Monday, December 29, 2008

Encouragement vs. Realism

This blog was inspired by my best friend Mart, who started blogging before I did. He mostly blogs about his two daughters and he sounds so proud of them. Both on his blog and in person, he tends to gush about all the things that his two girls do. The older one, Rose, plays the piano and now the younger one, Autumn, is learning music as well. Autumn seems particularly vivacious and creative.

I have a fifteen-year-old daughter named Jessica. I'd like to brag about her like Mart brags about his girls but, when I see her various endeavours, I see only room for improvement. Most distressingly, the things that she appears to enjoy doing the most are things for which she has no particular talent.

Like many other teenagers, she likes Japanese manga and anime, and she's forever drawing anime pictures. Unfortunately, her pictures aren't all that impressive. Body joints are angular and disproportionate (even for anime). Limbs are straight and shapeless. Poses are awkward and unnatural. So I got her a book on drawing manga, thinking that its pointers regarding technique might help, but I've seen only marginal improvement in her work at best. I suspect that part of the problem is that, rather than reading the book and developing her technique step by step, she continues to draw as her whims dictate and the book sits largely unread and ignored. She doesn't seem to have the self-discipline to learn the rudimentary skills. She wants to simply start drawing full-fledged scenes.

She's also tried her hand at music, only guitar rather than piano. She started with an acoustic guitar borrowed from a cousin and was later given a hand-me-down electric guitar and a mini-amp from another cousin. She tried Internet self-study and sounded terrible, so my wife and I signed her up for guitar lessons at a local community centre for several weeks. Again, the lessons haven't really helped much. Now, I don't expect mastery after only a few weeks, but some sort of improvement would be gratifying. Instead, she just strums away tunelessly, evening after evening. Again, instead of practicing the skills learned during her weekly lessons, she attempts to play Avril Lavigne songs. She seems to want to go straight to her destination, skipping the tedium of the journey. Incidentally, like many young girls, she also harbors dreams of becoming a singing star like Avril Lavigne but, again, her voice and her singing talent are mediocre at best. She couldn't carry a tune if she had a wheelbarrow.

Perhaps I adopted my critical attitude from my parents. My parents were generous with their criticisms but sparing with their praise during my youth (he said, settling back into his virtual psychiatrist's couch). When I did well, little was usually said. My parents considered the absence of criticism as being equivalent to a compliment. On the other hand, I was frequently reminded of my failings and shortcomings. "You don't need to be told when you've done well," my mother used to admonish me. "You should know when you've done well. You only need to be corrected when you haven't met expectations".

But this is not about me, it's about Jessica; or, rather, parenting in general. The question that preoccupies me is this; how do we, as parents, walk that fine line between being supportive and being realistic? When Jessica shows me a finished drawing and asks my opinion, I point out any flaws and weaknesses that I see. Would I be doing her any favors if I were to smile and say "That's very nice, dear" in the interest of stroking her ego and let her believe that her work needs no improvement?

At one time, she entertained the idea of becoming an actress. I told her that for every Julia Roberts, there are thousands of attractive, talented young ladies who nobody has ever heard of. I explained that the entertainment business can be a shallow, superficial one that rewards style over substance. Often, it's not about how talented you are or are not so much as the connections you have and the favors you've done for those in a position of influence. It's not how good you are, it's how marketable you are. Even those who reach the limelight often can't cope with its glare. Those who achieve significant fame lose all privacy and are hounded constantly by press, paparazzi and their fans. Would it be kinder of me to encourage her dreams without warning her of the pitfalls?

When I was young, I wanted to learn to fly. I've always loved airplanes and anything having to do with flying. When I told this to my parents, they immediately listed all of the reasons why it wasn't a good idea. Learning to fly is expensive and time-consuming. I'd need to have perfect eyesight. The moment that began to fail, my career could be in jeopardy. If I were to become a commercial transport pilot, I'd never be home. I'd constantly be traveling to some far-off place, and, being a natural homebody, I'd likely be miserable. When I suggested that I might consider joining the air cadets, I was told that most who follow that path end up polishing the aircraft if they're lucky. Very few actually get to fly them. And let's not forget how dangerous flying can be.

So today, I work in an office, with airplane calendars and models adorning my cubicle, and in my spare time I fly simulators on my PC. Once in a while I'll go soaring at a local gliding club, or maybe take an introductory flight in a single-engine Cessna at the regional airport. They didn't kill the dream, but they certainly maimed it. I don't want to do that to my daughter.

Jessica does have a lot of good qualities, and I've seen the glimmer of talent in a couple of areas. She has talked about becoming a kindergarten or primary school teacher, and I think she would excel in this. She has a genuine fondness for small children, and she's very good with them. This year, she answered the door and handed out the treats on Hallowe'en, and I was genuinely impressed by what I saw and heard. She was always friendly and cheerful with the children, greeting those who she knew and recognized by name. When a large crowd showed up all at once, she had them line up in an orderly fashion and then served them one by one. She sounded like a teacher even just handing out treats.

And there's one other talent that I'm proud to say she seems to have inherited from me. She has a talent for creative writing. She spends a fair bit of time writing poems and short stories. I've read her work and I've been genuinely impressed by some of it, and have told her so. Again, I see a real glimmer of promise there, and I'm happy to encourage her to continue developing this talent, even as I chide her about "getting a vocabulary". At the same time, I point out that the number of people who have earned a living solely from writing is small indeed, and even those did not achieve their fame early or overnight. But there's that negativity again.

As parents, we want to encourage our children to follow their dreams and to realize their fullest potential, but we also want to protect them from the dangers and pitfalls that exist. Encouragement and realism sometimes seem at odds with each other.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blog Of Note

(With apologies to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Hook
Sung to the tune of "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone")

I'm an avid blogger and a keyboard flogger
And I post every week or so
I post about beauty and I post about truth
For people I don't even know
I make all kinds of jokes and hear from all kinds of folks
But I haven't earned the right to gloat
At the lesser creatures till my blog gets featured
On the list they call the Blogs Of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note

I got a freaky old lady name of Cocaine Katie
Who declares she's my biggest fan
I got a poor old network admin
Linking to me on his LAN
Now it's all designed to blow your mind
And to get me the winning vote
From the people who are choosin' All the blogs that will be cruisin
'To the list they call the Blogs of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note

I got a lot of little teenage blue-eyed groupies
Who get feeds via RSS
I got a genuine Indian guru
Who says he's really quite impressed
I got all the friends that money can buy
Checking in to read just what I wrote
And my insights are toasted But I just can't get posted
On the list they call the Blogs of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note

Man, I can see it now, right up top
It'd be up top, featured man,
Awwwwww beautiful!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why Do We Accept These Things?

I've just gotten back in after an afternoon of Christmas shopping, so I'm in a surly mood, and ready to air some gripes.

To begin with, while store surfing, I saw no fewer than three establishments with signs at the checkout informing the customers that they can no longer accept $100 bills, and they regret any inconvenience that this may cause. Now, I realize that this stems from a counterfeiting problem, but that's what bill checkers are for, no? Each bona fide $100 bill contains a notice proclaiming that "This note is legal tender". That means that it is endorsed by the Bank of Canada and is to be honoured as legal currency. I don't see where any proprietor has the right to refuse one unless, of course, he can either demonstrate that the note is not legitimate, or perhaps is unable to make change.

Incidentally, it's not that I had a pocket full of $100 bills that nobody would accept. I'm not complaining because I personally was inconvenienced. I'm complaining on principal. This is just one of many common practices that we encounter every day, and everybody just seems to accept, and I'm asking why. Why do we accept things which are patently wrong, unreasonable or unfair? Well, at risk of sounding like "Network's" Howard Beale, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! Fortunately, unlike Howard Beale, I don't happen to be on television, so you can't see my disheveled hair or the maniacal gleam in my eyes (not that they're not there). Here, then, is a list of things that the sheep-like public just seems to accept and which, to me, seem unjustifiable.

First on my list is the insurance business, specifically as regards automobile insurance. The Ontario government recently suggested imposing much more rigid restrictions on young drivers, including disallowing any trace of blood alcohol when driving, a zero-tolerance policy for speeders which imposes a license suspension for even one single speeding ticket and, most onerously, a restriction of no more than one teenage passenger when a young driver is behind the wheel. The public outcry against this last provision was such that the Ontario government has wisely relented and agreed to drop it, but the other provisions remain in force.

Needless to say, the Insurance Bureau loves this. Of course they would! These restrictions, by their nature, make young drivers a negligible risk, yet these same young drivers, especially the male ones, pay the most exorbitant insurance rates of anyone on the road.

If I had anything to say about it, I would pass a law stipulating that anyone driving under the restrictions and limitations imposed by a G2 driver's license must automatically be charged 20% less than the premium for a similar driver holding a G license, unless the G2 driver has an at-fault accident on his or her record. The restrictions imposed upon them make them a lower risk, so they should pay a lower premium. And don't give me a lot of statistics about accident rates among young drivers. Those statistics happened before these new restrictions went into effect.

Besides, why do we accept that drivers who have committed no offense must pay a premium for what they might do wrong? Once a driver has been convicted of an offense, or has been involved in an at-fault accident, by all means raise their premiums. Until then, charge them a fair and equitable rate.

Another thing; it is blatantly discriminatory to charge a male driver a higher premium than a female driver of the same age and with a similar car and driving record, yet this is what is done. I have teenage nephews whose insurance rates are enough to buy a good quality used vehicle every two years, yet they haven't committed a single offense. Girls their age pay half what they do or less. Why do we accept this?

Automobile insurance is a particularly tender spot of mine. I could go on for several paragraphs more, but there are other institutions awaiting my wrath, so I'll leave off at this point and set my sights on my next target; the Ontario Power Corporation.

Every time I open my Hydro bill, there's a charge described as "Debt Retirement Charge". This is a charge billed to every power consumer in Ontario ostensibly used for paying down the huge debt that was accumulated by Ontario Hydro during the years that it mismanaged the electric company.

Why does nobody complain that we, the consumer, are being billed monthly to pay down a debt that we did not incur, especially given that those who did incur it walked away with multi-million dollar severance packages? If I mismanage my finances and get into debt over my head, nobody is asked to bail me out. Why am I being asked to bail out the power company?

Even if I accept the responsibility for paying down somebody else's debt, my Hydro bill never gives any indication as to how much of this debt has been "retired", and how much remains. How do I know when it's been paid off? How do I know that it wasn't paid off years ago but Ontario Power continues to charge me anyway? Why do we accept this?

While we're on the subject of bills, the utility bill that I receive every month contains a "Fixed delivery charge" for natural gas. That's fine during the winter, but the charge remains, even during the summer months, and it's no lower than it is during the winter. I only use natural gas to heat my home. My washer and drier don't use gas and neither does my stove. During the summer months, I use zero gas. None. Nada. So how come I pay an average $15 "Fixed delivery charge" for gas that wasn't delivered to me in July? Why do we accept this?

Certain banks charge their customers a service fee, or "convenience fee" for withdrawing money from an automated teller machine (ATM), even when the ATM is owned and operated by themselves. I'm happy do say that my bank does not do this, which only goes to prove that there's no reason for it, but I've heard of others that do.

I can understand incurring a service charge when I use another bank's ATM to withdraw money; after all, I'm not their customer, but I see no justification for charging me to withdraw or deposit money using my own bank's ATM. Think about it. By using the machine, I'm saving them having to pay a human teller to process my transaction for me. Why would I accept being asked to pay a premium for saving the bank money? Why do we accept this?

When I fill up my car with gas, I'm charged the GST tax on the total amount. However, that total amount already includes federal excise taxes and provincial taxes. The GST isn't calculated on the cost of the gas itself, but on the total cost, including those other taxes. In other words, I'm being taxed on tax. This happens to every Canadian driver, yet nobody protests. Why do we accept this?

Finally, an issue that has been exacerbated by our slumping economy. I hold non-registered investments; that is to say, they do not qualify as RRSP's and are therefore not tax sheltered. Actually, RRSP's aren't sheltered either, only deferred, but that's another discussion.

Every year at income tax time, I have to report any increase in the value of these investments as income, and I am taxed on this income. Needless to say, this year, my investments all showed serious losses. This means that I won't have to pay any income tax on them. Yay. But, wait a minute, if I'm taxed on my gains, should there not be a tax deduction for losses? I think there should yet, as far as I know, there aren't any; not on the types of investments that I hold, at any rate. This seems unfair, and I don't see why we accept it.

Seems to me, every day we encounter situations which, if we thought about them for a moment or two, just don't seem right, yet few, if any, complain. Some of these practices and policies have been entrenched for so long that we've simply come to accept them unquestioningly. I suppose many of us assume that those who made the rules are smarter than we and so we simply abide by them. The current state of the world economy, however, suggests to me that perhaps those who made the rules are not nearly so clever as we thought that they were. Given that, maybe it's time to start questioning their rules.

Friday, December 5, 2008


I'm a procrastinator. I confess this with a sense of shame. The word even sounds embarrassing. Might as well be "procrasturbator". It's not something that people admit in polite company.

I've tried to mend my ways. A few years ago, I picked up a self help book entitled Do It Now: Break The Procrastination Habit. It didn't occur to me until later that 95% of the book's wisdom was likely contained in the first three words of its title. If I'd bothered to open it up and read it (hey, I've been meaning to get to it!) Chapter One probably would have begun with something like "Why are you wasting your time reading this book? Shouldn't you be getting something done?"

That brings me to a common misconception about procrastination. Many people mistakenly believe that procrastinators are lay-abouts who do nothing. Not true. We're not doing nothing; we're just doing something else. Take right now, for example. Christmas is approaching. My shopping isn't done. My wrapping hasn't even been started. I haven't sent a single Christmas card or letter to anyone. The desk at which I'm sitting is buried beneath a mound of unopened mail and unfiled receipts. Yet here I sit, blogging.

Hey, I have an idea! If you're on my regular Christmas mailing list, here's wishing you all the joys of the season and all the best in the coming year. Merry Christmas from me!

There. That's out of the way.

Oh, okay, okay, I'll send a damned card. Expect it sometime around Valentine's day.

It probably doesn't help that I have a tendency to invent a myriad of projects for myself and then not finish any of them before moving on to the next. For example, I might decide to catalog my DVD collection. That's a big project, because I have a lot of DVDs. So I'll catalog maybe five DVDs, and then decide that it would be a good idea to scan all of my family's old photographs so that I can digitally preserve them before they fade or deteriorate. So then I might scan maybe twenty photos before I decide to start playing one of the many unfinished computer games on my shelf.

Which brings me to another thing; I don't just put off work. I even put off recreation. I'm an avid computer gamer. Over the years, I've collected too many computer games to count. Guess how many I've finished? If you guessed a number that can't be demonstrated by those possessing the standard number of fingers and toes, you guessed a tad high.

What's more, I have several games that I haven't tried even once! I bought them because they were on sale or because I'd heard good things about them, and there they sit, on my shelf, their unbroken shrink-wrap a gleaming proclamation of my loserdom. Still, this does have its up-side. I'm never bored. Procrastination means never feeling like you have nothing to do.

I can beat this problem. I know I can. All it takes is just a bit of self-discipline. Let this be my first New Year's resolution. In the coming year, I resolve to stop procrastinating and to tackle my responsibilities immediately and without delay. That's the wonderful thing about New Year's resolutions. You make them now, and you put them off until January 1.