to resign as Chief Architect in 1966, after the government stopped payment on the project.
Decades later he was brought in as the building's architect to develop a set of design principles to at as a guide for all future changes. And in 2003, was honoured with the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's highest honour.

Fifty years after Utzon won the design competition, the building was declared a World Heritage Site, and the expert evaluation report to the World Heritage Committee stated: “…it stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.”

It's a shame that Utzon never got to see his masterpiece, but as his son commented about his father's work, "...as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it."

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Sydney's Opera House.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Children can be a detriment to one's health

My youngest son was screaming his face off last night (sometimes my other son does that too, but not last night, thankfully). I was holding my son while said screaming was happening, which means the sound, and not a pretty one at that, was traveling right into my ear.

I thought to myself (because no one would have heard me if I vocalized the thought) that there must be some inherent danger to my health and well being, as I was forced to endure this incessant noise. Somehow noise just isn’t the best descriptor for the high-pitched sound that emanates from deep inside this screaming kid. It’s kind of like when I try to explain the snoring sound that roared and grunted from this animal-like person that I had to sleep above in an Austrian youth hostel. Sometimes there isn’t a word that can adequately describe something. This is the case with my son.

I handed my son to my wife and walked away.

“What are you doing,” she asked.

“I’m refusing unsafe work…”

Wife looks perplexed

“…it’s in my contract that I can refuse unsafe work, and according to the latest worksafe regulations your son’s (insert glare from wife)—I mean, our son’s screaming is unsafe.”

Forget listening to loud music, or working next to a jet (now, how do I get that job), or riding a jack hammer like a pogo stick, the son’s decibel crushing scream is ruining what little hearing I have left. And my wife wonders why I can’t hear her.

After pawning son off to wife, I made a hasty retreat to bed, so I could recover from the relentless ringing in my ears. (Okay, before you all think I'm shirking my fatherly duties, my wife can cheat by shoving her mamories in son's mouth for a feed, which usually keeps him quiet)

Then he started again. And making matters worse, federal regulations require a baby monitor to be installed throughout our house, which seems pointless considering someone would have to be deaf not to hear some shrieking baby, especially this one. “Would someone shut this kid up,” I wanted to yell. But I knew that no one would hear me.

I’ve now resorted to disassociation. We were at a townhouse Christmas party last weekend, and my wife was talking to our neighbour, whose very quiet baby was born one day before our shrieking son.

“So, do you hear him,” my wife asked.

What she really wanted to know was, do you hear him through the walls of our house?

Yes, sometimes,” our neighbour reluctantly offered.

“Oh yes, I can here him too,” I said, pretending not to be associated with wife and son.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Most of us have never experienced fear

Fear Grips Nation. That was the ominous sounding headline splashed across the front of The Province, with a picture of a brooding sky and a Canadian flag. In a word or two--one of the most sensationalist and ludicrous newspaper covers that I have seen in years. Apparently, 75% of Canadians are truly scared for the future of the country--so says a poll published in the paper. Let’s get real. We need to grow up and put an end to this lunacy. Yes, we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented political instability, but the sun will rise tomorrow, chickens will still lay eggs, and salmon will amazingly find their way back to the river of their birth. And Canada will forge along as it has for 141 years.

Most of us have never experienced real fear.

Fear is when you were the sole income earner, and you just lost your job, or you’re not sure where you’ll find some money to buy your kids presents at Christmas, or you don’t where you’ll sleep tonight, because you have no home to go to. Fear is when a soldier points a gun at your husband’s head and shoots him, and then rapes your daughter. Fear is when you have to walk miles through the searing heat looking for clean drinking water, or when war drives you to pack up all your belongings (which you can carry in your hands), and forces you to trek for hundreds of miles to another country, only to find yourself with thousands of others crammed into a refugee camp, uncertain if you will ever return to your home. Fear is when the Ebola virus, or some other insidious disease, sweeps through your impoverished village.

Fear is when you know you are drowning and you take one gasp of air before slipping beneath the surface. Fear is when you are trapped in a burning building, or lost and injured on a freezing hillside, or you lose your brakes while driving down a steep mountain road. Fear is when a foreign army rolls across the border and occupies your town. Fear is when you and your family are huddled in the cellar of your house waiting for the monstrous destruction of a tornado or hurricane to pass, or when you survive a massive earthquake, only to find that 100,000 of your neighbours perished and cholera is now rampant. Fear is when your son, who has found a home in the South Side Compton Crip gang, gives you a hug on his way out the door, and you wonder if it will be the last time you see him alive.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I see money in my juice containers

"Money is not the most important thing in the world.
Love is. Fortunately, I love money!"

- author unknown

In my last post I talked about stopping to pick up a penny at the supermarket. This was met with derision by some. I use the word derision, because it sounds better than jeering laughter or ridicule. And the very fact that people laughed jeeringly probably means that it's time the government eliminated the one cent coin.
Yesterday one of my colleagues gave me a little cloth bag filled with pennies, and nickels and the odd dime (thank you, Allison). She found this bit of loose change a nuisance and was going to throw it away. Just the very sound of those words is wrong. Then she remembered that frugal Ken would appreciate some pennies. She did admit to pulling out the quarters before handing the bag over.

A discussion then ensued as to what point people would be willing to bend over and pick up a wayward coin. No one would admit to picking up a penny. Some would pick up a nickel, while others would pass up a quarter, but would stop for a dollar coin.

It was time for a little experiment. I placed a penny, nickel, and dime in a well-travelled area of the office to see how long it would take for someone to pick it up. It didn't take long for someone to pick them up. Another admitted to seeing the coins, but would only have picked it up if it were a dollar or two. We then placed a 25 cent coin in the same area, and it got picked up pretty quick, although apparently it was someone different that scooped up the quarter. It warmed my heart knowing that there are others out there who, like me, see value in money, however little it may be.

When I got home I opened the cloth bag and spilled the change out onto the counter. I felt like the King in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, "...the King was in his counting house counting out his money."

In total there was $1.93. To some, the bag was full of worthless coins, but I'm sure if I someone gave you a two dollar coin you wouldn't hesitate to throw it in your pocket.

A forest company executive looks at a stand of trees and sees money. A farmer looks across a dark brown field and sees money. I look at the juice containers on my kitchen counter and see money (which reminds me, I need to go to the bottle return depot).

By the way, if anyone else would like to give me a bag of loose change, just send me a message and I will gladly take it off your hands.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A slave to frugality

“Daddy, you’ve been ironing all day long,” exclaimed my son (the one that can talk). He was right. I had been ironing all day. When the roosters started cock-a-doodle-dooling, or whatever roosters do, I was setting up the ironing board, and I toiled over that hot steam iron for hours. It didn’t help that said son wanted me to iron his underwear for him as well.

“Yes Jack, I’m a slave to your mother,” I replied, as a burst of steam rushed up into my face. Now before some of you start thinking about slave in the leather and whips kind of way, let me put it this way. It’s been so long that I’m convinced my children were (with apologies to devout Catholics) born of an immaculate conception. Although, apparently many women are turned on by a man doing the ironing and laundry. I digress.

To be fair, I’m not actually a slave to my wife, but rather a slave to frugality. The reason I had piles of ironing to do was because instead of using the dryer, which by the way next to your hair dryer and oven is one of the biggest energy hogs in your house, I have taken to hanging our laundry to dry. More often, this was exclusive to the warm days of summer, but this year I decided to keep it going.

My wife asked me yesterday what I’m saving by not using the dryer. “Well dear,” I said in that lingering way that gave me time to think of a good answer. “We’re saving three things…no actually four things…money (most important), the environment (second most important), wear and tear on our clothes (I could care less, but it sounds good), and extending the life of the dryer.” I’m sure they’ll soon be offering me the Nobel Prize, or at the very least Citizen of the Year.

“What good is extending the life of the dryer if you never use it,” my wife shot back in one of those gotcha moments.

Oh, she’ll thank me come Christmas when I have some spare change left from my frugal ways and I can buy her a few extra things at the dollar store, I thought to myself.

So what is it like living a slave to frugality? Well, while others throw pennies away I pick them up. In fact, I did just that at the supermarket yesterday. I walked past it at first, but I gave in, walked back and picked that shiny penny up and put it in my pocket. A hundred of those coppers will give me a buck. A thousand will get me ten dollars and 10,000 of those useless coins will get me…you guessed it $100. Well done. Consider that your math lesson for the day.

Not that I would know, but I imagine being a slave to frugality feels the same way a crackaddict does. When he gets his hands on a rock, he's overcome by a sense of ecstasy. I feel the same way when I score a $10 a night room while on vacation, or find that coupon in the mail for Huggies diapers.

With the state of world’s finances sagging lower than some kids wear their pants, frugality is the latest buzzword. This is convenient because now when my wife complains that we have to fumble through our darkened house wearing low wattage head lamps on to save money AND the environment (I throw that in all the time, because she can’t really argue about the world her son’s will inherit), I can tell her that the IMF, WHO, NAFTA, APEC, UN, UNICEF, WWF, OECD, ABC, XYZ have all told us that in this crippling economic time we need to tighten our belts. I would tell you what all those acronyms mean, but I’ve had the power cut at our house to save money so I can't turn the computer on.

My wife’s in the bath and I can hear her hollering at me. “I’m cold!”

“Put on a sweater,” I shout back, “I’m busing recycling Max’s diapers so we can use them again.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I'm not as evolved as I once thought

On learning that I don’t have any wisdom teeth, someone said recently that this means I am highly evolved. I’m not sure what this means, but it sounds good. I’m sure one day they’ll put me in a museum. I imagine schoolchildren parading past me in wonder, their teacher pointing out this highly evolved 21st Century specimen.

Before someone starts making some exhibit space, I have learned, after some laborious research, that not having wisdom teeth probably has nothing to do with evolution, but rather is a genetic mutation. Somehow the former sounded so much better. Now when introducing myself, I’ll have to admit to being a mutant.

Apparently, wisdom teeth are considered vestigial, along with the appendix and the coccyx, commonly known as the tailbone. The tailbone is a remnant of a lost tail that once assisted in balance and mobility. A tail is actually present in humans for a period of four weeks during the embryonic stage.

It is believed that our third set of molars, or wisdom teeth, were once used for our early diet of coarse, rough food. And because our diet is no longer rich in foliage, our appendix no longer functions as it once did. Some doctors; however, believe that the appendix contains infection-fighting lymphoid cells, suggesting that it may play a role in our immune system.

Goose bumps in humans under stress are a vestigial reflex. They were once a function to raise the body's hair, making our ancestors appear larger and scaring off predators.

So, there you have it. Some useless information, you can share at your next cocktail party.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

How things have changed since I was a kid

I'm reading Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about growing up in 1950s America. Most of Bryson’s other titles are stories of his travels that will have you laughing uproariously (that sounds like an odd word). In fact, a number of times I had to catch myself from laughing out loud while reading on the bus .

Anyway, back to the Thunderbolt Kid. Bryson relates that at this time no country had ever known such prosperity. In 1951, 90 percent of American families had refrigerators, and three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and stoves. Today, of course we take much of these conveniences for granted.

This got me thinking about the changes that have happened in my lifetime. I was born in 1970. I try to associate with people older than I, so that I always seem young. I don't talk much to my twenty-something colleague who was born after Star Wars first came out. She doesn't know a world before email and cell phones and texting.

During most of my younger years, we only had one television in our house—it was black and white (in fact, we didn’t get a colour TV until 1986). There were 12 channels (one of them was in French) and if you wanted to change the channel, you had to walk up to the mammoth set and turn the large dial, which made a loud clicking sound. There was no such thing as 24-hour children’s programs. Cartoons were on Saturday mornings and after-school. And every Sunday at 6:00 PM, by government decree, all families would be forced to watch The Wonderful World of Disney. There were no VCRs or DVD players. Despite this, we led contented lives.

We listened to music on a record player. After some time, the automatic arm on the player would break, and we’d have to place the needle on the record by hand. Inevitably, the record would get scratched and the song would skip, or it would get stuck, and play over and over and over until the needle was lifted. When you finished listening to side A, you would turn the record over for side B. Sometimes you’d leave the record near the window and it would warp.

Then cassettes came along, and you’d sign up for the deal that gave you 100 cassettes for 99 cents. Then each month another crappy cassette would come that you would have to return before they charged you. It was such an annoyance, but you kept reminding yourself that you received 100 albums for a buck. Finally, you’d cancel your subscription. When CDs came along you’d fall for the same promotion, until you got annoyed and cancelled your subscription.

Most houses, ours included only had one bathroom. There were no such things as cell phones or portable phones. Or call waiting. There were no answering machines. If you called someone and the line was busy, you just called back later (I'm still not sure if my friend, Sean, has call waiting). People used pay phones back then. It cost 10 cents to make a call.

When I was in grade 2, I rode my bike to school by myself, and when I came home my parents would still be at work. I’d grab a fistful of Ritz crackers or a bowl of ice cream and watch the Banana Splits or some other program. Elementary school students served as crossing guards (in fact, I won the School Patrol of the year in Grade 7). And there weren’t elaborate graduation ceremonies when we left Kindergarten or Grade 7. We didn't have play dates when I was a kid. If we wanted to play with our friends they just came to our house or vice versa.

There were no superstores back then, nor super models for that matter. Stores were closed on Sundays (part of the Lord’s Day Act), and when they had a vote to see if people wanted Sunday shopping, my Dad voted against it. He didn’t see the need for stores to be open on Sundays. There were no such things as debit cards, or ATMs, so on holidays and New Year’s, lines would appear outside the banks, as people made sure they had enough cash to hold them over until the bank reopened in a few days. Once people finished at the bank, they would head over to the liquor store and stand in equally long lines to load up on drink over the holidays. The only beer available was Lucky and Old Style, or maybe I thought that, because that was the only beer my Dad ever bought. Probably because it was the cheapest.

There were no mini-vans when I was growing up. Cars were made of steel, had chrome bumpers, and were so large that growing families could easily fit. They had equally large trunks. Large families would put a few of their children in the trunks to make room. There were no seatbelts, and no car seats for babies and small children.

Most movie theatres only had one screen, and the lobbies were so small that moviegoers would line up outside and down the block before the show. It was a big thing when the Odeon Theatre expanded to two screens, and even bigger when the Capitol 6 opened. Today, its six screens would pale in comparison to the 20 screen theatres that exist.

No one had mountain bikes. The best and fastest bicycles were 10-speeds. I remember the excitement when I got my first 10-speed. It was baby blue, and it was used. It didn’t matter; it was better than the old bike I had been riding that had no gears. Although some fun could be had with those bikes, because you just pushed the pedals back to apply the brakes. Skidding the tires was easy. Of course, sometimes you would wear the tire down and it would pop. I lost track of the number of times my Dad had to repair my tires.

Come autumn, we would rake (no one had leaf blowers) the leaves in our yard into a big pile, and then we would burn them. Usually it was more smoke than fire. If you looked across the city you could see plumes of smoke rising from backyards all over. Recycling hadn’t been invented. We threw cans and plastics in the garbage and burned the paper garbage, although sometimes some plastic would end up in the fire as well, sending toxic smoke into the air.

Our Halloween costumes were made by hand. Christmas decorations didn’t appear in stores in July, and Christmas trees were still called Christmas trees.

No one ever imagined that one day we would all have a personal computer in our homes (okay, maybe a few tech geeks did). I remember our first computer. I was maybe 11 or 12. It was made by Texas Instruments, and thanks to modern technology I was able to do a Google search and discovered that the computer was a TI99/4A and apparently retailed for about $700. I used it to play games, but every once in a while I would follow the manual, and program the computer, so my name scroll across the screen. Most people used typewriters. If you wanted to make a duplicate copy, you slid a piece of carbon paper between two pages. In fact, I used a typewriter (the apostrophe key was missing) all the way through university (I graduated in 1993).

Coffee was just black or white. And Starbucks was just the name of a character in the Moby Dick story. I only wish I got to walk to school uphill (both ways) in the blinding snow, as the generation before did.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

For some, Obama's dream is still just that

Over the coming days, weeks, and months, much will be written and said about Barack Obama’s monumental victory. He inspired a nation. He gave hope to people around the world. And if just for a moment, the United States was no longer the dirty word (or words) that it had become over the past eight years. In his speech last night, Obama reached beyond the United States, with these words:

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand."

Much has been made that an African American has finally reached the pinnacle of American politics. For that reason alone, Obama’s victory is a watershed moment in U.S. history. While racism is still rampant, he has accomplished what few ever thought possible. Obama himself alluded to this in his speech:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

What many people don’t realize is that all things are not possible. For many Americans, Obama’s dream will remain just that—a dream. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that no person except a naturalized born citizen, or a citizen of the U.S. at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall be eligible to the office of President…

What this means is that most American citizens born outside of the U.S. will never be able to share Obama’s dream of becoming President. The United States is a land of immigrants. In fact, the first few Presidents were born outside the country, yet 232 years after the United States was founded a large proportion of Americans will never be able to aspire to the White House.

In 2003, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced the Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment, which proposed that a person born outside the U.S., but who had been a citizen for 20 years would be eligible to become President. The proposed amendment failed.

Of the more than 10,000 attempts to amend the Constitution, only 27 have succeeded, but this particular amendment deserves a closer look. If it’s unfair to deny a black man the opportunity to become President, it is equally unfair to deny a fellow American, whose shortcoming, if you can call it that, is that they were born in another country.

And while we're on the topic elections...Americans like to remind themselves, and the world, that theirs is the greatest country in the world. And if that is the case, then why must people line up for four and five hours to vote. It makes no sense to me. If this is what the "greatest" country in the country can offer up, I shudder to think what it might be like in the fourth greatest country in the world.

Yes We Can Obama Song by will.i.am

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Women at the Top

When Hillary Clinton was still in the running for the Democratic nomination, and even later when the insular, moose-hunting Sarah Palin was tapped as the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Republicans, many people started asking themselves if the United States was ready for a female president. To suggest that a woman isn't able and ready to lead the United States is such an absurdity. Even more so considering the countless countries that have had a woman as their national leader, including:

Indira Ghandi - India
Benazir Bhutto - Pakistan
Margaret Thatcher - United Kingdom
Corazon Aquino - Phillipines
Gloria Arroyo - Phillipines
Mary Robinson - Ireland
Mary McAleese - Ireland
Megawati Sukarnoputri - Indoesia
Cristina Elizabeth Fernández de Kirchner - Argentina
Angela Merkel - Germany
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Liberia
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga - Latvia
Tarja Kaarina Halonen - Finland
Khaleda Zia - Bangladesh
Luisa Dias Diogo - Mozambique
Michelle Bachelet - Chile
Micheline Calmy-Rey - Switzerland
Golda Meir - Israel
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir - Iceland
Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil - India
Borjana Kristo - Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Helen Clark - New Zealand

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ironic that Florida looks like a gun

Does anyone else find it ironic that the state of Florida looks like a handgun?

While economic and political uncertainty is sweeping across the United States like a swift Santa Ana wind, Americans are seemingly finding certainty in their guns. According to a recent Vancouver Sun article, firearms and ammunition sales are up 10 percent in the US this year. Many are attributing the increase to two factors—concerns about the economy and a fear that President Barack Obama will join with his Democrat colleagues to enact new gun controls.

Apparently, in the "best "country in the world, a worsening economy fuels fear of crime and civil disorder. And when fear strikes might as well grab a gun. Seems easier than trying to rationalize the fear.

One customer at a gun shop in Virginia sees the world this way: “People are preparing for catastrophe right now…it’s [guns] insurance. With the stock market crash and people out of work, and the illegal aliens, the probability of civil disorder is very high.”

This guy probably didn’t hear about the recent study that concluded that when people are unable to deal with uncertainty and chaos in their lives they start developing conspiracy theories.

A gun shop owner in Hagerstown, (now that sounds like tough town) Maryland said of the political and economic situation: “It’s common sense. People are scared.”

In 2005, more than 30,000 Americans died from fire-arm related deaths. That’s 10 times more than died in the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, and in just two years that number would eclipse the total number of Americans that died in the entire 11 year Vietnam War. And they have memorials for those two significant events in American history, and yet there isn’t a memorial for the tens of thousands of Americans killed each year unnecessarily by guns. While 30,000 Americans will meet their fate at the end of gun barrel, more than 70,000 will be injured because of firearms. And Americans are seemingly okay with this.

More than 3,000 children are killed each year by gunfire. It may not sound like a lot, but imagine for a moment if that was your child. It’s probably not surprising then that in the same section of paper that highlighted increased gun sales, there was an equally disturbing article about an eight year old boy, who died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi submachine gun, while at a gun show, and apparently under adult supervision. An eight year old boy belongs at the park, not at a gun show.

The logic, or illogic, is that one carries a gun for protection. I suppose if you whip yourself into a frenzied state of fear, then you anything will seem logical, but I remember Dear Abby writing a column once that suggested that if a criminal wants to use a gun to commit a crime they will use the element of surprise. This means that you will have no time to reach into your purse or glove box, or bedside table for your gun. In fact, you’re more likely to kill some kid going door to door looking for treats as happened to one young boy in Texas on Halloween a few years back.

The notion that it is an American right to carry a gun is utter nonsense. The founders of the United States would be horrified to see what has become of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. One former Chief Justice calls it one of the misinterpretation one the biggest frauds in America. Others have called gun violence in the United States a shameful epidemic.

And while there are many gun control advocates, little will change because guns and firearms have become ingrained in the national psyche of Americans. Not unlike the health care debate in Canada. It’s tough to have objective dialogue about an issue when it becomes wrapped up in one's national identity. A shame really, because more people will continue to lose their lives needlessly.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nickel and Dimed by the airline industry

I took my first flight on June 30, 1984. I remember it like it was, well, 24 years ago. I was 14 years old and had never been to an airport before. I was a tad anxious, yet excited when I saw that 'big orange' CP-Air DC-10, which would fly me away to Amsterdam.

The fare for that flight was $998 and the tax was a whopping $12.50. This was before the days of airport improvement fees, security fees, fuel surcharges, wheelchair levies, insurance surcharges, administration fees, late-booking fees, credit-card booking charges, and bag fees.

Now let's put this into perspective. Today, that same flight at the same time of year, would cost $1,700, plus $131 in taxes and fees (and you would have to fly the Dutch airlines KLM, as CP-Air, and its successor brand is no longer in business).

Using a cost of living calculator today's base fare is comparatively the same as it was in 1984; however, the tax has increased from 1% of the fare in 1984 to 7% today. While KLM doesn't list the taxes and fees when making a booking query, I don't think many travellers today would begrudge paying an extra $131 on top of the fare. What people don't like is being teased with a fare and then learning that it will really be hundreds of dollars more.

Take for example a recent $49 fare (one-way, of course) from Vancouver to London. Turns out the return fare is $149 plus $513 in taxes and fees, none of which are listed. Oh, and you'll also have to pay a $15 late-booking fee. What nonsense. If you want to charge me $15, add it to the fare. Don't nickel and dime the consumer when they book. It's that kind of behaviour that incenses the public.

While flying on Air Canada, at the same time, doubles the cost of this particular flight, they are at least more transparent about the taxes and fees.

$526 - base fare
$420 - fuel surcharge
$23 - Airport Improvement Fee
$17 - Canadian Air Traveller Security Fee
$39.96 - UK Passenger Service Charge
$1.15 - GST
$81.14 - UK Air Passenger Duty

Total taxes and fees - $585.25 (or 111% of the fare)

This past weekend, Air Transat and Flight Centre both offered a tantalizing $99 fare to London, but with $512.50 in "secretive" taxes and fees, the cost soars to more than $600. Still a good deal, but why the lack of transparency. There's something wrong when more than 80% of the total fare is made up of "taxes and fees". A clever, yet annoying marketing tool I suppose.

My only wish is that there is some accountability for some of the fees and taxes collected. Take for instance the Canadian Air Travel Security Charge (ATSC), which was instituted in 2002. Initially, the government charged $24 for any flight outside Canada and the US. The fee has since been lowered, but when introduced it was the highest security charge in the world.

Further, because there is no direct mechanism that links the ATSC to the security expenditures, there is a concern the fee, which is meant to be used for air security is going into general revenue, and being used for other purposes.

The public doesn't begrudge airlines that strive to make a profit, but don't try to fool us with low fares. If it costs $600 to fly to London just say so. And the government, too needs to be more transparent about the money it collects.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An undecided voter

In a previous post I wrote about the need to get rid of the one-cent coin. A seemingly small issue, yet one I think we should start taking more seriously. Sure it's not the biggest issue affecting the country, but let's look at it as progress and a small win. I also mentioned that I would write to the candidates in my riding asking where they stood on this issue.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, none of the candidates responded to my email (more on that later), although I did receive a read-response from the Liberal candidate. I’m not sure what is worse…reading a message and not responding, or not even reading it all. Not even my young Green candidate bothered replying. I guess he was too busy knocking on doors, or organizing children’s birthday parties.

Because this is the first election where I wasn’t driven by any particular issue, I was going to cast my vote based on the responses from my question. When I didn’t receive a response from any candidate, my first reaction was to not cast a vote for any of them. Instead, I was going to vote for a fringe candidate, such as a Libertarian, or a Communist, or maybe a Marxist-Leninist. Although the latter sounds kind of scary. Makes me think of a Siberian gulag.

My colleague thought that would be a waste of a vote. And she should know about wasted votes, what with her so-called “strategic” voting in previous elections. As it turned out, there were only four candidates in my riding.

I then thought I would vote based on colour. Blue is one of my favourite colours, but then so is red. I also like orange. And green too. So, that didn’t really work. In the end, I was handed a ballot. I felt like that person that gets on a roller coaster, but then at the last minute wants to get off, but it’s too late. I stood for a minute or two staring at the four names and their respective parties. I have never been in this position before, but I knew that I couldn’t stay behind the cardboard booth all night. My wife commented how long I took and then asked what game I played to pick the candidate.

There were no games. In the end I voted Green. While my Green candidate will finish last, I think we need to start taking a closer look at Green ideas, and maybe with more support their voice will be heard.

And if one of the other candidates loses by one vote, won’t they be sorry they didn’t respond to my email.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Green candidate is a kid

So, I just dashed off a couple emails to the Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green candidate in my riding, hoping to hear where they stand on ditching the penny. Surprising to some maybe, the NDP had the nicest looking website (I've always had a soft spot for orange, especially that delightful orange suit that my parents dressed me in when I was a kid), followed closely by the conservative candidate's site. The Liberal's website was the weakest, especially in that her email was listed, but I had to re-key it to send her a message. And the Green website, was, well green. In fact, Kermit the Frog would feel at home. Click here for the very green website

What surprised me is that Brian Newbold, the Green candidate, seems very green. Even his last name has the word NEW in it. I know I'm getting older, but he's looks like he's just a kid. In fact, he looks like he should be running for President of the High School Camera Club, rather than as a Member of Parliament. I do think, though, that Brian needs to get out a little more.

“I learned to ride a bike in Fleetwood-Port Kells, attended my first day of school in Fleetwood-Port Kells, graduated high school in Fleetwood-Port Kells, went on my first date in Fleetwood-Port Kells and this is my opportunity to speak out for Fleetwood- Port Kells.”

I don't make this stuff up. It's the first paragraph on his website. I am interested to know where in Fleetwood-Port Kells that he went on his first date.

I'm actually only half-kidding. I have all a lot of respect for everyone that stands for election. There are few jobs where someone must go through a very public, six week interview. Some won't get the job even though they may have been the best candidate.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's time to ditch the Penny

It’s time to ditch the penny. For years I have wondered why Canada doesn’t retire the one-cent coin. Not surprising, it now costs more than a cent to produce a cent. So why do we keep producing them? Good question.

Every so often someone proposes getting rid of the penny, but nothing happens--probably because the people that could make them go away are too busy meeting and talking about the penny. In fact, The Penny Review Group, made up of representatives from the Bank of Canada, the Finance Department and the Royal Canadian Mint has met a few times since 2007, but has done little.

In 2006, more than one billion--for the more visually inclined that would be 1,000,000,000--pennies were minted in Canada. The reason so many pennies are made is because they are virtually worthless. People routinely toss them away or hoard them, not because of some inherent value, but rather because they are seen as a nuisance.

The latest person to campaign against the useless Cent is Pat Martin, a NDP MP from Winnipeg, who introduced a Private Members’ Bill earlier this year. A great start, but most Private Bills fail.

According to a recent Vancouver Sun article the Conservatives say they have no plans to do anything about the penny, which first came into circulation 100 years ago, the Liberals say more study is needed (like we need more of that), and the NDP is calling for its removal.

The only argument I have heard for keeping the penny, and at best it's irrational and conspiratorial, is that merchants will rip us off by rounding up. I imagine those same people to be the ones who casually toss their pennies away. There is little logic in keeping the one-cent coin.

Progressive countries such as the Netherlands and Finland have a law in which cash transactions are rounded to the nearest five cents to avoid using the two smallest coins. That means if your bill was $10.22, you would pay $10.20.

There are so few issues being discussed during this election campaign that I will gladly cast my vote to the person who publicly advocates ditching the penny. In fact, I am going to email every candidate in my riding to see where each stands on the issue. And I’ll share the responses with you.

A few facts about Canada’s one-cent coin

  • More than 31 billion of the tiny coins have been minted in Canada, the first in 1908

  • Up until 1996, the Penny was mostly made from copper. Today with high copper prices, the coins are made of steel, with a hint of copper-plated zinc

  • Between 1982 and 1996, the Penny was 12-sided (which I learned is a dodecagon)

Friday, September 26, 2008

What would $700 billion buy?

In the coming days, the United States Congress will vote on a $700 billion bailout of failed financial institutions in the U.S. That's a seven followed by eleven zeros. Hard to fathom really. So what does $700 billion look like?

For starters you could buy 2,500 Airbus A380s, the world's largest commercial airplane

You could give $100 to every person in the world

You and 3.5 million of your closest friends could travel into space on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne

One could build 162 International Space Stations

You could spend the entire Canadian government's budget, and still have $145 billion in spare change left over

Maybe you would be interested in 155 aircraft carriers

You could vaccinate every African child against malaria 233 times

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's with Vice-President wannabees and thier lack of foreign travel

The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page - St. Augustine

I heard recently that U.S. Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has not travelled much outside of the United States. To be fair, I haven't spoken with Ms. Palin recently, but if she was well travelled, no one would be asking the questions. Apparently, Palin had to get a passport in 2007 to visit the Alaska National Guard in Kuwait. And while in Kuwait I doubt her itinerary allowed her to gain much insight into life in this Persian Gulf country. When asked by ABC News, she did offer that she has been to Canada and Mexico.

I can understand that someone washing dishes at the Black Dog restaurant in Wasilla, Alaska may not have the means to travel, but the Governor surely does. The same question was asked of President Bush when he was asking for the keys to the White House. And while it's a myth that he had never left the U.S. before becoming Predident, his foreign travel experience was limited.

What astounds me is that some (okay many) Americans who have achieved significant standing have had little interest in exploring the world. Where is their sense of curiosity? Don't Americans realize that despite convincing themselves that theirs is the greatest nation in the world that there actually is a whole lot of greatness beyond their borders. I guess if you can go to Las Vegas and "see" Paris, Cairo, and Venice, why bother going to the real thing.

So why does all this matter? It matters because those who aspire to influence U.S. foreign policy have had very little exposure to anything foreign except for their local Taco Bell. The United States exudes great influence on world affairs, and yet its leaders haven't a clue what it's like on the other side of the world. Hitting the streets of a foreign city gives one a new perspective and appreciation that can't be gained from reading the newspaper or watching a television program.

While it's difficult to get an exact figure, only 25% of Americans have a passport. And before Canadians get too smug, only about 40% of Canadians have one, and most them use it to travel to all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. And the only time they leave the comfort of their resort is on an airconditioned bus that takes them to the airport.

What we need to do is start placing a greater emphasis on foreign travel. Travel shouldn't be seen as some frivilous luxury, but rather an important learning opportunity. Employers, too, need to consider one's foreign travel experience, when mulling the merits of a potential employee. Travel takes us out of our comfort zone, and forces us to make decisions in challening circumstances.

As Cesare Pavese (whoever he is) once said, Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance.
Be curious and get out there.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Geography test should be mandatory for all fliers

A friend forwarded me a news story about an Argentinian who had intended to travel to Sydney, Australia, but instead found herself on a flight to Sydney, Nova Scotia.

I have a hard time believing these types of stories, but it's not the first time someone has headed off (usually in the wrong direction) to Nova Scotia, instead of Australia.

It's great that airports have instituted a number of security measures, but maybe it's time they implemented a basic geography test for all passengers. Those not able to score at least 75% would be denied boarding and led to a room with a large map on the wall. They would not be able to leave until they had passed the test.

My sister used to give me a hard time for reading an atlas before going to bed. There's good reason an atlas should be mandatory reading. First of all, it may have prevented this woman, and others before her, from making a fool of herself. But it's also important to have an idea what the world looks like.

I find the fact that she didn't realize anything was wrong until she boarded the 50-seat Dash 8 aircraft in Halifax astounding. The article doesn't state how she travelled from Argentina to Halifax, but I know that no airline offers non-stop or even direct flights between Buenos Aires and the Nova Scotia capital. She either flew to a U.S. destination before flying to Halifax, or maybe even Toronto. In both cases, wouldn't she have known that she was travelling in the wrong direction? And wouldn't she have looked at her itinerary before going to the airport and realized what an idiot she was?

I'm just not so sure that people like this should be allowed to fly.


Wrong-way tourist says g'day to Sydney, N.S.
Originally published in the Cape Breton Post: Friday, September 19, 2008

It was the right name but the wrong continent for a sculptor from Argentina.
Monique Rozanes Torres Aguero of Buenos Aires was daydreaming about her vacation in Sydney, Australia, when her Air Canada Jazz flight landed in Sydney, N.S., this week.
"She never thought anything was wrong until she got on the small Dash 8 in Halifax," said Christiane Tanner of Westmount, N.S., who met Aguero on the flight and has since befriended her.

"She was taking pictures out the airplane window and said to herself, 'Something is not right.' "
But rather than get upset, Aguero decided to stay and vacation in the northern Sydney - not the first time an accidental tourist has discovered the charms of Cape Breton.
The same thing happened in August 2002 to Raeoul Sebastian and Emma Nunn, both of London, England.

Sebastian and Nunn also spent their vacation in Cape Breton and became local celebrities, even being presented with the key to the city.

Air Canada Jazz employee Clare MacDougall said Aguero's problems began when she bought her ticket on the Internet.

"She had never heard of Sydney, N.S., or Cape Breton," she said. Andrea Batten, also of Air Canada Jazz, said Aguero was a bit embarrassed about the mistake. Batten told her not to be, explaining that even Sidney, B.C., on Vancouver Island has gotten in on the act.
"We have had people land here from Germany and even recently from Czechoslovakia, when they meant to go to Sidney, B.C.," she said.

Although like the English couple she had never heard of Cape Breton, Aguero believes she was destined to go to there and is looking forward to a nine-day stay.

"When things happen, you let it happen," she said through an interpreter.

Friday, September 19, 2008

$300,000 a night to stay in the White House

As you've probably noticed white man walking has been on a bit of a sabbatical. I blame child rearing on that.

Carrie asked me the other day when our election is? With all the talk of Obama and Pailin, one could easily forget that indeed there is a federal election campaign underway in Canada. For the record, Canada's 40th general election will take place on October 14th. "So, you mean our campaign is just six weeks long, and the U.S. campaign goes on and on and on," she mused. Yes, the Americans campaign for 13 years for a presidential term that lasts just four years. Apologists of course would say that's what democracy is all about. I'm not so sure.

What's even crazier is the amount of money that is raised and spent during the U.S. campaign. Earlier this week, it was reported that Barack Obama raised a record $66 million in the month of August. And since entering the race in early 2007, he raised more than $450 million. One political analyst suggested that Obama and McCain will spend $240 million EACH in the next seven weeks leading up to the election. Let me put this into perspective. The budget of the west African nation of Togo, which I mentioned in a previous post, has annual revenues of $481 million and yearly expenditures of $427 million*.

I suppose for one of them it may be money well spent. But consider for a moment that during the four-year term, the President will be in the White House for 1,460 days. And if Obama becomes President and ends up spending the whole wad he raised, his stay at the White House will have cost more $300,000 per night.

In contrast, he could stay at one of Washington’s most expensive hotels, The Willard, for much less. The Washington Suite for example is priced at $4,000 per night, although I’m sure he'll probably get a long-stay discount.

The Suite comes with an entry foyer, powder room, living room, dining table for eight (I’m sure for State dinners, a ballroom downstairs could be rented), two plasma screen TVs, two cedar closets, hair dryer and ironing board. Wireless Internet is available for an extra charge. Imagine paying $4,000 a night for the room and being charged for Internet access, which is almost as absurd as spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an election campaign. Obama would gain some inspiration as the Suite has a view of the Washington Monument and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now there is some precedent here, because at least two presidents lived at The Willard for a while -- Lincoln in 1861 because of assassination threats and Calvin Coolidge in 1923 while waiting for Warren Harding's widow to pack up and move out after her husband died in office.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't mess with Canadian women

With three medals (one being a gold) Canada has now wrestled its way to 25th place in the medal standings at the Summer Olympics. In doing so, we have past the likes of Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Estonia. Don't mess with Canadian women! Two of the medals, including the gold, were in women's wrestling. I guess there's some truth to those inane t-shirts and hats that say, "Canadian girls kick ass!"

After my first post lamenting that the Olympic powerhouse of Togo had more medals than Canada, one person commented that by October no one will remember or care about the Canadian medal count. True enough. But how mediocre. How Canadian.

The message that sends is don't pursue excellence, because no one will remember in a few months time. Imagine if we carried that same attitude in our professional lives. Don't bother working hard at work, because by October no one will remember. Mediocrity rules!

What many people fail to see is that the Olympics is much more than an expensive sporting event. There is nothing like it in the world. More than 200 nations are represented at the Games. That's more than sit at the United Nations.

And if we look beyond the competitions themselves, we have much to learn from the Olympics and Olympians themselves. Discipline. Determination. Effort. Dedication. These are all words that describe what it takes to become an Olympic competitor.

Think for a moment the kind of a society we could create if each of us pursued the same kind of discipline and commitment in our professional and personal lives, as Olympians do in pursuit of sport.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beaten by the likes of Togo!

The Summer Olympics are five days old, and if they were to end today, Canada would finish with no medals. The Olympics aren’t over today, and we’ve been told that our medal chances come later in the Games, but so far we’ve been trumped by the likes of North Korea, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, and Togo.

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (note to reader: anytime a country uses the word Democratic in their name, they’re far from democratic) can hardly feed itself yet the country has seven medals. Kyrgyzstan, which means inflammation of the knee joint, fought to win two medals in Greco-Roman wrestling. A funny sight that would be, with toga-wearing men wrestling each other on a sticky mat. Zimbabwe, where inflation hit a staggering 100,000% this past year, put its eggs in one watery basket as swimmer Kirsty Coventry won all three medals for this once prosperous nation. And Togo (no, I didn’t say Toga)? If you’re not from West Africa, raise your hand if you know anything about Togo. Thought so.

At its widest, Togo is a 160 km sliver of a piece-of-pie in West Africa. Wedged next to the equally well-known country of Benin and Ghana, it was once known as Togoland, not to be confused with Legoland, and gained independence in 1960. Not to be outdone by its other African cousins, General Gnassingbé Eyadéma ruled Togo with an iron fist for the better part of four decades.

There are about five million Togolese, whose life expectancy is approximately 60 years. Togo shares one similarity with Canada, as both have made just one appearance at Soccer’s World Cup. For Canada that distinction came in 1986, while Togo qualified in 2006. Although the African country has one up on Canada having at least scored one goal in its three World Cup games.

So, the next time you find yourself at a cocktail party and someone starts talking about Benjamin Boukpeti, the Togolese kayaker that won his country’s first Olympic medal, you can thank me for providing you with all this useful information sure to impress.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A story behind every photograph

originally written in January 2007

The other day I picked up the newspaper, and six of the women allegedly murdered by Robert Pickton stared back at me. Only one was smiling. A hint that there once was something in life worth smiling about. The others looked wan. And old beyond their years. And devoid of spirit, as if their lives had been taken from them long before their horrific deaths. I suppose that’s what a life of drugs and prostitution does to someone.

But what lay behind these haunting faces? Surely their lives weren’t always like this. I was reminded of a similar photo I saw in the newspaper about 15 years ago. It was of a childhood friend, Vicki, who had been murdered. Her body was found in a dumpster in a Vancouver alley. She too had fallen into a miserable life of drugs and prostitution.

When I recall that picture of Vicki, it looked as if someone had stolen her spirit. She looked helpless and pathetic. It would have been easy for people to dismiss her as another drug addicted prostitute. I’m sure many did. But it troubled me that this was the last image the world saw of her. It wasn’t always this way.

I first met Vicki in grade two, where we both grew up in Victoria. I can’t remember how our friendship developed. We both had the same boundless energy, and having three sisters, maybe she saw in me the brother she never had. Whatever the case, we were inseparable. She was a beautiful, precocious girl, with long blondish hair. Vicki spent many evenings at our home for dinner, and it seemed that every summer day we were together--whether swimming at the local pool, or joining our family for camping trips and other vacations. In our backyard was a large tree that towered above our house. We would often climb to the top, where we had an expansive view of the city. I can’t remember what we talked about, but we would stay up there for what seemed like hours.

Vicki was a good student. In fact, I was always envious, when we would compare grades. She enjoyed sports, and excelled at gymnastics and cross-country running. And she swam miles ahead of me in swimming lessons. Mind you, her competitive nature and endless energy often landed her in the Emergency department. Whether a broken arm after falling from a tree, finger fractures, or a bloodied nose after taking a baseball in the face, she was always full of heart and enjoyed everything life had to offer. She took great pride in helping people, and participated in many volunteer activities as a Girl Guide.

After grade seven our lives went separate ways. We went to different high schools, and didn’t keep in touch. I did learn that she became pregnant while still in school. How difficult it must have been to be a mother at such a young age. Knowing her determined character, it wasn’t a surprise when I found out she tried finishing her education at an alternate school. I didn’t hear of her again until the night her mother called to share the tragic news of her death. Some might say that an untimely death was inevitable because of her destructive lifestyle. Maybe so. But despite her shortcomings, Vicki began life full of promise, much like I imagine the six women pictured in the newspaper.

Maybe it’s a good thing that our lives took different paths. That way I have a mind full of wonderful memories to carry with me. Thankfully, childhood innocently protects us from the darkness that exists in this world. What I’m left with are recollections of laughter and two kids being silly together. It makes me smile to think of those days so long ago. I wonder if in her darkest days, Vicki looked back on our young days and smiled too.

I run my hands across the six pictures. Like most people I know nothing of their lives, but if they were anything like my friend, then their lives were more than a single, sad image placed on the front of newspaper. Long before drugs ate away at them, and long before someone so cruelly ended their lives, I hope there was a time of innocence when as a child they laughed and lived life without a care for the future. And I hope someone out there has a mind full of wonderful memories like I do.

Friday, August 1, 2008

My first trip to the spa

Hainan Island sits seductively in the South China Sea. Far from the frenetic pace of Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or Beijing, the island is China’s natural paradise. But it wasn’t always this way. Centuries ago, the island was a penal colony for those who fell out of favour with the country’s rulers. Then, it was known as the doorway to hell.

I stepped off the plane at Sanya’s Phoenix Airport, and was overwhelmed by the fresh, tropical air. The dark of evening had cloaked the beautiful surroundings, as our driver made the 40-minute drive to our hotel at Yalong Bay, the southernmost point in China. With its eight kilometres of golden sand, Yalong Bay is reputed to be Sanya’s best stretch of beach. It is here that one will find some of the island’s best hotels. I was on a press trip and stayed at the newly opened Sanya Marriott Resort and Spa. With its welcoming, open-air lobby, the hotel is beautiful, stunning, and restful. The view didn’t disappoint when I woke the first morning and opened my curtains to the sparkling waters of the South China Sea.

One of the hotel’s managers asked if I would like to try a spa treatment. A spa treatment? It sounded so clinical. I had never been to a spa, but I would be foolish to say no. I was then asked what kind of treatment I would like. I hesitated for a moment. She must have sensed that I was a spa virgin. “Maybe you would like the head to toe treatment?” Maybe I would.

I showed up for my appointment, and was overcome by a sense of serenity the moment I walked into the spa’s reception area. After giving my name, I was asked if I would like the coffee or honey-mango body polish. It was like my dentist asking if I wanted peppermint or wild berry flavoured fluoride. I don’t drink coffee, so I chose the honey-mango. Body polish? Who would have thought?

I was shown to one of the stand-alone pavilions, which house the spa’s16 treatment rooms. Inside, soothing music filled the room. I could hear the trickle of water from a small fountain, while a petite woman was preparing the room. She handed me a plush, white towel, and what looked to me like a thin head covering that a surgeon would wear. I went into the washroom and undressed. Unsure of what this extra garment was, I put it on my head, wrapped the towel around the lower portion of my body, and walked out.

I must have looked foolish, but to her credit, the spa lady didn’t laugh, although I’m sure I saw her suppressing a smile. Her English was about as good as my Chinese, so she gestured that the thing I had put on my head was really disposable underwear. I picked my ego up off the floor, took the underwear off my head and returned to the change room, where I tried to squeeze into something that had been made for small Asian women.

Once everything was in order, I sat in a chair and dipped my feet in a bowl of warm water. But it wasn’t just any bowl of water. I would later learn that my feet were soaking in Qi Water. Apparently, the spa has harnessed the healing forces of water by installing specially designed vivifiers, which revitalize and restructure the water in a natural way. Qi Water is supposed to stimulate detoxification, improve skin disorders, stimulate the immune system, improve blood circulation, and enhance energy levels.

With my feet suitably energized by the fancy water, I climbed up onto the massage table. The woman that had just been entertained by my clothing foible was probably wondering how a bald guy could be so hairy. I often wonder that myself. She started massaging my feet and lower legs. In an instant, 35 years of wear started to rub away. With trained precision, she held the towel in place, as I turned onto my stomach. I closed my eyes and could hear the honey-mango polish being mixed in a small, wooden bowl. The warm, sticky concoction was brushed onto my shoulders and back and legs. And then like my grandmother might have done when making bread, she started kneading my body. Once my pores had absorbed the sweet smelling polish, I returned to the change room and showered it off. Sensing that the underwear didn’t fit well the first time, I wasn’t offered a second pair.

One after another, warm, moist towels were placed on my face. Before my treatment began, I was asked if I would like the anti-aging, or the wrinkle reducing facial. Who wouldn’t want to be young forever? I chose the anti-aging tonic, which was now being liberally applied to my face. Outside, I could hear the palm trees waving in the warmth of the late afternoon. Several times I caught myself falling asleep, and thought that this pleasing experience would surely end soon. But there was more. After the “Thirty-five forever” cream had soaked deep into my face, more warm towels were used. And then again my arms, and torso, and legs were massaged.

Finally my treatment was over. I peeled myself off the table, rubbed my hands across my arms, and was sure that my skin looked and felt a lot better than when I had come in. Feeling refreshed, I walked out of the pavilion and was surprised that the sun had already set. I looked at my watch and was amazed that I had just experienced three hours of pampered bliss.

I still don’t know the difference between a facial flash and a moisture surge facial or a cucumber body mask and a detoxifying body wrap, but I did learn that underwear shouldn’t be worn on one’s head.

Sanya Mariott Resort and Spa

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

East India is not a country!

Let’s set the record straight…East India is not a country. I mention this seemingly obvious statement, because the way some people talk one would be led to think that there is indeed such a country.

What I’m getting at is our penchant for referring to people from India as East Indians. Every once in a while (last week, in fact) when my wife refers to an East Indian, I humor her and ask if she’s referring to someone living in Calcutta or Chennai, perhaps? She usually shoots back with a, “you know what I mean.” And she’s right I do know what she means, but just because Christopher Columbus was an idiot and didn’t know where he was, isn’t an excuse to continue this absurdity.

I had a discussion with a colleague recently about this very issue, and she appreciated my argument, but she said it’s easier to use East Indian to prevent confusion. Confusion from what? The only people that refer to Aboriginals or First Nations as Indians are Vancouver Sun headline writers (you’ll never see the word Indian used in the body of an article) and the Federal Government, which still has an Indian Act and a Department of Indian Affairs.

What’s ironic is that most of the Indians in Canada actually emigrated from the Punjab, which is in western India, so if anything, shouldn’t people be referring to them as West Indians? If only Columbus would have left home with a good map, or the latest Lonely Planet guidebook.

Let’s start by calling it what it is. Indians are from India. Just as Canadians are from Canada and Egyptians are from Egypt.

By the way I need to go to India!