The World of Soccer

The World of Soccer

Yesterday I was alluding to the fact that the small town I live in is like an island of traditional fine arts culture amidst an ocean of western culture. Balerinas and lyrical dancers surrounded by  cowboys, rodeo queens and pick-up trucks. Well, I find that I am also living on another kind of island, although one which is diametrically opposed to the cultural island. In this case, the island is bereft of what those people in the surrounding ocean take for granted.

I’ll give you a hint as to what it is. What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you read the following sentence?

In a few hours, Switzerland plays Czechoslovakia.

If you are like most people in North America, your response is probably, “Say what?” If, however, you live in any other country in the world, your response would most certainly be, “Yes! About time, too!”

I’m referring to the thing many people will devote their lives to for the next 22 days. The one thing that will unite disparate people from countries all over the globe. The one thing that transcends nationality, language, culture, religion, economic status, skin color or age.

Yes indeed, I’m talking about soccer. Today is the opening day of Euro2008, the European soccer championships.

OK, for those of you who haven’t closed your browser in disgust or quickly jumped to another web site, let me tell you why North America is an island. It’s because Canada and the U.S.A. together form the only region on the planet where soccer is not king. In every other country, principality, autonomous region or island nation on this planet of ours, soccer is what people do.

The national consciousness of some countries may not live and die with the fortunes of its soccer teams the way it does in places like Brazil, England, Italy, Korea, Nigeria and Japan. But there are very few places in this world where you can’t (quite literally) walk into the middle of an empty field, pull a soccer ball from your bag and immediately be surrounded with people all set to pick teams and begin a game.

For some reason Canada and the US of A just do not fit into that mold. Even in the years after the US hosted the World Cup back in 1994, there wasn’t much of a surge of interest in soccer in  North America.

And that is just strange. It’s not as if there isn’t a national program in either country. In the most recent world rankings compiled by FIFA (the governing body of international soccer), the U.S.A. is in 21st place while Canada is in 60th. And our kids do play soccer; in fact, there are more kids playing soccer in North America than are playing Little League baseball.

Some day I’ll get into this question in greater detail, but the opening whistle is about to get the game started. Even better, in a future blog I’ll throw out my ideas as to why soccer is a better sport than the Big 3 sports in North America: baseball, basketball and football. Somehow I think there will be or or two readers who will disagree with me.

A Plié Among the Pick-ups

A Plié Among the Pick-ups

,I just returned from my daughter’s dance recital. She has been taking lessons from a dance academy here in town for the past year and with spring comes the year-end recital. And what a recital it was. About 450 dancers doing some 40 dances (I lost count) over the course of four hours.

Since this is a small town with a population of only 11,000, that many dancers represents about 4% of the total population. Add at least one parent per dancer and that’s 8% of the town’s population involved in a single event. Pretty heady numbers for us.

But what really blew me away was the quality of the dancing. The dances were mainly ballet, tap and jazz, with a healthy number of Ukrainian dancers and three troupes of hip-hop bouncers. The choreography was terrific, the energy palpable and the sweat was flying. Unbelievable enthusiasm from both dancers and parents.

But here’s an interesting note. This town is not near any place you would associate with this level of enthusiasm for an art form generally regarded as (point nose upwards here) cultural elitism. Touring dance troupes would never book any performances here, concerts always happen in nearby larger cities, and the kind of culture normally associated with this part of the world does not include ballet slippers.

Here in central Alberta, the population is conservatively religious, politically conservative and rigidly political. Our local politicians have been from conservative parties for the last century or so, there are churches everywhere you go and if people want to see an art gallery, or a renowned museum, or take in an opera, this is simply not the town.

Yet there is an island of real culture here, amidst the twin economic pulls of ranching and oil exploration. And it’s a testament to what is possible when children and young people are allowed to choose how to express themselves when adults give them free rein. Not all kids want desperately to belong to the best sports teams, or the coolest gangs. Not when almost one tenth of the population cares enough to dress up and spend the evening watching young people pour their hearts out for an art form that gets little respect from most of the rest of the population.

It’s great to see what can thrive if we just give our kids a hand and some encouragement. Who knows, perhaps the next great ballerina to perform in the Kennedy Centre or on the London stage may just come from our small town.

 

 

Whither the Water?

Whither the Water?

Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank and author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, made a rather provocative statement the other day. He said, at the Goldman Sachs “Top Five Risks” conference, that:

“Water is not a renewable resource. People have been mining it without restraint because it has not been priced properly.”

I have a real beef with that statement. Actually, two beefs.

The first is about water not being a renewable resource. The earth is an open system when it comes to energy;  radiation in the form of sunlight enters our atmosphere, powers all processes on the earth and leaves us in the form of heat energy. But in terms of matter, the earth is essentially a closed system.

Sure, some material enters the earth in the form of dust and tiny grains of material, mainly from old debris trails left by passing comets. (That’s what causes shooting stars; tiny bits of dust burning up in the atmosphere). Other material leaves the earth, thanks to our space program. But the total mass of all material entering and leaving is microscopic compared to the total mass of the earth.

There is certainly no water entering or leaving the earth so the amount of water the earth has right now is the exact same amount it had billions of years ago. And any resource which is constantly used and re-used over such a long time period is, by any definition, a renewable resource. The hydrological cycle, which changes water from ice to water to water vapour, and moves it from one side of the planet to the other, ensures the renewability of our water.

My second beef is about the policy of pricing for water. Yes, we do have to pay to have clean, safe drinking water piped into our homes. And there should be a cost, because we demand that the water which comes from our taps is safe from bacteria, fungus, and any noticeable colour.

But to have the marketplace start to bid on water sales like it does with any other commodity cheapens water. It removes water from its pigeonhole of “sacred resource” and leaves its affordability in the hands of people whose only interest is making a buck from it.

Water is the one resource that should never be allowed to be controlled by corporations. But it has happened already, in some of the poorest cities in the world, where civic governments have abdicated their responsibility of providing their citizens with fresh water. In return for building water allocation systems (the treatment facilities and pipelines), these corporations are allowed to charge for “their” water, right at the tap. In the exact spot where some of the poorest and neediest people in the world have no choice but to pay whatever is demanded for an essential resource.

So what does all this prove? I think it proves that Nicholas Stern is heading us in a dangerous direction. It proves that having an economist influence how to partition our natural resources is a bad idea. Water can be bought and sold just like any other commodity, but it shouldn’t be. Because it is not like any other commodity. Water is important. Water is necessary.

Water is life.

Sunny Summer vs. Creepy Celebrities

Sunny Summer vs. Creepy Celebrities

I was thinking today about something that really bugs me: Hulk Hogan. As far back as my memory goes, the Hulk has been the biggest blowhard going. Loud, annoying and obnoxious. But when he retired from wrestling, we were finally spared his “Look at me, I’m the greatest!!” act.

(Side note: You were never the greatest, Hulk. That honour went to Cassius Clay. And even though he, too, was also a blowhard when he declared, “I am the greatest!”, at least with him, you knew it was true).

And then along came his reality TV show which, thank God, never appeared on any of the channels I get, so it caused me only collateral suffering. For the most part, I could ignore him, accidental channel surfing into a Hollywood gossip ‘news’ program or American Gladiators notwithstanding.

But now this thing with his son in jail for damn near killing his friend in an illegal street racing accident, it’s just too much for the rational human mind to comprehend. For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided all the hoopla thus far, here’s a quick recap.

Hulk Hogan’s son, Nick, was driving a car recklessly and at high speeds in Florida last August. He lost control and wrapped the car around a tree, the result of which is his friend John (who was also in the car) was seriously injured and will likely spend the rest of his life in a nursing home.  Nick is a minor but was tried as an adult on multiple charges and sent to jail for eight months (did I mention all the beer minor Nick bought just prior to the accident?), he is placed in solitary confinement because he is a minor, then phones mommy and daddy to complain about jail and encourage Daddy Hulk to work out a reality TV deal for him once he gets out of jail, but tapes of that phone call are released by the sheriff, so Nick is now suing the sheriff, while his Mommy thinks his application for early release from jail (after two whole weeks!) in favour of house arrest won’t help him to curb his wild ways, Oh yeah, did I mention his Mommy has filed for divorce from Daddy Hulk, allegedly to split the family assets and protect them from the civil suit brought by John’s parents (remember John, the former friend and now living vegetable?), while Hulk is having to endure a tirade of insults from his estranged wife about being a bad husband and horrible father. Whew.

Did you get all that? Are you wondering about how these people managed to get headline status in every news organization this side of Jupiter or are you looking back to where I wrote that Nick got eight months jail time for ruining someone else’s life? Yeah, both sides of that particular coin are pretty horrid to contemplate.

And indeed, I was going to contemplate this mystery of how our society has became so shallow and self-serving, as perceived through the exploratory lens of people like the Hogan Family, when I opened the front door and there it was: a beautiful summer day. Warm sun, cool breeze, green trees. Birds singing, kids laughing, grass growing.

The Hogans and their cloak of misery fell away like dried mud from the side of a newly washed car. Why spend all that time reflecting on personalities that have all the appeal of moldy, roach-covered bologna when I could sit on the porch and watch real people go by?

And that’s where we really go wrong. We give these people a soapbox and then, when it’s not tall enough for them to reach out to everybody, we mount a satellite dish on the soapbox so that others may also watch the roaches devour the bologna. (Uh, did I mention that the roaches are celebrities and the bologna could be, like, our souls? Oh, ok, my bad. Metaphor is not really my strong suit some days).

So, on days like these we should simply turn off the TV, avoid the internet, sit on that damn soapbox and enjoy the day. Nothing is more important than a life well lived. And living it through the eyes and actions of people like the Hogans will only leave us sad and empty.

Just Another Hill of Beans

Just Another Hill of Beans

So another scientist has weighed into the debate over the health effects of coffee. Dr. Esther Lopez-Garcia of Autonoma University in Madrid, Spain, has found that “long-term, regular coffee consumption does not increase the risk of death and probably has several beneficial effects on health.”

(Is it not ironic that universities are places where professors drink lots of coffee in order to form coherent sentences during early morning classes while students drink even more of the stuff just to be able to discern whether the prof is being coherent or not?)

Now wasn’t there another researcher a couple of years back who said that more than two to three cups of coffee a day would lead to all kinds of health problems? It’s hard to keep track of all the contradictory health studies being released these days onto a jaded public without a detailed score card. Every couple of months there is another study which contradicts the ‘stupendous findings’ of the last study on that subject, which itself supplanted the one previous to that.

Well, part of that is OK. After all, changes in our knowledge base in the medical sciences happens all the time, with newer findings replacing older, and less correct conclusions. This evolution of the state of science is where the original use of the term “paradigm shift” came from.

But it just gets a bit tiresome to live through yet another of the revolving door science that is the “good for you vs. bad for you” information about the foods we eat.

Take, for instance, the dueling banjos of health reports, the benefits of red wine. One month, a researcher will announce that one glass of red wine with dinner each day helps decrease the incidence of heart disease. The next month, another researcher will claim that even a single glass is bad for you.

Or there is the media circus surrounding the individual who has just been named the oldest person in the world, an honour bestowed upon them by the death of the previous title holder. A reporter, usually someone near the bottom of the television talent totem pole, asks the same tired question that is almost as old as the interviewee. To wit, “What’s your secret to long life?”

One senior citizen will answer that their secret is total abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine for their entire life. Once they pass on, another unimaginative reporter will ask the new oldest citizen their secret which, as it turns out, consists of a daily cigarette with their morning coffee and a good glass of scotch every night.

How bad has our society’s obsession with the health effects of food? Spend a day preparing a lovely four course meal and invite over a half-dozen registered dieticians. I guarantee that dinner that night will consist of the five of you sitting in the candle-lit gloom, eating unadorned, organically grown celery. And hating every minute of it.

If humans weren’t meant to have a palate for good food, we would have evolved a better set of molar teeth and four stomachs so that we could spend our days like cattle, eating grass during the morning and spending the rest of the day chewing our cud.

Yes, food is required to ensure our survival, but it has also become a social activity to be enjoyed. Are you feeling blue and depressed? Forget the drugs, or the pills, or the vodka; instead, hit the grocery store. Get a grocery cart, stop by the café (if the store has one) and prepare to spend some time wandering the aisles. Grab whatever strikes your fancy. Plan your next three meals as you go. Buy something new that you’ve never tasted before.

Grab any complimentary recipe card that you find sticking out of a display and use it to freelance your dinner. Grab a box of something with foreign words all over it, ask the store clerk what it is and the buy something you think might go good with it.

Just stay away from the obvious crap food, like chips, soda pop and anything that can be turned from frozen hockey puck to steaming dinner in a microwave in less than two minutes.

Go home, dig around for a sharp knife, crack open a cookbook and go nuts.

And most of all, banish the dieticians and researchers and health professionals from both your mind and your dinner table.

Food is one of the truly great joys in life. Make it your friend and you will always have a source of pleasure available to you.

And next time one of these breaking news stories about the benefits or dangers of another food stuff blares out of the TV at you, hit the mute button, check out the kitchen cupboards and see if perhaps it’s not time for another meandering trip through the grocery store.

My Coffeemaker Meets Ancient Man

My Coffeemaker Meets Ancient Man

An amazing thing happened the other day. I got up at the usual time, staggered down the hallway, paused long enough to turn on my computer, then continued another few feet to turn on the coffee maker. But first I had to make the coffee so I turned a tap and clean, safe drinking water came pouring out of a faucet. Then I opened a can and there was a lovely pile of dark brown coffee, grown thousands of miles away but sitting right there in my cupboard. A few minutes later and there was a steady flow of exquisite coffee was streaming into the pot.

So far, nothing amazing or even out of the ordinary.

After reading the on-line news from various news outlets around the world, I needed to warm up my coffee so I popped the mug into the microwave and zapped it for a few seconds. Ahh, nice hot coffee. Not amazing but very satisfying.

Then, after a quick sandwich made from cold ingredients snatched from the fridge, I decided it was time for a shower. Turn another couple of taps and voila, hot water. Flip a switch, extra lights in the bathroom. Still nothing too amazing.

After getting dressed I was faced with a dilemma: do I watch live coverage of the space shuttle launch on my computer or live coverage of the soccer game between Toronto FC and the LA Galaxy? This was easily solved by sliding a tape into the trusty old VCR and taping the game while settling in to watch the launch of the most complex and expensive machine ever built. From the earth’s surface to an orbit in space in slightly more than eight minutes. Eight minutes to get completely off our planet!

But since this kind of event has happened several hundred times by now (counting the shuttle as well as various unmanned satellites), even that was not the amazing part.

No, the amazing thing was a small headline I had missed earlier in the day when reading the news. The Brazilian government had just announced that one of its planes had flown over a very remote part of the Amazon rainforest along the border with Peru, and had discovered some people. But not just any people; a small group of people who were living in a region that has never been explored.

I other words, people who have never made contact with the rest of the world!

The was a photo taken from the plane. A long house structure with a grass roof was visible between the trees. Beside it were three people. One of them, who seemed to be female, was either very dark-skinned or painted with a dark pigment, and was leaning away, as if getting ready to run. The other two were obviously males, painted head-to-toe with a bright red pigment, and both of them were leaning back, with one arm forward and the other near their face. It took a moment to figure out what they were doing – they were taking aim at the plane, with very large bows!

The article stated that the government of Brazil was certain that no one had ever ventured into that region of the Amazon. So these three people were (there’s just no other way to describe it) completely wild.

They wouldn’t have running water, internet connections, television, VCR, microwaves, light switches or even a coffee maker. If they were afraid of a small plane flying over, what the hell would they have thought about the space shuttle?

It is truly mind numbing to think that in 2008, there are people on our world who have no concept of electricity, or powered flight, or even soccer. No use for an electric appliance, no need for a fridge to keep things cold or a microwave to make things hot. No need to communicate with people on the far side of the planet.

Do they even know about the size of the planet? Or that it is, in fact, round and not flat?

On the other hand, maybe that’s not so bad; the mystery of the “outside world” would have sheltered them from the more appalling aspects of human society.  They have been spared the never-ending news stories about the US election, or the antics of Paris Hilton. They don’t have to worry about rising gas prices or the slowing economy. Taxes, jobs, bills, the Iraq War; none of that will have ever troubled their minds.

Maybe, in this perverse way, they are luckier than us. Lifestyle gurus keep telling us to simplify our lives, to slow down, to enjoy life. But could any of us live without electricity, Starbucks and American Idol?

So that was the amazing part of the day, discovering that while we are smugly transforming our world to “make it better”, while simultaneously heading out into space, there are others for whom all our efforts and successes mean nothing. And if they have been able to survive all this time in a place as wild as the Amazon, chances are their lives are every bit as rich and enjoyable as our own.

Hopefully, we will never know. Hopefully, we will have enough sense to leave them alone.

 

How to Buy a Christmas Gift for Your Wife

How to Buy a Christmas Gift for Your Wife

Each year, with Christmas on the horizon, millions of men will venture forth to buy gifts for their wives. And most of them will have no idea what they are doing.

Certainly, most guys mean well, and many of them are truly interested in finding the perfect gift for their wives. But they all suffer from the one factor which renders them incapable of intelligent Christmas shopping: they are men.

This may seem to be an overly simple generalization, and an insult to one of the great genders of the human race. But think about it for a moment; men are born with an incredible array of diverse talents, ranging from the possible discovery of life on other planets, to the possible destruction of all life on this planet. Yet, this same group will, year after year, prove themselves utterly incapable of the simple act of buying the right Christmas gift for their wives.

So, as a man who has made every possible shopping mistake at least twice, I offer this guide to finding your wife a truly perfect Christmas gift.

The first step on this road to true Holiday Happiness  is to free yourself from those wise old axioms which men have been tripping over for so many years. The three most insidious of these include the following.

The first is, “It’s the thought that counts”. This phrase is repeated untold millions of times on Christmas Day, usually in a meek and desperate voice. It is a mantra which blows across the land like an ill wind; women always expect it but still find it dry and annoying.

This phrase was actually invented by a secret group of advertising executives in New York, none of whose wives were happy with their gifts. They were hoping to save not only themselves but all of their fellow men. Their purpose was grand and their efforts noble but they underestimated the intelligence of the average house wife.

The second saying is, “If you like it, so will she“. This can be a tragic error. Any man dumb enough to believe this one deserves whatever he gets. Just because you want something does not mean she will appreciate it. This includes, among other things, season tickets for the local sports team, fishing rods or any kind of power tools.

The last of these axioms is, “Be economical, and get a gift you can both enjoy“. Christmas is not a time for economy. It is a time for splurging carelessly and ignoring the guilt. For rushing through stores with wild abandon and a pocketful of cash. For tapping your credit cards on the machine until the chip is dead. Being overly thrifty will not only get you the cold shoulder from your wife, but also a letter from the credit card company asking if you would like your credit limit increased.

There is one exception to this last saying about getting a gift you can both enjoy. It generally involves a brand new luxury vehicle which comes with two sets of keys, neither of which you will ever get hold of.

The next step to true Holiday Happiness involves avoiding the most common pitfalls of gift shopping. The first one is hints from your wife. These will start the last week of September and continue until Christmas Eve. They will be subtle and numerous, drifting past your ears like a soft breath. You must ignore them. Men cannot possibly understand a woman’s hints about anything, let alone something as important as this. Women may see their hints as clear and concise ideas but to men they are nothing more than obscure jumbles of ancient hieroglyphics

The second pitfall is advice from your buddies. Men trade advice as easily as they do comments about the weather yet they treat each word as if it came directly from the mouth of Moses himself. If you don’t believe me, just think of the last time you invested in the stock market on the advice of a friend, when he told you that shares in that gold mining company would never go down.

Some other bits of advice you must remember. Avoid procrastination. What seemed like a good idea in September just does not work at five o’clock on Christmas Eve. Like ordering jewellery from Bloomingdales, or installing that new dishwasher you have yet to buy. And never ask your wife what she wants for Christmas. The very fact that you had to ask means you haven’t been paying attention all year long, otherwise you would already know the answer.

Now that you know what not to do, here is a simple but effective strategy for buying your wife the perfect Christmas gift.

Go directly to the mall after work and sit on a bench which provides a good view of the passing shoppers. Watch carefully for a woman who resembles your wife in age and clothing style. Approach her quietly and humbly, looking as much as you can like a little lost boy. Her mothering instincts will kick in and she will be more than happy to help you, especially after you explain the trouble you are having finding a simple yet elegant gift for your wife.

Then write down everything she says, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. Remember, you are a man so it is natural that you will not understand the logic behind her suggestions. Then go and buy everything on that list. There will not be many presents to buy but they will be the perfect ones.

Then go home, wrap the gifts and place them in a conspicuous spot under the tree. When your wife asks if you are not feeling well because after all it’s Christmas Eve and you are not at the mall, just sit back, smile and enjoy yourself. The worst part of Christmas is now over.

 

My Family, Once Again

My Family, Once Again

Another Christmas Day has come to an end. The guests have finally left and taken their noise and laughter with them. Numerous empty bottles are standing next to a large pyramid of dirty dishes. And the house is almost dark as everyone else has drifted happily off to bed. But I am still here, sprawled in an overstuffed chair by the tree, watching the long silver strands of tinsel shimmer lazily in the reflection of Christmas lights. I am here because I have one last rite to perform.

After the boisterous Christmas dinner, there comes this quiet time which I reserve for my private ritual. With a large tumbler of scotch as my only companion, I reflect back on the evenings’ festivities. I think of each of the guests in turn. How did they act, what did they say, what were they wearing? I consider how each person treated the others, trying to tease apart the intricate meanings of certain comments or gestures, striving to make sense of the convoluted relationships that exist within my extended family. Most of all I’m trying to find that one telling feature that will single out a few individuals for special consideration. You see, this is the time when I hand out the awards.

These awards, through which I pay homage to the hypocrisy of my family, originated in our kitchen. A few years back, as I was emerging from the innocence of my teenage years, my mother and I sat down to a summer mornings’ breakfast of coffee and conversation. For whatever reason she had decided the time was right to tell me about some lesser-known aspects of our family’s recent history. In less time than it took to drink the coffee pot dry the image I had always treasured of my extended family had been shattered. Where my eyes had seen only smiles and benevolence, my mothers’ eyes had witnessed pettiness, cruelty and spiteful manipulation.

Once my eyes were opened to these new horizons the root cause of so many strange and mysterious affairs became clear. The disaffection and animosity between family members resulted from the moral convention which maintained that when someone made a serious mistake in their lives, it was to be covered up and kept secret. And this was reinforced by the strongly-held belief that good Christian families were not supposed to have any skeletons in their closets. Opening the closet door now revealed a rather extensive bone yard.

The guiding light in this rigid moral system was my grandmother, the matriarch. She was an ancient crone who had endured great hardships over much of her life, first as a missionary-teacher among her so-called “savage jungle Indians”, then as a mother trying to raise a family during the Great Depression. Her strength of personality, honed during those difficult times, was evident as she steered the family along the path of the righteous and the pure. It was her bad luck to have such poor material to work with. Nevertheless, she was revered, or perhaps feared, by all.

After she passed away the shackles were loosened a little. Just enough to allow for each person to act more freely according to their nature but not enough to inflame the wrath of her ever-present spirit.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. Almost everyone in the family gets along during holidays and family get-togethers. However, as the grip of my grandmother’s hand fades with time the level of family harmony declines. There is always this ripple beneath the seemingly smooth surface, threatening to break through at the slightest provocation. This is where the awards come in.

I figured that if my relatives were going to spend the entire year spreading rumours or being malicious, it would be difficult for them to revert back to the angelic demeanour they displayed whenever my grandmother was present. But for an event as important as Christmas dinner they really do try, even if they are surrounded by real or imagined antagonists. And it is inevitable that mixing these two personas (plus liberal splashings of scotch and vodka) would produce some interesting scenarios. To those kin who are most capable of managing this feat and yet still able to dish it out against their foes, I confer a series of awards. Doing so is my way of trying to regain some dignity in the face of my shattered childhood visions. And after all, if they can be hypocrites, so can I.

Sitting in this comfortable old chair by the tree, I try to recall every event of the evening, no matter how trivial. With the scotch smoothing my ragged nerves, the images I am searching for start to form. At first, they are disjointed, vying to sort themselves into some coherent order. Then all at once a group of them come to the fore as nominees for the first award: the Cheshire Cat Award.

Named after the fairy tale cat whose body fades into nothingness even as his sarcastic smile remains, I give it to the person who displays the most innovative way of starting a raucous argument while remaining themselves unscathed and unnoticed. There are usually many people to consider for this honour but this year three in particular stand out. Little Sally, a nine year old cousin, used the simple method of running between groups of adults and spreading a tiny, innocuous rumour. Within ten minutes the rumour had attained ludicrous proportions and wild accusations flew all around the house, with much huffing and indignation on the part of those who imagined themselves gravely insulted. What chutzpa for a child. It won’t be long before she combines this ingenuity with some real cunning. I will have to watch her closely in the years to come.

Old Mrs. Baker, an obscure relative from my dad’s side, accused her step-daughter of mis-treating her own daughter’s youngest child, simply because no one was sure who the child’s father was, including the mother. This set off a long-lasting bout of staring, snarling and hissing between the daughters, reminiscent of scenes from those old Wild Africa shows where the leopards are gathered around a freshly killed antelope.

But the award has to go to Uncle Joseph for unparalleled subtlety. Finding himself seated next to Aunt Frieda, the family’s resident health and fitness nut, he spent the first half hour of dinner waving around an unlit Cuban cigar. When Aunt Mabel could no longer stand Aunt Frieda’s mini-lectures on the evils of smoking, she threatened to light up a cigarette. This started a discussion on the morals of free choice, which quickly dissolved into an argument that enveloped the entire room. I am sure I saw a faint hint of a smile beneath Uncle Joe’s huge moustache as he slid the cigar into his breast pocket. He never did smoke the damn thing.

Next comes the Pythagoras Award, named in honour of the ancient Greek mathematician who developed a method for determining any angle of a triangle using information contained in the other angles. The recipient is the one who is expert in playing two or more people against each other in order to get what they themselves want. Old Mrs. Baker, who simply wanted her two daughters to talk to each other, so as to become friends and make her own life simpler, will obviously not win this award. Neither will Freddy, an invited friend, who tried to get both Sheila and Betty fighting for the right to his charms so as to double his chances of waking up a happy man tomorrow morning. However, when his ego overtook his common sense, they discovered his ploy and he went home alone.

This year’s recipient of the Pythagoras Award is Aunt Chrissy. Far too young and sensuous to be thought of as anyone’s aunt, she wore her customary micro-mini skirt and spandex blouse, the one with all the velcro strips. She had two distant cousins, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, vying for her attention from the moment she arrived. In very little time she had them arguing about which one could take her on the most glamorous trip. Robert, the lawyer, won out. Since it was a very public contest, with most of the family taking an eager interest in the proceedings, the poor sod is now committed to the trip. I wonder if he really can get special passes to all those parties at the Cannes Film Festival. This is going to cost him a bundle, even without the two week luxury cruise through the Greek Islands after the festival. Congratulations Chrissy, that’s three years in a row for this award. Freddy could learn a lot from her.

The Hoof-in-Mouth Award goes to the person who says the dumbest thing at the worst possible time. It may well be the most difficult one to assess since there are always so many fine nominees. Like six year-old Andy, who innocently asked one of the adults why his older sister and her boyfriend would want to secretly get penicillin shots at the free clinic. Or Jane, who asked Kathy if her pregnancy was going well. Boy, was Kathy’s husband surprised. There may well be more to this story than is yet known.

 But Susie, who always has one drink too many, walked away with this prize. Only Susie can time the punch line of a joke so that, in the midst of a pause in the conversation at the adult’s end of the table, she shouts out the best use of the male genitalia. And was her voice ever loud; it seemed to echo for a long time in the silence that followed.

The Glenlivet Award is named after the fine scotch which has been helping me select the various winners each year. It is incredible to think that some people mix this drink with soda. As a tribute to those bohemians, this award is presented to the person who finds the best way of ruining a fine and memorable moment.

Some years I cannot issue this award due to a complete lack of any particular moment that might recall a fond memory. However, this was an average year, meaning that there were lots of ruined moments. Dinner itself started off with a bang when Alfred, that little twerp, farted long and loud during the saying of grace. Since this took no real effort or intelligence, that bruise from the wooden spoon to the back of his head was the only thing he deserved.

At least Amelia showed some creativity when she spent the entire meal recreating her parents backyard on her plate, using food in ways I would have never imagined. It really was an impressive piece of artwork. Then she tried a little too hard to gain some recognition from the disapproving adults. While proudly displaying her plate in front of each person she elbowed Uncle Walter’s drink into his lap whereupon he jumped back, knocking someone’s elderly aunt off her chair and onto her butt. In the ensuing uproar Amelia’s creation landed in her mother’s lap, ruining her mother’s chances of impressing the other women with her new red silk dress.

But the best botch of the evening occurred when six year old Suzanne recited the entire alphabet perfectly for the first time in her life. When the applause died down and it looked like her smile couldn’t possibly get any bigger, a loud voice, thick and slow under the influence of too much alcohol, said ” What’s the big deal? She’ll just wind up a slut anyway, like her mother.” Hitting him with the wooden spoon would not have been good enough and there was no sledge hammer nearby. Fortunately Stuart, the star athlete of the family, located a bun and, from thirty feet away, got him right in the forehead. More applause.

Thinking of little Suzanne, who didn’t know how to react to her fathers’ opinion of her mother, reminded me that giving out these awards is not always a pleasant task. After several minutes of clearing my mind and another shot of encouragement from my liquid companion, I am ready to go on.

One of my favourite awards is deciding who was the biggest pain in the ass during the evening. For their total lack of class when it comes to conducting themselves with civility in a social setting they are awarded the title of The Great Hemorrhoid. This year the three nominees were pretty easy to pick out. My cousin Sheila’s new husband, Frank, would not stop pestering everyone within earshot about life insurance. Had our family not inherited my grandmother’s incredible stubbornness and willpower, Sheila would no doubt be accompanying Chrissy on that luxury cruise through the Greek Islands.

Kenneth, who is old enough to know better, complained loudly that he should not be ostracized just because he picks his nose once in a while. Despite his assurances that it relaxed his nose and made breathing not only easier but also healthier, nobody hit him in the head with the wooden spoon. I can’t understand why, it was sitting right there in the gravy boat.

But this year’s Great Hemorrhoid is Uncle Louis. He spent an entire hour before dinner hovering around my poor mother, harassing her about the cranberry sauce. To Uncle Louis Christmas Day is not complete unless he performs his favourite ritual. For all the fuss he makes you would think it was something sacred, passed down from the Holy Trinity to the people via the Pontiff himself. When my mother finally relented to his demands, Uncle Louis called for total silence so we could all listen to that most reverential of Christmas sounds, the sucking noise made by the blob of cranberry sauce as it slowly slides out of the can.

The last award is the most important one. It is the Golden Ass, given to the person who best exemplifies the qualities of pettiness, stubbornness and selfishness, all within a well-polished holier-than-thou veneer. As the nominees start to come forward, a thought intrudes on my mind. Yeah, these people may not be perfect and they may well be the biggest hypocrites alive today, but they are my family and, with a few exceptions, I love them all. I have grown up with them and they are as much a part of me as I am of them. If they were not present the few times each year we all come together, there would be a real void in my life. Of course, if they found out about these awards they would be more than happy to create a void for me.

Maybe it’s the lateness of the hour, or the scotch, or something, but I’m feeling too tired to continue. Time to drift off to bed, like the others did over two hours ago. Time, once again, to put this silliness at an end for another year. Time to remember how lucky we are to have each other, warts and all.

 

The New Book of Genesis

The New Book of Genesis

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God sighed deeply, wondering just what he had done to deserve this. Yet another mind-numbing project dumped on him by Management. Ever since the misunderstanding about that planet in the Orion system, when He had mistakenly introduced some radical new life-forms, God had been in the dog house over his liberal interpretations of the accepted guidelines of Creationism.

As He moved out across the face of the waters He reached into his billowing sleeve and pulled out a sheaf of papers, most of which sailed away into the gloom. `Damn,’ He thought, `I had better not lose the work order. Can’t afford to make that mistake twice.’

With the proper paperwork finally in hand, He scanned the Multiple Tasking Flow Chart but was unable to read the small print in the darkness. So God said Let there be Light, and by God, there was light. A brilliant light, a white-hot phosphorescence radiating from all around.

God grimaced and shielded his eyes. No, no, He thought, too bright for creative work.

With an impatient wave of His hand, He lessened the Great Luminosity and surrounded Himself  with an ethereal, subdued light. And God saw that it was good.

And God divided the light from the darkness, because the work order listed this as an initial priority. And God called the light Day, and the darkness After-Day. Annoyed at this lack of imagination on the part of Head Office, He changed the name of darkness to Night, using white-out to change the wording on the forms. And evening came, the first day.

God arrived late the next day, having forgotten that He had already made mornings a reality. He emerged from what would soon be the firmament, breathless and sweating slightly, and a little concerned because He now had only so many hours of light in which to work.

God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

At this point, He hesitated, unsure of the correct course of action given this confusing bit of metaphysical rhetoric. He thought about it for a while but could not picture in his mind what a firmament was supposed to look like. So He consulted the Book of Rules, which was the official Manual of Creative Endeavour. After much muttering and page-turning He found the answer and jumped up in exaltation. He made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so.

It was also getting dark, so God called the firmament Heaven, and also called it a day. Evening came, the second day.

The next morning, God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear. And it was so. Finally, He thought, a decent place to stand.

God called the dry land Earth and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas. And God saw that he was finally getting somewhere.

Then He noticed the waters above the firmament, hovering gently in place. What to do about those? Can’t just leave them there, hanging around ready to fall on people, if there were any. He consulted the work order but found no reference to those waters. Instead, He found that a page was missing. And God smiled broadly. Missing instructions were the best possible excuse for any screw-ups. God saw that this was good.

God said, Let the Earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit tree yielding fruit, and all other manner of greenery. Warming to His task, He swept His arm out in a grand gesture thereby covering the earth with green life. And God had to move to higher ground.

Struggling through the abundant growth, His great sleeves now snagged on the dense branches, God found himself surrounded by the sudden darkness. Oh well, He thought, another day shot all to… somewhere.

Evening came, the third day.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years. And, thought God, with a sharp smile, for all lesser creatures of a gullible nature, let them also be for the signs of the zodiac.

And let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth; and to light His way home once that annoying darkness fell. For above all, God hated barking his shins on misplaced bits of celestial furniture.

God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the night and the lesser light to rule the day. And God saw that he was holding the work plan upside down. And God did swear mightily.

So God sent the two great lights into the nearest recycling bin and began yet again. This time, He placed the great light on one side of the firmament of heaven and the lesser light on the opposite side. He then spun them both in a circle, one following upon the other. He was able to jump out of the way just in time to watch the first sunrise go spinning by, followed two seconds later by the first moonrise.

God sighed deeply. The inevitable fine-tuning of the end-product, which He found so tedious, had just begun. Niggling adjustments to the nature of things which would no doubt go unnoticed and unappreciated by whichever intelligent life-form inhabited this latest project.

Returning from his daydreams, God dispensed proper activities to each part of the daily cycle. The day He made for sporting endeavours, for the practice of idleness and the making of money. And the night He made for the stirring of creeping beasts, for the widespread looting of shops and the violation of numerous commandments. And it was so.

And God saw that it was good. Or, at least acceptable.

Evening came, the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. At which point God decided it was time to do something about the waters above the firmament, which were still there, hovering gently in place. He could not repeat his usual practice, which was to bypass the issue by simply making all fowl into ducks. Too many complaints over that one.

So God said, Let the surplus waters of the firmament rain down upon the earth, providing life to the herb and the fruit tree and all manner of greenery. And Let it periodically flood out great portions of the most valuable real estate, as a reminder of God’s great powers. And it was so.

God blessed the creatures of the seas and skies with a great mumbling of obscure Latin, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And, with a smile born of divine inspiration, He added, in a deeper tone of guttural Latin, Let all beasts evolve according to a process of natural selection.

And God saw that it was good He was going to get away with that last bit. He scampered out of there before anyone noticed what he had done.

Evening came, the fifth day.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his own kind, with cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth. And it was so.

As God looked down upon all these beasts he sighed deeply. Such an ugly assortment of creatures. He tucked the work order into His great sleeve and prepared to improvise.

God struggled to render unto all animals a great beauty, as a testament to His renowned creative powers. He had much success with the birds and the butterflies, moulding them into flying rainbows of colour and grace. The cats became masters of elegance and refinement. The dolphins were endowed with the comic dignity of the gods themselves. And the fish became silvered jewels darting about the waters.

But then God came up against the moose and the wildebeest, and lost his resolve. Only time and the masterful selection of natural forces could ever make them beautiful.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing upon the earth.

As God raised his hand to make it thus, He hesitated, looked again at the papers and said `What the Hell is that supposed to mean? Man in our image? Dominion over everything? They have got to be kidding.’

He reread the work order, and shook his head slowly in disbelief. Then He remembered the missing pages of the work order and smiled broadly.

God thought that the part about `Dominion over all things’ was probably OK. It would be fun to see what mankind did with it since only the most primitive of life forms believed in this piece of brazen wordiness. But making man in our own image? That, he thought, cuts too close to the bone.

And then God had an idea. A wondrous idea, a moment of true epiphany. He scooped up a handful of dirt, spat upon it and moulded it into a ball of clay. From this clay He fashioned a long, thin shape; the perfect bone. Pleased with Himself, He made more bones, trying also different shapes and sizes. Then, He began fitting the bones together, making forms and figures, to which He applied coverings of various materials. And God saw that He was making a mess.

Each attempt was rejected as unsuitable for His ideals. So He simply named each new creature and set it free to roam in the greenery of the earth. God knew that the work plan had no provisions for these extra creatures but He also knew He had the ultimate excuse of ‘missing work order papers’.

So God smiled broadly as He made all manner of new creatures: the platypus, the echidna and the rhinoceros. The dugong, the kangaroo and the bats. And then God made a creature He found both handsome and amusing. This, He decided, was close to what He wanted, but not quite. So He told the creature, You shall be a monkey, and He set it free to play in the greenery of the earth.

This monkey became His template for all the creatures which followed, each one slightly different than the one before. Less hair, more upright, a larger brain, smaller eyebrows.

Just before the great light of Day gave over to the lesser light of Night, God stood and looked down upon a pitiful, naked creature and said, You shall be known as Man.

As He turned to go, God decided to try one last time. With the pile of bones depleted, He took a rib from Man and fashioned another creature, in the likeness of Man. To this creature He gave a softer look, with more curves, less body hair and longer eyelashes. And God saw that it was good.

As a compliment to this, his best achievement, God also gave this creature the ultimate gift: the ability to bring forth Great Life. To this creature He said, You shall be known as Woman. He then pointed to Man and said, He shall be your servant, to protect you and your offspring, and make your life well and good.

As God made the appropriate revisions to the work order, Man did notice that some of the pages were missing. And Man saw that it was good.

Evening came and the arguing began. The sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God rested from all His work which He had made.

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it, because it was the least He could do, considering the mess He had made of things. He did not envy those who were to live in this place.

As He moved out across the face of the waters He sighed deeply. Already the signs of impending problems were many and widespread. He reached into His billowing sleeve, pulled out the work order and made a note that someone should return one day to check on things.

As God entered the void beyond the earth He looked back one last time. Despite His advice, it was unlikely that Management would approve the work order for a second coming.

This world was on its own.

 

How to Ace a Creative Writing Course

There will come a time in your life when the voices in your head can no longer be ignored. When their constant coaxing and cajoling has finally convinced you that perhaps they are right. Perhaps your dreams can come true and you could become a great writer, if only you could find the time.

After all it’s not as if you don’t have any talent. Remember that Christmas form letter you wrote two years ago, the one everybody thought was so touching? How they all said it sounded so nice and Christmassy, even if they didn’t understand a lot of the fancy words.

And what about all those clever sayings you put into birthday cards? How you manage to come up with such neat phrases, year after year, is anybody’s guess. It can only be due to natural writing ability.

So the voices must be right; it’s time you took the plunge. Time to heed your true calling in life. Time to become a famous writer.

Your first step on your journey into literary history is to take a writing course. Yes, this will eat up some of your precious time which would otherwise be spent writing something important. And sure, you don’t want to be unduly influenced by the ideas or writing styles of mediocre writer wanna-be’s. But a writing course is a good introductory step into the world of creative writing. And since I have been down that road myself, I thought you might benefit from some simple observations on how to take a writing course.

First off, you must find a suitable class. Try to find one where you will feel comfortable and at ease with the instructor and your fellow writers. And one which will provide you with the greatest amount of experience and inspiration without really asking for too much in return. After all, your valuable time would no doubt be better spent writing publishable material rather than weekly assignments.

Since a writing course will stand or fall on the calibre of the instructor, it is imperative to choose them carefully. Remember that they are not just a mere teacher; they are the motivation, the inspiration, the driving force behind the student’s efforts to put words on paper.

Of course, this is more important for novice writers. For someone with your abundant talent the instructor’s role is to simply provide regular affirmations about the high quality of your work.

Still, you should strive to get the best instructor possible. The really good ones hang out at universities, most often in the faculties of Extension, where they hope their efforts at teaching will result in the offer of a real academic job.

Big cities will offer an abundance of writing courses and thus, a large selection of good writing instructors. As a rule, smaller towns do not draw top flight writers and you must make do with whomever shows up to teach the course.

If possible avoid those classes taught by middle-aged men wearing tweed coats with leather elbow patches, older gentlemen who mumble endlessly about the famous writers they used to drink with, or wild-eyed young men with misspelled tattoos. Intense young women who specialize in punitive and erotic literature are also suspect.

The instructor who will best suit your needs is well-read, well-travelled and someone who has published widely and recently. But make certain they are not well known or well financed. If they have yet to make the big-time themselves, they are less likely to sneer at your own work.

Lastly, look for a course where it is hard to tell who is more eccentric, the instructor or the students. Not only will the class be more entertaining, but these people will provide you with all the characters you need for any number of short stories.

Once registered in the course it is time for some basic preparations. In the first class you will be asked to introduce yourself to your new colleagues and to say a few words about why you write and what you hope to accomplish. This will be the best time to intimidate your classmates and establish yourself in their minds as the serious writer in the class. There are a few ways to do that.

When you state your name, make sure to include all middle names and initials. Real writers are never content with the average two-part name. Then talk briefly about the writers who most influenced your life and why you admire them. Make sure to choose obscure authors with hard to pronounce, foreign names. In this way no one can dispute your choice of important writers. It will also give them the impression you are well read and thus, someone to be listened to.

Keep your comments brief and concise. This will convey the perception that your knowledge of literature is like an iceberg; most of it is hidden away but is still massive in scope. Brevity will also lessen your chances of mentioning a writer the instructor may have actually read. He too has to be impressed and a little subdued by your apparent erudition. He would not have expected any of his students to actually know something about literature. For the instructor, a student with actual knowledge can be a worrisome thing.

Starting in the second week, each class will fall into a fairly standard routine. Be aware of how people fit into this routine and you can use this to your advantage.

Upon arrival in the classroom, be sure to check the side tables for home-baked goodies. Every class has its share of retired women who use their classmates as surrogate children and are happy to provide all kinds of elaborate refreshments. Of course, this is also a form of self-protection. After all, who could possibly criticize the writing of someone who arrives each week with a really good pound cake.

You will notice that, at first, nobody will touch the food. Everyone is waiting until the instructor has worked his way across the room and grabbed the first bite. Do not be intimidated by this obvious display of a social pecking order. Just dive right in. Show them you don’t play by anyone else’s social rules. After all, your presence in the class is a right, not just a privilege like it is for the others.

Once the snacking has begun in earnest it’s time for the first order of business: the tour around the table. At this time each student is expected to talk about their writing efforts during the previous week. This is a tricky part of the class and one where good mental preparations are paramount.

You see, there is a paradox at work in all writing courses. Ninety-nine percent of the students like the idea of writing but cringe at the thought of actually producing a written piece. So this part of the class becomes less a discussion of work in progress than a parade of excuses for work not progressing.

Most of the class will whine about their kids or their spouses, the lack of time, the car that won’t work, the overbearing job, the boyfriend who has suddenly lost interest. On and on. The instructor, hearing the familiar refrain, will smile through it all, exhibiting a level of patience and tolerance worthy of a catholic martyr. This is where he really earns his pay.

The more creative students will come up with the big excuses which they hope will protect them from the inevitable guilt. Everything from `I got food poisoning’ to `My computer crashed and I can’t reconfigure the command file’ to `My wife had a baby last week’. These, and all the possible combinations therein, are trotted out and meekly laid at the feet of the instructor.

You might as well save any sympathy you have for these people because the instructor will certainly not waste any of his.

When the inquisitor has turned his glare in your direction you should abstain from using any of these cheap excuses. Instead, you must serve up a tasty platter of excuses so good that the instructor will swallow them whole. The trick here is to use excuses favoured by professional writers. I have summarized a list of these excuses for you here.

You begin with the statement that you had several splendid ideas for a piece, all of which needed to be considered at length. Once having chosen the best idea of the lot, the mental gymnastics could begin. You molded the idea, massaged it, bounced it off several points of view, and then wrestled it into a format compatible with your style of writing.

At this point, you should pull out your note book, the one full of doodles and illegible scribbling, and start turning the pages. By providing a focal point for the class you will distract their attention away from what it is you are saying. Or rather, what it is you are trying not to say. As well, a notebook full of busy pages gives the appearance, however ambiguous, of much work and accomplishment.

Continue the review by referring to such things as plot development, character sketches and determining accurate historic time lines. At this point, give the instructor a quick glance. If he is nodding his head and smiling, end your talk quickly. There is no sense in working the fish once it is hooked and in the boat. Then sit back with a smug, self-satisfied look. One that dares anybody in the class to challenge what you have just said.

If, however, it appears that neither the instructor nor the other students are buying it, you need to play the trump card. Finish your review by sighing deeply, and then declare that most of your time was spent doing research. This will convince even the most cruel-hearted of critics that you did indeed have a tough week and should be left alone.

From here on the rest of the class should flow smoothly, with little chance of your being further harassed by either the students or the instructor. You will be able to relax and enjoy yourself, with nothing more to do than listen patiently to some miserable prose and throw out the occasional snippets of criticism.

There are, however, a few situations which will rouse you from your daydreams and require some effort to defray.

For example, despite your best efforts to discourage them, the odd question will eventually come your way. Answer it with a ponderous and dull monologue. Speak slowly and deliberately, as if you are putting a great deal of thought into each word. And don’t forget to dredge up your favourite obscure, foreign author who just happens to be an authority on the subject at hand. It will be some time before you are asked another question.

If the instructor persists in picking on you, simply turn the question around and relate it to a common subject on which most people consider themselves to be an expert. The debate will quickly heat up and you will be completely ignored as the battle of egos rages on around you.

At this point, I should pass on a few tips regarding the presentation of your work to the class. But if you have followed the simple principles outlined here, you will never arrive at that point. Your writing will never have to see the light of day. However, if your own ego triumphs over good common sense, and you really do want to present an example of your work, just remember: literary criticism is like tracer bullets, they work both ways. And it has the same painful effect.

The class usually ends with another tour of the table, this time to plan how much each person is going to write during the coming week. Your best strategy is to imply much but guarantee nothing. This will keep the instructor happy and your colleagues eagerly anticipating your work.

I hope these guidelines have proven to be of use and have put you on the road to literary stardom. I would be at that point myself but I just have not had the time to sit down and write for an entire month now. First the kids got sick and then my wife’s car blew an engine gasket. Soon though I will find the time and write something truly unique. Until then, best of luck to you. The next time we meet will no doubt be on the best seller’s list.